There’s no better way to get a new perspective on a band, a sound, or a scene than a change in venue. I had a major one this year when I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to attend grad school at USC. I got a brief taste of the LA punk scene, I hit up two LA festivals, and I absorbed the LA venues, all with their own legacy and character that’s apart from Chicago.
But one significant change of pace this year was my decision to approach my album of the year list in audio. Above you can hear me pretending to be a music critic for NPR, and in it I go through the top five albums of the year. It was a challenge to say the least, trying to be critical in a form other than text and to use songs to illustrate my point of view.
Of course I listened to more than what I could cover on that radio clip, and of course I had more to write, so below is my traditional Top 10.
Note: I apologize for the absence of Kendrick.
1) Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
“Fuck me, I’m falling apart,” Sufjan Stevens sings on “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, the harrowing, final line of “Carrie & Lowell’s” penultimate track. This is Stevens at his breaking point. Stevens’s guitar picking is delicate, his instrumentation is sparse, and his high-pitched falsetto is as frail as ever. And yet “Carrie & Lowell” is heavy. By far his most personal and down to Earth album, Stevens reminisces about being left in a video store by his mother Carrie when he was just 3. He’s somber in his memory of a girlfriend checking her texts while he masturbated. And he recalls how a relative pronounced his unusual first name as “Subaru”. Ever the multi-instrumentalist, the indie folk sound Stevens achieves here is highly intricate and sophisticated, despite never raising its volume to more than a whisper. Hear the weightless, pillowing keyboards on “Blue Buckets of Gold”, the shimmering tremolo guitar lifting skyward on “All of Me Wants All of You” or the tight, offbeat rhythm of “Drawn to the Blood”.
“Carrie & Lowell” is perhaps the most easily listenable record of the year, inviting, calming and trance inducing, but no less profound and devastating. For as much as Stevens is clearly falling apart, his carefully constructed reverie and ode to his parents are a sign of him putting himself back together.
2) Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
All the influences that have come to define Titus Andronicus over their first three records, from Springsteen to Iron Maiden to The Clash, are present in full force on “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”. But if “Local Business” was just a little too traditional of a rock record how about a 29-track, 93-minute long rock opera? Titus have answered their fans’ prayers for another record as ambitious and momentous as “The Monitor”, but have fought back with an album that is deliberately sprawling, uneven and obtuse. Two entire tracks are complete silence. They deliver 28 seconds of the most rambunctious rager imaginable in “Look Alive”, then screech to a stop, then do it all again on the aptly named “Lookalike”. They reassign the name “More Perfect Union” on a 9-minute track that combines all their influences. They even make us sit through a nightmarish “Auld Lang Syne”.
And yet among them are some of the best, most celebratory, fist-pumping tunes Titus has ever delivered. Patrick Stickles packs so many scathing, self-loathing, and philosophically profound words about manic depression into tracks like “Fired Up” and “Dimed Out”, but the former sounds like it could’ve been recorded in Bruce’s “Born to Run” sessions. Guitarist Adam Reich’s solos gleam instead of distort, and they adorn songs made for chanting. Channeling equal parts Hüsker Dü and Nietzsche, it’d require a Doctorate to piece together all of the literary allusions on “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”. But however misanthropic the album’s themes, this is a sound worth celebrating.
3) Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
The Aussie Courtney Barnett’s breakout “Double EP” had enough quirky and ponderous lyrics to make her a buzzy indie darling, but no one could’ve guessed on her debut album that she’d have this much muscle. “Sometimes I Sit…” is the best guitar pop record of the year, with a sound that’s as much Nirvana as it is Sheryl Crowe. Barnett still has a penchant for the mundane, satirical and absurd in her lyrics, sing talking in an upbeat stream of consciousness about the size of garages (“Depreston”), roadkill painted in the tar as a Jackson Pollock (“Dead Fox”) and building pyramids out of Coke cans (“Elevator Operator”). It’s all amusingly specific, her clear vocals and hooks amplified over simple, crunchy riffs or the wild, discordant tremolo solo on “Small Poppies”. Best of all, the formidable “Pedestrian at Best” is Barnett at her heaviest, most eloquent and feminist. Barnett’s vocabulary (“erroneous, harmonious, I’m hardly sanctimonious”) speaks volumes, but it’s when she sings the self-deprecating truth, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint”, that she stands tallest.
4) Torres – Sprinter
Singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott’s second album is called “Sprinter”, but it’s a record of many tempos and dimensions. Under the moniker Torres, Scott has made a transcendent album of personal confession, and raw, intense emotion. “Strange Hellos” is a misdirection as an opening track, starting hollow and dreary before exploding in aggressive grunge. The bone-chilling “Son, You Are No Island” has a guitar picking slowly up your spine, before Scott resounds the words “You fucked with a woman” in a nightmarish spiral. Scott grapples with her language and religion on the stately “A Proper Polish Welcome”, and she attacks a jaded hipster in her desperation to show she’s “got the sadness too”. But her sound has all the range of her lyrics; “Sprinter” is a wonderfully rounded album of hard rock, acoustic ballads and abstract electronics that earned her PJ Harvey comparisons. On “New Skin” Scott laments how tired she is at just the age of 23, but “Sprinter” is Scott at her most vibrant.
5) Tame Impala – Currents
A robotic sounding voice on Tame Impala’s “Past Life” starts talking about a mundane day at the dry cleaners until he’s stopped in his tracks by a vision of his lover from a past life. In that moment, life is breathed into that voice. Tame Impala’s breakout album “Lonerism” had remarkable, technically proficient production, but in this writer’s opinion, felt cold. “Currents”, the Australian outfit’s third album, is danceable, infectious, romantic and best of all human. The bouncy bass lines Kevin Parker adds on tracks like “The Less I Know The Better” are straight ‘70s disco grooves, and yet the sprawling lead single “Let it Happen” is contemporary and sounds like the work of a single producer, not a fully psychedelic band. “Eventually” has heavy bursts of electronic fuzz before blooming into vivid color in the chorus, a beautiful, yet melancholy, moment emblematic of the full album. “They say people never change but that’s bullshit,” Parker sings on “Yes I’m Changing”. If “Currents” is any indication, “They do.”
6) Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
Although Sleater-Kinney has never been a stranger to wild, rambunctious, off-kilter noise rock, there’s something newly animal and exciting about the girl punk group’s reunion album “No Cities To Love”. Carrie Brownstein’s guitar scurries and slides throughout the up-tempo “A New Wave”. Corin Tucker barks out the pre-chorus to “No Anthems” and allows her voice to escalate marvelously as she sings “It’s how I learned to speak”. And Janet Weiss’s drums are absolutely bestial on the thundering closer “Fade”. Brownstein delivers the best and most effects-laden solo guitar work across an entire album this year. And the combined lyrics of Brownstein and Tucker elevate Sleater-Kinney beyond personal, feminist subject matter, singing about the harsh nature of daily routine (“Price Tag”), ambition (“Surface Envy”) and “atomic tourism” (“No Cities to Love”). “No outline will ever hold us”, Brownstein sings on “A New Wave,” and though Sleater-Kinney already have a place in history, “No Cities to Love” helps them break new ground.
7) Beach House – Depression Cherry
People continue to assume that Beach House refuses to evolve, that their dream pop sound has repeated itself on three (wait, four!) subsequent albums. But the distorted fuzz on “Sparks” or the reverberating guitar on “Levitation” would not belong on “Bloom” or “Teen Dream”. “Depression Cherry”, much like this year’s counterpart album “Thank Your Lucky Stars”, finds Beach House at darker shades, taking their ethereal sound to new realms. Alex Scally imagines one of his most elegant sliding riffs yet on “Space Song”. Victoria Legrand makes the lightly pulsing synths and drum machine on “Wildflower” near danceable. Her voice is as soothing and weightless as ever, but she’s still set on entrancing and transporting her listeners, singing on the opener, “There’s a place I want to take you…Where the unknown will surround you.”
8) CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
Listening to Lauren Mayberry’s voice is hopeful and uplifting. She sings of her personal pain, but hearing her atop layers upon layers of synths and electronic beats can be soothing, fun and cathartic. But what’s more, she’s always overcoming obstacles in her music. “We bide our time and stay afloat”, she sings on “Keep You on My Side.” On opener “Never Ending Circles” she proposes a toast to “taking what you came for” and “running off the pain”. On single “Leave a Trace”, Mayberry can be cutting and dismissive, shunning a guy who would try to reveal the “tiny cracks of light underneath” her. And yet the song embraces her confidence with a simple clap beat and a bright keyboard that matches her pitch. Ultimately though, “Every Open Eye” isn’t just the Mayberry show, and the breakdown on “Clearest Blue” is the sort of explosive, yet upbeat melody the electronic dance floor has been missing.
9) Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
“Save me President Jesus!” Father John Misty’s overly swelling and sincere folk rock affectations are as big as ever on “I Love You, Honeybear”, both the title track and the album in full, and the lyrics are as ridiculous in terms of taking anything he says seriously. On “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” he sings that he loves a woman who can walk all over a man like a “goddamn marching band,” then makes fun of her use of the words “literally” and “malaprops.” And though these songs are still ironic, his sound has at least graduated to the point where he has the sonic heft to support the irony, like the cascades of synths on “True Affection” or the fuzzy solo at the end of “The Ideal Husband.” But two albums in he’s made his point; as much as he’s mocking a certain type of performer, he very much is that type of performer, and we’re finally all in on the joke.
10) The Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn
I’d forgotten how surreal, experimental and noisy The Dead Weather could be. “Dodge and Burn” brings that animalism back to the forefront. Alison Mosshart is a wild woman. On “Let Me Through” she sounds like she’s out for blood, brooding “I’m a bad man, let me through”. Jack White at the drums marches in step behind her vicious “boom boom boom”, and guitarist Dean Fertita lets out a cat-like screech in a ferocious breakdown. Fertita’s penetrating reverb and tremolo on “Buzzkill(er)” is another example of the strange minimalism he’s borrowed from White. Should The Dead Weather decide to continue this supergroup, Mosshart’s closing track “Impossible Winner”, a sweeping piano rock ballad akin to something on the last Queens of the Stone Age record, suggests how this band can still find creatively weird ways to evolve.
11th Place (alphabetical)
Adele – 25
Adele could not have possibly topped “21,” but with “25” she has delivered everything that could be expected of her. “Hello” is not just another timeless classic; it’s purely an Adele song. It’s the best track on an album of Adele reckoning with growing older, both in getting her Whitney Houston moment on “When We Were Young,” trying to fit in with the present on the poppy “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” and going full on rock star in a song like “I Miss You” that could’ve easily been a Florence + The Machine number.
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Brittany Howard and company have evolved their blues rock revival into a sound that combines electronics (“Sound & Color”) and barn-burning breakdowns (“Shoegaze”). Standouts “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Gimme All Your Love” are further proof of just how fierce Howard can get.
Deafheaven – New Bermuda
The most polarizing band in black metal’s second album should hopefully soothe some of the hatred from hardcore metalheads. “New Bermuda” is far more of a traditional rock record, aggressive, chunky and speedy, but still just as weightless in its shoegazing beauty. Although not as weightless, spiritual and inspirational as “Sunbather” surprisingly was, “New Bermuda” is 46 heavy minutes without as much as the start/stop, soft/loud, fast/slow dividing lines of their debut.
Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
“HBHBHB” is the first time Florence Welch has sounded both epic and like a rock star. While not short on the sweeping pop anthems, “Ship to Wreck”, “What Kind of Man” and “Queen of Peace” all have upbeat, stadium-filling riffs worthy of her spot as the biggest woman in rock.
Mikal Cronin – MCIII
“MCII” had strings, pianos and a lot of fuzz, but on “MCIII” Mikal Cronin strives for something entirely more sweeping and grand. Starting with the swelling orchestra on opener “Turn Around”, it’s a whole album of finales, all of them shimmering, major key rockers, with Side Two specifically arranged as something of a mini rock opera. It’s not as immediately accessible or complete a collection of pop songs as “MCII” but it grows in esteem because of how proudly it wears its ambitions on its sleeve.
My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
As is plain as day on their album cover, My Morning Jacket’s “The Waterfall” is picturesque. “The Waterfall” is not as surreal as some of their earlier efforts, but it’s their most complete record since 2005’s “Z.” It grooves, soars, thunders and whispers, and it’s album of big sounds and “Big Decisions.”
25 Best Songs (in alphabetical order)
- 4th of July – Sufjan Stevens
- A New Wave – Sleater-Kinney
- Adventure of a Lifetime – Coldplay
- Bitch Better Have My Money – Rihanna
- Bored in the USA – Father John Misty
- Depreston – Courtney Barnett
- Dimed Out – Titus Andronicus
- Don’t Wanna Fight – Alabama Shakes
- Fired Up – Titus Andronicus
- FourFive Seconds – Rihanna, Kanye West & Paul McCartney
- Hello – Adele
- Hotline Bling – Drake
- I Feel Love (Every Million Miles) – The Dead Weather
- Leave a Trace – CHVRCHES
- Let it Happen – Tame Impala
- Pedestrian at Best – Courtney Barnett
- Ship to Wreck – Florence + The Machine
- Should Have Known Better – Sufjan Stevens
- Space Song – Beach House
- Spring (Among the Living) – My Morning Jacket
- Strange Encounter – Father John Misty
- Strange Hellos – Torres
- The Harshest Light – Torres
- The Less I Know the Better – Tame Impala
- Trying – Bully
20 Best Concerts
- Foo Fighters – Wrigley Field
- Titus Andronicus – The Roxy
- Sufjan Stevens – The Chicago Theater
- Kanye West – FYF Fest
- Savages – FYF Fest
- U2 – United Center
- Courtney Barnett – Pitchfork
- Father John Misty – The Wiltern
- Mikal Cronin – Prairie Center for the Arts, Schaumburg, IL
- Foxygen – Metro
- Chance the Rapper – Pitchfork
- Wilco – Pitchfork
- Sleater-Kinney – Pitchfork
- Mac DeMarco – Pitchfork & FYF Fest & Beach Goth
- The Drums – FYF Fest & Beach Goth
- Laura Marling – FYF Fest
- My Morning Jacket – The Chicago Theater
- Grimes – Beach Goth
- Sex Stains – The Echoplex
- Ghost – Beach Goth