Hi! Songs list up in a couple of days, albums list next week, some cool new things in January.
Julien Baker: Turn Out the Lights (Matador)
22 year-old folkie from Memphis with a wide vocal range has every right to try and enlist us as her therapists but after the year I've had I don't feel up to the task. Repetitive and, if you're not in its audience, difficult not to hear as painfully indulgent. Inspirational sentiment: "You can't even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes how I think almost all the time."
Converge: The Dusk in Us (Epitaph) [c]
A metal album that got through my filters somehow (probably because they are also listed in some places as hardcore punk, which is still in my wheelhouse but just barely), and I never know how to review this stuff. "Universal critical acclaim" and all that. It's sludge. It's screamy and boring. I'm glad you guys like it.
Fever Ray: Plunge (Mute)
A.K.A. Karin Dreijer, half of the sporadically active, hipster-beloved Swedish electro group the Knife, who seemed content to disappear a few years ago; one previous solo album from 2009 that I apparently purchased (!?) but only dimly remember. The follow-up is certainly aesthetically cheerier than anything from the Knife's records, but the purportedly varied and miraculous sound relies heavily on shrill synths and on the library of processes to which Dreijer submits her thin, abrasive but intriguing voice. The challenging politics of the Knife's last record are there but make themselves deliberately inscrutable, which is somewhat irksome, except when the subject is sex -- "this country makes it hard to fuck," indeed. The explicit lyrics on "To the Moon and Back" are less radical than their hilarious matchup with what sounds like someone demonstrating computer speakers with a MIDI file of Depeche Mode's "Nothing to Fear." And in this abbreviation-heavy, emoji-filled hell of a year I can sort of get with the sensibility of "IDK About You," but is this all youthfulness and speed as affectation? It's just more noisy art project than music, just like -- whoa -- the Knife.
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Rest (Because)
Like Gainsbourg's other records, this is solid pop, only without the consistent identity brought to the music by Beck; Gainsbourg cowrote these songs with producer SebastiAn -- apart from one Paul McCartney contribution, which is quite worthwhile and futher demonstrates that McCartney is better at quietly staying relevant in his seventies than he was at loudly doing the same in his thirties -- and they seem designed to demonstrate her vocal chops, which means they meander a bit between polite chamber pop and equally polite dance music. Hers is an endearing persona, even behind the layers of costuming; spinning between languages, enlisting Owen Pallett for some arranging, attaining some Feist-like sinister balladry, it all feels just as crystalline and untouchable as it possibly could.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Soul of a Woman (Daptone) [r]
Jones, a gregarious and gifted singer, died late last year -- a major loss for music past and future -- but this feels like a missive for the Trump era she didn't live to see. I've long admired Jones despite feeling that her band often treated soul as too much of an affectation; this holds on the platitudes that cover the first few cuts, but what's surprising about this record is how much Jones, holding onto every second, falls completely and convincingly into the engaging weirdness of many of these cuts, which get slower and less beholden to the record-collector fetish at the back end. "Girl! (You Got to Forgive Him)" is the least mannered music the band has ever made (in the studio, that is); "Pass Me By" is perhaps Jones' finest vocal on record, made more astounding given that she was probably in the final stages of her disease when it was recorded; and her own composition "Call on God" is the most beautiful moment in her sadly brief career. This didn't have to be such an engaging and singular record, and the fact that it does not attempt to summarize or eulogize its singer will ironically allow it to last far longer as a tribute to her talents and legacy.
Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-) [r]
78 year-old Staples, singing since 1950, collaborates once again with Jeff Tweedy for an album of rootsy, spiritual protest music; Tweedy wrote or cowrote all of these songs, with a few contributed by the singer, and it's clear he worked harder on this than on the last two Wilco records. The variance in the contributions on Staples' Livin' on a High Note by the likes of Nick Cave, Case-Lang-Viers, M. Ward, Valerie June and Merrill Garbus isn't missed as much as you'd expect, strictly because the mood Tweedy and Staples establish here is so earnest and infectious in its political idealism and simplicity. "Build a Bridge" hits hardest, "All Over Again" sinks deepest. Staples' adapts easily to her surroundings, a pro who's known how to do that since long before Tweedy was born, but her ferocity is undiminished and -- if anything -- validated by the changing world she occupies, by the accumulation of the changes she's tracked since she rubbed shoulders with Sam Cooke in Chicago.
Björk: Utopia (One Little Indian) [r]
Björk talks about this being an ego-free dream collaboration between herself and Arca, but perhaps because Arca's work tends to annoy me so much, it certainly sounds to me far more like a record dominated by his bubbly trickery than Vulnicura did. As on that record, Björk seems determined to surrender the idea of obscurity: her voice is mixed so that every harrowing or triumphant word is relatively easy to pick up, and the brew of sex, advice and hard-won optimism can reach out directly to a world full of waiting ears. Despite the upbeat tone it's as much of a slog as Vulnicura, running long and failing to transcend its mood and craft any melodies or beats that you could imagine reeling you back in out of context, apart from the agreeably oddball "Claimstaker." Björk's in a difficult position because musically, it's increasingly hard for her to reach the sense of radicalism that made her best work so endearing, so she has attempted to cover for it thematically with mixed results, but the record -- if somewhat overpraised -- is endearing and smart and rewards attention, though Arca again makes it slightly tough to really ever enjoy the experience even when Björk seems insistent that you must.
Iglooghost: Neō Wax Bloom (Brainfeeder) [hr]
Melodramatic press notes about how this Irish producer almost killed himself making this record full of what '90s ravers called "hellish beats" notwithstanding, this really is the wax to beat if you like electronic music that feels like it's crawling into your ear and battering around in your brain. For a moment after hearing it, normal music seems woefully lacking in detail. Along with Jlin, this proves that abrasive dance music doesn't have to be tiresome in the manner of Arca, can in fact generate bodily responses and pleasure you wouldn't merit possible considering the cerebral origins of the music. The record has a giddiness, coming fast and hard and demanding that you keep yourself surrounded by its weird, indescribable grooves, that doesn't subside for its full forty minutes -- which is just long enough to avoid any real fatigue, as well. Modern and forward-thinking and a product of our times maybe, but its chaotic texture is pure hi-BPM rock & roll.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
This is the annual terse check-in of the Wikipedia, Allmusic and Spotify pages of bands we praised highly at some point in the last ten years who nevertheless had releases, small or large scale, this year that somehow escaped our attention.
Ásgeir: Afterglow (Columbia)
Pretty but bland, overly clean euro-R&B from the Icelandic architect of In the Silence, a much more charming album.
Curren$y: The Fo20 Massacre (s/r) [r]
Curren$y: The Champagne Files (s/r) [c]
The latest two mixtapes, both audible on Youtube and I assume you can download them somewhere. Fo20 is relaxed and casual and effortlessly good, feels like an old shirt or something, and I found myself wondering why I was going through my life without constantly checking for the latest Curren$y tape to carry around with me. Then I listened to The Champagne Files and remembered; it's an uninspired drawl through approximately 50,000 repetitions of the title and no strong production or verses to speak of, though the cover art is extremely good.
Holy Fuck: Bird Brains (Innovative Leisure EP) [hr]
Holy Fuck's small-scale redefinition of the fantasy ideal of what a rock band can be, using organic bodies as machines, analogue as digital simulation, is in a strange way as radical and shattering as something like Wire at their best, and it seems more obvious in a small, beat-heavy bite like this than on their LPs, ingratiating as they can be. This is a recording that can sound like it has a wholly different character depending on where and how you listen to it, but a consistency is that its adventurous instrumentation and commitment to prolonged explosiveness are inspiring and addictive.
Jlin: Dark Lotus (Planet Mu EP) [hr]
In the '90s they used to talk a lot about "junk culture"; without saying anything broad about it, artists like Beck and Radiohead seemed to be communicating something about all human artistic and commercial creation being simultaneously available, condensed, commodified, and the effect of feeling overwhelmed and numbed by both the possibility and limitation of trying to process it all and wondering how the future would look. Jlin's music is the sound of culture actually collapsing on itself, with -- to invoke Johnny Rotten -- no future at all; a sample from the movie The Birds is made both cute and foreboding on the first track, an upside-down Double D & Steinski beat places you in alien territory on the second. It's like being in a sensory deprivation tank with nothing but vague memories of what has been seen and felt in the distant past to comfort you. Jlin would expand and refine this sensibility on her album Black Origami, but here she has to say it all in just two tracks totalling eight minutes, and the effect is thrilling and intense in a manner specifically evocative of the Beatles' visions of the world ending in "Revolution 9"... only you can dance, if you want, but will you? The third or fourth time in a row I listened to this an ambulance passed through the intersection in front of me, and I could have sworn its siren was a part of the music.
The Mountain Goats: Selected Goths in Ambient (Merge EP)
Included as a bonus with certain purchases of the analogous album, this isn't really any less in character than Goths itself but obviously has less replay value... unless you're studying or something. Still, it's mighty convincing, and doesn't slide into parody like the (otherwise more convincing) Devo E-Z Listening Disc, meaning that if John Darnielle really went in on this corner of his versatility it would probably be something.
The Mountain Goats: Marsh Witch Visions (s/r EP) [r]
Bandcamp-only release follows the usual procedure of Darnielle finding some way to get rid of leftovers from his latest record, and to satiate the fans who only ever want to hear him alone with a guitar and some recording equipment. Outside of the extremely interesting demo of "Rain in Soho," the best of the outtakes is easily "No More Tears," the only one that could possibly have stood up with what made the album, though barring a radical rearrangement it would have been its most conventional song by far. All of them have the usual terrific lyrics that further explore the scope of Goths without really expanding it.
Samiyam: Pizza Party (Stones Throw) [r]
Calmer, less jittery and sample-filled than Animals Have Feelings, but still a restless joy after a fashion.
Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La (Customs EP) [hr]
As fabulous as their debut album Cashmere was, this stopgap release is looser, wilder, and goes harder -- Heems and Riz MC have achieved a full synthesis that emphasizes their differing approaches while casting them firmly as a unit, and note that this is the first time since probably Nehru Jackets or thereabouts that Heems has felt comfortable enough to release a song as wonderfully dumb as "Birding" -- "you know I'm birding, baby / where my binoculars at? / I'm with the trees / I'm looking for birds" -- which is an excellent track because it's an unembarrassed exploration of the group's humor and personality, and does not bow to the fear of causing them to be unfairly dismissed as "joke rap," an issue that's followed Heems around for his entire career even though his work has always been as thoughtful and multifaceted as any in the game. The entire EP furthers both rappers and Heems in particular as the masters of the fake low-effort verse, because in fact of course everything here is really impressive and witty, and only a complete fool could disregard the ominous message of "Zombie" or the windows-rolled-down relentlessness of "Anthem." Goddamn, guys.
The Underachievers: Renaissance (RPM) [hr]
The few people who pay attention to this group seem to be upset that their lyrics are no longer completely upholding the anti-gangsta, pro-drug, vaguely New Age philosophy of numbers one and two, and while I guess I can detect a little of that here and there -- but also an injection of real-time politics, which in this terrible world would be inexcusable by its absence -- I'm continually distracted by the fact that Issa Gold and AK have the best, most unstoppable flow of possibly any rappers working right now, and almost certainly of any duo (they come harder and faster than Mike and El-P even if their content is less polished). This takes me back to how much I loved their first album, and I can admit some of this is a bit superficial: what I love is just the experience of hearing them murder the mic, more than anything about the bars or the beats. It just sounds perfect, and I don't think their message has become wholly diluted, but they're now approaching veteran status without getting the recognition they deserve, and you can't blame them for trying to push some buttons here. Try "Phoenix Feathers" and "Cresendo."
- Yumi Zouma: Willowbank (Cascine) - fuck me, i'm already nostalgic for chillwave ["Ostra"/"Persephone"]
- Lindstrom: It's Alright Between Us as It is (Smalltown Supersound) - demands to be heard in sequence; the parts are what they are but they blend gloriously
- Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion (Because) - a little too E-Z listening at times but some mega grooves
- Zara McFarlane: Arise (Brownswood) - lite, heavy, pleasing, probing and one of the most infectious hooks of the year ["Fussin' and Fightin'"]
- Blue Hawaii: Tenderness (Arbutus) - DJ Shadow-era fridge buzz, capable of being exhilarating ["No One Like You"/"Belong to Myself"]
ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Ben Frost: The Centre Cannot Hold (Mute)
- Lee Gamble: Mnestic Pressure (Hyperdub)
Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps
Hiss Golden Messenger: Hallelujah Anyhow
Alex Lahey: I Love You Like a Brother [NYIM]
Liam Gallagher: As You Were
KLLO: Backwater [NYIM]
Margo Price: All American Made [NYIM]
Alex Lahey "I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself" [I Love You Like a Brother]
clipping. "The Deep" [non-LP single]
Terry Malts "Off My Back" [split EP with Kids on a Crime Spree]
Tinashe "Light the Night Up" [Thursday Night Football]
Whitney "Gonna Hurry (As Slow as I Can)" [non-LP single]
OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
George Harrison: Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison (Apple 1970-2001/2009) [hr]
Sade: Best Of (Epic 1984-93/1994) [hr]