Thursday, July 27, 2017

NPR's Turning The Tables: Five Omissions

Kudos to NPR Music for taking on the monumental task of "turning the tables" and creating an alternative canon of the 150 "greatest" albums "made by women." I use the quotes not to be snarky but to point out the mutability and arbitrary nature of the terms "greatest" and "made by women." The first is obviously a term freighted with some subjectivity, and the second has, for NPR's purposes, now expanded to include albums like Rumors, which was made by a band including three men, or a Britney Spears album which some would argue was a form of exploitation. These criteria are discussed in a thoughtful essay by Ann Powers, which lays bare the need for this list and explains the process by which it was accomplished. The other limiter which could be questioned was the idea of cutting off the list at 1964, the beginning of what Powers calls, in quotes, "the classic album era," which leaves out many artists who may have done their greatest work before that time (can I get a witness for Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Eartha Kitt, Nellie Lutcher, Ruth Brown, etc.). Even Rolling Stone, which was a product of that same age, manages to incorporate artists from a previous time in their canonical lists.

But even accepting all of their criteria, and recognizing that a list of 150 greatest anything is going to contain some results that pander to one constituency or another, there are five omissions to NPR's list that I consider egregious. It would be very easy for me to argue about the more recent entries - is Alabama Shakes "greater" than Holly Miranda, Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Perfect Pussy, Natalie Prass, Nicole Atkins, Jenny O., Kate Tempest, etc.? - but I recognize that the closer we get to now, the more the choices depend on at least one strong advocate. Brittany Howard & co., dull as I may find them, have a number of those at NPR. So, for that reason I'm focusing here on albums solidly rooted in the 20th Century by artists whom I would argue cast an even longer shadow now than they did in their prime. It would also be fair game to question some of the choices whereby an artist had only one album on the list (is any Spice Girls record really greater than Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie & The Banshees or Odyshape by The Raincoats?), but in the interest of expanding the coverage of the list, I'm not suggesting any duplicates.

Here are are the five albums that are deal-breakers for me, presented in chronological order. I did have to bend the rules slightly to include the first - so sue me. 

Patsy Cline - Showcase (with The Jordanaires) (1961) This was a make or break effort for Cline, and maybe even for her producer, Owen Bradley. She was still finding her way, with some success, on her debut in 1957. Trouble creating a follow-up soon became a non-issue as Cline struggled to recover from a car accident. When she finally returned to the studio, she and Bradley were laser-focused on the Countrypolitan sound they had begun developing in the 50's and assembled a solid collection of songs to be their manifesto. With the Jordanaires as a perfect foil (and a better choice than the Anita Kerr Singers as used on the first album), and I Fall To Pieces, Crazy, and a re-recorded version of Walking After Midnight as their tent-pole tracks they delivered big-time. When you consider that she was only able to make one more album before her tragic death 1963, the depth of her influence becomes only more astonishing. K.D. Lang, who is on the list, essentially made her name with a carbon copy of Cline's sound, even down to bringing Owen Bradley in to make it happen. While I love Shadowlands dearly (and more than NPR's choice, Ingenue), attention must be paid to the originator. 

Fotheringay - Fotheringay (1970) Many would agree that Sandy Denny possessed one of the most exquisite instruments in recorded history. And she wielded it just as exquisitely, with a remarkable combination of restraint and deep feeling. While she came to prominence as a member of Fairport Convention, it was in her second act, as putative co-leader (with Trevor Lucas) of Fotheringay, that she made her greatest recordings. Denny wrote or co-wrote six of the nine songs, all among her finest compositions (start with The Sea - it will haunt you) and sang lead on seven, including a stunning arrangement of the traditional song, Banks Of The Nile. Though Fotheringay was a short-lived group, foundering during sessions for a second album, its achievement - and Denny's - stands as a high-water mark for British Folk.

Betty Davis - They Say I'm Different (1974) As Miss Mabry, she was Miles Davis's muse. As Ms. Davis, she helped him update his wardrobe and convinced him of the value of artists like Sly & The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, which changed the course of his music - and music in general. But Davis had her own musical visions to realize, the seeds of which were revealed on the fascinating "lost album" released in 2016 as The Columbia Years. But it was when she hit the west coast and recruited members of Santana and Sly & The Family Stone to record her debut that she struck gold, kicking off a run of three albums that are almost interchangeable as far as quality goes. I picked the middle album because it's slightly more assured and features a hand-picked band of young guns, ensuring that Davis was the only diva in the studio. She perfected her combo of stuttering, shiv-sharp funk and vocals that growled, moaned, and insinuated, rarely settling for the ordinary turn of phrase. Nobody had ever heard songs like He Was A Big Freak ("I used to whip him with a purple chain,") or Don't Call Her No Tramp before, but as the missing link between Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones, Betty Davis made the world safe for all kinds of difference. 

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth (1980) Punk's Year Zero did a great job of clearing the air, perhaps bearing its greatest fruit in the post-punk era when a wondrous variety of unlikely sonics found not only release but an audience. Young Marble Giants was certainly one of the more unlikely to appear, a pair of brothers, Philip and Stuart Moxham, on bass, guitar, organ, and drum machine accompanying the waifish but curiously sturdy vocals of Alison Statton. Her singing style was seemingly unstudied, one step past saying "Is this thing on?" when approaching the mic, but also full of nuance and detail, as were her lyrics. Such songs as Searching For Mister Right, Wurlitzer Jukebox, and Constantly Changing became instantly iconic - if you were on their wavelength. Statton simultaneously occupied the role of a dispassionate observer, while still making you believe she could be your friend. Through her intimacy and sheer cool, she created a new kind of feminine avatar, and one who seemed to be in a genre of one, as did the band itself. But as with the Velvet Underground's first album, many who bought Colossal Youth put its lessons to use in later years. Courtney Love, for one, who covered Credit In The Straight World on Live Through This, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, for another, as well as recent sensations like Novelty Daughter, Grimes and Purity Ring, who ditched the marvelous Moxham brothers for a laptop, an MPC, and a loop pedal. My classic rock minded friends turned their noses up at YMG, saying it was too simple, that anyone could do it. But no one had - and in that simplicity later generations found agency. It should also be noted that Statton went on to form Weekend, which created a brand of jazzy cafe folk-rock that presaged acts like Everything But The Girl and Sade.

Laurie Spiegel - The Expanding Universe (1980) When the extraterrestrials find the golden LP that was shot into space in 1977 and manage to backward construct a turntable to play it on, I doubt they will concern themselves with the gender of the creatures that produced the sounds they are listening to, if they even have a concept of gender. However, in addition to asking for more Chuck Berry they might also request more Laurie Spiegel, the pioneering electronic musician whose work is included alongside that of the rock & roll legend, along with Bach, Beethoven, and others. The four tracks on the original Expanding Universe were recorded from 1974-1976, each piece assembled after Spiegel had painstakingly written algorithms to activate computer musical instruments developed at Bell Labs. But by the time this collection was released, some of the excitement around the golden record had died down and Spiegel was on her way to obscurity. But thanks to a knowledgeable music supervisor for the first movie in the Hunger Games series, interest was renewed in her atmospheric, richly textured work and an expanded Expanding Universe was issued revealing a far more prolific artist than we had realized. Yet even if we take just the original four tracks, especially the side-long title piece, we would have been introduced to a brave and distinctive sound-world that was far ahead of its time.

Although there are hints above, I'll leave it up to you to decide which five albums should be dropped to make room for these landmark records. The next step I would like to see is to take the 50-75 albums I love on NPR's list and use them as a cudgel to dislodge some of the shibboleth mediocrities from the Rolling Stone list. Then we might really be getting somewhere. Which albums do you think they should make room for?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Record Roundup: Spirits Of The Past

I'm laser-focused on the new and keeping up with artists who are active today, which is nearly a full-time job. But the riches of the past are undeniable, either in the form of deluxe reissues, records returning to print, or previously unissued music, which may be the most tantalizing of all. You'll find examples of each below, sometimes with an eye to "consumer advice," which is part of the picture whenever someone tries to make new money off of old music. 

Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda  - World Spirituality Classics, Vol. 1: The Ecstatic Music Of... The widow of the titanic sax player was on the wrong side of so many margins that it wouldn't surprise me if a common reaction to her name was either ignorance or outright hostility. In a way she could be seen as the Yoko Ono of jazz, a woman who entered the boy's club and pulled her husband's music in all sorts of weird directions. At least that the impression I got from the copies of Downbeat I found in my brother's room back in the 70's. I will forever resent those critics who so badly understood what Turiya was doing that it took until 2004 for me to get her classic album Journey To Satchidananda - and then I listened to it every day for six months straight. 

As unusual as that and the other jazz-harp-Indian-mystic albums (including an underrated collaboration with Carlos Santana) that followed were, what we have here is in an entirely different realm. Even if you didn't know that these pieces were from cassettes recorded during services at Turiya's ashram, I think the ritual power of this music would be immediately obvious. The effect is not unlike some of the source material for David Byrne & Brian Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - intimate, arresting, even eerie at times. Since Turiya had effectively turned her back on the business of music at the time she made these recordings, it's impossible to know what she would have made of them being released as a deluxe double album. We do know her children Michelle, Ravi, and Oran Coltrane, along with her nephew Steven Ellison (AKA Flying Lotus), were involved and so must assume that all due respect was paid. 

As for the sound world to which we are invited on these selected tracks, it contains a number of fascinating intersections. Only one piece, Er Ra, contains her signature harp, the rest are dominated by massive, swooping synths (I immediately thought Oberheim - and the comprehensive liner notes confirmed it) that seem to rocket in on a jet stream informed in part by 80's R&B and early Eurythmics. There are touches of sitar and live strings here and there, and tambourines, hand claps, and other percussion chattering hypnotically.  The chanting is also fairly constant, and there are sometimes solo singers - including Turiya herself - that  circle back to gospel, soul and disco in their passion and melismatic effects. 

Whether you put it to use in your own spiritual practice or just listen, this is an incredibly important release which closes the circle on the work of a musician who has only grown in importance. Kudos to Luaka Bop for putting it together. I look forward to volume two in this groundbreaking series. 

Radiohead - OKNOTOK 1997-2017 Leave it to Yorke, Greenwood & Co. to turn the unboxing video into a work of art. But then the super-deluxe version of this 20th anniversary reissue is an extraordinary thing. Besides the original remastered album on vinyl and a third record containing three unreleased songs (all good, especially the elegant and moody Man Of War) and many of the b-sides of the era, you get a facsimile of Thom Yorke's notebook, unseen artwork, and a cassette of demos. If you can afford it! Punters (and streamers) will likely get the two-CD version, which just has the album, the three new tracks, and the b-sides. All well and good, except there was already a deluxe reissue of OK Computer almost ten years ago. While it didn't have the fancy packaging or the three lost tracks, it did have two remixes (the Fila Brazillia version of Climbing Up The Walls is especially groovy), and a few BBC recordings and live tracks (Lucky, from Rome, is fantastic), all now lost to the dustbin of your local used music emporium. Maybe there are plans for comprehensive sets of live materials and remixes, but for now it is as it as always been: being a Radiohead completist takes work - and deep pockets. 

Helium - Ends With And Every so often over the last 20 years or so, I have found myself wondering "But what about Helium?" just because they seemed so forgotten. And I would flash back to the night at Knitting Factory when my wife and best friend tried to convince me I was wrong for being a fan - while Helium was playing. I felt so alone. But that's all different now that Matador has reissued most of the music released during their heyday along with a double-album compilation of rarities, all under the supervision of leader Mary Timony. While there are some legitimate complaints about omissions (Only the b-side of the debut single? Well, OK.), this is pure catnip. If you're unfamiliar, start with debut album The Dirt Of Luck. Otherwise, dive into Ends With And and wallow in the toothsome delights of damaged guitars and sweet vocals. Nobody did that kind of thing better. 

Various Artists - Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star When Chris Bell and Alex Chilton formed Big Star it was the coming together of two strands of musical DNA that had not yet generated fully viable life on their own. Chilton had been chewed up and spat out by the teen idol machine as the lead singer of The Box Tops and, as a previous collection of his work between bands revealed, he had yet to find himself musically in the aftermath. Bell was following a more conventional path, working his way through the Memphis rock scene as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, sideman, and engineer. 

This collection is the most comprehensive overview yet of Bell's apprenticeship and, while containing only six previously unreleased tracks, it clarifies all the strengths he (and drummer Jody Stevens, also included here) brought to the table when he and Chilton joined forces. These would include a well-developed sense of Beatle-esque melody, rippling and ripping lead guitar work, leanings toward late psychedelia and even prog, and a taste for hard rock grit. For the Big Star fan this is fascinating listening and a welcome dent in the "great man theory" Chilton's canonization has made endemic. That Bell held Chilton in very high regard, however, is made clear by the excellent liner notes, which include copious amounts of oral history. As Tom Eubanks, lead singer and main songwriter of Rock City, a band whose output takes up nearly half of Looking Forward, says: "One needs to consider that the major purpose of Rock City was for Christopher to develop recording engineering skills for the planned formation of...Big Star," when Chilton returned to Memphis in six months time. One listen to Big Star's first album is all you need to know it was time well spent. 

The whole package is expertly assembled, as one would expect from Omnivore, but it should be pointed out that with so much that was previously available, this is almost just a well-informed playlist. Four of the unreleased tracks are backing tracks or alternate backing tracks and neither of the new completed songs feature Bell's sweet, high tenor. But if you're like me and never bothered to get the Rock City album, which was first put out over a decade ago, or compilations like the Ardent Records Story, you'll want to grab this. 

All I Need Is You is the best non-Beatles Beatles song since Lies by The Knickerbockers and is worth the price of admission. Looking Forward is also a great look at Memphis' early 70s rock underground, so unexpected in a town known mainly for its soul music. I Am The Cosmos, a beautiful album Chris Bell left unfinished at the time his tragic death in 1979, is still the true revelation of his talents. If you don't have it, keep an eye out for a new version coming from Omnivore later this year. Based on this collection, Bell's masterpiece will sound better than ever. 

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band In which the most underrated overrated album of all time is subject to a very high-tech remix by Giles Martin, son of original producer George. His goal was to inform a stereo mix with some of the virtues of the original mono. Now, I must shamefacedly admit that I've never heard the mono version - I know, bizarre, right? But I have been working my through the mono vinyl reissues slowly and they are revelatory, so I get where Giles is coming from. I'm also intimately acquainted with every second of the original stereo LP, which my parents bought upon release and proceeded to wear out over the next few years. 

On every device I've used, the Giles effect is completely noticeable - and amazing. The bass has more heft, the guitars more sting, the drums more presence, and the vocals are warmer and better-integrated into the tracks. Then there are all the strings, horns, special effects, and sonic experiments, which are all more pronounced. Everything gels more than the 2008 digital stereo remaster, but you still might find yourself focusing on tiny details the first time around, like the little shuffle Ringo uses to transition into the chorus of With A Little Help From My Friends, or the subtle inflections of John's voice on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. At this point I find myself just flat-out enjoying the album more, even laughing out loud at the audacity of the "Bi-Lee-Shears" they sing to introduce Ringo's star turn. While it's still not my favorite Fabs album, I highly recommend you give this a listen, whichever side of the overrated/underrated spectrum you occupy. (P.S. Memo to Keith Richards: Sgt. Pepper's is not rubbish.)

There's also a generous helping of studio outtakes and demos, which will delight and amaze with a fly-on-the-wall look at some of their process. I'm saving up for the super-deluxe, which comes with a second disc of extras. Plus, you get new versions of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the colorful, emotionally-charged seeds of the whole Pepper project. The White Album turns 50 next year, and Abbey Road the year after that, so let's hope Giles & Co. are hard at work. 

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus 40 In which Ziggy Marley reveals he's no Giles Martin. Certainly this landmark album deserves as much commemoration as Sgt. Pepper's, but "restatement" disc at the center of this edition is, frankly, a mess. Bad enough that Ziggy blended his dad's vocals from outtakes with parts from other alternate takes of the songs, but he also presents them out of order. The whole experience is very unsatisfying; I would rather have had genuine outtakes and demos, even if raw - something that would let us in on the process Marley and the band went through while creating the album. Fortunately, the first disc is an untouched version of the original, the same excellent remaster as the Deluxe Edition released in 2001. Disc three is a complete concert from the Rainbow in 1977, the same show which was teased in a few tracks on that earlier reissue. It's wonderful, with beautiful sound and locked-in performances, a public service on its own terms. Just keep Ziggy away from Survival. 

Linval Thompson - Rocking Vibration & Love Is The Question No bells and whistles here - just a twofer of prime Linval Thompson (both from 1978) which means roots reggae at its best, and in stunning sound. The first of the two is especially good: Thompson produced himself, hired Sly & Robbie to play the riddims, and wisely brought in King Tubby to mix. It's a special record and the second is nearly as good. 

Piri - Vocês Querem Mate? This is another brilliant early-70's Brazilian reissue from Far Out Recordings, a fine follow-up to last year's Obnoxius by Jose Mauro. Samba-Bossa-Topicalia bliss may be the most blissful bliss of all!

Tenorio Jr. - Embalo More Brazilian beauty, from 1964 this time, and on the jazz tip. Tenorio's lighter than air sparkle on piano is the real draw, but there's a large helping of trombone, which always seems to have one eyebrow raised as it oozes out a solo. This is Tenorio's only album as a leader but it made his reputation. He had a nice career going as a sideman until 1976, when he went out for a pack of cigarettes while on tour in Argentina and was never seen again. Whether he became a desaparecido or met with some other mishap, his legacy is secure thanks to Embalo. 

David Bowie - Cracked Actor: Live Los Angeles '74 Even though I have reveled for years in a bootleg of this show from late in the Diamond Dogs tour, this official release is a must. It was mixed by none other than Tony Visconti himself, which means the widescreen grandeur of Bowie's ensemble is finally revealed. With irrepressible sax-man David Sanborn duking it out with guitar murderer Earl Slick, piano wizard Mike Garson creating his own universe, and no less than seven background vocalists (including Luther Vandross) this was the epic approach Bowie's music required at the time. I'm such a fan that I even love David Live, in all it's spiritually emaciated, overdubbed ignominy, but there's no doubt this was the better concert - and now it's in the canon. Hey, Bowie people, how about putting out Alan Yentob's documentary of the same name, filmed around the same time? 

There's more new old stuff to explore in this playlist. What have I missed?

You may also enjoy:

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Best Of 2017 (So Far)

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 CinismoPOLUÇÃO 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.