Sunday, January 15, 2017

Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

I like to think that besides being adventurous I'm also a loyal listener, willing to follow people down whatever winding streets and (sometimes blind) alleys they travel. But I also have to go with my gut when something is not up to the standards musicians have set for themselves, which happened a number of times this year.

Albums by Wilco, Hamilton Leithauser, Sean Lennon, Sam Beam, Paul Westerberg, and Metallica all disappointed me this year, much as I tried to like them. There were a few good songs among them and none were cynical failures, but I do think it's notable that all except Wilco and Metallica were collaborations, wherein may lie some of the roots of my dislike. Artists like Rostam Batmanglij, Les Claypool, Jesca Hoop, and Juliana Hatfield seemed to bring out something close to the worst in Leithauser, Lennon, Beam, and Westerberg respectively. Here's hoping they follow their own muses next time around.

Even though these were all past Top 20 artists, I didn't despair. The universe will provide, I thought, and it did: new favorites like Benji Hughes and Warhaus, among others, made astonishing records that fed my soul and delighted my mind. And there were the fantastic albums, EP's, and singles that I never had a chance to feature (aside from a tweet or three), which is what the rest of this post will be about. Some of these were new to me entirely, others are people I've had an eye on for a while, and two are legends in late career. Good listening guaranteed...


Morgan Delt - Phase Zero Two years on from his debut, Delt refined his take on psychedelia with addictive songs that have a way of seeming to alter the space you're in, both mentally and physically. Rather than sounding like a band, all the sounds interlock, with multiple guitars creating polyrhythmic meshes that the drums merely reinforce. Delt's singing sometimes seems like an interior monologue further making this multicolored gem a great headphone trip.

Richard James - All The New Highways Not to be confused with Richard D. James, also known as Aphex Twin, this guy is also a veteran player, having been a founder of Welsh psychedelic folk rock maestros Gorky's Zygotic Mynci back in 1991. On Highways, his fourth album since Gorky's broke up in 2006, he avoids some of the slightly forced playfulness they often pursued, preferring a more naturalistic approach. Think more Led Zeppelin III, Side Two, than Kevin Ayers. There's a lovely woodiness throughout, even when the rhythms tend towards the hypnotic drive of Krautrock. Some of the songs are instrumentals but James's lived-in burr of a voice is always welcome, as is this album - it may be the finest work of a long career. 

Lost Animal - You Yang Many is the time when I'll read a friend's best-of list and know every album but one. That can be a golden opportunity to find something great but it's just as often a dead end. This time it was the former, I'm happy to report, as You Yang is a consistently inspired album, with Jarrod Quarrell (who effectively is Lost Animal) laying his Dylanesque drawl over keyboards, drum machines and sharply plucked bass. He explories many interstices in his quirky sound, adding sax and melodica for color, and employing backup singers to keep things from getting too insular. There might be as much synthesized sound as some of the entries on my Electronic list but the attitude is all rock and it's no surprise when things get a little noisy in Message For The Future. Quarrell released his first Lost Animal in 2013, which means I have some catching up to do - now you do, too. 

Savoy Motel If it's rock attitude you want, these glammed up guys and gals have it to spare. Their self-titled debut has riffs galore, overdriven lead guitar licks (is that a Les Paul through a Marshall stack?), a funky beat that actually swings, and catchy songs. Savoy Motel are often lumped in with the Lemon Twigs, for whom they are opening on tour, but the latter's overstuffed and mannered tunes can't hold a candle to what's going on here. At its best, this is just plain fun stuff and a little bit raw. My only advice is, being that they're from Nashville, they might want to focus to what that town is known for - songwriting - because there are only five good songs (out of eight) on the album. The last third sinks as they get lost in aimless jamming. Including the sly 2015 single Cool Air would have improved things immeasurably. If they keep it short, tight, and groovy throughout their next album, it will (to quote their press release) "completely dominate the music world of tomorrow!"

Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression "Way better than I expected" is a pretty shaky scaffold on which to build a critical response.  Also, since Iggy hasn't made an album I felt compelled to listen to more than once since New Values in 1979 (OK, maybe Soldier in 1980, but I don't sing any of those songs in the shower), my expectations were pretty low in the first place. But I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt, partly because he claims this is his finale, and partly because he has made five albums that are part of my lifeblood: Funhouse, Raw Power, Kill City, The Idiot, and Lust For Life. In the end, while this is his best album in decades, it's not quite a return to form. Producer/Guitarist Josh Homme and Iggy's other collaborators create some interesting and varied backdrops for his baritone musings, but too often those musings devolve into first-draft doggerel by the second verse, if they haven't already started there. Iggy's energy here has neither the snarl of The Stooges era nor the grandeur of the Bowie years - he's just sort of there, perfectly adequate but not riveting. Still, if this is truly his last album, it's more than respectable, and based on the recent live album, he's still acquitting himself nicely on stage. 

Julia Jacklin - Don't Let The Kids Win Like Angel Olsen, Jacklin trusts the verities of the great songwriters of the past, tapping into classic 50's and early 60's folk-based rock & roll. There's also a sense of decorum that is most welcome in these clickbait-dominated days. In opener Pool Party when she sings "I want to give you all of my love," it sounds she's talking real commitment, not a Tinder quickie. She's versatile, too, driving the band home on the rocked-up Coming Of Age and also remaining completely compelling on Elizabeth, a gorgeous acoustic ballad. This consistently great album is one of the debuts of the year. I don't know about "the kids" but I sure want Jacklin to win, however she may define the term. She's leaving Australia and touring America with Andy Shauf in the spring - maybe I'll see you at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 17th. 

C. Duncan - Midnight Sun Duncan came to my attention when he was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2015 for his album, Architect. More than one friend for whom I played it remarked that they were reminded of Fleet Foxes, but without the clunky pandering of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. While the focus on Midnight Sun is still Duncan's beautiful high tenor, the sound is quite different, filled as it is with ethereal keyboards and songs that seem barely tethered to the earth. It's very seductive and works best when Duncan gets a little splashy,  like on Other Side, which draws on some of the drama generated by fellow Scots Simple Minds. I could've used more of that. Still, Duncan is a melodically sophisticated songwriter and growing as a sonic explorer. I plan to stay in touch with his next move.

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - Everything Sacred There's also a Scottish tinge to this multicultural trio, as it features James Yorkston, a folkie of some renown from there, along with Suhail Yusuf Khan from New Delhi, and Jon Thorne, double-bassist who's known mostly for his live work with the electronic duo Lamb. Khan is kind of the star of the show for me, with his lovely voice and the haunting sounds of his sarangi, an Indian instrument that sounds a little like a bowed sitar. Start with Knochentanz, the expansive and astonishing opening track and you'll be hooked. Save for the cover of Ivor Cutler's Little Black Button, which is a misfire, the whole album is a gem. One reason I love this record is that it hearkens back to the the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, which featured a divine mixture of folk and Qawwali performed by Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (it's the only time Eddie Vedder got my money - and it was worth every penny). Everything Sacred doesn't cut quite as deep as Dead Man Walking but it's one of the year's most beautifully contemplative records.

Sophie Cooper - Our Aquarius, Etc. If you loved Everything Sacred and are now craving more droning sounds, look no further than Sophie Cooper. She creates pure hypnotism every time she sings and with everything she plays, including trombone. She's also prolific - if you put Our Aquarius together with the other music she released last year into a playlist, you get nearly 90 minutes of fascination. Many is the Monday that I eased into the week in just such a fashion. She's a special talent who's not afraid to be very diffuse and interior, although the rewards are many if you reach out to meet her. You'll have more opportunities to do just that in 2017 - apparently a new album is in the works.

Mavis Staples - Livin' On A High Note While this isn't as inspired as Your Good Fortune, her EP from 2015, the legend is in fine voice throughout and the vibe is relaxed and upbeat. I don't want to be mean, but if I needed any more proof that folks like Merrill Garbus (Action) and Neko Case (History Now) are not world-class songwriters, their contributions here leave no doubt. Fortunately, the last two songs, Jesus Lay Down Beside Me by Nick Cave, and MLK Song, a setting of one of King's speeches by producer M. Ward, end the album on the promised high note.


Ocean Music - Wake: Three Songs The evolution of Richard Aufrichtig's art continues, as he puts his expansive, emotional songs in the context of an absorbing and sometimes intense indie rock sound. See them live to achieve liftoff and keep your fingers crossed for an album in 2017.

Ann Driscoll - Pushpins Although this five-song EP has a cover only Pinhead could like, this multi-instrumentalist from Ohio knows how to deliver songs loaded with charms. Her lyrics are clever and she's already mastered electro-pop and indie rock - no limits to what she can do in the future.

Nine Inch Nails - Not The Actual Events This teaser for the next NIN album got a little lost in the year-end shuffle. I was pleasantly surprised, even if it wasn't as "impenetrable" as Trent Reznor promised. But She's Gone Away had some good creep factor and The Idea Of You reminded me a little of 2wo, Reznor's 90's project with Rob Halford of Judas Priest. In my world that's a good thing!

Acid Dad - Let's Plan A Robbery I should have included this riff-tastic garage rock (or "NYC Psych Punk," as they would have it) in my Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., but I'm only human. I suspect things might get a little wilder on stage, which is why I've been trying to see them forever - maybe in April when they hit Le Poisson Rouge. Take a look to see if they're coming to a town near you first.

Pussy Riot - XXX I'm slightly taken aback that Make America Great Again, a slinky, earworm of a protest song with a great video, didn't blow up bigger. Maybe it's that name, but with certain quotes being repeated on the news ad infinitum, it really shouldn't matter. The fact that the other two songs aren't as compelling is no strike against these committed artists. Considering the fact that they are more of a performance art political activist collective than a band in the conventional sense makes MAGA even more impressive.

Remy Shand - Archives Vol. 2: California Instrumentals Singer, songwriter, producer, player of many instruments, this Canadian R&B master sold hundreds of thousands of records for Motown back in 2002, earning a Juno and several Grammy noms in the process. For a minute, it seemed as if he could do no wrong. He's also somewhat of an enigma, having basically disappeared after his one and only album. He's been slowly leaking out singles and EP's over the last few years, with varying results, and this is one of the most interesting. Jazzy, yes, but also touches on easy listening and ambient music. Get reacquainted with a unique talent.


Courtney Barnett - Three Packs A Day She knows we want more and managed to eke out this breezy gem while touring the world.

Father John Misty - Real Love Baby Like Barnett, demand far outstrips supply where the good Father is concerned. Drenched in vocal harmonies and echo, this is even more redolent of the 70's than usual, with a chorus that is pure "soft rock," i.e. perfect.

Drugdealer - Suddenly (feat. Weyes Blood) I don't know about drugs but I would definitely buy a slightly used Badfinger or Carol King song from this guy. His loopy, stapled together lite rock was a bit much over the course of an album, but this single is pure mellow gold. Tip of the hat to Lyle Preslar and Jim Shearer from The Week In Music for this recommendation.

Tammy - Hated It (With You)
 This witty duo (consisting of Aaron Mendelsohn from Isadora and a singer who just goes by "Brooke") has a lovely sweet'n'sour chemistry on this country-pop breakup song. There's more on their album, released late last year, but I haven't absorbed it all yet.

Mark Eitzel - The Last Ten Years The former American Music Club maven is in fine, windswept form on the lead single from Mr. Ferryman, which will be released in later in 2017. Pairing the introspective Eitzel with Bernard Butler (formerly of sleek rockers Suede) was a canny choice and could lead to Eitzel's strongest album in decades.

Warbly Jets - Alive These future L.A. icons deliver a polished monolith in their first official single. Julien O'Neill, ex-Napoleon, mashes the keyboards as stylishly as he used to play guitar. World domination to come - stay informed.

Beck - Wow I just keep playing it over and over again...more please, Mr. Hansen.

Nicole Atkins - A Little Crazy I think the world of this oh-so-tough South Jersey siren. Her last album, Slow Phaser, was one of the best of 2014 so naturally I pre-ordered the new one. This epic 60's ballad has me willing to double my order!

Holly Miranda - Hold On, We're Going Home -  One of two new songs on a revised version of her covers EP, Party Trick. Leave it to this genius to make a song by Drake seem significant. The other new song, Love Came Here, is a devastating tribute to the late Lhasa de Sela, who wrote and sang the original. Any year with new music from Holly is a good year (there was also a fun Christmas album with Ambrosia Parsley and Chris Maxwell) so this improves your karma, 2016. Don't forget us in 2017, Holly!

Listen to a sample from all the albums described above in this playlist or dive deep into the full 10 hours of everything rock-ish that was at least vaguely interesting in 2016.


I also covered valuable new releases from Cory Taylor Cox, Bob Dylan, Max Jury, Sonya Kitchell, and Chris Maxwell in Record Roundup: American Tunes back in June and excellent albums by Field Music, TV Girl, and Wire were featured in Best of 2016 (So Far), Part 1 and Part 2, back in July. In October I published the aforementioned Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., which shouted out killer albums from Exmagician, Journalism, Pale Dian, The Stargazer Lilies, Nap Eyes, Frankie Cosmos, Tacocat, Feral Conservatives, Self Defense Family, Scott & Charlene's Wedding, Parquet Courts, Omni, Big Thief, The Amazing, Ryley Walker, Lucinda Williams, and Dinosaur, Jr. It's no knock on any of these that they weren't ultimately in the Top 20 - just yet another testament to the extraordinary music of the year just past.

Coming soon: Best Of 2016: Out Of The Past, featuring reissues and old recordings newly released. And that will be IT for 2016!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Best Of 2016: Classical

If you're looking for optimism - and many people are these days - look no further than the world of classical and composed music, which is thriving even as the music business continues to evolve. Out of the onslaught of releases, I tend to focus on new music, including many world-premiere recordings, partly because I'm an adventurous listener and partly because I did a lot of concentrated listening to bedrock repertoire at the dawn of the CD era.

Some new albums of old music rise above the pack, however, because they bring rare pieces to light, put familiar pieces in a new context, or because of the extreme excellence of the performers. I discuss some of these below, but I also recommend perusing the Of Note In 2016 (Classical) playlist for more old wine in new bottles, including a number of Shostakovich recordings. 

Get Reacquainted 
In the interest of space, I will begin by pointing you to some of the year's best that I covered in previous posts but that didn't end up in The Top 20. All of these records continue to enrich, enlighten, and entertain me, and I think you will find that at least some do the same for you. 

Discovered But As Yet Uncovered
My listening in this general area of music extended well beyond what I covered above. Some discoveries came via the various PR firms who are gracious enough to keep me in the loop, others through blogs, people I follow on Spotify (check out Eule Chris - he lives on the cutting edge), or even corporate newsletters. Some, however, came from an unlikely source: the Grammy nominations

Even though the headlines are usually about pop-star rivalries (Beyoncé vs. Adele, anyone?), eleven nominations are in the classical vein. Until this year, I had never thought of mining that list for recordings I might have missed. I immediately went to Spotify's Grammy playlist to see what sounded good and discovered that they ignored that side of things completely. Instead of just getting mad, I made my own list for all to enjoy and in the process found a some great records, including the first three reviewed below.

Martin Kuuskmann - Bassoon Concertos Kuuskmann is a bassoon player of extraordinary skill and feeling and here introduces Christopher Theofanidis's equally extraordinary Concerto. This is a work of subtlety and wit which is beautifully orchestrated and unafraid to tap into the holy drone on occasion. It really needs to be heard to be believed. Kuuskmann follows it with the sprightly Concerto in F Major, WoO 23 by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a student of Mozart's. Kuuskmann handles the requirements of this minor masterpiece with aplomb and its Classical intricacies resonate nicely with the Theofanidis work. I do somewhat question the wisdom of including a third concerto, in this case Mozart's K. 19 in B-Flat Major, as I find myself growing fatigued when listening to all three works in a row. The audience (this superb-sounding album was recorded live) doesn't seem to mind, responding enthusiastically to all three concertos and to the lagniappe of an encore, a short piece by Tōnu Kõrvits. You don't have to listen to all three in a row, however, but listen you should, especially to Theofanidis' brilliant piece. (Nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition)

Ludovic Morlot & The Seattle Symphony - Dutilleux: Orchestral Works 
Henri Dutilleux is probably the third greatest French composer of the second half of the 20th Century. But don't take such a qualified statement as damnation via faint praise. It's just that when Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen are in your cohort it's easy to be overlooked. That trend should be reversed by excellent collections like this one, overflowing as it is with brilliantly orchestrated, colorfully melodic music. It you agree, there's more to discover, like the definitive recording of his song cycle Correspondances featuring the great soprano Barbara Hannigan. (Nominated for Best Surround Sound Album and Best Engineered Album)

Ian Bostridge & Antonio Pappano - Shakespeare Songs Let's be upfront here: Bostridge is the greatest living singer of lieder and art song. He brings the necessary interpretive nuance along with the requisite spirit of scholarly inquiry, reinvigorating this art form with every project to which he puts his lilting tenor and lively mind. Shakespeare Songs, which includes settings of the Bard's words by Finzi, Korngold, Tippett, and Stravinsky, among others, is no exception. The sequence flows naturally, like a good recital, and persuasively makes the case for this mostly unfamiliar material. Pappano and Bostridge work together very well, and the brief additions of lute, flute, viola and clarinet lend sparkle and variety. That said, one of the most remarkable songs is the a cappella closing track When that I Was but a Little Tiny Boy by an anonymous composer. Based on a lyric from 12th Night that is probably older than Shakespeare, this tune contains in its two and a half minutes all that song can do to connect humans across the centuries. It's a fitting end to a collection paying homage to Shakespeare's 400th birthday. (Nominated for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album)

Ian Bostridge & Xufei Yang - Songs From Our Ancestors Besides being a great artist, Bostridge is always busy - this is the other great album he released in 2016. Yang is a wonderful guitarist who collaborated with Bostridge on his collection of Britten songs a couple of years ago. Like Pappano, she is a great accompanist with plenty of personality, and a perfect partner for Bostridge. Featuring both British and Chinese songs as well as classics of German lieder, this is a beguiling and smart album that illuminates traditions of both artists. It also has the world premiere of Welsh composer Stephen Goss's fine song cycle Book of Songs for Tenor & Guitar, which was commissioned by Bostridge and Yang and uses Chinese poems from millennia ago. Keep an eye on Bostridge in 2017 - I'm sure he'll be up to something great!

Talea Ensemble - Aaron Helgeson: Poems Of Sheer Nothingness This challenging album pushes the idea of song into the furthest realms. Featuring committed performances by the Talea and soprano Susan Narucki, the title piece includes lots of extended techniques for all the players. Notes on a page (Of Sappho) is a setting of fragments by the Ancient Greek poet by Anne Carson, a true genius of letters. Helgeson is more than up to the task and the results are sublime. High culture gets no more elevated - and ultimately elevating - than this. 

Gerd Schaller with the Philharmonischer Chor Munchen, Philharmonie Festiva - Anton Bruckner: Sacred and Organ Works 
In the classical tradition, much of the singing is to the glory of god, which is the case with Bruckner's Third Mass and his setting of Psalm 146, both included here. But you don't have to be a believer to feel the spirit animating such magnificent music, especially in such towering and inspired performances. Schaller is an experienced conductor of Bruckner's symphonies and brings all of that knowledge to bear here, with a firm hand on structure and dynamics. There's about 25 minutes of organ music ending this double album which I am less able to judge but I would be surprised if it didn't meet the highest standards. Bruckner was a deeply devout man, making this some of his most personal work. I can't imagine him not being grateful for this collection of an underserved portion of his repertoire - I know I am. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Arrival (OST) One of the reasons Jóhannsson is so in-demand as a film composer is his ability to illustrate the underlying emotions in a narrative. For Sicario, his sonic dissection of dread elevated further what was already a superior police procedural. This nearly classic sci-fi movie benefits from the way Jóhannsson uses chords, harmonies, and textures to illustrate the mystery, terror, and hope in the story. It's hard to imagine a better match of music and film and it's a great listen outside of the theater as well. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Orphée With Hollywood constantly calling, and other film projects, it's been six years since Jóhannsson recorded a passion project. He engages with narrative here in any case, loosely tracing the story of Orpheus, the rock star of Greek mythology who lost his wife Eurydice to the underworld because he couldn't follow directions (namely "Don't look back"). Jóhannsson's approach is poetic enough that you don't have dwell on the narrative unless you want to. The touches of glitchy electronics and half-heard vocals keep Orphée from being cavity-inducing but it is still very...pretty. There's enough variety to make for a satisfying listen, though, and the last track, performed by Paul Hillier's Theater of Voices, is truly stunning. Perhaps Skylark should add it to their set-list.

Lucy Claire - Collaborations No. 2 and Selene (Music For Contemporary Dance If you're a fan of Jóhannsson and peers such as Nils Frahm or Ólafur Arnalds, you would be seriously remiss in not getting into Claire's work. She creates post-ambient chamber music of surpassing beauty and brings her production skills to bear as well, making each piece a rich experience. If you seek icy textures married to melodies that convey a dignified melancholy, look no further than these two EP's. To make it easy for you, I've combined all of her 2016 output into this playlist - what are you waiting for? 

Scott Walker - The Childhood of a Leader (OST) This is the second soundtrack by Walker, the genius singer/songwriter/composer who took a sharp left turn from pop stardom in the 70's and never looked back. This 30-minute suite is far more sophisticated as orchestral music than his work for Pola X in 1999, and is another window on which to view his remarkable development as an artist. Regardless of the quality and content of the movie, this is dark and exciting stuff, with some original and avant garde textures. But there's enough connection to composers like Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rosza to make it Walker's most accessible music in decades.

Francesco Giannico & Giulio Aldinucci - Agoraphonia This richly immersive album builds on crowd-sourced field recordings around the idea of the town square, which were then blended into five electronic suites comprising ambient, atmospheric, mechanical, and industrial sounds. It's a bit of a mind movie and if you like the M.O.T.H. album mentioned above you'll want to screen Agoraphonia in your cortical theater.

Peter Schaaf - 44 Waltzes on 88 Keys This charmingly single-minded collection makes a perfect palate cleanser for the mostly heady listening to which I've been steering you. Consisting of sets of waltzes by Schubert, Brahms, Dvorák, and Ravel, it's a great opportunity to compare each composer's approach to one of the original dance crazes. Schaaf has had a 50+ year career as a pianist, accompanying such luminaries as Yo Yo Ma and tenor Jon Vickers. After a long break to become a professional photographer, he returned to the keyboard with an album of Isaac Albéniz's Iberia in 2008. Schaaf's playing here is always lucid and light, never attempting to ascribe more importance than necessary to these miniatures. It's a delightful album and if listening to 44 piano waltzes sounds like overkill, you can do what I did and make a playlist for each composer. The album is self-released and can be purchased or streamed on Schaaf's website - pay a visit and tap your toes in 3/4 time.

Check out tracks from most of these releases here and find even more bounty in the Of Note In 2016 (Classical) playlist. I've also started up lists to gather 2017's notable music - concentrate on classical by following this one.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best Of 2016: Electronic

There's some interesting molecular crosstalk between this list and some of the "alien R&B" I described in my last post. But genre lines are ever meant to be blurred and many is the time that one style of music has been re-energized by incorporating aspects of another. Lots of "classical" composers are also using non-organic sounds on which to hang their music, which probably influences rock-oriented musicians, further fertilizing an already prolific field. Here's the top of 2016's crop of what Mojo Magazine still calls "Electronica."

Nonkeen - Oddments of the Gamble and The Gamble Did you ever wish the intro to Riders On The Storm went on forever? The whole song is fantastic (except maybe that line about a brain "squirming like a toad"), but the opening minute is godhead. Nonkeen put out two albums this year and both of them have plenty of that beautifully simple mystery and majesty. An on-off collaboration by Frederic Gmeiner, Nils Frahm and Sepp Singwald, they channel their passion for cassette recording and chance occurrences into sublime sounds. I prefer Oddments slightly to the Gamble as it's a little groove heavier, with some of the cracked optimism I associate with Stereolab, but you can pick which one to listen to with a coin flip - which is how they chose which one to release first!

Cavern Of Anti-Matter - void beats/invocation trex Speaking of Stereolab, head honcho Tim Gane is back where he belongs with Cavern's mix of test-lab electronics and motorik rhythms, still seeming optimistic but maybe a little darker than back in the 90's. The only track that doesn't work for me is the one with Bradford Cox on vocals, which blend awkwardly with the soundscape and feel like an intrusion on the mood. Terrific album nonetheless and a must for old Stereolab heads - and new ones: if you're unfamiliar, make a plan to change that.

Marielle V Jakobsons - Star Core Jakobsons, a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist with whom I was completely unfamiliar until now, has created an immersive glittering prize of a record with Star Core. Using a base of evolving, richly evocative analog synth sounds, and adding violin, flute, bass, her voice, etc., she builds sound designs that coalesce into finished images and then evanesce. It's a little dark yet never bleak as the excitement intrinsic in creating such perfect music is transferred to the listener.

Ian William Craig - Centres Like Jakobsons, Craig has also spent time in the academy, training in vocals and composition. This is his third gorgeous album combining his treated and distorted voice with artfully distressed tape loops. Justin Vernon may be a fan as Craig mines some of the same seams as heard on 22, A Million, Bon Iver's latest album. Craig's approach is always cinematic, too, with a hidden narrative that keeps you listening from beginning to end.

Suzi Analogue - Zonez V2: The Speakers Push Air & My Tears Dry Like David Bowie, I never gave up on drum'n'bass and have even been known to gift copies of out-of-print gems like So Far by Alex Reece (get yours for 32 cents!). Analogue's stuff has a bit of that nervous energy so I was all over it as soon as I heard her on the same bill with Novelty Daughter earlier this year. She also adds an emotional overlay that seems very of the moment. Her hard beats lead you to dance, but her minimalist melodic cells keep you in touch with what fuels your abandon.

Mndsgn - Body Wash I've loved the music of Ringgo Ancheta since Yawn Zen in 2014, but that wonderful album feels like a series of sketches compared to this. Not to worry, though, his glassy sounds are still weightless, there's just a bit more conviction to the song structures, a sense of a statement of purpose, and that purpose is to seduce you into forgetting yourself and where you are just for a few moments. Do those four walls really confine you? No. Your mind's design can take you anywhere, with the right soundtrack.

65daysofstatic - No Man's Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe I'm not a gamer, unless you count chess and Scrabble, but I'm more than aware that music has become an ever-more integral part of video games. They even perform symphonic suites assembled from best-selling games at Carnegie Hall and other prestigious venues. But having the wide-screen instrumentals of 65daysofstatic soundtrack a game is a genius idea that I wish I had thought of first. I understand that No Man's Sky has received mixed reviews but it's not even necessary to know what the game is about to lose yourself in these tracks. And lose yourself you will, especially in the long pieces on disc two, which are culled from the "procedural audio" that covers the universe of the game no matter where the player decides to go. Their patented blend of live and looped drums, epic guitars and grandiose keyboards is richer than ever, suggesting that this long running Sheffield quartet has finally found their niche in the wider world.

Ital Tek - Hollowed Alan Myson, who has also released music under the name Planet Mu, always seemed to have more promise than the tight reins of dubstep allowed him to express. Hollowed finds him coming into his own, crafting prismatically structured pieces that have echoes of Eno, Popol Vuh, and John Carpenter, while sounding very individual. He could be next on the list for video game developers - either way, I'll be very intrigued to see where Ital Tek goes next.

M. Geddes Gengras - Two Variations and Interior Architecture I first became aware of this prolific L.A.-based synth magus from his remarkable entry in the collaborative FRKWYS series in 2012. That record found him working with dub specialist Sun Araw and legendary reggae harmony group The Congos. His ability to build immersive sound sculptures from a limited palette of materials was clear there and continues to be true on Two Variations. Both half hour pieces feel spontaneously generated, with a sense of discovery and play that is contagious, especially on 03.06.15, the first variation. The second work, 04.10.15, drags a little in the first 10 minutes but repays your attention in the latter half when it gets busy and a little angular. You can dip in and out of the variations but you may find yourself listening closely to follow the evolving threads. Interior Architecture is more ambient, four abstract pieces that often (ironically?) refer to sounds of the natural world. Gengras invites Seth Kesselman to contribute some new textures with his clarinet in the third piece, which is a nice touch. Maybe more collaboration is a good thing for Gengras, but he's always up to something interesting - and 03.06.15 proves his strength as a loner. 

Nicolas Godin - Contrepoint It was Mike D. who turned me onto the French retro-synth duo Air back in 1989, handing me a promo copy of Moon Safari across the table at lunch one day. He knew me well, as I quickly became obsessed with their lush, melodic, fun songs. I spread the gospel far and wide and watched delightedly as songs like Sexy Boy and Un Femme d'Argent installed themselves in the culture. But the ultimate reward never came as nothing else they did was nearly as compelling. Now we have 50% of Air (O1?) with this solo album that is simultaneously wacky and accomplished, moving through a variety of sounds and styles in just over 30 minutes. As the title indicates, the ultimate inspiration for everything that follows is the music of J.S. Bach, the master of counterpoint. There's even a song called Bach Off in case you didn't catch Godin's drift. But instead of Baroque sounds, we get hints of Medieval prog, cool jazz, easy listening, Lou Reed's Street Hassle, and French pop to keep you guessing -  and entertained - throughout. I know nothing about the dynamic between Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, his partner in Air, but if he wants to continue in this vein, I'll be right there with him. 

Nicolas Jaar - Sirens It's taken a while for young Mr. Jaar to win me over again after the seismic jolt of Space Is Only Noise, his brilliant debut from 2011. There were a couple of tracks from last year's Nymphs EP's that piqued my interest, which was more than I can say of Darkside, the cul-de-sac side project he pursued with tiresome guitarist Dave Harrington. But Sirens finds some of the wit and unbearable lightness of Space returning, with beautiful textures and bouncy rhythms, alongside a newfound compositional maturity and even a little aggression on Three Sides of Nazareth. Jaar has always had a narrative drive to his best work and that seems to be getting stronger. I would not be surprised to see his name on some kind of visual project, such as movie or TV show, in the very near future. 

Novelty Daughter's Semigoddess was #4 in my Top 20, which means it was the best electronic album of the year - make sure you backtrack if you're not already a fan. All the selections above can be sampled in this playlist and you may find yet more joy in the Of Note In 2016 (Electronic) list. 

Coming next: the best of the rest of the year's classical and composed recordings. 

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and R&B

My Top 20 for 2016 included Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, Anderson .Paak, and Kanye West, but there was a bunch of other stuff from similar realms that entertained and intrigued. It should be noted that I use the term "R&B" loosely - in my mind I often think of some of the selections below as "left field" or " alien" R&B, which post-Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is nearly a genre all its own.

In assembling the playlist for this post I noticed a lot of one-off singles and EP's. This could mean a big year in 2017 as some of these begin to pay off into albums. Nothing is certain, but I would not be surprised to see full albums from Missy Elliott, Pusha T, Moses Sumney, Young M.a, and FKA Twigs, all of which bodes well for our ears. 2017 will also see the wide release of Prodigy's (Mobb Deep) R.I.P. Series, which finds the Queens legend collaborating with associates old and new, including some of the biggest names in contemporary hip hop.


Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered Lamar can do no wrong, even delivering burning verses on disposable top 40 songs (Maroon 5? Really, dude?). This collection of leftovers from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions was remarkably nutritious, featuring expansive, lived-in grooves for Lamar to rhyme over. While it didn't hold together like the magnum opus of TPAB, it was still one of the best hip hop albums of the year. 

Kate Tempest - Let Them Eat Chaos Even if Tempest shades a little more toward spoken word on her second album, she still enthralls on this concept album about overlapping events at 4:18 AM on one particular street. She's got a large heart, which is always on the side of right, but has to check a tendency to preach. Production by Dan Carey is once again brilliant, although it calls more to contemplation than to the dance floor. 

Solange - A Seat At The Table Speaking of preaching, if this album had come out two years ago, before Trump exposed this country's slimy white underbelly, I would have thought it hopelessly out of date. But now it's messages of black pride and empowerment are a necessary corrective to the hateful rhetoric polluting our air. It helps that Solange is making the most assured music of her peripatetic career, using a deceptively light touch to deal with some heavy subjects. Unlike her sister and so many contemporaries she sounds like she's using her voice, an irresistible lighter-than-air soprano, to sing to you rather than at you. While it might lack that one killer tune, A Seat At The Table is great listen all the way through. 

Xenia Rubinos - Black Terry Cat Rubinos, a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter, covers some of the same ground as Solange, but in more in-your-face style. Shades of funk-rock icon Betty Davis and Philly Soul add historical weight to a seriously musical album. 

Ka - Honor Killed The Samurai I've been digging his noirish Superfly single all year but just learned about this full length. Call it a fan's notes on Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, as Ka constructs dark, hypnotic backings for his night thoughts about art and life. His career has been a slow burn since his days in Natural Ingredients, but this self-contained album should turn some heads. 

A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service The rumors started right after Phife Dog, the heart & soul of the Tribe, died: there was a new album in the works, their first in 18 years. And it's remarkably good, with the  thoughtful lyrics and head-nodding beats that made their name back in the day. Q Tip shines throughout and you won't soon forget his haunting chorus on We The People, which puts you in the mind of a certain kind of Trump supporter: "All you black folk, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must to go/Muslims and gays/You know we hate your ways." It's hard to imagine a better tribute to Phife's legacy than this capstone album - rest in power. 

Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition I had pretty much given up on this squeaky voiced nutjob but he regained my interest by naming his latest album after a Joy Division song and a J.G. Ballard novel. Turns out by going more batshit crazy and black hole dark, he's finally put himself in a context I can get behind. There's variety to the beats, which are mostly excellent, and well-deployed guests (Lamar, again, and others), leavening his unique attack. Like The Life Of Pablo, you feel like you've entered into a slightly crazy person's head, although Brown's diagnosis is a bit different, leaning more towards the paranoid. Not for everyone, but he's on to something. 

Kaytranada - 99.9% Great showcase for the chill Haitian-born Canadian producer's tracks, with occasional guests providing vocals, either sung or rapped. Anderson .Paak is here, but even more notable is a verse by Phonte, whose excellent flow I discovered when reviewing a Little Brother album for Off Your Radar. Drummer Karriem Riggins and jazzers BadBadNotGood add some nice instrumental touches. 

Chloe X Halle - Sugar Symphony This five-song EP from YouTube sensations and Beyoncé protégés Chloe & Halle Bailey is an introduction to two fully-formed artists. They can both sing and rap beautifully and write memorable songs, and Chloe has a hand in the production of most of these songs. Drop is the featured song but Thunder may be the big tune Solange is looking for - perhaps Beyoncé can make the connection. The delicate electro-funk-pop on Sugar Symphony has a distinctly post-FKA Twigs flavor to it so here's hoping their first full-length doesn't get bogged down in "significance" like hers did. Tune in next year...

Moses Sumney - Lamentations Ever since he drifted onto my SoundCloud with Mid-City Island in 2012, I've been an avid follower. His multi-octave voice is a wonder and no one since Terry Callier has blended folk, jazz and soul with such confidence. This year's releases, which also included the Seeds single, show him incorporating more electronic sounds into the mix, even going full Justin Vernon in the overdubbed auto tune choir of Worth It. He's still one to watch - but keep a close eye because I have no idea where he's going next. 

Isiaiah Rashad - The Sun's Tirade His last album, 2014's Cilvia Demo, was fantastic, with top shelf beats and autobiographical rhymes that were a cut above. Then the pressure was on, making the follow-up nearly as anticipated as Frank Ocean's. Unfortunately, this is not nearly as good but it is a fascinating exploration of writer's block, which may be a first in hip hop. I'm pulling for the guy so remember Free Lunch when assembling your New Year's Eve party mix. 

Various Artists - Sofie's SOS Tape Don't want to make your own mix? Stones Throw to the rescue with this seamless assemblage by Sofie Fatouretchi, one of the founders of the Boiler Room. Pulling together many of the threads found on other records reviewed here, Sofia also has her ear to the ground and showcases some up and comers like Stimulator Jones and ISSUE. She also makes beautiful music with Mndsgn on Abeja and features the stunning vocals of Charlotte Dos Santos on Watching You. Great to hear Jonwayne in there as well, even if it's just a short instrumental. Next time you get an SOS text from a shipwrecked party, deploy Sofie and there will be smooth sailing. 


Ever since my vacation in hip hop nation, it's been incontrovertible that Schoolboy Q's THat Part and Young M.a.'s Ooouuu were two of the songs of the year. The first is blessed with one of Kanye West's best features and a haunting, draggy beat. Unfortunately, Q doesn't have what it takes to sustain an album so his Blank Face LP is far from essential. Young M.a. is a witty and tough-talking highlight of the current crop of NYC MC's and if she keeps coming up with songs this sticky, her album will make itself.

When I wore my Mobb Deep shirt to the Kanye West show, it was a way to represent one of the giants of NYC hip hop. I was also closing the circle: Havoc, one half of the infamous Mobb, worked on The Life of Pablo, putting his gritty stamp on both Famous and Real Friends. He also found time to make an album with the Alchemist, one of the best producers out there. He's already worked on Mobb Deep albums as well as making Return of the Mac and Albert Einstein with Prodigy, the other half of Mobb Deep. I can't say that The Silent Partner is the equal of those two earlier opuses, but the first single, Maintain (Fuck How You Feel), was an excellent song with a classic feel that had me hoping for more. As for Prodigy, while I was excited that he was chosen to work on a project related to The Black Panther comic series rebooted by Ta-Nahisi Coates, the songs have been seriously underwhelming. Part of it is the production, putting Prodigy into EDM-like contexts that don't suit his attack, and part of it is that I don't think he really likes doing work to order. However, buried in his Untitled EP is a polished marble of a song called That's What G's Do. Produced by someone called Mimosa, it's a perfect opportunity for Prodigy to do what he does best, namely talk about himself and New York City in a flow that sounds like his life depends on every word.

I'm not going to lie: I know everyone is crazy for Run The Jewels but I like Killer Mike better as a solo act. It's not as if he's lost a step, it's just that now he's giving equal time to El P, a genius behind the boards but no so much on the mic. I've also been disappointed with DJ Shadow's output since 1996's Endtroducing, one of the best albums of the last century. But put'em all together on one track - Nobody Speak - and it's pretty killer, particularly during the vicious chorus.

Missy Elliott seemed poised for something big after her 2015 Super Bowl appearance but all we got was classic-sounding W.T.F. (Where They From) and the energetic Pep Rally, both of which kept her hand in but not much more. FKA Twigs also stayed on the map with Good To Love, a spare and gorgeous ballad. 

I also thought this was going to be a big year for Pusha T - his last album was subtitled The Prelude, after all - but all we got were a couple of tracks. Drug Dealers Anonymous finds him in fine form, spitting conscious rhymes like "America’s nightmare's in Flint/Children of a lesser God when your melanin’s got a tint." I only wish he had done two verses as Jay-Z doesn't have much to say in his bars. When Jonwayne has nothing to say, at least he's honest about it: "That's O.K., my mind's blank anyway," starts That's O.K., a single he released earlier this year. But the way he says it, you're immediately hooked. The beat is one of his best, too - melancholy and soulful.

One of the undeniable grooves of the year came from the mysterious A.K. Paul, whose Landcruisin' featured a sinewy guitar loop and wonderfully insouciant vocals. Thanks to DJ Duane Harriott, master of all that moves body and spirit, for the tip. Keep an eye out for more. 

Even catchier, although somewhat indefensible, was Joey Purp's Girls @, a scientifically designed earworm with each shouted "What" burrowing deeper in your brain. It's got a light enough touch that you can listen without hating yourself in the morning. Chance The Rapper's guest spot is also a redeeming factor - he even name drops Ta-Nahisi Coates. If you haven't yet read Between The World And Me, let this be your reminder - it's one of the landmark books of our time. 

Hear tracks from all of these artists in this playlist. This year, I'm also instituting genre-based "Of Note" playlists in addition to the general one so check out Of Note In 2016: Hip Hop & R&B - you may find something that strikes your fancy more than it struck mine. 

The Top 20 for 2016 is here and the year's best electronic music is coming next. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Best Of 2016: The Top 20

2016's Top Five Albums
For those of us who live for music, 2016 was quite a year. That neutral term embraces both the ecstatic highs created by the depth and breadth of incredible music we heard - and the pitch black lows induced by one loss after another, starting with David Bowie in January. There are very few people alive to whom I'm not related whose loss I would grieve as I have his. I have close friends who are the same way about Prince and I feel their pain, though I am not an acolyte. The footlights also went out for Merle Haggard, who sang the working man blues like no other country artist. We also lost Leonard Cohen just weeks ago, that grand and subtle nightwatchman of human behavior both carnal and complex. And that's just four of the artists taken from us this year!

These sorrows, alongside those of a more personal nature (I lost two old friends, an aunt, and an uncle this year, how about you?) only made music more of an imperative in my life. But when I needed it, music came through, not only the old favorites under which I huddled like a warm blanket on a frigid night, but also new sounds that delighted and astonished, and gave hope that we could go on. So I'm grateful to all the wickedly talented people - composers, songwriters, singers, players, producers - who populate this list and the genre-based ones to come. Seriously, thanks for the music. 

1. David Bowie - Blackstar The legend's commitment to adventure and artistic integrity made his final work the equal of his most canonized albums. Even as he told us "I can't give it all away," he gave us so, so much. 

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like A Levee M.C. Taylor's last album, Lateness Of Dancers, was my number one for 2014 and is now deeply ingrained in my soul. This meant I had to work harder not to weight my expectations for this new record. So I relaxed into it, letting the music come to me. It did, in waves of passionate songs that expanded Taylor's sonic palette as he wrestled with the road to wider success and its impact on his life, art and family. What a wonder.

3. Frank Ocean - Blonde "I ain't on your schedule," Ocean declared at the end of his fascinating and deeply felt third album, dropped after four years of increasing internet hysteria. Fine with me

4. Novelty Daughter - Semigoddess This is the nomme de guerre of Faith Harding, who programs fantasmal electronic grooves and sings over them in a chanteuse's contralto. Sometimes two ideas overlap, as her music tries to catch up to her lively mind, but it's worth the effort to let them coalesce in your cortex. Debut album of the year

5. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool Lapidary is the word that comes to mind as the Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood & co. deliver 11 perfectly formed songs, including some of the most emotionally connected material of their career. Some complained about the lack of guitar heft - so 90's - but you can get that elsewhere. 

6. Benji Hughes - Songs In The Key Of Animals At first I dismissed Hughes' seemingly simplistic songcraft - then I hung on for dear life to his koan-like wit and wisdom. 

7. Michael Nicolas - Transitions The modern cello record to end all modern cello records. Nicolas also a warm and engaging live performer, upping the accessibility of some very knotty music. 

8. Warhaus - We Fucked A Flame Into Being Scabrous swagger and brilliant production made Maarten Delvoldere's new project the sneak attack my 2016 desperately needed. 

9. Mutual Benefit - Skip A Sinking Stone Simply - or maybe not so simply - the most gorgeous Americana of the year. The title is perfect: listening is like watching ripples on the water, and as peaceful. 

10. Talea Ensemble - Cheung: Dystemporal Stylish, assured and expansive, Cheung's compositions take you new places while feeling like they've always been there. This is no doubt helped by Talea's expert performance - they sound like they've been playing it all their lives. 

11. Carolina Eyck & the American Contemporary Music Ensemble - Fantasias for Theremin & String Quartet There's a real sense of drama to these works for theremin and strings, which I suspect would be felt even if you didn't know Eyck was improvising. Try to find a real stereo when you listen. 

12. Bon Iver - 22, A Million Like Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon likes to screw around with his voice, adding layers of autotune and distortion to what is a beautiful instrument. This is probably his most out-there album since Volcano Choir's Unmap. But unlike that indulgent exercise, the passion is all there on 22, A Million, which makes all the difference. I'll follow Vernon anywhere as long as the music has blood pumping in its veins. While the lyrics can be as radically cut up as the music, every so often he just nails you to the floor, like this plea from 715 - CR∑∑KS: "Turn around, now, you're my A-Team/God damn, turn around now." Vernon has really become a studio genius, too. Jon Hassell and Kanye West will be dueling at dawn for the drum sound on 10 d E A T h b R E A s T - and I hope they both win. 

13. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book The Chi-town indie-rap sensation managed to conquer the radio (and earn a Grammy nod) with No Problem while still maintaining a claim on our hearts with reflective gems like Summer Friends. No problem, indeed

14. Cian Nugent - Night Fiction There seem to be no shortage of great guitar instrumentalists around these days who want to broaden their horizons by adding vocals to their songs. At first, this might seem inadvisable for someone like Nugent whose voice can be a quirky thing. But it grows on you, his warm and relatable approach gathering steam throughout this album - and there's no arguing with his guitar. A touch of that epic quality the Velvet Underground had on 1969 Live further distinguishes Nugent's folk-rock, and when he takes his time, as on the draggy waltz Shadows, the sense of delicate suspension is sublime

15. Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of Denial Will Toledo's car, where he recorded his early albums, is now almost as legendary an improvised recording space as Justin Vernon's Eau Claire cabin. But it took getting into a real studio for CSH to have their true breakthrough after a dozen self-released albums. This year has had a bumper crop of killer guitar records so what is it that distinguishes this from all the others? It's a combination of conviction, energy, and the way the songs and production are filled with little surprises (those horns on Vincent!) and switching between micro and macro modalities on a dime. In short, it rocks, and very dynamically, with Toledo's empathy and protean intelligence shining in every song. It feels fresh even as you recognize that they are the great guitar band of the moment in a long line of great guitar bands of the moment. Based on the smoking live set on Spotify, CSH is also something to see on stage. I hope to find out for myself soon - if I can ever get tickets!

16. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker Even before the great man died, this was turning into my favorite album of all new material from Cohen since Ten New Songs. Son Adam Cohen brought a tack-sharp sensibility to the production (with help from Patrick Leonard who began the project but had to bow out), never failing to find just the right sonic sensibility for each song. Like Bowie, Cohen knew he was at the end of his journey but was unafraid to try new things, such as the Synagogue choir that opens the album or the dubbed out verse of Traveling Light. His mastery of song form shows in the hat tips to Stephen Foster and references to 50's rhythm & blues. The voice became a brittle, papery thing but his phrasing was never better - heed the subtly inflected variations on "we kill the flame" in the title track. Now Cohen rules the tower of song from afar - but rule he does. 

17. Angel Olsen - My Woman When the first single for Olsen's third album came out, I was worried. My immediate impression was that Shut Up Kiss Me was a naked grab for Taylor Swiftian mind-share. But it was damned catchy, and with enough grit that I shook it off and waited for the album. In context, the song makes much more sense, surrounded as it is by expansive, elemental material like the nearly eight-minute Sister. But there's no doubt that Olsen has ambition and an eye on world domination. Unlike Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her last album, My Woman has a consistent sound throughout, mostly the Buddy Holly/Lou Reed formula of two guitars, bass, and drums with a little keyboard sweetening. This gives a more even canvas for her increasingly masterful singing, which moves from breathy passages to full-throated outbursts without apparent effort. The lyrics can be oblique but you always feel like Olsen is singing about real people and real situations - and her emotional engagement is plain as day. Listen to her sing "I'm not playing anymore" in album-closer Pops and you won't doubt it for a second. When those Taylor tweens grow up, Angel Olsen will be waiting. 

18. Ken Thomson - Restless No album in 2016 in any genre did more with less than Restless, featuring two huge-sounding chamber works composed by Thomson. Part of this was due to the recording, which puts you right in the room, and at ear level, with Ashley Bathgate's cello and Karl Larson's piano. This is the perfect aural perspective for this muscular and intense music.

19. Anderson .Paak - Malibu Drummer, singer, rapper, producer, .Paak might be the multi-threat of the year. Drawing on gospel, soul and R&B through the lens of a born hip hop kid, Malibu has no low points - imagine the confidence to bury Room In Here, an instant classic slow-jam, three quarters of the way through the album. He's wise enough to know that if you start with a song that's built to last, the rest is gravy. He's also a super-dynamic live performer based on the live set from SXSW on Spotify. Maybe think of him like Bruno Mars without the cheese. He's not perfect, though, as NxWorries, his collaboration with producer Knxwledge delivers on the beats but features seriously lazy lyrics. No hurry, Anderson, we know you're here for the long haul.

20. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo "I miss the old Kanye...the chop up some soul Kanye," West rapped, tongue in cheek, on an a cappella track on TLOP - or maybe not so tongue in cheek based on the rough end to his year. Whatever his travails, and while this is definitely his most scattered album, there's musical fascination to spare on Pablo, as even a cursory glance at the samples would attest. The collage-like approach worked very well in concert, the quick segues and left turns creating a sum greater than its parts. Also, as a calling card for his tour, which was a triumph until it sputtered out due to multiple issues, Pablo was perfect, promising an opportunity for collective transgression as 20,000 people sang along to every dirt-dishing line. Get well soon, Kanye.

Listen to a track from each album with this handy Spotify playlist and let me know what's in your Top 20. Coming soon: "best of the rest" lists featuring classical and composed, rock, hip hop and R&B, electronic and avant garde, and reissues.