10. Jenny Hval – Innocence is Kinky
Language is the issue at the heart of Innocence is Kinky: how it changes by dialect, accent, personality, interpretation. “The voice,” Jenny Hval posits on “The Seer”, the album’s closing track, “is a wordless tissue, the fog from Heart of Glass. Listen to the lips that feed you.” Who feeds you? For what are we listening? Why the fog from Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass (an infamous little movie where the actors underwent hypnosis)? Hval will answer these questions, but only in the abstract; her aims are for provocation, surely, which is nothing especially new in this digital landscape. But more importantly, Hval means to steer the conversation onto itself, taking many folks to task for their role in the presentation of gender and sexuality in the public view, and does so by cultivating a new sound and appropriations of well-worn (now shimmering, damning) genre tropes.
Which is to say: man, this album rocks. Hval’s aim is unwieldy, rounding out delicate folk reminiscent of 2011’s more spacious Viscera with feedback scorched rock tunes treated with the same scope and fervor that marked that auspicious solo debut. Some songs find the head-turning meeting point between them, as one does in the standout “Is There Anything On Me That Doesn’t Speak?”, which plots out its movements in the seconds. Hval’s vocal performance is of the highest order in these moments, stretching her register every which direction, pitching them aggressively or in a delicate way. She is, ah, amphibious, androgynous, playing a foil to traditional roles accepted of women who make music, a process she nearly perfects in the process. In this way, her most prominent modern peer might be Swans’ Michael Gira, another musician who tackles contemporary ideas of masculinity in rock music and art’s role in challenging it.
But again, language is the issue at the heart of Innocence is Kinky. “I try to write love songs,” on “Amiphibious, Androgynous”, “but my words remain in my hands and my hands fall to the floor. Somewhere in the distance something hurts.” Larger issues plague Hval, and she comes to them by framing them in the minutiae. The evocation of Reneé Falconetti is Hval’s largest tip to the listener, but I won’t undermine the album by explaining it here. To listen to Innocence is Kinky is to hear some of the best music you will hear this year or any, on its surface alone. But to listen to Innocence is Kinky is also to engage with it, to be challenged, and to learn. To hear its language on its own terms: by its dialect, accent, personality, interpretation. In a year particularly talkative (for the good and the bad) about the state of sexuality, gender, and female artists in the mainstream, Jenny Hval’s Innocence is Kinky is one of the most vital conversations to be enjoyed on the subject. –Lewis P.
9. Obliteration – Black Death Horizon
Obliteration hail from Norway, spreading their message of brutal and filthy traditional death metal far and wide. The band has mastered the ebb and flow of tempo, taking cues from forefathers Autopsy to produce an album full of dynamic tracks that brilliantly snake from murky doom to high-speed bludgeoning. Traces of proud neighbors Darkthrone also make their way to the surface of Black Death Horizon’s true-to-the-classics-but-still-unique aesthetic. What makes Obliteration stand tall with their ancestors is the ability to craft these nebulous, unpredictable metal compositions that still manage to sound primal, primeval, and completely uncalculated. Deviously satisfying riffs are joined by a modern-day rarity in dextrous throwback soloing full of note-perfect runs, bends, and whammy bar assaults. Each piece is horrifyingly conjugated to the wretched caterwauls of vocalist Sindre Solem, making most growls seem like a tame alternative. The album further benefits from achieving an impeccable production medium that provide great clarity to each component while never diminishing the murky, grotesque atmosphere carved out by the band. If this is just the horizon of Obiteration’s sickening form of “black death,” then fans are very lucky, indeed. –AngelofDeath
8. Laura Stevenson – Wheel
As a rider of the Laura Stevenson hype train since the beginning, Wheel was expectedly excellent upon first listen. Sickly sweet and heartbreakingly honest, Laura Stevenson’s latest album was immediately engrossing. Yet after seeing her magnanimous performance live, that opinion began to change. Songs I had already committed to memory began to take on different meanings. Lines that were once so plainly written began to feel completely alive. You see, to listen to Wheel is to listen to Stevenson herself. Everything is painfully open and personal. The Laura heard here is the same Laura you’ll hear wherever she goes. On “Renee” she sings longingly to her stepmother, laying every emotion bare. Conversely, on “California” we hear her sing wildly with reckless abandon and jovial energy. You see, each moment on Wheel is painted so vividly that you could almost visualize it. Insignificant motions such as making coffee feel absolutely vital within the greater picture. Laura Stevenson can craft a song from almost nothing while making it feel like everything.
When the album closes with “Wheel” there’s an overbearing sense of elation as well as somberness. Despite the often vivacious and flighty tone, there’s a heavy and deep rooted feeling of melancholy. But as the final moments of the album come to a close it all comes together far more sensibly than thought possible. Wheel is modern marvel; a beautiful and profound statement that exceeds expectations in every respect. –Eli Kleman
7. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
In late 2010, Josh Homme almost died from complications during knee surgery and was bedridden for three long months while recovering. The memories of this unfortunate incident lend …Like Clockwork its emotional heft and vulnerability that clearly distinguish it from the musician’s back catalogue. The new Queens of the Stone Age album doesn’t try to rehash the band’s turn-of-the-millennium stoner rock classics. Instead, it thrives on upheaval, adroitly venturing into new musical territories with a keen sense of innovation. The dichotomy between the dark and the light permeates the entire record in which booming heavy rockers are juxtaposed with poignant piano ballads to startling effect. Every track is composed with commanding precision, retaining many attributes that have always made the outfit so distinctive. There’s rock swagger on display which, along with hook-centric songcraft, desert vibes and a dash of flamboyance, makes for a truly seductive brand of alternative rock. On top of that, Homme delivers his most inspired vocal performance thus far, making the transitions between his natural voice and signature falsetto seem even more effortless. …Like Clockwork is not only his most ambitious and far-reaching collection of songs, but also a testament to his remarkable resilience as an artist. –Greg Fisher
6. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
“Open up your heart, show me the place where love is missing – how long have you been missing love?” Will Sheff asks on “Stay Young,” accompanied by a restless bass line and a kid’s idea of a synthesizer, candy pitched and buttressed by the kind of horns you’d find on the town common. It’s carnival season, and “Stay Young” is a deliciously saccharine call to arms, yet it’s never cheesy, not the kind of sugar that rots your teeth but the kind that reawakens something everyone has, one at point or another, forgot: nights in the tent out back with your best friend, songs taped off the radio, the ritual of blowing away the dust on that old Atari cartridge, now it’ll work. The Silver Gymnasium is Sheff returning to his home, the small hamlet of Meriden, New Hampshire, and penning a love letter to it. It’s not a paean to the town itself, but to the threads that weave their way about the avenues and down the river, the connections that tied Sheff down even when he left for greener pastures. Did he think they were greener, even then? I’m not so sure – The Silver Gymnasium is a record out of time, painting a autumnal portrait of a town that should be well and truly gone, if it wasn’t so full of vibrant, bloody life in Sheff’s mind and words.
As someone who moved as far as one could possibly get from my hometown, I found a kindred spirit in The Silver Gymnasium. It’s a celebration of Sheff’s inability to extricate himself from the past, the coalescing of memory and stories into dreams and tall tales, the kind of childhood magic that only grows stronger and fonder when you think about it as an adult. Sheff isn’t angry at Meriden, quite the opposite, really. He’s grateful to it, the idealization of “a great gold spirit in the summer sky” representing the town, its people, the past, present and future. Even Sheff’s adult memories are tinted by this golden hue – when he’s drowning in booze and bad decisions in “Pink Slips,” what he latches onto are happier times, Meriden times: “Only happy until the age of ten is still a gift,” he sings, even as he knows, we know, you can’t go back. The Silver Gymnasium, though, will have none of that. It’s proof that you can still return, remembering the vaguely sweet smell in the air when school lets out for summer, the friends forgotten and family lost, everything just a short trip down the rabbit hole of your mind, no matter how much you want to forget them. “These things have just got to be, I don’t know why,” Sheff sings on closer “Black Nemo,” bringing a sighing sense of closure to a record intertwined with the things we can’t explain, the bonds and memories we don’t even choose. The Silver Gymnasium’s greatest gift, then, is a lesson: you can leave your home, but it will never leave you. –Rudy K.
5. Gorguts – Colored Sands
In most situations, when a band has touched perfection not only once, but again and again, there is little room to improve or expand simply because there is no place further to go. Gorguts, though, are not imprisoned by the same bounds that other bands – metal bands, especially – are shackled by. In a way they transcend what death metal is capable of, and as they have proven time and again there is always someplace for them to go when things look like they have reached their pinnacle. Maybe it took longer than usual, but Colored Sands is Gorguts continuing to buck the trend, and continuing to show that with death metal the only limits are those you set for yourself. It’s been 12 years since the Canadian death metal legends have made a murmur, but things have now become a full-fledged gale, with the technical prowess rearing its head in a more grotesque, yet refined, way than ever before. Sure, Gorguts have always been progressive and technical, but Colored Sands is an expansion of that motif, not in small part because Luc Lemay has completely changed the lineup, solidifying his status as the sole driving force behind the mayhem.
With this new lineup, Gorguts have also edged their sound onwards. They have always been technical to an almost ludicrous point, and Colored Sands is no exception, but the way Lemay has brought in heaps of progressive tendencies en masse is something that sets the record apart from its predecessors. The fact that the classically-inspired instrumental “The Battle of Chamdo” is so boldly smacked right into the middle of the record is a prime example of this, but it goes deeper as well. The wildly technical guitars melt with the unorthodox song structures in a way that proves Lemay was not just thinking of each instrument individually, but also how it all becomes one cohesive movement. A movement it is indeed, because Colored Sands is a clinic in the power of songwriting, allowing each instrumental ebb and flow to segue into yet another, repeating ad infinitum as one song rolls cleanly into the next. Colored Sands is abrasive on the surface, even more so than most death metal records, but this is due to the fact that it is so complex and so layered; so smooth an orchestration of instrumental ferocity and creative fervor, that it is hard to deny the pure genius at work. –Kyle Ward
4. Kayo Dot – Hubardo
Hubardo was billed as a culmination of Driver’s entire career, but it sounds like nothing he’s put out before. Oh sure, one can hear the prog-metal leanings of maudlin of the Well, or the chamber black-metal of Kayo Dot’s perfect first record, Choirs of the Eye, but Hubardo is a different sort of beast than Driver’s released before. It is simultaneously focused and sprawling. It can be ugly and gorgeous and furious and meditative, sometimes all in the span of seconds. And that’s why it outshines anything Kayo Dot’s released in nearly a decade.
Toby Driver can break your heart because he has a very unique perception of beauty that goes places the layman can’t always follow, but Hubardo’s easily the most accessible thing he’s put out, maybe ever. This is a record drenched in climaxes that spring seemingly from the ether: 8 bars of pummeling in the middle of “Zlida Caosigi”; the hook in “Thief” made of odd modes and drums crashing out of time; the return of the main theme in “Passing the River” after minutes of aleatoric riffage. But perhaps the best thing about Hubardo is that it marks the return of Toby Driver’s mastery of atmosphere. Hubardo, like the best Toby Driver records, is a world you enter, a journey you undergo. You get lost in it and leave it transformed. Celebrate it, because who knows where Toby will take us next. At the very least, it is an album that will convince us to keep trying to follow. –Adam Downer
3. Deafheaven – Sunbather
Nothing explains Sunbather like the first second of its eponymous track, kicking in with those melancholic guitar swells. It’s black metal for dreamers, a typically bleak style of music gone, for lack of better phrasing, “happy.” Sure, this isn’t the first time a musician of this ilk has played this card, but it hasn’t been done quite this blatantly before either. It isn’t just the music but that pink-lemonade album cover too, fitting in swimmingly between other hazy artworks whose contents have been thoroughly endorsed by the Internet’s music sector this year– Boards of Canada, Vampire Weekend, now Deafheaven. These songs deserve that hypnotic blend of colors because they emit the colors through their structuring– they bend light back and forth, pushing it away in heavier passages only to let it back in for instrumental breaks. In other words, Sunbather emits warmth from the get-go, which makes that cover about as damned apt as it could be.
It is a bit easier for black metal enthusiasts to be disenchanted with the record– sure, George Clarke’s shrill bellows aren’t especially charismatic to a seasoned ear of this stuff– but such details are the way they are because Sunbather is more about providing an experience to music enthusiasts as well as creators. And why the hell shouldn’t it fit right in? When the self-titled song kicks in, it steers thoughts back to summer, back when priorities were as distant a thought as the cold bite that winter brings. “Sunbather” hands back those thoughts of what it was first like to identify with summer as more than a season, to really live it through and through. –Jacob Royal
2. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
The decline of modern pop music is well-documented. The ability to move thousands of CDs daily may have masked the creative stagnation brewing underneath at first, but the turn of the millennium brought with it waning concert attendances, poor public opinion polls, and a slump in record sales that digital downloads were simply unable to compensate for. But while it is true that all forms of art have a natural arc of popularity that eventually diminishes, pop’s lack of ambition beyond the immediacy of commercial reward only served to exacerbate its demise.
Enter The 20/20 Experience. In a year chock-full of crossover albums, this was perhaps the most adventurous and certainly the most essential. Sunbather may have belatedly presented hipsters with their own death metal band, and Doldrums was an unexpected male antithesis to Grimes’ brand of cyborg music, but Justin Timberlake turned out to be prog pop’s first messiah. The typical verse-chorus structure, for so long pop music’s weapon of choice, was eschewed in favour of sprawling, vaguely psychedelic epics that extended beyond the eight minute mark and then reveled in their own rebelliousness. In his review of The 20/20 Experience, our very own Sobhi Youssef called the album a “profound manifestation” of recent innovations in R&B, and he couldn’t have been more accurate with a pair of night vision goggles. JT’s third studio record comes replete with abrupt key changes, extended codas, and unexpected rhythms and harmonies, all of which are aimed at lending a greater artistic weight and credibility to pop music.
But at the same time, songs like “Pusher Love Girl” and “Spaceship Coupe” are proof that you don’t necessarily have to give up your old tropes after going through a reinvention either; themes of romance and sex are all the rage here: “I’m just j-j-j-j-junkie for your love!” exhorts JT on the former, with nary a hint of irony. “Strawberry Bubblegum” is our first example of a post-Channel Orange composition, and it slinks off into the realm of neo-soul just as easily as “Pyramids” transitioned from Giza to Vegas about a year ago. Elsewhere, “Don’t Hold the Wall” trades in “Suit & Tie”’s Prohibition-era style of balladeering for a chance on the dancefloor, and simmers for just the right amount of time before delivering pop music’s equivalent of a breakdown and launching into a closing jam worthy of the new Daft Punk record. Then there’s that arena-sized ascending guitar riff that opens “Mirrors”, and the vulnerable humanity glimmering behind the subtext of “Blue Ocean Floor”. But equally as remarkable for me is the fact that music critics have even bothered to lambast the album for owning its fair share of trite lyrics (The Guardian called them “porny” and “awful”; Slate opted for “banal”), because I personally cannot recall a time when lyrics were considered to be an important part of pop music’s credentials. To me, the very fact that we’re even talking about them proves that JT has succeeded in his wild man’s crusade. And on that note, I’ll end things here with a quote left by Sputnik user ILJ in Sobhi’s review thread: “i really do hope this changes pop. i would enjoy pop a helluva lot more”. –Irving Tan
1. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
At the very minimum, it’s a travesty that I haven’t spent every day with Julia Holter’s wispy rendition of “Hello Stranger” since its release. Fellow staff reviewer Alex Robertson told us all that Loud City Song was incredible. Perhaps our divergent opinions on Ducktails’ The Flower Lane tempered my expectations. Maybe I brushed it off subconsciously; if we disagreed so dramatically there, it would logically permeate everything else too, right? Lesson Learned: Trust In Alex Robertson.
On a cursory listen, Loud City Song invokes the urban domain (as noted in Alex’s excellent review here). The songwriting is as delicate and beautiful as it is dark and vacuous, lending a contrast very few records can conjure. But why? Holter draws from an eclectic palette of sources to mold her own conception of pop – dream-pop, lounge/vocal jazz, chamber classical and various forms of ambient electronic musics make appearances in no particular fixed order or delineation. The combinations she experiments with on the “Maxim’s” tracks, or “Horns Surrounding Me” (or most of the record, honestly) evoke profound images of a dark Parisian lounge, psychedelic martinis, learned and lost love, the beginning or the end of the world, and a lonely or not-so-lonely bar close simultaneously.
Per Holter, Loud City Song is a loose collection of thoughts directly or indirectly related in some way to the novel-come-musical/film, “Gigi”. A tale of the confusing nature of love and its transcendence through loss, this background speaks volumes to the classic critical debate of intent versus interpretation when compared to my first impressions. To be as hyperbolic as possible (this is our number one record of the year after all), in a stroke of artistic brilliance, Julia Holter was able to – with near pinpoint precision – imagine her intended images through her art as a vessel for communication of perception. This is the very kind of boundary transforming record we, as not only music critics but music listeners at large, live to admire as living and breathing evidence that art is a unifier of humanity through love, despair, harmony, and really whatever you want it to be. But perhaps (most becomingly) Holter says it the best on “This Is a True Heart”:
Come, let’s not insist on “love”
We’re just alive
Let’s talk straight about it and sled through the boulevard
This is a true heart, listen hard
There are true words, speak hard
See the young – so old so fast
See the young – in love so fast
I don’t understand falling leaves
A tree is a tree
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