December 31, 2016

The Year's 5 Greatest Albums

   2016 was a huge year for new music. Mainstream headliners like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wilco, Blink 182, Green Day and Metallica returned for another gasp. Years-in-hype releases from Radiohead, Kanye West, Solange, Frank Ocean and Drake finally came forward. Neil Young put out two albums while Iggy Pop, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen added to their mountainous discographies. Here are the year's best releases:

5. Post Pop Depression by Iggy Pop
Released: March 18
   Iggy Pop ages like the big oak tree that everyone pissed on in college. He soaks it up and moves forward. For Post Pop Depression, his seventeenth album, he teamed up with Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal, Them Crooked Vultures), Dan Fertita (QOFSTA, The Dead Weather) and Matt Helders (The Arctic Monkeys). The collaboration makes perfect sense. Homme preserves the scuzz of Pop’s early days with the Stooges, but adds to it a tight-lipped air of cool. The guitars are thick like hamburger meat running alongside Pop’s chiseled scowl and the rhythm section provides a steady anchor.
   While listening to "Gardenia" the screws in your neck loosen. The whole song rides on a rollicking bass line that gets the body moving like an inflatable air dancer. The chorus is an act of hypnosis. “All I wanna do is tell Gardenia what to do tonight,” Pop sings in an up and down cascade with Homme’s high-pitched vocals shadowing in the background. "American Valhalla," sounds like background music from a lost episode of The Addams Family. “I shot my gun / I used my knife / This hasn’t been an easy life,” Pop sings.
   When the cavernous maw of Iggy Pop unhinges the grumble of decades past unfurls out. With every word uttered one can visualize the deep creases of his face moving in rhythm. His Adam’s apple vibrates back and forth with each syllable. "Vulture" starts with a wooden guitar lick that sounds like a throwaway demo. But, then Pop's voice drops into the song like sewer sludge and you're suddenly put on alert. “Fat black vulture white head hung low / Chewing dead meat by the side of the road / His evil breath smells just like death,” he warns dryly. Post Pop Depression ends with “Paraguay” a lacerating beat down with Pop calling bullshit on our world of constant unending information and the phonies that willingly prop it up. The snarling hero of our destructive tendencies still has enough saliva to spit back into the world.

4. Anti by Rihanna
Released: January 28
   Ri Ri, you make my heart ache. Anti was the most unhealthy addiction of the year. I got fat off of this. The downward cadence on "Needed Me" alone -- "but baby you-ou-ou-ou-ou needed me" -- makes Anti hard to put away. She gets cold with an ex-lover over a simple beat and an expanding wah-wah. When Rihanna sing, it's in a downward spiral. "Didn't they tell you that I was a savage? / fuck your white horse and your carriage." Somewhere an ex is crying in his beer in a dark bar. Every other song could've been radio signals from the ocean and this would still be on the list somewhere. BUT, add in "Work," "Consideration," "Kiss It Better," "Desperado," "Woo," "Yeah, I Said It"--come on, Lord please.
   On "Consideration," Rihanna gives the assist to SZA. Their voices move around each other in an uneven orbit. SZA bellowing beautifully bent notes; Rihanna soaring in an upward swing. The big single, "Work," though, I barely know what she's singing, gets catchier as time goes on. It's one of her best singles. She sings against a coarse electronic tremble that never lets on "Woo." Then, when you think it can't any more vicious, Rihanna screams, "I don't mean to really luh you / I don't mean to really care about you no more." Anti is a near classic from Rihanna. From song-to-song it dips and crashes through different styles, some all her own, some borrowed. Her powerful voice continues to lurk its way towards the outer extensions of R&B.

3. Gore by Deftones
Released: April 8
   Deftones continue to deliver, expanding their sound in subtle and intricate ways. They remain rooted in the punk metal headrush of their debut Adrenaline, but with each album since the sound has grown heavier and more melodic in equal parts. Gore, their eighth, furthers the formula into peak Deftones territory.
   Song structure is rarely straightforward with many little fine twists and turns. If you headbang to this without knowing the song, you’ll fast get off beat. “Prayers/Triangles,” opens the album with a slow, meandering guitar the drums break and the chorus slashes through. Throw the bottle at the wall when “Doomed User” comes on. Deftones to the core. "Geometric Headdress" erupts like a tank through a wall. Chino Moreno's scream scorches like a propane tank left to explode. Then ten seconds in it flips to an offbeat rumble with a wily guitar pushing the listener out of rhythm. Midway through "Hearts/Wires" settles over the album like the final rays of sunlight. A few simple guitar pluckings crawl over each other while Moreno sings of a memory lost. “The slit in the sky where you left / is all I see,” he aches. The slow build is hypnotizing.
   Deftones just continue to breathe new life into an old sound. Gore, the third album since Vega took over for the late Chi Ching on bass, follows Koi No Yokan and Diamond Eyes on a continuing upscale of creativity that doesn’t seem to be slipping any time soon.

2. Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Released: September 9
   You're sitting at the desk drinking vodka from a mug in an empty room. With his voice, he's calling you. With his voice, Nick Cave is calling you. “Jesus Alone” opens the sixteenth album from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds with a rhino-breathing vibration that pulsates from end to end. Skeleton Tree is a cloudy-eyed meandering through the forests of Cave’s mind. It captures him in a whirlpool of emotion as he attempts to create art in the aftermath of the tragic death of his 15-year old son, Arthur.
   In July of 2015 Arthur fell 60 feet off the Ovingdean Gap cliffs overlooking the English Channel in Brighton. Reportedly, he had taken LSD with friends and separated after experiencing a bad trip. The event is deeply imprinted in Cave’s trembling baritone, but hidden in the code of his indirect lyrics. You feel it rather than simply hearing about it. The songs move with the rhythm of the chilling wind. Sparse piano notes wash away in the reverb of dark wandering tones. It sounds like unimaginable hurt. “Rings of Saturn” reads as a powerful ode to his wife’s motherly strength in the face of family tragedy. "Anthrocene" sounds like it could be a remix from Liars or Thom Yorke.
   “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world,” Cave sings on “Girl In Amber.” “Well, I don't think that any more the phone it rings no more.” We are particle size when seen from a distance. Insignificant, scant, a blip. We live and we die and on the world turns. Cave knows this. It’s the very principle lurking behind each lyric and on Skeleton Tree he deals with the haunt like a master poet.

1. Blackstar by David Bowie
Released: January 8
   David Bowie was in the top tier of rock and roll superstars, a god on earth, living breathing cultural history. The fact that his surprising death on January 8th surreptitiously worked as promotion for his 25th album, Blackstar, makes it all the more surreal. Was he really beamed to earth at a young age with his rocketing rise to super-stardom already planned out? The album is extravagant, ghostly, teetering on the outskirts of what is considered to be a traditional rock and roll album. It swivels and sinks into the poorly lit backroom of the musical mansion Bowie built over his fifty-plus-year-career.
   Blackstar is a seven-song voyage, a trek through the panicked headspace of someone too aware of their mortality. It shifts in moods and tempos, wandering, but never too far. The title track is a ten-minute ride alongside Bowie as he passes through the layers of Heaven. The song wears many faces, turning inside out and evolving with the minutes. Blackstar picks up with “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore.” A heavyset drum and bass union churns through the song as it progresses into a perpetual Coleman swirl, horns gone akimbo. Bowie hits the high notes with a twisted sadness, a hidden anarchy while singing the title line. You can see his chiseled grin slowly rise with each word.
   “Lazarus” is when the listener begins to really ache. The song saunters in with a clean, melancholic guitar scale and steady drums. But, then these soft devious horns slither in slightly offbeat. When Bowie enters he sings, “Look up here / I’m in heaven,” and your heart skips a beat. In his slow drift outward he’s catching the wind currents like the bluebird without misgiving. Blackstar is a lasting statement to not only David Bowie’s artistry, but to how he lived his life through that artistry. He worked hard through the end of his days to give us a product he’d be remembered by, a final soundtrack to the epilogue of a life lived in constant creation.

Best of the Rest:
[L-R] Ape in Pink Marble by Devendra Banhart / A Seat at the Table by Solange / Sonoran Depravation by GATECREEPER / Strangers by Marissa Nadler

The Year's 5 Disappointing Albums

     There was a lot to be disappointed in from 2016. They took Bowie, Prince, Merle, Leon and Leonard away from us. Kanye created one of the coolest stage sets -- the mid-crowd hovering platform -- only to implode a few weeks in as the stage was mechanically reeled in. Macklemore headlined Bonnaroo. Coldplay played the Superbowl. There was a mountain of notable releases this year (next week see our Best Of list) and in that pile were a number of albums that just didn't live up to their heightened hype. Here are the year's 5 most disappointing, though not totally bad, releases.

5. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
     Okay, I feel shitty putting this here. Radiohead is the greatest running band in the world. Five musical geniuses working in unison to deliver album after album of genre defying and re-conceptualizing--each one rewriting the code of the last. It's always a big question mark as to what the next Radiohead album will sound like. A Moon Shaped Pool, still a beautiful collection of songs from the band in their purest form, just never feels cohesive. Fine as it is, the album is in a way the first to not fully pull the carpet from under their sound. Most of the 11 songs were already available in some form for years and they're not so radical from their initial blueprint. Not that there's anything wrong with reaching back, but it feels a bit like the tying up of lose ends. But, rest assured, it's always a good year when Radiohead is releasing music.
Apologies to: "Burn the Witch," "Daydreaming"

4. LEMONADE by Beyonce
  Sorry but, LEMONADE doesn't come close to the last visual album from Beyonce -- self-titled -- released in the final hours of 2013. Beyonce's fifth album, a supposed airing out of dirty laundry from Bey and Jay’s relationship, was released by surprise with a suite of videos that ended up being more iconic than any of the actual songs. It’s Beyonce in a frilly yellow dress with a baseball bat in hand that instantly sticks out.
     Beyonce took ideas and input from all across the music spectrum and threw them in the air like confetti to see where they’d land. I respect her for casting a large net for collaborators, but, really, how many people does it take to make an album theses days? It’s getting to be like factory work. In the end what you get is a hodgepodge collection of songs bouncing from style to style without ever feeling like a whole piece. She takes a classic John Bonham beat and buries it in the mix. She does less singing and more yelling and censored swearing. Dips into country with the Dixie Chicks. And I really didn’t think artists were still sticking that obnoxious dancehall horn in their songs. It just can’t be snuffed out. Despite Beyonce's best efforts LEMONADE fails to evolve her sound in any way--her message, maybe, but not her sound.
Apologies to: “Pray You Catch Me”

3. VIEWS by Drake
     Drake. Oh my Drakey Poo. Buddy. You've gotta cut out the fat. VIEWS is an unfortunate bloated circumstance. I know 20 tracks is a great way to capitalize on streaming sales, but that's what the mixtapes are for. Don't give us an album where we're skipping every third track. At the very least, they used to be called bonus tracks. Now we're just removing the asterisks. Drake went from someone I abhorred and passed off as something Lil' Wayne pulled out of his jacket pocket to someone who I spent late nights drinking wine with and falling asleep with. Take Care and Nothing Was the Same are back-to-back classics. VIEWS is an oily mirrored version of the two, trying to set the same mood and hit the same spots. It doesn't. It feels empty. While I still reach for NWTS at least once a week, I think I'll leave VIEWS in the hard-drive.
Apologies to: "Hype," "Redemption," "Feel No Ways," Child's Play"

2. Endless / Blond by Frank Ocean
   Big sigh. We wait and we wait. We wade through rumors and false starts. Years since Channel Orange. Years since we've heard Ocean's syrupy sweet croons and high pitched tear-yanking melodies dominate an album. Then, surprised, he comes out unannounced with two bulbous, overstuffed albums as some sort of consolation prize for our time in wait. Despite a handful of songs that could stand on their own, the two albums are juiced and greased with intro and outro tracks that weigh them down. Wise man once sang despondently, "Every single record auto-tuning, zero emotion, muted emotion / pitched corrected computed emotion, uh-huh."

1. The Life of Pablo by Kanye West
     Kanye's always been a maniac. I've always loved his every move. But this shit is tragic. Other outlets are out of their collective mind putting this album in their top ten lists. Sonically, okay, he always puts something together that makes you want to listen and figure out. Sometimes, though, his splicing gets to be too jumbled. TLOP is made up of all these really incredible pieces, but when they're thrown into Kanye's blender it don't always mix and match.
     Mostly, though, what stinks this album up to hog heaven are Kanye's lyrics. Lord God they're hideous. A lot of Kanye's best lyrics have sounded corny and nonsensical the first time you hear them, but later they reveal a six-sided meaning connecting pop culture to his inner sadness and the guilt it he feels for it. Well, it's been months since this album was released and the lyrics still sound corny and nonsensical because mostly they are. A lot of the time he doesn't even finish bars and just gasps and blows into the microphone. 
     Here I will give Kanye the award for worst lyric of the year, from "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1": "If I fuck this model / and she just bleached her asshole / and I get bleach on my t-shirt / I'mma feel like an asshole." This is where the Kanye force field finally disintegrated around me. To make all this worse, the album's greatest line was replaced in later versions. "She be Puerto Rican Day parade waving," from "Famous" was changed to, "She in school to be a real estate agent." Just not the same flair. And why wasn't "All Day" on this?
Apologies to: "Feedback" (been waiting for someone to rap over feedback), "Famous," (if only for the awesome Taylor Swift hubbub), "Real Friends," "No More Parties In LA," "Fade"

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