March 3, 2016
Well will you look at that, I made a podcast. If you like the idea of listening to me talk for a quarter hour about music, with snippets of songs along the way, then you should check it out!
I hope to release one of these every month, highlighting music from the month prior. This was supposed to come out in February, but gremlins ate my Internet connection so it’s a bit late. Hopefully I’ll catch up and release the March installment during March.
I’m new at this, so if you have pro-tips I’d love to hear them. Number one on the list is speaking more clearly, loudly and with more expressive range. I have all of Barry White’s bass but nowhere near enough of his smooooooooth enunciation. I’m working on it!
This first installment features new material by Four Tet, Massive Attack, So Pitted, The Drones, P.J. Harvey, Bibio and Iggy Pop, plus an old favourite by the 60s psych-rock group Love.
Hope you enjoy it!
January 9, 2016
It’s been a long time between updates, but I have a killer list of songs I’m keen to share.
I didn’t listen to a lot of albums during the past twelve months, since I’ve not been focused on reviewing and building a critical view of the year. Instead I listened to many, many songs, which was a really pleasant change of pace, and I wound up with more than enough great selections for the traditional countdown. I’ve been making these lists for a while now, and every year brings it’s own array of fantastic tunes, but 2015 really feels like one of the best yet in terms of quality, name value and variety.
With solid appearances by Thee Oh Sees, David Bowie, Jon Spencer, The Drones, Joanna Newsom, Sheena Ringo, The Mountain Goats and Shannon and the Clams, to name a few, it was a great year for many of my favourite musicians. That said, close to half of my list consists of new and emerging artists. In particular, Louisiana’s Seratones triumphantly announced their arrival with their towering debut track “Don’t Need It” (technically from 2014, but not released as a single until this year), a note-perfect combination of crunchy grunge riffs, bluesy verses and singer AJ Hanes phenomenal voice. Each segment of the song exceeds the one before it, culminating in a euphoric finale of commanding, sonorous chorus and enchanting trills. It’s a while since I’ve been this stirred up about a new band – from almost the first listen, it was unequivocally my best-loved song of the year, and I cannot wait to hear what else this group has in store.
Among the other forty-nine entries, more memorable moments and great stories abound. I was so happy to see Carey Mercer releasing more music as Frog Eyes after his recent cancer diagnosis, retaining the lovely, subdued croon of his last album. Sensual electro-pop queen Roisin Murphy and eternal rock-gods Sleater-Kinney returned from protracted absences (the latter featuring in a surprisingly effective, animated collaboration with Bob’s Burgers, because why not?), while David Bowie came out of nowhere with an unexpected, 10-minute, multi-part opus, which recalled a variety of touchstones from throughout his career. La Luz and Ty Segall converted an old surfboard factory into a recording studio, Animal Collective’s preview track from their forthcoming album recalled the warmth and globby mayhem of Strawberry Jam (which pleased me to no end, it being my personal favourite of their albums), and Sheena Ringo packed about seven hundred performers into her new single, featuring the most bombastic instrumental breakdown of the year. Thee Oh Sees made me laugh when they announced a hiatus in 2014, only to release yet another album barely twelve months later, this time dabbling occasionally in long-form, psychedelic-rock. John Dwyer’s obviously been working too hard all these years, not realising that’s just the normal amount of time most bands wait between albums.
A number of established artists made fascinating and exciting career detours. Heron Oblivian, whose debut album is due in 2016, heralded the return of members of the hugely missed Comets on Fire, who teamed up with Espers vocalist Meg Baird to create some juiced up, feedback laden, seventies styled folk-rock. Robert Pollard (of Guided By Voices fame) continued his absurdly prolific output with an affecting belter from his Ricked Wicky alias, while LA punk band The Bronx released the third album by their Mariachi-themed side project.
Concept records arrived courtesy of The Mountain Goats and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – the former chronicling John Darnielle’s affection for professional wrestling, and the latter celebrating the cultural backdrop of New York City through the ages, with Spencer declaring himself “the last real warrior poet whose dark magick brings garage rock ghosts back from the grave!” Deerhunter continued experimenting to become more glam than ever, Australia’s own Courtney Barnett took over the world with her witty, laconic storytelling and Kendrick Lamar creatively applied elements of jazz and soul to realise a classic yet progressive hip-hop sound, which deservedly dominated the critical consensus.
A few other hip-hop favourites made the cut. A respected producer and performer in the contemporary funk and soul scene, the multi-talented Georgia Anne Muldrow recalled hip-hop’s female ancestry (Queen Latifa, Lauren Hill, Erykah Badu, etc) on her first rap album, while retaining the tenderness and affection that characterises her work. Maryland’s Oddisee, who appeared in varying roles on a number of releases this year, combined chill jazz samples with unconventional time signatures on an earnest track about “becoming the bearer of [a friend’s] problems because they know you can handle it.” Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti, two of my favourite hip-hop discoveries from 2014, teamed up as Cavanaugh. Their debut album discussed concepts of class-division via a fictional housing development (part low income dwellings, part luxury condo), and its lead single featured murky, nuanced production, that somewhat echoed Boards of Canada, enveloping the duo’s stream-of-consciousness exchanges.
The list includes a few flavours of electronic music. James Pants’ threw back to the bright, pulsating electro of the 1980s, toying with heavy repetition and stark, undulating keys, while Holly Herndon created forward-thinking IDM, which entangled synthetic beats and phantom voice samples to form complex, dynamic structures. Sporting Life (the producer from New York hip-hop trio Ratking) juxtaposed passionate soul samples against frantic break-beats, which the artist described as a homage to the grace and athleticism of professional athletes (as demonstrated by the song’s gorgeously shot video of slow-motion street basketball). For those who like to dance to their electronic tunes, Hot Chip were at their smooth, geek-chic best, with possibly a career best chorus to boot, while Doldrums’ single emphatically nailed the soft-loud-soft aesthetic with too-cool posturing and a pulse-raising banger of a chorus. Vocalist, producer and multi-instrumentalist Georgia impressed with her energetic, live percussion and thrumming bass, railing against the system with a touch of M.I.A. in both her voice and her defiant attitude. Then there’s the weird, abstract electro-psych of Delay in the Universal Loop, a.k.a teenage Italian wunderkind Dylan Iuliano, whose music was as much a revelation as it was totally confounding.
Tacocat and The Drones brought their indignation and their humour. The former played scrappy riot-grrl while firing hilarious, sarcastic take-downs at creepy cat-callers, while the latter mocked Australia’s jingoism, xenophobia, ignorance and media manipulation with incendiary, expletive-laden rhetoric, encased in tightly wound, minimalist punk. Norway’s Jenny Hval used brittle avant-pop to reveal her disorientation and uncertainty, as her personal ideologies are slowly engulfed by western capitalism – frustrated, amused and wearily self-aware in equal measure.
A number of groups carried the banner for the fifties revival, employing garage rock, doo-wop, surf, bubblegum and rockabilly. Shannon and the Clams best single was a nostalgic blast, with sing-a-long lyrics that were well matched to its karaoke-themed music video. La Luz channeled Dick Dale and a hint of the weird west, with their surf-rock guitars and filtered vocals. Sheer Mag were the life of the party, roughing up a classic rock-soul sound with a thick layer of DIY scuzz and Tina Halliday’s heavily distorted vocal. Most impressive of all were King Khan & BBQ – their combined output clocks in at well over a dozen albums and countless singles, yet my favourite track from their 2015 release, the raucous album-opener with rapid guitar and a Mark Sultan chorus to die for, might be the most memorable thing they’ve ever recorded, individually or together.
On the softer side, Villagers showcased Conor O’Brien’s hushed guitar and singing, his voice floating so lightly as if to give the impression of his feet never touching the ground, while Tamaryn released some excellent dream-pop, her gauzy vocals swimming through heady waves of textured guitar, in the vein of eighties artists like The Cocteau Twins. Unknown Mortal Orchestra illustrated a co- and drug-dependent relationship via dazed funk guitar, distant horns and Ruben Nielson’s muted vocals, and Frazey Ford (of the Be Good Tanyas) infused her break-up anthem with powerful strands of classic rhythm and blues, with momentum created through a tinge of country swagger. Lornoar’s debut single was a cruising, summertime delight reminiscent of the soulful pop singles of MTV in the nineties (it even had a pop-rap interlude – something I’ve not really heard much since I was a kid), while Joanna Newsom continued to do no wrong, with her entry in the list making expressive use of sweeping percussion against a gentle foreground of piano and lilting vocals. Iceland’s Junius Meyvant combined his feather-light voice with a gliding string section to create one of the year’s most idyllic folk songs.
Artists continue to mine the eighties and early nineties for inspiration. Widowspeak were a sleepy, earthy delight, bringing back memories of Mazzy Star, while Chastity Belt’s bittersweet melody and Mourn’s anxious riffs were both vintage underground rock, a la Sonic Youth. Australia’s Royal Headache wore their heart on their sleeve with a nostalgic, college-rock motif, carried by Shogun’s irrepressible bellow, while So Pitted channeled the raw, youthful dirge of Bleach-era Nirvana on their debut song. Post-punk appears to be commencing another resurgence (I suppose it’s been long enough since the early-oughts), with Viet Cong’s erratic, choppy guitars recalling Gang of Four, and Girls’ Names opting for a streamlined, robust and slickly produced sound, a bit of an amplified Joy Division.
A few non-English tracks also made the cut. An excellent addition to the ever-thriving Congotronics movement was made by Kinshasa street collective Mbongwana Star, aided by genre stalwarts Konono No. 1 and their instantly recognisable Mbira playing. Latin American musical styles were doubly represented, with the warm, syncopated pop of Mexico’s Natalia Lafourcade and the punchy rhythm and dynamic, multifaceted guitar playing of Camila Moreno’s Chilean folk-rock.
A playlist of clips running from fifty through to one is included below. One advantage of focusing on songs during 2015, rather than albums, is that most of my choices were singles, so you’ve got lots of neat clips to watch. Below that, there’s a text version of the list. If you particularly enjoy any of the tracks please consider supporting the artists by purchasing their work.
Hope you enjoy the countdown!
Top 50 Songs of 2015
50 Frog Eyes – Joe With the Jam
49 Hot Chip – Started Right
48 Oddisee – Counterclockwise
47 Sheer Mag – Fan the Flames
46 Natalia Lafourcade – Hasta la Raiz
45 Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Necessary evil
44 Heron Oblivion – Oriar
43 La Luz – Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine
42 Georgia – Move Systems
41 Kendrick Lamar – Alright
40 Villagers – Courage
39 Sporting Life – Badd
38 Holly Herndon – Interference
37 Viet Cong – Bunker Buster
36 So Pitted – Rot in Hell
35 James Pants – Mechanique
34 Tacocat – Hey Girl
33 The Mountain Goats – The Legend of Chavo Gurerro
32 Mbongwana Star, feat. Konono No. 1 – Malukayi
31 Animal Collective – Floridada
30 Deerhunter – Snakeskin
29 David Bowie – Blackstar
28 Roisin Murphy – Evil Eyes
27 Widowspeak – All Yours
26 Cavanaugh – Screen Play
25 Chastity Belt – Lydia
24 Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best
23 Tamaryn – Cranekiss
22 Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Do the Get Down
21 Frazey Ford – Done
20 Lornoar – Moment in the Sun
19 Doldrums – Hotfoot
18 Camila Moreno – Libres y Estupidos
17 Sleater-Kinney – A New Wave
16 Georgia Anne Muldrow – Great Blacks
15 Girls’ Names – A Hunger Artist
14 Mariachi El Bronx – Wildfires
13 Shannon and the Clams – The Point of Being Right
12 Ricked Wicky – Poor Substitute
11 Joanna Newsom – Sapokanikan
10 Thee Oh Sees – Sticky Hulks
9 Mourn – Gertrudis, Get Through This!
8 Junius Meyvant – Hailslide
7 The Delay in the Universal Loop – I’m Turning in the Wholeness
6 Jenny Hval – That Battle is Over
5 Royal Headache – Carolina
4 The King Khan and BBQ Show – Alone Again
3 The Drones – Taman Shud
2 Sheena Ringo – God, nor Buddha
1 Seratones – Don’t Need It
February 21, 2014
#10 | Sonny and the Sunsets – Antenna to the Afterworld
I was a big fan of Sonny and the Sunset’s last album, 2012’s Longtime Companion, which charmed me with its simple melodies and wistfully voiced lyrics. For Antenna to the Afterworld, Sonny and co. largely discard the predecessor’s alt-country stylings, opting this time for a more straightforward pop-rock sound with some very subtle touches of psychedelia. Oh, and there’s something about the use of bass guitar on this album – they really nail it. “Palmreader” and “Path of Orbit” are both lovely, while “Green Blood’s” tale of intergalactic travel and android love is delightfully quirky.
#9 | The Drones – I See Seaweed
It’s been five long years since Havilah but in 2013 The Drones finally dropped its long-awaited followup, I See Seaweed. This is probably the dirgiest the group have ever sounded – the songs here are often deliberately ugly, characterised by squally, atonal guitar and arrangements that switch back and forth between spare and chaotic. Perhaps the only exceptions are the upbeat rocker “A Moat You Can Stand In” (which sounds like the scrappy little brother of “I Don’t Ever Want to Change”) and closing track “Why Write a Letter that You’ll Never Send”, which dresses up relentlessly negative, state-of-the-world lyrics in sentimental balladry (also my favourite track on the album). In the grand scheme of things I rate this below most of their other albums, however they’re still showing a will to experiment and expand their sound, making it a very worthwhile addition to their body of work.
#8 | Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
Apparently Thee Oh Sees are finally taking a much deserved break in 2014 (although not before releasing one more album in April – typical). Floating Coffin landed barely six months after their previous album but, as usual, shows no signs of being a rush-job. It’s another powerful, garage punk performance from John Dwyer and his band mates, with the steady, psych-rock leanings of recent albums remaining the order of the day. They really nail the balance between bug-eyed rockers, lock-down VU throwbacks and the occasional slower piece. Energetic opening duo “I Come from the Mountain” and “Toe Cutter / Thumb Buster” get the album off to a great start, while closer “Minotaur” is my big favourite.
#7 | Night Beats – Sonic Bloom
Night Beats self-titled debut from 2011 was very solid but I felt it leant a little too heavily on its strongest tracks. By comparison, their second album Sonic Bloom boasts higher highs in abundance. I love the title track – a thumping psych-rocker that might be the band’s best song yet. Other highlights include the shimmery guitar tones of “Catch a Ride…”, “As You Want” with its stellar guitar solo, the scuzzy “Rat King” and the killer freakout in “The New World”, which closes the album with some wicked chaos. This is just a huge step up into top-shelf garage-rock and I’m looking forward to where the guys go next.
#6 | Autechre – Exai
2001’s Confield turned me into an Autechre fan, after quite a few years of finding their brand of ambient electronic music not quite my liking. That album was a real eye-opener for me and I mention it because I think Exai might be even better – perhaps the best Autechre album yet. The veteran UK duo have taken the clinical precision and icy beats of recent works like Quaristice and Oversteps (both great), glitched the hell out of them and then blown them out into these grand, longform experiments which progress through multiple sections and themes. It’s almost like they took a stab at applying IDM to the blueprint of post-rock epics of the early 2000s and this is where they wound up. At two very full discs it’s huge and daunting but it absolutely works. Personal favourites are “FLeure”, “irlite (get 0)” and “bladelores”, but the album is definitely best heard as a whole.
#5 | My Bloody Valentine – MBV
A hotly anticipated release (23 years in the making!) that paid off in a big way. I really like the transition throughout the album from a gauzy, Loveless-referencing opening to the clean, dream-pop middle and surprisingly punchy, jungle-infused final third. “Only Tomorrow” is extraordinary – on par with just about anything from Loveless as far as I’m concerned and it’s syncopated, rising and falling guitar line was one of the year’s most memorable and affecting sounds. “Who Sees You”, “If I Am” and “In Another Way” are all significant highlights and “Wonder 2” closes the album with a heady dose of flanged chaos. Sure, it’s not Loveless, but it’s a great record that reveals a lot of nuance under close scrutiny, and was absolutely worth the wait.
#4 | Frog Eyes – Carey’s Cold Spring
Much has been said about how this album is cloaked in themes of mortality. It was released shortly after two significant events in the life of frontman Carey Mercer – the death of his father and a diagnosis of throat cancer (supposedly “the kind of cancer you can fight”, which hopefully bodes well for a recovery). The thing that really struck me is how restrained this album is. When you listen to Frog Eyes, you expect kaleidoscopic instrumentation, funhouse-on-acid experimentation and Mercer’s unmistakable yowl, but this is a slow and understated Frog Eyes album like none before it. The guitar tones are fuller and more textured, with less of the sporadic noodling of before, while Mercer’s shouty bits are buried in the mix, often behind his own, more relaxed lead vocal, sounding like some agitated ghost lingering in the background. “The Road is Long”, “Don’t Give Up on Your Dreams” and the upbeat “Seven Daughters” are highlights, but my favourite track by far is the closer “Claxxon’s Lament”. While the song was written years before the death of Mercer’s father it feels utterly connected – Mercer’s idealistic mantra of “and nobody shall die” during the chorus is heartbreaking.
#3 | Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Acid Rap, the second mixtape by Chicago rapper Chance, just kept on growing on me throughout 2013. At first listen I wasn’t too sure about his goofy voice and wobbly pacing but over time those elements changed from uncertainties to some of my favourite things about the album. Once the lyrics started to sink in I was hooked. Chance was only 20 years old when he recorded Acid Rap, yet the album is rooted in the kind of longing nostalgia and reflections on lost innocence that suggest an artist of considerably greater years. The way he splices together these concepts – trading off lyrics about visits to Chucky Cheese and watching Rugrats against tales of too-young drug use and friends lost to street violence – is stunning. It’s obvious early on that this album is hilarious and Chance has charisma to spare, but beneath that prankster exterior I was surprised and impressed to find such a mature, intelligent lyricist. Personal highlight tracks are “Pusha Man/Paranoia”, “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, “Juice”, “Everybody’s Something” and the opening track “Good Ass Intro”, which might just be my favourite song of the year. Note that those are five of the album’s first six tracks – the album is perfectly sequenced and there’s nothing wrong with its second half, but good lord does it start off strong.
#2 | Jenny Hval – Innocence is Kinky
Jenny Hval’s first album under her own name, 2011’s Viscera, was a big surprise favourite that year, so I was excited to check out her followup Innocence is Kinky. The Oslo based songwriter and academic sets the tone for the album immediately with the opening title-track, quietly confessing “Last night I watched people fucking on my computer”, the first of many brazenly confrontational lyrics, before the music even really gets underway. Innocence is Kinky is undeniably ambitious and self-indulgent, exploring concepts of sex, sensuality, body, identity, gender and mythology through fractured art-pop and an unwavering focus on Hval’s dynamic, expressive vocal, but it’s also irreverent and, well, fun. The comparatively straightforward “rock” tracks like “I Called” and “I Got No Strings” give the album some momentum and familiar musical tropes for the listener to cling to, but to me the most thrilling moments are those when Hval’s vocal is at its most unrestrained. The afore-mentioned title-track is my favourite, particularly it’s chilling, vocal-only closing moments, but I’m also a huge fan of “Mephisto in the Water” and “Renée Falconetti of Orléans”. This is a huge step forward for Hval – it’s vastly better than it’s (great) predecessor and sounds like little else being released today.
#1 | Josephine Foster – I’m a Dreamer
The first Josephine Foster album I ever heard was 2005’s Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You, a beautiful collection of timeless folk songs that left me absolutely enamoured (the album ranked #5 in my albums of the decade list). Since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed her subsequent releases but nothing has quite reached those heights. Enter: I’m a Dreamer, in which Foster takes a slight deviation from her usual earthy, guitar-led style into songs which are largely piano based. Her music still evokes thoughts of quaint history only this time, rather than playing a renaissance fair she’s embracing Tin Pan Alley, with a bit of a Nashville twang for good measure. Foster has shown this kind of mischievous charm and good humour before – it absolutely defines “Good News”, my favourite of Hazel Eyes’ tracks – and it’s such a perfect stylistic fit. I’m a Dreamer is a marvelous album, one which sees its creator venturing into new territory and in doing so challenging the lofty peaks set by her finest work. It’s sweet, elegant and effortlessly enjoyable.
January 29, 2014
#20 | Willis Earl Beal – Nobody Knows
Nobody Knows was my introduction to Chicago blues songwriter Willis Earl Beal. It’s a really interesting, multi-faceted album. There are sparse, sorrowful pieces of vocal minimalism such as opening track “Wavering Lines” and the exceptional “Everything Unwinds” juxtaposed against humourous blues stompers like “Too Dry to Cry” and attractive pop-soul cuts like “Coming Through” (with a great backing vocal from Cat Power).
#19 | Tal National – Kaani
The debut by Niger group Tal National, Kaani is packed to the brim with soulful afro-funk that writhes with exuberant passion and sustained energy. Although locally very popular, the band have had to build and maintain their following through street sales due to Niger’s lack of a distribution system. Lucky for me, their music has been released internationally through FatCat Records. The guitar playing on this album is so nimble and exciting, especially on the great closing track “Banganesiba”.
#18 | Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
The sixth album from Josh Homme’s heavy-rock outfit holds up very well against earlier fan-favourites like Rated R and Songs for the Deaf. The guttural murkiness of those records is nowhere to be heard, replaced by fuller sounding instrumentation and bold, clean production. With only ten tracks, all of which feel like radio-friendly, potential singles, this is a very concise, potent, no-nonsense effort with exceptional replay value. Personal favourites include “If I Had a Tail”, “Kalopsia” and the massive singles “My God is the Sun” and “I Appear Missing”.
#17 | Czarface – Czarface
This collaboration between Wu-Tang member Inspektah Deck and producer/emcee team 7L and Esoteric is oodles of offbeat fun. The group mess about with samples of superhero cartoons and WWF wrestlers, complete with snippets of those pre-match interviews that were always so hilarious in the 80s. Being so colourful, irreverent and retro, it reminds me a great deal of Madvillainy (although admittedly of lesser quality). Inspektah Deck and Esoteric both feature as emcees, plus there are some guest spots from Action Bronson, Ghostface Killah and Oh No, whose cut “Czar Raefeli” is my favourite track.
#16 | Moderat – II
Moderat is a portmanteau of its two collaborators – German electronic outfits Modeselektor and Apparat. II, their imaginatively titled second album, is a nice collection of understated UK-style electronic music, with the usual touchstones of garage, 2-step, etc. The songs have a wistful and relaxing feel about them, characterised by airy beats, heavily filtered vocal samples and slow-boil repetition. The lead single “Bad Kingdom” and sentimental “Gita” are a couple of highlights but the album’s greatest moment comes with the constantly evolving, 10-minute centrepiece “Milk”.
#15 | Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys – Ready for Boredom
If ever a band needed to change their name, Melbourne’s Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys are that band. Silly names aside, however, Ready for Boredom is a heck of a good Australian rock record. The Bad Boys know their retro oz-rock, showing a clear nostalgic love for those classic bands that steered the country’s thriving 70s punk into the underground rock of the 80s. The songs are loose and energetic, with rowdy guitar and some stumbling, off-key vocals from Nic Warnock, whose technically lousy singing gets a pass on account of his cheeky charisma and big, gruff voice. “Have You Ever” and “Any Day Now”, wedged back-to-back in the album’s centre, are the band’s finest songs.
#14 | David Bowie – The Next Day
The Next Day was this wonderful, out of nowhere surprise. Bowie worked on the album in secret over the course of three years – a guitar line here, a vocal part there, etc – until he finally had enough material to release an album. With so much time to plan and cut and recut material, the result is a very confident and well-defined art-rock product. There’s something especially satisfying about this record. While his 90s and 00s work was often very good, those albums leaned toward reinvention and felt bound by factors like image, expectation and necessity. The Next Day feels comparatively effortless, light and free from forced motivation; the instrumentation is vintage Bowie and the man himself sounds vital and invested.
#13 | Elvis Costello and The Roots – Wise Up Ghost
This concept is awesome on paper but would-be listeners need to know a few things. The Roots are a backing band on Wise Up Ghost and Black Thought, their excellent emcee, is nowhere to be heard. The music is mellow, soulful funk-rock with Costello’s voice being the clear focal point of the album. This is absolutely not a rap record. That being said, if you want to buy what they’re selling this Blue Note Records collaboration pays off in a big way. Costello owns the frontman role with limber cool while The Roots make for a dynamic and capable backing band. Wise Up Ghost never strays from its central concept so it’s consistent and even a bit predictable, but the songs are top-notch throughout. “Walk Us Uptown”, “Stick Out Your Tongue” and the title-track are some of the album’s best but “Sugar Don’t Work” has been my clear-cut favourite since the first spin.
#12 | Earthless – From the Ages
Coming six years after predecessor Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky, Earthless’ third album From the Ages is a great collection of long, heavy-psych jam sessions. There are only four tracks here, clocking in at five, fifteen (twice) and a whopping thirty minutes, and each one showcases the dynamic interplay between the groups three members on lead guitar, bass and drums. With such immense song lengths, no vocals and not much in the way of traditional song-structures, it’s impressive that From the Ages completely avoids sounding bloated or scattershot. Instead, the music surges with raw excitement and adventurous spirit, characterised by hard-hitting riffs and hazy detours. The opening track “Violence of the Red Sea” is one of the best psych-rock jams I’ve heard in years.
#11 | Deltron 3030 – Event 2
After many false alarms and delays, Deltron have finally returned. Del clearly has loads of fun on this album, messing around with the concept of a “ten years later” sequel to Deltron’s classic debut, thereby paying cheeky acknowledement to the fans’ long wait for a followup. Event 2 chronicles the return of Deltron Zero and Automator, protecting the helpless from evil corporations, oppressive governments and futuristic street-thugs. The dystopian setting was a side-concept on the debut yet absolutely dominates on this sequel, giving the album a darker tone without losing any of its charm or humour. As with the first album, the guest spots and sketches expand the world of Deltron into a well-realised, fully populated story. Song highlights include theme-setter “The Return”, the ultra goofy “Nobody Can” and the hilarious Lonely Island sketch “Back in the Day”. Meanwhile “Melding of the Minds” and “What is this Loneliness” deliver some of the best guest spots, with great choruses from Zack De La Rocha and Damon Albarn.
January 15, 2014
#30 | Rokia Traoré – Beautiful Africa
Traoré’s fifth album and first in five years is an excellent new entry to her body of work. While the album is anchored upon the traditional Mande folk sound there is a lot of variety here and significant contemporary touches, such as noticeable ties to western rock and blues which were not previously as evident in her music. Just check out that roaring guitar halfway through “Kouma”, for example. Other highlights include “Sikey”, “N’Teri” and the sprightly “Tuit Tuit”.
#29 | Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day
Admittedly there isn’t much revelatory about Seasons of Your Day. Some of the album’s better songs, such as “In the Kingdom”, “Lay Myself Down” and “Flying Low”, feel more like gentle crests than outright peaks, while the best track, “Common Burn” is actually a recycled single from 2011. It’s very much a “stuck in second gear” kind of album, but on the other hand it’s a new album by Mazzy Star. Even without a classic like “Fade into You” or “Halah”, you still get to hear Hope Sandoval’s gorgeous voice and David Roback’s swoony guitar, and that’s enough to warrant an entry in the list. It’s so nice to have them back.
#28 | Huerco S. – Colonial Patterns
Kansas producer Huerco S. specialises in minimalist deep house that patiently builds mood while burrowing under your skin with thick bass lines and subtle, flickering beats. Colonial Patterns is a great album for headphone listening, with the stripped back songs being quite absorbingly hypnotic. My favourite cuts are the throbbing “Ragtime U.S.A. (Warning)” and the eerie, retro-horror of “Prinzif”.
#27 | Chelsea Light Moving – Chelsea Light Moving
In the wake of Sonic Youth’s kind-of-breakup (i.e. Thurston and Kim split up), the ever-working Thurston Moore went on to form the four-piece, noise-rock side project Chelsea Light Moving. Sometimes, when a young rock band puts together their debut album, they tap into an energy and chemistry that feels like capturing lightning in a bottle, a certain “vibe” that sits separate to the quality of the songs themselves. The excitement and punky attitude of Chelsea Light Moving instantly reminds me of those kinds of albums and that’s pretty cool – at 55 years of age Moore is still approaching music with youthful energy. Opener “Heavenmetal” and the two long cuts “Alighted” and “Burroughs” are your star picks here.
#26 | The Fall – Re-Mit
The Fall have a track record of being consistently inconsistent over the past decade. You get winners like Imperial Wax Solvent and Fall Heads Roll but also those less well received efforts such as Reformation Post TLC and Ersatz GB. Re-Mit doesn’t quite reach Mark E. Smith’s highest highs but its a very strong effort. It’s also rowdier and considerably more surreal than just about anything the band has done in recent memory – you can virtually hear Smith bouncing off the walls like some boozy, cross-eyed gremlin. “Kinder of Spine” is my personal favourite and the hilarious “Noise” is almost skit-like is its goofy irrereverence.
#25 | Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum
Mug Museum is my first album by Welsh art-pop musician Cate Le Bon and I enjoyed it so much that I’m keen to go back and hear the two she released before it. It’s a very charming affair, with the kind of airy vocals and comfy, retro kitsch that characterise the best of Stereolab and Broadcast, albeit with less in the way of electronics. The melancholy, album closing title-track and the strident “Duke” are both highlights, but “Are You With Me Now” stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the album. It’s one of the year’s very best singles.
#24 | The Growl – What Would Christ Do?
The first entry from an Australian band in an encouragingly great year for Aussie music. Fremantle six piece The Growl, fresh off a successful round of touring with Tame Impala, released their debut album What Would Christ Do? Loud, stomping blues rock is the order of the day, but The Growl flesh that sound out in some really interesting ways, displaying a willingness to experiment and tinker with the formula. The music is always very impactful, particularly through excellent use of distortion and crisply recorded drum hits, along with Cameron Avery’s raw-throated wail. My personal favourite is their blistering cover of the classic “John the Revelator”.
#23 | Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Every new Boards of Canada album presents a significant change in direction on the surface while retaining a unifying aesthetic beneath it all. Geogaddi ventured into organic territory, Campfire Headphase dabbled with guitar sounds and now Tomorrow’s Harvest, seven years in the making, is the duo’s most minimal album yet. There’s the same hallmarks of texture, mood and nostalgia but the songs are more desolate than ever before, with a commitment to fine tuning and attention to detail which makes it a success. By stripping most of these tracks bare and keeping them glacially paced, the songs with a more “traditional” BoC sound (i.e. the ones with the most noticeable beats), such as “Reach for the Dead”, “Cold Earth” and “New Seeds”, really stand out.
#22 | Case Studies – This is Another Life
Jessie Lortz of The Duchess and the Duke releases his second solo record, following on from The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night. Barring a couple of upbeat detours (most notably on single and highlight track “Driving East, and Through Her”) this is a bleak album of folk and alt-country, characterised by deep guitar lines, morose lyrics and lots of low-end piano. Lortz is a great songwriter with a calm demeanour, and his overt sadness gives the album a great deal of nuance. When I heard the first Case Studies album I likened him to Leonard Cohen and I stand by that comparison now.
#21 | Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
The second solo release from the Fiery Furnaces singer is another success, improving upon the formula established in Last Summer. “She’s a Mirror” and “Stare at the Sun” give this album two bona-fide hits to the predecessor’s one (“My Mistakes”) while the rest of the album averages out at a higher quality. I love the strong classic rock current running through these songs – they’re breezy and light but are adorned with plenty of retro trimmings. Friedberger is charismatic as always and the quality of her singing has reached a new high. I’m dying for some new Fiery Furnaces material but I’m very happy to have this in the meantime.
Willis Earl Beal – Nobody knows. | 2013 | singer-songwriter, soul, blues | 
Underground Lovers – Weekend | 2013 | dream-pop | 
My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star and now these guys too? It’s a banner year for better-than-expected comebacks by classic 90s bands.
Tal National – Kaani | 2013 | afro-funk | 
µ-Ziq – Chewed Corners | 2013 | electronic | 
Gregory Porter – Liquid Spirit | 2013 | vocal jazz | 
The songs are nothing exceptional but Porter has an undeniably fantastic voice.
Moderat – II | 2013 | electronic | 
The Smashing Pumpkins – Pisces Iscariot | 1994 | alt-rock | 
Great collection across the board but “Starla” is spectacular.
Adalita Srsen – All Day Venus | 2013 | rock | 
Huerco S. – Colonial Patterns | 2013 | electronic | 
Mount Eerie – Pre-Human Ideas | 2013 | lo-fi, electronic | 
I feel like this album removes most of my favourite things about Phil Elvrum’s work – foremost the analogue production trickery and intimate vocals, which are just about obliterated by the baffling use of autotune. The result feels cold and distant which, while likely the whole point of the album, to me is not a good thing. There are some saving graces, particularly in the album’s second half – for instance the reworking of “Clear Moon” has a certain something – but I really feel this album represents an idea that would have been best left on the shelf.
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts | 2013 | singer-songwriter, synth-pop | 
Fascinating, amusing, weirdly dark album. Not always great but Grant is a strong lyricist and has a voice that demands attention.
Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind | 2013 | electronic | 
Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas | 2013 | singer-songwriter, alt-rock | 
Compilation brings together the EPs I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris (good) and How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose (better) by this likeable Australian songwriter. Laconic style with some terrific, smile-inducing lyrics. “Avant Gardener”, which recounts an anaphylactic episode on a hot summer day, is clever and very humourous.
Jessica Pratt – Jessica Pratt | 2012 | folk, singer-songwriter | 
Sounds remarkably like something straight out of the 1970s. I doubt anyone would guess, on first listen, that this came out so recently.
Disclosure – Settle | 2013 | electropop | 
One of the year’s biggest and most critically lauded electronic releases, and it’s a very good album, albeit not always precisely my cup of tea. The single “Latch” is absolutely one of 2012’s finest pop songs.
Rhian Sheehan – Stories From Elsewhere | 2013 | post-rock | 
Serafina Steer – The Moths Are Real | 2013 | singer-songwriter | 
Public Service Broadcasting – Inform – Educate – Entertain | 2013 | electronic | 
Books-esque sound collage using curious spoken word snippets taken out of context, layered over a backing of guitar/keys-led indie-rock. The snippets are fun and the music surrounding them isn’t too bad, albeit a bit bland. The problem is that these two components don’t seem to fit together in any harmonious way. It’s not that they clash, it’s just that the combinations seem arbitrary, as though you could switch the soundbites on two of the songs and it wouldn’t make any difference. They’re not interacting, they’re running in parallel. As such, personality is diminished, the songs become samey and the schtick quickly grows old.
Passo Torto – Passo elétrico | 2013 | Brazilian | 
Abbe May – Kiss My Apocalypse | 2013 | alternative-rock, blues, art-pop | 
Abbe May has taken an interesting career path, leaving behind the bloozey rockers and PJ Harvey level of raw confrontation and these days trades in weird, arty alt-rock tunes. They’re actually pretty cool but I do miss the old Abbe.
Beaches – She Beats | 2013 | neo-psychedelia | 
Spacey, dense psych-rock from this creative Australian band. Some blissful krautrock grooves and a bit of irreverent hustle and bustle. Very nice.
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – Jama Ko | 2013 | Mande folk music | 
Bored Nothing – Bored Nothing | 2012 | indie-rock | 
Eh, very wishy washy.
La Femme – Psycho Tropical Berlin | 2013 | French pop, experimental | 
Yep, 1. I’m a little surprised at how strongly I disliked this. I was looking forward to some forward thinking, surprising French pop, but it just grated like hell.
The Growl – What Would Christ Do | 2013 | blues-rock, noise-rock, experimental | 
These guys are from Fremantle and are one of the more interesting, boundary-pushing bands I’ve heard recently. Imagine some Black Keys-styled blues-rock, but with a much larger lineup, more rambunctious energy and a complete willingness to throw anything into the mix, including the kitchen sink. Their version of “John the Revelator” is blistering.
Josephine Foster – I’m a Dreamer | 2013 | singer-songwriter | 
Absolutely lovely, on par with Hazel Eyes I Will Lead You. Foster works primarily with rustic piano backing this time out, which maintains the timeless quality of her music but pushes it out of the folksy realm of previous works and into something less etherial and considerably more alert and mischievous. So, so good.
The Range – Nonfiction | 2013 | electronic | 
Buddy Guy – Rhythm & Blues | 2013 | blues | 
I adore Buddy Guy, but two discs of somewhat-past-prime Buddy is pretty exhausting.
Nobunny – Secret Songs: Reflections From the Ear Mirror | 2013 | garage-rock | 
I was looking forward to this so much but it just isn’t working for me as well as the last two Nobunny albums. There’s nothing here that measures up to “I Am a Girlfriend”, “Blow Dumb” or “Boneyard”. Still enjoyable, though. Maybe it’ll grow on me.
Bill Callahan – Dream River | 2013 | singer-songwriter | 
Really this is a generous 3, but I’ll give it a 4 because I just love Bill Callahan so much. “Summer Painter” is a standout but overall this falls well short of Apocalypse for me.
Frog Eyes – Carey’s Cold Spring | 2013 | indie-rock | 
Bit surprised at the lack of coverage this one has got. It’s really good. Far and away the most understated Frog Eyes album.
Quasimoto – Yessir Whatever | 2013 | hip-hop | 
Disappointing, even for an odds-and-sods collection of spare tunes.
Tony Joe White – Hoodoo | 2013 | blues-rock | 
December 19, 2013
Bad//Dreems – Badlands | 2013 | rock | 
I caught “Hoping For” on late-night Rage and liked it enough to check out this EP. The band haven’t really nailed down their identity yet so it feels a bit scattered and stylistically inconsistent. But “Hoping For” is a fantastic rock song with a classic Aussie underground rock motif, and the last couple of tracks are also quite promising. I hope these guys refine their sound and put together a solid album. I’ll be keeping my eye on them.
Karol Conká – Batuk Freak | 2013 | hip-hop, electro | 
Reminds me a bit of M.I.A so worth a look if that sounds like your cup of tea. “Vô Lá” is awesome.
Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum | 2013 | art-pop | 
Breezy pop music with just a hint of retro flair. “Are You With Me Now” and “Duke” are both standouts.
Chelsea Light Moving – Chelsea Light Moving | 2013 | noise-rock | 
Strong effort from Thurston Moore and his new band, with lashings of punky energy and some really tight, vital guitar lines. My favourite tracks are the long, jammy ones like “Alighted” and “Burroughs”.
DJ Rashad – Double Cup | 2013 | electronic | 
Moonface – Julia With Blue Jeans On | 2013 | singer-songwriter | 
Dick Diver – New Start Again | 2011 | post-punk | 
Dick Diver – Calendar Days | 2013 | alternative-rock | 
Aussie rock band changes direction for their second album. Didn’t really work.
The Model School – Backwards Down the Highway | 2013 | jangle-pop | 
Couple of lovely jangle-pop rollers, namely the title-track and lead single “Streets I Left Behind”. The rest feels a bit too samey. The lyrics have a tendency to revolve around very simple sentiments and generally lack substance.
The Native Cats – Dallas | 2013 | post-punk | 
Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt | 2013 | alternative-rock | 
Surprisingly consistent, for a latter-day PJ album. There’s only one dud (“My Father’s Son”) in the first eight tracks, and while it does falter a little towards the end the strong opening gives the album a welcome kick. “Sirens”, “Infallible” and “Pendulum” are all genuine highlights and Vedder is his usual charismatic self. It’s definitely better than Backspacer, although it has that same feeling of a band going through the motions because “it’s about time we put out another album”. They sound reasonably invested in the material, but come on, it’s four years between albums – is this all they could muster up during that time? Hmm, that’s a familiar sentiment. I swear I had the same feelings about Backspacer. And Riot Act. And and and.
Sigur Rós – Kveikur | 2013 | post-rock | 
Man, I really lost interest in Sigur Rós over the years.
Swearin’ – Surfing Strange | 2013 | indie-rock | 
Good sophomore effort, albeit not as strong as their self-titled debut. There’s nothing here that cracks along quite like “Kenosha”, which I still haven’t stopped thrashing one year down the track, but it’s solid from start to finish.
Night Beats – Sonic Bloom | 2013 | garage-rock, psych-rock | 
Even better than their debut. I love the title track, the band’s best song yet I reckon. Also really digging “As You Want” (great guitar solo) and the killer freakout in “The New World”, which closes the album with some wicked chaos.
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle | 2013 | singer-songwriter | 
Matt Elliott – Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart | 2013 | singer-songwriter | 
That’s a pretty great title. Seventeen minute opener “The Right to Cry” is an impressive piece. But this is the guy who released Howling Songs, so it’s bloody hard for his other albums to measure up. I need to give this some more time.
Barry Adamson – Back to the Cat | 2008 | jazz | 
Clockcleaner – Nevermind | 2005 | noise-rock | 
David Axelrod – Song of Innocence | 1968 | psych-rock | 
Jane Birkin – Arabesque | 2002 | French pop | 
Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue | 1963 | jazz | 
“Wavy Gravy” is awesome.
Patsy Cline – Showcase | 1961 | country | 
Patsy Cline is one of those “household name” artists I obviously knew about but I’d never taken the time to listen to her work. My first spin through Showcase left me absolutely enamoured with her style (what a voice!) and it hasn’t worn off since. I think my personal favourite, at this stage, is “Seven Lonely Days”, but “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy” aren’t far behind.
Daisy Chainsaw – Eleventeen | 1992 | alternative rock, noise-rock | 
Pretty mediocre. One of those bands who likely owe their exposure entirely to Nirvana and the grunge explosion.
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman | 1968 | country | 
The two big hits from this album, “Wichita Lineman” and “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”, are really beautiful pieces of country pop. The former is a standout vocal performance and I really like the lilting strings on the latter. Sadly, the rest of the album doesn’t measure up. The handful of covers don’t inspire much beyond token curiosity and the originals just aren’t very memorable.
Le1f – Fly Zone | 2013 | hip-hop | 
I checked this out because I really like “Wut?”, Le1f’s 2012 breakout single. On Fly Zone, I dig “Pocahontas” (love the reference to “twerk-kwon-do”), but the rest didn’t really strike me on first listen. Le1f is very charismatic and likeable, though, so I’ll be spending some more time with this one to see if it grows on me.
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap | 2013 | hip-hop | 
Jenny Hval – Innocence is Kinky | 2013 | art-pop, singer-songwriter | 
Chance and Hval have delivered two of my favourites from 2013. You’ll be seeing these towards the top of my end of year list, that’s for certain. In particular, I can see Hval getting bumped to a 5 rating if the album holds up to more listens.
Oblivians – Desperation | 2013 | garage-rock | 
Clutch – Earth Rocker | 2013 | hard-rock | 
Hyper-masculine rawk in the spirit of Andrew W.K., with a bit of a science fiction theme to boot. Initially bad in a hilarious, “surely they’re taking the piss?” kind of way. Enjoyable for about 3 tracks, but they couldn’t sustain it.
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels | 2013 | hip-hop | 
Second Killer Mike / El-P collab after last year’s R.A.P. Music and the two of them make for a great team. Similar yet complimentary rapping styles, with El-P’s aggressive production providing the backdrop. Not as good as R.A.P. Music, but definitely worth a look.
Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone | 2013 | country-soul | 
More songs as good as the title-track, please.
My Bloody Valentine – m b v | 2013 | shoegaze | 
I like the transition here from the gauzy, Loveless-referencing style of the first three tracks to the clean dream-pop middle and surprisingly punchy, jungle-infused final third. “She Found Now” is great but starts the album a little sluggishly, but I think that will bother me less and less as I get to know the song better. Second track “Only Tomorrow” is exceptional – on par with just about anything from Loveless as far as I’m concerned. Also really enjoying “Who Sees You”, “If I Am”, “In Another Way” and “Wonder 2”, which closes the album with a heady dose of flanged chaos. It ain’t Loveless, but it’s a great record that reveals a lot of nuance under close scrutiny, and was absolutely worth the wait.
Useless Eaters – Hypertension | 2013 | garage-punk | 
Some decent moments and a good, consistent style had me originally pegging this as a 4, but extra listens left me underwhelmed.
November 26, 2013
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Eyes Like the Sky | 2013 | garage-rock, western | 
Melbourne band narrate a pretend spaghetti western while playing Morricone-tinged garage-rock. Loads of fun.
Phosphorescent – Muchacho | 2013 | Americana | 
Bad Sports – Bras | 2013 | garage-punk | 
Rhye – Woman | 2013 | pop, soul | 
Black Milk – No Poison No Paradise | 2013 | hip-hop | 
I’m quite disappointed by this. Black Milk has always been a merely decent emcee, with his main strength laying in his top-shelf production. No Poison No Paradise is probably the least attention-grabbing album he’s made thus far – same pretty decent lyrics and delivery, but the frenetic drum breaks and killer jazz hooks of previous albums are all but absent, or at least severely diluted. There’s a couple of saving graces in “Sunday’s Best” and “Dismal”, but for the most part this is just a bit too bland.
Juana Molina – Wed 21 | 2013 | folk, electronic | 
Pretty certain, at this stage, that Molina just can’t make a bad album.
Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down | 2013 | afrobeat | 
Savages – Silence Yourself | 2013 | post-punk | 
Not bad. The lead singer is very reminiscent of Siouxsie.
Tim Maia – Racional Vol. 1 | 1975 | Brazilian funk/soul | 
Secos & Molhados – Secos & Molhados | 1974 | Brazilian pop/folk | 
The Shangri-Las – Myrmidons of Melodrama | 1994 | girl group | 
Nice compilation of this essential girl group of the 60s. It’s quite thorough – 33 tracks including some fun bonus curiosities like radio spots – but easy to get through in a single listen.
Arovane – Ve Palor | 2013 | electronic | 
Nice to hear that Arovane is still doing stuff. This is only his second release since Tides, which is a long-time sentimental favourite of my early days discovering IDM.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City | 2013 | indie-pop | 
Love Battery – Dayglo | 1992 | grunge | 
Various Artists – Nueva Vision: Latin Jazz & Soul From the Cuban Label Egrem/Areito | 2007 | salsa, Latin jazz | 
Really interesting and varied compilation of old-school Cuban music. Plenty to discover on this eye opener.
Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day | 2013 | dream-pop | 
Mazzy Star go away for seventeen years. Come back. Still sound exactly like Mazzy Star. So pleased that this actually exists.
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile | 2013 | jazz | 
Julia Holter – Loud City Song | 2013 | art-pop |