2021

2021 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02

2021’s amazing musical landscape was inversely proportional to the shitstorm we were wading through. It was a musical year marked by innovation, interest and courage. Enjoy and I will again implore you, as George Michael did, to “Listen Without Prejudice!

. . . . . .

30

Wiki

HALF GOD

Parick Morales, AKA Wiki, spins colorful coming-of age tales of the NYC streets. All in the shadow of the ever-blooming gentrification of a changing New York. Mature, full-throated and soulful, this is rap at its finest.

RAP

. . . . . .

29

Dawn Richard

SECOND LINE

Bringing a deep personal sense of Southern humanity to the dance genre, “Second Line” stands as a landmark. Dawn Richard isn’t interested in the limitations of a throbbing party, but more focused on a contemplative exploration of personal history and liberation through music and dance. Depth on the dance floor.

RnB

. . . . . .

28

Yola

STAND FOR MYSELF

With his penchant for bluesy authenticity, it’s no surprise that Dan Auerbach produced this Nashville chanteuse’s 2021 release. The result is a powerful assertion of Yola’s confidence, talent, and experience. Warm as whiskey, smoky as a Delta honky tonk, bittersweet as citrus on a cool summer breeze.

ROCK

. . . . . .

27

Geese

PROJECTOR

Buzzy Brooklyn darlings Geese stun on this ambitious rock debut. Punchy post-punk song compositions lay with lush production in powerful arcs. Jangling guitar cascades jibe with quirky indie straight-legged jerks in fits. Sexy, dangerous, louche, cool.

ROCK

. . . . . .

26

Joeboy

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BEAUTY AND MAGIC

A love letter, history lesson and personal portrait wrapped in one incredible release from this Chicago In 2021, Nigerian pop-icon-in-the-making Joeboy brought us this perfectly sweet collection of songs about love, longing and ambition. It balances a youthful exuberance with a sure songwriting hand and deft production touch. Not shabby at all for a debut release.

POP

. . . . . .

25

Low

HEY WHAT

27 years into their careers as Low, duo Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk dive headlong into a beautiful, angular reverie on these 10 songs of stormy distortion. Perhaps no album in 2021 better in captured the beauty of tense electrical decay so present in today’s society.

ROCK

. . . . . .

24

Sons of Kemet

BLACK TO THE FUTURE

Jazz supergroup Sons of Kemet kick brass in this politically-minded musical journey through subjects like race, equality, and black consciousness, to name a few. Created in collaboration with progressive US-and-UK-based rap artists, this is an ambitious record that unfolds new depth with each listen.

JAZZ

. . . . . .

23

Jack Ingram + Miranda Lambert ≠ Jon Randall

THE MARFA TAPES

This is a love letter to the power of a song well written. Ingram, Lambert, and Randall have given us an honest-to-God Americana record here, lo-fi, off-the-grid and as pretty and broad as the skies of West Texas. The name really says it all: This ain’t Nashville and it’s all the better for it.

COUNTRY

. . . . . .

22

Jaubi

NAFS AT PEACE

Another staggering debut on the list. This time, from ranging Pakistani jazz icon-smashers Jaubi. Stiring Hindustani classical, jazz improv, and J Dilla-like hooks into the same stock pot, Jaubi puts the “spirit” in spiritual jazz. Revelatory.

JAZZ

. . . . . .

21

Iceage

SEEK SHELTER

Iceage goes to Madchester. Or is it Detroit? New York, maybe? All of those influences are bricks in the wall of sound that the Danes have built on “Seek Shelter.” The cocksure swagger here is undeniable. If you ever loved Ocean Color Scene, The Stooges, Springsteen, or MC5, hop on board and turn it UP.

ROCK

. . . . . .

20

Japanese Breakfast

JUBILEE

From brilliant melody creation, to narrative structure, to hooky beats, Michelle Zauner is firing on all cylinders on “Jubilee.” Tonally, it ranges from the minute to the palatial, from devastation and loss to a joyful exuberance. This is the mature work of a true talent in full flight.

ROCK

. . . . . .

19

Spirit of the Beehive

ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH

Moving, complex jazz songs, exquisitely produced. The maturity and balance of these compositions This one isn’t for the easy listeners… And God bless, I love it more for that fact. Evolutionary, oblique, mutant, shattered, but euphoric. A mad scientist’s conceit. A genius’ conceptual nod-and-wink. Eleven tracks of uncompromising vision and unquestionable talent. 

ROCK

. . . . . .

18

Alfa Mist

BRING BACKS

This is the Jazz statement we’ve been looking for from the UK producer, MC and pianist, at once dynamic and pensive. These songs shimmer with monster musicianship, shudder with head-bobbing beats, and strut with the streetwise sophistication of a master of his domain. 

JAZZ

. . . . . .

17

The Black Keys

DELTA KREAM

The Black Keys pay glorious tribute to the North Mississippi blues that have formed the basis for their sound in 12 classics re-imagined. This is a fastball for them, right in the pocket. The Delta swamp is here, but the smoke, worn pine boards, and tin roofs are painted in watercolor washes… More refined, smooth, comfortable and artful.

BLUES

. . . . . .

16

Emma-Jean Thackray

YELLOW

Yet another amazing debut on the list. UK bandleader Emma-Jean Thackray gives us a psychedelic, spiritual album that is thoroughly comfy in the vastness of space, both inner and outer.  The second line is here, but it’s marching through the canals of Mars and out into the cosmos. 

JAZZ

. . . . . .

15

Olivia Rodrigo

SOUR

Eleven brilliant torch songs for a world-weary 2021, intimate and expansive in turns. That duality best captures the terribly small, human moments yet fist-in-the-air grandiosity that encompasses young love. Sometimes you just gotta dance away the breakup.

POP

. . . . . .

14

Jazmine Sullivan

HEAUX TALES

“Heaux Tales” is a patchwork quilt of the female experience brought to us in sublime technicolor by a songstress in full swing. These are straight-up soulful bangers and it’s an absolute star turn by Sullivan. But, this is so much more than a showcase for her prodigious talents. It is a multifarious, conceptual voyage.

RnB

. . . . . .

13

The Weather Station

IGNORANCE

Tamara Lindeman’s work has never seemed so urgent, never so broad, never so perfectly realized as it does on “Ignorance.” That’s saying something for a career filled with stunning songwriting. The lush, robust production here only brings out the power of these compositions. A triumph.

FOLK

. . . . . .

12

Guided By Voices

EARTH MAN BLUES

GBV has made a career of standing outside. If you figure they formed in the early 80s, that’s no mean feat. “Earth Man Blues” is sterling proof that the rockers can continue to buck the odds, refuse to surrender, and remain “other.” This is alt rock and roll in its most defiant, freewheeling sense.

ROCK

. . . . . .

11

Damon Locks + Black Monument Ensemble

NOW

Effortless and elastic. Passionate and powerful. Doleful and displeased. Resolute and reformative. These Intense, acute, avant-garde, and complex, “Now” is a superlative effort from the Chicago-based talent Damon Locks. This is an important work of social consciousness. All of that could come with difficulty for a lesser composer and band, but the ensemble here gives this work an incisive, addictive accessibility. 

JAZZ

. . . . . .

10

St. Vincent

DADDY’S HOME

This listens like the glam era sent you a flirty, drunken message at 3AM on a too-hot New York night. The Thin White Duke or Donald and Walter themselves would be proud of the metamorphic, artistic 70s bray and sashay here. So good. 

ROCK

. . . . . .

09

Julien Baker

LITTLE OBLIVIONS

An intensely personal record. “Little Oblivions” uses a bigger, broader palette of sound to bring a greater sense of gravity to the ripping reflection of Julien Baker’s marvelous songwriting. The crazy thing is that Baker is performing all of the instruments on that bigger band sound herself. Phenomenal. 

ROCK

. . . . . .

08

Nick Cave + Warren Ellis

CARNAGE

Grief unbound. Gothic terror triumphant. Brutality revealed. All wrapped in a veil of romantic, ominous beauty. All of the promise of the goth movement is realized on a record like this, at once progressive and gorgeous and dark and bloodthirsty. This is the work of masters. Full stop.

ROCK

. . . . . .

07

Duran Duran

FUTURE PAST

The name says it all. A punchy-as-fuck culmination of over 40 years of experience, experimentation, and ecstatic eyes on the future. The wry smile of the early songs is still here, but infused with a fresh, contemporary energy. In the words of LL… “Don’t call it a comeback.”

ROCK

. . . . . .

06

Pharoah SandersFloating Points + London Symphony Orchestra

PROMISES

Luaka Bop has always brought the innovative fire. They’re just right to give the world this exploratory masterpiece, bringing together DJ / Musician Floating Points, über-saxman Pharaoh Sanders and the LSO. Simply put, that’s an EVENT. Five years in the making, this is a high-water mark in ALL of the genres it explores — Jazz, Electronic and Classical. Simply astounding in scope and realization.

JAZZ

. . . . . .

05

Little Simz

SOMETIMES I MIGHT BE INTROVERT

Definitely the best rap outing of the year and one of the most thrilling releases of 2021 period. The North London MC, Little Simz, has created something transcendent here, both intimate and grand in turns. Bombastic, muscular, playful, ambitious, masterful.

RAP

. . . . . .

04

Mdou Moctar

AFRIQUE VICTIME

Nigerien desert blues master Mdou Moctar returns in 2021 with easily the best guitar rock album released in a decade. The album serves notice that Moctar will leave permanent mark on the genre. It transports the listener to his homeland and acts as a reminder that groundbreaking guitar rock can come from anywhere. Expansive and truly brilliant.

ROCK

. . . . . .

03

Black Country, New Road

FOR THE FIRST TIME

A fragmented swath of genius for a fractured world. Black Country, New Road encapsulate the struggle of our times through 6 progressive songs of angular beauty, proving that there can be poignance in the chaos that surrounds us. Is this rock, is it jazz, some sort of neo-klezmer? something else. Who knows. But it’s damn powerful.

ROCK

. . . . . .

02

Turnstile

GLOW ON

It’s official, the best hardcore album of the year is also perhaps the most danceable. If that raises an eyebrow, know that Baltimore rockers Turnstile aren’t interested in classification, lines, or categories. For everything I could say about the polyphony or intelligence of the work, this album is most importantly PURE FUN!!!

. . . . . .

======

2021 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

AROOJ AFTAB

VULTURE PRINCE

“Vulture Prince” is the product of loss and uncertainty. Reeling from the passing of both her brother and a close friend and facing a the horrors of a global pandemic, Arooj Aftab reached for the South Asian song forms from her Urdu past for the album. In those forms, a poetic blend of music and words which express a longing for God, she finds an entrancing beauty, fraught with meaning and redemption. 

Aftab’s Pakistani roots are on full display here. But those roots are watered by her current life in Brooklyn and her time at Berlklee College of Music in Boston. That gives “Vulture Prince” a tradition-meets-now sensibility. The blend is intoxicating and puts the music outside of something strictly definable as one thing or another. That is perhaps most heard on the reggae-tinged “Last Night.” 

Musically, it is a wonder of restraint and subtlety. Each instrument does only what it needs. Each note, stating its case beautifully and leading to the next. Moments of tension slowly build, driving poignance and underscoring the emotional content of these songs. Then, there’s the smoky, elastic velvet of Aftab’s voice floating overtop the musicianship. It is at once sacred and secular, sublime and erotic. 

The album’s third song, “Inayaat”… A magnificent deeper cut… Really drives all of this home. Tension builds, giving way to acceptance and finally gorgeous resolution. In this song, we find the perfect signifier for the album and a fitting, lasting echo for our times of loss and hope. If music is a healer, then I can’t imagine stronger medicine than “Vulture Prince.” In 2021, it’s just what the proverbial doctor ordered. 


======

2021 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

LITTLE SIMZ

INTROVERT

“Introvert” embodies an individual’s internal awakening and struggle in the external turmoil our society battles daily as we confront a shattered world. Simz sets her headlong lyrical flow against a background of epic majesty, giving the song an almost apocalyptic importance. No other song better captured the examination of both inner spaces and societal breakdown we all wrestle with from when our head leaves the pillow too early in the morning until it lays back down too late. 

. . . . .

======

2020

2020 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02

What can be said of 2020 that hasn’t already? What a shitshow of a year in SO many ways. It’s no surprise that ennui, dread, and (dare I say) hope seemed to be reflected in the exploratory brilliance that made it into our headphones this year. With live music basically cancelled in toto, 2020 was all about how these albums reached us in our day-to-day existence and brought us through… And that made them all the more special. Since we’ve all been doing plenty of reading this year, I’ve stuck to the Twitter 280 format for these reviews.

30

Dominic Fike

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG

34 short minutes, studded with tight pop gemstones. Fike’s lyric from “Double Negative” perhaps best tallys the release, “Changin’ right in front of me… Going through phases right in front of my face.” That sums up the protean nature and wild potential of this young artist.

. . . . . .

29

Fleet Foxes

SHORE

A breezy and sun-dappled return to the classic soaring Fleet Foxes sound. This is the warm grandeur that the broken world of 2020 needs.

. . . . . .

28

Nduduzo Makhathini

MODES OF COMMUNICATION: LETTERS FROM THE UNDERWORLDS

The term “spiritual Jazz” is thrown around an awful lot, but few albums more aptly deserve the moniker than this Blue Note debut. Born of jazz, gospel, and African roots, these are 11 songs of rich depth and healing touch.

. . . . . .

27

Amaarae

THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

Pure afropop liberation. This is a freewheeling, effortless unity of everything from American RnB to Nigerian alté to soulful Southern top 40. It makes for a heady cocktail that would make Janet Jackson at her best jealous.

. . . . . .

26

Yves Tumor

HEAVEN TO A TORTURED MIND

Like a love child of Prince and TV On The Radio, Yves Tumor struts through 12 majestic art-rock burners that trade experimentation for cocksure swagger. It’s a move he proves totally ready for on “Heaven.”

. . . . . .

25

Burna Boy

TWICE AS TALL

Towering-but-intimately-reflexive compositions that swing through afrobeat, dancehall, EDM, rap, and reggaeton with equal aplomb. Burna Boy unites it all under a waving flag of traditional rhythms and established melodies. A rich narrative of Black identity.

. . . . . .

24

JYOTI

MAMA, YOU CAN BET!

Georgia Anne Muldrow, recording under a nickname bestowed upon her by the amazing Alice Coltraine, gives us a jazzy, funky, spacey, rhythmic revelation of a record. Both experimental soundscape and spiritual historical trip, this is the confident work of a master in the making.

. . . . . .

23

Spilliage Village

SPILLIGION

Atlanta-based rap supergroup Spillage Village gives us a new expansive and rootsy gospel for the end times we’re living through on “Spilligion.” Progressive, buoyant, and soulful.

. . . . . .

22

BAD BUNNY

YHLQMDLG

The title says it all — YHLOMDLG or “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana” means “I do whatever I want” and that’s exactly where Ocasio is as an artist here. Is there anything that he isn’t redefining right now?

. . . . . .

21

My Dying Bride

THE GHOST OF ORION

Epic, magisterial, poignant, doleful, emotional, hard. This is how doom should sound. And with good reason… Vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe’s young daughter has just beaten cancer and members have left the band of late. Adversity, it seems, has brought a steely beauty to this record.

. . . . . .

20

Jessie Ware

WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE

Spinning like a dervish, awash in the speckled light of a glittering disco ball, Jessie Ware explores classic dance in this sumptuously sleek release. Arguably the most listenable album of the year. Definitely the most fun.

. . . . . .

19

Thundercat

IT IS WHAT IT IS

Accomplished. Virtuosic. Polished. Quirky AF. Stephen Bruner gives us another idiosyncratic trip to a makeout session in the orchestra pit by way of Mars. In a decidedly weird year, what better soundtrack?

. . . . . .

18

The 1975

NOTES ON A CONDITIONAL FORM

Sheer pop-rock conceptual bliss. A grand experiment you can actually dance to. Broad horizon-scanning sweeps. Intimate stolen kisses. “Notes” is all of these things.

. . . . . .

17

The Cribs

NIGHT NETWORK

A perfect slice of indie rock throwback charm. From the opener “Goodbye,” wet with “Pet Sounds” styling to the strutting rock and roll kicks of the album’s closer “In The Neon Night,” this is a brilliant document of a band in full-throated swing.

. . . . . .

16

Blossoms

FOOLISH LOVING SPACES

The legacy of Talking Heads casts a colorful shadow over “Foolish Loving Spaces” in the best way possible. Brilliantly produced, funky, charming and indie-but-totally-approachable, this is barefoot, dance-in-the-moonlight music.

. . . . . .

15

Soccer Mommy

COLOR THEORY

Sophie Allison guides us through 10 powerful and unstinting songs about her mother’s terminal illness. The lyrical content is unsettled and bracing, but the sound and performance is assured… Bigger and more confident. Beautiful.

. . . . . .

14

Declan McKenna

ZEROS

The ghosts of U2, Bowie, the Beatles, Franz Ferdinand and the 90s Brit Invasion float through this rock concept masterpiece. Effortless and glib, these are cocksure compositions, emblematic of an artist who has found his feet firmly under him.

. . . . . .

13

Deftones

OHMS

The push and pull between the velvet glove and its gentle spaciousness and the iron fist with its sawtooth sinew creates a third metalic energy on “Ohms.” Releases like this are the reason that a new generation of bands like Deafheaven wear a love for the Deftones on their sleeves.

. . . . . .

12

Fiona Apple

FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS

Fiona Apple gives us her most arresting and creative work in a career built on innovative expression. This is an intimate, rhythmic, manic flourish of paint across the blank page. If waiting 8 years gives us something this amazing… Please take your time, Fiona. It’s well worth it.

. . . . . .

11

Adrianne Lenker

SONGS / INSTRUMENTALS

Remarkable, authentic, crafted songs of harrowing honesty and simplicity. Lenker recorded this work in a one-room cabin in the woods of Western Mass in just three weeks. We hear that incredible sense of direct acoustic immediacy. In all, a beautiful gift.

. . . . . .

10

Duval Timothy

HELP

“Help” walks the line of both sides of Duval’s heritage, deftly dancing between the community heart of Sierra Leone and the bass-driven thrum of contemporary Britain. In turns experimental, contemplative, complex, minimal and shot through with a meticulous, expressive beauty.

. . . . . .

09

Bob Dylan

ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS

After every possible acclaim including a Nobel Prize for literature, what can… What SHOULD… Bob Dylan do? Return to the twilight landscape of his craft, of course. This gorgeous record is an achievement and reminds us how it’s done.

. . . . . .

08

Run The Jewels

RTJ4

When the Ken Burns of the future produces a miniseries on the societal nightmare that was 2020, “RTJ4” will be the soundtrack. From racial tension to police brutality to the existential stress we all feel, this release is a klaxon. We need this music.

. . . . . .

07

Phoebe Bridgers

PUNISHER

In turns anxious and wry, satirical and surreal, poetic and world-weary, “Punisher” proves Bridgers a worthy heir to artists like Joan Didion, Warren Zevon, and John Prine. This is emo-folk at its most droll and most beautiful.

. . . . . .

06

Bartees Strange

LIVE FOREVER

An echoing alt-howl of an album bathed in the harsh light of a single streetlight biting into the warm darkness of a Middle America night. As intimate as it is expansive, this album is a triumph of independent sound.

. . . . . .

05

Perfume Genius

SET MY HEART ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY

Mike Haddreas is an alchemist. Using the philosopher’s stone of his prodigious talent, he is able to grind out brilliant songs of golden longing in the fires of experience and creativity. “Set” is an open-armed embrace and I know I needed that many times in this year of uncertainty.

. . . . . .

04

U. S. Girls

HEAVY LIGHT

60s girl band fever dreams, Bowie’s harmonic disco melancholia, and golden age pop heartbeats set against a wall of deep personal history and clear-eyed grief… All with an eye to the future. A revelation of an album for our times.

. . . . . .

03

Moses Sumney

GRAE

20 songs of polyphonic catharsis. Two albums of unbridled beauty. Sumney’s otherworldly gifts give us something that is at once among the stars and deep inside the lubricious. It is in that dichotomy that Sumney finds an outsider’s freedom and we find an alien grace.

. . . . . .

02

Immanuel Wilkins

OMEGA

At only 22, Wilkins gives us an instant Jazz classic of emotional depth and impeccable skill. Knitting together a palpable respect for what has come before with a fresh vision for what’s next, these 10 songs offer a springboard to a hopeful future for all of us.

======

2020 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUDAH

AXIOM

“What you’re experiencing tonight… Is the re-evaluation. We’ve just crossed into the second century of creative improvised music, or if you believe in belittling in pejorative terms — ‘Jazz.’ But this is also part of what we’re re-evaluating — we’re re-evaluating what we’re playing and why…”
 
This intro to “Axiom,” spoken live after the album’s opener, sums up so much of what is captured in the title for this release. An “axiom” is a statement, assumed to be true, so that other arguments and thoughts can proceed from there. “Axiom” (the album) is a definitive statement, but only so much as it acts as a launching pad for new directions for Scott and his septet and new avenues for creative improvisation at large.
 
Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC in March, as COVID tightened its grip upon the world, we see a band in flight, captured in soaring sweep. Fueled by a rekindled energy, the band shows us new directions for compositions both recent and classic. The entire 90 minutes of music here shines with an immediacy and freshness that the precision of Scott’s studio recordings often belie.
 
The album opens with a 2019 track, “Adjudah (I Own the Night)” and it’s a brilliant first act, with Scott’s horn swinging with the brassy energy of a toreador’s pirouetting dance. As a first volley, it’s nothing short of revelatory. But as Scott says after the track, “We’re just getting started.”
 
The remaining personnel is absolutely masterful here and they guide us through the entire performance with self-posession. Lawrence Fields on piano matches Scott’s defining, authoritative energy throughout. Flautist Elena Pinderhughes snakes through the performance with expressive dexterity. Weedie Braimah and Corey Fonville hold it down on djembe / congas and drums respectively with precision and chill-inducing instancy. Saxophonist Alex Han and bassist Kris Fun round out the band, anchoring, swaggering and unifying.
 
The remaining songs are songs of love, righteous indignation and personal experience. Each one reveals itself in crashing waves or stately steps or intimate kisses in turns.
 
The live nature of this album also cannot be ignored. In a time when live music seems like a distant memory, it is a reminder of the power of living, creative musical expression. And this is EXACTLY how the best live music should be… Dexterous and improvisational, emotional and powerful.
 
In a time of isolation, creativity will pull us through, as much as any vaccine. This is the soundtrack to that creativity both as a statement unto itself, but also to our own. 


======

2020 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

RUN THE JEWELS

A FEW WORDS FOR THE FIRING SQUAD (RADIATION)

From the first bars…
 
“I woke up early once again that’s four days straight
I didn’t wake you baby, I just watched you lay
In the radiation of the city sun
I am in love with you, it is my only grace
You know how everything can seem a little out of place?”
 
To the final lines…
 

“This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused
For the truth tellers tied to the

Whippin’ post, left beaten, battered, bruised
For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit
Go hard, last words to the firing squad was, ‘fuck you too’.”

… This is 2020 in an anthem. I returned to this song over and over this year.

Its fist-in-the-air message in the face of racial inequality, personal loss, and a shaken bottle of stress is RIGHT on time. Musically, it offers a perfect companion to those messages, both edgy and epic, building to a crashing crescendo. In all, it answers the question, “How much can you take?” with the question “How much have you got?”

. . . . .

======

​​

top30_year_2019

2019 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02

2019 was a year musically marked by fragmented, flowering exploration and redefinition. I think that says something about where we are creatively, but also where we are as a people. This list reflects that. I’ll say it again :: This list is totally personal, so I expect no one to agree with my choices. No one… Especially with this year’s choices. I only hope to inspire and pay some sense of homage to the things that moved me this year musically. I stuck with the 280 character Twitter format for 2019. It keeps things digestible. Enjoy and I will again implore you, as George Michael did, to “Listen Without Prejudice!”

30

Thurston Moore

SPIRIT COUNSEL

Music as art. The listener feels a part of some sonic artistic installation that fills a roofless gallery under vast desert skies. Alive with exploration and searching, these broad compositions reveal themselves through deft, painterly lines and electric, vibrating textures.

. . . . . .

29

Branford Marsalis Quartet

THE SECRET BETWEEN THE SHADOW AND THE SOUL

What lies at the intersection of Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea and the strut of a New Orleans second line? This lyrical release. Accomplished, purposeful, artful and unexpected, “The Secret” is the culmination of a career built upon musical brilliance.

. . . . . .

28

Fennesz

AGORA

Digital landscapes of sound, bathed in the shifting light of time-lapse. Techno meets grand sonic storytelling in an evolving statement of both the romantic and the electronic in turns. Incredibly mature.

. . . . . .

27

Helado Negro

THIS IS HOW YOU SMILE

In a word, sublime. These meditations on the immigrant life of a South Florida Latinx man glow with the warm pride of an open heart. There is darkness, displacement and uncertainty as well, but the albums earnest calmness offers an optimistic balm for those. Again, sublime.

. . . . . .

26

Jamila Woods

LEGACY! LEGACY!

A love letter, history lesson and personal portrait wrapped in one incredible release from this Chicago native. A personal history is explored through the lens of 13 cultural icons. This gives a backbone to the album and creates a powerful conversation between past and present.

. . . . . .

25

Purple Mountains

PURPLE MOUNTAINS

David Berman ambles through acrid songs of heartbreak, loss and grief awash in his inimitable style and swagger. This is Berman’s swan song, a snapshot of an artist in the days before his suicide. At once warm as a Nashville summer’s evening and as cold as the grave itself.

. . . . . .

24

Fabian Almazan Trio

THIS LAND ABOUNDS WITH LIFE

The title says it all. This release abounds with life. These are compositions of affirmation and contemplation, interlacing birdsong, a kind of beat poetry and sterling jazz musicianship into an inspiring personal brew. Brilliance realized.

. . . . . .

23

Kim Gordon

NO HOME RECORD

A solo debut after 38 years making iconoclastic classics? You bet. It’s all here, the exploratory sound and fury, the crawl of noise and pulse of rhythm… Often in exuberant collision. Yes, we’ve heard Kim play with these concepts before, but not like this. So very fresh.

. . . . . .

22

Solange

WHEN I GET HOME

Jazzy, open, protean, progressive and free-spirited. Gone are the confines of traditional song structure or crystal clear thematics that have characterized Solange’s past albums. What takes their place is the new textural expression and inquiry of a creative master at work.

. . . . . .

21

Kris Davis

DIATOM RIBBONS

A veritable jazz “supergroup” masterfully helmed by pianist Kris Davis and featuring Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Esperanza Spalding, DJ Val Jeanty, Ches Smith, Terri Lyne Carrington, Trevor Dunn, JD Allen, Tony Malaby, soars, bobs and weaves through 10 tracks of avant garde bliss.

. . . . . .

20

Raphael Saadiq

JIMMY LEE

Plays like a follow-up to Gaye’s landmark “What’s Going On.” This music is soulful, groovy, and brilliantly produced, but what takes the release to greatness is its portrait of Saadiq’s brother’s life, lost to deep heroin addiction. A work of pathos, desperation and true humanity.

. . . . . .

19

Joel Ross

KINGMAKER

Moving, complex jazz songs, exquisitely produced. The maturity and balance of these compositions belie Ross’ 23 years on the planet. His talent as a vibraphonist is perhaps only surpassed by his sensibilities as a bandleader on this release. So good.

. . . . . .

18

DIIV

DECEIVER

“Deceiver” chronicles the arduous arc of addiction and recovery and frames it in the fittingly claustrophobic guitars and serene snarl of sinewy shoegaze. Not quite metal. Not quite art rock. Not grunge. Nor sludge. Rather all of these in turns. Epic and affecting.

. . . . . .

17

Jenny Hval

THE PRACTICE OF LOVE

Pagan, ecological art pop with a passionate kiss of the personal. “The Practice” listens like an OG rave thrown by a poet and set in a cool, mist-laden forest at twilight. Awash in 90s crystal techno clarity, echoes of The Orb feel both nostalgic and totally fresh.

. . . . . .

16

(Sandy) Alex G

HOUSE OF SUGAR

Quirky and immersive, this 13 song collection is affecting and deeply intimate. Thematically, it explores the pull of need, desire and addiction. Musically, the album underscores these themes of a broken, demon-driven life through deft, exuberant exploration.

. . . . . .

15

Tom Harrell

INFINITY

Tom Harrell, Jonathan Blake, Charles Altura and Mark Turner make imaginative, spiritual magic on “Infinity.”  These songs dance between bebop sophistication, avant-garde searching and post-bop intensity with lyrical ease and exultation.

. . . . . .

14

Caroline Shaw / Attacca Quartet

ORANGE

This is joyful, adventurous, headlong chamber music. The album presents 6 pieces from composer, singer and instrumentalist Caroline Shaw realized through the amazingly capable hands of Attacca Quartet. Rangy, melodic, and contemporary, this is the sound of a new classical moment.

. . . . . .

13

Sharon Van Etten

REMIND ME TOMORROW

The push of squall and the pull of the intimate. The drive of fuzz and the echo of ambience. The blood of the soul expressed and the shimmer of independence. And, all of it anchored on “Remind Me Tomorrow” by Van Etten’s inspired North Star of climaxing melody and song craft.

. . . . . .

12

Dave Holland, Zakir Hussain, Chris Potter

GOOD HOPE

A three-way conversation amongst masters — Hussain on his kaleidoscopic, shape-shifting tabla, Holland on his chanting, strutting bass and Potter contributing his evocative, expressive tenor sax. In turns, playful, contemplative and always captivating.

. . . . . .

11

Bon Iver

I,I

Effortless and elastic. Passionate and powerful. Doleful and displeased. Resolute and reformative. These are soulful, heart-felt songs of protest and hope for our uncertain times.

. . . . . .

10

Big Thief

U.F.O.F.

Big Thief floats through an abyss of love, longing and loss on a raft of haunting and vulnerable acoustic compositions. 12 songs of spellbinding, fantastical and mystical significance.

. . . . . .

09

Dead To A Dying World

ELEGY

Vast, epic, cinematic, emotional, and intricate. With oppressive doom and darkness balanced by lacy, delicate Baroque flourishes, Elegy is equal parts Baroness, Swans, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Bach, and so many more. That union makes it so very unique.

. . . . . .

08

Lana Del Rey

NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL!

Like being captivated in conversation with Bret Easton Ellis, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa and Charles Bukowski at a honey-hued, rum-soaked 1970s Laurel Canyon bunglaow. Songs of world-weary realism, ascerbic wit and sterling craft. An artistic landmark in the pop genre.

. . . . . .

07

Vampire Weekend

FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Like a lost collection of Paul Simon songs at his most culturally and musically broad, “Father of the Bride” is a soulful map of the bittersweet pull between happiness and angst. Carefree and freewheeling, the band charts a new course and gives us hope for a polyphonic future.

. . . . . .

06

FKA twigs

MAGDALENE

A work of true beauty and independence. So VERY accomplished for a sophomore release. Barnett leads us through 9 stunningly crafted songs that probe themes of individual completeness, self love and sovereignty. Personal, innovative, experimental and visionary.

. . . . . .

05

Angel Olsen

ALL MIRRORS

More dramatic and deeply affecting than her earlier work (and that’s saying something). Scott Walker is here in spades. Siouxsie Sioux stylings also abound. The Cure, too. Layered and fed through Olsen’s sensibilities, all of that gives the album a new, vibrant sound and a fresh urgency to amazing effect.

. . . . . .

04

Oso Oso

BASKING IN THE GLOW

10 slices of absolute pop-punk perfection from Long Beach maestro, Jade Lilitri. The album adds up to a razor sharp, guitar-driven treatise on the universal swing between conviction and insecurity and the search for light in life. Easily the most listenable album of 2019.

. . . . . .

03

Brittany Howard

JAIME

A highly personal solo debut from the Alabama Shakes lead that probes her life as a biracial queer woman born in the deep American South. This is soul redefined – a foot firmly in the traditional sound, but also effortlessly shifting into something beyond genre. Arresting.

. . . . . .

02

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

GHOSTEEN

Cave deals with the 2015 loss of his son through parable and story in these 11 harrowing, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful songs. The result is strikingly beautiful, immersive and totally cathartic. Grief, loss and quivering sanity embodied.

======

​​

2019 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA

TO BELIEVE

From the electronica-meets-live-jazz exploration of 1999’s “Motion” through 2002’s authoritative nu-jazz milestone “Every Day” to the influential emotional landscapes of “Ma Fleur,” Cinematic orchestra have made a career of interpretation and definition. Band founders Jason Swinscoe and Dominic Smith are back after a lengthy 12 year hiatus and they’ve done it again. Picking up where “Ma Fleur” left off, “To Believe” is a neo-classical statement that again pushes boundaries and redefines a sound. 
 
There are some new faces on “To Believe” but they fit beautifully. The album’s opener and title track brings first time co-creator Moses Sumney to the mic for a lilting, otherworldly vocal that is a perfect accompaniment for the hauntingly spare arrangement pushing him forward. So too, the brilliant creation with neo-soul songstress Tawiah, “Wait For Now / Leave The World.” 
 
They’ve reunited with many of the collaborators from their past, ensuring a strong sense of continuity and “sound.” The album’s second track revisits the chill-inducing partnership with rapper Roots Manuva that created such a memorable moment in 2002 with “All Things to All Men.” Manuva is back for “A Caged Bird / Imitations of Life” and the result is stunning. The urgency returns, but this new track brings a fresh sense of melody and maturity.
 
Also returning is Grey Reverend, who’s contribution on “Zero One / This Fantasy” gives us an album highlight and a glimpse of what a possible future might have been for postmodern giants like Radiohead or Spiritualized had they been driven by the jazz in their record collections a bit more directly.
 
The album’s instrumentals offer some of “To Believe’s” most stirring and emotive moments. “Lessons” is more uptempo than much of Cinematic Orchestra’s work and the departure is a driving, compelling minimalist masterpiece that again Radiohead would be proud of. The stately “The Workers of Art” is a triumph as well, swelling to new romantic heights. The percussion on these tracks (the whole release, really) is a revelation. I had the opportunity to see many of these songs played live on the tour for the album and Luke Flowers’ drumming was nothing short of a masterclass in jazz beats. 
 
The album closes with the return of Heidi Vogel for the album’s crown jewel — a nearly 12 minute opus entitled “A Promise.” Gradual and lightly uplifting,  the song’s beginning showcases Vogel’s soaring, soulful voice perfectly as she intones evocative phrases over ambience. When that ambience begins to give way to a more driving melody about 4 minutes in, the listener is filled with expectation — the calm before the storm. The thunder of that storm begins to lightly rumble about half way through the track as Flowers’ syncopated drums march in. By the time he hits full stride, erupting into a punching flurry of beats, we are totally ready and completely ensconced in the spell. The release is one of the most satisfying musical moments of 2019. 
 
I know Cinematic Orchestra has its detractors and dismissers. I challenge them to don a pair of good headphones and press play on “To Believe.” This spell is real.


======

​​

2019 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

BON IVER

NAEEM

This was a tough choice this year. There was so much that seemed so right about 2019’s song pool. Yet, nothing quite reached me consistently in the same way that “Naeem” from Bon Iver did. In so many ways, we are wounded as a nation, struggling as a species, hurting existentially. This song feels like a balm, aligning the tumblers and unlocking the human heart. That’s why I’m choosing it as my song of the year. Simply put, we need it.

. . . . .

======

​​

2018 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02

It was such an interesting year in music, both filled with hope and despair. Again, I found it hard to narrow choices to 30 in some ways, tough to find enough music truly deserving of honor in others. Here’s where I netted out. As always, this is a very personal list, so I expect no one to agree with my choices. I only hope to inspire and pay some sense of homage to the things that moved me this year musically. I stuck with the Twitter format, but embraced the 280 character limit for 2018. Enjoy and in the immortal words of George Michael, “Listen Without Prejudice!”

30

The Internet

HIVE MIND

Welcome to Groove City, population 5. “Hive Mind” is a seamless glass bridge of a record, smoothed out and sensual, connecting RnB’s sybaritic past with the Milky Way of a libertine future.

. . . . . .

29

Leon Bridges

GOOD THING

Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Raphael Saadiq walk into a party… Seriously though, Bridges is stretching his legs into a funky strut through the American South and we’re thrilled to take that walk with him.

. . . . . .

28

Idles

JOY AS AN ACT OF RESISTANCE

“Joy” is a blunt battering ram of an album, sparking with verve and burning with passion. This is fist-in-the-air punk for a world spinning off-axis.

. . . . . .

27

Superorganism

SUPERORGANISM

If the concept of “ONE LOVE” had a band, Superorganism would be it. Indie pop finds a globally quirky universality in this debut.

. . . . . .

26

Lily Allen

NO SHAME

Lily Allen sifts through the rubble of personal struggle to spin vulnerable pop perfection on “No Shame.” Hurt and self recrimination find  a beautiful catharsis.

. . . . . .

25

The 1975

A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS

Listening to The 1975 is an exercise in glorious pop contradiction. Somehow, an exploration of their own frenetic personal shivers becomes just the right statement for the entire digital generation.

. . . . . .

24

SOCCER MOMMY

CLEAN

Just when I think young music will be permanently lost in a haze of Xanax-fueled party rap, the music gods send a release to chastise my unbelief. “Clean” is honest, earnest, plainspoken, cool, melodic and… Well.. Clean. What indie rock should be.

. . . . . .

23

Daniel Avery

SONG FOR ALPHA

Ambient puts on dancing shoes in this experimental turn for DJ Daniel Avery. As these songs wind to life, they transport to an Autechre-laden club in the 90s, replete with nostalgia and a cloudless eye to the future.

. . . . . .

22

Georgia Anne Muldrow

OVERLOAD

The title of the first track on “Overload” sums it up best — “I.O.T.A (Instrument Of The Ancestors).” Muldrow mixes up a stock pot of soul goodness that is as much Sun Ra and “Bitches Brew” as it is Erika Badu and “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” Avant-garde super soul.

. . . . . .

21

Yves Tumor

SAFE IN THE HANDS OF LOVE

Who knew outer space could be so warm and familiar? “Safe” is a ranging experimental meditation, swollen and pulsing with elan.

. . . . . .

20

Sam Wilkes

WILKES

Bassist Sam Wilkes shows uncompromising maturity in this debut, giving us dreamy, mature compositions that embrace and showcase saxophonist Sam Gendel’s horn. Listenable AF.

. . . . . .

19

Kamasi Washington

HEAVEN AND EARTH

Idea after musical idea spin to life in this sprawlingly sophisticated statement of an album. Hancock, Davis, Hubbard and Ra all find their echoes here. Washington swings confidently into full effulgence and we’re happy to bask in that glow.

. . . . . .

18

Janelle Monaé

DIRTY COMPUTER

It’s as if Prince, Nile Rodgers and Betty Davis got together to discuss sexuality, love, cultural heritage and freedom and then wrap it in a slice of pop perfection. How can such an important reflection be so danceable? No mean feat.

. . . . . .

17

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams

VANISHED GARDENS

Pairing sax legend Charles Lloyd (with his Marvels including Bill Frisell) with Americana songwriting icon Lucinda Williams doesn’t make sense at first glance, but this works SO well. The result is an engrossing blend of the two sounds, twisting and eddying around each other.

. . . . . .

16

Ezra Furman

TRANSANGELIC EXODUS

A thematic collection of songwriting, throbbing with life, blood and gristle. Furman burns bright on these tracks roaring like a Camaro running hot down a deserted road on a bitter night. Immediacy and paranoia yield to confident acceptance. Redemptive.

. . . . . .

15

Let’s Eat Grandma

I’M ALL EARS

Teen Brit duo Let’s Eat Gramma makes shimmering, swirling, multi-hued, hazily sinister beauty in this collection of future pop mini-masterpieces. This melange of prog, psych, disco, synth, pop (and a whole lot more) is nothing short of revelatory.

. . . . . .

14

Hookworms

MICROSHIFT

Hookworms’ psychedelic punk past surrenders to fevered synth dreams on “Microshift,” making the album a decided move to clarity and emotional honesty for the band. This is an acute, rapturous release where joy finds triumph over angst and we’re the better for it.

. . . . . .

13

Shame

SONGS OF PRAISE

Urgent, articulate, ascerbic and witty, “Songs of Praise” navigates the line between rock and punk with a cocksure swagger. A perfect, livid slash of an album for a fragmented society in a turbulent time.

. . . . . .

12

Sophie

OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

Surreal landscapes pass below as we dance in swirling skies, soaring. Androids strut and stalk through wet neon nighttime streets. Spheres of chrome and glass give birth to gleaming orbs of pure energy. Sophie guides us through it all with a confident, plastic hand. Brilliance.

. . . . . .

11

Khurangbin

CON TODO EL MUNDO

Turns out, Houston Texas 3-piece Khurangbin is everything you needed. Vibey AF. It’s like DJ Shadow and the RZA teamed to produce an Aphrodite’s Child release with Eddie Hazel guesting on axe (and someone spiked the studio’s water supply with high-grade acid). Global GROOVES.

. . . . . .

10

Snail Mail

LUSH

This takes me to a place of warm analog nostalgia, were earnestness and talent were valued über alles. This is an indie-rock record filled with emotionally honest songs of young longing and technically honest musicianship. All of that equals something very special in my book.

. . . . . .

09

Jon Hopkins

SINGULARITY

A rich musical journey in synth-driven ambient house. Is that even a thing? It is now. These compositions pulse to life, evolving, growing and dying with digital throb. Just kill the lights and let this album wash over you.

. . . . . .

08

Anna Calvi

HUNTER

With a deeply evocative voice, serious guitar skill and a love for the gothic, Anna Calvi is a force. Bowie sway holds hands with a stately Dead Can Dance march here. It’s a very compelling mix that feels both rooted and completely fresh. Beautifully haunting.

. . . . . .

07

Interpol

MARAUDER

Interpol has cut the tether. Gone is the sheen that pervaded past releases, replaced with an immediacy and abandon. This is the work of a band ready to get down to rowdy, sinewy, menacing business. And, that they do on “Marauder.”

. . . . . .

06

Spiritualized

AND NOTHING HURT

Jason Pierce is in an amazing place. “And Nothing Hurt” is the work of someone completely in control of their gifts. It listens like a sweeping gospel coda composed somewhere between Tom Verlaine, Graham Parsons, Alex Chilton and the Velvet Underground. Heady, moving stuff.

. . . . . .

05

Kait Dunton

TRIOKAIT2

Dunton, Appelt and Reed make tight, original, soulful jazz with a progressive, virtuosic ear. Perhaps most impressive is that for all of the accomplished technical chops clearly evident on the album, all of the work on “TrioKait2” never loses sight of its deep emotional heart. 

. . . . . .

04

Tamino

AMIR

Another stunning debut on the countdown. Tamino, the 21 year old Egyptian phenom channels the most amazing qualities of Jeff Buckley and fuses them with his heritage. WTF? Pardon me while I swoon. A singular talent in bloom.

. . . . . .

03

Albert Hammond Jr.

FRANCIS TROUBLE

Perhaps the most even rock release of 2018. Vibrant, funky, crisp, crystal clear pop rock with an engaging backstory of a lost twin and rebirth after life threatening addiction. Serious doesn’t always have to feel so dire and perfection can find bright life in that juxtaposition.

. . . . . .

02

Nils Frahm

ALL MELODY

Is this neo-classical? Is it post-techno? Is it jazz? Who the hell knows. I do know that it is a complete conceptual statement from an artist hitting stride. Exquisitely recorded… At once intimate and expansive, this is an aural odyssey you must take. 

======

​​

2018 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

BRAD MEHLDAU

AFTER BACH

The cover of “After Bach” is a perfect metaphor for the music within. It features an overhead view of a spiral staircase descending into a dizzying symmetry. What better descriptor of Bach’s amazing compositions? They do the same symmetrical dance, winding into the distance. 

Mehldau’s improvisations carry the same quality. They twist and work from order to entropy and back again. On a related note, we tend to think of Bach as the classical composer and forefather of modern music, but in his time, he was known as a peerless improviser and relentless creator. These synergies make for brilliant conversation on “After Bach.”

The album’s structure has Mehldau playing a song from Bach’s “The Well Tempered Clavier” and following it with an improvisation based on the Bach selection.

Let’s look at Mehldau’s take on the Bach, first. Perhaps the best thing about them is his restraint. He resists any impulse to jazz them up in any way. Frankly, they don’t need it. By playing it straight, he instead draws attention to the emotional content within. It’s a revelation for the listener.

The improv material is just as compelling, which is saying something. I earlier used the word “conversation” and that’s how it feels. It’s very possible to see the Bach at the center of them, but the pieces themselves range and spin in and out of dissonance, cavorting and pirouetting with the Clavier pieces in a distinctly modern way. 

It all adds up to a sonic feast for the listener. A literal feast.


======

​​

2018 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

SOPHIE

IS IT COLD IN THE WATER

This is grace unbounded for me. Even in the face so many beautiful, earnest recordings this year, I kept returning to “Is It Cold In The Water.” It feels like the gorgeous embodiment of the struggle to break from flesh, but remans somehow profoundly physical. It is both serene and whirling, transcendent and earthly, Put on the headphones for this one, folks. God, what a song. 

. . . . .

======

​​

2017 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02


In a year when it seems like the safety of the free world could rest on a single tweet, a mere 140 characters, I thought there could be no better writing theme for this list this year than that. Each review (except for the top spots) are limited to the length of a tweet. I have tried to capture the essence and strengths of each album in that format. I think it actually worked surprisingly well. Enjoy!

30

The Magnetic Fields

50 SONG MEMOIR

50 songs of garden-fresh musical exploration. 50 songs of sardonically droll observation. One man’s autobiographical remembrance.

. . . . . .

29

Kelela

TAKE ME APART

Kelela grinds her way through 14 sexy, heady songs that marry Bjork and Janet to create something holistically new and totally refreshing.

. . . . . .

28

Julie Byrne

NOT EVEN HAPPINESS

This album is a potent metaphysical balm. Its sparse organic beauty conveys a sense of simple, fleeting elegance. Nick Drake would be proud.

. . . . . .

27

Milo

WHO TOLD YOU TO THINK??!!?!?!?!

Packed with complex ideas, hard-hitting beats and evocative instrumentation, this is a thinking man’s flag-raising for true hip hop. Real.

. . . . . .

26

Thundercat

DRUNK

This is “Cucko for Cocoa Puffs” RnB. Or spaced-out soul? Post-fusion jazz, maybe? Gonzo yacht? Alt? However you slice it, it’s all good.

. . . . . .

25

Priests

NOTHING FEELS NATURAL

“Nothing” is cocksure DC surf punk that bludgeons complacency with no quarter. Howling, seething, acute.

. . . . . .

24

Chalotte Gainsbourg

REST

Dark, personal, grief-laden and cinematic, Gainsbourg gives us pop at its most artistic on “Rest.”

. . . . . .

23

Run the Jewels

RUN THE JEWELS 3

“3” stands as an avengers’ angry polemic, punctuated by urgent beats and razor-sharp production. This is an act of bona fide rap resistance.

. . . . . .

22

Broken Social Scene

HUG OF THUNDER

In a society awash in uncertainty and hypocrisy, “Hug of Thunder” stands as an assertion, an emotional fist in the air. It’s going to be OK.

. . . . . .

21

Mount Eerie

A CROW LOOKED AT ME

Cancer took Phil Elverum’s wife last year. “Crow” explores her memory, death and his life after. Personal doesn’t describe it. Harrowing.

. . . . . .

20

Girlpool

POWERPLANT

“Powerplant” fuses strains of Pinback, Pavement and Throwing Muses to create an album at once very fresh yet still comfortingly familiar.

. . . . . .

19

Andy Shauf

THE PARTY

Like a lost classic from the great songwriters of the 70s, “The Party” paints a gallery of portraits, robustly rendered and richly realized.

. . . . . .

18

The Weather Station

THE WEATHER STATION

Tamara Lindeman gives us crystal clear, honest, muscular songwriting that would make Carole King sit up and listen.

. . . . . .

17

Big Thief

CAPACITY

Winding melody leads us through 11 examples of folk rock at its most ferociously personal and viciously winsome.

. . . . . .

16

Moses Sumney

AROMANTICISM

Sumney floats and croons his way through 11 glittering meditations on modern love and isolation. Cosmic beauty in a disposable world.

. . . . . .

15

Brand New

SCIENCE FICTION

An album both majestically monumental and gnashingly intimate, “Science Fiction” is Brand New’s brilliant crown of indie rock sovereignty.

. . . . . .

14

Valerie June

THE ORDER OF TIME

A royal, regal march through rootsy, dusty places of the heart, “Order” defines a new authenticity, replete with honest expression.

. . . . . .

13

John Moreland

BIG BAD LUV

The musings of a true American troubadour with a heart of crumbling asphalt and a soul of sweet honeysuckle on a cool summer’s night.

. . . . . .

12

Jay Som

EVERYBODY WORKS

Songs of personal revelation, brilliant production and undeniable hooks add up to fuzzy pop gold on the genre-bending “Everybody Works.”

. . . . . .

11

The XX

I SEE YOU

Both expansive and intimate, minimal and lush, “I See You” is a commanding release of rare equilibrium. Emotional electronic perfection.

. . . . . .

10

Jamiroquai

AUTOMATON

“Automaton” arrives to remind us that Jamiroquai are kings of their rare blend. Jazz, disco and funk swirl into a sweet, muscular melange.

. . . . . .

09

Kamasi Washington

HARMONY OF DIFFERENCE

Like a lost companion piece to Oliver Nelson’s 1961 hard bop classic “Blues and the Abstract Truth,” “Harmony” is a new jazz masterwork.

. . . . . .

08

Julien Baker

TURN OUT THE LIGHTS

This is an act of cathartic communion. Baker delivers devastating, sparse, intimate hymns that wrestle with faith, vulnerability and hope.

. . . . . .

07

Perfume Genius

NO SHAPE

“No Shape” stands apart as a new kind of protest album, bathing the listener in power, transcendence and above all, a unique baroque beauty.

. . . . . .

06

Queens of the Stone Age

VILLAINS

Mark Ronson joins the party and the Queens end up in bed with Bowie and Iggy snarling somewhere in Berlin. Hooky, glammy, groovy AF.

. . . . . .

05

Esmerine

MECHANICS OF DOMINION

Carefully crafted neu-chamber music. “Mechanics” walks the line between subtlety and squall, march and creep. Masterful, emotional, vivid.

. . . . . .

04

Slowdive

SLOWDIVE

Like plunging headlong into life-giving waters after wandering in a shoegaze wasteland for 22 long years. This. Is. Simply. Beautiful.

. . . . . .

03

Ibeyi

ASH

Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz create a triumphant meditation on spirituality, divinity, identity and civil rights. Fierce, radiant, forceful.

. . . . . .

02

LCD Soundsystem

AMERICAN DREAM

Reunions are rarely this perfect… Never this transparent. Murphy updates a “Remain in Light” vibe to find a brilliant, poignant maturity.

======

​​

2017 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

THOMAS FONNESBAEK AND JUSTIN KAUFLIN

SYNESTHESIA

Few in their right mind will agree with this choice. That said, I’m out of my mind for this album.

​I have not been able to put this album down since its Fall 2017 release. It is STUNNINGLY good, bearing new fruit and fresh perspective with each listen. For me, this was the most listenable, intelligent and conversant release (that I came across) this year. Simply put, it is total freedom on proverbial wax.

​The album takes its name from the perceptual phenomenon of the same name, where senses become mixed. Sounds become colors, forms and shapes to many synesthetes​. Fonnesbaek ​and Kauflin share the condition and it serves as a fitting description for these evocative soundscapes, paintings in sound and feeling.

​An album featuring only double bass and piano might sound ​anaemic, aching for more instrumentation. Not so with “Synesthesia.” Fonnesbaek’s bass is percussive, extensible, melodic, syncopated, never veering from the exceptional. Kauflin’s piano is as gleeful as Guaraldi, muscular as Mehldau, emotive as Evans​, plaintive as Peterson.​ Together, they wind, wrap and dance around each other effortlessly, trading leads and responses. It’s like hearing a sparkling dialogue between two truly effervescent minds. It all results in a complete sound throughout, never wanting for more.

​For all of that sparkle and skill, this collection of songs is no exercise in mere virtuosity. This is a remarkably emotional album, living in the poignant spaces between as much as the gambol of their interplay. Neither artist ever loses sight of the FEEL of the songs here. Striking.

Though it was recorded in just two days in Sweden (TWO DAYS), this is a jazz treasure with timeless relevance. It should become canon for the genre.

======

​​

2017 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

IBEYI

DEATHLESS

​A song of ​civil endurance and victory, “Deathless” is a triumphant statement for 2017 and beyond. Lisa-Kaindé and Díaz team up with Kamasi Washington to give us a “We Shall Overcome” or “Mississippi Goddam” for a new generation and a new iniquity. It stands with as much stately grace as those classic songs of protest. Washington’s saxophone flourishes act as wails, cries, underscoring the sadness underlying the courage of the track. 

. . . . .

======

​​

2016 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02


It seemed like the musical landscape was reflecting a year littered with moments of difficult trial, deep loss and strange triumph. A weird year deserves a weird list, so I am doing something different with this one. Each album review is in the form of a haiku (the classic 5,7,5 syllable arrangement). I attempted to capture the essence of each release in feeling, significance or message. I don’t know how many of these actually work as successful haikus, evoking sense images, but what the heck… These are where I ended up.

30

The 1975 

I LIKE IT WHEN YOU SLEEP, FOR YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL YET SO UNAWARE OF IT

The Seventy-Five
Struts, preens, rocks, slaps, turns, shimmies
In shiny velour. 

. . . . .

29

Margot Price 

MIDWEST FARMER’S DAUGHTER

Sweet honeysuckle.
Lost farms. Hard jobs. Defiance.
Country redemption. 

. . . . .

28

St. Paul & The Broken Bones

SEA OF NOISE

Funky gospel fir
Slaked in the chill of cool blues.
This is soul cooking. 

. . . . .

27

Lucius

GOOD GRIEF

Lucius makes luscious
Pop as blunt as their razor
Sharp bob cuts. Forceful.

 . . . . . 

26

Hinds

LEAVE ME ALONE

Lo-fi perfection
From The Velvets’ old garage.
A nostalgic grin.

. . . . .

25

Solange

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

A black woman works
Through pain, joy, sorrow… struggle.
A declaration.

. . . . .

24

Kaytranada

99.9%

Warm blood of Haiti
Pumps through pop, hip-hop, space jazz.
Assured and refined.

. . . . .

23

The Anchoress

CONFESSIONS OF A ROMANCE NOVELIST

Lace draped over steel.
Baroque visions of Broadway
Behind a rose crown.

. . . . .

22

Anderson. Paak

MALIBU

Jittery, languid, 
Autobiographical, 
Radiant, shrewd rap.

. . . . .

21

Jenny Hvala

BLOOD BITCH

A pale vampire stalks
Through the still of 3AM
And considers art.

. . . . .

20

Blood Orange

FREETOWN SOUND

Modern man wrestling
With self, race, sex, diffidence.
Joy and fears equate.

. . . . .

19

Bon Iver

22, A MILLION

Angularity
And e-spirits, soaring high,
Meet in warm comfort.

. . . . .

18

Margaret Glaspy

EMOTIONS AND MATH

Smith, Mitchell, Phair, Young,
Echoed in introspective
Songs of dirty gold.

. . . . .

17

River Tiber

INDIGO

A rich layer cake.
Pooled, dark and haunting as blood
On an iced sidewalk.

. . . . .

16

Swans

THE GLOWING MAN

Razor-edged whispers.
A black orchid slowly blooms.
Gothic rock reborn.

. . . . .

15

Whitney

LIGHT UPON THE LAKE

Fine summer nights scored.
Gram Parsons with a good buzz
Dancing to Stax soul.

. . . . .

14

Lucy Dacus

NO BURDEN

Polaroid candids
Narrated with wit and guile.
Sun insists through clouds.

. . . . .

13

Pinegrove

CARDINAL

Honesty matters.
Evolution makes friends flex.
Pretense sucks. Be real.

. . . . .

12

Case/Lang/Viers

CASE/LANG/VEIRS

Lightfoot echoed in
Poised songs of weary heartache.
Dignity in art.

. . . . .

11

Radiohead

A MOON SHAPED POOL

Lush tendrils climb through
The cyclic dance of signal.
Dream faces nightmare.

. . . . .

10

Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith

A COSMIC RHYTHM WITH EACH STROKE

Time, space transcended.
Passages of the soul mapped.
Jazz conversation.

. . . . .

09

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

SKELETON TREE

Trauma meets swagger
In the swell and sway of hurt.
Endurance restores.

. . . . .

08

Car Seat Headrest

TEENS OF DENIAL

Anthemic, indie,
Syncopated, straight soundscapes
Drive, buck, march and weave.

. . . . .

07

Angel Olsen

MY WOMAN

Plumbing the depths of
The frail heart through sparkling, frank
And spare rock poems.

. . . . .

06

Leonard Cohen

YOU WANT IT DARKER

The last anthem of
An inky poet-minstrel.
A stately goodbye.

. . . . .

05

A Tribe Called Quest

WE GOT IT FROM HERE… THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE

Realness has returned.
An analog masterwork.
Biters take notice.

. . . . .

04

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down

A MAN ALIVE

Garbus produces
And a new voice emerges.
Pure, divergent gold.

. . . . .

03

Savages

ADORE LIFE

Love is imperfect
Open wounds blossom hemic.
Life should be adored. 

. . . . .

02

Sturgill Simpson

A SAILOR’S GUIDE TO EARTH

Screw expectations.
Sturgill cuts a bold new path.
Life affirmations.

======

​​

2016 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

DAVID BOWIE

I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY

We have lost so many this year. People who shaped the later half of 20th century and carried us into the 21st are gone. It’s as if they were stepping aside for new blood to fill those great iconoclastic and defining shoes. Time will tell if that will happen, but this song seemed to be a dispatch to that next generation. The last message of a true artist with so much to give, so much creative life force, ever in bloom. The words of a man looking into the void, confronting his inability to deliver everything he had inside at the end of things. This is not a dirge, though. It’s a celebration. The young jazz lions Bowie surrounded himself with for this last album are in full voice, exultant and alive with swing here. As final goodbye, it is a perfect, whistful-but-bright look back and forward at the same time. That’s what, it seems, 2016 was all about.

. . . . .

======

​​

2015 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02

30

Tobias Jesso Jr.

​GOON​

This is an earnest, simple album and it achieves success because of it. Jesso plays like a lovechild of Ben Folds, Elton John and Randy Newman with all of the good that comes with that. IMHO, he still needs some seasoning to reach the heights of his forefathers, but “Goon” is a great indication of his promise and intelligence as a songwriter and performer. One to watch!

. . . . .

29

Holly Herndon

​PLATFORM​

At once purely artistic and crazy smart “Platform” is arguably the most intelligent release of 2015. Simply a beautiful release in all of its angular, challenging uniqueness.

. . . . .

28

Janet Jackson

​UNBREAKABLE​

Janet’s back in a big way on “Unbreakable.” It’s an album both maturely refined and giddily grateful — the musical expression of that jaunty shimmy, confident swagger and sure smile of a woman on the other side of catharsis and standing atop a wealth of life experience.

. . . . .

27

José James

​YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLUES​

The only thing cooler than “Yesterday I Had The Blues” is the man who recorded it, José James. It takes a cocksure voice and steady hand to even attempt a compelling set of covers of the great Billie Holliday’s material. James has both. His rendition of “Strange Fruit” on “Yesterday” breathes a soulful, spiritual life into the chilling classic. That track alone is NOT to be missed. Truly arresting!

. . . . .

26

Leon Bridges

​COMING HOME​

I know there’s something perhaps a little “groomed” about Leon Bridges. I get it. BUT… That doesn’t mean that “Coming Home” isn’t strong through and through. It’s a time-machine in the best way possible. Bridges takes us to a time when everything was simpler, when a gent would swim the Mississippi river to impress a girl and pop recordings were bathed in that gorgeous post-gospel glow. This album is like honeysuckle and caliche dust blown on the summer wind. Just turn it up and enjoy.

. . . . .

25

Carly Rae Jepsen

E•MO•TION

Excuse me, officer… I would like to report a crime. Carly Rae Jepsen was robbed in 2015. Straight up. This is a sterling pop release and it was so sadly overlooked this year. These are songs with wonderful pop sensibilities, sweet depth and amazing production, all with Jepsen’s clarion voice spread over top.

. . . . .

24

Deerhunter

​FADING FRONTIER​

Deerhunter walks the line on “Fading Frontier.” It’s a line betwixt noise rock and radio-friendly classic (Or is it psych?… Or glam?… Funk, perhaps?… You get the idea) rock influences. I guess that makes the album experimental. Whatever we CALL it, I do know that it works. Very well. These are songs that shimmer and shake, strut and preen, rock and roll.

. . . . .

23

Kurt Vile​

B’LIEVE I’M GOIN DOWN​

Kurt Vile continues to walk down his path. HIS path. It’s a path that leads through a deeply personal set of 70s-laced songs about the craft of being a singer-songwriter. Annnnd… This time, it’s a path that leads us into darkness. Not a fear-laden darkness, but the darkness that comes with night writing and Vile’s acerbic wit.

. . . . .

22

Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment

​SURF​

OK… Get ready to slap me. Forget Kendrick Lamar, “Surf” is the most compelling rap / hi-hop / R&B thing of 2015. Big words, I know. But with good reason. “Surf” sparkles with experimentation, strides with monster musicianship, moves with poetic acrobatics, hugs with epic harmony and winks with a wry smile. This is the end of the story that starts… “Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Busta Rhymes, and Big Sean walk into a studio with some of their best friends…” and trust me it’s a gloriously creative and funky end.

. . . . .

21

The Vaccines

​ENGLISH GRAFFITI​

Hooks for miles! It’s weird, though Vaccines frontman Justin Young claims the band wasn’t looking to make something timeless with “English Graffiti,” but in a weird way, that’s what they’ve done. There are moments here that feel like the summer of 1986, or earlier and that’s a cool thing. This is radio-friendly pop without the radio. Fun stuff, for sure.

. . . . .

20

Protomartyr

​THE AGENT INTELLECT​

I had Protomartyr on last years list, too. Here they are again. And even higher. “The Agent Intellect” is a dark, urgent album, full of beauty. Stark at times, layered in others, but ever bluntly beautiful in the way that Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” or Bauhaus’ “In The Flat Field” are bone-gleamingly gorgeous. It’s limiting to compare Protomartyr to other bands… I know… But I mean it only to help convey that they are recording amazing songs of sinewy style, remarkable clarity and emotional honesty.

. . . . .

19

Charlie Parr

​STUMPJUMPER​

Charlie Parr. Charlie Parr. It’s safe to say that no one else is carefully nurturing the gnarled roots of​ ​American music in quite the same way as Parr. Traditionally, he has eschewed a more “lush” approach for a bare resonator guitar, a tapped foot and an inimitable howl, and that has given him a sense of purity matched by only a very select few in the whole of music. With a full backing band, “Stumpjumper” marks a departure from this model, but the purity remains. I am grateful Charlie Parr exists. You should be, too. Turn it up and play it proud.

. . . . .

18

Disasterpeace

​IT FOLLOWS (ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK)​

Simply put, “It Follows” is a minimalist synth masterpiece. (No pun intended… I think.) Seriously. This is a sterling release, one that calls to mind Eno, Carpenter, Goblin and yes, for me, even Glass. I know that’s rarified company, but the kudos are absolutely deserved. The fact that Disasterpeace (aka Rich Vreeland) composed and recorded it in mere weeks only makes this soundtrack even more of an achievement. Truly, few soundtracks have shaped a film like these compositions did for the wonderful “It Follows.” I can’t wait to see what he does next.

. . . . .

17

Grimes

​ART ANGELS​

I had the pleasure of seeing many of these songs performed live at Fun, Fun, Fun fest this year. Grimes (nee Clair Boucher) is a force to be reckoned with on the leading edge of pop. This is fact for me. “Art​ ​Angels” acts as proof of this. It is a collection of truly artful work from a female auteur stretching her legs, letting her talent simply shine, all while keeping the dance floor in sight. This is no mean feat.

. . . . .

16

Courtney Barnett

​SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT​

Speaking of female auteurs… Courtney Barnet literally burst onto the scene in 2015 with her first full-length album “Sometimes I Sit and Thing and Sometimes I Just Sit.” A proud, quirky tour de force, “Sit” channels grunge, garage and psych in spades and to great effect. But… the strength of this release is not purely musical, but also in the idiosyncratic, conversational, ejaculatory little thought poems that Barnett laces throughout these songs. It all comes together to glorious effect.

. . . . .

15

Oneohtrix Point Never

​GARDEN OF DELETE​

Yes, this is an album about a pubescent alien named “Ezra” with mountains of oozing acne. Strange to sum it up like that, because “Garden of Delete” doesn’t feel that way — puerile — at all. In “Garden of Delete,” Daniel Lopatin has created perhaps the most weirdly accurate picture of youth’s march into adulthood along the precarious catwalk of adolescence we have seen since Radiohead’s “Creep” or Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” both timeless masterworks. As a father of a beautiful 14 year old with nothing to be insecure about (but still is), I can see a brilliance in Its frenetic, layered sound and piecemeal storytelling. For all of its peculiarities, this is an important album.

. . . . .

14

Los Lobos

​GATES OF GOLD​

40 years. 24 albums. That’s a hell of a track record. “Gates of Gold” is the sure-handed work of a group​ ​of true rock and roll explorers and it shows in spades. Los Lobos speaks through“Gates” culturally,​ ​musically and emotionally in the way that only a very select few bands can these days. Anyone who thinks that bands like The Rolling Stones are still relevant needs to spend a day with “Gates of Gold” to see how a true outfit of RnR voyagers can stay relevant and innovative after decades in the craft. A truly original release from a band of true originals.

. . . . .

13

Dr. Dre

​COMPTON​

Dre proves why is one of the best in the game on “Compton.” As a producer his skills are in rare form on Compton, showing improvisational flourish, polyphonic ear and artful precision. This is arguably his best work from that standpoint. As an MC, Dre shows us a new side, beating out stacatto arpeggios of straight-up rhyme, bluster and, yes, even song. The supporting cast of guest artists is far reaching and stunning and they only bring more interest to the project. “Compton” is a menacing, world-weary love letter to a hometown, a genre and a sound.

. . . . .

12

Maria Schneider Orchestra

​THE THOMPSON FIELDS​

Ten years in the making, “The Thompson Fields” is a magnum opus. Contemporary classical-jazz master Schneider is at the peak of her skills in this orchestra setting and it is with the rich dimensional qualities of this larger group that she is able to more poetically communicate the rhythms and complexities of life, love and yearning. This album charts the bittersweet valleys of emotion and we are the better for it. Gorgeous.

. . . . .

11

Jamie XX

​IN COLOR​

The second minimalist masterpiece on this list. This is also another phenomenal 2015 debut. “In Colour” engrosses through 43 minutes of bright, expansive compositions that are at once open, effortless and beautiful and yet never lose sight of being fun. This album has the remarkable quality of a gradual flowering, the songs unfurling themselves to the listener further on each play. Auspicious!

. . . . .

10

Kamasi Washington

​THE EPIC​

Again, I invoke the name of Kendrick Lamar. Washington was responsible for the lion’s share of the​ ​arrangement on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar’s blockbuster 2015 release. Though “To Pimp” shows​ ​brilliance, “The Epic” is the true showcase of Washington’s talent in 2015. This is a vitally significant jazz album, shifting and broadening the conversation outward from the confines of jazz traditionalism to​ ​include more modern expressions. It is smart, astute, vivid and shining.

. . . . .

09

Peace

​HAPPY PEOPLE​

Speaking of time machines… Peace has one, too. Climb aboard and jump back to the glory days of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream… Or is it earlier? It’s both. “Happy People” is that time machine for Peace, traveling along the lines of Brit-pop psych. These are big songs — fun, far-reaching compositions that strike a fascinating balance between the desire to save the world and one’s self, with the knowledge that it’s impossible. This is pop-rock brilliance at its best, as soaring, glittering and groovy as it is nihilistic and snarky. I love it!

. . . . .

08

Sleater-Kinney

​NO CITIES TO LOVE​

This. Is. Rock. And. Roll. Full stop. It is an unflinching, uncompromising record that snarls at societal​ ​ills with both guns drawn. The brilliance here is a direct result of Sleater-Kinney’s carefully acquired songwriting skill and bombastic musicianship. That means epic, punchy songs of near perfection. 10​ ​heroic songs in a mere 33 minutes, rather like a wine reduction that uses heat to concentrate the flavor and aroma of a sauce to stunning effect. Sweet.

. . . . .

07

Steven Wilson

​HAND. CANNOT. ERASE.​

Steven Wilson has made a concept album. “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” is loosely based on the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a vital, young and attractive woman who lapsed in to total reclusiveness, ultimately dying alone only to remain undiscovered for 3 full years. The story is fertile ground for Wilson’s explorations and provides a wonderful backbone for the album. Wilson’s progressive spirit is aflame here, but where his brilliance has sometimes lapsed into prog imitation in the past, he uses it as a springboard to new synthesis, sounds and even positivity here. I loved this album and couldn’t put it down. Haunting,​ ​complex and magnificent in its intimacy.

. . . . .

06

Brand Mehldau

​10 YEARS SOLO LIVE​

Mehldau is one of our greatest living interpreters of song. “10 Years Solo Live” is a testament to that,​ ​with 4 albums worth of improvisatory genius spanning 10 years of live recordings. He’s 20 years into a wildly influential career and Mehldau has entered into an even more mature phase of his work, bringing​ ​a unique perspective to both standards and, most importantly, the music of his own generation (Gen X). A living master at work.

. . . . .

05

Frank Turner

​POSITIVE SONGS FOR NEGATIVE PEOPLE​

I had the privilege… And trust me… It is a privilege… To see Frank Turner live supporting this album in 2015. It was a transformative, regenerative experience, reaffirming the power of music, of rock and roll,​ ​to unify and move. “Positive Songs for Negative People” shares that quality. With his 6th full length​ ​studio release, Turner brings us a collection of brilliance, honesty, affirmation, durability, positivity,​ ​realism, strength and fragility. I feel strongly that this album didn’t get its due this year. Music critics knocked it for being more of the same. They’re always looking for artists to reinvent themselves in a cloud of epiphany. There is something to be said for consistency though, and that’s Turner right now. I, for one, and grateful for that consistency.

. . . . .

04

Alabama Shakes

​SOUND AND COLOR​

Brittany Howard is a force of nature. Period. Her operatic howl is the stuff of legend. Truly, it could make Otis Redding do a smiling double take. Consequently Howard and her band of musicians has beed forced into some sort of retro sandbox by the industry and the public alike. “Sound and Color” smashes that sandbox, kicking at the confines of expectation, using the past as a booster rocket to new heights, new sounds. This is a soul record, to be sure, but it’s so much more than that. Punky, funky, bluesy, fresh, muscular and confident, this is the work of a band who relishes in its prodigious gifts and in the spirit of exploration and fundamentally, the music itself. The album name “Sound and Color” is actually a perfect expression of the album’s experience. It is through the curious, experimental use of sound that brings color to the undiscovered galaxy that Alabama Shakes have charted their course through. That’s pretty amazing for something so rootsy. I could NOT put this down in 2015. It always sounded good and it will for years to come. I can’t wait to see what’s next. This is only album #2 for The Shakes!

. . . . .

03

Baroness

​PURPLE​

For their 4th album, Baroness has an adjusted lineup and a new perspective. Following the 2012 near-fatal bus crash that almost ended the band, Baroness has healed and brought us 10 metal-tinged​ ​galloping, swaying hard rock songs that both probe death and mortality and affirm life in a range of beautiful, majestic ways. Dave Fridmann of Flaming Lips fame is on production here and it shows in the psychedelic keys, phasing and tones throughout. Though there is an urgency throughout this record, Baroness has not lost its ability to deliver bittersweet moments of beauty. Those are here, too. Tight,​ ​precise, surgical, urgent, accomplished, this is Baroness at their best, and that’s saying something.

. . . . .

02

Sufjan Stevens

​CARRIE AND LOWELL​

There are albums that are both deeply personal in nature and awe-inspiring in realization, then there is “Carrie and Lowell.” I was lucky enough to see Stevens and his band recreate these songs live this year. It was nothing short of a catharsis for me. Hearing the studio versions reached me in the same way. Built around autobiographical stories from his past, Stevens uses the album as a platform for plumbing his troubled relationship with a bipolar, schizophrenic mother and an expression of gratitude for the 5 years spent with his stepfather Lowell Brams (who still runs his label). But that’s not all… His own family is a part of the mix as well as Sufjan himself. It’s one of the most honest, self-revealing albums we’ve seen in years, even from someone who has made a career of it. This is really only half the story here, though. Pulled-back, elegant, crafted… These are simply gorgeous songs. It all adds up to something truly memorable.

======

​​

2015 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

FATHER JOHN MISTY

I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR

Here we are… At #1. To be honest, any one of these top 6 albums could be at #1. I did have to choose one, though. This release definitely deserves it.

J. Tillman is a very unique talent — As funny and whip smart as any comedian working today, as talented and alluring a songwriter as the greats, as brilliant and engrossing a storyteller as we have seen in a long time. Tillman has packed all of the above into 11 sardonic little jewels on “I Love You,​ ​

Honeybear.” These songs are treasures. Wry. Mordant. Bitter. Honest. Heartbreaking. Lovely. Lovable. All of the above. It’s an album specifically about his relationship and marriage with his wife, photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman (nee Garr), but there is SO much universal experience here. I found myself in these songs. Not in that my experience mirrors his in any way, but they do act as a mirror for the thrills, excesses, mistakes, losses and little victories in all of our lives, whatever the specifics.

But what puts it over the top for this year? Again… Any of the top 6 could be in my #1 spot. For me, it was the last 3 songs on “I Love You, Honeybear.” Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the album is sterling. Sterling. But those last three songs (“Bored In the USA,” “Holy Shit,” and “I Went To the Store One Day”) act, for me, as a perfect triptych for our modern existence. There are SO many lines worth quoting here that I won’t even start, but Tillman absolutely captures life as so many of us know it. The laughtracks alone on “Bored In the USA” are one of the most genius and heartbreakingly haunting choices I have heard on a record in a very long time. All of that is laced over 3 real songs, performed perfectly and with exceptional production to boot. The power of these songs is immediately evident in their ability to make me laugh hysterically and cry wistfully often at the same time.

I could say more about this one, but it’s better to tell you to just listen. To experience. This album will be opening doors for a long time for me. That I know.

======

​​

2015 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

FRANK TURNER

SILENT KEY

​A possibly apocryphal telling of the death of Christa McAuliffe and the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Absolutely stunning songwriting. Compelling, emotional, moving, creative, poetic… powerful! Not to be missed.

. . . . .

======

​​