1. Daniel Bachman - Seven Pines
I bought this album on the strength of one song (streaming on NPR) and two words- ‘Psychedelic Appalachia.’ I read that Daniel Bachman had described his music as such and I immediately knew I would love this album. This album is so up my alley, it’s so perfectly in my wheelhouse, I’m not sure you could tailor something more to my liking if you tried. This is the kind of music I dream of playing myself.
I’ve spent the last couple years delving into the deep waters of American Primitivism (or American Primitive Guitar) - the genre of acoustic fingerpicking that John Fahey established in the 50s. American Primitive players take the tool kit of old country blues but use the tools to fashion fascinating avant-garde song structures, often in unusual tunings and always technically stunning.
Too often, American Primitive players will veer too far in either direction- they’ll end up sounding like pleasant but simple folk music or like spacey new age tunes. Bachman makes neither mistake here. He follows masterfully in the footsteps of forefathers like Fahey or Jack Rose. The songs are long meditations on themes but never bore. He wanders around the fretboard picking divine melodies while always keeping that thumb steady. Laying down an alternating bass with your thumb while playing the melody with your other fingers allows guitarists to approach the instrument like a pianist. It facilitates a larger sound like there’s two guitarists. Bachman sounds like an orchestra.
Most importantly, there’s an urgency to this album- the Psychedelic part of ‘Psychedelic Appalachia.’ He sounds like he’s got 20 fingers and at times, his playing is so intense- it’s like he’s attacking the guitar. It’s powerful, strange and raw. Bachman has created a compelling work with Seven Pines – one that has earned it’s place next to the greats of American Primitive Guitar while also pushing the genre to undiscovered heights.
2. Baroness - Yellow & Green
I don’t listen to much metal. Traditional metal wasn’t really my thing even in high school when my Dodge Caravan’s sun-visor-cd-case was stocked with the likes of Sabbath, Tool and Deftones. Now I’m pushin’ 30, I drink wine and I like to read the New York Times and listen to Jackson Browne. But every once in a while, something just clicks. Like when I first saw The Fucking Champs on a 60 square feet stage in the back of a tiny bar. Or when I first heard Mastodon’s ‘Blood and Thunder’ and declared it the greatest opening riff of any album in history.
Baroness is like that. Every album they’ve released is a masterwork and Yellow & Green is their best yet. But here’s the thing- I wouldn’t even really call this metal. There’s no cookie monster vocals, no double bass drum pedals, very few typical metal signifiers of any sort. But that’s not to say this album doesn’t rock. It very much does. I think a better antecedent would be Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 magnum opus Songs for the Deaf. Like that album, Yellow & Green is a hard rock album that at times is heavy, at times graceful but always impeccably written, performed and produced.
Even the most brutal, hardcore, Pig-Destroyer-listening badass would have to admit that ‘Twinkler’ is just straight up pretty. And even the sissiest, Belle-and-Sebastian-listening pansy would have to admit that ‘The Line Between’ just flat out rocks. Yellow & Green is the rare double album where there’s no filler. The 70 minutes fly by and not a second seems superfluous. Every ethereal intro, every brief aside or experimentation, every note of the guitar solos even, is placed with such care and clear purpose that even at it’s most tender moments, this album kicks ass and even at it’s heaviest, it’s gorgeous.
3. Chromatics - Kill for Love
It’s a pretty ballsy move starting your album off with a cover of a classic like Neil Young’s ‘Into the Black.’ But like they previously did with Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill,’ Chromatics pull it off by taking the song apart and recreating it as their own. Call them Italo Disco, Synth-pop, Dream Pop- Chromatics simply sound like no one else. Their guitar lines sound Joy Division-ish and the somnolent vocals at times recall Nico’s work with the Velvet Underground but Chromatics always sound fresh.
Kill for Love is a long album - the slow but catchy pop tunes are interspersed with instrumental ambient interludes. But it all flows beautifully and I wouldn’t get rid of a second. While the album isn’t exactly concise, it is powerful in it’s restraint. Every melody is given room to breathe, every synth given space to sing. The economy of sound and excellent production really allow the simple but strong melodies and arrangements to be appreciated.
4. Lambchop – Mr. M
The first song on Mr. M – ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’ – works pretty well as a microcosm of the album, possibly even Lambchop’s entire oeuvre. It begins with lavish strings that might sound over the top with any other group. With Lambchop, they sound natural. But before you can feel like you’re in Gone with the Wind or something, a quick snare roll segues into the lyrics- “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about…” and you immediately know who you’re listening to. Kurt Wagner continues to mix the banal with the beautiful- “Sustain me with your voice, clean the coffee maker.” Hilariously, he seems to be casually arranging the song as he goes- “The strings sound good, maybe add some flutes.”
The song, and the whole album, is sublime. The production and arrangements are of a sort you sadly don’t see much anymore. Wagner’s warbly voice and his deadpan lyrics are understated genius. The album is beautiful- unabashedly sentimental but never garish and that’s a hell of a feat.
5. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Tame Impala’s 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, is a good album. Lonerism is a great album. Innerspeaker had moments of brilliance but also somewhat of a ‘Look Ma, I got a phaser pedal!’ feel to it. It reflected and honored psychedelic rock. Lonerism, on the other hand, is something new. It’s the confident work of a band that has absorbed their influences and developed their own voice. It feels delightfully like it a classic- it would fit in perfectly in 1968- but, at the same time, it feels refreshingly contemporary. Even when they pull a page straight out of the Pink Floyd notebook (like the layered conversation and giggles on ‘Keep on Lying’,) it still never feels like a rip off or pastiche.
I am obsessed with the drums on this record. They’re warm and fuzzed out a bit like a 60s garage rock record but laid back and funky enough to be sampled for a 90s hip hop record. The drummer isn’t ever afraid to play a fill (and at times, repeat it until it becomes part of the beat itself) but he’s never flashy.
As you would hope from a psychedelic rock record, the production on Lonerism is top notch. Like the drums, the guitar sound is lightly distorted perfection. But the arrangements are what really elevate these catchy numbers to greatness. They know just when to layer a synth, just when to repeat a lick and just when to drop everything, leave you hanging for a second before they come back full throttle- daring you not to air drum along.
6. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
I heard ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, the first single from Swing Lo Magellan before the album came out. After a couple listens, I was left wanting. A catchy beat and some nice harmonies, of course, but it just sounded so…normal. I wondered if this would be the first Dirty Projectors album where they would sound like your typical indie rock band. I wondered if they took the pop sensibility that did them so well on 2009’s Bitte Orca a bit too far. I wondered, could this new album actually be kinda boring?
I had nothing to worry about. Swing Lo Magellan starts with some handclaps, harmonized humming, a massive sounding pitch-bent bass drum and the trademark killer background vocals. Beautifully off-kilter verses turned into a gigantic chorus and I breathed a sigh of relief. Why would I ever doubt Dave Longstreth? This album has it’s own idiosyncrasies- leaving the talkback in, for example, shows he’s going for something else here- a more human, warts and all approach than the previous records. But it still has everything you want from a Dirty Projectors album- it’s delightfully weird, meticulously made and ridiculously catchy. It’s got weird time signatures, magnificent guitar licks, and marvelous vocal harmonies (both when they’re a standard interval or those lovely dissonant ones he’s fond of.) I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
7. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
Voyageur is an album that is hard to classify- not because it’s so sonically wide ranging, necessarily, but because the songs seem to transcend genre. Whether you call it folk, rock or country (and at times, it feels like all three,) these are just straight up good songs. They build, they’re emotive and catchy and there’s not a clunker in the bunch.
Edwards receives some production (and background vocal) help from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and it’s well received. The production is never in-your-face but it subtly adds power to the songs. In some, it supports a sense of pathos; in others, it adds to excitement. In both cases, it works a perfect buttress for a set of songs that have inconspicuously become some of my favorites this year.
8. How to Dress Well – Total Loss
Tom Krell, a.k.a. How to Dress Well recently spoke in an interview about comparisons between him and modern R&B artists. He said, “If you take any of the other musicians that I’m usually grouped in with and compare any of our records, you’ll find that I make much weirder music than any of them.” He’s absolutely right. Though his somber lyrics are delivered via early 90s style R&B type melodies, the instrumental work couldn’t be further from your typical R&B artist. While I was happy to hear he let his voice shine through mostly unencumbered by distortion on this record, the music is as intriguing and fascinatingly unique as ever.
Here’s the thing- not only does he excel at making sui generis music that’s far more interesting than his so-called contemporaries- he’s got better hooks too! Whatever your vocal talents, I dare you to try to not find yourself singing ‘& It Was U’ alone, waiting for a train, hours after listening. But immediately following that little earworm is ‘World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)’, a impressive instrumental interlude that verges on classical while still being highly moving. Total Loss is a special album because it works on many different levels. It’s emotionally deep and musically adventurous while at the same time catchy as fuck.
9. Parisian - Those Emotions Ran High
Full disclosure: this cat is a friend of mine. But I haven’t listened to this album probably a hundred times out of friendly obligation. I listen because of the masterful production. I listen because it’s so damn evocative. I find myself restarting the album as soon as it’s ended (at a brief 28 minutes) because I’m not ready to leave the world these songs inhabit. Parisian puts down heavy beats that immediately make your head nod but it’s what’s around the beat that really shines. There’s a strong presence here and every woozy synth, drowsy vocal and curious sample seems perfectly at home in this atmospheric gem.
Available for free download.
10. Twin Shadow – Confess
Twin Shadow’s sophomore effort, with it’s gated drums and epic choruses, continues with the 80s nostalgia that’s been popular these last couple years. But it’s not an ends as much as a means- a path to an outlet for these larger than life songs. They fit the production, as if it could be no other way. After a couple listens, I realized what this record reminds me of. With it’s grandiose arrangements, 80s-style production and occasional bitchin’ guitar solos, it’s almost sounds like something Prince could have made. But, unlike most Prince albums, it’s super tight and the conciseness adds to the songs’ power. George Lewis Jr. sings like a natural frontman- whether he’s smoothly whispering a verse, belting a chorus or just snarling an aside, there’s a sense of self-assuredness that’s irresistible. The production may be super 80s but the high quality of the songwriting makes this album timeless.
11. Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again
Often compared to Bill Withers, Michael Kiwanuka indeed has a sound that is classic singer-songwriter soul. But he never sounds like he’s merely emulating the greats. Instead, he writes songs that promise to be as enduring as those that inspired them. The parts are simple but perfectly arranged and produced. A jazzy flute, some excellent guitar work and some occasional woodblocks reminiscent of Pet Sounds- they sound beautifully new but familiar at the same time. Though the album could stand to have a few more upbeat numbers, it’s hard to find much not to love about this collection of mellow tunes.
12. James Blackshaw - Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death
Blackshaw mixes things up here, trading his twelve steel strings for six nylons and even using a vocalist on a track. It’s a welcome change of pace and, of course, his nigh-unmatched guitar prowess and ear for simple but stunning melodies have stayed the same. The classical guitar suits him and keeps him away from a new age feel he had flirted with on previous albums. The added space between the flurries of notes gives the songs a greater impact and emotional depth. Surprisingly, Geneviève Beaulieu’s vocals fit right in. Like the rest of the album, they’re dark and moody but always moving- never allowed to simply soak in their own melancholy. The other striking thing about this album is how loud Blackshaw’s breathing is. At first, it’s uncomfortable (especially on headphones) but as you listen, his calm rhythmic breaths become part of the song- a meditative addition to gorgeous meditations.
13. Dirty Three - Toward The Low Sun
This album comes out of the gate like a horse on fire. ‘Furnace Skies’ reminds us that Warren Ellis is fresh off a stint in Nick Cave’s badass rock and roll project Grinderman. The bass is heavily distorted. Jim White is attacking the drums with a manic but controlled ferocity like he can’t decide if he’s in a jazz or a hard rock band. Warren Ellis’s violin and Mick Turner’s guitar play the foils to the erratic rhythm section with contemplative vamps on mournful tender themes. Most of the album is far calmer than the fervent first song; it sounds like a standard Dirty Three album. After a 7 year wait, that’s a very good thing.
14. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
This is the first Fiona Apple album I’ve ever really listened to. Obviously, I’ve been missing something. The lyrics are striking, her voice is astounding and the arrangements and recording are so bare bones, the rawness is palatable. She gives it her all whether she’s expressing love, admitting her faults or cracking dark jokes. With a few exceptions, the album is basically just Apple’s voice, her piano, and the stellar drumming of Charley Drayton. Sometimes less is more.
15. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE
On channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean realizes the potential he showed on last year’s excellent Nostalgia, Ultra. Not only his voice but his strength of vision is strikingly similar to Stevie Wonder, though his sound is all new. ‘Pyramids’ is the obvious highlight – a ten minute epic that drifts between musical styles and lyrical metaphors, all while staying totally cohesive and catchy. The album has some pacing and track list problems and the lyrics are often lacking (in comparison to the super high praise heaped upon the album by media, fans and Ocean himself) but in the end, this album is still an astounding statement from an artist that will have many more to come.
16. Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It
This album is just devastating. Devastatingly gorgeous. Devastatingly powerful. It’s really fucked up but in all the darkness, it never loses it’s warmth and beauty.
17. Six Organs of Admittance - Ascent
In the first five seconds, it’s apparent that this isn’t your typical Six Organs of Admittance album. There are times where Ben Chasny slows it down (Your Ghost is one of his prettiest songs to date and would’ve fit in nicely on School of the Flower, for example) but he spends most of the album like he does the first track – just unleashing pure shreddage and riffitude. It’s simultaneously badass and beautiful and this album reaffirms Chasny’s place as a modern underappreciated guitar god.
18. Jessie Ware – Devotion
This album is R&B verging on straight up Adult Contemporary cheese and I friggin’ love it.
19. Dan Deacon – America
If you don’t like Dan Deacon, this album probably won’t change your mind. Just in case you were thinking of giving it a shot, he starts it in the most Dan Deacon-iest way possible- a massively distorted synth freakout is joined by that infamous Dan Deacon beat (I guess you could call it ‘16 on the floor tom’) and then, of course the syncopation begins. Of course, if you are a fan of Dan Deacon, you’ll probably love this album. He’s got all the same signifiers but this album is strikingly mature and approaches his style from a different angle. He’s got live instruments, in some cases a whole orchestra and they help give his sound a fullness and warmth that often wasn’t there before. Though probably more well known for his wacky (and incredibly fun) live shows, this album finds Deacon more in the company of the likes of Steve Reich and Terry Riley than any indie rock group.
20. Grizzly Bear – Shields
Grizzly Bear have been somewhat quietly making really really good music for a while now. Sure, they’re on the Colbert Report and the cover of magazines and all that. However, at the same time, while everyone seems to recognize that they’re a good band, there doesn’t seem to be much recognition of what a great band they are. But I defy anyone to put on some headphones, listen to this album, and not be knocked the fuck out. The whole band has great moments on this album but in particular, Daniel Rossen continues to show what a fabulous songwriter and incredible guitarist he is.
21. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
22. John Talabot – ƒin
23. Wild Nothing – Nocturne
24. Dustin Wong - Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads
25. Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn’t
26. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
27. Beth Orton - Sugaring Season
28. Marissa Nadler - The Sister
29. The xx – Coexist
30. Purity Ring – Shrines
31. Daniel Rossen - Silent Hour/Golden Mile
32. Beach House – Bloom
33. Symmetry - Themes For An Imaginary Film
34. Sun Kil Moon - Among The Leaves
35. Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes
36. Sinkane – Mars
37. Woods – Bend Beyond
38. Jason Molina - Autumn Bird Songs
39. Cat Power – Sun
40. Dr. Dog - Be The Void
41. Daughn Gibson - All Hell
42. Crystal Castles - (III)
43. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light
44. Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
45. The Walkmen – Heaven
46. Justin Townes Earle - Nothing’s Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
47. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
48. The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth
49. Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II
50. Grimes - Visions
Four Tet - Pink
Holy Other - Held
The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
Glen Hasgard - Rhythm and Repose
Pallbearer - Sorrow and Extinction
The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter
Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras Meet The Congos - Icon Give Thank
Dent May - Do Things
Bill Fay - Life Is People
Mount Eerie - Clear Moon
Dum Dum Girls - End of Daze
Tanlines - Mixed Emotions
Chris Smither - Hundred Dollar Valentine
DIIV – Oshin
Menomena - Moms
Andy Scott - Luxury Problems
Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
Here We Go Magic - A Different Ship
jj - High Summer
Brian Eno - Lux
Om - Advaitic Songs
Air - Le Voyage Dans La Lune
Andrew Bird - Hands of Glory
Burial - Kindred EP
Julia Holter - Ekstasis
Sun Airway - Soft Fall
David Bryne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant
Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet On Sky
Frankie Rose - Interstellar
Sigur Rós - Valtari
Actress - R.I.P.
Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
Daphni - Jiaolong
Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits
Langhorne Slim & The Law - The Way We Move
Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action at a Distance
Moonface - With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery
Motion Sickness Of Time Travel - Motion Sickness Of Time Travel
Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
Now, I have too much journalistic integrity to put my own album (Love and Time by Jeremiah and the Apostles) on this list. But I don’t so much that I’ll skip a chance to plug it. I wrote and recorded it with some of the best musicians in St. Louis and I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve made. It’s available for free download or streaming.
My computer is having all sorts of audio issues so I’m going to take a hiatus until the new year. I’ll return at a slower pace as I’ll be spending my summer hiking around Southern Chile. In March, I’ll return to regular speed. Please stick around and know that I truly appreciate every single one of you. Thanks for reading.