#30: BADBADNOTGOOD – III
Toronto jazz trio and sometime Frank Ocean backing band BADBADNOTGOOD released their first album of original material this year and it ended up being just as good as the cover work they made their bones on. Having covered the likes of Odd Future and MF Doom in jazz form in the past, it came as no surprise that the trio continued to filter their jazz roots through hip hop, conjuring up the feel of classic instrumental hip hop a la DJ Shadow. Interestingly enough they eschew the swinging feel that most mainstream jazz falls into in favour of replicating the mechanical on-the-beat tone of hip hop, with a bit of the dance-around in-the-pocket groove of lumbering funk. The biggest delight on the album, though, is the way each track flows into each other, like molten steel filling every nook and cranny and allowing for some very meticulous meta-arrangements.
#29: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Pinata
It’s no secret that urban America is decaying. The poster child for this problem is, of course, Detroit, but lots of former industrial centers are now broken wastelands. One particularly bad one is Gary, Indiana, home of Freddie Gibbs. Freddie Gibbs breathes the busted streets of the ghost of US Steel, coming on like a gruff 2Pac with a subwoofer-rattling voice. He keeps it strictly thuggin’ but gets a lot of love from the indie crowd, mostly due to the fact that his thug life gets downright poetic at times. The beats on Pinata are handled by Madlib, who is equal parts the dusty, shadowy street work of RZA and the more soulful side of J. Dilla. It gives a mythical feel to Freddie Gibbs’ street tales, and elevates it beyond mere thug replication to the sort of grimey poetry that the Wu once dealt in. The guest lineup isn’t half-bad either – Danny Brown, Raekwon, Scarface, and the formidable combination of Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt add colour to an album that is still undeniably carried by Gibbs himself.
#28: Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit
So, rap-punk is a thing now, thank you Death Grips. There are a lot of people marrying strident, barking rap to industrial-edged hip hop beats, but most of them are striving to run parallel with the edgy imagery and brink-of-mental-illness vibe of MC Ride. Sleaford Mods, though, are blue collar lads with a vicious contempt of all of the stupidity that they see in their daily lives – politicians, local culture, other musicians. Jason Williamson is a crude son of a bitch but he puts you right in the thick of things, spinning scenes that are at once visceral, disgusting, and hilarious. Some of his images are a little too British for mass global consumption, but the seething working class frustration comes across just fine for all of that. Unlike a lot of their contemporaries, Sleaford Mods manage to be both nasty and relatable.
#27: Ought – More Than Any Other Day
Constellation Records used to be stridently anti-commercial. They once refused Alternative Press a review copy of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O. on the basis that the magazine was “too glossy”. This vaguely pretentious tone has softened in recent years (I mean, have you heard Thee Silver Mt. Zion lately?) and Ought is another symptom of this. “Symptom” is a bit of a harsh word, of course, especially considering that, while the Montreal band’s hyper-caffeinated post-punk brings to mind the best of the Feelies, Cap’n Jazz, and Talking Heads, they also spike these palatable moments with drones, churning rhythm changes, and anarchic experimentation. The frenetic energy that flows through the album lends itself to the sort of mid-00s dance-punk that used to be on every hipster’s playlist, but at the same time it’s rabidly political, like DIY punk rock played by people who really like to spend their off-hours pounding down MDMA and dancing until dawn.
#26: Thee Oh Sees – Drop
Thee Oh Sees – the main vehicle for garage rock auteur John Dwyer – started off life as a freakish San Francisco outfit dedicated to exploding everywhere at once. As the years have rolled on, the more out-there parts of their sound have slowly withered away, leaving a hard-edged core that feels more and more in line with shockingly regular hard rock. “Regular” is a relative term, of course, since there’s enough psychedelic noise work in these 32 minutes to kick the band into the stratosphere, but when compared to an album like Castlemania it’s a bit more, uh, normal. Drop brings out the melody that has always been embedded in Dwyer’s songs, and wraps them in fuzzed-out guitar tones. The acid-tinged guitar fireworks are missed, but the in-and-out nature of the bouncing songcraft means that it isn’t missed too much. It’s a Thee Oh Sees album you can bring home to your parents.
#25: Behemoth – The Satanist
Polish death metal titans Behemoth have been around for a very long time – ten albums now – and after their frontman Nergal was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 it would have been natural enough for the band to slowly drop off the face of the earth. Instead, Nergal underwent treatment, rested for months to recover, and the band worked with him to slowly put together work for what would eventually be The Satanist. A lesser band would have put out a middling album and then retired, but Behemoth has never been a middling sort of band. The Satanist turned out to be the band’s best album yet, and one of the best death metal albums to arrive on American shores in years. The extreme metal community responded whole-heartedly, putting the band in the U.S. Top 40 for the first time. It’s a massive sledgehammer kind of album, a mix of pummeling blastbeats and crushing doom riffs that leave the listener a crumpled mess in the corner. The very best metal blows the listener across the room and leaves them unable to think about their problems, and The Satanist is amongst the very best metal.
#24: Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Burn Your Fire For No Witness is an astonishing breakthrough album. Part crunchy indie rock and part slow-burn confessional folk, it flows together without a hitch. The former backup singer for Bonnie “Prince” Billy has tightened up the production from her early lo-fi days, and at the same time has loosened up the space around her instruments. Her early work tends to skew more towards the claustrophobic, and now that there is some light allowed into her arrangments the effect is galvanizing. Her communication with her band is flawless, with each instrument playing off each other like they’ve been doing this all their lives. The highlight of the album is the torchlight Leonard Cohen-esque number “White Fire”, whose lyrics the album draws its name from. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a heavy album, rich with sorrow and quiet hurt. It’s an album that will amplify your own hidden dreads – listen with care.
#23: Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
“We live on the island of Montreal and we make a lot of noise because we love each other”. Thus begins the Constellation Records flagship band’s latest album, and it’s the best raison d’etre for it. Having begun life as Efrim Menuck’s side band, an outlet for his experimentation with loose atmospheric ambient post-rock, the tale of Silver Mt Zion is as convoluted as the history of their name changes. By the time they expanded to Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band, they were a force in their own right, a replacement of sorts for the then-abandoned Godspeed You! Black Emperor project. Paring the band down to just Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra changed the band into a heavy guitar-oriented post-rock outfit, the sound of which reaches its peak on Fuck Off Get Free. Unlike the somewhat shaky lyrical work that marred 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, Efrim keeps things political but vague, adopting a strident tone that strives to evoke post-2008 anti-austerity feelings but doesn’t get bogged down in the details. Musically its an orgy of disparate genres held together by sheer tenacity: modern crescendocore post-rock, black metal drums, long-range drone waves, European string arrangements, acoustic dread. As far as the Silver Mt Zion project goes, Fuck Off Get Free is the peak to date.
#22: Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons
22 years after 36 Chambers‘ opening salvo, the best MC to come out of the Wu Tang Clan continues to surprise with the consistent level of quality he puts out. There are some inarguable stumbles in his catalogue: Bulletproof Wallets was so-so, Apollo Kids felt like old man nostalgia, and the less said about Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry the better. They’re outweighed by the absolute triumphs he puts out with regularity, though. Last year found him returning to the concept album strucutre that won him accolades when he did Fishscale; Twelve Reasons To Die, an adaptation of mafioso giallo stories, was a hard-hitting, gritty affair that played into GFK’s strengths. 36 Seasons continues in this trend, picking up his Tony Stark character after nine years (36 seasons) away from Staten Island. The streets have changed, his friends have become murky, his girl is in play; Tony hits the island with force, dodging betrayals and making things as right as he can by the gun. It hits like a brick, albeit a brick in a Blaxploitation film, and it’s funk underpinnings move you even while you lie bleeding in the street.
#21: Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita
Deerhoof turned twenty this year, which seems bizarre when you consider how fresh and new the band sounds with each album they put out. La Isla Bonita shifts the whimsical, electro-pop nature of 2012’s Breakup Song towards a more garage-oriented sound, filtering their core tone through a thick layer of newfound respect for the Ramones. The guitars come to the forefront more than they did on previous albums, maybe more than they have since 2005’s The Runners Four. Worked in and around the Ramones worship is some serious groove work, taut funk rhythms that bring to mind the best of 1970s disco 45s. The result is an end-to-end delight, a heady, fuzzy, dancing affair that sounds as though it could have come out of a new band ready to take on the world. That it comes from a band tumbling headalong into middle age makes it all the sweeter.