So here we are, a whole month into 2016, and we’re finally putting up our favorite records of 2015. I’m sure you’ve all been checking in daily since mid-December, waiting with bated breath to hear what we’ve been listening to all year. I say “you,” as if there are still people who read this thing–don’t worry, we know full well the only “people” still reading this are the robots who keep posting comments about working from home and erectile dysfunction. Honestly, those spam-bots write more on this blog than we do. It’s the future, and the future is weird.
As always, we’ve highlighted our favorite records of the year–the ones we love the very most and think everyone should hear. One big difference, though–we decided to completely forgo ranking the albums this year. At the top you’ll find each of our respective picks for album of the year, but after that each record will be listed in alphabetical order by artist. So read on, erectile dysfunction robots! This one’s for you!
Chris’s Favorite Album of 2015
by This Is The Kit
On “We Are In”, the penultimate track on This Is The Kit’s exquisite Bashed Out, Kate Stables sings “Today we are the same age / we have both been far away / but today we’re in the same place.” I’ve listened to this song many times this past year, my first full year as a new father, and for me it’s come to describe the miracle of new life–of welcoming an eternal being into mortality to share this brief span of history together, of how in the grand scheme of things, the 31 years that separate my son and I are pretty insignificant. From a widescreen perspective, we really are the same age, just like we really are in the same place. Of course I have no idea what Stables is actually singing about, but that song has become so entwined with new fatherhood for me that I’ll never untangle it. A similar thing happened with “Spores All Settling,” a beautiful banjo-laden track that felt like a balm when our cat of several years passed away in the spring (”so open out and let the clean air in / you wash away, let’s get some weather in”). In fact, I’ve had moments like this with every song on Bashed Out–whether it’s looking out at the Gulf of Mexico and singing “all we need is the sea / because the sea sorts you right out” to myself, or adopting “get up off your rusty dusty” into my personal positive self-talk (as in “Come on Tobler! Get up off your rusty dusty! You got this!”). It seems Stables’ impressionistic folk music makes the perfect canvas for me to project whatever I happen to be feeling at the time, making each song more personal and precious with each new listen. Every song is a gem, hewn out by Stables, but then buffed and polished by the attention I’ve given it until it shines with a soft, warm glow–reflecting back whatever I face toward it. Bashed Out has become more of a companion than a record for me this year–and as Stables repeats in the closing refrain of “Magic Spell”, it really is “rare and remarkable.” –Chris
I just said to Chris, “I’m on my 4th iteration of the Sorority Noise write-up. I’m ready to just say, ‘It’s an awesome album.’” It’s not like I haven’t gotten kind of sappy with other entries, that seems to be my go-to, but I just think this is a very powerful album. It isn’t your usual ‘emo’ nonsense. It’s ‘emo with a message.’ I will admit that I originally gave Sorority Noise’s Joy, Departed a chance because I thought my wife might be interested. Like many of us, Brooke went through a phase in high school that was defined by punk, emo, and ska; however, unlike most of us, she is still sort of in that phase (fortunately she hasn’t asked me to bleach my tips or wear a puka shell necklace). When it came out, articles about Joy, Departed were describing it as “post-emo” and “what happens when an emo band grows up”. I’ll repeat that it’s a powerful album, both musically and thematically. Joy, Departed is a mature treatment and approach to mental illness and the struggle not only to live personally with it but to live with people who don’t understand the true nature of mental illness. I think the highlight comes in the second to last track “Mononokay” where the lead singer, who has admitted to suffering from serious depression, sings, “Call me depressed and tell me to get over it. It’s not in my head and it’s in my blood.” -Logan
I think the text conversation between my brother Ty and I concerning Brandon Flower’s The Desired Effect is better than anything I would write (emojis will be included):
Ty: If the vast majority of the money in the world exists as nothing more than computer data and money represents human labor and we spend an enormous amount of time and energy maintaining computers and their networks….do we live in The Matrix? Are we giving ourselves to money so we can buy an inferior digital version of ourselves? The answer is yes. That’s just a crack-pot theory “rider” I added on to this message that is just to say, I think Brandon Flower’s album is as good as you say ☺. It’s amazing. I love it. An active Mormon who makes good art…..I have to reevaluate all my experience now that everything I thought I knew was wrong!
Logan: I’m so glad you’re loving Brandon Flowers’ new album. So good. And now that you are having to see the world anew, Brooke and I will save a place for you next Sunday during Sacrament meeting
Ty: Maybe I’ll send an inferior digital version of myself to sac meeting.
(Rant about socialism, conservatism, and Ty moving into our guest room.)
Ty: My favorite line (among many) from the Desired Effect “All my life I’ve been told to follow your dreams but the trail grew cold.” Springsteen wishes he came up with that one.
Logan: Now now. Springsteen would have said ‘road’ instead of ‘trail’ and The Boss would have said something about his dream breaking down on the side of Hwy 9…just as a saxophone comes in.
Logan: Dang. I would listen to that song.
(Long discussion on the new Star Wars movie)
Ty: I keep BFlowers playing in my car always. That album’s AMAZING. Like a sunny summer pop album but with a dark underside like Springsteens Tunnel of Love maybe. I’m curious what album you found that’s better. Keith Richards? -Logan
If you had told me in 2011 that Carly Rae Jepsen, a pop-singer that rose to fame with the help of fellow Canadian Justin Bieber, would have one of the best albums of 2015, I would have totally believed you. “Call Me Maybe” is the jam. EMOTION (or rather E•MO•TION, because life is difficult and typing should reflect the struggle) seemed to enter my radar amidst hushed whispers of, “Hey, have you heard CRJ has a new album coming out? Well it is supposed to be kind of amazing.” And it is. It really is. E•MO•TION is a Frankenstein’s Monster of pop-perfection. The star-studded production team took the best parts of pop music from just about every era (with some extra special attention on the 80s), mashed it all together with Carly Rae’s young and airy vocals, and added just a dash of saxophone to create something wonderful and endlessly playable (I am in the process of confirming this claim). -Logan
I recently had the chance to watch 1996’s Space Jam in a rented out theater. I walked away from that saying two things over and over again, “Watching basketball players act is rough,” and “Whoa. Do you remember Jock Jams!?” Jock Jams was a compilation CD put out by ESPN that featured pump-up songs like “Get Ready for This” and “Whoomp! (There It Is).” They were everywhere. You’ve heard these played at every sporting event you’ve ever been to. Terrible songs. Absolutely terrible songs, even if they weren’t forever associated with the briny stench of my high school gymnasium. These songs were meant to fire you up and they just didn’t do it. Chvrches Every Eye Open succeeds where those songs failed miserably. This record is beyond upbeat–the music and the lyrics seem to be competing with each other on every track to see which can get you to attack life with renewed vigor. I’m waiting for the day when my friends’ mothers begin sharing inspiring photos on Facebook with Chvrches quotes like, “we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold’ (this quote will be attributed to Abraham Lincoln and a Minion will be saying it). Every Eye Open doesn’t let up until the final track “Afterglow,” which is a perfect and gradual closer for what is an exciting album. -Logan
Sometimes a record comes along at just the right time–your defenses are down and it’s able to penetrate far deeper than if it had entered your life at any other time. Somehow, Daniel Martin Moore has managed to do this to me more than once (first with 2010’s Appalachian-set lost-masterpiece Dear Companion, then in 2012 with In The Cool Of The Day, an ostensible “minor work,” wherein Moore revisits traditional southern hymns from his childhood)–and now he’s gone and done it again with Golden Age. I wasn’t particularly anticipating any of these three records, but all of them have burrowed down deep into my musical soil, sprouting the kind of love and dedication usually reserved for sacred things. DMM writes fairly straight-forward folk songs, delivering them in a clear-eyed tenor that betrays no guile, here usually accompanied by simple piano accompaniment. Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) often has a hand in DMM’s records–and his wild-eyed cinematic vision broadens the scope of Golden Age just enough to catch a glimpse of something grand in the periphery (he shows up in a more corporeal sense with a fuzzed-out guitar solo on “Our Hearts Will Hover” that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Let It Be). Sonically, this record is the perfect soundtrack for the slow descent from autumn into winter, the cold slow exhale that takes all the leaves with it, leaving a gentle stillness behind. It’s not sad (in fact the overall tone of the record is optimistic–“our Golden Age is here” after all), it’s just content to be still, and to find some beauty and wonder in the stillness. -Chris
I don’t think Father John Misty (real name Joshua Tillman) and I would get along. I am basing this on next to nothing. He’s probably a fun and pleasant guy. Heck, who knows, maybe if I did get to know him I’d think we got along splendidly and he’d be the one saying about me, “Nah, not my style. He’s a bit much for my tastes.” The only thing I am basing this on is his music, and his music is exhausting (we all judge the personality of the artist off the music they produce right?). I Love You, Honeybear is tough–J. Tillman comes across as self-involved and cynical throughout the album. “Bored in the USA” is the prime example, and his apathetic swagger while performing the song on David Letterman was this album come to life. So… that sounded pretty negative for a “favorite album” post. I mean, I don’t do this whole blogging thing much anymore so I’m probably off my game (most would argue I had no game to begin with). But the thing is, while I Love You, Honeybear is all of those things I said earlier, it is also tender, beautiful, and, perhaps most importantly, genuine. There might be some cringe-causing moments but above it all, Tillman’s sincerity and the beauty of the music comes through. -Logan
Kieren Hebden (as Four Tet) makes exactly the kind of electronic music that moves me most–it’s inventive and surprising, often warm and inviting, and it sounds like a human being made it. Morning/Evening especially fits this bill–it consists of two 20-minute tracks, each one representing one of the titular times of day, much like the ragas of Hebden’s Indian heritage. “Morning Side” is particularly enchanting, riding its rhythm like a small boat bobbing slowly on an ocean swell, while the voice of beloved Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar loops over the top, adding a celestial sheen to the whole thing. “Evening Side” is predictably more sedate, but not to a fault–it manages to be a thoughtful, if slightly less memorable, representation of the waning hours of the day. The earlier comparison to ragas is especially apt on Morning/Evening–not just in theme, but in execution–this is electronic music not for dancing or clubbing so much as for contemplation and reflection–music made to soundtrack time spent outside, walking alone, instead of inside, dancing with sweaty strangers. And if it sounds like I prefer one of those to the other, it’s because I do. -Chris
In a Stereogum article earlier this year, the writer said she didn’t like a particular band because they “never (look) like they’ll die if they stop… there’s no bloodlust.” While that’s a pretty dumb reason to write off a musician, I can at least relate to wanting that kind of urgency from your music. I only bring it up here because no one will ever level that same criticism at Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan–when this woman sings it sounds like you’re listening to every last nerve ending fry in her body. It actually does sound like she’ll die if she stops. And Quinlan’s voice is only part of what makes this band so amazing–they’re dynamic and ingenuitive, at turns crunchy and jangly, hurtling each song toward its inevitable climax and catharsis. All of this, though, just lays the groundwork for Quinlan’s real gift–her exquisite songwriting. Each of Painted Shut’s ten songs are knotty and poetic, painting vivid scenes with a shrewdness and empathy that feels earned–some are pulled from her own life, like the unpleasant encounter with a restaurant patron in “Waitress,” or witnessing a man beat a child but staying silent afterward in “Powerful Man”–others are pulled from the tragic lives of others, like Charles “Buddy” Bolden’s public nervous breakdown in “Buddy In The Parade,” or Jackson C. Frank’s private one in “Horseshoe Crabs.” Relying less on verse/chorus structure and more on the push/pull of the narrative, she ends almost every song with some sort of lyrical gut-punch, which the band then wrings for all it’s worth. All of this adds up to one amazing album, one you urgently need to hear. -Chris
Joan Shelley is from Louisville, Kentucky, one of America’s true hidden gems. Ever since I moved to the Midwest nearly seven years ago, Louisville (which is a short two hours south of where I live) has managed to become one of my very favorite cities in the whole world. Depending on who you ask, Louisville is either the southernmost Northern city, or the northernmost Southern one–the state it sits atop is often dismissed as backwards at best, but this beautiful city on the Ohio River has a vibrant culture and thrumming artistic community that provides a convincing counterpoint to the presumed bible-thumping toothless hillbilly. I don’t know if Joan Shelley shares my romantic impression of her hometown (distance, even just a couple hours, is the most sure way to romanticize anything, to be sure)–but I can’t help but hear some of what I love about Louisville in her songs. Shelley herself contains similar contradictions–for all intents and purposes she writes fairly straight-forward folk songs, but wraps them up in ways that gently nudge them into dronier, more ambient territory, giving them room to breathe and a life beyond the ghettoized tenements of so much contemporary folk music. On this record, those layers are provided by several other Louisville natives–like the wonderful Daniel Martin Moore, who produced–Nathan Salsburg, who contributed his unparalleled guitar work–and Will Oldham, whose voice flits in and out of the edges of these elegiac ditties. Even with these talented collaborators, the record still feels uncommonly intimate, like every sound is just there to provide context for Shelley’s bell-clear voice–a voice that stands out like a bright bold thread in the lush tapestry around it. That thread winds through an unbelievable first half, from “Brighter Than The Blues” through “Easy Now”–some of the downright most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year–and into a mistier second half, illustrated by the short, daydream-like “Lure and Line” and “My Only Trouble.” All together, Over And Even sounds ancient, like it’s always existed–or perhaps more accurately, like it’s never fully existed, except maybe in the twilight between the trees of a Kentucky river bank. Or okay, I might just be romanticizing again. -Chris
Like a lot of people, I first heard José González in 2005 when his extraordinary cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” hit the US (specifically in this rather gorgeous commercial). Since then, I’ve stayed a casual fan of Gonzalez’s, but over the years I’ve noticed that most of my favorite Gonzalez tracks tend to be his takes on other people’s songs – Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” Arthur Russell’s “This Is How We Walk On The Moon”–while the rest of his oeuvre just sort of languished in my “like/don’t love” category. All that changed last winter when I picked up Vestiges and Claws— which is, in my mind, the absolute most stunning thing González has ever done. Like all his records, it’s hypnotic and enchanting–with his motorik guitar work providing the skeleton upon which the meat of the songs are hung. What’s different here, at least to my ear, is that his distinctively percussive guitar playing seems to be purely in service to these well-crafted songs, and not the other way around (I think this is how you could generally describe his cover songs – which is probably why I love them so much). The songs themselves are breathtaking–they sound lush and full, friendlier and less jagged than most of González’s past work. Songs like “Let It Carry You” and “Leaf Off/The Cave” are stunning in their simplicity and grace, only to reveal their complexities over time. Other songs, like “Every Age” or closing track “Open Book,” are the closest González has ever hewn to traditional songwriting, simple and straightforward in both sentiment and execution, and they’re better for it. This record soundtracked most of last winter for me, and has stayed a constant companion all year. -Chris
It’s really no secret how much I love Josh Ritter–the man is responsible for some of my most sacred musical experiences, both live and recorded. But even with that history, Sermon On The Rocks initially left me a bit cold. “Getting Ready To Get Down” was the first time one of Josh’s lead singles didn’t completely bowl me over (for reference, that list includes “Joy To You Baby,” “Change of Time,” “The Temptation of Adam,” and “Wolves”–all unimpeachable masterpieces in my mind), and even though I’ve since come around to love “Get Down,” I originally approached Sermon On The Rocks with some trepidation. And being totally honest, it still didn’t win me over my first few times through. It had its high points: “Where The Night Goes” is some first-rate Boss-worship, “Henrietta, Indiana” is another notch on the belt of one of our generation’s best folk-song storytellers, and “Homecoming” is completely and ethereally incredible. But the piece as a whole didn’t quite win me over. That is, until I realized how much my ten-month-old (at the time) loved it. And I mean, LOVED IT. He still does. Every time I turn this record on, when those first few organ punches on “Birds of the Meadow” hit, he immediately grabs whatever’s closest and sturdiest, because he needs some serious support when he’s rocking out (his go-to dance is a good-ol-fashioned headbang while holding onto something, anything, sturdy enough to support his little 24 lbs of dancing fury). It didn’t take long for me to realize that the more I played this record, the more I got to hang out with this tiny head-banging version of my son–and you know what, after about 50 times through it, this Sermon has me converted. -Chris
I loved Low’s 2013 album, The Invisible Way. That record was maybe one of the “warmest” they’d ever made–recorded with Jeff Tweedy at the Wilco loft, it sounded lived in and comfortable, like warm autumn light falling in from a window. I bring it up because Ones And Sixes does not sound like that. It is not warm and it certainly does not sound comfortable. If The Invisible Way was fall–painted in shades of orange and yellow–then Ones And Sixes is winter–icy, barren, bleak. Everything about this record is wintry, right down to the album sleeve. The drums are ultra-compressed, the keyboards sound like they’re coming up from under a frozen lake, and the abundant reverb gives everything a glassy, reflective sheen. All this makes a pretty stark canvas to paint on, but if there’s anything a group from Duluth, Minnesota, know how to do, it’s how to make something this cold and barren beautiful–and my gosh, are these songs beautiful. Aside from the indelible melodies and celestial harmonies you expect from Sparhawk and Parker, the beauty in these songs comes from their little details, like tiny prisms in the ice–like when everything drops out at the end of “Spanish Translation,” leaving just piano and the ghost of Parker’s voice hanging in the air, or when the palm-muted guitar rises up from the sludge in “Innocents” and slowly unravels into something vast and gorgeous, or the oscillating effect that spins the tightly-wound “Kid In A Corner” off its axis and out into space. The album climaxes in the nearly ten-minute-long “Landslide”, when what starts out as a cacophonous rage of guitar and feedback crumbles into a sublime Parker melody that continues for minutes on end–it feels like breaking through some sort of storm and coming out upon a beautiful frozen vista–cold and ominous, a little intimidating, but breathtaking all at the same time–kind of like this whole record. -Chris
I spent a summer in northern Wyoming with my cousins when I was about 14 or 15 years old. Wyoming is a great place for a boy that age because, as far as I could tell, there are no laws in that state. I grew to love fireworks and distrust firearms that summer but most of all, I watched wrestling. This was at the height of wrestling’s popularity when the WCW and WWF went head to head every Monday night. Not in the ring, but in ratings. This ratings war was brutal and surprisingly, very real. Stars bounced between the two organizations for bigger and bigger paychecks, spoilers on the results of WWF’s matches (taped a few hours ahead of their airing) were broadcast live by the WCW, and wrestlers from WCW/WWF got into actual fights. Because of this highly competitive environment both companies had to constantly shock and surprise the audience and I ate it all up. I had my favorites and I hated their nemeses. I recreated the best wrestling moves and takedowns on my cousins and I had a vivid nightmare of The Undertaker locking me in a coffin. So with this background you can understand my excitement upon hearing that The Mountain Goat’s next album would be based around John Darnielle’s childhood love of pro wrestling. I find myself getting caught up in the drama of the album as though I were watching those old matches between Diamond Dallas Page and Eddie Guerrero (brother to Chavo Guerrero who is featured in his own song on Beat the Champ). Behind the ringside drama of “Foreign Object”, “Animal Mask” and “Choked Out” (which are fantastic!) are the reminders that pro wrestlers are killing themselves in order to entertain, literally. Murders and accidents occur (“Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”) but more often than not, pro wrestlers die young from the tremendous toll they inflict on their bodies. It turns out jumping off of a ladder and crashing onto a table 5 nights a week can have some lasting effects. So although I put aside pro wrestling ages ago and in no way does this album elicit any sort of renewed desire to get back into the… sport, I get swept away each time I hear it. -Logan
As a resident of Indianapolis for almost seven (!) years now, I feel I have a responsibility to stump for all things Nathaniel Russell. I was a late-comer to his work as Birds Of America–but now it’s been a few years since he’s done anything under that moniker (if you, like me until recently, haven’t heard any BOA yet–do yourself a favor and give a listen to Current Carry or What Was Birds: 2000-2011—they’re both quiet treasures). As far as I know, Sunlight is the first (musical) project Russell’s put his name on in several years–and it’s a good one. A reflection on fatherhood and aging, it’s slow and contemplative and bathed in ambient tape-hiss throughout–imbuing these gorgeous melodies with a sense of candidness–as if they weren’t so much recorded as captured, plucked straight from the air, like fireflies in a jar. They feel precious. A friend of mine described the record as “responsibly melancholy,” and while it made me laugh at the time, I’ve come to think that’s a rather perfect description. In fact, you could probably classify a lot of my favorite music that way–and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. We could all stand to be responsibly melancholy every now and then. -Chris
It’s hard for me to express what I love so much about Nils Frahm. At first blush it’s easy to slot the pianist/composer’s work as ambient, and I often listen to him that way–but there’s so much more to engage with in his work that sometimes it feels silly to treat it like background music. It’s curious and thoughtful, inventive and sometimes even funny, as he takes a melody or chord, then stretches and kneads it in strange directions until it becomes something else entirely. He’s known for his dramatic live improvisations, but I’m most impressed with how his composed work already sounds so improvised, so natural. I also love Ólafur Arnalds, who’s responsible for some truly gorgeous music of his own, though his tends to sound more deliberate and cinematic. Frahm and Arnalds are labelmates and good friends, and after releasing some 7-inches and EPs together over the last couple years, this fall they decided to finally release it all together as the 2-disc Collaborative Works. The pieces on disc one range from droney synth experiments to piano duets and are, almost without exception, completely beautiful. But the real treat here is the second disc, which contains the soundtrack to Trance Frendz, a film chronicling their all-night jam session last July at Frahm’s Berlin studio. What was originally supposed to be a quick film for fans soon became something else entirely–in their words, “…instead of ending the session after the first take we continued to improvise throughout the night, ending up with several new pieces written and recorded in 8 hours with no overdubs and no edits.” I sincerely believe music is a sort of magic we’ve somehow been blessed to wield, and to hear two wizards conjure something so beautiful together in real time is a treasure. Collaborative Works may not be a true album per se, but it’s still one of my absolute favorite recordings of this or, frankly, any year. -Chris
For those of you keeping track, Passion Pit and Sufjan Stevens are the only artists on my personal year-end favorite’s list that have previously appeared. I know this probably doesn’t mean much to you, but it’s actually quite meaningful to me. Each year, I start an entry about how I’m afraid I’m not picking my favorite albums of the year but rather the albums released this year by my favorite artists (Portugal. The Man always seem to be the artist I connect this to). A lot of my favorite artists released an album in one way or another this year, and for whatever reason, they didn’t make the cut–Josh Ritter, Foals, The National’s Matt Berninger (as EL VY). I will never say I’m hip or current but at least I’m still finding new music to fall in love with and that will join the pantheon of performers I adore. But then there’s Passion Pit. I can’t escape it. Sonically, Kindred isn’t that big of a departure from Gossamer (Passion Pit’s 2012 release), and that isn’t a bad thing, but I think what really draws me to this record is the sense that Michael Angelakos, who is Passion Pit, is happier and stronger. Manners and Gossamer are beautiful records, and if you only superficially listened to those albums you might be shocked to discover that underneath that sugary pop perfection, were some dark lyrics that gave us a real glimpse into the artist’s personal pains and struggles. Kindred allows us to see that Angelakos is finding strength, support, and security. In my mind, it’s somewhat of a callback to Roky Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil–he album itself is beautiful but with an understanding of where the artist was and, because of this record, where they are now, it is heavier and more meaningful. -Logan
I am so incredibly happy to live in a world where this mad Willy Wonka version of Ryan Adams exists–a version of Ryan Adams who, after all these years, has finally established an enclave in the neon haze of Los Angeles where he and some like-minded compatriots can churn out whatever the heck they want, whenever the heck they want, in between playing pinball and posting Star Wars memes, of course. It’s only this version of Adams that, in the wake of his recent divorce, would re-work every song on Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989 in an act of genuine catharsis, share bits of it on Instagram, and then, allegedly because of Swift’s positive response, decide to release it as a full-fledged follow up to last years’ self-titled record. Honestly, Adams has always been a strange, prolific auteur (see his laundry list of “lost albums”)–but I love the fact that he’s in a place where he can just own it, without concern for genre tags like “alt-country” or marketing BS like “a return to Heartbreaker.” My hunch is, you already know if this is for you or not–but listen: not only is this a beautiful collection of music, it’s a beautiful testament to the weird and frankly wonderful pop music landscape of the 21st century. And with all due respect to Ms. Swift’s original record (which I loved), the fact that Adams elevated “Welcome To New York” from a pandering cringe-fest to a legitimate jam deserves some kind of mention. -Chris
I’m not going to attempt to write much about Carrie & Lowell, except to say that it might be an actual big-M Masterpiece. That word gets thrown around with lots of Sufjan’s work, and for good reason–he works on a scale and with a talent that warrants that kind of hyperbole. But with Carrie & Lowell, he’s done something completely different. Borne out of the grief and confusion after losing his estranged mother to cancer, it’s a stark reflection on death and love and family and faith, and it feels messy and open-ended, raw and without precedent. It’s naked and spartan in a way that belies the complexity of expressing this kind of personal anguish–and I honestly don’t know how you do that, not on this level, not in a way that feels this universal, not without sacrificing what makes it ache in the middle of your chest. The truth is, only Sufjan Stevens, with his talent and experience to this point, could make something this perfect, this perfectly imperfect. -Chris
Last February I was in Chicago for a few days–my wife and I and our infant son stayed in an Airbnb in Lincoln Park and I took the ‘L’ downtown for classes. It was freezing and there was snow in mounds as bundled up strangers huddled on curbs and train platforms. Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp had recently leaked, and I listened to it incessantly on my iPod as I walked around the city (that’s right! I still have an iPod! How very 2006 right?). I fell in love with this record quickly over those few days–as far as I’m concerned, it was the perfect way to experience Katie Crutchfield’s odes to communal loneliness–in the crisp and vibrant Chicago midwinter, surrounded by perfect strangers. I’ve listened to Ivy Tripp a lot in the intervening months–and every time I do, the impression it left on that weekend comes drifting back, kind of like a silhouette on the back of your eyelids–the organ drones of opener “Breathless” forever assuming the wispy shape of exhaled breath on a cold ‘L’ train platform in February. -Chris
Well here we are again at the end of another year – a little older, a little wiser, a little worse at blogging. You see, 2014’s been a busy year for us here at Whale in a Cubicle – Chris became a dad, Logan became a fiancee, we both became 31-year-olds (I think that means we’re officially in our thirties now), and maybe most exciting of all, whaleinacubicle.com became whaleinacubicle.net. Due to some silly internet stuff we had to change our URL rather unceremoniously (our apologies to anyone who’s stumbled onto the virus-laden old site) but we’re back online and aside from losing all our past external links, you’ll find that little else has changed – all the old posts are still here, and we’re hoping to add some more soon.
Aside from our lackluster posting and poor website-maintaining, we’re still listening to lots of great music, and we still love making this list each year. It’s come to be a sacred tradition around here – the November emails back and forth, the playlists and hand-written countdowns as we take inventory of what moved us over the last twelve months, then the whittling down and trying to articulate why this or that has meant so much to us. At this point, these lists are kind of a musical journal for the two of us – and even if it’s just a couple of you faithful few who end up reading it, it’s still been tremendously valuable for us to make it. We hope you (whoever you are) find something valuable in here too.
by Sun Kil Moon
Last year I fell deeply in love with the song “Ceiling Gazing” on Mark Kozolek’s collaborative album with Jimmy LaValle, Perils From The Sea. It’s stream-of-consciousness ruminations on family and the passing of time struck a chord with me, and I listened to it incessantly (along with the rest of that record). This year Kozolek released Benji, his sixth album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, and it takes all the things that enchanted me about “Ceiling Gazing” and blows them out to album length proportions, creating something truly staggering in the process. Delivered almost entirely in a sort of rambling sing-speak over spare elegiac guitar, with little regard for things like rhyme schemes or time signatures, Kozolek weaves together various true stories of family and friends in rural Ohio as they face untimely deaths, bizarre accidents, and the steady march of time, cut intermittently with bits of dry humor and frank kindness. Kozelek’s been covering subjects like these for decades now, but what’s so striking about Benji is how candid he is about these stories and his place in them – the cliché is tired, but these songs really do feel like pages plucked from a diary. The results range from some of the most touching songs of his career (see “I Love My Dad” or “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), to some of the most harrowed and searching (especially “Carissa” or “I Watched The Song Remains The Same”), to even the most crass and disturbing (I actually deleted track four from my iTunes account) – but all of them feel honest and lived-in, un-guarded and completely without pretense. I first listened to Benji in the spring as I drove alone from Louisville through the hills of southern Ohio to meet my family in Columbus for the blessing of my new baby niece, the first of three babies to join our family this year. The combination of the provincial landscape as it rolled by and the rather sentimental nature of my trip only heightened this record’s already considerable powers, and I ended up listening to it two or three times through – scrunching up my face more than a few times to ward off tears, especially after lines like “Everyone’s grieving out of their minds making arrangements and taking drugs /I’m flying out there tomorrow because I need to give and get some hugs.” It was one of those beautiful and singular listening experiences where the music reached deep down and touched something elemental inside me – a musical communion I guess you could say. So why then is Benji so very far down this list? Well, to be honest, I haven’t returned to it much after that trip, mostly for the same reasons that it touched me so deeply – it’s weight and darkness, and the candor with which it addresses that weight and darkness. Actually, in almost every respect Benji is the exact antithesis to the record you’ll find at the top of this list – and that’s very telling. In a year that has been in many ways a beautiful and wonderous one for Logan and I, maybe Benji isn’t what we needed quite as often as some others on this list. But not every year is like that, and it’s comforting to know that whenever I might need it, a record like Benji exists. -Chris
My wife Kristin, who is an exceptionally gifted writer, sometimes talks about how when she was seven or eight years old, she not only knew she could write, but she knew that if she could just get some of her writing out there while she was very young she would benefit significantly from the sheer novelty of being, well, very young. (See: that little kid who wrote “How To Talk To Girls” when he was, like, nine.) Sadly, Kristin never published anything as a third-grader, so we’ll never know what ridiculous heights of fame and fortune she might have achieved. But when we laugh about it, I’m reminded of all the burnt out child stars of music and film, and think “who on earth would want to peak so early?” It’s a double-edged sword to be young and gifted artistically – what at first appears to be a boon can easily become a crutch, especially if the product is really only interesting because the artist is so young (I’m looking at you, “How To Talk To Girls” kid). That’s always been a risk for Lily & Madeleine, the sister-duo from Indianapolis, who’s first EP was released when they were only 15 and 18 respectively. Many write-ups for their self-titled debut last year offered some variation on the theme of “Very Young Sisters Make Record”, and why wouldn’t they? That’s the natural introduction point. With the release of Fumes, their sophomore album, not enough time has passed to tell if Lily & Madeleine’s ages will prove boon or crutch, but my money’s on neither. The sisters’ real selling point has nothing to do with their age, and everything to do with their breath-taking voices. Their harmonies are absolutely celestial, and I’ll bet you’d think that whether or not you knew they weren’t of legal drinking age. Until now most of their songs have ornamented those voices with very little, letting Lily’s earthy alto and Madeleine’s crystalline soprano do all the heavy lifting; but on Fumes, they introduce more lush instrumentation, bouncing the sisters’ voices off of vibraphones, mellotrons, banjos, cellos, and all sorts of other things – proving their harmonies can play well with others. (Speaking of playing well with others, we actually saw Lily & Madeleine back up a local rapper on a cover of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”, accompanied by the INDIANAPOLIS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA. I was really hoping to hear Lily throw down that Fergie verse about unemployment lines and credit cards declining; alas, it wasn’t to be.) The songs as a whole on Fumes are their strongest yet, especially the smoky “The Wolf Is Free” or the movie-montage-ready “Rabbit” – evidence that, even with gems like “Back To The River” in their past, these girls are still on an upward trajectory. And that’s great, because while they may be getting older, I doubt their best work is behind them. -Chris
Well he did it. Not only did Ryan Adams release a good record in 2014, he released a great one, one that might be his best in almost a decade. Like most long-time Adams fans, over the years I’d started to get used to diminishing returns, to digging through a ton of half-baked material to find the gems of virtuosic songwriting that were always there if you looked. But in the back of my mind I kept hoping he had another Heartbreaker or Love Is Hell or Cold Roses in him, even if it seemed unlikely. Then lo and behold, along comes this record – one that’s not only packed with great songs, but one that sustains a consistent mood and quality for its entire 42-minute running time. Sonically it’s unlike anything in Adam’s oeuvre, drawing more from the shimmery mid-‘80s soft-rock of Petty and that other Adams than any of the more countrified touchstones he made his name on – and the change couldn’t possibly suit him better. Songs like “Gimme Something Good”, “Feels Like Fire”, and “Tired Of Giving Up” are exquisite examples of Adams bending this new sound to his will – if they’d been recorded 30 years ago I guarantee they’d be radio mainstays to this day. And “My Wrecking Ball”? That just might be one of Adams’s best songs to date. Recorded in his new Los Angeles recording studio-slash-personal music/movie/pinball-nerd haven, this record, along with his recent slew of 7” releases, may mark the beginning of a Ryan Adams renaissance, one that isn’t marred with record label expectations or critical takedowns, but instead presents the artist following his muse wherever it takes him. And that is an exciting prospect in 2014. -Chris
Ok, I’m cheating a little bit here, because this album was technically released at the end of 2013. But since its US physical release wasn’t until early this year I’m going to go ahead and count it, because few albums have seeped so much into my everyday life as deeply as Spaces has this year. Nils Frahm, the German pianist and composer, has long been known for his largely improvised and thoroughly cathartic live performances, but seldom has the energy of those shows been adequately committed to tape. Spaces rectifies that. Unlike a traditional live album, the record culls its 11 tracks from over a years worth of performances, showcasing the breadth of Frahm’s styles as he not only bends and stretches his various instruments, but does the same thing to the (ahem) spaces in which he’s performing. The most obvious case of this is “Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone”, but examples are littered throughout the record, from the way he lets the synth arpeggios in “Says” bounce around the space before folding back onto each other, or how he plays the hushed silence as much as the piano in “Over There, Its Raining”. Spaces is an exciting document of a remarkable performer at work, but perhaps more importantly, it’s just a beautiful collection of music that has been soundtracking much of my life this year. -Chris
Each one of my favorite albums fits a niche in my life. Each one has a role. As a mindless 9-to-5 office drone (I make my own hours, so actually I’m an 8-to-4 drone) I’m finding that “work day” music is too general. The variety of roles for music to fill during the workday is nearly as expansive as the art itself. Responding to your morning emails, pouring over spreadsheets, waiting to be connected to a conference call, and the daily internal struggle of being a cog in a machine all have their own musical genre (aggressive hip-hop, early 90’s pop, Swedish bands, and Rage Against the Machine respectively). However, with all of that said, there was one album that could serve in all of those capacities: James Vincent McMorrow’s Post Tropical might not be perfect and it might not precisely fit the ideal… but it was always a welcomed sound during my day-to-day drudgery. So although it languishes here, near the bottom of our favorites list, it was one of my most listened to albums. And when James sings “…and there’s no sense at all” in “Glacier” I will always get the chills. –Logan
Listen to this unlikely string of events (for 2014 anyway): I first heard Alvvays on the radio (NPR, but still), then when I happened to be in a real-life brick-and-mortar record store, I stumbled on to a used vinyl copy for cheap, so I picked it up on a whim. From there, this sunburst of gauzy indie-pop just stole my heart. The whole thing is kind of like the plot to a ‘90s romantic comedy: boy catches glimpse of girl/is intrigued, boy inexplicably and serendipitously runs into girl at unlikely, but objectively hip and tragically anachronistic locale, then cut to montage of couple laughing/dancing in city parks/coffee shops/ice-skating rinks as boy + girl inevitably fall for each other. That’s where the similarities end though, I’m afraid, because I don’t know if Alvvays has a sassy black best friend, and as far as I know I’m not involved in any evil re-gentrification project that Alvvays is opposed to, and which Alvvays will convince me to abandon after a brief third-act estrangement. But otherwise I think my analogy works remarkably well. Anyway, you should listen to Alvvays, because this album is fantastic. -Chris
My youth is inextricable from punk rock. Attending junior high and high-school in Southern California in the late ’90s and early ’00s, I was completely immersed in the area’s fading ska-punk and nascent punk-pop scenes – I collected every compilation put out by Epitaph, Fat Wreck Chords, Hopeless and Vagrant, and I knew their line-ups like other kids knew first-round draft picks. As soon as I could drive I’d head up to Anaheim to catch my favorite local bands at Chain Reaction, or out to Hollywood or Pomona to see Ten Foot Pole or Millencolin on tour. This was my youth. This was how I learned to love and interact with music. But the problem with punk rock, and especially that particular strain of pop-punk, is that it tends not to grow much with the listener – at least it didn’t for me. Something about NOFX’s potty humor and Bad Religion’s angsty indignation seemed to hold much less cache the further away I got from sixteen. But the sounds of those records are still incredibly evocative for me, and every now and then I try to find a punk rock album that resonates in my adult life the way those did in my youth. Restorations’ LP3 did just that for me this year. It’s bright and loud and insistent, but not juvenile. It doesn’t care at all about what’s cool, but it’s not naive. Its songs are at times celebratory and at others anxious and insecure, as frontman Jon Louden lyrically navigates things like vocational anxiety on “Tiny Prayers” or coming to terms with how friendships change as you ease into middle-age in “All My Home”. Sonically, LP3’s closest touchstones are The Hold Steady, another punk(ish) band for grown-ups, and Samiam (one of the few punk-rock holdovers from my adolescence) – and with its chugging mid-tones, Louden’s gravelly growl, and an abundance of sky-scraping guitar solos, this was one of my favorite windows-down records of the year – which is saying a lot for a record that came out in chilly late October. Punk rock may be for the young, but Restorations prove that it may have a little longer shelf life than I originally thought. -Chris
What can I say about this album? What can I say about Beck at all that hasn’t already been said? The man has transcended most useful signifiers to become more an institution than a musician, and at this point you’re either in or you’re out. Most people have their favorite iteration of Beck’s work, and this one basically scans as “for those who liked Sea Change” (which I do), but that doesn’t really do it justice. Unlike that album, Morning Phase exudes a deep sense of peace and contentedness, of everything being in its right place, the sounds of a cozy Sunday morning. Since I spent most of the year preparing to become a new father, this record came along at just the right time for me – I found myself returning to it more and more often the closer I got to meeting our new little guy. And now that he’s here, it’s tough to think of a better soundtrack for lazing around with a new baby. Also, this album has “Blue Moon” on it, which might actually be one of the most perfect songs written in the last ten years. -Chris
I think we all saw this one coming. Those drums are inescapable. They draw you in (this won’t be the last time I bring up drumming… apparently I am becoming a real ‘drum head’). I had a chance to see RAA this year and was standing right by their drummer, Paul Banwatt, and was blown away that one man with such a simple kit could produce that much sound. On tracks like “The Build” and “Terrified” you can get completely lost in the drumming, and Banwatt drives those songs. I don’t mean to take anything away from or in any way insinuate that the other two members, Nils Edenloff and Amy Cole, are disposable or simply an afterthought. The quieter moments of Mended with Gold like “To Be Scared”, when Nils and Amy shine, are haunting and beautiful. Also, if you want to really read into this album and go that extra step into full obsession, I feel that this Wikipedia article on Kintsugi is required reading. -Logan
Sylvan Esso is an electro-pop duo made up of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn – both musicians who gained some success in folk/roots music groups (Meath in Mountain Man, Sanborn in Megafaun). So the idea of these two getting together and making a vocal-heavy electronic indie-pop record might not sound too promising on paper, but trust me, it sounds pretty dang promising on record. Because this is one of the most consistently entertaining albums I’ve heard all year. Sanborn’s beats and sonic textures are a perfect bed for Meath’s coy alto. There’s nothing particularly flashy or groundbreaking here, but the songs are consistently fetching, and the two never seem to take themselves too seriously. The record opens with “Hey Mami”, an absolutely perfect bait-and-switch for those who might be familiar with these two’s folky day jobs – what starts as a fairly straight-forward vocal and acoustic performance quickly turns into a glitchy take-down of urban catcallers months before it was cool. Highlights abound after that, but the album’s third act is particularly strong, starting with the smoldering third single, “Coffee” then the delightfully understated “Uncatana” and culminating with “Play It Right” a jittery stop-and-start that makes the perfect 2am come-down anthem. The whole thing is remarkably even for a debut album, especially one that’s so far out of left field. -Chris
Back in 2008 when Lykke Li’s “Little Bit” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” were waging a relentless campaign to appear on every playlist I made all year, it was clear that this was a songwriter who not only had a beautiful voice, but who had the uncanny ability to find that elusive sweet spot in pop songs – the spot where heartbreak and elation somehow coexist, where you get a lump in your throat and a shiver down your spine. In those earlier iterations, Li’s songs came packaged in the trappings of mid-aughts indie-pop, better suited for swaying in your bedroom with earbuds than swaying in a stadium with a lighter, and for awhile that understatement suited them fine. But on this years I Never Learn, Li trades in indie’s limiting self-awareness for a straight-up swing-for-the-fences take-no-prisoners bid for world domination, and she has never sounded better. The product of the Swedish singer’s recent break-up and subsequent move to Los Angeles, she’s described the songs on I Never Learn as “power ballads for the broken”, and I couldn’t think of a better description for them. She dissects and flays every bit of a dissolving relationship’s viscera, sparing herself no culpability in the process (“I let my good one down / I let my true love die / I had his heart but I broke it every time”), all the while building them into these monumental pop songs with huge redemptive choruses that demand to be sung at the top of your lungs. It’s the heartbreak and the healing all at once, just like all the best pop always is. -Chris
The Cover of Hunter feels out of place for me this year. A lot of “sad” albums have made appearances in years past. Many of those were quite high on our year-end lists and remain some of the best albums I have ever heard (most notably, The Antlers… man, Hospice is still so amazing). However, it’s been a dang good year here in the offices of WiAC. Joy, happiness, and all of that lovey dovey stuff. So Cover of Hunter, an inescapably sad album that sings unabashedly and often brutally about depression, is an odd fit for my general mood in 2014. Brilliance is brilliance though, and super positive Logan can still appreciate the beauty of what Liam Betson created. -Logan
In Roses came out in the dead of last winter – right when the Polar Vortex was ripping through the Midwest and I was home alone for almost a week, snowed in, work canceled, my wife stuck on the west coast. It was a strange and lonesome week – one spiked with beautiful snowy visions of the silent city and days spent alone inside watching weather reports as they cycled back every 15 minutes – long stretches of not seeing anyone at all. In Roses recalls the feelings of that week more than anything else I’ve listened to all year – it’s an album to get lost in, to get enveloped by. Every piece of every song adds to the melancholic beauty of the whole thing – the crystalline piano figures, the light-handed electronic flourishes, Christopher Barnes’s delicate falsetto. In fact, this album is so suffused with a single mood for me, that it’s the only album on this list that I honestly don’t know a single lyric from – In Roses sounds to me like a world to get lost in, not a collection of songs created by an actual human being. I imagine many people who’ve fallen for this album feel the same way; I also imagine they’re planning on spending many more wintry days wrapped up in its insular world. I do anyway. -Chris
By now my affection for Kenny Anderson (AKA King Creosote) is fairly well documented. For a man as prolific as he is, the fact that he can do no wrong in my book is, frankly, astounding. But as much as I love most of what he produces, I still find myself returning most often to his work with Jon Hopkins (2011’s Diamond Mine and the couple EPs that followed) – something about the limited scope of that collaboration seemed to concentrate and focus my favorite aspects of KC’s work – his doleful lilting tenor, his specific-unspecific lyrical vignettes, the way he takes a single melodic idea or phrase and slowly churns it over and over until it froths and spills over with emotional resonance. Well it seems that soundtracking the film From Scotland With Love, an archival-footage documentary commissioned as part of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, had a similar focusing effect on Anderson’s work, because these are some of the finest, most consistently moving songs he’s produced since Diamond Mine. Instead of just soundtracking an already finished film, Anderson worked collaboratively with director Virginia Heath to portray the joys and struggles of past Scottish working-class men and women, taking their shared stories and mashing them together with his own experience to create something evocative and timeless. One of the most moving examples of this is “Miserable Strangers”, an account of young immigrants and their fear of leaving home and family that culminates in the refrain “at the back of my mind / I was always hoping that I might just get by”, a sentiment KC re-appropriated from one of his own past songs “678”. He pulls a similar trick on “Pauper’s Dough”, taking what was once an inward-facing call-to-arms and turning it into a de facto protest song with the clenched fist/teary-eyed closing refrain, “you’ve got to rise / out of the gutter you are inside”. In between there are ditties based on playground rhymes, beautifully-rendered pastoral instrumental asides, and plenty of lyrical and musical idioms of both Scottish and Anderson-ish provenance. If you check it out, be sure to spring for the 2-disc edition that includes re-recordings of two of my all-time favorite King Creosote songs: “My Favourite Girl” and a full version of “678”. -Chris
Ages ago I posted a link to Cloud Nothing’s “I’m Not Part of Me” on facebook. That song is simply amazing. However, my brother Ty disagreed, “I listened to that link you put on facebook for that band yer into. What happened to your good taste? My theory is it’s that girl you’re dating has made you like them. Trust me, I know the lengths you’ll go for that sweet poon 😉” Partial credit Ty. I actually got the girl I was dating then (and am engaged to now) into Cloud Nothings. However, I’ll admit that Here and Nowhere Else appears on this list because of that cute little blonde girl. My tastes were already listing heavily towards the lo-fi, punk-ish rock that Cloud Nothings so perfectly create, and it only took a slight nudge from the right source to tip me into that world. But seriously, those drums. Listen to those drums! -Logan
We’ve all experienced music’s amazing ability to instantaneously transport us back to a specific place and time. It’s mysterious and uncanny how just a few notes can bring back a flood of memories in such a poignant way – like how for me, Jimmy Eat World’s “Sweetness” potently recalls my senior prom night, or Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” whisks me back to my 9-year-old bedroom, drawing comic book characters and orchestrating elaborate LEGO space operas on the floor with my little brother (you didn’t realize late ’80s latin-crossover-pop accompanied space battles so perfectly, and that’s why your childhood wasn’t as cool as mine). This is one of music’s most incredible powers, and it’s one we’re all familiar with. What’s less common, at least for me, is for a song or record to powerfully recall a specific place and time it had nothing to do with at all. That’s been happening for me all year with Real Estate’s Atlas – almost every time I listen to it I’m swept back to a trip Kristin and I took to the Outer Banks of North Carolina a few years ago. It was in mid-March, the calm before the tourist season – winter was just giving up its hold and the weather was windy and mild, just slightly too chilly to go swimming but nice enough to lounge on the beach, fly kites, and take long bike rides down the coast. It was a beautiful, dreamlike vacation that felt palpably like the end of something and the beginning of another. The beginning of what exactly, I couldn’t say. But Atlas feels the same as that trip did for me, and it conjures visions of that white coastline every time I listen to it. The playing is restrained but insistent, Martin Courtney’s vocals, Matt Mondanilee’s bright lead guitar, and Jackson Pollis’s metronomical drumming – every part twisting together, then apart, then back together again, weaving patterns like the ones fences and power-lines make when watched out the side of a moving car on the highway. The record overall is languid and relaxed, but that’s not all – these songs are infused with a subtle melancholy and tempered with a bit of hopefulness; you know, the kind of emotional cocktail that’s usually served up with beginnings and endings. –Chris
“I need you to be afraid of nothing.” That’s the plea that opens Are We There – in terms of a relationship, it’s a poignant cry for commitment, for solidarity, to stick around for whatever comes next. In terms of Sharon Van Etten’s music and those who listen to it, it might be a plea to stick around even if things get a little raw, a little strange; which is an apt way to introduce her fourth, and most adventurous, album. Are We There expands Van Etten’s sound in subtle and significant ways, dabbling in weirder, more idiosyncratic influences – scuzzy R&B grooves on “Taking Chances”, a midnight-in-Miami-circa-1987 guitar lick on “Our Love”, slow-motion Memphis soul on “Tarifa”, hung-over girl-group doo-wop on “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”. But don’t think for a minute that these songs sound like anyone but Sharon Van Etten – her voice alone is enough to mark each as her own. As on Epic and Tramp, she continues to tease out haunting new sounds by mining the harmonic dissonance created by multi-tracking her vocals. The way she crafts and utilizes those harmonies is a unique power of Sharon’s, evocative and impressionistic; its clearest predecessor may only be Joni Mitchell’s equally enigmatic guitar playing, and it’s no less gorgeous. Lyrically, Are We There continues to explore Sharon’s recurring theme of dependence vs independence – as a woman, as a human being, and more than ever as a musician. She produced this record herself, a palpable act of asserting and testing her autonomy, and the album’s very sequencing is evidence of it. For example, the absolutely devastating “Your Love Is Killing Me” – a jarring six-plus-minute march through self-mutilation and emotional abuse – appears just 2 songs in. The song stands like a gauntlet at the outset of the record – it’s as if Sharon’s saying “you cannot listen to this casually, you will stop what you’re doing, and you will get a lump in your throat” – or as she sings, “everybody needs to feel”. It’s the practical realization of the plea made in “Afraid of Nothing” – it demands to be heard, to be cherished, to be lived-in, sometimes to be feared, but never to be taken for granted. -Chris
This is the solo album I’ve been waiting for years for Jenny Lewis to make. Back in 2006, Lewis’s Rabbit Fur Coat was a welcome change of pace from her Rilo Kiley day-job, and while it was a great album, to me it always felt like she was holding something back. 2008’s Acid Tongue, on the other hand, had some good songs but not enough great ones, and ultimately its poor sequencing made it feel much longer than its eleven track running time. But The Voyager is something else entirely – a fully realized, remarkably concise treatise on what it’s like to be Jenny Lewis as she closes in on forty. And the results are amazing. Recasting herself in the image of late ‘70s/early ‘80s easy-rockin’ icons (many of these songs could have been hits for Stevie Nicks or Tom Petty circa 1980), Lewis takes her wry observations on life and love in LA and dresses them up in glossy new duds that shine brighter than almost anything she’s done before. A perfect example is “Late Bloomer” – a song that could easily have been a dime-a-dozen story song in the folk tradition, but instead becomes a shambolic sing-along and centerpiece to the record. Elsewhere “She’s Not Me” swaggers and sways to an unflagging disco beat, “Head Underwater” (the spiritual descendent of “A Better Son/Daughter) jangles the affirming refrain “there’s a little bit of magic / everybody has it / there’s a little bit of fight left in me yet”, and “Just One of the Guys” invokes Brian Wilson’s pocket-symphony as Jenny refracts back the idea of an aging rock star through the hopes and fears of a woman nearing middle-age. Lewis revisits this theme over and over on the album, maybe most explicitly when she asks, “is this the beginning of middle-aging? / or is this the end of civilization?” (I love that line so much). Any of the songs I’ve mentioned could be candidates for the best in Lewis’s catalog, and they’re not even my favorite on the record (that would be the bleary-eyed “Love U Forever”). Altogether, this is an album no-one but Jenny Lewis could possibly have made, and I’m so glad she did. Because it’s perfect. -Chris
2014 has been, without reservation, the greatest year of my life. I have never been happier, I have never felt more fulfilled, and I have never faced the future with such optimism and jubilation. With such a sickeningly sunny disposition, it only seems appropriate to have Kishi Bashi’s Lighght here at the top of our list. Lighght is an absolutely delightful album! I think it might actually be impossible to listen to it with a frown. There are some cripplingly sad albums on this list and they are beyond beautiful, but this year belongs to Kishi Bashi and his hymns to love and dancing pieces of meat. This post is short. Shorter than most and certainly shorter than past ‘top picks’, but this album just hits the right notes. It’s pure and it’s simple and that is why it’s the most beautiful and beloved album of 2014. -Logan