LISTS, MUSIC

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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LISTS, MUSIC

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”

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LISTS, MUSIC

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”

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LISTS, MUSIC

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.

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MUSIC

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”

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LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2015 So Far

It’s July 1, so that means it’s time for my list of my favorite songs of the year as we hit the midway point. It’s been a great year so far, and whittling this list down to 10 was very difficult. But these 10 are the ones that caught my attention the most. Here they are in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.

BEST COAST – “FEELING OK”

The leadoff track from Best Coast’s fourth album California Nights, “Feeling Ok” is an early entrant into the Song of the Summer sweepstakes for me, although I’m sure I’m in the minority. Maybe in another universe where surf rock-influenced indie pop is listened to by the greater populace, I would have a case. But alas, “Feeling Ok” is just here for those of us lucky enough to find it. Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno kicked off their latest album with a real shot of life, a perfect opener with an arpeggio melody running throughout over power chords born from the beaches of their native Golden State. Despite the sunny music, Cosentino seems broken in her lyrics, but there’s hope here too: “I know someday I’ll find it / Where I least expect it.” For now, roll down the windows, turn it up and you’ll feel ok, too.

KENDRICK LAMAR (FEAT. BILAL, ANNA WISE & THUNDERCAT) – “THESE WALLS”

It doesn’t feel right to pull just one song from Kendrick Lamar’s outstanding To Pimp a Butterfly for this list. Unlike just about all the other songs on this list, “These Walls” fits into the bigger narrative of an album so beautifully and to assess it outside that context seems cruel to the artist’s intent. But, “These Walls” deserves to be singled out thanks to its melodic guitar licks, easy flow, soulful construction and Kendrick’s verses about…well…just listen. It should be pretty clear. The overall feel is reminiscent of many of Kendrick’s breakout songs from his first two albums. “These Walls” takes an interesting turn late where he references a gang shooting that was a major subject in Kendrick’s opus good kid, m.A.A.d. city. No question, “These Walls” is a complicated song, from a complicated album by a complicated but hugely talented artist. All that informs its greatness.

MADEON (FEAT. PASSION PIT) – “PAY NO MIND”

French house and electropop producer Hugo Pierre Leclercq, aka Madeon, is just 21 years of age, but his debut behemoth of an album, Adventure, was made with the precision of someone with twice his experience. He amassed an impressive roster of collaborators for Adventure including Foster the People’s Mark Foster and Bastille’s Dan Smith, but his best collaboration is with Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit. The resulting “Pay No Mind” is a wickedly energetic pop ditty with huge choruses, bigger guitars (from Two Door Cinema Club’s Sam Halliday) and even more enormous synths. It’s my favorite song of the year so far, because it simply brings a smile to my face every time it comes on. It mixes Passion Pit’s sweetness with a killer dance beat not often heard on Angelakos’ own work. Thanks to songs like “Pay No Mind,” Madeon will follow in Disclosure’s footsteps as the next huge electropop star.

PASSION PIT – “WHERE THE SKY HANGS”

Speaking of Passion Pit, they’re back. I use the term “they” loosely: thanks to numerous lineup changes, it’s obvious Passion Pit is just Angelakos’ solo project these days. Despite that, Passion Pit still churns out excellent electronic pop songs his Angelakos’ signature angelic vocals. Kindred is likely Passion Pit’s weakest effort to date on the whole, but it has many high points, including the R&B groove of centerpiece “Where the Sky Hangs.” From that opening bass run to ending melody fade-out, “Where the Sky Hangs” slinks along unlike any Passion Pit song to date. The out-and-out electronic smashes of the first two albums don’t appear here, but that’s fine. I wish there’d been more songs like this on Kindred, but we can be thankful for “Where the Sky Hangs.” “I’ll take all that I can get / Just don’t make me go,” Angelakos sings in this one’s great chorus.

SLEATER-KINNEY – “A NEW WAVE”

After a decade on hiatus, Sleater-Kinney reunited this year to reclaim the riot grrrl throne they had a major hand in building in the ‘90s and early-’00s. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss released No Cities to Love in January with more polish than any of their older releases, clearly drawing influence from contemporary rock like Arctic Monkeys in addition to their own gloried, gritty punk rock past. Of the songs to first appear in 2015, I like “A New Wave” the best, with its fuzzy guitar lines and Weiss’ phenomenal crashing drums. Brownstein’s voice darts out of the speakers and socks you in the face with its primal intensity. When Tucker and Brownstein shout “No outline will ever hold us” in the chorus, it feels breathtakingly true. The new wave in some ways feels like the old wave from Sleater-Kinney, but it’s great to have them back.

TAME IMPALA – “LET IT HAPPEN”

Tame Impala is ready to conquer the world with the soon-to-be-released Currents. Kevin Parker took his band to awesome heights on 2012’s Lonerism, but anchored by the psychedelic wonder of “Let It Happen,” don’t be surprised to hear Tame Impala mentioned in the same breath as the most popular rock acts out there soon. With “Let It Happen,” Parker and his mates go on a wild eight-minute journey, complete with every synth sound you can imagine, voice effects, distinct movements, a heavy guitar line that shows up late and Parker’s typical Lennonish vocals. This song is insane, and I love every second of it. You won’t hear anything quite like this from anyone else this year. “Something’s trying to get out,” Parker croons during one of the breakdowns, “And it’s never been closer.” Yes, Tame Impala is close to something huge, and “Let It Happen” is an incredible realization of their potential.

TOBIAS JESSO JR. – “WITHOUT YOU”

Are singer-songwriters making a comeback? If so, I’d expect the lanky Canadian Tobias Jesso Jr. to lead the charge. With his outstanding debut album Goon in tow, Jesso has drawn comparisons to ‘70s stars like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. I hear Nilsson most when Jesso sings, and hell, they both have signature songs called “Without You.” Jesso’s “Without You” is a gorgeous, tender piano ballad with sparse instrumentation that can bring even the hardest of souls to their knees. With his pal Danielle Haim tapping at the drums, Jesso loses himself singing about a love he can’t bear to lose. “I can hardly breathe without you / There is no future I want to see without you.” It’s so simple but says so much. And after you listen to “Without You,” be amazed by this: Jesso learned how to play piano only two years ago. I know, right

TORO Y MOI – “EMPTY NESTERS”

People who’ve read me here know I always appreciate when artists try new things. In the case of Chaz Bundick and What For?, his fourth album as Toro y Moi, this is an instance of an artist trying something old that sounds new for them. Here, Bundick eschews much of the electronic/chillwave music that established him as an indie star this decade for a very straight-forward rock album that harkens back to ‘70s-era classic rock. While it seems some critics dismissed this turn, I love it, and the change sounds no better than on “Empty Nesters.” The guitars are so full of life, the synth runs so fun, the higher-register vocals of Bundick so earnest rhapsodizing about growing up and moving on. “Covered and smothered by my high schools dreams / Call Mom and Daddy ‘cuz the nest is empty.” Bundick doesn’t just try something new on “Empty Nesters,” he dives in head first to outstanding results.

VIET CONG  – “SILHOUETTES”

If you can get past the controversy about their name, Viet Cong is one of the best up-and-coming guitar-rock bands out there at the moment. These Calgary guys released their self-titled debut LP in January, overpopulated with dramatic guitar lines recalling Joy Division/New Order and Paul Banksian vocals from bassist Matt Flegel. That sense of building drama through awesome, ‘80s-tinged guitar rock comes through brilliantly on penultimate track “Silhouettes.” In several spots during “Silhouettes,” it feels like the band is about to burst at the seams. The shifting time signatures alone make it feel like a roller coaster ride. Drummer Mike Wallace does a great job keeping it all together with a sprawling drum performance that never lets up. “Relay, reply, react and respond / The simple task of turning it on / Only receiving electrical shocks.” Somewhere Ian Curtis is listening to this song cranked up as loud as he can.

WAXAHATCHEE – “UNDER A ROCK”

Katie Crutchfield doesn’t sound particularly pleased with the subject of “Under a Rock,” the best song on Ivy Tripp, the third full-length album from her indie rock project Waxahatchee (so named after a creek in Crutchfield’s native Alabama). “Maybe I let on that I was interested / In your brand of lonely,” she sings over the smashing cymbals and crunchy alternative-era guitars from her backing players. Amidst the rancour she directs at a probably soon-to-be-former lover is quite a bit of fun. “Under a Rock” a quick rocker reminiscent of Pavement and their ‘90s contemporaries both in sound and somewhat quirky wordplay. There’s something unique about a song this simple-sounding that sports a metaphorical lyrical riff about breaking into “a brick house you’ve built around your cranium.” Ivy Tripp goes in several different directions as an album (including several with very few instruments), but Crutchfield is at her best with the full-bodied rock of “Under a Rock.”

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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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