The Top 10 Albums of 2019

Posted December 15, 2019 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Tunes

#10: Cate LeBon/ Reward


While the fifth album from the Welsh musician is a heavy offering, there may not have been a more relaxing and effortless album released this year. From the lifted atmospherics that kick off dreamy opener “Miami” to closer “Meet the Man”, LeBon’s uniquely styled baroque pop songs shine. There’s a catchy sentimentality behind the melodic repetition of the chorus on highlight “Daylight Matters”, which comes complete with well-orchestrated bursts of saxophone. “Home To You” is equally peaceful and calming with its chiming electric guitar riff, combining a playful sigh with a soaring melody through the coda as she repeats “Last time for all time.” LeBon executes heartfelt ballads like “Sad Nudes” with grace and elegance, while unexpectedly pushing up the energy with the jabbing synths on “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” and “Magnificent Gestures” to maintain innovative balance. Theatrical in delivery yet nuanced, edgy and refined, Reward is an album to drift away to.

#9: Helado Negro/ This Is How You Smile


Roberto Carlos Lange’s sixth album as Helado Negro carries a gentle, relaxing vibe that echoes with lyrical optimism and sun-drenched electronic folk sounds. Lovely, rich piano keys kick off the light and airy opener “Please Won’t Please”, while darker, more ambient organ synth notes permeate the bilingual lyrics on “Fantasma Vaga”. But it’s the astonishing centerpiece “Running”, with its warm, circular vibraphone riff and soft, intimate bass line combined with rolling, dream-like percussion that holds the album together beneath the melodic repetition of its chorus. After that, “Seen My Aura” is as bouncy and beach-party ready as anything here before the back half of the album takes a decidedly calmer turn, including lovely staccato vocals and gently plucked banjo on “Sabana De Luz”, as well as the bittersweet but soothing chords on the penultimate track “Two Lucky.” This Is How You Smile certainly doesn’t lack for social commentary, as its author sheds light on the realities of living in today’s America as the son of Latin immigrants, but great lines like “That brown won’t go/ Brown just glows” sure seem to indicate a positive outlook about the possibilities.

#8: Purple Mountains/ Purple Mountains


In the aftermath of beloved songwriter David Berman’s tragic suicide, his final recorded album as Purple Mountains takes on new meaning. The juxtaposition between the often upbeat melodies and decidedly dark lyricism demonstrates a man at the end of his rope. Lines like “Things have not been going well/ I think that I’ve finally fucked myself” create a jarring contrast with sunny folk rock guitar, and that’s as if chorus line titles such as “All My Happiness Is Gone” “She’s Makin’ Friends, I’m Turnin’ Stranger” don’t get the picture of loneliness across clearly enough already. Aside from numerous bouts with narcotics addiction and the death of his best friend in 2015, Berman had been separated from his wife Cassie before his death, and “Darkness and Cold” documents that heartbreak, howling lines like “The light of my life is going out tonight/ With someone she just met/ She kept it burning longer than I had right to expect” over a mournful folk guitar riff. The cynical imagery of “Margaritas at the Mall” is depressingly relatable, while “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is a touching tribute to the singer’s late mother in a world which he despises his lobbyist father. Taken in full, clues abound on this record that Berman had simply had enough with this world, and it stands as a foreboding harbinger of his untimely death.

#7: Solange/ When I Get Home


Experimental time signatures, acid jazz and funk elements combine with short, random guest rapper cameo spots over the course of a playful album that doesn’t take itself too seriously or strive to be congruent. The dreamy, submerged lounge piano on “Down With The Clique” stands in total contrast to a song like “Stay Flo”, with its hypnotic chimes and hip hop groove. The shapeshifting “Almeda” is as innovative as anything released this year, with electronic piano keys adding melodic contrast to the rolling trip-hop percussion as Solange chants “Brown skin, brown face, black skin, black braids” into the de-escalating piano key breakdown, complete with a Playboy Carti cameo verse for good measure. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this effort is how well it melds jazz with R&B. “Time Is”, for example, uses an isolated piano key with dark bass synths that would feel right at home on a Thundercat album, before the key switches to major for the more melodic coda. The scaled harmonies of “Jerrod” melt seamlessly into the catchy, carefree “Binz”, which gyrates with punchy synths as half-sung, half-rapped vocals glide beneath lifted, high-pitched harmonies, all ending in less than two minutes. This ends up sounding almost like a warm-up track, but the elements blend perfectly to create one of the best moments on the album. It’s a bit all over the place, yet When I Get Home amounts to greater than the sum of its parts upon repeated listens.

#6: Angel Olsen/ All Mirrors

angelolsen_allmirrorsThe fifth studio release from the solo artist is a career topping departure from her previous style, integrating dark tones of anger and resentment with lush production elements that feature elaborate string arrangements and crisp percussion samples. All Mirrors is immediately bruising from the onset, as gripping opener “Lark” recaps a breakup, starting softly before exploding into chaotic thrusts of percussion as Olsen’s voice leaps an octave higher and culminates into manic, repetitive chants of “Dream on!” Shimmering synths on the title track emerge as a clear highlight here; perhaps the only thing more striking than the production quality is its immaculate attention to build and timing as a sudden shift from major to minor key illuminates its stunning crescendo. Counterparts “Spring” and “Summer” are equally impactful while delivering contrasting tones, the former with its whimsical wisdom impartation over glitzy piano synths and processed vocals while the latter carries its ominous, propulsive percussion that starts and stops over regretful lyricism (“Took a while but I made it through/ If I could show you the hell I’ve been to). There’s a theatrical and deeply dramatic atmosphere present throughout this record, but it’s never more evident than on the bittersweet closer “Chance”, which ends it on a heavy note, showcasing Olsen’s impressive vocal range as she effortlessly switches between a deep, commanding baritone and a piercing falsetto.

#5: Thom Yorke/ ANIMA

anima_ThomYorke.jpgJust as Thom Yorke’s breakup with longtime partner Rachel Owen manifested itself as a dominant theme throughout Radiohead’s impeccable album A Moon Shaped Pool, the specter of her subsequent death hangs over ANIMA, easily the best solo offering yet from the Radiohead frontman. Never is this more apparent than on the standout centerpiece “Dawn Chorus,” as Yorke captures the fragile essence of awaking into a painful reality- that fleeting moment where you recongnize that your dreams were not real, but that your consciousness is. Yorke’s practically spoken-word vocals communicate a sense of loneliness and acceptance over its muted keyboard synths to create a virtually perfect song. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the swanky and aptly named groove “I Am A Very Rude Person” features Yorke destroying a competing party with his turntable to provide some tonal balance. The seven-minute “Twist” is the most epic moment here in terms of scale (are those the cheering kids from “15 Step” again?) while the anxiety-inducing “Not The News” attaches a haunting echo as Yorke’s trademark falsetto switches back to a lower octave. Taken in full, ANIMA is an essay in stripped-down production, as most of these songs succeed on the strength of their own simplicity, often relying on only one or two notes of synth that crash in and out like waves, without any apparent inclination to converge into any grandiose denouement.

#4: Big Thief/ Two Hands

bigthief_twohands.jpgRaw, austere and honest, the surprise second album of 2019 for the New York based quartet was an essential counterpart to the spring release of U.F.O.F. There’s not a single weak moment throughout these ten effortless tracks. The snarling centerpiece “Not” combines its memorably melodic sing-along chorus with a guitar solo that absolutely shreds, complete with some of the most directly simplistic and honest lyrics you’ll ever hear, and that comes on the heels of the anthemic “Shoulders”; you’d be hard pressed to find a better combination of back to back tracks on any record this year. Elsewhere, Two Hands is most compelling as a result of its restraint. Thematically, less is more here as the lullaby opener “Rock and Sing” and the nonchalance of delicately gorgeous closer “Cut Your Hair” serve as bookends. In between, we can hear lead singer Adrianne Lenker calling out commands beneath the sweet falsetto of “Replaced”, almost as though we’re listening in on the band’s rehearsal, while the dark, brooding “The Toy” creeps every so gently along. Lenker’s trademark vocal strain over the word “needs” within the lyric “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection” carries highlight “Forgotten Eyes”, an instant classic as so many of this band’s songs seem to be in a year they completely dominated.

#3: Lana Del Rey/ Norman Fucking Rockwell!

LanaDelRey_NormalFuckingRockwellThe sixth full-length album from Lana Del Rey is both timeless and cinematic over its ambitious fourteen tracks, dense with understated, lovely piano chords and string arrangements beneath her trademark blasé vocal delivery. There’s depth, warmth and complexity to the generally subdued and restrained nature of this record, as Del Rey crafts songs draped in nostalgia and autobiographical substance. Early stunner “Mariners Apartment Complex” is a sweeping highlight, beaming with melody and a powerful escalating vocal as Del Rey delivers nautical lyrical metaphors like “You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again.” The nine and a half minute opus “Venice Bitch” builds with patience and precision over a simple repeated guitar chord progression before the percussion and electric guitar distortion kicks in midway through, content to take a back seat again as this key track lingers effortlessly beneath its own weight. Speaking of Venice, there’s reference to Del Rey’s general obsession with her adopted home of California throughout the album, from the falsetto of the gorgeous “Fuck It I Love You” to the aptly named “California,” a wistful and yearning elegy for parties past. To that end, there’s even a somewhat inexplicable cover of Sublime’s reggae cliche “Doin’ Time” shoehorned in here as an homage, and somehow, it slaps. Ballads like the bittersweet and borderline apocalyptic “The Greatest” find Del Rey at her most affecting complete with horn and string arrangements, while the back to back tear-jerking combination of Del Rey’s soaring vocals on the tender “Love Song” and the rich orchestration on “Cinnamon Girl” tear an emotional hole directly through the album’s midsection. It all ends on an optimistic note with a raspy falsetto on the perfectly placed “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing”, which is as spacious and bare bones as can be, balancing a simple piano line with a delicate, poetic vocal delivery. With Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey demonstrates her impeccable penchant for songwriting.

#2: FKA Twigs/ Magdalene

twigsPerhaps Tahliah Barnett would have been better served to hold off for a couple of months and release her second full length record as FKA Twigs at the start of a new year and decade, given the forward-looking sense of ambition and limitless possibilities for the future of music that her first offering in five years carries. It’s difficult to pinpoint the single element that makes Magdalene such an exciting album, between the immaculate production quality of its beats, precise attention to melodic timing, and of course Barnett’s otherworldly soprano vocal range. But following a tumultuous recent personal life that included a highly publicized relationships and breakup with actor Robert Pattinson as well as the removal of uterine fibroid tumors, there are moments of anger, pain and loss throughout these nine concise tracks. Thematically, the Catholic-raised Twigs focuses on female empowerment through the story of the album’s namesake Mary Magdalene as the subdued church music and repetitive vocal scales on hypnotic opener “Thousand Eyes” serve as a perfect tone-setter, while the title track concludes with an explosion of organ synths. Highlight “Sad Day” alternates between a whispery vocal and propulsive percussion samples, perhaps the most striking of any of the beats here. A haunting piano riff reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” opens the stunning centerpiece “Fallen Alien”, which escalates into chants of desperation and paranoid shrieks before culminating into a massive coda of cascading synth beats. Gorgeous R&B ballads “Mirrored Heart” and “Daybed” seem like relative comedowns after that album-defining bruiser, but not without their fair share of complexity, as the former melts into a blast of distorted synths at its conclusion, while icy whispers and subtle strings that lurk beneath bass lines that build and swell on the latter might have felt right at home on Sigur Ros’ (). There’s an impressive amount detail and nuance as it pertains to song structure and build across the board here, as each track ends at its highest point. But in contrast, it’s the raw, stripped down simplicity and vulnerability of closer “Cellophane” that brings all of it together. An essay in sorrow, Twigs’ voice cracks and strains showcasing an incredible octave range above two repeated piano chords.

#1: Big Thief/ U.F.O.F.

BigThief_UFOFHow can we tell when a band is incredibly, unequivocally on top of its game? While some artists understandably spend a half a decade fine tuning new music between releases, Big Thief is in the zone, delivering two massive and essential albums in 2019 that both rank among the year’s very best. Of the two, it was the band’s first release that resonated the strongest, preceding the raw, honest and concise nature of Two Hands with a collection of intimate, lush and spell-binding folk rock songs. The delicate whisper of lead singer Adrienne Lenker is simultaneously calming and foreboding over the minor chord strums of opener “Contact” before suddenly shapeshifting into a snarling guitar solo, a jarring juxtaposition indeed. While serving as an attention-grabbing tone setter, it’s also somewhat of a red herring, as the rest of U.F.O.F. is defined by its restraint and elegance. The incredibly pleasing nocturnal vibe of the title track could seemingly go on forever and expand, but instead concludes with an element of no-frills nonchalance. There’s a flawless and precise folk dynamic on “Cattails”, which glides along effortlessly beneath Lenker’s ever-so-slightly strained and discordant vocal. Lyrical imagery abounds throughout as she belts out lines like “And I find you there in your country flair/ Middle of the river in a lawn chair/ With your wrinkled hands and your silver hair/ Leaving here soon and you know where.” The truly quieter moments really shine, as Lenker’s vocals crack on the bittersweet “Terminal Paradise”, while the rich, peaceful and lullaby-like “Open Desert” is arguably the single prettiest moment here. The melody of “Orange” is as simple as it is affecting, while “Century” evokes shades of Stevie Nicks. But it’s on the stunning penultimate track “Jenni” that the band comes together to realize its full potential. Weighty yet understated, an ominous mood permeates the fuzzy shoegaze guitars that lay beneath Lenkner’s elfish whisper. There’s a moment here towards the end where everything stops and a single guitar chord rings out for what seems like half a minute, building tension before layers of distorted guitars swell into its coda. As the musical spectrum shifts more and more away from traditional rock music, U.F.O.F. was a revelation in 2019.

The Top 10 Songs of 2019

Posted December 2, 2019 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Tunes

#10: “Gretel”/ (Sandy) Alex G

Dark, howling strings combine with sweet acoustic guitar in this symmetrical but atypically constructed track, a highlight from House of Sugar that reaches its pinnacle midway through as high-pitched organ notes carry the bridge.

#9: “Naeem”/ Bon Iver

The standout track from i, i is built around two simple piano keys but gradually expands and explodes into off-kilter percussion backed by an understated choir as Justin Vernon’s desperate but powerful vocals hang on the final note of each line and truly emote. It stands up to the very best of the Bon Iver catalog, even if the album probably doesn’t.

#8: “Running”/ Helado Negro

The astonishing centerpiece to This Is How You Smile holds the sixth and best album from Helado Negro together with its warm, circular vibraphone riff and soft, intimate bass line combined with rolling, dream-like percussion beneath the melodic repetition of its chorus.

#7: “Venice Bitch”/ Lana Del Rey

This nine and a half minute opus builds with patience and precision over a simple repeated guitar chord progression before the percussion and electric guitar distortion kicks in midway through, content to take a back seat again as this key track from Del Rey’s career-topping Norman Fucking Rockwell! collapses effortlessly beneath its own weight.

#6: “Not”/ Big Thief

The snarling centerpiece to Two Hands, Big Thief’s second essential record of 2019, combines its memorably melodic sing-along chorus with a guitar solo that absolutely shreds, complete with some of the most directly simplistic and honest lyrics you’ll ever hear.

#5: “Cellophane”/ FKA Twigs

The raw, stripped down simplicity and vulnerability of the closer on Twigs’ career-topping Magdalene is an essay in sorrow, as her voice cracks and strains showcasing an incredible octave range above two repeated piano chords.

#4: “All Mirrors”/ Angel Olsen

Shimmering synths on the title track emerge as a clear highlight on Angel Olsen’s fifth record. Perhaps the only thing more striking than the production quality is its immaculate attention to build and timing as a sudden shift from major to minor key illuminates its stunning crescendo.

#3: “This Life”/ Vampire Weekend

A bright, bouncy acoustic guitar riff harkens back to the early days for these East Coast preps, but imparts additional wisdom beneath perhaps the catchiest hook in the band’s entire catalog, a much needed rock song of the summer.

#2: “Cattails”/ Big Thief

There’s a flawless and precise folk dynamic to the highlight track on the stunning U.F.O.F, which glides along effortlessly beneath Adrienne Lenker’s ever-so-slightly strained and discordant vocal. Lyrical imagery abounds throughout as she belts out lines like “And I find you there in your country flair/ Middle of the river in a lawn chair/ With your wrinkled hands and your silver hair/ Leaving here soon and you know where.” This might just be a perfect rock song.

#1: “Dawn Chorus”/ Thom Yorke

The death of Thom Yorke’s longtime partner and mother of his children Rachel Owen looms like a specter over the entirety of ANIMA, but never is this more apparent than on the standout centerpiece “Dawn Chorus,” as Yorke captures the fragile essence of awaking into a painful reality- that fleeting moment where you recongnize that your dreams were not real, but that your consciousness is. Yorke’s practically spoken-word vocals communicate a sense of loneliness and acceptance over its muted keyboard synths to create a virtually perfect song, the best of the year and of his solo career by far.


The Top 50 Albums of the 2010s

Posted November 18, 2019 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Tunes

#50: Vampire Weekend/ Modern Vampires of the City (2013)

5cbf0d08Vampire Weekend’s third full length album is distinctly stripped down and restrained relative to their prior work, and is all the better for it; this is the band’s best album to date. The thematic material ranging from death to religion doesn’t come off as overly serious, yet establishes a tone that confirm these once preppy, moderately annoying kids from Columbia have grown up a bit. Gentle piano opens the album on “Obvious Bicycle” as lead singer Ezra Koenig shows off an impressively scaled vocal delivery that rests on a falsetto drop; the song never really goes anywhere and it is all the more lovely for it. There’s still hints of the summer boogie, outdoor festival major key sound that made the band famous to begin with, notably on the rollicking “Diane Young”, and you can almost visualize a full crowd with beach balls bouncing around when the percussion kicks in on the scat sung, Animal Collective-inspired “Finger Back.” Outside of that, there’s a surprising amount of darkness and atmosphere holding this record together. An obvious early highlight is “Step”, with its soft drum clap, gorgeous piano melody and distant choral vocal sample, as Koenig delivers observant lyrics such as “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth” over the course of a track that in terms of tone lands somewhere between melancholy and submissive as it winds down softly to reveal its stunning emotional core. Arguably even more powerful is the fantastic “Ya Hey”, with its catchy synth breaks and additictive melody that combine with more lifted vocal samples.  There’s a nod to a vast array of musical influences, such as the Dirty Projectors on “Everlasting Arms” and Panda Bear on “Worship You” that add an element of breath to this album. Violin strings hold together the soft, wise-beyond-its-years “Don’t Lie”, while the band has probably never demonstrated build the way that they do on the patient, slowly evolving centerpiece “Hannah Hunt”, as Koenig’s strained vocals during the final trip through the chorus showcase a genuineness that was very atypical on the band’s first two albums.

#49: Kanye West/ Yeezus (2013)


When Kanye West suddenly annouced the imminent release of his rather shockingly titled album Yeezus, it’s fair to say that most us didn’t expect anything quite so bleak, desolate and raw. A buzzing, chilling synth serves as the backbone for opener “On Point” and it’s immediately clear that Yeezus finds West heading in a far different musical and emotional direction than ever before. What makes the album so polarizing is the nearly complete lack of percussion or strobe-lit festival intensity that Kanye is famous for (“Send It Up” being the only possible exception). It takes a truly brave artist to pull off a line like “I just talked to Jesus/ He said what up Yeezus/ I said I’m just chillin’/ Tryin’ to count these millions” as he does on the blatantly egotistical and borderline blasphemously titled “I Am A God.”  A certain balance of both sarcasm and seriousness has to be present in order for a line like that to work on any level, and West pulls it off remarkably on one of the album’s highlight tracks. What’s surprising is that despite the overall bare and stripped-down feel of these songs, West finds time for moments of subtle atmosphere mixed between beauty and pure terror by utilizing unexpected and sudden tone shifts – the gorgeous breaks on “On Point” and “New Slaves”, the tortured shrieks through the coda of “I Am A God,” among others. “Hold My Liquor” is arguably the prettiest song on the album, carrying a defeated tone that is rare for an artist that usually lays the bravado on pretty thick, while he delivers one of the best verses of his career on the heartwrenching divorce tale “Blood on the Leaves”, complete with forboding, propulsive synthesized horns. Most affecting of all is the skeletal echo of a synth beat complemented by violin elements on the racially charged indictment “New Slaves”, and the moment that song takes a full shift into a gorgeous blues breakdown that is in complete contrast to the all of the music that came before it works perfectly; it’s a demonstration of West’s utter brilliance from a production standpoint. And it takes a higher level of thinking and creativity altogether to sample Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” on “Blood On The Leaves” or an obscure soul tune combined with Brenda Lee on closer “Bound 2.” First single “Black Skinhead” comes of with a militaristic beat that almost sounds like a rap version on Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”, complete with deep bass drops and ghostly howls. The only near mess comes on the incredibly explicit “I’m In It”, but there’s enough sonic diversion and vocal additions from the likes of Bon Iver and reggae artist Assassin to send the track over. Say what you will about Kanye West, but after this album it would be difficult to argue that he is a producer afraid to take artistic risks to stunning effect. To my ear, Yeezus lands well in the upper echelon of his catalog.

#48: Sleigh Bells/ Treats (2010)

It has been awhile since we have seen a debut album omit such relentless energy, but on Treats, New York duo Sleigh Bells combined some sort of a brilliant mix of catchy pop melodies, heavy metal intensity and party rap beats, and what results was one of the decades’s most instantly exciting albums. There is never a dull moment as the band rips through eleven raucous tracks in just over a half hour. Jabbing machine gun percussion on “Tell ‘Em” penetrate the first of many memorable guitar riffs as lead singer Alexis Krauss delivers a repetitive, engaging vocal with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader. Without missing a step, the band moves into more beat driven material like the punchy “Riot Rhythm” which gives way one of the clear highlights here, “Infinity Guitars.” On this track, Krauss combines a sweet background vocal while simultaneously screaming in spoken voice over a rolling riff, and the moment of screeching distortion where the song shifts into a frenzy of utter chaos is as shocking as it is effective. Heavier still is the unintelligible, punky “Straight A’s”, while the layered masterpiece that is “Crown on the Ground” blends the best of both worlds, as Krauss provides relatively relaxed vocals as sprawling distortion swirls around her, eventually building into a massively disoriented crescendo that manages to work perfectly.  And even after all of that, the mesmerizing bubble gum dream pop of “Rill Rill” may be the album’s strongest track and most addictive, sampling Funkadelic and looping a gorgeous acoustic guitar melody beneath some of Krauss’s best vocal work. Try hearing this once and not humming it for the rest of the day. Overall, it is the balance between her ability to show restraint during some moments and absolute recklessness at other points that creates such a raw, refreshing and inherently energetic sound. It seems to end so suddenly, but after such a whirlwind, perhaps it is better that we catch our breath and anxiously await future material, which figures to be promising if Treats is any indication of this band’s potential.

#47: Chromatics/ Kill For Love (2012)

This highly ambitious effort succeeds, more than anything else, from its ability to establish and extend its consistent mood and tone across its 17 track, 77 minute length. When I saw Chromatics live at Pitchfork Music Festival, lead singer Ruth Radelet came off about exactly as I expected her to. Her gentle, haunting voice was a commanding presence, but her expressionless face could almost be described as sad, and she seemed withdrawn and disconnected, which ironically fit perfectly with the music she was singing. It’s probably a fair bet that she never smiles. While Chromatics draw from a variety of influences on Kill For Love, including 80s new wave and modern synth-driven electronica, the serious tone of their music is decidedly nocturnal. This didn’t exactly work at an outdoor venue with the sun shining, but when taken in as a whole on record, it resonates as intense and expansive. A cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” retitled “Into The Black” gets the album started on a strong note, and some respect should be given to the band for having the balls to begin an album of this scope with a cover track and to pull it off with such a unique sense of style. There are bits of brightness early on as the title track drips with propulsive, hazy synth, while “Back From The Grave” showcases a catchy, repetitive guitar line. This is about as accessible as the album gets before diving into more experimental territory, and the band was wise to structure it this way considering its challenging length. But things really begin to take off with “Lady”, which patiently builds for two full minutes before the pulsating beat kicks in and communicates a steady sense of uncertainty, loneliness and despair. The slow burn of the remarkably tense “These Streets Will Never Look The Same” is a standout here, and is a rare example of using vocal harmonization and autotune technology to manipulate a male vocal to a positive effect. After that, the album turns darker yet with the ambient, unsettling “Broken Mirrors”, and benefits massively as the tone evolves and the paranoia builds on “Candy.” There are times when the album just bleeds with heartache. The waves wash over instrumental link “Dust to Dust ” and lead into the utterly hopeless ballad “Birds of Paradise.” The instrumental tracks here are used with remarkably effective placement, creating texture with precision around its centerpieces. None are more devastating than the spaced-out, laser beam synth of “There’s a Light Out on the Horizon”, which closes with an ambiguous but heartbreaking voice message. An album this intense deserves a proper send off, and it gets one with “The River.” A minor chord strikes out on a piano, repeats and gains additional elements as the song progresses and Radelet croons with hypnotic effortlessness in one of the many extremely strong moments here.

#46: M83/ Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)

French artist Anthony Gonzalez has used the moniker M83 to compose four previous albums that have showed his evolution from an electronic experimentalist into a full blown rock star. On his most ambitious effort to date Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he combines the best of both worlds into a double album that probably could have stood to be a few songs shorter, but still shows a depth of compositional acumen that he has yet to achieve up to this point. The album starts in unflappable manner, with Zola Jesus adding vocals for the dark “Intro.” First single and huge highlight “Midnight City” follows and combines an addictive, poppy synth melody and an insistent percussion arrangement as the track builds and evolves, eventually culminating in a saxophone-laden outro. After that, the propulsive “Reunion” and the devastating “Wait” keep the album moving along in a high quality manner. Perhaps intentionally, many of the tracks in the album’s midsection seem almost unfinished; “This Bright Flash”, “Soon My Friend” and “My Tears Are Becoming  A Sea” begin to build but stop without warning and never achieve the types of crescendos that have made his prior work so successful- a strange tactic indeed for an album that otherwise shows such broad ambition. However, Gonzalez has always used short interlude tracks on his albums, and after repeated listens, the necessity of these tracks becomes more apparent. Where the songs don’t seem so fragmented, they shine, and a more focused, condensed effort might well have resulted in a masterpiece. Some of the 80s influences from the last album Saturdays = Youth are still here in a somewhat excessive manner on “Claudia Lewis” and “OK Pal”, but there is a commendable amount of diversity here on fluttering, optimistic jangles that build into something much greater, like the sweet fairy tale “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” and “Year One, One UFO.” As always, Gonzalez is not easy on the emotions, showing soft, simple beauty on the piano driven “Splendor” and using more explosive choral disortion on highlight “Echoes of Mine.” “New Map” starts with a rush of typical M83 synth and combines lifted, atmospheric vocal elements with a coda that breaks into an extended jam session almost reminiscent of Broken Social Scene style indie rock. The greatest highlight of all may be “Steve McQueen”, a massive textural demonstration of tension and release that is held together by its dominating percussion arrangement. By and large, this is a tremendous accomplishment for Gonzalez, who set out to make a diverse record that would showcase the evolution of his sound, and did exactly that.

#45: Danny Brown/Old (2013)


Detroit product Danny Brown’s debut full length demonstrated absolutely smothering scope and ambition. Much like the decade’s best rap album, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Old is a loosely conceived concept album, and while it may not be quite as impactful overall as Lamar’s opus, it arguably shows greater artistic promise and potential for what’s to come in the future. From a musical standpoint, this collection of songs combines suave, understated bass lines with Brown’s unique, often abrasive vocal delivery, which alternates between the strained nasal style typical on 2011’s crucial mixtape XXX, and a newly refined, snarling baritone. He’s at his most effective when switching from one to the other as he does on the sinister “Gremlins” and on the diabolical “Dope Song.” The album moves along smoothly, its 19 tracks flowing relentlessly and quickly from one to another as early tone setters like “Wonderbread” provide chilling anecdotes describing the extremely rough day to day happenings growing up in the Detroit ghetto. For all its thematic depth, Old still provides moments of pure freak out club music on “Dip” and “Break It Go”, complete with futuristic sound elements that are on another level when compared to his prior work. The album hits its highest point right in its belly, as the one-two punch of “Clean Up” and “Red 2 Go” provide arguably the two most powerful moments here back to back, and in a massive contrast stylistically. The former finds Brown lamenting his past mistakes and the effect his upbringing has had on him in his most serious, vulnerable and honest production to date, complete with a slow, low dropped bass beat that would sound perfect on a Flying Lotus album. The latter balances a steady synth reminiscent of early Mobb Deep, jabbing basslines and fluttering percussion as Brown delivers memorable lines like “Did it my way/ I ain’t nobody ho/ I’m bout to pimp the rap game/ Bitch I’m red to go” with heavily regional inflection. “Smokin and Drinkin” would ordinarily come off as a simple party tune if it wasn’t for its insane massiveness on a sonic level, while penultimate highlight “Kush Coma” combines hazy, dazed atmospherics with some of Brown’s fastest, tongue twisting rhymes. This is an album for every old geezer that ever complained about rap not having “instruments”, because if you can’t grasp the fact that Brown’s voice is an instrument in and of itself, you have no business listening to music of any kind in the first place.

#44: Yves Tumor/ Safe In The Hands of Love (2018)

safeinthehandsWhat is this exactly? This is everything. This is the future of music. This is something unlike anything you or I have ever heard before. This is not genre specific, or dare I say, gender specific. This is an alien. This is what we would hear for eternity if we were ever invaded by extraterrestrial life, and we’d be lucky. This is balanced- “Honesty” provides incredible club grooves, “Noid” is impossibly catchy with its contagious, slightly discordant violin sample and refrain (911!) alongside an unorthodox time signature, “Lifetime” cascades elements of percussion, haunting piano lines and subtly intertwined horn, “All The Love We Have Now” fits the wildly underrated lounge bar scene, and closer “Let The Lioness In You Flow Freely” is terrifying and may be the single best conclusion to an album this year even if it gives you eternal nightmares. This is amazing. This is daring. This is Yves Tumor rapidly evolving.

#43: Fucked Up/ David Comes To Life (2011)

The Chemistry of Common Life took punk rock outfit Fucked Up’s game to the next level, and on their follow up effort David Comes to Life, they spread their wings and make an attempt to create that most difficult of all art forms, the concept album. The result is, as expected, a virtual onslaught of energy and power, even if the concept itself isn’t communicated with a very high level of effectiveness. Instead, we’re left with a barrage of ambitious new material that often reaches musically to redefine punk rock itself. Early in the album, we hear the familiar snarls of lead singer Pink Eyes alternate uncharacteristically playful vocals with Cults’ Madeline Follin as the story begins with “Queen of Hearts.” The anthemic “The Other Shoe” provides an early highlight, hitting like a shot to the heart right off the bat with its cascading layers of sound and, oh yes, that VOICE. But things really begin to take flight as the second half of the album begins. This stretch of songs is incredibly relentless and consistent, beginning with an addictive guitar riff on “Truth I Know” and ending with the standout penultimate track “One More Night”, perhaps the best example here of the band’s ability to combine crushing emotional intensity with raw power. In between we get everything from the apocalyptic grinder “I Was There” to the more carefree but energetic punk rock sounds of “Inside A Frame” and “The Recursive Girl,” both of which are accessible enough to find some airtime at a summer cookout without raising too many eyebrows. The distant, squealing electric guitar lines that defined some of Chemistry‘s best tracks are here again on stunners like “Life In Paper” and “Ship of Fools.” Even the most egregious missteps here can be dismissed as integral to the core of the story arc. “Serve Me Right” seems forced lyrically and repetitive musically, while closer “Lights Go Up ” serves to conclude the tale but sounds like an amped up version of The Hold Steady trying to remake “Home on the Range” in the process. Fucked Up should never, ever sound like this, but therein lies the paradox of David Comes to Life: You don’t have to understand the story to appreciate the music, but you may need to appreciate the story to understand the music.

#42: Darkside/ Psychic (2013)


Of all the great albums released in 2013, none stood alone and occupied its own unique genre quite like Psychic. Darkside is a collaboration between electronic mastermind Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington, and their debut record is a meticulous and game-changing re-imagination of music that suggests endless possibilities. Every restrained note here is filled with purpose, and for all of the psychedelic influences that appear to creep towards the surface, they are balanced out and checked evenly with an ambiance that is decidedly intergalactic. It is fairly mind-blowing to see artists in their early 20s operating with such restraint and vision, as Psychic‘s focus prevails over its eight tracks, each of which is content to evolve at its own pace without ever trying to outdo itself. The spectacularly epic twelve minute opener “Golden Arrow” builds patiently for nearly five full minutes before the beat kicks in and steadily gains subtly intertwined electronic instrumental additions. The first sign of a vocal doesn’t come until the seven minute mark as Harrington’s falsetto brings the track to nearly a complete stop before picking right back up again. It’s a powerful moment, and vocals are used intermittently in like manner throughout the album, adding to the dreamy space-rock atmospherics. Never is this more evident than on the stunning “Heart”, which starts with battle march drums, picks up a twangy 70s rock guitar line and an otherworldly loveliness from its processed vocals. If there’s such a thing as “acid blues”, then “Paper Trails” is it, managing to combine a steady blues scale guitar riff with Jaar’s deep vocals which are in stark contrast to Harrington’s high strained octaves, culminating into a dark-lit slow burner possibly born from the same galaxy as Massive Attack’s “Splitting The Atom.” There’s almost too much going on to keep track of on centerpiece “The Only Shrine I’ve Ever Seen” as layers of thick bass and tambourines evolve into a rocking riff that might have fit on The Doors’ Morrison Hotel, and then into soft, acapella vocals, while the groovy  “Freak, Go Home” is a hidden gem, simply gliding along with its swanky rhythm and fuzzy synth loop. The peaceful, relaxing closer “Metatron” literally sounds like it was recorded in outer space, and while as close to Pink Floyd as Darkside gets, adds futuristic snares and synths that amount to so much more than a simple throwback comparison. Taken in full, Psychic was a surprising and unexpected record that managed to balance its calm, drift-into-oblivion mood with music that is equal parts challenging and fascinating.

#41: Fuck Buttons/ Slow Focus (2013)


In 2013, a year that seemed so loaded with quality albums of the purely instrumental, completely devoid of vocals variety, none showed the same structural acumen as the aptly titled Slow Focus, the third full length from multi-instrumentalist duo Benjamin Power and Andrew Hung as Fuck Buttons. A considerable step forward from 2009s vital Tarot Sport, this effort is remarkable for its depth of texture and density. They don’t waste any time getting straight to the point as opener “Brainfreeze” begins with isolated, demonic percussion and picks up what seem like immeasurable layers of sound as it swells and evolves, eventually collapsing back upon itself. There is less emphasis on release and catharsis here; these songs are content to begin with enormous tension and simply maintain that endowment rather than release it as they expand. For as ominous and monolithic as the opening track feels, a catchy whistle melody provides distinct contrast on the enormous, sweeping highlight “The Red Wing”, which steadily gains an industrial guitar riff, fluttering electronic horns, laser beam synths, and screaming chimes as it exhudes confidence all the way through. A perfect microcosm for the multi-dimensionality of this collection of songs, this is one to listen to when walking by yourself in the dark; I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make you feel completely and utterly invincible. There’s such diversity on this record, as the foreboding tone of the first half gives way to more all-encompassing beauty on the longer tracks that close the album. “Stalker” balances a fuzzy, repetitive bass jab with rollicking percussion, an ethereal synth squeal and cascading distortion, while closer “Hidden Xs” begins with a gorgeous electronic keyboard riff and gains massively distorted basslines and soaring shoegaze guitar, but is most successful thanks to its perfectly executed and carefully intertwined electronic clap-drum percussion. The closer is a song that equals “The Lisbon Maru” and “Olympians” from their last effort in terms of pure beauty, but does so in a manner that suggests loneliness and the relentless pursuit of perfection all at once. In between there’s “Prince’s Prize”, with its techno synth lines that move along with blazing velocity, which would seem totally out of place here if it weren’t for how intensely focused and intense the arrangement is. This is a serious record, for serious moods, and not for the faint of heart–there’s just too much going on here from a textural standpoint to even describe accurately enough for me to do it justice.

#40: Danny Brown/ Atrocity Exhibition (2016)


With his fourth full-length album, Detroit’s Danny Brown takes a detour way off the mainstream map. There may have never been a hip hop album made before that sounds quite like Atrocity Exhibition, an unsettling, menacing and unrelentingly dark collection of introspection. There’s plenty of stylistic variation here but the album never deviates from its steady vibe of internal paranoia and terror. The overwhelming sonic experience provided by tracks like “Ain’t It Funny” and “Golddust” is straight up panic-inducing behind their deep, powerful bass beats; I imagine this is about exactly how it feels right before having a heart attack. In contrast, the raw, spacious, and haunting beats on “Pneumonia” and “Today” make a strong impact due to how chilly and stripped down they are. Confessional opener “Downward Spiral” sets the tone immediately, as Brown amazingly rhymes a word that appears to be the plural of “ghost” with “oh shit” as the track builds in a manner representative of being trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare of his own creation (“I gotta figure it out”), while the brutal “White Lines” finds him in the thralls of a potentially fatal drug overdose. Brown’s unique nasal vocal delivery is among the most recognizable in rap, and it’s easy to forget how unparalleled his flow can be, but we are reminded of that fact as he spits rapid-fire rhyme schemes on the brilliantly tense and apocalyptic “When It Rain”, and the moments where he uses his more baritone speaking voice on tracks like “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” and “From the Ground” add depth and complexity to the record.

If there was a stronger back to back duo of tracks all year than the high-powered, rock-driven bass line of “Rolling Stone” and ultimate posse track “Really Doe”, I’m not sure what it was. The latter stands out especially, as Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul lend verses behind a horrifying bell chime loop. Only “Dance In The Water” seems truly out of place here, with its ramped up and somewhat overdone rave beats, but we’ll allow for a small misstep, especially since the album concludes as powerfully as it does. The soothing and melodic penultimate track “Get Hi” is as peaceful as it is depressing, as Brown seems to be simultaneously lamenting and justifying drug dependence through its devastating hook: “Say ya had a bad day/ Want the stress to go away/ Just rollup/ Take the pain away/ And get high.” “Hell For It” is the perfect closer, as Brown takes the intensity to another level, which is saying a lot on this album. There’s such anger and fear evident here, especially as his voice constantly evolves from his usual nasal tone into a more threatening sounding baritone on the back end of the beat. (Not even Iggy is safe). As great as his prior album Old was, it’s easy to make the argument that the best three or four moments here are better than anything on that record. Its rare focus and consistent tone renders this is the strongest hip hop album of the 2016, a year that provided many rap highlights.

#39: Avalanches/ Wildflower (2016)


Sixteen years in the making, the long-awaited follow-up to The Avalanches’ legendary Since I Left You is impressively varied and substantial, and is as worthy a follow-up effort as could have been reasonably expected over such a timespan. While still heavily dependent on sampling, the primary difference lies in the amount of guest appearances present on Wildflower. There’s the obvious appearance of Danny Brown and MF Doom complete with a carnival beat on highlight track “Frankie Sinatra”, where the calypso sample from Australian artist Robbie Chater perfectly balances the line between being kooky and brilliant, in the same way that classic Avalanches tracks like “Frontier Psychiatrist” did, complete with elements of electro-swing that make it a repeatedly fun and addictive listen. Brown shows up again on the dreamy “The Wozard of Iz”, but Wildflower also features contributions from Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue on psychedelic tracks like “Colours”, “Harmony” and “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”, while Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick lends a sunny, ethereal vocal element to the steady “If I Was A Folkstar.” Even Biz Markie drops by to help out with the impossibly silly “The Noisy Eater.”

Opening track “Because I’m Me” evokes memories of the title track from their debut, with its nostalgic, self-affirming female vocal that glides along a triumphant beat. There’s so much mood and feel here, from the glimmering sweetness of “Sunshine” to the bouncing groove of “Subways” and the bittersweet optimism of the gorgeous penultimate track “Stepkids.”There’s a certain wistfulness that permeates all of The Avalanches’ music, and it’s perfectly captured by the joyful closer “Saturday Night Inside Out”, complete with guest appearances from Father John Misty providing backing vocals on the chorus and David Berman reading a spoken word poem. Making music out of samples is time-consuming, as it requires as much listening as it does creativity and meticulous application, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve had to wait so long to hear music as unilaterally unique as this is. (There aren’t any Avalanches imitators out there). What might be a surprise after all this time though, is that the delivery is again so well executed and so worth the wait. Wildflower retains that same consistent, unmistakable sound that is decidedly Avalanches, yet still also carries with it a certain timeliness, and a modernized air.

#38: FKA Twigs/ Magdelene (2019)

twigs.jpgPerhaps Tahliah Barnett would have been better served to hold off for a couple of months and release her second full length record as FKA Twigs at the start of a new year and decade, given the forward-looking sense of ambition and limitless possibilities for the future of music that her first offering in five years carries. It’s difficult to pinpoint the single element that makes Magdalene such an exciting album, between the immaculate production quality of its beats, precise attention to melodic timing, and of course Barnett’s otherworldly soprano vocal range. But following a tumultuous recent personal life that included a highly publicized relationships and breakup with actor Robert Pattinson as well as the removal of uterine fibroid tumors, there are moments of anger, pain and loss throughout these nine concise tracks. Thematically, the Catholic-raised twigs focuses on female empowerment through the story of the album’s namesake Mary Magdalene as the subdued church music and repetitive vocal scales on hypnotic opener “Thousand Eyes” serve as a perfect tone-setter, while the title track concludes with an explosion of organ synths. Highlight “Sad Day” alternates between a whispery vocal and propulsive percussion samples, perhaps the most striking of any of the beats here. A haunting piano riff reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” opens the stunning centerpiece “Fallen Alien”, which escalates into chants of desperation and paranoid shrieks before culminating into a massive coda of cascading synth beats. Gorgeous R&B ballads “Mirrored Heart” and “Daybed” seem like relative comedowns after that album-defining bruiser, but not without their fair share of complexity, as the former melts into a blast of distorted synths at its conclusion, while icy whispers and subtle strings that lurk beneath bass lines that build and swell on the latter might have felt right at home on Sigur Ros’ (). There’s an impressive amount detail and nuance as it pertains to song structure and build across the board here, as each track ends at its highest point. But in contrast, it’s the raw, stripped down simplicity and vulnerability of closer “Cellophane” that brings all of it together. An essay in sorrow, twigs’ voice cracks and strains showcasing an incredible octave range above two repeated piano chords.

#37: Father John Misty/ I Love You Honeybear (2015)

FJMJosh Tillman was a former drummer in Fleet Foxes, and on his sophomore solo effort delivers a relentlessly charismatic collection of songs as his alter-ego Father John Misty. Here, Tillman finds the perfect balance between self-deprecating theatrics, genuine humor and honest discourse on a variety of topics, all of which seem to indicate and confirm his generally miserable worldview. Musically, it can best be described as some sort of other-worldy blend between folk-rock and baroque pop; lyrically it contains an ever-present injection of cynicism that seems never too much to be completely over the top, but never too little to be dismissed as anything less than unsettling either.

I Love You, Honeybear is a record decidedly honest, relatable and of-the-moment. Early highlight “True Affection” opens with the lyric “When can we talk/ With the face/ Instead of using all these strange devices?” In this day in age, who hasn’t had a regrettable text or phone conversation with a loved one that might have been completely different if handled in person, face to face? I for one don’t have enough fingers to count these instances on both hands. On the sarcastically self-loathing piano ballad “Bored In The USA”, Tillman demolishes the tedious nature of middle-class American life, hitting on everything from religion to cookie-cutter suburban homes, the middling benefits of a college education and the ever-present need to over-medicate.  Other songs are just downright hilarious even in their bitchiness, as “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” completely eviscerates the personality of a prior love interest with lines like “And now every insufferable convo/ Features her patiently explaining the cosmos/ Of which she’s in the middle.” Everyone has dated THAT girl, and by the end of the song, he is quite literally choking her, and so are his listeners; Tillman has that same innate ability that so many folk singers possess that enables him to paint vivid pictures with his words.

Through it all, Tillman maintains meticulous attention to melody and arrangement. Centerpiece “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” was among my favorite songs of that year with its lifted choral background vocals and pitch-perfect orchestration. The lyric “I can hardly believe I found you, and I’m terrified by that” is meant as a vulnerable admission in what was the year’s greatest love song, but for me at the time, it meant pure, legitimate fear. On the simple but addictive acoustic guitar ballad “Holy Shit”, Tillman delivers perhaps the year’s most poignant lyric as he sings “Oh and love is just an institution based on human frailty/ What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?/ Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/ But what I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.” If there was an easier record to connect with in 2015 than this one, I am not sure what it was.

#36: Fleet Foxes/ Helplessness Blues (2011)

There may not have been a more highly anticipated sophomore release in 2011 than Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes’ lead singer Robin Pecknold has been well-documented as a recluse with social anxiety issues, and the pressure to duplicate his surprisingly well-received debut full length must have been heavy. While this somewhat darker, more inward-looking and patient follow-up doesn’t contain as many immediate staple sing-along singles in the same vein as “White Winter Hymnal” or “Your Protector”, it is arguably more congruent and complex as a whole, and shows an upward progression of musical acumen. Gentle opener “Montezuma” doesn’t try to do too much, but instead glides along and showcases spot-on harmonies, which after all is perhaps the band’s best single attribute. Equally carefree is the decidedly western track “Boudin Dress”, which plays wonderfully for a sunny car ride on the open road. “Sim Sala Bim” starts calmly and precisely, but slowly evolves into an intense folk guitar strum break down through its coda before coming to a sudden end. It is these types of musical tone shifts inside of the songs that show growth within the band. They stretch out considerably on tracks like “Plains/ Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine/ An Argument”, which are far too complex and winding in terms of arrangement to have ever been found on the last album. Highlights abound in the album’s second half, beginning with the acoustic title track, which builds and soars into an astonishing centerpiece that ranks among the very best Fleet Foxes songs to date. Later on, we get another standout in “Lorelai”, a steadily rolling and melodic song of lost love that expresses bittersweet lines like “You, you were like glue/ Holding each of us together/ I slept through July/ While you made lines in the heather” before lamenting “I was old news to you then.” And speaking of arrangement, who could have written a better track than “Grown Ocean” for placement as the closer here? It’s delivered so nonchalantly and creates such a hypnotic, dreamy effect that it’s hard to notice how effectively it builds and ultimately collapses back onto itself, sending the album off on a reassuring note. Then again, they opened with their Pitchfork set that summer with the same song and it worked equally well. Perhaps Fleet Foxes can do no wrong.

#35: Kendrick Lamar/ To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

Kendrick2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was the best album of that year as well as the best rap album in nearly two decades upon its release, so it isn’t surprising that Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore full length effort was met with such a fever pitch of anticipation. The strangely titled To Pimp A Butterfly was originally devised as a tribute record to the late Tupac Shakur, but evolved into something much more timely and heavy on social commentary than a mere tip of the bottle to a highly influential, deceased Compton homie, and instead plays more like a broadly designed concept album. By the time Tupac makes a surprising appearance from beyond the grave at the record’s conclusion, it’s easy to have mixed emotions. Admittedly, Lamar’s knack for taking on tough issues in such a lyrically honest manner is part of what makes him such an important and exciting artist, but the general tone of this work does risk leaving certain listeners put off by its aggressive nature as it relates to race issues. That isn’t to say that Lamar comes off as racist here, but he does seem angrier than he did on his debut, and the bizarre poem that builds upon itself throughout these 16 tracks begins to border on repetitive and overwrought to these ears. To his credit though, and this is open to debate, his over-riding purpose seems to be one of unification and responsibility within the black community rather than division and finger pointing.

Still, tracks like unsettling “The Blacker The Berry” hit hard, with its anxious, pounding percussion skeleton that underlie Lamar’s raspy vocal that has to be as angry as he’s ever been on record with lyrics like “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society
/ That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me” and “I’m African-American, I’m African
/ I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan” that don’t leave too much open to interpretation. Musically, this is an impressively diverse, if somewhat scattered collection of songs for the genre. There’s a lot of G-Funk influence early on as the surprising opener “Wesley’s Theory” begins the album with the lyric “Every nigga is a star” sung in a show-tune style that will leave initial listeners double checking that they are indeed listening to the correct album. After that, “King Kunta” serves as this record’s “Backseat Freestyle” as we get a rare dose of true bravado over the relentless energy and confidence demonstrated. Dark jazz tones dominate tracks like “These Walls” and the nightmarish “u”, the latter of which features Lamar screaming at himself in the mirror of a hotel bathroom over urgent, breathless, off-beat freestyle rhymes that turn into desperate wails. Lamar’s ability to combine and switch between different emoting personas is part of what made his debut so engaging and essential, and he has only built upon those qualities here. Snoop Dogg makes an appearance on the airy “Institutionalized”, an early highlight that is sure to whet the appetite of anyone who enjoyed the laid back, suave grooves on tracks like “Money Trees” on his debut. Lamar appears to sample Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” on the powerful “How Much A Dollar Cost”, where he meets and chastises a homeless man who turns out to be God in disguise. At its center, “Alright” stands out here as the track that holds the album together with its optimism and razor sharp rhyme schemes all above a gorgeous horn riff. It’s as close to anthemic as anything else here, and offers a rare moment of hope amongst a collection of songs that burst with darkness and uncertainty elsewhere. To Pimp A Butterfly is hard-hitting, innovative and one of the decade’s best rap albums, and while its relentlessly serious commentary is a lot to take in and not altogether enjoyable, I suppose that is the entire point. I’m still not even sure I completely understand the true meaning of the metaphor the album’s title bears even after it’s explained in the final track, which is one of any reasons that while listening to it, I don’t feel that this album was made for me, which is not a feeling that M.A.A.D. City gave me, but this effort has to be appreciated for its scope alone. Closer “Mortal Man” is the perfect sendoff, with its dark bass line and atmospheric horns above lyrics that show a clear admiration for Nelson Mandela and sympathy for Michael Jackson, among other things. Lamar is fighting demons, but he’s fighting them for peace and to create a better life for his community, and the aforementioned sendoff interview with the ghost of Tupac showcases the deep love and respect he has for where he came from, an admirable quality indeed.

#34: Flying Lotus/ Cosmogramma (2010)

Steven Ellison aka Flying Lotus took a big step forward from his thoroughly enjoyable debut full length Los Angeles on sophomore effort Cosmogramma, a fascinating and challenging exploration of the possibilities of beat manipulation and electronic music. The album plays somewhat like a symphony consisting of three movements. The opening tracks “Clock Catcher” “Pickled”, and “Nose Art” hit hard in succession and seem almost playful in nature with their videogame synth noises, a quick warm up to get us ready for some exciting new musical ideas. As we move on to more complex pieces like the amazing shift from the dim, spacey undertones and mind-boggling beat on “Zodiac Shit” to its bass-driven lounge thumps, the album drives into its trip-hop stage. The transition and flow from the exhausting “Computer Face/ Pure Being” to the Thom Yorke-assisted highlight “The World Laughs With You” is an essay in perfection, and that track carries its own weight well enough for Yorke’s presence on it to be merely an afterthought. This airier middle stage of the album hits its apex with the gorgeously restrained “Mmm Hmm” before evolving into a more jazz-influenced final movement. Remember that Fly Lo’s aunt is the famous jazz musician Alice Coltrane, and her influence is prevalent here. The more upbeat “Do the Astral Plane” and “Dance of the Psuedo Nymph” serve as a bit of a break from the harder-to-grasp material earlier in the album, and should become immediate playlist choices for dinner parties and boutiques far and wide. Laura Darlington returns after helping on powerful Los Angeles closing track “Auntie’s Lock/ Infintium” to provide a haunting vocal on the downtempo “Ping Pong” (featuring a looped game of ping pong as the beat and namesake) while closer “Galaxy In Janaki” pays tribute to Ellison’s deceased mother and ties all of the digital jazz and electronica of Cosmogramma together. Truth be told, Ellison elevated himself to status as a musical visionary with this effort, as no other album as the decade turned gave us a similar glimpse into the future.

#33: Crystal Castles/ Crystal Castles (II) (2010)

On their second self-titled album, electro-punk duo Crystal Castles expanded their unique sound with deeper, broader sounding music while still remaining true to their core of often terrifying rave rock. This balance is evident early on after the noisy distortion and intense vocals by Alice Glass on opener “Fainting Spells” fade into the more atmospheric, shoegaze highlight “Celestica,” and then back into the maniacally propulsive “Doe Deer,” which features Glass screaming the word “deathray” over and over again in a disturbing manner. To me, as enjoyable as their debut album was, it suffered at points from an overdose of this often unbearably noisy intensity and an overall lack of focus, so the gentler, prettier sounds here added a new element of complexity for sure without sacrificing the same element of beat, and the pacing is commendable as well. Songs like the lifted, trip-hoppy standout “Suffocation” and the twirling synth beats on “Empathy” give us a taste of what Glass’s (somewhat manipulated) voice sounds like when she isn’t screaming, and the music underneath is impressively melodic. On the whole, Ethan Kath’s beats sharpened considerably this time around, most notably on rave tracks like “Baptism”, while “Vietnam” and quasi-closer “Intimate” show development on a new level as they communicate some genuine emotion behind their impressively layered structure. “Violent Dreams” uses a dark electronic organ to create an eerie church vibe, while the energetic bounce of “Pap Smear” and heavily manipulated vocals on the gorgeous, bittersweet “Not In Love” add to the diversity here. A band all its own before the sexual assault accusations brought by Glass against Kath ended this collaboration, Crystal Castles found their niche in 2010, elevating themselves beyond their own supposed genre, and with this album managed to straddle the line between accessible pop and hardcore electronica.

#32: Big Thief/ U.F.O.F. (2019)

BigThief_UFOF.jpgHow can we tell when a band is incredibly, unequivocally on top of its game? While some artists understandably spend a half a decade fine tuning new music between releases, Big Thief is in the zone, delivering two massive and essential albums in 2019 that both rank among the year’s very best. Of the two, it was the band’s first release that resonated the strongest, preceding the raw, honest and concise nature of Two Hands with a collection of intimate, lush and spell-binding folk rock songs. The delicate whisper of lead singer Adrienne Lenker is simultaneously calming and foreboding over the minor chord strums of opener “Contact” before suddenly shapeshifting into a snarling guitar solo, a jarring juxtaposition indeed. While serving as an attention-grabbing tone setter, it’s also somewhat of a red herring, as the rest of U.F.O.F. is defined by its restraint and elegance. The incredibly pleasing nocturnal vibe of the title track could seemingly go on forever and expand, but instead concludes with an element of no-frills nonchalance. There’s a flawless and precise folk dynamic on “Cattails”, which glides along effortlessly beneath Lenker’s ever-so-slightly strained and discordant vocal. Lyrical imagery abounds throughout as she belts out lines like “And I find you there in your country flair/ Middle of the river in a lawn chair/ With your wrinkled hands and your silver hair/ Leaving here soon and you know where.” The truly quieter moments really shine, as Lenker’s vocals crack on the bittersweet “Terminal Paradise”, while the rich, peaceful and lullaby-like “Open Desert” is arguably the single prettiest moment here. The melody of “Orange” is as simple as it is affecting, while “Century” evokes shades of Stevie Nicks. But it’s on the stunning penultimate track “Jenni” that the band comes together to realize its full potential. Weighty yet understated, an ominous mood permeates the fuzzy shoegaze guitars that lay beneath Lenkner’s elfish whisper. There’s a moment here towards the end where everything stops and a single guitar chord rings out for what seems like half a minute, building tension before layers of distorted guitars swell into its coda.

#31: Low/ Double Negative (2018)

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In recent memory, there hasn’t been an album that so fully at once encapsulates the dreariness and hopelessness of existence alongside its beauty. The key is the usage of space, and prioritizing restraint above ego to create a consistent, unsettling mood, and on their 12th album, the inventors of the entire genre of slow core are not new at this, they’re just better at it. As a result, Double Negative requires patience, with its glitchy synths, processed vocals and looming dread, but it rewards with repeated listens. The tribal beat of the terrifying “Dancing And Blood” segues perfectly into “Fly” like silk, where a softly rolling bass line picks up subtle piano chords intermittently beneath Mimi Parker’s gorgeous falsetto. The repeated use of the word “always” is noticeable here, to an extent that has to be considered intentional. Highlights abound on tracks like the synth-driven, melodic “Always Trying To Work It Out” and the utterly gorgeous “Always Up” that precedes it; even the devastating penultimate track “Rome” has “Always In The Dark” parenthesized. Ultimately, the point here is the reality of a hopeless permanence, which is startling and practically contrarian due to its surrender as opposed to its protest. In short, like the rest of us, this band isn’t a fan of Donald Trump.

#30: ANOHNI/ Hopelessness (2016)


If you’ve ever wondered what an electronic album from Antony and The Johnsons would sound like, you now have your answer. ANOHNI is the post-transition moniker of the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, and this effort far surpasses anything previously put to record in what was formerly a more baroque pop style. Hopelessness flips any notion of reliance upon some past formula completely on its back, and it’s a powerful statement, both musically and politically. ANOHNI’s other-worldly voice absolutely soars on standout track “4 Degrees”, and has there ever been a song about the impending apocalypse that sounds this beautiful? It’s clearly a sarcastic commentary on global warming, as the artist attempts to convince us that if we are going to continue to destroy the planet, we should do so because we want to-“I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.” It all builds behind a percussion sample that sounds as though it has been fired out of a cannon, picking up horns and violin that cascade upon themselves through the coda. Elsewhere, there’s more politically charged lyricism on tracks like “Drone Bomb Me”, a dark, suicidal cry from the perspective of a young child who has lost her family in a drone attack, and “Execution”, which takes a hard look at American foreign policy decisions behind its steady synth beat. The chilling “I Don’t Love You Anymore” uses an echoed, fuzzy bass beat with an off-kilter time signature behind a subtle, gorgeous church organ as listeners are forced to confront the stunning, transition-confirming line “You left me/ for ANOTHER girl.” No one is off the hook here, as “Obama” investigates the disappointment felt now by many relative to the naive expectation of “hope and change” over music that resembles a Gregorian chant.

A surveillance analogy, “Watch Me” is the most melodic and intimate moment here, among one of the very best, as dark but soothing beats glide behind the addictive “Daddy” chorus line, while centerpiece “Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth” arguably delivers the single most incredible vocal performance on the record. While it hits hard, nothing comes off as finger-pointing or preachy here. In fact, tracks like the devastating “Crisis”, which again touches on drone bombing, find ANOHNI grappling with personal culpability and asking the listener to do the same over its apologetic chorus. Closer “Marrow” is such a soft, restrained letdown with its gorgeous but understated piano lines. A bracing indictment of society combined with a new sound altogether from what was once a familiar artist, Hopelessness is the embodiment of a new identity.

#29: Slowdive/ Slowdive (2017)


In 2013, shoegaze kings My Bloody Valentine released their first record in 22 years, a self-titled work that left fans of the genre pleased to see how little swagger the band had lost in their step during their hiatus. Four years later, an identical 22 years after Pygmalion, Slowdive returned with their self-titled record, easily the most melodic in their relatively small catalog. It seems we have uncovered the secret to a successful shoegaze comeback! Lush, cascading soundscapes abound here from start to finish. “Star Roving” is an absolute throwback to the dawn of the genre, with its soaring, distorted guitar arpeggios that reach heavenward. The amazing “Don’t Know Why”, aside from its ethereal beauty, is impressive for its innovation and inverse structure, beginning with a sped up time signature that collapses back onto itself into two distinctly slower layers before picking the tempo right back up again. The absolutely gorgeous chiming guitar line completes the sort of track that you never want to end. Conversely, the soft, gentle “Sugar For The Pill” is another huge highlight but is far more stripped down and delicate, benefiting from a restrained and isolated guitar riff that takes the band’s sound in a new direction entirely. “No Longer Making Time” alternates between its soothing verses and explosive distortion through its chorus in true shoegaze style from a structural standpoint, all the while showcasing an incredibly modern dual harmony, finishing just as it began, while closer “Falling Ashes” beckons Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” with its slow-burn build. If this is the last album we ever get from Slowdive, it is a fitting finale to a defining legacy, and was well worth the wait.

#28: LCD Soundsystem/ American Dream (2017)


James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem project were one of the most important and exciting artists of the young century when they abruptly retired and played their “final” show at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011. Rumors of a reunion began to emerge in late 2015, much to the joy of music fans everywhere, and were confirmed the following year when the band began touring and working on new material again. Attentive minds expected them to emerge with a new sound, and so it is on American Dream, from the patiently building and warmly produced opener “Oh Baby” to the spare-framed closer “Black Screen.” There’s no “Dance Yrself Clean” here, and as a whole the songs on this album seem more melody-focused, darkly introspective and slow-burning than the dance-rock defined by its predecessors. This sonic shift is best demonstrated on tracks like “I Used To”, with its paranoid gliding guitar riff and ominous bass, and the savage takedown centerpiece “How Do You Sleep?”, which is an essay in build over its nine unsettling minutes, culminating into a full throttle dance beat that is well worth the wait. You’d be hard pressed to find a song this year that so fully encapsulates intense propulsion with soaring melody any better than “Call The Police”, which combines a ringing guitar riff with a proggy, spaced out bass line as Murphy’s vocals escalate into his trademark strained falsetto. It isn’t all unfamiliar however, as the title track is the band’s loveliest ballad since “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” while the bouncy, sunny “Tonite” probably comes closest to a crowd pleaser for those who have been LCD Soundsystem fans from the beginning, and “Emotional Haircut” delivers the same kind of raucous silliness established on prior songs like “Drunk Girls”. Wherever one stands on the heavier, more serious sound weaving its way in, it would be hard to not be happy to see the band in action again, evolving and expanding their musical horizons in a way that offers a new found variety.

#27: The National/ High Violet (2010)

2007’s Boxer became one of Indie Rock’s most beloved cult albums on the strength of its ability to expand and evolve upon repeated listens, as well as The National’s remarkable reputation as a live act, and the followup to that effort was met with perhaps the greatest anticipation of any album released in the decade’s first year. High Violet comes as close to matching its predecessor as we could have reasonably hoped, and by all accounts is an even darker, more personal account; whether the songs stack up as a little better or a little worse seems to be a meaningless debate. The same rainy-city-street-at-night feel permeates throughout this collection of songs, and the National again found a way to lyrically express the universal melodrama of everyday life and the added difficulties that growing older present- financial difficulty, (“I still owe money/ To the money/ To the money I owe”), lost love, (“Cover me in rag and bone sympathy/ Cause I don’t wanna get over you”) and overall inability to deal with life’s frustrations (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”)- without being melodramatic. Opener “Terrible Love” is mesmerizing in its layered melancholy, while the broad ballad “Sorrow” follows softy, possibly doing a better job of describing its own title with sound than any song I can remember by this band or anyone else. There is a defeated tone to “Anyone’s Ghost”, which picks up the tempo a bit with a foot-stomping percussion pattern, while quivering guitar notes add depth to highlight “Afraid of Everyone.” Lead singer Matt Berninger’s rich baritone leads the way through the album’s shining centerpiece “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, an immediately gripping number that builds upon its sharp drumming and scaled melody with soaring guitar riffs and piano through its stunning coda, an essay in the balance between musical restraint and release.  The somewhat terrifying “Conversation 16”, switches between minor chords on its verses and a somewhat rare moment of optimism during its chorus before Berninger breaks down and offers “I was afraid/ I’d eat your brains/ Because I’m evil.” Heavily orchestrated “England” would have worked better as a closer here than the somewhat overdone “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, with its allusions to rainy London nights and Los Angeles cathedrals, using a patient piano melody backed with subtle horns that evolve into a drum march and builds into the album’s finest crescendo. Even more one-dimensional songs like “Lemonworld” and “Little Faith” that seem a bit slight on the first listen reveal impressive emotional heft when revisited. It is a rare thing indeed for music this dreary to be this listenable, but that’s what The National does, arguably better than anyone else.

#26: Kamasi Washington/ The Epic (2015)

KamasiAs aptly titled as an album will be ever be, The Epic is an absolutely sprawling expansion and re-invention of modern jazz over its three-hour length. As such, it’s a difficult album to digest in a single sitting, and describing it as simply ambitious seems to overstate the obvious. I feel as though I simply don’t have the historical jazz background to fully appreciate all of the nuances present here, but that’s exactly the point; this album created interest within the genre from music fans that might ordinarily stray from it. Washington is featured as a saxophonist on previous Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar albums, and fans of the futuristic, post-come-down acid haze influences of those records will find much to like here, although these songs don’t fall into any one category, as there are moments of darkness, sunshine, melancholy and upbeat energy all in equal proportion. That an album of this length and overall breadth could be so inherently listenable despite the presence of hardly any vocals is a testament to the meticulous nature of the musical arrangements as much as it is a tribute to the memorable and engaging melodies. Only on Ray Noble cover “Cherokee”, “Henrietta Our Hero” and standout “The Rhythm Changes” do we hear vocalist Patrice Quinn. The rest of the album is strictly instrumental, and arguably better for it.

There’s constant energy, motion and build over the duration of behemoth tracks like the triumphant “Re Run Home” and “The Magnificent 7.” And, like a true jazz record should, it emotes powerfully. Listen to the final minutes of early track “Askhim”, and you can hear Washington’s discordant saxophone literally wailing. Early on, there’s impressive contrast between the dark lounge vibes of “Isabelle” as it morphs into the sunny, upbeat highlight “Final Thought.” Diversity abounds all the way through the opening piano chords and immediately catchy horn melody of “Change of the Guard” all the way through “The Message”, and everything in between. Accessible enough to attract listeners who may not normally be interested in jazz, while simultaneously changing the modern landscape of that genre, The Epic was one of the decade’s most important albums.

#25: Grimes/ Visions (2012)

If there was one artist that took the indie world by storm in 2012 while simultaneously polarizing it to smithereens, then that artist would have to be Claire Boucher, who hails from Montreal under her stage name Grimes. Her first two records flew largely under the radar, but expectations were high for this album following the release of the “Oblivion” single the previous fall. That song, with its bouncy, jabbing synths combined with whispery, high pitched girlish vocals, was an immediate attention grabber. Boucher’s speedy but nonchalant delivery of lines like “But when you’re really by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” was a breath of fresh air into the often corny electropop genre. However, Visions is much too diverse and far-reaching an album to be labeled simply as electropop, and to attempt to place her music into any specific genre is a difficult task indeed. There are moments of darkness that draw influence from bands like Ladytron and the witch house trend, such as the aptly titled, synth driven “Nightmusic,” and the nocturnal beauty of “Colour of Moonlight”, while the gorgeous melodies on “Vowels=Space and Time” and the pure bubble gum pop of opener “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment” could pass for more accessible Top 40 music. There’s even an ambient moment halfway through with the well executed “Visiting Statue.” Throughout Visions, we see Boucher’s electronic experimentation spread its broad wings, from the robotic jam “Circumambient” to the more atmospheric textures on highlight “Genesis.” However, Grimes’ most valuable instrument may actually be her voice, which hangs just below surface level, often in a rich falsetto as she stretches the limits of the musical scale. While it’s often heavily draped in reverb, the only time her voice is truly manipulated comes on the fairly forgettable “Eight.” The girlish charm that results from her vocal style might come off as annoying to some, but when taken in combination with the entire range she shows over these songs, it really equates to a pretty stunning vocal performance that resonates as sweet and sugar-coated. Listen as she switches between a commanding baritone and glass-cracking falsetto octave escalations on the fantastic “Be A Body” and pretend to be unconvinced.

Grimes has admitted that her ideas tend to run wild without much thought towards organization, saying “Basically I’m really impressionable and have no sense of consistency in anything I do.” However, her acumen for arrangement is never more apparent than on standout penultimate track “Skin”, which utilizes an enormous amount of spaciousness to create an remarkably intimate and powerful sendoff that showcases her very best vocal as well. It is that range of ideas and the fearless execution of those ideas that put Grimes in a league of her own in the age of post-electropop. Wait, did I just invent a genre?

#24: Godspeed You! Black Emperor/ Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend! (2012)

After a ten year hiatus, enigmatic Canadian orchestral collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor shocked the music world with the sudden release of a new record. Following  2002’s Yanqui U.X.O and 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To The Heavens, the sprawling double album that has remained the band’s career topping achievement over the past decade, Don’t Bend, Ascend! takes a different approach in terms of structure. Whereas the latter album consisted of a series of movements, with songs that meandered in and out of one another to create a symphonic effect over its punishing 87-minute length, this time around the delivery is more straightforward and uniform. Simply put, what we have here is two unique and wholly individual 20-minute songs surrounded by two interlinking 6 minute drones. This is as about as concise as this band is capable of being, yet it is also an essential addition to their catalog, and might be the perfect introduction for those not familiar with their prior work. While the two proper tracks here have been live staples for the band for years, they take on new formalities on record.

Opener “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) enters new musical territory even for these battle tested and highly skilled musicians, expanding from a suspenseful and understated Middle Eastern guitar line and building into an ominous cloud of what can only be described as industrial metal. This is an extremely dark song that slowly builds tension throughout its midsection before it releases into a somewhat triumphant, contrasting crescendo. I can recall watching the band open with this song, which I had never heard before, while headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival back in July, and being astonished by their perfection of the crescendo rock style as we know it. (On an additional note, had the song they closed with at that concert, “Behemoth”, which was later recorded less spectacularly in four parts as LP “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress” been included on this record in its live form, it almost certainly would have pushed it into album of the year and decade status. It was that good). After the well-placed, fuzzy transition track “Their Helicopters Sing”, there’s “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, which touches on the other end of the Godspeed spectrum, delivering steadily building joy and beauty that is in stark contrast to “Mladic.” Over its first ten minutes, the song evolves slowly, beginning with a simple guitar line and picking up additional violin elements one by one until all of a sudden, it becomes a sprawling masterpiece of a song. By the midway point, guitar lines are soaring high into the heavens, and at just about the point when we probably can no longer take it, the track suddenly shifts and takes a brief pause. But the band powers on, and the song gains an unsettling edge that is the perfect set up for its eventual release. There’s such a massive combination of musical wonder going on here that words alone begin to do it an injustice, but suffice to say that all bets are off once the pounding percussion and soaring electric guitar give way into a folk violin solo through the coda. Bands like Mono and Explosions In The Sky have made a career out of taking cues from this band and trying to improve upon their ideas, and have done so with positive results, but it’s refreshing to be reminded once again after such a long wait that no one has quite the ear for this type of thing as Godspeed does.

#23: Jamie XX/ In Colours (2015)

XXIn 2015, a year fairly devoid of strong electronic music, London producer Jamie Smith of The xx fame fit the bill with this brilliantly diverse debut hybrid of bright house beats and club pop. The upbeat, approachable highlight “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” served well as a primary summer anthem, combining rap verses from Young Thung with a Caribbean funk chorus courtesy of Popcaan. This track stood out like a sore thumb on a record that elsewhere was decidedly minimalistic and nuanced, just as the debut record from The xx was before it, and demonstrates eager risk-taking by the young producer. Its strongest tracks utilize vocalists from that project, namely Romy Croft on standouts “Loud Places” and “See Saw.” The former ballad showcases a lifted chorus that is remarkably gorgeous in its subtlety and nonchalance, falling back on Romy’s whispered vocal, culminating with the haunting lyric “You’re in ecstasy/ Without me/ When you come down/ I won’t be around.” The latter track swells with richness and desperately rushing synths that wash over the understated vocals and serve to create a vast, unsettling tone.

Oliver Sim makes an appearance on “Stranger In A Room”, a darkly lit slow burner that beckons that same spaciousness that made The xx such an engaging debut. Strangely though, the purely electronic tracks are the ones that truly separate In Colour from its peers in terms of the way it emotes. Opener “Gosh” is a true tone-setter, slowly building over a constant loop that picks up additional elements before exploding into a synthesized keyboard coda. Penultimate track “The Rest Is Noise” brings the party to a halt with its more melancholy tone even as it swells up and collapses back upon itself, almost as a wider metaphor for life that nothing lasts forever. Closer “Girl” almost feels like a wistful surrender to the night with its atmospheric acid jazz; the party is over, and it was fun, but it will never be exactly like it was ever again.

While the electronic highlights of previous years like Aphex Twin’s Syro, Fuck Buttons’ Slow Focus and Jon Talbot’s Fin relied heavily on iciness and distance to realize their full effectiveness, In Colour is an electronic record that bursts with warmth and embraces a connection with its intended listener, and is all the better for it.

#22: Bon Iver/ 22, A Million (2016)


In 2011, Bon Iver released their impeccably produced self-titled album, which has a fighting chance to make an appearance further down on this list. Given that, it’s no surprise that this release stood as a highly anticipated one half a decade later in its wake. While it doesn’t quite match the greatness of its predecessor, the band should be commended for simply conceding its own inability to top it, and instead doesn’t even try. Everything about 22, A Million, from the bizarre, Aphex Twin-esque song titles to the sequencing and composition, demonstrates the undertaking of a new direction entirely, and it’s a far less accessible one. There’s an ambient quality to this record, with its crackling, glitchy synths, echoed percussion loops and vocal processing, that makes it sound even more stripped down than either Bon Iver or For Emma, Forever Ago did, which is an interesting observation considering those were both composed of primarily acoustic songs, while these lend more toward the electronic variety. The auto-tuned vocal manipulation on “715- Creeks” is so prominent it sounds almost like it could have been lifted from 808s and Heartbreak, ironic since Kanye West has noted that lead singer and mastermind Justin Vernon is his favorite living artist. “10 Deathbreast” opens with unorthodox, chaotic electronic drums that pick up complex horns and lifted vocal samples through its powerful crescendo. But this level of experimentation isn’t for everyone, to say the least of those fans hoping for more of the same after five years of patiently waiting. To that end, the band doesn’t completely divert from its lifeblood, and it’s the highlight “8 (Circle)” that is most reminiscent of their immediately prior work, and again, that’s a very good thing. Straightforward but bursting from the seams with emotion and melody behind impeccable production and its gorgeous synthesized horn, it’s a reminder that sometimes what isn’t broken doesn’t need fixing. The ballad “29 Strafford APTS” isn’t a notable diversion either, with its pretty acoustic guitar plucks, subtle violin string orchestration, and of course Vernon’s unmistakable falsetto. “666” combines a bit of the old with the new, as a gorgeous melody combines with synthesized trumpet and a commanding drum backbone.

But what makes 22, A Million such an exciting record are indeed the moments where the band takes risks and succeeds. “33 God” opens with what sounds like a typical piano line, but evolves quickly and astonishingly over its three minutes, revealing stunning complexity as it explodes into buzzing synth, ethereal howls and thunderous drumming. Opener “22 (Over Soon”) begins with a shot of sharp synth before Vernon’s heavily processed voice alternates stanzas with his regular one. It’s an atmospheric, spacious track that examines finality, picking up subtle horns before it suddenly cuts off without warning, an analogy for the question/ reality it raises and obsesses over in the first place. Still, what prevents this album from completely living up to its admittedly sky-high expectations are moments where the focus seems to meander and flatten out on tracks like “21 Moon Water” and “_45_.” Those tracks water down the back half a bit, but aren’t enough to undo the overall impressiveness or cohesion present here, especially as closer “00000 Million” ends it on such a strong note. Melancholic piano carries Vernon’s aching vocal in a manner that is straightforward but heart-wrenching, as the album ends with the somber resignation “If it’s harmed, it harmed me/ It’ll harm me, I let it in.” In a way, the ultimate direction and result of 22, A Million is reminiscent of Kid A, in that a band seemed either bored or unwilling to revert back to some pre-determined formula or expectation, and was more intrigued by looking forward rather than backward while playing by its own rules.

#21: Run The Jewels/ Run The Jewels 2 (2014)

homepage_large.e0491b02I don’t know what it is about November and surprise rap albums. In 2012, we saw Kendrick Lamar release one of the best records of the decade, and a year later Danny Brown surprised everyone with the gutting depths of Old. In 2014, we received an equally surprising improvement from well-established rapper/producers Killer Mike and El-P on their second album together as Run The Jewels. El-P has always been an elite producer, but pardon me if I’ve often felt his actual rapping to be a bit on the try-hard white dude side of douche-baggery. Such is not the case this time, as his anger and pointed emotion is real, quite believable and executed impeccably. Check out his verse on “Lie, Cheat, Steal” for proof of the above. Maybe all he needed was to collaborate with someone equally intense and serious, with an accomplished rap background himself. Somehow, someway, these two unlikely comrades discovered each other, and the result on their second album as Run The Jewels is packed with energy, anger and general disillusionment with the current state of the country and the world that comes off as incredibly genuine and valid. These are not a couple of young gangsters trying to tough it up, they are grown ass men nearing 40 with a lifetime of experiences and observations, and suffice to say, they do NOT like fuckboys. This is the type of album that you will walk down the street with cranked at full volume with the impetus to crush anyone who dares to veer into your path. Both rappers have a considerably deep background playing for live audiences, but these songs seem almost tailor-made for a concert environment, as the beats hit harder and the anger and easily re-quotable lyrics seem so much more real and authentic on their sophomore effort together. Find me a weak track; you can’t. This pair wastes no time bringing the heat, and it never lets up.

“Jeopardy” begins with an ominous, buzzing beat that steadily gains intensity as the duo unleashes lines like “Fuck you fuckboys forever I hope I said it politely” that leave no possible misinterpretation of their intentions right off the bat, while “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” shows off some of the speediest rapping verses since Bone Thugs N Harmony. The back-to-back combo of “Blockbuster Night 1”, with its diabolical industrial bass beat and alternating verses, and standout masterpiece “Close Your Eyes”, is absolutely mind-blowing. The latter brings the energy to an insurmountable level, as the duo conveys a prison riot/ break out tale over a franticly repetitious sample. It’s the best rap song of 2014, and there isn’t a close second. “All My Life” samples a trip-hop synth line that reminds me of Massive Attack’s “Future Proof” and wins immediately in my book on that basis even if I’m wrong. The lyrical shock-value on the sexually driven “Love Again” gives Kanye’s “I’m In It” a run for its money and is a welcome diversion from the serious tone here, although it’s fairly intense in its own right, but showcases some of the very best production on the entire album, and that isn’t a statement I take lightly. “Crown” slows it down and pulls it all together but doesn’t forsake the deep bass lines that permeate this entire record, as Killer Mike illustrates the deep regrets of his drug-dealing past and its negative impact upon humanity with El-P’s brief but surprisingly respectful support of a man who has no choice but to join the military. Killer Mike is on the record as saying he had difficulty finishing his verse from an emotional standpoint as he had continuous breakdowns as he reflected on his past, so it is no surprise that this is the album’s pinnacle. And how about that Radiohead fade into the stunning closer “Angel Duster”? Keep in mind, these were two 39-year-old rap industry veterans that should have been heading towards a mid-life crisis instead of hitting their stride and the best form of their careers. But, sometimes things don’t play out as expected, and I didn’t hear anyone complaining, least of all me, as for once I could crush a rap album and respect my elders all in one fell swoop. This ultimately feels like a fantastic piece of work that will stand the test of time.

#20: LCD Soundsystem/ This Is Happening (2010)

This Is Happening, which at the time was presumed to be the final album from James Murphy, the one man show that is LCD Soundsystem, waxes nostalgic, delivering his most melodic set of songs to date behind, once again, consistently energetic beats. Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” requires a bit of patience initially, as Murphy’s monotone vocal begins slowly and softly above a hollow, delicate beat that suddenly shifts into buzzing synth and electronic drums which turn the song into a supreme dance jam. The bittersweet sentiment of standouts like “All My Friends” from the essentially perfect previous album Sound of Silver finds itself in solid form here on “All I Want”, the album’s clear highlight with its soaring 80s-inspired guitar riff, steady percussion and heartbreaking tune. The beats are softer and the melodies a bit more mainstream on the instantly accessible, dizzying “I Can Change”, and steady grind of “You Wanted A Hit”, which  meanders effortlessly over its eight minutes. He has always been less of a vocalist and more of a force and a presence, but his commendable attempts at hitting higher notes on “Change” are nothing if not truthful and modest, especially on powerfully strained lines like “Love is a murderer!” Murphy indulges in rambling monologues on longer songs like the bongo-drum driven “Pow Pow” and the massive, somewhat ominous techno track “One Touch.” On the former, he offers somewhat nonsensically and off beat, “We have a black president and you do not/ So shut up/ Because you don’t know shit about where I’m from/ And you didn’t even buy my CD,” which doesn’t even attempt to rhyme, but somehow works perfectly, evoking memories of the spoken-word classic “Losing My Edge”, which one could argue is where it all began for this artist.  Unlike his previous efforts, there are small missteps here that fail to deliver fully on the album’s potential, such as the generally obnoxious and repetitive “Drunk Girls” and the somewhat one-dimensional yet hypnotic “Somebody’s Calling Me.” It could be said that in many circumstances an artist is better to go out on top than he is to fade away into mediocrity. As it turned out, Murphy still had the itch to make new music after this. With years of musical creativity still to build upon, it was on This Is Happening where he began to explore different areas of his potential inside of the musical spectrum. However, at the time, “Home” seemed a fitting farewell. Reprising the melody from the opening track for its chorus, the closing track rolls above beats that are at once celebratory and reflective, it brings both the album and a fascinating, out-of-nowhere and at the time of its release what was believed to be too short-lived career full circle.

#19: My Bloody Valentine/ mbv (2013)


There had been rumblings and rumors of new music on the way from infinitely influential shoegazers My Bloody Valentine for years, but to call the sudden release of mbv in February 2013- the band’s first since the landmark Loveless in 1991- a surprise would be a vast understatement. It’s a testament to the quality of the music assembled here that even after a more than twenty year layoff and an early-in-the-year release that at this point seems like ages ago, mbv maintains its status as one of the very best albums of the decade. Its nine tracks are organized in a manner that seems similar to an album like The Beta Band’s The Three EPs, as instead of flowing seamlessly the band takes us on a journey through time over three unique stanzas. The first three songs pick up right where Loveless left off, as the airy, gentle sounds of “She Found Now” harken back to the subtle atmospheric beauty of previous songs like “Sometimes.” The familiar sound of feedback-laden guitar enters the fray as “Only Tomorrow” elevates the energy level, while “Who Sees You” pushes its own limits, showing off the intentionally discordant, screeching guitar beauty typical on prior classics like “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said.” In the middle, we get a glimpse of what a My Bloody Valentine pop record might sound like, and while the decidedly mainstream center of the album may have been a turn off to some hardcore fans, it’s worth pointing out how well the band pulls it off. “New You” is an amazingly catchy, foot-stomping jam that is strikingly accessible if not incredibly complex, while the lovesick “If I Am” glides along effortlessly with the nonchalant precision of its gorgeous underlying guitar line and the comforting “oohs” of its chorus. The final three tracks are the most exciting and focused on the future, building upon the band’s strengths while adding experimental new elements focused heavily on the possibilities of percussion. “In Another Way” is purely awesome, with propulsive drumming serving as the backbone beneath is swirling guitar distortion. The brute force of the completely instrumental “Nothing Is” rolls along with punishing repetition and is unlike anything My Bloody Valentine has ever put together. But closer “Wonder 2” tops everything that came before it, opening and closing with guitar effects reminiscent of a helicopter taking off, complete with heavenly vocals that hover well above the surface, and held together by a commanding guitar line that can best be described as resembling a massive swarm of bees. If this is the last album we ever get from My Bloody Valentine, then it was worth the wait, and if we have to wait another twenty two years? Hey, you’ve got to have something to look forward to.

#18: The War On Drugs/ A Deeper Understanding (2017)


The follow-up to 2014’s fantastic Lost In The Dream features rich textures and electronic elements that result in a fuller, lusher and more intricate sound, all the while keeping the dynamics of Adam Granduciel’s guitar at the forefront. Upbeat opener “Up All Night” swells and expands beneath its warm piano riff, leading in to the elegant and vibrantly emoting “Pain”- (“Pull me close and let me hold you in/ Give me a deeper understanding of who I am”). But it’s songs like centerpiece “Nothing To Find” that truly separate this album from its contemporaries, elevating it an echelon higher than typical Americana or Springsteen revival rock. Steady, propulsive percussion reminiscent of the band’s best work (“An Ocean Between The Waves”) picks up an open-road guitar riff that glides along effortlessly. But as the song evolves in constant motion, it gains layers of complexity from shimmering synths, harmonica, a concise and well-timed lead guitar solo, and an electronic organ through its triumphant coda. In similar fashion, after a brilliant synthesizer twinkles through its introduction, glockenspiel chimes add texture, fullness and warmth to the stunning “Holding On”, complete with slide guitar solos and bouncy synths, all a backdrop for Granduciel’s Dylan-esque vocals. 11 minute epic “Thinking Of A Place” features a repeated acoustic guitar riff that is gorgeous in its simplicity and never gets old, an essay in song structure as it builds patiently and magnificently. The presence of slower tracks is notable here, as “Knocked Down” and “Clean Living” aren’t so much weak links but add diversity as they bring the tempo down a notch, but closer “You Don’t Have To Go” is a perfectly understated heartsick ballad. The subtlety and restraint with which Granduciel sings the lyric “into the light” as the song climaxes adds power and depth; a more indulgent songwriter may have taken the opportunity to wail and bloat in this moment, but Granduciel wisely lets the music shine through the vocals. It’s those examples of attention to detail- and they are numerous- that make A Deeper Understanding such a consistently thrilling listen, and another resonant rock album from this band, fittingly falling just  a single notch behind its predecessor.

#17: The War On Drugs/ Lost In The Dream (2014)

homepage_large.9419e472Mark Kozalek who? As great as Benji was, the real irony of the Sun Kil Moon leadman’s bizarre attack upon the “beer commercial lead guitar” of The War On Drugs was the easily and frequently overlooked fact that these guys made a better record than he did that year. There’s a depth and feeling here that he certainly missed while being so frustrated and annoyed by a live concert sound bleed situation that he decided to spend the last half of his year attacking this band sarcastically for no apparent reason, while he could instead have been prideful enough regarding his own career-topping work. But enough about him, as these bands aren’t even in the same genre, and while Kozalek’s attacks shamefully impacted the legacy of both records more than they should have, the fact remains that the music itself stands alone and aloof to such nonsense, and thankfully so. With Lost in The Dream, The War on Drugs made a fascinating and heartbreaking rock record that ranks among the very best of this decade in that genre. Springsteen influences? Sure. I’m an American and a fan of rock-n-roll, and wasn’t aware that such a position was akin to liking bad music. But again, I digress. Epic opener “Under The Pressure” is perfectly placed in that spot, with its relaxing, atmospheric and ultimately triumphant arrangement setting a tone that is hard to live up to, but The War on Drugs does so with ease. “Red Eyes” follows, and it’s maybe the best American rock song of the entire young century. Everything is executed and timed perfectly without excess, from the whooping vocals, brilliant melody, pounding percussion and gigantic riffs which eventually overlap and collapse upon the verses into an all out onslaught of a coda.

What separates this album from being “beer commercial lead guitar”, whatever in the holy ever-living fuck that is even supposed to mean in the first place, is its somber moments. The aptly titled “Suffering” lets you feel that pain through and through, while “Disappearing” veers in and out, leading the listener into a state of utter confusion, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s the songwriter’s mental state and ultimate intention in writing the song in the first place…so it’s conveyed perfectly. Sure, there are rocking, rollicking, open-road driving song moments like the fantastic “Burning”, and again, I NEED songs like this in my life. You want more driving music? The War on Drugs will give you more driving music. Turn on “An Ocean Between the Waves” and try to convince me that you aren’t on your way to go buy a motorcycle for an adventurous escapade up California 1; again, you can’t. But there’s nothing pretentious or happy about any of this. These songs are graphic, detailed open wounds, all minor keys, even the most upbeat of the bunch. In a brilliant move of arrangement, the tempo tapers off massively over the final two songs. If The War On Drugs was really about being commercial, they’d close this album with big marketable rock band music wouldn’t they? The title track brings in a gentle harmonica behind leadman Adam Granduciel’s subtle Dylan-esque vocal before “In Reverse” tests patience with its practically acapella intro that pays off as explodes into the line “I don’t mind you disappearing/ Because I know you can be found/ Living on the dark side of the street/ Down.” It’s such a culmination, especially invoking his own fears from earlier on the record, by name no less, yet sends the album off on a sentimental, bittersweet note. This is an intensely emotional record and one that lingers and sticks with the listener. And I wouldn’t dream of using a single track in a beer commercial if I actually wanted to sell beer. (Sorry Mark.)

#16: Kanye West/ My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

When and if hip hop music ever ceases to exist, will Kanye West go down as the greatest rapper of all time? Truthfully, four albums deep into his career, I had great respect for his ability as a producer, but he wouldn’t have even been on my short list for that honor. With the release of his fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy after two years of turmoil, it became clear that he was aiming for nothing less. The beats hit harder through this relentless, emotional effort, and Kanye’s self-destructive personality is a force, conveying a somewhat paradoxical combination of a personal apology and an indictment of American society. In somewhat of a surprise from an artist that had always been more of a producer than a rapper, he created what was at the time of its release the strongest hip hop album in over a decade, an intense, serious and at times unsettling work the likes of which we had never seen from him. There are more showstopping moments on Fantasy than on his previous four albums combined. West benefits from a slew of guest appearances, from Nicki Monaj’s mind-bending verse on the disturbing “Monster” to the Jay-Z and RZA’s short but conclusive help on the astonishing centerpiece “So Appalled”, a song that is absolutely dripping with despair and disappointment beneath a subtle, melancholy beat that is reminiscent of the great East Coast rap of the early 90s. Even Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon adds vocals and music on “Lost In The World”, an upbeat number that sticks out here and clearly demonstrates West’s diverse musical interests, while a hilarious cameo from Chris Rock at the end of the heartbreaking “Blame Game” can’t change the tone of the addictive chorus sung by John Legend. Opener “Fantasy” splits an a capella Gospel chorus with a foreboding verse that serves as an ideal tone setter, with West spitting honest lines like “Plan was to drink until the pain over/ But what’s worse/ The pain or the hangover.” In fact, the overall cleverness of his lyrics throughout this album are a clear improvement from previous efforts. Apocalyptic background vocals engulf hand-clap percussion on “Power” as West adds, “They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/ Well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation” before the track takes a surprising suicidal turn. Violin, horns and a sweet piano melody combine on the triumphant masterpiece “All of the Lights,” which eventually picks up a speedy drum machine beat that is nothing short of awesome.  And then of course there’s “Runaway”, which begins with a single piano key and builds into a nine minute epic with a memorable chorus that gives a toast to douchebags, scumbags and assholes, and before we are left wondering if perhaps Kanye has learned to view himself from our eyes as such, the track shifts into an extended finale (complete with an electronic bagpipe?) that sounds like an apology. But I digress, as a track by track analysis doesn’t do Fantasy justice. For the first time in his career, West had created an album that is more about the sum of its parts than it is about any one song, and it is his highest artistic achievement to date.

#15: Gonjasufi/ A Sufi And A Killer (2010)

Those who remember “Testament”, the haunting closing track to Flying Lotus’s 2008 album Los Angeles, may remember the unique, unforgettable vocal provided by an unknown artist that called himself Gonjasufi. Two years later, that artist’s debut full length was a sprawling, expansive combination of a vast array of genres, spanning bass-driven trip hop (“Change”, “Advice”), riff-heavy rock (“Suzie Q”), exotic Eastern influences (“Klowds”, “Kowboyz and Indians”), lounge bar-ready acid jazz (“Candylane”) and psychedelic blues (“Ageing”) without ever sacrificing its sense of cohesion. A Sufi and A Killer almost feels as though it was recorded in the desert and buried underground in a time capsule for an unspecified number of years; the decidedly grimy sounds and ghostly textures present here seem to defy any discernable era of music, and the production quality alone is a marvel. The windy tribal sounds of understated opener “Rebirth” blend darkly into an eerie acoustic guitar loop on “Cobwebs”, and then the even bleaker moodiness of the FlyLo produced “Ancestors” follows as a clear highlight. Gonjasufi’s unmistakable voice almost acts as additional instrumentation here, as it is almost always distorted and not completely to the surface level of the music, creating consistent tension and release through the generally downtempo sounds here. The gentle repetition of “Sleep” lends itself well as a useful lullably, while the stunningly heart-wrenching “She Gone” builds from a thumping bassline into a playful piano melody before Gonjasufi hits us with a blood-curdling scream that is surely one of the album’s best moments. Choppy synth bolts on “Holidayz” provide perhaps the album’s most (only?) accessible moment, while the threatening, stormy blues of “Ded Nd” and defeated casio riff on “I’ve Given” thrive on increased intensity and passion both musically and vocally. At 20 tracks, this is a challenging record, but surely one of the decade’s most captivating, while also likely to be one of the most overlooked.

#14: Flying Lotus/ Until The Quiet Comes (2012)

Remember that perfect, impeccably produced stretch of songs on Steven Ellison’s breakthrough album Cosmogramma that began with “Zodiac Shit” and ended with the Thom Yorke assisted “The World Laughs With You”? Well, imagine that sort of intricacy and attention to detail spread over the course of an entire album, and what you are left with is the masterpiece that is Until The Quiet Comes. From the opening drum beat and heavenly chime notes of the gorgeous, engaging “All In” through the subtle let down of closer “Dream To Me”, Ellison has created an album that plays like a symphony. Compared to Cosmogramma, which succeeded with its exciting production innovations and in-your-face aggressiveness, the collectively subdued beauty and appreciation for melody on Until The Quiet Comes is somewhat of a surprise as a follow up. The opening track skips along into Niki Randa’s lifted vocals on “Getting There” before we really have an opportunity to take inventory of what is happening, and this is possibly the album’s greatest strength: Ellison has become a master at creating short, well-thought out songs that blend together quickly and effectively, often before we have had enough of them. To the untrained ear, some may perceive this tactic to result in songs that are a bit slight at best and unfinished at worst. On the contrary, I view it as brilliant and encompassing, while maintaining an effortless quality that separates it from his prior work. There’s plenty going on underneath the skin here as the album picks up a jazzy, hip-hop tone on tracks like “Heave(n)” and the more ambient “Tiny Tortures”, while the spacious “All The Secrets” and massive “Sultan’s Request” enter new territory for the artist with their unique, fuzzy synth sounds. Totally out of place here but still great fun is the hilarious “Putty Boy Strut”, which might be the catchiest thing Ellison has ever put together. Perhaps the best song integration of all comes at the album’s center, as the delicious lounge vibe of the title track evolves in a single beat into the gorgeously tripped out “DMT Song,” a hypnotic ode to the hallucinogen of the same name. Even at just over a minute in length, you will have difficulty getting this melody out of your brain. The best Flying Lotus songs always consist of some type of mid-song tempo shift, and standout “The Nightcaller” is no exception, beginning with buzzing, robotic synth and spooky dance beats that shift halfway through into a swanky jazz groove. The album takes a decidedly darker turn after that, and while I’m probably partial to Thom Yorke’s aforementioned Cosmogramma contribution “The World Laughs With You”, that track almost could have been mistaken as a Radiohead song circa Amnesiac. This time, Yorke’s vocals on the dark, subdued “Electric Candyman” merely add texture to a track that is distinctly Flying Lotus. Guest vocalists have a heavy impact here, and surprisingly Erykah Badyu’s contribution earlier on “See Thru To U” is trumped by Randa and Laura Darlington respectively as the album nears its conclusion. The ominous “Hunger” builds with uncertainty and sadness, and then shifts into an atmospheric vocal section backed by electronic organ, violin and bass notes in one of the very finest moments here. Darlington, whose contributions are always noteworthy on Ellison’s albums, gives her best to date here on the astonishingly pretty “Phantasm”, which gains complexity from a fluttering percussion underbelly that adds an unsettling element to her haunting vocals. And even after all of that, penultimate track  “me Yesterday/ Corded” probably tops them all, beginning with a distorted, haphazard organ and distant vocals before exploding into an amazing coda that manages to convey optimism and carry a bittersweet tone all in one swoop. It is Ellison’s prettiest and most uplifting song to date, and a perfect microcosm for his career topping work.

#13: Beach House/ 7 (2018)

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I can still vividly recall the first time I ever saw Beach House live. In 2007, they were relegated to what was then called the “tent” stage at Pitchfork Music Festival, back in the days when that event was attended by a mere fraction of the masses that attend it now- there might have been two dozen people total in that tent with me. Ambient nearly to a fault, their debut album managed to fit a niche nonetheless, pleasing to the ear without really ever moving the mercury on the thermometer. Simply put, it would have been impossible to imagine that the band in that tent would EVER be capable of creating an album that sounds like this one does.

It didn’t happen overnight, and I’m not of the opinion that 7 is even a better record overall than Teen Dream or probably even Bloom, the former of which was the band’s true indie breakthrough. Yet, it’s arguably more impressive and striking simply because of the musical evolution it demonstrates. This will always be remembered as the album where Beach House went full, unapologetically shoegaze, and the results are exquisite and well-orchestrated in a spot where lesser artists attempting to make a similar leap would have fallen flat on their face. Consider the moment where the gripping and propulsive opener “Dark Spring” melts into the immaculate transition that preludes the slowcore, hypnotic groove of “Pay No Mind.”

The perfection of “Lemon Glow” deserves special mention, as synthesized keyboard opens the track on a menacing note as the shoegaze textures of Alex Scully’s guitar provide the perfect backdrop for Victoria LeGrand’s sultry, intimate vocals over lines like “I come alive/ You stay all night”. But it isn’t all fun and games; there is tension and grind within the repetition of the persistent synth line that dominates here, as well as abrasive percussion elements, all of which add a realistic element to the representation of a true relationship, sexual or otherwise. The beauty of Beach House is their ability to capture exactly that in a surreal ambiance that runs to the contrary.

Victoria LeGrand switches things up with French vocals on the show-stopping “L’Inconnue”, a stunning track that changes gears on a dime without sacrificing one iota of its ethereal beauty, while “Drunk in LA” conveys the type of hungover lounge vibe that made this band, but with an orchestrated textural element that defines its pinnacle. The shapeshifting “Dive” is nearly perfect, opening on a slow, practically a cappella note before exploding into a monstrous guitar riff. If playing devil’s advocate, 7 doesn’t finish as powerfully as its predecessors, as “Beyond Love” redux “Girl of the Year” doesn’t hit nearly as hard, and closer “Last Ride” is a serious notch below songs like “Take Care”, not to state the obvious. Still, in a year that saw the true beauty of music take a backseat to the absurdity of manufactured pop songs, it was hard to quibble. This is the greatest band of the decade staking its full claim to that title with effortless nonchalance.


#12: Kendrick Lamar/ DAMN. (2017)


It’s difficult to fully comprehend exactly how rapid the ascension has been for Kendrick Lamar, as the undisputed current king of the rap game released three albums in a five year span that all must be considered essential pieces of work for any genre. If good kid, m.A.A.d. City was his homage to Compton’s West Coast style and To Pimp A Butterfly communicated hostility and frustration towards society, consider DAMN. his offering to the masses. Easily his most accessible record to date, there is something here for everyone over its 14 broadly diverse tracks, and without a single weak moment among them. There’s far more attention being paid to melody here than ever before, as Rihanna guests on the synth-driven and radio-friendly hook of “LOYALTY.”, Zacari sings falsetto on the delicate and bluesy “LOVE.”, and even Bono adds vocals through the gorgeous chorus of the otherwise bruising highlight “XXX.” (The moment that the sirens stop and shift completely into jazzy bass in the latter is dazzling). The beats are still on point however, and it was impossible to get away from the addictive and engaging “DNA” in 2017, as the track shifts from its initial straightforward club beat into something much darker and more fascinating. As focused on his skin color as he seemed to be over the entirety of To Pimp A Butterfly, as the first proper track on the album, “DNA” seems to indicate lyrically that he has adapted a broader view of his persona. It’s refreshing to hear him deliver lines like “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA” without bringing race into it; Kendrick is the best rapper on the planet whether he is black, white or purple, and he seems like he knows it.

On standout track “HUMBLE.”, hip hop’s top dog has never sounded more bravado-laden as he raps with authority over a haunting, demonic organ beat. The smooth groove on the fascinating “FEAR” features Lamar rapping from the perspective of his mother raising him, conveying a sense of understanding and gratitude, but also demonstrating that we don’t all come from the same place, and that reality tends to have some bearing on how we all turn out. The tension isn’t completely abandoned on DAMN., not by a long shot, as Lamar raps breathlessly, seemingly overwhelmed by responsibility through the conclusion of “FEEL.”, while the unsettling “LUST.” begins to ponder the dangers of materialism in an introspective manner. It all culminates with the awesome closer “DUCKWORTH.” as Kendrick falls back upon perhaps his greatest ability, as a storyteller, recounting the story of his own rise behind a backdrop that starts, stops and changes tone with every stanza. It’s an exhilarating finale, and the perfect way to conclude an album composed of such a diverse array of sounds. There’s a new confidence on display here that makes the delivery of every line and the arrangement of every note seem so effortless, and all that his peers, listeners and rabid fans can do at this point is look on in awe and embrace the best rapper of his generation.


#11: Grimes/ Art Angels (2015)

ArtAngelsWhen Claire Boucher released the single “Go” in 2014, the legions of fans she’d acquired following the release of Visions under her moniker Grimes began to fear that the quirky Canadian was losing herself and headed in a poppier, less original direction. To be perfectly clear, there was absolutely nothing wrong with “Go”, and to the contrary, it was the type of pop masterpiece that seemed to confirm the ascension of a rising superstar. Still, lesser attempts to create the same sort of sound were evident as she toured last summer, giving fans ammunition for their concern and general ire at this apparent new musical direction, and when the dust settled, Grimes had completely scrapped her album and decided to head back to the drawing board. The result, three and a half long years removed from Visions and released under a frantic amount of anticipation, was as honest and true to the artist as fans could have reasonably hoped for. Fourteen scattered tracks showcase Boucher in all her unique and lovable weirdness and combine into an album that is decidedly “Grimes.” What it lacks in cohesion it makes up for with creativity and immediacy, and Art Angels also shows a step forward in terms of musical acumen. The production is richer, the hooks hit harder, and her vocal range is more pronounced and impressive; where Visions relied on fuzz and nuance over its connecting tracks, this time around Grimes has created some genuine bangers that should be gracing club floors for years to come.

Stylistically, there’s a little bit of everything here, and the relative diversity of ideas combined with its upbeat nature makes this ideal party background music. “Realiti” builds upon a solid demo track single released earlier this year, playing heavy on bass synths and additional electronic jabs in this re-worked version. Its atmospheric undertones stand up well to previous favorites like “Genesis”, while “Flesh Without Blood” might just be the perfect pop song with its pulsating synths combining with one of Boucher’s best vocal performances to date. With lines like “I don’t see the light I saw in you before/ And now I don’t care anymore”, it’s a quintessential breakup track, but may be more directed at her fair weather fans than at any particular romantic relationship. No matter, as it works well lyrically in either context, and is every bit the equal of “Oblivion” in terms of its addictively catchy hook. Grimes certainly hasn’t totally abandoned her penchant for pure pop, and it’s all well-executed, sparingly used and carefully placed here, proving she has a real knack for it. On “California”, she shows off her trademark sugary sweet vocal over a chorus that veers halfway into country music territory, and seems blissfully aware of the line between where her voice escalates from pitch-perfect to downright shrill, and while she toys with that line immensely, she never crosses it. The contrast between “California” and the true “wtf” moment that immediately follows it with “Scream” showcases the fearlessness and range of style present on Art Angels, as the abrasive electronic track features Mandarin vocals from Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes. The title track utilizes an accessible guitar line and wouldn’t be a surprise to see headlining the opening credits of a movie at some point in the near future, while “Pin” delivers one of the most simplistically poignant choruses of the year behind its catchy alternating chords and electric riffs as Boucher laments “It was too good to be true” with true pop precision.

Ballads like “Easily” demonstrate range, while “Belly of The Beat” is one of the most lovely and lush tracks in the Grimes catalog, with its gentle acoustic strum and subtly intertwined club beat over her rich vocal work. There are dance tracks galore here, and the back-to-back combo of “World Princess II” and “Venus Fly” (feat. Janelle Monae) work especially well. But the fascinating centerpiece “Kill V Maim” might be the first pure club joint that Grimes has ever produced and stands out here in a big way. There’s so much going on in this track that it often feels like it’s over before the listener’s head stops spinning or can even get a read on what’s happened. Huge, propulsive stadium beats support vocals that showcase high-pitched ferocity, constantly shifting between cheerleader chanting that is equal parts demonic and angelic, and all executed to immaculate effect. Grimes stated in an interview that the track was “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in the Godfather 2, except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space”, which makes it even more awesome than it already was. Closer “Butterfly” is a much more impactful sendoff than “Know The Way” was on Visions, with its confident, hushed vocal contrasting with intermittent screams, clap-drum percussion and dark trip-hop bass beats lurking underneath as Grimes taunts that “I’ll never be your dream girl” and the album concludes. Quite a mic-drop indeed from an artist that defiantly made an album her own way under a frenzy of speculation and premature criticism, and forced an entire generation of indie fans back in love with her as a result.

#10: Beach House/ Bloom (2012)

One could make the argument that no band in recent memory achieved as significant an improvement in musical quality as Beach House did between their self-titled debut in 2006 and 2010’s stunningly gorgeous Teen Dream. Given that reality, hopes were sky high for Bloom if the band’s previous trajectory was to be any indication of its future potential. And while it appeared the band may finally have reached its creative ceiling, in 2012 they picked up right where they left off, delivering a record every bit the equal of their 2010 masterpiece, even if the lingering awe from that work renders this one a bit less initially powerful in comparison. It’s an odd thing to conclude that a band’s prior greatness can actually detract from the quality of its current work, but that seems to be what happened here or we might very well have had this record ranked higher. Had Bloom been released before Teen Dream, we likely would hold this album in highest esteem as the band’s breakthrough and career game changer instead of that one. As it stands, Bloom actually begins on a sharper, stronger note than Teen Dream did through its first four tracks. While that album was more of a musical journey with songs that played off of one another perfectly to create an indescribable atmosphere, this one is best viewed as a pure collection of rock solid, harmonic, gorgeous tunes. Opener “Myth” might be just the prettiest single thing they’ve ever written, and it makes you shake your head in disbelief that Beach House is able to continue to create melodies like this one without breaking into any new musical ground. Simply put, this is what the band’s best music sounds like, and they want to keep making more of it by just doing what they do rather than trying to outsmart themselves. A gloriously repetitive keyboard loop stretches itself behind lead singer Victoria LeGrand’s gorgeous vocal, but the real magic happens in the final thirty seconds when a synthesized violin takes over and leads us into the coda before the song stops suddenly and leaves us hypnotized. Other familiar sounding melodies soar with their vast, textured arrangements, including the chiming beauty of “Other People” and the airy dream pop vocals of “Lazuli,” which evokes memories of Cocteau Twins. There’s a more ominous sound to slow building tracks like “Wild” and “Wishes”, while penultimate track “On the Sea” uses a similar tactic as the last album did, slowing things down for a moment to let Victoria Legrand’s one-of-a-kind vocals do their thing. And that brings us to the closer “Irene,” another fantastic send-off that succeeds with its patience and release as much as it does from its lovely melody. There’s a point in the song where that melody stops and a single note is repeated over and over for what seems like an eternity before the guitar and organ lines gently re-engage us and the song surges along into its coda as LeGrand sings in falsetto, “It’s a strange paradise.” If Beach House had made any improvement musically from their prior effort, it might just be that intangible quality of lushness. Very pretty stuff, this, if you’re into that kind of thing.

#9: Grizzly Bear/ Shields (2012)

I for one was in the camp that believed after Grizzly Bear’s previous album Veckatemist took the indie scene by storm in 2009 that the band had reached its full potential. Sure, this was a group of young, highly talented musicians that was improving with every album and with every live performance, but just how far could they go with their admittedly complex arrangements but relatively safe, rustic chamber pop style? Color me incorrect, as the remarkably polished and harmonic Shields bettered Veckatemist on nearly every conceivable level. For starters, forget about the band’s usual tendency to draw the listener in slowly. The first three proper tracks here begin on a note unlike one that we had ever heard from Grizzly Bear or practically anyone else for that matter. Opener “Sleeping Ute” is an immediate grabber with its interesting time signature and layered guitar lines that alternate between twangy acoustic leads and explosive riffs, eventually shifting into a soft coda as Daniel Rossen laments “And I can’t help myself.” There’s an urgency on the more familiar sounding “Speak In Rounds” that separates it from the band’s earlier work, as it rolls along with stomping drums and more acoustic guitar twang. This is an open-road driving tune to end all driving tunes. And what more can be said about “Yet Again”, arguably the most impressive track here? Ed Droste has clearly refined his vocal technique, as he utilizes a rich falsetto not unlike that of notable fan and tour mate Thom Yorke. The song builds and releases with its addictive melody throughout a relatively simple structure, but the band takes it up a notch in a shocking final minute of screeching distortion that lies in heavy contrast to what came before it. There’s a crispness to the production quality here that renders otherwise ordinary ballads like the Droste-led “The Hunt” and Rossen’s “What’s Wrong” heart aching and beautiful, while the motown piano and upbeat grooves on “A Simple Answer” and “Gun Shy” enter completely new territory for the band and end up working out perfectly.  The former starts powerfully and eventually breaks down into a soft coda while the latter moves steadily and more subtly along with whispering background vocals. To top it all off, one could argue that Shields concludes even stronger than it begins. The remorseful “Half Gate” is a bruiser, building from a melodic verses into a thunderous chorus complete with cello, incredible harmony, and explosive drum bursts from Chris Bear, who really shines and stands out on this record in a way that he hasn’t before.

And it’s all just a setup for the epic closer “Sun Is In Your Eyes”, which is constantly shifting between its soft piano verse into a triumphant chorus complete with horns and more fantastic percussion from the band’s namesake. There is a moment around the six minute mark after the song slows down when the electric guitar surges back to the forefront that is just magnificent, and the many changes in texture that this song undergoes over its spellbinding seven minutes best exemplify the additional complexities in overall composition that went into making this album that are apparent across its entirety. There are no holes whatsoever here, and there isn’t a single moment on the entire album that doesn’t succeed in its purpose, as Shields delivers massively to complement what was already an impressive catalog from these guys. To this point in time, this was indeed as good as they could get. Here’s hoping they’ll prove me wrong once again at some point in the future.

#8: Gang Gang Dance/ Eye Contact (2011)

In the spring of 2011, this album was a giant, unexpected leap forward from 2009’s occasionally brilliant but fairly sparse Saint Dymphma, as the band crafted seven exquisite songs that are held together here by three perfectly placed interlude tracks. The result is a patient, building effort that demonstrates impeccable pacing and ends up sounding like one long song rather than a collection of them. Consider the transition from the gorgeously melodic “Sacer”, arguably the album’s prettiest track, as it fades into an interlude and then into the much more unsettling closer “Thru and Thru” without giving any indication of a song change. The closer is perhaps the best example of the band’s diversity and penchant for tribal, global beats, as an urgent percussion arrangement opens and leads into an eastern influenced Indian keyboard loop, eventually fading into a haunting echo as it concludes.

Opener “Glass Jar” is slow to evolve from its white-washed synth and caressing cymbal splashes, but when it does, it makes a metamorphosis into a full blown dance anthem, and the moment about half way through the eleven minute track when the beats kick in and the synthesizers focus into the melody is easily one of the most emotionally affecting moments of any album this decade, especially as charismatic leadwoman Lizzi Bougatsos sings “I cared for you like a mother.” I’ve heard arguments that Eye Contact is too eccentric or that the music meanders into unnecessarily drawn out directions, but the build and release dynamic of the opening track is one of the many examples as to why I couldn’t disagree more with that assessment; every note is in its right place, and every note serves an important purpose for the ultimate payoff as the song sprawls and takes unique and surprising turns over its ambitious duration.  Bougatsos is at her best vocally on the darker “Adult Goth”, as she escalates an entire octave and holds a single note through the chorus above chiming electronica. Tracks like the funky, jazzy “Romance Layers” and airy “Chinese High” carry a bit more of a relaxed, loungey vibe, and what else can be said about the contagious, intense highlight “Mind Killa” and its laser beam guitar shots to the heart? Pound for pound, the execution and flow of Eye Contact as well as its peerless, exotic, genre-defying sound is what makes it one of the most special, exciting and often overlooked records of the decade.

#7: Tame Impala/ Currents (2015)

tameOn occasion, an album’s thematic content will hit you like a shot to the heart and you’ll wonder in baffled bewilderment, “were they writing this album about me?” In terms of pure timing, I can’t think of an album that better defined the entirety of my insane year of 2015 than this one did. As highly anticipated as it was and as clear a musical step forward for Tame Impala that it was, I couldn’t help but be amazed as I listened to these songs how closely the lyrical content was correlated to my current life events at the time of its release, and sometimes that counts for bonus points on lists like these. Currents is, at its core, a concept album structured roughly chronologically around a breakup, presumably due to having met someone new, and as such demonstrates highly charged moments through all the stages of excitement, confusion, fear, jealousy and acceptance, all set to a soundscape that comes closer to pop rock than anything else, but shows exciting innovation and creativity from leadman Kevin Parker. Sprawling opener “Let It Happen” starts the album with a bang. As the title implies, it’s a song about surrendering to chaos and learning to abandon logic and reason, and at nearly eight minutes in length, is a gutsy way to begin. It’s heavy and challenging both lyrically and musically, as complex a song as the band has ever recorded, building and swelling behind its intense disco loops and jabbing bass synths before breaking down into a thrilling crescendo.

A duo of tracks arranged back to back after that attempt to justify the end of the initial relationship via drastically different musical mediums. “Yes I’m Changing” is surely the softest, most melancholy piece in the band’s entire catalog, its deep, bittersweet bass notes supporting slow-burning lines like “I saw it different/ I must admit/ I caught a glimpse I’m going after it.” “Eventually” picks the pace back up with a catchy opening riff (one of the few times that happens on this album), but changes tempos several times and adds orchestration and Parker’s immaculate falsetto to dramatic effect. Aside from the fine-tuned precision of this standout, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more honest lyrical expression on any song this year. Parker described it as concerning “knowing that you’re about to damage someone irreparably, and the only consolation you get is this distant hope that they’ll be alright eventually, because you know they aren’t going to be now or soon.” On both tracks, Parker seems to be attempting to rationalize his reasoning for moving on, but doesn’t seem completely convinced; it plays more like a cry for help in a moment of intense confusion, and the next two proper tracks serve to confirm this.

There’s upbeat disco funk on “The Less I Know The Better”, as Parker takes a somewhat comical look at stumbling upon his ex with her new lover at a bar and attempts to ignore it as best he can, which of course is not very well. “Past Lives” focuses on a more ordinary run-in with his ex at the dry-cleaner that still completely encompasses his day. Do these run-ins serve as snippets of building uncertainty that might lead him to reconsider reconciliation? Or are they future visions of his new relationship ending before its time and the fear of being left with nothing? Which ex-lover is he running into that is making him feel this way? It is open to interpretation, and either scenario is powerful and affecting; in both cases, fear and discomfort seem to be driving Parker back to what he has lost even though he knows it’s too late.  There’s acceptance of blame and expression of regret on the atmospheric and aptly titled highlight and apology track “Cause I’m A Man” as Parker croons in a full falsetto “Don’t always think before I do,” again seeming to forfeit all preconceptions of control, practically throwing his hands in the air and blaming his DNA for his every weakness and transgression. I could go on and on at length about these lyrics and how closely they all mimicked my particular situation at the time, but when Parker sings “Trying to be patient/ but I’m feeling ancient” and “It made my heart run in circles and overflow/ And I was closer than ever to letting go” on “Reality In Motion”, it’s almost too perfect; time for me to throw in the towel and just enjoy the ride.

Penultimate track “Love/ Paranoia” takes an insightful albeit frightening look back at how new love often creates tunnel-vision that clouds normal thinking processes, and investigates the damaging effects of that behavior upon any future attempt at reconciliation.  The record sends us off with an ominous, unsettling dose of paranoia, as “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” leaves all possibility of future happiness completely up in the air behind a dense, dark, bass-driven R&B rhythm. Alternating between baritone and falsetto, Parker seems to be fighting internally with himself while delivering bone-chilling lyrics like  “I can just hear them now/ How could you let us down/ But they don’t know what I found” and “Feel like a brand new person/But you made the same old mistakes/ I don’t care I’m in love/ Stop before it’s too late/ I know there’s too much at stake.” The subconscious realization expressed here that the new love interest might not be what the protagonist initially believed her to be as well as the reality that those who don’t learn from their past relationship mistakes are doomed to repeat them are both things that will stick with me for a long time.

From a sonic perspective, as might be imagined from the above descriptions, Currents contrasts sharply with the band’s prior work. These songs are all bursting with lush warmth and richness, a paradigm shift from the reliance upon the lo-fi guitar-driven distortion and sunny psychedelica of Innerspeaker and Lonerism. There’s simply so much more attention being paid here to the percussion, bass and ethereal elements than there is to lead guitar riffs (which are virtually non-existent) that it’s difficult to even compare back to those albums. As a welcome result, Parker’s vocals float towards the surface and embrace the listener with an emotional connection that wasn’t present in his prior work. From the perspective of experimentation, Parker utilizes tempo shifts to enthralling effect here, often dropping out the beat altogether right in the middle of songs. Currents is also one of the most immaculately produced records of its era– Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Bon Iver’s self titled masterpiece come to mind comparatively. Currents remains a towering achievement in terms of melody, arrangement and lyrical execution, permeating with a constant theme regarding adaptation to life’s transitions, both musical and personal.

#6: Daft Punk/ Random Access Memories (2013)


It is ironic indeed that in a decade so jam-packed with top efforts in the electronic arena, the best album of that genre came from this enigmatic duo, once electronic pioneers themselves, on an inspired collection of songs that contrasts sharply with their prior work in that musical field. Random Access Memories sparkles with some of the most immaculate production ever put to record in music history, and does so spanning a magically broad spectrum in terms of genre, proving that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo do not merely endeavor to create new music and leave their mark as influences in their own right; they are fans of the past, present, and future of the vast musical spectrum itself. At once an exploration into what music could be and a recap of what music used to be, Random Access Memories is a far cry from Daft Punk’s techno driven beginnings and defies characterization, but comes closest to operating as guitar-driven dance pop–a surprising evolution indeed. Opener “Give Life Back to Music” sets a thematic tone, as bouncing synths and acoustic guitar plucks carry the robotic vocals that the band has practically patented at this point. Summer anthem and instant classic “Get Lucky” serves as the quintessential pop song of the decade as it combines dance elements which are very of-the-moment with a disco influence that pays homage to the sounds of the late 70s, all complemented by the single catchiest guitar hook in recent memory and vocals provided by star vocalist Pharell Williams, who also makes an appearance on the less indelible but quite functional “Lose Yourself to Dance.”

The album’s only misstep comes early, taking a pass at R&B on the dreary “Game of Love.” The piano driven “Within” comes shorty after and works much better in terms of the downtempo, minor key aesthetic, but comes off all the more powerfully for forcing the listener into a reality check- is this really a Daft Punk record to begin with? Then there are songs that pull together and combine multiple genres. Daft Punk takes a huge risk with theatrical centerpiece “Touch”, and delivers a show-stopping highlight as it switches between the a capella vocals of Paul Williams and slowly picks up beautiful orchestral strings and choral vocals to form the most emotional moment in the band’s entire catalog; the fact that it’s followed immediately with the carefree “Get Lucky” demonstrates a tremendous sense for pacing. The epic arrangement of “Giorgio by Moroder” features a spoken monologue by its namesake which builds upon a sharp, synthesized beat and gains violin elements into its freak-out electric guitar coda. Indie guest superstars abound, as Julian Casablancas shows off his range even through heavily processed vocals on the catchy “Instant Crush” and Panda Bear is a breath of fresh air throughout his cameo on the electro-pop driven “Doin’ It Right.” Symphonic strings open “Beyond” and build into a rhythmic electronic groove as the album picks up steam through its back half, moving through the whistling woodwinds and lounge bar swirl of “Motherboard” into the crystal clear production of “Fragments of Time.” Fittingly, Daft Punk choose to conclude the album with the only song that truly resembles their prior work, the grand scale festival techno of the mammoth, frantic and incredibly pleasing closer “Contact,” which gets a huge boost from its immersing, pounding drum component. Random Access Memories is an album chock full of both reflection and innovation all packaged as one seamless unit, and this, out of all the albums released in 2013, is the one that we will be most likely still listening to and discussing a decade from now.

#5: Beach House/ Teen Dream (2010)

After lo-fi dream pop outfit Beach House’s serviceable self-titled debut album and even more commendable sophomore effort Devotion, it was practically inconceivable that the quality of their sound was capable of making the jump that it did on Teen Dream, my choice for the best album of 2010. All of the pieces were there, but while providing some extremely solid tracks like “Master of None” and “Gila”, their previous albums were lacking in a consistency of mood. This time around, Beach House built upon the potential those albums showed, creating lush, atmospheric soundscapes combined with lifted vocals that result in an unwavering collection of tunes that are at once hopeful and somber, and without a single weak moment. In fact, I’d say there are at least five songs here that are better than anything they had ever written to this point in their career, as this music benefits immensely from its nearly perfect melodic arrangements and layers of polished, textured sound. On the enticing opener “Zebra”, airy background vocals combine with the commanding voice of Victoria Legrand along with a patient guitar melody that builds into layers of orchestration, demonstrating a certain fullness that the band achieves on this album as it continues. Massive ballads like “Silver Soul”, with its organ notes, sliding electric guitar and nonchalant “ah ah” vocals, set the gorgeous tone early on, while “Better Times” brings back some of the familiar gloom of their earlier work. The sweeping highlight “Norway” is as dreamy as anything the band has ever done, building from an intentionally discordant and disorienting guitar slide over its verses into a soaring chorus of more “ah ha” whispers, dense, ringing guitar and of course, Legrand reaching for the sky vocally. A slow drum machine beat leads “Walk In The Park” through its utterly spectacular chorus hook as Legrand sings over more organ reverb “In a matter of time/ It would slip through my mind/ In and out of my life.”

The beauty of Legrand’s vocal range is showcased on more straightforward tracks like “Used To Be” and “Real Love”, as her often raspy tenor floats into moments of higher octave brilliance. The standout track here is the innovative “10 Mile Stereo”, which glides above its dark, foreboding guitar line before picking up a synthesized drum beat and exploding into layers of distorted shoegazer violins, while reassuring closer “Take Care” builds slowly into its lovely, tearjerking chorus before fading softly into the distance. Teen Dream had the benefit of a January release, but no other album stuck with me the way this one did in 2010- it is just too impossibly pretty, relaxing, and still exudes so much emotional power.

#4: Kendrick Lamar/ Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City (2012)

homepage_large.25b1eddaWhen Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, he elevated the rap genre to a new level after what seemed to mostly be, Outkast notwithstanding, a lost decade of creativity following the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in the late 90’s. What made that album great was that an artist, so familiar to his fans by that point in his career, put forth a fearless effort that dripped with honesty and escalated ambition, and it seemed to fill a void in the hip hop world. With Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, a much less familiar Compton native at the time named Kendrick Lamar made an album just as original and unique, but even more personal, and frankly, of indisputably higher overall quality. This is the very best rap record since at least 1995, at once a reinvigorated tribute to the great West Coast rap days of yore and an autobiographical concept album. It is so captivating that to even classify it as merely a rap record seems to sell it short.

Much was made of the presumably authentic voice recordings that link the album’s 12 tracks together and help to tell its story (and if they aren’t authentic, the rawness of their production is practically even more impressive anyway). On first listen, these may seem to break up the flow and continuity a bit, but as we dive deeper and deeper, it becomes apparent how integral they are to the album’s core. These messages range from the comical, such as Lamar’s mother scolding him for making her late for an appointment at the county building while his father raves about Domino’s Pizza in the background, to more serious perspectives from his parents about what makes a real man, how to learn from his mistakes, and how to avoid violence and make a difference in his community. Lamar utilizes a vocal trick throughout that had recently been popularized by the likes of Nicki Minaj, using a variety of different sounding voices over the course of this album. However, it’s a more effective trick here than Minaj tends to be, as he uses it to establish context rather than to merely create shock and multiple personalities.

But Lamar isn’t restrained to simply rapping, as there are moments here where he carries melody brilliantly on tracks that straddle the line between rap and R&B, and arguably lean towards the latter over the album’s jazzy, downtempo mood. The production is remarkable early on with highlight “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” as Lamar alternates between a melodic chorus of “I am a sinner/ Probably gonna sin again/ Lord forgive me/ For things I don’t understand” and an off-time signature rap verse. Well placed samples of Beach House’s “Silver Soul” on the sensational “Money Trees” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” on “Poetic Justice” are arranged brilliantly and with an eye towards innovation. Later, a perfectly placed violin sample and addictively catchy chorus on the massive “Swimming Pools (Drank)” tells a tale of peer pressure and lessons learned from heavy experimentation with narcotics. This is much more introspective than your average drug-related rap song, as Lamar uses a hallucinogenic vocal and has an actual conversation with himself about the danger he is entering, and then switches back to rapping in triple time.

For a rapper from Compton, this record doesn’t scream gangster rap. There are moments of tough guy bravado on tracks like “Backseat Freestyle”, where Lamar delivers the fantastic lyric “All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower” over a creeping, hard-hitting industrial beat, but this album is far too serious to rely on these types of themes entirely. “M.A.A.D. City” is perhaps the song that west coast rap has been waiting for since 2Pac left us. Lamar’s voice reaches an affective, high pitched paranoia underneath a spooky beat before MC Eiht enters the picture and the track suddenly shifts into an enormous violin line and heavy bass that do the old school west coast rap genre proud while maintaining a sense of originality. And as if that were not enough, the album probably reaches its emotional peak on the 12 minute “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, a two part denouement that takes a hard look towards the legacy that our protagonist desires to leave before taking a more investigative look into the present and the changes that need to be made in his life before that legacy can be fully realized. This is heavy material, but so utterly enjoyable in its entirety. Surely, what comes before has to pretty incredible, for when Dr. Dre finally makes his lyrical appearance on the triumphant closing track “Compton”, it almost feels like a letdown in comparison. In a complete shocker, a 5 foot 6, 25 year-old rapper came out of nowhere and made the Album of the Year in 2012, and this is the first time I had awarded that honor to a rap album since 1993 and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers. Who saw that coming?


#3: Bon Iver/ Bon Iver (2011)

Justin Vernon’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago gained attention and notoriety thanks mostly to its back story- a distraught young man holing up in a secluded Wisconsin cabin in the dead of winter to escape to solitudee, write music and refocus. It was here that he adopted the stage name “Bon Iver”, which in French literally means “good winter.” While the songs on that album were inwardly focused, spacious and commendable, I didn’t exactly fall into the same trap as many who obsessed over these raw folk tunes simply because of the fairly tale creation mechanism that surrounded them. Admittedly, I would never have expected him to be capable of producing anything nearly as accomplished or ultimately brilliant as this, his self-titled sophomore album. Where to begin? For starters, I can’t ever remember an album of this magnitude that builds as patiently or shows as much restraint. There are moments, such as on standout “Holocene”, where we expect some sort of massive culmination of a chorus line, but instead we receive the same precise, gorgeous acoustic guitar loop as Vernon repeats “And at once I knew/ I was not magnificent/ And I can see for miles, miles, miles.”  Songs like “Wash” feature a similarly repetitive loop structure, but build effortlessly with such subtle beauty. Even with such impressive restraint in those situations, where a lesser artists would have had a hard time avoiding the temptation to overdo it, the music here feels much more full and lush from a production aspect thanks to addition of a full band and careful attention to every detail of every single note and beat. In fact, this is one of the very best sounding records that has probably ever been recorded, and is a considerable ascension from the stripped down, raw sound of For Emma.

Vocally, Vernon shines particularly with his ability to shift between a hopeless sounding tenor and a rich falsetto, demonstrated best on tracks like “Minnesota, WI.”  “Towers” was my favorite song of 2011, and while arguably the folksiest tune here it also might be the most complex, with layers of strings and horns behind its seemingly simple acoustic guitar strum patterns, shifting from an amazing bridge back into the main verse with perfect timing as Vernon dominates the vocals. Structurally, “Calgary” might be the best single thing here, as it builds with bittersweet, understated prowess that swells into the album’s most soaring coda before collapsing back onto itself just as quickly. Lyrically, Vernon is unshakable, communicating depth and maturity of feeling through simple but powerful lines like “I was unafraid/ I was a boy/ I was a tender age” to begin “Michicant.” And don’t forget to stick around for the closing track “Beth/Rest”, which experiments with an 80s piano riff and makes it work perfectly here when it has absolutely no reason or excuse to. Every track deserves mention and appreciation, but doing so misses the point, as the precise mood and tone that Vernon creates flows with a symphonic effect, making the whole so very much greater than the sum of its parts. This is the type of album where you might have a different favorite track every time you listen to it- and every time, you’d be right.

#2: Swans/ To Be Kind (2014)

homepage_large.dfa26de1I’ve been rating songs on a ten point scale since I was fourteen years old, and more than twenty five years later, over all that time, I’ve never had more numerical distance between my first and second favorite record in any single year. To Be Kind was not only the best album of 2014 by a crushing, previously unprecedented margin, it was also the best album of the decade as it reached its halfway point. When Michael Gira brought Swans back from the dead and completely re-conceptualized the band in 2010 after a fourteen year hiatus, there was always the feeling that they were building towards a release like this, taking small steps for the sake of the future the same way my beloved Chicago Cubs had been over the years of the same era, building patiently until they were able to reach their fullest potential, content to not try to do too much too soon. While 2012’s The Seer was decidedly ambitious, an epic, nearly two hour opus that proved Swans to be once again a serious band but with new, innovative musical ideas, To Be Kind surpasses it on nearly ever conceivable level, and even broadens and expands its ambition, which is almost impossible to grasp. Take the 30-minute hybrid track “Bring The Sun/ Touissant L’Ouverture Song.” While the similarly placed title track from their last effort takes awhile to get going and meanders wildly over its 30 minutes, “Bring The Sun” is immediately enthralling and completely captivating from its onset all the way into the haunting “Touissant L’Ouverture Song”, which culminates with Gira equating, in Spanish no less, blood, love and life with one another, in a baritone that sounds like a crazed cult leader bellowing from the top of a mountain. Over its 121 minutes, which is two longer than its predecessor, not a single moment of down time exists. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment, and it’s a credit to the masterful arrangements and management of tone that are present here throughout.

While an easy genre characterization would be to dismiss this amazing musical achievement as merely noisy and dark, what separates To Be Kind from all other records this decade is its sprawling scope combined with its musical diversity. Opener “Screen Shot” is arguably the single most terrifying leadoff track since Massive Attack’s “Angel”, building with hypnotic repetition that builds into an eerie piano line and culminates into an apocalyptic eruption through the coda. There are also moments of unsettling terror like the slow burning “Just A Little Boy” which contrasts with aggressive, faux-shoegaze crescendo pieces like “Kirsten Supine” later on the album. I heard the completely rejuvenated and re-arranged version of the old Swans’ punk song “Oxygen” two years before this release at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was one of those stunning live concert moments that you never forget, and one that only raised my excitement for this upcoming album when its inclusion here was confirmed. Explosive bursts of guitar sprawl beneath propulsive percussion and Gira’s maniacal ravings as he gives a fearful, frightening account of a time he had difficulty breathing during a severe asthma attack. If there’s a track one might offer as moderately accessible to the masses, “A Little God In Our Hands” starts with an approachable guitar riff and swanky beat that might fit on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album, steadily evolving into a full on cascading avalanche of noise, while at five minutes in length “Some Things We Do” is the shortest, and softest track on the album, as Gira utterly indicts the entire human race by condemning the menial triviality of our very existence. “She Loves Us” might just be the single most impressive thing here in terms of overall build and attention to detail. Over its epic 17-minute length, it opens with a jarring guitar riff that repeats over and over again and picks up tribal chants before breaking down completely into guitar fuzz, eventually culminating into a full-on onslaught over its panic-inducing eight minute coda that showcases Gira howling such insanity as “Your name is fuck!” behind haunting, contrasting background vocals of “Hallelujah!” Equally well-executed at only half that length is “Nathalie Neal”, which is as ominous and foreboding as anything in the band’s entire catalog, and that’s saying something. It opens with thunderous percussion and grows more and more persistent and frantic until it finally collapses upon itself and concludes softly.‎ The title track closes the album and takes a symmetrically opposite approach, starting as softly as any here, but sends the album off on its most panicked, abrasive note, and any other conclusion to this record would be entirely unfitting. As relentless and challenging as it is, To Be Kind isn’t one of those double albums that should be taken in parts. It’s best consumed in its entirety, where it looms a monolithic masterpiece for any true fan of music. There’s such subtle beauty lurking beneath the brooding tension on every track here, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better executed artistic contrast any time in the near future.

#1: Radiohead/ A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)


Radiohead has arguably been the single most important band to the musical spectrum in terms of contribution over the course of my 40 years of life. In fact, can you think of another band in history with a reasonable argument to have made the single greatest album of three different decades? Their previous eight studio albums spanned eighteen years and covered an incredible breadth of musical ground, beginning with the rock-driven Pablo Honey and The Bends, evolving into the musical personification of perfection that is OK Computer, and then veering off course to set the stage for the change to come in the new century with the more electronic and experimental albums Kid A and Amnesiac. In Rainbows was a serious return to form in between the more scattered offerings found on Hail To The Thief and The King of Limbs, but over the course of time, Radiohead has provided something for everyone. Personally, while I appreciate and adore all of it, I’ve always been more drawn to the beauty of their work than the power of it. Softer, more nuanced tracks like “Street Spirit”, “The Tourist”, “How To Disappear Completely” “Exit Music” and “Pyramid Song” are, to me, the band at their very best. Given that tonal preference, with A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead delivered exactly the kind of album that I had always hoped they would make. These songs are rich, beautiful and emotional in a manner above and beyond what the band has ever put all in one place previously.

Opener “Burn The Witch” is a politically charged number that serves as somewhat of a red herring. It’s surely a highlight, but isn’t indicative at all of what the rest of the album sounds like, either musically or lyrically. The melody is ominous but pretty, and as Radiohead has never made a song with this type of staccato string instrumentation, it’s an immediately engaging listen. The driving synth buzz is as chaotic as the album gets however, and Thom Yorke’s high falsetto wails are the star of the show. In 2015, Yorke split with his longtime partner of 23 years (Rachel Owen) in an “amicable” fashion, but everything that comes the after the first track has a sense of heartbreak, pain and sadness that adds a measure of relatable beauty, resonating even more powerfully now than it did then after Owen died of cancer a few months after the release date. “Daydreaming” delivers a gorgeous, repetitive piano line beneath some of the most hopeless lyrics he has ever written; this is the true tone-setter, as lyrics like “It’s too late/ The damage is done” seem to simply surrender to loss. But while A Moon Shaped Pool is much too complex to be categorized as a “break-up” album per se, it is highly evident through his songwriting that the toll the separation took on Yorke was immense. “Present Tense” is arguably the most honest, emasculating song he has ever written. The absence of any other instrumentation during its lush, engaging opening guitar line lends focus to his gutwrenching plight. The closing line “In you I’m lost” sounds so defeated that it actually turns uplifting and optimistic somehow.

“Decks Dark” is an early standout and grabber, as the amazing piano riff that starts the song is reminiscent of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, but also showcases a subtly dark beauty as a lifted choral element enters over the bassline. A sense of doom builds as Yorke repeats that “It was just a laugh” over and over again; any time he sings at this sans-falsetto pitch level for an extended period of time, it just sounds like he’s talking and it conveys hopelessness and fear, reminiscent of previous closers like “Wolf At The Door.” The complete shift into a breakdown groove complete with echoey percussion blasts through the coda adds an unexpected and layered contrast, and it’s one of the most complex songs they’ve ever put to record- drummer Phil Selway gets extra credit on this one for his contribution. “Ful Stop” holds a unique spot on the album as it’s basically the only track that could possibly be described as up-tempo, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to dance to it. There’s nothing in the band’s catalog that compares to that synthesized horn that carries the first minute and a half, and I’d argue it’s the single most ominous sound the band has ever created. After that, there’s a shift in tempo that is highly reminiscent of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”, as few other songs have demonstrated such propulsion in combination with such ethereality. The coda comes together in a lush manner similar to how “Arpeggi” made you feel like you were literally underwater drowning with weird fishes. Even in moving forward, Radiohead has not forgotten to draw upon what has gotten them here.

There are a lot of moments to enjoy even on less immediate and more challenging tracks. “Identikit” turns anthemic after its punchy riff, intermittent synth jabs and choral interjections, as Yorke wails, “Broken hearts! Make it rain!”, while the steady, melodic groove of “The Numbers” adds warmth and depth, and the stripped down orchestration of “Glass Eyes” and raw acoustic flavor of “Desert Island Disk” contribute to the tonal beauty that permeates this album. Perhaps the most rewarding element though requires patience, as closer “True Love Waits” was actually, FINALLY given the official, committed-to-album recording that it always deserved. The band did so by stripping the song of its acoustic guitars and instead revitalizing and freshening it with hypnotic, haunting pianos. What remains is a slower, emotionally darker, more lyrically powerful ballad than existed before. It’s the perfect closer, greatest song and most welcome surprise on the decade’s best album, thankfully still containing one of my favorite Radiohead lyrics of all: “I’m not living/ I’m just killing time.” Leave it to Radiohead to take a song they’ve been playing for 20 years, change its primary instrument entirely, remove a chord, slow it down to a virtual halt…and in the process create a piece of music that perfectly ties together, both thematically and musically, a collection of other pieces with far more recency. That, my friends, is true genius.

Breeders’ Cup 2019 Picks and Analysis

Posted November 1, 2019 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Sports



In recent editions, this has been a race to play a bomber, as not only have the last four favorites (all three-year-olds) failed to even hit the board, the winners of those races have checked in at 26-1, 67-1, 9-1 and 10-1. The last three winners have also come from way back after benefiting from a pace meltdown, and a similar scenario appears to be in the cards here, as outsiders like SELCOURT (well-aimed by solid connections but perhaps better at 6f than 7f), BELLAFINA  (light on figures but 4/4 at Santa Anita), HEAVENHASMYNIKKI (takes a class leap) and DANUSKA’S MY GIRL (needs the lead and will be sent) figure to show speed right out of the gate. This is all bad news for the favored three-year old COVFEFE, who draws the rail post directly inside the latter two of those speeds and is likely to encounter pace pressure early. She deserves respect after duplicating 107 Beyers at this distance, but finished third in her lone start this year against elders, and it bears mention that before last year, a three-year-old had never won this race. We will try to keep her off the board entirely. More appealing is the five-year-old COME DANCING, who makes her first start outside of New York but has won four of her five races this year and finished second to the undefeated Midnight Bisou in the other, which came around two turns. Daughter of Malibu Moon boasts the field high Beyer and Brisnet figures at the distance (114) for her Grade 3 score in the Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct back in April. She showed the ability to relax off the pace when winning her last two and makes a lot of sense in this spot. Looking for off the pace upsetters given the expected fast fractions up front, the other two that appear interesting as the lone Brisnet “P” designations in the field both come out of the 6f TCA Stakes at Keeneland, a race that has produced five winners of this event. DAWN THE DESTROYER gobbled up ground to finish 2nd by a nose and seemed to be begging for more. She also finished 2nd to the top selection two back at 7f, and may be overlooked off her slow recent speed figures (90 Beyer), although she does have a 7f win against listed stakes company in January that earned her the field’s third highest Brisnet figure at the distance this year (103). She runs third off the lay for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who wins with 20% of his runners in that stage of their form cycle, and checks a lot of boxes as a potential bomber. SPICED PERFECTION won that TCA race off a long layoff after severe trouble early and has a Grade 1 win at the distance to her credit from April in the Madison at Keeneland (93 Beyer) and should benefit from the stretchout here off her last as trainer Peter Miller wins with 24% of his runners second off the lay. She has won three of her last five at this distance. Horse for the course LADY NINJA is an interesting longshot making a class leap and stretching out for her first try at 7f; she’s won five of nine between 6 and 6.5f over the Santa Anita track (101 Brisnet), many of them from off the pace, and hasn’t missed the board this year in seven starts.


  1. #4 Come Dancing (5-2)
  2. #8 Dawn The Destroyer (12-1)
  3. #9 Spiced Perfection (4-1)
  4. #1 Covfefe (2-1)


Always a crapshoot, this year’s Turf Sprint race moves off the famous downhill 6.5f turf course to a shorter 5f distance, which changes the complexion of the race massively. As a case can be made for almost all of these in a wide-open race, our best guess will be to focus specifically on form at the distance. Early in the year, IMPRIMIS seemed an invincible turf sprinter off of back to back scores at Gulfstream and Keeneland, the former of which earned him a field high 109 Beyer at this distance. After a 6th place finish in Britain against Group 1 foes, he returned stateside to encounter two tough trips finishing behind a few of these foes. Running third off the lay here and cutting back, he offers upside at a price as a somewhat forgotten horse if he brings his best race, and is 5/7 lifetime at this distance. Frankie Dettori, who had the mount in Dubai, provides a rider upgrade. It’s hard to believe that PURE SENSATION continues to maintain such solid form at age eight, but 5f specialist has won his last six races at this distance and figures to be the one they all have to catch as one of just two Brisnet “E” designations in the field from his inside post in a shortened race that is truly all about speed. It’s worth mentioning that five of those wins came over turf rated less than firm, including the field high Brisnet figure (108) he earned three back over soft, so he will have to transfer that form to the firmer ground at Santa Anita, where he finished 3rd in his lone career start. Horse for the course EDDIE HASKELL also specializes at this distance, winning 9 of 14 career starts at 5f. His speed figures lag a notch behind the top two selections (97 Beyer, 99 Brisnet) but holds home court advantage and has beaten today’s foes STORMY LIBERAL and STUBBINS in his last three. Astute turf sprint jockey Joel Rosario retains the mount and is second to none in races such as these. BELVOIR BAY also enjoys Santa Anita having won 6 of her 9 starts here including a career top figure at this distance in February (101 Brisnet) and hasn’t been out of the exacta in her last four starts at the distance; she cuts back off a long layoff but can be involved in the early pace breaking widest of all. TOTALLY BOSS has done nothing wrong this year, winning four of his five races between 5.5-6f with competitive speed figures (101 Beyer and Brisnet) albeit favorable trips, beating the top selection at the longer distance in his last. He cuts back here to try the 5f distance he won an allowance as a three-year-old last July, but hasn’t tried since, and draws a tough post on the rail to try to set up his late kick. Closing types OM and STUBBINS may also find this shortened distance a tad sharp, although the former did defeat the top selection closing hard at 5.5f last out, while the latter beat TOTALLY BOSS at 5.5f in last race back in June but has never tried 5f. The aforementioned STORMY LIBERAL has won this race the past two years but seems to have lost more than a step during his seven-year old campaign. We will also oppose the speedy SHEKKY SHEBAZ (102 Beyer, 106 Brisnet) and FINAL FRONTIER (104 Beyer, 107 Brisnet) who have traded trips to the winner’s circle in head to head meetings over their last two, but both take class leaps from stakes company and have posted their wins at longer distances as well. LEINSTER deserves a look underneath on the strength of his 108 Beyer at 5.5f, but tries this distance for the first time. He has beaten both of the top selections over his last three, but lost to TOTALLY BOSS in between. You could easily justify hitting the “ALL” button here in multi-race wagers above any other race on the card, but we will attempt to survive with just the top three.


  1. #3 Imprimis (8-1)
  2. #2 Pure Sensation (5-1)
  3. #10 Eddie Haskell (9-2)
  4. #12 Belvior Bay (12-1)

6- DIRT MILE, 8f

A collection of misfits meet for a two-turn mile that many would prefer to see abolished. OMAHA BEACH was forced to defect from the Kentucky Derby and subsequently the entire three-year-old division was thrown into chaos; he would have been our strongest play in that race in many years and rightfully looms a heavy favorite here off his 6f score in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship (103 Beyer, 106 Brisnet). A perfect world would have seen him land in the Classic to make amends for missing the Derby, but this world is decidedly not that, so he runs here, beyond the 6f distance of his comeback race but short of his ideal distance. Still, lone Brisnet “E” designation should be able to control the pace up front from a favorable post and is versatile and talented enough to dispatch of these on the strength of a strong work pattern. It would be easy but perhaps unwise to dismiss GIANT EXPECTATIONS off of his 1/11 lifetime record around two turns. Note however that all but two of those races came at distances beyond 8.5f, and that his lone win came over this track around two turns at 8.5f against last year’s Classic winner Accelerate. He stretches out here after giving the highly regarded Catalina Cruiser (who might have been favored in this race if not having opted for the Sprint), all he could handle at 7f, losing by just a head while posting career high figures (104 Beyer, 103 Brisnet) which stack up well here. He was a well-beaten 5thafter a bad start in this race a year ago but appears to be in career from as a six-year-old. IMPROBABLE became our de facto Kentucky Derby pick after the defection of the top selection, and runs third off the lay here for Bob Baffert who wins with 22% of his runners in that stage of their form cycle. He enters off a puzzling 4th place finish in the Pennsylvania Derby but has been working well and figures to be involved early from an inside post if he can break, which is never a given for mentally-challenged sort. He did win before that at this distance while posting figures that make him competitive here (104 Beyer, 105 Brisnet), but it’s hard to imagine him turning the tables on the top selection from their Arkansas Derby battle earlier in the year, when he was never able to draw within a length. He does boast a perfect 2/2 record at the mile distance. SPUN TO RUN enters off a dominating win over lesser foes that earned him figures that tower over the field at this distance (110 Beyer, 108 Bris) but was a well-beaten 3rdto Maximum Security in the Haskell and was no match for two of these after that when 5th in the Pennsylvania Derby. He simply hasn’t been able to duplicate the same figures while stepping up to the Grade 1 level, which is reason enough to question their validity. Speaking of the Pennsylvania Derby, runner-up MR. MONEY got away with murder on the front end in that one, but still couldn’t seal the deal in the stretch, and has seen his speed figures downtick over his last three races following his 8.5f Indiana Derby score (100 Beyer, 103 Brisnet). His sire Goldencents did win this race twice but the feeling here is that this formerly strong contender may be over the top after a strong but tiring campaign, and will be overbet; ask yourself what odds you would have required to bet this colt instead of OMAHA BEACH or IMPROBABLE back in April or May. COAL FRONT is another that figures to be among the leaders early after returning to form winning against lesser at this distance in his last, but winning shorter dirt race in California is not Todd Pletcher’s game or priority. DIAMOND OOPS surprisingly lands in this race instead of the Sprint following a 2ndplace finish on turf in the Grade 1 Shadwell, and was 2ndat 6f on dirt before that in the Grade 1 Vanderbilt, finishing ahead of favored Mitole somewhat by default. He’s perhaps the most interesting underneath after having kept such solid company, and switching from turf to dirt is an intriguing angle for trainer Patrick Biancone, who wins 19% of the time after that surface transition, but son of Lookin At Lucky has not won beyond 6f. BLUE CHIPPER enters with a 7/8 lifetime record in Korea but has never raced around two turns, and who knows what he’s been beating.


  1. #5 Omaha Beach (8-5)
  2. #1 Giant Expectations (12-1)
  3. #2 Improbable (3-1)
  4. #3 Spun To Run (6-1)


 The disappointing defection of world class filly Magical robs this race of a potential battle of titans and instead seemingly results in a free square for multis. Defending champion and Female Turf Eclipse winner SISTERCHARLIE has won all three of her starts this year as she has steadily stretched out in distance, including the 9.5f Beverly D and 10f Flower Bowl, both Grade 1 events, posting towering speed figures (105 Beyer, 107 Brisnet). She holds a seven race winning streak dating back to last year and holds the top RPR in the field (118) for her 9f win in July off a nine month layoff. She’s proven to be able to unleash her closing kick into any kind of pace setup, which is good news given the scratch of rabbit stablemate Thais. There’s no sound reason to get cute or take a shot against the day’s most likely winner, who may not have yet shown her best. Course specialist VASILIKA stretches out to 10f here but has won an impressive 11 of 12 starts at Santa Anita and was second in the other. Primarily raced in mile events, there’s reason to believe she will relish the added ground, as she shows a Grade 1 win over this course and distance last fall, and her charging 9f score two back resulted in career high figures (98 Beyer, 102 Brisnet, 111 RPR). VILLA MARINA and FLEETING loom the most imposing of the foreign shippers to our eyes, and both own equal RPR tops at this distance (115). Given that VILLA MARINA has won their last two matchups by narrow margins and also shows a 10f win over firmer ground, she is preferred slightly of the two. The trouble-seeking FLEETING also ships to wheel back after just 14 days rest and gets what should be a taxing third race in a month for the O’Brien barn, which is 0-13 lifetime in this race, and was easily beaten this summer by the favorite, while VILLA MARINA comes in a well-rested four weeks after her last race. An interesting longshot could be BILLESDON BROOK, who has contested her last five races at 8f and shorter including a Group 1 win at a mile over softer turf last time out, but could be competitive if she can translate that form to a longer distance here based on figures (116 RPR at 7f). She beat IRIDESSA in that race, although that one has won a Group 1 at 10f before over firmer turf (114 RPR), defeating a pretty tough customer in Magic Wand, but was a badly beaten 7th well behind FLEETING at 12f three back. She will stretch back out after running her last two at 8f; both receive first time Lasix. MRS. SIPPY was beaten only a length by the top selection in her last but would need to improve figure wise (96 Beyer, 101 Brisnet, 108 RPR); may be overbet based on that effort when the top selection may not have been fully cranked, and will need to come from the clouds. Recent Group 3 winning three-year-old FANNY LOGAN takes a class leap off of four straight wins at this distance and has run faster figures over soft ground (112 RPR), but has upside as a wise-guy play from the John Gosden barn with Frankie Dettori in the saddle and also gets first time Lasix. We’ll pass on the classy closer JUST WONDERFUL off her recent form, as she was beaten by two of these foes over her last two races at 8f, but those races serve as a useful measuring stick- she was beaten 5.5 lengths by VASILIKA but just 0.75 lengths by IRIDESSA.


  1. #2 Sistercharlie (8-5)
  2. #7 Vasilika (8-1)
  3. #9 Villa Marina (8-1)
  4. #3 Fleeting (6-1)

8- SPRINT, 6f

Perhaps the deepest, most star-studded and most difficult race of the weekend, a case could be made for any of these ten runners to win. That said, we will look toward some recent race shape trends here, as there appears to be a lot of speed early with the three-year-old SHANCELOT (121 Beyer) figuring to be shot out of the gate like a cannonball. In the last 20 runnings, only one horse has wired this race, and we’ve seen several fields weaker than this one in between. Therefore, we will try to beat him in his first career start against elders coming off losses in his last two at odds-on, while acknowledging that his job did get a tad easier after the scratch of fellow speedster Landeskog earlier this week. Entering off a bullet 4f work over the local track last week, he will surely lead the field a long way; while he isn’t a win candidate in our eyes, excluding him entirely probably isn’t a great idea, but his figures in two losses since that freaky performance (96, 102 Beyer) won’t be good enough to hit the board here. As no closer has won this race since 2008 either, what we are looking for here is a running style that can sit within striking distance of the leaders, not too far off the pace while also not being sucked into it. Both MITOLE (108 Beyer) and IMPERIAL HINT (114 Beyer) fit that description like a glove, as the Timeform pace projector shows them 2ndand 3rdon the rail in the early going. The latter got the best of the former in their lone meeting two starts back, but MITOLE had a legitimate excuse after being buried down on a dead rail at Saratoga; versatile sort has done no wrong outside of that this year, having won his other five 2019 races between 6f-8f including three at this distance. A recent bullet work of :58.4 over the Santa Anita track for this usually slow workhorse indicates all systems go, and after opposing him cost us a Pick 4 score upwards of $2k on Belmont Day, that mistake won’t be made again. IMPERIAL HINT finished 2nd in this event two years ago and 3rdlast year, and as a six-year-old looks to be in as good of form as ever after two straight Grade 1 wins at this distance. He drew outside the speed and should sit a perfect trip just off the pace; he wins on talent alone on his best day assuming he handles the Santa Anita surface in his first try over it, and we feel comfortable to escape this race using just those two on top. Looking for closers to pick up the pieces beneath them in trifectas, we have an absolute plethora to choose from. CATALINA CRUISER may have been better suited to the Dirt Mile, but with that race set around two turns at Santa Anita, one-turn specialist winds up here. His dud as the favorite in that race a year ago remains the only loss of his eight race career. He did break his maiden at this distance and won the Grade 2 True North at 6.5 furlongs three back (103 Beyer, 105 Brisnet). As more of a mid-pack closer, he should get first run in the event of a pace collapse but will have to negotiate a tough rail post, although he is 3/3 previously breaking from the rail. Three consecutive triple digit Beyers seems to indicate he belongs with these. FIRENZE FIRE struggles a bit away from Belmont Park, but still looms the most dangerous of the deep closers given his field high 101 Brisnet Late Pace Figure at 6f and enters off back to back runner-up finishes behind the top two selections beaten a combined three lengths (106 Beyer, 104 Brisnet). It’s hard to ignore last year’s runner-up WHITMORE who seems to always fire his shot from way off the pace; he may have lost a step as a six-year-old but has still hit the board in 16 of 17 starts at the distance. Odds may be worth including underneath as he couldn’t quite catch today’s foe ENGAGE in his last, although he did earn a 101 Brisnet Late Pace figure which is tied for the best in the field at 6f this year. He loooks like a stretch for the win spot though as he hasn’t posted a triple digit speed figure in five races, having been beaten by MITOLE and CATALINA CRUISER as well over that span. HOG CREEK HUSTLE looms the deepest of all the closers. His late kick doesn’t seem to be as impactful at 6f as it is at 7f as he’s never won at this distance, but as a pure one turn runner is better suited here than the Dirt Mile even if he finds this trip a tad on the sharp side. He did finish ahead of SHANCELOT two back, will be five times the price, and should have plenty of pace to run into. A case could even be made for shipper MATERA SKY, who finished ahead of IMPERIAL HINT in Dubai, but has shown declining form since then, while the aforementioned ENGAGE enters off two straight wins at 6f and three straight ascending Beyer figures, but would need to move forward again having never run a triple digit number. This year’s Sprint looks like a great race to watch and a rough one to bet; one to either hit the ALL key or go very narrow with speed types if you are playing multis.


  1. #4 Mitole (9-5)
  2. #9 Imperial Hint (4-1)
  3. #3 Firenze Fire (12-1)
  4. #1 Catalina Cruiser (4-1)

9- MILE, 8f

Aidan O’Brien has struggled tremendously in this spot over the years, having no wins to show for 23 total runners, one of the more bizarre Breeders’ Cup statistics considering his overall success in the event. As such, this is often a spot to take a shot against the Euro shippers. However, he holds a strong hand here with the well-aimed CIRCUS MAXIMUS, who appears to be lone speed (a severely off-form BOLO doesn’t count as speed) and adds blinkers in a deep but closer-heavy field. Three-year-old son of Galileo is a two time Group 1 winner in Europe at the distance (119 RPR), gets first time Lasix with Ryan Moore in the saddle and seems to relish firmer ground. Connections opted to defect out of a race across the pond due to the soft ground and as such he enters on full rest. HEY GAMAN finished first or second in all four of his starts over firm ground this year, each at 7f, and is interesting stretching out here just as last year’s winner Expert Eye did.  He can be involved early stepping up in class off the strength of two RPRs of 116 against Group 2 foes and finished just a length behind Romanised in one of those races; that one was beaten just a nose by the top selection in his last. Frankie Dettori gets the mount and may have to gun it from a wide post, so he could take this field a long way on the lead at a price receiving first time Lasix; the extra furlong remains a question, but the lack of expected pace should only help. Mark Casse won this race four years ago with the filly Tepin in an unforgettable romp, and we see shades of that potential with his filly GOT STORMY, who impressively defeated the boys in the Grade 1 Fourstardave at this distance and posted field high figures for the home team (109 Beyer, 114 RPR). She also defeated the hot mare UNI in that race, and that one enters with all kinds of steam following three straight ascending speed figures (105 Beyer, 113 RPR). UNI possesses the best pure turn of foot in the field, but the concern is whether she will have enough pace to run into here, especially as she draws wide; GOT STORMY gets the nod for the Americans on the basis of her running style likely being better suited for this race shape. She may offer some value after being overlooked following an upset loss in her last where she moved way too soon into a hot pace. Draw a line through LORD GLITTERS races over soft turf and beyond 8f and you’re left with a resume that stacks up like a potential winner against these, including a field high RPR of 120 from a Group 1 win at this distance in the Queen Anne this spring, beating preferred measuring stick Romanised by 1.75 lengths before finishing three lengths behind the top selection after that. He ships and runs back off just 14 days rest and is another who figures to drop way back early, likely leaving himself with too much to do late if a decent pace fails to materialize. EL TORMENTA will try to duplicate the upset victory over GOT STORMY last time out where he likely benefited from a favorable race shape scenario, as his prior running lines make him an outsider here. Closers SUEDOIS, LUCALLAN, and BOWIE’S HERO are difficult to endorse given the expected pace scenario, while TRUE VALOUR and TRAIS FLURORS appear simply outclassed. It’s difficult to say what WITHOUT PAROLE is doing here for Chad Brown off a five month layoff after five straight well-beaten off-the-board finishes including two behind LORD GLITTERS; maybe he knows something we don’t as his charge gets first time Lasix, or perhaps this is the missing pace element (read: rabbit for UNI). He did show solid form last year as a three-year-old, winning a Group 1 at Ascot with a 120 RPR that would tie for tops in the field if duplicated; adds mystery to an already puzzling race and gets Irad Ortiz aboard. SPACE TRAVELLER was beaten by two of these foes three races back at 7f, but improving sort offers upside entering after a Group 2 score at this distance in his last (114 RPR), especially as rider Daniel Tudhope opts for the mount on this three-year-old over LORD GLITTERS and SUEDOIS.


  1. #9 Circus Maximus (3-1)
  2. #13 Hey Gaman (12-1)
  3. #6 Got Stormy (7-2)
  4. #11 Uni (7-2)


The undefeated MIDNIGHT BISOU will rightfully be the shortest priced favorite on the day, entering with potential Horse of the Year aspirations on the heels of a perfect seven race campaign. She finished third in this race last year and has since put to rest concerns of her ability to excel at this distance, having won her last two at 9f. She’s by far the most likely winner, but by no means a single in our eyes. For one, her speed figures at 9f don’t exactly tower over these relative to the likely odds gap (104 Beyer, 98 Brisnet); in fact, there are two here that own better Brisnet figs this year. Also, she tends to come from a bit off the pace, which may or may not be an asset in a race that doesn’t have a bonanza of speedy front runners. We give the horse for the course PARADISE WOODS a chance to force tactics and pull the upset. A return to her Santa Margarita score over this track and distance likely wins this race given her field high Brisnet speed figure for the distance this year (100 Beyer, 105 Brisnet), and she enters off a solid prep win here in the 9f Zenyatta, where she showed versatility and the ability to rate and win. The rail post looks tough on paper, but this forces her to be involved early which probably increases her chances, as she was no further back than a half length of the leader at the second call in both of her wins this year. For all her perceived inconsistency, she’s 12-5-3-2 at Santa Anita, and is the only runner to post multiple speed figures that could challenge the favorite on her best day. BLUE PRIZE seems to be getting good at the right time, winning her last two 9f races including the Grade 2 Spinster last out, (97 Beyer, 102 Brisnet) where she turned the tables on the highly regarded Elate in a career-best effort. Six-year old mare stands a good chance to improve upon a 4thplace finish in last year’s race. Three-year-old fillies have fared well against their elders in this race historically, and while DUNBAR ROAD may have been exposed against elders in the Spinster (95 Beyer, 101 Brisnet), maybe lightly-raced daughter of Quality Road deserves a chance to improve after being forced to shoot up a dead rail for 3rd. She appears the cream of the crop of the sophomores, having won both the 8.5f Mother Goose and the 10f Alabama and shows ascending speed figures over the last three races. A fading 3rdover the slop in the Alabama, STREET BAND may have benefited from an ideal setup when winning the 8.5f Cotillion in her final prep (99 Beyer, 98 Brisnet), but the added ground should certainly be to her liking; very usable underneath. SERENGETI EMPRESS has twice beaten her, and in between wired the 9f Kentucky Oaks back in May (88 Beyer, 101 Brisnet). Crazier things have happened in this race (Spain and Adoration come to mind) than for her to get loose with easy fractions and win in similar fashion, but she feels like more of an all or nothing type, and this is a tough spot to endorse the former. Again, we do expect some added pace pressure from the top selection as well as SECRET SPICE (better at shorter distances) and cheap speed type MO SEE CAL to her outside. WOW CAT returns after a runner-up finish last year and seems has really taken an extreme step back from her form a year ago, although she did draw even with the favorite in the stretch of her last race before settling for 2nd, beaten 3.5 lengths.


  1. #1 Paradise Woods (5-1)
  2. #4 Midnight Bisou (6-5)
  3. #5 Dunbar Road (6-1)
  4. #11 Blue Prize (6-1)

11- TURF, 12f

 All eyes turn toward the undefeated BRICKS AND MORTAR here as he attempts to nail down Horse of the Year honors. He’s a bit of a horse without a country in this spot, having dominated all competitors at 9f-10f this year, but has never attempted this distance. The feeling here is, however, that this is a better spot for him than the Mile; nothing about closer’s running style in previous races indicates that the added ground should be an issue. He’s won races closing into glacial paces as well. He enters off the longest layoff in the field since his Arlington Million score in August at 10f (104 Beyer, 105 Brisnet, 118 RPR). As he holds the largest Brisnet Prime Power advantage and figure of the entire day (192.5, +18.2) he’s a must use on top defensively at the very least. Still, it’s tough to feel incredibly confident for a closer to win at a distance he’s never tried before at such short odds. Searching for better value, the consistent OLD PERSIAN has far fewer question marks, having won five races at 12f which is by far the most in the field, including a Group 1 in Dubai (field high 122 RPR) and a Grade 1 at Woodbine (100 Beyer, 107 Brisnet). He does step up in class, but there will be tougher calls in this Breeders’ Cup than taking a flyer on the most accomplished horse in the field at the distance who also shows the best speed figures as the third choice. Three-year-old ANTHONY VAN DYCK leads the Euros for Aidan O’Brien, and he has a Group 1 win at this distance at Epsom in the Investec Derby (120 RPR). Connections skipped the Arc in favor of firm turf here and will hope for a better result than the last time he shipped to the United States when he was a well-beaten 9th in last year’s Juvenile Turf as favorite. He did run 2nd at this distance after shipping to Dubai more recently. There appears to be a rather significant drop after the top three, and separating the rest of the Americans underneath the favorite is somewhat of a fool’s errand as it seems ARKLOW, CHANNEL MAKER, CHANNEL CAT and ZULU ALPHA have simply taken turns beating one another. More of an underneath type, ARKLOW has undeniably been the most consistent, hitting the board in his last five races against that group and finally winning his last with impressive career high speed figures (104 Beyer, 114 Brisnet, 113 RPR); he was 4thagainst an arguably stronger field last year. CHANNEL CAT has been consistent as well in that he runs the same race every time; not sure another 110 RPR hits the board here however. ZULU ALPHA has been inconsistent but does have three wins at this distance including one just two back (113 RPR), but threw in a real clunker last out against many of these. CHANNEL MAKER could make an impact on his best day, but his career high RPR (118) came over soft turf and his last four races have been sub-113. ACCLIMATE is the only Brisnet “E” designation and could take this field a long way on the lead. He won at a distance beyond this over this course back in June, but faded at 10f after setting the pace in his last, and has a lot of ground to make up in terms of figures (career high 105 RPR). He also could face some added pressure early from BANDUA, who faded to 3rdafter setting the pace in the Arlington Million, and almost certainly doesn’t want to go this far. MOUNT EVEREST is moderately interesting underneath as the “other” O’Brien as he gets first time Lasix for the class leap after winning a 10f stakes over soft turf in his last (109 RPR). Well-bred son of Galileo is out of Breeders’ Cup Mile winning mare Six Perfections but will need to take a big step forward here at a distance at which he has not yet hit the board in two career attempts. If the pace gets going up front, ALOUNAK could come flying late to hit the board at an inflated price; he finished a charging 2nd at Woodbine at a shorter distance in his last (103 Brisnet), finished just three lengths behind the top selection three races back, and has posted three consecutive 110 RPR numbers. Only the favorite holds a higher Brisnet Late Pace last out figure.


  1. #10 Old Persian (4-1)
  2. #9 Bricks and Mortar (9-5)
  3. #5 Anthony Van Dyck (3-1)
  4. #11 Arklow (12-1)

12- CLASSIC, 10f

 It’s a somewhat depressing testament to the weakness of this field and the older horse division overall that the morning line favorite for America’s richest race has never won at this distance in two tries and enters having won only two of his six 2019 starts- and that’s after throwing a total dud in the same race last year. If you’ve been reading up to this point, then you’re already well of the emphasis we place on form at the distance. It should come as no surprise then that we will oppose MCKINZIE (111 Beyer, 109 Brisnet at 9f) for the top two spots here despite his having hit the exacta in 12 of 13 career races and use him only defensively underneath. Joel Rosario takes over the mount after Bob Baffert chose to remove jockey Mike Smith following a disappointingly apathetic ride that cost the win last out in the 9f Awesome Again; we don’t think this is a good change considering Smith had ridden him in all 13 of his prior races. VINO ROSSO gets extra credit for having won two 10f races at this distance (one was stolen via a highly questionable disqualification) including the only win in the field over this track in the Gold Cup while defeating Gift Box, who beat the favorite at this distance in the Big Cap. We’ve had a soft spot for son of Curlin since last spring on the Triple Crown trail and he looks to be in career form, so why jump off now? He crossed the finish line first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at the same distance in his last before the aforementioned dubious disqualification moved him to 2nd(106 Beyer); he’s arguably the most accomplished at the distance in the field and Curlin progeny tend to be late bloomers. Irad Ortiz retains the mount and that can only be considered a plus, aggressive riding or not; staying in touch with the pace as he did in his last will be crucial, and Timeform’s pace projector has him sitting comfortably in third early. The horse that moved up in that race after losing it by a nose (106 Beyer) was CODE OF HONOR, and he could stake a claim of his own in terms of accomplishment at the distance, having won the 10f Travers going away before that and moving up to 3rd in the Kentucky Derby. He’s a must use underneath but seems beatable on top, as east coast three-year-olds shipping west for this race are a combined 0-21. In a year that’s ripe for an upset, we turn to Bill Mott and Mike Smith who combined to win with Drosselmeyer at 20-1 in 2011, the latter the scorned prior jockey of the favorite. YOSHIDA stacks up well in terms of 9f figures following a runner-up finish in the Whitney behind the favorite and ahead of the top selection after that one suffered a wide trip (108 Beyer), and after closing well to finish 4th last year is in a great spot to surprise here at a price. He hasn’t won at the distance or won often in general but is always gobbling up ground late at shorter trips; should relish the added ground but may not find the pace scenario or track conditions ideal for his closing move. HIGHER POWER owns the best Beyer at the distance from his Pacific Classic score at Del Mar (107); you could do worse than trying to get him involved underneath after stumbling out of the gate when 3rdin his last. Perhaps more interesting however is the $200k supplement MONGOLIAN GROOM, who defeated him and the favorite in his last when wiring the 9f Awesome Again over this track earning field-high last race speed figures (110 Beyer, 105 Brisnet) and could be dangerous again if given an easy lead, but that’s a scenario we consider unlikely. ELATE opts to face the boys at the 10f distance rather than face Midnight Bisou again at 9f, and that might be the right call as she is 3/3 at this distance and hasn’t been able to beat that one in three tries this year. We will oppose her strongly here however in her first start against males, as her storyline screams underlay, and her last race seemed to indicate a regression as she lost the lead in the stretch to a weaker opponent than she meets here. Preakness winner WAR OF WILL looks to set the pace with blinkers added, but hanging on in the stretch against these at 10f will be a tall order, while the 3rdplace finisher in that race OWENDALE will look to pick up the pieces late but was no match for CODE OF HONOR in the Travers. Longshots MATH WIZARD and SEEKING THE SOUL are probably better suited to shorter distances than this.


  1. #10 Vino Rosso (4-1)
  2. #5 Yoshida (8-1)
  3. #11 Code of Honor (4-1)
  4. #8 McKinzie (3-1)





Arlington Million Day Grade 1 Stakes Pick 3 Analysis

Posted August 9, 2019 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Sports

We’ve decided to focus on the Pick 3 that contains the three Grade 1 races to be run at Arlington on Saturday, one of the very best racing days of the year. Although our Pick 4 scores in 2013 and 2016 remain among our best wagering memories ever, the death of the American St. Leger marathon race has changed the format at the track on Million Day. That was a race where we would often find a single and was run before these three races. Now, the track concludes the all stakes Pick 4 with the Pucker Up, a difficult race to handicap that doesn’t even go off until 6:55 pm, and we have a 6:29 train to catch back to the city.

Below are horse by horse breakdowns for each of the Grade 1 races. To help compare European form where applicable, Racing Post Ratings (RPR) are included, along with top Beyer and Brisnet speed figures within the past year. (All figures reflect races run within a furlong of the distance being contested).

Sistercharlie The Diana4 credit elsa

9- Beverly D, 9.5f, 4:53

1) Fleeting (5-2) (113 RPR)-Three-year old Aidan O’Brien trainee makes her stateside debut and cuts back here after racing her last three at 12f. O’Brien has never won this race and despite a six pound weight break, a sophomore has only emerged victorious in the Beverly D on one occasion, when Euro Charline scored a 10-1 upset in 2014. Group 2 winner at 8f and Group 1 placed at 12f certainly fits here on class and appears well aimed, but may be compromised a bit by the pace scenario and firmer ground. She gets first time Lasix but hasn’t made the winner’s circle since last September, five starts back.

2) Awesometank (8-1) (107 RPR)-Euro shipper gets first time Lasix and stretches out to this distance for the first time as she makes her inaugural stateside start. Group 3 placed in Britain, she will need to step up her game to make an impact in this field, but could find a cozy spot on the rail behind a likely slow pace with Arlington specialist Florent Geroux in the irons; usable on the bottom of the trifecta.

3) Competitionofideas (6-1) (114 RPR, 96 Beyer, 96 Brisnet)-The “other Chad” in this race has had a bit of a case of seconditis this year, but has managed to place in all three of her graded starts this year, finishing less than half a length behind the highly regarded Homerique in two of those after wide trips. Her last win came in the Grade 1 American Oaks run at 10f, so she could appreciate stretching out from the 9f distance of her last, where she was also beaten just a neck after chasing a crawling pace in a small field. Consistent type has missed the board only once in ten career starts and offers value in this spot as Javier Castellano, who has won with her twice before, regains the mount.

4) Oh So Terrible (30-1) (101 RPR, 82 Brisnet)-Daughter of Cape Blanco (who won the Million) will attempt this class leap again after finishing 8thof 9 a year ago and is difficult to support in this spot having never won a graded race; appears aptly named as she was well off the board in the Grade 3 Modesty, the local prep for this race.

5) Remember Daisy (30-1) (84 Brisnet)-Finished 4thin the Modesty, which doesn’t bode well for her chances to hit the board her against tougher company. Listed stakes type may be better suited to races shorter than this one.

6) Magic Wand (3-1) (114 RPR, 103 Beyer, 103 Brisnet)-She was our pick to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf on a lone speed angle, and the race played out exactly as we predicted, as she tracked a length off an absolutely crawling pace of :51.4 and 1:18.2 and still faded to 4thwith no excuses as today’s favorite gobbled her up in the lane. She’s cross-entered in the Million and expects to go there so we will treat her as such, and a defection back to this race wouldn’t be a demonstration of much confidence by the connections, although she certainly fits on class, form and figures and may appreciate the cutback in distance as well as the firmer turf course.

7) Sistercharlie (8-5) (118 RPR, 105 Beyer, 103 Brisnet)- Defending champion of the division will attempt to become the first ever to win the Beverly D twice and will deservingly be a heavy favorite in this spot second off the lay following an impressive win in the Grade 1 Diana in her last off an eight month layoff. Chad Brown has won the last four editions of this race and wins with 24% of his entrants second off the lay. Strong closer should appreciate the added ground here and should be expected to improve off her last; a worthy single considering how easily she closed into a slow pace in last year’s race, and the fact that she holds a seemingly insurmountable BRIS Prime Power advantage against her American foes (+35.5).

8) Thais (20-1) (108 RPR, 87 Brisnet)-The Chad Brown rabbit nearly stole this race on the lead last year as she got away with fractions of :50.2 and 1:15.1, which were slow enough to allow her to hang on for 3rdplace and blow up the trifecta at nearly 50-1 odds. A similar scenario isn’t impossible here, especially if Magic Wand defects as expected, which would leave her the only confirmed speed in a small field. She went out far too quickly when playing a similar role in her last, setting a pace about 5 seconds (25 lengths) faster for her stablemate to close into, and faded badly.


  1. Sistercharlie 8-5
  2. Competitionofideas 6-1
  3. Fleeting 5-2
  4. Thais 20-1

10- Secretariat, 8f, 5:28

1) Clint Maroon (20-1) (98 RPR, 87 Beyer, 87 Brisnet)-After stumbling at the start, son of Oasis Dream finished 4th, beaten 4 lengths at this distance behind today’s favorite in his last. He’s one of just two in the field to have wired a race at this distance and could have a say in the early pace while saving ground on the rail, but will have tables to turn and speed figures to improve upon; pass.

2) Van Beethoven (8-1) (105 RPR)-Has missed the board in all five 2019 starts across the pond without ever looking like a contender, but a closer look at his form and speed figures indicates he may benefit from a drop in class in this spot, as he’s raced his last three against Group 1 foes. Aidan O’Brien has dominated this race, and no other runner has duplicated three RPR figures of 104 or higher at 8f. Gets first time Lasix and merits a look as a potential overlay for the top spot, and is a must use on the bottoms of exotics.

3) Never No More (6-1) (109 RPR)-Winner of both his 2019 starts in Handicap company enters with some question marks off a four month layoff, but class jump concerns are somewhat diffused by the fact that the colt he dispatched in his last, Madhmoon, ran back to a runner-up finish in the Group 1 Epsom Derby at 12f. Field high RPRs of 108 and 109 both came at 7f and over soft turf; it bears mention he’s never run beyond that distance or on turf rated better than yielding which lingers as the main concern, but Aidan O’Brien charge figures to be running late for a piece based on his previous racing style and adds first time Lasix to boot. He fired a win the last time after racing off a similar layoff and must be feared in this spot with a strong damsire stamina pedigree to fall back on (8.8 AWD) and Ryan Moore retaining the mount.

4) The Last Zip (6-1) (80 Beyer, 89 Brisnet)-Has finished no worse than 2ndin five of his six career starts, including a dead-heat runner up effort in the American Derby, the local prep for this race at a tad longer distance of 8.5f. He wired the race before that to break his maiden in his fifth try, and could be the one to catch here on the lead as he cuts back. Of the local prep entrants we prefer him most on that angle, but he still has class questions to answer, and would only be used on the very bottom of exotics.

5) Ry’s The Guy (15-1) (89 Brisnet)-Allowance winner at 8f finds an ambitious spot here but isn’t completely outclassed from a figure standpoint by any means. Son of Distorted Humor broke his maiden in his 5thattempt on dirt; that came over a sloppy track, but won his only start on turf in allowance company immediately after. Ian Wilkes trainee takes a marked step up in class but his very entry implies upside- perhaps this is his niche? We don’t put much stake in Equibase figures but it bears mention that his 106 in his lone turf start tops the field; the price will be right to find out, and he may be the tactical type to hang around and blow up the bottom of the trifecta, so we will make room for him there.

6) Fog of War (3-1) (105 RPR, 94 Beyer, 92 Brisnet)-Morning line favorite for Chad Brown checks a lot of boxes, having won at this distance as a two-year-old and owns the field’s highest 8f speed figures across the board. He figures to take money off the Brown connection and seems a logical winner in this spot, but in the most wide-open race of the sequence, we’ll take a shot at a higher price in outright wagers as his rider jumps off for another. He’s lost position in the stretch and flattened out in both of his races this year, which isn’t a trend one likes to see when re-entering graded company. Narrow BRIS Prime Power selection (+0.8) will be used defensively in multis and damsire pedigree seems to contradict his apparent distance limitations (10.4 AWD), but we will look elsewhere for value here as it’s hard to side with a short price that is winless on the year against weaker company in such a competitive race.

7) Valid Point (5-1) (90 Beyer, 90 Brisnet)-Lightly raced son of Scat Daddy is undefeated in two career starts, both at this distance, and fits the “other Chad” criteria to a tee off an impressive 3.5 length win over optional claimers in his last. It’s interesting indeed to note that Javier Castellano jumps off today’s favorite and stablemate Fog of War to stay on this colt for his first career stakes try, who hasn’t been working well, perhaps by design? He closed well in both of his wins against lesser to own the highest average BRIS Late Pace speed figure in the field (96), and also has the tactical speed to sit a nice trip and get the job done here. Enters deeper waters but looks up to the challenge given his upside; the pick.

8) Faraway Kitten (9-2) (80 Beyer, 88 Brisnet)-Winner of the local prep American Derby at a distance a half furlong beyond this, Ramsey entrant has shown increasing speed figures in his last four starts. On the downside, those figures still pale in comparison to the top contenders here, so son of Kitten’s Joy would have to take another step forward, and the feeling here is that scenario is more likely to happen with added ground rather than a cutback. Looks like an underlay at these odds considering that the local prep has not translated well to this race historically, and he was 15-1 in that race to begin with; the time to be on him has passed.

9) Crafty Daddy (5-1) (80 Beyer, 88 Brisnet)-Son of Scat Daddy broke his maiden in March at this distance closing hard and ran a similar race when a dead heat 2ndin the local prep at 8.5f. He’s shown ascending speed figures in all six of his career starts but the similar feeling here is that he would benefit more from added ground than a cutback, especially in a race that doesn’t appear to have a ton of pace on paper. We’re tossing all of the American Derby runners from the trifecta.


  1. Valid Point 5-1
  2. Never No More 6-1
  3. Fog of War 3-1
  4. Van Beethoven 8-1

Bricks and Mortar2

11- Arlington Million, 10f

1) Robert Bruce (7-2) (115 RPR, 103 Beyer, 99 Brisnet)-Defending champion is rounding into form for his third start of the year, coming off a 2ndplace finish where he wasn’t disgraced when beaten by today’s favorite just 1.5 lengths against Grade 1 company, posting career high speed figures across the board. He stumbled at the start of that race and found himself boxed in behind horses and further from the pace than would have been ideal, so a cleaner trip while saving ground on the rail could narrow that margin as he figures to get the jump on his stablemate. No horse has ever won the Arlington Million in back to back years, and he’s been well aimed for this considering the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t really have a race that fits him; this is a bonafide 10f horse through and through and he picks up Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano for Chad Brown.

2) Magic Wand (5-1) (114 RPR, 103 Beyer, 103 Brisnet)-A gutsy move by the connections to run against the boys here, as a filly has never won the Arlington Million. Draw a line through her last, where she was essentially eased while trying a distance that was too far for her over too soft a surface, and she’s kept good company as an underneath type against Group 1 company abroad, showing a 2ndplace finish at the distance two races back in Ireland. But in her second US try of 2019, she couldn’t keep pace with the likes of Channel Maker and Arklow in the 11f Man O’War, the former of which was easily dispatched by today’s favorites Bricks and Mortar and Robert Bruce at 10f in the Manhattan, and she was beaten 2.5 lengths by Bricks and Mortar at 9f back in January. It’s difficult to make a case for her turning the tables on those two, especially given her lower speed figures this year, with RPRs ranging from 108-110 in her last three. Hasn’t won in 12 starts dating back to last June but has found the board in half of those efforts; well-traveled filly deserves a spot on the bottom of the trifecta on back class.

3) Bricks and Mortar (8-5) (119 RPR, 107 Beyer, 106 Brisnet)-Leading contender for Horse of the Year honors will be the star of Arlington Million Day, and his presence is worth the price of admission alone. He is very difficult to oppose in this spot coming in off of five straight turf wins and having bested three of today’s top foes on the square (Robert Bruce by 1.5 lengths at this distance, Bandua by 4, Magic Wand by 2.5 at 9.5f) and has demonstrated great versatility in closing to win races that didn’t set up for his style from a pace standpoint. He’ll likely have to do so again, as the race doesn’t appear to have much pace signed on. Still, there’s a sinking feeling that his winning streak will end at some point after such a strong campaign, and it’s peculiar timing indeed for the connections to sell his breeding rights before the race if he’s such an automatic winner. Bris Prime Power selection (+21.3) is by far the most likely winner, and a victory certainly won’t cost us in exotics or multis, but this looks like a decent spot to look for value in the win pool.

4) Catcho En Die (30-1) (111 RPR, 94 Brisnet)-Robbed us of last year’s trifecta in this race after jockey Jose Valdiva made a claim of foul for 3rdplace that was somehow upheld. We would play against him for that reason alone, but it also helps that he’s been incredibly off form since returning from a ten month layoff following that debacle, finishing 9th, 8thand 11thby a combined 27.5 lengths in his three starts this year. Toss.

5) Hunting Horn (12-1) (116 RPR, 102 Beyer, 102 Brisnet)-Our selection in last year’s Secretariat threw in a real stinker in that race when racing wide and rank near the lead, and his detractors will certainly point to that as a reason to oppose him here. They could also rightfully point to the fact that he hasn’t actually won a race in 12 starts dating back to before that race. However, he’s been keeping top company across the pond, racing against Group 1 foes in his last three at distances including 10f and 12f, and has posted consistent and competitive Racing Post Ratings in those efforts (115-115-114). In fact, in the last race he won at this distance last June, the RPR of 116 he earned is the second highest in the field. Looking more closely at his last stateside effort four races back in the Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont run at 11f, he set the pace and held a 3 length lead at the 10f point of the race before folding late to finish 4thbeaten only a length. He should appreciate the cutback from the 12f distance of his last and looms lone speed as the only Brisnet “E” designation with Ryan Moore, an astute judge of pace, in the irons. Playable on top for Aidan O’Brien at anywhere near this price.

6) The Great Day (12-1) (94 Beyer, 86 Brisnet)-A winner at 10f on dirt in Argentina, but son of Harlan’s Holiday has never won a turf race in five career tries. Finished a closing but non-threatening 2ndin the local prep for this and may enjoy the added ground here, but speed figures lag well beneath the top contenders. Trainer Arnaud Delacour has had success with his runners third off the lay, winning at a 29% clip, but this is quite the gap to bridge and a leap in class. A superfecta player at best.

7) Pivione (15-1) (114 RPR)-Euro shipper earned his first win of 2019 in his fifth start, beating 20 other horses in Handicap company at 10.5f over a firmer turf course and earning a competitive RPR. It’s fair to question what kind of field he beat in that race, however, and he did take quite a jump figure-wise in his last (from 107) that may be difficult to replicate after shipping. First time Lasix should help, and he finished ½ a length behind Trais Flurors at 10f just before that one bested fellow shipper Intellogent by a neck at 9f, so the Euro imports appear to be on close to even footing by that measuring stick, but class questions loom larger with this one as has never placed in group company.

8) Captivating Moon (20-1) (104 RPR, 90 Beyer, 97 Brisnet)-Always more of an underneath type against lesser, son of Malibu Moon was off the board in last year’s Secretariat but closed for 3rdin the local prep in his last. Trainer Chris Block doesn’t exactly fire second off the lay, winning just 9% of the time, and it’s difficult to envision a scenario where this deep closer is passing horses of this quality in the stretch.

9) Intellogent (12-1) (113 RPR)-Enters off a two and a half month layoff as the only Euro shipper with a win against Group 1 company; that came last summer at 8f over a firmer turf course and resulted in a 116 RPR, a number that would be quite competitive here if duplicated at the longer 10f distance. However, he just missed winning a 10.5f Group 1 last year, finishing 4thby just ¾ of a length, and finished 1.5 lengths ahead of today’s foe Hunting Horn in that race. Last seen a closing 4th at 9f in Group 1 company over a softer turf course than he appears to prefer, son of Intello boasts a strong AWD of 9.8 despite never having won beyond 9f. Gets Flourent Geroux aboard while receiving first time Lasix and adding blinkers; a player for the underneath spots at a decent price.

10) Bandua (6-1) (107 RPR, 98 Beyer, 96 Brisnet)- Winner of the 9.5f Arlington Handicap in his last after fading badly in the stretch to finish 6thbehind today’s top two foes in the 10f Manhattan before that. Based on prior form and pedigree, it would appear that the 9.5f distance may be his ceiling, and he might be better suited to the 9f distance. Could have a say in the early pace but draws a wide post and figures to back up in the stretch; would be a massive underlay at these odds.


  1. Robert Bruce 7-2
  2. Bricks and Mortar 8-5
  3. Hunting Horn 12-1
  4. Intellogent 12-1


Sistercharlie, Competitionofideas/

Valid Point, Never No More, Fog of War, Van Beethoven/

Bricks and Mortar, Robert Bruce, Hunting Horn, Intellogent

(bet will be weighted to appropriately equalize the odds, i.e, heavier bets on the chalk)





California Wine Trip Tasting Recap

Posted July 22, 2019 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Vino

For the second straight year, we chose to focus our wine country trip upon Dry Creek Valley and Healdsburg rather than Napa Valley. Quite simply, it’s become almost impossible to vacation with children in Napa, and with Courtney six months pregnant, it didn’t make a ton of sense to be spending $50-$75 to taste. The fact of the matter is that the top Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs and Syrah blends in these regions rival Napa’s Cabernets in terms of quality, and often at about a quarter of the price.


Sidekicks enjoying an outdoor grove tasting at Seghesio, which continues to set the gold standard for single vineyard Zinfandel in the Sonoma Valley and its neighboring appellations.


Tasting wine with an 8-year old in tow doesn’t have to be hard, and Alex makes it easy! He enjoyed the hospitality and scenery at Limerick Lane while his Dad evaluated their consistently exciting wines.


The scenery leaves nothing to be desired at Unti, a unique winery which produces strictly Italian varietals, and is well worth the stop on Dry Creek Road.

In all, I tasted just over 50 wines. Below are my top 20 favorites, sorted by score and then by price.

  1. Bedrock Zinfandel The Heritage 2017, 94 Points, $45- Thick but not overripe, with intense blackberry paste up front and plumcake notes underneath, turning silky as it lingers with black pepper spice and a hint of orange peel that adds complexity, finishing with a firm tannic grip.
  2. Seghesio Zinfandel Rockpile 2016, 94 Points, $50- Bright, jammy red berry fruit and black cherry flavors combine above focused minerality and cracked pepper undertones. Incredible finish that lingers for minutes with tobacco and bay leaf undertones. Rich and polished.
  3. Siduri Pinot Noir Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2016, 94 Points, $50- A nearly flawless offering, as lively wild berry and baked plum fruit combine above mushroom, white pepper, white chocolate and tobacco notes. Lingers long with a seamless texture. A textbook Pinot, in the deeper style.
  4. Hartford Family Zinfandel Old Vine Russian River Valley 2017, 93 Points, $40- A huge, jammy fruit bomb of wild raspberry and dark plum gliding over a rich texture that shows notes of allspice and baking spice as licorice notes creep in late and linger long. Beautifully polished and balanced between its deep blue and purple berry fruit notes as exotic spices carry through the finish.
  5. Sbragia Zinfandel Nonno’s Reserve Dry Creek Valley 2016, 93 Points, $44- Ultra-ripe on the nose, as a plump texture of blackberry and licorice picks up undertones of smoke, briary underbrush and tobacco spice. Earthy character lingers long beyond the fruit. White pepper spice creeps in as it lingers, a true Dry Creek terroir expression.
  6. Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Beeson Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2016, 93 Points, $45- Dark currant aromas gain a smoked meat nuance on the nose. Lush body of blackberry jam is rich and juicy, showing undertones of white pepper spice that catches a mocha hint as it lingers long. Incredibly polished.
  7. Unti Syrah Benchland Dry Creek Valley 2016, 93 Points, $55- Classic Syrah profile, showing smoked red meat, black pepper, and black and purple fruit aromas. Velvety texture comes across like a cool-climate Hermitage, with hot brick, smoked meat and fresh leather up front, leading into plush blackberry, dark plum and black licorice flavors. Finishes with a blast of bay leaf and cracked pepper that are all in balance with the fruit as this extends and lingers long.
  8. Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2015, 93 Points, $58- Thick and rich black and purple fruit flavors are backed by cracked pepper, briary herbs, mocha bean and clove spice. Thick, burly and complex. Long finish offers a firm tannic grip.
  9. Limerick Lane Zinfandel 1910 Block Russian River Valley 2016, 93 Points, $60- Super complex, with dark berry aromas shaded by briary tobacco lead and pepper nuances. Intense flavors of blackberry, black cherry fruit is backed by undertones of baking spice, clove and vanilla bean. Long finish shows a firm tannic grip, but this will be even more amazing in time. Packed and powerful offering.
  10. Hartford Family Zinfandel Old Vine Hartford Vineyard 2016, 93 Points, $60- Huge nose of blackberry and briary herbs. Deep, dark and elegant, with blackberry and plum paste notes above savory undertones of bay leaf, tobacco and cracked pepper. Rich and polished through the long finish, with minty nuances and chewy tannins lingering.
  11. La Crema Pinot Noir Shell Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2016, 93 Points, $60- Jam-packed, with blackberry and black licorice notes above orange peel spice and a complex echo of tobacco. This showcases an amazing texture all the way through the long finish, lingering on a creamy note.
  12. Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2017, 92 Points, $25- Delivers a pure Dry Creek Valley essence, with appelation-specific and heavy notes of cracked pepper and briar up front that braces juicy wild raspberry and blackberry fruit. Long finish over an elegantly silky texture, a perfect 4th of July wine.
  13. Unti Barbera Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $38- Aromas of smoked cured meats show red currant fruit in the background. Explosive and juicy cherry and wild berry fruit picks up steam behind crackling briar, white pepper spice and smoke. Long finish with savory spice and pepper lingering for minutes. A big surprise.
  14. Unti Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $38- Deep plum, blackberry and tobacco aromas. Velvety and ripe, with thick flavors of plum paste and blackberry preserves above a backbone of tobacco and peppery spice. Extremely rich but not overripe; very polished through the long finish as silky tannins add grip.
  15. Sbragia Zinfandel La Promessa Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $40- Silky, floral body is heavily perfumed showing flavors of red plum, raspberry and cherry fruit that finishes with cinnamon spice, clove spice and exotic baking spice. Feminine in style and delivery, with a weightless texture. Cracked pepper lingers; this is all spices and no herbs.
  16. Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2016, 92 Points, $40- Ultra-silky and ripe, with snappy dark plum, blackberry and black licorice flavors that explode into undertones of peppery spice and tobacco that really pick up as this lingers long.
  17. Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel DCV7 Wallace Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $42- Plummy body is silky and fruit-driven, with a plush texture that evolves into peppery, briary undertones. Long finish of juicy red plum, black cherry and dark raspberry lingers with savory spice, baking spice, black tea and peppercorns.
  18. Dry Creek Vineyard Somers Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $44- Huge blackberry preserve and dark raspberry flavors are shaded by cedary spice, chocolate, cinnamon and clove spice. Long finish with plump, juicy dark fruit notes that echo beyond the exotic spice notes.
  19. La Crema Pinot Noir Fog Veil Sonoma Coast 2016, 92 Points, $65- Juicy, plummy and full of ripe raspberry and black cherry fruit that evolves into strong baking spice notes and undertones of creamy mocha. Silky and expressive through the long finish.
  20. Hartford Court Pinot Noir Jennifer’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2016, 92 Points, $70- Expressive nose of baked red fruit, cherry pie and tobacco. Silky and elegant, with wild raspberry and black cherry flavors that gain depth from heavy tobacco, pepper and mushroom undertones. Long, lip-smacking finish.



St. Emilion Wine Tasting Recap

Posted June 13, 2019 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Vino

First of all, when making the wise decision to spend a few days in the lovely wine village of St. Emilion, we can highly recommend the accommodations at the charming Au Logis des Remparts, a centrally located yet secluded hotel within walking distance to all of the restaurants and attractions the village has to offer, and within driving distance to the recommended wineries. Complete with a pool, a parking lot, oversized rooms (we got upgraded!) and set just behind the vineyards of Chateau Villemaurine, we couldn’t have been happier with our stay here.






While visiting this famous Bordeaux wine region, we obviously took the time to visit several wineries, some of which I’ve placed on a viticultural pedestal for years now. Like most of Europe, wine tastings in St. Emilion are quite different than what most Americans are used to on their normal visits to California or Oregon wine country. Visits are heavily structured and are almost always reserved by appointment only. The format generally consists of a tour of the estate and a brief discussion of its history followed by an explanation of the wine-making process that is usually accompanied by a trip through the vats, barrel-room and caves. Only after this educational overview does the tasting commence; there is no “belly-up and taste” option here. The tastings themselves are quite subdued, consisting of two or three small pours, only one of which represents the actual chateau being visited, as these estates almost always have sister properties or offshoot projects within the family that they are pouring alongside a premier growth. And, the vintage that they’ll be pouring will likely be a much older one and not necessarily the one you’re seeking, since the mentality in Bordeaux is to make wine worthy of cellaring and to showcase that quality to potential customers. Those eager to taste the highly acclaimed 2015 and 2016s will have to buy them by the bottle at this juncture.

Knowing this, I made it my top priority to locate and purchase a bottle of each of the three bottles of 2015 St. Emilion that earned a spot in last year’s Wine Spectator Top 100. We had planned to visit two of these vineyards, and I had tasted those two wines previously, but consuming an entire bottle of wine while residing within the same region where the grapes are grown is a different experience entirely. For one, wine always tastes better with context, and what better understanding could be gained than by visiting and standing in the very vineyard where the wine was born and understanding its history and process? Furthermore, the ability to drink the wine slowly over a day or two provides a more complex tasting evaluation, as the wine is able to be appreciated in its different forms as it evolves and opens. I was able to find the third bottle of wine on my list, which is not available in the United States nor available for public visitation, at a local wine shop across the street from our hotel:


Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere 2015, 96 Points- An absolutely monstrous nose of smoke, tobacco and tar above deep, dark currants. Weightless texture considering its overall power, this explodes into a beam of rich, polished blackberry and dark plum that coats the palate, then evolves into creamier layers of toasty vanilla and mocha that expose smoky tobacco, smoldering charcoal and graphite notes through the endless finish. One of the greats, and should improve with time.

Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot 2015, 95 Points- Perfumey red currant nose shows vanilla bean and tobacco leaf influences. Very soft and creamy on the palate yet exploding with elegant, pure flavors of black cherry, wild raspberry and damson plum which evolves into deeper, thicker notes of blackberry and black licorice. Expressive fruit, lingering with exotic white pepper spice and sandalwood through the long finish. Firm tannic grip that will soften with time. This really deepens as it opens, lingering with a tarry edge.

Chateau Monbousquet 2015, 95 Points- Intense and complex on the nose, with tons of smoked meat nuances above its perfumey black currant aromas. Thick, bold and powerful body shows rich blackberry and dark raspberry fruit above layered elements of tobacco spice, mocha and charcoal, with a streak of iron running throughout. Long finish, gaining depth from its black licorice notes as spice lingers.

Here’s a look at each of the Chateaus we visited, and my highest scoring wine at each from its tasting session.


We had time for one stop in Pessac-Leognan on our drive from Bordeaux to St. Emilion, and this was an obvious choice given the recent successes of the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Planted in 1300, it is the oldest vineyard in the region, and still bears the name of the Pope who acquired it at that time. There is a lot of history here, but the current winemaking team continues to create wines in a powerful, modern style.




Chateau Pape Clement 2014, 93 Points- Perfumey and dark, with blackberry and black cherry fruit above juicy plumcake notes. This is very velvety and fruit-driven, uncommon for this vineyard, picking up licorice and Italian herbs through the finish. Gains complexity from tea leaf and baking spice notes which linger long; a deviation from the norm as all elements of loam, iron and smoke have dissipated from previous notes.


This spectacularly modernized facility sits on the southern edge of Pomerol and borders the famed estate of Chateau Cheval Blanc, sharing the same plateau and terroir. In my estimation, this has long been an extremely underrated producer, and after visiting it was apparent how their superior technological advancements in the winemaking process, specifically in terms of sorting for ripeness, have helped them catch up to the bigger names in the region.




Chateau La Dominique 2014, 94 Points- Complex on the nose, with deep cassis, cracked pepper and understated smoked meat nuances. Velvety on the palate with its perfumey blackberry and dark plum fruit that leads into a blast of charcoal, campfire smoke, black pepper and chalky mineral. Very intense and muscular through the long finish.


As the lone Premier Grand Cru Classe A Chateau that offers tours to the public, securing a private tour and tasting here was our number one priority on this tasting trip. (These reservations are highly competitive, so secure your spot early). The property itself is immaculate to an almost obsessive degree. One wine is poured and the experience is an expensive one at €45 per person, but the tour is informative and personalized and cannot be missed when visiting the region.




Chateau Pavie 2008, 95 Points- Powerful aromas of minty cedar, vanilla bean and juicy cherry, showing black licorice and wet mineral notes. Silky body of explosive cherry and dark raspberry fruit that gains a blast of black licorice and anise, backed by a complex combination of tobacco, briar and clove spice with cocoa and dark chocolate underneath. Long, intense finish that is all well-balanced and layered with spices lingering longest of all. Super soft on the palate; finish goes on for minutes.


As my favorite producer in all of Bordeaux that I’ve been able to taste on a consistent basis over the years, suffice to say that setting foot in the vineyards of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere was akin to the holy grail. The tour here was a large group, but we really enjoyed being able to walk through and stand in the actual vineyard and hearing detailed scientific explanations of the grafting process from our guide. This was a hardcore highlight for me, and they even had bottles of the 2015 for sale to help me complete my quest.




Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere 2011, 94 Points-  Lots of smoke, mocha and black tea leaf on the nose, with subtle red plum aromas. Silky and elegant, with refined plum and pure red currant giving way to layered elements of graphite, smoked meat and mocha bean. Weightless on the palate, as tobacco spice kicks in through the long finish. A solid effort in a tough vintage.


This was by far the most elaborate, meticulous and expansive cave network we encountered, and it was truly mesmerizing. The sheer volume of wine stored below the ground at this estate is astonishing and surreal. From the standpoint of a tour experience, this was second to none for us. The wine is fantastic as well, and the tasting provides a full overview of the four different winemaking projects the family is currently involved in.




Chateau Beau-Séjour Becot 2013, 91 Points- Aromas of crushed red cherries, red licorice, vanilla bean and barnyard. Silky, elegant and jammy, with cherry plum and red currant preserve flavors gliding effortlessly over undertones of sandalwood, iron and wet limestone. Understated elegance in a tough vintage, medium length.


If your preference is for a more old-school, musky and moldy cave experience, this will be a highlight. Rustic and authentic, this Chateau is well worth seeking out for some of the best wines in the region in the €30 and under range. And the tree that guards the entrance to the cave is simply glorious.




Chateau Franc Mayne 2011, 90 Points- Jammy and plummy on the nose, with wet limestone nuances. Velvety and mineral-driven, with wet rock and slate notes preceding juicy, violety purple fruits- black plum, fig and boysenberry, finishing in unison as this lingers with a graphite bite.