Here are the best records I heard from the past twelve months.
My favorite record of the year is Dama/Libra’s Claw (Northern Spy). Joel RL Phelps (whose GALA was my favorite album of last year) lends his voice and lyrics to Stuart Dahlquist’s elegiac drones. The gorgeous result sounds like the two have been collaborating for decades. “Stravinsky” and “Thine” suggest a natural merger of their individual strengths to create soundscapes as deep as oceans. Much of Claw is built upon droning organs, making the break into steel drums midway through “Been to the Water” all the more effective.
Dama/Libra’s brief tour this autumn proved that the remote collaboration (Phelps and Dahlquist traded tracks back and forth between their home bases in Seattle and Vancouver) translated wonderfully to a live setting with an expanded band. Wake, shine, always, rise: here’s hoping the collaboration results in more music in the coming years. Hear “Only Medicine” or buy Claw from Northern Spy’s website.
The Heavy Eights, End Times Undone (Merge)
The first record to hint that there is going to be a Kiwi flavor to this list (as is often the case with me). End Times Undone is exhibit A for why I’ve had a soft spot for music from New Zealand. As he’s done since starting the Clean more than thirty years ago, David Kilgour leads his quartet in making beautifully, slippery, chiming music. Whether he’s in the Clean, the Great Unwashed, the Heavy Eights or guesting on one of Robert Scott’s projects, his melodic sensibilities are always welcome. See a couple of videos from End Times Undone at Merge’s website.
Wussy, Attica! (Shake It)
The best record Chuck Cleaver’s made since the Ass Ponys’ brilliant 2001 album Lohio, Attica! brings some of the grand country sounds and melancholy imagery of late-period Ass Ponys to the dual vocal approach of Wussy. The other touchstone I hear is fellow midwestern roots-rockers the Mary Janes in some of the epic arrangements and the timbre of Lisa Walker’s voice. Gorgeous. Preview or purchase Attica! from Wussy’s Bandcamp page.
The Gary, Farewell Foolish Objects (Sick Room)
This Texas trio made my list last year with the pummeling Remains. Farewell Foolish Objects is a recognizable continuation of that approach (including following having one track with a cello on the earlier album with one track featuring violin here), but is also a more melancholy, moody set of songs. This is the best music out of Texas I’ve heard this decade, in any genre. Preview or purchase Farewell Foolish Objects from the Gary’s Bandcamp page.
Paul Kelly Presents, The Merri Soul Sessions (Pledge Music AUS)
Paul Kelly has been among my favorite songwriters for about a quarter century; 1989’s So Much Water So Close to Home saw him giving in to the inevitable Raymond Carver comparisons with his astonishing economy and attention to narrative detail. On this record, Kelly goes for a Brill Building approach, writing and producing a handful of 60s-soul-themed singles for a handful of Australian singers, first released as a series of singles, then as an album. He sings lead on one as well, with the result being his best-sounding album this century. Preview a couple tracks from the album from Pledge Music’s website.
The Gotobeds, Poor People Are Revolting (12XU)
The term “pop-rock” gets thrown around a lot, but rarely does it fit the sound of a band as much as it does with the Gotobeds. I dare you to listen to this snarky, taut, high-energy album once and not come away humming one of its songs. Fun; preview or purchase downloads of Poor People Are Revolting from the Gotobeds’ Bandcamp page.
Motherfucker, Tae Kwon Do EP (self-released)
Like the Gotobeds, there’s not a second or note wasted on Tae Kwon Do. This rocks harder. Taut, hooky hard rock from an Athens, Georgia trio of women who waste no time. Two minutes and change of heavy riffing, then they’re out. Repeat the formula a few times, and the EP ends with you wanting more. I want to see a 20-minute set from them as I bet they are excellent live. The EP is available from Motherfucker’s Bandcamp page.
Fake Limbs, The Power of Patrician Upbringing (BLVD)
Fake Limbs are, I can confirm, excellent live, as I saw them before the release of their debut Man Feelings and then again this year promoting their second album. The crushing onslaught of this Chicago quartet continues on its second album. Fans of the Jesus Lizard will appreciate this, and everyone should appreciate frontman Stephen Sowley (who is one of the few humans to make David Yow seem shy by comparison). Preview or purchase the album at Fake Limbs’ Bandcamp page.
Thumbscrew, Thumbscrew (Cuneform)
This NYC instrumental trio featuring guitarist Mary Halvorsen, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and bassist Michael Formanek alternate between improve and composed music that falls somewhere between free jazz and 70s prog. You can preview the album via the track “Cheap Knock Off” on the band’s Bandcamp page, and also check out the three members’ various projects via the JazzRightNow website (written by my friend and colleague Cisco Bradley).
The Chills, BBC Sessions (Fire)
So…that inclination I have for the rock of New Zealand means I am the target demographic to lap up this issue of recordings made by the Chills at the peak of their powers c. 1985-88 in the BBC’s studios. Yes, I’ve heard and memorized these songs since well before this century started, but I’ve heard few of these tracks. A terrific document as we wait for the followup to 2004’s excellent Stand By ep. Listen to the wonderful version of “Rolling Moon” or purchase the album at Fire’s website.
Amanda X, amnesia (Siltbreeze)
My Kiwiphilia may also explain the presence of this album here, even though it was made in Philadelphia and not Aotearoa. Amanda X is not The Magick Heads, but fans of that band may enjoy the harmonies and delicious guitar tones. Decide for yourself; amnesia is available to preview or buy at Amanda X’s Bandcamp page.
A few of these records may also be found at a new resource: Jon Solomon’s Comedy Minus One records began the “PRF Distro” shop this year to feature some of the impressive musicians affiliated with the Electrical Audio discussion forum. Should some of the titles I listed above appeal to you, see if there’s more music you’d like to hear from the link.