A Considered Wrap-Up of the Best-Selling Albums of All Time

So I’ve gone through the whole list, and the last thing to do, obviously, is to see how this weird, often-arbitrary set of records stack up against their contextual 1 peers. This is, of course, the final and absolutely correct ranking of this set of records, obviously.  

In a lot of ways, this was more interesting than evaluating them as they are. In every way, this was difficult to the point of absurdity – there comes a point in the list 2 where it’s a matter of degrees, and things basically stop being “better” and start being “less terrible”.   

Also note that artists tend to clump up. It’s because at the gajillion-selling record it all has a kind of sameness, and that means that records from the same period by the same band that sell astronomically tend to be functionally very, very similar, and so of similar quality 3

  1. Nirvana – Nevermind
  2. Led Zeppelin – IV
  3. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
  4. U2 – The Joshua Tree
  5. The Beatles – 1
  6. The Beatles – Abbey Road
  7. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
  8. Bob Marley – Legend
  9. The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  10. Oasis – What’s the Story (Morning Glory)
  11. Prince – Purple Rain
  12. Metallica – Metallica
  13. Pink Floyd – The Wall
  14. TLC – CrazySexyCool
  15. AC/DC – Back in Black
  16. Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman
  17. Adele – 25
  18. George Michael – Faith
  19. Green Day – Dookie
  20. Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  21. Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
  22. Usher – Confessions
  23. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
  24. Adele – 21
  25. Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell
  26. Michael Jackson – Thriller
  27. Boston – Boston
  28. Santana – Supernatural
  29. Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms
  30. Michael Jackson – Bad
  31. Supertramp – Breakfast in America
  32. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
  33. Linkin Park – Hybrid Theory
  34. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill
  35. Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
  36. Queen – Greatest Hits
  37. Guns n Roses – Appetite for Destruction
  38. Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual
  39. James Horner – Titanic: Music From the Motion Picture (soundtrack)
  40. Michael Jackson – Dangerous
  41. Bon Jovi – Cross Road
  42. Carole King – Tapestry
  43. The Eagles – Their Greatest Hits
  44. Various Artists – Dirty Dancing (soundtrack)
  45. ABBA – Gold
  46. Backstreet Boys – Millenium
  47. The Bee Gees/Various Artists – Saturday Night Fever (soundtrack)
  48. Michael Jackson – HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1
  49. Whitney Houston/Various Artists – The Bodyguard (soundtrack)
  50. Eric Clapton – Unplugged
  51. Whitney Houston – Whitney Houston
  52. Britney Spears – ….Baby One More Time
  53. The Eagles – Hotel California
  54. Whitney Houston – Whitney
  55. Backstreet Boys – Backstreet Boys/Backstreet’s Back
  56. The Spice Girls – Spice
  57. Madonna – The Immaculate Collection
  58. Ace of Base – Happy Nation/The Sign
  59. Various Artists – Grease (soundtrack)
  60. Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet
  61. Various Artists – Flashdance (soundtrack)
  62. Shania Twain – The Woman in Me
  63. Celine Dion – Falling Into You
  64. Madonna – Like a Virgin
  65. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required
  66. Britney Spears – Oops!…I Did it Again
  67. Def Leppard – Hysteria
  68. Lionel Richie – Can’t Slow Down
  69. Shania Twain – Come On Over
  70. Mariah Carey – Daydream
  71. Celine Dion – Let’s Talk About Love
  72. Mariah Carey – Music Box
  73. Madonna – True Blue

 


  1.  a context which is, in this case, the fact that they sold unfathomable numbers of copies, by whatever means they did so. 
  2.  somewhere around Supernatural things take a sharp turn for the “not actually good,” and by Appetite for Destruction we’re in “basically nothing works here” territory. 
  3.  although this is not true for Pink Floyd or the Beatles, who appear in multiple entries at the top, and are sort of grouped together because, well, there just aren’t that many of these records that are actually good. 

Making a Living Selling Buggy Whips, Part 6: Spotify’s “Fake” Music “Problem”

So last week, a sort of mini-tempest ran through the teapot of people who care about how streaming services perform their business. The nature of the allegations is that Spotify is making up fake 1 artists – people making music under pseudonyms – to pad out some of their playlists, and this is harmful to the people that are making music under different circumstances who are, it is to be presumed, crowded out of said playlists by the “fake”, pseudonymous artists.

The allegations started (as far as I can tell) with this Music Business Worldwide article, which ran last summer and makes the point that these artists who exist only on Spotify, and whose listens come almost entirely through a handful of “neutral music” 2 playlists, are (it’s speculated, but backed up by what the article calls iron-clad sources, and which, frankly, I have no reason to disbelieve) are licensed through separate deals. Spotify denies that they’re “creating” these artists.

And indeed, despite MBW’s doubling down on them being “fake” artists, and even running an enumeration of them, it becomes apparent (through their own research, and through this Verge piece, that it is the work of various producers through production houses (Epidemic and Firefly Music are called out by name) 3. MBW addresses this, and cites a source that equates the practice with “watering down [the non-publishing-house artists’] beer”. The idea here being that Spotify has an arrangement with major labels that relies on Spotify’s bargaining position having a certain percentage of label-affiliated music, and adding music that is licensed differently means that less of it, as a percentage, is coming from outside sources (i.e. sources that are not licensed to Spotify directly, i.e. the labels themselves), and by decreasing that percentage and that reliance, they are therefore obligated to pay out some amount less to the labels, thus increasing their leverage.

In addition to the meta-Spotify issue, there’s the fact that placement on these playlists is highly sought-after – this CASH music article mentions that the one of the majors has “4 or 5 people” whose job is to help manage the relationship with Spotify, much of which is focused on paying to have artists placed prominently on playlists – and the resultant streams from those playlists can be a huge boon to artists that otherwise aren’t getting much Spotify attention. The result can be an enormous number of listeners 4, at least on the personal level, although how many of them stick around is sort of a nebulous number that no one seems to be gathering (and that would have to be gathered by each artist in question anyway).

The money thing seems to be the implied crux – that Spotify is paying out these amounts for these streams that are attached to publishing-house pseudonyms, and this is taking money out of the pockets for non-publishing-house musicians. As with most things that talk about the music industry’s practices, however, it is also making a basic economic mistake – there is no evidence that the people who are using these playlists to sleep, or to study, or to provide background sound at their genteel party, would be patronizing other artists if Spotify didn’t provide the service – it seems that Spotify saw a hole in their particular market, and filled it with these playlists, which are then used by Spotify users that are taking advantage of a presented opportunity, rather than replacing any other particular habit 5.

This is not a new problem – every predominant medium comes with its own Chicken Little-style handwringing about how this is going to ensure that no one makes money for their artistic endeavors 6  – and it leaves aside that if we have learned anything in the last hundred or so years of the music industry, it’s that making money is the sort of thing that happens orthographically with “realness” or “quality” or any of those things, and something that appears to make it harder for one person to make money is generally making it possible for someone else to make more money, and that people that are backed by a corporation are more likely to be able sell in force than people who are not. The democratization of music through the internet has made it easier for smaller artists to exist more comfortably as artists 7, and not really much easier for people that rely on the old hegemony of the Record-Selling Industry to succeed.  

In this case, however, something that is being done as a business model separate from the old record-selling industry one (i.e. music being licensed through publishing houses or library music companies), is being treated as something sinister or underhanded 8, when it’s actually just a separate business issue. There is a way to explain how these pseudonymous artists exist and how Spotify claims not to be inventing them – Spotify isn’t inventing them. They’re paying a license to a publishing house (and, by all available evidence, also reaching out to same publishing houses to make music within a certain set of sonic parameters for these neutral playlists), and the publishing house’s music is appearing on Spotify, and is often being added to the playlists.  

Ultimately, Spotify is a business that stays afloat based on their business decisions, and not a charity. I suppose I would agree with an argument that, in an ideal world where all models of compensation were just and perfect, then the argument that Spotify is doing something to mess with compensation would be a lot more potent. As it is, Spotify’s means of compensation are (and I don’t think anyone would disagree here) less-than-ideal 9, but also there are issues of practicality at stake.  

First off, there’s the general axiomatic truth that if your artistic endeavor relies on, say, Spotify 10 to drive itself economically, then your artistic endeavor is already doomed to fail economically 11. But more than that, if what you are measuring the success of your musical endeavor by is its economic success, then this doesn’t represent a stumbling block, but rather an opportunity: rather than working for a label 12 you can work for a publishing house, and make whatever money is made there. Or, in the case of the artists working pseudonymously that are up for discussion in this article, you can, presumably, have it both ways – several of the people who have been linked to the pseudonymous artists are people who do work in other fields of the music industry. It represents more choice (albeit more non-ideal choice) for the artist, and more access for the user.

Ultimately, the tension here is the difference between the “traditional” style of distribution (which was, ostensibly, focused on making money via the output of the musicians, and which is still available to anyone that wants it) and the Spotify (or Apple Music, or Tidal, or Deezer, or whatever) style of distribution, which is focused on the service as the commercial endeavor, with the users of the service as the customer base, and the actual output as the sort of outward-facing aspect of the product being sold (which is actually the library and interface themselves).

To rephrase a bit, Spotify is in the business of keeping Spotify in business. And while it would, from a certain perspective 13, be one way of doing so by focusing on artist development and managing a catalog that keeps people interested, what is happening here is that Spotify is ensuring that the service itself is as attractive as possible by giving people the things that they use most often – in this case playlists of neutral music 14, in addition to other carefully-groomed and managed playlists of more “traditional” music.  

The logical conclusion, then, appears to be that Spotify has made these publishing-house deals to change their business model in such a way that makes it possible for them to stay afloat (a thing which Spotify is notoriously unable to do comfortably), which enables them to continue providing the service. Pseudonymously-performed piano jazz, then, exists to help other people find, say, Aidan Baker or Motion Sickness of Time Travel or Machinefabriek or Emeralds or any of countless other acts that also perform this kind of music, and can be discovered by people that are actively looking to find new artists to delve into and listen to actively.

Would it be great if Spotify stocked all of their playlists from people who can make active money from the streams they’re garnering, rather than the flat-fee that publishing houses pay the people from whom they contract music? Maybe. But who’s to say? And also who’s to say that the people who are contracting music out to Spotify through publishing houses aren’t using whatever income derives from that material to make other music that people can discover and reward?

In summation, yes, it is probably not for altruistic, or even particularly noble purposes that Spotify is filling parts of their playlists with music made by people whose publishing arrangement is different from that of other people, but to insist that it’s “fake” music because there isn’t more output is to diminish the work that does actually go into this stuff 15, and also to demean the audience – who, obviously, are served by there being more of this stuff in the world, and could therefore represent a chunk of the audience to be pursued 16. But I’m unclear why the expectation was on Spotify to behave any differently than literally any other corporate-owned entity that exists in the music distribution chain. Why is the faux-shock that led to the ad-hominem attacks on the producers that made this music justified?

That question is largely rhetorical. The answer is the same as it always is when questions of “realness” or “authenticity” are leveled: someone is doing something that represents a path that someone else didn’t take, and the correct answer is to “hot take” it to death, and proclaim it not just kind of dumb and cheap, but Morally Incorrect and something that can only lead to the Ruin of Life as We Know It 17. This is a ridiculous stance for a publication that calls itself a business publication to take, and, furthermore, is reliant on pitching it in such a way that it assumes the audience already agrees that this is the wrong way to deliver music that people want to the people that want it.

And so it goes, until the next microstorm comes along. And all of the artists that are doing work responsibly and sustainably, and expecting the returns that are due them without assuming those returns need to take another form or another number, and allowing their audience that exists naturally to be an audience sufficient to their work, will continue to do the work they are doing, and will continue to be rewarded for same.

And all of these people crying “fake artist” will have accomplished nothing. I know which side I’m on. It’s the one that’s making great music and delivering it to me directly for an exchange of my money and time, and not trying to belittle the efforts of others to do whatever they think is right for them.


  1.  fake is the term of the accusers, here. It’s definitely not a term I would use for music that is, in fact, organized sound (cf. Edgard Varèse) when you push the “play” button. But then, that’s sort of what we’re talking about here, so read on. 
  2. this is in quotation marks, but it’s my term. The set of playlists that MBW is going after the “fake artists” in are things like sleep and relaxation playlists, or playlists for light ambient background noise, and come from all sorts of actual genres – solo jazz performances, downbeat electronic music, ambient music, et al – and are all specifically designed to be “neutral.” Rather than wrestle with trying to list things inclusively, I’m just adopting this term officially and letting that be that. 
  3. weirdly, MBW seems focused on their idea that it must be a conspiracy because the producers in question are from Sweden, and that is where Spotify is also located, and this is somehow a smoking gun, as though people don’t do business within their home countries all the literal time, and as though there isn’t a huge (and hugely prominent) music production music economy in Sweden that doesn’t really exist in many other places. 
  4.  the linked article intimates, although admittedly doesn’t state outright, that the payout still isn’t very much, however, so the personal economics are still a matter of some question. 
  5.  this is, admittedly, conjecture – it could very well be the case that there are direct sales lost somewhere – there could very well be people that are using these playlists instead of whatever they were using before – but there isn’t any data on how much, and so it seems like saying “this is definitely happening” is, at best, being overly panicky, and at worst being disingenuous. 
  6.  Home taping is killing music! CD burning is as bad as home taping! Sharing music over the internet is piracy! Using YouTube is worse than the radio! And on and on and on, probably into the next dozen generations of ways people listen to the music they want to listen to. 
  7.  Specifically by making it possible for people to build fanbases all over the world by connecting to them through the internet (because a fan is more important than a sale, in the long-term), by enabling an easier arrangement of tours and sales (because you can communicate directly with people anywhere), and by permitting a direct economic relationship with the band (through merch sales, through direct-through-bandcamp or a band’s website music sales), and through general availability (the listener hears about a band and is better able to hear their output instantly, rather than having to remember them for long enough to find their music somewhere and maybe buy it or not). 
  8.  here it is compared to the practice of uploading misleadingly-titled covers and that sort of bottom-feeding baiting, which is then somehow blamed on Spotify and their search algorithm, rather than on the people that are actually doing it, which seems completely insane on its face – it is comparing a business/licensing decision on the part of the service to something that is done by individual users of the service to directly fleece the non-attention-paying members of the user base. 
  9.  so a quick, very-basic refresher: a person pays for Spotify, and that money goes into one pool of money. A part of that pool (not a terribly large part) is then distributed to people based (more-or-less) on a percentage of the total plays (that is to say, their percentage of every single play on the service, regardless of the habits of individual users) that the artist received. You can see how the number that goes to each artist vanishes very quickly. 
  10.  or a record label, or the radio, or YouTube, or any other monolothic singular corporate-owned entity 
  11.  the corollary here, of course, is that any given artistic endeavor is at its best when the satisfaction comes from the process and results themselves, rather than from the rewards that may come there. Especially in 2017, if you’ve started a musical endeavor to make a bunch of money, then you are probably doomed to fail. Again, I’m not saying that’s how it should be, but there’s a lot of is to get over before you get to questions of should. 
  12.  or releasing your work through something like CDBaby (or bandcamp or, I think, CASH music), which subsequently contracts out to Spotify. 
  13.  an ideal perspective, and not one that I actually disagree with, despite its de facto irrelevance to the actuality of the argument presented here. 
  14.  which playlists are, themselves, carefully selected by a shadowy cabal of playlist-makers, actual individuals who are charged with deciding what is and is not appropriate for playlists that they themselves decide to build, and who are, I’m assuming, the people who are deciding to alert Spotify to contract outward for specifically-geared music for these neutral-music playlists. 
  15.  I am always comfortable calling this kind of utilitarian, commisioned, made-to-order music “lesser,” since the impulse that makes it is itself lesser, but to call it fake outright is to demean the idea of craft, even when the best purveyors of the medium are artists, but to decide that output that is giving the makers what they want out of it (a paycheck) and the listeners what they want out of it (a song that conforms to their expectations and/or immediate desires) rather begs what the definition of “real” that they’re operating off of in the articles calling it “fake”. 
  16.  or not! Once again, there’s just no way to know how many of these people would buy music made by other people under other circumstances through other means! 
  17.  with that rhetorical “we” being people who feel that they are the only ones entitled to make money in the music business. 

The Best of the First Half of 2017

It seemed like the first half of 2017 had a veritable deluge of above-average releases. There were very few disappointments 1, and generally speaking just a lot of great stuff. As it becomes ever-increasingly easier to find stuff that appeals to me, or that at least is interesting in ways that I can admire, these half-year writeups become increasingly difficult to winnow down to fifty.

Admittedly, “50” is a number that is fairly arbitrary – it means slightly less than 2 songs a week, but also honestly I just wanted to shoot for a top 100 of every year, split in half – but it also means that I have to be very enthusiastic about the song, and it leaves me enough wiggle room that if I’m a little bit wrong about something 2 there’s enought o cover it that it doesn’t seem like I’ve invested heavily in something that doesn’t work. Anyway, the fifty-songs thing isn’t changing, but I sure thought about it.  

So here is a much-considered, much-deliberated-over, much-culled list of the fifty best (more or less) songs of the first half of the year. As always, you can download a folder full of them here. Also the Jay-Z record came out as I was writing this, and I didn’t get a chance to actually listen to it much yet, so it’ll probably come up in six months on the next one of these. Probably. I make no guarantees.

Aidan Baker & Claire Brentnall – Dead Languages

Aidan Baker, who is always wildly prolific, has been on a real tear so far in 2017, with all of his releases being above-average. This one made the cut because it’s the track I go back to the most. It’s more conventional than his usual faire, but I probably mean that in a good way.

Bash & Pop – Anything Could Happen

Tommy Stinson is the lead (and only constant) member of Bash & Pop 3, a name that he revived (with an entirely different lineup) this year, having last used it in the nineties. I’m not sure what impelled him to bring the name out of retirement 4, but the album Anything Could Happen is super-great, and the title track is as effective and energetic a piece of power pop as you could want.  

William Basinski – For David Robert Jones

There has been no shortage of tributes, musical or otherwise, to David Bowie, but this one might be the strangest, and the best on its own merits. A classic-style loop 5 already gives the piece a sort of callback-ish, memento mori quality. The decidedly Bowie-esque saxophone intrusion 6 gives the piece a sense of release that some Basinski’s other work never quite has. Its companion piece pulls the trick of lulling the listener in with its repetition before startling us out with a jarring sound element, but “For David Robert Jones” does not do this – the saxophone comes in gradually, keeping the listener locked into the melancholy groove the whole time. Basinski himself compared the result to a New Orleans funeral, which I suppose is accurate insofar as it’s as close to the sound of a New Orleans funeral as I can imagine a William Basinski piece being.

Big Boi – Kill Jill (f Killer Mike & Jeezy)

It is especially rare in hip hop for someone to stake out a space and basically maintain it for several decades. It’s even more rare for that approach to be successful. Big Boi knows who he is, and he knows what he’s doing, and it’s who he’s always been, and it’s what he’s always done, and that kind of consistency is pretty satisfying.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Leonard

Will Oldham always does a great job with covers album. In his current, “meandering-through-projects” phase, they’re the most satisfying of his records 7. Merle Haggard was one of the greatest songwriters ever to live, so Oldham applying his voice to a  selection of his favorite Hag songs is a pretty satisfying thing. “Leonard” isn’t one that I would’ve chosen as a likely candidate – it’s a good song, and also a highly idiosyncratic ode to Tommy Collins 8, crediting for inspiration, a leg up, and groceries – but it turns out to be a really great vessel for Oldham’s feelings about crediting your heroes and stuff.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Song of Summer

A long, languid, limpid listening experience. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma picked his guitar back up in a major way for this record, and made a record that was in touch with Tarantel’s noisegaze roots, while still being unmistakably his own thing 9. It’s also optimistic and sunny, fitting its title, and just genuinely a great piece to get lost in.  

Cloud Nothings – Modern Act

I am a serious hometowner, guys. I make no apologies for this. Adding a guitar player seriously beefed up their recorded sound, and if it’s a little less wildly urgent than they were a couple of records ago, well, we’re all getting older. This is still a pretty tasty power pop song.

Ian William Craig – A Single Hope

Each of the songs on Slow Vessels is a stripped-down, basic take on a song that appeared on last year’s Centres, which means that a lot of this record is made up of more conventional versions of what is, as I noted at the time, Ian William Craig’s most conventional record. That said, the songs stand in these versions on their own really well, and the whole thing is abetted by the fact that Craig really does have an incredible voice, and sort of seeing how the bread is made doesn’t actually do them any damage.

Demen – Morgon

Anonymity itself is certainly better than constant, #onbrand self-promotion, although it’s usually only a notch less obnoxious as a gimmick. In Demen’s case it both seems to be something that is more a matter of fact 10, but also fits with the music pretty well. In any event, I always have time for chilly, abstract music, especially when it comes out on Kranky records, and this is a truly superb example of the form.  

Aaron Dilloway – Ghost

Ohio’s own former Wolf Eye has made what might be his most focused, most intense record since he left that group. “Ghost” is the kind of thing that justifies wading through hours of interchangeable records made by dudes with a noise table and no real ideas – it’s expansive and direct at the same time, and huge chunks of it just defy belief.  

Do Make Say Think – War On Torpor

I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s the world 11, but there’s been a lot of comfort this six-month interval in the fact that a bunch of veterans are coming out and being good at the things they’re good at. DMST’s first record in a many years is a very good DMST record, and it really does push some boundaries and make some new statements and go a long way to re-establishing what DMST is as a band and all that. But the song I find myself championing the hardest is the very, very classic-DMST-sounding “War on Torpor,” which is the first track on the album and very comfortingly establishes that yes, this is the same band, even after a long time off. 

ENDON – Torch Your House

When Hydra Head pops back up to release a record, I pay attention. When a band makes a great split record with Boris, I pay attention. The result in this case was an incredible heavy noise record, with some truly incredible, completely unique vocals. One of the best very, very loud records of the year in fact.

Future – Sorry

Hip-hop’s foremost great pop miserablist 12 has been on the kind of career-defining high for the last couple of years that is really hard to match. He has released a bunch of records that have all been extremely consistent 13. His two records in two weeks (each of which went to number one) was a sort of climax so far, and HNDRXX specifically is a phenomenally weighty downer masterpiece, ending with the pressure-driven, no-quarter “Sorry,” in which Future makes you really believe that he means the hell out of that title. Dude is truly sorry, is what I’m saying here.

(Sandy) Alex G – Bobby

(Sandy) Alex G has steadfastly not changed his approach – his songs are still recorded in his bedroom, and still sound handmade and almost ramshackle in a way that is endearing rather than irritating 14. He changed his name recently (adding the (Sandy), specifically), which may have led to the rich vein of glorious, beautiful miserablism that he tapped to write Rocket, and its (and possibly his) very best song, “Bobby.”  

Diamanda Galas – O Death

This is the version from All the Way, although it just as easily could have been from At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem 15. Hell, it also could’ve been “The Thrill is Gone” (from the former) or “Amsterdam” (from the latter). It could, honestly, have been any of the 14 songs from the two albums that Diamanda Galas released on the same day, because they are both incredible. But it’s this version of “O Death” that does the best job of communicating what it is about Diamanda Galas to love – namely, scary folk music, a sense of jazz composition that is second to pretty much nobody else’s alive, and one of the all-time greatest (and most interesting) voices ever put to tape.

Gorillaz – Ascension (f Vince Staples)

Every album Damon Albarn has ever made has been spotty in basically the same way – he’s got a knack for off-kilter hooks, and occasionally writes brilliant songs. The Gorillaz last record, The Fall, was an experiment in instant recording – Albarn recorded the whole thing on his iPad, claiming not to even write things beforehand. In the time following he started an entire other supergroup 16, and wrote an opera. He then recorded a regular solo album and reformed Blur. All of which is to say: it seemed like he had moved on from Gorillaz. The lack of focus that kept him away does sort of take its toll on the record, but only insofar as this is an extremely scattershot record with songs written by Damon Albarn. One of the shining point – easily the best song on the album, and one of the best songs all year – is the incredible “Ascension”, in which Damon Albarn and Vince Staples put their unlikely common ground (to wit: they are both capable of writing either party songs that sound apocalyptic or apocalypse songs that sound like parties – the chorus hook in this song is literally “the sky is falling baby, drop that ass before it crash”) to the service of an absolute banger that is also about the apocalypse. Great job, guys!

Ha Ha Tonka – The Party

Ha Ha Tonka call themselves a roots-rock band, which I guess is fair, although I sort of think of them as the world’s premier power-pop country band 17. This, in fact, is a rare optimistic-sounding song for Ha Ha Tonka, with a pretty great sing-along chorus.  

Will Johnson – Every Single Day of Late

This is another weird, kind of creepy Will Johnson song, from a record where he’s at his weirdest and creepiest.

Jordan Hall – Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (in A Major)

For a record called How to Listen to Machines, Jordan Hall actually makes some highly-accessible, highly-pleasing violin-plus-electronic-sounds records. He’s got a great compositional sense, and this is sort of “Noise for Beginners,” as he approaches the idea of finding music in the sounds of modernity in a way that leans more on actually drawing the music out, rather than burying it further in 18. In listening to it, and especially here int he standout “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (in A Major)” you can sort of train yourself to hear what the noise elements are doing, thus helping the album live up to the “how to” in its title.

Heart Attack Man – Surrounded by Morons

I mean, I don’t want to leave Cleveland either (see above w/r/t “serious hometowner”), although admittedly it’s got less to do with my wonderful power-pop band needing more opportunities or whatever than it might for Heart Attack Man. All their other reasons are pretty dead-on, though.

Robyn Hitchcock – Detective Mindhorn

Robyn Hitchcock turned his guitar back up, and made his rocking-est record in a number of years. Robyn Hitchcock seems a lot more inspired (and a lot more vivid) than his last couple of records 19, and whatever has re-invigorated him (or inspired him to write re-invigorated songs, at least) is clearly a welcome addition to the world.  

Jesus and Mary Chain – War on Peace

I wrote 2700 words or so on the record this comes from, so the only thing left to say here is: this is my favorite song on the record.

Kendrick Lamar – Humble

I mean, I basically have nothing unique to say here. Kendrick Lamar is the best, this song is a wildly popular single from a wildly popular album, and it’s wildly popular because it’s great, and Kendrick’s great, and that’s just about the long and the short of it.

Mary Lattimore – The Warm Shoulder

The harp always seems like an instrument that lends itself to be played oddly, but rarely actually is. I’m gratified by the solo compositions of Mary Lattimore, then, because she’s really doing something pretty out-there with her harp, and does so without ever turning studiously weird for its own sake.

Los Campesinos! – I Woke Up in Amaranthe

Los Campesinos! has made a fairly amazing career out of being singularly-focused on the thoughts and feelings of unfailing earnestness, and a general sort of discomfort with the range of human activities that come from interaction and, specifically, not being very good at dealing with feelings. Perhaps as a result, their records can be kind of spotty 20, but when it all fires properly, the result is exultant in a way that earns the exclamation point in their name.  

Bill MacKay – Powder Mill Park

The death of Jack Rose 21 has, several years later, seemingly caused a seeming burst of attention to guys that are also playing strange, experimental music on solo (often acoustic) guitar. Bill MacKay is one of them, and his record got a surprising amount of press and praise, and I can only see this as a good thing, because it’s an incredible record. It’s so good, in fact, that he probably doesn’t need the comparison but, y’know, it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to say stuff other than “THIS MUSIC IS REAL GOOD”.

Migos – T-Shirt

“17 5” refers to the price Quavo payed for the cocaine that he’s dealing, and the following note that he’s wearing “the same color t-shirt” is parcelled with the “White!” exclamation that follows it – he has unusually pure cocaine, and he payed $17,500 for some quantity of it, which he would ike to sell you know. This has been “Solving Lyrical Mysteries with Me, John Aaron”. Also a reminder that I am not a cool person (because in theory a cool person would know all the hip drug talk without having to consult Genius), just a guy who likes Migos.

Moor Mother x Mental Jewelry – Hardware

Two of Philadelphia’s finest noise purveyors came together and made a record that, while probably not necessarily the best record of the last six months, is definitely the most unfairly overlooked. If you’re looking for a righteously furious noise record, this is definitely the one to go with.

John Moreland – Lies I Chose to Believe

Every time I do one of these, the alphabetical nature of the list causes at least one humorous juxtaposition. This is not a righteously furious noise record. In fact, the only one of those words that can be used to describe this one is “record.” It’s gorgeous, though, and an excellent display of John Moreland’s incredible, weather-beaten voice.

The New Year – Mayday

I am here for just about anything the Kadanes choose to do, and this policy has always been rewarded. This is the first New Year record in nine years, and if that’s how long it takes it get something this fully-realized and this gorgeous, then I’ll happily wait another nine. But, y’know, if it takes less than nine years for the next one, that’s kind of ok too.

Noveller – Trails and Trials

Noveller 22 churched up her normal approach with A Pink Sunset for No One, which was fine in that it’s always good to see growth and new areas of interest, even if it’s not something that she’s as good at as her previous, more spare, more ambient records. Still and all, there are some real bright spots – “Trails and Trials” is a great Mark McGuire-style blissed-out jam – so I look forward to hearing what else she comes out with in this vein. Or, y’know, not in this vein if that’s how she wants to do it. She doesn’t have to answer to me, thankfully.

Oddisee – Like Really

There are a lot of reasons to love Oddisee (and I have stated some of those reasons in this space before!), and a lot of reasons to especially love The Iceberg, an earnest, clever record, largely about human decency. There are a lot of things to like about that record, and about that message in general. There are a lot of ways to use the phrase “like really.” This is an important takeaway from an unfairly slept-upon rapper, frankly. You should all go listen to a lot more Oddisee.

Tara Jane O’Neil – Blow

Tara Jane O’Neil and Robyn Hitchcock don’t have much in common in general 23, but both of them made self-titled records full of their most direct music in years in 2017. Admittedly, in TJO’s case it’s something a little bit less blustery than in Hitchcock’s, but Tara Jane O’Neil is a characteristically lovely record, floating along largely on some of O’Neil’s strongest melodies, and suggesting about as much as it explicitly contains.

Oxbow – Letter of Note

Oxbow, like The New Year, made us wait almost a decade for this record, and also like the New Year, they extended their basically-perfect stretch of material for another album. Unlike the New Year, they did it not with carefully-planned, deliberate, melodic rock music, but with cacaophonous jazz-blues-metal. “Letter of Note” builds to a yammering, exploding climax that only Oxbow can really pull off, and that manages to sound both earth-scorching and life-affirming, providing real catharsis.

POS – Pieces/Ruins

After filling the world with wonderful singles in 2016 24, POS made his album-length return to making music this year, and the result was predictably wonderful. “Pieces/Ruins” is top-notch POS righteousness, and is topped by a fantastic Busdriver feature. And the world is always better for fantastic Busdriver features.

Penguin Cafe – Wheels Within Wheels

Their backstory is weird 25, their ensemble orchestration is weird 26, basically this stuff is catnip for me, and this album is a heavily-played favorite in the last couple of months. “Wheels Within Wheels” is the standout here, but you should all go play the whole record when you get a chance.

Pharmakon – No Natural Order

It is very rare to make interesting power electronics, especially beyond the first couple of records. Pharmakon manages it, probably because her focus is on the constant vicissitudes of “having a body” and “having to share the world with people” and “having to live in the world in the first place” rather than, y’know, how much Jesus is bad or whatever else the rest of them are on about 27. So this manages to be an interesting noise record, a fantastic loud record, and just a generally satisfying listen.

The Sadies – Questions I’ve Never Asked

A few years ago, when I included “Leave This World Behind” on one of these writeups, I posited that The Sadies are the world’s best country band, and four years later I see no reason to amend this position.

Saltland – The Light of Mercy

A Common Truth, Rebecca Foon’s second album as Saltland 28 is the work of a cello genius. On the excellent, album-topping “The Light of Mercy”, she worked with violin-genius Warren Ellis, which makes this a double string-genius song. Obviously.

Sampha – Blood On Me

I have, as exhaustively documented here, a basically-bottomless appetite for tense, dark R&B, which I must here acknowledge so that the reader understands that I am aware of the context of my position when I say that Sampha’s Process is a truly incredible album, one of the best of the year, even taking into account that it’s also directly in my wheelhouse.

Micah Schnabel – Jazz and Cinnamon Toast Crunch

For biographical and also sonic reasons, Micah Schnabel remains my favorite songwriter in the world. I also like jazz, although I am only the third-most enthusiastic person I know when it comes to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but I suppose one can’t have everything in common, can one? Even if none of that were true, I would find it hard to believe that this song’s life-affirming power would not still be basically off the charts.

Six Organs of Admittance – Under Fixed Stars

Six Organs comes and goes with me 29, but they have been on a real hot streak with their last few records. I would appreciate it if both ostentatious guitar music and folk music sounded a lot more like this and a lot less like what they sound like usually.  

Spoon – WhisperI’lllistentohearit

Very few other bands have made a consistent showing of being so rock-solid consistent as Spoon. They’re great every single time, and every album sounds both different from the other albums and unmistakably like a Spoon album. If there were more bands like Spoon, the world would be a much happier, much rocking-er, probably much funkier, place.

Vince Staples – Big Fish (f Juicy J)

Leaving aside all the praise that I regularly heap upon Vince Staples, on this song he’s so good that the fact that the feature is Juicy fucking J doesn’t interfere with how much I love the song. That is some great rappering. Admittedly, it doesn’t hurt that Juicy just provides the chorus. I am not, as you know by now, a person that listens much to the lyrics, and so one of the things I appreciate most about Vince Staples is his ability to use his words as much for their sound as their message – take the line “Reminiscin sittin’ in that Benz/of the 22 Bus stop way back when/with the 22 5 shot eyes on scan/for the click clack click and the boom bop bam,” in which allusions are made to concealed weapons, public transit, fisticuffs, gang violence, and also just straight-up onomotopoeia. Seriously, I can’t say enough about how much I love Vince Staples.

Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory

You know, most virtuosic talents eventually dissolve into making masturbatory, too-many-notes records that are about a specific kind of technique. They end up reading like job applications for future jobs as a Known Virtuoso, with little to no value as an actual listening experience. So while this seems like it might not necessarily happen for Colin Stetson, it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear that he’s still writing actual songs, and that in this case he’s written what I think almost certainly must qualify as the most funky piece for solo bass saxophone in recorded history.

Thundercat – Them Changes

It must be said that occasionally I am forcibly reminded that if the world were to actually remake the contents of its artistic production to my tastes, I would be denied some tremendous music. This Thundercat record, for example, is a wonderful piece of work, and it comes from a guy who, with great gusto and enthusiasm, chose to have guest features from Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Clearly this guy surrounded himself with awful music (and Drunk doesn’t not sound like that kind of nonsense music), and came out with something legitimately great, and for that reason, I’m glad that Kenny Loggins is a part of his life, and that bad music is there to inspire great music like this. I mean, this song is also produced by Flying Lotus, features an Isley Brothers sample and has Kamasi Washington on it, so it’s not all something that comes directly from terrible music. Just some.

Underachievers – Gotham Nights

It is almost an annual tradition that two out of three of these six-month reviews has an Underachievers track on it, and every time I go to write about them I find that I do not have deep, thoughtful or complex feelings about it. I love this song, I’m very happy that it exists in the world, and generally the Underachievers are a couple of my favorite rappers. I think I’ve said something similar to this every year. It’s good. Go listen to it.

Paul White – Accelerator (f Danny Brown)

Paul White has been the producer behind a number of top-notch hip hop records in the last few years, including those by ONAT favorites Open Mike Eagle and Danny Brown, who provided the vocals for this song, which also sounds like a dance party attended by robot cowboys.

Shannon Wright – The Thirst

Playing most of the instruments herself, and shifting gears to electronically-accented piano songs 30 from her customary more guitar-ish approach, Division is a bunch of new things for Shannon Wright. “The Thirst,” however, shows that even when she changes the backing, she still has that voice, and she still writes songs that sound like only herself.

Xiu Xiu – Queen of the Losers

I genuinely don’t know if I’m ever going to find a Xiu Xiu record not a little bit compelling, and certainly each of the releases for the last six years has found its way into these writeups, but their last year or so of output really has been super-great, and Forget is their strongest proper Xiu Xiu album since Dear God, I Hate Myself 31. They have allowed their sense of humor to ride in the front seat a little more (I mean “they sound like they’re having more fun than on Knife Play” has got to be one of the faintest statements ever made, but you see what I mean), and written some really hook-y songs for this one, and “Queen of the Losers” is the high point.

And there we have it! Tune in in January when I cover the rest of the year!


  1.  although, obviously, “very few” is very different from “none at all” 
  2.  Travis Scott is the thing that comes directly to mind, but I’m sure if I dug through I’d find some more clunkers. 
  3.  also a former Replacement – he’s the one that went on tour with Paul Westerberg a couple of years ago. 
  4.  he has made solo records in the interim under his own name.   
  5.  the tape loop itself is roughly contemporaneous with the material that would become The Disintegration Loops 
  6.  which is, thankfully, much more “Subterraneans” than “Young Americans.” Good job there, Mr. B. 
  7.  his other recent covers records, Songs the Brothers Sang and the Chivalrous Amoekons record, were also standouts, and received much attention here 
  8.  An important Bakersfield – think Buck Owens, or any upbeat, danceable type of thing played by dudes in Western-style suits – dude. He wrote “Carolyn” for Merle Haggard eventually, and also “If You Ain’t Lovin, You Ain’t Livin,” which I know as a George Strait song and somebody really old would probably know as a Faron Young song. 
  9.  I don’t know if it will have another chance to come up, so I’ll say here that one of the things that I admire greatly about JC-L is that each of his projects has, unmistakably, its own approach and sonic character. Lots of noise musicians that collaborate frequently under many names tend to have a lot more of a samey approach. Also there’s a new Raum album coming out this year, and I’m very excited for this. 
  10.  which does not, of course, stop every single thing written about her from mentioning it 
  11.  I’m going to assume it’s me though? 
  12.  a title which he is defending from Drake handily 
  13.  except the one he did with Drake. 
  14.  the last time I wrote about (Sandy) Alex G in this space, I expressed my disbelief that I was into it, given that there were a bunch of bedroom-pop mopesters from Brooklyn around and I had pretty much had my fill of them. There seem to be fewer of them these days, and I’m glad that (Sandy) Alex G stuck by his approach. It really worked for him. That still, however, surprises me. 
  15.  the second and third times she’s recorded a version, actually. Her last live album also documents a pretty great performance of it. 
  16.  Rocket Juice and the Moon, who are, honestly, about as bad as their name. 
  17.  someday I may make clear that I divide music into very, very few actual genres in my head, completely disregarding the fact that lots of bands would probably have it otherwise, and “country” is one of them. 
  18.  a more common sort of approach among modern experimental musicians, frankly. 
  19.  there are no bad Robyn Hitchcock albums, he’s one of my favorite songwriters in the world, but I still prefer him in “fronting a rock band” mode. 
  20.  although they’re always able to deliver the goods from the stage 
  21.  an inimitable genius, and one of the best guitar players of all time. A bunch of his records were reissued last year and are available for you to listen to just about anywhere, so you should go do so. 
  22.  whose name I have been saying wrong this whole time. She herself pronounces it No-VELL-er (or /no-vɛʟˈ-ɚ/ if you’d like the transcription). My mind was blown. 
  23.  other than that I really like them both, obviously. And they’re both, like, humans. 
  24.  which are collected on Chill, Dummy 
  25.  Arthur Jeffes, the bandleader, inherited the name from his father, as it were, and created an entirely separate entity that is not unlike the elder Jeffes’ band. 
  26.  they regularly deploy multiple ukuleles in a way that is not in any way irritating! 
  27.  of all the things I love despite most practitioners of the thing being terrible, power electronics, and any sort of harsh noise music in general, is way way up near the top of the list. 
  28.  she’s also worked with Silver Mt. Zion, and is a founding member of Esmerine. 
  29.  Comets on Fire is my all-time favorite Ben Chasny band, although if Rangda stays together they might outpace them. 
  30.  one of the best things about a new Shannon Wright record is discovering what kind of record it’s actually going to be, as they tend to vary wildly in sound from record to record.   
  31.  topped only by Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t really a proper album, and Sal Mineo, which is credited to Xiu Xiu and Eugene Robinson, of aforepraised Oxbow, but is really mostly Eugene Robinson and Jamie Stewart, and has little to do with Xiu Xiu as such. 

Somebody Make My Movie (A Different One This Time)

The success of the MCU, predictably, led to every other film studio deciding that they absolutely must create a shared universe. The problem is that it’s not really working for anyone at all – oh sure, Kong: Skull Island was ok, in terms of reviving Universal properties in a way that is interesting, and Wonder Woman has finally managed to make the DCU look like something more than a tire fire upon which reasonable ideas are sacrificed in favor of ever-grimmer, ever-grittier spectacle, but each of those is, so far, a standalone island in an ocean of absolute garbage.

But the whole thing continues unabated. Presumably this recently-announced live-action The Jetsons is eventually meant to tie into the HBCU 1, and who can even predict whatever dumb nonsense is going to come around after that? At this rate, every property with a tenuous link to another property will have to be tried out, and probably tried out for years at a time – plans are made in advance, funding secured, international deals made, and there’s no way to pull out of these things in any kind of timely fashion at all.

Every property, that is, except the most obvious. Journey with me to a land of a shared property that comes around but once a year, when things become decidedly spooky, and the world seems a little bit darker. Come with me to someplace a little…sweeter. A place that’s, perhaps, a part of, say, a balanced world.

We open on Alfred, but the voiceover comes from our POV character, who will be following Alfred. His name is Bruce.

“That guy? That’s Al. He used to be the worst of us, I hear. Frank – you’ll meet Frank later – Frank always said that he’s the most driven – he would scare people to death sometimes. It was a problem.”

We watch the person onscreen splash through puddles – it should be rainy, like Alex Proyas rainy, just a general sense that even if water isn’t falling from the sky now, it could be. These are clearly characters who are going to do better when they’re wet.

“But times change. People soften. He used to be a danger to children, particularly – they’re drawn to him, somehow. Frank – he’s not my brother, but we have the same name – remembers the earliest days, before they even made themselves known in the world, and remembers that everybody knew that Alfred was going to be the star.”

We watch Alfred approach a door in a building.

“Nobody really knows where we came from. Nobody really knows our purpose. It’s like we were brought into existence generally, milled off of some kind of factory line. We had to figure it out for ourselves. We spent years being a terror, and then some things changed. It’s hard to live this long without a conscience. We were spoken of for years, the worst of the worst and then…..Well, people think that we died. A couple of us even did – Little Frank and YM came and went, vanishing out of existence, leaving only the three of us. – but Alfred kept us together.”

We see Alfred turn the door and open it, a man’s back is to the window, he is largely in shadow. Another, much larger man is seen off to the side, but even more shadowy – we want the audience to not be entirely sure what they’re seeing is a man as he moves toward Alfred, his intentions as clouded as his outline.

“Oh don’t be alarmed there, that’s just Frank, I told you about Frank.”

Frank steps into the light, monstrous, brightly-colored. The camera pans around and we see Alfred in the light, he’s brown, widow’s peak, tall, wearing an actual cape.

“Frank’s not so alarming once you get to know him. Once our family’s might have even been related. You see, he’s Frank Berry, and I’m Bruce Barry, but everybody calls me Boo.”

The camera pans around, showing a cityscape, things are on fire, there are sirens and other car noises, things are in general disarray.

“And we all have to come together to figure out not only what we’re still doing here, but what we should have been doing the whole time. But if there’s on person who can figure it out, it’s Al Chokula”

Scene fades, titles come up: Count Chocula: Serial Monster No More.

 

Please make all checks payable to februarymakeup ℅ ohioneedsatrain, the internet, oh, zippity zip code zip. Thank you.


  1.  The Hanna Barbera Cinematic Universe, obvi, in which the Scooby Doo movies would be the equivalent of whatever, say, Blade was for the MCU. 

The Best Records of June 2017

Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (there have been no bad Vince Staples records. There haven’t really even been bad Vince Staples songs.)

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – On the Echoing Green (Tarentel, Cantu-Ledesma’s old band, used to rock fairly often, and On the Echoing Green is Jefre returning a bit to that idea, and it’s tremendously satisfying)

 

Micah Schnabel – Your New Norman Rockwell (Micah’s solo records are generally a little more like a sketchbook, especially compared to Two Cow Garage’s records. But they’re awfully good sketchbooks)

Endon – Through the Mirror (There’s a lot of great heavy music out there, and sometimes it’s even great enough to be unreservedly great despite a terrible vocalist [see also: Cult of Luna, Circle], and this is one of those times)

Big Boi – Boomiverse (I did not love the Phantogram collaboration, so it’s good to see Big Boi come swinging back, and also the dude isn’t going to start not being great at this point, is he? No, no he is not.)