The album as a delivery device for music has been dying for more than a decade now, or, at least, that’s what the pundits say. What struck me more than anything about the way new music was presented this past year is how the album form was adapted to the way streaming has changed our mode of listening. This is only partially due to technological changes. The idea of the album as a unified work of art that developed in the late 60s changed organically over the years as the sheer volume of available music has grown exponentially. Two of the “albums” on my list would, under old rules, be categorized as EPs, but were nonetheless presented to the public as albums in the sense that they were designed to be heard in one sitting. The fact that they’re brief could be taken as a sop to the shorter attention spans brought about by online lifestyles, but I’d like to think they turned out the way they did because of a particular vision.
By the same token, several of the releases on this list clock in at around 30 minutes, making them albums in accordance with time scales common in the 1960s but less robust price-performance-wise had they been released in the 1990s, when CDs were king. CDs are not only no longer king, they are becoming increasingly difficult to find. So the album as an integrated unit of musical performance has little relationship to cost for consumers any more because they can stream anything for one monthly fee or purchase invidual songs. Or they can download/share stuff illegally, which is still a thing and probably always will be. But the shorter album lengths may, inadvertently or not, keep the album format viable for at least a bit longer, and that makes me happy. There’s still nothing more satisfying that sitting down for forty minutes and absorbing a set of songs united by theme and sensibility. I just wish I had as much time to do that as I used to.
1. What a Time to Be Alive, Superchunk (Merge/Octave): Damn right there’s cognitive dissonance in that title, seeing how often Mac McCaughan reads the riot act to the sitting U.S. president in terms shorn of euphemism and metaphor. But then there’s the music, which is as full of life and punk fire as any this venerable indie institution has created; not born of passions steeped in bile, but rather energized by the will to use art to address matters you care about, and there’s a joy in that. If I’m going to channel my rage and disappointment through other people’s music, I’ll take the high road.
2. Foreign Ororo, Riton & Kah-Lo (Last Gang): The partnership between this middle-aged UK dance maven and a 25-year-old Nigerian singer feels serendipitous in the way the latter falls easily into the former’s irresistible party beats and then describes her life colorfully within its contours. But there are guests here who stretch the multi-culti vibe beyond the dance floor and into a world we aren’t as intimately familiar with. Kah-Lo may be all about her fake ID and whether or not it will buy her a Henney and Coke, but once she and her friends leave the club there are those immigration guys who, when they see a person of color, couldn’t care less if they aren’t old enough to drink.
3. Sex & Cigarettes, Toni Braxton (Def Jam): Toni Braxton has enjoyed a long, fruitful career working the post-breakup, post-divorce, post-whatever-broken-romantic-connection-you-can-think-of song, which may not be saying much considering how ubiquitous it is as an R&B cliche. This short, winkingly bitter album does not offer much in the way of fresh insights except that maybe Toni ought to lay off any new relationships for a spell; but then you probably wouldn’t get music as caustically visceral as the title tune or as icily sardonic as “Sorry.” One Mary J. Blige is enough, thank you.
4. Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves (MCA Nashville/Universal): Maturity of feeling is more valued in country than in other pop genres, though Musgraves, like Taylor Swift, made her reputation as a keen observer of youthful milieu. Unlike Swift, who traded country for up-to-the-minute pop, Musgraves pulled back slightly for a more meditative, twilight sound with which to address her nuanced outlook on life itself as opposed to life in a small Southern town. The disco and Auto-tune don’t stand out as anything other than means of approaching an audience that she hopes is growing with her. With songs this good, she’s already got a head start.
5. Whack World, Tierra Whack (Self-released): Experimental only in the sense that an album of 15 one-minute songs is not something the pop world normally tolerates, Tierra Whack’s debut “long-player” is filled with more diverse, interesting ideas than you can shake a Todd Rundgren at. The myriad vocal styles, the clever jokes at the expense of current hip-hop fashion, the shards of melody that lodge themselves in your nervous system, the hilariously concise observations of quotidian effluvia all accumulate into a gestalt that’s at once familiar and thrillingly weird.
6. Wide Awaaaaake!, Parquet Courts (Rough Trade/Beat): If relentlessness is the unifying trait of all great indie guitar rock, Parquet Courts finds more ways to get in your face than any of their Brooklyn peers. Structured like a great live show, with a huge 1-2-3 opening followed by peaks and valleys of noise, melodic attack, and lyrical incisiveness, the record doesn’t so much reward close listening as make it unavoidable. With regards to my earlier qualifications of what makes an album an album, this one delivers the most trenchant one in spades: Once you put it on, it won’t come off until the last note rings out in your inner ear.
7. The Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine (Oh Boy): He stares out from the cover as if unsure he still has it, but Prine has always known it’s hip to be flip, even about mortality. Though he’s hardly reticent, the natural softness in his voice and the almost non-existent arrangements attest to a simplicity of purpose born of necessity in the face of encroaching demise, but it’s not as if he’s afraid. He almost sounds thankful that age gives him the dispensation to crack wise about so many things we’d rather not talk about, like hanging out at the old folks home and what to do with eternity (he plans to smoke a very long cigarette). He can also make you weep just describing the blue of night.
8. Tantabara, Tal National (Fat Cat): I now look to Africa for my classic rock, and this huge band from Niger has done more for my guitar jones than all the Hendrix bootlegs in Seattle. Their rhythm bona fides are assumed, but the vigor on display is even fiercer than I expected and complemented by a shifting vocal battery that hits you in the solar plexus like a full force gale. Though most of the songs are under five minutes and don’t take up much of your time, I could get lost in them for hours in the understanding that big, close communities like this are the nearest I’ll ever get to heaven on earth.
9. What Happens When I Try to Relax, Open Mike Eagle (Auto Reverse): This Chicago rapper’s favorite adjective is “hella,” which he overuses to qualify everything from personal preferences to political stances. It’s a sign of an acute self-doubt he explores with the meticulousness of a tax attorney, a sharp detour from the stereotypical male hip-hop attitude and one he accompanies with equally unsettled beats. Tension without release. You feel for his desperate need to achieve patience in a world that doesn’t value it.
10. Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae (Atlantic/Warner): The Electric Lady refuses to drop the show biz android persona because robots are people, too, or, at least, they are according to Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. And while I’m not sure if she’s improved on past iterations of the persona, she’s gotten a lot better at making the zeitgeist come to her. I don’t believe the soul and funk she commands so convincingly are very original, but back in the day these songs would have likely impressed the pros they reference so faithfully. Even the dirtiest computers can have principles—and long memories.
–Chris, Christine and the Queens (Because/Hostess): Androgyny in the service of discofied rock isn’t new unless it’s used to make points about things other than itself, such as sexual inequity.
–Istikrarlu Hayal Hakikattir, Gaye Su Akyol (Rice Records): Traditional Turkish grooves set to rockish guitars and a singer who appropriates rock star histrionics in order to own the politics of repression.
–In a Poem Unlimited, U.S. Girls (4AD): Polemics by calculation, art by intent, pop by happy accident.
–Orquesta Akokan (Daptone): New York’s premier soul-revival label commandeers Fania’s bailiwick by augmenting a clutch of Havana mambo veterans with local salsa talent. Hot stuff.
–Interstate Gospel, Pistol Annies (RCA): Having created, individually and collectively, the country sub-genre of anti-southern belleism, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley squeeze it dry and have a pretty good time in the process.
–Street Worms, Viagra Boys (Year0001): Unlike most Swedish hard rockers, Viagra Boys don’t seem to be in on the joke. Their big beat, distorto, macho vibe—Iggy Pop swallowed whole by James Chance—is credible enough to be scary. They want your punishment, and maybe they deserve it.
–Pink, Chai (Otemoyan): Dear ironists: “Kawaii” can be an impetus for progressive pop—and progressive thinking.