Monday, January 15, 2018

My Twenty Favorite Albums of 2017

A lot of terrible things happened in 2017. Thankfully, there was plenty of great music to help keep me (mostly) sane and remind me that there is hope for humanity yet. Below are the albums that affected me most in 2017, followed by a playlist of some of my favorite songs of the year.

Honorable Mentions
Jay Som- Everybody Works
White Reaper- The World's Best American Band
Moses Sumney- Aromanticism 
The National- Sleep Well Beast
Waxahatchee- Out In the Storm
LCD Soundsystem- American Dream
Father John Misty- Pure Comedy
Charly Bliss- Guppy

Top Twenty
20. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard- The Five Fucking Albums They Released in 2017
I'm cheating a bit here by not singling out a particular album, but come on, these psych rockers said they'd release five albums in 2017 and then actually did it. And all of the albums were pretty good! I suppose Flying Microtonal Banana was my favorite with Polygondwanaland a close second. Their show at Lincoln Hall was also one of the best I saw this year. 

19. Protomartyr- Relatives in Descent
Another high-quality collection of brooding post-punk songs by one of the most underrated rock bands out there.

18. Thundercat- Drunk
Probably the most humorous album I heard this year, and also one of the funkiest. The Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins-featuring "Show You the Way" is an obvious highlight, but there are a lot of jams on here.

17. Japanese Breakfast- Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Really beautiful album that sounds a lot like its title. Great to zone out to at night.

16. Slowdive- Slowdive
Excellent reunion record by these shoegaze legends. Not easy to take a 22 year break and come back with an album that improves your catalogue, but Slowdive pulled it off.

15. Priests- Nothing Feels Natural
This band sounds like a cross between Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney, while still managing to be fresh and exciting. One of the best debut albums of the year, and their extremely energetic show at Beat Kitchen was another highlight of my 2017 concert-going. 

14. Jens Lekman- Life Will See You Now
Lovely indie pop album. Few songwriters pull off the "melancholy lyrics with bright melodies" juxtaposition as well as Jens.

13. Perfume Genius- No Shape
An intriguing collection of lush, densely-orchestrated art pop songs.

12. Fleet Foxes- Crack-Up
This album was divisive among fans of the band's previous work due to its unconventional (and often jarring) song structures. If you spend enough time with Crack-Up, however, it reveals itself to be a fascinating album brimming with interesting ideas, albeit not as endlessly replayable as their first two albums.

11. Run the Jewels- Run the Jewels 3
Another satisfying album of impeccably produced music by the best duo in rap.

10. Tyler, The Creator- Flower Boy
Never could get into Tyler's music previous to this album, but he took a huge step forward here. The songs are stylistically diverse and downright pretty at times. The album also features my favorite Frank Ocean appearance of the year, on the wonderful "911/Mr. Lonely."

9. King Krule- The Ooz
Is jazzy experimental post-punk your thing? Probably not! But if it is, this is your album. Just don't expect to get into it on your first few listens- took me four or five to appreciate its slow-burning brilliance.

8. Lorde- Melodrama
The follow-up to Pure Heroine may not have had a ubiquitous hit à la "Royals," but Lorde managed to improve on her debut in every way. Brilliant pop songwriting.

7. Vince Staples- Big Fish Theory
Staples's house-music influenced sophomore album is essential listening for fans of both electronic/dance music and rap.

6. Julien Baker- Turn Out the Lights
Heartbreakingly sad but emotionally cathartic album by a supremely talented young singer-songwriter. If you can sit through "Appointments" with dry eyes, you are probably an alien or something.

5. Big Thief- Capacity
Never would have guessed this album would make my top five when I first heard it, but I kept returning to it this year. Frontwoman Adrianne Lenker is an outstanding singer and lyricist, and her stories from her traumatic childhood resonate deeply.

4. SZA- CTRL
SZA became hands down the breakout star of 2017 thanks to this instant R&B classic- impressive given how difficult it is to get smart speakers to play the correct damn artist (no, Alexa, I did not say "Sizzler").

3. The War on Drugs- A Deeper Understanding
I did not think The War on Drugs would ever create another album as good as Lost in the Dream (my favorite album of 2014, for those keeping score at home) but they came pretty dang close! A Deeper Understanding is even more meticulously crafted than its predecessor, and continues to showcase the band's talent for writing blissed-out rockers and lighters-in-the-air ballads that should resonate with any rock fan no matter their age.

2. Mount Eerie- A Crow Looked At Me
I am not going to mince words here: this is the saddest album I have ever heard. Songwriter Phil Elverum's wife was diagnosed with cancer months after giving birth to the couple's first child in 2015, and tragically died at age 35 the following summer. Elverum recorded A Crow Looked At Me in the ensuing months, in the same room where his wife died and using her old instruments. Elverum states bluntly on the album's powerful opener "Real Death" that "Death is real/Someone's there and then they're not/And it's not for singing about/It's not for making into art." Elverum is acutely aware that grieving for his wife through his songwriting is a futile exercise, that nothing will truly make him feel better. Nonetheless, Elverum lays his emotions bare and the result is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Despair permeates every moment of the album, accented by sparse musical arrangements ("barely music," Elverum called it in an interview). This is not an album I am able to listen to very often, and cannot "enjoy" like most of the other music on this list. But A Crow Looked At Me so effectively captures a dark, sorrowful part of the human experience that when I do listen it is a fully immersive and deeply moving experience; this album cannot be background music. Despite Elverum's declaration that he had no desire to make art in the face of personal tragedy, he created a masterwork of grief and loss that hit me harder than nearly everything I heard in 2017.

1. Kendrick Lamar- DAMN.
Before 2015, all my year end "best album" lists had nary a hip-hop release on them, save for the occasional Kanye West cameo. Then Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, and I decided to take a break from listening to guitar bands and see what the hype was about. I remember driving to work listening to the album for the first time, quickly realizing I was hearing something special. I had previously (and ignorantly) dismissed rap as one-dimensional, tuneless music. To Pimp a Butterfly shattered that notion. It was the most creative, thought-provoking album I had heard in a long time. With DAMN., Lamar has made another masterpiece and cemented his standing (in my mind, at least) as the best musician on the planet.

While To Pimp a Butterfly paid tribute to the jazz and funk songs of Lamar's youth, DAMN. employs a starkly different sound- showing his unique spin on what rap should sound like in 2017. Working closely with hit-making producer Mike Will Made-It, Lamar manages to connect with the pop masses (every song on the album charted on the Billboard Hot 100!) while compromising none of his artistic ambition. DAMN. announced its arrival with the chart-topping first single "Humble," the most overt "banger" of his career. With "Humble," Lamar shows that he can make a song completely in line with 2017 rap trends, and he can do it better than anyone (its incredible music video further hammers this home). "DNA," too, illustrates Lamar's pure skills as a rapper; its jaw-dropping final third ranks as a career highlight. Elsewhere on the album, Lamar shares a more introspective side. There's "Fear," where he vividly describes terror he has felt at different stages in his life. On "Pride" (my personal favorite), Lamar grapples with being "the best rapper alive" with a desire to maintain humility. "Love," meanwhile, is a straight-up gorgeous ballad destined to be a fixture on wedding playlists. The album concludes with the stunning "Duckworth," with Lamar reflecting on the unbelievable series of events that led to him emerging from troubled beginnings to become a global superstar (and how, when their lives fatefully crossed decades ago, choices made by his father and the head of his record label likely spared him from an untimely demise). Taken as a whole, DAMN. is a remarkable album with many layers; I'm still digesting it nine months after I first heard it. Nothing in 2017 sounded better or more vital.

Best of 2017 Playlist
Here is a playlist of some of my favorite songs of the year, featuring all of the above artists and more!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Twenty Favorite Albums of 2016

Well, at this point it is clear that this blog only exists as a portal for me to post my year end list of favorite albums, and for my friend Bob to sporadically review weird rock shows he sees in Washington D.C. This isn't even the pre-eminent music blog named Static and Distance anymore. How the mighty have fallen.

Anyway, no one needs to read more about how "2016 was the worst year ever." Nonetheless, it was undeniably bittersweet for me as a music fan. David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen left us (plus two thirds of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer!). But we also got some truly remarkable new music this year, including two wonderful farewell albums from Bowie and Cohen. Personally, my listening habits shifted significantly. Most people who know me think of me as "that guy who really, really likes Radiohead" (and I still do! See below). However, 2016 was the first time since my circa-1997 days of Puff Daddy worship that I listened to as much hip hop and R&B as rock music. Turns out I had it right in middle school.

Just as I did last year, I made a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs of the year, which you will find at the end of this post. Unlike last year, I don't have the inclination to share extended blurbs about the albums on the list, but I did write brief endorsements.

And now, the moment that maybe three of you have been waiting for! Here are my favorite albums of 2016:

Honorable Mentions:
Kendrick Lamar- Untitled/Unmastered
Kaytranada- 99.9%
Pinegrove- Cardinal
Noname- Telefone
Danny Brown- Atrocity Exhibition
Whitney- Light Upon the Lake

Top Twenty
20. Kanye West- The Life of Pablo
This album is a mess, honestly, but the highlights ("Ultralight Beam," "Waves," "No More Parties in LA") are so good that it just barely sneaks onto this list.

19. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard- Nonagon Infinity
A perfectly executed psychedelic rock opus that can (and should) be played on an infinite loop.

18. Blood Orange- Freetown Sound
Nice third effort from alternative R&B artist Dev Hynes, featuring excellent collaborations with the likes of Debbie Harry, Empress Of, and Carly Rae Jepsen.

17. Jamila Woods- HEAVN
Fresh off her star turn on the chorus of "Sunday Candy," Ms Woods shows that song represented just the tip of the iceberg of her talent.

16. NxWorries- Yes Lawd!
Capping off an extraordinary year for Anderson .Paak, he and producer Knxwledge released this excellent collection of hip hop jams layered over a bevy of soul samples.

15. Bon Iver- 22, A Million
I found the whole numerical theme of the album (and its borderline incoherent song titles) a little pretentious, but the songs themselves are good and represent an interesting evolution of Bon Iver's sound.

14. Leonard Cohen- You Want it Darker
One of the best albums ever made by someone in their 80s, and a wonderful conclusion to Cohen's incredible life and career.

13. Weyes Blood- Front Row Seat to Earth
A beautiful and haunting collection of ethereal, dream-like folk songs.

12. Beyoncé- Lemonade
Catchy, lyrically engaging, and demonstrating a remarkably diverse array of sounds across its twelve songs, Lemonade is pop music at its best.

11. A Tribe Called Quest- We Got it From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
Heck of a comeback album from these hip hop legends, made bittersweet by Phife Dawg's passing.

10. David Bowie- Blackstar
Bowie, ever the iconoclast, goes out with one of his strangest albums- a dark, jazzy/experimental work that sounds like nothing else in his catalogue (or anyone's catalogue, really).

9. Mitski- Puberty 2
This was definitely a down year for rock music, but this album bucks that trend. Simply great songwriting that hits you right in the gut.

8. Angel Olsen- My Woman
Angel Olsen has been one of my favorite songwriters for years now, and My Woman is her most impressive release yet. Far removed from the hushed bedroom recordings of her earliest work, the album sees her expanding her sound with synthesizers, slow-burning guitar epics, and punchy rockers.

7. Car Seat Headrest- Teens of Denial
This is simply one of the most ambitious and creative indie rock albums I've heard in some time. Too many memorable lyrics and hummable guitar hooks to count.

6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Skeleton Tree
Though most of the album was written prior to the death of his son, the tragedy hangs over each of the songs on this devastatingly sad album.

5. Radiohead- A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead's most classically-influenced album by a large margin, A Moon Shaped Pool includes some of the prettiest music of their two-decade-plus career. Additionally, long-time fans such as myself were rewarded with excellent studio versions of long gestating songs such as "Burn the Witch" and "True Love Waits."

4. Solange- A Seat at the Table
Absolutely stunning album that powerfully explores societal issues pertaining to race and gender. Pair that with vibrant music that transcends the typical parameters of "R&B" and you have a classic.

3. Anderson .Paak- Malibu
Hard to believe this album came out during the second week of January because I have been listening to it pretty much nonstop since then. A fantastic melding of hip hop and soul music that was my go-to party album this year.

2. Frank Ocean- Blonde
Several people have told me they "couldn't get into" this album despite liking channel ORANGE, which is understandable. Blonde is not exactly accessible- there's hardly any drums on the thing, for one. However, its confounding qualities are what makes it so brilliant. Blonde is a moody, soul-bearing work by one of the most important (and least predictable) artists in music today. A perfect album for a melancholy solo night drive.

1. Chance the Rapper- Coloring Book
Was Coloring Book really the "best" music release of the year? Probably not. But we're talking about my favorites here, and this was the album (okay, technically mixtape) that most defined my 2016. The gospel-influenced songs on Coloring Book, brimming with choirs and horns, lifted my spirits countless times throughout the year. Chance's enthusiasm and positivity provided a needed contrast to an endless parade of negative world events. He also has proven himself to be one of the all-time great Chicago ambassadors, and driving around the city listening to these songs was a consistently joyful experience.

2016 Year End Compilation
Here are some of my favorite songs of the year, sans anything not available on Spotify (Linked here are the songs I would have included by Beyoncé and Cate Le Bon. And fuck it, here's the entirety of Sheer Mag's III EP).


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Guest Post: Bob Reviews Melt-Banana/Melvins/Napalm Death at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC (4/12/16)

I think it is clear at this point who is most dedicated to posting on this blog: Static and Distance Washington, DC correspondent Bob! Here's another of his zany dispatches from the seedy musical underground of our nation's capital.

Despite what all of my entries on this blog seem to imply, I do go to shows that aren't just exercises in the bizarre. Bands with people who play a normally tuned guitar and four-on-the-floor beats and shit. However, I can't really write about those shows in an interesting manner, so here we are.

On 4/12/16 I went and saw Melt-Banana, Melvins, and Napalm Death at the 9:30 Club. They called the tour the "Savage Imperial Death March Tour," which I'm gonna be honest, even if I didn't know any of the bands would have been worth the ticket price on name alone. I was most excited to see Melt-Banana, especially since I missed a show of theirs in San Diego last year. Melvins are a group I've always known and liked but never really dove into. For Napalm Death, I was completely blind—only having done a quick tour of their discography on Spotify at work the day of the show.

The crowd for this show was interesting, mostly in that I had not felt like more of a square in a very, very long time. Like, I was actively getting side-eye from hardcore kids in the flipped bill hats with gauges in their ears and homemade tattoos and shit. It was fascinating, mostly because I don't have anybody like that in my social scene so it felt good to break out a bit, y'know?  But mostly it left me very jealous of these people with battle jackets. I could easily buy a denim jacket, some patches, and sew that shit up, but I just don't feel like I could pull off the look. It'd be like if I wore an old Ramones-style leather jacket on the way to my job in software development. It'd be completely phony. Maybe someday if I go off the grid or something.

Melt-Banana went on first. Excuse the obnoxiously pretentious genre name, but I think I'd describe these guys as hardcore noise pop. The band is composed of two people: a guitarist, and a singer/electronics manipulator, and they play this frantically hooky punk music. The singer controlled the bass/drum machine tracks via this super cool Nintendo Powerglove type situation, which was really impressive. They banged through their set, basically refusing to waste any time. They even did this bit about halfway through the set where the singer said "Okay! We're gonna play six short songs!", and they banged out six songs that were each about fifteen seconds long (see below for an example from a different stop on the tour). I was really looking forward to seeing these guys, and they more than met my expectations. Was worth the entire show, to be honest.

   Melt-Banana doing their part to get you home at a reasonable hour 

With Melvins what struck me was how impressively professional they were. Kind of what I'd imagine a Neil Diamond concert is like in terms of the musicians' complete confidence in their material and playing ability. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the outfits these guys had on for the show. I never would have pegged Melvins as "best dressed" kind of guys, but that's what I get for assuming. The guitarist (Buzzo, well King Buzzo officially but that's too formal) wore this pre-match boxing robe with this big ol' eyeball on the front of it—like what a different galaxy's Mike Tyson would be wearing if the TNG crew ever came knocking. Not only that, but the drummer wore a shirt that was bedazzled with the word "Drummer", and guitarist "Guitarist." That really tickled me. The tunes they played were solid, and they were definitely an enjoyable band to see. Well, all their songs literally sound like depression, but they do it very well. That kind of enjoyable.

      Melvins being all professional and skilled at their instruments and stuff

Then on came Napalm Death. They are one of those bands where the band name is in a font that looks like the words were painted in blood on a wall. So I kind of knew what I was getting into, but since they were the headliner and I was marginally interested at best, I stepped back a bit and let all the folks who were stoked up closer and holy shit these people were fucking STOKED. They came out and the singer started talking and I was surprised to learn they were British! I had no idea. He bantered bantered and then on a drop of a hat switched to that growly hardcore like "BURN THE INNOCENT FUCK YOUR FRIENDS KILL YR IDOLS" type thing, which was jarringly entertaining. I also enjoyed that the guitarist had his mic set up like Lemmy's, where the microphone is positioned 6-8" above his mouth and angled down sharply.

However, I have a completely uninformed and scandalous accusation to make at this time. I'm halfway convinced the drummer had...electronic assistance. To paint the picture: the drummer had a kit with two bass drums a la Keith Moon. Further, he looked like the stereotype of a smooth jazz drummer: fat white dude that's balding just a bit and has a pony tail. No judgment here, dude can look how he wants. What I was shocked by, though, was how nonplussed the guy looked when playing these crazy fast tunes. Like, picture the beginning part of that "Wipeout" song. Except instead of playing that on a tom with his hands, he played with his feet that quickly and for 3-5 minutes at a time. So, imagine the dude I described basically running in place for 20 minutes. I figured he'd be showing outwardly that he was making physical effort. To my surprise the guy looked as if he was just calmly playing, like he was idly tapping while waiting for a pizza or something. Now to be fair, he could easily just be incredibly talented and what seems hard to me is ho-hum bullshit to him. But if not, I find the idea of PEDs for drummers incredibly funny.

      Napalm Death: Soon to be tied up in the Biogenesis scandal

I left the show after four or five Napalm Death songs. I felt like a quitter, but the buzz I had going earlier was wearing off, I was out of money, I didn't really care about Napalm Death, and I had shit to do at home. Even still, the concert was a really, really great time. Well worth the $30 and long bus ride home for sure.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My Favorite Albums of 2015

Here we are at the end of another year (okay, technically the beginning of another year, let's just pretend I published this in December 2015 as I intended). That means it is finally time for me to resurrect my website where I make lists blog, and also claim it back from the greedy hands of Static and Distance Washington DC concert correspondent Bob. Two members of my family recently complimented Bob's writing, which I can interpret in no other way than a personal insult to myself. Well, I am here to prove to them and everyone else that I still have the talent that allowed Static and Distance to become the world's preeminent sporadically updated music blog.

I am also here to make the argument that 2015 was a truly special year in music. Definitely not a special year in global events or in the Chicago White Sox's ability to fucking score some runs, but absolutely a great year for music. This was a year when my twentieth favorite album would have been pushing the top ten most other years. A year when albums one through five all felt "album of the year" quality. A year when a really solid Deerhunter album is relegated to "honorable mention" status. By my book, the last year this good was 2007- the first year I started making these end-of-year lists.

This year, I decided to make a numerically unsatisfying, 49-song Spotify playlist of my favorite songs released in the past 12 months. You will find that at the end of this post. Without further ado, here are the albums that made the biggest impression on me in 2015:

Honorable Mentions
Deerhunter- Fading Frontier
Shamir- Ratchet
Ryley Walker- Primrose Green
Empress Of- Me
Beach House- Thank Your Lucky Stars
Chvrches- Every Open Eye
Twerps- Range Anxiety

Top Twenty
20. Dick Diver- Melbourne, Florida
Jangly, tuneful Australian rock band. Endlessly listenable. Fun fact: their weird name actually references F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night.

19. Kurt Vile- b'lieve i'm goin down
This album did not captivate me as much as Wakin On a Pretty Daze, but it is still another solid collection of mostly melancholy guitar jams from Mr. Vile.

18. Dilly Dally- Sore
Guys, The Pixies made a new album! No really, they did, and everyone hated it. Fortunately, we have Dilly Dally around, who made the best Pixies-ish album the world has seen since Trompe Le Monde.

17. Jessica Pratt- On Your Own Love Again
Pratt's lovely album of hushed, bedroom-recorded folk tunes sounds like it could have been released in 1970.

16. Natalie Prass- Natalie Prass
Another album that harkens back to the Nixon years, Prass mixes country, soul, and pop to great effect. Lush string and horn arrangements abound.

15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra- Multi-Love
Not sure why this album received less attention then UMO's prior records, because in my humble opinion it is the best thing they have done. And when I say "they," I mean UMO mastermind Ruben Nielson- who successfully pushed the band's previously lo-fi psychedelic sound in a much fuller (and dancier!) direction.

14. Hop Along- Painted Shut
Frontwoman Frances Quinlan's voice is one of the most unique and powerful in rock, and the band has the songs to match. My favorite record by an artist I was unfamiliar with prior to this year.

13. Torres- Sprinter
Brooklyn-via-Nashville musician Mackenzie Scott upped the ante with her sophomore release, crafting a record often reminiscent of mid-90s To Bring You My Love era PJ Harvey (fitting that Harvey's former bassist produced).

12. Sleater-Kinney- No Cities To Love
It is not easy to return from a decade-long hiatus and release an album that meets the lofty standards set by the band's previous discography, but these ladies pulled it off. No Cities To Love doesn't necessarily take Sleater-Kinney's sound in a new direction, but the songwriting remains sharp, and the band rocks as hard as ever. I already regarded them as one of my favorite bands, and this album only reinforced that opinion.

11. Titus Andronicus- The Most Lamentable Tragedy
At first I was rather overwhelmed by this 29 song rock opera about manic depression (shocking rite?). But I stuck with it, and after a few listens this album's brilliance revealed itself. Sure, there are a few songs that are just alright (again, there are TWENTY NINE songs on this thing), but most of them are pretty dang awesome. The album also includes "Dimed Out", which was definitely the "blast unreasonably loud in my car" song of the year.

10. Father John Misty- I Love You, Honeybear
I first encountered Mr. Misty back in early 2008, when he (as J Tillman) was named the new drummer for Fleet Foxes. I distinctly remember a post from Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold on a Radiohead message board (yes, we posted on the same Radiohead message board, be jealous) where he was all "guys, omg, J Tillman is an amazing talent I am so excited he is in my band now." Well hey, turns out Pecknold was right, because Tillman has been knocking it out of the park with his Father John Misty project. I Love You, Honeybear tells the story of Tillman's courtship and marriage to his wife, with all the romance and anxiety that came along with it. Tillman, with his endearingly self-deprecating nature, brings a dose of desperately needed humor to a music world that often takes itself far too seriously. On top of that, the songs are often downright gorgeous.

9. Tame Impala- Currents
Like the Titus Andronicus album above, Tame Impala's newest took several listens to sink in. The album's 51-minute length is perfectly reasonable, but it is a dense 51 minutes. Frontman (and sole songwriter) Kevin Parker packs the album with many different sounds and ideas. Although everything still more or less falls under the psychedelic rock umbrella, Parker employs a warmer, more soulful sound than on the band's previous two records. And to my delight, synthesizers are used all over the record- most notably on the resplendent 8-minute opener "Let It Happen." It is always satisfying to watch bands you have followed from the beginning (saw these dudes play a show at the Double Door in 2010) grow and improve with each record, and Tame Impala have done so rather brilliantly.

8. Jim O'Rourke- Simple Songs
Perhaps best known as a one-time member of Sonic Youth as well as a producer and engineer on landmark albums such as Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, O'Rourke recorded a brilliant run of song-based albums in the late '90s and early 2000s. Since that time, he has largely focused on experimental, instrumental recordings (including 2009's excellent The Visitor). Simple Songs, as implied by its title, is his first collection of song-based material in nearly 14 years. Fortunately, the wait was well worth it. O'Rourke's songwriting easily matches the quality of his earlier records. He mentioned in interviews that the album was painstakingly recorded, with his band of Tokyo-based musicians taking years to perform the songs to O'Rourke's liking. The resulting record sounds meticulously crafted but not over-labored. Few apply avant-garde principles to rock music as effectively as O'Rourke, with him utilizing unpredictable song structures, acerbic lyrics, and lovingly crafted orchestral touches. At the same time, O'Rourke keeps the album perfectly listenable for those who just want to listen to some kick ass rock tunes.

7. Julia Holter- Have You In My Wilderness
I have been a fan of Holter's experimental art pop for a few years now, and Have You In My Wilderness is her best effort yet. Holter retains her adventurous approach while simultaneously embracing her pop instincts to create an exciting, tuneful collection of songs. Utilizing her classical training (Holter holds a degree from CalArts) to great effect, Holter fleshes out the songs beautifully with strings, piano, and harpsichord. Highly recommended for fans of Kate Bush, and other weirdo pop artists in that vein.

6. Joanna Newsom- Divers
Over the course of her first three albums, Joanna Newsom created one of the most unique and consistently rewarding discographies of any musician to emerge in the last decade. Divers ranks as my least favorite of her records, which speaks more to the quality of her past work than to Divers' flaws. While her previous records varied starkly from one another, Divers represents more of a lateral move. Though the album contains songs that perhaps best encapsulate Newsom's talents for the uninitiated, it does not really take her sound in a new direction. So why does the album still rank so high in this competitive 2015 class? Because Newsom is a really, really good songwriter, and her not-at-her-best still beats most everyone else. She is a total iconoclast, defying all musical trends with her ornate harp and piano compositions. The album includes multi-sectioned epics such as the wonderful opening track "Anecdotes" and the title track which serves as the emotional climax of the album. Best of all is "Sapokanikan," which starts as a bouncy piano ditty before building to a crescendo of brass, woodwinds, and Newsom's ever-distinctive vocals. Though perhaps falling short of "masterpiece" status, Divers allows Newsom to maintain her position as one of the very best songwriters in music today.

5. Protomartyr- The Agent Intellect
In my book, Protomartyr's latest is the most badass rock record to come out of Detroit, Michigan since the Stooges dropped Raw Power on the world in '73. It also happens to be one of the most badass records released this year, period. Following in the tradition of post-punk forbearers such as Joy Division and Nick Cave, Protomartyr employ a dark sound- their songs bursting with tension. Frontman Joe Casey sings with a knowing baritone. This dude, ten years senior his bandmates and fronting his first band, has seen some shit. The rest of the band complements Casey's vocals with pummeling drums and ominous guitar. In addition, the songwriting is inspired. This is powerful, visceral music. If you like guitar-driven rock, The Agent Intellect is a must-listen.

4. Grimes- Art Angels
Remember all that hype about Lady Gaga circa 2009 about how she was this "weird" pop artist who was going to revolutionize mainstream music blah de blah? That didn't quite work out. Thankfully, the world has Grimes, who might not (yet) have the mainstream reach of Gaga, but is pushing the boundaries of what can be considered "pop." Unlike basically everyone else in pop, Grimes' Claire Boucher writes, records, and produces her music entirely on her own. I'd like to see Bieber try that. Expanding upon the synth pop sounds of 2012's Visions, Grimes utilizes a more guitar-driven approach this time around (having learned the instrument during the album's several year long gestation period). This change works brilliantly. Retaining the infectious quality of Visions' best songs but taking significant risks while doing so (there's a song with a Korean rap breakdown for Christ's sake), Art Angels is a more fully realized statement. But more than anything else, it is a collection of songs that I found myself wanting to replay over and over- which is what good pop music does. We shall see whether 2016 brings Grimes the mainstream recognition her songs deserve.

3. Courtney Barnett- Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
There is no album I listened to more this year than Courtney Barnett's wonderful debut record. Barnett sings about the mundane- shopping for groceries, buying a new house, the merits of swimming versus jogging, and many more topics most of us can relate to. In a musical landscape where directness is often frowned upon, Barnett's approach is refreshing. Utilizing a charming sing-speak delivery, Barnett displays an impressive musical range throughout the album. There are fuzzed-out rockers, slow-building extended jams that allow her to show off her considerable guitar chops, as well as poignant ballads. Sure, there are several albums on this list that are more experimental, ambitious, and boundary pushing. But if you are like me, none of that stuff is as important as how enjoyable the tunes are. Barnett has created a stellar album that most any self-respecting fan of rock music should be able to get behind.

2. Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp A Butterfly
Outside of a brief middle school flirtation with the likes of Puff Daddy and Master P, I have had a difficult time connecting with most hip hop albums that have reached my ears. To Pimp A Butterfly, however, immediately struck a chord with me. Though obviously falling under the hip hop umbrella, Lamar incorporates a myriad of different genres- jazz, soul, and funk, namely. The album is almost cinematic in scope, presenting a varied and exhilarating listen over the course of 79 minutes. Lyrically, the album feels vital. Lamar examines blackness in modern America, expressing both criticism (of both black-on-black crime and the politicians who perpetuate black oppression) as well as hope that, someday, things will be Alright. His own inner turmoil is explored as well, as Lamar examines his lavish lifestyle in light of his roots in impoverished Compton, California. The result is an absolutely gripping album. I have little doubt that decades from now, people will listen to this record as a time capsule of 2015's racial discord, just as we now do for '60s and '70s albums such as What's Going On or There's A Riot Goin' On.

1. Sufjan Stevens- Carrie and Lowell
Though Kendrick Lamar's album will surely go down as the most important record released in 2015, Sufjan Stevens' masterful Carrie and Lowell resonated with me unlike anything else this year. Stevens is an artist who holds a special place in my musical history; my purchase of his fabulous Illinois record in late 2006 showed me that good music existed post-1980. That record, as well as his 2010 follow-up Age of Adz, saw Stevens utilize a "let's throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach to generally satisfying results. Carrie and Lowell, on the other hand, represents a stark about-face. Featuring mostly just his guitar and voice, the album sees Stevens confronting his emotions in light of his mother's recent passing. Stevens' mother battled drug addiction and mental health challenges throughout her life, and was an unreliable presence during his childhood. Clearly, Stevens has carried a great deal of pain with him over the years, because the album is an absolutely devastating listen. In fact, it is one of the saddest, most despairing albums I have ever heard. As a result, it is not necessarily a record you can just throw on whenever. To a degree, one must be "in the mood" to properly enjoy it. And yet, the songwriting is so captivating, the melodies so gorgeous, and Stevens' emotions so raw that I found myself returning to the album again and again. With Carrie and Lowell, Stevens embraced grief, melancholy, and despair and turned it into something beautiful.

2015 Year End Compilation
Here are some of my favorite songs of the year, sans anything not available on Spotify (Linked here are the songs I would have included by Joanna Newsom, Jessica Pratt, and Jim O'Rourke. Radiohead's Spectre single is also deserving. Oh, and Sheer Mag!).

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Guest Post: Bob Reviews Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC (9/9/15)

Clearly I should just turn this site into a Washington D.C. concert blog where Bob reviews wholly inaccessible music. At least this band is notable enough to have had a joke about them in Pineapple Express.

Fun fact: I was the only person in my theater to laugh at this joke 

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Since Matt is too lazy to keep this blog going consistently, I see it as my duty to provide summaries of notable shows that I see.  That, and it's a useful way to supplement my awful memory.  In that spirit, I went and saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor perform at the 9:30 Club on 9/9/15. Unfortunately, due to the capitalist dogs that sign my paycheck, I missed the opener, but the show itself was worth the ticket price ten-fold.

Godspeed, a seminal post-rock band out of Quebec, went into hiatus in 2003.  This hiatus came just before this writer was to get his license and be able to get off of Cape Cod to see concerts.  Thanks, guys.

However, this hiatus came on the heels of releasing what I consider to be two masterwork albums: F#A#(Infinity) and Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.  (The Yanqui U.X.O. EP is great as well, for the record).  These albums blew my mind apart. They were primarily composed of 20+ minute pieces, each with movements alternating between hypnotizing violin/cello/bass drones with guitar flourishes, and then slowly they'd become more disjointed and intense and chaotic till everyone settled back into a previously-unseen-but-now-obvious melody blasted out with aplomb.

But lo!  They regrouped a few years back and have released good material to boot.  So when I heard about this show coming I bought tickets with a quickness and slowly built up unreasonable expectations for this show.

Subtly, the background house music switched to a low rumbling bass drone.  This went on for a solid five minutes as the DC crowd continued checking work phones and bullshitting with neighbors. Slowly the crowd realized what was happening and quieted down, and from there 'till the end it was one of the most respectful crowds I've ever seen.  No one even checked emails unless it was between movements (yes, this band's music has movements), which in this workaholic town is a goddamned miracle.

This respect was well earned.  The three guitar, two bass, two percussionist, and violist ensemble worked through their latest album basically in order, and it was a study in contrasts.  They'd alternate between relaxing soothing tunes (seriously, I physically felt the tension leave my neck, which my wife has always said is where I hold a lot of tension but never really believed her 'till that moment) and loud loud LOUD messes of chaos that still held together perfectly.  I mean, in my previous review I said I felt my leg hairs vibrate?  Godspeed made my CLOTHES vibrate.

The tunes were paired with 8mm videos played behind the band throughout the show. They generally alternated between scenes of urban decay and desolate prairie landscapes, which sounds really dull, but complemented each song really well.  Also, I want to say here that I really really hate light shows.  I think they are the dumbest thing in the world, and nine times out of ten are more of a distraction than an enhancement.  Give me pretentious films on a white sheet every day, please.

Godspeed's playing of their new material was more than solid, and they did a rendition of their classic tune Moya which was performed beautifully.  To my surprise, though, they finished off the set with The Sad Mafioso, one of the movements in a piece called East Hastings off of F#A#(Infinity).  The whole piece is amazing, but this movement is basically perfection.  It's in my top ten songs of all-time easily, and probably even lands in the top five.  It is haunting and soothing and exhilarating and disorienting all in ten minutes.  I firmly believe the proper setting for listening to this song is in mid-fall, driving late at night down a long road where the speed traps are well documented so you can cruise at top speed with the windows down.  Add angsty cigarettes and/or disillusioned joints at your discretion, but play it fucking loud and stick around for the last minute:



I've imagined seeing this band for over a decade now, and though the setting wasn't quite what I pictured (I thought I'd be seated, stoned to the gills, and definitely not dressed in business casual), Godspeed fulfilled every expectation I had and more.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Guest Post: Bob Reviews Lightning Bolt at the Rock N Roll Hotel in Washington, DC (5/12/15)

Well, clearly I’ve been too lazy to post on the blog lately. So what better time to introduce new Static and Distance Washington, DC correspondent Bob! You may know Bob from past posts such as IHRTLUHC: The Definitive Lawrence University Playlist, and my legendary first post (surely to be archived in the Library of Congress any day now) describing our fabled college radio program “Safe as Milk.” Our tastes overlap a good amount, though his interests veer deeper into the jammy and noisy side of things. Bob and I often argue about the merits of The Grateful Dead, his favorite band [in a shocking recent development I conceded for the first time that there is a Grateful Dead song I love. “Bertha” is a great (Bob edit: goddamned AMAZING) song]. Anyway, I’ve been bugging Bob to write an impassioned defense of The Grateful Dead on the blog for awhile now.  But he keeps procrastinating on that. Maybe he’ll get it together before the Farewell Shows this July. In the meantime, he recently caught a band on the noisier side of the musical spectrum, Lightning Bolt, in concert and was jazzed enough about it to send me a review of the show. So here it is.  I apologize for his language and bizarre analogies.

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Hey all, this is Bob putting forth a writing object, let's see how this shakes out.

I went to see Lightning Bolt last Tuesday night at Rock N Roll Hotel, which is always nice cause it's an easy walk to/from my place.  Hooray conveniency.  Plus at $14 it falls right in my ticket price sweet spot: anything much more than that and it's a decision worth thinking about, and if it's much cheaper than that then shit starts to get sonically spotty.

I've wanted to see these guys for years, but they don't tour often and the timing of my living in a city and their playing there never worked out.  Lightning Bolt are from Providence and they play kind of a super-riffy but sludgy bass line over frenetic drumming with bizarre vocals.  They've been around since ‘99 or so, and solidified a surprisingly decent noise scene out of Providence, not necessarily cause Providence is shitty but more ‘cause it's just small.

Their shows are known for being frankly, fucking nuts.  First off they're insanely loud live. They set up these amps/speakers/whatever that are monstrous- they look like discordant electronics cobbled together to approach the form of Marshall Stacks.  The other key point is they are known for setting up on the floor of a show, à la Dan Deacon or most any indie band that has multiple percussionists that walk off the stage during their final encore cause FUCK the stage this is an intimate SHOW.

I was honestly a bit nervous about the second bit.  That kind of set up is ideal/necessary for basement show type shows, but in a room bigger than a bullshit open concept living room lines of sight could be tricky.  Second is the completely unreasonable nightmare that I somehow get shoved onto the band and destroy some custom pedals or some shit.  I'd have the same rep as the dude who stole Sonic Youth's gear, which is undesirable.

The other notable live aspect is that the drummer is the singer for the group.  He does this not via a mic stand or such, but rather taking what looks like the mic on a CB radio, securing that to a bandana, and tying it around his face.  This combined with the construction site-style ear protection he wears makes him look like a crazy person that's interviewed during an investigation on the X-Files.  But in a good way.

The Truth is Out There

Also in a "only I care about this ‘cause I was a drummer" type way, the drummer's kit is interesting. Dude has no high-hat at all, he basically just beats the shit outta his ride the whole time.  Instead he manipulates all the effects on his vocals via a pedal board with his left foot.  Wacky shit.

With that in mind the show I saw delivered.  They actually set up on the stage, the drummer looked like a madman, and they were loud.  Louuuuuuuuud.  Before the start of the show I saw a sizable amount of people in Gallaudet gear, which confused me because it's the deaf university nearby and generally they're not huge concert goers.  Then when the band started and I could feel the bass line through both the beer can in my hand and somehow through the hairs on my leg (which was really weird and cool), I realized Lightning Bolt are the perfect band for deaf people.

They played for about an hour, which is actually my ideal show length, but christ they PLAYED the whole hour.  The drummer is basically a human being playing blast beats.  He looks like what they have Animal on the Muppets look like when he busts into a Moon solo, except he keeps that intensity going for a straight hour without collapsing.  It doesn't make sense.  Also, when he walked on stage I noticed that he was super skinny. Now I realize it's because he spends his life looking like the participants in an exercise tape watched in fast-forward.

While this musical approximation of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon sits on the right, on the left the bassist looks incredibly calm.  Focused, not standing there like he's waiting for a bus on a nice day, but surprisingly calm.  All the while he's just destroying his bass, going from sludgy Earth-rattling lines to finger tapping and playing a bass line that's like an Eddie Van Halen solo.

The tunes were all solid, which was especially impressive since half of the set was the new album they just released, their first in 5 years or so.  They played Dead Cowboy, which is one of the best, and probably the quintessential LB song.


If you watch that and you don't think "Jesus christ this guy wrote a treatise on THIS shit?" you'll need to see them basically immediately.  Which isn't possible, since I'm pretty sure their tour is ending soon so it'll be awhile till their next show.  But THE NEXT SHOW, go.  It'll be worth it for the experience.  Just bring ear plugs or something.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

My (Shamefully Belated) Favorite Albums of 2014

Little known fact: back in 2007, my colleagues and I at my college newspaper, The Lawrentian, were the first people to ever publish a "Best Albums of the Year" list. See? Literally the first. I remember thinking: "Wow, what an innovative idea! So many albums were released this year! Why not rank the ten best ones! How has absolutely not a single person thought of this before?" And the rest is history. Now, seemingly everyone and their mother publishes a "Best Albums of the Year" list. Even the New York Times got into the game last year! How wacky is that?!

Commonly known fact: I am terrible at making posts on this blog in a timely fashion. But, in the interest of carrying on this storied tradition, I still wanted to share my list of favorite albums from last year with the masses (Webster's Dictionary recently amended the definition of "the masses" to mean "six people"). Typically, I write blurbs about most of the albums, but it is already early April and I am engrossed in what has been a really good year for music here in 2015. So, I am not feeling too motivated to write at length about these albums right now. However, I will still share a few words about the top five because I am just that generous. Here's the list:

Honorable Mentions:
Spoon, Ex Hex, Hundred Waters, Protomartyr

20-6
20. Parquet Courts- Sunbathing Animal
19. Aphex Twin- Syro
18. Cloud Nothings- Here and Nowhere Else
17. Future Islands- Singles
16. Lydia Loveless- Somewhere Else
15. Caribou- Our Love
14. Todd Terje- It's Album Time
13. Sun Kil Moon- Benji
12. St. Vincent- St.Vincent
11. Mac DeMarco- Salad Days
10. Swans- To Be Kind
9. Strand of Oaks- Heal
8. Ty Segall- Manipulator
7. Real Estate- Atlas
6. Perfume Genius- Too Bright

5. Grouper- Ruins

This album of atmospheric, mostly piano and voice songs is absolutely beautiful. And as long as Webster's Dictionary is making amendments, they might as well put a picture of Grouper's Liz Harris right next to the word "ethereal." This album also includes the lo-fi moment of the year thanks to the microwave oven beep that occurs near the end of "Labyrinth."

4. Angel Olsen- Burn Your Fire For No Witness

On March 12th, 2012, my sister sent me an email entitled "do you know her music?" and a link to "If It's Alive, It Will" from Angel Olsen's debut cassette, Strange Cacti. I was immediately transfixed by Ms. Olsen's unique voice. Since then, it has been a pleasure to watch her improve with each subsequent release, including her first full-length (and what records indicate was my third favorite album of 2012), Halfway Home. 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness marked a step forward in nearly every facet of her music-- from the production (courtesy of indie rock's preeminent superproducer, John Congleton), to the song-writing itself, which covered wider ground than Halfway Homes' collection of mostly sparse folk songs. On Witness, Olsen wears the hat of both rocker and bar room balladeer, while still including a healthy mix of lovely folk numbers. Truly outstanding music from one of the most intriguing singer-songwriters to come around in quite some time.

3. Sharon Van Etten- Are We There

This album was the surprise of the year for me. I already was a fan of Van Etten's music, courtesy of yet another fantastic recommendation from my sister shortly after she released Epic in 2011. Like the aforementioned Angel Olsen, Van Etten has a wonderful singing voice and a natural talent for creating hauntingly beautiful songs littered with heartbreak. However, I felt that her 2012 album Tramp was a disappointment-- sounding overproduced and flat at times and not living up to Epic's promise. The songs themselves on Tramp were still good, but something was missing. In what was surely a devastating occurrence for Ms. Van Etten, it failed to make my list of twenty favorite albums of 2012. To my delight, Van Etten's self-produced Are We There not only improved upon its predecessor significantly, it also marks easily her finest album to date. Not exactly an uplifting listen, the album finds Van Etten struggling through a broken relationship. The songs range from sweeping epics like "Your Love is Killing Me" to understated ballads like "I Know, with Van Etten consistently succeeding in captivating me during both the album's sparse and more bombastic moments. She also effectively translated these songs to a live setting, performing a powerful set that was a highlight of last year's Pitchfork Music Festival.

2. D'Angelo and the Vanguard- Black Messiah

Though Sharon Van Etten's Are We There was my personal surprise of the year, D'Angelo's third album was the shock of the music industry last December-- not due to its quality, but because of its unexpectedly abrupt release after more than a decade of waiting from D'Angelo's fans (his last album was the 2000 neo-soul classic Voodoo). Prior to 2012, I only knew D'Angelo as the dude with the ripped abs from the "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" music video that received ample airtime back in my halcyon days of obsessively watching VH1. Then, I attended the Bonnaroo music festival that summer, and I had the pleasure of seeing D'Angelo make his first U.S. concert appearance in 12 years as part of a "Superjam" led by Questlove of The Roots. D'Angelo's appearance was concealed from fans until the moment Questlove announced his name and he walked on stage. I remember merely thinking "huh, neat." However, it was not long before I realized I was witnessing something truly special-- a genius musician returning to the fold and in better form than when he left the public eye following Voodoo. In the interim, my fellow Bonnaroo-goers and I soon learned, D'Angelo had spent a significant amount of time sharpening his guitar and piano playing skills-- leading the Superjam band (made up of many of his Black Messiah collaborators) through an unforgettable set of funky covers by The Beatles, Funkadelic, Led Zeppelin, The Time, and others. Suffice to say, I was instantly converted and have been eagerly anticipating whatever music D'Angelo would put out next-- hoping it would capture the magic of that Bonnaroo set. Amazingly, when Black Messiah finally dropped, I was not let down in the slightest. The album is a complete triumph on every level, with the songs brimming with creativity. Black Messiah is a politically-charged album that clearly owes a debt to classics such as Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On and yet manages to simultaneously sound fresh and, most of all, vital. Turns out that after nearly 15 years out of the spotlight, D'Angelo has a lot to say about the state of the world. He soundtracks his thoughts with songs that are weird, beautiful, and, of course, funky. An astonishing record that should hold up as a classic.

1. The War on Drugs- Lost In The Dream

At 2:12 PM on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014 I declared, via the prestigious platform of a gchat conversation with my friend Bob, that Lost In The Dream was Album of the Year for 2014. 13 months later, that statement holds true. After typing up that glowing D'Angelo review above I had to think hard about whether Black Messiah deserved the number one slot. But nope, Lost In The Dream is still the album that affected me most last year, probably due to it being genetically engineered to appeal to my taste in music. Their sound was already firmly within my wheelhouse by 2011's Slave Ambient. In what is probably my favorite sentence I have ever read on Pitchfork, they described The War on Drugs' music thusly while reviewing that record: "It's as if the Spiritualized and Springsteen albums filed alphabetically next to one another in your record collection had melted together on a hot August afternoon." That description is still apt, but with Lost in the Dream the band's songwriting took a gigantic leap forward. They announce themselves in a big way with 9-minute opener "Under the Pressure," which barrels ahead with a chugging piano line and epic Mark Knopfler-style guitar soloing. That song cedes to "Red Eyes," which would be the best Springsteen song since "Tunnel of Love" if only it had been written by The Boss himself ("Burning," which sounds like a Born in the USA outtake, would be in the running as well). The album never lets up from there, interspersing plaintive ballads with driving rockers like "An Ocean Between the Waves" (with that song's extended outro providing the best moment on the entire album). Though their sound clearly harkens back to rock luminaries of years past, with this album The War on Drugs manage to channel those influences into something completely unique and exhilarating. An endlessly rewarding listen, Lost In The Dream was the album I most often found myself returning to in 2014.