Best 10 Albums of 2016

As I start to write this year’s column, I wonder how many people will start their own list with some variation of ‘2016!? Am I right guys?! What a shitter lol!’. The political climate, the loss of many great artists and the deep hole that humanity seems so desperate to find the bottom of all contribute to a sense of fear and unease that make it hard to do normal, every day things, like listen to a great record. Music helps. It heals and can refocus you on things that you can control: your family, your loved ones, your community. Ultimately, these are the things that make a difference. That’s all the bullshit philosophizing I’ll do this year. On to the list!

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Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow

My summer was dominated by this record. I think I listened to it every day for about 3 months. It was the soundtrack to my last summer without a child. As I publish this, Katie is about to give birth to our son. Its hard for me to write about how difficult the process was for us, from the initial debates of whether or not we even wanted a kid, to the physical process of IVF and all the heartbreak, stress and pain that came with its creation. When we learned Katie was pregnant I found that I had a new viewpoint on just about everything. Maybe this would be the last time we did X or Y? Maybe the change to come would mean that we wouldn’t have time for traveling, seeing friends, trying new experiences? All the fears that I think all first time parents must go through. That was my headspace when Tired of Tomorrow by Nothing came out. It was like a 90s retro rock party that just urged me to forget these fears. To live in this moment, right now, because it was passing by, and yeah things are gonna change and yeah, we’ll have to figure it all out again. That’s the whole point. This album helped me have a good time by letting go and to notice the beauty of things as you say goodbye. The album sounds like my youth with thick, Smashing Pumpkins style guitars, but with lyrics that come from an adult place, bridging these two periods of my life in a quick 45 minutes. This is my favorite album of the year.

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Bloody Knives – I Will Cut Your Heart Out For This

I had never heard of this band before this year and I still feel like I know very little about them. You can go read their wikipedia page to learn as much as I do. Just kidding, they don’t even have one. I stumbled onto this record through the now defunct what.cd. In my opinion, losing what.cd was a huge blow to not only the entire music community of the internet, but to young bands all over the world. It was a great group of people that offered music from all over a chance to be heard. But I digress… Bloody Knives. Yes, what  great band. Lots of shoegaze, noise pop and synth textures all over this record. A great monotone singer who sounds more robot than human (in a good way) and a solid grasp of all the technology they are using turns the album into a journey through fuzzed out landscapes where every song sounds right on the edge of exploding over into the real world. I can’t listen to this album quietly. It demands big speakers and your full attention. I’m listening to it as I write this and I had to stand up and rock out for a second. Now I’m back.

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Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

I don’t know how they keep doing it, but a new Radiohead record arrives when its least expected and most needed. Since the lads have been doing this for so long, I feel like AMSP is a band relaxed with who they are, what they are doing and what they need to say. At one time they would have been openly political (Hail to the Thief seems pretty obvious), or Thom would be more on the nose about what he was going through emotionally, but now its all hidden away behind metaphorical lyrics and layers upon layers of instrumentation. Even when stripped down like in Desert Island Disk I find myself looking for clues to unlock deeper meaning and hidden messages. Nowhere is this more appealing than in Daydreaming which uses its minimal lyrics to really make me dig in and invent more and more meanings about just what this song is trying to say. Is he talking about love? Because he did break up with his long time partner and mother of his children and there’s tons of heartbreak all over this record. Is it about climate change and the dying of the planet? That’s been a constant theme throughout Radiohead records and lines like “Its too late / the damage is done’ certainly point me that way. Is it about getting old and looking back at your life? Is that why he draws up images of an old man sitting in a white room, being served by who knows who? Its all of these things.

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65daysofstatic – No Man’s Sky; Music for an Infinite Universe

In a year of sadness and disappointment, many of my fellow video game nerds were really, really, REALLY pissed off at this game. It was easily the most over hyped game of the year, feeding into the long time dreams of many to explore a fully realized universe where you could fly a ship around and land on any planet you wanted, discover  new life, invent new technology and take part in a fully realized, living, breathing alternate reality. Nope. It was just a video game, a pretty good one in my opinion, but still just a game. The soundtrack, however, is sublime. Hitting all the right beats of epic space exploration along with really deep, ambient, shifting tone poems. It covers a wide moat of emotional ground, sadness, discovery, loneliness and achievement, sometimes within one song. Great music to listen to while on a plane or while walking around somewhere new.

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Nicolas Jaar – Sirens

This one shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows my tastes, but I have to include it because its that damn good. If you are new here, you should know that I am slightly obsessed with Nicolas Jaar, the Argentinian / New York based songwriter and producer. If you haven’t heard of him, stop reading this right now and listen to the full album by Darkside. I will wait for you. OK? Now you realize why this 26 year old is one of the most exciting people working in electronic/experimental music right now. He combines found sound, classic synths, deconstructed beats, falsetto vocals, horns, guitars, whatever else he can get his hands on into explorations of sound and emotion. Sirens has songs in Spanish, a kind of retro 50s doo wop ending, an 11 minute opener that starts with the sound of a waving American flag and much much more for the listener to discover over repeated listens. It also has the coolest vinyl packaging of the year (although this Fight Club reissue comes pretty close). The cover of the vinyl is scratch off material, lottery ticket style. They put a quarter in the sleeve and let you dismantle the cover as you see fit. How much you want to reveal is up to the listener.

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Petrels – Joro

The amazing A Closer Listen blog turned me onto this one man band called Petrels. If you look at the viewer count on that youtube above, you’ll see that it doesn’t have many views. The official video has even less! This guy deserves more attention and he could easily be used in a variety of movies, tv shows or dance performances and is better than a lot of the people currently doing it. He makes drone music, focused on electronics and vocals. At times its like a less rhythmic Fuck Buttons and at others its more reminiscent of Steve Reich. He’s also made like a thousand records already, all are available at his bandcamp site. This is music I listen to at home, later in the evening, when I want to clear my mind and listen to something challenging. Sometimes music should be challenging. Listening to the same familiar things gets boring and doesn’t reflect life. Time to make it interesting.

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They Say The Wind Made Them Crazy – Far From The Silvery Light

This album leads directly into madness. Don’t do it.

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David Bowie – Blackstar

Everyone knows the story here right? This album came out in the first week of the year, and then Bowie died a couple days later. Personally, I think he was hoping to go before it was released, but he got close enough. Here is a master artist’s final piece, his last transmission, death as performance art. To know you are going to die, and to still have the desire, the determination, to record and release a record is the mark of a true professional. One who spent his entire life defying those who would label him, changing himself and his medium every chance he got so his fans wouldn’t get bored. Blackstar resonates with that passion and with the message that its all worth it. Push yourself, change yourself, never rest, and when your time comes you can look up at the sky and say goddamnit I did this the way I wanted to do it.

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Dreamboat – Dreamboat

Three guys: a guitar player, an analog synth player and a bass clarinetist is all you need to make some truly original and interesting music. This is an album designed for vinyl. Two tracks on the whole record, each take up one side. This is late night listening. Possibly under the influence of some substances so that you can relax, reflect and zone the fuck out. It rewards patience and an imaginative mind. Dive into its layers and you will discover new aspects of what’s going on musically. Close your eyes and do some deep breathing and see what emerges out of your subconscious. Like some kind of drug trip, it will reveal what’s underneath whether you want it to or not.

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Poppy Nogood – Music for Mourning

Another find from A Closer Listen and another solo artist making very interesting sounds. This is just some kid in New York making music for the first time. His bandcamp is all over the place. He’ll make some electronic music and then switch over to the style of this record, looped violin and string instruments with some light electronics. The five songs here are just great and they all fit the title of the album perfectly. If you are having a rough patch and need something to help you move through the various stages of grief, I can’t imagine a better piece of music for you. Its spacious and vast while communicating just enough melody and tone to ground you in its space. It drones for a time and then pulls you back into a rhythmic section. It reminds me of thoughts as they flow through your mind, each taking their own form for a brief period before you move on to the next one. This is a short record because it doesn’t need to do more than this. Throw this kid some listens and some support so that he can continue to make interesting music.

2015 Best Music

Hooray! Here we are at the end of another year, which means its time for another year end music column! If you are here, you’ve probably read one of these before, so welcome back! If you are new it means I met you in the last year and thought you were cool enough to let know this exists! Double hooray!

So let’s talk about 2015. Its always hard for me to separate the music that meant something to me from the experiences I had throughout the year. This year we moved into a new house, did a full remodel, tried working at a game company again, released a pretty good record with some pretty cool folks and met new friends in Petaluma. Lots of change for me as life slows down from the pace of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. I’m still not totally settled into it and find myself wishing for the city life here and there. But the allure of country living is strong. Sitting back and just letting things take a little longer teaches patience and appreciation. I think the dichotomy of wishing for the fast pace, but accepting the slowed down nature of my life is represented in my selections this year.

Oh! I made a new thing for this year’s edition. Its a continuous mix of standout songs across a variety of genres from things I really enjoyed. Some are from the albums mentioned below, but most are not. See if anything stands out to you.

 

  1. Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

Abyss is just an album in the same way that The Shining is just a movie or The Stand is just a book. Chelsea Wolfe has managed to fill this record with as much gloom, sadness and horror as those seminal works and basically pioneer the ‘Doom Folk’ genre at the same time. She tours with metal bands and has tons of indie cred from getting name dropped by important musician types. She totally deserves all of it. Carrion Flowers, Iron Moon and After the Fall are all outstanding songs that I have listened to many times this year. They are all expemplary of the style that Wolfe is going for. Big dramatic haunted house soundtracks featuring bizarre instrumentation and arrangements that keep the listener on edge. Her voice is angelic and demonic at the same time, conjuring all kinds of ghostly images and makes the hair on my arms stand up. Smaller, quieter tracks like Crazy Love and Survive provide a respite from all the doom and gloom while not feeling unnecessary or inconsequential. You need those songs to get a gasp of air before being sucked back down into her bizarre, tortured world. My favorite album of the year.

2. Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh

I mean look at that cover art. What the hell is that? Folds of skin overlapping each other and creating creases and seams you aren’t sure are supposed to be there. Is that an actual body part? The music on this album makes you ask the same types of questions. There are so many layers of noise, vocals, synths, and god knows what else happening all the time, that you can never be sure of what you are hearing. Is that a person or a synth? Drums or a vocal sample? Benjamin Powers from Fuck Buttons is the only member of Blanck Mass and he uses the side project to explore a darker, more industrial realm than his main gig. These songs don’t follow any kind of preset format, but like Fuck Buttons, he someone manages to hit crescendos on top of crescendos. You think the song is at its absolute peak and then he reveals a whole other level you didn’t think possible. In songs like Cruel Sport and Detritus its absolutely staggering. The fact that he also released a rescore of an obscure Italian horror film and put out the totally insane Great Confuso this year as well just means the guy has reams of material still to come. Headphones required for this album. Probably drugs too.

3. Lost River OST – Johnny Jewel

No matter what you think about Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, the fact that he got an amazing score from The Chromatics’ Johnny Jewel is undeniable. This monster clocks in at 37 tracks and almost 2 hours of music, the movie was almost wall to wall music. There are classic 80s style synth songs like Yes (Theme song to Lost River) in here as well as oddities like Deep Purple and Cool Water so the record covers a lot of ground, however it never overstays its welcome. Like the film, the soundtrack is determined to take you through its emotional highs and lows and uses lots of dialogue samples from the film to weave its own particular version of it. Johnny Jewel is really emerging as a master film composer and I cannot wait to see what he does in the future. Now release the new Chromatics record already!!

 

4. Failure – The Heart is a Monster

2015 was the year of the 90s band reunion and personally, I found the feeling similar to when they released those stupid Star Wars Enhanced versions. Why are you ruining my childhood?! Watching these old bands come back for one more go round was like watching a train wreck in slow motion over and over. Refused reformed and made a terrible record. Smashing Pumpkins had their worst album ever. Even goddamn Third Eye Blind has a record this year. Ugh.  The only one that worked, was the long long awaited album from Failure, a band whose last album was 17 years ago. That’s a really long wait but I think it was worth it. Fantastic Planet came out in the late 90s and was immediately hailed as a classic. The songwriting and energy was impeccable. They seemed like a band on the verge of something huge, so of course they broke up. 15 years later the record has taken its place as a cult classic and an inspiration to tons of bands that followed. So what do you do as a follow up a decade and a half later? You don’t fuck with it. Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards stuck to the same types of songs they were writing back in the day and deliver them with gusto. The space guitar effects, the lazy tempos and drugged out soundscapes all seem totally appropriate again in the retro 90s music scene that’s popular now, but with the gift of maturity they can write songs about something other than getting stoned. The best song on the record, ‘I Can See Houses’, analyzes the irrational fear of flying in an airplane as it takes off. Its such a simple sentiment but coming from a band who has already had a career it takes on new meanings and I’m glad to be able to peek into that world.

5. A Swarm of the Sun – The Rifts

A couple Swedish guys I never heard of made the best post-rock record of the year and they did it with a very simple setup. Take some guitars, drums and piano and use vocals at the right time and you can make something powerfully emotional. These songs trace a story about a criminal who gets run through the justice system and comes out changed. The lyrics are all about loss and pain and the music reflects this in long passages of brutal heaviness, using repetition to really drive home the concepts that the album seeks to explore. ‘These Depths Were Always Meant For Both Of Us’ is a standout track at the end of the album which finally comes full circle and reveals that only with another person can you make it through the hard times that life has in store for you. This whole album plays like a meditation on that simple theme. Powerful stuff.

6. Health – Death Magic

On the surface Death Magic is a one song album. Every tune has a similar sound and feel. Benjamin Miller’s lyrics explore drugs, sex and death exclusively, often times using the exact same phrase in multiple songs and honestly, in a different context could easily be mistaken for Avril Lavigne outtakes. However, HEALTH are not a band to be taken lightly and every move seems thought out and purposeful. The album flows from one song to another, bouncing between upbeat, dance-able tunes before shifting into the percussion driven noise rock that got them started. This creates a really hypnotic feel that sucks me in. I feel like I am lost in Los Angeles at night. Driving on some freeway, stoned to the gills trying to remember whats so great about being alive.

7. Pentatones – Ouroboros

Pentatones are another band that I knew nothing about, but managed to surprise me with a really solid record of songs. Hailing from Berlin and incorporating influences from The Knife, 80s songs and found sound, they manage to turn out one great song after another. Franziska Grohmann has an amazing voice that can take many forms, an important asset in these songs since sometimes they want to be playful, sometimes dark and creepy and sometimes just beautiful. Albrecht Ziepert‘s writing and production also deserve kudos since he is the only real member of the band and every song hits lots of the right emotional spots without coming across as rehashed. Pretty sure I could tour NoNight with this band and it would be an awesome double bill. Someone set that up for me.

8. NewRetroWave – Magnatron

This was a Bandcamp find that I made one day searching for 80s synth music and boy did it deliver. This is a compilation from the NYC based record label NewRetroWave and features a bunch of their artists, however it’s not the scattershot hodge podge you expect from a comp. Instead this feels almost like one band making an album, a testament to the genre and to the musicians and songs chosen to be featured on it. 80s retro synth tunes are really popular, and for good reason. For 30 somethings like me, these tunes conjure memories of our childhood, while younger kids can listen to this and imagine what they missed. Check out this label and all their releases, most of them are rock solid.

9. Rival Consoles – Howl

Ryan Lee West is the main guy behind this project, and as a guitar player turned composer, he uses his old instrument to inform many of his pieces. You hear echoes of it in the songs Looming and Walls, but its his beat making and sample choice which really make these songs stand out. He uses very little to communicate mood, instead relying on space and silence to help carve out his sonic territory. Howl moves like a piece of modern classical music, tracks blurring into each other with only a vague sense of breaks between songs. What you are left with is the emotional resonance of the piece as a whole, somewhere between sadness and longing.

10. It Follows OST – Disasterpeace

Better known as a video game composer, Disasterpeace turned in a really outstanding score for this phenomenal film. Its main title was in my head for weeks and if I sing it or play it for Katie she immediately wants me to stop because she is afraid some demon is walking up behind her. Its not easy to stand out in the current field of composers for film and tv, but nothing else sounds like this right now. Can’t wait to hear what he does next.

 

BMOTY 2014

Here I am again. Writing another year end music article and wondering where the hell the time went. Its amazing how a year can seem to go so fast and yet when I start thinking about everything i did in 2014, it seems like a decade of stuff. We moved back to California. I released another Sleep Maps record. I biked 350 miles into Canada and back. I drove across the country. And here at the end of the year we have just moved into Petaluma, CA. Those are just the major highlights, if I listed everything there would be no more space to talk about music, which is the whole point of this thing.

Similarly, I feel like the year was long with music. Albums that I was fully obsessed with came out in February, so now here in December they seem like old friends and I had to remind myself they were eligible for this most holy of honors that is my top ten list. Other stuff is more recent but still as worthy. So in no particular order:

 

 

Wax Fang – The Astronaut

I wrote a full blog post about this album earlier in the year and my opinion of it has not changed at all. A progressive, bluesy, space epic full of amazing imagery, great guitar solos and some really impressive lyrics. In its short 5 song cycle it manages to pack in more ideas and themes then most bands do with 10 or 11 tracks. Infinitely re-listenable to me, i hear something new each time I give it a spin. I wish this had been the soundtrack to Interstellar instead of all that Hans Zimmer organ garbage.

Highlight track – The entire album

 

A Winged Victory For The Sullen – ATOMOS

This is an ambient duo made of up of pianist Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie from Stars of the Lid. Atomos was the soundtrack they wrote to accompany a contemporary dance performance but nothing about it really screams “Dance record!” Its a quiet, contemplative piece that reminds me of the modern classical work of Max Richter, Johan Johannsen and Daniel Bjarnason. Its contemplative, at times relaxing and at times inspiring and thoroughly listenable for its whole length. As I write this and listen to the opening track, Atomos I, I remember the first time I heard it, and how I had to stop what I was doing and try to inhabit a place mentally where I could really absorb all that was going on. Powerful, mind expanding stuff.

Highlight Track – Atomos VII

 

Liars – Mess

I give a lot of credit to bands who constantly change their sound over the course of their career. Radiohead is the most well known example of this, but for my money, Liars take the crown for most open to change. Starting as an indie post punk band, they moved to pure experimentalism, then to indie rock (sort of), then to quiet, down-tempo tunes with some synths, and now emerge in 2014 as a full on analog synth rock band. Mess sees them playing with all kind of old synths and making some of the best music of their career. Songs like Vox Tuned D.E.D. and Pro Anti Anti are genuine upbeat dance tunes. Such a weird turn from a band I have followed for a long time but so good.

Highlight Track – Pro Anti Anti

 

Barrows – Red Giant

Four twentysomethings from LA turn in the best instrumental rock album of the year with Red Giant. Its quick, only 5 songs long, plotting the story of a sun as it goes nova and then collapses into a black hole. The songs are just spacey enough, just heavy enough, and have enough awesome guitar melodies to keep me coming back for more.

Highlight Track – Red Giant

 

 

Sinoia Caves – Beyond The Black Rainbow OST

Sinoia Caves is one of the main guys from Black Mountain and under this moniker he makes analog synth music on his own and for films. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a totally bizarre horror/sci fi movie that came out a couple years ago, but the soundtrack was just released this year (so it counts). I saw it at the TriBeCa film fest and it kind of blew me away. The movie is made like a horror movie from the 80s and the soundtrack fits this aesthetic perfectly. Plenty of awesome arps, slow swells and drum kits happening in here to make you think you are listening to something from 1985.

Highlight Track – Forever Dilating Eye

 

 

Old Man Gloom – The Ape of God I and II

After Isis decided to call it quits, a lot of imitators rose up to try and fill their shoes. The post-metal genre had lost its founders and nobody could quite match up to them. Old Man Gloom has been an Aaron Turner side project for a long time, and now that Isis isn’t taking all his time, he managed to sit down and write a really killer record that almost hearkens back to the glory days of Isis. I say almost, because in some cases its even better. Free from the name, it seems like he is ok with trying anything. The album swings from quiet ambient interludes of found sounds and tape loops, to really gritty crust punk, to long slow builds that crescendo at just the right moment. When the band was getting ready to release these 2 discs, they intentionally leaked a completely different version of the album with abbreviated tracks, some totally different songs and other weird stuff. It tricked all the downloaders and played havoc with the system in general, which was pretty cool.

Highlight Track – Simia Dei

 

WIFE – What’s Between

All the black metal guys are putting away the guitars and hitting the synths. I saw it happening a ton when I lived in Brooklyn and I guess it makes sense. Both genres allow you to create walls of noise and kind of get lost in the haze of it all. The best example that I heard this year was the debut record from WIFE, who is really just James Kelly, the lead singer of the now defunct Altar of Plagues. He does a great job blending whispered vocals, some abrasive sounds, and really bizarre percussion sounds into a cohesive whole. I like how dark this record is without really incorporating anything that stands out as ‘dark’.

Highlight Track – Heart is a Far Light

 

 

Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear

I am pretty sure in the 10 years of doing this list, I haven’t had a standard pop record on here. Ever. But, this year we have Sia. I don’t even feel bad about putting this on here. Its a great record full of catchy songs that have some dark, dark lyrics. Sia is an artist who channels her pain, suffering and history into each of her songs. She writes all kinds of pop music for other people, but I think she hangs onto the stuff she knows is best, so that she can blow everyone’s mind. Also a major plus is her anti-rockstar attitude and her desire for privacy.

Highlight Track – Fire Meet Gasoline

 

 

 

Max Cooper – Human

I’ve always been a fan of Cooper’s work and earlier this year when he finally released his first full length, it delivered all I hoped it would. Incredibly intricate drum tracks, loud synths and quiet moments where his trademark production could shine. I wrote an entire column about him earlier in the year so check that out for more.

Highlight Track – Potency

 

 

Mica Levi – Under the Skin OST

Lots of people hate this movie. I recommend it to friends and when I ask them later what they thought of it, they say something like, “I couldn’t get through it” or “What a piece of garbage why did you recommend that?”. All I can say is… they are all wrong. The movie was an intense look at the nature of sexual relationships between men and women and what it means to have power. The soundtrack is a classic Bernard Hermann-esque anxiety inducer that plays well in its own right. Levi uses very few instruments to set the mood, but anyone who’s seen the movie knows that they were enough to set the scene every time ScarJo brings a guy back to her death den. That drum beat! Those strings! Arrggghh.

Highlight Track – Lonley Void

 

Honorable Mentions:

There were a few other records that didn’t make the cut but that are worth your time.

Alpha Male Tea Party – Droids

Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness – Dust

Mastodon – Once More Round The Sun

Mono – Rays of Darkness

Survive – MF064

BEST MUSIC OF THE YEAR TWENTYTHIRTEEN

Oh yeah! Its that time of year again! I finally get to bombard you all with my picks for the best albums of the year. You love it! Lots of new people on the list this time around, so welcome. Maybe you will find something new here or maybe you will disagree with me about all of them, either way we can have a conversation. Please leave a comment and tell me how much this list sucks or what amazing albums I totally overlooked. I am always interested in my friends’ opinions. Unless you say Arcade Fire. In which case you can go rot in a hole.

Overall I thought this was a great year for music. I saw tons of bands who hadn’t had a record in a while come out with new stuff. There were new bands breaking with awesome songs and awesome records, and there were some old reliable acts that put out some great stuff too. I felt this year was an abundance of riches and I had a hard time narrowing this list down to 10 albums. Personally, this year saw some changes in my listening habits. I moved away from metal as a genre this year, even though you’ll see a couple records mentioned below, and more into the electronic and experimental scene. Post rock had a decent year with some heavy hitters releasing records but most of it failed to connect with me. As you’ll see, this list doesn’t really fit a genre mold or stay even within the realm of just ‘rock’. When this many good bands come out with music, it tends to be all over the place and that’s just fine with me.

DARKSIDE – PSYCHIC

It would be so easy for me to hate Nicolas Jaar. He’s 23, had a great record a couple years ago that got all kinds of praise (Space is Only Noise), started his own label, works with awesome people and is good looking. WHAT AN ASSHOLE. However, he also wrote what I consider to be the best record of the year. So its a toss up. When I first listened to this record I was not sure what to think. Then I listened to it again. And again. After the third time in a row I was completely sold. The 11 minute opening song “Golden Arrow draws you into a night time world of narcotic beats, slow builds and psychedelic vocal loops. When the peak of the song finally hits around the 8 minute mark your head is bobbing, you’re turning up the volume and picturing yourself driving down a dark highway towards an unknown future. “Paper Trails combines some 70s sounding guitar noodling with minimalist beats and a drugged out voice creating a late night comedown soundtrack. I love how Jaar gives every instrument its space in the course of a song. One minute its all about the guitar and the next it’ll be a solo tambourine for 30 seconds, creating a sense of anticipation for what’s to come next. “Freak Go Home” is a study in percussion loops and an everchanging beat where the melody comes second but I never even miss it. This is a headphone record all the way, meant to be listened to while in an altered state. Even the band name seems like an homage to stoners past, as if to say, “Here is something you can talk about in dorm rooms for decades to come”.

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY

So this came as a shock to me. I liked the first Vamp record and thought it had some catchy songs. I barely listened to Contra and didn’t give it much thought. I had written them off as a twee indie band. Then they released “Ya Hey” the first single off this record and I was taken aback. The song had so much going on. Crazy vocal effects, some really lush, intense synths, and some of the best lyrics I had heard in the last couple years. When the record released and every song on it gave me the same feeling I realized that they had something special with this one. More than anything this record just sounds good. People use the term ear candy and I think its a little misleading. Candy is one note and done. This is more like ear filet mignon. I have listened to this many, many times and I keep hearing new things. Nuances in the production. A new instrument here and there that I didn’t recognize before. Counter melodies that make me sing along. Then there’s the lyrics. I have never been much of a lyric guy, I tend to get drawn in by the music, but Ezra Koenig’s lyrics kind of demand attention. “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth.”  “I don’t know what the future holds and its bad enough just getting old.”  “The motherland don’t love you, the fatherland don’t love you, so why love anything?”  Through these 11 songs he plots a concept record in the lyrics dealing with getting older, the constant click of the clock and being abandoned by those who used to love you. The penultimate song “Hudson” even has a ticking clock as its percussion, winding down to a post-apocalyptic New York City where the people are all gone and the oceans have risen. All that’s left are people sharing their stories. Its bleak and beautiful.

FUCK BUTTONS – SLOW FOCUS

This is a band that keeps getting better and better. Their first record was all noise and percussion with glimpses of what lay beyond. In 2010, Tarot Sport revealed them as the new kings of post-dance music with soaring melodies and a spot in the London Olympics. Slow Focus is a culmination of the last 6 years of their output with both sides of the band represented. They know how to plot a course through their brand of noise to reveal incredibly moving melodic sections that make you feel like a 10 minute wait was worth it. And they aren’t afraid of getting back into some noisier parts that really challenge the listener. “Year of the Dog is a late night psychedelic freakout based on one arpeggio pattern that morphs through various versions of itself before collapsing into the next track. “The Red Wing combines a hip hop beat with some signature sounds and puts a twist on the standard frenetic drumming this band usually employs. “Sentients starts with a couple minutes of beat and improvisational noise before opening up at the 3 minute mark into a cyborg march that then culminates in a Blade Runner-esque conclusion. I think its the highlight of the album and an example of them blending their unique style into something wholly their own. Nobody else makes music like this. Their live show is still incredible and highly recommended. Just bring some earplugs in case you can’t stand the decibels.

THIS WILL DESTROY YOU – LIVE IN REYKJAVIK, ICELAND

It feels kind of weird to put a live album on this list since there isn’t any new music on it, but when the band turns in the kind of performance that This Will Destroy You does on this record, it becomes seminal listening. Combining material from all 3 of their records over 2 CDs they create the best document of what this band is all about. Quiet, moving passages of guitar exploding into massive walls of sound. They do it over and over, but its effective every time because the quality of their melodies are so strong and the moods they create are so vivid. “Burial on the Presidio Banks” feels just like it sounds. Close your eyes and you can picture the fog coming in over the bay with the bridge barely visible as a family buries a loved one. The live version of “Glass Realms” sounds totally different than it does on the record, more visceral, more haunting and it blends seamlessly into “Communal Blood” which is by far the best song this band has ever done. At this point I don’t think there is anything left for these guys to do. They have conquered the post-rock genre of music and nobody does it better. I wonder what’s next for them.

LEPROUS – COAL

Take extremely talented musicians and a front man with the vocal range of Freddie Mercury and get them playing prog-metal and you have Leprous. This is the band that backs up Ihsahn (from Emperor) when he records or plays shows. After doing that for a while they figured out that they could also write music on their own. 4 albums in and they have finally hit their own unique sound. Progressive, melodic, technical, this band runs through various metal genres with ease. “Valley” starts out as a melodic progressive song before changing into a bizarre vocal build for 3 minutes with an insistent beat backing it up. On “Chronic” they use a Broadway sounding piano to start what becomes a crushing technical metal song. The whole time lead singer Einar Solberg‘s voice holds it in place, switching from a brutal metal scream to a Queen-esque falsetto. Its truly one of the most talented voices in metal right now.

THE HAXAN CLOAK – EXCAVATION

The Mirror Reflecting Pt 2” is the best ambient piece I heard all year. It has more plays in my iTunes than any other song. When I listen to it I feel like a form of pure evil has been captured in musical form. It sounds like the soundtrack to every nightmare you’ve ever had. Its the centerpiece of the second record by one man band The Haxan Cloak who rode in under the banner of dark-ambient and is now carving out a space all his own. His use of found sounds makes everything a little more scary as he gets sounds out of his synths and who knows what else to build these incredible moments in his songs. This is not an album for running or riding on the train. This is for when you need to feel a little unsafe and a little uncomfortable in your house while you meditate about death and dying. You know, party music.

THE FLAMING LIPS – THE TERROR

This band can still surprise me. I always give their stuff a listen and usually I think “Oh ok, that was interesting. Never need to listen to that again.” The Terror was not that record. Sometimes its difficult to separate an album from the first time you listened to it. There is a permanent connection to where you were, what you were doing and how you felt. I was having a tough time earlier in the year and found myself in a pretty bad place for a while. After another morning of beating my head against my computer trying to write some music I decided that I needed to go outside and walk in Prospect Park to clear my head. I brought my headphones and decided to fire up an album I hadn’t listened to yet. As I was halfway through my walk the song “Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die” came on. I had already been impressed with this new Lips record, but this song, its lyrics, its style just hit that chord for me in that moment. I decided to just lay down on the grass of the park and look up at the sky. When the song was over, I restarted the album and laid there a while. When I got up and walked home I felt better. I don’t know what sort of magic happened there with this record, but it did its work and I could get back to doing what I needed to do. Every time I listen to it now, I get the same feeling I had that day. Sometimes the music that really saves you comes from unexpected places.

THE BESNARD LAKES – UNTIL IN EXCESS, IMPERCEPTIBLE UFO

My Bloody Valentine was the big shoegaze story of the year and while its a fine album from an important band, I was much more of a fan of this record by long time husband/wife team The Besnard Lakes. All the classic shoegaze elements (wall of sound guitars, breathy vocals, distant drumming) are there and applied to really well written songs. Songs peak at the right moment, the switch between male and female vocals always feels like a conversation between lovers, and when under the influence of certain drugs it seems to envelop you in this warm feeling. There is no real darkness here, no blasts of noise to jolt you out of the hazy stoned glow this album puts you in. Just well written songs, well recorded and well performed.

THE KNIFE – SHAKING THE HABITUAL

This fucking record. I dunno. Maybe it shouldn’t even be on here. I honestly can’t say. I’ve listened to it a bunch of times and tried to crack its code. I can’t. I’ve made it through the 20 minute ambient piece twice searching for hidden meanings and secret messages and I don’t think there are any. I’ve read the manifesto press releases and watched the feminist videos and tried to connect that back to the music and I have a hard time. Maybe its all just out of reach for me or I am not insane enough or something. However, I find some of these songs to be hauntingly beautiful, others to be really intense visceral experiences and some to be just confusing. Like the Swans record last year, I think this is a work of art, not so much a listenable album, that pushes the limits of what music is and how it affects people. I think that’s important to do in this day and age and when a high profile artist does it, I think everyone should take notice.

RUSSIAN CIRCLES – MEMORIAL

Obvious choice. If you know me, you know I like this band. They do what they do and its awesome. While my interest in them live has subsided (thanks Coheed and Cambria!) I am always anxious to hear the riffs they write and with songs like “Deficit” and “1777” still being produced, they can keep on making records for a long while.

Honorable Mentions + Disappointments

Depeche Mode had a good record that’s worth your time. So did Solar Bears, Locrian, Pinkish Black, Not Waving, MGMT, Loscil, Le Matos, and Tim Hecker.

It seemed like this was a year where major artists released long awaited albums that didn’t quite live up to the hype. Daft Punk released an album of disco music, so did Arcade Fire. To me it seems like a backwards direction for music as a whole but obviously people disagree since you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Get Lucky for 2 months this summer and now its Reflektor everywhere you go.

The biggest disappointment for me was the new album from Deafheaven called Sunbather. Some of you might remember that their previous record was my #1 of the year two years ago and Sunbather was my most anticipated record at the start of this year. I was so crushed when I finally got it and listened through. Its boring, repetitive and generally uninspired to me. The thing even ends with a fade out! I am genuinely shocked that so many people are putting it on their best of the year list when they had such a superior record 2 years ago. Oh well I guess I’ll go on living.

Atoms for Peace, Boards of Canada, My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails, M83, The National and Queens of the Stone Age all had records that I was looking forward to and figured would show up on this list. Nope. Try again next year.

That’s it for this year! Hooray you’re done! If you made it this far you might as well share some records you thought were amazing.  I will listen and let you know what I think.

Happy new year!