Category Archives: Have You Heard?

The 10 Best Albums of 2016 (So Far)

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s been a strange year for music, with the loss of legends and one essentially recording his own epitaph. Yet it’s also been a year of gifts – of rollicking country and an unexpected comeback from a band many had given up on, of Mayan hip-hop and gothic folk songs. My number one album of the year (so far) is from a woman whose heartbreaking work I feel stands at the juncture of Nirvana and Neutral Milk Hotel.

So let’s dive in:

10. Gag Order – Vainhein

Vainhein (roughly translating to “heinous vanity”) started off in the San Francisco drag scene as a lip-sync performer. In the last five years, he’s moved into producing original music as Vainhein (or Vain Hein). There’s not a lot out there, but you can listen to the debut album Gag Order on the Bandcamp page.

9. Collect – 18+

18+ maintained near-total anonymity for the first three years of the band’s existence. They’re difficult to describe – a band that takes the way love and relationships are portrayed in modern music and throws the formula out. They seduce in a manner that blends carelessness with deep feeling, through music that’s deconstructed to impressionism almost to the point of falling apart before it finds its way back.

8. Pawn Shop – Brothers Osborne

Yes, this is one of the most eclectic lists I’ve ever put together. It’s a testament to just how diverse 2016’s been in music. Brothers Osborne can push out anthemic country songs at the drop of a hat, but the best part of Pawn Shop is how often they drop the love song pretense on which country too often depends. The album is wickedly varied, stopping to comically sing the praises of the pawn shop or break down into a slow one-part bayou, one-part honky-tonk testament to rum. This is the kind of country I almost never go for, but this album’s just too good.

7. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange

Blood Orange has been carrying Prince’s musical torch for a few years now, so in the year when Prince died, it’s reassuring that Dev Hynes’s band continues to explore a similarly easygoing yet soul-baring musicality. Blood Orange has never found the kind of breakout hits that Prince did – they relent when it comes to that extra edge, that musical and social insistence that Prince brought – but that’s not exactly what Blood Orange is. They slant toward chilled out.

6. Strangers – Marissa Nadler

Strangers is a step back for Marissa Nadler, but a step back for the woman is still better than the vast majority of other music that’s out there. Her July was my choice for Album of the Year in 2014. It was so patiently stirring, a masterpiece of lamenting, gothic folk. Her music sounds like a message from another time, like black-and-white footage of old funeral processions. There’s sadness and importance, even celebration, but it all feels so beautifully removed, like watching (as in her 2014 music video “Dead City Emily”) the silhouettes of lovers dance out-of-focus from behind smudged, scratched glass. It’s always someone else’s sadness, someone else’s lament, and there’s a profound sorrow in not being able to share those pains.

Her music often evokes the frustration of empathy, of witnessing pain in another yet falling short of being able to truly understand and experience it, to heal it. It’s a rare evocation in any form of art: to have your empathy evoked and stilled, to witness yet be frozen, to stand on the shoulder of that passing funeral and yet not know it. The tragedy of people passing in and out of our lives is the tragedy of their moments – the experiences that let us step outside ourselves and into the connection of loving others – traveling further and further away. Yet there’s something to that disconnection that only makes us strain all the harder to step outside ourselves again and again. Nadler’s songs and albums and career are almanacs of connections made and treasured and lost, and so her music rests right against the bones like only nostalgia and closure can.

5. Blackstar – David Bowie

I’m weird when it comes to Bowie. My favorite period rests in his late 90s/early 00s experimentation combining industrial and jazz. Not all of it worked – in fact, some of it was downright bad – but it was supremely different to anything I’d heard before. Bowie’s Blackstar will always be remembered most for how it’s written to anticipate and guide Bowie through a death he knew was coming fast.

Blackstar picks up so many musical threads throughout Bowie’s career, so many stylistic endings left unfinished, yet among those endings, he also starts new ones. He seeks to process what’s come before, to conclude much of it, yes – but he doesn’t end there. He also pushes forward into new realms, starts new musical ideas he knows he’ll never finish. This is the way to go, he seems to say in Blackstar, by saying goodbye and wrapping things up not to conclude this life, but so he can say a fresh hello to whatever life is next.

4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

Finally. Only the second album Radiohead’s released in nine years shows the time that went into it. For many, this is the first time Radiohead’s broken new ground in those nine years – while 2011’s The King of Limbs was good, it didn’t convey Radiohead’s irrepressible ambition. Maybe they fell off, we thought. Then five years passed. Maybe they disappeared. Then their site went offline. Their social media presence was pulled. Maybe that’s it, we thought. Just like that. And then A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, this whole new challenging, chaotic map of dreamlike and nightmarish places to tour.

3. Tributo a Los 20 Nawales – Balam Ajpu

This is a tribute to the 20 spirits that represent each day on the Mayan calendar. Balam Ajpu is a Guatemalan rap group that’s part of a growing movement of Mayan-language hip-hop. The verses on their album alternate between the Mayan dialect Tz’utujil and Spanish. In Guatemala, 60% of the population is Mayan, yet the country is rarely represented this way – both domestically and abroad. Hip-hop has been one way for the Mayan population to coalesce around surviving elements of Mayan culture.

Balam Ajpu combines hip-hop with a stunning number of styles and instruments. Salsa, reggae, and cumbia are all folded into the songs. The array of musical instruments and the talent behind them here is ridiculous. Guitar, cello, pan pipes, a host of drums, xylophone, and sounds from nature all underlie a patient album about spirituality and social change.

2. Not to Disappear – Daughter

Remember a moment when you failed to cope with the damn unfairness of it all. Now trap it in amber. That feeling of crashing against the shore, when you could barely hold your head up because the lump in your throat was so overwhelming. When you were numb and angry and your tears were the best act of vengeance you had against the universe. When your teeth grit and your lips quivered and your breath caught. When you sobbed and the time of day didn’t seem to matter. Daughter makes music of the moments trapped before catharsis. Thank God, because those moments could use some understanding of their own.

1. Puberty 2 – Mitski

She destroyed me in two-and-a-half minutes. Took me apart suddenly weeping. That was on track four, “Fireworks.” Then she did it again two songs later with “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” If it doesn’t share the same sound as Nirvana’s most plaintive moments, it shares the same character.

“I bet on losing dogs
I know they’re losing and I’ll pay for my place
By the ring
Where I’ll be looking in their eyes when they’re down
I’ll be there on their side
I’m losing by their side.”

Sometimes, it can be easy to feel like one of those losing dogs, still running because it’s what we know, because it’s the process – through repetition – for which we begin to believe we’ve been made. It can be the role we’ve been taught to play in relation to those around us, or the role we’ve been taught by a specific person. It can be hard to break out of being a losing dog, and to break out of the habit of betting on them. Is it an act of care to do so? Is it enabling? Can you create of someone else a losing dog?

These aren’t the questions directly posed to us, because Mitski isn’t a philosopher on her tracks. She’s the character, inhabiting every moment, and we witness every mistake, every want and need, every tiny victory and major defeat. Music often tells stories about experiences viewed through lenses, non-specifically emotive enough to be universal. That’s not what Mitski gives us. Her emotions are hers, her stories are deeply personal. It’s in the personal loss, in the impacts of defeat, in the hardening of herself to the world around, that we find connection. Her struggle to remain soft and loving despite it all is our struggle. Songs here aren’t wasted, they aren’t filled out any longer than is needed. This is an album of bare mental, emotional, and sometimes physical survival. It’s heartbreak as a way of practicing for mortality, and the resistance to heartbreak as a way of denying our mortality, the way each wears us down and builds us.

Marissa Nadler (whose Strangers I highlight above) is how I found out about Mitski. Nadler highlighted her favorite Mitski lyrics in article for The Talkhouse. This turned out to be from “Fireworks,” a melancholic take on…what, exactly? One’s own journey toward entropy? The desensitization of loss, both inside and outside oneself? That desensitization itself is a loss one must desensitize to? A lover’s simultaneous capability for support and inadequacy to heal?

“One morning this sadness will fossilize
And I will forget how to cry
I’ll keep going to work and he won’t see a change
Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye.

I will go jogging routinely
Calmly and rhythmically run
And when I find that a knife sticking out of my side
I’ll pull it out without questioning why.

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.

I will be married to silence
The gentleman won’t say a word
But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
Runs a river that’ll never find home.

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”

Mitski Miyawaki sings about surviving through entropy, about becoming a bastion and falling apart, about betting on losing dogs, about being one. I once was told that Led Zeppelin didn’t make songs, they made musical monuments. Mitski does, too…but the focus is anxiety, using, being used, giving in, being unapologetic, forgetting how to apologize to yourself, settling on how you should be treated, remembering how to treat yourself. Here are monuments to the cycle of falling apart and constructing oneself never to fall apart again, and falling apart anew, and constructing anew, ad nauseum. It stops at some point, right? The album’s called Puberty 2, and it’s not named that because she recorded a Puberty 1.

Feature image comes from Impose Magazine.

Best Better S&M Than 50 Shades of Grey (of 2014)

It’s the album form of what 50 Shades of Grey is falsely advertised to be – a space that introduces consensual danger, the heat of the taboo, that lets you inhabit the feeling of violating and being violated, the initial temptation and the inevitable boredom that comes with pushing boundaries, the resulting need to push further – like an addict or a pioneer, who knows? This is heady stuff, and it’s the debut of the band that’s nearly impossible to Google without getting in trouble:

It’s 18+ and their debut album Trust.

The duo successfully hid their identities for a year, using that mystery to propel their popularity. Their second single used crow calls for percussion. They’ve existed anonymously online longer than they have as an identified band. Their album is just as slippery to pin down.

Trust is an album about the suggestion of violation. It’s incredibly unclear about where the line between consensual fantasy and that violation starts and stops. The music itself is about the relationship between control and the lack thereof. How much is fantasy, how much is reality?

It’s not about what’s hidden in the dark just out of your sight. It’s about the experience of stepping into that dark and feeling terror give way to intrigue.

“And his bed was made,
his hair was for you.
The heart was broken, nah,
but there was nothing to do.
But you gon’ fuck it.
Baby gon’ fuck it.
Pretend that you’re happy,
I’m alone as hell,
then let’s go in circles
and then I was here,
but baby you were my world.
Sex for the wishes,
pretend that you’re happy.”

How much of this is conviction? How much is roleplay? The tone is intentionally opaque. Is it enjoyable? Is it boring? Is it torturous? Is that enjoyable? Is it enjoyable for one and not the other? Is it loving then? How much of the control is given away, and how much is taken? The album’s name is Trust – that tells us the territory being explored and, rather than giving us a safe and reassuring answer, 18+ communicates the fine balance on which that trust hangs.

The album’s informed by the same attitude that defines the excess genre (whose narco swing patron saint remains Lana Del Ray). It doesn’t seek to judge an experience from the outside or assess it for the listener. Instead, it seeks to inhabit the experience for a time, to let you see it from the inside out. To do so, it sits uncomfortably on the precipice between electronica’s tight control, R&B’s natural flow, and the dangerous (or is it tempting?) freedom of avant garde.

There are occasions where that avant garde goes overboard. It’s difficult to like every song on the album, and that’s why it’s in the top 35 and not the top 10. It’s essentially a concept album full of singles, which doesn’t quite form a full listen. Still, what it can communicate in the space of a three-minute track is nearly unparalleled, and it’s a hell of a lot better made, more enjoyable, and more…well…accurate than 50 Shades.

– Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez

Feeling dangerous? Read our entire rundown of the top 35 albums of 2014.

Best Throwing Caution to the Wind of 2014

This is our most controversial pick, even among the seven critics who selected this list. This artist, after the fame of being Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” had a road into pop superstardom paved out for her. She had the look, voice, and…well, let’s not pretend anything else matters to pop charts. Instead, she released an album that deconstructed pop from the inside out. Thankfully, it bounced off mainstream critics and landed here. Instead of the safety album that was expected, we got:

The Golden Echo by Kimbra!

In our e-mail battle over this selection, our favorite note became that Pitchfork gave The Golden Echo a 4.3 out of 10. We got a real kick out of that. From their review, we really would’ve thought they’d give it a 4.458 or an f(x)=n^3-p, but there’s just no accounting for taste these days.

Look, Pitchfork got one thing right, and that’s comparing Kimbra’s approach to pop to Janelle Monae’s. This is not an album built for review. It’s an answer to the ones that are. It’s an album built for listening, for dancing, for realizing you feel like you’re trapped in the Matrix if you dare listen to ordinary pop afterward.

Most accurately, it’s an album built by Kimbra for Kimbra to celebrate the music Kimbra loves: 90s hip hop, disco, jazz, R&B. The result sounds like the collaboration Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, David Byrne, and Sia never could have made, and that’s before you get to the Kate Bush section of the album. There is no concession here to what the audience might want or expect. It all sounds straight from the artist, unabridged.

Those of us who are fans (three of us put this in our top tens, three of us refused to even list it) have the sneaking suspicion that The Golden Echo will only climb in estimation over time, a breath of cult future pop well ahead of its time. If Kimbra continues on this path, The Golden Echo may one day be viewed as the moment an incredible career made a crucial change.

For now, some will remember The Golden Echo as a 4.3. And some will listen to it with the obsessiveness we only reserve for the artists who most provoke our imagination as to what music can become.

– Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Olivia Smith & Gabriel Valdez

If you want to see what else we’re listing in our Top 35 albums of 2014, take a look.

Best More is More of 2014

Helms Alee

Radiohead hasn’t released an album since 2011. Porcupine Tree hasn’t made one since 2009. Tool? 2006. At the Drive-In, 2000. This album isn’t like any of theirs. That’s fortunate, since those four bands aren’t much alike. And yet…it is very interested in finding new routes to some of the same places we shared with them.

It’s Sleepwalking Sailors by Helms Alee!

Yesterday, Gabe wrote about building musical monuments by being gentle, welcoming, and singing about bluebirds. Turns out you can also build musical monuments by screaming at the carcasses of your enemies.

Who knew?

Sleepwalking Sailors is the best, most enjoyably complicated metal album this year. It’s filled with ideas from other genres, built from catchy hooks that don’t stay long before they’re yanked out for something new. In its own way, Helms Alee has made the metal equivalent of an indie rock album.

“New West” is a favorite of ours. It announces itself as if we’ve caught it in slow motion, mid action, before turning to balance guitar hooks that shift like sand against vocals only passingly interested in the dominant key. Bridges informed by speed metal lead to vocals that would sound perfectly at home in a Tears for Fears album if every other phrase weren’t screamed. It’s a vocally genius performance that shouldn’t work from Hozoji Margullis (also the drummer), with Ben Verellen on screams.

Joining them is bassist Dana James (who also sings), but it rarely feels as if this is only a three-person job. It’s not just their musical heaviness that would make you think this. Every song travels through genres and architectures, informed not just by heavy metal but by 80s pop, English alternative, post-hardcore, and even swing and surf rock.

Take “Slow Beef,” for instance, and not just because that’s a funny phrase to say. “Slow Beef” opens with a relaxed swing phrase before a moment of thinking it might be speed metal when it grows up. Then it plays off the broader chords of each musical phrase to transition into a two-minute ambient soundscape. At the two-minute mark, there’s a blink and you’ll miss it shift into a detached, drums-and-vocal landscape reminiscent of dream rock bands like Esben and the Witch. It’s bridged to a briefly traditional guitar solo by an intercession of math rock. Underneath attacking guitars and roiling drums, its last minute is gently re-framed by an underlying synth-pop background that comes straight from The Cure.

It should all seem like a seven year-old making up a story on the fly: “And then, and then, and then.” It should be too much too quickly. Instead, it’s all so well constructed, each phrase and shift contributing to an atmospheric whole, that even when the changes in tempo and instrumentation are violently sudden, they feel seamless.

Helms Alee also brings up something crucial about the music industry: indigenous artists aren’t just overlooked, they’re entirely ignored. Some are making the best and most challenging music out there today, folding new techniques and modern genres into musical traditions that survive because of their strengths in telling stories. You can’t lump indigenous artists into a single category and say they share the same approach, but you can look at the industry, wonder why they’re missing on every page, on every site, in every video that gets pushed, and correct that mistake by acknowledging a broader range of fantastic music that’s being made.

We’ll be doing a whole lot more of that in this Best of 2014 list, by the way.

– S.L. Fevre, Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez

Best Less is More of 2014

One of the hardest things to capture in poetry is a moment of beauty. Come on too strong, and it becomes cliché. Approach the moment too softly, and no one has any idea what you’re getting at. The key lies not in judging the moment for your audience, but in creating a space that accepts every interpretation they might have. You have to welcome to your most personal moments people you don’t know the first thing about.

Today we feature Bluebird by Dawn Landes.

Never heard of her? Elegant is an understatement. Landes’s ability to evoke emotion in the space of a note change is rare. I remember NME criticizing Bluebird early in 2014 as “too nice” and lacking “grit.” It is too nice. It’s not interested in grit. The song “Bluebird” is about watching a bluebird. “Bloodhound” is about encountering a bloodhound on a forest trail. Sometimes these things don’t need to be complicated. You know how much nice music there is that’s still accomplished and evocative? Not much.

“Try to Make a Fire Burn Again” fills a void I hadn’t realized artists like Jewel and Natalie Merchant had left. A personal ballad about the kind of yearning you bravely keep quiet around company, it perfectly captures the essence of struggling to comprehend a romantic loss. There’s a peace to Landes’s struggle, however, an acceptance that understanding it completely might be counterproductive. It’s a mature quality lost in the industry’s more melodramatic love songs.

“Bloodhound” captures a southern gothic bluegrass that takes most artists into swampy, dark material. Landes keeps it light, and the balance between those darker, gothic hues and the lighter Americana tones feels like the song equivalent of dappled shadow on a warm day in the woods. You can compare it to Patty Griffin or Joanna Newsom, but it’s less self-serious about reflection, enjoying the moment rather than getting wrapped up in it.

The first four songs on Bluebird are as strong a start as any album had in 2014. If there’s a masterpiece in them, it’s the last of these, the soft “Heel Toe.” It treads into the echoing, empty stage sound of Neko Case that makes a song serene and haunting at the same time.

What’s best about Landes is that – while there are a ton of supporting instrumentals here – they restrain themselves from stepping on each other. They don’t overwhelm her voice, there’s zero wall of sound to compete with here. You can tell what each player is doing, the musical space he or she takes up, and appreciate how each instrumental intersects.

And that’s what I like about Landes. Those individual instrumentations, her voice, the clarity of it all, gives her songs a tremendous sensory quality. I can close my eyes and feel so much more than just the sound.

In this, her songs act as musical monuments, if such gentle songs can be called monuments. I can inhabit her songs in a way I fail to inhabit many moments anymore. I’m writing this on a computer looking at a screen. Her songs feel like the wind and the sun on my face, the rustle of the trees overhead, the possibility of quiet moments of peace – even during the frustrating parts of life – that I don’t allow myself as often as I should. Landes gives us bookmarks for individual thoughts and moments, and they allow me to ever-so-briefly transport myself into them.

I compare Landes to more accomplished artists – Jewel, Merchant, Griffin, Newsom, Case – because I think she covers a remarkable amount of territory by creating clear, “nice” music. I like my grit more than most, but I don’t think I could inhabit Landes’s songs if they weren’t this kind and welcoming. There’s no judgment in her music. There’s just acceptance. That’s nearly impossible for an artist to capture.

– Gabriel Valdez

This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.

Best Gothic Chamberpop of 2014

Those are some funky pajamas. Is that really what you wear to bed? Sorry, we were just watching you sleep, and we couldn’t help but notice you’re not listening to anything in particular. Might we recommend something perfect for you?

We’re talking about Loom by Fear of Men!

What is chamber pop? It’s more commonly called baroque pop and its eternal kings forever and ever are Belle & Sebastian. They’re great to fall asleep to in your ugly pajamas, too, but sometimes they don’t know when to stop feigning ironic disinterest. Listing Ship, Widowspeak, God Help the Girl, the list of bands that make quality chamber pop goes on and on, but few master the balance between the crisp reality of the waking world and the airy quality of dreams.

That’s what Fear of Men gets so right, and how they get it so right relies on a marriage of talent that recalls that most legendary of British mood generators, The Smiths. The same way perfectly named Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr created broad sonic architectures that contrasted against Morrissey’s viciously precise lyrics, Fear of Men guitarist Daniel Falvey creates optimistic, surprisingly uptempo riffs that contrast with Jessica Weiss’s dour, downtempo lyrics.

The result is a weird synergy that invokes the beautiful dissonance in dreams.

You can’t easily select a single song from Loom to stand above the others – it all runs together so perfectly as one piece.

“Waterfall” (at the very top of this article) is a terrific example, however – it jumps straight in at full speed, Falvey’s guitar blazing ahead while Weiss keeps pace at a despondent meander. Michael Miles on drums and Becky Wilkie on bass fill out the sound as the music builds into a final sonic realization that isn’t a typical fadeaway, but a relaxing crescendo. See? Relaxing crescendo. That doesn’t even exist!

“America” starts off as straightforward baroque pop, but it similarly builds across four-and-a-half minutes into something fuller. And yet, the more instrumentation adds in, the lighter the entire construction becomes.

“Atla” is a beautifully soft two minutes that embraces a wistful paradigm: “If you never leave me, I’ll never understand you. Cause I’ll never know what I could have been without you.”

Relaxing crescendos, orchestrations that lighten as they triple in size, and a final paradox describing in one sentence the difficulty of love. All impossibilities in reality, but Fear of Men exists in a dream. Somehow, they’ve found their way across to us. Impossible. Just like how ugly your pajamas are.

– Cleopatra Parnell & Gabriel Valdez

This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.

Best Thing From Iceland of 2014

Our own Vanessa Tottle wrote up this artist a few months back for our Have You Heard series. Her response to his music was so moving and self-defining a piece of writing that there’s no better tribute to the album than to reproduce Vanessa’s original article here.

Yes, you guessed it. The Best Thing From Iceland of 2014 is In the Silence by Asgeir.

In Vanessa’s words:

I press myself hard because I have a shadow chasing me. I wish others could lift it for me, but have you ever tried lifting a shadow off the ground? I’ve lived with myself 25 years and I can only ever lift it momentarily. When I do, it’s often because of music.

I wallow in the darker shades – industrial, goth, aggro – because it’s harder to see your shadow in the dusk. I’m being asked to lead people now, often in other countries. That darkness gives me edge – I don’t take shit.

But when you’re in the field three weeks straight, dealing with mud and broken jeeps and some intern fracturing a fossil the earth itself couldn’t break despite millions of years at it…people don’t need my edge. They need someone who can help them pick their own dark shadows up off the ground. How can I do that when I can barely carry my own? If all I do is lend them dusk, I won’t even see where their shadow starts and ends.

If music is important for someone well-adjusted, and can still lend them greater peace or make them weep, imagine for a second what it means for someone who doesn’t know peace when they cannot stop crying.

Sometimes I am weak like that for reasons I can’t tell. Sometimes I am strong and unassailable for reasons I can’t tell. Music helps me find whatever I am missing in the moment.

Asgeir makes the music I play for beauty. It helps light the shadows for me. It helps me circle the evening campfire to make sure everyone is all right, to stay up late and make sure the rain doesn’t wash us out, to fix the jeep at 2 a.m. myself, to tell enough stories to the intern that she laughs and can go to bed with some peace.

This doesn’t say much about Asgeir, but it says everything I know how to say about his music. One in ten Icelanders owns his album, In the Silence, written with his elderly father. He doesn’t lift the shadows with happiness. This is not music that pretends to fix everything. There is a weary burden under its surface. That is how I understand it. “Happiness” isn’t the right word for Asgeir. “Serenity” is. He recognizes the shadows and sits down among them.

Sometimes I will play him softly late at night, when the weather is dry, so the whole camp can hear. I think they understand what I mean to say by this. When I listen to him in my headphones, I feel as if carrying my shadow is noble. When I play him to the camp, we feel as if helping carry each others’ shadows is noble.

– Vanessa Tottle

This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.