Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Year in Music - 2017

In my opinion (redundancy alert) 2017 was the worst year for new music in a very long time (it was the worst year in a very long time for a great many other reasons too, but we don’t need to get into that . This essay/list was initially scrapped for a combination of reasons, partly due to my intense bitterness and anger about almost everything personal, professional, cultural, political and global, and partly because there weren’t enough decent albums to write about. Having soaked my head in a bucket of ice water (not for charity, because fuck that malarkey), some sanity returned and it appeared that there were indeed a few albums worth mentioning and even to which all due respect might be given. So here we are, angry, bitter, disgusted, sad, disillusioned, but hanging on by a thread to the joy that music can sometimes bring. Someone once said to me, and this is a paraphrase, that they were baffled and perplexed by the role of the critic because the artist puts so much work into their art and it seems mean and unfair to tear it all down, which, ok, fair point, but that overlooks the fact that a lot of art is just straight garbage and sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind.

With that in mind, let us begin with the outright bile that was provoked in me by the stains and blots delivered by The National, the xx, and The War On Drugs, all huge favorites of mine, as you all (and by all, I mean the handful of you who might read this) know. Each of these albums was a massive disappointment to me, and yet not at all surprising. They all felt like part of a common sub-genre that we will call Bleating. To say that I am sick of Bleating would be a significant understatement. All of these albums have been consigned to the nether reaches of my music collection and there is no plan to promote them to the more forward areas any time soon. There were each, in their way, profoundly depressing, which should not be surprising given these bands’ respective aesthetics, but what depressed me the most was that they seemed to be pillaging their own catalogs for depressing material and not growing or branching out at all. The xx have been in the last chance motel with me for a while and this was the make-or-break album. Either you reach for the brass ring and try to make your own version of Everything But The Girl’s all-time classic Temperamental, or I’m done with you. They didn’t do that, and so they are summarily and duly dispatched. The National had a lot of work to do to win me over after that Day of the Dead debacle and they didn’t even come close to clearing that bar here. Sleep Well Beast is a deeply maudlin collection of self-cannibalizing songs that brought me absolutely no joy, not even of the melancholy I-like-to-feel-sad-on-purpose-isn’t-it-beautiful variety. This album was just plain unlistenable (to me), and I haven’t been back to it, nor will I return to this catastrophic site of self-pity and failed irony. This is by far their worst album, and I feel like they are at a crossroads. They need to grow or die. The War on Drugs were always a guilty pleasure because of the dodgy influences Adam Granduciel wears so brazenly on his sleeve. He got away with it in spades on Lost in the Dream, where the influences (let’s not rehearse them here, I’m already on the ledge with the razor blades and the Fentanyl in my hand) were deployed to exhilarating effect. A Deeper Understanding, though, is just a long meandering trip (and not in a good way) to precisely nowhere. Also, I would just like to ask Grizzly Bear to please stop. It’s enough already with the precious jeans-ironing baroque nonsense. I’ve already removed Vampire Weekend to the imaginary gulag. I’m not above sending you there too, your concerns about “making it as in indie band in today’s society and healthcare etc.” be damned. I. Just. Don’t. Care. So, with that the bile has temporarily been spent. Allow me to re-charge while we speak of some more positive emissions from 2017. There will be time enough for a bile re-boot in due course.

What follows, in the first instance, is a list, with some accompanying commentary and annotation, of things that made me feel (marginally) better to be alive:

World Spirituality Classics – Alice Coltrane
The precise and even more general definition of irony continues to elude me (thanks, Alanis) but it is at least interesting that my favorite album of the year is a) a compilation, b) a reissue, c) consists of music from the 1980s and 1990s and d) is a series of ashram meditations (no, it really is), but this album enabled me to survive 2017. It’s a logical extension of what Alice Coltrane was doing with her husband John Coltrane during their sadly brief time together and the work she did subsequently with Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders, but it also contains electronic washes that make it sound very contemporary. But don’t be fooled or misled. This is a series of meditative chants set to music and it is gloriously intoxicating. You don’t have to be a be-robed cult member to enjoy this (trust me, that’s not my bag, as it were, but all respect to the brothers and sisters who occupy that bag - no judgment at all), but if you are at all in a meditative frame of mind, it can do nothing but help your efforts in that general direction.

Hug of Thunder - Broken Social Scene
Speaking of positivity and collectivism, as we kind of just were, Broken Social Scene lead the rock and roll pack in this area (and they piss all over the charlatans of Arcade Fire, if I may be so bold as to bring back the bile for a moment and taint the positive vibe). The placing of this album at what I suppose is the second spot on the list (and it’s not really in a strict order anyway) is partly due to the sublime and transcendent experience I had when seeing them live recently. The album had already burrowed its way into my bloodstream and my DNA but the live experience really re-confirmed the feeling that these are permanent songs. They describe themselves as anthem-writers and most of this album bears that out, but not in a painful U2 kind of way. I love just about everything about this album and it seems to me that it picks up where You Forgot It In People left off (not that I don’t have a lot of love for the self-titled album or Forgiveness Rock Record, but you can draw a direct line from YFIIIP to the new one). There is something joyous in songs like Halfway Home, Hug of Thunder, Protest Song, Stay Happy, and others. The joy actually abounds and overflows and explicitly sets out to dispel cynicism while not losing site of the shitstorm we are collectively facing. I adore this band and they have come back to themselves with full positive vengeance, and for that I will be eternally grateful to them. I would also like to note that seeing BSS live gave me a much greater understanding of who they are and how they work, endlessly rotating instrumental responsibilities and changing stage positions. What I also learned was the Brendan Canning is easily my favorite band member. Totally chilled out, a stable center while chaos abounds around him, and a fantastic bassist. I would like to be his pal.

Relatives in Descent – Protomartyr 
OK, enough with the hugging and the chanting already. Let’s get back to the nitty-gritty. The easiest word to use in describing Protomartyr’s fourth album is “brutiful,” because it contains such a delicately balanced combination of brutality and beauty, thereby achieving the negative capability of which I remain so very fond. In my more sensitive moments I recognize that the album tips over (that might be too subtle a description) into what we might call “hypermasculinity,” and yet that almost always seems to be in the service of an accompanying critique of said hypermasculinity. Consider for a moment the onslaught of “Male Plague,” wherein the vocalist can be found yelling “MALE PLAGUE, MALE PLAGUE” A LOT. Here’s a lyrical snippet:

See-through skin - barnacles of age 
Male plague, male plague
Old days misremembering
Male plague, male plague
You think the world owes you a stroke 
Male plague, male plague
Fear of the future - losing your hold 
Male plague, male plague
If that doesn’t evoke images of Comrade President Orange then perhaps you need to schedule some extended time at the re-education camp. Songs like The Chuckler, though, are laden with irony and some gorgeous melodic guitar work. This album really walks the line between hedonism and brutalism to stunning effect. And if they’re new to you, please check out their preceding three albums. They’re all worth it.

Fin – Syd
There is something of the bildungsroman about this absolutely lovely and understated album by Syd, who was part of the Odd Future collective and The Internet. It would be (too) easy to label her the female counterpart to Frank Ocean but it makes a certain amount of sense for several reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself. The entire album is impeccably written, performed and produced, but I was especially taken with Got Her Own. The confessional aspect of the album particularly recalls Frank Ocean’s more open and raw excursions into journal and diary translation into intensely affecting song, all the while holding back enough of herself to leave us wondering what Syd is really like. We learn enough here to know that she is a fantastic songwriter, a gorgeous singer, and a person fully in control of her artistic vision. Those are enough worthy comparisons with Frank Ocean to merit mentioning, without intending to sound reductive or condescending. This might be my favorite fully “new” album of the year, also acknowledging my massive and longstanding bias toward Broken Social Scene, who have my heart forever (sorry, BSS and Alice).

Damn – Kendrick Lamar
I don’t really know what to say about this album except that he’s on a trajectory of excellence we may not have seen in our lifetimes and that one of my students is writing their term paper on his lyrics.

A Crow Looked At Me – Mt. Eerie
While I find this album to be more or less unlistenable on account of its tone and its subject matter (spoiler alert: his wife died, tragically, and tragically young, leaving behind a young child), there is no denying its heft or importance. Sample lyric: “I didn’t learn anything from this. I love you.” The album contains some great beauty and no little consolation, but mostly pain. Be brave, young listener. Be brave. It bears comparison in some way to Lou Reed’s Berlin, but that might just drive you even further away, so I won’t make that comparison here.

Hot Thoughts – Spoon
One should never underestimate Spoon, just as one should never take them for granted, although it’s easy to do both of those things. This might be their finest album since Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, partly because they do themselves so well, but also because they have become self-aware enough to begin to subvert themselves from within, to the point where the final song on the album, Us, sees Spoon complete an act of willful self-erasure that Radiohead have been trying to pull off for years. I mean, they even actually wrote a song called How To Disappear Completely, and they still couldn't do it. It’s an amazing and jarring thing to experience, to witness Spoon make themselves disappear, as if they were leaving their clothes on the beach and wading into the sea, somewhat akin to what happens when a band leaves the stage at the end of the show while all of that feedback and reverb keeps ringing out in your already ringing ears. It’s a genius and amazing way to cap of a masterpiece of an album, and skips over any consideration of all the glorious Spoon classics that precede it, not least my own favorite I Ain’t The One, which epitomizes everything that Spoon do so well without sounding at all like a retread. One day we will look back at their body of work and we will feel bad that we didn’t give them more respect, and more of our money.

Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
There is something about Dylan Baldi’s sensibility that is both entirely opposite from and at the same time completely in tune with mine. His angry punk stuff was never my bag as a genre, but the sound he makes and the aesthetic he clearly presents with his album art taken together seem to enfold me in an almost opioid fashion. I simply can’t get enough of this album and it represents a significant growth from his earlier albums and his recent collaboration with Wavves. To call a punk-pop album Life Without Sound is clearly somewhat mischievous, but the sounds he makes here are quite sumptuous, albeit that they are not without some cacophony. There is a lot more beatific sound and light on here than just noise, even though the album ends with a flourish of righteous noisy anger that seems like a back-to-basics statement, as if to say, don’t be fooled, I can still punk it up with the best of them. The album begins with a piano and ends with a racket, and every single song is a complete gem. That’s my kind of album all day long. It also puts others, whom I won’t name here, Car Seat Headrest and Green Day, on notice. This is the kind of music that should be on the radio all day and all night, but it never will be, because the world is unfair in every way. Feel right. Feel lighter.

Life After Youth – Land of Talk
Having been sadly unaware of the oeuvre of Land of Talk it was a pure pleasure and delight finally to make their acquaintance this year. Upon first listen they sound like a slightly more grown-up Alvvays, although that is clearly offensively reductive to both bands. These songs are so beautifully crafted and executed, and reflect a life lived in difficulty but with full consciousness. We should all aspire to such a balance. Of course, being one who is now living in that netherland of “life after youth” I was immediately taken by the title, but the songs themselves are things of consummate poignant beauty, giving some sense of paradise lost and partially regained, and who hasn’t experience that. Anyone? Anyone? These are the kinds of songs that some shithead in Nashville would take and give to a New Country idiot and ruin and them, but at least Elizabeth Powell (who is, to all intents and purposes, Land of Talk) would be rich and drowning in goat’s milk and bonbons. I would accept that deal with the devil, I suppose. But this is a truly gorgeous album, what an album should be, just as some books epitomize what novels should be before people started writing them with an eye on the screenplay and movie rights. This album feels like it was written to scratch a true musical itch and without any ulterior motives. Everything works together here to form a unified whole. It’s entirely satisfying and delightful. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to find out about this band. The upside of that is that I have other older albums to catch up on.

What Now – Sylvan Esso
This album represents a quantum leap from Sylvan Esso’s first album. The songs have matured in every way and rounded out the band’s sound to the point where they bring full-on joy in addition to quizzical intrigue. I always listened to Sylvan Esso out of some kind of curiosity, but now I listen to them with enormous pleasure. The album starts off in a rather Animal Collective kind of place, with something like a circular incantation that does not necessarily bode well for what is to follow. But trust me, it blossoms soon enough into exuberant and entirely accessible weird pop music, namely The Glow, an ecstatic song about remembering a good feeling in a group of dear friends. Try sitting still for that one. The synths are deployed to perfect effect before a very simple acoustic guitar accompaniment that brings us back to the hook again. It’s just pure pleasure, tinged with a soupcon of nostalgia, once again, for when we we were younger. Just Dancing is also a delight, but the whole thing is delicious from start to finish. Perhaps I’m projecting my own sense of ageing and mortality onto these songs, but there does seem to be something of a trend in some of the albums I’ve chosen this year. But who can blame us for spending a certain amount of time in the halcyon past when the present is so contaminated with an ideology that seems aimed directly at everything and everyone we love? Sylvan Esso are cavorting their way through the misery with a wonderful spring in their step. What an amazing leap they have made from their first to their second album. I can’t wait to see where they go next, but if they stay right here I will be just fine with that too. I recommend that you play this at parties, if you still have them, or go to them. My party days are sadly over, so I will live vicariously through all of you, but not in a creepy way.

Out in the Storm - Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee are not playing. This is serious, dyed-in-the-wool indie rock music with all the energy, all the discretion, all the power, and all the wisdom you would hope for from a genre (if such it is at all) that trades in jaded, fuzzy beauty. Waxahatchee have evolved into the perfect indie band – stunning vocals, absolute discernment around instrumentation, arrangements, songcraft and lyrics, and more to boot. The opening chords on the opening track Never Been Wrong are a both a tour de force and a statement of full intent to rock your brains out with righteous disdain. The way that Katie Crutchfield spits out “its’ embarrassing” made me feel actual shame, but then she breaks it down with a really sweetly sung little interlude before getting back to the dissing. It’s a rollercoaster, and I love being on it. And let’s face it, I thoroughly deserve the punishment she’s meting out. It’s not all driving fuzzy anger, though. 8 Ball walks a country kind of line, while maintaining a Breeders-like cynical aloofness, also fine by me. The through line from American Weekend to Out in the Storm is a wonder to behold. It’s hard to imagine where they might go next, since this seems to represent an apotheosis. This, by the way, is what Torres should be doing instead of spending each album impersonating her favorite influence of the moment. What a waste of a career that’s turning out to be.

I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone – Chastity Belt
I promise that I’m not about to go on a Women in Rock trip here, God forbid, but I do to confess to having listened to the Waxahatchee and Chastity Belt albums as something of a fuzzy angry piece, and they do work very well next to each other. Chastity Belt’s sound seems to be getting a little cleaner album by album, almost to the point of polished, but by no means anodyne. The chord work (I know nothing of the technicalities of music, so that will have to do as a description) on the opener Different Now is a wonder to behold. But it’s in the lyrics where Julia Shapiro really packs the greatest punch, and not even in anger as you might expect from someone who wrote on the last album (also supremely excellent), “He was just another man, try’na teach me something.” Sample this slice of genuine compassion from Different Now:

“You're hard on yourself
Well you can't always be right
All those little things that keep you up at night
You should take some time to figure out your life
But you're stuck indoors and thinking poorly

You'll find in time
All the answers that you seek
Have been sitting there just waiting to be seen
Take away your pride and take away your grief
And you'll finally be right where you need to be

Take all of it, take everything you're owed
'Til you finally feel okay being alone
Yeah it's different now
Yeah it's different now, you're old

And you try and you try and you try and you try”
I should have those words tattooed on my forehead, and indeed the rest of my head, since hair is no longer taking up any space there. It’s different now, you’re old, and you try and your try and you try and you try. Like so many bands I’m writing about here, they’ve all had a fascinating trajectory from where they started to where they are now, in this case from No Regerts, to Time To Go Home, to this fantastic new offering.

Melodrama – Lorde
Lorde is our new genius and we should treasure her as much as we can. She is the other side of the Taylor Swift coin, growing up in public and away from the spotlight at the same time. If this is an album about a break-up, as it was rumored to be and reviewed in some quarters as such, it names no names, something from which Taylor Swift might consider learning. There are too many gems on here to mention. I know some people for whom Green Light was some kind of anathema. Personally it felt like a tour de force of genre-fuckery, part introspective singer-songwriter offering, part ballad, part banger, shape-shifting and keeping us off balance throughout, which should have been a clue about the album as a whole. This was a mesmerizing experience, and more than justifies the promise suggested by Pure Heroine. I actually think Melodrama is a significantly better album in many important ways, although the first one will always be special to me. The entire sequence of songs (and sequencing is a sorely underrated aspect of what goes into making up a truly great album) on Melodrama is pure genius, from Green Light to Sober to Homemade Dynamite to The Louvre to Liability and so on. It all makes perfect aesthetic and emotional sense and I loved every single Taylor-forsaken second of it. I don’t know what you call Lorde’s acolytes, or if they even have a name, but sign me up. I’ll pay to join that cult.

The Far Field – Future Islands
Future Islands aren’t complicated, but they are strange. They write beautiful baroque pop songs with the occasional histrionic flourish (and rather alarming roar) from Samuel T. Herring. The Deborah Harry duet here (Shadows) is an extra treat and works surprisingly well. Future Islands will not let you down. This is what they do. They’re not for everyone, but if they’re for you, they’re really really really for you. And they’re definitely for me. This album is not really much different from Singles, and that’s just fine. Keep doing what you’re doing, boys. I’ll keep buying your albums until you stop making them.

No Shape – Perfume Genius
We need Mike Hadreas. He’s out there living the id we mostly keep hidden, that beautiful combination of delicate sensitive creature with balls of steel and a spine of iron and front to spare. He has no fear at all, at least not that he shows (except in his gorgeous ballads, and that’s of his own choosing and fully in his control). He is the queen we need in 2017,and No Shape is an exhilarating statement of belief and intent. I haven’t seen his live show but I know I would be transported to realms I haven’t even dared to dream of. The idea of seeing and hearing Slip Away live is just beyond exciting to me. There aren’t many artists who are fully formed and whose aesthetic is also completely manufactured and also perfectly organic at the same time. Perfume Genius is a rare example of the perfect execution of all of that. We are lucky to have them/him.

Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
I was first introduced to Jane Weaver by a friend when The Silver Globe/Amber Light came out a couple of years ago and I was blown away. There’s something of the Julia Holter aesthetic at work here, but the opening track of Kosmology (H>A>K) strongly suggests that someone has been spending a significant of time listening to Krautrock lately, which is just fine by me. The Krautrock drone dynamic continues and permeates the album to some extent and it makes for a delightful groove, recalling to some slight extent, the long lost wonder of the dearly departed Broadcast and to perhaps an even slighter extent, the equally wondrous Stereolab. There isn’t anything that quite matches I Need A Connection from The Silver Globe, but that’s ok. This album is very deliberately doing something quite different, and it’s both hypnotic and intoxicating. One of my new go-to artists.

Take Me Apart – Kelela
This is, in some ways, that album the xx should have made if they had the courage. I don’t want to make this little segment about the xx, but seriously, they have enough chops now to break out of their self-pitying bedroom shell. Their live performances of late have demonstrated that they know how to get down, at least as far as most white people are capable of getting down, but they need to let Jamie take the wheel from now on. OK, back to Kelela. This is a beautiful and badass album of love songs that depict sadness and difficulty without retreating to the sadness and self-pity of the (empty) bedroom and the laptop. I still hold that the 2014 mixtape Cut 4 Me was one of the best of that or any other year and Kelela is absolutely fulfilling that promise here. I missed out on 2015’s Hallucinogen, so I need to catch up on that, but I am still following Kelela’s career with avid interest. There’s a certain survivor vibe here that recalls Mary J. Blige, but perhaps without the vocal power and diva energy. But still, it’s a point worth making. My final point, for which I apologize in advance, is that the xx should listen to this album on repeat, take notes, issue an apology for the colossally disappointing waste of time and self-pity that was I See You and go back to the drawing board. Make the night-time album we deserve and which you are capable of making. Leave. Your. Bedrooms. I’m sorry, Kelela, that I made this review more about the xx than about you. Just know that I think you’re setting a standard others would do well to follow. That was really my main point.

Ti Amo – Phoenix
This album is a glorious frippery, and belies some of its more lukewarm reviews. For me, Phoenix lost their way somewhere, perhaps sometime after Alphabetical, although there are certainly some great songs on the albums between that one and this new one. But this seems to represent a return to what Phoenix are about. Exuberant poppy polyglot nonsense that mixes up languages in a fantastically ridiculous way on songs like Ti Amo, Tutti Frutti, and Fior di Latte means that pop music has very deliberately stopped making sense, thereby pointing up the fact that pop music *never made sense to begin with.* Without overthinking it (I guess it’s too late for that by now, sorry), this is just a joyful experience from start to finish, and recalls the blissful days of my favorite Phoenix album, United. I was on a beach vacation with a group of friends once and it was my turn to play the next album on the boombox. I had already played United a few days earlier to universal apathy. I asked one of my co-vacationers what I should play next and she said, “Anything but that United album.” It took a few years, but that really stuck with me and needless to say we are no longer friends. In fact, I wouldn’t piss on that particular former friend if they were on fire, and it’s mostly because of that comment about Phoenix (well, it wasn’t entirely just about that comment – there was disloyalty and generally shittiness too, but you get my point). You just don’t diss Phoenix. It’s a life rule. Learn it, and live it.

Hey Mr Ferryman – Mark Eitzel
Yeah, it’s depressing, surprise surprise, but my God does this man know his way around a song and the twists and turns of the streets of your forsaken heart. Mark Eitzel has been a hero of mine for many years, all the way from American Music Club, and I had the privilege and honor to interview him when they reformed a while back (and he could not possibly have been nicer). And, if I may blow my own trumpet briefly, they used some of what I wrote for Pitchfork as part of the press release for the new album that came out around then, so that was a special thrill. Yay, a really really depressing artist was nice to me once and used my words to promote his new equally depressing album!  It may be hard to make it all the way through this album in one sitting, and it contains none of the exuberance of, say, Phoenix, but songs like The Last Ten Years at least starts off in a jaunty enough manner, until you interrogate the lyric (oh, and the album title, which surely suggests at least a season in hell, if not a lot longer excursion):

The ferryman
Who takes me to my rest
Don’t give a damn
Who’s cursed or blessed
Anyway I give him all my cash
Like some tragic hero
A lightning flash
Followed by a million zeros

Spent the last ten years
Trying to waste half an hour

Every drunk is that VIP
Who only lives inside a rope
Where they show you all the love
Make mine a bourbon and coke
I’m not lying, Mr Ferryman
I always make it home
Though my house is built on sand
Buried deep under the loan

Spent the last ten years
Trying to waste half an hour

I had that real good time
And in the dawn
I saw all the love in the bartender’s yawn
So Mr Ferryman
Do you party where you’re from
Do you know where to go
When the party is done
The following song, An Answer, is also absolutely enchanting and I can’t get it out of my head.  Here are the lyrics to that. Try listening to this and stop yourself from weeping uncontrollably (hint: don’t drink bourbon with this, because it will make everything much worse):
Come on dance with me right now
Right here in your merciful kitchen
Let all the sorrow disappear
While our feet go missing

Under your soft Christmas lights
No one could ever reap what they sow
My dance moves are said to be a delight
As long as we keep it slow

You’re always on my mind
I can’t leave you behind
Make me want to stick around and find
If there’s an answer

Don’t know how I got so broken
If you wanna leave what can I say
Sing a hymn for things left unspoken
A song called “Dance the Night Away”

You’re always on my mind
I can’t leave you behind
You make me want to stay and find
If there’s an answer

And all the love that I’ve known
All the love that I’ve been shown
Picks me up and drags me home
Tries and tries and tries and tries to tell me
“In your merciful kitchen.” The man was sent to us from the gods we don’t even believe in. I don’t think I need to say any more about the album really. That pretty much sums it up.  Enjoy!

S/T - Kelly Lee Owens
A late and very welcome addition, brought to my attention by friends who were scouring the internet for end-of-year lists and came up with this one on the Piccadilly Records list, with which I have a lot of disagreement, but not in this case. This is a rare gem. If you were looking to place it in a tradition of any kind it might sit well alongside people like Laurel Halo, Jessy Lanza and Liz Harris and even Katelyn Aurelia Smith, but there I go again with the Women in Rock nonsense, so never mind all that. Ethereal is such a lazy word to use about music, so I won’t do that here, but it has a certain something in that area going on. This is a very lovely wash of sound that makes no grand statement, but perhaps that is the grand statement in and of itself.

Change of State – Novella
Feels like this album came out a long time ago, back in the depths of winter we are about to re-enter. It’s one of those Stereolab kind of deals, droning and melodic. They sort of remind me of Electrelane, whom some of you may remember from way back. A good, solid indie album that does what good solid indie albums should do. Impeccable credentials, well-made songs, lovely harmonies, all the drone you could ask for (and I ask for a lot). No complaints here at all.

French Press - Rolling Blackouts CF
This is a lovely, if short, album, by a band with a rather odd name. Another incredibly strong piece of work from yet another great little Australian band. I continue to be baffled by the sheer volume of high quality music coming out of that country, in this case Melbourne. I have previously had no particular desire to visit Australia, but the music scene there makes me want to go there if only to visit Thornbury Records and seek out some undiscovered (by us) gems. I’m going to be keeping a very close eye on Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (CF), whatever that means. French Press is a diamond in the rough.

Silver/Lead – Wire
It’s probably safe to say that Protomartyr might have learned a thing or two from Wire. I’m generally not a fan at all of reunions. The only one I endorsed, and enthusiastically, was when the Go-Betweens got back together to make three perfect albums in the early 2000s. I guess technically Wire probably never went away, but their recent output, Wire, Nocturnal Koreans and Silver/Lead, has been nothing short of remarkable. They have taken non-depressing gloom to an entirely new level of excellence. I like to think of these three albums as something of a trilogy and I seem to remember that some of the songs on the latter albums were “left over” from the first one, but I may be experiencing faulty recall, which is what happens when you get to be as old as the members of Wire. The thing is, they don’t sound the least bit out of touch. This stands right up against Protomartyr and Cloud Nothings. You can’t see the generation gap at all, not even a little bit. They’ve retained every aspect of their jaded noise-front along with an enthusiasm for it. There is not even a tiny hint that they’re mailing it in. I would recommend listening to all of the last three albums back-to-back and tell me it wasn’t ridiculously cathartic. Long may they angst. I know that angst isn’t a verb. Sue me.

In Mind – Real Estate
Having resolved some deep unpleasantness with a now-former member of the band (the one who is now in Ducktails and whose lovely albums I can now no longer listen to because he’s yet another one of those shithead sexual predators, apparently, from whom there is now absolutely no escape, if there ever was), Real Estate just picked up right where they left off and made, well, another Real Estate album. It’s really no different from any other Real Estate album, so you may not need it. I just like to get everything good by bands I like, so I got this one. It’s utterly unsurprising, but also completely lovely. They are in the Jingle-Jangle Hall of Fame.

Cry Cry Cry – Wolf Parade
Much though I have an innate distaste for reunions, this was a “reunion” I was excited about and could get behind. The problem was that Spencer Krug has been putting out such stunningly raw and emotive material as Moonface for a few years that I wasn’t sure we needed another Wolf Parade album. But let’s face it, there’s something special about the Wolf Parade energy, even if I wasn’t quite in the mood for their brand of darkness this year. I have my own precious darkness to attend to, thank you very much, and its soundtrack jars against this particular sound. But they haven’t lost it, I’ll say that for them. Not many bands can get away with the histrionic drama of Wolf Parade, but they have a certain kind of testicular fortitude that makes their bluster seem blasé and it absolutely works for them. Long may they strut and preen in their dystopian glory.

Lotta Sea Lice – Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
This was a pleasant, if ultimately patchy surprise. The two lead tracks, Over Everything and Continental Breakfast were terrific, and got me excited about the album, but I found the album itself to resemble recent Courtney and Kurt solo albums. They just didn’t hang together all the way through somehow. But I’m glad this is out there and I hope that it grows on me as I continue to listen to it in 2018.

A Quality of Mercy – RVG
I came to this relatively brief album through a tenuous Go-Betweens connection – I think they might be part of Lindy Morrrison and Amanda Brown’s 16 Lovers Lane revue, which includes guest vocalists. Anyway, I checked them out and kind of loved these eight-tracks of consummate Australian indie music. And how witty of them to end the all-too-short album with a track called That’s All. Oh, how I laughed. The influences are not hard to spot. But that’s ok. It’s a terrific little listen that takes me back to a particular time without sounding at all dated. Classic line: “You’re going to have lose somebody else’s mind. It won’t be pretty and there’s sure to be a fight.” That’s what I’m talking about. It also contains a sample of an old dial-up modem, just in case that might be the last piece of the puzzle you need to hook you in.

Communicating – Hundred Waters
Currency EP – Hundred Waters
Hundred Waters are really sui generis as far as I can tell and as such hard to write about. I have loved them since The Moon Rang Like A Bell and the remix album that followed it. This album just feels like straight-up sorcery to me, which does not, I repeat not, make me a Wiccan or a hippy. Let’s just get that out there right now. In my vision of them, these people are white witches and warlocks who conjure the very best kind of mysticism in some remote desert hideaway. I have no evidence to the contrary so that’s what I’m going with. The music is just beautiful, so perhaps try to forget about my mystical sidetrack just now. Sorry about that.

In Between – The Feelies
Another reunion. And another successful one. It feels like they never went away, and this feels as relevant as anything else in 2017. The title seems very appropriate, because the Feelies have always somehow occupied some sort of in-between space, but between what and what I’m not quite sure. The Feelies are just, well, The Feelies. They are immanent.

Moon Duo – Occult Architecture, Vol 1 & 2
Moon Duo – Killing Time EP
OK, so this kind of dark mostly instrumental psychedelia isn’t for everyone, I’ll admit, and it may not even be for me, but there’s a place for it in my warped mind and I did very much enjoy Shadow of the Sun from 2015. But let it not be said that these practitioners of the dark arts are lazy. They put out three pieces of strong product in 2015. The EP Killing Time might be the most relentlessly dark of the three, but they all plumb the depths to some extent (although I have to say that there is a lot more light in the albums, a lot). They might remind some a little bit of The Warlocks (the new ones, not the old ones) and that’s not a bad thing. If you like extended jams but you don’t like jam bands, this might be the jamming non-jam band for you.

Soft Sounds From Planet Earth - Japanese Breakfast
At first I was disappointed in this follow up to the majestic Psychopomp, but I came around to it when I realized that Michelle Zauner was doing something a little different here. This is a lusher and more diffuse sound than we got on Psychopomp, and it’s mostly a good thing. And why would we want a carbon copy of that anyway. Japanese Breakfast are one those bands onto whom I seem to have cathected and I fancy that I will go wherever they lead me, including on this sometimes rather meandering and ambient excursion, because it’s a pleasure, and because I feel like we belong to each other somehow. I will say, though, that the new album has significantly less edge than its predecessor, so my enjoyment of this one is not unqualified. It just takes a little getting used to. Perhaps this is Michelle Zauner’s way of shedding skins, and who doesn’t want to do that at least a dozen times in a lifetime?

Try – Faith Healer
Cosmic Troubles was one of my favorite, if not my favorite album of the year in which it came out (2015). I have to confess that I have ordered this new one and for some reason it’s taking forever to arrive, so I’m putting this here as a place holder while I wait. I have high hopes, but I had high hopes for a lot of things in life and look how all of that turned out. Not. Well.
Note: I gave it a brief listen on Spotify and was slightly perplexed – they sound like a completely different band, much like Local Natives did on that last album which seemed like a craven and desperate bid for “mainstream” success (and what on earth is the point of that?), but I live in hope that it’s a grower. Early signs are not good, though.

Dust – Laurel Halo
I went through a prolonged and fairly extended electronic music binge a year or so ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I appear to be over it now. This album made no sense to me at all. I’m just too edgy in general to be able to tolerate this spasm-inducing music, albeit that there are moments of beauty. Too many glitches and pops for me. Sorry, Laurel. By the way, I felt the same way about the Four Tet album, although I’m trying to get over it, because I’ve been very loyal to him over the years.

Before I Wake – Kamaiyah
Too early for me to form a full opinion of this, but I include it because Kamaiyah’s 2016 mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto was a tour de force and a four-alarm three a.m. wake-up, so I have very high hopes for this. I’ll probably update this one I’ve allowed time for it to sink in a little bit.

In The Same Room – Julia Holter
I’m not entirely sure of the point of this album, but I’ll take all the Julia Holter I can get. This is basically a live studio recording of existing material, so it may or may not be a good place to start for “beginners.” It’s very enjoyable, but it doesn’t really break any new ground. But Julia Holter is Julia Holter. She can basically do no wrong.

Antisocialites – Alvvays
The first Alvvays album was so lovely and perfect that I have to confess that I’ve been afraid to listen to this one for fear of being disappointed. So it’s tabled until I can work up the courage to face the possibility that it may or may not live up to the promise of the first one.

Nothing Feels Natural – Priests
I liked this album a lot when it came out, but when I went back to it I don’t remember what it was that I liked. It just felt jarring somehow. I need to go back to it again when I’m in the right mood. I’ll just say this: punk’s not dead.

Goths – Mountain Goats
I found this album a little bit disappointing after the highs of recent Darnielle offerings, but perhaps I need to give it another try. It just seemed a tad uninspired, and I could give less than a shit about Goths anyway. But having said that, I couldn’t possibly care less about wrestlers either and that album was great.

Losing – Bully
I loved Bully’s 2015 album Feels Like and this seems to pick up where that one left off. While one might lump it in with Waxahatchee and Chastity Belt there is absolutely no concession to roots music here. This seems to come straight out of the old 1990s DC Hardcore scene, but with no concession either to any kind of nostalgia, or just to retreading tired old 1990s tropes and passing it off as your own work in the way that Speedy Ortiz seem to have turned into their stock-in-trade (burn alert). I don’t love this album, but I do like it. I suppose that’s a distinction worth making.

Reassemblage – Visible Cloaks
Now this is the kind of electronic music I can get behind. Very beautiful washes of sound (check out also the reissue of Hiroshi Yoshimura’s 1982 album Music for Nine Postcards, which is a true delight). This is music either for when sitting in your house doing nothing, or when you’re on a train going somewhere but someone else is in charge of getting you there. Really a spiritual reset album, if you need one of those in your life. Play it along with Music for Nine Postcards and you might achieve a level of enlightenment you hadn’t previously imagined. Or not. You might just like it.

Love What Survives – Mount Kimbie
I just got around to listening to this, and although I’m not a fan of King Krule and I’m rapidly going off James Blake (both of whom guest here), this album did some tingly things to me and I’ve loved Mount Kimbie for a long while. I fancy that this album will take up a lot of my time in 2018. It starts strong with the very “atmospheric” (lazy music writer word) Love What Survives, it seems so shape-shift even during the course of that song, and I love when that happens. This album is a grower. It’s growing on me write now even as I write this. I will say, though, that the King Krule appearance on track two (Blue Train Lines) almost ruins the whole thing – totally disrupts the flow. What’s the deal with that guy? He’s trying way to hard not to be white. Needless to say he’s failing. If I could edit that song out, I would. The album would be much better without it. 

Infinite Worlds – Vagabon
Everybody Works – Jay Som
These two albums did a lot more for others than they did for me. I just found them boring.

American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
I’m not writing about this because it’s on my list of albums of the year. I’m writing about it because it isn’t. The whole thing went wrong around track 8, the title track. It was going fine until then. After that the album lost its way and was not able to find its way back. I still wish they had stayed broken up. This was a mistake. They broke up perfectly. Why do some bands never learn? James Murphy seemed all-too self aware, and relatively talented, albeit that he ripped off Bowie and Byrne to a ridiculous extent; I still loved LCD Soundsystem. This comeback album isn’t quite as egregious as Jordan going to the Wizards (what could be), but it does taint their legacy for me. If they’d put out a seven-song EP and left it at that, I would have been hailing their continued marketing savvy and ongoing hipster status, but they just went a little bit too far, tried a little bit too far, and tipped over into, well, crapness. As just about everyone does eventually. So consider this a dishonorable mention.
Capacity – Big Thief
Here’s my thing with Big Thief: If they had made one album that eliminated the folky songs from their previous two albums and just kept the fuzzy rock songs, that would have made for one stunningly fine indie rock album. As it is, I only like half the songs on each of those albums, so it’s hard for me to make a judgment of either of them. I seem to skip every other track to get to the fuzzy ones. I have no time for strummy acoustic shit anymore. Life’s too short. Rock me, baby. All the time. Unless you’re Syd or Alice, in which case you can feel free to mellow me all the way out.

The Rest
Arca – Arca
Black Origami – Jlin
Real High – Nite Jewel
Blurred Harmony –Parson Red Heads
Something to Tell You – Haim
B-Sides and Rarities – Beach House
Fear/Nothing – The Belle Game
Masseduction – St. Vincent
There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light – Stars
Stranger in the Alps – Phoebe Bridgers
Drunk – Thundercat (a little bit busy – listen more)
Routines – Hoops (Real Estate Lite)
Harmony of Difference EP – Kamasi Washington
Somersault – Beach Fossils (what is *up* with “Rise”?)
Narkopop – GAS
Wild Pink
City of No Reply – Amber Coffman
Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors
New Energy – Four Tet
Process – Sampha

The Dregs
I See You – The xx
A Deeper Understanding – War on Drugs
Sleep Well Beast – The National
Do Make Say Think
Painted Ruins – Grizzly Bear







Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Year in Music - 2016

I spent most of this year, and perhaps much longer than that without knowing it, in a very dark place, looking and praying for magic, hoping to fly yet struggling to crawl. So hungry. So thirsty. No appetite, but only appetite. A spectator while so many others appeared to be actively living, while I only existed outside of everything. This year, to be blunt, I discovered Purgatory – the knowledge and absence of magic simultaneously – the agonistic sublime, a music I hear from a great distance, a music I know is beautiful and perfect, a music that contains every color, but that I cannot quite make out, and might never fully see or hear.
Earthly everyday music can help in such times of great perplexity. Sometimes it just makes you more acutely aware of your difficulty. Sometimes it’s a little of both. But perhaps surprisingly (since you might think it would fit the bill completely in the pathetic and self-pitying circumstances described above), I became pretty tired of the endless onslaught of sad bastard music that seems never to quit being spewed out of the production line, even though there were a few exquisite exceptions. This doesn’t mean that I was on the hunt for shiny happy music, because there’s nothing that makes me more miserable and depressed than 90% of shiny happy music. So instead I ran toward a lot of music that was just plain different, at least it was different for me, and it encapsulated the weirdness I was feeling. So this may be one of the least accessible lists I’ve ever put together (even though readers of past lists have claimed that the contents of those documents went so far over their heads it made those same heads spin – what can I say, I’m a very strange person - no one’s forcing you to be my friend).
But let’s face it, there was a whole lot of crap this year, a lot of albums that came straight from the indie factory production line, and they got downgraded accordingly. You will see a very brief section of invective about that below. I would be lying if I said that it gave me no pleasure to trash those albums, because it gave me an inordinate amount of pleasure to trash those albums. Some music is terrible. I don’t care how hard you worked on it, or how proud your parents are of you that you made it. You should find another line of work.
There were also some albums that confounded me. Some days I would listen to them and think they were absolute garbage, and the next day I’d listen to them and think, well, this isn’t so bad I suppose. And the next day they’d be back to irritating the shit out of me. They didn’t make the upper echelon of the list - in fact, some of them just got excised from the final list altogether because life is already too short, and too long, for more than a certain quotient of nonsense. These albums and artists languish in their own kind of Purgatory. The Purgatory of my Tastemaking Anointment of them (or the lack thereof). Because I am tired of being nice. So tired of it.
And there were a lot of just patchy albums, where quality control went out the window, albums that should have been EPs or they should just have waited until they had enough for a whole album, because half of it was garbage. This made me a little bit sad, because the good parts of those albums were so good that I was tempted to give a pass to the average or execrable parts of them, but I just couldn’t. This is why I still don’t think High Violet is a great album. It has great parts. But it has too many songs that just didn’t belong. I thought it then, and I think it still. For example, the Cass McCombs album. So much good stuff, but the bad stuff needed an editor in the worst way, as I’m sure many of you are thinking this never-ending screed needs an editor in the worst way.
This was also the year when I became terminally irritated by what you might call rote indie tropes. The kind of album that sounds like just one more emo record, or one more roots record, or one more indie record. There were times when I felt like everyone had just run out of ideas and we were in some kind of nostalgia death spiral. For example, Car Seat Headrest, Mount Moriah, and Angel Olsen (and last year Speedy Ortiz – don’t get me started on them again). You all need to take a sabbatical and come up with your own style, instead of just recycling every other thing that’s ever been done by everyone else, because I’m tired of it. Otherwise, you’re all in danger of just becoming tribute acts, and God knows we have enough of that shit already.
So a lot of my favorite music from 2016 was genre-bending or outright genre-busting. I have wearied of genre altogether. I was always a fan of music that was sui generis (Steely Dan and Broken Social Scene, for example, and ultimately Miles Davis who, like Picasso, began by mastering his form and then proceeded to destroy it from within – I love that shit), and this year there were quite a few albums that were just all alone in their own little world of weirdness and they got tons of bonus points for bravery and interestingness.
But to the extent that I could still tolerate ostensibly “generic” music, jazz and soul seem to be on a resurgent roll right now. I had jazz all but dead and buried for the last five to ten years, but in the last two or three years there has been some straight up gold in the realm of new jazz, and part of what makes it so exciting is that it’s not just recycling old forms but genuinely pushing all kinds of sound envelopes. Similarly, the great new soul and hip-hop albums are doing things with sound, production and song form that we’ve never seen before in some incredibly exciting ways.
One more gripe: we also need to stop using the Peter Frampton “do you feel” voicebox thing, right fucking now. No exceptions. Looking at you in particular, Justin Vernon. Cut. It. The. Fuck. Out.
Political music can sometimes be less than aesthetically pleasing. Some kinds of agitprop can be abrasive because they’re trying to get your attention and scream in your face. That wasn’t the case with a lot of conscious art this year. The Knowles family, for example, kicked out the jams with some of the most gorgeous actual music of 2016.
When I began to put this together I was fairly certain that there was Bowie and there was Frank Ocean, and then there was everyone else, but as I re-listened to everything and put my thoughts together I realized, as I often do, that there was a lot of really good music this year aside from the two titans, but that there was also a lot of music that wasn’t as good as I thought it was when I first listened to it, and that there was a significant amount of really important jazz, electronica, and hip-hop, sometimes all contained within the same album. I also realized that two or three critically lionized albums were absolutely not all that, and I take issue with them in due course, if perhaps not at as great a length as I might like, mostly to spare your feelings.
The last thing to say is that what follows is not necessarily in strictly rank order – because what’s the point? - although it might be ordered, somewhat, according to the extent to which the albums preoccupied me on a consistent basis through the year. I cannot really be objective about the Bowie album, honestly, because of the circumstances of its release and my own personal circumstances when it was released, and the odyssey I embarked upon in the weeks following his death during the dead of Winter in America. And with that, here we go.
Top Albums Blackstar - David Bowie
The year began almost exactly with the simultaneous release of this album and the death of its author immediately thereafter. It was uncanny and stunning. For a while I wondered if it engendered such an obsession in me only because it predicted and was accompanied by its own ridiculously well-timed mortality, but then I realized that it was in fact a marmoreal piece of Art that was at least the equal of anything Bowie has ever done. It took over my life for a long stretch of the year. I made a pilgrimage to New York to see the improvised shrine outside his apartment in the frigid dead of winter. Head and shoulders above almost everything else this year, rendering itself almost unlistenable and compellingly re-listenable at the same time almost in the moment of its release and Bowie’s own passing, this is a truly remarkable piece of art in every possible way, from the stunning and marathon opening track – something really did happen on the day he died – I was listening to it for the first time, alone, cocooned in its deep mysteries, in the very moment when I read of his passing. I have never been as connected to a Zeitgeist moment of such import – to the ineffable beauty and poignancy of “Dollar Days,” a song that haunts me still, and might for years to come. And the choice of the Donny McCaslin trio to be the house band for the record was inspired, and also inspired me to investigate their back catalog. They are pushing new envelopes in jazz, and I’m not only eternally grateful to Bowie for leaving us with this grand mystery to puzzle over now that he is gone, but also for introducing me to Donny McCaslin’s music, which I have been also obsessing over all year long.
Blond(e) – Frank Ocean
The other head and shoulders album of the year, along with Blackstar. Odd that the white genius made an album called Blackstar and the black genius made an album called Blond(e). Frank Ocean is messing with all the conventions, and even though he’s already pushing every envelope I feel like his ceiling is so high there’s no telling where this fascinating journey will take him. I just hope it doesn’t take him to the same place it took D’Angelo. We need more output, but I’m prepared to wait for material of as high a quality as this. There are too many highlights to mention here, but “Ivy” is easily one of my top two or three songs of the year. One of the many things I love about Frank Ocean is that he has such an incredible imagination for the possibilities of sound, and of what a song can be. This is the sound of someone liberating himself from everything and not giving many fucks at all about how it makes anyone else feel. He seems to have perfected that trick of making it seem at times like he’s just thinking out loud, even though it took him years to be satisfied with his thinking out loud to let us hear it too. Having just read Bruce Springsteen’s truly remarkable memoir Born to Run this year, and remembering while I was reading it how hard he worked to make The River sound like a spontaneous party they managed to capture on tape, and yet it took several years, a few scrapped attempts, and dozens, if not hundreds, of songs that remain in the vault, I found myself making a rather odd comparison in my head between Frank and Bruce, and I kind of liked it. And for all of that fake spontaneity, there remains at the end a core of fearless honesty in each of those albums. And yet, in turn, because there are always turns, another part of that fearless honesty is an embedded lyrical insecurity . The romantic moments here are just gorgeous, and yet there is also a pervasive vulnerability – see also, again, Bruce Springsteen. Frank Ocean contains Whitmanian multitudes, and I cannot wait to meet more of them in due course. I felt at first that the album flagged at a certain point, but then I realized I was quibbling when I should just be luxuriating in the overabundance of talent, almost Prince-like in its prodigiousness.
I don’t really know what to say about Endless, though, the fakeout instrumental visual album Apple music release that preceded Blond(e). It was a while before I was able to hear it at all, because I refused to play Apple’s game and I’m not technologically advanced enough to have been able to figure out any piratical workaround. So I heard it sometime after the “real” album came out, and I have to say that I really quite didn’t understand the point of it. It just seemed like a bunch of semi-ambient noodling, unlike the quite remarkable visual album that was Lemonade, whose musical and video content seemed to be spectacularly intertwined. The surprise about Blond(e) was that it was so varied and courageous and musically and lyrically diverse. The surprise about Endless was that it was none of those things. Unlike other artists this year who released companion pieces to their major statements (see KAYTRANADA and Anderson .Paak below), I really don’t think this one worked too well.
You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen reached a certain artistic apotheosis as he approached death and at the same time confronted his mortality with the same unblinking eye he had used over many decades to regard the varieties of the human spirit in all of its bravery and cowardice and compromise. This is a superbly crafted album, and I’m so glad that he finally (!) embraced sophisticated instrumentation and arrangements. The plinky-plonky period did his fantastic songs no favors. It’s a real shame that he couldn’t go back and re-do those albums, because they could have been classics. The title song, along with “Treaty” are as good as, if not better than, anything he ever did, and his fearlessness is on full display throughout the album, but especially on these two songs. Like the Bowie album, and like the second of two bookends in a year of death after death after death, including the possible death of democracy as we have known it, You Want It Darker crafted lyrical elegiac poetry and gorgeous music out of those final moments in which spirits also paradoxically soar, finally freed from all material constraints. While Bowie was always a certain kind of space cadet, Cohen was always grounded, and yet he was also the more spiritually curious, integrating Judaic, Catholic and Buddhist imagery and thinking into his obsessively chiseled lyrics, and the impact of which hybrid thinking you can hear dripping from his stoic and immanent voice. Like Blackstar, this was the perfect, the impeccable, the unimpeachable final statement, shortly followed by the final freedom of the artist.
99.9%/0.001% - KAYTRANADA Malibu – Anderson .Paak Yes Lawd! - NxWorries
99.9% basically functions as a mixtape, curated by KAYTRANADA (do I pronounce that like Canada, or like Armada, I wondered at first? “Despite the Weather” finally provided the answer – it’s like Armada. You’re welcome). Anyway, a mixtape is a delicate organism, depending for its success not only on the curator but on the guests, whether they’re singers or rappers or something else. The first thing to say about this album is that the music is top notch. The first couple of tracks have a Flying Lotus sort of vibe to them, and then we hit a purple patch with Craig David (I know!) and Aluna George souling up the joint. I’m not wild about the Vic Mensa track but we get right back in the groove with the next three guest artists, Badbadnotgood, Phonte, and Anderson .Paak, about whom more presently. But not content with this very strong release he also put out the remaining percentage of the whole with a pretty damn good mixtape entitled 0.01%. It’s less song-based and more beats, grooves and drops, but it definitely stands up well alongside it’s mainstream counterpart. I think you kind of need to hear them both in relief of each other somehow, one overground, one underground. It’s a fascinating counterpoint. Also, the second one is free, and mostly a lot mellower than it’s higher percentage sibling. I kind of like the low-key, low-pressure vibe of 0.01% - it’s like a comedown from the already not very high-strung first album, a seamless and continuous mostly instrumental mix that feels effortless but is clearly very carefully crafted.
Anderson .Paak has had quite a year. He didn’t just make an album that made me pay just as much attention as Frank Ocean’s Blond(e), he also made a host of guest appearances on other people’s albums (notably the aforementioned KAYTRANADA album, and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. He’s a little bit hard to pin down in the sense that he could choose to focus any one of multiple genres or specialties and excel at each of them. Malibu is a showcase for all of that. It’s a gorgeous album, the sumptuousness of the music often belying the spiritual and material deprivations and depredations of the lyrics. “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” is a definite standout track, but there are a ton of highlights here, and the common denominator is Anderson .Paak’s irresistibly sweet and charming vocal rasp. I fell for it hard, and I have high hopes for what he does next.
One of the things he did next was NxWorries Yes Lawd! It almost feels at the outset like a Sly Stone tribute of sorts, and that infectious rasp lends itself to all kinds of settings beyond the sweet soul that comprises a good deal of Malibu, including this slightly more lo-fi hip-hop project that feels both like a bit of a throwaway and an essential release, even though it’s also very economical with 19 tracks for a total running time of 48 minutes. Although, having said that it’s something of a throwaway, the musicality of Yes Lawd! grows and grows with repeated listening, and the sequencing is very smart indeed . Just like the 99.9%/0.01% companion releases, it seems like you need to put Malibu and Yes Lawd! up against each other to see how they function contrapuntally. That way the hip-hop of Malibu becomes more apparent, just as the jazz and soul of Yes Lawd! starts to stand out if you’ve heard the other ones too. I really think we should keep a close eye on Anderson .Paak. I just love the way his lyrical flow transitions so easily and languidly into that scratchy croon and back again, so that you can’t ever pin him down definitively as a rapper or a singer, because he’s really good at both and he establishes a fluidity between that just won’t allow us to box him in. That’s a real talent. Something about the combination of his many skills makes me think that he has a lot left in his bag of tricks with which to thrill and surprise us, and that his voice alone could carry him a long way. Each respective companion piece, both Paak’s and KAYTRANADA’s, feels like the after party to its partner’s main event, and sometimes the after party is more fun than the main event. Just ask the people who were fortunate enough to get to any of the after parties Prince rocked until the dawn.
untitled unmastered - Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar has already earned the right to command our attention, even with this slightly odd release that may ultimately be a placeholder of outtakes (the tracks are indeed untitled, except that they are labelled with dates, which one might presume indicate when they were made, although that may not necessarily be a safe bet – Kendrick is definitely working a long game, the details of which we may well not yet understand or even vaguely be able to grasp at. I have always loved Kendrick Lamar for the way he combines his lyrical flow with a more than a determined nod to jazz, and there are some gorgeous jazz breaks here. The “pimp pimp hooray” transitions don’t necessarily stand the test of time, but it was funny for a while. But his vocals are really coming into their own. Sometimes he sounds sneaky like Q-Tip (“untitled 03/05.28.2013”), and sometimes he sounds legitimately scared and scary -that lyrical lilt toward an almost-falsetto on tracks like “untitled 02/06/23/2014” where the lyric itself is almost Halloween creepy depicts a vision that is clearly working overtime. There are some artists whose ceiling is limitless, and it feels like Kendrick Lamar is only giving us glimpses of his ultimate potential. His polyphonic capabilities are stunning in their range, and it feels like I could have spent the entire year trying to unlock the puzzles and mysteries of untitled. I still think that my favorite track is “untitled 05/09.21.2014,” because it is so very percussive and jazzy – the drums and the wailing saxophone way back in the mix are just such a joy, serving as a prelude to the spitting of some fiery fiery rhymes as if to say, don’t be fooled by the music, this is NOT for the background, at which point the jazz just goes off the hook insane - but it’s got some very strong competition from the rest of the album. “untitled 06/06.30.2014” then veers off into soul territory that is both jittery and mellow at the same time. The whole thing keeps you off balance in the most fantastic way from the jump to the final outro. At the end of the album I felt like Keats at the end of “Ode to a Nightingale.” “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?” Returned to earth, to life, and consciousness after a mad cosmic mental trip. Seriously. One of the many things I love about Kendrick is that he really isn’t like anyone else, and he really doesn’t care. In this he resembles Frank Ocean, even though they’re outputs are totally different from each other.
Freetown Sound – Blood Orange
I loved the last Blood Orange album, 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, which featured a number of unusual guests (Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth and Chairlift's Caroline Polachek, for example). It felt like I was in a pretty small minority of people who were aware of it at the time, even though it also felt like the possible beginning of something quite important (it wasn’t his first album, but it was the first album where Dev Hynes made a serious grab for the brass ring of every damn musical thing you could think of). And he had already worked with Solange on 2012’s “Losing You,” so he’s not coming out of nowhere with Freetown Sound. But this deeply strange album is the kind of thing that can keep you awake at night. It begins with a fiercely political feminist statement which is not scary necessarily scary but it’s definitely a brave and powerful way to open an album. We segue from there immediately into the unending complexity of “Augustine,” a song about immigration, racial and social justice, theology and who knows what else, aside from the fact of its objective musical beauty. If I were Dev Hynes I might just drop the mic and retire after having written that one, but he’s not an ordinary mortal. He’s just getting started, and the musical range he displays through every minute of this 17-track Leviathan is breathtaking. It seriously does not quit. I’m still trying to process and assimilate everything he does on this album, musically, lyrically and otherwise.
Perhaps one of the common denominators of a good deal of hip-hop and r&b this year (and it’s been coming for a while if you look back at the last couple of years of musical output) is that so many of those musics were political in terms of their lyrical content but they managed to get us to take our medicine with some gorgeous music and production, so that it rarely felt like agitprop. Freetown Sound is clearly a very political album from the outset, but you wouldn’t necessarily notice if you didn’t want to because it’s just so damn pretty for most of the time. Freetown Sound takes absolutely no prisoners, makes no compromises at all, and is damn near unclassifiable. So it’s just about my favorite kind of music for all of those reasons. Dev Hynes, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Anderson.Paak and Louis Celestin (aka Kaytranada) are multiple exhibits in the case for a very bright future in the world of music. It’s almost like you can feel the ground moving beneath your feet toward a new reality and a new mainstream and they are in the vanguard of it. This feels like a new era of socially conscious music that also moves your heart and your soul, somewhat in the way that Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, among others, were pioneers in their heyday. And God knows we need that revival now, more than ever. If we’re going to have to fight, and it looks like we are, it’s good to know that we’ll have a fantastic soundtrack for the battle. All of this is very exciting.
All That Jazz
Floa – Mammal Hands
And so we reach the jazz portion of the proceedings. Settle in for a little bit of that, if you will. The overwhelming theme, or perhaps I should say the overwhelming sensation, conjured by Mammal Hands’ second album is that of constant movement, with no bass to augment the rhythm section, so everything becomes the rhythm section all the time. I didn’t notice the absence of bass at first, but I did notice the constant circular movement that was often some kind of variation of 3-time, but not always quite that. I’m not at all technically attuned to what music is doing, only to what I tend to notice and feel, especially when it comes to jazz. But as old people have tended to say since time immemorial, I do know what I like, and I do love some jazz bass, so it’s hard for me to admit that I could like an album without any, but this definitely works. There might be a certain lack of dynamic and melodic variety here (the first four tracks seem like variations on a very similar theme) but it seems important for them to be working out whatever it is they’re working out, and the combination of energy and prettiness gets them a lot of credit. And by the time we get to the fifth and sixth tracks, “In the Treetops” and “They Eyes That Saw the Mountain,” that dynamic has worked itself out into a beautiful meditative mantra that seems fully to explain, or rather perhaps justify, the apparent repetition of what went before. This album feels neither like conventional or avant-garde jazz, but that absence of a label or a niche shouldn’t prevent it from being acknowledged as a fine piece of music, and I kept coming back to it time and time again over the course of the year.
Channel the Spirits – The Comet is Coming
This album doesn’t seem to recall Sun Ra in quite the way some reviews wanted to claim (notably The Quietus, generally a site that I have tended to hold in high regard over the years, although this year they seemed to be wrong about a lot of things and it was quite hard to tell if they were just trolling us, being extra cranky, or just missing the mark entirely). To be completely fair to The Quietus, The Comet is Coming (led by this year’s London equivalent of Kamasi Washington as the busiest and hippest man in jazz, Shabaka Hutchings) also invoke Kosmische jazz (there’s that Krautrock thing again), as well as Pharaoh Sanders, maybe Coltrane a little bit, Parliament, Funkadelic and Janelle Monae, so they are covering their bases, and their basses, rather better than I give them credit for. But just because an album has the word “comet” in the title and some of the tracks contain words like “space,” “asteroid,” “black hole,” and “star” doesn’t tell you anything at all about the provenance of the music and I really didn’t hear Sun Ra in this much at all. But it was a very engaging journey into sound, and much to my relief contained more than enough bass to satisfy the bass cravings I mentioned above. I like all of it but my favorite track is one of the few that doesn’t actually mention space, “New Age.” I hate to use the word “tribal” when trying to describe music, so I won’t do that here, but the drums here really drive this thing forward and the introduction of some electronic elements into the mix along with the constantly wailing saxophone and deep, dark bass make for a powerful combination. “New Age” is also the beginning of an especially funky second half of the album, and “Cosmic Dust” and “Star Furnace” just pulsate from start to finish.
IV – badbadnotgood
This album feels like something of a comedown (in the chill-out sense, not in the disappointing sense) after the intense onslaught of Channel the Spirits. I’m not entirely sure this belongs in the jazz section of my review, but I don’t know where else to put it either. I’m also not as enthralled with it as I was at first. It hasn’t seemed to age well through the year as the time comes to revisit it, but it certainly has its shining moments. The guest appearance by Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring on “Time Moves Slowly” is a great pleasure, for example, as is the saxophone insanity of Colin Stetson (on “Confessions, Pt. II), who can always be relied upon to bring some righteous reed noise. And the next track, “Lavender,” features Kaytranada, so perhaps the album works best when the band takes a backseat or at least shares the spotlight with others. This might be most clearly the case for some people on “In Your Eyes,” which features vocals by Charlotte Day Wilson, although I found that track a little bit too Cassandra Wilson for my own tastes. But then they end the album with some proper jazz in the form of the quite lovely “Cashmere” and I was mostly back on board again. So yeah, something of a mixed bag, but not a bad one. I liked it, but found myself wanting to have liked it more. Or something.
In Movement – Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Matthew Garrison
On first listen, DeJohnette’s In Movement seemed, to my rather heathen jazz ears, paradoxically rather static. If it moved at all it meandered, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing but it didn’t quite appear to have the dynamic the title was suggesting. It felt rather more meditative, suggesting instead perhaps an emotional movement, no less arresting or bracing than physical movement, equally turbulent in fact, but less obviously in corporeal motion. But on repeated listening, I realized that I wasn’t listening to it attentively enough. The movement is actually constant, sometimes subtle, and sometimes less so, if rarely straight ahead. “Serpentine Fire,” an Earth, Wind & Fire joint, thank you very much, rocks pretty hard (as does the following track, “Two Jimmys”) and the trio is in perfect alignment for nine glorious minutes. It’s also pretty amazing that Jack Dejohnette, at the age of 73, continues to shine so brightly, and that he is also making such great music with people whose fathers, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison, he was so well acquainted in their own time.
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke – Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith’s playing here feels in places like the ghost of Miles Davis, although from what phase of Miles’ career it’s a little hard to pin down. I would venture to say that it sounds like something from the perfect period between 1957 and 1960. And Smith’s work is set against the backdrop of Iyer’s Bill Evans-like cerebral yet gentle piano style. So it feels like we put some people in a time machine and either shot them forward or back one way or another. It’s interesting to note also that the title of the album suggests an album that might swing, but there is little to nothing like that kind of rhythm here. Somewhat like the DeJohnette/Coltrane/Garrison project there is an air of the meditation exercise about these pieces, and taken together the two albums are the perfect counterpoint to the rather more energetic work by the younger pups I talk about elsewhere in this section. That’s the beautiful thing about jazz. It’s an extremely broad church.
Elaenia - Floating Points (2015)
Since this album came out in 2015 I’m not technically obligated to include it here or to talk about it, but since it came to my attention in 2016, and since it’s so good, I’m going to go ahead and give it a brief mention here. This is a beautiful and sometimes (although not often at all) rather busy, more often very restful album that never completely settles into a single vibe, even though the feeling you’re left with at the end is of a single piece of music which is very satisfying. That’s a lot of words to say very little, I admit. It reminds me a little bit of that absolutely gorgeous Mountains album Centralia, from 2013, which was the uber-meditation album of all meditation albums. I also loved the follow-up track released this year, “For Marmish, Pt 2,” which might be better than anything on Elaenia, honestly. It’s like they synthesized (no pun intended, mostly) everything on Elaenia into a single perfect 14-minute track. I’m going to keep my eye on what they do next.
The New Breed – Jeff Parker
This might have been the surprise jazz album of the year, at least to me, who must not have been paying attention. Jeff Parker plays guitar for Tortoise. Tortoise have been described by most people who write about such things for about as long as Tortoise have been in existence as “post-rock,” whatever that is. OK, so far so good. But The New Breed sounds as much like a pristine example of honest-to-goodness contemporary jazz as you might wish to encounter. This sounds, in fact, rather like the kind of thing you might expect to hear from John Scofield or John McLaughlin, or at least the kind of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in a playlist containing selections from those two artists. It’s really not experimental, not post-anything, just plain (not boring), thoughtful, well-constructed contemporary jazz. The New Breed stays in its lane, and it’s a very fine lane. The only surprise is that it really isn’t surprising at all. High points, if you need them, would be “Executive Life” and “Jrifted.”
Beyond Now - Donny McCaslin
Apart from the fact that this band totally blew up with their stunning contributions to David Bowie’s Blackstar, what I love about them is how they take a conventional jazz figure and destroy it, either with where they take it or what instruments they treat it with. For example, the opening track on Beyond Now is “Shake Loose,” which begins with a fairly normal sounding saxophone theme, and they could have just riffed on that a bit for a few minutes and been done with it, instead of which they not only add a ridiculous rhythm track that elevates the experience at least a notch, they then have the audacity to add some insane electronics to that foundation and the whole thing just takes off into another dimension. This is perhaps what Bowie saw in McCaslin’s group when he took in their live show before recruiting them to join the Blackstar sessions. I’ll give you an example of my own experience. When I listened to Blackstar for the very first time, having read advance chatter about the album in terms of its avant-garde jazz influences, I was very disappointed because they weren’t apparent at all. But over time the album came to sound weirder and weirder to me, and as a result it came to sound better and better. That’s one of the many things I like about Donny McCaslin. He slips the weirdness past you and makes you circle back and figure out what he just did and how he did it. And as a bonus, there’s a killer cover of Bowie’s “Warszawa” toward the back end of the album. Bowie left behind more than just his own music; he also made more of us aware of the great stuff that Donny McCaslin is doing, and I’m very grateful for that too.
A Seat at the Table – Solange Lemonade- Beyonce
There’s nothing I could possibly say about Lemonade at this point that would be of interest to anyone, so I’m mostly going to skip any commentary except to say that if you can get over an album like Lemonade, make it a colossal commercial success and at the same time also make it into what for many people was the album of the year, then fair fucks to you indeed. But I think Solange’s A Seat At The Table is a better album. It immediately stood out as a strong and beautiful piece of work, soon enough as a powerful statement, but it took me a little longer to start thinking that it might be a significantly better album than Lemonade, not that we need to invoke sibling rivalry here for any reason at all. I certainly prefer Solange’s voice over Beyonce’s – I’ve never been a fan of Beyonce’s voice; it seems to lack a certain texture or variety. But I also think I prefer other things about this album over Lemonade. The other thing to note, in case it might be of interest, is that this album recalled for me an overlooked mixtape from 2013 called Cut 4 Me by Kelela, a mix that contained the stunning cut “Guns & Synths,” among others. It has a similar vibe, tone, devil-may-care energy, and lo-fi brilliance. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I ultimately prefer it to Lemonade, although that’s not to say that Lemonade isn’t brilliant in its own right, because it surely is, but I have a certain distrust of the subversion of Lemonade that I can’t quite pin down. But I still preferred the lyrics, the music, the instrumentation and the production of A Seat at the Table somehow.
Pool - Porches III – Moderat Big Black Coat - Junior Boys Oh No - Jessy Lanza It’s Immaterial – Black Marble Care – How to Dress Well
I put these half-dozen albums together because, like last year, I am trying here and there to assemble groups of sounds for your listening pleasure, and not because I’m too lazy to write about them individually. This is a clutch of white electronic soul-dance-pop albums that seem in some ways to be of a piece. Almost all of them hang together as individual album experiences, with the possible exception of Care, which may or may not go off the rails about halfway through, but I’m not convinced that isn’t still redeemable, both because I trust Tom Krell’s taste so implicitly, and also because it starts off so very strong (strongly? Whatever). Porches were new to me, but seemed to arrive fully formed with a dark and yet somehow strangely uplifting electronic pop sound. Theirs was one of the albums that got me through the winter, along with Junior Boys, a longstanding favorite band, and who are also responsible for the production on the impeccable Jessy Lanza album, a slightly more upbeat and danceable version of the goddess who is Jessie Ware, and from whom we did not hear in 2016. Black Marble have been something of a secret for rather too long now, and I have loved them since 2012’s A Different Arrangement, which was a good bit more, well, marmoreal, than the new one, with apologies for the rather outre pun. Taken altogether, this is delightful suite of music for the best dinner party ever, that later turns into a bit of a dance party in the kitchen. Just make sure you don’t take too much of anything that will make you cry tears of joy and tell everyone how much you love them to the point where you will have some ‘splaining to do in the morning, because it’s the kind of music that could trigger such an impulse and we wouldn’t want that, now would we, because in the morning we want to be back to our old impenetrable cynicism again, with no regrets at all about revealing such aspects of our deeply buried humanity. He says, speaking entirely hypothetically and as a friend who only has your best interests at heart. Shit, I don’t even get invited to dinner parties anymore, because I’m too likely to cry and have to leave early before the dancing even begins.
Skip a Sinking Stone - Mutual Benefit 69 – Wilson Tanner Love Streams – Tim Hecker The Mutual Benefit album was one of the massively underrated and overlooked albums of the year, and so appropriately named. I don’t know why Wilson Tanner chose to call his album 69, nor do I wish to speculate. I’ve tried to generate interest in Mutual Benefit before with their first album, Love’s Crushing Diamond. It’s basically the work of one person, Jordan Lee, and on paper it sounds like everything I would hate – beards, ponytails, plaintiff voices, acoustic guitars – the kind of music you would hear around a campfire at a rural hostel where the rooms are all tree houses and there are mandatory backrubs before, during and after the singalongs. And yet. And yet. And yet there is something majestic and genuinely moving about this music, which is some kind of blend of orchestral folk ambience that recalls a little bit, just a very little bit the vibe of Neal Halsted’s magnificent work with Mojave 3, vague and distant though my memories are of their work. Madrugada and Lost Dreamers are two standout tracks, but you need to have a couple of glasses of wine and lie flat down on the floor with the lights out and listen to the whole thing in one sitting (or lying, since I just told you to lie flat down on the floor).
I pair this aural experience with Wilson Tanner like a maître d who works in perfect accord with his sommelier to bring you just the right stimulants and complements for all your taste buds, because 69 works perfectly with Skip a Sinking Stone. Just over 30 minutes of what is basically relaxation music, but not the kind they play when you get a massage, this is the good kind – intentional, organic, gorgeous. By the end of these two listening experiences, you will feel like you just came back from the ashram, but you won’t feel bad about it at all. You’ll have awakened your inner hippy in only the best possible ways. And you won’t have thought even once about Fleet Foxes, until now when I just ruined it by doing just that. Sorry. That was totally my bad for harshing your righteous mellow.
I put Tim Hecker in here partly because I didn’t know where else to put him, and partly because I absolutely wasn’t going to leave him out of any list because his work is of such consistently high quality. I’ve been following him since around the time when he put out Ravedeath, 1972 which, because I was relatively unschooled in whatever genre this is, felt like the Piano Drop of that album’s opening track. I’d never heard anything like this before and he continues to fascinate me. I like how he’s unafraid of letting sounds evolve and see where they take him, although I’m sure there is much more actual composition than that involved in his pieces. Love Streams tends toward the orchestral (and the pastoral) at times, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The idea behind listening to these songs in one sitting over the course of an evening is that you begin in an upright position and end up prone or supine, depending on your preference, but your brain never stops working. One of the many beautiful things about this work from Tim Hecker is that it is almost entirely non-percussive, so that you are lulled, having decided to take my advice as your musical curator/anesthesiologist for the evening, into a mental space where there is no noise, only sound, and the aural experience progresses from vocal to non-vocal, and from song to non-song, or composition. The “Violet Monumental” suite in the middle of Love Streams that leads to “Up Red Bull Creek” is a particular delight, and you may at some point wonder how you to here from Skip a Sinking Stone, and immediately not care at all, all of this without any substances or potions to enhance the experience (in theory). It’s a fun journey to go on, if you have a couple of hours. Give it a try. As someone recently said in a very different context, what do you have to lose?
Hopelessness – ANOHNI
The last album I ever bought at Other Music (RIP). This album is a massively exhilarating downer. Explain that to me if you can. The opening song is entitled “Drone Bomb Me.” The last four tracks, in order, are, “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth,” “Crisis,” “Hopelessness,” and “Marrow.” Elsewhere there are songs about global warming and the ways in which President Obama has been a colossal bummer of a disappointment. And yet, and yet, and yet, this album was not, ultimately as much of a downer as you might expect that kind of content to be. The song about global warming, “4 Degrees” is actually a jaunty little number. I think ANOHNI might be deploying sarcasm on that one. But all “joking” aside, this is a powerful statement that, if the music mirrored the agitprop of the lyrics, would be really hard to listen to, and the lushness of the music kind of acts like the spoonful of sugar the medicine of the message needs to make it go down easier. This was really the perfect album to buy on my last visit to Other Music. A piece of weird New York, and weirdness is, sadly, harder and harder to find in New York.
Painting of a Panic Attack - Frightened Rabbit
Since The National are currently dead to me because of that Grateful Dead abomination, and it may take me quite some time to recover from such a travesty, such a debacle, such an insult to my musical intelligence, and since the LNZNDRF album was one of those very patchy albums that really should not have allowed any of its participants anywhere near a microphone (there’s a reason Matt Berninger is your singer, The National; we shouldn’t have to point that out to you) I needed to search for an ersatz version of my erstwhile favorite band, and I kind of sort of found it in the form of an album produced by The National’s very own Aaron Dessner. He must be a very persuasive fellow, because he managed to convince an already quite accomplished band with a strong and distinctive identity to make their songs sound rather suspiciously like songs by Aaron Dessner’s main band on several occasions, and it wasn’t a bad thing at all. This is like emo for grown-ups. I haven’t yet heard a Frightened Rabbit album I didn’t love, and this might (hard to say, though, because their body of work is so very strong) be their best one yet. This is the kind of band that makes me think, why aren’t they huge? If the execrable Muse can be huge, why can’t Frightened Rabbit fill arenas and stadia too? Imagine singing and swaying along to “Get Out” surrounded by a bunch of shitfaced FR fans. How fantastic would that be? This is kind of how I felt about U2 and Simple Minds (before Simple Minds lost the plot sometime in 1985 and never rediscovered it, sadly). I still contend that Bono owes almost all of his money to Jim Kerr, and that Bono should be in Shittiest Band of All Time Jail, along with a host of other people I have punished (in my mind) in a very cruel and unusual fashion – waterboarding’s way too good for them. Anyway, Frightened Rabbit, ladies and gentlemen, sad Scottish bastards who make you glad to be alive in spite of themselves, and in spite of your own reluctance to be glad to be alive. Shit is complicated. Just to give you a sense of how blinkered and fucked up music criticism is, Pitchfork gave this album a 6.0. More reasons for them to be ashamed of themselves, if there aren’t already enough, for example the way they go out of their way to promote truly and objectively awful hip-hop just to seem like they’re still edgy - pathetic.
Life of Pause - Wild Nothing
This album starts (the song is called, perhaps not ideally, “Reichpop”) with an almost ambient Eno/Sakomoto-esque keyboard intro (part one) and then shifts into a shuffling 80s guitar intro (part two) that almost recalls The Blue Nile. These two gorgeous pieces of fused pastiche show how much Jack Tatum is maturing, not just in his own confidence and musicianship but in his knowledge of the history of the music he is making. All of that abstract truth obscures the fact that this album is just a delight to listen to. Every year there are at least two or three albums that won’t ever see the light of day in terms of fame and fortune but which, in a just world, would make their creators rich and get them all kinds of laid. Life of Pause is one of those albums from 2016. And every year there are two or three albums that could have been dropped into the middle of another decade and no one would have batted an eyelid. Some of those albums work, and some of them are just trying too hard (hello, Speedy Ortiz, how’s it going?). Life of Pause is the one that works effortlessly, and which would sit easily alongside, say, a very good Psychedelic Furs album on a very comfortable footing (I know, sitting on a comfortable footing – that’s all fucked up) – and don’t get me started on how much more rich and famous Psychedelic Furs should have been. The title song from this album is one of my favorite songs of the year, but that would suggest that it’s a total standout when there are at least a half-dozen other gems, if not more. The fact that the title song owes more than a small debt to a Foxygen song from a couple of years ago (“How Can You Really”) doesn’t make me mad at all. It feels more like a tribute than a rip-off, although that Foxygen song should have received way more respect in its own time. This is shiny guitar music at its best, and yet there is also so much else going on that’s interesting enough to bear repeated listening, active or passive. I’ve never in my life said such nice things about anything or anyone that came out of Virginia Tech. Let us not speak of this again. One thing I absolutely refuse to do is to use words like “ethereal” and “shimmering” when attempting to describe this music, because that’s just some lazy-ass music-writing bullshit. But it is the kind of music that tends to invite such adjectives, just in case you’re looking for received shorthand that might help you make up your mind as to whether this is your bag. But, to return to the beginning of this entry, the way that Tatum manages to blend guitars and synthesizers, or to transition from one to another, sometimes without you noticing, in order to generate the loveliest of pop music that totally has a spine, is something that needs to be acknowledged. Lots of respect for the fascinating career arc of this band, and I’m committed to seeing it through.
Away – Okkervil River
This is sad bastard music of the very highest caliber and quality. If you going to be this maudlin you have to be pretty damn sure you can pull it off without inciting ridicule or ledge jumping. Will Sheff knows just what he’s doing at this point and he walks the line with great aplomb. These are tremendously affecting songs that don’t cloy or grate, miraculously. I felt that, after the relative perfection of what felt like a trilogy of albums in Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins, the quality of I Am Very Far and The Silver Gymnasium fell away somewhat, although it’s also past time to revisit the latter two albums and reconsider that opinion. But Away is absolutely a comfortable peer of those three incredible, connected, and life-altering pieces of work. I didn’t always care for Okkervil River, having seen them live before I had ever heard any of their recorded output, and been very disappointed, not in the music, because it was impossible to pay attention to the music due to the overwhelming dickheadness of Will Sheff himself. He succeeded in alienating every single person in the club with a couple of well/ill-timed quips about how he really didn’t want to be there. So I was disinclined to explore any of his actual recordings. But when I first listened to Black Sheep Boy I knew I was going to have to walk back a lot of my invective, because he was clearly a very talented writer, lyrically and musically. It felt like that got lost a little bit on the last two albums, but Away brings it all back in full and sharp focus. It’s sad that a bereavement had to be the occasion for that rediscovery (Sheff’s grandfather died and his own life circumstances seem to have changed significantly to the point where he seems to have been rebuilding from the ground up, a brave and necessary process that befalls many of us, perhaps only once in a lifetime). From the opening “Okkervil River, RIP,” a meta statement about the reconstitution of the band with and without some of the original and erstwhile members, but also framing the project within the context of loss, repose and recovery, we are embarked upon a capital L Life and capital J Journey. This is grown-up stuff, but not stodgy in the least. Sheff does tend to have musical tics he sometimes leans on, and I don’t mind them at all but there some noticeably self-referential melodic moments here, in particular where “Come Indiana Through the Smoke” seems to recall “Starry Stairs” and particularly “Savannah Smiles” quite brazenly, but I didn’t mind at all. It felt like he was paying attention to and recalling his own backstory and was kind of wondering if we were too. Not all albums “these days” offer a satisfying arc. That’s not to say that they have to be concept albums. God forbid. But I like the experience of thoughtful song sequencing, and the feeling I get when an album ends on a satisfying coda and cadence. “Days Spent Floating (In the Halfbetween)” provides such a satisfactory ending, reminding me, probably quite by accident, of John Cale’s gorgeous song “Chinese Envoy,” from Music for New Society. Will Sheff not only knows how to make songs. He also knows how to make albums. That’s a grown-up skill. Will Sheff is a grown-up. But not in the same way as, say, Phil Collins is a grown-up. It’s much better than that.
Emily’s D+Evolution – Esperanza Spalding
This is not the kind of thing that would always have interested me, and yet, it kind of is. It begins ilke a Gail Ann Dorsey jam of muso artsy-fartsy math rock, so if that doesn’t turn you off you should be fine for what is to come, because it gets a lot more palatable after that. “Unconditional Love,” which follows that opening track, is one of the great songs of the year, and doesn’t need to apologize to anyone for anything. It reminds me of the old days when Wendy and Lisa were making the best love songs on the planet, but it doesn’t feel dated at all. The odd thing about this album, apart from all of it, is that it’s sui generis at the same time that it also seems to wear its influences on its sleeve, influences that include the aforementioned Dorsey, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, and a host of jazz fusion artists. I’m fine with that. This is the most civilized music imaginable, while it stokes the rather less civilized (that is to say more primal) parts of your soul at the same. It’s a beautiful synthesis of the cerebral and corporeal, and it should make Sting ashamed of himself, because this is how you should make such music without making anyone want to throw up or smash up their entire house (or Sting’s house, mostly), although I will admit that “Ebony and Ivy,” in the dead center of the album is a tad challenging. Thank you, Esperanza Spalding, for shining a light and pointing the way forward, away from Gordon’s evil legacy and toward a rebirth of bass-based art music. Dinner parties all over the world owe you a significant debt of gratitude.
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
My relationship with (“with,” like I know them and we hang out) Radiohead has become complicated, not to say vexed. I can’t quite explain it, but having loved them, even when others didn’t (for example, I might be the only living defender of King of Limbs), I recently came to kind of loathe them based on no particular reason, and on no particular piece of music. I just decided I was done with them. So when this album first came out, I decided that wasn’t going to listen to it, because fuck that whiny little bastard and his ilk. But then someone posted something positive about it, and I thought, oh ok, maybe I’ll give it a spin. And I did. And I hated it, because fuck that whiny little bastard and his ilk. But then I went back to the well a couple more times, and it started not to grow on me exactly, but to irritate me less, and then it started to grow on me, and then I started to recognize that there were actually parts of the album that are really lovely, and then I had to admit that, ok, dammit, I still like Radiohead, even though fuck that whiny little bastard, still. So I guess I liked this album against my better judgment, and indeed dismissed it out of hand for quite a while, but its charms eventually proved somewhat irresistible, which is a weird thing to say about Radiohead, who seem to do their best to uncharm you. But this has moment of sublime beauty, even if those moments are led by Thom Yorke’s relentlessly nasal well you get the idea because I’ve already gone on about it just in the same whiny little bastard way does, so sorry about that. I just opened myself up to it and it washed over me in some genuinely pleasant ways. Not only that, it actually gets better as it progresses. The stretch from “Glass Eyes” to “Present Tense” is just delightful; I would even venture to say that it’s pretty. I was surprised. I actively tried to hate this album, and I failed. I actively tried and failed to do a lot of things this year. Thanks, Radiohead.
Up to Anything - The Goon Sax
There is something primitive about The Goon Sax that almost works on my brain as the musical equivalent of a Proustian Madeleine. When a song like the title track of this album, Up to Anything, opens with that classic simple combination of guitar, bass and drums, but not just any combination of guitar, bass and drums, rather a particularly Australian combination of guitar, bass and drums, my heart and stomach leap up and also back to a place somewhere in the 1980s, the place my musical heart and soul reside. It’s so exciting to discover a brand new band of super young and fearless musicians, albeit with an impeccable pedigree (Robert Forster’s son Louis is part of this group). These are witty, heartfelt, melodic and lyrical songs about being young, in love and confused. Those things still get my attention even at my own advanced age, and I still love the deadpan delivery of lyrics that might make you think the deliverers of the message don’t care about anything because they’re too cool to care, but you soon realize that they care more than anything, more than you know, and more than you ever could. “I don’t care about much, but one of the things I care about is you,” says part of the lyric from “Sometimes Accidentally.” If you have any love of the jangly 1980s lineage, this album will float your boat. And it’s another of those albums that gets its reference points exactly right. This is categorically not a piece of nostalgia, even though there are moments when you might be forgiven that this was a lost Go-Betweens album from somewhere between Send Me A Lullaby and Before Hollywood. The clue is that the lyrics are slightly updated – “Couldn’t work at Target, the only color shirt I wear is blue/Couldn’t work at Target, I’d stand around and think about you” – how completely darling is that lyric? Answer: completely. Also, if I ruled the radio, I would play Girls’ “Lust For Life” right next to “Boyfriend” by The Goon Sax and the whole world of lovers and would-be lovers would cry oceans of tears, of joy, of longing, and of knowing that they weren’t alone. Match.com would go out of business, because I would successfully have found someone for everyone in one fell swoop of genius radio programming. I hope The Goon Sax aren’t a one-album wonder, but I wouldn’t care if they were. This album is perfect. It’s everything I want in my indie guitar bands, up to and including the Jonathan Richmanesque closing track “Ice Cream (On My Own).” Everything.
Psychopomp – Japanese Breakfast
This is a fascinating album, another of those that doesn’t really sound like anything else, and in the very best way. I love how it starts with a very brief piece of treated piano that recalls the sadly departed Mark Linkous’ Sparklehorse, and launches from there into some kind of magical Disney pixie dust moment that barely precedes a pristine indie guitar riff and a perfect indie vocal. My head was spinning after less than a minute of this kind of startling album, and it didn’t let up. Of course that opening song is called “In Heaven,” and it really does sounds like the way I hope Heaven feels, if it actually exists, which, let’s face “facts,” it probably doesn’t. The way that “In Heaven” transitions without you even noticing into “The Woman That Loves You” is a thing of sublime beauty, and before you know it that one’s gone too. How we find ourselves to the even sublimer title track, barely a minute long, exactly halfway through the album, is a complete mystery to me, and by the time we segue into track six, “Jane Cum,” I am undone and weeping tears that only art combined with heartsickness can elicit. Damn you, art and heartsickness. In this way, the whole thing just seems to slip past you and out of your grasp. It feels like a sleight of hand somehow. The entire album really isn’t very long at all (barely half an hour), but it ranges far and wide during that short time and seems like it contains an entire world of feeling and experience. Highly recommended, and especially interesting because it’s at the same time a perhaps rather typical “indie” album and also a piece of work that seems to refuse to be tied down in any particular way. It’s very ambitious and yet painted on a relatively small canvas, and in this respect it recalls last year’s big surprise, Grouper’s Liz Harris’ excursion into lo-fo indie territory, Helen, an album I absolutely adored. Ambition on a small canvas, almost like what the world of painting would call miniaturism, is a difficult balancing act to pull off. The album also distinguishes itself in this respect from some other bands who got stuck in their own rut this time around (for example Angel Olsen, about whom more later). Japanese Breakfast is basically Michelle Zauner, whose main band is Little Big League, about whom I know nothing, and whom I plan to investigate further once this undertaking is complete. That’s one of the many fun things about music obsessiveness – there’s never just one more new band; there are always other bands in the genealogical line to dig out and listen to, and they give you connections to others, and so on until we all die. But if there were only Japanese Breakfast, and there were only Psychopomp, that would be ok. Another bitchy point of reference from me: Pitchfork gave this album 7.9. Because, you know, it’s not quite an 8. Because, you know, it’s not quite good enough to join *that* club. Whatever.
FLOTUS – Lambchop
Not a fan of the voice effect, but what great songs. And who has the courage to start an album with a 12-minute song and end it with an 18-minute song? This was a very surprising album, if only because of my preconceptions about the band, which they completely blew away here. I have to confess that I really don’t know their other work very well at all. I’ve heard Nixon, and I liked it, and I want to hear it more, but other than that I’m pretty much in the dark about them. FLOTUS, though, worked some magic on my damaged soul that it sorely needed, even though the vocoder/autotune thing seemed to detract quite unnecessarily from the songs themselves (“Harbor Country” seems to survive perfectly well without it, and it would have been nice if the other songs had been left to stand similarly on their own merits), and even though there were patches and spots where things seemed to get a little bit soporific. But in general this feels like real art being made, whereas a lot of music doesn’t quite meet that standard. Worth the price of admission for “In Care of 8675390,” “NIV,” and “The Hustle” alone (the video for “NIV” is quite remarkable and very moving - find it and watch it if you get a chance – it transforms an already remarkable song into something entirely else), and there are many more great songs on the album than just those, FLOTUS came out just in time to get a decent hearing before missing the cutoff for consideration this year. I would like to hear the unadulterated version, though, without that damn Framptonator machine all too many people were using this year. Can I blame Kanye for this trend? I would like to be able to do that, if at all possible.
Running Out of Love – The Radio Dept.
The Radio Dept. are a band I tend to forget about, much like Kings of Convenience and Jens Lekman, their Scandinavian colleagues (I feel similarly about Stars, who are not Scandinavian, although I have to admit to having lost track of them almost altogether, even though they may also have put out a new album this year). But then I hear new music from them and I’m reminded once again of how very good they are. The quality control here is very high indeed. They do no bad work. This is no exception. This album is awfully pretty, and while it may be a tad melancholy, it’s definitely not sad bastard music. They are another one of those bands that doesn’t just know how to make songs; they also know how to make albums. The gentle introduction to Running Out of Love at first feels like a departure from The Radio Dept. I remember, and then the second song launches into a rather mysterious electronic Swedish skank (Ace of Base alert) that resolves into that lovely vocal that I’ve come to regard as something as a comfort blanket, and then we’re on our way, another delightful musical adventure is once again in progress. I first heard (of) them on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s very odd film Marie Antoinette, and I was kind of annoyed at myself that I’d never heard of them before. This was similar to my reaction on first hearing Phoenix. Where have they been? Where have I been? Why haven’t we run across each other before? But soon it all became okay. It was almost immediately as if we had been friends forever, and just like an old friend you see after many years apart, and you pick up the conversation immediately as if you just took a pause for breath, so it is with The Radio Dept. I am fortunate to have such friends in my life, just as I a fortunate to have The Radio Dept. in my life also. Another band that should rule the radio, and would do so if I were in charge of the radio, as I in turn should be. There are lots of things of which I should be in charge, but mostly the radio. I would be a one-person Radio Dept., and The Radio Dept. would be one of my go-to rotation acts, and I would see to it that they were financially comfortable for the rest of their lives, payola be damned. Be assured that The Radio Dept. are not running out of love, or tunes.
Heads Up – Warpaint
I really didn’t understand the antipathy toward “New Song” from Warpaint fans, at the time they released it as the teaser for Heads Up (they seems to have a habit of releasing the third song from their albums to the world as the advance scout) when it was so clearly a return to form after what I thought was a very disappointing second album. Some fey record store hipster described the song to me as “garbage,” at which point my respect for him went from zero to negative. He also went on to say that there were “a few good tracks” on the album but it was mostly some kind of meh. I’m honestly very surprised that he’s still able to walk around and feed himself, either because he’s too stupid to be able to do either of those things or because I really wanted to mess him up so that he couldn’t do either of those things. I’m at the age where it’s already a bit weird for me to be kicking it with the kids about what is and isn’t “garbage” anyway, so I merely disagreed with him as politely as I could, as I completed my transaction. The fact is, and by fact I mean my unassailable opinion, is that this is really a funky as hell album almost from top to bottom. I can’t really hear the words very well, but I get the point, mostly. It’s just a wicked groove and a hellishly competent one at that. Feels to me like this is a breakthrough album for Warpaint, and I’m relieved after the last one kind of made me fear for their future and even their interest in their future. I really can’t single out one song, although I do still find “New Song” quite astonishing as a hook into the album as a whole (and I will concede that “Don’t Let Go” and “Today Dear” might be relatively weak compared to the rest of the songs, but that’s debatable depending on when you ask me). If you’re looking for the funkiest white person experience imaginable on a Friday night, invite some friends over (if you have any – I only say that because I don’t assume anything, not because you suck), ply them with whatever and just play this album and Cavern of Anti-Matter on an unending loop. You will turn them into zombies and they will do your bidding thenceforth. Just don’t let them eat your brainz.
Krautrock Redux Void Beats/Invocation Trex - Cavern of Anti-Matter S/T – LNZNDRF Between Waves – The Album Leaf House in the Tall Grass – Kikagaku Moyo
Cavern of Anti-Matter is basically Stereolab in disguise and their control over the groove and the drone remains masterful. This is a thoroughly absorbing and addictive update on the principles of Krautrock and it isn’t even a little bit dull. There’s also the delightful surprise of hearing Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox do his world-weary thing for two minutes midway through the album on the otherwise jaunty “liquid gate.” There is some scintillating electronic and bass work going on throughout, and the album really doesn’t falter or waiver at any point, with the possible exception of “black glass actions” toward the backend. That one’s a bit turgid. This is a pristine exemplar of how to take an existing form and keep it current. A very, very strong album indeed.
And then there were the Krautrock pretenders. LNZNDRF is one of the sets of brothers from The National, I guess the ones who aren’t the Dessners, the Devendorfs, along with the guy from Beirut, a band I’ve never been particularly fond of. The thing about LNZNDRF is that it’s a nice idea with a frankly rather dull execution, nowhere near as crisp or clear or, surprisingly, as rhythmically astute as the benchmark established by Cavern of Anti-Matter, that is contaminated further by the mistake of introducing some really bog standard vocals into the proceedings on two songs, “Mt Storm” and “Kind Things,” and to a lesser extent on a later track, “Monument.” To call the vocals weak would be kind, and the fact that the two songs with vocals appear more or less in the middle of the album really breaks up the flow. Not only that, the music that accompanies the vocals is pretty turgid too, so it’s a perfect storm of meh. I will say, though, that the track that pulls us out of this malaise, “Hypno-Skate,” is really quite good, as is the album closer “Samarra.” That’s where The National’s rhythm section returns with a vengeance and we get a sense of what a whole album like this might have managed to accomplish.
I know next to nothing about the The Album Leaf except for the fact that their leader Jimmy Lavalle pulled of a really lovely side project with Mark Kozelek a few years ago called Perils from the Sea. Between Waves is actually better than I led you to believe with the “pretenders” jab. It’s a quite series of often beautiful and almost ambient electronic songs that sound a bit like American Analog Set, kind of, without vocals, mostly. Again the vocals let the album down, as does the general lack of oomph. It’s kind of deliberately lackluster, but on days when you’re feeling kind of deliberately lackluster, it might be just the ticket. There are definitely moments where it all comes together – the title track, for example, anemic vocals notwithstanding, and the perhaps ironically titled “Synthesis” – but in general it doesn’t quite ever take off or coalesce as I thought it might on first listen. But I still go back to it somewhat regularly, so there’s hope. Sometimes it takes albums a while to get in your brain and once they do they tend to stay there.
Kikagaku Moyo’s House in the Tall Grass tends to focus on the guitar hero aspect of Krautrock a little more heavily (and it gets a little heavy from time to time) than on the fully electronic side of things. It strays a little too far into prog territory now and again too, even as early as the first track, and ultimately trips the light fantastic a little more than I will allow myself to indulge, but it’s not unpleasant at all.
The problem for LNZNDRF, The Album Leaf and Kikagaku Moyo is that they’re up against a formidable foe in Cavern of Anti-Matter. That album is a monster.
Eternally Even – Jim James
I am no fan of My Morning Jacket (they seem like the kind of band who should just buy a couple of acres at Bonnaroo and live there year-round), but I am very taken with both solo albums by Jim James so far. He seems to turn into some kind of love and peace bass vibe Svengali when liberated from the Allman Brothers retro nightmare of MMJ, and I like him a lot better that way. I have to admit there were songs on this album where I thought, “Wait a minute, didn’t he already do this one?” but then I thought he was just trying to make me feel stoned for free, and I was grateful (and confused, but in a good way). You kind of have to listen to the whole thing, altered or otherwise. There’s really no point in me recommending a single track. It’s a groove thing, man. If I had to join a cult, I would join the Cult of Jim James.
S/T - Jesu/Sun Kil Moon Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites - Mark Kozelek
I spent a good bit of time during the winter wandering around depressed out of my mind, in the snow, in the dark, listening to the Jesu/Sun Kil Moon album on my phone. Consequently, this album reminds me of being depressed out of my mind and wandering around in the snow in the dark listening to gloomy music on my phone. Talk about a vicious circle. It’s not a great association, obviously, and yet the opening track, “Good Morning My Love,” still makes me laugh. I have no idea why, because it’s a poignant and typically rambling Kozelek song about God knows what, that contains the refrain “What does ‘rekindle’ mean?” It’s basically a spoken word song with Jesu playing some grunge chords behind Kozelek’s voice – a combination that works way better than you might think, if you can stand to go down the dark, snowy and depressing road that I have already travelled many times on your behalf. That song just haunted me all winter long, and caused a wry smile that was forced out through the clenched frigidity of a deeply depressing season, and on a face that refused to show any signs of joy whatsoever for long, long stretches of time. I appreciate Mark Kozelek for writing such a song, as deeply weird as it is, and as unpleasant as its associations generally are for me. See what I did there? I wrote an entry on the list as if I were trying to write a Mark Kozelek song, in other words with no filter, no editor, and entirely too much honesty. I just need Jesu to be sitting behind me playing doom and gloom grunge chords on the guitar while I type.
The other Kozelek album is all covers. He covers “Send in the Clowns,” “Moon River” and 10cc’s execrable “I’m Not In Love,” among others. He does a mostly terrific job of covering these songs, not all of which would necessarily fill you with anticipation, in theory. One Facebook friend took me to task for including this album on my mid-year list because he thought it was so turgid and without merit. I believe he began his critique with the word “Dude.” So I unfriended him and blocked him. Not only for this reason, but because some of his favorite albums of the year at that point were the biggest pile of emo and alt-country shit I have ever heard in my life, and my life is way too short to be lectured to by people with truly awful taste. So he’s gone. Thank God. But anyway, you don’t need to like all of Kozelek’s covers album. You only need to hear his version of Bowie’s “Win,” which is (and I don’t use this word much, because people from my country overuse it to the point that it has become meaningless) stunning. Truly. So fuck that former Facebook friend with bad taste who called me “Dude.” Fuck him and his bad taste and his stupid emo alt-country bullshit. I will not listen either to the Pinegrove album or the Hotelier album, sir, and you cannot make me. They’re both dreadful, so enjoy your friend exile with your terrible music choices and one less person in your life who has decent taste.
O Canada Blue Wave – Operators EP4 - Wolf Parade My Best Human Face - Moonface and Siinai
These items are grouped together because they share an important and intense genealogy, that being Wolf Parade, the progenitors of it all, of whom Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner were the prime movers. They made some fantastic music together before going their separate ways and thereby multiplying the enjoyment to be gleaned from their joint and separate genius. I’ve long been partial to the particular genius of Spencer Krug, and Moonface in particular. Readers of the last couple of these may remember the rapture I experienced from Julia With Blue Jeans On and City Wrecker in particular. But I’m by no means anti-Boeckner. The Divine Fits album he made with Spoon’s Britt Daniel a few years ago beat out Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange for my album of the year. The truly lovely thing about this flurry of releases is that, well, they’ve still got it. I just love the joyous anxiety that they bring in general and these three offerings are no exception. The Operators album is classic New Wave angst made into pop music. I don’t know how anyone could possibly complain or want anything else. And the Moonface/Siinai (why the impossible spelling, Siinai? WHY?) album gives us some new stuff and reworks some older stuff, including “City Wrecker,” which was perfect to begin with, but the new version still works. The great thing about getting new product from Krug and Boeckner at more or less the same time, and then a new Wolf Parade EP is that you get to see how the sausage is made. You see the Boeckner sensibility juxtaposed with the Krug sensibility, and then you get to hear them in consort again. I suppose we should pay the most attention to the Wolf Parade EP if only to see if they’ve missed a step, but that would also overlook the glorious energy that the individual members bring to their side projects. Everything Boeckner does makes me want to jump around and regret that extra caffeine I already consumed, whereas everything Krug does just makes me want to cry tears of humanity. Wolf Parade do something else to me, which is more circumspect altogether, but no less admiring or respectful. This time around Wolf Parade seem to kind of ignore the sensibilities of each of their progenitors and just make straight-ahead rock-pop music, but it’s still damn good. Damn good, I tell you. I missed Wolf Parade, but once they came back, I missed the side projects too. There’s no pleasing me, obviously.
Post-Punk’s Not Dead Nocturnal Koreans – Wire S/T – Preoccupations A Corpse Wired For Sound – Merchandise
This is super-effective angst music, the godfathers of which are Wire, of course. Their godchildren are many, among whom we might reasonably count Preoccupations (formerly Viet Cong) and Merchandise (among others). This isn’t the kind of music I find myself actively wanting to go back to and play over and over, but it’s damn good at what it does and I cannot believe that Wire are still as strong and as tight now as they were almost 40 years ago. Seriously. Note: the first song on the Preoccupations album is called “Anxiety.” The second song is called “Monotony.” They’re obviously either having a laugh, or they’re absolutely incapable of such a thing. I suspect the latter, but I wouldn’t put the former past them either, those tricky little post-whatever people.
The Colour in Anything - James Blake
James Blake has a way of testing my patience and then eventually winning me over, however reluctantly. This might be his last chance at the Sad Bastard Saloon, though. He needs to get on the dancefloor with a quickness. I’m running inexorably out of patience with this folktronica thing. I mean, it’s beautifully done, but he has so many more tricks up his sleeve. We can’t spend all of our time in the chill-out room, James. Otherwise there’s nothing to come down from, you feel me? Unlike the Radiohead album, which I actively tried to hate and ended up loving, I actively wanted to like this album and listened to it a lot without ultimately being able to escape the feeling that James Blake has been living rather too long on the laurels and credibility of being an electronic pioneer when he’s actually a pretty lame folkie in disguise. But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt for about five more minutes. After that, though, we may need to go on a break, or he might need to drink one of those energy drinks or something, because I can’t hang with this shit much longer.
22, A Million – Bon Iver
I promised myself I wouldn’t touch this album with a ten-foot pole after what his last album did to me, but I couldn’t stay away, and it is indeed remarkable, I begrudgingly and reluctantly suppose. But he also really needs to lay off the vocal effects thing (see Lambchop later on for the same complaint). If he becomes nothing but the sum of his tics, then we just have a sad bastard folkie in muso studio wolf’s clothing, and I don’t have time for that for any kind of extended period. There are places on this album where I got the feeling that he just took an old Bon Iver song into the studio and added some electronics and annoying vocal effects and thought to himself, “They’ll never know. They’ll call me a pioneer and a genius. Those suckers.” And yet there are days when I’m really quite taken with it and I can overlook the gimmicks and appreciate the possibility that this may actually be quite good, if not very good. But those days are fewer and further between, and I used to worship and adore his work, without exception or condition. But times have changed, and he might only be pretending to have changed. So I can’t listen to the old Bon Iver because memories, and I struggle to listen to the new one, because I suspect that the backwoods folkie emperor might not be wearing any clothes, which is something I really don’t want to think about any more than I just did. I joked elsewhere on Facebook that he might have been better off calling this album Vernon Comes Alive! I thought that was quite a funny quip on my part (it’s a Frampton thing, you wouldn’t necessarily understand or be old enough to remember). You’re on notice, Vernon, just like Blake.
Dusk – Ultimate Painting Hum – Eerie Wanda
There’s nothing much else to say about Ultimate Painting. I loved their first two albums, which paid homage to the Velvet Underground in a way that wasn’t pandering and kept drawing me back to them. This album isn’t quite as insidiously addictive or honestly as good as the first two, but it’s still just fine. If you like your guitars a little bit jangly, and you prefer your VU mostly from the Loaded era, this might be for you. But I would recommend the first two albums over this one, even though this one is still impeccable. In about three months I’ll probably be raving about how this one is by far the best. That’s how their music seems to work. Eerie Wanda are new to me, but they seem to be ploughing a similar, if slightly more upbeat furrow to Ultimate Painting. Many roads lead back to the Velvet Underground, of course. This album is impeccably organized, played and produced, even if it doesn’t bring much new to the table. It reminds me a little bit of that perfect Alvvays album from a couple of years ago, but less shiny, less up-to-date, and less generally moving. Both of these albums seem to meander. If you’re in a meandering mood sometimes, this might be in your wheelhouse.
Light Upon The Lake – Whitney
If Beaker escaped the clutches of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and started a band, that band would sound like Whitney. If Charles Manson’s little brother thought he might be able to get a recording contract because his elder sibling was hella scary and shit the Beach Boys almost fell for it so why couldn’t he get in on that action too, that band might also sound like Whitney. That’s not an auspicious way to describe an album that I actually liked quite a bit, but you do need to get past the vocals in order to get more fully behind this album. It took me a while, but I got there. One thing I will say, though, is that you shouldn’t put this album on immediately after the Warpaint album. It will make you hate everything. That doesn’t work at all. Bad DJ. Fuck that guy. I will fully admit that this album isn’t for everyone. I will admit further that it might not even be for me “at the end of the day.” Partly because of that infernal voice, and partly because the whole think might be lost in an era that I generally despise, musically speaking (somewhere between 1967 and 1975, if you exclude every little thing that Lou Reed, John Cale and David Bowie did during that time). But the album does seem to sort of keep pulling me back in, even though that very fact makes me sort of hate myself a little bit. If you like twee, this is your joint. I think I would, at most, only require joint custody of twee in any kind of musical divorce situation, and if push came to shove I would say, you know what, you can have it, I hate that twee little bastard anyway. But sometimes the twee little bastard tilts its head into the sunlight and you go, “Awwww, let’s take a picture and post it on Facebook and pretend we love the little fucker.” So yeah. Whitney. The twee little bastards of music in 2016. Enjoy at your own risk.
Meet the Humans – Steven Mason
I have very fond memories of the Beta Band’s early EPs, so it’s very heartening to know that Steve Mason is still doing such good work. Loved this album. One of those “it’s not like anything else” experiences from this year. “Water Bored,” the opening track, kind of spoils us for the rest of the album because it’s so good, but the remaining experience settles into a beautifully obscure and abstract folk-pop experience (“Run Away is an especially beautiful later example, and the closing track, “Words in My Head,” is a delight). The vocal harmonies are gorgeous and at no point remind me of bands who also deploy gorgeous vocal harmonies but whom I loathe. So that’s a bonus. Steve Mason’s voice is a lovely thing to sink into, and while he doesn’t quite have the soul-shaking capacity of John Martyn in the same ilk, he certainly takes me to a similar place on occasion. And the arrangements/production are glorious altogether. There seems to be a lot going on in the background here. I haven’t listened to the album on headphones yet, but I’m assuming that would be a wise (and mind-expanding) move. One note of caution: I’m the world’s biggest avoider of Pink Floyd, but I suspect there are Pink Floyd albums where extended passages of this album might well fit right in. I am not proud of this comparison, so I will stop talking now. Because fuck Pink Floyd.
Dawn - Ry X
I almost left Ry X off this list because I was a bit embarrassed about it, but then I realized that fuck it, I really like his album. So sure, it’s some kind of lover’s (lovers’?) rock, but who cares. It’s good.
Entranas – Arca Dysplazia – Insha
These are not mixes that you dance to. I’m not entirely sure what you’re supposed to do to them apart from have night terrors or solve really complicated math problems, but they’re that kind of dark and fascinating.
Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper A Good Night in the Ghetto – Kamaiyah
This is a tale of two mixtapes, to be sure. The best thing Chance the Rapper did this year was that Kit-Kat commercial. That was cute. His mixtape, though. I don’t know. The opening track sounds like Drake found Jesus and started going to poetry slams or something, and you know there’s nothing good in that visual (or aural) at all. Coloring Book feels like an after-school special, and I can imagine that one day Chance the Rapper will make a very fine guest on Sesame Street. On the other hand, Kamaiyah’s invitation might get lost in the mail, because while Chance the Rapper was doing his very best in chess club, Kamaiyah was, well, she was just in the regular club. Drinking out of the bottle. Because fuck you.
DJ Kicks - Moodymann Fabriclive 90 - Scuba
Neither of these stood up as well as I thought they would as the year progressed. I was very enamored with the Moodymann set in the winter months, but when I revisited it later in the year it seemed a lot tamer and way shallower than it had first appeared. This was disappointing, although it does still have a couple of standout tracks, particularly the Beady Belle cut. The Scuba set is fantastic value for money – I’ll say that about it at least. For $10 (on iTunes in the U.S.) you get about six-and-a-half hours of music – not only the 90 minute mix but every track from the mix, in full. So it’s certainly thorough and encyclopedic. I’m just less and less convinced of the dynamic of the overall set – it starts to feel a tad relentless after a while, and I felt myself craving more of an ebb and flow. When I say “and you don’t stop” in casual conversation, I’m usually only kidding. At a certain point, you need to slow down at least, even if you don’t actually come to a complete stop. I’m too old for this kind of club experience, even in the relative comfort of my old person’s living room. It works very well at the gym, though.
Thank You For Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest
One final, joyous, defiant statement from Tribe. I can’t do it justice here, and it’s new enough that I’m still getting used to it, but believe me when I say that it’s absolutely worth your time.
Miscellaneous Second Tier Crab Day - Cate le Bon Cactus - Bobby Kapp & Matthew Shipp HEAVN – Jamila Woods (Paula Cole shout-out! Stevie Wonder “All I Do” reference!) Still Dreaming – Fatima Princess – ABRA Barbara barbara, we face a shining future - Underworld Mangy Love – Cass McCombs Eyes on the Lines – Steve Gunn Everything You've Come to Expect - Last Shadow Puppets A Sailor's Guide to Earth - Sturgill Simpson The Ghosts of Highway 20 - Lucinda Williams Heart Like a Levee – Hiss Golden Messenger Singing Saw - Kevin Morby Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music – Various Artists How to Dance - Mount Moriah Not to Disappear – Daughter Kedr Livanskiy – January Sun Luck or Magic - Britta Phillips X-Communicate - Kristin Kontrol Woman at the End of the World - Elza Soares Soft Days - Sea Pinks
I actually enjoyed all of these albums to some extent, some of them quite a lot, but in the end they never quite crossed over into that special place in my heart that would put them above the line. Some of them were just too patchy and the quality control was lacking. Some of them were a tad thin. Some of them were just not as good as what had preceded them by those same artists. Some of them might well grow on me over time and I’ll have to admit that I was was wrong about the retroactively. I will say that the HEAVN, Fatima and Abra albums/EPs just came to my attention too late for extended listening and consideration, and I fancy that they’re all actually really good. The Jamila Woods album really ought to be in the upper tier, because it’s that good, but I just ran out of steam. Sorry, Jamila. I got a bit weary of Cate le Bon’s very intentional quirkiness, even though I recognize that she’s objectively doing something very special. The Cass McCombs album had some great tracks but it just didn’t hold up as an entire album. For every “Laughter is the Best Medicine” (transcendent) there was a “Run Sister Run,” which was bog standard and painful. I really enjoyed the Britta Phillips and Kristin Kontrol (Dum Dum Club) albums without falling all the way for them in a pantheon kind of fashion. The Steve Gunn album was just fine, if a tad noodling. Kevin Morby does no bad work, but this album wasn’t quite up to the standard of his first two albums. There are days when I think both the Sturgill Simpson and Lucinda Williams are quite brilliant, but I’m honestly not often in the mood for that kind of music these days, so they kind of fell off my radar at some point. Likewise Daughter. The Wayfaring Strangers albums was all right, but ultimately kind of bland, and I’m wearying of Mount Moriah’s rootsy, um, shtick, is that too strong a word for it? I would almost certainly have found room for the Kedr Levanskiy album at the grown-up table if I had heard it sooner. Sorry, Kedr. And to round out this catch-all section, I just thought the Last Shadow Puppets album wasn’t a patch on the first one and should probably have just been an EP. And then what do they go an do? Issue an EP. Damn them.
Albums I Pretty Much Hated
Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
This was a giant bucket of awful emo cliché – if The Hold Steady got together with Cloud Nothings and made a really crap album, this is what it would sound like – really really appalling – this album offended me. And I didn’t give up on it lightly. I gave it chance after chance after chance, and hated it more and more and more. I have a lot more bile to spew about this abomination, but who cares really? As you already know, I am both verbose and prolix (that was a joke), but even I do not have enough of the right kinds of words to tell you how much I loathed and despised this album. But I would like to go on and on and on about how very much I hated this. You should count yourself lucky that I am sparing you that experience, because it would be very, very mean.
Sunlit Youth – Local Natives
Who did Local Natives become? What happened to them? This is unrecognizable from what they used to be, and not in a good way. Their first two albums were quite terrific, the acceptable face of freak folk, making the unbearable nonsense of Animal Collective tolerable, and taking the jeans-ironing preciousness out of Grizzly Bear. But this? This is just a sell-out of the first order. They sold every good thing about themselves in exchange for some horrific attempt at radio pop music. This album made me feel physically ill. It reminds me in a way of what happened to Rogue Wave, who were making great little pop albums and then decided they were going to go for the brass ring of commercial success, which ended up in a spectacular face plant, after which they just disappeared. It would be sad if that also happened to Local Natives, but this album was just radio pablum.
My Woman – Angel Olsen
I loved loved loved Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Just loved it. Unreservedly. And then came this one, a profoundly disappointing effort that seemed to come straight out of the indie/roots factory.
Puberty 2 – Mitski
Dreadful bog standard indie dross. Nothing more to say. We don’t need this music.
It’s Hard – The Bad Plus
The album they did with Joshua Redman last year was a revelation, final proof that they were more than a novelty act. And then they put out this crap. So we’re back to square one.
Everything’s Beautiful – Robert Glasper
This was just a waste of great source material. Glasper takes Miles Davis and makes him boring. Should be ashamed of himself.

Postscript: There were several albums that I didn’t even get to listen to with the right amount of attention before the time came to write this up, and they would almost certainly have ranked very highly if I had known about them earlier. They’re all jazz and/or electronic albums, in case that makes any difference. Posted here without comment, you will be glad to learn.
America’s National Parks - Wadada Leo Smith Birdwatching - Anat Fort & Gianluigi Trevesi Escape Velocity - Theo Croker Borderland:Transport - Juan Atkins & Moritz von Oswald Mumdance & Logos Present Different Circles EARS - Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith FRKWYS Vol. 13: Sunergy - Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani Time/Life - Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra
Thank you for reading, if you got this far.