Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ (2015) – A-
When Goths was announced with the all-caps-ed “NO GUITARS,” my first thought was “?!” and my second thought was that John Darnielle might have out-Stephen Merritted Stephen Merritt. By which I mean, Darnielle loves a concept just as much as Merritt: the bildungsroman, the breakup album, the album with weird titles, that one, this one. Except Darnielle doesn’t just wear his concepts like a badge by way of i or Distortion; that Beat the Champ is about wrestling is incidental to the fact that it’s about everything else Darnielle usually sings about: a line like “I try to remember what life was like long ago / But it’s gone, you know” is, in the context of the album, sung from a wrestler who might’ve had one too many hits to the noggin’. But in the context of Darnielle’s greater repertoire? You get the jist. (The same applies with “Animal Mask”’s chorus, “Some things you will remember / Some things stay sweet forever.”) That’s all well and good, but even better is that Beat the Champ might be the Goats’ most rewarding album, revealed through multiple plays. The obvious stuff – “Foreign Object”’s sassy hook over sassier horns; the barrelling down momentum of “Choked Out” (plus the coda!); the odd-sounding main figure of “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” – is immediate and delicious. The less obvious stuff is even better: “Southwestern Territory”’s evocation of Philip Glass (“All the cheap seats go insane” indeed), mirrored by closer “Hair Match” (otherwise expendable); “Fire Editorial”’s live intro’s evocation of jazz. And a deep cut that I missed for two years until just yesterday: “Luna,” with its hushed momentum from Jon Wurster nudging along a vocal (“and ride, and ride, and ride, and ride”) and guitar, both climbing and receding like gentle waves. The Mountain Goats slowly climbed (heh) the ranks to be in my best of 2015 albums and it looks like 2017 is going to be a repeat.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell Live (2017) – A-
Stretching out the intimacy of Carrie & Lowell by adding elements of The Age of Adz (“Drawn to the Blood”) and post-rock climaxes (“Blue Bucket of Gold”), and the sheer prospect of playing these songs in a bigger room than a recording studio, it’s impressive that he’s able to retain said intimacy; even “Futile Devices” gets a new coda here. A bonus: “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, the most fragile of that set sounds even more so here. Another bonus: a ridiculous cover of the ridiculous, replete with guitar flickers that the original could have benefited from and a Karoake hook that could have been toned down a bit (one of those you had to be there moments). Though I might not like the changes to “Fourth of July” (wherein he swaps the internal apocalypse in the outro for a post-rock climax that’s reminiscent of Sigur Ros’ best), I’m a huge fan of the changed title track, where the song both sounds and progresses significantly better. Both Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens were 2015 AOTY contenders immediately upon impact and it looks like 2017 is going to be a repeat.
Mountain Goats – Satanic Messiah [EP] (2008) – B-
Gorgeous piano on the title track and payment method inspired by In Rainbows; little else of note. Around this point, the only distinguishing factor in the Mountain Goats’ output was Darnielle’s world-weary voice and thoughtful lyrics (“Gojam Province 1968”).