LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

17. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (“HUMBLE”)

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

15. Real Estate – In Mind (“Darling”)

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

13. Lorde – Melodrama (“The Louvre”)

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

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

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2017:

10. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

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

9. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

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

8. The xx – I See You

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

7. Haim – Something to Tell You

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

6. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life

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

5. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

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

4. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

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

3. The National – Sleep Well Beast

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

2. Jay Som – Everybody Works

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

1. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

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

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LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23. PASSION PIT – “I’M PERFECT”

22. THE SHINS – “NAME FOR YOU”

21. PINEGROVE – “INTREPID”

20. BEACH HOUSE – “CHARIOT”

19. SPOON – “CAN I SIT NEXT TO YOU”

18. KENDRICK LAMAR – “DNA”

17. BIG THIEF – “SHARK SMILE”

16. REAL ESTATE – “STAINED GLASS”

15. GRIZZLY BEAR – “MOURNING SOUND”

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

13. ST. VINCENT – “MASSEDUCTION”

12. THE COURTNEYS – “MINNESOTA”

11. JULIEN BAKER – “TURN OUT THE LIGHTS”

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

9. THE XX- “I DARE YOU”

8. JAPANDROIDS – “NO KNOWN DRINK OR DRUG”

7. HAIM – “YOU NEVER KNEW”

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

5. WAXAHATCHEE – “SILVER”

4. JAY SOM – “BAYBEE”

3. LORDE – “GREEN LIGHT”

2. THE WAR ON DRUGS- “STRANGEST THING”

1. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – “CALL THE POLICE”

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. David Bowie – Blackstar (“Lazarus”)

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

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

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2016.

local10. Local Natives – Sunlit Youth

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

parquet9. Parquet Courts – Human Performance

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

freetown8. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

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

diiv7. DIIV – Is the Is Are

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

blond6. Frank Ocean – Blonde

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

tlop5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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

jew4. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

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

pinegrove3. Pinegrove – Cardinal

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

whitney2. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

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

cshr1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

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

LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

25. TWO DOOR CINEMA CLUB – “BAD DECISIONS”

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

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

22. JOHN MAYER – “LOVE ON THE WEEKEND”

21. BON IVER – “29 #STRAFFORD APTS”

20. WILD NOTHING – “JAPANESE ALICE”

19. RADIOHEAD – “TRUE LOVE WAITS”

18. M83 – “GO!”

17. CULLEN OMORI – “CINNAMON”

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

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

14. PARQUET COURTS – “ONE MAN NO CITY”

13. LOCAL NATIVES – “PAST LIVES”

12. LUCY DACUS – “STRANGE TORPEDO”

11. BLOOD ORANGE – “E.V.P.”

10. SOLANGE – “CRANES IN THE SKY”

9. SUNFLOWER BEAN – “EASIER SAID”

8. KANYE WEST – “REAL FRIENDS”

7. FRANK OCEAN – “PINK + WHITE”

6. PINEGROVE – “NEW FRIENDS”

5. WHITNEY – “GOLDEN DAYS”

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

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

2. DIIV – “UNDER THE SUN”

1. JIMMY EAT WORLD – “SURE AND CERTAIN”

MUSIC: My 10 Favorite Songs of 2016 So Far

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

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

Enjoy!

CAR SEAT HEADREST – “DRUNK DRIVERS/KILLER WHALES”

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

CULLEN OMORI – “CINNAMON”

DIIV – “UNDER THE SUN”

KANYE WEST – “REAL FRIENDS”

M83 – “GO!” (FT. MAI LAN)

PARQUET COURTS – “ONE MAN NO CITY”

RADIOHEAD – “BURN THE WITCH”

SUNFLOWER BEAN – “EASIER SAID”

WILD NOTHING – “JAPANESE ALICE”

MUSIC: Pet Sounds Turns 50

The_Beach_Boys_-_Pet_Sounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“WOULDN’T IT BE NICE”

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

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

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

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

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

“YOU STILL BELIEVE IN ME”

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

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

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

“THAT’S NOT ME”

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

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

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

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

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

Love it. Always have, and always will.

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

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

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

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

“I’M WAITING FOR THE DAY”

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

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

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

“LET’S GO AWAY FOR AWHILE”

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

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

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

“SLOOP JOHN B”

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

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

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

“GOD ONLY KNOWS”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I KNOW THERE’S AN ANSWER”

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

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

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

“HERE TODAY”

It starts with just a little glance now.

This is easily the most fun song on Pet Sounds.

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

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

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

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

“I JUST WASN’T MADE FOR THESE TIMES”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“PET SOUNDS”

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

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

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

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

“CAROLINE, NO”

This song, man. Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

LIST: My 20 Favorite Songs of 2015

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s mid-December, I’m ready to share with you what made the cut for my favorites of the year, starting with my 20 favorite songs of 2015.

This has been a truly incredible year for new music, and I had a very tough time cutting down this list to 20 and even coming up with a fair order. I wrote about many of these songs on my mid-year top 10 list, and as usual 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 2015. 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 20-1 countdown, despite the numbers next to each song).

Here are my favorite songs lists for 2012, 2013 and 2014.

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

20. EL VY – “RETURN TO THE MOON (POLITICAL SONG FOR DIDI BLOOME TO SING, WITH CRESCENDO)”

19. VIET CONG – “SILHOUETTES”

18. UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “CAN’T KEEP CHECKING MY PHONE”

17. ALABAMA SHAKES – “SHOEGAZE”

16. BEST COAST – “FEELING OK”

15. GRIMES – “FLESH WITHOUT BLOOD”

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

13. WAXAHATCHEE – “UNDER A ROCK”

12. PASSION PIT – “WHERE THE SKY HANGS”

11. BEACH HOUSE – “SPACE SONG”

10. TOBIAS JESSO JR. – “WITHOUT YOU”

9. KURT VILE – “PRETTY PIMPIN”

8. TORO Y MOI – “EMPTY NESTERS”

7. DEERHUNTER – “BREAKER”

6. DESTROYER – “DREAM LOVER”

5. CHVRCHES – “CLEAREST BLUE”

4. SLEATER-KINNEY – “A NEW WAVE”

3. MIGUEL – “WAVES”

2. TAME IMPALA – “LET IT HAPPEN”

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

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.”

MUSIC: The Half-Decade That Was

With five years nearly down for this decade, I thought I’d share some thoughts about the music that mattered most to me during the five years of 2010 through 2014. There’s certainly been some outstanding music these years and there’s been a lot to digest. I’ve been to many great concerts and come across so many incredible artists through friends, websites like Pitchfork and the A.V. Club and by always keeping my ear to the ground.

This will be something of a hodgepodge of superlatives and random thoughts on these past five years, but at the end I’ll provide lists of my 50 favorite songs, 10 favorite concerts and 10 favorite albums of the past half-decade. These will be presented without much commentary since you can read what I’ve had to say about most of these artists and their work in other places on my blog.

I’ll open up with some general thoughts on what’s happened in music since 2010.

At no time in history has it been easier to access music. That can be both a terrifically awesome and horrifically calamitous thing, for both listeners and artists. I won’t get into the debate about how the streaming services potentially screw over artists, but it’s pretty amazing for listeners to have access to a massive library of music at any given time as long as they have a stable Internet connection.

Where I find this troublesome is that listeners have so many options at their disposal and such quick access to those options that I wonder how many people really take the time anymore to get into a single artist or album, but instead just jump around from song to song willy-nilly. That I make such a huge deal about albums at the end of each year and write 3,000 words about my favorites puts me in a distinct minority, at least among people around my age.

We’re rapidly entering a phase where the 50-plus-year-old album-based model for popular music is deteriorating. When I come back to write a decade retrospective in five years, will albums still be a thing? Will artists revert to a model of releasing more EPs or individual tracks? Deep down, I don’t think albums are going away anytime soon. I think there’s still a large enough group of people who like to dive deep into the minutiae of how songs interact with each other in a bigger picture to keep the album alive. At least that’s what I hope.

That easy access to music helps diversify and evolve the tastes of people like me who really get into this stuff. It makes it so much easier to find out about (and sample the sounds of) new artists, to know when that new band you like is coming to town and to connect with others about what you like (or don’t like). This is how I have artists as different as Kendrick Lamar and Mark Kozelek show up on my year-end lists. Not only are more people listening to music now than ever, they’re also listening to more different kinds of music and appreciating things they never would have imagined without that access.

Take a band like Neutral Milk Hotel. Their last album was released in 1998 and unless you read indie magazines or alt-weeklies like the dearly-departed Boston Phoenix, or just so happened to pay attention to the Georgia freak folk scene of the late-’90s, odds are you never knew anything about them when they were together in their initial run. Their last album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea eventually grew into a cult favorite and by the time the band reunited for tours starting in 2013, they had enough of a fanbase to sell out theaters and play to festival crowds.

Today, it would be exceedingly rare for a band like Neutral Milk Hotel to go unnoticed. Quality music tends to spread like wildfire thanks to social media and the finely-tuned ears of those who run music blogs and websites. That’s not to say an album with initially-tepid reception won’t find second life later on these days. It’s just that if you’re paying attention, good music doesn’t get overlooked so much anymore.

So while the paradigm is shifting in some respects, there’s still amazing music of every flavor imaginable being made and it’s never been easier to get it. For that we should all be thankful.

ONE LATE 2014 ADDITION

One of the problems with putting out my year-end lists before the year actually ends is there’s always a chance something will come out late in the year that I either don’t give enough consideration (I typically start writing my albums post in mid-November), or it arrives after everything’s been written and posted. The latter happened this year.

On Dec. 15, the elusive neo-soul/funk legend D’Angelo released Black Messiah, his first album in 14 years in the best possible sneak-attack on our senses. D’Angelo worked on this album off and on over the last decade-plus and it was worth the wait.

D’Angelo went through lots of personal strife to get to this point, plus I think he really wanted to shake the persona as “that guy who was naked in that music video way back” and be known for what he really is: a virtuoso who very much belongs in the same breath with guys like George Clinton, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder.

Although Black Messiah was slated to be released next year, D’Angelo reportedly asked it be pushed up to this month because of the ongoing protests around the killings in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. His engineer told the New York Times the album is “pretty much right out of the oven – it’s still hot.”

“Hot” is definitely a great way to describe Black Messiah. The songs touch on numerous topics, some are politically-charged while others are simply about love. The influence of everyone I listed above is present here, in addition to many others, like the Hendrix guitars of “Prayer” and the Miles Davis-inspired flamenco sketches of “Really Love.” And you can’t help but love the classic funky strut of a song like “Sugah Daddy.”

When it all comes together, Black Messiah feels like a capital-A album, with everything working in concert and one song flowing perfectly into the next in a way few albums do these days.

I know I only have a couple weeks of listening to Black Messiah under my belt, but if I could re-do my favorite albums list for 2014, I’d slot this third, just under Atlas and ahead of They Want My Soul. As for a favorite song, it’s a tossup between the full-bodied shuffle of “The Charade” and the gorgeous, epic closer “Another Life”, but you really can’t go wrong with anything here. I’m just thrilled D’Angelo is back in all of our lives.

FAVORITE BANDS, OLD AND NEW

This is not going to come as a shock to anyone who pays attention to what I write here, follows me on Twitter or knows me at all, but my favorite band of this half-decade is, without question, the National. I wrote about them at length here when I named Trouble Will Find Me my favorite album of ‘13 and I don’t have much more to add now. They’re so rock solid, write incredible songs, sound unbelievably great live, get behind causes I believe in, Bryan Devendorf is the best drummer on Earth and I can’t wait to find out what they do next. It may not be until ‘16, but here’s hoping we get a taste sooner than that.

For anyone who hasn’t, I highly recommend checking out Mistaken For Strangers, the documentary piloted by lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother, Tom, when Tom worked as a roadie on one of the National’s recent tours. You don’t have to be a fan of the National to appreciate it, but it gives you an interesting view into band dynamics, how a tour works, and above all, the relationship between two brothers at very different places in their lives.

Also check out this awesome Song Exploder podcast where Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner discuss how they wrote Trouble‘s seminal track, “Sea of Love.”

Other artists/bands that really stand out to me during this stretch include: Arctic Monkeys, the band who has come of age alongside me and finally hit the mainstream bigtime in ‘13. I never expected it would be a song like “Do I Wanna Know?” that would push them over the top. I’m excited to see what they have in store…Cut Copy, the electro-pop heroes from Australia who can seemingly do no wrong (except for those weird interludes on Free Your Mind, but I digress) released two strong LPs and I believe will continue their world-conquering ways in the next half-decade…Local Natives defined what it means to be a workmanlike band in the ‘10s, producing two outstanding albums in Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird, drawing from the best of bands like the National and Grizzly Bear and touring their asses off. Their best work is still to come…Vampire Weekend continues to grow by leaps and bounds, following up their great debut by releasing the varied Contra and then last year’s refined Modern Vampires of the City, which I expect will help launch them into the type of career reserved for the best of the best…Other artists I want to make sure I mention here include Passion Pit, TV on the Radio, Spoon, Two Door Cinema Club, Bombay Bicycle Club, Real Estate, St. Vincent, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Haim, Japandroids, Dum Dum Girls, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wild Nothing, Beach House and Hot Chip.

It was also great to see some reunions and comebacks over these years, including live revivals for the Stone Roses, Pavement and, as mentioned above, Neutral Milk Hotel. David Bowie returned with his first album of new material in over decade but didn’t tour, while My Bloody Valentine finally followed up Loveless with an album and an equally-acclaimed tour. Now, if only we could get Talking Heads back together…

IT WASN’T ALL GREAT…UNFORTUNATELY

I know at this point Festivus has passed, but I’d like to take this opportunity to air some grievances and say how certain things in the world of music have disappointed me in the last five years.

In ‘09, no band was more on top of the indie world than Animal Collective. After several critically-acclaimed releases through the 2000s, they unleashed Merriweather Post Pavilion early in the year and the album exploded behind standout single “My Girls.” Their experimental electronic sound dominated by psychedelic synthesizers was imitated in many places and their producer, Ben H. Allen, was suddenly one of the most in-demand producers in the industry. At the time I felt Merriweather Post Pavilion was the closest thing to Pet Sounds I’d heard in years, both in terms of subject matter and overall feel. Later that same year, they released an EP of leftover songs, Fall Be Kind, that was similarly lauded.

Unfortunately, the band didn’t really capitalize on this success. As a “collective,” members slipped in and out over the next few years, with Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Dave “Avey Tare” Portner releasing solo records before reuniting in 2012 for the wildly underwhelming Centipede Hz. Only the album’s first two songs, “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural”, represented anything close to the depth and innovation from Merriweather Post Pavilion. The rest was mostly incoherent noise splattered across the canvas. I did see the full band live in March ‘13 and they were excellent, however, this was just before they had to cancel the rest of their tour due to an illness for Panda Bear.

There’s been no indication Animal Collective plans to record again anytime soon, with Panda Bear (who’s always been the McCartney of the group) set to release another solo album next year. The first track from that, “Mr Noah”, is promising. But it’ll be sad if the band never comes close to their creative high of ‘09 again. They certainly haven’t so far in this decade.

Other disappointments: It took me a while to warm up to the Black Keys and I was finally on board after mostly liking Brothers and loving El Camino, but they took a major step back with Turn Blue this year. How about getting back to rocking, guys? And don’t think I haven’t noticed the same trend in you, Kings of Leon…At some point in ‘10-’11, John Mayer stopped making accessible blues-rock and turned into Harvest-era Neil Young in just about every way. Normally, I’d think this is a great thing, but I really miss the Try!/Continuum/best parts of Battle Studies-era Mayer who destroyed everything in his path with his Fender (I bet he secretly wishes he’d been the one to come out with something like Black Messiah). Here’s hoping he reunites with Steve Jordan very soon…Arcade Fire is one of my favorite bands, they were outstanding live when I saw them a few months ago and I generally have very few bad things to say about their music. However, they botched the rollout of Reflektor, waited way too long to announce a tour and went to exorbitant lengths to build up an album that to me didn’t really live up to the hype. Maybe scaling things back for the next album won’t be a bad idea…and finally, I’m generally disappointed by the break-ups or indefinite hiatuses for LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Girls, Fleet Foxes, the Walkmen and, most recently and perhaps most dishearteningly, Smith Westerns. I say that because of how young they are and I don’t know if any of them will reach the band’s lofty promise on their own.

MY TOP 50 FAVORITE SONGS OF ‘10-’14

The full list of my 50 favorite songs is here in a Spotify playlist and, unlike my usual yearly lists, includes more than one song from an album in some instances. One missing song is My Bloody Valentine’s “she found now”, which was No. 24 on the list and isn’t available on Spotify. Otherwise, it’s listed in order from 50-1.

Here’s the top 10 with embedded YouTube clips, and some words about the #1 song at the end:

10. THE NATIONAL – “CONVERSATION 16” (2010)

9. PASSION PIT – “IT’S NOT MY FAULT, I’M HAPPY” (2012)

8. BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “TAKE THE RIGHT ONE” (2011)

7. THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “BEAUTIFUL YOU” (2014)

6. THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE” (2013)

5. WILD NOTHING – “NOCTURNE” (2012)

4. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – “ALL I WANT” (2010)

3. CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD” (2013)

2. REAL ESTATE – “CRIME” (2014)

1. M83 – “MIDNIGHT CITY” (2011)

“Midnight City” endures for me as the best song so far this decade and one of my favorite songs ever because of how excited it still makes me even though I should be tired of it by now. Everything works together so well, from the blaring melody siren throughout, the lyrics about seizing the evening and the surprise saxophone solo that I still love hearing. There’s something for everyone in “Midnight City.” I hope M83 and its leader, Anthony Gonzalez, return guns blazing soon with something remotely as spellbinding as “Midnight City.”

MY 10 FAVORITE CONCERTS OF ‘10-’14

There’s no way I could rank these concerts, so I’ll present them to you in chronological order. Like I did with my overall list a couple years ago, I’m basing this on the greatness of the headliner, the greatness of the entire bill, my personal memories of the show and the overall concert experience.

9/28/10 – LCD Soundsystem with Sleigh Bells at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

11/20/11 – M83 with Active Child at the House of Blues, Boston MA

6/6/12 – Dave Matthews Band at the Xfinity Center, Mansfield MA

9/23/12 – David Byrne and St. Vincent at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

5/26/13 – Youth Lagoon, Dirty Projectors, the Walkmen, Of Monsters and Men and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

6/4/13 – The National with People Get Ready at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Providence RI

8/11/13 – Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake at Fenway Park, Boston MA

11/16/13 – Cut Copy with Larry Gus at the House of Blues, Boston MA

4/17/14 – The War on Drugs at Paradise Rock Club, Boston MA

9/5/14 – Future Islands, Neutral Milk Hotel and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

MY 10 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF ‘10-’14

Thanks for reading this far. My 10 favorite albums so far this decade are as follows:

10. Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix (2011)

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Top songs: “Take the Right One”, “Lights Out Words Gone”, “Shuffle”

9. Haim – Days Are Gone (2013)

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Top songs: “Falling”, “Forever”, “Go Slow”

8. Real Estate – Atlas (2014)

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Top songs: “Crime”, “Had to Hear”, “Past Lives”

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne (2012)

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Top songs: “Nocturne”, “Only Heather”, “Paradise”

6. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (2011)

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Top songs: “Pharaohs & Pyramids”, “Take Me Over”, “Alisa”

5. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (2014)

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Top songs: “Burning”, “Red Eyes”, “Eyes to the Wind”

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

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Top songs: “POWER”, “All of the Lights”, “Runaway”

3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

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Top songs: “Sea of Love”, “Graceless”, “Pink Rabbits”

2. Passion Pit – Gossamer (2012)

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Top songs: “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy”, “I’ll Be Alright”, “Love is Greed”

1. The National – High Violet (2010)

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Top songs: “Conversation 16”, “Lemonworld”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

With that, I’m done. Happy New Year and happy listening!