A few of these folks (*’d) have wonderful work not available on Spotify. For everybody else, I made a 25-song playlist of album cuts and single songs I loved this year. I would talk to you for an hour about each song here. Hope you enjoy.
Albums: “they love you with the lights on”
* NME C86 reissue. As bottomless, joyful, inconsistent, and generative as an old K Records cassette. Not on Spotify, though I found an alternate mix of a favorite from it (Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl”) and appended it to the playlist.
The Afghan Whigs, Do to the Beast. At 18, I got my wounded, hypertrophic masculinity and songs-as-music-criticism craft fix from Elvis Costello. Now, I’m done with Elvis Costello, and now, I love Greg Dulli’s alpha-wolf howls, his detailed arrangements, and his songs’ top-heavy tension. When the playing’s at its best, I hear Bruce Springsteen, Muscle Shoals, and the Jam. When I can understand Dulli, I get the sense that people with guns give no shits and that love remains bad news.
* Black Belt Eagle Scout, Black Belt Eagle Scout. Katherine Paul’s solo set as Black Belt Eagle Scout was my very favorite from a great Unknown Music Festival this summer.
Ian William Craig, A Turn of Breath. Music to watch an angel rot to.
Donato Dozzy & Nuel, The Aquaplano Sessions. Not “Neel,” Dozzy’s partner in the summer-midnight-river perfection of Voices from the Lake, but “Nuel,” whose palette seems more cityish and who pulls the album apart into a sequence of sketches. These Sessions feel more like watching headlights cross your ceiling than like watching eelgrass stirring around your ankles.
* Lori Goldston, Creekside: Cello Solo. Prayerful, brittle, fragmentary, imagistic, assertively scrapey.
Nicholas Krgovich, On Sunset. A 1980s LA album that feels meticulous but never thin or “just” retro. Krgovich is omnivorous and puts loving detail into every song; to create his effects, he works his voice hard, straining at the limits of his vocal instrument. A vibes album instead of a songs album.
* Millie & Andrea, Drop the Vowels. Feeling post-industrialized, memory-addled, machine-eaten and after-midnight-y myself, I’ve wanted to love the music being made by dark techno/ambient folks like Raime, Andy Stott, Demdike Stare, Haxan Cloak, and Actress more than I have. The Caretaker’s wintery moods bore me after a few minutes (except on that ravishingly beautiful record). Tim Hecker’s synth-and-chamber explorations are too hellish for me to put on in any but specially nasty moods. But Drop the Vowels, a collab between Miles from Demdike Stare and Andy Stott, is the best movement-music I’ve ever heard come out of this scary aesthetic: it quavers, pulses, and squirms like a body, and still chatters, clangs, and moans like a decaying machine. My favorite song by these dudes, and their funnest, is last spring’s single-side 12″ promo-only track “Stage 2,” but the rest of this record, especially the dreadful “Temper Tantrum” and the title track, comes close. This is dance music.
New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers. “I like these guys’ music better than their songs,” Cait said once, when the ragged ardor of openers Okkervil River made the Pornographers seem fussy and buttoned-up by comparison. I agree: Brill Bruisers is the first record of theirs where the camaraderie and energy of each song win out for me over the craft and professionalism of the whole thing. Even the mic-swapping adds something to this: each of their singers show up everywhere. Its mix is blocky, oxygenless— I couldn’t imagine a worse record to listen to on vinyl— and just right for its joyful, loud, and indomitable songs. Put it on for these dark, rainy mornings we’ve got and you’ll feel much better.
Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty.
Sleater-Kinney, Start Together. The “importance” of this band has been so well-documented that I don’t want to say too much more. Like the Clash, they believed in rock ‘n roll, so much they wrestled it back and found a political form for its macho heroics and heedless energy. I loved the conviction and tight entanglement of their performances even though, after The Hot Rock, they adopted a political language that I connected with less than the personal language of the first records. Onstage, they never looked comfortable when they weren’t playing; when they were playing, I couldn’t imagine anything more powerful.
Songs: “I’m everywhere like gossip”
Basement Jaxx, “We Are Not Alone.”
E-40, “Yellow Gold” (feat. Droop-E and Work Dirty). I’m sure if I spend another week or two with 40’s monster Block Brochure trilogy I could spin off a dozen favorites that might compete, but this one is my shoo-in.
FKA twigs, “Two Weeks.” Someone talk about this with me: We live in a sexualized-as-hell pop culture that nonetheless has almost no room for female sexual subjectivity. From straight porn to hits radio, our mainstream cultural era is one where sex is something that happens to women and that accessorizes male power. Which makes “Two Weeks”— hungry, pent-up, powerful and teeming— a rare monster of a song: a woman’s experience of sex and appetite that should terrify anyone used to, say, “Anaconda” or “Body Party.” “Feel your body closing, I can rip it open / Suck me up, I’m healing,” she sing-whispers as the song piles up, then: “Motherfucker, get your mouth open, you know you’re mine.” The need runs both ways.
Game Theory, “Date with an Angel.” More collegey 80’s pop reissued.
Ariana Grande, “Problem” (feat. Iggy Azalea). Triumphant like “Ladies First” was when I was ten years old with a Walkman.
How to Dress Well, “Precious Love.”
Kelis, “Jerk Ribs.”
Jon Langford & Skull Orchestra, “Sugar on Your Tongue.” A poem.
Lydia Loveless, “Really Wanna See You.” Her group rocks out in a way that feels bar-band-y and anonymous, but her vocals throw her heart all over me. This is my favorite on a record that’s emotionally wrecked, sexually frank, and spiritually inexhaustible.
* Miguel, “nwa” (feat Kurupt). The leadoff from a free surprise year-end EP right here.
The Moles, “Accidental Saint.” The first I’ve loved from this arch and classically-pop 80’s indie group whose work was reissued this year.
Rae Sremmurd, “No Flex Zone.”
Real Estate, “Talking Backwards.” Their mellow loneliness, their bland-ass name, the tunes rolling by indistinguishable as hedgerows, the drinks-on-the-patio calm of the vocals: everything about Real Estate brings out my anti-suburban prejudice. But when I love one of their songs, I want to live there, begrudging it less the longer I stay.
Run the Jewels, “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)” (feat. Zack de la Rocha).
* Joan Shelley, “Electric Ursa.” C.D. Wright-style folk, every weird little lyric more like a touch than an image.
* Shura, “Just Once.” Another song of a woman looking: vulnerable, hungry, her you sometimes the man she’s leaving behind, sometimes the anonymized man who’ll help her get lost. If you want to buy something by this shy-looking Londoner, good luck; all I found online was her Soundcloud.
Kate Tempest, “Marshall Law.” I haven’t been as riveted by a rap story song since “Shakey Dog.” Likewise incomplete– the first chapter of a novel-as-record I haven’t heard yet– and likewise overflowing with detail, Ghostface’s “tartar sauce on my S Dot kicks” chiming against Tempest’s “free bar, exhausting decorum, he drank till she was so absorbing.” Do yourself a favor and listen to this one, just don’t tell me how the record ends.
Tinashe, “Bet” (feat. Devonte Hynes).
Jessie Ware, “Champagne Kisses.” The way she teases the listener out of getting the chorus one last time just kills me. This song soars.
Wild Cub, “Thunder Clatter.”
Jamie XX, “Girl.” The first song of this year I loved.