The metal heads got a word in on this part. Is it their last?1
There are plenty of surprises in this section and more to come!2 Give it a read and decipher Yacht’s “joke” for me in the comments.
20. Zola Jesus Okovi
19. Couch Slut Contempt
18. SZA CTRL
17. Suf and Friends Planetarium
16. The Horrors V
Bell Witch Mirror Reaper
Ghosts have always been central to Bell Witch. From the Seattle funeral doom duo’s name to their 2015 sophomore effort, Four Phantoms, the band contemplates death and the unknown with awe and empathy. A year after the release of Four Phantoms, Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman were forced to face death head on with the passing of drummer and co-founder Adrien Guerra. Bell Witch’s third installment, Mirror Reaper, serves as a tribute their fallen friend. At 86 minutes, Mirror Reaper plays as a single track and the musical equivalent of deep, unshakable grief. Utilizing little more than bass, drums, guttural roars, and ethereal screams, the piece heaves and drifts through a seemingly endless void. Riffs crack the sky, drums plunge with meteoric force, and an atmosphere of suffocating longing frequently gives into moments of overwhelming beauty. With thirty minutes remaining, we’re slowly lifted from our Earthly vessels to Walt Whitman-like prose, gentle ambience, and immense love.
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Big Thief Capacity
When I first saw Big Thief’s outstanding debut, Masterpiece, way back in 2016 the first thought I had was “any band with the balls to name their debut Masterpiece deserves a listen” . When I first HEARD that album, all thought melted away as it’s dulcet folk-inflected tones, compositional acumen, and painfully personal lyrics washed over me. It was raw talent on display. When it was over, I was consumed with one thought only; I cannot WAIT to hear what this band does next. Well, that album arrived in the form of Capacity in June of this year. Expectations were high and a hyperbolic premature evaluation was inevitable. Here we are in December and one thing is clear – my expectations were way too low.
Adrianne Lenker is a generational talent. Her haunting, ethereal voice is the clear-cut star of Big Thief; the antidote to a cold and sterile world. A weaponized thing of beauty, her piercing upper-register shrieks will make your arm hairs stand on end (just listen to the climax of “Mythological Beauty”, when it’s revealed (amidst a near-death experience) that Adrianne has a brother she’s never met, or the breathtaking ode-to-a-friend “Mary”, easily the penultimate song of the year). Clearly, she has already had a rich lifetime of experiences in her scant 25 years on this planet (these experiences are a key part of Big Thief’s DNA and have been written about many times by writers better equipped to expound upon them than me. Exploration is encouraged.).
Like most albums worthy of “instant classic”” status, genre signifiers only begin to hint at the greatness Capacity contains. “Folk rock” is a reductive term (not to mention an overcrowded space). Expertly deployed by Buck Meek (I can’t imagine a better name for the guitarist of this band), feedback-driven bursts of guitar appear and disappear, thick and velvety garage rock tones – at times recalling another American pacesetter, Songs: Ohia (the title track, “Black Diamond”) – threaten to consume Adrianne’s voice only to be beaten back, paradoxically, by the type of confidence that comes from total vulnerability (as I type this the coda on “Watering” is, appropriately, causing me to well up – “coooommmme to meeee”. Devastating.). Drummer James Krivchenia and bassist Greg Oleartchik provide a rock solid foundation; the perfect well-spring for the warm and welcoming psychedelia summoned by guitar and voice.
Big Thief have created a world that is all their own but it isn’t an insular one. This is a band long on empathy and short on histrionics. All heart and no pretense. Join them, they’ll happily put on a pot of coffee if you respond in kind.
Big Thief – Capassshitty
I ducked into a cafe on Pike Street to get out of the rain and ordered a coffee. Black. Blacker than the glowering clouds hanging over my city. Blacker than the mood of my country as it confronts the impeachment of President Clinton, the tarnishing of Roger Maris’s home run record, the imminent burst of the tech bubble. I found a table in the back of the cafe, slipped on my headphones, pressed play on my Discman, and let Ani Difranco’s thick swells of guitar surround me. The caffeine must have disagreed with the Prozac I’d smoked earlier because my entire field of vision went black but for a single point of perfect blue light that seemed to beckon me closer. I walked on, with trepidation at first, and then with resolve, until I came face-to-face with the beast. He had the head of Medusa, the legs of a goat, the tattoos of a barber. As he turned over the first tarot card, his maw opened slowly, and I could just barely hear his cracked whisper: “Matthew, please do not regret…”
White Reaper The World’s Best American Band
When people trot out the tired “boohoo, rock music is dead” narrative, there are plenty of bands I can use as a counterpoint. But this year I’ve been sending people directly to White Reaper, because our Kentucky Fried Boys made the best rock record of the year. The shreddin’ is vibrant, the riffs dynamic and fueled by sweaty rock-n-roll adrenaline, while Tony Esponito sells these tight ten tracks with the snarl and drawl of a modern Phil Lynott (and yes, of course I had to look up that reference).
White Reaper probably know their style isn’t the most in vogue. Rock musicians aren’t gracing magazine covers like in the olden days — the kids would rather look up to some fella named Lil Uzi Vert or the smooth-talkers of Why Don’t We. But White Reaper know where they belong. The title track leads off the album with sounds of screaming fans that could be filling up MSG or Ed Sullivan’s studio circa 1965. Sure, on the album this comes off as playful irony. But make sure you see these guys live — no matter where you are, they’ll be too big for the room. And for one night, you’ll be convinced these crazy 20-somethings from Louisville are truly The World’s Best American Band.
THE NERVE OF THESE KENTUCKY SHITKICKERS!
The World’s Best American Band?!?! How about Another Local Band Aping Thin Lizzy Hits The Road?? I mean I guess go for the guttural since your first album was titled White Reaper Does It Again and White Reaper Still Doing it Again Still doesn’t have the same ring to it as The World’s Best American Band, but think about the oldies, man! The Rolling Stones are still alive! (oh, they’re English?) Uhhhh… two of The Beatles are still… no, wait… OK, The Doors are… OK, not them either… IGGY POP IS STILL ALIVE FUCKERS! There we go. How dare you White Reaper!
How can you insist to be the best at anything when you don’t even sequence your album to make obvious single “The Stack” kick off the album’s vinyl B-side? “Party Next Door” to kick it off? Please. Why this less than 40 minute album was optimized for CD listening was a decision that a band who is most clearly NOT the best at anything would make. The blunders keep adding up as album closer “Another Day” sounds like it was just pulled off an old demo cassette from three years prior. Way to throw the vibe off, guys!
The XX I See You
“There’s a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die”
The sensitive souls of this world may claim to prefer trading hushed whispers in secluded bedrooms, but it was only a matter of time before Jamie dragged his nocturnal partners in crime onto the dancefloor. And maybe this is just the molly water talking, but everything sounds incredible.
I can write this Hot Topic-lite shit all day…
*Gentle plucky noises from someone touching a guitar for the first time in their goddamn life*
Boy: I’m in love with you.
Girl: You’re in love with me.
Boy: But don’t you see you’re just a memory.
Girl: And you died getting stung by a bee.
Boy: I see you smell your pillow for the scent of me.
Girl: No I just really like my Tesco laundry detergent.
Boy: Oh yes we are very British. Bangers & mash.
Girl: Piss off, ya ghost wanker.
*Insert tasteful Hall & Oates sample that’ll sound good in an empty mall*
Alex Cameron Forced Witness
At first, it’s jarring to hear a singer-songwriter with a smooth croon throw the word “pussy” out so liberally. It’s like getting smacked upside the head by a sock full of nickels. But the word is essential in Alex’s tales of crass, sexually deprived (or depraved, take your pick) sad sacks. His characters are the insecure dudes you knew in high school or college who bragged of “gettin’ pussy” when they probably just jerked off to a Google Image search of [insert the summer’s hottest celebrity here]. If you wants to know what these dudes are up to today, well, they might be the gullible cheater falling for a Nigerian scam artist on “True Lies,” or the creep who likes ‘em young on “Studmuffin96.” But Alex’s presentation has undertones of sadness — you almost pity these characters as they hopelessly seek gratification (aka “pussy”) through their computer monitors. Almost.
While that sounds icky and depressing, Forced Witness is relentlessly entertaining, funny as hell, and occasionally sweet. For instance, standout single “Runnin’ Outta Luck” has the the rush of a Journey anthem and an optimal amount of gooey ‘80s cheese. In another timeline, it would be the highlight at generations of proms.