When I worked at the grocery store one of my coworkers and I used to complain a lot about how the time clock was unpredictably three to five minutes off from the reality of actual defined time; the shorthand we developed when we asked one another what time it was (this was when not everyone had a cell phone on them all the time) was: "in their world, it's 6:03," etc. So these are the last reviews for the calendar year that ended, in their world, two and a half months ago. I don't care. After all, what have "they" done for us lately?
Lambchop: FLOTUS (Merge) [NO]
So, this is garbage. Lambchop have made pleasant, even moving records in the past but their latest "experiment" is listlessness disguised as experimentation, an hour of interminable minor-key ballads with a Vocoder mumbling into endless oblivion. Every song sounds the same, and every second is nails on a chalkboard. It's like listening to a Dire Straits album fronted by the Bon Iver guy.
Common: Black America Again (Def Jam) [r]
Common's obligations as a sort of diplomatic figurehead were affecting his music adversely as early as fifteen years ago, and there hasn't been much evidence that he was interested in scaling back to focus on creating an exceptional album since 2000's wonderful Like Water for Chocolate; this highly political comeback of sorts is a fine compromise despite having a few too many throwaway cuts. Producer (and jazz drummer) Karriem Riggins gives the new songs a lush, inviting throwback feel that feels of a piece with other recent protest albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and Black Messiah without matching the vitality of either. And don't expect a channeling of Common's most alarming past missives or most seductive past romances; his naive fantasy about women overtaking the planet is reductive and tiresome, entirely foregoing the wit of something like Parliament's "Chocolate City," the didactic stuff (always a weakness for Common) sometimes travels down the same odd road as KRS-One preaching the gospel against greasy food, and the love songs bubble without coming to a boil. But Bilal is a superb match for Common, and the three tracks on which he appears are highlights, putting the lackluster contributions of John Legend and (gulp) Stevie Wonder in a rather harsh light. Despite all that, this is most agreeable soul music with generally righteous and timely politics.
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic) [hr]
This exciting grand finale from one of the greatest American bands of my lifetime requires more thought than a capsule review can really muster. It would be easy to say "it's like they never left," and in terms of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg's energy and the potency of their lyrics that's obviously true, but ATCQ had already become something of a creaky machine by the time of their last record, The Love Movement, in 1998. Their sixth album was recorded spontaneously and secretly in the months ahead of Phife's untimely death, and it's sufficiently overflowing with ideas and complex emotions that it could only have come into being after a lengthy hiatus. It could be the best "reunion" album ever, since it seems to exist in the clear spirit of having something to prove, the way a group's first or second record often does; in other words, they sound older in the best of ways but they're also brash, youthful, hungry. In a chaotic time, the nonchalant warmth and peace in this album's grooves are a godsend for us as well as for them, a casual cornucopia of timeless, decades-summarizing hip hop; with vocal contributions from Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak and Busta Rhymes among others, it seems to compress the entirety of the culture since 1998 into an irresistible, enticing package. It flows marvelously. But the ageless sound of it all is of course an illusion, the tumultuous mood behind the years it captures illustrated best by Q-Tip on "Melatonin": "Population gettin' tired now, everybody wants inspired now, racist emails fire out [...] The world is crazy and I cannot sleep but they don't know [...] I read the paper so that I can see what they don't know / I'd rather stay indoors and make a beat but they don't know." It's incredibly heavy, somehow heavier when it comes from a voice you've spent much of your life trusting. You can be forgiven for reveling in the last boasts and challenges-to-a-duel we'll ever get to hear from Phife, on the ironically titled finale "The Donald," which also give a nod to external aids that weren't around when he last said his piece: "Off top on the spot, no reading from your Whackberry [who but Tribe could get away with that one?] / leave the iPhones home, skill sets must be shown / I'mma show you the real meaning of the danger zone." Now that he's gone, now that they're gone, their winning streak is destined never to be broken.
The Rolling Stones: Blue and Lonesome (Interscope) [r]
This collection of raw blues rock is as much a coda as the ATCQ album, only these guys don't know or won't admit it. On record at least, the Rolling Stones haven't sounded this tight, or even this much like a rock band, in decades; and by their choice of material -- covers of Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon et al. -- there's a sense that they're not pretending or operating strictly by obligation as a corporate entity for a change. Don't get too excited; there's more resignation than fire, and several songs wander into boredom (twice courtesy of special guest Eric Clapton), and why are new chapters of this story really necessary in the first place? But as a wistful and defiant nod to the past in the vein of John Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll and as proof that these dinosaurs still are capable of getting their shit together long enough to groove, it's a surprisingly pleasant and enjoyable listen that doesn't require a lot of apology. Mick sounds fantastic; what sort of deal with the Devil did that man make?
Flock of Dimes: If You See Me, Say Yes (Partisan) [hr]
Flock of Dimes is Jenn Wasner, half of Wye Oak, a band freely defined for years by the sound of her guitar playing; this project bears little resemblance to the impulses that seem to drive her full-time outlet. Instead, this is the music of my private universe: synth-layered dreampop with touches of trip hop and '90s mainstream radio, and infused with an emotion in the vocals and arrangements so lush you could fall into it. I don't remember thinking of Wasner as an Elizabeth Fraser disciple, but her writing and singing both call Cocteau Twins to mind here, and the plaintive, floating vibes are distinctly welcoming of intense reflection. It's not all shoegazing or easy listening by any means; the songs, productions and arrangements do probe: witness the use of chanting on "Minor Justice" or the way the opening and closing suite "Sometimes It Is Right... To Have No Answer" leaves its incomplete sentence hanging for the full duration. But somehow Wasner seems most in touch with herself when the songs fall fearlessly into off-kilter nostalgia; "Semaphore," for example, builds upon itself toweringly, gracefully, and could be a lost mid-'80s Kate Bush composition. Regardless of such contextualizing, this is one of the most beautiful, seductive and inviting pop albums of the year.
Swet Shop Boys: Cashmere (Customs) [hr]
Heems recorded a fine solo album last year, Eat Pray Thug, and it deserved many times the attention that it got, but ever since the heartbreaking disintegration of Das Racist -- the closest our generation got to a Sex Pistols -- there's been a gap in the world, in the shape of a collective of MCs anchored by a fucking great rapper who was always best in a group context. If you didn't realize how much you missed hearing him bounce off another relentlessly probing and funny entertainer, Swet Shop Boys' proper debut will fix you; Heems teams up here with British-Pakistani actor and rapper Riz MC (you saw him in Nightcrawler), easily his partner's equal in speed and humor if not self-deprecation. The record is an absolute gift; it comes out swinging with the TSA-attacking banger "T5" followed neatly by the hook-filled "Shottin" and the flagrantly odd "Aaja." If you're looking for Heems being Heems but also hints of the same wide-ranging ambition in production and style that made Relax such an out-of-time gift, try "Tiger Hologram." What people always miss about Heems when they dismiss him as a novelty rapper is how much pain is centered in his humor: "I'm so fly bitch / but I'm on the No Fly list" is a joke, and yet it's not a joke at all, and it's funny, but it really isn't. The pair's sensibility and perspective are unique, fresh and challenging in a manner you simply won't find elsewhere in music, within or without hip hop -- and in the decade after music stopped being a viable avenue to riches and power, we get the intellectual equivalent of a classic rap boast: "Gettin' paid to lecture at unis that turned me down." Right on, man -- I hope they're paying you a fucking lot; I'd buy your music a hundred times if I could.
The Wave Pictures: Bamboo Diner in the Rain (Moshi Moshi) [hr]
This may be the most consistently inspired rock band currently going, and they're also one of the most prolific -- their energy and lyrical inventiveness a bottomless resource in the vein of John Darnielle, their unassuming charm and thoughtfulness a callback to giants like the Only Ones and the Go-Betweens, their riffing and vamping stronger than you'd ever expect within such tight compositions. The Wave Pictures already put out an album this year, the galvanizingly lovely A Season in Hull, recorded acoustically and only available on vinyl, and this unfocused, even haphazard canon release might seem slight in comparison, but only with the most cursory of glances. The opening ramble "Panama Hat" anchors another of Dave Tattersall's friendly animal stories ("you made friends with my black and white cat / I never saw him take to someone new like that") against another engaging, introspective ballad on human relationships, with plenty more to follow. The performances are as spontaneous-sounding and robust as ever -- Tattersall's great, dirty soloing on "H.D. Rider" a clear standout, along with the delicately pretty instrumentals "Bamboo Diner Rag" and "Meeting Simon at the Airport" -- and run the same gamut of reflection and slight poetic menace as Hull, with "Now I Want to Hoover My Brain Clean" adopting the "House of the Rising Sun" riff to unsettling effect behind words about personal failings ("I used to be argumentative and I still am"). The big standout is "Pool Hall," a sort of bohemian "Come Dancing" story (they're tearing it down) with anger over changing and aging buried under the inability to turn off one's philosophical acceptance. And once again, the record ends with a rocker ("The Running Man") that fails to seem at all like an ending. This is a tricky recommendation because I don't think you should start with it if you're new to the band -- I haven't reviewed it yet, but 2013's City Forgiveness edges close to masterpiece level -- but once you do know them, you'll treasure every precious second of it. To be honest, they are now possibly my favorite currently operational and at-peak guitar band.
Ezra Furman: Songs by Others (Bella Union EP) [hr]
An enthusiastic musical omnivore, Furman lays out his influences and makes something out of every one of them -- Beck is made noisy and chaotic, Arcade Fire is transformed into doo wop, LCD Soundsystem's "I Can Change" is brought down to its pained essence, and the Replacements' "Androgynous" attains the anthemic quality the (gorgeous) original version sidesteps. All but two of these cuts were issued as a bonus disc on Perpetual Motion People, but Furman threw in Jackie Wilson and Little Richard for a vinyl-only reissue this past Record Store Day, and it's worth the trouble of seeking out.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
This annual section is where I methodically check in on artists whose work I dug at some point in the last ten years but whose latest releases somehow fell under my radar. Sometimes there are gems, usually there aren't, but we made a commitment and we'll stick by it! Most of what's below from the better artists (Cut Copy, Furman, Lady Lamb) is special releases -- side projects, EPs, mixtapes, etc. -- as opposed to studio albums; generally I noticed that those happened if they were worth seeking out. That doesn't apply to Terry Malts, for instance, who've never been covered by most major outlets, or to anyone whose release had fanfare but I just missed it. I should also mention Curren$y, who as usual released about thirteen mixtapes this year, most of which are on Spotify (and are very badly recorded or at least badly mastered), and I just don't have time to listen to them. Sorry.
Azealia Banks: Slay-Z (s/r) [c]
Banks gets a lot of flack for doing the same sort of dunderheaded shit Kanye West does; the press doesn't make him suffer for it nearly as much, and I can't imagine why. I still like her a lot -- great voice, creatively adventurous, and admirably unaffected by outside judginess of her sexuality or outspokenness, though yeah, the Trump stuff is bullshit -- but this mixtape slash EP is a big disappointment, full of bad cut-and-paste and worse generic club production on the dance songs, plus at least one inexcusable vocal that really needed another take. The single, "The Big Big Beat," is good and has the relentless, fire-breathing infectiousness of her classic blog singles from the early 2010s, but it's not enough to redeem seven lackluster cuts. She's constantly the best part of her music, but she's surrounded by mediocrity.
Chatham County Line: Autumn (Yep Roc)
Increasingly listless-sounding bluegrass quartet's work is as prettily moody as ever, but they're neither as haunting nor as catchy here as they've been at their height. Still solid, just a little underwhelming; I've not been in the mood for this genre lately but if it's your focus you're likely to really get a lot more from this.
clipping.: Wriggle (Sub Pop EP) [r]
This is stronger, faster, meaner than the album and offers a good opportunity to hear Daveed Diggs spit at highest velocity. If they'd combined this with the conceptual material on Splendor & Misery I might have enjoyed their new output as much as CLPPNG.
Cut Copy: January Tape (Cutters) [r]
Cut Copy's one of my favorite bands running so I'm not sure how this slipped under the radar; it's an interesting curio that I like quite a bit as a fan, in much the same way I really like (and constantly listen to) Yo La Tengo's The Sounds of the Sounds of Science and They Shoot, We Score despite not necessarily thinking they'd appeal so much to the general public. Billed as an ambient mixtape of sorts with no song titles, it's not really ambient by any stretch -- it has beats, to start with -- though it is mostly instrumental. It doesn't resemble background music or Eno so much as the nifty electronic instrumentals Depeche Mode used to put on their b-sides. I'll take it.
Ezra Furman: Big Fugitive Life (PIAS EP) [r]
Again, I would have reviewed this right away had I been aware that it existed, but since the American music press refuses to take Ezra seriously if it acknowledges him at all I guess I shouldn't be surprised. "Teddy I'm Ready" and "Haley's Comet" are Furman and his band at their searing rock & roll best, then Furman chooses to slow it down with a few acoustic numbers, which limits the appeal of this to extant converts... but that's what EPs are for generally, right?
Lady Lamb: Tender Warriors Club (Mom + Pop EP)
This feels a bit more like leftovers to me, with none of the material really rising up to the sublime After; as on that record, Lady Lamb's voice can slip periodically into a hazy anonymity... but that only makes it more breathtaking when she picks the passion back up.
Male Bonding: Headache (s/r)
Promising British pure rock / punk / thrash unit made a wonderful record called Nothing Hurts for Sub Pop in 2010, went into a lower-key direction with Endless Now, and have now possibly ceased to exist, quietly self-releasing this third album that attempts to reacquire the energy of the debut, but the melodies and hooks are now sorely lacking even if the speed is intact. There are some bright and engaging tidbits, so don't skip it altogether if you like the old stuff.
Pink Martini: Je dis oui! (Audiogram)
The Muzak globetrotters are still at it, but of course they made their point years ago and did we honestly need another version of "Blue Moon"? This is the very definition of lifestyle music -- occasionally impressive, just as often dim and passionlessly twee.
September Girls: Age of Indignation (Fortuna POP!)
Pretty disappointing follow-up from this shoegaze collective loses the production shimmer, reveals weak songwriting and listless playing underneath it all.
Terry Malts: Lost at the Party (Slumberland) [r]
The most interesting release on this short list. In my mind I classify Terry Malts with Surfer Blood and Male Bonding as promising melodic guitar bands from the early part of this decade, but they're really quite different apart from their love of big loud hooks, Malts the punkiest and smartest of the trio. Whereas Surfer Blood had the most dramatic crash and burn of a rock band in decades and Male Bonding quietly slipped from public view, Terry Malts never attained the public notice they deserved; I said as much at the time but every song on Killing Time is incredibly catchy (at least half of them brilliant) and performed with Ramones-level abandon. Their third album, a huge improvement on the second, has the same narrative thread as the Avalanches' Wildflower: it starts bright and poppy with all hands on deck and the usual disaffected vocals that mask the genuine feeling in the songs themselves, peaking with the improbable "Gentle Eyes." Then the group seems to abruptly age several years and plays us out with half an hour or so of shimmeringly pretty but dark New Wave, fusing nostalgia with futurism in the tradition of the Barracudas (the band, incidentally, that I expected Surfer Blood to turn into). Bassist and singer Phil Benson really stretches himself on the shorter cuts, and the group's gradual, casual transformation to a kind of lo-fi Big Star seems to be nearly complete. So it's your call whether you prefer the intense rock & roll or the dramatic introspection, but no question this is the best maturation process of a guitar band imaginable these days. Just glad they're OK.
Tinashe: Nightride (RCA) [r]
A sonic tour de force wherein fifteen veteran and cutting-edge producers seem to bury the fine singer on her own album, with some of the druggiest and most otherworldly sounds heard in 2016, and the only record apart from Danny Brown's that sounded completely new and fresh in strict terms of its sound. But these are half-finished songs, and occasionally songs that shouldn't have even made it past demo stage ("Spacetime" and "Party Favors" particularly) weaved into hazy oblivion by bells and whistles. The phrase "no 'there' there" comes to mind, regardless of how good Tinashe's vocals still are.
- Venetian Snares: Traditional Synthesizer Music (Planet Mu) - recommended by Ryan Nichols, this is exactly what it says it is, bubbles and tickles like no tomorrow, and it's going right in the silent scoring file
- Tycho: Epoch (Ghostly) - same except peaceful
- Public Access TV: Never Enough (Cinematic) - bargain bin power pop, a wonderful rush of simpler impulses come flooding back ["Evil Disco" / "Sell You on a Lie"]
- Yello: Toy (Universal) - Swiss authors of ubiquitous 1985 hit "Oh Yeah" (and some other solid '80s proto-techno, now forgotten) present grumbled Leonard Cohen house music, pleasant dream-pop, weird novelty and all the fun of buying your first keyboard ["Limbo" / "Magma"]
- Xylouris White: Black Peak (Bella Union) - interesting hybrid of laouto drone, surprisingly evocative of John Cale, and traditionalist Greek vocals; starts out rocking and eventually goes pure ambient, then for unsettling, out-of-time folk melody
- Goat: Requiem (Sub Pop) - ramshackle songs and colorful experiments out of Swedish multi-genre fusion whatsit band
Itasca: Open to Chance
D.R.A.M.: Big Baby D.R.A.M.
John K. Samson: Winter Wheat [NYIM]
D.R.A.M. feat. Erykah Badu "WiFi" [Big Baby D.R.A.M.]
ALBUMS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS PERIOD:
Tracey Thorn: Love and Its Opposite (Merge 2010) [r]
I will be posting an official year-end list for '16 soon but I expect I will not bother with a full essay, just to keep things moving around here. The end of the decade is nearly upon us and it will portend some changes in how I approach new music here, but I will be doing an extensive 2010s retrospective in a couple of years and then I can say whatever needs to be said about how this year's best efforts operate in a wider context. See you shortly.