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

a-void.ca’s best albums of 2014

Click here to listen to the Soundcloud playlist, featuring tracks from each album

WHERE IS T-SWIFT?

Ok, I admit it, I didn’t listen to it. Nor did I get through albums by Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Keyshia Cole, Calvin Harris, et al and sundry. I also didn’t hear all of Ariel Pink, Foxygen, Swans, TV on the Radio, Leonard Cohen, Julian Casablancas and too many others to count. Don’t even talk to me about jazz or country. (I wouldn’t have much of interest to say.) So WTF *did* I listen to? I’m not even sure how to describe it. Dave-core? Morris-dance? …maybe it’s better if I don’t.

This is the odd post-poptimist desert I feel like I’ve been sent to, via my escape pod hurtling from the full time music-crit grind. The barriers have all fallen – like a lot of right-thinking people, I’m perfectly happy to flip flop from Nicki Minaj to Neil Young to Young Thug in the space of an hour, but what happens when you don’t have time to devote to what might properly be called truly Catholic tastes? Does my embracing of a specialty – electronic music, not even really including the hip-hop that used to be part of my professional bag – mean I’ve re-embraced some of the biases I spent the early 2000s working to shed, like an earnest young Chinese party bureaucrat devouring Marx and Mao, and then giving it up in favour of Day Trading For Dummies?

It’s not a question of openness, I’ve realized, but a question of how you apportion your listening time. For better or for worse, I shoved the stuff that seemed like a long shot into a hard drive folder marked ‘Later’ and threw on another platter of grime, and this is the list that came out.. There was certainly no kind of shortage of amazing electronics to digest; the volume of almost-worthy discs attests to that. (Sorry Tre Mission, SBTRKT, DMX Krew, Shi Wisdom, Mark McGuire, Run The Jewels, Pop Ambient 2015, I could go on.) The LPs that did make the cut seemed not quite dancefloor friendly, except in an abstract sense. Bits and pieces of LV and Joshua Idehen, Caribou, Distal et al slipped into my mixes with scant friction. But the inventiveness I loved often didn’t fit in the space between floor-filling singles, not that I mind. Still, this is a list borne of someone who experienced dance music in 2014 mostly in a bedroom or between headphones. Simon Reynolds’ inveighing against IDM-like anti-dancefloorism aside, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The startling truth is that being kind of lazy, in terms of challenging your sense of what you like, can still be an astonishingly rich listening experience. There was enough originality and delight in my year in albums to make the absence of all that pop and hip-hop I missed feel about as painful as the knowledge that I didn’t eat nearly enough artisanal cheese in the last twelve months – not quite the sting of regret as much as the vague acknowledgement that I may have missed something good, possibly, but it’s not keeping me up at night.

If I had one thing I would ask of dance music in 2015, it would be for the most hypnotic, challenging, arresting, electrifying albums to be a little more melodic. I love the discs I chose, but as a whole I felt like my diet was a smidge on the grey side. Producers like Mumdance and Logos, Peverelist, Objekt and others put out single after single of holy-shit-guys-listen-to-this-ism, but when I put them all in a mix, I ended up taking a bunch out and replacing them with some chooons to break up the monotony. And the grab-bag of albums felt roughly the same, though I didn’t curate this list in a similar way. You can’t turn down a slamming, mesmerizing beat like the ones all over the Next Life comp or the Clap! Clap! record, melody or no. Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.

Top 25 Singles of 2014 so far

You better stop, children what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
No but like, seriously, what the fuck was that? It was hella loud, yo
– Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

There have been a lot of records this year in the burgeoning BANG! BOOM! CRASH! subgenre, where the samples and/or drums are so loud they feel like they’re jumping out of your speaker and hitting you in the face, even at low volume. But the best of them remain undeniably musical, and even catchy. Evian Christ and Bok Bok are tops in this department, through different approaches; the American upstart is relentlessly melodic even with his noisiest bits (a skill he shares with Skrillex, of all people) while the Brit turns even the rawest repetitions into R&B, whether it’s with 80s quiet storm synths or the very Aaliyah-like vocal stylings of Kelela.

Looking down the list, melody is the thing, however subtle. It’s there in Martyn and Four Tet’s twinkling kalimba samples, Toronto’s Jex Opolis’ Zither EP (especially “On The Cliffs” with its stabs of vocal “aaaahs” and gently burbling drums), DMX Krew’s oddly compelling lounge-pop and even H-SIK’s amped-up breakbeat science. I used to think a hummable tune was optional, even quaint, but maybe the years of minimal tech – and the waning of the prog house sound in favour of who knows what in EDM-land – have made it more palatable, if not outright necessary.

You’ve got your grime-oriented and just plain weird producers in there, of course – Mumdance coming with a couple of collaborations (with Logos and Pinch respectively) that make it sound like there’s a vacuum cleaner and/or a rogue mobile phone behind the boards, as well as Phon.o, Lakker and L-Vis 1990 all delivering sides that are more not-there than there. But the tunes predominate, however simple — from Vitalic’s uncharacteristically pop-oriented take on Paul Kalkbrenner’s “Altes Kamuffel” to the chugging grooves from Melchior Productions Ltd., Todd Terje and KHLHI (a.k.a. Four Tet).

*Oh, and in light of the Polaris Music Prize short list announcement, it’s worth remembering that – without taking anything away from Jessy Lanza’s accomplishment – there’s plenty of Hot Canadian Electronic Action happening outside the album sphere. Jex Opolis, Tiga and Hobo on this list, plus Adam Marshall’s New Kanada label (and Graze alias), Guillaume and the Coutu Dumonts, Caribou’s Jiaolong imprint, Lunice, Kaytranada etc. Don’t sleep on the frozen north.

1. Evian Christ – Waterfall (Tri Angle)

2. Bok Bok – Your Charizmatic Self EP (Night Slugs)

3. Martyn – Forgiveness (EP) – (Ninja Tune)

4. Jus Now – Bare Wine (feat. Swappi) / Vodou Riddim (Gutterfunk)

5. Jex Opolis – Zither EP (Good Timin)

6. H-SIK – Sonic Rage / No Promises (Black Acre)

7. Sam Russo – To The Brink / Wanderer (Air London)

8. Jamie XX – Sleep Sound (Young Turks)

9. Mumdance & Logos – Legion / Proto (Tectonic)

10. Alex Coulton – Murda / Break Pressure (Black Acre)

11. Gerry Read – Shrubby (Aus Music)

12. KHLHI – Percussions (Text)

13. Komon and Appleblim – Jupiter EP (Aus Music)

14. Paul Kalkbrenner – Altes Kamuffel (Vitalic Remix) (Paul Kalkbrenner Music)

15. Juju & Jordash – Waldorf Salad/Third Planet from Altair (Dekmantel)

16. DMX Krew – Hot Punch / My Metro (Fresh Up)

17. Pinch & Mumdance – Turbo Mitzi / Whiplash

18. Melchior Productions Ltd – The Return Of The Cosmic Kids (Aspect Music)

19. Lakker – Containing a Thousand (R&S)

20. Todd Terje – Spiral (Full Pupp)

21. L-Vis 1990 – Ballads EP (Night Slugs)

22. Tiga & Audion – Fever (Remixes) (Turbo)

23. Flava D – Home / Hold on VIP

24. phon.o – Cracking Space Pt. 1 (50 Weapons)

25. Hobo – Mind Games (Soundz)

2013’s Best Albums: We Can’t Stop

While wearing my daytime business-editor hat, I noticed that the central bank in the U.S. is starting to wean the global economy off the stimulus teat that’s been keeping us alive since the crisis. Nobody seemed much surprised, which is what these money mandarins are ostensibly paid for – to see what’s coming around the curve.

Music critics are, by definition, no good at seeing the future; we’re lucky if we’re up to speed on  the present, at least in terms of who’s making good music now – whether they seize the zeitgeist shouldn’t really be our issue, if we’re doing our jobs. That’s what we’re paid for (or not, as the case may increasingly be).

I don’t know what’s coming around the curve in music, but I do know that the last few years of my own taste has been defined in terms of opposition to things I don’t like. Queens Of The Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails are heavy, but not screaming or grunting unintelligibly, or incorporating EDM farts and grunts in the hopes of making someone’s E-themed Spotify playlist. (Korn should have called their album ‘Pop a molly, Grandad’s sweatin.’) A$AP Rocky, Pusha T and Jay-Z were doubling down on wordplay while Kanye was turning into Patrick Bateman, to the bewilderment of even his most ardent fans. Justin Timberlake and AlunaGeorge were looking back to the 70s and the 90s respectively (AG’s “This Is How We Do It” cover was a dead giveaway, not that we needed one), trying to find a love connection when The Weeknd and Drake were driving the R&B bus too fast, coked out of their skulls and threatening to crash the thing because what’s the point of life, really? Even My Bloody Valentine were reclaiming psychedelia for rock bands with guitars, while their bastard progeny were doing their iciest thousand mile stare from behind banks of keyboards and drum machines.

When the financial crisis ended, politics around the world went through convulsions – a wave of throw-the-bums-out sentiment found everyone from the Tea Party to Rob Ford seizing the reins, as though the entire world was seized by a fit of Howard Beale-esque pique. In terms of aesthetics, I have gone through a similar upheaval; I woke up one day and realized I didn’t like most of the contemporary hip-hop out there, but that I wasn’t ready to stop looking for reasons to believe – history and common sense tells us that if you think everything is crap, the problem is you. That’s how I ended up writing about the things this blog focuses on; the energy behind hip-hop seemed to have migrated elsewhere., and I wanted to find it.

But the old favourites have been creeping back in. Number one on this list is Queens Of The Stone Age, a band that is so far outside the remit of this blog that I might as well have turned it into RollingStone.com. Ditto Camera Obscura, a band whose comfort-food nature I’ve been so uncomfortable with that I’ve never dared put their albums as high on my year-end list as I should, if I was being honest with myself. Am I turning back into the 17-year-old who listened to Nirvana and Soundgarden almost exclusively? Should I attempt to grow a mullet? Have the last 15 years of exploration been a waste of time, money and effort that I could have been using to learn Spanish or grow my own sugar beets?

Actually, the Jay-Z album’s high placement is the perfect distillation of the question: Did I put it there not because Jay-Z’s album was more adventurous, more vibrant and alive than, say, Drake’s, but because I already know that I like what Jay-Z’s music generally sounds like? I can’t answer that question – I’m biased. But the signs point to yes, considering that I didn’t even listen to Drake’s album for several months after it came out. I really, really didn’t want to, and Drake is arguably someone who is still figuring out what he’s about in a more profound and searching way than Jay-Z.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I buy that. Drake is trying to figure out why he’s such a jerk to girls, while only understanding in the most abstract sense that he is, in fact, being a jerk to them – his momma raised him well enough to recognize bad behaviour, but he doesn’t feel much in the way of empathy for the people he’s being bad to. Jay-Z, on the other hand, keeps his introspection hiding in plain sight. Listening to Magna Carta Holy Grail, you might think it was yet another victory lap, a cheery wave from the deck of a yacht. But it’s no passing fancy that Jay compares himself repeatedly to Jean-Michel Basquiat, a street kid turned graffiti artist turned mainstream darling. A misfit given all the money and fame he could dream of, and who ultimately couldn’t handle it. Jay can, but the undercurrent of fear and doubt is as easy to scan as the bravado on the surface.

Jay is just as self-obsessed, but he’s much more well rounded than Drake, and at this stage of my life, I find it hard to identify with artists who are only just starting to discover themselves – or in the case of Eminem, who probably never will know themselves in any real way. It can’t be a coincidence how many of the artists on my list are rebounding, either from life-threatening injury (QOTSA) or self-imposed retirement (Jay, MBV, Nine Inch Nails, Fall Out Boy, Justin Timberlake, Mazzy Star).

Wading into the new music that’s lighting up Pitchfork or the Twittersphere feels a bit like interval training in fitness, where you alternate periods of high and low intensity: every time one of the hard bits is over, you think there’s no way you can do it again, but after not very long at all your fatigue melts away and you reluctantly jump back in. Scrolling down the list of what’s hot in various cultural cubbyholes – Arcade Fire, Miley Cyrus, Disclosure – the temptation to misanthropically toss it all out with the bathwater is immense, but I always amaze myself by finding something worthwhile that isn’t just playing to my long-nurtured cultural biases. The all-surface-yet-utterly-fresh-and-compelling raps of A$AP Rocky, CFCF’s salvaging of Tangerine Dream et al but leaving out the pomposity, Danny Brown’s raggedy genius and DJ Rashad’s economical sampledelia give me hope that pop music isn’t just feeding endlessly off its own entrails – or that I am.

Miley’s admittedly-pretty-rad lead single puts it best, despite the painful attempt at patois: “We run things, things don’t run we.”  There are mixes to make and records to slag. I found 50 records to love (and I mean love, not just tolerate) this year alone for chrissakes! So I’ll keep throwing myself back into that octagon. When I can’t find anything to like in the next trend (Selfie-core?), take away my Twitter handle. Right now, we can’t stop.

A-void.ca’s Top 50 albums of 2013

  1. Queens Of The Stone Age – …like Clockwork (Matador)
  2. **A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP (Columbia)
  3. **Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc Nation/Universal)
  4. Camera Obscura – Desire Lines (4AD)
  5. *CFCF – Outside (Paper Bag)
  6. **Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd – RawHyde (self-released)
  7. *KEN Mode – Entrench (Season of Mist)
  8. Syclops – A Blink Of A Eye (Running Back)
  9. My Bloody Valentine – MBV (self released)
  10. Deerhunter – Monomania (4AD)
  11. Danny Brown – Old (Fools Gold)
  12. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (GOOD Music/Def Jam)
  13. Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu (Ribbon Music)
  14. **Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience (RCA/Sony)
  15. DJ Rashad – Double Cup (Hyperdub)
  16. **Bitchin Bajas – Krausened (Permanent)
  17. Ducktails – The Flower Lane / Wish Hotel EP (Domino)
  18. *Teenanger – Singles Don’t $ell (Telephone Explosion)
  19. AlunaGeorge – Body Music (Island/Universal)
  20. Ras G – Back On The Planet (Brainfeeder)
  21. Pissed Jeans – Honeys (Sub Pop)
  22. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (Columbia/Sony)
  23. Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll (Def Jam/Universal)
  24. Pop 1280 – Imps of Perversion (Sacred Bones)
  25. **VA: Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 (Night Slugs)
  26. *Mathew Jonson – Her Blurry Pictures (Crosstown Rebels/K7)
  27. Human Eye – 4: Into Unknown (In The Red)
  28. Washed Out – Paracosm (Sub Pop)
  29. *A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Tribal Rhythms)
  30. Cave – Threace (Drag City)
  31. Bassekou Koutate – Jama Ko (Cumbancha)
  32. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris (Tan Cressida/Columbia)
  33. Mazzy Star – Seasons Of Your Day (Rhymes Of An Hour)
  34. *Rhye – Woman (Polydor)
  35. *Kobo Town – Jumbie In The Jukebox (Cumbancha)
  36. VA: Livity Sound (Livity Sound)
  37. Phoenix – Bankrupt (Cherrytree/Universal)
  38. Atoms For Peace – Amok (XL)
  39. Gardland – Syndrome Syndrome (RVNG Intl)
  40. Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect (Lex)
  41. Autechre – Exai (Warp)
  42. Black Sabbath – 13 (Universal)
  43. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose (Warner)
  44. Jonas Reinhardt – Mask Of The Maker (Not Not Fun)
  45. *Illangelo – History of Man (Bromance)
  46. **The-Dream – IV Play (Def Jam/Universal)
  47. Machinedrum – Vapor City (Ninja Tune)
  48. Palma Violets – 180 (Rough Trade)
  49. Zomby – With Love (4AD)
  50. Cyclopean – Cyclopean EP (Spoon)
* Canadian
** From my first-half-year list
1-7  A joy to listen to all the way through
8-16  Miles above average, but with a tiny flaw – at worst, one not-amazing track
17-21  Very strong, but higher-ranking records have something intangible that these don’t
22-31  Memorable, if on a re-listen, slightly uneven
32-38  Either brilliant-yet-uneven, or consistently-great-but-not-brilliant
39-50  Records I flagged as best-of-year and worth going back to, but that I wasn’t quite as enthused about later on

Under Construction: Best-Of List

The posts here have been thin lately because I’m trying to clear my gargantuan backlog of albums I put off listening to but should probably check out before the end of the year. However, now that I’ve been checking them out, I’ve discovered that most of them are fucking godawful.

So, when the music biz gives you lemons, you whine and complain about what the fuck are you going to do with these goddamn lemons. (And if that’s not your bag, go listen to my latest mixes you bunch of ingrates.) To wit: my take on albums that didn’t make the cut…

Britney Spears
Britney Jean

Is it weird that most of these songs sound like they could be about Jesus? The winner in that category has to be “Now That I Found You,” otherwise known as Brit Brit’s answer to “Cotton Eyed Joe” (“I can live my life / I believe in faith / I have found myself / I have lost the hate”). I wish I were kidding.

Neko Case
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

This is not a bad album, and this is not a worst-of list. Even if it’s not fully my thing, I can admit that there’s plenty to like here, from the way the music often pushes what you expect from the country/folk production into a wholly different emotional place. “Man” is brilliantly pointed, “I’m From Nowhere” meanders in an endearing way, etc. But there’s just nothing that can make up for something as melodramatic as “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” at least in my books. It was based on a true story. Oh, well alright then.

Eminem
The Marshall Mathers LP2

Eminem can still technically rap. That doesn’t mean he can drop even one half-decent single anymore. Stop doing everything in a minor key! Stop trying to do concept songs! Stop ruining classic rock songs like Time of the Season! Stop making nu-metal songs like Survival Of The Fittest! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST STOP

Goodie Mob
Age Against The Machine

You are probably a bad person if you don’t think “Nexperience” is a song that Cee-Lo should have the opportunity to sing on the season finale of next year’s The Voice so that all of America has to pay attention (“I broke the rules with a pair of dancing shoes, committed blasphemy, even let you laugh at me… After all I’ve done, I’m still a niggerrrrrrrrrrr!!”). On the other hand, Cee-Lo’s deadly-sincere bubblegum ode to “my very first white girl” is the kind of awfulness I had previously only assumed could come from will.i.am.

Recondite
Hinterland

Who says minimal techno is boring? Certainly not the producer behind Ghostly’s latest full-length. Repetitive? Sure. Dry? Assuredly. Somnolent? Why if the rest of the tracks are like the first one, I think I could listen to this sort of thing for hours upon hou-ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Miley Cyrus
Bangerz

I was ready to give this a legit shot after “We Can’t Stop” started growing on me. Then I hit “4×4,” Miley’s stab at making a Florida Georgia Line “Cruise”-style country-rap hit, complete with Nelly cameo. “Drivin so fast, bout to piss on myself.” Screw the VMAs, this is precisely where Miley went off the rails. Honorable mention goes to the line: “I ain’t popped no molly, but you still got me sweatin’.” And incidentally, I’m glad that America’s youth are so comfortable with racial issues that an ex-child TV star slipping in and out of appallingly-unconvincing ebonics ranks some eight bazillion slots lower on the offensiveness-ranking-ladder than acting like a slut on television. U.S.A.!

Shooting Guns
The Brotherhood of the Ram

Who says stoner rock is boring? Certainly no-ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Top 10 Albums of 2013 so far

Since it’s the long weekend and people will be reflecting, as well as pondering the few summer weeks we’ve got left, it’s a good time to proffer my choices for the 10 best albums of the year so far. I blurbed the first five, and offer links and clips for the bottom five, lest this turn into a 3,000 word post, but if you want more opinions (as if there were a shortage!), hit me up on Twitter. On with the show…

1. A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP (Columbia)

ASAP-Rocky-Long-Live-ASAP

The moment when “trap” became a thing was bewildering. Being a person who is not young, I remember the sniffy attitudes critics took toward the instrumental hip-hop coming out on Ninja Tune and Mo Wax back in the day. A lot of that stuff has held up about as well as the rest of what was being played on college radio, which is to say it hasn’t (Pizzicato Five, where are you). Trap is basically the same thing – a deracinated, feeble imitation defined by what it can never be – and quite a lot of it will be forgotten. Strike the alt-hop thing from the history books, though, and we wouldn’t have DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing or Dr. Octagon’s Octagonecologist, two of the most inspired albums of the 90s. And while I’m sure the time is not long before woozy, cotton-swab-muffled ambient sounds and skittering hi hats make me want to put a pillow over my face, Long Live A$AP is the disc that will be my “yeah, but what about” exception to the rule.

What I love about A$AP Rocky, first and foremost, is that his persona is a kind of hyper-aggressive, hyper defensive stance designed to scare you worse than the average thug does (there’s no storytelling or boasts of arms-length mafia style hits, he’s going to kill you and your family – “hit yo children with that Smith an…”) while simultaneously daring you to call him on his arguably effeminate displays (“I be that pretty motherfucker,” one of about a dozen boasts about his looks and his fashion sense; there’s also his drug dependence issues, breaking the dealers-versus-fiends dichotomy). There’s never any question of whether he’s vicious enough, though. Amorality and narcissistic disconnection are his trump cards, the tattoo across his chest saying he’s got nothing to lose. The way he spits is its own kind of threat – other rappers make a point of sounding laid back and magisterial, but Rocky is all about the bark. “My whip white but my top black / and my bitch white but my cock black” is as aggressive as one of Jay’s best put-downs, and delivered with a syncopated flow that makes you linger over every consonant. We can hear it; all of him is consistent, and sharp; an ice pick aimed at your ribcage and a forceful grip on your girl.

As a pure lyricist, he’s no Nas. He’s more of a Pimp C, full of caustic wit and contempt, his diction as much a part of his appeal as his wordplay. Some critics find that leaves his record sounding thin, but personally, I’ll take a great actor over a decent poet any day. And if he is an actor, he’s a damn convincing one. If he ain’t smoother and scarier than Vincent Price, he’s the closest one.

Read my Globe and Mail review here.



2. Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd – RawHyde (Bandcamp, click here to buy)

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Built on dialogue samples from the old wild west TV show, Rawhyde is less of a concept album than a platform for Jeremiah Jae and Oliver 2nd to sling some rock-hard tough guy rhymes. The MCs compliment each other nicely; Oliver’s a nice battle rapper who makes the most of the concept (“I’m Wyatt Earp, twistin wild purp”) while Jeremiah Jae is his spaced-out comrade in arms. Even when mostly just sticking to the script, Jae’s rhymes are evocative:

The street desolate, the heat present
on the hip of the citizen
Police heist on the bank with your women friend
Rank next to Dillinger
Ace on the cylinders

And the dusty boom-bap beats have a casual, Madlib-esque quality that makes this perfect for just riding around town on whatever steed you choose. Extra points for Jae’s CanCon shout-out: “My shit gravy like poutine.”

3. The-Dream – IV Play (Def Jam/Universal)

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“I make love to my girls / I get high with my n******.” That chorus right there is basically The-Dream’s manifesto, and IV Play is evenly split between the kind of stuff you can play when your girl is around, and the kind of stuff you better have headphones for (or jam with your boys in your car). But it works. After briefly veering too far toward The Weeknd / illangelo territory with his 1977 album, IV Play is a bit of an aesthetic retrenchment towards 00s R&B. As an artistic statement, though, IV Play might be his best solo work yet, from the breathless lust of the title track or “Pussy” to the romantic duet with Kelly Rowland “Where Have You Been,” and the unexpected but wholly appreciated blues turn with Gary Clark Jr, “Too Early.”

4. Bitchin Bajas – Krausened (Permanent)

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Bitchin Bajas is Cooper Crain of the solid four-piece Cave and Dan Quinlivan of the criminally underrated Mahjongg, and they have a new album, Bitchitronics. I’ve only listened to it once but so far, so excellent; that said, I doubt that drone-oriented LP is  going to supplant this more obviously Krautrock-influenced EP, Krausened. That’s not a slam; I can certainly understand why a band wouldn’t want to remake the same thing, and it’s pretty hard to vary the motorik beat-plus-floaty-keyboard template that Neu pioneered. The amazing thing about Krausened is that Crain and Quinlivan nail the template while still making it their own. Sure, that’s the “Hallogallo” drum pattern the drum machine is playing, but there’s also a cheeky bossa nova rhythm going on, while the synths shimmer kaleidoscopically in the background. And it’s telling that, when the beat comes in or drops out, it’s not as though the track gets any less hypnotic. Maybe Bitchitronics will get on this list after I’ve let it sink in, but for the moment Krausened is Bitchin Bajas’ most intense, deftly controlled and mesmerizing achievement.

5. Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience (RCA/Sony)

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I haven’t thoroughly checked out the Robin Thicke disc either, though Blurred Lines is much more chart ready than anything on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. I doubt, however, that Thicke’s album is as ambitious as JT’s, or as successful in its aims, whatever the critics are saying. 20/20’s not a jaw-dropper the way Justifed was, nor does it have the hit potential of FutureSex/LoveSounds, but it’s definitely more defined by risk-taking. There’s no SexyBack Part Deux here, just a bunch of soulful extended jams – none of them shorter than 4:39 – with a real disco-era Motown/Tamla vibe. There’s Smokey here, a little Eddie Kendricks, some even more discotastic MJ than even “Rock Your Body”, a smidge of Shuggie Otis perhaps. But tunes like the gloriously slick “Spaceship Coupe” or the grown-up horn hits of “Suit and Tie,” to me, bring to mind Marvin Gaye circa Midnight Love, an album whose time has come. 20/20 plays around with all kinds of sounds that few other artists would touch, mostly because they’d be afraid to make something so radio-unfriendly, even something as funky as this. It’s the record I would not have expected or even hoped for JT to make, and a sweeter surprise for it.

6. Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc Nation/Universal)

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Hov Is Watchin: A look at Magna Carta Holy Grail

7. Matias Aguayo – The Visitor (Comeme)

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One to watch: Matias Aguayo

8. A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Tribal Rhythms)

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9. VA: Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 (Night Slugs)

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10. Kobo Town – Jumbie In The Jukebox (Cumbancha)

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Kobo Town and your best bets for Caribana weekend

Top 5 Singles/EPs of 2011 So Far (Ivory Tower edition)

As I write these words high above downtown Torontopiaville in the 300th floor of the a-void.ca Communications Complex, I recognize that it isn’t as easy as it once was for me to keep in touch with the streets. Are they still watching? Who is to say, really. The next time I take my private elevator to the ground floor and straight into a waiting limo, I will pause for a moment and raise a moistened finger to the air. In the meantime you have this deeply out of touch list, which I hope will let you in on what the caviar-munching, world-travelling elites such as myself are listening to. Behold: the top singles of the year, ivory-tower edition.

1. BlawanGetting Me Down 12″ (white label)

When I heard this first on a 2562 podcast it lodged itself in my brain, but it took me a while to realize how bad I needed it in my life — prompting a frantic Sunday vinyl search on my last full day in London. You might ascribe the addictive properties of Blawan’s meisterwurk to the admittedly bitchin’ Brandy sample. But if you checked his Bohla EP (on R&S, who are giving Brainfeeder a run for their money as label of the year) you’d recognize that blend of hard, ricocheting percussion and sand-blasted tech influences with the well-oiled grooves of UK garage and funky as the mark of a singular voice. Having a vocal carry “Getting Me Down” makes it more immediate, more openly pop, than Blawan’s other stuff, but the tuneless shudder from the depths of the song’s water-tight hull makes it twice as scary � and as thrilling � as any of your harder tech or dubstep. We’re gonna need a bigger boat to haul in a sound as potently heavy as this.

Blawan ‘Getting Me Down’ (White label) by punchdrunkmusicdotcom

2. Mono/PolyManifestations EP (Brainfeeder)

The G-funk legacy hangs over the Brainfeeder stable like, um, well, guess. But where plenty of beat-types turn to the Cameo- and Isleys-sampling so beloved by Death Row alums, Mono/Poly pours the aesthetic through 36 chambers of dread and unease to produce something a little rougher than expected. “Forest Dark” is like Moroder-pop synths wandering down a dark alley and witnessing a crowd gathered around a dog fight; “Punch The Troll In The Neck” prods you with edgy tones like a riot cop on a sugar high; “Needs Deodorant” makes a pimptastic groove into a slightly screechy, agitated answer to “The Hustle.” I never liked ‘relaxing’ music that much, anyway.

Mono/Poly – Needs Deodorant by factmag

3. Four Tet/Thom Yorke/Burial – Ego/Mirror 12″ (Text)

It’s not just the name recognition that bumped this on here. I swear. (Though did I tell you I totally interviewed Four Tet, while he was holding a BABY?) Truth: the most exciting thing about this star-studded (and when has that adjective ever actually implied anything other than potential disappointment?) single is that it sounds like they pressed it inside out, upside down and backwards. Both tunes are little more than uptempo house rhythms with ghostly swirls of melody and Yorke’s vocal dancing in and out. You can sort of see why Radiohead are commissioning remixes from proper dance producers like Jacques Greene and Lone — after this single, you realize that the problem with King of Limbs isn’t that their song ideas aren’t good, it’s just that the beats are shit. Outsourcing: sorry Thom, but it’s the way of the future.

Burial, Four Tet & Thom Yorke – Mirror by ListenBeforeYouBuy

4. LoneEcholocations EP (R&S)

More R&S delectation. I like to think the classic, relaunched Belgian label is annoying the shit out of techno purists with people like James Blake and the much more fun-loving Lone, who throws all kinds of sophisticated synth processing and acid house touchstones in with blatant ‘ardkore references and other hallmarks of someone who really doesn’t give a fuck so long as it’s fun. On the other hand, I also like to think that people who are discerning enough to love Detroit techno are also smart enough to recognize genius moves like the barmy glockenspiel arpeggios all over “Coreshine Voodoo” when they hear it.

Lone – Echolocations by GammaRay

5. Azari & IIIManic 12″ (Loose Lips)


Speaking of being wildly out of touch, I haven’t heard the Azari and III album yet. (Doesn’t help that I’m over my quota with my ISP, in the latest in a series of small acts of charity that have blown up into giant pains in the ass. But enough about me.) Pretty sure it’ll be good, though, since with every release they’ve figured out ever fresher ways to make vintage Chicago house sounds without slavishly imitating them. “Manic” isn’t totally faithful to any particular era of house, which is probably why I like it — the effervescent arpeggiated basslines, the doubled n’ detuned vocals that people keep comparing to Prince for reasons I can’t quite fathom, and the straight-up DJ Sneak remix that makes it much more likely to make mainstream clubbers’ heads explode without losing most of the things that make the original awesome. Always a good sign.

Azari & III – Manic by PurplePR

Honourable Mentions:

Hudson Mohawke – Satin Panthers EP
Slugabed – Moonbeam Rider EP
TOKiMONSTA – Creature Dreams EP
Com Truise – Fairlight EP
Drake – “Headlines” (mostly for the beat)
Mo Kolours – EP1: Drum Talking
Shigeto – “And We Gonna (Samiyam Chopsticks rmx)” – Full Circle Remixes
Venice – Animals, Stars and other Psychedelic Creatures
Wiley – “Numbers In Action”
Prodigy – Complex Presents The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP
Flying Lotus – Pattern + Grid World EP
Discodeine – “Synchronize (f. Jarvis Cocker)”

The best albums of 2011 so far coming soon!