The Top 20 Albums of 2015

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

Albums of the Year (so far)

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.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (50-46)

ODB50. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)

Even though there were nine talented rappers vying for our attention on Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, it was clear that Method Man was the one being pegged for a solo career. But while Mr. Meth did deliver that first Wu solo record, it was Ol’ Dirty Bastard who delivered the first Wu solo masterpiece. In hindsight, this was far from a sure thing. Because while every ODB verse on Enter the Wu-Tang is a gem, part of his impact came from the way he recklessly exploded onto tracks, spilling jet fuel in his wake. Not exactly the formula for anchoring a 15-song album. Except Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version wasn’t concerned with formula. It begins with an extended free form spoken word track in which ODB introduces himself, cries about getting gonorrhea, then sings an Andrew Dice Clay-esque spoof of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in a quavering, deep-throated croon. The record lets us spend an extended amount of time with the artist, and it reveals a man obsessed with STDs, the Great American Songbook, and a raw, off-the-cuff rhyming style that electrifies everything it touches. Almost 20 years later, it’s clearer than ever that this is no cheap laugh for hip-hop rubberneckers. This is genius, unfiltered.

Dulcinea49. Toad The Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea (1994)

A band remembered mostly for its crappy name and a pair of wide-eyed jangle-pop love songs, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s only value in 2014 should be to the producers of I Love the ’90s: Everything Else We Haven’t Talked About Yet. Except for the fact that Dulcinea, the Santa Barbara group’s fourth album, is a lush, tender, literally quixotic triumph. Released three years after the band’s commercial breakthrough, fear, the record smartly refines the swooning, alt-rock hamminess of hits like “Walk On the Ocean,” adding delicate strains of folk and country that make the morose, clean riffage feel authentic. It was the perfect accompaniment to the spiritual bent of singer/songwriter Glen Phillips, ensuring that tracks like “Fly From Heaven” and “Reincarnation Song” remain humble in their inquiries. The result is a record with a much longer shelf life than fear, with songs that put us all in the shoes of Don Quixote, elegantly losing our minds with hopes of true love and a higher standard for humanity.

Portishead - Portishead48. Portishead – Portishead (1997)

“Nobody loves me/It’s true,” mourned Beth Gibbons on Dummy, Portishead’s essential, trip-hop hall of fame debut. Three years later, the Bristol quartet’s perspective was a bit more refined, yet no less intoxicatingly dark. “All Mine,” the first single, practically has you thinking it’s an old-fashioned love song, with Gibbons singing, “When you smile/Ohhh how I feel so good” over horns that stab and accuse like a Bernard Herrmann Bond theme. The reverie doesn’t last, of course, with the vocalist taking her haunting, Nico-via-Kate Bush pipes into the upper registers to make a chilling prediction – “Make no mistake/You shan’t escape.” If the first Portishead record was about misery, this one was about Misery. Gibbons’ incredibly effective tone once again finds its soul mate in  producer/bandleader Geoff Barrow, who unleashes a gorgeous array of crackling, unsettling samples, somber keyboards, echoing drums and inspired scratching. It was a gift to lovers of torch singing, DJ Premier and all forms of gothic art, one generous enough to satiate listeners until the band’s next effort – 11 years later.

Fishbone47. Fishbone – Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe (1993)

As a 15-year-old person in 1993 who loved AC/DC and Arnold Schwarzenegger in equal measure, it was a foregone conclusion that I would not only see Last Action Hero on its opening weekend, but also buy its soundtrack, which featured not only my favorite Aussies but other bands I loved like Queensryche (!) and Tesla (!!!). And lo, I loved both the film and its music. But I’ll never forget the moment track 10 of the soundtrack came on. It was a metal song, and thereby should technically have been in my comfort zone. But this was a practically riff-less, crazed dirge of a metal song, a song designed not to inspire head banging, a song that whispers to you to lie down so you can become mired in its ooze. The song was “Swim” by Fishbone, which was also the first track on this, its mindblowingly diverse and preposterously entertaining fourth album. Give A Monkey A Brain … may have been the first recorded work that taught me genre rules were imaginary. There was plenty of stunning, melodic metal, alongside the frenetic ska of “Unyielding Conditioning,” the primo Funkadelic-esque freak outs “Properties of Propaganda” and “Nutt Megalomaniac,” and a pair of avant garde punk breakdowns from singer Angelo Moore. Both “The Warmth of Your Breath” and “Drunk Skitzo” made me laugh after I picked my jaw up from the floor; today their energy remains totally addictive, but they read less like comedy, and more like profound expulsions of feeling. To say the least, the rest of the Last Action Hero soundtrack has not held up half as well.

Uncle Tupelo46. Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992 (1992)

If I was writing about Uncle Tupelo five years ago, I probably would have railed against contemporary country music in that ignorant way that people sound when they criticize something they’ve never given a fair shake. But a gig reviewing concerts for my local newspaper put me face to face with supreme talents like Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley and Eric Church, and I discovered that there’s plenty of incredible songwriting and irresistibly breezy melodies in today’s country-pop. Still, I prefer the approach of bands like Uncle Tupelo and their eventual spawn, Wilco and Son Volt. And I think I know why – they sound like blue-collar guys singing blue-collar songs, whereas today’s average country single sounds like a pop singer delivering lyrics that were vetted for the blue-collar marketplace. (It’s why I can admit that a universal party song like “Red Solo Cup” is a masterpiece, while pretty much anything with “truck” in the title makes my skin crawl. There’s a disconnect.) Or maybe this album is just so good that it’s skewing the larger argument in my mind. March 16-20, 1992 was the purest ode to blue-collar American life laid to tape in the 1990s. From its bare-bones title to its embrace of musty standards like “Coalminers” and “I Wish My Baby Was Born,” this is Americana in the raw. It was recorded and produced in Athens, GA, by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, but his smartest move was to pretty much stay out of the way, letting the songs feel captured, Alan Lomax-style. It’s the most in synch that Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar ever sounded, so much so that the record’s best, most emotional track is one where they just play together, the bucolic instrumental “Sandusky.”

Feel free to check out the whole list so far, and stay tuned for more of my unsolicited 1990s ramblings!

Album Review Round-Up!

Hey there, world. I haven’t posted here in three months, and here’s why – I’ve been busy writing album reviews for a pair of lovely websites, Slant Magazine and The QuietusThat’s really no excuse to have been dormant for so long, especially when you consider all the hours I wasted watching House of Cards. Hey, did you know politicians are corrupt? Anyhoo, here are some handy hyperlinks to some of those reviews, to prove I’m not lying. Consume away!

Have Fun With GodBill Callahan – Have Fun With God

I’ve gushed about Bill Callahan more than once on this site, so it goes without saying that I approached this dub remix of 2013’s astounding Dream River from the perspective of a frothing megafan. A frothing megafan that expects more than this.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 1/20/14

 

Hotel ValentineCibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

On their first new record in 15 years, Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda get nostalgic in an appropriately, oddly imaginative way – through the perspective of a ghost that haunts the titular hotel. It’s carefully crafted avant-pop that’s more than a bit profound.

Reviewed in The Quietus, 2/14/14

 

OxymoronSchoolboy Q – Oxymoron

I had high hopes for this release from a Kendrick Lamar crewmate, especially once I heard the propulsive reggae beat of the single “Collard Greens.” Alas, it is not the Doggystyle to Lamar’s The Chronic.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 2/25/14

 

English OceansDrive-By Truckers – English Oceans

A lot of what has made Drive-By Truckers great in the past – incredible story-songs, walls of guitars, a variety of songwriters –  cannot be found on English Oceans. But Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley make up for it with addictive Southern rock tunes that feel instantly weathered.

Reviewed in The Quietus, 3/7/14

Kiss Me OnceKylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

The Aussie pop legend makes dance-pop whose effervescence belies its lyrical simplicity. On Kiss Me Once, she pays homage to the power of positive thinking so directly and shamelessly, you can’t help but be taken up in it.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14

It’s all good in adulthood: Beyoncé’s surprise masterpiece

131226-beyonce-sales-charts-album

In my day job as an advertising copywriter, it’s common to be tasked with crafting a brand identity for a company that describes itself as “authentic.” It’s a challenging oxymoron – write something rooted in sincerity and hard-won truths, that captures the way real people actually think and talk, for the express purpose of making charts on quarterly reports look different. Yet, as the marketing strategy behind Beyoncé Knowles’ fifth album has proved, this result is not only achievable, but can be responsible for some of the most dynamic, successful, and believable branding in this unrelentingly noisy day and age.

Of course, the strategy behind Beyoncé was to make it look like there was no strategy – the album dropped on December 13 with no advance notice. (When considering it was produced by dozens of people and included a 17-track “video album” featuring elaborate mini-movies shot all around the world, it’s a minor miracle that nobody leaked anything about it.) Even more so than David Bowie’s The Next Day, which pulled a similar trick last March, Beyoncé‘s surprise party approach came readymade with compelling implications – the 21st century artist not playing by outdated rules, the pop star who still believes in shared cultural moments, the independent woman who will only put herself out there when she damn well feels like it. But there’s only so much marketing can do. If Bounty paper towels weren’t all thick and fluffy, none of us would know about “the quicker picker upper.” Luckily for her marketing team (and us listeners), Beyoncé is Knowles’ best work.

BeyoncéA decade into her solo career, Knowles could easily be following the Whitney Houston blueprint – spend your twenties gathering cred as pop’s most dynamic vocalist, then use that momentum to propel you into the adult contemporary stratosphere – but instead, she uses Beyoncé to paint herself as a three-dimensional human being, who feels deliriously in love, discovers how deeply erotic monogamy can be, looks back at her younger self with pride and tenderness, and feels that glorious sense of emotional and financial self-sufficiency that can only come in your thirties.

Everything about the album’s production lends legitimacy to this expression-first mentality; songs regularly break the five- and six-minute mark as Knowles luxuriates in extended segues. Guest spots are limited to the artist’s husband and vocalists who are synonymous with confessional pop. The most instantly infectious track on the collection is “Grown Woman” – an Afro-pop-tinged barnburner that could be our generation’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” – and it doesn’t even appear on the audio disc.

And along with her murderer’s row of producers (Pharrell, Timbaland, Noah “40” Shebib, Justin Timberlake, etc.), Knowles explores the nooks and crannies of her genre with the same fluid confidence as her songwriting, making stylistic choices that not only keep things fresh, but also deepen the narrative. For instance, maybe it’s a coincidence that “Rocket” pays homage to the devastatingly sultry D’Angelo classic “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” – a song that was recorded in 1999, the year of Destiny’s Child’s stratospheric rise – but Beyoncé‘s breezily autobiographical aura makes me think otherwise.

At a time when it’s easier than ever for people to promote themselves, Knowles (and her marketing team) decided to ignore all of that and let the music do the talking. The result is an album that taps into the feeling you get when you buy a house, or move to another state, or realize you want your spouse just as badly as ever – I’m a grown-up, and I can do whatever I want.

The Top 20 Albums of 2013

Dear readers,

Before we dive into yet another year-end rundown of music sounds that I deemed pleasurable, I wanted to say that this particular list was most likely influenced by events other than the physical media spinning on my Discman. This June, my wife and I realized a dream by moving to Maine, and the sudden proliferation of beauty and happiness made me more susceptible to messages about life being worthwhile and love being the most important thing. Am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, you ask? Well, I just jabbed a pen at my eye area to check, and nope! No glasses. So even though my retina is bleeding, if I had to pick one lyric I identify with from the albums on this list, it would be “I really am a lucky man.”

future20. Future – Future Presents F.B.G.: The Movie

Auto-Tune was invented to be a form of sonic retouching, a way to ensure pitch perfection for any vocalist. But if you’ve heard Cher’s “Believe,” or seen a cover of Vogue lately, you know that the more you hide flaws, the more you’re hiding signs of life. Which makes Future’s artistic identity all the more transgressive and intoxicating. The Atlanta rapper uses Auto-Tune not as a support system, but as a sparring partner, his voice rejecting its attempts to correct it, resulting in an entrancing, narcotic croak that frays and stutters like a YouTube video played over spotty Wi-Fi. So while FBG: The Movie suffers a bit from your typical rap crew mixtape bloat (it’s intended to be a showcase for Future’s Free Bands collective), it has Future delivering pretty much every chorus, sounding deliriously confident and dangerously vulnerable, all at the same time. Like last year’s Rick Ross tape Rich Forever, FBG: The Movie has so many classic, filthy-loud beats it almost feels unfair. But where Ross washed his kingpin tales in bright comic book colors, Future is a decidedly flawed superhero – a man masked in Auto-Tune, fighting for air.

The Electric Lady19. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Sometimes an artist is too talented for their own good. They operate on a different plane than their audience, seeing things they couldn’t possibly see, and thereby creating things that are difficult for them to digest. Like sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune is a breathtakingly intricate achievement of the human imagination, and also boring as shit. Then there’s sci-fi R&B singer Janelle Monae, whose artistic vision is painstakingly complete to a level of confusion. On her magnificent 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, the whole Blade Runner-ish concept didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t matter, thanks to stone cold grooves like “Tightrope.” It’s essentially more of the same on The Electric Lady, which means Monae gives us an album’s worth of monster jams (“Dance Apocalyptic” will make you do just that, for instance), but almost buries them in unnecessary world building. There’s enough greatness here to forgive these failed attempts at concept album transcendence, but here’s hoping her next record is all sandworm, and no sand.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar

If Kevin Barnes has made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. But it’s not for lack of trying. Over the course of a dozen albums, the driving creative force behind Of Montreal has taken his music in all kinds of questionable directions – he’s written the twee-est of bedroom folk songs, stacked harmonies like Phil Spector on acid, spilled his guts about a divorce over dance-pop beats, and then created a hedonistic alter ego to take that same approach into some seriously apeshit-sounding places. Lousy With Sylvianbriar represents his first major creative shift since that incredible divorce album (2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) – convincingly appropriating 1970s country-rock vernacular, full of cheerful slide guitars, chiming mandolins and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-style duets. It should come as no surprise that it works; in fact, it’s the most focused collection of Barnes songs in years. Whether he’s burrowing in the pocket of a loose, Sticky Fingers-era Stones groove or cooing an Opry-ready ballad, Barnes sticks to the one thing that has been consistent throughout his crazy-ambitious career arc – dense, whimsical, unforgettable wordplay. Like this doozy: “The voice with the synapse that calls blood bats into action has now entered the tablelands.”

Push The Sky Away17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

If anybody was worried that original guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey’s exit from the Bad Seeds would be a death knell for Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the refrain from “Water’s Edge” should’ve quelled some nerves: “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/But the chill of love is comin’ down.” Lyrics don’t get much more Nick Cave-y than that, and Push The Sky Away, his 15th Bad Seeds record, is full of similar ruminations on romance and death and dark destinies coming to fruition by the seaside. It’s the band’s most beautiful work in this century, a collection of quietly ominous, pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. Perhaps Harvey could’ve convinced Cave to prune a lunkheaded line or two, or at least save them for Grinderman 3 (which is a thing that I’m just going to say is happening because IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN), especially the first couplet from the otherwise crushingly gorgeous “Mermaids.” But on the whole, this is a legacy-worthy installment, a deliciously restrained effort from a band that seemed due for an overreach.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze16. Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

In my best of 2011 list, I tried to explain why Kurt Vile’s lackadaisical brand of folk-rock is so damn compelling. The best I could do was the old cliché that “not trying makes you cool” (which, really? come on, self). Luckily, I don’t have to attempt it again this year, because on the warm, rolling dream that is Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile delivers a line that pretty much nails it – “Feeling bad in the best way a man can.” These are songs with narrators in need – of love, vindication, succor, direction in life, etc. Yet instead of wallowing, they’re more likely to step out into the sunshine, make a wisecrack and coast on the reverberating, 12-string acoustic waves. Songs like “Pure Pain,” “Shame Chamber” and “Too Hard” aren’t titled ironically, yet they’re streaked with hope, and anchored by Vile’s singing, which never rises above an “everything’s gonna be OK” kind of murmur. He’s singing about feelings that sting like freezing rain, if only because they make pretty days that much prettier.

Yoko Ono15. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell

Yoko Ono’s music has a pretty entrenched reputation as the ultimate in avant garde art student bullshit. And while she’s done plenty of that sort of thing – much of it with a man who remains universally thought of as a genius – her actual sonic identity is much more nuanced, marked by hyperactive new wave freakouts, strikingly fragile balladry, and nostalgic 1930s-style romps that make you wonder if she’s been a closet McCartney fan all these years. Her latest album with Plastic Ono Band (which includes son and bandleader Sean Lennon, as well as guests like Questlove, Nels Cline and the surviving Beastie Boys) is a worthy addition to a musical legacy both aggressively offbeat and quirkily traditional. Yes, there are the stereotypical Ono shriek-outs, which make tracks like the opening rock/poetry slam pastiche “Moonbeams” sound off-the-rails dangerous, but there are also meditations on true love that would fit snugly on Double Fantasy (“There’s No Goodbye Between Us”) and a cheeky, cabaret-style kiss-off to an ex that’s as charming as music got in 2013 (“Leaving Tim”). Now an octogenarian, Yoko sounds as feisty and invested as ever – so much so that a trip to hell now feels like one unforgettably whacked-out kind of party.

The Next Day14. David Bowie – The Next Day

If somebody put a gun to my head and demanded I point out a weakness of David Bowie in his prime (which for my money began with 1971’s Hunky Dory and ended with 1977’s Heroes), I’d probably single out his singing voice. In reality, Bowie’s reedy quaver had an enchantingly alien quality that fit all the interstellar/dystopian subject material quite snugly, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful, and hey, this guy’s about to kill me here. And that makes the distinctive pleasure of Bowie’s 21st century material downright ironic – and an argument in favor of the artist being something more than human, like that all-knowing glow-being from The Abyss or something. Because on records like 2002’s Heathen and this year’s surprise release The Next Day, David Bowie’s singing is the number one reason to pay attention – his timbre more resonant, his phrasing more nuanced, his 66-year-old vocal chords responsible for some of the most solemnly pretty noise in rock and roll. The Next Day treads some familiar terrain for Bowie fans – elegant, gothic rock songs about fame, the apocalypse and space dancing – but this time around, our messenger traverses it with a deep, knowing croon, and that makes all the difference. His message used to be “hang onto yourself,” but now that the ride is almost over, he’d rather we sit back, relax, and accept the inevitable with a smile.

Modern Vampires13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

Like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend is a band that invites an easy kind of hate – for starters, you’ve got the Graceland-aping trust fund ballads, upper crust New England hipster duds, and tween-friendly band name. But let’s pretend that their ’80s Afro-pop hooks weren’t discussed as if they were revolutionary, that they’re all children of Indianapolis schoolteachers, and that they’ve had a good band name this whole time (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll go with “Good Band Name”). And you’ve got a group that can craft a cheerful hook as effectively as anybody, who stuffed its first two albums with so many of them that it seemed unfair, and whose third release manages to work in some stunning mid-mid-life crisis poetry without skimping on the earworms. In this vacuum I’ve created, Modern Vampires Of The City (aka Good Band Name III) is a fantastic work of art, where singer/co-writer Ezra Koenig (aka Frank Stevens) tries to reconcile his faith in God, which is tough to do when he can’t even keep a relationship from falling apart during a cross-country trip. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings during the lyrical encyclopedia that is “Step.” Considering how compelling his band has become since the days of “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma,” I’m compelled to disagree.

Carcass12. Carcass – Surgical Steel

I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, he feels a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This is Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it’s (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, the guitar parts containing just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it makes me especially, screamingly grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.

Pusha T11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Even for a genre where boasting is like breathing, 2013 was an especially egomaniacal year in hip hop – whether it was thrillingly unstable, moody and defensive, reeking of flop sweat, or recorded while waiting for the yacht cable guy. But nobody explored the depths of their own awesomeness with the level of measured cool achieved by Pusha T, whose first official solo record completely delivers on the audacious yet matter-of-fact confidence of its title. It’s a feat even more impressive when you consider the pressure to perform – years into his solo career after the demise of Clipse, Pusha T had put out a mixtape and an EP, and landed some prominent guest verses, but hadn’t really proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned in the least over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” where he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of the drug game in a way that’s both romantic and weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from the seemingly unstoppable Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.

Matangi10. M.I.A. – Matangi

It’s always been tough to accept the plight of the wealthy celebrity – “heavy lies the crown” makes more sense when applied to presidents than, say, Super Bowl halftime show performers. But ever since making an indelible, kaleidoscopic imprint on the world of popular music with her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. has been in active rebellion against the idea of being a pop star, and it has been as compelling as any artistic evolution this millennium. On Matangi, her fourth record, the English/Sri Lankan singer, rapper, songwriter and noise wrangler remains in distress about her position of influence, exhorting her listeners to both dance and revolt over squalls of mechanized drumming. And while no song avoids these thrilling, dissonant bursts, M.I.A. does gives those pop sensibilities more room to breathe than she did on her last record, 2011’s cold, tangled, underrated Maya. Sensibilities that are most evident on “Come Walk With Me,” which pairs a sunny, it-takes-two philosophy with an endlessly hummable chorus, giving us enough time to appreciate those incomparable summer jam chops before the sledgehammer drums shatter our reverie. The crown remains heavy, but M.I.A. has come up with a surefire way to deal with it – make sure her records are even heavier.

Muchacho9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a recent lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter is just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s all threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like the rawest, most solemn promise.

Blue Chips8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2

Apparently Action Bronson has been recording his major label debut for Atlantic Records. Here’s hoping they’re saving as much of the budget as possible for sample clearance. Because this mixtape, a sequel to last year’s stellar Blue Chips, contains what is possibly the most entertaining melange of looped pop hits this side of Paul’s Boutique – after Blue Chips 2, any record that doesn’t give Bronsolino at least one ironically applied oldie or ’80s smash to spit over will feel like a disappointment. Not to make BC2 sound like a gimmick, because it’s not. (It doesn’t work because it samples “Sledgehammer,” it works because it has Action Bronson opining, “Uhhh … fly shit … grown man shit” over a sample of “Sledgehammer.”) Like the first Blue Chips, this tape features plenty of RZA-like, scratchy soul loops to back up verses loaded with references to food, sex and 1990s athletes (Nick Van Exel, take a bow). But the whole thing is just more fun this time around, what with the snippets of Applebee’s commercials and beats born from “Tequila” and Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason.” Few rappers are feeling it like Action Bronson these days, and BC2 is the perfect platform for his magnificent, tongue-in-cheek shit talk.

Neko Case7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case is sick and tired of your expectations. “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes,” one of many tracks on her stunning sixth album that discover freedom through fatalistic directness. The singer/songwriter has never sounded this fed up – with crummy parents, dumb-ass lovers and those pesky illustrated lampreys – and her scalding sarcasm turns the lovely, warm bath of a typical Case production into a complex, simmering stew. Gone are the love-as-tornado metaphors, replaced by the rallying cries of the defiantly heartbroken – “You didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you,” she belts triumphantly over the sensational gallop of “Man.” All this vitriol does not change the fact that The Worse Things Get is a joy to listen to on the level of Case’s two previous masterworks (2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009’s Middle Cyclone). From ghostly a cappella breaks to burbling baritone-sax arrangements, quiet acoustic reflections to finger-wagging girl group choruses, this is as ambitious and assured as Case has ever sounded. On the record’s opening song, she asks herself if she’d rather be a king or a king’s pet. Hearing the absolute power she wields in the studio, you can guess which one she chooses.

Rhye6. Rhye – Woman

R&B is generally viewed as the sexiest genre of music, the go-to soundtrack for doing stuff on bearskin rugs by the fire and the like. And while there’s great R&B that embraces such corny clichés (see Kelly, R.), I think that for the most part, this stuff is at its most sensual when it’s about more than just sex. Enter Rhye, an L.A. duo whose immaculate quiet storm of a debut album is full of excellent pick-up lines, but delivers them with the sweetness and vulnerability of a heat-of-the-moment “I love you.” It’s the same delicate emotional balance that defined Sade at her peak – and listening to how Woman weaves blankets of synthesizers for lead singer Milosh to tuck us in with, there’s no doubt that Rhye is more than just influenced by the queen of slow-burning romance. This album is a tribute to her. So for those of us who find tenderness to be erotic, these guys were the smoothest operators of 2013.

Overgrown5. James Blake – Overgrown

When artists say they don’t really care about attention or awards, it’s usually a lie they’re not even trying that hard to sell. But on the title track of James Blake’s hypnotic second album, his pleas for constancy over frivolity are either totally sincere, or the product of a magnificent fibber: “I don’t wanna be a star/But a stone on the shore/A lone door frame in the wall/When everything’s overgrown.” I can’t help but take him at his word, because Overgrown itself is an argument for the beauty of things that last, a collection of simple mantras about what truly matters woven through a wintry forest of lulling, whispering electronica. Blake has created a consistently entrancing experience akin to his devastating 2011 debut, continuing to draw no lines between moments of transcendence and pain. But there’s a lot more of the former this time around, thanks to a handful of love songs that are as profoundly spartan as a blue collar engagement ring – “To the last/You and I,” he croons, leaving the flowery language to those who crave stardom above all.

Nothing Was The Same4. Drake – Nothing Was The Same

The most compelling thing about Drake is the way he has his cake and eats it too – crafting verses that are drenched in both bravado and insecurity, making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom, making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands – and on lesser Drake albums – but on Nothing Was The Same, the artist’s vision is so thoroughly realized, his collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears make for a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. If the arc of his tortured millionaire persona is a put-on, it’s a fantastically executed one, because on NWTS, the cognac-for-one romantic despair of Drake’s previous work evolves into a grander fear of the other shoe dropping. The more money he makes (which, according to his verse on “All Me,” is so much he’s forgotten the amount), the more he feels like it can’t last. So much of the record finds the rapper revisiting the fantasies of his 1990s childhood, creating a two-song sequence based on Wu-Tang Clan’s most magnanimous single, making Fresh Prince of Bel Air references, comparing his earning potential to Dan Marino’s in his prime. These would seem to be the only things this prodigy-turned-superstar can take comfort in, if it weren’t for all those sumptuous, late-night-neon grooves.

Yeezus3. Kanye West – Yeezus

A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with an aging Snarf, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.

Dream River2. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years after releasing an album called Apocalypse, Bill Callahan resurfaced in 2013 with the most life-affirming record of the year. Dream River begins with Callahan in full story-song cowboy mode, sitting alone in a hotel bar. But instead of brooding about stuff like how every flower turns to hay, he relishes in the simple joy of a three-word vocabulary (“Beer” and “thank you”), appreciating everyone in the room, just because they exist. From an artist who has tended to espouse a worldview where even the silver linings are tarnished, this is an unexpected, enlightening surprise, like encountering a Larry McMurtry character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. And just when you start to ask why, track two starts playing, and you realize he’s in love. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” Callahan sings in his rich, whiskey-barrel basso. “You looked so peaceful, you scared me.” Fear of losing one’s full happiness is right there in that voice. Fear, and awe, and gratitude. Dream River overflows with moments like these – a cycle of eight songs that represent a metaphysical moment of clarity. Bill Callahan might look at life as one arcing flight through the air, but he’s made an album about the times before you land in which you truly feel weightless.

Chance The Rapper1. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fuels Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives a fascinating, charismatic performance that puts him on the short list of young artists who seem primed to leave their fingerprints all over the ’10s. The 20-year-old Chicagoan spent his formative years ingesting Kanye West’s college trilogy and Lil Wayne’s mixtape revolution, and he soaks his second tape in the balmy soul samples of the former, and the effortlessly hilarious, cough-addled wordplay of the latter. But Acid Rap is about way more than influences. Chance has his own fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He litters his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but instead is as playful and essential as a Kanye “Haaah!” “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Atoms For Peace – Amok; Danny Brown – Old; Cakes Da Killa – The Eulogy; Disclosure – Settle; The Flaming Lips – The Terror; Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God; Paul McCartney – New; Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels; Ty Segall – Sleeper; She & Him – Volume Three; Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed; Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?; Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out; Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

Bob Dylan’s selfie, prettier than you remember.

Bob Dylan

Being a Self Portrait apologist is an uphill battle. And I understand why – after a run of challenging, zeitgeist-capturing songwriting like no other, Bob Dylan titled his first album of the 1970s in a way that promised new depths of introspection, yet the music he put on there delivered on none of it. A collection of Americana covers, live tracks and roughshod instrumentals with nary a T.S. Eliot reference to be found, Self Portrait was (and remains) his least self-conscious work. To a passionate fan at the time, this album must have sounded like the kind of odds and sods phone-in job artists release to fulfill label obligations.

Lucky for me, I was negative eight when Self Portrait pissed everybody off, including Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus (who delivered perhaps the most famous line in album review history – “What is this shit?”). Listening to it in a vacuum, knowing that it doesn’t have to inspire the hopes and dreams of a generation, I became charmed by its ironic self-remove, by how a man who was once perceived as a lightning rod of revolution in our country was defining himself with cowboy songs. It left me open to appreciate the record’s loose, nostalgic atmosphere, and gave me the freedom to obsess over the handful of all-time great Dylan songs nestled inside of it (e.g. “It Hurts Me Too,” “Wigwam”).

Regardless, to express this charm out loud to another Dylan fan has been a form of pop culture suicide to rival my Coldplay love. Self Portrait‘s suckiness has been a foregone conclusion ever since that Marcus review; it took Blood On The Tracks to convince people that the man’s genius hadn’t mysteriously evaporated, retroactively stocking the ’70s albums that came before it into the “transitional period” bargain bins of our minds. “But, it’s fun!” I’d say. “He’s not taking himself so seriously!” Opinions that don’t exactly hold up against decades of despair.

Another Self PortraitBut I don’t really have to argue so much anymore. Because the latest entry into Columbia/Legacy’s transcendent Dylan Bootleg Series gives us a studio feed into the 1969-1971 sessions for Self Portrait and its follow-up New Morning (as well as a pair of Nashville Skyline outtakes). And like so many Bootleg Series releases before it, Another Self Portrait is much more than some artifact for Dylan completists – it’s a carefully curated and sequenced work, meant to be listened to front to back like a new Bob Dylan release. It weaves unreleased songs, alternate takes, overdub-stripped versions of album tracks, and a few live cuts into a gorgeously insightful whole, revealing how Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning were all different chapters of the same story – a hyperbolically beloved artist turning to the sounds and ideas of old Americana for succor. If you had to pluck a “single” from the previously unreleased stuff, it would probably be “Pretty Saro” – Dylan delivers the 18th century English folk ballad with a close-miked, lullaby tone that would’ve fit snugly on any of his records from the time. Second place goes to “These Hands,” a working man’s prayer of a 1950s country song that Dylan sings with heartbreaking tenderness. These moments of intimacy and full-throated nostalgia put the listener in the right mindset to hear Self Portrait, and this set drives the point home by stripping the strings and horn sections out of songs like “Little Sadie,” “All The Tired Horses,” “Wigwam,” and “Days of ’49,” revealing the earnestness and warmth of the performances underneath. I think I’ll always prefer the original productions – especially the drunken Spanish horns of “Wigwam” – but the quieter versions do make Another Self Portrait sound more like one seamless session. (FYI: I still prefer Phil Spector’s schmaltzy-ass overdubs on Let It Be to that Let It Be … Naked experiment, so perhaps I’m just a big old sap.)

By giving context to a record that disappointed so many, Another Self Portrait gives us precious access to a Bob Dylan that was tired of the swirling stream-of-consciousness poetry slams, a Bob Dylan who just wanted to sing pretty songs he loved and jam on some blues vamps. I’m tempted to say it’s an amazing feat – to force a re-assessment of something long-reviled. But honestly, all it’s done is release this great music in an impeccable package. The most important thing that’s been stripped from the original Self Portrait? Unfair expectations.