1. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s self-titled album may be her best album yet. With multiple layers and textures all over the place, from the grainy bass tracks on “Birth in Reverse” to the jolty trumpets in “Digital Witness”, St. Vincent sounds completely unhinged while at the same time sounding robotically precise. Annie Clark opens up the album with “Rattlesnake,” and it really is the perfect track to do so. Clark shoves her genius guitar skills in our faces with a killer riff that will leave you eager to listen to what else the album has in store. The album takes a turn in “Prince Johnny” where Clark gives us a wicked sounding ballad with somewhat holy backup vocals. Each song is infectious, with hooks that lodge themselves deep in your brain, but strange enough to keep things surprising and fresh. The songwriting is excellent, the production is excellent, and Clark is an undeniably talented frontwoman. In a year of great music, St. Vincent stands out as some of the best.
2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Say what you want about Mark Kozelek, but it’s impossible to deny the incredible songwriting talent he possesses. Benji may be his greatest achievement yet, with incredibly detailed lyrics that are as specific as they are universal. Death is depicted with incredible bluntness while the next line gives some seemingly insignificant detail about a person’s life. The first time listening to this album is an emotional punch to the gut, like experiencing a death in the family. The characters feel incredibly real and detailed, and it’s amazing how much sympathy and sadness Kozelek is capable of drawing out of a listener. I can’t remember the last album that gripped me emotionally in the same way that Benji did. It’s a challenging listen, but also very rewarding and cathartic. Benji fully realizes Sun Kil Moon’s evolution in songwriting and is truly something to behold.
3. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Very few records this year struck me the way Angel Olsen’s did. It’s an album that speaks in such a mesmerizing way, and burns with such a fierce intensity, that it was borderline impossible to not place it in a top 5 spot. Angel’s powerful voice takes charge on this record and sends you into a 45-minute trance. The whole record has flares of ‘60s influence and hints of current guitar reverb styles, accompanied by notable tempo changes and remarkable lyrics, to make the perfect variety album. Whether you’re down in the dumps, looking for some motivation, or simply yearning for an afternoon jam, Angel has perfected them all. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is about finding your happiness and burning everything else that gets in the way. It’s strong, it’s relatable, and it has the ability to leave one of the deepest impressions you’ll experience in a while. Whether or not you’ve heard of Angel Olsen before, I advise you to stop everything you’re doing and take a listen now. You’ll thank me later.
4. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
While recording the followup to 2011 break out album, Slave Ambient, frontman/songwriter Adam Granduciel went through a hard breakup and the effects can be felt all over Lost In The Dream. Their road-weary, spacious brand of rock has melancholic overtones, but Granduciel is smart enough to never let the music wallow in sadness. The result is an album with remarkable locomotion, evoking the long stretches of American roads where time is lost and isolation can heal wounds created in whatever town you may be leaving behind. You can almost feel the weight lifting from Granduciel’s shoulders throughout the album, and the catharsis is infectious. There’s beauty in the fact that Lost In The Dream sounds like the perfect roadtrip companion as much as it simulates the actual feelings of driving across the country just trying to move on.
5. Glass Animals – ZABA
In an age where essentially anyone can write a song, record it in their bedroom, and put it up on the internet, the exploration and development of new sounds is as important as ever. Let’s face it, the music industry is hugely saturated, and getting a word in edgewise as an artist or group is becoming more and more difficult. So, what does it take to make yourself recognizable today? For some, it’s a flashy facade and a group of hit makers in LA. For Glass Animals, it’s the exact opposite. This English quartet is fronted by David Bayley, a man who is made up of equal parts cerebral genius and childhood imagination. The kind of music you’d expect from a man with a degree in neuroscience may be starkly different than what you get in Glass Animal’s debut album ZABA. While there are some heady oddities (sampled sounds of Bayley’s pets chewing on the microphone) the entire concept of the album revolves around the jungle, and more specifically the children’s book, The Zabajaba Jungle. The atmosphere created within the album plays perfectly to the concept, with hazy synths creating a weighted fog, electronic blips echoing like the chirps of birds and insects, and the distant reverberation of toms and voices like the sound of a tribal ceremony. The music is a landscape, ripe with imagination, exoticism, and a trance-like mood that persists from top to bottom. But even with the menagerie of experimental noises, nearly every track has a remarkably catchy hook and an unstoppable groove, resulting in an album that puts the listener in a constant sway between comfort and curiosity.
6. FKA Twigs – LP 1
The artist Formerly Known As Twigs is probably the most culturally relevant person on her side of the Pond. Hailing from England to a radio near you, LP1 is one of the most creative and fresh musical productions I have heard in a good long while. FKA Twigs, who produced much of her own music on the album, overlays intense and often times bassy percussion with with her own strange voice to create a dreamy effect which seems both insistent and laid back. The album often feels sexual in a way that is candid and intimate, creating a portrait of a woman that is honest and bare without ever losing raw appeal. This is perhaps best exemplified in Single “Two Weeks”, a pressing ballad describing the disparity between “want” and “wanted”.
7. Spoon – They Want My Soul
Austin-based band Spoon consistently has produced great content – from their debut Telephono in 1996 to 2014’s They Want My Soul. This past year was the first release for Spoon since 2010, but the mythic “rust” that cripples some bands was no where to be seen. While it’s not a far departure from what a Spoon listener is used to, They Want My Soul showcases Spoon’s ability to diversify magnificently. One needs to look no further than the album’s first two tracks to see a great example of this: both “The Rent I Pay” and “Inside Out” are almost opposite in tempo, but each beautiful and innovative in their own right. This is precisely why Spoon’s eighth album to date is, at least, a wonderful introduction for a prospective Spoon fan, and at most, one of the best albums of the year.
8. Wye Oak – Shriek
We have not heard a whole lot from Wye Oak besides their features and work with television and movies such as The Walking Dead and Being Human, but they finally released a full length album this year. The duo released their fourth studio album this year and it has brought them back to acclaimed relativity in the current music world. Shriek as an album shows off their creativity and brings their indie-rock and dream pop sound to life in one LP package.
9. The Black Keys – Turn Blue
While The Black Keys have officially escaped their initial garage band, grunge sound, there is no denying they still crafted another beautiful album with Turn Blue. It’s experimental, fun, and quite possibly one of the most meaningful records they’ve ever released. Tracks like “Bullet in the Brain” and “Weight of Love” burn with a deep intensity and make you feel something so much more powerful than any of their poppy jams in the past. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are a duo to be reckoned with. Going from two nobodies making music in Ohio to a world-touring rock band is both remarkable and admirable. Turn Blue has ‘70s grooves, psychedelic trances, and enough soul to remind you just how talented The Black Keys truly are.
10. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
The rift between Mac’s goofball public persona and his straight-faced music has been growing since his 2012 breakout album, 2. On Salad Days the difference is even more pronounced as Mac matures as both a performer and a songwriter. Even as he adds depth to his songs, Mac continues to come up with some of the best guitar hooks around. His licks are simple, sure, but they’re catchy and playful. It’s not easy to come up with guitar lines that are as fun to sing along to as the actual vocal melody, but Mac manages it on nearly every song. Salad Days marks a solid evolution for the young songwriter and leaves only the nagging question: What’s next for Mac DeMarco?