This year I can’t in good conscience list ten albums in order. It always feels like splitting invisible hairs to decide between one and two or five and six, and when the albums I loved this year are such a diverse bunch it just seems silly. (I would say it is like comparing apples to oranges, but one can compare apples to oranges easily. Oranges are much better. Clearly. Ask anyone.) There is a unifying theme in my list, though it embarrasses me a bit to notice it. Almost all of these albums have a throwback quality to them. They often involve attempts to recapture something pure from earlier incarnations of the genres. The best albums of the year represent pure forms of rap/hip-hop, country/rock and punk. Among the others you can hear echoes of Madonna, Magnetic Fields, Silver Jews, and (um, of course) the Talking Heads. St. Vincent is probably the exception. As an aside, it somehow seems to me that many of the newest sounds these days come from women–witness Cate LeBon, PJ Harvey, and Bjork. And Radiohead. I guess Radiohead is the exception that proves the rule is not really a rule after all. In any case, here’s my shot at this year’s list.
Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else (Subpop)
These Cleveland darlings just keep getting better with every release. There are shades of Nirvana, The Descendants, and about a dozen other punky lovelies. I probably listened to this one more than any album this year.
Run the Jewels, RTJ2 (Mass Appeal)
In this year of racial fucknuttery, with white cops reviving scenes of Selma and dumbasses taking it out perfectly innocent police, it was a perfect year for RTJ2 to bring us intelligent, hard hitting rap. El-P and Killer Mike have had the year of their lives and the excitement is infectious as hell. Just hearing Killer Mike start the thing out makes me start punching the air. Lie, Cheat, Steal might be the track of the year.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
It’s not really fair to have a voice this strong while still kicking ass as a songwriter. How can someone like this not make those boneheads in Nashville change the way they think about making and marketing music? If you liked Sharon von Etten’s Tramp, and you did if you are even moderately reasonable, this album should be on your shelf. Like von Etten, Olsen spills her guts with style, but perhaps with a greater diversity of styles. She morphs from Patsy Cline to Leonard Cohen in a heartbeat.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)
My friend Eric turned me onto this saying “This guy is legit as shit,” and this album plus that comment is a good reminder of why we love our friends. I haven’t been as excited about country since Richard Buckner’s early albums. Unapologetically excellent. (Might be paired well with Luke B. Goebel’s “14 Stories and None of them are Yours.” Those two guys might be the same damn person.)
Death from Above 1979, The Physical World (Last Gang/Warner Bros.)
Another album from a duo who packs the energy of an entire decade of rock. I doubt these two spend afterparties riding alligators around a hotel room bonfire, but they sound like it. I’ll eagerly wait another ten years for these guys to record another album if I have to. This stuff is timeless.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista)
We Dallasites like to think of Annie Clark as our own, and those of us who have done time in that monochromatic suburb of Garland want to feel somewhat redeemed by the association. But the truth is she is probably from outer space and has some Kryptonian story of how she got here. For my money she belongs with PJ Harvey and Bjork as one of the most interesting and innovative artists out there. She can hack the guitar into pieces and hit all manner of notes while stoically packaging herself for television consumption. Every St. Vincent album is worth having, and this might be her best yet , but I wouldn’t be surprised if she just continues to get better for about sixty years.
Alvvays, Alvvays (Polyvinyl/Transgressive)
If I can’t include Chad VanGaalen’s album on my year end list, and honestly I can’t, I’m happy at least to include an album he produced. Toronto based Alvvays’ self-titled album is the sort of fresh lo-fi pop that is easy to try but damned difficult to pull off. While they remind me a lot of Camera Obscura, they’re willing to let a little more fray show at the edges, and their sound is a little too rough to be twee. Just try not to like Archie, Marry Me. If you do try, you’re just being a jerk.
TV Girl, French Exit (Self-Released)
I’m such an unimaginative literalist that when I see a book is by a woman I assume until I’m told otherwise that the narrator is a woman. I also assume that TV Girl will be a girl. Both are bad assumptions. TV Girl is basically a guy named Brad Petering who cobbles together brilliant pop-songs out of samples, keys, and a vulnerable voice. If you combined Cinerama era David Gedge with Stephin Merritt you might get something like this. Whatever–it’s damn good and you can download the whole thing (name your price) here: http://tvgirl.bandcamp.com/album/french-exit
Brian Eno and Karl Hyde, High Life (Warp)
By all rights Brian Eno should be resting on his laurels. (For a long time I thought a laurel must be an ass-cheek. I looked it up and it’s not. It is, though, apparently rare only to have one laurel. There the similarity pretty much ends.) On his second record with Underworld’s Karl Hyde, though, Eno makes one of his best records in decades. Usually a behind the scenes man, Eno brings the vocals this time and makes you wonder why he’s been keeping them under wraps. The sounds and textures here cast back to Fear of Music era Talking Heads–dense guitar and rhythm layers underneath chantlike vocals. Sure, there’s some flirting with pretension here, but Eno’s earned our patience with that.
Tennis, Ritual in Repeat (Communion)
It would be an easy mistake to complain that Tennis is ripping off the 80s. I mean, they are, and sometimes there’s just a little too much Madonna for my comfort, but when the result is this solid I can’t dismiss em. The production is full and lush and the harmonies drape perfectly over the beats. I kept coming back to this one almost despite myself.