No intro this year, just the top 10. And a 27-song playlist companion, featuring songs from the albums plus tracks from albums that didn't make the cut. (Some lyrics NSFW)
10. The Decemberists - What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World
Despite the pretentious title, What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World manages to be the least pretentious Decemberists album I’ve heard yet. It does what most of their albums have done before, which is to say it blends jangly folk, 60’s style pop, and country-inflected rock into what has become their signature sound. This time around the lyrics seem a little less literary and a little more human (standout lead single “Make You Better,” and “Philomena” in particular) which is for the better. The Decemberists may not be for everyone, but What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World isn’t a bad entry point.
9. Torche - Restarter
Good, hard, heavy rock ‘n’ roll seems to have fallen out of both critical and commercial favor these days. Torche’s Restarter probably isn’t going to convert any EDM or Nickelback fans, but their stoner-y, sludgy drone is a good respite from both the soft, synth-laden sound of what passes for modern alternative rock AND perfectly-polished butt rock.
8. Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves
I’m not so sure the album was worth waiting eight years for, but Strangers To Ourselves maintains Modest Mouse’s one-of-a-kind sound. That means sometimes spacey, sometimes jagged guitars, meandering synthesizers, stabbing horn blasts, and existential lyrics. Lead single “Lampshades on Fire” follows the template of other hits like “Float On” and “Dashboard”; It is hooky, catchy, and mildly weird. “Sugar Boats” (opening line: “This rock of ours is just some big mistake”) sounds like a both a demented marching band and an off-kilter carnival theme, all with a buzzsaw lead guitar cutting through the middle. Familiar though it may be, it is a sound that I rather enjoy.
7. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
I didn’t quite get Something More Than Free until I listened to it at about 11:30 at night, with a few vodka-and-orange juices in me. It may not be as heady or weird as Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (what I consider to be the gold standard of modern country/Americana) but the songs are just as finely crafted. Each track is quietly devastating in its own way. “If It Takes a Lifetime” paints a portrait of someone that’s barely hanging on. “Speed Trap Town” is absolutely wracked with regret.
Something More Than Free may not click for you if you’ve never looked at a “past due” bill before, or have never picked up your fifth drink of the night and wondered “What’s the point of this?” But if you have? Then you will enjoy this album, even if it hits a little too close to home like it did for me.
6. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
It should surprise no one that To Pimp A Butterfly is the consensus album of the year as voted by (mostly white, mostly educated) music critics. Its dense, jazzy, funky (and on one track, a dead-ringer-but-not-quite-Radiohead sample) soundscape sets it apart from most other rap albums put out this or any other year. TPaB also features socially conscious lyrics. It is the epitome of this article.
The world that Kendrick Lamar has depicted here is sad, bleak, resilient (“Alright”), and conflicted (“The Blacker The Berry”). It is black life as seen through the eyes of an intelligent, articulate young black man. Unfortunately, the people that need to hear this the most -- that is to say, people that don’t resemble a Stuff White People Like article -- would never touch To Pimp a Butterfly with a ten foot pole.
If there is a criticism besides it being no fun to listen to -- and it really is a difficult listen -- it is that Kendrick Lamar relies too much on the word “nigga” or “nigger.” I don’t say this as a Concerned and/or Offended White Person, nor do I wonder why blacks can say the word and I can’t; I say it as a person with an English degree and someone who recognizes Kendrick’s immense talent. Even if it’s his artistic intent to make people uncomfortable with the use of the word, I think he can do better. If “nigga” can mean many different things to black people, he can use many different words to convey the same meaning. The proof is in his songs.
5. Desaparacidos - Payola
Desaparacidos is the side project of folk-rock singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, most famous for his band Bright Eyes. Political punk rock is mostly a drag, but that is not the case with this album. Payola features 14 solid blasts of loud guitars and leftist rhetoric -- the first song is called “The Left is Right” for god’s sake. Like all good punk rock, it is not nuanced or balanced. But unlike Fox News (which is also not nuanced or balanced), it is fun as hell to listen to.
4. Beach House - Depression Cherry
Beach House actually had four albums to their name before this one, but I hadn’t actually heard all that much of their music. I am glad I changed that with Depression Cherry.
Beach House’s music is commonly referred to as “dream pop” and that is not wrong. Depression Cherry works as both an album to put on in the background, and something to lose yourself in while listening on headphones. After the 2015 we as a people had, melting away to the gauzy synthesizers, plaintive drum beats, and Victoria Legrand’s hazy, distant vocals doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
“Levitation” suggests exactly that; “PPP” is sad and longing and makes me want to pop a few Vicodin and forget about it all. The entire album is a case for better living through chemistry. I’m not sure why I kept coming back to this album, but I did. It made me feel an enveloping warmth, or like a stream casually flowing to its end. (Mostly) electronic music hasn’t made me feel this good in quite some time, if ever.
3. The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ
If professional wrestling turns a mirror on American life -- and it does; if you don’t think so then you were watching different programs than the ones I watched religiously from about 2003-2007 -- then Fight The Champ shows us what’s on the other side of that mirror.
“Heel Turn 2” is the emotional centerpiece of the album. “Turning heel,” in wrestling parlance, is when a good guy turns into a bad one; our narrator is having conflicted thoughts about the “turn” He knows it’s best for business, but maybe his fans would be upset (“President of the fan club / Up there choking on his tears”). On its face, this is all about wrestling, but it could just as easily be about anyone having to make any sort of tough decision. That’s why it connects.
Beat The Champ wins not just because of the way it portrays its muscled, tighted protagonists as real people, but because it also reminds wrestling fans -- supremely dorky though it may be -- of why they’re fans to begin with. Of course, you don’t need to be a fan to enjoy the album or even relate to it. Sometimes you just need a hero in your life (“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”) and sometimes you just want to stab someone with an ice pick (“Foreign Object.”).
(Oh, the music? It’s mostly pleasant. Mostly acoustic guitar, occasionally furiously strummed. Some piano. Some orchestral elements. Probably not what you’d expect from an album about wrestling.)
2. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color
Alabama Shakes sure made a leap with their sophomore effort. Their southern roots-rock debut was plenty good, but Sound & Color made a quantum leap in terms of sound. It is at times space rock-y (“Gemini, “Future People”), funk and soul inspired (“Don’t Wanna Fight”), and straight-up rawk (“The Greatest”).
Brittany Howard’s vocals and guitar are both forces of nature here, and the rest of the band fills in nicely.
I should have more to say about my #2 album of the year, but I don’t. All I know is that whatever trip they’re taking next, I want to be on it.
1. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
The chorus of lead single “Pedestrian at Best” features four lines, three of them killer (the third line being the weak link) “Put me on a pedestal and I will only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you / give me all your money and I’ll make you origami honey / I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny”
It is Courtney Barnett’s sharp lyrics and eye for detail that make this album the best of the year. Her characters are oftentimes a mess, insecure, mundane, sometimes joyful but only briefly. The album reads like an introvert’s fever dream - a tangle of thoughts that maybe weren’t supposed to be heard by human ears, all coming out at a machine gun clip. The music is a blend of 90’s and classic rock, which is always a winning formula as far as I’m concerned.
Much like Sound & Color, I don’t have much to say about this album. Perhaps you could say it left me speechless.
(Albums also worth checking out: Torres - Sprinter; Houndmouth - Sedona; Whitey Morgan and the 78’s - Sonic Ranch; Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material; Local H - Hey Killer; Muse - Drones; Dr. Dre - Compton; Death Cab For Cutie - Kintsugi)