6: Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
Following a succession of releases that showcased a delicate, cerebral sound, as if it were emanating from a bespoke jewel box, Chicago’s own Andrew Bird cranks up the amps on his latest effort. But not to 11, just to about 5: Where once dainty fiddles and whistling dominated, comparatively brawny guitars and drums now propel a few songs. The added instrumental oomph isn’t always welcome. The opening track, “Capsized,” is a generic ‘70s-FM rocker that would sound at home on side two of a Stephen Stills album. Bird also dials back his dense word-nerd lyrics, opting for a more heartfelt, direct approach, although he still can’t resist the occasional egghead verse or two, like this one from the bouncy title cut: “Used to be willfully obtuse/Or is the word abstruse?/Semantics like a noose/Get out your dictionaries.” The new direction seems a tad tentative, giving “Are You Serious” the feel of a transitional work. But all the tinkering pays off with the profoundly moving “Valleys of the Young,” which maps out in vivid detail the perilous peaks and valleys of parenthood. It’s a sprawling, guitar-fuel rock opus worthy of Neil Young himself and it lifts this intriguing-if-flawed record to greatness.
7: Angel Olsen – My Woman
Previously a purveyor of doleful indie folk—check out her relentlessly bleak 2014 breakthrough “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” for proof—this North Carolina-based singer-songwriter aims for a broader, brighter sound on her fourth album. The results are fairly spectacular. “You’ll Never Be Mine,” an incandescent ode to unrequited love, shimmies to a ‘60s girl group beat. “Give It Up” hits the grunge-pop sweet spot between the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nirvana. And “Heart Shaped Face” is a country-tinged weeper that recalls Lucinda Williams at her most poignant. Olsen still occasionally lapses into the Debbie Downer doldrums, especially during the album’s slower second half. (Or side two for you vinyl nerds). And the instrumentation and production are scruffy to a fault. One wonders how someone like Butch Vig might tweak the grunge-y guitar riffs on “Give It Up”— he’s had some success with that after all. But flaws aside, “My Woman” is a damn good, stylistically diverse set that hints at even greater things to come.
8: Bon Iver – 22, A Million
To be honest, until now I haven’t thought much of Bon Iver, the hipster folkie act founded and fronted by Wisconsinite Justin Vernon. Something about Vernon’s plaintive falsetto, at times layered into an Enya-like ooze, as well as the sleepy, strummy melodies and the vague, non-linear lyrics left me shrugging. I even pooh-poohed the Grammy love the band reaped in 2011 for the indie hit “Holocene” and its source album “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” which bored me silly. On the surface at least, Bon Iver’s third full-length album doesn’t appear to be aimed at doubters like myself. From its esoteric cover art to its eye-rollingly cryptic song titles (one track is actually named “__45__”) to the jarring electronic effects that punctuate its 10 songs, “22, A Million” almost seems designed to repel less daring listeners. But it’s the challenging aspects that make this the group’s best record by leaps and bounds. Whereas previous releases wafted by, barely registering, this one demands that you prick up your ears and pay attention. One minute you’re being pummeled by the software-generated tribal drums on “10 Death Breast,” the next you’re trying to parse the gospel hymn-meets-Laurie Anderson’s vocoder weirdness of “715 CrƩƩks.” It’s an exhilaratingly difficult work and one of the biggest artistic leaps forward by any act this year. But those song titles? They have GOT to go.
9: M83 – Junk
How much cheese is too much? French electronic whiz Anthony Gonzalez, the brains behind M83, tests the limits of that question on his seventh album. “Junk” is an unapologetic tribute to ‘80s pop that is sure to separate the fromage connoisseurs from the lactose intolerant. We’re not talking about the hipster-sanctioned ‘80s sounds of the Cure or the Smiths, no sirree. As the album title suggests, we’re in much less treasured territory—think T’Pau, Go West, and even, gulp, Peter Cetera. Goofy gimmicks and musical clichés are proudly present. There are power ballads, including the hilariously sappy “For the Kids,” which features a spoken-word interlude by an otherworldly child. There is a guitar solo by none other than Steve Vai, the king of overwrought ‘80s axe work. There is even an instrumental that sounds disturbingly like the theme song from “Gimme a Break.” All this pop detritus has prompted some critics to moan that Gonzalez has sacrificed the nuance and cinematic sweep of his previous works, including the widely praised 2011 opus “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” I might agree if “Junk” weren’t such giddy fun in its entirety. If you’re looking for a tasty break from the cold gruel that 2016 has consistently served up, spread this on a cracker and enjoy.
2016 has been so relentless in its awfulness that it’s tempting to not dig for diamonds in this manure mound of a year and just hold my nose and turn away until January. (Come on, 2017, you’ve got to be better!) But even as the passing of way too many cultural heroes broke our hearts and politics broke us into warring camps and the world often seemed just plain broken, some fine music was made that helped us cope, or at least distracted us for a while. And though I’ve been preoccupied for the past few months with moving across the pond to England—a personal bright spot, I’ll admit, and the start of an exciting new adventure—I found it fairly easy to muster a list of 10 great albums. Continue reading →