The Dinner

Alma rose at dawn to make the biscuits,
kneading lard into the baker’s flour,
rolling sheets and cutting discs for baking;
it took her just a bit more than an hour.

At which point, Alma turned to make the stuffing:
sausage, cornbread, broth and butter, nuts.
She pulled the neck and gizzard from the turkey,
(which, with the heart, she thought the sweetest cuts).

She filled the bird and stitched it tight for roasting,
then with a jar of cloves, she dressed the ham,
and pressed the honey from the comb she’d purchased,
to sweeten up her famous candied yams.

While collards stewed in bacon fat and bullion,
Alma snapped the beans and okra too,
then shucked the corn, (the Silver Queen she favored),
which, paired with shrimp, went in her Frogmore Stew.

By sunset, Alma’s work had been completed,
the family blessed their meal on bended knees.
An awkward silence followed, ‘til her son said
“How come there ain’t no Stouffer’s Mac an’ Cheese?”


A poem I wrote in 2010, resuscitated on this day of feasting and thanks. It has an autobiographical slant: when my sister and I were young, Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ house always featured a family-sized tray of Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese, which pleased us more than any of the “from scratch” things Grannies would make for us. It was such a food talisman for us that on the evening of our father’s funeral, as we struggled to find something to provide comfort, we made a tray of Stouffer’s and sat on the kitchen floor and ate the whole damned thing ourselves. Nothing else as comfortable as that.

These days, our Special Smith Family Thanksgiving Food Tradition is a sweeter one: Marcia’s Pumpkin Praline Pie, which combines the best features of both standard pumpkin and pecan pies in one deluxe pile of unmitigated goodness and joy. Om nom nom nom nom!! Katelin and my mother are in Chicago with Marcia and I for the holiday, and we’re currently in that digestive hiatus period between the main meal and the big wonderful pie-shaped food narcotic event to come. The Kool Whip is thawing . . . soon, oh soon!

We all have many things for which to be thankful, most especially the opportunity to spend time together as an extended three-generation family in our wonderful new home in Chicago. Here’s hoping that the holiday has delivered goodness to you and yours as well.



1. Rosie the orange point Javanese cat joined our family in July 2004. She had some personality quirks, and a complex relationship with our other cat (The Bumble) but has been a sweet member of the household all these years. On Wednesday, she had rapid onset kidney failure and left us. She will be missed.

The Bumble will not have to share her toys with Rosie anymore.

The Bumble will not have to share her toys with Rosie anymore. Farewell Nervous Orange Kitty!

2. Marcia, our friend Kelli and I attended a wonderful concert by the Anat Cohen Quartet on Thursday night. A spot on review from The Tribune‘s Howard Reich here. If you are not familiar with her work, I highly recommend you check out Cohen’s latest album, Luminosa, from which her set list was drawn. The cross pollination of Brazilian musical motifs, Cohen’s Israeli upbringing and current Brooklyn music scene sensibilities makes for an intoxicating mix.

3. On our way back from the Cohen concert, as we tooled southward on Lake Shore Drive, Marcia and I were treated by a shockingly large and bright fireball dropping from the sky. It was at the back end of Leonid Meteor Shower season, so I’d expect to see a few streaks and flashes across the empty sky over Lake Michigan, but nothing this dramatic. It reminded us a family vacation at Acadia National Park when Katelin was little. We went to an evening educational program after dark, and the docent at one point in his talk about the stars raised his hands over his head and reminded us how the ancients looked up at the same sky we did. As if on command, the largest bolide I’ve ever seen rocketed across the sky, disintegrating with an audience boom. After a moment of stunned silence, our presenter received what I suspect was the biggest round of applause he’s ever gotten for that talk.

4. My current “Serial Monogam-E” home (the one place on the web where I most frequently interact in real time with other people) is the Fall Online Forum, where a quirky international collection of music nerds and culture geeks gather to share their affections (most of the time) for Mark E. Smith’s timeless group, The Fall. The gang is currently deep into The Fall Cup, parsing all 502 songs in the group’s catalog down to a single champion, in the same tournament format that I use for a lot of writing projects here. We are currently on the cusp of boiling a Final 32 down into a Sweet Sixteen, and the whole shebang should wind up in mid-December. If you’re a fan of the group, I heartily endorse joining the Forum and helping us make the big Cup decision for the first time since 2007’s tournament. And even if you’re not passionate about The Fall, the Forum is a delightful and deep treasure trove of cultural arcana, with pretty much something for everything, especially nerds like me who like lists, polls and strongly held opinions about way too many topics. See you there?

5. Having completed my 2015 Album Of The Year Tournament, the next musical tradition in our household is the annual resetting of playlists in the family iTunes account, which combines play data from six iPods used by various of us in different places and times. It’s always interesting (to me, at least) to see how our listening habits overlap to create a mix of most-played songs that are eclectic, to say the least. Looking at the table now, the Top Ten includes a soundtrack song sung by a famous actor, a classic jazz number from 1951, some old school reggae, African music, and anthemic rock from one of the world’s biggest groups. It will be interesting to see how much it tweaks out in the next couple of weeks before I reset it all, clearing the decks to tap other components of our 10,000+ song collection on the computer.

Best Albums of 2015 (Summary)

Note: My 24th annual summary listing of the 20 best albums of the year was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary


20. Vulkano, Iridescence

19. Ought, Sun Coming Down

18. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love

17. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

16. Gangrene, You Disgust Me

15. Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls

14. Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit

13. Wire, Wire

12.  Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish

11. Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones

10. Bop English, Constant Bop

9. Sleaford Mods, Key Markets

8. Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion

7. Hey Colossus, Radio Static High

6. The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet

5. Girlpool, Before The World Was Big

4. Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People

3. Clutch, Psychic Warfare

2. Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

Album Of The Year: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock


2015 Album Of The Year Tournament (Part Six)

Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary

Okay, friends and followers (and random surfers): today’s the day that I finish the 2015 Album Of The Year Tournament and select the album that I consider to be the best musical thing I’ve heard in the past 12 months. In the prior installments of this tournament (linked above), I boiled 32 original contending discs down to a tight, tested Final Four, as follows:

Clutch, Psychic Warfare

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

As I always do in Final Fours for these sorts of writing projects, I am shifting from a straight single elimination process to a round robin format to select the winner. Each of the four finalists will be pitted head-to-head against the other three records, with two points available in each of the six mini-tourneys: winner gets two, loser gets zero, and ties provide one point to each. The record with the most posts in the round robin will be named the Album of the Year for 2015. If I end up with a tie between albums, I will do a sudden death song-by-song analysis to pick the better of the two. If I’m still tied at that point, then it comes down to a gut decision, as happened in the most lengthy (and widely read) contest of this variety, March Of The Mellotrons. Otherwise, though, this process has always resulted in a clear winner. Let’s hope that’s the case here.

Are you ready? Here we go . . .

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People: Both albums are returns to high-level form after dips in quality curve, with Ezra Furman bouncing back a bit more strongly from a bit of a lower low point, in large part because of the emergence of his new band, The Boy-Friends. Furman’s album is far more personal and confessional than Clutch’s, though one of Psychic Warfare‘s best moments, “Our Lady Of Electric Light,” finds singer-lyricist Neil Fallon delving into the dark spots of his soul a bit more than he usually does. That song and “Son Of Virginia” are fine, career-high examples of an under-appreciated facet of the Clutch experience: slow-building rock anthems that grab you gently at first, then shake you hard once they get going great guns. I’d rate “Son Of Virginia” as one of the best tracks in a long career filled with great songs, a worthy album closer to a truly song disc, start to finish. As I ponder these two discs, it ultimately comes down to a matter of how I listen to them: as good as Ezra’s disc is, there are some tracks I’ve come to skip on occasion when they pop up in the earphones (being able to track and see this phenomena over time is a nice facet of using iPod data), while I never skipped through a single track, ever, on Psychic Warfare this year. That pushes it over the top in this particular contest. Decision: Clutch, 2 points; Ezra Furman, 0 points.

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock: David Gilmour’s album provides all the expected, and wonderful, guitar and vocal moments that I love and expect from one of my favorite singers and string-benders, and he deploys his great musical assets on a collection of warm and engaging songs. Textures range from the nearly ambient stillness of “5 AM” through the jazzy “The Girl In The Yellow Dress” to the crunchy anthemic R&B strut of “Rattle That Lock.” It works well as a collection of songs played on their own, and as a cohesively flowing singular creative entity. Clutch’s collection of songs are loosely bound thematically via a Philip K. Dick inspired narrative about how events and appearances are not always what they seem to be, but the resonance of the words and story-telling on Psychic Warfare is a little bit more arch and observational than the more heart-based narratives crafted by Gilmour and his novelist wife, Polly Samson. As noted in earlier rounds, I consider an album of this quality from David Gilmour to be something on an event, since he’s never been terribly prolific in his solo output. I’m going to give Gilmour the edge here on that front, happy as I am to have him back in regular rotation on my musical boxes. Decision: David Gilmour, 2 points; Clutch, 0 points.

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: It’s always something of a challenge to rate extreme music like Napalm Death against more accessible fare, like all three of the other albums in this Final Four Round Robin. I typically default not to comparing such cross-genre competitions directly to each other, since points of common reference are few, but rather assess each as an achievement within its own sonic sphere. Viewed through that lens, Napalm Death score a bit more highly in this contest: Apex Predator — Easy Meat is easily the best extreme metal album I’ve heard this year (and in many recent years, actually), and its experimental approaches to sonic variety within a genre that’s often regrettably monochrome is admirable. Psychic Warfare is clearly a strong disc, but it’s not mining any new musical lodes through its engaging rock and roll gallop. I’ve written before that extreme metal is an acquired taste, and that before people develop it, they tend to think that it all sounds the same. Having spent lots of listening hours over many, many years exploring the harder, darker sides of music, I can tell you this: Apex Predator — Easy Meat does not sound quite like anything else released in 2015, and it’s a special record accordingly, worthy of both available points in this particular contest. Decision: Napalm Death, 2 points; Clutch, 0 points.

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock: These two discs both win props and kudos for exploring a variety of sonic textures and song styles, keeping listeners on their toes as the two singers lead their bands through their paces. Both albums are also emotionally rich, tackling some tough topics in their lyrics, while deftly balancing the darkness with moments of sweetness and light. At bottom line for me, the veteran gravitas that Gilmour brings to Rattle That Lock trumps the earnest youthful enthusiasm that Furman offers on Perpetual Motion People, perhaps because as a parent and a gentleman of a certain age, the themes of family, loss and love resonate a bit more clearly with me. On a similar front, I also appreciate the fact that Rattle That Lock is a collaboration between Gilmour and his wife, despite the barbs that get tossed his way for trading the lyrical acerbicism of long-time collaborator Roger Waters for Polly Samson’s gentler, more abstract and less political observations. The love between the lines shines through, and I like that a lot. Decision: David Gilmour, 2 points; Ezra Furman, 0 points.

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: In the same ways that Napalm Death’s achievement within their musical field trumped Clutch’s achievement in theirs, I’ve got to apply a similar lens here when assessing two radically different approaches to music making, and judge Napalm Death’s accomplishment to be superior to Ezra Furman’s. Apex Predator — Easy Meat sits as the crowning achievement in a trilogy of socially aware, sonically adventurous records, and both of its predecessors ranked highly in my year end reports at the time of their releases. If long-time guitarist Mitch Harris’ leave of absence ends up being permanent, then this record will mark the end of an important musical era for a group that I count among my all-time favorites. It’s got a lot more heft in this contest accordingly, as charming and likable as young Ezra’s best album to date may be. Furman’s future may be brighter than Napalm’s, but right here, right now, the noisy monster carries the contest. Decision: Napalm Death, 2 points; Ezra Furman, 0 points.

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

Well, eyeballing the numbers above, it actually all comes down to this contest for the title of 2015 Album Of The Year, with Napalm Death and David Gilmour having earned four points each, to Clutch’s two and Ezra Furman’s zero. I’ve been sitting here at the computer for quite some time, staring at the screen thinking, then getting up and doing other things, then coming back and staring some more, because this is probably the hardest pairing I’ve faced in this tournament in terms of the quality of the music at hand, how to assess achievement in radically different genres, what I wish to publicly communicate by naming an album of the year, and how these albums impact me on an intellectual and emotional basis. David Gilmour’s album is important to me as a new high-quality entry by a non-prolific artist into a much-loved canon. It’s an easily shareable album, comfortable for friends and family members alike. As rarely as I listen to commercial radio, I’ve already heard Rattle That Lock‘s title tracks a few times on the air, so assume it’s winning listeners on a popular front, too. Napalm Death are far more prolific than Gilmour, and I find it awe-inspiring that they are releasing some of their very best music so deeply into their very busy career. Apex Predator — Easy Meat was the first 2015 release I acquired this year, and I’ve kept most of its songs on my gym, car and commuting iPods throughout the year, so it’s easily my most listened record of the year. Of course, among the 100 or so most played albums in our household, it’s the one with the least spins on the Family iPod, since its appeals aren’t universal, by a long shot, for folks with finite patience for such harsh, intense music. And I know that such sentiments extend well beyond the walls of my home, so that naming Apex Predator — Easy Meat as my album of the year would feel somewhat reductive in terms of what I hope to achieve by publicly sharing lists like these: nobody who’s not already versed in such music would likely read this report and make a decision to buy their first Napalm Death album. Citing David Gilmour’s new disc, on the other hand, might sway a skeptical Pink Floyd fan, or might make somebody who heard “Rattle That Lock” (the song) on the radio decide to investigate Rattle That Lock (the album) further. I have felt like David Gilmour’s album is important to me this year due to the scarcity of his output, is emotionally resonant as a creative endeavor, and is musically warm and inviting, almost diametrically opposed to off-putting engine blasts crafted by Napalm Death. And as I wrap this thing up, I find myself wanting to share and celebrate the warmth and beauty of Rattle That Lock a (little bit) more than I want to share and celebrate the caustic bile and fury of Apex Predator — Easy Meat. Thus . . . Decision: David Gilmour, 2 points; Napalm Death, 0 points.

And that gives us a winner . . . ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce:

David Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock is my 2015 Album Of The Year

It feels good and right to type that, as the gut seems to agree with the brain — which isn’t always the case. Hopefully it feels right (or at least definsible) to you too, if you’ve been following along with this exercise in thinking out loud, while typing. Thanks for your time, either way.

I’ll leave this to sit in its current format for a couple of days, then will consolidate all of the elements into a single article for posterity’s (and search engine’s) sake. That’s always a satisfying step at the end of these sorts of contests. I will also note that next year will mark the 25th consecutive year that I’ve named an Album Of The Year in public spaces. Here’s hoping that it might be an easier process for me in 2016!

2015 Album Of The Year Tournament (Part Five)

Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary

I’ve got an hour of downtime this afternoon between the closing of the exhibition floor and the evening’s receptions at my conference in Pittsburgh, so with only four contests to document this round, I’m going to give it a quick stab to move us along in the tournament. I had originally envisioned this tournament taking a while longer, but I guess I should know from experience that once it gets lodged in my head, I tend to want to get it back out and on the written page as quickly as I can. Since the Final Four are handled as a single round, this is the penultimate report before I select my 2015 Album Of The Year. Exciting!

The links at the top of the page will take you to the prior installments if you’re jumping in late and want to see how we got from the original 32 albums to the eight I will review today. Preambles dispatched, let’s get critiquing!

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: The two most challenging records remaining in contention get a head-to-head death match here that guarantees something at the disturbing end of the spectrum is going to be competing in the Final Four Round Robin. As noted in early installments, former Spiritualized and COIL keyboardist Thighpaulsandra’s The Golden Communion is a sprawling two-hour beast, filled with long, slow-developing songs that were nearly a decade in development. It’s a truly ambitious project that incorporates a variety of sounds and stylings ranging from edgy ambient all the way over to metallic riff-mongering, and its lyrical concerns are as edgy as its instrumental settings. Napalm Death’s Apex Predator — Easy Meat is a career highlight for the esteemed fathers of grindcore, and it’s filled with all of the strong sociopolitical ruminations that fans would expect from this most dogmatic of metal bands. Neither of these albums wins a lot of spins on the family iPod, but they’re headphone favorites for me during my commutes and workouts. In picking between them, I come down to the matters of density and familiarity: there are a few cuts on The Golden Communion that I tend to skip (it’s hard to often make the mental commitment to a 24-minute long song), while I play Apex Predator all the way through regularly, and have been doing so for much longer since it was an early 2015 release. Grind on, Barney, Danny, Shane and Mitch. You’re going to the Final Four. Winner: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat.

The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock: The Fall emerged in those heady post-punk days after the Sex Pistols, Damned, Clash and other English fathers of the genre demonstrated to their young British brethren that high gloss and technical chops were not required to make a compelling musical racket. The punks tended to be socially and musically reactionary, and one of the things they were rebelling against was the cultural hegemony of group’s like David Gilmour’s Pink Floyd. In a 2012 article in The Quietus, Fall front man Mark E. Smith summed up the general sentiment of the era with typical MES concision: “Pink Floyd? Crap!” Of course, as much as I love The Fall, I don’t agree with MES’s assessment, and Gilmour’s voice and guitar are among my favorite elements of one of my favorite band’s music. I’m on the record as naming Gilmour, Robert Fripp and Paul Leary as my high holy trinity of lead guitar players, each fascinating and distinctive in their own special ways. Rattle That Lock does not disappoint on this front, filled as it is with choice solos deployed atop an interesting combo platter of musical styles. Gilmour’s songwriting (often with his wife, novelist Polly Samson, handling the lyrics) is also strong here, and the overall impact of his fourth solo album is warm, emotional, engaging and uplifting. He’s a slow worker when it comes to his recorded output, so there’s no telling when we’ll hear from him again — while The Fall tend to be clockwork prolific, offering their fandom an album or so each year. Sub-Lingual Tablet is one of their finest offerings in some time, and I enjoy it very much, but as a sheer musical accomplishment of note and merit, Rattle That Lock is the stronger and, dare I say it, more important record. Winner: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock.

Girlpool, Before The World Was Big vs Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People: This is a tough contest for me between worthy albums by a pair of impressive young artists. Before I decided to take a tournament approach to my 2015 Album Of The Year report, I had both of these records in my mental file cabinet as possible contenders for the top of the pile, so they both likely could have been in the top four if they didn’t have the misfortune of meeting here. Both records are quirky and engaging in both their songwriting and performances, and both feature fun, observational songwriting about a variety of personal and inter-personal matters of the heart and soul. Girlpool are making their long-playing debut here, while Ezra Furman is deeper into his career, and making a much appreciated return to band format with these recordings. Ultimately, it’s the band that edges Ezra ahead of Girlpool for me, as they provide a higher degree of variety and texture than the somewhat monochrome voice-guitar-bass sound of Before The World Was Big. I think Girlpool have an impressive career ahead of them, and if they’re fortunate, a few albums in they will reach the degree of mature confidence that Ezra Furman exudes on Perpetual Motion People. I love their first forays into recording, and I look forward to following along to see where it takes them — but in the right here, right now, Ezra Furman and The Boy-Friends carry the current contest. Winner: Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People.

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High: This here’s a battle of heavy bands making massive guitar-based noises in service to huge songs, so there’s a lot of bigness to go around. I’ve been listening to Clutch actively for nearly 20 years now, and know that they’re absolute titans of the stage, delivering one of the most compelling blends of guitar-bass-drum-voice noise that I’ve ever experienced in a concert setting. Hey Colossus are new to me in 2015, but I’m eager to explore their back catalog, as Radio Static High has been a real eye-opener and ear-pummeler for me since I first discovered and spun it. It’s hard to hit as hard as they do, and even harder to capture that energy and heft in the recording studio. Unfortunately for them, though, Clutch are probably one of the tiny numbers of bands capable of doing each of those things just a tiny bit better, and on Psychic Warfare, they have the extra benefit of a one of their greatest collection of songs working on their behalf, so in this battle of the behemoths, age and treacherous rock fury carry the day over youth and exuberant riff-mastery. (Edit: They’re not as young as I thought they were . . . but yet still exuberant, and quite possibly not treacherous). The Winner: Clutch, Psychic Warfare.

And with that contest done, I now proudly present our Final Four for the 2015 Album Of The Year Title:

Clutch, Psychic Warfare

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

A reminder that for my Final Fours in these sorts of writing projects, I will shift to a round robin format to select the winner. Each of the four finalists will be pitted head-to-head against the other three records, with two points available in each mini-tourney: winner gets two, loser gets zero, and ties provide one point to each. The record with the most posts in the round robin will be named the Album of the Year for 2015.If I end up with a tie between albums, I will do a sudden death song-by-song analysis to pick the better of the two. If I’m still tied at that point, then, hell, I’ll just pick something.

One more post and we’re done! I’m not sure how the next couple of days will go work-wise, but if I can get ‘er done, then I’ll get ‘er done!

2015 Album Of The Year Tournament (Part Four)

Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary

Greetings from beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I am here through Saturday for a conference, but will have some downtime today, so am going to try to work my way through the Sweet Sixteen survivors in the 2015 Album of the Year Tournament to boil us down to an Elite Eight. The links above will take you to the earlier rounds and introduction, if you’re jumping in midstream and want the back story. Shall we kick it? Ready, steady, go!

Bop English, Constant Bop vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High: We typically listen to music in our apartment via the shuffle function of the Family iPod player, rather than playing whole albums through from beginning to end. (I do the latter on my headphones, during train or computer time, typically in the days after I first acquire something new). Bop English’s Constant Bop is what I think of a stealth album: we recognize, know, like and sing along with every one of its songs, but we also often have to go to the iPod for a reminder of exactly what we’re listening to. It’s an unobtrusive, enjoyable, important part of the sonic fabric of our lives in 2015 Chateau Smith, filled with catchy, likable songs. Hey Colossus’ latest album, on the other hand, is a bit more urgent and intense: they blast out of the speakers with such force and vigor and heft that it’s instantly obvious who you’re hearing. The best (and, not coincidentally, most accessible) tracks on Radio Static High do have serious ear-worm potential, but usually it’s the riffs and rolls that get stuck in my head, rather than the words and melodies. But that’s something of an accomplishment in its own right, and few bands can pull off that trick as well as Hey Colossus do. While both artists are excellent at what they do, in this case, I am going to select the album that offers me urgency over comfort, and a unique creative aesthetic over one anchored in a more traditional pop format. It won’t get as many dinnertime mix spins as Bop Constant, but as a standalone record, soup to nuts, Radio Static High is the stronger beast. Winner: Hey Colossus, Radio Static High.

Wire, Wire vs The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet: Well, this is an interesting pairing from two of the world’s most esteemed and influential post-punk bands. Wire have been a stop-start endeavor since their inception in 1976, with long fallow periods interrupted by bursts of extreme musical creativity. The Fall got going a year or two later, but Mark E. Smith has never stopped, aided and abetted by a seemingly ever-changing cast of band members — except in recent years, when he’s finally had a stable quintet for five albums in a row. These are both excellent albums, though Wire’s is, perhaps, a bit more comfortable and familiar, fitting in from a sonic standpoint with the best of their ’80s releases. While Mark E. Smith is instantly recognizable on vocals, Sub-Lingual Tablet actually offers some choice new spins on The Fall’s tried and true formula, offering choppy Beefheartisms alongside belching synth numbers, breezy near-jazz, and some thunderous riffage. I’m going to take the unexpected and somewhat uncomfortable in this contest, as The Fall’s new album is among their best, while Wire’s is simply a solid entry in a great catalog. Winner: The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet.

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock vs Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones: Another interesting match-up from a pair of veteran band members with nearly a century’s worth of recording and performing experience between them, but also with relatively scant solo catalogs: this is Kate Pierson’s first solo studio disc, and David Gilmour’s fourth. Both albums are exceptionally well produced and filled with engaging, emotionally-intense songs; Gilmour offers an elegy for his fallen Pink Floyd comrade, Rick Wright, and a song about his son’s imprisonment for an act of social protest, while Pearson offers an empowerment ode to trans-gendered youth alongside other matters of the heart and soul. While I’d have been happier if these two discs had met other opponents in this round, since I think they’re both worthy of Elite Eight status, I’m going to go with Gilmour in this case, in recognition of him making a heavier lift on his own record than Pierson does; Guitars and Microphones is as much producer-songwriter Sia Furler’s triumph as it is Miss Kate’s. Plus, wow, it’s just so good to hear Gilmour’s voice and guitar again on a studio album all these years on. He’s one of my faves on both fronts. Winner: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock.

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls: This is probably the most obscure and eclectic pairing in this round, featuring a pair of artists who aren’t likely on your radar screen if you’re not a fan of jazz or arty electronic music. The sounds on the records are diametrically opposed in many cases, with Thighpaulsandra offering long, sprawling, multi-phase epics (two cuts on the two-hour long album exceed the 20-minute mark), and Rudresh Mahanthappa presenting tighter, punchier jazz numbers. The alto sax man’s band are highly technically proficient from a textbook standpoint, while Thighpaulsandra’s crew are more inclined to Eno-esque found sounds and tortured deployment of traditional instruments. Both albums are richly rewarding, though Thighpaulsandra’s takes a bit more work on the part of the listener. Having made that investment, I see it as the greater of these two albums. I’m happy to have something so weird in the Elite Eight. Winner: Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion.

Sleaford Mods, Key Markets vs Girlpool, Before The World Was Big: The two-piece Sleaford Mods knocked off the two-piece Lightning Bolt in the first round, and here again they go head to head against another duo. The differences between these two, though, are striking: The Sleafords are caustic and all electronic, while Girlpool are gentle and mostly acoustic. Girlpool are very American (California sub-species), while Sleaford Mods are undeniably British (working class Northern strain), each bands accents and observations strongly evoking their home turf. Girlpool’s album is the duo’s long-playing debut, while Key Markets is the Mods’ eighth album. That longevity actually hurts Sleaford Mods a bit in this contest, as I actually feel like their preceding album, 2014’s Divide and Exit, is stronger than their latest offering. A trawl through their catalog also makes it clear that they pretty much are what they are: there’s not a lot of growth, expansion or diversity along the way. So in this contest, I’m going to pick youthful naivete over middle-aged cynicism. Plus, with The Fall having already advanced, we’re got the “Northern crap that talks back” contingent represented by the alpha band of the idiom, so this pick keeps the field eclectic. Winner: Girlpool, Before The World Was Big.

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish: Singer-guitarist Carl Marsh’s return to the Shriekback fold in recent years has been a real shot in the arm for the estimable British group, fortifying singer-keyman Barry Andrews’ ooky spooky aquatic explorations with a bit of proper piss and vinegar, all in support of the highly wordy and literate lyrics that expect from the team. Marsh is heavily featured on Without Real String or Fish, making this one of the Shrieks’ strongest albums since their alt-dance ’80s heyday. Clutch are also firing on all cylinders on Psychic Warfare, a loosely structured, thematically linked song cycle that begins and ends with a world-weary, disbelieving narrator requesting and receiving an affidavit regarding mysterious ongoings in rural America. One of Clutch’s career strengths has been their ability to temper their in-your-face pure rock fury with some extraordinary, slow-build blues rock barn burners (think “Spacegrass” and “The Regulator” and “Abraham Lincoln,” to cite but a few examples), and they add two absolute classics of the form — “Our Lady of Electric Light” and “Son of Virginia” — to their catalog via their latest record. It’s a thrill ride from beginning to end, and that adrenaline rush carries it forward in this contest. Winner: Clutch, Psychic Warfare.

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit: As noted in the first round review, Ezra Furman’s latest album finds him fronting a band again, and that’s as it should be: while his songs are strong, and he’s quite the charismatic character, his material really rings out most strongly in a full instrumental setting. The Boy-Friends (his band) do yeoman service throughout Perpetual Motion People, ably framing his material in an eclectically entertaining variety of styles and sounds, with music hall jazz rubbing shoulders with country gospel, and Modern Lovers-style rock aiding and abetting herky-jerky indie fare. Through all the settings, though, Furman shines clear and bright, and this album really is one of those rare ones where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts, becoming somehow transcendent in its earnest pursuit of kinetic musical pleasure. Bring Me The Horizon, to their own credit, also do a good job of mixing it up a bit on That’s The Spirit, tempering the core pop-metal at its musical heart with dubstep and emo flavors, deftly avoiding the monochrome tendencies to which similar bands often fall prey. If there’s one thing that chafes with me when assessing the British sextet, it’s that the approach on their admittedly big and accessible latest record seems a little bit forced when viewed through the lens of their back catalog; some — perhaps in the band, but more likely in some corporate front office — saw pop crossover potential, and produced the hell out of the record to achieve that goal. Based on early reviews, I think they’re likely to be highly successful, but the clinical calculation should be a little less obvious to the listener. So I’m going to go with the exuberant, quirky and perky little guy in this contest, which also allows me to have Chicago (Furman’s home) in the Elite Eight mix. Hey, what’s the point of being the home team if it doesn’t give you some advantage? Winner: Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People.

Gangrene, You Disgust Me vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: The first song released from Napalm Death’s Apex Predator — Easy Meat was called “Cesspits.” Gangrene’s You Disgust Me opens with a spoken word piece called “The Filth.” Needless to say,neither act spends a lot of time looking at and exploring the nicer things in life on their latest discs. Gangrene’s record has some of the best backing tracks that I’ve heard on on a hip hop album in recent years, a deliciously oozing stew that perfectly matches its off-putting lyrical concerns. Core members Oh No! and The Alchemist offer distinctive flow, aided and abetted by a collection of guest artists, first and foremost the late great Sean Price, whose last recorded moments appear herein. Napalm Death have only one guest on their latest album — John Bilbo Cook, credited with “token guitar solo” — but the core four and long-time producer Russ Russell deploy the studio to admirable effect, providing sonic variety in the maelstrom of blast beats with interesting vocal and instrumental fills, creating a cataclysmic soundscape that’s nearly over-whelming in its intensity. Apex Predator — Easy Meat is lyrically and musically cut from similar cloth to its two preceding albums, but in each case and at each step, the Napalms have improved on the formula, creatively, commercially, and thematically. Napalm Death are enough of an institution in the metal world that they could succeed by just going through the motions, but the ever restless quartet have never settled for such an approach, and it’s awe-inspiring to see a group this deep into their career working so hard to challenge their listeners and themselves. No contest here, when all is said and done. Winner: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat.

And there you have it: we’ve now culled 32 very worthy albums down to eight of glittering greatness, poised and ready for the next round. Our next installment with boil it down to a Final Four, at which point (in keeping with my long-standing practices in these tournaments), I will shift to a round robin format to select the winner. Each of the four finalists will be pitted head-to-head against the other three records, with two points available in each mini-tourney: winner gets two, loser gets zero, and ties provide one point to each. The record with the most posts in the round robin will be named the Album of the Year for 2015. How exciting!

But that’s still a couple of reports away. For now, we have to set the stage for the Elite Eight. Taking the winners above and pushing them through a random number table to establish pairings, we end up with the following four contests that will be documented in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned as the tension builds — mainly for me in having to pick between these records while attempting to justify my choices!

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Girlpool, Before The World Was Big vs Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High