LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2018

After posting my favorite songs of 2018, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from another outstanding year of new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.

20. Blood Orange Negro Swan (“Saint”)

19. Robyn – Honey (“Honey”)

18. Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (“Loading Zones”)

17. Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine (“Gratitude”)

16. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (“How Simple”)

15. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (“Star Treatment”)

14. Wild Nothing – Indigo (“Partners In Motion”)

13. Flasher – Constant Image (“Pressure”)

12. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (“Nameless, Faceless”)

11. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (“Nervous Young Inhumans”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2018:

mitskibethecowboy10. Mitski – Be the Cowboy

People loved Mitski’s last record, Puberty 2, but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. That was not this case with this year’s Be the Cowboy, a stunning treatise that flips gender-based tropes on its ear and puts toxic masculinity in its rightful place. These songs are statements from the ever-talented Mitski Miyawaki, spanning all kinds of genres and never losing its pace across a record that just explodes over 32 minutes. My favorite track here is the disco-flavored jaunt “Nobody,” where Mitski’s isolation sounds downright danceable. Be the Cowboy puts Mitski in league with fellow indie iconoclasts like St. Vincent in overall inventiveness and amazingness.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever_ Hope Downs9. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

The five Aussie dudes who make up Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever play with an unbelievable amount of energy at their live shows. It’s an energy that served them well on their full-length debut this year, Hope Downs. These songs are overflowing with hooks, riffs and licks from their three-guitar attack, with none better than the uber-prescient “Mainland,” a song that doubles as an endorphin-rush rocker that also deals with immigrant hardships. They’re a fun band who made an endlessly fun record. Also, if you feel as icky as I have about continuing to listen to Real Estate, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is a more than adequate substitute.

320x3208. Kississippi – Sunset Blush

Philadelphia has become something of an indie rock Mecca these last few years; it probably has something to do with the cost of rents in Brooklyn. What started with the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile developed into blossomings for Waxahatchee and Sheer Mag and now Kississippi, a tremendously promising rock band led by Zoe Allaire Reynolds. On her full-length debut, Sunset Blush, Reynolds chronicles the journey of self-discovery across 10 standout tracks with none better than the cutting “Cut Yr Teeth,” a jam Reynolds says is her fighting back against the people who held her back for years. Now that Kississippi is out there, nothing should ever hold Reynolds back again.

Hatchie_ Sugar & Spice EP7. Hatchie – Sugar & Spice EP

I typically haven’t considered EPs for this list in the past, but two were so good in 2018 I couldn’t deny them spots. The first you’ll read about comes from Australian newcomer Harriette Pilbeam and her indie pop outfit Hatchie. Across five songs in a brisk 19 minutes, Pilbeam and her crew weave tales of love on Sugar & Spice against sugary sweet guitars and synths and Pilbeam’s multi-layered vocal stylings. It doesn’t get any more melodic and blissful than what she does on “Sure,” “Sleep” and “Sugar & Spice” and more longing and beautiful than her efforts on “Try” and “Bad Guy.” I can’t to hear what Pilbeam can do across a whole album.

Golden hour Kacey Musgraves6. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

I love music. However, for most of my life, I’ve consistently held scorn for just one kind of music: the formulaic and brainless country drivel that’s been churned out of Nashville for decades now. I like a lot of stuff you’d call country, but just don’t play me anything you’d hear on a modern country radio station. So, I was thrilled this year when what was ostensibly a country record scored massive crossover appeal AND turned out to be awesome. Kacey Musgraves flipped those decades of formula on its head with Golden Hour, a daring and richly successful venture. “Lonely Weekend,” “Butterflies” and “Love is a Wild Thing” take new spins on old ideas. “Space Cowboy” is one of the most cleverly-written breakup songs I’ve ever heard. “High Horse” is a genius dance track that doesn’t lose its country roots. Musgraves opened a new world with Golden Hour, one I’m so glad exists.

Soccer Mommy5. Soccer Mommy – Clean

I do wonder if someday, perhaps very soon, 20-year-old Sophie Allison will regret naming her band Soccer Mommy. The quality of the name of the band thankfully has nothing to do with the quality of the band itself. On her studio debut, Clean, Allison displays outstanding songwriting chops across a varied and diverse collection of melodic guitar rock tunes. There’s the breezy and fun “Last Girl,” the contemplative ballad “Blossom (Wasting All My Time),” the vitriolic fervor of the Local Natives-tinged “Your Dog” and the Liz Phair-inspired fare of “Skin” among the highlights. On standout “Cool,” she imagines herself as a high school badass (“I want to be that cool”) amidst rollicking guitar on a song that crackles before whomping to a downbeat finish. If you can get beyond the name, there’s so much to like when it comes to Soccer Mommy. Allison is just finding her stride with Clean.

boygenius_st4. Boygenius – Boygenius EP

For a certain segment of the music-loving population, the emergence of Boygenius this year more than qualifies as a supergroup in today’s landscape. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus are three insanely-talented singer/songwriter/guitarists, all under 25 with disparate but connecting styles. They recorded their self-titled EP in four days in LA earlier this year and toured this fall, closing each show with their songs blending Dacus’ unforgiving guitar rock, Baker’s contemplative and emotive renderings and Bridgers’ folksy, humorous sensibilities. The result is a reckoning of immense power, leaving a trail of unworthy subjects in its wake. “Me & My Dog,” a Bridgers-led tour de force, examines a failed relationship from start to finish; the Dacus-helmed “Bite the Hand” pulls no punches with a former lover while Baker and Bridgers harmonize; Baker’s “Stay Down” brings her signature emotionality to a song where she observes “I look at you / And you look at a screen.” The biggest collaboration here is the searing, visceral “Salt in the Wound,” a true put-down of the music industry (“Trick after trick / I make the magic / And you unrelentingly ask for the secret”) where all three take the lead and amidst a maelstrom of sounds there’s a ripping solo from Baker. There’s still room for softness, with the three idyllically wishing for an escape to “Ketchum, ID” on the acoustic final track. I hope beyond all hopes these three artists find time to continue making music together. But if not, this EP is a gift certain to age well.

Lucy Dacus_ Historian3. Lucy Dacus – Historian

Lucy Dacus returned to the indie consciousness late last year when “Night Shift,” the first single from her second full-length album Historian, popped up online. Her debut, 2016’s No Burden, was a solid effort pointing towards something more for her as a guitarist, songwriter and singer. With “Night Shift,” it was immediately obvious she’d arrived at “something more.” The track builds behind Dacus’ matter-of-fact lyrics about a former companion. But, midway through, things shift: guitars and cymbals crash while her warm voice maintains composure. In the last chorus, she unleashes a chill-inducing wail, eviscerating her ex in memorable terms. “Night Shift” wound up being the first song on Historian and sets the scene for this incredible effort by Dacus, a record dealing at different turns with loss, heartache, alienation, how relationships evolve and how people change. On “Nonbeliever,” Dacus recounts a friend who left her hometown in search of something more. “If you find what you’ve been looking for / Write us a letter and tell us what it is / Everybody else looks like they figured it out.” On the expertly-crafted penultimate track “Pillar of Truth,” Dacus sets the death of her grandmother against an incredible rock song. “I’m weak looking at you / A pillar of truth / Turning to dust.” Later on her voice breaks again, bringing her grief and pain fully to bear. This is heady stuff for Dacus, and the stuff that makes Historian such a great album. I’m so excited to see her once again go for “something more” next time.

Beach House_72. Beach House – 7

I first became aware of Beach House around the release of Teen Dream in 2010. I was drawn immediately to Victoria Legrand’s room-filling voice and evocative synthesizers and Alex Scally’s spellbinding guitar work. You feel their best songs right in your chest. For the last 10 years or so, the term “dream pop” has been bandied about so much it’s lost any semblance of meaning. Basically, any band that sounds like My Bloody Valentine with synthesizers gets labeled as dream pop. But to me, any dream pop act gets stacked up to the best work of Beach House and ultimately has paled to what they’ve done. Despite this, the two albums they released in 2015, Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, represented a slight creative lull for Legrand and Scally. It sounded like they were getting bored with their formula. So, for their seventh album, appropriately titled 7, Beach House razed their house to the studs and started over. They took nearly a full year to perfect 7 and throwing out old recording rules allowed them to expand their sound in creative, unexpected and fully rewarding ways from start to finish. There’s the winding snyth romp of “Dive,” the dramatic and charging “Dark Spring,” the creeping dread of “Lemon Glow,” the dreamy bliss of “Woo” and the unforgettable twists and turns of “Drunk in LA.” It’s as successful a reinvention of any band in recent times. Amazingly, a beloved, established indie rock band stripped down their sound to almost nothing, built something completely new that only they could have done and released probably the best album of their career. Guys, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. Bands don’t, or in most instances can’t, operate this way, not in 2018. We’re so much better for bands like Beach House, willing to take bold chances.

snailmail21. Snail Mail – Lush

Lindsey Jordan, the lead singer, guitarist and creative force behind Baltimore-based Snail Mail, was born 10 months before the Patriots drafted Tom Brady. Whenever you’re done feeling old, I want to tell you about Jordan’s superlative debut album, Lush. Buzz started to build around Jordan and her guitar pop cohorts this spring with the release of a couple advance singles and that buzz still hasn’t subsided. Her skills on guitar are extremely advanced and her gnarly voice emits both a youthful innocence and a wiseness beyond her years. There’s no telling what she’ll accomplish. But for now, we’re just seeing the beginning with Lush. There’s a power here that you can feel on the finger-picked wonder of “Let’s Find An Out,” the longing aching of “Stick” and “Anytime,” the tear-inducing emotions of “Deep Sea” and the indie guitar brilliance of “Heat Wave.” These are songs with something to say beyond teenage angst and heartache. It’s art, on a deep level. As successful as this album is as a whole, it’s the second track that stands out most. “Pristine” comes across with its rolling opening guitar line, crashing chorus cymbals, Jordan’s devastating lyrics about a love never maintained and an outro with blissful, powerful guitar stylings. She’s dealing with perhaps her first taste of heartbreak, and truly understanding her feelings for the first time in her life. It’s breathtaking to witness. “Don’t you like me for me? / Is there any feeling better than coming clean?” She’s finding her way, in her own way, and she found the right way with “Pristine.” After so many listens to Lush, I still can’t believe someone so young could do something so complete, so emotionally-cutting, so perfectly-crafted. It’s the type of record that makes you get down on your knees and thank your higher power of choice that there are still kids who want to make great rock records, who have ambition to be something great and aren’t afraid to show it, and who despite only knowing all the bullshit awful things that have happened in the world this century aren’t so jaded and downtrodden that they can still make art like Lush.

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LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2018

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s December, I’m ready to share with you what made the cut for my favorites of the year, starting with my 25 favorite songs of 2018.

I’ll let the songs speak for themselves in this post and reserve longer thoughts for my 10 favorite albums post later this month.

I considered songs for this list that had any kind of release (be it on a single or an album) in 2018. And, as always, I only included one song per primary artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Here are my favorite songs lists for 2012201320142015, 2016 and 2017.

Lastly, I created a Spotify playlist of these songs here and embedded at the bottom for your listening pleasure (the playlist is meant to be listened to as a 25-1 countdown, despite the numbers next to each song).

Enjoy these awesome songs and stay tuned for my albums post.

25. SMASHING PUMPKINS – “SILVERY SOMETIMES (GHOSTS)”

24. CHVRCHES – “GET OUT”

23. DAVID BYRNE – “EVERYBODY’S COMING TO MY HOUSE”

22. BIG RED MACHINE – “I WON’T RUN FROM IT”

21. ARCTIC MONKEYS – “FOUR OUT OF FIVE”

20. ROBYN – “MISSING U”

19. UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “HUNNYBEE”

18. JANELLE MONAE – “MAKE ME FEEL”

17. JAY SOM – “PIROUETTE”

16. COURTNEY BARNETT – “CITY LOOKS PRETTY”

15. FLASHER – “MATERIAL”

14. WILD NOTHING – “LETTING GO”

13. CAR SEAT HEADREST – “BEACH LIFE-IN-DEATH”

12. KACEY MUSGRAVES – “BUTTERFLIES”

11. JOHN MAYER – “NEW LIGHT”

10. MITSKI – “NOBODY”

9. KISSISSIPPI – “CUT YR TEETH”

8. SOCCER MOMMY – “COOL”

7. JIMMY EAT WORLD – “HALF HEART”

6. HATCIE – “SUGAR & SPICE”

5. LUCY DACUS – “PILLAR OF TRUTH”

4. BEACH HOUSE – “DIVE”

3. ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER – “MAINLAND”

2. BOYGENIUS – “SALT IN THE WOUND”

1. SNAIL MAIL – “PRISTINE”

LIST: My 10 Favorite Songs of 2018 So Far

It’s time for my annual July 1 mid-year favorite songs post! There’s already been a ton of great music this year so cutting it down to 10 wasn’t easy.

Below you’ll find YouTube clips of my favorite songs of 2018 so far and an embedded Spotify playlist as well. You can also find that playlist here. The songs are presented in alphabetical order by artist.

Enjoy!

BEACH HOUSE – “DIVE”

CAR SEAT HEADREST – “BEACH LIFE-IN-DEATH”

FLASHER – “MATERIAL”

JIMMY EAT WORLD – “HALF HEART”

JOHN MAYER – “NEW LIGHT”

KACEY MUSGRAVES – “BUTTERFLIES”

LUCY DACUS – “NONBELIEVER”

ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER – “MAINLAND”

SNAIL MAIL – “PRISTINE”

SOCCER MOMMY – “COOL”

 

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2017

After posting my favorite songs of 2017, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from another outstanding year of new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.

20. Future Islands – The Far Field (“Beauty of the Road”)

19. Big Thief – Capacity (“Mythological Beauty”)

18. Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love (“Hey K”)

17. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (“HUMBLE”)

16. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (“Continental Breakfast”)

15. Real Estate – In Mind (“Darling”)

14. Spoon – Hot Thoughts (“Hot Thoughts”)

13. Lorde – Melodrama (“The Louvre”)

12. The Courtneys – The Courtneys II (“Silver Velvet”)

11. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (“Three Rings”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2017:

10. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

Julien Baker wrote and recorded Turn Out the Lights at 21. She approaches her music with stunning pathos and maturity for someone so young, asking lofty questions of herself and the world. It’s a recipe for a heart-wrenching record with 11 beautifully-crafted and extremely soft songs. As best I can tell Turn Out the Lights is completely absent any percussion, with the focus on guitar, piano and Baker’s expressive vocals. If I could sum up a theme, it’s Baker grappling with the pains of becoming a fully-formed person. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink” she sings over and over at the end of “Sour Breath.” It’s a battle everyone faces, but not everyone can enunciate it as clearly as Baker, and that’s what makes this record so special.

9. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Lots of people claim to be, or have reputations to be, what Annie Clark really is: an artist. She uses music to paint vividly-colored pictures and puts on visually-captivating live performances providing a window into her mind. On MASSEDUCTION, her fifth album as St. Vincent and first alongside mega-producer Jack Antonoff, Clark reaches brave new places in pop, rock, electronic and everywhere else that interests her, with eclecticism recalling everyone from Bowie and Prince to Billy Joel and INXS. There’s massive power-pop on “Pills” and “Fear the Future”, galactic funk on the title track, gothic snyth slinks on “Los Ageless” and Killers-style loud/quiet fun on “New York.” There’s even devastating, tender country-tinged rock on “Happy Birthday Johnny.” Clark might fear the future, but her own is secure.

8. The xx – I See You

In the five years between the xx’s second album, Coexist, and this year’s I See You, the proverbial “other guy” in the trio, Jamie xx, became an indie star. His 2015 debut In Colour topped all the year-end lists and was hailed as a house/EDM masterpiece and made him more popular than the band he shares with Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. It’s no surprise, then, that I See You captured more of Jamie xx’s keen sampling talents than the band’s previous releases, while still showcasing the myriad vocal, lyrical and guitar/bass talents of Croft and Sim. We hear that awesome mix on many of I See You‘s highlights, like the rousing opener “Dangerous”, the sandblasting “Say Something Loving”, the dramatic “I Dare You” and the joyous “On Hold.” It’s a gorgeous mix, and a very promising one of them going forward.

7. Haim – Something to Tell You

The Haim sisters are everywhere now. This wasn’t difficult to predict after their debut Days Are Gone broke them into indie-pop superstardom in 2013. They’re accessible, not just in their personalities but their sound. Plus, how many other bands put out videos with choreographed dance moves these days? Second albums are always the toughest, but Something to Tell You lived up to the loftiest of expectations. Danielle, Este and Alana kick so much ass here: “Little of Your Love” is their most fun son to date; “Want You Back” crackles from the first note; “Walking Away” tests the waters of sultry R&B; “You Never Knew” is ’70s California rock redux at its finest. You can tell how much of their own hearts and souls they put into each of these songs. It’s all there, it’s all them: Something to Tell You doesn’t just succeed. It soars.

6. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life

Patiently, we waited for Japandroids to return. 2012’s Celebration Rock was truly something to celebrate, one of the best pure rock records of the decade, the ultimate cathartic expression. And then after a few years of tours, there was nothing from Brian King and David Prowse. For a long time. But they resurfaced late in 2016 and in January came Near to the Wild Heart of Life. Like Celebration Rock, it contains eight life-affirming rock songs, tying together a loose narrative about getting out there and experiencing the world. From short rockers, to epic rockers, to acoustic and electric road trip songs, to fiery love songs: it covers the gambit of emotions, and all of it feels so real. In a tough year, these guys provided a much-needed lift. That’s something to celebrate.

5. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

After turning 40, James Murphy decided he wanted to do something besides being the LCD Soundsystem guy. So in 2011 he broke up the band, played a sold-out farewell show at Madison Square Garden, and disappeared into the ether, occasionally resurfacing as a producer and doing weird things with sound. But all along, I suspected LCD Soundsystem wasn’t done. It took a while after the initial announcement of their reunion, but in September, the fourth LCD Soundsystem arrived. American Dream is an LCD Soundsystem record at its core: a genre-bending mix of indie dance punk, inspired by Bowie, Eno and Byrne, unstuck in time and not sounding like anyone but LCD Soundsystem. American Dream contains several pantheon-level LCD songs, including the star-soaring title track, the scathing, bile-filled “How Do You Sleep”, the synth-dance jam “Tonite” and the “All My Friends”-recalling, winding, world-beating “Call the Police”, my favorite song of 2017. You may ask: is American Dream as good as Sound of Silver or This is Happening? Here’s a better question: does it matter? This exists. And it’s awesome.

4. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

Perhaps my favorite development in indie rock these last few years has been watching Katie Crutchfield grow into an elite songwriter. Cerulean Salt was good and Ivy Tripp was even better, but Crutchfield and her Waxahatchee mates made the leap on Out in the Storm this year. She keeps her shit simple, sticking to guitar, bass, drums and the occasional keyboard. But what she gets out of that simple structure has grown increasingly impressive despite trying out many different kinds of songs. On Out in the Storm, she’s got breezy, summery rock on “Never Been Wrong” and “Silver”, harsher indie power on “Brass Beam” and “No Question” and soft acoustic tones on “A Little More” and closer “Fade.” But it’s the quiet, building drama of “Recite Remorse”, a mid-album showstopper, that hints at Crutchfield’s expanding prowess. She weaves an vivid breakup tale that socks anyone listening in the gut. “I saw you as a big fish / I saw you as a conquest / And I know it’s easy for you to walk away / You would never ask permission or rue the day.” Crutchfield may be Out in the Storm, but she makes it a place you want to be, too.

3. The National – Sleep Well Beast

Matt Berninger, the Dessners and the Devendorfs are now seven albums into their run as the National. They’ve cemented their place among the most acclaimed bands of this century, with a rabid following and the ability to headline festivals and sellout large venues. The easiest thing in the world for them, then, would’ve been to just make another National record. Instead, they made Sleep Well Beast. Sure, it contains their trademark broodiness and songs of deep melancholy and the debilitating, crushing depression of everyday humanity. But instead of relying on their typical sonic formulas and structures, they went a new, experimental route. The result is an eclectic mix that sounds simultaneously like a bold new direction and the National being the National. Cuts like “Day I Die”, “Guilty Party” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” are outstanding yet they don’t stray much from the band we’ve known the last 15 years. Things get weird, however, with the synths and odd voice effects on “Walk it Back”, “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Dark Side of the Gym” among others. On lead single and album centerpiece “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, the band completely goes for it, with strange vocals, synths, big-sounding choruses and, of all things, a guitar solo. Sleep Well Beast may not be the National’s best record, but it’s certainly their most ambitious. And that’s something to admire for a band that could’ve grown comfortable.

2. Jay Som – Everybody Works

Melina Duterte came out of nowhere (OK, she came out of the Bay Area, but still) over the last year to dazzle us with her talent as a songwriter, guitarist, singer and performer. Her profile has risen exponentially thanks to her Jay Som project’s near-perfect major-label debut, Everybody Works. Like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker on my favorite album of 2015, Currents, Duterte plays every instrument on Everybody Works herself, a stunning accomplishment for a work of such shimmering complexity. This is the literal definition of bedroom pop: Duterte turned her bedroom into a studio and recorded Everybody Works there. The result is a beautiful statement melding dream pop, baroque pop, alt-rock, shoegaze, R&B and so much more that makes it hard to believe Duterte is only 22. You hear different influences throughout: My Bloody Valentine-inspired fuzz on “1 Billion Dogs”, Wild Nothing-style dreaming on “Remain” and Smashing Pumpkins-like dirge on “(BedHead)”. But these songs are undeniably part of something new Duterte is working to perfect, best exemplified on album centerpiece “Baybee”, which starts slow and builds to a gorgeous, ’80s-style pop jam. Beyond the music, Everybody Works is a work in stunning maturity. When she closes the album on “For Light” by singing over and over “I’ll be right on time / Open blinds for light / Won’t forget to climb”, her longing is painfully real. It’s a fitting sentiment to end Everybody Works, an intimate portrait of an artist as a young woman.

1. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

When Adam Granduciel and his War on Drugs cohorts released Lost in the Dream, I named it my favorite album of 2014 and wrote that it was an outlier for the times as a great guitar-driven rock record. Three years later, that pronouncement feels happily out of date. Each of my 10 favorite albums this year could be classified as a “rock” record. Maybe that says more about my own tastes, but I’d like to think guitar rock has made a resurgence. At the center of this is Granduciel. When we look back on this time in 30 years, the War on Drugs could stand out strongest. I say that because my favorite album of 2017, A Deeper Understanding,  blazes its own trail and builds on the band’s legend. It’s not just that all 10 songs here are knockouts; they’re confident yet vulnerable, layered sonically but relatable lyrically, and sound like no one else besides Granduciel could have made them. It’s so successful because of the care, attention to detail and emotion Granduciel, a noted studio perfectionist, puts into them. You feel it on the propulsive opener “Up All Night”, the expressive guitar journey of “Pain” and the high-flying circus act of “Holding On”. You experience it throughout the 11-minute opus “Thinking of a Place”, with the monumental hook that detonates early on during “In Chains”, or on the tender moments of “Knocked Down” and “Clean Living”. And you cannot avoid it on the album’s emotional center, “Strangest Thing”, a slow-burner that becomes a towering inferno with Granduciel’s blistering guitar solo 4:30 in. I don’t know yet if A Deeper Understanding is as good as Is This It, Funeral or High Violet. But it’s in the conversation among the best rock records of this young century so far.

LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2017

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s December, I’m ready to share with you what made the cut for my favorites of the year, starting with my 25 favorite songs of 2017.

Like last year, this has been such a great year in music I’m doing 25 songs instead of 20. Keeping with tradition, I’ll let the songs speak for themselves in this post and reserve longer thoughts for my 10 favorite albums post later this month.

I considered songs for this list that had any kind of release (be it on a single or an album) in 2017. And, as always, I only included one song per primary artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Here are my favorite songs lists for 2012, 201320142015 and 2016.

Lastly, I created a Spotify playlist of these songs here and embedded at the bottom for your listening pleasure (the playlist is meant to be listened to as a 25-1 countdown, despite the numbers next to each song).

Enjoy these awesome songs and stay tuned for my albums post.

25. U2 – “YOU’RE THE BEST THING ABOUT ME”

24. FLEET FOXES – “THIRD OF MAY / ODAIGAHARA”

23. PASSION PIT – “I’M PERFECT”

22. THE SHINS – “NAME FOR YOU”

21. PINEGROVE – “INTREPID”

20. BEACH HOUSE – “CHARIOT”

19. SPOON – “CAN I SIT NEXT TO YOU”

18. KENDRICK LAMAR – “DNA”

17. BIG THIEF – “SHARK SMILE”

16. REAL ESTATE – “STAINED GLASS”

15. GRIZZLY BEAR – “MOURNING SOUND”

14. THUNDERCAT FT. MICHAEL McDONALD & KENNY LOGGINS – “SHOW YOU THE WAY”

13. ST. VINCENT – “MASSEDUCTION”

12. THE COURTNEYS – “MINNESOTA”

11. JULIEN BAKER – “TURN OUT THE LIGHTS”

10. COURTNEY BARNETT & KURT VILE – “OVER EVERYTHING”

9. THE XX- “I DARE YOU”

8. JAPANDROIDS – “NO KNOWN DRINK OR DRUG”

7. HAIM – “YOU NEVER KNEW”

6. THE NATIONAL – “THE SYSTEM ONLY DREAMS IN TOTAL DARKNESS”

5. WAXAHATCHEE – “SILVER”

4. JAY SOM – “BAYBEE”

3. LORDE – “GREEN LIGHT”

2. THE WAR ON DRUGS- “STRANGEST THING”

1. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – “CALL THE POLICE”

LIST: My 10 Favorite Songs of 2017 So Far

It’s time for my annual July 1 mid-year favorite songs post! I’ve kept track as always but like last year, no time for longer write-ups. There’s already been a ton of great music this year so narrowing this down to 10 was tough.

Below you’ll find YouTube clips of my favorite songs of 2017 so far and an embedded Spotify playlist as well. You can also find that playlist here. The songs are presented in alphabetical order by artist.

Enjoy!

THE COURTNEYS – “MINNESOTA”

JAPANDROIDS – “NO KNOWN DRINK OR DRUG”

JAY SOM – “BAYBEE”

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – “CALL THE POLICE”

LORDE – “GREEN LIGHT”

THE NATIONAL – “THE SYSTEM ONLY DREAMS IN TOTAL DARKNESS”

REAL ESTATE – “STAINED GLASS”

THE WAR ON DRUGS – “HOLDING ON”

WAXAHATCHEE – “SILVER”

THE XX – “SAY SOMETHING LOVING”

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2016

After posting my favorite songs of 2016, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from this unbelievably great year in new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 20132014 and 2015.

Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.

20. Wild Nothing – Life on Pause (“To Know You”)

19. Cullen Omori – New Misery (“No Big Deal”)

18. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (“untitled 03 | 05.28.2013”)

17. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book (“All Night”)

16. Bon Iver – 22, A Million (“22 OVER S∞∞N”)

15. Lucy Dacus – No Burden (“I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”)

14. Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony (“Come On”)

13. David Bowie – Blackstar (“Lazarus”)

12. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (“Burn the Witch”)

11. Solange – A Seat at the Table (“Don’t Touch My Hair”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2016.

local10. Local Natives – Sunlit Youth

Local Natives are the hardest-working band in the game these days. They tour constantly and all throughout the world. They did take a short break after finishing touring their second album, Hummingbird, but this year they returned with Sunlit Youth, which represented a departure from the more conventional sound of their first two records. They’ve gone in a slightly more electronic direction here, but the results are still outstanding. It starts with the synth-driven excellence of “Villainy” and then the best song here, “Past Lives”. Lyrically, Sunlit Youth is pretty political, with the already-dated “I have waited so long, Mrs. President” line in the frantic “Fountain of Youth” and the never-dated defense of feminism in “Masters”, an all-out rocker reminiscent of their best song, 2010’s “Wide Eyes”. The one song here that sounds generally like a classic Local Natives song is “Dark Days” which improbably features guest vocals from the lead singer of the Cardigans (remember them?). I always give bands extra points for trying new things, and the Natives deserve many for going down a bold new path with Sunlit Youth. I should mention here that I’ve had the chance to hang out with the guys in Local Natives a few times, including recently when they came to Providence and Boston, and I can’t say enough about how nice and generous they are to their fans. That makes their success all the more enjoyable.

parquet9. Parquet Courts – Human Performance

These four Brooklyn dudes have come a long way in just a few years. Human Performance is Parquet Courts’ third full-length record and with each record they’ve progressed from their punkish roots to a well-rounded indie rock band. Without a doubt, Human Performance is their best effort to date, leaving behind some of their screamy and atonal vibes for a truly cohesive work making ample use of melody and different sounds beyond the thrash of Light Up Gold and Sunbathing Animal. From the jump, there’s a different feel. “Dust” is a more organized, straightforward opener with a really strong guitar line. The title track comes next, with lead singer Andrew Savage’s echoed choruses adding something dramatic to the tune about a breakup: “It never leaves me / Just visits less often.” I love the spaghetti western feel of “Berlin Got Blurry”, which really feels like a song to listen to on a long road trip. On the lengthy, winding road of “One Man No City” Austin Brown takes over lead vocals, seemingly focusing on the end of the world over bongo beats before the band jumps into a Velvet Underground-inspired maelstrom of guitar and drums. There is really no telling how high Parquet Courts will fly now that they’ve discovered this new polish to their sound. With Human Performance, there is no longer a ceiling on what they can be.

freetown8. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

I was a bit late to Dev Hynes’ previous album as Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe, but was nonetheless enraptured by his ability write meaningful, soulful and funky R&B. These songs were deeply sexy but also brilliant examples of the form, textured with scintillating, jazzy beats, Nile Rodgers-like guitar work and vocals from Hynes and a variety of guests. Hynes keeps the beat going on Freetown Sound, another phenomenal exploration of all things R&B. There’ve been many excellent albums the last few years by black artists taking a focus on what it means to be black in today’s world, including Black Messiah, To Pimp a Butterfly and A Seat at the Table, and Freetown Sound joins that cadre with Hynes’ own experience as both a black man and an immigrant (he’s British and lives in Brooklyn). “All we ever wanted was a chance for ourselves,” he sings on “Chance.” Later, on the topically-titled “Hands Up”, Hynes describes the anxieties of the day for so many (“Are you sleeping with the lights on baby?”) Elsewhere, Hynes takes a backseat vocally to Empress Of on “Best to You”, a very different kind of love song but one that showcases her measured singing over a frenetic beat. There’s still time for fun on Freetown Sound outside the heaviness of subject matter, and that’s best heard on “E.V.P.”, which is far and away my favorite Blood Orange song to date. To say “E.V.P.” has a killer groove would be the understatement of 2016, a groove befitting the guest appearance here by new wave goddess Debbie Harry. Freetown Sound is an impressive collection from an impressive artist who continues to rise.

diiv7. DIIV – Is the Is Are

Zachary Cole Smith, the leader of melodic Brooklynites DIIV, has some issues. He’s been arrested for heroin violations, has various health problems, and pretty much every time I’ve seen DIIV in concert he’s acted like a dick. This year he introduced each song by name and then quickly said “We’re called DIIV!” before launching into them, asked people in the crowd for drugs and accused us of being boring and depressing. This isn’t exactly a great way to endear yourself to fans. But, musically, DIIV have ever been better than this year’s Is the Is Are, their sophomore LP. Smith is the dominant creative force here, and I appreciate someone with demons who isn’t afraid to confront them in their art. The ringing guitar work on Is the Is Are is perhaps its defining trait musically, with outstanding sounds on the gorgeous “Loose Ends” and the shimmering “Healthy Moon”. On “Dopamine”, Smith and company spin a bright melody while he sings candidly about fighting drugs. (“Would you give your 34th year / For a glimpse of heaven / Now and here?”) DIIV’s best track here, and probably their best to date, is the beautiful “Under the Sun”, which Smith said was about how love saved him. The melodious guitar riffs recall the late-’80s wonder of the Cure as Smith sings “Yes I’ll come back to you / No I won’t ask where you run / Under the sun” to his girlfriend, pop songstress Sky Ferreria. As a person, I hope Smith continues to heal himself and get better. I’d like to think Is the Is Are is a step in the right direction personally while also being the best step DIIV has taken creatively.

blond6. Frank Ocean – Blonde

I adored Frank Ocean’s 2012 solo breakthrough Channel Orange. It was a lengthy treatise on the world Ocean saw, and it helped bring me back to R&B after years on the sidelines. The world waited over four years to hear something significant from Frank again. After several false starts, he finally released a visual album, Endless, and an audio album, Blonde (although he wrote it as blond on the record, which sounds about right for Frank’s style). While I could care less about the former album, the latter didn’t disappoint. Blonde is a portrait of an artist at a crossroads. Frank very easily could have made a 40-minute record with songs like “Pyramids” or “Thinkin Bout You” (the most conventional song on Blonde is “Pink + White”, which also happens to be the best song here). Instead he followed his muse and created an hour-long journey populated with diverse detours, some of which even push the boundaries of what qualifies as a song. Some of these songs are insanely sparse, only accompanied by one or two instruments. But what fills in the gaps are Frank’s otherworldly vocals. He’s seriously the best male singer in pop music and his voice carries otherwise spare tunes like “Solo”, “Self Control”, “Ivy”, and “White Ferrari”. On the incredible harmonic outro of “Self Control”, a bazillion Franks sing achingly about a lost love. Blonde is an intense journey and shows how separate and unique Frank’s many talents are. This was worth the wait, and if we get more records like Blonde, he can take as much time as he wants between releases.

tlop5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

This album is a mess. The Life of Pablo seemed to take forever to complete, went through several name changes, has songs that seem like half-finished thoughts, and once it finally was released in the early morning hours of a bitterly cold Valentine’s Day, Kanye West couldn’t help himself and tinkered with the damn thing over and over. Despite all those problems, and despite being an aforementioned mess, The Life of Pablo is a beautiful, exciting mess, and rightfully in Kanye’s pantheon of great accomplishments. Musically, TLOP is on par with anything he’s ever done. Like Blonde, there is often sparse instrumentation but Kanye is brilliant at picking and choosing his spots. Here’s an artist trying new things, pushing his boundaries as a writer, composer and producer while challenging us to push our own as listeners. The biggest problem with TLOP, however is…Kanye. The dude just can’t help himself. The music and beats are beyond superb on tracks like “Father Stretch My Hands”, “Famous”, “Feedback”, “Highlights” and “Waves” but they’re all brought down a notch by his borderline-juvenile rantings about such things as wishing he could affix a GoPro to his penis and hoping he still has a chance to fuck Taylor Swift. The biggest exception to this is the haunting, excruciatingly personal “Real Friends”, his most naked song in years. The best Kanye is vulnerable Kanye, and on “Real Friends” that’s his default mode. Other highlights include the explosive duet with Kendrick Lamar “No More Parties in LA” and the heavily spoken-word, written-in-the-moment jam of “30 Hours”. I’ve resigned myself to the fact Kanye will never again eclipse what he did on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But Kanye at 80 percent of his capabilities is better than almost every other artist on the planet, and that’s what we got on TLOP.

jew4. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

I wrote about what Jimmy Eat World means to me when Damage made my 2013 end-of-year list. To sum up: Jimmy Eat World is my favorite band of the last 15 years and I’ve marked the changing seasons of my life alongside their music. Dating back to Futures in 2004, however, even I’d argue the quality of their music has declined with each album. Every now and then a song like “Carry You” or “Stop” would emerge and remind me of their greatness. But they hadn’t really done it over the course of a whole album a long time. The wait is over. Integrity Blues is Jimmy Eat World’s best album since Futures, and I’m still leaving open the possibility it’s better than Futures (I may need 12 more years to determine that, however). The quality of the songwriting and music are amazing here, the vast majority hitting their signature sound with lyrical content focusing on heartbreak and picking up the pieces. Opener “You With Me” is an absolute revelation, a smashingly successful, huge-sounding table-setter. My favorite song of 2016 was album centerpiece “Sure and Certain”, a classic Jimmy Eat World song in the vein of all their best hits both musically and lyrically. The melodic beauty of “You Are Free” would fit on album they’ve ever done and features typically out-of-this-world drumming from Zach Lind. I love the bouncy guitar sound on “Through”, the quiet innovation of the title track, and the epicness of their traditional epic closer “Pol Roger.” There’s even some room for hard rock: the bone-crushing guitar outro of “Pass the Baby” is possibly the hardest these guys have ever rocked. I do wonder how much more music we’ll hear from Jimmy Eat World, as Jim Adkins said the guys asked themselves why they’d make another record before doing this one. I’d hope the experience of making Integrity Blues reinvigorated Jimmy Eat World. It has certainly reinvigorated longtime fans like me.

pinegrove3. Pinegrove – Cardinal

Imagine, for a moment, this alternative musical universe: after the mid-’90s dissolution of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy links up with Jimmy Eat World and starts a new band (Jimmy Eat Wilco?) that plays country-tinged pop punk. That’s roughly the sound I would ascribe to Pinegrove, who this year dropped their major label debut Cardinal. It’s a simple comparison, but Pinegrove deserve credit for sculpting a sound all their own in 2016. You’re just as likely to hear eardrum-rattling post-punk power chords on Cardinal as you are light touches of banjo and mandolin. In total, this quick half-hour is the most full-of-life and carpe diem-eqsue collection of songs I came across this year. Their sounds aren’t reminiscent, but Cardinal reminds me a great deal of Japandroids’ Celebration Rock: a record you can pump your fist to while taking on the world. And similar to Celebration Rock, Cardinal focuses more on the intimacy of friendships than romantic love. This is highly apparent in the album bookends of “Old Friends” at the outset and “New Friends” at the end. The latter reminds me of what it was like going off to college with that uneasy confidence you experience as a teenager. “I resolve to make new friends,” sings Evan Stephens Hall. “I liked my old ones / But I fucked up, so I’ll start again.” Hall’s voice warbles with emotion from the outset of the record, a voice feeling familiar yet distant. “Every outcome’s such a comedown,” Hall yelps on “Old Friends,” while later managing to include the word “solipsistic” in a rock song. “Then Again” bursts at the seams with energy and every kind of guitar shit-kicking riff you can imagine; “Aphasia” and “Visiting” are awesome explorations of Hall trying to find that confidence to be the person he wants to be; “Size of the Moon” is the thoughtful, building, dramatic penultimate marvel that hints at years of future success for these kids. In a year so difficult for so many, I’d imagine Cardinal provided a shot of life at the right time. And if you need it as 2016 comes to an end, I’d suggest giving Pinegrove a chance.

whitney2. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

Two years ago, when Smith Westerns called it quits after just three albums, I worried the uber-talented Chicago kids wouldn’t find individual success. I’m happy to report those worries were unfounded. While frontman Cullen Omori put out a mostly-terrific yet overly-slick solo debut in March, lead guitarist Max Kakaceck and drummer Julian Ehrlich released their debut album as Whitney in June. With Light Upon the Lake, Ehrlich (who mans the vocals as well as the drums for Whitney) and Kakaceck have blazed their own trail in ‘60s-influenced guitar rock. While the soft touches of Smith Westerns remain in much of what’s here, it’s actually Ehrlich’s other previous band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, that provides most of the influence over the sound, feel and production of Light Upon the Lake. UMO has this incredible knack of making their records sound like they were actually recorded in 1968, and that’s a trick Whitney picked up, especially on the UMO-flavored short rocker “The Falls”. The filter on Ehrlich’s voice throughout the record also has this effect as well, a honey-flavored tone that teeters on falsetto from time to time, showcased on the horn-powered “Polly”, bouncy closer “Follow” and the crisp, string-backed opener “No Woman”. (Side note: when I saw Whitney this year, Ehrlich said “No Woman” was about not having a girlfriend and he seemed pretty down about it. Poor Julian…) My favorite song here is the acoustic-driven “Golden Days”, a lament for lost love that sounds huge with its singalong “na na nas” but maintains a simple beauty. And, overall, despite most of the songs being about the end of relationships, Light Upon the Lake has an unmistakable air of fun. This is no better found than on “No Matter Where We Go”, a rollicking and sweet song brimming with bright riffs and this whimsical chorus: “I can take you out / I wanna drive around / With you with the windows down / And we can run all night.” Smith Westerns may be dead, but Kakaceck and Ehrlich are soldiering on, brightly into the future, with Whitney as their vehicle for psychedelic wonderment.

cshr1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

In so many ways, 2016 was a disaster. But for new music, it simply was not. Most of our remaining pop/rock stars put out new material: Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Drake, the Weeknd, Radiohead, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, David Bowie. Several of my own favorite bands brought new tunes. And from newer artists, the volume of outstanding work was dizzying. In all, 2016 was quite possibly the best year of new music I’ve experienced in my 30 years. Yet with all that, the album standing above all others was the major-label debut of a lo-fi indie rock band with a stupid name led by a heretofore unknown Virginian millennial. Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial is the best rock album not named Lost in the Dream released this decade. Will Toledo’s band crafted 12 incredible songs touching a wide range of influences: the mostly-understated and occasionally-wild vocal style of Stephen Malkmus, the melodic guitar of the Strokes, the soft/loud dynamics of the Pixies and thoughtful lyrical overtures in the long line of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Tweedy and, more recently, Courtney Barnett. Toledo isn’t treading a ton of new ground here: he’s just perfecting it and coming across like a savvy veteran doing it. Teens of Denial has killer guitar work, like the klaxon call of opener “Fill in the Blank”, the bone-crushing power chords of “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” and “1937 State Park”, and the start/stop chops of “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”. But there’s room for more: “Drugs With Friends” sounds like a wayward Wilco song with Toledo lamenting that “I did not transcend / I felt like a walking piece of shit” after taking drugs. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is one of the best rock songs in years, hitting that loud/soft dynamic while Toledo sings starkly about his inner demons. And there are even epics like the 11.5-minute marvel “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” and “Cosmic Hero” which starts with plaintive horns and ends with wailing guitars and drums as Toledo screams: “I will go to heaven! / You won’t go to heaven! / I won’t see you there!” It’s the sound of a rock outfit leading the charge of a new generation, planting a flag in uncertain times. My three favorite albums this year are by young bands making either their major-label or full-length debuts. As difficult as 2016 was, bands like Car Seat Headrest give us one thing: hope. And man, do we need it.

LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2016

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s December, I’m ready to share with you what made the cut for my favorites of the year, starting with my 25 favorite songs of 2016.

This has been a mind-blowingly amazing year for new music, so much so that I expanded this list from my traditional 20 songs to 25. Keeping with tradition, I’ll let the songs speak for themselves in this post and reserve longer thoughts for my 10 favorite albums post next week.

I considered songs for this list that had any kind of release (be it on a single or an album) in 2016. And, as always, I only included one song per primary artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Lastly, I created a Spotify playlist of these songs here and embedded at the bottom for your listening pleasure (the playlist is meant to be listened to as a 25-1 countdown, despite the numbers next to each song).

Here are my favorite songs lists for 2012, 20132014 and 2015.

Enjoy these awesome songs and stay tuned for my albums post next week.

25. TWO DOOR CINEMA CLUB – “BAD DECISIONS”

24. WILCO – “WE AREN’T THE WORLD (SAFETY GIRL)”

23. KENDRICK LAMAR – “UNTITLED 06 | 06.30.2014.” (No audio in video, listen below on Spotify)

22. JOHN MAYER – “LOVE ON THE WEEKEND”

21. BON IVER – “29 #STRAFFORD APTS”

20. WILD NOTHING – “JAPANESE ALICE”

19. RADIOHEAD – “TRUE LOVE WAITS”

18. M83 – “GO!”

17. CULLEN OMORI – “CINNAMON”

16. CHANCE THE RAPPER (FT. LIL WAYNE & 2 CHAINZ) – “NO PROBLEM” 

15. DAVID BOWIE – “I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY”

14. PARQUET COURTS – “ONE MAN NO CITY”

13. LOCAL NATIVES – “PAST LIVES”

12. LUCY DACUS – “STRANGE TORPEDO”

11. BLOOD ORANGE – “E.V.P.”

10. SOLANGE – “CRANES IN THE SKY”

9. SUNFLOWER BEAN – “EASIER SAID”

8. KANYE WEST – “REAL FRIENDS”

7. FRANK OCEAN – “PINK + WHITE”

6. PINEGROVE – “NEW FRIENDS”

5. WHITNEY – “GOLDEN DAYS”

4. CAR SEAT HEADREST – “DRUNK DRIVERS/KILLER WHALES”

3. JAPANDROIDS – “NEAR TO THE WILD HEART OF LIFE”

2. DIIV – “UNDER THE SUN”

1. JIMMY EAT WORLD – “SURE AND CERTAIN”

MUSIC: My 10 Favorite Songs of 2016 So Far

On this day each year I usually post 2,000 words or so highlighting my 10 favorite songs of the year exactly six months in. Well, this year I simply did not have time to write anything of appreciable length. But, I’ve still been keeping track of my favorite tunes and am happy to present them to you in truncated form.

Below you’ll find YouTube clips of my favorite songs of 2016 so far and an embedded Spotify playlist as well. You can also find that playlist here. The songs are presented in alphabetical order by artist.

Enjoy!

CAR SEAT HEADREST – “DRUNK DRIVERS/KILLER WHALES”

CHANCE THE RAPPER – “ALL NIGHT” (FT. KNOX FORTUNE)

CULLEN OMORI – “CINNAMON”

DIIV – “UNDER THE SUN”

KANYE WEST – “REAL FRIENDS”

M83 – “GO!” (FT. MAI LAN)

PARQUET COURTS – “ONE MAN NO CITY”

RADIOHEAD – “BURN THE WITCH”

SUNFLOWER BEAN – “EASIER SAID”

WILD NOTHING – “JAPANESE ALICE”

MUSIC: Pet Sounds Turns 50

The_Beach_Boys_-_Pet_Sounds

Today, Pet Sounds turns 50. It’s one of my favorite albums ever. And I have a few things to say about it.

It was sometime in the spring of 2000 when I first discovered Pet Sounds, the greatest ever achievement from the greatest American rock band of them all, the Beach Boys. I was in 7th grade, which needless to say, is an interesting time in one’s life. I had an affinity for ‘60s music going back to my Beatles obsession that started years earlier. But that spring ABC aired a two-part TV movie entitled “The Beach Boys: An American Family” that stoked my interest in the band (the movie was forgettable, yet the music was anything but).

Shortly thereafter I splurged my allowance money on a couple of Beach Boys greatest hits compilations and Pet Sounds. Inside I discovered a whole new world of pop music, one I never knew existed. Since then, it has been one of my three favorite albums ever, alongside Who’s Next and Abbey Road.

Pet Sounds was like opening a sonic Pandora’s box. For the first time, I experienced pop sensibilities in music alongside very sophisticated, very refined instrumental stylings. Most of all, though, I strongly identified with the words, mostly conjured by Brian Wilson and his co-writer Tony Asher.

I’ve always associated Pet Sounds with this overarching theme lyrically: the transition from youth to adulthood, and how hard it can be. But at the same time, the hallmark of Pet Sounds musically is so very rich and vibrant. And that’s what stands out to me most after so many listens.

Wilson was in the throes of a competition with the Beatles to reach creative heights in pop music that started after he picked up a copy of Rubber Soul in late 1965. He was also dealing with his own emotional issues and a taste for psychotropic drugs. Amidst this, he wanted to take his music in a more artistic direction. For context, the previous Beach Boys album was called Beach Boys’ Party! And that only arrived six months before Pet Sounds.

These were not simply boy-girl love songs, or songs about cars and surfing, which had dominated the Beach Boys’ catalogue up to that point. Wilson had started to dabble in introspective, self-examining lyrics with 1963’s seminal “In My Room”, but Pet Sounds was different. This was virtually an entire album dedicated to very specific feelings of youth, love, frustration, disappointment and desire. It was one of the key landmarks in creating the style of “concept albums” that would come to dominate the popular rock landscape.

Years later, the late Beatles producer Sir George Martin put it simply: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened…Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”

The Beach Boys not only changed music forever with Pet Sounds but it changed how I thought about music forever. I love Pet Sounds just as much today as I did when I was a wide-eyed 14-year-old growing up in a small town. I hear so much of what Pet Sounds started in today’s music as well.

So in honor of its 50th anniversary, I’m taking a song-by-song look at 13 tracks that make up Pet Sounds. I’ll write more about some songs than others, but know that each has played a vital role in making this incredible album stand all tests of time. Enjoy.

“WOULDN’T IT BE NICE”

One of the greatest albums ever deserves one of the greatest opening songs ever, and that’s what we get with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Over the last 50 years, few songs have ever encapsulated the feeling of being young and in love, and the frustrations often associated with that feeling, better than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

From those opening harp plucks to the gorgeous, “Good night, sleep tight” ending fade-out, this song bursts with enthusiasm and joy from a sonic standpoint, supplied by legendary studio players the Wrecking Crew here and throughout the album. I imagine these lyrics have been recited by lovestruck youngins over the phone to each other for years, all the while hoping their parents didn’t pick up the phone to listen.

(You know, back when people had landlines. Work with me here!)

Although love is the prevailing theme, Brian Wilson’s words are also imbued with adolescent impatience. Note that Wilson and Love sing more about hypothetical joys than actual ones. Thinking and wishing and hoping praying that something might come true is all well and good, but won’t result in immediate happiness.

It’s that frustration that makes this song unique and worth so many listens.

“YOU STILL BELIEVE IN ME”

Really the only negative thing I can say about Pet Sounds is that “You Still Believe In Me” feels out of place as the second song. Coming off the sugar rush of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “You Still Believe In Me” is quite a downer. However, it’s still terrific for what it is, and it sets the emotional tone for much of what’s to come.

This is less of a straightforward pop song and gets more into the chamber/symphonic style Wilson was really going for, including its lilting guitar runs and harpsichord strums. The harmonies along with the percussion hits at just the right times make “You Still Believe In Me” extremely memorable.

But what really takes the cake here is the inclusion of a bike horn and bell near the end. This is not the last time on Pet Sounds you’ll hear something unusual.

“THAT’S NOT ME”

Mike Love doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to flex his nasally vocal muscles on Pet Sounds, but he took advantage each time, including here on the deeply-introspective “That’s Not Me.” On an album of so many favorites, this one has always stood out to me thanks to its unique subject matter.

Over the course of two-and-a-half minutes, Love and Wilson go on an interesting vocal journey. The speaker here isn’t talking so much about who he is, but what he is. He wants to be independent, but he’s scared. He doesn’t sound optimistic about what his self-examination has ultimately wrought. “What matters to me is what I could be / To just one girl.” The music takes soft and quiet approach while the speaker slowly loses his mind.

In addition, this is perhaps the only track on Pet Sounds where the Beach Boys actually got to play their own instruments (including Dennis Wilson on drums, which definitely didn’t happen on any other songs here). The internal journey for Love/Wilson is accompanied by some fun guitar licks by Carl Wilson and Glen Campbell, and Brian taking a whirl on the organ.

And, the song includes (and ends on) one of my all-time favorite vocal couplets.

“I once had a dream so I packed up and split for the city / I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty.”

Love it. Always have, and always will.

“DON’T TALK (PUT YOUR HEAD ON MY SHOULDER)”

This is the first of several very sad-sounding songs here. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” is expertly constructed by Wilson both lyrically and musically. Here’s a song about two people going through difficulty and hoping to find strength in each other. But the way Wilson sings, both the speaker and subject know it’s over, or at least close to being over.

So many of the lines sit with the listener for a while, punctuated by swelling strings throughout and big-sounding percussion late in the proceedings. “We could live forever tonight / Let’s not think about tomorrow,” the heartbroken Wilson sings. And the chorus that’s so earnest it’s almost painful to listen to, especially at the end when Wilson hits the high note on “heeeeaaaaaaaart-beat.”

There’s so much to the texture of this song that’s easy to miss because it’s so quiet. That includes a looping bass line and quiet guitar runs. When Wilson implores “listen, listen, listen,” he’s not just talking about his heartbeat. What a brilliant little song.

“I’M WAITING FOR THE DAY”

In terms of subject matter, “I’m Waiting For The Day” is more traditional and straightforward than many of the others here. Brian Wilson is simply offering his love and support to a young girl of his interest who was recently left heartbroken. With that, Wilson is biding his time and “waiting for the day when you can love again.”

But musically, “I’m Waiting For The Day” is a wonder, another Phil Spector-inspired Wall of Sound taking a simple song of love and longing into another stratosphere. Anchored by huge percussion, a full orchestra of strings and a flute solo midway through, “I’m Waiting For The Day” is a marvel. It’s the one song on this album that would not have felt totally out of place on the Motown releases of the day.

“You didn’t think!” Wilson shouts as the song closes and the organ sounds shoot out amongst the timpani blasts. “I’m Waiting For The Day” might be the most underrated song on Pet Sounds, one I love going back to every time to find something in the Wall of Sound I may have missed previously.

“LET’S GO AWAY FOR AWHILE”

Pet Sounds features two instrumentals, “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” being the first. It’s a quick jaunt, but I’ve always felt like it was like going on quite a journey. It’s a quiet song, but a warm one with a lot of different orchestral touches.

My favorite part has always been about 1:40 in when the drums and other percussion instruments kick in. It makes this quiet song all the sudden feel pretty big.

Anyway, it’s a good little interlude before heading into the second half of the album. I’ll have much more to say about the second instrumental later on.

“SLOOP JOHN B”

Popular at the time of its release, “Sloop John B” doesn’t really fit in lyrically with the rest of Pet Sounds–at least on the surface. It’s an old traditional island song Brian Wilson rearranges in the musical style of the album after he was introduced to it by Al Jardine. It’s the first song the Beach Boys laid down for Pet Sounds.

The lyrics here recount a maritime excursion gone wrong, but the feelings vulnerability and frustration to fit right in with Pet Sounds. “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” Love sings. “I want to go home.” That sounds a lot like the other first-person narrators on this album.

“Sloop John B” is also notable because of the funny “promotional film” aka music video embedded above. There were not many of these in the mid-’60s, and it’s memorable if nothing else for the image of Brian Wilson leading the guys fully-clothed in a pool while carrying a rubber dinghy. I think that video probably influenced this recent video by one of my favorite bands.

“GOD ONLY KNOWS”

You’ve heard it more times than you can count.

Thousands of brides have walked down the aisle to it. Hundreds of mixtapes have been anchored by it. It served as a TV show theme, soundtracked the end of one of the greatest movies of all time, and has been covered by everyone from Andy Williams to Elvis Costello to Mandy Moore to Paul Dano. It has provided strength to millions in times of both love and despair. Fifty years on, it feels timeless, note-perfect and indestructible.

“God Only Knows” is arguably the greatest pop ballad ever written. And it’s a song I’ve adored deeply since the first time it hit my ears.

It’s hard to believe Carl Wilson has been gone for almost 20 years. But well before he left this Earth in physical form, he laid down a perfect vocal track for “God Only Knows” that will live as long as people can hear.

No matter what’s been going on in my life since I discovered Pet Sounds, and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, “God Only Knows” always hits me the same way. It brings tears to my eyes. It is truly a piece of unimaginable beauty. From the incredible arrangement, to Carl’s vocals, to the lyrics of longing and love to the impeccably-arranged and dramatic closing vocal round with Carl, Brian and Bruce Johnston, this is just damn perfect.

Without “God Only Knows”, Pet Sounds would still be great. But maybe not iconic. Thank God for “God Only Knows”.

“I KNOW THERE’S AN ANSWER”

“I Know There’s An Answer” is not overly direct in its message, but the years have revealed that Brian Wilson intended the lyrics to be about drugs. The original title for the song was “Hang On to Your Ego”, which Wilson related to LSD users losing themselves when ingesting the hallucinogenic.

It would be a few more years before Neil Young would pen the ultimate anti-drug song of this era, “The Needle and the Damage Done.” That was a much more overt plea against drugs. But here was Wilson, in 1966, telling people to be careful with this stuff. And in the ‘60s, being a pop musician and singing anti-drug songs was decidedly uncool.

Among the songs here, “I Know There’s An Answer” has some of the most interesting and diverse instrumentation, including “bass harmonica” (which I never knew existed), tack piano and Glen Campbell chiming in with some banjo. Despite the message, this may have been one instance where the drugs were working for Wilson from a creative standpoint.

“HERE TODAY”

It starts with just a little glance now.

This is easily the most fun song on Pet Sounds.

Right away you’re thinking ‘bout romance now. (Oooooo-ooooo!)

Mike Love re-takes the vocal controls on “Here Today”, weaving a cautionary tale about that someone who catches your eye amidst a blaring maelstrom of instruments. Like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Here Today” bursts at the seams with energy and panache. It’s almost dizzying how many different sounds we experience here. Everything from the fun little guitar runs, the organ smacks, the brass section and the timpani hits all work in perfect concert.

But like with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the giddiness of the music goes on behind the veneer of someone who has experienced hardships when it comes to love. “A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing / But if you’re not careful think about the pain it can bring,” Love sings.

Toying with the loud/soft dynamic that Brian Wilson so expertly managed throughout Pet Sounds, “Here Today” is dramatic, exciting and an awesome ride for all three minutes. It’s one of the songs I always look forward to hearing most whenever I put the album on, and puts a huge smile on my face.

“I JUST WASN’T MADE FOR THESE TIMES”

As a teenager, this was the Pet Sounds song I identified with most closely. It was almost like Brian Wilson had written a song just for me, 35 years in the past.

It’s a song that everyone, no matter their station in life, can relate to at one time or another. The idea for this seemed to spring from Wilson’s own ambition to make an album no one believed would be viable.

When I was a kid, I was outspoken in class but shy around classmates. From a young age I had a wide range of knowledge of subjects like music, baseball, history and politics that made me very different from anybody else in my age range. I was so much like the person Wilson sings about, it’s scary. They said I had brains, but they didn’t do me good at least with the kids around me. I often felt I wasn’t made for those times. I found solace in this music at a time when I badly needed it.

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is the quintessential Pet Sounds song, one that encapsulates everything Wilson was trying to do here, from the words down to the chamber-pop sounding music.

Matt Weiner also used this one during Mad Men’s pivotal Season 5 episode “Far Away Places” when Roger Sterling took his first hit of LSD. If there was ever a show where “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” was appropriate, it would be Mad Men, and I’m glad that show found use for something from Pet Sounds during its run.

One other note here: an unusual instrument for rock music called a theremin was included near the end of this track. The creepy-sounding instrument would later be used to much greater effect (and impact) on a Beach Boys single later in 1966.

“PET SOUNDS”

The second of the two instrumentals here is by far the more interesting, unique and weird. The title track to Pet Sounds is in fact the most out-there track on the album and for a lot of people at the time was probably the strangest thing they’d ever heard on a pop record. (My message to those people: just give it a few months.)

What the hell is going on here? How does it even make sense? How is it melodic? And, most importantly, how is “Pet Sounds” so good?

It turns out Wilson originally intended “Pet Sounds” to be a James Bond theme, and you can hear some remnants of that idea in the way the track slinks along. That uncanny percussion sound, which apparently came about after Wilson asked his drummer to smack his sticks on two empty Coke cans, helps keep all the wild sounds together.

There are bongos here. There is some oddly-distorted guitar. There are bass notes from brass instruments you didn’t really think would be possible. The only thing “Pet Sounds” doesn’t have is a vocal track. And in 2:38 it’s over, leading into the final track.

“CAROLINE, NO”

This song, man. Wow.

There can only be one word to describe it: devastation. Have you ever heard a sadder breakup song in the 50 years since? And, hell, the roughly 5,000 years before it?

In just shy of three minutes, Brian Wilson weaves a tale of woe about the end of a relationship in the starkest and most evocative terms imaginable.

“Where did your long hair go? / Where is the girl I used to know?”

“I remember how you used to say / You’d never change / But that’s not true”

“It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die / Oh, Caroline, why?”

An album that starts with such hope and idealism as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” comes to a crashing end with “Caroline, No.” It’s even hard to listen to sometimes. The sadness in Wilson’s voice is just…devastating. I can’t really use any other words to describe this one. My gosh.

Of course, the album ACTUALLY ends with the actual sounds of pets. More specifically, dogs barking at a blaring train rolling by.

It’s a fitting ending, really, as that train carried with it the sounds a new generation would use to propel pop and rock into the next era. Sgt. Pepper’s and Electric Ladyland and Tommy and After the Gold Rush and Blue and Exile on Main St. and Dark Side of the Moon were all still to come. But in that moment, Pet Sounds stood apart.

When it was released, Pet Sounds was both a critical and commercial disappointment (at least in America). It did not take long for it to pick up steam and be considered the cultural landmark it is today.

For me, it will always represent something special, a time in my life when I began to appreciate things that took time, foresight and brilliant execution to create. Pet Sounds will always be special to me for that. And the music of course remains so affecting, so beautiful, so perfect and so damn good.

Happy birthday, Pet Sounds. Here’s to the next 50 years.