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)

The Best Music We Heard in 2013

In random order once again, here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2013.

Honorable mention:

The National, “Trouble Will Find Me” (2013)
Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, “Mind Control” (2013)
My Bloody Valentine, “m b v” (2013)
Arcade Fire, “Reflektor” (2013)
Eccentric Soul: The Forte Label (2013 reissue)
Doomriders, “Grand Blood” (2013)
Atoms for Peace, “Amok” (2013)
The Stooges, “The Stooges” (1969) and “Fun House” (1970) (I’m still coming to terms with “Raw Power” -h)
Paul McCartney, “Ram” (1971)
High on Fire, “Snakes For The Divine” (2010)

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.

Best Records We Heard in 2011

18. Feist – Metals.  Feist’s The Reminder was the soundtrack to my first road trip with CA (the trip that started us as us), and we’ve waited a long time to hear more from her.  Metals doesn’t disappoint; it’s a grower, like her previous records, and the songs reveal themselves to me one by one as I return to it.  It’s a self-assured record from an artist whose aesthetic voice becomes richer with each experience.  Interesting sidenote; the presence of male backing vocals on many of the tracks give Metals a different gender vibe than the exquisitely, powerfully feminine Reminder (where male voices are saved for the very last track).  -h

17. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up.  Many of the songs on Black Up bang, but only for a few bars at a time; it’s a tease of an album, in that sense, dancing with my expectations like a seduction, and I like it.  It’s hip-hop, it’s post-rock, it’s spoken word, it’s free jazz, and it isn’t like anything else you’ve heard, this year or before.  -h

16. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light.  Grohl & Co. launched a literal earthquake in New Zeland the other week, and there isn’t a more perfect tectonic reaction to the band and its fans than that.  Swaths of rock radio are revealed as the weak tea they are every time Foo Fighters release a record; they’re unabashedly an arena band, powered by Dave’s gee-I’m-lucky-aren’t-I charisma, and to hear them through any other ears at this point is to miss their best side.  Wasting Light isn’t a perfect record – there’s the requisite moment of clunky lyrics, and Dave seems a bit spiritually thin compared to some of his other work – but it’s miles better than anything else this year in terms of what it aims for, and I’ve spent hours and hours with it since its release, with no sign of letting up.  -h

15. Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4eva.  Character bursts from the speakers on K.R.I.T.’s mixtape. It’s personal in a way I’ve never heard hip-hop be; not confessional, not narrative, but just the stamp of K.R.I.T.’s being infused in every word and beat. The man is going about his day, dropping classic-sounding Southern jams along the way. Maybe I hear a kindred spirit in that sense. Listening to Return of 4eva is like hanging out with one of those friends you meet and feel like you’ve always known.  -h

14. Wye Oak – Civilian.  Surprise winner of the AV Club’s year-end list, Civilian’s strengths and charms are in its details; judicious layers of guitars and keys that sound more complex together than I’d guess from the individual parts, arrangements tailored to the needs of the song rather than indie conventions, and vocal production that hovers beautifully between atmosphere and lyric clarity.  I’m not sure I can say why this album spoke to me, but it has a spirit that I can’t shake.  -h

13. The Roots – undun.  Two albums in a row, I thought that The Roots had written themselves into a corner.  Rising Down was the bleakest, hungriest, most stressed set I could imagine the band making; anything harder would risk becoming caricature, while anything lighter might seem weak. They brought How I Got Over last year, an album whose first half is blacker than black, but then breaks the dawn with “Now Or Never” / “How I Got Over” / “The Day,” creating a redemptive arc that stretches back to the opening bars of 2006’s Game Theory. But where can you go from there?

Into the story of Redford Stephens, it turns out, the fictional (but composite of several of The Roots’ friends and family members) figure whose words and thoughts are the lyrics of “undun.” The narrative isn’t necessary to bob your head to the likes of “I Remember,” “Lighthouse,” and single “The Other Side,” but the care and deft touch the band takes with the story elevate “undun” to the level of a serious artistic statement in the very best sense, detailing Redford’s life while leaving the plot largely in the silences between what’s said and played.

Reversing the track order gives another perspective on Redford.  -h

12. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy.  Stripped back – guitar, bass, drums, voice – Annie Clark’s work as St. Vincent punches above its weight.   It brings compelling songwriting, weirdo guitar tone to kill for, and synth bass sustaining at 100% (giving everything a subliminal claustrophobic vibe) to the party.

That’s a metaphorical party; this is anything but background music.  It quietly insists on my full attention, and I acquiesce every time.  Hearing Strange Mercy is a bit of an event in any day.  It sets off the time it’s on from the time before, and after.  -h

11. Bon Iver – Bon Iver.  I’m not a For Emma… fan.  It was Bon Iver’s Daytrotter session that pulled me in to their sound, all delicate space and surprising strength.  Bon Iver continues in the vein of that session as an amorphous, resonating set of songs that convey, or create, emotional depth and complexity as much through the words and notes I don’t hear as the ones I do.  This record will age incredibly well; twenty years from now, it will sound both as inviting and impenetrable as it does today, always offering a new sonic corner to explore.  -h

10. Fleetwood Mac – (everything besides the Peter Green stuff) (1970’s Kiln House forward). My parents used to play me all kind of Fleetwood Mac when I was a kid, and I don’t remember disliking it, but I always thought of it as “parent-rock.” That is, it didn’t speak to me in the same way that Green Day and Nirvana spoke to me. Then, just in the last few years, I was able to listen to it with a fresh frame of mind. Some of the songs instantly bring me back to, say, 1990 when I hear them, but I no longer think of it as music my parents listened to.

When I listen to some of these songs, I am shocked at how good they are. To me, Fleetwood Mac are right up there with all the other Great Bands. They don’t sounds like the Beatles or Zeppelin or any other band, but they epitomize ‘70s and ‘80s glitter-beard-tambourine rock better than any other act. They’re decadent, they’re glossy, they’re fun, they’re coed, and they’re rife with drama. They sound totally unique, and because of that, they are the proprietors of a very specific kind of magic. I am not sure how one would go about attempting to replicate such a band, although I would try if I thought I could come close!

I recognize that the Mac isn’t for everyone. Not everyone’s going to love a song like “Everywhere.” It’s bouncy and cheesy and maybe even a little bit ridiculous. But if you love it, you REALLY love it. -Cory

9. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L.  My entry into W H O K I L L-appreciation was the bass playing. Merrill’s outfit generated a lot of buzz with vocal loops and quirky arrangements, but I wasn’t hooked until I realized that there was soul music bubbling away underneath it all.  After that, I was gone, absorbed into the record’s universe-of-sound-unto-itself.  -h

8. The Strokes – Is This It? (2001).  I almost included this record in my discussion of Surfer Blood, Wavves, and Best Coast (below), since I like it for all the same reasons, but it’s got a NYC-vibe instead, plus it’s like 10 years older, so it’s its own thing on this list. I’m not going to do into detail for this one: suffice to say that it’s something I didn’t “get” when it came out, but it just hit me out of nowhere recently. I think I watched the video for “Someday” on Time Warner On-Demand, and I was surprised at how powerful the song was, and how emotional it made me. The lyrical theme of “I know I’m kind of a dirtbag but I’m trying hard to change and I think it’s getting better” resonates with me. -Cory

7. The Breeders – Last Splash (1993).  Probably the best two dollars I have ever spent; I picked it up at HPB in Lawrence on a whim because of the Pixies association, never expecting that Last Splash would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Doolittle and Surfer Rosa (and is a better casual listen than either of those records, to boot). It’s charming, it’s feisty, it’s weird, it’s catchy, and when I put it on in the car, I leave it in for three or four full spins before I’m ready to hear anything else.  -h

6. Best Coast – Crazy For You. See Surfer Blood, Tarot Classics. -Cory

5. Wavves – King of the Beach. See Surfer Blood, Tarot Classics. -Cory

4. Radiohead – The King of Limbs.  Usually, big records (like Kanye’s) are announced months beforehand in order to build up enough hype, and then the dates are often pushed back. Between the time of the announcement and the actual release, everyone talks about what the band has done thus far and what they might do on their upcoming record. By the time the record comes out, everyone’s expectations are so defined and focused that it’s easy for the record to fall short.

These days, Radiohead avoids the weird and new interactive nature of music by announcing their records about three days before they actually come out. They’ll announce it on a Sunday, everyone flips out on Monday, and then when it comes out Tuesday, no one knows what to expect. As with In Rainbows, The King of Limbs was a surprise for us all.

As per their M.O., this record doesn’t sound a whole heck of a lot like their past releases. It’s got the same Radiohead feel (weird chord transitions, unconventional arrangements and time signatures, crisp production, cryptic metaphors). But it’s different. It’s a lot more subdued and a little darker than In Rainbows: in comparison, In Rainbows was an outright rock record. The King of Limbs is more about textures and atmosphere, and less about big melodies and beats (something like “Idioteque” would sound totally out of place here). This is also one of the most uniform Radiohead records I’ve heard; there’s no “Fitter Happier” or “Hunting Bears” to break up the record. Instead, it’s 37 minutes of densely-packed music that’s creepy enough to be used in a David Lynch movie, but mellow enough to be used as study-music.

Due to personal preference, The King of Limbs isn’t one of my favorite Radiohead records, but it’s not bad at all; in fact, it’s great, and I’m glad they made it. If you’re a fan of Radiohead, you should have it, and while you might only listen to it a few times a year, it will be 100% perfect for those particular situations.  -Cory

3. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues.  First, I was thrilled by first single “Helplessness Blues.”  Later, I was slightly disappointed by what I perceived as unnecessary fussiness and eclecticism.  Then we saw them play.

The show transformed Helplessness Blues for me; after it, I understood.  I felt the difficulty of writing something to follow the self-titled debut, the struggle of becoming slightly older young men, and the need to tell some stories other than our own.  (Or is it tell our stories through others?)  This is still a record for established fans of the band, but please, for your own sake, become one.

2. Surfer Blood – Tarot Classics.  I’m grouping these three releases together because they all represent my gravitation toward a certain aesthetic. I’d call all three bands “punk” bands, but that’s debatable. What’s important, at least to me, is that these bands write songs are catchy, simple, and scuzzy. Melody is my favorite thing about music, so that’s the hook. If songs get too brainy and complex and epic and stretched, I tend to tune out, so I’ve always been drawn to straightforward progressions and arrangements. And, more and more, I can’t get enough of reverby, fuzzy production. It sounds cool, and it tempers a song’s sweetness.

Howie and I had a conversation about the Wavves records, and we agreed that, production-wise, the music is somewhat unsettling. It’s not quite balanced, EQ-wise, and you get the feeling that something is missing. Since I love things that throw me for a loop, I’m a big fan of the music’s unsettling nature, but I’m not sure if Howie feels the same way :) But it makes a WORLD of difference; if the song “Post Acid” by Wavves were produced by Brian Wilson or Butch Vig or someone similar, it would still be just as catchy, but it would have the opposite emotional effect. Instead of being slightly alarming, it would be totally sweet summertime fun song that would invade restaurants, radio, and TV shows. But as it stands, it’s in the “uncanny valley” of pop-music: it’s almost an accessible pop song, but there’s a little something about it that creeps people out. Which is why I love it.

Wavves is the most extreme example of this aesthetic. Although all three of these bands are in the same basic genre of music (surf-pop-punk, I guess?), I would guess that Best Coast and Surfer Blood are a lot more pleasing to the average ear. Best Coast is a female-fronted dreamy and eerie pop group, and most of the songs about summer and boys. The record is captivating, but it doesn’t necessarily demand a whole lot of energy from you; it can be a casual driving record or something that’s a little more intense, depending on your mood. The songs are short, sweet, and are saturated with wistfulness.

In my opinion, Surfer Blood are the band that best bridges the gap between this particular genre of music and the rest of pop music. They write some of the most undeniable catchy songs I’ve ever heard, and even though I’ve heard the songs a million times, they never fail to get me all jazzed up. Their new EP, Tarot Classics, take their melodic fuzz-rock formula once step further. Just like Vampire Weekend, they used their second release to add serious emotional depth to their already-successful approach. This EP encapsulates everything I love about pop music: great lyrics, insanely infectious melodies, great guitar hooks, unconventional yet simple themes; the list goes on and on. “Miranda” represents the direction I wish Weezer had taken; it fits right in with songs like “Susanne” and “You Gave Your Love To Me Softly.” These are the songs that make my 29-year-old grown-up heart yearn for the excitement, frustration, and uncertainty of my 17-year-old self. These songs sound like driving around Ventura looking for something to do, and hoping to bump into girls from school that I’d be too afraid to interact with.

That’s another factor, I think: if distances makes the heart grow fonder, I miss California more and more with each passing winter. You’ll notice a common oceanic trend in these bands’ names (Surfer, Coast, Waves), and their music reflects that attitude as well. I can’t always get back home to get rad, but these records help me out a lot, especially when I’ve got to shovel the damn sidewalk and scrape my damn windshield. -Cory

1. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light.   In five years of making these lists, I’ve never felt stronger about one album as my favorite of the year. It was a disappointment the first time I heard it.

Banjo?  Accordion?  I couldn’t make sense of the instrumentation; I couldn’t make sense of the songs. I didn’t understand what had happened to one of my favorite bands. I hoped I was missing something.

By the third or fourth listen, “No Future Shock” started to reveal itself as an anthem of the first order.  Opener “Second Song” followed, and soon after that Nine Types of Light became my personal soundtrack to 2011.  I won’t spill many more pixels over it, because what I can write about it falls far short of what it means to me.  If you hear anything this year or next, make it this.  -h

Honorable mention

The Sleepover – Believe the Honesty, Bro.


Skeletonwitch – Forever Abomination

Mastodon – The Hunter

Halloween, Alaska – All Night The Calls Came In

JV Allstars – Hold On To This.

I’m sure these records would have made the list, had I spent more time with them. As it is, I’ll be enjoying getting to know them better well into 2012.  -h

Good records from consistent bands

Ideal Cleaners – Far As You Know

Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps

My Morning Jacket – Circuitual

There’s a lot to be said about being steadily awesome; these records say some of it.  -h

Still goona check out

Wild Flag – Wild Flag

Fucked Up – David Comes to Life



Nick Lowe – Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman, Nick Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit, Seconds of Pleasure (with Rockpile)

Nilsson –

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath, Vol. 4, Sabotage


Best Records We Heard in 2010200920082007

Records and 2011 Listening

Several notes from the frontier…

The Sleepover mixed our EP last weekend in Omaha with AJ, and I’ll be starting mastering this week.  We hope to have it out in digital and CD-R formats in October sometime.

I’ve picked up some great vinyl over the past couple weeks, including a pristine copy of Sabotage from Halcyon (Heaven & Hell as well) Duran Duran’s self-titled record, Nick the Knife by Nick Lowe, CSNY’s classic 4 Way Street, Pet Shop Boys’ Please (“West End Girls!”), and The Human League’s Dare (they were in town last night, but we were at Foo Fighters, of course!).

A lot of the new stuff I’ve checked out seems to be missing some spark.  Acclaimed albums by Washed Out, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, David Bazan, EMA, St. Vincent (Actor), Wolves in the Throne Room, and Gomez (and solo records by Ian Ball and Ben Ottewell), are fine records, but somehow just not knotty enough for me, or give me enough to bite into.  A couple songs on each have it, maybe, but nothing close to a front-to-back experience.  Liturgy’s Aesthethica, which I almost turned off halfway through, is the only thing that seemed to have it.*  (St. Vincent’s new Strange Mercy has the potential, too; I just haven’t listened to it enough, but I’m pretty psyched about it.)

This has me wondering if I’m getting old man ears, and the noise the kids are making these days just isn’t moving me.  (Though, these artists are my peers in age.  Hrm.)  I had another idea, though; maybe different people need different amounts of novel music in their life.  If you’re a casual listener, you probably find enough music to satisfy you by the time you’re in your teens or twenties, without really even trying.  If your appetite is bigger, you seek out more stuff, and still become satisfied by the time you’re 30 or so.  That’s not to say we don’t all love a sick new jam once in a while, but just that overall, we build up our libraries of what we know and like and need to a point that satisfies us, and then we curate more carefully, only adding the very best.  I wonder if I’m getting there.

This has all be a giant preamble to telling you about the one thing I’ve found in the past few months that deserves five stars: Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life.”

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Owww! My eyes!

“Life” is everything you would want from it, like hanging out with Keef for a weekend while he tells his story, from birth to the present, focusing on the Stones, of course.  The war stories are fantastic, the guitar stuff is brilliant and insightful (though there’s not too much of it; non-musicians, don’t worry!), and I couldn’t have imagined beforehand how much I’d have in common with a guy like Keith, both musically and philosophically.  We’re incredibly different on the outside, but our inner lives have some surprising similarities.  I can’t thank Doc J and Dorie enough for loaning it to me.  That’s all – check it out!

* Liturgy has been freighted with a sort of black metal philosophical controversy; I’ve distilled it into two things you need to know, if you care:

  1. Liturgy makes life-affirming black metal, as a response to the genre’s more typical nihilism
  2. The “burst beat” is Liturgy’s characteristic rhythm; it’s a black metal blast beat played with expressive tempo changes.  It started as something the singer would do with a drum machine and manual tempo knob, but their live drummer learned how to do it now.
Some black metal people are really upset about these things.  I guess they don’t see how that pretty much makes Liturgy the black metal -of- black metal.