Juana Molina – Wed 21
I’ve been looking forward to a new Juana Molina album for five years, since her Un Dia knocked me over on first listen. That one lasted for half a decade of regular play, a touchstone for those times when I need/want to lose myself completely in music. Despite my fears that this new one wouldn’t be as stellar, it is everything I could have hoped for. This is music that is hard to describe… Trance-folk? Deeply rhythmic, each track is built on beats and loops that mix acoustic instruments with electronic ones and a generous helping of found sounds. Singing in Spanish, her voice is another morphing layer in the mix. If the whole world was on the best drugs, this album would be the dance soundtrack. But if it’s just me and my ears, the dance party is full swing in my head. I’ll be listening to this for years to come.
Leif Vollebeck – North Americana
This is probably the best album that hardly anybody heard this year. And it’s too bad, because it’s outstanding. On his website, he says “I feel like I created a record from 1970something that no one’s heard before,” which goes some way toward describing it, but there while there were lots of brilliant folk albums from that decade, nobody was making as beautifully crafted and recorded albums then. The lyrics are full of lines that put the same old feelings into surprisingly new light, and they stagger and weave through the music in a deliciously off-kilter way, resolving into a just-right rhyme enough times to hold it all together. The songs don’t waste a note or bother with any that are less than perfectly placed. Quiet but complete, this one got so many listens this year that it’s become a best friend.
Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
This one brings out the inner stoner/headbanger in me! Every song is a ride that builds up to what feels like an endless series of little plateaus. The opening songs build fast and hit hard, charging forward at near punk pace with thick drums and bass and washed out fuzzy guitar. The singer sings, but I can’t tell what he’s saying. Sounds pretty important though. Things slow down at the midway point in the album, with In Our Time and Since We Had Changed providing some relief from the driving surge. Preservation comes roaring back, and is the highlight of the album for me. After this song, things trail off into slower territory, enjoyable, but if there’d been one or two more highs before the whole thing was finished, it would be a ride I’d take more often.
Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
I was dubious on first listen to this album. I’d heard the single, “Avant Gardener” and was taken with the dreamy delivery, thick Aussie accent and excellent storytelling, and wondered if the song was a one-off. Turns out it’s part of an excellent whole. Every song benefits from Barnett’s quirky phrasing and sing-talking that sounds like it might be a bit too lazy if it wasn’t deployed to support really strong songwriting. Set in straightforward but compelling settings that feature some strong but simple guitar playing and compelling rhythm section work, every song stands on unique enough ground to make repeated listenings rewarding. The songs sound “heavier” than most singer-songwriter fare, adding some gravity that might be missing based on her voice alone. Self-deprecation with a head-nodding groove.
Kid Koala – 12 Bit Blues
This album starts with a sample that says “The Kid is in rare form tonight,” and that’s the bang on truth. The premise could be cringe-worthy, with turntablist Kid Koala attempting to give a nod to the primacy of the blues in popular music. In the hands of lesser mix-masters, it could just be a mash of well-worn samples. But this album achieves the rare feat of bowing to the influence of a genre while simultaneously creating a completely modern and unique take on the genre. These are blues songs, each one feeling like a whole that is much more than the sum of the samples used to build it. He samples widely, from early acoustic blues to electrified Chicago, and he plays with the vocal samples in the same way that the original blues guitarists played with their guitars, taking joy in bending, stretching and distorting vocal phrases like a lead guitarist. Horns, beats and crate-digging gems abound. Old never sounded so new, and so relevant.
Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions
It’s no secret that I’m a big Talking Heads fan, and when I first heard Franz Ferdinand’s debut in 2005, I felt like I was listening to the inheritors of the Talking Heads sound. They’ve gone on to expand further on that sound, with a foray into disco electronics on their last album. This new one revisits their old sound, and how could I not be a sucker for that? What’s not to like when a band can blend danceable beats, shout-able choruses and rhythm guitar that knows what rhythm is all about? This band walks the line that exists between post-punk and disco, a foot planted more firmly on one side than the other on different songs. A couple songs on this album are less than stellar, but in general they live up to the high bar set by previous albums, all forward momentum and sing-along, air-guitaring fun. Emma and I saw them live this fall… A live music highlight for sure!
Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
I really shouldn’t like this album at all. The title alone could be off-putting for its cynical-sounding nod to all things old and groovy. And from the very opening notes of the album, the plundering begins in earnest. It would be terrible if it wasn’t so well done. Instead of sounding like a rehash of 60’s favourites, this band is good enough to make music that isn’t a rip-off of 60s music but rather music that would have set the charts on fire in the 60s. There’s just enough modern twist here to out-innovate the past innovators. The result isn’t exactly something new, but it’s something that isn’t just retro-fetish either. The singer has the kind of swagger and confidence that propelled the Jaggers and Bolans to their heights, and the songs have the kind of memorable quality of a “greatest hits” compilation. Enjoyable, and still getting frequent play almost a year later.
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
I haven’t been listening to girl-folk much lately, though it used to be a staple. However, this album has changed that. The opening handful of songs sound shockingly like something Joni Mitchell might have sung if she were starting out today. Like Joni Mitchell, Marling has a unique phrasing, delivering her lyrics in a mixture of styles within a single song, moving from nearly spoken word to stretched high notes, with plenty of rhythmic wordiness in between. Small explosions of unique instrumentation are introduced in the first few songs, letting the listener know this is something more than a typical folk album. Her guitar tuning and playing has an eastern tinge to it that is used in interesting ways. After an excellent set of four songs to introduce the album, the top gets blown off with “Master Hunter”. Drums, more eastern-sounding guitar and a knowing nod to Dylan (“It ain’t me, babe”), she proceeds to knock Dylan and Mitchell (and maybe even early Zeppelin) out of the park with the insistent build of this song. This is some excellent songcraft, and though things calm down again after Master Hunter, the excellence is maintained throughout.
Dan Deacon – Spiderman of the Rings
This album dates all the way back to 2007. Deacon’s most recent, America, was a contender for last year’s best-of list, and got me listening to some of his back catalogue. This album has everything I love in electronic music: great, unexpected samples, inventive song structures and a sense of humour. Opener Woody Woodpecker set the tone, with the annoying laugh of the cartoon bird fading in and out throughout a song packed with rock clichés played on an organ a la Phillip Glass. And it just gets better from there. This one is best at high volumes, and far from those who will yell at you to turn off that annoying noise. Deacon takes the conventions of pop music and makes delicious mush of them, and I love slurping at that trough. Things peak with Snake Mistakes, a video-game squeal meets deep funk masterpiece that should fill dance floors everywhere, with frenzied dancers singing along to the chipmunk chorus.
Jagwar Ma – Howlin
This young British band is giving their all to be, well, another amazing young British band. And they succeed, with big-sounding songs that are of-the-moment in their blend of synthy-sounding, danceable rock music that sounds like it would work well in both a small club and an arena. Lots of the songs are built around loops and beats that are melodic enough to be memorable. Guitars and well-staged vocals wind the songs up to instantly singable choruses. I like it when rock bands can adapt strong dance-music elements without crossing the line over to the endless cycle of repetitive dance beats. I’ve deleted the last two songs from the album… This is not a band that should attempt slow songs!
Baths – Cerulean
Every year seems to bring around at least one excellent, downbeat electronic album that suits both close listening and background filler duties. This band does everything I like in this regard, with quick and choppy sounds and samples that contribute to beat-heavy songs that stand up as songs and don’t fade into boring, repetitive fare. The layered falsetto vocals that accompany many of the songs are unique enough to keep my ear without being annoyingly affected. Not sure what they’re saying most of the time, but it sounds good. The found sounds and mutated instruments are used to build some memorable melodies rather than as temporary distractions. This one has held up to many repeated listens, and I think it will wear well over time.
Ty Segal and Mikal Cronin – Reverse Shark Attack
Damn! Both of these artists had albums this year that have been favourites of mine, and then I discovered that they’d teamed up together for an album. This is the kind of garage rock where the vocals are distorted, the guitars are distorted, the bass is distorted and even the drums sound distorted, and yet through all the glorious fuzz there are archetypically good songs that recall most every great rock moment from doo-wop to Deep Purple. Cranked up loud, this stuff is just too much fun, mostly packed into 2-minute gems.
Daniel Bachman – Seven Pines
This is the kind of extremely accomplished solo acoustic guitar music that usually wows me with technique while underwhelming me with actual song structure. Bachman’s instrumentals do all the wonderful simultaneous bass, rhythm and lead stuff that amazing guitarists can do, but they do it with an attention to a narrative structure that takes the ear on a journey that makes each song unique and moving. There is a drive and insistence in these songs that make his technique the supporting act rather than the whole show.
There were some near misses for this year’s list that deserve mention too…
Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone
She has an amazing voice, and the first song on the album sounds closer in vocal timbre and rhythm to Malian music than to anything from North America. This sets a great tone for the rest of the album, but I wish it stayed in this territory. The rest of the songs place her voice in a variety of settings, from fairly traditional blues, folk and country to swampier rock. I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next, as this album feels a bit like a sampler of possibilities.
The So So Glos – Blowout
There’s a sound I love that Emma and I call “sloppy Brit,” as embodied over the decades by bands like The Clash, The Libertines and The Fratellis. This year’s best version of sloppy Brit is actually American. This young New York band has the edge of punk and the desire for pop that always make Clash-wannabes so much fun to hear.
The Bonnevilles – Folk Art & the Death of Electric Jesus
Imagine The Black Keys turning up the distortion a bit more and adding another layer of swampiness and you’d have The Bonnevilles. Fun, stompable and best served loud.
M.I.A. – Matangi
With the exception of 2010’s MAYA, I have loved every M.I.A. album, and this one is no exception. She’s given up the pop fare on this one and gone back to making the kind of songs she does best: clattering, banging and brawling with that voice that I can’t get enough of.
Typhoon – White Lighter
I don’t typically like describing music via comparisons, but Typhoon is like a cross between Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire. If you like either, then you’ll probably like these swelling and earnest and darn good songs.
Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
I haven’t spent enough time with this album to know if I just like the sound but may find the songs don’t hold up. But her last album, the more acoustic American Weekend, stood up well. Modern singer-songwriter fare with an electric guitar as the base this time around, sounds great. Time will tell…
Lizzo – LIZZOBANGERS
I always want to like female rappers with lots of attitude, but in the end I’m almost always turned off by their attempts to mix their nasty flow with wanna-be R&B crooning. Lizzie Borden doesn’t go in for that (with one exception, the insipid “Go”, but it’s easy to delete one song), and instead gives us her take on the world and doesn’t hold anything back. Some interesting beats and samples keep things sonically engaging, with many of the songs playing with the typical verse-chorus arrangement enough to avoid repetition, but not so much that the songs veer away from an inherent listenability. Not sure this is one for the ages, but it’s working for me here and now.