The 10 Best Records & Wrok’s Best of 2017 Side B

Side-B

When I joked (badly) in January that this Chinese year of the Rooster is really just the Year of The Cock, I had no idea. There were so many great songs for the last part of the year, and not even from all the big bands or artists that you’d expect. In-between all the political, economic and climatic mayhem there was some sensible music being made.

Trends for the year include hearing amazing female vocals everywhere I listened and a return to “solos” in pop songs (guitar solos for sure, but other instruments too). Trumpety-trump proved to be a strong influence, adding a whole new chapter to the history protest songs. Everyone from Arcade Fire & Mavis Staples to Billy Bragg took a stab from across the pond, not to mention all the angry music (see Best Of Albums list). On the Side B playlist, the orange man gets a cameo on “House Cat,” and is summarily dismissed by a nonchalant Mark Kozelek (as a cat). But that’s just one of the 2.5 hours of my favourite tracks from July-December 2017. Let’s all hit shuffle and go on holiday.

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1. The National – Sleep Well Beast

The National really are at the top of their game, and this album seems so effortless and smooth, I’d like to inhale it. They struggle though, and the intensity with which they wrestle their creative beasts are so pleasing and intoxicating. There’s absolute harmony and discordancy at work here, as well as really intimate lyrics. The record features the band’s first real guitar solos (there are two and they’re glorious).

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2. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

The most brilliant record released this year to be met with equal and opposite amounts of scepticism. It’s one of their best to date and is overshadowed by their previous work. I only discovered LCD Soundsystem late anyway, but to me, this record sounds like prime LCD Soundsystem: the same themes but darker and the same sharp wit but with more bite. I don’t know why everyone calls it a comeback album when it’s clear that James Murphy never left the room.

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3. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

This record is my go-to album for 2017. It always matches the mood. With lots of happy, sad, rocking and laid back bits of quirky wisdom it makes sense that an honest, down to earth record would be the outcome from these slacker-rock indie darlings.

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4. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

This album builds on the high standards set by Lost In A Dream, with the same wash of sound that transports you somewhere else. The mood is higher and the sound bolder, as if to resolve the two records in a celebration of victorious, dirty guitars.

Richard Dawson

5. Richard Dawson – Peasant

An exciting and strange British freak-folk album from this dude who came out of nowhere. Dawson shows incredible bravery on this medieval Celtic off-key album. It’s dirty with beautiful melodies scattered haphazardly, and the record sticks and stays with you. The weirdest and most groundbreaking album that has chosen me for a while.

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6. The Weather Station – The Weather Station

Oh, my kingdom for beautiful Canadian singer-songwriters! This record is classic Folk Gold in the vein of Joni Mitchell, but at the same time is Tamara Lindeman’s confident own voice. With mint production, engaging lyrics and a rolling musical urgency, this is definitely both a vinyl/headphone and crowd-pleaser record.

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7. Protomartyr – Relatives in Descent

Finally, a band has risen to take the flame from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Protomartyr are pissed-off and mysterious like a good Goth-inspired Post-Punk band should be. They have great rhythm and pace, with a surprising lulling quality for minor chords and dramatic badassery. Definitely music to watch Trump speeches or have existential crises to.

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8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers

A very simplified GY!BE record that hits home and feels very true to now. The album fits in well with their body of work, although it’s by no means an extensive movement of beautiful music. Rather it presents a well-organized progression of rage as grandiose tracks bombard your ears for just under an hour. A cathartic listen.

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9. Rostam – Half-Light

An eclectic debut from one half of vampire weekend. The album turns pop song structure around while echoing traditional pop melodies. An inspiring sweet, detailed album from Batmanglij that doesn’t really go anywhere, but that’s entirely ok.

 

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10. Bongeziwe Mabandla – Mangaliso

A record that masterfully balances the traditional and new. South African Xhosa music has never sounded this modern or hypnotic, and this album turns sweet world music turned on its head.

That’s it. Special mentions to Bjork, Sza, Josh Ritter and Sylvan Esso. As Vicky would say, “soz lol.”

On Rejection and Feist’s New Album

There’s something arresting about Feist’s haunting voice. Her new album Pleasure (with lead single of the same name) was released earlier this year. It’s edgy and raw featuring her signature sweet vocals. Also, it’s like 2007 all over again.

The Reminder was released in 2007. It’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago and we were just getting to know Facebook. I was sitting in an open plan marketing office, listening to the record when I received a notification that my half-brother would like to be Friends. I’d spent my entire late childhood and teenage years daydreaming about him and my half-sister. I’d met him once, a handsome young man studying something important at University, but she’d remained a faceless stranger. I knew that she worked in advertising because my mom once gave me a torn out magazine article. It described her as an independent female Mover and Shaker at a sought after agency, which fanned the flames for storylines over years of only-child daydreaming. And then just like that, there was a friend request from someone I didn’t really know but shared a surname and some DNA with. I didn’t breathe for a minute. Accept.

We made plans to meet up and before I knew it I was on my way to a Wimpy in a small farming town. That month I was listening to Feist a lot. Universal had just released my flavour-of-the-month record, and the fact that I was working on it made it that much better. It’s funny how memories get associated with music. The Reminder was supposed to be that great award-winning Indie record I forgot about and rediscovered one day. But just hearing her voice takes me back.

That day was overwhelming. I spent hours speaking with my brother. We danced around the issue of my dad and tried to find things we had in common. It was good. We both tried. And then around lunchtime, my half-sister showed up. I was ecstatic, so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And in hindsight, such a fucking n00b. I wore all of the cozy family fantasies on my sleeve, and even though she kicked back skepticism at every opportunity, I soldiered on, trying to build that relationship. I drove the 2 hours back that day a little sedated and misty-eyed. Like a big secret had just been let out.

Over the next few months, I got to know my brother and his lovely wife. I introduced them to my husband and met my nephew. The blossoming romance was beautiful, we had heart-to-hearts about things that mattered in our lives and shared everything from painful experiences to the shape of our fingernails. I put together a pack of CDs for them because sharing music is a privilege that brings people closer together. It’s so personal, and getting a new music recommendation right is the kind of curatorship victory I thrive on. Of course, I added Feist into my sister’s hamper. Because Indie is badass and you know, Fearless Female, etc.

My sister, on the other hand, remained aloof. My Friend Request was met with silence. Her Twitter profile was full of talk about forgiveness and change and empowerment. We Facebook Messaged a bit and there was a phone call or two. I can’t remember how, but she told me that she didn’t like the Feist album. She thought it was too girly, and not upbeat enough. I thought that was weird. It was such a cool record and practically everyone liked it. And just like that, The Reminder became an allegory for my relationship with my estranged siblings.

About a year later at their family farm, my half-sister insulted my husband. To be fair she didn’t insult him directly, but rather our relationship, saying that we’re together because I had father issues (there’s an age gap). I drove home disappointed and hurt, and the road was long. She’d made all sorts of assumptions about my life, from which she’d been absent, but I had done the same. My mind switched between self-doubt (why doesn’t she like me), and self-hate (why do I care). I visited my brother but stopped asking about her. We saw each other at my brother’s birthday party a few years later. It was awkward, but she was friendly. We talked a little after that, and then one day she told me that she didn’t want to know me.

It’s astonishing how you can let one person hurt you so much, without them even knowing. My half-sister doesn’t want to know me because we share the same father, something I literally have no power to change. My father has been trying reach out to them for years, with mixed success. He is a difficult and complex man, but his relationship with them has nothing to do with me.

I still love Feist but can’t listen to The Reminder in one sitting. Her new album Pleasure is superb though. It seems to have gone relatively unnoticed as there aren’t enough reviews for a Metascore rating despite an April 2017 release date. If you’re in a quiet mood you should definitely listen to “A Man Is Not His Song”. This year I’ve been slaying a few dragons in my life. I’m also trying to listen to more Feist.

“Sealion” is track 6 on The Reminder and is a super-classy, catchy AF cover of Nina Simone’s “Sea Lion Woman.”

 

The Joy of Retrenchment

I remember when I was still in high school my dad came home from work one evening and looked like death. Some of his colleagues had been retrenched that day. He didn’t know if he was next in line, and that thought was terrifying to our typical middle-class 1980’s nuclear family.

Fast forward to a few months ago, end February, when I was sitting at the small boardroom table across from my then-MD and the HR consultant. He could barely say the words or look me in the eye, and left most of the talking to the HR hit-man. It was a big shock, especially since my employer was so blatant about getting rid of me (the company wasn’t doing badly – three bros in management just didn’t like my girl power). Looking back on it now though, it was fine. Handling a crisis is one of my finer skill sets, albeit one I prefer to use less frequently.

So much of our occupation is wrapped up in our identity. It’s what we do with our time for 7 days every week if you have a 9-5. But somewhere between growing up (read: paying bills), contributing to Nkandla, and the here and now, the workplace has evolved. Suddenly “The 9-5” isn’t a thing anymore. My dad spent a large chunk of his life at one company, and that was wonderful and respected. When he retired he would get a gold watch and feel satisfied for a job well done.

But by the time I entered the workplace things had changed. I made a good move to Universal Music and started in marketing at the very bottom. 10 years ago this was a solid company with a safe reputation and management ran a tight ship. That all changed when UMG bought EMI. Personally and professionally, you couldn’t have brought together two more different cultures. The integration (or not) of these two groups was the hardest professional task I’ve ever had to work through. No one can be productive in an environment with constant bullying, one-upmanship and back-stabbing (and of course, immunity if you’re part of The Boys Club). It turned me into a person I didn’t like being, and I experienced a personal crisis while trying to deal with work stress. This was at a time when many people described the company as toxic. Thankfully, Sufjan Stevens saved my life.

If I could give anyone advice about working in a poisonous environment it would be: “Don’t.” It’ll tear you apart on the inside, and life’s too short to be unhappy. I’m no longer the Marketing Manager at a leading record label and I wouldn’t want to be that anymore anyway. The worst is over and record labels are back making money again, now from streaming, but the power dynamic has never been more flat. When you’re working at a label it’s difficult to have perspective and see the industry as a whole, partly because of arrogance but also because of the pressure. The competition is fierce and there are hungry, innovative companies out there working in the music industry. I’m working with two of those young companies now.

My husband, parents, and friends have all been extremely supportive. Since getting the boot I’ve also been reminded that one’s reputation follows you. By working hard and working smart you will always be looking after yourself. And change is good. These days I spend more time with my family, and I work with people who want to work with me. The old stigma of retrenchment shouldn’t really exist anymore. It happened to me and it turned out to be no biggie. A growing percentage of people worldwide are contractors who work remotely and virtually everyone has a side gig. If you don’t have one yet then maybe it’s time for you to get one.

Cover art: “Middle Finger in the Air” is by Alexandra Tellez.

Best Records of 2016 and a Rad Playlist

Whew, 2016. This year of musical loss has been a one where complex records have connected most with me. On the theme of death, David Bowie’s Blackstar, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree were the most prophetic. Sometimes they were a little too sad for me, so I return to them in small doses.

At the top of the year I loved Gallant’s great debut, and the rest of it continued with interesting alternative R&B/Pop releases from Rihanna to Frank Ocean. The production on records from Beyoncé, Radiohead, and Bon Iver fascinated me. It seemed perfect for Radiohead to bring out the sonically mature album that A Moon Shaped Pool is, and I reconnected with my once favourite band again on it. My record of the year is Bon Iver’s 22, A Million with its’ intimate tone and constant unraveling. It has a puzzling sense of timing and I kept returning to it, the one album that always had me putting the volume up, no matter how loud it was (I actually just want to inhale this record).

The genre-bending D.D Dumbo doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. It’s organic, wise beyond it’s years and Australian. Pop music is again moving towards a more alternative space where it challenges the boundaries of genre… Except for the good Rock, which went back to basics this year with flame-bearers Car Seat Headrest, Lucy Dacus and Margaret Glaspy. I was fortunate to see Lucy Dacus live and her debut No Burden is a calculated statement of captivating stories, live and on the record. Shrug Rock is now definitely a movement and dammit, it sounds great! Car Seat Headrest’s Teens Of Denial is one of the most badass statement-making Rock ‘n Rolling albums of the decade. Angel Olsen made a deft move from a shy singer-songwriter to time-traveling rocker and LVL UP made the most infectiously noisy lo-fi Indie Rock record. Beyonce, the titan of Pop that she is, used all the genres in her album and got away with it because LEMONADE is a masterpiece.

At the most difficult times I returned to simpler, singer-songwriter records. Chris Staples put out the most reassuring lyrical album with gentle storytelling and humour. whilst Pinegrove’s confessional debut Cardinal is a sing-along record that is as relevant playing in the background when entertaining as it is if you’re crying into your whiskey. Don’t judge me.

There are releases that just didn’t make the top spots or that I need more time with: Mitski, Kyle Craft,Michael Kiwanuka, Wilco, A Tribe Called Quest, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Frank Ocean, Big Theif and Solange.

1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

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2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial

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3. D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated

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4. Lucy Dacus – No Burden

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5. Pinegrove – Cardinal

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6. Beyoncé – LEMONADE

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7. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

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8. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN

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9. Chris Staples – Golden Age

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10. LVL UP – Return to Love

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I also made two playlists this year of Best Of tracks, or the best of what I’m listening to. You can listen to the first playlist in the previous blog post. The latest playlist is the 2016 Best Songs of the Second Half-Year, which is below. It’s 30 tracks/2 hours of the best songs I’ve found from June/July till now, available on Tidal, Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play and Spotify; and as a best effort (not all tracks) on YouTube, Deezer and Soundcloud.

Looking on the bright side of 2017, I’m thinking of how much great new protest music there will be coming out of the States…

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2016 Best Songs Of The Half-Year

This year is halfway done and already it’s been a great one for music. So with that I give you my first half-year list. Let’s see how it goes. NPR’s Robin Hilton has identified the trend of ‘Shrug Rock’ and I hear a lot of it around (it’s great)! There’s so much diversity on on this list though, I’d like to guarantee that you’ll find something you like… but you’ll have to listen for yourself. There is everything from trippy millennial-speak pop anthems (Beck’s “Wow”) to Paul Simon-esque honey warm melodies and African guitar riff appropriation (River Whiles “All Day All Night”) to alternative R&B beat-heavy hooks with falsetto (Gallant “Weight In Gold”) and a beautiful epic post-rock (Explosions In The Sky “Logic Of A Dream”). Also one band sounding a little like Animal Collective, and another R&B star sounding like she was a heavily influenced by the last Tame Impala record… As always, I do sequence the tracks but feel free to hit shuffle if that’s how you roll.

Just a note on availability, it’s a sign of the times that not all tracks are available across all services.

Listen here for YouTube (30/30), Spotify (28/30), Deezer (25/30) and Soundcloud (16/30) playlists:

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Listen here on Apple Music (29/20):

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And here for Tidal (30/30):

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