The Best Music We Heard In 2017

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was released in 2017.

Top 14 (in random order)

Honorable mention:
The War On Drugs “A Deeper Understanding” (2017)
Sufjan Stevens, “Planetarium” (2017)
Spoon, “Hot Thoughts” (2017)
Vokonis, “The Sunken Djinn” (2017)
Pallbearer, “Heartless” (2017)
The New Pornographers, “Whiteout Conditions” (2017)
Hyborian, “Hyborian: Vol. 1” (2017)
HAIM, “Something to Tell You” (2017)
The Afghan Whigs, “In Spades” (2017)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani, “FRKWYS Vol. 13: Sunergy” (2016)

The Best Music We Heard In 2016

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2016.

Top 20 (in random order)

Honorable Mention:
Aesop Rock, “The Impossible Kid” (2016)
Bon Iver, “22, A Million”, “” (2016)
David Bowie, “Blackstar” (2016)
Deftones, “Gore” (2016)
Hammers of Misfortune, “Dead Revolution” (2016)
Lincoln Marshall, “Water” (2016)
Maxwell, “blackSUMMERS’night” (2016)
Operators, “Blue Wave” (2016)
The Powder Room, “Lucky” (2016)

MR|Review – Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth”

Sturgill Simpson’s appearance on Mark Maron’s WTF podcast this week (listen soon; it will go behind a paywall in a week or two I think) reminded me just how much there is to unpack from his new record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

A Sailor's Guide To Earth

It’s a wonderful left turn of a record, released when fans and critics would have welcomed a Metamodern Sounds pt. II.  Self-produced, it sounds clear, warm, and open, the Dap-Kings’ soulful horns swirling chocolate-and-peanut-butter-like with Simpson’s brand of slacker psychadelic outlaw country.

Sturgill’s been open about A Sailor’s Guide… being a song cycle written for his family, especially his first child who was born just as his career took off.  What he hasn’t said – and there’s a tantalizing hint in the Maron interview about this – is just how deep the concept goes.  I think the album is sequenced chronologically beginning with a father singing a song to his newborn son and continuing as the son grows up, maybe having a child of his own.

  1. “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” is sung to a newborn
  2. “Breakers Roar” comforts a young child
  3. “Keep it Between the Lines” offers advice to a teen
  4. “Sea Stories” finds a father and his young adult child developing a more mature relationship
  5. “In Bloom” (Nirvana cover)
  6. “Brace for Impact (Live a Little”) reminds a thirty-something child that life can be short, and it should be fun
  7. “All Around You” illustrates a deep connection, only able to be seen through long experience, with a child who is now old enough to have felt real pain
  8. “Oh Sarah” shifts the spotlight to the steady partner whose presence has been felt, but not addressed directly, throughout the record
  9. “Call To Arms” – The old man’s got nothing to lose and speaks his mind (not that he hasn’t always), turning from his family outward toward the world

“In Bloom” is the outlier here, thematically and musically.  As it sits in the center of the sequence it strikes me as meaningful, though I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.  It’s, for me, the weak point on the record musically as Simpson drops half of the chord sequence from the verse, rendering the tension of the original toothless.

Maybe changing Nirvana’s rager into a lullaby illustrates a father nostalgic for his younger child while simultaneously recognizing the adult he’s become.  Or maybe I’m reaching.  But the rest of the album makes so much sense – six songs of a child growing up, followed by two turning progressively outward to others – I need a way to understand the intent here.

Simpson can obviously write incisive, vivid lyrics when he wants to.  That this record also features some fairly worn cliches struck me as odd at first, though they’re wearing alright with time.  Sometimes the language of love and family is what’s comfortable and familiar, said a thousand times and no less true for it.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 13
Good 10
Fans only 10
Skip this 3
Owww! My ears! 0

The Best Music We Heard In 2015

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2015.

Top 12 (in random order) (it would have been 13; Cory tried to list “1989” again!)

Honorable mention
Best Coast, “California Nights” (2015)

Waves x Cloud Nothings, “No Life For Me” (2015)

Selena Gomez, “Revival” (2015)

Beach House, “Depression Cherry” (2015)

A Is Jump, “Weird Nostalgia” (2015)

Blackalicious, “Imani vol. 1” (2015)

Brandon Flowers, “The Desired Effect” (2015)

Carla Morrison, “Amor Supremo” (2015)

Elder, “Lore” (2015)

Failure, “The Heart Is A Monster” (2015)

Halfwit, “II” and “III” (2015)

High on Fire, “Luminiferous” (2015)

Kowloon Walled City, “Grievances” (2015)

Monolord, “Vænir” (2015)

No Cave, “Eyes Brighter Than The Sun” (2015)

Sheer Mag, “II 7″” (2015)

Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love” (2015)

Tame Impala, “Currents” (2015)

Torche, “Restarter” (2015)

Viol, “Deeper Than Sky” (2015)

Descendents, “Milo Goes To College” (1982), “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” (1985), “Enjoy!” (1986)

Joy, “Under The Spell Of” (2014)

Run-D.M.C., “Run-D.M.C.” (1984), “King of Rock” (1985), “Raising Hell” (1986), “Tougher Than Leather” (1988)

Sturgill Simpson, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (2014)

Excited to check out:

Leon Bridges


Joanna Newsom

The Best Music We Heard in 2014

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2014. “I had a sparse year for new music” says Cory. “I wish I could say that I fell in love with more tunes this year. But, I have a deep, deep fondness for the records I did discover this year.”

Top 8 (in random order)

Next 13 (also in random order)

MR|Review – Snowden, Ladyfinger (ne), Palms, Aesop Rock, and Elder

What a beautiful surprise; seven years after Anti-Anti (which I still listen to regularly), Snowden returns in top form on No One In Control, hitting all the marks you might want based on their past work, and subtly expanding on it, too.


The band’s bread and butter is a backbeat-leaning, dark new-wave dance jam, coupled with stuttering kick/bass rhythms and a droning key or guitar line (see “Hiss,” or “Not Good Enough”). They’re so good at these, they don’t get old. No One In Control also twists and stretches this template successfully, building the title track up slowly over the course of seven minutes that could go on for twice that, integrating a cool, retro synth-stab sound with “The Beat Comes,” or dialing down Snowden’s usual burn to a simmer on “Don’t Really Know Me,” focusing rather than cutting its energy.

What can I say about the perfect “Anemone Arms?” Its simple, pure, eternal-but-counterintuitive theme? The beautifully understated arrangement? I invite you to give yourself over to it, especially if you’re in need of a moment of grace.

Every time I hear this record, I’m grateful Snowden made it.


I’ve tried for a couple weeks not to be disappointed by Errant Forms, unsuccessfully. But, I love Ladyfinger. Their show at the Riot Room a few months ago, with mostly material from the new record, was great.

In the end, though, “Dark Horse” is the only good song (and it’s really good) that shows any growth from the band. “Blue Oyster” and “He Said She Said,” relegated to the last two tracks of the album, adequately invoke the old Ladyfinger; the rest of the set is toothless and meandering, two words I never expected to use about Ladyfinger’s music. Plus, “Meathead” is simply embarrassing in its unintentional irony. It’s a dumb, reductionist song trying to snark at dumb, reductionist stereotpyes.

My expectation that this album would be something other than what it is is something I’ve been wrestling with and trying to suppress before forming a solid opinion about Errant Forms. One angle on art that I like thinking about is sussing the artists’ intention, and the extent to which they accomplished it. Other than from “Dark Horse,” I haven’t gotten any sense of why Ladyfinger made this record. It feels mostly checked out of its own existence. The guitars are muted and indistinct, and the drums are fussy and tapped. I think my disappointment has more to do with the specific recording, not the band or the songs (since the live set was energetic and a little edgy).  I’d gladly trade my copy of Errant Forms for a bootleg of the Riot Room show.

As a Ladyfinger listener, I needed to know what this album was. It’s good to know, but I hope the next one has some bite.


Palms’ self-titled debut is exactly what you’d expect from the press blurb; a Chino Moreno (Deftones)-fronted Isis side project. Ambient metal, or some such. In spite of that, I like it a lot and have it in heavy rotation, but that doesn’t mean it gets a strong recommendation by MR|Review.

Nothing here will reach up and grab you. Overdriven, heavily delayed arpeggios permutate around Chino’s moans and steady, sometimes angular, rhythms. If you listen closely, you’ll notice details changing from section to section.  Otherwise, it mooshes all together.  Rinse, repeat.  “Patagonia” is my favorite example.

The first half of closer “Antarctic Handshake” indicates a direction forward, should the group ever convene again. It has a straightforward dream-pop feel that, maybe blended 50/50 with the languid space-rock of the rest of Palms (start with the metal section of “Mission Sunset,” guys) and written into complete songs, could be noteworthy on a wider scale than “interesting metal supergroup side project.” I hope Palms makes that record, but in the meantime I’ll dig revisiting this one periodically.

Aesop Rock’s Skelethon is over one year old, but I won’t relax about it until I’ve done everything I can think of to convince you to check it out.

It’s basically a perfectly-executed record, with Aesop Rock rapping over his own intricately-constructed beats; arrangements as tight as German engineering, every ounce of sound aimed squarely at making your head nod *so* *hard,* and it never lets up. I’m jealous, in an inspired way, of how thoroughly Rock executes his singular vision and practically forces his point of view on listeners.

Ahh, words don’t do it justice. You have to bang this once, and then tell me if you don’t feel it.


Elder’s Dead Roots Stirring – is it or is it not metal? – is so inviting and infectious it should spill over from stoner/doom/desert rock silos. If you love this shit like I do, you’re welcome. If you don’t (yet?) but have the slightest interest, here’s a gateway.

Hitting the sweet spot between straight blown-out blooze and alternately broken and augmented psychadelic riffing, Dead Roots Stirring is that kind of heavy that puts a smile on my face. There’s a joy in volume, a release in mutual submission, and egolessness in waves of fuzz.

Twelve-minute guitar jams aren’t for everyone; I get that. Just don’t assume they’re not for you until you’ve listened to a couple good ones.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 13
Good 9
Fans only 10
Skip this 3
Owww! My ears! 0

The Best Records We Heard In 2012

In random order, here are the best records we listened to in the past twelve months.  The usual caveats and quirks apply; no one, not even professional writers (never mind us music fans), hear everything in a given year, and most of these records were released in 2012, but a few weren’t (we just heard them for the first time this year).

Most of these albums are available to stream, in full, from

Honorable mention:
Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society
Beach House, Bloom
Frankie Rose, Interstellar
Dirty Projectors, Swing Low Magellan
Craig Finn, Clear Heart Full Eyes
Big K.R.I.T., 4Eva N A Day and Live From The Underground
Indian Handcrafts, Civil Disobedience For Losers

Still excited to check out:
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
Jessie Ware, Devotion
Tame Impala, Lonerism
Pilgrim, Misery Wizard
The xx, Coexist

Looking forward to in 2013:
Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God
UUVVWWZ, The Trusted Language
Ladyfinger, Errant Forms

MR|Review – The Killers, “Battle Born”

What if this was a debut record?

I’d say the band has good arena pop chops, and maybe a touch too much love for some kind of indefinite ’70s FM sound, but at least a sense of humor and panache enough to pull it off.

In 2012, though, this is a Killers record and unfortunately, it’s the Diet Coke of Sam’s Age.  The individual tracks are pleasant reminders of what the Killers, and Big Rock Music, used to be, but the sum is less than its parts.  Some good (!) lyrics (“Don’t break character … ,” “Hey, from here on out, friends are going to be hard to come by … “) notwithstanding, I can only admit – as a person who tends to give bands’ late-period albums the benefit of the doubt! (see U2 since Achtung Baby, Foo Fighters between The Colour and The Shape and Wasting Light, and Chicago after III) – that Battle Born is a disappointment.

What can the firm of Flowers, Keuning, Vannucci, Flowers, Stoermer, and Flowers do?  Something fresh (“Daddy’s Eyes,” “Move Away,” and “Sweet Talk” from Sawdust hinted at possible directions), or at least go back to “Human,” their last forward-looking single, and pick up from there.  Shake it up: write and record an album quick, on the road, head to Berlin, bring in a collaborator (Jacques Lu Cont, who remixed “Flesh and Bone,” might be a place to start), make up a rule (no sounds that could be described in reference to Springsteen, for example).  Change.  References get stale.  I still believe in the old magic, and that the Killers can conjure it again, maybe in time for the 10th anniversary of Hot Fuss

… or, maybe on Letterman, a few days after I drafted this review.  Battle Born earned another spin that night.  This record’s going to sound great on tour (“Deadlines and Commitments” has a huge, Gabriel-sounding vibe), but stick to “Runaways,” “Miss Atomic Bomb,” and “A Matter of Time” for your library.  I’m skipping this one, but I’ll give it two stars instead of one because I know I’m probably crankier than the average Victim.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 8
Good 7
Fans only 7
Skip this 1
Owww! My ears! 0

MR|Review – Miguel, “Art Dealer Chic” EPs, Paul Krugman, “End This Depression Now!” Pallbearer, “Sorrow and Extinction,” and Bloody Knives, “Disappear””

Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction is the best thing I’ve heard so far this year.  Yes, it’s pure doom metal; who knew I’d been missing doom all my life?

Doom is a metal sub-genre characterized by extremely slow tempos, down-tuned guitars, and clean vocals (no cookie monsters here); for that reason I hope that more mainstream listeners will take a risk on Pallbearer and find it more approachable than the equally good metal albums two out of three of my friends have found to be just too much.  If you can detach and let the blissfully overdriven tones do their work, you can get into this.

I streamed Sorrow and Extinction based on reading a review, and it spoke to me at a level below words from the first full band entry in the 12-minute opener “Foreigner.”  The band’s glacial tempos turn my mind to questions of time, suggesting both eternity through the monolithic amp tone and riffs, and transience via the linear arrangements.  I feel small, yet affirmed.

It’s the wide range of emotion Pallbearer reaches through their mostly traditional doom sound that makes this album something I’ll be listening to for a long time.

Mars Lights played with Austin’s Bloody Knives the other weekend, and they tore up Czar Bar pretty seriously. The trio plays a fractured sort of punk/electronic hybrid with fast, kraut-y drums, bass and vocals reminiscent of the Cure, and a burly guy who triggers samples and dances.  You can grab Dissappear from their bandcamp page for free, and if what I’ve said so far sounds at all good to you, I think it will make your regular rotation.

Bloody Knives has one speed; hurtling toward the edge of a cliff with no brakes.  Shards of hooks cut through the haze occasionally, but the main sense of Disappear is reckless forward motion.  If anything, the live versions of these songs were even more interesting, in that the samples weren’t necessarily synchronized to the drums, which accentuated their brokenness.  It’s their own thing, they own it, and I look forward to their next visit to KC.

I’m a giant Krugman fanboy, and there’s no sense in hiding it.  The fact is, I’ve come through this depression in better financial shape reading Krugman than I would have following the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s advice.  This makes the political right’s attempts to discredit him as a socialist, Keynesian (as if that’s a dirty word!), budget-busting liberal all the sillier; they could make more money if his recommendations were heeded*, and history demonstrates it over and over.

End This Depression Now! is a compilation of Krugman’s best thinking on our macroeconomic trouble, including both diagnosis and prescription.  For readers familiar with his New York Times column and blog, it’s familiar territory, though there are new bits.  For readers who aren’t, if you’re going to read one book about our economy from 2008 to the present, this should be it.

So why only three stars?  The book isn’t quite the forward-looking plan to end the depression that Krugman claims it is, repeatedly, in the first eleven of thirteen chapters.  Its stated purpose, in the introduction, is to answer the question “What do we do now?” but clear policy recommendations don’t come until chapter twelve.  The background information is vital, but I wonder if it will bog casual readers down.  Perhaps another type of organization – for example, one chapter per recommendation, with the relevant context to support it and explanation of what’s gone wrong right there – would have worked.

As it stands, End This Depression Now! is a useful text, but, fairly or not, we hold Krugman to a higher standard as progressives’ policy MVP.  He’s been better, and in this election season, we need him working at his peak more than ever.

* Mostly that the WSJ repeatedly predicted immanent runaway inflation and a Greek-style rise in US borrowing costs, neither of which has happened; if you moved your money around based on one or both of these assumptions, you’ve lost.

After seeing a couple glowing, high-profile reviews of Miguel’s Art Dealer Chic series of EPs, I tracked them down to see what the noise was about.  “Adorn” started things off well with a nice blend of modern and (dare I say it?) new jack sounds, skillfully deployed; a touch of class, a touch of the club, and a runtime that leaves me wanting a little more made for a jam I’ll be happy to hear on shuffle all summer.

Unfortunately, “Adorn” is the best thing here.  The rest of the set is mostly standard 2012-edition electro-R&B with a couple arty touches, reaching its nadir with “Broads,” which is a waste of a halfway decent beat and anyone who hears it’s four minutes.

If you’re into this, pull the highlights (“Gravity,” “Arch n Point”) for summer mixtape fodder and go back and listen to Kenna’s superior Make Sure They See My Face.  If not, skip it, unless you can explain to me what the fuss is about.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 8
Good 7
Fans only 6
Skip this 1
Owww! My ears! 0

MR|Review meta – I hope you like the minor re-design of the stars and ratings.  It’s a little cleaner to look at, and I’ve added the “totals to date” column (below) to track the distribution of rankings.  I’ll have to look for one- or no-star albums to talk about, just for reference.  The idea is sort of to organize music that’s released into a normal distribution for critical purposes, but that doesn’t mean that the number of reviews at each level will correspond exactly to that.

MR|Review – Mastodon, “The Hunter,” Nada Surf, “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy,” Kanye West & Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne”

The Hunter should be a moment for metal in the musical mainstream like Metallica (“The Black Album”) was for Lars & Co.

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This is a potentially troubling comparison for several reasons: the Black Album, besides spawning a ton of hit singles, can be criticized as a commercial sellout, as an aesthetic betrayal of the band’s sound and identity (and fans’ expectations of such), and for not rocking nearly as hard as Metallica’s earlier work.  These points 1) have some truth to them regarding Metallica, 2) could also be applied to The Hunter, but 3) would be absolutely wrong in Mastodon’s case.

The Hunter has cleaner vocals, more straightforward rhythms, and lacks an overall narrative or conceptual structure relative to Mastodon’s previous albums – things fans, myself included, love – but it shreds as hard (dare I claim… harder?), presenting the band’s strengths and signature elements in a new context that happens to be accessible to anyone who likes loud music at all.

In a parallel universe, The Hunter is where radio-friendly metal should be in 2012; pushing the boundaries of what the mainstream can absorb in terms of polyrhythms, weird riffs, and song structure, while also providing immediacy and viscereality that can bring you under its spell on the first listen.  Don’t miss it.

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There are a million guitar-pop bands (I’ve been in at least six of them myself), and the tiny variations among bands’ styles can elicit widely varying opinions of those bands.  Cory adores Surfer Blood, for example; I think they’re good, but they haven’t struck me as anything special yet.

On the other hand, within the walls of my house, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy is a four-star record, and I’ve listened to it every day since CA gave me the vinyl a couple weeks ago.  (We’re also seeing them in Omaha in March; psyyyched!)  Nada Surf’s particular spin on catchy, literate, slightly muscular guitar-pop hits me exactly the right way; I just can’t predict if you’ll feel the same.

Case in point; people went nuts for the Yuck record last year which, again, seemed solid but nothing to get excited about to me.  So we’re in a weird situation where 90s revivalism is over-hyped (I don’t know why; maybe it really felt that good in the moment), and I’m under-rating a record I love (because of how I imagine some imaginary aggregate of listeners and readers will feel about Astronomy‘s place in the musical universe a few years from now, when it’s not new).  Yuck is an 8.1, Astronomy’s a 2/5, I feel the opposite, and I’m half of the issue because I’m trying to bring a normal distribution to my ratings and have chosen to offer them as a guide to readers, and not necessarily a reflection of how I feel about the record myself (which is what these paragraphs are for).

You might find Nada Surf more of a four than a two if you like: subject matter that goes beyond boy-likes/hates-girl, vocal melodies and phrasing that follow more intricate lines than usual in guitar-pop, stellar rhythm sections, and unpredictable harmonic shifts between verses and choruses.  I’m not sure why I love Nada Surf and not Surfer Blood, but these are some of the musical differences, for what they’re worth.

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What happened to hip-hop being the black CNN?  Hip-hop is much bigger than the conscious stuff, Public Enemy, and black Americans’ experiences, but in this period of national import, as we struggle with economic depression and serious differences regarding what kind of country we will be, I hoped two of our biggest stars in not just music, but culture as a whole, would have more to say.

Nada Surf managed to weigh in on global warming pretty artfully (“No Snow on the Mountain”), which is a concern that’s no less real or acute for being very Stuff White People Like.  What about jobs, wages, and working conditions?  As I type I realize I’m projecting my own concerns onto this album, but it still seems like an opportunity has been missed.  I haven’t written much about those issues either, so I’ll commit to working on addressing them while calling on Kanye and Jay to do the same.

Watch the Throne is a good record because of its constituent parts – beats, especially, but also flashes of lyrical brilliance – but it adds up to less than the sum of them, and is culturally significant as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does.  It’s of its moment, good for what it is, but falling short of its potential to be less time-bound in the way that The Blueprint or Late Registration, in their greatness, are.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience.