Anticipation

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For me, one of the most exciting parts of being a record collector (and, more generally, a music fan) is taking a peek at the upcoming release schedule and counting down the days until my favourite bands release their newest works to the world. It’s one of the reasons why I feel sorry for the folks that are content to go with the flow and listen to whatever Top 40 radio or Spotify curates for them. Even though the process is nearly extinct, there’s a little spark of magic to be found in dropping by your local record store on ‘New Release’ day – it used to be Tuesdays, now it’s Fridays – and exchanging your hard-earned cash for some new musical adventures.

It certainly appears that 2017’s new release schedule will not disappoint me. Over the next few months, a bevy of artists that I greatly admire will be unleashing new records and possibly going on tour to promote them. I can hardly wait; I’m vibrating like my five year old niece on Christmas Eve.

The upcoming releases that I’m most looking forward to are as follows:

Prisoner by Ryan Adams (17-Feb-2017)

ryanadams_prisonerI won’t dispute that, at times, Ryan Adams could have benefitted from an editor to bring coherence to his ramshackle albums. Why put out three half-assed records a year, when you could have put out one lean & mean, 10-track compendium and ruled the musical landscape? Alas, Adams has dialled down his self-medications and grown wiser in recent years. Prisoner will be his first album of original material since his 2014 self-titled record, not counting 2015’s well received but oddly unsatisfying track-by-track remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Three years is like three decades by Adams’ standards.  Like all great introspective divorce albums, Prisoner is reportedly fuelled by the breakdown of his marriage to Mandy Moore. Rumours abound that the music is infused with 1980’s touchstones, so presumably Adams is finally conjoining his trademark melancholy with his unabashed Smiths fandom. Song titles like “Do You Still Love Me”, “Doomsday”, “To Be Without You”, and “Breakdown” are a pretty good indication of where his head is at. I pre-ordered this LP online, and I will continue to check my mailbox every night until it arrives.

New Album by Beck (date and title TBD)

beck_dreamsThis record was supposed to come out in the summer of 2016. Singles “Dreams” and “Wow” hit the airwaves, and bounced with an energy that screamed “day-glo festival performance staples”. Yet despite a series of rumoured and subsequently abandoned 2016 release dates, the full album never hit the shelves. We got bits and pieces on various Record Store Days, and nothing but vapours otherwise. It seems like a foregone conclusion that the long-awaited follow-up to Beck’s morose yet achingly beautiful Morning Phase will finally come out in 2017. But I’m trying not to hold my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop from everyone’s favourite funky-guero Scientologist. Beck has always worked in mysterious ways, and he seems to revel in confounding conventional wisdom and his fans’ expectations. But whenever the new album finally drops, expect to see me in the record shop on its day of release to buy it.

Little Fictions by Elbow (3-Feb-2017)

elbow_littlefictionsThe band Elbow makes the kind of music that words like “elegiac” and “majestic” were meant to describe. Their tunes are tailor-made for people who love to revel in wistful British melancholy. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear an Elbow song in, say, a beer commercial, but you could very well expect to hear one in an advert for prudent financial planning. Their last album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, was a minor masterpiece, marrying subtle rhythms and timeless melodies to a widescreen tableau of the struggles and victories of modern life. Fans are expecting more of the same from Little Fictions, despite the departure of Elbow’s long-time drummer, Richard Jupp. Perhaps they will take inspiration from R.E.M. after Bill Berry’s abdication and turn to electronic drum machines as a new source of inspiration. Like the new Ryan Adams record, I am certainly looking forward to having this pre-ordered album finally arrive in my mailbox.

New Album by LCD Soundsystem (date and title TBD)

lcd-soundsystemThe cat came back – they thought he was a goner – the cat came back, he just couldn’t stay away. James Murphy retired his LCD Soundsystem alt-disco project a few years ago with a cathartic performance at Madison Square Garden. Yet, hardly five years on, the band has been reassembled to not only headline various festivals (including this year’s Forecastle festival in Kentucky) but to tour in support of a new album. I’m excited to hear what Murphy and co. have been working on in what one imagines to be a claustrophobic studio stacked to the rafters with analogue synths, vintage drum machines, and sci-fi ephemera. To say the new album has a reputation to live up to somewhat understates the situation. At any rate, I’m eager to learn how LCD Soundsystem picks up on the free-floating existential angst of 2017 and turns it into rousing, rhythmic dance anthems for the homely and disenfranchised.

Risk to Exist by Maximo Park (21-Apr-2017)

maximo_park_risk_existMaximo Park are one of those UK acts that I’ve had a soft spot for ever since the early 2000’s, when I used to get my new-music recommendations from magazines like Q and MOJO. Maximo Park have been making angular, polyrhythmic music since their 2005 debut A Certain Trigger and a clutch of energetic hit singles loudly proclaimed their arrival on the modern rock scene. It’s very difficult to find their albums on this side of the Atlantic, but I had the good fortune to buy 2012’s The National Health on my UK trip last year. God, how I wish those Soho record shops were closer to my home! I recently noticed on a British upcoming releases website that Maximo Park are putting out a new album, called Risk to Exist, in April of this year. Advance word from the band’s publicist suggests the new record is “informed by the dire state of world affairs in 2016 and crumbling political systems”. So, not big Brexit fans, then!  Doubting that it would get a simultaneous release on physical formats outside of the UK, I’ve ordered my copy directly from the band’s merchandising website. And I’m told the LP will be autographed by the band! Not too shabby for 20 quid, including international delivery.

New Album by The National (date and title TBD)

thenationalI try to avoid making blanket declarations like “so-and-so is the best band on the planet”. But I will freely admit that The National have been at or very near the top of my ever-evolving Favourite Bands list since I first heard them back in their Alligator days. There is just something about the way their insular, occasionally miserable, but very inviting and introspective music connects with me – it’s essentially the soundtrack for my endless internal discourses. If I’m ever stranded on a desert isle without a copy of High Violet I will be crushed, even though I’ve long since memorized every musical passage. Last year, lead singer Matt Berninger confirmed that the band has been wrapping up a new album in the studio, presumably for a 2017 release. He describes the sound as “weird, math-y, electronic-y stuff… we’re in the middle of the wilderness, in a rainforest full of really fun noises”. I take that to mean that The National are experimenting with new sounds and textures, but I trust the Dessner Brothers to rein things in enough to make yet another gorgeous desert-island disc for my collection.

Northern Passages by The Sadies (10-Feb-2017)

sadies_northernThe Sadies are something of a Canadian roots-rock institution. Lanky brothers Dallas and Travis Good have been making music with their compadres for over two decades. Sadies records are mainly about atmosphere and texture. Sometimes the music is quiet and thoughtful, other times it’s quick and propulsive, but there is always a palpable sense of multi-dimensional power. Their musicianship is also second-to-none; watching them perform live is like spending the evening at Hot Licks School. I was thrilled to pick up their new album, Northern Passages, at my local record shop yesterday, and even happier to see the glorious Northern Lights adorn the cover. We haven’t had a display quite like that so far this winter, but those green curtains bring back memories of my teenage years, making 3 am trips outside to check on the cows in calving season. Today is Family Day in Alberta, which means that most of us have the day off of work. I’m going to celebrate tonight after playing hockey by coming home, lighting the fireplace down in my man-cave, cracking open a cold malt beverage, and giving my copy of Northern Passages its first spin. Three cheers for Canadiana.

Heartworms by The Shins (10-Mar-2017)

shins_heartwormsIn recent years James Mercer has been splitting his time between the synth-pop duo Broken Bells (with Danger Mouse) and his day job as lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for The Shins. It’s great to see that another Shins record is due for release next month, once again on Mercer’s Aural Apothecary label, suggesting the perfectionist remains in full control of the band’s musical direction. Based on the evidence of first single “Dead Alive”, there hasn’t been a huge shift in musical direction, although perhaps The Shins are growing a little more cross-pollinated by the crystal-clear production and subtle electronic bleeps and bloops of Mercer’s other band. I trust that Heartworms will provide Shins fans with many new earworms to enjoy, either in album form or via their inevitable placement in various Zach Braff movies.

Hot Thoughts by Spoon (17-Mar-2017)

spoon_hot_thoughtsIn my Best of 2016 list, I quietly hoped for a new Divine Fits record in 2017. It doesn’t appear that we will get one, but for a very good reason – singer-guitarist Britt Daniel will be busy launching a new Spoon record instead! Dave Fridmann is apparently back to twiddle the knobs and push the sliders on Hot Thoughts, so I’m not expecting it to sound vastly different to 2014’s excellent They Want My Soul. Spoon records always seem to have an innate ability to push the sparse, rhythmic envelope without devolving into tuneless cacophony. It’s interesting to see that Hot Thoughts will be coming out on Matador Records,  the Austinites original label. Hopefully that doesn’t cause them any distribution headaches, although fans have had to wait weeks or even months to get their hands on vinyl lately from some of the music world’s smaller labels.  Perhaps it would be wise to pre-order this record, just in case they are scarcer than hen’s teeth in the shops.

New Album by The War on Drugs (date and title TBD)

warondrugs

Philadelphia band The War on Drugs turned the indie rock revolution on its head with 2011’s Slave Ambient and 2014’s Lost In The Dream. Both records recast the music of their forefathers (most notably Petty, Dylan, and Springsteen) into the 21st century, giving their songs a uniquely modern, hazy sheen. Lost In The Dream especially pushed the re-invention to new levels, incorporating shimmering keyboards and other thoughtful production touches. And I would be remiss to not to mention the wonderfully engaging songwriting and indelible melodies. The results were a timeless series of songs that flowed into one another, sounding especially great on vinyl (as any Pink Floyd fan can attest). Details of the new record continue to be a closely-guarded secret, but the band’s Instagram account would suggest that they’ve been holed up in the studio, no doubt perfecting something marvellous. If a new record appears in 2017, and lives up to the high standards set by “Touch of Grey”, the War on Drugs’ recent contribution to the excellent Day of the Dead compilation, it could be really special.

As if these epic new releases aren’t enough, here are the upcoming vinyl re-releases that make me giddy with anticipation:

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five (24-Mar-2017)

benfolds_reinholdmessnerThis is the album that made me a fan of Ben Folds and his fearlessly rambunctious cohorts for life. I can still remember the day that I bought this CD, at the St. Vital outlet of HMV in Winnipeg, as though it was yesterday. The lady behind the counter gave me a sexy sideways glance that said “you don’t know it yet, but you are going to love this record”. I had heard lead single “Army” on MuchMusic and thought its horn-driven, smart-ass vibe was really cool. Much to my delight, I was completely blown away by the rest of this album as well. Named in honour of the Swiss mountaineer that inspired drummer Darren Jessee’s fake IDs as a teenager, Reinhold Messner is a masterpiece of piano-driven rock. “Don’t Change Your Plans”, “Mess”, “Magic”, “Army”, “Regrets”, and “Jane” all unlocked compositional doors in my mind that I hadn’t previously realized were even there.  I am so thrilled to see this album getting a proper release on vinyl; I plan to enjoy it at outrageous volume in my man-cave.

Wildflowers by Tom Petty (date TBD)

petty_wildflowersAt the time, it was billed as a Tom Petty solo record.  But Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein, Steve Ferrone, and Benmont Tench all appear on the record, so who’s kidding who? Wildflowers might as well be a Heartbreakers record. And what a record it is – Petty at his most stripped back, emotionally naked, and endlessly tuneful. Songs like “You Wreck Me”, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “Crawling Back to You”, and the sublime title track will always have a special place in my heart. And the simply gorgeous “Wake Up Time” was the song I woke up to on the fateful day that my BFF chose to irreparably damage our life-affirming friendship. To this day, it’s still my ringtone whenever I set my alarm on holiday. Perhaps that makes me a masochist, but you could do a lot worse than to start your day with those chiming acoustic guitar chords and strings that just seem to hang on the air like fair-weather clouds. “Well if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl to help him to shoulder the pain in this world”. Indeed, Tom. If the rumours are true, then a two-LP re-release of Wildflowers is in the works for 2017, in accordance with Petty’s original plan for the album. Expect to hear some of those extra tracks in a feature role on this summer’s Heartbreakers tour.

Live at Leeds by The Who (24-Feb-2017?)

who_liveatleedsFor my money, this is the greatest live rock & roll record ever released. Live at Leeds captures The Who at the peak of their performance power, late in their February 1970 tour of England. The original album featured just six frenetic, explosive tracks; it was later augmented by other crowd favourites and a slightly abridged version of the Tommy suite that The Who pummelled their audience with on the same tour. The results are a tour de force of unadorned rock music. Pete Townshend layers his Gibson SG power chords and Roger Daltrey howls in anguish over John Entwistle’s fearless, melodic bass runs and Keith Moon’s incomparable, frantic drums. The vicious ensemble sounds like it’s going to fly apart at any moment, yet a palpable sense of nervous energy miraculously holds the proceedings together. The versions of “Young Man Blues”, “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, and “My Generation” should be required listening for anyone under the age of 30 who’s contemplating starting a band. These hallowed recordings are finally coming back to vinyl in a half-speed mastered 3LP format, and I can hardly wait to pick up my copy. Quick update: February 24th has come and gone, and the release date has been pushed back yet again. I will let you know when I finally hold those magical platters in my expectant hands.

Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2016

As it turns out, modern technology is not impervious to careless douchebags in big pickup trucks.

I was out of town for Christmas, visiting family back in wintry Winnipeg. In between cacophonous family gatherings and bouts of spoiling my precious little nieces (hereafter known as my precious little ‘disease vectors’, as they sent me home with a lovely dose of rhinovirus), I sneaked away to do some record shopping. Hey, a leopard doesn’t change his spots just because he finds himself in Canada’s coldest provincial capital.

While I was travelling, some careless twit in a Dodge Ram wannabe monster truck apparently crashed into the telecommunications box at the end of my street. From what I can gather nobody was seriously injured in the collision, but Billy Joe and his Gravedigger sure smashed five kinds of shit out of the telecom panel that feeds my neighbourhood. It took all the king’s horses and the local utility’s men almost a week to put the fibre-optic Humpty Dumpty together again. To make a long story slightly longer, the impromptu internet blackout (and some general sloth on my part) is why I couldn’t write and post my Favourite Albums of 2016 list… until now!

Let’s review the usual caveats. This is a list of the ten albums that brought me the most enjoyment this year. They may not be groundbreaking or hugely original. They may not float your boat. They certainly won’t cover every genre of music. You may accuse me of having a shamelessly beige, guitar-driven, Anglocentric view of the musical landscape and I won’t be able to refute it. But I do know what I like, and that’s catchy melodies, interesting rhythms, and that elusive “X” factor that helps new music wrap itself around your DNA. The question I always ask myself when I pick my top ten is “will I still be listening to these records a decade from now”? Chances are, the highlights of these records will remain on my playlists for years.

Without further ado, here are my favourite albums of 2016, sorted alphabetically by artist. If you’ve read my Top 10 lists from previous years, you are unlikely to be shocked when you see who topped my charts this year. What can I say? It was a great year for new releases by well-established artists, less so for breakout artists (with a few notable exceptions).

And, most importantly, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom if you want to salute (or heckle) any of my choices – that’s half the fun!

Ellipsis by Biffy Clyro

biffyclyro_ellipsisScotland’s finest power trio was back with a new album in 2016. Coming on the heels of an ambitiously sprawling double album, the eleven sinewy tracks featured on Ellipsis seem positively efficient. The album oscillates nimbly from percussive rockers like “Wolves of Winter” and “Flammable” to mid-tempo, melodically driven songs like “Rearrange” and “Medicine”. Regardless of whether their multi-layered guitar attack is aimed at your brains or your balls, Biffy Clyro’s huge stadium-ready choruses are destined to entertain. Somewhere, Dave Grohl is head-banging in admiration and approval. Best track to seek out online: “Howl”

American Band by Drive-By Truckers

dbt_americanIt says something profound about a band when they can lose a songwriter of Jason Isbell’s caliber and still deliver album after album of the finest southern-fried rock. On this, DBT’s eleventh album, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continue to illuminate what it’s like to be alive and conflicted in 2016. These days, you can scarcely switch on a television without being confronted by self-aggrandizing shills, screaming at each other about red states and blue states and other complete bullshit. But if you’re keen to understand what’s really going on south of the Mason-Dixon line, you can glean more from these eleven painfully honest tracks than you’ll learn from a month of watching the bloviating heads on cable news. Best track to seek out online: “Ever South”

Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

frightenedrabbit_panicIt was never going to be easy to follow up 2013’s excellent Pedestrian Verse, but Frightened Rabbit gamely gave it a go. They enlisted Aaron Dessner to produce their new songs, and The National’s guitarist brings a bit of his band’s melancholy sparkle to the Scottish fellows’ proceedings. Long-time fans will be happy to know that Frightened Rabbit’s stock in trade – guitar-driven music – still hopscotches from hope to disillusionment to misery to unbridled fury. And perhaps no other band on the planet can reliably deliver heart-wrenching lines like “blood seems black against the skin of your porcelain back” with such grace and aplomb. Best track to seek out online: “Get Out”

Meet the Humans by Steve Mason

masonsteve_humansMany moons ago, I had the privilege of watching the Beta Band open up for Radiohead in Vancouver and Seattle. I became an instant fan of their quirky, laid-back, dub-inspired rock and infectious melodies. They had an unmistakable groove that I’d seldom heard before (or since). I was deeply disappointed when the Beta Band broke up in 2004 and scattered like chaff to the wind. Vocalist Steve Mason plied his trade as King Biscuit Time and various other pseudonyms for a while, but eventually he stepped into the limelight and started releasing new works under his own moniker. Meet the Humans is Mason’s third, most accessible, and (by my reckoning) best solo release; by focusing on tight & tidy songwriting and re-emphasizing the groove, he nearly matches the highest highs of his Beta Band days. The new record is effortlessly melodic and hypnotically rhythmic, though I’m at a loss to explain why there are so many cartoon dicks and boobs on the cover. You have to see this record on vinyl to fully appreciate all the pastel penises and bodacious bums! Chalk it up to cheeky British humour, I suppose. Best track to seek out online: “Alive”

Blue Wave by Operators

operators_bluewaveFans of Divine Fits and the dearly departed Handsome Furs (myself included) were delighted that Dan Boeckner fully realized the potential of his synth-pop project Operators with a full-length album in 2016. Blue Wave is a hurricane of analog synths, whip-smart danceable rhythms, and hooks galore. Imagine LCD Soundsystem rummaging through New Order’s record collection, and you’ll get the gist of it. “Control” is the latest hyperkinetic ringtone on my mobile phone, “Bring Me The Head” is the ultimate workout for your new hi-fi speakers, and the title track is pretty much a perfect Saturday night “going out” tune. Here’s hoping that another Operators record is already in the works – unless, of course, Divine Fits beats them to it. Best track to seek out online: “Bring Me The Head”

A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

radiohead_moonshapedIn 2016, Radiohead did the unthinkable. They delivered a record that was forthright and unabashedly pretty. Not pretty in a conventional Hollywood starlet sense, of course. More like finally noticing that the shy, introverted girl on the periphery of your life is actually an overflowing fountain of mind-expanding thoughts and quietly sexy gestures. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead turns guitar rock on its head, yet again, by incorporating symphonic elements into the sonic stew. Jonny Greenwood’s mastery of the London Contemporary Orchestra essentially adds a vital new member to the band. And for a band that’s become known for synthetic robot vocals, it’s refreshing to hear Thom Yorke singing in such a human (if a little weary) voice again. It’s as though he’s yearning to be understood, after a decade or more of hiding behind disguises. You can reliably expect Radiohead to reinvent their sound yet again on whichever new music comes next. But whenever you have a quiet Saturday evening to contemplate that crush you have on the introverted girl, there will be A Moon Shaped Pool right there at your fingertips to provide the soundtrack. Best track to seek out online: “Burn the Witch”

Winter Wheat by John K. Samson

samsonjk_winterwheatA stalwart of the Winnipeg indie rock scene, John K. Samson fronted bands like Propagandhi and The Weakerthans to various levels of critical success. Now going it alone under his own name, Samson has solidified his place amongst Canada’s greatest songwriters. In my mind, Cohen –  Lightfoot – Bachman/Cummings – Keelor – Newman – Samson forms quite the lineage. Though if I had to guess, JKS sees himself as part of a much different punk rock continuum. No matter. Winter Wheat is his second full-length album, and it continues to mine Samson’s wryly oblique yet highly literate observations of life on the Canadian prairies. Lines like “The payday lonely pray in parking lots, a one-bar wi-fi kind of town” could come from no other. Meanwhile, acoustic guitars and melancholy folk tales of damaged people are framed by production as wide and as sparse as a Manitoban sunset. Best track to seek out online: “Capital”

Jet Plane and Oxbow by Shearwater

shearwater_jetplaneHo hum – yet another brilliant album by the criminally underrated Shearwater. Jet Plane and Oxbow features the return of some of Jonathan Meiburg’s favourite muses – wildlife, widescreen imagery, and the unbridgeable chasms that sometimes keep people apart. But this time out, several songs are notably infused with the corrosive influence of troubled times; Meiburg (or at least his protagonists) seem to be struggling to suppress their anxieties at every turn. Synths are turned up to eleven, the drums clatter with martial beats, and a palpable dissatisfaction with “the way things are” rises to the fore. Challenging the status quo has rarely sounded so engaging and comforting. Best track to seek out online: “Quiet Americans”

SVIIB by School of Seven Bells

sviibIt’s impossible to listen to this album without reflecting on the tragedy of losing a key band member so young to cancer. In a way, the sadness casts a revisionist shadow over many of the crystalline dream-pop confections on SVIIB, even though they were reportedly written before Benjamin Curtis’s diagnosis. As a casual listener I won’t pretend to know anything about the intra-band relationships, and I sincerely hope that we haven’t heard the end of these very talented artists. That said, it must have been excruciating to sort through Curtis’s last recordings to assemble this album. It’s a fitting tribute that the results are so engaging, with flat-out gorgeous washes of synths, multi-layered vocals, pulsing beats and plenty of modern hooks. Best track to seek out online: “Ablaze”

Schmilco by Wilco

wilco_schmilcoWilco, to my mind, has become the quintessential American rock band. With each new record, you’re never quite sure if you’re going to be treated to alt-country, psychedelic rock, screwball folk music, jazz odyssey, or some strange new hybrid. Inevitably, long-time listeners will find something to love. Schmilco covers enough bases that it’s tough to categorize, but it’s a mostly mid-tempo, autumnal affair built around acoustic guitars and Jeff Tweedy’s introspective vocals. The overall tone is one of a band that is comfortable in their own skin, yet casting a wary eye at the world around them. God only knows how they’ll react to the forthcoming Trumpocalypse, but their next album may well be the most important one these Chicagoland dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters will ever make. Hopefully Schmilco doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as the dreaded “transitional record, since it’s a lovely sounding album that richly rewards a few extra listens and an open mind. Best track to seek out online: “If I Ever Was A Child”

Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2015

Happy New Year! Now that the odometer has rolled over for a brand new circuit around the sun, it’s a good time to revisit the musical highlights of 2015.

Let’s start with a few of the usual caveats. This is a list of the ten albums that brought me the most enjoyment this year. They aren’t necessarily groundbreaking or avant-garde or genre defining – but they appeal to my personal penchant for rhythm and melody. And I am not a professional music writer, I’m just an avid fan, so I don’t get to hear hundreds or even thousands of new records each year. The only records on my radar are the ones that I ponied up my own hard-earned money to buy, based on recommendations from friends, website, magazines, satellite radio, and the blogosphere at large. So don’t expect to see Peruvian folk music or Hungarian techno or even American hip-hop on my list, because my tastes just don’t run that way! I like what I like.

All that said, I think that a number of very good albums were released over the past year. Many people have celebrated 2015 as the “new golden era of television”, with quality programming spread across a myriad of platforms. In my estimation, popular music is also at a high water mark. No, it’s not like the 1960’s or early 1970’s where a dozen or so bands seemed to rule the earth. But even if there is a dearth of modern artists that can cut across genres and demographics, there is an embarrassment of riches that awaits discovery by music fans who make a modest effort to seek it out.

If you enjoy alternative rock, indie rock, or something closer to pop, the following albums may be worth a listen whenever you get a chance. Sorted alphabetically by artist, these are my favourite albums of 2015.

Every Open Eye by Chvrches

Chvrches - Every Open EyeIn mid-2015 during an interview for Q Magazine, the members of Chvrches pulled a prank on their manager. Invited into the studio to hear some samples of the Scottish dance-poppers upcoming second album, the manager was treated to an unholy “atonal din”. It was all a joke of course. On Every Open Eye, the trio haven’t turned to grunge or industrial or noise rock. Sensibly, they’ve followed up their well-received 2013 debut with even bigger Euro-pop choruses and sharper melodies. Most of the songs feature the clarion call of Lauren Mayberry’s distinctive vocals, though whenever keyboardist Martin Doherty steps up to the microphone the album takes on an interesting 80’s throwback vibe. Sometimes acerbic, sometimes playful, sometimes melancholy, but entertaining through and through.
Key track: “Leave a Trace”

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists

Decemberists - What a Terrible WorldSeveral years on from the success of 2011’s The King Is Dead, the Decemberists might have been forgiven for returning to their artesian well of R.E.M. flavoured Americana. Instead, new album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a wonderful distillation of the entire Decemberists catalogue in the guise of a modern-sounding rock record. Elements of proggy folk music, sea shanties, and tales of youthful angst peek through the knotholes, even if the songs sound radio-ready on first listen. Unabashedly literate, uncluttered, melodic, and anthemic in good measure, it’s a feast for the ears.
Key track:
“Till The Water’s All Long Gone”

Born Under Saturn by Django Django

Django Django - Born Under SaturnEvidently, 2015 was an excellent year for Scottish sophomore albums. Like Chvrches, the year saw the return of electro-indie-surf act Django Django with an album that improves upon the template of their debut. The rhythms are still mechanical yet humanistic, drawing inspiration from forebears like Kraftwerk and more modern contemporaries like Hot Chip or the Beta Band. The melodies, meanwhile, are playful and bright and perhaps a smidge easier to digest this time out. It’s very easy for the listener to get caught up in the polyrhythmic fun. One imagines that smart-arse a cappella groups at universities from Auckland to Yale are obsessively studying every twist and turn of Born Under Saturn as we speak.
Key track: “Giant”

Return To The Moon by El Vy

El Vy - Return To The MoonCollaborations can be a trainwreck (case in point: Metallica and Lou Reed), but occasionally they draw upon the strengths of both artists. Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf first met years ago while their bands (the National and Menomena, respectively) were touring together. The songs resulting from their collaboration explore many different avenues of indie rock – from the punchy guitars of the title track and “Sad Case” to the wistful synth-driven pop of “Paul is Alive” to the slinky soul of “Sleeping Light” to the downbeat efficiency of “No Time To Crank The Sun”. The kaleidoscopic songwriting is deftly glued together by Berninger’s instantly recognizable baritone. The vocals are simultaneously miserable and playful, melancholy and hilarious, defeated yet defiant.

Key track: “Return To The Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, with Crescendo)”

FFS by Franz Ferdinand + Sparks

FFSYet another collaboration this year brought us FFS, a new joint venture of Glaswegian pop-rockers Franz Ferdinand and veteran LA experimental pop artists Sparks. Almost a decade in the making, the wittily named FFS marks the return of both acts to the rarified air of top-of-the-pops craftsmanship. Franz Ferdinand have always employed a fondness for arty dance-rock with massive choruses. Injecting their tunes with the witty misanthropy and eccentricities of the Mael brothers was a masterstroke. The fact that they included a catchy number called “Collaborations Don’t Work” among these 16 tracks tells you something about the kind of humour at play behind the hooks.
Key track: “Johnny Delusional”

Chasing Yesterday by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

Noel Gallagher - Chasing YesterdaySome people continue to pine for an Oasis reunion, but I’m not one of them. The allure of Hefty bags full of cash makes a reunion of the Gallagher brothers all but inevitable. Which will be a shame, because shedding himself of the distractions of sibling rivalry has helped Noel Gallagher take his songwriting chops to a higher level. It’s highly doubtful that melancholic masterpieces like “Riverman” or “The Right Stuff” would have worked on an Oasis album, yet on Chasing Yesterday they are two of the album’s strongest tunes. Noel can still howl and rock out when he wants to – as he and his happy minstrels do on “Lock All The Doors” and “The Mexican”. But it’s the album closer “Ballad of the Mighty I” that stands proudly among the best things the man has ever written, and that’s saying a lot.
Key track: “Ballad of the Mighty I”

In Colour by Jamie xx

Jamie xx - In ColourEveryone seemed to fall in love this album in 2015, and with good reason. Among all the studio production wizardry and guest vocalists, there are tunes galore. I will admit that, on first listen, I was thrown awry by the lead-off track “Gosh” which spends its first two and a half minutes of drum ‘n’ bass going precisely nowhere. But once melody lines start floating in from the ether on spacey synthesizers, the album is finally off and running. This is the sound of an introvert’s dance party – bouncy and rhythmic and tuneful without feeling the need to be an attention whore. On “Loud Places”, Jamie xx draws a masterful vocal performance out of frequent collaborator Romy Madley Croft, painting in sonic watercolours the sound of the conflict inside every shy person’s head whenever it’s time to go out.
Key track: “Loud Places”

Drones by Muse

Muse - DronesIt was hard to guess which way the ever-evolving Muse would pivot for their seventh studio album, coming on the heels of the thermodynamic glam of 2012’s The 2nd Law. With the benefit of hindsight, their choice of producer – none other than Robert John “Mutt” Lange – should have been a tell. Drones is a loud and slinky collection of massive guitar riffs and thumping drums and bass, shot through with Matt Bellamy’s politically paranoid themes. The sequencing of songs is also hugely entertaining. Upbeat radio ballad “Mercy” (this album’s closest cousin to “Starlight”) is followed up by the vicious “Reapers”, wherein Matt Bellamy attempts to out-tap Eddie Van Halen. It’s preposterous, it’s dramatic, and it’s about as subtle as a punch to the throat. In short, it’s a prototypical Muse album – and a pretty good one at that.
Key track: “Psycho”

Music Complete by New Order

New Order - Music CompleteWith the high-profile departure of irascible yet indispensible bassist Peter Hook, alarm bells were ringing regarding the future of New Order. Hooky’s instantly recognizable bass tones have been at the core of the band’s sound for the better part of three decades. Who would fill all that sonic space? Keyboardist Gillian Gilbert has rejoined the band in the studio, and a few high-profile collaborators were invited to participate in the new recordings. The results are better than most reasonable people might have expected. The melodies and bottom-end ‘thump’ harken back to the band’s 1980s heyday, while the production is very much up-to-date. The lyrics are still as banal as ever – one gets the feeling that Coldplay’s Chris Martin probably mumbles better lyrics in his sleep than Bernard Sumner pens on his best day. But listening to New Order songs in search of lyrical genius is sort of like going to McDonalds for a salad. Just enjoy the electro-disco stylings and dance like nobody’s watching.
Key track: “Plastic”

Currents by Tame Impala

Tame Impala - CurrentsThis was one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year, and Currents did not disappoint. After a few years of dabbling in various pet projects, Kevin Parker returned to the studio to put together this follow-up to his 2012 breakthrough album Lonerism. Folks expecting the face-shredding fuzz of “Elephant part 2” may have been confused by the new album’s chilled-out, lethargic vibe. But those who chose to give it a few spins before passing judgment were able to discover the rewards lurking within. The layers of keyboards and disembodied vocals are like a soothing bath where the listener can revel in his or her own introspective glory. Just listening to the drum fills on “Let It Happen” flip inside out fills me with wonder. Maybe next time, Parker will choose to once again strap on a guitar and deliver the psychedelic rock masterpiece that so many listeners crave. For now, we will have this disillusioned, misanthropic masterpiece to console us.
Key track: “The Less I Know The Better”

And now for a special bonus! I don’t normally put live albums on my “Best Of” lists, but this year I will make an exception because it’s just so bloody good.

Royal Albert Hall by Eels

Eels - Royal Albert HallMy favourite live album of the last year is this recording by Eels at London’s vaunted Royal Albert Hall. Mark Oliver Everett is at his self-deprecating best, leading his nattily attired bandmates through an extended set of the world’s finest “bummer rock”. ‘E’ has always had a gift for making the most heart-broken tunes of misery and sorrow sound life-affirming, and this live set reveals the true depth of his songwriting talent. My personal favorites are “Fresh Feeling”, “My Timing Is Off”, “Grace Kelly Blues”, and the incomparable “Last Stop This Town” but, really, it’s all pretty great stuff. ‘E’ makes sure to thank “Albert” for the invitation to play his lovely hall, then proceeds to tell the audience how his request to play the venue’s mighty pipe organ has been rebuffed not once but twice by the stuffed suits in charge of such things. Will he ever get to make those hallowed pipes roar? Stay tuned…
Key track: “Fresh Feeling”

Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2014

It’s New Years Day here in the hinterland. Time once again to put some thoughts into words.

2014 was a solid, if not spectacular, year for new album releases. Once in awhile a year will stand out as a high-water mark for music. 1997 brought us new releases from Spiritualized, The Verve, Chemical Brothers, and the era-defining OK Computer by Radiohead. 2004 begat the storming debuts by the Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, and Arcade Fire. By those standards, 2014 doesn’t quite punch above its weight class. But I’m firm believer that every year, and every era, has its merits. Music is a human endeavor, a valuable medium for expression, and a continuum that will never be broken.

Here are the ten new albums I enjoyed listening to the most this year. As always, this isn’t an exhaustive list; I’m not a professional music scribe, and I haven’t sifted through thousands of releases to arrive at an exalted few. There are a few highly-touted albums that I haven’t tracked down or bothered to buy yet (Sun Kil Moon, St. Vincent, Cloud Nothings, Future Islands, Kasabian) that perhaps should have cracked my Top Ten. I’m saving those discoveries for the traditional new-release dead zone of January and February.

These are my favourite albums of 2014, sorted alphabetically by artist:

Morning Phase by Beck

morningphaseOften cited as a throwback to 2002’s broken-hearted Sea Change, Beck’s new release is wistful and calming, the aural equivalent of a cup of warm cocoa by the fireplace. Morning Phase doesn’t push the boundaries of genre – or good taste – in quite the same way as Beck at his most adventurous. However, in a year when my most important friendship disintegrated before my eyes, I spent a lot of blurry evenings listening to this album for answers. Sometimes you just need to immerse yourself in something familiar, something safe, something empathetic. Key track: “Blue Moon”

(Self-Titled) by The Both

thebothI discovered this album somewhat randomly in a record store in Columbia, SC. I was flipping through the record racks at Manifest Discs & Tapes and, in the Ted Leo + The Pharmacists section, was this collaboration between my man Teddy and Aimee Mann. It sounds pretty much like you’d expect – the rougher edges of Ted’s melodic punk rock are sanded and polished by Aimee’s distinctive vocals, bass guitar, and songwriting chops. This collaboration could have so easily produced a mediocre blend of two styles, satisfying no one. Fortunately, The Both is an example of the sum being greater than the constituent parts. This pop-rock gem is tuneful and engaging and chock full of joie de vivre – the very best kind of accidental discovery in a faraway land. Key track: “Volunteers of America”

After the Disco by Broken Bells

afterthediscoSpeaking of collaborations, the new album by Broken Bells was another entertaining collage of styles. After the Disco brought us ten new tracks of melodic bliss. James Mercer’s pitch-perfect vocals are the perfect vessel for delivering the mail for Danger Mouse’s electronic pop. Like the best moments of Matthew Sweet’s career, After the Disco delivers melancholy tales wrapped in sneakily catchy melodies. You’ll be too busy tapping your toes to notice the crippling depression lurking within. Key track: “The Angel and the Fool”

The Take-Off and Landing of Everything by Elbow

takeoffandlandingOne of my favourite UK acts returned this year with an elegant new record that only British bands seem to be able to make. The themes – both lyrical and musical – seem to plough through the fertile ground of melancholy, dislocation and loss. But The Take-Off and Landing of Everything is miles from depressing, often beating with a quiet defiance. Somber, introspective, and tasteful in equal measures. Key track: “My Sad Captains”

Brill Bruisers by The New Pornographers

brillbruisersAny year with a new record by the New Pornographers is bound to be a good year. Decades from now, we perhaps won’t be lauding Brill Bruisers as the band’s very best work (for my money, that would be 2007’s Challengers, an album I simply cannot overplay). However, these delightfully skewed power-pop titans deliver often enough on their new record to keep their fans’ heads bobbing, hips swaying, and brains dreaming. Thunderous drums, sinewy synthesizers, and layers of vocals all do their part to entertain. Key track: “Brill Bruisers”

Atlas by Real Estate

atlasIf I’m being honest, Real Estate’s previous album Days is one that I admired more than I enjoyed. I implicitly understood what sound they were going for, but was missing the emotional engagement. Thankfully that connection was finally made on Atlas. The music is still certifiably laid back and hypnotically rhythmic, but the hooks get stuck under your skin and stay with you long after the record spins into its run-out groove. It took a few listens to fully open up to me, but now this record’s chiming highlights happily appear in several of my carefully curated playlists. Key track: “Crime”

Mended With Gold by The Rural Alberta Advantage

mendedwithgoldI cannot say enough good things about this album. Nils Edenloff’s strained lead vocals, like wasabi or black licorice, aren’t necessarily to everyone’s taste. But they express a sense of yearning and urgency that very few of the conventionally- pretty voices on American Idol could ever hope to convey. Mended With Gold breezes by in thirty-nine minutes of devastating, heart-on-sleeve glory, an alternative country tour de force with nary an ounce of fat. And if anyone else captured a better drum sound this year, I didn’t hear it. If you can manage, I highly recommend listening to this album on vinyl. Crank it up to 11, rip off the volume knob, and throw it away. Key track: “Terrified”

They Want My Soul by Spoon

theywantmysoulSpoon may be the most reliable band in rock. Ever since perfecting their sound on 2001’s Girls Can Tell, they have been releasing excellent indie-rock albums with clockwork precision. They Want My Soul adds ten more catchy, rhythm-driven songs to their canon, deftly splitting the difference between the more experimental Transference album and the radio-friendly Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. This time around, keyboards feature more prominently in the mix, perhaps a nod to Britt Daniel’s time spent with his more synth-driven side project, Divine Fits. Key track: “They Want My Soul”

Seeds by TV on the Radio

seedsThree years after losing their bass player to cancer, TV on the Radio are back with their seamless synthesis of R&B-infused alternative rock. The new tracks on Seeds are a little more streamlined than the kitchen-sink approach they took on their often hyperactive Dear Science and Nine Types of Light records. But even if the arrangements this time are tidier, the additional sonic room still features plenty of pop hooks and inspired ideas. It’s good to hear this band pick up the pieces after tragedy and move on. Key track: “Happy Idiot”

Lost In The Dream by The War on Drugs

lostinthedreamYou will see this album on plenty of ‘Best of 2014’ lists this year, and with good reason. Lost In The Dream is a near-perfect album of atmospheric alternative rock. Their musical influences are still in abundance (Petty, Dylan, Springsteen) but, to my ears at least, the band has finally transcended those touchstones to arrive at a sound all their own. The ten tracks on the new record unfold organically, taking the listener along for a most enjoyable ride. It’s difficult to sound laid-back without slipping into boredom, but The War on Drugs manage to make engaging music that still sounds effortless. You’ll no doubt like this album upon first listen, and on the third or fourth playback you might just fall in love with it. Key track: “Red Eyes”

#1 – Bad Blood by Bastille

Bad BloodLabel:  Virgin / EMI

Date of Release:  4-Mar-2013 (UK),    3-Sep-2013 (US/Canada)

www.bastillebastille.com

A new UK indie synth-rock songwriting talent emerges from the shadows, intent on capturing our melodic and rhythmic hearts.

I am not a morning person.  Some days, it takes a 12-volt car battery and booster cables to zap my zombie ass out of bed.  On the morning after a late-night hockey game, you might need to augment the booster cables with a marching band.  I have a dual-alarm clock that mercifully allows me to listen to music for a while before that antagonistic beep-beep-beep signals the start of another working day.  It helps whenever the first song on the radio at 5:55 am is interesting and inspiring.

One morning in the summer of 2013, the local alternative rock radio station switched on at the usual time.  As I was slowly roused from my slumbers, I was intrigued by a brilliant new song.  It began with a booming chorus of male voices, then a singer with an English accent sang an impassioned melody about staying optimistic while the sky is falling and the world around you crumbles.  The synth programming and verse/chorus dynamics were augmented by propulsive drums and a ping-ponging Peter Hook bass line.  The disc jockey didn’t announce the song title or artist, and it was far too early in the morning to cue up SoundHound, so I had to wait a week or so to hear it again and discover who it was.  But that whole week, the melody and rhythm and chorus of voices were stuck in my head.

That early-morning serenade was my introduction to the song “Pompeii”, by a new British alternative synth-rock band called Bastille.  Bastille began as a solo project by an immaculately-coiffed musician named Dan Smith in 2010.  But as a series of singles, EPs and live performances began to attract attention he drafted in some band mates on drums, bass and additional keyboards.

It took me awhile to track down the debut Bastille album.  Bad Blood wasn’t released in North America until later in the year, so I had to order an import copy of the LP online.  It might have been available at the time on iTunes, but collecting music on physical media is far more rewarding to me.  When the LP arrived, I placed the platter on my record player and settled into my comfy loveseat for a good, attentive listen.

The first thing you notice about Bad Blood is that it deftly balances 21st century production techniques with classic pop songwriting.  Many songs feature the kind of modern synth loops and electronic percussion you might expect to hear on European synth-pop records by Chvrches or The Sounds.  However, at the core of each song is a soaring, anthemic melody that builds on the continuum of British pop traditionalists like Paul McCartney, Coldplay and Keane.

It’s easy to get caught up in the yearning of “Things We Lost in the Fire”.  The percussion gives the song momentum, while layers of strings create a dramatic atmosphere.  Dan Smith’s impassioned vocals deliver lyrics like “We were born with nothing, and we sure as hell have nothing now”, juxtaposing the upbeat music with an undercurrent of regret and loss.

The album’s title track ruminates on an acidic breakdown between childhood friends, with punchy layers of keyboards and programming.  “Bad Blood” is not a lyrical masterpiece, but the melody and bouncing cadence are impeccable.  Smith once again looks back with a sense of regret to his (not too distant) youth on “These Streets”.  Carefully integrated snippets of ascending piano and synthesized percussion borrow some of the playful hooks from Brian Wilson’s toolbox.

The pretty “Oblivion” seeks to one-up the piano balladry of Keane, the inherent drama escalated by a particularly mournful cello.  “Flaws” is a frolicking self-examination of the things that we may not like about ourselves – how we might choose to face our flaws and perhaps go about resolving them.  Lines like “you have always worn your flaws upon your sleeve” neatly mirror the way in which virtually every song on Bad Blood freely exposes its widescreen, melodramatic heart.

Presumably inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks projects, “Laura Palmer” is a sweeping melodic and rhythmic tour-de-force that matches Coldplay’s best festival-ready moments.  Despite the creepy inspiration of the song, one expects to hear fields full of punters singing the glorious refrain of “Can you feel it?” for years to come.  By contrast, “Get Home” closes the album with somber restraint, multi-tracked vocals over a simple bed of keyboards and synths.  After an exuberant night on the town, the song suggests it’s time to collect your wits and slink home before the rising sun exposes your flaws.

If you read some of the critical reviews of Bad Blood, you’ll no doubt discover that this album has some shortcomings.  The layers of clever programming and indelible melodies of “Weight of Living, Pt. II” cannot fully compensate for the generic lyric that even the perpetually bashful Chris Martin would likely chastise for being ‘a little too broad’.  Elsewhere, Smith has an unfortunate penchant for dragging out words into extra syllables to suit the meter of a song (‘flames’ has two syllables, ‘I’ has four, ‘words’ has five, and ‘night’ incredibly has six).  And it is certainly true that, by trying to amp up the drama in each song to eleven, the overall sonic diversity of the collection of songs ultimately suffers.   Chalk most of the flaws up to youthful ambition; one strongly suspects that by the time they make their third, fourth or fifth albums Bastille will have grown substantially as artists. Taken in context, this debut album is still quite extraordinary.

I mused at the outset of this ‘Best of 2013’ exercise that the three musical things that capture my attention are melody, rhythm, and that elusive X-factor.  Bad Blood triumphantly nails all three categories.  I kept coming back to this record in 2013 again and again, and enjoyed every listen. The whole point of pop music is to connect with people, to share common ground, to have a musical conversation about life and love and regret and anxiety.  It is this critical quality where Dan Smith and his friends truly excel.

Just as I might have suspected after my gleeful mid-summer awakening, “Pompeii” remains the most compelling song on the album.  But the coalescence of panoramic melodies, persistent rhythms, and ear-catching electronic sounds throughout Bastille’s debut makes Bad Blood my favourite album of 2013.

click to hear “Pompeii” by Bastille

click to hear “Bad Blood” by Bastille

click to hear “Laura Palmer” by Bastille