Ariel Pink, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson (Mexican Summer) Ariel Pink—always looking like a gutter junkie, a bloated crust punk, spewing the misogynistic rants of a third-rate 4chan troll—is probably the best pop songwriter since Paul Westerberg. His contemporaneously-derided genre pastiches of the mid-'00s not only presaged the indie-rock zeitgeist of Barack Obama's first term, but also displayed the broad scope of his talents.
Songwriting was a trained muscle by the time labels and reviewers were willing to listen. Always prolific, Pink has more importantly remained consistent since signing with 4AD; it's hard to find a bad song in his recent catalogue. Amazingly, his streak continues with Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, by all indications a low-stakes affair, the mellow counterpart to his manic, grotesque pop opus Pom Pom. The winking self-critique of “Feels Like Heaven”—both in its lyrics and familiar melody—is nothing new; neither is Pink's sarcastic delivery. Nevertheless, its twinkling beauty offers something Pink hadn’t provided before now: contentedness.
Even the faster songs, like the brilliant title track, are strangely relaxing. I doubt Pink will remain like this—he'll Frankenstein another beautiful monstrosity before long—but Dedicated to Bobby Jameson proves that Ariel Pink can record one of the year's best albums, even on autopilot. —Booker Smith
Billy Corgan, Ogilala (Reprise) He finally sounds like he gives a shit again. Ogilala is my favorite post-2000 record by Billy Pumpkin because he allowed himself to be vulnerable and let someone else produce and pick the songs. If not for Rick Rubin taking notice of a fast paced Vaudevillian demo of “Aeronaut,” that song would’ve been thrown in Corgan’s Scrooge McDuck vault of gold coins and jewels where so much beautiful material languishes.
Ogilala could be the calm before the storm of a disastrous 2018 Smashing Pumpkins reunion, or it could be a pleasant teaser before that dark globe starts spinning again. No more conceits or awful teenage drummers—Ogilala is just a half hour of solid songs, some of them the best Corgan has written this century, particularly “Aeronaut,” “Half Life of an Autodidact,” and “Processional,” the last of which features James Iha in the former Pumpkins’ first collaboration in 17 years. It’s a beautiful, simple song, anchored by a moving sentiment earnestly felt by fans and an artist aching for a return to halcyon days: “It’s a long way, it’s a long way to get back home.”
Welcome back, Billy; goodwill is restored. Maybe it’s fatherhood, maybe it’s age, maybe it’s reconciliation, but Corgan is finally out of the woods that he wandered through for so many years after the Pumpkins split. As he sang 20 years ago on “Blissed and Gone”: “I've done my time/I had myself/Had my band/I had my love/Had no hand in watching it all fall apart.” No more crashing down, no more curtain calls: even if the original four never play another note together on stage, the peace that’s been made between them is comfort enough. If nothing else, it’s bringing us music like this: earnestly felt and expertly written by a living legend who’s due for a comeback. —Nicky Smith
Brian Eno, Reflection (Warp) Full disclosure: Somewhere in the basement, I’ve got a bunch of Brian Eno CDrs a close friend burned for me more than a decade ago that have never been played… but I did read and review Geeta Dayal’s 33/3rd Another Green World book. I’ve never heard a note of Roxy Music… but I do know No New York and Music for Airports intimately.
What this boils down to is that fandom is a complex animal, and that it’s possible to admire what an artist is capable of without ever quite going whole hog. What it means is that I ride for Discreet Music and The Ship but Drums Between the Bells didn’t do it for me. What I’m saying is that, until Reflection arrived, I wasn’t truly all in on Eno. This is simply the best record released by anyone this calendar year, a single 65-minute long amniotic float, pure generative drift, tones colliding and passing one another in slow motion like bioluminescent bottom-feeding creatures at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
These days it’s tempting to link so much of the music we love or admire to politics, to the exclusion of every other emotion or life experience that might help explain why a song or album resonates strongly on an intimate, personal level. (This is something I’ve been guilty of, recently.) But Reflection isn’t an escape from politics; it’s an escape from everything: disappointment, failure, stress, language, repetition, ringing telephones, unanswered text messages, and dusk’s sudden approach. When it’s playing—particularly through headphones—synapses are blissed and drowned, blurred and bupped. Reflection offers resonant, reverberated perfection, a ringing nest of trills, depth charges, rich currents, and simulated bells—and if this album is something you can’t quite get enough of, there’s also a related app you can buy for full-on amateur cryogenic immersion therapy. —Raymond Cummings
Gas, Narkopop (Kompakt) Prolific German producer and DJ Wolfgang Voigt returned to Gas, his long-dormant and best-loved alias, after effectively retiring the moniker—at least in a recording capacity—17 years ago. Pop, the 2000 masterpiece that cemented the project's legacy, lived up to its title, swirling with a warm propulsiveness that stretched the meaning of ambient. It was as if Voigt had adjusted the lens on his music, bringing it into focus, making it all the more immediate and captivating for its newfound clarity.
And then he stopped, quitting while he was ahead. Unlike Fleet Foxes or LCD Soundsystem—two groups who also returned to the studio after long layovers, their popularity stronger than ever—Voigt wasn't content to reheat trusted formulas, present banalities as casually-brilliant statements on How We Live Now, throw in some heavy handed ocean imagery and call it a day. He didn't completely diverge from the sonics that characterize Gas, either.
Narkopop, as its name suggests, is a companion piece to its 17-year-old predecessor, the haunting negative of a bright, colorful landscape. Voigt's control of atmosphere has never been sharper; the album's looping expansiveness, exemplified by "Narkopop 7," triggers an agoraphobic anxiety absent in his earlier work. Gas began as an attempt to sonically re-create Voigt's teenage acid trips: if Pop was a wave of chemical euphoria, Narkopop is the eerie comedown, a disquieting 80 minutes where every noise sounds ominous, and every texture feels wrong. —Booker Smith
Girlpool, Powerplant (Anti-) I haven’t fallen in love with a new band or record as hard as I have with Girlpool in years. While I really like Powerplant, their third album—and their first with drums, keyboards, and other instrumental tinsel—but to date, 2015’s Before the World Was Big is the band’s masterpiece. I wish I could list that one, but Powerplant is very good, another half hour of deceptively complex songs that tower above those of their indie rock peers, some that hit you hard immediately (“123,” “Corner Store,” “It Gets More Blue”) and even more that sneak up on you (“Powerplant,” “Static Somewhere,” “Fast Dust,” “She Goes By,” “Kiss and Burn”).
Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker are phenomenal songwriters, singers, players, and arrangers—but the alchemy of this band has so much to do with their friendship and how they relate to each other, how their voices join and how they break off and respond to each other. It’s less obvious on Powerplant, where subjects are less literal and more impressionistic than the childlike simplicity of Before the World Was Big, but female friendship, and very close friendship, soulmates—it goes beyond “good band chemistry.” Girlpool write incredible songs and have come fully formed, the kind of lightning in a bottle that all epochal, classic rock bands have. I can’t wait to see what they do next. —Nicky Smith
Guerilla Toss, GT Ultra (DFA) This band is singlehandedly carrying the torch of the new weird American noise and experimental music that was so abundant in the mid- and late-00s. I’m bummed they haven’t toured much this year, and surprised, because GT Ultra is a total pop move, at least as much as a band like this can manage: clear vocals, tight arrangements, less smog and haze coating the production.
Singer Kassie Carlson takes command from the beginning, and her stark voice maneuvers through the carefully sculpted and placed loops and distortions that previously defined Guerilla Toss’ records. The singles “Betty Dreams of Green Men” and “The String Game” are just ridiculous, each-five plus hooks deep. GT Ultra is the sound of a band that’s been together for the better part of a decade just fucking laying it down, tight as an E-string, in and out in about half an hour. Their craft here is refined and palatable to so many more people that might’ve been turned off by the delirious and obtuse jams of earlier records.
This sounds like it was made for radio, or what’s left of it—I wonder why they haven’t rocked America yet, because like I said, they’re one of the only new bands carrying that same freeform experimental noise approach of the aughts that brought us bands like Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Teeth Mountain, Animal Collective, Magik Markers (perhaps their closest analogue), Wolf Eyes, Yellow Swans, and Arab on Radar. Guerilla Toss are masters of their own universe, completely insane in the best way; I hope to visit their planet soon. —Nicky Smith
Katie Ellen, Cowgirl Blues (Lauren) Anika Pyle's former band, Chumped, instantly became a touchstone for the recently-revitalized pop-punk scene following the release of their debut album, Teenage Retirement, in 2014. I saw them live at Baltimore's Metro Gallery a couple of months before they broke up. Reviewing the show, I highlighted Pyle's intensity despite the relatively small crowd: "four-minute songs became two-minute songs, two-minute songs lasted 45 seconds; they blasted through their set, not with a let’s get this over with sort of vibe (a la Speedy Ortiz), but with anger and resilience and an I need to get this full-blown Shakespearean catharsis out of me before I explode kind of energy." I predicted a future of tweenage hero worship and Hot Topic co-signs, a Green Day-like cross-generational appeal. But then they split up.
Pyle returned with her new band, Katie Ellen—a nod to her great-grandmother, a stymied radio host—in 2016, releasing a three-song demo that scrapped Chumped's nebulous angst for more concrete concerns. Cowgirl Blues follows suit. While it shares themes with Teenage Retirement, it confronts them from a decidedly more adult perspective, most saliently through the context of marriage. "Houses into Homes," the most genuinely well-wishing breakup song I've ever heard, and "Cowgirl Blues," it's more meditative follow-up, contemplate the difference between marital happiness and personal freedom. Despite the artistic shift, Pyle still managed to live up to my Green Day comparison: Cowgirl Blues is an American Idiot for those young adults who refuse to settle for someone else's idea of happiness in the name of maturity. —Booker Smith
Lil Peep, Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One) (self-released) Like media coverage of Kurt Cobain, every journalist writing about Lil Peep will address the way in which his music informed and even predicted his death. You can't blame them, really—Peep was best known for rapping about two things: drugs and his death.
Tragically, the former caused the latter. This undercuts his multi-layered appeal, though. Peep was unique, a reckless kid raised on the Internet, whose tastes were cultivated by YouTube uploads instead of whatever art-grasping scene was developing in some kid's basement at the time. He looked like Justin Bieber gone to seed, a handsome guy covered in mostly-horrible tattoos. Love him or hate him—and people expressed both feelings, in equal measure—you couldn't look away.
His music has the same quality. It's ugly on the surface, sounding like the rushed hybrid of a 15-year-old's Instagram and Tumblr accounts, hyper-confident and self-effacing in equal measures. But if you keep hitting replay—and his music's strange magnetism ensures you will—then his ear for melody will reveal itself, and you'll be swept into Peep's ugly melodrama. Come Over When You're Sober, pt. 1—his first long player without samples—was supposed to be an introduction to his sloppy emo-rap, the first major release in what would’ve been a prolific, acclaimed, spotty, and influential career.
Thankfully, judging from the diverse but universally devastated group of artists who paid tribute to him, his legacy is set. Come Over When You're Sober, pt. 1 is a nearly perfect album: "Benz Truck" lurches with an uncharacteristically emotionless monotone; "U Said" channels Peep's mesmerizing pathos into its brilliant second half; "Better Off (Dying)" blends rock and hip-hop so seamlessly that it makes the concept of genres feel ridiculous. Despite his death, Lil Peep isn't going anywhere. —Booker Smith
Gabi Loscony, Six Crises (self-released) Atmospheric core cuttings. Heartfelt, “confessional” confessions that are arguably direct. Captured exchanges of a casual or slightly interrogative nature. These are the modes in which the Philadelphia-based Loscony—formerly one half of collagist duo Good Area—operates. If hers is a path you’re compelled to travel, invest in quality sneakers, because there’s a lot of ground to cover: a flourishing cottage industry of LPs, CDs, MP3s, and her recent Second Person book (http://amphetaminesulphate.bigcartel.com/product/second-person), to say nothing of many standalone YouTube clips scattered like breadcrumbs.
Prepare, also, for probable confusion. Art’s always a journey the artist is undertaking that the audience is invited along for, but in Loscony’s case that maxim is doubly true because there is the sense here that we’re all on equal footing—or almost—in terms of discovering just what, specifically, this ongoing personal project has to say to us. Released in December 2016, Six Crises may find her at her most difficult to interpret. Over six discs and three hours, lengthy streams of street sound reign, a fevered post-industrialization monotony that lulls or lulz, perspective depending. Because (I’d be willing to bet money I don’t have that) these are not straight, undoctored field recordings throughout, since effects, voices, and massed noises emerge and jostle our perceptions at odd moments. This release is a mirror of sorts, and a mystery, and a question: why does this record exist? Pursuit of an elusive answer is part of what keeps bringing me back to it. —Raymond Cummings
Sterile Garden, Drift (self-released) Sometimes the lineup for Portland, Maine’s Sterile Garden consists of one dude, or two, or maybe three. Sometimes the band’s sound is barely discernible, at others outright flattening or numbingly tactile. Drift—the best of five great Sterile Garden releases this year—aims for scrambled and succeeds brilliantly. Barely music, each cassette side flauts and DJ revolves a primal, masticated chaos: choppy field recordings, spectral loops, calliope freakouts, the kitchen sick. Intensities vary, arriving hard and when least expected; it’s as though these guys have made a demonic mess of their tape-deck spew and are working extra hard to scrub it all away, but filled the bucket with squid ink and kudzu instead of soapy water. As burrowed noisenik nihilism goes, this is New Zealand-grade aces. —Raymond Cummings