List: The 25 Best Albums of 2017

best

Woof.

There’s certainly no need to get into how devastating and horrifying a year 2017 was. But no matter how much darkness enveloped us, the world of music was able to offer us at least a bit of solace in the form of powerful, affecting art from scores of ingenious artists. In a time when deviation from the norm seemed to be punished more harshly than ever before, the microcosm of indie rock was for once dominated by women, musicians of color and LGBTQ+ folk – from Vagabon and Girlpool to Jay Som and Julien Baker – yielding truly extraordinary music that broke down barriers and gave voice to the voiceless. Feminist anthems like Cardi B’s ferocious “Bodak Yellow” and Kesha’s rip-roaring “Woman” hit the airwaves just in time for the great reckoning of the #MeToo movement. We lost a host of luminaries, but were in turn greeted by throngs of new talent – as well as the welcome return of a few old friends (Fleet Foxes, Slowdive, and Grizzly Bear, just to name a few.)

What follows is an assortment of records that had the strongest impact on me over the past year. Albums that stunned me with their lyricism, their beauty, their complexity, their bravery. Albums that made my unending obsession with music in all its forms feel worthwhile. It’s hard to say what will be in store for us in 2018, but here’s hoping that, as we continue to fight the good fight, we’ll also continue to believe in great art – and in its power to unite us and reaffirm our humanity.

 

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25

Cigarettes After Sex

Cigarettes After Sex

Partisan

There’s an uncanny, Lynchian quality to the airy, sensual dream-pop of Cigarettes After Sex. Their full-length debut finds the group perfecting the layered slowcore/shoegaze-influenced sound they’ve been developing since its inception a decade ago. Greg Gonzalez sings in an aching, lovestruck half-whisper as he and his bandmates use jangly, echo-laden guitars and gentle drum beats to craft music that recalls Heaven or Las Vegas-era Cocteau Twins, constantly maintaining its intimacy yet managing to soar to breathtaking heights. Ten years, of course, provides time for plenty of living, and Gonzalez’s growth as a songwriter is evident. His lyrics comprise a series of quietly mesmerizing confessional tales of 21st-century love, packed with noir melodrama and self-deprecating humor. Calling an unfaithful ex “the patron saint of sucking cock” would sound unwieldy in almost any context, but when Gonzalez does so in “Young and Dumb,” it’s a wry comment on the fluid, no-strings-attached nature of the modern relationship. “Truly,” he croons on “Truly,” “know that you really don’t need/To be in love to make love to me.” Equal parts swooningly romantic and effortlessly hip, Cigarettes After Sex is a masterful exercise in passionate restraint.

 

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24

Tinariwen

Elwan

Epitaph / Anti-

The Malian outfit, now nearing its fortieth year of existence, presents on Elwan some of their angriest, most electric music yet. Jagged Saharan blues riffs slither hypnotically over rattling, argumentative percussion and throngs of backing vocalists as co-founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s weary, trance-like voice laments the political and social unrest he has witnessed firsthand. “Love these days is like a mirage,” he intones on “Arhegh ad annàgh.” “It gets fainter the closer you get.” The lyrics are mournful and the music often caustic, but it never ceases to be a thing of profound power and beauty to hear these many seemingly disparate elements – which here also include contributions from Western musicians like Alain Johannes, Mark Lanegan and Kurt Vile – join together in an immaculately arranged tapestry of sound. It’s appropriate considering the band’s beginnings as a collective of grassroots rebels, joining together in the hopes that one day the peoples of the world might live in peace.

 

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23

Guided by Voices

August by Cake

Rockathon

August by Cake isn’t just Guided by Voices’ best album since Robert Pollard resuscitated the project (for the first time) in 2010 – it ranks up there with some of the best they’ve done, period. After plodding along in complacency for a near half-decade and cranking out a slew of competent but ultimately lacking records, Pollard and co. sound utterly replenished on this sprawling, 32-track set – like they’ve rediscovered the energy, joy and eccentricity that fueled mid-90’s masterworks like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. They leap gleefully from the brassy, Arthur Brown-esque power-pop of “5º on the Inside” to the stoner-metal mutation of “Packing the Dead Zone,” from the raucous, doom-ridden schoolteacher narrative “Substitute 11” to the tense serenity of “Sentimental Wars.” Pollard proves that his acerbic wit and idiosyncratic sense of humor haven’t entirely dulled after 30+ years and 100 LPs, and his bandmates (which this time around include Bobby Bare, Jr. and Nada Surf’s Doug Gillard) adeptly demonstrate their own songwriting chops. Whether the glorious momentum the band has established here will endure over the next 100 inevitable releases remains to be seen, but for now – goddamn.

 

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22

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Rest

Because

There are those that would relegate Charlotte Gainsbourg as an artist to a place in the shadow of dad Serge, and to them I say, casse-toi. With the darkly sumptuous Rest, her first album in six years, the multi-hyphenate permanently cements her own artistic vitality and depth of vision. Producer SebastiAn (with help from Danger Mouse, Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and orchestral dynamo Owen Pallett, among others) constructs delectable, scintillating walls of ominous chamber pop and foreboding disco that engulf (but by no means inhibit) Gainsbourg’s lyrics and breathy, dramatic vocals. Every second on Rest is flooded with apocalyptic drama as Gainsbourg examines the deaths of two family members (her old man and half-sister Kate Barry) and muses on the horrors of addiction. She recalls curling up next to Serge’s corpse as a teen on “Lying with You” (“Where did my kiss go when the coffin shut?/I always hear the beating of nails/You lost, I’m distraught”) and attempts to revive the spirit of “Kate” via song; “Deadly Valentine” is a skewered set of wedding vows, while “Sylvia Says” channels Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” to spellbinding effect. Gainsbourg’s welcome return to music is a thing of terrifying power; rarely has an album about death been so angry, so cool – and so effective. À votre santé, Charlotte.

 

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21

Iron and Wine

Beast Epic

Sub Pop

Sam Beam’s sixth album as Iron and Wine eschews the jazz-pop trappings of 2013’s Ghost on Ghost for something of a return to form, compiling a dozen lovely, gentle little folk tunes that strike a middle ground between the starkness of Our Endless Numbered Days and the lush orchestration of The Shepherd’s Dog. His arrangements are ramshackle yet airtight, with divergent fiddle and keyboard and guitar and drum lines joining together smoothly as one in that magical way only Beam can make possible. Right out of the gate, we’re greeted by his whispery voice, like the welcome call of a long-lost friend, as he uses his distinctive lyricism to spin yarns inspired by his own fascination with the passage of time—and all the beauty and pain it squeezes into the brief span of our lives. As he advises on the downright enchanting “Call It Dreaming,” we face plenty of hardships during our time on Earth, but we’re all still together at the end of the day—and if we seek to make the most of life, we need only take the good with the bad and chalk it up to experience (the essence of life itself). Clocking in at just under 36 minutes, Beast Epic is bittersweet, almost frustrating in its brevity—we’ve no choice but to listen close and hold on to whatever bits of luscious melody and lyric we can. Doing so, over and over, we ultimately realize that the “beast” Beam speaks of is us – this is our story, our epic.

 

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20

Sampha

Process

Young Turks

London’s Sampha Sisay made a name for himself with the soul-baring bedroom recordings that rightfully caught the attention of high-profile collaborators like SBTRKT, Drake and Solange. His debut full-length pairs the DIY star with producer Rodaidh McDonald (The xx), who helps Sisay sharpen and expand his otherworldly R&B sound. Process unleashes an enrapturing array of post-dubstep-meets-trip-hop beats, all held together by Sampha’s rich, mellifluous tenor. Each track presents an intense, vibrant snapshot of the singer-songwriter’s life – his memories of early childhood on “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”; his struggles with anxiety on the frigid “Blood on Me” (“They said there’s somethin’ bleedin’ in me/Somethin’ screamin’ in me/Somethin’ buried deep beneath…”); his regrets at a love that never came to fruition on “Incomplete Kisses.” This masterful, self-assured debut garnered Sampha a well-deserved Mercury Prize this year – just another reason to watch his star continue to rise.

 

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19

SZA

Ctrl

Top Dawg / RCA

It’s been a fantastic year for SZA. In addition to her SNL performance and Best New Artist Grammy nomination, she earned exposure to her widest audience yet by elevating Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do” from dippy Top 40 detritus to among the most charming, kicky pop tunes of 2017. Still, Solana Rowe’s crowning achievement of the past 12 months likely remains her brilliant, brash studio debut Ctrl. The sultry TDE songstress seamlessly blends indie rock, neo-soul and trap into a sublime sonic confection with her hypnotic rasp as the central instrument. She tackles with ruthless confidence the highs and lows of romantic life for a “20 Something” black woman (“…all alone still, not a thing in my name…runnin’ from love…hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends…”) She snaps back at her unfaithful exes on “Supermodel” and “Love Galore” and uses “Drew Barrymore” to pick apart unrealistic beauty standards and the vast insecurities they create (“I’m sorry I’m not more attractive/I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike/I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night/I’m sorry I’m not your baby mama”). In “Doves in the Wind,” she and Kendrick Lamar present us with what’s easily the loveliest, most comprehensive paean to the vagina ever written, and “Broken Clocks” highlights the delicate balance between her love and work lives. SZA’s message couldn’t be clearer or more eloquently stated: our heroine is deeply unsure of herself at this juncture of life – and yet she keeps on moving forward, driven by the hope that things will eventually make sense. Ctrl‘s stirring, heartbreaking, genre-bending anthems are essential listening for the young, lost and in love – and for all who are familiar with their struggle.

 

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18

Julie Byrne

Not Even Happiness

Ba Da Bing! / Basin Rock

“Ambient folk” is a rather trendy and obnoxious-sounding descriptor, but there’s really no other way to describe Julie Byrne’s lovely, lilting arrangements. The Buffalo, NY native blends the understated style of Nick Drake and early Joni Mitchell with the aesthetic of Brian Eno’s pioneering ’70s work, channeling both into an inimitable universe of her own design. On Not Even Happiness, we hear little else other than quiet (but dexterous) guitar, bits of wispy synthesizer and Byrne’s ethereal voice – the voice of a peaceful yet restless wanderer, seeking meaning and permanence in her fleeting life and finding it through her connection with nature and with those she loves. Hers is an earthy, gorgeous world of immaculate serenity, a powerful refuge from the solid walls of noise that wedge their way into our brains daily and vie for our attention. Once you’ve settled into that world, the look of beatific bliss spread across Byrne’s face on the album cover may very well be your own.

 

17

17

The Mountain Goats

Goths

Merge

The case for John Darnielle as the finest musical raconteur of his generation is a strong one: His characters are vibrant and vividly realized, and each of his records reads less like an album than like a collection of short stories. What makes his songwriting truly unique, however, is his unparalleled knack for drawing lyrical beauty from the seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life. For the magnificent Goths – his sixteenth studio effort and his first entirely sans guitars – Darnielle draws inspiration from his youth, growing up listening to Siouxsee and the Banshees and the Cure on KROQ-FM and seeking out the company of society’s loners and outcasts. While the songs themselves are far more indie-folk than Gothic, his lyrics evoke masterfully the pain, angst, and melancholia of goth culture’s adherents – and the ever-present specter of death that fuels their black fire. From the doomy opener “Rain in Soho” to the heart-rending ballad “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” (that’s the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy, kids) to “Abandoned Flesh” (an elegy for the long-forgotten Gene Loves Jezebel), Darnielle lets his narratives-within-a-narrative flow beautifully, his crackling, energetic vocals giving voice to the voiceless masses. Goths is an album about death, about life, and about the triumphs and tragedies in between – all told with an inimitable grace that could only come from a mind as introspective and brilliant as Darnielle’s.

 

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16

Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

Interscope / Top Dawg

DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album in six years, opens with an understated spoken word bit from the Compton native atop soft, funky orchestration – sounds that would fit quite comfortably on his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Immediately after, we get an abrupt shift into the barebones riot act of “DNA.,” setting the pace for much of the album’s remainder and letting us know we’re in for an entirely different listening experience altogether. Skeletal, pseudo-trap beats buzz and snap in the background as Lamar – still easily the most gifted MC working today – unleashes some of the most direct, unadorned flows of his career on boldface-titled bangers like “HUMBLE.,” “FEAR.,” and “LOYALTY.” His unmistakable voice shifts effortlessly between lethargic, understated drone and frantic near-scream as he philosophizes upon the experience of black America in 2017 and ponders his own place within its grand scheme. As with life itself, it’s tough to draw any definite conclusions from this colorful, jagged record at the outset, but piecing the puzzle together over subsequent listens (tracklist reversed and otherwise) is what makes the experience so exhilarating. Life, as our man Mr. Duckworth puts it on the track that bears his real surname, is truly “one funny motherfucker.”

 

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15

Various artists

Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)

Twin Peaks (Limited Event Series Original Soundtrack)

Rhino

It’s only fitting that the best film of the year would have the best film soundtrack of the year. This is doubly true considering the vital role of music throughout David Lynch’s oeuvre – not least of all Twin Peaks. The long-awaited third season of Lynch’s groundbreaking soap-noir drama saw the writer-director unspooling some of his most feverish avant-garde nightmares to date for the small screen as the show transcended cinema and television to become an epic treatise on life, death, the afterlife, good, evil, and how maybe Jim Belushi isn’t such a hack after all. But as free-floating and frenetic as The Return often seemed, Lynch leaves nothing to chance in terms of sound design; every note we hear is crucial to the communication of his vision, and each of the dual soundtracks works surprisingly well as a cohesive unit. Lynch expertly books the Twin Peaks roadhouse with an array of artists both new and familiar who update the local aesthetic for a new generation, from the cinematic synthpop of Chromatics and Au Revoir Simone to the ethereal folk of Lissie, Sharon Van Etten and the Cactus Blossoms. Caustic cuts from the Veils and Nine Inch Nails sit comfortably alongside doo-wop staples as sung by the Paris Sisters and the Platters, and Lynch even makes some space for original-series muses Julee Cruise and James “James” Marshall. For the original score, Lynch reunites with his old partner in melancholic crime Angelo Badalamenti (along with engineer Dean Hurley and Chromatics’ Johnny Jewel), concocting newer, darker strains of the mutated ambient jazz that populated the original series and revisiting classic nuggets like the goofy, menacing “Audrey’s Dance.” Throw in Krzysztof Penderecki’s scathing “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” as accompaniment for nuclear Armageddon, and you’re left with a listening experience that’s as glorious and disorienting a mind-fuck as the cult phenomenon that spawned it.

 

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14

Goldie

The Journey Man

Metalheadz

Over two decades removed from his 1995 masterpiece Timeless, the U.K. drum and bass hero (and recent card-carrying member of the OBE) proves with The Journey Man – his first proper record in ten years – that he hasn’t forsaken an ounce of his ingenuity or ambition since then. Goldie’s airtight, extravagantly orchestrated soundscapes remain incredibly, interdimensionally hip, and while the lightning-fast breakbeats, jazzy vocals and trancelike synths and strings that dominated Timeless still abound, his vision feels even more cohesive, and he’s rarely sounded like he’s having as much fun as he does here. Play this record at a rave or a meditation session and it won’t sound out of place. One of the most unexpected triumphs of the year, the 105-minute epic is, indeed, a Journey, but one that’s entirely worth taking.

 

13

13

Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors

Domino

Dirty Projectors is the kind of post-breakup album only Dave Longstreth could create. He splatters his canvas with brooding, glitchy soultronica, utterly deformed samples and spastic, warped vocal harmonies to mirror the alienated frenzy hopping around his brain. He experiments with the R&B side of his signature yelp on tracks like the slippery, chaotic “Death Spiral” and the devastatingly blunt “Winner Take Nothing,” while frothy, slow-burning opener “Keep Your Name” renders his voice all but unrecognizable as he ruminates on love’s labors lost (“I don’t know why you abandoned me/You were my soul and my partner”). His arrangements bluster and jolt in myriad unexpected directions, making for a delightfully strange and disorienting listening experience. It’s far and away the darkest release under the DP name, but at the same time Longstreth manages to let some glimmers of hope creep in, no matter how manic and twisted things get. He’s clearly having a rough time, but he’ll be okay as long as he keeps following the light.

 

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12

Homeshake

Fresh Air

Royal Mountain / Sinderlyn

“Kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high”: This is the mantra that informs the woozily funky lo-fi R&B of Peter Sagar. On Fresh Air, his third LP as Homeshake, the veteran Mac DeMarco sideman crafts a succession of enticingly slick, lethargic dreamscapes as the backdrop for his subtle explorations of the fleeting highs and lingering lows of modern love. Armed with whispery, wobbly guitars; buzzing, thumping bass; and a voice that expertly treads the line between soulful release and quiet restraint (and between earnestness and kitschy throwback), he unspools scintillating melodies one after the other. Some of the album’s best moments come along in its middle stretch, when Sagar shifts into complete D’Angelo-esque soul-workout mode on tracks like “TV Volume” and “Getting Down Pt. II.” Fresh Air is an endearing and often lovely little work that provides an ideal soundtrack for – well, just read the first sentence again.

 

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11

Blanck Mass

World Eater

Sacred Bones

Benjamin John Power, one-half of UK noise-psychtronica weirdos Fuck Buttons, explores the darker side of his idiosyncratic oeuvre under the Blanck Mass moniker. With World Eater, Power presents us with a soundtrack for the hippest, most abjectly terrifying post-apocalyptic horror flick never made—as well as a grim commentary on our own tempestuous times. Opener “John Doe’s Carnival of Error,” with its faintly menacing yet soothing organ grind, serves as the disarming calm before the hellfire descends. “Rhesus Negative” is a Depeche Mode instrumental on a bad acid trip, all twinkly synths and paranoia; the percussive noises on “Please” and “The Rat” ape murderous factory equipment and clattering silverware. The seven tracks rumble, screech and claw at the barren ground, sprawling every which way but never meandering—darkly beautiful and strangely melodic. Power amps up the psychotic spectacle with his impressive use of the human voice, injecting his scorched-earth visions with chaotically spliced vocal samples and howling choirs of damned souls. It’s progressive techno at its most adventurous and thrillingly theatrical—rife with the sort of all-consuming darkness that can only precede the light of a better tomorrow.

 

10

10

The Magnetic Fields

50 Song Memoir

Nonesuch

Just because Stephin Merritt has passed the half-century mark doesn’t mean he’s stopped approaching his music like a gleeful, twinkly-eyed kid. His Tin Pan Alley-by-way-of-Kraftwerk-meets-Jonathan Richman songwriting continues to sharpen with age, and 50 Song Memoir serves to remind us that he’s both a gifted raconteur and a masterful arranger. Never one to back down from an ambitious creative writing exercise (see 69 Love Songs), Merritt chronicles the first five decades of his life over the course of 150 minutes and fifty tracks (labeled by year for your convenience).  In his unmistakable baritone, he regales us with erudite tales of his first fumbling forays into the worlds of religion (which he ultimately rejects outright, much to his Ethics prof’s chagrin), love (which he’s not so great at), and music (from the terrible bands he formed as a youngster to the first inklings of a career in electronica), stopping here and there to deliver withering jabs at his flighty beatnik mom’s good-for-nothing boyfriends. He and his bandmates descend upon a bevy of instruments ranging from fairground organ to ukulele to autoharp to any number of magnificently orchestrated synthesizer flourishes. It’s quirky to a fault, to be sure – but what’s always made the Magnetic Fields truly great is that beneath all the wry witticisms and idiosyncratic deadpannery, there’s always an unflappable sincerity – and it comes through strongest on Memoir when Merritt talks of the death of his friend Elliott Smith (“’07 In the Snow-White Cottages”) or his bouts of melancholia and suicidal thoughts (most of the album, really, but especially “’97 Eurodisco Trio”). Even “’15 Somebody’s Fetish,” ostensibly a cheeky ode to sexual kinks, eventually transforms into a touching meditation on finding a love of one’s own. It all amounts to an extraordinary celebration of the grand tragicomedy of life itself – and a wondrous, wacky, lovable glimpse into the mind and soul of one of the world’s greatest living tunesmiths.

 

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9

Jansport J

p h a r a o h

blackwhitegoldville

Every single review I’ve read of Jansport J’s freewheeling, vibrant mini-hip-hopera (my own included) has drawn connections between him and another, more legendary J. These comparisons, of course, are not without merit, as Justin Williams’ work certainly owes plenty to the seminal Donuts. But let’s look past all that for a minute and consider the remarkable ingenuity and singular vision it takes to make a record like p h a r a o h. J’s funky, heartfelt and surprisingly fluid collection of song nuggets redefines the concept of the instrumental hip-hop album itself and explores the cratedigging genre’s potential for storytelling – in this case, our story takes the form of a ride on the L-train through NYC, an opportunity to breathe in the life and personality of the city. Old school boom-bap rides comfortably alongside psychedelic keys and analog synths, with an abundance of soul samples and vocal harmonies scattered throughout. J’s dynamic use of the human voice on tracks like “Peace, Pt. I” and “12” make p h a r a o h the warmest, most organic aural experience of its kind we’ve heard in a while. Just sit back, press play, and let it take you away.

8

8

Father John Misty

Pure Comedy

Sub Pop

Josh Tillman has become something of a punching bag among the music journalism community, with the critiques running the gamut from “his facial hair looks dumb” to “he’s an arrogant, smug, self-indulgent jackass-troll who embodies everything despicable about white hipster culture.” What people seem to forget in their discussions of Tillman, however, is the music. The public’s varied opinions of the man himself don’t change the fact that he’s one of the greatest and most imaginative songwriters of this infant century. The expansive, ambitious Pure Comedy could be used as fuel for either side of the Father John Misty debate, but still, it’s a damn fine record. Enlisting the aid of legendary orchestral arranger Gavin Bryars, Misty channels the majestic strings, soulful piano melodies and prickled wit of Randy Newman and early Elton John in a series of scathing critiques on technology (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution”), liberal self-righteousness (“Ballad of the Dying Man”), and even the elite group of “L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/That sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant” of which he counts himself a member (the 13-minute centerpiece “Leaving L.A”). Tillman’s attempts to cement his status as a social satirist for the millennial age vary in their success (the rather troubling “both sides” rhetoric of “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” could double as a mission statement for centrist Democrats), but when the record fails, it does so nobly enough that it’s hard not to fall in love with it anyway. At its best, Pure Comedy is a sweeping, gorgeous and deeply affecting look at the absurd state of modern humanity, as well as a call for positive change. As Tillman croons at the end of the title track: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”

 

7

7

Björk

Utopia

One Little Indian

Björk is in love, and she doesn’t care who knows it. After 2015’s cataclysmic post-breakup scorcher Vulnicura, the shapeshifting Icelandic icon exhibits a complete sea change, gazing doe-eyed upon a lush, shimmering Utopia brimming with chirping birds, cosmic harps and endless romantic possibilities. Reteaming with Venezuelan producer Arca and enlisting the aid of a 13-piece flute ensemble, she unfurls intoxicating, warbling incantations over beds of shivery folktronica. It all begins with the euphoric “Arisen My Senses,” wherein the simplest show of affection – a kiss – provides the impetus for Björk’s sensual and sexual reawakening. Though she’s certainly never shied from portraying sexuality in her work, Utopia is all strap-on dicks and heart-shaped vulvae, all orgasmic bliss. By extension, it’s one of her most organic, human-sounding records – she manages to unearth the deep beauty in “two music nerds” texting and sending each other MP3s (“falling in love to a song”) on “Blissing Me,” and over the 10-minute span of the bestial nature walk “Body Memory,” she finds healing from past wounds via self-reliance (with the help of a rapturous threescore-strong choir). After the pitch-black catharsis of her previous record, Ms. Guðmundsdóttir is finally ready to live again, and both she and we are made all the better for it.

 

6

6

LCD Soundsystem

american dream

DFA / Columbia

Plenty of musicians released records this year that reflected the anxiety and anger permeating Trump’s America, but few did so with as much nightmarish, devastating clout as James Murphy on the viciously bold american dream. A reunion record in name only, dream makes it feel like Murphy’s enclave of nervous indie punks never left. It’s a recklessly catchy art-dance vision of a dystopian future that may not be so far away – a glimpse into Murphy’s personal anxieties as well as the public’s. Now pushing 50, Murphy ruminates on his inevitable midlife crisis and the cruel hands of time (“I’m just not dangerous now/The way I used to be once/I’m just too old for it now/At least that seems to be true”). And yet, LCD sound more ferocious and vital than ever, drawing from the giants of New Wave for songs as danceable as they are haunting (see the rattling, discordant Talking Head-trip “other voices” and the glitzy slow-dance waltz of the title track.) Murphy’s clarion calls on “i used to” hearken back to a time when Bono actually gave a shit, and the robotic “tonite” and the Springsteenian sheen of “call the police” stand among the most electrifying, moving performances of his career. The ghosts of the prior year’s departed loom large over the record, from Suicide’s Alan Vega on the shimmering “oh baby” to the ominously droning 12-minute Bowie tribute “black screen”; their influence only adds to the feel of heavy sobriety throughout. dream vibrantly paints a tense present and an uncertain future for both the band and the country they live in – but, as yet another giant we lost in 2016 might have put it, if we’re all going to die, we might as well just dance our lives away.

 

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5

St. Vincent

MASSEDUCTION

Loma Vista

A decade in, Annie Clark remains, from a vocal and lyrical standpoint, one of the most unique and fascinating voices in modern rock, and record no. 5 MASSEDUCTION is the most fearless, vicious and fully-realized manifestation of her twisted art-pop vision to date. Here Clark, working with a Holy Trinity of sought-after producers, takes everything great about her first four studio efforts and cranks it up to 11, resulting in a sequence towering synth-glam hymns that are both immaculately polished and miraculously avant-garde. The robotic chorus of the title track – “I can’t turn off what turns me on” – doubles as a statement of purpose, the artist herself having described its motif as “dominatrix at the mental institution.” Frenetic, unbelievably catchy cuts like Hollywood excess ode “Los Ageless” and the Sounwave-aided “Pills” – which sounds not unlike a dystopian commercial jingle – explore the many things in our absurd, overwrought world that get us off, with exquisite punctuation from Clark’s glorious voice and face-obliterating guitar shreds. But it’s not all New Wave paranoia – stripped-back ballads such as the mournful, pedal-steel driven “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and the glorious “New York” provide a new depth of meaning to her unflinchingly honest and often hilarious lyrics. Simply put, there are very few artists firing on all cylinders like St. Vincent, who has, with MASSEDUCTION, rightly earned her place among the true pop visionaries of our time.

 

4

4

Future Islands

The Far Field

4AD

The sublime theatricality of Baltimore’s Future Islands just keeps getting better with each record. The Far Field isn’t exactly a major shake-up of their signature New Wave-influenced sound, but what is different here is the trio’s ability to dig deep into the heart of their music, exuding levels of emotion and wide-eyed expression never thought possible. With help from the deft hand of producer John Congleton, the band delivers burst after burst of rapturous, euphoric sound. Sam Herring’s voice remains one of the most unique and inimitable in modern rock, and here he leaves no atom of himself unexposed, passionately bellowing about his hopes, his insecurities, his longing for connection with nature and with his fellow human beings. Bassist William Cashion and synth wizard Garrit Welmers, meanwhile, busily construct a lushly-orchestrated backdrop that intensifies and solidifies the drama of Herring’s vivid vocal performances. Like Singles before it, The Far Field is an instant classic – a collection of perfectly-executed, emphatically realized songs from three musicians with a distinctive passion not only for their craft, but for the human experience itself.

 

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3

Fleet Foxes

Crack-Up

Nonesuch

Whenever an artist returns from an extended hiatus, fans’ expectations for new music from that artist can be impossibly high. When that artist is Robin Pecknold, who crafted a pair of landmark, generation-defining indie rock records with his band Fleet Foxes before his embarkment to Columbia University, those expectations are damn-near stratospheric. Luckily, Pecknold is nothing if not a forward thinker; he took his downtime seriously and eventually rejoined the fold of the Seattle folk outfit with the life experience and introspection needed to create the most complex, daring, and reflective Fleet Foxes record to date. Crack-Up quite literally picks up where Helplessness Blues left off, with lethargic guitar and voice giving way to a sweeping panorama of sound. The album revels in what originally made the group great – the rumbling percussion, the Laurel Canyon-echo harmonies, the wildly varied instrumentation, the masterfully-navigated dynamic shifts – while also signifying a giant musical step forward. The band draws from African and Middle Eastern music to craft a familiar yet entirely new sound, abounding with reedy brass and woodwinds, thunderous piano, lively strings, flickering electronic programming, and rapid time-signature changes. The tracks sprawl and ramble, mirroring their bi-coastal creation (including, among other locations, the legendary Electric Lady Studios). Lyrically, Pecknold reflects in his own poetic, erudite way upon the turbulent climates within his country and personal life. “Cassius, Naiads, Cassadies” reflects on the cruelties of a white patriarchal society towards its “others,” from the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (“Life makes short work of all I see…Red and blue, the useless sirens scream”) to the daily terrorizing of women (“Who turned you so against you?”) On the pastoral “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” Pecknold urges us to stick together as we continue to face our uncertain future. The record’s centerpiece, the gorgeous, anthemic “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” examines the frontman’s strained relationship with bandmate Skye Skjelset and transforms into a meditation upon humanity and its shared experiences (“I am only owed this shape if I make a line to hold”). Crack-Up is beautiful and monstrous, harrowing and soothing, reckless and riveting—a monument to fearlessness in art and life. So, yeah—it lives up to the hype.

 

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Kamasi Washington

Harmony of Difference (EP)

Young Turks

The supernaturally gifted saxophonist-composer blew no shortage of minds two years ago with his sprawling solo debut The Epic. His follow-up EP is considerably shorter than its three-hour, 17-track predecessor, but Washington, virtuoso that he is, successfully packs the very same level of intensely jubilant cosmic rapture into its half-hour runtime. Playing alongside some of the brightest talents in the modern jazz stratosphere – Tony Austin on drums, Brandon Coleman on keyboard, Miles Mosely and Steven “Thundercat” Bruner on bass, et al. – Washington uses a disarmingly simple phrase-variation formula to explore seemingly every facet of human experience (“Desire, “Humility,” “Integrity,” etc.), visiting and revisiting similar melodies in radically different ways throughout six contiguous movements. The musicians are proud to share the same spotlight, and it’s truly beautiful to hear them assemble their fantastical sonic worlds together. This generous creative give-and-take is most evident on the 13-and-a-half-minute centerpiece “Truth,” which opens with a light rhythm section riff and steadily adds layer upon layer until reaching a glorious climax complete with string quartet, choir, and volcanic drum fills. Its complexity will impress jazz purists, and yet the music is so accessible – indeed, so human – that even total novices can catch the drift. Intoxicating and perfect in just about every way, Harmony makes a superb argument for Washington’s placement among jazz royalty – especially for those without three hours to spare.

 

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Tyler, the Creator

Flower Boy

Columbia

With Flower Boy, the Odd Future mastermind and one-time clown prince of alternative hip-hop is finally making the music we always knew he could make. The Stevie Wonder/Marvin Gaye-inspired neo-soul he toyed with on 2015’s Cherry Bomb comes to full, magnificent fruition as lushly orchestrated backdrops and a who’s-who of inspired collaborators buttress some of the most personal, introspective bars the 26-year-old has ever unleashed. (Of course, he hasn’t abandoned his horrorcore roots completely; he and A$AP Rocky go full mad-scientist on the raucous, braggadocio-stuffed jaunt “Who Dat Boy.”) We find him ruminating on his success and his place in the musical pantheon (“How many raps can I write until I get me a chain/How many chains can I wear ‘til I’m considered a slave?”), as well as his own anxiety and depression, doubt and isolation (most effectively on the devastating single “911 / Mr. Lonely”). Yet for all its bleakness, much of the album bears an audible joy – it doubles as a coming-out party for Tyler, whose lyrics have had fans launching “is-he-or-isn’t-he” speculations for years. They need wonder no longer upon hearing tracks like “Where This Flower Blooms” (featuring pal Frank Ocean) or the sultry love ballad “See You Again,” which burst with the jubilation (and confusion) of a man finally starting to live his own truth, his unadorned but affecting vocals mirroring the awkward, fumbling beauty of his brave, queer new world. Flower Boy is bold and beautiful – an exploration of life in all its joys, loves and fuck-ups that remains full of hope even as the darkness continues to rear its head. In other words, it’s the record the world needed in 2017. Thank you, Tyler. Keep on rocking, rolling, blooming and growing.

Honorable Mentions

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Julien Baker / Turn Out the Lights (Matador)

Neil Cicierega / Mouth Moods (Self-released)

Drake / More Life (OVO Sound / Young Money / Cash Money / Republic)

Foxygen / Hang (Jagjaguwar)

Kesha / Rainbow (Kemosabe / RCA)

Lorde / Melodrama (Lava / Republic)

Randy Newman / Dark Matter (Nonesuch)

Paramore / After Laughter (Fueled by Ramen)

Moses Sumney / Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)

The xx / I See You (Young Turks)

Classic Album Review: Pixies, ‘Surfer Rosa’

pixies

[Originally published May 14, 2013]

The Pixies’ first proper studio effort embodies perfectly their recklessly unconventional college rocker persona. Every track incorporates that raw, fuzzy, unbridled sound later utilized by everyone from My Bloody Valentine to Deerhunter to Girls. That sound without which no one would ever have embraced a certain trio of long-haired Seattle upstarts and their fledgling garage-punk outfit – a mere three years, mind you, after this album’s release. (Kurt Cobain later admitted that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his stab at writing a Pixies tune, and it’s easy to see the connection.) But just because the record is sloppy doesn’t mean it’s a total mess – true, it threatens to fall apart at any moment, but the band manages to keep it together, and then some. Kim Deal’s plodding bass lines; the frantic, scorching siren that is Joey Santiago’s guitar; and Dave Lovering’s able-handed drumming come together to create something truly memorable.

Like Buddy Holly and the Ramones before them, some of the band’s best moments come out in their shortest, punchiest tunes – songs like “Something Against You” and tremendously catchy closer “Brick is Red.” The four-and-a-half minute “Vamos,” one of the few tracks that surpasses the 2-minute mark, even seems to drag a bit in comparison to these. But this only serves to further justify the group’s massive appeal among the bored, angsty, disconnected youth of the late 80s-early 90s.

Adding to the record’s disjointed feel is the tension, just barely palpable here, between leader Black Francis and Deal – tension that would demolish the band by the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Deal’s raspy yet oddly angelic vocals (used to miraculously eerie effect on “Gigantic” and the gleeful confusion of the band’s hands-down masterpiece “Where Is My Mind?”) collide haphazardly with Black’s yelping, paranoiac shout-singing – especially during the nonsensical hook of “River Euphrates” and the disturbed chorus of “I’m Amazed.” This goes without mentioning the countless moments when Black’s yelps turn to demonic screams and guttural growls – all of which are intensified by the masterful production of Steve Albini. Perhaps the group’s angst was directed not only at the deteriorating world but also at each other.

Surfer Rosa may not be a perfect record – that’s obviously not what they were going for – but with all its flaws, it’s still a brilliantly-assembled hodgepodge of bold ideas and a stellar cultural landmark from some of music’s true innovators. And after 25 years, it still hasn’t lost its sting. (8.8/10)

Pixies

Surfer Rosa

4AD // March 21, 1988

Produced by Steve Albini

List: The 15 Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

2017 has indeed been quite a rollercoaster thus far, but it’s also been remarkably generous to us in terms of music. We’ve heard no shortage of remarkable, transcendent, intricate, gorgeous, and even hilarious work from both familiar friends and new up-and-comers. Here are fifteen of my personal favorites from among the bounteous array of record releases in the past few months. May the remainder of the year be just as kind to us, and may we all also be a little kinder to one other – God knows we need it in such turbulent times as these.

Here it is – my top 15 of 2017 (so far):

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(Sandy) Alex G

Rocket

Domino

Meet the new Alex Giannascoli, same as the new Alex Giannascoli. The prolific Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter has made a name for himself – a name that now just happens to have a “Sandy” affixed to it – by crafting his own unique, eccentric world using the simple trappings of lo-fi recording. Rocket, the follow-up to his major-label debut Beach Music, sees him continuing trends from that record while at the same time branching out from his indie-folk/rock roots into the less comfortable territories of lounge-floor jazz (“County”), hardcore noise-punk (“Brick”), and country (the frothy banjo-and-fiddle stomp of “Bobby”). The ramshackle compositions, combined with Giannascoli’s heartfelt, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics, make for a novel, charming effort that rewards indelibly on further listens – an ideal showcase for the 24-year-old’s versatility and ingenuity as a musician.

 

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Tinariwen

Elwan

Epitaph / Anti-

The Malian outfit, now nearing its fortieth year of existence, presents on Elwan some of their angriest, most electric music yet. Jagged, electrical Saharan blues riffs slither hypnotically over rattling, argumentative percussion and throngs of backing vocalists as founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s weary, trance-like voice laments the political and social unrest he has witnessed firsthand. “Love these days is like a mirage,” he intones on “Arhegh ad annàgh.” “It gets fainter the closer you get.” The lyrics are mournful and the music often caustic, but it never ceases to be a thing of profound power and beauty to hear these many seemingly disparate elements – which here also include contributions from Western musicians like Alain Johannes, Mark Lanegan and Kurt Vile – join together in an immaculately arranged tapestry of sound. It’s appropriate considering the band’s beginnings as a collective of grassroots rebels, joining together in the hopes that one day the peoples of the world might live in peace.

 

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Julie Byrne

Not Even Happiness

Ba Da Bing! / Basin Rock

“Ambient folk” is a rather trendy and obnoxious-sounding descriptor, but there’s really no other way to describe Julie Byrne’s lovely, lilting arrangements. The Buffalo, NY native blends the understated style of Nick Drake and early Joni Mitchell with the aesthetic of Brian Eno’s pioneering ’70s work, channeling both into an inimitable universe of her own design. On Not Even Happiness, we hear little else other than quietly strummed guitar, bits of wispy synthesizer and Byrne’s ethereal voice – the voice of a peaceful yet restless wanderer, seeking meaning and permanence in her fleeting life and finding it through her connection with nature and with those she loves. Hers is an earthy, gorgeous world of immaculate serenity, a powerful refuge from the solid walls of noise that wedge their way into our brains daily and vie for our attention. Once you’ve settled into that world, the look of beatific bliss spread across Byrne’s face on the album cover may very well be your own.

 

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The Mountain Goats

Goths

Merge

John Darnielle is arguably the greatest musical raconteur of the 21st century. His characters are vibrant and vividly realized, and each of his records reads less like an album than like a collection of short stories. What makes his songwriting truly unique, however, is his unparalleled knack for drawing lyrical beauty from the seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life. For the magnificent Goths – his sixteenth studio effort and his first without guitars – Darnielle draws inspiration from his youth, growing up listening to Siouxsee and the Banshees and the Cure on KROQ-FM and seeking out the company of society’s loners and outcasts. While the songs themselves are far more indie-folk than Gothic, his lyrics evoke masterfully the pain, angst, and melancholia of goth culture’s adherents – and the ever-present specter of death that fuels their black fire. From the doomy opener “Rain in Soho” to the heart-rending ballad “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” (that’s the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy, kids) to “Abandoned Flesh” (an elegy for the long-forgotten Gene Loves Jezebel), Darnielle lets his narratives-within-a-narrative flow beautifully, his crackling, energetic vocals giving voice to the voiceless. Goths is an album about death, about life, and about the triumphs and tragedies in between – the kind of record that could only come from a mind as introspective and brilliant as Darnielle’s.

 

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Drake

More Life

OVO Sound / Young Money / Cash Money / Republic

Last year’s charming but lackluster Views found Drizzy at a creative crossroads, but fortunately for us, it seems he picked the road less traveled. On the sprawling, lush “playlist” More Life, he adds dancehall, Afrobeat, and grime to his ever-expanding musical palate. He’s in top lyrical form throughout, unleashing an abundance of sometimes playful, often earnest ruminations on love, success, and the thinning line between his friends and his enemies.  It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Drake gets by here with a lot of help from his friends, including Young Thug, Giggs, Skepta, Sampha, Quavo, Kanye West, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jorja Smith, 2 Chainz, and a walloping 31 credited producers. This seemingly endless string of cohorts adds another layer of vibrancy and excitement to More Life but never steals the spotlight from the man whose name it bears. Love him or loathe him, Mr. Graham is liable to stay with us for quite some time yet.

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Slowdive

Slowdive

Dead Oceans

Thanks to the immense popularity of dreamy outfits like Beach House and Chromatics, shoegaze is perhaps more en vogue now than ever before. So it’s only natural that genre titans Slowdive would follow the lead of contemporaries My Bloody Valentine and make a triumphant comeback this year following a two-decades-plus hiatus. And as was true for 2013’s m b v, Slowdive proves that its namesake band hasn’t lost a single step in the 22 years since their last record. The lush ambient atmospherics, ringing guitars and hushed vocals of Souvlaki and Pygmalion are still very much present throughout. At the same time, we witness the band continuing to expand the dimensions of its sound through the Gothic post-punk of “Star Roving,” the hazy, disarmingly simplistic “Sugar for the Pill,” and the slow burn and fade of “Falling Ashes.” Equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking, Slowdive marks one of the most spectacular comebacks in recent memory – and perfect proof of just why the Thames Valley quartet mattered in the first place.

 

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Homeshake

Fresh Air

Royal Mountain / Sinderlyn

“Kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high”: This is the mantra that informs the woozily funky lo-fi R&B of Peter Sagar. On Fresh Airhis third LP as Homeshake, the veteran Mac DeMarco sideman crafts a succession of enticingly slick, lethargic dreamscapes as the backdrop for his subtle explorations of the fleeting highs and lingering lows of modern love. Armed with whispery, wobbly guitars; buzzing, thumping bass; and a voice that expertly treads the line between soulful release and quiet restraint (and between earnestness and kitschy throwback), he unspools scintillating melodies one after the other. Some of the album’s best moments come along in its middle stretch, when Sagar shifts into complete D’Angelo-esque soul-workout mode on tracks like “TV Volume” and “Getting Down Pt. II.” Fresh Air is an endearing and often lovely little opus that provides an ideal soundtrack for – well, just read the first sentence again.

 

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Jansport J

p h a r a o h

blackwhitegoldville

Every single review I’ve read of Jansport J’s freewheeling, vibrant mini-hip-hopera (my own included) has drawn connections between him and another, more legendary J. These comparisons, of course, are not without merit, as Justin Williams’ work certainly owes plenty to the seminal Donuts. But let’s look past all that for a minute and consider the remarkable ingenuity and singular vision it takes to make a record like p h a r a o h. J’s funky, heartfelt and surprisingly fluid collection of song nuggets seeks to redefine the instrumental hip-hop album itself and explores the cratedigging genre’s potential for storytelling – in this case, our story takes the form of a ride on the L-train through NYC, an opportunity to breathe in the life and personality of the city. Old school boom-bap rides comfortably alongside psychedelic keys and analog synths, with an abundance of soul samples and vocal harmonies scattered throughout. J’s dynamic use of the human voice on tracks like “Peace, Pt. I” and “12” make p h a r a o h the warmest, most organic aural experience of its kind we’ve heard in a while. Just sit back, press play, and let it take you away.

 

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The Magnetic Fields

50 Song Memoir

Nonesuch

Just because Stephin Merritt has passed the half-century mark doesn’t mean he’s stopped approaching his music like a gleeful, twinkly-eyed kid. Never one to back down from an ambitious creative writing exercise (see 69 Love Songs), Merritt chronicles the first five decades of his life over the course of 150 minutes and fifty tracks (labeled by year for your convenience). His Tin Pan Alley-by-way-of-Kraftwerk-meets-Jonathan Richman songwriting continues to sharpen with age, and 50 Song Memoir serves to remind us that he’s both a gifted raconteur and a masterful arranger. In his unmistakable baritone, he regales us with erudite tales of his first fumbling forays into the worlds of religion (which he ultimately rejects outright, much to his Ethics prof’s chagrin), love (which he’s not so great at), and music (from the terrible bands he formed as a kid to the first inklings of a career in electronica), stopping here and there to deliver withering jabs at his flighty beatnik mom’s good-for-nothing boyfriends. He and his bandmates descend upon a bevy of instruments ranging from fairground organ to ukulele to autoharp to any number of magnificently orchestrated synthesizers. It’s quirky to a fault, to be sure – but what’s always made the Magnetic Fields truly great is that beneath all the wry witticisms and idiosyncratic deadpannery, there’s always an unflappable sincerity – and it comes through strongest on Memoir when Merritt talks of the death of his friend Elliott Smith (“’07 In the Snow-White Cottages”) or his bouts of melancholia and suicidal thoughts (“’97 Eurodisco Trio”). Even “’15 Somebody’s Fetish,” ostensibly a cheeky ode to sexual kinks, eventually transforms into a touching meditation on finding a love of one’s own. It all amounts to an extraordinary celebration of the grand tragicomedy of life itself – and a wondrous, wacky, lovable glimpse into the mind and soul of one of the world’s greatest living tunesmiths.

 

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Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors

Domino

Dirty Projectors is the kind of post-breakup album only Dave Longstreth could create. He splatters his canvas with brooding, glitchy soultronica, utterly deformed samples and spastic, warped vocal harmonies to mirror the alienated frenzy hopping around his brain. He experiments with the R&B side of his signature yelp on tracks like the slippery, chaotic “Death Spiral” and the devastatingly blunt “Winner Take Nothing,” while frothy, slow-burning opener “Keep Your Name” renders his voice all but unrecognizable as he ruminates on love’s labors lost (“I don’t know why you abandoned me/You were my soul and my partner”). His arrangements bluster and jolt in myriad unexpected directions, making for a delightfully strange and disorienting listening experience. It’s far and away the darkest release under the DP name, but at the same time Longstreth manages to let some glimmers of hope creep in, no matter how manic and twisted things get. He’s clearly having a rough time, but he’ll be okay as long as he keeps following the light.

 

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Goldie

The Journey Man

Metalheadz

Two decades removed from his career-defining masterpiece Timeless, the UK drum-and-bass god proves he’s lost neither the ambition nor the perfectionist’s touch that made that album great. On The Journey Man, he continually unspools vast, vividly-colored song-movements stuffed with breakneck beats, mesmerizing touches of strings and piano, and jazzy, soulful vocals courtesy of collaborators such as Natalie Williams and José James. It’s sixteen tracks and nearly two hours of hypnotic, luxurious, intelligent, and scintillating music that would feel out of place neither at a rave nor a meditation session. The Journey Man is, indeed, a journey – but one more than worth the taking.

 

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Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

Interscope / Top Dawg

DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album in six years opens up with an understated spoken word bit from the Compton native atop soft, funky orchestration – sounds that would fit quite comfortably on his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Immediately after, we get an abrupt shift into the barebones riot act of “DNA.,” setting the pace for much of the album’s remainder and letting us know we’re in for an entirely different listening experience altogether. Skeletal, pseudo-trap beats buzz and snap in the background as Lamar – still easily the most gifted MC of his generation – unleashes some of the most direct, unadorned flows of his career on boldface-titled bangers like “HUMBLE.,” “FEAR.,” and “LOYALTY.” His unmistakable voice shifts effortlessly from a lethargic, understated drone to a frantic near-scream as he waxes philosophic about the experience of black America in 2017 and ponders his own place within its grand scheme. As with life itself, it’s tough to draw any definite conclusions from this colorful, jagged, complicated record at the outset, but piecing the puzzle together over subsequent listens is what makes the experience so exhilarating. Life, as our man Mr. Duckworth puts it on the track that bears his real surname, is indeed “one funny motherfucker.”

 

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Father John Misty

Pure Comedy

Sub Pop

Josh Tillman has become something of a punching bag in the music journalism community, with the critiques running the gamut from “his facial hair is dumb” to “he’s an arrogant, smug, self-indulgent jackass who embodies everything despicable about white hipster culture.” What people seem to forget in their discussions of Tillman, however, is the music. The public’s varied opinions on the man don’t change the fact that he’s one of the greatest and most imaginative songwriters of his generation. The expansive, ambitious Pure Comedy could be used as fuel for either side of the Father John Misty debate, but still, it’s a damn fine record. Enlisting the aid of legendary arranger Gavin Bryars, Misty channels the majestic strings and prickled wit of Randy Newman and early Elton John in a series of scathing critiques on technology (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution”), liberal self-righteousness (“Ballad of the Dying Man”), and even the elite group of “L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/That sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant” of which he counts himself a member (the 13-minute centerpiece “Leaving L.A”). Tillman’s attempts to cement his status as a social satirist for the millennial age vary in their success (the troubling “both sides” rhetoric of “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” could double as a mission statement for centrist Democrats), but when the record fails, it does so nobly enough that it’s hard not to fall in love with it anyway. At its best, Pure Comedy is a sweeping, gorgeous and deeply affecting look at the absurd state of modern humanity, as well as a call for some positive change. As Tillman croons at the end of the title track: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”

 

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Future Islands

The Far Field

4AD

The sublime theatricality of Baltimore’s Future Islands just keeps getting better with each record. The Far Field isn’t exactly a major shake-up of their signature New Wave-influenced sound, but what is different here is the trio’s ability to dig deep into the heart of their music, exuding levels of emotion and wide-eyed expression never thought possible. With help from the deft hand of producer John Congleton, the band delivers burst after burst of rapturous, euphoric sound. Sam Herring’s voice remains one of the most unique and inimitable in modern rock, and here he leaves no atom of himself unexposed, passionately bellowing about his hopes, his insecurities, his longing for connection with nature and with his fellow human beings. Bassist William Cashion and synth wizard Garrit Welmers, meanwhile, busily construct a lushly-orchestrated backdrop that intensifies and solidifies the drama of Herring’s vocal performance. Like Singles before it, The Far Field is an instant classic – a collection of perfectly-executed songs from people with a clear and distinctive passion not only for their craft, but for the human experience itself.

 

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Fleet Foxes

Crack-Up

Nonesuch

The gap between the last and the next of a beloved artist’s records is always interminable for its fans, be it a year or a decade. But this sentiment felt doubly true for fans of Fleet Foxes, whose fearless leader Robin Pecknold disbanded the group after 2011’s generation-defining Helplessness Blues and essentially disappeared for the next half-decade. (Okay, he actually attended classes at Columbia, but hey, same thing.) Happily for us, great works of art often come from periods of isolation, and such is the case with the Foxes’ breathtaking, ridiculously great Crack-Up. At the outset, it sounds like your basic, run-of-the-mill Fleet Foxes album – reliable Laurel Canyon-influenced folk with echo-chamber atmospherics and thundering drum beats – but listen closely, and the album reveals itself. The harmonies are tighter. The songs are more complex, cinematic, sweeping, panoramic in scope (especially on lengthier song-suites like “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” and “I Am All That I Need…”). Pecknold’s songwriting is clearer and more socially-conscious – he witnesses the protests following the murder of Alton Sterling on “Cassius -” and laments the proliferation of gender inequality on “- Naiads, Cassadies.” The group even gets self-referential when a sample of a school choir performing “White Winter Hymnal” pops up. Crack-Up is everything we could have hoped for from the Foxes’ reunification; they move forward as musicians while keeping one foot firmly rooted in the sound that made them one of the greatest musical acts of the new millennium. Welcome back, boys. Stay awhile now, won’t you?

Honorable Mentions

Blanck Mass / World Eater (Sacred Bones)

Neil Cicierega / Mouth Moods (Self-released)

Foxygen / Hang (Jagjaguwar)

Steve Lacy / Steve Lacy’s Demo (EP) (Three Quarter)

Perfume Genius / No Shape (Matador)

Sampha / Process (Young Turks)

The Shins / Heartworms (Columbia / Aural Apothecary)

SZA / Ctrl (Top Dawg / RCA)

Temples / Volcano (Heavenly / Fat Possum)

The xx / I See You (Young Turks)

Album Review: Future Islands, ‘The Far Field’

Future_islands_the_far_field

At the risk of exaggeration, Future Islands was probably the best thing that happened to me in 2014. I was one of many who had committed the egregious error of generally ignoring them prior to their now-legendary network TV debut on The Late Show with Dave Letterman in March of that year. I still remember how electrifying that first performance was – the driving opening chords of the group’s beautiful, anthemic “Seasons (Waiting on You)”; the synthpop sound that hearkened to another age yet felt totally modern; and frontman Sam T. Herring two-stepping across the stage, screeching, bellowing, punching the air, thumping his chest and staring into the audience’s very soul. It was a captivating spectacle, equal parts disorienting and really, really cool.

With “Seasons” and its superb mother album Singles (which I naturally declared the best of 2014 in my end-of-year list), the Baltimorean trio captured our attention. Its follow-up, The Far Field, then, represents their attempt to retain it. To put it lightly, they succeed in spectacular fashion. Those expecting a departure from their previous work will be sorely disappointed. However, those who’ve come to know and adore the power and beauty of their music will find the new record a veritable feast for the ears.

As was true for Singles, each track on The Far Field (the title a nod to the Theodore Roethke poetry collection of the same name, as was 2010’s In Evening Air) is a miniature drama, bursting with euphoric energy; even the saddest tunes shoot up towards the heavens. Herring, as always, sells the dear sweet screaming shit out of every syllable he utters – snarling, crooning, enunciating viciously, throwing in the occasional grindcore shriek. Sam could be likened easily to any number of expressive rock vocalists, but for me, the figure that comes most readily to mind is Meat Loaf. I think back to the first time I heard Bat Out of Hell and how awestruck I was by his voice. You could feel his raw magnetism shredding through your speakers; he made even cornball phrases like “You’ve been cold to me so long, I’m cryin’ icicles instead of tears” sound convincing. Herring works similar wonders with his vocal delivery and performance style. Not a word passes his lips that’s without meaning, that isn’t felt in every atom of his body.

But while Herring may steal the show at the band’s live performances, their studio efforts give his fellow Future Islanders a chance to shine. Garrit Welmers, channeling the best and most adventurous of 80s New Wave, crafts lovely, intoxicating synth universes on each track, while William Cashion’s driving bass propels everything forward and keeps Herring’s soaring vocals tethered to Earth’s atmosphere. They’re as much a delicate, meticulously crafted formula as they are a band; take one element out of the equation, and the whole thing crumbles.

The album begins by fading into “Aladdin,” our regularly scheduled Future Islands song, already in progress – a simple but effective synth hook enveloped by lush long tones, drum and bass keeping steady, thumping time. Herring then launches headfirst into a poetic diatribe, describing his relationship with a lost love in terms of nature while showcasing his unique talent for internal rhyme (“I’ve seen the beaches, breached the peak of ‘please’ and ‘thanks’/I’ve seen my features age, my fingers strange”). Like that titular treasure-seeker, Herring is trying to decide whether the riches he found were mere illusions. By the end of the song, he pointedly concludes, straining to hit the highest notes he can, that “love is real/Our love is real/It’s a hand, it’s a hold, it’s a shield.” It’s not as dynamic an opening as “Seasons,” but it’s still thoroughly stirring and enrapturing.

Even by Future Islands’ standards, these songs feel remarkably personal. Herring, bearer of a known predilection for breaking down in the midst of live performances and giving his audience quick emotional pep talks, provides us with several vivid, often painful windows into his soul. The autobiographical nature of his lyrics gives him more to feel, which makes the songs themselves exude more emotion in turn. He dedicates much of his energy here to meditating on his relationships with others and how life on the road can decay those relationships over time. The gorgeous, majestic “Time on Her Side” finds him accepting that his departed lover is free (“so free, it’s sublime”) to choose her own path in life, as angelic, soul-rocking synth tones and chiming percussion blast readily into action. On lead single “Ran” (which happens to sound eerily similar to “Seasons” in pretty much every way), he sounds a bit more mournful, howling, “What’s a song without you/When every song I write is about you?” He yearns to reconnect with nature – and by extension, with the loved ones he’s drifted away from – on “Ancient Water” and “Day Glow Fire.” In so many words and with so much chutzpah, he’s really just expressing his desire for what most humans want: connection.

Herring’s emotional nakedness reaches its apex during “Through the Roses.” As Welmers’ synths float breathily around him, he speaks at length about his struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts – “the temptation to look inside [his] wrist”. In other words, no matter how convincing Herring’s electric stage presence may be, when you take away “the lights and the smoke and the screen,” he’s just a normal guy – nervous, terrified, unsure of himself, trying to navigate this fucked-up, confusing world we’re stuck on.  He further ponders the inner workings of his troubled mind on the melancholy “Cave,” which explores the disillusion and loss of self he experiences in the wake of a breakup: “Is this a desperate wish for dying/Or a wish that dying cease?/The fear that keeps me going…is the same fear that brings me to my knees/I don’t believe anymore.” Herring obviously isn’t the first to unpack such emotions on record, but the sheer vulnerability and conviction with which he does so makes it truly unique.

And what self-respecting Meat-Loafian synthpop epic would dare to omit space for a rip-roaring, eleventh-hour boy-girl duet? That moment comes in the form of the driving “Shadows,” wherein Ms. Debbie Harry – herself at one time the queen-regent of New Wave – plays Ellen Foley to Herring’s Meat, urging him to “break free” from the darkness that holds him captive. Harry is perfect for the part, her ageless, ethereal voice an ideal counterpoint for Herring’s impassioned yowls. Together, they manage to make the song impressively sincere while reveling in its inherent goofiness.

But wait, I’m frequently tempted to tell myself. Didn’t they just use that exact same drumbeat/synth pattern/key three songs ago? And several more times on other albums? This is bullshit. I shouldn’t be enjoying this. This is base, vapid regurgitation. They’re just doing the same song over and over. Maybe so, but goddamn, is it a fucking great song. Sure, Field may essentially be twelve slight variations on a long-established signature sound (the possible exception being the tender, ultra-slowed-down reggae-cum-lounge ballad “Candles”), but the group infuses every moment on the record with enough charisma and genuine feeling to make it work – and then some.

Future Islands are a group that traffics in feeling – their success stems largely from the passionate appeal to the heartstrings and souls of their listeners they make in their music. More specifically, it’s their uncanny ability to mine pure joy, hope and goodness from the darkest depths of human experience – as they do plenty of times on the marvelous, sweeping Field – that makes them not just a good band, but a great one. As Herring puts it, bringing an auspicious end to the otherwise sorrowful “Through the Roses”: “We can pull through together, together, together, together.” Here’s hoping we do. (9.1/10)

Future Islands

The Far Field

4AD // April 7, 2017

Produced by John Congleton

Album Review: Homeshake, ‘Fresh Air’

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Peter Sagar first made a name for himself as the nimble-fingered touring guitarist for indie slacker idol Mac DeMarco. As a solo singer-songwriter, he creates music that (spiritually, at least) follows a similar path to that of the scruffy, weed-loving, chill-as-hell DeMarco. But whereas DeMarco espouses goofy, psych-influenced slacker-rock, Sagar’s muse is a bit more subtle, as evidenced by the lazy, delectable, discreetly funky electronica (often erroneously classified as “bedroom R&B”) that has become his trademark.

Sagar proves himself a master of that craft on Fresh Air, his fourth opus under the nom-de-stage Homeshake. For each of the album’s 12 tracks (bookended by two short instrumentals), he crafts a gorgeous melody and plays it on a loop, letting it soak into your brain until it permeates your entire psyche. The album plays much like a series of vignettes, offering intimate glimpses into the life of a young person who keeps regularly stoned on both love and other substances – and all the complicated emotions and relationship snags that accompany that life. Sagar soundtracks it all with a winning combination of quiet-storm instrumentals, bargain-bin yacht-soul synthesizers, and his lethargic, slightly strained falsetto (which sounds like a cross between the Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman and a more reserved, balladeering Prince). As he has on past releases, he effortlessly strikes a perfect balance between deep soul and incredible restraint. He incorporates styles of the past into his own distinct sound without merely borrowing them or resorting to pastiche or cliché.

The album opens with smooth, chill guitar grooves over a light and wispy synthetic beat as automated voices (literally) welcome the listener to the forthcoming experience. Then the percussion of “Call Me Up” starts its clicking and clapping, and Sagar instantly unleashes an irresistibly ethereal atmosphere driven by a woozy synth hook. “I can feel the pain within you,” he softly observes. “It’s turning your insides out/And filling you up with doubt.” The track depicts an idyllic young romance, wherein the two lovers are so connected that a sort of telepathy develops between them, and they each know how the other feels even when they’re in separate rooms.

Would that all human relationships were so simple. Throughout Fresh Air, Sagar navigates the troubled seas of interpersonal hecticism as he alternates between party-hopping and hanging at home, indulging in God’s sweet leaf. He rejects the advances of an unrequited lover over loop-de-looping synths on “Not U” (“Staring daggers, like you think that it could change a thing…Hope that this will be the last time that I hear from you”). The uptempo R&B jam “Every Single Thing” portrays a severe strain in communication, with bleak airport-terminal tones and striking chord changes accentuating the drama (“Thought it’d be easier/For me to think of her/I was dreaming when you spoke and not listening to you”). As many of us (Sagar, it seems, very much included) know well, it’s not easy to be a lover in this modern age of distraction, confusion, and uncertainty – and yet, we keep trying our best anyway.

Fresh Air also finds Sagar routinely demonstrating that he can establish tone and mood with the very best of them. “Getting Down Pt. II (He’s Cooling Down),” with its gently buzzing bassline and whispery drums, sounds not far removed from a Voodoo-era D’Angelo jam. On “Timing,” he uses a chilly minor-key synthscape to evoke the supreme ennui of his loneliness while whiling away the hours until his s/o returns home. As the weirded-out, glitchy outro sets in, we as listeners come to the consensus that lazing around the house has never been – and may never again be – this gorgeously dramatic.

It’s the second half of the album, however, where we start to behold the true depths of Sagar’s mastery as a musician and arranger. He’d like us to think he’s not even trying – the breezy grace of his arrangements certainly make it seem so – but deep down, he’s a fussy sonic perfectionist, striving to find the exact right combinations of sounds to illustrate the moods he envisions.

Pretty much any song on Fresh Air could qualify as a standout track, but high among the ranks stands “TV Volume,” which finds Sagar’s guitar purring funkily over a razor-sharp groove, the drums repeatedly start-stopping in time. It’s a subtle, sensual kick in the ass that’s so understated, it’s almost devastating. Immediately succeeding this quiet beauty is yet another standout, the robotic, pure-sex-exuding “Khmlwugh.” Descending chromatic synths hover atop steadily tiptoeing bass and a clap-trap beat as Sagar unfurls his mantra of “kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high.”

And so the magnificent sonic journey continues to its serene end. The title track, a subdued, six-minute slow jam, is colored by sweet, silky guitar strums over the faint sound of a swirling wind. “So She” sounds more than a little like 50s/60s lounge-pop with a dash of bossa nova, like something Stevie Wonder, Caetano Veloso, Astrud Gilberto and Fagen & Becker might record after smoking a few together in the studio. Closer “This Way” is Sagar at his most unabashedly yacht-rock; he croons about chilling out at home with his main squeeze as shivery percussion and delicate, goofy “night-life” keys that rather deliberately recall Paul Davis’ “I Go Crazy” meander in the foreground. It’s a great summation of what Sagar does best – using snippets of the past as a soundtrack for snapshots of the present. “Come and sit and stay a while,” he breathes. “You can relax, it’s me/Feeling slippers on the frozen tile/So cold, living comfortably…”

The charm of Sagar’s scrappy yet immaculate concoctions is boundless – simple elements are expertly combined to form something truly grand. He weaves magical, intimate universes out of his guitars and synths, creating a listening experience that’s equal parts soothing and compelling. It’s certain to serve as the backdrop to a THC-haze-coated makeout sesh between young hipsters – and I mean that as the highest possible praise. Here’s to Homeshake’s most thrilling and intoxicating effort yet, and here’s to the further sonic triumphs certain to form in its wake. (8.6/10)

Homeshake

Fresh Air

Royal Mountain/Sinderlyn, February 3, 2017

Produced by Peter Sagar

Album Review: Dirty Projectors, ‘Dirty Projectors’

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Following the departure of longtime collaborator (and one-time love interest) Amber Coffman, Dirty Projectors mastermind Dave Longstreth found himself forced to soldier on as a solo artist. In the face of heartbreak and creative isolation, Longstreth did the only logical thing he could: write a new album with the most personal material he’d ever recorded, his feelings of abandonment and alienation serving as lyrical and aesthetic fodder. That album, Dirty Projectors (what else could he have called his solo debut?), is a frantic, arty, gorgeously strange breakup symphony that offers a bizarre fusion of James Blake’s brand of understated soultronica; the jittery, juicy energy of tUnE-yArDs and Age of Adz-era Sufjan Stevens; and Longstreth’s own weirded-out psyche.

“Keep Your Name,” co-written with fellow noise experimenter Tyondai Braxton, starts the record off with chiming church bells, which abruptly morph into somber piano chords over which Longstreth mournfully meditates on the end of his creative and romantic relationship with Coffman. “I don’t know why you abandoned me,” he croons. “You were my soul and my partner.” His signature spastic vocals are thick and lethargic, contributing quite effectively to the distortion of reality he is experiencing. This warped mindstate is further documented by the addition of clicking percussion; a screechy, industrial equipment-aping sample of DP’s “Impregnable Question” (“We don’t see eye to eye”); and a nervy, double-speed interlude wherein Longstreth directly attacks Coffman – and highlights their clashing musical visions –  by mocking with sonic discord the sugary harmonies she once added to his music. “I don’t think I ever loved you/That was some stupid shit,” he rap-speaks on the bridge. “We shared kisses and visions/But like KISS’ shithead Gene Simmons said/A band is a brand and it licks that our vision is dissonant.”

Musically, Dirty Projectors is one of Longstreth’s most idiosyncratic efforts to date, as well as his most heavily indebted to modern R&B. This becomes clear early on in the record when “Death Spiral” splatters a latter-day Kanye-inspired soundscape with piano glissandos, laser-zap synths, flamenco guitar, and scattered organ – all while making frequent and all-too-appropriate use of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. Longstreth sounds entirely unhinged here, shifting in and out of an broken, volatile falsetto as the loss of his love sends him on a dramatic, stormy downward descent not unlike an aerial catastrophe: “I was reborn the second before the plane became shards of glass when it crashed on arrivaI/I woke up feeling like I’m sipping on some René Descartes, and you’re Big Gulping the Bible.”

Longstreth’s postmodern soul flirtations continue throughout the record. “Work Together” finds him warbling in cadences similar to those of Justin Timberlake over a chaotic hook laden with off-kilter drums and microtonal voice samples. The pretty, deceptively sweet “Little Bubble” crosses into weepy 70s folk-pop ballad territory before proceeding to turn the very genre on its head. On the Caribbean-smooched “Cool Your Heart,” he brings Solange Knowles and guest vocalist Dawn Richard along for the ride, the latter’s smooth, melodious voice creating a perfect counterpoint to Longstreth’s anxious yowls.

One of the record’s more honest moments comes with the seven-and-a-half-minute epic “Up in Hudson.” Intricately-layered vocal harmonies, a jarringly triumphal horn section and invocations of Roberta Flack flutter across a vivid account of Longstreth’s and Coffman’s partnership – their eyes first meeting at the Bowery Ballroom and the tour dates, trysts and “slept-on floors” that followed. After the turbulence of the preceding two tracks, we get somewhat of a return to the bouncy worldbeat-influenced rhythms of yesteryear as the singer wistfully recalls what once was – or, rather, what he once thought was. But love, as he says, is a fleeting thing – it burns out, fades, rots, dissipates. By song’s end we’re left with whining guitars swirling and twisting around each other atop rattling kitchen-sink percussion, our two lovers farther apart than either could have anticipated (“Now I’m listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway, riding fast/And you’re out in Echo Park, blasting 2Pac, drinking a fifth for my ass/I’m just up in Hudson, bored and destructive, knowing that nothing lasts”).

As is true for many of the great breakup albums, Dirty Projectors follows an arc of sorts. Its first half is largely spent brooding over Coffman and coming to terms with the estrangement, but a turning point seems to arise in the final stretch. In the aftermath of his earlier “death spiral,” he launches into an “Ascent Through Clouds,” struggling to establish independence from the relationship (“I am not contained/In my chest or in my brain/I am energy unconstrained”). On “Cool Your Heart,” he muses further, “Last night I realized/It’s been feeling wrong to start relying, making decisions based on another person.” By the time we get to the organ-splashed, gospel-like “I See You” (on which Yeezy cohort Elon Rutberg shares songwriting creds) it feels like he’s found something resembling peace of mind, claiming, “I believe that the love that we made is the art.”

It’s safe to say that Longstreth is Dirty Projectors. Since the group’s inception in 2002 – and at present in particular – he has served as its sole constant and driving creative force. Still, much of what made records like Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan special were the lovely, complex backing harmonies courtesy of Coffman (and, for a brief while, fellow band expatriate Angel Deradoorian). This time around, the vocals are all Longstreth’s, and he manages to make it work. Still, if there’s a weak spot to his sonic noodlings, it’s the notable lack of input from those gifted collaborators. (Incidentally, Coffman’s own solo effort, City of No Reply, is slated for release sometime this year, and it’ll no doubt be fascinating to hear her side of this whole rigmarole.)

This record is a guy working through his personal shit in real time. In this case, though, the guy in question is David Longstreth; as a result, the journey is compelling, affecting, and endlessly inventive. It’s intimate without being too self-indulgent, utilizing plenty of sonic bells and whistles but never suffocating the final product with them. To be sure, Dirty Projectors is a departure for its namesake, but it’s one that appears to have changed Longstreth for the better upon reaching the other side. (8.6/10)

Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors

Released February 21, 2017 on Domino Records

Produced by Dave Longstreth

Album Review: Foxygen, ‘Hang’


Foxygen is a band that thrives on defying expectations. After Agoura Hills youngsters Jonathan Rado and Sam France formed the duo in 2005, they putted along relatively quietly for the next six years – releasing a string of EPs as well as an hour-long space opera – before signing to Jagjaguwar. Their next two records, 2012’s Take the Kids Off Broadway and 2013’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, were both critically-lauded efforts informed equally by Motown and 60s garage-psych, crackling with eccentric energy and smartass charisma. The duo faithfully evoked the past while creating music that sounded singularly of the present. Shortly after Ambassadors threatened to bolster them into indie superstardom, they split up and put out solo records, only to regroup the next year for the ambitious but tragically uneven Rundgrenian-pop behemoth …And Star Power.

With LP #5, Hang, France and Rado display their unpredictability as musicians in an unprecedented way. Eschewing the scrappy psych-pop of their previous efforts, they employ the services of a 35-piece orchestra – and they’ll be goddamned if they aren’t going to milk every last molecule of sound out of that 35-piece orchestra. The resulting vaudeville-glam fever dream (which also happens to include such illustrious guest musicians as Flaming Lip Steven Drozd and Brian and Michael D’Addario of the Lemon Twigs) blusters by in just over half an hour, banishing any and all restraint to the sidelines in its wake.

In terms of production, Hang is easily Foxygen’s most polished work thus far – the production on the backing orchestra is darn near immaculate – but it’s also their most cluttered and uneven. Lyrically, it comes nowhere near the eccentric, electric wit of Ambassadors and Broadway. France continually spouts off strings of empty crypticisms masquerading as deep truths; it’s difficult to know what to make of them other than that they seem more like placeholders that the band never bothered to change.

Then, there’s the instrumentation. There’s certainly nothing wrong with elaborate orchestral arrangements in rock; in fact, just the opposite. Myriad musicians, from Barry White to Scott Walker, from the Rolling Stones to Curtis Mayfield – even contemporary indie songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Jens Lekman – have used strings and horns to create works of enduring beauty and power. (And personally, I practically live for such musical grandiloquence. I’m all about that shit.) However, these artists had the foresight to balance their bombastic instrumentation with quiet beauty and lyrical witticism. Foxygen’s kitchen-sink approach to baroque-pop, on the other hand, just feels like – dare I say it – a bit much? Hang may leave a lot to be desired lyrically, but what it lacks in storytelling, it more than makes up for in stupid, over-the-top rock ‘n roll extravagance that teeters a bit too much towards chintzy self-parody. It’s like a shiny, jewel-encrusted box with nothing in it. One desperately wishes the band had spent more time refining their ideas into fully-realized songs instead of hanging back in hopes that the orchestra would carry the weight. But hey, at least they seem pretty satisfied with themselves, I guess.

The upbeat “Follow the Leader” opens the album with Supertramp-like keys, and it’s roughly another four seconds until the strings leap into action, then continue full-throttle for the remainder of the song. France does his best Mick Jagger-meets Hunky Dory-era David Bowie-meets-Thom Yorke on a coke bender over the lush, dreamy orchestration. Next, vaudevillian piano (complemented by horns and harp) leads us into “Avalon” (not to be confused with the Roxy Music song of the same name), a goofy pop-rock romp in the tradition of Elton John’s 70s heyday. Loop-de-looping clarinet solos, honking saxes, buoyant scatting, a double-time interlude, and a colossal sing-along chorus ensue as France yowls such sweet nothings as “Sunset Boulevard, nightmare dreams/Take this candle off the porcelain scene…Grab your favorite sweater, we’re in for nasty weather/In the gardens of Avalon.” Um, okay.

“America,” a schmaltzy, Todd Rundgren-worshipping suite-within-a-song, is perhaps the most ludicrous offender in the sensory overload department. France’s voice, now a wobbly, warbling snarl, rides flowing woodwinds and chintzy strings into a huge, drum-laden chorus as subtle organ and harp slip in and out of the frame. In the song’s maniacal bridge, the backing musicians make rapid, jerky switches between time signatures and tempos, shifting without warning from quiet piano-prog into big-band swing into John Zorn speed-jazz. Thankfully, this ecstatic delirium marks the halfway point of the record, so you can take a breather if you need to.

It’s clear that the band is still evoking the past; they’ve just shifted their focus to the more flamboyant side of rock history. At some junctures, they prove a bit too good at such emulation; “On Lankershim” straight-up hijacks the opening to “Tiny Dancer” before turning into what sounds like an ELO song and a Little River Band song being played at the same time, and the chorus of “Avalon” gallops with the exact same cadences as that of ABBA’s bouncy, sax-laden “Waterloo.”

The spectacle rages on: France adopts a Jim Morrison growl for “Upon a Hill,” fumbling blindly for rhymes in a manner not unlike Morrison himself (“I sit upon a hill/And through the windowsill she slowly sings a song for me/And in her eyes/She hands me my disguise, mmmmmmmm“); what starts as a relatively laid-back track transmogrifies halfway through into an madcap 2/4 runaway-carousel polka. The waltzy soul ballad “Trauma” continues piling on layers, threatening to collapse under its own cumbersome weight before it abruptly stops. The song, while ostensibly about trauma, has  disappointingly little to say on the subject (“Some are big, and some are much larger…They from our mothers and fathers, among others”).

Finally, we reach the end of this overwhelming sonic journey with the hyper-melodramatic “Rise Up,” which employs Meat Loaf-like choruses lousy with timpani, harp, strings, chimes, and some pretty kick-ass French horn. The track moves into yacht-soul territory on the verses as France fixates, apparently, on Wilson Rawls’ 1961 children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows and stumbles upon the most profound lyrics on the entire record – words that, in these harrowing times, take on a particular poignancy (“It’s time to wake up early/Start taking care of your health/And start doing all the hard things, and believe in yourself/And follow your own heart, if nothing else/And listen to your own dreams, nobody else’s will do”). Really nice thought. Would that they could have applied this kind of thinking throughout the album instead of going all crypto-psychedelia on us.

Hang is a fucking weird record, even by Foxygen’s standards. Still, there’s more than a little charm to the whole affair, and it’s easy to get swept away by the maximalistic bedlam and truly awe-inspiring musicianship exhibited in these eight songs. At its best, it’s entertaining and enjoyable; it fails in a couple places, but does so in such a noble and uninhibited way that you find yourself falling in love with it all the same. If the guys continue on this new sonic path while further polishing their songcraft, they could easily have another pop masterpiece on their hands. This may not quite be it, but it sure is a hell of a ride. (7.8/10)

Foxygen

Hang

Released January 20, 2017 on Jagjaguwar Records

Produced by Foxygen

Album Review: The xx, ‘I See You’

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Following a five-year absence, the xx have returned with some of their strongest, loveliest and most sophisticated work yet in I See You. The record packs a remarkable level of emotional drama into its 38 minutes, with fearless producer Jamie xx (whose terrific 2015 coming-out party In Colour hinted at a uniquely eclectic shift in sound), guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim wearing their stadium aspirations proudly on their sleeves.

The Londonite four-piece-turned-trio cut a major swath in the alternative universe with their 2009 debut xx, a stark, skeletal, mesmerizing record that stripped indie dance-pop down to its most basic elements. The follow-up, 2012’s Coexist, saw the band take an even more minimalistic approach to songcraft, with some tracks reserved to only ringing, shoegazy guitar and quavering vocals. With I See You, they expand their creative palates to create a fascinating, dreamy meld of house, post-punk and shoegaze.

It’s clear the band is doing things differently this time around, and they make a point of telling you as much from the start of the opening track. “Dangerous” begins with grandiose horn noises before breaking into a dancefloor-ready drum-bass beat. The beat thumps on infectiously as Croft and Sim croon about entering and navigating a love affair with reckless abandon: “I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared/If this only ends in tears/Then I won’t say goodbye.”

Working with regular collaborator Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie makes ample use of his newly-refined prowess as an electronic producer on this record. He plays a pivotal role in the band’s new musical direction, his lush, intoxicating sonic textures form an ideal foundation for the aching sentiments of his bandmates. The arrangements are warmer and more complex, yet they retain the chilly shimmer of the group’s previous work. The ringing, U2-esque guitar is still very much present, but this time it’s buttressed by the sounds of organ, horns, strings (including avant-garde legend Laurie Anderson on viola), and – in a notable first for the group – the prominent use of vocal samples. The samples aren’t exactly obscure (soft-rockers Alessi Brothers on the vaguely dubstep “Say Something Loving,” Trio Mediæval on the divinely hypnotic two-become-one anthem “Lips”), but they’re expertly woven into the record’s motif and elevate the meanings of the songs themselves instead of functioning as mere ornaments.

As songwriters and as vocalists, Sim and Croft have never sounded stronger or more self-assured than on I See You; Croft, in particular, seems to drift out of her comfort zone, displaying a more dynamic side of her reserved, breathy voice. The duo have mastered the art of exuding passion in their vocals and words while still maintaining a sort of detached coolness. They often have admitted in interviews to singing “over” each other instead of “to” one another – a dynamic that serves the group and their music well as their lyrics keep a delicate balance between desire for human connection and observing connection from a distance with a cold exactness. “It’s so overwhelming/The thrill of affection feels so unfamiliar,” they sigh on “Say Something Loving”; “I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t feel wrong.”

This lyrical focus – love, intimacy and youth as a disjointed, alien experience  – continues throughout the album. “A Violent Noise” uses a distinctly club beat, albeit far darker and more subdued, to evoke the experience of young clubgoers and the abstract numbness and confusion youth and clubgoing constantly entail – the feeling of being alone on a crowded dancefloor. “With every kiss from a friend/with everything I pretend not to feel,” Sim sings. “Am I too high? Am I too proud?/Is the music too loud for me to hear?” On “Replica,” somber, airy guitar and church organ-like chords flutter over thumping bass as the two contemplate the struggle to avoid imitating the mistakes of the preceding generation: “Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat…Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?”

Emphatic lead single “On Hold” presents an interesting contradiction. It’s one of the brightest, most upbeat songs the xx have ever crafted, packed with soaring synth notes and crackling breakbeats, yet its lyrics overflow with isolation and a fruitless quest for understanding, complete with astronomical imagery (“The stars and the charts and the cards make sense/Only when we want them to/When I lie awake staring in to space/I see a different view…Now you’ve found a new star to orbit…When and where did we go cold?”) A chopped-up, garbled sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” transforms into a Tower of Babel, enhancing the supreme bewilderment and disorientation. Altogether, the track is a gorgeously subdued statement that ranks among the group’s best.

The devastating “Performance,” which bears perhaps the closest resemblance to the band’s previous work of anything found on I See You, is another standout moment. Here, Croft’s voice levitates over a barebones guitar/bass backdrop and swelling, brutish orchestration courtesy of Paul Frith and the Iskra String Quartet as she all-too-appropriately connects the concealing of emotion to a stage act (“If I scream at the top of my lungs, will you hear what I don’t say…I do it all so you won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks/I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face”). The song touches upon a crucial point; after all, what is love in our modern world – indeed, what is the very art of music – if not the adoption of personae, the projection of feeling – an elaborately staged performance? Croft’s words take on an even greater poignancy when, ultimately, the illusion becomes reality as she and her lover drift further apart (“The show is wasted on you/So I perform for me”).

It’s the closing track, “Test Me,” however, that drives the whole thing home. The song begins as a slow, unadorned dirge with minimal percussion but gathers energy in its final minutes, gradually adding layer upon layer of wailing synths, vocals and drums to form a hauntingly vivid soundscape. Add Croft’s and Sim’s entreats for their respective lovers to “take it out on me,” and it’s an incredibly heartbreaking note on which to end this record. But heartbreak is what the xx do best, and here they manage to find new and intriguing ways to express it.

I See You is a beautiful and magnificently realized work that highlights the xx’s individual and collective strengths while successfully challenging them to explore uncharted territory. If you’re still in need of proof of their relevance and vitality in an age when lackluster, play-it-safe “alternative” music chokes the airwaves, this is the record to do it. This group is a force of extraordinary gravitas and potency, and it’s sure to be thrilling to watch what they do next. (8.4/10)

The xx

I See You

Released January 13, 2017 by Young Turks

Produced by Jamie xx, Rodaidh McDonald and Romy Madley Croft

Classic Album Review: Deerhunter, ‘Monomania’

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[Originally published May 10, 2013]

As I write this, I have not yet finished listening to Deerhunter’s sixth studio effort; my Spotify is not reacting well to the poor Internet connection in my bedroom, and it’s turning into this whole big deal. But judging simply from the 8 of its 12 tracks I’ve heard at this point, I can confidently state that I am in love with this record. It’s just that incredible.

The recently reunited Bradford Cox and co. are in top form on Monomania. The classic elements are all here: Cox’s imitation-Lennon-via-George Harrison vocals, substantial but never overstated; Lockett Pundt’s jangly, endlessly echo-y guitar riffs; and the truly hip percussion work of Moses Archuleta, all wrapped in a swirling cocoon of feedback and garage-fuzz. And yet, the group’s playing has rarely ever sounded tighter than on this record—thanks in large part to the addition of able-handed newcomers Frankie Broyles and Josh McKay on guitar and bass, respectively. The band also happens to have expanded their musical palate, with the various players jamming on Indonesian gamelan, Wurlitzer, Baldwin organ, and steel guitar, among other nifty gadgets. (Okay, not quite as striking as the random sax solo on their 2010 record Halcyon Digest’s “Coronado,” but still pretty damn striking.)

The songwriting rocks, too, with Cox’s and a bit of Pundt’s (“The Missing”) beautiful, cryptic lyrics exploring previously virgin territories of paranoia, alienation, and confused love. Each track begins with a lovely and devastatingly infectious hook that lets you know instantly that it’s going to be fantastic. From the tinny fog-machine opening of “Neon Junkyard” to the drum-saturated whir that closes out “Leather Jacket II” to the laid-back sighs of “Dream Captain” and “The Missing,” each of these songs will ease its way into your brain and heart. (Expect to hear “Back to the Middle” played sporadically at a Hollister near you—and expect to love it to pieces.)

With all these powerful, radio-ready hooks—along with tasteful production from the band and veteran co-worker Nicolas Vernhes (Microcastle)—this could easily be considered Deerhunter’s “poppiest” record. Indeed, they’ve been easing away from the experimental tendencies of their early records in favor of a more pop-oriented sound (a listen to the stellar cut “Memory Boy” from Halcyon should give you an idea of what I’m talking about).

But Monomania, like most of the group’s work, is “poppy” in the sense that it mirrors one certain Kurt Cobain’s efforts to create the “perfect pop song” with just a smidgen of grungy grit. And when these guys lay on the grit, boy, do they ever lay it on thick. Listen to the quirky, rowdy noise-jam/freak-outs at the end of the title track and “Leather Jacket” (themselves a testament to the clear blast the reunited ensemble had in the studio this time around) and you’d swear this record was made in 1992, hand-produced by Albini himself. But this is by no means a grunge throwback, nor is it a sloppy throwaway effort; the band once again does a stellar job of combining their varied influences with their own unflinching avant-garde vision.

In the end, the best thing about Monomania is that it provides us with a peek at something truly magical: a band doing what they do best, to the best of their ability–and obviously loving every feedback-soaked minute of it. (8.7/10)

Deerhunter

Monomania

Released May 7, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Nicolas Vernhes

Classic Album Review: The National, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

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[Originally published May 24, 2013]

When you think about it, the National bears striking similarity to Arcade Fire. Both are independently-born merchants of arty post-punk/folk anthems with impassioned lyrics. Each has spawned countless imitators who, despite their earnest efforts, have never been able to truly duplicate its sound. They have both created a genre all their own and revolutionized music forever within the first decade of this fledgling century.

That being said, who’s stopping the National from making an Arcade Fire album?

Does that frighten you? It shouldn’t. True, Trouble Will Find Me – the sixth studio effort from the Cincinnatian-turned-Brooklynite sextet, and their first since 2010’s High Violet  sounds a hell of a lot like the brilliant work of those darn Canadians. The soaring choruses and ooh-aahing choirs are there, as is the cryptic, passionate songwriting. Need I mention that Richard Reed Parry (yes, that Richard Reed Parry) plays bass, piano, and God-knows-what-else?!

But that’s not all. The album’s collaborators are a laundry list of art-indie’s cream of the crop, including (but not limited to): Sufjan Stevens and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on keyboards; backing vocals from St. Vincent and Sharon Van Etten; and bits and pieces provided by members of Beirut, Dark Dark Dark, Antony and the Johnsons, Bedroom Community, Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Clogs (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s instrumental side project).

Okay. Take a breath. Just soak all that collaboration in. Okay. On we go.

This potpourri of co-conspirators may seem overwhelming – a post-punk New Year’s Eve of sorts, where it seems impossible for each component to have an ample say. And yet the band manages to incorporate all these varied influences into one coherent whole and wrap them in its trademark blanket of chilly New Wave-influenced post-punk. Thus, on Trouble Will Find Me, the band creates something truly unique, yet strangely familiar.

The album opens with soft Dessner guitar over a shimmering post-punk landscape as frontman Matt Berninger’s weary baritone shivers, “You should know me better than that/I should live in salt for leaving you behind.”

Next comes the imposing, dark single “Demons.” It’s a repetitive, dreamy, ageless-sounding drone with eerie guitar humming and a thin wall of strings in the distance. Think Nick Cave fronting Disintegration-era Cure. Here Berninger even squeezes in a rare obscenity (it starts with an ‘F’) that can easily go unnoticed by casual listeners.

“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is one of the many standout tracks on the album. Synthetic drums and siren guitars envelop a somber yet somehow hopeful tale of death and loss. “When they ask what do I see,” croons Berninger, “I see a bright white beautiful heaven hangin’ over me.”

The mesmerizing instrumentation continues throughout the record. From the gorgeous muted guitar-piano conversation and fluttering strings of “Fireproof” to the slow, spaced-out 3/4 keyboard dirge of “Heavenfaced” to the jazzy piano and urgent fretwork of “Pink Rabbits,” there’s rarely a dull moment on any of the thirteen tracks–or rather, rarely a moment that feels commonplace. The whole thing gives the listener the feel of waking up at 4:30 AM – in New York City, perhaps – barely awake, just beginning to make sense of things.

In case you haven’t noticed, this album has a certain overriding theme as far as songwriting is concerned. It’s a darkly meditative opus, lyrics awash with regret over mistakes made on both sides of some nameless relationship. And as we’ve come to expect from these guys, the writing is top-notch. “I’m having trouble inside my skin/I try to keep my skeletons in,” coos Berninger over cool synthscapes and guitar rings on the serene “Slipped.” “I’ll be your friend and a fuckup and everything/But I’ll never be anything you want me to be.”

Berninger, of course, to continue the Arcade Fire compare-contrast, bears little resemblance to Win Butler with his Ian Curtis-meets-Steve Kilbey vocals. But though he sounds apathetic and distant to the layman, his voice has a certain peculiar passion to them; when he growls “I need my girl,” you’re thoroughly convinced that he does need his girl.  When that voice is put in context with its surroundings, it works spine-tingling miracles.

Trouble Will Find Me is full of lovelorn romanticism and aching regret – with just a hint of hope for redemption. This is an art of which the National can pride themselves on being masters. Coating their canvas with a shroud of darkness, they simultaneously touch it up with spots of light and beauty. What results is a grandly emotive and frightfully powerful record – one of the best of the year thus far – and further proof that these six young men figure big among the musicians that matter most today. (8.4/10)

The National

Trouble Will Find Me

Released May 21, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner