Sunday, January 21, 2018

Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.

By the end of 2017, this was the biggest category of all the ones I was tracking. This was partly due to it being a catchall for everything that didn’t fit elsewhere, but it was also just a good year for rock and folk music. Not only was my Top 25 dominated by it, including bands like The Clientele, The Courtneys, Spoon, Hiss Golden Messenger, Warhaus, etc., but my listening was as well. Whether seeking catharsis or comfort, it was often something from this realm that hit the mark. And if you’re still debating the medical status of guitar-based artists, you’ll find plenty of signs of life below. First,  some of the excellent albums I covered in previous posts but couldn’t shoehorn into the Top 25.

Beck - Colors
Iron & Wine - Beast Epic

Historian - Expanse
Mastodon - Emperor of Sand

These artists were on the included Epic Tracks playlist, which also had great songs from The Feelies and LCD Soundsystem among others - maybe you’ll like the rest of their albums more than I did. 

Versing - Nirvana Yes, it’s very cheeky for a band from Seattle to call their album Nirvana, but this is no Kurt Cobain homage. What we have here is a four-piece, two-guitar steamroller with touches of Kraut-and math rock. When I saw them open for The Courtneys at Park Church Co-Op, they were drilled and tight as hell, gaining confidence and even swagger from that solid foundation of technique. My instant reaction was that these guys have worked really hard and now they’re ready. Are you?

Wire - Silver/Lead So many bands draw on Wire’s influence (Versing, for one) that it seems almost unfair that they’re still making records this good forty years on from their debut. Silver/Lead is the fourth release since their last lineup change and it’s just a hairsbreadth off from the standard they set with Change Becomes Us in 2010. So that means all the sleek interleaved guitars and hypnotic rhythms you could ask for, married to insinuating melodies delivered in an almost conspiratorial whisper. And is that nearly a love song I hear in Forever & a Day, with Graham Lewis crooning “Ooooh I want you to stay”? Maybe you CAN teach old post-punks new tricks. 

Ulrika Spacek - Modern English Decoration Two guitars? Driving rhythms?  Wire influence? Two guys named Rhys? Check, check, check and check! In short, a very modern English rock band, and a very good one. This is their second album and if you heard The Album Paranoia, their debut from 2016, you pretty much know what to expect. It’s nice that there are still some things we can count on these days.

UV-TV - Glass The post-punk dream is also alive for this Florida trio, who work up an impressive storm of sound for a three-piece. The best songs have Rose Vastola on lead vocals - she's a force of nature - but there's only a slight let-down when Ian Bernacett takes the mike. By managing to sound more original and fresh than some others mining this territory (Omni, Preoccupations) they not only got my attention but kept it.

Self Defense Family - Wounded Masculinity Just for song titles alone, SDF is always worth keeping an eye out for and this four-song EP and the single Bastard Form are no exception. Musically speaking, the first is late-night, spoken-word musings with skeletal backing, like outtakes by The Doors but without Jim Morrison's grandiosity. Mary Devoured By Horses is especially cinematic and haunting, Lynchian, even. Bastard Form is also subdued but high-tension, with a steady pulse on both songs. One could question why the band hasn't put out an album since 2015, when they usually release nearly "enough" songs each year. The answer is that they have become masters of the short-form collection, which is only further borne out by 2017's releases.

Palm - Shadow Expert By honing their sound - mathy rhythms, post-minimalist guitars, sweet vocals - and their songs, this Philly foursome has come up with their most impressive release yet in this six-song EP. Rock Island, their second LP, drops February 9th, 2018 and if they can maintain the quality it should be truly extraordinary.

Crumb - Locket This is another band that just keeps getting better and better, with their jazzy, exploratory sound meshing perfectly with singer/guitarist Lila Ramani's smoky deadpan. Four songs are not enough when they are this woozily delightful. They must have more material, as they are going on an extensive tour this spring, so here's hoping an album is coming in the near future.

Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology Hypnotic rhythms power Weaver's songs, which draw inspiration from the Velvet Underground, Can and The Walker Brothers circa Nite Flights - a sure sign of great taste - but her light touch is all her own.

Chastity Belt - I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone While it may be a cheap comparison to lump these Seattle rockers together with The Courtneys just because they’re both all-girl bands, the fact remains that they provide similar satisfactions: tuneful, chiming guitars, driving rhythms, clear, honest singing. Now, Chastity Belt is not yet the unstoppable force The Courtneys have become, but the way they continue to grow up in public makes for compelling listening on several levels. I’m rooting for them - they’re just the turn of a key (sorry) from greatness.

Diet Cig - Swear I'm Good At This I've been following this guitar and drums duo since it seemed like they were more of an idea than a band. Now, they are an unexpectedly polished music-supervisor's dream, with great tunes and up-to-the minute lyrics (Link In Bio, etc.). I truly admire how hard they've worked and the album is a feast of fun - but I might get hungry again soon.

Angel Olson - Phases This grab-bag of covers, outtakes and previously uncollected songs occasionally finds Olson slipping into vocal mannerisms. But it's mostly another example, like 2016's My Woman, of her imperious, phenomenal power as both a singer and a songwriter. 

Jen Cloher - Jen Cloher When an artist releases a self-titled album in the middle of their career, it usually signals some kind of reinvention or at least a request for reevaluation. Smart move on Cloher's part, as not only does she have more attention on her now as the partner of Courtney Barnett (in love and in their company, Milk! Records), but this is also her most assured - she calls it "honest" - album yet. Barnett helps out on guitar and vocals but the songs are all by Cloher and they reveal a keenly observant and emotionally connected songwriter. She also knows the power of the groove, as evidenced by Analysis Paralysis, which locks into that Velvet Underground swing and doesn't let up for almost eight glorious minutes. I was not a fan of Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett's collaboration with Kurt Vile, but I am happy to report that at least one great album came out of their little corner of Melbourne in 2017.

Warbly Jets - Warbly Jets This is that other kind of self-titled album, a debut, and the two word review is: It rocks! Big riffs, bigger choruses, thrashing rhythms, and smart production distinguish these California boys from the competition. Two of the Jets have a New York pedigree, with Julien O'neill (synth) formerly in Napoleon and Samuel Shea (vocals, guitar) an erstwhile member of Spires, two bands I enjoyed a great deal. Warbly Jets is far more commercial sounding - arena ready, even - than their NYC bands, but it is also way too sincere and, above all, FUN to feel like a cash grab. This is one to gleefully throw in the faces of all those "rock is dead" blowhards.

Roger Waters - Is This The Life We Really Want? Speaking of arena-ready, consider the fact that over 30 years after his last album with Pink Floyd, Waters still tops concert sales playing material that's even older. This is due partly to the quality of most Pink Floyd, but also to his brilliant use of stadia as the perfect theatrical venues, with spectacular, immersive production values setting a new standard on tour after tour. While I've respected his abilities to stay on top of the touring market, I certainly didn't have any expectations for a new album from Waters. But when I heard he was working with genius producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, Paul McCartney) and had even added contemporary guitar/production wizard Jonathan Wilson into the mix, I was intrigued. The results are far better than anything Waters has been involved with since Animals in 1977 (yes, even The Wall, which is a bit of a mess to these ears), filled with darkly moving meditations on the state of the world in jewel-like settings devised by Godrich, Wilson and other experts like drummer Joey Waronker and keyboard player Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. 

There are two things holding back ITTLWRW from true greatness, however. The first is Waters's voice, a dry and pinched instrument which, while he does the best he can with it, is ultimately ill-suited to his melodic ambitions. The second is the overwhelming sense of familiarity. Even though he is obviously one of the architects of the classic Floyd sound and has ownership over its moody magnificence in that sense, in another he's practically ripping himself off. Still, it's a highly listenable affair and a more than credible calling card to take on the road. I saw the show and the new songs sounded even better with a some live energy behind them and fit in well with the classics, especially a large chunk of Animals. The visuals were often astonishing and Waters had some of the best back-up you can imagine, including both Wilson and Waronker, guitar god Dave Kilminster, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius on vocal support. The cherry on top was his blunt anti-Trump messaging, which was very satisfying to see writ large in an arena setting.

Gregg Allman - Southern Blood Roger Waters is 74 and not the most productive record-maker so I wouldn't be surprised if his latest album turns out to be his last. Unfortunately, we know this is Allman's last, as he died in 2017. It's a decent capstone to his career, with some impeccably chosen songs (Tim Buckley's Once I Was, Dylan's Going Going Gone, Little Feat's Willin'), but Don Was is kind of a cheesy producer and poor health had drained Allman's voice of some of its bluesy richness. Things definitely take off more on the live songs included on the deluxe edition, which makes sense as Allman was one of the great road warriors of all time. Ride on, Midnight Rider.

David Bowie - No Plan The now-classic Lazarus with two excellent songs and one good one from the Blackstar sessions, thankfully freed from the slog of the Lazarus cast recording.

Matthew E. White & Flo Morrissey - Gentlewoman, Ruby Man Like a lot of albums of cover songs, your own relationship to the material included here may dictate how much you enjoy their interpretations. So, for me that means I can't stand the takes on the Velvet Underground's Sunday Morning or Leonard Cohen's Suzanne - some songs are sacred. The exception is Frank Ocean's Thinking About You, which works great as a duet, and it's nice to think about the song becoming kind of a standard. It is in my house! Grease is just a bad song, but almost everything else is pure gold, especially opener Look At What The Light Did Now, rescuing a Little Wings song from obscurity, and the Euro-pop of Nino Ferrer's Looking For You, with its spectacular synth solo. Kind of a holding-pattern album for White, however, as we await his follow-up to 2015's Fresh Blood.

Mastodon - Cold Dark Place Mastodon may also be in transition, as they followed up Emperor Of Sand, very nearly a return to the heights of Leviathan and The Hunter, with this somewhat exploratory four-song EP. While it still gets heavy, there's a space-rock vibe and a new level of delicacy and detail to the layers of guitars that is truly glorious. Where to next, boys?


Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness This hushed, interior album reveals itself only after several listens, but when it comes into focus it's a knockout. Byrne possesses some of Nadia Reid's dignity and grace as well as her ability to conjure indelible melodies seemingly out of thin air. The production, focusing on her voice and finger-picked acoustic, is beyond sympathetic even approaching perfection with little touches like the breathy synth on Melting Grid. A special album, indeed.

Florist - If Blue Could Be Happiness When I saw Florist open for Mutual Benefit back in 2016, I was immediately captivated by the songs and singing of Emily Sprague. I bought the debut album, The Birds Outside Sang, from the merch table and confirmed her skills at constructing songs that were delicate yet sturdy and very personal. This new album is quieter and features more acoustic guitar and perhaps one too many slow songs, but her lyrics are as connected as ever and married to melodies that display a deep understanding of how someone like Leonard Cohen made things work. Sprague is so sad on this album yet so charming and lively on Twitter - perhaps her recent move to California will allow some of that to bubble into the music.

Hand Habits - Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void) Like Florist, this is really the project of one woman, Meg Duffy, also originally from upstate New York and now located in California. Duffy plays guitar and keyboards and has been on the road with Kevin Morby's band for a while. Although she has released a few intriguing if unfocused songs under the Hand Habits moniker going back to 2014, this is her true debut. And a very impressive one at that, with a distinctive, trebly sound and songs that draw you through the album like chapters in a good story. By the time you get to Demand It, the sixth song, you should be fully onboard - I know I was.

Caroline Says - 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong Both the name of the band (based on the Lou Reed song) and the album are either acts of extreme self-deprecation or hubris. I'm going with the former, as Caroline Sallee's whole approach is so gentle, with touches of fun, that you can't help think she's having a laugh. But it would probably be more like a rueful chuckle, if these mostly melancholy tunes are as true-life as they sound. The album jumps around a bit, from indie rock to almost straight folk, betraying a slight lack of focus. Based on the promise contained within, and the fact that it was recorded some time ago, I don't however, her next album should be a stunner.

Big Thief - Capacity While I miss some of the band feel from Big Thief's debut album, Masterpiece (speaking of hubris vs. self-deprecation!), leader Adrienne Lenker is the real deal. Her singing is always aimed at true communication and the way she develops hooks almost casually, as with that little "ooh" on Shark Smile, is brilliant. Mary really feels like a solo track as Lenker pushes into her  high register accompanied only by piano and some atmospherics. It's gorgeous and whether it bodes an even more solitary sound in the future or the band becomes more prominent again, sign me up.

Aaron Roche - HaHa HuHu This record is so singular I wish I had more time to talk about it here. From quiet instrumentals, like album closer Sig Beeg Sig Moor, which has guitarist's guitarist Phil Keaggy duetting with Roche, to The Terror, featuring the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, or Florida, "Recorded live in a stairwell by Aaron Roche and Helga Davis," this is quite a journey into a very talented, very eclectic mind - and one with a killer rolodex. Roche is so eclectic, in fact, that I first discovered him as the producer of The Perfect Nothing Catalog, featuring the work of composer Conrad Winslow, and one of my favorite classical albums of 2017. I have no idea where Roche will go next, but I can tell you that I am following him on every channel I can.

I live for new songs from Holly Miranda and 2017 was bookended by Midnight Oil, a moving Chris Williamson cover released to benefit the Standing Rock protestors, and Exquisite, a stunning duet with TV On The Radio's Kyp Malone. Even better, the latter was the first single from her third Album, Mutual Horse, out on February 23rd. A good sign for 2018!


Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer - Not Dark Yet This is the first album these singing sisters have recorded together and it is also the best thing Lynne has done since I Am Shelby Lynne back in 1999. The production is rich, the song choices are on point, like the Dylan-penned title track, Merle Haggard's Silver Wings, or even Nirvana's Lithium, and nothing gets in the way of their voices, which are masterful. They also co-wrote the closing track, Is It Too Much, which deals head-on with their tragic past and how the bond of their sisterhood helped them survive it. If they want to collaborate some more, either as songwriters or just singers, you'll get no argument from me.

Wild Ponies - Galax While this sometimes triggers my anti-hoedown reflex, at least Doug and Telisha Jones come by it honestly, having recorded the album in a barn in Virginia featuring a combination of Nashville pros and local heroes. I also miss Doug's wicked Telecaster, which has been MIA since Things That Used To Shine came out a few years ago. But when they sink into a ballad like Hearts And Bones (not the Paul Simon song), it's sigh-inducing, a pure breath of fresh country air.

Whew. Listen to tracks from all of these artists here or below, and if you want the full dump from this category, dig into the 13-hour 2017 Archive (Rock, Folk, Etc.). Keep up with 2018's glories, goodies and near-misses here and, as always, let me know what I'm missing.

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Best Of 2017: The Top 25

Monday, January 15, 2018

Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae

I had only two albums from this category in my Top 25 for 2017: the undeniable DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar and Process, the powerful debut by Sampha. This is a little low for me, which I think was mainly due to where my head was at, needing music of a different sort to get me through the year. But that doesn't mean I didn't find several strong, even stunning, albums in this area, not to mention individual songs, which I feature at the bottom.

Hip Hop Albums

Both Rap Album Two by Jonwayne and The Hegelian Dialectic by Prodigy (RIP) were on my Best Of 2017 (So Far) back in July and they are indeed excellent albums. While they each had qualities that kept them out of the Top 25 (Jonwayne’s tendency to overthink EVERYTHING, some of Prodigy’s questionable lyrical choices), they will also more than reward your attention. 

Big K.R.I.T. - 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time This double album is a statement of purpose from Justin Scott, a veteran rapper from Mississippi. The first part is almost wall-to-wall classic Southern hip hop with beats worthy of OutKast or Goodie Mob, which makes sense as their producer Organized Noize worked on some of the album. K.R.I.T. practically chews up the mic with his raps, more than holding his own alongside some strong guests, like T.I., who lights up Big Bank like a Christmas tree, Bun B. and Pimp C. Nothing detracts from K.R.I.T.’s commanding performance, however. Then, in a dazzling display of his versatility, he takes a left turn into material that’s soulful, funky, jazzy, and even playful. Keep The Devil Off even finds him cooking up a gospel fervor, with church organ to match. This is the “Justin Scott” persona and his collaborators here are people like Joi and Jill Scott, and on the penultimate track, Bilal and Robert Glasper, Jr. But he takes the last song, Bury Me In Gold, on his own, never letting you forget whose show this is. He’s always been good, but this impressive effort vaults him into greatness. 

Big Boi - Boomiverse Speaking of Southern hip hop, Big Boi’s third album is a far more consistent collection than his last, playing to his strengths as the party-starting rapper with the tack-sharp flow. All Night, with its rickety ragtime piano, is a great reminder that hip hop was all about fun at one time. But Big Boi never gets too serious, even when Killer Mike drops by to spit fire. Speaking of guests, I got triggered when I saw Adam Levine’s name on the credits for Mic Jack, but even a Maroon 5 hater like me didn’t really notice him on the track. Plus, the presence of the silky-voiced Sleepy Brown (also a welcome presence on the K.R.I.T. album) more than made up for it. Even acknowledging the fact that he’s not reaching the heights he did in OutKast does little to dampen the pleasures to be found in Big Boi’s Boomiverse, which are many. 

Aminé - Good For You While this fresh new voice is definitely a post-Chance The Rapper rapper, he has more than enough of his own personality, as well as a serious way with a hook. Songs like Veggies, Caroline and Sundays will follow you through your day after a couple of listens. There are a few features, with the best ones being Charlie Wilson singing his ass off on Dakota and Kehlani getting cozy on Heebiejeebies, but this debut is all about Aminé. Get him on your radar. 

Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory Even with a raft of producers (from Zack Sekoff on five tracks (one with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon), to electro-poppers Flume and Sophie, among others) and guests (Kendrick Lamar and Ty Dolla Sign, Blur’s Damon Albarn, etc.), this third album from Staples is his sleekest LP yet. While the feel is high-tech throughout, his flow is gritty and compelling. Highlights are Big Fish, which is danceable, catchy, vaguely threatening - the perfect club single - and Homage, which finds a middle ground between drum’n’bass and techno, with Staples rapping at high tempo seemingly without effort. 

Mourning [A] BLKstar - BLK Muzak This is rainswept black asphalt music, full of startling collage-like shifts in texture and tone. It feels very original but also in deeply in the tradition of Afro-futurism. RA Washington, who founded the Ohio-based collective in 2015, obviously knows very well the size and shape of the envelope he’s pushing with such confidence. I think the time for M[A]B to come up from underground is nigh - don’t get caught by surprise when they do. 

Freddie Gibbs - You Only Live 2wice This short, sharp shock of an album puts Gibbs back in action after some legal troubles relating to an accusation of sexual assault. His relief at being acquitted is palpable as he raps with fury on every track. On Crushed Glass, the first single, his flow is almost exhausting, with only a well-placed Sade sample allowing you (and him) to catch your breath. Phone Lit is another standout, with a woozy groove and more hypnotism from Gibbs. There's something of a Charles Oakley quality to Freddie Gibbs - he may not be a superstar but he always gets the job done.

Raekwon - The Wild The last album by this Wu-Tang Clan stalwart was overstuffed and overworked, which may be why this one was slightly overlooked. Kicking off with This Is What It Comes Too (sic), a fiery blast over a tough-ass boom bap beat, The Wild, while uneven, has Raekwon not only living up to his reputation but expanding on it with songs like Marvin, which tells Marvin Gaye's life story in four sad, soulful minutes, Nothing, which has swagger to burn, and Reign, a regal statement indeed.

R&B Albums

I already wrote about the delights of Charlotte Dos Santos's Cleo, which opens with a sultry take on a 700-year-old song and ends with a cubist cha cha, and The Two Of Us, the latest mixtape from Chloe X Halle, with its touches of blues and reggae framing their gorgeous harmonies. Don't let these two gems get lost in the shuffle.

Kelela - Take Me Apart While her experimental spirit is somewhat dimmed from the badass heights of Cut 4 Me, her debut EP from 2015, this is still an album of great substance. The songs are well-conceived, with insidiously catchy choruses, and the production is still futuristic and haunting. Her stunning voice keeps getting better, displaying some new techniques, while continuing to communicate her individuality and ability to connect directly, human to human. If you're looking for points of entry, try Waitin', a frisky take on that moment when you realize you're not over the person you thought you were over, or LMK, which nails how relationships can bud - or not - in our cultural moment. Enough is a stellar, star-lit ballad, the kind of floating-in-space thing Björk used to be so good at. In fact, if I were going to fall back on an overused reviewer's trope, I might say Kelela is like Björk and FKA Twigs meeting in Janet Jackson's living room. If any of those artists intrigue you, get into Take Me Apart. I just hope she doesn't smooth out her edges any further, a common occurrence in this musical space.

Moses Sumney - Aromanticism Sumney's career has been a slow build since he dropped Mid City Island, a captivating five-song EP, in 2014. From the start, his was obviously a unique vision, putting his sweet voice in spare contexts that evoked folk-soul sounds of the past - Terry Callier comes to mind - while sounding utterly contemporary. Aromanticism is his first full-length and finds his voice ever more assured, with a jazzy, improvisatory insouciance that perfectly fits his androgynous sound. The backing tracks focus mainly on his guitar and multiple layers of his voice, with spare synths rounding things out, making for a supremely chilled-out experience. He has a lot on his mind, too, about how we live and love these days and how he refuses to follow any expected paths. While he occasionally slips into a solipsistic bubble that can make even a dedicated listener feel left out, Sumney is second only to Frank Ocean in dragging soul and r&b into the future.

Sza - CTRL  SZA, otherwise known as Solána Imani Rowe, has a supple singing style that owes as much to jazz as to forbears like Lauren Hill. That loose, intimate style, combined with the analog textures she curated for her debut full-length creates an immediacy that remains fresh even after multiple listens. Rather than writing strict verse/chorus/verse songs, she has a stream of consciousness approach that sometimes feels she's sending you a late-night voice mail. While the album is slightly uneven, the fact that her style works as often as it does is remarkable. Standouts are Prom, which is her version of a pop song, and Doves In The Wind, which features Kendrick Lamar rapping an ode to"power" as singleminded as Chris Rock's routine on Kanye West's Blame Game. Isaiah Rashad, her Top Dawg label-mate as well as a good friend, drops in on Pretty Little Birds, putting down an impressive feature as well. The album concludes with the aching 20 Something, which has SZA pouring her heart out over an acoustic guitar as she explores the pains and possibilities of being at a transitional time in life. Moving stuff, and another example of her versatility and burgeoning mastery.

SiR - Her Too Top Dawg Entertainment, home of Kendrick Lamar as well as SZA and Isaiah Rashad, is a true believer in artist development. So, they're bringing this contemporary crooner along slowly with EPs like this one and the results make it obvious that an album can't be far off. While he's not an R&B radical, he's versatile enough to put over a fun and frisky song like Don't Call My Phone or a moody one like The Canvas. Her Too makes a strong case for a more traditional - and damned sexy - approach to contemporary soul so let's hope TDE lets more of this smooth cat out of the bag soon.

Reggae Albums

Damian Marley - Stony Hill When this album came out I was surprised to find that it was Marley's first solo album in 12 years. Of course, his last album was the titanic Welcome To Jamrock, which he followed up with Distant Relatives, an excellent collaboration with Nas, so we'll cut him a break. We can also forgive that detour into Superheavy, with Mick Jagger and Joss Stone, which was neither super nor heavy. In any case, Stony Hill is very nearly a return to form and easily the best reggae album of the last few years. Marley is in excellent voice, whether singing or toasting, even carrying off Autumn Leaves, a grand ballad, and getting frisky with brother Stephen on the delightful Grown And Sexy. He really can do it all and his production is rich and detailed, displays a deep knowledge of music history beyond reggae. In short, Stony Hill is just Jr. Gong doing what he does best - hopefully we won't have to wait a decade for the next one.

Chronixx - Chronicle Marley should hire Chronixx's publicist because this album was everywhere! Chronixx, AKA Jamar McNaughton is also the scion of a reggae family as his father is Chronicle, known for the rootsy and soulful album Feel This One. A lot of the attention on this debut was deserved, even if the best songs made the weak spots more frustrating. The first five songs are all winners, nothing really new but just classic-feeling reggae sung with a spirited confidence and a disarmingly light touch. Things get a little cheesy with Smile Jamaica and then, with I Can, a shark is jumped in Montego Bay. It's unlistenable. The album mostly recovers, but there are still some ill-conceived moves and the saccharine bonus track I Know Love is no bonus. But Chronixx is still young and undeniably talented. If he buckles down on the quality control, his next album will be a classic.

The Expanders - Old Time Something Come Back Again, Vol. 2 These So-Cal reggae revivalists sound so good it's almost like a trick. But there is no curtain to look behind, just great roots reggae played with skill and style to burn. While their last album, Hustling Culture, was a terrific foray into writing their own material, they return to covers on OTSCBA Vol. 2 and their taste in songs is as impeccable as their playing. Crank up the bass!

Lee Scratch Perry & Subatomic Sound System - Super Ape Returns To Conquer This is also a cover album of sorts, as Perry re-records his own material, mostly from the legendary Super Ape album, with his current backing band. Perry sounds great, the Subatomics know their way around a groove and the dub controls, and there are fine guest appearances by Jahdan Blakkamore and Ari Up from The Slits. As the latter died in 2010, we can assume this has been in the works for a while, but it all hangs together and goes down easy. Also, it's no rote reconstruction, as Perry continues to take chances. Consider me conquered.

Party Mix

Singles are still a big deal in this category, making overnight sensations of artists like Fetty Wap and Soulja Boy - but that doesn't mean everyone should put out an album. Also, even if an artist has only one great song it can still be what you need to get a party started. Then there are the geniuses, like Frank Ocean, where we hang on every note, even during years when they don't put out a full-length. Here's a quick rundown of some of the highlights that enlivened my playlists this year.

Four singles from Frank Ocean seemed like a gold rush after the years of waiting between Channel Orange and Blond, his last two albums. Out of the four, my favorite was probably Chanel with its lo-fi piano and overlapping vocals, but put them all together and you have a legit EP from one of the great artists of our time.

In the excitement over DAMN., Kendrick's Lamar's instant-classic album, the single that proceeded it got a little lost in the mix. But The Heart Part 4 is definitely in the canon, with Lamar changing mood and tone over a shifting series of musical backings. It's like a four-minute mixtape.

Close But But Quite, the debut EP by Everything Is Recorded, the project of Richard Russell, founder of XL Records, found him orchestrating tracks for a number of different singers, including Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, who shows off his auto-tune skills to good effect among the rappers on D'Elusion. But the best song was the title track, which finds Sampha jamming with a lengthy sample of Curtis Mayfield's The Makings Of You - pure gold.

Missy Elliott is an American treasure who finally began releasing new music a couple of years ago after getting over some health issues. Unfortunately, it's been at the rate of about one new song a year! But I'm Better was a sly delight, with Elliott finding some new ways to mess with syllables in the spaces between a spare trap beat. Of course, the video was a visual treat, too. Album in 2018? We can only hope.

Cardi B, a former stripper turned rapper, was ubiquitous in 2017 on the back of Bodak Yellow, an undeniably entertaining single that both traded on her raw, untrained flow and the sheer freedom she felt from breaking with her past. "I don't dance now, I make money moves," is definitely a slogan strivers everywhere can get behind. But do we need an album from her? Probably not, yet if she puts out another song as killer as Bodak Yellow, you'll find it here next year.

Someone I would like to hear more from is pinkcaravan!, a budding artist from St. Louis who murmurs her way charmingly through tracks filled with electronic sunshine and rainbows (kudos to producer Namesake). candy land from her EP a very sad happy birthday is a hit in my book but everything she has released is pretty great. Hat tip to Lorum Ipsum for the pointer.

Lorum Ipsum also introduced me to Josh The Word and his clever Make You A Mixtape, which is like if your best friend shared a song with you and it was actually good. His album was kind of terrible, but that's OK because we're just looking for great songs for our own mixtapes at this point.

While I've liked albums by Your Old Droog in the past, his latest, PACKS, didn't really connect. But You Can Do It (Give Up), built around a perfect Richard Swift sample, features great storytelling and an interesting message.

"All my friends are dead/Push me to the edge," is the unforgettable refrain from Lil Uzi Vert's unpronounceable XO TOUR Llif3, which proved that putting real emotional heat behind the hip hop style of the moment can work. His album is an hour long, however, which was a long time to try and maintain this level of commitment.

In a year that gave us a lot of lemons that didn't always yield lemonade, Lemon, the single announcing the return of N.E.R.D. was definitely a bright spot. The rhythm was just this side of frantic and Rihanna's verse was fiery enough that I put the song at number five in my ranking of all the N.E.R.D. songs. And if the subsequent album didn't quite deliver, it wouldn't be the first thing that failed us in 2017. Time to shut up and dance!

You can hear all of the above here or below and if you want to know what other jams caught my ear last year, get to the 2017 Archive (Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae) playlist. Keep up in 2018 here.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: Classical

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Best Of 2017: Electronic

My Top 25 was nearly one-fifth electronic, including great music by Goldfrapp, Noveller, Elsa Hewitt and Novelty Daughter. Just taking those four records into account, you can get an idea of the sheer variety of sonic experiences to be had in this category. I covered a few other albums in a recent roundup, which were also among the year's best. Those are listed below along with more plugged-in excitements from 2017.

Record Roundup: Eclectic Electronics
Summer Like The Season - Thin Today
Jonti - Tokorats
Suzi Analogue - Zonez V.3: The World Unwinds But The Sound Holds Me Tight

Brian Eno - Reflection This dropped on the first day of 2017 and it was a calming start to the year - which we needed, god knows - and something I returned to when I wanted to sink into an undemanding bed of sound, although I can't guarantee I was always all there for the full 65 minutes. Eno has always had a self-effacing side and his generative music, where he sets the balls in motion (so to speak) and lets them roll where they will, is a natural extension of that quality. Here it results in meditative ripples that are very beautiful and tonally similar to various vintage keyboards. While it reminds me of Ambient 4: On Land, Eno's classic album from 1982, it doesn't quite rise to that level of greatness, which makes me admire his abilities as editor and architect of sound even more, roles that he somewhat abdicates on Reflection. But if anyone has earned the right to switch on a laptop and walk offstage, it's Eno.

Brian Eno & Tom Rogerson - Finding Shore This collaboration represents the other pole of Eno’s methods: treatments. This is where he processes sound, either as it’s being made, after the fact, or both, as is the case here. So, Rogerson recorded short, sparkling pieces on a piano fitted with The Piano Bar, which converts the sounds to MIDI signals, which Eno then transformed. The final product retains varying percentages of the original piano, as Eno applies different techniques, ranging from spacey to serrated. I think Rogerson’s style is a bit too dependent on Eno’s handiwork, which does most of the work of keeping things interesting, But Finding Shore is a great listen, often bright and pretty with just enough edge. 

Brian Eno & Kevin Shields - Only Once Away My Son Eno was busy last year! On this entry in the Adult Swim Singles collection for 2017, he works with Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine to create nine dreamy minutes of enhanced guitar-scapes that leave me breathless for more. Album?

Visible Cloaks - Reassemblage While they occasionally use chance operations, for their second album the Portland duo of Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile have strengthened their own editing and architecture skills to arrive at 11 (or 15, if you include bonus tracks) tightly constructed short pieces that are instantly satisfying without ever fully giving up their mystery. They have also developed their sonics further and there is not one sound on Reassemblage that isn't addictively lush and colorful. In fact, the first 30 seconds of Screen may just be the most sheerly beautiful thing in this whole category. They use vocals on a few tracks, most effectively on Valve when they put Japanese pop singer Miyako Koda through a digital wringer - subtly - lending a vibe that is both futuristic and quotidian, as if you're hearing a public address system in a spaceport. Will they have the TSA in the 23rd century? Not sure, but the music of Visible Cloaks is unlikely to sound dated even then. If you need more of their unique soundscapes (I know I do) there are six additional tracks to be found on the recently released Lex EP.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid On her third outing, a concept album describing "the emotional realities and spiritual epiphanies of a lifeform through its infancy, societal assimilation, and eventual self-remembrance," Smith continues to pursue her electro-pop chamber eclecticism to wonderful effect - and with a lot more finesse than that description! Some songs feel more like little keyboard improvisations while others have her combining her voice with collage-like backgrounds and still others feel tightly composed. Her voice is almost always treated, making it just another texture, but its organic quality keeps the songs down to earth. And like all good concept albums, you don't have to pay any attention to the "big idea" if you don't want to. Either way, your experience will be your own and, in the case of Smith's music, very rich and rewarding.

Juana Molina - Halo Like Björk, Molina has sometimes struggled to maintain the inspiration of her earlier albums, but Halo is the Argentinian's most connected album since Son over a decade ago. One thing she has done in that time is work on her stage show, incorporating more musicians into her performances, some of whom are collaborators here, adding some spontaneity to her hypnotic, Möbius strip-like songs. A perfect example is Cosoco, which is full of repeating phrases on bass and drums with her voice(s) soaring alongside. Electric guitars cut in, adding a texture you didn't even notice was lacking, but then you can't get enough. Welcome back, Juana!

Moebius - Musik für Metropolis As a member of both Cluster and Harmonia, Dieter Moebius was a key shaper of Krautrock and behind some of the greatest electronic music of all time. Though he died in 2015, it took until 2017 to release these four long tracks, composed to accompany a screening of Fritz Lang's classic film, Metropolis. While I think Lang would appreciate the dark, unnerving nature of Moebius's conception, and it is fun to imagine the various indelible scenes with his test-lab textures as opposed to the usual herky-jerky 1920's music, the album exists perfectly outside of the film. This is a fitting capstone to a legendary career and if you need a refresher, Bureau B has reissued several of his solo albums, all of which are worth investigating.

Kara-Lis Coverdale - Grafts A church organist in Canada, where she also has collaborated with Tim Hecker, Coverdale is really coming into her own as a creator of special sonic landscapes. Grafts consists of one 22-minute piece that combines acoustic and electronic keyboards in shifting patterns that refer to both ambient and minimalist traditions. While there may be less textural variety than on her previous album, Aftertouches, there seems to be more character on Grafts. You can drift off if you want, but I find it quite riveting and eagerly await more from her.

Lost Souls Of Saturn Vs. Mashrou' Leila - Bint Al Khandaq This new project features DJs Seth Troxler and Phil Moffa conspiring to remix a track by Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila. Listen to the original and then hear it transformed into a haunting, pitch-black meditation. I'm not sure where the Lost Souls will go next, but it should be interesting - and powerful.

Floating Points - Reflections-Mojave Desert While there’s as much organic instrumentation (guitars, bass, and drums), as electronic on this second album by Sam Shepherd, the overall effect and attitude locates it firmly in this genre. There are some ambient textures here, along with a bit of Krautrock throb and some Jonathan Wilson-style expansiveness, making for a slow-burn intensity that is consistently involving. Pink Floyd circa Meddle also came to mind, especially the famous Pompeii concert - and that was even before I learned the album was also recorded outside, in this case among the rocks near Joshua Tree! You can choose to listen to the individual tracks or the 25-minute “Continuous Mix,” which combines them all seamlessly, but playing all of that at once can feel somewhat redundant. Shepherd remains an exciting talent, however, and I am sure there is more to come from him. 

Scott Gilmore - Subtle Vertigo Gilmore has a full arsenal of goofy retro synths and drum machines, which he uses to cobble together charming ditties that will not only take your cares away, but make you forget you had them in in the first place. This short album would make a perfect double-feature with Morgan Delt’s last album of sunstruck California psych. Relax, float downstream, you know the drill. 

Drinker - Happy Accident When a beloved band breaks up, as Isadora did about a year ago, the only consolation is the promise of new music from one or more of the players. That’s what we have here, as Drinker is the project of Aaron Mendelsohn, Isadora's main man, and Ariel Loh, known for his work with Yoke Lore, who have been getting some buzz this year. Thanks to both Mendelsohn’s sure songwriting and his beautiful high tenor, Drinker is as infused with his wistful and sincere melodicism as his former band. The context, spare electro-pop, couldn’t be more different, but he and Loh develop settings that serve the songs very well. The haunting Which Way Is South?, which should be on the radar of all Hollywood music supervisors, is my favorite track, but my only real complaint is that four songs is not enough! How about putting out that unreleased Isadora album while we await more Drinker?

The fade out of Breton, London’s brilliant electro-dance-pop-post-punk overlords, after their second album, was at least as traumatic as Isadora’s demise. But for those keeping a careful eye, 2017 had more signs of life than any year since they fragmented. Lead singer Roman Rappak was heard in Live Alone by Yuksek, which was introduced with a very cool outer space video and found him in great voice. Not only did Rappak elevate Yuksek’s somewhat rote electronica far above its station, just hearing his voice on a new track was like a homecoming. We also heard from Daniel Alexander, who played bass and other instruments in Breton and released the Unfree EP late in 2017, cementing his emergence as a melancholy electro-acoustic balladeer. Fans of James Blake and King Krule shouldn't miss it, but I think he's better than both of them thanks to his intimate and immediate lyricism and lack of self-consciousness. Who knows what we will see from the ex-Bretons in 2018?

Listen to tracks from all of the above in the playlist below and find even more electronic sounds in 2017 Archive (Electronic). To keep an eye on what's to come in the next 12 months, follow Of Note In 2018: Electronic