Top 20 Albums of 2014

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but amazingly enough, it’s December 1st already, and that means it’s time for the 23rd annual installment of my Albums of the Year report to fall out of my brain, and onto your screens.

For the record, 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 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. Discs issued in December 2014 will be eligible for 2015’s Top 20 List, accordingly. I expect to see brand new discs from Max Eider and AC/DC ranking highly there, since they missed this year’s deadline.

If you’d like some preview perspective on what you might expect to see on the 2014 roster, here is the complete list of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2013, as reported in a variety of print and digital outlets along the way. I don’t know what I was thinking in some of those years, but I stand by my picks as historic facts, 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

On a macro basis, 2014 felt like a very invigorating musical year for me, with old favorites and newcomers alike challenging me with bracing, exciting, interesting tunes and textures from places expected and places heretofore unexplored. I consider it a good sign when I have to work to cut my first list of contending albums back just to get 20 finalists, and when my Top 20 contains one or more (preferably the latter) artists who I had never even heard of 12 months ago. Both of those criteria are met in my 2014 Top 20 List, so I feel very good about that, indeed.

I’m going to repeat last year’s approach and do an inverted countdown from my 20th favorite album of 2014 to my Number One (With A Bullet), just to build suspense for you and me alike, since I’ve got a couple of possible contenders rattling around in my head for Album of the Year, and it’s helpful for me to sneak up on them from behind, rather than shooting them dead up front and then fleshing out the appetizer courses. I’m also going to provide a link to what I consider to be the best, signature and/or most representative song from each album, to help you consider them more completely. If you like what you hear, 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 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 Bolivian queercore free jazz ukulele and church bell skronk collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it. Thank you.

Those preambles completed, let’s get on with the list!

#20. Carla Bozulich, Boy: Bozulich earned “Album of the Year” honors from me in 1997 with the extraordinary Geraldine Fibbers, and since that time, she’s continued to make raw, literate, discomforting music with a plethora of collaborators in a variety of creative configurations. Bozulich refers to Boy as her “pop album,” though woe unto he or she who is misled by what that phrase might mean to someone as creative as Carla. I would simply cite Boy as the best thing she has done since the Fibbers’ masterful Butch, full props scored for highly effective and creative writing, playing, singing and arranging throughout this strong solo disc. Best Track: One Hard Man.

#19. Noura Mint Seymali, Tzenni: Noura Mint Seymali is a new artist to me in 2014, with her wonderful third album Tzenni offering a great blend of pan-continental North African melodies that highlight her Mauritanian griot-trained voice, her work on the ardine (a nine-string harp), and the awesome guitar of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chigaly, who adapts his axe to the tunings and phrasings of the traditional Mauritanian tidinit. Few blends of Western rhythms and African melodies work as well as this one does by embracing the best facets of multiple musical traditions. Best Track: Tzenni.

#18. Triptykon, Melana Chasmata: The erstwhile Tom G. Warrior (now generally using his real name: Thomas Gabriel Fischer) has moved on from Hellhammer to Celtic Frost to Triptykon over the past three decades, but his stock in trade remains fairly constant: smart, potent, theatrical death metal, leavened with enough experimentation and ornamentation to keep it consistently interesting, both in terms of any given albums’ arc, and across the full spectrum of his career. The second full-length release under the Triptykon moniker is one of Fischer’s best works ever, perfectly suited to the H.R. Giger biomechanoid adorning its cover, with equal blends of sheen and squalor restlessly set aside each other, squirming. Best Track: Tree of Suffocating Souls.

#17. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2: This is one of those rare albums that seems truly, madly, deeply larger than life, in all measurable (and some unimaginable) ways. Its narrative is epically lurid, for example, with its stories spat in language that could make Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Millie Jackson blush. Its beats are huge, chewing up 808s and guitars and sirens and cement mixers and shotgun blasts and concussing them back out at General Noriega-torturing levels. Legacy and provenance are utterly impeccable, with Killer Mike and El-P bringing their genealogical connections to the best of both Atlanta and New York underground hip hop, and guest spots by the likes of Zack de la Rocha, James McNew, Ikey Owens and Matt Sweeney expanding the family tree to include most everything that mattered musically in American for most of the past two decades. Oh, and it’s also incredibly, unbelievably, over-the-top fun, it has a good beat that you can dance to. Sold! Best Track: Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck) NSFW.

#16. TEEN, The Way and Color: TEEN take their name from singer-guitarist-songwriter Christine “Teeny” Lieberson, who made her mark with indie hotshots Here We Go Magic before heading out to form this band with her two sisters to play her own songs. TEEN evoke a 2010-take on the sorts of loop-based funky femme-friendly pop that Luscious Jackson once offered, though the songs on The Way and Color tend to be a bit richer and more satisfying than their forebears’ work, grabbing your attention first on surface shine alone, then unexpectedly impressing you once you peel the price tags off and take ’em for a serious spin. Best Track: Rose 4 U.

#15. Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: Red Classroom: Following his surprising 2013 Nina Simone tribute album, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart returns to his usual self-penned theatrical psychodramas on this disc, delivering the goods at something close to the top of his game in terms of material consistency, creepiness, creativity and claustrophobia. And as if the graphic narratives of his best songs aren’t already chilling and explicit enough, Stewart supplemented Angel Guts: Red Classroom with a series of expository videos, some of which could not be released through traditional musical outlets, rather finding their hosted homes on hardcore horror or pornographic websites. As odd as it is to follow those sentences with this sentiment, this record actually constitutes one of the most musically accessible and consistent collections in the Xiu Xiu canon, so if you’re new to the Stewart milieu, this is a very good place to start exploring this terrifically difficult, monstrously rewarding artist’s efforts. Best Track: Stupid in the Dark NSFW.

#14. Thurston Moore, The Best Day: Man, oh man, did I want to hate this album before I’d heard it! I had given up on Sonic Youth after Sister circa 1987, I can’t stand Thurston Moore being trendily trotted out to offer his often insipid insights in every rock documentary about every band who recorded anything, ever, in the ’80s and ’90s, and the tawdry other woman tale that ended Moore’s too-hip marriage to Kim Gordon read like a road map to everything I hate about many men my own age. So when the title track of this disc first floated out online, I hit “play” to give myself something to be happily unhappy about . . . except that I ended up being unhappily happy with what a great song I heard instead. Dammit!! Don’t do that, Thurston Moore!! That’s just not right!!! And then the rest of the album came out, and, oh man . . . it was great too, like Sonic Youth with all the annoying bits edited out!! God, I hate it when that happens! Grrrr! Best Track: The Best Day.

#13. Sleaford Mods, Divide and Exit: This very English duo sound like a cross between The Streets and Can, or Suicide with a sense of humor, or Mark E. Smith soloing with a Casiotone, with heavily accented (East Midlands, according to Wikipedia, though this subtlety was lost on me), often hysterical, highly observational lyrics being spouted atop minimalist metronomic grooves, creating a whole that’s far more entertaining than you’d expect from the sum of the admittedly limited parts. A little of this sort of thing normally goes a long, long way, but Sleaford Mods are so good at what they do (and so prolific!) that whole afternoons can disappear in a haze of grumpy grooves, hey presto, before you know what hit you. Best Track: Tied Up in Nottz NSFW.

#12. Ought, More Than Any Other Day: This is a surprisingly weird, unique, and effective album that belies its perpetrators’ relative youth and musical inexperience. The Montreal-based band’s debut album offers a fascinating blend of seemingly unmixable elements, ranging from Television-style guitar noodling through to atonal rhythmic lurches of a This Heat variety, from itchy funk fugues that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Talking Heads’ early albums through to Velvety violin drones, and from speak-sing sermons cut from Violent Femme fabric through to straight-up gorgeous Big Star-style songs with catchy choruses and oddly anthemic overtones. And they do all of that in the space of but eight songs. Impressive! Best Track: Around Again.

#11. Aloe Blacc, Lift Your Spirit: I had picked Aloe Blacc’s Good Things as one of my best albums of 2010, and I kept listening to that engaging disc for the ensuing couple of years, having no idea that Blacc went on to achieve a significant level of creative and commercial success as a singer, songwriter and producer in pop circles, where I rarely dabble. Imagine my (very pleasant) surprise when I was watching the Super Bowl in early 2014, where two of the biggest commercial roll-outs of the broadcast featured his songs. Huh! Go figure!  Someone I like got popular! Hooray! Lift Your Spirit builds on the many strengths evident on Good Things, with strong, often-inspirational songs framed in gorgeous arrangements all but guaranteed to render them ear worms in single listens, and favorites upon repeated spins. It’s nice to like something this nice sometimes, you know what I mean? Best Track: Wake Me Up (Acoustic).

#10. Goat, Commune: Two years after they earned my Album of the Year honors in 2012 for World Music, anonymous Swedish septet Goat return with their one-of-a-kind blend of voodoo magic, psychedelic grooves, shrieked female vocals, and absurd Arctic Circle back story intact, creating another wonderfully loopy record in the process. There’s a bit more percolating programming on Commune than on World Music, as well as some jolly fun Jim Morrison-style male vocals adding variety to the deliciously delirious mix. While the element of surprise in their music could never be as strong on their sophomore disc as it was on their debut, Goat certainly demonstrate that they’ve got the chops and the chutzpah to stick to their musical guns, and are happy to aim them at new targets in 2014. I’ll take that, happily. Best Track: Gathering of Ancient Tribes.

#9. Pere Ubu, Carnival of Souls: I’ve been writing rave reviews of Pere Ubu albums for as long as I’ve been writing about music, period, so I was particularly amused by Ubu guitarist Keith Moline’s “Review of Pere Ubu Reviewers,” which was published shortly before Carnival of Souls was released. As a very experienced Ubu critic, I’m pretty much guilty again and again of everything that Moline observes, so with no small amount of shame (or is this pride I feel?), I will duly note that this new Pere Ubu album is the best album they’ve done since the last best album they did, and also make reference to their first best album, The Modern Dance, and their best best album, Dub Housing, and then conclude by noting that I mean all of this more now than I have ever meant it before, when I had yet to experience this last best Ubu album, because that is what we very experienced Ubu critics do. My work here is done. Excelsior! Best Track: Golden Surf II.

#8. Melvins, Hold It In: I noted in last year’s Best Albums report that Melvins regularly win perversity awards for doing things like, oh, say, bringing back their original drummer and pushing their brilliant current drummer over the bass for a collection of reinterpretations of early materials (which they did last year) or, say again, bringing in the guitarist and bassist from Butthole Surfers (Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus, respectively) and letting them write and sing a majority of the songs on a new album — which is what they’ve done with their latest, Hold It In. This fluid approach to band membership works weirdly well, once again, though in shockingly unexpected ways, many of them surprisingly poppy and accessible, when casual expectations would have indicated this one was gonna be a massive sludge fest. Paul Leary is among my Holy High Trinity of Lead Guitarists (along with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour), and Jeff Pinkus is one of the most under-appreciated bassists currently slinging an axe, so getting to hear their exquisite talents alongside the always-appealing Buzz Osborn and Dale Crover’s fare was one of the most exciting musical developments of 2014 for me. I literally got goosebumps the first time I heard Leary’s distinctive shriek atop the quartet’s rumbles on teaser single “Brass Cupcake,” and was also happy to hear how much Pinkus added to the mix as both vocalist and riff-meister, leading a lot of this album to sound like his own wondrous band, Honky. Pinkus is touring with Melvins this year, while Leary is staying home, hopefully to pen another set of songs for the next Melvins/Surfers album, though I doubt their perverse natures will allow it to come to pass anytime soon, until long after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to hear it, leading to more squeals of unexpected surprise and delight when it finally sees the light of day. Best Track: Brass Cupcake

#7. FREEMAN, FREEMAN: I have an embarrassing confession to make: when Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman to his wife and mother) left the mighty Ween a few years back, then issued press statements citing his search for sobriety and dedication to detox as deciding factors in said decision, then released a wan cover album of Rod McKuen songs, I found myself thinking he was really just being a wuss, and rooting mightily for his former partner in crime, Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo) and the other live members of Ween to carry on their band’s awesome legacy of substance-fueled, hilariously observational, brilliantly played rock and roll, despite that damnable defection. Then this album by Aaron Freeman and his new band came out, and I sort of consciously realized that (a) Freeman was the primary songwriter for Ween, and (b) most of their awesome vocals were his, and (c) it’s actually not very wussy at all to walk away from something huge to get healthy, if that’s what has to happen to get the job done. So now I kind of find myself feeling bad for Deaner, since based on the brilliance of FREEMAN, I think he’s probably lost his meal ticket, and he seems like such a fun, good dude and righteous guitar player. Hopefully his own Dean Ween Group can make an album as good as this one, and then I’ll have two great bands to root for . . . but I’m regretfully not optimistic about that happening, alas and I’m sorry. Oh well. If FREEMAN is all we get, post-Ween, then it’ll be enough, since it’s a wonderfully accessible disc of great songs, played and sung well, and Aaron Freeman gets a Gold Star for Huge Clanking Man Stones for explicitly tackling his final days in Ween with the harrowing “Covert Discretion,” one of the best getting-clean songs ever written, period. Well played, Gener . . . errrr, Aaron. Well played, indeed. Best Track: Covert Discretion NSFW.

#6. Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right: Protomartyr are a Detroit-bred and based quartet who manage to make a standard rock vocal-guitar-bass-drum lineup sound like something much bigger, far scarier, more complicated, and wildly colorful than 98% of their similarly-configured peers. They achieve the leap from stock post-rock fare into transcendent music making on the strength of their songs, the creativity of their lyrics, and the forcefulness with which they ply their knotty musical waters, with baritone belter Joe Casey shouting into the darkness around them, while his bandmates triangulate complex navigational passages from the strength of his echoes. Protomartyr’s music is dark, yes, and reflective of the dying urban environment in which they live and work, filled as it with damaged characters who become fascinating via the myriad ways in which they’re broken. Under Color of Official Right ultimately feels like an album of anthems to anomie and atomization, and the clarity and consistency of its creators collective visions makes it one of the finest American rock albums released this year. Best Track: Ain’t So Simple.

#5. Krankschaft, Three: I wrote a long review of this album a few weeks ago, so rather than regurgitating (much), I’ll just point you to it, here. At bottom line: this is rock and roll music the way it used to be (and is probably meant to be), with great riffs, stellar arrangements and production, catchy singalong songs, superb packaging that’s integral to the musical experience, and slamming four-on-the-floor grooves from a three-piece band that knows how to steer well clear of power trio tropes and their related pitfalls. I love the BLANGA style, and this album delivers it by the bucketful. Aces, all around. What else can you ask for? Best Track: Silent Witness.

#4. Vulkano, Live Wild Die Free: It was apparently a very good year in Sweden for the types of music I like, as this is the second group hailing from that nation to make an appearance on my Top 20 Albums of 2014 list, with one more yet to come. Vulkano are an eccentrically weird, yet oddly earnest, pair of young women named Lisa Pyk-Wirström and Cissi Efraimsson, who make drum and keyboard intensive music that evokes the not-quite-right whimsy of early Sugarcubes, complete with quirky vocals, cheesy synth pads, and delightfully garbled English lyrics. They’re apparently charming and magnetic enough to have already inspired a feature-length biographical film treatment called All We Have is Now, and their online presence makes it clear that they have the drive — and the talent — to make it in the big world beyond Scandinavia. I’m a believer, for sure, as I’ve been rocking this record hard since its release — and watching pretty much everyone who hears it stop, pause, and ask me to tell them more about it. That effective blend of the appealing and the eccentric can be magic, and I look forward to hearing their next steps, while wholly appreciating the one they took this year. Best Track: Choir of Wolves.

#3. Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus: With his latest solo album, Ian Anderson officially put Jethro Tull to bed as a band, while continuing to make music with the quarter of musicians who have accompanied him on most of his tours and studio outings for the past decade. He seems to have found that freedom creatively liberating, as Homo Erraticus is easily the best album he’s produced under any name since at least 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast. The new disc builds on the Gerald Bostock mythology he mined on 1971’s masterpiece Thick as a Brick and its 2012 sequel, with a former child poetry prodigy allegedly writing the lyrics of an exposition on Britain’s past, present and possible future histories, all culled from the loony manuscript of a perpetually reincarnated English country gentleman. (If you’re keeping score, this is the second concept album on this year’s list, joining Krankscaft’s Three, which also rocks a time travel angle). The sound is exquisite throughout, and the album features all of the acoustic and electric flourishes and filigree that we expect from our old one-legged flautist, with knotty passages and dense wordplay dancing in a surprisingly spry fashion atop crunchy rock underpinnings. Recognizing that his voice isn’t what it once was (what is, though, really?), Anderson protege Ryan O’Donnell provides sympathetic and empathetic support to the proceedings, both live and in the studio, and the blend of their voices is quite charming, evoking that magical era in Tull history when Anderson and the late, great John Glascock once sang together. A wonderful, late career highlight — and hopefully a sign of still more possible musical futures, yet to come. Best Track: Meliora Sequamur.

#2. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire: Justin K. Broadrick was an early, influential member of Napalm Death, who I will generally cite (along with Jethro Tull) as one of my all-time favorite bands, if queried. After leaving Napalm, he worked with Head of David (as a drummer) for a spell, then founded Godflesh, which took Napalm’s grindiest moments and merged them with Swans-like dirge-metal, all mounted atop drum synths that would have given Big Black’s Roland a headache. While ancillary members came and went (including former Swan Ted Parsons), Godflesh was primarily built around the pummeling patterns crafted by Broadrick and bassist G.C. Green, and they forged a formidable catalog before imploding under the weight of their own heaviness circa 2002. Broadrick remained active, generally issuing his best late career work under the Jesu banner — until this year, when he re-teamed with Green and issued a monster of a comeback Godflesh album with A World Lit Only By Fire. It’s amazing how much the evolution of musical technology in the past decade has benefited the Godflesh sound, as it seems studios are finally able to capture the full onslaught of their attack, made all the more forceful by Broadrick’s ministrations on his new custom-made eight-string guitars. This is easily the best, most riveting extreme music album of the year, and it is kind of amazing to me how much I find I have missed Godflesh, although it took a long sabbatical and a stellar, unexpected return to make me fully appreciate that fact. Best Track: Shut Me Down.

And with those 19 as preamble, it’s now time to name my 2014 Album of the Year. Drum roll please (with brushes, not sticks) . . .

#1, 2014’s Album of the Year: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold:


As noted earlier, I found myself listening to a lot of music from Sweden in 2014, and the best of the year’s crop was this wonderful album from sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, recording as First Aid Kit. The pair make gorgeous, country-flavored music with soaring sibling harmonies, sweet melodies, unexpected song twists, and surprisingly poignant and evocative English-language lyrics. This was an album that grabbed me before I knew anything about the artists who created it — and that’s probably a good thing, as their back story (e.g. their dad was in Lolita Pop, they got their “big break” on MySpace, Conor Oberst played a role in bringing their music to America, and one of their first semi-hits was a paean/tribute to Emmylou Harris) likely would have been so off-putting to me that I wouldn’t have bothered listening to them. So it’s a testament to the glorious strength and vigor of this album that it overcomes a lot of deep seated preconceived notions on my part about what I like and what I don’t like (see also Thurston Moore above . . . dammit!), and this is also another record that inevitably caused people trapped in my car or house to inquire as to its provenance whenever any of its delightful songs aired on the stereo. With a little luck, I could see these incredibly talented sisters crafting the sort of career that Kate and Anna McGarrigle mastered, earning respect and adulation for both their songwriting and for their singing, creating a body of work that will grow in time to become simply accepted as part of the canon of great songs, capable of being eagerly covered by artists from a wide range of disciplines and sounds. I’m glad I discovered them when I did, and I look forward to hearing and seeing what the future holds for them. Best Track: Cedar Lane.

And that’s it for this year, huttah! As always, I welcome your thoughts and observations on these or any other of the year’s great releases. I’m always happy to learn about things I’ve missed, even after I complete my list! Happy listening!

Top 21 Albums of 2012

It’s hard to believe how quickly the time goes, but it’s been nearly twelve months since I posted my Top 20 Albums of 2011 column, which marked the 20th consecutive year that I had published such a year-end list via an ever-evolving array of digital and print outlets. With a belly full of Thanksgiving leftovers tonight, it seems a good time to offer the 21st edition of this ongoing series, in which I lay out my admittedly and unapologetically subjective views on the very best music that the prior year has set before me.

I usually do this article in late November or early December each year, because I think an album has to spin on my turntable (or digital substitute thereof) for at least a month or so before I can put it on a list like this. So I don’t include anything that’s going to come out in December 2012, but I might include some things that came out in December 2011, and if you put out a killer 2012 disc in the next five weeks, I look forward to celebrating it twelve months from now. Also, as much as I wish I could listen to every album released by every artist in every country in this great green world of ours, I can’t, so this is obviously the best of the (many) things I listened to in 2012. Sorry in advance if I didn’t include any of your favorite saung gauk recordings from Myanmar or Uruguayan candombe hits this year, since I didn’t hear any of them. My omission in no way invalidates your own appreciation of those and any other vital and vibrant musical forms that please you. Happy listening!

Okay, these obligatory preambles aside, I want to say right up front that I think 2012 was an absolutely fantastic year for new music. Some years, I have to struggle to come up with 20 albums that I consider worthy of mention. This year, I had to struggle to cut the list back to 20 albums, and when push came to shove, I decided it wasn’t worth throwing one brilliant record off the island just to hit that round number, especially in my 21st year of making such public declarations. Hence, The Top 21 of 2012, which also seems to nicely fit the vibe of 12/21/2012 being the End of Days anyway.

The list below includes a lot of debut albums by emergent artists, and it includes a lot of second or third albums from young bands passing into new spheres of creative maturity, and it include a lot of new classics from long-time favorites. Which I think is great, because when people give me the whole “music was better in the [pick your decade here, depending on how old and obsolete you are] than it is today” spiel, I’m always adamant in noting that I really, truly believe that the very best music, ever, is the music being made right now, by definition. To admit otherwise is to accept musical obsolescence and creative senescence, and I am not yet ready to become a look-back bore.


With that sense of always looking forward in mind, it tickles me to name a debut long-player by a band I’d neither heard nor heard of six months ago as the best that 2012 had to offer. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you World Music by Goat, which I declare to be my Album of the Year for 2012:

Goat, World Music: Goat are a three-piece band in the studio and a seven-piece collective onstage who claim to come from a tiny town in Northern Sweden called Korpolombolo, to which a witch doctor allegedly traveled in ancient times, established a thriving voodoo cult that permeates local thought, music and culture to this day. I buy that Goat are from Sweden, but the rest of it, okay, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it, I get it, cool. The band’s back-story construct is amplified by their use of masks and costumes onstage that actually do evoke a weird blend of radically disparate Nordic and Caribbean cultures. Regardless of how, where and why it was created, Goat’s music is sublime and exciting, offering a bizarre melange of conga-driven tropical rhythms and melodies taken straight from the NorthSide back catalog, tweaked with fuzztone bass and guitar, and with energetic female vocals atop the whole mess exhorting you to shake your sexy parts in a language that may or may not be some combination of English, Swedish, Ululation or Glossolalia. I can’t really understand many of the words, but I get the meaning and the vibe behind them, and I love the mood evoked by those declamations and the music that frames them. World Music doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before, and I suspect that there aren’t going to be many things in the months ahead that sound like it either, unless and until Goat get their sophomore disc out into the public domain. Exceptional. Exciting. And easily the best that 2012 has to offer from where I sit. So congratulations, and thank you, to the mysterious masked musicians who gave us this disc. They’ve truly made something remarkable for the ages, and their Swedish Voodoo Witch Doctor forebears must be very proud indeed.


Jed Davis, Small Sacrifices Must Be Made: Jed Davis is one the greatest singers, musicians and songwriters that I’ve encountered in nearly five decades of music listening, and his latest long-player may arguably be his best disc yet in a canon that’s filled with brilliance. He’s played with loads of folks over the years, and this album finds him working through a collection of songs written over a twenty-year span with a stable studio band including Reeves Gabrels, Anton Fig and Graham Maby. If you don’t know who those guys are (a) shame on you, and (b) go look them up online, and be awed at what an incredible supergroup Jed assembled for this record. There are gorgeous ballads and ribald rockers in equal measure on this platter, and the Otto Lilienthal cover image is a graphic design masterpiece. Essential.

Napalm Death, Utilitarian: There aren’t a lot of bands doing their very best work a quarter century into their careers, but Napalm Death are clearly in such rarefied company as 2009’s Time Waits for No Slave and this year’s Utilitarian are easily among the best that the grindcore pioneers have offered over their long and illustrious career. The new disc finds them delivering all of the brutal, political musical blasts that aficionados of the band would expect, but they also work to expand the sonic palette by having sax player John Zorn spray skronk all over “Everyday Pox,” while “Fall on Their Swords” features an operatic/Laibach-like vocal passage and “The Wolf I Feed” offers shrieking lead verse vocals from guitarist Mitch Harris countered by some of the most melodic singing the band have ever offered in the choruses. If you’re ever inclined to play the “it all sounds the same to me” card when referencing Napalm Death, then this album is one to prove you wrong. Great stuff by a great band.

Public Image Ltd., This Is PiL: Every time that erstwhile Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten/John Lydon seems to be crossing into cultural irrelevance, he invariably comes up with a musical masterpiece to remind folks that he’s not a simple man to be trifled with. After a few years of being excoriated online for his British butter commercials, Lydon reactivated his post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. this year and issued a shockingly, delightfully strong album, filled with spacious dubby grooves and some of the strongest singing he’s ever offered in a studio project. Returning PiL members Lu Edmunds (also once of The Damned, The Mekons, Shriekback and Billy Bragg’s Blokes) and Bruce Smith (Pop Group) are joined by newcomer Scott Firth on bass and keyboards, and the noise they make together is fantastically evocative and engaging, making this easily the best PiL album since 1979’s Metal Box/Second Edition. If John Lydon has to make butter commercials in order to finance albums like this one, then I support him in his advertising career 100%. Well played, Mister Rotten, sir. Well played indeed.

Three Minute Tease, Three Minute Tease: Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians were one of my favorite bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but when Hitchcock broke up his long-time group after their 1993 album Respect, I found his later solo and band efforts less engaging and appealing, and I lost interest in his work after a couple of years. In 2012, his amazing Egyptians rhythm section (bassist/keyboardist Andy Metcalfe and drummer/singer Morris Windsor) have unexpectedly re-emerged to work together backing prolific and eclectic California singer-songwriter Anton Barbeau in Three Minute Tease, and the trio have made an extraordinary album together. Metcalfe and Windsor are kings of the groove, and hearing their intuitive rhythmic magic on disc again all these years on is a delight. I’d never heard of Barbeau before this record (though he has a vast back catalog under his belt), but am delighted to report that he writes, sings and plays some truly great songs here, and some retrospective research into his oeuvre seems in order on my part. But regardless of what I find there, I thank him for getting Metcalfe and Windsor together again to play with him on his outstanding collection of songs, because all together, Three Minute Tease is one fantastic new band.


Ian Anderson, Thick As A Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock: Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson delivers a tremendous sequel to his band’s 1972 masterpiece, Thick as a Brick, but does it under his own name, without stalwart Tull guitarist Martin Barre, who’s been his primary creative foil since 1969. As much as I love Barre and the Jethro Tull brand, if it took jettisoning both to produce an album this good, then it was worth it. “Adrift and Dumbfounded” and “Medley: Upper Sixth Loan Shark/Banker Bets” are the best songs Anderson has written and performed since The Broadsword and The Beast days. Which was a long time ago, for those of you who aren’t up on your Tullology.

Crudbump, Real Art: Crudbump is the nom du rap of the writer Drew, perhaps better known as the artist behind the daily cartoon blog Toothpaste For Dinner and (maybe) as the author of the deliciously perverse black comic novel Veins, both of which are highly recommended. As is this album, which transcends the expected nerdcore genre to become something sublimely entertaining, with outstanding beats, phat synths and fantastically insightful and humorous observational lyrics. Best moment: the truly spectacular “You Dumb,” (language warning at link) which is easily among the most often quoted songs in the Smith household in 2012. Seriously.

Death Grips, The Money Store: Not quite as terrifying and transgressive as their 2011 debut mix tape, as signing to a major record label (Epic) seems to have dictated that they don’t illegally jack quite so many samples from recognizable sources, but still an album that puts a boot in your ass and makes you move, whether you want to or not, while also forcing you to think hard about the provocative flows laid down by the electrifying Stefan Burnett. A few months after this album came out, Death Grips were dropped by Epic when they pre-released a version of their next album, No Love Deep Web, with an stunningly graphic album cover. (If you choose to Google it, I do not accept responsibility for what you might see). Glad they’re back to being indie. It suits them, clearly.

Django Django, Django Django:  Fabulously wiggly synth-rock from Great Britain, with deadpan mass vocals piled atop crisp rhythms and analog noises that would make Pere Ubu’s synthesists proud. This debut album includes their exciting early singles “Waveforms” and “Default,” and the merger of the group’s sonically obvious British vocal roots and Meccano-style electronic groove-making and kraut-rocking evokes something like Kraftwerk Does Canterbury, or Can Goes Cambridge or Ubu In Edinburgh. There’s also some musical spice thrown in from England’s former commonwealth partners in North Africa and the Indian subcontinent for good measure. It’s similar to Goat’s record, in some ways, as I think about it, only much more British. Have I mentioned that they’re British yet? Okay. Just checking. British.

Pete Donnelly, When You Come Home: Pete Donnelly is the bassist for The Figgs, a legendary Upstate New York-bred band who, in addition to crafting a great catalog of albums, have backed Graham Parker live and in the studio for years. Donnelly has also done side duty with Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers, Soul Asylum and NRBQ, adding choice musical taste and texture to the proceedings wherever he goes. His work has always been my favorite part of The Figgs experience, with his sinewy bass, eclectic songwriting and smooth harmony vocals always attracting my attention, and serving the songs. It’s great to finally hear him stepping out on his own here with a wonderful collection of classy, catchy tunes.

Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos: Steely Dan singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen deploys many of the members of the latest live Steely Dan band on this, his fourth solo disc, so it probably should not have come as a surprise when the lead single, “I’m Not the Same Without You,” sounded like a great lost track from Steely Dan’s Gaucho sessions (and that’s a complement for you snarkmeisters who are inclined to diss the Dan). The rest of the album lived up to the tasteful and tasty fare that you expect from The (Real) Donald, and it’s always a treat whenever he and his Steely Comrade in Arms Walter Becker choose to bless us with studio recordings, together or on their own.

Focus, X: Dutch masters Focus are one of the world’s most criminally under-appreciated bands, in large part because they scored an improbable international hit with the yodel-heavy “Hocus Pocus” in 1973, so most casual listeners give the “novelty band” or “one hit wonder” nods, when they notice them at all. But the vintage era Focus line-up of Thijs Van Leer (keys, flute, voice), Jan Akkerman (guitar), Bert Ruiter (bass) and Pierre Van Der Linden (drums) was an extraordinarily accomplished group of players, capable of merging sick riffs and chops with haunting solos and melodies, knitting it all together into something that often attained musical magical status. (Check these live video versions of “Hocus Pocus” and “Sylvia” to see what I mean, if you’ve only heard the sanitized studio/radio edit of these songs; Focus were punk before there was punk, only with loads more talent). In 2012, Van Leer and Van Der Linden have put out a tenth studio album under the Focus brand, this time aided and abetted by guitarist Menno Gootjes and bassist Bobby Jacobs. While I never thought the whole Focus thing would work without Akkerman, this album is spectacular, and here’s hoping that the Roger Dean album cover heart fools a bunch of Yes fans into buying the disc, too. They’ll like it!

Gangrene, Vodka & Ayahuasca: This is something like the skankiest, skunkiest hip-hop/rap-based album of the year, a wild trip through psychedelic beats and florid dream vision flows that just hits it out of the park, track after track after track. The lyrical content often reflects on the altered states that a variety of natural and man-made substances can inflict upon a fragile psyche, and while I don’t wish to impugn to creators of this hazy masterpiece, it does seem that you can smell smoke, herbs, empty bottles and a vague hint of mushroom in the spaces between the sounds on this thoroughly enjoyable sonic expedition. Gangrene is a collaboration between DJ’s Oh No and The Alchemist, and as hard as they both rock solo, they really do achieve something sublime when they work together here, even if it makes you want to take a shower when it’s over.

Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship: I have all three of Here We Go Magic’s full-length albums and it has been a delight to hear the group grow from an edgy/experimental Luke Temple solo vehicle into a skilled band that’s capable of creating music catchy enough for me to have actually heard it over the store sound system in our friendly neighborhood Target store. And that’s a good thing, I think, since popularity doesn’t equate to sell-out in my book at all, as I’d certainly rather hear Here We Go Magic’s delicious “How Do I Know?” instead the usual crap that I’m forced to endure when I go to buy socks, underwear or what seems to be a never-ending sequence of easily broken Apple products. Temple and company do a great job of finding the sweet spot where “experimental” and “pop” exist comfortably side by side, and that’s a delightful feat in this or any other year.

Jazz Butcher, Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers: 30 years after they first played together in clubs in Oxford, and 25 years since their initial partnership exploded under a poisonous cloud of alcohol and fisticuffs and road fatigue, The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy’s Pat Fish and Max Eider returned to the studio together in 2012 to issue this delightful and unexpected new disc, their first since 2000’s “let’s make up and be friendly” album, Rotten Soul. It finds them pretty much picking up on the original musical agenda where they left off with 1995’s Sex and Travel, before mission creep and quality control issues entered the mix during the final year of their initial run. There’s superb guitar work here from Eider (who I consider to be one of the world’s most seriously under-rated performers), great songs and lyrics by Fish, a solid new rhythm section and excellent production from long-time Fish collaborator (of the post-Eider era) Richard Formby. I’ve very much enjoyed listening to Fish and Eider (especially) on their own over the past quarter century, but it’s truly a delight to hear them collaborating again here, as the interplay of their voices and guitars together really is something special and magical.

Kamikaze Hearts, Live 05-07: It’s probably rare for an outsider to be able to watch a band evolve from cradle to grave in quite the way that I experienced Kamikaze Hearts during my last decade in Albany, so I am glad I had that experience. I saw one of the first public performances featuring main singer-songwriters Gaven Richard and Troy Pohl onstage together, after having heard Richard with his earlier band (Annabel Lee) and Pohl working in a production/collaborative capacity with local anti-folk goddess Paddy Kilrain. I watched Gaven and Troy and co-founder Matthew Loiacono go through a couple of early line-up changes involving an angry bass player and a thoughtfully sensitive cellist (it was in the latter configuration that I booked them to perform on Sounding Board, the television show I hosted at the time), then watched them recruit the bassist (Bob Buckley) of another band who had angered our television studio technical crew by spending a lot of time trying to mic a box of crickets during a recording session. They later added the bassist (Nate Giordano) of an industrial metal band called Wetwerks who had also played on Sounding Board, shifting Buckley to slide guitar in the process to create their “classic” lineup. I saw them play at least a dozen acoustic “porch music” shows at a variety of clubs over the years, and I also saw them play electric gigs under the moniker/alias Pirate School, including a great show that I booked at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer. The Kamikaze Hearts put out some fantastic records along the way, eventually getting their last studio disc out on Bjork’s One Little Indian label. Then they played a bunch of long and amazing live shows (some of them featuring guest Frank Moscowitz, the erstwhile cricket player) and just as things really seemed to be going their way, they quietly disbanded and went away. I have all of their studio works, but it’s a treat to now hear some classic cuts from some of those later shows here, including their awesome rendition of Stephen Gaylord’s “Scumbag Pines,” which I’m glad to finally have on my jukebox. Bonus points: the album comes on a flash drive that doubles as a beer bottle opener. Perfect!

Public Enemy, The Evil Empire of Everything: Like Death Grips (noted above), hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy also put out two albums this year. The first, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, got most of the year’s press coverage regarding the band, since it was their first studio disc in five years, and it contained the ripping single “I Shall Not Be Moved.” But the rest of that disc felt a little thin to me, with a lot of guest spots that diluted the killer P.E. sound, that first and foremost hinges on killer beats from the Bomb Squad, furious exhortations from Chuck D, and well-placed interjections from Flavor Flav playing the role of the lyrical foil. Interestingly, Public Enemy’s second album of the year, The Evil Empire of Everything, rectified these shortcomings and then some, with epic standout track “Icebreaker” rocking for a solid seven minutes with a variety of instrumental movements that leave it standing as the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of hip hop. When Chuck and company bring in supporting performers, they get the most out of them, especially on “Everything,” an incredible gospel soul protest number featuring Gerald Albright and Sheila Brody. I’d totally go to a church where I got to worship to this song!

Opossom, Electric Hawaii:  This delicious little trifle hails from New Zealand, and like so many other albums from the home nation of Split Enz and The Flying Nun label, it blends perfect, pristine pop and wooly, wonderful weirdness into a distinctive and impressive whole, that somehow could never emerge from any other place in the world. (If you don’t click any other link in this article, you should click that Split Enz one, just to see how completely bizarre they were in their early, pre-international success days). Opossom is the current musical vehicle for Kody Nielson, who once fronted “troublegum” allstars The Mint Chicks. His new band offers a similar blend of sweetness and menace, with a fantastic production sheen that really makes it jump out of your stereo, even if your stereo is a tiny little thing in your pocket from Apple that is likely to break if you sit down too quickly. Just saying.

Tame Impala, Lonerism:  Another disc from the southern half of the planet (this time from Perth, Australia), Tame Impala’s sophomore record builds wonderfully on their highly acclaimed 2010 debut, Innerspeaker. Like some of the other records I’ve already discussed here (e.g. Opossom, Here We Go Magic, Django Django, Goat), Tame Impala’s Lonerism is at heart a pop album with strong songs, only they’re all decorated up with all sorts of wild and crazy sonic dressings that make them both comfortable and other-worldly at the same time. While the band functions as a five-piece in a concert setting, in the studio, Tame Impala is primarily the instrument of Kevin Parker, once of The Dee Dee Dums. He’s got a great sense of studio space, and it’s fantastic to hear such a young musician really creating a unique and exciting neo-psychedelic palette for his recorded music, without ever falling prey to the self-indulgence that solo studio work can often engender. I’ve read reviews that favorably compare this record to the more psychedelic bits of The Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt Peppers albums. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment.

Serj Tankian, Harakiri: One of the great mysteries in modern metal music is why the once-brilliant System of a Down allowed guitarist Daron Malakian’s thuggish and monotone shouting to take up more and more space on successive albums, effectively limiting the contributions of lead singer/keyboardist Serj Tankian, owner of what I’d argue is one of the finest vocal instruments ever deployed atop a metal bed. Where System’s first two albums soared, as Malakian assumed ever-more control of the band, the group became equally ever-more earthbound. On his third solo album, Serj Tankian once again soars, sometimes using his operatic pipes on powerful metal cuts, and sometimes using his rapid-fire, crisp lyrical delivery as a percussion instrument, punching both the beats and the message home at the same time. And make no mistake about message: this is a provocative sociopolitical album, touching on some themes that have haunted Tankian throughout his public performing career (e.g. the Armenian holocaust) and some that seem to be new obsessions for this particularly thoughtful songwriter (e.g. animal suicide). This is the best System of a Down-related album since Toxicity was released in 2001, and I’m damned glad to finally hear it.

Jack White, Blunderbuss: Last but certainly not least, former White Stripe and current (?) Raconteur and Dead Weather member Jack White finally gets around to putting out what he markets as his first solo album, even though we all know that he pretty well dominates anything that he performs on, so it seems a technicality to call it that on some plane. Interestingly enough, though, for his first (so-called) solo effort, White actually assembles a crack band of young studio hounds, and he gives them a lot of room to run, so that his voice, guitar and keyboard work is often not the primary point of auditory interest in any given song. White’s songwriting and arrangements are all over the place (in the good meaning of that phrase), with dirty rockers, piano ballads, blues excursions (both modern and traditional) and radio-friendly pop rubbing shoulders in a generally compatible and comfortable fashion. He’s probably the most experienced debut solo artist I can think of in recent years, but I’m glad he’s finally ready to put something this good out under his own name.