411’s Top 200 Albums Of 2016 (125-101)
The countdown is really starting to gather pace, so don’t get left behind, remember to check out the previous entries and press play on our Spotify playlist before moving ahead.
125. Pronounce This! By Salem’s Pot
The 411: It’s amazing to think that when Salem’s Pot started only one member knew how to play an instrument, because their sophomore LP, Pronounce This!, is a jam record for the ages. Sabbath, early-Floyd and plenty of Thin Lizzy licks inform the work of a band who once upon a time just wanted to get stoned and watch horror films. There’s still plenty of stoner shlock and B-movie boogie to be found on Pronounce This!, but rather than turning the entire project into a sophmoric sketch, they give the Swedish band their swagger and looseness. So many stoner bands succumb to one of three pitfalls: drudgery, irony or masturbatory technicality. Salem’s Pot deftily dodge all three with the swing of The Stones, the ghoulish amateurism of The Misfits and some classic wig out moments that recall the best of British psychedelia. The doom portions are deep, but not too heavy and the band are careful to ensure they don’t gaze at the navals too often or for too long.
The Critics Say: “Pronounce This! is their turning point. It’s a record beyond anything the band’s ever attempted” Consequences Of Sound
124. To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere by Thrice
The 411: It would be reasonable to assume that Thrice should be running out of avenues for experimentation after 20 years of plying their riff-riding trade, but not so. To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere is a notably heavier incarnation of the band and an album full of ambitious expanses and considered brooding. The Californian rockers have always been astute: never forgetting that their sound is anchored around immediacy and a rhythm section that churns and surges in exhilarating fashion. Even as they brood in the internal wilderness of “The Window”, the listener is well aware that some carefully deployed bombast lies in wait. Intriguingly, Thrice’s onslaught, when it does arrive, is rarely uniform. They dip their toes in the waters of indie idiosyncrasies and classic rock bravado respectively, before unleashing the fuzzy majesty of “Black Honey” – a monumental song that seems to have slipped out of the 90s post-grunge scene (but with a healthy sheen of modern atmospherics and sleek production). “Black Honey”, “Whistleblower” and “Blood On The Sand” prove that if Thrice were to make a concerted effort they could soar towards the stratosphere, but after 20-years in the game, Thrice appear happy indulging their own impulses and subtly expanding their remit. In this light, To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere is neither a great leap forward nor the sound of a band cashing their chips and making a mainstream land grab – it’s a thoughtful and imposing display of craft from the tender (“Salt and Shadow”) to the merciless (“Hurricane”).
The Critics Say: “Ultimately, To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere is a small triumph not just in its existence but also in its execution. Second chances don’t normally sound this sweet.” Alternative Press
123. The Whole Family Is Worried by Misty Miller
The 411: “I’ve been sleeping with your friends, you were sleeping in your bed”, so sings the chorus of “Happy”: now that’s one hell of a way to start album. The rumble of the guitars and the crash of the symbols might be familiar to anyone who grew up in the post-Libertines indie environment, but the familiar nature of the crescendos does nothing to diminish Misty Miller’s initial impact. The Whole Family Is Worried never looks back from that point, the pace may slow, but Miller is a needling vocalist who knows how to make a chorus seem vital, pitiless and more than a repository for a snappy hook. Miller’s years as a South London dilettante-punk roaming around with rock bands and unnerving her, admittedly rock’n’roll, family serve her well. She arrives with a cavalcade of broken hearts (theirs, not hers) to dissect and the audacity of someone who knows they belong (or, at least, doesn’t remotely care what anyone thinks of her). And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a potent recipe for a skeezy rock cocktail.
The Critics Say: “Transmuting raw hurt into nagging melody is no easy feat, even for superficially straightforward music as this, and Miller stands apart from the pack.” The Obsever
122. Emotions + Maths by Margret Glapsy
The 411: A singer from the Boston folk scene who left Music College, moved to New York and embraced a sound that echoes Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Torres respectively. It’s hardly an original recipe, but what Emotions + Maths lacks in sonic ingenuity, it compensates for with sharp-eyed lyrics that wrap around one another deliciously. Magret Glapsy has an undeniable flair for delivery. These minimal grungey compositions are shot through with a hitmaker’s wit. When she’s particularly inspired, as she is on “You and I”, this flair for eliding sumptuous sounds extends to the guitar work and creates a mournful palette capable of capturing the listener’s attention at any moment. It’s a lesson her peers could well learn, so many artist settle for adopting a maudlin pose and demanding empathy and patience – Margret Glapsy certainly serves up a selection of solipsistic lows, but she always has a killer couplet or a gorgeous piece of phrasing ready to turn an otherwise passive piece, active. Best of all, Emotions + Maths comes wrapped in a tight 34 minute package.
The Critics Say: “She knows when to let that voice stretch out, too, and how to maximise the drama” The Guardian
121. PC Music, Vol.2 by Various Artists
The 411: PC Music is in a strange place. Three years removed from being a revolutionary force its been co-opted into the mainstream while its stand out stars (see Sophie) attempt to turn their lightening in a bottle creativity into full length LPs. The first footsteps towards transcendent trend status have been unsteady, but while no PC artist has produced an album of the year contender, taken as a collective the quality, originality and sheer joyous force of the music is undeniable. The heavy hitters (A.G. Cook and Hannah Diamond) deliver in a big way here, providing tracks that are not only idiosyncratically danceable, but which (on “Fading Light” in particular) show a broadening scope and the potential for songwriting growth. Carly Rae Jepsen makes a surprise appearance and, while on paper you might think her girlish hooks would fit right into PC Music’s unnervingly adolescent world, her breathy vocals add some unmistakable humanity to these synthetic surrounds. PC Music, Vol. 2 offers spritely and sensational pop music, but also the first hints at maturity for an innately infantile genre. But worry, the scene is still batshill insane, check out “Poison” by GFOTY if you don’t believe me.
The Critics Say: “Cook and his gang are the cleverest, most thoughtful people in British pop.” The Guardian
120. Holy Ghost by Modern Baseball
The 411: It’s time for some good old fashion earnest American guitar music. Confessional music with a sharp eye for detail and the crosshairs of criticism aimed decidedly inwards – it might not be all that novel in the US (and Modern Baseball’s sonic palette proves equally familiar), but there’s no denying that, when done right, it proves devastatingly effective. Brisk, punchy and clocking in a mere 27 minutes, there’s a lot of love about Holy Ghost. Brendan Lukens crams so much into each an every track that the listener can’t possibly feel short changed. Over-sharing at hyperspeed has always been emo’s modus operandi and Modern Baseball’s loose barroom rattle, gives the project an unrehearsed aura – as if you’ve pulled up a stool at your favorite watering hole and there, huddled over his bourbon, is Lukens, ready to unload his woes and make a new drinking buddy in the process.
The Critics Say: “A whirlwind of insecurities and wonder, Holy Ghost is the sound of four people coming to terms with who and where they are in the often overwhelming world that surrounds them.” The Line Of Best Fit
119. Mind Of Mine by Zayn
The 411: “Mind of Mine suggests that Zayn fancy himself as a smoother than velvet balladeer rather than a crotch grabbing, twinkle toed juggernaut. His debut album is influenced primarily by Miguel and The Weeknd. Malik merges the former’s kind-hearted sexy stability with the latter’s alien murk and sordid moral ambiguity. The end result is a strange blend of expansive odysseys with a dark undercurrent. The ex-boy band star cannot rival Miguel sensuality – the San Pedro star can make hand holding or morning coffee seem like an ejaculatory experience – nor is Zayn as dangerously druggy as The Weeknd. This might sound like the recipe for watered down tedium, but Zayn is astute. He’s sweet and just-sordid-enough to stand out above Chris Brown’s shameless shtick. He is, for a lack of a better term, an artisanal Usher: rooted in the mainstream, lacking the Confession’s singers stunning highlights, but offering more zeitgeist aping edge. Zayn is getting stuck in, shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of an R&B scene crammed full of ultra-talented stars. He has a ferocious head start on the Derulos and Browns of this world and, while he has none of Ocean’s outlier originality, Mind Of Mine is a more daring, considered and adult record than we had any right to expect at this stage.”
The Critics Say: “Zayn has clearly achieved his aim of making an album of sexy, credible pop-R&B.” NME
118. Love Letter For Fire by Sam Beam & Jessica Hoop
The 411: What do you look for in a songwriting partner? Well some thrive on complimentary skills: similar tones and shared interests. Others opt for a dominant and secondary relationship: where one artist remains understated in the hope of bolstering their partner (normally the star). Sam Beam & Jessica Hoop, by contrast, follow neither model, they are equals and opposites. Hoop possesses an airy, rudderless aura of fanaticism – as if her vocal and guitar work could drift off into the ether at any moment. Beam is as earthy as it gets. His vocal is rich and honest, while his guitar work possesses a sly virtuosity and a heaviness of tone. Fittingly, Love Letter For Fire feels both lighter and heavier than either artists’ usual fair. These low-key songs are full of humble inspiration and surprising detours. The flourishes and deft flicks of Beams’ guitarwork prove devastating, cutting across arrangements that often feel skeletal (as if the two singers were sitting alone at night in great outdoors and just riffing). The real star of the show, however, is the interplay between Beam and Hoop’s vocals. They feel both remarkably in-sync, but also improvised. There are longing pauses and moments where the heavy (Sam) and light (Hoop) cut across one another in unexpected, but entirely satisfying ways. Love Letter For Fire seems to avoid hitting the listener over the head with hooks, instead they tease the listener with darling melodies and delicious counterpoints without overplaying their hand.
The Critics Say: “It’s Beam and Hoop who manage to remain the focus of the proceedings, giving the album its low-key lustre. We can only hope that there will be another volume of similarly cerebral hymns to follow.” Paste
117. Wildflower by The Avalanches
The 411: The Avalanches and DJ Shadow, the two pioneers of mass sampling, felt like a product of a very specific era and headspace. Shadow has never stopped recording, but their seamless and occasionally starkly cut together works speak to the sound of the late-90s. The coming of the millennium, an era when record stores ruled, but the deviant hand of technology was beginning to exert its influence. It is perhaps fitting that the revered Australian trio, The Avalanches, released the follow up to their iconic turn of the millennium debut, Since I Left You, in 2016. After all, nostalgia reigns supreme, fear and paranoia in the face of technology is as rife as it’s ever been and, what do you know, vinyl sales are booming. It’s almost as if they never left, almost, but not quite. Wildflower doesn’t feel as jarring or new as Since I Love You did in the year 2000, even if the pop instincts and subversive flair remain as strong as ever. Danny Brown and some spritely live instrumentation give the album a contemporary veneer, but ultimately Wildflower feels like the product of a 16-year-obsession that it very much is. Still, the palette is joyous, the lyrical fragments are quietly disturbing and the wizardry of pulling so many discordant sounds together remains impressive, even if the freshness is diminished.
The Critics Say: “It’s still another out-of-its-time, forensically assembled wonder.” The Quietus
116. Psychopomp by Japanese Breakfast
The 411: Time for a dose of dream pop, dose being the operative word. Japanese Breakfast don’t overstay their welcome as they deliver a slick 25-minutes of well crafted hooks and hazy, blended tones. Michelle Zauner wrote this album while dealing with her mother’s cancer diagnosis. This trauma only emerges on two tracks: the airy and optimistic “Heaven” and “Heft”, a lithely produced effort that speaks to both the mundanity of the experience (“spent my nights by hospital beds”) and the unavoidable fear (is this dark specter coming for me next?). The rest of the record is more carnally concerned, from sleeping with married men to waking up to breakfast in bed with boyfriend who wants to give head. Psychpomp flies from spritely highs to lingering lows in record time and is all the better for it, after all, why dwell?
The Critics Say: “at once cosmically huge and acutely personal, Zauner captures grief for the perversely intimate yet overwhelming pain it is.” Pitchfork
115. Pretty Years by Cymbals Eat Guitars
The 411: “You could drive a fleet of articulated lorries in the space between wild screams and satisfying swells of “Warning” – the single that introduced the world to 2014’s Lose – and “Have A Heart”, Pretty Years’ shimmering, lovestruck equivalent. This might worry Cymbals Eat Guitars obsessives, but the startling progression towards twinkling synthetics is the sign of a band unafraid to evolve in the search of a sound that best articulates their underlying themes. The results are absolutely thrilling: like a bunch of wild haired amateur emo-noiseniks have kicked Bruce and The E Street Band off the Tunnel Of Love, stolen their instruments and are content to bellow and pummel out their best life affirming ditties. The horn’s warped distorted cries are genuinely beautiful and, for a brief moment, Cymbals Eat Guitar appear to have occupied a more tuneful space to the right of Public Image Ltd. Pretty Years is a collection of haunted, under-baked, awkward, but unashamed riffs on New Wave (and the New Romantics). In the wrong hands, these songs could feel insulting or scornful, but Cymbals Eat Guitars remain artful and honest. They are not a natural fit for the sounds or scenes they are inhabiting – and that sense of dislocation creates wonderful tension and plenty of room experimentation. Cymbals Eat Guitars are natural miserabalists, but the tuneful and sneakily brilliant Pretty Years gives optimism a good old college try.”
The Critics Say: “Pretty Years is joyous, revelatory, and the moment where the varied sounds of those past three records all come together.” The A.V. Club
114. American Band by Drive-By Truckers
The 411: “Drive-By Truckers are not ones to shirk an issue. American Band is a direct and unflinching look at the state of America in 2016, with the band’s gaze focused intently on race and human struggle. Casting their sights far beyond the South, American Band feels like a collection of memories, thoughts and observations gathered on the road. Solutions are not the order of the day, nor are protest and anger; the Truckers (like so many Americans) are simply left bewildered by the way their nation is being pulled forward and held back. Rather than rolling up their sleeves and throwing punches, the band offer historical perspective and – if not wisdom – then a sense that wiser heads can and will prevail. Best of all, the music (rich in groove with an expansive sense of motion) conveys a stately sense of history that lends the songwriting potency without ever feeling stiff, sepia or decrepit. Quite the reverse, the heavy subject matter is delivered with a loose ease: as if a life long friend were sharing some long held convictions by the fireside or from the passenger seat.”
The Critics Say: “They have both found, on their eleventh album (and best since the early 2000s), a renewed purpose and direction in this time of existential crisis for America.” Exclaim!
113. No Burden by Lucy Dacus
The 411: Time to stare at our shoes once again, but not in gloom. Lucy Dacus might have the aura of a downbeat droner, but her music actually conveys a surprising amount of warmth and energy, even as she sings, “without you, I am surely the last of my kind”. Okay, so maybe she isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs and No Burden possesses moments where Dacus feels so listless she can barely summon the effort to strum her guitar, but even in this pits of despair the lyrics are sharp. No Burden is flecked with glimpses of brilliance – whether it’s a moment of conversational, confessional clarity (“oh please, don’t make fun of me/oh you know I get frightened so easily”) or a start-to-finish corker like “I Don’t Want To Be Funny Anymore” – stand out moments continue to crop up in short succession. The guitar work is the glue that binds: it’s arena ready when it needs to be (see the spell binding, slow burner “Maps On A Wall”), suitable grubby elsewhere (“Troublemaker Doppelganger”) and drunkenly lilts in the American barroom tradition on “Direct Address”.
“I don’t believe in love at first sight, maybe I would if you looked at me right”, Lucy’s words, but an apt summation of No Burden. Familiarity and cynicism might keep you at arms length, but listen long enough and her guitar will find the right note or the perfect couplet will trickle off her tongue and you’ll be hooked.
The Critic Say: “Her smooth, rich voice dances gracefully over the rougher guitar riffs and drums found all over No Burden, her extremely confident first full-length.” Exclaim!
112. Full Circle by Loretta Lynn
The 411: The elder statesmen of various genres have increasingly turned to covers records to rediscover inspiration (see earlier entrant Lonesome & Blue by The Rolling Stones), but few have addressed their own catalog. Loretta Lynn decided to do both at once and succeeds doubly. Full Circle is a selection of songs Loretta would sing since childhood that happen to speak profoundly to aging, reflection and death. Recorded en masse the featured tracks were plucked from hundreds and laid down with a simple, rustic accompaniment. The traditional covers are sublime. Loretta Lynn effectively stops time on Doris Day’s “Secret Love” – her version is rootsy and undercooked, but Lynn’s vocal still manages to give this little ditty the wallop of a Celine Dion showstopper – and her “Always On My Mind” is as tortured and obsessive as the song’s oft glossed over lyrics. When it comes to reimagining her own work she’s a maestro: switching tempos with ease, singing beautifully and carrying a warmth that shows stripping away layers doesn’t always lead to skeletal brutality. Full Circle is one of those great records that simultaneously shows how a legend artist can inform her modern peers (Jack White and Kings Of Leon for example) and be inspired by them in turn. “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”, despite lacking the twangy guitar part, absolutely blows the original out of the water and is one of the best songs released in 2016, period.
The Critics Say: “Fittingly, just as Lynn brought frankness to other topics, she brings it here to mortality.” Rolling Stone
111. Black America Again by Common
The 411: Cometh the moment, cometh the lyricist. Hip Hop was rightly ridiculed for descending from the lofty conscious rap heights of the mid-90s and embracing all sorts of trend chasing numbskullery. Some fantastic music was being made, but for a time it seemed like being the sound of the club, the charts and the criminal underworld had supplanted the desire to speak for the black community. There were always exceptions, Common himself most notably, and it has been genuinely thrilling to see so many artists from Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper to Blood Orange and Anderson .Paak embracing the struggle. Common can’t hope to compete with the modernist flair or hitmaking panache of his peers, but what he does have is righteous anger: the unshakeable credibility of having never abandoned the fight and some of the fiercest and most seriously soulful lyric sheets around. Common’s narratives weave beautifully towards big punchlines that will stick in your mind for days, but sometimes he surpasses his younger peers because he is unafraid to be blunt and directly state an absurdity or attentively reflect on his lover and her feelings.
The Critics Say: “Black America Again isn’t an album meant for casual listening, but rather a socio-politically charged album meant to be absorbed so that everyone can truly recognize the “Bigger Picture Called Freedom.”” Exclaim!
110. Sumerlands by Sumerlands
The 411: Power metal five-piece Sumerlands might revel in nostalgia, but good lord the music they make is positively riotous. The band clearly have an expert understanding of the sounds of the 70s and 80s: if you’ve ever enjoyed Queensryche, Ozzy’s solo career or, hell, Lizzy Borden, this is the album for you. Despite dripping with the ambition of old, Sumerlands’ self titled debut never feels studied or like feckless hero worship – every sinew of this LP strains and strides in the moment. Immediacy is paramount and there’s a wonderful, barely contained feel to the playing: “Timelash’s” cascading power chords and squirrelly solo just barely stay on the rails. If the sheer joy and bombast of the project doesn’t win you over, then consider the fact that Sumerlands represent a radical departure from the metal orthodoxy. Sure, the genre has always been obsessed with its past and indulges in hero worship that few other scenes would stomach, but it is genuinely rare to hear a modern band who don’t bare the influence of Bay Area Thrash or (to any significant extent) The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Sumerlands thrives in that murky middle ground between the end of the Sabbath, Zeppelin and Deep Purple era and the evolution that followed in Van Halen’s wake. Sumerlands bang out bulldozing tunes that flit between progressive rock and power pop without being as wonky as the former or braindead as the latter. The astute may have noted that this is essentially the territory claimed by Ozzy Osborne, Randy Rhodes and few others. In this light Sumerlands are thrillingly singular in modern metal. More importantly, they are loads of fun and that’s never to be underestimated.
The Critics Say: “It’s an exceptional record, and the barrier to entry isn’t age. It’s whether you can surrender yourself to Rizk’s charm as the new American Heavy Metal Master.” Pitchfork
109. Old Terrors by Esben & The Witch
The 411: Esben & The Witch have been on a slow burning journey from folksy fanaticism through stark minimalism to the grimey, creative wonderland that is Berlin – developing a grand, naturalistic sense of ambition as they went along. They’ve come along way from the scraggly support band of years past, their music now drifts outward like an insidious fog upon the moors. On “Slyvan”, the first of the four 10 minute plus tracks that make up Old Terrors, Esben & The Witch stretch outwards in slow motion: like stop motion footage of the roots of an old oak tree creeping and clawing their way into quagmire that surrounds them. These elongated soundscapes suit the band. They never feel like that are merely filling space or overtly taking their time, E&TW have uncovered their sweet spot and are exploring the natural nuances in their sound. Flickers of shoegaze and even doom inform their sound (especially the crescendos), but Old Terrors is about far more than perfect noise or a shadow coated mood – we stand alongside Rachel Davies on a desolate hillside, starring a the starlight sky and howling into, against and alongside our environment. When she cries, “come with me”, there is no choice but to reach out and take her hand.
The Critics Say: “Far from representing the moment at which EATW’s proggy, longform ambitions might have started to get the better of them, Older Terrors is an album that sees the group refine their approach to its purest form yet.” The Line Of Best Fit
108. Running Out Of Love by The Radio Dept.
The 411: Now this is refreshing. The Radio Dept. are one of those bands so intrenched in a single sound, with such a loyal niche indie audience, that they could have ploughed the same furrow for a lifetime, perfecting ever more minute nuances. Instead, Running Out Of Love sees the political obsessed dreamers wholeheartedly embrace the rhythm of the dance floor and a handful of sultry pop hooks. Sure, the duo still drift and linger like a perfumed haze, but now the rhythms pucker, prance and needle. Synths are free to stutter and gush, as Swede’s use their indie expertise to deconstruct the kitsch euro-pop of “Swedish Guns” and the Pet Shop Boys sound-alike “Bound To Happen”. There is a hint of knowing cynicism – the vocals certainly have a detached intellectual air that defies the joy inherent in these rhythms – but it’s hard to deny the pleasure in hearing forces so diametrically opposed merge together so seamlessly (“We Got Game”). There have been forerunners of this sound (see Swim by Odessa), but The Radio Dept. have their feet firmly rooted in indie and the lyrics are never subservient to the beat.
The Critics Say: “This is a darker, more direct take from a band that sees in pop music a place to distill their ideas.” Pretty Much Amazing
107. Statues by Black Peaks
The 411: Variety is the spice of life, but it’s also a crutch for too many rock bands. It’s all too easy in today’s era of genre hoping open-mindedness to showcase the ability to competently imitate a variety of styles and claim artistic kudos – “my music may be mediocre, but I can turn my hand to any style and, what’s more, my record collection is impeccable”. Black Peaks no doubt have an impeccable record collection, but the thrill of Statues is how cohesively it blends a host of micro-genres with mainstream alternative rock on one end, and the most spacey, naval gazing post-metal on the other. There is no occasion on which a Black Peaks songs sounds like a demonstrations, each new discovery and every detour bleeds into and out of its predecessor. Like Refused The Shape Of Punk To Come, the wild experimentation feels organic; rooted around a proud and prominent vocal performance that dictates the accompaniment. When Will Gardner sings a clean verse the rhythm section is punchy, but uncluttered: when he strains to ponder existence itself, dense layers are added and – of course – when he screams, all hell breaks loose. Statues is a rollercoaster of desolate lows and lung busting highs, but each twist, turn, dive and crash is rigidly dictated by mood and emotion. Therefore, the Black Peaks have created an album of wild variety and ambition that proves coherent and relatable on human level.
The Critics Say: “The new wave of prog gets off to a winning start” Team Rock
106. Goodness by The Hotelier
The 411: The Hotelier’s transition from a scene band (emo) to the kind of act that speaks with an all American profundity appears complete. Goodness is a scraggly and urgent garage rock record. The guitars drip with a poignancy that makes each second feel essential. This an intriguing atmosphere for frontman Christian Holden to operate within, his lyrics are particular, bruising and intimate. His words are often low key in their embrace of deeply personal spaces. The wild histrionics and melodramatic bleakness of albums past is (largely) rejected, in favor of a more holistic approach. Holden finds himself walking around New England, taking in the landscape and reflecting on life and trying to feel alive once more. This all happens atop clattering and juddering arrangements that would not feel out of place on a Titus Andronicus or Pinegrove record (were it not for a light wash that gives the entire project an autumnal glow). Ultimately, Goodness is the sound of a group of despondent souls reconciling themselves to find some joy in life – using both the sepia tinged and darkly contorted memories of old to discover a new sense of direction. Can Emo really be Emo if it has its feet firmly on the ground and its (emotionally speaking) head screwed on straight? This might be the abiding question The Hotelier leave us to consider.
The Critics Say: “It’s a record that, by its end, is a profound statement. It just requires a little patience for it to be heard.” The A.V. Club
105. Fall Forever by Fear Of Men
The 411: Jangle be gone! DIY shabbiness, shove off! Brighton’s Fear Of Men have embraced a steely synth severity and thrust Jess Weiss’ vocal to the forefront as they slide in slow motion from one track to the next. The synthetic snap of the percussion speaks to Depeche Mode or New Order, but the cheek and coyness of those bands is entirely absent. Fall Forever is severe: an album that (albeit beautifully) wants to stick in your craw. Repetition of theme is clear and the power of Weiss’ voice and the starkness of her lyrics are rendered unavoidable. So much of Fall Forever concerns lingering – whether that’s dwelling on a dense fog of alien noise, a spluttering drum blast or a flesh splitting lyric. Almost every extraneous element has been removed; bells and whistles do not exist in this world, only Weiss and her doomed love. The album invites rejection, but if you follow that siren call out into the mist, you risk falling forever.
The Critics Say: “There’s still plenty of room for Fear of Men to grow, but without outside influence, they’re already masters of a unique craft.” DIY
104. Here by Alicia Keys
The 411: There’s a tangible feeling that Alicia Keys has been spinning her wheels since releasing “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)” in 2009. In that single track it appeared that Ms Keys had reached her inevitable destination: the perfect hybrid of modernist pop, classic soul, raw intimate emotion and smooth, easy listening croon. It was the sound of an artist having her cake and eating it too: achieving everything she conceivable could, all at once and – while she’s had considerable success since (see “Girl On Fire”) – she’s never felt essential since. Until now that is. Here is raw, loose and willfully under produced in places (her piano sounds like it’s set in an underground bar or hotel ballroom rather than a studio). Alicia is full of fire and unconcerned with writing hits. Instead she lets her soul flow. She doesn’t have Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill or Stevie Wonder’s ability to give pain and depravity a fresh and insightful voice, but Keys does have the power and musicianship to vibe with a purity of intention. This is the kind of album that will have sage old heads nodding their approval and will see young fans taken aback at the notion of a slick, mainstream artist defiantly ditching the safety wheels.
The Critics Say: “Alicia Keys decided to make something so raw, so honest, so palpable, that it should be all but impossible for soul music lovers to ignore this release.” PopMatters
103. Spiritual Songs For Lovers To Sing by LUH
The 411: LUH, aka Lost Under Heaven (for those struggling on Spotify), are fronted by Ellery Roberts of Wu Lyf fame. His former band was famous and, eventually, infamous for its marketing stunts, but also for a brilliant release: Go Tell Fire To The Mountain. By teaming up artist Ebony Hoorn (his girlfriend), the duo have created a “passion project” that is more than a lover’s indulgence. The pair have the shockingly primal hallmarks of Wu Lyf and a unique flair for visuals, but the foul air of insincerity that clouded Ellery’s old work is long gone. Spiritual Songs For Lovers is comprised of bold, towering and willfully melodramatic music. Ellery is free to roar, howl and let the spittle fly as he works himself into howling quasi-religious rages against dark gothic backdrops. It’s a sharp contrast. The music is ominous, but otherwise stripped of emotion and color. It’s Ellery’s job to inject the humanity into the project and that he does, hurling himself against the walls of the industrial institution they’ve erected around him.
The Critics Say: “They avoid the placid, disillusioned platitudes that can befall music like this, earning the catharsis they strive for.” Consequence Of Sound
102. The Dreaming Room by Laura Mvula
The 411: When Laura Mvula was nominated for the Sound Of 2013 shortlist, it’s fair to say most critics had the Birmingham singer pegged for the kind of elegant soul that’s usually played on BBC Radio 2. Tenderly sung, suitably thoughtful, dinner party music: it’s dismissive, but that’s where the chips seemed to fall for an otherwise fascinating star. Well, mercifully, The Dreaming Room shatters any mild mannered illusions. Laura Mvula has crafted an album whose beauty is tantalizingly fragile, even as its sentiments speak to immovable inner fortitude. Rather than settling in alongside a legion of retro-soul specialists pedaling expertly observed nostalgia, Mvula enters the stop-motion world of Kate Bush and the abstract electronic hinterland of Julia Holter. The struggle is all too real, but the sonic landscape is glorious: made of shimmering spider webs and springy disco guitars (courtesy of Nile Rodgers no less). This friction between the dream-like orchestral world and the allure of the glitter ball (best exemplified by the closing combo “People” and “Phenomenal Woman”) electrifies a wonderfully unexpected LP. From this point on, Laura Mvula is not to be underestimated and never to be dismissed.
The Critics: “With Sing to the Moon, Laura Mvula set a new standard for 21st century soul. With this follow-up, she’s raised that standard higher.” Mojo
101. Synthia by The Jezabels
The 411: The Jezabels third and finest album to date is palatial feminist masterwork. Synthia isn’t seething with anger (although there is plenty of tension on this record), instead it’s a record of slow swells, philosophical pleads and textural exploration. Nothing is quite as it seems. On “Smile” Hayley Mary deadpans, “you can whistle at me on the street when I am walking” – she’s steadfast and sensual enough to stomach such gawking, but she has a line that cannot be crossed: “don’t tell me to smile”. This blend of the impersonal and subconscious is fascinating on an unflappable album, sick of being told how act and how to groom themselves, the line is often drawn at being told how to feel. Elsewhere, The Jezabels fiercely thoughtful spin on being a female rockstar takes a back seat to icily intricate constructions (“A Message From My Mothers Passed”, “Natural”) and brilliant pop music (“My Love Is My Disease”). Frontwoman Halyey Mary took a six months leave of Californian hedonism before recording Synthia and the result is an album fuelled by carnal delight and sexual maturity, but one whose moral compass not only remains intact, but has been considerably reinforced. “Pleasure Drive” and “Smile” cohere perfectly; as true to one another in ethos as they are in sound.
The Critics Say: “Like all truly great artists, it seems that The Jezabels are not content to remain still – and with their third full length release, they’ve evolved into the best version of themselves that we’ve ever heard” Sputnikmusic