1. Lorde, Pure Heroine (Universal)
I’m fairly certain I would not have surmised my most listened to album of the year would have been written and recorded by a 16-year-old girl from New Zealand. I guess it proves I’m not utterly dead inside that I can still be this taken aback. Pure Heroine is an accidental master stroke. Lorde is a typical teen with typical teenage insecurities, but she has an atypical way of expressing herself that just happens to take the form of top shelf pop. I’m pretty sure she set out to mimic Lana Del Rey, but she ended up creating a sound unlike anything else on the radio. Lorde is trying to be a poet. She’s trying to sound sophisticated. She’s trying to conjure a dark romanticism. The thing is she pulls it all off with very little to be embarrassed about. (I’m 100% certain I would want anything I created at age 16 to be burned forever). Pure Heroine is a staggeringly accomplished pop record: Big, catchy choruses are underpinned with attention-grabbing starkness and wildly unorthodox beats. It’s down-tempo-electro-pop to be sure, but it’s truly every-day-hummably infectious. “Royals” stands out like a sore thumb on the radio, but its appeal extends beyond the masses into the hierarchy of the critical elite, even as clueless arbiters of nonsense try to argue its latent racist overtones. It is the single of the year.
2. Kanye West, Yeezus (DefJam)
I am embarrassed for and annoyed by Kanye West as much as the next guy. It pains me to think how white I am for this being the only hip hop album in my list, but I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t mark it down. I listened to Yeezus more times than I care to count. The disconnect between West’s persona in interviews and his recorded output is confusing at a minimum. He comes off like a complete bozo in public, whose blind ambition almost elicits pity it’s so laughable. But on record he’s an absolute genius. Yeezus is dark, scary, confrontational, and a complete mass of contradictions, but it’s a record you will want to blast out of your car stereo. Rick Rubin tore the production down to its absolute minimum mere days before it was due for printing. It sounds next level. Jabs of synths, mutated vocal effects, and tribal rhythms are all interspersed with scattershot samples, but the star here is West’s lyrics. Yes, they’re extraordinarily misogynistic, but at the same time shards of brilliance lessen the blow with insightfully pointed rage. West is an angry man, and Yeezus is the musical catharsis he needed.
3. My Bloody Valentine, m b v (self released)
Much to my brother’s chagrin, I brought My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless on cassette to listen to on the way to school just about every day my junior year. He was too young to understand how fucking mind-bendingly awesome those waves of noise were. And still are. My Bloody Valentine leveled the playing field with that record, setting the bar for an entire movement of music and spawning a generation’s worth of copycats. I wouldn’t have wanted to follow it up either. So when word hit that IT FINALLY HAPPENED I scrambled to order my copy. When I listened to it, I was initially disappointed. I was mostly disappointed to discover that I was accustomed to all the soundscapes that had once shocked me so. Changing music forever is a once in a lifetime gift. So, MBV picks up the very next day. It doesn’t surpass Loveless; nor does it try to. It can’t. But it is a gloriously soul-crushing record all the same; it just takes longer to ingest. Guitarist Kevin Shields hasn’t added any new elements to the mix. It’s more of the same. But more of that same is clearly better than most.
4. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
It’s rare for a band to overcome overexposure, but Vampire Weekend has managed it twice. Amazingly, Modern Vampires of the City is its finest record by a mile. Getting better over time … that’s some Radiohead shit, right there.To make such daring experimentation palatable with perfectly composed pop gems is far from easy, but these guys make it sound effortless. These songs are crammed with complex references, layers of wacked out production, and crazy rhythms. Ezra Koenig must have a hard time shutting that shit down when it’s time to go to sleep, but his insomnia is our gain. You’d have to write a David Foster Wallace-style essay to footnote all the pop culture minutiae Koenig rattles off in any given verse. It’s mind-boggling. And you can hum it. Pure effing genius.
5. Arctic Monkeys, AM (Domino)
Arctic Monkeys have finally found their footing after a few records of growing pains. AM is career-definingly great, flexing those desert rock aspirations with the inherent Britpop panache that skyrocketed them to fame. Alex Turner has a voice that can melt even the most-hardened indie snob’s pretensions, but it’s his way with words that sucker punches that feigned snobbery. This band is in it for the long-haul, and AM finally extinguishes those claims of diminishing returns.
6. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time (Capitol)
Sky Ferreira is a pop singer who doesn’t quite yet know how she wants to be perceived. She’s a stunningly beautiful girl, who almost seems embarrassed by her looks. The nipple shot on her album art is there to shock, to be sure, but I think it speaks to a larger image issue. Ferreira’s career trajectory has been lined with awkward stumbles and restarts. This major label debut has one foot in indie and one foot stretching for the lime-light. The production sounds like a regretful attempt to cover up those ambitions with unnecessary noise and distortion, and the result is a peculiarly inconsistent record. Ferreira clearly has the chops to be a star. Her voice is clean and pure, but her bratty antagonism lends her a rocker’s edge. The good songs are put-on-repeat great, and the filler is intriguing in its standoffishness. And I can’t stop listening either out of curiosity or awe.
7. CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe (Glassnote)
I almost can’t conceive of not liking CHVRCHES. Give me a beat, a catchy chorus, a good voice, and I’m on board. But I grew up obsessed with pop music. Top 40 all the way. And when I first heard CHVRCHES I couldn’t help smiling at all of the head nods to 80’s production techniques and arrangements. It’s rare that every single song on an album could be a single, but I’ll be fucked if this record isn’t packed with potential hits. It’s endlessly amusing to me that their sound is considered “indie” in today’s market. If it were 1988, this would be the biggest band on radio. “Gun” is the standout amongst a whole album of standouts. I could write a thesis on why it’s a perfect pop song.
8. Queens of The Stone Age, …Like Clockwork (Matador)
I’m constantly frustrated by the lack of guitars in today’s indie. Not only the lack of guitars but the lack of balls-out rock. QOTSA’s return is like a splash of Aqua Velva on a freshly sliced finger. Finally, GUITARS. Thank fuck for Josh Homme. … Like Clockwork is his finest outing since Songs for the Deaf. The latent Bowie-isms out-Bowie’d Bowie this year. And “I Sat By The Ocean” was the windows-down-speakers-rattling jam of the summer.
9. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia)
“Get Lucky’s” well deserved ubiquitousness aside, Daft Punk’s return is a lesson in reinvention. The dance duo recruited the best musicians of the disco era to recreate a sound that’s typically created with computers today. That irony is not lost on Daft Punk. Random Access Memories is the duo’s most soulful record. More irony. The musical performances that they captured on tape here are simply unreal. If you’re not a musician, you’ll just be inclined to dance. But if you are, you will drop your jaw. The bass lines alone will make your head explode. And the drumming is just ridiculous. There’s a depth on this record that these guys have never tapped into, bringing a whole new dimension to their bag of tricks.
10. Weekend, Jinx (Slumberland)
Weekend’s debut, Sports, was one of my favorite records from 2010. That wild wall of sonics and undercurrent of dark melodies and barely audible pop-laden hooks completely sucked me in (and was perfectly encapsulated in its leadoff track, “Coma Summer,” which, if you have not heard, is the shit). For its follow-up, the band has all but abandoned any trace of that post-MBV sound in favor of a skeletal mix of early Cure with new-er wave tendencies. That’s a pretty brave stew to hop into at this point with so many bands having tried and failed to carve out a niche with those very same haggard elements, but, like The Horrors, Weekend relies on its ace songwriting skills to overcome such dangerous genre cliff diving. Jinx lends credence to the fact that Weekend isn’t having an identity crisis as much as it’s just flexing a few different muscles.
11. Deerhunter, Monomania (4AD)
12. Laura Marling, Once I was an Eagle (Ribbon)
13. Throwing Muses, Purgatory / Paradise (Throwing Music)
14. David Bowie, The Next Day (Columbia)
15. Savages, Silence Yourself (4AD)
16. Torres, Torres (Torres)
17. IO Echo, Ministry of Love (IamSound)
18. Rhye, Woman (Republic)
19. Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note)
20. Lady Gaga, Artpop (Interscope)