In one glorious package.
#40: A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
Comebacks are a sketchy sort of thing in popular music. When an artist or group puts out a new work after years – decades – of being silent, it’s easy to get cynical. Do they need money? Is this just a nostalgia trip cash-in? Is the new album basically a tour souvenir? Have they phoned it in? Are all of the old members even present, or is this just an excuse for a couple of old members to resurrect the name to get eyeballs and sales? There are any number of great old acts that have fallen victim to this sort of crass capitalism: Black Flag, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Zombies, The Who, The Pixies, etc. and so on into infinity.
Then there are the acts that come back and it’s like they never left. They remain as vital and as timely as they ever were. Sleater-Kinney comes to mind here. Now, so does A Tribe Called Quest. We last heard from the legendary hip hop group in the 1990s, when they were the jazzy, fluid alternative to screwface gangsta rap. They dealt with some hard subjects, to be sure, but they also knew to back off and celebrate the little things in life as well. Thank You 4 Your Service is exactly in the same vein as those old Tribe records – it could be the vanishing point between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. The beats are as in-the-pocket as they were back in the day, and the flows are as consistently great as they ever were. The record is shot through with the ghost of Phife Dawg (who died during the recording process from complications from diabetes) but it never falls into the trap of being a maudlin tombstone for him. Instead, Tribe do what they always did – tackle sociopolitical issues, shoot the shit about life’s tribulations, and make fun of wack MCs.
#39: Ian William Craig – Centres
In the wrong hands, ambient music is scattered, banal, and boring. Ian William Craig is not the wrong hands. Centres is a haunting, emotional album crafted out of tape noise, synthesizers, and Craig’s own heavily processed voice. He comes through in jagged moments, heralded by bursts of ghostly static, and it is as beautiful as it is blurred. There’s a veritable shoegaze quality to much of the album, as though Tim Hecker and My Bloody Valentine merged into something gorgeous, fragile, and only partially visible.
#38: Nice As Fuck – Nice As Fuck
A purely articulated vision that is as minimalist and straightforward as its album cover. Jenny Lewis and her indie friends from Au Revoir Simone and the Likes craft a kind of post-punk album that used to only dwell in the early 1980s. It’s as though Young Marble Giants crossbred with ESG and got stoned to some early Spoon records.
#37: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
You take some jazz, some funk, some soul, a little bit of noisy rock ‘n’ roll…you sing in a fashion that’s midway between Joni Mitchell and Janelle Monae…you get longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti on the bill…throw a potato in there, baby you got yourself a stew going.
#36: LUH – Spiritual Songs For Lovers To Sing
Indie rock that’s been blown out, left ragged, and smeared across some odd grade of canvas. Ecstasy as seen from the perspective of a fever dream, left out to bake in a nuclear-blinded sunscape.
#35: Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch
Jenny Hval creates on Blood Bitch a cleared space for women in the tangled sacred space of phallocentric rock ‘n’ roll, a direct continuation of the milieu of “soft dick rock” she discussed in regards to her previous album, Apocalypse, Girl. It’s an album of secrets spilled forth into the light and presented in a hard-edged light that takes some spiritual cues from the grind-and-destroy mayhem of black metal. Nothing is left behind here: blood and vampirism, urine, pregnancy, menstruation, pap smears, and witchery colour the tracks and create a spattered, intimately fluid feeling in the transition of pieces. Is selling art tatamount to selling the key pieces of oneself, and if so, how far can you bleed that self before it blanches out for good?
#34: School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB
A triumph born directly out of a tragedy, SVIIB is likely the last School Of Seven Bells album. During the process of recording, band co-founder Benjamin Curtis died of sudden-onset lymphoma, leaving singer/synth-player/song-writer/lover Alejandra Deheza to finish the process of this final document on her own. This album – which Deheza called in a P4K interview “the whole arc…[of] our relationship over 10 years” – is a soaring, anthemic tribute to him, one final blowout of synth-pop bliss that the duo had been making a claim on for quite some time. Knowing the circumstances behind the songs, it’s hard to hear those swelling pads and those pounding synths without getting all teary-eyed. Onions. Why is the world so full of onions all the time?
#33: Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits
You know what I like about John Dwyer? No matter what weird deviations he’ll take you on, no matter what sort of strange psychedelic noises he’ll use to keep you awake and paranoid, he always delivers on his main promise, which is to melt your face off in the course of an album. A Weird Exits does this in a primal way that few bands, then or now, have been able to accomplish.
#32: NAILS – You Will Never Be One Of Us
Twenty-one minutes of pure destruction.
#31: Jambinai – A Hermitage
Post-math, to be sure, but post-math that takes it a step beyond by integrating a number of Korean instruments into the usual guitar-bass-drum Western rock lineup. Ever wanted to hear a geomungo or a haegum alongside a guitar? Look no further.
#30: The Liminanas – Malamore
A French garage band so true to form that you’ll swear you’re sitting on a ratty brown couch watching them play battered instruments through mismatched amplifiers. Also, it’s filtered through a sunrise-coloured love of spaghetti western tones, so it doubles as a great soundtrack for the leadup to your next fight.
#29: Tim Hecker – Love Streams
Veteran ambient composer Tim Hecker turns his attention to a somewhat calmer set of inspirations than his previous works on Virgins or Ravedeath 1972. Love Streams was recorded in part with the Icelandic Choir Ensemble and sounds like the Northern Lights were captured and turned into music. If Marcel Theroux’s Far North were ever turned into a movie, Love Streams would be it’s soundtrack.
#28: Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion
A lysergic mixture of Low-style slowcore songcraft and searing psychedelic guitar noise that sits as the vanishing point between J. Mascis and Neil Young. Come for the gloomy atmosphere, stay because the guitar lines have sliced off your limbs and you can no longer even crawl away from the carnage.
#27: Santigold – 99 Cents
A cross-genre trip across the psyche of one of the most entertaining performers to survive the transition from the 2000s to the 2010s. Pop, R&B, hip hop, dancehall, and alt-rock styles dance in clockwork with each other, creating an album that has a little tasty morsel for anyone who happens upon it.
#26: Bat For Lashes – The Bride
A lush concept album about the spiritual journey of a woman whose fiance dies in a car accident on their way to the wedding. Natasha Khan brings all of the fire and pop sensibilities that informed her previous albums and ramps them up to another level here. She treads a fine line between impassioned and histrionic and comes across the gorge free and full of new life.
#25: Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
The Detroit rapper has been tracing a path toward a Universal Theory of Pure Fire for a while now but Atrocity Exhibition accelerates that path like Zizek blowing up the dialectic on a Tuesday. Borrowing a title and an aesthetic from Joy Division, VHS glitch, and the decay of his own home city, he and a scant lineup of guests (which still manages to include Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt on the same song) create something edgy, sharp, and stabby. Did I mention he’s on Warp Records now? Bizarre soundscapes, interesting samples, and his own hectoring B-Real-esque voice (another guest, by the way) are now the order of the day.
#24: Angel Olsen – My Woman
After 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness I would not have been shocked if Angel Olsen’s subsequent album(s) would have been total flops – how do you even follow up such a delightful mixture of rustic folk, Leonard Cohen, and amped-up rock ‘n’ roll? As it turns out, the answer to that question is My Woman. Her voice is on point as always, but the arrangements have been cleaned up in such a way that they manage to crossover several different genres while simultaneously displaying a seemingly newfound love of pop hooks. “Shut Up Kiss Me” is one of the most impassioned songs you’re likely to hear this decade.
#23: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Sturgill Simpson has made a name for himself as the gigantic thorn in the side of the stuck-in-traffic-boring Nashville country music establishment. Not content with merely reproducing pop tropes with a light twang for the profit of corporate stooges, Simpson wants to keep the spirit that informed the best of country music alive: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, a little bit of Waylon Jennings from time to time. None of them would make it in modern Nashville; all of them are responsible for its powerhouse success. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth shows that there’s a way forward from shlock bullshit like Keith Urban and Florida-Georgia Line: tough, wiry arrangements that utilize as much blues as they do country ideas; a horn section that sounds like heaven taking off; a serious approach to theme and lyrics; and a willingness to mix it up with balladry that isn’t just whitewashed R&B – check out the soulfulness of “All Around You” to get a good feel for that. He’s also been a vocal opponent of the Nashville establishment, which makes his success all the more satisfying.
#22: Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
The last two or three years have seen American black musicians go in one of two directions. Artists like Young Thug and Future are pushing U.S hip hop further into the future, melding genres and pursuing ever-more-cutting production. An equally as interesting group have chosen to go back to forms of black music from back in the 20th Century. Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus have been going back to jazz for inspiration in their neo-freakouts; Childish Gambino abandoned his clownish rapping for a dead-on funk homage; Dre’s last album had Kendrick’s fingerprints of old-school funk and soul all over it; D’Angelo chose to stake his comeback (and win) on gritty old soul music in the vein of Sly Stone; Beyonce even managed to pull out big, brassy Texas country on her album, and her sister used those old soul vibes to nearly become the Top Knowles Sister of 2016. Michael Kiwanuka goes more psychedelic, crafting a series of songs whose hearts rest in a certain type of music the Sixties turned out that can be best summer up by a compilation album called Forge Your Own Chains: Ballads and Dirges. These are songs drawing inspiration directly from road-trip Americana, lysergic long-form psychedelic exercises, and a heavy sense of sorrow and uncertainty. Where the bands on Forge Your Own Chains drew out their sorrow in organ drones, Kiwanuka uses piano, guitar, and horns to create a busy sense of the struggle to get on. “The struggle” is right, too: Love & Hate also taps into that new (depressingly old) sense of political outrage, the one that knows that even fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, being black in white America is difficult at best.
#21: Deerhoof – The Magic
For a band that’s been going for something in the ballpark of a decade now, Deerhoof manage, on their latest album, to top their previous work and put together an even better collection of quirky, fractured, ultra-busy pop that doubles as a kick-ass guitar rock album. I say this every time Deerhoof put out a new album, and every time I genuinely mean it.
#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.
#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.
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#40: YG – My Krazy Life
It’s something that seems so normal in the post-Kanye era, but it has to be said: mainstream rap hasn’t been very gangsta for a while. Ever since Graduation cleaned 50 Cent’s clock, rappers have been finding inspiration from regular life, relationships, and inner turmoil – or, as the kids like to call it, Drake. The biggest thing to come out of Compton since The Game fumbled the ball back in the mid-00s has been Kendrick Lamar, and his world-conquering good kid m.A.A.d. city album shone a light on the dark side of cross-generational gangbanging and street life. The celebratory party-gangsta album – a mainstay of West Coast rap in the 1990s – has been largely absent. Gangsta life has been relegated to the over-the-top absurdity of Gucci Mane and Rick Ross, or to the grimy, nihilist underworld of Chief Keef and Chicago’s drill scene. Enter YG, who wants to take it back to the days of Snoop, Dre, and Ice Cube. My Krazy Life, which comes across almost like the gritty, in-the-shit companion album to good kid, thumps with that West Coast bottom end and grooves with the same sort of Parliament/Funkadelic inspired sampling that drove Dre’s “G Funk” movement. It’s basically Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ Redux, with more palm trees and more bottom end ass shaking.
#39: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Killer Mike and EL-P have ridden the hype train since this sequel was announced and only the fuccbois were going to say otherwise. RTJ2 is actually slightly weaker than the original, but this is like saying a cluster bomb doesn’t kill as many as a nuclear explosion. Killer Mike centers himself in violent, paranoid intensity, spouting rapid-fire ticker-tape verses like the proverbial banana clip from the original Run The Jewels. EL-P allows his production to explode outward; the beats slam into the listener with bruising force and explode outward. On their own, they’re each primal forces in the rap game, but together, they’re nearly unstoppable. As an added bonus, killer lead single “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” features a rare, incendiary verse from Zach De La Rocha, which can hopefully only mean good things for future appearances from him.
#38: Iceage – Plowing Into The Field Of Love
New Brigade was a brash young album from a brash young punk band, combining searing new noise with edgy, controversial imagery (including Danish neo-fascist symbols). You’re Nothing doubled down on the noise, devolving now and again into chaos before snapping back into razor-sharp songcraft. Plowing Into The Field Of Love, however, takes a sudden right turn into tuneful songcraft, balancing the sort of harrowing on-the-cliffs-edge sonic disturbance with moments of melody and beauty. “The Lord’s Favourite” is a track that sums up this new tightrope act the best: it stumbles along and nearly crashes on several occasions, but it holds its own internal logic together with spit and shoestrings and delivers a hook that drives right into your living room and takes up residence there. It’s not a knockout album per se, but it sets the band up perfectly to deliver a knockout album next time around.
#37: Black Lips – Underneath The Rainbow
Underneath The Rainbow was produced by Pat Carney and it’s immediately better than the album his own band churned out earlier this year. Black Lips have become extremely adept at this kind of rock and roll: dishevled, slinky garage rock that falls apart into aesthetically pleasing shapes. It’s really not all that much different from what came before but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a thick layer of grime on every track that bleeds debauched authenticity and a scuzzy guitar tone that dials up several decades at once while being beholden to none of them. It’s rock music for people who miss the inebriated swagger the Stones used to bring in their golden days.
#36: Damaged Bug – Hubba Bubba
John Dwyer – the prolific garage-revival madman behind Thee Oh Sees – cannot be contained by just one act. In addition to his Coachwhips work, 2014 adds a new side with Damaged Bug. Hubba Bubba is, at its heart, a love letter to analog synthesizers. Dwyer ditches the guitar in favour of cobbled-together synths whose vintage dates back to the 80s, the wavery sounds of which he marries to staggering beats to create a stoned, pyschadelic electronic pop album. Seemingly not well-received by anyone besides me, it was wilful and deliberately noisy in the sort of way that always seems to appeal to me.
#35: Grouper – Ruins
Liz Harris has this ambient soundscape thing down pat, so it was somewhat surprising that she chose to follow the gorgeous, flowing The Man Who Died In His Boat with something that can be properly described as “stripped down”. Where her previous releases were progressions in processing atmospherics for fun and profit, Ruins relies more on the natural echoes of her piano and recording spaces, as well as judicious use of the analog sustain pedal of that piano. In addition to the reverb of the drums and piano, she works in frogs, birds, and, on “Holding”, the sound of a breaking thunderstorm. Recorded mostly in southern Portugal, Ruins is a hushed, intimate ambient album, the opposite of a Tim Hecker effort in that it gently swells to fill the space rather than brashly occupying all that space at once.
#34: Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste
Azaelia Banks is one of two albums released in 2014 that followed Beyonce’s lead. Having been screwed around by her label for nearly two years, she ditched Polydor/Interscope and released the album herself, dropping it with no press release and no promo work (a la Beyonce’s last album, released in the last days of 2013). A lot of these tracks (“Yung Rapunxel”, “212”) were released as singles during the major label runaround process, but the tracks that weren’t are just as strong and fill out Ms. Banks’ sound to devastating effect. This is hip hop with a relentlessly old-school vibe, a clattering kitchen-sink affair of pulsing rhythms, fly girl rhyming, and instrumentation that straddles the line between retro and cutting-edge. She also refuses to keep her opinions quiet on Twitter, starting fights with pretty much everyone (including one particularly sharp call-out of Black Culture Appropriation Poster Child Iggy Azalea) and, on Boxing Day, stating that the descendants of prominent slave traders should have their houses burned and their finances seized. She’s a heavily talented ball of controversy and as such she’ll be around for quite a while.
#33: Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
John and Alice Coltrane’s grandnephew dug deeper into his jazz roots on his fifth album. He’s famous for forward-thinking melds of hip hop and electronic sounds that pushes into solidly psychedelic territory, especially on 2010’s breakthrough Cosmogramma. You’re Dead! takes the progressive vibe of those albums and marries them to a shredded vision of hard bop. The album has a flow that works in an even more cohesive manner than his previous work; most of the 19 tracks average under two minutes and only make complete sense when listened to in order. The jazzed-out instrumentals are held together by the longer moments that feature a rich panapoly of guest moments: Kendrick Lamar on “Never Catch Me”, Snoop Dogg on “Dead Man’s Tetris”, Angel Deradoorian on “Siren Song”, and Kimbra on “The Protest”. You’re Dead! is one of the most inventive mainstream takes on the legacy of American jazz in the 21st Century, and the strongest effort yet for Flying Lotus.
#32: FKA Twigs – LP1
LP1 is a minimalist dream, an album that rewrites the idea of “spare” and finds a flourishing, soaring sound within the borders of barely sketched-in bass and snare. Tahliah Barnett, former music video dancer, proves her skills as a euphoric singer whose style evokes both the trip-hop glory days and the best moments of R&B. She spins webs of power and sexual frustration, exuding confidence and vulnerability in equal measures. The album is a balancing act between overt sexual desire and the poetic sentimentality that often sugarcoats that desire, delivered in extremely subtle turns and songs that slowly coalesce into singalong moments. There’s more than a bit of the ghost of Aaliyah on these tracks, and it’s been long enough since her untimely death that that’s perfectly okay.
#31: Ty Segall – Manipulator
Ty Segall – lord and master of the neo-garage rawk movement – has been one thing over the course of his six years of recording history, and that is insanely prolific. While not perhaps at the level of Robert Pollard, he made his name churning out singles and albums not only under his own name (eight in six years) but also under the names of seven other bands. It stands to reason, then, that when it was revealed that it took him fourteen months to write and record Manipulator it was an indication that something special. The result was that the album came across as meticulously crafted, the effect of Segall slowing down and concentrating on the details of each individual song. The sound is nothing different in terms of what he’s done before – last year’s Sleeper was a much bigger deviation in terms of pure sonics – but there’s more to chew on this time around. It’s his longest album to date and his most lush, combining the forceful guitar riffs of 70s vintage with rich psychedelic tones. The decades may go on and it may in fact be the 50th anniversary of an album like The Who Sing My Generation this year, but Manipulator is proof that even though ‘classic rock’ is largely unfashionable, there will always be someone willing to come along and mine it for inspiration.