Just under the wire – my personal top 50 albums of the year. This is, of course, in no way an objective list. This is for two reasons: 1) I don’t think that’s possible and 2) I think that’s rather boring. The beauty of year end lists is to discover the music that moved other people and why, discovering not only new artists along the way but, ideally, new ways of looking at the world. That’s what music’s good for, after all – soundtracking our lived experiences. Sure, not all the records on my list are LIFECHANGING but, in their own ways, they did change my life and they’re phenomenal soooo you should check them out. And then you should tell me yours.
50: Run The Jewels – RTJ3
I’m cheating here but I have to include this record. And I’m only putting it at 50 right now because it swooped in at the last moment and, to be honest, I’ll probably include it again next year where it will undoubtedly be far higher because – damn. I mean DAMN. Run the Jewels have more than made a name for themselves with their blistering beats and no holds barred bars but, just in case you missed it, they’re back at it again and have somehow polished and perfect their style even further. I’ll need to sit with it a bit longer to truly pick apart their masterful lyrical acrobatics but, as a visceral experience, this record is unbelievable.
49: Rihanna – ANTI
Sure, her bad girl RiRi devil-may-care persona is nothing new but damn if doesn’t make for some phenomenal pop music. To be honest, I’ve only had a passing interest in her music before this record but, after the infectious ear worm that was “Work”, I had to at least give the record a try. I was not disappointed. From the relentless swagger of “Desperado” to the smooth sway of “Love on the Brain,” ANTI is simply a great pop record and, unlike many that get stuck in your head only to fade away, I will definitely be revisiting this one for years to come.
48: Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
I love me some late career artists who just won’t stop. Where some might be satisfied with a covers album here and a Christmas album there, others simply can’t help themselves – they have to keep moving forward. Paul Simon is, unsurprisingly, one of these great artists. After a truly career best with So Beautiful of So What, no one would’ve blamed him taking it easy. Instead, he dabbles in a new genre entirely! Linking up with electronic arts Clap! Clap!, Simon provided yet another late career best that has him sounding even more energetic than before. The album is full, of course, with phenomenal songwriting but it’s the composition of the whole thing that struck me. If he ends up retiring after this, he’ll certainly end on a hell of a note.
47: Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway
Bless John Klinghoffer’s heart, but it was never going to be easy to follow up John Frusciante. Actually, scratch that – it was always going to be impossible. It’s not a matter of talent but a matter of timing – RHCP had been enjoying a decade plus winning streak of hit album after hit album, an already all-time classic, genre-defining band firing on all cylinders. Jumping into that trajectory must have been rough – and, to be honest, it showed on the startlingly lackluster I’m With You. It wasn’t his fault so much as John’s. I’m With You sounded like a band trying to pretend John wasn’t gone, replicating his sound as best they could and swearing to their fans they were still the same band. With The Getaway, however, RHCP sound like a band anew and from the piano drenched ballads to the spacey jamz, it’s for the best. I would honestly call this the most exciting and structurally tight album they’ve produced since Californication and, like that seminal record, provides a great summer soundtrack.
46: Local Natives – Sunlit Youth
I know some fans were a bit turned off by the tempo shift between Local Native’s energetic (and phenomenal) debut Gorilla Manor to their decidedly meditative (also phenomenal) sophomore album Hummingbird but, if they’re willing to give it another go, the band has returned with energy to spare here. Joining in on the 80’s revival, this Sunlit Youth is far more synth heavy and danceable than Hummingbird but, at the same time, retains a lot of the more overtly personal elements that made that record so captivating. Having recently seen them in concert, post-election, and hearing them speak to the “Madam President” line, it’s important to note that album serves as a great rallying cry towards moving forward socially so, if you need a pick me up in that department, look no further.
45: Yeasayer – Amen & Goodbye
Yeasayer are an odd beast by design. Once a “standard” psychedelic freak-folk outfit ala Animal Collective, they morphed into danceable electronic alt-pop deftly and haven’t looked back. Although this record isn’t quite as good as their previous release Fragrant World (which, I maintain is their masterpiece until I am proven otherwise), I was still enthralled by this record because of the spiritual undertones in its reflections on love and family. It doesn’t hold to any absolute truths and it doesn’t presume to find any, opting instead to wrestle with the experience of living as it comes along. At times fluidly lush and at others anxiously erratic, Yeasayer continue to be my favorite go to existential dance band.
44: Ceres – Drag It Down On You
This year has really been something of an emo revival for me. Like many of my peers, the early –mid 00’s were a time of overwrought emotional wallowing (I think it’s called being a teenager in most other generations). But, for whatever reason, even though this is the year I got married to the absolute love of my life, I found myself exploring many of the new offerings and falling madly in love with the overly earnest, bleeding-heart-on-sleeve genre once again. Aside from a couple giants in the genre, however, none impressed me as much as Australian newcomers Ceres. Billed as being “about finally realizing you aren’t in someone’s life anymore. You’re just a memory in their head, and for some sick, sad reason – you are happy enough with that,” this is an emo album through and through. If you’re in the mood, you can’t do better than crying on this one’s shoulder this year.
43: Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop – Love Song For Fire
As Iron & Wine, Sam Beam has been exploring the possibilities of modern folk music through ornate orchestration and inventive production all while remaining true to the central form. Jesca Hoop, on the other hand, has made a name for her outright deconstruction of the genre. When they announced that they would be releasing a duet record, I’ll admit I was pretty excited for possibilities of some truly bizarre alt-folk magic. What we got, however, is a surprisingly standard folk record, deliciously lush and heartwarmingly earnest, but straightforward nonetheless. I will admit that Beam’s previous duet record with Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell provided a high bar for them to surpass but with love songs as disarming as this one it’s hard not hope they might keep exploring the genre together a bit further next time.
42: Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros
Ray LaMontagne has always been a man out of time. With his beautifully soulful voice and steadfast dedication to 70’s folk aesthetic, he’s always felt less like an homage and more like a time traveling busker. After departing from his soulful folk and roll with a trip into psychedelic-lite rock, Ray came back this year to explore a bit further. Almost certainly influenced by listening to nothing but Pink Floyd in-between records, Oroboros is like a love letter to Dark Side of the Moon. Rather than concerning itself with the madness of the modern world, however, Ray instead creates a record long poem about the passage of time and the seasonal shifts of an individual’s life. Half rock and roll explosion and half folky whisper, this is by far his most musically and sonically interesting record yet.
41: Wilco – Schmilco
When Wilco unexpectedly dropped Star Wars last year, we were treated to a wild burst of Wilco’s more avant-altrock tendencies. Whereas Star Wars felt like the band shaking off their pent up energy – this year’s Schmilco feels like them sitting down with purpose. A mostly acoustic affair, this album is less a return to their (unfairly maligned masterpiece) Sky Blue Sky and more a companion piece to Star Wars. Almost every bit as odd and angular at times, Schmilco still finds a way to provide a contemplative center to Tweedy’s musings on youth and the passage of time. If anything, this is a great example of just how versatile Wilco’s arsenal has become over the years – they might be a couple decades into their career but they are every bit as brave to keep us toes and explore the genre on their own terms.
40: Taking Back Sunday – Tidal Wave
I never stopped being an emo kid, not really. Even during the years when I abandoned exploring the genre’s newer offerings, I’ve remained a faithful fan to bands like Taking Back Sunday. I won’t pretend like they’re setting the world on fire or anything but over the years TBS has gotten so damn good at delivering their sound that every rousing chorus is downright infectious. If you have a hankering for some fist-pumping, emotion exercising sing-alongs, look no further because TBS have yet another great hit under their belt.
39: Silent Planet – Everything Was Sound
Silent Planet are, for me, the most exciting discovery in spiritual music of the past few years. Their debut The Night God Slept was a mighty earthquake of a record, full of raw religious rage and earnest spiritual prayer. A metalcore band fully of their socially aware generation, Silent Planet honor their namesake by raging against the Professor Westons of the world. Their newest record is an unflinching look at the prisons of culture we either force each other into or willfully build for ourselves. From the ravages of war to the struggles of eating disorders, Silent Planet have created a beautiful and brutal prayer of an album. From the bleeding throat cries to heavens to the spoken word mystical musings for love here on earth, this is a perfect meditation for those of us who feel that we’re entering into a spiritual battle for the nation in the coming years.
38: Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are two of the greatest living songwriters and if you don’t know this you are missing out on the greatest Americana rock and roll band there is. Known for their grand tales of southern living, the Truckers have opted this time to move from straight fiction to our unreal reality by writing a political protest record. Not that they haven’t been political before – far from it – they just decided it wasn’t the time to wrap it all up in literary devices – now was the time to be blunt as hell. And blunt they are: from unflinching looks at conservative hypocrisy to the disillusionment with southern pride, this is as much a protest record as it is an earnest plea for some southern sanity.
37: Blind Pilot – And Then Like Lions
Blind Pilot came about during such a great deluge of indie folks bands in the late 00’s that you’d be forgiven if they passed you by. What you missed, however, is by far the most emotionally evocative of the whole bunch. From the bar stool lamentations of their debut to the overjoyed nighttime meanderings of their sophomore effort, Blind Pilot is a band built upon expressive presence and their newest does not disappoint. Whereas their previous release that felt like a meditation of the moment, And Then like Lions is the heartbreaking reflection on days gone by. Created in reflection of divorce and death, Blind Pilot finds a way to make the overwhelming emotions palpable with the most beautiful orchestration they’ve accomplished yet. Doesn’t make it easier, but it helps.
36: Pinegrove – Cardinal
This is an album that I’ve only recently discovered thanks to other end of the year lists so it feels like I’m cheating a bit by including it but damn if it isn’t phenomenal. From the moment I put it on, I knew I was going to be deeply in love – and, considering just how young these kids are, I know this will be a band I’ll be following for years to come. An alt-country-indie-rock tour de force that, honestly, reminds me of a young Band of Horses, this is such a self-assured record that it is frankly dumbfounding that they’re just now getting recognition.
35: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
If you go back and listen to Sturgill’s first record, you hear a man at his wit’s end trying to figure out whether or not he’s wasting his time with music. If you told him that he’d one day be an absolute game changer, let alone a celebrated Grammy-nominated artist, he’d probably ask you for a bit of what you’re smoking. But, lo and behold, Sturgill has changed the face of country music and we are all better for it. This time around, however, he stretched his creative muscle a bit further and added some rock n’ roll, some blues, and even a little funk in a surprisingly sprawling follow up to his comparatively retrained sophomore smash. Written in reflection to the birth of his son, Sailor’s finds Simpson far away from his drug-fueled rambling days with a whole lot of lessons learned and a lot of love to give in gratitude for the life he stumbled into.
34: Basia Bulat – Good Advice
Canadian songstress Basia Bulat is an absolute treasure. From her disarmingly angelic voice to her talent for lush folk arrangements, she is a raw and exciting talent in the genre. She recently began moving away from her more bucolic arrangements with her last record, Tall, Tall, Shadows, dipping her toes a bit more into the electronic, but it wasn’t until she linked up with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James that she fully embraced the new sound. But rather than finding herself in the electronic indie dance genre ala Tegan and Sara, Basia instead recorded a delightful doo-wop-ish album filled with the most precious of pop. The sort of heartbreak record you can dance to, Basia continues to demand attention by pushing herself forward and conquering another genre.
33: Miike Snow – iii
Swedish/American indie pop trio deserve more. Their first two records are absolutely perfect, modern masterpieces in the electro-pop genre and, although they’ve garnered a considerable following, they really should be conquering the world. With this newest record, it feels like that’s what they’re aiming for. Far more radio friendly than anything they’ve produced thus far (saying a lot for artists involved with some of the biggest radio hits of the past 20 years), iii is the catchiest batches of Miike Snow tunes yet. In fact, I am genuinely surprised/dismayed that “For U” was not a single – it’s been stuck in my head all year.
32: The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light
I adore this band but, to be perfectly honest, I found their sophomore album to just be ‘ok.’ It was a bit of ‘more of the same’ and although I welcomed that with arms wide open after falling madly in love with their debut, there were too many little hints sprinkled about that made me realize that they had more to them. Well, this album is that promised fulfilled and then some. Spreading the wings of their tried and true folk wide under the glittering light of the larger stage, this album finds Head and the Heart full of more infectious energy than ever before. As evidenced by a recent live show, the Head and the Heart have tapped into something as a group that really has them firing on all cylinders and, although some will certainly miss their more rustic roots, I am overjoyed to hear them expanding their sound.
31: Dr. Dog – Abandoned Mansion
Following up the admirable re-working of their heady and boisterous debut record Psychedelic Swamp, Abandoned Mansion feels like a perfect companion piece. Far more melodic, often times stripped down and always straightforward, this record feels like a warm cup of tea. Focusing on lyrics far more than their musical tricks, Dr. Dog sought to provide “Songs as tools to finding oneself […] songs of acceptance. Acceptance of yourself and acceptance of the others around you.” For a band that has provided some of my personal favorite meditations on the role of perception with regards to our sense of personhood, this is an album that demonstrates everything I love about Dr. Dog. It’s a great soundtrack for those afternoon strolls where you just want to marvel at all the people you might see and don’t mind meeting a few strangers along the way. Plus, all proceeds for the record go to the Southern Poverty Law Center – can’t argue with a good cause.
30: Thank You Scientist – Stranger Heads Prevail
Are you like me and ever wondered – “what if Coheed & Cambria and My Chemical Romance were, like, really into the orchestration of Sufjan Stevens?” If so, who are you, because we need to chat? Also, check out Thank You Scientist. A prog-jam funk metal chimera that revels in the theatrics of the genre and wanders every which-a-way it so pleases, this record has almost too much going on but, if you’re willing to hold on, you will enjoy the hell out of the ride.
29: The Frights – You’re Going to Hate This
One my favorite random finds this year thanks to some truly brilliant local radio stations in Austin, this band is a punky surf rock free for all and an utter joy. I’m drawn to bands with pure frantic energy and if you’re down for some ADHD grooves, I highly recommend The Frights. Plus, even though you might not be a teenager anymore, it’s always fun to yell at mom and dad from time to time, right?
28: Matt Pond PA – Winter Lives
Matt Pond is an artist in love with seasonal shifts. His entire discography is basically based around the seasonal shifts of the natural world and their relation to his life. From the Autumnal tones of Several Arrows Later to the Spring in your step rock of The State of Gold, Matt Pond’s music is tailor made for the contemplation of cycles. After a brief scare of retirement thanks to some label issues, Matt Pond crowd funded his latest record and created a brilliant reflection in honor of the dead season. But, rather than wallow in the winter, he brought his considerable talent for sentiment and honors the feelings of refreshment that the stark cold air can awakening in us. Although he’s still revisiting days gone by, this album feels like a great step forward.
27: Drake – Views
I get why people don’t care for Drake – in theory. I mean, his flow is goofy, his sincerity is corny, and his lyrics are often borderline saccharine. But damn if his brand of emo-rap doesn’t work for me on every level. Ever since Take Care, however, I have been far more enamored with his producing partner 40 than Drake’s ‘good guy’ persona (as entertaining as it is). 40 and Drake have cultivated a smooth, washed out vibe that is easily the most calming vibe in popular rap today and I adore it. There was a lot of talk leading up to Views about this being Drake’s masterpiece and, as far as I’m concerned, it is. Every track shines like moonlight glimmering off a summertime swimming pool – calming and inviting. You might think he’s a joke but if you dare tell me that “Child’s Play” doesn’t get you even a little bit hyped then I just don’t know what to do for you.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13b-eGp3iLg
26: John Prine – For Better, or Worse
This man is my hero. A songwriter of the highest caliber, he has built a career out of seemingly simple songs that can strike you right down to your soul – in equal measure disarming and charming. At this point in his career, however, he doesn’t really have to prove himself, especially not after his phenomenal previous solo record Fair and Square, but, thankfully, he shows no sign of slowing. Returning to the tried and true country duet format, Prine brought along the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, and, of course, Iris Dement to reflect on the nature of love and marriage. At times utterly heartbreaking and at others side splittingly ridiculous, this is yet another classic from one of the greatest in the game.
25: Insects vs. Robots – Theyllkillyaa
Let’s get this out of way – yes, that is Willie Nelson’s son on vocals and, no, he sounds nothing like his dad. Rather than stay in the land of country music, Micah and friends have been wandering the paths of prog-y folk psychedelia out in LA and, on their 3rd proper release, have perfectly distilled their truly enthralling live presence onto record. Having discovered them at Willie’s Picnic in a crowd of bewildered good ol’ boys, it might be hard for me to be *truly* objective but, if you get the chance, I highly recommend as they have a beautiful and infectious joy on stage. This really comes across in these spacious jams and, for a sprawling prog album, it’s admirably well-paced.
24: River Whyless – We All The Light
Some albums are written for trail wondering, stone skipping, and camp fires, to the woods and the whispering wind. River Whyless, who have termed themselves ‘baroque folk’ (and subsequently given me a delightful name for numerous other modern folk bands that don’t quite fit the traditional molds), are such a band that’s as warm as sunlight through the rustling leaves. With heartfelt tales of brotherly love and quite odes to contemplation, We All The Light is an incredible and all together soothing addition for your wandering/wondering mixtape.
23: Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being
Confession: I only discovered Glass Animals this year. I only bring this up because I became absolutely obsessed with them and, if I could, I would include both records because this band is incredible. Trippy, dancey, electronic indie rock at its finest, Glass Animals are masters of the hypnotic groove. Their newest record is even an engrossing human study, to boot, painting the lives of various characters like the storybook of a village. I’m not sure exactly what it all means thematically but, then again, I wasn’t paying attention – I was too busy dancing.
22: Relient K – Air For Free
At some point, I’d like to do a longer write up on Relient K. For a band that came out of the CCM pop mimicry factory as the Christian answer to blink-182, Relient K quickly and adeptly proved themselves to be one of the most interesting Christian acts by wrestling earnestly with themes of doubt and human love with nary a concern for aligning themselves with the pulpit’s brand. They took a bit a dive into the manufactured with their last, overly produced effort, but came back fully revived for this one. Air For Free is an exhilarating rush of joyous, spirit moving rock and one I had on repeat for months.
21: Andy Hull & Robert McDowell – Swiss Army Man Soundtrack
When I first began hearing about Swiss Army Man, I had no idea what to expect. When I saw the first preview, I understood even less. Then, when I heard two members of one of my favorite vaguely Christian existential emo-rock bands, Manchester Orchaestra, were providing the soundtrack, I was beside myself in my confusion. How in the world could this even work? Well, it turns out, it worked by mimicking the movie and becoming something entirely alien and yet altogether human. With their keen ear for hooks and the sweet sounds of their harmonies, Andy and Robert frankensteined together a rousing and visceral (mostly) acapella soundtrack that interacts with the preciously intimate narrative of the movie so deeply that it is itself a part of the dialogue. As an album, it is stunning and fascinating – completely unlike anything they have ever done. As a soundtrack, it is just as delightfully strange an experiment as the movie itself.
20: Ed Harcourt – Furnaces
Ed Harcourt is an incredible, hidden gem of an artist (and one I will never stop singing the praises of until people realize what they’re missing) who approaches the world with a romantic sense of pessimism. Somewhere between a carny Tom Waits and a nihilistic Ben Folds, Ed Harcourt has built an incredibly robust career of songs ranging from the gorgeously quixotic to the hauntingly maudlin, all with a theatrical flair few artists can pull off with such restrained flourish. Following up a masterpiece of an album – the heart-breakingly beautiful meditation on family and fame, Back Into The Woods – Harcourt has returned this year with a scorched earth song book in the form of Furnaces. A lush, raging beast of an album, born under the looming shadow of Brexit and Trump, Furnaces is probably Ed at his most raw – sound, fury, and good ol’ fashioned frustration. Although he might recognize that there is still beauty to be found out in this crazy world, this album is dedicated to the lengths we will go to either outright ignore it or simply count it of no consequence in light of our vain conquests.
19: Jim James – Eternally Even
When Jim James announced his first solo record, I think we all assumed that it would either be along the lines of his acoustic George Harrison love affair as Yim Yames or just another take on My Morning Jacket’s brand of psychedelic country rock – but none of us quite expected the mystical soul/funk troubadour route. After his incredible, if a bit disjointed, debut record, Jim James returned this year out of the need to put some positive meditation out into the world. This record is filled with messages of hope and yearning for love. It begs us to be honest about the absurdity of our world and about the truth of our own shortcomings so that we can finally move forward together. It’s hard to see how that’s exactly possible these days, but this album is one amazing prayer just the same. Plus, it’s got a damn good groove to move to while you do it.
18: Polyphia – Renaissance
Polyphia are mesmerizing. Utterly and bafflingly mesmerizing. Whereas Periphery might be a bit abrasive for many people’s liking, Polyphia are the metal equivalent of hold music. Now, that might seem like an insult but what I mean is this – you know those obscure configurations of session musicians who make impossibly tight and marvelously technical jazz and/or progressive rock albums ala Dream Theater that are just so polished that you get the impression they’re almost plastic if not outright robotic? Yeah, now add some distortion, speed it up, set it on fire and – ta da – you have Polyphia. Although their debut was way sunnier, it’s almost impossible to listen to these guys endlessly solo and not get the impression that they’re just having a freakin’ blast melting your face.
17: Astronoid – Air
While I’m on the subject of metal I might as well go ahead and rave about Astronoid. If you’re friends with me and have even the slightest inclination towards metal, you are going to get tired of me singing this album’s praise. But I really can’t help it – no album this year is as relentlessly joyous as this one. This album simply makes me feel good. It’s the sort of album that centers me, that smooths the edges, and immediately puts a smile on my face. A metal album that’s all major key and soaring vocals, Astronoid is basically the opposite of death metal – it is outright life affirming.
16: Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
I am loving every bit of this record – but, truth be told, I get why others might not like it. Not only is it a complete departure of style from the largely successful Because of the Internet but because it’s far more free form, and meandering, in its narrative. Whereas his last record was so detailed that it even included an entire screenplay to accompany its message, this record is far more interested in embracing its universal themes of brotherly love and fatherhood like one might admire a clear night sky – utterly transfixed and yet unable to comprehend. Pushing himself not only as a musician but also as a singer (at times, he’s utterly unrecognizable), Gambino has taken yet another giant leap forward as a force to be reckoned with.
15: Periphery – Periphery III: Select Difficulty
Known for an insane level of technical skill and a relentless pace of prolificacy, Periphery are kings of djent/progressive metal as far as I’m concerned. Coming just a year after their double album Juggernaut: Alpha/Omega, this record is the perfect culmination of every one of their strengths. Whereas Juggernaut felt like they were stretching their muscles, III finds them ready for a fight – and it is one blistering punch in the face after the next.
14: American Football – American Football (2)
American Football released an absolute, undeniable, and incredible masterpiece of the emo genre right before the great revival of the early 2000’s – and then they disappeared. Although they individually went on to other musical projects, American Football seemed like it was doomed to be a singular success. But then just as they had disappeared, out of absolutely nowhere, American Football decided to return and, like they’d never left at all, they gave us an album every bit as gentle, as captivating, and as deceptively deep as their debut. Like standing in an empty house after the love of your life has moved out, this album is a quite whisper of reassurance you offer to the dust as it settles at your feet. It’s a warm blanket of a record and, although it’s heavy, the dulcet tones and earnest pleas towards love make it all feel like it’ll be ok. Yet another emo masterpiece. Can’t wait for #3 in another twenty years.
13: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes – Person A
For many, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes are just another stomp-and-holler, vaguely hippy-esque indie outfit with their ubiquitous hit “Home.” For those who stopped paying attention after their debut, however, you missed one of the most interesting spiritual develops in modern music. Now, it’s not that Up From Below didn’t have some beautifully uplifting moments but, somewhere along the way, it seemed to become front man Alex Ebert’s mission to create praise songs for the post-modern skeptical spiritualist. At once earnestly honoring religious notions and yet burning them to the ground, the band’s albums have moved from a focus on the communal ideal of the 60’s into the religious imagination with a modern cynicism that is, quite honestly, refreshing. On their newest release, they have created a danceable study on the ego and self-presentation in a world bent towards self-satisfied suicide. This album is at times hilarious and at others outright angry – the Magnetic Zeroes have really perfected their act and, for those a bit burnt out on traditional religious language, have some fascinating things to say.
12: Jason Nolan – Wonder Years
Easily my favorite stumble upon of the year, I’m cheating a bit because this might really only be an EP but, dammit, I want people to get excited for this guy. This is by far one of the catchiest and most danceable albums this year and, if it doesn’t put you in a great mood then I will say a prayer for you. I really hope this record helps him take off either as a solo artist or as a producer because these are some truly phenomenal tunes right here.
11: Animal Collective – Painting With
Whether or not they ever reach the heights of their masterpiece Merriweather Post Pavilion again, the one thing that is for certain is that Animal Collective will keep moving forward. They had every right to keep playing it safe after that one but, instead, they dove deep into a darker, more droning affair as a follow up. As if to keep us on our toes, however, they switched the pitch up again and came at us with ALL THE BPMs. Honestly, this record is like having a heart attack on the dance floor. All bombast and excitement, this record will either lift your out of your body or leave you breathless on the floor. Taking the echoed vocal approach of Panda Bear’s solo records, the lyrics are just as frantically arranged as the music and, honestly, it makes for one hell of a trip trying to follow along – just like a good Animal Collective record should.
10: David Bowie – Blackstar
This album…good Lord, this album is rough. Before we ever even knew he was sick, before we ever considered losing him, David Bowie was quietly contemplating his death and penning one of the most disarming meditations on the great void ever written. It’s impossible to listen to this record and not imagining him closing his eyes, ready to go. But between the music videos, the stage play, and the album itself, Bowie did not want us to shy away from his companion – he was going to die and, like the absolute genius that he was, he was going to make art out of it. A harrowing, claustrophobic, and yet somehow invitingly dense record, Black Star is an absolutely phenomenal send off for an impossibly larger than life artist. It might not be an enjoyable experience, per se, but, like most things in life and death, it is certainly a worthwhile one.
9: Calliope Musicals – Time Owes You Nothing
There were a lot of local bands I fell in love with this year but none have been as remotely exciting as Calliope Musicals. Somewhere between the communal warmth of Polyphonic Spree and the spaced out meditations of the Flaming Lips, Calliope Musicals are a psychedelic joy ride through and through. Ruminations on contemplative presence and longing for alien abductions sit comfortably side by side on a record that’s as warm as sunshine and as enticing as moonlight. From the rocking rabble of their record to the boisterous beauty of their live show, Calliope Musicals are easily the feel good band of the year for me. And, as luck would have it, I can verify that they are every bit as loving and joyous in real life as their music. Good people making good music in a good town.
8: Kendrick Lamar – untitled. unmastered.
I have genuinely been surprised not to see this one on more end of year lists. I mean, sure, it’s technically something of a B-side companion to his undeniable masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly but, for being fragments of a fully formed statement, it has more than enough to say on its own. Jazzy, bombastic, coarse and yet smooth as hell, this record is a prayer in a smoke filled room as an artist contemplates the hypnotic dance of his creative muse. Kendrick is easily the most fascinating, engaging, and inspiring MCs out there today and, honestly, one of the greatest spiritual artists of this generation.
7: Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Like I said before, this is a praise album through and through. Chance has been a joy to watch grow and flourish since he came on the scene partially because he comes across as so thoroughly grateful to just be able to create. And, like his peer Kendrick or Tribe before him, he has a whole hell of a lot to say. Unlike his previous release which felt more like a Saturday night, this one feels like Sunday morning. Not a stuffy, ‘this pew is uncomfortable’ sort of way though – more of a ‘Good God, the sun is shining!’ sort of way.
6: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
I understand why some people haven’t warmed to this record – rather than being kinetic and deconstructionist, it is by far Radiohead’s lushest and most straight forward record since OK Computer. On top of that, it’s also undoubtedly Radiohead’s “breakup album” which, if you’re not in the headspace for, can be a bit overbearing. Of course, writing this reflection now is difficult as the album’s subject has sadly recently passed. As such, it’s an even more difficult record to sit with. For my money, however, between Jonny Greenwood’s orchestrations and the heartfelt sincerity it is one of their best – and, honestly, the final song “True Love Waits” very well might be my absolute favorite Radiohead song ever.
5: A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
A Tribe Called Quest owed us nothing after defining an entire movement of conscious hip-hop and yet, out of the blue, they give us damn near the best record of their career after almost 2 decades of radio silence. Now famously a sort of dying wish of founding member Phife Dawg, Tribe gave it all they got and this album might be the greatest comeback record ever produced because of it. As if no time had passed at all, Tribe sound every bit as energized and effective as they ever have, deftly tackling politics, social strife, and old school hip-hop showmanship. I mean, it’s really amazing to behold these legends come back to truly push forward the genre yet again and not as some throwback after thought. Easily, and rightfully, the hip-hop album of the year as far as I’m concerned.
4: Devendra Banhart – Ape in Pink Marble
Devendra Banhart is one of those artists that just makes me happy. His career has been one psychedelic absurdity after another, infused with moments of raw honesty and irreverent humor, always keeping the listener on their toes from one song to the next. From his Spanish folk guitar roots to his latest explorations in synth driven dance music, Devendra has dabbled in nearly every sound and genre, often within a single record.
For his newest record, however, he’s stuck with his recent electronic fascination and yet still finds a way to make it sound completely unlike his previous effort. Whereas Mala was a wallowing whimper of a record, Ape is flirtatiously funky. Where Mala found him locked behind closed doors, Ape has him back on the streets strutting with that ol’ Devendra glimmer in his eyes. In a year where everything is just SO SERIOUS there was no other record that matched the amount of sheer care free joy this one emanates.
3: Band of Horses – Why Are You Ok
Dammit, this is a great record. Coming off a far more loose exploration of their sound, this is a band at its most focused and self-assured. I mean, if they can start a record with a 7 minute slow burn and yet still get you ready to rock and roll, you know you’re in for a treat. At this point, it’s safe to say that Band of Horses are alt-country kings and if you have any doubt whatsoever, please check out this record. Although there were several album vying for the illustrious title of ‘windows-rolled-down-album-of-the-summer,” there was no competition. From beginning to end, this album is a blast.
2: Wolfie’s Just Fine – I Remembered But Then I Forgot
Honestly? No album surprised me more than this one. In fact, if I had a favorite album this year, it *just* might be the debut record of Canadian YouTube absurdist turned TV comedian Jo Lajoie. Now, you would be perfectly justified for dismissing this record for a couple reasons: one, it’s a serious record written by the guy who wrote “High as F*ck” and, two, it’s a fairly standard stomp-and-holler folk record, a genre we’re been overly inundated with these days. If you give it a chance, however, you might find yourself surprised by the depth of it all.
Although not without jokes (the band is named after the dog in Terminator 2, of all things), this record shows a sensitivity and honesty that’s genuinely disarming. It might seem silly at first but when Lajoie deftly paints the picture of a pre-pubescent boy wrestling with the exhilaration and shame of seeing the nakedness of one of Jason’s victim’s in Friday the 13th you get less “teehee boobs” and more “who am I now?” and, honestly, it’s awesome. Going back to Terminator – remember John Connors fussing foster parents? Well, what if I told you that one of the most heartbreaking meditations on the strife of love was written about them? I mean, sure, why not, right?
I don’t think this record is particularly unique so much as just damn well done. If you have any affinity for the genre or just mildly curious about his leap as an artist, I really recommend sitting with this one. As much as I’ve enjoyed Lajoi as Taco from The League, I am now much more interested to see where he goes as Wolfie. He’s not only got some great skill as a composer but a thoughtful and lovely mind as a songwriter.
1: Bon Iver – 22, A Million
I’m not sure what else I can say about this album that I haven’t already said. The only thing I can really do is reiterate just how effective the sheer texture of it is. It is a soundscape that pulsates, collapses in on itself, and then blossoms again and again. It is a spiritual journey within and without the self, both intimately personal and universally confounding. It is an utter triumph of Justin Vernon’s musical exploration and an absolute landmark for modern music. In other words, it’s good.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTjpzP18m0I