Wednesday, December 30, 2015


 #10: New Order Music Complete (Mute)
Sorry Peter Hook apologists, I'm not hearing your argument about his departure from the band. In fact, it's one of the most tired ones I ever hear about any band: "It's not [insert band] without [insert member] because I'm nostalgic and don't like my precious memories disrupted. I also have no faith that [other members of said band] have the capability to carry on in the same spirit of the lineup that I liked best." A band is musicians, a band is not a name. Fuming over who is or isn't there says more about you than it does about the band. Not to mention, Hook's high-tuned signature bass sound was studied and imitated by countless fanboys the world over (this reviewer included), and Tom Chapman does a better-than-fine job filling those shoes. Further, this is a case of addition by subtraction, as keyboardist Gillian Gilbert returns to the fold.

Personnel aside, this is New Order's strongest album since (at least) Technique, and a gloriously emphatic return to the dance roots that made their early singles into generational anthems. There isn't anything as transcendent as that moment you first heard "Blue Monday" at your local dance club (in fact, I don't think such a record is mathematically possible these days), but what Music Complete delivers is eleven well-constructed, thoroughly written songs that eschew nostalgia in favor of craftsmanship.

The band also enlists some A-listers to great avail. New Order uber-fan Brandon Flowers makes a stellar appearance on "Superheated" (his own band, The Killers, nicked their name from a fictional band in a New Order video), but the most welcome surprise comes from none other than Iggy Pop reading Bernard Sumner's poem "Stray Dog"; one of the most unsettling and straightforward studies of middle-aged disenchantment that you're likely to find.

Speaking honestly, I didn't know New Order still had this kind of album in them, but hearing their clearly renewed vigor reminds me it's never too late for any of us.

#9: The Brian Jonestown Massacre Mini Album Thingy Wingy (A Records)

Christmas came early for fans of The Brian Jonestown Massacre when they dropped Mini Album Thingy Wingy in November 2015, just a few months after their ambitious  Musique de Film Imaginé. Some bands openly mine the 60s to shape their sound, but with BJM, I've always felt as if this is a band that simply existed in the wrong decade; it's almost as if they've spent the last two decades trying to get back into the wormhole that brought them here.

As evidenced by the title, this is a far less conceptualized and less serious affair than its predecessor, but unhinged from these constraints the band turns in a triumphant return to form. Setting aside most the recent shoegaze flourishes, this is pure sunshine acid psychedelia, heavy on the drone, the multi-track and the reverb that the band has consistently sworn their allegiance to since their very inception, and all with the winking, jokey reverence ("Here Comes The Waiting For The Sun"). From the first note of the opener "Pish", the band takes you along for another one of its welcome wonderland trips that work not because they sound like the past, but rather because of the musicians' obvious commitment to their genre. I would have welcomed a double album of this vibe, but getting two BJM releases in one year leaves me little room for any complaining, and in its seven-song cycle Mini Album Thingy Wingy is deliciously fat-free.

#8: The Orb Moonbuilding 2703 AD (Kompact)
For years, reviewers have called The Orb some variation of "dance music's Pink Floyd". This isn't unfair. Both acts have a canon of heady, spacey, cerebral songs that are less about the sing-along and more about the journey into the stratosphere. Heck, they even collaborated with David Gilmour. And both have a dense catalog that still surprises after repeated listens.

A glance at their latest work (their tenth since 2000!) reveals another Floyd-esque characteristic: a few long songs that comprise an entire album. Moonbuilding 2703 AD features only four tracks, but an entire album's worth of music (the shortest still clocks in at over 9 minutes). This is the kind of structure albums like Floyd's Animals was known for. And when the tracks are this rich, quality trumps quantity all day long.

A loose concept album seemingly centered around the colonization of space, mastermind Alex Paterson once again helms the mighty mothership into the darkest and most beautiful nether-regions of the unknown. Far from a whimsical thrill ride, this is a measured exploration of worlds unseen with a meticulousness that would make the Mars rover blush. Truly, during one track ("Lunar Caves") you can almost see the craters of the alien surface beneath you.

I've seen the word "ambient" used too often in association with The Orb, but to the uninitiated, this sends a misguided impression. Yes, there are atmospherics galore, but the rhythms propel the listener ever-forward as if to say "enjoy the scenery, but we've got to move along. There's so much more we need to discover."

#7: Wilco Star Wars (dBpm)

Sports host Jim Rome is fond of saying "Why does anyone do anything? Because they can!", and guided by this principle Wilco surprised their fans over the summer with not only a new album, but one that they decided to give away for free. And far from some archival B-side dreck intended for completists only, this release is a confident, driving assemblage with the loose, glorious buoyancy of The Beatles' White Album or The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet

So strong are the bulk of the songs that make up their ninth album that when physical records and CDs were released months later, the disc sold as if a the free copies had never come along. Indeed, Star Wars will help those who believe the best things in life are free plead their case.  (P.S., Style points for the cover and the complete non-sequitur of the timely title).

#6: Blond:ish Welcome To The Present (Kompact)

While I consider myself reasonably astute in the world of dance music, somehow, until this past year, Canadian DJ duo Blond:ish had completely missed my radar. But stumbling into their Soundcloud page one day, I was like a little boy opening a new red bike on his birthday. Seriously, where have they been all my life?

Their sneaky, subtle aesthetic, track selection and overall vibe is so deep into my wheelhouse that sometimes I feel like they're spinning exactly what I'm thinking. The icing on the cake, however, was the surprise release of their first full-length album Welcome To The Future, a lush downtempo collection of stellar original productions. You can't go wrong with anything here, but start with "Jupiter and Jaguar" or "Velvet Wave".

#5: The Helio Sequence The Helio Sequence (Sub Pop)

This self-titled album from Oregon vets The Helio Sequence crept up on me. It slowly entered my consciousness when the tracks would randomly appear in various astral playlist streams, snapping me out of my afternoon daydreams and making me look down at my mobile device, saying "who the devil is this? Oh yeah, these guys". Months later, I've deemed this my most Teflon release of 2015; songs that don't wear out their welcome regardless of how many times you hear them. This is an efficient, evenly-baked collection of escapes so dreamy that instead of snapping me out of my afternoon haze, I now count on them to plunge me into one.

#4: D'Angelo Black Messiah (RCA)

Note to Axl Rose: when you disappear for a decade and a half, go all hermit-style with troubling reports of erratic behavior and worry your legion of fans to tears THIS is the quality of comeback album you're supposed to produce. 

Spare me number-nerds, I know this one was technically released in 2014, but since it was released a mere two weeks before 2015, it missed nearly every self-important "Best of" list like this one, and that's a damn shame. A shame because not only do they not make R&B albums like this one anymore, they flat-out don't make ANY albums like this one anymore. Genre-bending, analog-loving, politically restored my hope that artists and labels alike are still willing to embrace substance over style.

14 weird years have passed since the last D'Angelo release, but that all flies out the window the second the needle drops on Black Messiah. Backed by a crack staff including Pino Palladino, Questlove and numerous others, it's a stunning assemblage that would have been at home between your uncle's Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield records, but our barren auto-tuned landscape here in 2015 is where this diamond shines the brightest.

#3: Best Coast California Nights (Harvest)

Some albums are born to be summertime albums; music that not only takes on the aura of the hot season, but entrenches itself into your psyche as your own personal soundtrack. After years of repeated listens, no matter when or where you hear the songs again, you'll always be transported back to that sunny season your spent soaking them in. Fleetwood Mac's Rumours has always been one of those albums for me. Playing on the street as a child, I recall it wafting out into the post-thunderstorm air from open house windows trying to catch a breeze. From the opening notes of Best Coast's 3rd full-length, I had a hunch that it was ready to join the canon of essential summertime listening.

But hunches alone don't qualify you for such exclusive company. I had to road-test this album with the windows down, blare it at cookouts, and escape the sun in to cool, dark reaches of my man cave with it. I'm happy to report such exhaustive research confirmed my initial hunch again and again: this one is a keeper.

"California nights/Make me feel so happy I could die..."  Bethany Cosentino sings on the albums loping title track. And I get it. I spent four strange years in the Los Angeles area, and there is something magic about the nighttime. In fact, if it had just been one long series of nights I'd likely still be there. It was those California days that wore me down: spending an hour in the car to go nine miles, getting my car towed from in front of my own house, paying $12 for a just clashed with the quiet Colorado upbringing I'd just left. Many days when I left my LA office, I'd quickly burn a mix CD of songs I could sing along with to get me home on the hour-plus commute down the 405 (singing in the car to this day still alleviates my rush hour . Had this album existed during my SoCal tenure, I'd wager Best Coast could have changed my mind about embracing the City of Angels. As a band, they celebrate their locale with the same kind of local pride Van Halen exuded in 1978 or the Go-Gos a few years later. I envy any artist proud enough of their origins to celebrate it so loudly. As you might expect, this album sounds even better in the midst of its inspiration; I road-tested it in Los Angeles during a recent visit and it feels as natural as the marine layer on your skin.

#2: Blur The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

Blur themselves seemed as surprised as we were when they dropped their eighth full-length out of the blue this year when a chance cancellation of the Tokyo Rocks Music festival resulted in the band doing some impromptu recording as they waited to leave Japan. The unplanned looseness shines through, and the air of not having any expectations somehow results in their best work to date. Seriously. This is the part of the review where drones like me say something like "...their best album since [insert acclaimed release]", but The Magic Whip is a fully-realized universe that stands alone in the band's catalog. There aren't and oompah ooompah or woo-hoo songs, but there are 12 expertly constructed chapters that sound nothing like a band trying to revive nostalgia, but rather darting headlong into the 2.0 phase of their career. 

There are some albums that are simply perfect for their moment. Zero 7's Simple Things and Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill are two quick examples that come to mind. Sure, they would be great albums most any time they were released, but each were released at a singular cultural moment where they practically needed to be heard. Releases like that are rare and hard to describe, but you know them when you see them, and the gaps between them can feel like centuries.

#1:  Jamie xx  In Colour (Young Turks)

There are some albums that are simply perfect for their moment. Zero 7's Simple Things and Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill are two quick examples that come to mind. Sure, they would be great albums most any time they were released, but each were released at a singular cultural moment where they practically needed to be heard. Releases like that are rare and hard to describe, but you know them when you see them, and the gaps between them can feel like centuries.

I loved Jamie xx's productions featuring Gil Scott-Heron, so I had a strong feeling I would love his full-length, but even I underestimated how much. Looking around at other pretentious lists like this one, it seems I wasn't alone. Emotional without baggage, down-tempo without passivity, futuristic without being cold, this is a rich quilt of sound that rewards the repeated listen; over sixth months in I'm still discovering new layers and subtleties, and you can tell a release is front-to-back solid when your favorite track continually changes (for the record it's "Loud Places" as of this writing, but has probably changed by the time you read this). Settle in as you absorb this gem, because it will be too long before another moment like this one arrives.

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