Best Albums of 2016

The uniting factor among the albums that made my Best of 2016 list is that every one of them actively seeks to blur boundaries of genre. Devoted readers of my Best of lists will not be surprised by this, as musical curiosity and willingness to infuse different styles are some of my most desired traits in music. I can’t claim that I listened to a lot of music this year, but this list is fairly diverse, with styles ranging from country to jazz. Below is my list of (an increasingly arbitrary number of) favorite albums for the year:   12) Angel Olsen, MY WOMAN – Chicago folk artist Angel Olsen amps up the energy considerably in her latest effort. WOMAN is still guided by her intimate and pained vocals, but the music here benefits from an increased range of styles, ranging from the aching balladry of “Intern” to the punkish rancor of “Shut Up, Kiss Me” to the flat-out epic rock of “Sister”.   Essential listening: “Sister”, “Heart Shaped Face”     11) Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book – Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper punctuated his rise to public and critical acclaim with this neo-gospel/hip-hop album, which synthesizes his admiration more »

New Smell: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Craft of Arranging

“My thing is change it up completely or leave it alone.” – Robert Glasper For whatever reason, arranging is seen as a lesser craft than composing. I’ve never really understood this. Granted, composing entails the creation of entirely new material, while arranging depends on previously existing source material. Aside from this, though, I see far more similarities than differences between them, particularly when arranging is done with the same creative spirit as composition. Both have the potential to bring something new and wonderful into the world of music, and a great arrangement can take even the most well known song and transform it into something radically unique and refreshingly relevant. Take, for example, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is arguably one of the most influential pieces of music of any genre from the past 25 years. Even people who never listen to rock music know this song, and it has been played and covered so often that you can understand if people have grown tired of it. Despite this, there is still fertile ground for creativity within its seemingly constricting bounds. After examining some of the basic musical elements of the original, I will discuss how three unique arrangements more »

Best Albums of 2013

In many ways, 2013 proved to be a challenging and difficult year.  The economy continues to struggle, Congress doesn’t work, acts of extreme violence dominate the news, and the NSA is right behind you right now.  Music’s response?  Screw it; let’s dance.  The amount of quality music that also happened to be catchy as hell that came out in 2013 was staggering, and many bands reinvented their sounds in ways that blended old styles with something a bit more upbeat. As always, this list can hardly claim to be comprehensive, but these are 12 great albums that came out in 2013 that pushed the boundaries of what it means to make music with great curiosity and ambition: 12) Franz Ferdinand, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action – More unapologetically upbeat than their most recent work, Action follows 2013’s mantra of dancing your troubles away.  It also finds the band returning to the winning balance of hooks, substance, and pub-crawl wit that made their first two albums so great. Essential Listening: “Right Action”, “Goodbye Lovers and Friends” 11) Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks – After an extended hiatus that saw its leader win a friggin’ Oscar, NIN returned in 2013 with more »

Best Albums of 2012

As has been the case in recent years, there was a lot of fine music being made in 2012.  New technologies have not only changed the accessibility of music, they also seem to have inspired a venerable geyser of creativity and experimentation.  Some big names forged exciting new directions for themselves, while others far less heralded blazed trails in uncharted territory.  I hardly consider this list to be absolute, but based on what I heard this year, these are the 15 albums that stood out to me: 15) Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory – In one of the most schizophrenic albums of the year, Cloud Nothings segue from the sprawling gothic instrumental coda of “Wasted Days” to the tight radio-friendly punk jam “Fall In”.  And that’s just the end of the third track.  They pull it off, though, largely because they cultivate the same pleasant angst in their sound in every song. Essential Listening: “Fall In”, “Wasted Days” 14) Beach House, Bloom – In some ways, the name “Beach House” is very fitting for this Baltimore duo.  The guitars often use tinny, chasmy surf-rock timbres, and Victoria Legrand’s haunting vocals sound as if they’re processed through a seashell.  Bloom nestles more »