And I’m back for my yearly installment, with 15 morsels for your enjoyment! A few points at the top:
1. I was worried, round about May, that my music tastes trended overwhelmingly towards white, male artists. I would wonder, “Is it me? Am I blinkered by privilege, comfortable in my gendered auditory ghetto?” Well, probably, but as the list can attest, the rest of the year brought a bounty of more diverse artists my way, and 7 of my top ten are female led ensembles.
2. It’s not so much that my musical tastes are eclectic…though they probably seem that way. It’s more that I have increasingly found myself drawn to the ends of the spectrum, poppy to arty, and the list reflects that. It’s like a truffled pheasant, stuffed with Cheez-Wiz. (I still couldn’t bring myself to pick 1989 by Taylor Swift, catchy though it is. A man has to have standards.)
3. There are WAY more self titled albums on this list than I thought there were.
On to the picks!
15. Strand of Oaks – HEAL
Like many of the albums on this list, HEAL is not a debut, and Timothy Showalter has a body of work that is well regarded on it’s own. I, however, had not heard of him, and this was a superb introduction. Not only is it a wonderful slice of American rock n’ roll (just with a +5 to sweet synth riffage), it is also a painfully honest look at the more unsavory aspects of Showalter’s own history, depicting his journey from innocent boy to a depressed recluse, “fat, drunk and mean.” It would be depressing if it wasn’t shot through with a clearly hard-won belief in the possibility of change.
And if it didn’t rock so hard.
14. Dan Croll – Sweet Disarray
Welcome to the first half of my summer. It’s about as lightweight, poppy and disposable as they come, which is why it’s not higher on the list, but that also means it goes down clean and smooth. Like a tall…crisp…hefeweizen. Only British.
13. FKA Twigs – LP1
I could be wrong, but this is probably what music will sound like in the future. It’s not exactly an album I went back to a lot, but it is an incredibly intriguing piece of work, especially for a debut. It’s as if R&B were a piece of paper, and she crumpled it up and smoothed it back out. Not the same as all the other pieces of paper, and a little weird, but unique and compelling in it’s own right.
(Language warning, if you have babies around)
12. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
I will admit to being a bit confused the first time I heard Queen by Perfume Genius. It was powerful, yes but seemed to be trafficking in the same kind of ugly slurs of the LGBT community I have come to hate.
Don’t you know your queen
Riddled with disease
The thing is? That is exactly what he is doing; rendering the stereotypes impotent by reveling in them. When he says, “No family is safe, when I sashay” it is with tongue firmly in cheek and a glimmer in his eye. This from an artist who was until now largely seen as a quiet, fragile, honest singer songwriter. I for one am glad to see him take back the narrative and throw it in the faces of his accusers. It also helps that the music is SO good.
11. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
So…I love this band. Twin Cinema is easily one of the best albums of the ‘oughts, and they do pop rock better than just about anyone, but I could never really get into the last two albums. Well, that streak has ended, and they did it by bringing the hooks.
Pop hooks, that is. Pop hooks as far as the eye can see. Wall to wall pop hooks.
Just listen to this opening salvo.
10. Owl John – Owl John
The first of the aforementioned self-titled albums happens to be a solo project from the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit. If you have heard of Frightened Rabbit before, it’s probably only because I haven’t shut up since 2007 about how they are the best thing ever, every album a precious jewel, blahblahblah.
And, well, it’s true, they are the best.
If however, you haven’t had your fill of mopey/beardey Scottish indie rock, give it a listen.
9. TV On The Radio – Seeds
Similar to The New Pornographers, I loved TV on the Radio’s album Return to Cookie Mountain. The next albums? Not so much. But Seeds is a triumph. More poppy and rhythmic? Certainly. But it still retains the fuzzed out, unpredictable qualities they have always had. It also surprised me with it’s thoroughly optimistic, even hopeful, tone, coming as they are off of a difficulty few years in which their bassist, Gerard Smith, died of lung cancer.
And yes, that is Pee Wee Herman as Racer Stevens.
8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
I always liked St. Vincent. (Sensing a pattern here?) But this album is really quite astounding. I’ve heard Annie Clark (St. Vincent) described as having the face and voice of an elven princess and the guitar chops of a pimply, 19-year-old guitar shop employee.
Those are both completely true. And this is her at the top of her game.
7. Jenny Hval and Susanna – Meshes of Voice
Speaking of not for everybody…you know Bjork?How she’s kind of quirky?
So, what if there were two of her? And they were Norwegian? And they were, well, weirder? And what if they composed a fierce, dissonant, mythic cycle of music for a feminist media festival?
Well, if you haven’t already guessed, Meshes of Voice is that album. I can’t pretend that everybody will love it like I have, as it is disorienting, overwhelming, even discomforting. (It is also best consumed in one sitting.) But it is also an enormously inventive and sensuous work, and if you fall under it’s spell, as I did, it is an aural experience unlike any other you are likely to have this or any other year.
This is the closest I could find to a single. Just so you are prepared.
6. Wye Oak – Shriek
A lot of people were fairly surprised when Wye Oak almost completely jettisoned their previous style. After all, when you have previously been known as an “indie folk” band featuring guitars, completely jettisoning guitars in favor of funky basslines and synthesizer solos seems like madness. But what madness it is. This was one of my earliest picks of the year, and I returned to it again and again.
5. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
If Wye Oak happened on “the funk” only after years at the status quo, Sylvan Esso nails it right out of the gate.
I’ll be frank; this should not work. Amelia Meath is a member of Vermont vocal group Mountain Man and part of Feist’s touring band. Nick Sanborn plays bass in Megafaun. So of course they would make a glitchy electro-pop record!
When I listened to album opener “Hey Mami” I almost gave up on the spot, thinking it sounded childish and repetitive. I changed my mind at 1 minute 25 seconds in.
4. Haley Bonar – Last War
In last years post, I specifically mentioned how two albums took me by surprise in December and shot to the top of my list; Muchacho by Phosphorescent and Love’s Crushing Diamond, the debut album from Mutual Benefit (which still remains one of my favorite albums of all time). I really had no expectation that the exact same thing would happen this year, with my number 3 and number 4 picks.
Apparently, Haley Bonar has been turning out reliably great music since 2001. I can’t really say, because this is the first I have heard of her. But this was quite an introduction.
First off, Bonar (rhymes with honor) has an exceptional voice, probably the best of the list; dreamy and raw, tender and unexpectedly powerful. But everything about this album (released in May but discovered in December) surprised me. I kept checking myself; “But I’ve only listened to it for two weeks,” I said. “Is it really this good?” “Should it be this high on the list?”
Just so you know, the answers are “Who cares,” “Yes,” and “Yes.”
3. Luluc – Passerby
Hoinestly, it was a toss up between Haley Bonar and Passerby by Luluc for this spot. Luluc edged out the lead spot by being, hands down, the most beautiful album of the year. (Again, December was a really good month for me, musically speaking.)
Similar to early Iron and Wine or “Pink Moon” era Nick Drake, there is nothing flashy about Luluc, a duo from Melburne, Australia; just a man on bass and a woman on guitar. But you don’t need flash when you make music like this.
I will also add that “Winter is Passing” is nearly perfect. It’s likely my song of the year, and certainly my song of the winter.
2. Alvvays – Alvvays
And the winner for “Best Debut” and “Best Canadian Ensemble” of the year goes to Alvvays by Alvvays! It’s a deceptively simple album on the surface, but both the lyrics and the instrumentation reveal hidden depths on repeated listens. With strong suggestions of surf-rock and 60’s girl groups, but modernized in really subtle, clever ways, this is easily the album I returned to the most, and found myself humming and singing snatches of throughout the day.
And finally, the award for “Best Canadian Solo Project” and “Most Likely to be Compared to Sufjan Stevens, circa 2005” goes to…
1. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
This is truly an exceptional achievement in epic, meticulously orchestrated indie chamber pop.
So, you might hear the phrase “meticulously orchestrated indie chamber pop” and immediately want to throw up and start ranting about “twee, hipster BS.” Well, I can’t fault you for that, but you would also be totally missing the point.
This is the only album on the list I will unequivocally recommend that you listen to, start to finish, in one sitting (if you can). I was fortunate enough to do so at work, and I still vividly remember the visceral feeling of joy and contentment that I had at the closing notes. It is simply my favorite album of the year.
Also, this music video is so great.
Happy Late New Year! May it be a good one.