Monday, December 12, 2016

Best Albums of 2016

  1. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

    A lot of albums attempted to tap the pulse of 2016, as mean-spirited a year as I've ever lived through, but none managed to so thoroughly express the slow-motion dread as Radiohead. This doesn't sound particularly fun, and I suppose it's not. But instead of projecting angst back into the world like Hail to the Thief, an album I've never particularly liked, Thom Yorke took all the anger and turned it in on himself, creating the most personal and tortured Radiohead album, yet. It's all there in "Daydreaming," a song that seems to float along with incredible beauty balanced by a looming, woozy unrealness. Of course, it helps that the records simply sounds incredible, correcting the weak thud of King of Limbs, which is probably my least favorite Radiohead album. All said, A Moon Shaped Pool stands up with Ok Computer and Kid A as the best that Yorke and company have produced.    
  2. Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
    I haven't wrestled with any album as much as this one. It seems intentionally off. The erratic, slapdash Life of Pablo is almost the exact opposite of the steely minimalism of Yeezus. The latter was reportedly completely re-edited in a furious week-long, Rick Rubin-assisted spree, resulting in something nearly flawless. On the other hand, Kanye seemingly couldn't figure out how to finish Life of Pablo, and it's not hard to see way. None of these bits seem to belong to the same album. I've been trying for the past three months to reorder the album into something that at least flows, but no playlist works. Yet, I can't stop listening. It's filled with some the best and worst of Kanye, and all of it feels so alive. Part of me feels terrible loving it as much as I do, because for the first time, this feels like an unhealthy pursuit for him. By the time you get through the run of "FML," "Real Friends," "Wolves" it becomes clear that this is a profoundly sad album. Perhaps the music is the only thing holding him together?  
  3. Beyonce - Lemonade
  4. A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service
  5. Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book  
  6. David Bowie - Blackstar
  7. NxWorries - Yes Lawd! 
  8. Jamila Woods - HEAVN
  9. Solange - A Seat at the Table  
  10. Noname - Telefone
  11. The Avalanches - Wildflower 
  12. Angel Olsen - My Woman
  13. Hamilton Leithauser - I Had a Dream that You Were Mine 
  14. Mitski - Puberty 2 
  15. Bon Iver - 22, A Million  
  16. Frank Ocean - Blonde
  17. Brian Eno - The Ship 
  18. Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing 
  19. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered 
  20. Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway 20 
  21. Leonard Cohen - You Want it Darker
  22. Cass McCombs - Mangy Love 
  23. Wilco - Schmilco 
  24. James Blake - The Colour in Anything 
  25. Anderson .Paak - Malibu 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Best Albums of 2015

Not since the heyday of Napster and illegal downloading--way back in 2001, kids--have I listened to as many albums as this year. Thank Apple Music, which, unlike Spotify, actually has just about every new release I could want to hear. While it'd be easy to find something negative to say about all this access, I can't really come up with much. I was able to listen to incredible amount of new music, which is a good thing.

25. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love
24. Drake - If Youre Reading This Its Too Late
23. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness
22. Mac Demarco - Another One
21. Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color
20. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
19. Wilco - Star Wars
18. Dr. Dre - Compton
17. Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
16. Destroyer - Poison Season
15. Donnie Trumpet - Surf
14. Vince Staples - Summertime '06
13. Deerhunter - Fading Frontier
12. Miguel - Wildheart
11. Blur - The Magic Whip

10. Jamie xx - In Colour

9. Julia Holter - Have You in My Wilderness

8. Tame Impala - Currents

Everybody else seems to love the overblown opener, "Let it Happen" or "Eventually," but I dig the endearingly earnest moments scattered in "Yes I'm Changing," where Kevin Parker somehow gets away with a line like, "They say people never change, but that's bullshit. They do." Or in "'Cause I'm a Man," when he repeats the title of the track, but instead of sounding like a unapologetic man, he sounds vulnerable and weak.

7. Erykah Badu - But You Caint Use My Phone

Drake's "Hotling Bling" was the best of memes, a hilariously great song that transformed into whatever anyone thought funny or relevant at the moment. But Erykah Badu took the song and turned it into one of the greatest missed connection albums in history--an oral history of the phone and what it does to relationships. "I know when that hotling bling, that could only mean one thing," changes completely when uttered from Badu's mouth. Gone is the judgement. Instead, it comes across as the late night ramblings of some hopeless lovers, someone she has no use for. After all, she's the girl that can "make you put your phone down." In this day and age, isn't that one of the greatest compliments you could give?

6. Beach House - Depression Cherry   

I look forward to hating every new Beach House album, only to succumb slowly to the same damn elements again. This should all be real boring by now--those organs and softly cooed vocals looping around and around forever. It took about two weeks for Depression Cherry to open up, (the second album released this year, fortunately, never did). And here it is, high up on my list, because I can't stop listening to it. I will say that the addition of distortion lent to songs like "Sparks" tickles that shoegaze scratch I have embedded in my skull. You can't exactly blame me.

5. D'Angelo - Black Messiah

Is it just me, or does everything just seem a bit off with this record? Not in a bad way, mind you, just in a slightly deranged and unexpected way. Though mentioned as a grand political statement about the unrest of the past year, the vocals are mixed so low it's hard to have much idea what he's talking about. "Sugah Daddy" exists for most of its running time as little more than a few piano stabs and a rhythm track. The bassline in "Back to the Future (Part I)" throbs along confidently until lurching to a stop awkwardly at the end, before getting back up and going back at it again. "Till It's Done (Tutu)" sounds like it's going to tumble on the floor for basically every second of the running time. Instead of a shambling mess, all these songs are deeply funky and infectious. You get the sense that these musicians know exactly what they are doing. They are not playing with us. They just know how to get things done, even if it doesn't make much sense initially.

4. Grimes - Art Angel

Grimes's last album, Visions, felt cold and otherworldly, like a beautiful dream or hallucination. Those are the last adjectives you'd apply to Art Angel, an album filled to the absolute brim with real intensity. I mean, have you ever tried to count all instruments and other sounds used in the first fifteen seconds of "Flesh without Blood?" Beyond the guitar and drums, look out for multiple shakers, vigorous hand clapping, the clanging of something metal (artificial steel drum?), perhaps a radio signal, and what sounds like a whip cracking. That's not to mention all the various vocal tracks that pop in and out for a few seconds. Of course, all of this effort would mean nothing if the song itself weren't so catchy. What makes this album so satisfying is that "Flesh" isn't even the most bizarre offering on the album. The winner is probably the aural assault of "Scream" or the 20 odd sections that are cobbled together to make up "Kill V. Maim." Still, I don't know what it means that my favorite song is probably "REALiTi," which is the only offering that seems to meld the hazy world of Visions with the busier world of Art Angel.

3. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

"I must express my disinterest." That line, declared during the fever pitch of "Pedestrian at Best," lays out the whole thesis of this album in one go. Rarely has someone tried so hard to express how little she cares. Some have traced the band's grunge era crunch to Nirvana, but I hear much more of Liz Phair's story-song approach here, and not just because both are female. Most songs feature characters unable or unsure about how to act, whether out of confusion or apathy. You could make some grand statement about our current generation, but I genuinely don't think that's the point. "Dead Fox" talks about the price of organic vegetables, but it absolutely isn't trying to guilt-trip us into buying them. After all, she only sometimes sits and thinks. The other times, she's trying to impress the boy in the next pool lane.

2. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

Is he really the asshole people make him out to be? I think that Father John Misty is only reflecting what America shines on him. Take my favorite song on the album, "Holy Shit", where he spends the entire song simply listing a string of unrelated statements. They don't make much sense together, but they add up to something quietly devastating. 

Take "the golden era of TV," which doesn't sound much written out like this, but when backed by strings and an ascendant arrangement, comes off as a sad comment on our times--that our greatest contribution is the drama we create. And that's not even the saddest part of the song. No, that happens with phrase, "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity." Which is the kind of cold hearted saying that rings both true and impossibly wrong. He even admits as much seconds later, "I fail to see what that has to do with you and me." 

You could say the same about person connection in our hyper connected society, where our interactions are studied and over analyzed to mean something, anything, when it's little more than droning insignificance.

Doesn't sound like a jokester to me. Sure, it's shtick, but that's true of every artist.

1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

Too many people have written about this album already, so it's hard to figure out to anything new to say about the passion and politics that run through it. And after the year we've had, all of that is totally legitimate. I happen to agree with most, even if the political edge covers up what a truly bizarre and dense album this is. Instead, I thought I'd shine a light on on the drums, because no one else has mentioned them yet, and they rule. Just consider the moment in "Institutionalized," immediately after the declaration, "Master, take the chains off me!" when that tumbling drum beat hits. Suddenly we're in the early nineties in the middle of some lost Tribe Called Quest album, expect this one beat always feels like it's about to collapse and throw everything off balance any second. Of course, it helps to have Snoop at his laziest and best, popping in and out with his refrain. Or what about the straight up bebop of "For Free? (Intermission)", where the drums do all they possibly can to keep track with Kendrick's free-form verse, which only manages to get faster and more complex as it goes on. And let's not forget the lethal energy conjured up in "The Blacker the Berry," which is only matched by Kendrick's bitterly raw voice. Not only is TPAB an important album (I don't think that's in question) but it's also musically adventurous and full of incredible songs. At first, it was all almost too much. I couldn't figure out how to open up the last half. But each song slowly revealed itself. Few albums are worth spending this much time unlocking.   

Friday, December 19, 2014

Best Albums of 2014

10. Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Raw

Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series has been a fixture of my year-end lists for awhile now, so you'd think the surprise would be gone. Yet, each album unearths some side of Dylan I didn't know existed, along with a dozen or so brilliant songs. The strangest aspect is that all of these seem to affirm that Dylan's spontaneous recording style was the key to his success. That was especially true with last year's Another Self Portrait, which somehow vindicated his most critically maligned album by removing all the overdubs and showcasing the spare and affecting performances.

That's done here, too, yet the Basement Tapes were always a little raw around the edges. The remastering does help a number of songs. "I Shall Be Released" has been one of my favorite songs for years now, but the new mix brings up his vocals, and tones down the falsetto backing. But mostly I just dig the rambling nature of the condensed release. (I have no interest in sorting through the complete, 100-plus-track version). Definitely check out the blues version of "Blowin' in the Wind," which manages to breathe life into a song that I thought was hermetically sealed.

9. It's Album Time - Todd Terje

It's Album Time begins with a song called "Intro (It's Album Time)," where someone simply repeats "It's album time," over and over again. Is this some kind of grand joke? The (amazing) artwork, pictures a suited up cartoon version of Todd Terje sitting by a piano, with not one but three fruity cocktails waiting for him. Yet, this is more or less what goes down. This is lounge music for the DJ set, an album perfect for a dinner party.

8. Spoon - They Want My Soul

Everything I try to write about this album comes across as damning it with faint praise. It's not my favorite Spoon album (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), or my least favorite (Transference). It's just another really, really good album, where every song works. The vast majority sound like they could be on any of their albums, while a couple of tracks, "Do You" and "Inside Out," manage to incorporate new, exciting elements. Those two also happen to be my favorite tracks on the album, making me kind of wish Spoon would go for broke and try a whole album like that, but that's not how they operate. Consistency, I suppose, has its merits, too.

7. Eno • Hyde - High Life

I can't think of another Eno album where the guitar plays such a central role. The album is almost a celebration of the different aspects of playing, from the clean melodies of "Lilac" to the atmospheric wail of "Return." On "Dbf" it essentially functions as another rhythmic devices, jibbing back and forth with glee.

6. Real Estate - Atlas

Sometimes you just need a breezy album of gorgeous tunes, full of reverbed guitars and hushed vocals.

5. Ariel Pink - Pom Pom

I'd like to pretend that I jumped on the Ariel Pink bandwagon earlier, but besides a strange fascination with "Round and Round," I've found it frustrating to take a whole album of his shapeshifting. That changed with Pom Pom, which is as frilly as its pink cover suggests. Sure, there are some melancholy moments here, along with seemingly straight-laced and gorgeous songs, but I prefer the silly stuff. As its name suggests, "Nude Beach a Go-Go" is a surf song, complete with reverb guitar. "Jell-O" sounds like he was trying to write a jingle, even if he does sing about "people wearing Wal-Mart clothes into church steeples." My favorite track is "Black Ballerina," which is about going to a strip club with his friend named Shotgun Willy. Instead of being turned on, he's nervous and unsure. At one point he honest says, "I like your areolas, baby." It's completely goofy, and slightly insane. Yet, if you have some soft spot for melody, no other album packed in as many candy-coated gems.

4. Run the Jewels 2 - Run the Jewels

I've got nothing to say about the lyrics that other people hasn't already covered in more detail, but I'd like to add that the music is just as concise. There is no fat here. Only one track goes goes past the four-minute mark. Most are around the 3-minute mark, and they don't so much end as slam right into the next track. No skits or long instrumental passages get in the way. Do we have Yeezus to thank for this? Sure, they don't sound much a like, but they both share a no-bullshit approach that feels like pure focused rage.

3. St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Who knew that what St. Vincent really needed was to dance? Of course, it helped that she wrote her strongest batch of songs, while refining her completely unique guitar chops.

2. Salad Days - Mac Demarco 

Sometime an album has to wash over me a few times before I figure out what's going on and whether I like it, but it took exactly 20 seconds of the title track for me to be all in. Why? In that time, Mac Demarco has time to sing one verse AND 10 seconds of "la la la's." Actually, are those "la's" or "na's"? It could be the melody, which starts high, before tumbling down, like he just fell off the couch. Or the guitars, which sound sound both melancholy and happy at the same time. Actually, it might be the bass, which almost seems like comes from a different song and was plopped unknowingly into this one. If, like me, you fall for these 20 seconds, listen on, because this album provides a wealth of other moments to obsess over.

1. Sun Kil Moon - Benji 

Does someone close to you have to die for Benji to resonate? It's a fair question, considering death seems to hover over every song here. I lost my dad this summer, so a soundtrack full of despair and hard questions would kind of make sense. Yet, while Mark Kozelek is sure as hell worried about his aging mom, all the deaths here are slightly removed. They are cousins, friends of friends, people he heard about in the news.

What is most striking about the album is that none of these deaths is given a dramatic sheen, or any kind of meaning. They just happen--often completely out of the blue--to people who were just trying to live. As he sings in the very first song, "Carissa was thirty-five, you don't just raise two kids and take out your trash and die."

While there are vague questions asked, all that he can really do is grieve with the rest of his family. This comes up later in the album, when an unnamed funeral is explained away as "Got a death in the family gotta do some grieving."

An album full of rambling acoustic tracks about death sounds like a mighty chore, and it probably would be if the songs were built around generic guitar strumming. But the classical picking in most of the songs, leaves them with room to breathe and for his deep voice to take charge.

Still, your enjoyment of Benji probably depends completely on whether you find Kozelek's matter-of-fact lyrics poetic or bone dry. To me, the album always feels one step from falling apart. But just when the melancholy mood seems to drag a bit, some drums kick in, or he gets a song in about his dad. It's the kind of album that I'd never impose on someone. All I know is that it means a hell of a lot to me.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Best Albums of 2013

10. Yo La Tengo - Fade
9. Paul McCartney - New
8. My Bloody Valentine - MBV
7. Justin Timberlake - 20/20 Experience

6. Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series, Vol. 10

This is absurd. Let’s make no mistake, this bootleg collects unreleased demos and b-sides from what most critics agree is Dylan’s worst album, Self Portrait. Not only that, but the original was a double album. Oh, and the vaults had already been cleaned to release Dylan, which is so bad, most people don’t even include it in his discography. And yet, stripped of overdubs, and padded with unreleased tracks recorded during the same period, this ends up feeling like some kind of lost album. While not as fun as The Basement Tapes, it shows Dylan's fascination with sturdy old folk songs, and is strikingly beautiful in a way few of his albums are.

5. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

I found it surprisingly hard to crack this one. As an albums, this one feels disjointed and oddly sequenced. That's especially true of the first half, which starts strong, and then immediately cools off. Instead of sitting down with this one, I was only able to obsesses on a track or two at a time. Obviously, I started "Get Lucky," but each song eventually revealed some ringing brilliance. I knew I was in for good, when I spent a few weeks trying to figure out why "Giorgio by Moroder" worked so well.

4. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires in the City
I’m as genuinely surprised by this album as everyone else.

3. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

I can't shake the feeling that there are two records here, and that it might have made more sense cutting this sucker in half. I'm sure most people prefer the shorter, poppier numbers, which get most of the attention on the first half. But I'll trade most of them for the moodier, grovier tracks that allow the band to really stretch out. That's definitely the case for the stunning title track, though I think

2. Kanye West - Yeezus
1. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap

2013 was the year of the big album—records that were expensive, groomed, and long. It’d be easy to also label them as indulgent if so many of them weren’t so good; Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, Justin Timberlake all released double albums overflowing with good will and high fidelity. In contrast, my favorite two albums of the year were stripped and direct—a minimalist masterpiece and an actual mixtape.

And I’m not sure what this means, but both also happen to be by Chicago artists. Sure, Kanye probably doesn’t spend much time here anymore, but he sure as hell listens to other artists from the city. Yeezus is filled musical odes to the city, including references to Drill music, the repetitive and intense music made famous on the South Side.

It’s easy to say that Yeezus is all about West, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. The lyrics alternate between righteous anger and the kind of vulgarity that is very hard to defend. Honestly, I still find the second half of Yeezus a challenge to get through, especially “I’m in It.” It’s obviously misogynistic, but there is something about Kanye’s tone that makes it all sound even more offensive than it might read on a lyric sheet. Perhaps there is some underlying meaning I’m not getting, but I don’t think so. That said, there is no doubting that the music is every bit as intense as the lyrics, so this is probably just a case of West trying to match the mood of the music. In that sense, I suppose he succeeds.

The angry lyrics, however, are nerve-wracking and consistently thrilling, and they are made more so by his darkest and most intense arrangements. “Black Skinhead” and “I Am a God” are both blatantly anti-commercial, yet these are the two songs he chose to introduce the world to the album. Instead of trying to be “serious,” both tracks are furious and slippery; they touch on the continuing racism prevalent in America, yet he doesn’t attack the usual targets.

The vulgar and angry collide on “Blood on the Leaves,” where he samples Nina Simone singing one of the most cherished songs about racism in the South, and uses it to spin some strange relationship tale. That’s kind of heresy, no? So if he just liked the sound, why did he perform at the VMA’s in front of a photo of a tree used to hang
On the other hand, Acid Rap is colorful, whimsical, and playful—things that are almost completely absent from Yeezus. It’s also a bit “songy,” which is my way of saying that too many of the tracks have big choruses with hooks that don’t always match the verses. Take the otherwise excellent “Everybody’s Something,” where the hard beats of the verse seem to butt up against a vaguely uplifting chorus. Contrast that with “Acid Rap,” where, for three and a half spellbinding minutes, Chance pushes back and forth over a simple drum beat, with nothing to help him. Perhaps a whole album like this would be too much, but one can hope.

As for the music, Yeezus stomps all over Acid Rain, displaying a kind of virtuosity that’s genuinely startlingly. Hearing tracks stripped down for spare parts is genuinely disorientating at first, especially since samples don’t so much as pop up as collide head first into walls. Why does it work so well? Perhaps this peek behind the curtain proves that constructing hip hop songs is far harder than you imagined. There is no doubt which one will be more influential.

You’d think that this would make West’s album a more intense experience, and while musically it certainly is, Chance’s range of emotions allows him to dig deeper and hit with ten times the emotional force. Chance manages to turn trivial details into surprisingly meaningful moments. The genuinely sweet "Cocoa Butter Kisses” chronicles the lengths he goes to cover his drug use from his grandma, while also hinting on the loss of innocence that happens at the same moment:

"Used to like orange cassette tapes with Timmy, Tommy, and Chuckie
And Chuck E. Cheese's pizzas, Jesus pieces, sing Jesus love me
Put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma would fucking hug me”

That’s not the only mention of drugs on this album, but they are never framed quite in the way you’d expect. He never brags about selling them, nor does he ever seem to care about giving them up. In “Lost,” it’s hard to tell whether the hazy warm feeling is from the touch of his girlfriend or the drugs they are both taking.

The album’s most harrowing cut, “Pusha Man,” touches on the violence on Chicago’s South Side in three separate vignettes, each seeming to look at the situation from a different view. But instead of meticulously tying the pieces together, the first and second bits are separated by an explained 20 second of silence—a truly bizarre move, especially since this is the second track on the album. This disorienting move makes you take notice, and it sets the next two parts in stark relief. The middle section follows a lumbering cruise—no vehicle is mentioned, but I can’t help but think of the character swerving on a bike—while the person in question is smoking a blunt on a hot afternoon. The person seems removed from regular life, completely in his own reality, which is only scary when you consider that he’s doing so with a gun strapped to his hips.

This all sets up third section, which features this utterly devastating line:

"I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too.”

Which, you know, actually stings when you think about all the talk about Chicago’s continuing violence. But then he gets specific in a way that actually hurts:

"It just got warm out, this this shit I've been warned about
I hope that it storm in the morning, I hope that it's pouring out
I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks
And I ponder what's worse between knowing it's over and dying first
Cause everybody dies in the summer
Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it's spring
I heard everybody's dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring”

And all this from a 20 year old kid that made a mixtape and then gave it away for free. Part of me can’t wait to see where he goes next. But even if we never hear from Chance again, we have Acid Rain, which is more than enough.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Best Albums of 2012

20. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
19. Nas - Life is Good
18. Neil Young - Psychedelic Pill
17. Chromatics - Kill for Love
16. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes
15. Bob Dylan - Tempest
14. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream 
13. Rufus Wainwright - Out of the Game
12. Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action at a Distance
11. Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania 
10. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
9. Bat for Lashes - The Haunted Man
8. The Shins - Port of Morrow 
7. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
6. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, Mad City
5. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light 

4. Passion Pit - Gossamer

Sure, there is real pain and struggle with the lyrics, but at its base Gossamer is almost embarrassingly pop. It makes no qualms about that fact. But it sure as hell ain't twee, and there is a big difference. Where the latter celebrates the serious writ small, pop goes for the masses with everything its got.

In that way, Gossamer is much like Wilco's Summerteeth, a pop album so brimming with melodies and hooks that you're almost embarrassed to sing along with it, that is, until you realize you're singing a lyric like, "She begs me not to hit her," as in the case with Summerteeth, or "My brain is racing and i feel like I'll explode," with Gossamer.

3. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel

Remember when Fiona refused to release Extraordinary Machine because she thought it sounded too much like a Jon Brion record? At the time, that sound, that rich multicolored round sound, was what I loved the most. To be honest, I wished the two would continue the fruitful collaboration.

But she was right. The Idler Wheel is Apple unbound, and it's equal parts riveting and quietly terrifying. I mean, who else could reach the lustful heart of a song like "Anything We Want," with a verse like this:

\"Let's pretend we're eight years old, playing hookey / I'll draw on the wall and you can play UFC Rookie / Then we'll grow up, take our clothes off /And you remind me that I wanted you to kiss me / When we find some time alone"

I can't think of another time when childish naivity mixed so well with sexual longing. There are a number of moments like that one, where ideas are phrased in new ways. In the end, the album feels like all the contradictions that make Apple so riveting. It's a difficult album for sure, but like a hot knife through butter, it gets the job done quickly.

2. Grimes - Visions

I struggled with crafting this list, because I felt like I didn't deserve to write it. For the first time in years, music seemed to slip through my fingers. Nothing grabbed me and shook me the way I wanted it to. Obviously, there were great albums, and some that I'll be listening to for years. But those albums were few and for between. Then Grimes happened.

First I watched the video for "Oblivion." Then I listened to the song over and over and over again. It's hypnotic and pop, vague and catchy. Does it have a chorus? The only way to find out is to listen again.

Nothing quite equals that song, but Visions is stuffed with songs that come awfully close, over and over again. Visions is the kind of album I always want to discover. Something completely different, yet familiar.

1. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

No surprise here. Everyone loves Frank Ocean. I love Frank Ocean. In particular, I love the "Bennie and the Jets" strut of "Super Rich Kids," especially the line about "this shower head feels so amazing." Because, let's face it, those rainfall shower heads do. Plus the line perfectly encapsulates the banal pleasantries that come with extreme wealth. (For the record, my experience with one occurred on a press trip that I didn't pay for.) "New ice, new glass," also ranks high.

The real power of Channel Orange is that every other song is worth exploring, too. Since Kanye's masterstroke two years ago, no other album has displayed such an embarrassment of riches, from Stevie Wonder snapshot of "Fertilizer" to the captivating weirdness of "Pyramids."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best Albums of 2011

25. The Antlers - Burst Apart
24. Panda Bear - Tomboy
23. R.E.M. - Collapse into Now
22. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto
21. Cut Copy - Zonoscope
20. Atlas Sound - Parallax
19. Cults - Cults
18. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
17. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L
16. Washed Out - Within and Without
15. Real Estate - Days
14. Yuck - Yuck
13. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
12. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
11. Wilco - The Whole Love

10. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
9. Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
8. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
7. Pains of Being Pure of Heart - Belong
6. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up

5. Cass McCombs - Wit's End

This was my little secret of the year, an album that I played repeatedly but told no one about. I'm afraid it wouldn't translate well, and that the same things I love—the mesmerizing tranquility of it all—would bore people to tears. I do know this: It's one of a handful of albums like Tom Wait's Alice and Lucinda Williams's World Without Tears that begins with a haunting, downbeat number which is somehow as invigorating as a two minute punk rant. This feels like the introduction to his world, and it's a sad one. In fact, things only get more terrifying from here on out.

4. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

There are no great singles here. When I'm done listening to the album, I often wonder what exactly happened. Did I really finish this again, or did it skip a bunch of tracks? I'd be angry if I didn't always have a reason to dive back in, to try and figure out what I've been listening to on repeat. It is not commercial, and I'm not quite sure how it will stand up. But it is a piece of work that deserves the time sunk into it.

3. Destroyer - Kaputt

Combine two of my least favorite things—Destoyer and 80's soul pop—and what do you get? How about one of the most confusingly awesome spectacles of the year. Filled with reverbed sax and awkward dance tunes, this should have been one of my least favorite albums of all time. I never understood the appeal of Destroyer until last year's Bay of Pigs EP, which is luckily repeated here. Normally he seems purposefully eccentric, but this genre exercise gave him some much needed constraints.

2. Kanye West and Jay-Z - Watch the Throne

I'm pretty adamant that we shouldn't judge art on moral grounds and that lyrics are just one aspect of what goes into a song. So the arguments about this being just an obscene product to pitch during the Great Recession really bored me. Plus it's borderline insane. For every line about excessive luxury, there is another that celebrates black icons. For every reference to Margelia jackets, there is another about the murder rate in Chicago.

Rolling Stone deserves special condemnation. After giving the album a paltry 3 ½ stars, noting the same tired "luxury rap" criticism, they then decided to anoint the album as the second best of year. This act allowed them to basically have their cake and eat it too; they could express their condemnation, while also showing that they were hip enough to understand what the rest of us already knew.

Never in my whole life have I heard an album bumped from as many cars as Watch the Throne. It didn't matter if you were black, latino, or white, this album was everywhere during the Chicago summer. While MBDTF seemed purposefully uncommercial, basically every track here was calibrated for radio airplay. Even the second half, which grows increasingly dark and introspective (why is that the critics never talked about this?), is filled with concise songs.

But I have to admit that the first half, the one filled with all the songs about greedy consumerism, is my favorite. Why? Because Jay-Z and Kanye are fucking hilarious, and listening to them trip over themselves trying to top each other with ridiculous lines was one of the great joys of 2011. "Otis", in particular, sounds like they were duking it out over every single line. Sure, it has no great meaning, and you can't call it poetry, but when was that ever the fucking point? Since when do great pop songs have a moral compass? Don't we want our crazed stars to try so hard to make us happy that they'll start acting truly bizarre?

1. The Field - Looping State Of Mind

Like Panda Bear's Person Pitch, The Field's Looping State of Mind is an experience that doesn't make a whole lot of sense initially, and yet is completely mesmerizing if you let go and submit to it. Besides the title track, I couldn't tell you the name of any of these songs, and yet each has more plays on iTunes this year than any other album. It wasn't even close. That should count for something, right?

Unfortunately, I worried that part of that reason was that I can work to it. Is there anything more lame than that? Though I once loved music that would control me, now I'm searching for albums that I can completely ignore. Of course, it is one of those albums that is great to write with playing in the background. But part of its power is that it makes me write BETTER and FASTER. It sharpens air, condenses time. Put it on, pick an assignment, and it's done. It is better than most drugs.

And yet, it also works when the keyboard is pushed back and the wine comes out. I have this album at my disposal everywhere I go. On my computer (MP3), turntable (vinyl), car (CD), and iPod (MP3, again). There aren't many moments that wouldn't benefit form this album (working out, walking the dog, walking down the street). I know this sounds strange, but that's because this album makes no sense and yet is impossible to stop listening to.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

20. No Age - Everything in Between
19. Wavves - King of the Beach
18. She & Him - Volume 2
17. The Walkmen - Lisbon
16. Spoon - Transference
15. The National - High Violet
14. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot the Son of Chico Dusty
13. Belle and Sebastian - Write About Love
12. Sufjan Stevens - Age of Adz
11. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today

10. Vampire Weekend - Contra

At first this album seemed like the very definition of a sophomore slump. Like kids with new toys (and budgets), the production was busier and glossier, and all the songs felt needlessly aggressive and flashy. I missed the simple pop pleasures of the first album, and I immediately discarded this album for about ten months. It was my mistake, because there are real songs buried in here, and ones that benefit from the new approach.

9. Beach House - Teen Dream

I nearly fell asleep standing up when I saw Beach House open for Grizzly Bear a few years ago. The mix of maudlin melodies and languid tempos didn't exactly win me over. But something has changed here, and I can’t quite figure it out. The tempos are still slow, but there is a sweeter and more delicate touch here. It makes the music feel less like some desperate drug fueled haze, and more like the best drunken summer afternoon of the year.

8. Best Coast - Crazy for You

When I argue with people about lyrics of pop music, this is the kind of album that seems tailor made for my argument. It's a sad and sunny beach album about heartbreak and longing. The lyrics are trite and simple, but when paired with the sorrow of those guitars, and the echoing harmonies of some lost Beach Boys summer, everything makes perfect sense. It the dramatic equivalent of adding heartbreaking strings to a cheesy teen film. You know you’re being manipulated, but everything sounds sweeter when you can sing along.

7. Girls - Broken Dream Club

I fell hard for Girls last year, admiring the quick blast of the debut album that felt haphazard, and about as complex as the Ramone’s oeuvre. It was awesome, but hard to understand how they could improve on that simple formula. So it is utterly astonishing to listen to this EP and hear the band blowing up the constraints and sounding better than before. We’ll have to wait until the next full length to see if they could match the songs, but this teaser is all I need to tide me over.

6. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

My favorite parts of Deerhunter’s last album, the mesmerizing Microcastle, were the quiet, slightly poppy ones. They felt like whispers between the extreme noise. So it is really no surprise that I’d fall for this album, which is made up almost exclusively of the kind of demented bedroom pop that only Bradford Cox could create.

5. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

Man how I hated Ys. But I immediately understood Have One On Me, a breathtaking album which cuts deep and pulls no punches. Her voice is richer, and the arrangements are more fluid. While the songs on Ys seemed to go on forever, the cyclical songs here feel necessary to contain her changing mood. Each verse feels warranted not for some kind of story book meaning, but for the emotional connection. For me, the music needs to drive the meaning of lyrics, and Newsom finally corrected the balance, delivering her most beautiful and stunning album yet.

4. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

I have always given Gorillaz the benefit of the doubt. While all of their albums has been uneven and too long, the singles have always made the trip worth it. But Plastic Beach is an album, albeit one that most reminds me of the glory days of mid-nineties CDs. Honestly. It is stuffed solid with strange detours and memorable pop songs. It's a world that you can completely engage with and learn something new each time.

3. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

“Aren't all of the songs too long?” That essentially was my first thought about LCD Soundsystem’s third album, and first since the nearly perfect Sound of Silver. As an album I just don't think it stays together as well, I’d have lopped off three minutes from the opening track, and tried to fit everything on one disc. But who cares what I think? The real treasure in this disc is exploring each track as an individual, cracking it opening, and trying to make sense of it. After a while the aggressive guitar tangle of All I Want starts to hit the right notes, and the spiraling and frenetic Pow Pow starts to make sense. Plus this fucker sounds epic on vinyl.

2. Arcade Fire - Suburbs

Last time we left Arcade Fire, they were railing against god and hypocrisy with torches and megaphones. The fire in Neon Bible felt real and vital, but it pushed them closer to the preachers they were trying to skewer. So when I heard that they would next be taking on the suburbs on their next opus, I worried that the songs would suffer from the cynical view. But as they announced in the press statement, it’s not “a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.” The innocence and sincerity of Funeral has returned, as the album feels like a teenager simply discovering music for the first time. The hint is in the album cover. Each songs seems designed to play in the car while cruising endlessly around roundabouts and subdivisions in your beat up car.

1. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

What more, really, could we ask for from a pop star? Had Kanye West done absolutely nothing he'd still be worth paying attention to, because he is so unfiltered and honest. With a business stuffed full of bullshit, he felt like the one person that saw its faults but still wanted to engage with it on his terms. Of course, he did put out music this year, including a barrage of utterly stunning free mp3s, which documented an artist on a peak and ready to conquer. To say I was ready for this album was an understatement. I'm not one of those people that jumped after Late Registration. I sometimes think Graduation is better. Still, I wasn't prepared for how shockingly huge My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would be, and how it’d obsess over it for two months straight.

Can we talk for a minute about how great this album is, because we are dealing with Kid A levels of genius here...

I am hearing all kinds of shit here. It’s an artist on the edge of inspiration and insanity, with an album so absolutely overloaded that it could have ended up like the worst kind of progressive rock — or worse — the rap generation’s first Oasis-level Be Here Now flame out. No one would have put it past him. But the one thing that has always remained with Kanye, during the all the twitter chaos and other PR nightmares, was his undying love of music.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sounds at once perfectly polished and yet wild and diverse. Each song seems like it could come from a different album. Compare the perfect soul soundtrack of Devil in a New Dress to the minimalist pulse of Runaway. Who would have guessed that Monster would sound so right after the jungle club mix of All of the Lights? Throughout it all guests weave seamlessly in and out, like jazz musicians taking their turn at a solo. So how can Kanye really be an oppressive egotist if he so often lends the spotlight to stars like Nicki Minaj, who walks all over both him and Jay-Z in her verse? Each guest seems picked out specifically for some sound he had in his head, but was unable to translate by himself.

I could go on. For such a massive, experimental album as this is, it's actually built on the frame of four massive singles (Power, All of the Lights, Monster, and Runaway). All could have carried a whole album, and yet they are warped here by the albums strange world view, coming out less commercial, and much more demented.

Which brings us to the biggest irony about this startling album. It’ll probably sell less than all this rapturous praise seems to indicate. Surely less than Graduation, and probably 808s and Heartbreak. That's okay. He took the hard route here, and I feeling we are going to be talking about this album for years to come.