If you need to reassure yourself that the world is, indeed, full of stunningly rich human endeavour carried out by brilliant, open hearted fellow-homo-sapiens, nothing will be better for your soul than taking in the music shared here...
The long-list of amazing albums I compiled this year is double the length of this offering. I feel lucky to live in a world where I can find and enjoy all of this:
Residente - Residente
The premise of this album could have easily gone badly... Puerto Rican rapper Residente did a DNA test and then proceeded to travel around the world to every region where he has a genetic link, and collaborated with artists there. Fortunately, he is a great collaborator... able to let another artist take the lead and set the tone. From Mongolian throat singing to African dance to traditional Chinese music, these songs are amazing little worlds unto themselves, and also build a great album. His collaborators bring modern takes to their traditions giving the whole project a coherent "tradi-mod" aesthetic. I'm so glad this worked!
St. Vincent - Masseduction
Can Annie Clark do any wrong? Not judging by this album, which lands on the amaze-o-mometer scale at the same high level as her last one. I am constantly amazed that I like this as much as I do, since it's a real pop album. But it's an adult pop album... she's using this medium because, damn, ear candy is pleasurable, but it can be put to good grownup use like singing about:
Smilin' nihilist met
Angry glass half full
Drinkin' manic panic
Singin' Boatman's Call
Teenage, Christian virgins
Holdin' out their tongues
Fallin' on basement rugs
I can't turn off what turns me on
See? Irresistible magic.
Lido Pimienta - La Papessa
When this young unknown won this year's Polaris Prize (beating out the likes of Feist, Gord Downie and Leonard Cohen!), she won over a lot of ears. Consider mine firmly won. Sung entirely in Spanish and conforming to no genre rules whatsoever, this is music that is tough to describe. She treats every instrument - and especially her own voice - like layered magic carpets all hovering tightly together. Makes me think of Bjork in her unwillingness to let form dictate anything. I suggest you just go try it.
Kid Koala - Music to Draw to: Satellite
I feel a certain sense of dread when artists I really admire suddenly decide to completely change what they do. So many times, the resulting music doesn't embody the same genius. That made this album doubly surprising by being so damn good.
This is ambient music, and though there's some turntable work, an awful lot of it is played on real instruments. And Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini sings on about half the tracks. And Kid Koala's remarkable musicality - that makes his turntable records so extraordinary - gives these songs so much more heft than most ambient music. For all the quiet and understatement, there are recognizable songs in the ambient wash. You sure don't have to listen closely - this is great background music - but you'll be well rewarded if you do.
Juana Molina - Halo
The former comedian from Argentina once again constructs a sound-world that is weird, bendy and compelling. Constructed from loops she generates on a wide array of acoustic and electronic instruments and voice, every song builds up and up and round and round. When the slow build of Sin Dones finally erupts into percussion madness, my heart soars!
The only problem the genius of this album presents is that it makes it even harder to pick which Juana Molina album to take to the desert island. They're all recognizably Molina, yet completely unique.
Portugal. The Man - Woodstock
Emma put me on to this one. Which is strange, because this isn't her kind of thing, normally. I had no idea what to expect from this (I'm gloriously out of range of commercial radio, or I might have been overexposed). When opening song, Number One, starts off with loops of spiritual singing and then bursts into full-bore sonic oomph, I was captivated. They're making nods to so many genres at once that their necks should snap. These are frantic, jam-in-the-hooks songs... but pretty much every hook is a killer and they just keep tumbling out. There are as many memorable riffs in one song as many bands create in a career. No wonder I keep hearing them every time I'm within range of a radio.
Africa Express Presents... Terry Riley's In C
Musically, I was raised on minimalism. So what to make of Damon Albarn's ensemble of western and Malian musicians taking on In C on traditional instruments?
Here's the scoop on In C:
The basic structure of In C is simple: Someone plays a simple, droning pulse on the note C, usually on a piano or marimba, and the other performers, whose number and instrumentation Riley did not specify, have 53 melodic phrases from which to choose. The musicians select the phrases they want to play and decide how long to play them. The effect is that the phrases overlap in unpredictable ways, creating shifts in harmony, evolving polyrhythms, tonal and timbral changes and the sense that nothing is constant, even though the same note repeats insistently under the whole performance at the exact same tempo.
Such a piece of music encourages musical sympathy, with musicians giving their skills to the collective. Nobody is soloing, but everybody is soloing. And everybody is doing what they do best. Joy!
Leif Vollebekk - Twin Solitude
Leif puts an almost shocking amount of open space into his songs. There can be valleys between drum beats and piano phrases, and the strange pacing of his lyric delivery is often like inconsistent waves. Some great rhymes help build all the insightful details in every song. He sings a lot about specific places, and finds specific emotional resonance with nearly every line.
The video for Elegy is one of the few music videos I've watched in its entirety. And it's just him dancing his way to the ocean... How can that be so compelling?
Junip - Junip
My friend Mateo put this on for me in his car, and I knew this album was a keeper before the first song was over! Released in 2014 (but new to me this year!), there's more going on here than I was expecting.
Jose Gonzalez has a great voice, a very rich version of the "folky boy" sound, and it sounds great layered up the way it is here.
Songs that start out like quiet folk music build up into a strange heavy metal drive. There's no crunching guitars or double kick drums, but all those acoustic instruments and synths start to kick it with a surprising ferocity. While still sounding beautiful.
Lyrically, many of these songs are choruses without much in the way of verses. Makes it easy to sing along and get rolled into the song.
There's pretty much never a time that I don't want to hear this one.
Wax Tailor - By Any Beats Necessary
If De La Soul were to show up today, they might sound like this. It's got all their scattered enthusiasm and ability to make a song out of just about any sample, but with better practice and production values. Hit the Road kicks things off with a chopped up blues, and the album proceeds to visit lots of places, some familiar for hip hop, some much less so. It's always engaging, I put this on a lot more than I might have thought I would.
Songhoy Blues - Resistance
This Malian rock band riffs it up with the best of western rockers without forgetting their traditional chops. James Brown, BB King, Jimmie Hendrix, Bootsie Collins and Ali Farke Toure all mix it up on these songs... these guys will synthesize with anything that kicks. And they're really good at it, tight and energetic. They share the same drive in their songs as Tinariwen, but they're willing to straight up borrow western stylings rather than nod to them.
Nadine Shaw - Holiday Destination
What if a young, strongly spoken artist from today were to time travel to the time Brian Eno and the Talking Heads made punk-funk magic? You'd have this album. It couldn't have been made back then, but it also doesn't sound like anything that's being made now. Often danceable and always angry and clever.
LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
"Comeback" albums can be terrible, and since there's nothing worse than having a favourite artist put out a disappointing album, I was worried about this one. But from the steady tapping of a single top-of-the-piano key to kick off Oh Baby to the shouted chorus of Emotional Haircut, it's everything I could have wanted from a new LCD Soundsystem album. Nothing is unexpected or surprising, but everything is top notch.
To top it off, I got to see them play in Toronto this winter, and the show was equally fulfilling of my need for funky cowbell classics. This one deserves volume and time to really listen (or dance).
Jlin - Black Origami
In my early days of listening to experimental electronic music it would have been impossible to think that an artist using that sonic palette would be making dance music. Spliced vocals, looped instruments, beats and seemingly random samples that nonetheless make sense in the context of each piece...
This one works best either lying down with headphones or able to dance, unobserved, at full volume.
Omni - Multi-Task
This one is an oddly nostalgic choice. Imagine if Captain Beefheart, the Talking Heads and The Clash all got together... this album combines three of my favourite artists and youthful touchstones, and it does so with all sincerity. The band makes no attempt to introduce anything that any of those bands wouldn't have played, but by putting together the best elements of all them it seems both authentic and nostalgic at the same time. The world never stopped needing pogoing bass, oddball guitar riffs, and bad/good vocals, it just hasn't received a dose like this in over 30 years!
Oumou Sangare - Bena Bena
Oumou Sangare was the first musician from Mali I had ever heard. The whole world now knows how compelling the hybrid of traditional Malian instruments and rhythms with blues, rock and funk can be. Bena Bena is her best, which is saying a lot.
Some of her earlier work could veer toward mimicking the worst in generic Western pop, but there's none of that here. She owns this shit now, she's not imitating anyone. She's in her 50s and knows what to do, and still clearly has the energy to do it with oomph.