Was there a golden age of music criticism? I have no idea. I’ve only been paying attention since the ‘90s, and despite the fact that I’ve been writing about music since I was a teenager, nobody ever suggested to me that I should go back and read reviews by people like Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau and, um, whoever else was writing reviews before my time. Sure, I’ve read a smattering of old Rolling Stone reviews, and I had my phase in high school of consuming every rock discography and all-time-albums book I could find at the public library, but in general I’m happy to have largely ignored the rock-crit canon. I have enough trouble not sounding like the handful of contemporary writers I admire.
I rarely read any non-local music criticism at all any more, actually. A lot of people will tell you the whole process is pointless nowadays; I, obviously, won’t go quite that far. While it’s very true that you can just go listen to almost any album you please online and decide for yourself whether or not you like it, most people just don’t do that—they let the Spotify algorithm decide what they like for them. Hey, check out this new, exciting artist who rips off all the old shit you already listen to—voilà! You’re cool, you’re hip! Here’s a playlist I made Just For You—wow, thanks shakeweight! You know me so well!
No, there’s still a purpose to writing about music—if nothing else, to make a few people aware of things that Spotify won’t tell them about. It’s just that if you’re gonna do this, you have to be okay with the fact that your field of competition is way bigger than it was twenty years ago, and your potential audience is way smaller. People who are actually curious about being turned onto new music are rare, and even they have friends whose opinions they’ll trust over yours, who all have their own Spotify playlists to pull from.
In all the talk about the irrelevance of the album review, though, the interesting part to me is how politics have shaped downward trends in the vitality of criticism, and how the desperate scramble to stay relevant over the course of the past decade or so has worked to undermine the very purpose of the music review.
Yep, I’m angling towards Pitchfork, “The Most Trusted Voice in Music”. (FKA “The essential guide to independent music and beyond”) I’ve written before about the website’s transition from independent music coverage to pop culture gossip site. I’m not going to provide a link to that piece at this time. Anyway, Pitchfork published a new list earlier this year of the best albums of the ‘80s, radically rearranging their original list to favor mainstream pop music, and it wasn’t just a mea culpa to women and people of color—it was a terrific exercise in revisionism with a cause, and the end result was very legit, aside from the ludicrous assertion that Control is a better album than Rhythm Nation 1814. It had no bearing on real life; it was just a fun music-nerd project, a document about the past, by critics and for critics.
Pitchfork’s redefinition didn’t start with that list, of course. It’s been going on for years. The ‘80s list must’ve gotten people buzzing, though. The artists on that list don’t have much skin in the game nowadays; whether they’re fabulously wealthy or dead, the lifetime achievement award won’t do much for ‘em. Then there’s the best-of-2018 list, hotly anticipated every year, a game in which there is lots o’ skin, ostensibly. Most of that skin covers independent artists, who might make a few extra cents off Spotify streams if they get a high placement. As it turns out, though, the editorial position of Pitchfork is that mainstream pop music is inherently just better than independent music.
Now, the editors would surely argue that this is simply a function of fringe artists naturally receiving less of the consensus love. I choose to be cynical in regards to that suggestion, and more to the point, I have to ask what the purpose is of extolling the virtues of artists who’ve already made it big. You know the answer already, though, right? It’d happen to Gorilla Vs. Bear, too, if they were ever to get too big for their britches, and The Quietus, and maybe even…You-Phoria? HAHAHA! But wait, how is this about politics? you ask. Well, it’s primarily about capitalism. I’ve never been an industry insider in any sense, so I have no evidence to back up any claims, but clearly there are numerals changing hands between record labels and music publications. Why else would Pitchfork have slapped a coveted “best new music” tag on Jean Grae & Quelle Chris’s Everything’s Fine when it came out, then leave it off their top 50? (Thanks to Brooklyn Vegan for pointing this out.) ‘Cause Mello Music Group ain’t got much money, I have to assume. Or, if you want a less conspiratorial answer, Mitski and Kacey Musgraves (NOTHING AGAINST EITHER OF THEM GAWWWWD) have a lotta fans with a lotta clicking fingers; Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, nowhere near as many.
It’s a business, I get it. Those clicks turn into dollars, and some of those dollars go to the writers, and that’s a good thing…right? I’m always saying the actual rankings don’t mean much; it’s just that I suspect the majority of readers care way more about the math than the words. That’s not Pitchfork’s fault, though, is it? Pitchfork was always known to favor good writing over the validity of the opinion, right? And that’s a good thing, I tell you. I assume they still employ good writers; aside from one or two that I follow…I have no idea.
Anyway, after seeing their list, I decided there would be no mainstream pop albums on my list this year. I already wrote some blurbs about some popular albums but I’m okay with those precious words going to waste. It’s just not part of my purpose as a music writer; my goal is to turn you onto stuff you haven’t heard of, maybe even get you to cough up a few bucks and support these artists making pennies a month off Spotify if that. I don’t begrudge anyone their respect for pop music, not even Pitchfork; their about-face was tough to swallow at first but it was absolutely justified. In fact, I love the fact that we’ve arrived at a point in society where you have to kowtow to pop stars in order to preserve your critical relevance; that is some wild shit. The fact that a vapid boy band like The 1975 is now a bona fide critical darling tickles me pink. More power to Pitchfork and its comrades for officially rebranding solvency as credibility. Me, I’ve never had much use for either one.
About the list: There was no clear-cut Album Of The Year this year. There were a shitte-tonne of really good albums, none of which are likely to go down as classics in my book. The numbers are truly almost arbitrary this time around. Do you really scroll to number one on these lists and go ‘oh, that corporation says this is Number One, I must stream it right now!’ If so, you’re undermining the whole point of this process. You’re supposed to read the words and go ‘huh, that sounds like something I would like’.
Enjoy the words, and especially the music they’re about, and PLEASE buy music if you can afford it.
(Note: Album links are to Bandcamp whenever possible. If the album isn’t on Bandcamp, I’m sorry to say you’re on your own.)
32. The Book Beri’ah | John Zorn (various artists)
Warning: Secret Chiefs 3 content! This eleven-disc, nine-and-a-half-hour boxed set is probably the album of the year, but I can’t bring myself to argue that. If you are a Zorn aficionado, you don’t need me to tell you about this; if you’re not, you’re either rolling your eyes or you’re staring blankly at the screen, and that’s okay. Zorn started this whole Masada project almost 25 years ago; The Book Beri’ah is the third and ostensibly final “book” in the series. Perhaps the most overtly mystical Masada entry, it features a slew of his favorite collaborators in old and new configurations, performing their distinctive takes on his compositions. I’ll just point out that my favorite discs are the Spike Orchestra (Binah), Zion 80 (Hod), Sofia Rei (Keter), and Secret Chiefs (Malkhut), but I think if I were to allow myself to judge each of these discs as an album in its own right, I could make a strong case for the Cleric (Chokhma), Gnostic Trio (Netzach), and Banquet Of The Spirits (Yesod) as candidates for The List as well. Sounds like fun, right?
31. Kazuashita | Gang Gang Dance
Hands up, who remembered that this band existed? Gawd, the onslaught of music hyperavailability has been going on for sooooo looooong. You shouldn’t be able to come back from a seven-year absence, but the more I listened to Kazuashita, the more I eased back into my memory of how much I loved 2011’s Eye Contact, only this new one has cut even more deeply over weeks of listening to it. I need this sort of eclectic, dreamy dancepop in my life. I’ll admit that I have no clue what Lizzi Bougatsos is singing about most of the time, and I don’t know why it doesn’t bug me like this type of affectation normally does. I don’t have to analyze everything, do I? Kazuashita could easily have gotten lost in the vast indie-pop ocean, and it may be forgotten even by me in ten years, but for now I’m sticking with it.
30. The Gift Of Gab | E-40
Sigh, better late than never that I came across this cat, and I’ll do my best not to think about how I could’ve been enjoying his music for the past 25 years but nobody told me. The Gift Of Gab is just the type of no-frills, un-self-conscious, funny but real shit I love; most likely some of E-40’s 26 other albums are gonna be right up my alley, too. Dammit. Cheers to the twitter gang for pointing me at this, cheers to Vince Staples for the choice feature that hopefully raises the album’s profile a little, and cheers to E-40 for “The Pack Attack”, which will get some loud Sunday airtime in my house one of these years if our local football team ever gets good again and I talk myself into giving a shit, even though I know this was not E-40’s intent.
29. Stranger Fruit | Zeal & Ardor
Purists in literally any sense are advised to avoid this album, which is kind of the whole point. Manuel Gagneux is a New York City dude with no business writing or playing any of the types of music he plays on Stranger Fruit. No purist myself, I nevertheless found myself desperately wanting to hate this album. I’ve failed. Because when it comes down to it, the people of the world can only come together as one in a howling blaze of post-authenticity, and that’s what Zeal & Ardor represent. Let no other human define you, let no rules constrain you; do metal and gospel and goofy circus-y electronic shit all together and do it con mucho gusto, and even if it doesn’t always work, fuck it—trust that people will feel you through it anyway. I don’t in every instance on this album, but at its best, it’s way more potent than it has any business being, and if he’s faking the passion, he is beyond fake. (Apologies to Courtney.)
28. DNA Feelings | Aïsha Devi
This album is like a genuine guided meditation with a couple of odd cyber-headtrip detours to make sure you don’t float off into space too far. Call it digital new age music, maybe? Like how all the professional gurus nowadays talk about all the “downloads” they’re receiving? Spiritual music for post-Matrix awarenessesses. Don’t forget your waterproof Bluetooth earbuds for your next float in the sensory deprivation pod! Seriously though, this album will carry you off into legitimate idea realms, even if you disregard the intermittent robot voices. Psychoanalyze yourself and, while you’re at it, the universe! Dislocate the alpha! Recognize time as the illusion of solidity! Why is that woman screaming? Hopefully when you’ve reached the end you find that it’s only the beginning. Let me know.
27. Alptraumgänger | Schrat
Disclaimer: As insinuated in this definitive black metal list, there were surely dozens of albums from 2018 that sounded just like Schrat’s Alptraumgänger. This just happened to be the best super old-school black metal album that anybody pointed out to me this year. The sound is vintage and, one could argue, it has been done to death; the memorable riffs and atmospheric flourishes on this album declare ‘nope, there’s some life left yet in this old horse, we shall continue to flog it’. The flame will never die; I’m good with that possibility. bangs head
26. YRU Still Here? | Ceramic Dog
Probably the band’s least engaging full album, YRU Still Here? contains a handful of Marc Ribot’s best individual songs yet, and the thing is, everything he’s released via this project has been brilliant. There’s never been a cohesive thread tying the music of Ceramic Dog together except arguably the greatest and most versatile rhythm section operating in music today (Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily); from punk to jazz to folk to tropicalia to spastic avant-garde freakouts, Ribot and his compatriots can play absolutely anything, and in an age when this country desperately needs some political voices, Ribot is practically the only vaguely rock-oriented dude out here writing blatantly political songs who isn’t a dadrock has-been. “MUSLIM JEWISH—RESISTANCE!” the dudes bark out. “We say never again—WE MEAN IT!” They then proceed to yell out the names of America’s most famous aspiring fascists with increasing fury in their voices and playing, and you start to wonder if our country would be any better off in the hands of generation phone-neck or if Ribot has any more pissed-off grandpa friends who’d be up for leading the revolution.
25. Daemmerlicht | Recondite
Well, Darkside broke up, and Nicholas Jaar’s new one didn’t quiiiiite scratch the itch. Apparently Blue Sky, Black Death also broke up; rats. Forest Swords didn’t have an album out this year, and BardSpec, who knows if they’ll ever do another one. I needed a moody, wide-ranging ambient/IDM fix badly, so it was about time I discovered Recondite. The Bavarian producer has been at this for years and garnering plenty of accolades, but due to the eight billion other musicians whose music is on Spotify, he somehow escaped my notice. Daemmerlicht (“Twilight”) eases in with some quasi-R&B; the second track, “Durch Den Hohlweg”, is reminiscent of the Art Of Noise classic “Moments In Love” (10 p.m., V100, the 1990s? Anyone?), and the album remains similarly minimalist for most of its runtime. Moods vary but remain dark; some of the more suspenseful bits are actually quite Forest Swords-ish, although in general, Recondite skews more towards slinky danceability while also making exquisite use of empty space to ratchet up tension. There’s something cinematic about the album, though, that keeps it from becoming oppressive; it’s a fantasia, here to enrich the imagination.
24. Love Is Magic | John Grant
Can I just list a handful of the best lines from this album and call that the review? Oh, I suppose some other reviewers have already used ‘em all. I don’t know what to say, I just like the guy, his humor’s in tune with mine, his words as well as his delivery. His more heartfelt moments tend to hit home as well, although there are…fewer of those on Love Is Magic than on, say, 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts. And the album cover, come on, that has to be the best of the year. Is John Grant trying to be a gay white Thundercat? (Note: Is Thundercat gay? Maybe research that before publishing.) Maybe, and I have no problem with that.
23. soil | serpentwithfeet
“He knows love can’t exist where there is cologne”, sings Josiah Wise in “waft”, and all I want is for men to take this to heart. Cologne is gross. (Just laugh and shake your head, okay?) If you see a live serpentwithfeet performance, you’ll experience a more adamant, thorough expression of this truth; Wise is one of the most engaging lyrical improvisers out there, and listening to soil, you’re only getting a tiny taste of his talent; still, the album documents one of the most original voices in modern R&B, and this line that I’ve singled out is one of many choice nuggets that straddle the line between sarcasm and passion. The crux of Wise’s mystique is his voice, at once conversational and intensely melodic; he creates the illusion that he sang these songs as the words came to him in real time and that was that. He’s not actually that miraculous, I’m pretty sure, but I wouldn’t put much past him. The hopeless romantic and jilted lover you are or once were will find solace here, and fuel for your various fires.
22. Frightened | Voices
Contrary to everything I believe regarding artistic expression, I initially got hung up on how different Frightened is from Voices’ 2014 album London. I love that album so much and I was desperately craving more of that. Frightened lacks London’s unifying narrative and cohesive prog-metal hybrid. It’s hard to follow, it’s not as heavy, and it doesn’t have any ecstatically pained hooks on par with “Vicarious Lover” or “Last Train Victoria Line”. I gave up on it months ago but left it on my iPod, and then I noticed that every time a track from it popped up on shuffle I was like ‘damn this is a killer song’. Voices are barely even metal at this point; instead, they’re like the antidote to the slick, cheeseball, Steven Wilson-worshipping contemporary prog horde, cerebral without being pretentious, dark without devolving into caricature, and still capable of caustic outbursts amidst suites that touch on grunge, post-rock, ambient, and folk. In short, Frightened is everything I want from a modern prog album. It’s, like, actually progressive.
21. How To Socialize & Make Friends | Camp Cope
I believe the traditional American (Australian as well? I can only presume) male response to How To Socialize & Make Friends would be that it’s ‘a bit much’. Or that it’s ‘over the top’. Probably even acceptable rock-crit code a decade ago, but in a world with no excuse not to be in panic mode, Georgia Maq is a voice of reason. She just happens to have this incredible emotive singing voice that will straight-up rip your heart out, and she finds ways to express the plight of our society in lyrics that are direct and uncompromising but also beautiful. I’ve found I have to pace myself with Camp Cope so I don’t let that voice become an addiction, because you can get so walled into your life, your daily grind, your defense mechanisms, that it takes something this impassioned to crack through, and after that first exposure I found that I had this almost pathological desire to binge. It reminded me of first hearing Emily Saliers sing—like, whoa. Except back then I was a kid, I had no walls up yet, and I could freely obsess about whatever I felt like. It’s not a question of objectification; it’s about maintaining the trappings of sanity. And the fact is, we as men all still have a lot to learn, and a lot of opportunities to check ourselves—”The Face Of God” might make ya think, for starters. Anyway, I only first heard this album this month, so it might rise in my estimation or I might get sick of it more quickly than I expect, and that’s why math is stupid, but like I said, I’m not rushing into this.
Probably the greatest pure wordsmith in the game, milo’s supposed final album benefits from a slew of producers who are so deliciously dialed into his peculiar style, he might as well have conducted the construction of the beats himself. (On a third of the tracks, he did.) This only speaks to the far-reaching artistic community that Rory Ferreira has nurtured over the past decade; as his powers of composition and performance have grown, his collaborators have grown as well, and budding ornithologists doesn’t feel like a pinnacle so much as a brief snapshot on a continuing rapid ascent—it’s his third album of the year, for crying out loud. Whatever Ferreira’s next steps will be, the finish line can’t be glimpsed through binoculars, even if the milo name is done. I have no verses to quote for you, no components of beats to point out. We should be well past the need to marvel at individual blips and quips; it’s the full journey of the album that’s the key, and the whitewater rapids of words therein make my feeble efforts here comparatively useless, unless they make you listen.
19. Mörkrets intåg | Höstblod
Any time a black metal album features banjo I’m required to roll my eyes and go ‘oh God another black metal album with banjo?’ But over the past three or four years, there have been so many that it’s almost a trend, and the fact that I keep having to write about black metal albums that feature banjo might suggest that if I examine the trend I’d find that I don’t actually hate banjos at all, nor are they bad for black metal. But I do, and they are. That said, the little bit of rudimentary banjo in “Tystnaden” arrives after all kinds of unorthodox strings and piano and various other folk and classical flourishes on Mörkrets intåg, undermining the gimmicky nature of the stupid instrument. It’s just another seasoning in this powerful, multidimensional stew. I don’t mind saying that in terms of scope and raw energy, this debut album from Swedish one-man band Höstblod reminds me of Wolves In The Throne Room’s classic debut. It’s somewhat less focused and won’t be anywhere near as influential; it just has that same adventurousness and the thrill of massive, unpredictable riffs amidst the usual tremolo-picked din and quiet interludes.
18. Elysia Crampton | Elysia Crampton
This album I associate with Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of, not because they’re very similar musically, aside from being loosely-definable eclectronica (probably won’t catch on as a genre because everyone will think it’s a typo); more because I started listening to them around the same time. Age Of I loved at first, but my enthusiasm waned, and ultimately I’ve just heard a lot of better electronic albums this year. Elysia Crampton I want badly to be longer; it begins so abruptly and ends so quickly, I felt compelled to double-check my phone I don’t know how many times over the course of the year to make absolutely sure it was only these six tracks. There’s so much going on, though, it takes your brain waaaaaay out within seconds and plunges you into a merciless melee between instruments and samples, your emotions being yanked and shoved this way and that, wordlessly transported to exotic locales and instigating a dance within if not also without. I think Elysia Crampton produced the most exhilarating nineteen minutes of music of the year, and going through her back catalog has only made me anxious for more.
17. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides | Sophie
Upon hearing the first track on this album, “It’s Okay To Cry”, first there was a flashback to my childhood and the album Free to Be… You and Me, which I’ll just leave here for anybody who knows what I’m talking about. Then I formulated an idea about what kind of album I thought Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides was going to be, a kind of album I would not bother listening to the rest of if I were just going on this one song. That idea was shattered immediately when the second track, “Ponyboy”, popped up; nothing precious about this one. Then the third song, “Faceshopping”, jolted me out of even remembering the first song. Now I kinda like “It’s Okay To Cry”, whether it’s a red herring or not. It reminds me of something Xiu Xiu would do, except there would be some kind of caustic reveal at the end so you know it’s insincere or at least not theatrically earnest. I don’t know quite what the point is of several of these songs (“Ponyboy” included) but they are quite sonically adventurous, and I’m cool with allowing the point to shift. The album is hard to assess as a whole; there’s not a lot of continuity. A few tracks (tracks two and three especially) remind me of The Knife, taking into account that you never know what The Knife might sound like, but if I’d heard “Whole New World” independently, for instance, and you’d told me it was a new Spice Girls song, I probably would have believed you. (Note: I like the Spice Girls. Whatever.) It’s the whole sprawling “Pretending” suite that ends the album that got me past the gimmicky moments. Above all, Sophie seems to default to weirdness, and y’all know I give extra credit for weirdness.
16. Lost Empyrean | Dirge
Back in 2001, an album called Oceanic came out, and it was the sound I’d been searching for all my life. Apparently it was the sound that thousands of other bands had been searching for, too, and pretty soon there was no need to search any more; IT WAS EVERYWHERE. Maybe I subconsciously contributed to the post-metal glut by liking it so much at first. I apologize! I repent! Almost two decades later, the style still hasn’t evolved, yet the glut marches on, somewhat depleted from the height of its mid-aughts epidemic but resilient. And every once in a while, you get a new entry with enough original riffs and a grand compositional potency to remind you of why you joined the movement in the first place. It might as well be Dirge this year; finally after years of unremarkable slogs through the sludge they’ve made something strong and memorable, soul-stirring. Lost Empyrean does sound a lot like Isis, but not all the time; the extra beefy chug and grind brings to mind Zatokrev, even hinting at blackness sometimes. There are also mesmerizing swirls of psych/shoegaze textures (especially in “The Burden Of Almost”) that seep seductively in and out, putting the forced contrivances of the blackgaze (#PUKE #VOMIT) genre to shame. Anyway, Isis is gone (until the inevitable reunion tour); I feel like maybe we can hand the torch off to these guys now, at least for the moment.
15. Songs Of Resistance: 1942-2018 | Marc Ribot
Although Ceramic Dog remains my favorite Marc Ribot project, I think I like this album better than YRU Still Here?, now that I’ve had sufficient time to live with it. It has the higher highs, despite a couple of clunkers, and perhaps more importantly, we need all the songs of resistance we can get right now. Sure, you’ve got the ace in the hole, Tom Waits growling his way through the old Italian anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao”, but as a staunch Waits fan myself, I wouldn’t say this is one of the highlights. Fay Victor provides most of the best vocal moments of the first half of the album, although Steve Earle’s retooling of “Srinivas” is spirited. Musically, the album gets really interesting with the sitar-infused samba of “Rata de dos Patas” (“Rat With Two Legs”, i.e. the donald), and side B ends with the haunting Meshell Ndegeocello-sung “The Militant Ecologist”. Sides C and D are a nonstop anger party; “The Big Fool” might be Ribot’s best jam of this year. Earle returns for a kick-ass repurposing of Ceramic Dog’s “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around”, then a rousing, funky “John Brown”, wait wait, what is this, an album review or something? RUN AWAY! RUN AWAAAY!
14. Working Class Woman | Marie Davidson
“Man, I think she’s faking her accent. I mean, nobody talks like that?” is a quote from the opening track on Working Class Woman—not a lyric, because Marie Davidson doesn’t really sing, at least not on this album (except a little in “So Right”, the album’s outlier in all respects). The song, “Your Biggest Fan”, is a Jeff Tweedy-caliber lampooning not only of her so-called fans but also of the press and any other industry stooge who might be within earshot, but there’s an undercurrent of earnest self-doubt and real-life confessions in the background. “You wanna know how I get away with everything? I work. All the fucking time”, she says in the opening minute of “Work It”, and the insistent beat emphasizes, um, a punishing work ethic. “Is sweat dripping down your balls? Well then you’re not a winner yet.” Are you picturing yourself in the greatest workout video of all time? Good. Now if you need a bit more of an overt mockery of the patriarchy, “The Psychologist” will take care of you; a vaguely Keanu-esque voice deadpans some clinical clichés and Davidson is all variations on the theme of “you’re crazy”. These beats are rudimentary but damn, she knows how to manipulate tension and kick in new motifs at just the right times. Anything but over-the-top, at least in musical terms, but by no means subtle, either. These tracks would be brilliant in the club (inasmuch as I would have any idea what would be brilliant in the club) without any voices at all, but can you imagine the crowd reaction to “The Tunnel”, when she’s going “Ugh, you disgusting fuck, don’t!!” Psychedelic or psychotic, I find the whole thing thrilling and enthralling. “Reality is disgusting enough and we all have to deal with it.” Mic drop?
13. Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun | Ben LaMar Gay
The maddening description of this album on International Anthem’s bandcamp site says it is “compiled from 7 albums he made over the last 7 years but never made the effort to actually release.” Now why the hell wouldn’t you just release those albums, International Anthem?? Even if this compilation is a de facto best-of, there’s no way I wouldn’t want to deep dive into everything that didn’t make the cut. I’ve probably downgraded it a tad for not being a real album, and the label has already put out a second compilation (500 Chains) that’s nearly as good as this, dammit all. Whoops, I blinked; now they’ve put out two more. One of them straight-up repeats multiple songs from this album! Oh wait, now I see: Grapes is actually one of those original seven! If I’d known they were gonna do this, maybe I wouldn’t’ve bought the damn vinyl of Downtown Castles! Oh you tricky bastards. Maybe this entry should actually be about Grapes. I’ll have to get back to you guys on this.
Update: Yup, Grapes is better. Someone please change the title of this entry.
12. Loma | Loma
According to the googles, “loma” is the Spanish word for “knoll”. Presidential assassinations aside, the English word conjures up earthy imagery, and this jives with the sound and feel of this potentially lone album by Loma. Listening to it, no matter where I am, I feel like I’m nowhere near concrete or asphalt or petroleum. Loma is a sonic escape into the bosom of Mother Nature; it’s green and lush, despite its sometimes harsh lyrical content. Now, why did I say “potentially lone”? Because singer Emily Cross and multi-instrumentalist Dan Duszynski were married going into making the album and were not upon its completion. I would normally try to avoid letting such background information have any bearing on my appreciation of the album, but it’s difficult to ignore when you hear a song like “I Don’t Want Children”. Don’t expect a bitter undercurrent, though; there’s a great warmth to the album in general, evocative at times of old Clannad, and although that Celtic-sounding mournfulness seeps in frequently, it’s all permeated by an infectious serenity, and that’s what sticks with you. I really hope for more from Loma, but either way I’ll be doing my best to keep up with whatever the members do get up to.
11. Dirty Computer | Janelle Monáe
Okay, one pop album, sorry! I couldn’t help but include this, because it’s one I really needed to write about, and not just for myself. My first impression of Dirty Computer: major letdown. I fell head over heels for Janelle Monáe when I saw her open for/blow away of Montreal back in 2010. I thought The ArchAndroid was an incredible album, and 2013’s The Electric Lady furthered the mythology nicely and had at least a handful of really good songs. In hindsight, I’ve realized that Monáe was probably the most important figure in my rediscovery of pop and R&B as worthy of consideration—it’s a tough road for nerds, people. Here we had total sci-fi geekery residing in futuristic disco music and it was a gateway drug. Five years later, I am primed for the next evolution—instead I get unabashed sexy musical hedonism. I wouldn’t have admitted it when Dirty Computer first came out, but I felt betrayed. She completely abandoned us nerds for the posh life! There’s nothing weird about Dirty Computer. I gave it several spins and gave up; aside from the irresistible “Screwed”, I wasn’t getting anything from the album. Having to miss her Summerfest set undoubtedly didn’t help, but maybe all I needed was some distance. I came back to it in the fall on a whim, and quickly realized how duped I’d been by my own expectations. After all, she was the one who helped me see the light in terms of sexy musical hedonism—now I’m abandoning her? Far removed from what I’d hoped this album would be, it comes across as a very satisfying bunch o’ songs, even if it is lacking in experimentation. I still don’t think she’s surpassed ArchAndroid in terms of freshness and originality by a long shot, but I have a theory: all she needs is to come up with a knockout album-closer and she’ll have herself a bona fide classic, ‘cause this makes two albums in a row that end with a clunker. But “American” is the only real clunker I can find, and I’m officially back on team Janelle, even if we have heard the last of Cindi Mayweather.
10. Rausch | GAS
It’s tempting to think of GAS as background; the self-awareness is right there in the moniker. I’ve been guilty, even with Rausch. Since getting into the artist (Wolfgang Voigt) via last year’s Narkopop, I’ve become prepared for the long haul of taking in a GAS album. It’s almost impenetrable at first, but not unpleasant. There’s always the rhythm to fall back on, and meanwhile, you keep listening to it, letting your subconscious do most of the work. Then suddenly one day you take a second to examine your concurrent daydream and you realize that the music has transported you, that your brain has cobbled together tiny bits of your own dreams and experiences to correspond with the ones and zeros of Rausch, and you’re deep in a cave somewhere, or you’ve made it partway through some epic quest and you can feel an ancient evil lurking around a corner. Maybe as soon as you place yourself in the narrative, it starts to fade; that’s okay. It just makes you want to try and get back there next time you listen, because the contours of the music become clearer and more dynamic each time. It’s such a rewarding journey.
9. Room 25 | Noname
I liked this from the start, because I’d been hearing about Noname for at least a couple years, and I finally saw her at Eaux Claires, and she lived up to the hype and beyond as a performer. And I love the philosophies, and I love the sheer vocal talent on display, and the flow of the whole thing. These are subjectives of course, but they all feel objective now that I’ve fallen in love with the songs. How luscious some of these hooks are, how heart-wrenching some of the refrains. I’ve scarcely had three months with the album, and “Window” and “Don’t Forget About” and “Part Of Me” feel like codified classics from my youth, like part of the culture. Her admonishment “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” (“Self”) already strikes me as a bit trite, because, I don’t know, nobody I know who ever heard her even once ever thought that. She bursts onto the national scene with this debut album, and that defiance seems immediately like overkill. But dang, it is a great little lyric in itself.
8. Joy As An Act Of Resistance | IDLES
I heard this album described as “tongue-in-cheek” on NPR by a DJ from a prestigious independent radio station. I feel like that DJ most likely gets paid and has a producer who pushes the buttons, and has no need to understand music, sort of like Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. IDLES were the only band in all of rock and roll spitting venom in righteous fury all year (I’M SURE THERE ARE OTHERS, PLEASE POINT THEM OUT TO ME), but I guess to some folks, “fun”. The thing is, Joy As An Act Of Resistance does feature humor (“Never Fight A Man With A Perm” comes to mind), and even a touch of irony (“Love Song”, gee yathink?) but these are in service of caustic takedowns of societal ills. When Joe Talbot sings “If someone talked to you/The way you do to you/I’d put their teeth through/LOVE YOURSELF” in “Televison”, his tongue is nowhere near his cheek. “I GO OUTSIDE/AND I FEEL FREE/’CAUSE I SMASH MIRRORS/AND FUCK TV”, go ahead, shout it! Joy, yes, but also outrage—you get that these can coexist, right? This album is a desperate wakeup plea to humanity, and the Americans are like ‘that guy with the funny accent, gosh he’s so animated onstage, I love it!’
7. Whack World | Tierra Whack
It never occurred to me until I actually bought Whack World and put it into iTunes that each track is exactly one minute long, but now that we’ve got that out of the way, please ignore the gimmick and give in to the whimsical brilliance of Tierra Whack’s debut album. The Philadelphia rapper/singer switches styles constantly throughout these fifteen mini-vignettes, creating new mini-genres like dreamrap (“Bugs Life”) and glitch-country (“Fuck Off”) as effortlessly as breathing, making you giggle at the same time as you’re swelling with feelings of defiance or sympathy or whatever else. It’s the hardest album I’ve heard in a long time to listen to once without immediately starting it over at the beginning again. Putting something else on is almost always at least a little bit of a comedown. Whack World is about being in constant motion, seeking the next jolt in a sea of tiny hooks all jammed together, potent little sugar rushes that fly by with dizzying frequency and seem to paint a different overall picture each time. I listen to it and think ‘there’s no way she can make another album like this’ and it makes me a little panicky thinking it could be some flash in the pan, but I don’t really believe that it will be. Even if it is, the world is already more interesting because of it.
6. Vile Luxury | Imperial Triumphant
There’s such a thing as symphonic black metal, but this is not that. “Swarming Opulence”, the opening track on Vile Luxury, is more like spiritual jazz black metal. The horn parts are as strange and gut-wrenching as the guitar parts. Substituting for grand joyfulness in the dynamic peaks is a potent mockery of ebullience, a sentiment common to Zachary Ilya Ezrin’s lyrics—it’s not saying much, but his words are a cut above the metal horde, sometimes. The album is more about the grand swaths of noise and the lurching concertos between them, and the overall feeling of societal collapse that we’re all fearing or hoping for these days. I’ve heard few songs of any genre reach the level of unhinged fury of the final minutes of “Chernobyl Blues”; some listens have made me feel like I was about to pass out. Unexpected instruments provide so many highlights on this album; I love how the bludgeoning carries right through the piano solo in “Cosmopolis” yet you completely lose track of it for that minute or so. Imperial Triumphant is out there; those seeking the edges to which music has been pushed thus far should at least check this out. Give it time; it will tell you its story.
5. All Nerve | The Breeders
I will never forget seeing The Breeders live at Lollapalooza in the summer of ‘94. I thought they were terrible. There was a lot of just fucking around onstage and, not being well-versed in their catalog, I was dismayed that most of their songs were, oh, let’s say “inaccessible”. (I still thought they were better than Smashing Pumpkins, though.) It took most of these intervening years to develop some semblance of Breeders fandom, and as it turns out, All Nerve has emerged as my favorite of their albums. I’ll always love Last Splash and I’ll probably always kinda like Pod, but I reached a plateau with both, whereas with All Nerve it still hasn’t stopped getting better each time I hear it. I think Kim Deal’s ‘90s cleverness has developed into wisdom here in the twenty-teens, even at her most acerbic, and her heartfelt missives are as moving as ever. Like, how do you get through “Dawn: Making An Effort” without a lump in your throat? How can she still sing like that? I think “Spacewoman” has taken on a new level of meaning for me at least three times this year; it’s open-ended, and that’s a big part of Deal’s lyrical genius: evoking specific emotions while painting the imagery in very broad strokes. The journey is in making these songs your own. Now, excuse me while I disappear down the Kim Deal rabbithole I’ve been avoiding for some reason all these years.
4. Bellowing Sun | Mind Over Mirrors
Look, I can’t tell you how much you’ll be able to appreciate Bellowing Sun if you missed out on the zoetropic audio/visual madness of the performance I saw of it in Chicago. I can tell you that I spent well over 24 hours in a car with two friends on an ill-fated road trip in August, mercilessly subjecting them to the whims of my iPod on shuffle for almost the entire escapade, and this was one of only two things that provoked any sort of reaction from them. I can encourage you to google the album so you get some back story that you probably can’t glean from just listening to it, which would almost certainly enhance the experience as well, but you won’t do it anyway. So please just listen to the damn album.
If you want my REVIEW of the album, though, here it is:
Every time I put it on, as soon as the first sounds of it reach my brain, my brain goes ‘AAAAHHHH YESSS THIS AGAIN’.
3. Dead Magic | Anna Von Hausswolff
A couple friends, after I’d sung them the praises of this album, were like ‘I assumed you knew about her’. ‘Well how would I know if youuuuuu all don’t say anything?’ I didn’t say but should’ve. Do I have to rely on rateyourmusic.com for everything? Because that would suck. Dead Magic is the only album this year that I spotted on rym that has done anything for me, but dayum. I dug into Anna Von Hausswolff’s back catalog and it seems that it’s all been leading gloriously up to this; darker and darker overall moods, always with that incredible organ playing driving everything. Baroque to gothic, gothic to quasi-metal? (Shall we dance about architecture?) Credit producer Randall Dunn at least somewhat for the heavy, ominous mood, a perfect atmosphere for von Hausswolff’s haunting keys and wildest, most expressive singing to date. Dead Magic is like a marriage of folk, classical and drone, and I feel like von Hausswolff could settle comfortably into any of these genres or blast off into pure avant-garde if she wanted, or maybe just start her own religion, which I would gladly join purely for the music. I can’t wait to see what she does next; I’m constantly searching for the next evolution of music, and so far, this is on the front line of what I’ve been craving but didn’t know existed before.
2. Dennis 6e | Serengeti
When I say the numbers don’t mean anything, it’s me that I’m trying to convince. I agonized over these top two, and ultimately I put the album I think everyone should hear, the more important message, the one I think is better, over this one, even though this is the one that moves me more. This one, I get to the last few tracks knowing I’m about to go through the winger, again. I don’t even want to explain. I don’t think it will have the right impact if I unpack it for you. It’s weird having imaginary relationships with musicians you admire, but it’s even weirder having real relationships with imaginary characters they play. Serengeti doesn’t need the love, maybe, but Kenny Dennis does. Yeah, the hook is the humor. My first exposure to Kenny was a 2014 Milwaukee Film Fest screening of an episode (teaser?) from a since-abandoned (I think?) sitcom about the man, directed by the illustrious Wes Tank, and I felt an immediate connection. The whimsical pathos of Kenny Dennis was there in Serengeti’s sympathetic portrayal, though the whole thing was mostly just hilarious. No, I haven’t known people like Kenny; I just know that someone like him must exist. Fast-forward to 2018 and shit has gotten real, and the grimmer side of Kenny is much more apparent than ever before on Dennis 6e. See, to me, this character could not possibly be driven into the ground; this man is alive, a part of my own mythology now. Yet if he’s got to go out, this is the sort of bang he deserves; you might still come for the laughs, but I’ll be damned if you walk away from this album calling it a novelty. There’s not a single explicit mention of O’Doul’s! If you’re really listening to these songs, paying attention, even if this is your first trip into his world, this ought to shake you, this final plea for respect, to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose situation you will never understand, force yourself to dream up the gaps in the portrait from a place of compassion. This is me, listening to “Jam Time” and “6e”, shouting to the world HOW ARE YOU NOT FEELING THIS?? You have to keep listening until when Kenny yells “Quit try’na bite the style!” there’s no trace of irony. Then you’ve got it. There will never be another persona like him. Dennis 6e is the ultimate tragicomedy—and as sad as I am that it’s Kenny’s curtain call, I can imagine wanting to get out from under him. I can’t wait to see what Serengeti dreams up next.
1. Everything’s Fine | Jean Grae & Quelle Chris
Of the few albums I heard this year with any kind of socially relevant message, this is the better of the two that came from husband-wife duos (well they weren’t married when they made the album but anyway). While Jean Grae has always been known to cut deeply in both emotional and political terms, Quelle Chris is traditionally more of a smartass/goofball. On Everything’s Fine, they do play off each other’s contrasting strengths somewhat; more evident, though, is a singular, flowing cooperative vision without any significant weak moments. It’s not about trying to impress, but neither MC has been more on top of their game than on this album. Grae is more laidback than we’re used to but there are some fierce outbursts; it’s just that her flow is so effortless, you’d think she just woke up, rolled into the booth and spit it all out in between sips of coffee. Chris provides plenty of comic relief, but it’s mostly pointed rather than whimsical; he takes irony to the extreme in “Gold Purple Orange”, and I have to admit even though “Scoop Of Dirt” is probably my favorite song on the album, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly they’re getting at, other than, y’know, death. But there’s a lot I’m still discovering as I keep listening; it’s a dense, serpentine record with seemingly endless Easter eggs down every path, but it never loses track of its primary message. In a sense, the album is a takedown of, well, me, for starters; despite my deep cynicism regarding the direction of human society and helplessness in the face of widespread suffering, my tendency is to be optimistic about my own little world. In reality, not only is everything not fine; almost nothing is fine and almost everything is getting progressively worse, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it all humorlessly. If we can laugh while we acknowledge the tragic times we live in, if we can be self-deprecating but also take some comfort in our awareness of the self-evidently absurd façades that people hide behind, we just might get through this. You have to have that awareness to get through this album; the gravitas is there the whole time, hobnobbing with the one-liners and skits, and although the rhetoric gets as heavy as our reality demands, the record never leaves me feeling hopeless. Grae & Chris apparently appreciate how therapeutic it can be to make dark while making light.