While I call these types of posts "Best Of," you should always understand that "best" is a designation driven by my personal engagement with the records at hand. So, in actuality, these are my favorite records of the year (so far), the ones I have turned to repeatedly to limn hard days with light, amplify joyous times, to make me think and feel in new ways and old. That said, I do think there are qualities of these records that are objectively "great," so if there are any you haven't heard yet, I hope you'll give them a try.
It's too early to put things in numerical order, so I have arranged this in an approximation of how many times I've listened to each one.
Father John Misty - Pure Comedy I already covered some of my thoughts about this extraordinary work here, but I also want to point out despite tweaking himself as "the oldest living man in folk-rock," Josh Tillman is also one of the hardest working. While maintaining a tireless round of concert dates, interviews, TV appearances, etc., he has never stopped pushing himself artistically since dropping Fear Fun onto an unsuspecting universe five years ago. So, Pure Comedy finds him and his artistic foil, production savant Jonathan Wilson, expanding the canvas of sound with lusher arrangements and longer structures while still maintaining what might be called, sonically speaking, "brand integrity." This was precisely what was needed to support FJM's view of humanity from a thousand feet up, peering at us through polluted clouds with fear, anger, hope, and humor. And he has never sung better, his voice even more honeyed than it was on his last album. There were times in the performance and promotion cycle for his first two albums where I detected a hint of weariness with the FJM persona, but Pure Comedy proves there is no limit to the creativity and passion Tillman unleashed with its creation.
Nordic Affect - Raindamage THE Icelandic contemporary chamber music album - at least until their next one. The title track was composed by Valgeir Siguròsson, who released an album of his compositions called DISSONANCE, which is well worth checking out, as is Recurrence by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. On the heels of 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly and 2016's Untitled Unmastered, the Compton rapper finds new ways to devastate, provoke, and inspire. I attempted to plumb some of the depths of this multilayered creation here. It's very tough to imagine a better hip hop album coming out this year.
The Courtneys - II Guitars, bass, drums, and vocals configured into such glorious simplicity it becomes artful minimalism. Watch the speed limit when listening in your car.
Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up I will have more to say about this album at another time, but for now I will say that it more than lives up to the weight of my expectations. Robin Pecknold's songwriting more complex and literary than ever and the arrangements of the suite-like songs are astonishingly beautiful. There's also less reliance on five-part harmonies, with Pecknold letting it rip in his glorious tenor, expressing both strength and vulnerability with greater directness than on previous works. I also had the privilege of seeing them perform many of these songs in the intimate confines of the legendary Electric Lady studios for a show to be broadcast by WFUV and I can report that Pecknold and Co. have complete command of these proggy folk epics. I'm seeing them again on August 1st in Prospect Park. Tickets may still be available for the August 2nd show, so I recommend you get in on it - or find a date when they're in your town.
Goldfrapp - Silver Eye After some time in the wilderness, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory are back at their best and it's oh so addictive.
Noveller - A Pink Sunset For No One Sarah Lipstate creates paintings in sound with her guitar, loop pedals, and a laptop - and they're gorgeous and emotionally resonant. So many subway rides were elevated with this, her ninth (or 11th? I've seen both figures) album, which shows off her gift for structure, possibly related to her work in film. I find myself thinking more about individual songs on Pink Sunset, rather than just letting the album go by in a luscious blur as I did with her last album, Fantastic Planet. Catch her live, if you can - watching her put everything together is a wonder.
Boogarins - Desvio Onírico (Live 2016) and Lá Vem a Morte The Brazilian band is progressing through their career like a rocket, shedding parts and picking up all sorts of interesting space debris on the way. Exhibit A is the live album that ruled my ski season, lending even more adventure to the slopes. Exhibit B is their new studio concoction, which is easily their most sophisticated recording to date. There is a collage-like feel to some of the songs, which was presaged by last year's single (included here), Elogio à Instituição do Cinismo. POLUÇÃO NOTURNA, for example, starts with a buzz and some bright guitar, which resolves into a sweet song with all kinds of bleeps and glitches accumulating around the guitar, which finally just stops, while the sounds continue and blend into the sketchy Lá Vem a Morte pt. 2, which includes fragments of the song. I'm eager to see how these new developments translate into their live sound and hope to make it to their free concert on July 8th, part of the Summer Thunder series.
Sampha - Process Composer, producer, singer, musician - Sampha Sisay can do it all. He's also worked with essentially every next-level hip hop and r&b artist in all those capacities, including Kanye West, Solange, Frank Ocean, and FKA Twigs - and those are just the ones I like. Process is his first full-length and reveals an old soul with all the old-fashioned strengths in his songwriting, piano playing, and deeply felt singing. His production talents serve each song perfectly, whether it's the spare (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano or the monster groove of Blood On Me - check out how the background vocals make the song levitate. I'm sure Process will only make demand for Sampha's assistance greater, but I hope we don't have to wait long for more of his own very personal music.
Nev Cottee - Broken Flowers I must have listened to this Manchester-based singer some time in the past, as he showed up in my Release Radar on Spotify - but I don't remember being blown away the way I am by this new album. The songs seem dipped in a Daniel Lanoisian (Lanois-esque?) stardust and many have draggy tempos that stretch the notion of a pulse to the breaking point. Cottee's voice can seem to dip into a tectonic frequency, but it's your soul that moves, not the earth. There's heartbreak, seething anger, hard-won wisdom and world-weariness, all leavened by a sense of humor and melodic invention. The instrumentation can be skeletal, with Plastic Ono Band drums and one-note keyboard lines, but there are also delicious moments like the dueling guitar and strings on Be On Your Way or the tremolo bar workout on Nobody's Fool, which is part Duane Eddy and part Ennio Morricone. The centerpiece of the album is epic track Tired of Love, which spins off into the stratosphere over eight glorious minutes of harpsichord arpeggios, guitar twangs, and strings.
Novella - Change Of State This British band keeps getting better at their sleek psych, using Krautrock rhythms to drive their songs straight to your cortex.
Prodigy - Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation) This album, now the last from the legendary Mobb Deep rapper, who died in June, has been a slow burn for me, but the overall mood of dark elegance eventually took hold. No other genre moves as fast as hip hop, which means that late-career albums like this have a limited impact on the wider culture. Maybe that's why some of Prodigy's message seems to be directed at himself, like this opening verse from Tyranny: "My confidence is up, I believe with all my soul/I can do anything that I put my heart into/I spend all my time focused in the lab/coming up with these songs/mastering my craft." But the chorus takes a political turn: "Race don't matter/Your faith don't matter/The enemy is government tyranny/All that other shit don't matter." This confirmed by the sampled voice at the end: "This time, vote like your life depended on it." The album seems to see-saw between public and personal concerns, which may be part of the reason behind the title, which refers to the idea that opposing ideas can only be resolved by acknowledging their common strengths in a synthesis. There's a mournful quality, even when the lyrics get tough. Was Prodigy worried about his own future, or that of his people, or our country? The likely answer is all three, and we might have learned more with the next two albums in a planned trilogy. While Hegelian Dialectic doesn't hit as many highs as Albert Einstein, it is a fitting capstone to the career of one of the greatest ever to rock the mic.
Elsa Hewitt - Cameras From Mars By seasoning her compulsively listenable bedroom electro-pop with hints of dub and modern R&B, Hewitt enriches the sound immeasurably. But it's still an intimate, sometimes delicate, concoction of spare beats, dusky melodies and soulful singing. Cameras From Mars is not the full story, however, as the ambitious Hewitt has just announced the next album, Dum Spiro Spero, second in a projected 2017 trilogy. She promises everything will make more sense when all three albums are out, but nothing feels unfinished on this delightful debut.
Spoon - Hot Thoughts For sheer production creativity alone, this album would be notable for the way it fully modernizes rock by bringing in elements of electronic music and hip hop. The core of the sound is, as ever, Britt Daniel's gritty, flexible voice, and his slashing guitar, which, along with Jim Eno's drums, makes Spoon stay Spoon while moving further outward.
Jonwayne - Rap Album Two The career of this California-based rapper and producer has had more ups and downs than I could have expected when I reviewed his first album in Mass Appeal, including a health scare that had us all worried. But he clawed his way back, fighting his own demons ("I spent the last two years fucking up big dreams," he admits in These Words Are Everything), and arriving at a richer place musically and lyrically. That struggle is the subject of some of the songs, the perspective of deeply intelligent mind subject to chronic loneliness and gifted with the curse of wisdom beyond his years. He also wrestles with the duality of being a lover of hip hop but not wanting to give in to the stereotypical subject matter expected in the genre. This is sarcastically explored in The Single, in which he tries and fails three times to record a tough talking rhyme in the hope of getting airplay. Then there are the demands of the success he has had, detailed LIVE From The Fuck You, which recreates that awkward moment when someone insults you ("But, um, she says you rap and I'm not really seeing it dog,") and then wants you to perform for their girlfriend ("I mean it's her birthday, dog. I'm just saying"). Nick Colletti as the "fan" makes this scene all too real. But, in the end, it's Jonwayne's sheer creativity and his big heart that helped him prevail, and I'm glad he's back. Since his "words are everything/maybe they're my only thing," I'll let him play this out with a clever verse from Paper: "When I die, I wanna grow into a tree/I want 'em to bury me/Mixed in with soil and leaves/And when I'm stretched 'cross the land/And your son cuts me down/I wanna be the book your grandchildren read aloud/With the tape on my spine/I'm still proud/I want 'em to hand me down/And give me to Goodwill/And price me for a dollar/Still get shoplifted, hell/Torn open just to give a man shelter."
Nadia Reid - Preservation Coming out of New Zealand, Nadia Reid has a rich contralto and an expert line in melancholy. The sturdy, moving songs are full of folk-rock shimmer, whether from finger-picked acoustics or strummed electrics. While the songs can seem pretty and even decorous, the smart lyrics are full of muscular imagery and touches of darkness. Standout track Richard, for example, begins: "Richard liked the sound of his own voice/By the kitchen in the mirror/It extracted all of our teeth/Filled the sink with blood/And I am on the cross of forgiveness/He wanted it final, finally." If I were going to pick the single, however, it would be the propulsive The Way It Goes, with its mysterious melody and lonely lyrics, a tale told from a car window. This is Reid's second album and has the confidence of an artist working exactly where she wants to be - meet her there.
Michael Chapman - 50 A contemporary of Bob Dylan's, Chapman is stubbornly remains the greatest living unknown legend. This album is a beautiful reminder of all he has accomplished in a 50-year career.
Heliocentrics - A World of Masks While their music never lacks integrity, I haven't been grabbed by anything by this jazz-funk-world collective since 2009's brilliant collaboration with Ethiopian genius Mulatu Astatke - until now. Maybe the addition of shamanic Slovakian singer Barbora Patkova ramped up their intensity, giving the music more of a sense of purpose. The Heliocentrics are big band, and Patkova has a big voice, almost operatic, and when she turns it all the way on and the musicians rise to meet her it's a thrilling experience. This is turning into a banner year for Heliocentrics fans, as they also put out the sly, Curtis Mayfield-influenced soundtrack to The Sunshine Makers, a documentary about LSD. Expand your mind.
American Contemporary Music Ensemble - Thrive on Routine This excellent album features a varied set of new chamber music by Caleb Burhans, Catherine Shaw, and Timo Andres - all of whom are overshadowed by John Luther Adams. The sparkling mystery of In A Treeless Place Only Snow, which closes the collection, stops me in my tracks every single time. I may be the only one who feels this way, however, so I encourage you to listen to all of the beautiful sounds herein. The performances are all first rate, and the production is at the high standards established by Sono Luminus.
Mastodon - Emperor of Sand Three years after the disappointment of Once More 'Round the Sun, the progressive metal titans nearly return to form. Similar to albums like Leviathan and Crack The Skye, there is a loose concept tying the songs together (about a desert wanderer), but they resonate because they reflect real - and often painful - experiences. Every song is a triumph against some kind of adversity, with guitars as the main weapons of mass destruction, leading to more spine-tingling musical moments than I can describe here. Start with Show Yourself, which is their version of a pop song, or Andromeda, which aims for the stars. If you're feeling brave, go all in with the eight-minute epic, Jaguar God. Like a track from Metallica's Master of Puppets, it starts with a skein of delicate acoustic guitars and builds to a sandstorm, ending the album at peak intensity.
This playlist (or one on YouTube) features one song from each artist - find what you like and then go to the album for more listening pleasure.
This list is just a fraction of everything I've been tracking since January 1. Dig deep and keep in the loop by following the playlists of your choice from the list below.