Monday, November 23, 2015

The 9 Best 80s and 90s Bands in 2015

I am a firm believer that most bands who breakup or take extended breathers, mostly had their moments in the sun, and can rarely re-kindle what made them special at the time. The Smiths are a perfect example. People clamour for a reunion just about every day. I am as big a Smiths fan as anyone, and a reunion is something I absolutely hope does not happen. For me, they and so many other artists represent a moment in time. If you are lucky you call it a day before you have a chance to suck (like U2).

All of that said, sometimes bands have unfinished business. Or they reappear in a way that is true to what made them unique, while somehow tapping into the current vein of music so as to not appear novel, dated or overly derivative. These are nine records released this year by bands with heydays in either the 90's or the 80's. They either broke up, vanished, or perhaps just have not put out anything this strong since their glory days.

Blur - The Magic Whip

Based on the anticipation and expectations for Magic Whip, it is a good thing that consensus among Blur fans seems to be largely positive. Break-ups with personality conflict, in fighting or general drama always create a unique dynamics for re-grouping. This album sounds exactly what a Blur album should sound like in 2015. I also like how it borrows from less obvious places, like a few tracks that could fit easily on Modern Life Is Rubbish (my personal favourite). It really sounds like they were enjoying themselves on this recording.

Local H - Hey, Killer

I have never been the world's biggest Local H fan, but I have always admired their steadfast approach to making big, full sounding 90's type rock records. If there is a genre that has dated itself way quicker than feels fair, it is U.S. mainstream grungy guitar type rock. Not that Local H has ever fit that bill specifically, but they are easily lumped in with Teen Spirit clones. Hey, Killer gives long time fans exactly the crunchy guitar stuff one would hope for, but the hooks and song craft feels stronger than it has since they actually had a couple "hits". At face value you could write this off as a big, fun, dumb rock record, but in fact this is a big, fun, clever and well put together guitar rock record, without ever being Big Shiny Tunes fodder.

The Charlatans - Modern Nature

Another one from 90's BritPop royalty. The Charlies have been releasing new music with scattered regularity over the last fifteen years, but nothing nearly as noteworthy as Modern Nature. At their height they felt like the Madchester band who were making the albums the Stone Roses were supposed to have been making. This record finds them at an all time high point of maturity and comfort in their musical skin. This is a groovy, soulful, mellow record that still manages to be throughly engaging. The Charlatans swagger is here, it's just grown up and a lot less in your face, with far less to prove. 

Shriekback - Without Real String Or Fish

Admittedly for me, you can file Shriekback largely under "missed along the way" until this year. Weird when you consider how many of their 80's Brit post punk contemporaries were (and are) listening staples for me. I was aware of them, and loved "Nemesis" (brilliant track), but this album allowed me to go back and invest some time in the full catalogue and get caught up somewhat. In the meantime, this is a great record, which seems to balance all their best sides. Their first new release in five years, the funk, electronic, baggy, and synth pop sounds of their past all find their way on to this album. In spots it reminds me of a perfect mix of Midnight Oil and The The. Nothing wrong with that.

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love

Sometimes when a band has been on hiatus for 10 years, they come back at the perfect time to remind everyone why they were so important in the first place. That is what the re-emergence of Sleater-Kinney felt like in 2015. They sound rested and full of purpose. The urgency from all their best work is here, but free from pressures or expectations. The songs remain complex and their voices and words are perhaps even more relevant socially than they were at their peak.

Swervedriver - Autodidactic

Swervedriver always felt a bit like the shoegaze version of Soul Asylum in the sense that they were often in the shadows of My Bloody Valentine and Ride, in a similar way that Soul Asylum were overshadowed by fellow Minneapolis counterparts, Husker Du and The Replacements. Autodidactic is the first Swervedriver album since 1998. Like the Local H, there is a real risk with this genre to fall into some really dated and regurgitated trappings. What carries this album are the hooks and melodies. The fuzz and feedback is still here, but absolutely backseat to catchy songs. The seemingly disinterested vocals and classic time signatures of gaze are throughout, make no mistake. This is a fantastically fresh sounding record for any band in any era, regardless of their stripes.

New Order - Music Complete

There are a handful of bands from my formative music nerd years where admittedly, I have a hard time being objective about the new music they make. New Order are one such band. Ahead of this release however, it is like I over compensated. I was convinced there was no way this could be good, especially without Peter Hook. I sort of wanted to hate this album, perhaps to convince myself I could. The reality is that this is not just a very good record ... it is a very good New Order record. Perhaps their best since Technique, but at least their best since Republic. Sumner's voice always ensures familiarity. There is a renewed sense of electronic playfulness that has been missing on the last couple albums. Glad I was wrong about this one, before I even heard it.

Built To Spill - Untethered Moon

It's hard to believe Built To Spill have only made eight albums since 1993. They still sound like the quintessential American indie rock band, even though all their records since 1997 have strangely been released on Warner. This album once again offers something slightly different than we have heard from the lads before, without breaking the mold. Much of it reminds me of Keep It Like A Secret (their best imo). Aside from the first and last songs coming in at six and eight minutes plus respectively, everything here has nice compact corners at around four minutes on average. Most importantly, BTS can still say they have never made a bad album. 

Mercury Rev - The Light In You

Even though Dave Friddman is absent on this album for the first time, the songs are still as plush and beautiful as ever. The textbook orchestral and chamber leanings are here in full force. The album is also rooted in classic Rev psych and controlled tripped out chaos. It sounds like The Light In You follows on some real life adversity for the key members, but there is an overarching theme of optimism. This is the sound of a unique band hitting all its marks and reminding fans, as well as themselves perhaps, that they can still still sound like basically no other band making music.

Veruca Salt - Ghost Notes

This feels like an album that could have gone terribly wrong. The parting of Nina and Louise as band members (and friends) was by all counts, heavy on the drama quotient. Ghost Notes sounds like hatchets being buried. It also sounds like the album they were supposed to make before things broke down. This album almost perfectly balances all the best parts of their first two albums. It's got the glammy pop and hard rock hooks of Eight Arms, but without the high gloss and more importantly without Bob Rock. It has the same producer as American Thighs, and perhaps not coincidentally, it has the same mix of cute and heavy, in a lo-fi lustre that made that record so great. Again, this does not feel like a 90's throw back record, but it hits all the right points of familiarity, while standing quite solidly on its own in 2015.

Monday, October 26, 2015

25 Best Songs from Manchester

Submitted without additional commentary. These songs speak for themselves. Much like the longstanding and ongoing quality of artists produced by Manchester speaks for itself.

25. Starsailor - "Good Souls"

24. The Seahorses - "Love Is The Law"

23. Everything Everything - "Schoolin"

22. The Longcut - "A Quiet Life"

21. The Fall - "L.A."

20. Badly Drawn Boy - "Once Around The Block"

19. The Chameleons - "Up The Down Escalator"

18. Magazine - "The Light Pours Out of Me"

17. Elbow - "One Day Like This"

16. Buzzcocks - "Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)

15. The Verve - "Slide Away"

14. Inspiral Carpets - "Dragging Me Down"

13. Morrissey - "Tomorrow"

12. The Hollies - "The Air That I Breathe"

11. The Charlatans - "Can't Get Our Of Bed"

10. The Outfield - "Your Love"

9. Electronic - "For You"

8. Happy Mondays - "Step On"

7. Oasis - "Columbia"

6. The Stone Roses - "I Wanna Be Adored"

5. James - "She's A Star"

4. New Order - "Temptation"

3. Doves - "The Cedar Room"

2. The Smiths - "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out"

1. Joy Division - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"

Monday, October 12, 2015

20 Best Bands Making Music Right Now

This started as an effort to highlight some of the great new UK bands who are monopolizing my music listening these days. Then I heard a bunch of people saying there is "no good new music" out there. Obviously matters like this lie in the tastes of the various beholders, but it reminded me of a recent chat with a friend, where we agreed there is actually almost too much music out there right now to make sense of properly.

For the majority of people, music is something they are passionate about, but new music discovery is a very passive and responsive activity. I think many people still think of radio stations and music tv networks as the place where you become introduced to new music. That is not a criticism, so much as an observation perhaps on why they feel there is "no good music," since those outlets are less focused on breaking new artists. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are someone who more actively spends time scouring music blogs and review sites, or streaming services, it can all be too much most days.

It is easier than ever for new bands to make music and have it published somewhere. Getting it heard on the other hand, might be harder than ever. I used to take the approach of throwing the net really wide every year in hopes of finding interesting new music. Each year now however, I find myself using much more focus and even skipping over new stuff that doesn't grab me right away (to a fault sometimes). I also find my taste narrowing more than ever, where I am not even bothering with a lot of sub-genre stuff I used to like rap or metal etc anymore (again perhaps to a fault). Resultantly, as I go through the exercise of considering bands that I would consider my top 20 right now, I have never been more certain of my music taste.

In high school, as an aspiring music nerd, you want everyone to think you "listen to everything" and have very eclectic taste. It is endearingly forced and posed, like most things in high school. Now in my early 40s, I know what I like, I know it will continue to evolve, and mostly I know that music should always be forward looking. New artists will continue to make interesting music, regardless of how many people get to hear it. The internet has levelled the playing field among music nerds. Those of us who used to feel like we knew more about music than everyone in our little circles, now realize there is always someone out there who knows more. None of that ultimately matters of course, so long as you are enjoying music for your own genuine reasons.

Many people say most of the bands I listen to are pretty obscure. I have no real issues with highly popular "mainstream" music, other than I find the trend is a real lack of sincerity in the writing and craft right now. Most of the music I love these days, as evidenced by these 20 bands, is not obscure at all, but maybe is not splashed everywhere either. The hardcore indie music types would probably describe this list as safe and say my tastes as in fact "popular," something that would have annoyed me when I was younger. These days I make these lists for myself and for all the people who don't have the time or interest to go looking for new stuff (and ask me to).

The idea of "active bands" or "right now" came from thinking about bands I love like Radiohead, who still make new music, but without any level of regularity to their output. The bands I have chosen have made at least two albums or more, have released something new within the last couple years, and generally speaking put out something new every 1-2 years. Like with all my lists, they tend to be occasionally strange and rooted in traditional alternative rock, but always listenable, and yes...predominantly UK based. I attempted to put them in a ranking order, but at game time decided to go the random list route. Taste is subjective, and music lists are aplenty around the internet. It just so happens this list, is 100% accurate ;)

Wild Beasts
Easily my favourite band making music right now. You don't hear people say art rock as often these days, but the Beasts follow classic art rock inspiration a la Roxy Music and Bowie. Gorgeous and eclectic music that does not fit nicely on formatted playlists anywhere, but they also never place experimentation ahead of the core strength of the song.

Best album: Present Tense

Dutch Uncles
I have heard this band (and a few others) described as math-pop. What I think it means, is there resides a complexity of time signatures not common to traditional 3-4 minute pop music, while never turning into full blow prog rock. One of the current wave of top tier Manchester bands, these guys write upbeat songs with lots of fun moving parts. Perhaps that is where the math comes in.

Best album: Out Of Touch, In The Wild

Everything Everything
Another arty bunch from Manchester, leaning heavily on multi-part vocals and a really fascinating mix of cross genre influences. They seem to be getting reasonable attention in the UK, but still feel under that radar at large in North America. They also seem tired of hearing that their songs are too complex. Their songs are mostly just spectacular.

Best album: Man Alive

If this list was made just a few years earlier, Clinic would have made the cut, but in 2015 Suuns are likely the closest and next best thing. Montrealers who also very much bear the art rock tag proudly. They mix synth sounds wonderfully with airy guitars and random bits of controlled franticness.

Best Album: Images du Futur

Local Natives
On some days I would be happy to boldly call Local Natives the best band in the US, but two albums feels a bit light for that kind of hyperbole. Nonetheless, this is a special band with a talent for writing simple yet poignant songs that show their range from quirky to atmospheric and dreamy.

Best Album: Hummingbird

Bear In Heaven
I often see Bear In Heaven described as dark synth, which is not a stretch, but is not completely fair either. The Krautrock influence is evident, and there is an atmospheric theme through most of their material, but the songs clock in mostly under five minutes and hold their corners really well.

Best Album: I Love You, It's Cool

Four albums in now, Foals continue to evolve their sound. The production is tighter and the songs feel bigger than when they started, but the post-punk and new wave influences are still there, and the musicianship continues to be a focal point.

Best Album: Total Life Forever

Dum Dum Girls
These records have either been largely solo projects for Dee Dee, or made with other bandmates. Either way what is consistent is how she draws on 60s wall of sound influences while pulling in warm listenable reverb and as of late, a nice Bunnymen-esque aesthetic.

Best Album: Too True

Yukon Blonde
A Vancouver band who have somewhat quietly become one of the best young bands in Canada. High quality guitar based indie pop, which recently has pulled in more synth and glam elements. The albums are warm and familiar without ever feeling too over thought.

Best Record: On Blonde

Lower Dens
Dreamy and occasionally detached musically, with gorgeous emotionally engaged vocals. This Baltimore band centers around Jana Hunter, and the songs just keep getting stronger with each release.

Best Album: Escape From Evil

Tame Impala
I was initially a passing fan of Tame Impala, unfairly relegating them to derivative psych band status. Chief songwriter, Kevin Parker, is actually a master of melody and is proving adept at using the studio in really fascinating ways. All four albums are completely different, and although it feels familiar, there is no one really quite doing what Tame Impala does right now. The hype is legit.

Best Album: Currents

Hot Chip
Easily the most consistent band right now. They have never released an album that wasn't pure quality. Balancing the use of electronics and organic instrumentation, Hot Chip are the quintessential synth pop band of the last 10 years. They make fun and elegant music, seamlessly.

Best Album: Made In The Dark

Army Navy
No one makes jingle jangle guitar pop to get rich. They do it because they love how it sounds, and because it's virtually impossible to get it absolutely right. Army Navy write unabashed Brit Invasion influenced pop songs, that don't apologize for sounding familiar, and yet manage to sound completely fresh and now.

Best Album: The Last Place

The Horrors
If you go to the start, The Horrors catalogue would make them seem completely manic and unfocused. The debut is largely a garage record, and gradually the band has tightened up and leaned far more on bits of post-punk, psych, and even goth. Lots of Simple Minds and Bunnymen haunts on these songs, all done with masterful tightness and precision at this point. This is a band in a zone.

Best Album: Skying

Spoon have now been a band for 20 years, and they still continue to make interesting music that rivals any of the indie pop from the last 5-10 years. They tinker and layer brilliantly in the studio, without ever losing the handle on pop song structure. Every time you think Spoon might be slipping, they release another album full of signature songs that still manage to take them in yet another slightly different direction than the last.

Best Album: Kill The Moonlight

Most days I listen to all the Crocodiles albums and have a hard time thinking of them as anything other than a Jesus & Mary Chain cover band, which is of course not fair. The influence is obvious and I don't believe it is intended to even be a secret. The songs have become more accessible over the years, and there are not many bands currently making fuzzed out sugar sweet noise pop quite this well.

Best Album: Endless Flowers

They have made two great albums, and it still feels like Warpaint have infinite potential. They borrow bits of shoegaze and sneak in elements of funk, while being largely rooted in dreamy post-punk fundamentals. These songs swoon and sound of a band well capable beyond their years.

Best Album: Warpaint

Beach House
It feels like the indie music landscape is cluttered right now with a hundred bands all trying to sound like Beach House, yet none of them actually sound like Beach House. All five of their albums carry an overarching sound of beautiful dreariness. Their songs swirl and float, but never end up on tangents. The compositions are lush, but not over produced or bogged down in unnecessary details.

Best Album: Teen Dream

Another studio solo type project that transformed into more of a full band. Telekinesis is on some level, text book Merge Records pop music. Hooks and melodies up front. The new album takes a slight detour in the synth pop direction, but with no less impact than previous records.

Best Album: 12 Desperate Straight Lines

An electronic band from Glasgow, who have quietly released five albums now since 2008. Because they are on Mogwai's label, they sometimes get lumped in with the post-rock acts, but there is a bit more going on here in my opinion. They began pulling in cool synth and beat elements a few years back, but the songs still mostly come in over 6 minutes and continue to sprawl and roll with undeniable nods to prog and jazz.

Best Album: Have Some Faith in Magic

Friday, August 21, 2015

20 Best Power Pop Songs (1972-1986)

These are songs that sound like a perfect mix of 60's British and American rock and pop music.

These are songs largely about adolescence, girls and good times.

These are songs with guitars that ring with clean riffs and warm fuzz, while jingling and jangling at the same time.

These songs are full of handclaps.

These are songs with combinations of chords that make you feel like smiling and driving with the windows down.

These are songs with perfectly blended vocals and harmonies.

These are songs that are cleverly crafted, but never take themselves too seriously.

These are songs that are less about pushing musical boundaries, and more about three minutes of perfectly executed fun and happiness.

These songs are from the best and most important period of time for one of my favourite genres of music.

Also, many of these songs are also on this Power Pop playlist on Rdio

20. Marshall Crenshaw - Mary Anne

19. Rick Springfield - We're Gonna Have A Good Time

18. 20/20 - Backyard Guys

17. The Romantics - When I Look In Your Eyes

16. Tommy Keene - Back To Zero Now

15. Bram Tchaikovsky - Girl Of My Dreams

14. The dB's - Big Brown Eyes

13. The Rubinoos - I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend

12. The Cars - Just What I Needed

11. Dwight Twilley Band - I'm On Fire

10. The Knack - I Want Ya

9. Flaming Groovies - Shake Some Action

8. Blue Ash - Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?)

7. Shoes - Boys Don't Lie

6. Todd Rundgren - Couldn't I Just Tell You

5. Big Star - Back Of A Car

4. Raspberries - Go All The Way

3. The Records - Starry Eyes

2. Bad Finger - No Matter What

1. Cheap Trick - Come On, Come On

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Halftime Report: The 20 Best Albums of 2015 (so far)

There is so much new music released every week. Perhaps it is the exact same amount of music that was being released many years ago, and it is just that our access has increased exponentially. Either way, if you are a person who cares and takes an active interest in hearing as much of the new music out there as possible, it can be a pretty daunting task to make sense of it all. I took a few minutes to shine a light on 20 albums I have been able to spend some time with over that last six months. Albums that left some level of meaningful impression on these aging yet thirsty ears I use to obsesses over all manner of new music. 

So six months into 2015, and in no particular order, here are 20 albums I thought were the best so far this year.

Hot Chip - Why Make Sense?

Quite probably the most consistent musical act of the last 15 years. They have never made a bad album, and this one keeps that bold claim in tact. A bit of their old vibe with some new tricks thrown in. Fresh and perfect synth type pop, with some of the funkiest songs they have recorded to date.

Mikal Cronin - MCIII

This is the third album by this jangly fuzzed out California songwriter. This one adds string arrangements and even more maturity to his craft. Cronin makes special, genuine, familiar sounding music. So great to hear guitar pop made with this level of care and sincerity.

Dutch Uncles - O Shudder

Quirky, mathy art pop from Manchester. This is actually the fourth album from Dutch Uncles and it is another solid outing, that blends Hot Chip esque vocals with with choppy well executed playing, over wonderful pop hooks. One of my three favourite bands making music right now.

Yukon Blonde - On Blonde

The third full length album from this Vancouver band, sees them stepping up the synth quotient slightly to wonderful effect. All of their material is the stuff from which quality indie pop is made, and On Blonde might be their best yet. Perhaps the best young band working in Canada currently.

Bjork - Vulnicura

This wonderful little weirdo lost me sometime after 1997's Homogenic, but she has my attention again on this album. Impassioned and heartbreaking stuff, all backdropped with combinations of sounds no one else can do quite like Bjork.

The Charlatans - Modern Nature

I had all but relegated the Charlies to retired Madchester and Brit Pop royalty, somewhat past their prime. Bad call. This is one of the strongest collection of songs they have produced since their self titled fourth album in the mid 90's. This is the sound of a band who are really comfortable in their skin, and have no pressure to do anything but remind everyone how great they can be. Looks so good on them.

Ceremony - The L-Shaped Man

My sense is there are some fans of Ceremony who prefer when they sound like a more traditional hard core punk band. My personal preference is them making an album like this, that leans far more on traditional post-punk and goth type styles. Some reviewers have said this sounds like another Joy Division cover effort. It does not, and if it did, that would be completely fine with me as well. This is a super tightly executed album from these guys.


Apparently this project has been in the works for some time. A fascinating collaboration between new Brit art rockers Franz Ferdinand, and old school art farts, Sparks. This works on so many levels, with Sparks leading the charge somewhat. Sparks were a terrible blind spot for me prior to this record, which I am correcting with great haste by purchasing their whole back catalogue. You don't make a record like this to make money. This is 100% about making interesting music and writing wonderfully pretentious art school songs.


Toronto hardcore-post-punk darlings light it up on their sophomore album. The noise feels urgent rather than gratuitous, and none of the rage hear outpaces the subtle hooks. Three people should not be able to create this much legitimate noise and anxiety on a studio recording. This album stresses me out when I'm listening to it, in the best possible way.

Everything Everything - Get To Heaven

I love this band. If I have three favourite bands currently making new music, Everything Everything is one of them, and that only has a little bit to do with them being from Manchester. Third release from these cats sees them really hitting stride. Their debut was a wonderful math pop mess. The second album a bit more, but still hardly radio friendly. Get To Heaven finds them perfectly balanced. Hooks galore. Vocals that admittedly are not for everyone. Solid players, with a range of genre influences few bands can capture so seamlessly. Brilliant record.

Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

Another wonderful little weirdo, whose solo material I actually slightly prefer to his work with Animal Collective. Not sure this one quite hits the calibre of his solo debut, Person Pitch, but it's right there. This one feels super fluid and focused, for an artist whose thing seems to be having a lack of focus.

Tuxedo - Tuxedo

Unabashed 70s/80s influenced funk and disco fun. Perfectly executed with the highest calibre of organic dance music in mind. Sort of like where Chromeo started a number of years back, but playing to far fewer gimmicks and image based retro-ism. I dare anyone not to dance while Tuxedo is playing.

Local H - Hey, Killer

Admittedly, I have tended to be a singles and hits fan of Local H, despite having some close musical friends who are huge fans. I always categorized the band as unfairly under the radar compared to higher profile and less competent 90s alterna guitar stalwarts. What I was not expecting in 2015 was a Local H album that is without apology, very much akin to their hey day sound, but in a way that doesn't sound dated or trite like so much of that era can tend to at this point. This is a crunchy guitar rock record that works on just on just about every level.

Tanlines - Highlights

There had to be a fair amount of pressure on Tanlines after their Matador released debut album from 2012. These Brooklyn lads tapped into the quality side of all the electro/synth pop stuff that is cluttering the interwaves these days. This follow-up doesn't quite hit the same mark, but it is still a fabulous set of heartfelt pop songs from a couple dudes who clearly get it.

Dan Deacon - Gliss Riffer

This guy is bananas. Until this album, I wasn't completely onside with his absurd and patchy form of mixed sounds. This album feels more playful and jovial though, and I love the keyboard sounds he has put together. It feels like Deacon could be at the forefront of limit pushing electronic music, and this record seems like a deliberate step along that path.

Susanne Sundfor - Ten Love Songs

A friend recently introduced me to this Norwegian artist. Experimental electronic pop songs, with dense, textured production and lovely vocal arrangements. Maybe the best album of 2015 no one will hear.

Viet Cong - Viet Cong

The lead single from this album, "Silhouettes," could lead one to believe this is a really well put together post-punk record, with atmospheric synths and sparse vocal treatments. Rather, it's a really great record by a young Calgary band, with solid elements of post-punk, noise, and lo-fi pop throughout.

Errors - Lease of Life

These guys really seemed to come into their own three years ago on their fourth album, Have Some Faith In Magic. This new record finds them continuing to fire on all cylinders, while still pushing the limits of their lush and eclectic electronic pop songs.

Mew - + - 

Mew lost me somewhat on their last few albums, but this album could be their best in ten years. They continue to produce ambitious pop songs, which are almost rooted in prog sensibilities, without ever really venturing into self indulgent meandering. Another solid outing from these Danish veterans.

The Vaccines - English Graffiti

Comparisons to The Strokes continue to be a thing with these guys, but unlike their first couple of impassioned straight forward guitar records, they have added a bit more depth and shine to the mix on English Graffiti. This is the classic sound of a band on their third record, where they are completely confident enough to move the sticks around and throw in some of their new wave and glam influences.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

5 Best New Albums in February 2015

So far what I like most about the musical year of 2015 is how efficient the first couple months have been. New releases are trickling in, and I have not had to sift through a typically large amount of good to average new records in order to decide on my top fives. As a year it is shaping up to be a pretty high quality one in my opinion. Here are five I thought were tops last month in February.

Black Rivers - Black Rivers

Doves always seemed like one of those bands who were more popular than you might think, but never as popular as they should have been. Their current hiatus saw Jim Goodwin release a solo album last year, and now the other two Doves members, Andy and Jez Williams, have formed Black Rivers. Like with the Goodwin album, there is a familiarity with Jez's voice that will be unmistakable for fans of the Manchester trio. The songs here, are a bit more aligned with the Doves sound, whereas Goodwin stretched a bit more on his record (for better and worse). Most of the songs drift a bit in the best way here, and there seems to be a clear lack of pressure on the lads to produce hit style hooks on this outing. "The Ship" was released last year, well in advance of the full album. It typifies the lovely melancholy that runs through most of these songs. A very competent release from the Brit veterans, that sounds exactly like what a break away from your main band should sound like. Still, like many, I hope Doves plan on recording together again. It feels like they have unfinished business.

Humans - Noontide

I quite enjoyed the first album by Humans, but I remember thinking they had untapped potential and had not completely found their footing just yet. Noontide feels like them un-tapping that potential. At its opening, one could almost assume the record is more of a modern groove based indie pop record than an electro-pop type record. The truth is, it is both, and never to the detriment of the overall flow and feel. These two dudes from Vancouver even venture into some interesting dark synth territory in spots, like on "Over Again." I am not sure if there have been any comparisons made to Brooklyn's Bear in Heaven, but that was one of the first places my ears went, and that is a good thing. This is a really listenable record, without compromising certain song lengths in order to say what they need to. There is a good chance I will be seeing these cats on Saturday night here in Halifax. I will be curious to see how they translate this work to stage. Regardless, this is all class from a talented young Canadian band worth watching.

Gaz Coombes - Matador

I always quite liked Supergrass, but I am not sure I ever loved Supergrass. It always seemed like sometimes their playfulness made it confusing when they decided they wanted to write less playful and mature stuff. Fair or not, none of it matters, because on Matador, Coombes shines with all the real and perceived capability of a bonafide quality songwriter. This sounds like the record he has always wanted to make, and the stars aligned perfectly in every way. Some might suggest there are shades of Radiohead or more likely Thom Yorke's solo work on the album. Beyond their voices having similar tone, and some of the tracks feeling similarly sombre, I would suggest the parallels are strictly coincidental. The lead single, "Detroit" showcases everything I love about this record. Grown up melodies, soulfully blended background vocals, lush strings, and a carefree air that feels rooted in every track. I was not expecting this to be one of my favourite records in 2015, but with each listen it is shaping up as a possibility for just that.

Dutch Uncles - O Shudder

A couple years ago when Dutch Uncles released their third album, Out of Touch In The Wild (the first I had heard at the time), I recall wondering why more people were not raving about them. Well they are back, so clearly and thankfully someone else is listening. Another Manchester act, these kids are part of an ever growing small group of Brit fantastic art rock bands who are making accessible music that doesn't fit easily into standard playlist formatting. Initially, as they do again here on O Shudder, they remind me of an almost perfect blend of Hot Chip and Field Music. Super competent musicianship which is likely where some of the "math pop" labelling comes from. Eleven quirky and jaunty songs that make full use of the fun sound pallet. This record brims with confidence from a band that was already sounding mature beyond its years. Love these guys. Love this album.

Dan Deacon - Gliss Riffer

Previously I have never been able to completely warm up to Deacon's work. I respected his ambition and creativity, but everything just felt scattered. Not surprising then, that critics are describing Gliss Riffer as more pop focused, which would tend to put it much more in my wheel house. There is an amazing mix of old synths and layers of strange sounds that other electronic artists do not seem able to pull off in quite the same way. This is a tricky style to create a signature around, yet there are some extremely clever things happening on this record. A song like "Sheathed Wings" is about two steps away from being obnoxious and contrived, but manages to stay on the listenable path with admiral discipline. I think every track teeters on chaos perfectly, making you want to see where he plans on taking the weirdness. It is also a rare skill to use so much process and mechanism, yet still have your record sound largely organic and fluid. This is not a recording for everyone, but if you can suspend your perceived need for perfectly round circles and square boxes, Gliss Riffer  is a fascinating and rewarding listen.


Hilotrons - To Trip With Terpsichore
Peace - Happy People
The Mavericks - Mono

Monday, February 16, 2015

5 Best New Albums in January 2015

A brand new year brings another shot for me to try writing a little bit each month about five albums I thought were exceptional and noteworthy for whatever reason. Here we go 2015.

Bjork - Vulnicura

Bjork lost me a little bit over her last few albums. A friend introduced me to Homogenic some time after its release, and it became my favourite work of hers. I enjoyed Vespertine enough, and even everything that followed, but nothing captivated me as a listener the same as her first three albums from the 90's. Vulnicura, albeit a dark record, rooted in a personal relationship break-up, also feels like some sort of aggregation of the different things she has tried over the last 15-20 years. It is very much the album she needed to make at this point in her career, thematically and artistically. The songs take as much time as they need to tell their story, without ever seeming to meander even when they push eight to ten minutes. Many of the orchestral elements are reminiscent of Homogenic, but often less plush, they seem to flow much more from themes of anxiety and uncertainty. Vulnicura is not a quick fix album. It is enjoyable on a first listen, but also offers you the chance to grow into it and hear something new each time you spend time with it. This is a powerful and ambitious recording from one of the most important artists of the last twenty years.

Viet Cong - Viet Cong

I have been reading some reviews of this record, and more often than not, even on favourable reviews, it gets relegated to the nouveau post-punk bucket. No question, there is post-punk influence on Viet Cong, new and old, but there is so much more going on here. "Newspaper Spoons" opens the album with big crashing tom drums and chanty distorted vocals, but never shifts into the obligatory Joy Division meets Interpol hook fest (not that there's anything wrong with that of course). These cats have that combo in their bag of tricks, but it never feels like the over arching intent. There are times the record feels stylized, yet it is balanced perfectly with lo-fi without ever being gratuitously sloppy or noisy. The songs are listenable, but never slick. There is also some really nice muli-track vocal layering on songs "Pointless Experience" and "March of Progress" would make the  most hardcore dark synth jammers proud. Seven tight and eclectic songs from Calgary, Alberta. Nice work lads. 

Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

I was trying to recall if I have written about any of the other Panda Bear albums previously. If I have, it was likely about how I am an interested yet passive Animal Collective fan, and far more prefer the work Panda Bear produces on his solo records. This is Lennox's most focused work to date in my opinion. There are still dense layers of sound, but there seems to a much more conscious open-ness to engaging with the listener on these songs. "Boys Latin" for instance, is a pop song, plain and simple. He still uses repetition better than most, and the dreamy Pet Sounds-esque vocals never stray too far from what we are used to. This is a very confident sounding album, and like everything Panda has done on his own and with AC, most definitely not for everyone, but worth it if you are feeling especially weird and curious.

Ghost Culture - Ghost Culture

A friend introduced me to Ghost Culture in the first part of 2015. An early candidate for one of the best electronic albums we might expect this year. Some reviews have played up the album's eighties-ness. Any synth heavy recording is bound to draw Kraftwerk and Depeche comparisons I suppose, but this is a very 2000's collection of electro tracks. Most of the album is dance floor ready, yet there are none of the shiny trappings lately associated with songs that are clearly almost scientifically written to elicit certain dance behaviours and precise junctures within the song. This is a very organic sounding album that makes you bob your head because you want to, not because you are being manipulated into it by equal parts hype and algorithm. A sombre, dreamy and refreshing synth album.

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love

I do not know all that many people who have waved the Sleater-Kinney flag endlessly and passionately over the last twenty years, but I also cannot say I know anyone who dislikes their music, or at a minimum does not respect what they represent or what they have been able to accomplish. I saw an online interview where a really old person described the band as "indie rock." There is a side semantics discussion one could have about music genres, but when I think of what indie rock is, was, or should be, I think of bands like Sleater-Kinney. Whatever that means, No Cities To Love feels like a quintessentially indie rock record. 

The band never ever lost their sense of urgency, but the layoff since their hiatus also did nothing to push them into complacency. These are ten compact passionate songs that burn along furiously for thirty two filler-less minutes. I always liked the balance between Carrie and Corin vocally, and it continues to work really well here. Janet is also still quite possibly the best drummer in rock music (there are some ridiculous monster fills and rolls on "New Wave"). You can hear the sound of mature contentment in these songs, without even an inkling of complacency or pandering. Sleater-Kinney are back and everything feels right. They are absolutely still the real deal. 


The Charlatans - Modern Nature
Belle and Sebastian - Girls in Peacetime Love to Dance