20. Youth Lagoon, The Year of Hibernation (Fat Possum)
This guy makes me understand better why everyone flips out over Beach House. I am closer to flipping out about Beach House because of him.
19. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Belong (Slumberland)
This one is damn near a guilty pleasure. It manages to pull all my shoegaze-loving strings, though.
18. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic)
Just love her.
17. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia/Ultra (self-released)
The fact that this album has gotten so much attention in a year where The Weeknd dropped three similar but ultimately superior dark R&B albums is a testament to how good Frank Ocean is.
16. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Tao of the Dead (Superball Music)
It’s no Source Tags & Codes and it’s apparently based on a steampunk talking animal fantasy comic, but it rocks and I don’t care what you say.
15. EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions)
It’s all about attitude sometimes, and this lady has it in the best ways.
14. Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica (Software)
Daniel Lopatin appears later on my list as one half of Ford & Lopatin. Perhaps that bright 80s pop affair had something of an influence on this album, which finds his ambient drone project interspersed with much more dynamic sounds than one would expect. It ends up being one of the most interesting soundscapes of the year.
13. Tom Waits, Bad As Me (Anti-)
Like he wasn’t going to be on my list.
12. White Denim, D (Downtown Records)
One of the best rhythm sections in the business right here. Just absolute bad-assery all around here.
11. Washed Out, Within and Without (Sub Pop)
Ernest Greene’s first full album finds him graduating to a much higher level of production but still creating some pretty, pretty layers of synth and soothing.
10. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Fat Possum)
It took me a while to get into this lo-fi analog guitar jam, but once those hooks got in my head, they wouldn’t let go.
9. The Antlers, Burst Apart (Frenchkiss / Transgressive)
This is seriously some of the saddest sad bastard music I’ve ever heard. I mean, there’s a track called “Putting The Dog to Sleep.” It’s that sad. And I couldn’t get enough of it this year.
8. Balam Acab, Wander / Wonder (Tri Angle)
Witch house is something of a dirty word in music critic circles. But there’s no denying that this album pushes the very boundaries that make witch house so confining and make for a downright pretty collection of music.
7. Ford & Lopatin, Channel Pressure (Software)
While this sequencer and MIDI-heavy album can’t be heard without hearing the ghost of the 80s, it is less a nostalgia trip and more a look at what would have happened in music had underground rock not exploded into grunge and brought about the end of the era.
6. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant / Island Def Jam)
Inspired by World War I, this album from alt rock royalty finds her reinventing herself and separating herself from imitators by singing in a higher register. Ultimately the album is one of the most markedly British things you’re likely to come across this or any year.
5. The Weeknd, House of Balloons (self-released)
R&B has always had a bit of a lecherous undertone to it’s come-ons, but on this debut from singer Abel Tesfaye and producers Don McKinney and Illangelo, they fully embrace the creepy vibes, making a debaucherous nighttime filled with sex, drugs, and Beach House samples.
4. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine (Domino)
Scottish folk mixed with ambient music AND found noise collage sounds like a big pile of pretentious pie, doesn’t it? If so, then give me a damn fork. Seriously, as much as it shouldn’t work, this collaborative effort from Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote and English electronica musician Jon Hopkins is one of the most elegant records I’ve heard in years.
3. Iceage, New Brigade (What’s Your Rupture?)
These four teenage Danes rock their way in fits and starts through the most confident and impressive debut album of the year. In a year full of sad dudes with beards and autotuned crooners, Iceage provides a much needed injection of punk.
2. Toro Y Moi, Underneath The Pine (Carpark)
I remember seeing Chaz Bundick during his first national tour in DC when he was still touring by himself. It was a great show, but I could tell that while his bedroom pop had gained him the ability to tour, he wasn’t entirely comfortable on stage with just a laptop and keyboard. It wasn’t until he started touring with bandmates made up of longtime friends that the music really took off onstage, and on this album, that organic process influences his sound to transcend the silly “chillwave” label and represent this town better than anyone else could hope to.
1. Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)
My favorite moment of the year was meeting Wye Oak singer Jenn Wasner after the debut performance of her solo project Flock of Dimes in her hometown of Baltimore. My least favorite moment was immediately after when I was so starstruck that I could barely mutter, “Good show… uh, have a nice night.” I find justification in my tongue-tiedness anytime I listen to Civilian, though. It has been years since I immediately knew an album was going to be a keeper, one that I would return to over and over years down the road. Wasner’s subdued vocals and bombastic guitar playing combined with Andy Stack’s impeccable timing on drums (and keyboards, at the same time!) are sublime.