Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best of 2015

Last year my best-of was a bit overboard. So for 2015 I decided to scale things back a bit. I’m also over four months late with this. There are reasons (excuses) why it took me so long, but they’re not important. Here are my favorite records from last year, with the top 20 ranked as best as I was able. Some honorable mentions follow after. As usual I have a little playlist at the bottom to hear for yourself.

Top Twenty

1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly: If I had to pick a single best record of the year, this would probably be it. It’s such an incredibly complete statement, both on a personal and a societal level. This record is not directed towards me. I’m not the intended audience, and I’m okay with that. TPAB is a document of what it meant to be young, gifted and black in the year 2015. However, even though Kendrick is a product of Compton, like other artists before him, he is too much of distinct individual to truly identify with his hometown. Like Dylan and Hibbing, the Beatles and Liverpool, Springsteen and Freehold Borough, or Ice Cube and Compton, for that matter – Kendrick understands the people from the city that formed him, but at the same time stands apart from them. He’s special. For this reason, anyone relate to this record as a personal journey of searching for oneself in relationship to where you’re from. Musically this record moves all over the board. The cuts are strung together with a spoken word piece that gets extended as the album progresses. In the end it becomes apparent that the entire spiel in an introduction to a staged conversation between Kendrick and Tupac. It’s the concept the album’s conceit hangs on, building an album as a series of responses to your hero. The album can be incredibly inviting (the bounce anthem, “King Kunta”) or challenging (the complex and draining, “u”). The music and the lyrics would have made this a good record no matter who the M.C. was. The fact that Kendrick’s rasp of voice is what it is makes this a classic. It’s a voice of immediate integrity, authority, and emotional reality. His voice is what sets him apart from everyone else working now.
2. Kamasi Washington – The Epic: My number two record of the year is the appropriately titled, The Epic. Kamasi is a musician that has been bubbling under the surface for the past decade playing with a number of jazz and R&B stars. Recently, he’s played on Flying Lotus’ “You’re Dead,” Thundercat’s latest EP, and Kendrick’s TPAB. This three-CD set can seem overwhelming on first listen. Not only is it a huge chunk of music to absorb, but the breadth of the material is expansive. Everything from modal post-bop, symphonic jazz psychedelia, salsa-inflected funk, and gospel-infused soul jazz is covered here. One of the best places to start with this one is “Leroy and Lanisha,” which I think stands a shot at becoming a future standard. The tune features two fantastic melodies in a call and response between the trombone and the sax that sound like the interplay of young lovers caught in a summer romance. The mid-point builds to a frenetic boil before the piano takes a solo leading back into the main theme. Not only is it catchy, but it swings like crazy. And even though it's tuneful and you can dance to it, the solos really push the corners. The exploratory lines are dynamic and full of joy. This isn't just academic noodling. It feels like Washington put everything he had in him in this record, as if he didn’t believe he would have another chance to lead another session and he wanted to put it all out there. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a long, storied career.

3. Shamir – Ratchet: Shamir rounds out my top three with another young African American voice. Shamir’s voice, however, speaks from a perspective of non-binary gender which his countertenor suits perfectly. In his early 20s, hailing out of Las Vegas, Shamir Bailey is a quick wit with huge personality. You could solidly classify Shamir in some kind of disco or house tradition, but it’s not that simple. Take the song, “Darker,” for instance. The intro comes from a sample of Scratch Acid’s “Owner’s Lament” that’s used in a way that feels honest and completely organic. This is music that can be as informed by 80s indie scuzz rock as it is by Green Velvet. The album treads the same terrain as the misfit disco of Hercules & Love Affair and Planningtorock. This debut is self-assured, wonderfully produced, and stylistically broad within its genre. There’s not a weak track here.

4. Smokey – How Far Will You Go?: Technically all of the music on this collection was recorded before the 80s. That said, most of it has never been released in any format, and the little that was, sold next to nothing outside of a local cult following in L.A. Besides, “Piss Slave” (hitherto unreleased) was maybe the best thing I heard all year. I can’t really articulate why it resonates with me so much, but maybe it’s that I’ve never heard a voice from the margins sound so bold and cocky. There is no apology, no shame in this music. Smokey doesn’t intend to provoke or shock by trading in what society has deemed transgressive. They are just a duo earnestly expounding the transformative joy of watersports. Aside from the act being described, this song is a sister to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The same unfettered joy exists in it. And yet, as one friend put it after I turned him on to this record, the line “I want to be your toilet” makes the Sex Pistols sound like the Monkees. I realize that imbuing this song with such significance makes me come off like some lowbrow Barthes-wannabe discussing some sleazy disco track like it was “Sarrasine.” Oh well. Smokey was utterly fearless about what and who they were. By comparison, they make Erasure sound a timid and Coil seem like naive schoolboys. Aside from all of the cultural importance of this group, the songs and music are genuinely compelling. Both Randy Rhoads (Ozzy) and the Stooges’ James Williamson went through Smokey’s ranks at one point. Lead vocalist, the eponymous Smokey, is one of the best, underheard singers from the 70s. With his golden croon and Shaun Cassidy looks, he could have been a huge arena rock star. Thankfully, he chose his own path.

5. Myrkur – M: This is my pick for the metal album of the year. A lot of noise was made over Ghost’s Meliora, but that album was like a Satanic version of a Christian rock band - devoted and kind of lame. Myrkur put a new spin on metal and points a new path forward. A mix of Scandinavian apocalyptic folk, black metal, and Dead Can Dance, this is heavy, but has clear separation in the arrangements - it’s orchestrated. Good metal needs good arrangements otherwise everything is swallowed in a tunnel of mid-range fudge. Think of the open void in Sabbath’s music, of Metallica’s Wagnerian choir of riffs, of Iron Maiden’s dual lead guitars over Steve Harris’ galloping bass. Myrkur’s music is both high gothic and pagan witch rites. M is alternately haunting, pretty, unexpected, dynamic, and super heavy - a mix of folk instrumentation and electric distortion. Whereas most metal bands sound like they were produced in an underground bunker with carpet on the walls, M sounds like it was recorded in a glass cathedral on the edge of a Scandinavian lake at night under the northern lights.

6. White Reaper – White Reaper Does It Again: I know I’ve said multiple times in the past few years that white rock dudes aren’t doing it for me anymore. Well, there will always be room in my heart for the type of scuzzy loud-fast-rules-with-hooks rock that these gents serve up. It’s the same kind of hyperactive fun perfected by The Buzzcocks, The Dickies, and Jay Reatard, but it’s well done and with things as heavy as they are in the world it’s sometimes helpful to hear this kind of snotty, adenoidal adolescence. The buried, FM-fuzz vocal production gets my goat, but the melodies are top notch.

7. Colin Stetson/Sarah Neufeld – Never Were the Way She Was: There is a bit of a stunt component to Colin Stetson’s records. He’s like the David Blaine of the saxophone, setting out to produce an incredible effect through sheer endurance and perseveration of will. This kind of feat-driven showcase is not necessarily a guarantee for good music - entertainment maybe, but art requires more. Luckily Stetson usually employs this rigorous aesthetic discipline towards serving smart, well-thought-out concepts. For the uninitiated, Stetson makes records that are essentially solo saxophone recorded live with no overdubs, only an elaborate microphone setup to capture his non-stop sheets of sound that are achieved through a Rahsaan Roland Kirk-style of circular breathing. It’s a hard-won trick that creates a web of sound that infers more musicians than there are. This time out Stetson brings in fellow Arcade Fire collaborator, violinist Sarah Neufeld, which immediately broadens the sonic palette. Neufeld’s arpeggios, drones, and vocalizations bring fresh context for Stetson’s playing. This is an incredibly moody, bewitching record. It’s not the kind of record you’d play in the car with the windows rolled down. It’s a gorgeous bummer, but worth the time.

8. Low - Ones and Sixes: Low often get overlooked by the national press because they are unassuming, low-key by nature, and so consistently good that it’s actually almost boring. The new wrinkle on this one is the electronic rhythms. It’s not Stephen Hague-type stuff, more Young Marble Giants. Otherwise it’s just a really great set of songs – their best, in my opinion, since 2005’s The Great Destroyer. I’m probably wrong in this last assertion. I probably just need to go back and listen to the last few records again. Low have a way of sneaking up on you. Their songs have a weight to them that is completely missing in popular music right now. There is a durability baked into their songs that bucks any kind of trend or fad. And regardless of what type of arrangement or production the albums feature, the centerpiece is always the blend of Alan and Mimi’s voices. Their two voices are beautiful independently, but nearly devastating together, like a current update Richard and Linda Thompson. It seems silly to list highlights, but my faves are “No Comprende,” “Into You,” “What Part of Me,” and “Lies.” The performances are so convincing it’s hard not to read real life into their songs, but the implication would be that these two have one of the darkest relationships in pop music. “Lies,” in particular, paints a brutal picture of two people who know each other inside and out.

9. U.S. Girls – Half Free: There is a sinister mood to this record which is immediately present on first listen. The songs’ arrangements and production span a wide swath of styles. Opener “Sororal Feelings” sounds like the Ronettes on quaaludes. “Damn That Valley” is death disco dub. “Sed Knife” is a deceptively buoyant, chunk of punk/glam rock. “Navy & Cream” is their version of an NPG Prince song. “Telephone Play No. 1” is like a nightmare Honeymooners skit. My two favorite tunes are “Window Shades” (think Saint Etienne) and “Woman’s Work.” The latter is a haunting warning of giving into the cult of beauty that women are raised into. The entire record sounds politically feminist in a way that is implicitly understood rather than explicitly overstated. It’s all the more powerful for it.

10. The Staves – If I Was: A trio of three British women, two of whom are sisters, The Staves sound like a modern update on Kate and Anna McGariggle. In fact, this is what I wish the McGariggle sisters had actually sounded like. Lots of close harmony singing on deck here, and sometimes there’s very little else as on the beautifully stark, “No Me, No You, No More.” The production is handled by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and occasionally a full rhythm section, electric guitar, strings, and horns appear to lift the tracks outside of their folk environs. I’m not a folk music purist, so this doesn’t bother me a bit. The overall result falls for me somewhere between Heart and the Unthanks. Maybe it’s the album cover’s fault, but this record sounds like it should be listened to in a cabin in the woods during the winter. It’s warm in a close, hearth-hearkening way.

11. Ghost Culture – Ghost Culture: As the review I wrote last year (but only recently posted) mentions, this record is Matthew Dear-lite. I’m still listening to it over a year later which means it’s a keeper even if it’s a facsimile of something else. What strikes me now is the quiet vulnerability in James Greenwood’s voice. Dear’s voice is that of the black box out of a downed phantom 747. Greenwood is just a slightly sad-sounding guy, and that makes him slightly more relatable, if not as awe-inspiring.

12. LoneLady – Hinterland: The title track of this album is easily one of my top ten tracks of the year. The rest of the record holds up as well, but “Hinterland” is far and away the best. It’s a funky blend of chicken-scratch rhythm guitar, cello, synth bass, and atonal “Boys Keep Swinging” lead breaks that builds to an anthemic chorus. My reference points for this Manchester musician, Julie Campbell, are early Sinead O’Connor (Lion and the Cobra), Bush Tetras, Gang of Four, and A Certain Ratio. She’s supported Wire on tour which is a good musical fit. Although this album feels very “80s,” Campbell gets closer to the heart of her inspirations in a way that her recent peers miss. It’s a fun, spiky, rock record that makes you want to dance. Hopefully her next record won’t take five years to come out as it did for this and her also-good debut.

13. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats – Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats: I liked Nathaniel Rateliff’s previous records which were very different from this one. Rateliff has moved away from the warm, molasses folk tunes of his early work to a complete rock & soul review sound. On those first, more intimate records Rateliff could work his voice up to a throaty passion, but here he belts out soulfully along with his new horn section. He’s so successful with it, I almost feel like it’s a bit of an overly calculated move made by a talented guy who knows exactly the kind of record that would make an NPR music critic drool. So despite its overt canniness, I can still get behind the crowd-pleasing fare on offer here. The songs are good, the singing pretty great, and the production and arrangements are at a Daptone level if not an Eddie Hinton level.

14. Soko – My Dreams Dictate My Reality: There’s an almost precocious, romantic earnestness to this record. It’s deeply uncool, but that doesn’t really matter. The fact that she’s French might explain some of it, but maybe that’s too easy as well. If you watch her “What’s in My Bag?” segment you’ll get the idea of what I’m talking about. “Oceans of Tears” sounds like a Girls track that doesn’t have its tongue in its cheek. The record has more of a Springsteen as filtered through Conor Oberst vibe. The levels of reverb, delay, and chorus (as well as the vocalisms) give away that she really likes The Cure, but doesn’t quite have a sense of the larger cultural context of that band. I almost hear a bit of Lene Lovich, yet not nearly as much fun. So, sure, Soko comes off a bit awkward, but it’s kind of endearing. She’s got a great sense of melody and a lot of energy which makes it easy to forgive the seriousness.

15. Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe (Deluxe w/ Amber Light): I admit this record leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth though due in no part to the music or the artist. Shortly after buying this record I left the second bonus disc of Amber Light in a rental car in Portland after playing it all the way back from Cannon Beach. I wonder if the next renter of that Toyota Yaris discovered it and what assumptions they made about me based on listening to it. What a weird and random disc to discover. In all fairness, this a terrific set whether purchased as the single Silver Globe or as the deluxe edition with The Amber Light included. Weaver’s previous records were outsider folk, but this is forward-looking Krautrock-inspired trance rock. The eight-minute Stereolab-like motorik of “Argent” is a good litmus test for whether or not this is your thing.

16. Petite Noir – La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful: This South African artist’s first record sounds like if Theophilus London fronted TV on the Radio. Comparisons could also be made to Peter Gabriel or Tears for Fears as well. It’s big, dramatic rock music with African rhythms, 80s synths, and romantic crooning over the top. It’s the kind of record that will slip through the cracks because it doesn’t fit neatly into the preconceived expectations of different audiences. I found the copy I bought in the R&B section of my local record store. This is more an indication of how Yannick Ilunga’s (the man behind the name) record company has chosen to market the record (if you can really call such a burial “marketing”). This is a rock record, and a good one. The peak is “Seventeen (Stay),” a seven minutes of mid-tempo, romantic, yearning new wave. The rest of the record is of a piece with that song - a strong debut from a new artist.

17. Arcs – Yours, Dreamily: Dan Auerbach makes me feel like a chump. I like this in spite of my gut telling me I shouldn’t, as if I should know better. Like Nathaniel Rateliff, I feel there’s a cheat to this - like I’m being sold some second-hand goods with great presentation and packaging. Auerbach is great at creating very likeable records (both on his own or with the Black Keys), but they generally have never held up to multiple listens for me. Only his lone solo album has stayed with me and I think that’s due to its simplicity. His productions, both for his own records and for other artists, have become slick and predictable. There’s very little in the way of surprises or rough edges. Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my old age. Everything on here sounds good and there are a lot of hooks, it’s just that I don’t feel a personal connection with it. I want him to do something unexpected like make something proggy along the lines of Jethro Tull. I think he’d do a great job with that, but I’m probably the only one.

18. Christine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens: Not much to say about this one. It’s just a nice synth pop record from a French artist. It gives me some of the same vibe as last year’s La Roux record although I like that record way more. I also hear them drawing influence from the last couple of records from Astra. The arrangements are smart, the songs are tuneful, and leader, Héloïse Letissier, has a nice voice. This is the kind of album and the kind of artist that might sneak up on me on their next record. It might also disappear off my radar completely within a few years. Even in that capacity it holds interest for me the same way as other too-often forgotten French favorites like Poni Hoax and Joakim do. It may be one of those records I rediscover from time to time.

19. Fort Romeau – Insides: I’m not sure  what it is about this guy’s records that I dig. There are a lot of people who make lush house music like this. You can actually picture people dancing to it rather than just hanging out in a living room bobbing their heads. At the same time, this is still more cerebral and less dramatic and funky than say, Metro Area, but it still makes for a nice listen. The tracks all hang together well and sound like a real album rather than just a collection of 12” singles which makes it a nice record for driving around in the car at night. Like the Ghost Culture record, Insides, is in some ways yet another Matthew Dear surrogate in terms of tone and mood, if not personality and arrangement.

20. Shilpa Ray – Last Year’s Savage: The rockers on this one are what really grab me. When Ray cuts loose, like on “Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp,” she sounds as lethal as Debbie Harry on “Detroit 442.” And while the song titles indicate that she doesn’t take herself too seriously, the Nico-nodding harmonium featured all over the album creates a very morose and heavy atmosphere that’s truly hypnotic. The album starts with two of these slow burners which maybe is what makes it seem like the record takes a little to kick in. The whole album is obsessed with sex and death in the same way Nick Cave’s work is (Nick was an early advocate of Shilpa Ray). The album centerpiece, “Nocturnal Emissions,” has one of my favorite lyrics of the year (won’t tell you which one). The album lacks cohesion a little bit with the swing between rockers and dirges, but I can’t think of anyone else who’s making music like this right now.

Honorable Mentions

These are records that I liked a lot, but either haven’t gotten around to buying yet or still have conflicted feelings about. I may forget about them in a year or I might suddenly connect with one of them on another level later on. They’re listed here in no specific order.

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: This record was a real surprise for me. I’ve never been much of a fan of Manson’s work. The last Manson record that piqued my interest at all was Mechanical Animals. Like that record, the arrangements on The Pale Emperor have more space, the rhythm swings, and the hooks are more direct. Manson has cited Muddy Waters, the Stones, and the Doors as influences on the album. He says he’s been getting into the Blues. This isn’t a Blues record by any means, but it’s bluesy the way Danzig II: Lucifuge or Songs of Faith and Devotion are. I hear a bit of that influence along with an Alice Coooper vibe. That might sound dead-obvious since Manson’s long mined Alice’s theater-rock schtick. This time, however, Manson emulates more than just the imagery and shock tactics - the influence is musical. It’s a sleazy L.A. record. The guitar tones are as natural sounding and uncompressed as they’ve ever been on a Manson album. This is simply a tough rock record with swagger and great melodies on top. It puts it in the same vein as Queens of the Stone Age, but with its own personality. I think it’s easily his best work and it makes me wonder what a Guns ‘n’ Roses record helmed by Manson would sound like.

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion: This was the best pure pop music I heard this year. The songs are really good, the basslines pop, and the production is a perfect sheen. Allegedly, Robyn and La Roux were inspirations for Jepsen and you can hear it. When people talk about how great Taylor Swift or Katy Perry are this is the standard of music I expect, and in my opinion, they fail to meet. Jepsen isn’t just an empty pop cypher. She reminds me of Kylie Minogue on this record, and hey, it’s got saxophones on it! The singles off this are fun, but album tracks like “Gimme Love” and “Let’s Get Lost” (and half a dozen others) are easily just as good.

Blur – The Magic Whip: Reunion records are always tough. Listening to this album is a feel-good experience because it’s nice to have Graham Coxon back in the fold. There is no new direction here. In fact, the record feels like a travelogue of Blur’s various styles over the years. In all honesty none of it feels as vital, fresh, or inspired as it did the first time, but Blur are consummate craftsmen and The Magic Whip is very easy and familiar on the ears for old fans. Sometimes it’s nice to have music that doesn’t challenge, but merely and comfortably validates your personal taste.

Empress Of – Me: Just as Ghost Culture is a proxy for a new Matthew Dear album, this record kind of works for me in place of a new Astra. The main difference being that Empress Of is less of a band project than Astra, closer maybe to Imogen Heap. The singles, “Water Water” and “Kitty Kat,” are decent, but I feel the album is better represented by “How Do You Do It” and “Make Up.” The cover art is pretty boring, but otherwise a nice solid listen.

Tamaryn – Cranekiss: This is a great record for anyone with a pang for dream pop circa 1989: Cocteau Twins, Jesus & Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. There’s a lot of sweetness and light on this, however, which one doesn’t always associate with this sound. Like the Blur album, this is a comfort listen. It’s odd because although this is a new group, the familiarity breeds a kind of false nostalgia by association. As I get older I find this kind of lack of originality bothers me less and less. There’s a nagging feeling of another influence I can’t place which makes me continue to listen to try to eventually figure out that elusive influence that I can’t quite place. Someday I may hear it going through my record collection. Maybe that’s the day I stop listening to this, but until that day I might as well enjoy what’s here.

EMA – #Horror Soundtrack: I haven’t seen the movie that this record acts as soundtrack for, but I have an idea based on the very giallo-inspired recording. I really liked EMA’s Past Lives Martyred Saints, but her second didn’t move me very much. I’d be very happy if her career took a turn towards this kind of music which also has more of a Chromatics/M83 feel to it.

OST – Jodorowsky’s Dune: This is the soundtrack to the wonderful documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stupendous failed attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to the screen. Jodorowsky’s pre-production work was so thorough that the film nearly does exist in folio form cataloging production and costume designs by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, as well as meticulous storyboards illustrated by Moebius. The cast was to include Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Amanda Lear, and Salvador Dali. French prog-maestros, Magma, and Pink Floyd were set to do the music. In short, it was to be a grand science fiction masterpiece before Star Wars. This soundtrack doesn’t sound like Magma or the Floyd, but it falls into that early-Tangerine Dream/electronic prog territory. Soundtracks are best when then enhance the film they are attached to and can still stand on their own. This accomplishes both.

Danzig – Skeletons: Honestly about half of this all-covers album isn’t very good. However, there are a couple of tracks that rank as the best stuff Glenn Danzig’s done in a good long while. The lead-off version of the Cassavetes-staring, biker exploitation soundtrack tune, “Devil’s Angels,” is sublime Danzig, all ragged croon and sonic thunder. His sludgy version of ZZ Top’s “Rough Boy” is better than an Afterburner album cut has a right to be, outstripping the original by a mile. The Litter’s “Action Woman” and the Everlys’ “Crying in the Rain” are also highlights. His version of Sabbath’s “NIB,” on the hand, is not only unnecessary, but totally hilarious (“Oh yeah!”). The Pin-Ups referencing cover is pretty funny too. The best part of this release though is how raw and unfinished it is, harkening back to the simple, direct impact of those early Misfits records. More of this.

Ryan Adams – 1989: I enjoy listening to this album, but I’m conflicted about it for two reasons. The first reason is that as a cover album, no matter how good the result, in the back of my mind it feels like a gimmick. The second reason is that this gimmick features all of the things I’ve always like about Adams’ best work from 15-20 years ago that has been so lacking in his records as of late. As I mentioned in my 2014 list, it’s almost as if the more of a one-off throwaway the record is (like his Paxam singles) the more he feels free to be himself. Ironically, it’s on an album of someone else’s work that Adams’ sounds more like himself than he has in years. I think it’s the best singing he’s done since Demolition. Taylor Swift writes decent melodic hooks and Adams is smart enough to recognize a good hook when he hears one. Moreover he has strong enough skills as an editor to cut out the bits that aren’t so good. Adams reworks or omits the more cringe-worthy lyrics (no “boys only want love when it’s torture” section in “Blank Space,” for instance). Is this a better record than Taylor Swift’s? I think so. Will Adams ever write and record songs of his own this good ever again? Sadly, probably not.

Baroness – Purple: When Baroness’ first few albums came out I remember thinking they were okay, but they didn’t leave a huge impression on me. This record is making me go back and reevaluate their catalog. This is band gets closer to the kind of metal that no one outside of my head makes anymore. Lead singer, John Dyer Baizley, is the nearest I’ve found to prime-era Hetfield singing. The vocal levels alone (high in the mix) are enough to get excited, but the lack of effects on them to be able to hear the words is so nice to hear again after the last couple of decades of Cookie Monster bellows. The anthemic catchiness of this record reminds me of power metal’s righteous hooks but without the over-the-top Masters of the Universe chest-beating machismo. My only complaint is that arrangements and production give me a maximum density (no space), overly compressed 90s heavy-rock sound. The vocal melodies and riffs start to blend together too, but I’ll be paying attention more from here on out.

Lianne La Havas – Blood: This is a graceful, sophisticated British soul record that fits in with Alice Smith, Jessie Ware, Estelle, and Sade. Beautifully produced and arranged, Blood has a lush, smooth sound atop these very pretty songs. There is a touch of smooth jazz, but the melodic hooks and rhythmic pulse keep it from being smug or indulgent. The opening of “What You Don’t Do” reminds me of something I can’t place - maybe Toto’s “Hold the Line?” La Havas’ voice has tonal weight to it without being overbearing. It’s neither too light and airy or too gruff and grunty. Her clean, jazzy, finger-picked guitar work throughout the album almost reminds me of Jeff Buckley, whose vocal styling she sometimes resembles.

Thundercat – The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam EP: Potentially the only thing keeping this from actually making my list is this is just an EP. It feels a bit like a stopgap of sketches although the music is really nice, particularly “Them Changes.” Although brief, the record (16 minutes) boasts guests like Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and even Herbie Hancock. I’m excited to hear what’s next.

Recently-Missed Discovery

Ejecta/Young Ejecta – Dominae (late-2013) / The Planet EP (early-2015): Every year I come upon a record or an artist that put out records from the previous year or two that I missed or never heard about at the time. I’m inevitably missing out on something else that’s really great right now. A review of The Planet in early 2015 hipped me to Ejecta (now unfortunately Young Ejecta), and it just goes to show that there’s too much music being created now that there’s no way to stay on top of all the great stuff. Ejecta are a synthpop duo whose members come from Neon Indian and Ford & Lopatin. The EP is good, with tracks like “Welcome to Love” and “The Planet” as the standouts. The debut from over a year earlier, however, is pretty great. It’s a perfect propulsive synth-driven dance pop in the mold of early Eurythmics, OMD, and Depeche Mode. Vocalist Leanne Macomber’s voice is nice, though honestly nothing remarkable, but the melodies and the arrangements are what get me. Ejecta would suffer by a direct comparison with any of Astra’s records, but it’s still too good of a record to miss entirely. The shame is that Ejecta are probably doomed to never reach their potential due to their gimmicky presentation. Macomber performs live and in videos, and adorns their record sleeves in a near or total state of undress. It’s the kind of thing that either can be read as a brave, political or artistically symbolic gesture, or just a brazen grab for attention. Even if the former is the case, it will unfortunately be too easy for people to dismiss the group by assuming the latter. It’s too bad because the tunes are good.

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