Best Albums of 2017

In the 70s music critics had an edge on the fans – if Richard Meltzer is to be believed, they got free records, invites to parties studded with stars, drugs and other party favours. In 2017 it is becoming increasingly common to not get sent the biggest new releases at all, never mind before they come out. (I note the dry irony in Taylor Swift’s album cover art appropriating newspaper logo fonts – several critics I know still haven’t received the promo.) In the mid 2000s I used to keep stacks of CDs in my desk, ordered by release date. When you opened the drawer, they stared back at you – imploringly, for less known artists, and reproachfully for the big names. Now digital promos from the majorspo arrive in dribs and drabs, sometimes expiring before you have a chance to hit ‘Play’ on track one. You can hear practically everything on demand via streaming, which is not new, but for me the landscape has finally flattened into a featureless horizon – your access is limited only by your time management. Everything is available, and everything is passing you by.

The effect on my listening is two-fold: I focus on genres I know I like, because there’s no force pushing me to engage with pop – it isn’t playing in the bars I go to, it doesn’t cross my twitter feed, I never hear commercial radio. (Pour one out for the major label marketers.) But I also feel perpetually behind, listening to records only once or twice because there’s an endless supply of new records being pushed by my genre outlets of choice (media content farms and ever-scrolling social feeds) and the FOMO is real, y’all.

So aside from the emergence of two new sounds, ‘weightless’ beat-deprived grime and dusty electro-ish drum machine industrial funk I’m dubbing CabVoltCore – neither of which I’ve seen trend pieces about so I’ve just guessed they exist – my listening this year roamed in a vast but fenced-in auditory landscape. And really, aside from the FOMO, it’s all good. I don’t miss what I don’t know exists (or don’t put at the top of a playlist). For what I didn’t miss, read on.

1. Jlin - Black Origami (Planet Mu)

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I really liked Jlin's debut, but I was a little suspicious of it being named The Wire's disc of the year - arriving amid the explosion of footwork at the time it seemed more like they wanted to celebrate the idea of experimenting with its rhythms than the actual result. Now I think they were just more perceptive than me - Black Origami is not conceptually that different from 2015's Dark Energy but it hit me like a bolt of lightning, maybe not coincidentally because the micro-bubble in radically strange footwork albums seems to have burst. With the field now largely to herself, Jlin's vision comes across as truly her own - a haunted landscape of reptilian hihats and shakers snapping menacingly over sand-blasted vocal snippets. If David Lynch remade Dune this would be the perfect soundtrack, all alien tones and martial snares conjuring a frightening yet fascinatingly unique planet ruled by huge worms. I don't know what worms sound like but they're in here somewhere, I'm sure of it.

 

The List

*Canadian
*** Not on Spotify

1. Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)
2. Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
3. *Sinjin Hawke – First Opus (Fractal Fantasy)
4. Floating Points – Reflections – Mojave Desert (Luaka Bop)
5. Richard H Kirk – Dasein (Intone)
6. Eric Copeland – Goofballs (DFA)
7. Peverelist – Tessellations (Livity Sound)
8. Gnod – Just Say No To The Psycho Right Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine (Rocket)
9. Fjaak – Fjaak (Monkeytown)
10. Errorsmith – Superlative Fatigue (Pan)

11. Pissed Jeans – Why Love Now (Sub Pop)
12. Ekoplekz – Bioprodukt (Planet Mu)
13. Blondes – Warmth (R&S)
14. Wolf Eyes – Strange Days II (Lower Floor)
15. Kingdom – Tears In The Club (Fade To Mind)
16. Claude Speeed – Infinity Ultra (Planet Mu)
17. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Artium/Blacksmith/Def Jam)
18. Sampha – Process (Young Turks/XL)
19. Delia Gonzalez – Horse Follows Darkness (DFA)
20. Bjorn Torske and Prins Thomas – Square One (Smalltown Supersound)

21. Yo Gotti and Mike Will Made It – Gotti Made-It (Gotti Made-It/EMPIRE)
22. Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains (Matador)
23. Mura Masa – Mura Masa (Polydor/Interscope/Downtown/Anchor Point)
24. *Drake – More Life (OVO Sound/Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money/Republic)
25. The Mole – De La Planet (Maybe Tomorrow)
26. Future – HNDRXX (Epic/A1 Recordings/Freebandz Entertainment)
27. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (DFA/Columbia)
28. ***Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Kulthan (Latency)
29. Farbror Resande Mac – Farbror Resande Mac (Horisontal Mambo)
30. Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)

31. Sherwood and Pinch – Man Vs. Sofa (On-U Sound)
32. Dizzee Rascal – Raskit (Dirtee Stank/Island)
33. Joakim – Samurai (Tigersushi/Because)
34. Gas – Narkopop (Kompakt)
35. Clap! Clap! – A Thousand Skies (Black Acre)
36. *Egyptrixx – Pure, Beyond Reproach (Halocine Trance)
37. *Daphni – FabricLive 93 (Fabric)
38. Sote – Sacred Horror In Design (Opal Tapes)
39. Tyler The Creator – Flower Boy (Columbia)
40. *Jacques Greene – Feel Infinite (Arts & Crafts)

41. Special Request – FabricLive 91 (Fabric)
42. *Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers (Constellation)
43. ***Craig Taborn and Ikue Mori – Highsmith (Tzadik)
44. Circle – Terminal (Southern Lord)
45. Oneohtrix Point Never – Good Time sndtrk (Warp)
46. Ikonika – Distractions (Hyperdub)
47. ***Weightless Vol 1 (Different Circles)
48. ***Weightless Vol 2 (Different Circles)
49. The Horrors – V (Wolf Tone)
50. ***Jay-Z – 4:44 (Roc Nation)

Mix: The Place To Be (and podcast)

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The fine folks at the Deaf Ears podcast (that’s Ryan B. Patrick and Cam Gordon) gave me the chance to crack wise about this year’s Polaris Music Prize short list. A couple chances, actually. Have a listen, it’s a cracking session.

My vacation is coming to an end so it’s time I give you something to chew on. This mix is a little bass-ier, less four-on-the-floor than the last. One for the heads…

Click here to download from Mediafire

Chance The Rapper f Nate Fox and Lili K – Pusha Man
Gucci Mane f OG Boo Dirty – Can’t Interfere With My Money
Jay-Z f Rick Ross – F*ckwitmeyouknowIgotit
Tre Mission – Got Me Too
Zomby – Digital Smoke
Neu! – Fur Immer (Boredoms/Eye remix)
Tyler The Creator – Domo23
Ms. Dynamite – Dy-Na-Mi-Tee
Chance The Rapper – NaNa
Jeremiah Jae – Evil Laugh
Sepalcure – The Water’s Fine
Shigeto – Detroit Pt. 1
Paul White – Until Tomorrow
Rocketnumbernine – Lope
dBridge – Not Known

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)

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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

Hov Is Watchin: Thoughts on Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and career risk

Hov Is Watchin

In my middle age I have picked up a funny affectation: I rarely listen to hyped new albums when I get them. A new Jay-Z album is something I try to avoid even hearing about. It takes weeks for me to forget about all the noise of every last pundit offering snap takes that took longer to type than to think up. They dissect the PR campaign, pick out a few lyrics to parachute into their review’s broader theme, describe the beats in the vaguest possible terms, evaluate the degree to which the album pilfers the artist’s back catalogue, and put the cherry on top: reading the lyrics through the gossip-rag-fresh details of the artist’s personal life. Pop music!

I can’t promise to do much better, but I will tell you this: Magna Carta Holy Grail is not the album you have been told it is. Jay-Z is playing the long game, so the least we can do is bring a little perspective.

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The high art and Hamptons references are critic bait — but don’t get it twisted

It would be so easy to string Jay up for yet more braggadociexpialidocious references to first-hand knowledge of the trappings of wealth. And on Watch The Throne, it really was genuinely annoying, because the name-drops came without a whisper of substance anywhere around them. There was no real talk on WTT, just talk, sandwiched between Kanye’s increasingly horrifying verses (Yeezus, what got hold of that guy). Here, Jay’s references are for other rappers, they’re not for the club, and neither is the record itself. Go back and listen to Blueprint 3 – were there any drums as hard as “F*ckwithmeyouknowIgotit”? Were there any old-school breaks like the one on “Somewhereinamerica”? Is there anything on MCHG with the flagrant pandering to the charts of “Forever Young”? Oh hail naw. This is Jay moving the goal posts once again — you rappers can talk about spending euros and having Givenchy, but your ignorant asses are still going to have to google Jeff Koons. He’s not trying to court rich white folks. He’s staying one step ahead of the competition. Battle rap 101, cousin.

Jay-Z is a business, man, but this ain’t a commercial album

Everyone is always comparing Jay to a CEO, so let’s think about his albums as a series of strategic business decisions. Reasonable Doubt was a bid for credibility, but it was part of a longer-term strategy. Remember, in 1996 rap solo debuts were the creative benchmarks for the rest of a rapper’s career – Illmatic, Ready To Die and the Wu Tang solo discs were all followed by significantly more commercial, pop-oriented outings. With In My Lifetime Vol 1, Jay-Z followed Nas’ playbook by releasing a critically loathed but more chart-oriented sophomore disc. Since then with every release, Jay has been balancing his artistic goals against whatever he felt his career needed: Vol 2 was a bid for crossover singles, and with Hard Knock Life and Can I Get A, he got them; Vol 3 was a restablishing of his rap bonifides; Roc La Familia was an attempt to bolster his label roster (the man is a genius at creating alternative revenue streams, if not at signing rappers who are worth a shit – ahem Bleek ahem ahem); and so on.

BP3 was a Roc La Familia, a disc whose whole purpose was to remind the world that he signed Rihanna, Kanye and J Cole. Watch The Throne was an extended guest verse that he knew would sell on star power alone. So what’s MCHG? You tell me. There are no obvious massive singles. Jay could have waited until something caught on at radio, the way he did with “Run This Town,” but he had a better idea: sidestep the whole pressure to make pop hits and license the album to Samsung’s app. Five million payday out the gate takes the pressure off sales figures, and needing to remind us that he’s a hit machine. What would Jay the businessman do (WWJD)? What part of his business needs shoring up? You guessed it: Make a rap album for rap fans. All you Galaxy 3 owners bought it anyway, might as well make a bid to win back some old heads. Cynical critics weren’t even looking for the possibility that Jay would use Samsung to score himself some artistic freedom. Y’all got rope a doped.

Is MCHG a career highlight?

With Jay, you never can tell for certain how calculated his moves are; I doubt he can either. All I know is, there are four Jay-Z albums you can and should listen to all the way through if like me, you only have a limited appetite for pop Hov: Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 3, American Gangster and now Magna Carta Holy Grail. The others have great, timeless singles – “99 Problems” is by no means a bid for pop stardom; “I Just Wanna Luv U” absolutely is, so there’s no pattern per se to how they’re organized – but these albums are the ones that came when Jay either felt he needed to prove himself artistically, or felt he could get away with grittier material without compromising his pop appeal.

For real though, MCHG truly belongs among his best, which utterly shocked me more than I can explain. If he’s the Stones of rap, this is his Some Girls: reminding you that he understands the trends and the underlying substance that the people pushing them are barely aware of. Smrik all you want at the line “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin,” but it’s a subtler version of “I’m overcharging n*ggaz for what they did to the Cold Crush,” of kicking a girl out of his car for making fun of his doo rag. Jay is still angry, still ornery, still about winning and jamming it in America’s face while he does it. If you love old Jay you gotta recognize lines like “your new shit ain’t better than my last shit / your best shit ain’t better than my worst shit.” You have to appreciate the creeping paranoia in “Part II (On The Run),” the gangster gone straight waiting for the feds to bust in the door one day (“I hear sirens when we make love,” B sings, and Jay responds guiltily, saying “she was a good girl before she met me”).

And if you’re an MC or a fan complaining about how rap never talks about serious topics ever, you have to recognize the career risk in making cuts like “Oceans” that muse about black skin and white tuxedos, about black street kids like Basquiat and Carter mixing with old white art world Hamptons money. The danger in talking about slave ships and yachts, and what we owe the past, not to mention our past selves.