LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. David Bowie – Blackstar (“Lazarus”)

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

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

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2016.

local10. Local Natives – Sunlit Youth

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

parquet9. Parquet Courts – Human Performance

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

freetown8. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

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

diiv7. DIIV – Is the Is Are

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

blond6. Frank Ocean – Blonde

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

tlop5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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

jew4. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

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

pinegrove3. Pinegrove – Cardinal

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

whitney2. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

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

cshr1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

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

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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”

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 10 Favorite Albums of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Eagulls – Eagulls (“Possessed”)

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

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

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

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

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

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2014.

tootrue10. Dum Dum Girls – Too True

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

seeds9. TV on the Radio – Seeds

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

rips8. Ex Hex – Rips

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

benji7. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

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

singles6. Future Islands – Singles

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

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

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

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

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

theywantmysoul3. Spoon – They Want My Soul

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

atlas2. Real Estate – Atlas

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

lostinthedream1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

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

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 Favorite Songs of 2014 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, with more and more artists old and new making an impact. These 10 songs have caught my attention the most of all. Here they are in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.

THE BLACK KEYS – “GOTTA GET AWAY”

The new album from Black Keys, who quickly became one of the biggest bands in the world after nearly a decade of obscurity, is a letdown. Bands are entitled to clunkers every now and then and I hope Turn Blue, which is overpopulated with mid-tempo rockers reminiscent of recent Kings of Leon albums, is just a bump in the road for this immensely well-regarded duo. There are a few bright spots, none brighter than closer “Gotta Get Away.” The three-minute rocker has an air of summer kick-assery that arrived just in time for warm weather this year. It’s definitely a roll-down-the-windows-and-shout-the-lyrics-whilst-not-caring-if-anyone-sees kind of jam. Dan Auerbach sings about getting the hell away from a bad lover over terrific licks and throwback Hammond organ tones. If only the rest of Turn Blue was half as awesome as “Gotta Get Away.”

BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “LUNA”

I appreciate bands willing to take a chance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails. For Bombay Bicycle Club, whose critical breakout A Different Kind of Fix is undoubtedly one of my favorite albums of the last five years, they took their indie rock stylings in a direction that included sampling, electronica and world music on So Long, See You Tomorrow. Lead singer Jack Steadman, taking the controls for the first time as producer, did masterful work especially on the album’s standout track “Luna.” With tribal rhythms, voices from around the world, an outstanding bass line by Ed Nash, and a general sense of adventure, “Luna” is the London band’s most ambitious and daring indie-pop effort to date and they succeed with flying colors. A great song can make you feel like you’re going on a journey, and I’m ecstatic these guys took a chance on the journey of “Luna.”

CYMBALS – “EROSION”

During a year that saw new music from the likes of the National, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, Arctic Monkeys and so many others, my favorite song of the year came from a little-known London band called CYMBALS who produced the awesomely-gripping dance rocker “The Natural World.” They followed up that gem with an album full of excellent songs on The Age of Fracture. The best of the non-“Natural World” bunch is “Erosion,” a sprawling wonder tying together many of CYMBALS’ most obvious influences, including ‘80s-era sounds from the Cure, New Order and Depeche Mode. The lyrics from Jack Cleverly (what a great name) present the speaker as a metaphorical ocean, eroding away the bad feelings from a failed relationship. “I’m getting over this thing,” he signs, while the synths and high-pitched guitars squeal behind his Robert Smith-intoned vocals.

DUM DUM GIRLS – “ARE YOU OKAY?”

Behind the velvety soft voice, poignant lyrics and accessible guitar strums of lead singer Dee Dee, Dum Dum Girls are a personal favorite of mine among unheralded indie rock bands. Each of their recent releases has contained at least one song I couldn’t listen to enough and they continued that trend in 2014. On Too True, the Girls took a more poppy turn and released my favorite pop-rock song of the year so far in album centerpiece “Are You Okay?” Dee Dee channels the artistic pathos and feel of Tom Petty at his most laid-back here. Many different popular ’80s and ‘90s musical styles have returned to vogue recently, but I can’t recall any other band taking on one of that era’s most successful rock songsters in Petty. Dee Dee goes for it and the results are beyond worthy.

EAGULLS – “TOUGH LUCK”

If you haven’t heard much from the cleverly-named Eagulls (no Don Henley need apply, thankfully) to this point, you probably will. That’s not because they’re going to be hugely popular. They’re just really, really, loud. The lads from Leeds who all look so different that I highly doubt they hang out together much offstage are taking the post-punk indie rock world by storm with a sound that combines early Cure at their most hardcore and the Clash at their most angry. “Tough Luck” is my favorite track from their self-titled debut, jamming along at a breakneck pace while lead singer George Mitchell (not THAT George Mitchell) doesn’t sing as much as he shouts the lyrics. I love the 80s-ish guitar fills throughout that sound like they were doused with Aquanet. I don’t know what the future will hold for Eagulls. I just know it will probably involve earplugs.

JACK WHITE – “LAZARETTO”

Jack White is settling nicely into the fourth act of his fantastic career as one of modern rock’s preeminent visionaries. Following his legendary run in the White Stripes and side dalliances with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, White is finally just himself and doing a great job differentiating his solo work from his previous incarnations. That continues on Lazaretto, with the title track lead single standing out strongest to me. Here we get White exploring a great groove and getting downright funky in spots, something we haven’t heard much from him through the years. With fuzzy guitar riffs and a piercing solo, drumming Meg White could never pull off, utilizing rare synthesizers (for White) and even tossing in an out-of-nowhere fiddle solo, Jack White blazes a new, fun trail with the best parts of “Lazaretto.” Sometimes fourth acts can surprise you.

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

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart returned in April with a revamped lineup and their first new album in three years, Days of Abandon. Each of their three albums carries a different tenor of indie pop wonderfulness from leader Kip Berman and while Days of Abandon has plenty of the sugary 90s-infused clean-guitar rock heard on 2011’s Belong, the band really hits its stride on several softer tunes this time around. My favorite is the longingly amazing “Beautiful You.” Berman has clearly grown up some with his lyrics, imploring his subject in this song that maybe they aren’t as young as they think they are. But there’s still room for falling in love. “So far from me / Still all I need / Is you / Beautiful you,” he sings over that perfect little riff that runs through the song. Call me a softy, but these guys can sure write a great song.

REAL ESTATE – “CRIME”

One of the most unassailable bands going today are New Jersey jangle-rock masters Real Estate. Creative forces Martin Courtney, Mark Mondanile and Alex Bleeker are the core of a band that will surprise you with their chops and wow you with their sounds. They’ve reached their highest peak as a band on this year’s Atlas, with “Crime” possibly their the best song to date. Everything works here with such fluidity and harmony, between Courtney’s clean chords, Mondanile’s tender arpeggios, the perfectly sparse rhythm section and a guitar solo befitting its chill nature. It reminds me of an island in the sun and being “so drunk” in the August sun as well. “I remember when / This all felt like pretend,” Courtney coos midway through. A song this outstanding can sometimes feel like pretend. But this time, as Courtney once sang in one of Real Estate’s past greats, it’s real.

ST. VINCENT – “REGRET”

Annie Clark probably doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves. Four albums into her career under the moniker St. Vincent, Clark keeps progressing as an eclectic virtuoso who learned at the feet of Sufjan Stevens, the Polyphonic Spree and David Byrne. Seeing her touring with Byrne a few years ago was a revelation, stealing the attention with her performing, singing and guitar-playing. Her eponymous fourth album contains several strong rockers, none better than “Regret,” which draws from her Byrne/Bowie influences. There are heavenly choruses, with acoustic guitars sounding like harps. There are heavily distorted guitar riff breaks that feel like jagged edges amongst the beauty. And then there is the voice, one of the best going in rock right now, switching between dirty and clean sounds, carrying the day. “Regret” hopefully will contribute to Clark’s emergence from indie darling to mainstream force.

THE WAR ON DRUGS – “BURNING”

Choosing one song from the War on Drugs’ newest album, Lost in the Dream, for this list was tough. I reserve the right to change my mind on what will make my year-end list, because at least half the songs were worthy from this phenomenal album where leader Adam Granduciel culls the finest ‘80s work of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. I chose “Burning” for its grandeur, its ambition and its success. It’s in a perfect spot on the album, just before the closers and opens with building synth notes before exploding in a maelstrom of ‘80s-rock tinged euphoria. Amidst the triumph is despair. During the second verse, he wails “When you release me from your heart again / I’m just a burning man, trying to keep the ship / From turning over again.” Granduciel is a broken hero on a last chance power drive and while the highway may be jammed with many other similarly talented artists, “Burning” helps him, his band and this great album stand out.

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 Concerts of 2013

A great benefit of my move to Cambridge at the outset of this year is that I can go to more concerts. In 2013, I went to more than any other year of my life and almost all of them were terrific, the last one being Dinosaur Jr. at the Sinclair in Harvard Square Saturday night (and my ears are still ringing).

So as an added wrinkle to my end-of-year music lists, I present to you my 10 favorite concerts I attended this year. There were some very tough omissions to narrow it down to 10 and several really outstanding shows I won’t be listing here. I’m not ranking these shows, just presenting them in chronological order, because ranking them would be even more difficult.

I attended two festivals this year, the May and September runs of Boston Calling at City Hall Plaza. I’m considering each of the total four days of the festival as one concert, as you’ll see below.

Thanks to YouTube, fan-recorded video of each of these 10 concerts exists and will accompany my write-ups from each show. The videos are of varying quality, but I tried to find the best I could from each show.

So here are the 10 best shows I attended this year. Thanks for reading and be on the lookout for my favorite albums of the year list, which will hopefully be done this week.

2.18.13 – JEFF MANGUM w/THE TALL FIRS and THE MEMORY TAPES (LUPO’S HEARTBREAK HOTEL, PROVIDENCE, R.I.)

The return of Jeff Mangum, the reclusive frontman of freak folk legends Neutral Milk Hotel, to the music scene is one of the most welcome developments of the last few years. On a very cold night in February, a bearded Mangum sat alone at Lupo’s and played his best songs for an adoring audience. Many like myself had never heard the songs from Mangum’s magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, recreated live. I was among the many to shout the lyrics back at Mangum as he played. I can’t wait to see the reformed Neutral Milk Hotel play in Boston next month. [UPDATE: The video I had for this show was pulled from YouTube and no other videos of the show exist, apparently.]

3.30.13 – LOCAL NATIVES (HOUSE OF BLUES, BOSTON, MASS.)

I’d waited a while to finally see Local Natives in concert. Their performance at House of Blues on Easter Eve was one of an incredible 188 concerts the band played in 2013, a number that earned them the title of Hardest Working Band of 2013 by Songkick. Getting in lots of reps has helped these LA dudes become what they were that night, a must-see live act. Their songs aren’t always the most upbeat, but on that night they played the best of their two albums with rabid energy, including their bone-crushing closer, “Sun Hands,” which you can watch above.

5.26.2013 – YOUTH LAGOON, DIRTY PROJECTORS, THE WALKMEN, OF MONSTERS AND MEN, THE NATIONAL (CITY HALL PLAZA, BOSTON, MASS.)*

This was the second day of Boston Calling’s first 2013 festival and the lineup for the day was second-to-none. Miserable weather hurt the first day despite good performances, but things cleared up the second day and the results were outstanding. Youth Lagoon rocked the second stage, while Dirty Projectors, the Walkmen, Of Monsters and Men and headliners the National put on excellent showings on the main stage. It was, without question, the single best day of music I’ve experienced. * = There were other bands that played that day, including the perpetually overrated Young the Giant, but the five bands I listed above were the only performances I saw.

6.4.2013 – THE NATIONAL w/PEOPLE GET READY (LUPO’s HEARTBREAK HOTEL, PROVIDENCE, R.I.)

Shortly after Boston Calling, the National played a little-advertised show at Lupo’s, which is much smaller than the normal venues they’ve been playing the last few years. Remember, these guys had just been the final-day headliner of a festival in a major American city. The results were spectacular, as I stood not far behind the individual who took the above video. The National, like Local Natives, add some extra intensity to what are normally reserved songs on record, making them one of the best live bands around. If you haven’t had the pleasure, see the National soon.

8.1.2013 – BECK (THE STATE THEATRE, PORTLAND, MAINE)

I hadn’t been to a show at Portland’s State Theatre, an absolute gem of a small venue in one of New England’s best cities, in nine years when I saw Beck there this summer. I was pleasantly surprised by how great the show was in every way. His band was crisp and on point while Beck played a mix of newer material and older favorites. He’s way more talented than I ever thought, a master showman who got the crowd riled up with a solo blues harmonica performance late in the proceedings. Beck hasn’t played live much of late and I’m glad I finally had the chance to experience what he brings to the stage.

8.11.2013 – JAY-Z & JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE (FENWAY PARK, BOSTON, MASS.)

The Legends of the Summer Tour made two stops at the country’s most legendary stadium this past August and I took in the second night. Timberlake and Jay-Z immediately became two of the top five live performers I’ve ever seen. It’s one thing to be a massive celebrity, as both Timberlake and Hova are. But we know it takes very little skill to be a celebrity. On that night, I saw two men who’ve transcended what celebrity means, two men who didn’t need that show or tour to prove anything, but made clear they’re still on top of their game. And that game was something to behold.

9.1.2013 – HAIM w/IO ECHO (PARADISE ROCK CLUB, BOSTON, MASS.)

Shortly after taking the stage at the Paradise last Labor Day weekend, Este Haim proclaimed that evening’s show was her band’s first headlining gig outside their hometown of Los Angeles. They could have fooled me, or just about anyone at the show. Haim, in which Este plays bass alongside her guitar-wielding sisters Danielle and Alana, played here a few weeks before the release of their debut album and could not have been more impressive at what will undoubtedly be the smallest venue they’ll ever headline in Boston. I’m glad I can say I was there.

9.17.2013 – ARCTIC MONKEYS (PARADISE ROCK CLUB, BOSTON, MASS.)

When Arctic Monkeys announced they’d be coming back to the U.S. to support their aces fifth album AM, they shocked many by agreeing to play “intimate” shows at New York’s Webster Hall and Boston’s Paradise, two tiny rock venues for a band with worldwide popularity. I was lucky enough to get one of the toughest tickets in recent local memory and the results were incredible. Alex Turner and his band of merry Englishmen played from the best of their catalogue and solidified themselves in my mind as one of the best bands out there on that night.

11.7.2013 – MY BLOODY VALENTINE w/DUMB NUMBERS (HOUSE OF BLUES, BOSTON, MASS.)

My Bloody Valentine came back big in 2013 and their comeback brought them to the House of Blues for the first time in 20 years last month. When last they played there, HOB was, of course, the Avalon, and much has changed about that place and Boston in general since. The crowd was a great mix of younger and older shoegaze aficionados who came to hear Kevin Shields and Co. rock. Shields, one of the better guitarists I’ve seen live, was creating fantastic sounds out of his guitar. While the show was deafening, I like to think of it more as a “volume experience” than anything else.

11.16.2013 – CUT COPY w/LARRY GUS (HOUSE OF BLUES, BOSTON, MASS.)

Like Local Natives, I’d waited a long time for a chance to see Cut Copy in concert, and they did not disappoint nine days after the MBV show. The Aussie electro-pop masters brought the goods all night, jamming away at their best songs from their varied career. There’s always a question with the more electronic bands about how much of their studio sound can be re-created, but there was no question with Cut Copy about their live prowess. In fact, when the show ended, I was upset that it was over, even after they’d rocked the stage for a solid 90 minutes.