411’s Top 200 Albums Of 2016 (#150-126)
Also feel free to press play on our Spotify Playlist so you can listen to and (hopefully) enjoy a taster of our favorite albums of 2016.
150. Vroom Vroom by Charli XCX
The 411: This was an incredibly tough call. PC Music and the wild child of warehouse parties (who’s torn between future obsession and 90s nostalgia), Charli XCX, seem like natural bedfellows – but do we really want to turn one of this generation’s most engagingly OTT popstars into a school girl automaton? The immediate impulse is to scream: no! Charli has too much to offer to see a producer turn her into an anodyne, fan-fic facsimile of a pop star, but then you listen to Vroom Vroom once, then again, and again and then – a pause and inspite of some doubts – you press play once more. Charli should return to her old songwriting self in due course, but for a brief diversion it’s hard to deny the joy inherent in this release. PC Music is probably on its last legs (before a major evolution at least), but this could arguably be it’s pop peak: every beat bangs and Charli makes sure the hooks land. There’s a joy to hearing Hannah Diamond and Charli XCX sing side by side, one sounds like the artificial child of a satirist and the other like she’s going to puke up half a bottle of vodka when the recording is finished. If Vroom Vroom proves anything, it’s that neither major labels nor precision producers can stop Charli XCX flying off the rails and creating music that will stick in your subconscious for months at a time.
The Critics Say: “The most exciting thing about Vroom Vroom is that it doesn’t actually feel like a bold new direction foreshadowing a major career left-turn for Charli. It just feels like her having a 12-minute laugh with a similarly brilliant collaborator, whizzing past you and burning rubber — before getting back to business on LP3.” Spin
149. How To Be A Human Being by Glass Animals
The 411: Considering that I’ve been a critic of Alt-J, it’s perhaps surprising that I’ve managed to so heartedly enjoy the band, Glass Animals, who have been repeatedly labeled as their sound-alikes. Truth be told, I find How To be A Human Being impossible to resist despite the artwork and a title that seems smug and knowing. Based on conversations singer David Bayley secretly recorded, Glass Animals have managed to cut and paste together an album that functions as vibrant and joyous collage on an instrumental level and a vessel for 21st Century insecurities thematically. The borrowed beats and overplayed ideas (some xx guitars) might occasionally grate, but Glass Animals make sure to keep the tempo and mood spritely – so no one negative can sink the ship. They might not be particularly original, but in their commitment to serving up a smorgasbord of lyrics and sound that are confessional and confounding respectively, the Oxford fourpiece ensure that the good times roll on. The grooves prove so thick and sexy that, for the time being, I’m willing to look past the fact that How To Be A Human Being plays like a Flight Of The Conchords parody of a too cute by half indie band.
The Critics Say: “On ‘How To Be A Human Being’, the four Oxford dudes have found bigger and broader stomping grounds, stepping out of ‘Zaba’’s intoxicating murk and into the glare of a strange new reality.” NME
148. What One Becomes by Sumac
The 411: What One Becomes is very much a rubber meets the road moment. Everyone can agree that Sumac are a fascinating proposition who are using their compositional daring and ungodly heaviness to push and pull doom in new directions. The trouble, of course, is that we don’t appreciate music in theory, we experience it in real life and when you press play on What Becomes One there are two reactions: a) this is the most deftly forged and inspiring slab of obsidian emptiness I’ve ever heard or b) well it might be clever, but who actually wants to be stuck with this clanking monstrosity for an hour. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. It’s hard to deny the primitive majesty of the grim scrapes and clangs within Sumac’s gravelly grooves, but just as a sense of dynamism emerges: the band snuff it out with a hailstorm of toneless wrath. Are these shocking diversions designed to catch the listener off guard or dire compositional decisions that extinguish the very life of the music? It’s hard to say, ask me on a Tuesday and I’m blown away, press play on a Thursday and I can’t stomach it. There is simply so much brilliant sound to be found What One Becomes – whether it’s a record that can be truly loved, however, is too difficult to say.
The Critics Say: “It’s hard to imagine a better metal record coming out this year.” A.V. Club
147. Mangy Love by Cass McCombs
The 411: In 2016 Cass McCombs is making both the most resplendent and inconsistent music of his career to date. Mangy Love is an album of psycheldelic ditties and arms-length political analysis. Cass is too caught in the reverb and ripples of his own personal woes to truly be on the front line of cultural upheaval, but he’s just removed enough to offer some perceptive insights for our troubled times. Of course, Cass would be more convincing both in his beauty and his misery, if he’d left the appalling “Rancid Girl” on the cutting room floor. It’s honestly hard to think of a worse song on a better album. Like many modern songwriters the urge to experiment with the old in search of the new leads to imitation of tropes that were bad then, but worse now (pan pipes, faux-regae, wanky bass, blah sax – and that’s just one song by the way). So why am I dwelling on Mangy Love’s failings, isn’t this a best of list after all? Well yes, and that’s the point: there is no bigger testament to the overall quality of Mangy Love than to point out its ability to overcome even the most leaden of material. “Bum Bum Bum”, “Opposite House”, “Cry”, “Run Sister Run”, “Medusa’s Outhouse” and “Switch” prove perfect palette cleansers, making Mangy Love – however improbably – one of 2016’s finest releases.
The Critics Say: “The creative zeal McCombs displays on Mangy Love, and his willingness to take some chances, even if low stakes, engages both the heart and the mind.” Ripcord
146. Blue Mountain by Bob Weir
The 411: Returning to his solo career after a decade is Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and he’s not alone. To help him with his latest selection of Cowboy songs the veteran has roped in Josh Ritter and The National. However, despite the help of three of the finest indie songwriters, the album’s undisputed highlight is a Weir original: “Ki-Yi Bossie”, a weathered, but charmingly sorrowful ditty about a recovering alcoholic reflecting on his faltering attempts to find meaning in his youth. The rest of the album is rarely that flippant, but it is equally charming. Weir is set against skeletal arrangements, normally his acoustic guitar, a light electric wash and a choir when necessary. The result is not severity, but a fatherly warmth. Weir is telling tales of his own fumbled youth while flashing a reassuring smile. There’s an aura of rustic relaxation that permeates the LP, best expressed in “Gonesville’s” gorgeous solo, which appears to happen, not in slow motion, but a second later than expected – as if the entire record were saying: “woah there, relax young fella”.
The Critics Say: “Weir, who could’ve kept on truckin’ with various iterations of the Dead, chose instead to strike out on a new adventure — not unlike he did, so many years ago, when he headed to Wyoming — and produced a moving group of tunes worthy of any campfire.”
145. More Issues Than Vogue by K. Michelle
The 411: If More Issues Than Vogue teaches us anything, it’s that K. Michelle pulls no punches and she damn sure doesn’t take any prisoners. As much as we might love Miguel’s warm loving take on relationships or How To Dress Well’s confessional artistry, sometimes you just want to sit back and listen to a badass with a broken heart take aim at any and every problem in her life. More Issues Than Vogue is cocksure in the extreme. K. Michelle oozes braggadocio making sure that every snappy put down is juxtaposed with a prideful affirmation and a slickly display of vocal control. That’s not to say that album is a brash trap inspired assault of mindless sloganeering. K. Michelle is still a balladeer and she can flip the switch between staccato aggression and silky drift at any point (as she does masterfully on “Ain’t You”) and in certain lights she appears a natural heir to Mary J. Blidge’s throne. There are uneven moments, but the peaks (“Mindful”, “If It Ain’t Love”, “Make A Bed”, etc…) eviscerate the troughs.
The Critics Say: “On More Issues Than Vogue, Michelle’s third album, the performer and musician delivers her most affecting, skillful, and innovative record yet.” Pitchfork
144. In Search Of Harperfield by Emma Pollock
The 411: Emma Pollock could stand accused of cheating. Throughout her career, both with and without Delgados, she has employed orchestral swells and sweeping strings to lend her post-rock landscapes a sense of cinematic grandeur. The music is so luscious that it conveys upon the artist a stately air they may not have earned, but the brilliance of In Search Of Harperfield lies in Pollock’s ability to equal and even surpass her supreme surroundings. The insular tales of motherhood and aging are rich in drama and full of silent discontent. Pollock broods, wrenching every last ounce of theatricality out of her, at times, Bond worthy accompaniments (“Alabaster”). She keeps her audience guessing with sharp deviations (these tracks bitterly refuse to stay in her lane) and a lyric sheet that demands attention, staving off any sense of aimless artistic drift.
The Critics Said: “A poignant but punchy triumph then, perfectly timed for mid-winter maladies.” The Skinny
143. Transcendence by Devin Townsend Project
The 411: What could Devin Townsend achieve if he worked with a more contemporary and edgy set of tones? It’s a question worth asking; because few critics would argue the technical qualities, pop nous or ambition of Transcendence. If these exact songs were given a brooding black metal makeover would the world lose its collective mind over the veteran guitarist and songwriter? There is no sense in worrying, for better or worse, Devin carries the air of naffness that we encountered when discussing Elton John earlier in this countdown and it doesn’t bother him in the slightest. He’s cranking out music, along with his collaborators who were brought into the songwriting process this time out, that is arena ready and expansive. It’s hard to listen to “Stormbending” and not be swept away by both the drama and the tranquility of it all. Transcendence is an album whose bigness might appear preposterous on paper, but never feels over stated when listening from start to finish. The blend of symphonic rock, power pop, glimpses of brutal metal and plenty of naval gazing prog is sumptuous. The textures lack the inherent darkness and natural beauty of black metal or pillowy embrace of dream pop, but what they lack in texture, the recoup in theatrical grandeur. Transcendence does what it says on the tin: it effortlessly transcends the grand designs of its peers.
The Critics Say: “Townsend has set such an impossibly high standard and this is another excellent entry in a catalog brimming with them.” AllMusic
142. SORCERESS BY OPETH
The 411: “When Opeth unveiled the faintly medieval, troubadour-esque tones that underlie some Sorceress best cuts, we here at 411 were skeptical. Could Opeth really offer the kind of thrills to rival works like Iron Maiden’s “Dance Of Death” and, more importantly, would this shticky prog-prop sit well alongside their dense, technically ferocious sludge? The answer is undeniably yes. Sorceress might not touch the individual songwriting highs of album’s past, but this might just be the most gorgeous sounding and strictly pleasurable listen of Opeth’s career to date – and that’s quite the statement. It’s testament to Swede’s sense of control that they can fold in a diverse array of disjunct sounds and jagged rhythms into satisfying wholes – songs like “The Wilde Flowers” threaten to devolve into meandering work outs for technical obsessives, but serenely careen from abstract forms into silky hooks and through sumptuous solos. There are galloping flourishes and murkier moments, but Sorceress is unambigiously prog – this will trouble some fans and cause trepidation among newcomers – but make no mistake, this admittedly lengthy album is worth your time and attention.”
The Critics Say: “Sonically warm and sparkling, Sorceress marks another high point for a band that keep defying the odds by making silly old prog rock sound stupidly exciting and audacious.” The Guardian
141. Love You To Death by Tegan & Sara
The 411: In the blink of an eye synth pop went from a quirky retro-revival to one of the most overstuffed genres in of all of music. Tegan & Sara might well be intimidated, they’ve gone from being off on their own to battling for breathing room amongst European chart toppers and Brooklyn innovators. Love You To Death is proof they needn’t of worried, if they ever did. Tegan & Sara’s latest lacks the king of stonkingly obvious hits that shot Years & Years to superstardom in 2015, instead it’s the kind of album that showcases an absolute mastery of craft. Similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-Mo-Tion, Love You To Death is effective perfection: an artifact of pure pop. The kind of album that could play on loop in the Pompidou Center under heading The Intricacy Of Simplicity. There’s a depth of intimacy that permeates the album, but Tegan & Sara are not interested in overawing the listener. There are genuine highs and lows, but extremes are not exploited. There’s a snappy joy in the very ordinary, unshowy nature of the pop. Every line is addictive, so why plead and prostrate yourself? The subtle hooks imbed the album’s themes of friendship and hearbroken obsession in you subconscious better than any protracted torch song ever could.
The Critics Say: If Heartthrob was a test to see if T&S could fill stadiums and hold their own against Taylor Swift or Katy Perry, then Love You to Death considers it passed with flying colors.” Spin
140. Arktis. By Ihsahn
The 411: Genre fusion has become cliché in 2016. The blending of wildly contrasting styles can still provide intrigue and inspiration in the right hands, but with so many crosspollinations happening in so many genres the excitement that once surrounded these projects has been replaced by inertia. Lucky then, that there are still multi-instrumentalists as good and experienced as Ihsahn to deliver the giddy delights of experimentation without sacrificing coherence or competence. Arktis. is a wildly diverse album, just when you think you’ve got your head around its wonderfully elastic rhythms and pitilessly black vocals, Insahn throws you completely off balance with the airy sax driven softy, “Crooked Red Line”: a song that has the historic stench of the Parisian streets and hardly a whiff of dark corrupted cathedrals. Better still, this diversion is followed by a ballad, which, before the pummelling instrumentation arrives, feels like a Satanist answer to Chris De Burgh. These surprises not withstanding, Arktis. is brutal and brilliantly composed album full of operatic dynamism and nightmarish guitars that leave only scar tissue in their wake. Not to mention a healthy number of effective hooks (“South Winds”) and danceable (“Disassembled”) or head-bang-able (“Until I Dissolve”) rhythms. Remarkably it all holds together with Insahn preposterous vocal serving as an anchor – he plays it, albeit very theatrically, straight.
The Critics Say: “It might not all resonate, but that’s okay: true musicianship is not really about obtaining perfection, but the journey towards it, and Arktis is a thoroughly fascinating one.” Exclaim!
139. Cam & China by Cham & China
The 411: Now this is utterly seamless, Inglewood twins Cam & China are immaculately attuned as they interchange rhymes. Most rap duos tend to either be split between the talent (Pusha T) and partner whose deficiencies are hidden while their strengths are showcased (Malice). When fortune favors a duo, they might both be world class talents, but rarely do they match each other so exactly, instead, the best duos often thrive through stark juxtaposition (see Outkast). Hell, even when a (in this case trio) are so aesthetically coherent that their flow has a singular name (i.e. Migos), they still have a standout talent (Quavo). Not so for Cam & China, instead they are two inseparable jigsaw pieces, you can flip them round as fast as you like, bend them into new shapes, but they always fit back together, nice and snug. In that case, shouldn’t this seven track stand sound like a solo work? Well it should, but it doesn’t. Cam and China is wholly coherent, but the thrill of sparky interaction still permeates each verse. The music is simply stellar, picking up on YG’s blend of classic G-Funk bravado and DJ Mustard-esque club ready jams, Cam & China add some slick R&B ooze without undermining the West Coast menace.
The Critics Say: “It teeters between certainty and desperation, the way your ego probably does when you’re sketching out your own five-year plan. The difference is you could never rap this well.” Pitchfork
138. Joanne by Lady Gaga
The 411: Joanne is the album that everyone and absolutely no one wanted. Excluding the circles of Monsters who always want Gaga to cave in to her excesses, embracing preposterousness at every turn, music fans have been regurgitating some variation of, “Lady Gaga has such an amazing voice, if only she’d ditch all the craziness and play it straight”, for years. Joanne, a tribute to her aunt, does just that. The pop and dance elements are barebones; in their stead Gaga offers cockeyed illusions to Americana (no Jazz though) and the star of the show is a noticeably under produced vocal. Surely, giving the Internet exactly what it wanted resulted in gigantic sales and overnight success: well not so much, Joanne has endured sluggish commercial performance (by Gaga’s standards). Nor is this quite the record the world hoped for, it’s certainly good – Joanne is beautifully and bombastically sung and populated with some lovely personal songs – but it’s not as profound or as grimey as so many hoped. So how do we reflect on this comparatively intimate collection? Joanne is raw and bulldozingly sung collection of direct (largely) unadorned pop songs whose hooks land with satisfying regularity: it might not stop the world, but since when did that become the standard by which we judge pop records?
The Critics Say: “By abandoning the dance club for the dive bar, she may have tossed aside her status as a pop star once and for all. But Gaga has emerged as something better and truer.” Pretty Much Amazing
137. Double Dare by Waterparks
Genre: Pop Punk
The 411: Pop Punk has always been a critical conundrum. Filled the repetition of tried and true power chords and (often contrived) lyrical juvenilia, it is often as hard to find merit in the music as it is to deny the devastatingly addictive power of its choruses. For a good few years the scene’s biggest stars (You And Me At Six) have tried to embrace Emo’s legacy and a richer alternative sound to add emotional depth to a genre which had been seemingly discredited as a mainstream force. The results were occasionally intriguing, but more often muddy, lacking both the shameless joy of old and the artistry of their indie and alternative peers. Mercifully, Waterparks reject all that, Double Dare is concerned with one thing, and one thing only: imbedding its every hook, riff and crescendo in your cranium. Despite embracing a goading silliness and cloying immediacy, Waterparks appear genuinely sincere and almost sweet in their adolescent trouble making. “You’re a symphony, I’m just a sour note”, hits home precisely because it’s embedded in a bounce along single named “Stupid For You”.
The Critics Say: “if you like pop-rock and you’re not afraid of being a little weird, you need to listen to ‘Double Dare’. Like, now.” Rock Sound
136. Mykki by Mykki Blanco
The 411: It’s been four long years since queer rap burst into the mainstream and Mykki rode a wave of publicity and her own insta-bangers “Wavvy” and “Haze.Boogie.Life” to notoriety. In that time the hubbub has receded and Mykki stands as an artist throwing ‘bows and competing for oxygen now the easy column inches that accompanied a hot debut have dissipated. Despite bearing the influence of Danny Brown, Mykki cannot compete with the Detroit native’s wild flows in terms of either intricacy or (believe it or not) eccentricity, instead Blanco thrives by pulling the listen into a gender-fluid world of supreme self-confidence and crippling self doubt. The fractious borders between joy and despair, bravado and brutality, are there for all to see. Mykki is the kind of warped record that you’ll find crying in the corner, but before you can even considered consoling it, the album will be at your throat with a jagged shard of glass. “The Plug Won’t” holds the key to Mykki, she might be intoning, “Who needs love”, but the album’s every sinew is screaming: “what is love doing to me!”
The Critics Say: “Blanco’s voice – both actual and figurative – straddles multiple moods, alternating guttural hip-hop flow with an unexpectedly soulful falsetto and his own speaking voice.” The Observer
135. Bonito Generation by Kero Kero Bonito
The 411: Kero Kero Bonito pick up the PC Music gauntlet and push the sweetly subversive sound to its absolute extreme. Employing the usual mix of chopped synthetic sounds, syrupy childlike vocals and a healthy dose of faux K-Pop naiveté, KKB ironically glare at their audience, adamantly refusing to break character. The sparkly effects and punchy rhythms do little to hide the irony: KKB satirize a society obsessed with projecting sublime and feckless façades, by offer nothing but an incredulous surface of their own. These gaudy sugar smacks would prove mind numbing if they were not so immaculately observed and if Bonito Generation wasn’t absolutely stacked with hooks. Yes, this might be the sonic equivalent of vomiting a digitized rainbow and retweeting a utopian 90s girl group video, but damn if it doesn’t work on every level.
The Critics Say: “Fine-tuning the subversive attitude behind their naive front, KKB rides the narrow frequency that sits between uncritical pop product and art school radio” Ting Mix Tapes
134. Little Seeds by Shovels & Rope
The 411: Shovels & Rope are at the peak of their powers. They may not be a revolutionary force (the apple cart can rest easy), but the chemistry and control Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearts exude is phenomenal. Their vocals fit like a glove. The counterpoints are perfectly timed, but this effortless elision doesn’t come at the expense of friction. The music is spikey and, compared to their country peers, there’s a wonderful recklessness to their sound: “Botched Execution” is as frenzied as “St. Anne’s Parade” is poignantly poised. At this point, Shovels & Rope feel like Americana’s answer to synth pop stars Tegan & Sara, they don’t need to sell out stadiums to assert their genius. The music is contained, exchanging wild expansiveness for absolute, exacting perfectionism. There simply isn’t a bum note to be found on Little Seeds, even when the vocals stretch and strain they only serve to add some rustic authenticity to an immaculately observed collection which overflows with bleak personal reflections and sharp hooks. Don’t let the creaking floorboards fool you; Little Seeds is sleek and seductive pop music.
The Critics Say: “It is, in fact, a portrait of life’s triumphs and travails, its joys and sorrows rendered in wholly compelling detail.” Uncut
133. Revolution Radio by Green Day
The 411: Revolution Radio serves as skillfully executed triple play for Green Day. First the band go back to basics as overarching concepts are ditched (there’s no opera, no triple album, plenty of defiant statements, but no melodramatic themes). Secondly, despite streamlining their ambitions back toward the kind of bristling razor-edged pop-punk fit to rattle rambunctiously around arenas and soar high over stadium skylines, the band still find room to expand their palette (R.E.M. and The Who sit alongside the usual Clash and Cheap Tricks reference points). Finally, the scope for political outrage is back as the band react to savage shootings (see the brilliant single “Bang Bang”) and appear ready to burn the whole country (let alone the system) down – just in time for a Trump presidency. The result is a riotous hook laden treat: now that might sound like par for a mid-40s Green Day, but after a few hit and miss offerings, Revolution Radio is welcome course correction.
The Critics Say: “Revolution Radio isn’t just hot nostalgia. It reflects decades of accrued emotional and musical wisdom.” Rolling Stone
132. Post-Pop Depression by Iggy Pop
The 411: Is this Iggy Pop’s final statement? I severely doubt it, for one Post-Pop Depression is clearly the work of a functioning artist thinking not about finality, but the here and now. Furthermore, every aspect of Iggy Pop’s five decade long career suggests that the topless innovator is incapable of sitting still, let alone stopping. Instead, Post-Pop Depression is an album that flits between the Bowie collaborator who penned “Nightclubbing” in 1977 and the airless, new wave balladeer of 1979’s New Values. That might not sound progressive and, well, Post-Pop Depression simply isn’t: instead, it’s a murky rocker that lingers, crawls and ironically sticks in the listener’s craw. Iggy’s fragile, needling voice sits defiantly in the foreground, leering atop arrangements that are simultaneously playful and bleak. The high points (“American Valhalla”, “Gardenia”, “Sunday”) soar above pretty much everything else, but this is a pleasing, coherent collection that recreates Iggy’s revolutionary period and searches for direction as the star mourns, not his own career, but his great mentor’s death.
The Critics Say: “Post Pop Depression is every bit as startling, both in sound, and end-of-days openness” Mojo
131. Moth by Chairlift
The 411: Now this is an absolute gut punch. Moth by Chairlift is a really good record, in a different context it would be a joyous, breazy listen and a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, Moth’s release was foreshadowed by “Moth To The Flame” and “Ch-Ching” two of the absolute best indie-pop singles imaginable – it couldn’t be helped, expectations were raised and no matter how high Caroline and Patrick jumped they couldn’t clear that bar. It’s a shame, but it shouldn’t be dwelt upon, because what we have before us is a gorgeous pop record that takes the band’s dry and serious synths and shoots them through with standing funk guitars and rich, rising horns. The sensation of hearing these sounds collide as Caroline cuts looser than ever before on vocals is thrilling. “Polymorphing” is a brilliant song, one of Chairlift’s career best works, but that annoying little voice still whispers: “yeah, but the hooks not as good as Ch-Ching’s now is it?” Taken on its own merits, Moth is a remarkable successor to 2012’s Nothing. This is the sound of a duo throwing open the doors of possibility and discovering sides of their personality that no one knew existed. Chairlift could go anywhere from this point (including to pop stardom) and that’s thrilling for a band who were once so intriguing, but seemingly caught in one somber synth pop bubble.
The Critics Say: “Moth is a breezy, immensely enjoyable pop record that provides just the amount of pep that you’ll need to make it through the winter.” Pretty Much Amazing
130. 2 by Mudcrutch
The 411: No matter how freely Tom Petty experiments with folk or jam aesthetics he cannot shake the aura of an all American icon. On Mudcrutch’s debut, when the band tried to summon a 17th Century British sound on “Shady Grove”, Petty still had the aura of man dressed head to toe in stonewashed denim who just so happened to be walking through a medieval farye. For better or worse, Petty will always carry a weight of blue collar poetry and grit under nails, even as he tries to shake things up. On Mudcrutch 2, the band give up fighting it and write loose rock songs that could well be Heartbreakers hits. “Dreams Of Flying” is a big stadium sized juggernaut disguised as jaunt through rural Americana. Mudcrutch might not be able to escape the shadow of their famous frontman, but they still manage to have plenty of fun: “Welcome To Hell” is a wonderful mix of boogie woogie, skiffle, rockabilly and power pop. The result is a track that’s fit for an uber camp musical in all the best ways. The southern rock and country flourishes may not dislocate Petty from his comfort zone, instead they add an earthy emotional depth to the star’s slick songwriting and remove a stiffness from the sound, replacing it with easy sauntering Southern sweat (see “Beautiful Blue”).
The Critics Say: “The new album is as fiery and romantic as a youthful tryst, a rock ’n’ roll experience unsullied by the inevitable passage of time and unspoiled by the burden of experience.” The Boston Globe
129. STAGE FOUR BY TOUCH AMORE
The 411: “The first of two albums inspired by personal tragedy to feature on this countdown (in this case the death of a mother), Stage Four is not a soul crushing cavalcade of nihilistic screams and soul sapping blackness. Instead, Stage Four proves oddly optimistic if not down right inspiring. The compositions are spritely and littered with confessional masterstrokes: “New Halloween” is almost too quotable, picking a single line feels like a betrayal of a wonderfully detailed tale of grief spread across a year. Not every admission is profound or even unique (we can all relate to the idea of having to skip certain songs on certain albums), but these universal moments strengthen the link between artist and audience before a crippling personal anecdote is loosed (Jeremy Bolm still hasn’t managed to listen to his mother’s finally message). Stage Four swings between outbursts in the face of injustice (God is cursed) and moments of solace, nostalgia and wistful progression. The extremes of grief and reconciliation come to a head on “Skyscrapper” – a teary eyed reflection set to the shoegaze ripples whose crescendo is an explosion of primal scream therapy set against Julien Baker’s steady folk vocals. Touch Amore ultimately prove that life does indeed go on, but anguish cannot and should not be outrun.”
The Critics Say: “It’s a painful record and one that becomes just as personal to its listeners as it is to its maker, thanks in part to the scene’s connective tissue.” A.V. Club
128. 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
127. Utopia Undefeated by D.D. Dumbo
Genre: Art Pop
The 411: D.D. Dumbo is a fascinating proposition. His vocal, which tends to rub some people up the wrong way, is reminiscent of Sting at his absolute naffest, but also at his most ambitious (i.e. the do yoga naked in the wilderness Sting of the 90s). If the singer’s voice is equal parts alluring and agitating, then his wildly inventive compositions follow suit. Sitting somewhere between The Talking Heads and Dirty Projects, Dumbo finds fantastic rhythms mixing artificial elements with desert guitars and jarring pipes. The general feel is buoyant and joyous. The music might be artificial contrived with its tightly wound rhythms, but it also has the freshness of the breeze and an airy, earthy expansiveness. If this is all sounding a little trippy, wait till we get to the lyric sheet. Animal rights, UFOs, devil worship and the decay of our oceans are all given an airing atop arrangements that speak to a lightness of mood. Still, rather than proving abrasive or, worse, comical, Utopia Undefeated remains a treat. D.D. Dumbo’s masterpiece is surprising at every turn and too cute by half, but in a way that grudgingly earns the audience’s respect, rather than keeping them at arms length. Wittingly or not, Dumbo has forged strangely magnificent spiritual successor to A Brand New Day’s throne – no one on earth was asking for an heir, but now it’s here, it’s kind of marvelous.
The Critics Say: “He is undoubtedly an absurdly talented fellow and has the creative potential to make a truly groundbreaking album. This isn’t that, but it is a strong debut.” The 405
126. Night Thoughts by Suede
The 411: Credit where it’s due, Suede’s reunion has been an unquestioned success. It’s not so much that they’ve returned to please fields full of nostalgia crazed fans – there has been plenty of that to be fair – but that Brett Anderson and co have so effortlessly returned to writing and recording music that rivals and, in places, surpasses their mid-90s pomp. 2013’s Bloodsport was the triumphant return, but Night Thoughts is not the victory lap (although it very well could be) instead it represents the next mile in a race that is nowhere near run. Tender and yearning, Brett Anderson is positively youthful. The music might have a stately air, but the vocals are as androgynous and intriguing as ever. Broken by obsession Night Thoughts masterfully echoes its artwork as the listener is plunged into a dark pool of conflicting urges and bitter self-doubts. At moments Suede thrash despairingly, in others they succumb and sink deeper into the murk, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, they find buoyancy and swim with grace and power. The experiments of old have been perfected. The veteran Suede are now masters of sounds they once hardly understood – miraculously, age has granted them professionalism and precision without dampening their spirits.
Metacritic: “Britpop pioneers and eternal outsiders Suede slice gloriously against the grain once more with a grandiose semi-concept seventh album that demands to be consumed as a complete piece of art.” Classic Rock