Another year, another reason to lose yourself in music instead of the news or social media, or the news on social media. Perhaps it was the pervasive effect of the internet on my life, and some profound desire to push away from it when I had the chance, that shaped my preferences this year. This is a list filled with folkiness, jazz and orchestral expanse. Now more than ever, we should hastily embrace the chance to slow down and breathe and think. I did so, or at least tried to, with these records. You should too.
1. War On Drugs — A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
There is something so subtle about what War on Drugs do that they just seem to bridge the last five decades of rock music so effortlessly. Although it is inexplicitly American rock music, cut from the same cloth as Petty, Dylan, and Fleetwood Mac, it’s as modern as anything you’re likely to hear this year. There are keyboards, soaring guitar lines and the justifiable lyrical cynicism of bandleader Adam Granduciel.
What the band captures throughout most of their music is a kind of dreamy forward motion. On gems like “Holding On” there is kind of endless groove that accompanies the classic story about love and longing: “Now I’m headed down a different road / Can we walk it side by side? / Is an old memory just another way of saying goodbye?” Good question really. Although most of the songs on “A Deeper Understanding” start with a mellow boil, by the time you are at the end, these songs explode into the kind of rock anthem we don’t hear much anymore
2. Angus and Julia Stone — Snow (Nettwerk Music)
More than any band on this list, I’ve been smitten by the Aussie sibling duo from my first listen. Over the past dozen years they’ve been making some of the dreamiest indie folk music on the planet. Both Angus and Julia have the kind of distinctive voices that have allowed them to create incredible solo work, but it’s hearing them together, finishing each other’s sentences that put them in a league far away from everyone else.
“Snow” is yet another slight evolution away from the more straightforward rustic folk of their earlier efforts towards something a bit brighter and modern. There are drum kits, flashier guitar lines, and even some dots and loops to round things out. There are also even some songs that might you might even classify as (gasp) pop songs. “Chateau” is a wonderfully accessible song about being young and free, “I don’t mind if you wanna go anywhere / I’ll take you there.” And that’s what they do … take us away.
2.5. Moses Sumney — Aromanticism (Jagjaguar)
This is a genre-bending masterpiece if there ever was one. Released on the seminal folk label Jagjaguar (Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten), this modern soul mash-up, grounded by Sumney’s silky Buckley-eque falsetto, is an exercise in texture and open space. There is a glassiness that he spreads across these spacey canvases, like Nina Simone.
“Aromantism” is that odd debut, so unlike anything you have heard in a while that it takes a while to truly set in. It’s often a delicate affair with Sumney singing over a sparse guitar chord, but occasionally he lets it all hang out foreshadowing what he will sound like as a fully realized band. On “Lonely World,” his gentle vocals explode into a full-on sonic explosion: “And the sound of the void / Flows through your body undestroyed.” Indeed.
3. Grizzly Bear — Painted Ruins (RCA)
No band makes music as delicate and layered as Grizzly Bear. Where Radiohead tends to erupt into cacophonous madness, Grizzly Bear tends to stay lighter, above the clouds. With all band members singing, the band can both bend and contort merely by handing the baton but also by having the ability to harmonize so fluidly that everything just seems to melt together like multi-colored glue.
For the uninitiated the band does make something akin to a pop song, but it’s a more discordant free flowing wayward dance. Thematically there is always a weight to what they write and play. On the gorgeous “Neighbors” they croon “With every passing day / Our history fades away / And I’m not sure why / There’s nothing more to say.” They say sad music makes the brain happy. It does for me.
4. The Clientele — Music For The Age of Miracles (Merge)
I’m a total sucker for almost any music derived from the retro-pop of the English 60’s. For almost 20 years The Clientele has made perhaps the lushest guitar rock of almost any band I can think of. Imagine Luna or The Velvets, but even smoother, silkier I suppose, draped in Alasdair MacLean’s mesmerizing vocals. “Music For the Age of Miracles” picks up where every Clientele record leaves off, creating a hazy ambience of joy and lightness.
On the nearly 7 minute “Falling Asleep”, the band channels Nick Drake’s classic “Hazy Jane” stretching it out and meandering through the randomness of memory “Now the mirrors are misted / But the room is the same / I see the face in the place in the painted lane / Ursa major at the edge of the rain.” Lose yourself in this strange timeless music.
5. Ibeyi –Ash (XL Recordings)
“Parisian-Afro-Cuban-Electro-Doom” would be the sub-sub-sub-genre where you drop the French-Cuban duo’s second full-length banger of an album. The sisters, whose father was in the Buena Vista Social Club, have voices that both harness their Yoruban heritage, but also bridge the dancehall with the nightclub effortlessly.
At times this is a jazz record, at other times it’s modern electronica in its purest form. On “I Wanna be Like You,” a hypnotic melodic journey which allows both sisters to drift away ethereally. On “Deathless” they take a decidedly different direction more akin to old school trip-hop, plodding into some murky gloom, propelled by Kamasi Washington’s shimmering horn. This is something very special.
6. London Grammar — The Truth Is a Beautiful Thing (Sony)
Second albums are always the hardest when your debut is shot from a cannon into a rarified stratosphere that comes with an almost irresponsible expectation associated with it. Guided by the angelic vocals (Florence meets Lennox) of singer Hannah Reid, and accompanied by the often sparse and patient beats (think XX), London Grammar could make the recitation of a grocery list sound inspiring.
“The Truth is a Beautiful Thing” is a much more subtle effort than the debut. In the end, the best London Grammar tunes boil slowly unto a kind of gradual ascent into something that almost feels like, god forbid, a rock song. On bonafide hits like “Big Picture” and “Oh Woman Oh Man” they execute this formula to perfection following Hannah’s voice towards some sort of distant daylight gradually becoming light
7. Destroyer — Ken (Merge)
Dan Behar’s atmospheric 12th album is just as weird and timeless as the last few, fusing spacey 90’s era soundscapes with a loungier orchestral effort. Picking up where his last beautiful “Poison Season” album left off, after bowing out of this year’s New Pornographers album, Behar built on his space age diary with eleven Bowie-esque meditations on a variety of linear and non-linear themes.
Almost everything Behar writes is derived from some obscure piece of art or observation. Even the album title “Ken,” which was unearthed from an obscure Suede song from decades past, act as tiny clues into something disorienting and weird. Lyrically the songs lay out like poems either nonsensical or strangely clear. On “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” he sings “I had no feeling, I had no past / I was the arctic, I was the vast / Spaces without reprieve.” Sublime.
8. Kamasi Washington– Harmony of Difference EP (Young Turks)
Kamasi has done more for modern jazz than almost anyone in the past 20 years. He has also done more to resuscitate my own love affair with the genre than Miles/Coltrane did to spark it 40 years ago. It almost always seems like jazz is on the verge of extinction until somebody ties it into somthing new. In the 90’s it was Guru and Us3 tapping into the Blue Note catalog as a platform for acid jazz and hip hop. Kamasi and Thundercat, tied up with Kendrick to give jazz a much-needed shot in the arm.
Although this album is a breezy 30 minute romp (it is rightly called an EP), it is much more accessible than the 3 hours debut opus that vaulted him into the mainstream. In an era filled with short attention spans, these largely 3–4 minute songs give him a fighting chance to build an audience ensuring that he gets to stretch them out live — the way they should be seen and heard
9. Slowdive– Slowdive (Dead Oceans)
It’s been over 25 years since I first fell for the beautiful “shoegazing” creations of Neil Halsted and Rachel Goswell’s waking dream of a band. Like so many of the bands of that era (Cocteau Twins, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Lush) Slowdive, seemed to have one foot on the ground and another one in the clouds. Although Halstead’s prolific solo and Mojave 3 releases were always solid, I never would have guessed a band whose last release was 22 years ago, could pick up almost exactly where they left off.
“Slowdive” is a journey into a shimmering dream world of colorful and quietly rocking instrumentation. Halstead and Goswell sound like the leaders of a hipster choir, filled with beautifully indecipherable lyrics, and music that woos you into to letting go.
10. Elbow — Little Fiction (Polydor)
There are few bands as enduring and consistently expansive as Elbow. Like many of the greatest English bands, their anglophile sense of the dramatic has never resonated in the States as it has in their native country, as evidenced by their inclusion in the BBC’s London Olympics soundtrack. In a world starved of legitimate musical anthems, Elbow is one of the few bands that can create full albums of goose bump inducing splendor.
The music is filled with swirling guitars, enormous brass and string orchestras and Guy Garvey’s otherworldly vocals. Elbow manages to get under your emotional skin without ever coming across as cloying. This time out, the much-needed psychic reassurance delivered on the instant classic “Magnificent (She Says)” reminds us that ultimately amidst the mess that is modern life “It’s all gonna be magnificent, she says / It’s all gonna be magnificent.” I’ll take their word for it.
11. Fleet Foxes — Crack-Up (SubPop)
After a six-year hiatus, during which singer and bandleader Robin Pecknold got a degree from Columbia, the much-anticipated third album from the Pacific Northwest poets finally arrived. Grand in its musical scope, the songs tend to amble through enormously unconventional structures rising and falling like waves across broad acoustic landscapes.
Although it is easy to listen to the album, and this is an album not a string of singles cobbled together, through the soaring vocals of Pecknold, “Crack-Up” feels more like the kind of opus Brian Wilson used to labor over circa “Pet Sounds.” Despite its immaculate production, everything about it just seems to be a direct by product of the emotions extended by the natural world. Stoke a fire, watch the sunrise or a snowfall, and let the music play.
12. Future Islands — The Far Field (4AD)
I’ll always be an 80’s kid. That was the period when I decided to care about music, collect it, and obsess about it for the rest of my life. Like any good new waver it was always the synthesizer that was the most distinctive. Future Islands gathers all that was genuinely memorable about that music and then adds to it the unmistakable voice and vocals of Sam Herring whose range fluctuates between a croon and a growl.
Coming off the career defining of 2014’s “Singles” album, the band had to find a way to one up the novelty of Herring’s duck-like dance moves and live performance energy to prove it wasn’t some ephemeral fluke. “The Far Field” is a fully realized adventure back into another time and place.
13. LCD Soundsystem — american dream (Columbia)
Is it possible to imagine LCD Soundsystem’s “reincarnation” record being anything other than a unanimous top ten selection on every music magazine worth its salt? Not really. Of course “american dream” is a return to the infectious badass distinctive brand of electro-dance-pop, that he left us with in 2011. Unlike most artists, James Murphy’s percussive, spoken-word, mish-mash of Lou Reed and Can, has been shockingly consistent in terms of overall sound, without ever feeling like a re-tred.
The ironically and accurately lowercase titled “american dream” is a meditation on the state of things, filtered through the eyes of a middle age dude painfully in tune with the realities of modern life. On the gorgeously punky “emotional haircut” he dials into the tiny details of where we find ourselves: “You’ve got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete / And you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat.” Far from a joyous affair, Murphy has uncorked a serious record whose sharp corners he rounds perfectly with 70 minutes of infectious beats.
14. SZA — Ctrl (Top Dawg)
When you have to struggle to place a record you love into some kind of identifiable category (I guess this is broadly R&B?) it is likely proof that there is something special going on. “Crtl” is the second album from Solana Rowe, whose brand of classic avante-jazz is shot through the prism of modern life, filled with dots, loops and vocal manipulations.
Falling comfortably into the Kamasi, Thundercat, Flying Lotus jazz renaissance, SZA is somewhat of a chameleon drifting in between standard stylings and slightly more radio friendly fare. On the standout “Prom,” she sings “Fearin’ not growin’ up / Keepin’ me up at night / Am I doin’ enough / Feel like I’m wastin’ time.” Like all great things, what’s old is new again, over and over again.
15. The Weather Station — The Weather Station (Paradise of Bachelors)
To compare a singer to Joni Mitchell is a cruel bar, but Tamara Lindeman, AKA the Weather Station, beyond also being Canadian, comes as close to anyone. On her eponymous third album, she pushes her mostly acoustic leanings to something more akin to folk rock. At times there are electric guitars, sometimes there are lush orchestral string accompaniments, but always there is her effortlessly lilting vocals.
Like Laura Marling, and Joni before her, her voice can flutter away but more often hovers conversationally, like a spoken word campfire tale. On “Free” she hits that universal note “You were always so adamant / You told me / That the one thing I was missing / I didn’t know I was free.” Amen, we never know freedom until we no longer have it.
16. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile — Lotta Sea Lice (Mom & Pop)
Indeed, these are two great tastes that taste great together. This is a much calmer union than the much more famous Kurt and Courtney musical dream team from years past. It is rooted in acoustic guitars, lazy electrics, and folky harmonizing. Like each of their solo works, this album feels exported from an older musical era. For Courtney Barnett this is really early-mid 90’s indie rock, for Kurt it’s more 70’s Laurel Canyon Americana.
On ‘Fear Like a Forest’ the duo just rambles like something the bastard step-child of Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac might have laid down back in the day. But both artists tend to thrive when being their own whimsical selves. On the standout “Continental Breakfast“ they sing “I cherish my intercontinental friendships / We talk it over continental breakfast / In a hotel in East Bumble wherever / Somewhere on the sphere — around here.” This is classic slacker bliss.
17. Kelly Lee Owens –Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Smalltown Supersound)
So much of modern electronica is either too ambient and sparse or too predictable and uncreative. Kelly Lee Owens, a London-based Welch singer/composer, has managed to weave both the subtly of progressive techno, with the accessibility of what I used to remember as trip-hop. Her vocals tend to have the kind of otherworldly quality that usually elevates the DJ from purely a live experience to something suitable for recorded consumption.
On her eponymous full-length debut, Owens acts at times like a hypnotist repeating simple lines or phrases layering quietly perfect vocals on top of beautiful soundscapes. On “Keep Walking” much of the lyrical beauty involves the patient repetition of the song title that you almost wish would keep going on infinitely. She has discovered that rare musical brilliance in simplicity and texture.
A bunch of other stuff that you must hear …
18. The XX — I See You (Young Turks) This is almost a pop record, pure and simple, one standard deviation away from the sparse soundscapes of their earlier work, but extraordinary nonetheless
19. St. Vincent– Masseduction (Loma Vista) Annie Clark is one of the most creative vocal artists, guitarists and visual artists of the past 20 years, and “Masseduction” is a wonderful chapter in what I hope will be a very long novel.
20. Nick Mulvey– Wake Up Now (Fiction Records) Nick Mulvey is traditional English folky, who adorns his intricate strumming with the wonderfully warm bright colors of Cuban rhythms. Like Jose Gonzalez on MDMA, he is the perfect mix of sugar and salt.
21. Spoon — Hot Thoughts (Matador) It’s hard to imagine Spoon ever making a record that isn’t a magical journey into some cool space that makes you feel like that’s the only place you want to be.
22. Tennis — Yours Conditionally (Mutually Detrimental) Tennis is that rare, husband and wife throwback band that channels both 60’s vocal pop and the 70’s studio rock in a way that feels brand new.
23. Japanese Breakfast — Soft Sounds From Another Planet (Dead Oceans) In some ways Japanese Breakfast harkens back to the kind of mid-90’s indie rock sound that still defines my adult tastes, building around clean swirling guitars, and new-wave inspired drum and basslines.
24. Bonobo — Migration (Ninja Tune) Although “Migration” is a mellower affair than his last few efforts Simon Green’s sense of space and time is simply mesmerizing.
25. The National — Sleep Well Beast (4AD) There is almost no band as reliably consistent as The National, and although there is no sea change this time out, the band is rock steady.
26. Emanipator — Baralku (Loci) Like Bonobo, Emancipator’s elegant and classically infused brand electronic music is a waterfall of dots, loops, strings, and the occasional vocal. Sublime indeed.
27. Charlotte Gainsbourg– Rest (Because Music) On this textural, largely French language electro symphony of brightly dark pop songs, Gainsbourg transports you to a weird and wonderful place.
28. The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions (Concord Music) More of the same excellence from one of my perennially favorite supergroups. Nico Case and A.C. Newman always write and sing so damn well together.
29. Big Thief — Capacity (Saddle Creek) Adrianne Lenker sings like an angel with a mildly sore throat, crafting hipster folky melodies around luscious guitar melodies.
30. Bedouine — Bedouine (Spacebomb) This Syrian born songstress has laid down one of the smoothest folk records this year, mostly meandering along a quirky road filled with love and loss and adorned by ethereal vocals and acoustic guitars.
To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest listen here: