LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2015

After posting my favorite songs of 2015 last week, 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, 2013 and 2014.

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. Best Coast – California Nights (“So Unaware”)

19. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love (“Multi-Love”)

18. Destroyer – Poison Season (“Times Square”)

17. Wilco – Star Wars (“Taste the Ceiling”)

16. Viet Cong – Viet Cong (“Continental Shelf”)

15. Grimes – Art Angels (“Realiti”)

14. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (“Air”)

13. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (“Future People”)

12. Passion Pit – Kindred (“All I Want”)

11. Toro y Moi – What For? (“Buffalo”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2015.

DepressionCherry10. Beach House – Depression Cherry

The first new music in over three years from Beach House, the Baltimore-based dream pop duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, appeared in July, with the release of “Sparks” and the announcement of their fifth album Depression Cherry. “Sparks” is unlike anything in Beach House’s catalogue, drawing clear and direct influence from My Bloody Valentine instead of simply building on their own past. If I didn’t know this was a Beach House song, the rich guitar layers and Legrand’s Bilinda Butcher-like vocals would convince me it was an outtake from m b v. I also wondered if Legrand and Scally were going for a more shoegaze-inspired sound on Depression Cherry, or just generally moving in a different direction. Neither turned out to be the case. Instead, Depression Cherry is another excellent Beach House album, continuing their mastery of the ethereal and wondrous. It may not equal either of its two predecessors, Teen Dream and Bloom, but it stands on its own thanks to complete ownership of a unique and warm sound. These songs include building opener “Levitation,” gorgeous emotional center “Space Song”, arpeggio-filled “PPP”, solemn marcher “Wildflower” and heavenly, blissful closer “Days of Candy.” Especially after releasing a second, more-sparse LP Thank Your Lucky Stars in 2015, Beach House should be leaders in the clubhouse to provide the soundtrack for David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” reboot in 2017. Nobody is creating better spacey, big-sounding and dreamy pop music right now than Beach House.

FadingFrontier9. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

Despite being undeniably one of the marquee American indie rock bands of the last decade, it had been a while since we’d heard the best of Deerhunter. After releasing the transcendent Halcyon Digest in 2010, which contained some of the best songs ever from leaders Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt, 2013’s Monomania was all glam and garage rock and really did nothing for me. After Cox was seriously injured in an accident last year, I began to wonder if Deerhunter’s best days were over. I’m glad I was wrong, as this year’s surprise release of Fading Frontier is a return to form, a back-to-the-basics record from a band that knows both when to rock out and when to get a little weird. I was immediately struck by the ease, melody and calmness of “Breaker”, a Tom Petty-esque jam awash in 12-string Rickenbackers and absolutely my favorite Deerhunter song since “Desire Lines.” It’s also the rare Deerhunter song with a two-part harmony by Cox and Pundt. Fading Frontier generally sounds like a band settling into a great groove with where they are. Other highlights for me include the trippy, Real Estate-vibe of opener “All the Same”, the crunchy, grimy rock sound of “Snakeskin,” and the fun, vocally-mesmerizing “Living My Life.” Deerhunter can be a great band when they sound focused and clear, so it’s a relief Cox is healthy and Deerhunter is back doing what they do best.

Goon8. Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon

All it took to put a heretofore-unknown Vancouver-born singer-songwriter on the map was a five-word January tweet from Adele. “This is fantastic,” the UK songstress wrote, “click away,” followed by the video for Tobias Jesso Jr.’s breakout single, “How Could You Babe”. From there, 2015 became the Year of Jesso, anchored by his March debut album, Goon. Jesso populated his first release with plaintive piano ditties recalling ‘70s singer-songwriters such as Randy Newman, Emitt Rhodes and Harry Nilsson (apparently he’d never listened any of them before writing Goon), striking a nerve that hasn’t been touched in popular music in many years. With Jesso’s vocal range and superior piano skills on display (even though he’s only played for THREE YEARS!), songs like the longing ballad “Without You,” the run-down reality of “Hollywood,” the McCartney-esque sway of “Just a Dream” and the beautiful sentiment of “Leaving LA” reach the ears with incredible ease. He manages to include a couple wonderfully-crafted, finger-picked guitar tunes here as well: “The Wait” carries a folksy innocence while closer “Tell the Truth” hits more of an end-of-relationship note. Working alongside producers like Ariel Rechtshaid, JR White and Patrick Carney, Jesso has the songwriting chops of someone years his senior while maintaining a youthful, and sometimes playful, edge to what’s on Goon. Adele had it right: Jesso is fantastic, and after her collaboration with him on her new album got him even more notoriety, his potential for continued greatness has no ceiling.

Adventure7. Madeon – Adventure

My introduction to Madeon, the stage name of 21-year-old French dance/pop producer Hugo Pierre Leclercq, came early in the form of a punch with a fistful of sugar. The first song to appear in 2015 from his debut album, Adventure, was “Pay No Mind”, a collaboration with Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos with Two Door Cinema Club’s Sam Halliday. From the very first second, “Pay No Mind” is a blast, with its looping guitar licks, Angelakos’ typically great vocals and a general sense of euphoric fun. It remained my favorite song of the year from the first time I heard it to today. But luckily for Leclercq, “Pay No Mind” is only one of several great tunes on Adventure, which is another instance of a new artist sounding beyond their years on their first album. There’s the house-ish, mostly instrumental and equally as fun early track “OK”, the power pop of “La Lune” with Bastille’s Dan Smith, the imperial, methodical stomp of “Imperium” (which sounds like it could have been in a “Matrix” movie), the driving Mark Foster collaboration of “Nonsense” and the sensual R&B beats of “Innocence” among the standouts. Leclercq’s production is so clean, so clear, so precise and so bright, it’s just unreal. Listen to closing statement “Home”, a beautiful and dramatic send-off about the struggles of his creative process, complete with his own terrific vocal performance, and be spellbound that this kid is only getting wiser, and better.

EveryOpenEye6. Chvrches – Every Open Eye

I loved Chvrches’ debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, and I love their follow-up, Every Open Eye, just as much. The Scottish trio truly owns their dance-inspired synthpop corner and now sport an even more impressive catalogue. Every Open Eye doesn’t really find Chvrches treading on new territory beyond to their debut. It’s just that Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty have something extremely special; a style that came along at a perfect time given what resonates today. Like their debut, Every Open Eye opens with a murderer’s row of knockout pop songs, with its first five songs comprising its core of excellence. “Never Ending Circles” opens the proceedings with stomping bombast while lead single “Leave a Trace” represents the best of Chvrches’ dramatic power-pop intensity. The pace gets more frenetic with “Keep You On My Side” and keeps up on the cheery “Make Them Gold.” Then, there’s “Clearest Blue”, the best Chvrches song to date, a builder behind Mayberry’s dramatic vocals that erupts two minutes in with an endorphin rush of synths and beats. Later tunes like “Empty Threat” and “Playing Dead” don’t reach quite as high, but maintain the polish of this sophomore effort. The only complaint: reminiscent of my biggest gripe with Bones, the weakest moment here is Doherty’s drab vocal performance on “High Enough to Carry You Over.” I appreciate the effort at democracy, but Chvrches belongs to Mayberry, her voice and her words. The faster Chvrches learns that, they’ll fly even higher.

ToPimpaButterfly5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

The music world held its breath in 2014 awaiting new music from Kendrick Lamar, the next in a long line of hip hop artists with more on their minds than cash, cars and saying degrading things about women. Kendrick is so talented, so thoughtful, so expressive and so creative; a perfect combination to make him a standout in his generation. The energetic, frantic, “That Lady”-charged single “i” provided a small glimpse, but the bigger picture was even better when To Pimp a Butterfly was announced in February and surprisingly dropped two weeks later. It’s an outstanding follow-up to Kendrick’s breakthrough, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, one that puts all of his many talents and styles in one place for all to see. This is a capital A album, one that doesn’t lend itself easily to the single-friendly listening culture of today. Considering that good kid transformed Kendrick into a household name thanks to bangers like “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools (Drank),” I give him tons of credit for not making an album full of copycats. Besides “i,” only the bouncy, funky “King Kunta” and the angry, racially-charged “The Blacker the Berry” struck me as possible heavy-rotation singles. Elsewhere, To Pimp a Butterfly must be appreciated as a whole, a portrait of an artist as a young man, determining where he fits and what he needs to say to make sense of it. Many of the songs flow smoothly, inspired more by R&B than Kendrick’s West Coast rap lineage, with songs like “Institutionalized,” “Momma,” “These Walls” and “Complexion.” In addition, Kendrick repeats lines from a poem about his mortality throughout the album, giving To Pimp a Butterfly a sense of humanity, which often goes missing from major hip hop releases.

blieveimgoindown4. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down

Over the last year or so, Adam Granofsky earned some mainstream fame after the War on Drugs’ outstanding Lost in the Dream gained notoriety (it was also my favorite album of 2014). In 2015, it was Granofsky’s former bandmate and fellow long-haired, guitar-wielding badass Kurt Vile who got a similar opportunity. b’lieve i’m goin down, Vile’s sixth solo album, presents an eclectic mix of different styles coalescing into a much more laid-back and folksy sound than what Granofsky makes. However, these guys have at least one thing in common besides their lengthy follicles: they write, record and release amazing rock songs, and this is my favorite album of Vile’s to date. There’s electric rock here on the kickass opener “Pretty Pimpin” and the waste-case recollections of “Dust Bunnies.” There’s gorgeous, finger-picked acoustic on so many of these songs, including “That’s Life tho (almost hate to say),” “Stand Inside,” “Kidding Around” and “All in a Daze Work,” showing off the range of his pure talent. He even dabbles with the banjo on “I’m an Outlaw.” The wonderful mix of b’lieve i’m goin down doesn’t end there, with the shifty piano stop-time rock of “Lost my Head there” utilizing some interesting recording techniques and drumming signatures from Kyle Spence. Vile covers a lot of ground sonically but also leaves lots of room for his great, detached, almost spoken-word vocal style. On the quiet, drum machine-backed closer “Wild Imagination.” Vile sings of seeing things in pictures of someone from his past that may not really be there. He later says he’s feeling too many feelings all at once, but keeps imploring himself, softly, to “give it some time, give it some time.” It’s a nice note to end on for Vile, who really spreads his wings on b’lieve i’m goin down.

Wildheart3. Miguel – Wildheart

Miguel Jontel Pimental, the 30-year-old L.A. born-and-bred, style-melding singer whose popularity rose steadily before 2015, is known to the world by just his first name. But there’s a lot more to this man than that. His fame exploded this year thanks to Wildheart, with his brand of electrified and sexified R&B, drawing from the best of the best: Marvin Gaye, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, James Brown–they’re all here in some way. Yet Miguel manages to create something funky, soulful and downright amazing of his own. The focus of Wildheart is pretty transparent: these are songs about fucking. Sometimes Miguel beats you over the head with it (I mean, listen to “the valley”!) but more often, he takes a delicate approach, one much more about shared joy than machismo. On the gorgeous, building “Coffee”, Miguel wants more than just evenings of fun without feeling, singing “I don’t want to wake you / I just want to watch you sleep” as he brews a pot. Wildheart goes beyond the bedroom too, with the heartfelt “what’s normal anyway” exploring Miguel’s painful experiences as a child of mixed race, and “leaves,” anchored by its “1979” riff (for which Miguel gave Billy Corgan a songwriting credit), uses the changing of seasons as a metaphor for a breakup he never saw coming. Midway through we meet “waves”, an absolute banger, hotter than a bazillion blazing suns, seemingly about actually catching waves but more about grabbing life by the balls. That’s all before the wildly-catchy final 1:15 of the song, with that crazy, layered harmony vocal track atop Miguel’s hot beats. The other real standout after “waves” is epic closer “face the sun”, with Lenny Kravitz dropping a terrific guest guitar performance. Again not capitulating to his image as a player, Miguel sings of his love not needing to worry about someone new, cooing over and over “I belong with you!” while Kravitz goes nuts on guitar. It’s a perfect cap to a great album. If Miguel continues to follow the blueprint of Wildheart, there’s no telling how much his star will rise.

NoCitiesToLove2. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

In the decade between Sleater-Kinney albums, the post-punk trio’s stature grew to nearly-mythic proportions, especially after so many bands were influenced by their pioneering riot grrrl sound. That overall phenomenon is not uncommon in recent music history, with Neutral Milk Hotel and My Bloody Valentine getting similar treatment. I’d also liken it to the legacy of long-gone TV shows like “The Wire” that grow exponentially more loved after going off the air. Imagine, then, if David Simon made a sixth “Wire” season that was higher-quality than virtually its entire original run. Because that’s what Sleater-Kinney did with No Cities to Love. A massive part of their appeal in the ‘90s and ‘00s was the rawness displayed by Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss both on record and in concert. Now, after 10 years apart, their sound is wiser, cleaner and accessible, but still manages to smack you with more than enough raw, visceral intensity. It’s not easy to pull off, and the result of their effort is a razor-sharp focus and one of the best hard rock releases this decade. The album’s attitude is best captured in the chorus of riff-heavy centerpiece “A New Wave”, the best song here, belted in unison by Tucker and Brownstein: “No outline will ever hold us.” It’s an attitude that exists from the initial rumble of opener “Price Tag,” a track anchored by Tucker’s otherworldly vocal prowess, to the slow burn of the alternative-era rock in closer “Fade.” In between, it’s simply one outstanding two-to-three minute rocker after the next. “Surface Envy” bangs along with looping ascending and descending guitar lines; the title track harkens back to the bass and guitar runs of Arctic Monkeys’ debut album (which got popular around the time Sleater-Kinney initially stopped); the powerful and vicious “Gimme Love” has crunchy riffs and perfectly-timed drumming from the criminally-underrated Weiss; and Brownstein sings of staving off trauma in the screechy and proggy “Bury Our Friends.” Who knows if Sleater-Kinney will remain a thing after 2015. But we should all be grateful No Cities to Love not only exists, but recasts their already-airtight legacy in even more reverential terms.

Currents1. Tame Impala – Currents

Just shy of 100 years ago, Robert Frost wrote of the road not taken, and how going that way made “all the difference.” The easiest thing Kevin Parker could’ve done before recording his third album as Tame Impala was follow Lonerism, his breakout release with the Black Sabbath-y rocker “Elephant” Parker later said “paid for half my house.” Instead, Parker traveled the road not taken. It indeed made all the difference, because in 2015, Parker released possibly my favorite album in five years with Currents. I knew things would be different in March when opening marvel “Let It Happen” showed up, an eight-minute hell storm of sounds and movements maintaining some of Lonerism’s psychedelia but blazing a new trail with synthesizers, watery vocals and a wicked guitar line coming in late. It pointed to the perfect mix of rock, pop, soul, funk, disco, electro and dance that would become Currents. The final fruits of Parker’s labor appeared in July, and it lived up to my expectations (I mention only Parker here because he wrote every song on Currents, produced and mixed it in his Australian home studio and–are you ready for this–played every fucking instrument on it. Seriously.). Currents is not stuck in a ‘60s-era time warp: instead, Parker takes cues from Motown and Michael Jackson in many areas, including the sprawling “The Moment” and the true R&B slow jam of “Cause I’m a Man”, which I could imagine being a song MJ decided not to record for Thriller. I get why fans of Parker’s previous guitar-heavy work may not appreciate much of Currents, outside of brisk rocker “Disciples” and a few others. But this such a triumphant and creative work from start to finish with Parker going places no one else is touching in 2015. Parker manages to weave a narrative theme with his lyrics, too. Where Lonerism was about being alone, Currents is about having the ability to change, and accept change. Yes, there’s a song called “Yes I’m Changing,” but there’s also the spoken-word slice of life in “Past Life” and the acceptance of a breakup in the heart-wrenching jam “Eventually.” On the gorgeous late-album swirl of “Reality in Motion”, one of Parker’s best to date, he takes a chance on someone special. “I just need to breathe out / Decisions are approaching / Reality in motion,” he sings. That personifies the chance Parker took on Currents, resulting in astounding, innovative brilliance.

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LISTS

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2014

After posting my favorite songs of 2014 last week, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums of the year. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

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. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (“Close Your Eyes (And Count to F***)”)

19. Ariel Pink – pom pom (“Black Ballerina”)

18. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days (“Passing Out Pieces”)

17. Twin Peaks – Wild Onion (“Strawberry Smoothie”)

16. Eagulls – Eagulls (“Possessed”)

15. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (“Black and White”)

14. St. Vincent – St. Vincent (“Birth in Reverse”)

13. Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (“You Go Down Smooth”)

12. CYMBALS – The Age of Fracture (“Empty Space”)

11. Jack White – Lazaretto (“Alone in My Home”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2014.

tootrue10. Dum Dum Girls – Too True

I extolled the virtues of Dum Dum Girls’ last LP, Only in Dreams, in this exact spot on my ’11 list. The all-woman indie guitar pop outfit led by velvety-voiced Dee Dee underwent lineup changes in the intervening years, releasing probably their finest work to date on ‘12’s outstanding End of Daze EP and this past January’s also-terrific Too True full-length. Dum Dum Girls move away from their punkish roots here, driving closer to late-’80s Cure sound. It’s far and away Dee Dee’s most polished effort, introducing more synthesizers and mechanized percussion for a much shinier touch. As much as I’ve enjoyed Dum Dum Girls in the past, the drumming has never been worthy of Dee Dee’s songwriting and turning to a drum machine here isn’t an admission of defeat. That change produces the charging “Little Minx” and sprawling “Evil Blooms”, two songs that wouldn’t work for previous incarnations of the group. Elsewhere, “Lost Boys and Girls Club” recalls much of the ‘80s goth aesthetic conjured by its title; “Too True to Be Good” has vocals and notes coming from every direction; “Are You Okay?” draws from a Full Moon Fever influence and is one of Dee Dee’s most indelible songs to date; and closer “Trouble is My Name” introduces some of the light touches that made End of Daze so memorable. When it comes to LPs, the best for Dum Dum Girls is yet to arrive. But Too True is a sign Dee Dee has the chops create something truly special.

seeds9. TV on the Radio – Seeds

The critical reaction to Seeds, TV on the Radio’s first album since ‘11’s Nine Types of Light and also its first since the death of bassist Gerard Smith, was more muted than I was expecting. Seeds isn’t as good as either of TVOTR’s best albums (‘06’s Return to Cookie Mountain and ‘08’s Dear Science, the latter remaining a taste-shifting marker for me as a music fan). But these guys are generally incapable of producing anything anyone who closely observes indie rock would consider sub-par. Seeds is TVOTR’s most accessible record to date, and the highlights far outweigh some of the less-dynamic tracks occupying its soft middle. The Beatles are a clear influence on Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone and David Sitek here, with the vocal line of brooding and synthy “Careful You” and the “Got to Get You Into My Life” horns and joy of album centerpiece “Could You” the best examples. The classic eclecticism of TVOTR comes through in many spots, too, including on winding single “Happy Idiot”, the hard-rocking “Lazerray”, the building “Ride” with its home-hitting lyrics (“Look to the sky / It’s time to ride”) and ending with knockouts in the rollicking “Trouble” and the poignant title track (Rain comes down / Like it always does / This time I’ve got seeds on ground”). Not every album by a great band has to be praised as their best upon release. But if you give Seeds a chance, you may find it the most listenable yet from TVOTR.

rips8. Ex Hex – Rips

Dum Dum Girls and Ex Hex are similar bands, both in member composition and composition styles. However, Ex Hex bring a more extreme no-frills, stripped-down, in-your-face attitude to their debut album, Rips, than anything Dum Dum Girls have ever done. Led by Mary Timony, a longtime indie rocker who most recently played with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss in Wild Flag, Ex Hex doesn’t do anything you haven’t heard before. Rips has 12 short songs, bringing together power-pop chops from the likes of Tom Petty and the Cars. You could imagine these songs playing in the background of a “That’s 70s Show” episode. What stands out is how clean, tight and expertly-crafted these songs are. The most unique song here is lead single “Hot and Cold”, which chugs along at mostly-mid tempo, but grips the listener with an great groove and that fun mid-song key change that kicks it into another gear. Elsewhere, opener “Don’t Wanna Lose” makes you bop your head to its fuzzy tones, “Waste Your Time” features a killer bass line from Betsy Wright, while her own “How You Got That Girl” is a true highlight with a great riff and singalong chorus. The one song here that doesn’t sound much like the rest is “War Paint”, clocking it at nearly four minutes and sporting a biting harmonic guitar line and Timony spitting lines like “I know you think you’re/Too-too-too-too-too cool” before launching into that garage-tastic solo. Ex Hex keeps it simple on Rips but the results exceed all expectations.

benji7. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Mark Kozelek had an interesting 2014. For years, his acts (first Red House Painters and now Sun Kil Moon) were well-regarded in the underground, but his exposure level heightened in February when Benji was released to universal acclaim as an intensely-personal collection of folky acoustic confessionals. As the year progressed, he got in tiffs with audiences and started (and unnecessarily perpetuated) a “feud” with another band (more on them later) that grew increasingly childish with each barb. I’d hate to think that overshadowed the work Kozelek put in on Benji’s 11 songs that touch on so many emotions: formative memories of childhood, pains from loss of loved ones, fears of growing up and losing your parents, acknowledging mistakes made and lessons learned, and even mundane exercises like shopping for a $350 pair of lampshades or taking a high school date to Red Lobster. From lamenting devastating personal tragedies in “Carissa” or national ones in “Pray For Newtown”, recounting his youth in “Dogs” and “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’” and stories of people who shaped his life like “Micheline”, Kozelek’s words sock you in the gut because these are slices of his life on display for all to see. Not to be lost amongst the words is the music highlighted by lush melodies, mostly supplied by Kozelek’s outstanding acoustic fingerpicking, which has become a lost art. If you can get past Kozelek the Public Curmudgeon, Kozelek the Artist with Nothing to Hide is something to behold and that shines through blindingly on Benji.

singles6. Future Islands – Singles

I’m not sure if anyone made a “Best Live Music Viral Videos of 2014” list, but if they did, they wasted their time. Because that list only needs one video: this one, and none else need apply. When Baltimore-born Future Islands got their chance to perform “Seasons (Waiting On You)” from their fourth album Singles on Letterman in March, I doubt they expected it would spawn a video with over 3 million views to date. Why did this happen? I mean, look at those freakin’ dance moves! Can any human on Earth besides lead singer Samuel T. Herring make those kinds of gyrations? I’ve always said good music should move you, and “Seasons,” which became one of my favorite songs of the year, moved Herring and many others. The video likely led lots of people to Singles, and I hope they were just as impressed with this excellent album as they were with Herring’s performance art skills. Future Islands combines the snythpop-driven energy of M83 and a sense of grandeur from the Killers into something uniquely their own. Whether it’s the bass and horn-steered funk of “Doves”, the anthemic excitement of “Sun in the Morning”, the creeping synth magic of “Spirit” or the ‘80s dancing slide of “Like the Moon”, Future Islands go all out behind the passion of Herring’s voice. Singles will have you, like Letterman, saying “I’ll take all of that you’ve got!” once you’re done listening.

solongseeyoutomorrow5. Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow

After Bombay Bicycle Club saw modest success with ‘11’s A Different Kind of Fix, it would have been pretty easy for these Londoners to make a similar-sounding successor to capitalize on that momentum. Instead, they went in a much different direction with their electronic pop sound and, to their tremendous credit, succeed on So Long, See You Tomorrow as much as any of their releases. Building on the eclectic experimentation of their last album, the band introduces world music elements, interesting samples and rhythmic explorations that don’t live anywhere else in modern electronic rock. It’s hard not to be spellbound by the drumming patterns on opener “Overdone”, while also entranced by the melodic samples that sound ripped from a ‘70s TV show. That’s followed by the triumphant “It’s Alright Now”, alongside its marching band-like drumming and Jack Steadman’s looping vocals and then “Carry Me”, a veritable maelstrom of changing guitars and synths and whacked-out time signatures befitting a band like Battles. But there’s a lot of heart here in addition to the experimenting, with the soft hip-hop beat of “Home By Now”, the slow-growing “Whenever, Wherever” and the piano smatterings of “Eyes Off You.” They even recall Stone Roses-esque acid rock on the sprawling “Come To.” But my favorite track here is definitely “Luna”, the jet-setting, world-traveling pop marvel with a chorus full of voices. There are so many different sounds here, between the African percussion, flitting synths and outstanding bassline from Steadman and his mates. I always respect bands willing to take a chance with their sound and So Long, See You Tomorrow is a fine example of a young band finding success in the unknown.

daysofabandon4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut in ‘09 and Belong in ‘11 helped them stake claims as both purveyors of early-90s guitar rock nostalgia and something uniquely their own: sugary power pop, without feeling schmaltzy. Leader Kip Berman retooled the lineup for this year’s Days of Abandon, progressing with more polish and maturity. That maturity shows right away, with opening track “Art Smock” representing Berman’s most delicate work, a short ditty with soft guitars and synths that sets the mood of whimsy for the album. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart we’re more used to comes next, with the bouncy and excitable “Simple and Sure”, a wall of pop sound painted with sweet lyrics: “It may seem so simple but I’m sure / I simply want to be yours.” Elsewhere, Jen Goma from A Sunny Day in Glasgow takes the lead vocals on “Kelly”, and later on the Smiths-influenced “Life After Life”, adding a diverse element to the voices here. “Until the Sun Explodes” has the energy of an exploding sun and borrows some of its verse vocal lines from the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. “Eurydice” (who’s a popular figure in indie rock these days) takes a new spin on the ancient Greek tragedy: “Eurydice / I’ll never stop losing you / Losing you.” Yet nothing quite stacks up to “Beautiful You”, the longest song Berman’s released to date and possibly the best. It isn’t just that “Beautiful You” has that perfect guitar line running from start to finish, or the lyrics touch on the realities of growing up and finding the right person to be with along the way: It’s that you’d have to be stone-hearted to not feel something here. Hopefully the Pains of Being Pure at Heart can one day top “Beautiful You,” and Days of Abandon. But it won’t be so simple and sure.

theywantmysoul3. Spoon – They Want My Soul

Wasn’t it great to have Spoon back this year? If the wait between albums for these indie rock elder statesmen felt long, that’s because it really was: their previous LP, Transference, was released way back in January ‘10. During their four-and-a-half-year hiatus, lead singer Britt Daniel recorded with Divine Fits, churning out songs reminiscent of Spoon’s most prolific work (like the aces “Would That Not Be Nice”) while drummer Jim Eno produced for other bands. The time away definitely paid off. Spoon returned to record their eighth studio album, They Want My Soul, and produced a sound consistent with their finest work like Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I enjoyed Transference upon its release, but there’s one thing that really separates They Want My Soul from its immediate predecessor: energy. Besides the plodding trip-hop of “Inside Out”, these 37 minutes move briskly, thanks to an overabundance of tremendous rockers. There’s the stomping, relentless intro “Rent I Pay”, the joyously buoyant title track with Spoon’s classic descending riffs and callbacks to previous enemies (“Jonathon Fisk still wants my soul!” Daniel screams midway through like an inside joke) and the “Paper Tiger”-like flange percussion of start-stop wonder “Knock Knock Knock.” Like on all Spoon releases, they aren’t afraid to try new things here. In addition to covering Ann-Margret (huh?) on “I Just Don’t Understand”, the appropriately-titled “Outlier” is a revelation, a maelstrom of voices and guitars set to a gaudy dance beat with jolts of synthesizers from start to finish. But They Want My Soul’s highlight is “Do You”, a perfect tune for its late June release. In a different universe, “Do You” would have been the 2014 Song of the Summer, an acoustic-driven jam recalling nights in the backyard running barefoot, chasing fireflies wishing the warmth would never end. “Someone get popsicles / Someone do something ‘bout this heat!” Daniel exclaims in his Brooklyn-via-Texas drawl. It’s exciting, fun and filled with wonderment, like the rest of They Want My Soul. Hopefully Daniel, Eno and Co. won’t make us wait so long next time.

atlas2. Real Estate – Atlas

As bands go, Real Estate is pretty basic. Led by New Jersey dudes Martin Courtney, Matt Mondanile and Alex Bleeker, Real Estate plays clean, no-frills guitar rock. They occasionally add in some keyboard color, but that’s about it. They’re outstanding technical players, with nothing ever sounding out of place or time. In an indie rock scene dominated by complexity, Real Estate keeps it really simple. So what sets them apart? I’d say it’s how easy they make it look, the familiarity their sound brings to any listener and their brilliant precision in creating a dreamy, easy-going aura around ridiculously melodic songs. They’ve reached their pinnacle on this year’s Atlas, their third album and first since mini-breakout Days in ‘11. The first time I listened to Atlas, I felt like I already knew all the songs. They’re so lived-in, so instantly recognizable and so indelible you can’t help but feel some connection. While the sounds are bright, the lyrics paint an achingly human picture about growing up, finding and losing love and what life in the “real world” really looks like. It starts with the beautiful winding riffs of “Had to Hear” amidst lyrics like “I had to hear you / Just to feel near you / I know it’s not true / But it’s been so long / I know it’s wrong.” “Past Lives” is a nostalgic look back at childhood and the world we leave behind when we grow up, presented alongside shimmering melodies. There’s also the bouncy lead single “Talking Backwards”, the countrified instrumental jam “April’s Song”, the toe-tapping “The Bend” (with its woozy, out-of-nowhere coda), Bleeker’s cowpath-inspired “How Might I Live” and the sad realizations in closer “Navigator.” Yet no song I heard in 2014 stacked up to “Crime”, the album’s emotional core (and you can play it, too!). With gorgeous guitar lines echoing Pavement’s past, Courtney and Mondaline play off each other fluidly while Courtney pleads for love: “I don’t wanna die / Lonely and uptight / Stay with me / All will be revealed.” Real Estate may be a simple band, but there’s nothing simple about the greatness of Atlas, and that’s revealed from start to finish.

lostinthedream1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Amazing fact: The Who’s “Long Live Rock” was written in 1972. That should give you some idea about how long the “rock is dead” debate has lasted. The guitar has become something of an endangered species, at least when it comes to indie. Guitars often just provide color. To that I say: Bah. My favorite album of 2014 is one of the best guitar rock albums in recent memory, thanks to Adam Granofsky (who dropped the stage name “Granduciel” at some point this year and went back to his birth name) and his third album with the War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream. This is a behemoth, clocking in at just over an hour with most songs hovering around six minutes or more (even the building mid-album interlude “The Haunting Idle” is over three minutes). The running time was my one complaint about Lost in the Dream initially. But over the course of 2014, I found its entirety to be so engrossing, so enthralling and just so damn good that any reservations I had about its length dissipated. It draws from the best Dylan, Springsteen, Young and Knopfler released in the ‘80s and especially derived from Dylan and Knopfler’s underrated opus Infidels, one of my favorite albums ever. Granofsky lives up to those lofty comparisons right away with the pulsating push of “Under the Pressure” and the reverb-soaked triumphant blitz of “Red Eyes”, its energy so riveting it feels like a roller coaster ride, with synthesizers sounding like carnival calliopes to boot. The shuffling blues of “Suffering” and “Disappearing” lead into the drum-machine propelled and devastatingly rocking “An Ocean Between the Waves.” The bigger theme of Lost in the Dream is about battling personal strife, which became a public battle for Granofsky in 2014. “There’s just a stranger / Living in me,” he says on “Eyes to the Wind.” But there’s a sense of overcoming those demons here, too. It comes through best on “Burning”, a blazing storm of guitars and synths with Born in the U.S.A. kickassery. “Cross the rich derivative of pain,” Granofsky belts during the last chorus, “crush the burning in your heart.” There’s an acoustic-driven break about 5:10 into closer “In Reverse” that perfectly signifies Granofsky’s sense of getting over. That’s what makes Lost in the Dream a titanic success not just for guitar rock, but for anyone who takes the time to dive in deep.

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