Archive for the ‘Tunes’ category

The Top 10 Albums of 2018

December 17, 2018

#10: Robyn/ Honey

robyn honey

Ironically or intentionally, the first album we’ve received from Robyn in eight years begins with the throbbing bass pop of “Missing U”, which essentially equates to how fans of hers have felt about her prolonged absence. Quite worth the wait, Honey lives up to her previous work on every level and arguably bests it, especially within the glory of its centerpiece title track. This collection is more concise and atmospheric than ever before, sacrificing pure pop for a refined lounge groove that really suits her entire vibe. Soft beach beats permeate standouts like the aptly named “Beach 2k20” and “Baby Forgive Me”, which melds effortlessly into the big house beat of “Send To Robyn Immediately”– these are really the moments show true evolution on this album, with such subtlety and nuance that stand in contrast to her previous work. There’s a disco catchiness to the bittersweet reminiscence on tracks like “Because It’s In The Music”, pop perfection on “Between The Lines”, while the understated closer “Ever Again” is perfectly placed and lets us off delicately. Body Talk may be a modern classic for the style, but reasonable music fans may be allowed to disagree in regard to the overall quality of this album in comparison; others may simply be grateful that this album was finally released, and prefer to sit back and enjoy both.

#9: Kali Uchis/ Isolation


Colombian-American Kali Uchis made one of the year’s most simulatenously accessible and genre-defying albums, merging Latin beats with American pop in a style all her own. From the opening beats of “Miami”, the raspy voice of the 24-year old vibrates bilingually  between the funk grooves of “After The Storm” and club beats of “Just A Stranger”, which offers the fantastic line “She wants my hundred dollar bills/ She don’t want love.” The pure pop of “Your Teeth In My Neck” and the revenge breakup track “Dead To Me” stand in total contrast to the slow core lounge vibe of “Flight 22” and closer “Killer.” But the centerpiece “In My Dreams” really slaps, displaying synth-pop perfection over a concise, upbeat keyboard riff, complete with a cameo from none other than Damon Albarn. An effortless transition from the catchy “oh-oh-oh” lines of the verses into its soaring chorus comes complete with some serious demonstration of her impressive vocal range through the coda; this is a track to escape to on an album full of them.

#8: Kamasi Washington/ Heaven And Earth

Kamasi Washington- Heaven and Earth

Washington’s new-age jazz pedigree puts him on another level within his genre, and his follow-up to 2015’s 173 minute The Epic re-establishes that claim, checking in at an even more substantial 183 minutes. Gritty saxophone, piano and string arrangements combine with g-funk grooves as lifted gospel vocals engulf the immediately enthralling and politically-driven opener “Fists of Fury”, while the spacious, atmospheric “Connections” is gripping. The highlight track is “Street Fighter Mas”, as melodic vocals lead into Washington’s playful saxophone riffs all above a robotic synth bass groove. As always, these songs are all constructed with perfection, but they are indeed challenging. There’s a harshness to the weight of all of this, but pound for pound, on a musical level, Washington is in a league of his own.

#7: Snail Mail/ Lush


When I wrote about Lorde’s Melodrama a year ago, I conveyed something along these lines: “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.” While Lindsey Jordan’s pitch-perfect and guitar hook-driven Lush doesn’t really contain any similarities whatsoever to that coming-of-age pop album aside from the age of its producer (she’s actually 19, so not of legal drinking age), a simple reality is clear enough to me regardless as that same notion still holds true- I for one experienced my most intense emotional reactions and realizations when I was in my late teens, so it shouldn’t be surprising that today’s youth is articulating the same through music, despite the fact that I am getting older. You’d be hard pressed to find many more moments of simplistic but poignant clarity on any album this year than are present here. Wise beyond its author’s years, “Pristine” kicks things off with a combination of rawness and warmth that is true to its title, while “Speaking Terms” is coated in a soothing sort of heartache. For all the press songs like these and “Heat Wave” received, there isn’t a better moment on an album full of them than “Stick”, where Jordan sings lines like ““And did things work out for you/Or are you still not sure what that means?” as her voice escalates into a strain and the chorus builds into its crescendo. The overall polish present here is rarely seen from such a young artist; time will tell if added maturity takes her to the next level musically, or if the true glory of this record lies in its innocence.

#6: Father John Misty/ God’s Favorite Customer

Father John Misty- God_s Favorite Customer

I suppose perhaps I’m just a sucker for concept albums in general, but when an album of that nature arrives in such drastic contrast to what came before it, it’s simply impossible to ignore. Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, spent two months living alone in a dreary hotel room where he wrote this album, presumably separated from his wife Emma, who two albums back was the focus of his breakthrough record I Love You, Honeybear. God’s Favorite Customer is a return to that prior form for an artist that had turned pretentious, omniscient and self-indulgent on the cynical Pure Comedy that came in between, as Tillman has not only grown wiser but benefits from an impressive sense of… vulnerability in lieu of ego. The beauty is that his usual knack for next-level songwriting, both in terms of lyrical wit and killer melodic hooks, is arguably better off for it. “Mr. Tillman” is pure, self-deprecating genius as the song spends its entirety re-telling a surely not-so-hypothetical interaction between Tillman and his hotel clerk, perfectly straddling the line between the comedic and pathetic (he even whistles) elements of the situation his current mental state has placed him in. Gorgeous ballads abound, from the dream-like piano on tracks like “Dumb Enough To Try” and “The Palace” to standout “Please Don’t Die”, a heartwrenching plea sung partly from Emma’s perspective that finds Tillman as honest as we’ve ever heard him as he sings about “All these pointless benders, with reptilian strangers” between harmonica, perfectly timed 7th chords and a lifted falsetto through its chorus. It’s refreshing to hear songs like the tone-setting opener “Hangout At The Gallows” and the bouncy, warmly self-reflective “Disappointed Diamonds Are The Rarest of Them All” from an artist that seems to have switched from looking inward to looking upward.

#5: DJ Koze/ Knock Knock

Knock Knock

Sprawling and ambitious, one might be tempted to call Knock Knock overlong if it wasn’t so varied and encapsulating, wholly definitive of the German producer DJ Koze’s vast musical background and knowledge. The snares on tracks like “Baby” and the dance floor-ready “Lord Knows” hit with well-aimed cohesion, while the bus-horn, Casio synth repetition and ghostly Bon Iver sample on “Bonfire” are calculated down to the millisecond, and the longing chimes that conclude the airy, remorseful “Muddy Funster” show the meticulous electronic orchestration present here. The stylistic diversity is at once startling and welcome, and keeps the album moving with momentum over its nearly 80 minute length. The darkly lit trip hop ambience of “Scratch That” features the revelation that is Roisin Murphy, who also adds vocals to the nocturnal propulsion of “Illumination” as well as the spacious, nirvana-coma-inducing closing track “Drone Me Up Flashy.” In fact, every guest spot is carefully chosen, however obscure- even Speech from Arrested Development saves the otherwise contrived “Colors of Autumn”, while Jose Gonzalez soars on the bright, warm and reassuring “Music On My Teeth.” The album really hits its true stride over the course of its back half, and that might be asking a lot for some, but when centerpiece “Pick Up” hits in all of its glory, with its single loop of unparalleled precision and catchiness carrying sampled vocals from Gladys Knight, you’ll be glad you stuck around. There’s a stunning juxtaposition here that merits attention; a combination of upbeat house grooves and bittersweet melancholy.

#4: Against All Logic/ 2012-2017

2012 - 2017

Nicolas Jaar has been one of the most prolific experimental artists of the decade, so it seems only fair that in a year so heavily influenced by electronic music, that he would deliver the best of the genre. Working under a new moniker, this collection of songs shows a penchant towards dance-floor ready house beats inter-spliced with Jaar’s trademark acumen for the perfectly timed sampling of rousing soul cuts. Opener “This House Is All I Have” carries some of the same psychedelic lounge grooves reminiscent of his Darkside project, but after that, harder beats dominate a record that is remarkably intriguing and nuanced considering its general accessibility. Attention to detail is evident on the intense banger “Some Kind of Game”, while the sample heavy “I Never Dream” shows off impressively intertwined percussion elements. The downright comical bubble-gum pop of the rollicking “Know You” demonstrates the overall diversity and fun that is present here, while the hypnotic piano keys on “Cityfade” lead into a back half that probably doesn’t quite hold up to the first half, but a compilation such as this can’t possibly be expected to flow with immaculate congruence. 2012-2017 was probably the best album to turn on and enjoy this year, blended into the background of the proverbial dinner party without any frills whatsoever.

#3: Yves Tumor/ Safe In The Hands of Love


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

#2: Low/ Double Negative

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

#1: Beach House/ 7

Beach House_7.jpg

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

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

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

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

The Top 10 Songs of 2018

December 3, 2018

The Top 10 Songs of 2018

#10: “Pick Up”/ DJ Koze

Many times in life, and also in music, less is more. German producer DJ Koze proves this as his single loop of unparalleled precision and catchiness carries sampled vocals from Gladys Knight on this standout from his sprawling electronic record Knock Knock. There’s a stunning juxtaposition here that merits attention; a combination of upbeat house grooves and bittersweet melancholy.

#9: “In My Dreams”/ Kali Uchis

Colombian-American Kali Uchis displays synth-pop perfection over a concise, upbeat keyboard riff, complete with a cameo from none other than Damon Albarn. An effortless transition from the catchy “oh-oh-oh” lines of the verses into its soaring chorus comes complete with some serious demonstration of her impressive vocal range through the coda; this is a track to escape to.

#8: “Some Kind Of Game”/ A.A.L.

Nicolas Jaar expands upon his trademark psychedelic electronica for hard house beats on this intense, relentless banger. Precise and dance floor ready, this track is seemingly never-ending, and the attention to detail is flawless between its perfectly integrated sampling and the crucial moment early-on where the beat drops altogether.

#7: “Slow Burn”/ Kacey Musgraves

The opening track from the country singer’s breakthrough crossover album is much more than a Taylor Swift moment, as rich production combines with Musgraves’ soothing, warm vocals all above a spot-on melody. This became the song of the summer for those less inclined towards silly, poppy rap songs- it encapsulated everything a summer anthem should be, with a chill vibe in terms of both sound and theme.

#6: “Fly”/ Low

What we have here is an exquisite use of space and restraint, with “Fly” serving as the perfect tone setter early on the devastating slowcore epic Double Negative. A softly rolling bass line picks up subtle piano chords intermittently beneath Mimi Parker’s gorgeous falsetto as pleads, “Take my weary bones/ And fly…”

#5: “Lifetime”/ Yves Tumor

There wasn’t any other song this year that had as much going on as this one- forceful, cascading percussion, haunting piano lines, subtly intertwined horn elements- all behind forefront vocals. AND I MISS MY BROTHERS!!!

#4: “Suspirium”/ Thom Yorke

Perhaps Yorke’s defining moment as a solo artist, “Suspirium” drifts beneath a haunting piano line that is at once foreboding and impossibly gorgeous, a combination that he has mastered in his work with Radiohead. Subtle flute elements add texture and beauty, while of course there is that trademark falsetto holding it all together.

#3: “Believe”/ Amen Dunes

Damon McMahon’s coarse vocals wash over this perfectly orchestrated melody with fluidity and nostalgic emotion, creating the rock song of the year by any measure. The twangy folk-Americana vibe of its guitar line builds steadily into a thematic and stunning crescendo, touching on spirituality, mortality and acceptance in five short minutes that would be better off never ending.

#2: “Please Don’t Die”/ Father John Misty

This heartwrenching ballad finds Josh Tillman as honest and vulnerable as we’ve ever heard him as he sings about “All these pointless benders, with reptilian strangers” between harmonica, perfectly placed 7th chords and a lifted falsetto through a chorus that hints towards serious suicidal considerations during the two months he spent living alone in a hotel and wrote this song. Watching this truly awe-inspiring video, the chorus being sung from his wife Emma’s perspective truly resonates, which literally means that Father John Misty is issuing (gasp!) a cry for help.

#1: “Lemon Glow”/ Beach House

Aside from the fact that this is arguably the first song Beach House has ever written that is quite so blatantly and seductively sexually driven, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that this was clearly the best song created in 2018. Synthesized keyboard opens the track on a menacing note as the shoegaze textures of Alex Scully’s guitar provide the perfect backdrop for Victoria LeGrand’s sultry, intimate vocals over lines like “I come alive/ You stay all night”. But it isn’t all fun and games; there is tension and grind within the repetition of the persistent synth line that dominates here, as well as abrasive percussion elements, all of which add a realistic element to the representation of a true relationship, sexual or otherwise. The beauty of Beach House is their ability to capture exactly that in a surreal ambiance that runs to the contrary.

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

vince staples

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.