The Best That Has Been Streamed or Heard (So Far This Year)

Here are the 15 best albums and 15 best singles (sez me) released between January 1 and March 31, 2016, listed alphabetically because I’m not ready to commit to anything more just now. Lots still under consideration and, of course, unheard. (And lots of my faves still unreviewed.) Let me know what’s missing in the comments, if you’re that kind.

Albums:

Azealia Banks: Slay-Z
Bent Shapes: Wolves of Want
Brothers Osborne: Pawn Shop
Charli XCX: Vroom Vroom
DJ Katapila: Trotro
Kevin Gates: Islah (Deluxe Edition)
KING: We Are King
Kitten Forever: 7 Hearts
Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered
Anderson .Paak: Malibu
Bonnie Raitt: Dig In Deep
Rihanna: Anti
Wall: Wall
Wussy: Forever Sounds
Soul Sok Séga

Singles:

Erykah Badu, “Trill Friends”
Azealia Banks, “The Big Big Beat”
Beyoncé: “Formation”
Chairlift, “Crying in Public”
Brandy Clark, “Girl Next Door”
Selena Gomez, “Hands to Myself”
Little Scream, “Love as a Weapon”
M.I.A., “MIA OLA”/”Foreign Friend”
One Direction, “History”
Pet Shop Boys “The Pop Kids”
Rihanna feat. Drake, “Work”
Santigold, “Banshee”
Sheer Mag, “Can’t Stop Fighting”
Taylor Swift, “New Romantics”
Young Thug feat. Quavo, “F Cancer”

Singles round-up: Not even past

Pop music isn’t solely about misremembering yesterday, but that’s a big part of what it does right. And wrong, Sturgill. And wrong.


Taylor Swift
“New Romantics”

Tay plays jaded the way she once spun fairy tales, relishing the feigned cynicism that cushions heartbreak the way she once thrilled to the fluctuating pulse rate of infatuation. She’s always had a cunning craftswoman’s sense that formal convention shapes desire as surely as biology, but she’s moved on from giving Romeo & Juliet a happy ending to giving As You Like It a sad (but still celebratory) one.


Pet Shop Boys
“The Pop Kids”

Nostalgia as victory lap. Neil Tennant gloats fondly about an age when you could still be smug about liking songs without guitars, then stretches “here” into a syllable and a half with a longing that erases a quarter-century.


Ariana Grande
“Dangerous Woman”

Lock up your donuts — Mariahna squanders her annual allotment of consonants, rhymes “permission” with “decision” like Britney taught her, and vamps as though she thinks the motto is you only live twice. Less empowering than a shelf of Curvy Barbies on clearance, but still fun fun fun till Carole King’s lawyers take a song credit away.


The 1975
“The Sound”

I know, I know, the simplistic chorus is meant to offset the verbosity of the verses  — that’s Matt Healy’s performative way of making a maybe a certain and pretending you can’t spell synthesizer without “thesis.” But every time I try to decide whether he’s a smart Brit playing cute or vice versa I get distracted by the guitar solo morphing uncannily into Steve Winwood’s Prophet-5.


Sturgill Simpson
“In Bloom”

A victory from beyond the grave. Evading Sturgill’s turgid determination to sing Kurt’s pretty song like he knows just what it means, the lyric loiters coolly past the edge of coherence, like a rabbit that knows the exact length of a dog’s leash.

What I have been and will be up to

If all goes well, this will be a busy blogging week. There are many more album reviews where that last batch came from, as well as some singles round-ups, a movie review or two, and possibly a couple 1st quarter top ten lists.

And here are a few stories I’ve recently been paid to write.

“Why the Hulk Hogan Sex Tape Verdict Matters,” Rolling Stone

“How ‘Eddie the Eagle’ Made an Imaginary Eighties Pop Soundtrack,” Rolling Stone

“In Defense of ‘Thong Song,’ Inexplicable Winner of PiPress’ Worst Song Ever Contest,” City Pages

 

Listening notes: Hey hey hey, old people are A-OK

If you’re keeping score, the artists’ ages here are, in descending order of quality: 66, 82, 83, 83, 68. That averages out to 76 – which I guess can teach us all something about how meaningless and misleading averages can be.

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Bonnie Raitt
Dig In Deep
GO

After coolly diagnosing a relationship rough patch as less a crisis than an “Unexpected Consequence of Love,” the sexagenarian sequential monogamist transforms “Need You Tonight” from a beefcake pop star’s distant tease to the kind of late-night sext that’s so urgent you can feel its ache in the blinking pulse of your phone notification. The pleasures that follow are less striking — a Los Lobos rocker, the righteous populism of “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through,” Bonnie pronouncing “sturm und drang”; the mood and groove are so familiar that you could almost be excused for overlooking her casual brilliance if 45 years of Bonnie Raitt albums shouldn’t have taught you better by now. A level-headed adult perpetually bushwhacked by her expansive potential for desire, Raitt remains a curious anthropologist of her own emotional states, her blues neither a historically calcified form to master nor a mystic well of ancient truths to revere, but a living language for grown-ups who want to communicate and negotiate their romantic and sexual needs.

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Willie Nelson
Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin
SLOW

He’s too damn old to bother stepping gingerly around the creaky floorboards in his voice, and his clinkers have their candid charms, augmenting a mood of autumnal longing on “But Not for Me” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” and contrasting nicely with his still fluent guitar. His sly “Ain’t Necessarily So” and nostalgic “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” are distinctive if not definitive. But the two duets are duds: Sheryl Crow, trying to Best Country Duo/Group Performance her way through “Embraceable You,” actually fares better than Cyndi Lauper’s wacky neighbor audition on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” And though big sister’s piano does its best, my library’s already got all the “Summertime”s I need, thanks.

 

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Loretta Lynn
Full Circle
SLOW

Sassy old gal she may be (the opening banter has me wishing for more) but hand her a song that’s even older than she is — “In the Pines” or an A.P. Carter copyright (or two) — and Lynn grows unduly respectful, like she’s some mere folk singer rather than one of the (three? five?) greatest female country voices of all-time. Even hiding her light under a bushel, she’s in more robust form than when Jack White antiqued her on Van Lear Rose — love the way she effortlessly rhymes “harder” with “water” on the 12-stepper’s prayer “Water into Wine” and chomps “Always on My Mind” to glorious bits. The return to “Fist City” reveals that her voice hasn’t exactly sharpened with age, though. And “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?” is just plain unseemly.

 

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Yoko Ono
I’m a Witch Too
SLOW

Theoretically, the idea of the remix bridges the two stages of Yoko’s career: pop music and Fluxus conceptualism. By opening her material up to the creative input of others, she introduces an element of fortuity that complicates the idea of the finished art work, just as she did when she she was leaving printed instructions for gallery visitors in the ‘60s. But while art can be left to chance, pop can’t — the completed remixes here are forced to compete for your attention with original recordings that deserve much more of it. Only Sparks’ arty melodrama on “Give Me Something” detracts from the material; Dave Audé’s “Wouldnit” grooves, Blow Up’s “Approximately Infinite Universe” rocks, tUnE-yArds’ “Warrior Woman” bangs. But when it comes to the perpetual denial of artistic completion, 21st century style, Ono’s no match for Hericleezus of Tidal.

 

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Iggy Pop
Post Pop Depression
NO

An exhaustive investigation into the leathery legend’s history of studio collaborations confirmed my suspicion that while gals from Kate Pierson and Debbie Harry through Peaches and Kesha can jolt Iggy out of his posturing, bros are typically content to let Iggy ride shotgun on that same old cruise-controlled death trip he’s been commuting for years. As for devoted fanboy Josh Homme, he transports ’70s Berlin to the southwestern U.S. desert (very Vegas of him), his steady march tempo not even fast enough to be dull, giving I.P. way too long to think about what he doesn’t have to say in multiple modes – descriptive (“Your hourglass ass/ And your powerful back”), metaphorical (“as slick as a Senator’s statement”), and purposeful (“I’m gonna break into your heart”). It closes with the sort of rant against “information” and call for rectal laptop insertion you usually hear when a harried barista is forced to tell some weirdo that the restrooms are for customers only.

Mountains May Depart: Patching the sentimental veil

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Jia Zhangke’s best work focuses a cold eye on the violent displacements demanded by capital but allows for dramatic ambiguity. Mountains May Depart is somehow just both didactic and vague. A young woman named Tao chooses a jerky nouveau capitalist over a stolid mine worker; they name their son Dollar, then divorce; and the husband emigrates to Australia with the boy, who grows up incapable of understanding Chinese. The film is trisected into vignettes taking place in 1999, 2014, and 2025, and the aspect ratio enlarges with each leap forward. The characteristically broad span of time allows to Jia to focus, as usual, on how individuals caught up within historical forces beyond their comprehension strive to maintain their footing. This structure might have allowed him to re-imagine the present as the past, and Dollar could have served as an avenue for hypothesizing the psychological makeup of a member of the cosmopolitan young elite class of our future. But Jia fumbles on both counts, and as Tao responds to her personal losses by retreating into the preservation of traditional customs, he seems to endorse a sentimentality that’s under-examined and at odds with the implications of the story. Surely Jia must recognize some irony in the closing image of Tao, alone but financially secure, dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ wistful version of “Go West,” nostalgic for a moment when youth and capital combined to offer her a delirious promise of freedom. And how are we supposed to title, which comes from a Chinese proverb: “Mountains may depart but the roots remain unchanged”? Marx knew better than that, and I suspect so does Jia.

Singles round-up: Beats of many sizes

Honest, I tried to embed a Meghan Trainor video, but she’s DMCA’d them all clean off YouTube.


Azealia Banks
“The Big Big Beat”

Roll over Rick Rubin and tell Billy Squier the news. Clipped electro-bass below, Biggie chopped to the edge of coherence above, insouciant house beat running straight up the middle — that’s all Ms. A to Z requires to coast along on impure attitude, from the soft-spoken bad-bitching of her verses to the jazzy look-ma-no-gravity runs on the chorus. Hope she won’t hop back on social media to explain the bit about the pricey Jesuit medal. But if she keeps dragging producers like An Expresso out of the underground, she can tweet any dumb shit she wants — Ted Cruz dick pics, my credit card number, plans to bomb a preschool, w/e.


Zayn
“It’s You”

“Like I Would”

“Hey, what’s up, it’s been awhile” is a fib at best on your third track of the young year, but the phantom chorale and when-I’m-damn-well-ready beat of the resentfully arrogant “Like I Would” would be a nasty kickoff to that solo full-length. And the postcoital you-still-awake? falsetto on “It’s You” would provide a sweet coda to an album of bangers. I’m disappointedly suspecting that “Zayn Malik, newly grown-ass man out to get what he deserves” will win the narrative tug-of-war with “Zayn Malik, dreamy fuckpet that newly grown-ass women deserve” when it all shakes out. Then again, “It’s You” is track 3 and “Like I Would” is #17, so what the hell do I know?


5th Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign
“Work from Home”

If the latest installment in the grand pop tradition of oh-shit-they-already-called-a-song-that? hardly clears the hurdle set by the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love)” it doesn’t punch the clock like Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” either. Even Ty plays his part when it comes time to free his lance. Sexier than configuring a VPN, not to mention Jordin Sparks’ 2015 B.O.B.-abetted application for the same job. But that’s not saying much, and aside from the A+ “No getting off early,” neither are they.


Gwen Stefani
“Make Me Like You”

“Misery”

Her likable band uncoincidentally accredited cachet just around the time that the alternative (as we used to say) was nu-metal, and though I appreciated how her solo bow accentuated her hyper-girlishness too loopily to fit anyone’s pop feminist paradigm, that shit got annoying (A-N-N-O-Y-I-N-G) pretty quick — and that’s coming from a guy who loves echoing her Akon song at ballgames. She’s had to try twice as hard as Dave Grohl to survive the biz, and that ain’t fair. But both of her recent Swedepop makeovers fall back on that huskyperkycool vocal affectation that’s been rubbing me the wrong way for two decades, modulated to a pout or puckered to a sob as the mood requires. She sounds more at home in her Target ad than she does as a Gen X Sia.

Meghan Trainor
“NO”

What’s wrong with being confident.

Carly Rae Jepsen: And Her Hair Was Perfect

carly-rae-jepsen-haircut-w540

Upscaling critically as she downscales commercially, the CRJ I got to see at the Varsity on Wednesday isn’t just at a significant career juncture — she’s the kind of artist who could help expand the accepted musical language within indie circles. My review’s here.

Singles round-up: Heartland murmurs

Went looking for some great country songs and found some good ones and some not-bad ones.


Brandy Clark
“Girl Next Door”

At times on the brilliant 12 Stories, Clark sang with the tentative precision of a songwriter cutting demos, but here she digs into a beat that could make Terri Gibbs talk dirty about Jesus to form a character rather than just sell a lyric. Really, though, either she, Jessie Jo Dillon or Shane McAnally should’ve scrolled through Netflix romcoms for ten seconds to find a more contemporary ingenue to bash than Marcia Brady.

 


Maren Morris
“My Church”

Subbing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash for Jesus and Paul, this lively pupil reminds us that Americans have a lousy habit of reducing joy to reverence and disguising piety as blasphemy. But she would have totally gotten away with if her beat didn’t sound like a Lumineer slapping a milk crate.

 


Cam
“Mayday”

I fell hard last Spring for the four-cut promo EP Welcome to Cam Country — two of the year’s best country singles plus the two best songs that would resurface in December on Untamed, a full-length she didn’t seem totally ready for and the original home of “Mayday,” a warning flare that sparks and smolders but never catches fire.

 


Aubrie Sellers
“Sit Here and Cry”

The sound of a bright shiny apple falling a little too close to a tree that’s already way too conscious of its roots. (I imagine Lee Ann Womack solemnly and tearfully telling her daughter, “I recorded ‘I Hope You Dance’ so that you wouldn’t have to.”) Upbeat but sane, straight-faced but not somber — that could just be another way of saying “glib,” but this ain’t quite that, so maybe Sellars is still ripening.

 


Dierks Bentley
“Somewhere on a Beach”

Another terrifically sloshed stagger of a riff from where “Drunk on a Plane” came from, but you know how sequels can get — when Dierks boasts of his new hottie “She’s got a body,” I wonder if his ex is a ghost.


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Listening notes: A little more rhythm, a little less blues

If you’re the kind of person who cares about such things, here’s a rough conversion scale for my rankings. GO = 8-10, A- through A+. SLOW = 6-7, B through B+. NO = everything under that.

king

KING
We Are King
GO

A lovely bath bomb of an album, dissolving in hypnotic swirls, releasing soothing gels, emitting tranquil scents. The pleasures here are sensual rather than sexual: Chord changes gently divert a melody from its expected course for a familiar but unspecifiable effect (Stevie at his most abstract? Chaka at her jazziest?), percussion fades distantly and synths twinkle in its wake. From such forms and textures producer Paris Strother coaxes a pulse that falls somewhere between Isleys as ambient and the drowsy brush of a lover’s fingertips, while the murmurs of her twin Amber and third member Anita Bias harmonize and diverge, occasionally choked with Baduizt incense. Immerse. Indulge. Luxuriate.

 

santigold-99-cents-560x560

Santigold
99¢
SLOW

Santi White still belts with the eager rasp of a teen discovered while harmonizing on her stoop and writes with the wit of the Brill Building hustler tasked with supplying that girl’s #1 hit. Bo Diddley couldn’t mean “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” any more than she does, and “Banshee” is like the work of a one-woman Nina Sky (feat. M.I.A.). The metapop packaging’s a little arch, though any mid-lister, regardless of profession, who got a foot in the door just as the walls came crashing down can identify with that nostalgia for self-commodification. But if you can’t get enough of her either you won’t get enough of her here — too often she falls back on a jagged groove as though vamping till inspiration strikes.

 

mavis

Mavis Staples
Livin’ on a High Note
SLOW

Like Jeff Tweedy before him, producer M. Ward can assemble a roots record without getting in his own way. I wouldn’t be surprised if those are his ace Steve Cropper imitations, and he does the Lord’s work adapting MLK’s words for an acoustic coda. Few of the NPR First Listen alums in the credits would be my first songwriting choices, but Staples makes the best of what Ben Harper or the Heart and the Head don’t have to say, and I’m like sure-why-not? with the two lyrics that conflate soul and self-care. Only Aloe Blacc’s “Tomorrow” is DOA, a collection of chin-up cliches that Randy Newman should still be nasty enough to re-record with “(Song for a Dying Five-Year-Old)” tacked onto the title. The weak link, honestly, is Staples’ oomph-deficient touring band. You know, Mavis, to my knowledge ?uestlove has never turned down a paying gig.

 

rokia

Rokia Traoré
Né So
SLOW

A willowy voice in a nation of baobabs, Traoré crafted a neotraditionalist sound on her early albums that, while genteel by the robust standards of Mali’s Wassoulou queens, felt modestly defiant — a diplomat’s daughter refusing to be estranged from a culture worth preserving. Nearly two decades later, with international Islamism proving an even greater threat to her heritage than international capital, she struggles to accept that the gorgeous and cosmopolitan acoustic music she makes with sympatico Brits John Parrish and John Paul Jones could be more instructive to Westerners than any UNHCR fact sheets. Contrast “Strange Fruit,” which confronts horror with art, with “Se Dan,” which offers platitudes and Devendra Banhart. Stick with Wanita, Bowmboï, even Tchamantché, and donate to the Mali crisis relief organization of your choice.

 

wet

Wet
Don’t You
NO

Not even PBR&B. Not even Beach House. Not even damp.

Kesha: From a case to a cause

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Last week, I wrote about Kesha’s court case for the Guardian, and afterwards I was invited on the BBC World Service’s program Newsday to discuss my story.

I wound up discussing how Kesha’s story highlights pop’s gendered division of labor, and about the challenges women face in a music industry dominated by older men — a subject which, let’s face it, I am less qualified to address than literally every female music journalist on earth.

Since I happened to have the air time, I figured better me than no one. Still, it’s a subject I wouldn’t have thought about nearly as much, or have been able to talk about even a little competently, without the growing number of smart, passionate women currently writing about pop music. At the very least, then, I wanted to link to a few of the stories about Kesha (I’m sure I’m overlooking several others) that helped me sort through my thoughts out and gather the facts.

Haley Potiker, “What Happened to Kesha?: A Timeline”

Katherine St. Asaph, “Some reporting questions for the Kesha court case”

Jia Tolentino, “‘She Was Proving Hard to Control’: Some Background on Kesha’s History With Dr. Luke”

Devon Maloney, “What’s Next for Kesha”