Music of 2017 – Over the Cataract

If you’re like me, 2017 turned on you like bad milk. How to tease out the salvageable, unscorched threads from such a forest fire of a year? Here’s one attempt. This is simply music I clung to over the cataract, not necessarily new.

Boy Harsher – Country Girl

Boy Harsher roll as a panther languidly, inexorably, resignedly, hungrily from the sheets in the dimly lit delta between Art of Noise, Pet Shop Boys, and Skinny Puppy. Less is more. And you will do with less.

Gap Dream – Shine Your Light

In the temples of neo-psychedelia there rings a pure “aum.” It eludes, impish, a pursuing army of faithful axemen and bedroom producers who only ever manage to catch audible doses of it as it dashes behind pillars of amplifier whine or crouches just beyond altars of fuzz. Gap Dream cups this “aum” in his hand, in stillness, and draws it reverent to your ear.

Lo Tom – Lo Tom

David Bazan and TW Walsh, the team who brought us Headphones, reunite as a full band to put the force of a guitar steam hammer behind the plaintive insight of some of the best songwriting Bazan has composed to date. How can a coupling meet its end? Let Lo Tom count the ways.

John Maus – Screen Memories

Weird, sparse, darkly wry atmospheric synthetic pop teasing at the grimier edges of nostalgia. Hot and muddy all at once. Kitsch poorly remembered and botched in its resurrection to live again as art- a fundamental misrepresentation of its awful zombie self.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

This is a raw slab of love and pain. There is nothing here but ecstasy and mortal communion.

(This video is from the previous album, “Cupid Deluxe,” but it was just too rad to leave out.)

Iron Chic – You Can’t Stay Here

2017 was that kind of year, and this was a panacea. As the song “My Best Friend (Is a Nihilist)” contends, “It’s hard to be a human being,” indeed. Where humanity is defined by an ethical liberty, the ability to act with love for others and not out of compulsive self-serving competition, this year has shown us all how desperately empty people are in danger of becoming in pursuit of winning.

Cheveu & Group Doueh – Dakhla Sahara Session

French experimental synth punk rockers collaborate with western Saharan fusion band Group Doueh to create a propulsive, off-kilter driver of a record that only seems to pick up speed and inventiveness as the black circle spins.

Trans Am – California Hotel

Trans Am never missteps, but this is still their best in years. Timely, fragile, paranoid, whimsical, and suffused with dread by turns. Still masters of the vocoder, still their own best session musicians, still their own best producers, and still planting the stoic flag of warning for what’s left of our humanity.

Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon

By SecApx - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Uncles are inheritors of the legacies of the likes of Thomas Dolby, XTC, Prefab Sprout, and Icicle Works with the rhythmic backbone of a contemporary band like Mew. They have traits of all of these, but at an octane several rounds of distillation higher, faster, and more frenetic. It’s clean, controlled chaos, and it’s absolutely terrific.

Peter Baumann – Transharmonic Nights

The late-seventies solo work of this one-time member of Tangerine Dream is among the sparsest, most hauntingly beautiful German electronic rock ever made. Listening to this record, you are poised perpetually at the exact moment when day crosses over into night, when the streets greet you empty of passers-by. The stage is set forever for a chance meeting with a sudden change in fate. It is trivial, but I should mention that, of all the bands of this ilk being emulated with the aesthetic of the Stranger Things series, the font for the title sequence of that show seems to have been most directly based on that used on the cover of this record.

Idris Muhammad – Turn This Mutha Out

The sound of this record is as synaesthetically deep red and oversaturated as the photo on the sleeve. Heaven here is endlessly rhythmic, its vaults held aloft by millions of congas. The disco-funk presentation of virtuoso jazz percussion, replete with walking disco bass lines, makes what could be passed over by some as an everyday funk album in actuality a very deep, very sexy pop record. It sticks with you. I’ve played this over and over and over this year. If you need to get away, retreating into this record’s dense, crimson, nighttime sound is like returning to the precipice of love. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sylvester – Stars

I was tipped to this album when I heard the haunting, oddly contemporary closing track, “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight,” during the end credits of an episode of the second season of Master of None. The straightforward pathos and desire for the fulfilment of connection is only heightened by the austere, technological, Kraftwerk-esque chill of the synthetic bed atop which it lays. The record ranges from the life-affirming bombast of the best of nightclub disco to the brilliant aforementioned synthetic confessional. Sylvester was one of humanity’s own spotlights on the runway to love.

Destroyer – Ken

There is no one quite like Dan Bejar, the poet behind Destroyer. This album reaches like a response across the years to a mystical challenge he posed, seemingly to himself, on his 2006 record, the life-changing “Destroyer’s Rubies.” On that record, where one of his characters in the title track “took a room at the castle” that “paid for itself,” he experienced a “series of visions,” the content of which he assured us that he wouldn’t reveal:

Blessed doctor, do your worst.
Cut me open, remove this thirst.
Hidden, but near.
A series of visions, I won’t repeat them here.
I won’t repeat them here.

It’s the end of 2017, and the incurable sick among us draw us nearer to the end of us all, so why not reveal the dream now? And so he does, at the climax of “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood,” the third song on “Ken,” the new record that plays like something by a more a melancholic, atmospheric New Order.

What comes round is going round again
Now let me tell you about the dream:

I had no feeling, I had no past
I was the arctic, I was the vast
Spaces without reprieve

I was a dreamer
Watch me leave

And as 2017 goes, so might we just all. Love to you, peeps.


Best Music of 2011

“Because my opinion is important.”

When Saints Go Machine, Konkylie [!K7]

A sweet, sweet Danish act of synthetic daring and vocal experimentation, despite the stupid name.  It’s nice when a group knows how to slow things down while still perching on the razor’s edge of production and programming.






Obits, Moody, Standard, and Poor [Sub Pop Records]

Grizzled Brooklynites Obits, fronted by former Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes frontman Rick Froberg, deliver the workingman’s doom with beautifully articulated clean, clean Fender tone.  This is the blues for post-bubble America, the debt-slave cynic’s swing low, sweet chariot.  In the song “No Fly List” Froburg urges the listener, whose “daddy’s in hell” and whose “brother’s in jail” not to cry.  Why?  In these chill years when the threat of criminalization lurks as a consequence of everything you do, “These are the things you can’t control.”



Winged Victory for the Sullen, S/T [Kranky]

I heard “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears” as a promo stream on some website this past summer before this record was released (probably directly via their European label, the excellent Erased Tapes Records), and I loved it.  To my ears, limited as they are by a lack of deep exposure to classical music, it sounds like these guys got up from a crying jag after their 300th time listening to Gorécki’s 3rd and decided to make Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Wlll Never Die.  The background electronics are almost invisible and on some tracks you can hear the piano’s innards creaking, so softly coaxed are the notes from its belly.  It’s chamber music meets ambient music, where the sounds of the real world interact directly with the orchestrated composition, and I can’t recommend it enough.



Bibio, Mind Bokeh [Warp Records]

I first heard Bibio in 2005, when he was being compared to Boards of Canada.  That’s why I got into him.  Six years on, the BoC seem to have stopped convening, and Bibio is thousands of conceptual miles from where early critics first tried to fix and liken him.  It’s equal parts weirdness and optimism.  Particularly amazing is the T.O.Y.S. EP, based around the single “Take Off Your Shirt.”






Junior Boys, It’s All True [Domino]

On this breathy, vocals-centered double-slab of hot wax the production is so subtle you might at first overlook the bed of amazingly restrained dance sequencing and beautifully plastic synthesizers all the resigned musings on love are floating over.  This whole record is a tribute to remixing George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex”, that really endearingly bad “Part 2” remix inseparable from “Part 1” on Faith.  It’s lovelorn realization of loss after the glitz of lust has blown over.  It’s that coming to terms with life, the “I Want Your Sex Part 3” that didn’t make its way onto George Michael’s record back in the day.





Destroyer, Kaputt [Merge]

A stream of consciousness ride over moonlit synthesizer pads with nods to New Order and Roberto Bolaño, this is the record that gave a home to the epic single “Bay of Pigs.”  A jaunt in your summer whites from nothing and back to nothing, a soundtrack to the discovery of the terrible secret youth keeps hidden in the open.






 Cut/Copy, Zonoscope [Modular]

I picked up Cut/Copy’s debut, Bright Like Neon Love back in 2004 when I had just moved to New York.  Their follow-up four years later, though it was capturing lots of attention and acclaim, felt like a retread, and I wrote them off.  They were a really great band that deserved the attention, but, I thought, it was a pity that they hadn’t gotten it with their superior first release.  That made this year’s outing that much more of a surprise.  This is the sound of a band pulling out all the stops and loving it, grabbing hooks from their influences and making them better (Paul Simon and Men at Work evident on “Take me over”), doing everything a pop act has in its power to make the listener dance without hesitation.



Atlas Sound, Parallax [4AD]

I am not so pretentious that I think anything I say will in any way add to the work of Bradford Cox. He’s better than the Beatles and he makes it look effortless.








True Widow, As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth [Kemado]

If Sonic Youth were to have been a murder ballad band played at half the speed.







College, The Northern Council [Valerie Collective]

College breaks out of the confining aesthetic of the idealized ’80s (a schtick they helped to define) and produces an unexpected masterpiece of eerie atmospheric instrumental dance music reminiscent of DMX Krew’s darker catalog.