Sleep Well Beast
Leave it to The National to make the perfect winter album, full of songs about dread, isolation, confusion, and guilt. The album opens with the haunting “Nobody Else Will Be There,” as lead vocalist Matt Berninger contemplates on not how to live his life, but withstand its many complexities. Next comes the explosive “Day I Die,” which contains one of the dirtiest, but operatic guitar leads I’ve ever heard. We have multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner to thank for that. Not to mention his minor-keyed delay riff on “Guilty Party.”
The debuting single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” presented a more rock-oriented side to The National sound with its distorted guitar hook, reminiscent of the Alligator years.
And then songs like “Carin at the Liquor Store”—which might have one of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard with “I’m walking around like I was the one who found dead John Cheever”—appear and show The National has become expert at interweaving multiform sounds comparable to a 30-piece orchestra and turning it into five- minute songs of beauty.
To wrap up, ( I could dissect this album for much longer) the title track song “Sleep Well Beast,” has echoes of songs throughout the album. It’s almost written as a reprise for all of the songs, fading out into a white noise decay. If you ever get a chance to these guys live, drop everything and do it.
A Grizzly Bear song is like a building—each part, verse, or chorus is beautifully interwoven and layered, offering an architecturally vast chamber pop-psych sound. Painted Ruins, the newest album for the group in five years is a diverse listen that I highly recommend you listen to front to back more than once to truly appreciate its splendour. This record may be one of Grizzly Bear’s most elaborate albums to date. Each song has so many instrumental elements that drone in and out, are stripped away slowly, and slowly decay. The vocals echo and reverberate throughout each song while being cloaked behind synth, watered and phase-downed guitar, and horns.
The song “Three Rings,” is probably the track that deserves the most praise. It constantly builds adding new instrumentation with every minute until the explosive outro with a jangle psych guitar hook that meets a heavy organ. It helps that every member of the band can play four to five instruments. It’s something Grizzly Bear has always had over other bands.
If All I Was Was Black
Soul-blues gospel singer Mavis Staples has been making music since the late ‘60s and it’s high time we give her the recognition she deserves. Her 2016 album Livin’ on a High Note was fresh and powerful, harkening back to a simpler time she actually lived in. It was well received and allowed her to play and in some cases, headline a few big festivals.
Staples—along with her infectious neo-soul sound—caught the ears of many leading to collaboration songs with Arcade Fire, Gorillaz, and more recently, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Tweedy actually wrote a bulk of the songs and produced Staples’ latest album If All I Was Was Black, and it’s sweetly refreshing.
So many bands have been tapping into the ‘60s /’70s soul-blues era, but the 78-year-old Mavis Staples is showing them how it’s really done. The album is at times, a wonderfully hollow blues-soul with songs like “Peaceful Dream,” and “Little Bit,” focusing on the exalted instrumentation. But where the album really shines is when Staples unleashes the full potential of her voice, able to consume a room and demand attention in a matter of seconds.
Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, is a living enigma in the music world. He first started out as the bassist for the hardcore thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and went on to help produce, record, and perform with the experimental electronic wizard Flying Lotus. Now he is one of the most sought out sessions bassists in the world. He released his third full-length album Drunk earlier this year, proving that he is still a bassist virtuoso capable of writing catchy, and rhythmically complex songs. On Drunk, he combines jazz fusion with an electronic R&B, creating a diverse record rippling with depth. Each song has its own quips and weird situations like the song “Tokyo.” There’s a stacked cast of musicians featured on the album all the way from Kenny Loggins on “Show You the Way” to Kendrick Lamar on “Walk on By.” Bruner’s voice is calming and soulful and of course, his bass riffs sound impossible to comprehend. Thundercat is easily one of the best bassists right now. A modern-day Victor Wooten while Drunk reinforces his title.
Relatives In Descent
Detroit’s Protomartyr keep its unbeatable streak alive. Louder and more vicious than their previous releases, Relatives In Descent moves with urgency through its twelve tracks delivering a clear message of disgust at the USA’s current state of affairs. On “Up The Tower,” frontman Joe Casey sings of overthrowing the throne while on “Windsor Hum,” he ponders a better life on the other side of the Detroit River.
Weaving guitars create an intense sonic output that immediately claws into your brain, paired with the churning rhythm section, the musicianship on Summery makes for an assault of the senses. This Edmonton staple band has released what is easily the most impressive album in its catalogue. Frontman James Stewart has never sounded better as he sings extremely personal songs about losing a loved one.
Vocals and guitar are the only instruments you’ll hear on this album and that’s all that’s needed to turn a casual listen into an obsession. Ella Coyes’ voice is utterly captivating as it trembles with intensity and raw power over simple guitar. She delivers heart wrenching songs that are improvised thoughts and ideas that you may never hear her speak (or sing) ever again.
True Panther Sounds/XL
Archy Marshall’s second release as King Krule is a masterpiece. A plethora of sounds and influences appear on The OOZ with this 23-year-old producer/musician/genius pulling all the strings. Jazz, trip-hop, dub, punk and even R&B all permeate through as Marshall takes you on a 70-minute ride into his world of filth, loneliness and self loathing.
Wares, righteously piloted by Cassia Hardy, is one of Edmonton’s most reliably exciting live acts. Hardy is fearless, often wading into the crowd with her guitar to sing right into your face—daring you not to feel her passion. This debut full-length captures the power of her live show and is driven by Hardy’s exceptional guitar work: she can lull you before blowing you off your feet with a full-blast punk explosion, often in the same song. The music reflects a complex human being—from the blistering rock of “What You Want,” the impassioned acoustic longing on “Out All Night” to the building bouncy freak-out “City Kids.” No two songs are the same, but all are unmistakably Wares. It’s brave, powerful, Edmonton music that just plain rocks.
Top Dawg Entertainment
DAMN. is the greatest rapper alive taking us on a victory tour. Highlights? Front to back, this is Kung Fu Kenny at his leanest. He flips the brainy free-jazz explorations of To Pimp a Butterfly in favour of spare, focussed production. He proves he can dominate any lane of hip-hop, cruising through pop collabs and autobiographical stories with scary ease. Sure, there are bangers—“DNA.” and monster single “HUMBLE.” are earth-shaking—but this being K. Dot, we get more. “FEEL.” and “FEAR.” dig deep into a complex mind grappling with the insane realities of today’s batshit reality. DAMN. is his third straight classic album, along with Butterfly and Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and it’s convincing evidence that Kendrick is the G.O.A.T.
Waiting on a Song
Easy Eye Sound
The Black Keys’ frontman took a laid-back, traditional approach while putting together his second solo record. Described as a “love letter to Nashville,” Waiting on a Song was recorded with the help of several prominent artists Auerbach had befriended during his time living in the city. Stand-out tracks include “Malibu Man,” an ode to zen-like record producer Rick Rubin. The song soars with an opening string section before breaking down into a smooth bass riff, allowing Auerbach space to describe Rubin’s adventure of a life.
The first single, “Shine On Me,” is a feel-good sing-a-long that could’ve easily been written in the ‘60s or ‘70s. It’s this lighthearted glee that keeps Waiting on a Song fresh throughout the entire album. “Never In My Wildest Dreams” is a true highlight and possibly the greatest love song Auerbach has written to date, featuring soft acoustic guitar accented by subtle horns and endearing lyrics. Although he was snubbed by the Grammy committee, this may be one of the most genuine pop-rock records of our time.