We at Electric Avenue feel we have been remiss in talking about the music we love more often. Let's just say running an indie record shop in this day and age can present many challenges to say the least, so taking time to reflect on the beauty of the music we are surrounded by is something that tends to fall by the wayside. It's time to catch up by catching you all up on what is floating around our heads and hearts as of late, and maybe you'll take a chance on something you'd like to check out and find something you like too.
Here is a quick reference guide to our favorite albums for the first half of 2016...Is YOUR favorite on the list? Please don't judge us...
1) DAVID BOWIE--Blackstar
It would be easy to say we are just choosing this because it is a popular choice and Bowie's passing was an incredible loss. We didn't even begin to eulogize him in print here because it is simply a loss too great that almost defies comment. We were huge fans of his. HUGE. Therefore, this choice may not be completely unbiased. Let's just say that everything Bowie did had a purpose or intent, and hinting toward his imminent passing from this earthly world through his music was something that truly displayed his sense of genius and dedication to his art and his fans.
Blackstar does not overstay it's welcome. It is a rather brief seven songs, beginning with the extended title track, something of a throwback to songs like the title track from 1976's Station to Station. The video combined with the song is even more unsettling in the imagery Bowie is trying to convey about losing his battle with cancer. The album is filled with small details which are sometimes abstract, but always lead to the same end. Closing with the wistful and conventionally melodic (compared to much of the rest of Blackstar) "I Can't Give Everything Away", one gets the sense that Bowie felt he really earned his place in the pantheon of artists, and found it terribly difficult just letting go. We will comment more on this album at end of year, but for now, Blackstar is dark, abstract, unconventional, humorous, charming, haunting, scary, and a little bit sad at the same time. He was a true icon in every sense of the word, and if there is any justice, history should treat him very well for a number of reasons.
2) RADIOHEAD--A Moon Shaped Pool
Had Bowie not released such a great piece of art, this surely could have ascended to the top. When this album premiered on BBC radio, the world got to hear it for the first time at the same time, and while it may be made up of a large number of songs they've worked out live on stage before, there is a feeling of new to most of us who have not seen them recently, and there's also an elegant beauty that has now infused their music. Johnny Greenwood's experience soundtracking films has brought some grace and warmth to Radiohead's music that was lacking at times during their Aphex-influenced 00's era, and they're all the better for it. This also works as such a cohesive whole that it really needs to be played in its entirety. A very special record worthy of the praise it has received.
Not an album for everyone (much less the fainthearted), Anohni's (formerly Antony) has spent the past couple years undergoing many personal and artistic changes. Aside from a gender transition, her new album is a musical transition as well, collaborating with electronic artists like Hudson Mohawk and Oneohtrixpointnever to create something more synthetic than her previous chamber pop while singing about important global issues. Songs such as the first single, "Drone Bomb Me", are sung from the perspective of a person who has been so shellshocked by the loss of life around them due to drone bombs, they are praying for the same thing to happen to themselves. It's a harrowing concept that has not been documented enough, and these kinds of statements about culture and the environment put Anohni in a category with artists like MIA more than the chamber pop she usually releases. Brave, daring, uncompromising, and yet, the most accessible album she's ever made.
4) CASE / LANG / VEIRS--case / lang / veirs
This album seemingly came out of nowhere and blindsided us, becoming one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. kd lang has always had that special kind of voice that is alternately classy and inviting, whether crooning or countryfied, it's always a thing of beauty. Mix in Neko Case's powerful and ringing voice and Laura Veirs' down to earth folky tones, and you get a very special trio that knows when to unite to make magic and when to back off to let certain individuals shine. Jazz, folk, americana and country all mix into a heady whole that evokes simultaneous images of a world where Laurel Canyon tenderness meets Twin Peaks atmosphere in Portland, Oregon (where the album was produced by Veirs' husband, Tucker Martine). Don't miss this...It's a thing of great beauty and charm.
5) ROISIN MURPHY--Take Her Up to Monto
After lackluster sales for what should have been Murphy's big EMI major label breakthrough in 2007 (Overpowered), she took a long break to start a family and rejuvenate her muse. Last year's Hairless Toys proved that, not only had the former Moloko frontwoman moved on from that era, but she had elevated her more experimental side once more, resulting in a Mercury Prize nomination for the album. Take Her Up to Monto was born from the same recording sessions as Toys, yet the results are entirely different. While the previous album had extended songs featuring melodic hooks and a sort of hushed approach to vocals (something which she can more than flip in the other direction), it resulted in a rather introverted sort of record, possibly reflective of her time away. Monto is more extrovert, but no less personal, and maybe even more knotty than it's predecessor, with loads of unexpected turns. It's experimental in the way Bjork albums can be, yet grounded in some sort of musical underpinning that keeps things from skittering into unfocused territories. Songs like "Pretty Gardens" have an element of funky-cabaret to them, while "Ten Miles High" is icy electronics with a dark soul vibe. As some tracks edge toward Toys territory, (the endearing "Whatever" for example), most are entirely different beasts, appealing to Moloko fans while showing the breadth of her interpretive range. It's a grower that rewards upon repeated listenings, and will never become tiresome due to its wealth of ideas and sheer ingenuity.
6) SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS--SVIIB
When Benjamin Curtis passed away, Alejandra Deheza was left with the workings of what would be their final project together. While most of their albums were sort of mystical in the lyric sense, this swansong is much more grounded in the realities of what happens when someone is faced with a friend's terminal illness and has to cope after that soul is gone. It is a dark proposition, and one that Deheza takes on with determination on songs like "Open Your Eyes" and "Confusion". These are the most direct lyrics we've gotten from the shoegaze-y band up to this point, and they are all the better for it. It's such a shame this excellent album sprang from such tragic circumstances, and I dare you to really be at one with this album in peace and quiet and not be emotionally moved by the knowledge of their story and the lyrics reflecting this situation in which two young people were so interconnected and one had to go against his will. Heartbreaking.
7) NIKI & THE DOVE--Everybody Has a Broken Heart
Scandi-duo Niki & the Dove released an album a few years ago on SubPop Records to mixed sales results, and have changed over to Ten Records this time. This makes their album distribution difficult globally (including the fact that they plan on releasing no physical CD of the album). For whatever reason, the label is obviously wary of marketing this to countries where it may not sell, which is an understandable yet sad effect of the lack of support artists are getting for their music these days. If you liked early-80's Stevie Nicks when she was working with Prince, add just a little Tom Tom Club and this album is right up your alley. There are even moments on songs like "Everybody Wants to be You" where singer Malin Dahlstrom channels a Prince-level performance supported by the touch of musical mastermind Gustaf Karlof. This record is such a brilliant progression from their first, we can only hope for more of the same, delivering a sublime summery vibe just in time.
8) LONDON SUEDE--Night Thoughts
Capitalizing on their comeback album Bloodsports (2013), Suede returned early this year with one of their best efforts yet. Night Thoughts goes deeper with a concept revolving around a man committing suicide by drowning as a result of mid-life crisis and depression. There are stunning pop tracks like "Outsiders" and "Like Kids" that represent the best glam-rock of their past albums mixed with more reflective fare like "Pale Snow" and "The Fur and the Feathers". It all adds up to a project that they can be very proud of, one that seals the deal on how important they've been to the world of modern music for the past 25 years(!), and points the way toward an even more exciting future. Suede are once again firing on all cylinders.
9) PET SHOP BOYS--Super
Pet Shop Boys can be credited as one of the most consistent and fantastic duos in the history of British pop music. After nearly 40 years working together, Tennant and Lowe should be as well known at this point as Lerner and Loewe, repeatedly cranking out great tunes with catchy melodies, sparkling arrangements, and smart lyrics. Super, their second in a row working with producer Stuart Price (Madonna, The Killers) hits hard with a bunch of dancefloor ready jams, not the sort of thing you might expect from 2 guys about 60 years old. Super is fresh, fun, and yet has its darker moments ("Twenty Something" is about the lack of jobs for millennials, "The Dictator Decides" about a tyrant who is tired of the job, and "Sad Robot World" about the lack of love machines show for each other). In other words, its a reflection of the world in 2016, as no happy element exists without a darker, painful companion. Carry on, gentlemen.
It only took 16 years for the Avalanches to follow up their debut album, Since I Left You. That album was a culmination of daisy-chain samples and understated hip-hop beats that has now become an underground classic. The possibility of a followup seemed forever in limbo until Wildflower arrived, and what a gift it is, full of the trademark samples and happy-funk of their past combined with additional guest vocal appearances. The album is peppered with help from Camp Lo, Danny Brown, MF Doom, Toro y Moi, Biz Markie, Warren Ellis, Ariel Pink, Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, and others. Not only do the guest vocals add another element, but there are also some fantastic string parts added by Jean-Michel Bernard sweeten the pot. The band once described the project as a "hip-hop Yellow Submarine", and with bits of Zappa and Beastie Boys added, it's a rather apt description.
11) IGGY POP--Post Pop Depression
Iggy gets revved up again with help from Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme. Possibly the best album he's made since the Bowie-produced Lust for Life of 1977.
12) GARBAGE--Strange Little Girls
Shirley Manson and Butch Vig along with their cohorts continue to rock the scene over 20 years after their beginnings with one of their best efforts yet!
13) MEILYR JONES--2013
Quirky Welsh singer details the breakup of his band and a romantic relationship in a move from Britain to Rome and starting fresh, all backed by a winsome group of chamber musicians. "Refugees" is particularly affecting.
14) LAST SHADOW PUPPETS--Everything You've Come to Expect
The return of Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) and Miles Kane eight years after their debut finds them in a more relaxed, 70's FM vibe. One of the strongest British pop/rock albums of the year.
15) UNDERWORLD--Barbra, Barbra, We Face a Shining Future
Underworld has taken long breaks between their last couple records (vocalist Karl Hyde made a couple albums with Brian Eno recently), and their latest shows the duo finding some new paths to travel that give them an extended lease on their electronic art-rock. Brilliant.
16) BRIGHT LIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT--Choreography
Rod Thomas (another Welsh-man!) cranks up the 80's time machine with this incredibly fun and catchy album. Inspired by dance sequences from movies ("Symmetry of Two Hearts" came from watching Kim Cattrall in Mannequin) and featuring guest appearances from Elton John and Scissor Sisters, this is BLBL's third and finest full length to date.
17) ABC--Lexicon of Love 2
Speaking of 80's time machines, it's been 34 years(!) since ABC conquered the pop world with their Trevor Horn-produced debut, Lexicon of Love. While all band members have moved on (Where is Steve Singleton anyhow?), Martin Fry joins forces with orchestrator Anne Dudley and other fabulous session musicians to create a sequel to that very special project. Very well made and done with heart.
18) GAZ COOMBES--Matador
While the lead singer of England's Supergrass was collecting royalty checks for his ex-band's "Alright" still being used in TV commercials, Gaz leaped back into the scene with this beautifully arranged rock album that shows just how talented he can be on his own, and this is the beginning of a new chapter for him. Check it out!
19) SHEARWATER--Jet Plane & Oxbow
This band have been around for a bit, but this is the album where they jumped from good to wow with additional help from composer and former Redd Kross member, Brian Reitzell. Layers of percussion and bells adorn these well-written gems, and in a just world, this album should have sold several thousand copies. For fans of U2 who tire of their bloated side.
20) SHURA--Nothing's Real
Several new faces entered the pop scene this year, and Shura is a unique artist who may sonically appeal to early Madonna fans, yet her lyrics display a shy side that Madonna rarely addressed. Not only can she construct great songs (many made with help from Joel Pott of British band Athlete), but there is an effortless quality to her tunes which glide gracefully from one to the next. A name to watch then.
The most fun album the Frenchman has given us to date, including a guest appearance from Beck.
22) ST. LUCIA--Matter
South Africa by way of New York band that could give Mr. Mister a run for their money. Super 80's pop overload.
23) LADYHAWKE--Wild Things
Also more pop than her last effort, it took four long years for Wild Things to materialize, and it was worth the wait.
24) KRISTIN KONTROL--X-Communicate
Kristin Welchez (Dum Dum Girls) breaks out with a solo record and persona that emulates Debbie Harry and early Madonna with panache.
25) JAMES--Girl at the End of the World
The string of great James albums continues with this, their 14th! Just missed having their first #1 album in England thanks to Adele...
If you like the Cure, this sounds a LOT like them, and is probably better than anything they could come up with at the moment.
27) BETH ORTON--Kidsticks
Beth finds new sounds after a move to California and having a rethink. Ironically, it's the closest she has sounded to her first album nearly 20 years ago.
This rather overlooked effort is their most polished to date, yet retains some of their trademark quirkiness.
29) BLOOD ORANGE--Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes continues his search for the truth on his most fully-formed effort to date as Blood Orange. It's also an album with something to say about social issues, yet does so without aid of firearms. Sublime.
30) ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER--New View
Ever since Friedberger left Fiery Furnaces her albums just keep getting better. New View is just a great example of what a well-made indie album should be.
31) TEGAN & SARA--Love You to Death
Tegan & Sara made a fantastic album in 2013 (Heartthrob), and this one continues the journey with uber-pop producer/arranger Greg Kurstin in tow. They should be huge now.
32) MINOR VICTORIES--Minor Victories
A supergroup made up of Rachel Goswell (Slowdive) and members of Editors and Mogwai, this album is actually probably the best project any of the members have been involved with in some time. Dark and windswept.
33) PETER BJORN & JOHN--Breakin' Point
After 5 years away, PB&J take some cues from radio and channel some of the catchiest pop tunes you'll hear on any album this year, yet somehow they manage to steer clear of becoming cloying. Actually one of their best.
34) WYE OAK--Tween
An interesting project as Jenn Wasner gets ready to release a solo full length as Flock of Dimes, Tween is just what it says it is...an album made of tracks recorded between the last couple records. It still adds up to some great moments that leave one wondering how they ever hit the cutting room floor.
35) MICHAEL KIWANUKA--Love & Hate
While it may not be the most original album on the list, Ugandan-born Kiwanuka pairs up with Danger Mouse and turns up the 70's psychedelia with electric guitar solos that would make David Gilmour proud, and a Bill Withers vocal delivery with songs that resonate in the current political climate.
36) BRIAN ENO--The Ship
Eno continues pushing boundaries with this album, containing long instrumental passages, spoken word, and an actual (somewhat) conventional vocal song. The definition of art.
37) SAVAGES--Adore Life
Uncompromising band returns with their sophomore effort, a little less intense but no less fueled by anger and disillusionment.
38) DMA'S--Hill's End
Great new band for those who miss bands like Oasis. Super catchy and so easy to like.
39) THE 1975--I Like it When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful...
Confounding sophomore effort from this British band who went from being indie rock darlings to 80's synth-poppers overnight. Influenced by Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and Brian Eno (!--the interludes), this album is either enjoyable fun or career suicide. In other words, it's sort of like Ted Cruz.
40) BAT FOR LASHES--The Bride
Natasha Khan comes up with a concept about a bride on her way to her wedding when her groom gets killed in a car accident. An ingenious idea set to some extremely downbeat music.
Be on the lookout for our next post. You KNOW it won't be more than six months from now!