Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Best Music of 2016...the First Three Months

There are still some heavy hitters like Radiohead and PJ Harvey with new albums expected to drop in the next few months, but in the meantime, there has been some pretty solid music arrive here already in the first quarter...that's Q1 for any business types reading. Here are 12 new releases I have settled on as my favourites so far in 2016.

The KVB - ...Of Desire

I picked up on these guys about three years ago with the release of their second full length studio album, Minus One. They are a duo from London, and they have been grabbing up momentum with every new release. With ...Of Desire, their fourth, they sound particularly settled and focused. This very much sounds like an alternative band making fresh 2010's alt rock, while throwing the net nice and wide across the seas of old school dark synth, post-punk, goth and shoe gaze. "Lower Depths" sounds like a Jesus & Mary Chain song, with the Bauhaus rhythm section sitting in, but like the rest of this record, it never sounds shamelessly derivative. It sounds fresh and inspired, while being mostly dreary and amazingly well executed. Probably my fave album so far this year.

David Bowie - Blackstar

I remember the lead up to the release of Blackstar being very exciting. The pre-release reviews were all largely exceptional. There was a sense Bowie still had a great album left in him. As it turns out, he did. We just didn't know it would be his last. That is the weirdest part about writing anything on this record now, even just three months after his passing. His death, understandably, shone a stronger light on this album and the timing of everything made the whole affair classically Bowie. Irrespective of it all, on its own this might be the most interesting and consistent Bowie album since 79's Lodger. Not that tricky an accomplishment given the spottiness of his last 25 years or so. Just the same, this album feels like him sitting perfectly in sync with his best and most innovative years, while not resting on his laurels whatsoever. Hopefully history will recall Blackstar as a classic album that just so happened to coincide with the passing of the greatest rock star of all time.

Suede - Night Thoughts

I often talk about bands with "unfinished business." It is a weird and unfair judgement we assign to bands as music fans. So and so should pack it in and stop embarrassing themselves, while it would be great if so and so got back together. I firmly believe some bands had a special time and we should remember their music as perfect and untainted (The Smiths come to mind). Suede have proven twice now in the last three years since re-grouping, that they most certainly had unfinished business. Night Thoughts is a very different record than 2013's Bloodsports, but both albums sound like a band possessed to not only remind people of their place as the best 90's Britpop band, but a band who can write passionate songs that transcend niche genre or nostalgic eras. Anderson's voice sounds perhaps the strongest it ever has, and the playing is the tightest in their career. Where Bloodsports leaned more to their pop side, this album balances those hooks and melodies with a dose of the Dogmanstar introspection, without ever slipping into replication. Suede have no business being this amazing in 2016, but I am ecstatic they have proven in fact how much unfinished business they had.

Junior Boys - Big Black Coat

When I think of the synth pop elite of the last 15 years, for some reason I always seem to land on Hot Chip, Cut Copy, and Junior Boys. All very different bands, writing very different songs, but all anchored in the best type of common synth pop principles. A return to form would suggest the boys have fallen of course, which is not fair. I would say the bar was set pretty high coming off So This is Goodbye in 2006. Begone Dull Care was great. It's All True  was better again, and I would suggest Big Black Coat is in fact better than both of those wonderful records. Maybe it is because many of us fans had even given up expecting any new music after five years. As such, I approached this album with tempered expectations. What I found was a record that actually recalls some of their most substantial moments in years, with ghosts of their first album, Last Exit, even seemingly hovering around the studio. Greenspan still has no business owning a voice that sweet and soulful, as evidenced on "Over It", which is as strong a song as they have ever written. The lads sound rejuvenated and completely on point here.

Field Music - Commontime

"The Noisy Days Are Over" was released late last year as a first early release single in advance of  Commontime arriving this year. Talk about setting the tone for what would follow. Unbeknownst to most, this Field Music's sixth studio album. Since their self titled debut in 2005, they have been making clever, accessible, quirky pop music. Commontime certainly doesn't mess with this approach, but once again they manage to make an album that still sounds different than any of the previous ones. Field Music fall into the grouping of British bands from the last fifteen years who focus on musicianship and odd time signatures, without slipping into self indulgence or traditional prog. Think "math rock" but done as smart pop music ("Math Pop if you will...some arsehole wrote about that on this blog before). This album feels especially dialed in. Songs like the lead single and "Disappointed" are some of the hookiest and catchiest tracks they have written. You can actually hear some Steely Dan creeping in with respect to both composition and production. For a band that has never really mis-stepped, it is great to hear them still sounding so vibrant and progressive after eleven years. Tremendous outing here.

DMA's - Hills End

Every year, amidst the hundreds of new albums I check out, I latch onto at least one new recording that sounds unabashedly like something we have all heard before. A friend mentioned DMA's to me a while ago and reminded me about them when Hills End was released recently. They might be an Aussie band, but this is a Manchester album through and through. The obvious connection given the singer's Gallagher whine and snarl, would be Oasis, but there is a lot more than that going on here, and none of it is an accident. It takes confidence to pull of an album that can be easily relegated to the halls of nostalgia, especially at a time when no other bands are concertedly doing the same thing. There is nothing particularly original about Hills End, but it just does the thing that it does really friggin well. I hear the Roses, the Mondays, and even Brit poppers like Cast and The La's. I'm not sure if this record will spawn a full blown Madchester or BritPop revival (here's hoping), but regardless, this one sounds fresh and familiar and every song make me smile. Sometimes it is nice for even the most obnoxious music nerd to take a break from working hard at enjoying a new album, and enjoying it with ease.

School of Seven Bells - SVIIB

This is the fourth School of Seven Bells album, and one would sadly expect, also their last. It was put together about four years ago before Benjamin Curtis was diagnosed with cancer. After his passing, Alejandra Deheza carried on (in due course) and the result is SVIIB. One might have (understandably) expected the album to capture Deheza's mourning as a natural theme of the record. It does, but moreover, it feels like a record released more as a celebration of Curtis. It is still dreamy and reflective like the previous albums, but some of the synth and drum programs really punch out songs like "Ablaze" a bit without losing its cohesion as an organic recording. She sounds re-engaged, almost like the album is the perfect bridge for moving on without forgetting. I remember when Curtis passed feeling like it was one of the saddest stories for such a talented young artist to leave with so much work yet to be realized, and so much life yet to live. SVIIB feels full of perspective and comes in tightly at 9 tracks, while saying everything that needs to be said. A beautiful collection of songs and a perfect final chapter.

Primal Scream - Chaosmosis

Sometimes when I listen to a Primal Scream album, I want to say out loud "get your shit together boys." For as long as I can remember, this band seems to take vacations every once in a while. I'm not talking about downtime between albums, but full on laziness on actual recordings. There is something endearing about a band that is inherently manic, eclectic and prone to switching it up all the time. Scream just seem to miss the mark more than they should. At a minimum, they seem intent on validating the critical notion that they always follow a gem with a dud. Their Stones influence has always been tempered by versions of electronic music and psych, but sometimes they drift too far in one direction or the other, with what seems like a classic lack of focus. On Chaosmosis, they sound the most focused and consistent to my ears as they have since Xtrmntr (my personal fave by these cats). There are no noticeable spikes here, except maybe "Private Wars" which doesn't really fit. Critically some seem to be calling this an off album compared to 2013's More Light. I thought that album had its moments, but in retrospect it was sloppy even for the Scream and largely forgettable. This record on the other hand, is carried by classic Bobby Gillespie swagger and songs with corners that are mildly reminiscent of Screamadelica at times. Regardless of whether my opinion is in the minority, I plan on enjoying this gem in anticipation that their next one could very well be a dud, if Primal Scream history is any indication.

Underworld - Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future

Seven songs and not one of them under five minutes. The shadows of "Born Slippy" have long since lifted and the pressure to constantly be viewed as an electronic music leader has dissipated as well. To this point, Underworld sound super comfortable here. I was a big fan of Barking, their last album (2010), but Barbara Barbara sounds like one of those nothing to lose type recordings. We can be who we are, who we were, and who we want to be all at once. Set against a landscape of electronic music where kids are using tools and methods that weren't even available to artists like Underworld even just twenty years ago, this sounds like a clinic. A gentle reminder you can use whatever toys are at your disposal to create sounds , but you still need to be able to write songs. I have no issue with kids making music on the Macs in their bedrooms. We need them to. But you don't become Underworld without starting with a solid core song. These tracks will translate beautifully to the club dance floors or work wonderfully in your headphones. There is a wonderful progression through the album. A natural hum that peaks with the final song, "Nylon Strung", which is as great a song as they have written since 1988 when they formed.

DIIV - Is The Is Are

There was just enough hype around the debut DIIV album that many of us indie nerds were understandably suspicious a follow-up could be worthy of its predecessor. Is The Is Are is as good as the debut and its also as good as jingle jangle post punk type shoe gaze gets in 2016. It suffers from being on the long side at seventeen songs, but most of them track at around three minutes and some are short vignettes, so I can forgive the indulgence. The simplicity of layered echoes and reverb works so well here again. Smith's vocals are necessarily detached at times, both thematically and sonically, and the feedback when used is under the surface enough to avoid the album ever tripping into the gratuitous noise trap. At it's best, the album is a perfect blend of The Cure and My Bloody Valentine, while never filling out as much as the former and being more consistently listenable and accessible than the latter. Really glad this album came together so well.

Savages - Adore Life

Savages are another band who had many eyes on them after their debut album garnered so much attention.  Adore Life almost sounds like a great big we don't care about silly things like the sophomore slump. In fact we're going to blast away so hard there will be no doubt how legit our first record was. This one comes out of the gate at 100 miles per hour with "The Answer." A rolling rager with minimalist chording and chunky rhythmics. The playing is tighter, but never sterile and if anything the boldness of their songs are accentuated here with the benefit of slightly more precision. Jenny Beth's vocals recall mid 90's PJ Harvey at times. Every song sounds urgent, even when they dial it down for the beautiful and eerie "Adore." There is a marked increase in emotional depth on these songs and a sense the band wanted your attention on the debut, yet are planning to command it on this one. A consistently firery record that draws on the best elements of classic punk and post-punk while finding a unique and refreshing place in this year's roster of new releases to date.

Bob Mould - Patch The Sky

Yes, he is a legend, and on Patch The Sky , Mould reaffirms once more he deserves the rating as much now for his solo work as he does for his contributions to Husker Du and Sugar. For me, the last three Bob Mould solo albums (including this one) are the best he's sounded at least since Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain.  All his best sides are on display here. Even right off the hop, "Voices In My Head" could slot easily onto one of those first couple Mould albums, and then "The End of Things" rips into one of the most Sugar-esque songs he's written in ages. Both are indicative not only of the album's tone to come, but that even while sounding familiar, Bob is not interested in repeating himself. The last number of years have seemed to be about him coming to terms with all his sides and all his various projects and styles. It feels more and more like he can settle into what he does well, without worrying that he's no longer innovating. On the contrary...a really Bob Mould sounding Bob Mould album in 2016 is not only good for his fans, but it's good for music, because there isn't a single artist making music right now that can come even close to sounding quite like Bob Mould or any of his various wonderful past lives. He sounds peaceful here. Fuzzy and peaceful.