D’Angelo – Black Messiah
QuestLove referred to Black Messiah as the black Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. Both were long-awaited, long fussed over offerings from artists that seemed to have disappeared from the planet. Like SMiLE, Black Messiah has some unexpected, dark, straight-up weird ideas that upend what we previously knew about the artist. The comparisons to There’s a Riot Goin’ On are apt as well. Bumped up to a 2014 release in light of recent social upheaval, this is a soul album with a bit on its mind, sonically and lyrically. D’Angelo takes on a soldier POV in “1000 Deaths”, speaks on racial uplift in “Til It’s Done”, and most pointedly on systemic racism, media, and untimely death in “The Charade”(“All we wanted was a chance to talk / Instead we got outlined in chalk”). Even through the relationship-centric tracks, the prevailing mood of the collection is one of doped-out paranoia rather than the babymaking R&B of his earlier releases. Still, this isn’t necessarily as gloomy an affair as Sly and The Family Stone’s masterpiece. The wobbly lead riff on opener “Ain’t That Easy” seems uncomfortably at odds with D’Angelo’s shaky higher register. But the song churns and builds, with D’Angelo exploring his entire range, and turns out to be a deeply satisfying funk moment. Ditto for the walking bass, horns and keys on “Sugah Daddy”. And yet while this thing lacks the icy, breathy detachment or the neo-soul and EDM heard in so much contemporary R&B, this album feels surprisingly of the moment. This is one of those releases where the artist, seemingly with no interest in what’s currently in vogue in its respective genre managed to tap into something even more vital than its contemporary exemplars.
Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
So, I didn’t get into that Angel Olsen record at all. I really tried. But in the end, where people were hearing “wrenching” and “visceral”, I was hearing a promising but uneven set, and one of the more sonically uninteresting albums I had heard all year. Luckily, though, it seems that most of the acclaim people were raining down on that record turned out to be absolutely appropriate for Are We There. Van Etten’s third LP finds her handling production entirely by herself and the sonic results are apparent immediately. This is a more rich record than Because I Was In Love and a more confident and consistent collection than her still-excellent Tramp. Sonically, some of the songs here are some of the most widescreened that she has worked with(the horns behind the quivering chorus on “Trafira”; the Ennio Morricone-style guitar giving way to a messianic vocal refrain on “You Know Me Well”). But the sonic richness does not sacrifice for intimacy. This is a beautiful record, with a sadness that borders on uncomfortable.
Sia – 1000 Ways of Fear
For years, Sia has lurked in the shadows, penning bangers for Rihanna, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Celine Dion, and so on. My introduction to her was in the form of “Breathe Me”, a song from 2004’s Colour The Small One, which appeared during the closing moments of the Six Feet Under series finale. The song and artist is forever associated with me sitting on my bed at a kind of weird time, smack dab in the middle of a quarterlife crisis, bawling my eyes out at a piece of television. So despite never really engaging with any of her albums as a whole(either the bouncy We Are Born or the more dour pop of Some People Have Real Problems and Colour The Small one), that Sia seemed to save a bunch of radio-ready bangers and ballads for herself turned out to be a horse that I didn’t realize I had been long rooting for. From the polished, messianic chorus of “Chandelier” to the almost-punk “Hostage”, which is throaty to the point of losing the plot, this is a smart, diverse, and extremely satisfying pop album.
White Lung – Deep Fantasy
Punk, purists say, is supposed to be messy and imperfect, and more about emotion and anger than technical proficiency. The other thing that punk purists say is “fuck rules lol”. To that end, this album is by all means punk in style and spirit. It’s fast, pummeling, and short(22 minutes). It’s angry as fuck, attacking things like identity and rape culture in its lyrics. And yet while you’ll probably feel beat up by the time this thing is done, it’s not a messy or sloppy experience whatsoever. The production is crystal clear without feeling sanitized. There are sharp, bright guitar harmonies all over every song with the driving bass and drums pushing everything forward. And Mish Way’s vocal performance is impassioned and pissed, yeah, but completely comprehensible. This dichotomy between aggression and clarity is the album’s strongest asset.
Forever Came Calling – What Matters Most
Pop-punk is basicallythe gay, red-headed step child of the rock scene. It might even be in lower esteem than the Nicklebacks and Creeds, because rather than occasionally get utilized as low-hanging mockery fruit, pop-punk seems to have been told very sternly to stay in its room until company leaves(Hell, the most prominent tastemaker of this “movement” laughably ignored this album, to further my point). And it’s pretty hypocritical of the indie establishment and their flock, since the building blocks that make for good pop-punk are comprised of the same stuff as whatever iteration of pop is currently in vogue*: sonic dynamics, infectious hooks, big choruses. I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with the style myself. In the middle to late 00’s, I’m pretty sure I disliked about 99% of bands in the scene. And every once in awhile, there was a Wonder Years or a Story So Far that rewarded me for continuing to sort of pay attention to the genre, delivering a sharp, defined sound using established tropes. Forever Came Calling’s Contender LP was one of such slot-machine hits, a blistering but catchy-as-hell 22 minutes of Nothing Gold Can Stay-indebted bangers.
Their sophomore effort finds them hanging on to just about everything that made their debut great: hooks for days, soaring choruses(see “August Is Home” or “Mapping With A Sense of Direction” or “Indebted” or “Rather Be Dead Than Cool”, seriously, the whole thing), an urgent, aggressive vocal performance from Joe Candelaria and adds some cleaner production. What’s lost in the raw immediacy of the debut is made up for in the details added: sharper guitars, more potent background vocals, tighter songwriting. For my money, I have these guys pegged as next in line for The Wonder Years’ crown.
*Seriously, you assholes made Best Coast popular. Eat a dick.
The Lawrence Arms – Metropole
Punk, like hip-hop, is a game that is dominated by youth. In their most vital incarnations, these are styles that viscerally engage with life for the fleeting thing that it is. So punches, whether they come in the form of political “fuck you”s or hedonistic excess, are rarely pulled. To that end, the chorus of “Seventeener(17th and 37th)” contains the lyric “My heart got kicked out all its homes / And dying young just didn’t work out so well, guess I’m dying old”. It reminds me of a similar sentiment delivered by Against Me’s “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” only much more resonant. The scrappy punk veterans are nodding to the “leave a beautiful corpse” romanticism of the young punk ethos and attempting to figure out what being punk and nearing 40 means or stands for. The line functions as a good mission statement for the album as a whole, which bluntly deals with aging and mortality with the band’s gruffy, blue-collar catchiness and snarling sense of humor. Vocalists Kelly and McCoughan sharpen some earworm choruses with painful detail in the verses(“Outside my window the train / Is a friend just zipping by/ I’ll catch you when I catch you man/ Maybe we can go for a ride”; “Yesterday I woke up to find/ The black in my beard had turned to white”). But they contrast with cutting moments of self-deprecation: “Cinematic, I was cynical on the city bus/ Literary, I wrote lyrics like I thought I was” on Beautiful Things, or nodding to Guns N’ Roses on Paradise Shitty: “So take me down to the city where the girls just look okay”. It’s a great balance and the net effect is one of two wisened, self-deprecating bartenders(even though Kelly and McCoughan are only in their mid 30s). The record as a whole is an anthemic collection of bangers, with the sobering introspection there for those who are ready to hear it.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Pinata
There’s no denying that Gibbs is a skilled and versatile craftsman behind the mic. His Achilles’ Heels have always been some inconsistent production on his longer projects and a kind of one-dimensionality to his lyrical concerns. So even if he’s bringing his A-game for a full mixtape, the hard head, gangster shit talk can become fatiguing, especially if the production begins to sag in the rear half of a record, no matter how cleverly or impressively Gibbs’ switches up his flow. On Pinata, one of those issues is eliminated altogether as Madlib provides a rock solid collection of beats drawing heavily from 70’s blaxploitation soul(“Scarface”, “High”), RZA inspired kung-fu jams(“Real”, “Pinata”), sci-fi inflected Dilla cuts(“Uno”, “Bomb”). Gibbs sounds reinvigorated working with the elevated material. Even if he’s still talking about the same shit — gang banging, hood life, his enemies– he’s frequently bringing a hungrier diversity to his flow, hooks are tighter. Additionally, none of the guest spots feel wasted, with Danny Brown, Scarface, Domo Genesis & Earl Sweatshirt delivering solid verses. And then the title track is a great posse cut tucked away to close the album out. This album would be a serious contender for my Top 40 if it was simply an instrumental hip-hop record, but the fact that the music on display here comes as a package deal to a peaking Freddie Gibbs makes it one of the best hip-hop releases in years.
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
I was really put off by the sci-fi, glam-rock goddess, Zuul The Gatekeeper persona that Annie Clark seems to be dealing in with the release of this record. It felt like such a stiff, self-important move for an artist that has always felt, for all her weirdness, incredibly down to earth. Matched with the equally icy production of the record, I was pretty sure that my interest in St. Vincent would be temporarily suspended until this phase passed. I stuck with the record, because the songs(the important part of all of this) were very strong. The bouncy “Birth In Reverse” might be the catchiest song Clark has ever done. The wandering synth on “Huey Newton” gives way to a prog-like guitar interlude that gradually beefs up the distortion to the point where it almost feels like a metal track. Clark is showing an increasing tendency towards Krautrock/Brian Eno aesthetics, with spacious instrumentation, an increased incorporation of synth, and cutting guitar riffs and/or solos deployed in moderation. When I stopped to consider the thematic throughline of the album(many of the songs dealing with social media, our need for validation, narcissism, our increasing detachment from our fellow man), the cool, pristine detachment of the album’s production, the brittle arrangements(and Clark’s new wardrobe) makes sense. This might not be the warmest work from St. Vincent, but it’s definitely her most sharp, cutting, and consistent collection. I’m glad I stuck with this one.
Behemoth – The Satanist
I didn’t really expect one of my favorite albums of the year to open “I saw the virgin’s cunt spawning forth the snakes”, but here you have it. This album is unrelenting and dark, with an abundance of tight drumming(great fills all over this thing) and riffs that alternate between doom-laden and speedy. Nergal’s vocal performance finds him hoarsely growling and screaming through some diverse and pummeling tracks with his raw, if a bit overblown, heretical invective. There is a theatricality to the whole thing, though(think a much darker Amon Amarth or something). Like, yeah, these are serious songs in their composition, but their lyrical content is meant to be digested with at least some consideration to the conventions of storytelling. This isn’t a 100% dark affair. For all of the album’s raw(but crisp as hell) production and bleak posturing, there are deeply, broadly satisfying rock moments on this thing. The solo on the back end of “Messe Noire” feels more classic rock or cock-rock than anything. “Ora Pro Noris Lucifer” has a galloping drum beat and some groove-laden triple-time riffing before delivering a deeply satisfying bass drop and breakdown on the back end. Some clean acoustic riffing and a saxophone behind some spoken word poetry opens “The Absence Ov Light” before the track explodes in its second half. These touches make this an engaging, diverse listen that never really sacrifices its extreme metal teeth. This is easily the best heavy album I’ve heard this year.
Bane – Don’t Wait Up
Bane, like most good hardcore, has always managed to imbue their thematic concerns(perseverance, friendship, and, in this case, closure) with a stone-faced “life or death” gravitas. They’ve been ranting about insider baseball of the hardcore scene, relationships, crushes, mixtapes, as if nothing ever was or ever will be more important. This is a band that has built a career on words and music that they truly and deeply mean. Their final record, Don’t Wait Up, deals in the same trademark earnestness, only this time, the ubiquitous weight that “this is the end” lingers over the whole thing. The results are predictably grand and urgent, but also sad(much of the album feels like a hardcore version of delivering a speech at your own funeral, with all of the gravity that might bring with it). On “Lost At Sea” Bedard openly expresses doubt as to what his post-Bane life is going to look like(“I look at me and I can’t see me/ Without this, it scares the fuck out of me). But the album is also invigorating in that wide-eyed, positive way that the band is known for(“I will never be alone / All because we wrote these punk rock songs / And goddamn that’s pretty crazy/ So fucking amazing”). Sonically, there aren’t really any surprises here. This is a Bane record. For the uninitiated, that means driving, tightly played hardcore with shouted lead vocals and lots and lots of gang vocals. But there are no half-measures here either. This is not some neutered, whimpering limp into the forest. This is a note-perfect swan-song that stands up to any of the band’s LP’s for rawness, catharsis, and vitality.