2020 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02

2020

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2020 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

2020

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. 


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2020 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

2020

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2019 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

2019

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.


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2019 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

2019

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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2018 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

2018

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.


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2018 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

2018

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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24

Chalotte Gainsbourg

REST

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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