Kronos Quartet and more...
Sea of Tears
Sea of Tears is retro, no doubt about it, but it envisions a past where classic two-step country, blues, rockabilly, and the British Invasion walk hand-in-hand down black-and-white film noir streets. This is often dark, brooding, and moody music. It’s also a first-rate exhibit in the difference between merely copying bygone styles, and bringing influences into the fold of one’s own artistic vision. “Final Hour” and “Everywhere I Go” evoke Tom Waits without sounding a bit derivative, while the tried-and-true torch and twang of songs like her own “Sea of Tears”, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”, and Van Morrison-era Them’s “I’m Gonna Dress in Black” sound fresh and original despite their familiarity. Through it all, Jewell sings lyrics of loneliness, determination, rusted pistols, and chemical escape (“Codeine Arms” sounds like the less regretful cousin of Gillian Welch’s “My Morphine”) with an easygoing, elastic charm. Filled to the brim with stinging guitar and tides of reverb, Sea of Tears welcomes you into a cozy, twilit world. Andrew Gilstrap
L’Autopsie Phenomenale de Dieu
L’Autopsie Phenomenale de Dieu (“The Phenomenal Autopsy of God”) surpassed Svarte Greiner’s Kappe, Sunn 0)))‘s Monoliths & Dimensions and Mika Vainio’s Black Telephone of Matter as the most revolting thing I heard all year. But it is elegantly revolting, like the labyrinthine corridors of a serial killer doctor in the time of the Dada movement. Belgium’s Pepijn Caudron (Kreng) has worked as a score writer for theatre productions, and he brings his background with him for a chilling foray into electro-acoustic composition that twists modern classical in knots. Suggesting bile, bad drugs, and what it would be like to have someone perform only for you on an empty stage, L’Autopsie‘s marriage of unknown samples (opera singers, orchestras, film dialogue) and live instrumentation conjures a space of familiar objects choked by blackness. It’s a patchwork of sorts, consisting of tracks written for several different plays, where the miasma of death is the only real constant. It is also—despite its emphasis on cerebral qualities like hallucinatory experience—deeply emotional. I don’t know what the woman on the phone is weeping about in “Meisje in Auto”, but I feel for her as I hear the bad recording make her wet breathing palpable. And then, on the track following, the percussion hacks her to pieces. Now that’s scary. Mike Newmark
It’s difficult even to think of Kronos Quartet as a string quartet anymore. They have pushed the definition of what a string quartet can do so far past the bounds of typical perception as to make the term meaningless. Floodplain is the most recent example of Kronos Quartet’s boundless-yet-worldly vision, in which they team up with guests from Palestine to Azerbaijan, and seemingly everywhere in between. This is the sort of music whose emotions careen from wrenching to triumphant, often in the same song. And yet, just in case someone were to be so daft as to suggest that Kronos Quartet’s willingness to accomodate guests is mere gimmickry covering up the limited scope that a mere four string players can cover, they throw in “Wa Habibi”, an instrumental version of a Lebanese Good Friday hymn that nearly outshines the rest of the album in beauty and grace. Floodplain is just the type of album to be ignored when the end of the year comes, largely because it treats the idea of genre as a nuisance to be squashed. It would be a shame to let it slip through the cracks entirely. Mike Schiller
La Patère Rose
La Patère Rose
Like fellow Québécois darling Coeur de Pirate, the music of Montreal’s La Patère Rose revolves around the playful vocal delivery of a beguiling female lead vocalist, but unlike Béatrice Martin’s middle-of-the-road charm, Fanny Bloom and her mates are far less predictable, drawing from a wildly eclectic musical palette, electronic touches commingling with Stereolab-esque krautrock homages, the more adventurous side of Beck colliding with 1960s Yé-yé and 1930s cabaret. However, and most surprisingly, the experimentalism on this debut album never comes at the expense of the almighty hook, of which there are far too many to mention, but are highlighted by such delightful tracks as “La Marelle”, “Jessicok”, and the wonderful “PaceMaker”. If they sang in English and hailed from Brooklyn, they would be indie darlings instead of merely one of Canada’s best-kept secrets. Adrien Begrand
The Fame Monster
For an eight-song album, Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster makes the most of its sparse track listing with zero filler. Exposing the singer’s fears and frailties, every piece on The Fame Monster is an exercise in storytelling and crafting distinctive, danceable, yet intellectual pop. After years of pop music being churned out by the usual cadre of faceless entities for public faces, Lady Gaga offers an antidote while proving herself more than just a one-album wonder. Although known for her showmanship in a live setting, she uses her voice as a powerful tool of expression in a solely vocal medium—without the benefit of any visual accompaniment. The Fame Monster justifies Lady Gaga’s meteoric rise within the mainstream music scene and showcases a young artist who immerses herself completely in her art, making it something cathartic, personal, and accessible for her audience, as well as herself. Lana Cooper
Be Set Free
Be Set Free could easily work as the soundtrack to the classic movie ending where the beloved anti-hero arrives on far-flung beach with an earned-but-stolen bag of money, life’s new possibilities stretching out like the horizon. It’s that sprawling, that swollen with cinematic shimmer. This record’s all vibe, all lush rollicking warmth. Slim lassoes his young man blues and bar-side sing-a-long anthems in with a serious vocal performance that somehow echoes both Sam Cooke’s devastating lover-man pleas and Springsteen’s gravelly growls. Tis a shame that Slim gets hit with the “authenticity” question—amazing coming from critics who are presumably aware of Dylan’s unrootsy roots—but if criticism is more about whether you have the “right” to make your music than the actual music you’re making, well then, luxury problems for Mr. Slim. Tara Murtha
Not For Non-Profit
Last Offence is the emcee that homo hop (or gay hip-hop) has been waiting for. He’s the guy that makes every other gay rapper step his game up. And Not For Non-Profit, ostensibly a mixtape though it feels more like a proper album, made a lot of gay emcees sweat this year. Lasto takes his lead from witty wordsmiths like Keith Murray, Big Pun, and Jigga himself. Though he’s from St. Louis, his flow is all New York. He can do the party joint (“Back It On Up”) with tongue firmly planted in cheek and the hip-hop boast with just the right dose of humor (“Fresh As I Wanna Be”). Not For Non-Profit is better than most corporate hip-hop and, gay or not, those major label’s rappers should be sweatin’ too. Tyler Lewis
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