best albums of the year
The Favoured Hundred of 2018: #100-#81Standard
#100: Hot Snakes – Jericho Sirens
The Best 100 Albums of 2016, Part 5: 20-01Standard
#20: Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
Back before I realized I didn’t have the time for lengthy individual reviews on albums every week, I put down 2000+ words in an aborted attempt to capture The Life Of Pablo. To sum them up: Kanye’s 2016 album is a signpost along the road to the post-album era. It’s worth remembering that the “album”, as a unit of musical coherence, is something that’s only been with us since the early 1950s, and as a concrete artist package it’s only been a thing since 1967. An album is a solid collection of songs by an artist that can be discussed after release with relative safety because it’s as set in stone as anything is in the modern age. The Life Of Pablo deconstructed this idea, and played out each part of that deconstruction in public. Kanye started sessions with Paul McCartney, released some of the results, and then scrapped that album. Songs would come out, mostly in demo form, and the internet would dissect them and cry out for CDQ versions (especially of “Wolves”). Kanye publicly went through album titles and covers, each one leaked out to the public for further discussion. Even when the album came out, bearing a last-minute title change and a bizarre cover that walked a line between the profound and the absurd, that wasn’t the end of it. The Life Of Pablo has undergone a number of transitions from it’s original “release” and it begs the question: in the digital era, is the artist’s work ever done? Kanye added verses, changed lines, redid entire songs (“Wolves”, again), and, weeks after release, added “Saint Pablo” which seemed to sum up the entire problem of Kanye in 2016 – unable to say no, welded to social media, worried about his family and his spending habits. Is this the way of the future? Will artists release and then continue to update albums like they were software, keeping things fresh and clean until they move on to something else? As usual, Kanye proves himself ahead of the game.
#19: M83 – Junk
A lot of people slept on Junk and I have trouble understanding why. After all, the sounds of the Eighties have never been more popular. Chillwave brought an interest in synth pop to the edge of mainstream awareness, and then artists like CHVRCHES and Grimes pushed that over the edge. Blood Orange and a number of other indie R&B acts have brought back a hipster interest in Prince, saxophones seem to be everywhere, there is a reliable subset of “the kids” who go balls-out over hair metal, and “retro nights” have been a popular place to hear Men Without Hats, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Culture Club for as long as I can remember. When M83 conjures up the fundamental sound of the Eighties, though – the sound as it was for every regular schlub, not just the cool cats at the club – people get uncomfortable. Good. Run with that. Junk is the Eighties for people who didn’t have to live through it. It’s the sound of cheap radio ballads, training video soundtracks, love songs from TV movies of the week, and the backgrounds of weather channels. There are crystal clear electric piano tones, keyboard presets, deliberately generic female vocals (Susanne Sundfor in an amazing performance), VHS warping, shred guitar solos bursting out of synth songs, smooth songwriting, and a willingness to get deliberately absurd.
#18: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
2016 found every indie kid’s favourite band building upon (relative) failure. 2011’s King Of Limbs was a short, underwhelming album that was followed by the band publicly musing that they might never make conventional albums again. Five years later A Moon Shaped Pool features the same sort of brittle, claustrophobic songwriting – those thin, cerebral drums, those tight, modular motifs, the occasional burst into something more room-filling with strings and synths – but it puts them together in ways that seem much more coherent when played, both individually and collectively. It makes for a greying, haunted sound, albeit one with judiciously chosen moments of focused energy – the opening “Burn The Witch”, the end of “Identikit”, the wiry riff of “Ful Stop”. Also, while personal favourite B-side “The Daily Mail” didn’t get the full album treatment, long-time live favourite “True Love Waits” (something that dates back to The Bends) managed to sneak in at the very end, to great delight.
#17: Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Shortly after the release of his fourteenth album, Leonard Cohen gave an interview with The New Yorker where he intimated – hell, straight up said – that he was going to die, probably very soon. He seemed accepting of the fact, maybe even welcoming if you read between the lines. After some interested press coverage of it, he tried to walk it back, saying he intended to live forever, but of course he died very shortly thereafter. In that respect, it’s hard not to read You Want It Darker as a tidy summation of his feelings on impending doom. It’s full of references to God and mortality, with the wry, sacrilegious humour that’s informed his work since time out of mind – it could be a eulogy of sorts, but it also bears a strong resemblance to, you know, Leonard Cohen.
The integral part of the album, however, is the production that Cohen’s son Adam uses. A lot of Cohen’s mid-period work – Various Positions through to The Future – is hard to listen to due to the cheesy, ultra-Eighties production used. Adam Cohen produces You Want It Darker in such a way that it seems like a modern sequel to an album like Songs From A Room or New Skin For The Old Ceremony. The instruments take on a reverential tone, taking up as much space as needed to support Cohen’s creaking-leather voice and timeless poetry. There are no cutesy studio tricks or cutting-edge new production styles, just a man and spare arrangements, like it was always supposed to be.
#16: Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Bon Iver could have released lush folk albums from now until eternity and no one would really have faulted him too much. He’s really good at it, for one thing, and people respond well to them, for another. His path has taken him in a different direction, though: his interest in AOR and autotune first showed up at the end of Bon Iver and the beginning of the Blood Bank EP, respectively, and his use as a hook-man on several post-2010 Kanye West tracks has solidified the use of autotune and experimentation in his music. 22, A Million, his first album in five years, finds him ramping up those experimental tendencies to full-speed-ahead. These are fractured arrangements played by glitched-out instruments – bit-crushed drums, filtered synthesizers, autotuned vocals – but here and there moments of clean-synth AOR music comes shining through, as though Junk were trying to butt in and say something. He’s no stranger to the form – “Beth, Rest” was a radio ballad straight out of 1985 – but it’s more interesting to hear it assimilated into an overarching style, with limited and more impactful usage. I compared it unfavourably to U2 the first time I heard it, but each successive listen to 22, A Million reveals new secrets, each more delightful than before.
#15: BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD originally met as members of Humber College’s jazz program, and their success is a testament to the power of not always listening to your teachers. From the beginning they skewed more towards a love of hip hop more so than the traditional jazz arrangements of their classes; Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” was their first collaborative interpretation, and they actually had the cojones to do a selection of Odd Future music in jazz form as an exam for their instructors. According to the stuffy jazz purists at Humber, jazz interpretations of hip hop have no musical value. This is yet further proof that the Ontario College system has serious problems.
Three successful albums and a stellar collaboration with Ghostface Killah have proven that the trio has musical value. IV ups the ante by adding in elements of prog rock and vocals, something previous BBNG albums largely did without. Sam Herring of Future Islands shows up on “Time Moves Slow”; Kaytranada slays “Lavender”; and rapper Mick Jenkins closes the circle on “Hyssop Of Love”. This is jazz music for people who love music first and foremost, regardless of tradition, purity, or the American Songbook.
#14: The Avalanches – Wildflower
Sixteen years after their first album, Since I Left You, the idea of a followup album from the Australian plunderphonics duo The Avalanches was something that was along the same lines as Dre’s Detox or (at one time) Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. That is to say, it was vaporware. Since I Left You had used somewhere in the vicinity of 3,500 separate samples, and stitching all of that together and then obtaining permission to use them was likely extremely draining, and the silence from the group as the 21st Century got underway was perhaps not surprising. When rumours come, though, they come quickly, and it went from vaporware to a definite thing in a matter of weeks. The result was something akin to My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 followup to 1991’s Loveless: an album that could never stand toe-to-toe with it’s legendary predecessor, but a great album in it’s own right. Wildflower skews more hip hop than Since I Left You did; there are actual guest spots from Danny Brown and M.F. Doom on “Frankie Sinatra”. At the same time, it also samples extensively from the Sixties psychedelic era and as such it strongly resembles a stoned party carousel album, something the Chemical Brothers would have recorded in their prime in a paisley-toned alternate universe. It satisfies an itch, and after sixteen years and countless delays, it satisfies that itch pretty damn well.
#13: Solange – A Seat At The Table
Solange, always the also-ran to her ultra-famous sister, has spent her own music career being known mainly for two things: first, a couple of sunny, funny light R&B albums; second, beating the living shit out of Jay-Z in an elevator while Beyonce stared into the middle distance. The second thing is likely the impetus for Lemonade; the first was okay, but largely mid-tier, nothing special. A Seat At The Table is not like those first two albums. Instead, it’s a soulful, guest-studded examination of Black identity in America, and the pitfalls of being black in a country where you are reduced to a set of stereotypes and assumptions by a population whose majority is obsessed with its own whiteness to the exclusion of anything else. It’s a highly political album first and foremost – check out “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” for examples – and it’s one that emphasizes successful black people (her parents, and No Limits guru Master P) and the necessity of Black Pride in modern America. Beyonce may have been getting more political in recent times, but her sister has taken the D’Angelo route and gone full-on BLM – something that should happen everywhere, I might note.
Besides the politics, there’s also something exceedingly rare on this album: an honestly great Lil’ Wayne verse, on “Mad”. Where has this Wayne been all this time? Tha Carter III was a while ago – it’s been shit piled on top of itself since then.
#12: Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
In a dark year of tragedy, disappointment, political upheaval, and the unwelcome reemergence of the spectre of nuclear war, there is something to be said for the triumph of something as unpretentious and deeply caring as Pyschopomp. It’s a shoegaze album, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Meanwhile, it’s a great shoegaze album, maybe the best in a decade, and it hits every note in just the right way. Michelle Zauner’s usual stuff is a lot more straightforward; her band Little Big League trades in big ideas and big riffs. Japanese Breakfast, by contrast, quivers with innocence and anticipation, soars in the upper atmosphere and makes indie rock sound downright gorgeous again. Psychopomp is a little bit Asobi Seksu and a little bit early Smashing Pumpkins, wrapped in a tough exterior that keeps everything from getting too soft and maudlin.
#11: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
This. This right here is why I wait until the last minute to finalize these lists. Three years running someone has dropped an album in mid-to-late December that has earned a high spot – Beyonce and Black Messiah and on and on. This year, right on Christmas Day, it was Run The Jewels 3. It was, as they might call it, a Christmas Fucking Miracle.
Hip hop can be quite intense – anyone who’s listened to Ready To Die can attest to this fact. Killer Mike and EL-P bring a whole new level of intensity, though, one that is usually reserved for punk rock, or metal. Run The Jewels 2 was the epitome of this, an unrelenting force of nature that pounded into the listener like a studded fist. Run The Jewels 3 captures this but also adds in textured moments, dynamics, and crafts more well-rounded tracks out of it. This is not to say that RTJ3 is any less powerful; as Killer Mike chants on the final track, “I remain hostile.” In a year with a lot to get angry about, Mike (a big supporter of Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail) remains angry, probably permanently given the state of the world. Snide remarks about Trump, racists, and killing your masters abound, brought to a logical conclusion by another Zach De La Rocha verse in the dying moments of the album. It’s music to march in the streets to, which is as timely as it ever could have been.
#10: Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger
After going full-on classic rock on his last album, Manipulator, garage rock guru Ty Segall reset his sound for this year’s Emotional Mugger. Rather than the clean(er) guitar tones of both Sleeper and Manipulator, Emotional Mugger layers on the fuzz until everything comes wrapped in a thick layer of sludge. It’s an album heavily influenced by the Seventies – Black Sabbath, primarily, but also lesser known hard rock touchstones and a bit of the funk here and there. It’s the same sort of stuff that he put forth on his “breakthrough” album Melted and the comparisons between that album and this one are quite apt. Both albums hit hard, both seem drenched in LSD, and both have these massive hooks that won’t let you go. As usual, it’s not for the faint of heart; Emotional Mugger has a solid core of weirdness running through it that might cause any casual music fan to go running for the hills early on. Those who stick with it, however, will find enough rewards to declare themselves a second Christmas.
#09: Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Chicago’s Chance The Rapper claims the guest spot on the intro of The Life Of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam”; on it, he says “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / that there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.” Coloring Book – Chance 3 – is exactly that. A free album that outpaces nearly any other commercially available album released this year – “I don’t make songs for free, I make them for freedom” he says on “Blessings”. There may be a billion guests on it – everyone from Lil’ Wayne to Anderson .Paak to Justin Beiber and Future show up – but the star of the show is the exuberant, overwhelmingly thankful man himself. Kayne may have tried to describe The Life Of Pablo pre-release as a “gospel hip hop album” but it was nothing of the sort. Coloring Book is the real deal, full of swelling choruses and the celebration of Chance, his religion, and his friends. The Grammys need to get with the times – this is a contender if there ever was one.
#08: Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
It is a mark of Kendrick’s artistry and music that his b-sides and outtakes are better than other rapper’s whole careers. These castaways from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions show an even jazzier side than was originally shown on the main album, with the funk just as present. Despite the “unmastered” part of the title, these tracks are produced fairly slickly; the hooks bump and the jazz squalls come through clear as day. Maybe he meant “unmastered” as in “he has no master”, which is also true.
#07: Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Drive-By Truckers are a country rock band, something that used to be called Southern Rock back in the septic old days of the 1970s. Of late they’ve been lumped together in with acts like Sturgill Simpson in a quest to label a genre that I once read quite accurately described as “country for Democrats”. What it really is is American music – music that fits the unsettled tone of America in 2016 perfectly. The album kicks off with a story of how the founder of the NRA shot and killed a Mexican teenager and got away with it; the correlation to the anti-Mexican campaign waged by now-President-Elect Donald Trump is obvious in retrospect. Elsewhere throughout a war veteran hunkers down to survive a school shooter, gender roles are questioned, the reality of the brave new American wars are revealed, and Dixie refuses to get over the Civil War. The highlight, though, is the heartwrenching “What It Means”, where they try to make sense of the growing second civil war between the police and the black community while shaking their heads that racism is still a powerful force even nearly two decades into the 21st Century.
#06: Frank Ocean – Blond
For a while it was possible that Frank Ocean’s followup to his classic Channel Orange was going to be vaporware, joining a long tradition of eagerly awaited albums that never appeared. Then it did: first a “visual album” called Endless, and then an actual proper album, Blond. Unlike Channel Orange, which was immediately and viscerally rewarding, Blond took a bit of time to tease out it’s charms. Once they appear, though, the album becomes addictive and life-affirming. Blond is a pool that seems shallow on the surface – a pretty R&B album, with less beatcraft, perhaps – but there’s miles and miles of emotions under that surface that get more complicated and wrenching the further one goes into them. There’s nothing as straightforward as “Pyramids” on here, but one could also make the argument that the entire album is one big “Pyramids”.
#05: Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Parquet Courts put out two of the best indie punk albums of the decade and then started skewing toward jittery, willfully noisy post-punk experiments, culminating in the deliberately unlistenable Monastic Living EP. Human Performance, then, represents a sort of coming-through to the other side: it’s at once more mature and internally musing than either Light Up Gold or Sunbathing Animal, but it also keeps much of the speedy charm and dynamic liveliness that characterized those two albums. The difference lies in the approach, however: where their previous albums went from wink-and-a-nod to anger in the blink of an eye, there’s more introspection, weariness, and romance on Human Performance, especially on the title track, the lead single and song of the year contender “Berlin Got Blurry,” and the gentle, wave-tossed “Steady On My Mind.” Based out of Brooklyn, the band still gets compared to the icons of New York punk rock – the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and the Ramones – and while there is some direct comparisons to be made (“One Man No City” is clearly influenced by the VU), it’s clear that Parquet Courts is quickly making a name for themselves as one of those icons, and not simply another worshiper at their altar.
#04: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Skeleton Tree is the sound that Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds explored on their previous album, Push The Sky Away, but stripped down to it’s bare essentials – mournful drones courtesy of long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis and dark poetry that yearns for release, understanding, and answers courtesy of Nick Cave. It is as raw and intense as grief itself, and it was of course born out of such. Between Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree Nick Cave’s fifteen year old son died in an accident and the honesty of this album is the sound of its creator working his way through his grief, balancing love and loss and musing flat-out, on “I Need You”, if “nothing really matters anymore.” Faith ends up being a mixed bag: “You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this now,” he intones on “Jesus Alone”, while on “Girl In Amber” he sings that “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the earth / In a slumber ’til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / well I don’t think that anymore.” It’s an album that can fill in for the soundtrack of grief of anyone’s loss; if you’ve ever lost someone you loved, Skeleton Tree knows exactly how you feel.
#03: Beyonce – Lemonade
The first time I ever heard Beyonce Knowles was in Destiny’s Child, and the song was “Bills Bills Bills”. Even though I was a confirmed teenage metalhead with a disdain for all things hip hop and pop, there was something oddly catchy about the song, something I couldn’t put my finger on; the same went for the other single off that album, “Jumpin’ Jumpin'”. Since then, of course, Queen Bey has made one hell of a name for herself as a solo artist, although before 2013 she was your regular standard-issue International Superstar. Since Beyonce, though, there has been a sense of a sort of ascension – becoming something more than a legendary Diva, an Artist in her own right. She has, at the very least, eclipsed her husband’s career and then some; while Jay-Z’s latter-day albums have come out to less and less acclaim, Beyonce’s have only grown in stature. Lemonade is, thus far, the peak of that growth.
The release of Lemonade was an event in the way that Kanye had wanted The Life Of Pablo to be. When it came out everyone was listening to it, at first because the initial listeners reported that there was something juicy going on. The lyrics on the album seemed to confirm the context of an event that had happened months prior – that time that Solange Knowles beat the shit out of Jay-Z in an elevator while Beyonce stared on into the middle distance? Was there cheating going on? people asked. Lemonade seemed to confirm that, in fact, there was. Certainly Bey was up in arms about something: “You can taste the dishonesty,” she whisper-sings on the opener “Pray You Catch Me”, “It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier.” Elsewhere, she tells her philandering man to call up “Becky with the good hair” (rumoured to be Rachel Roy), declares that “I don’t wanna lose my pride but I’m-a fuck me up a bitch,” and at one point screams triumphantly to “Just give my fat ass a big kiss boy / tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy.”
Beyond theme and lyrics, though, the album explodes in a way that marks new territory for her. Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend teams up with Father John Misty to interpolate the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s anguished “Maps” for “Hold Up”. Kendrick Lamar brings apocalyptic flames to the already-militant “Freedom”. Jack White turns “Don’t Hurt Yourself” into a barnburner – Beyonce as rock ‘n’ roll queen. The Weeknd’s usual coke-gaze sleaze turns into righteous empowerment in “6 Inch”. “Daddy Lessons” ventures with swagger into big-horn Texas country. It’s a tour de force of musical exploration that treats her thematic subject holistically – that is, philandering and heartbreak are the sum of all genres, and there’s a chance for redemption and righteousness in all of them. With Lemonade, Beyonce embraces them, and brings her own authentic voice to the forefront.
#02: Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
Rock ‘n’ roll dies a lot. Like, all the time. Every other month it seems like some publication or another is waxing poetic on the supposed death of the genre, clucking their tongues and blaming the younger generation for killing off Boomer youth rebellion or some such nonsense. The truth of it is pretty straightforward. Somebody – I think it was Billie Joe Armstrong, but don’t quote me or him on that – once said that “the real reason that rock ‘n’ roll will never die is that there is always another generation of kids willing to go out and dig up the corpse.” There it is, plain and simple. There is something primal and appealing in the basic guitar-bass-drum setup, partly because there is apparently a ridiculously huge amount of variation you can dredge out of it, and partly because there is something utterly amazing about standing in front of a Marshall stack with a guitar cranked out to 10 and hitting a power chord. If you’ve never done it, do it. It’ll change your life.
That brings us to Will Toledo. Will is exactly one of those “kids” referred to above (in that he was born after the fall of the Soviet Union) and he has found inspiration and salvation in that rush of distorted guitar and heavy drumming. Between 2010 and 2015 he released 12 (!) DIY albums on Bandcamp, impressing everyone and netting himself a hardcore group of online fans. When Matador inevitably came calling, the result was Teens Of Denial, which is without hyperbole the best pure rock album in years.
Here’s the thing: Will Toledo was born right in the middle of the initial phase of the Alternative Revolution, when Nevermind was destroying the old hair metal guard. The world he grew up in was one completely informed by alt-rock, and Teens Of Denial is a sort of grand summation of those world-straddling ethos. It is swathed in distorted guitar, right from the beginning: the riffs on this album are born out of the early 1990s, but transcend it in ways that suggest that alt-rock has mutated significantly over time. The opening riff to “Fill In The Blank” may be pure 90s pop-punk, but the stetched-out squiggles and supporting chords on “Vincent” suggest a bridge between alt-rock and prog. The world of Car Seat Headrest is one where Marshall stacks sit comfortably with keening synth choir pads, where the Foo Fighters’ affable radio grunge is turned on it’s ear, shot through with a heaping of Ric Ocasek’s neon-glitter New Wave, and made to walk the street for credibility.
It also has that certain self-deprecating, slightly beat-down and hungover sort of worldview that replaced the cocksure (emphasis on the cock) steel-groin ethos of the mainstream 1980s. It was a staple of the Nineties but has fallen into disfavour since. The bands of the last decade and a half have maintained an almost painful earnestness (Arcade Fire, The Killers, faux-folk like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons) balanced with a careless, effortless sort of hedonism (Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, a lot of Tame Impala) that’s sort of like Eighties hedonism only for people that just can’t be bothered to go that ninth yard. Will Toledo is neither, embracing irony as much as straight-faced reality and being a little nerd-boy awkward in his relationships. The very first line on the album is “I’m so sick of (fill in the blank)”, and he proceeds to tell us what dwells in that blank throughout the rest. As it turns out, that’s a lot: having to be high and depressed in a summer town; doing too many drugs and realizing that the only thing that killed your childhood was you; living in pursuit of meaning through porn (gotta make your shame count for something); the cliche of graveyards; the truth that, in order to really know yourself, you can’t know anyone else at all. It connects to the human experience on a far deeper level than, say, Two Door Cinema Club, and it’s little wonder why the album seems to be a consensus pick for breakthrough album of 2016. Sensitive awkwardness, after all, never goes out of style.
#01: David Bowie – Blackstar
If we go by American Gods rules, then David Bowie was the British version of Loki: The Shapeshifter, The Trickster, although much less malicious than the Norse original. His career was one of constant subversion of expectation: Oh I’m a glam star? Now I really like American soul. Disco seems cool. Ambient electronic sounds? Seems fun. Oh, now I’m a multi-million selling pop star. New Jack Swing has some pop to it, but wait, industrial seems where it’s at. The fun of Bowie was always that you never knew what sound he was going to reinvent himself with next, just that it would be great. While his recordings from the 21st Century struck an uncharacteristically even course, The Next Day found him using old forms to reinvent himself once again. Blackstar, when it was first released, was another leap forward in terms of sound, reintroducing especially Bowie’s saxophone work.
Then, he died.
In retrospect, it became incredibly obvious that the album had been written largely from the perspective of someone who knew they were dying. As it turns out, Bowie had in fact known that he was suffering from inoperable liver cancer for a year before he died. It is rare enough in history that an artist of Bowie’s caliber is able to write their own eulogy and share it with the masses. 2016 gave us two: Blackstar and You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen’s final, death-haunted yet stoic album. Whereas You Want It Darker was largely a summary of Cohen’s strengths and highlights as an artist, an homage to the artist by the artist, Blackstar was a final example of Bowie’s unwillingness to settle for the status quo. It pushes on further into that dark strange universe that he inhabited, refusing to succumb to despair. The title track is one of the most disturbing songs he’d ever recorded, beginning with an eerie melody that is echoed in the strange, seizure-like dancing depicted in the accompanying video; it was unsurprising when some Christian groups labeled it as “Satanic” – fitting given his flirtations with Satanism during his bizarre coked-up year in Los Angeles near the end of the Seventies. “Lazarus” is more on the nose, being explicitly about mortality; it also addresses the character Bowie played in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, again during that long odd year. “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” reprise a single and B-side from 2014 and touch back on on Bowie’s theatrical origins, being a rework of an old 17th Century English play. “Dollar Days” addresses regret stretched out over a lifetime, and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” begins with a callback to a song on 1977’s Low – “New Career In A New Town”, a song about moving on. Throughout the album, Bowie’s sax playing – something once likened to impressionistic painting – takes an interesting forefront, something that stitches every phase of his career together.
There’s a joke floating around the internet – a half-joke, maybe – that Bowie was the glue holding the universe together, and the rest of 2016 is evidence of that. I’m willing to give that one a pass, if only because of the chaos and confusion of the year that followed, and because it seems only too fitting that Blackstar would be the sound of structure shimmering out of existence as the seams come apart and the Age of Aquarius finally rears its ugly head. Still, stripped of it’s meaning, it’s context, it’s weighty place in the canon of Bowie albums, it’s a stellar collection of songs that revel in texture, phrasing, and tone, three things Bowie has always excelled at through his career. We will never see another Bowie album again, but Blackstar was a hell of a way to go out.
100-81 | 80-61 | 60-41 | 40-21 | 20-01
The Best 100 Albums of 2016, Part 3: 60-41Standard
#60: Anderson .Paak – Malibu
The breakout star of Dre’s Compton album last year came into his own in a big way in 2016. Malibu is a rich gumbo of funk, soul, and jazz-inflected hip hop; in other words, it’s got Kendrick Lamar’s fingerprints all over it and we should start thinking of a name for this movement, or something.
#59: Swans – The Glowing Man
Less crushingly oppressive than previous Swans efforts, Michael Gira and Co. still manage to make two hours of music sound like the far end of forever. Unlike older Swans albums, The Glowing Man is more filled-with-air, esoteric, and ambient, which makes for an interesting contrast.
#58: Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes makes modern R&B that’s trapped in a hole-in-the-wall dance club in the Eighties, like if Prince were actually Frank Ocean in disguise but from Brooklyn instead of L.A. His voice is thoroughly modern but his instrument choices harken back to the days when world rhythms and funky, squelchy synth sounds were de rigueur for hit songs. As much of a solid, exuberant pop album as it is, it’s also a volley fired into the increasingly uncertain night; Hynes describes it as “for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated. It’s a clap back.”
#57: Moon Hooch – Red Sky
Two saxophones and a drummer, baby that’s all you need. With the airless pretentiousness of the way people treat jazz in modern times – as though it were stately classical music to be played in the company of august rich white people – it’s easy to forget that it has it’s origins in dance music. Brooklyn’s Moon Hooch have not forgotten that – Red Sky is a collection of funked-out grooves that pop right out of speakers with a strut rarely heard in modern jazz. If prog rock was the sound of dressing rock ‘n’ roll up in a tux, and fusion was the sound of jazz trying to catch up with it, Moon Hooch is the sound of that tux being ripped off and cast aside in favour of some club wear, or at least a comfortable pair of shoes.
#56: PUP – The Dream Is Over
Two or three times a year, a band comes along and reminds us why punk rock continues to be a vital and life-changing force in rock ‘n’ roll. Typically these bands are from Toronto. PUP is no exception.
#55: Yak – Alas Salvation
Speaking of life-affirming punk rock, here’s some from across the pond. Crunchy, heavy, and off-the-wall, Salvation is an album to get drunk and fall apart to.
#54: Kacy & Clayton – Strange Country
A gorgeous collection of backwoods folk, country, and pop influences, Strange Country at times lives up to its name exactly. It’s a little bit June + Johnny and a little bit Grateful Dead all at once, a breeze with a hint of a storm coming.
#53: A$AP Ferg – Always Strive And Prosper
As his first album’s name implied – and as he affirms on the first track here – A$AP Ferg is a bona fide Trap Lord. On his second album he manages to outdo everyone else in A$AP Mob except maybe Rocky, who still holds the chiefdom by the skin of his teeth. Unrepentant hedonistic trap music for the Drake era.
#52: Dalek – Asphalt For Eden
The New Jersey alt-hip hop group hadn’t released an album since 2009, and were in fact on “permanent hiatus” from 2011 to 2015. A move off of Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records to Profound Lore (a Canadian, mostly metal label) prompted a return to the studio however, and the result is exactly right. Asphalt For Eden is unmistakably a Dalek album: lo-fi, ambient-industrial production, subversive wordplay, and blatantly uncommercial lengths. The perfect companion for a slow, suffocating apocalypse.
#51: Deakin – Sleep Cycle
Deakin – whom we all blame for Centipede Hz – used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of this album. When he sort of fell off the radar after making his funding goal, people were up in arms about being cheated, defrauded, etc. What really happened was the story of a guy who’s caught at the worst possible conjunction for an artist – a horribly anxious perfectionist, aka “Kanye West”. The album that finally came out, though, is pure spun gold, an affirmation that, stripped of all their acid-drenched childlike wonder and gonzo borderline-annoying studio sounds, the best Animal Collective songs are actually Deakin songs. Who knew?
#50: Lucy Dacus – No Burden
Part indie-rock also-ran to Courtney Barnett (or, at times, Florence Welch), part world-weary country-folk album meant to burn a candle to. The entire album functions as a slow-burn epic crafted out of individual slow-burn epics.
#49: Matmos – Ultimate Care II
The sole instrument on this album is the group’s Ultimate Care II washing machine – poked, prodded, drummed on, and recorded while running normally. If that doesn’t intrigue you then I don’t know what would.
#48: Autolux – Pussy’s Dead
A spare, mysterious sort of record, with drumlines that bring to mind Radiohead – early Bends-era Radiohead. This also goes for the vocal melodies, which at times seem lifted whole and breathing from the darker parts of that seminal album. Think of the spirit of The Bends filtered through a more Hail To The Thief sound and you’ll be halfway there.
#47: Africaine 808 – Basar
A German take on world music, filtered through a lens of psychedelic electronic production that revels . Call in global acid, if you have to call it something.
#46: Brood Ma – Daze
Aggressively experimental IDM that crosses over into industrial territory fairly often. Most of the tracks on Daze are less than two minutes, and it comes across like the breezy spirit of Robert Pollard fronting Skinny Puppy for kicks.
#45: Josephine Foster – No More Lamps In The Morning
A re-recording of older material, No More Lamps In The Morning feels at first blush like another entry in the Joni Mitchell-Joanna Newsom continuum, but it taps into something older than that. It’s music that might have felt at home at the end of the Second World War, proving that above all good music knows no age.
#44: Cross Record – Wabi Sabi
Wabi Sabi is an album that rolls over you in slow waves, rocking you gently in the same way that a ship stranded at sea in calm, windless waters will walk you gently. In the back of your head, you know there’s something dark swelling in the background – never making it home again, for instance – but you’re too relaxed to do anything about it.
#43: Kevin Gates – Islah
Kevin Gates is simultaneously two things: a hard-edged street dude with a tattoo of a gun on his hand and a penchant for teaching you a lesson with “bullet after bullet after bullet”. The other is an emotional ladies man, who talks about his complicated relationships and his bedroom moves in explicit detail. Thus, “2 Phones” is his signature, an anthem so specifically true to himself that it seems obvious: two phones, one for the plug and one for the load.
#42: Savages – Adore Life
The London band’s sophomore album is denser, tenser, and thicker than their searing debut. “Evil” fights like “Husbands” did, and “T.I.W.Y.G.” is their most punk rock song yet. The title track is the centerpiece though: is it human to adore life? Because I adore life.
#41: Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Everything Sacred
Three supremely talented players craft a fusion of Western folk, jazz, and Indian music that mesmerizes and energizes as much as it soothes the soul. Much of it was improvised, if you ever want to feel bad about your own creative talents.
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The 100 Best Albums of 2016, Part 2: 80-61Standard
#80: Thee Oh Sees – An Odd Entrances
The companion album to A Weird Exits is also a fascinating album in it’s own right. It’s lighter, arier, and except for “Unwrap The Fiend, Part 1,” devoid of the hard-hitting bounce that later Thee Oh Sees albums have come to be structured with. Another look into John Dwyer’s increasingly kaleidoscopic head.
#79: Mykki Blanco – Mykki
Michael Quattlebaum, Jr. is the queer community’s foot-in-the-door to the mainstream hip hop world. His Mykki Blanco character began life as a teen-girl YouTube channel before taking on a life of its own as a fully-formed activist/performance-art piece. Mykki Blanco’s debut LP, simply titled Mykki, is a hard-hitting collection of modern hip-hop themes filtered through Mykki’s influences: Lil’ Kim, Rihanna, GG Allin, Bruce LaBruce, and the riot grrrl movement.
#78: Case/Lang/Veirs – case/lang/veirs
A supergroup born in Portland, case/lang/veirs came about after Canada’s k.d. lang moved to the city and met Neko Case and Laura Veirs. For American indie heads, Case is the draw, with her solo and New Pornographers pedigree, but Lang and Veirs end up contributing the best parts after all. Part dusky Americana and part bittersweet indie, the album sounds like old books smell.
#77: Tim Heidecker – In Glendale
Tim Heidecker – of Tim & Eric fame – sets out to skewer 1970s singer-songwriter tropes and the woes of suburban mediocrity and ends up crafting something honestly emotionally affecting. Maybe it’s the seeming earnestness with which he approaches his absurdly banal subject matter or the ease with which he seems to take the concept of killing people and turns it into a slick metaphor for having an emptiness in your life where someone used to belong. Maybe it’s his usual uneasy humour – either way, it works because it knows it shouldn’t and does so anyway.
#76: Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
I’ve said this before, but: Death Grips are less a musical act and more of a piece of performance art satirizing the modern music industry, or, more accurately, a trio of post-modern noise terrorists. After the hyped-out hoopla surrounding Jenny Death, the last half of their last album, they claimed that they were done and they’d never record again. Of course this wasn’t true and of course they would continue putting out music that is as much experimental art-punk noise as it is edgy hip hop. That’s where the satirical part comes in – everyone knew it was a wink-and-nod job from the get-go, and everyone played along because that’s what you do. Who said irony was dead? Bottomless Pit is not the group’s “best” album (if you can ascribe a ranking to any of their albums) but it is definitely the logical next Death Grips album, and “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” is definitely in the top five best Death Grips tracks.
#75: Mitski – Puberty 2
There’s something almost off-putting about Mitski Miawaki’s voice as it seems to deadpan across an intoxicating blend of electronic and indie rock influences. When she ramps up to soaring, however, there are very few that can match her in the indie world. She comes across much like St. Vincent, if Annie Clark dropped the guitar wizardry in favour of reveling in lush textures.
#74: White Lung – Paradise
Who said riot grrl was dead? Oh, no one? No one said that? Anyway, White Lung is a strong entry into the canon of righteous women who breathe fire and live punk rock. More straightforward (and therefore less hardcore) than 2014’s Deep Fantasy – “Hungry” could be a radio track ferchrissakes – it nonetheless functions as one hell of a punch in the nose to the capitalist patriarchy we all find ourselves mired in.
#73: Vince Staples – Prima Donna
There is officially no stopping Vince Staples. Even in a format as short as this twenty-minute EP he dominates rappers with albums four times as long. He’s an artist who knows exactly what his sound is, and how to get it – and it’s utterly riveting listening to him get it, again and again.
#72: PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
PJ Harvey – perhaps the greatest living holdover of the 1990s – spent her last album examining the weighty idea that perhaps England’s greatest days were finally behind her. Five years later she crossed the Atlantic and swapped macro-examinations for micro; The Hope Six Demolition Project is a collection of songs about the HOPE VI American government project that looks to refurbish run-down urban housing projects, if by “refurbish” you mean “gentrify and kick out anyone that can no longer afford to stay.” You can tell how on-the-mark she was with the single “The Community of Hope”, inspired by a trip to the south side Washington D.C., when several prominent city politicians complained that it put them in a bad light. In her review of the album, Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes asked “By pointing out the problems in these three communities, but proposing no solutions, is she (Harvey) just as responsible for their desertion as the global powers that came before her?” No, Laura, and furthermore that’s the sort of inane question that shows why people have trouble taking P4K seriously anymore. Is pointing out problems exactly like domestic economic imperialism? I guess, if you’re a faux-progressive searching for something “important” to say.
#71: Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
In which the former Community star and current Atlanta mastermind thankfully ditches straight rapping (which he’s not particularly good at) for a horny love letter to Seventies psychedelic funk which is, as it turns out, something he is good at. While it seems at it’s heart to be a straight tribute to his parent’s record collection, it’s such a good tribute that it’s hard not to grin ear-to-ear when you listen to it.
#70: YG – Still Brazy
In a hip-hop world consumed with Kanye, Drake, J. Cole, Young Thug, Frank Ocean, Future, and every other singer-first-rapper-second out there, it’s a weird breath of fresh hear to hear some honest, no-foolin’ L.A. gangsta rap. YG is hard af and “Who Shot Me” is a menacing track the likes of which haven’t been heard since Snoop was 18. Also, it has to be said, YEAH YEAH FUCK DONALD TRUMP.
#69: Plague Vendor – Bloodsweat
Visceral, go-for-the-throat garage rock with a singer who isn’t afraid to go absurd in his search for rock ‘n’ roll hedonism. The guitarist has figured out how to turn his instrument into a switchblade as well, so he’s no slouch either.
#68: Damien Jurado – Visions Of Us On The Land
Desert folk best played at night, all reverb and stars and surreal imagery. A little bit Neil Young and a little bit Bill Callahan, it’s a road trip through the mind as filtered through the lens of that old, weird America.
#67: Future – EVOL
Future keeps pushing trap forward, even when he revels in the kind of absurdity that he trades in on “In Her Mouth” or “Xanax Family”. Part of it is solid, consistent flow, and the other part is the production of Metro Boomin and Southside, who keep things menacing, edgy, and focused on the bass.
#66: Rihanna – Anti
Rihanna has spent her considerably successful career putting out singles, and then albums that collect those singles and pad the remainder with forgettable filler. Anti is the first honest-to-god cohesive album she’s ever done, and it’s exceedingly compelling to listen to her sidestep crass commercial concerns to do something artistic. Is it perfect? Hell no. It’s fascinating to listen to, though, and the song quality is there – even the ballads are a little messy and raw.
#65: NZCA/Lines – Infinite Summer
A chill bit of lite-IDM/post-disco that is also a concept album. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a dance concept album before – heady conceptual stuff is usually in the realm of overwrought rock pretentiousness, after all – but the theme works hand-in-glove with the album. In the future, the sun has expanded to the point where there are no more seasons, only the infinite summer of the title. Half the world is in ruins, while in the other half life still holds on. Everyone is going to die a horrible death eventually, but for now the only thing that can be left to do is party hearty (because it’s a disco album, come on). Party they do – in cool, smooth fashion, without fever or hysteria.
#64: Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP
Written and recorded through improvisations on a tour designed specifically for the purpose, ATGCLVLSSCAP stretches and distorts the boundaries between what we conceive of as “live album” and “studio album”. Ulver creates something here that is one and the same, and at the same time neither. The result is an album that is moody, atmospheric, foreboding, and primal. I said this in my review of the album earlier this year, but it bears repeating: Forget Explosions In The Sky – this is post-rock.
#63: Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years
Cymbals Eat Guitars have been the also-ran of indie rock for their past three (excellent) albums, consistently being great but never achieving the name of, say, an Arcade Fire or a Titus Andronicus. Pretty Years is their best effort yet, so look for it to be largely ignored once again, despite the adoption of some Springsteen motifs and a keen eye for appreciating the dreary parts of life.
#62: SubRosa – For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages
A textured, layered, and utterly crushing doom metal album centered on one of the best novels ever written, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. The dynamics on this record alone are worth the price of admission.
#61: The Drones – Feelin’ Kinda Free
A remarkably ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll album, heavy on the bass frequencies and possessed of a weird, stoned anger that belies the slacker ethos of its songwriting. Oddly mainstream-sounding, it’s as though Cage The Elephant took research chemicals, shorted out their guitarist’s patch cord, and stopped being so goddamn complacent.
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The 100 Best Albums of 2016, Part 1: 100-81Standard
Now that 2016 is well and truly over, it’s time to take stock of the best albums of that endless slog of a year.
#100: Greys – Outer Heaven
A gloriously blown out pile of noise, akin to …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead before they lost the wordiness and the busted speakers.
#99: Classixx – Faraway Reach
Chrome-plated funk like it was meant to be played, all groove and white decor, clothing and furniture picked to match the drugs.
#98: Amber Arcades – Fading Lines
Sometimes I think that “hazy” is an overused adjective but in the case of Annelotte de Graaf it is absolutely warranted. These are the faded Polaroids of old summer memories, set to music. Did I ever mention she has a law degree and once worked as an assistant with the UN war crimes tribunal? She’s so cool.
#97: Minor Victories – Minor Victories
Rumbling goth-inspired rock that straddles a line between clean suburban days and squalid urban nights. Minor Victories sounds much of the time as though it comes from an alternate dimension where the Batcave gave birth to modern chillwave.
#96: Paul Simon – Stranger To Stranger
2016 proved, at the very least, that the Boomers still had some creative force left in them. That Paul Simon’s best album since Graceland was merely one of them shows the strength of this. He still has that particular bouncing groove, the one that lends a sense of urgency to his marquee-light poetry.
#95: Sonny & The Sunsets – Moods Baby Moods
Contemporary New Wave with a seriously demented bent. Is “Dead Meat On The Beach” the weirdest track? “Well But Strangely Hung Man”? Either way, it’s a fractured fever dream set in the 1980s and populated with the bizarre.
#94: Dam-Funk – DJ Kicks
Electronic funk so party-ready you’ll find a drink in your hand two songs in. If it reminds you of listening to a party set over the radio, there’s a reason for that.
#93: Marissa Nadler – Strangers
Ghostly folk by a living siren, with better production values than before and a better sense of the space that Ms. Nadler’s voice can occupy. Also contains one of the (!) best Black Sabbath covers of the year.
#92: Twin Peaks – Down In Heaven
A swampy mix of T. Rex, CCR, and the Stones, an album out of time and yet completely in step with the contemporary garage scene. Perfect for the curmudgeonly skeptic of modern music on your list.
#91: Skepta – Konnichiwa
Once upon a time (2002? 2003?) they were holding grime parties in Kensington Market as a sort of cutting-edge hip hop night and Dizzee Rascal was winning the Mercury Prize with jacked Playstation beats. Now Skepta is winning the Mercury Prize with professionally thick production and having Pharrell and A$AP Nast guesting alongside old grime luminaries like Wiley and Novelist. 2016, everyone.
#90: Kyle Craft – Dolls Of Highland
Glam was always an English phenomenon at it’s heart, but in the year of Bowie’s death it’s heartwarming to see people taking up the torch (or the eyeliner, as it were) and transplanting it to their own personal experiences. Kyle Craft takes it to the American South and uses it to channel the heartbreak of the dissolution of an eight-year relationship, and it’s every bit as sneering and emotionally impactful as anything Bowie, Bolan, or the boys of Mott The Hoople ever came up with in the early 1970s.
#89: Susanna – Triangle
22 songs in just over an hour shows both an ability to be prolific and a wisdom that leans toward brevity. Also of note: soaring songcraft, highly textured production, and a voice like a more experimental Joni Mitchell.
#88: Moderat – III
German electro-pop that grew out of minimalist traditions and brought along a skeleton crew of jungle, glitch, and throbbing bass music. Ambient, to be sure, but also fully-formed and ready to chart an interior soundtrack.
#87: Teen Suicide – It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir The Honeypot
A sprawling collection of lo-fi garage pop – 26 songs of ambient, stoned ramblings, like as though Robert Pollard broke out of the British Invasion or Pavement lost the literary pretensions and recorded in a storage room.
#86: White Denim – Stiff
The album with a clear lead for “worst album cover of 2016” is also a soulful, groovy little rock ‘n’ roll album from a band that has forged an identity around delivering exactly that kind of good time.
#85: The Body + Full Of Hell – One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache
The best summation of this collaboration between The Body and Full Of Hell is that it’s a bunch of P U R E F U C K I N G N O I S E.
#84: Young Thug – I’m Up
Thugger is most of what curmudgeonly old heads and rockists hate about modern hip hop – the sing-song flows, the off-the-wall style, the break away from menacing beats that nod your head for you. There’s something simultaneously bone-headed and intellectually esoteric about the music present on I’m Up, a hard-to-nail-down quality that marks Young Thug out as an artist, rather than just another rapper.
#83: Underworld – Barbara Barbara We Face A Shining Future
A surprise, in that twenty years after Second Toughest In The Infants and “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” there is still pounding electronic music that still drives you like you’re in a sketchy dimly lit warehouse chasing glowing lights and little pills and friendly people with neon hair.
#82: Junior Boys – Big Black Coat
The Hamilton, Ontario electronic duo’s big black coat is, like so many n’er-do-well Canadian kids have found over the years, perfect for jacking things and smuggling them out. This particular Big Black Coat contains a wide array of pilfered items: 70’s-era disco-soul, early German electronica, the ghost of Detroit Techno, microhouse, and late-80’s machine-funk. The real secret behind the duo’s strength is that it’s all blended in the smoothest fashion possible, giving you the funkiest milkshake you’ve ever had.
#81: Shearwater – Jet Plane And Oxbow
Eclectic, bombastic, and possessed of a fully modern vitality, Shearwater claims the best parts of pop music from the last three decades to make something akin to U2, but without all the pretentiousness.
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My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part FiveStandard
#10: Swans – To Be Kind
80s No Wave heroes Swans have been reunited for three albums now and remain the best reason for old bands to get back together. Each reunion album has been an exercise in brilliance and this third album tops them all. Running well over two hours, it is a collection of intense moments and whispering interludes that redefines the term “heavy”. It’s a work of musical minimalism, but you don’t realize it at first because the instrumental tones and the noise work are denser than lead. This is music that crushes you, and not in a nice way. It’s suffocating, oppressive construction, an orchestra of doom bent on eradicating all light from the universe. The usual Michael Gira guideposts aid in this: the ultra-repetitive rhythms, found sound, concrete tones. It’s deliberately made to invoke the idea that the world has fallen and it’s not going to get back up again. In this it succeeds without question. For those listeners that want music to be the light, frothy soundtrack to their consumerist-driven lives, the playlists at Old Navy will get you going. For those who want their music to reflect the dark truths lurking in the human soul – look no further.
#09: The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
So it’s beer commercial lead guitar rock. Who cares, Kozelek, you cranky old fuck? The War On Drugs pull it off with such style you’d think they had been doing it since birth. Before Lost In The Dream the Philadelphia band was best known as being Kurt Vile’s old band, the one he’d played guitar in before he went solo and became a critical darling. With this album the band came into its own, mixing together working class classic rock with haunted, reverb-laden indie noise. A lot of big names get thrown around with regards to the album – Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan – and while these are all quite apt, the band that I find closest to the sort of sound found here is Red Rider. It’s blue-collar AOR filtered through a loving layer of Sonic Youth and the Cure, the perfect marriage of Boomers and their early Xer children.
#08: St. Vincent – St. Vincent
To get an understanding as to how Annie Clark’s 2014 went, just look at the cover of her self-titled fifth album. She sits upon a throne, her expression haughty and noble, the very picture of supreme confidence in herself and her rule. At this very moment she is the Queen of the Indie World, and it’s because of the polish and poise she brings to St. Vincent. She’s always been half art-rock, half pop, but her recent collaboration with Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne seems to have accentuated both sides of the equation. These are pop songs delivered with skewed aplomb, studded with venom and anchored by Ms. Clark’s bold guitar work. Everything she touches turns to gold here: her rock songs conquer everything in their path (especially the singles, “Digital Witness” and “Birth In Reverse”) and her ballads both reach quivering emotional resonation (“Prince Johnny”) and crawling discomfort (“Severed Crossed Fingers”). She was also responsible for my absolute favourite moment on television in 2014 – her appearance on SNL. It was all robotic movements, strobe lights, and confidently smooth guitar, and it drove the mouthbreathers nuts.
#07: Milo – A Toothpaste Suburb
Milo has pumped out a great deal of material, both on his own and with his Hellfyre Club collective, but A Toothpaste Suburb is his first proper album and it lands with amazing force. His beats have always been choppy and a bit off-kilter – he once sliced up Baths’ Cerulean for beats, after all – but here his work manages to be both glitchy and head-nodding, a combination that maybe shouldn’t work but somehow does. It’s the perfect frame for his surreal lyricism, a heady mixture of nerd-culture references and real-world emotional toil, like if my friend Steve was a rapper from Wisconsin. He may in fact be a “rap messiah agitator / chronic bathroom masturbator” but it’s really only half the story. Sure there’s toilet humour and goofy moments, but the album abounds with references to great literature, meta-poet wordplay, and Milo’s friend Rob, who died too soon and left Milo thinking about death more than might be healthy. It’s a stellar debut and one that points the way forward for his Hellfyre mates.
#06: How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
There’s no easy way to say this: Tom Krell can sing like a motherfucker. He’s also a PhD candidate in philosophy, and it’s the contrast between these two parts of his life that bring to life his How To Dress Well project. His music has always been artsier than your average R&B setup – Pitchfork compared his 2010 debut, Love Remains, to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops – and it’s been concerned with getting into your soul on its own terms. This is pop without concern for popularity, glacial R&B songs that ooze emotion without resorting to the typical hip-hop-lite that the genre reaches for when it wants to his the Billboard charts. These are tense, brittle, often pitch-shifted tracks that sound as though they are matted with tears. Heartbreak, misery. Soaring vocal work and a need to reaffirm a childhood faith in love. This is R&B for hipsters, true, but it has a universalist sense of love and loss that reaches out to everyone, beard and PBR or not.
#05: Sun Kil Moon – Benji
On one hand, long-time folk-rocker Mark Kozelek had a banner musical year in 2014. After reaching the peak of his Neil Young meets Andre Segovia powers with Admiral Fell Promises, he went in the opposite direction, toning down the guitar work and opening up his oblique lyrics into much more personal, confessional songs. Benji is the height of this movement; these are less songs than they are conversations had by candlelight over the low rumble of fingerpicked guitars. It’s never been clearer that Kozelek is getting older, based on these songs. In the very first song his cousin dies after an aerosol can explodes in the garbage – a freak accident that is echoed later in the album when he explains how his uncle died in the exact same way. He uses this as an opportunity to ruminate on seeing family and noting how time marches on even when you don’t see people every day. It sets a pattern that defines the album as an examination of mortality and the way time keeps going, asleep and awake. After all of that, though, it ends on a wistful note, with a story that’s essentially about how he’s friends with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie/The Postal Service. It’s a triumph for a man whose discography is littered with quiet, under-the-radar triumphs.
On the other hand, of course, 2014 also revealed Kozelek as a boor and a bully, a cantankerous old jackass who can’t let a perceived slight go and who thinks that telling another band (The War On Drugs) to “suck my cock” in song form is a great way of conveying your annoyance. This was less of a triumph, to be polite.
#04: Aphex Twin – Syro
2014 was in a way a year of long-buried artists coming roaring back with very little warning. It started on the deepweb. An album cover and tracklisting were uncovered for what appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a new Aphex Twin album – stunning, considering the man had largely dropped off of the face of the earth following 2001’s Drukqs. Then the same information appeared on the Warp Records page, and it was on. With shocking suddenness the album arrived, and it sounded as though the thirteen years between Drukqs and Syro didn’t happen. Syro is unmistakably an Aphex Twin album. Every sound layered on here springs naturally from the sort of things we’ve come to expect from Richard D James over the course of his career – every drum line, every synth run, every twist of the knob sounds logically consistent with his musical M.O. There is nothing that comes out of left-field here, and there is nothing quite as crossover-pop as “Windowlicker” or “Girl/Boy Song”. Instead, it’s a beginning to end statement of purpose, a reminder of everything that made his work in “home listening techno” great. He promises that he hasn’t been slacking for his thirteen mostly-missing years – he has scads of recorded material, and will be releasing another 17 tracks quite shortly.
#03: Liars – Mess
Liars came into the world as dance-punk anarcho-artists, a trio of transplanted L.A. art students who fell into the New York post-punk revival with deep comfort. After, they blew through witch-haunted noise concepts, bunker-recorded drum music, straightforward rock revival, and edgy industrial noise-pop without even breaking a sweat. They are famous for not putting out the same kind of album twice, but in many ways Mess feels like the band has finally come full circle. This is, at its heart, a punky dance pop album, a mix of industrial soundscapes over club-worthy beats and topped off with a vocal sensibility that would not honestly sound out of place on a classic Marilyn Manson album. It’s fun, confident, and cathartic, pretty much the opposite of their previous album WIXIW. Where WIXIW seemed like bedroom pop done by a laptop producer (Dntel, let’s say), Mess sounds like arena EDM, big gestures from big producers meant to make the crowd go wild. That said, it’s arena EDM done by Liars, which means its subversive, dark, twisted, and faintly perverted. They’re songs that could be slipped into a DJ set, but they would make the crowd pause in the midst of their MDMA-fuelled flailings.
#02: Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else
Cleveland punk rocker Dylan Baldi has kept very busy over the last several years trying to erase the pop part of his pop-punk past. Even his last album, 2012’s Attack On Memory, turned out in the end to be too pop, despite the presence of Steve Albini as the producer. Anyone who listened to Attack On Memory – and there were lots – would say that, for the most part, it was scorched-earth firebreathing punk rock that leapt out of the speakers and grabbed you by the collar. Yet, looking back on it, there are poppy moments aplenty on it: the screamed refrain of “Wasted Days”, the assured hook of “Stay Useless”, the nearly radio-ready bounce of “Fall In”. Here And Nowhere Else scours most of these pop influences off of the tracks, leaving churning punk songs that hit with heavy fists. Yet Baldi can’t help but craft a great melody, despite trying to bury them in layers of grime. “I’m Not Part Of Me”, the last and best song on the album, is the biggest earworm Baldi has been able to come up with yet, and coming as it does at the end of seven other nearly-buried moments of melodic genius gives it all the more impact. It ups the ante on Attack On Memory exponentially, managing to carve up chaotic incendiary punk rock into chunks that are easy to swallow without losing any of their spicy edge.
#01: D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah
I don’t normally wait this long to put together my list of favourites for a given year. Usually I stop gathering new music in during the first week of December, because in the past I’ve found that no one released anything worthwhile over the holiday season. You would think that after 2013 found Beyonce dropping a stellar album with no warning at the end of December I would have learned my lesson, but I nearly stopped again for 2014. As it turned out, history repeated itself, only in a much greater fashion.
The last time anyone heard from D’Angelo in full album form was 2001, and it was the R&B classic Voodoo. Voodoo was a funk-soul masterpiece, the highwater mark of modern R&B. After, however, he largely dropped off the earth. He was uncomfortable with his status as a sex symbol overshadowing his music, a close friend committed suicide, and he developed a growing problem with alcohol. For a while, it seemed apparent that, aside from the odd guest appearance, his career had been derailed for good. Then the rumours began. D’Angelo was back in the studio. He’d been rumoured to be in the studio since around 2007, but by 2011 people in the know were saying that the album was nearly done. By 2012 he was back on stage. Then, on December 15th, Black Messiah arrived. Like Beyonce’s album, there was no fanfare, no press releases, no warning that this was coming.
Originally it was slated to have been released in 2015. It was pushed up, though, because the vibe on the album is, as the title suggests, one of race, revolution, and spirituality. After Ferguson, and the Eric Garner decision, the album’s release was sped up. Normally this would signal problems with the album, but Black Messiah is very much a finished album. It’s as far removed from Voodoo, however, as you can imagine. Voodoo was marked by minimalist production designed to put the focus on D’Angelo’s voice. Black Messiah, on the other hand, is experimental retro-soul, as much a product of his backing band The Vanguard as it is of D’Angelo. The two albums that are close guideposts for Black Messiah are Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Both albums harken back to an era of revolutionary civil unrest in the black community as well as being pillars of pre-digital black music. Both aspects are present on Black Messiah. Musically it’s jazz-funk wrapped up in soul, old-style R&B, and the rock music of the end of the Vietnam War. It’s played with deliberate imperfection, faithfully reproducing the feeling of the era with all of its pops and snarls. At the same time it articulates a response to the upswing in racial violence in America over the past few years, especially with regards to the killing of unarmed black men by the police for crimes that would get white men in the same situation a living arrest. It makes numerous references to Ferguson, and to Occupy Wall Street – race and class are bound together in modern America, and Black Messiah acknowledges it as such.
When it takes fourteen years to follow up an album, that album is rarely as good as the original. Look at Chinese Democracy, or even last years My Bloody Valentine album. Black Messiah is a rarity in this regards. It’s a follow-up album that took nearly forever to create that exceeds the standards wrought by the original. It’s not just a worthy sequel to Voodoo – it’s an album that reestablishes the legend of D’Angelo in its own right.
My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part FourStandard
#20: Caribou – Our Love
Dan Snaith’s been doing this a long time, stretching back to when he used to call himself Manitoba. His two previous albums, 2007’s Andorra and 2010’s Swim, were big successes, introducing the EDM world to his particular brand of psychedelic electronic pop grooves and getting award nominations left right and center, especially at home in Canada. Our Love tops even those albums, being at once his most dance-oriented album and his most sonically experimental, mixing foggy vocals, strings, 808-sounding drums, and a whole host of studio effects. Even with all of the genre-bending sound work, he keeps it accessible, crafting wicked-edged pop hooks that keep things bouncing from beginning to end. Snaith himself referred to it as “mind-numbingly simple”, but this has to be kept in context with the fact that his pre-music background is in deep tech research and that simple to Snaith is more complicated than pretty much anything else.
#19: White Lung – Deep Fantasy
Vancouver’s White Lung trades in blistering punk rock that brings back the feel of Dischord Records, Sleater-Kinney, and early Hole. Deep Fantasy is a mile-a-minute collection of abrasive rock and roll that flies by so quickly that you might miss the more off-the-wall moments, mostly courtesy of guitarist Kenneth William’s love of weird patterns and oddball chord changes. Some of this stems from a metal influence – black metal rhythms and hair metal swagger. Singer Mish Way rides this hybrid wave of blackened thrasher punk with songs that focus on depression, body image, power structure, and rape. She also has a number of essays online that expound upon these themes, because academic punk rock is and should continue to be a thing. White Lung are ultimately a very subtle band, which sounds strange when you consider Deep Fantasy as an abrasive punk rock record that comes and goes in less than twenty minutes.
#18: Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
Southern rock is hard to come by these days. The late 1970s were a long time ago now, and bands like Marshall Tucker, 38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd are now relegated to State Fair nostalgia tour circuits. Don’t tell that to Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, though; they’re banking on the fact that southern rock is a viable artform, and they’re proving themselves correct with every album they put out. While their previous albums skewed towards the country side of the country-and-rock combo, English Oceans buckles down onto the soulful rock and roll side and the result is electrifying. As always, however, the real strength of the album lies in the songs themselves. Character sketches abound on here, and English Oceans is a litany of disappointment, shady nights out, marital problems, family disagreements, and an undertow of low seething rage. They’re brilliant stories that get into your head, and suggest that maybe southern rock isn’t the ball of deep fried cheese that the beer-bellied greybeards lounging near the rickety stage near the edge of town might have you believe.
#17: Ex Hex – Rips
Mary Timony has cycled through Helium, Wild Flag, and Autoclave before putting together Ex Hex, a new band that takes its name from a solo album Timony once put out. Ex Hex is a band based around the ideal of guitar heroics, rooted deeply in 70s power pop and shot through with glittering guitar solos. It’s part Go Gos and part Sleater-Kinney, a hurtling, snarling album that manages to glam up the proceedings to great effect. Each riff lands with a punch, and then walks it along with a swagger befitting a Great Rock And Roll Band. “New Kid” is the track that proves this – it’s literally impossible to avoid breaking out into air guitar right from the beginning. She may have played second fiddle to two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney in Wild Flag, but in Ex Hex Timony answers to no one, and her strengths are on full display.
#16: Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
It was kinda sorta released in 2013, sure, but that was in Australia, and I refuse to recognize the existence of Australia. 2014 saw her twin EP set released in North America and found a whole slew of new fans suddenly enamoured with her casual conversation style of songwriting. Her life is a string of mundane disappointments, at least according to her, but she relates them in such a way as to make them the most fascinating things anyone could say. Case in point: “Avant Gardener”, a five minute tale of going out to fix up the front gardens (because the neighbours must think she runs a meth lab), getting overwhelmed by the heat, having a panic attack, and having the ambulance called. She screws up her oxygen mask (she was never that good at smoking bongs) and feels uncomfortable with the EMS worker thinking she’s cool just because she plays guitar. This double EP is stuffed full of these kind of stories, welded to psychedelic slacker music that is threaded through with tinges of old style country wistfulness. Rumour has it she’s releasing a proper debut LP in 2015, darker than Split Peas but along the same lines. Put it at the top of the highly anticipated pile.
#15: Black Milk – If There’s A Hell Below
Detroit’s Black Milk is one of the most underappreciated figures in the rap game, a consistently good MC and producer who’s been bringing it for twelve years now with no real breakthrough. If There’s A Hell Below is an excellent summation of everything that he’s about: loop-driven production strongly reminiscent of J. Dilla, Detroit techno bangers, thick gospel samples, and lyrics that come off as a little sketchy on paper but come alive when he puts them into the beat. The lyrics here on If There’s A Hell Below focus on his upbringing in the hard parts of Detroit, learning about rap and losing his innocence beat by beat. What sets it apart from his previous albums is the sheer attention to detail here. Even 2013’s No Poison No Paradise pales in comparison to this album, with its meticulously constructed beat scapes that bleed with every bit of the influences he’s been building on since 2003. If it happens to be the height of his powers, it’s a hell of a peak to crest on.
#14: Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
At first glance the music of Cymbals Eat Guitars is pure 90s indie rock revival, a crunchy mix of bands revolving around a Built To Spill worship. What keeps it from being a mere early treble charger exercise in counterfeit sounds is the lyrical work of Joseph D’Agostino, who crafts literary narratives that pulse with the seriousness of modern poetry but also show a real willingness to get playful with the English language. Like the title implies, these are poem-songs about loss – the emotional and physical toll taken upon people (New Jersey residents, mainly) who experience loss in one form or another. The heart of it, though, stems from the death of D’Agostino’s best friend Benjamin High in 2007. There were hints at mourning him throughout the band’s first two albums (the magical Why There Are Mountains and the great-but-commercially-toxic Lenses Alien) but on LOSE he opens the floodgates and lets it all out. These songs soar and crash, allowing D’Agostino to craft big rock and roll gestures that double as outpourings of grief and healing. It’s a big album that draws both from the aforementioned 90s indie rock and from the earlier tradition of massive arena rock, and it feels all the more cathartic for it.
#13: Single Mothers – Negative Qualities
Single Mothers broke up in 2009 and have been touring ever since. So says their Bandcamp page and there’s a history behind it, of course. It revolves around frontman Drew Thomson, a scrappy Ontario kid posessed of a busted-ass smile and a heart of blackly hilarious observations. Before he devoted himself full-time to the band (before ’09) he was a full-time gold prospecter in the wilds of eastern Ontario. The call of punk rock was too strong to ignore, though, and thank the lord for it. Thomson is the perfect punk frontman, perfectly suited to spewing bile but able to convey that bitterness in a way that comes across as wildly intelligent. There’s a strong streak of Craig Finn in his songs: the boozy nights out, the kids blowing off steam from their studies at the University of Western Ontario by getting blackout wasted, the strange allure of Dundas Street, straddling between bachelor’s degrees and cocaine deals. If the Hold Steady are the bards of 1990s Minneapolis, Single Mothers are the poet laureates of London, Ontario circa pretty much forever. The only thing that would make the album better would be the inclusion of their 2012 self-titled EP, which is comprised of 4 perfect songs that sum up living and dying in Ontario.
#12: Spoon – They Want My Soul
Four years after the somewhat difficult Transference, and a sidetrack into a supergroup (Divine Fits) Spoon returned and reconquered the world. The thing about Spoon is that they spent fifteen years putting out albums that were consistently great, peaking with 2007’s perfect Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Transference seemed weary and torn, but They Want My Soul is as fresh as if the band just woke up from a nap. Lead single “Rent I Pay” conjured up the laid-back groove of classic Rolling Stones, “Do You” brought back the classic vibe of 2007, “Knock Knock Knock” gets in that pocket and never leaves. “New York Kiss” sounds like it came straight out of Britt Daniels’ work in Divine Fits, and “Let Me Be Mine” affirms that Transference was, in fact, a great album given time to consider it. From the moment the album begins it feels as though the band never left, and in the end it’s yet another superb entry in a catalogue that is wall to wall superb entries.
#11: Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Sophomore slumps be damned: Parquet Courts are out to show that there’s no such thing. The band’s second album picks up where Light Up Gold left off, stuffing fun wordplay into songs that either race by or slouch by, slacker-style. It’s a little angrier than their debut, a little more deliberate and seething, but the rampant hyperactive energy that marked them out as a band to watch is still very much present. It’s still that heady mixture of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Wire, and the Fall, but it buckles down with greater intent this time out. The title track is the perfect example of their newish tone: it darts out of the gate, grabs ahold of you, and shakes you until every bone in your body is broken, then drops you and lets the slower tracks soothe you back to health. Amongst the slower tracks this time there are some real moments of classic rock homage, especially on “Raw Milk”, “Instant Disassembly”, and “Always Back In Town”. They add some weight to the faster-than-light tracks and make Sunbathing Animal into a work of actual substance.
My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part OneStandard
#50: Parkay Quarts – Content Nausea
The prolific Parquet Courts released two LPs in 2014, the second of which was released under their other other name. Content Nausea adds a spiky post-punk vibe to their usual overcaffeinated blend of pop punk, Pavement, and Guided By Voices. There’s a bit of Pere Ubu here, some uncomfortable odes to Gang of Four, and it melds smoothly into their existing sound. In addition there is a cover, the first such the band has committed to permanence – a disarmingly straightforward take on Lee Hazlewood’s “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'” whose sole nod to original sound is the swath of feedback that wraps around the horn section. It’s an interesting sonic detour for a band with a prolific sense of its own self.
#49: King Tuff – Black Moon Spell
Kyle Thomas makes the kind of instantly kick-ass, fist-in-the-air type of album that would have been a stone classic thirty-five years ago. Nowadays, of course, decades after the advent of Black Sabbath and Cheap Trick, it fills the same sort of nostalgia niche as the Darkness once did. Unlike the Darkness, however, Black Moon Spell is not lazily reaching for a derivative pop-Iron Maiden type of sound; rather, it hits the same filthy back-alley sounds that the first Cheap Trick album once did, twining fuzz guitar around the kind of melodies that countless Sunset Strip bands spent the 1980s mining. As it stands it fits in well with the fuzzed-out garage revivalism spearheaded by acts like Ty Segall and Bass Drum of Death – Master Segall actually guests on the title track. The album’s highlight is without a doubt “Eyes of the Muse”, which I honestly thought was a cover the first time I heard it. It has a guitar vibe that touches on Marc Bolan, Pete Townsehend, and Eric Clapton without being slavishly devoted to any of them. Great for people who slag on modern music and miss “real rock”.
#48: Ben Frost – A U R O R A
Aurora is the sound of the 21st Century barrelling down on us: the paranoia, the rebirth of nuclear tensions, the sense that it might already be too late to fix the problems we face on this fragile little planet of ours. Avant-garde composer Ben Frost channels these rather frightening ideas through waves of glacial synths, creeping loops, withering soundscapes, and metallic samples. What percussion is on this record acts to punctuate the sound and bring the piece in question to another level of dread. It was mainly written beneath an active volcano in the DR of Congo and sound uncommonly like if Tim Hecker were to be covered by an even more nihilistically focused Swans – an interesting analogy given Frost’s production of albums for both artists.
#47: The Notwist – Close To The Glass
The venerable also-ran of indie rock released an album this year that comes very close to achieving the heights of their 2002 masterpiece Neon Golden. Close To The Glass displays all of the best facets of the German band’s style: the pop sensibilities, the tight arrangements, and of course the spiky electronic textures that are their stock-in-trade. There were bands melding ambient electronic sounds with indie rock before the Notwist but there were none that influenced the bands that came after quite like they did. Close To The Glass is an excellent after-the-fact explanation of why.
#46: Marissa Nadler – July
2014 brought dream-folk singer Marissa Nadler to the white-hot Sacred Bones label, and with it came a newfound sense of personal confession. Nadler’s earlier work was often metaphorical in nature, but July brings her songwriting perspective into the first person. As usual, a broken heart is the culprit: the song-cycle on display here is strewn with the debris of a dead relationship and the haunted emotions that accompany it. Despite its fiercely personal nature there is a sweeping universality inherent in it; anyone who’s ever suffered through a hellish breakup will know exactly what July is saying.
#45: Foxes In Fiction – Ontario Gothic
Warren Hildebrand’s younger brother died in 2008 and he’s been mourning him ever since. I first caught on to his Foxes in Fiction moniker through “Flashing Lights Have Ended Now”, a deeply sad ambient piece that /mu/ was into (largely, I think, because Hildebrand was one of us and sometimes did Q and A sessions for the hell of it). His debut, 2010’s Swung From The Branches, was *okay*, but it felt too loose and surreal to really fit the devastating nature of either “Flashing Lights” or another perennial favourite of mine, “Bathurst”. Ontario Gothic is a much tighter album, anchored by synth arpeggios and the sort of reverb-soaked, ethereal vocals that thousands of chillwave artists can only dream of. Owen Pallett does string arrangements throughout as well, making for pop music that reaches the next spiritual plane of existence more often than not. This is “healing pop” – Hildebrand’s own words – and it’s hard not to listen to it and feel cleaner having come out the other side.
#44: Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Jenny Lewis was every Nintendo nerd’s red-headed crush in 1989’s Fred Savage vehicle/Power Glove advertisement The Wizard. Then, by the early 2000s, she was the critical darling of Los Angeles’ typically backwater indie scene, bringing California folk-rock and Fleetwood Mac up to date with Rilo Kiley. Immediately following her band’s demise she went solo and has been channeling a modern day version of Emmylou Harris ever since. The Voyager is her strongest effort to date, a collection of L.A. sounds that range from opulent yacht-pop to the folky parts of the Canyon that Joni Mitchell once haunted. It’s big, and it’s confident, but it’s also vulnerable under the surface; there’s heartache here, and disappointment, and the mismatch of wistful nostalgia with the dreary truth of the present. It’s a midlife crisis wrapped in gilded paper, like if Beth Cosentino grew up and still wrote songs for men who weren’t sure if they wanted to commit to her yet.
#43: Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again
Never Hungover Again comes and goes in less than twenty minutes, but in that slight frame of time it packs enough shorthand and ideas for an album twice its size. Joyce Manor spent their previous two albums banging out a lo-fi revival of the days when emo didn’t mean faux-goth kids wearing Hot Topic specials and thinking Black Veil Brides were cool. Never Hungover Again continues in the tradition of riot booooy albums but their new deal with the venerable Epitaph Records gives them a bigger budget that they use to full effect. There’s absolutely nothing here that says they’ve sold out, the key thing here is that the band sounds immensely huge, bigger than they’ve ever sounded before. The touches from the emo forebears are all there – here’s some Weezer, here’s some Jawbreaker, here’s some Jimmy Eat World before they started to suck – but it’s all integrated flawlessly and played with an honest, earnest passion. It’s an album for those who came of age just before and just after 9/11.
#42: tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack
Nikki-Nack builds on the previous W H O K I L L album through the simple expedient of being bigger. Ditching the loops in favour of live drumming, Nikki-Nack is so different than what came before that one can only imagine where Merrill Garbus will take her act next. The lack of tape loops and lo-fi field recordings points towards a long series of sessions in a professional studio, although the breathless energy of the tracks still has its roots in 80s R&B and schoolyard skipping-rope chants. Subtle when it needs to be, Nikki-Nack balances dark thoughts with caffeine-fuelled movement such that it keeps the listener from leaving with a first impression of moodiness. While it largely lacks the singular anthems that W H O K I L L brought to the table (aside from “Water Fountain”, of course), it’s a much more fulfilling album, one that should leave the the listener breathless, satisfied, and wondering where the hell it’s going to go after.
#41: Fucked Up – Glass Boys
Glass Boys is the band’s shortest album, and after the exhausting conceptual monolith of David Comes To Life, it’s refreshing. Musically it builds on their previous work, layering anthemic guitar work over rock-solid progressive rhythm work and letting Pink Eyes stab his signature growl through everything. Here and there are more classic rock nods, another progression from the sprawling previous album. Fuzzy, icepick guitar solos, organ flourishes, lumbering Black Sabbath riffs – this is not the hardcore of Minor Threat or 7 Seconds. Maybe it is “popcore”, as Emily Haines snarkily tweeted the night The Chemistry of Common Life won Canada’s Polaris Prize, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable in a way that classic hardcore just isn’t.