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Top Ten Ah Um
1. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
Some years ago I would’ve loved instrumentals like the ones that support Piñata, with hardly a thought of whose head they were living inside except for the listener’s, my own. So thank God Piñata has vocals, and thank God they’re by Freddie Gibbs. It’s a thrilling, necessary displacement, to fall out the eyes from the sleepless, rattling interiority that Madlib creates and find out whose it is. I’ve never felt more certain that a rapper’s musical backdrop isn’t his city but something much larger, his mind.
2. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Sure to be the year’s most popular album by some metric, real or imagined. So while the opening tracks are incendiary, in a way, I’m not sure I believe that Killer Mike and El-P are causing discomfort, or anything but delight, in any of their actual listeners. Even the lesser folks they call out (with a particular term) just find this incredibly fun, right? And the self-promoter doesn’t move on from rhetoric to commentary unless he’s sure he hasn’t alienated his audience, right? And for the record, the best lines aren’t the most quotable lines, e.g. I doubt anyone’s tweeted Mike’s “who really run this?” bit.
3. The Twilight Sad – Nobody Wants To Be Here and Nobody Wants To Leave
The melodic richness of monochromatic art, as practiced by three- and four-piece rock groups, was a primary interest of my youth, and The Twilight Sad, so romantic and cathartic, came along at just the right time to spare me any rupture as I began my twenties. Their first two records remain tempestuous masterpieces (primer: seismic chord change on “Reflection of the Television”; guitars and James Graham’s voice boil over on “And She Would Darken the Memory”). Their third one checked their exuberance not with its uncharacteristic industrial and electronic sounds, but with rigorous and unyielding bass lines. Their new and fourth one, a return to form perhaps in the way it foregrounds guitars, is similarly checked, but somehow ends up their lightest album by a fair margin. I might describe it as lingering, soulful. I almost wanted to call it their dance pop or R&B album, to counteract anyone who claims the band’s primary musical attributes are precisely opposite, and to suggest the album’s unflagging rhythmic tug or the transporting way Graham sings things like “I put you through hell.”
4. Terry Malts – Insides EP
It’s hard to believe that in our proudly ahistorical information age, when major ad campaigns tell us that the Ramones started in a garage, a band could find the peace of mind to knock out sincere, cleanly inspired blasts of melodic noise like what’s found on the eight-minute Insides, but I guess we already knew that Terry Malts is a miracle band.
5. Beck – Morning Phase
I never followed Beck past the 90s until earlier this year, when Sea Change, belatedly heard, failed to excite me for its spiritual sequel, Morning Phase. My loss, as this album is pretty much perfect. I wish it had come pre-packaged with a narrative of madness, with Pet Sounds-type mythology (“an impossibly polished album, a decade and three near-death experiences in the making!”), so that not even the casual listener could ignore the physical exaction of its craft, serenity are poise. I sometimes think that such astoundingly calm and beautiful music must be cheating, tricking me into finding it calming and beautiful, but then I think that makes no sense. Best when Beck seems to be making his Bridge Over Troubled Water, or even his “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but never not great.
6. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
The title’s a bit confusing: Is this the album, or a showcase of Terje’s technical skills to lure potential investors in a planned but yet unmade album? No matter; there’s no reason a portfolio can’t contain real music. Sequenced beyond the threshold of human feeling, at times, into the more inspiring realm of the human machine, so Bryan Ferry singing Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” is a necessary breather, and high point. The heart, programmed to beat with mechanical regularity, resumes its own pace.
7. Death Vessel – Island Intervals
2008’s Nothing is Precious Enough for Us held me with Joel Thibodeau’s impressive soprano navigating thrilling melodies, particularly the snare- and electric guitar-enlivened “Bruno’s Torso.” But the uniformity of fingerpicked guitar didn’t leave as much of an impression, so it’s a pleasure to find that six years later Island Intervals broadens his vocal environment to a nearly unimaginable degree. Opening track “Ejecta,” which renders Earth as a vast, creaking bellows, is an astonishing sound-world before Thibodeau has sung a single note.
8. Merchandise – After The End
It’s no easy task to come to a band on their fourth album and, with no other resources at hand, try to make sense of their purpose, identity, place in music. Such was my conundrum while on break in Montana last month, listening to a new Merchandise album that creates beautiful, lumbering monoliths from sources that the belated listener of modern music just as easily conflates: R.E.M.’s Reckoning, STP’s “Interstate Love Song.” After a while I stopped trying, and unthinkingly latched onto a few choice tunes by birthright. How could I not love “True Monument”?
9. Martin Carr – The Breaks
Carr once adopted the title of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps for an (amazing) album with his band The Boo Radleys. He was probably thinking of Kurtis Blow when he named his new solo album The Breaks. Where Giant Steps was very slightly jazz, The Breaks is not at all hip hop, but the more important point is that Carr continues to demonstrate a boundless musical curiosity and imagination, nowhere more evident than swirling opener “The Santa Fe Skyway,” whose density of ostensibly mismatched cues (love the rapid fire horns punching holes in a sweeping string arrangement) would be disorienting without a killer melodic through-line seamlessly pulling it all together for orchestral pop brilliance. Song of the year, maybe.
10. Jeremy Jay – “Hallways and Splattered Paintings” b/w “Window Painted Black”
Increasing his rate of output to previous norms, Jay previews a new album in the same year he released one (and in the same year in which a K Records compilation of Northwest hip hop heavily samples his work; see All Your Friend’s Friends). I’m thrilled. He owns a musical palette that could and should yield box sets: snapping bass lines, spidery guitar work, subtle synth coloring and punctuating piano chords, words that pay homage to the life of the artist. These two songs continue the rhythms and blues of Abandoned Apartments while showcasing his dual nature as a vocalist. On the a-side he’s as tentative as any untraceable singer from any credit-less artifact on the Wilfully Obscure blog, then gets campy, haunting, with a coda of moans. He applies himself, differently, on the b-side, adopting the temporary resonance of the eulogist, renouncing guitar and taking his sound to its logical extreme, to the end of time and the universe, with out of tune piano, quiet swells of decaying notes, one final, shimmering sound as the light recedes. Funereal, or scene from a night spent listening to “The Funeral Party.”
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