The 50 Best Albums of 2016

In this post: an introduction, reviews of the top 10 albums of the year, a complete top 50 list, and a streaming playlist with a track from every top 50 album save for those not on Spotify. See you in 2017!

There were no seismic shifts in the pop landscape in 2016, nor in 2015, nor in 2014, nor in recent memory. The last time I remember feeling a legit sense of the earth moving under my feet (um, ears?) was when in 2006-2007 the Neptunes and Timbaland ceded ground to Kanye West’s now-dated chipmunked vocal samples, The White Stripes (and before them, The Strokes) firmly rewrote the pop-rock template and the Dixie Chicks told the world they weren’t ready to make nice. All the change since then has felt incremental, which may be a function of my age, but aside from maybe Drake and 40, who has rewritten the playbook — anyone’s playbook? Maybe it doesn’t work like that anymore. Technological change can generally be seen only in the rear-view mirror, but I can’t help thinking it’s changing the way the music evolves. Weep for the future historians who have to find a through-line in the evolution of music in the teens.

If that’s the way things are, or will be, then 2016 was the year I stopped worrying and learned to love the absence of a bomb. None of the albums on my top 10 list feel like any kind of quantum leap forward, but they are all masterful and constantly stimulating, even surprising, on the tenth or even fiftieth listen. It’s pretty shocking to me that a straight-up gangsta rap record like Still Brazy or an instrumental-rock spazzout like Return To Sky would end up atop my list, to the point that I often wonder whether I’ve started privileging the familiar over the unexpected as a kind of defensive mechanism, against the shell-shock of the new. But the flipside of that is my disdain for the records proclaimed as epochal (Arcade Fire *durrr*, Taylor Swift *yawn*) has made me more enthusiastic about records that feature maturing talents, like Blonde, and that showcase mature artists operating at their peak, like Anguis Oleum and A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s exciting to be around when the music world is being turned upside down, but it’s no consolation prize to bear witness to a crop of artists who be doin it and doin it and doin it well.

1. Frank Ocean - Blonde (Boys Don't Cry)

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Team Frank Ocean was already a heaving bandwagon when Blonde dropped, though to these ears the hype was premature when Channel Orange was the only evidence on offer. Whatever, I probably wouldn't have thought Prince was a genius on the basis of his first album, and yet, and yet. Blonde is plenty full of genius-signaling greatness, in flashes of wry lyrical humor ("did you call me from a seance? You from my past life") and epic ballads like "White Ferrari" that just scream This Is Everything You Never Dared Hope He Could Become. There's something in Ocean's ability to leave a line hanging in the synth-soaked, sometimes guitar-wrist-flick-punctuated air. He owns the space between words, shapes it invisibly with the last line and the next one. Even the funkier moments like "Pink + White" are expertly paced hops from one melodic cloud to the next, with his signature move of brightening the harmony in mid-lyric. More than any other impulse he seems to have, Frank Ocean just loves to yank the listener from nostalgic, sometimes idyllic images drenched in romance to mundane, pungent detail about drugs or, often, driving. "We're alone, making sweet love, taking time / but god strikes us!" To me, the centerpiece of the album is "Solo" for the simple reason that it works on a granular detail level -- capturing a moment of pure bliss from an acid trip on a dance floor -- but it also works its way gradually through a heartbreak that left him alone, exposed without a lover and without the rhythm section whose absence leaves a joy-shaped hole in the track. Absence and space are the most expressive parts of the album, and knowing how to play them is irrefutable proof that Frank Ocean has ascended to a higher plane. Though if he really were some kind of god, he'd be the kind that likes to day-trip back to earth, maybe as a swan, just to mess with some poor human for a few hours before returning skyward.

 Selections from a-void’s Best Albums of 2016

 The List: 1-10

1. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
2. YG – Still Brazy (400/CTE/Def Jam)
3. Lorenzo Senni – Persona (Warp)
*4. Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Anguis Oleum (Screwgun)
5. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani – FRKWAYS Vol 13: Sunergy (RVNG Intl)
6. Causa Sui – Return To Sky (El Paraiso)
7. Pangaea – In Drum Play (Hessle Audio)
8. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
9. DVA [HI:EMOTIONS] – Notu_Ironlu (Hyperdub)
10. Kaytranada – 99.9 (XL)

 11-50

11. Pet Shop Boys – Super (X2)
12. Vince Staples – Prima Donna EP (Def Jam)
13. Weaves – Weaves (Buzz)
14. Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Matador)
15. Dinosaur Jr – Give A Glimpse Of What Yr Not (Jagjaguwar)
16. Matmos – Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
17. Gucci Mane – Everybody Looking (Atlantic)
18. *Purling Hiss – High Bias (Drag City)
19. A Tribe Called Red – We Are The Halluci Nation (Pirates Blend)
20. *Useless Eaters – Relaxing Death (Castle Face)
21. The Gaslamp Killer – Instrumentalepathy (Gaslamp Killer Music)
22. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It (Dirty Hit/Interscope/Polydor/Vagrant)
23. Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)
24. Bardo Pond feat Guru Guru and Acid Mothers Temple – Acid Guru Pond (Fire)
25. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial (Matador)
26. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service (Epic/Sony)
27. Kenny Barron – Book Of Intuition (Impulse/Universal)
28. Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)
29. Hieroglyphic Being And The Configurative Or Modular Me Trio – Cosmic Bebop (Mathematics)
30. Camera – Phantom of Liberty (Bureau B)
31. Rihanna – Anti (Def Jam)
32. The Field – The Follower (Kompakt)
33. Trevino – Front (C Birdie)
34. Marquis Hawkes – Social Housing (Houndstooth)
35. Warpaint – Heads Up (XL)
36. *Fp-oner – 6 (Mule Musiq)
37. Lone – Levitate (R&S)
38. *Lawrence – Yoyogi Park (Mule Musiq)
39. Black Milk and Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions (Computer Ugly)
40. Pye Corner Audio – Stasis (Ghost Box)
41. Africaine 808 – Basar (Golf Channel)
42. *Andrew Cyrille – The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
43. Dr. Lonnie Smith – Evolution (Blue Note)
44. Jakob Skott – All The Colours of the Dust (El Paraiso)
45. Dynamis – Distance (Tectonic)
46. Gerry Read – Chubby Cheeks (Timetable)
47. Solange – A Seat At The Table (Columbia/Sony)
48. Steve Haushcildt – Strands (Kranky)
49. Future – EVOL (Epic/Sony)
50. Prins Thomas – Principe Del Norte (Smalltown Supersound)

* = not on Spotify

Odds and sods: Pixelord, Bitchin’ Bajas

Bitchin Bajas

Bitchin-Bajas1-e1425655653656
Transporteur
Hands In The Dark

As I gazed at extortionate collector prices for a copy of Bitchin Bajas’ out-of-print Krausened EP today, it occurred to me how much had changed since then. (And that maybe I should be grateful there are copies to be had.) Transporteur hints at their last, self-titled album, with the group’s latest release appearing to be pillaging the off-the-cutting-room-floor bassoons or bass clarinets. Only where that last seemed deliberate, and deliberated over, nothing on Transporteur feels especially thought through. Arpeggiators arpeggiate, drones drone, but nothing sticks. I still love them, but as far as collectibility goes, maybe don’t stockpile this one quite as assiduously…

Terranova

terranova
Restless
Kompakt

Apparently, not every single thing Kompakt puts out is great. My worldview is shaken to its very core, cats dogs living together total anarchy, &c. That said, even this not-especially-memorable artist album has a few knockout moments, so rather than rag on at length about wack vocals (“Underverse”) I would like to point you to the subtly original dub-tech-house of “Goldilocks” and even “Restless Summer”. You can see the sort of goth romanticism in a handful of Terranova’s tracks serving a certain purpose in a Michael Mayer Immer mix, for example, but mostly the clunky, disjointed attempts at anthemic grandeur come off like junior high school theatre nerds speaking to each other in olde English – in short, tedious.

Pixelord

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Places
Hyperboloid

Is anything less endearing among amazing producers than realizing that said producers can do multiple genres with ease? It seems silly but it bears repeating that we do not trust you if you seem to do too many things well. (See also: Bjork, Andre Ethier, Michael Bloomberg). Pixelord is not going to escape that trap, which is a shame in one sense – twisted hip-hop beats like the Destiny’s Child-tweaking “Ottawa” are nearly as solid as plaintive yet garage-y cuts like “Bodo” and “Novosib.” The variety probably makes him harder to market, but it certainly doesn’t make him hard to like.

Lakker

lakker
Tundra
R&S

Lakker has made some frighteningly unrelenting singles and EPs for R&S so I was pleasantly surprised to find tunes like “Mountain Divide” on Tundra, blending the drum-corps assaults of his earlier stuff with touches of rusty, reverbed-out drone and keening high-register vocals. Tundra has plenty of slam-dunk moments, but it really shines when Lakker explores different moods beyond just the total panic of humans stuck in a fancypants space station’s trash compactor. (In fairness, it also does that very well – see the urgently throbbing “Milch” and “Ton’neru.”) “Halite” sounds more like the soundtrack to a night driving scene in a Michael Mann movie, while the album-ending two-fer of “Oktavist” and “Herald” brush lightly up against the skittering hits of early Autechre while channeling ambient Aphex Twin – never a bad thing.

Jamie XX and other things you already have opinions on

Jamie XX

Jamiexx-InColour
In Colour
XL

The one question I ask myself more than any other when reviewing (well, other than “just how sober do I need to be for this task?”) (Short answer: not very) is, ” what is this music for?” Not strictly in the sense of what it was purpose-built for, but what kind of record is it and where and when would I listen to it?

I don’t have an answer for In Colour, which is usually a bad sign. Some of it fits handily into DJ mixes, if only their mellower bits. “Sleep Sound” I’ve already put to the test, and the churched-up handclap stomp of “The Rest Is Noise” would certainly qualify. But the rest is vague – the drum sounds are indistinct, anything in the low end is muddy (almost certainly a deliberate choice, but does that make it defensible?) and the tracks’ development is minimal. It doesn’t really make sense as a bedroom record – it’s not varied enough, it’s too fuzzy, it sweeps through your ear holes like a light breeze and leaves little trace. But I can’t imagine busting out something as mopey and dull as “Loud Places” at an actual gathering of limb-waving humanoids.

In short, In Colour feels like a painting or a photograph that you have to squint to see, that doesn’t look quite right from any angle. What is there to do but sigh and stroll on?

Boof

boof
The Hydrangeas Whisper
BubbleTease Communications

Maurice Fulton is not a name I paid a ton of attention to in the past, even though his Mu project with his wife Mutsumi Kanamori was broadly salivated over in the dance press. Regrets, I have a few – after hearing this latest Fulton album, under his Boof alias, I wonder wtf I’ve been doing with my dance-music-listening life. The Hydrangeas are Whispering “get your ass onto the discotheque floor,” where tart, twangy guitars and fat electric bass (as opposed to digitally programmed) parts bump and hustle their way to the ultimate summer soundtrack. If it wasn’t for the corny Dave Brubeck rewrite of “Emi’s M” I might be temped to use the word “perfect,” but even with that blemish, this is still one of the more beautifully entrancing records of the year.

Nozinja

nozinja
Nozjinja Lodge

Warp

I was thrilled at this record from about five seconds in, which suggests I was already well predisposed to like it. White music blogger adores first legit (read: on a Western label) release by non-white cult hero vaulted out of obscurity by music press? Nozinja certainly ticks all the boxes; only time will tell whether we’re on to the next one by the time his second record comes around. (A booster of both Congotronics and Funk Carioca hangs his head.) So I go into this latest round of praise with a certain wariness about where my ears are leading me, and a warning for those who haven’t been riding the hipster taste merry go round for all that long.

And yet, I love this record and I want other people to hear it. It’s the perfect antidote to the all-consuming melancholy of trap over the last few years – in that, and in its frenetic drum programming, it shares some of the appeal of footwork, but a better comparison might be soca – this happens to be bursting at the seams with melody. Despite the fact that a lot of it is in minor keys, the energy jumps out of the speakers, throws Mardi Gras beads around your neck and pulls you into the dance. Where things are more sinister than they seem.

The centerpiece, from this perspective at least, is “Baby Do U Feel,” with its adrenaline-charged marimba-chords and echo-laden rave-style vocal samples. It feels like there are about six records going on at once, only it’s more fun to listen to them this way than to slow it all down and figure out what’s going on. The sensation of being overwhelmed – which I used to think only breakbeat science could deliver – here comes from all sides, thwacking at your ears with relentless glee.

Trevor Jackson

trevorjackson-format
F O R M A T
The Vinyl Factory

The dark time arrived with the word “electroclash,” something that arguably was more loathed then even than “EDM” is now. Amid the trucker hats and the tedious college-rock indie-dance came Playgroup, Trevor Jackson’s attempt to harness some of that cultural energy for some actual music. After a decade or so making fleeting appearances, Jackson’s new album feels instantly timeless, which is to say it sounds like the best bits of the 80s distilled into a powerful, blunt exilir.

Minimalism might be in the doghouse right now but Jackson makes it new with his unwavering focus on the dance floor, even with very few bits with which to move the crowd. “Nowhere” might as well be called “No Music” given how much of it consists of just two ribcage-rattling bass notes, a rimshot and a slightly tweaked kick drum. It, and “Voodoo Racist,” are haunted by lingering traces of acid, while “OCP” is marked with the scarlet letter of aggressive tech-house. But Jackson rejuvenates cliches with a kind of stubborn obliviousness – why shouldn’t I do something interesting with guitars (“Icaro”) if I can make it good, he seems to mutter? Why not indeed.

Ricardo Tobar

csm_Ricardo-Tobar_Cover_ORLP037_2500_a8b60a95a0
Collection
Cocoon

This was another random eMusic discovery, a process that most often leads me to dance albums that don’t fit any existing dance subgenre. Pretty sure this Ricardo Tobar disc fits squarely in the tech-house camp, and yet, I hesitate to describe it as such. He does moody four-on-the-floor exceptionally well – see the panoramic synths over chugging drum patterns in “Invierno” or the faraway yearning of “This Is Pop” – but there are enough feints and waves in the direction of bedroom-tronica that I didn’t know where to put songs like “Blue Mint” with its whimsical synth-brass wobbling away. The cumulative effect is a gauzy distance from the active listener, though maybe the title is an acknowledgement that you’re not supposed to listen to the whole thing at once. In truth, it shines most brightly if you don’t.

Unsound at Luminato in the Hearn Generating Station

rocks-2

Loooook! Rocks!

In art, industrial spaces in disrepair are not new. There’s nothing left to wring from either the glory-of-human-progress, man-vs-nature thread, and the globalization-made-this-rubble anti-capitalist critique is so played out, the concept itself ought to be in a museum. And yet, wandering among the enormous hulking I-beams in the decommissioned Hearn Generating Station in Toronto’s port lands, hired and lit up for Luminato by European music presenters Unsound, I felt roughly the same way I did wandering along the Cleveland Dam in Vancouver, or looking down from the CN Tower for the first time: damn, that’s really big, and people made that, not nature.

Loooook! Rocks! And lasers!

So much for theory. I wouldn’t necessarily give the act of putting abstract electronic music in a big empty building the Turner Prize, but that doesn’t make seeing Robert Henke’s Lumiere II in an awe-inspiring space any less worthwhile.

bars

Bringing in a performance involving lasers was an inspired choice for the venue; a little dry ice for the light to play off before hitting the screen heightened the anticipation, despite whatever comparisons to Cirque du Soleil it may also have invited. The music was, it has to be said, less inspired. Henke is certainly no slouch in the electronic production department, having written more software than most producers will ever use. But while techno and its offshoots don’t need much in the way of melody to move a crowd, the bar is higher in experimental/’listening’ music. Personally after living through the IDM thing, and having given far too many hours of my 20s to wilderness-years Autechre records, my feelings on extended metallic-sounding percussion workouts are about the same as a classic rock morning show host’s – indifferent, bordering on hostile. Still, I expected to like Henke’s performance anyways, and I’m surprised by how much I ultimately did. He’s an inventive programmer, and the interplay between the visuals and the beats was perfectly hypnotic. A series of fuzzy shapes flitting across the screen gave me a feeling of being on a merry go round, or looking at a rave siren revolving away, while rumbling bass prodded insistently at my insides like a nutritionist asking me how many carbs I eat in a day.

Lumière No 6 Excerpt II from Robert Henke on Vimeo.

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I’m really glad I didn’t give up on the piece after its first few minutes, either, because the middle section managed to grab me and pull me back in with – wait for it – melody. Sounding like a piano’s strings being plucked, the second act made the Hearn space feel even more like a haunted house, a place where ghosts mourn their passing by throwing huge, post-corporeal-form raves and screenings of Blade Runner. It totally lived up to the potential of the evening, and I was swooning.

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The side-room event, Ephemera, was more confusing, mostly in a good way. I’m not going to spoil it for anybody with too many details, but let’s just say that it takes place in a smaller, windowless space that purports to use smell (curated by “conceptual perfumer” Geza Schoen, whose business cards must be a hoot) as well as visuals by Marcel Weber a.k.a. MFO and sound by Tim Hecker. I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic disorientation of the visuals, felt the music was below Hecker’s usual standards thanks to some fairly aimless noise-drone sections, and couldn’t discern the smell part at all. Worth the extra $10, but not for claustrophobes. Nuff said.

Throwing events like these are hard, finding the right act for the room is harder, and using the space properly is harder still. It wasn’t quite an unqualified success, but Unsound Toronto was really exciting in ways I didn’t anticipate, and I would love for it to be an annual thing. Hint hint: Bitchin Bajas. Make it happen.

Unsound Toronto continues June 20 with Morton Subonick, Ben Frost, Atom TM and more. Click here for details.

Rapidly aging reviews: Jam City, Mike Gao, Pearson Sound

Posting is light around here while I plough through Polaris Music Prize listening obligations, but please accept these slightly outdated reviews for now, plus a mix I just finished last night that I will put up this week. I love you and want you to be happy. – Deemo

Jam_City_Dream_A_Garden_Cover_Art

Jam City
Dream A Garden
Night Slugs

File this under records I listened to at least 10 times and can’t remember a lick of after the fact. I will rep Night Slugs all day and have plenty of Jam City jawns in my virtual crates but the plot was lost somewhere around track three, where the shoegazey vocals and 80s-lite-funk-gone-melancholy congealed into an image as featureless as a Guy Fawkes anonymous mask. Not ruling out a monster second act but the first had me striding purposefully toward the bar long before the curtain fell.

 

APR070

Mike Gao
Migamo
Geotic

This is probably a reflection of my current workout regime, but my gym is increasingly making me think of Guantanamo. If pushup planks didn’t come with the tagline “from the people who brought you waterboarding” I might not feel quite so strongly that today’s R&B is part of a campaign to break my will and leave me moist and quivering on a rubber mat. But here we are. Someone switched the station today to roots reggae towards the end of my last set and I was too weak to believe it was real. Must be a plot to get me when my guard is down, and then bam, hit me with the new Young Thug. Fin.

I felt a bit the same when I heard the new Mike Gao sandwiched between some tuneless post-grime single (seriously, what is plaguing the scene right now, it’s like mid-00s Autechre all over again) and a fourth-rate J Cole type (shudders). It’s a trap! But no, don’t Ackbar too soon. Geotic really is a whole album full of greasy neo-soulquarian beats and back-to-the-futuristic talk box-rocking prog synthism. There’s a hint of trap in the gothic piano basslines of Red Car and the sputtering snares and hats of So Hard To Be Free. But for the most part this is more of the glorious boom bap future that the early Low End Theory cats seemed to promise us when they hit the underground in the late 00s.

 

 

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Pearson Sound
Pearson Sound
Hessle Audio

Manny Farber’s white elephant art vs termite art theory is pretty handy when talking about pop music, though the size issue – white elephant art tends to overwhelm with presence but doesnt stand up to scrutiny like termite art’s rich details on the edges of the work – is figurative, not literal. When I first heard Mumdance and Logos’ Proto, and not long after, Pearson Sound’s self titled disc, I was mostly baffled at how dry and inhuman my favourite producers were becoming. Hoping for an actual musical note, never mind a melody, was like mustering the effort to scale a series of sand dunes in hopes of finding an oasis next to one of them. I like drums as much as the next dance geek but some of this stuff sounds like it could have been made using Einsturzende Neubauten’s power tools.

Repeated exposure made me enough of a fan of Proto that I decided to pick up the vinyl, and when I got back to my decks and turned my subwoofer to a suitable setting – a rare indulgence, out of respect for the neighbours – I was floored. But also suspicious, which brings me back to Farber. Surely anything that requires that kind of fidelity to impress has to be missing something in the creativity department? Does it mark this stuff out as middle-aged-stereo-equipment-salesman-bait, the dance equivalent of a Pat Metheny mid-80s sonic abortion? Am I going to have to grow a ponytail?

All is not lost, I think. The reality is that dance music was always meant to be heard in a club, on a big, nasty system that puts the kick drum all up in your sternum like a boxer jabbing away, and if that as a home listening requirement is not punk rock, well. Both Proto and Pearson Sound sound perfectly huge on decent headphones and speakers, but something is plainly missing until you break out the big hardware.

Pearson Sound in particular is an odd beast on mediocre headphones like mine. Subtle shifts in texture, plus a general lack of a sense of the stereo field leaves the high synth moan in ‘Crank Call’ flat and repetitive; on a good system, it wobbles and sways with every iteration. Cheap ear buds flatten the dynamic shifts that the arrangement in ‘Russet’ is carefully tailored to unveil. Pushed by speaker cones out into the air, it’s masterful.

A steady diet of these discernible yet austere pleasures would quickly become unpalatable. But then, so would any other form of extreme minimalism – drone, ambient, Neu!, colour field painting, etc. Pearson Sound has grit and detail, shadow and light, and play, its particular mixture of which is singularly great. But the emphasis is on ‘singular’.

 

Catching up: Björk, John Carpenter, DJ Clent

bjork

Björk
Vulnicura
One Little Indian

I guess this is Bjork’s breakup record but I always heard, well, all of them as breakup records. All that vocalese and weird phrasing and unprompted high-note-hitting screams angst to these ears. It’s just that on Vulnicura the lyrics match up to the overall mood. You can’t mistake “History of Touches” for merely pining for the fjords.

It really works. The prog-rock time signature wonkery and emotive ramblings perfectly capture the feeling of once-solid emotional supports disintegrating with little warning. And the production is riveting, making full use of strings’ inherent melancholy. I wouldn’t wish the apparent emotional turmoil of this record on anyone, but sad Bjork appears to produce the best Bjork.

carpenter

John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s Lost Themes
Sacred Bones

People need to make more John Carpenter movies, apparently. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s Drokk was apparently commissioned for Dredd, but the filmmakers ultimately didn’t feel the very Carpenter-like vibe of their score would fit the more conventional-action-movie movie itself. Likewise, apparently Mr. Carpenter has lots of tunes for movies that never existed or got made, and it’s a fun game to listen to these while imagining a Snake Plissken-like figure walking across a rainy landing strip toward the camera. Carpenter’s got a fabulous sense of drama and clearly knows his way around a synth or two; I’m not convinced I’ll be listening to this set more than occasionally given that his compositional skills are more limited than his arranging or melody-crafting ones — there’s a certain formulaic quality that’s maybe to be expected from a director who makes a lot of genre pictures. Still, some good fun to be had if you don’t ask too much of it.


dj-clent

DJ Clent
Last Bus To Lake Park
Duck N’ Cover

Since footwork was thrust into the wider consciousness (ie. white people like me discovered it – in my case, with DJ Rashad’s Just A Taste which was four years ago), the releases I’ve cherry-picked from the ether have spanned from super basic hack-job sampling to futuristic brain-melting slabs of innovation. Props to veteran DJ Clent for making a record squarely the middle of that spectrum without sacrificing any urgency or excitement. “Space Control” feels like a race car that’s going to fly off and smash into the warning track at any second, but miraculously holds onto the groove; “Fear This Muthafucka” pairs an eerie vocal siren with a series of spoken and synthesized barks that are as disorienting as being slapped around the face. But “Let Me See You Juke” is as straightforward as they come. Your juking, motherfucker, let me see it. The Nintendo song doesn’t totally work, but otherwise Last Bus To Lake Park is so good that I have a hard time choosing a favourite. Naturally, the track with the most “motherfucker”s wins by default.

The rest of 2014

One thing I would like to know is whether critics in the pre-digital era used to feel the same sense of angst over the pile of unlistened-to albums at the end of the year that I do now. It’s not just that there may be great records lurking in the unheard – that’s inevitable – but more that even the most stringent criteria for narrowing the pack seems to leave a bunch of albums that make the theoretical cut, but that I just didn’t get around to. We’re talking records by legends outside my chosen genre (Neil Young, Leonard Cohen) or on labels I love but by artists I’ve never heard of (the Light In The Attic set of native North American pop and rock). Reissues fell by the way side entirely. A singles list would have been a nice idea.

Well after my year end list was done, guilt drove me not into my usual relief rally of listening to old favourites through to the new year, but trudging back through the unheard to try to do right by the artists whose albums didn’t make my list, or practically anyone else’s. (On the plus side, my instincts about which records not to worry about during year-end crunch time proved largely spot on.) But before we dive back into the race against time and sanity, here’s a quick run through the ones that 2014 forgot.

PMM And Tuff Sherm
Gracefully Force Consensus
Reckno

pmm-tuffsherm-web

And here I thought the cassette revival was only for garage bands who think the upper and lower ends of the audio spectrum are so not punk. Tuff Sherm’s relentlessly anti-melodic assembly line funk and PMM’s self-contained ambient discomfort machines contrast starkly at first, but the lines blur as the tape goes on (PMM’s “Vitality” is a terrific take on Sherm’s clanking four-on-the-floor industrial machinery, while Sherm’s “Nature’s Revenge” is pretty enough to stop time – and, at 1:07, far too short).

Keyshia Cole
Point of No Return
Interscope

keyshia-ponr-cover

I guess it’s not cool anymore to pay attention to R&B, all the good liberal music critics have moved onto new country or polka or something. In that spirit I will refrain from a deep sociological dive into unpacking what “Rick James” says about black femininity post Eric Garner or something (“slap a bitch like Rick James”), and just point out that it’s a pretty solid jam. Cole’s voice is versatile but still distinctive, pulling off the monotonous, defiant hook with plenty of gravitas then getting all Alicia Keys-mellifluous on the verse. I might get a bit weary of the angst here and there, but guest shots by Future and 2 Chainz provide a foil. Bonus awesome: No better phrase sums up the lousy, exhausted, inevitable feeling at the demise of a relationship than “this party ain’t a party, it ain’t jumpin’ no more,” especially how she sings it, like a long exasperated sigh.

Lussuria
Industriale Illuminato
Hospital Productions

lussuria-web

Despite the presence of a steady beat, albeit one that sounds like it was filtered through a mixing board with epically dirty pots, I feel like Lussuria’s latest is fundamentally an ambient mindfuck that is best enjoyed through headphones at high volume. This is the record I thought/hoped I was getting when I gave into the hype and checked out the Actress record. It’s claustrophobic, dry, chalky and just broken enough to seize the imagination, but just conventional (read:tuneful) enough not to get boring. Admittedly I only need to own a couple of records that sound like this – at most – but this is one of them.

Orlando Julius with the Heliocentrics
Jaiyede Afro
Strut

orlando-julius-heliocentric

I could not name a Heliocentrics record off the top of my head but my impression is that I’ve tried to like them repeatedly and been disappointed each time. And I’ve never heard of Orlando Julius. And on a cursory listen, Jaiyede Afro leans more toward the slower, less firey Afrobeat jams than my favourite Fela discs. So, back of the pile, until one day doing laundry and it came on, and I slowly but inevitably realized the repeatedly compounded errors of my ways. The grooves hover like mosquitoes in humid air, with more than a hint of Latin influence, sonic descendents of the West Indies slave trade come back to their roots yet nonetheless transformed. And James Brown has never been such an explicit influence on Afrobeat as on “In The Middle,” to predictably thrilling results.

Sebastien Tellier
L’Aventura
Record Makers

Sebastien-Tellier-LAventura

How Sebastien Tellier managed to fall off the English pop press’ radar after the success of 2008’s Sexuality is baffling but maybe not surprising. This one wasn’t produced by half of Daft Punk, but hey, it did have production by Arthur frigging Verocai (and Jean Michel Jarre and Phillipe Zdar) so maybe give it a listen, anglos? It’s not quite impeccable but L’Aventura certainly has its moments, like a holiday that’s in some ways more fun to remember afterwards than to experience at the time. The loping, slightly seedy strings-dtenched lushness of tracks like “Sous Les Rayons du Soleil” might be a little too leisure suit-tacular for some, but scratch the Formica surface of “Ambience Rio” or the subdued bossa of “L’Adulte” and you’ll find tidily composed and arranged songs with elegant chord sequences that Jobim himself might have admired.