Best Albums of 2019

With the holidays and a heavy travel schedule sneaking up on me in the month ahead, I deem it time for my 2019 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 28th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me at this point. I usually post it in late November or early December, figuring that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a year. I typically do an update or supplement in January or so if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slips in after that.

To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years, here is the complete reckoning of my published Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2018. (I had yearly favorites before then, obviously, I just didn’t hang them out for others to look at). I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some years, retrospectively, but I made my choices in public and I stick with them as a point of principle:

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
  • 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies
  • 2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins

2019 was a very good year for new music, a true plethora of riches that left me with far more viable contenders for my list than I usually consider at this time of the year. That holds true not only for the list as a whole, but also for the top of the list. I count half-a-dozen albums that I’d feel good about declaring Album of the Year, so picking just one is going to be a challenge for me as  work through this. There are stalwart favorite artists on the list and thrilling new pokes from artists who I didn’t know existed 12 months ago. I love that type of balance of fresh and familiar.

Also noteworthy: I would suspect that this is among the most gender-balanced lists that I’ve posted over nearly three decades, with both female soloists and bands featuring women all over the final roster. (Of the 30 finalist albums referenced below, 15 are by or prominently feature female performers). It’s good to see more equity on that front than is typical in some of the sausage party genres I routinely trawl. On the flip side, I note a dearth of records from categories that normally appear fairly heavily on my annual lists: rap/hip-hop and extreme metal. When I noticed that I wasn’t finding a lot of things that excited me within those genres a few months ago, I started scouring various other sources and lists to see if I was missing something that moved me. Not much did, unfortunately. I know there are great releases out there in both genres, as there always are, but few things clicked strongly with me this year. Guess I just wasn’t in the mood, or perhaps it’s just a sign of me getting soft in my old age. We’ll see in 2020.

As I normally do when I post lists like that, I have two final notes to make up front. First, this is all subjective, and it’s all my opinion. But of course it is. If music criticism were objective, we’d all end up with one mutually-agreed upon list at year’s end, and what would be the fun in that? Second, I can only rank and review what I actually hear in a given year, so that’s limited by (a) what I like to listen to, and (b) what I actually acquire to spin. So I’m sorry if I missed your favorite Kalimantan skater boi raga jazz record this year, and I’ll happily read about it on your list when you post it. Please feel free to share that list with me, and you really don’t need to add a “Dude, you suck” preamble to it.

I’m going to start this year’s review with ten Honorable Mention albums, in alphabetical order by artist name. They are all very enjoyable in their own ways, and at various times over the year, I had them on my list-in-progress, but when we get to rug-cutting time, they did not make the Top 30 that I will review in more detail below. Still worth exploring (click the links to do so),  and still deserving of kudos for accomplishment:

Also of note, I do not generally include EPs in my Album of the Year list, but there were two examples of that format that I covered earlier this year in an article celebrating the slight but welcome return of wonderful EP releases (like, say, Slates by The Fall) in the digital era, and I document them here as they also include some of the year’s best songs, just not as many of them:

And now the final countdown, from my #30 Album to my #1 Album of the Year for 2019. Hold on tight. There’s going to be a lot of abrupt and juddering swings back and forth between various genres, styles, and techniques, some calm, some extreme, some inspirational, some soul-crushing, some wobbling at the very cusp of explainability. But that’s what makes for a good ride, innit? I think so. As above, the links will help you explore further.

#30. F-DORM, COMMUNE: I don’t usually use artists’ own press materials to describe their work, but F-DORM’s summary of their sound is so perfect that I just can’t top it: “Comprised of cold grinding electronic repetition and perversely distorted, bloated vocalizations.” Yes. That. A great and harrowing experimental project from Chicago’s Connor Camburn and Conor Ekstrom, on SCRAPES Recordings, a brilliant label.

#29. Pip Blom, Boat: This young Dutch quartet follow the early P.J. Harvey rubric, where the singer-songwriter and the band share the same name, complicating conversation about them. But that difficulty aside, the songs the singer crafts and the arrangements within which her band plays them are infectious, offering a fresh take on guitar rock that feels easy and familiar, by virtue of being well-crafted and original.

#28. Generationals, Reader As Detective: Louisiana’s Generationals (singer-songwriter-guitarists Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner, supported by contributing producer Dan Black) offer 10 sparkly, infectious, and dance-ready gems on their first proper studio album since 2014. It’s always a treat to be reminded that really good pop music doesn’t have to pander stupidly to the lowest common auto-tuned denominator.

#27. Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun: More smart pop from another sharp duo, this time from the other side of the Atlantic. Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodgers make a truly joyful noise, with ebullient paired vocals, rich arrangements, clever rhythms, memorable melodies and Aggs’ spectacular Highlife-style guitar work, which is busy in all the best ways, like a swarm of audio bees making sweet musical nectar. Tasty!

#26. Iiro Rantala, My Finnish Calendar: A delightful album from Finland’s best known jazz pianist, featuring 12 songs, each one named after and inspired by a month of the calendar year. The recording is warm and inviting, the songs are evocative (it’s fun to scramble them and guess which month is which), and the liner notes are priceless, as Rantala frankly and humorously describes how Finns experience their chilly climes.

#25. The Specials, Encore: A welcome return, and a welcome return to form, even if only three of the great 2 Tone group’s members (singer Terry Hall, singer-guitarist Lynval Golding, and bassist Horace Panter) are carrying the torch these days. There’s no time for nostalgia here, and the social and political topics covered here are timely and trenchant, with great beats you can dance to.

#24: Focus, Focus 11: I say “Focus,” and you invariably think “Hocus Pocus.” Which is great, but the Dutch masters offered so much more than that one yodel-fortified hit. Their technical prowess and composing skills are on full display on Focus 11, and Pierre van der Linden (one of two classic-era members, along with Thijs van Leer) offers some of 2019’s most choice drum work, in the sweet spots between jazz and rock. Listen.

#23. Pom Poko, BirthdayThis young Norwegian four-piece get jaw-drop reviews for the live shows, and while I’ve not caught them in concert, I can clearly hear how this album’s material would be nuts in concert. The songwriting careens all over — post-punk, power-pop, prog-puree — sometimes in a single song, and the players are all conservatory grade talents. Bonus points for this video, the stuff of smart nightmares.

#22. Korn, The Nothing: Korn put out an album. I put in on my year-end list. That’s how it goes, because they’re great. Then someone from the critoisie invariably chides me for my choice, because we’re supposed to shake our heads about Korn’s popularity, not embrace it. But they deserve kudos, here and anywhere, and this is a top five album in their deep catalog. Jonathan Davis moves me, and his bandmates are boss. Deal with it.

#21. Thighpaulsandra, Practical Electronics With: Four long, squelchy, disturbing songs from the provocatively creative artist whose mother knew him as Tim Lewis, and whose work with Julian Cope, Spiritualized and COIL made all of them better. The flavor here is most closely comparable to the late COIL Live series (Thighpaulsandra was a crucial contributor there), and it oozes darkness of the brightest varieties.

#20. Sasami, Sasami: The cover of this album, featuring Sasami Ashworth stepping precariously across ice sheets in an Arctic landscape, is perfect for the music’s tone: it’s chilly, it’s wobbly, it’s cool, yet it always creates a sense that it could dump you elsewhere unexpectedly, at any time. Lots of stick-in-the-ear melodies here, thoughtful lyrics, and arrangements that are all deliciously awry and unpredictable. A great debut.

#19. Mekons, Deserted: Most emphatically not a debut, Deserted marks the 40th anniversary of the Mekons’ audaciously primitive debut album The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen. Their new disc finds the Chicago-to-UK eight piece taking their many instruments and voices and styles out for a creative foray in the dry country, their stories and sounds evoking a perfect sense of heat-haze craze and tumbleweed twang.

#18. Cup and Ring, Cup and Ring: Guitarist Gavin Laird wrote a haunting cyclical finger-plucked figure, looped it, and sent it to several collaborators with these instructions: start a song with it, end the song with it, and do what you want in between. Eight songs so created comprise Cup and Ring, a wonderful, creative suite, various styles and techniques flowing around that mysteriously evocative central figure. Sound magic!

#17. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love: Norway on the list again, this time courtesy of accomplished artist Jenny Hval’s seventh solo album, which is actually an international affair as collaborators Vivian Wang, Laura Jean and Félicia Atkinson recorded their parts in Singapore, Australia and France. Love is the central consideration, in all of its wonderful weirdness, as the brilliant music deftly balances challenge and accessibility.

#16: Goon, Heaven is Humming: There’s a marked dearth of white American boys playing alt-rocky guitar on this year’s list, but California’s Goon represent that side and do it very well. They have an identifiable sound that stands out in mixes, and they offer it while playing in a wide range of contemporary styles and arrangements, from the stripped down and elegant to the big and furry and lumbering. Sublimely solid, all told.

#15. Pere Ubu, The Long Goodbye/Montreuil: Technically two albums, but packaged together, so I rank them as one. The Long Goodbye is a new studio work initiated while leader David Thomas was home-bound, facing serious health issues. Montreuil is an audacious live take on that album, played while the songs were still poppin’ fresh. A perfect pair, touching all facets of the unique, decades-long Ubu oeuvre and process.

#14. Daniel Kahn, Bulat Blues: Daniel Kahn is an expat American in Germany, working with The Painted Bird, a “Klezmer Yiddish Punk Cabaret” ensemble. Bulat Blues is an album of chansons by Soviet-era composer Bulat Okudzhava, translated into English by Kahn, who performs them accompanied by Russian guitarist Vanya Zhuk. I’d never heard of any of them a year ago. Now they’re indispensable listening. More, please?

#13. Ezra Furman, Twelve Nudes: Ezra Furman, on the other hand, I’ve been listening to regularly since chancing upon his band when he was a college student in Boston, circa 2008. He’s a Chicago native, so I’ve seem him there several times too, and he is a stunning talent, getting better by the year. Twelve Nudes is the most raw sounding, energetic and confessional record in his catalog, closely capturing his stellar live vibe.

#12. Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit: Xiu Xiu have been regulars on my annual lists for a lot of years, offering album after album of extreme to really-extreme material, both sonically and lyrically. Girl With Basket of Fruit falls in the really-really-extreme bucket, to the point where it was almost off-putting at first, even to me. But I succumbed to its dark charms eventually, and now I see and hear it as one of their best.

#11. Black Midi, Schlagenheim: It’s rare to hear a standard guitar-guitar-bass-drum outfit do something unexpected and original, with virtuoso chops. But when young UK quartet Black Midi played a live set on KEXP, which went viral, we saw and heard that, and then some. The brilliant, creative precocity of that performance translates fully to their thrilling debut album, which sounds like nothing I’ve heard before, seriously.

#10. The Hu, The Gereg: I have deep fondness for Central Asian throat singing and extreme metal. So when my wife shared an NPR report about a Mongolian band that merged those two musical loves, that was a no-brainer buy for me. Amazingly, it lived up to its promise. It’s not as hard as NPR implied, but is better for that, making throat-singing and Mongolian melodies as accessible and rousing as I’ve ever heard them.

#9. Holly Herndon, PROTO: Holly Herndon’s PROTO is another album that sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. The Tennessee native merges hearty call and response gospel singing with glitchy electronics, deploying an artificial intelligence named Spawn as a collaborator in dicing and splicing these incredible tracks, teaching it to sing with the humans in the process. Bring on our robot overlords if this is their music.

#8. The Who, WHO: I did not like The Who’s 2006 Endless Wire, and have wished that they had not released it, since it sat, inert, as a wan coda to a grand career. So when I heard that Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were planning a new release, expectations were low — then happily demolished. WHO is the best Who since Quadrophenia (1973), easily. They may not have many new tricks, but they’re very good at the ones they know.

#7. Alice Merton, Mint: As with Generationals and Sacred Paws down-list, this album is chockablock with smart, chop-stocked pop, and it was apparently really popular, too, since I’ve heard some Mint songs played in public by others over the past year, which is rare for me, given what I usually listen to. I guess I should not be that surprised though, since, Holy Moly, is this album punchy-catchy! An auspicious debut. An artist to watch.

#6. Heilung, Futha: A Tuvan throat-singer, a Blixa Bargeld impersonator, and a Valkyrie walk into a mead hall in the middle of a battle and start singing. No, it’s not the set-up for a joke, it’s a description of what Futha sounds like. Heilung hail from Denmark, Germany, and Norway (another entry!), and refer to their work as “amplified history” and “primeval music concrete.” Both apt descriptions. Beautiful and frightening fare.

(A Brief Pause: As we move to the five finalist albums this year, I again want to note how hard it has been for me to even separate these five from those below them, then to sort them in a meaningful order, then to pick one that’s better than the rest. It’s a game of inches this time around, when it comes right down to it. I suppose I could just cop out and declare a tie, or do one of my head-to-head round-robin competitions, but the last time I did that, I didn’t end up with a winner that had legs in the years beyond its title. I will note that the legacy issue is a factor as I consider the album that I pick this year: if I keep doing these reports — and I have no reason to think I won’t, bar death or dementia — I will keep opening the annual article with the list of all of my prior Albums of the Year, so each of those single list-topping records ends up being the one item representing that year in new reports going forward, while the others often disappear into the dusty corners of the mental and digital jukeboxes. So as I look at these five finalists, and try to decide which one will best represent my sense of 2019 on my lists for however many years I keep doing this going forward, I think I see a winner. Okay. Back To The Countdown).

#5. Malibu Ken, Malibu Ken: Aesop Rock is a ridiculously verbose MC. Tobacco is an analog synth wizard whose occasional verbal declarations are always warped through vintage vocoders. Malibu Ken is their first collaboration, and it’s a doozy. This was the first new album I acquired in 2019, and it’s never left any of the various machines on which we listen to tunes in our house. Tobacco’s music is viscous and ripe, rhythmically rich and perfectly suited for Aesop’s flow. And flow he does, with his trademark self-deprecation and story-telling skills in full effect. Highlights include the laugh-out-loud “Churro” (which describes the day when a popular eagle’s nest cam caught Mama Birb feeding her chicks a kitty) and “Acid King,” a graphic, historically accurate re-telling of the dismal Ricky Kasso story. A brilliant pairing. Here’s hoping for Malibu Ken II soon.

#4. Imperial Wax, Gastwerk Saboteurs: I wrote a full review of this album upon its release, placing it in context (three fourths of Imperial Wax were the final line-up of the late Mark E. Smith‘s The Fall), and then assessing the new record on its own rich merits. My esteem for Gastwerks Saboteurs has only grown since then, as my brain adapts to hearing the group in its own right, rather than as The Fall with a new singer. Which it is not, and that’s a very good thing, as singer-guitarist Sam Curren is formidable and well-suited for the robust set of songs that Gastwerk Saboteurs offers. I also still hold the ex-Fall members in highest regard, as they’ve been brilliant at respecting and protecting the legacy of MES and The Fall, rather than just trading on their names. A sharp new single bodes well for further greatness, in their own voices, with their own touch. Choice!

#3. Buggy Jive, The B-Side: Professor Buggy Jive is an Upstate New Yorker whose work I’ve been admiring since our paths first crossed in Albany in the mid-’90s. He broke my heart in the most beautiful ways with this record’s advance single, “Another Song About The Moon,” which I wrote about in full here.  Even without the personal resonance and relationships described there, I’d cite “Moon” as 2019’s video of the year, easily. Watch it here. Seriously. Go do it. I’ll wait. [Waiting waiting waiting]. You back? Guess what. That’s not the only great video from The B-Side. Go dig “Stole My Stealing From Eliot” too. No rush. Get on. [Waiting waiting waiting]. Amazing, huh? Well, so is the rest of this record, which when coupled with 2018’s The Buggy Jive Mixtape finds this master in a creative hot streak of stunning and scintillating strength.

#2. KOKOKO!, Fongola: I wrote about the ways that I first encountered and experienced African music, and how important it has been to my listening habits, earlier this year in my eulogy for the great Johnny Clegg. I cited Fongola as a current/recent example of the best music that his home continent had to offer, and as 2019 winds down, I find myself amending that statement to say that Fongola contains some of the best music that the world presented to me over the past twelve months. KOKOKO! are the musical wing of a Kinshasa-based artists’ collective, including musicians, dancers, singers and performers united to celebrate the spirit and culture of the Congolese people. Fongola features makeshift instruments crafted from the industrial and consumer detritus of the Western cultures and businesses that consume The Congo’s natural resources without care for its people, the sharp electronics of Belgian producer/DJ débruit, and the thrilling vocal stylings of Makara Bianko. The overall effect is explosive and engaging, even without the linguistic skills to get the lyrics’ meanings. Here’s a video introduction that demonstrates the vibrant energy of this great music. Fongola brings that into the comforts of your own home, with an edge.

#1, My Album of the Year for 2019: Lingua Ignota, Caligula: St. Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century mystic, composer, scientist and philosopher, most celebrated in the 21st century for her music; there are more of her compositions known today than from any other composer of the Middle Ages, making her one of the most recorded composers of Medieval plainchant in all of history. She also developed the lingua ignota (Latin for “unknown language”) and its associated alphabet, ostensibly through Divine inspiration, and for purposes unknown to modern scholars. Singer-musician-composer Kristin Hayter adopted the name of Hildegard’s constructed language for her ongoing musical activities, onstage and in the studio, and she has released three albums and an EP under its banner. It’s a perfect moniker for her work, evoking mysticism, art, communication, history, inspiration, and the spaces and places where women can and do create deeply personal work for their own purposes, in their own ways, free from psychic or physical interference from those who would silence their voices. I first encountered Hayter when she sang, with frightening power, on four cuts from The Body’s I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer, #7 on my 2018 Albums of the Year report. On Caligula, she now takes all the glorious intensity of The Body’s best work, drapes it with nearly orchestral arrangements of organic and electronic instruments, and delivers 11 terrifying, deeply personal texts atop her great musical compositions, twining the experiences and emotions of a domestic violence survivor with the words and story of the decadent and depraved Roman Emperor whose name this album bears. The music throughout Caligula offers crushing and breath-taking dynamism, and Hayter’s voice is a thing of wonder throughout, ranging from sweetly melodic whispers through glorious pure operatic arias to layered shrouds of shrieking, nearly-wordless anguish, made sound. Lyrics are inspired and exceptional, though almost unrelentingly dark (song titles include “May Failure Be Your Noose,” “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft,” and “Butcher of the World,” among others), but the few moments of uplift, and release, and freedom from pain are all the more powerful in contrast to that which surrounds them. All told, this is a genius, cathartic work, inspired on all fronts, and inspirational in its ambition and impact. It’s also arguably the least accessible, most challenging Album of the Year that I’ve named since Jarboe’s Anhedoniac in 1998, but it truly deserves to be heard widely, and celebrated, along with its creator, for its bravery, bite and brilliance. Brava!

And with that, I’m done for the year. See you here again in 2020 . . .

The Albums Of Our Lives

I was reminded recently of an old interview with (great) writer Chuck Klosterman where he deflected a “best album ever” type question by citing a list of his favorite albums from each year of his life. Probably no surprise to those who are regular readers here, but that made me say “Ooooo! I need to do that too!!”

So I did. And it was an interesting process to develop the list. Some thoughts and observations:

  • The key word is “favorite:” I didn’t try to pick “best,” but rather the things that I enjoy the most, right here, right now, really hewing to the true definition of “favorite” in all of its subjective glory. The difference between “favorite” and “best” is significant, since I know that I love some bad things, and I also know that I hate some good things. Such is the essence of taste.
  • I used my Top 200 Albums Ever list as a starting point, but that quickly stopped being useful, primarily because there are some years where literally dozens of my favorite albums were released (e.g. 1977, with David Bowie’s Low and “Heroes,” Eno’s Before And After Science, Wire’s Pink Flag, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Steely Dan’s Aja, the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, just to cite the top of the pile), and other years when I had to deep dive into my collection to find a single album that I considered worthy of being on this list. As much as I always espouse my non-nostalgic “the best music ever made is the music being made right now” rubric, in truth, objective music quality and import over time is a lumpy graph, and that really shows up in a project like this.
  • I had what would seem to be another quality resource available to me in developing this list, with my own “Best Album” reports from print or digital outlets going all the way back to 1992. But interestingly enough, I did not receive much utility from that list either, as there were loads of years where my identified “Best Album” entries from those long gone years either didn’t have long-term legs and do not please me as much now as they did then, or where I still like those old records well enough, but saw them supplanted by things I only heard some year or years after their original releases. Perspective changes over time, for sure.
  • The final list I developed here is a little bit more of a Caucasian Sausage Party than I probably would have preferred. That said, I am glad to see that the trend lines for diversity generally move in the right directions as we careen into 2019.
  • Chuck Klosterman is younger than me, but we do have two albums in two years where we overlap in our lists. See 1990 and 1993. I’m highly skeptical of any self-proclaimed music critic/nerd if he, she (or you) does not agree with me and Chuck on these two. 1990 and 1993 are years where there’s not a lot of room for negotiation. Seriously.
  • If the first year presented in this list seems incongruous to you in terms of what you think you might know about my life’s timeline, let’s just say that I come from a grand old South Carolina family where such piddling insignificances as “When was I born?” or “When was I married?” or “What year is it, really, and how much does it matter, darling?” are highly negotiable in one’s personal narrative. Suffice to say I’m old enough that it’s rude to ask for clarification on such matters, so don’t.

And with all of that as preamble, here’s the list I’ve developed of my favorite albums, right now, from each year of my life:

1965: John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

1966: Simon & Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence

1967: Yusef Lateef, The Complete Yusef Lateef

1968: Bonzo Dog Band, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse

1969: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

1970: Grateful Dead, American Beauty

1971: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

1972: Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick

1973: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

1974: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

1975: Wings, Venus and Mars

1976: Steely Dan, The Royal Scam

1977: Steely Dan, Aja

1978: Jethro Tull, Heavy Horses

1979: David Bowie, Lodger

1980: Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (III)

1981: Kraftwerk, Computer World

1982: XTC, English Settlement

1983: Swans, Filth

1984: Christian Death, Catastrophe Ballet

1985: Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

1986: R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant

1987: Butthole Surfers, Locust Abortion Technician

1988: Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven

1989: Einstürzende Neubauten, Haus der Lüge

1990: Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet

1991: Public Enemy, Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black

1992: Television Personalities, Closer To God

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: The Bogmen, Life Begins at 40 Million

1996: Sepultura, Roots

1997: Katell Keineg, Jet

1998: Clutch, Elephant Riders

1999: Coil, Musick To Play in the Dark, Vol. 1

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Original Cast Recording)

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Ween, Quebec

2004: Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles

2005: Coil, The Ape of Naples

2006: Kamikaze Hearts, Oneida Road

2007: Dälek, Abandoned Language

2008: The Fall, Imperial Wax Solvent

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Death Grips, Exmilitary

2012: Napalm Death, Utilitarian

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

2015: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

2016: David Bowie, Blackstar

2017: The Fall, New Facts Emerge

2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins

1965 was a very good year to be born, hypothetically and musically speaking . . .

Best Albums of 2018

Note: This list was updated in January 2019 to add a late-year entry: The Weasels’ The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.

With Thanksgiving sneaking up on us, and a heavy travel schedule on the docket for me around and after the holidays, I hereby declare it time for my 2018 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 27th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me at this point. To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years – some sublime, some not quite so – here is a complete reckoning of my Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2017:

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
  • 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies

2018 was a very good year for new music: I explored a lot of exciting things, there were a lot of viable contenders for the Album of the Year honoree, and I enjoyed a wide mix of tunes from old favorites and thrilling new pokes from people who I didn’t know existed 12 months ago. So with no further preambles, here’s my list of the 30 Best Albums of 2018, working up from #30 to my Album of the Year selection. Strap on your seat belt and let’s do this thing . . .

30. Goat Girl, Goat Girl: The U.K. music press has been well and fully agog this year over South London’s Goat Girl, a very talented all-female four-piece who make angular art rock with just enough sweet hook-mastery to grab a listener’s ear and hold it, even as they poke you in your soft belly parts with uneasy bits and dark sentiments and dire pronouncements and spiky arrangements. They’re scrappy, they are, and while this album contains a few skippable filler bits between the killer songs, let’s give the Goats credit for including them, since I guarantee they did so over their label’s objections, just because they wanted them there. Rock on, you. Winning.

29. Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is a Reptile: Sons of Kemet are a British jazz quartet fronted by bandleader/composer and sax/clarinet-player Shabaka Hutchings. In their third album’s liner notes, Hutchings observes that “Your Queen is not our queen, she does not see us as human,” and this nine-song treatise paints a world ruled instead by strong black queens like Harriett Tubman, Albertina Sisulu, Mamie Phipps Clark, and others. It’s bracing, unique (two drummers, tuba and sax, anyone?), brilliant, political, and highly relevant in our sad post-Brexit/Trump world.

28. Caroline McKenzie, The November Meteors: The prolific Glaswegian composer and sound manipulator has issued eight releases since 2017’s epic The Drowning of Ophelia, with new work ranging from traditional-length singles through to long-form, one-song EPs, and this, The November Meteors, a three-song suite released by the venerable David E. Barker via his resurrected Glass Miniatures imprint. “Heatherstorm” from Meteors may be my favorite ever song from McKenzie, a sixteen-minute excursion in textures, tones and tempos that grabs, holds and delivers. Perfect!

27. Teleman, Family of Aliens: I’ve been listening to the Sanders Brothers (Thomas and Jonny) and Peter Cattermoul since their earliest days working together with Pete and the Pirates, and they just keep getting better and more compelling at their craft. They’ve made regular appearances on my year-end Best Of lists both with their original band and since rebranding (with the addition of drummer Hiro Amamiya) as Teleman in 2012; this is their third full-length under the current moniker, and it’s a corker, anchored by utterly killer krautrock-pop song “Cactus,” my Single of the Year for 2018.

26. Anna von Hausswolff, Dead Magic: We had the pleasure of seeing Swedish singer-songwriter-keyboardist Anna von Hausswolff performing with The Joffrey Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s exquisite “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (no, not that one) last spring, and the next morning I went to my mailbox and found my copy of Prog magazine (nerd!!) which contained a review of her excellent new Dead Magic. It was a sign, clearly, so I queued up lead track “The Mysterious Vanishing of Elektra” (now my Video of the Year for 2018), and was hooked, you bet, for good.

25. Ministry, AmeriKKKant: I was surprised by the number of negative reviews that Al Jourgensen’s latest slab of industrial Repuglican-slaying jams received, since I thought (and think) this record provides a perfect palette cleanser for that bad stale vomit taste the Trump administration leaves in my mouth. It’s not as blistering in its assault tempos as some of Ministry’s Bush 41 and Bush 43 era records, and it plays better as a suite than as a set of standalone singles, but I still find Uncle Al’s artistry and general fighting spirit to be worthy of my time and support, always. Bonus points: brilliant, perfect samples of Charlie Chaplin’s “Look up, Hannah” soliloquy from The Great Dictator. This speech kills fascists.

24. The Joy Formidable, AAARTH: I adored The Joy Formidable’s spectacular 2008 EP “A Balloon Called Moaning” but none of the Welsh trio’s full-length albums since then have grabbed and rocked me quite as well as that first foreign foray did – until now. AAARTH is just a gem of a record, with killer songs, ace arrangements, vocal and guitar pyrotechnics and a rich production that makes these tracks jump out of your stereo in the most aggressive of ways, making your heart go pitter-pat and your fist pump and your chin raise in admiration. Well done, you. Repeat.

23. The Damned, Evil Spirits: In which everybody’s completely dysfunctional vampire punk rock survivors improbably bring in brilliant Bowie buddy Tony Visconti and make the best record they’ve made since, oh, I dunno, let’s call it Strawberries in 1982, just for grins. The damned damned damned thing even sold well, too, breaking the British Top Ten for the first time, just a year or two after a band documentary (Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead) essentially demonstrated how such a thing could and should never, ever happen. Essential. Even The Captain says “Wot?”

22. Nine Inch Nails, Bad Witch: I was a fairly active Nine Inch Nails fan back in Trent Reznor’s earliest days as an industrial provocateur spinning off of the essential Chicago Wax Trax scene (see also Ministry above), but as he kinda sorta became a big deal and started winning Oscars and lifting weights, you know, ennhhhh, I just haven’t paid as much attention to him. Until this year, when I read a review of this short album that cited it as his Blackstar-inspired Bowie move, which (thankfully) caught my attention, as this is a great little cranked-up experimental noise record, reminding me how very much I liked the David-and-Trent team on “I’m Afraid of Americans” way back when.

21. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Hope Down: In the quarter-century plus that I’ve made lists like this, almost every year an album shows up that’s a regular on playlists, filled with familiar songs that I like, and that grab other people too – and yet every time I hear one, I think “Now, who was that again?” This is that, this year. Love the record, it’s the real deal, and this Australian quintet with one, two (count ‘em) three singer-guitarist-songwriters getting the job done is well worth your attention. But as soon as I finish this blurb, I will forget their name again, dammit. Sorry guys. I try.

20. Shriekback, Why Anything? Why This?: I’ve admired Shriekback since before I heard a note by them, so wowed was I by the very idea of a band with Barry Andrews (XTC) and David Allen (Gang of Four) in it. The goods held up to their billing, and with guitarist Carl Marsh and drummer Martyn Barker, the Shrieks achieved admirable ‘80s success without sacrificing the weird juju of their sound. Fast forward to 2018, and the story’s still the same: this weirdly wonky, organically ooky, scintillatingly shouty gem of an album is their best since 1986’s Big Night Music, and what a joy it is to hear Marsh, Andrews and the Partridge Sisters in full voice together, all these years on.

19. Jonathan Davis, Black Labyrinth: Another one where hipper-than-thou readers might be rolling your eyes and making dismissive noises before peeking ahead to read about the stuff that critics are supposed to like. But you’re missing the mark if you do, and I don’t care, because I sincerely believe KORN’s Jonathan Davis is modern metal’s most compelling, original singer, and his first full solo disc offers an excellent collection of electro-metal brushed with jazz tinges (mostly courtesy ace bassist Miles Mosley) and Eastern textures (violinist Shenkar in the house).

18. Hailu Mergia, Lala Belu: I collected a lot of African music in the ‘80s when I was specializing in that continent’s politics as part of my studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. One of my prized possessions on that front was an astounding recording by Hailu Mergia and The Walias called Tche Belew, capturing the sounds of Addis Ababa’s finest band during the dark days of the post-Selassie Derg regime. I was thrilled to learn that Mergia is making music again, now in the States, and his Lala Belu is a jazz-flavored delight rich with inspired and inspiring keyboard work.

17. Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m All Ears: Britain’s Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth are formidably precocious talents, with a pair of ace albums and half-a-dozen attention-getting singles under each of their belts before either of them has hit a twentieth birthday. I’m All Ears is a superb sophomore slab, anchored in a sweetly melodic sense and acutely observational lyrical approach, all then morphed, sludged and glitched to excellent experimental effect. Song structures are all over the place too, culminating with an astounding 11-minute freakout called Donnie Darko. Wow.

16. Hawkwind, Road to Utopia: As with Ministry (see above), I’ve been surprised by negative reviews of this latest project from formidable BLANGA warriors, Hawkwind, who here reinvent seven classic songs and offer two instrumental originals, all with orchestral assistance from Mike Batt, of Wombles fame. If you take off your too-tight, too-serious hats, though, and relax a little bit, then you’d realize that this record is just a goofy delight, where you can tell that everyone involved is having fun. Remember fun? It feels good. You’d like it. Lighten up. Give it a try, yeah?

15. Uriah Heep, Living the Dream: I know, this is the kind of pick where you cool kids expect me to explain my choice ironically, or to make a “guilty pleasure” argument, or to craft some tortured narrative about how the Heep’s trademark organ, opera and wah-wah guitar sound has under-appreciated importance to rock’s evolution, or whatever. But I’m not gonna do any of that, dammit, because this is just a fine rock record, period, an excellent addition to a deep, deserving canon by a classic rock band who will kick your ass in concert, still. (I saw them. They did). Heep! Woo hoo! Yeah!

14. Soulfly, Ritual: Max Cavalera just moves me, you know? There’s something about his approach to writing, singing, performing and recording metal music that’s unique, distinct, powerful and always grabs me, whether he’s doing his thing with Sepultura, Cavalera Conspiracy or Soulfly. This latest slab from the ‘fly finds Max’s son Zyon at the drums where his brother Igor once whaled, while long-time foil Marc Rizzo delivers the killer lead guitar licks and newcomer Mike Leon ably wrangles the bass. Verdict: the best from Max since 2008’s Conquer, I’d say. Sim!

13. The Residents, Intruders: 2018 has been a tough year for the Rez, with mainstay Cryptic Corp manager Hardy Fox having de-cloaked as their primary composer and musician, just before he was diagnosed with and died from glioblastoma. But on his personal website, Hardy noted that he’d worked with Cryptic collaborator Homer Flynn to have Eric Drew Feldman (Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Frank Black) take his place, and the first fruits of that line of succession are fine fare on Intruders, which also features fellow long-standing collaborators Carla Fabrizio and Nolan Cook.

12. White Denim, Performance: James Petralli and Steve Terebecki have been playing together as White Denim since 2006, supported by a variety of colleagues; on this latest disc, keyboardist Michael Hunter and drummer Conrad Choucroun fill in the spaces around their vocals, bass and guitars. The music is engagingly eclectic, welding jazzy, proggy, jammy and jangly bits to a groove-fortified homespun Texas-style chassis. I was lukewarm about their 2016 album, Stiff, but this one is a welcome return to top form: accessible, intriguing and warm, soup to nuts.

11. Napalm Death, Coded Smears and More Uncommon Slurs: I’m on the record as claiming Napalm Death as my current favorite band, but even loving them (or anybody) as much as I do, the prospect of a dense two-disc collection of B-sides, split 7” recordings, out-takes and studio leftovers from the past 15 years didn’t really fill me with any sense of burning urgency or excitement when I first read about it. But then I listened to this collection, and holy moly, Napalm’s leftovers are better than just about any other metal band’s finest fare. Amazingly essential. Huttah!

10. HOGG, SELF-EXTINGUISHING EMISSION: HOGG are a pair of Atlanta-bred, Chicago-based women who make thrillingly horror-filled and haunting post-industrial music of the most visceral, vibrating and violent varieties, mostly using only electronics, drums, bass and their astounding voices, processed in truly hackle-raising ways. There’s something dark magic(k)al about the sounds they create here and on earlier discs, transcending rinky-dink instrumentation to craft vast, terrible soundscapes capable of evoking night terrors among the awakened. Brrr!!

9. Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus: I first heard Ezra Furman over a decade ago when he was playing with his college band in Boston, The Harpoons. Since moving to Chicago (his hometown), I’ve been glad to have the chance to see him live a few times (he’s dynamite), especially with his tight post-Harpoons band, The Boyfriends. Transangelic Exodus is a brilliant addition to his catalog, a conceptual road trip type album about growth, change and identity, wherein Furman (a gender fluid observant Jew of acute social intelligence and with a confessional creative sensitivity) and his still-ace band (now called The Visions) ably stretch their craft and chops to produce a vibrant, visceral song saga journey, perfect for uncertain and unsettling times like ours. Bravx!

8. Caroline Rose, LONER: Caroline Rose’s third album finds the erstwhile indie-country-folk favorite emerging from her woodshed chrysalis surrounded by a spray of synth squiggles and a blast of brassy bossy beats, her country caterpillar now improbably reformed as a delightfully squiggly flying thing, zipping hither to yon, lighting on your psyche just long enough to lay a perfectly sweet or pleasingly fun little pop gem on you, over and over and over again. Improbable and sublime in its delightful embrasure of perverse wrongness in pursuit of something so, so very righteous. You’ve gotta watch her official videos, too, since the musical talent’s just part of the equation of the persona. She’s quite the hoot, at bottom line!

7. The Body, I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer: Lee Buford and Chip King make some of the darkest, bleakest, hardest music imaginable together as The Body, and this early 2018 disc (they’ve put out another full-length since) finds them at the top of their game. With a title culled from a famous suicide note, this record deploys crushing electronics, grinding guitars, thunderous drums, shrieked vocals, tape looops and occasional sweet(er) leavening from singer Chrissy Wolpert to plumb the dark, lonely and desperate spaces where everything hurts, always.

6. IDLES, Joy as an Act of Resistance: I raved about IDLES’ debut album, Brutalism, in last year’s report here, citing the English five-piece as “a potent young band, well worth rooting for in the years ahead.” 2018 counts as a year ahead of 2017, so I’m sticking with that assessment, with an upgrade to say that they may just be the potent young British band to mind these days, as their rousing, positive, anthemic rock is winning rave responses in concert, on television, through video, and on this sophomore album here. Formidable and fearsome fare. I’m a believer!

5. The Weasels, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow: The Weasels (of Albany, New York) have been offering exquisitely crafted uneasy listening to discerning audiences since the early 1990s. Anchored as always around the songwriting partnership of Dr Fun (who also provides lead vocals, woodwinds, keyboards and sundries) and Roy Weäsell (guitars, vocals, keyboards, programs, etc.), The Man Who Saw Tomorrow features 14 new cuts that apply the duo’s sardonic worldview to a surprisingly topical and timely palette of subjects, creating a very smart, very classy record that’s very much a choice product of its time, never mind how very, very stupid its time happens to be. Note: Click here for my complete review of this album.

4. Clutch, Book of Bad Decisions: Clutch launched this album with a quartet of videos exploring shitty electoral politics, hard touring tales from meth-addled Kansas, teen-aged sci-fi fantasias, and a killer crab cake recipe, all making it clear that the venerable Maryland quartet aren’t taking themselves too seriously these days. That fun and relaxed air permeates this thunderous 15-song studio collection and is ultimately a key to its success, along with the group’s decision to enlist Nashville producer Vance Powell, who provides a fresh sense of swing to the proceedings.

3. Paul McCartney, Egypt Station: I listen to Wings more than I do The Beatles, so my Macca biases and bona fides are firm as I declare this record to be among Sir Paul’s greatest efforts. He’s been working with the same band (Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray, Paul Wickens and Abe Laboriel, Jr.) for longer than he played as a Beatle, his songwriting is clever, sharp and strong, and that voice is still, well, that voice. This isn’t “a fine album for his age” or “a good album comparatively” or “a strong later period record,” – it’s just a great album, period, extending his epic canon once again. Bonus points: the fact that Paul ends this album with not just one, but two, long, ridiculous multi-part suites of the “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” or “Band On The Run” variety, still not content to just write stuff, still sticking stuff together to make bigger, better weirder fun along the way. Bravo, sir! Keep up the good work, you dotty ageless oldster you!

2. The Coup, Sorry To Bother You: The Soundtrack: What a torturous path this album followed to fruition: The Coup’s main man Boots Riley wrote the screenplay to his bizarre and thrilling Sorry To Bother You over a decade ago, couldn’t get it financed, put out a brilliant (but imaginary) film soundtrack with the same title, which helped get the movie into production, earning massive plaudits from all comers, and generating (in due time) another real soundtrack with the same title. Got it? If not, get it, in both meanings of that phrase. This record is a funky bomb of the very finest flavors of goodness, with Riley’s usual Coup band mates in raging organic form, supplemented with contributions from TuneYards, Janelle Monae, LaKeith Stanfield, Killer Mike and others. I’ve made a mix of the two Sorry To Bother You soundtrack albums (2012 and 2018) along with ancillary recent singles and songs from TuneYards and Stanfield’s MOORS project, and it’s about the most thrilling thing I listen most ways, most days.

1. (2018’s Album of the Year): First Aid Kit, Ruins: Surprise!! They did it again!! And I say that not to you, nor to them, but to myself, honestly, since I’ve been kicking this list around for a month or so in anticipation of this article, and I looked at a lot of records in a lot of ways, and I just kept coming back to this one as the one that gave me the greatest sense of concentrated accomplishment and joy since I finished my 2017 list a year ago. Which is a conclusion that I did not expect. In fact, I honestly found it somewhat improbable when I named this Swedish sister act’s 2014 Stay Gold as that year’s Album of the Year, but damned if it wasn’t a brilliant record at the time, damned if it hasn’t aged really well (unlike some of my other Album of the Year choices), and damned if they haven’t done it again with this year’s supremely accomplished and bittersweet Ruins, surprise, surprise, surprise!! Klara and Johanna Söderberg aren’t just blessed with incredible voices that work together in the most haunting and beautiful fashions, they’re also skilled songwriters and arrangers who produce songs that are unique and recognizable, almost instantly, but also have deep resonance and fit perfectly into the long traditions of American country, folk and pop music catalogs. Their music is timeless and universal enough (in the best senses of those words) that I suspect it will be played, covered and rediscovered for decades to come by artists of all stripes, even as these songs sound current today, or would have sounded current 20 years or more ago. So kudos to Klara and Johanna, and to the Söderberg sisters’ long-time live colleagues Melvin Duffy, Scott Simpson and Steve Moore; we caught the quintet in concert in Vancouver and they delivered one of the most engaging and delicious shows I saw or heard this year, providing a perfect accompaniment to this brilliant studio document, a truly deserving Album of the Year for 2018.

And there we have it, another year on the books. I’ll be posting my “Most Played Songs of 2018” set sometime soon (as I do each year), and then it will be time to blow up all of the set lists and begin a new year of listening, eagerly anticipating what 2019 might bring me, hoping it’s as good as what the past twelve months delivered. Music matters, and I’m glad to experience and share it, always!

No vinyl records were pretentiously purchased in the making of this list.

Best Albums of 2017 (Addendum): “In The Presence of Presents 2017” by Jed Davis

I usually do my annual “Best Albums of The Year” report in late November or early December, before the craziness of the year end, and because it usually takes me more than a month to decide that I want to include something on the list anyway. (Here’s the 2017 Best List, the 26th consecutive annual one I’ve published). The downside of this approach, of course, is that sometimes I miss some truly worthy late-in-the-year releases, and those don’t get captured on the report. That happened in the waning moments of 2017, so let me tell you about one more essential disc from the year that was . . .

Jed Davis, In the Presence of Presents 2017: If you search for Jed Davis on this blog, you get a lot of results, because I consider Jed to be one of the finest songwriters of the past quarter-century, and he’s a damned fine musician, artist, singer, and writer to boot. A real renaissance rocker. Jed actually did get a mention in the introduction of the 2017 Best Albums list, as I cited The Hanslick Rebellion (they are one of Jed’s bands) with Single of the Year for their zeitgeist-defining “Who’ll Apologize For This Disaster Of A Life?” But damned if Jed didn’t slip in a year-end album-length surprise with the third of his occasional In the Presence of Presents series (now issued in 2003, 2006, and 2017), and it’s a corker.

Here’s the concept: each edition of In the Presence of Presents includes one holiday themed original song, paired with nine non-holiday covers. Simple! But, of course, in such an endeavor, song selection, arrangements, and performances make all the difference, and Jed’s three-for-three again on those fronts this time around. To give you a sense of the breadth of the covers, he’s got songs by (among others) The Beach Boys, Juliana Hatfield, Jobriath, Judee Sill, Patrik Fitzgerald, Yaz, and Kendrick Lamar. (In the last two cases, actually, that’s only one song, and it’s a mashup made in heaven). And then there’s “Wonder Woman,” by Billy Joel’s so-awful-it’s-amazing early band Attila. It is a thing, for sure, and Jed and ace session drummer Joe Abba make it an even better thing, absolutely.

Abba appears on several tracks, as does indie-superstar guitarist Avi Buffalo, while The Hanslick Rebellion, Anton and Lewis Patzner (Judgment Day), and Maryanne Fennimore appear on a cut apiece. Jed provides his usual display of sure-fingered playing on organ, guitar, bass, piano, Rhodes Piano Bass, percussion and the dreaded Baldwin Fun Machine, which brings the perfect amount of period cheese to Beach Boys’ deep cut “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”. He’s also in fine voice throughout the proceedings here, with some excellent harmonic arrangement making things sweet when they need to be, often with a little dash of bitter for leavening. Mmm, that’s good.

Speaking of harmonies: this year’s original Jed Davis holiday song — “Peditum Quod Festum Nativitatis Delevit” — is performed in Latin with but eight voices, and its narrative revolves around one of the very few things that have amused human beings from all cultures since deepest antiquity, and will no doubt continue to amuse us until we’re eventually wiped from the face of the earth (hopefully not in 2018). You’ve gotta hear it to believe it, and I know you too will be amused when you do. Ho ho ho!!!

Oh! And did I mention the part about “presents?” Well, this is one to us from Jed: you can nab it all for free by clicking on the album cover below. (And then get the earlier installments by clicking on these links: 20062003). (And then explore the amazing collection of albums Jed has helmed over the years involving a truly unbelievable collection of musicians at The Congregation of Vapors).


Best Albums of 2017

With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s time for my 2017 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 26th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition at this (ever-more-advanced) stage of my life.

To set the stage and provide some perspective on this year’s list, I share the following complete reckoning of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2016. With 20/20 hindsight, I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some of the years, but I own my picks as historic facts, stated publicly, for better or for worse.

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar

My belief in the value of emergent music keeps me hungry as I search out new sounds throughout the year, rather than just wallowing in nostalgia mode, and I have found 2017 to be ripe with delightful music, with old favorites and newcomers alike offering challenging and/or engaging new offerings. I generally only consider full-length albums, preferring studio ones to live ones, and I also generally eschew compilations, unless there’s a quirky or compelling reason for counting them. (Meaning there’s a live album and a compilation in the honorable mention list below, because we need our exceptions to define our rules).

Among short-form releases this year, my EP of the year is the glorious No Plan by David Bowie, which provided a perfect posthumous coda to last year’s Album of the Year, Blackstar. Also highly noteworthy is the Great Aspirations EP by TC&I, a.k.a. Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, the mighty rhythm section of XTC’s earliest, most glorious years; both players had long indicated intentions to step away from music for good, so it was unexpected and thrilling to hear them working together again on a strong quartet of Moulding songs. My single of the year is The Hanslick Rebellion’s “Who’ll Apologize for this Disaster of a Life?”, which perfectly captures the dire mood of our times with brilliant lyrics, a hook to die for for and a delicious video to boot. Get ’em all, even if they’re short.

Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: my list is obviously built from the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t get around to sampling. So as much as I love dialog and discussion about music, please resist the urge to write a knee-jerk note telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite East Timorese grime-core nose-flute and bassoon collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it, so please share that link when you do, and we can talk. Thank you.

I open the list-making part of this exercise with the following Honorable Mentions for 2017. I liked these albums a lot and recommend them all for your collection, but after revisiting everything I acquired over the past twelve months, these didn’t quite make it into my Top 20 Albums for the year, but they were all close contenders:

  • The Black Angels, Death Song
  • Can, The Singles
  • Electric Six, How Dare You?
  • Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock
  • Irontom, Partners
  • King Crimson, Live in Chicago
  • King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Flying Microtonal Banana
  • Meat Wave, The Incessant
  • Awa Poulo, Poulo Warali
  • Samael, Hegemony
  • Songhoy Blues, Resistance

And here are my Top 20 Records of 2017, in reverse order, working toward my Album of the Year, at the bottom of the page:

#20. Moonspell, 1755: I didn’t consider 2017 to be a particularly brutal year on the metal front, but the few representatives of the extreme arts that appear on my list this year are quite fine and varied. First up, this epic concept album from Portugal’s venerable Moonspell, who have been practicing the metallic arts under singer Fernando Ribeiro’s guiding hand since the mid-’90s. This year’s album is among their best, with huge walls of riffs being uplifted and fortified with orchestrations and choral washes, all in service of a story about the year when Europe’s strongest recorded earthquake essentially destroyed Portugal as a global power. For the first time, Ribeiro’s lyrics are all delivered in his native Portuguese language, and the passion he feels for his country’s history is evident throughout in his emotional and emotive delivery. (Even if you don’t speak his language, it’s not hard to get the gist of what’s happening in songs with titles like “Desastre” or “Ruínas” or “In Tremor Dei,” so don’t be put off by the lack of English.) The overall auditory effect  and experience of 1755 is massive and thrilling and exultant, even in its darkest themes and moments, and this is one of those great anthemic metal albums that you brutalitarians out there might even be able to sneak past your more sensitive family members onto the family stereo. (I’m gonna give it a try, anyway. I’ll let you know what happens).

#19. King Krule, The OOZ: Archy Marshall is a precocious musical freak, with an impressively wiggly and weird catalog of recordings and concerts under his belt well before he’s even aged out of his first quarter century. Marshall’s second album under the “King Krule” moniker is a fascinating, rambling foray into a wooky and woozy and wobbly world where heavily accented hip-hop cadences collide softly with spacious lounge bleats and blaats, all bouncing around reverberently in the cavernous vacancies of your skull, and the expressways thereto. Imagine The Streets working with Esquivel under the direction of Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch, all at the end of a six-day mushroom bender, and you’ll get the general flavor and feel of the thing. Wild, man, and excellent in its excess and full on flagrant commitment to its conceits and concepts, with the best bits being the ones that bop along on stronger beats, pushing the creepy freak fest into a realm which might almost be called propulsive, if you could see your way forward through the smoke and haze and ooze clearly enough to want to move from your safe and stable corner booth, the one with the stuffing pushing out through the tear in the red-brown blown pleather seat, and the yellow glass ashtray in the armrest. I honestly can’t say that I’ve ever heard anything quite like this one before, and I doubt you have either. But if you have, then let me know, because I might need a little taste of that, when the shakes come, namsain?

#18. Godflesh, Post Self: Justin Broadrick makes the first of two appearances in my 2017 Best Albums list with this concussive gem from Godflesh, his long-standing off/on collaboration with bassist G.C. Green. Post Self picks up pretty much where 2014’s A World Lit Only By Fire (my #2 release of that year) dropped off, with a trio of songs built atop the juddering, hammering, calamitous riffs for which Godflesh are rightfully and influentially famous. But then the sledge riffs abate a bit for the remainder of the album, and sulfurous hissings and keening blade spins and phlegmy furnace croaks drop from high places to fill the pregnant pauses, and it’s just as powerful as it ever is, but is also somehow more horrible, in the good sense of that word. I guess only Broadrick himself knows the process by which he decides whether a new piece best fits Godflesh or one of his other numerous creative outlets (Jesu, Council Estate Electronics, Final, Pale Sketcher, etc. etc.), and far be it for me to quibble with his assignations, even if this project seems to me to pivot from (typical/expected) Godflesh to (typical/expected) Jesu fare midstream. It’s all good, whatever it’s called, and it’s always a treat to hear G.C. Green anchoring the bottom, and more on Jesu later (below), so hold these thoughts . . .

#17. Replacire, Do Not Deviate: As noted above, 2017 wasn’t a year in which I found myself head-banging and flinging my (imagined) hair about as often as I do some years, but that doesn’t mean that the metallic arts aren’t fairly represented in the year-end mix. Replacire are a ridiculously technical death metal band from Boston, who write gloriously complex and knotted pieces, play them with surgeons’ precision, and yet still somehow manage to blow the roof off of your brain housing group with battering barrages of riffery and shoutery and stompery and general oh-hells-yeah punch. That said, they recognize the power of sonic dynamics, too, so piano interludes and clean vocals occasionally jerk you back into a safe spot for breath-catching, before you’re shoved back into the meat grinder, with spectacles propped on your dribbling nose, so you can see how sharp the blades are before they chew you into perfectly consistently sized ribbons of meat and gristle. While album cover art is a dying craft, I do give Replacire credit for a perfect image to capture the sounds of Do Not Deviate: it’s red and black, and there’s stuff falling apart, and things are more complicated than they need to be, and there’s a monster, and it’s smiling, and did I mention it’s all very complicated, and the falling apart bit, too? Yeah. That picture is what this music sounds like. Bravo on both fronts.

#16. Xiu Xiu, FORGET: Xiu Xiu’s last album of primarily original material, 2014’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom, was described by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart as an exploration of the “mean, tight-hearted blackness of Neubauten vs Suicide vs Nico” and, amazingly enough, it actually lived up (or down, depending on your worldview) to that evocative description of really dark, really powerful music. Of course, that makes it one of my favorite albums by the assaultive experimental ensemble. Surrounding it, though, were gentler records exploring the music of Nina Simone, the soundtracks to Twin Peaks, and Caribbean folk songs and American hymns, so Stewart and Company clearly hadn’t completely succumbed to the allures of the null and the void. This year’s Xiu Xiu offering is something of a happy medium merger of the aforementioned forays, with (relatively) accessible song structures, melodies and arrangements, spiced with Stewart’s typically frank declamations on all manner of deeply felt things, sacred and profane, wordly and other, sexy and ugly, almost all in equal measure. Core members Stewart, Angela Seo and Shayna Dunkelman are joined this time out by nearly a dozen guests — including genderqueer icon Vaginal Davis, Kristof Hahn (Swans, Pere Ubu), and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) — and the record has a richer, less skeletal feel than some of their blunter early work. It’s not easy listening, not by a long shot, but it’s a little step closer in that direction from anything that’s come before it, and if that exposes Xiu Xiu’s brilliance to even a few more fans, then that’s a good thing.

#15. The Residents, The Ghost of Hope: This album marks a significant turning point for The Residents, as Cryptic Corporation manager/agent/spokesperson Hardy Fox (a.k.a. Charles Bobuck) retired earlier this year and shockingly “de-cloaked” after 40+ years as the always anonymous group’s primary composer. Fox noted in an interview (as Bobuck) that he wrote for the The Ghost of Hope before his departure, so with typical perversion and bait-switching, the new album is being announced as a “classic Residents” project, restoring the live group’s quartet lineup, with long-time collaborators Nolan Cook, Eric Drew Feldman and Carla Fabrizio along for the ride. Well, at least in the studio, anyway. Who knows what happens on stage? Ghost provides an outstanding and historically grounded exploration of famous 19th and 20th Century train wrecks, and the record rocks harder than anything they’ve done in the past decade, with Louisiana-inflected crooner Mr Red Eye/Mr Skull/Randy Rose (these days dressed as a cow, while his band mates don plague masks) in very fine voice, and the accompaniments and texts being direct, disturbing, and delicious in equal measure. What’s next? Who knows. And that’s more than half of the fun, as always, when it comes to the always prolific, always surprising, and always amazing Rez. Long may they Snorp! Whoopy! (Note: The Residents also offered one of the best compilation packages of 2017 with 80 Aching Orphans; newcomers and veterans alike are encouraged to nab that too, as it puts The Ghost of Hope in great career context).

#14. The I.L.Y’s, Bodyguard: I first raved about Death Grips when I ranked their debut mix tape as my #2 album of 2011, and I’ve written and ranked a lot by them since then. The California trio have masterfully manipulated record companies, audiences, critics and consumers with aplomb over the years, sometimes withholding expected releases, other times dropping surprise musical bombs, regularly cancelling shows (or whole tours), wrapping their intended major label release in a heinously graphic sexual cover, announcing their dissolution more than once, usually just before announcing a new tour or album. Their aggressive perversity has been tolerable, though, because the music they make is stellar and harrowing and challenging. So what does all of this have to do with The I.L.Y’s? Well, they are the instrumental two-thirds of Death Grips, and they released their first two digital albums on Grips’ Third World label, without really making it clear who they were. Bodyguard finds the pair (drummer Zach Hill and producer Andy Morin) tacking “normal” rock instrumentation (vocals, guitar, bass) onto their usual slamming beds, releasing a physical album on a traditional record label, and generally going about the music business the way that the music business wants itself gone about. The results are surprising and sublime and (gasp!) shockingly accessible, sometimes even to the point of inspiring singalong moments. Hill and Morin are undeniably talented, and if they ever decide they want to relax the whole “fight the power” thing, even just a little, this album proves they’ve got it in ’em to be a tight and commercially viable combo. Which would be cool, as long as they also continue to stick it to the man with MC Ride in Death Grips. I don’t want to have to choose.

#13. Protomartyr, Relatives in DescentProtomartyr are a Detroit-bred quartet, featuring the most standard rock lineup imaginable: vocals, guitar, bass, drums. They write fairly standard rock songs about a lot of dark topics (with excellent lyrics, objectively speaking), and front-man Joe Casey sings them in a fairly standard rock baritone voice, somewhere between Ian Curtis and Iggy Pop. They have issued four albums, each one a bit better than the one before it. And I love them dearly, most especially this latest record . . . though I struggle each time they appear in one of my year-end reviews to explain exactly why that is, since there’s never an easy hook, or gimmick, or angle that make it easy to explain why they’re special, when they’re doing things that gazillions of bands before them have done, generally in the way that most bands do. I guess what separates them from the pack is that they do what they do as well as it can be done, and that consistent whiff of excellence elevates their straight-up four-piece rock into realms that most garage bands can only dream of with the assistance of good drugs and expensive strobe lights and maybe some supermodel girlfriends or something. I dunno. Words fail me when it comes to Protomartyr . . . they’re just great because they’re great, and this album is wonderful because it’s wonderful. So shut up. And stop staring at me. There’s something weirder coming up next.

#12. UUUU, UUUU: Wire’s Graham Lewis is another multiple-entry performer in this year’s Top 20 Albums of the Year report, in this first case with a new quartet that adopts his always interesting approach to naming groups; UUUU follows in the footsteps of such Lewis projects as P’o, Ocsid, Dome, Hox, MZUI, and He Said Omala, among others. Lewis is joined here by his Wire bandmate Matthew Simms (more on them below), ex-COIL/Spiritualized synth-man Thighpaulsandra, and drummer Valentina Magaletti of Tomaga and Vanishing Twin. I have literally scores of albums by Wire and COIL, so am well versed with and deeply fond of the works of 75% of UUUU, while Magaletti and her work are completely new to me.  Interestingly enough, she emerges in many ways as the superest-star in this super-star project, as her drum and percussion work is just dynamite throughout, indicating deep skill in everything from the most motorik of Jaki-beats all the way through to the free-form clatter and clank of a cold-stone (Chris) Cutler acolyte. The eight songs on UUUU are gloriously titled (“The Latent Black Path of Summons Served” or “The Princess Anne Love Cassette,” anyone?), mostly instrumental (though Lewis adds some of his always delicious baritone here and there), and range in scope from the four-minute almost pop of “Boots With Wings” up to the 16-minute meltdown of “Five Gates,” which is so compelling that the time passes far more quickly and frighteningly than it should. I don’t know what, if anything, the future holds for a side project like UUUU, but this is a great offering from a quartet of experimental creative geniuses, and I do certainly hope that they might have a VVVV or a ZEGK or a cUUUUpol or something similar out there planned for us in the future.

#11. Juana Molina, Halo: So if you’re not at all, or are just a little, familiar with Juana Molina, then we need to pause this list for a moment while you go read her bio on Wikipedia, because it is awesome crazy wonderful, and gives some deep, deep context to this record. Go on. I’ll wait here for you. Wait wait wait. Okay, you’re back? Great! How was that story in terms of a cool career in the arts? Neat, right? Well, I sure was impressed . . . and surprised, I have to admit, because much of the coverage I’ve read about Halo over the past year has ignored that back story, and sort of presented the Argentine star as an emergent young artist, probably because her impressive prior accomplishments didn’t happen here in the States, and our marketing engines don’t know how to digest and process such geographically remote success, even as the globe gets smaller and smaller, day by day. All that being noted, how about the music? Well, I’d say it sounds like nothing I’ve heard before, as it is original, and engaging, and incorporates both global and regional (Argentine) musical influences, and processes them through a very unique and delightfully skewed creative vision, using both organic and electronic instrumentation, in ways that you don’t expect them to be used. Molina’s singing voice is delicious, too; I have to admit a fondness for Argentine pronunciation of the Spanish language where “ll” sounds are pronounced with a slurry “shh” sibilance, giving the whole thing a woozy, exotic flavor that reverberates warmly with the most luscious bits of both classic Iberian languages. A great album by a great talent with a lifetime of achievement behind her . . . and (hopefully) a lot more yet to come. Pay attention, America!

#10. Idles, Brutalism: Idles are a British five-piece who emerged from Bristol’s Batcave club half a decade ago, issuing half-a-dozen EPs and singles before their debut elpee, Brutalism, early this year. Singer Joe Talbot’s mother died young after a difficult illness during the recording of the album and, well, he’s pissed off about that (as one is), and his anger about that and a variety of other things comes through loud and clear throughout this brash and aggressive record’s run. Talbot’s got a sneering, shouting, snotty, heavily-accented voice that reminds me of a young Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers) at times, and Protomartyr’s Joe Casey (see above) at other times, and Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson at still other times, and he writes punchy, memorable lyrics that often repeat over a song’s course, embedding them deeply and quickly into your ear holes after just a few spins, making you feel like you’ve know about these songs far longer than you possibly could have. Unless you’re from Bristol, anyway. With The Fall perhaps winding down (see below), and Sleaford Mods being a bit of a limited act with their voice and loops approach to live and studio work, I can readily imagine Idles emerging as the great angry voice band of modern Britain, letting those of us who don’t live there know what the folks there are pissed off about, and helping those who are pissed off there to find a lucid outlet for the ills (social, political, cultural and personal) that ail them. A potent young band, well worth rooting for in the years ahead.

#9. The Fall, New Facts Emerge: In Fall Record Release Time, it’s been a dog’s age since they issued a new album, and this particular hiatus has been notably defined by the departure of keyboardist Eleni Poulou, who has been the creative and personal partner of stalwart Fall mastermind Mark E. Smith for the past 15 years. Further potential red flags in front of New Facts Emerge involved cancelled gigs, record release date slippages, a more-ill-looking-than-usual Smith struggling onstage during their occasional shows, and drummer Keiron Melling suffering a savage and cowardly beating on a British train earlier this year. But never mind all that, I guess: New Facts Emerge is a potent and high-octane record , with a unique and defiantly odd blend of power riffage, strange song structures, creative studio trickery, weird production techniques, sounds bleating from disparate corners unexpectedly, tunes descending into chaos only to rebuild themselves as different tunes elsewhere, and a completely nutso sequencing that attaches weird little fragments to some songs, while other elements linger long beyond the point where studio sanity would seemingly dictate “cut.” The Fall have embraced weirdness and repetition and angularity and just being not quite right in pleasing ways over the years, and these new cuts are a part and piece of that tradition, as not a one of them is a straight-up, straight-through rocker with a clean arrangement; they’re all askew and unsettled in one way or another. Mark E. Smith remains Mark E. Smith, of course, and if you haven’t liked his voice over the years, well, then this album isn’t the one that’s going to change your mind on that front, but he’s a venerable legend, nonetheless, and worthy of your attention, still. (Note: Sadly, as I was typing this blurb, I got word from fellow fans of a last-minute cancelled Fall gig in Brixton, with Smith reported as being exceedingly ill. Wishing you better, Mark. Take it slow and get yourself fitter. We’ll all be here when you’re ready).

#8. Alan Vega, IT: Alan Vega told this mortal coil to fuck right off last year, punching it in the nose on his way out at the age of 78, aggressive to the very end, despite a stroke some years back that would have felled a weaker, less ornery man. IT provides us with one last collection of rants and horrors from the former Suicide singer, and I think it’s easily his finest work since the original 1977 Suicide album and related era ROIR 1/2 Alive tape. Nobody has ever sounded quite like Suicide, with Vega’s shouted story-telling perfectly balanced (or unbalanced, actually, most of the time) atop Martin Rev’s lo-tech/lo-fi organ and drum synth attack. They were looping and sampling before looping and sampling technology existed, and (as with Queen’s famous Deacy Amp), it’s been virtually impossible since to use high-tech equipment to reproduce Rev’s incredible low-tech accidents, created by necessity and frugality and need, not by wisdom or experience or technical facility. But I’ve got to hand it to Vega’s long-time creative and personal partner, Liz Lamere, because she gets as close to Rev’s original dirty sound as I think you possibly can in the 21st Century, and IT‘s instrumental beds are just absolutely perfect for some of the clearest, cleanest, cleverest, and angriest rants and stories of Vega’s long and storied career. He was a punk before anybody else was a punk, even if he was likely to punch you for calling him that, because he was old enough to know what the word actually meant. Rest in pugilism, Alan. You were one of the greats.

#7. Judy Dyble and Andy Lewis, Summer Dancing: What a delightfully unexpected gem this album was for me this year. Judy Dyble was the first female lead singer of Fairport Convention, was a member of the transitional band between Giles, Giles and Fripp and King Crimson, sang on the Incredible String Band’s most famous cut, “The Minotaur’s Song,” and was just generally in all the places where the cool and happening folks wanted and needed to be for a few seminal years in British music history. And then she disappeared from the public eye, to work, and have a family, and generally get on with her life. As Fairport’s and Crimson’s stature have grown and grown over the years, a lot of early or short-termed members have emerged from the wood-work to trade on their one-time band connections, and I’ve got to say that I find most of the results to be nostalgically nice, but not necessarily musically significant, and my expectations for Dyble’s latest return to recording were low going in because of that general trend. But, wow, I could not have been more wrong, as Summer Dancing is an utterly wonderful album, filled with well-written songs given exceptional arrangements by producer Andy Lewis, perfectly merging the folk traditions in which Dyble’s history is rooted with an eclectic, modern electronic attack that’s timely and timeless. Dyble’s voice remains a warm treat, and her lyrics are thoughtful and whimsical and fun and perceptive. A winning proposition, all around, and I most sincerely hope that it serves to introduce a legendary figure in the evolution of electric folk music to a new generation of listeners, because the sounds of Summer Dancing are just perfectly attuned to appeal to discerning listeners of all ages and interests.

#6. Sun Kil Moon and Jesu, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet EarthThe first Sun Kil Moon/Jesu collaboration blew my freakin’ mind when I first heard it in a record store in Florence, Italy, last year, completely mesmerized by the unexpected clash of sounds and styles that Justin Broadrick (Jesu, and also Godflesh, see above) and Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) offered over that long, glorious album. I knew of and appreciated both artists before then, but hearing them together made me completely reassess their collective bodies of work, and also to marvel at the fact that they found each other, and decided it was a good idea to work together, since on paper, that seemed to be a non-starter clash of styles, and then some. Thankfully, they have decided to extend their collaboration, and we’ve got another fantastic album this year to swoon and marvel over, along with other releases from both artists on their own and with other collaborators. I noted above that Godflesh’s new album seemed to move in a more ambient, reflective, Jesu-like direction than its predecessor, and I’d say that this Jesu/Sun Kil Moon record reflects a similar shift, eschewing some of the grinding, bottom-heavy elements that defined the prior release, and generally emerging with a gentler, more electronic and/or acoustic sound this time around. Kozelek’s personal, observational lyrics remain riveting, as does his vocal delivery. One of this collection’s gems, “You Are Me And I Am You,” literally moved me to tears while I was walking up Michigan Avenue listening on headphones one day, and the aching, heart-felt soul of that track is echoed over and over again throughout this album’s thrilling run. While I’m no longer shocked to hear these geniuses working together, I am still deeply pleased by their collaboration, and hope that it continues in years ahead. They’re doing great work in a variety of outlets, sure, but they seem to be doing their best work together, hitting epic heights that move me to the depths of my soul, no kidding.

#5. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie: I neither understand nor approve of the legal and music industry conventions that allow Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood to record and tour together as “Fleetwood Mac,” while Buckingham, McVie and Fleetwood playing with Christine McVie may not do so . . . but be that as it may, and whatever this record is called, this is the best music anyone associated with Fleetwood Mac have issued since Rumours to Tusk days, no kidding. Buckingham and McVie write and sing gloriously together, and the arrangements and production are as sparkling and meticulous as you’d expect with Lindsey in the producer’s chair. The venerable J. McVie-Fleetwood rhythm section helps out with their customary skill (you don’t necessarily pay active attention to them, but they make everything atop their base sound better, always), and Mitchell Froom is along for the ride to provide supplementary keyboard and occasional production flourish. Buckingham remains one of the greatest guitarists of his era, and his finger-picking leads and swirls are just magical, as is the opportunity to hear him and Christine singing together, his piercing tenor and her dusky alto just as sublime together as they’ve always been. For all of the attention focused on Buckingham and Nicks over the decades, it’s worth noting that Christine McVie actually wrote more Mac hits than the two of them combined, and her melodic sense and skill is in ample force throughout this year. Just a lovely record, all around, from the real Fleetwood Mac, whether they can say so or not.

#4. Pere Ubu, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo: Cleveland’s venerable “avant garage” pioneers remain powerfully relevant and deeply creative on their latest missive from the shores of Lake Erie, which is sadly destined to be the final one engineered by the late Paul Hamman, who has filled that crucial sonic role since 1980, and passed away this fall. But there’s still continuity amidst the changes: the core group of David Thomas, Michele Temple, Robert Wheeler and Steve Mehlman have been playing together for nearly 25 years, and they are joined on this album by Cleveland guitarist Gary Siperko, ex-Swan Kristoff Hahn, long-time Thomas/Ubu collaborator Keith Moline, Graham Dowdell (aka Gagarin) of Nico/Cale band demi-fame, and clarinet player Darryl Boon. A big band, at bottom line, and on fire creatively: this collection of songs is as tight and urgent as anything they’ve done, and the sonic variety possible in such an expanded line-up gives richness and variety to the proceedings in evocative and innovative ways. Ubu Projex (their art and business affairs directory) has been issue vague warnings that this year’s tour (which I saw, and which was great) might mark the last chance to see them live, but by the evidence offered on Missile Silo, Pere Ubu’s innovative approaches to songwriting, arranging, and recording their deeply-rewarding music remain strong, and here’s hoping that the flexibility built in to the growing “Ubu Orchestra” allows us to receive further dispatches from the dense jungle of sonic possibilities that they have hacked with machetes and guitars and analog synths for so long, so well. (Note: Right after I posted this piece, Ubu Projex announced that the schedule West Coast tour dates were cancelled due to Mr Thomas’ health, so I wish him well as I admire his work completed, and anticipate his work yet to come).

#3. Krankschaft, III Mysteries: The world would be a better place if there were more records like this one in it. Krankschaft’s III Mysteries offers punchy British post-glam rock and roll songs, generously sprinkled throughout with all sorts of sparkling sonic filigree, provided to the punter in a beautiful, generous package, filled to the brim (and beyond) with all sorts of brilliantly-designed books and stickers and what-have-yous. The Krankies’ new album also offers deeply engaging story-telling in both its lyrics and its packaging, building on the narrative laid down in their last disc (2014’s Three), wherein three musical youth of the ’70s are transported through time to a grotesquely and absurdly dystopian future, namely right now, this minute, right here. And imagine, if you will, a world where such intrepid time travelers attempt to unravel the mysteries behind their confusing circumstances using the tools available to them, right here, this minute, right now.  Say, Facebook. Or Twitter. Or some other platform rife with inaccuracies and fantasias and gossip and lies and every other form of crazy known to man, woman, God, and Dog. What might they produce? How about eight instant classic cuts covering the spectrum of conspiracies from “Hollow Earth” to “Chem Trails,” from “The Hum” to “The World Is Flat,” and from “Binary Star” to “Interstellar Highway,” which would be Nazca, of course. Given the preponderance of the the third positive cardinal number in their iconography, I presume that it is not a thematic coincidence that there are three musical Krankies in the real world: Steve Pond, Alex Tsentides, and Kevin Walker, supplemented by the very enigmatic Dr Foxon, who makes the art and manages the machines. If they’re stuck in our time for good, then here’s hoping that they keep making brilliant art and music like III Mysteries. And if they do manage to find their way back to the ’70s, then there’s gonna be a great alternative timeline in some multiverse where the likes of Bowie and Bolan, and Heep and Hawkwind, and Roxy and Wizzard and Slade and all the other yoofs gaze admiringly (and enviously) upon The Mighty Krankschaft, who brought the rock and roll back from tomorrow, and made every possible today everywhere better because of it. (Note: This was the final album I received and reviewed this year. I think if I’d had more time with it, it would score even higher in this list. I’ll just jump forward to 2037 to confirm . . . back soon . . . watch this multi-verse for edits . . . )

#2. Wire, Silver/Lead: Released on the 40th anniversary of their first show as a quartet, Silver/Lead has a smoother, cooler, swingier vibe about it than some of their more frantic and metronomic dugga dugga dugga fare. If I had to liken it to any other albums in their high quality, eclectic canon, I’d probably compare it to 1988’s A Bell Is A Cup . . . Until It Is Struck. Both albums are melodic, mid-tempo and accessible on first listen, but rich with weirdness when you dig into them a little deeper. Colin Newman has dominated the vocals on recent Wire albums, so it’s good to hear Graham Lewis more represented in the mix this time; the variety of their voices is appealing when you listen straight through. Lewis’ lyrics are odd and wonderful, as always, though the album has a bit more directness and perhaps even poignancy in some places, with the emotions showing through more than they usually do in Wire’s often detached and icy worldview. I would judge this to be the best offering of the Wire’s current era with Matthew Simms on guitar, and while the inner workings of the band are inscrutable to outsiders, as a longtime (nearly lifetime) listener,  I feel like I’m hearing Simms really blossoming here as a strong creative force within the band. I was glad to have the chance to hear and see Wire tour this album this year, too. They are as potent on stage as they are on disc, and that’s something to celebrate this deep into their careers. Long may they dugga, and swing!

#1. Dälek, Endangered Philosophies: So here we are at the end of my 26th Annual Album of the Year report, and I’m pleased to doff my cap to Dälek, who top my list with the second album of their renaissance era, Endangered Philosophies. When Will Brooks brought Dälek back to action in 2016 with a retooled lineup (featuring DJ Rek and Mike Manteca), I rated the group’s Asphalt for Eden as my #4 album of the year, noting that it was:

“. . . a thrilling addition to their fine body of work, with the usual exceptional (and topical) lyrics delivered atop their signature sonic soundscapes, combining big beats with industrial sounds, chiming and clanging guitar lines, and truly fantastic turntable and sample work. Not to beat a dead horse, but 2016 has been a tough year, and as we look to its end and to what’s coming ahead of us, we really need voices and sounds like those that Dälek are offering us to keep us sharp and sane. There are very few artists whose music challenges me to think as much as Dälek’s does, and I am grateful for that. This is the sound of resistance, and of empowerment, and of strength. Embrace it through the guaranteed struggle ahead.”

You know what? You can change the number “2016” in that review to “2017,” and every single word I wrote then still stands now, while the quality of the message and music that Dälek offer on Endangered Philosophies is even more thrilling and bracing than that appearing on its predecessor disc. There’s a lot of protest and resistance music out and about this year (as there needs to be), but nobody else is offering such smart and topical lyrics, anchored in a deep understanding of the history of constructive social struggle, with such a strikingly unique sound and approach to music-making as what Dälek offer here. Or offer here again, rather, as they’ve been doing what they do for a couple of decades now, fully and faithfully excellent. Dälek don’t sound like anybody else, ever, with Brooks’ stentorian declamations mounted atop fractured and tortured industrial electronic beds that are somehow knit into stately beats, while drones and chimes and harmonics fill the gaps, and ghostly samples enhance the messages, and the whole monolithic thing drags you down and lifts you up at the same time, creating a visceral, vital tension that’s thrilling to behold and experience. Endangered Philosophies is a meaningful masterpiece, at bottom line, and I’m proud to uplift it to you as the very best album I experienced in 2017. Bravo to Brooks and Rek and Manteca. This music matters. You make a difference. Thanks for that.

Hit the image to score my 2017 Album of the Year.

And with that . . . . we’re done with this ongoing project for another year! Here’s hoping that 2018 brings an equal bounty of goodness. I suspect it will. Most years do, if you’re willing to put in the work to find what’s out there. As always, I’m interested in what you think I might have missed and need to hear. Hit me up in the comments . . . I don’t stop listening to 2017 when the ball drops on the year, and I’m always game for a choice pointer or ten . . .

(My) Best Albums of the 21st Century

Having done a Best Movies of the 21st Century list last week, my brain immediately began pondering my other great creative passion: music. I play a lot more songs than I watch films, so crunching sixteen years worth of music down into 25 albums (as I did with the movies) seemed a bit overly reductive, so after cutting and parsing and pasting, I ended up with 64 records, about four per year. That seemed about right. (And it means that if I decide I want to make a tournament out of this at some point, I’ve got the right opening pool).

As noted in the movies post, I’m a calendar pedant, so I note that the 21st Century began on January 1, 2001, not a year earlier. So there are no albums from the year 2000 here. That preamble noted, here’s what I consider the best of the best from my collection, of the pool of albums released from 2001 to 2017, in something approaching alphabetical order. What’s on your own list?

. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes (2002)

Alice Donut, 10 Glorious Animals (2009)

The Black Angels, Phosphene Dream (2010)

Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book (2016)

The Chap, Mega Breakfast (2008)

The Clean, Mister Pop (2009)

Clutch, Robot Hive/Exodus (2005)

COIL, Moon’s Milk (In Four Phases) (2002)

COIL, The Ape of Naples (2005)

Dälek, Absence (2005)

Dälek, Gutter Tactics (2009)

David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)

David Bowie, The Next Day (2013)

Death Grips, Government Plates (2013)

Department of Eagles, The Cold Nose (2007)

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf (2015)

Edan, Beauty and the Beat (2005)

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People (2015)

The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”) (2004)

The Fall, Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)

First Aid Kit, Stay Gold (2014)

Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)

Gangrene, Vodka and Ayahuasca (2012)

Gay Tastee, Songs for the Sodomites (2009)

Goat, World Music (2012)

Golden Suits, Kubla Khan (2016)

The Hanslick Rebellion, the rebellion is here (2005)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship (2012)

Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus (2014)

Japanther, Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart (2013)

Jed Davis, Small Sacrifices Must Be Made (2012)

Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon (2016)

Jonathan Richman, Ishkode! Ishkode! (2016)

Jowe Head and the Demi-Monde, Diabolical Liberties (2010)

The Kamikaze Hearts, Oneida Road (2006)

Korn, The Paradigm Shift (2013)

Max Eider, Hotel Figueroa (2002)

Melvins, (A) Senile Animal (2006)

Melvins, Hold It In (2014)

Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything (2005)

The Monkees, Good Times! (2016)

Mos Def, The Ecstatic (2009)

Moses Hightower, Onnur Mosebok (2012)

Napalm Death, Apex Predator – Easy Meat (2015)

Napalm Death, Time Waits for No Slave (2009)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! (2008)

Pas/Cal, I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke and Laura (2008)

Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full (2007)

Pere Ubu, Why I Hate Women (2006)

Planningtorock, W (2012)

The Residents, Demons Dance Alone (2002)

The Residents, Animal Lover (2005)

Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics (2010)

System of a Down, Toxicity (2001)

Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld, Nerissimo (2016)

Terry Hall and Mushtaq, The Hour of Two Lights (2003)

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion (2015)

Tom Vek, Luck (2014)

The Wasted, We Are Already in Hell (2006)

Ween, Quebec (2003)

Wire, Send (2003)

Wire, Silver/Lead (2017)

Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: Red Classroom (2014)

Best Albums of 2016

With December upon us, it’s officially time for my annual Albums of the Year Report. 2016 marks the 25th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published a report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me at this juncture.

To frame the process: I’m a big believer that the best music ever made is the music being made right now. To believe otherwise is to accept that it’s not worth looking for new music, and I can’t psychologically ken to the fact that music’s best days are behind it. I am confident that there are just as many musical geniuses plying their trades now as there were in days gone by. I view claims to the contrary as nothing more than admissions that the claimant’s musical tastes have ossified, typically (in my experience) around the tunes that defined their teen or college years.

My belief in the value and importance of new music keeps me hungry as I search out new sounds throughout the year. While 2016 has been a traumatic year on many, many fronts — including the loss of certain artists who are featured in the list that follows — I actually found it to be a very good year for new music, with old favorites and newcomers alike challenging me with their latest offerings.

I don’t wait until the very end of the year to do my list, since I think it takes at least a solid month or more of listening before I feel comfortable that something meets both the “strong first impression” and “stands up to repeated listening” tests that I apply in rating albums. Albums released in the last month of the year generally get bumped into the following year’s report accordingly, if they’ve got the legs to last that long.

Before posting this year’s results, I share the following complete reckoning of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2015. With 20/20 hindsight, I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some of the years, but I own my picks as historic facts, stated publicly, for better or for worse.

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: Björk, Post

1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi

1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch

1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac

1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Björk, Vespertine

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Wire, Send

2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)

2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything

2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom

2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Planningtorock, W

2012: Goat, World Music

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Last year, I didn’t feel like I had a single record that was powerfully moving me as an clear cut Album of the Year selection, so I ended up running one of my head-to-head music contests to hone 32 records down to a champion over half-a-dozen blog posts. I have a bit more clarity on the playing field this year, so I’m going to revert to my normal approach and count down from my 30th favorite album of 2016 to my #1 Album of the Year. If you are intrigued by what you read, please support these artists by buying the albums reviewed, and not just chasing down free copies.

Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: the list below is obviously based on the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t choose or get to experience much, and they’re generally not going to be represented in my year-end list. So as much as love dialog and discussion about music, please resist the urge to write me a scathing comment or e-mail telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard whose taste is all in my mouth because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Uruguayan emocore free jazz balalaika and krumhorn skronk collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it. Thank you.

As a final introductory note, for those who have been following my other recent writing project — The Short Story of the Month Series — I’m going to miss a month-end deadline for the first time this year, but will have something up in the next week. My music list is occupying my head space too vigorously right now for me to set it aside and finish a story tonight. Such is my brain, for better or worse.

Okay, all of those preambles done, here’s my picks for The Best Albums of 2016:

#30. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition: Gnarly, ganky, hinky beats topped with ace rhymes and flow delivered in the Detroit native’s distinctive nasal whine. The story and textures here are fine and complex, with fun, furry and fuzzy weirdness and wonders in full effect throughout.

#29. The Veils, Total Depravity: Finn Andrews and crew return with a spooky stew of story-teller songs sprinkled with odd sounds and startling sentiments. Andrews has been cast in the return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and I suspect the types of musical chops and stylistic surrealism displayed here had something to do with that (excellent) decision.

#28. Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Getaway: After parting ways with producer Rick Rubin following a quarter century of collaboration, the Chilis found a perfect new creative foil in Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. All the elements you suspect and expect are here, but the songs are stronger and the sentiments more soulful and (dare I say) grown up than many of those that have come before. I find it comforting to know that the cocks-in-socks boys can still work their magic in middle age with dignity, and with pants. And stop with all the Anthony hate, y’all hipsters. He’s a good and charismatic singer. Really.

#27. Death Grips, Bottomless Pit: Are they broken up? Are they back together? Will they show up for the concert? Do I have to look at their private parts? Are they really a band? Or just some sort of guerrilla art theater happening? Do I care? No. Not really. Death Grips make harrowing noise that moves me, and Bottomless Pit is a great new page in their history, inexplicable as it is. Electronic noise, organic drums, hardcore beats and blasts, and MC Ride’s strident exhortations grab you where it’s not comfortable, and make you pay attention. Yes, sirs. I get it. Thanks for letting us have a little more.

#26. Teleman, Brilliant Sanity: The second full-length record from the artists who used to be (mostly) known as Pete and the Pirates, Brilliant Sanity whips equal measures of sentimental songwriting sweetness with a dash of Kraftwerkian cool, and produces something that’s starkly beautiful and quietly compelling in the process. It’s a rare record that seems so familiar and so strange at the same time.

#25. Gregory Porter, Take Me To The Alley: Speaking of soulful sentiments, the burly be-hatted baritone delivers an awesome collection of original tunes here, all arranged to a tee, all with the sorts of messages that give you hope when the night seems darkest and the world seems meanest. I saw Porter sing the title song of this record in a concert hall in Chicago, and I knew what was happening in the alley just behind the stage. Powerful goodness, done fine and pretty.

#24. Che Guevara T-Shirt, Tsarkoye Selo: It’s a hoary cliche to say that a band sounds like no one else, but in Che Guevara T-Shirt’s case, it’s pretty darn close to the objective truth, since I can’t think of any other bands who consistently play in a drums plus twin baritone guitars lineup. The rumbling tunes are knotty and grindy and grand, the lyrics say a lot with a little, the vocals are plaintive and urgent, and the combined effect of these truly unique and seemingly incongruous splashes is an awe-inspiring, big-picture musical canvas. They deserve to be more widely heard and better known. Do your part.

#23. Ihsahn, Arktis: If you had told me in the early ’90s that not one, but two, members of Norwegian Black Metal pioneers Emperor would end up on my 2016 Best Albums List, I’d have been impressed that you had any idea who they were, and then told you that you were an idiot. But, here we are, it’s 2016, and Emperor singer-guitarist Ihsahn has emerged as a prog-metal, string-shredding metal demigod, delivering a concept album album about the travails of polar exploration. And it’s really, really good. Review executive summary: Huh!

#22. Santigold, 99 Cents: Santigold was Santogold when her fantastic debut album appeared high on my 2008 Best Albums list. It took her four years to get the sophomore disc out, and it seemed to these ears like a slump, alas. But four more years on, Santi White is back, and her magical musical mojo is working like mad on this collection of songs that range from cleverly infectious to infectiously clever and back again. Plus you can dance to it. Danger, earworms! And brain pokes! And those things are very good together, again! Huttah!

#21. Prinze George, Illiterate Synth Pop: This she-she-he Maryland-based trio (yes, if you know the Old Line State, they’re from that county) make smart and stylish pop music that avoids so much of the twee sterility and digital dullness that I’ve come to associate with the waves of female-fronted electronic acts that throw themselves on our nation’s cultural beaches with every-increasing frequency. If that sounds like it’s damning them with faint praise, it’s not: I think that’s a very hard thing to do well, and Prinze George do it with style, panache, and killer hooks.

#20. Goblin Cock, Necronomidonkeykongimicon: Chalk this one up on 2016’s “unexpected thrills” blackboard. Pinback leader Rob Crow issued two great records using the Goblin Cock moniker in 2005 and 2008, under his alter-ego guise as Lord Phallus. While you might read that sentence and snidely think “ha ha” or “novelty band” or “joke metal” or “Tenacious D” or other such similar sentiments, let me tell you that those records were fantastically well-written, played and sung melodic metal music — and that this latest addition to the Goblin Codex is just as engaging and entertaining and worthy of your collecting consideration. Frank Zappa already showed us how to be serious and have fun at the same time. Weren’t you paying attention?

#19. Gojira, Magma: In which two French brothers form a grinding and guttural two-guitar metal band of an early-Sepultura stripe and name it after a Japanese monster — not really a recipe for success on paper — then mature a bit, hone their chops, face the life-altering experience of losing their mother, and produce a really strong 2016 album filled with massive waves of clean vocals, dynamite dynamics, precision drill playing, and meaningful messages galore. Who knew? One of the most unexpectedly fine records of the year from a group I didn’t really think I liked very much. Now I do, a lot. Quelle belle surprise!

#18. The Body, No One Deserves Happiness: This record is a grinding, painful sprawl of musical duress, and I mean that as a very sincere compliment. The title pretty much lays out the underlying emotional credo here, so don’t come knocking if you’re seeking a remedy from the pain that ails you. But if you want to find that special sacred spot where horror and beauty get just close enough that you can see the sparks they strike together, anti-matter explosion style, then The Body might just have what you want and need. Imagine a stew of Lightning Bolt, early Swans and Neurosis for the general flavor. It’s strong. Do not operate heavy equipment under the influence. This is heavy equipment enough on its own.

#17. Mind Spiders, Prosthesis: Analog-synth fueled skuzzy racket rock from a revolving cast of Northeast Texas regulars that reminds me of the woefully under-appreciated Six Finger Satellite, who are so obscure that you probably have no idea who I’m talking about, and therefore get nothing useful out of this comparison. Bad music critic! But you can take this opportunity to embrace a double-duty homework assignment here: go listen to both Mind Spiders and Six Finger Satellite right now. See what I’m talking about? It’s real good, isn’t it? Yeah. That’s the ticket. Mission accomplished, with phat sounds, killer drums, and sonic squiggles for everyone!

#16. Korn, The Serenity of Suffering: Hey hipsters and cool kids, you know how I said a little while ago to knock it off with the reactive Anthony Kiedis hate? Same thing applies with Korn. Stop it! Right now! Yeah, their public persona and appearance (and huge commercial success) might be anathema to the double-wide stroller, homburg hat and kombucha tea crowd, but you know what you’re getting on a Korn record, and they do Korn better than anybody else does Korn, and what they do is grabby and engaging and sounds damn good at high volume, if you give it a chance. Them down-tuned seven strings and that slappy bass and Jonathan Davis’ vocal stylings all satisfy, and the myriad contradictions of their lifestyles and religion and fan base and whatever else you want to offer as argument are part of what make them what they are. Which is a great band, especially with Ray Luzier behind the drums. Embrace the inevitable, predictable, and very tasty goodness of what they do, and stop blaming them for Fred Durst. We all make mistakes. Forgiveness is divine. Ask Head.

#15. Merchandise, A Corpse Wired For Sound: Arty art rock (on 4AD, no less!) from Tampa Bay (!) that blends an early Echo and the Bunnymen vibe with some Bauhausey elements and a bit of shoegaze and a dash of Britpop and a jigger of studio jiggery-pokery and processes it all through the sorts of pedal effects found in the back of obscure electronics magazines to produce a sonic whole that evokes a whole world of things that you can’t quite put your finger on. Spacious and claustrophobic in equal measure, A Corpse Wired for Sound features an aural wobbliness and conceptual wonkiness that’s exhilarating and  unsettling, all at once. And did I mention 4AD? And Tampa? My work is done here.

#14. Mortiis, The Great Deceiver: In which the unexpected second  founding member of Norwegian Black Metal pioneers Emperor appears in my 2016 best album list. And when I say “unexpected” here, I mean “holy krow really this is mortiis zomfg no way whoa dude get out no way” levels of unexpected. Mortiis’ time with Emperor was brief, and his solo career to date has been a bit odd and erratic, as has his public persona. (Look him up, with images; yes, those are goblin ears and yes, that’s a goblin nose and no, I don’t know why). So where the hell did The Great Deceiver come from?  Great goodly-moogly, Wotan, I have no idea! Eschewing any wifty forest goblin dark ambient nonsense, this record offers punchy  industrial metal with crazy catchy singalong bits and crazy infectious metal riffery and crazy tight production and, uh, just a lot of crazy good crazy cray cray, all around. Might we have more of this please, Mortiis? And soon?

#13. Quilt, Plaza: A lovely collection of tunes by a talented young quartet who create a positive sense of universal essence in their music, in the sense that the sounds on this record touch the parts of your brain that make you think you’ve always lived with these songs, after a single listen. There’s no mimicry, nor any plagiarism, nor any lack of originality, just a powerful sense of familiarity and comfort that instantly ingratiates and pleases, most potently. Lovely, warm, inviting, engaging, and timeless in the best sense of the word. In fact, I’ve been listening to Plaza since I was 13 years old, come to think of it. Remember that dance in ’78 when we . . . well . . . maybe that’s for another time, huh? Man. Those were the days. I’m sure glad Quilt’s still doing what they do. They’re the sound of always.

#12: The Dean Ween Group, The Deaner AlbumI really, really, really have to resist the urge here to just type DEANER!! DEANER!!!!! DEANER!!!!!! over and over again in this review blurb. DEANER MADE A RECORD!!! DEANER!!! DEANER DID IT!!!!! We now have great solo records from both halves of Ween, and they’re playing together live again, so on some plane, this is the best of all possible worlds. DEANER!!! YAY DEANER!!! DEANER IS THE EXERCISE MAN!!!!! Dean Ween has always been a fantastic guitarist, and the songs here are accessible and goofy and fun, with nary a shred of political correctness, but copious portions of love and respect for the great guitarists who inspire, and , um, uh, perfectly suited to, uh, that which is . . . oh, what the hell, why resist . . . DEANER!!! DEANER!!! DEANER!!!!! WE LOVE DEANER!!! OMGF DEANER!!!!! DEANER MADE HIS RECORD!!! DEANER!!!!

#11. Nails, You Will Never Be One of Us: This album by a trio of headbangers from Oxnard Cali packs 10 songs into 21 minutes, and one of them is eight minutes long, so that should give you a sense of the short, sharp punches that the rest of the cuts provide. Except that “sharp” is probably too mild a word: something like “bludgeoning” or “punishing” or “terrifying” or all of them combined is closer to the real auditory experience. In fact, I would rate the title track of this record, all 90 seconds of it, among the most brutal, hardcore, awesome, ass-kicking, double-plus metal moments of the year. The riffage is crushing. The shreddage is grinding. The shoutage is punishing. Fantastic, potent, power-violence distilled multiple times into pure, refined essence of pummeling. I likes it, yes sir, I do. No wasted time, no surplus effort, just get in, kick everybody’s ass, and call it a night.

#10. King Crimson, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey MindIf you enter “King Crimson” in the search block of my blog, it returns 30-some pages worth of worship, so Robert Fripp’s on-again/off-again musical beastie sits heavy in my musical makeup. King Crimson Mk VII — also dubbed “The Seven Headed Beast of Crim” — is the first in the group’s history to present all stages of the group’s tortuous personnel and creative history into their concert canon, and Holy Moly, do they do it justice. This album is a three-disc set of the finest moments of the group’s first two years of touring (Marcia and I saw one of the shows in Chicago, before we lived here), played and recorded amazingly well, with audience noise edited out. It’s a delight to hear both new and classic songs rearranged for Mk VII’s triple drum, double guitar, reeds and bass lineup. King Crimson’s catalog is like the progressive rock version of the Great American Songbook, with amazingly well-composed pieces that can thrive in a variety of arrangements, and allow players to shine in both ensemble and solo performances, playing parts that may or may not have been written with their instruments in mind. That solo used to be played on a violin? Well, now we’re gonna do it on a sax. And it still works, grandly well. I truly believe that some of these songs will be played on stages 200 years from now, as representative examples of the art of composition in and beyond their native time and place. This is a truly great introduction for new King Crimson listeners, and for long-standing Crimbo Anoraks like me, you can never have too many versions of “Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part 2,” now can you?

#9. Wire, Nocturnal Koreans: I can’t tell you without checking just how many albums Wire have put over the 25 years that I’ve been doing these sorts of lists — but I can tell you that every one of them has appeared in the list of my faves in the years that they’ve been released. I’m not sure that there’s any other act as prolific as Wire (when they’re working together; sometimes they don’t) who have managed to move me so consistently over that time span. Nocturnal Koreans was presented as an adjunct or supplement to last year’s self-titled disc, ostensibly offering some of the weirder or eccentric bits that didn’t fit in the flow of the predecessor record. It’s got all of the cool guitar interplay, just-so metronomic drums, punchy dubby bass parts, and arch/wry (Colin Newman) or stern/spooky (Graham Lewis) vocals that almost all other Wire albums have, along with some new touches (trumpet!) and textures. No matter how many times you hear or see the basic formula unfurled, it remains fresh and distinctive and thought-provoking, lyrically, musically, and conceptually. Rarely have grooves seemed so smart. Rarely have smarts rocked so hard. Bravo, Wire! Long may you dugga! Long may you drill!

#8. The Monkees, Good Times!: Given this album’s provenance (a mix of updated cutting room floor relics from the ’60s and for-hire songs from a collection of hip contemporary writers), and the fact that the unjustly-dubbed “Pre-Fab Four” are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, listeners could have been forgiven for expecting the outcome of this project to be something of a train wreck. But the reality couldn’t be further from that low expectation: Good Times! is almost impossibly well played and sung (studio pros and Messrs Tork, Nesmith and Dolenz all do their parts), improbably fresh and current sounding, and incredibly engaging and endearing. There’s not a dud song in the mix, and even poor deceased David Jones gets a solo spot on a lost Neil Diamond tune that sounds exactly like what a lost Neil Diamond tune sung by David Jones should sound like. Dolenz takes most of the lead vocals throughout the album’s run, which is as it should be, since he really is voice you hear in your head when you think “Monkees,” but I find the Tork and Nesmith spotlight numbers to be among the record’s highlights, and it’s a delight to hear the three old colleagues working so well together on a single record again. You’d be hard pressed to find a more fun album in this darkest of years, so I highly recommend it if you need a pick-me-up in the face of current events, or are shattered by one too many spins through The Body’s No One Deserves Happiness.

#7. School of Seven Bells, SVIIBAn incredibly uplifting album created under the darkest of circumstances. Main musical Bell Benjamin Curtis (ex-Secret Machines) died terribly young of lymphoma in 2013. His musical and ex-personal partner, Alejandra Deheza, worked to complete an album of songs she’d written with Curtis before his passing, and SVIIB is the delightful and honestly unexpected result of that commitment to closure. While there are senses of loss, longing, pain, and passion pervading the album, it’s not a dire travelogue through the process of dying, nor a cathartic house-cleaning, nor a “woe is me, I’m left behind” missive that places the surviving member in a staring role in the story of the member who flew away. It’s ultimately just a collection of really soaring and transcendent songs about love and life, with “Ablaze” especially standing out as one of the most perfect pop culture moments of the year. Bittersweet, yes, but in the end, it’s the sweetness that endures and empowers. A lovely labor of love that I love.

#6. Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld, Nerissimo: Blixa Bargeld made his name as a noisy motive engine in Einsturzende Neubauten and Nick Cave’s early Bad Seeds, and Teho Teardo is best known on these shores for his work with ’90s indie metal noise monsters Meathead. So when you put them together and have them make a record, it’s most likely to be an explosion of grinding noise and industrial samples and shrieked vocals and clattering cans, right? Maybe sometimes, but not this time, not at all: Nerissimo is a beautiful album, with a nearly symphonic score, subtle electronics, and some of Blixa’s most evocative vocals and lyrics, which is truly saying something. The title track (which roughly translates to “the most black”) is offered in both Italian and English versions, and it’s a joy to hear the piece both when you know what der Bargeld is saying, and when you hear his voice as an instrument without specific word-for-word meaning. While I’d be delighted to have a new Neubauten album at some point, if that group has banged its final can, it’s wonderful to know that Blixa has found another truly sympathetic collaborator who can bring his remarkable visions to florid musical fruition.

#5. Jonathan Richman, Ishkode! Ishkode!While Jonathan Richman is certainly among the longest performing and likely best known names (well, among music nerds anyway) on this year’s list, Ishkode! Ishkode! may be among its most hard-to-score albums. Jojo is notoriously anti-technological, so his latest disc doesn’t readily appear on the usual online record-selling portals, slipping out instead via cool brick and mortar-based Blue Arrow Records’ house label with little fanfare or fuss. But, boy oh boy, is it worth tracking down and nabbing, as it contains 11 utterly charming songs that touch almost of all of Richman’s signature quirks and concerns, along with a boodle of new touches and tics to keep things exciting. The songs are whimsical and wonderful with delicious lyrical turns of phrase and gushing confessional moments balanced with tender paeans to a variety of loves, most sung in English, but with snatches and fragments of the Romance languages Jojo enjoys mixed in for fun and variety. Longtime drummer Tommy Larkins ably supports Richman’s usual vocal and acoustic guitar (gentle) attack, and a collection of female voices and additional instrumentation enriches the textures, though I have no idea who provides them. He’s not prolific, is Jonathan Richman, but he’s damn good at what he does, and still getting better all the time, based on the evidence of Ishkode!  Ishkode!

#4. Dälek, Asphalt for EdenI’ve written about Dälek a fair amount here over the years, and three of their records have prominent spots on my all time favorite album list, more than all but a few other acts can claim in my personal canon of musical loves. Fronted by Newark, New Jersey’s Will Brooks, the group had gone mostly quiet since 2009’s utterly epic Gutter Tactics, so I was well and truly stoked when I learned that a re-tooled lineup of the trio would be returning to action this year. The resulting long player is a thrilling addition to their fine body of work, with the usual exceptional (and topical) lyrics delivered atop their signature sonic soundscapes, combining big beats with industrial sounds, chiming and clanging guitar lines, and truly fantastic turntable and sample work. Not to beat a dead horse, but 2016 has been a tough year, and as we look to its end and to what’s coming ahead of us, we really need voices and sounds like those that Dälek are offering us to keep us sharp and sane. There are very few artists whose music challenges me to think as much as Dälek’s does, and I am grateful for that. This is the sound of resistance, and of empowerment, and of strength. Embrace it through the guaranteed struggle ahead.

#3. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: I can cite half a dozen times in my life when I’ve been stopped flat in my tracks in public by unexpectedly hearing something so insanely good, different and original that it has changed the way I perceive music from that point forward. Like the first time I heard the guitar solo on Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” on WLIR while riding a school bus, for instance, or the first time I heard Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” on WBRU in a record store in Newport, Rhode Island. (Don’t hate, hipsters, that was mind-blowingly different song in its day, before it permanently changed the ways we hear and appreciate drums). I had one of those transformative musical moments last summer in Florence, Italy, when I went into a local record shop (remember those?) to try to score some contemporary Italian music, and heard the song “Good Morning My Love” from this disc cranking as I closed the door behind me. I had no idea who it was, but I stood still and listened to every word and every chord until it was over, and it totally rocked my world. I’ve known Jesu mainman Justin Broadrick’s work for many years, through his time with Napalm Death, Head of David and Godflesh (whose last album was a #2 here on my 2014 list), but I’ve been less actively attuned to Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek since way back in the days when he fronted Red House Painters, who I liked, but hadn’t really thought about in a long, long time. Together on this record, though, Kozelek and Broadrick tapped something primal for me, fitting perfectly into an amazing spot where epic story-telling unfolds over patient, anthemic, down-tuned guitar washes, filling a niche that I didn’t know needed filling, but which now I can’t imagine ever having empty again. On the gentler side, “Fragile” is the most perfect, sweet, honest and well-crafted homage to the great Chris Squire that I could image. Sublime. This collaboration has inspired me to work backward through both gents’ catalogs, and that has been highly rewarding. I didn’t get any contemporary Italian music in Florence that day, but I got this, and that changed everything. I need to walk into record stores more often, clearly.

#2. Chance The Rapper, Coloring BookIt has been an unexpected delight to be living in Chicago through the ascendancy of Chance the Rapper, first with his Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment group outing, and now with his third self-directed album. He’s a formidable talent on all fronts, dazzling with vocal prowess, lyrical skill, and uncanny arranging and collaborative abilities that leave his songs sounding rich and luscious like few things on the market in the sample, soundbite, and ProTool era. I’m also awed and encouraged to see the care that Chance puts back into his home community, and am deeply impressed by his business acumen, as he appears to have forged an amazing career playing solely by his own rules, record label and music industry be damned. Coloring Book is a close-to-perfect album, and as a devotee of both hip-hop and classic gospel music, I think it’s the best crossover between those deeply spiritual and powerful genres that I’ve yet to hear, or expect to hear in the future, at least until Chance decides to drop another disc. In most years, Coloring Book would have been a clear Album of the Year for me, so fine are its form, function, fashion, finesse, and well-deserved fame. But 2016 is not most years . . . not by a long shot . . .

#1. 2016’s Album of the Year: David Bowie, Blackstar: What else could it be, really? I gave Bowie’s The Next Day Album Of The Year honors in 2013, awed by the quality of that record, that awe then further compounded by its completely unexpected emergence with little of the usual advance media and marketing nonsense surrounding it. What a joy it was to know that the great one had been working in secret to share this new gem with us! And, glory, how great it was, reminding us of just how much we had missed him during his silent decade. And then . . . and then . . . and then . . . we got another disc in 2016, and just as we heard it for the first time, and we realized that he had given us yet another sublime masterpiece, we learned that David had kept another great secret from us, and that we would be missing him again, forever, his final work to tweak our expectations in a completely new fashion, as he done so, so many times before, but not like this. Marcia and I actually put Blackstar on the stereo the night we got it, and laid in bed together and listened to it, beginning to end, something that we rarely do, for any artist, for any album, for any reason. He, and it, were that special and exciting to us. Katelin posted on her Facebook page that same night that she felt awed to live in a time when David Bowie was actively making some of his best music ever, since he’d been such an important part of her own musical interests and history over the years. And then we woke up the next day to learn that he had died. I don’t normally get emotional about the loss of people I don’t know personally, but I can say that this passing probably moved me more than that of any other non-friend or family member in my adult life (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, damn you, 2016!), and that feeling lasted for a long time. So the circumstances surrounding Blackstar certainly make it resonate strongly, but that wouldn’t be enough to make me name it my Album Of The Year if is wasn’t a masterpiece, too. It is, though, truly. What a great gift to balance such a great loss at the beginning of the year. I remain cautiously hopeful that other moments of darkness in this year and the years to come may also eventually be assuaged by beauty and artistry like this magnificent, luminous, shining and inspirational creative jewel. Sometimes we achieve our greatest triumphs when we face our darkest days. Blackstar, guide us home. Amen.

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