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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.

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