Winter Roundup 2016


Well, after being sick for most of the last two months I find myself behind on a lot of listening.  So here we’ll wrap up all of the albums I’ve listened to in the last two weeks and hopefully we can move on from there.  There may be a second part, there’s still a long list to go after this.

Shearwater – Jet Plane And Oxbow

(01/22/2016 on Sub Pop Records)

Krautrock rhythms and big guitars let the band’s ninth album transcend where they’ve been and point to big promises as to where they’re going.

Rihanna – Anti

(01/28/2016 on Roc Nation)

It’s always fun to watch an established pop artist push herself forwards, even if it’s just in increments.  Plus, making Drake put in work is always a good idea.

Black Tusk – Pillars Of Ash

(01/29/2016 on Relapse Records)


Kevin Gates – Islah

(01/29/2016 on Atlantic Records)

Bizarrely good, like a steak sandwich prepared in the back of a grimy diner whose walls are dripping with sludge.  Kevin Gates is a weird guy, a fan-kicker, has lame gun tats on his hands, and doesn’t believe in vaccinations.  Still, Islah overflows with hypnotic flow and oddly great hooks – “Hard For” being the most out-there of them all.

Milk Teeth – Vile Child

(01/29/2016 on Hopeless Records)

Derivative as hell, it still works when the female vocalist comes on and the band approximates the sort of 90s hard rock that Speedy Ortiz has been repackaging.  Then when the guy comes on and tries his hand at Husker Du it all falls apart.

Dream Theater –  The Astonishing

(01/29/2016 on Roadrunner Records)

There are days that I swear the word “pretentious” was invented to describe Dream Theater.

Cross Record – Wabi Sabi

(01/29/2016 on Ba Da Bing Records)

Art rock that walks a fine line between gorgeously dreamy and blackly despairing, Wabi Sabi is a record that soaks up dream pop and New Wave influences in equal measure.

Bloc Party – Hymns

(01/29/2016 on BMG Records)

So many of the most hyped-up bands from the early 00s became the poster children for the concept of diminishing returns.  Interpol, The Killers, The Strokes, and of course Bloc Party.  Hymns is the nadir of Bloc Party’s career, an utterly boring collection of electro-washed power balladry that requires serious endurance to make it through.

Josephine Foster – No More Lamps In The Morning

(02/05/2016 on Fire Records)

A live re-recording of older songs, No More Lamps In The Morning brings out the sheer power in Foster’s songs.  The first comparison will always be Joni Mitchell, but like Joanna Newsom there’s something deeper and older at work here, something that crackles with early radio signals and speaks of cleaner air and bygone days.

Junior Boys – Big Black Coat

(02/05/2016 on City Slang Records)

Sleek electronic songs that are more subdued than some of their contemporaries but are also more subtle, and more affecting.

Nonkeen – The Gamble

(02/05/2016 on R & S Records)

Complicated and wild, bouncing from solemn, rainy-day contemplation to the sort of drum-led freakouts that made Starless And Bible Black such a treat.  Call it electro-prog if you have to call it something.

Pinegrove – Cardinal

(02/12/2016 on Run For Cover Records)

New Jersey has grown its own peculiar brand of punk rock over the past decade, one where howling black-hearted hardcore stands shoulder to shoulder with reedy folk-country Americana.  Pinegrove is a key example of this sound, combining youthful energy and a folk-punk yelp with a more studied and mature rootsy depth.

Radiation City – Synesthetica

(02/12/2016 on Polyvinyl Records)

Reverb-laden dream pop with Eighties influences that doesn’t manage to do, well, much of anything.

Ra Ra Riot – Need Your Light

(02/19/2016 on Barsuk Records)

After a regrettable detour into electronic music, Ra Ra Riot has returned with the sort of brightly coloured, anthemic pop rock they were best known for.  It all goes downhill from the first song but “Water” is such a great song that you’d hardly notice.

Brood Ma – Daze

(02/19/2016 on Tri Angle Records)

An electronic record that is rooted more in disquieting industrial-tinged dread-making than it is in creating dancefloor bliss.  An amalgamation of dark vision and darker sounds.

Wolfmother – Victorious

(02/19/2016 on Universal Records)

When they stick to the rote Sabbath worship my fist can at least pump into the air.  When they delve into messy balladry that smells of cheese and bad Uriah Heep, however, I’m left feeling limp.

Matmos – Ultimate Care II

(02/19/2016 on Thrill Jockey Records)

If you’ve ever wanted to hear a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine used as the main instrument on an album, look no further.


Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums Of 2013 (So Far), Part Five


And here we are at the top 10.  What a ride.  Or something.  This list will probably undergo some transformation before the end of the year, naturally, but it’s hard to say how radical that change will be.  Especially the top 10, although I’m certain some of it will shift before we call it quits on 2013.  And if you haven’t bought my book yet, you should do that before the end of 2013, too.  Or, say, before the end of today.  That would be nice too.  HINT HINT:


#10:  Baths – “Obsidian”

Cerulean was such an amazing debut that it was hard for me to imagine Will Wiesenfeld topping it.  Yet, here we are, with the stellar sophomore album Obsidian.  The terms are darker, this time around; the aching beauty is souring, turning in on itself, yet never once does it become a drag to listen to.  It will leap out of your stereo and ask you to commiserate with it, and you will.



Here we are, sweating through the summer of 2013, and to aid in this we have an album that breathes sweltering punk abandon, from the opening shots of “Cheap Beer” (I DRINK CHEAP BEER SO WHAT FUCK YOU) through each and every classic L.A. skater punk nugget.  They win no points for originality, and they don’t need to:  this is pure, raw rock ‘n’ roll, and if you need more than you should simply have another beer and repeat until you don’t care any more.


#08:  Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories”

I heard “Get Lucky” on an Easy Rock format station the other day.  That’s how ubiquitous this album is getting:  your mom has heard it, your office secretary has heard it, the middle manager at your firm has heard it, all the kids in your class are blasting it from their bedroom windows.  My neighbours are doing that, possibly right as we speak.  It’s not the most pretentious or artsy funk album, but it’s certainly the most effective.  Daft Punk Everywhere:  that’s the Summer of 2013, folks.  Now lose yourself to dance.


#07:  Parquet Courts – “Light Up Gold”

Barely an album from 2013, but technicality is the soul of life, or something; regardless, the album counts (thank you mid-January re-release) and is top-to-bottom impressive.  This is a album of poppy punk, but not pop-punk; it lacks the genre’s characteristically annoying adolescence and sk8r-boi mentality and substitutes smart melodic sense and a refreshingly full brevity.  These songs will stick in your head and they will take up residence there.


#06:  Foxygen – “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic”

There are albums that are derivative and this is a bad thing; they wear their influences like riot shields, proclaiming that they’re just like Band X in an attempt to woo people who are looking for bands just like Band X.  Then, there are bands like Foxygen.  Foxygen is not original.  One listen to “No Destruction” will tell you immediately that they are heavily indebted to the magic of the Psychedelic Sixties.  At the same time, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly which bands they’re ripping off at any one given time.  Instead, it’s safest to say that they’re ripping off the entire decade at once:  We Are is a distillation of every great moment the decade produced, solidified into one hell of an homage.


#05:  Boards Of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

There are a number of bands releasing albums in 2013 that haven’t released albums in quite some time.  It may not have been as long an interval from The Campfire Headphase as, say, Loveless, but it’s safe to say that, of all the classic bands, few have or will approach the level of quality offered up by this Scottish duo.  That Campfire alienated a lot of long-time fans is a matter of public record; to the group’s credit, Tomorrow’s Harvest sounds like it takes up where the much better Geogaddi left off back in 2002.


#04:  The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”

The band’s sixth album finds them settling into a serious groove, where the style is their very own and it’s done to perfection.  It continues on perfectly in an evolution of sound from Alligator onward, mellowing out slightly from High Violet but retaining the crushing sense of sad-eyed aplomb.  It’s hard to name a better pop band operating today.


#03:  Deafheaven – “Sunbather”

An immediately gripping set that combines the best parts of black metal with the best movements of post-rock and creates something that may not be entirely wholly new but is definitely the most cohesive statement of such music ever made.  The bleak, winter-driven howls and blur-of-shoegaze guitars are there, but the suite-sets and crescendo-patterns are pure post-rock; the result is something that is not black metal, but can be considered to be truly post-black metal.  Definitely a junction-point in the fringe of music, and an album that will be pored over and discussed for years to come.


#02:  Kanye West – “Yeezus”

The most divisive album of the year:  those who like it, like it a lot, and vice versa.  The distorted synths and electro drums gained fans and enemies in equal measure.  The fact, however, is this:  even when it was obsessive online haters trying to dominate the conversation, it still meant that people were talking about Kanye and only Kanye.  The man is likely the premier artist of our musical times, a juggernaut that is helping to bring hip hop into its artistic phase, much as the Beatles helped usher in the artsy phase of rock ‘n’ roll.  The album is a winner, though, repetitive internet shitposters be damned; it is a brutal blend of swag rap, pummeling post-OFWGKTA production, and trap music, touched off with a classic Kanye soul sample in the end.



#01:  Deerhunter – “Monomania”

Deerhunter have been the most consistently impressive rock band in recent memory; Cryptograms, Microcastle, and Halcyon Days are all stone cold classics, utilizing devastating rhythms, obscure vocals, and a deliciously smoky sense of haze to craft the very definition of cutting-edge indie rock.  Monomania finds them stripping away a lot of that haze; the idea this time out seems to be to craft a much more stripped-down, straight-ahead version of Deerhunter, and the results are nothing short of stupendous.  It’s a leather-jacket album, touching on garage, freewheeling spirits, and a newfound love of the Grateful Dead.  For longtime fans of the band, this can be somewhat off-putting at first, until that first rhythmic groove kicks in; from then on, you realize it’s Deerhunter, larger than life and fifty times tougher.  Much like Microcastle, it’s become my go-to album:  when all else fails, I reach for Monomania, because I’m always in the mood for it.

Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums of 2013 (So Far), Part Four


Top 20 time, with a couple of radical Scandinavians, some burning garage rock, some glittering cold post-punk, and a stunning ambient debut.  Did I mention that you should buy my book?  Did I mention that you can get it right here and it only costs $3?


#20:  The Knife – “Shaking The Habitual”

Silent Shout was a glittering example of how effecting pop could be forged out of Eurotrance cheese.  Shaking The Habitual is an example of how to advance social justice through pure dark noise.  Less a darkwave/pop album than it is a black ambient record, the Foucault-referencing, hyper-radical tracks found on here seem at times to eat light.  The perfect soundtrack for when your radical gender studies study group starts to get druggy.


#19:  Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Push The Sky Away”

If Dig Lazarus Dig!!! was the raucous, garage-blasting record that rejuvenated the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away is the contemplative record that digs through the ashes of that barnburner and finds peace, serenity, and further reasons to remain unsettled.  There is a core of strength at the heart of all of these songs that sustains the listeners for long after the last notes of the hymn-like title track fade out.


#18:  Oblivians – “Desperation”

Sixteen years after their last record, the legendary Memphis garage punks have put out an album that sounds like a direct evolution of the point that they left off at.  The band slashes along with more verve and energy than a thousand younger bands.  It’s funny, though, in an existential way, that the band couldn’t drop this album until well after the death of super-fan Jay Reatard; it sounds pretty much like an album that late juggernaut would have recorded, had he matured slightly before killing himself with coke.


#17:  Savages – “Silence Yourself”

The hot buzz band to watch for the year, Savages take a, uh, savage look at the modern rock scene and ask you to despair.  They then cobble together a mix of post-punk, electro-pop, and krautrock and ask you to drink of it.  When you complain, meekly, that it tastes bitter, they tell you that the taste is merely your own tears.  And you weep again.


#16:  Var – “No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers”

The Copenhagen band does pretty much everything I just said about Savages, but does it slightly better.  Also, can I take a moment here to express my undying love for whomever designs the LP covers for Sacred Bones?  The unity of design makes me want to die of sheer happiness.


#15:  Thee Oh Sees – “Floating Coffin”

The veteran garage band rolls on, crafting an album that is at once heavier and more cohesive than anything that they’ve released before.  Don’t be fooled, though:  the San Fransisco band still throws out moments of sheer psychedelic bliss , a skill with which they have no equal today.


#14:  Kurt Vile – “Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze”

Kurt Vile makes gorgeous, sprawled-out stoner pop seem absolutely effortless.  Even when the tracks stretch to the nine minute mark (as on the opener, for example) they don’t lose their way; the maintenance of cohesion is nothing short of amazing.


#13:  Grouper – “The Man Who Died In His Boat”

Liz Harris’ newest album is, at it’s heart, merely tracks that were recorded during the sessions for 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up The Hill.  The trick, however, is that the album never once sounds like a collection of cast-offs or b-sides; it is a strong, shimmering, beautiful collection all on its own.


#12:  Pissed Jeans – “Honeys”

Honeys is a motherfucker of an album, in a way that their previous effort, King Of Jeans, came close to but never quite achieved.  I first caught this band on a Sub Pop sampler in 2009, and Honeys fulfills the sheer weight of smashing ambition that leapt out of that disc and tried to strangle me.  Not for the faint of heart, or for anyone who dislikes crushingly heavy hardcore riffs.


#11:  Jon Hopkins – “Immunity”

My wife keeps asking me why I’m listening to house music.  Like the terrible music snob I am, I have to tell her two things:  first, it’s ambient electronic, and second, it’s jaw-dropping.  Jon Hopkins has been kicking around for a while; he’s collaborated with Imogen Heap, hooked up with Brian Eno, co-produced Viva La Vida (Or Death And All His Friends), and most recently teamed up with Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote for 2010’s diamond-in-the-rough Diamond Mine, which is where he first caught my attention.  Immunity is possibly the best ambient album released in a decade, without hyperbole.  I literally cannot stop listening to it.  Someone help me.  Please?

Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums of 2013 (So Far), Part Three


As we rapidly hurtle towards the mid-day of 2013, we reflect on the greatness of the music that has, so far, been presented to us.  We marvel in the past, present, and future of hip hop, and we witness the return of a powerhouse legend.  We head on over to where we buy a copy of my book, because it’s a fun post-apocalyptic romp.  We bear witness to the enduring strength and resilience of rock ‘n’ roll.  Let us bow our heads.


#30:  Ghostface Killah – “Twelve Reasons To Die”

With a production very similar to executive producer RZA, and the familiar flow and bite of the veteran MC, Twelve Reasons To Die pays dirty homage to the sound of the Nineties while offering up one compelling track after another.  A concept album involving an Italian mobster resurrected as the Ghostface Killah, it’s both utterly unsurprising and stridently riveting.


#29:  The Men – “New Moon”

“Maturity” can be such a dirty word, but in the case of Brooklyn’s The Men, it fits like a well-worn work glove.  On their fourth album they balance the booming punk rock energy with a more contemplative, Neil Young-esque sense of style, and the results take their sound to a very heartfelt level.


#28:  Camera Obscura – “Desire Lines”

Their best album since Underachievers Please Try Harder, the Scottish indie pop band crafts a delicate, wistful album of gently affecting music to listen to on a quiet night with good coffee.  Any situation, really, where you can appreciate Tracyanne Campbell’s deliberate style of sighing, wink-and-nudge humour and devastating lyrical observations.


#27:  Beach Fossils – “Clash The Truth”

Laid-back stoner pop that walks a fine line between trying and not trying.  It has much more punch and energy than most albums that come out sounding like this, likely due to the band’s background in hardcore punk.


#26:  Youth Lagoon – “Wondrous Bughouse”

Dreamy psychedelic noise, like a dark LSD trip converted into an album.  Gorgeous, even when it might be trying to kill you.


#25:  My Bloody Valentine – “m b v”

After 22 years, it could have been another classically tragic exercise in “why bother?”.  Instead, it proved to be worthy of the MBV legacy, cranking the heavier end of shoegaze into high gear and making those melody-obscuring vacuums sound even more massively dreamy than they ever had been before.


#24:  Milo – “Things That Happen At Day/Things That Happen At Night”

The lord and master of sensitive nerd-rappers, Milo presents here a double EP that manages to art up hip hop for the internet age, reworking the genre through the filter of ambient production and deadpan rhymes.  This is not party rap, in the best possible sense.


#23:  A$AP Rocky – “Long. Live. A$AP”

The swag rap present of hip hop, A$AP oozes confidence over a series of next-level productions, including some of the best stuff Clams Casino has come out with to date.


#22:  Mount Kimbie – “Cold Spring Fault Less Youth”

Remember when dubstep was a British invention revolving around dub and 2-step garage?  Burial?  How did we get from there to Skrillex, again?  Joel Zimmerman, is this your fault?  Anyway, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth finds the British group throwing out post-dubstep in favour of cross-genre pollination with pop and rock, making for an album that feels as innovative as it does familiar.


#21:  Mikal Cronin – “MCII”

Oh, what a shock:  raw, punk-inflected garage rock has, once again, saved rock ‘n’ roll from irrelevancy.  Another generation has decided to go dig up the corpse.  The sometime Ty Segall collaborator’s first album for Merge has some real crossover appeal (sort of) with a heavy emphasis on Seventies power pop studded in amongst all that squalling amped-up stomp.

Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums of 2013 (So Far), Part One


So here we are, at or near the halfway point of 2013, and there’s been a deluge of music so far (this is true of every year of course, but I digress…); I humbly present to you my favourite 50 of the year, in chunks.  I haven’t been this into a year, musically speaking, since 2010, and in many ways it’s felt like a do-over of that storied year:  big releases from Yeezy, Deerhunter, Bonobo, Thee Oh Sees, The National,  Baths, a full-album cover from the Flaming Lips, and a new Arcade Fire album lined up for September 9th.  Let’s get this started.  Do me a favour, though, and check out m’book, Disappearance, on Amazon – it’s good stuff, I promise, especially if you’re into post-apocalyptic fiction or you live in Toronto.  Leave a review, if you do.


#50:  Still Corners – “Strange Pleasures”

As solid as dream pop gets, Strange Pleasures floats above the haze on a bed of synths, reverb, and sleepy melodies.  Each listen brings new pleasures to the forefront.  Cinematic driving music for muggy summer nights.


#49:  Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – “Mind Control”

Occult hard rock with more than a whiff of the Seventies about them, Uncle Acid stand head and shoulders above their hard rock contemporaries, utilizing groove and tone with heady results.  Perfect listening for the precious kids who think they were born in the wrong generation.


#48:  John Grant – “Pale Green Ghosts”

The former singer for the Czars delivers a smart, sassy synth-pop album with a great sense of humour and a writer’s eye for lovingly detailed lines.  Like a bouncier version of 69 Love Songs, it’ll appeal to the drunk English major inside of you.


#47:  Vampire Weekend – “Modern Vampires Of The City”

How was it?  It was okay.  There’s a great big gaping mushy middle on this record that makes me wonder, but there’s also a some stellar tracks at the beginning and end that almost make up for it.  “Steps” and “Ya Hey” are both great summer tracks, and “Diane Young” grows on you after a while.  “Everlasting Arms” is still absolute crap, though.


#46:  Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “II”

A funky little album that is perfect for those moments where you need some background sounds to motivate you.  The sound is lo-fi, but the psychedelic adventures stride well beyond that.


#45:  Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory – “Elements of Light”

I swear, the whole album reminds me of the song that plays throughout the first two Fallout games, the creepy bell-driven tracks that I first noticed when wandering through the ruins of Los Angeles.  Proof that bells can make exciting art, thousands of years after their creation.


#44:  California X – “California X”

Hard-edged, 90’s indie-influenced rock n’ roll that hits like a punch to the gut.  They’re from the same town as Dinosaur, Jr, and they sound a hell of a lot like Dinosaur, Jr (although less than, say, Yuck), and it could be a hell of a lot worse, let me tell you.  California X tends to go in a more Miles Davis direction than the blizzard-of-Coltrane that J. Mascis works in, leading to a much more Neil Young-esque style of furious, dirty guitar work.


#43:  Akron/Family – “Sub Verses”

Noisy, difficult experimental rock with pop sensibilities:  it’s a strange brew, and with seven albums under their belt, one the band is intimately familiar with.  Exciting and restless, like a druggy night in a big city you don’t really know that well.


#42:  Low – “The Invisible Way”

The pioneering slowcore band keeps on their path of lush, luscious rock hymns, providing another set of bedtime melodies for the ages.  The tempos actually pick up a little here, too, although this is, of course, relative.

#41:  The Haxan Cloak – “Excavation”

Creepy, noisy drone, like crawling dread brought to aural form.  I made the mistake of listening to this while playing Minecraft, deep in the bowels of the earth, and I have not been back to the game since.

Vampire Weekend – “Modern Vampires Of The City”



I was ready to trash this album after first listen.  Lead single “Diane Young” has been a burr in my side ever since its release; it takes the chaotic, reel-through-the-streets feel of Contra single “Cousins” and makes it annoying.  Subsequent singles “Step” and “Ya Hey” were good, but did not take the sting out of that annoying, high-to-low knob twisting that irritated me so greatly about “Diane Young” (especially since “Ya Hey” repeats the effect, albeit in a much more subtle fashion).  I had scathing things to say about my first run-through of the full album – “apologism for Eighties AOR”, “grand, empty gestures a la the worst of U2”, “the more execrable parts of Paul Simon’s back catalog” – that sort of thing.  A funny thing happened, then, when I looked over my notes:  I discovered, after my usual calculations were finished, that the album merited a B.  I did not feel a B when I listened to it, but upon further reflection it strikes me that what disappoints me about Modern Vampires Of The City is the same thing that disappoints me about Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Both albums are frothy, empty-handed, overtly ornamental middles bookended by some shockingly good tracks.  The first three tracks of Modern Vampires Of The City are, honestly, top-notch Vampire Weekend songs.  The opening track, “Obvious Bicycle”, kicks the album into the air with style, while “Unbelievers” and “Step” keep the proceedings feeling like both a progression and an inventory of where the band has been.  Then “Diane Young” comes in and the whole thing comes crashing down to earth.  Everything for the rest of the album up until “Ya Hey” reminds me painfully of a band of rich kids who, trying to make grand-sounding ideas with profound statements about modern existence come to life, end up with a middling collection of post-Pop U2 songs.  The mid-tempo becomes excruciating.  “Everlasting Arms” is particularly bad; it’s the sort of John Tesh-worthy track that anyone aspiring to “indie cred” would have been ashamed to have been caught listening to ten years ago.  Today, in this post-“Beth/Rest” world, it passes as an artistic statement.  Then “Ya Hey” comes along and saves the album, as does the strident following track “Hudson”, which marries a militant drum beat to an apocalyptic vision of a destroyed future Manhattan.  “Ya Hey” shows the sort of growth and maturity that the rest of the album strives for but never quite achieves; where the rest of the album seems to treat its spirituality as a simple backdrop, “Ya Hey” has an adult conversation with the concepts of God in the thriving urban 21st Century.  If only the vast middle had seen fit to have this same sort of conversation.

When Contra came out, it was de rigueur to refer to it as Vampire Weekend’s More Songs About Buildings And Food.  It made sense; their self-titled debut was such an exciting burst of new and globally-embracing ideas that comparisons to Talking Heads ’77 were inevitable, and when the follow-up progressed towards maturity while keeping one foot in the past, the comparisons continued.   I guess that really makes Modern Vampires Of The City the modern equivalent of Fear Of Music, which is okay, since I don’t like Fear Of Music all that much, either.  Still, though, if the trend keeps up that means that the next album will be their Remain In Light, which is something fun to look forward to anyway.  As it stands, though, I find it overblown and underdone; as I said earlier, though, I find the same of Sgt Pepper’s, so take that however you will.



(And again, don’t forget to visit and download a free excerpt of my first book, Disappearance. Maybe even buy it, if you like it.)