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!