By ROBERT HAM // The end of the year brings many "Best Of" lists. OMN writer Robert Ham's Top Ten Oregon Albums is the most important list of them all.
1. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (Sub Pop) -- The return of one of Portland’s greatest rock bands felt natural, and almost inevitable. It’s not as if the break that this power trio went on was fueled by acrimony or worse; just simple creative exhaustion. Sleater-Kinney’s eighth album was a furious kick against a strain of Indie that another fierce female artist, Jenny Hval, had dubbed “soft dick rock.” The 10 tracks on No Cities To Love are lean and hot, fueled by the everyday concerns of women around the world, frustration at watching the city that nurtured the band become a playground for monied hipsters, and that primal need to crank up the volume and get lost in a haze of hair, sweat and raw power. No other album this year provided those same thrills or those same thoughtful expressions.
2. Corrina Repp — The Pattern of Electricity (Caldo Verde) -- The dissolution of romantic relationships have been fueling Pop music for six decades now and surely will for the next 60 years and beyond. In the hands of Corrina Repp, a singer-songwriter of immense emotional depth and a daring musician and arranger, that pliable clay of heartbreak and uncertainty is formed into a series of modern Folk song shapes that allow her to ease the burden on her spirit following the dissolution of her former band, Tu Fawning, and a pair of breakups that forced her to reevaluate everything in her life. The resulting album is, by turns, startlingly bleak and thrillingly hopeful.
3. Natasha Kmeto — Inevitable (Dropping Gems) -- This electronic Pop artist’s international profile has been on the rise in recent years, thanks to some support from the boys in TV On The Radio and electrifying live performances that showcase her synapse melting vocals, silken melodies and dance floor grinding beats. Natasha Kmeto responded to this attention with an album that reached for the stars while staying rooted in the real world concern of the blossoming relationship that served as inspiration for these sexy and soulful compositions. Find me any other recording from this year that worked as well as a soundtrack for bedroom dalliances and a glitter ball lit club night. Actually don’t. I’m too busy getting it on and getting down with Inevitable.
4. The Decemberists — What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol) -- There are few surprises to be had on the seventh studio album by these literary Indie Pop stalwarts. Colin Meloy’s toothsome lyrics are still being buttressed by arrangements that are indebted to the chime and pulse of the 70s U.K. Folk scene and 80s college Rock, with touches of psychedelia and Country-western fare sprinkled into the mix. Yet, the sound of The Decemberists has never felt more welcome than it does now, welcoming the influx of newbies with the strum of an acoustic guitar and a finely honed melody, and wrapping longtime citizens in a warm sonic hug to assure them that they’ll survive the rapid changes happening to their hometown.
5. Myke Bogan — Casino Carpet (self-released) -- The Portland Hip-hop scene has had to deal with a lot of drama and departures over the last few years, with 2015 seeing both Tope and Glenn Waco leaving for sunnier climes and an unfortunate police presence at many local performances. That only makes the work that rappers like Myke Bogan are doing seem that much more important. Sure, on his latest album, Casino Carpet, the 28-year-old rhymer sticks to his well-worn groove of tunes in honor of weed, women, and brews, but can you think of anything more Portland than that? And his flow is absolutely unimpeachable. Through these 10 songs, Bogan sounds often laidback and occasionally punchy, but always ready to work the beat over like a punching bag.
6. The Woolen Men — Temporary Monument (Woodsist) -- Garage-punkers The Woolen Men have never seemed saddled with doubt. The trio forged ahead with a “first thought/best thought” mindset that allowed them to crank out hundreds of tunes at a steady clip and knock out short-run releases with ease. Those cassettes and 7” singles, and their constant touring, have brought them to a bigger label (Woodsist) which helped them release one of their defining statements as a band: a 12-song charge through the post-Punk-obsessed, Nuggets-inspired universe that they call home. It afforded them the confidence to let ballads like “After The Flood” creep into the mix and let them sprawl out on edgier tunes like “Clean Dreams” and “The Wheel.”
7. Jessika Smith Big Band — Tricks of Light (PJCE Records) -- As this wintry economic climate has forced many Jazz ensembles to keep things lean and trim, saxophonist and composer Jessika Smith has gone the opposite direction. Gathering together a cadre of associates from her days playing in and around the Northwest, she has created an album that is a welcome throwback affair. Smith’s sax playing stays front and center, but she surrounds herself with warm blasts of brass and deep pocket rhythms that swing, simmer and slay. Best is when she and the big band delve into Latin Jazz territory as on the hip-hugging “Danza del Alma” or into pure Ellington love with the devilish album closer “Buddy’s Blues.”
8. Body Shame — Body Shame (SDM Records) -- You can detect the influence of 80s industrial pioneers like Skinny Puppy or IDM kingpins like Aphex Twin and Autechre in the debut album by one-man electronic show Body Shame. But you’d be served better by not trying to make any connections or bring in outside reference points. This cassette/digital release works better if you just meditate on its expanse of slowly desiccating beats, buzzing computer racket, and the occasional intrusion of what might be a melody — all the better to enjoy the ride through every unexpected twist and turn and to make sure you don’t get hurt as the ground crumbles away beneath your feet.
9. Eternal Tapestry -— Wild Strawberries (Thrill Jockey) -- By removing themselves from their comfort zone of Portland and recording this entire album in a cabin outside Zigzag, the gents in Eternal Tapestry were free to completely inhabit their collective headspace. And what came out of these extensive jams and freeform experiments was the closest thing to psych Rock perfection you are going to find this decade. The mood stays relatively sedate and reflective, with leanings towards the earliest days of Krautrock, but when they kick into the hypnotic sax loops and jagged guitar racket of closing track “White Adder’s Tongue,” the effect is wonderfully disquieting.
10. The OO-Ray — Empty Orchestra (Lifelike Family) -- This powerful recording by cellist and sound artist Ted Laderas is his most expansive and loud work to date. Constructed in fits and starts over the course of three years, Empty Orchestra has all the bombast of a vintage shoegaze Rock album but with an unsettling calm, providing ballast to the swirls of processed synth and strings. The effect is akin to dancing in the eye of a hurricane as digital detritus, shards of glass and colorful bolts of electricity swirl around your body. Don’t let the occasional scratch or shock throw you; just keep on moving.
Robert Ham is a music and pop culture critic based in Portland. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, VICE, Paste, Alternative Press, and FACT, as well as right here within the pages of Oregon Music News.