Album Reviews

So much music, so little time!

All in all, 2018 was a pretty decent year for music, both on record and on stage. As always, when I look at other year-end lists I discover things I missed, or never even heard before. There are no big surprises on this list – these are the albums that stuck with me the most over the year, so they lean more towards “favorites” that what I think of as “best.” Without further ado, here’s my list of 25 albums of the year in purposely random order. Check ’em out and let me know if you agree, disagree or something in-between.

  • Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt
  • Iceage – Beyondless
  • Fucked Up – Dose
  • Shannon and the Clams – Onion
  • Shame – Songs of Praise
  • Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
  • Beach House – 7
  • Low – Double Negative
  • Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino
  • Blood Orange – Negro Swan
  • Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Sparkle Hard
  • Ty Segall, White Fence – Joy
  • Gruff Rhys – Babelsberg
  • Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar
  • Lucy Dacus – Historian
  • Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl
  • MGMT – Little Dark Age
  • Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How
  • Dirty Projectors – Lamp Lit Prose
  • Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Sex & Food
  • Field Music – Open Here
  • Interpol – Marauder
  • Julia Holter – Aviary
  • Typhoon – Offerings
  • The Limiñanas – Shadow People

Honorable Mentions:

Richard Swift – The Hex (I only got to listen once as it just came out, sadly posthumously) // The Innocence Mission – Sun on the Square // Goat Girl – Goat Girl, Ought – Room Inside the World // Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears // La Luz – Floating Features // Black Moth Super Rainbow – Panic Blooms // Wooden Shjips – V

 

As usual, my list of “favorite” albums of the year is just that – a list of what stuck with me most throughout the year, and not necessarily what my brain thinks should be the best albums. Hopefully, these 10 recordings will stand the test of time.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Most-hyped record of the year finally worms its way into my brain and reveals itself to be “all that”

Typhoon – Whitelighter
Most underrated album of the year from Stumptown big band – almost every song a classic that begs you to sing along

Savages – Silence Yourself
Ferocious songs and serious attitude come together for an album that’s almost as a great as their live show

Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
Sounding like the Fall’s bratty grandchild playing catchy pop songs wrapped in sloppy hooks, and all no longer than they need to be

Cate LeBon – Mug Museum
Icy and hot, restrained and heartfelt, retro and modern … an album of contradictions from my favorite Welsh singer-songwriter

Radiation City – Animals in the Meridian
Hey! You got 70s AM rock in my vintage stereophonic lounge music. Hey, you got vintage stereophonic – well, you get the idea. These great PDX tastemakers all taste great together.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Percolating, ping-pong splatter-beats and over-processed synths anchoring songs of gender dysphoria – what’s not to like?

ARP – More
Brian Eno and Kraftwerk walk into a bar. Musicality ensues … minimal, edgy, pretty and discrete

Yo La Tengo – Fade
Meditative and sincere with songs pared to their essence and then set on a hypnotic “repeat” for a tranquil, yet uplifting album

Deerhunter – Monomania
If I could magically join any band, this might be the one. Not an immediate “winner”, but the distorted mind-bending songs slowly create a solid whole that will eat your brain!

The Honorable Mentions: Robyn Hitchcock – Love From London, Wire – Change Becomes Us, Yuck – Glow and Behold, These New Puritans – Field of Reeds, Neko Case – The Worse Things Get blah, blah, blah, My Bloody Valentine – MBV, David Bowie – The Next Day, Washed Out – Paracosm, The Blow – The Blow, STRFKR – Miracle Mile, Jacco Gardner – Cabinet of Curiosities, Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II, Superchunk – I Hate Music, Courtney Barnett – The Double EP, James Blake – Overgrown, Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Mercer reclaims pop’s throne with Port of Morrow

It’s been a long time coming, but with the latest album from The Shins, Port of Morrow the “band’s” fourth long player, it becomes abundantly clear that James Mercer is a master songwriter – and the one in charge.

Who knows why it’s been five years since Wincing the Night Away – a solid, if not underappreciated album – after which Sir Elton John dubbed Mercer the most talented songwriter.

The fact is that, for true pop music lovers, it was worth the wait.

Mercer has currently created a musical kingdom (a part of Portlandia?) from which to explore his sonic adventures; Port of Morrow (an actual location in Portland) allowed him to bring in members of the original band (court jester Marty Crandall guests on keyboards, Dave Hernandez provides bass and guitar work) along with Pacific Northwest icons (Janet Weiss provides some solid drumming on the standout single, “Simple Song”, and a handful of other tunes).

Perhaps it is because of this mix of the old and the new that the record occasionally pays homage to some of the great sounds to be found on the band’s debut (Oh, Inverted World) on tracks like “September”…while still exploring Mercer’s fascination with country-bar balladry (“40 Mark Strasse”) and his continued inspiration via 60’s pop (“Bait and Switch”).

Even with the different players, and the sonic shifts, the album is one of the band’s most cohesive. Mercer’s combination of hooks you think you’ve heard before, along with lyrics that run the gamut from clever playfulness to melancholy memory, remind the informed listener that it is possible to have solid songcraft for an entire album.

Perhaps Mercer knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that in The Shin’s five-year hiatus, there really haven’t been any serious challengers to his throne.

Smells Like:

Sleigh Bells first crashed onto the scene a couple of years ago.

With a distinctive mix of blazing guitars, bass turned to 11, screams and high-pitch vocals, they sounded like Katy Perry hijacked by the guitarists from Slayer. Their first album, Treats, grabbed attention for its blend of sonic turbulence and pop swayings. Visually, the band played on the disjunction of crashing beats over syrupy lyrics with videos featuring cheerleaders and leather jackets. Gimmicky, yes, but it seemed to work. My (inner- as well as real-life) twelve-year-old loved it.

I can imagine that the prospect of a second album was daunting for Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss, with their carefully managed image in play. In this vein, the album cover for Reign of Terror, featuring a pair of worn cheer shoes spattered with blood, serves as a clever meme for the brand–I mean, band. If there was any worry that they would sell out to their potential for wider pop distribution, their opening salvo “True Shred Guitar” aims to dispel such doubts. The song was recorded live, with pounding drums, teeth-grinding guitar, and Krauss shouting fuck-bombs–you know, just to make it totally legit. From there, the album oscillates between her familiar screams-and-melody vocals, as in “Born to Lose,” and a more breathy straightforward delivery (as in “End of The Line”). At its best, the latter effect is a kind of eerie, Julee Cruise spaciness (“DOA”). At its not best, it’s more like cotton-candy (“End of the Line”). Even the album’s single, “Comeback Kid,” has a fierce guitar line, but the vocals leave a saccharine aftertaste. Fuel to the suspicion that the odd bubble-gum and cheerleader fetishism may not be a put-on after all.

Sleigh Bells have been described as a noise pop band, putting them in comparison with such heavies as Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain. However, with Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells suggest a more apt description such as pop noise, placing themselves much closer to the top 40 end of the spectrum. As such, the album may bring a challenge, being too bitter for the pure pop crowd but cloying for those with indie tastebuds.

Smells Like 

Field Music’s latest unearths more pop gems

Brothers David and Peter Brewis (the core of Sunderland England’s Field Music) have channeled numerous disparate elements in concocting their brilliant 4th long-player, Plumb. Hints of Yes and Steely Dan (chief songwriter/vocalist David even sounds like a young Donald Fagen at times) appear, along with their continued channeling of XTC. However, this is made all the more listenable by amazing hooks that rival Guided by Voices in frequency and abrupt change.

Plumb builds on a legacy of songcraft that the unrivaled (well, maybe James Mercer of The Shins would be a contemporary) Field Music have been developing for over a decade (2010’s Measure – a double album – was arguably that year’s best pop record). Plumb clocks in at about 35 minutes – frustrating for those of us who want more of them, but perfect for our hurried times – indeed, the underlying theme of the lyrics, which address (in a whimsical way) frustrations with the daily commute, and the need to acquire more “useless shit” and treat people like fecal matter.

This album is definitely a “grower”, which should reward the patient and intelligent listener upon repeated spins.

Smells like:

 

Luz Elena Mendoza’s band, on Court the Storm, bring latin radiance to Portland pop

If you’ve already heard Y La Bamba (there’s a reasonable chance, what with all the positive – and well deserved – press they’re getting, including multiple plugs on NPR, where the album is currently streaming in its entirety), then this is old news. Their new record, Court the Spark (released by Portland’s Tender Loving Empire), is everything that is good about cultures clashing…lead singer Luz Elena Mendoza’s Mexico-via-California-and-Oregon roots clearly influencing an otherwise Americana take on pop.

But Y La Bamba is, in the best sense, a band. Mendoza’s bandmates contribute everything from solid musicianship, to rich vocal harmonies. And all the while, the mix is tasteful, striking and subtle at the same time – due in no small part to Portland-resident Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and his long acquaintance (perhaps his creation of?) latin-tinged modern pop music. There’s even a little treat on the record with the inclusion of Americana vocal goddess Neko Case, a long time fan of the band.

There will be a record release party with the band at Music Millenium (which has a great background story on the Y La Bamba posted) on March 4th (at 3 pm) and a show at the Doug Fir on April 21st.

Smells Like:

I’ve only been listening to my favorite album of the year for the past few weeks. While I had heard good things about it since its release in April, I had consciously avoided the album. Chalk it up to aNoYaNcE with C A P I T A L I Z A T I O N. When I finally took a listen, I knew immediately it would rise to the top of my list. In a year when many releases had a familiar pop alternative tameness (with a large dose of folk from northwest bands), W H O K I L L sounds like nothing else released this year, at least in the States. With its upbeat African sensibility, quirky vocals, and stray jazz riffs, the album has a level of risk so often avoided this year by other bands. And it pays off.

tUnEyArDs is primarily Merrill Garbus, a looping machine, ukelele, drums, and sax. The first song, “My Country,” establishes her cred. “My country ’tis of thee,” she sings, but with its springy beat and vocal style echoing something like the Mahotella Queens, it sounds like she could be referring to South Africa or Mali. For a further disconnect, the sunny style evident in this song and others is belied by a clear stream of protest running beneath. This is most evident in the later song “Doorstep,” about a police shooting.  Toward the middle of the album, in “Gangsta” Garbus unleashes a driving edginess from some third world street in the slums of Rio (or Detroit) that could be straight out of the movie “City of God.” Violence is a recurring theme in the work, and she reveals some swagger, like MIA but without the Tamil Tiger gunplay. In her concluding song “Killa,” the most self-referential and perhaps the weakest song of the bunch, she declares herself a “new kind of woman” whose violence is constrained by her music.

If you want to see a great demonstration of the construction of this album, and of live looping itself, tUnEyArDs’ performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts (or the video from KEXP above) serves well. One note, however. Perhaps the biggest disconnect with tUnEyArDs is Garbus herself. With all the worldliness of her album, it may come as a bit of surprise that it emanates from a young white woman with a side mullet, looking like she stepped straight off of a liberal arts campus somewhere. To me, this makes the album all the more remarkable, its musical genius in its ability to transport the listener elsewhere.

Smells Like:

You be (Kim Jong) illin’! Though this pirate is dead, the CD aint, yet…with a couple of exceptions, I actually purchased a physical copy of my favorite albums of the year.

  • Wye Oak – Civilian
  • Kate Bush50 Words for Snow
  • St. VincentStrange Mercy
  • Peggy Sue – Acrobats
  • Destroyer – Kaputt
  • The WeekndHouse of Balloons
  • Atlas Sound – Parallax
  • Alessi’s ArkTime Travel
  • The AntlersBurst Apart
  • Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues
  • WireRed Barked Tree

Honorable mentions: The Roots – Undun, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, Tuneyards – Whokill, The Decemberists – The King is Dead, Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine, Chad Vangaalen – Diaper Island, Cass McCombs,- Wit’s End, Radiohead – King of LImbs, Stephen Malkmus – Mirror Traffic, EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints, Real Estate – Days

Too busy to write a full in-depth post, but hopefully I will circle back soon and flesh this out more! Without any further ado, here are my favorite 11 albums of 2011:

  • PJ HarveyLet England Shake
  • St. Vincent Strange Mercy
  • Clap Your Hands Say YeahHysterical
  • Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
  • Wire Red Barked Tree
  • DestroyerKaput
  • Tom WaitsBad as Me
  • Alessi’s ArkTime Travel
  • Girls Record 3
  • TuneYardsWho Kill
  • EMAPast Life Martyred Saints

Honorable mentions: Atlas Sound – Parallax // Wild Flag – s/t // Danger Mouse & Daniel Luppi – Rome // Fucked-Up – David Comes to Life // Yuck – s/t // Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine // Radiohead – King of Limbs //  M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming // Iceage – New Brigade // Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 // The Weeknd – House of Balloons // Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts

We’re busy working on our Best Albums of 2011 lists, and as a preview of sorts, I thought I’d share my favorite songs of the year. Notice I didn’t say “best songs” and in some cases, these bands aren’t even close to being on my top album list. But, these are my poppy, hook-laden favorites (in no particular order)…

 

DBD Design PDX