2018 Mid-Year Report!

Well hello, middle of 2018. My, have you sucked. If the world is going to go up in flames – or at least devolve into a battle between the Fascist United States of America versus the Western Allies – you might as well endure it all by listening to some great music.

Thankfully, good new music, along with my very happy life with fiancée Stacey, has been a big reason I’ve been able to keep my head above that rising tide of politics-related misery. And reading. Lots and lots of reading on the commute to and from work.

Seriously, though, it’s been a wonderful first half of 2018 regarding new tunes. So much so that this is the first time in years that I’ve resurrected my previously annual mid-year report. Interestingly enough, what I’ve noticed the most is how the more I avoid the insularity of the metal scene, the more positive reaction to the music I have. Being so ensconced in the scene for so long, it made me resent so much of the music and the “culture”, and by working hard at keeping it all at an arm’s length, I’ve learned to experience a lot of new metal music from a fresh perspective. It dawned on me not too long ago that while it is futile to declare any year “a good year for metal music”, I can easily say that 2018 has been an incredible year for metal music than I like. That’s what matters most, and I can’t remember being this enthused about the new metal tunes that I like. Imagine that!

My tastes are eclectic as usual, and there’s plenty of variety in this list, but make no mistake, the Heavy Stuff is back with a vengeance in 2018. So in alphabetical order, here’s a list of my favourite records of the year so far.

Amorphis, Queen of Time (Nuclear Blast): The Finns haven’t put out a bad record in nearly 15 years now, and their incredible run continues with a lavish mix of sleek symphonic metal and folk music. A nerdy delight. Spotify

Camila Cabello, Camila (Sony): I am totally unfamiliar with Fifth Harmony, but Cabello’s solo debut wowed me with its consistency and personality, not to mention the incredible “Never Be the Same”. Spotify

CHVRCHES, Love is Dead (Glassnote): A lot of people soured on the trio’s shameless attempt at a more mainstream sound, I love it when artists swing for the fences. Spotify

GAS, Rausch (Kompakt): German ambient artist Wolfgang Voigt has created a hypnotic meditation on the world around him. It’s imposing and gloomy, but like world news in 2018, incredibly fascinating. Spotify

Ghost, Prequelle (Loma Vista): Probably my favourite new band this decade, Ghost returned with a near masterpiece, subverting metal, hard rock, and pop into an inventive homage to the great heavy music of the 1970s. Spotify

Gwenno, Le Kov (Heavenly): The dreamy second album by the extremely talented ex-Pipette is another kraut-pop beauty, this time sung entirely in Cornish. Spotify

Judas Priest, Firepower (Sony): Some of my ’80s heroes returned with their strongest album in a good 28 years, bolstered by the production of Andy Sneap and the eternally lovable presence of master Robert Halford. Bless you, boys. Spotify

Khemmis, Desolation (20 Buck Spin): Metal needs more fantasy and less activism. and the third album by the Denver band is a wonderful homage to classic swords-amd-sorcery heavy metal. Empowering, catchy, impeccable. Spotify

Kylie, Golden (BMG): This the boldest Kylie album in 17 years, taking mainstream country and bastardizing with a helpful (and deliciously subversive) dose of dancey pop. Spotify

Messa, Feast For Water (aural): One of the year’s biggest surprises, the Italian band finds a sublime balance between thunderous, doom-inspired heavy metal with an irresistible jazz element. Spotify

Sleep, The Sciences (Third Man): A surprise album by the doom greats, their first in 20 years? Sure, I’ll take it. A record that turns out to be not only their greatest, but an instant doom classic? Pardon me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. Spotify

Tomb Mold, Manor of Infinite Forms (20 Buck Spin): The latest by the Toronto band is the catchiest, grooviest death metal album I have heard in a long time. And I’m extremely picky when it comes to death metal. Spotify

Tribulation, Down Below (Century Media): The startling new album by the Swedish bands juxtaposes death metal with the gothic rock of Fields of the Nephilim and the progressive nature of Celtic Frost. Spotify

U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited (Royal Mountain): The latest by Meghan Remy continues her ascendancy as one the finest songwriters and musical auteurs in the country. This was a lock for my 2018 Polaris ballot. Spotify

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turks): The highly anticipated second album from the most famous new jazz musician in the world is a staggering feat. Music and ideas for days and days, over three CDs and three hours. Spotify

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The 2017 Album of the Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Zola Jesus, Okovi (Sacred Bones)

Nika Rosa Danilova has been flirting with greatness for the past decade, her unique blend of darkwave and Kate Bush-derived art pop establishing her as a burgeoning talent over the course of five albums. She’s come close, from 2010’s bold Stridulum II, to 2011’s beautiful Conatus, to 2013’s superb Versions. 2014’s Taiga left me feeling a little cool, mainly because I kept expecting phenomenal music rather than merely “pleasing”. Perfection always felt within her grasp, which has always been a big reason why I’m drawn to her music. Her soaring, powerful alto voice lends great strength to her dark-toned arrangements, and that combination of voice, instrumentation, and songwriting reaches a new peak on Okovi, Danilova’s strongest work to date. Songs like “Soak”, “Witness”, and “Siphon” touch on dark themes, but a sense of empathy constantly lurks underneath the seeming bleakness. Detecting a sense of humanity is always a challenge when it comes to music this stark, but aided by sterling production and gorgeous string arrangements, not to mention a sensational vocal performance, Okovi’s visceral power is undeniable. It’s particularly ironic that on a record whose Latvian title translates as “shackles”, Zola Jesus sounds liberated. Reflective of both a year that saw society crumble and a personal year where I discovered new happiness, Okovi’s impeccable balance between light and shade makes this a very easy choice for Album of the Year.

  1. Zola Jesus, Okovi (Sacred Bones)
  2. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest (Because Music)
  3. Pallbearer, Heartless (Profound Lore)
  4. Partner, In Search of Lost Time (You’ve Changed)
  5. Paramore, After Laughter (Fueled By Ramen)
  6. Spirit Adrift, Curse of Conception (20 Buck Spin)
  7. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains (Matador)
  8. Biblical, The City That Always Sleeps (New Damage)
  9. Goldfrapp, Silver Eye (Mute)
  10. Haim, Something to Tell You (Polydor)

The 2017 Track of the Year

 

1. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”

Going back to Sugababes’ “Freak Like Me” many moons ago, I’ve always enjoyed pop music that deconstructs an existing piece of music and transforms it into something completely new. That’s exactly what Selena Gomez, songwriter Julia Michaels, and producer Justin Kirkpatrick do on the innovative and brilliant “Bad Liar”. Unlike so much American pop music, “Bad Liar” strips the song down to skeletal form, built solely around the bassline of Talking Heads’ classic “Psycho Killer”. The fact that they’re able to take a distinct sample from one of the most famous rock songs of the 1970s and create something new an almost unrecognizable is marvel to hear. Couple Gomez’s restrained singing and her coy, spoken word cadence, it made for a welcome dose of originality and inventiveness in a derivative and cookie-cutter pop landscape.

The Best Albums of 2017, #2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


2. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest (Because Music)

The story behind the creation of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first studio album in seven years was total critic-bait: following the tragic death of her sister, photographer Kate Barry in 2013 Gainsbourg relocated from Paris to New York and started collaborating with producer Sebastian Akchoté, best known for his work with Frank Ocean, in an effort to channel her sadness into music. Whether making music or acting, Gainsbourg has always been fearless, throwing herself into her art fully, which more often than not results in bravura performances, and the resulting album Rest is just that, and it’s understandable that music critics were over the moon. From a personal standpoint, this album clicked on many levels. Yes, Gainsbourg’s melancholy tributes to her sister are heart-wrenching (especially “Kate” and “Rest”), but she and Akchoté have created music that honours Charlotte’s famous parents Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, delves into much darker territory, turns up the funk, and ends up sounding completely unique and her own. The vocal phrasing and melodies are totally reminiscent of Serge and Jane (“Rest” sounds uncannily like something Birkin might have done in the early-1970s, “Les Crocodiles” greatly resembles Serge’s work circa Melody Nelson) as are the gently loping arrangements by Akchoté. Other tracks like “Lying With You” and “Deadly Valentine” have a more gothic tone, bringing to mind the great cinematic band Goblin. “Sylvia Says” is a groovy interpretation of a Sylvia Plath song, while “Songbird in a Cage” is an inspired collaboration with none other than Paul McCartney (hey, when Paul McCartney gifts a song to you, you record it!). In the end Rest succeeds not only because of the intent of the project, but also because it so assuredly adopts an eclectic array of styles while maintaining a strong sense of consistency throughout. It’s a triumphant work of art.

The Best Tracks of 2017, #2

2. Paramore, “Told You So”

For all the words written about Paramore’s struggles to keep the band intact amid a revolving door of supporting members, the bedrock has always ben the musical partnership between singer Hayley Williams and guitarist Taylor York. From the revelatory 2007 single “That’s What You Get” through 2013’s spectacular self-titled fourth album, the duo continues to break new ground with each new recording. “Told You So” immerses itself in the multicolored tones of 1980s pop, its syncopation, choppy guitar work, and marimba owing a great deal to the more Caribbean and African inspired sound of new wave, with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen adding just the right touch of Tine Weymouth-inspired bass melodies. Capped off by a winning vocal performance by Williams, this track was an immediate highlight of the summer of 2017.

The Best Albums of 2017, #3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Pallbearer, Heartless (Profound Lore)

I’m tempted to just come out and grandiosely declare Pallbearer the best American metal band of the 2010s. And five years ago I never thought I’d ever say that about this band. Contrary to the curmudgeons who grumble pathetically, “They peaked with their demo,” Pallbearer’s evolution over the course of three albums has been wonderful to witness. What started out as a unique take on doom metal has steadily developed into something completely unique, a hybrid of doom metal, classic 1970s heavy metal, and most crucially, progressive rock. In fact, the more the band indulges their prog side, the better they sound, and that’s on full display on the sprawling, gorgeous Heartless. Brett Campbell’s singing has gotten so much stronger and more confident, and he’s able to dominate tracks rather than allow his vocals to be buried in the mix. The melodies and phrasing he comes up with are unique as well, not so much focused on a particular hook but sounding as an extension of a melodic guitar solo. And as for those solos, led by Devin Holt, they achieve a stateliness that rivals the work of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, combining melody and expression, which beautifully offsets the forceful, doom-oriented rhythm guitar riffs. You hear that confidence on tracks like “Dancing in Madness” and “I Saw the End”, as the foursome carry themselves authoritatively, fully knowledgeable that few in the metal genre can do what they’re doing. From the hugely improved vocal melodies to the expressive solos and ribcage-rattling riffs, Pallbearer walk the line between sheer power and fragile beauty better than anyone in the genre right now.

 

The Best Tracks of 2017, #3

3. Lana Del Rey, “Love”

In a year riddled with tragedy and unrest it was Lana Del Rey who came through with a song that cut through all the misery and offered a tiny glimmer of hope. It’s almost as if this world has gotten too cynical for a simple song about love to connect with people, but Del Rey’s stunning debut single from her third album did just that. “Look at you kids with your vintage music,” she winks on “Love”, all the while creating a pitch-perfect pastiche of classic torch songs and teen ballads, from references to Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. Accentuated by its stark backing arrangement, the track’s power lies in ins simplicity and directness. Love might not be <i>all</i> you need, but it sure does make life worth living. “It don’t matter because it’s enough / To be young and in love,” Del Rey croons, urging listeners to embrace the feeling.

The Best Albums of 2017, #4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


4. Partner, In Search of Lost Time (You’ve Changed)

Rock music needed an album like this so badly: something with volume, power, gigantic hooks, humour, and poignancy, if only to reassure me that the music is in the capable hands of a new generation of kids who have a thorough understanding of what rock music rock, and who adhere to that formula with a sense of unbridled joy. Hailing from Windsor, Ontario (by way of Sackville, New Brunswick) the duo of Josée Caron and Lucy Niles brought a refreshing approach to indie rock on Partner’s exuberant debut album. It had been so long since I heard a debut rock album this good that I sat there in shock while listening. Indebted to the robust melodic rock of Veruca Salt, the effervescent power pop of Cheap Trick, and the guitar-driven aggression of Thin Lizzy, Partner’s music is witty, loud, and extremely catchy, best exemplified by the boisterous “Gross Secret”, the hilarious “Everybody Knows”, and the contagious “Play the Field”. In an era where the “rock” label has been applied to male groups who know how to do anything but, these two young women have helped breathe new life into the genre, and it’s only a matter of time before a much larger audience catches on. To wax hyperbolic a little (no pressure or anything) this band is the future of Canadian rock music, and I can’t wait to hear what they do next.

The Best Tracks of 2017, #4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Cut to the Feeling”

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015’s triumphant Emotion, “Cut to the Feeling” continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza’s production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song’s feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It’s the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face.

The Best Albums of 2017, #5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


5. Paramore, After Laughter (Fueled By Ramen)

If there’s one album that perfectly reflect the cultural angst that has permeated 2017, especially in America as seen by a concerned but crisis-fatigued outsider, it’s Paramore’s superb, surprisingly mature and world-weary fifth album. The story behind After Laughter was big news upon its release, how their 2013 album (my Album of the Year that year) was their big mainstream breakthrough but left the band in tatters for the umpteenth time. For all the intra-band strife, for all the band members that keep shuffling through the revolving door, however, it’s been clear for a decade now that Paramore has been, and always will be, all about the musical partnership of singer Hayley Williams and guitarist Taylor York. They are the masterminds of this whole project, and this time around their latest album is preoccupied with the fallout from the many stressful moments their professional lives kept serving them. Thing is, while they might have been writing and singing about “Hard Times” in their own personal lives, it uncannily reflects the past year that was, and when seen through that lens After Laughter becomes extraordinary and scarily timely. The way the pastel colours of the artwork and contagious, sunny pop hooks contrast with the very dark and pensive lyrical content is cognitive dissonance epitomized perfectly, and it doesn’t take a sociologist to compare that to America’s boastful stance that it is the paragon of democracy while it knows full well that has willingly started its own self-immolation through 250 years of disastrous and tragic decisions. Paramore has made a perfect album for that mindset: they made music you can dance to, that you can sing along to, all the while making you aware that things are nowhere near as rosy as those hooks, harmonies, beats, and melodies seem to be. There might not be much hope for America, but you can find some consolation, some transcendence in a pop hook, and After Laughter radiates hooks. Just keep smiling through the tears, because things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. “I’m gonna draw my lipstick wider than my mouth,” sings Williams on “Fake Happy”, “And if the lights are low they’ll never see me frown.”