Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best of 2016

Here is the list of my favorite music in 2016. In no particular order.

David Bowie   BlackStar
A brilliant coda to an amazing career. Given Bowie’s shape-shifting career, it’s fitting that his last album is totally different than anything he recorded before and yet unmistakably Bowie.

Blood Orange   Freetown Sound
After the election, I rediscovered this album and played it incessantly. All of the strong female voices—sometimes lead, sometimes half a duet, sometimes choir; sometimes earthy, sometimes ethereal—seemed the best balm for the sorry state of things.   

Explosions in the Sky  The Wilderness
Their best since The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place. The drive, the sense of grandeur and space are still here, but the aural textures are richer and more nuanced.

Chairlift   Moth
Desperate times need perfect pop records.  Chairlift delivers big time.

Angel Olsen  My Woman
My Woman is a huge step forward in songcraft and production. Angel Olsen’s vocals
have never been stronger or more evocative. Highlight: the slow- burning ‘Sister’ with its refrain “All my life I thought I’d change” repeated as the guitar lines grows more frantic.

Mitski  Puberty 2
Japanese-born Mitski (Miyawaki) uses a cool, almost distant, vocal style--a stark contrast to all the agitation and anxiety in the lyrics--showing how a person’s mid-twenties can seem like a reprise of the awkwardness and the sexual/personal confusion occurring with puberty. Standout: “Your Best American Girl” a slow-building orchestral pop that posits love as a type of assimilation.

Car Seat Headrest  Teens of Denial
At times, Teens sounds like combination of Television and Pavement--all in all, not bad choices of bands to emulate. But lead man Will Toledo plays and writes his way out from under these influences to a sound that is all his own, creating an album with urgency, wry humor, shrewd observations, unpredictable transitions and great crunchy rock moments.

Mavis Staple   Livin’ on a High Note
After two acclaimed albums produced by Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples tapped M. Ward as producer and asked a slew of songwriters to contribute “joyful” songs for Livin’ on a High Note. The songs gathered here—written by Neko Case, Nick Cave, Valerie June Justin Vernon and other elite songwriters—are a restrained kind of joyful: more a reflective appreciation of the love of family and friends than any lighthearted larks. Mavis’s voice retains the warmth, moral fervor and emotive power of her youth.

Anderson .Paak    Malibu
Effortlessly moving from hip hop to Stax-like soul to R&B to dance grooves, Anderson Paak put out one of the year’s most multifaceted albums. A joy from start to finish.

Frank Ocean   Blonde
Following the release of 2012’s Channel Orange, Frank Ocean had a yearlong bout of writer’s block. He broke through only after he decided he needed to revisit some of the events of his youth.  The biographical elements are present in Blonde but more as hints and fragments than fleshed out narratives. He uses a myriad of voice distortions to indicate points of view from different phases in his life. Still, Ocean remains elusive but the music is mesmerizing.

Honorable Mentions:

Eleanor Friedberger, New View
The Range, Potential
Savages, Adore Life
Lydia Loveless, Real
Bombino, Azel

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Best of 2015

The music I listened to the most in 2015, in no particular order. This list appeared in the CHIRP Best of 2015 blog:


Rob Ellis, producer of PJ Harvey, gives the songs on Sprinter the sonic punch to match the angst of Mackenzie Scott's lyrics.  Scott, who grew up in a strict Baptist family, re-examines the source of her spirituality and her growing estrangement from a community that once provided comfort. 

Yo La Tengo/Stuff Like that There

Yo La Tengo’s 1990 release, Fakebook, remains one of my favorite albums. My daughters grew up singing lyrics from “Yellow Sarong” (The man in the moon taps at the window/How will we know your silhouette?/How will we reach you?)-- a special family lullaby.  Stuff Like that There follows the same game plan: loving covers of songs that deserve a wider audience, alternate takes of some of their own material and a few new songs.  A low-key masterwork. 

Deerhunter/Fading Frontier

Song for song, one of Deerhunter’s best efforts, with a brighter, airier sound palette than previous releases. 

Jamie XX/In Colour

A lot of electronic/ambient music runs out of ideas long before the song is over. All of the songs on In Colour clock in at less than five minutes and all have a musical inventiveness that makes you eager to hear more. Jamie XX creates a soundtrack for dreams from which you don’t want to wake.  

Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment/Surf

Surf is the musical antidote to all of the bad news that came out of Chicago this year. Donnie Trumpet (Nico Segal) and a slew of musical guests that include Chance the Rapper, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, and Jamila Woods whip up an exhilarating blend of hip hop, gospel, New Orleans jazz and other genres.  The messages are strong and positive, celebrating self-reliance, family and community.  

Kendrick Lamar/To Pimp a Butterfly

Pimp is ambitious but preachy, sprawling but containing concise lines that pierce the heart, exhilarating but maddening in turns. All said, when the smoke clears, it remains the most essential record released in 2015. 


After a pummeling work week, my wife and I dragged ourselves to see Shamir at Lincoln Hall. His electric performance completely revitalized us. Since then Ratchet became our go-to album when we needed a sonic boost. 

Low/Ones and Sixes

“All you innocents, make a run for it,” sings Low’s Mimi Parker. These are lullabies of dread and angst, spare in their arrangements but always with just the right strummed chord, percussive element, two-note progression, or other musical element to bring the song home. 

Low Cut Connie/Hi Honey

Sometimes you want foie gras; sometimes a double cheeseburger and fries is just the way to go.  Hook-filled pub rock with attitude to spare.

Chastity Belt/Time to Go Home

Chastity Belt’s 2013 No Regerts was a raunchy, rollicking lark. Time to Go Home has a party’s-over vibe. Melancholy and nuance replace the hijinks and the musicianship has picked up a step. The guitar work at the close of “Joke” has only one flaw. It ends.