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”


Unboxing A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead are my favourite modern rock band, and have been ever since I discovered their majestic song “Street Spirit” on The Bends when I was in graduate school. They are fearless, they are beholden to no one, and they are musical innovators. Radiohead have carved out their own niche in the musical landscape – no one else sounds quite like them, and vice versa. I watch their every move with great anticipation and endless fascination. Sometimes they fall flat on their faces, and sometimes the results of their labours seem incomplete, but I respect the fact that they aren’t afraid to fail. Because when they are successful, it is often transcendant. Plus they are a mesmerising live act. I wish they released more concert videos; you really need to see the songs reinterpreted for a live performance setting to catch all of the nuances and details. Come on, fellows – how about a blu-ray for my Christmas stocking?

The band have been releasing special editions of their albums for awhile now, usually through their website. Over the past few years I’ve picked up the special edition of In Rainbows and the ‘newspaper’ version of The King of Limbs. They are both proudly displayed in my music listening man-cave, near the foil-backed special edition of Atoms for Peace’s Amok

Back in May of this year, I went online and ordered my special-edition copy of A Moon Shaped Pool on vinyl. It finally arrived by mail last week! Here are some photos of the great unwrapping. 

This is how the package looked upon arrival, after a long journey via airmail from England.

This is the package unboxed.  The two heavyweight vinyl records were tucked into a separate cardboard sleeve for safekeeping. Meanwhile, the artwork portion of the album was bound by what has been reported to be three quarters of a second of actual Radiohead studio recording tape. Very, very cool idea. I’m hoping to figure out some way to play my strip of tape to hear what’s on it, before the magnetized particles drift away and make the tape unplayable. Could it be a snippet of guitar solo from “Bodysnatchers”, or random studio chatter, or complete silence? It’s fun to contemplate the possibilities.

This is some of the interior artwork, once again designed by Stanley Donwood and our pal Tchocky. Plenty of black & white pictures occupying a good portion of the 32-page booklet. 

And this is how it looks with one of the LP’s slipped into its rightful pocket. The records come with paper sleeves that don’t seem to be plastic-lined but are reasonably anti-static and good quality all the same. They fit a little too snugly in the pockets, though. 

This is the lyric sheet for “Burn the Witch”. While the artwork pages are printed on glossy white paper, the lyrics are printed on textured dark paper that reminds me of canvas. The final lyrics are printed in pale green block text, floating over what looks like earlier (rejected?) versions of the lyrics in dark green. The overall impression it leaves is a sense of depth, anxiety, and the quest for perfection in a world torn by entropy – all Radiohead hallmarks, of course. 

Aside from getting the new album on double-vinyl, the listener also gets A Moon Shaped Pool on CD (plus the digital download of mp3s that we received way back when we placed our orders).  The second CD apparently has two extra tracks – can’t wait to hear what they are! Hopefully one of them is the beguiling song they recorded for the James Bond film Spectre, but ultimately wasn’t used. 

One last note. Now that I have the fully-assembled album in my hands, it just feels great. The outer cover has a very subtle raised texture, and when you squeeze the edges the thick cardboard compresses just a little between your fingers. In a world littered with plastic jewel cases or, indeed, no physical media at all, the tactile experience of A Moon Shaped Pool is something that I will cherish for a long time. 

Bravo, Radiohead. 

New Best Friends

Well, hello! Long time, no chat. I’ve been busy, you see. I spent my whole summer landscaping my yard, then I went overseas on vacation for about a month. Now that the snow is flying outside (and WTF is that about – it’s only mid-October!?), I’m hunkered down in my trusty man-cave. It’s the Thanksgiving long weekend, so now is as good of time as any for a long-overdue update to my blog. 

As mentioned, I spent the latter half of August and the first half of September touring the British Isles. Two of the English mates I made during my New Zealand trip a few years ago invited me over to go hiking on three consecutive long weekends. We made it to the top of Helvellyn in the Lake District, and to the summit of Yr Wyddfa in Snowdonia (in the pouring rain and gale-force winds), and we went on an epic coastal hike in Exmoor National Park. It was really great. 

In between hiking excursions, I set off on my own to visit some of Britain and Ireland’s great cities. I spent a day in Cambridge, three days in London, two in York, two in Dublin, and two memorable days in Edinburgh. In each case, I made a point of exploring their record shops on foot. I came home with a carry-on bag stuffed full of vinyl. 

As I sit here listening to my new records, I’m thinking back to the day that I first discovered each of my new friends. I picked up the Biffy Clyro and Manic Street Preachers records on my first day of exploring Soho. Later in my trip, I returned to Soho to buy the Teenage Fanclub albums, which are hard to find on this side of the Atlantic. Hat tip to Sister Ray Records for having such a great selection to choose from, and a quick hello and thanks to the bloke at Fopp Records in Covent Garden for our enthusiastic chat about School of Seven Bells. 

When I made it over to Ireland via the fast ferry, I was thrilled to find out that Dublin also has three or four decent record shops. Including a Tower Records store – no kidding! An actual brick and mortar Tower location, just off O’Connell Street. It was like finding a unicorn in a field of four-leaf clovers. Despite the sky-high prices, I dropped thirty euros on my favourite Elbow record, Build a Rocket Boys. In fact, it’s spinning on my record player as I type this. 

Next it was onto Edinburgh which, if you’re asking me, is the world’s most beautiful city. Please don’t make me choose between the architecture and the women, because they both were a feast for the senses. Perhaps an hour after arriving in town, I walked into an indie record shop at the bottom of the venerable Royal Mile called Unknown Pleasures. Sure enough, they were blasting Joy Division over the sound system as I stepped across the threshold – how appropriate was that? After diving through rack after rack of thematically-grouped gems, I came away with a brand-new copy of the Cosmic Rough Riders debut album (a band I knew from my first trip to the UK in 2001) and a cool live single by northern heroes The Futureheads. 

All in all, it was a great trip and I made some life-long memories. I’m forever in gratitude to my friends Sally and Colin for going out of their way to host me and show their Canadian cohort a good time. 

On my way home, I spent a day in Vancouver, partly because the flights worked out better. Of course, this also gave me an opportunity to visit some more of my favourite record shops. After a fruitful Friday morning at Neptoon and Red Cat Records on Main Street, my overstuffed carry-on bag got even fuller:

It was cool to finally find a copy of Jagwar Ma’s 2013 debut album after years of searching. I also stumbled across a live album by one of my indie favourites Divine Fits, and of course I had to pick up the new Wilco record. Jeff Tweedy and Co. could record and release thirty minutes of burps and hiccups and I would still line up to buy it. Perhaps the highlight of the day was procuring a copy of Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July which, for my money, might be the finest Canadian recording ever released. Apologies to Leonard Cohen but God knows I’ve played this Blue Rodeo CD to death over the years; I even bought the songbook and learned to play every track – with varying levels of ineptitude – on guitar and vocals. It feels so great to finally have the vinyl version in my collection. Now I just need to figure out how to rig up my record player next to a campfire for full effect…

So, tonight, I’m lounging in my man-cave, getting better acquainted with all of my new best friends. Hope you are also having a nice day, Thanksgiving or otherwise, wherever you find yourself as you read this. 

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”

Championship Vinyl

This past Friday, Christmas came early for record lovers. While other folks were trampling each other for Chinese flat-screen televisions at Best Buy, the scene was a little more genial at indie record shops across North America.

This year’s Black Friday special releases covered virtually the entire spectrum of modern music, from indie rock to hip-hop to 60’s psychedelia to jazz greats to (god help us) Dave Matthews Band. Even the impeccably weird John Malkovich got in on the action, lending his vocal stylings to an album of other artists’ music.

My local store opened their doors at 10 am. I was tied up at work – and frankly I’m crowd-averse anyway – so I wasn’t there for the initial surge of thirty hard-core vinyl freaks. But I did manage to sneak out of work a little early, so off I went to shop for new ‘friends’ on vinyl.

I really wanted a copy of the new Beck single “Dreams”, but the shopkeeper said they didn’t receive any copies from their American suppliers. I had a look at the new Zombies live recording from their BBC appearances, but it contained hardly any tracks from their landmark Odessey and Oracle album so I let it be. And while I was intrigued by seeing Green Day’s American Idiot on vinyl, $55 was a little too steep for me.

As you can see, I didn’t exactly come away empty-handed. I did snag myself a newly re-issued copy of the High Fidelity soundtrack on double orange vinyl – surely Barry Jive of Championship Vinyl would approve.  And I managed to grab a copy of my most anticipated Black Friday 2015 release – the new Spoon 10″ with their rambunctious cover of “TV Set” by the Cramps. On hot pink vinyl, no less!

The store also had their regular stock on sale for 20% off. I gratefully picked up the new Wilco, Mew, and Mercury Rev albums. Grabbed the full six LP version of Ryan Adams’ Carnegie Hall gigs somewhat on impulse, after enjoying the single LP version way more than I expected to. Scored two Eels re-releases on vinyl to ensure I won’t soon run out of bummer-rock music. And after some digging thru the vaunted “audiophile” crate, I unearthed 180g reissues of two ace Manic Street Preachers records. All in all, it was a good haul.

But at what point does a hobby become an obsession? Is it when you buy 12 records in one week? It’s probably a good idea for me to put a moratorium on new purchases until after Christmas, lest I become the sad vinyl-collecting version of the Crazy Cat Lady 🙂

Hope you also made it out there this weekend to support your local record store. If not, see you there in April for RSD 2016!