So many of my favorite bands released fantastic records this year, I was barely able to pay attention to much else. I’m looking forward to seeing the many other lists that will be coming out so I can find the gems I missed. As usual, there’s no particular hierarchy here, but there were certainly a few standouts.
Wow. I mean, her debut from last year, Los Angeles, was beautiful, but this is a huge and unexpected leap forward. If you haven’t heard of her yet, just about all of the major outlets have covered El Mar Querer. Rosalía does a fantastic job of mixing Flamenco and Romani-influenced styles with Björk-esque soundscapes. People keep talking about it being RnB, but I only vaguely get that impression. This is some genre-bending/defining stuff that is probably going to change the face of contemporary music.
Low fucking does it again. It’s amazing to me how they just keep adding to their palette, keeping their minimal, pop mood-pieces so fascinating. This isn’t the type of album you’re going to pop on one for two songs, by any means, you definitely have to be in the right frame of mind for it. A world unto itself, Double Negative is short film about a decaying memory of some specific moment it’s hard to recall. It’s right there in the shadows of your mind, but every time you’re almost able to see it clearly, it disintegrates into dust. Very much in debt to William Basinski, but from a much different perspective.
I was unfamiliar with Jake Rogers’ music before discovering Visigoth on their third album this year. If you’re a fan of metal’s many genres, it’s worth exploring his Gallobraid and Caladan Brood projects, but Visigoth is by far his most compelling band as far as subject matter and presentation goes. Also, it’s fucking hilarious, totally badass, and fun as hell all at the same time. Take the second track, and standout, “Warrior Queen” for instance. I’m not going to do it justice in words, so just listen to it. The majority of this album would be an epic soundtrack for a Conan or Red Sonja reboot, there’s even a song about The Highlander. “Salt City” is the only track that’s out of place, but it’s quickly forgotten with “Blades in the Night” and the title track.
Mr. Washington’s music really scratches my jazz and exotica itch like no other, and Heaven and Earth just goes on and on. Lush, dense, and ever-changing, it effortlessly weaves in and out of jazz’s many forms, Kamasi is a master composer for the books. Transcendental at the least, this double album will take you to dimensions beyond.
The Good, the Bad, and the Queen
Oof, this is a tough one. An epitaph not only for the twisted caricature contemporary England has become, but Western “democracy” itself as it slides the last few inches down to the hilt of its own imperial sword. Tony Allen’s dub beats that ironically support "Merrie Land” underscore the dejected, haunted carnival music that dominates the album, a repudiation of the nationalist tendencies of a culture that once took as it pleased from the rest world. That being said, you can hear Albarn’s true and deep longing for what he thought his country was, and what it could be. “Merrie Land” is, if nothing else, difficult, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I’ve only caught myself singing tiny snippets of it over the past few weeks, mainly because it generally eschews typical pop-song craft. Again, another release that probably won’t have any hot singles, but overall, it’s a masterpiece, the best thing Albarn has released in years.
I never know what to expect with OPN, just that I’m going to hear something new and exciting. Lopatin does not disappoint with his latest release, a concept album about alien robots trying to piece together what humanity was all about through scraps of recordings. That may sound silly, but, seeing as it’s mostly instrumental, the concept is more of a guide to approach the album than a story that is overtly presented. This marks Lopatin’s first attempt singing his own songs, of which there are a handful. They’ve been bemoaned, but I think they are prescient markers of what pop will likely become, if contemporary pop “artists” can ever find it within themselves to write some decent lyrics. “Babylon” is the standout of these songs for me. Another epitaph for a sad moment in human history, where, in countless ways, we are unable to see the forest for the trees. That said, this is a strong contender for my album of the year.
A return to form, some new directions forward, and a call to arms for those doing their best to #resist in these dark days. Not only is Wide Awake! a great political manifesto of the moment, but it’s also fun to dance to, the energetic counterpart to Merrie Land. Swerving all over the place stylistically but remaining cohesive in their vision, it seems the current climate was exactly what Parquet Courts needed to get back on their game.
A sumptuous return from this Chicago stalwart. I’ve been waiting for this S&C album since Oui. The vocals are finally back in the mix properly and Sam’s lyrics sound renewed and obliquely beautiful as they are at their best. Layers and layers of sparkling guitar work accented by occasional keys and strings, and McIntire’s understated, god-tier drumming all add up to the best aspects of a wholly original band back at the height of their powers. Great for fogged-out days, surreal late nights, and casual drives in the country .
Salsburg’s guitar playing harkens back to late 90s post-post rock, when groups like Rex and Pullman were focusing their energies on abstracted forms of Fahey and the American Primitives. This is simply beautiful, chill acoustic guitar work, familiar but with a new twist. Elegant and extremely satisfying.
Yes. Any time Liz Harris releases an new album, I feel a sense of ease. She always delivers a new take on her melancholy ambient pop that I can just never get enough of. It’s the kind of music I have to make myself stop listening to so I don’t get burned out. Here she offers up more plaintive piano tunes drifting in the aether. My only complaint is that it’s not longer.
Keith Kenniff has been making gorgeous ambient music for a while now, both as Helios (which is more electronic) and Goldmund (more along the lines of what is referred to as “modern classical”). Goldmund’s pieces are usually based around, if not solely, piano refrains, and have a bittersweet nostalgic feel to them. If you haven’t heard Corduroy Road I highly recommend giving it a listen. With Occasus, he’s added more instrumentation and filters and included some occasional electronic touches. The result is 49 minutes of spacious ambient reflection at its finest.
Steven R. Smith is probably my favorite musician, hands down. He’s recorded so many albums and every single fucking one is gold. Ulaan Markhor is his drum-backed project, which may sound like an odd distinction, but I promise it makes sense in the context of his discography. This record delivers driving soundtracks for solitary journeys into the wilderness, moments of contemplation atop mountain peaks, epic final battles with gods of old, and grand pagan burials.
Forest Bathing sees Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel percussionist) and Violinist Heather Trost looking back to AHAAH’s early days, infusing that vaudeville/silent movie soundtrack style with the Eastern European tropes they’ve been experimenting with for the past decade plus. Or vice versa? Anyway, it makes for some entertaining soundscapes and luscious stories. Definitely see them live, if you get the chance, I’ve seen them a handful of times now, and it’s always incredible.
The first thing you’re going to say to yourself when hear Mr. Wall for the first time is, “He’s how old?!” Not only does his voice belie his age, but he’s also a great lyricist. This third collection of his songs is just as good as the last one, and sounds like what I imagine real cowboy music to sound like. Mornfull tales of lonely wandering out out across great expanses of wilderness and the simple pleasures. And godDAMN, his voice is just astounding.
Prolific sound artist Chihei Hatakeyama has produced a series of shimmering, opalescent vignettes on his most recent album. Moving ever further away from the “lowercase” style he helped to define, but retaining the luxurious attention to detail, Afterimage is perfect for relaxing at the end of long day, or digging in and working on new concepts. A wonderful dose of ambient minimalism to drift away to.
As a fan of Lionel Williams since his first record, Limniscate, I’ve got to say, this is my favorite so far. I wish I had picked up a copy before they sold out. If you dig psychedelic experimentation, musical and otherwise, this has a place in your library. Opal is far superior to its contemporaries in its breadth of knowledge, musical craft and production, and lyricism. Williams knows his shit and it’s like he’s operating on several other planes and dimensions simultaneously. It should be noted that Williams plays all of the instruments on most of his albums. Put this on for instantaneous moments of astral projection.
Album of the year right here. Holy shit this is epic! Lush electronics with layers of minimalist strings. Stirring, transcendent, soul crushing. Utterly, utterly beautiful. I don’t know what else to say other than give this Dane your money for the box set.
This is the third album in a series by a band that is quickly becoming one of my favorite black metal groups. All three albums are mind melting, white-hot slabs of technical darkness, and this is the perfect closer. Seeing them live really pushed my appreciation over the edge to super-fandom. Two guitarists and a drummer who play so fast it feels like time has stopped when you watch them. And I have no fucking idea how the singer can sing the way he does without a mic, over the music. The guy’s vocal cords must be shredded. He also pulled off some Tuvan-style throat singing. Best show I’ve seen in a long time. Back to the album: what I would imagine it feels like being pulled into a black hole. Also makes a game-changing soundtrack for this year’s God of War.