10. Wye Oak - Shriek
It's pretty amazing what Wye Oak did with this risky move to synths and bass. They were an identifiably almost rootsy guitar-centric band with morose, haunting vocals. These are qualities that don't translate to the kind of 80s throwback pop you would expect fromSHRIEK's set up, but they proved themselves as flexible genre kings this year. When I listen to a song like "Logic of Color," a dream of post-punk, I can hardly believe they had it in them. "Glory" is an honest to goodness dance track but with darker concerns. Every bleeping key and squishing bass has a sinister tone to it so you can never totally enter the neon world they've created, and that unease is always resolved with refreshing beauty with tracks like "Before."
9. Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues
More than anything i've listend to this year, this album feels like a monolith of true, lived experience. It's a mainline into the dense, hardened deposit of regret, hope and anguish inside you, and it does it with friendly pop punk guitar riffs and belted choruses. A song like "True Trans Soul Rebel" is a punk classic that makes the transgender life and all its heartbreak sound like the punkest thing ever. The best songs are like gnashed teeth and liberation dreams. There's so much wanted in this album and it's such a truthful, white hot yearning that you can't look away. It also explores the different kinds of desires -- "Dead Friend" and "Black Me Out" are both needing of something as big as the world, but they don't feel the same at all. It should also be noted that this song is extremely singable. Power pop vocals and clean hollering melodies that simply feel good to belt out make up most of the album. "Paralytic States" in particular is a heavy beating hook full off joy and really lets you appreciate Grace's vibrato on even the shortest notes.
8. Flying Lotus - You're Dead!
YOU'RE DEAD! can be terrifying and existential if you let it. That's probably the most interesting thing about how this album works -- you have to let it in. It's the daring twisting and corruption of genres that we expect from Flying Lotus, but with an eye toward death. If you're capable and willing of letting frenetic bass and experimental drums read as macabre signifiers, it will bring you to a psychadelic underworld. Outside of these more jazzy concepts, it has the occasional crossover pillar, and none is more effective, tragic and incisive than "Never Catch Me." Before the video for that song came out, I was already hooked. Once I saw the video, its images and the way it evokes equal parts tragedy and peace were burned into my mind. I listen to that song and see those images and it takes the entire concept to a whole new level. "Death as a peaceful escape" is a theme I've seen so many times, but this album is something that, in small lanes between jazz chaos, lets you really understand.
7. Sun Kil Moon - Benji
Whatever you think of his recent curmudgeonly feud, I don't think it's enough to take away from one of the best singer-songwriter album of the year. Kozelek has often made beautiful music, either under his own name, as SKM or as part of Red House Painters. But this is the first time I felt it was more about his lived experience than a story crafted. People were taken aback by his snark and antognism in his talks with Adam Granduciel, and that's because BENJI was so empathetic and human. It has a song for each of his parents and goes to great pains to explore the embarassing, or the egotistical, or the just plain troubling. There was so much writing in this that let you in to places that not only are vulnerable, but remarkably unromantic. Coupled with some beautiful moves of acoustic guitar playing, you really felt like you got a true warts-and-all picture of him. I imagine that to Kozelek, the things that are worth empathising over, the things that wreck havoc on your inner mind, are bigger than random band feuds and bloggers. I imagine that his eye is so trained on the slow burning big things, that everything else is just for children and deserves to be mocked as such. That's not necessarily a bad way to be, but BENJI'S allure was that it gave us the illusion that we were in there with him.
6. Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain
This feels more like a true sequel to his self-titled album that OUTER SOUTH, which seemed to be taken over by the band chemistry they discovered as the Mystic Valley Band. If all you want is Oberst and an acoustic guitar working in a crisp folksy sound, this is the album. There's his hallmark raw truth on "Artifact #1," his painted story in "Governor's Ball," and even strange schmaltz in "You Are Your Mother's Child." It's not all his best work, but it definitely feels 100% him and his creativity, so if you've already bought into his world, you're halfway into loving the album.
5. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
I never thought she'd put out an album this good ever again. That sounds insulting, but I've grown accustomed to my early 00s Saddle Creek heroes maturing and losing their edge. When they've gotten married, started a family, heartache is not a convincing end of the world. THat's okay. What Lewis managed to do here is take her maturity and really fashion it into sweeping, beautiful songwriting. Stevie Nicks-like in its execution, it takes fun rock riffs and Lewis' penchant for story into some wonderful spins. "Love U Forever" is a getting-married anthem that starts off kind of corny but can't help but land somewhere earnest and pained -- it's even in the chorus. "I Could Love You Forever" -- something as simple as the choice of could over will or would changes everything, making it reflective and sincere instead of blinding commitment. It's the sound of someone who has lived with pain in her heart, looking at this new road ahead and thinking this might be it, at long last. That beautiful sentiment is echoed repeatedly through the album.
4. Sharon Van Etten - Are We There
Maybe the best singer-songwriter album of the year. At first, it was the dark bottom-of-the-well anthem, "I Love You But I'm Lost" that landed this album in my heart, but as I went on throughout the year, the song I kept going to is "Our Love." "Our Love" is a neon-tinged mid-90s easy listening R&B ballad, but it comes out sounding ripe for today. The way her voice quivers like the organ on what is otherwise a clean, sunset song is the defining sound. It's otherwise a confidenet and mathematically arranged song, but that shake in her voice plants a beautiful seed of ache.
3. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Mended With Gold
The title refers to this idea that you can be put back together in a way more beautiful and valuable than before. I found that a tremendously useful sentiment this year, and I think I'll need to go back to that frequently. "Vulcan, AB" is surely one of the best songs they've done since HOMETOWNS, and songs like "45/33" and "Runners in the Night" finally introduce sounds that seem new to the palette. I worry a little bit about if they'll know to evolve now that they've perfected this concept that began on HOMETOWNS, but I understand that's some Monday morning quarterback BS. It's a good sign if I like an album this much but it still draws concern from me because I hear so much potential to do something truly perfect that will set a fire in bigger circles. If I trust their talent as I have before, I'm sure it'll be fine.
2. Alvvays - Self-titled
An album that is simultaneously pretty, emotive, powerful and catchy. You can dance, weep, sing, jam, whatever. It does it all. It's apex guitar pop and every song just shines with clean contours like a classic car. I don't know how you make an album like this again, but the fact that it exists right now ensures they've planted a flag to be remembered. "Archie, Marry Me" was one of the most verifiable wildfire songs of the year that brought just about everyone to the bandwagon. The genius of the album is that once you've been hooked by that rare, perfect introduction, it offers 8 more tracks mined straight from the same vein. Everything is lovesick but melancholy, gently swaying but dancing. It's a pleasure to hear Molly Rankin's voice ride a reverb wave across the dark on "Ones Who Love You," but the arches of her voice are the main attraction of "Party Police," the deep cut classic of this pack.
1. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else
Everything that I want in a punk rock album. Gritty truths spit out with fire over revved up chords that you can't get out of your head. Pop enough to open a road directly to your heart, punk enough to kick things over once it gets in there.There are a lot of great, gritty tracks that fulfill every guitar-based power fantasy you could ever have. "Pattern Walks" is a nutso explosion, the album's paranoid "Helter Skelter," while "Psychic Trauma" is a great and easy descent into, well, psychic trauma. "No Thoughts" is 3 minutes of blistering disgust that can be weaponized into anything you want.
But the main single is what makes this album important to me. "I'm Not Part Of Me" is by far my favorite song of the year, something I'll be blasting forever at my sickest nadirs. It has already given me so many moments of warped bliss -- I'll never forget yelling "YOU'RE PART OF ME, YOU'RE PART OF ME" with hundreds of others in the pit of Bonnaroo, arms in the air, shoving, spittle-flecked and vengeful at something.
I listen to it now in the dark and I still get pumped, but not in the way athletes get pumped up for the big game, or bodybuilders get pumped up to lift. I don't get physically psyched out for something, although it helps. It amps up something spiritual; it takes your lows and turns them into power. The song's lulls and hooks tap into a wellspring of fed-up emotions -- every moment where I felt like I scraped the bottom of my soul comes rushing forth. Every answer I've lost, every frest start I've ever squandered, every big desire that I could only bury comes out. I can't describe what it does to me, not really, except to say that it does what music is supposed to do to you.
- Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait EP
- Bleeding Rainbow - Interrupt
- Perfect Pussy - Say Yes to Love
- Mac DeMarco - Salad Days