The Top 10 Albums From September
Taking a break from our weekly look at the best new tracks, we’re going to dedicate this week’s column to looking back at the best albums released in October.
Disclaimer: As I make clear whenever I write the tracks column, I am only one man, I do not hear every album released in a month: this list is all about sharing the exciting music I’ve heard. If your favorite is missing, it’s not a snub, feel free to share it and make your case in the comment section.
10. Shape Shift With Me by Against Me!
Following Transgender Dysphoria Blues was always going to be a poisoned chalice. Unsurprisingly, Shape Shift With Me can’t really rival the impact of its predecessor, but, by and large, it sidesteps comparison by bearing its teeth with the raucous “ProVision L-3” and rolling with the punches on the melodic “12:03”. Against Me! offer an instantaneous reminder that, before they were profound, they simply rocked. Shape Shift With Me is an appropriate title, not because this is another record infused with the trans experience, but because Laura Jane Grace has fashioned an album that flits between a varity of styles without ever abandoning Against Me!’s grimy core sound. Laura Jane’s voice, like Brian Fallon before her, carries a romantic Springsteenian richness that imbues a snappy pop single like “Boyfriend” with the rustic filter of Americana. And that might just be Against Me!’s greatest achievement: taking cutting edge outsider issues (like trans politics and romance) and turning them, not only into great rock music, but into fundamental, almost timeless, American issues.
9. Real by Lydia Loveless
Can you really be too multi-talented? Lydia Loveless certainly tests the theory on Real, an album that is so expertly pitched between rock arenas, dingy dive bars and the country homeland that it doesn’t quite capture the thrill of any one of those sounds. Sure, the murky, guitar driven middle ground is punctuated by neat country riffs, but ultimately Lydia’s arrangements are less than the sum of their well orchestrated parts. So given these mild frustrations, how has Real claimed its place on this list? That’s easy, Lydia Loveless’ array of messy love stories and crippling flaws demand keen eared listening, forging a bond with listeners that transcends alt-country posturing. The bass lines routinely add spice as Loveless manages to deliver a series of killer and deeply resonate lines without falling into the classic country trap of playing to back row. Better still, there is genuine sonic evolution taking place, rock-tinged-country is still her bread-and-butter, but an undercurrent of 80s’ inspired electronica lends Loveless a smooth and soulful saunter (“Heaven”). Giorgio Moroder might not be a wholly novel reference point in 2016 (nor is Fleetwood Mac), but in these bleak country confines the injections prove damn right revolutionary. Real is honest, conflicted and astutely observed.
8. Stage Four by Touch Amore
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.
7. American Band by Drive-By Truckers
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.
6. Pretty Years by Cymbals Eat Guitars
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.
5. Sorceress by Opeth
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.
4. My Woman by Angel Olsean
Here’s what we said on release: ““Shut Up Kiss Me” is an absolute riot, a darkly sexy statement of intent that explodes into a scuzzy lofi banger with a seductive melody hiding in the second verse that typifies My Woman’s tight, rock ready opening half. The plot thickens as the album approaches the finishing straight. Among the drifting delicacies and lingering torch songs that litter the album’s conclusion, Olsen’s music not only holds its shape, but asserts itself with “Sister” suggesting that Olsen has spent as much time studying Stevie Nicks as she has PJ Harvey and Sharon Van Etten. Where once the romance and misery of the lyrics held sway, an Angel Olsen album can now stand and thrive on the strength of the airy beauty of its arrangements. “Those Were The Days” is a masterpiece content to swoon and drift in a dessert of desire and longing – the saunter proves so seductive you’ll wish you could waste a little more time in its protracted presence.
To paraphrase a tired sports cliché: if Angel Olsen was once an album away from being an album away; after My Woman, she stands a mere step shy of perfection. Her next release cannot come quickly enough.”
3. Sirens by Nicolas Jaar
Don’t let the slender and seductive voids of Sirens fool you, Nicolas Jaar is still the man who produced 2011’s dark, but wilfully irreverent, Space Is Only Noise. Part of what makes Jaar special, aside from his love of ticking clocks and ghoulish found sounds, is his inability to avoid moments of bad taste and pretension. In a genre full of restraint and beauty, Jaar feels like a man who knows how to have fun, even as he strikes the severest of poses. He’s willing, even in a moment of absolute tranquility, to slap the listener in the face with a kitsch, faux-futuristic sonic: it might sound strange – and, frankly, it does sound strange in a very literal sense – but it keeps you on your toes. A jaunty carribean rhythm is just as likely to emerge from a echo of static as a cello or guitar played backwards. Jaar is clearly infatuated with the idea of time folding in on itself and voices seem to drift out of decades past like disembodied specters. The Chilean-American composer clearly knows his way around both a melody and an irresistible rhythm, but he prefers to tease – prodding and probing at the psyche, and only bringing together hook and beat for brief snatches of sonic perfection. Jaar is a polymath and Sirens rarely stays in a single lane, and yet, the album is held together by its creator’s force of personality and the endearing oddness of his deviations.
2. Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
If your expecting a barrel of laughs – firstly, why are you even considering listening to a Nick Cave record? – secondly, be aware that the phenomenal Skelton Tree was produced in the wake of death of Cave’s 15-year-old son. The lyrics may have (largely) been written before hand, but the opaque nature of the words provides a haunting contrasting to the dark, ruminating agony of the music. Opener “Jesus Alone” doesn’t so much speak to loss, as the idea of being utterly lost. Somewhere between the frail hums and empty chimes lays some kind of truth, but good luck deciphering it. These eight songs are beautiful in their own right and utterly harrowing. When joy and wonder threatens to creep in, Cave cuts through any sense of cheer with a line so cripplingly brutal that it pollutes all positive experience. Skeleton Tree doesn’t so much snuff out color in favor of monochrome sobriety as claw and scratch against the darkness, before submitting to a trauma so inescapably bleak that it cannot be deny. Cave has succeeded in creating a record destined to deeply wound whoever hears it – that’s scant consolation for his loss, but is a considerable achievement nonetheless.
1. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown
Danny Brown sure ain’t kidding when he blurts, “I’m like Kubrik with two bricks”, on the trippy mid-album-marvel “Lost”. When is comes to coke rap, Brown is every inch the avant garde, psychedelic, provocateur (Stanley Kubrik) to Pusha T’s grounded and brutal Michael Mann. Atrocity Exhibition, the Detriot rapper’s fourth studio album, is not only a worthy successor to both Old and XXX, it is a throbbing, headrush masquerading as an album of the year contender. Starting with a spectacular run of, dare I say, conventional singles that range from street level paranoia (“Downward Spiral”) to poetic odes to life without handrails (“Rolling Stone”), the album catches flame and embarks on a narcotic fuelled adrenaline rush. From the magnificent melting walls of “Lost” to the alien trap of “Pneumonia”, Atrocity Exhibition gives the listener a taste of life spiraling out of control, driven forward by chemical reactions, fidgety impulses and the desire for dirty and diverse experiences. The album’s decidedly mellow coda can’t quite match the insanity of the opening two thirds, but it coolly and comedically brings this deliciously bad trip to a close. Brown might rely on his exuberant, hyper-stylized enunciation to force certain rhyme schemes (friends and sin rhyme according to Danny’s tongue) and his cheap shot at Iggy Azealia was frankly unnecessary, but these quibbles can’t undermined a thrilling onslaught of raw experience, not bothered by premeditation.
Brown starts and finishes Atrocity Exhibition by stating that he lives his life without consideration and that he hopes, by jotting down his every thought and action in the form of art, he will find retrospective meaning (and, perhaps, justification). It’s a noble desire and one that gives the album a sense of gravity (even if it can’t match its predecessor’s narrative brilliance), Brown is living life at the absolute limit – maybe he’s a junkie, maybe he’s paranoid or just idiotically impulsive – but his rhymes are allowing the world to live an utterly unsustainable existence vicariously through him.
Further listening: Fires Within Fires by Nuerosis – Femejism by Deap Vally – Love & Hate by Michael Kiwanuka – 22, A Million by Bon Iver – Low Teens by Every Time I Die – Wildflower by The Avalanches – Jeffery by Young Thug – For All We Know by Nao – A Weird Exits by Thee Oh Sees – Yellowcard by Yellowcard