Archive for the ‘Tunes’ category

The Top 10 Albums of 2017

December 16, 2017

Honorable Mention: Lorde/ Melodrama


You’re going to be seeing this at the top of a lot of year end lists this month, and as much as mainstream pop from young girls barely old enough to drink in the United States really isn’t my thing, it would be hard to deny that there isn’t a single weak moment on this very strong and impressive record, so I’d prefer to give credit where credit is due. There’s careful thought to arrangement on the anthemic break-up track “Green Light”, which starts with sparse, deep vocals before building into a chorus that truly shows off the singer’s vocal range, and the seamless transition from bittersweet melancholy to bouncy on “Hard Feelings/ Loveless” seems to indicate the emergence of an innovative artist wise beyond her years. Heartbreaking ballads like “Liability” and “Writer In The Dark” are highlights, while “Supercut” and “Perfect Places” deliver pure pop precision. And it doesn’t get any more fun than “Homemade Dynamite”, which starts and stops effortlessly before evolving into an impossibly catchy chorus. Awesome, right?

#10: Alex G/ Rocket

alex g

This sprawling and experimental record harnesses its power from a strong folk rock backbone but adds elements of jazz and lo-fi garage rock that keep it rich, exciting and in full display of many musical influences. Alex G has a particular penchant for the construction of melody, as evidenced by the accessible and catchy piano riffs on “Proud” and “Sportstar,” while boasting a higher pitched vocal sound and style that is a dead ringer for Elliott Smith. There’s fuzzy, discordant violin that create an almost Appalachian sound on “Powerful Man” and on the soaring duet ‘Bobby”, but songs like the raging, distorted “Brick” keep listeners on their toes and don’t allow for complacency, demonstrating the complex array of styles at hand here. Closer “Guilty” pulls it all together with its jazzy bass beat that picks up carefully arranged piano and trumpet riffs.

#9: Thundercat/ Drunk


Loosely concocted and at times silly over its 23 tracks (there’s a song about cats meowing for heaven’s sake, and another that rhymes “beat your meat” with “go to sleep”), you’d still be hard pressed to find another album that glides along so smoothly this year. Thundercat’s unique style creates a relaxed acid jazz groove on tracks like “Them Changes”, while a faster tempo combines with a submerged underwater lounge vibe on the thrilling “Tokyo.” Guest spots steal the show here, as Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald combine for a most unlikely collaboration on highlight “Show You The Way”, and Thundercat’s trademark falsetto holds its own in this company, while Kendrick Lamar steps in on the more subdued “Walk On By”.  Valentine’s Day revenge song “Friend Zone” sparkles with funk and comedic lyrical delivery that find the perfect balance….And the cat song is actually pretty damn good too.

#8: Fleet Foxes/ Crack Up


The third full length following a six year hiatus took the folk rock outfit in a new, darker, more complex direction and marked a paradigm shift in style for the band. This reality was immediately evident upon the release of the nearly nine minute single “Third of May/ Ōdaigahara”, notable for lead singer Robin Pecknold’s strained falsetto through the chorus as the tune stops and starts effortlessly, constantly twisting and evolving. The lifted melody on “Fool’s Errand” is another highlight perhaps more reminiscent of the band’s earlier work, but not without its own innovations, constructed around an off-kilter time signature. There’s an argument to be made that this new direction lends itself to being almost too soft and stripped down, although tracks like the delicate “If You Need To Keep Time On Me” and desperate “On Another Ocean” are no less beautiful, while the hushed “I Could See Memphis” is easily the darkest song in the band’s catalog. There’s an element of patience and restraint that permeates through Crack-Up, and it’s evident from the start on opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar”, a three-song suite that plays more like an opus, immediately indicative of what is to follow. Whether one prefers the new Fleet Foxes or the old is of little consequence; it’s simply refreshing to see them in motion.

#7: Sampha/ Process


The debut record from the London vocalist who had previously made a name for himself as a highly sought after collaborator is a soulful and devastating reflection on the death of his mother to cancer. While he could have phoned in any number of guest appearances, Process instead consists of Sampha alone, and the result is a highly personal and often unsettling work. Stand out centerpiece “No One Knows Me Like The Piano” might be the year’s most gorgeous piano ballad, at once a sentimental autobiography and a moving tribute over its sparse frame. “Blood on Me” is an ominous banger that loops two eerie piano keys above Sampha’s cracking falsetto , while opener “Plastic” starts the album on a raw, panicked tone. The unique marriage of pure soul and electronic elements create a style all his own, demonstrated on tense, beat heavy songs like the hypnotic “Under” and anxiety-ridden “Kora Sings.” Elements of regret reveal themselves towards the album’s conclusion through softer, prettier tracks like “Tommy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses.” A journey laden with grief, power and discovery, Process was easily the year’s best debut.

#6: Vince Staples/ The Big Fish Theory

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Sharp rhyme schemes and poignant social commentary remain a staple on this sophomore effort, but gone are the sweeping, melodic west coast beats and dark lounge grooves of his debut. In their place is a far more spacious album that utilizes repetitive percussion, big house beats and electronica influences. The result is a decidedly more club-ready collection of songs. Opener “Crabs In The Bucket” sounds as though it could be a Burial track with its trappy dubstep beats above ghostly undertones, while the propulsive tempo on “Love Can Be” conjures Azaelia Banks circa “212”. Hollow synths and clap drum percussion move through the upbeat party track “Big Fish”, which offers the most addictive hook here, and the chant-worthy “Yeah Right” showcases a guest appearance from none other than Kendrick Lamar behind its shot gun blast bass explosions. The album ends on an outstanding note, as the threatening “BagBak” calls out the government, the president, and the one percent behind up-tempo synths and a rolling bass line. Closer “Rain Come Down” is riddled with tension, featuring perhaps the deepest bass line on an album full of them, slowing the tempo down a bit with its off-kilter time signature and ambient chorus. Big Fish Theory is so accessible and immediate, a much easier album to get through in a single sitting than its double-sided predecessor Summertime ’05, and even if perhaps sacrificing some of the complexities of that album, such a dynamic shift in style indicates that Staples isn’t short on ideas and won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

#5: Run The Jewels/ RTJ 3


Hip hop fans were treated to a surprise Christmas gift late last year when this album dropped out of nowhere on December 25th. Released in the weeks just following the shock of the election and preceding Trump’s inauguration, it perhaps perfectly captures the anger and resistance that would define the year ahead, all the while reminding us of the unparalleled flow combination that is Killer Mike and El-P. The duo are at their best on tracks like “Legend Has It”, where the rapid alternation of verses between the two escalates the brimming intensity and almost feels like a full scale rap-off. Guest spots add excitement from the incomparable Danny Brown on the dark and brooding “Hey Kids” as well as TV on the Radio lead singer Tunde Adebimpe on the foreboding “Thieves.” The punches keep coming with the hard beats on “Stay Gold”, “Don’t Get Captured” and “2100”, but the album truly finds its footing in its final third. The boastful “Panther Like A Panther” uses a rolling trip hop beat below its anthemic chorus (“I’m the shit bitch!”) and the hands down best rap lyric of the year (“I got banana dick/ Your bitch go ape shit if she hit it!”) The epic closer “A Report To The Shareholders” begins as a bittersweet jazz track before it shape shifts into an absolute bruiser, complete with transformer robot synths and the album’s most enduring and microcosmic battle cry of revolt, a familiar one for fans of Game Of Thrones, another epic in its own right- “Kill Your Masters.”

#4: Slowdive/ Slowdive


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. Now, an identical 22 years after Pygmalion, Slowdive return 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.

#3: LCD Soundsystem/ American Dream


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.

#2 The War On Drugs/ A Deeper Understanding


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 the year’s most resonant rock album.

#1: Kendrick Lamar/ DAMN.


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 has now 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.

The Top Ten Songs of 2017

December 4, 2017

#10: “BagBak”/ Vince Staples

The raw, hollow drum beats create a threatening air on the standout track from the Compton project’s sophomore effort, which also features one of the year’s most resounding codas. We on now!

#9: “Third of May/ Ōdaigahara”/ Fleet Foxes

Layered and sprawling, this nearly nine minute track took the folk rock outfit in a new, darker direction, marked by Robin Pecknold’s strained falsetto through the chorus as the tune stops and starts effortlessly, constantly evolving and marking a paradigm shift in style for the band.

#8: “Everything Now”/ Arcade Fire

As disappointing as the rest of the new album from the kings of Indie Rock ended up being, it was all worth it just for its title track, and its soaring disco piano riff that combines with some of the band’s most poignant lyricism to date.

#7: “No One Knows Me Like The Piano”/ Sampha

The year’s most devastatingly gorgeous piano ballad came from the talented London vocalist’s debut album, at once a sentimental autobiography and a personal and moving tribute to his late mother.

#6: “Proud”/ Alex G

The standout track from the experimental folk rock opus Rocket is sublime in its simplicity, a highly accessible work that combines an upbeat piano riff on top of a foot-stomping acoustic guitar that screams Americana.

#5: “Slide”/ Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean and Migos

Glistening production reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories wove together this bouncy summer beach party anthem behind balanced, timely contributions from R&B superstar Frank Oceanand chart-topping rap trio Migos.

#4: “Holding On”/ War On Drugs

Glockenspiel chimes add texture, fullness and warmth to this constantly moving and evolving rock track, complete with slide guitar solos and shimmering synths, all a backdrop for Adam Granduciel’s Dylan-esque vocals.

#3: “HUMBLE.”/ Kendrick Lamar

You could choose from any of a number of songs from Lamar’s Damn. (notably “DNA”, “Fear” and “Duckworth”) but on “HUMBLE.”, hip hop’s top dog has never sounded more bravado-laden as he raps with authority over a haunting, demonic organ beat.

#2: “Don’t Know Why”/ Slowdive

What makes this track so fascinating, aside from its ethereal beauty, is how innovatively and inversely structured it is. Beginning with a sped up time signature, it 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.

#1: “Call The Police”/ LCD Soundsystem

Admittedly, any comeback single from one of the most exciting bands of the young century was going to receive a bit more attention than it deserved. But in this case, you’d be hard pressed to find a song this year that so fully encapsulated intense propulsion with soaring melody, combining a ringing guitar riff with a proggy, spaced out bass line as Murphy’s vocals escalate into his trademark strained falsetto. ​Bonus points or not, this was a rock song for the ages, and seeing it live was the musical moment that stuck with me the longest in 2017.


December 18, 2016

To say that 2016 was a “terrible year” has undeniably become somewhat of a cliche. It’s funny; for me, 2016 was great. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. IU basketball eliminated Kentucky from the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Mondialiste won the Arlington Millon. I reconnected with and gained a Sidekick who lights up my days. I saw Radiohead and Sigur Ros, easily my two favorite living bands, live, within 30 days of one another, with her. Also, Harambe happened.  You get the idea.

Musically, it was also strong, if odd. Traditional rock took a backseat as indie rock’s presence in the spectrum as it pertains to quality continued to become more and more subdued. It was an extraordinarily weak year for electronic music as well. While those genres came up lacking in 2016, rap and R&B stepped authoritatively to the front, and even so, this year might best be remembered from the long overdue albums delivered by classic artists that have been around since the early 90s (Radiohead, A Tribe Called Quest) and also those that delivered worthy swan songs just before leaving this world (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen).

I can’t use them all though. Here were my Top 10 Albums of 2016:

#10: Cobalt/ Slow Forever


When asked recently to describe the purpose of Cobalt’s music, I deferred to a good friend whose appreciation for metal far surpasses mine. He responded rather perfectly, “Guttural angst. Rural miasma. A curious expedition into general misanthropy.” Calculated, precise and angular while still maintaining accessibility despite its aggressiveness, Slow Forever marked a revitalized return to form for the two man act complete with new lead singer Charlie Fell, formerly of Lord Mantis. This is black metal on its surface but defies genre in reality, holding a unique niche as a hybrid crossover between that and hard rock. The guitar riffs here are simply so melodic and memorable that they nearly overwhelm the guttural ferocity of the vocals.

The raw energy of the guitar hooks dominate the entirety of the album and are clearly present on the instantly engaging opener “Hunt The Buffalo”, which showcases an almost western edge, but it’s the hidden nuances that give Slow Forever such sharp, interesting edges over the course of an album that could have easily relegated itself to repetitive screaming- the way the sludge-driven coda of the constantly evolving “Elephant Graveyard” cuts off suddenly without warning, the intense, grinding riff of the epic “King Rust”, the tonal contrast of the pure rock hook and atmospheric paranoia on “Cold Breaker.” Like Deafheaven’s Sunbather, which has arguably become the template for the black metal crossover genre, Slow Forever utilizes soft interlude tracks to bring the listener down a bit between waves of intensity. It’s a sequencing technique that works effectively here and keeps the album focused on its music first and foremost rather than devolving into redundancy based purely around screaming vocals, which instead work to provide balance and emotion.

#9: Chance The Rapper/ Coloring Book


The rise of Chance The Rapper from Chicago’s underground rap scene over the past five years has been the stuff of legend, as his unlikely ascension led to a headline gig at the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival behind the strength of two mixtapes. On his third, Chance delivers an upbeat, if stripped down effort, highly focused in its spirituality to such an extent that it practically plays like a Gospel concept album. Coloring Book starts softly with the tone-setting “All We Get”, but then explodes into the bright summer anthem “No Problem”, which somehow seems to make what would sound from a lot of rap artists like a threat or warning to the music industry instead bounce along with positivity and confidence. Chance’s decision to avoid signing with a label and to base his income strictly upon live performances based on word of mouth has been an unorthodox one, but has worked just fine up to this point, and it’s a rare thing indeed in this day in age for rap as a genre to provide so much collective joy and cheer. Call it soft if you want or find a shoulder to cry on if it suits you, but the spaciousness on tracks like “Summer Friends” and “Same Drugs” truly emote like few rap albums do.

There’s an uncommon amount of patience and nonchalance here, and on first listen, it is fair to wonder when the party action will pick up. But the true brilliance of this collection of songs lies in how well the latter ends up balancing out the former. “All Night” seems like the quintessential party track, short, sweet and compact, while “Angels” sounds more like old Chance with its combination of off-kilter beats and horn elements. “Mixtape” even adds an unsettling vibe of darkness with some help from Young Thug, but the context fits perfectly here as a centerpiece. With Coloring Book, Chance appreciates, doesn’t threaten, and simplifies the backbone of rap itself, and in the process shows how much more it is capable of in what was already a very strong year for the genre. When the praises go up, the blessings come down.

#8 A Tribe Called Quest/ We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service


18 years in the waiting, A Tribe Called Quest delivered their final collection of hip hop, and it resonates as a proper send-off to say the least. Double-sided and checking in at just under an hour over its sixteen tracks, it’s an ambitious effort, reminiscent of Vince Staples’ 2015 album Summertime ’06 in terms of scale. The primary difference is that Tribe has such a strong back catalog to fall back on, and as a result, We Got It From Here comes off sounding more like a triumphant victory lap than anything else. Complete with guest performances from Anderson Paak (who made a great record this year in his own right), Kanye West, Jack White, Talib Kweli and Andre 3000 (whose spitfire exchange with Q-Tip on “Kids” is a standout moment here), the album manages to retain its unique east coast sound on tracks like opener “The Space Program”- sparse, brittle beats and razor sharp rhymes- while still sounding decidedly current and of the moment. Dropping the week after the election, the chorus Q-Tip delivers on highlight track “We The People” sounds almost impossibly fitting: “All you black folks you must go/ All you Mexicans you must go/ And all you poor folks you must go/ Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.”

Founding member Phife Dog passed away earlier this year, putting some doubt into longtime fans’ minds in regard to the feasibility of this project coming to fruition, but not to fear, he’s featured prominently here from start to finish, and gets a homage from Busta Rhymes, who chants his name in reggae fashion over the entirety of closer “The Donald.” Busta Rhymes was always closely associated with Tribe’s prior work, and his presence here is an added bonus that doesn’t really feel like a guest appearance. His contributions to near perfect tracks like “Dis Generation” take the record to another level. More melodic tracks like “Enough!” and “Lost Somebody” provide balance and help avoid any chance of hook-less redundancy. While the first half of the second side tends to meander a bit and the record as a whole could arguably have been a few tracks shorter, it’s hard to penalize the group much, as none of it seems overly indulgent. Penultimate track “Ego” might be the single most immediately grabbing moment here, with its ominous bass line that picks up an incredible hook and subtle electric guitar as it bounces along effortlessly. It’s a reflective track lyrically, but it’s also a microcosm of the entire album- these guys have earned the right to have a big ego and to have some fun with their swan song, which hits on serious current topics without ever taking itself too seriously.

#7: Blood Orange/ Freetown Sound


Dev Hynes has had his fair share of memorable singles as Blood Orange, but nothing in his back catalog indicated that anything as complete, ambitious and with as much scope as Freetown Sound was on the horizon. There isn’t a single weak moment over its 17 tracks, and there’s a tonal consistency here thanks to impeccable production that results in an atmospheric and ethereal vibe that is rare for the R&B genre. There’s a whispery quality to Hynes’ vocal delivery that lends an element of intimacy to every song here. To its credit, the soft, soothing nature of this album is balanced effectively by some truly incredible beats. After “By Ourselves” opens the record with some slam poetry, the dark, pumping drum machine of “Augustine” follows, complete with carefully subdued but gorgeous piano lines and plenty of politically charged lyricism, which finds Hynes more reflective and pained than actually angry in regards to the current state of the treatment of African Americans in American society. Centerpiece “E.V.P” is an immediate banger, showcasing the hardest drum line on the record and adding saxaphone, funk elements and synthesizers over its catchiest hook. What makes this such a stunning moment is the juxtaposition of these seemingly sunny musical aspects with such lyrical uncertainty: “Choosing what you live for/ It’s never what you make your life/ How could you know/ If you’re squandering your passion for another?”

Highlight track “But You” probably best demonstrates the overall theme of the album, as Hynes appears to be singing to himself and offering himself encouragement as he grapples with his own self-image and construction- “You are special in your own way.” Tonally, it’s a masterpiece that evokes Michael Jackson’s more reflective, optimistic work, and brings together a devastating, perfectly executed bridge with jabs of electric guitar through its coda. “Hands Up” is a more direct observation of the Trayvon Martin killing than the closing lyric on “Augustine” offers, but musically, it’s the exact opposite of aggressive or combatant, as it glides along effortlessly and mournfully. Female guest vocals power two of the album’s most tender tracks, as Empress Of absolutely soars on “Best To You”, which picks up tempo as it evolves into a steady groove and Hynes begins to trade lines with her; it’s a song about wanting to give love and feeling helpless when that feeling isn’t being reciprocated. And Nelly Furtado shows up on “Hadron Collider”, one of the prettiest tracks here. Freetown Sound touches on so much, combining its small stories and societal observations into a mass collection that eventually adds up to a lot- a dreamlike, seamless mix of melancholy, beauty and hope.

#6: Anderson Paak/ Malibu


Anderson Paak burst onto the scene this year to such an extent that his third proper full length feels more like a sprawling debut. A concept album loosely-based around a surfing analogy, Malibu plays like a magnum opus of innovative music that straddles the line between rap and R&B in a manner far more personal than anything from artists like Drake or Future. These songs are accessible, yet confident, honest and thought-provoking, thanks in large part to Paak’s admirable vocal command. The breezy, effortless warmth of opener “The Bird” sets the stage immediately, as Paak tells the story of his family background with a soulful vocal delivery that can’t really be described as either singing or rapping, complete with an atmospheric horn and a gorgeous piano line behind it. It’s a truly unique niche that he fills as this isn’t an album that can be categorized by genre, constantly shifting and evolving between musical styles. Insightful tracks (“Look at the time/ My God/ So precious/ Is yours/ Is mine”) like “Am I Wrong” border on straight up club music, complete with more horns through its coda, while “Put Me Thru” evokes soul from a more distant generation, and “Silicon Valley” almost seems to borrow horns from Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” behind its seemingly satirical lyrics and intentionally overpowering vocals. The most complex track on the album is a doubly titled effort; “The Season” begins as a somewhat dark R&B track before shifting suddenly into the swanky, effortless groove of the hip-hop section “Carry Me,” with Paak’s ability to straddle the line between genres with his raspy vocal on full display. There is hardly any way to even reasonably explain the brilliance of the tightly-coiled power of “Come Down”, which packs its triumphant funk vibe into an intense three minutes that we wish would never end (“Cool beans/ Cool beans!”).

The greatest attribute of Malibu, though, may be the way it concludes. The aptly titled penultimate track “Celebrate” could serve well as a closer on an album equally ambitious as this one, as an upbeat bass line meets more major piano keys, creating a song every bit as optimistic, warm and imparting of young wisdom as its title suggests: “It’d be a bad look/ Talkin’ bout what coulda been/ So let’s celebrate/ while we still can”. But it’s really all just a setup for the incredible closer “The Dreamer” and its rolling drum line, which looks at something as dark as poverty as a glass half full situation : “Who cares ya daddy couldn’t be here/ Mama always kept the cable on/ I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch/ Living room, watching old reruns.” It isn’t even remotely easy to make a 16-track album without any clear low point or drag that still sounds this varied, vibrant and consistently melodic. Paak appears poised for even bigger things in the future, and with this record, has created a persona that is very difficult not to love. Listening to this, I have the exact opposite reaction I still have when I listen to To Pimp A Butterfly; Paak’s arms are open, not closed, and his smile feels wide and accepting.

#5: Danny Brown/ Atrocity Exhibition


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 last 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 year, and 2016 provided many rap highlights.

#4: Avalanches/ Wildflower


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.

#3: ANOHNI/ Hopelessness


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” eight years ago 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.

#2: Bon Iver/ 22, A Million


In 2011, Bon Iver released their impeccably produced self-titled album, which at the time of this writing, is still easily in the Top 3 best albums of the decade. Given that, it’s no surprise that this release stood as one of the most highly anticipated of the year. 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.

#1: Radiohead/ A Moon Shaped Pool


Radiohead has arguably been the single most important band to the musical spectrum in terms of contribution over the course of my 37 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 has 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. Last year, 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. “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 “Just a lie” 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 is a lot to enjoy here 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 year’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.


December 5, 2016

#10: Parquet Courts/ Two Dead Cops

In a year that rightfully placed so much focus on police brutality, it was important to be reminded of the other side of the story, which is equally disturbing. On the best song from their best album to date, Parquet Courts use a powerful riff to tell the tale of walking upon murdered police in a New York City neighborhood. It’s a propulsive, powerful punk song, and about as dark as this band’s music gets.

#9: Kevin Morby/ I Have Been To The Mountain

2016 wasn’t overly generous in terms of providing transcendent indie rock, but this might have been the single best song that used a guitar as its primary instrument. Folksy acoustic chords turn more dramatic as the song evolves, complete with a horn section and lifted back-up harmonies. It’s a masterful balance of triumph and melancholy.

 #8: Anderson Paak/ The Season-Carry Me

The most complex track on Anderson Paak’s stunning concept album Malibu, “The Season” begins as a somewhat dark R&B track before shifting suddenly into the swanky, effortless groove of the hip-hop section “Carry Me.” Paak’s ability to straddle the line between genres with his raspy vocal is on full display here as he appears poised for even bigger things in the future.

#7: Blood Orange/ But You

The highlight track on Dev Hynes’ epic Freetown Sound probably best demonstrates the overall theme of the album, as he appears to be singing internally and offering himself encouragement as he grapples with his own self-image and construction- “You are special in your own way.” Tonally, it’s a masterpiece that evokes Michael Jackson’s more reflective, optimistic work, and brings together a devastating, perfectly executed bridge with jabs of electric guitar through its coda.

#6: Chance The Rapper/ No Problem

This bright summer anthem highlights Coloring Book and somehow seems to make what would sound from a lot of rap artists like a threat or warning to the music industry instead bounce along with positivity and confidence. Chance’s decision to avoid signing with a label and to base his income strictly upon performances based on word of mouth has been an unorthodox one, but has worked just fine up to this point, and it’s a rare thing indeed in this day in age for rap as a genre to provide so much joy and cheer.

#5: The Avalanches/ Frankie Sinatra

On first listen, you either loved this track or you hated it. Considering it features guest appearances from Danny Brown and MF Doom above an impossibly playful carnival beat, it should be pretty clear where my mentality lies. 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.

#4: Danny Brown/ Really Doe

The standout track from the Detroit rapper’s unsettling, menacing and unrelentingly dark and introspective Atrocity Exhibition, this was the posse track to end all posse tracks, as Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul lend verses that showcase the diversity between each of their styles all behind a horrifying bell chime loop. It’s a whirlwind of a rap song that will leave your head spinning, but still flows perfectly together.

#3: Bon Iver/ 8 (Circle)

Of all the tracks on Bon Iver’s experimental offering 22, A Million, it’s “8 (Circle)” that is most reminiscent of their immediately prior work, and given that their self-titled album is a lock for Top 3 Albums of the Decade, that’s a very good thing. Straightforward but bursting from the seams with emotion and melody behind impeccable production, it’s a reminder that sometimes what isn’t broken doesn’t need fixing. Also: That HORN.

#2: ANOHNI/ 4 Degrees

ANOHNI’s other-worldly voice absolutely soars on Hopelessness 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 to have been fired out of a cannon, picking up horns and violin that cascade upon themselves through the coda.

#1: Radiohead/ True Love Waits

It’s a strange thing indeed to land on a track that’s been in existence for over two decades as my song of the year. By definition, it wasn’t a song that defined the year’s mentality or that felt timely or of the moment- which should quantify the significance that this particular Radiohead classic 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 year’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.




December 14, 2015

#10 Deafheaven/ New Bermuda

DeafheavenAfter 2013’s genre-bending Sunbather took the music scene by storm, creating a powerful discussion surrounding Deafheaven’s influence and positioning across the broad metal spectrum, most of the resulting excitement centered more around what direction they would be heading next than upon what they had actually created. That wait ended in early October, as the Bay area quintet delivered an album equally as difficult to describe in terms of genre, but that was most certainly an entirely different animal than its predecessor. Most notably, the “soft” interlude pieces that tied together Sunbather‘s four proper length tracks are gone, and New Bermuda instead contains five unabashedly brazen full-length songs that offer no come-down in between. Stylistically, a simplistic summary would argue that the “loud” segments of these songs are uglier, nastier, more harsh and more “metal” than they were on the last album, but that the “soft” segments are even quieter and less dependent on build and crescendo. Whereas the title track from Sunbather culminated with soaring, atmospheric guitars that beckoned post-rock and shoegaze elements a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, Deafheaven seems content here to offer acoustic guitar codas that border on twangy and come closer to what one might expect from more rock-oriented metal counterparts like Pallbearer or Baroness. It’s purely a matter of preference, as these melodies are impeccably beautiful in their own right. But the contrast that they create when paired with such abrasiveness is a bit of a shock to the system and even more noticeable than they were on Sunbather, and dare I say, not what most fans were expecting or hoping for.

“Come Back” consists of three separate movements, as thunderous percussion meets an onslaught of powerful lead guitar, breaks down into more of a snarling, serpentine midsection before melting into a gentle acoustic riff. “Baby Blue” serves as the centerpiece and comes full circle as it reverses the formula a bit, opening with a gorgeously repetitive guitar riff up front for two solid minutes before shifting into darker territory, eventually escalating into a powerful, terrifying moment when all the elements come together. This track in particular shows maturity and patience, and while the drum work is top notch across the board, Daniel Tracy absolutely knocks it out of the park on this one over its ten minute length. This is probably the closest the band comes to genuinely soaring, as an industrial grind evolves into a heavenly electric guitar line and then collapses back upon itself. Some will find the contrast here more accessible and innovative than Sunbather was, while others will criticize the band for straddling the fence and trying to play both sides of the genre game even more egregiously than they were before. Whatever your take, New Bermuda is undeniably an ambitious record, the sound of a band organically coming into its own as what it is meant to be, for better or worse.

#9 Beach House/ Depression Cherry

Beach HouseThis isn’t the first time a Beach House album has dropped and struck a chord thematically during a particularly difficult time in my life, and come to think of it, this is a band that not only makes consistently gorgeous music, but one that makes music with broad interpretation possibilities that can be applied as you need it to be. Independent of that reality, the band has seemingly perfected its unique form of melancholy over its six studio albums into a sound that still braces with warmth and hope. Depression Cherry has all the lyrical nuance of a breakup album, with the same bittersweet, forlorn tone that has become the Beach House signature, but the music itself carries with it an element of acceptance and optimism. Take early highlight “Space Song”, where lead singer Victoria LeGrand sings in her trademark raspy vocal “Tender is the night/ For the broken heart/ Who will dry your eyes/ When it falls apart” but emotionally regroups through the coda, repeating “Fall back into place.” Airy Opener “Levitation” feels like a look back at what could have been but wasn’t, as Legrand whispers “You should see/ There’s a place I want to take you/ When the train comes I will hold you/ Cause you blow my mind.” Lead single “Sparks” boasts perhaps the prettiest slide guitar riff in a catalog jammed packed with them, again straddling the line between bliss and grief.

The repetitive, hypnotic melody of “PPP” combined with lines like “Did you see it coming/ It happened so fast/ The timing was perfect/ Water on glass” and “There’s something inside you/ It doesn’t sleep well” hit a stunning bit close to home for me at the time and is the sort of song you can just drift away to. And what more can be said about the gorgeous “Beyond Love”, the one true love song on the album, but one that shows an ambiguity of time and place that seems fitting for any stage of a particular relationship. Legrand hits a slightly off-key note near the end of the song as she sings “All I know’s what I see/ And I can’t live without it” that is just absolutely crushing. If Depression Cherry has a drawback relative to the band’s prior masterpieces Teen Dream and Bloom, it comes in terms of depth, as the shorter track length and relatively subdued centerpiece “10:37” and slowly-developing closer “Days of Candy” drag down the continuity a bit. Still, where it hits hard, it packs a punch.

#8 Vince Staples/ Summertime 06

StaplesThe brilliant 2014 debut EP Hell Can Wait showed a great deal of promise from Compton rapper Vince Staples, but few expected his debut full length to deliver a collection of so much depth and darkness. At its core, this is an album about fear, both in terms of both its creation and its acceptance. Its title focuses on a time in Staples’s life when, at the age of 13, he realized the importance of both of those things. Opener “Lift Me Up” is immediately gripping and engaging, exuding confidence beneath is dark bassline. Describing the song’s meeting, Staples was quoted as saying, “But that’s when we understood the power we had in fear, because it’s either they’re scared of you or they’re better than you. So we established fear, and the song is understanding that.” In terms of beats, there is a consistently chilly, spacious feel here; these aren’t your typical hard-hitting west coast rap beats, as paranoia, bracing tension and uncertainty lurk at every turn while bravado takes a back seat. There are sexual undertones beneath the almost tribal beats on tracks like “Lemme Know” and “Dopeman”, the arrangements on which demonstrate a unique understanding for space. “Senorita” takes that sound to another level with its eerie, haunting piano loop and thrusting bass line complete with an addictive hook from Future that contrasts nicely with Staples’ deliberately delivered rhyme tales of death.

At the end of its first half, Summertime 06 reaches its emotional climax with its title track, which feature Staples singing in a weary monotone over light autotune as the track builds with a mournful sense of dread, culminating with the line “My teachers told us we was slaves/ My momma told me we was kings/ I don’t know who to listen to/ I guess we somewhere in between.” “Get Paid” offers arguably the only truly club-ready moment here and stands alone as the clear highlight on the album’s back half, as a propulsive, driving beat supports Staples’ “money over women” narrative, getting straight to the point as it ends on the lyric “Money is the means of control.” While short on optimism, there’s plenty of melody underneath tracks like “3230”, “C.N.B” and “Like It Is”, which help to keep Summertime 06 at once streamlined thematically and diverse musically. These 20 songs seem to fly by as the album finishes in under an hour with relentless focus, a restrained, mature effort that shows massive breadth for such a young artist.

#7 Panda Bear/ Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

PandaReleased in 2007, Person Pitch is widely regarded as Noah Lennox’s magnum opus, but while that record was bursting from the seams with innovation and complexity at the time of its release, one could make the argument that with Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, he has created his most accessible and complete work to date. At the very least, it’s a big step forward from 2011’s somewhat meandering Tomboy, as melody takes center stage this time around, almost splitting the difference between the two prior records. Its early winter release caused it to become somewhat of a forgotten album as the year wore on, but there’s undeniable staying power here. Opener “Sequential Circuits” contains that familiar hypnotic Lennox vocal that builds softly and slowly, whetting the appetite for the explosion that follows it, while penultimate track “Selfish Gene” takes that similar tone to a higher level its isolated, jabbing synths and airy vocals. In between, “Mr. Noah” is as in-your-face and relentless as anything in the Panda Bear catalog and presents an immediate contrast with its abrasive, almost discordant buzz-saw synths and creative melodic tricks (“ay-ay-ay-ay!”)

The bright psychedelica of “Crosswords” bursts with optimism and is perfect for a sunny day, as Lennox seems to be looking in the mirror and talking to himself, singing “So good/ You’ve got it so good/ Day after day/ So good.” There’s sprawling synth fuzz and distant snare drum beats behind the incomprehensible chanting on “Boys Latin”, which creates an addictive if puzzling mood as it scales upward. At its center, the seven minute “Come To Your Senses” is the longest track on the record and stands an undeniable highlight with its bonfire beach party groove that builds behind a slowly escalating melody as Lennox sings repetitively “Are you mad?” before answering nonchalantly “Ya, I’m mad”, a response in certain contrast to the mood and tone this particular track establishes. If comparing back to Person Pitch one last time, it’s nice to see that Lennox continues to integrate the same relaxing, chill, almost tropical vibes into his music that were so evident and defining on that record, and when combined with superior melody and accessibility, the results equate to a career topper.

#6 Father John Misty/ I Love You Honeybear

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 the 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.

#5 Kendrick Lamar/ To Pimp A Butterfly

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 year’s best 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.

#4 Kamasi Washington/ The Epic

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 should create 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 may have been the year’s most important album.

#3 Jamie XX/ In Colours

XXIn 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 recent 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.

#2 Grimes/ Art Angels

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, is 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 true 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 just defiantly made an album her own way under a frenzy of speculation and premature criticism, and may have forced an entire generation of indie fans back in love with her as a result.

#1 Tame Impala/ Currents

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. In a year where there weren’t any world-altering releases like Swans’ To Be Kind was last year, Currents still towered above the rest in terms of melody, arrangement and lyrical execution, permeating with a constant theme regarding adaptation to life’s transitions, both musical and personal.

TOP 10 SONGS OF 2015

November 30, 2015

#10: “Alright”/ Kendrick Lamar:

At the center of To Pimp A Butterfly, “Alright” stands out as the track that holds the album together with its optimism and razor sharp rhyme schemes all above a gorgeous horn riff. As the summer wore on, it became somewhat of an anthem, and offered a rare moment of hope amongst a collection of songs that burst with darkness and uncertainty elsewhere.

#9: “Come To Your Senses”/ Panda Bear:

Noah Lennox’s impressive Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper showcases this seven minute epic at its midpoint. It’s the longest track on the record and stands an undeniable highlight with its bonfire beach party groove that builds behind a slowly escalating melody as Lennox sings repetitively “Are you mad?” before answering nonchalantly “Ya, I’m mad”, a response in certain contrast to the upbeat mood and tone the track establishes.

#8: “On GP”/ Death Grips:

Easily the most complex song ever written by the experimental project Death Grips, “On GP” alternates between its incredible punk rock riff and spaced-out psychedelica to create an amazing stylistic contrast. All the while, leadman MC Ride delivers anxiety-laden vocals that are unwavering, relentless and panic-inducing.

#7: “Stonemilker”/ Bjork:

Shimmering production permeates this amazing opening track to Vulnicura, which in its entirety is a heartbreaking concept album pertaining to the highly influential artist’s divorce. Never is a moment more powerful than this one, with its gorgeous string arrangements supplementing Bjork’s unmatchable vocal range as she states obvious but clearly unfulfilled desires to “Find our mutual coordinates” and observes “We have emotional needs.”

#6: “Should Have Known Better”/ Sufjan Stevens:

There’s a whispery, stripped down Elliott Smith influence on the standout track to Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, a concept album dedicated to his late mother. The entire album is both immaculate and incredibly melancholy throughout, but where this track separates itself is when it switches midway through from minor to major chords, gorgeous in their simplicity, as Stevens finds a “reason to live”…”My brother had a daughter/ The beauty that she brings/ Illumination.”

#5: “Beyond Love”/ Beach House:

Of all the music in the now massively deep Beach House catalog, I’d argue nothing comes off any more gentle and gripping as this one. It’s a song about hope and the ability to realize the abundance of potential happiness out there, even after loss. It shows an ambiguity of time and place that seems fitting for any stage of a particular relationship, as Victoria Legrand hits a slightly off-key note near the end of the song while she sings “All I know’s what I see/ And I can’t live without it” that is both painful and comforting all at once.

#4: “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”/ Jamie XX feat. Young Thug and Popcaan

You can argue about The Weeknd versus Fetty Wap all you want; this was the undeniable song of the summer. This upbeat, approachable 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. As such, producer Jamie Smith took a big risk combining rap verses from Young Thung with a Caribbean funk chorus courtesy of Popcaan all over a catchy and melodic tropical vibe, but somehow it all melted together perfectly.

#3: “Let It Happen”/ Tame Impala:

The sprawling opener to the mind-boggling Currents begins Tame Impala’s best album to date 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.

#2: “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me”/ Father John Misty:

In terms of pure beauty and orchestration, there wasn’t a better song written in 2015 than this one, which came out of nowhere as the highlight from former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman’s stunning debut album. Maybe no other lyric better defined the middle of my year than this one, “I can hardly believe I found you, and I’m terrified by that.” That lyric is meant as a vulnerable admission in what was the year’s greatest love song, but for me, it meant pure, legitimate fear.

#1: “Kill V. Maim”/ Grimes:

The fascinating centerpiece of her stunning album Art Angels might be the first pure club joint that Grimes has ever produced, and in a year that didn’t have a solid favorite for Song of the Year heading into the last quarter, this thing took full command of the title and should be no surprise in this spot for anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention. 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. I will never forget the first time I heard it, walking to work with a massive smile on my face as I attempted to grasp what I was hearing. 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.


December 15, 2014

HONORABLE MENTION (just missed the Top 10, in alphabetical order):

Arms and Sleepers/ Swim Team: Still one of the most confusingly unrecognized electronic groups making music today, this dinner party record for the ages from Arms and Sleepers drops a striking contrast to their landmark 2007 release Black Paris 86. That was a dark, bruising trip hop record, and while this one becomes a bit more repetitive, bright and jazzy, it remains one of the most addictive and overlooked releases this year. Throw on “Nobody More Than You” or “Tiger Tempo” the next time you’re having a beach bonfire and let me know how it turns out for you. Where Black Paris massively succeeded for its chilliness, I couldn’t have been more surprised how warm and safe this record made me feel. Why has no one ever heard of them? Just turn it on, put it on repeat, invite all your friends over and open all the wine in your house.

Mac DeMarco/ Salad Days: This was a big step up from DeMarco, who showed a brilliant mix of carefree melodic perfection and psychedelic innovation on his sophomore album. Precision presides above flashiness here on airy sun-drenched highlights like “Brother”, “Blue Boy” and the title track. Electronic horns rule the day on standout “Passing Out Pieces”, while an 80s synth line combines with deep bass on “Chamber of Reflection”. “Let Her Go” is just a pure guitar rock gem executed perfectly. It’s all here, so roll down the windows, drive along the ocean and blast this.

Pallbearer/ Foundations of Burden: Even if it was a bit more streamlined than their game-changing doom metal debut Sorrow And Extinction, this time around Pallbearer sounds richer and more focused, beginning with the calculated opening riff of “Worlds Apart” which blends into the pure metal of “Foundations.” And that’s just the thing; it’s difficult to determine where these songs end and the others begin, and on the whole it feels like a giant melodic explosion when taken in full. They’re not yet as good as they could be, as tracks like “The Ghost I Used To Be” limit credibility with their overwrought dramatics and strained vocals, but centerpiece “Watcher In The Dark” demonstrates perfectly orchestrated build and showcases potential. Brace yourself for their next record, but in the meantime, play this when it’s dark and scary outside.

Parquet Courts/ Sunbathing Animal: A wildly chaotic and deep rock album, the sophomore full length from Parquet Courts was nothing if not abrasively confident. Content to shift between jangly pop and distorted punk all behind drunkenly nonchalant vocals, a clearly overlong record somehow rendered itself endearing. “Instant Disassembly” was the perfect chillax, summer beer guzzling epic, but songs like the title track and the rollicking “Black and White” brought the energy full force. “Ducking and Dodging” almost feels like an exercise in riffing, showing off spoken word vocals and foot-stomping percussion that gains traction from a shocking intermittent burst of distortion and one of the better lead guitar solos of the year. It may be a long time before this band creates an album with any sense of cohesion whatsoever, but let’s humor them and just have fun in the meantime.

Spoon/ They Want My Soul: Somehow, whatever Spoon does is always at least “very good” even if they aren’t exactly introducing any new ideas these days. Still, this was as close to an “Album of the Summer” as we had this year, and tracks like the impeccably swanky and surprisingly reflective “Inside Out” showed that these guys can still innovate to some extent and still remain about as consistent a band as they come. Moments like the final minute of the bluesy title track and the persistent grind of the perfectly titled mood-setter “Rainy Taxi” remind us all why we fell in love with this band in the first place. Seven full lengths deep, I’d argue they’re yet to write a single bad song, and this album was actually a strong step up from Transference. Pay homage to Spoon and play this on that warmer than expected winter day in Chicago.

#10: Ariel Pink/ Pom Pom

homepage_large.b02cb19bThe polarizing Ariel Pink returns with this solo record, a unique combination of psychedelic influences, new wave interpretations and overall weirdness. Pink’s most valuable quality is his ability to deliver such bipolar vocals that demonstrate a depth and diversity of musical tone; there’s everything from bright, sunny pop to unsettling post-punk here with plenty of carnival music inter-spliced for good measure. He does his best Ian Curtis imitation on the dark “Not Enough Violence”, provides a soliloquy in homage to Jim Morrison on “Exile On Frog Street” above jazzy soul piano that sounds practically lifted from The Soft Parade, while the eerie “Lipstick” takes the classic style of The Cure and spins it into a dark wave tale of a stalker in the night. Album standout “Black Ballerina” succeeds most as he combines several tones into schizophrenic mayhem in this hilarious and utterly bizarre strip club tale. A playful opening vocal combines with a funky bounce beat both reminiscent of an Of Montreal song, complete with Pink’s subtle request to “take your bra and panties off” before it explodes into a stunning combination of strained rocker falsetto and deep baritone nonsense chants and growls like “elevators, manufacturers.” His echoey baritone on the catchy “One Summer Night” is expertly produced, while the sweet, melodic “Put Your Number In My Phone” is more straightforward and whimsical but hits all the right notes as such. Pom Pom is undeniably an overlong record, and probably intentionally so. As high as these high points get, the middle is packed with moments so outrageous and ridiculous that they can only be interpreted as nothing less than a complete troll job. Beginning with the bizarre surf-nostalgia track “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” and moving into truly WTF territory such as the Middle-Eaastern piano riff of “Dinosaur Carebears”, the absurd bravado of “Sexual Athletics” and finally the abrasive Atari synths of “Jell-o”, it’s clearly all a ploy and a demonstration of confidence. This is an Ariel Pink record through and through, and he has no qualms letting us know that he’ll do whatever he wants on it, unafraid to forgo traditional album structure in terms of creating any sort of cohesiveness or flow whatsoever. Somehow, Pom Pom is all the better for it as its more serious and reflective highlights stand out even more as a result. Take the gorgeous “Picture Me Gone”, a gorgeous, thought-provoking expression of paranoia regarding digital technology as a threat to destroy all physical evidence of humanity, told through the eyes of an aging father reluctantly adapting to the changing world that he will soon leave behind. Love him or hate him, it would be hard to deny that with Pom Pom, Ariel Pink has made some of the year’s most fearless, interesting music.

#9: Todd Terje/ It’s Album Time

homepage_large.1b314148What separates Terje’s debut full length from other electronic records this year is an overall lack of pretentiousness and a welcoming feel within its carefree, casual confidence. Attention to detail and seamless execution are evident early as the transition from the acid jazz piano slow-build of “Leisure Suit Preben” moves effortlessly into the jabbing laser beam synth of “Preben Goes To Acapulco.” Standout “Delorean Dynamite” showcases the best of Terje’s arrangement style as it builds and expands with energetic synth that combines with fluttering keyboard, atmospheric guitar and subtle bass lines, resulting in a full on Euro-disco track. Among music lifted from prior work, there’s full-on, hard-hitting disco beats on “Strandbar”, which also features impressive musicality with its heavy piano samples, while the almost celebratory staple “Inspector Norse” is a steady dance track that closes the album on an upbeat note. The ability to impeccably weave these songs into his newer material is admirable, and if there is a lack of cohesion at any point on the album, it ironically comes from centerpiece and standout track “Johnny and Mary”, a Robert Palmer cover which brings the party to a massive halt with its melancholy, mournful vocal echo- the only vocal we hear on the entire album, courtesy of Bryan Ferry. If you ask me, its placement there is intentional, a reminder even smack in the middle of an otherwise joyous record, that life will always have its inevitable moments of sadness, but that the surrounding diversions are what can make it meaningful.

#8: Aphex Twin/ Syro

homepage_large.3e27e54aWithout being super-familiar with Richard James’ early work, it was especially difficult and intimidating to tackle this album as if I’m even on the same level. This actually may have been the record I listened to most in 2014, if only because of its massive scope and seemingly endless possibilities; suffice to say that it’s a hard album to fully get your head around, but was a welcome addition to a year of music that seemed otherwise devoid of truly focused electronic music. Despite song titles that border on pretentiously hieroglyphic, the first three tracks are surprisingly accessible. An ominous piano loop combines with bursts of poppy synth and processed vocals on the immediately grabbing opener “minipops 67”, while “XMAS_EVET10” is a fascinating essay in electronic build reminiscent of what Boards of Canada might sound like if they ever attempted a ten minute track this ambitious, expanding and switching between its ethereal electronica and eerie, haunting keyboard lines. The middle of the album becomes more abstract and experimental, but it’s the little things and the impeccable attention to detail and arrangement throughout that really make Syro soar; a perfectly timed synth burst ten seconds into lounge bar dance track “produk 29”, a squealing synth on “”CIRCLONT6A” just as the beat drops, and the masterfully conveyed moment of surrender on the title track achieved by a fluttering synth line that sounds akin to a shot bird falling out of the sky. There’s no repetition whatsoever here as every track stands with its own independent ideas and innovations. A groovy, trip-hoppy snare percussion sample rules the day on “PAPAT4” beneath an addictively catchy loop and ghostly choir vocals. To provide further puzzlement, James concludes this album with “aisatsana”, an impossibly gorgeous, spacious piano ballad that bears no musical resemblance whatsoever to anything that comes before it. However, it does exhibit the same unsettling tone that permeates this entire collection ever so subtly, with its sparseness in complete contrast to the density of the rest of the album, ending on a crushing emotional note that would seem difficult to top. Again, the beauty of Syro lies in its precision in terms of arrangement and timing, and that is a fact made evident in its conclusion above all else.

#7: Caribou/ Our Love

homepage_large.0b9d74c7Dan Snaith has stepped up his game considerably from the lo-fi beach party sound of Andorra and the club-driven techno of Swim to create his best record since his 2003 landmark Up In Flames as Manitoba. His notably increased confidence in his own vocal capabilities strikes a welcome contrast to his prior work and helps pull together the thematic vibe of the record. As its title suggests, at their core, these are romantic, regretful and reflective love songs, and aside from being his most personal record to date, Our Love is just so diverse musically compared to his prior efforts. Snaith offers everything from straight up dance tracks (“Julia Brightly, the title track, “All I’ll Ever Need”, “Your Love Will Set You Free) to airy lounge bar material (“Can’t Do Without You”), dark tribal beats (“Mars”), off-kilter R&B (“Second Chance”, courtesy of a perfect vocal from Jessy Lanza), to say nothing of the massive sad psychedelica of “Silver” and “Back Home”, which bookended symmetrically at #2 and #9 respectively are probably the two best tracks on the album. Both utilize slow-building arrangements that expand into massive, atmospheric, synth-driven crescendos. “Silver” is dually honest and heartbreaking, as Snaith utters nonchalant falsetto fragments like “Wish I’d never met you/ Doesn’t mean I can’t get over you”, while “Back Home” might be the perfect melancholy pop song of his entire catalog to date, boasting the catchiest electro-hook on the album and a brief but most spectacular coda. Our Love succeeds most because of its honest, intimate detail of the ups, downs and in-betweens of a relationship, or as I like to call it, reality. Where Andorra’s sun-drenched vibe kept the listener warm due to its sound, this time around, Caribou keeps us warm by conveying an honesty that most all of us can relate to.

#6: FKA Twigs/ LP 1

homepage_large.48a48155It’s next to impossible to not think of the debut album from The XX when listening to LP1, the first full length from the British-born Tahliah Barnett, who produces her unique music as FKA Twigs. The two artists dwell in completely different genres, but the chilly, unsettling tone of these songs possess a spaciousness that is immediately reminiscent of what made that album so special. Sparse production techniques frequently drop the beat out altogether, often stopping completely on tracks like the standout “Pendulum”, with its rich, melodic vocal, while sensual undertones dominate “Lights Out” and “Two Weeks,” the latter of which carefully hides its aggressive sexual lyrics with music that sounds contrastingly carefree. FKA Twigs’ music is a breath of fresh air from a creative standpoint, gaining traction from so many different, well-integrated ideas, but the easiest categorization would be to describe it somewhere between the lines of R&B meeting trip hop, not dissimilar to The Weeknd, but far more foreboding and powerful despite being considerably more stripped down and raw in comparison. Fluttering electronic percussion combines with deep, dark bass at every turn to create a consistent vibe of unmitigated tension, but as innovative as the production is, the most impressive aspect of this record might be Barnett’s vocal range. A raspy alto alternates with a high-pitched strained octave intermittently on the distinctly auto-biographical “Video Girl”, while she combines a powerful soul vocal into an even higher, seemingly impossible note on “Numbers.” While the vibe is all her own, there’s no shortage of her obvious influences shining through the overall bleakness of the album. Dark, Portishead-inspired snares carry the aforementioned, frantic pinnacle “Numbers” and the crawling tempo of “Hours” sounds like 90s era Massive Attack dungeon music, while closer “Kicks” begins with scattered Bjork-esque beats and jabs of synthesized bass that morph into a gorgeous bleary-eyed come-down. It’s a massive closing track that’s worth the wait, and even with such a consistent debut it’s important to point out how soundly and purposefully it builds, as “Kicks” clearly demonstrates that the real emotional bruisers come towards the end of the album. Penultimate track “Give Up” is as subtly bleak and gorgeous as anything here, combining elements of fluttering, ascending synth with lines like “I know that sometimes you wish I’d go/ Away, away” that oddly end on the album’s most optimistic note—Twigs isn’t gonna let you give up, she’s not giving up, and she’s here to stay.

#5: Sun Kil Moon/ Benji

homepage_large.8512d235I’ll be honest, I hated this album the first time I listened to it. Sure, I had a feeling deep inside of me that it could be a grower, but I couldn’t get past how ordinary and nonchalant it sounded musically. Fast forward eight months later, and its impact feels as massive as its initial impression felt slight; these are indisputably eloquent, heart-wrenching tales, many of them true, put to music that fits like a glove. It’s only when you understand the weight of the lyrics themselves that the music begins to make sense, and Mark Kozalek knows this. As bleak and curmudgeonly as he may seem in general, it’s hard to deny that the man is a pretty brilliant song crafter. These are dark but real stories set to gorgeous music. Apparently Kozalek has had several relatives die in aerosol can explosions; “Carissa” documents the death of his 35-year old second-cousin, a mother of two, and focuses upon his need to reconnect with distant family members at her funeral, and his nearly forgotten past. It’s a massive opening statement that sets the stakes high immediately as it becomes clear how intimate Kozalek intends the album to be personally. The comparatively somber “Truck Driver” tells a similar tale of his great uncle, who happened to be Carissa’s grandfather, who died the same way. True or not, these stories carry a decidedly Middle-American undertone, and Kozalek has a knack for simply repeating a relaxed fingerpicking pattern and communicating above it. Spliced in between are contrasting dedications to both of his parents. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” hinges on the brutal honesty of his fear of the reality that his mother, 75 and in good health today, will someday, sooner than later, no longer be here. Guitar jam “I Love My Dad” is far more upbeat, a reflection of lessons learned, perhaps the main one being that all men have their flaws, but most of us have the best of intentions as well. Not to beat a dead horse, but while the music is admittedly well-arranged, what truly elevates this album above most of Kozalek’s work is the intimacy and diversity of the story-telling. “Dogs” documents his teenage sexual conquests with a musical tone that seems more regretful than celebratory, “Jim Wise” tells the heartbreaking tale of a man who euthanized his wife out of love and now stands trial for murder with nothing to live for, “Micheline” expands upon a mentally challenged classmate and an epileptic friend, and the epic ten-minute track “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” looks back, upon other things, with regret regarding a youthful incident of aggressive bullying by the songwriter. (Ironically, considering his confusing attack upon the unimposing and fantastic band The War on Drugs this year, it would seem that Kozalek hasn’t fully let this incident soak in.) There’s a sense of remembering those moments when we all recall where we were, as “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” shows off an ominous riff that conveys the horror of his crimes, while “Pray For Newtown” adds perspective to that tragedy…one that had a profound effect upon me three years ago. Closer “Ben’s My Friend” seems utterly out of place but is a welcome change of pace and arguably Benji’s greatest triumph. Between nonchalant discussion of ordering crab cakes in a bar full of “sports bar shit”, Kozalek lets us down easy with lifted saxophones reminiscent of Destroyer’s Kaputt and a song presumably about seeing a Postal Service concert, after an album otherwise full of heavy material. I don’t think I’d much enjoy actually hanging out with the brutal Mark Kozalek, but this album stuck with me all year as much as any other.

#4: Real Estate/ Atlas

homepage_large.d9f36f89This New Jersey-grown band with a penchant for relaxed western twang has finally reached its full potential, as noticeably richer production complements their best collection of songs musically to date. Atlas benefits from a fuller, warmer sound across the board, although one could also argue that on their third full length, Real Estate is at their least certain and most pessimistic. As a result, they come off as more than the simple beach and wine-road driving music band that they began as, although this album should still work well in those circumstances, but instead as a group with some additional life experience that has some semblance of wisdom to offer. Opening track “Had To Hear” builds and expands beyond its steady, confidently repetitive opening riff, and it’s immediately evident that the production has taken it up a notch from the band’s practically lo-fi beginnings. It’s such a fluid opener, as it breaks down into an impressive solo before re-connecting seamlessly back into the main riff with perfect timing. After that, “Past Lives” and “The Bend” add a woozy, almost ethereal element to the band’s trademark guitar twang. Besides a step up in production, Real Estate shows growth from an artistic aspect as well, since as mentioned already, Atlas is far and away its most melancholy offering to date. The tone is spearheaded by the heartbreaking, stripped down acoustic track “How Might I Live,” which is stunning in its simplicity, as acoustic C and G chords alternate over a lyrical breakup delivery that lasts only two and a half minutes but feels like an eternity. But in the end, what makes Atlas such an impressive accomplishment is that the band hasn’t completely gotten away from its roots; catchy, accessible sound isn’t abandoned altogether, but it’s tapered and it serves a purpose. “Crime” is straightforward, polished and professional, if not terribly exciting, and “Primitive” brings the twang, but more brilliant moments abound on songs like “Horizon”, with its steady, focused build behind a textbook hook and percussion that keeps pushing it forward with increasing uncertainty. Album standout “Talking Backwards” is perhaps the perfect pop rock song, delivering the catchiest hook of the band’s entire catalog (suck it, “It’s Real”) but adding elements of bittersweet defeat that anyone that’s been in a relationship with an actual human can most definitely attest to- “Well I might as well be talking backwards/ Is this making any sense to you?/ And the only thing that really matters/ Is the one thing I can’t seem to do.” This is so simple and so true, but wouldn’t have been believable on their self-titled debut, and that’s what makes this effort feel like a step forward. Maybe it’s real indeed? I saw Real Estate live at Pitchfork over the summer, and that isn’t really their element. They deliver perfectly with no hitches but seem very straightforward and business-like, but on record, this is the type of music that you can really sink your soul into.

#3: Run The Jewels/ Run The Jewels 2

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 last year Danny Brown surprised everyone with the gutting depths of Old. This year, 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 the year, 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 are two 39-year-old rap industry veterans that should be 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 don’t hear anyone complaining, least of all me, as for once I can 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.

#2: The War On Drugs/ Lost In The Dream

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. 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 have made a fascinating and heartbreaking record that will rank among the very best of this decade when it is all over. 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. My favorite song of the entire year, “Red Eyes” follows, and it’s maybe the best American rock song of the entire 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 stuck with me all year since its winter release, fitting the bill for what was probably the craziest of my 35 years on this planet. And I wouldn’t dream of using a single track in a beer commercial if I actually wanted to sell beer. (Sorry Mark.)

#1: Swans/ To Be Kind

homepage_large.dfa26de1I’ve been rating songs on a ten point scale since I was fourteen years old, and more than twenty 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 is not only the best album of 2014 by a crushing, previously unprecedented margin, it’s also the best album of the decade as it reaches 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 have been for the past few years, building patiently until they are able to reach their fullest potential and 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 so far 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 summers ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was one of those stunning live concert movements 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 before it evolves 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.