Thursday, March 2, 2017

Best Albums of 2016: #25-1

#26-50 #51-100 Good albums that didn't make the cut
#25: AuroraAll My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend
A phenomenal debut from Norwegian singer-songwriter Aurora Aksnes. This is more in the tradition of orchestral, torch music of Lykke Li than the upbeat pop of Peter, Bjorn and John.
#24: The Hotelier, Goodness
A unique sound, hard to pull off these days without being unlistenable, but The Hotelier does it. Take Goodness Pt. 2: it starts as nothing but a simple strong beat and bassline, but then a simple almost off-rhythm single chord is strummed on a guitar, then equally simple keyboards join in. The whole thing is entirely affecting and propulsive.

#23: Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion
This is one of those bands whose name perfectly captures their sound. I can't even describe how, but when you listen to them, you'll find yourself thinking, "Yeah, that sounds about right." Lead singer Meg Baird's voice is superb, yearning and emotional, and they just grind out the guitar solos. 

#22: pinkshinyultrablast, Grandfeathered
Ringing, chiming, upbeat and ethereal, this is the kind of music that makes you want to blow bubbles and spin around in a meadow somewhere. Very much in the vein of the Bresnard Lakes with a happier vibe.

#21: Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Just plain superb songwriting that creates deeply intimate and authentic portraits of small time life and drama. One of those albums that people who don't like "country" music should listen to!

#20: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree
Never has the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds formula of dark gothic drama sounded fuller or more coherent. 

#19: Ben Watt, Fever Dream
Striking and dramatic, and sounding nothing like Watt's ‘80s/’90s duo Everything But The Girl. It’s a blend of jazz, folk, and rock anchored by solid songwriting and Watt’s subtly emotive voice.

#18: Alicia Keys, Keys
One of several strong artistic statements from women (particularly African-American women) in 2016, this is an organic, fully realized vision combining hip-hop, funk, uptown soul, and R&B with socially and politically aware lyrics broken up by recorded voices from the recording studio and street.

#17: Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger
He's still pulling a wide range of influences into a coherent and organic sound, anchored in exceptional songwriting.

#16: Agnes Obel, Citizen of Glass
Another fabulous female singer-songwriter from Scandinavia (Denmark in this case), Agnes Obel's music rides a line between classical piano music, jazz and pop with quiet, moody and emotional results.

#15: Preoccupations, Preoccupations
Formerly (and controversially) known as Viet Cong, the newly renamed Preoccupations produce a type of grinding, goth-influenced industrial rock that dances along the line between fear and paranoia.

#14: Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Fantastic, topical and politically charged lyrics (the first line of the whole album is "It all started with the border and that's still where it is today") matched to classic chiming southern rock 'n' roll.

#13: Mitski, Puberty 2
A kind of dark, murky, grungy torch music. I've never seen her live but I can imagine someone standing on a darkened stage not even moving from the mike.

#12: The Tragically HipMan Machine Poem
I read a review of this album in which the reviewer wrote, "Please don't let this be their last album." He didn't mean this as a compliment. I, sort of, understand the sentiment. Having followed the Hip since their origins (as I documented here), I get the desire so many fans have to see another Fully Completely. But every band needs to move forward, and the Hip tried this for years with mixed results. This album, produced by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene fame, moves the Hip's sound forward in a fascinating way, and points to where they might have (and might still) take their music.

#11: Parquet Court, Human Performance
Crunchy, jagged, jangly punk-pop

#10: Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Gusty independent rock in the tradition of Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted

#9: Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes, who records as Blood Orange, has created a masterpiece, a powerful statement about identity - racial and sexual - that appropriately crosses many musical genres: electronica, dance, house, hip hop, funk, soul, R&B, Afro-pop.

#8: Solange, Seat at the Table
A phenomenal artistic statement from the lesser known Knowles sister (the other being Beyoncé, whose albums are just so overproduced, overwritten and generally reek of corporate music that I can't get behind them), a mixture of soul, pop, R&B, gospel, and funk, with interludes of interview segments from her father and mother, and rapper Master P about their experiences.

#7: Fantastic Negrito, The Last Days of Oakland
Xavier Dphrepaulezz (aka Fantastic Negrito) created the best of a very deep pool of socially and politically consciousness albums (Alicia Keys, Solange, Blood Orange) in 2016. At times angry, uplifting, and observational, it pays homage to many threads in African American music, with a particular emphsis on the blues.

#6: Kevin Morby, Singing Saw
The title track is haunting and repetitive, like a Nick Cave song. The album is a haunting combination of Dylanesque vocals and tension-filled backing instrumentation. Songs often feature slow dramatic builds.

#5: Jenny HvalBlood Bitch
A song cycle about vampires, menstruation and moon cycles? Why not? And I can't imagine anyone other than the Norwegian experimental musician Jenny Hval who could pull this off. 

#4: Bon Iver, 22 Million
In which Justin Vernon 1) goes wild with Auto-Tune and in the process demonstrates that it's not necessarily the most evil device invented; 2) walks even farther away from the "heartbroken hippie locked in a cabin all winter" vibe of For Emma, Forever Ago, and yet 3) somehow pulls back toward it with rapturous harmonies and electronic yet very human sounds. 



#3: David Bowie, Blackstar
I read reviews referring to this as a "free jazz" album but that doesn't begin to cover the range of sounds included in this, Bowie's final artistic statement. Electronica, bass and drums, house, jazz - you name it, it's likely here but it sounds completely unified and organic. The distorted jazzy sax holds several tracks together while Bowie sings in his higher register in a murky and distant manner.

#2: Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to Earth
Building on his phenomenal, genre-bending Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the Kentucky native turns blues and soul artist on this outing. Impeccable songwriting, terrific horn arrangements, and a gutsy and compelling voice drive this work. Highlights include a soulful cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom," the opening track, and the propulsive "Call to Arms."

#1:Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
An incredible work of musical art. From the opening crunch of strings on "Burn the Witch" (a highly relevant song in the current political and social climate) to the piano arpeggio and delicate voice of "Daydreaming" and beyond, this piece works like a post-rock symphony with different movements. That it doesn't scream "Take me seriously" like O.K. Computer makes it even more urgent as a work of art.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Best Albums of 2016: #50-26

#1-25 #51-100 Good albums that didn't make the cut
#50: Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks in Whispers
Impeccably written and arranged gospel/soul
#49: Bleached, Welcome the Worms
Imagine The Go-Gos with guts, more punk sensibility and a sense of noise, and you'll get a sense of what this band sounds like. Start with the opening track, "Keep on Keeping' On" for a sample.

#48: Dinosaur Jr., Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
J Mascis and crew still crank out some of the truly grungiest guitar music around. His guitar sound is instantly recognizable as is his reedy off-kilter voice.

#47: Cymbals Eat Guitars, Pretty Years
Cymbals Eat Guitars produces dramatic indie pop that covers a range of sonic territory and styles, pulled together by Joseph D'Agostino's slightly strangled voice and the occasional absolute ripping guitar noise.

#46: DΔWN, Redemption
One of a number of powerful musicial statements from female artists (particularly African-American artists) this year. Heavily electronic R&B with great grooves and terrific songwriting.

#45: Angel Olsen, My Woman
Great Asheville-based singer-songwriter with crunchy hooky country-blues full of yearning and melancholy

#44: Whitney, Light Upon the Lake
Low-key well-crafted '60s-flavored pop and soul anchored in Julien Ehlrich's expressive high-pitched voice and careful instrumentation.

#43: Kishi Bashi, Sonderlust
Sunny, fun upbeat electronic pop with hooks that are impossible to ignore unless you're dead, and even then...

#42: School of Seven Bells, SVIIB
Recorded by Alejandra Deheza using parts recorded by former member Benjamin Curtis (who died in 2013), this is moving tribute, sad and yet uplifting - and proof that electronic music can have heart. Just listen to "Open Your Eyes."

#41: The Thermals, We Disappear
Punky well crafted rock, short and sweet songs with nicely political lyrics

#40: Martha, Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
I'm not surprised this album ended up right next to The Thermals as it's the same kind of high speed, punk-flavored melodic rock.

#39: Savages, Adore Life
A step up from their debut album (which didn't quite make the cut in my 2013 albums list), this is an intense urgent effort, a worthy post-punk offering of chugging basslines and dark guitar.

#38: Sad13, Slugger
This is nothing like the guitar shreadding of Speedy Ortiz (for which Sadie Dupuis, aka Sad13, is known), this is a collection of cheeky synth-pop, including the anti-date rape "Get a Yes" and the extremely rude "Hype."

#37: Kyle Craft, Dolls of Highland
In this year in which David Bowie died, this serves as a kind of tribute album to his '70s glam period. There's even a song called "Berlin" that wouldn't be entirely out of place on Ziggy Stardust.

#36: Margo Price, Midwest Farmer's Daughter
A Nashville-based, Illinois-born singer-songwriter very much in the Emmy Lou Harris/Dolly Parton tradition, Margo Price's songs are positioned clearly in the "he done me wrong" and "I'm hurtin'" school. Fairly traditional country sound without the overblown and overly slick production of mainstream country.

#35: The Mowgli's, Where'd Your Weekend Go?
Tuneful melodic pop-rock, not surprising for a band from that home of bright pop, Los Angeles County.

#34: Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen was a terrific songwriter but his gravelly almost spoken-word voice made it hard to get behind his own albums: he tended to be an artist whose best work was covered by othersy. This, his last album before his death, plays to his limited voice with great success based on soul and R&B flavored backing tracks.

#33: Misty Miller, The Whole Family Is Worried
Misty Miller is like a tighter, slicker Courtney Barnett. This is a great punk-pop album with terrific hooks and the occasional slow moment, highlighted by Miller's yearning, pleading voice.

#32: The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful, Yet So Unaware of It
This group could be called 1985 with its '80s-inspired synth-pop, although the vocal approach and melodies definitely place the album in current times.

#31: Esme Patterson, We Were Wild
A wide-ranging collection of styles that somehow hangs together around her charming voice. The opening track is a kick-ass piece of acoustic rock with a Pretenders feel. "We Were Wild" is a slice of country-rock. There's soul, rock, and R&B ixed in there, too.

#30: John Congleton and the Nighty NiteUntil the Horror Goes
John Congleton is known more for his higly in-demand production skills. He unlooses his quirky voice on this collection of equally quirky songs. Take something like "The White Powerless" which is a fairly straightforward piece of '60s soul that's turned into something quite different and almost threatening with buzzing electronics and treated vocals. And those lyrics: "I love you like a lion loves its food."

#29: Devandra Banhart, Ape In Pink Marble
I've had trouble getting into Devendra Banhart in the past. It just seemed like he was trying too hard to be weird and this didn't always produce the best music. But this balances melodicism with quirky instrumentation and the occasional musical u-turn. Recalls Nick Drake, Laurel Canyon folk, but also includes slinky almost dance numbers like "Fig in Leather."

#28: ANOHNI, Hopelessness
A powerful set of neo-soul, torch songs featuring her incredible voice. The most emotional and moving album of the year. If you don't feel something listening to this, you may need a heart transplant.

#27: Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression
One of three artists on this year's list that also land on my "I can't believe they're still alive" list (the other two being the Chili Peppers and Green Day). This is a surprisingly melodic outing with a kind of David Bowie feel via electronics, distorted bass lines, and industrial rock.

#26: The Julie Ruin, Hit Reset
Quirky and almost amateurish but with enough skill to pull it together into something coherent and quite charming.