(Excerpted from Exclaim’s year-end list, where In Conflict placed #3). Every one of Pallett’s records is better than the last; it goes without saying that this is his best. It’s supposedly his most personal; the only way you would know that would be if he told you so. Because other than silly love songs, what more universal themes could there be than control and chaos, fertility and faith, memory and motion, drinking and depression, and the “terror of the infinite”? Pallett not only transforms philosophy and poetry into pop songs, he’s increasingly deft at balancing beautiful abstraction with a visceral punch, never more so than on the thunderous “Riverbed.” Bringing his old Les Mouches bandmates Matt Smith and Rob Gordon into the fold brings a live energy to half the tracks here; elsewhere, Pallett plunges into whirlpools of synth arpeggios just as often as he wields his trusty violin. (Read full blurb here)
Read my Maclean’s story about Pallett here. My original review and interview with him is here. My conversation with Nico Muhly about him is here. My conversation with our mutual friend Carl Wilson is here. My conversation with Pallett about Toronto now and then is here.
2. Rosanne Cash – The River and the Thread (Blue Note)
I’ve heard and admired Rosanne Cash in the past, but from a distance. Nothing until now has made me want to dive in deep. Either The River and the Thread just happened to hit me at a certain time in my life (42, dad, formerly huge roots music fan who left the flock long ago and got hooked on the TV series Nashville last year), or Cash is getting even better with age and this is her masterpiece. It is, I’m told, her most personal, based on southern travels she took to her father’s home state, where she reconnected with generations of family stories that were largely alien to a songwriter raised in comfort in California and New York City. The storytelling and lyrics are unquestionably part of this album’s strengths, but the music overshadows all: killer melodies (co-written with husband John Leventhal), meticulously tasteful arrangements that still have plenty of soul, and, obviously, top-notch players and singers all around. The middle of the road rarely ever sounds this good. Yes, it’s too clean and pat for those who like their music a bit messy, but I can’t fault perfection. Post-script: After falling in love with this record, I highly recommend you read Cash’s memoir, Composed, from a couple of years back; it’s just as delicious and beautiful.
Also for your viewing pleasure: "A Feather is Not a Bird"
(Excerpt from October review) Few musicians, if any, have used their art to suggest just how subversive queer culture was and is, how dangerous it is to embrace supposed “flamboyance,” the marginalization that exists outside of mainstream assimilation. Then along comes a guy who calls himself Perfume Genius, with a song called “Queen,” with a chorus that baits: “No family is safe / when I sashay.” This man does not want a peaceful life in the suburbs and settling for tolerance rather than acceptance. He’s a queer Stagger Lee, a homophobe’s worst nightmare, “casing the barracks / for an ass to break and harness / into the fold / marry.” And he does so with a voice that struts and seethes, staring down death and disease and contempt, backed by a sparse and gutsy rhythm section that crafts majesty out of a bare minimum of notes. (Read full review here.)
There is nothing more I can say that Geoff Berner didn’t already say when he introduced her performance at the Polaris Music Prize gala. Here is an excerpt from that speech:
“Animism is a masterpiece because it transcends opposites. Dizzyingly complex and sophisticated in structure, it also completely hits you in your guts, in your soul. It takes traditions that are tens of thousands of years old, and makes truly innovative music … If you listen, you will careen through a panorama of the contradictions of existence. You can hear the living land, and the land under assault. You can hear children being born—and conceived. You can hear the torture of the innocent, and the glory of the tenacious, unstoppable force of life. If you listen you can actually hear the sound of a people defying genocide to rise, wounded but alive, strong, and ready to fight. There is no artist working today more emphatically herself, more incomparable than Tagaq. There is no musician in this world more powerful. Animism is the album that finally translates her unique power to the recording studio.” (Read Berner’s full text here.)
My original review is here. My piece for Maclean’s about her Polaris performance is here. My piece about what her Polaris win means—or doesn’t—is here.
Also for your viewing pleasure: her legendary Polaris performance
Among the many things to love about The Future’s Void, it has the best song ever written with word “interweb” in it. Erika Anderson is 27 years old, which makes her skepticism of tech utopians much more interesting than a 70-year-old grandpa with an acoustic guitar. EMA doesn’t shy from technology in her synth-heavy music or her art—this album was accompanied by a visually provocative webzine—but she is suspicious of social media’s societal effects. She flips between harsh and industrial noises and pretty piano-based art rock, with a full-on ’90s grunge throwback single (“So Blonde”) and a breezy Fleetwood Mac-ish acoustic pop song (“When She Comes”) as red herrings; it’s telling that she can play to mass appeal if she wants, she chose to play the considerably more aggressive and jarring “Neuromancer” for her network TV debut on Letterman. Her howl is a glorious thing: not since PJ Harvey in her prime or the early days of Karen O has a female rock singer managed to snarl and scream while maintaining full control of her pitch. No tracks here sound particularly alike; this woman is not likely to run out of ideas in the near future.
Also for your viewing pleasure: "3Jane"
Didn’t Blige once promise “No More Drama”? It’s always a life-and-death struggle in song for this icon, but there are few singers today who can convince you that they’ve hit bottom and crawled back up and still fear slipping back every day. The London Sessions is not a resurrection story, exactly: Blige’s career was doing just fine before this. It is, however, a relocation and a revelation, placing her largely in in stripped-down situations where her raw voice reveals her to be the true queen she is. But five of the 12 songs here are also club bangers, with shades of ’90s acid jazz, rave culture and modern EDM—except with a significant dose of serious soul usually lacking in those genres. And if the 12 months of headlines that comprised 2014 left you feeling punched in the stomach, then there’s no better remedy than “Whole Damn Year.”
I wrote this for Exclaim, where they placed this album #10 on their Underrated Records of 2014 list: Calgary's Taylor Cochrane is at once a snotty punk, an ambient balladeer, a swaggering falsetto singer and a folkie delivering soaring anthems — and that's all on the first five songs. He's backed up from brilliant work by drummer Ryan Kusz and two multi-instrumentalists who make sense of Cochrane's mayhem. Most bands who try to do everything fail miserably; this one succeeds brilliantly, despite an ungooglable name.
Listen to the whole thing here.
My review from June: Your summer should sound like this: drunk, demented, delirious—and South American. This is what your World Cup party feels like after your underdog team beats all odds and you find yourself using a vuvuzela to imbibe multi-coloured sugary drinks you’ve never seen before, kissing people in the street and waking up in a strange part of town.
Elbis Alvarrez is the one-man operation from Bogota calling himself Meridian Brothers. On his third international release—not counting his side projects, including the mind-melting Los Piranas—he mashes together every equatorial genre of music (cumbia, calypso, reggae, samba) and escorts you through a funhouse of mirrors. Whether you dance or just sit there dazed is up to you.
Alvarrez has a simple methodology: set up a killer percussion track, employ minimal rhythm guitar, and then wig out on either processed lead guitar or fuzzy organs that sound like bees—all while cackling maniacally like a Latin American Jean-Pierre Massiera. Evil genius, or just plain genius? Maybe just the album of the summer.
Timing is everything. Some acts peak with their first album, only to become popular later. Some acts get major hype right out of the gate, and then no one is still paying attention when they start making far superior music 10 years into their career. Afie Jurvanen, on the other hand, gets better with every record, and was starting to sell out major theatres even before we got to hear this, his third, on which his soft sell is seductive and soothing. He’s a killer guitarist who directs his energy into crafting arrangements rather than soloing, and the female voices and strings with which he surrounds himself sweeten the pot even more.
My review from August.
This one is personal. I’m 43 years young. Lemme tell ya, kids, life gets rougher as you get older; some days it’s tough to see the love in the world and in each other. This summer, my ladyfriend and I drove down to Merge Records’ 25th anniversary party week in Carrboro, N.C.; we fell in love there at the label’s 15th anniversary. This album had just come out. Driving around the back roads of “North Cackalacky,” these garage rock geezers told me everything I wanted to hear: that it’s never too late to start again, to start working on new dreams, to rediscover the sparkle and shine in a lover’s eye. (It takes work, of course. See: “I’m Trying (To Be the Man You Need.”) Staying up late, talking all night, and dancing at rock’n’roll shows is not the exclusive domain of the young; indeed, it’s what keeps one young. Greg Cartwright, formerly of the Oblivians and the Deadly Snakes, has been around a few blocks, so he should know. The romantic lyrics aren’t the only sign of mellowing: the rich organ and string sections bring out his deep love of Memphis soul. Is Shattered one of the best records of 2014? Objectively, I’m not sure. But it meant the world to me.
Also for your listening pleasure: "North Cackalacky Girl"
Kevin Drew deserves credit for many things: for co-founding Broken Social Scene and keeping it together, for being Toronto’s best ambassador pre-Drake, for at least two great BSS albums, and co-founding the Arts and Crafts label. On this, his second solo album, Drew truly emerges as a songwriter who doesn’t need a small army behind him; his production is also top-notch, warm and inviting, rich in atmosphere even in its loudest moments.
I saw this band open for Shearwater in the spring, and they drove me nuts. My ladyfriend bought the record, however, and I slowly realized how lovely these songs actually are. They soundtracked many late evenings for the rest of the year. Lesson learned—yet again—about books, covers, and all that. My review from May:
Joel Thibodeau, a eunuch-voiced singer/songwriter from New England, sums up the ever-elusive and mysterious creative process better than most: “I don’t know what to do when the universe is in my room.” Clearly, however, he figured it out on this, his third album, for which he travelled to Iceland. Sure enough, Jonsi from Sigur Ros—a man with an almost identical range and timbre as Thibodeau—shows up. Arrangements of Thibodeau’s wonderfully wistful, melodic folk songs are adorned with marimbas, glockenspiels, fuzzed-out bass, pump organs, accordions and other instruments that seem to be always lying around Icelandic studios (see also: Bjork, Mum, Nico Muhly). On first impression, Thibodeau is too fey by half, with lines like, “I have an unbridled ideation / jumping over every moon with indignation.” He also enjoys employing words like “derring-do” and “looky-loo” with a straight face. He’s nothing if not earnest, and it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that he spent the six years since his last album in a seaside cabin with a library of pre-Victorian literature. (He didn’t—to my knowledge, anyway.) No matter your take on the lyrics, however, the melodies and arrangements are consistently and almost undeniably gorgeous.
No one would ever accuse Robert Plant of having a more successful career outside of Led Zeppelin than when he was in one of the biggest rock bands in the known universe. But judging by his last three records, that may yet be the case. The lessons he learned from singing with Alison Krauss have served him immensely: when a voice with such power chooses to focus with such restraint, it’s chilling and gorgeous—never more so than on “Stolen Kiss,” which must surely stand with his greatest vocal performances in his 45-year career. West African and Arabic influences abound here, as do those of his British Isles old and new: folk music and Bristol beats. With an ace band surrounding him dealing in textures and rhythms, this new Robert Plant we’ve come to know and love continues to surprise. My original review is here.
Also for your listening pleasure: "Little Maggie"
My February review: This Guelph guitarist is noted for his wailing heavy metal leads in his rock band the Big Idea, where he has collaborated with Prince percussionist Sheila E. and members of the Stray Cats and Extreme. But he has a whole other acoustic side of him that revered Django Reinhardt’s style of gypsy jazz. It’s that pursuit that led to this collaboration with arguably the best Balkan brass band in the world, the 12-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia, who hail from a remote region of Romania. They specialize in a blistering, relentless tempos and virtuosic display. It’s hard to imagine them taking a back seat to anyone, never mind a Guelph guitar teacher. It’s just as hard to imagine Raso carving out a space for himself amidst Fanfare Ciocarlia, who have played together for decades. And yet: both camps meet here as complementary equals. Neither is here to upstage the other. Even though Raso’s fingerwork can match the brass players 16th note for 16th note, more importance is placed here on the actual songs and group dynamic. We know these people are all incredible; they don’t feel they have to prove it in every phrase. On “Spiritissimo,” Raso even makes room for another guitar hero, Rodrigo Sanchez, of Rodrigo y Gabriela, with whom he shares a similar love of metal shredding and flamenco.
This octogenarian doesn’t need Lady Gaga’s starpower to help him deliver a bestselling album (though there are plenty of lady voices throughout, of course). His previous record, Old Ideas, is far superior, but Popular Problems shows that it wasn’t a fluke: this creative comeback is going to last as long as he wants it to. My original review is here. And let's not talk about that album cover.
Excerpted from my February review: Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, has always been smart. Too smart, as if she’s approaching her music like an algebraic equation rather than creative expression. She’s always been talented. Too talented. She’s an operatic singer and a shredder on the guitar and loves to immerse herself in distorted electronics, and often she liked to flex all those muscles at once. Such is the folly of youth. She’s now 31. This is her fifth album, if you include her full-length collaboration with David Byrne, on which she began to leave her head and loosen up her body. (Byrne knows more than a few things about that divide. See: Stop Making Sense.) St. Vincent, the album, is a bold new statement of purpose. (Could you tell from her new look?) Clark has always had the confidence, the swagger, the chutzpah to go for the gold and hope her technical prowess would carry the day. This time, she’s also got guts and heart and grooves and songs to complete the package. Read the full review here.
What the hell is going on here? Exactly. Questlove describes this as the Roots’ first opera; the most ambitious hip-hop band in history has dealt in concept albums before, with mixed success, but this definitely sounds theatrical, with classical and jazz and noise interludes, operatic vocals, crooning, soul claps, ’70s soundtracks and full orchestration. Ever since they took the Jimmy Fallon gig—which no doubt pays a few bills—the Roots’ albums have taken increasingly left-field turns, and this is the wildest of them all. Conversely, it also has some of their best pop hooks. Now that their day job has imbued them with unlimited mainstream visibility, it’s easy to take this band for granted. Don’t. They never would. My original review is here.
It’s not enough that White already embodies everything I love in a great rock’n’roller (he’s one of the only interesting rock guitarists alive) or that his move to Nashville has brought welcome country elements into the mix, but with the title track to Lazaretto he even manages to borrow from hip-hop: specifically, the Beastie Boys circa Check Your Head. White’s talent is so sickening that there are times when Lazaretto feels a bit contrived, a bit too precious, a bit of an Americana museum piece. But that’s all in the mind of an academic, emotionally constipated listener; on a gut level, Lazaretto is fantastic, with White surrounding himself with ladies—lots of ladies—and gentlemen who bring out the best in him. Songs take detours and cross genres on a whim and White is the squealing ringmaster conducting it all. Spreading himself thin hasn’t hurt him a bit.
My June review is here.
Also for your viewing pleasure: "Would You Fight For My Love"
Excerpt from my October review: I’ve never cared for Aphex Twin in the past. Yet I love this album. Has he changed—or have I? (We’re the same age.) It’s natural for an innovator to sound benign two decades after first turning tables (or turntables). It’s entirely possible that Aphex Twin’s influence—digitally deconstructed beats and tones that can sound randomly generated to the untrained ear—is so far-reaching that we now take it for granted. Squiggly bass, spasmodic rhythms, melodies as fleeting as jazz improvisations, played on alternately soft and distorted synthesizers—Aphex Twin weaves various discombobulated layers together to make something dense yet danceable, distant yet strangely seductive. Syro displays a maturity, a confidence in which James doesn’t feel like he has to prove anything to anyone or even himself. There’s no need to be oppositional for the sake of it; there’s no envelope to consciously push against. Left on his own, in that small Scottish village, the mad musical mind of Richard D. James doesn’t have to compete with the noise of the world. He’s already changed the face of music; now he can sit back and enjoy it. So can we—some of us, for the first time.
This band has been working a noir-ish, twangy shtick for years now, but it’s not getting tired—it’s getting even better. The grooves, the textures, the melodies, the overall balance between spooky seduction and downright discomfort is struck perfectly. It’s been a good year for them: a spot on the Polaris shortlist, an unforgettable debut headlining slot at Massey Hall (where the carefully chosen, celebratory exit music over the P.A. was Yello’s “Oh Yeah”), and an acclaimed side project (Last Ex). Sure, all the songs sound the same. Carolyn Mark once asked, “Is it a groove, or is it a rut?” This is most definitely a groove. My original review is here.
Also for your viewing pleasure: "Curtains"
20 more for good measure, in alphabetical order:
BadBadNotGood – III (Arts and Crafts)
Neneh Cherry – Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
Amelia Curran – They Promised You Mercy (Six Shooter)
Lynne Hanson – River of Tears (independent)
Hidden Cameras – Age (Outside)
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – Give the People What They Want (Daptone)
Daniel Lanois – Flesh and Machine (Red Floor/Anti)
Shane Abram Nelken – Your War is at Home (independent)
New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Last Gang)
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye (Warner)
Rodrigo y Gabriela – 9 Dead Alive (ATO)
Sagot – Valse 333 (Simone)
Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)
Slakah the Beatchild – Soul Movement Vol. 2 (BBE)
The Touré-Raichel Collective – The Paris Session (Cumbancha)
Tricky – Adrian Thaws (Arts and Crafts)
Tycho – Awake (Ghostly International)
Mirel Wagner – When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day (Sub Pop)
Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) – Soused (4AD)
Pharrell Williams – G I R L (Sony)
Native North America: Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985 (Light in the Attic). Reviewed here. Q&A with curator Kevin Howes here.
Lavender Country – s/t (Paradise of Bachelors). Reviewed here. An appreciation of the fantastic liner notes here.
Best of 2013—albums I totally slept on until this year:
Brandy Clark - 12 Stories (Slate Creek)
John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts (Nevado)
Nick Buzz - A Quiet Evening at Home (Six Shooter)