Leave it to an English singer how to show Americans how to do electro-soul the right way. With two critically-acclaimed albums and a highly-anticipated third album, The Colour in Anything, on the way, crooner James Blake had no problem selling out the Lincoln Theatre the same day tickets went on sale. And it’s easy to see why: His one-of-a-kind vocals combined with live instrumentation, an LED backdrop, and the occasional chest-rattling bass made the Lincoln Theatre show a multi-sensory experience.
10. Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
When an artist known for idiosyncratic, personal work hits the big time, there is always some concern that success, and the expectations that come with it, will somehow spoil their work. Fortunately, fresh off of the critical success of The Magic Place, Julianna Barwick was able to avoid these pitfalls and leverage her newfound resources to create an intriguing new album. Working with collaborators for the first time and using more complex production techniques allowed her to expand her unique ambient soundscapes, making them more elaborate without losing the personal touches that have always made her work unique.
10. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I can’t honestly say that Sigur Ros breaks any new ground with Kveikur and, if anything, it feels like a throwback to their earlier work more than a continuation of the new direction they embarked on with last year’s Valtari. But for two good albums in a 12 month span, I’m inclined to forgive the lack of originality.
9. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
The themes (hook ups, boozing, love, more boozing, passing out drunk after boozing) haven’t changed for the brothers Hutchison but with each successive album their execution has improved. On Pedestrian Verse, the lads again craft booming power pop anthems and acerbic ballads to make the ladies swoon and the gents nod ruefully. Maybe they will need to change their game to stay relevant going forward but, for now, Pedestrian Verse serves as a fitting companion piece to previous standout The Winter of Mixed Drinks and should stay in their fans’ rotation for years to come.
8. Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat
Liz Harris’s latest album as Grouper is an extension of the brooding path she has traced over the past several years that took five years to come to fruition. As usual, she layers her haunting vocals over dark, ambient chords, creating soundscapes steeped in foreboding and creeping dread. It is a chilling and sublime collection of atmospheric music.
James Blake has found himself in somewhat turbulent waters since the much heralded release of his debut self-titled LP two years ago. For many, that album helped redefine what could be expected from the already loosely defined dubstep genre (even leading some to use the unhelpful term “post-dubstep” to describe James Blake and other difficult to classify EDM efforts). His combination of precise beatsmithing, minimalist composition, and stirring vocals seemed to herald something new and interesting among the normally raucous scene from whence he emerged. Since that album’s release, Blake has toured extensively, released two EPS, openly criticized the fratboy-centric direction of American dubstep, recorded a song with Bon Iver (but then, who hasn’t at this point), and publicly feuded with his label over the handling of his new album …all while attempting to write and produce a worthy follow up.
The result of this period, Overgrown, largely lives up to the lofty standards of James Blake while nudging, and occasionally shoving, Mr. Blake’s sound in new directions. The album is more tonally eclectic than its predecessor, with tracks ranging from stark chorus-backed ballads (the lovely “DLM”) to electronic gospel music (“Retrograde”) to collaborations with Brian Eno (“Digital Lion”) and RZA (“Take a Fall For Me”). While the R&B, Gospel, jazz, and disparate electronic influences showcased on Overgrown have always been featured in Blake’s work, here they are placed in the foreground and allowed to breathe.
Today our "Word Economist" steps up to the plate to let you know what he's been putting in his earholes over the course of the year. I'm not gonna lie, we've had e-fights over some of his picks that generally result in me telling him to GTFO my lawn, but at the end of the day, the man knows his shit and has gotten me to listen to more music that I probably wouldn't have otherwise than any contributor this year. Now if he could help me unhear half of it, we'd really be getting somewhere! (I kid, I kid).
#10 Buke and Gass – Riposte
It is just short of incredible how much sonic variety the two members of Buke and Gass (Aron Sanchez and Arone Dwyer) can coax from the plethora of instruments (including the experimental instruments from which the band takes its name) that they play on their debut LP. But, while such experimentation could (and often does) descend into unlistenable navel gazing, Aron and Arone use their innovations (and Arone’s amazing voice) in the service of some truly excellent songs.
Best Tracks: Bundletuck, Medulla Oblongata