My favorite albums of 2017 so far

I’m not 100-percent sure, but I’m fairly certain that I’ve listened to more new music in 2017 than I have in any other year.

My New Year’s resolution was to listen to at least one album I had not heard before per week. I’m cruising along and already past 40 albums, so barring a monumental collapse I should hit my target.

About 90 percent of my first-time listens this year have been new music.

In no particular order, these are the releases from this year that I’ve enjoyed the most.

White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band

Truly, this is good, uh, rock’n’roll music. The second album from Louisville-based power-poppers, White Reaper, is one of the year’s most fun releases so far. It’s unabashed, straight-forward rock influenced by The Ramones, Cheap Trick, Big Star, The Replacements and The Exploding Hearts. There’s genuine guitar heroics, and the hooks are plentiful.

Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples released his second consecutive instant classic LP this year. He continues to rap about depressing realities over severe-sounding beats in a way that’s fun, mostly thanks to gallows humor punchlines and a rapid pace. Not a single song surpasses the five-minute mark and most are shorter than three minutes.

Jay-Z – 4:44

I expected this corporate partnership release to be as uninspired as Magna Carter Holy Grail or Kingdom Come or The Blueprint 3, and was floored to hear an album that can comfortable mingle in the upper echelon of Shawn Carter’s discography. Certainly not better than Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint , but it compares favorably to The Black Album and American Gangster. The No I.D. production sounds amazing. It is warm, slightly opulent and gives the album a cohesion lacking from some of Jay’s lesser works. The tabloid-fodder infidelity confessions are what’s drawn the most coverage, which makes sense because I can’t recall Jay-Z ever sharing this much of his personal life, but equally interesting are Jay-Z’s thoughts on race and black unity, which I don’t recall ever before being quite so explicitly dissected on an album by HOV. Strictly speaking, these aren’t Jay’s best bars. His flow sounds off, and the rhymes aren’t always particularly clever. But, it is some of his most interesting and personal work ever.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn. 

Kendrick Lamar continues his streak of dominating the rap game. His flow continues to be a dense labyrinth of internal rhyme and references, but in a way that’s more approachable than To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is a little less focused than some of Kdot’s other releases (I can’t picture a U2 feature on any of his other albums), but not every album needs to be a Statement.

Ty Segall – Ty Segall

Ty isn’t reinventing the wheel here in any sense. He’s even done a self-titled release before. But this might strike the best balance among the prolific garage-rockers prodigious-but-disparate strengths. There’s straight-ahead rockers, Sid Barrett-esque psyche-pop and a really sweet love song. Unlike some past releases (looking at you Manipulator) this album is a tight collection. This really is a virtuosic display of everything one of rock music’s best working songwriters does right.

(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

This album is equal parts hummable alt-country and industrial freakout. I prefer the warmer, mellow first half of the album. “Bobby”, “Poison Root” and “Proud” are fine, extremely pleasant and slightly weird pop songs with warm twang. That may sound like faint praise, but it’s meant as a rousing endorsement. That basically describes most of my favorite Wilco songs, after all. The string-filled melodies are made all the more remarkable because they share an album with “Brick”, which has more in common with Death Grips than a lot of songs on Rocket.

Charly Bliss – Guppy

Guppy is an entirely transparent attempt to replicate the soaring buzz of ’90s alternative-rock, and it accomplishes that modest goal with aplomb. Lead singer Eva Hendricks sounds downright effervescent, but her high, perky voice fits in with songs that are all forward momentum and chugging guitar. “DQ” is on my shortlist for songs of the year, and one that I’m sure will be in my rotation for years to come.

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

The hyper-literate twee punks I’ve loved for a full decade now have grown into a wonderfully dependable, mature indie rock band. As always, these songs are lyrically captivating. Gareth never stops being Gareth whether that means setting an almost literary scene, capturing a particular brand of malaise, whip-smart punchlines or super-specific sports references. Musically, this album includes some of the most energetic songs LC! has put out since the absolutely transcendent Romance is Boring. There’s also “The Fall of Home” which is just heart-achingly gorgeous. All snark is set aside to explore the sensation of seeing the places we come from crumble after moving on to some place ostensibly better.

Smidley – Smidley

 

 

I’m not a huge fan of Foxing, but Conor Murphy’s side project was unexpectedly winning. Lightly psychedelic indie rock will always be in my wheelhouse. “Hell” is one of the year’s better side one track ones. It sounds both dark and jaunty in a way that recalls The National, has group vocals that make me think of Local Natives (which isn’t something I’ve done often since 2012} and there’s some trumpet that somehow sounds perfectly in place. “No One Likes You” and “Pink Gallo” make good use of Murphy’s unique voice and are very good and just slightly odd. “Milk Shake” is an interesting, bare bones acoustic take that surprises with its vulnerability, but really shouldn’t considering singing in an emo band is Murphy’s main hustle. For me, the standout track is “Fuck This”, and it’s really what pushes Smidley’s eponymous debut onto this list. It’s essentially a perfect instant classic. A springy, midtempo number with a seesaw melody and shouted chorus that features multiple lengthy crescendoing chants of “Fuck this, fuck this” will always, and I mean always, have a spot in my heart.

The Sadies – Northern Passages

The Sadies are absolutely crackerjack musicians, and that shines through on every track on Northern Passages. They sound equally comfortably on the rave up “Another Season Again” and the sleepy, Kurt Vile-assisted “It’s Easy (Like Walking)” and both songs are positively delightful. Not since The Band have Canadians so effectively mined American to thoroughly winning effect. I think this album has largely gone overlooked, and it might be because The Sadies have served as a backing band for the likes of John Doe and Neko Case in the past. If you’ve got a soft spot for countrified rock, you owe it to yourself to listen to this album.

 

Holiday-sized rundown of my favorite albums of 2015

This year saw an incredible slate of releases from a ton of different genres.

So, instead of a typical five or 10 item list, I’m naming an album of the year, and then giving some shine to the glut of great tunes from this year.

My anticlimactic pick for album of the year is:

I Love You, Honeybear by Father John Misty.

I gushed about this album when it came out, and I sung its praises when I did my half-year roundup. Unsurprisingly, I still hold this album in high regards. It’s a collection of excellent ’70s troubadour love songs performed  with a bitingly sarcastic viewpoint. The acerbic observation often turns inward, as Josh Tillman demonstrates he’s not above a world he largely sees as vapid and ridiculous.

 

 

 

Despite all the vitriol and bile evident on songs such as “Ideal Husband” and “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartmet” the album’s hardly bleak, as the title track, gentle closing ballad and super funny “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Cow” underscore the central theme of the album, which is Tillman’s incredulity that a thoroughly modern jackass could find a classically happy love.

On to the other albums I loved this year:

Rose Mountain by Screaming Females

Sore by Dilly Dally

Painted Shut by Hop Along

Feels Like by Bully

Art Angels by Grimes

Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett

Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars by Beach House.

This year was an awesome year for female-fronted rock bands, and that’s without  mentioning  the Waxahatchee album or  the Sleater-Kinney release. I liked both albums, but didn’t particularly love either one.

Also, I know Claire Boucher is sort of a genre-hopping, singer-songwriter-producer, but listen to “Scream” and tell me Deafheaven wouldn’t be proud to have provided the instrumentation for that beat. Therefore, based on that stylistic choice and attitude, I’m lumping her in with the rockers.

I recommend just making one really long Beach House playlist using both their albums from this year, getting real cozy, maybe a little drunk, or maybe just taking some over the counter sleep aids and sitting in the undulating, shimmering swells of this music.

Bully, Screaming Females and Dilly Dally all mined similar ’90s alternative rock veins. If you like Hole, you’ll like Bully. If you like The Pixies’ Kim Deal songs you’ll like Dilly Dally and if you like The Smashing Pumpkins but wish anyone but Billy Corgan was in charge, so you didn’t have to hear his voice and songs would be less meandering, Screaming Females are the platonic ideal. Dilly Dally absolutely have a loud-quiet-loud dynamic going on, and their music tends to move in surprising direction.  Alicia Bognanno’s vocals pretty much ensured every review of Bully’s great album included a comp to Hole,but Hole never released an album quite this even, and Screaming Females branched out to some new sonic territory without abandoning punchy, crunchy guitar noises on a characteristically strong album.

Painted Shut came damn close to getting my album of the year nod. The incredible third album by Hop Along is the simple, jangle rock music I love, and Frances Quinlan’s singing is unlike anything else released this year or really any other year. Painted Shut and Art Angels  remind me of each other because both feature wildly fluctuating points of view, focus and scope presented by gutsy singers using their voices in almost every imaginable way.

Courtney Barnett’s debut album paints detailed scenes with lyrics and rocks in a very straight-forward way that belies the sophistication of Barnett’s insightful, funny songwriting. It’s a great paring and an incredibly confident first LP.

The Agent Intellect by Protomartyr

The Most Lamentable Tragedy by Titus Andronicus

Know America by Obnox

b’lieve i’m going down by Kurt Vile

Teens of Style by Car Seat Headrest

Protomartyr continue to make post-punk music that sounds vital and interesting, which is no easy feat. The Agent Intellect also contains the super personal, super sad “Why Does it Shake?” which derives its name from a real question about tremors caused by aging.

Titus Andronicus swung for the fences with a sprawling double-album and mostly connected. The Most Lamentable Tragedy contained some of the best songs in the band’s oeuvre and some really fascinating takes on what it’s like to battle mental afflictions.

I haven’t seen a ton of love for Obnox’s newest album, but it’s weird blend of hip-hop, blues and scuzzy rock with commentary on race relations made it sort of a lofi To Pimp a Butterfly and a totally captivating listen.

Kurt Vile scaled back from his last effort, but Vile is thoroughly hilarious when pontificates on a largely mundane existence and “Pretty Pimpin'” might be his best single ever.

If you like Julian Casablancas, you’ll love Car seat Headrest, who make a fun brand of garage rock I can’t not endorse.

I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside by Earl Sweatshirt

Mr.Wonderful by Action Bronson

Summertime ’06 by Vince Staples

To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

For me, this was a year that saw a lot of rap releases I liked, but not a ton I loved. Donnie Trumpet was interesting, but really didn’t do much for me. Drake sold a million albums and still, as always, sucked.

Earl Sweatshirt got even darker and more insular, and it really worked. If you want to feel super bleak, look no further than his album from this year.

Action Bronson revealed he apparently listens to more blues and Billy Joel than I would have expected on a super fun, well-made album.

Vince Staples continues to be almost uncomfortably real about his upbringing and proximity to gang violence, but he’s always clever and fairly catchy.

Kendrick Lamar turned out what most people consider to be the album of the year with his politically minded, not particularly commercial release. I actually liked it more than his last album, but I’m still not a huge fan of the re-heated G-funk and Flying Louts aping. Still, the album was pleasantly weird and grappled with some big-picture topics and is definitely worth a spin.

Some albums that just missed the cut: Before the World Was Big by Girlpool, Ratchet by Shamir, Untethered Moon by Built to Spill, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper by Panda Bear, The Things We Do to Find People Like Us by Beach Slang and StarWars by Wilco.

 

 

 

 

My 10 favorite albums of 2014

Happy holidays, I come bearing good tidings. After much soul searching, I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite albums of this year. Of course, this is an entirely subjective process, totally based on my taste. As always, this is not a cheer-ocracy.  In order of excellence, here are the 10 best albums 2014 had to offer.

10. Tacocat- NVM

It’s sort of brazen for a Seattle-area punk band to christen an album with an abbreviation of the phrase never mind, but with songs about teenage drug trips, menstruation and skewering suburban anarchy, Tacocat are kind of a brazen band. Like a slightly more well-known album called Nevermind by a slightly more popular Seattle-based band, NVM is packed with slick, catchy rock music. NVM is such an incredibly fun record, it can feel slight. However, the tunes are great, the songs have a unique perspective and the lyrics are wildly entertaining.

9. Vince Staples- Hell Can Wait

Hell Can Wait is an exceptional Hip-Hop album. It’s an uncompromising look at a life of knowingly doing wrong to survive. The lyrics are angry, socially charged, introspective and occasionally sad. There is even a pinch of broader social commentary on “Hands Up”. Production is crisp and interesting. Unfortunately, Vince Staples released this album the same year a pair of releases(see No.8 and No.2 on this list) used similar premises to greater effect. If you have a soft spot for West Coast gangsta rap, this is still a must listen.

8. Schoolboy Q- Oxymoron

This is another California gangsta rap album that displays complete awareness of its deplorable moral vacuum. However, Schoolboy Q has a magnetic charisma and sense of humor that make the bleakness of his subject matter both more palatable and more interesting. This is a rapper who has single handedly revived the bucket hatOxymoron is Q’s major label debut, and “Collard Greens” is the best possible result a studio mandate for a Schoolboy Q hit single could possibly have. Deep self-examinations of what it means to be an opiate-addict, drug-pushing gangsta and a dad mingle with oddball dance tracks, and despite some bloat, it totally works.

7 and 6.(tie) White Lung- Deep Fantasy and Perfect Pussy- Say Yes to Love

If you have a taste for noise rock made by angry women and can stomach some absolutely acrid lyrics, 2014 was a great year. It’s hard for me to talk about Deep Fantasy or Say Yest to Love without referencing each other. Perfect Pussy’s album features more fuzz and screeching, while White Lung’s album is more in-focus and aggressive, but these are two sides of the same exhilarating rock coin.

6. Protomartyr- Under Color of Official Light

Protomartyr’s sophomore effort, Under Color of Official Light is an amazing, offbeat piece of art. The album is the exact sonic intersection of KYUSS and Joy Division. Heavy, murky guitar riffs with post-punk drum beats and angular, brooding vocals. Somehow sludgy and energetic, it’s one of the year’s most original releases and definitely worth a few spins.

5. Cloud Nothings- Here and Nowhere Else

Cloud Nothings found the perfect balance between Attack on Memory‘s raw aggression and the bubblegum hooks of Dylan Baldi’s earlier work. These are hummable melodies created by a full-fledged rock band absolutely pummeling their instruments. In modern rock music, there are few things capable of eliciting as much involuntary body movement as the spastic head nods caused by the moment on any given track on Here and Nowhere Else when Baldi and Co. decide to kick things into the next gear.

4. St. Vincent- St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s eponymous release is a perfect encapsulation of everything Annie Clark does extraordinarily well. There’s angular robo-rock, spacey dance tunes, oddball lyrics and, of course, exquisite guitar work. If there is room in your heart for interesting art-rock, you’ll love this album.

3. Ex Hex – Rips

This is a power pop album ripped straight from ’70s AM radio in the best possible way. Everything slightly derivative, but it’s impossible to listen to without a dumb grin plastered across my face. At any given moment, Rips is never more than 20 seconds from the next near-perfect guitar lick. Everything is driving, catchy and instantly familiar in a wonderful, comfrotable way. Because it already sounds classic, Rips is probably this year’s most re-listenable album, and the fantastic, catchy melodies make those repeat listens downright compulsive.

2. Run the Jewels- Run the Jewels 2

RTJ2 is maybe the most intense release of the year. It tackles large social concerns–race relations, police brutality, poverty, etc– while also hurling some of the most colorful, hilarious insults of the year toward anyone, usually deemed a “fuck boy” who dares to oppose Killer Mike and El-P. The chemistry between Mike and Jaime is jaw-dropping as the two MC’s fluidly drop tag-team rhymes. Once again, El-P’s production is spot on, and the beats sound like no one else in rap music. This album is positively visceral. Run the Jewels made the perfect soundtrack for an often tumultuous year and committed fully to filling the airwaves with their own angry truth.

1. Strand of Oaks- Heal

From the opening moments of “Goshen ’97” I strongly suspected Heal would be my favorite album of the year, and I was 100 percent correct. It’s a snapshot of a man’s head space as he moves past addiction, isolation and marital issues. It explores a variety of a sonic terrain ranging from ’90s alt-rock radio to shimmering synthesizer rock to piano balladry. The common through lines are giant choruses and an unapologetic love for musics. References to artists, media formats and respected musicians dot the entirety of Heal, and the album’s first five songs form an incredibly satisfying emotional arc. It combines the “beer commerfcial” guitar of a War on Drugs album with the weightier meditations of Sun Kil Moon in a year, when it was decided those two qualities were dichotomous. Heal is a deeply personal statement made in the most broadly appealing way, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Honorable mentions(in no particular order): War on Drugs- Lost in the Dream; Sun Kil Moon- Benji; Sturgill Simpson- Metamodern Sounds in Country Music; D’Angelo-Black Messiah; First Aid Kit-Stay Gold; Perfume Genius-Too Bright; and Jenny Lewis-The Voyager