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”

LIST: My 20 Favorite Songs of 2014

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. Next week I’ll unveil my 20 favorite albums of 2014, followed by a retrospective on the best music of the first five years of the 2010s, likely to appear here closer to New Year’s.

I start with my 20 favorite songs of 2014, which wasn’t the greatest year for new music in recent memory but certainly had many terrific contributions from artists old and new. I’m presenting the cream of the crop below with 20 great songs, via YouTube clips below. I wrote about many of these songs in my mid-year top 10, so I’ll reserve further long-form thoughts for my albums post.

I slightly altered my criteria for the list this year, considering songs that had any kind of release (be it on a single or an album) in 2014. And, as always, I only included one song per artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Lastly, I created a YouTube playlist of these songs and a Spotify playlist here and at the bottom for your listening pleasure (don’t be thrown off by the numbers next to each song on the playlists, it’s meant to be listened to as a 20-1 countdown).

Enjoy the list and stay tuned for my albums post next week.

20. KENDRICK LAMAR – “i”

19. PARQUET COURTS – “WHAT COLOR IS BLOOD”

18. LAKE STREET DIVE – “RABID ANIMAL”

17. EAGULLS – “TOUGH LUCK”

16. SLEATER-KINNEY – “BURY OUR FRIENDS”

15. ST. VINCENT – “REGRET”

14. JACK WHITE – “LAZARETTO”

13. ARIEL PINK – “PUT YOUR NUMBER IN MY PHONE”

12. DUM DUM GIRLS – “ARE YOU OKAY?”

11. EX HEX – “HOT AND COLD”

10. SUN KIL MOON – “CARISSA”

9. THE BLACK KEYS – “GOTTA GET AWAY”

8. CYMBALS – “EROSION”

7. BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “LUNA”

6. FUTURE ISLANDS – “SEASONS (WAITING ON YOU)”

5. SPOON – “DO YOU”

4. TV ON THE RADIO – “COULD YOU”

3. THE WAR ON DRUGS – “BURNING”

2. THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “BEAUTIFUL YOU”

1. REAL ESTATE – “CRIME”

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2013

It’s the moment about a half dozen of you have been waiting for! After unveiling my favorite songs and concerts of 2013 earlier this month, I’m now ready to share with you my 10 favorite albums of the year. For reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011 and 2012.

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 that album.

20. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (“Lose Yourself to Dance”)

19. Toro y Moi – Anything In Return (“So Many Details”)

18. Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull (“Family Tree”)

17. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (“Can’t Live Without Your Love”)

16. Kanye West – Yeezus (“Bound 2”)

15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II (“Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”)

14. Washed Out – Paracosm (“All I Know”)

13. Arcade Fire – Reflektor (“Afterlife”)

12. Phoenix – Bankrupt! (“The Real Thing”)

11. Foals – Holy Fire (“Inhaler”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2013.

Jimmy_Eat_World_-_Damage10. Jimmy Eat World – Damage

I’ve counted on Jimmy Eat World to deliver the melodic rock goods since freshman year of high school. Every three years, they release a new album of pop-rock tunes. They tour, make a couple Boston stops, then head back to Arizona to cook up more. This year, the result was the superb Damage. Like 2010’s Invented, there’s a common thread here, with lead singer Jim Adkins calling it an “adult breakup record.” Adkins is rarely oblique with his lyrics, with hooky opener “Appreciation” evoking someone moving out (“We build / We box / We carry on / As people we forgot”). The landscape of Damage is littered with these heartfelt rockers: the frantic “Lean,” with its fuzzy riff; lead single “I Will Steal You Back” carrying a signature ripping Tom Linton guitar solo; straight-forward rocket “How You’d Have Me” with the best drum work here from the underrated Zach Lind. “No, Never” enters my Jimmy Eat World pantheon, hitting an emotional pitch with breakup lyrics, ringing guitars and their unmistakable pacing. “No, Never” could be on any Jimmy Eat World album, which is no small feat. And, for the first time ever, they end an album without a grandiose closer: in fact, they went completely counter with the sparse “You Were Good,” a beautiful acoustic ditty masking the most scathing lyrics in their catalogue. Adkins sings that “it was good, it was good, and it was gone.” The same goes for the 38 minutes of Damage. I can’t wait until they come back around in three years time.

SoftWill9. Smith Westerns – Soft Will

Smith Westerns were bound to grow up at some point. Sure, their hair still gets in their eyes, they still have a general pissant attitude, and, hell, the best song on their third album, Soft Will, is called “Varsity.” Yet it’s impossible to listen to this more complete, more polished body of work and not be happy about their direction. While lacking some of the anthemic punch of Dye it Blonde lynchpins like “Weekend” and “All Die Young,” Soft Will shows a band maturing around the ever-expanding songwriting chops of Cullen Omori and the playing of his bassist brother Cameron and lead guitarist Max Kakacek. The newfound growth takes Soft Will in surprising and rewarding directions. “Idol,” with its shimmering, liquidy licks, appears to be Omori speaking fondly of a father figure in his life who later does him wrong. Faster-paced “Glossed” sounds so George Harrison-esque I suspect several Rickenbacker 12-strings were used in its production. “White Oath” has a funereal feel until the guitars really kick in around the 2:55 mark, when budding virtuoso Kakacek takes over. There’s even a super-ominous instrumental, “XXXIII.” On the aforementioned closer “Varsity,” Omori goes to new glam-rock inspired heights with his lyrics (“Safety came in numbers / But all I needed was just one”) and longing guitars and synths from beginning to end. Now that Smith Westerns have finally started growing up, there’s no telling where their new wisdom will take them.

 FreeYourMind8. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

I’ll say this about Cut Copy: they’re not afraid to take chances. After their last two successful LPs, Zonoscope and In Ghost Colours, the Australian electro-rocking quartet went in a different direction with Free Your Mind. Lead singer Dan Whitford said they drew influence from the two Summers of Love in 1967 and 1988-1989 and that’s palpable throughout. The blow-away title track is an explosion with congas, keyboards and lyrics that could have been conjured by Timothy Leary. That’s followed by the dance stomp of “We Are Explorers” that still has euphoric blasts and a mid-song conga solo, then trance-like “Let Me Show You Love,” a hypnotic jam with major Whitford voice effects. Already, this is the most unusual Cut Copy music ever put to record and we’re not at the weirdest aspect of Free Your Mind yet. That would be the absurd spoken word interludes that unfortunately bring the album down as a whole. Making up for that is the brilliance of bass-driven “In Memory Capsule,” acoustic-fueled “Dark Corners & Mountain Tops,” and Zonoscope-ian “Meet Me in the House of Love.” But they chart new territory on “Take Me Higher,” a joyous take on the acid rock inspired by that latter Summer of Love. “Take Me Higher” could have been a Stone Roses song from a day they messed around with a synthesizer in the studio. Free Your Mind isn’t Cut Copy’s best, yet the results can’t be denied when they’re at their most focused.

mbv7. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

And then one night, it existed. Kevin Shields, the genius of noise who created My Bloody Valentine’s flawless Loveless, announced to Earth his 22-years-in-the-making follow-up was finally ready in early February. m b v isn’t Loveless, nor does it aim to be, nor is it possible for any album to be, even by the band that brought it to life in 1991. Instead, m b v stands alone, oblivious of anything else currently in the pop music consciousness. Shields draws from a most logical source, the only one that’s ever mattered to his painstakingly-complex style: himself. So many highlights are reminiscent of the past: opener “she found now” has the longingly beautiful balance of “Sometimes”; poppy triumph “new you” is a redux of the highly-regarded “Soon”; and the bone-crushing “nothing is” harkens back to the Isn’t Anything era. But relying on the past doesn’t stop Shields from looking forward. While the trippy, synthed-out, daring “in another way” is a breath of disquieting air, closer “wonder 2” bears no resemblance to anything I’ve heard in my life. It sounds like a helicopter stuck inside a washing machine. Yet somehow it’s melodic and listenable, just like everything My Bloody Valentine has done. Some view m b v as a gift merely for existing, with many of these songs originating at various points over the last two decades of work by Shields. But I hope beyond all hopes that Shields is nowhere close to finishing his exploration of the possibilities of guitar sound.

BonesWhatBelieve6. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

What Scottish trio Chvrches are attempting to do isn’t easy. To occupy a spot in the crowded electro-pop scene in 2013, a band or artist really has to stand out. How can you get notoriety when near every other band was weaned on New Order and Depeche Mode? And, truth be told, Chvrches debut full-length is a relatively no-nonsense effort in this space. What makes them different? It’s simply the quality of the songwriting, their fully-formed maturity as a band, the sheer number of outstanding songs and the distinctive vocals of lead singer Lauren Mayberry. Her fantastic voice makes songs like lurching opening “The Mother We Share,” frantic and fast “We Sink,” cool and creeping “Tether” and hard-stomping “Lies” so indelible and part of an outstanding stretch that opens The Bones of What You Believe. The only missteps on this album are the ones where Martin Doherty takes lead and on future releases I suspect Mayberry will be the sole vocalist. What I find so impressive about Chvrches here is their ability to alternate between catchy electro-pop in songs like “Recover” and “Gun,” then go to a much more dark, moody and dramatic place with “Night Sky” and “Science/Visions” in effortless motion. The way they move between the two makes me believe Chvrches will go as far as their talent will take them in the coming years. Bands like M83 and Passion Pit better watch their backs; these Scots are for real.

AM5. Arctic Monkeys – AM

It’s been fun to not only watch Arctic Monkeys grow but to grow with them. Amazingly, they’re already five albums into their career as they, like me, approach 30. There’s a sense in AM the once-wild boys are ready to settle down, but not without a fight. While some of the songs really rock, like very early single “R U Mine?” and building crusher “Arabella,” there’s something new linking most of the songs together: a killer groove. It starts early on slinky opener “Do I Wanna Know” with its heavy riff and lead singer Alex Turner’s unmistakable croons. With images like “spilling drinks on my settee” and that “nights are meant for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” Turner hits the theme of getting over late, drunk, pointless nights out. On similar creeper “One For the Road,” Turner “thought it was dark outside” when his potential partner felt much differently about their prospects. The album’s one slow song, the disguised-titled “No. 1 Party Anthem,” is about a prowling, collar-popping douchebag trying to score, only the way Turner tells it, that sunglasses-indoors a-hole is you. “Call off the search for your soul / Or put it on hold again,” Turner advises. Now that’s a definitive statement worthy of a generation that can’t make up its mind. There’s also the classically-long titled “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” that’s the closest thing to funk in their catalogue. Once we get to the finale, “I Wanna Be Yours,” Turner is finally ready to declare love to his one and only. But again, there’s a catch: the words aren’t his, instead belonging to legendary English street poet John Cooper Clarke. Still, Arctic Monkeys continued their growth on AM, and there’s no doubt we’ll be respecting them in the a.m. now, too.

 ModernVamp4. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend haters piss me off. “Oh, Ezra Koenig is SUCH a TOOL.” “They make music for people who wear boat shoes and drive BMWs.” “How FREAKING pretentious can a band be?” Spare me. Each Vampire Weekend album has represented a step in the development of a great band, with their debut establishing a unique Afro-pop sound and their second pushing their boundaries in numerous-if-disparate directions. Modern Vampires of the City finds Koenig and his compatriots settling into an area of creative cohesion among their influences and touching on a score of worldly topics, among them God, faith and existence. Anyone who still hates Vampire Weekend after this is just trying to be cool and needs to try harder. Plaintive, piano-driven opener “Obvious Bicycle” saunters into the acoustic guitar and organ jaunt of “Unbelievers,” which is the first of Modern’s songs to explore faith and the speaker’s place on Earth. “Step” is faux-funky; “Diane Young” is a frantic pop marvel with its play-on-words title and chorus; “Don’t Lie” is 2013 chamber pop at its finest. “Hannah Hunt” is the album’s emotional center, telling the story of a cross-country break-up with Koenig’s best-ever and most tortured vocals. “Everlasting Arms” comes off like a stripped-down take on Paul Simon’s iconic Graceland, harkening back to Vampire Weekend’s early African-influenced era. Quirky and fast “Finger Back” (with its great couplet “I don’t wanna live like this / But I don’t wanna die”) and “Worship You” follow before theological anthem “Ya Hey,” yet another great play-on-spiritual-words. Koenig pulls no punches with his lyrics “through the fire and through the flames.” The hype was right in every way on Modern Vampires of the City. If critics of Vampire Weekend still exist, it can’t be possibly on artistic merit anymore.

hummingbird3. Local Natives – Hummingbird

In 2010, Local Natives burst onto the indie rock scene with their fantastically-great debut Gorilla Manor. It was the soundtrack to a summer spent traipsing around Seacoast New Hampshire, providing welcome hard-rocking, somewhere-between-Grizzly Bear-and-Fleet Foxes melodies for the many miles I logged thanks to my job. For 2013, follow-up Hummingbird was a soundtrack of its own, representing the entirety of this year because of its January release. There isn’t a breakout hit from Hummingbird like Gorilla Manor’s knockout opener “Wide Eyes.” Instead, Hummingbird is stocked with impressive highlights showcasing a natural sophisticated progression of their sound, stoked by producer Aaron Dessner of the National. It’s marked by both quiet and loud moments, melded together for maximum emotional exposure. There was a lot of sadness surrounding the creation of Hummingbird, between the departure of original bassist Andy Hamm and the death of guitarist/keyboardist Kelcey Ayer’s mother. That sadness is felt most fervently on penultimate masterpiece “Colombia,” where Ayer openly wonders if his love in his mother’s final days is enough. It’s so personal, it’s like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation you shouldn’t hear, making it a moment of stunning courage for Ayer to share with us. Other lighter spots include opener “You & I” and its great Ayer vocals; “Ceilings” and its beautiful guitar arpeggios; “Three Months” with its soft piano and guitar colors. There’s also mid-tempo wonder “Heavy Feet,” where co-lead Taylor Rice takes over with Matt Frazier’s scattering drumming. Then, we’ve got the rockers, like the clash of Breakers, the catchy guitar romp of “Black Balloons,” and the urgency of “Wooly Mammoth.” They all come together in a serious sound crafted by these Los Angelenos and their well-versed producer. I got the chance to meet Local Natives in March and I told Frazier, quite bluntly, that I although I loved Hummingbird, there were still heights his band could reach. Instead of getting defensive, he was pleased. Matt said, “That’s good. That means we can still get better.” I have a feeling Hummingbird won’t be the last soundtrack for my life to come from Local Natives.

DaysAreGone2. Haim – Days Are Gone

I discovered Haim earlier this year when they were scheduled to open for Vampire Weekend at BU. Either the schedule was incorrect or the three California-based sisters never made it to Agganis that night, because I never saw them. Little did I know Haim, with guitarists Danielle and Alana and bassist Este, would become my favorite new band of 2013 and make one of the best pop-rock albums this decade with Days Are Gone, working with VW producer Ariel Rechtshaid. The sisters who range in age from 22 to 27 have played together most of their lives and while being a “new” band in a popular sense they’ve worked hard to develop an eclectic, rock-based sound so polished it’s downright scary. It starts immediately with world-beating opener “Falling,” a perfect Thriller-era marvel of dramatic pop. Things get more fun on the next few tracks, with “Forever,” “The Wire” and “If I Could Change Your Mind,” each with their signature pop flair and all three sisters taking lead vocals at various times, showing off the full range of their talents. A lot of the lyrics deal with scorned or soon-to-be-scorned lovers, with “The Wire” particularly venomous. (Have we figured out exactly what the hell Danielle is saying during the choruses?) Things go a bit deeper on “Honey & I,” the at-times quiet loomer that builds to a crashing crescendo. Lighter and underrated pop ditty “Don’t Save Me” is followed by two semi-experimental rockers, the synth-propelled title track and the out-of-this-world “My Song 5.” It’s hard to believe anyone besides Justin Timberlake could pull this off and call it pop, but “My Song 5” (that title had to be influenced by GarageBand, no?) is just weird enough to be a classic. Next, “Go Slow” is the album’s bedrock, a beautiful catharsis about a failed relationship with incredible Haim sister harmonies. Days Are Gone closes with fast-moving “Let Me Go” and the almost-celebratory “Running If You Call My Name,” capping an unforgettable debut. It’s hard to believe this is only the beginning for Haim.

TroubleWillFind1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

For many reasons, I found myself in a much better place in 2013 than any other year of my life. Because of that, I wondered how I’d receive new music from the National. In 2011, I tweeted the National were the perfect band for “a white 25-year-old college grad who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment.” It’s hard to call anything the National released on their previous four albums as sunny or bright. On 2010’s unimpeachable High Violet, song titles included “Sorrow” and “Terrible Love.” This spring brought news of a new album to be called, of all things, Trouble Will Find Me. How could I identify with Matt Berninger, the Dessners, the Devendorfs and their dour tones if I was no longer dour myself? It didn’t matter. Trouble Will Find Me finds the National as masters of their indie rock domain, at worst on par with their finest work, showcasing what they do best. As with all their slow-burning albums, you have to live with it over time to appreciate it. From the opening acoustic strums of “I Should Live In Salt” to the expressly downbeat and more-monotone-than-normal “Demons”; from the “Bloodbuzz Ohio” callback of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” to Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers power chords of “Sea of Love”; from the exhausted yells of “This is the Last Time” to Bryan Devendorf’s typical galaxy-shifting drumming on “Graceless”; from the sad shuffle of “Slipped” to the lilting longing love of “I Need My Girl”: you’re in the presence of greatness with each listen and with each listen you want more. Berninger is either at his most brilliant or most mad with his lyrics, his common contrast taken to extreme. “I was teething on roses / I was in Guns ‘n Noses” he blurts out in brooding opus “Humiliation.” Yet penultimate stunner “Pink Rabbits” has downtrodden Berninger as “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park” and “a television version of a person with a broken heart.” It’s both perfect and so terribly broken. Sentiments like those helped me realize connecting with a great album isn’t necessarily about identifying it with a place and time in your life. It’s about finding something that simply connects. Over the last six years no band has done that for me like the National, with Trouble Will Find Me perhaps the best collection of those connections yet.

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2012

I recently shared with you my list for my top 20 favorite songs of 2012 and I’m now pleased to share write-ups for my top 10 favorite albums of the year. Before I get to those, here are albums 20 to 11 on my list, with one song accompanying each album.

20. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill (“Psychedelic Pill”)

19. Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits (“Would That Not Be Nice”)

18. Dave Matthews Band: Away From the World (“Belly Belly Nice”)

17. Jack White: Blunderbuss (“Sixteen Saltines”)

16. Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania (“The Celestials”)

15. Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror (“Comeback Kid”)

14. The Killers: Battle Born (“Runaways”)

13. John Mayer: Born and Raised (“A Face to Call Home”)

12. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”)

11. Chromatics: Kill For Love (“Kill For Love”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2012.

hotchip10. Hot Chip: In Our Heads

There’s no question the five guys in Hot Chip are insanely talented. They’re constantly trading instruments during their live show, weaving tremendous tunes through electronic innovation and danceable funkiness. On In Our Heads, their immensely fun fifth album, the Brits led by Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard pick up where they left off with 2010’s One Life Stand. There’s the driving “How Do You Do,” the 80’s-synth pulse of “Don’t Deny Your Heart,” the dance floor jam of “Night And Day,” the longing depth of “Look At Where We Are” and “Now There Is Nothing.” In Our Heads finds its highest inspiration in two songs checking it at over seven minutes. The harshly intense “Flutes” is an opus with a ferocity sometimes bordering on insane (“Nothing’s making sense in my brain”). It has no shortage of different sounds (synths, bass, frickin’ marimbas!), essentially encapsulating everything great about Hot Chip in one song. And the penultimate “Let Me Be Him” is a joyous builder with enough hey-ohhhs to last all of 2012. Throw in bird sound effects and beautiful coos from Taylor during the dénouement and you’ve got a brilliant cap to a fantastic record.

japandroids

9. Japandroids: Celebration Rock

Celebration Rock should have never happened. Brian King and David Prowse’s two-piece Vancouver garage punk outfit Japandroids made their first album, Post-Nothing, as a way to kiss off their lack of success before going their separate ways. Then a funny thing happened: They got indie-huge, stayed together, toured and made Celebration Rock. And the results are nothing short of exhilarating. It’s hard to know if the guys in Japandroids are great musicians. King doesn’t sing so much as he shouts and his guitar playing is far from technical. But, man, do they ever get after it, and the songs on Celebration Rock are just about that: yelling like hell to the heavens on “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” loving with legendary fire on “Continuous Thunder,” colliding hearts on “Fire’s Highway,” feeling a blitzkrieg love with a Roman candle kiss on “Adrenaline Nightshift” and telling ‘em all to go to hell on “The House That Heaven Built.” These are songs about living each day, and night, like it’s your last and not one part of this album feels ironic. “Remember that night when you were already in bed / Said ‘fuck it,’ got up and drank with me instead?” King screams on “Younger Us.” For a band that came so close to dying, few albums in recent years have been as full of life as Celebration Rock.

twodoorcc

8. Two Door Cinema Club: Beacon

So Beacon has friggin’ terrible cover art. Comically bad. However, that shouldn’t deter you from diving deep into the sophomore offering from Northern Irish pop rock favorite sons Two Door Cinema Club. Their debut, Tourist History, probably has a few better songs than Beacon, but there’s a sense of polish, maturity and songwriting development evident here. Whereas Tourist History had songs with grating choruses like “Do You Want It All” and “This Is The Life,” that has been sonically cleansed from Beacon, replaced with better tracks like winding opener “Next Year,” dance-beat charged “Handshake,” and hard-rocking “Wake Up.” There are touches of math-rock influence throughout the album including on tracks like “Pyramid.” Lead singer Alex Trimble has grown significantly as a vocalist, his work best displayed on Beacon’s more tender moments like “The World Is Watching (With Valentina)” and “Settle.” Trimble and his mates hit their height on their best track to date, lead single “Sleep Alone.” At times sleepy and thoughtful, and at times swift and alive, “Sleep Alone” showcases everything great about Two Door Cinema Club. It’s got their signature mechanized drum beats, about a zillion different melodic guitar licks and a general sense of sadness in the lyrics amongst the giddiness of the sound. “And I may go / To places I have never been to / Just to find / The deepest desires in my mind,” Trimble sings. Two Door has all the makings of a pop band with tremendous appeal and staying power. Now if they could just find someone to make half-way decent cover art, they’d have no issues at all.

tameimpala7. Tame Impala: Lonerism

Perhaps my favorite thing about Tame Impala is that when I listen to their songs, I can close my eyes and imagine I’m listening to long-lost John Lennon demos from 1967. That’s because lead singer Kevin Parker has a voice nearly identical to Lennon and these Australians have crafted a sound capturing the best of psychedelic rock. Their second full-length, Lonerism, is a far more complete effort than their debut, Innerspeaker. With it, Tame Impala created a record following a loose theme evoked by its title. Parker’s subject is a man down on himself, isolated from humanity, questioning everything. “I just don’t know where the hell I belong,” he moans on the rollicking “Mind Mischief.” The album is littered with these kinds of sentiments; hell, one song is even called “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” Lonerism sees the band branching out a bit from its acid-induced influences and that’s best displayed on the bone-crushing “Elephant,” a Black Sabbath-inspired destroyer. I’ve got two favorites here: the lush, spacey “Music To Walk Home By,” which ends in a maelstrom of gorgeous descending guitar riffs; and the enigmatic and trippy “Apocalypse Dreams.” Seemingly on the brink of collapse for its near-six minute duration, it features some heavy piano, distorted Parker drones and a dramatic ending befitting the centerpiece of this terrific album. “Will I ever get there? / Does it even matter? Do I really need it there?” Lonerism doesn’t provide the answers. But with music this good, do you really want to know?

frankocean6. Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE

R&B isn’t a genre I’ve paid much attention to these last few years, but the hype surrounding Frank Ocean’s debut was something I couldn’t ignore. Perhaps the only non-insane member of Odd Future, Ocean’s songwriting chops are on full display on the expansive channel ORANGE. It’s a lengthy one, with over an hour of material and 17 tracks, but Ocean’s soulful, spirited touch makes it an engaging listen throughout. Slow jams like “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” “Sierra Leone,” “Pink Matter” and “Pilot Jones” showcase his range. “Bad Religion” is essentially a ballad, and takes on new meaning after Ocean’s courageous revelation this year. My favorite cut is “Sweet Life,” bursting at the seams with soul and recalling the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Ocean croons from his heart about having it all, but not really having what matters. “My TV ain’t HD,” he laments, “That’s too real.” The most memorable track, however, is probably the near-10 minute wonder “Pyramids,” an ultimately forlorn tale told in several disparate parts, the first detailing Cleopatra and cheetahs on the loose over a club beat, the second slowing to a synthesized dirge and Ocean pining for an, umm, lady of the night? It ends with an uncredited guitar solo from John Mayer, who appears several times on the album. Ocean, unbelievably, just turned 25. Here’s hoping channel ORANGE could just be a scratch on the surface of what’s to come.

theshins5. The Shins: Port of Morrow

Early in my teen years, I discovered something we call classic rock. The Shins’ Port of Morrow, the first album for frontman James Mercer’s outfit in five years, is a brilliant collection both 13-year-old me and 26-year-old me can adore. It’s difficult to categorize the music here as anything but a throwback to the classic rock era. Both in terms of sound and subject matter, listening to Port of Morrow reminds me of listening to Styx and Steve Miller Band songs from the ‘70s on WBLM, Portland’s legendary classic rock station. At the same time, the feeling in Mercer’s words and guitar work hit me right where I was earlier this year when this album came out. While the prospect of an album reminiscent of those bands might not sound enticing, trust me, Mercer is more in tune with Alex Chilton than Glenn Frey here. There’s the wistful sing-along “It’s Only Life” that sees Mercer’s subject trying to find common ground with someone having a tough time; the smooth rocker “No Way Down” that grooves along with great bass and drumming; the Billy Joel-inspired ditty “Fall of ‘82” that’s practically a nostalgia volcano; and the haunting acoustic tones of “September.” Penultimate track “40 Mark Strasse” is a shape-shifter, starting similarly to “September” but eventually morphing into a rocker complete with a creepy keyboard solo. But to me, nothing on the album can match the feeling, vigor and excitement of “Simple Song,” one of my favorite rock songs in years. From the opening organ notes to the final crashing exclamations, Mercer unfolds a love anthem with charging guitar lines that give me chills every time I hear them. “Good thing there’s nothing else in our lives so critical / As this little hole,” he falsettos at the end of each chorus. My favorite lyrics of 2012 come in the final couplet: “Love’s such a delicate thing that we do, with nothing to prove / Which I never knew.” My teen years are long since gone. But Port of Morrow gives me a taste of them with each listen.

grizzlybear4. Grizzly Bear: Shields

It’s hard to listen to Grizzly Bear and not be slightly intimidated. When Veckatimest came out three years ago, I was struck by its refined excellence, but also by a clear air of pretentiousness, like I would need a graduate degree and an affection for Bordeaux to fully appreciate it. This year’s Shields maintains some of that sense but aims higher for imagination. Here’s a band with intelligence, confidence, gravitas and ingenuity, ready to try new things but also keep their general aesthetic in tact. Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste are the driving creative forces, with producer/bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Chris Bear adding their distinctive touches. Rossen’s songs are typically guitar-based and often rocking, like tremendous opener “Sleeping Ute” and the crashing “What’s Wrong.” Droste’s more dramatic, sweepingly earnest sensibilities come out on songs like the aching “The Hunt” and the orchestral “Half Gate.” The best moments on Shields are ones where Rossen and Droste’s powers are shared, with two standouts in particular. “Speak In Rounds” is breathtakingly powerful, building throughout the first two verses on Droste’s quivers with Rossen’s forceful acoustic strumming adding to the suspense. Then it explodes as Rossen takes over for the choruses. The band does a beautiful job painting a picture with their sounds without overdoing it. Later on, “A Simple Answer” represents easily the most fun Grizzly Bear song I’ve heard, for at least its first four minutes. While Rossen pounds away at a bouncy piano line, the choruses are augmented by something that sounds an awful lot like a calliope, which completely fits the tenor of the song. Then, two-thirds through, everything grinds to a halt, with Droste commandeering the song with the best voice in indie rock. Droste has the lead on Shields’ best track “Yet Again,” another sweeping, full-sounding tune with his signature amazing vocals and guitar work that reminds me of Neil Young for reasons that escape me. “Take it all in stride,” the band harmonizes. “Speak, don’t confide / We barely have a case.” After Shields, Grizzly Bear have more than a good case they’re amongst the elite indie acts on Earth.

beachhouse3. Beach House: Bloom

Last year I wrote that M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was an attempt to synthesize dreams into musical form. This year, the album that comes closest to that effort is Bloom, the gorgeous, gauzy, woozy gem of a fourth album from Baltimore duo Beach House. Their last album, Teen Dream, helped them reach indie big-time, but Bloom is a more complete attempt at refining what should be their signature sound. Between Victoria Legrand’s swooning, languid vocals and synthesizer work and Alex Scally’s deeply melodic guitars, Beach House has one of the more unique sounds out there. Bloom starts off with a Murderer’s Row of three spectacularly crafted dream pop marvels, easily the best opening stretch of any album this year. These songs conjure the start of spring, which also happened to be when Bloom was released. Listening to “Myth,” “Wild” and “Lazuli” back-to-back-to-back should come with a Surgeon General’s warning they may lull you into a soft daze. It makes sense the first words Legrand sings on “Myth” are “drifting in and out.” “Myth” is a mid-tempo thriller, complete with massive vocal breaks and huge guitars. “Wild” picks up the pace ever so slightly, with mechanized drums providing a basis over which Legrand and Scally do their ethereal best. Legrand’s delicate handling of this song’s vocals, especially during the choruses, is breathtaking. “Lazuli,” however, is Beach House’s best accomplishment to date. Its scope is astounding, with two separate movements highlighting a tale of longing, comparing love to a precious, blue stone. “Like no other you can’t be replaced,” Legrand sings over and over as the song beautifully builds to a conclusion, “There’s nothing like lapis lazuli.” I can’t tell you how many times I hit the repeat button on that one this spring. The rest of Bloom may not be as incredible as those first three songs, but there’s more than enough to love: the soft arpeggios and keyboards of “Other People,” the deep, forceful charge of “The Hours,” the energy of “New Year.” On the final two tracks, Legrand and Scally reach new depths, with the piano-driven and fantastically melancholy “On the Sea” and the soft building closer “Irene.” As the latter gains steam, Legrand sings constantly about a “strange paradise.” It might not be strange, but it’s hard to describe Bloom as anything but a dreamy, sonic paradise.

wildnothing2. Wild Nothing: Nocturne

I fell hard for Nocturne, Jack Tatum’s second album as Wild Nothing, over the summer and fall months is because it draws influence from just about every corner of the indie world I presently enjoy. At the same time, Tatum wraps every track in his signature airy vocals and 80s-inspired, dream-poppy energy. According to trusty Wikipedia, a “nocturne” is a musical composition inspired by the night. Without a doubt, Nocturne has a nocturnal feel from beginning to end. The album  Opener “Shadow” is lifted high by string arrangements, a lively bass line and the first of many beautiful melodies heard  on Nocturne. “I’ll go with if you ask me to / But we wouldn’t get too far / Two strangers in the dark,” Tatum sings as his vocals get lost in watery guitars. Later comes the title track, which was my favorite song of 2012. It hit me while listening to  “Nocturne” in November this was the one. It’s not because it’s some brilliant exposition on love and life (the song ends with Tatum singing “You can have me / You can have me” over and over). It’s because that opening drum kick and main descending riff, the one that repeats at the beginning and after the verses, will always remind me of all the things that happened in my life this year. And that’s what good music should do, right? It helps that the song’s bass, drums and general feel are tremendous. That leads to the haunting “Through the Grass,” a song with an Animal Collective-style name that also doesn’t stray too far from that band’s aesthetic. “Only Heather,” the best love song on Nocturne, is rife with jangly, Real Estate-like guitars and weaves a beautiful narrative about that the only girl who “can make me feel this way,” whatever that feeling way be. “This Chain Won’t Break” and “Disappear Always” hit on their general retro efforts, with the latter in particular strongly evoking Britpop sensibilities. They lead into “Paradise,” Nocturne’s dance floor standout. “Paradise” would not seem out of place on recent albums by Cut Copy, with Tatum’s vocals sounding like Cut Copy’s Dan Whitford and by extension the monotone Brits that littered the synthpop landscape of yesteryear. But “Paradise” is Tatum’s own creation and I love how much fun this song gets after the breakdown. Nocturne ends on more wonderfully-crafted dreamy synth beauties, closing with “Rheya,” a hazy jam about a girl you can’t forget no matter how hard you try. Nocturne’s brilliance lies in its effortlessness. While this isn’t the most unique territory for any band in 2012, Tatum commands the dream pop rhealm with ease and comfort, making Nocturne one of the more enjoyable indie albums in years.

passionpit1. Passion Pit: Gossamer

A few years back, an unknown singer named Michael Angelakos wrote a few songs for his then-girlfriend, recorded them and gave them to her as a Valentine’s Day present. Fast forward to 2012 and Angelakos is the leader of one of the biggest indie acts in the world, going from playing basement parties in Allston and Cambridge to filling Madison Square Garden. As I’ve watched Passion Pit grow from a regional act to regularly having their music appear in TV shows and commercials, I often wonder how exactly it happened. But there’s no reason here to overthink it. Angelakos makes absolutely incredible music and that’s why his band caught on so much, and will hopefully continue to grow. Passion Pit’s debut Manners was my favorite album of 2009 and to say I was anticipating great things from a follow-up would be an understatement. Following up a strong debut is one of the hardest tricks to pull in music. Some bands like Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells were up to the task, while others like the xx and Best Coast were not in recent years. It only took one listen to Gossamer to allay any fears about where Passion Pit would fall on this. On Gossamer, Passion Pit expands on the electronic and synthy pop range of Manners, reaching new, often-delirious heights. Interestingly enough, the song I like least on Gossamer is “Take a Walk,” the album’s first song and lead single. It’s not to say I don’t like the song, but the lyrics beat you over the head with the story of an immigrant trying to make it in America and the choruses are less than inspired. The album truly gets going with the second track, “I’ll Be Alright,” a dance pop sensation that contains the bleeps and bloops so prevalent on Manners. It’s also the first nod lyrically to the internal strife surrounding Angelakos’ life made public this year. When he sings the title over and over, you want to believe him, but the maelstrom of sounds makes that impossible. Next is the bouncy, undeniably fun “Carried Away,” the most energetic track on Gossamer, recalling the enjoyment of “Little Secrets.” The most unique song on the album is the fourth track, the smooth, R&B jam “Constant Conversations.” It takes a moment to realize this is actually Passion Pit, given the measured pacing. But this is Angelakos at his deepest core, his most revelatory. “I’m just a mess with a name and a price / And now I’m drunker than before they / Told me drinking doesn’t make me nice.” From here the album keep building: the frantic “Mirrored Sea,” containing some of the album’s better backing samples; the sad longing of “On My Way,” where Angelakos name-checks his now-girlfriend Christina, who’s been through a lot with Michael; “Love is Greed” has some of those signature backing chorus vocals heard throughout Passion Pit’s debut. They lead into my favorite song on Gossamer, the triumphant, gigantic “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy.” This song soars from beginning to end, with Angelakos singing once again about his mental state (“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there / I was tied to a rocking chair”) with the chorus focused on the problems of a relationship (“How am I the only one who sees us fight?” and “It’s not fair / But I’m the only one who seems to care”). It feels like an anthem, but a personal one at the same time. Massive closer “Where We Belong” erupts a few minutes into the proceedings, providing a wonderful end to a gorgeous record. Reading the harrowing details about Angelakos’ personal demons makes it clear Passion Pit may not be around forever. No matter what happens, Passion Pit’s work to date will always hold a special place within me, with Gossamer their titanic achievement.