Majical Cloudz: Are You Alone? (Matador) [NO]
Unbelievably turgid series of self-pitying Tumblr posts set to music -- and not only that, but music that strongly resembles Yanni with bonus sad male tears; thankfully you won't get caught in any lyrical ambiguity thanks to the ver y care ful pro nun ci a tion of every emo-Hallmark sentiment ("I'm already feeling changed," "one summer I fell in love for the fiiiiirst time / it would change my whoooole life / I would learn to looooove someone / and not be alone" etc.). The most godawful album I've actually sat through all year. Amber: "The only excuse for this is if he's either 16 or 80." (He's 27.)
Deerhunter: Fading Frontier (4AD) [hr]
Bradford Cox's disassociation from reality -- the present culprit is apparently antidepressants that have zapped his sex drive -- has come to entirely dominate Deerhunter; for someone who has almost always preferred his one-man side project Atlas Sound, that makes the band's latest record an instantly agreeable experience, like a less smirky version of Tame Impala, their adventurousness even greater but placing far less importance on pleasure. What's not so immediately clear is the sheer loveliness of the music he has constructed despite the loss of emotional connection to the world that he claims. Sounding more like John Lennon than ever (the harrowing closer "Carrion" is Plastic Ono Band-worthy), fronting a band that does indeed rock but also doubles down on a distinctive, detailed sound as their major identity, Cox nevertheless just as readily invites comparisons to David Bowie and Michael Hutchence. The former is because of the way the music seems to live inside the man's head, his neuroses attaining the universal; on "Snakeskin," he and the group ride high on sheer eccentricity with a warm, glam-like flamboyance sorely missing from the motorcycle hard rock of Monomonia. There's always been a hook-filled song or two on each Deerhunter or Cox release, but this album's Peter Gabriel homage "Living My Life" is perhaps their most infectious so far. There are drum machines and a sing-song looseness; there are good, driving guitars; there are songs that sound like Television outtakes with climaxes. (Once again, Lockett Pundt writes one of the best songs, "Ad Astra," but this time not the best.) The big thing is to stick with it; as usual with this band, the more you hear this the more you'll be invigorated and haunted by it.
Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop) [r]
Depending on who you ask, the two Beach House albums released this year -- and cheers to them for nixing the traditionalist album cycle in a very different way than mixtape-happy youngsters -- may or may not have about as much daylight between them as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Maybe that's a lot and maybe it's not very much, but it's comparable. We might all be liberals, but we're getting nasty over one another's preferences. Which means that if you're nuts for Beach House already -- i.e., if you're a filty communist -- you'll hear a lot more difference in the two than someone who listens to Dennis Prager or Michael Savage. Young socialists Berning your neighborhood are likely to favor Lucky Stars because it's unfussy, no-nonsense, very working class shoegaze -- it sounds like demos for their other stuff and boasts a more sparse, "live" sound. It's an actual band performing as opposed to a studio creation. The songs themselves typify the same basic, increasingly hazy and vague approach on both albums, so only an acolyte is likely to make much of the disparity anyway -- but the two albums are more distinct than, for example, Kid A and Amnesiac, a case in which the latter was always unmiskably and admittedly a collection of leftovers from the former. The best songs and moments are nearly equal on both records: the droning but simple guitar on "All Your Yeahs" and the sheer loveliness of its melody are a nice reminder of the beauty these two can create without all the adornments. "Common Girl" is better yet, world-stopping and almost Medieval but still approached with the smart, modest confidence of a rock band that happens to like things delicate and inscrutable. It's pretty impressive that -- however the final results come off -- this band is fervently setting itself to the task of approaching its projects differently, and the off-the-cuff spontaneity here is a nice contrast to the Clintonian size, polish and loudness of Depression Cherry. I'm a Sanders guy (to the extent I'm anything) and I prefer Depression Cherry, but when the moment of truth comes I'll put my energy behind either.
Kelela: Hallucinogen (Warp EP) [hr]
Whenever R&B chanteuse Kelela gets around to releasing a proper album -- this is her second utterly enchanting project after the free mixtape Cut 4 Me in 2013 -- it seems to me it stands a good chance of blowing everything else that's currently happening to violent smithereens. For one thing, she's doing everything right career-wise -- the slow burn of recognition flowing up from generous helpings of free music to this stopgap collection, both impossibly striking and immediately alluring to everyone who hears them -- to prime herself for a nuclear explosion; and hey, she dropped her icky publicist like a hot potato too. This lasts just 23 minutes, weirder and weirder as it goes on, so it's a short taste but consists wholly of flawless electronic expressions of desire, and improves on Cut 4 Me insofar as it is more than just a vocal exercise over disembodied tracks. The songs interlock impressively with one another: "A Message" slinks and soars, otherworldly but never alien, then "Gomenasai" fills in the bottom layer, so slow but with the most rattling sort of beat, and all about how Kelela intends to make you her bitch. And on from there with enveloping synths, nasty hooks, even a backwards song a la Sandinista!; Kelela laughs, she cries out, she whispers, but at every moment when it matters she's in absolute command. And in the year the Weeknd became one of the biggest pop stars in the world, "The High" takes the entire genre of drugged-out R&B to school. That bass will break you and as with the rest of the EP, it's intensely important you hear it as loud as possible.
Joanna Newsom: Divers (Drag City) [A+ (originally hr)]
The accessibility of the folky songcraft on Milk-Eyed Mender finally fuses with Joanna Newsom's vastly increased confidence as a singer and sophistication as an arranger since then; you could scare some parties away by announcing it's the album on which she sings a duet with a loon, but those inclined to take the journey will find the author less guarded than ever. The production's also significantly more varied, with injections of keyboards and slide guitar that surprise without becoming a distraction. The record explodes with glossy landscapes and elegantly crafted lyrics; you hardly have to comprehend every word to get wind of the story being told, after the failed relationship of the three-disc epic Have One on Me. This is the story of time moving forward no matter how hard anyone tries not to let it; it's about marriage, and the anxiety attendant to happiness -- which is to say, how will its inevitable end arrive? That sounds morose but this is often a whimsical glance at escaping a city, slowing and settling down, and reveling in love. It includes actual time travel. It has waltzes and folklore and time-stopping moments of ethereal beauty like the title cut. But more than ever before, no matter how much wordy stuff she gets into these songs (see the single "Sapokanikan"") and no matter how impressive and wild and ornate she makes them (the head-spinning "Leaving the City"), the pure, guttural vulnerability, loss, longing are what comes through in the songs and performances, never more than on the stark "The Things I Say," just Newsom and a piano, just spinning her emotions into one of those indelible melodies she seems to snap into existence at will. This feels magic; it is magic, and magic's never seemed so heartbreakingly human.
Roots Manuva: Bleeds (Big Dada) [r]
London rapper's fifth album finds him not so much in "conscious" mode as frozen in political terror; his great gift is making his rapid, cerebral flow somehow agreeably mellow, brutal yet soft. Wish we could say the same for the lumpy, uneven production, offering beats that are often badly matched up and even unpleasant. It's an odd contrast, but this is a grower.
Beach Slang: The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us (Polyvinyl) [c]
This album was made a thousand times before you were born, you have heard it a thousand times in your lifetime, and ever it shall be long after you pass. It is the curse of punk rock. This is the sound of infinity.
Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch) [r]
It seems difficult to do justice to this collection of ambient music and spoken word pieces without having seen the accompanying film, directed by Anderson. The engaging and witty story she tells finds her reminiscing and taking flights of fancy about the loss of her dog. Death hangs over it all but Anderson approaches the project with courageous good humor. It doesn't work particularly well for me as a recreational listen, but it's sublime in its manner.
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts: Manhattan (Rough Trade)
Once capable of generating surprising emotional depth from simple anecdotes of personal ineptitude, Lewis has -- like a lot of former figures of the anti-folk movement -- become a bit of a blando. He spins similar childhood memories to those of Owen Ashworth but he's far less capable melodically, and the humor that used to seem charming now comes off as forced and childish: there's a deadpan song about the horrors of being an opening act on a more famous performer's tour. He does wake up a bit on the fierce "Sad Screaming Old Man" the same way you can hear the "old" John Darnielle periodically spring into action on Beat the Champ, but part of the problem is I've lost patience with the sort of thing Lewis is selling.
Grimes: Art Angels (4AD) [c]
I'm not anti-pop but I'm very anti-this. I liked Visions fine. I like Carly Rae Jepsen and Chari XCX's albums. I dig some of Justin Bieber's singles. This plays to me like a snide lampoon of such things while somehow managing to outpace their substantial capacity to annoy. Grimes is a self-possessed artist and it's not for me to say she's performing some act of deception by emitting this weird, affected hybrid of Radio Disney and J-pop. Actually, let's stop right there: it's not for me, and that's the only useful thing I can say about this music.
Bill Ryder-Jones: West Kirby County Primary (Domino)
The flipside of Jeffrey Lewis, a British folkie type so morose he makes Bill Callahan and Jim O'Rourke sound like Paul Simon. You know if you're in the audience for sadsack, slightly rock-tinged pub music for the sleaziest of lonely nights. This is your stop, we'll pick you up at 6.
Floating Points: Elaenia (Luaka Bop) [r]
Sam Shepherd's debut might already be the most successful album ever released on David Byrne's record label; Byrne's of course known for associations with Brian Eno and this is one of the better modern appropriations of Eno's electronic non-pop music. It's not as inspired as Eno's most aimless noodling in the '70s but falls on the ears more easily than his modern work. Like most good ambient it's serviceable drift-off music and presumably that's the reason for its relative popularity, though it's sort of funny that it cuts off unceremoniously the very instant it starts to assert your attention with a long build of white noise and increasing temperature. Still, this is a good writer's aid.
Oneohtrix Point Never: Garden of Delete (Warp)
This is too much of a repeat of what Daniel Lopatin has already done and passes frequently over into annoyance. It doesn't reward close listening like R Plus Seven and it certainly doesn't work as ambient music, failing to vary the effects it uses nearly as much as that record or Replica. To be honest, it is a 45-minute session of noodling and modulation that seems primitive and repetitive, all lethal for this sort of recording. The adulation this has received frankly confuses me. As Byrne once put it, "Huh. So you know any new jokes?"
Arca: Mutant (Mute)
I'd review this but I can't remember the difference between it and the two albums above. BUT SERIOUSLY FOLKS, it's "fine."
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: 2015 EDITION
We now come to the last three albums in our absurdly delayed survey of the big and semi-big releases of 2015. As I've mentioned before, one of our rules is that if we declare a studio album "highly recommended" we somewhat foolishly consider ourselves obligated to examine each studio album and sometimes the peripheral items that artist releases for the ten years to follow. It's sometimes crucial, sometimes a form of masochism. Throughout the year I do my best to keep up with new releases by relevant acts via Twitter and various music news outlets, but in some cases -- especially artists who've, uh, fallen from grace a bit, maybe in my mind or maybe in the world at large -- I miss something or other and one of my closing tasks at the end of the year is to check everyone's discographies and determine what was passed over. I'm in a hurry so this will be brief and informal. Also, I had planned to address Oneohtrix Point Never's Commissions II EP but since I didn't particularly enjoy the new album, it seemed an acceptable casualty in in the interest of saving time.
The Bird and the Bee: Recreational Love (Rostrum) [r]
Apart from a Hall & Oates covers album I skipped, the last I heard of these cats was on Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future, which was so long ago that when it leaked I had not yet met my wife and still had a regular DJing gig. They've gradually fallen out of my regular repertoire, along with a lot of neo-lounge music I used to be very fond of, but I may have to re-investigate some of that music because this is extremely pleasant. Inara George and Greg Kurstin are more professional types than bands like Tennis that strive to do what they do in a less formal tone and the results are polished, danceable and lots of fun even if samey and forgettable. George's lyrics are still quite bizarre and uncomfortable at times ("I would kill myself to please you"), but they are generally not the most noteworthy aspect of the tightly written and arranged pop songs dominating the record. You get what you pay for but you'll like it.
Curren$y: Canal Street Confidential (Atlantic) [c]
Curren$y also probably released ten mixtapes this year but I gave up trying to keep up a couple of years ago; are we sure it's weed and not coke he's constantly ingesting? His studio albums have fallen off more and more into uninspired territory, with this year's good Pilot Talk III an intentional throwback to his best record, which was like three labels ago. This rush-job dominated by Atlanta producer Purps owes a lot to the slow motion melting sound of Future, who's featured on the first track. Curren$y mumbles appreciatively more than he performs. One misses the scrappy low-budget days of "Elevator Musik" and such; now he just seems like a background figure on even his own stuff.
Lupe Fiasco: Tetsuo & Youth (Atlantic)
I loved Lupe Fiasco's first couple of albums but his career quickly darted into a mire of confusion and as a public figure he's so consistently banal I have a hard time taking his music seriously anymore, but this is not a bad record at all -- his flow is forceful and engaging, the production wildly uneven but decent, but the lyrics seem to be getting sillier all the time, and with 78:27 of this it's hard to stay awake.
FINAL 2015 REJECTS:
- Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete
- Idjut Boys: Versions
- Jay Rock: 90059
- Low: Ones and Sixes
- Telekinesis: Ad Infinitum [NYIM]
- Mac Miller: GO:OD AM
- Battles: La Di Da Di
- Leona Lewis: I Am [NYIM]
- Ryan Adams: 1989 [NYIM]
- Disclosure: Caracal
- Corb Lund: Things That Can't Be Undone [NYIM]
- Israel Nash: Silver Season
- Glenn Mercer: Incidental Hum [great album cover, though]
- Dilly Dally: Sore [NYIM]
- Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Style
- Guy Garvey: Courting the Squall [NYIM]
- Martin Courtney: Many Moons
- Le1f: Riot Boi [NYIM]
The Also Recommended list will follow shortly. I've already almost completed the work on the year-end list and the first 2016 post so believe it or not, we're on schedule!