By ELI JACE >
Best of the Last Four Years (2017-2020)
As America completes another step in the transfer of power from one presidential administration to the next, another chunk of history concludes. The last four years have been tumultuous beyond true comprehension, but musicians, as always, grind through, finding creativity where it lands. At the end of this century’s second decade, genre continues to morph. Inspiration comes from every groundbreaking movement in music history, every underground scene stream. Here are the best albums of the last four years.
10. Masseduction by St. Vincent
(October 13. 2017)
For the fifth St. Vincent album, Annie Clark worked with pop producer Jack Antonoff, who throws an electric punch to every track on Masseduction. The incense smoke from Clark’s past collaborator, David Byrne, still lingers. Big funky drums, horns and tempos pick you off the chair, but she also finds sad melodies to tarnish the flame of love lost. The drunken waltz, “Hang On Me” opens with Clark singing her heart raw over bruised keyboards. The album title track is a noisy guitar-ladened crush of a pop song. Clark whimpers in sexual grievance and the bass slaps down with heat. “Pills” is the two-step marching ode to pharmaceuticals with catchy a list of all the prescriptions this society needs to run. There is no pill yet that can make you play guitar like Clark. Her unhinged playing continues to be a strong highlight, following the distorted carnage of St. Vincent.
9. Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples
(June 23. 2017)
When Vince Staples dropped Big Fish Theory in 2017 it was the perfect party soundtrack for our obliterated worldview. The album you want on full blast as you try to drown out the sounds of falling debris and unknown engines–a steady eye on the locked front door and a loaded bong in your clenched fist. Only months into the trump presidency, it was the first release to smack the shit out of the news. Staples uses his words with a purpose only few rappers today can claim, balancing the aching struggles of the world with the unfound desire to enjoy it. It’s brief, so you’ll want it on repeat. Plus, there’s a bonus Kendrick Lamar verse, bars from A$AP Rocky, Ty Dolla $ign, Juicy J, a hook by Damon Albarn and production from the recently deceased SOPHIE.
8. Revival by Eminem
(December 15. 2017)
Before putting out Revival in 2017 Eminem had been fairly dormant since 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2. The new album was a surprise, coming out with weeks left in the year. The first single “Walk On Water” revolved around a Skylar Grey vocal hook sung by Beyoncé while Em found a new vulnerability, rapping about his quick fade from mainstream culture. His slipping relevance is one of many themes that humanizes him in a way listeners hadn’t yet heard. Eminem is at his most confident and defiant throughout the album going deeper into his struggles to find himself after getting sober in 2008. Most notably, though, was “Like Home” featuring Alicia Keys, a direct dressing down of the trump presidency (and only one year in). No one is off limits in an Eminem verse, but to hear an entire song dedicated to such a tactical takedown was jarring. It surely turned off some fans, which gave the track an added heft of audacity.
7. Material Control by Glassjaw
(December 1. 2017)
15 years is a long time to gnaw on the bone. In 2002, Long Island’s Glassjaw released their second album, Worship And Tribute, toured, and then went into an exile that grew like a midday shadow. Founding members, singer Daryl Palumbo and guitarist Justin Beck, continued their discography in 2017 without a glance at the time passed. On Material Control, the group enlisted Dillinger Escape Plan’s drummer Billy Rymer to track most of the drums. Rymer adds the barreling brute force of a wrestler hopped up on steroids and asteroid dust. “New White Extremity” gut-punches the opening seconds–a fuse sparkling toward a little black bomb. Palumbo multiplies and comes in hot from all angles. After 15 years, what a payoff.
6. Pleasure by Feist
(April 28. 2017)
Pure beauty in song structure on Feist’s fifth album, Pleasure. Perfectly orchestrated to fill your lungs with emotion. Leslie Feist also plays in another band, Broken Social Scene, who also released Hug of Thunder in 2017, but it’s on Pleasure where the singer gets out what’s really on her mind. Her songs are well-crafted and search for meaning in the fog of loneliness. In addition to recording vocals, guitars, keyboard, Feist recruited producer Mocky, pianist Chilly Gonzalez, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and saxophonist Colin Stetson to fill out the orchestration.
5. Now Only by Mount Eerie
(March 16. 2018)
The songs on Now Only were written by Phil Elverum in the aftermath of the death of his wife, artist and musician Geneviève, to pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed in 2015, the year she gave birth to their first child, and passed the next year. Elverum, who also performs as the Microphones, writes songs like diary entries, furiously licking fingers to get monumental emotion down, page after page. As a whole Now Only provides devastating insight into one of the more tragic familial occurrences thought possible–the loss of the mother, loss of the wife, the loss of stability and womanly composure. The hurt compounded by Elverum’s sudden status as single-father. On “Distortion” to existential whirring comes flooding with every vibrant memory, on a slow acoustic plod. Elverum nearly trips over the words, matter-of-factly distributing his iced-over pain. Elverum confronts tragedy with a startling folk realism. The title track is an almost cheery anthem about the unfortunate possibility of cancer’s reign on the human body. On “Earth” he sings about watching his wife’s bones erode in the dirt on top of a tepid crescendoing guitar loop.
4. Stranger In the Alps / Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
(September 22. 2017 / June 18, 2020)
Not sure that any other new artist has had more of an upward trajectory in their career than Phoebe Bridgers in these past few years. Stranger In The Alps was in every best-of list at the end of 2017, bringing back feeling to mainstream songwriting. Her soft voice, careful serene guitar playing and poignant lyrical minutiae quickly took up residence in the shivering spine. Her craft only sharpened, as she formed two other groups, Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, leading up to 2020. The hype for Punisher, her second full-length, was real, one of the biggest pandemic-era releases. It’s a perfect follow-up and it culminated in a surprising three Grammy nominations–Best Alternative Music Album, and Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song for “Kyoto.” The Grammys also show their merit by offering the Best New Artist tag a little late.
3. Deserted by Gatecreeper
(October 4, 2019)
Arizona death metal comes to roost on the red dirt with Gatecreeper’s second full-length, Deserted. The fivepiece drove a spike through the eardrums of every metalhead with their debut Sonoran Depravation and subsequent touring schedule through 2016-18. On their follow-up they dug in their heels and managed to create something crustier, louder, thrashier, and even more expansive. Title track begins with a slow explosion, like the final moments before a building collapses. When vocalist Chase Mason steps in with that deep gorilla growl, the song starts to pick up, increasing tempo by half each verse until ending with a screaming solo. “Puncture Wounds” wastes no time kicking the dirt where the building once stood. It’s a murderous stomp and finds subtle shifts in the blasting charge. Deserted continues to vilify its listeners, keeping each headbang unpredictable. The sound is cavernous and vile, piling on destruction. It’s some of the evilest, yet most listenable metal out there. You can hear sonic nods to every era of the genre creeping from the devastation. Gatecreeper released the pandemic-inspired An Unexpected Reality this January.
2. Ohms by Deftones
(September 25, 2020)
With their ninth album, Ohms, the band sound more “like Deftones” than ever. The Sacramento group’s sound has evolved to incorporate more ethereal psychedelia to the sludgy riffing of doom and stoner metal. They have their lane and they own it. Wavering reedy synth and a hanging guitar line create the establishing shot to open Ohms. As we zoom in, the band dive-bomb into frame with their well-honed syncopated signature sound. Vocalist Chino Moreno has perfected the art of creating a severely infectious hook without having to put it in the standard cadence of a chorus. It’s often just a recurring word or two bellowed to the stormy skies above that lodges in your brain. “Ceremony,” “Urantia,” “The Spell of Mathematics,” and “Pompeij” all nestle Moreno’s airy croon amid a dense thicket of riffs, with some Meshuggah-style throwdowns tossed in for good measure. Ohms runs seamlessly start to finish, creating a hypnotic bubble that envelopes you. Before you know it you’ve hit the tremendous title track which closes out the album. –By JON C. IRESON
READ: The Best Albums of 2020
1. Ghosteen by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
(October 4, 2019)
Nick Cave has cemented his legendary status as a storyteller, poet, singer, and frontman by exorcising manic tales of depravity and touching ballads alongside the Bad Seeds. Cave’s untethered approach to expression has made him one of the most expressive and commanding performers of the modern age. Ghosteen is the seventeenth album from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and serves as the final chapter in a trilogy that began with 2013’s Push The Sky Away, followed by Skeleton Tree, in 2016. One of the things you notice the most upon the initial playthrough of the record is the minimal role that drums, guitar and even piano play in the soundscape. Synthesizers are running the orchestra this time around filling the tracks with a warm mist to underscore Cave’s fever dream imagery. His voice still finds new territory after all these years. Ghosteen is a stunning achievement of both music and poetry. 45 years into his career and Nick Cave is making some of his best music. — By JON C. IRESON