Play this mix via Mixcloud
Better late than never, here’s a list of my favorite albums released in 2015, in alphabetical order by artist, because that’s how they appeared in my iTunes playlist. In my usual custom, I’ve also made an end-of-year playlist which you can hear on Mixcloud (click here: All These Strange Devices – Favorite Music Of 2015), and I’ve also included links to the albums on Apple Music for users who want to preview entire albums (Spotify wouldn’t let me create links to albums without joining Spotify, a deficiency I recommend they remedy.)
2015 found me listening to less rock and hip hop and more jazz, electronica and experimental music. Part of that may have come from reading books by Brian Eno, David Byrne and Charles Mingus, and part of it may come from having returned to making music myself after about a decade. I’m also in my 40s now, and the genres I grew up listening to the most – alternative/indie rock and hip hop are themselves middle-aged, and artists in those genres are facing the artistic problems of practicing a genre that has passed from being outsider art to being establishment art.
How those problems get resolved – either by mining the past, as Kendrick Lamar, Steve Earle, Sleater-Kinney and Tame Impala have all done in unique ways, or by pushing the boundaries of genre itself – as Grimes, Iberyi, Shye Ben Tzur, FKA twigs and Kamasi Washington have all done, or by refining an existing sound – as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Decemberists, and Alabama Shakes have all done, every album on this list made my heart beat faster and made me grateful to be a music fan one and a half decades into the 21st century.
Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
Alabama Shakes’s debut album was so great they were in real danger of not being able to live up to their fans’ expectations for their sophomore release. How might a band who drew so heavily on the sonic palettes of early 70s rock acts for their first batch of songs write material that appeals to their audience while at the same time exploring new territory? Sound & Color is a study in how to pull that off – when to stick to what’s tried and true, when to push the boundaries a little. Brittany Howard isn’t willing to rest on her laurels as a writer or a singer – here we find her rasping, yelping, cooing her way to the catharsis her lyrics point toward.
Echolocations: Canyon – Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird lets himself go full Eno on this gorgeous, expansive album of ambient instrumentals.
Mutant – Arca
Don’t let the fact that Arca’s made a name for himself working with Kanye, FKA Twigs and Björk fool you into expecting an album of beats and hooks. Arca takes no aspect of electronic song composition for granted. Time signatures, tempos, even notes themselves are blurry and quantum. Yet Arca’s sense of composition results in something less like Aphex Twin’s mathematically unlistenable chaotic albums and more symphonic in scope and execution. There are few hooks on Mutant but one gets the feeling they’d only ruin it the way all the 90s house remixes of jazz standards flattened the material they intended to honor.
Purple – Baroness
After 2013’s Yellow & Green, Baroness were in a horrific auto accident, resulting in their bassist and drummer leaving the band at the height of their career to date. Three years later, with Trans Am’s drummer and a new bassist whose prior experience was exclusively in jazz, Baroness return with what is their best album to date. Everything that made their songs powerful and unique before is still present: Lyricist and singer John Baizley’s gothic & emotional lyrics and his booming melodic singing that owes as much to The Beatles as it does to early Metallica, the intricate, melodic interplay of both gutiarists, the driving, complex time changes. New drummer Thomson and bassist Jost bring their non-metal experience and aesthetic to the mix for the better. Thomson’s precision and complexity as a drummer for an electronica band give Baroness’s sound a bombast and thightness they lacked, and Jost’s harmoic phrasing and willingness to leave space make him a paerfect foil for Thomson. Purple is grand and truimphant, metal that is less angry than determined, less militant than confident, a beautifully-wrought jewel.
Depression Cherry – Beach House
I’ll confess that as a man in his early 40s, I have a difficult time accessing a lot of the bands who seem to have taken 1980s pop and alternative rock as their inspiration. Most of it makes me want to listen to Tears For Fears or Art Of Noise or Love and Rockets. But Beach House, while obviously admirers of The Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine also feels fresh and engaging – they write good pop songs.
Vulnicura – Björk
Björk is a long way from the club-friendly songs from her 90s catalog. Since “Vespertine” she’s pushed her pop compositions further and further into territory usually covered by avant-grade chamber music. It’s always her beautifully fragile singing, her quirkily poetic lyrics and her impeccable beats that keep her music interesting. On this album, teamed up with Arca, she allows the beats to act as texture more than backbone while she grieves the end of the 15-year relationship whose beginning she celebrated with Vespertine. It’s doubtful anyone will dance to these songs or even remixes thereof, but these brooding, skittery songs will haunt you.
10 Years Solo Live – Brad Mehldau
This is pretty much what’s advertised on the tin: Mehldau’s favourite recordings from his solo concerts over the past 10 years. It’s also evidence of what a masterful and unparalleled pianist Mehldau has become. Jazz has always looked to pop music for its songbook; Mehldau mines songs by Radiohead, Massive Attack, Jeff Buckley, Elvis Costello and Paul Simon as well his own songs and reveals that not only were these artists craftsmen of the finest melodies but also Mehldau one of the planet’s most talented improvisers.
Stretch Music – Christian Scott
Somewhere in the borderlands where smooth jazz and house meet you’ll find DJs like St. German and jazz musicians like Christian Scott, whose Stretch Music is named after his own concept of a broad musical syncretism, which here means merging styles from multiple genres with a result that sounds like “world music” from a culture we’ve never encountered before. Scott, a trumpeter, plays cleanly and crisply, often homophonically with flutist Elena Punderhuges whose precision and sweetness of phrase are almost spiritual. These days musicians play phrases they wrote to mimic hip hop and house samples and here it’s done to a chill, organic effect reminding me of Courtney Pine’s flirtations with hip hop in the mid-1990s. Gorgeous melodies and easy grooves abound.
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World – The Decemberists
After The Decemberists shook off the neo-prog rock mantle they’d wilfully and skilfully worn in the mid-2000s, they returned to making quirky catchy indie rock as masters of their craft. What A Terrible World What A Beautiful World finds them at the height of the powers as musicians and songwriters. Meloy’s lyrics are still Dickensian in tone and Shakespearean in execution but he knows now it’s sometimes more effective to write like Otis Redding than like Yeats. The effect is that one thinks less and less about Meloy as a writer while listening and can get drawn into the songs themselves, each a strange, terrifying, lovely universe. This was one of my most-listened-to rock albums this year, a definite triumph.
Surf – Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Hip-hop is more or less the same age as I am, which makes it middle-aged. More and more of it is simply boring yapping in praise of capitalist excesses. One can care only so much how many cars worth a year of my salary Jay-Z and Kanye own, for example. Hip hop has always made community one of its subject matters but not since the Native Tongues and then the Soulquarians in the 1990s has community been made he grounds of the music itself as it is on Donnie Trumpet’s Surf, which is as much a celebration of community as it is a product of it. The entire album feels like a jam session late Sunday after church, when everyone but the musicians have gone home. I can’t remember a hip hop album this fun and infectious since Kanye’s College Dropout. Trumpet is an effortless bandleader and composer who knows how to arrange songs that showcase his collaborators’ strengths. Sorry Kendrick Lamar, this is my favourite hip hop album this year.
Fast Future – Donny McCaslin
Once a genre of pop music grows as long in the tooth as jazz, practitioners face the danger their chosen medium might become irrelevant, overly academic or simply boring. McCaslin and his quartet, which includes virtuoso drummer Mark Guiliana, have managed to find a space in modern jazz that draws on the best aspects of post-bebop music without sounding like a tribute band or a group playing the classics. McCaslin’s arrangements and melodies remain surprising and delightful, nerdy without being obscure, funky without being precious. Every member of the quartet treads carefully the line between dazzlingly skillful solos and sprezzatura; every note sounds like it ought to be there.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt
2013’s Doris was already claustrophobic and introspective; I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is even more so, and even more minimalist than its predecessor, which may seem like an advertisement against it, but in fact it’s the album’s greatest strength, offering a stark intimacy, as if one is reading Sweatshirt’s published diaries. Most emcees with flow as acrobatic and fluid as Sweatshirt’s would be tempted to release an album of tour-de-force and bombast, but Sweatshirt instead makes his setting a series of downtempo laconic beats and weaves his way in and out of them with ease and grace. The album is about loss – his grandmother’s death, a failed relationship, his rumored falling-out with the Odd Future crew, so much so that one track is titled, simply “Grief.” But the album isn’t a downer; Sweatshirt lets his freestyle-like lyrics wind their way through the darkness and though we never get to see a sunrise, there is still, ultimately, an earned peace.
Lost Worker Bee – Elbow
Elbow have moved from success to success in the first 15 years of the 21st century. Lost Worker Bee is not the collection of outtakes from their previous album as I feared, but rather a tribute to their hometown of Manchester, where they still make their homes and record. It’s far too short, but this EP shows us a band at the height of their abilities yet unwilling to rest on their laurerls. Singer Guy Garvey’s loquacious and poetic lyrics keep getting better and better, and while the band have ultimately settled into a calmer, more piano-driven sound that their first few albums would have indicated, it’s the perfect vehicle for Garvey’s likable, clever instrospections and observations. Everything about Elbow’s songs are carefully constructed, and here the effect is to highlight the pathos and beauty of home, of being at home, of having one to be in.
I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
Much as Bruce Springsteen’s best work has managed to capture and articulate the experience of working-class American Baby Boomers, I Love You Honeybear captures the Millennial middle class. Where Springsteen’s characters brood in dark rooms and lonely backroads, questioning God and fate, Father John Misty’s characters, all loosely based on himself and his wife, exemplify the irony, anomie and skepticism of liberal arts-educated Millennials. The denizens of these songs long for face-to-face conact after too long communicating over “all these strange devices.” They long to marry because dating for years is “bourgeious.” “Bored In The USA,” is the most obvious reference here, but it stands as a withering indictment of post-9/11 capitalism. The vehicle for all fo this are the exqusite melodies, memorable hooks, and lush arrangments, resulting in a document of the age that’s also a beautiful collection of pop songs. I Love You Honeybear is unwavering and gorgeous, sarcastic and nakedly earnest, romantic and ironic all at the same time.
M3LL155X – FKA twigs
M3LL155X, FKA twigs’ third EP, and her first since her debut album, shows she’s not stopped to rest on the acclaim that album garnered. Though the subject matter (relationships) and mood (paranoid and sultry) are pretty much unchanged, twigs’s singing is more powerful and more controlled. Rather than stay in the higher register of range as she has done up til now, she’s now more comfortable singing out of her whole body. Her voice is the spine on which the rest of the music hangs. Like her former collaborater Arca, twigs prefers songs that warp and twist, beats that clatter and skitter more than they drive, and notes that bend almost out of key. The result is a stunning almost-chaos, a soundscape of postmodern lust and longing.
What Went Down – Foals
On the one hand, Foals manage to harness the same drive that propelled their previous album, Holy Fire, but on the other hand not a lot of new territory is being explored here. That’s ok – Foals’ sound is engaging and thunderous, and the songs themselves are solid. The grooving bass, mathematic polyrhythms and atmospheric snyths and guitars all undergird singer Yannis Philippakis’s yearning, gravelly voice and the band feel comfortable in the sound they’ve evolved. This is their first album that doens’t feel like it’s reaching for something just out of grasp which means the songs are all much more consistent in quality, but it also means one worries that they might get too comfortable. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, because Foals are one of the more exciting rock bands of the past 5 years.
Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
The Canadian post-rock band’s majestic and haunting fifth album is essentially a forty-minute peice of music dvided into four movements. This is a band whose recordings have also always paled in comparison to their live performances, where the hugeness of their sound and their 16mm projections create an otherwordly time and space, taking over whatever venue the band is performing in and trnasporting listeners to a universe made of the music alone. That’s difficult to capture on a recording, but GY!BE do a pretty great job; this album demands to be played at a loud volume. GY!BE have always delat in lengthier matieral bordering on the smyphonic, but this feels like the first time the band has committed wholly to exploring the opportunities of longer compositons. The space allows various members to be playful and sweet at monments, tense and paranoid at others, all building to a climax emotionally powerful enough to transcend the recording medium. It’s music that demands your time and attention, something not often allowed by listeners in the 21st century, but as with all of this band’s offerings, it’s absolutely worth it.
Art Angels – Grimes
Grimes is an auteur – she handles everything in the creation of her albums, even the cover art – and with Art Angels, her vision and execution have never been more clear and evenly-matched. Years of touring have given her much more confidence and control over her voice, so that on this album, which sloughs off the dreampop aesthetic for a more aggressive, beat-oriented sound, she sings all over her register instead of in the hyperreal falsetto of her first 3 records. The effect is powerful. It’s not just that she hasd greater range; she also exercises incredible pathos and control. On “California,” a dis track against music website Pitchfork, she juxtaposes the vicious sarcasm of the lyrics with a creamy soprano; on “Kill vs Maim” she veers wildly between falsetto and contralto in the few seconds of the chorus, evoking the frightening pathology of patriarchal masculinity. Lyrically, she’s improved on every front; now that she can assign some of the emotional work to her voice as an instrument, she’s free to simplify her phrasing and diction. That, in combination with the fact that she’s mixed her vocals more the front with far less reverb means that this is the most lyric-forward of her albums. But it isn’t an overly intellectual record: in fact because of the layered beats, gutiar riffs and pop drive, it feels very much like a dance album, in the body more than in the head, albiet a dance album for the literary. Art Angels makes Grimes seem less like the next Rihanna and more like the next David Bowie – an enthralling artist always in the midst of evolution.
Courting the Squall – Guy Garvey
From the opening messy stomp and thump of “Angela’s Eyes” through the cozy plinking of the aldums’ title track, to the buzzy pomp of “Belly Of the Whale,” it’s clear that this is neither a retread of territory covered by Garvey’s band, Elbow nor is it a collection of rejects from Elbow albums; it’s a proper artistic statement by one of the best songwriters in rock music today. recording outside Elbow allows Garvey to make riskier choices and opt for an intimacy that his band’s sound doesn’t allow. For example, Garvey employs a horn section, an old Elbow trope, but he allows them much more room and volume in his songs, to the point that they are the dominant sound on certain tracks. One gets the feeling Elbow would never allow something so unrefined out of the studio but the rough quality of the writing and playing is the album’s biggest asset. Garvey has never been in in finer form as a lyricist or vocalist, and the collaboratoers he’s chosen for this record play as a tight unit, as if they’d been jamming for years. Thematically it feels like a response to Elbow’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, which was chornicled the breakup of Garvey’s with his girlfriend. Courting The Squall is the record of healing and new love, and Garvey’s deft lyrics and expressive voice make it shimmer and ache. The result is one of my favorite albums this year, a definte jewel.
I Could Have Sworn – Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon
In 2012, The Walkmen released what may be their last album for quite some time, and every member except drummer Matt Barrick busied themselves recording solo efforts. The most engaging of those was vocalist Haimlton Leithauser’s solo debut, “Black Hours,” which he wrote with Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon and which felt like a step forward for them as a songwriters as well as being a damn great record. I Could Have Sworn, an EP by Leithauser and Maroon, is a follow-up of sorts containing five songs (from sessions for Dear God, a vinyl-only release I’ve never heard and you probably will never hear either, because vinyl records are a luxury these days) that demonstrate the Leithauser/Maroon team is still writing beautiful material. One hopes this means the duo will continue working together (and that they stop with the vinyl-only nonsense.)
Painted Shut– Hop Along
The second album for this Philadelphia quartet is exactly the sort of album one wants most from indie rock: expertly-crafted pop songs with the rough, layered instrumentation of grunge or garage rock. It’s been a while since I’ve heard an album that evokes the best that bands like Dinosaur, Jr. or Sebadoh offered. Songwriter Fances Quinlan is easily as great a songwriter as J. Mascis or Lou Barlow, and probabyl even better. Rising up out of the fanstastic musicianship and nearly-perfect arrangments is Quinlan’s raspy, velvety voice, an instrument she weilds to great effect in weaving her stories, all of which have a dreamy, magical, confessional quality.
Ibeyi – Ibeyi
Ibeyi is Yoruba for “twins,” a fitting title for both the duo of twin sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz and their debut album, a haunting, equisite, original collection of meditations on family, death and love. Some songs pay tribute to their deceased father, Cuban musician Anga Diaz (of Buena Vista Social Club), some to their deceased sister. With the exception of some drum machine work by Richard Russell, the sisters played and sang everything on the album, and it feels that intimate while at the same time exuding a cosmopolitan transcendence. Music from all across the African diaspora merges here, son cubano, hip hop, R&B, gospel, Yoruba drumming, which is fitting, given the sisters’ heritage and the album’s theme of ancestry, family, death and the need for love. This album stands in the stream of multiple musical traditions and celebrates them all while never allowing itself to be subsumed by any of them. “We walk on rhythm and we think of you,” the twins chant early on in the album, then go on to open up musically and lyrically even more. This a thrilling, refreshing album, spiritual and carnal at the same time, an outstanding debut.
In Colour – Jamie xx
The debut album by Jaime xx, producer and percussionist for The xx, sounds in many ways like an album outside time and space. It is obviously an album that could only exist after the debut of sampling technology, but since sampling is itself a kind of citation – the clipping out of snippts of other works and repurposing them to one’s own needs – and therefore time-shifted already, there’s a way in which certain albums that are constructed of collages of samples function simultaneously as expressions of nostalgia and aspiration. It takes a composer of a certain kind to tread that line in a way that results in great art though. DJ Shadow, Beck, J Dilla, early Kanye West, RZA have all managed that, and Jaime xx stands in that tradition. In Colour is at once intimate and anthemic, idiosyncratic and graceful. Jaime xx has a penchant for layering loops to build a song to an emotional climax only to peel away those layers and pare back down to quiet moments that are equally intense resulting in what would be the soundtrack for time-travel or just the best thing to listen to while washing the dishes.
Divers – Joanna Newsom
There’s always so much hype around Joanna Newsom releases that I find myself turned off before I even listen, and then disappointed when I finally do, so it sometimes takes me months to even appreciate the music on its own terms. When I do, I’m usually in for a treat – her music so unlike anything else in the indie rock universe, or anything else period, that it’s always refreshing. If there’s anything that’s been a weight around her, artistically, it’s been that she’s seemed unable to balance her avant-garde sensibilities with songcraft; her music has always beem beautiful but not as often memorable. With Divers she has found that balance. The songs, warm and elegant, ring with all the medeival decoration of her past work while managing to resolve into catchy pop tunes that one finds oneself humming on the way to the commute to work. At the same time, paradoxically, the arrangments are more complex, nuanced and ambitous than anything Newsom has ever written, almost as if she needed the stricture of 5 minute pop songs to draw out her creativity. Divers is mostly about loss and death, and Newsom approaches the fear and pain with surrealism, obliqueness and lyricism resulting in an intensely personal, almost private album about a universal experience.
The Bad Plus Joshua Redman – Joshua Redman & The Bad Plus
At the point in both the careers of saxophonist Joshua Redman and jazz trio The Bad Plus where each artist was at risk of reinventing their own wheels, this collaboration offers, for each, a welcome curveball. Redman’s strengths – his heart, phrasing, and lyricism – combine effortlessly with the backbone of The Bad Plus’s backbeat-oriented grooving. Where The Bad Plus are often tempted toward complexity, Redman’s deftness as a player and experience as a bandleader keep them from spiraling too far into their own dream. And where Redman is often tempted to visit the same improvisational topics, The Bad Plus draw him out into new sonic territority with the demands of their rock-inspired rhythms and pianist Ethan Iverson’s enthusiastic nerdish noodling. The album is thrilling, heroic and risky, especially when the quartet reworks TBP classics like “Dirty Blonde,” where Redman eschews his tradmark lengthy sweeps for short stabs and playful rapid comments. Once the quartet lock together in an exploration of certain rhythms (see “Freind Or Foe”), they move to a place neither act has been able to acheive alone. The result is breathtaking.
The Epic – Kamasi Washington
If you title your debut album The Epic and it includes 3 hours of music, itself with song titles like “Change Of The Guard” and “The Message” then you have to deliver. And deliver is exactly what Washington does, for pretty much the entire 3 hours. The Epic owes a lot to Coltrane and Miles, to Marvin Gaye and hip hop, and it’s not shy about that at all. Washington employs sweeping strings and choirs that sound like those on Gaye’s What’s Going On, and his compositions, ten mintues in length on average, are each steeped in the history of jazz, funk and soul so much so that one might be worried the music may collapse under its own weight. But it never does. Washington has studied John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and their influnce can be heard all over the album but Washington’s playing is its own unique thing; he’s a disciple of jazz masters but he’s also a master in his own right. The Epic isn’t the genre-smashing groundbreaking work some have presented it as but it doesn’t need it be; it is an outstanding debut and one of the best jazz records to be recorded in the past decade.
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s second album ends with the infectious, dancable “i” whose hook is “I love myself.” Out of context it seems like light fare for Lamar, especially in light of his first album, good kid, mA.A.d city but as effectively the closing thought for “To Pimp A Buterfly” it’s a triumphant stance against the violence of white supremacy, and the rapaciousness of the capitalist music industry. Leading up to that Lamar offers up a series of stories about tiny victories in the face of systemic injustice and lack of opportunity. Like most artists, Lamar doesn’t present a coherent philsophical or political philosophy, which is something that seems to be expected from rappers in a way it’s not for other pop musicians. Lamar instead has a spirit more akin to Whitman – his albums are morally complex, containing multitudes, and he’s as likely to address and criticise himself as he is to address his listeners or the characters that populate his songs. Thus, the companion peice to “i” is “u” where he repeats, about himself, “loving you is complicated,” and then paints a vivid portrait of the way fame can collapse and distort family ties and loyalities. Effectively he tells himself he’s complicated to love, and then celebrates that he loves himself anyway. Does he contradict himself? Very well then. Musically, the album is a masterpeice, merging hip hop, jazz and 70s soul in a way reminiscent of albums by the early 2000s Souilquairian collective (Common’s Electric Circus, The Roots’ Phrenology, to name a couple.) Lamar’s rapping is in top form here; his flow is unpredictable and lithe. At certain moments (“For Free?”) Lamar’s rapping draws heavily on jazz scatting, to the point he’s moving melodically along the scale as well as lyrically though the beat. Lamar employs about half of jazz saxophnist Kamasi Washington’s band, including Washington himself and bassist Thundercat, along with keyboardist Robert Glasper. The collaboration is magnificent, volatile, generous and funky.
Wildheart – Miguel
Like Prince and Lenny Kravtiz before him, Miguel has pushed against the boundaries of what R&B is for his entire career, both musicially and thematically. Though most of Wildheart sticks to the tried and true R&B trope of sexuality, Miguel eschews the genre’s often narrow construction of masculinity with its focus on sexual performance and conquest for heartfelt celebrations of partnership and mutual enjoyment. And though Wildheart draws heavily from the books of Prince, Kravtiz (who guests on a couple of tracks) and James Brown, it bucks against the expectatons of genre, favoring Migel’s buzzy, distorted guitar playing and muted beats that evoke The Pixies more than Al Green. At times, the only element of a song that seems like it came from the same universe as rhythm and blues is Miguel’s velvety, soulful singing and the yearning, which is evident on every track. Like Al Green, Miguel’s yearning for love and sex is a spiritual yearning. Wildheart is his gritty hymnal.
Strangers To Ourselves – Modest Mouse
Nine years after the release of their last album, Modest Mouse return with Strangers To Ourselves. Isaac Brock knows how to write a modern rock hit now, and there are a few of those on the album, fun and filled with his witty, self-deprecating lyrics and his carnival barker vocals. Brock finally has a great deal of control of his voice and can sing in a convential way, and though it’s gorgeous and evocative at points, it’s also a bit of a shame, because with competence Brock is less motivated to innovate, which is what made him such an original vocalist to begin with. The same is true of Brock as a guitarist; the more of a master of pop songwriting he becomes the less weird and surprising his arrangments are. So Strangers To Ourselves is good and enjoyable, clean and tight as “We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank,” but if you’re fan of Brock’s raspy chanting and off-key warbling or the scratchy modem cooing of his 90s guitar playing, you’ll find yourself missing something while listening. What replaces those is worth it in places; the title track is a quiet and gorgeous and spooky; “Coyotes” is exquisite and tender; “Sugar Boats” is delighfully raucous with a splashy blurting horn section. Even if it isn’t the triumhant comeback fans were hoping for, it’s still a good record with a few surprises and plenty of what made Modest Mouse such a great band.
The Waterfall – My Morning Jacket
Ten years ago My Morning Jacket released Z, an echoey, thundering yawp of an album, one of the most unabashedly joyous and big-sounding rock albums since the 1980s. That brought them new attention and secured the band a spot in the limelight. They followed with two albums that were riskier, less echoey and more expeirmental (great albums, though). With The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket merge their experimentations with their giant sound and singalong choruses. One of those lessons is that Jim James’s voice deserves to be in the front of the mix, which foregrounds not just his honeyed voice but also his lyrics, which showcase his personal Buddhist-leaning spirituality for most of the album. This is one of the best albums in the band’s catalog thus far.
Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper – Panda Bear
It’s been a good three years since Noah Lennox released any music either with his band Animal Collective or under his solo stage persona Panda Bear. After a decade of one or two albums released every year, three years is a long silence. Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is easily the least amorphous and experimental of Lennox’s work, as well as feeling a little darker in tone. Lennox’s trademark eclecticism, off-kilter sampling, and odd song structures are still present, but where, in the past, his songs would spiral all over the place with only the slimmest thread of structure, these are more coherent, relying on regular loops and more clockwork tempos. What’s more abstract is his lyrics, which read in places like dadaist cut-ups or L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. poetry. This serves to put the focus on Lennox’s soulful singing, which is the best vocal work of his career, and is what tultimately carries the album and makes really lovely and haunting.
Magnifique – Ratatat
Nothing else sounds like Ratatat. Five albums in, one gets the sense that they’ve more or less mined this aesthetic vein, but thankfully it’s still an interesting one. Magnifique may never be more than funky, chill background music, but everybody needs a little of that. To wit: their best work was the backing tracks for the pair of remix “albums” the duo released that reimagined popular hip hip songs. Magnifique listens like a record of beats by a popular DJ – the music is great and perfect for when you want something slightly rough and edgy to play while you’re curled up with a good book.
Junun – Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express
Too often when rock or pop musicians collaborate with practitioners of other traditions, the result feels too much like tourism, appropriation, or the same old pop music with exoticised decoration. Thankfully, Junun isn’t that; even though it’s got Jonny Greenwood’s name attached to it, and even though it was produced by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the pair seem genuinely interested in and respectful of the Qawwali music on which the album is mostly based. The album is a genunine collaboration between all of its members – Greenwood and Godrich take a backseat to Israeli composer Ben Tzur and Indian ensemble The Rajasthan Express, content to provide beats and sonic landscapes that undergird Ben Tzur’s acheingly lovely singing and The Rajasthan Express’s precise, virtuoso musicianship. It’s easy to forget Greenwood is even in the mix at points, so seamless is the union. Ben Tzur composed both the songs and the multilingual lyrics, which are heavily influenced by the Sufi themes of the Qawwali traidition and written in Hebrew, Urdu and Hindi but rather than evoking a gauzy liberal cosmopolitianism, the songs feel incredibly specific and complex. Junun is layered and gorgeous and original. Nothing is belabored or academic; this sounds like a bunch of musicians who respect each other and enjoy playing together in a room doing just that, which is what gives Junun its shine.
No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney
Sometimes when bands reunite, one wonders why they bothered. Not so with Sleater-Kiney, who don’t just pick up where they left off after The Woods ten years ago. Where The Woods featured the big-sound production fo David Fridman, No Cities To Love sounds like the edgiest political New Wave music both thematically, with its highly personal political lyrics and its minor-key rock chord progressions. Pair that with Sleater-Kinney’s impeccable sense of melody, hook and punk aggression, and No Cities To Love isn’t just a good comeback album; it’s a great album, a fitting addition to their nearly-spotless canon.
Terraplane – Steve Earle & The Dukes
This could be called “Steve Earle Plays The Blues,” which, of course, had the potential to be a disaster, but it turns out to be one of Earle’s most refreshing, fun albums in the past decade. Earle has spent most of the 21st century writing protest music – Americana with political leanings, which is no surpise given that his idols are Guthrie, Cash and Springsteen. Terraplane works becase Earle allows for the fun and humor that often get ignored by toursits of the genre to take main stage. This is, more than anything, an album about sex. Earle celebrates in multiple songs, and give it more room than the expected “made a deal with the Devil” and “my woman done left me” themes popular culture associates with the blues. His backing band, The Dukes, live easily in the genre, so Terraplane sounds like it was recorded in a night at a great house party jam session.
Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
This is Stevens’ first album of proper pop music since 2005’s Come On Feel the Illinoise. Written after the death of his mother, an addict with whom Stevens had a troubled realtionship, the album is the least lush of his career since “Seven Swans.” The songs have all the tenderness and lyricism of Illinoise‘s “Casimir Pulaski Day.” As with that song, Stevens writes with a big compassion. While never shyign away from the suffering laced throughout his relationship with his mother, Stevens never so much as criticises her, otping instead to try to use the songwriting as a vehicle for understanding her, and for paying gratitude to his stepfather. Stevens, who was raised evangelical Christian, wrestles, as he often does, with the heavy legacy of that upbringing, but here the Biblical allsuions are at a minimum, as is the magic realism. Instead we find naked storytelling and confession. Near the end of the album he sings “fuck me, I’m falling apart” in a trembling voice and this minimalist honesty is far more powerful than the highly orchestrated work of his earlier career.
Currents – Tame Impala
There was a long period of time where synthesizers were passe or even verboten for rock bands, a sort of backlash against the aesthetic of the 1980s. Thankfully, it’s cool to use synths again, and given that an entire generation has gorwn up since the 80s, we’re now seeing musicians reference that sound with the same reverence and innovation as Daft Punk or Kings Of Leon referenced the 1970s. Tame Impala, Kevin Parker’s studio and stage persona, is 3 albums in and Parker has taded the psychadelic rock of his first two recordings for the early 80s Brit pop sound with deligthful results. Parker’s a great writer of pop hooks, and his thin, Lennon-esque voice remains a shimmering constant thread in the midst of all the reverb and modulation as he muses about love and anxiety. Inescapably catchy and bright, Currents redeems synthpop and revitalizes it for a whole new generation.
Dark Bird Is Home – The Tallest Man On Earth
Like pre-electric Bob Dylan, who remains his strongest influence, Kristian Mattson has mastered the troubador with guitar aesthetic. While his voice is as weird as Dylan’s it’s far more beautiful, and Mattson’s songs are ultimately more jouyful. On this, his fourth album, Mattson opts to pull a Dylan and record with a full band, strings and a choir of backup singers. The songs ring and the melodies soar. The things that have always made The Tallest Man On Earth great remain, and the lush arrangements never overstep or ruin the chemistry. It’s perhaps not the daring mid-career shift one might hope for, but it’s beautiful and a welcome step in Mattson’s evolution.
Summertime ’06 – Vince Staples
To put things in perspective, Vince Staples was born five years after N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton was released. Summertime ’06, in which Staples acts as a documentarian of coming of age in the gang culture of Long Beach’s north side, is hip hop vérité in that same way. Staples’s laconic in-the-pocket flow and often matter-of-fact imagist lyrics are undergirded by No I.D.’s best production work of his entire career. The beats are sparse, often so much so that Staples is rapping over nothing but drums but this forces us to zero in on his voice. Despite the minimalism, “Summertime ’06” is funky in a spooky, ominous way. Lyrically, Staples’s bluntness allows him to eschew cleverness and poetry for chilling staements of fact, as with “Norf Norf” whose hook is “I ain’t never run from nothin but the police.” You’re not going to listen to Summertime ’06 for fun or to dance; this is art as mimesis, a reflection of part of the world back on itself. What we see in the mirror isn’t pretty, but Saples makes certain the image there is compelling enough that we won’t want to look away.
Star Wars – Wilco
In the past decade Wilco have become very good at making Wilco albums, which, depending on what you want from the band can be a good thing or a bad thing. After the revolving doors of band mebership in the 90s, where in the space of 8 years the band went through six guitarists, three keyboardists and two drummers by 2004 they’d settled on the sextet that has remained solid for over a decade now. Somewhere in the process they abandoned the experimental alt-country that brought them to fame in favor of more straightforward rock focused on Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting. The band’s previous album, The Whole Love was a competent addition to their catalog, but nothing surprising or urgent. Star Wars, which the band gave away for free, seems to have been written and recorded in a hurry, for fun, a welcome change to the ponderous studio craftsmanship of The Whole Love. Here they allow themselves short songs and slightly messy production, which ultimately means Star Wars is the best Wilco record since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born.
Back in 2012, while David Bowie was secretly recording The Next Day, his comeback album after a decade of silence, I wrote a series of poems exploring the relationship between myself, music, musicians I admire, and the music inherent in the poems I write. Most of these poems were written in blank verse, or a loosened version thereof (like “Advice To A Young Writer,” about Bob Dylan, or “The Blank Yorke,” about Thom Yorke). It was during this time that I wrote “The Blank Bowie,” but I felt uneasy about it, because it felt like I was writing about Bowie as if he were gone already. He was, in a way, gone, since it had been nine years since he last released new music, but of course he surprised everyone by releasing a flurry of new work in the three years before his death.
My unease meant that I rarely sent it out to journals as a candidate for publication. I reread the poem again this morning after learning about his passing, and the poem seemed more fitting. Back in 2012, I thought I had written an elegy, in the sense of the term as used by Coleridge – a serious meditation on a subject as it relates to the writer, but it was, instead, or perhaps also, a eulogy. I sent it to a few friends who I knew were Bowie fans and they thought more people should read it. The good folks over at The New Verse News agreed, and published it today to honor one of rock and roll’s greatest innovators, songwriters and performers. Rest in peace, David Bowie. The stars look very different today.
In September of 2015, I deleted my personal Facebook account. I had disabled it before, once for over a year, which, not coincidentally, was one of the most productive, fun years of my adult life. I contemplated disabling it this time, and coming back when I felt I needed to, perhaps to connect with an old friend or track down a family member, but instead I decided to delete it altogether, for the simple reason that I had come to believe I was happier and healthier without it, and its supposed benefits – staying in touch with people from my past, interacting with various communities of which I was sometimes an active participant, following musicians, writers and artists whose work I enjoy, and providing content for the few people who follow me – none of these outweighed its detriments, which ultimately undermined the benefits in some way or another.
The detriments are many, and varied: I was spending time I once spent on reading and writing on Facebook. I sometimes ended up in pointless debates with people I barely knew, about topics about which I held only a fleeting knowledge. I was being marketed to in an increasingly creepy and invasive manner. And some things were even more disturbing: in April of 2015, I had to log out of Facebook for several days because people, most of whom were concerned activists, were constantly posting video of Walter Scott being shot by a police officer. The video had “gone viral” the same way a clever commercial or an amateur’s dance video that ends in a pratfall might, which is to say that one of the great horrors and shames of twenty-first century American culture was being presented to me like any other content Facebook relied on to keep people hooked.
About a week before I pulled the plug, I was interacting with an acquaintance and colleague in poetry, who posted a comment praising a mutual friend. I wanted to add to the praise and join the celebration of our friend, so I included my own jokey salutatory comment, but it backfired, and my colleague took umbrage. I apologised, but spent the rest of the day wrestling with an unease that had come to feel all-too familiar in recent years – call it social media anxiety. Why hadn’t my colleague given me the benefit of the doubt in that exchange?
But that’s common on Facebook. It’s always been more likely on the internet; humans evolved to converse with our entire bodies, not just our minds. The exchange between my colleague and myself, for instance, would have come packaged with a collection of other behaviors scientists group under the term nonverbal communication. This isn’t just the visual cues we call “body language” though it includes those. It also includes cues like usage of eye contact (do I glance away? Do my eyes dart around?), the usage of time (do I pause between words?), subtleties in tone of voice, touch, physical distance between the conversing parties, and the environment itself (is this conversation happening in private? In public? In a library? Waiting for the subway?)
None of those factors are available to us in text-only communication. I’m thinking of the Key & Peele sketch in which two friends miscommunicate over a series of text messages to the point that one believes they’re having an argument while the other believes they’re making plans to meet for a drink. This sort of misunderstanding happens all the time, between people who love each other.
But Facebook is not, for most of us, a site where we are interacting with people we love and trust. The term the software gives the collection of accounts to which an account is linked is “friends” and we have new verbs for connecting and disconnecting to such accounts (“friend,” “unfriend”) but these connections bear little resemblance to friendships. Here, for example, is C.S. Lewis describing friendship in his book The Four Loves:
each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together; each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walk have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze and our drinks are at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?
What we have on Facebook is not friendship. According to Facebook, my father, my nephew, my ex-girlfriends, my estranged uncle, and more than one deceased person were my “friends.” I love my father and nephew; I wish nothing but the best for my exes; I hope my uncle is doing well; I miss those who have died, but none of those people are my friends in the Lewisian sense – the knowers of my secret heart, the kindred souls who call forth my best self merely by their presence – though I’m aware that for other people any of the above could be.
This flattening, this equivocation obscures the fact that Facebook connections are a new kind of relationship, in the same way that having a classmate was once a new kind of connection and having a business colleague or an elected representative or a king or a priest was once a new kind of connection, and we don’t have a decent name for what that connection is, because the terminology was invented by marketers whose goal is get you to use Facebook more and do other things, like spend actual time with your actual friends, less.
So the question for me became – did I even want this kind of connection? Not every kind of connection that exists is desirable or healthy. I don’t want to have a priest, though some people find great comfort in being connected to one. I don’t want to have a pimp either, or a drug-dealer or a chauffeur or a mistress. Did I want Facebook “friends?” When I considered it I thought about the fact that I often came away from Facebook feeling more lonesome and alienated, which, it turns out is a fairly common phenomenon. I also thought about how for even those people with whom I had real-life connections, my interactions with them on Facebook were less like my interactions with them in real life, and more like my reactions with anyone else on Facebook.
The linguist Mikhail Bakhtin theorized that genres exist not only in literature but in all communication, and if so, then it stands to reason that Facebook communication is its own genre with its own specific linguistic requirements and expected norms and behaviors. This might be interesting, and even fun, if that genre had been allowed to evolve on its own, the way early internet communities did, but Facebook the corporation exercises a lot of control over what communicating on Facebook means to the point that they’ve admitted conducting social experiments on their users. Facebook was transforming my real-life relationships into Facebook friendships, and I didn’t like that.
And I didn’t like who I was becoming on Facebook either. Facebook me was more judgmental, more dismissive of other people’s stories, more worried about how he looked in photographs, more suspicious, less flexible. I blocked a lot of people. I fact-checked a lot of people, a thing no one does in real life. I took things way too seriously, and I took offense way too quickly. The thing that bothered me most about the interaction with my poetry colleague was that, had our positions in the conversation been reversed, I’d have reacted exactly as they had. I was being shaped by Facebook for Facebook’s purposes, none of which had my health or well-being in mind.
The Facebookification of relationships is a kind of flattening, a commodification. Imagine each of our profiles is a little plot of land Facebook is cultivating so it can harvest its profits. What Facebook needs to make its money – that we be in a mood to click on advertisements, that we be willing to discuss our most intimate doings, that we be “friends” with as many people as possible so as to have a greater “reach,” none of these things is healthy for us as human beings.
The Facebookification ends up leaving the internet and coming home with us, if we let it. The same week of my negative interaction with my colleague, my fiancee admitted to feelings of jealousy regarding some comments a few acquaintances of the opposite gender (I’m straight) had left on my wall on my birthday – comments that could or could not have been flirty, but all comments that never would have been uttered in person. I try to imagine Person A calling me a “handsome devil” in real life, in the semi-professional setting we have in common, and I can’t.
By the time I deleted my Facebook I had over 1000 “friends.” My fiancee wanted to know why I was friends with this flirty woman – what did I want? Was I seeking flattery? Was I dissatisfied with our relationship and so keeping connections with women who’d compliment me? I was irritable about it – I had no idea Person A was going to wish me on my birthday that way, and anyway, to me she’s not a friend, not in the C.S. Lewis sense – she’s a sort-of colleague, a person I see in real life maybe six times a year.
In fact, had we not been “friends” on Facebook, she very likely wouldn’t have wished me on my birthday at all. And I’d have been ok with that. In fact, managing birthday greetings from over a thousand people was quite a chore. I know it sounds like I’m complaining, and trust me, I’m not, I feel grateful there are 1000 human souls who think of me kindly-enough to wish me well on my birthday. What I’m getting at though is that it might not be possible for the human mind and heart, evolved to process and understand intimate relationships with maybe 100 people at most, to successfully comprehend or appreciate connections with thousands.
What I did on my birthday was open a browser to my wall and click the “like” button without reading the content of the posts, or even who the well-wishes were from. Then I went back, scanned for names important to me and wrote personal replies to those.
What my fiancee saw was that a woman flirted with me and I liked it. I had made myself a like machine for Facebook and that machine had hurt my fiancee and communicated something so very far from how I actually felt about her.
So I pressed the delete button. I didn’t export my profile or try to save the comments and likes and photos. I just deleted it. I don’t know what makes Facebook society so toxic, be it the Facebookification of all relationships into “friends” or the fact that our brains aren’t equipped to handle communication without nonverbals, or our hearts don’t have room for more than a hundred or so people, I’ve deleted before and I’m not afraid to do it again. The internet is much, much larger than Facebook, and one day, perhaps not too far from now, people will think of Facebook the way we now think of AOL or MySpace, a thing we did way back when, an outfit now out of fashion.