Pure Comedy (Sub Pop) is essentially a roast of human history. Father John Misty, a.k.a. erstwhile Fleet Fox Josh Tillman, acts as emcee for the ambitious odyssey, which considers past, present and future—from the hunter-gatherer era to the modern day to the earth’s imminent demise—one elaborate gag. Over thirteen tracks, he takes jabs at plenty of punching bags: religion, capitalism, art, tech-enabled escapism and himself (“another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously”). Tillman’s self-deprecating humour seems more like a preemptive rebuttal to critics than genuine self-doubt, and, at times, Pure Comedy can be almost laughably indulgent—Tillman, who plays the role of the self-righteous doomsayer, dresses like a sixties cult leader and fashions himself an antagonistic modern-day Nietzsche. But even assholes can create great art, and Pure Comedy fits the description, stuffed with gorgeous turns of phrase, masterful folk songwriting and silky crooning. Listen to it before the world ends.
Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut was one of the most criminally overlooked albums of 2014. Now, good luck getting in and out of a Starbucks without hearing “Radio,” the ubiquitous single off the American indie-electro duo’s sophomore effort, What Now (Loma Vista). The record is poppier and more polished, but their winning formula hasn’t changed much: singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn both made their names in folk projects, and they combine slinky vocal melodies with fat basses and Super Mario Bros. bleeps and bloops—“Kick Jump Twist” is especially amusing, an orchestra of a million smashed coin blocks
The biting chords that kick off Hollerado’s third album, Born Yesterday (Royal Mountain Records), are so thick with fuzz you’ll wonder whether your speakers have blown. The Ottawa party rockers have always been at their best when blasting refrains that burn into your memory on first listen, and there are plenty here to choose from: the title track’s jubilant chorus; the dueling guitar licks of “Eloise”; the tight hook at the centre of “Rollerskater,” a quirky character study of a carefree man on wheels. To earn the punk in their pop-punk, the band gets political on “Brick Wall,” a twangy southern anthem about borders, cops and, well, the most wall-happy of presidents.
The lyrics on DAMN. (Interscope) are denser than five seasons of The Wire. Kendrick Lamar crams biblical allusions and life stories next to Fox News snippets and musings on humility. The backing tracks are often just as slippery, switching from retro R&B to bass-heavy trap as soon as you think you’ve finally nailed them down. The album’s great accomplishment is making it all sound seamless; even a track featuring U2 somehow works. Skip over the conventional radio singles (like the Rihanna-assisted “LOYALTY.”) and get lost in the stories that Lamar weaves on “BLOOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.,” the masterpieces that bookend the record.
Feist has spent the last decade of her career running away from the cutesy, iPod-selling indie pop of “1234.” Her understated 2011 album, Metals, showed she wasn’t interested in being just another bubbly, banjo-toting singer-songwriter. The rowdy, rock n’ rolling Pleasure (Universal) doubles down. There’s no obvious single to be found, the lyrics are opaque and the production is stubbornly lo-fi—fuzzy and full of creaks, as if recorded over voice memo. The organic approach is the opposite of a distraction: it places the emphasis on Feist’s imaginative songwriting and expressive vocals. Not every acoustic guitar strum, spirited yelp or choir sing-along is technically flawless, but each one sounds unmistakably sincere.
Cascades (Arts & Crafts), a collaborative EP between Montreal pianist Jean-Michel Blais and producer CFCF, is well-named. Throughout its five songs, Blais’s hands drift along the keyboard with ease, creating streams of sound that evoke the beauty of waterfalls. The album taps into a wide range of styles and influences: alone, like in sections of “Two Mirrors,” Blais’ handiwork brings to mind the elegance of Chilly Gonzales’s Solo Piano series; at the other end of the spectrum, buoyed by CFCF’s oscillating synths and sparkling chimes, the trance-y “Hypocrite” features EDM build-ups that would feel at home on a deadmau5 banger.