411’s Top 200 Albums Of 2016 (75-51)
I hope you all had happy holidays, a merry Christmas or, alternately, a really nice weekend. Now as a treat (that may well make you fuming mad) it’s time to finish off our Top 200 countdown.
As always, remember to catch up on the list so far before reading on and feel free to enjoy our Spotify Playlist if you’d like to sample the sounds as you read along.
75. The Violent Sleep Of Reason by Meshuggah
The 411: I apologetically included Meshuggah in a tracks of the month column earlier this year. Back then, I assumed my own nostalgia for Meshuggah’s intuitive brutality was clouding my judgment and putting a smile on my face – but, lo and behold, they only went and delivered an album that has left critics and fans purring (so it wasn’t just me then?). The Violent Sleep Of Reason does have its flaws, as many have pointed out, the urgency of the lyrics doesn’t translate into an aggression that sounds earnest. Instead, The Violent Sleep Of Reason’s primary selling point is its craftsmanship – i.e. what 90% of high-end metal has been relying on since the late 2000s. Meshuggah are one of those bands that appear to have developed telepathy: the are so attuned to each other that their music snaps, chugs and snorts with an ungodly precision. Pistons fire, oil spills and millions of hammers strike in unison as great steam jets fire skyward, but just as Meshuggah’s machinery threatens to become farcically fussy, they wisely pull back and allow the world to admire the hulking monolith they have created. The Violent Sleep Of Reason is an unrelenting, but incredible well drilled beast.
The Critics Say: “It’s reliably puzzling and brain-meltingly good.” Kerrang
74. Varmints by Anna Meredith
The 411: Now this is an absolute delight; a debut album ten years in the making, Varmints sees Anna Meredith use her experience as a composer-in-reseidence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to combine the pleasingly solid and real sounds of classical instrumentation with the shimmering, sugar of synthesis. Better yet, she overlays her own distinctly thin vocal into this heavenly blend. The resulting music is as confounding as it enchanting. Rather than contrasting the artificial with the organic the two sounds meld, not seamlessly (this is a curious and daring listen), but in a way that hides rather than exaggerates the differences. What is left is a slight and summery sound that carries the rigor of precision machinery, but the playful chicanery of woodwinds and strings. The listener is pulled in familiar discretions – there’s bulldozing synth rock, glittering disco, malfunctioning electronica, ambient drift and slight indie to be found on this record – but while genre (and even influence) are easily detected, Anna Meredith’s sound is entirely her own. Furthermore, unlike so many of her peers, Meredith is unafraid to inject some virtuosity into the proceedings – “R-Type” ratchets up and up and up in a way that would have once been considered uncouth, while “Still” feels like something Bach might cook up if he were re-animated and told harpsichords were over and handed synthesizer instead. Meredith, it would seem, is unconcerned with convention or kudos – and all the better for it.
The Critics Say: “A poised and playful opus of 11 tracks dominated byt the sound of maxed-out 1980s 8-bit videogame soundtracks zapped 300 years into the future.” The Wire
73. Big Day In A Small Town by Brandy Clark
The 411: Brandy Clark is a veritable small town supernova: I don’t know what happened to the woman who wrote the slight 12 Stories, but, as good as she was, I don’t miss her. Before us stands a stadium sized, radio ready phenomenon writing snappy hits with a sharp satirical eye and not a hint of bland universalism. At last, proof that Miranda Lambert isn’t the only one: Big Day In A Small Town might not shift units on the scale of the cosy clique of country headliners, but it sounds like it could and that is the key. BDIAST feels authentic, earthy, evidently observed first hand, but also brazen, bold and expansive. The production is tight and polished in the extreme without ever feeling anodyne and its hard to overstate how darn difficult it is to pull of this balancing act in modern country. There are still softly, softly moments befitting her debut (“Homecoming Queen”) and they serve as welcome counterpoints to the righteous oomph of the self-affacing “Broke” or the snarky shuffle of “Daughter”. Remarkably, despite ramping up the laughs and the audacity across the LP, when it comes time to close the show, Brandy Clark retains the tender credibility necessary for heavy hearted closers “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’” and “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven” to hit their mark.
The Critics Say: “These diorama-songs of a Mayberry gone to seed don’t sound to different from what you might hear on mainstream US radio–only much more lovingly observed and finely crafted.” Uncut
72. A SAILOR’S GUIDE TO EARTH BY STURGILL SIMPSON
The 411: The cosmic cowboy has crash landed on planet earth and discovered his soul (or soul music at least). That’s the flashy headline for Sturgill Simpson’s hotly anticipated third album, but the truth is far more understated. Simpson has dispensed with the mind melting cosmos and has embraced his role as a father – passing on his hopes, fears and best advice to his son. He doesn’t cast an alien eye on life on earth as the title might suggest, but a very human one atop a series of stunning guitar driven arrangements that merge hard rock, rootsy Americana, Christian country, funk horns and soothing soul (courtesy of The Dap Kings).
Despite his better instincts, Simpson lets his experience and anxiety color his advice. He offers platitudes (“Just stay in school/Stay off the drugs”) and encouragement (“live a little”). Unlike Macklemore, he doesn’t appear like some saintly super-dad dreamed up by a liberal think tank; Simpson is torn between the man he’s always wanted to be and the very real dangers that lie in wait for his son. In truth, Simpson has nothing new to say and therein lies the beauty of this rambunctious alt-country gem. There is no magic bullet, no one combination of words that solves the dilemma of parenting, just a lot of angst, plenty of crossed fingers and, at the end of the day, hopefully a few good times.
The Critics Say: “Whether by Simpson’s own design or in spite of it, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is ahead of its time.” Pretty Much Amazing
71. Upland Stories by Robbie Fulks
The 411: The depression era Robbie Fulks is here to stay. Some might miss his wit (although his lyrics remain vibrant and pithy, if rarely funny), but the gravitas he now carries proves far more potent. The accompaniment and production mirror this new found sincerity, the vocals are crisp and clear and the instrumentation is loose (and varied) without getting in the way. Like so many of the best roots records, Upland Stories thrives when the listener is planted firmly at Fulks’ side, strolling down a long and dusty road as he shares his worldy tales of romance, cancer, our decaying union and everything in between. Fulks doesn’t balk at sentimentality, “Needed” is the kind of direct and unadorned story of youthful love that other great songwriters might muddy with unnecessary detail or metaphor. That’s not to say to say Fulks’ dodges difficult or complex sentiments, “Needed’s” punchline is a killer: “passion cools, life goes on and old wounds mostly mend”. Fulks reveals this is not a rosy dose of nostalgia, but a father reflecting on his past as he imagines his child’s future without him. Not to be weighed down with mawkishness, Fulks unveils the strained warnings of “America Is A Hard Religion” and the humor of “Katy Kay” before ending on one last sentimental masterpiece: “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals”.
The Critics Say: “He’s the real deal; the king of country music just needs to be crowned.” PopMatters
70. The Golden Age Of Bullshit by PARTYBABY
The 411: Talk about throwing absolutely everything at your audience, The Golden Age Of Bullshit is an old fashioned EP in the mold of The Strokes’ The Modern Age EP. This is designed to knock the socks off the listener and prove that Partybaby are the masters of their domain, which, in this case, is wild barroom punk blended with some of Billy Corgan’s ambition and a psychedelic flair for hammering the listener over the head with waves of spiritual noise. It’s hard to avoid smiling at an EP which will leave audiences wondering: “what on earth just hit me” even as they find themselves subconsciously singing alone. Partybaby do have some worrying baggage, there’s a certain air of the 90s revivalists about them, but rather than following in Peace or Swim Deeps’ footsteps and trying to revive the beige sounds of lesser scenester bands, Partybaby have their eyes fixed on the mountain top. The glorious clatter of “California” recalls both Weezer in their Blue Album/Pinkerton pomp and The Smashing Pumpkins as their guitars soared and melted on MC&TIS, but more importantly than all that, the EP is dripping with Partybaby’s own bravado.
The Critics Say: “Partybaby have established their own mythology. It’s one that’ll stick around for millennia.” DIY
69. The Party by Andy Schauf
The 411: On his latest offering Andy Schauf and his mournful croon is loosed on a party, allowing the singer to weave between conversations and sketch characters. This freedom of approach (the ability to spin an overheard sentence off into a host of directions) and the contrived nature of the step up (all these visions of failed and beautiful youth in one place), allows Schauf to find profundity in triviality. Even without the voyeuristic intrigue, The Party is a sublime composed piece that demonstrates a deep affinity for baroque pop and 60s psychedelia. Given this lovely, but lonely palette of sound, Schauf’s best lines are perfectly positioned to dagger at the listeners heartstrings. Everyone can relate to the forlorn admirer watching the object of his desires being mistreated: “what happened to manners, he’s had a few/he’s talking shit, he’s had a few”. It’s worth pointing out that Schauf’s party is interminable: full of jealousy, anxiety and repression – and little good cheer. Still, while a sorrow at the pettiness of it all pervades the recording – making it a tough listen at times – the strength of narratives and the playfully somber arrangements make in an ordeal worth reliving.
The Critics Say: “With this effort Shauf successfully portrays the complicated smogarsbord that is youth by capturing in its crudest form at a party, with its hedonism and heartbreak, and in doing so propels himself miles ahead of his singer-songwriter peers who have tried to do the same.” The Line Of Best Fit
68. The Gospel by Arabrot
The 411: Not that he needed any encouragement, but it seems that throat cancer only served to piss Arabrot frontman Kjetil Nernes off. Sure they were always nihilistic, but The Gospel feels like a statement of all out war on any and everything – not sure that’d be my reaction to beating cancer in six weeks rather than six months, but, you know, different strokes and all that. The Norwegian noise outfit certainly haven’t been blunted by the trauma, if anything they’ve sharped their knives, pulling back the metal elements and moving (even further) towards the avant garde, while simultaneously ramping up their immediacy. “I Run”, “The Gospel” and “Tall Man” are the closer things to hits Arabrot have ever written. Nevertheless, don’t let this talk of immediacy fool you, Arabrot are still brutal and often unpleasant in the extreme – this, ladies and gentlemen, is what it would sound like if Swans declared total war. The music is delightfully varied: there’s pitiless doom, some unexpected harps and even some strolling, dare I say, humorous, post-punk (“And The Whore Is This City”) to be found on this horror show of a record. The Gospel is both monstrous and ambitious, but mostly it just rocks.
The Critics Say: “However, here we also see a side of Årabrot that’s ever more suitable for the fading, decaying grandeur that surrounds all of us: one that is increasingly sonically diverse and eloquent” Drowned In Sound
67. The Colour In Anything by James Blake
The 411: “Put that away and talk to me”, James Blake might the archetypal peddler of digital anxiety and miserablist ennui (we have no reports yet if his brother and sister are speaking to him), but that line is a bridge too far. Surely the only fit and proper response is for Blake’s partner to scream: “Are you kidding me? You spend months tearfully clicking around on your computer and sorrowfully sliding the controls in the studio – and you want to give me a hard time for looking at my phone?” Three proper albums into James Blake’s career and the dodgy pub crooner with a flair avant garde sonic remains a frustrating figure. He is an artist capable of such beauty and incredible depths of nuanced innovation (he is still perhaps the most truly 21st Century musician going), but he is also an embattled self-parody. The Colour In Anything sees Blake once again plunging his laments into a looping electronic void, but there is a renewed focus on haunting hooks (“Radio Silence” is both Blake’s most immediate and most obscure lead single to date) and contrasting a single pained sentiment with an evolving textural landscape of house beats and abstract drones (“I Hope My Life”). At over an hour in length, The Colour In Anything does push its audience’s patience to the very limit, but it is far easier to fall down this rabbit hole of delicate gloom (where even the birdsong is groundbreaking, “Waves Know Shores”) than it is to reject this moribund lurcher.
The Critics Say: “At 17 songs in 76 minutes, Colour is Blake’s longest album yet and with so much talent aiding the songwriter, it can feel belabored. But then there are stunners like “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” and the title track.” Entertainment Weekly
66. Guidance by Russian Circles
The 411: The field of noise rock, post-rock and post-metal have been overwhelmed by bland cacophonies. Anyone whose been to an unimaginative indie show will know the feeling: the band, seeking a suitable showcloser, with try to make the most awesome noise ever, as if the right pedal and just enough feedback will bring the audience, as one, to nirvana. It never works, but it is useful to keep this biegeness of sound in mind, because Russian Circles are immune to it. Every note of Guidance carries a sense of purpose. Giant swells arise, occasionally waves cascade and dissipate (as they do on “Mota”), sometimes the sound screams forward or stops to linger and twist. Whatever direction Russian Circles head in, it’s feels organic and never contrived. The band’s capacity for foreshadowing is simply stellar: with subtle tempo changes and by imperceptibly increasing their intensity, they alter their audience’s headspace, flooding it with dark clouds or peaceful mists (long before the thundering instrumentation has undergone any kind of radical transformation). When the big sea changes do occur the feeling of satisfaction is palpable. The audience is free to savor the apocalyptic feeling, they may have been ready, but they will never be truly prepared.
The Critics Say: “Guidance is a masterpiece in the art of emotional communication through musicianship” Drowned In Sound
65. A Man Alive by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
The 411: A Man Alive is informed by two great influences: band leader Thao Nyugen reflections on her relationship (or lack there of) with her estranged father and the sonic inflections of Merrill Garbus, aka tUnE-yArDs. The latter gives The Get Down Stay Down’s smooth layered rhythms a dose of contorted syncopation and the guitar work a rough, cascading, pitfall quality. Thao’s music now feels expertly controlled, coyly natural and scratchy, like the entire band crammed themselves into Merrill’s bedroom to lay down some tracks. It’s a contradiction of course, but this tension between the organic and the distorted, the restrained and the feral, makes A Man Alive one of the wildest and most satisfying groove records in years. Given this thrilling a musical underpinning, Thao’s anxieties and imagined rationales are afforded room to jut out in whatever direction her subconscious sees fit – i somen moments she’s controlled (and decidedly over it), in others she seems racked with unanswered question in the face of an unthinkable rejection.
The Critics Say: “A visceral, candid and thrillingly propulsive depiction of her efforts to work through her father’s abandonment when she was a child.” Uncut
64. Slow Forever by Cobalt
The 411: Cobalt are swinging for the fences after seven years of turmoil on the side lines. Slow Forever is an hour and twenty minutes that showcases everything the band has to offer from brooding grunge and slow mutating doom to howling Scandi-Black metal and it’s more southern fried American equivalent – and pretty much everything in between. New vocalist Charlie Fell is a revelation for a band who were already critically acclaimed before his arrival. He can contort his voice and take the form of the demented cultist, but he can also supply the hooks and offer tentative rock fans plenty of easy access points. Of course, this is a Cobalt album so much of the admiration falls upon the instrumental work that can be rigid and martial one moment and have all the hair-raising momentum of thrash the next. Like Agalloch at their best, Cobalt enjoy stewing in atmospherics that immediately recall wintery forests full of beauteous allure, but also unnerving shadows and unspoken danger. The joy of the music comes from seeing Cobalt maneuverer themselves from one mood to the next, riding gorgeously subdued grooves into feral onslaughts that will reduce listens to a wimpering puddle by the track’s conclusion.
The Critics Say: “As surprising as it may seem for an album where death, despair, and destruction linger in every word, Cobalt gambled on resurrection and, against the odds, advanced.” Pitchfork
63. Love Streams by Tim Hecker
The 411: It has finally happened. Tim Hecker has finally released an album that I can wholeheartedly enjoy. The Canadian composer has always been lauded, but much of his best received work (see Ravedeath 1972) operated as a fascinating intellectual proposition – reading the intent behind the work and the methods used was fascinating – while the end products were flat. Other electronic wizard had proved, from Eno to Oneothrix, that ambient music and found sounds could do more than inducing chin stroking appreciation: they could delight, shock and ever humor their audience. Love Streams is an album that demands a human reaction, in part because it contorts the most human of instruments: the voice. In Hecker’s hands melody is mutated, the humane is made alien, man becomes mere automaton and, in the album’s most heartbreaking moments, it feels as if men and women have been caged. Violet Monumental I is both beautiful and terrifying. People are stuck, yelping in the void, cascading against the luminous white glass purgatory before they are slowly erased by the near religious white light of the computer scanner. There are some of useful tricks of the trade, ripples of sound that would please Steve Riech, plenty of gorgeous undulation and some clanking off time contrasts that stick out against the beauty of woodwinds, but these tropes don’t diminish the work as a whole, they are deployed with suitable aplomb and never overused. By the time the magnificent “Castrati Stack” arrives with a crackle and crunch, the race has already been won and Hecker is free to wow the crowd with a heavenly victory lap. Accessibility, it turns out, fits Tim Hecker like a glove, who knew?
The Critics Say: “Very few composers can achieve this kind of beauty or this kind of experimentation, and yet Hecker does both, time and time again.” Consequence Of Sound
62. Terminal Redux by Vektor
The 411: The artful metal album has very much become the classic rap album of the mid-90s: i.e. technically brilliant, but farcically bloated. Credit to Vektor, their magnificently intricate creation is not the longest metal album on this countdown (see Paradise Gallows by Inter Arma). The Arizona ensemble may demand a 70+ minutes of their audience’s time, but they certainly do everything within their power to make each and every second essential. Firstly, Terminal Redux is buoyed by an ambitious narrative: an astronaut coming to terms with immortality and the psychological horrors that would actual entail. Secondly, Vektor fill this prog-tastic album with both variety and brutality. This is a prog-rock record, but it is also a brutal dose of blitzkrieg thrash that (despite its length) rarely draws things out. After all, why slowly stretch and contort your victim, when you could grab a knife in both hands and merciless puncture his torso with a million rapid-fire blows? The benefit of accumulating such speed is that when the band do allow the tempo to dip and the instrumentation to linger, it ends up meaning so much more – with an ear attuned to micro deviations delivered at the speed of a light, the sound of a starless sky proves poignant respite before the next intergalactic tempest is whipped up. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the sound of Kill ‘Em All’s rough and ready thrash turned into the precision fire of laser cannons and the exhilaratingly, graceful darting back and forth of a dogfight in space, then this is album for you.
The Critics Say: “Every link in the rust-corroded chain holds for 73 minutes, without releasing your neck.” Spin
61. Oh No by Jessy Lanza
Genre: Art Pop
The 411: Finely chopped techno that skids, scuttles and stutters with seizure inducing regulatory hardly seems like an obvious backdrop for some pop’s most delicate and illusive vocals, and yet, that’s the excellent Oh No’s bread and butter. Pairing producer and Junior Boys whiz Jeremy Greenspan with a sonic palette informed by Yellow Magic Orchestra, Jessy Lanza finds herself surfing atop and interpretive dancing her way through an array of artfully arranged glitches. The music is fiddly and awkward, often doing its best to obscure simple and seductive beats behind layers of malfunctioning techno. Lanza’s seemingly innocuous vocal thrives in this obtuse landscape, she is free to flit between coquettish high and mysterious low notes, that seem to exist on a subdued spectrum that is entirely her own. Lanza spends so much time sliding out of view and subverting expectation that those fleeting moments, where she sits still and sings with a purity of voice practically stop time. On some distant planet in strange and unfamiliar universe, “I Talk BB” and “Begins” might just be the year’s most endearing ballads – here on Earth they prove endearingly oddities. Miraculously, between the intoxicating vocal performance, the bubbling bass, shimmering synth and daring array of electronic jolts, the real star of Oh No is the humble handclap – a primitive tool, but one deployed with devastating effect on this loveably peculiar listen.
The Critics Say: “Lanza, the antithesis of the ululating, overwrought antics of the X Factor school, has an arsenal of talents that puts her in a league of her own. She’s very much for real.” MixMag
60. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter by Margo Price
The 411: Margo Price is in no hurry to tell her story. “Hands Of Time” never goes out of its way to grab your attention. These sumptuous sounds are designed to coax and illustrate a story that emphasises patience. Price is detailing a blue collar redemption story and rehashing the great American mythos of moving from country to city to earn back what was once lost. The stumbling blocks are tragic, but Price doesn’t beg for sympathy. She’s a pillar of stability, who has already admitted to herself that her dream (to “turn back the arms on the cruel hands of time”) is not an attainable goal, but the spark that drives her onwards.
What The Critics Said: “Her bold delivery and fresh take on classic tropes show she’s a master of detailing the chaos of life. She’s a double threat who can write ‘em and sing ‘em.” Popmatters
59. Potential by The Range
The 411: Sampling has historically been a sardonic art. Sure, joyous club hits have been forged, but normally samples have been used to pevert: to make the naïve, sexual and the cute, macabre. And that’s if the producer allows the humanity to remain in tact, more often than not, the studio wizard will strip the voice of its flesh and blood base, abstractions and alien anti-music often emerges. If humanity is allowed to survive it is as a ghost in the machine and howl from the darkness, a forlorn rebellion against automation. The Range rejects this vision, the human voice is neither ornament nor contorted instrument, its autonomy is reinforced and used to color the steely, swirling music that surrounds it. The samples were gathered from YouTube and each snippet is designed to convey something of our collective experience: be it angelic euphoria or a cry in the corner for help. The end result lays somewhere between James Blake’s EPs and Jamie xx’s club conquering In Colour. This music is universal in its uplift, but also insular in its cropped and clipped irregularity. The beats bang, but a little too fast, and the atmospherics simmer like sunset, but one blighted by glitches. The Range might well be saying: this is humanity in all its glory, the cracks will not be plastered over and the stumbles will never be edited out.
The Critics Say: “It’s The Range’s best work yet, dancing synths, spectacular drops and immaculately crisp loops. Without the story it’d stand up as a beautiful piece of work, but add that in and it’s the most human electronic record released for ages.” Loud and Quiet
58. Hardwired…To Self-Destruct by Metallica
The 411: Metallica do not seem the least bit interested in reinventing the wheel, that might cause a million metal fans who endured St. Anger and Lulu to exhale, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. After all, despite their advancing years Metallica are still a rarity: a technically masterfully metal band who are concerned with writing hooks as addictive as their compositions are expansive. `Given Metallica’s legendary stumbles (which have been perhaps too sarcastically savaged in the metal community) it’s understandable that the veteran rockers would take a second stab a rekindingly the fires of youth. Like Death Magnetic before it (sans the killer second single), the more consistent and energetic Hardwired…To Self-Destruct is an attempt to recapture a sound that lies between Ride The Lightening and …And Justice For All. This time there is no attempt to be profound. Hardwired… never feels serious or severe. Metallica sound like they are simply having fun for fun’s sake and the result is the loosest and least tense album they’ve released in decades. The rhythm section is absolutely locked in, sure this is the kind of groove rich thrash ‘tallica probably write in their sleep, but it’s hard to deny the results: each track manages to chug, slide and promenade deliciously. It might seem a tad regressive to rate so highly the sound of a band doing what, essentially, they’ve always done, but after seeing ‘tallica make such hard work of it in recent years, there is a genuinely joyous and successful aura that permeates …Hardwired – it all so seems so effortless and natural. If there’s a flaw it’s Heptfield: he’s in good voice and the hooks mostly hit their target, but there’s a thinness to his vocal performance that robs the band of its usual ooompf. Still, it’s a small price to pay to hear one of the world’s greatest rock bands relishing music once more.
The Critics Say: “This is Metallica galvanised, refreshed, refocused and rediscovering themselves. Best thing they’ve done since The Black album? Yep.” Kerrang!
57. 22, A Million by Bon Iver
The 411: With every passing year Bon Iver flirts with the emperor’s new clothes. The feeling is stronger than ever on 22, A Million, an album full of distorted glitches and vocal degradations that no longer feel revolutionary. The trouble is, just as the album begins to feel dismissible, the humanity and pathos inherent in Justin Vernon’s voice renders the listener defenceless. He might be using techniques James Blake and Kanye West exhausted years ago, but Kanye never had the voice to find this much tragedy in artificial decay and James Blake simply never wrote songs this devastating. Vernon has an amazing ability to cut through the experimentation that surrounds him with a lyric that slices straight to the heart, making 22, A Million an album that is both insular and intimate. The moments when natural instrumentation is allowed to flourish (a little piano here, a soaring horn there) are spellbinding in their purity, throwing the darkness that surrounds them into stark relief. Better still, not only is Vernon telling quite stories of longing, loss and obsession that ring true in their humble sorrow (“29 #Strafford APTS”), but he’s more focused on hooks than at any point in his career. Don’t let the arty obfuscation fool you: this is Bon Iver’s most immediate release to date, one full of both soft, near whispered, tenderness and the torrential ache of seclusion.
The Critics Say: “Not since Kid A has an album so superb pushed away and pulled closer its audience, simultaneously and with such aplomb.” Pretty Much Amazing
56. Telefone by Noname
The 411: Noname Gypsy possesses one of the greatest gifts in all of music: something about her delivery, the way she’ll weaves her raps and her choice of arrangement affords her this great depth of compassion. Every inch of Telefone speaks to hopes withered by anxiety and naivety brutalized by reality. There are times when Telefone seems to play hopscotch in the clouds, only for the bleakest of reality to assert itself when it’s revealed her friends are “casket pretty”. Black womanhood is tragically dissected in 33 minutes: from the present tense horror of young girls mixing with gangsters and being whisked towards abortion clinics to the historic struggles of mothers and grandmothers to make their children’s lives bearable. Noname is trapped by apprehension about her appearance and the way her career feels insignificant compared to her grandmother’s struggle, but this knowledge is hardly relieving or inspirational, it only adds another layer of mental misery. Am I really this shallow? No your not: just because it worse before, doesn’t mean you have to endure today. What’s remarkable is that for an album infested with dark thoughts from the heart of Chi-raq, Telefone never feels moribund. Noname’s innocent Chance-like flow and the delicacy of her arrangements (those gorgeous piano keys), ensure there’s plenty of light (and lightness of touch) to illuminate the darkness.
The Critics Say: “With that same steely determination injected into every track, ‘Telefone’ ensures that Noname won’t be anonymous much longer.” DIY
55. A Good Night In The Ghetto by Kamaiyah
The 411: “Remember when I didn’t have shoestrings?” This understanding of where she came from, ensures that Kamaiyah’s debut is a celebration of pure self-confidence. A Good Night In The Ghetto stays entirely in the pocket – if you’re expecting varied flows, never-heard-before-beats or intricate wordplay, you won’t find it here, this album is all about buoyancy. Kamaiyah is clicking her heels as she dances her way down the back alleys of the ghetto with a bottle of bourbon in hand. She’s a popstar and she’s gassed about it. Like a female answer to YG (who features here), Kamaiyah proves to be a more progressive voice as she tap dances atop an array of minimalist G-funk adaptions. Needless to say, Kamaiyah has hooks for day, so much so that she pretty much ditches verses all together: every couplet could function as a fun loving chorus as punchlines spew from her lips like a spittake. “Niggas” sets the tone perfectly, Kamaiyah’s got out of a bad and basic relationships and now she’s simply enjoying dick, bouncing (pun intended) around town and enjoying her newfound sexual freedom. She knows it’s not conventionally classly, but she shrugs, smiles and sighs: “don’t have to understand it, but this is how I’m living”. And therein lies the key, Kamaiyah is living her life to the fullest without shame: circumstances will not hold her down (nor will any fuck boy). She might be uncouth, she might be thug, but as long as she can get drunk in the club at the end of the week, then no worry can ever hold her down.
The Critics Say: “Kamaiyah stands out from her peers … with her appealingly natural presence. Her voice sounds as unaffected and assured singing as it does rapping, and she writes big hooks.” Pitchfork
54. Paradise by White Lung
The 411: Paradise had one hell of a tough act to follow, 2014’s Deep Fantasy was a work of chaotic pop perfection, a blend of hurtling melodic brutality and snarling vocals. Opener “Dead Weight” instantly reassures the listener, White Lung are still masters of the maelstrom, but while the guitars swirl malovently and Mish-Way Barber’s vocals are as distant and disdainful as ever, the textures are so much richer and White Lung sound, strangely, delightful. Their sound still teeters and crashes like the world’s most unstable seesaw, but by drawing out the individual notes and pulling focus in the heart of a fire fight, White Lung have matured. This is an album of definition. Riffs and delicate textural playing sit in the foreground as Mish (who still sounds like a skeezy, spit hucking, outlaw) manages to pull off a reflective turn. “You know this means nothing, if you die alone”, the words may be reflecting on a life lived purely for aestheticism, but they serve to illustrate an evolution in White Lung’s thinking: this is music with a universal bent, that looks beyond the moment and addressing the nagging ache beneath the rebellious posture and the cry for help. Mish is simultaneously a richer and more grounded frontman, an unlikely beacon among the crashing waves – but don’t fear, she’s still just as lost and overwhelmed as the rest of us.
The Critics Say: “White Lung have somewhat softened their ragged edges and in doing so have created one of the most compelling albums of the year.” NME
53. The Third Law by Roly Porter
The 411: The Third Law isn’t an album you hear, it’s not something that’s listened too, that’s far too passive. The Third Law instead infiltrates your subconscious like a whisper in your ear laced with mind scrambling code and latent triggers. It forces its way inside. Your ears practically vacuum up its seething crackles and alien hisses and once it’s aboard, well, quite simply, we are all done for. Roly Porter’s creation is an ungodly dark, undoubtedly malign and a bizzarely religious experience (you will swear those bursts of static steam are Gregoarian choirs). After setting such a dramatic scene, The Third Law slowly starts to inject elements of beauty, deft control and eerie stillness, but just as you beging to immerse yourself Roly Porter kicks you off balance with a found sound (is that the clatter of machinery? Is that a forklift truck backing up? I though we were on an electronic ice flow?). The brilliance of the music lies in Roly Porter’s ability to hold both beauty and brutality just out of reach, no track ever succumbs to either extreme and the listener is left dangling in a thrilling, but frustrating purgatory – like, perhaps, a conscious machine undergoing some vital maintenance, should we embrace what is happening or should we scream?
The Critics Say: “Porter has figured out how to channel the aggression of his early material into the maturity and otherworldliness of his solo work, and it’s as breathtaking as it is bruising.” Residen Advisor
52. Here’s My Heart Come Take It by Rachel Newton
The 411: Rachel Newton has expanded her gaze eastwards on Here’s My Heart Come Take It. Adding traditional American songs from the Ozark mountains to here repertoire of Gaelic staples. Despite using songs passed down from generation to generation, Here’s My Heart Come Take It feels utterly contemporary and personal. Perhaps it’s the strength of the tales – after all, the odd mention of a maiden can’t undermine the immediacy or anguish of the title track or bleakly beautiful “The Bloody Gardener”. Rachel Newton has a remarkable ability to make the cripplingly personal feel expansive and rich in atmosphere. “Don’t Go Out Tonight My Darling” might be the story of a loathsome alcoholic who leaves his partner to ache in his absence, but this singular suffering of a woman trapped by her love is rendered haunting and universal by Netwon’s harp. She rarely needs more than her harp strings, a few piano keys and a half decent melody to make time stand still, but when strings and fiddles are allowed to join the party the effect is devastating. Unlike her modernist rivals (Marissa Nadler, say) Newton never makes a show of her misery, the atmospherics are somber, but never laid on too thick. There’s a sense of the soft (or chilling) breeze in these arrangements and a humble commitment to understatement in Newton’s vocal that ensures Here’s My Heart Come Take It is potent, but never moribund.
The Critics Say: “It’s an album that enthrals and entrances the senses, places traditional song under a fascinating new spotlight and confirms Rachel Newton as one of our most original and gifted interpreters of those traditions” Folk Radio
51. Treasure House by Cat’s Eyes
The 411: Hands up, who had Cat’s Eyes pegged as pleasing, but fleeting novelty? The kind of collaboration that leads to an album, plenty of talk of a follow up, but eventually goes from the back burner to being mothballed. Well, Farris Badwan might be committed to the day job (The Horrors), but he’s found time to join forces with Rachel Zeffira once more for an album that absolutely blows away its predecessor. Rachel’s operatic vocal is no longer a source of exquisiteness for its own sake; the dynamic between immaculate female vocalist and her lo-fi male counterpart is played for pathos, unexpected progression and laughs. Yes, one of Treasure House’s great attributes is its sense of humor. Beneath the precise postures and stately gloom Farris has always been hilarious and here Rachel proves a game partner: whether it’s time for a raw synth rocker, a Morricone pastiche, a dose of bedroom angst in a Catholic cathedral, a severe torch song or, brilliantly, a 60s girl group diversion. Freedom informs every inch of this LP. Farris and Rachel have the air of artists who walked into the studio and simply said, “so…what do you wanna try next?” and just ran with it.
The Critics Say: “The influences–Shadow Morton, Nina Roti, ’80s dream pop–are easily detectable, but intuitively utilised.” Mojo