Ten albums: Modern trends in crayon-blending
1. Grenier Meets Archie Pelago
Sax, cello, electronics, a song called “Pliny the Elder” that i’m 60% sure is about the beer: it’s what they used to call downtempo except not terrible (says the guy who still owns a Groove Armada t-shirt). Lapsed dubstepper Grenier and no-band-is-an-island Archie Pelago hint at precursors both high (Reich on “Octavia”) and sub-basement (Deep Forest on “Hyperion”), but it’s all liquefied into a bicoastal blend with just enough acidity. More claret? Give me the whole damn jug.
2. Jenny Scheinman: The Littlest Prisoner
2014-to-date’s best-written and best-performed country album is by a jazz violinist — it’s been that kind of year. Perhaps it takes someone who can’t differentiate between rednecks and hippies to fuse those genre staples the prison song and the pregnancy song, but it shouldn’t take a jazzbo to recall that not every tune has to build to an F-150 driving through a ring of fire — that a chorus can also colour or clarify. Then again, it shouldn’t take an Americana turn for a jazzbo to sing well — you’d better trust in the languid lines to resolve if you wrote them. Bill Frisell and Brian Blade offer well-weighed support, but Scheinman gets the instrumental showcases, as she deserves.
3. Paramore (2013)
On release I thought it too plastic, but the radio hits broke me, though most could be improved with a tweak or two. “Still into You” understands how to use dynamics in an over-compressed world, though it resolves too easily, as if a thoughtful anniversary present meant you were good for another year. “Daydreaming” timeshifts Blondie, though Hayley’s new backing band makes Clem and Nigel (I think it was Nigel) seem like household names. “Ain’t It Fun” makes you wait for the exhortation to not be a mama’s boy but delivers in multiple chordal contexts. “Crazy Girls” could use a better string arrangement. Not sure they needed to close with an eight-minute Joy Formidable track but other than that there’s only one too many wannabe Old Navy ads on the back half. Perfect: “Anklebiters.”
4. Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 (2013)
The reasonably accurate conventional wisdom is that Shostakovich was a Stravinsky disciple until Pravda called him out for making formalist jazz and he made a hard turn to Mahler. This earned him the lasting enmity of those consarned modernists, but Virgil Thomson didn’t have a firing squad. The Fourth Symphony, written in 1936 but premiered only after Stalingrad got a less awkward name, is a key transitional work, with a great big orchestra playing great big dirges with the odd jig tossed in for light relief. If this sounds oppressive, this version, conducted by accidental sexist Vasily Petrenko, emphasizes the rhythmic elements, creating an impression of scale without bloat. By unifying the Stravinsky and Mahler approaches it makes something new, and that’s finally enough to sell Shostakovich to a consarned postmodernist like myself.
5. Miranda Lambert: Platinum
Nothing’s bad — I’m a little underwhelmed by the singles for not being Kerosene/Gunpowder & Lead/White Liar, not for any stinkiness. But the whole enterprise sounds a little too… shrill? Compressed? Avril? (Though i’m glad she addresses her famehound’s-wife song to Mrs Presley rather than Mrs Kroeger.) Still, it’s hard to argue for a shorter album when nobody seems to agrees which tracks are the weak ones. I like “Bathroom Sink,” though i might just be glad to hear a country song instead of a meta-commentary on the radio prevalence of bros/trucks, and “Hard Staying Sober” is the album’s best attempt at a Clark/McAnnally way-we-get-by song (better than the actual Clark and McAnnally co-writes). Could do without “Girls” but even that’s not bad, just a limp choice for an opener.
6. Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith
The “Smith” is the late Jimmy; the “2nd Line” means there’s a sousaphonic New Orleans dance mojo backing Handy's tenor and Kyle Koehler's Hammond. Handy grooves hard and with authority. Dee Dee Bridgewater and a couple of Marsalises show up and perform efficiently. Easy fun for jazz dabblers and discographers alike.
7. Royksopp & Robyn: Do It Again
It’d be going too far to call Royksopp the weak link, given that all the rhythm tracks move and fascinate, though not for ten minutes. Still, the goodness here is proportional to the amount of Robyn, inasmuch as her lyrics prevent sax solos. And at her least personal, she outsings her virtual duet partner. Take that, Turing!
8. Vic Mensa: Innanetape (2013)
For everyone quietly muttering that none of 2014’s breaking rappers are in Chance’s league (quietly muttering over DJ Mustard beats is all you need for 9/10 from Spin), here’s an internet-not-inane tape I missed last fall from his boy (and uh Jeff Tweedy protege, but that’s not important right now) Vic Mensa. Same Chance flow, same Chance thoughtfulness, he only lacks the warmth that every blog’s favourite lowercase black hippie radiates. His co-productions are some of the tape’s best beats, especially the drum-and-bass-lite “Lovely Day,” giving him maybe a 3% chance of going Kanye. It’s not like anyone else has better odds, so hope someone is trying to break his heart.
9. Made to Break: Cherchez La Femme
Ken Vandermark saxes-and-loops project, with three long tracks, each dedicated to two women artists (Sleater-Kinney yay! Betty Davis, okay i guess.) I unequivocally like the Davis/SK one, where Vandermark and knob-twiddler Christof Kurzmann shadowbox before funking up, and the abstract expressionist one, which starts as jazz trio before Kurzmann goes subterranean, with Vandermark providing intermittent lighting. Last one buzzes and clatters and does get good for a bit.
10. John Fullbright: Songs
“John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces…” oh wait, why am O reading American Songwriter, let’s start again. “The most interestingly uneven album I’ve heard in a while,” says Ken Tucker; well, it’s the most uneven interesting album I’ve heard this month. He deserves props for using his sands-through-the-hourglass voice to sing his Oklahoma koans, instead of following the alt-everything trend of blowing off the lyrics. The songs fascinate less for being koans (one’s called “Keeping Hope Alive” ffs) than for being reflexive (one’s called “Write a Song” ffs) — he’s laid down the hours and left lots of traces, how metamodern! Now someone pay his band enough to back him for a whole album. Tracks recommended to those who like this kind of thing: 1, 7, 2, 6, 12; since he is not Jimmie Dale Gilmore, avoid the gooey seven-minute one about a tractor accident.
The selection might be a bit obvious if you’ve been tracking the Mali music renaissance of recent years, but for those of us who realistically weren’t going to get back to that Fatoumata Diawara album anytime soon, it’s hit after hit by specialists in all styles. Highlights include ngoni patriarch Bassekou Kouyate, desert-drone knuckleballers Terakaft, monarch in all her majesty Oumou Sangare, and shit-why-not-a-xylophone Neba Solo. Not much old school (could use some Rail Band) but a generous slice of mostly the present.
The same old subjects — fidelity, mortality, free will, California — only by a Scot who’s a better songwriter than the best coast has produced in years. The masterpiece is “Horseshoe,” which makes the international object of the title seem as mysterious as the Fates’ scissors, but all the melodies unfurl and the arrangements help them flutter about. And like all the smart singer-songwriters, he’s turned his creaky voice into an asset.
3. Starlito: Funerals and Court Dates (2012)
Starlito’s second verse on the closing “Money Cacti” is one of the finest examples of the recently fertile introspective thug persona. He ruminates over his rise-in-progress from Challenger to Corvette, which still isn’t enough to pay for college. Elsewhere he says all introspective thugs have to look forward to are the social occasions of the title, which might make them not too different from the theme-sampled Golden Girls.
4. Ariana Grande: Yours Truly (2013)
When Mariah sampled “Genius of Love,” she omitted “What do you consider fun?” — when you’re in Mottola jail, you don’t need an answer until you escape. Grande came up through Nickelodeon, which seems the least traumatic environment for child stars (Disney is dystopia), making the understandable early-Mariah comparison that kept me away from the album misleading. She realizes that making a debut album with a truckload of major label money to beef up your somewhat thin four octaves and to usurp Mika’s duet partner out of his best song in years is as good as hard work gets. Maybe not natural fun, but fun.
5. Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
Her first comeback since two years ago, Blank Project isn’t as likely to leave you bleeding to death from paper cuts as was The Cherry Thing. On the title track, synth scientists RocketNumberNine get jagged while Cherry describes her marriage, and it ends up a pile of tangled limbs and asses. On the moodier, rumbling “Weightless,” Cherry makes her idiosyncratic melodic lines sound natural. She’s a better singer than she was as an ingenue (key guest Robyn knows all about that).
6. Tamar Braxton: Love and War (2013)
Critics are right to bemoan the whiteness of today’s top 40, but with the exception of Al Shipley, whom I guess I like now, fail to champion the Braxton who would cross over in a country that wasn’t resegregating. Of the three singles rotating on urban radio (according to the charts; my nearest R&B station is too busy repeating “Dark Horse”), “Love and War” (hardly lungbusting at all by reality-show veteran standards) and “All the Way Home” (if “home” is such a great line-ender that Drake can make it signify, imaging what a real singer can do) are classics and “The One” is pretty good. Fizzles after track 10, but remembering Toni skipped one Love, Marriage & Divorce track, ten good ones is as many as anyone in the family has managed on one album.
7. Traxx: The House That Garage Built (2013)
Garage is back! So say the short-lived cheers of singers without the lungs to sustain an entire song, though for all I know it’s gone away again in the year since this compilation was released. If the choices trend bourgie, they hearken back to a time when the middle class was shameless about its pleasures. Guess it’s time to elect a Clinton again.
8. Amel Larrieux: Ice Cream Everyday (2013)
You know, from Groove Theory? “Tell Me”? Never a dynamo, five solo albums down the road she’s more versatile, harmonizing her still flexible, girlish upper register with her experienced, warm midrange. “A Million Sapphires” shows she’s for quantity, and while sixty-eight minutes is too generous, she’s still, as we old people say, the shhh.
9. Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans
A good album, though more “this sounds a bit more muscular than Go-Go Boots” than “the songs are nearly as vivid as on Decoration Day or Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.” Atwater-referencing title aside, I remember the jangles better than the dour words, a good indication it’s Cooley’s album rather than Patterson Hood’s, and a clear limitation.
10. Tye Tribbett: Greater Than (2013)
When weaksauce Katy Perry choruses get the genius treatment in Slate, I’m prepared to turn to non-secular music for craftsmanship. Look, any fake doctor can follow a punishingly dull section, with a slightly less forgettable moment and make it feel like an ascension (Lars von Trier got away with it for years). Tribbett knows how to keep the pot simmering before boiling over into heavenly froth. If he relies heavily on a gospel choir, well, it is gospel music (the Vengaboys lift is more difficult to explain). Better lyrics than “Teenage Dream,” too.
Laura Cantrell: “All the Girls Are Complicated”
Meek Mill: “Lil N*gga Snupe”
Mlimani Park: “Mtoto Akililia Wembe”
Dierks Bentley: “I Hold On”
Juanes: “La Luz”
2NE1: “Come Back Home”
Tune-Yards: “Water Fountain”
Tessela: “Hackney Parrot”
Lil Durk: “Dis Ain’t What U Want”
1. Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (2013)
Wasn’t excited enough about Chapter One that when this second volume (of twelve) was pitched at a crossover press ill-equipped to judge the quality of the playing, I put it well down my to-do list. My bad. This one is broken up into short sections of outstanding clarity, with plenty of musicology lessons if you want to explore the references. It’s a less expressionist vision with a more concrete tussle with racism ("Was the Sacred Day" quotes her grandmother’s diary on segregation-era brutality), and she and her sextet do their darnedest to realise it — even the opera guy valiantly, if unsuccessfully, tries to understate.
Richard Gehr’s eMusic review says to start with disc two, good advice for Win Butler but not for anyone who’s spent years swallowing anti-horn tutti propaganda. The first disc is more akin to Afropop — sax breaks aside, the mini-jazz cuts make Haiti sound like the guitar paradise of west Hispaniola. The second disc polishes syncopations invented and borrowed into accomplished bourgie pop that might inspire tutti-haters to take a few dance lessons. And yeah, “Jive Turkey” is the best “Hotel California” reanimation Don Henley never shut down.
3. Live from Festival au Desert Timbuktu (2013)
Pros old and new issue a state of the musical nation (much better than the state of the political nation). Must say that for starpower and commitment to entertainment I like the women, led by Khaira Arby (who leaves you in doubt she’s for “La Liberte”), Kiran Ahluwalia, and Leila Gobi, more than the men on this one, though Habib Koite’s actual tune comes as welcome relief.
4. Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage & Divorce
In which hateship, loveship, etc. don’t necessarily form a tidy sequence. Braxton has always been reliable; the revelation is that Babyface finally deserves both adjectives in “grown and sexy.” Screw song-cycleness; the juxtaposition of contrasting tracks creates narrative enough, even if this plays a trick on “Reunited.” The heart of the album consists of the back-to-back divorce solo tracks, with “I hope that you’re okay” morphing into “I hope she gives a disease,” suggesting the good cop is a butterfly-flap from becoming the bad cop.
Yet another comp of buzzy Seventies Afrogroove, only this time, we’re in Angola! As to whether it’s any good, well of course it is, the barrel is deep and Analog Africa are pros. Levis Vercky’s gets the star for successful execution of a tempo change. Otherwise the almost Brazilian grooves are frantic, as if they can’t wait for kuduro.
6. BFlecha: βeta (2013)
Galician singer-writer-composer-arranger-producer quilts appropriated beats — I half expected a Luger Transformer to show up — to create a sunset-over-the-Rías Baixas mood. She’s more comfortable constructing shiny happy symphonies for you-know-you’re-’90s-kids (she missed a trick by not titling "Mundo Bizarro" ”Como Bizarro”) than having to play Aaliyah and Timbaland simultaneously, though her low-key singing fills out the sound. An album you could put on repeat for days, remember fondly, and never play again. I played it again.
7. Sembe Ma Fa Fe: Roots Volume (2013)
The gyrating pelvis of this album compiled by a San Franciscan with the handle Dub Snakkr consists of remixes marked by electrodrum tattoos so spare I want to refer to artist Kadiatou Sylla a/k/a MyBaby, whose “Sida” appears in three versions, as MyBoo, thanks to the Boima & Giku mix in particular (not Bulma and Goku, thank you autocorrect). The Latin-tinged Guinean pop around it is similarly dinky and danceable, though not as lowdown.
8. Katy B: Little Red (continuous mix)
Rumblings that the 66-minute bonus disc made a hell of a lot more sense were well-founded. In this format the half-dozen peaks, highest of all the star-igniting “Crying for No Reason” (though that one was better on Graham Norton), are more imposing, and the valleys give you somewhere to gaze from.
9. Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo
He can rap, which these days we can’t take for granted even among kids who idolise Weezy and Andre 3000 —- especially among kids who idolise Weezy and Andre 3000. Thoughtful too, from time to time, with moments of desperation that explain the escapist/power fantasies/blowjob if they don’t justify them.
Pretty good for a Friday-night-at-the-local covers band. The singer could at least try to hit the notes, but he makes the Bottle Rockets’ “Welfare Music” sound as vital now as it did in the Gingrich era. Wait, we’re still in the Gingrich era? Well, fuck.
Holly Williams: "Waiting on June"
Corb Lund & Hayes Carll: "Bible on the Dash"
Withered Hand: "Horseshoe"
Bob Dylan: "Pretty Saro"
Tiwa Savage ft. Don Jazzy: "Eminado"
Dal Shabet: "B.B.B. (Big Baby Baby)"
Nicki Minaj: "Lookin Ass"
James Brandon Lewis: "No Wooden Nickels"
January top ten
1. Alisa Weilerstein/Daniel Barenboim: Elgar & Carter Cello Concertos (2012)
Weilerstein plays with the authority of a MacArthur-winning Columbia grad (hey, at least it’s not Oberlin). It would go too far to suggest the working-class Tory and the belated hypermodernist were doing the same thing, but Barenboim, who knows this shit, shows the greatest cello concerto of the early 20th century at least gestures toward the more raucous future inhabited by the greatest cello concerto of the 21st, which in its synthesis of Eastern and Central European ways of making it new, has its own kind of lyricism. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei provides a nostalgic finish.
2. Mary Halvorson Septet: Illusionary Sea (2013)
Adding a tenor and trombone to her ensemble, Halvorson plays with her new toys like an offensive coordinator with two first-round picks, while the performers retain considerable freedom within her strange progressions. Check out the decent into the uncanny valley in “Smiles of Great Men” and the intricate work on “Nairam” while the leader plucks treated arpeggios.
3. William Parker: Wood Flute Songs (2013)
I was at the first Yoshi’s show included in this box, and if much of it went over my head at the time I don’t claim to get it all now. Nine hours is a lot of music even for the guy who’s played on more good albums than anyone else this decade, but every disc has many moments of interest. If you are time-constrained, pick hits are Creation, the ensemble disc, Kalaparusha on the Edge of the Horizon, from 2012’s Vision Festival, and “Malachi’s Mode” and “Hopi’s Spirit” from the Yoshi’s shows.
4. Elizabeth Morris: Optimism EP (2013)
If you’re going to sing accompanied only by your own after-school piano and guitar, you’d better be writing at a Joni Mitchell-circa-Blue level, and with the aid of bathroom graffiti, she is. “Optimism” comes from a pre-Tumblr tradition of evoking big feelings with small gestures. Determined not to lose her true lover by courting too slow, the happiest moment of her life is over before the chorus begins, and the song ends in uncertainty ninety seconds after that.
5. Tal National: Kaani (2013)
The rock of these Nigeriens-with-an-E is close to Malian, as you’d expect from geography, but there are Nigerian-with-an-A moments of roll, without the Nigerian-with-an-A lackadaisical attitude toward playing in tune. Almost every cut feels like it could go on forever, so thank them for keeping the average at six minutes. The rotating vocalists are strong throughout, but you’re here for the repeated guitar figures on “Nouvelles” and the talking drums on “Tchana.” The single “Wongharey” is fantastic.
6. Angel Haze: Dirty Gold (2013)
I was initially disconcerted that she made a stadium-rock-goes-self-help album a la almost-grown Eminem, but got over the “is this what it is?” feeling much more quickly than I did with Pink Friday, in part because Sia is a more human Rihanna than Rihanna but more because she’s blunt about her trauma. If her anti-religious schtick is very early-twenties, her greatest-love-of-all solution is better at dissipating angst than either gay jokes or anything Vampire Weekend came up with.
7. Revolutionary Ensemble: Counterparts (2013)
Leroy Jenkins (RIP), Sirone (RIP), and Jerome Cooper (still with us, phew). Jenkins takes his usually clean-toned violin along scales ancient and modern; as the concert proceeds, he ups his skronking along with a rhythm section that’s light-footed even when Cooper switches to balafon. Recording quality is a bit off, but what a way to go out.
8. Eric Revis 11:11: Parallax (2012)
This all-star lineup hasn’t put the hours in to match Revis’ trio album City of Asylum, though you can drop Ken Vandermark into any setting and he’ll not only turn on a dime, he’ll contribute the most rollicking tune (on an album with a Fats Waller number, no less). The leader tirelessly holds the record together, yet sounds best unaccompanied.
9. Lobi Traore: Bamako Nights: Live at Bar Bozo 1995 (2013)
I have no idea how easy it is to get weed in Mali, but this record reeks of it, which is a negative only on the comparatively meandering opener and closer. In between, “Dunuya” sounds like an audition for Josh Homme, which he fails by raising the BPM in the moshable “Sigui Nyongon son fo.” In the same class as Bwati Kono.
10. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Like the Dismemberment Plan’s Uncanney Valley, it’s about finding yourself confused by a new stage of your life, and reverting to the same bag of tricks you relied on to deal with adolescence. If the shortcomings of the rhythm section make this less enjoyable than it could be, that’s not going to stop this album from saving people, one hopes starting with Grace. Note to Macklemore, Sara Bareilles, etc.: this is how you be brave.
Childish Gambino: “Telegraph Ave. (Oakland by Lloyd)”
Rosanne Cash: “When the Master Calls the Roll”
Inaya Day Allstars: “Good Feeling (A Director’s Cut Master)” (at 13:27)
Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran: “God Only Knows”
DJ Snake & Lil Jon: “Turn Down for What”
Albert “Tootie” Heath: “The Charleston”
Claire Chase: “Vermont Counterpoint”
31 albums I loved this year
1. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob: About the only case I could see against the album is that individually they’re not outstanding singers, but I’d counter that they play off each other better (the Shakespearean as in Marcella-and-Siobhan contest between “go” and “please stay” on “Now I’m All Messed Up”) than any other vocal duo at the moment, what with Brooks & Dunn splitting and all. Clearly, they sing in service to their songs rather than vice versa. Take Tegan’s rising final syllable in “Closer.” It’s a hook in itself, one too shameless for her to have sung three albums ago, but it also emphasises that the song conveys an attraction that’s very college-freshman, a time of not only freedom from parents but also freedom from one’s own adolescence — it’s physical, not just physical. I’m not saying that all of this consciously goes through Tegan’s mind when her “errrrr” turns into a yelp, but with countless good decisions like this on the album, i wouldn’t rule it out. And then there are the pre-choruses that build logically from verses and are effortlessly topped by giant choruses; the abundance of telling details (“where you’re leaving your makeup”); the Greg Kurstin million-little-hooks production job that finally proves he has talents beyond knowing the limits of plagiarism law (though he certainly still has that). All this lets T&S engage in the human-scale drama that’s their bag; the overall effect is edifyingly melancholy. If this makes Heartthrob sound like a better-written Carly Rae Jepsen album, (i) as everyone on Tumblr knows Kiss was pretty good darn it, and (ii) the only 2013 album I’ve heard that might have more consistent songwriting than Heartthrob is Modern Vampires, and really, T&S know more about break-ups than Ez & Ros know about the Lord.
2. Brandy Clark: 12 Stories: Worst you can say is the lyrics are the only way to tell the songs apart, but why wouldn’t you listen to these lyrics? She’s a smart singer who understands how narrative and melody works, and she has as many angles on her chosen milieu as Lives of Girls and Women-era Alice Munro — and Munro took decades to get jokes down.
3. Rilo Kiley: Rkives: After spending a few plays moaning about how it didn’t flow, i gave in and accepted that song for song, it was their second-best album after More Adventurous, which flows. If the break-up has been harder on him than her, it’s not like rock’s best singer (listen to the way she places the adverb “aimlessly” in “A Town Called Luckey”) has written five songs as good as the median Under the Blacklight outtake since.
4. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba: Jama Ko: The tightest and most professional live act i saw all year. Kouyate arrived with this tiny instrument which looks like a kid’s toy, and then got all kinds of tones out of it, often at blazing speed but also sometimes laying back and letting his family show off. And here i acknowledge i wouldn’t know an ngoni from a kora if it weren’t for (still) our greatest reviewer of Afropop championing a plethora of the music while insisting on the resemblances between its pleasures and those of, say, rap. Get that book done, Christgau.
5. M.I.A.: Matangi: I would say we’re taking our greatest creator of fight songs since Public Enemy for granted except i found the abrasions on Maya weren’t much fun, exceptions like “Born Free” aside. Here, the abrasions come with tunes, her singing is tougher, and her ideas on everything besides reincarnation are pretty much right. If you think this is how political music should work then occupy Pitchfork.
6. Roswell Rudd: Trombone for Lovers: A metric shitload of fun for the four Steven Bernstein tracks alone, esp. the evolutionarily-paced “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the best version of the song possible at this point in history (no lyrics). Then when the NYC Labor Chorus show up (with lyrics) it’s righteous.
7. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City: It’s impossible to not be annoyed by something on this; me, i find “Hannah Hunt” as deadfishy as the worst of Noah Baumbach. But if staring into the abyss isn’t too tough, the arrangements and Koenig’s singing continually play tricks on the words, throwing an ambiguity party because they R who they R.
8. Pet Shop Boys: Electric: Just when Random Access Memories made you wonder if disco really did suck, these guys came out from behind the cricket pavilion and made their most danceable record in decades. Both bourgie and bolshy, like the best of the old New Left.
9. DJ Koze: Amygdala: Michael Tatum jibed that “we’re all sensitive people” wouldn’t be his “Let’s Get It On” quote of choice, but this fucking year asmidgen of sensitivity was worth a million sledgehammer licks. Koze’s psychedelic minimalism punctuated by song snippets and Motown lifts seemed exactly right during a spring addled by unrecreational cough syrup.
10. Home Brew (2012): The best-written rap record since XXX, sez i. They’re Aucklanders and I don’t know how much home field advantage I’m giving them (though it’s not like i liked Pure Heroine), but if you value clarity, a lot of cheek, and occasional honest-to-goodness wisdom you might agree. What I like best is how well the first disc evokes the classic milieu of New Zealand musicians — the dealings with the officers of the welfare state, the substance abuse, the smorgasbord of music coming from all sides (Yellow Moon! Voodoo! Eric Clapton ft. Babyface! The music absorbs these influences (well, not “Change the World”) while anchoring itself the present) — before the second disc gets analytical and resultingly enraged in a way that your favourite Flying Nun band would never dare — hard to imagine Martin Phillipps telling the Prime Minister to suck his dick as in “Listen to Us” or make an argument for atheism as vituperatively as in “Good God.” Still, it’s the first disc that’s more replayable — try “Benefit,” which shows that while the social safety net has developed holes since all those Dunedin bands lived on the dole, the doledrums remain.
11. Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap: It’s Kendrick’s era, but the Black Hippy has still yet to make a full-length as compelling as this reminder that rap can be light and serious and witty and heartbreaking.
12. Big Bang: Alive (2012): U.S. critics treat K-pop as cultishly any other kind of teenpop, so G-Dragon, the guy with the abs, and the other three will have to settle for massive sales and huge acclaim in Asia, the poor fuckers.
13. Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven (2012): The notoriously difficult Ligeti etudes are played with precision and panache. Beethoven 32 is Beethoven 32.
14. Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven: Distancing himself from the “my vintage Moog is moogier than yours” arms race, he embraced MIDI and squashed and stretched like he was Bob Clampett. This ’trix is for kids.
15. Parquet Courts: Light Up Gold: Why do these millennials draw comparisons to pre-Pitchfork mainstays like Pavement and the Fall? Because i’m not the only one who misses bands that give a shit about musicianship.
16. Rachid Taha: Zoom: Rai king teams with the other last rockers standing — Mick Jones and Eric Cantona — and makes another outstanding album, ho-hum.
17. Le Grand Kalle: His Life, His Music: The first disc is Kabasele creating a musical identity for a new nation if not a continent. The second disc has some good songs too!
18. Eric Revis Trio: City of Asylum: Bassist with Cecilians old and young Andrew Cyrille and Kris Davis try to be everywhere and everywhen, sound best doing Monk like everyone else does.
19. My Bloody Valentine: m b v: In a wretched year for guitars, they cared about beauty as much as ever. Only a bit worse than Loveless!
20. Epik High: 99 (2012): Aging K-rappers make their seventh-yes-seventh album in the tunetastic YG house style, pre-emptively saying fuck-the-haters.
21. Future: Pluto 3D (2012): Mike Will Making the Same Beat Over and Over hit diminishing returns months before Miley, but that doesn’t stop this collection from sounding like last year’s future.
22. The Group: Live (1986/2012): Billy Bang triumphant! A crazy-hot rhythm section! A twenty-five minute version of a Miriam Makeba song! No really, a fucking great twenty-five minute version of a Miriam Makeba song!
23. Khaled: Liberte (2009): After a summer of rai, he became my distant second-favourite (see #16). These hits recycled with the help of a proper Egyptian orchestra are what i’ll play when i want to hear him.
24. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual: It clicked when i learned “Fracking Fluid Injection” was made from a bedspring: it’s a Tom Ze album! I still skip the nineteen minute one though.
25. Ciara: If cunnilingus, undersinging, and Nicki’s guest swag make this the rockist’s R&B album of choice, they’re welcome to be late to the body party if they bring dessert.
26. Evoken: Atra Mors (2012): Let the eloquent-not-grim Deafheaven play for collegiate respectability. Having visited Jersey this year, i can say that if i lived there, i’d make funeral doom too.
27. Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Slippery Rock!: Vies with Forty Fort as their most party-rocking set. Peter Evans needs to have a late-night brass duel with Steven Bernstein for jazz MVP.
28. Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose: If having the biz behind you gets crack session musicians and production, then it’s worth putting up with Blake Shelton, though Miranda might no longer agree.
29. Kevin Gates: Stranger Than Fiction: His redneck twang (“Careful”) and fake patois (“Tiger”) illustrate the multitudes in his interior life — amidst the bullets and programmed orchestras, he’s loyal, introverted, needy. “The worst thing you can give any nigga or bitch is rejection,” he says, before denouncing men who crave the attention of other men as hoes. He’s working on the border between masculine and feminine codes, dangerous territory for a rapper. Gates isn’t worried about sleeping with the fishes. He’s worried about ending up as alone as Michael Corleone.
30. G-Dragon: Coup d’Etat: Appropriating American sounds (chief beatmaker Teddy can fake anything from pop dubstep to Blood Orange) and language (guap guap guap) without scruple, all he got for his efforts was a Complex Magazine digital cover and a U.S. #161 album. He’ll never be a trans-Pacific star even after he passes his TOEFL. Off-peak Missy shows up and cuts him, and he lacks the expressive range to become a go-to foreign weirdo like Robyn. But top 40 listeners who realize they deserve better than 2013 Timberlake should try “Crooked,” in which he gets over a broken pinky promise by rocking eyeliner and a whole can of hairspray.
31. Ryan Maffei: Country Town: Christgau-approved termite made this solo teaser on his way to a better-dressed, better-tuned collaborator. I miss the Pozniaks’ shredding, but the sound is fuller thanks to keyboards and, just once, ersatz strings, and it’s more assured, not least because this time he doesn’t sound like he’s about to burn his last bridge or die of tuberculosis. The Stephen Foster lift is the best melody, but not by much; the best hook is the obscene one on old favourite “Every Single Test”. It’s the Heartthrob to Pozniak Street's Sainthood!
Ten comics I liked this year
1. Walt Kelly: Pogo: We already knew he was the GOAT at using words in comic strips, but as the complete dailies come out he’s looking more the GOAT period.
2. Hikaru No Go: Distinctive super-stylin’ characters plus it makes dudes putting stones on a board like 5-5 OH MY GOD HE PLAYED 5-5
3. Love and Rockets: New Stories #4: Speaking of GOAT candidates i’m a couple of years behind on: Jaime plays out the endgame of three decades of punk intersectionality, and the end doesn’t come.
4. Kate Beaton: obvs
5. Fraction/Aja/Hollingsworth: Hawkeye: Minor Avengers as agents of gentrification.
6. Michael DeForge: Ant Comic: What do Tex Avery spiders and centipede cars have in common? Death. Always death.
7. Joseph Lambert: Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller: Exceptionally good at representing thoughts visually.
8. Derf Backderf: My Friend Dahmer: No glory, only as morbid as necessary.
9. Dorothy Gambrell: Cat and Girl: Sick of “hipster”? tune in for the ideas that will be devalued to the point of uselessness in ten years!
10. Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother?: Psychoanalysis (What Is It?)
Department of Time Management Failures
"Oh, this Fela comp is only 12 tracks, I’ll have plenty of time to listen to other stuff tonight."
Songs I like right now
Mykki Blanco: “Ace Bougie Chick”: early ‘90s lite-rap was a bourgeois construct
Spoek Mathambo: “Radio Gaga”: distinguishing between what you lived through and what the nostalgia industry tells you to remember requires serious math
Ellie Goulding: “Burn”: Ryan Tedder and Greg Kurstin sound better with a singer incapable of bursting your eardrums
Xenia Rubinos: “Whirlwind”: two chords is one too many to win a Pulitzer
Lady Lykez: “I Love My Butt”: Miley’s diary: “my best friend Lesley isn’t speaking to me anymore”