I’m scared. I’m scared that even the slightest mention of a celebrity right now may inadvertently lead to their death. Less than a week ago my girlfriend and I were talking about Watership Down author Richard Adams (R.I.P. 1920-2016). And how many people had George Michaels “Last Christmas” on the brain before the Wham singer died ON Christmas? And now Carrie Fisher? It’s been that kind of year.
Music has been no exception, quite the contrary, it’s suffered some of the biggest blows. The loss of the Starman affected me the most, but no doubt I felt the loss of Prince, Glenn Frey, Maurice White and more. We lost two-thirds of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Phife Dog from A Tribe Called Quest, and many more talented people. The one silver lining is that we’ll always have the music. Music never dies. With that somber reminder out of the way let’s get to the list.
Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
The back end of my top ten album list is usually reserved for albums Colin told me are good but I only started listening to the day before my list. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam is a pain in the ass to type, but not to listen to. There’s a gritty Midnight Cowboy vibe to this collab between Walkmen frontman Leithauser and Vampire Weekend producer/guitarist/keyboard/everything else Rostam Batmanglij. I’m not sure what “Midnight Cowboy” means but it feels appropriate. This is working man’s music. The kind you sing at a dingy bar. Slide guitars and jingly jangly pianos guide these soulful stories and I can’t help but listen with awed reverence. Go team!
How appropriate for an artist world renowned as strange and experimental to go out on one of his most strange and experimental albums to date. I’m not sure how to classify Blackstar. It has odd song structures, beeps, boops, and lonely saxophones. I was working at Barnes & Noble when this was released and I remember even then it was divisive. Some people loved it, others were dumbfounded, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. RIP Ziggy Stardust.
The success of the latest album from A Tribe Called Quest reminds me a lot of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly last year. Both are politically charged and highly relevant, both are critically and commercially popular, and both are full of catchy, memorable songs. What I appreciate musically about A Tribe Called Quest is the percussive quality to the flow. That probably sounds like gibberish. What I’m trying to say is there’s a certain quality about older hip-hop that you just can’t achieve with newer acts. I feel like there’s a stronger reliance on the beat and keeping the phrases and rhymes closely syncopated. Again, gibberish, but I’m probably the last person qualified to talk about it. RIP Phife.
There I was, eating pasta in a Portland hotel refreshing Reddit, eagerly awaiting the release of The Life of Pablo. I remember trying to decipher Kanye West’s cryptic tweets. It seemed like every five minutes there was new information and still nothing. The release date was pushed back again and again. Nobody even knew what songs would be on it. I’m not even one hundred percent it ever came out. I certainly don’t own a copy. I sure as hell will never get Tidal. The only reason I even heard The Life of Pablo was because someone on Reddit noticed it was streaming in its entirety on… sigh, Pornhub. Not my finest hour.
Yet all of this and The Life of Pablo is great. Is it a mess? Yeah. Is it self-indulgent and long? Yep. But it’s so distinctly Kanye West. Even if Yeezus is one of the biggest jerks in the industry (probably the biggest) he is still a master in the studio. This is another masterpiece.
The first time I heard Charles Bradley was live, surprisingly. I remember killing time in-between bands at the 2013 Bumbershoot Music Festival when I heard a soulful voice travel across the grass from the Mural Stage. There was Charles Bradley, sweat glistening, knees bent in a fringe vest pouring his heart out on the stage. “How have I not heard of this guy?” I thought. It turns out Bradley was a long time in the making.
Spending years drifting across the country as a cook and James Brown impersonator, Bradley didn’t break out until the ripe old age of 63 with his 2011 album No Time for Dreaming. Changes is Bradley’s third album and it might be his finest yet. Collaborating with a rotating group of the finest soul bands, Bradley delivers retro ballads as good as any of the greats. Notable is the album’s title track “Changes” a Black Sabbath cover. Much in the way Johnny Cash made “Hurt” his song,’ “Changes” has become Bradley’s. Hopefully, Bradley can sing it for many years to come. I know he’s been battling cancer since last October, but even if the unspeakable happens, his legacy will last forever.
What I love about Parquet Courts is they just sound like a bunch of guys hanging out, eating Chinese food and writing songs. I’m sure they put in more work than that. After all, they seem to have an album out every month. Yet the quality of the songwriting and creativity in this group has yet to slow down. I don’t know how they do it. How do they write silly songs about dust and remain one of the most consistently liked groups on the indie circuit? I think it’s the lack of pretension. As long as they keep that I’ll be jamming out alongside ’em with my box of kung pao chicken on my dusty couch.
BadBadNotGood? More like GoodGoodIsGood, right? Now that’s how you start an album review! I discovered this Canadian Prog-Jazz (whatever that is) group on KEXP after hearing the song “Lavender”, a synth-driven instrumental that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Dario Argento Giallo film. But there’s a little bit for everyone on IV. There’s progressive jazz interludes, R&B jams with guest vocalists, spooky synth-driven songs. And man, Alexander Sowinski can really pound those skins. What a funky bunch of dudes. Clearly, I’ve put a lot of thought into this.
I first heard Norwegian singer Aurora from the place all hip people 65+ hear about new music, NPR. Releasing her debut album at the tender age of 19, Aurora has already become a favorite of artists like Katy Perry. Before you brush that off remember Katy Perry has more followers on Twitter than anyone in the world.
I would describe Aurora’s music as a mix between the moody pop of Florence + the Machine and Sia. Like if Sia decided to stay home on a Saturday night to crochet instead of go clubbing. Demons has upbeat radio jingles like “Conquerors” and brooding ballads, “I Went Too Far,” to suit any mood. Check it out, unless you hear it on the soundtrack to the next big young adult movie franchise first.
From first listen I already knew Light Upon the Lake would be an album I would be listening to for the rest of my life. Forged from the ashes of Chicago indie rock outfit Smith Westerns, Whitney is the baby of guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer/singer Julien Ehrlich. Utilizing old school sounds combined with Ehrlich’s distinct falsetto vocals, Light Upon the Lake is a warm throwback to the best California bands of the 60s and 70s. I can imagine some listeners might not respond to Erlich’s overuse of falsetto, but after a whole summer with this album, I can’t imagine it any other way.
Sometimes the best albums are the ones hardest to decipher. Every time I put on Wildflower (which is quite a few times by now) I discover something new. Then again, this shouldn’t come as surprising once you learn how many samples were used and how many years (16 to be precise) Robbie Chater, James Dela Cruz and Tony Di Blasi spent working on this album. Wildflower feels like a lifetime of musical influences all squashed into a single album and the end result is nothing short of stunning. Wildflower seamlessly flows from Jackson Five-esque pop songs to Hip-Hop, to psychedelia, to children’s jingles, to something I can’t even describe.
Imagine watching Saturday morning cartoons while blasting your mom’s baby boomer records and devouring bowl after bowl of sugary sweet cereal. That’s Wildflower. Just look at the list of collaborators; Danny Brown, MF Doom, Kevin Parker, David Berman, Father John Misty, Biz Markie. BIZ! MARKIE! This album isn’t just in a league of its own, it’s in a league on another planet in another galaxy of its own. Wow. That’s all I can say. Just wow.