This has been an incredible year for music; it’s been eclectic, energy-soaked, and generally smelled a little fresher than usual. These choices are grounded firmly in my own opinions and personal preferences, and despite my firm belief that my opinions are objectively correct and entirely infallible, please comment and contest and let us all have a fruitful discussion about what I criminally excluded or included.
14. Everything Will Be Alright – Weezer
It’s nearly impossible for a band to win fans back after they’ve betrayed them so completely, as Weezer did in textbook fashion all throughout the early 2000s. This album starts out with a direct apology, which is not nearly as insufferable as it ought to be, and spends the next 12 songs making it up to fans. Everything Will Be Alright is not a return to pre-2000’s Weezer but merges Weezer’s old slacker sensibilities with their more recent pop-influenced sound. Welcome back, Weezer.
13. Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
When Against Me!’s lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in Rolling Stone, it was the most punk rock thing she had done in years. If punk is about flying in the face of authority and taking rock back for the people, Grace flew in the face of punk itself and took rock back for herself. Against Me! cut its teeth in the notoriously testosterone-fueled, homophobic Florida punk scene in the early 2000s, but has been cranking out homogenized pop-punk sausage in recent years. Grace put all the punk indignation Against Me!’s music had lost back into this album, marrying self-hatred with self-affirming anger at the narrow punk scene all while cranking out irresistible hooks and toe-tapping anthems.
12. Black Moon Spell - King Tuff
Either Kyle Thomas was directly breast-fed classic rock as a baby or there is no way to explain how on-point this album’s salute to classic rock is coming from a guitarist in his early thirties. King Tuff salutes shiny-faced adolescent enamor with metal and rock while the album itself oozes a pop-rock sensibility that creates an entirely fresh sound with long, free-wheeling guitar riffs that curdle upwards toward the youthful bliss of listening to the records that formed you. It is classic rock gone kitsch, with no hint of irony or derision, leaving only the pure happiness of buying your first ill-fitting leather jacket and carefully adorning your backpack with Black Sabbath buttons.
11. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
Van Etten may sing about fumbling and muttering her way through her love life, but the music itself is strident and fully articulate. Are We There showcases Van Etten’s rich, absorbing voice to an unprecedented degree. Van Etten’s personal narratives of love and psychological abuse combined with her full-bodied voice breaks you in a way no song, or lover, has any right to.
10. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music - Sturgill Simpson
Recent country has not dealt easily in innovation, but Simpson’s psychedelic substance fueled country ballads play with the ease of a well-worn country song until they twist and bite like a bad trip. Not one for fame or fortune, Simpson’s music oscillates between the everyday and the otherworldly, never settling in either realm for long.
9. Zentropy – Frankie Cosmos
Cosmos’ music, so sparse of guitar and lyric, employs a such a light touch that it’s always shocking when her songs make you feel every known emotion by the end of such a short album. She’s plain-spoken and direct, goofy and meandering, and more insightful than any 19-year-old should be. Zentropy barely breathes on you until it hits you like a ton of bricks.
8. Nervous Like Me – Cayetana
Cayetana hails from the Philadelphia punk scene, which in recent years has turned out such gems as Radiator Hospital, Hop Along, and The Menzingers. Cayetana cut their teeth in basement shows, pasting lyrics together from seemingly mundane personal narratives (a lá Pavement). They sing about moving vans, sleeping on your couch and dirty laundry, but it’s these small moments that become saturated in the simultaneous crowd-pleasing punk-pop hooks and slow burn ache that render Cayetana’s music so remarkable.
7. LP1 – FKA Twigs
FKA Twig’s debut album comes out in one long sigh, undulating and resonating deep in the back of Tahliah Barnett’s throat. Her music smolders and pulses, with forever unfufilled desire driving each track. Twigs’ art does not exist without eroticism; this album is steeped in sex, playing from top to bottom like the first two blissful, emotional weeks of an affair before your feet plant back on the ground.
6. DSU – Alex G
Alex G released DSU this summer, but it is hardly a summer album. DSU sounds like a fall release, deprived on sunlight and drawling with malaise. Alex G’s songs are composed of vapors and vespers and half-finished truths swim near each other, connecting at one moment to create a beautiful musical phrase and drifting apart the next. His lyrics are filtered through a mind that can’t quite commit to anything, with his compositions simultaneously fully realized and entirely unsure of where they’re heading.
5. Run the Jewels 2 – Run the Jewels
Killer Mike and El-P are a rap duo hailing from vastly different scenes, and realistically have no right to combine as well as they do; Killer Mike got his start in the Atlanta scene while El-P hails from Brooklyn. And yet, their two distinct styles come together in Run the Jewels to create something infinitely more dynamic than either artist’s solo work. The duo is political, intelligent, and not afraid to exorcize anger through the sheer force of their lyrics.
4. 1989 – Taylor Swift
I like to tell people that I liked Taylor Swift before it was cool, and then long after it was uncool. The fact that anyone underestimates Taylor Swift at this point in her career is truly inconceivable to me. Swift is an artist who understands exactly how she relates to her audience; in our album-phobic age, 1989 was the only album to sell a million copies this year. The last album with those numbers was Swift’s 2012 release Red. While Red attempted to straddle the divide between Swift’s country origins and pop trajectory and ultimately failed to satisfy either genre, 1989 firmly establishes Swift as a pop artist. 1989 is stocked with expertly, intelligently executed pop songs that deliver consistent, well-paced bursts of dopamine. Criticize her, exalt her, vilify her, but do not ignore her.
3. bury me at makeout creek – Mitski
bury me at makeout creek is howling, cathartic, and trenchant; Mitski’s confessional songwriting makes for gorgeous, unapologetic tracks that seep through your skin. Her basement aesthetic complements her husky and wailing voice perfectly. bury me at makeout creek is vulnerable but incredibly resilient and defiant, willing to be swept away but as she sings in “i don’t smoke,” “I’m stronger than you give me credit for.”
2. Hoodwink’d – LVL UP
Hoodwink’d feels inevitable, as if it is the project LVL UP has been waiting to make. The band’s 2011 debut, Space Brothers, played more like a group of collected singles than a record. Hoodwink’d is their first fully realized album, entirely complete in structure and sound. Hoodwink’d is full of catchy, life-soundtrack worthy tracks led by Dave Benton’s too-wonderful, sore and lamenting voice. LVL UP quotes the Silver Jews and early 90s alt-rock both lyrically and musically, deliciously whole but never giving up the aura of quick-witted improvisation. But this album is more than a pastiche of parts, satisfyingly contemporary by means of its attitude. Hoodwink’d trades in a push and pull of energy and depression, confidence and crippling self-doubt, bursts of productivity and long subway rides to nowhere.
1. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Annie Clark took a huge step from her 2009 album Actor to 2011’s Strange Mercy, but her self-titled release this year is an other-worldly leap. Boldly refining and re-defining her sound, St. Vincent gives birth to some strange new aesthetic. This album is creature of sorts that I’ve never seen before, a breathing, autonomous animal that hatches and unfurls its wings more and more with each track. St. Vincent is genre-bending, driven by a fuzzed-out guitar but only rock insofar as David Byrne is a rock musician, and only pop in so far as David Bowie is a pop musician. St. Vincent establishes Annie Clark as one of the great living guitarists, and if she keeps progressing at this rate there might not be another 13 albums to even list alongside her next time she puts out a release.
Honorable Mention: Benji – Sun Kil Moon, Girlpool EP – Girlpool, Torch Song – Radiator Hospital, Salad Days – Mac Demarco, Teenage Retirement – Chumped, Crush Songs – Karen O