Let’s start this thing with a bang! Here are my favorite 9 albums of the year. I created a top 10 list, but unfortunately, The Weeknd’s 3 releases are digital only! To make up for this loss, I tacked on my favorite EP of the year.
On to the list!
Low is an interesting band for me. There’s something about the level of repetition that they employ: typically, I’d disregard music that’s so repetitive, but instead of getting under my skin, Low’s mantras get firmly lodged in my brain. That said, I think my favorite tracks on the album are those that don’t employ Low’s typical repeat ad nauseum strategy to such a degree: Witches and Especially Me are standouts. As much as I liked this album, though, I don’t think it demonstrates a significant growth from their earlier albums. That could be good or bad depending on your perspective. Admittedly, it’s much “fuller” than the sparse slowcore from whence they came.
(Here’s where The Weeknd would have gone)
Every Grails album is something to be experienced rather than simply heard or listened to. Deep Politics carries on this tradition. Cinematic, atmospheric, dark and foreboding, uplifting: Deep Politics is instrumental music that speaks to the listener. Between the haunting opening riff of Future Primitive and the slow death of Deep Snow, Grails attempts to squeeze in everything from Eastern sounds to metal to classically tinged piano, lulling us with quiet melodies before blasting us with metallic power, and does so with near-perfection. An intense addition to an already intense library.
#7: Okkervil River
I Am Very Far
IMHO, this album is a bit of a departure for Okkervil. Sure, they’ve been going in a rockier direction for a couple of albums, but this album marks a less gradual progression. Whereas on Black Sheep Boy, Scheff channeled Tim Buckley or Nick Drake, on I Am Very Far, he channels Springsteen’s rock on tracks like Rider, and the huge ornate sounds of the strings on tracks like We Need a Myth bring to mind bombastic rock a la Procol Harum. They’ve built a “big” sound on this LP. And that’s not a bad thing, demonstrating that Scheff et al. have rock chops and a wide range. That’s not to say that Okkervil’s range no longer includes the haunting indie that propelled them into everyone’s consciousness with their first couple of albums: Mermaid, for example, is reminiscent of Black Sheep Boy.
#6: Panda Bear
TomboyI’m not a huge fan of Animal Collective. I’ve tried, and given my thing for Panda Bear, I shouldn’t have to try so hard, but I just can’t get into them. Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) on his own, though, whole other story. I absolutely loved Person Pitch, and so I was stoked for this album, if not a bit apprehensive… I mean, how could it possibly top PP? Well, it turns out that it didn’t, but it was a fine effort. It’s an album full of Panda Bear’s signature soothing neo-surf psychedelic melodies constructed from weird samples; nothing new or groundbreaking here, but nothing that tarnishes Panda Bear’s stellar record either.
#5: Ty Segall
Ty Segall can do no wrong for the last couple of years. Everything he touches becomes sloppy, noisy garage rock gold. Goodbye Bread is no exception, though it demonstrates some recent changes. His most musically mature effort to date, it picks up where Melted left off, stepping up the musicianship and the complexity of his musical ideas, but not so much that the music loses its fun, easy feel; instead, we get a deeper, richer Segall. We get real evidence of Segall’s abilities as a singer/songwriter, and they’re no joke: he has the ability to focus the chaos of earlier releases into his songwriting without losing their energy. We might not understand why buying a couch was a songworthy endeavor, but dammit, we’ll sing along!
#4: Blitzen Trapper
American Goldwing is an appropriate name for this album, an album steeped in good old American rock. When describing this album to folks, I sometimes make the comparison to Wilco, and this year, with this album, I actually think Blitzen Trapper are one of the bands that out-Wilco’d Jeff Tweedy: the two bands explore similar musical territory, albeit with Blitzen Trapper we find ourselves exploring less alt-country and more rock. This is feel-good music; classic rock inflected goodness that warms us from the inside out.
#3: Cymbals Eat Guitars
I spent more time this year humming the jangly chords and the melodies of this album than any other, which is a sure sign of an album with staying power for me. On Lenses Alien, CEG straddles the line between indie pop and rock, and the result is the darkly urgent psychedelia, devoid of traditional “verse-chorus-verse” type song structures, built rather around musical ideas that change and flow within the songs. Joseph D’Agostino’s wailing vocals find a more appropriate home on this effort than on their debut, where he was responsible for the vast majority of the songwriting: CEG is a fully formed band, and the songwriting process that lead to Lenses Alien is obviously much more collaborative, with the members of the band feeding off one another to create a complex, challenging, impressive piece of writing.
#2: Bon Iver
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago is a beautiful album and a stunning debut. Who could have expected Bon Iver/Justin Vernon to step it up on his sophomore release? With his self-titled second album, though, that’s precisely what occurred, though perhaps we should have known, given that everything he touches seems to turn to gold (see Volcano Choir, recent Kanye and Anais Mitchell releases, and a National performance for further evidence). For Emma wasn’t without its issues, despite the quality of the songcraft, but Vernon works the bugs out on this album. The mixes are immaculate, the songs are staggeringly beautiful, and the result is a near-perfect listening experience.
#1: La Dispute
I read an article once that talks about how serious La Dispute are about their music; the meticulous detail they take with the recording, the perfecting of sounds and musical ideas, the lyrical content. They write music that has deep personal meaning, and don’t compromise when it comes to perfecting their art. This album is the product of this meticulous and directed effort: an album so honest and raw and brimming with emotion that at times it’s difficult to listen to. The themes run the gamut: the complexity of relationships, mental illness, the loss of a child to cancer or to an accidental shooting, where we fit in this world. We feel what lyricist Jordan Dreyer feels whether we’ve been through it ourselves or not, but when he speaks or screams about something we have experience with, the effect is to rip off the scars and reopen the wounds. Powerful stuff.
and our bonus EP:
Technical screamo/post-hardcore chaos from young Canadian upstarts. This densely packed EP brims over with mathematical complexity; the band is tighter than tight, the guitars crushing, the vocals intense, and yet the music isn’t lost in the intensity or the technical details: the riffs have a groove, the band has a clear concept of how to use dynamics, and at times, we’re tapping our feet to an almost danceable rhythm. Comparable to bands like Capsule, Kidcrash, or perhaps Frodus, Animal Faces nonetheless carves out a unique niche in the post-hardcore landscape.