I always find end of year lists to be fun, and I find it useful to focus my listening options down to something manageable. This year on the show I've played new music from over 200 albums, and one of the records on this year's list is one I've not yet played, which is to say I come across an enormous amount of music over a year's time. I'm not unique in this; surely as more listeners utilize streaming services the volume of their listening is massive as well. So yeah, pairing down over 200 albums to 10 is daunting, at times excruciating, but it's also cleansing, like clearing out a cluttered shelf. And not just my list, I look forward to lists from NPR, Pitchfork, and talking about the year in music with friends. So please enjoy, know that these tunes are simply my favorites from the year, not the "best," and feel free to share what music you've enjoyed in the comments section. Happy New Year!
1.) Priests - Nothing Feels Natural
This album simply put, is a punk record, but it’s also so much more, which for some crowds will be a deal-breaker while for others it will exactly what they needed to hear. It’s an aggressive, politically charged album that also offers a lot of sonic nuance without wavering a bit on its social commentary. Propulsive rhythms carry dissonant out-of-tune instruments to the margins of math and meter.
9.) Thundercat - Drunk
Thundercat is the moniker of Stephen Bruner, whose music tends to come across with the absurdist patchwork of non-sequiturs, not unlike the more bizarre examples of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim]. Among the references to videogames, anime, and loving shout-outs to his cat, there is an artist dealing with things like mortality and police violence. Because you’re never so pop culture-obsessed to be exempt from heavy things. On top of all that, the man’s bass lines are insane.
8.) Aye Nako - Silver Haze
The Brooklyn band has another full-length and an EP to their name, but this album is the first to share songwriting duties between original lead singer Mars Dixon and guitarist Jade Payne. It’s the addition of Payne that really makes this record great, as her tracks are the standouts. This is not to slight Dixon’s songwriting, as his contributions certainly have their own scrappy charm, but Payne’s tracks are the most polished, musically interesting offerings here.
7.) The xx - I See You
In 2009 on their debut album xx the band became synonymous with minimalism in the context of pop music. Like, anything less and you’d have silence. But the astonishing trick they pulled off was doing so much with so little, and I See You does expand upon the sonic blueprint they established, but does so very carefully. Most of the new textures come by way of Jamie xx’s sample-heavy solo work exhibited here. It’s the judicious use of samples and pop-music flourishes, alongside vocalists Romy Madly Croft and Oliver Sim expanding what role their voices play that makes this record another outstanding example of the band’s ability to express so much longing and emotion within the confines of their sparse sound.
6.) The National - Sleep Well Beast
Those who have spent any amount of time with this band know what they’re getting on this. What’s new this time around is the addition of electronics, though they’re more like dim and sad neon than strobes, and guitar solos that are merely deceptively loose. Oh, and lyrics that are possibly by Karl Rove. But lyrical contributions that are seriously by Matt Berninger’s romantic partner Carin Besser. What is the same, is the music is pretty, like flowers, and it tangles around and moves at the pace of a flower’s growth and ultimate decay. It’s sad, but only in the way that many things are, and like those, it’s never hopelessly so.
5.) Waxahatchee - Out in the Storm
I’ve long enjoyed the work of Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee and was immediately drawn to the band’s expertly executed homage to sounds of ‘90s indie rock. This album is much harder to pin down in terms of a prior decade, though the raw emotion and matter-of-fact delivery remains. Crutchfield has been very open about this album being about the end of a long-term and unhealthy romantic relationship. That she made a record so personal about such a difficult struggle while remaining articulate and accessible is an impressive feat, and a true musical triumph.
4.) Alvvays - Antisocialites
There’s a longstanding trope of bright, sunny, fun music accompanied by a sharp wit within the lyrics. That’s not to say it’s easy, nor is it always done well. The music on this record is a delight, with relentlessly catchy pop punk songs that would sound lo-fi if not for their glimmering production. Molly Rankin’s vocals offer lots of lyrical content that’s well-trodden for the genre: heartache, longing, solitude, but her delivery hits the mark on those emotions with precision and grace.
3.) Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
On a recent listen to this record I was thinking of how there’s long been this bemoaning of the album being cast aside in favor of singles. If you think that, I’d encourage you to listen to hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar in particular. DAMN. in particular but anything in his catalog plays out like long-form storytelling. Lamar’s delivery shifts from supersonic to languid and the intricate beats reward attentive listening. Lamar recently revealed the album is meant to be listened to in reverse-track order, something that was apparently observed by fans within a week of its release. The album lives on, and its layers are more complex than ever.
2.) Broken Social Scene - Hug of Thunder
This is their first album in 7 years, and features all 15 original members, including the celebrated return of Feist. Kevin Drew, who otherwise might’ve been cold on getting the band back together was invigorated by the terror attack that targeted a concert venue in Paris in November of 2015. Drew said he wanted to get BSS back out there and playing because it’s “always been a band that’s been a celebration.” The record is indeed celebratory. Euphoric. Vocal duties passed around and woven together like a beautiful quilt. Swells and crescendos that pound the outer limits of a sound wave. This album is the sound of 15 hearts being played right out.
1.) Slowdive - Slowdive
The first time I listened to this album, their first in 22 years, I thought they sounded like a band that was trying to do their best impression of Slowdive. That was dumb. This is the best record they’ve ever made. This album cements this band’s position as one of the greatest of its peers (I may as well go ahead and just say shoegaze). They utilize tension and release perfectly. Quiet and loud without being abrupt. The production is exquisite, with each note, squall, and buried coo distinct and vibrant.
Big thanks to Pete for setting us up with an Apple Music playlist. Happy New Year!