Sunday, December 18, 2016

Best of 2016

From what I can tell, this list is not like many others (#1 pick notwithstanding). I'd love to have seen more people talking about Veda Hille, Michael Kiwanuka, Eric Bachmann, Tami Neilson, The Comet is Coming, Black Mountain, Nels Cline, Glauco Venier, Paul Simon, Lizzo, Hidden Cameras and Jim Bryson, as well as many more great records found at the bottom of the main list. 2016 gave me panic attacks and made me think more about my mortality than at any time in my life, but at least there was no shortage of great music.

Some of these blurbs ran over two columns in the Waterloo Record, some ran on

1. Beyoncé – Lemonade (Sony). This is the only album that drove the collective conversation in 2016—and deservedly so. It’s the rare blockbuster pop album by a superstar that prompts political headlines, endless think pieces and taps directly into the zeitgeist in ways we haven’t seen in decades. It was also the first time the seemingly untouchable goddess appeared human, vulnerable, even vindictive, just as flawed as the rest of us. That came through not only in the lyrics but her vocal delivery, which was far more emotionally raw than she’s ever shown us. The cast of A-list collaborators gives the record an eclectic yet still consistent musical vision that by no means diminishes who exactly is in charge here: one queen to rule them all.

2. Veda Hille – Love Waves (independent). The Vancouver art-pop songwriter writes melodies that could sell a musical (which she’s done, to great acclaim), has the gall and the talent to rewrite and (gasp) improve her favourite songs by David Bowie and Brian Eno, employs many of Vancouver’s finest players, pens a plaintive ode to her young boy and reimagines the ordeal of Orpheus and Eurydice—in German, no less. Oh, and she’s wickedly funny when she wants to be. There’s no end to her insatiable curiosity—or her talent. (Original review here.)

3. Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL). The year’s weirdest success story also spawned one of the best records: 23-year-old bedroom-dwelling Haitian-Montrealer known for SoundCloud remixes pulls in up-and-coming international collaborators (Anderson.Paak, AlunaGeorge), almost-forgotten R&B and hip-hop artists (Craig David, Phonte), and new Toronto beatmakers (BadBadNotGood, River Tiber) and ends up creating the straight-up funkiest record to come out of Canada—perhaps ever, winning the Polaris Music Prize in the process. It’s draws from old school hip-hop, jazz fusion, Brazilian beats, Donna Summer disco, house music, DJ Shadow deconstruction, and anything else that sounds fantastic on the dance floor. Drake may have dominated the charts and the headlines, but Kaytranada made the infinitely superior—and much more fun—record. (Original review here. My take on his Polaris win here.)

4. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Sony). Frankly, Leonard, I’m not sure we did want it darker; 2016 turned out bleaker than we could ever have imagined (and it’s not over yet). It was enough that Cohen left us with one final masterpiece before he died, but his death proved to be a gift that gave us reason to re-examine his entire catalogue in a year when we were grasping for a glimpse of any light through the cracks. Unlike the elliptical Bowie record, You Want It Darker dealt specifically with death, with finality—and it was also funny, characteristically so. But there were no more chilling words sung (or spoken) this year than Cohen intoning, “I’m ready, my Lord.” (Original review here. My obit for him in Maclean’s here. I curated some memories of him from ordinary Canadians here.)

5. David Bowie – Blackstar (Sony). Even before his death shocked the world, this was already being hailed as his best album in (gulp) more than 30 years, one in which he fully embraced the influence of his hero, Scott Walker, and joined forces with Donny McCaslin’s powerful jazz band. Coy devil that he is, on Jan. 10 the always-innovative Bowie was also the first person to tell us that, other than music, 2016 was going to be a steaming pile of shit. (Original review here. My obit for him in Maclean’s here.)

6. The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem (Universal). Gord Downie was a newsmaker of the year for staring down death and delivering a series of triumphs, but least discussed among them was the fact that the newest Tragically Hip album was alone a reason to celebrate. Written and recorded before Downie’s diagnosis, and co-produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, it was a reinvention that could well have turned over a new leaf in the legendary band’s catalogue—and still might. Downie claims it’s not the last we’ll hear from them. (Original review here. My story on the Hip’s farewell and legacy for Maclean’s here. My review of the “final” show here. My year-end piece for Maclean’s Newsmakers here.)

7. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Sony). It wasn’t just Baby Boomers dying off; Phife Dawg was a mere 45 years old when he succumbed to diabetes, just after completing Tribe’s first album in 18 years. Both he and Q-Tip, neither of whom had prolific solo careers, proved they’d lost none of their potency and elevated their already-strong status as legends, not by emulating their glory days but by looking forward. Also: what a glorious thing it was to hear an actual rap group play off each other, as opposed to random guest verses on a superstar's record. It's a lost art. (Original review here.)

8. Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate (Universal). This British soul singer transformed his unassuming, folkie take on soul into the realm of the psychedelic, crafting a devastatingly beautiful respite in troubled times. The sound is undeniably retro—Nick Drake fronting Pink Floyd, or Marvin Gaye fronting Funkadelic—but never goes out of style. Nor should it. (Original review here.)

9. Eric Bachmann – s/t (Merge). Bachmann has been one of my favourite writers for more than 20 years (Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers), but it was his 2016 song “Mercy”—haunted by personal loss, impending apocalypse, and intense political divisions—that might well be his crowning moment, and was the one song I played more than any other in 2016, for obvious reasons. The rest this self-titled album is just as strong and heartbreaking (starting with “Modern Drugs”), a collection of perfectly crafted songs that pick up pieces of a shattered psyche. (Original review here.)

10. Anderson.Paak – Malibu (Steel Wool). This late bloomer (okay, he’s 30) is a studio veteran and multi-instrumentalist whose second album easily staked his claim in a crowded field of R&B reinventors. Malibu owes musical debts to D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar, but with a considerably more joyous vibe—it’s no surprise that he also shows up on Kaytranada’s record. Miguel should watch his back. (Original review here.)

11. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid (Outside). No, really, one more record about death: this one by a Canadian expat in New Zealand, writing about her late father, the patriarch of a family band that toured Canada in her youth. Don’t Be Afraid is emotionally deeper than anything Neilson has done to date, which was well-executed but decidedly retro, bordering on kitsch. Not this time. The deeper she goes into the blues, the better she gets. Neilson’s voice has few equals in this country—k.d. lang? Serena Ryder?—and has to be heard to be believed, when she’s either hollering gospel (“Holy Moses”) or delivering a gorgeous country ballad (“Lonely”). (Original review here. Live review for Maclean’s here.)

12. The Comet is Coming – Channel the Spirits (Leaf). Led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, this London trio’s debut is a synth-heavy, percussive, interplanetary psychedelic journey that lives up to titles like “Cosmic Dust” and “Slam Dunk in a Black Hole.” The New Musical Express dubbed the band “the Mercury Prize’s least-known nominee”—they were shortlisted alongside Bowie, Radiohead, Kiwanuka and other heavy hitters (and lost to Skepta). There’s nothing obscurist about them; this would go over like gangbusters in a Canadian rock club on a bill with Holy F--k and BadBadNotGood. (Original review here.)

13. Black Mountain – IV. If any rock record in the history of this country has a more powerful opening track than “Mothers of the Sun,” I’m not sure what that would be. A pulsing synth, a droning organ, a monster guitar riff, and the chilling vocals of Amber Webber and Stephen McBean keep us in suspense for more than three minutes before drummer Josh Wells kicks in to kick things into overdrive on what is an incredibly satisfying psychedelic rock record that never fizzles into pointless jam territory. McBean’s guitar solos are lyrical and evocative of Funkadelic great Eddie Hazel, but it’s Jeremy Schmidt’s keyboards that steal this show. (Original review here.)

14. Nels Cline – Lovers (Blue Note). The lead guitarist in Wilco appears on more than 200 records by others; his solo work, until now, has largely been experimental and skronky. On Lovers, his debut for the prestigious Blue Note label, however, he delivers a double album of love songs by composers ranging from Richard Rodgers and Henry Mancini to Arto Lindsay and Sonic Youth, along with original compositions. Lovers is lushly orchestrated, utilizing some of New York City’s most renowned avant-garde players, yet allows for plenty of abstraction and colouring far outside the lines, alongside more straightforward, classically beautiful performances. Though it never gets loud, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get deliciously weird. (Original review here.)

15. Glauco Venier – Miniatures: Music for Piano and Percussion (ECM). Many were the days when headlines made me want to bury my head in the sand. For those days, this prolific Italian pianist—who normally performs in a trio format, studied Italian Renaissance music, and has recorded albums covering Tom Waits and Frank Zappa—offers sparse compositions and improvisations augmented by gongs, bells and other metallic instruments. Only two of the 14 tracks are uptempo; the majority are meditative yet melodic, not sparse enough to be ambient music, but played with a delicacy and somewhat cautious deliberation. (Original review here.)

16. Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Universal). "The fact is, most obits are mixed reviews." When his day comes, that's going to be as true of Paul Simon as anyone else, but at least he's still here, even if he's strongly hinting this will be his last album. He sounds far from spent. He's still borrowing from wherever he can, including a young Italian DJ, but, as always, there's no sense he's trying to shoehorn himself into something he can't turn around and make his own. He can write circles around his peers or descendents, even if no one seems to care anymore; the man can't even get a Grammy nomination these days, even though those seem to get handed out like participation stickers. Stranger to Stranger, indeed.  (Original review here.)

17. Badbadnotgood – IV. Space-age bachelor pad music from a jazz band steeped in hip-hop and joined by guest singers, including Future Islands’ Sam Herring, Chicago MC Mick Jenkins and Toronto newcomer Charlotte Day Wilson (Kaytranada and Colin Stetson stop by as well). This band gets better with each record, and the permanent addition of saxophonist Leland Whittly pushes them even further. Also—for the love of God, don't judge this album by its cover. (Original review here.)

18. Lizzo – Coconut Oil EP (Universal).  “I’m lit / don’t mess with it,” says Lizzo, on a track where she demands that you “worship me.” She doesn’t need to ask twice. Lizzo is as strong a rapper as she is a singer—and she’s one hell of a singer, which puts her on the level with Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and Nicki Minaj right off the top. One of the last new artists to be taken under Prince’s wing before his death, Lizzo is equally political and playful, a feminist who rolls with an all-female crew, a plus-size woman pushing body positivity, and whose music fuses old-school hip-hop with modern trap, with Latino elements and nods to James Brown interspersed throughout. After two promising independent records, this is her major-label debut, six songs with producer Ricky Reed (Pitbull, Meghan Trainor) that strip everything down to the pop basics and set her on a path to stardom: expect to see her everywhere, starting with her own MTV show (Wonderland). (Original review here.)

19. Hidden Cameras – Home on Native Land. Joel Gibb’s Hidden Cameras inspired Arcade Fire’s debut album, brought a queer aesthetic into a straight-laced indie scene, and went full-on electro on their last album. Here, however, Gibb goes full-on country, which suits both his songwriting and his voice. He throws in a few covers—including a take on “Dark End of the Street” that places the classic soul song in a closeted context, and a joyous romp through “Log Driver’s Waltz” with Feist, Rufus Wainwright and Mary Margaret O’Hara—but it’s his originals that serve as a reminder of his unique talent. (Original review here.)

20. Jim Bryson – Somewhere We Will Find Our Place. On the surface, this Ottawa singer-songwriter (and sideman to Kathleen Edwards, the Weakerthans and Tragically Hip) writes pleasant, sad-sack Ontario folk-rock (one of my default favourite genres). But his interest in synths and experience doing production work on the side—as well as bringing in Broken Social Scene’s Charles Spearin as a collaborator, and Shawn Everett (Grammy-winning Alabama Shakes engineer)—informs the expanded sonic palette heard here, which provide vivid colours to his tales of disconnection and ennui. (Original review here.)

AnchorsongCeremonial (Caroline) (Original review here.)
A Tribe Called RedWe Are the Halluci Nation (Pirates Blend) (Original review here.)
DaughterNot to Disappear (Glasshouse) (Original review here.)
Craig DavidFollowing My Intuition (Sony) (Original review here.)
DeerhoofThe Magic (Polyvinyl) (Original review here.)
Johan JohannssonArrival OST (Deutsche Grammophon) (Original review here.)
Jordan KlaasenJavelin (Nevado) (Original review here.)
LoscilMonument Builders (Kranky) (Original review here.)
Selina Martin –  I’ve Been Picking Caruso’s Brain (independent) (Original review here.)
Aaron NevilleApache (Sony) (Original review here.)
Agnes ObelCitizen of Glass (Play It Again Sam) (Original review here.)
OperatorsBlue Wave (Last Gang) (Original review here.)
PoirierMigration (Nice Up!) (Original review here.)
RihannaAnti (Universal) (Original review here; this album grew on me considerably.)
John K. SamsonWinter Wheat (Anti) (Original review here.)
Sturgill SimpsonA Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic) (Original review here.)
Colin StetsonSorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony (52hz) (Original review here.)
Allen ToussaintAmerican Tunes (Nonesuch) (Original review here.)
TUNS – s/t (Royal Mountain) (Original review here.)
Donovan Woods  Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled (Meant Well) (Original review here. This too grew on me considerably.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

December 2016 reviews

Highly recommended: Johann Johannsson, Loscil

Well worth your while: John Legend, Daughter

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to directly support your favourite artists financially.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love! (Glassnote/Universal)

The world hasn’t felt this on the edge of chaos since the early 1970s. That might be why soul music in particular has been looking to leaders of that era for inspiration. Now comes Childish Gambino, a.k.a. the acclaimed actor and screenwriter Donald Glover (Community, Atlanta), ditching his hip-hop career for a full immersion into George Clinton’s early Funkadelic records: the psychedelic rock guitars, falsetto lead vocals, full-band backing vocals, sludgy beats.

On first impression, it works incredibly well—as an homage. Glover is a fantastic singer, even managing some powerful Prince-like squeals. His musical collaborator, Ludwig Göransson, plays most everything except drums, and it’s his arrangements that make the album work at all.

On deeper listen, however, an homage is all it appears to be. Glover’s singing is convincing enough that one assumes he’s conveying some kind of spiritual salvation from a world of woe. Actually, on the opening track, “Me and Your Mama,” when it sounds like he’s fighting a life-or-death battle in a fascist oligarchy, he’s actually howling: “You really got a hold on me, so this isn’t just puppy love.” For a rapper and a screenwriter, it’s strange that the lyrics are the weakest part of this project. But even the music, while interesting, doesn’t really hold up as more than a pastiche. It hits a real low on “California,” which is nothing short of cartoonish, akin to Ween covering Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut.”

The best thing about Awaken, My Love! is that it might send the curious scrambling back to discover Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, an album that I had an overwhelming urge to listen to on the morning of Nov. 10. It holds up. A little too well. (Dec. 15)

Stream: “Have Some Love,” “Redbone,” “Boogieman”

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Arrival OST (Deutsche Grammophon)
Loscil – Monument Builders (Kranky)

If you were either spooked out and/or captivated by the beauty of Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival, a large part of that experience was the score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. (Jóhannsson’s score for Villeneuve’s previous film, Sicario, was nominated for an Academy Award last year; they’re currently collaborating once more for the remake of Blade Runner due next year.) All ominous bass tones and digitally manipulated human voices, it’s the ideal accompaniment to interstellar communication, of sonically illustrating the awe and fear and responsibility of inchoate dialogue with an alien species. In an inverse process, Jóhannsson wrote the theme before Villeneuve even started shooting; the music would be played on set to set the tone. It’s far from an afterthought; it’s as integral to the film as the script or the cinematography. Even better: here, it also functions entirely independently as a somewhat unsettling meditative soundtrack.

Why Vancouver composer Scott Morgan, a.k.a. Loscil, has not been tapped for any Oscar-bait assignments is anyone’s guess. (He has, however, scored the 2006 Genie winner for Best Documentary: Scared Sacred.) He’s been creating fascinating minimalist ambient music for more than a decade, and his 11th album could well become a calling card. Inspired directly by Philip Glass’s stunning score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, as well as the photographs of devastated landscapes by Edward Burtynsky, Monument Builders is sparse, expansive and evocative. French horns and percussion permeate the occasionally pulsing synths and layered atmospherics; melodies and movements are glacial yet hardly obscured.

In these past few months, if not the past year, we’ve all had plenty of reasons to shut off the noise of the world and mourn the losses that pile up seemingly every week. In addition to everything else 2016 has handed us, between these and Colin Stetson’s reimagining of Gorecki’s “Sorrow” symphony, it’s also given us an antidote. (Dec. 1)

Stream Arrival: “Heptapod B,” “Properties of Explosive Materials,” “One of Twelve”
Stream Loscil: “Drained Lake,” “Straw Dogs,” “Anthropocene”

John Legend – Darkness and Light (Sony)

The classiest man in all of R&B is still riding high from his wedding-dance smash “All of Me” from 2013, and he has every intention of staying on top of the pop game on his fifth solo album (not counting his Roots collaboration). He has a surefire way of doing it—namely, a song called “Surefire.” And another called “Love Me Now,” which, yes, might sound like a Coldplay song—but infinitely better because it’s in the hands of Legend. Guest spots from Miguel and Chance the Rapper are surprisingly uneventful; Legend does far better on his own on the rest of the record. However, when Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard shows up on the super sultry and soul-shriekin’ title track, it’s thrilling and chilling and holy moly, can we sign these two up for a full-length duets album? Hot damn. (Dec. 8)

Stream: “Love Me Now,” “Darkness and Light” feat. Brittany Howard, “What You Do To Me”

Bruno Mars – 24K Magic (Atlantic)

Surely only the most joyless can resist “Uptown Funk”—at least the first 100 times you heard it. Bruno Mars knows a good vibe when he hears it, which is why the title track of his new album tries (and fails) to head uptown once again. His frequent collaborator Mark Ronson isn’t around this time; it wouldn’t appear that a hitmaker of Mars’s calibre would need him, but this sounds like Mars is flailing around trying to land the right groove. His singing and vocal arrangements—and, when he does his best James Brown, like on “Perm,” his shrieks—are flawless, and he commands a tight band that no doubt slays in the stadiums. But the songs this time out don’t really catch fire, and, as happens too often with Mars, the lyrics are laughable: “You need to activate your sex”; “Let’s just kiss until we’re naked.” It all probably sounds way better on stage, when all we have to do is watch the man with the moves. (Dec. 8)

Stream: “Perm,” “Finesse,” “Too Good to Say Goodbye”

Sting – 57th and 9th (Universal)

Sting is not through with rock music—or is he? After his lute album, his Christmas album, his symphonic reworkings, his original Broadway musical, it’s been 13 years since he put out something resembling pop music. Somewhere in between there was a Police reunion tour, and a collaborative tour with Peter Gabriel. But here, when he sings rather lethargically over a mid-tempo rocker, “Here comes the sound of everything I’ve ever feared,” one can’t help but wonder why he bothered. He perks up on the surprising rocker “Petrol Head,” and the old activist does have a few things to get off his chest: “One Fine Day” is his somewhat schoolboyish letter to the editor re: climate change that would make Bono blush (“Dear leaders, please do something quick / Time is up, the planet’s sick”). It’s all impeccably executed, of course, but unless you’re the rare breed of Sting fan who prefers his ’90s output to the rest of his career, this might just send you scrambling back to that lute record. (Dec. 8)

Stream: “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” “Petrol Head,” “Inshallah”

Warpaint – Heads Up (Rough Trade/XL)
Daughter – Not to Disappear (Glassnote/Universal)

“You’re a new song, baby, you’re a new song to me.” So goes the lead single from the third album by L.A. quartet Warpaint, a band whose 2014 Rough Trade self-titled debut would have given few to predict that the band would write a four-on-the-floor post-punk disco pop song heard repeatedly on alt-rock radio stations. It’s a new song to them, it’s a new song to us.

Warpaint shares a similar mood to The Xx, though instead of a Jamie Xx, they have drummer Stella Mozgawa, who’s just as inventive when she’s working a drum machine as she is when she’s turning Jenny Lee Lindberg’s dub-reggae-influenced bass lines upside down behind the kit.

“New Song” finds Warpaint cannibalizing their own sound in a pop-friendly package; sadly, the result is insipid. The rest of Heads Up, however, finds them emerging further from the shoegazy haze of their earlier work, pushing their rhythm section to the front of the mix while the two guitarists-vocalists get more abstract and rely less on copping directly from the Cocteau Twins’ playbook (or, more accurately, the Golden Palominos). Heads Up is a huge step up, on every level—and though they probably do have pop songs in them somewhere, that’s not where their talent lies; maybe they shouldn’t even try. “New Song” is more of a distraction than a gateway drug.

British band Daughter share the sleepy female vocal aesthetic of Warpaint and The Xx, but crank up the volume on the guitar amps, which sound like a howling winter storm. Not to Disappear, Daughter’s second album, came out in January; it’s a beautiful slow burn, and it seems all too fitting to end 2016 with a chorus that goes, “I feel numb in this kingdom.” Vocalist/guitarist Elena Tonra sounds like she spent her childhood listening to The Cure’s Disintegration and Jeff Buckley’s Grace, while her Swiss guitarist and French drummer manage to steer clear of shoegaze cliché. They’re not always successful; Tonra’s lyrics can stumble, and their attempts at ratcheting up the tempo (“No Care”) don’t really work. But when all their elements snap together, like on the triumphant single “How,” the results are stunning. (Dec. 15)

Stream Warpaint: “Whiteout,” “So Good,” “Don’t Wanna”
Stream Daughter: “How,” “Numbers,” “Doing the Right Thing”