This site has only been around since 2018. But I’ve been churning out album reviews — and year-end lists — since the dawn of time (or at least that’s how it feels). So since we’re wrapping up the decade and all, I went back and dug up all my top year-end picks since 2000. Some are based on importance, others on musical brilliance, and still others are just personal preference. You’ll notice the lengths vary wildly — that’s based on my editors’ demands over the years. You’ll also notice a few repeat offenders, which undoubtedly says just as much about me as the artists. Anyway, enjoy.
Kids in Philly
One for the head and one from the heart. In this corner: Radiohead’s Kid A. This eerie, post-rock, post-electronic, post-everything soundscape/concept album/song cycle was far and away the year’s most ambitious and challenging disc. In that corner: Marah’s Kids in Philly, the best album most folks never heard from the next (and perhaps last) Great American Band. Imagine Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison jamming with The Replacements on old Faces tracks. Now imagine the record they’d make with Phil Spector. Then buy ’em both.
Love & Theft
He’s got a moustache and he’s not afraid to twirl it. After 43 albums in almost as many years, Bob Dylan has figured out he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody anymore. So he cuts loose and kicks back, leading his crack touring band through his most playful, personable and just plain enjoyable disc. Yes, things have changed — for the better.
The White Stripes
White Blood Cells
The Mooney Suzuki
Veni Vidi Vicious
Yeah, yeah, I know: A four-way tie just makes me look indecisive. Not to mention that two of them — The White Stripes and The Hives — were available as imports or indie pressings in 2001. But after weeks of vacillating between one disc and another, I decided this Fab Foursome deserved to share top honours because of what they jointly represent: The long-overdue return of classic, guitar-driven rawk. Whether it was the crash-bash garage-punk of candy-coloured duo The White Stripes, the revved-up MC5 choogle of New York’s Mooney Suzuki, the post-grunge Nirvanarchy of Aussie punks The Vines or the kitschy, matching-outfit riff-punk of Swedish meatballs The Hives, the message was loud and clear: These amps go to 11. Plus, just for the record, The Mooney Suzuki wrote the best chorus of the year: “In a young man’s mind it’s a simple world / There’s a little room for music and the rest is girls.” I rest my case.
Elizabethan sonnets? French philosophy? Thematic arcs? Penguins? This is punk rock? Well, no. It’s Winnipeg’s own post-punk heroes The Weakerthans. And Reconstruction Site — their third CD and first global release via influential indie imprint — is their magnum opus: A smartly literate, boldly challenging concept album-song cycle of failure, acceptance and rebirth. Characterized by tastefully understated performances and distinguished by singer John K. Samson’s earnest, reedy tones and literate lyrical tales, these 14 songs run the gamut from churning rockers and loping country twangers to backwards soundscapes. Heard as a whole — preferably over headphones with the lights out — they firmly establish Samson and The Weakerthans as the finest musical artists this city has produced in a generation. Plus the chorus of One Great City — “I … hate … Winnipeg” — is the singalong refrain of the year.
20,000 Streets Under the Sky
The boys are back in town. Singer-guitarists Dave and Serge Bielanko return to the streets of their beloved Philadelphia on this fourth album — and it’s a homecoming bash not to be missed. Like their 2000 masterpiece Kids in Philly, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky raises a Friday-night toast to the street-poet romance and wide-eyed exuberance of early Bruce Springsteen. And as usual, the eclectic Bielankos can’t resist spiking the punch with Philly soul, girl-group pop, Van Morrison troubadourism, Layla’s instrumental grandeur, The Faces’ scrappy folk-rock, Motown melodies, tenement-stoop doo-wop, plucky banjos, punky guitars, R&B grooves and even jump-rope rhymes. Equally intoxicating, though, are the tales told over this heady homebrew — sad sagas of doomed love, cokehead trannies, drug-dealing pizzerias, gunshot children and undercover busts gone bad. So much for the City of Brotherly Love. But don’t take this disc for some pity party. Even when the Bielankos are standing in the gutter, they’re gazing at the stars, searching for the lost chord that will open the gates to the promised land. As they guide us through the backstreets and back alleys of their stomping grounds, spinning everyday moments of quiet perseverance into life-affirming epics of valiant struggle, it’s impossible not to fall under their seductive spell — and find your faith in rock renewed in the process.
The Hold Steady
Imagine that Bruce Springsteen grew up in Minneapolis instead of New Jersey. Imagine he listened to ’70s rockers like Thin Lizzy and ’80s punks like Hüsker Dü. Imagine he read the drug-fuelled ravings of William S. Burroughs. Instead of The Boss, he might have grown up to be Craig Finn. Instead of The E Street Band, he might have formed The Hold Steady. And instead of Darkness on the Edge of Town, he might have written and recorded Separation Sunday. This ambitious and articulate tale of sin and salvation has made the Brooklyn-based Finn and co. the buzz band of the year. Deservedly so. Yes, the band’s grandly arranged rock owes a debt to the E Streeters — but with buzzsaw guitars. Yes, Finn’s literate verbosity and slurred, spoken delivery are uncannily like Springsteen at times — but his barking rant also evokes a drunken Jim Carroll. And yes, Finn’s lyrics have Bruce’s romantic mythology — but mixed with Burroughsian darkness. Separation Sunday‘s shadowy narrative traces the downward spiral and rebirth of a “hoodrat” named Holly (short for Hallelujah) who drifts across the U.S. running drugs with a dealer named Charlemagne, until she comes down one day in a confessional and is born again. Or something like that; the story is jumbled and fuzzy, making the whole sad, sordid saga as ethereal as a memory or a hallucination. But the Born to Run Drugs plot is only part of the point. What matters more is the way Finn spins it — with grandeur and grace, power and passion, and pretty much every other quality that separates great bands from also-rans. And puts CDs like this on top of critics’ lists.
“You think I’m past my prime? Let me see what you got — we can have a whompin’ good time.” Pretty tough talk from an old man. Then again, he’s Bob Dylan. Folk icon. Rock trailblazer. Voice of his generation. He’s got nothing more to prove. And since he realized that, he’s been on a roll. Zimmy’s renaissance began with 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft. With the masterful Modern Times, he has hit a new stride. As usual, he casts a spell with a torrent of words. Sometimes he talks to a lover (“I’d walk throjugh a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side”). Sometimes he talks to God (“I can’t go back to Paradise no more / I killed a man back there”). Sometimes he makes threats (“I’m gonna wring your neck”). Sometimes he makes no sense (“I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from cryin’ ”). No matter what, you hang on every word — and every note from his weathered pipes. Creaking like a broken screen door, croaking like an old frog, Dylan’s voice makes Keith Richards sound like a choirboy. But it’s perfect for the ragged roots soundtrack that underpins these tales of love and apocalypse. Wading deep into the stream of Americana, Dylan borrows from Muddy Waters, croons Tin Pan Alley ballads and growls rustic folk. It is the sound of an artist at the height of his powers. And a whompin’ good time.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Years after revolutionizing rock with Kid A, these British iconoclasts gave the piracy-plagued music biz the bends by inviting fans to download this eighth album from the web and pay anything — or nothing. While reports of the industry’s imminent death were greatly exaggerated, the bold experiment breathed new life into a stagnant scene by uniting fans worldwide and giving other bands a glimpse of their future. Plus, this batch of accessible art-rock just happened to be their best work since … well, Kid A. Can’t beat that.
Guns N’ Roses
It’s been said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And maybe — just maybe — the greatest trick Axl Rose ever pulled was convincing the world Chinese Democracy was never coming out. Think about it: Had Rose slapped together a disc 10 years ago, few would have cared about a Guns N’ Roses album with no other original members of GN’R on it. But by vanishing from the scene, holing up in studio after studio, treating his bandmates like interchangeable pawns, and control-freakishly tweaking these songs over and over, he slowly persuaded the world he was building something monumental. And by withholding it for year after year, he turned it into the mythical Holy Grail of rock: The Most Wanted Album in Music History. Everyone thought he was nuts. Turns out he knew exactly what he was doing. Listening to Chinese Democracy, you can hear — and appreciate — how much time and effort went into these songs. Nearly every one of these 14 cuts is a massive epic crammed with umpteen parts, endless twists and turns, and layer upon layer of overdubs: A Great Wall of shredding from Bumblefoot, Buckethead and others, sure, but also electronica beats and loops, horns, strings, choirs, sound effects, you name it. And, amazingly, it all hangs together: Instead of a bloated, indecisive, self-indulgent mess, Rose — whose corroded snarl and Joplinesque shriek are still pretty impressive, by the way — has created an audacious, unstoppable magnum opus that almost justifies all the years and money, all the mayhem and hype. To give the devil his due, that’s a helluva trick in itself.
Them Crooked Vultures
Them Crooked Vultures
Most years, assembling this list is fairly easy. This isn’t one of those years. There are several reasons for that: 1 | Many major artists sat out 2009 (where are you when we need you, Radiohead?); 2 | Many more made albums that were good but not great (you can do better, Wilco); 3 | The album — both as a physical entity and an artistic concept — is slowly but surely becoming a relic; 4 | In this economy, artistic merit and risk are increasingly abandoned for marketable trends, quick cash-ins and manufactured scandal (Adam Lambert, come on down!). Thankfully, all is not lost. Of the bazillion CDs I heard this year, at least 100 came from artists who pushed the envelope, upped the ante, and brought something to the table. Perhaps nobody brought more than Them Crooked Vultures. Boasting the combined might of Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, Queens of the Stone Age singer-guitarist Joshua Homme and Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, this supergroup’s very existence was a much-needed oasis of rock in the teenage wasteland of pop and hip-hop. Even better, their self-titled debut delivered on that promise, with 13 tracks of big, bold and bombastically groovy guitar-rock that added up to more than the sum of its parts.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
“Let’s have a toast for the douchebags; let’s have a toast for the assholes,” exhorts Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. You know what they say: It takes one to know one. And Yeezy has acted like one for years — bumrushing award-show stages, oversharing on Twitter, beefing with presidents, proclaiming his superiority at every opportunity. No wonder everyone loves to hate him. But if the 33-year-old hip-hopper can’t keep his foot out of his mouth in public, he never falters in the studio. If anything, the qualities that make him his own worst enemy — the raging egomania, the ridiculous hubris, the unmitigated audacity — become his greatest assets. That has never been more obvious than on his fifth album. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy handily earns all its titular adjectives and more — including epic, opulent, inventive, brazen and breathtaking. Basically, it’s everything you love (or loathe) about West taken up several notches. The hedonism, narcissism and swaggering cockiness, the infectious grooves and innovative arrangements, the grandiose settings and inspired samples; they’re all cranked to the max. Chants and handclaps sit next to King Crimson snippets; slow-rolling beats are decorated with choirs, strings and grand piano; AutoTuned melodies are borrowed from Black Sabbath; everyone from Drake, Fergie and Elton to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and a wildly filthy Chris Rock contribute. And everything is swirled into a shapeshifting adventure that stands as a game-changer not only for his career, but for pop at large. Until he rewrites the script again with his next album, anyhow. As he says with typical humility: “At the end of day, goddammit, I’m killin’ this shit.”
David Comes To Life
To paraphrase Paul Simon: There must be 50 ways to lose your lover. And even more ways to make an album about it. That’s not news. Ever since the first caveman divorce, musicians have sung laments to love and the lack thereof — and this year is no exception. But what is exceptional is that two decidedly different discs about the death of romance ended up duking it out for supremacy on my list of 2011’s top music.
On this side: David Comes to Life, the third studio full-length from ambitious Toronto art-punks Fucked Up. On that side: 21, the Grammy-nominated and chart-topping sophomore album from beloved British songbird Adele. The former is a magnificent, multi-layered punk-rock opera about passion and fate, starring a light-bulb-factory drone who condemns love and battles depression when his activist girlfriend is killed by a homemade bomb. The latter is a classic confessional breakup album that examines the aftermath of a relationship and its accompanying emotional stages, from defensiveness and anger through to forgiveness. David is fuelled by a fusion of driving guitars and chiming melodies that suggests Pete Townshend collaborating with The Dead Boys, and topped by leather-lunged, full-throttle vocals from bald behemoth Damian (Pink Eyes) Abraham. 21 is grounded by an earthy blend of impeccably crafted soul, blues, folk and gospel that cushions the powerhouse pipes of one of England’s most deservedly acclaimed young vocalists. One seems more likely to appeal to men; the other to women. But both, ultimately, are works that seamlessly, stylishly and skillfully fuse art and the heart, reminding us it is indeed better to have loved and lost than never to have embraced life.
Death becomes him. Bob Dylan’s 35th studio outing is a gleefully macabre masterpiece, with a fully energized Zimmy wheezing and croaking mordant epics of blood, murder, love and disaster — from the sinking of the Titanic to the slaying of John Lennon — atop anachronistic blues jams, jazzy vamps and balladry. If this is the 71 year old’s swan song as rumoured, he’s truly going out with a bang.
Jesus saves. Yeezus raves — about racism, sex and croissants — over abrasive, starkly produced synths on his most outraged and outrageous album yet (and that’s saying something).
To Be Kind
The missing word in that title, of course, is cruel. It’s a small one, but crucial. And those acquainted with Michael Gira and Swans can probably surmise that it suggests cruelty and kindness remain the twin poles of the reconstituted doom-gods’ 13th studio offering. To Be Kind, much like its recent predecessors and unlike almost any other album you’ve heard, is a sprawling beast of uncompromising intensity, fearsome majesty and awesome beauty. With 10 tracks that add up to more than two hours — five top the 10-minute mark, and one passes half an hour — this is the opposite of easy listening. If anything, it’s somewhere between a religious epiphany, a bad drug trip, a deadly fever dream and some sort of psychological experiment. Stark beats plod along unchanging for minutes; guitars and keyboards drone and smear subliminally; Gira moans, mumbles and chants incomprehensibly when he isn’t screaming bloody murder. The songs (though calling them that is like calling Picasso’s Guernica a doodle) take eternities to coalesce, evolve and build to sustained climaxes — or suddenly explode in your face like terrorist bombs. If it sounds punishing and difficult and exhausting, it is. But it’s also thrilling and enthralling and unforgettable, thanks to Gira’s alchemical ability to fuse a spectacular spectrum of sounds and styles — post-rock grandeur, no-wave funk, industrial noise, the primal punk of The Stooges, the elemental hoodoo of Howlin’ Wolf and so much more — into a sui generis cyclone of chaos, cacophony and creation. Listen if you dare. Ignore at your peril.
To Pimp a Butterfly
There are rappers with style. There are rappers of substance. Then there is Kendrick Lamar. Coming straight outta Compton with his eyes on the prize, Lamar shot to the top with the acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, the best rap album of 2012. How do you follow that? With one of the best albums (rap and otherwise) of the decade. Audaciously bold, restlessly innovative, intoxicatingly funky and irresistibly appealing on multiple levels, the 27-year-old Lamar’s third full-length firmly establishes him as one of the most revolutionary and compelling forces in music. And one of the most eclectic — hovering midway between a concept album, a mixtape, a sociological thesis, a soundtrack and a fever dream, the 78-minute epic To Pimp a Butterfly is stuffed to the rafters with ideas and inspirations, sounds and styles. There are bumptious P-Funk jams and slices of ’70s soul; beat-poet rebop and free jazz soundscapes; ominous gangsta grooves and sunny hip-pop. There are cameos and contributions by a who’s-who crew that includes Dr. Dre, George Clinton, Bilal, Pharrell, Snoop and the hologram of Tupac Shakur. There’s even a spoken-word narrative of self-destruction, self-discovery and reinvention running through the album. But most importantly, there is Lamar, tying all the loose threads together eloquently and entertainingly with his spectacular vernacular, idiosyncratic flow, rapid-fire rasp and piercing intelligence. Or, to quote another African-American icon of substance and style: He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
“Look up here, I’m in Heaven.” So sings David Bowie on Lazarus, a song from his final album ★ (Blackstar). At the time, we all thought they were just lyrics. Turns out they were much more. Two days after his 25th album was released on his 69th birthday, Bowie died after an 18-month battle with liver cancer. In keeping with his more reclusive recent life, he had kept his illness secret from the public. But true to his nature as one of rock’s most creative and committed artists and icons, it apparently factored heavily into his music. “His death was no different from his life – a work of art,” longtime producer Tony Visconti was quoted saying. “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.” And to marvel at this flawless, fearless parting gift from a chameleonic and utterly individual artist who treated his own passing as his ultimate work of art. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.
Even the biggest lives are defined by their smallest moments. That was easy to forget in the aftermath of Gordon Downie’s death this year, as tributes understandably focused on the Tragically Hip frontman’s life, career, legacy and public persona. Of course, the private man was another story. And he’s the one we encounter on Introduce Yerself, the singer and poet’s sixth and final solo album. Primarily written and recorded on the fly and off the cuff at the Hip’s own Bathouse Studio in January 2016, weeks after his fateful brain-cancer diagnosis, the sprawling 23-song album — in keeping with both its title and its creator’s freewheeling style — is something of a walking contradiction. It is epic in length but modest in execution. Quiet yet powerful. Stark but rich. Nostalgic but alive. Sweet without being maudlin. Rewardingly personal but universally appealing. And most importantly: Although it was created by a man facing his own mortality, it is an album that fearlessly and joyously celebrates life. Just not the glorious life of a revered Canadian rock icon. What flashed before Gord’s eyes on those wintry days of self-reflection were not highlight reels of fame and glory, triumph or even tragedy. They were quiet, intimate slices of everyday life. Like rocking one of his kids to sleep. Taking a snowy walk as a child. BB-gunning tin cans in the backyard while sporting a bathing suit. Mooning over his first girlfriend. Falling in love to the songs of Spoon. Or simply staring at soothing Lake Ontario, as he did while hand-writing these lyrics. All the songs, Downie said, were inspired by important figures in his life. A couple could be about his bandmates. Another sounds like it’s about a pet. A few might make you cry. Others will make you laugh. Nearly all are equally compelling. And thanks to their author’s poetic stream of consciousness, off-kilter flow and confessional vocals — not to mention his innate ability to convey the fleeting, fragmentary nature of memory — most are vague enough to protect the innocent (or the guilty) and create a drifting, dreamlike quality. Make no mistake, though: Introduce Yerself is more than farewell love letters from Downie the musician. It’s a parting gift from Downie the man. The man who was a father, a son, a husband, a friend, a hockey fan. A man you’ve known all your life, but are still meeting anew. Just in time to miss him more than you already do.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
You can swipe through all the British bands you want looking for your perfect match, but in the end, there are really only two types: The ones that can truly conquer America and the ones that can’t. The 1975 definitely deserve to be in the former category, but so far they’ve been unable to make the leap out of the latter. And based on their third album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, they’d better get comfortable, because that’s where they’re going to stay for the foreseeable future. This is not a criticism; if anything, it’s a compliment. Because on this 15-track extravaganza, singer and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Healy and his bandmates have produced their most ambitious, eclectic and multi-faceted album to date — and a disc that is quite simply far too extravagantly, unrepentantly weird and artsy to reach the toppermost of the U.S. poppermost (even if it does contain a song titled I Like America & America Likes Me). Truth be told, the 58-minute set should have no problem finding some love with Radiohead fans, thanks to some strange atmospheric tracks laced with smeared Vocoder performances and glitchy robo-grooves. But it’s every bit as likely to appeal to devotees of ’80s soul and funk, hushed electro-folk, contemporary R&B and gospel, Afrobeat and jazz (especially Roy Hargrove fans; the recently deceased trumpet master contributes some fine work here). All those genres and more come up in the rotation at one point or another — though virtually all of them get mixed, mingled and mutated into one-of-a-kind postmodern musical hybrids that resist easy categorization. Lyrically, the band is far easier to pin down. As you might expect, love (or the lack thereof) in the modern age is the topic du jour, though none of these jaundiced cuts comes within 100 metres of a typical boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl number. Be My Mistake voices a philanderer’s regret. Sincerity is Scary asks, “Why can’t we be friends when we are lovers?” It’s Not Living if It’s Not With You and Surrounded by Heads and Bodies are about addiction and rehab. And then there’s the Internet-obsessed fable The Man Who Married A Robot, the self-explanatory TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME and the stalker ballad Inside Your Mind. So swipe right at your own risk.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Teenage girls are scary at the best of times. But Billie Eilish takes it to a whole new level. Just take a gander at the cover pic of the 17-year-old L.A. pop phenom’s debut album: Decked out in institutional white T-shirt and sweats, she’s perched on the edge of a bed, grinning maniacally and leering through pupil-less eyes like something out of a Japanese horror movie. It’s enough to give you the creeps. And to her credit, the rest of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is just as nightmarish and weird. Co-written and produced with her brother Finneas O’Connell — and reportedly inspired by her own twisted dreams and night terrors — this demented 14-song groundbreaker eschews the usual lowest-common-denominator dance-pop fluff for idiosyncratic, introspective and intriguingly inventive songcraft and sonics. Eilish’s multi-tracked, intermittently treated vocals emerge conspiratorially hushed or gothically spidery, sounding more like reluctant confessions than entertainment. Her brooding lyrics are obsessed with death and drugs, sex and suicide, heaven and hell, violence and violation — and other grisly topics beyond her years. (Typical couplet: “I like the way they all scream / Tell me which one is worse / Living or dying first / Sleeping inside a hearse.”) Her songs are edgy, minimalist electro-pop creations that are usually anchored by subterranean speaker-rattling bass blasts and topped with little more than fingersnaps, throbbing synthesizers and spooky tinkling pianos. It is easily one of the oddest and most unsettling major-label pop albums to arrive in recent times. Which also makes it one of the most interesting and memorable pop albums in recent times. Yeah, she’s scary. But a lot of the time, she’s also scary good. Keep your eyes peeled.