The Incredible String Band – The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion
Released July, 1967 on Elektra Records
Incredible String Band were a couple of Scottish folkies who got their start wanting to be Donovan and Bob Dylan and ended up being mainstays of the lysergic road of the Hippie Trail. Their 1966 self-titled debut showed the former as being big influences; this follow-up included a number of then-exotic instruments (sitar, gimbri, mandolin, etc.) that were incorporated in such a blissful way that “psychedelic folk” leads it’s long, bizarre trail directly back to it. If 1967 was indeed the fabled Summer Of Love, then The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion is the most Love-y album of that summer. This is meant in two senses. In the first sense, 5000 Spirits is pretty much the epitome of psych-folk, which was the driving soundtrack of the naked, wild, flower-dancing hippie children of 1967. In the second sense, it is also the epitome of the more teeth-grinding aspects of that era; it’s overly fey in spots, cutesy beyond credibility (“The Hedgehog’s Song”), incorporates blues music without really understanding the grinding poverty that underpinned the blues (“No Sleep Blues”, “Blues For The Muse”), and plays fast and loose with the era’s regrettable love for freewheeling, womanizing men (“The First Girl I Loved”). There’s little wonder, then, that Paul McCartney called it his favourite album of 1967. Still, as far as documents of a decade’s music go, there’s few records that sum up the 1960s quite as well as 5000 Spirits.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Released July 8th, 2007
Before 2007, Justin Vernon was a folky college rocker with an obscure band (DeYarmond Edison) and a girlfriend. In 2006, after college ended, Vernon and the band moved to North Carolina; the band and the relationship both ended in short order, and Vernon was left with mono and a liver infection, as well as a frustration with songwriting, shitty jobs, and the creeping sense of mediocrity that was building in him at the age of 25. Rather than get a 9-5 and try to settle into obscurity, Vernon exiled himself to his father’s hunting cabin in remote Wisconsin and lived alone for a while, trying to find himself and a new way to write songs without crushing his spirit. He lived through three months of Wisconsin winter, hunting for food, chopping firewood, and at one point fending off a bear. Songwriting came along, developing out of ideas he’d had shortly before a wave of depression drowned everything; they were built out of simpler arrangements, and wordless melodies that were sung in a falsetto.
The eventual result was For Emma, Forever Ago, which Vernon self-released ten years ago today. Originally he’d emerged from the Great Midwestern Wilderness with nine songs and vague plans of using them as a demo to try to convince some label or another to give him money to record a slicker version of it. His stint as the touring guitarist with North Carolina band The Rosebuds convinced him that, much like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Vernon’s recordings already were an album. He released it as such, and he quickly began fielding offers from big indie labels. Everything that came after – the fame, the Grammy (“Who da fuck is Bonny Bear?”), the job as hook man for Kanye West – stems from this, a musical act of coming to terms with the past and the things you can’t get over. “Flume” was written just prior to his breaking up with his girlfriend and retreating to the wild – he claims that it’s the song that pushed him into going in the first place. The subsequent songs dwell in questions of love, of the direction of life, and the sense of being trapped; “Re: Stacks” makes reference to his being trapped in a cycle of online gambling.
I think that this album turning a decade old is the surest sign that I am, in fact, slowly growing old. When an album like Warehouse: Songs And Stories turns 30, it doesn’t hit me as hard because I was 5 when that album came out, and I came to it much later. For Emma, Forever Ago came out when I was 25, the same age as it’s creator, and it’s sense of creeping mediocrity spoke loudly to me. It still does, ten years on, and I hope that I can eventually come to terms with it in as glorious a fashion as Justin Vernon did.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Released May 13th, 2016
During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear. Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.
Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised: a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion. Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid Rap, Coloring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people. “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole. It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets. The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place. Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails: he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it. He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.
Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent. He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas. Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape. It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”: “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / 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”. Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive. Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book. They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.
Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al. He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else. In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.
AND THE REST…
Always Strive And Prosper
04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music
The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.
04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records
Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP. As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.
04/22/2016 on Carpark Records
Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part. In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs. While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact. Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.
Plants And Animals
Waltzed In From The Rumbling
04/29/2016 on Secret City Records
A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue. Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.
Paging Mr. Proust
The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career. Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.
The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album. It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old. At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.
Because there aren’t any albums in this list I want to take the time to commit more than 300 words to.
City Sun Eater In The River Of Life
04/08/2016 on Woodsist Records
The veteran Brooklyn lo-fi folk group plays it safe on their latest album – entirely too safe. Everything here sounds like Woods, even when it’s trying hard not to.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
Call It What It Is
04/08/2016 on Fantasy Records
Ben Harper’s first album with his Innocent Criminals backing band since the first Obama election is a solid return to form, a slick and professional amalgam of his styles: funk, rock, soul, reggae, and old school R&B.
The Dandy Warhols
04/08/2016 on Dine Alone Records
The poster children for diminishing returns approach the singularity. Why even bother at this point?
04/08/2016 on Dualtone Records
The band doubles down on their folky Americana tracing, with a graver tone than the first time around. The best that can be said is that at least they didn’t just go full-on Coldplay like a certain other indie-folk band of saps.
Royce Da 5’9″
04/15/2016 on Bad Half Entertainment
The veteran Detroit rapper isn’t gunning for radio singles or memorable street bangers here. Instead, he leans on his top-notch lyrical skills to deliver a solid, message-driven album that also happens to feature some great hooks.
04/15/2016 on Because Records
The French psych-garage band combines a variety of European traditions – Italian giallo soundtracks, French ye-ye music, Spanish guitar melodies – with hard-hitting American psychedelic garage rock. Features New Order bassist Peter Hook in an obvious cameo on one track.
04/15/2016 on Suicide Squeeze Records
Like Drew Storen, The Coathangers are a once-reliable outfit that has lost its velocity and therefore it’s meaning by 2016. They try to develop some new tricks but, also like Storen, it remains to be seen whether they can pull that off in the long-run.
04/15/2016 on Dead Oceans Records
The former Woods bassist puts out a lush album of moves cribbed from the Bob Dylan playbook. Not exactly essential, but not a throwaway album either.
04/15/2016 on Secretly Canadian Records
A sort of lazy-eyed post-punk, like if Thom Yorke fronted an underground band. There’s nothing here that reinvents the wheel or even improves upon an aspect of their influences, but it passes the time well enough.
Surgical Meth Machine
Surgical Meth Machine
04/15/2016 on Nuclear Blast Records
After putting Ministry to bed with a trio of albums that all said the same thing (“George W Bush sucks”), Al Jourgenson returns in 2016 with a project that blends industrial oblivion with the blurred effect of speed metal. It doesn’t have the hard-hitting punch of his Ministry days but it’s funnier than anything he’s done in years, and the latter half of the album has more hooks than a bait shop.
Love Letter For Fire
04/15/2016 on Sub Pop Records
The Iron & Wine frontman teams up with Jesca Hoop to put together an album of rich country-tinged folk ballads that I can’t remember a blessed thing about as soon as they’re over.
04/15/2016 on Livity Sound Recordings
When it comes to electronic music meant to get you moving, Utility is competent. That’s not really a compliment but it’s not altogether denigrating either. You could do worse.
04/22/2016 on Susannasonata Records
An effective blend of the baroque majesty of Joanna Newsom and the cutting-edge mystique of St. Vincent. It would be a much better album if it wasn’t so overly long.
Asphalt For Eden
04/22/2016 on Profound Lore Records
Dense, thick, and lo-fi, the hip-hop group’s first album in six years (with new members) hits all of the right notes from their previous, critically acclaimed efforts. Noisy without being willfully so, and brief without being truncated.
Special Friday Edition!
Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music. Ha. Ha ha. Well, they try, that’s the important thing.
If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist: I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is. In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right. Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above: it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.
Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.
June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)
#1: Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”
Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton. Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before. In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.
#2: Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”
Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song. Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set. Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.
#3: Beck – “Wow”
Ah, the new Beck track. The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album. Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness. Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion. Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.
#4: The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”
The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead. My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick. Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.
#5: A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”
Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names? Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging? Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth? Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?
Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.
#6: The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”
Okay, show of hands. Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback? Anyone? Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ. Wait, this is actually sort of good. I…I kind of like this. Noel Gallagher co-wrote it? I suppose that explains some things.
#7: Portugal. The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”
Who gave the indie kids access to the internet? They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great. It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act. You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up. Good work, Reddit.
#8: Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”
The rest of the post title literally reads: “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.
Who are you trying to fool, anyway? We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.
Decent tune though.
#9: Link Wray – “Rumble”
Link Wray poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino. At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .
#10: Joywave – “Nice House”
Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden. The outro is rather nice though.
TODAY’S AVERAGE: B- (Not bad, Reddit!)
And now for a new sequence, brought to you by the…ahem…”tastemakers” of Reddit’s infamously awful /r/music community.
It’s often said that Reddit has shitty taste in music. Granted it’s usually 4chan’s /mu/ community saying that, but let’s be serious here. Whether it’s the constant love of Queen and Foo Fighters that makes me roll my eyes or the circlejerking over how superior they are because of their love of Tool, /r/music is a bottomfeeder in terms of music communities.
Or is it? I’ve decided to start an ongoing series where I listen to the top ten songs posted to /r/music in a 24 hour period and assign them completely subjective ratings based on my own insane whims and thought processes. Then we’ll see if /r/music’s taste actually sucks as badly as I’ve always thought.
Without further ado, I give to you:
June 1st, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM)
#1: Rancid – “Ruby Soho”
The most poppy and milquetoast of all of the Clash-rip-off’s poppy and milquetoast songs. /r/music loves punk rock, but only if it’s from Le Nineties and it’s been beaten to death on the radio since then.
#2: The Avalanches – “Frankie Sinatra”
The first time since 2001 that Australian sample-stackers The Avalanches release new music AND it’s fucking stellar? You win this time Reddit. You win this time.
#3: Dethklok – “I Ejaculate Fire”
I’d say something snarky about how the only way metal gets to the top of Reddit is in cartoon form but I can’t hate on Dethklok. This isn’t completely dildos.
#4: Johnny Cash – “Rusty Cage”
The best that can be said of this is that at least Reddit took a break from jerking off over “Hurt”. At least with “Rusty Cage” I don’t have to read about how “REZNOR TOTALLY SAID THAT SONG BELONGED TO JOHNNY CASH NOW BECAUSE THE COVER WAS SO MUCH BETTER!!1!11!”. In fact, one of the top comments is the exact opposite. Thank you, Jesus.
#5: The Distillers – “The Young Crazed Peeling”
Man it has been a long time since I thought of Brody and The Distillers. It still sounds like Courtney Love fronting Rancid to me, and as the years have gone by that prospect appeals to me exponentially less. Also, those fucking spikes. Jesus Brody, how much money did you shell out to get that look down just right? How punk rock of you.
#6: Huey Lewis And The News – “If This Is It”
Jesus Christ Reddit, Bret Easton Ellis was being ironic. What the hell is wrong with you?
#7: Lagwagon – “Island Of Shame”
Apparently it’s awful pop punk day on Reddit. Lagwagon was that band that was there for you if Pennywise was too edgy for you. Completely indistinguishable from anything else on Epitaph in the mid-90s.
#8: Grand Funk Railroad – “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)”
GFR got a lot of hate back in the day from critics because, well, they’re not really that good on average. Still, they were capable of moments of brilliance, and “I’m Your Captain” is one of those. For more on Grand Funk Railroad, consult your local library.
#9: Men At Work – “Down Under”
Goofy Eighties pop rock from the Gowan of Australia. I often wonder who posts these sorts of songs. Kids nostalgic for a time they never had to live through? Adults putting on rose-coloured nostalgia glasses? Mouthbreathers who listen to bland Mix FM stations at work? At least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.
#10: The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (aka The KLF) – “It’s Grim Up North”
Reddit’s sizeable school shooter community comes through in the clutch.
TODAY’S AVERAGE: C+
School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB
Released February 26th, 2016 on Vagrant Records
School Of Seven Bells were never one of the bands pushed by indie radio that really ever appealed to me. They came off as the nadir of the cross-pollination of shoegaze and dream pop, an amalgamation of the worst parts of both that hung around like the miasma of a bad dream for just long enough to get obnoxious. I didn’t expect much when I sat down with SVIIB, their fourth (and now final) album.
As it turns out, it’s leaps and bounds beyond their earlier material, a record that takes in the best moments of Eighties alt-pop while still remaining aloof and individual. It’s slick, but dreamy; the drums hit hard but the melodies remain slippery. It seems like a celebration and in a way it is. During the process of recording (in 2013), one half of the duo, Benjamin Curtis, passed away from lymphoma. Alejandra Dehaza took what they had, polished it up with some help, and released this one last School Of Seven Bells album. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had just walked away from the project after her creative partner died, but the fact that she stuck to it and released such a stellar final album is a bit inspiring in its own way. It’s a hell of a way to go out, and at the very least it leaves me with fond memories of a group that I previously had no such memories of.
And the rest…
Cavern of Anti-Matter
Void Beats/Invocation Trex
02/19/2016 on Duophonic Records
Electronic music may be a big festival draw now but it’s origins lie in open synth work layered over Krautrock-inspired motorik beats. Cavern of Anti-Matter take their chosen genre back to its retro moment, conjuring up images of later Kraftwerk or E2-E4.
Life Of Pause
02/19/2016 on Bella Union Records
As usual, Wild Nothing’s latest record conjures up a daydream of the Eighties, a snatch of John Hughes remembered at the moment of death. Like most Wild Nothings records, the single is the best part, but there are some real moments of strength and revelation found throughout.
02/19/2016 on Golf Channel Records
A seamless blend of West African heart, German efficiency, and the classic thump of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Harder to pin down than your average hip hop record, and a good sight more freeing.
Meet The Humans
02/26/2016 on Domino Records
Overly sensitive without being eye-rollingly weepy, Meet The Humans dances all over the pop-rock map in search of Mason’s heart, and hits far more often than it misses.
In Search Of Harperfield
02/26/2016 on Chemikal Underground Records
Country-folkie with a nice enough turn of phrase and a decent sense of navigation around a plaintive melody, still not much to really write home about. A record you can take home to mama, but not a record you can really take out and party with.
#20: The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ
Wrestling is a sport (sorry, “sports entertainment”) that has elicited a rather divided reaction over the past few decades. To some it’s a tiresome recreation of patriarchal gender roles, emphasizing hyper-masculinity through a series of half-cocked storylines that repeat the same simplistic hero-villain duality over and over again. To others – and John Darnielle is in this particular listing – it’s a pure distillation of justice and morality, set up for ease of viewing and digestion. In many ways Beat The Champ is the aural companion piece to Mickey Rourke’s 2009 film The Wrestler; both focus on the grit and loneliness of being a pro wrestler. These are not the pro wrestlers of the WWE; they are the lonely men that wander the roads between the cities, going from one match in a packed gymnasium to the next, getting television coverage where they can, unknown outside of their own home regions. These are men for whom turning the heel means their career is winding down, men for whom death is always snipping at their heels. When one such character is murdered near San Juan, it is exactly as much as we expect; a life of simulated violence only leads to the real thing in the end. Still, there’s a glimmer of dawn on that deserted road: love, justice, and the raw triumph of the moment are always lingering, like the carrot in the midst of the path.
#19: U.S. Girls – Half Free
Meg Remy emigrated to Canada after toiling in the small noise labels of America for quite a while. Since then, her career has taken an upward trajectory, culminating (so far) in Half Free, which Remy explicitly mentioned was a collection of character studies in the vein of Bruce Springsteen or John Cassavettes. The characters of Half Free are far more Darkness On The Edge Of Town than they are Born To Run. These are women whom life has taken more than a few swings at, women that are on the desperate bleeding edge between life and death. A husband is revealed to have slept with all of his wife’s sisters before settling with her; another dies in a valley in Iraq and the grief of his war-widow wife is palpable. There are women who stand up and say “enough is enough” and leave their philandering and/or abusive men. It’s touched off with a lengthy slab of high-contrast Italo-Disco that stands up as a screed against the dictates of the religion of beauty. It’s a deeply feminist record, and one in which pop tropes and messy noise compositions stand together hand in hand.
#18: Ought – Sun Coming Down
The poppiest band on Constellation Records is really only marginally accessible, as you might imagine. Ought take the ideas and the sounds of early 80s post-punk and run with them, mutating them until they become something vital and alive once again. This is the relentless motorik energy of The Feelies and the skewed tilt of the Talking Heads melded with cut-up riffs from the DIY emo scene of the mid 90s, delivered with a view towards the desperation of modernity. In the hands of Ought, that desperation is surrendered to and, in that surrender, is shown to be a blissful, clarifying escape.
#17: Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack
The Great Vaporwave Album of Hip Hop – the Chinese Democracy of rap, if you will – was Detox, the supposed third album by the kingpin producer of the West Coast, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young. It was revealed this year that Dre has put Detox to bed permanently, unable to come up with anything that would truly live up to the hype. Instead, we got Compton, inspired by the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton and packaged with the eye of a man who has been watching his city change from idealistic suburb to gang-ridden warzone and back again since the early 80s. The vision and sound presented here are only partially Dre, however. Dre, whose discoveries have included Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game, found in Kendrick Lamar a talent that would take over; if Compton bears a resemblance to To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s because Lamar has stamped his features indelibly on both. Anderson.Paak takes the Bilal role here, wrapping the retro-facing jazz, soul, and funk slices in warm buttery vocals; the songs become an introduction for every aspiring rapper that Dre has been mentoring over the past few years. It’s a widescreen, cinematic view of Dre, Dre’s city, and the West Coast in general.
#16: Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too
The Edinburgh hip hop group declared that White Men Are Black Men Too, the follow up to their 2014 Mercury Prize-winning debut Dead, would “break them out of the ghetto”. While the album still revolves around a hard centre of hip hop, the songs play with that form until it is at times unrecognizable. White Men reinterprets British pop and distills key elements out of it, then adds in influences from the continent. If calling Young Fathers “hip hop” makes no sense to you, it’s because the group has increasingly less connection to the American sense of the genre. Instead, they choose to move forward, bringing in trip hop, krautrock, British electronic traditions, and avant art-pop to leaven the aggressive vocals and focus on beats that tethers them, however tenuously, to the hip hop tradition. This is Euro-rap, in a sense; bristling with ambition and aggression, but insistent that art should mean something, and that this meaning can take on a life in and of itself.
#15: Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Earl locked himself in his basement so you don’t have to. He details the gory, gritty details of his descent into being a young, cynical curmudgeon so that you can walk outside, feel the sun on your neck, and be thankful for your existence. When OFWGKTA leader Tyler, The Creator started tweeting earlier this year about “people” whose attitudes brought him down and that life was great, you don’t need to do so many drugs, stop being so depressed all the time, etc. it was clear that Earl was who he was talking about. The fact that Tyler’s album was a bomb and Earl’s was not is telling about who should be proferring advice to whom in the rap game.
#14: Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Just Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Melbourne indie phenom Courtney Barnett caused a lot of heads to turn with her twin EPs, packaged together last year as A Sea of Split Peas. Her debut magnifies what made those two EPs work. Barnett’s eye for detail exceeds pretty much anyone else out there whose name isn’t Dennis Coles, and she uses it to weave quotidian stories that cross class and gender boundaries. These are universalist themes: embarassment, ennui, confusion, creeping depression. The subjects are light-hearted for the most part – a girl who nearly drowns at the public pool trying to impress someone, a guy who skips off work to watch the city from above and gets mistaken for a jumper, a person who can’t sleep picking out all the mundane parts of her room – but there’s a real existential weight that drags at them. There’s real life going on here, in all of it’s ragged glory, and Courtney Barnett is the person to bring it all to the light.
#13: Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie
Girl Band is not a post-punk band. Instead, the Irish quartet take the sounds of post-punk and deconstruct them. “Deconstruct” is sort of a misnomer; what they really do is smash them with a hammer, melt them with a blowtorch, and weld them back together in amusing and vaguely horrifying shapes. Their lyrics are bizarre, cut-and-paste, and obsessed with food, in perfect keeping with the sound of the album. Unlike most blasphemous creations, the misshapen, mutated sounds on display here don’t ever croak out a hair-raising “kill me”; instead, they swarm for your jugular and don’t let up until they’ve rinsed your bones clean of flesh. If that sounds like a fun experience, it’s because it is.
#12: Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
If You’re Reading This dropped like an atom bomb: completely by surprise and with devastating force. Coming out of nowhere (and a rumoured record label tiff with Birdman and Cash Money Records), it was originally meant to be a free mixtape. At the last minute, Drake decided to release it as an actual album that you had to pay for – and made millions in the process. The entirety of the rest of Drake’s year stemmed from this: the Meek Mill beef, the wild success of his diss track, the frenzy around “Hotline Bling”, and the even-more-hyped anticipation for the forthcoming Views From The Six. And why not? The record is a study in modern beatcraft: spare, menacing, and throbbing with that 808 bass. Drake’s delivery is on point, and his use of ear worms as hooks makes for an album you’ll be humming forever. If this was, as rumoured, the cutting-room floor of the Views sessions, then the future album will be a monolith.
#11: Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
In the summer of 2006 Vince Staples was 13 and being introduced to life in the crime-ridden streets of Long Beach, CA. Summertime ’06, his debut, is an attempt to capture the peaks and valleys of that time of his life, and it cuts deeply. Drug taking, drug selling, gun play, the mercurial interplay of love and casual sex: none of it is shied away from, and Vince Staples keeps a duality of magic and regret in balance for the duration. The production is handled expertly, the bulk of it by No ID and Clams Casino. The Clams Casino tracks are among the best tracks he’s ever had a hand in, especially on the nauseous “Norf Norf”. Summertime ’06 transformed Vince Staples from being merely another OFWGKTA associate to being one of the biggest emerging stars in the rap game.
#10: Viet Cong – Viet Cong
From the ashes of tragedy, a pheonix rises. Women were a Calgary band that garnered a great deal of good press for being hard-edged experimenters with indie rock sounds. When Chris Reimer, Women’s guitarist, died, half the band went on to form Viet Cong with members of Lab Coast. Viet Cong, their debut, fuses post-punk sensibilities with aspects of electronic, lo-fi, and noise to create an art rock that is specifically their own. The tracks on the record are a delicate balance between constructed hook-oriented melodies and messy, coloured-outside-the-lines noise worship. Jangly R.E.M.-indebted 12 string guitars line up next to forceful, droning keyboards and relentless drum patterns; it’s a fusion of man and machine that points toward the future even as it keeps one foot entrenched in the recent past.
#09: Grimes – Art Angels
The effort to follow up Visions, her 4AD breakthrough, has been painful. It’s only been three years, but in that short time the Montreal singer has already recorded and scrapped an entire album, leaving only the enigmatic single “REALiTi” as proof that it had ever even existed. The reasons were probably numerous, but the most obvious one is that the scrapped album featured production work by other people, and Claire Boucher is not the sort of artist to let other people do her speaking for her. Art Angels instead features songs and production by the artist herself, a package of visual and aural media that outlines the particular, peculiar vision that is Boucher’s very own. This is pop that isn’t afraid to be pop, filtered through the lens of someone for whom pop means something different from the way the rest of us use the word. This is an album where “high concept” and “ridiculously catchy” can exist side by side without it ever being considered strange, where the cheerleader-esque vocals on “Kill V Maim” can seem perfectly right, rather than a Gwen Stefani-style effort to seem hip. This is, in short, pop as it should be: willing to move forward, disdaining the safe path in favour of making people think and dance at the same time.
#08: Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Patrick Stickles is a weird dude. The New Jersey punk frontman started off as the most literate Shakespeare nerd in the indie punk world, expanded on this with a sprawling concept album that merged the U.S. Civil War with modern post-crash New Jersey, and then retreated into the small and mundane – into “Local Business”. That last album, Local Business, held odd allusions to despair, depression, and eating disorders; The Most Lamentable Tragedy expands on these themes to the extent that the listener becomes uncomfortably aware that Stickles is dealing with his own problems. In lesser hands this would be a slog, but Stickles and his band make the crushing grind of clinical depression and its resultant branching symptoms seem like the most invigorating thing on Earth. Returning to the sprawling form that made The Monitor such a messy delight, the band burns through jagged power-pop, lengthy drone-rock, burningly intimate ballads, and, in “Dimed Out”, the sharpest blast of punk rock to grace the year. It’s a triumph, all the more so because of the obviously painful circumstances that gave birth to it.
#07: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
The pillar of the entire post-rock genre have returned, proving that the surprise strength of Polaris Prize-winning album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend was not a fluke. Asunder finds them paring down their sound to its essentials, cutting the fat that mired them originally in the swamp of 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. Godspeed in 2015 is a band that has more to do with Black Sabbath than with the avant-garde; every movement, through guitars, strings, or pure noise, is built to evoke a cacophonous drone of doom that sums up all of the existential dread that weighs down the West as we move further into the 21st Century. Godspeed have lost the train noises and the warnings about solicitors in the parking lot, but they have kept all of the apocalyptic fury that powered their best work.
#06: Destroyer – Poison Season
Kaputt brought Vancouver’s Dan Bejar into the limelight, but it was the very last thing he wanted to happen. Tellingly, he dropped the exploration of yacht rock and lite disco that informed his world-weary work on Kaputt in favour of musical snapshots of life in New York City. Poison Season offers the haze of the crowded streets, the sultry jazz of the night, and especially the wailing heartland saxophones of vintage Bruce Springsteen. Not just any Bruce, though; Poison Season channels the Boss as he was on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. These are songs that aren’t afraid to get lengthy, to shift gears, to fall in love with themselves as much as they’ve fallen in love with their subject matter. This is Bejar at his best, poetic and mystical in as much as he is self-deprecating and uncomfortable with himself and his surroundings.
#05: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
Rock n Roll comebacks are a tricky thing. While any band that’s ever tasted success tries to come back after a decade or so of being apart to try to cash in on their old fame with new albums, none of them ever manage to make it work like they did before. Black Sabbath tried to recapture the magic with 13 but the only people listening were curmudgeonly “modern rock” stations that were trying to freeze the clock at 2001. Any band that ever lived through the Eighties never made it back. Soundgarden and Alice In Chains have tried to muddle along as though their respective hiatuses never happened, but they’ve never sounded the same since. There’s usually a story – some pheonix-like rise from the ashes of hitting rock bottom – and that story is supposed to galvanize their fanbase into buying the album and pretending that it’s as good as anything they’ve ever heard before. A lot of people are good at that pretense.
Sleater-Kinney, though, don’t have much of a story. Or, rather, perhaps they have the best story. They were sitting around with Fred Armisen watching advance screenings of Portlandia episodes when they decided that it might be fun to play live again. They’d been out of commission since 2005 and The Woods, an album that was commonly thought of as the best possible record to bow out on – go out on top, after all. The ten years between The Woods and No Cities To Love are so chock-full of media projects of various stripes that by all rights it should have been the story of any other band: they should have lost their way, forgotten what it meant to sound like Sleater-Kinney, and turned out a half-baked excuse to tour, like any other band stemming from the 1990s.
No Cities To Love is not that album. It is, simply put, the eighth Sleater-Kinney album. It sounds as though there never was an intervening period of time between the two. The guitar lines are still as knotted and imposingly complex as they ever were, the vocals still as impassioned, topical, and liberating. If Sleater-Kinney were the pillars of the riot grrl movement in the mid-1990s, it’s telling that they’re still a pillar as such. There is just as much room for them to carry the standard for righteous feminism in 2015 as their was in 1995, and they carry it as though it never left their fingers. Unlike their contemporaries, Sleater-Kinney still sounds exactly like Sleater-Kinney, and it’s a fucking rush to hear it.
#04: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens is best known for his massive pop gestures. Albums like Illinoise or The Age of Adz married blissful pop melodies to orchestral symphonies of folk instrumentation and thereby made his bones. Carrie & Lowell, by contrast, sounds more like 2004’s Seven Swans, an acoustic collection released before either of those aforementioned albums. This is Sufjan Stevens stripped down to his elements – guitar, voice, maybe some piano here and there for effect. Despite this, he manages to fill the sonic room just as well as he does when he’s piling on hundreds of voices and crafting shaky little symphonies to John Wayne Gacy. The songs sound gigantic, and a lot of that has to do with the way he’s learned to use his voice over the past decade.
The origins of Carrie & Lowell stem from the 2012 death of Sufjan’s mother, the titular Carrie. Life with Carrie was difficult as she was both a paranoid schizophrenic and addicted to drugs and alcohol. After Carrie left her family, Sufjan only saw her on vacation with his new stepfather, the titular Lowell – who also manages the Asthmatic Kitty record label that Sufjan has recorded for since the beginning of his career. Carrie & Lowell is a reminiscence of sorts of those times, and as such it performs two functions. First, it allows Sufjan to grieve, by committing all of the good and bad parts of his memories to song. Secondly, it’s consistent referencing to Oregon makes it so that it can be said that Carrie & Lowell is the third in Sufjan’s half-joking ambition to make an album for each of the 50 states (Michigan and Illinois being the first two).
Carrie & Lowell is an album about grief and death, and the hope for rebirth that can spring from them. It runs the gamut from bleak to hopeful, and it encompasses Sufjan’s faith in a way that doesn’t feel overt or forced. It’s a spiritual album by a spiritual man that doesn’t shove its spirituality down your throat – a rare item indeed in these times.
#03: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman was originally a member of Seattle neo-folkies Fleet Foxes. When that project went on apparently indefinite hiatus he tried his hand at solo albums. When those solo albums went nowhere, he created the character of Father John Misty, a lothario and a “ladies man” whose mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing made him a compelling, sarcastic, hilarious character on Fear Fun, the character’s debut. There’s only so far you can go with a character like that, though, so when it came time to record a follow-up it was a matter of anything goes.
Character study or not, all things flow from the author. Given Tillman’s subsequent marriage, it is unsurprising that I Love You, Honeybear is an album at once about the fear and uncertainty stemming from one night stands and casual relationship and the surprising stability and comfort of a more lasting relationship. This is an album where a girl almost dies in his bathtub, where he can’t perform for the most annoying girl he’s ever met, where he stumbles in wasted at seven in the morning screaming that he’s going to get some girl pregnant. That this is also an album where two lovers watch the economic apocalypse occur, where Tillman yearns to actually talk to his lover and not just on a phone or tablet, and where he outlines how he met his wife and what he thinks their future holds, cannot be overlooked.
Tillman melds the best parts of the singer-songwriter tradition to create a vision that is, at its core, scruffy folk-pop, but a scruffy folk-pop that sounds fully realized and artistically sound. Strings, pianos, and guitars are everywhere, and yet never does one voice seem to overpower any other, even Tillman’s own. It is worth mentioning that the best part of “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” is not Tillman’s impassioned account of giving in and taking the plunge, but the mariachi horns that burst out near the end of the song, a brass orgasm that feels more satisfying than any other musical moment this year.
#02: Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Black metal was long ago relegated to the extremes of even an extreme musical movement like metal. Rather than clearly defined riffs and brutal, gorilla-like vocals, it preferred to blur everything together, approaching shoegaze more than Slayer. It was a movement that was staunchly anti-commercial, trying to be as edgy as possible while conjuring up sounds that eerily approximated the howl of the Norwegian winter.
The second wave of black metal involved the Americans, who adopted the sound of black metal – blurring riffs, blastbeats, howling vocals – while ditching much of the immature, pretentious Satanism that infested the Norwegian bands. Deafheaven belongs to a movement that is beyond even this second wave – a movement often decried as not being pure enough by black metal purists. This includes Liturgy – the ultimate in Brooklyn hipster appropriations of musical styles – and Deafheaven.
Sunbather, Deafheaven’s breakthrough album, was a howling merger between black metal, noise punk, and shoegaze, a metallic meeting of genres that absconded with traditional metal imagery altogether in favour of class struggle, alienation, and isolation. New Bermuda carries on in this vein, albeit in a bleaker way. New Bermuda is, at its core, an album concerned with the abanonment of joy. Nothing feels good anymore. Work is drudgery, and the life that comes after it has become drudgery as well. Hobbies barely stave off boredom. Sex doesn’t happen anymore. Life is intolerable, inescapable, and the only way out is through the bliss of death.
At the same time, New Bermuda musically invokes a chilling, majestic form of joy all its own. The black metal core is still there, but there are also more straightforward nods to traditional heavy metal structures, drone-noise, and hazy dream pop moments. It is as surreal as it is bleak, and it moves New Bermuda from being unrelentingly bleak to be relatably so. It’s the sort of depressing montage of images that can avoid being overwhelming by resonating with nearly everyone who listens to it. This is life, warts and all, dressed up in the best cross-cultural promotion of heavy metal styles heard in decades.
#01: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly