Friday, December 22, 2017

2017 Favorite Albums (Numbers 10-1)

And finally, without further ado, my Top Ten Favorite Albums of 2017:

10.  Lorde - Melodrama

Lorde's second album Melodrama is a perfect encapsulation on what it is like to be a young woman and all that it entails in this age of social media.  Not to make it sound like some dry liberal arts course, however, it is teeming with euphoric anthems, intensely personal ballads, and is full of the mess of growing up and figuring out who you are.

9.  Fever Ray - Plunge

Plunge is like the flip side to Melodrama; youth is cast aside for more carnal pursuits.   Karin Dreijer is not afraid of such pursuits and, from there, like the Mad Hatter, she leads you down the rabbit hole, with a curious smile on her face.

8.  Zola Blood - Infinite Games

You don't so much listen to the songs on Infinite Games as you do inhabit them.  The London band crafts beautifully evocative worlds of muted electronics and hushed vocals, with only a few stray rays of light shining through.  These songs detail lives lived differently, striving for something out of the ordinary and mundane.

7.  Clock Opera - Venn

Clock Opera's Venn is not going to be a record you listen to for comfort, it is a record you listen to for emotional catharsis.  These songs make your heart hurt, the search for meaning in life and love, and what it means to be human.  "In Memory" starts with the existential question "Do you want me as I am?/Do you want me as I was/Do I still do things that made you fall in love?" and from there these songs never scale back, ending with the haunted closer "When We Disappear," wondering if "will there be no witness/no ripples on the surface/when we disappear."

6.  Sampha - Process

Whether he is singing over densely layered electronics, or simply over a plaintive piano line, Sampha's voice is always clearly in focus.  And what a voice.  Process is a record that keeps revealing more of itself with each spin, and just when you think you have it figured out, another door opens into his soul.  Breathtakingly good.

5.  The xx - I See You

The xx seemed to flounder a bit on Coexist, the follow up to their brilliant self-titled debut album, leaning more towards stark, guitar-led minimalism, and forsaking their dancier efforts.  The thrill of their debut was the constant push and pull between those warring sides, which made for some exquisite tension.  With I See You, you get that tension back, and with Jamie xx's recent solo success, you can feel the other members stepping up their game.  it all culminates in a fascinating, sonically challenging record.

4.  Kelela - Take Me Apart

Future foward pop/R&B, that always had heart.  Kelela's debut album Take Me Apart is a stunning tour de force that gets better and better with each listen.  Even with a bevy of different producers, Kelela knows how to craft a singular vision.  Her sultry voice is never overtaken, even when working with heavy experimental titans like Arca and Jam City.

3.  H.E.R. - H.E.R.

Twenty year-old singer Gabi Wilson, better known by her stage name H.E.R. (acronym for "Having Everything Revealed"), has slowly been releasing music, teasing and tantalizing us with her creamy vocals, and dreamy, fluttering R&B.  H.E.R. is not a traditional album release, as it combines her Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 EPs  and a couple non-EP tracks.  Whatever you want to call it, H.E.R. is just flat-out stunning; an emotional power house, that is the perfect lonely night soundtrack.

2.  Julien Baker - Turn the Lights Out

Julien Baker's debut album Sprained Ankle was obviously just the tiny top of a massive creative iceberg.  Showing massive leaps in power and strength, Baker makes no missteps on this sublime collection of tracks dealing with loneliness, feelings of self-doubt, and loss of faith.  Though it may sound depressive, and at times you will surely need a box of tissues, Baker always uses these songs to give hope.

1.  Slowdive - Slowdive

When I heard the first few stark guitar chords of "Slomo" echoing underneath a rising cloud of synth washes, I knew I had nothing to worry about.  After lying dormant for over 22 years, Slowdive returned as if there was no hiatus.  What could have been a shameless retread of past albums or, even worse, some misguided attempt at being "current," instead, is an organic transition for the band from the past to the present.  Slowdive is everything I wanted it to be, everything it could be, and even more.  Only one album made me cry literal tears of joy, and it was this record.  It is my Favorite Album of 2017.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

2017 Favorite Albums (Numbers 20-11)

Continuing my countdown, and getting close to the top:

20.  Cymbals - Light In Your Mind

Downsizing from a quartet to now a duo, Cymbals' third record Light In Your Mind is a record that dwells on breakups, betrayals, grief, and decay.  Needless to say, it is much more muted affair than the dance-floor ready tracks on their last LP The Age of Fracture.  While these songs won't readily make you grab your dancing shoes, they will certainly linger long in gorgeous contemplation.

19.  Bjork - Utopia

Bjork self-described this album as her "Tinder record," and while the thought of her on a dating app is rather hysterical, it does lend some insight into what to expect.  Far removed from the dark, introspection of Vulnicura, Utopia finds Bjork, if not necessarily in love, in love with the idea of love.  And this translates into some amazingly intricate, hopeful love songs.

18.  Tove Lo - BLUE LIPS (lady wood phase II)

Tove Lo is the undisputed queen of debaucherous pop songs.  This collection finds her deep in the throes of excess and self-gratification, and making no apology for it.

17.  Everything Everything - A Fever Dream

The world gets crazier and crazier, and Manchester quartet Everything Everything's albums follow suit, with their latest A Fever Dream no exception.  Hyper-manic, paranoid, surreal songscapes punctuate this album, putting one at edge, but never to the point of collapse.  I want to say there is a bright light at the end of this album, that there is hope, but in these times, that might be a luxury we are not privy to.

16.  The Horrors - V

Hard to believe this band started out as an almost schlocky retro-60s garage rock act that has since transformed into a post-rock, krautrock, shoegazing powerhouse.   V, their fifth record, doesn't leap out at you at first, as The Horrors' days of constant reinvention has slowed down.  instead, it is like the perfect distillation of their past strengths into something unifying and brilliant.

15.  Spoon - Hot Thoughts

Spoon is at that stage in their career where they don't really have anything left to prove.  They could continue to release versions of Kill the Moonlight or Gimme Fiction, and no one would mind.  Of course, the band minds, and they continue to stray outside the lines of what makes them "Spoon."  Hot Thoughts finds the band funkier and groovier, with lots of chugging riffs and slinky bass lines.  There is also more reliance on electronics, which add to the allure of these songs rather than detract.

14.  Run the Jewels - Run The Jewels 3

I will never make a claim that I get or understand hip-hop and what makes someone's flow better than another's.  I just like to be engaged and usually form my opinion off of the beats themselves.  The beats here are impressively dense and mind-blowing.  And Killer Mike and El-P effortless flow over them, feeling more focused, energetic, and pissed off than ever before.

13.  Sylvan Esso - What Now

If it's not broken don't fix it.  Sylvan Esso heed that warning on their fun, sparkling sophomore album.  More catchy, folktronica tracks that engage the mind and shake the booty.

12.  Drake - More Love

Drake's "playlist" More Life shows more guts and talent than anything off his last commercial release VIEWS, which was a tone-deaf, glutted mess.  The various songs on this release are loose, engaging, and teeming with creativity.    "Passionfruit" is so off the cuff, it sounds like he just started singing over some Garageband presets; and it sounds fantastic.   More of this please, Drake!

11.  SZA - ctrl

2017 was the year for amazing R&B albums from female artists.  But even saying just R&B is too limiting with the artists who appear on my list this year.  SZA certainly makes some lovely R&B tracks, but that neglects her forays into confessional singer-songwriter territory, hip-hop, alt-rock, pop, and electronica.  And throughout it all, ctrl never sounds like a mish-mash.  Her vision is singular, and awe inspiring.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017 Favorite Albums (Numbers 30-21)

And my countdown continues:

30.  Lomelda - THX

Completely gorgeous collection of songs that would perfectly soundtrack a cross-country trip; cinematic, rustic, haunted, and lonely. A true gem.

29.  Kllo - Backwater

Melbourne electronic duo Kllo hold up to the promise of their earlier singles and EPs with their debut full-length Backwater. What surprises me most about this LP is how you think you know where their songs are going, but they end up finding their own path.

28.  NOVAA & LO - Lights

This collaboration between electronic artists NOVAA and LO merges their sensibilities together into one of the most cohesive albums of the year. It flows seamlessly between deep house cuts, bass heavy explorations, and downtempo soundscapes. NOVAA's voice has never sounded so lilting and lovely.

27.  Four Tet - New Energy

With New Energy, Four Tet doesn't reinvent himself again, or charge forth in new, unexpected directions. Instead, he takes a breather, a momentary victory lap to reflect over his career, and makes some of his most intimately rewarding electronic compositions.

26.  Jaws of Love - Tasha Sits Close to the Piano

This solo project from Local Natives' singer Kelcey Ayer, brings his haunted voice into full focus on these elegant ballads.

25.  Beach Fossils - Somersault

Intricate guitar work, killer melodies, lush harmonies, jaunty strings, and a general sun-kissed warmth infect these songs from Beach Fossils. They will never be avant-garde or experimental (I hope), but they get more and more solid with each record. They are that dependable friend who always is fun to hang out with.

24.  Cut Copy - Haiku From Zero

Front to back, this was one of the most solid dance-rock records this year; full of subtle, fun touches that catch you off guard.

23.  LCD Soundsystem - American Dream

With the country hurled into the shitter with Trump as President, we needed a sign that things would get better, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  LCD Soundsystem came back roaring to life.  It's a pretty bright light.

22.  Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins

I will admit the first few times I listened to Painted Ruins I was not overly impressed. It seemed too "clean" and too "neat and tidy." It wasn't until my fifth and sixth listens that the whole work came into being. It can't be compared to the brilliant song cycle that was Veckatimest, the raging beast folk of Yellow House, or even the angular oddities of Shields, because it is its own work of art. It is Grizzly Bear simply being Grizzly Bear, and I appreciate that.

21.  The National - Sleep Well Beast

Adding more electronic elements and even, gasp, a guitar solo here and there, does not fundamentally alter what makes this a great record from The National. You get a band that knows each other intimately, and how to push their sound without total reinvention each time. You also get more beautiful lyrics from Matt Berninger, who catalogs the day-to-day musings, hopes, loves, and fears of the generations of men and women lost in this journey called life.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017 Favorite Albums (Numbers 40-31)

Continuing my countdown of my 2017 Favorite Albums:

40.  Little Cub - Still Life

Meticulously produced, erudite art-pop in the vein of bands like Wild Beasts and Metronomy, with their own indelible stamp. Few albums sounded this good, and this intelligent.

39.  Zara Larssen - So Good

Zara Larssen can be added to the lengthy roster of phenomenal Swedish pop stars. Her album So Good blurs the lines between pop, R&B, and EDM, and she fits comfortably in all of them. And those pipes! An amazing voice that I look forward to hearing more from.

38.  Charli XCX - Number 1 Angel

On her mixtape Number 1 Angel, Charli XCX once again turns all the pop conventions on their heads and blazes forth on her own personal path of world domination.

37.  Baths - Romaplasm

Baths album Romaplasm was a year end treasure. Losing the bleak, dark textures of Obsidian, Will Wiesenfeld took a turn towards the light. There is joy in these whimsical synthpop creations, that are truly infectious.

36.  Hercules and Love Affair - Omnion

On this sparkling set of dance tracks, Andy Butler stops trying to be the great savior of house music and just has fun. He and his cohorts haven't been this relaxed in ages.

35.  Protomartyr - Relatives in Descent

Dense, complicated, intelligent, and most tellingly, compellingly listenable, Relatives in Descent is the post-punk epic that is needed in these dark times.

34.  The Drums - "Abysmal Thoughts"

Now solely the project of frontman and songwriter Jonny Pierce, The Drums keep plugging away with their take on 80s alternative rock. Unlike a lot of bands, The Drums avoid merely aping their influences and transcend them. "Abysmal Thoughts" is packed full of delicious hooks, and is so catchy you need a flu shot to listen to it.

33.  Mount Kimbie - Love What Survives

On their latest record Love What Survives, Mount Kimbie toss their post-dubstep past out the window, hit the pedal to the floor and never look back. A reinvention and rejuvenation, this record is a post-punk masterpiece of haunted soundscapes filled with angular guitars, ominous keyboards, and locomotive drums.

32.  Blue Hawaii - Tenderness

Less obtuse and experimental than their last record Untogether, Tenderness shows the brighter side Blue Hawaii's work. They gravitate more towards deep house, Balearic, and even disco on these tracks, and this more playful side suits them.

31.  Charlotte Gainsbourg - Rest

Beautifully melancholic, and decided French, Rest is a quirky set of electronic pop that gets inside your head and lingers long in the afterglow.

Monday, December 18, 2017

2017 Favorite Albums (Numbers 50-41)

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This week I will count down my 2017 Favorite Albums, starting with Numbers 50-41.

50.  Cigarettes After Sex - Cigarettes After Sex

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If the Twin Peaks series needed a house band, Cigarettes After Sex would have won hands down. Nicotine-stained vocals, molasses slow drum beats, beds of pillow soft synths, and the ever present echo/reverb-laden guitars, are this band's calling cards. While some will say this record was a bit samey over the long haul, I thought of it more as variations on a theme. Several songs, including "Apocalypse" and "Each Time You Fall In Love," are instant classics, and send me into dreamy reveries.

49.  Ibeyi - Ash

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French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz's second album borrows liberally from world beat, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and alternative electronia and creates a full-bodied musical soup, one that is layered and full of flavors.

48.  Zola Jesus - Okovi

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After trying to go in a more pop music direction, Zola Jesus (a.k.a. Nika Danilova) wisely returns to her true calling, making intense, goth-flavored music that is heavy, yet never heavy handed. These dark, personal songs contain booming drums, ominous strings, and other-worldly synths, and of course her deep, rich voice.

47.  Lana Del Rey - Lust for Life

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At this point in Lana Del Rey's (a.k.a. Elizabeth Grant) career, you are either going to love her or hate her. I am definitely in the former category. With each album, she tweaks her sound ever so gently, honing it until it gets more pointed and direct. Lust for Life is the best distillation of the Lana Del Rey persona, and I can only hope it gets better and better from here on out. Also, this record is just damn gorgeous.

46.  Broken Social Scene - Hug of Thunder

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After a long hiatus, Broken Social Scene returned with Hug of Thunder, which more than lives up to its title. Over these masterfully confident rock tracks, one is enveloped in a warm cocoon of rushing guitars and intense purpose. They haven't felt this laser focused in a long time, and it is good to have them back.

45.  Liars - TFCF

TFCF, Liars' first record as ostensibly a solo vehicle for Angus Andrew, is a haunted break-up record, about the "death" of his creative relationship with former member Aaron Hemphill. The album is definitely a Liars record, still full of oddities and striving to push the boundaries of pop music. For the first time though, the record feels alone and isolated, you feel the pain of these songs. While it may not be my favorite Liars record, it is one of Liars most distinctive.

44.  Porcelain Raft - Microclimate

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Twelve painstakingly layered dream pop tracks that, like microclimates, inhabit their own distinct worlds. This album is so easy to get lost in.

43.  Cloud Nothings - Life Without Sound

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Although they have sanded down most of their endearing rough edges, Cloud Nothings still feel edgy and on the brink of collapse. Life Without Sound is by far their cleanest sounding record, which is not to mean it feels gutted, the sonic clarity enables the band to build in ever denser layers. It is a promising direction from a band that is not comfortable sticking to one approach.

42.  Arca - Arca

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Radical, experimental pop music from Arca that is so far ahead of what else is out there at the moment, it is difficult to imagine anyone catching up with him.

41.  Kehlani - SweetSexySavage

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One of the most assured R&B/pop records in recent years, Kehlani's SweetSexySavage recalls the best of TLC and Aaliyah while stamping it with her own personality.