Is there anything better than crankin’ some rockin’ tunes while cruisin’? Break out your drivin’ gloves and coastin’ shades, cuz I’m about to press your boogie-woogie button with The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016. Crank it loud. Crank it far. Crank it like a dude with a ‘tude who makes the squares unglued.

SWEENDOGG’S TRACK BREAKDOWN

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Kamaiyah – “Out the Bottle”
Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware. The I-just-don’t-give-a-fuck anthem of the year.

 

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Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”
The year’s most ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.

 

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The Monkees – “You Bring the Summer”
This lilting highlight of the superb Monkees reunion disc Good Times! is brimming with love’s wide-eyed optimism, making a chips-and-dip picnic sound like a trip to Paris.

 

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Kvelertak – “1985”
A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by a sandpaper-throated emissary from Satan.

 

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Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”
Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.

 

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Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”
Full of audacious swagger and undeniable craftsmanship, this is the lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.

 

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Sturgill Simpson – “Keep it Between the Lines”
Sturg goes full Stax on this groovy homage to fatherly advice, full of stabbing low-register horns and a loose falsetto refrain of “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

 

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2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”
Two rap vets going in like there’s nothing to lose.

 

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Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – “Work From Home”
When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office during summer doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.

 

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William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”
An offering to the sun god, in the form of an achingly beautiful country guitar instrumental.

 

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Kanye West ft. Chris Brown – “Waves”
Effervescent, soulful and hopeful, “Waves” feels like the old Kanye. In the thorny, paranoid sprawl of The Life of Pablo, it’s a striking breath of fresh air.

 

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Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”
If you think your summer is going to shit, the indefatigable Iggy is here to remind you that you’re right around the corner from sweet relief.

 

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Many of my formative years were spent going to a small Catholic elementary school. For most of my time there, I was all in – obsessed with stories of the saints; eager to partake in the sacraments; honored to be an altar boy. And as a quiet kid who bit his nails, I was totally down with the meek inheriting the earth.

Eventually, I started to see the holes in my teachers’ arguments. Why were there no dinosaurs in the Bible? “It’s a mystery,” they’d say. How could God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit be the same person? “It’s a mystery.” Why don’t animals go to heaven? “Because they weren’t baptized or something. Now shut up.”

But it wasn’t until later in life that I realized how much that experience shaped me, especially when it came to sex. In second grade, when we were prepping for our first confession, we were told that any sexual thought was a sin, literally an “impure thought.” We needed to confess them all to make sure our souls were “clean.” I took that teaching to heart. Shame and physical desire were inextricably linked. At least until I got older, met the girl who would become my wife, and started listening to Prince.

Prince died yesterday. He was 57. It’s impossible to properly explain his influence on the world as an artist, sex symbol, fashion icon and restless creative spirit. Since his debut album in 1978, he married funk with synth-pop, hard rock and slow-jam R&B, forging a signature sound whose effect on the pop landscape has been seismic. The depth of his talent was staggering – one of the most expressive guitarists of all time (and merely great at several other instruments); a coy, elastic vocalist with a pitch perfect falsetto; an innovative producer and arranger; a tireless and explosive performer. When a major artist gets stylistically ambitious, chances are they’re trying to sound like Prince – see Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Andre 3000’s The Love Below, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. There’s a long list of brilliant artists, like Miguel and Janelle Monae, who would not exist without him. His love songs were come-ons, and vice versa. He luxuriated in pleasure, in a way that felt rebellious, even political. Take this line from my favorite Prince album, Controversy – if he were a corporation, it’d be his mission statement: “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there were no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” Prince didn’t lay you down by the fire, he was the fire.

I picked up Purple Rain during a time when I was driving a lot – several 90-minute trips a week to be with my impossibly gorgeous girlfriend. I made a questionable investment in a Dodge Neon, 100% because it could get me to her. I craved her more each day (a phenomenon that’s never stopped). She washed away any vestige of those old “impure thoughts” lessons, fully exposing them as propaganda. And Prince was the soundtrack to this awakening. Take the gospel-tinged opening salvo of “Let’s Go Crazy”:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” Prince preaches over a pulsing synthesizer chord. “Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else. The afterworld. A world of never ending happiness. You can always see the sun – day or night.”

This opening is so important. It haloes all the emotion and eroticism to come. It’s a preemptive strike against anybody who thinks sex is dirty. Prince was rewiring my subconscious, giving the steely nun who lived in there some pharmaceutical-grade sleeping pills, and leaving me open to fully appreciate the line on the record that stays with me the most to this day, the line that would probably still get my vote as the sexiest of all time:

“Animals strike various poses / They feel the heat / The heat between me and you.”

Hearing this while yearning to be with the love of my life affected me more than any prayer ever could. Because my lust was not sinful. It was a feeling that connected me to all living things, to the grand, mysterious engine at the heart of “this thing called life.” It was not something I needed to confess. It was a pure thought.

Thank you, Prince. And god bless you. Now, you can always see the sun.

 

 

 

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In 1994, I was hanging out in a friend’s room, listening to CDs. After I went down the list of my favorite artists at the time – all of them white men with guitars – I said something heinous about “real music with instruments” and how rap was an illegitimate art form in comparison. It wasn’t hard, anyone can do it … you know, the stupid, racist Sam Kinison argument.

My friend responded not with anger, but by saying “Yeah, I used to think that way. But then I realized it was more important to have fun.” And he put on a song called “Scenario,” by A Tribe Called Quest. And then I asked him to play it again.

The first rhymes on “Scenario” – the first rhymes on the first rap song I ever fell in love with – were performed by Phife Dawg, who died today at 45. You don’t need to remember the “Bo Knows” Nike campaign to understand the phonetic brilliance of “Bo don’t know jack / Cause Bo can’t rap,” to tap into the energy invested in those words. Phife (given name Malik Taylor) will always be remembered as a sidekick, as the perfect foil to ATCQ founder and visionary Q-Tip. He was the gruff realist who perfectly countered Tip’s buttery smooth poetry. But to me, he was an artist with no need for context. This was no hype man. Phife was “The 5-Foot Assassin,” whose verses were clever, funny, and perfectly undulating. He had swagger, but in an utterly positive way. “Here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am,” he boasted on “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” He’s the only rapper in history who could believably talk shit about being nice.

Q-Tip was the star, the dreamer, the guy you could see potentially making the shift to movies. He’s undoubtedly a genius, and one of my all-time favorites. But there is no Tribe without Phife Dawg. Tribe would have been no fun without Phife Dawg. I would have been no fun without Phife Dawg.

 

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I read my first collection of King short stories – 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

“‘It was like Jeopardy,‘ he said. ‘In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is ‘The Inexplicable.’ The Final Jeopardy answer is ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer?”
-Stephen King, “The Moving Finger”

Nightmares&Dreamscapes

I work in a building with a small bathroom to employee ratio. After a year or so of stilted urinal conversations and close-quarters crapping, I discovered a hallway I hadn’t been down before. It led to the perfect men’s room – one stall only, off the beaten path, subtly effective air freshener. When the stall is free, life is good. But when it’s occupied, and I see the shoes of the guy who beat me to the punch, it feels like defeat.

Few writers could spin something memorable out of this mundane bit of oversharing. But with “Sneakers,” Stephen King essentially does just that. It’s one of my favorite short stories in his mammoth 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, in which an up-and-coming record producer keeps seeing the same pair of sneakers, in the same stall, on every bathroom break. The more it happens, the creepier things get – and that’s before the flies show up.

Before I continue expressing my newfound love for bite-sized King, this disclaimer: I have yet to tackle any of the author’s longest books (including The Stand and It, both more than 1,100 pages), so I can’t give the most informed opinion on the King short story vs. King novel argument. But I think I can definitively say this – his short stories are more fun.

The first four entries in Nightmares & Dreamscapes make for an exhilarating ride. I flew through them in one fevered sitting, marveling at the intensity and versatility on display. Over the course of just 135 pages, we get a gripping, “Tell-Tale Heart”-indebted mob revenge story; a harrowing cautionary tale to scientists who think they can solve the world’s problems; a creepy-kid horror piece best avoided by rookie teachers; and a brilliantly pulpy vampire story that involves a tabloid writer, small-town airports, and buckets of you-know-what. It’s a perfectly paced assault of sledgehammer-blunt ideas, hurtling relentlessly to their endings. King relishes the chance to spin these yarns. You can see the glint in his eye as he dangles us over the precipice, hinting at what’s to come and ensuring you will most definitely not stop reading until you know as much as he does. Take this passage from the third story, “Suffer the Little Children”:

“Miss Sidley frowned after them, reflecting that children had been different in her day. Not more polite – children have never had time for that – and not exactly more respectful of their elders; it was a kind of hypocrisy that had never been there before. A smiling quietness around adults that had never been there before. A kind of quiet contempt that was upsetting and unnerving. As if they were …”

This moment is one of several that made me think if King had been born a few decades earlier, he would’ve fit right in with Serling, Matheson and Beaumont in the Twilight Zone writer’s room. But that would be discounting the majority of his work, which attempts to give its characters and themes as much physical and historical context as possible. The half-hour episode grind would’ve driven him mad. In this book’s charming, conversational introduction, King addresses this issue head on, admitting that “everything wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be approximately four thousand pages long.” He sounds weary of the subject, of having to respond once again to.critics who regard “generosity with suspicion.” Every time he writes a great short story, he’s proving a point that he disagrees with. Props to him for just doing it anyway.

If Nightmares & Dreamscapes kept its initial momentum going throughout, it would really be something special. And it comes close, thanks to a finger that comes out of a drain, a fiercely loyal pair of chattering teeth, and a group of smokers who uncover a conspiracy that involves hideous bat-people. But it’s just too odds-and-endsy to truly hold together, capsizing at the end under the weight of several writer’s exercises – a Sherlock Holmes story runs into a Raymond Chandler homage, which gives way to an essay about his son’s Little League baseball team (the book’s only true WTF moment).

Still, I had the best time reading it. And I think that’s exactly the kind of review that King would hope for.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. The Shining

3. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

4. 11/22/63

5. The Gunslinger

 

So here we are, a week before we get to watch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences give a bunch of awards to Alejandro’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Camping Trip. Per the usual, it’s gonna be a long, depressingly whitewashed event, drunk on its own twisted definition of “prestige picture.” Movie about a man beating insurmountable odds so he can exact revenge? Prestige Picture. Movie about a woman beating insurmountable odds so she can exact revenge? Genre Picture. Look, I’ll be thrilled if I’m wrong, and Mad Max: Fury Road wins Best Picture. But ever since February 2006, when I assumed Brokeback Mountain was a lock – especially with insulting dreck like Crash as its competition – I’ve learned to expect the worst.

But enough negativity. It’s the Oscars. I’m going to watch the shit out of them. And I’m going to picture what the Best Picture field would look like if it was up to me, just like every year:

 

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Best of Enemies

At a time when “watching the news” means a screen full of red-assed pundits yelling themselves hoarse, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville take us back to the beginning of it all – the televised 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Their film is as compulsively watchable as those ideological showdowns were, framing them as the moment when TV editorializing went from “Point/Counterpoint” to “Point/Shut Up I’m Still Talking.”

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

The Hateful Eight

When the script for his eighth film leaked, I can see why Quentin Tarantino initially freaked out and announced he would never shoot it. Because while it has the look and feel and language of a period Western, at its heart, it’s an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, set in a cabin in a snowstorm. No-spoiler rules most definitely apply. So I’ll only say that The Hateful Eight is classic Tarantino – three hours of some of his best, most crackling dialogue, along with expertly deployed flashbacks and perspective shifts that hearken all the way back to Pulp Fiction.

 

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Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller’s fourth installment of his Mad Max series continues the trajectory of its namesake – a post-apocalyptic loner forever scarred by the murder of his family. But Max (a quiet and weary Tom Hardy) is not the protagonist here. Fury Road is the story of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, never better), a steely-eyed, one-armed soldier running on dual engines of outrage and hope. She rescues the sex slaves of the tyrant Immortan Joe, hiding them in her armored rig. What follows is an exhilarating, non-stop chase sequence and overwhelmingly satisfying revenge tale. By the end, a semi full of traumatized people are driving full speed at their oppressors. And we learn that power is one thing. And strength is another.

 

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Spotlight

After watching Best of Enemies, and ruminating on how cable news became the Limp Bizkit to Gore Vidal’s Rage Against the Machine, Spotlight might just be comfort food you need. This engrossing procedural drama projects a deep love for newspaper journalism, while still keeping one eye on realism. Director Tom McCarthy – who so convincingly played a reporter with spotty ethics on The Wire – depicts the true story of how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team uncovered a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and the rampant pedophilia in its ranks. McCarthy does for journalists what the best episodes of Law & Order did for cops. They work hard. They expose lies. They achieve some level of justice. Then we shut off the tube, and sleep better.

 

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Spy

Don’t worry, survivors of Austin Powers In Goldmember. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third movie together isn’t a spy spoof. It’s a legitimately great spy movie – action-packed, intricately plotted, and very, very funny. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent stuck as the personal assistant of special agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Then disaster strikes, Cooper gets promoted, and the film ingeniously flips the script on your typical McCarthy comedy. We learn quickly that Cooper is more than just a lovable goof. She’s a brilliant agent, a highly trained fighter and marksman – far better than Fine or Rick Ford (Jason Statham, mocking himself with aplomb). Yet the CIA keeps giving her dowdy and sexless secret identities, a sly metaphor for Hollywood’s expectations of McCarthy. Her frustrated reactions to these moments are what make them funny. She’s acknowledging what she’s up against, before proceeding to gleefully kick its ass.

 

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Tangerine

Shot on iPhones and starring untrained actors, Tangerine is a refreshingly unpolished snapshot of friendship, following two transgender prostitutes as they navigate the streets, buses and donut shops of Los Angeles. Its plot is thin: When Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from prison, she finds out from her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend has been cheating. Sin-Dee goes out looking for him. By keeping the story this simple, director Sean S. Baker can let the scenes play out in an Altman-esque way, with conversations starting, stopping, and overlapping in a way that believably mimics real life. It’s spiked with a joyful energy, but the darker moments feel just as organic. Like the final scene in a laundromat, which has the power of 1,000 “Lean On Mes.”

 

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When Marnie Was There

The final film to be produced before Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement and Studio Ghibli’s ensuing hiatus (god it hurts to write that), When Marnie Was There makes masterful use of the “magical summer in the country” trope to tell the story of a child who worries that no one loves her unconditionally. When Anna discovers that her foster parents receive government payments for raising her, she becomes depressed. After a serious asthma attack, she is sent to stay with relatives in a gorgeous country home. Across the water, Anna discovers an abandoned mansion that turns out to be not so abandoned after all. Written and directed with tenderness and wonder by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret Life of Arriety), When Marnie Was There shimmers with natural light, and sparkles with the thrill of discovery. “You are more loved than you realize,” it says to us. What an absolutely perfect way to say goodbye.

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One of the regular functions of popular music is to distract us from our worries. To punctuate the good times and help us forget about the bleak ones. Not all pop stars are brainless optimists 100% of the time, but few have resorted to glossy escapism less frequently than David Bowie did over the course of a nearly 50-year career. From a young age, even the catchiest of Bowie’s compositions were immersed in the human condition, whether it was an astronaut meeting his maker in “Space Oddity” or the unyielding biological clock that powered “Changes.” This is one of the countless reasons why his death on Sunday struck such a resounding chord. Through every massively influential reinvention, he never condescended to us by refusing to challenge us. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality, but it was also urgently, kaleidoscopically sexy, a reminder that accepting the inevitable can set you free. He stared wide-eyed into the void and never sugarcoated anything. But he also never depressed us. He raised us right.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his final album Blackstar is a profound work of art made in the face of death. Released two days before his passing, Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record, ending his transmission to us all. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one of his most wrenchingly beautiful songs, the sound of nostalgia and regret making way for peace. From an artist who so convincingly sang about heroes with limited time, it’s perfect.

Ah, the holidays. A time for nailing giant socks to the wall. A time for singing about pudding. A time to reflect on the year in music. Here’s a list of the 20 audiodiscs that gave me the most earjoy in 2015.

TD2CH_album_cover 20. Boosie Badazz – Touch Down 2 Cause Hell 

Lil Boosie has always commanded our attention with the quavering intensity of his bars. But there’s something even more visceral happening on this, his sixth album, and first since being released from a five-year stint in a Louisiana jail. You best sit down before pressing play on “Intro – Get Em Boosie,” because it’s one minute and 16 seconds of severe passion, the sound of a rapper freeing a long-suffocated muse. There’s anger in there, and sadness, but the overarching feeling is triumph. Over 18 ensuing tracks, this feeling of grand catharsis rarely subsides, and what seemed like the typical branding moves – dropping the “Lil,” the chaotic promise of the album title – are revealed as truth. This is an inspired, determined, grown-azz man.

homepage_large.c73306d019. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ

You don’t need to care about pro wrestling to appreciate John Darnielle’s 15th record. But if you’ve ever been in love, caved under pressure, or searched for goodness in the world, Beat the Champ has something for you. The singer/songwriter uses the squared circle as a launching pad for autobiography, explaining his childhood obsession with regional star Chavo Guerrero – “I need justice in my life/ Here it comes.” Elsewhere, the metaphors fly like feigned punches, from the sweetly romantic tale of a long-sundered tag team to the unexpected sting of a foreign object in your eye. In his inimitable, nasally verbose way, Darnielle turns what could have been a novelty record into a strikingly emotional work. He is the world champion of wistful pride.

a1859956754_1018. Panopticon – Autumn Eternal

Few things are as metal as leaf-peeping. People come from miles away to watch the trees blaze with a million little deaths, their once-verdant finery destined to rot. At least, Austin Lunn thinks so. He’s the man behind every note of Autumn Eternal, a black metal showpiece that plays like a drive through peak foliage – at first, with the sights blurring by, it feels like everything’s on fire. Then you slow down and realize you’re surrounded by beauty. Panopticon’s sixth record loses the bluegrass elements that made its prior work so haunting, in favor of walls of guitars, organs, drums and screams that swirl with enchanting grace. The melodies unfurl slowly amidst the chaos, gorgeous reminders that nothing is so natural as death.

51GqlPejStL._SY300_17. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again

Jessica Pratt is the kind of enigmatic folksinger who sounds like she was meant to record alone, hurling complicated emotions into the void. Her phrasing is messy, her pronunciation odd – “can” is “keen”; “time” is “tam” – but in the psychedelic malaise of her second LP, these quirks sound less like grating affectations and more like the artist’s own personal language. The joys of her guitar playing, however, are clear as day. She interrupts gorgeous finger-picked cascades with staccato minor notes, playing with a narrative thrust that gives the record its bone density. When we hear that scratch of pick on acoustic, we’re trained to expect some diary-entry-type emoting. Pratt plays against that expectation beautifully, leaving just enough breadcrumbs to get us lost. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus2/11/15)

cover_2253201862015_r16. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

Of all the fascinating moments from the 2009 Iron Maiden documentary Flight 666, nothing compared to the footage of a Brazilian fan who had just caught one of Nicko McBrain’s drumsticks. He stands awestruck, unaware of the camera, tears of gratitude streaming down his face. It’s a feeling I can relate to when listening to the band’s excellent new double-disc, because it shimmers with the commitment and energy of a band half its age. While never straying from that classic Maiden formula– dramatic intro, triumphant gallop, insanely catchy solo, repeat – The Book of Souls avoids nostalgia though the use of a panoramic lens.  The two best songs on the record are also the two longest songs in the entire Maiden catalog. “The Red & The Black” especially slays, its chorus a fist-pumping “whoa” that makes we wish I was in a stadium, expressing my gratitude loudly.

R-6768364-1426270272-2606.jpeg15. Bjork – Vulnicura

When Bjork released Vespertine in 2001, it was the most direct statement of her career. Starry-eyed, triumphant, vulnerable and otherworldly, it remains a breathtakingly accurate depiction of an all-consuming love. Fourteen years later, here is the denouement. Vulnicura details the demise of Bjork’s marriage in the same stark, unflinching way that Vespertine celebrated its beginning. It’s a  devastating work. The artist and co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak paint pictures of dissolution with little more than a string section and a spare drum machine. The story arc begins with our narrator seeing the cracks in the foundation, surprised at how little she cares. “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not too bothered / Either way,” Bjork sings in ghostly three-part harmony, extracting as much wonder from winter as she once did from spring.

drake_albumcover-300x30014. Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

Here is perhaps the most downplayed of 2015’s surprise album drops. Even though it was released like a traditional, for-purchase-only record, Drake has insisted that If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late is a mixtape, a mere prelude to his much-hyped and still-imminent Views From the 6. (Are the rap semantics making your head hurt too?) For whatever reason, the artist basically told us to think of this as a minor release. But after hearing the first five songs, that is impossible to do. It’s rap’s strongest opening stretch of the year, a beautifully sequenced malaise of ego, death and crew politics that is about 200% catchier than I’m making it sound. The Torontonian has become a master at delivering hooks, filling this record with the same airy confidence that made “0 to 100” one of last year’s best singles. “Energy” is a great song entirely because of the way he draws out those syllables – “Tryin to take a waaaaaave from a n***a!” If this is just a preview, then I am going to pee right now – don’t want to miss a second of the feature presentation.

1035x1035-a852ee70f2b3aba31d06a9f3_609x60913. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material

Country music has always understood how to wallow. Some of its finest moments have taken us down the whiskey-soaked alleys of Self-Loathing, USA. But I’m a bigger fan of the singers that return from the abyss and report on how they overcame it. Like Kacey Musgraves, whose filtered sunbeam of a second record sparkles with self awareness, jam packed with life lessons destined for cross-stitched kitchen wall hangings. It begins with a honey-sweet ode to the calming influence of marijuana, complete with strolling whistles, Dusty Springfield string swells, and a flamenco guitar solo. “It’s a fine time to let it all go,” she sings, the profoundly pleasant melody backing up her argument. Feel so lonely you could cry? Just cry already. You’ll feel better.

549_waxahatchee_ivytrip_2500px_sq-54bba7c022cb7d50f49076a72151daf0f3840630-s300-c8512. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

Ivy Tripp is one of those raw-nerve breakup albums that finds clarity in despair. Katie Crutchfield’s songs are all about sifting through wreckage, directing blame, taking brief escapes through nostalgia. Yet there’s real comfort in them, the reserved, homespun production a testament to the healing powers of a focused mind. No matter how many sad-sack, Reznor-ian sentiments Crutchfield throws at her work – e.g. “You’re less than me / I am nothing” – it never comes close to toppling. Whether it’s through a lone organ run, a gentle rockabilly groove, or an extra-slow, hunched-shoulder riff, every one of these tracks is built to be a grower.

screen-shot-2014-12-10-at-9-32-40-am_sq-2768c011b744709ef14c5eb2230eb19a61b0b895-s300-c8511. Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood

“Everybody knows that rock and roll is cold,” croons Matthew E. White on the most rock ‘n’ roll-indebted song he’s ever done – 12-bar blues structure, ooh-la-la chorus and all. And in the lush, lovestruck context of his second LP, the irony of that line cuts even deeper. Fresh Blood finds the artist continuing to scratch his Randy Newman itch, slathering his compositions in strings and woodwinds and vocal harmonies, his unique baritone standing out in spite of it all. The difference here is Cupid’s arrow, washing away any trace of sarcasm. We’re talking celestial metaphors for love at first sight, picnics under laden fruit trees, a refrain of “nobody in this world is better than us.” With such shamelessly gorgeous production behind him, White has the power to swoon.

a0925d371d-TCOTN-300x30010. Tribulation – The Children of the Night

If you ever hear somebody bemoaning the lack of good guitar-based music these days (like, if you’re Dave Grohl’s fishing buddy), hand them a copy of this, the third LP from Swedish gothic metal band Tribulation. The Children of the Night is stuffed with the kind of layered, anthemic, utterly beautiful guitar interplay that will have you considering airbrushing a Gandalf/Balrog fight on the hood of your Honda Civic. When paired with a penchant for theatrical organ playing and singer Johannes Andersson’s gravesoil-spewing croak, Tribulation creates a completely immersive experience, where you can hear about the existence of gateways to netherworlds populated by dreaming corpses and be like, “of course.”

Kurt_Vile-2015-Blieve_im_goin_down_art_hi-res-300x3009. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin Down

There have been moments – caused by exhaustion, an intoxicant, or both – when I’ve become obsessed with the sound of a word I’ve heard a million times before. “Di-no-saur,” I’ll say out loud, as everyone slowly backs out of the room. “Does that sound weird to you?” I share this boring anecdote in an attempt to explain the singular joys of listening to Kurt Vile, whose mesmerizing brand of folk-rock can make the most played-out phrases feel profound. On his sixth album, he has a song called “That’s Life,” a chorus about looking at the man in the mirror, another refrain about rolling with the punches. When delivered in the lulling sea of Vile’s finger-picked guitars and deconstructed piano chords, these clichés transform into a sort of everyman poetry. Dude could sing “It is what it is” for five minutes and have me in tears.

miguel_CVR_sq-563d9067c42173588ea2fbe88175d55171bd8d23-s300-c858. Miguel – Wildheart 

In a year when the top R&B song was an ode to the joys of facial numbness, Miguel’s third album was the sound of feeling returning. On his previous records, the Los Angeles vocalist did striking things within the confines of the late-‘90s neo-soul sound that so clearly inspired him. But Wildheart is something else entirely. Earthy and psychedelic, introspective and sex positive, it’s one of those thrilling documents of an artist ditching the old templates and exploring what’s underneath. It never strikes poses. “The Valley” weaves religious metaphors into its lustful narrative, not to seem controversial, just to make the point that great sex is spiritual. “Coffee” celebrates the context of making love with its simple, elegant arc of a chorus, placing conversations and caffeine on the same sensual pedestal as the act itself. “Face the Sun” positions true love as a moment where we see the light. Miguel has never been more confident in what he’s saying, in the sounds he wants to hear, in the sensations he thinks we all should get to feel. And that is a turn on. (from my review in PopMatters, 12/4/15)

No_Cities_to_Love_cover7. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

2015 would’ve been a perfect cash-in year for Sleater-Kinney – a decade since dissolution; 20 years since its debut album. The trio could’ve easily booked a tour where they play that record front to back and made thousands of people very happy. Instead, they made a new one. And it’s better. Impressively, No Cities To Love doesn’t just recapture the band’s signature sound, it continues the spirit of evolution that preceded it. Where 2005’s thrillingly loud The Woods played like a radio station .2 off on the dial, NCTL is crisp and considered, a 10-song study in artistic chemistry. Honing in on Carrie Brownstein’s endlessly inventive riffs, Corin Tucker’s flamethrower of a voice, or Janet Weiss’s propulsive drumming can be just as rewarding as letting the whole thing wash over you. “We’re wild and weary / But we won’t give in,” sings Tucker, selling the idea with every syllable. This is why fans hope for reunions.

Unknown6. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

“My mama caused another problem when she had me.” When gangsta rap was at its height, a line like this would be a swaggering boast, a motto for an artist starring in his own ego-driven, cartoonish noir. But in the hands of 22-year-old Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, it’s something else entirely. First off, it’s a lie. A deception the narrator needs to believe in order to live with those bodies in the alley. Summertime ’06 is named after the season that drove Staples to nihilism – “the beginning of the end of everything I knew.” And producer No I.D. gives the darkness no place to hide, save a drum beat and a few strangled notes. Like Yeezus, it finds irresistible hooks in unvarnished territory. Unlike Yeezus, it doesn’t believe in any kind of god.

florence-2-web-300x3005. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Going by the title of this London ensemble’s third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn’t merely exploring her emotions here. She’s calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it’s got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone. (from my review in PopMatters12/4/15)

61rIrx-CesL._SY300_4. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear 

I Love You, Honeybear sounds like a vintage Elton John LP, its rich, sad vocals buoyed by strings. It’s also marked by John’s old penchant for costumes. Recording for the second time under the guise of his sarcastic crooner-douche character Father John Misty, singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman falls into an ironically confessional groove. Behind the armor of a beard and fitted suit, Tillman can tell us that he’s in love, that it makes him brash and boastful, that it also terrifies him. In “Nothing Ever Good Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” he bellows at the men who hit on his girlfriend in bars, “Why the long face, jerk off? / Your chance has been taken.” As the pedal steel notes bend to the heavens, we’re hearing a form of male bravado we’re not used to – the swagger of the monogamous. Then there’s the closer, where the band takes five, and the costume comes off. Over his own gentle acoustic strum, Tillman sings about heading out on a routine errand, and learning that fate can feel tangible: “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.” If he keeps writing songs like this, he can call himself whatever he wants.

kendrick-lamar-to-pimp-a-butterfly-album-cover-636-636-300x3003. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly 

We’re used to the narrative of pop stars rejecting their “voice of a generation” status. Dylan hid in the woods. Cobain set out for darker places. But I don’t think we’ve ever had an artist respond quite like Kendrick Lamar did this year. On his third album, the Compton rapper doesn’t reject or embrace the title. He obsesses over whether he’s worthy, snarling about the hypocrisies that should disqualify him, pinballing between belief in a just god and helplessness in the face of temptation. And he’s not afraid to make us feel the weight. To Pimp A Butterfly is a long, challenging LP, full of murky jazz and slow-building poetry, soaked in survivor guilt. For long stretches, Lamar doesn’t give us, or himself, much of a rhythm to latch onto. Listening to his bars unfold over slippery sax runs and ungrounded drums can be like trying to eat Jello with your hands. Which, in these violently racist times, is the point – there are no easy answers, no purely satisfying resolutions. But there are reprieves. Like “Alright,” the defiantly hopeful rallying cry and centerpiece of TPAB. “Do you hear me? / Do you feel me? / We gon be alright,” goes the refrain over a shimmering Pharrell beat. In that moment, in spite of himself, Kendrick Lamar is leading.

Young-Thug-Barter-622. Young Thug – Barter 6

In an October feature on Young Thug for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica gave us a fascinating peek at the rapper’s creative process. In the studio, with a beat playing, he stitched together stream-of-consciousness outbursts like quilts. It’s something different from freestyling. It’s more like freecrafting. And on Barter 6, his first proper solo LP, we got to see that knack for building songs take center stage. It’s a spacious experience, with producers like London On Da Track favoring subdued, synth-heavy environments, where the bass bubbles up like lava. It’s the perfect milieu for Thugga, for my money the most inventively melodic rapper alive. Every couplet could be a chorus in his hands, every boast about drugs and cars enlivened by the undulating squawk of his voice. “I got Hot Wheels like a motherfuckin’ chariot,” he boasts. In the midst of this impressively assured work of art, it’s clear he’s not talking about toys.

Cournetbarnett1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

When somebody has a great voice, people say they’d pay to watch them read the phone book. I’d pay Courtney Barnett to write about the phone book. On her debut album, the Aussie singer/songwriter exhibits an uncanny ability to turn the most mundane daily activities into poignant ruminations. A visit to an open house becomes a reflection on the life of the previous owner. An elevator ride becomes a suicide hotline conversation. A morning swim becomes a metaphor for the awkwardness of a new crush. Barnett sings with with a lackadaisical, seen-it-all edge that’s reminiscent of ’90s alt-rock at its finest. She refuses to dramatize, to court us with her ideas. So when she heads to the beach to mourn the destruction of the environment, we follow, knowing the last thing we’re going to feel is manipulated.

Honorable Mentions: Drake & Future – What a Time To Be Alive; DVS – DVTV; Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap; Future – DS2; Goatsnake – Black Age Blues; High On Fire – Luminiferous; iLoveMakonnen – Drink More Water 5; Jamie xx – In Colour; Jay Rock – 90059; Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone in the Universe; Meek Mill – Dreams Worth More Than Money; Ashley Monroe – The Blade; My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall; Petite Noir – La Vie Est Belle; Screaming Females – Rose Mountain; Shamir – Ratchet; Slayer – RepentlessSlugdge – Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms; Chris Stapleton – Traveller; Wilco – Star Wars; Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower; Young Thug – Slime Season 2

7861a018-bb73-4caf-94f2-3bf8c05f6df2-2060x1236

Iron Maiden, that frothing steed of decibels and poetry, released its 16th studio album today – The Book of Souls. The fact that Maiden is still going, with every member of its classic lineup (+ third guitarist Janick Gers), releasing epic-length double albums? It’s almost enough to make me believe in something more. By which I mean, of course, Satan.

One of the things that continues to keep Maiden in my Discman in 2015 is their unpretentious approach to songwriting. Bassist/lead songwriter Steve Harris has written about demons and prophecies and the Arthurian legend, but he does it like he’s writing a love song – with clear, exuberant, universal language. A lot of his songs are inspired by literature, and the best ones are beautiful, simple echoes of the work in question. The book title is almost always the song title. It’s the opposite of pomposity.

So, to celebrate The Book of Souls, here are my 10 favorite Iron Maiden book reports:

10. “Out of the Silent Planet” (from Brave New World, 2000)

Out of the Silent Plant is the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ 1940s “Space Trilogy.” I read it in my 20s, and all I remember is there was a planet of seal people, and that I was bored. Not so for the Maiden song of the same name – singer Bruce Dickinson, back in the fold after a solo career that went nowhere, paints haunting visions of a ravaged earth. It’s the best song on the album that kicked off the band’s unlikely 21st century resurgence.

 

9. “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (from Somewhere In Time, 1986)

“You reach the final stretch / Ideals are just a trace / You feel like throwing the race / It’s all so futile.” I haven’t read the Alan Sillitoe short story that inspired Harris to write these words. If it’s as simple and elegant, I’ll be impressed.

 

8. “The Man Who Would Be King” (from The Final Frontier, 2010)

Lifting the title of a famous Rudyard Kipling novella (I’ve only seen the movie), Maiden tells a story of a wandering man, tortured by guilt. A gripping exploration of once-moral person corrupted by power.

 

7. “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (from A Matter of Life and Death, 2006)

The older this band gets, the more sensitively they explore themes of death and devastation. The subject of nuclear winter has shown up in a few late-period Maiden songs, most prominently this stunner, inspired by Robert Jungk’s non-fiction account of The Manhattan Project: Brighter Than A Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. 

 

6. “Stranger in a Strange Land” (from Somewhere In Time, 1986)

Another great song inspired by a sci-fi classic I struggled to finish. Guitarist Adrian Smith’s lyric is far from a plot summary, thankfully. Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel was The Jungle Book with Martians, tedious religious allegory and free-love communes; Smith writes about an Arctic explorer, a far more digestible metaphor for the dangers of the hubris of religious belief.

 

5. “Isle of Avalon” (from The Final Frontier, 2010)

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is generally considered to be the definitive telling of the Arthurian legend. Problem is, it’s also a long and bland and long and unnecessarily arduous and LONG telling. Give me Bernard Cornwell’s “Warlord Trilogy,” or The Once and Future King, or this gorgeous, ethereal song from Steve Harris – written from the vantage point of the undying land where King Arthur is going to surely return from any day now.

 

4. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (from Killers, 1981)

This classic from the band’s rawer, hard-rock days is a cross between the legendary Edgar Allen Poe detective story and The Fugitive, its wrongfully accused narrator given believable grit by original Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno.

 

3. “The Evil That Men Do” (from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, 1988)

The second single from the band’s last straight-up masterpiece, “The Evil That Men Do” takes a line from Julius Caesar and spins it into a poetic exploration of goodness twisted by violence.

 

2. “Phantom of the Opera” (from Iron Maiden, 1980)

The very first Iron Maiden epic remains one of its very best, party because of Steve Harris’s magnificent economy of words. Gone are the nuances and motivations of Victor Hugo’s famous character. He’s the devil, full stop.

 

1. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (from Powerslave, 1984)

The quintessential Iron Maiden song – a 13-minute opus based on poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s English class staple. It’s all here: the chugging triplets, spine-tingling dual guitar solos, operatic vocals about dark magic and human regret. After a spoken word sequence complete with the ominous creak of a wooden ship, the galloping guitar riff returns. Whatever albatross may be around your neck at that moment, it falls away.

 

 

under-the-dome-ep5

Since beginning my Catching Up With King project after moving to Maine a few years back, I’ve become a fan of his writing style, stubbornly ragged as it is. At his best, he builds stories like monster trucks. They flatten all the inelegant dialogue and on-the-nose metaphors in its path. It can be incredibly fun to be behind that wheel. But it’s this very quality that makes it nearly impossible to adapt King’s work for TV or film. The natural inclination of a director is to trim the fat, streamline plot threads, give the action a proper cadence. So they strip the monster truck for parts. Usually, all they’re left with is the wreckage.

It would be an understatement to say that the CBS series Under the Dome has this problem. This is the story of the town of Chester’s Mill, which becomes sealed off from the world when a mysterious dome falls from the sky. It’s clear and permeable; impenetrable and soundproof; reminiscent of The Simpsons Movie and directly ripped off from The Simpsons MovieYet derivation is the least of Under the Dome‘s problems. I’ve never read the novel, but there’s just no way that it could be as sluggish, painfully unrealistic, and emotionally barren as this TV show. Unless the dome is a metaphor for writer’s block, and the thinning ranks of the townspeople represent weak thoughts fading from a suffocated brain, I cannot explain why it exists.

Showrunner Brian K. Vaughan is no slouch, having written the popular graphic novel series Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man. No matter. He fucked with the truck, and got crushed.

So, after watching a season and a half of Under the Dome, what have I learned?

 

1. Chester’s Mill is on Ritalin.

The dome comes down, and people seem rather chill about it. I mean, they basically don’t even try to get out. Various car wrecks show that you can’t drive a hole in it, but what about bullets? Or fire? Or acid? Or a pointy stick? Nope! They’re cool just hangin’. Take a look at the press photo of Mike Vogel, who plays our main character Dale “Barbie” Barbera:

UndertheDomeBarbieHeader1

So yeah, this is our main character at his most concerned. He looks like a constipated window washer.

 

2. Actually, maybe they’re on heroin too.

When the government is about to drop a massive bomb on the dome, the town hides in the basement of an old building, where the vibe is pretty laid-back – the local DJ plays a Beethoven sonata, and it’s fitting. A few episodes later, the scorched-earth destruction the bomb caused outside the dome just sorta disappears. The power of disinterested thinking?

When main characters are brutally murdered, people wince for a second and move on.

When people learn that Junior Rennie is a violent psychopath who locked his ex-girlfriend in a bomb shelter, they take it like it’s a fairly normal thing to hear about someone. This extends to the writers, who now seem to think that we can accept Junior as some kind of hero, which, NO. If Alexander Koch wasn’t the kind of actor who only can make one face, and that face wasn’t the face of a dazed pony, then the show would not be getting away with this socially irresponsible character arc.

 

3. Snow globes are a metaphor for thinking your audience is brain dead.

 

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4. If you can’t decide who you are, then you’ve decided to be nothing at all.

For the first several episodes, Under the Dome wants to be a problem-of-the-week procedural. And it’s not the worst idea. We find out how the town responds to fire, drought, and an epidemic. People are still behaving like automatons, but at least there’s some structure.

But then Under the Dome decides it wants to be an allegory about men playing God. Dean Norris, who brought such deep, grizzled insecurity to his role as Hank on Breaking Bad, plays “Big Jim” Rennie, a local politician/car salesman whose hobbies are being powerful and making serious faces. The show tries to get us to hate Big Jim, who murders in cold blood to hold onto his meager power, and who starts acting like the town reverend at memorial services. It kind of achieves this goal, despite Norris’s performance being too broad and stare-y to really inspire us to feel much. The real issue is the flip side of this hashed-together allegory: The show needs us to root for the Wonder (Bread) Twins at the story’s center, Barbie (Vogel, who wears t-shirts) and Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, who has a hairstyle). Sure, it succeeds in getting us to hate Big Jim, but we already hated him. We hate every goddamn person for being so boring.

Then, Under the Dome wants to be a MacGuffin-heavy sci-fi mystery, complete with chosen-one narratives, screaming eggs, and amateur psychic paintings. This is where the show officially becomes nothing at all, a void, a blackness in our lives.

 

5. I love the severed cow. I blame the severed cow.

When the dome comes down in the pilot, it cuts a cow in half. The show handles it perfectly, using the bargain-basement CGI that fans of Stephen King miniseries know and love. I watched 187 minutes of It so I could see that stop-motion spider. I sat through all three hours of The Langoliers just so I could see those toothy clam screensavers descend on Balki. Under the Dome gave me my fix before the first commercial break. Like a drug dealer would.

 

 

6. I have spent 16 hours of my life watching this show. I feel you, Dean.

 

Under_the_Dome_What_The_Dome_Wants

 

 

SO MUCH good stuff has been in my Discman lately. Like, I’m burning through a 48-pack of Duracell AAs a week just trying to keep up! And that has a lot to do with 2015 being an incredible year for new music. So incredible, in fact, that I feel quite comfortable listing 10 albums that could go head to head against any of my previous top 10s (in the pathetic music-list cage matches that constantly take place in my mind):

10. Goatsnake – Black Age Blues

Sunn O))) guitarist Greg Anderson resurrects his old band and churns out some pure Black Sabbath doom candy.

 

9. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Can an album be a masterpiece and also a tiny step backwards? That’s what this feels like for K-Dot, who gives an inspired, chameleonic, relentless performance over some gorgeously fiery jazz fusion workouts. Maybe if I didn’t know how great he was at rapping, I could accept those poetry slam segues at face value. As it stands, I skip ’em – these ears ain’t free.

 

8. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain

Marissa Paternoster’s voice is a lit fuse. Her guitar is an explosion. And her sense of control is what keeps us from breathing in the asbestos.

 

7. Shamir – Ratchet

“Why not go out and make a scene?” asks 20-year-old Shamir Bailey on his skeletal dance-pop earworm of a debut. His voice is so convincingly, casually joyful, you’re in the street banging pots and pans before you know it.

 

6. Bjork – Vulnicura

The sad dusk to Vespertine‘s blissful dawn. Like that 2001 masterpiece, Vulnicura is fearlessly confessional. But instead of exploring feelings of love and safety and sexual nirvana, it mines beauty from their curdling. An intense, unforgettable listen.

 

5. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

If you need a Vulnicura chaser, might I recommend the last song on Joshua Tillman’s swooningly self-conscious second album. “I Went to the Store One Day” is a love song for the ages, a life raft for anyone who’s been laughed at for believing in fate.

 

4. Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

I was ready to give Drizzy a pass on this, an album he basically described as a palate-cleanser mixtape to hold us over until his actual fourth album drops. Unnecessary. Absolutely no one is delivering hooks like this right now. He tosses them off like involuntary functions. He makes moody, icy synthesizers feel bright as ukuleles.

 

3. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

The greatest rock comeback album ever.

 

2. Young Thug – Barter 6

His Lil Wayne title-biting is pretty stupid. But Young Thug is also the best rapper alive, so it’s within his rights. On Barter 6, Thugga’s incredible sense of melody, squawking banshee ad libs, and sixth sense for syllabic perfection are all on display, without a trace of perspiration.

 

1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Only the very best songwriters can describe the everyday and have us hanging on every word. On her debut album, Courtney Barnett writes about going to an open house, staring at a wall, and taking a swim. It’s better than most short stories.

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