Music · Review

Favorite Albums – January, 2016

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1. David Bowie – Blackstar

What could I write about Blackstar that hasn’t already been written in the deluge of pieces produced in the wake of Bowie’s death? Blackstar feels like the kind of rare album where all you could ever need to know is in the album itself. Why read what someone else has to say when Bowie said it all himself–even if you don’t understand it all—in the songs? I’ll leave it at this: the week after Bowie’s death, I called for a special meeting of the film and music club I sponsor at school, Sound + Vision, to talk a little about Bowie and his music. A student, who is a particularly passionate Bowie fan, was trying to talk about Blackstar and trying to convince the other students to listen to it. “He knew he was probably going to die,” he said, “and he made an album about it. He had the chance to leave a final statement, and he did it. What other artist has had that chance?” Indeed. And what other artist has done it anywhere near as well as Bowie did?

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2. Anderson .Paak – Malibu 

“Generous” is the word I would use to describe Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. Clocking in at 16 songs and just over 60 minutes, Malibu is one of those long records—perhaps too long—that nonetheless holds your attention throughout its entirety. That’s helped, of course, by just how well this album fucking grooves. Most of the songs stand on their own—such as “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “The Season | Carry Me,” and “Come Down”—but I’ve found myself enjoying this album most when I can just zone out and nod my head, letting the whole thing flow over me. The closet artist comparison that most immediately comes to mind is D’Angelo (listen to “Waterfall (Interluuuube)” and tell me you don’t hear it too), but .Paak’s music obviously doesn’t feel as singular as that (at least, not yet). You can hear the obvious influence of The Soulquarians (The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu, the aforementioned D’Angelo), but one can also sense the impact of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in the sprawl of different styles employed throughout the album—see: the jazz feel of “Your Prime”—and the melding of the personal and political in .Paak’s lyrics. And while you can choose to examine the latter, because there’s certainly enough substance here to do that, you can also choose to just . . .  listen. From the first listen, I was impressed by just how enjoyable it was to listen to this album, and I’ve continued to come back to it since then, more so than any other album released this month. Aside from the cringe-inducingly dumbheaded lyrics of “Silicon Valley” (a shame, too, given how good the melody is), Malibu is the rare album of its length without much of a misstep, an album with an incredibly pleasing aesthetic that backs it up with lyrical and musical substance, should you choose to look for it. When I say that it’s “generous,” I’m talking about the length of the album, but I’m also talking about the feeling of it: by the time you hit the back-to-back punch of “Celebrate,” one feels more open and, yes, more joyful. That’s a rare feeling, right? And I’m pretty sure that is why Malibu is an album I will be returning to a lot over the next 11 months.

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3. Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow

I saw Shearwater open for St. Vincent back in 2012. It was one of the best live sets I’ve ever seen. I had listened to Animal Joy a fair bit before then, I think, and I know I had listened to Rook more than a fair bit, but it was that show that made me a lifelong fan of the band. It was one of those: the kind of show that makes you rave to everyone around you about what you just saw and the kind of show that, three and a half years later, you still think about every couple of months. Both bands were passionate and intense, putting on two of the tightest sets I’ve ever seen, but of course I knew going in that St. Vincent would be like that—it was the shock of just how damn good Shearwater was that sticks with me.

That show, though, feels like it was forever ago. Animal Joy feels like it was forever ago. Although there was the minor release of Fellow Travelers, a compilation of covers of bands Shearwater had toured or played with at some point, the band has stayed relatively off the grid since then. Going into Jet Plane and Oxbow, then, I didn’t have many expectations, although I hoped that it would be as good as the rest of their material. It is. After having had it for a few weeks now, I’m convinced that moving away from the “art rock” stylings of the Island Trilogy (Palo Santo, Rook, The Golden Archipelago) was a good decision. That’s not to say that they’ve entirely moved away from it, but one can hear clearly, particularly in songs like “Only Child” and “Glass Bones,” how they’ve focused the grandeur and hard-hitting moments of those albums into a more accessible sound, one that has the skill engendered by the experimental leanings of their earlier albums but the emotion and power of a less insular, more open sound.

One can sort of see this split in the two halves of the album, with the first five songs being more groove-oriented, raucous and clattering yet ever-focused. In other words, they are songs that continue what was established in Animal Joy, building on that with a keener emphasis on electronics this time. It’s the second halve, though, that has become my favorite over the few weeks—it’s the part of the album that has me returning over and over. Starting with “Pale Kings,” Jet Plane and Oxbow becomes a much more open record, with much more of an emphasis on space and emotion. Gone is the claustrophobic drive of the first five songs, replaced instead with slower tempos and soaring choruses: ballads, in essence. The slower, more open sound of the second half blended the songs together for the first four or five listens, but it’s opened up to me as I keep coming back. (That the second half of the album is made up almost entirely of such sweeping songs only makes the explosion of the penultimate “Radio Silence”—a perfect sequencing move—more impactful, resulting in one of the best songs Shearwater has ever done.) And at the center of it all, of course, is Jonathan Meiburg’s voice, the finest part of it all. In all that space, Meiburg’s voice—and the eloquent melodies it sings—soars. It’s enough at times to induce shivers while providing comfort, just like the greatest moments of Shearwater’s music do.

Indeed, my favorite moment on the album is, well, a noticeable one but not one that many people will find as moving as I do: Meiburg’s voice, soaked in reverb, echoing over and over the ending word of the first verse in “Stray Light at Clouds Hill.” I can’t tell you why exactly this moment—and its twin, at the end of the second verse—moves me so much. It’s the kind of moment that I suspect most people won’t fixate on the way I have—I mentioned it to my Dad, another big Shearwater fan, and he just shrugged—but it works as both the emotional center of the dirge-like song and the come-down after the chugging “Radio Silence.” It’s a perfect decision in the context of the song, a small moment full of more expression than you would expect, just like the whoop Meiburg lets out near the end of “A Long Time Away.” It’s the moment that makes me scroll back to the beginning and start it all over again.

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4. Chairlift – Moth

Moth is a pop album with exquisite highs, above all. The rest is good enough. When it hits, it hits hard, mainly on the songs “Polymorphing,” “Ch-Ching,” “Crying in Public,” and “Moth to the Flame.” Other tracks, like “Ottawa to Osaka” or “Unfinished Business,” are pleasant enough but drift along without enough melodic oomph to stand up with the rest of the album. It’s not a perfect pop album, but it features perfect songs, and it’s worth listening to just for those. In essence, this is the perfect album for driving around in the sun with the windows down. That I don’t have as much to say about it as I do the other albums listed on this post is not a lack of an endorsement: I just don’t have as much to say about it. It really is exquisite at times (“Moth to the Flame” might be one of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard), and it’s worth some listening.

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5. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon – Jesu/Sun Kil Moon

If you’ve listened to Mark Kozelek’s music at all in, oh, the past four years, you pretty much know the drill with this one. If you haven’t, well, then I would suggest starting elsewhere: Benji is his late-career masterpiece, but there are plenty others, albeit with a vastly different sound from what he’s been doing lately: Red House Painters’ Songs for a Blue Guitar, Sun Kil Moon’s April. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon is a lyrical continuation of Kozelek’s “songs as diary entries” method, with each song documenting specific day-to-day activities (taking a walk! eating at a restaurant!)  and the ramble of sometimes mundane, sometimes profound thoughts that pass through one’s head every day.

Musicially, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon feels like a compendium of sounds Kozelek has worked with over the past four years. “Good Morning My Love” and “Carondelet” feel like a continuation of the ragged guitars that accompanied him on Mark Kozelek & Desertshore, just a little more intense. (It is Jesu accompanying him on this one, after all.) “Father’s Day” and “Beautiful You” are in line with the ambient electronic of Perils from the Sea, his collaboration with Jimmy LaValle (The Album Leaf). Others (“Fragile,” “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek and John Dillinger”) sound like they could have fit right in on Benji and Universal Themes. At this point in his career, Kozelek’s personality overwhelms and infuses every aspect of his music, particularly in his lyrics. (How could they not, given the diaristic nature of them?) This results in some pretty annoying moments—the reading of fan letters feels more like a petty attempt to dismiss his critics than anything else, and it reeks of the self-importance featured on “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues,” self-importance that irks me to no end at some points—but it also results in some gorgeous, profound moments as well, most notably in the lament for bereaved parents (provoked by the news of the death of Nick Cave’s son), “Exodus.” “Exodus” is one of the best songs to come out of the shift in songwriting begun with Among the Leaves, with Kozelek using his straightforward approach to write something that is more affecting because of its straightforwardness. Whereas a song like “Exodus” could come off as cheesy in someone else’s hands, Kozelek is gifted enough in his expression and in his juxtaposition of the mundane and the emotional to pull it off. (It helps that the backing music, mostly built around a simple piano line, conjures an atmosphere in a way very few Kozelek songs have done lately.)

This is, after all, what Kozelek’s music, as epitomized by Benji, is best at: the juxtaposition of the mundane and the emotional. I’m reminded consistently of James Joyce’s classic, Ulysses, when I listen to Kozelek’s recent music. Ulysses too is about the mundane, with Joyce’s writing lifting it into something profound. Among other things, Ulysses is about how we live with the past as we go about our day-to-day lives, seem mostly in the relationship between Bloom and his son, whose memory (and image) pops up throughout the day described in the book. Kozelek’s last few records have a similar relationship that pops up: that of Kozelek and his ex-girlfriend Katy, a figure who has featured in almost all of Kozelek’s records and who is again mentioned here. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon is yet another document of Kozelek’s life, but maybe in all its particulars one can see a document of living in general, of life in all its messiness.

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