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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Favorites

# 1 St Vincent

St Vincent

It should not have taken St. Vincent’s electrifying performance at Pitchfork to make me take a closer listen to this album, but it did. At Pitchfork, she subverted and parodied rock star poses and then shredded and rocked as hard as any one of those stars. This album takes all the strengths in evidence in St Vincent’s earlier albums--lyrical wit, innovative guitar sounds and gorgeous vocals--and balances them perfectly.

# 2 Lydia Loveless

Somewhere Else

The madness of love (like the trope of love as an addiction) is a cliche.  But when someone takes that cliche, grabs it by the throat and sings and plays it the hell out of it, well, suddenly it seems like a revelation. Somewhere Else is a revelation--a shot of bourbon in a world of rosemary-infused fizzy cocktails.

# 3 Sharon Van Etten

Are We There

Her best yet--the same thing I’ve said about her last two albums. Although Van Etten hasn’t broadened the breadth of her subject matter, her songs continue to grow in nuance and power.

# 4 Protomartyr

Under the Color of Official Right

Angular, caustic, and droll postpunk from the Motor City that would make Iggy proud.  

# 5 Spoon

They Want My Soul

#6 Jenny Lewis

The Voyager

The 70s LA rock production throws you at first. But it’s just sugar-coating lyrics sharp and cutting as glass shards.  

#7 Ex Hex


Mary Timony (Helium, Wild Flag) brings back the 3-minute rock song--actually gives us a dozen terrific ones.

# 8 The New Pornographers

Brill Bruisers

A. C. Newman is happy; songs are happy; New Pornographers fans are happy.

#9 War on Drugs

Lost in the Dream

Secretly Canadian

I’ve always been a sucker for Dylanesque vocals and when you add stellar guitar atmospherics and solid songcraft to the mix, the results are transfixing.

# 10 The Men

Tomorrow’s Hits

Sacred Bones

Shambolic rockers reminiscent of the Replacements or pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz.

Many happy listens


Morning Phase

Beck revisits the sound of 2002’s
Sea Change, working with many of the same musicians and delivering many of same sonic delights.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best Concerts of 2013

In chronological order

Bombino at Martyr's,  June 9th

Woods at Pitchfork, July 19th

Bjork at Pitchfork, July 19th

Low at Pitchfork, July 20th

Yo la Tengo at Pitchfork, July 21st

Killer Mike at Pitchfork, July 21st

Neko Case at the Hideout Block Party, September 6th

Superchunk at the Hideout Block Party, September 7th

The Replacements at RiotFest, September 15th

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Music of 2013


The 13 Best Albums of 2013

(in no particular order)


Chastity Belt--No Regerts (Help Yourself Records)


Wickedly funny, raunchy songs from an all-female quartet from Walla Walla, Washington. Boasting amazing vocals and chiming, driving guitars, No Regerts is one of those albums you need to listen to at least once a day for months on end.  

Bombino--Nomad (Nonesuch)

Desert rock filtered through American trance blues with incendiary guitar work from Tuareg artist Bombino from Agadez, Niger.  

Savages—Silence Yourself (Matador Records)

A ferocious debut from London-based quartet.  It’s great to see a buzz band that lives up to its buzz—especially when the overall message of said buzz band is telling you to tune out all the hype, noise and distractions. 

Arcade Fire—Reflektor (Merge)


Arcade Fire’s most enigmatic album. During the first couple of listens, I found myself admiring its ambition, but hating its pretension; finding the songs derivative, then inventive; diffuse but too solipsistic. But every listen gave me more to admire. Reflektor is one of those albums that rewards patience and getting past preconceptions.

The National--Trouble Will Find Me (4AD Records)


Personally, I think Matt Berninger goes looking for trouble ‘cause it’s so much fun to sing about.  No new ground broken here, but the National make angst and self-doubt so musically inviting.


Low--The Invisible Way (Sub Pop)


Gorgeous songs of faith, longing and reconciliation, ably produced by Jeff Tweedy.


Superchunk--I Hate Music (Merge Records)


Somehow Superchunk manages to write a summer road song (“Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”) that also ponders time, loss and mortality.  Maybe music “can’t bring anyone back to this earth” but it’s the best we got.  And on this album, it’s fine compensation.

Mavis Staples—One True Vine (ANTI-Records)

The second album of Mavis Staples produced by Jeff Tweedy is a low-key gem. Her version of Low’s “Holy Ghost” is a spine tingler.

Neko Case--The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (ANTI- Records)


After falling into a depression after a number of deaths in her family, Neko Case creates one of her most personal and arresting albums.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds--Push The Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd)


Nick Cave eases up on the pedal-to-the-metal assault of the two Grinderman albums and Dig, Lazarus, Dig, but these are no lullabies.  The musical restraint creates its own tension, and the lyrics, with mermaids hung by their hair from the streetlights and a fetus on a leash, add to the unease. 


My Bloody Valentine—MBV (self-released)

22 years after Loveless, My Bloody Valentine releases an album that builds on that classic and expands the sound.


Rhye—Woman (Republic Records)

Is your Al Green CD in the car? Does your Barry White album skip?  No problem, Rhye's Woman will set the mood.


Valerie June--Pushin' Against a Stone (Sunday Best) 


With a voice that sounds like it's coming from a John Lomax field recording instead of a contemporary album, Valerie June transports the listener. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Best Music of 2012

Best of 2012

1) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (Def Jam

All the buzz about the brilliant debut album of this New Orleans R&B singer is justified. I listened to this album as much as any album this year and had a new favorite song from it every week. 

2) Cloud Nothings--Attack on Memory

Angsty, high-energy punk pop from Cleveland’s Dylan Baldi, who has graduated from basement studio productions to fronting a band. When my days at work became beastly, screaming along to this album on the drive home was a catharsis. “Stay Useless” is my song of the year.

3) Sharon Van Etten -- Tramp  (Jagjaguwar)

Recorded with the help of The National’s Aaron Dessner, Van Etten broadens her musical palette and releases her most consistently compelling album to date.

4) The Coup -- Sorry to Bother You (Epitaph)

Boots Riley and company mix up a potent blend of hip hop, 70s funk, soul, garage rock and wickedly funny agitprop. The revolution may not be televised, but there will be dancing. The Coup also put on one of the best live shows of 2012.

5) Best Coast--The Only Place (Mexican Summer)

If you stop listening to the lyrics after the sunny title song you could easily mistake this for a breezy summer fluff album of sixties retro tunes. But the success of her first album seems to have unsettled LA native Bethany Cosentino. These are dark songs from a sunny clime, with lyrics about trying to stifle self doubt with drinking and shopping.  Cosentino continues to develop her her songcraft, and her singing is stronger than ever.

6) Japandroids -- Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)

The title is its own review. This duo from Vancouver, British Columbia makes some happy noise.  

7) dB’s--Falling Off the Sky (Bar None)

After a gap of thirty years, all four original members of the dB’s reunite and put out an album as punchy and toothsome as their best stuff from the eighties. They floored me when I saw one of their shows at the Hideout in November.

8) Santigold – Master of My Make Believe (Atlantic)

The less she tries to sound like MIA, the better she is.

9) Walkmen--Heaven (Fat Possum)

The Walkmen grow up, mellow out, become dads and still make some terrific music.

10) Lee Fields -- Faithful Man (Truth & Soul)

Old school soul from a veteran with 40 years of experience. An amazing singer, killer band and first rate material.

Also many happy listens:

Alabama Shakes-- Boy and Girls (Ato)
First Aid Kit--The Lion’s Roar (Wichita)
Passion Pit--Gossamer (Columbia

Monophonics--In Your Brain (Ubiquity)
XX--Coexist (Young Turks)