Ok, yeah, I’m a year behind. You know what though? Nobody sent me a single promo disc to review. No press copies, nothing. The most common way that I heard about new music was the randomizer on Youtube, and I only wish I was making that up. How embarrassing for ambitious artists looking for exposure on my extremely well-read blog. As a result, I feel like I really only have enough material to do one real good list anyway. Remember, these are in no particular order. See the Best Of 2015, if you want to know why. I’m sticking to the same premise.
1. Bo Diddley, Have Guitar, Will Travel (1960)
As a teenager, I bought into FM radio branding an embarrassing amount. I listened to 100.3 THE BEAR, because, in words I can almost quote verbatim from the dickheads I went to junior high with, 97.3 K-ROCK was for old people and power 92 was for f*****s. In a desperate effort to gain some, any, kind of perceptible masculinity, I was listening to a radio station that I am 80% sure I remember calling Freddy Mercury and David Bowie f*****s on air. There’s a peculiar, exclusionary narrative that emerges on mainstream rock radio and I was susceptible to it. Music starts in 1969, and on the straight line between Led Zeppelin and Nickelback, it’s made entirely by white dudes, with an assist by Jimi Hendrix and Heart, and nobody else. A more complete version of the story was always just out of view. Even when concessions were made to the blues, it was always to dead blues guys, legendary mentors of the Real Heroes like Clapton or Page. Now, I got older, I started listening to actual good radio mercifully soon afterwards, and I stopped engaging with that weirdo white-supremacist patriarchal history of FM rock music. However, I hadn’t really formed a more accurate picture of rock and roll history.
Enter Bo Diddley. Everyone knows Bo Diddley, even if he’s not getting much airplay. Dude invented a beat (ok maybe he didn’t invent it, not important. It’s named after him, anyway) that to this day sets a standard for bouncing party jams. Here’s an album that features incredible guitar sounds, two spoken-word bits (one of which is just a conversation loaded with insults). Mumblin’ Guitar is basically the only thing you need to know about rock n’ roll. There’s RnB, blues, gospel, country and actual, four-letter-word ROCK.
It’s useful to the FM radio narrative for the forefathers of rock to be dead, and so people who were still alive tended to get sidelined. But I’m starting to think that maybe the reason Bo Diddley didn’t get a lot of credit was that he was too far ahead of his time. Kinda like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneering guitar player who had minor success in France and nowhere else. She would have made the list this year but she doesn’t really have an album to point to, per se.
2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe- (just, like, find some stuff from her catalogue or something. jeez)
My first exposure to Sister Rosetta was in that montage in Amelie (No I will never stop talking about Amelie), but it took me years to actually figure out who she was and what was going on there. The answer is scorching guitar licks.
I can’t go to bat for most of her stuff, personally. A lot of it is kinda hokey, and the full-on gospel sound has never really been my style, and you better strap in for some religious themes. She doesn’t shred on every song, which isn’t usually a problem, but that’s a big part of what I’m here for. The thing for me, though, is that every once in a while the sheer conviction and musicianship just pulls through. Ain’t no Room in Church for Liars or There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood or, of course, Up Above my Head approach you plainly, take stock of that situation, shake off genre expectations and dateness, and then they simply pick you up and take you somewhere else. What else could you want?
4. Onda Vaga – Fuerte y Caliente (2008), Magma Elemental (2013), OV IV (2016)
Basically, every time I put on one of these albums, I end up listening to all of them, although, weirdly, Espíritu Salvaje (2010) never worked for me to the point where I didn’t even pick it up, and I could barely tell you why.
Onda Vaga is kind of a Rioplatense jug band. There’s four guys or maybe like 8 of them (it depends), they harmonize, their songs are usually upbeat, swinging 4/4 and usually the instruments are acoustic. Trumpet, trombone, cuatro (you could be forgiven for think it’s an ukulele), cajon and hand percussion. If you’re wondering how my adoration for this band squares with my distaste for, say, Of Monsters and Men, it’s the twists. Every song composed for these albums has at least one unexpected element. Sometimes more.
Each album has it’s own vibe. Fuerte y Caliente is all rough edges. Magma Elemental is the serious rock album (barely), OV IV goes pop, introducing loops and synths and effects. It’s also probably my favourite, which is not usually true of The Pop Album. Polish looks good on Onda Vaga. Production brings a bigness to Olviblater and En el Barrio, and lets Leona sound lonely even with full instrumentation and dub/middle eastern touches. Moreso than the rest, OV IV brings the left turns.
There’s a lot of hack indie and ska in the makeup of this act, and a teensy bit of that shows through sometimes, but honestly it’s so well executed I don’t care.
5. Shannon and the Clams – Dreams in the Rat House (2013)
You might have picked up that I got really into some retro-rock this year. This particular entry doesn’t need a whole lot of breaking down, just put it on and rock out. It’s a broad survey of retro sounds that wails through the ballads, stomps through the breakdowns and bounces through the dance tunes. If I heard this playing at a house party I wasn’t invited to, I’d think about crashing it. I probably wouldn’t, though. Pretty presumptuous move, really.
6. Natalia Lafourcade – Musas (2017)
This is basically cheating. Natalia Lafourcade, who was never any slouch on her own, recruits Chavela Vargas’ band and puts out an album with songs by Augustín Lara and Violeta Parra. It would take some serious work to make this into a mediocre album, let alone a bad one. Lafourcade has been to this well before with her album of Lara covers, which is also great, but where that album put a millennial pop sheen on some classics, this album has deeper roots altogether. These tunes were picked out for emotional connection. Look at the swirling frustration and resentment under the swinging Te vi pasar or the poise and passion in Tonada de Luna Llena. Don’t think of it as an education in Latin American music, that sounds boring. Even the album’s subtitle, “an homage to Latin American folklore”, undersells how personal, and therefore original, the actual album is.
7. Los Zafiros – Bossa Cubana (released 1999)
Bossa Cubana is a collection of recordings from the early 60’s heyday of Los Zafiros, a group from Cuba by way of Los Angeles who incorporated African American doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll with Cuban rhythms and scales. Manuel Galbán, who you might recognize from much later works with the Buena Vista Social Club and Ry Cooder, was part of a very avante-garde musical movement, and his choice of notes, voicing and tone recalls everything from jazz to country to 1980s new- wave guitar playing on an archtop hollowbody. The harmonies shimmer and shine over appropriately minimal arrangements.
Beyond the complexity and polish of these tunes, though, there’s the obvious energy with which they’re delivered. This is lightweight pop in the best possible sense. It sounds like a busy pedestrian street on a hot summer day. If you rock out to the Drifters or the Coasters, this should fit comfortably into your collection.
8. The Shins- Wincing the Night Away (2007)
This doesn’t technically belong on this list, because I didn’t discover it in 2016 or 2017. Instead, this was an album my older sister listened to a lot when it came out. I was skeptical of it. Even now, there’s a lot of similar-sounding warbled mediocre retro-indie, and, yes, the association of the Shins with the movie Garden State didn’t help either, although, as a proper pretentious teenager, I of course never actually saw the movie.
I got to thinking about it because of a bassline. There’s a very standard bassline (this is the boogie woogie version of it, but with a heavier downbeat it’s the backbone of blues, honky-tonk, rockabilly, etc). anyway, this album’s first two songs play around with the standard arpeggio in beautiful ways. Sleeping Lessons softens it into a major 7 chord, Australia starts the arpeggio but then drifts off, making the listener wonder if it’s going to come back down or not. It doesn’t, but instead it becomes part of a call-and-response to a vocal part.
Basically, once I got back into the album, I didn’t want to leave. This is an album full of great textures and arrangements. Every guitar solo, by the way, is perfect for the song that it’s in. None of them are feats of finger-blurring wizardry, but all of them sound appropriate to the mood. That’s harder than it sounds. I mean, it must be, or it would happen more often, right?
9. Case/Lang/Viers-Case/Lang/Viers (2016)
This album actually pairs very well with the Shins album, in that they both realize shimmering, textured evocations of several decades’ worth of pop music. Pop might be the wrong word, but then, I couldn’t really say what the actual genre of the piece is. It doesn’t matter.
This album is sort of cheating the way that the Natalia Lafourcade one is. Even if it was just strictly the sum of it’s parts, who would care?
This album is absolutely my top choice for 2016. It’s atmospheric and gorgeous and practically demands to be heard in headphones or hi-fi. It’s forlorn and sinuous and angry and achingly sexy. You don’t really need to read more about it, just go have a listen.
Also, Honey and Smoke has a great joke that explains how honey goes in your ear but ellides where smoke goes. More “serious” songwriting like that, please.
10. Charanjit Singh-Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982) / Konono No. 1 – Congotronics (2004)
These albums are sharing a spot because that seemed fair to me. Not because they’re not both great independently, but because I don’t know how much I have to say about them in the capacity of reviewer. There’s a seminal French Film Studies paper about how critics should only critique things they like, which I’m down with, but I also think that critics would do well to stick with what they know, providing they are constantly expanding what they know. But I don’t know much about Indian music or Congolese music. I don’t know how these albums stand in their genres or the careers of the artists.
Charanjit Singh made a pioneering electronica record in 1982 that was way ahead of it’s time. Konono No. 1 made a huge sounding electric mbira album that I really hope is ahead of it’s time so we get more stuff like it. I don’t know where they fit in the worlds that they came from, but I do know that they really, really, really groove.
11. La Yegros – Viene de Mi (2013)
This will perhaps be a harder swallow for folks who don’t listen to much cumbia, and an even harder swallow if you’re a cumbia traditionalist. It’s dance music, but there’s not much pop about it. It’s got grungy dance production and folkloric instruments and a grinding, sweaty accordion. It’s got anthemic choruses and verses that are more rapped than sung. La Yegros’ distinctive voice might be a bit of an acquired taste. It’s folk music from the post-apocalypse. Don’t sweat it. It might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.
12. John K. Samson – Winter Wheat (2016)
Speaking of distinctive voices, prairie poet John K. Samson probably couldn’t be confused for anyone else. His delivery, even over slow, folky jams, is never exactly mellow, never really aggresive. Plantive, in a way that recalls his punk rock days. That’s no mean feat for an an album full of swooning acoustic instruments.
Indeed, this is post-punk, but in the sense of someone who’s been out in the wilderness of Manitoba they’ve almost forgotten the anger of young city dwellers. Everything has an sense of overexposure and wear to it. Too tired to be sad, too sad to be angry.
Regardless, the album strides along with the energy of an assiduous activist who know there’s more to do after the protests are over. The distortion still runs deep, the snare hits are still hard, if and when they show up. Chugging acoustic guitars still push along, and John’s wavering voice reveals its depth.
13. Calexico – Edge of the Sun (2015)
Here’s a gooder. This album sounds like a road trip. This album sounds like rust and small towns. Like desert and forest and gas stations. Like the cosmopolitan mix that only emerges when people from numerous different backgrounds are in rural isolation. Like trading in your novel at the only laundromat for miles.
Calexico is electric and acoustic, folk and pop, Spanish and English. If you like mariachi and funk and Willie Nelson, they won’t steer you wrong. Get the extended version of the album, if you can. It’s worth it.
14. k-os – Atlantis: Hymns for Disco (2006)
Years ago, back in high school, I still didn’t listen to any hip-hop. k-os’ first album, Joyful Rebellion, broke that barrier for me. I adored it. I learned to play a bunch of the songs and I carried it around in my CD wallet, listening on my discman on the bus on the way to school. A few short years later, Atlantis came out, and I completely ignored it. OK, that’s not quite true. The problem was Flypaper. Flypaper is a good song on it’s own, but it suffers in comparison to Crabbuckit. I assumed the whole album was a rehash (Sam Roberts as the guest-star rock musician AGAIN? c’mon), and I never really worried about k-os until last year, when I realized that I wanted to listen to the other two singles from that album, Sunday Morning and Born to Run. And I was greatly rewarded.
k-os draws from a ton of sources, as ever, but his eclecticism never undoes the spirit of the project. Marching bands, disco, reggae and dub, Bloc Party’s first album, Prince and more are all at play here. There’s not one but two rockabilly rap tunes (Valhalla, the second one, features Sam Roberts as the guest-star rock musician. How cool is that?). It’s great. I mean, Highway 7 doesn’t work for me at all, but everything else is just grand.
And Flypaper is actually a different song than Crabbuckit. It’s been worth it just to learn that for sure.
15. Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra – Revuelta Danza Party (2015)
Want to dance? put this on.