Feast your eyes and ears on my fifth annual best albums of the year list:
50. David Bowie – The Next Day
49. EmmyLou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon
48. Josh Ritter – The Beast in Its Tracks
47. Norma Jean - Wrongdoers
46. Derek Webb – I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You
45. Volcano Choir - Repave
44. Bosnian Rainbows – Bosnian Rainbows
43. Half Moon Run – Dark Eyes
42. Lissie – Back to Forever
41. M.I.A. – Matangi
40. Paramore – Paramore
39. HRVRD – From the Bird’s Cage
38. Sting – The Last Ship
37. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart
36. Bad Religion – True North
35. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
34. Royal Canoe – Today We’re Believers
33. Haim – Days Are Gone
32. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
31. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
30. The Dillinger Escape Plan – One of Us Is the Killer
29. The Strokes – Comedown Machine
28. Lindi Ortega – Tin Star
27. Coheed & Cambria – The Afterman Descension
26. Arctic Monkeys – AM
25. Protest the Hero - Volition
24. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 3
23. The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
22. Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail
21. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
20. The Dear Hunter - Migrant
19. Jessy Lanza – Pull My Hair Back
18. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
17. KT Tunstall – Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon
16. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
15. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
14. Nick Cave – Push the Sky Away
13. Savages – Silence Yourself
12. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
11. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
10. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Scottish duo Boards of Canada’s fourth album is an hour of lush minimalist electro that, at its core, is simply beautiful. Haunting and cinematic, conjuring the feel of late 70s film scores, the ethereal blips and beeps of this record seep into the ears and under the skin. Tomorrow’s Harvest is the kind of deceptively down-tempo album you could accidentally fall asleep to and then have it underscore the bizarre melancholia of your dreamscapes. Music geeks toss around terms like “chillwave” and “post-techno,” but that language is reductionist for these godfathers of those non-genres. What it is is great.
09. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
Starting with the sustained joyfulness of 2005’s “Takk...” and taking full force with the unadulterated pop sound on 2008’s “Með Suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust,” Icelandic post-rock darlings, Sigur Rós, seemed poised for a full mainstream breakthrough. But that changed with 2012’s Valtari, a concise yet measured exercise in restraint. Kveikur marks a change yet again, hearkening back to the darker sounds of some of the band’s earliest work, but still managing to sound fresh and incorporate some of the more upbeat aspects of their recent albums. It is less concerned with creating emotions (something Sigur Rós is famous for) than with formal structure. Heavy on percussion and feedback, the record has more immediacy than perhaps anything in the band’s catalogue, yet still maintains that down-tempo mystery that a familiar listener would expect, here frequently underscored with mournful horns. The standout track is “Ísjaki," a gorgeous piece that thrums along to the roll of a bass drum and the soaring chorus of strings. It is an uncommon break of light in an otherwise darker swamp of sounds. It’s a juxtaposition that works in more subtle ways throughout the record, such as the competing violent beauty of the piano keys and the overwhelming reverb on “Stormur.” Kveikur, perhaps more than anything in their back-catalogue, shows a band comfortable with contradictions, meticulously cooking synthetic and organic sounds into works of uncomfortable beauty.
08. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
There is some profound irony to the fact that a duo so synonymous with robotic, electronic sounds – the embodiment of the French New Wave of house music and forebears of the modern EDM movement – would produce the most profoundly human-sounding pop record of the year, if not the decade. With live instrumentations, guest vocalists, and a firm foundation in 70s disco and funk, Random Access Memories is the sound of a second coming: eight years after Daft Punk’s last proper record, it feels like a triumphant return. The sound, equally as indebted to Prince as to Kraftwerk, acts as a big middle finger to a pop music industry that sounds increasingly artificial. Daft Punk is here to demonstrate how a synthetic creation necessarily comes from the human imagination. This thesis is abundantly clear on “Giorgio by Moroder,” which includes an audio excerpt from the legendary producer discussing formal construction with a clear sense of passion for music itself and the endless possibilities that happen when you stop looking for the “right” way to do music. Daft Punk proves that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel; you just have to be willing not to keep driving it in the rut.
07. Deafhaven – Sunbather
What gets lost in the too easy, reductionist criticisms of Deafhaven as “hipster metal” and the arguments of whether they’re more accurately described as black metal, post-rock, shoegaze, etc. (hint: they’re all of the above and none of the above) is just how big and beautiful Sunbather actually is. The music is earnest and sorrowful, a richly-detailed 60 minute tapestry of sound that is all chaotic power one second and tender frailty the next. George Clark wails plaintively in chilling hopelessness about the certainty of human failure in gut-wrenching personal detail. By the 48 minute mark when the album launches furiously and without warning into the closer, “The Pecan Tree,” and Clarke eventually delivers the final lyrical lament of “I am my father’s son / I am no one / I cannot love / It’s in my blood” it is devastatingly chilling. Sunbather is not an album that invites argument; rather it is an album that demands to be experienced.
06. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Neko Case has long since moved beyond the “country” label and inherently defies the cutesy “alt-country” compromise, but despite her enigmatic musical persona you can always count on two constants when she launches a new album: that thundering typhoon of a voice, and the shit-talking tendency to always do things her own way. This latest album bears her trademark wit and wordplay, here confined to terse yet playful songs that waste neither space nor time for small-talk. Case has an axe to grind, tackling topics such as the frustrating limitations of gender expectations and the double-edged sword of parental influence — Case has publically battled depression and the loss of a close relationship with her grandmother and estranged relationships with her parents, all three of whom had died in the years since her last album. The subversive “man” boasts the defiant series of lines, “I’m a man / That’s what you raised me to be / I’m not your identity crisis / This was planned.” But despite the front of invincibility Case puts up throughout much of the album, she shows cracks, such as when she tells a child in solidarity, “my mother, she did not love me” on “Nearly Midnight in Honolulu,” feeding the screaming mother’s voice with extra reverb to demonstrate its lasting damage. There are a lot of demons to battle here, and while she croons triumphantly at the end amidst a chorus of horns, “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon,” you can tell all the while she’s all too human. And that is what makes her so compelling.
05. Beyoncé - Beyoncé
Beyoncé’s surprise album drop — late in the year, quietly overnight and with zero promotion, and with an album already shot for every song — was an impressive and innovative feat in itself. But it would have meant little if it had ultimately felt like just another Beyoncé album. Instead, the product is an embodiment of the method: a surprise buzz-generating work that changes the entire pop-game. It sounds unlike anything Queen Bey has done before, with its aggressively unapologetic sexuality and its dark, moody production. In an age and a genre that survives on singles, this is an album from front to back, which is probably why she chose to release it in such a calculated way. Here there is a distinct feel of low-end, drum & bass trance mixed with sultry neo-soul sex jams, heavy on production that nevertheless does not detract from Beyoncé’s greatest asset, her killer voice, a voice she explores here beyond the R&B/gospel range she is known for. No two songs sound even remotely similar. It is precisely that experimentation without compromise that makes this such a bold and thrilling new chapter in Beyoncé’s career. Lyrically and musically, she is refusing to be pigeonholed. She effortlessly blends not just genres but themes such as overt female sexual pleasure, motherhood, feminism, marriage, and death in a way that will frustrate haters and fans who want Beyoncé to be their idea of who Beyoncé is. This is one pop album that has gotten non-stop rotation.
04. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
It seems fitting the Arcade Fire was chosen to record the score to the Spike Jonze film, Her, a film that deals with the blurred line between what is real and artificial in terms of love and our changing relationship with technology. That film’s development coincided with the recording of the band’s fourth album, Reflektor, one that similarly questions society’s values. Win Butler is, after all, the doom-and-gloom prophet who previously lamented the urban sprawl on The Suburbs. Here, he cynically (or sorrowfully) intones that everything is “just a reflection of a reflection” on Reflektor’s title track, sharing vocal duties with David Bowie. It is worth something that while Arcade Fire, hot off an album of the year Grammy win, keeps getting bigger as a band, they also keep channeling that into a bigger, more ambitious sound. Here, over a 70-minute split album that fuses dance-pop, 80s new wave, Motown, and Caribbean influences, they question not just the changing of society but the very existential reality modern culture. “What if the cameras really do take your soul?” Butler asks on the reggae-tinged “Flashbulb Eyes.” He’s still yesteryear’s prophet stuck in today. Thankfully his sermons are more than just a screed to get off his lawn.
03. Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
Before last year you could aptly describe the music of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam as exhibiting a stuffy anxiety. With Ghost on Ghost, however, Beam opens his sonic palette, mining the far corners of the landscape of Americana. It’s still sort of a brooding record, but one that sounds oddly relaxed, steeped throughout with not just Beam’s trademark folk but a heavy dose of blues, jazz, and pop. It’s a dense yet comfortable ride, all the more for the ease of Beam’s experimentation. “There’s new fruit humming in the old fruit trees,” Beam sings on, “Low Light Buddy of Mine” a line that speaks to the kitchen-sink aesthetic of the record: the song owes as much to disco and funk as to jazz. Amidst the horn section, the piano, and the ever-present percussion, Beam even apparently throws in a Jew’s harp for good measure? Shits and giggles? Whatever, it works. “Joy” is a minimalist ode to the voice, “Grace for Saints and Singers” a Sgt. Pepper’s-esque pop song, and “Grass Windows” a surrealist basement-jazz ballad. But Beam’s genius is that all the smooth and complex instrumentation is deceptive, lulling the listener into a false sense of comfort while upsetting and confusing lyrical imagery such as naked boys, iron lungs and spiders’ webs keep interrupting the flow to remind the listener that the landscape of Americana is both magical realist and a hostile wild kingdom. This is perhaps no more clear than on the album’s standout track, the penultimate “Lover’s Revolution,” where Beam warns first that “the makers of the medicine will always say you’re looking sick,” before the song increases in tempo and threatens chaos and, later, “no one knew the arm was broken although everybody signed the cast,” before it breaks down completely into an epic free-jazz bridge section. There’s that saying about the devil’s greatest trick being convincing the world he didn’t exist. Beam reminds us that the Wild West wasn’t civilized; we just stopped recognizing it.
02. Shad – Flying Colours
Kanye gets all the attention these days for his music and his zany personal antics, so much so that it’s easy to miss the affable Kenyan-born Canadian MC, Shad K, who just might be the most important figure in rap right now. Where Kanye is deconstructing the genre, much to pop music’s chagrin, Shad is an old-school hip hop poet, keeping it at its most pure. Flying Colours is an ambitious record, one that has what you would expect from a great hip-hop album: gorgeous backing tracks, lots of guest stars, social commentary, and rhymes that come a mile a minute that are alternately powerful, funny, and surprising. Shad covers a lot of ground here, rapping about the immigrant experience, his native Toronto, the rap game, relationships, and social inequality, all while dropping references to pop cultural touchstones like Star Trek. Shad’s greatest asset is not even his undeniable lyrical wit or his mic skills, or how he combines those so effortlessly into beautiful songs, but it is how he manages to buck the cynicism of much of the genre without sounding cheesy. The positivity of a rapper like Classified comes on a little too thick, sometimes playing out like a cheerful Canadian stereotype, but Shad’s worldview has room for both the harsh realities of contemporary society (“Progress”) and a disposition of persevering through them with your head high (“Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)”). It is that precise polite, hardworking philosophy that keeps Shad largely out of the spotlight, even as he is doing some of hip hop’s most important work.
01. Kanye West – Yeezus
Kanye has long been able to silence even the harshest critics of his public persona and off-stage antics because every record he puts out is so undeniably one of the most interesting musical touchstones in a given year. Yeezus, his divisive and self-aggrandizing latest effort, may finally be the record that turns those critics off completely. And that’s a good thing. Aggressively and intentionally abrasive, lyrically and musically, Yeezus finds West letting loose all of his pent-up rage against the culture he seems to be never able to please. Instead, he decides not even to try. “There’s leaders and there’s followers / but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” he raps on the racially- and politically-charged “New Slaves.” It’s a rallying cry for an army of one: a manifesto of maddening narcissism. Sexually crass, sonically off-putting, and politically audacious — his questionable appropriation of civil rights imagery will have even his most ardent supporters bewildered —, Yeezus is not trying to win over anyone on the fence, let alone those who have already written West off as an obnoxious, entitled a-hole. But those people are missing out on what is in all likelihood the boldest and most interesting album of the year. Every album gives us a little more insight into Kanye’s psyche, and while Yeezus is as calculated as ever, it is every bit as bewilderingly unbridled — witness “I Am a God,” which has West defiantly proclaiming that title phrase before breaking apart into a frantic succession of choked gasps and screams. Never has his obsession with sex been clearer, or his obsession with race, two topics that West muddies together here into a cocktail of angry, misogynistic hedonism: the greatest revenge against the White Man is sex with his wife. It’s a theme that runs throughout; that is, until the surprising conclusion of the album, the oddly genuine ode to Kim Kardashian. It’s as romantic a song as West will probably ever write, a big middle finger to those who write off their made-for-reality-TV romance as false. The lyrics might go down more easily if they were couched in the type of big-production, soul-sampled backing tracks we expect from West. Instead, he matches the lyrics with an equally challenging concoction of jarring tonal and rhythmic shifts, abrasive industrial beats, auto tune, and squelching synthesizer, borrowing more from Chicago drill and acid house than soul and R&B. True to West’s roots, it is a distinctly Chicago-sounding record, just not the kind anyone expected. For better or worse, Yeezus is a record only Kanye could make, an unapologetic shrug that nevertheless can’t shrug off the massive chip from his shoulder. No, it is the sound of an artist unwilling to accept the limitations of his own creativity. That’s a challenge worth taking.