These were the albums that rocked me this year. Special thanks to Sean Glenn for his help and free labor with the sweet, sweet day-glo cover graphics.
10. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Alabama Shakes were a damn good blues rock outfit with a unique and androgynous female singer but nothing that would make you drop your drink. Then they evidently decided to craft something extraordinary. The guitar sound is luscious and confident, dare I say, stanky? It’s like Al Green meets Houses of the Holy-era Led Zeppelin? This album will make your day.
Hard to pick a song since the styles are all over the map, but I'll pick the mellow and sweet "Guess Who" for it's utterly delicious guitar sound:
9. Shamir – Ratchet
Shamir has a really fruity countertenor singing voice. So, growing up in the shitty part of Las Vegas, a few people have had to find out the hard way that he’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He’s also a black belt in confident brattiness. At twenty-one, he’s a fully formed artist.
He’s luminous in interviews. He’s friendly, funny, sweet, and smart. And his act is dope. It’s a kind of hybrid modern electronic disco base, and then he sets you down easy with some mellow ballads at the end. This year it was voted most-likely-to-make-me-stand-up-from-the-computer-chair-and-shake-my-ass.
I will share with you the voted-most-likely-to-make-me-shake-my-ass-in-my-living-room "Call It Off":
8. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
I don’t know, spend a minute on Wikipedia before you go pick a band name, ok? Viet Cong turned out a really badass psychedelic noise-rock album for a debut album. They’re young guys and the term Viet Cong just sounded cool to them, I’m guessing. So I feel bad for them that the debate about it bit them so hard. It got them some attention but it detracted from the smear of grey, beige, and bright Day-Glo green that make up their music. Their debut is imaginative and powerful. I want to go back and listen to some Velvet Underground and some early Pink Floyd though. The closer, Death, is quite a ride.
Addendum: Evidently they did decide to change their name but the new name is still TBA.
I present the mighty 11-minute epic album closer "Death":
7. Empress Of – Her
There’s a quiet, self-empowered party happening. You can dance to it but only move your toes and elbows and eyelids. Lorely Rodriguez is doing something special here. She has the vocal timing of a rapper, and she engineered absolutely everything about this album. I feel inspired every time I listen to it.
There’s songs about being surprised that you could let another human being really satisfy you, and there’s songs about not needing anyone else and being devoted to only satisfying yourself. Somehow they go together perfectly on this album.
The effortlessly beautiful and exciting "Standard" is what really does it for me:
6. Jamie XX – In Colour
Jamie XX was already half of one indie-famous band (he gentle, intimate singing of The XX), so it’s almost unfair that he’d come up with a totally different project and have it turn super successful. He’d always been a DJ, and in his live shows he started to develop his own style of dance music that blended turntablism with a variety of hip-hop and dance traditions.
The variety and beauty of this album is overwhelming, and it makes use of the best headphones or speakers you could possibly put it on. It’s an album to soundtrack the best moments in your life, when you just found out something lifechanging and you’re driving up Lake Shore Drive from the south in Chicago to start a new existence and you see the skyline suddenly loom above you.
The song "Gosh" is the song that really made me say, "Oh My Gosh":
5. Bjork – Vulnicura
I thought Bjork had made her last really incredible album. I was wrong. When I’m prepared for it, I listen to this album, and it blows me away anew each time. I went to see her in concert for the first time on this tour and it’s one of the best shows I’ve been to. She had a line of string musicians on stage, and behind them, a visualization of the incredibly complex electronic drum pulsations that make up the songs. It let you see the inner gears of each song, like a live version of the Song Exploder podcast (a podcast for which artists deconstruct a song and talk about its evolution).
A lot was made of her “diaristic” tone (which is seriously just annoying sexism). I just like to think of this album as a bookend to her 2001 album, Vespertine, on which she tells the story of falling in love with her (at the time soon-to-be) husband, artist Matthew Barney. Two or three albums and children later she’s now telling the story of the dissolution of that relationship–and it is crushing.
I probably only listened to the album 5 total times this year, because that’s all I could handle, but every time I listened to it, I let it wash over me and I was impressed anew.
Here's the short, emotionally-raw, "History of Touches":
4. Hop Along – Painted Shut
No one sings like Frances Quinlan. She alternates between a Janice Joplin-like scream-moan, a Tiny Tim-like falsetto, and her regular power-rock chest voice. It’s an impressive toolset and she uses it for telling some killer stories.
Hop Along went from a band I listened to a couple of times and thought of as kind of anonymous rock—to the only band I could listen to for a months. I went and watched every live performance I could find on YouTube because Frances genuinely brings some new type of howl to every vocal performance.
On the most obvious level they’re a modern Philadelphia art-grunge band with an interesting singer. On the next level though, they have a perfect way of burying the lede in every song. The songs all start out a little boring because it’s their way to build up to the payoff. So it’s not like you hear the beginning of a song and think, “Oh, I’m gonna like this!” It’s more like you get to the crescendo and finally realize where it was going all along and you say, “Ohhhhhhhh.” Then you sing that hook to yourself in the shower and you can’t remember what song it went to-even if you listen to the beginning of every song on the album.
In the song "Waitress", she sings about being a waitress in a diner and seeing someone who probably knew her and "the worst possible version of what I'd done" and then just hangs around long after closing. "The world's grown so small and embarrassing" she sings. Boy do I know that feeling:
3. Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
“I feel like ‘Fuck Versace’, they rapin' nigga's pockets.” said Vince Staples, on his song Lift Me Up. Somebody had to say it.
If you’re not used to listening to rap, and the roughness of its themes sometimes, then this album could be a hard listen. But it’s a worthwhile listen, and an inspiring one.
Vince Staples grew up in the rough neighborhood of Ramona Park in California Over rough, thick, sexy, thrumming beats, Vince tells the stories about growing up there and his lifechanging summer in 2006 when he got more involved in making music than gangs.
Vince’s last album Hell Can Wait, was about being a kid in Ramona Park and had unbelievably creepy and astounding songs like Screen Door, describing what it felt like to be a little kid with drug dealer parents and wondering “Who’s that peepin’ through the screen door?” This guy can tell a story and he tells them with such dark straight-faced dexterity.
So, in Summertime ‘06 he broadens the scope. Ice Cube told similar gang stories, connecting them to political and race realities, but Vince doesn’t try to make it all sound so cool. He’s not selling it as a lifestyle. As an example, the song Jump Off The Roof is one of the best songs on the album. He’s talking in first person about coming off crack cocaine and considering jumping off the roof just to feel alive. It’s an exciting song and I originally thought he was in some way glorifying this nihlistic mentality…until I read in an interview that it’s paraphrased from things his dad said to him while high while he was a kid.
Vince Staples never cracks a smile. He just spits his stories and paints these vivid dark pictures… I’m pretty sure there’s hope in there somewhere, but it’s admittedly buried a little deep.
On three let's "Jump Off the Roof":
2. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I tried to listen to solo albums released by J. Tillman. Mostly it’s a depressing snooze fest comprised of monotone songs sung in a hushed way to gentle guitar music. That’s why it was so shocking when Father John Misty emerged as if a new man, with his “first” album Fear Fun a few years ago. I guess it’s technically the same human being.
Suddenly there was a howling wolf of a mad lunatic crooner, alternating between full throated singing and the sweetest falsettos behind rich orchestration. Now he’s back with his second album. He’s more in love, and more powerful, and meaner. He’s daring you to guess when he’s in character and when he’s not. I’ve got him figured out, though; he’s both, all the time.
He’s not just a musician. He’s a modern warlock of song. He’s the trickster spirit of the Rat Pack. These two albums are classics and when your kids come across them twenty years from now they’ll ask you you ever heard of him and you’ll smile knowingly.
Lastly, let’s address the charges of misogyny. My guess is that people are talking primarily about the song The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apartment in which he spits venom (perhaps in a character) about someone he has a great deal of disdain for. It’s all been dismantled in think-pieces far better than I care to, but here’s some good parsing by NPR, The 405, and IndyWeek. I think misogyny is something Josh Tillman is struggling with, and not something he accepts within himself in an unexamined way. Sure there’s mysogyny, but there’s self-hate for it, too, and he’s not sure what to do about it. This his version of the old Nirvana chestnut “Love myself / better than you / I know it’s wrong / but what should I do?”
"Strange Encounter" has everything, soaring vocals, odd guitar, massive orchestration, the whole package:
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Yeah, what else could the top spot be? I’ve read so many think-pieces about this album my head spins. Even backlash think-pieces that talk about how weird and difficult, thus, overrated it is. But hey, let’s not kid ourselves, the same think-pieces and praise went to Stevie Wonder’s jazzier, more difficult albums, and that doesn’t change the fact that they’re towering masterpieces on the whole.
Kendrick Lamar is a vocal performer and writer par excellence, with his finger on the pulse of humanity. Sometimes he can be too ham-handed (How Much a Dollar Cost). Sometimes he can be too thorny and abstruse. Fine. No one else came close to reaching so high this year musically, against unbelievably high expectations, and came up with something that everyone had to admit was a stunning statement.
Partially because the video is so good, I think "Alright" is the perfect song to feature:
And last, but not least:
Extremely Honorable Mentions:
U.S. Girls – Half Free: Growling and purring rock that’s a little Liz Phair-ey and all cool.
Pond – Man It Feels Like Space Again: Modern groovy psychadelic rock
Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School: So ugly it’s beautiful synth rock in an 80’s palette
Czarface – Every Hero Needs A Villian: Kaleidoscopic old-school rap done right with enough cleverness in one song to fill out ten albums.
FKA twigs – M3LL155X EP: Something amazing to hold us over until her next album.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION: Tiny, perfect pop jewel.
Joanna Newsom – Divers: Our reigning queen of poetry and world creation graces us with another towering work it will take years to fully parse.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell: Sufjan quietly and meditatively muses on finally losing his addict mother.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt: A quiet masterpiece of elegant poetic misanthropy.
Young Thug – Barter 6: Whatever Lil’ Wayne did right, Young Thug does better
Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass: Lush orchestration and great songwriting
Stuff I Wish I’d Had Time To Listen To More:
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
Surf – Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Lanal Del Rey – Honeymoon
Blackalicious – Imani Vol. 1
Stuff That’s Very Much Not Here On Purpose:
All The Drake