Critics Martín Caballero, Jon Garelick, Luke O’Neil, Matt Parish, and James Reed picked the best local albums of the year.
A charismatic figure on the ’90s Boston rock scene (as the lead singer in the Atom Said and in the title role in Boston Rock Opera’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”), Gabrielle Agachiko for the past couple of years has been fronting this septet, which comprises a handful of ringers from the local jazz scene. What’s exciting about the record is not only the material (Nina Simone’s heartstopping “Four Women,” the jazz standard “Angel Eyes,” the original mother-in-law kiss-off “Your Mama”), and Agachiko’s powerful vocals, but the overall conception — updated soul-jazz as Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln might have done it.
CZARFACE (7L & Esoteric), “Czarface”
From its flamboyant comic book cover art down to the very last superhero-referencing quip (and there are many), everything about 7L & Esoteric’s collaboration with Wu-Tang’s Inspectah Deck inspires belief that hip-hop can still be the domain of larger-than-life characters with amazing powers — in this case, for witty punch lines and masterful flows. With 7L’s sinister beats providing the foundation and the likes of Ghostface and Action Bronson backing them up, all Deck and Eso have to do is take turns ripping lethal verses, which they do with particular glee on “Shoguns,” “Air Em Out,” and “Hazmat Rap.”
FUTURE BIBLE HEROES, “Partygoing”
“I often find when I’m feeling low/ A drink is just the thing/ It lights my mind with that bright brown glow/ And makes me want to sing.” Those are the first lines you hear on “Partygoing.” Oh, Future Bible Heroes, welcome back. After an 11-year gap between albums, the trio, which is among Stephin Merritt’s handful of bands, returned with a clutch of catchy songs that match Merritt’s wry lyrics with Chris Ewen’s playful and sometimes throbbing electro-pop melodies. Throw in Claudia Gonson on lead vocals, and you have the perfect album for your next party with a bunch of misanthropes. Merritt and Gonson grew up around Boston before uprooting to New York, but Ewen, who gives the band its heartbeat, is a longtime Cambridge resident and man about town.
Guerilla Toss, “Gay Disco”
Boston’s unmatched skronk quintet continued to bust open molds this year with both this record and a self-titled full-length on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. “Gay Disco” grates and convulses like no other record in town, with dissonant guitar stabs and finger-in-the-socket keyboard sirens. But a closer look reveals hyper-lucid exchanges with the vocabulary of James Chance and the Contortions, Captain Beefheart, and a couple generations of misfit noise-rock. They stand toe-to-toe with all of that stuff, adding scavanged grooves by a deceptively brilliant rhythm section and maybe even throwing in a 12-tone riff or two. Not for the faint of heart (or intellect).
KINGSLEY FLOOD, “Battles”
Kingsley Flood’s debut, 2010’s “Dust Windows,” made me think they were good musicians. Their concerts proved they were a great live act. But “Battles” revealed them to be an exceptional band with each member adding something vital to the mix. The sophomore release by this Boston-based Americana ensemble, whose frontman, Naseem Khuri, lives in Washington, D.C., captured the six-piece in its many wild stripes. Stomping, freewheeling rockers caromed off bucolic acoustic ballads, and the only thing holding it all together was a tangible passion that coursed through the songs. Plenty of others took note: Kingsley Flood made its debut at the Newport Folk Festival over the summer, and earlier this month “Battles” was named album of the year at the Boston Music Awards. They were well-deserved victories.
Moe Pope & Rain, “Let the Right Ones In”
If the first collaboration between rapper Moe Pope and producer Rain, “Life After God,” was an album that contemplated the potential of their budding chemistry, “Let the Right Ones In” realizes it in full. With Rain shifting from sample-based production to organic live instrumentation, Moe is able to bring a deeper complexity to his lyrics, whether they are touching on his own mortality (”Flatline”), stretching out extended metaphors (“Meet Joe Black”), or navigating through a richly detailed and visual fantasy. The inclusion of guests like Bad Rabbits’ Dua Boakye and the perennially underrated Boycott Blues confirms the album’s titular request: Boston’s finest hip-hop group have broken through.\
Omar Thomas Large Ensemble, “I Am”
The composer, arranger, trombonist, Berklee professor, and LGBT civil-rights activist Omar Thomas had just turned 29 when he released “I Am” this year with his 18-piece Large Ensemble, but every track rings with mature authority. There’s always a song — an unfolding story — behind Thomas’s rich layers of harmony and cross rhythms, his morphing themes and free-flying free-lying soloists. Look for his next project, “We Will Know,” about marriage equality, in 2014. “Music is a spiritual mission with Omar,” says his boss at Berklee, harmony department chair Joe Mulholland.
You could also say the amorphous Connecticut outfit Ovlov, lead by Steve Hartlett, has reached back into the ’90s for their sound, but while it crosses inspirational paths with Speedy Ortiz at times, as on the slowly unfolding guitar crescendos of “Where’s My Dini?,” for the most part the 10 songs here are of a noisier persuasion, with high-pitched guitar leads knifing through the feedback mire on “Grapes” and “Milk.” Likewise, it’s the songwriting and tunefulness underneath the stylistic signifiers that carry the day, however, as on “The Well” and “Nü Punk.”
Pretty & Nice, “Golden Rules for Golden People”
Pretty & Nice have always seemed like really spastic Elvis Costello fans, grounded in a penchant for tightly woven melodies and driving pop progressions. But where they really excel – which is blown up to epic proportions on this record – is in micromanaging those elements, putting every beat and syllable under the knife. This is meticulous stuff with sneaky mathematics, and it makes for killer stealth attack choruses like the one in “Stallion & Mare” so great, conjuring carefree garage rock, hyperactive noodle-pop, and the kinds of carefully built structures St. Vincent would be proud of.
Speedy Ortiz, “Major Arcana”
Some of the slew of widespread national attention given to this Western Mass. band has had to do with a well-timed cresting of the #90sgaze zeitgeist, sure, but dozens of other bands tried as much with diminishing returns. “Major Arcana” is a triumph of both form and function, style and substance, with songs like the sharp-edged, crashing “Tiger Tank,” and the wistfully romantic “No Below” illustrating a diverse arsenal and, most notably, a lyrical precision: “I didn’t know you when you were a kid, but swimming with you it sure feels like I did.”