25. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
Sleigh Bells always struck me as sort of a gimmick, a one-trick pony on their debut Treats. To be honest, that trick, which makes Nigel Tufnel’s “but these go to eleven” explanation a parody of itself, is still in full effect here—Reign of Terror is loud and brash, letting the guitar slam out chunky, primordial chords with single-minded fervor. Alexis Krauss, however, is the star of Reign of Terror, putting her former teen-pop resume to good use as the shimmery shoegaze counterpoint to Derek Miller’s bludgeoning riffs. For all its volume, Reign of Terror is nuanced and careful in its use of textures and breathy harmonies, less concerned with fist-pumping and headbanging than focusing on the gorgeous tones and dreamlike atmosphere Krauss’ layered vocals achieve. It is a less brutish and far more beautiful Sleigh Bells than I ever expected.
24. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems
I wish my old piano teacher was as cool as Allison Skidmore, who really opens up a whole new dimension to Andy Stott’s realm of negative space. Luxury Problems is intensely atmospheric and intricately layered, as Stott’s brand of minimal techno has tended to be, but Skidmore’s nebulous vocals give a heretofore-unseen emotional aspect to Stott’s slow, pulsing beats. And even where Skidmore is nowhere to be found, as on the grimy “Sleepless,” Stott handles himself perfectly fine with some of the finest grooves of his career.
23. School of Seven Bells – Ghostory
Shoegaze/dream pop with a healthy serving of goth atmospherics and the deft studio hand of ex-Secret Machine Benjamin Curtis sounds similar to other, more lackluster School of Seven Bells albums, albeit now featuring just one preternaturally talented twin sister. Strangely enough, they’ve never sounded so good. Alejandra Deheza manages to maintain the same ethereal quality by herself that Claudia used to augment with the most gorgeous, yet oftentimes empty, harmonies. Ghostory combines the narcotic drone of Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine with an amorphous concept revolving around the haunting of a girl, but it works even better when you see Ghostory as a hazy kiss-off to the old School of Seven Bells and an enchanting taste of where they could go.
22. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Like the best pop music, The Lion’s Roar takes the building blocks of songwriter malaise—sadness, heartbreak, nostalgia, loss—and turns it into a glorious celebration. Johanna and Klara Soderberg sing with a maturity and gravitas beyond their years (22 and 18, respectively—those numbers depress me every time), conjuring up wildernesses they’ve never seen and feelings it’s difficult to imagine they’ve experienced, or at least experienced enough to be able to sing with such depth and candor. When combined with Mike Mogis’ warmly textured production, all twang and rugged mountain air, The Lion’s Roar lends more convincing credit to the argument that whatever America does, the Swedes can probably do it better.
21. Hospitality – Hospitality
As sick as I am of Brooklyn bands on the indie scene, it’s hard to not fall in love with this insolent affair from power-pop quartet Hospitality, which flits around New York landmarks and sassy little incisions from vocalist Amber Papini. It’s twee as fuck (Belle & Sebastian is a major signpost, particularly on excellent opener “Eighth Avenue”), but it’s little imperfections and the raucous stumbling blocks, an unexpectedly ragged guitar lick or Papini’s quick wit, make it a charmingly individualistic album.
20. Jack White – Blunderbuss
For once, White sounds fully involved in the creation of a record, something that hasn’t happened since the White Stripes’ mid-2000s heyday. Blunderbuss is the predictable exploration into blues, funk, and wonderfully filthy rock-n-roll that White has made his calling card, as well as a general fascination with women and the demon sorcery they employ, but its focus and tight production make it the most accessible and pound-for-pound interesting album he’s made in a decade. Plus, the guitar shreds.
19. Chromatics – Kill For Love
Ballsy move opening with not just a Neil Young song but one of the Neil Young songs, but Kill For Love is ballsy in more ways than one. It is a cinematic masterpiece that moves at a glacial pace, 16 tracks and seventy-seven 77 gorgeous, druggy minutes and pretty much the perfect encapsulation of Johnny Jewel’s overall ‘80s aesthetic/fetish. It’s not the easiest of listens, but that same sprawling, repetitive, genre-twisting nature rewards dozens and hundreds of listens, which will help the hangover between now and Jewel’s next batch of creativity in 2017.
18. Islands – A Sleep And A Forgetting
I don’t know the details of the breakup that inspired Nick Thorburn to commission that void of an album cover and write the bleakest album of his career, but I feel like I now know Nick Thorburn the person more than ever before. A Sleep And A Forgetting is Thorburn’s most personal record, one that delves deep into a shattered romance and confesses everything with nearly overwhelming amounts of shame and grief. While the understated chamber-pop that informs much of the record dials back Islands’ more manic characteristics considerably, it remains an intensely cathartic record for anybody whose been on the wrong side of a sour relationship, mainly because of Thorburn’s seemingly limitless capacity for self-flagellation. A Sleep And A Forgetting ends not with hope but with a dirge (“Same Thing”), devoid of anything but an exhausted, worn out expression of nihilism.
17. Grimes – Visions
I don’t really consider myself qualified to discuss all the influences that Visions chews up and digests and Claire Boucher as an artist even less so. Frankly, the term “post-Internet” makes me want to blow my brains out, while her story of sailing down the Mississippi on a rickety, soon-to-fail houseboat with a bounty of chickens and potatoes is so bluntly DIY as to be unbearably contrived. Yet Visions is so delightfully weird without going too far off the rails that it’s hard for me to ignore the strong pop fundamentals underlining all the outsider art clichés. It’s a fascinating combination of skittish loops, industrial beats and Martian synths married to vocals almost as alien in their articulations, an effective synthesis of the past and possible future.
16. A Fine Frenzy – Pines
A bizarre concept album about a tree that has been given the “gift” of free will and accompanied by a e-book and a short animated film, Pines is Alison Sudol’s third album as A Fine Frenzy and a seismic stylistic shift from 2009’s Bomb in a Birdcage. Sudol has always had a gift for composition, and in Pines’ hour-plus run time her craftsmanship achieves hypnotic heights, turning a dangerously silly tale into a mystical set piece of mountains and lakes, rivers and maps that winds its way slowly and delicately onward, painting forests and seasons and something more elemental until exploding into woozy bubblegum pop on the sinfully catchy “Now Is The Start.” It’s hard to describe an album as rambling and ambitious as Pines with any one tag, although rustic folk is a good place to start, and Joanna Newsom and Lisa Hannigan are convenient touchstones. Pines, however, is an enigma that stands securely on its own.
15. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
At 45, Darnielle still trudges along with his motley crew of junkies, disorders and blips in history, painting his 3-minute picture books of agoraphobics and dead R&B singers with the more expanded studio brushes he has become accustomed to filling in the edges with. While the birth of his first child may have heralded a change in demeanor, aside from the brazen optimism of opener “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator I,” this is still the same Darnielle you’ve always known, the one who can make desperately waiting for your dealer a warm and inviting proposition on “Lakeside View Apartments Suite.” “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” Darnielle sings on “Harlem Roulette,” and it’s that struggle to live, for things to have meaning, that remains the central theme of the Mountain Goats and Transcendental Youth. Just, you know, with more horns.
14. Woods – Bend Beyond
Formerly tinkerers of a lo-fi sound that traversed a number of decades, Brooklyn group Woods’ steady one-LP-a-year output has led them to refine their sound into concise, accurate blasts of gravelly Americana and instrumental jam sessions that call to mind more experimental bands such as Neu! It’s easy to take a band for granted when they produce at the pace Woods has, but the focused songwriting and sharp production of Bend Beyond is another piece of evidence in the argument that the group hardly needs to change in order to grow.
13. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
Give Kristian Matsson a guitar and some tape and chances are the result will lead to someone invoking the D-word, but that’s more a testament to Matsson’s incredible consistency and that abrasive, airy voice, an acquired taste but one impossible to shake. I love Matsson for his ability to write lyrics that I can relate to even when I have little to no idea what they are about—a lyric like “and when the night is young but the bridge is up / something passing by I was sure / and the only one you can tell it to / well it’s the only one that ever knows” from “1904” is hard to translate but nevertheless hits so hard, maybe because of that forlorn guitar lick, maybe because when Matsson sings it makes me feel something, nostalgia, without ever knowing why. It’s a gift.
12. How To Dress Well – Total Loss
If Islands’ latest is a straightforward breakup record for sitting at home and staring at old photographs, Total Loss is its drunken, Ecstasy-popping cousin, shambling home from a dim club night after rain-soaked night to lose itself in someone’s anonymous bed. Tom Krell coats his loss in thick, fuzzy electronic textures and a soulful falsetto, a narcotized, dreamy landscape where it’s hard to tell where resolution is supposed to come from. What makes this a superior record to 2010’s Love Remains is it no longer loses itself in the samples and sound collages and disorienting fog, but instead makes it easy to follow Krell on a heavy yet enjoyable journey from the fevered dreams of “Cold Nites” to the almost content “Ocean Floor For Everything.”
11. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs
Lighting a match to all the unnecessary, indulgent refuse that burdened most of their post-Source Tags & Codes follow-ups, Trail of Dead finally began to move on from that Sisyphean weight of an album with Lost Songs. It’s brash and loud and wonderfully anthemic and goes over five minutes only once—in short, a minor miracle for a band that considered five-part suites just another way to close an album once upon a time. Without getting bogged down in their own ideas, Trail of Dead has reignited the raw passion that distinguished them in the first place.
10. John Talabot - fIN
I’ve never been to Ibiza, or anywhere on the western Mediterranean seaboard for that matter, but when I do go I imagine (and hope) that this is the kind of record that will be soundtracking what should be the most epic summer dance party. fIN has perfected the art of the buildup, creating a yacht’s worth of sensual, slow-burning tension and then gradually releasing it in the most exhilarating ways—the mesmerizing break in “Destiny,” the horror undertones in “Oro Y Sangre” unloading with a glammed-out scream, the deep house high that closes out the album on “So Will Be Now.” I didn’t know I wanted fIN until it was here, but now that I do it’s impossible to forget.
09. John K. Samson – Provincial
I don’t know much about Manitoba or really anything about Canada aside from the fact that it’s really cold and the maple syrup there is pretty ace, but I know about hometowns and the people in them and the loneliness and the quiet despair that comes with wondering if you’re ever getting out. Samson has mellowed somewhat since his days in Propagandhi, but the rather gentle folk tunes here only serve to highlight Samson, who is as strong and relatable and in love with his town as ever, every broken, dark, crumpled corner of it.
08. Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs
An album about the life and suicide of Lost in the Trees’ leader Ari Picker’s mother is about as grim as it sounds, but it’s Picker’s maestro-like command of the proceedings that gives A Church That Fits Our Needs’ its epic, sweeping span. Picker’s classical chops are evident, masterfully arranging a full complement of orchestral instruments and a strong command of meter and melody to relate an overwhelming story of grief. “My song can try / but there are things that songs can’t say,” Picker’s full, measured tenor explains, yet A Church That Fits Our Needs is not only a fitting memorial for Picker’s mother but signals the proper arrival of a blossoming baroque pop artist.
07. Wild Nothing – Nocturne
This is a dazzling record, one imbued with a careful sense of craftsmanship that distinguishes it from 2010’s occasionally more off-kilter Gemini, yet maintains that record’s starry-eyed wonder and teenage love navel-gazing. Jack Tatum is one of the best songwriters of his generation, putting the emotional connection before the exquisitely detailed production, the shimmering guitar tones and the ambient swoons that color in all the shadowy parts. A song like “Only Heather” sounds downright perfect in an aesthetic sense, sure, but that only accentuates the heart of the song, the juvenile love that makes this music such a blissed-out escape—it could be for you, for anyone, and Tatum is more than happy to facilitate that—and that is what properly earns it its dream-pop moniker.
06. Passion Pit – Gossamer
There’s no album I listened to more this summer, and that’s partly because Gossamer is the neon-colored summer album to end all summer albums and also because it was far too easy to connect to Michael Angelakos’ anxious lyrics and the sense of frantic, rushing panic that lies uncomfortably around every major-key sunburst. “Constant Conversations” is all that you could ask for from pop music—honest, heartfelt, and not afraid to explore the boundaries of a band’s sound. Gossamer does much the same thing for all twelve of its impossibly peppy, slightly deranged songs.
05. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Lonerism is an album’s album—the kind of record meant to be played from beginning to end, one long journey where the songs and emotions bleed into each other and it’s difficult to tell just where you end up, but damn is the trip worth it. What Kevin Parker has done takes all the choicest bits of psychedelia, metallic grooves and Britpop and infuses it with the remoteness of his native Perth, creating a massive collage that is impossible to place in any one time period, isolated from its contemporaries and incredibly easy to get lost in. As daunting as Lonerism seems on paper—a veritable army of effects and tracks that would turn the ghost of John Lennon green with envy—what Parker and producer Dave Fridmann (of the Flaming Lips) have accomplished is an expansive, kaleidoscopic album that is not all inspired when broken down into its component parts, but unpredictable and exquisite when combined under Parker’s unique vision. Lonerism has the very tough task of taking the sounds and clichés of decades past and making it sound inventive and exciting. That Parker not only succeeded but also created a classic to stand alongside those same influences is only the most impressive of Lonerism’s many accomplishments.
04. Menomena – Moms
Breakups are hard, but you wouldn’t know it from Menomena, who followed up a split with founding member Brent Knopf and another in a long line of critically acclaimed albums with Moms, which just might happen to be their best yet. Little of Knopf’s (amicable) split surfaces on Moms—instead, the breakups involve those of family, more specifically both Danny Seim and Justin Harris dealing with the loss of a parent and the emotional baggage that comes with it. It’s pretty heavy, heady stuff, examined under a searing lamp that renders everything in unflinching detail, from the ugly (“Pique”) to the reluctant (“Capsule”) to the implacably hostile (“Heavy Is As Heavy Does”). It’s a purging of old stories and older feelings that fit nicely in with some of the most aggressive music of Menomena’s careers, like the sweltering solo that roars in right after Harris finishes off a particularly virulent, self-loathing sermon on “Pique.” The production fits the lyrics, loud and clear and almost desperately urgent. It leads to some of their catchiest melodies, not so much thrown together as in records past but deliberately and forcefully constructed, even when, as on “Plumage,” the band seems to exhaust all of their energies, leaving them weary and resigned and petering out in amplifier feedback. By turning inward, Menomena have released an emotionally cathartic, venomous album that hits as hard as a punch to the gut and leaves its wounds open for all to see (and, perversely enough, to dance along to). It is also the most deeply satisfying record of their career.
03. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Maybe it’s just a function of Andrew Bird’s rather “lit’ry” approach to songwriting, all gentle plucks and crafty wordplay, but Break It Yourself begs to be described in superlative adjectives like “mellifluous” or “meticulous” or “contemplative,” although I’m partial to just “fucking beautiful.” On paper, Break It Yourself seems to check off all the boxes rather perfunctorily: it is along, twisty and rock-strewn dirt road into the heart of staticky AM folk and dusty alt-country that Bird has been steadfastly traveling for quite a while; it is an album impeccably designed and prudently arranged; it still revels in the effortless use of words commonly found in textbooks and the clever syllabic arrangements that remains Bird’s signature. Yet Bird has never written an album this emotionally direct yet still frayed around the edges, sepia postcards warped by time and the long, crushing weight of emotions experienced and discarded, one on top of the other. “We’ll dance like cancer survivors / like we’re grateful simply to be alive” needs no adorning, no phonetic wizardry from an artist who has finally connected the emotional underpinnings of his music with the nostalgia and vaguely melancholic miasma that his vast palette of looping strings, fiddles and that wistful whistle naturally conjure. Although the pop structures that inform his core aesthetic are well in evidence here, Bird is much more interested in building something up just to break it down. Melodies drift along string motifs that wind around as an ethereal counterpoint to Bird himself, who seems more grateful for the lovesick memories that haunt him then regretful, more pleased with the chances he’s received than the ones he’s squandered. The best songs here—the slow, bubbling “Lazy Projector,” the time-worn pastels of “Sifters,” the eight-minute-long crackle of “Hole in the Ocean Floor”—take their time, and when they arrive, as with “Lazy Projector’s” oddly triumphant climax or “Hole in the Ocean Floor’s” near-religious vocals and eventual disintegration, it’s a sad remembrance but also an infinitely hopeful one. An album like Break It Yourself never fails to remind you, for all the weight and heartbreak, life is still a pretty wonderful thing.
02. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
This album doesn’t know when to quit, and I love it for it—indeed, I never want it to quit anyways. It’s debilitating, taxing, draining, any sort of word you want to use to describe the kind of bloodletting and incisive surgery that Fiona Apple deftly accomplishes, with Charley Drayton standing off to her side, handing her the scalpels. It’s also empathic to an almost extreme degree, telling you things you may not have heard before and perhaps don’t want to hear but too bad because here it is for everyone to consider, possibly with the occasional vocal jag that reminds you that Apple’s emotional walls are already long destroyed, so who are you to hide yourself? Everything is fair game on The Idler Wheel…, and what’s left is an album that speaks to the human condition directly and unequivocally, more than any other in her career.
01. The Walkmen – Heaven
It’s fitting that of all the “The” bands that stormed out of New York City in the early millennium, bands that lived fast and died young (or slid into irrelevancy), the Walkmen have ascended the slowest and the surest. Heaven is the high point of a career that seemed destined to fail years ago in a wonderful haze of Jameson or cigarette smoke, whichever burnt out Hamilton Leithauser’s seemingly ageless voice first. Bows + Arrows was all youthful piss and vinegar, the Walkmen taking their deserved chomp out of all the teenage drama TV marketing dollars that cannibalized the NYC scene, but beginning with 2008’s You & Me, the Walkmen found something more substantial and lasting in their sound. Less a flammable statement and more a smoldering collection of resonant tunes, that record and 2010’s near-perfect Lisbon marked a graceful maturation that has reached its peak with Heaven. Growing old has proved an unexpected golden age for the group, a transformation carefully considered and precisely handled (never better than in the video above): in Paul Maroon’s glowing guitar and that steady rhythm section; in the warm and confident tone maintained by Leithauser, whose gradual mellowing out over the years has only enhanced the timbres and depth of his voice; in the heartfelt, straightforward lyrics that the band finds in everyday life, still pockmarked with cynicism but realizing the comfort of settling down and the joy in families. With Heaven, the Walkmen truly can’t be beat.
“Our children will always hear
Romantic tales of distant years
Our gilded age may come and go
Our crooked dreams will always glow.”