Top 10 Albums of 2015

Death Cab For Cutie - Kintsugi10. Kintsugi – Death Cab for Cutie
There may not be a more aptly named album than Kintsugi (the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold to make the cracks an artistic part of the object’s history). The album finds a band that’s broken, but not shattered. And the group pieces together what remains results in something beautiful. Chris Walla’s swan song with Death Cab for Cutie doubles as the first album the guitarist didn’t produce, and it shows for better and for worse. While Kintsugi lacks some of the intimate, personal touch Walla provided throughout the band’s history, but going with modern alt rock producer Rich Costey gives the songs a certain radio pop polish. Tracks like “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” and “No Room in Frame” marry Ben Gibbard’s knack for hopefully forlorn lyricism with the band’s ability to still sound fresh and tight after almost two decades of experience to create reconstructed greatness.

Childbirth - Women's Rights9. Childbirth – Women’s Rights
Seattle’s queens of funny feminist punk struck more than a few chords on their sophomore LP Women’s Rights. Both musically and lyrically, the trio revels in its unkempt filthiness and tongue-in-cheek bravado while taking shots at female glamour standards (“Nasty Grrls”), vapid songwriters (“Breast Coast”), dating apps (“Siri, Open Tinder”), close-minded friends and family (“Since When Are You Gay?), and tech bros (“Tech Bro”, duh). And while there’s plenty the band tears down, the music also serves as a rallying cry for a certain strand of feminist thought. The playfully satirical tone has the power to even catch a few detractors off guard and maybe just open up their thinking a little bit.

Bully - Feels Like8. Feels Like – Bully
From the moment Alicia Bognanno begins howling on “I Remember,” Bully instantly becomes a band that’s impossible to ignore. The group’s debut LP Feels Like buzzes for nearly 30 minutes in a triumphant showcase of angsty alt rock. On songs like the pitch perfect “Trying,” Bognanno taps into the sonic legacy of Courtney Love’s rage and Liz Phair’s incredulousness without seeming like some sort of derivative and formulaic ’90s ripoff. It’s the rare instance where a Bully is out to pick a fight and you’re rooting for it to kick the snot out of everyone in sight.

Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer7. Foil Deer – Speedy Ortiz
Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis has long been a lyrical wizard, and that remains the case on Foil Deer. But the album stands out because of the sonic stylistic diversity the band as a whole added to its mix. If it took one (or 10,000) too many comparisons to ’90s indie rock to force the group’s frustrated hands, the end result was worth it (at least for the listener). Whether experimenting with its poppiest song to date (“The Graduates”), menacing dance rock (“Puffer”), a burst of bouncy angst (“Swell Content”), or off-kilter mystery storytelling (“My Dead Girl”), Speedy Ortiz pushes its sound forward at a breakneck speed as soon as the previous track ends. Hopefully the band won’t slow down anytime soon.

Girlpool - Before the World Was Big6. Before the World Was Big – Girlpool
Often times when describing and analyzing emo lyrics, a comparison to reading the singer’s diary is made. But that’s slightly off base. Diaries aren’t just about whining about being heartbroken, they chronicle someone trying to figure out what life’s all about during the messy parts of growing up. No album embodies the actuality of a diary like Before the World Was Big. Girlpool’s Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad share their personal journeys in a way that doesn’t seem wrought with drama, but rather sorting out the highs and lows of youth. The duo’s guitar and bass arrangements manage to fill the sonic space to the brim and never seems sparse despite the obvious limitations. Whether singing teen anxieties via childhood reflections (“Before the World Was Big” and most of the other tracks) or simply swimming in Seattle (“Dear Nora”), there’s just enough distance and blurry details to keep it things from seeming uncomfortably personal. The journal entries they do share seem like sonic comfort blankets that warmly wrap around listeners.

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love5. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney
Everyone was stoked when Sleater-Kinney announced they were reuniting. Getting to see the band live again (or for the first time) would be a treat. The fact that they were going to put out a new album seemed almost like a secondary detail. After all, reunion comeback album almost universally suck. No Cities to Love bucks that trend. It’s not simply good, it’s on par with (or maybe even better than) the classic albums Sleater-Kinney put out its first go-round. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss sound as fierce as ever as they blister though ten anthemic (sorry, “No Anthems”) melodic rock declarations of enduring power.

Will Butler - Policy4. Policy – Will Butler
It terms of out of the blue surprises, no 2015 album matches up to Will Bulter’s solo debut Policy. Who thought a side project ramshackle dance rock record by Win’s little brother could be leaps and bounds better than the last Arcade Fire album (Reflektor wasn’t good, but still)? The album manages to be effectively bipolar. Butler finds success with both slow-burning, lyrically downtrodden tunes (“Sing to Me”) and whimsical numbers that are silly for silliness’s sake (“What I Want”). Policy chatters with toe-tapping exuberant energy as Butler warbles lines like a desperate back alley preacher just looking for a good time.

Father John Misty - I Love You, Honybear3. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
After lighting the rock world on fire in an attempt to satirically burn it down with his debut album Fear Fun, Father John Misty’s next act was to figure out this whole “love” thing. With luscious arrangements and sharp lyrical witticisms, each song on I Love You, Honeybear comes across like a doomsday prophet seeking companionship for the end times. As the scenes get messy (“The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”), the malaise weighs heavy (“Bored with the USA”), and tempers flare in wild ferocity (“Ideal Husband”), I Love You Honeybear becomes one long ballad that attempts—with increasing hopelessness—to find connection while slogging through the bullshit of the modern age. Good luck, weary travelers.

Grimes - Art Angels2. Art Angels – Grimes
By sheer power of will, Grimes makes anything seem possible. On Art Angels, she forges her own weirdo electronic musical path with an unrelenting determination that crushes anything that stands in her path. She can layer a track with enough compelling bells and whistles to turn three repeated chords into the best song of the year (“Flesh Without Blood”). She can base a tune around bloodcurdling yelps (“Scream”) or ethereal dance swells (“Realiti”). She can turn her own fan fiction dreams of vampires and The Godfather into a cheerleader chant-driven scream pop masterpiece (“Kill V. Maim”). Hell, she can even bring a Cheshire grin to a listener’s face with an undeniably cheesy pop ditty (“California”). And maybe that last one is most crucial, because its a testament to her greatest strength: Grimes approaches all the music she makes with unparalleled glee. You can feel it on every Art Angels track.

Mountain Goats - Beat the Champ1. Beat the Champ – The Mountain Goats
With Beat the ChampThe Mountain Goats managed to turn tales from the territorial pro wrestling era into the most beautiful and touching album of the year. Take a moment to consider that degree of difficulty. Somehow, John Darnielle pulled it off flawlessly. Beat the Champ rocks out to captures the pseudo-sport’s violent fun (“Foreign Object”), ruthless aggression (“Werewolf Gimmick”), pride (“The Ballad of Bull Ramos”), and familial roots (“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”), but also slows things down for breathtakingly gorgeous tunes about the road life (“Southwestern Terriory”), tradition (“Unmasked!” and “Hair Match”), and the faded glory of lost souls (“Luna”). Perhaps those without a background in pro wrestling can’t fully appreciate the mastery of the songwriting on display, but take a moment to look up the real life stories. That knowledge makes Beat the Champ become an even more awe-inspiring feat.

The limping warrior headed back to the locker room with a golden belt slung over his shoulder? That’s The Mountain Goats.

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Top 10 Albums of 2013

MIA - MATANGI10. Matangi – M.I.A.

Bangers, bangers, and more bangers. M.I.A.’s Matangi is unrelentingly frenetic, even for her. While the album focuses heavily on extravagance, she remains the only artist who can spit about xenophobia, feminism, refugees, and the exodus, and still weave it together to sound like a nonstop party.

Said the Whale - Hawaii9. Hawaiii – Said the Whale

In Hawaiii, Said the Whale creates a veritable musical grab bag. “More Than This” relies on little more than some piano chords and vocal harmonizing. “I Love You” sounds like a modern reimagining of “My Sharona.” “Resolutions” ends with a rapped outro (for some reason). Through it all, Said the Whale maintains its defining indie pop sweetness. Instead of feeling like a scattered mess, Said the Whale manages to be a rare specimen – a pop-friendly indie rock band that’s unafraid to take some wild swings for the hell of it.

Swearin' - Surfing Strange8. Surfing Strange – Swearin’

Surfing Strange is the best ’90s underground rock album of 2013. It’s a shame Swearin’ wasn’t around to open for Pavement at some NorCal dive back in the day. Allison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride swap lead vocal duties and lines of disenchantment over a bed of distorted dissonance without losing a sense of melodicism. It’s ugly and snarling in all the right ways.

Tancred - S/T7. S/T – Tancred

S/T isn’t just another album for Tancred – it’s a complete reinvention. While Jess Abbott’s first Tancred album, Capes, was pure hushed and minimal (to the point of being tiny) indie song craft, S/T is a lively pop rock record flush with exuberance. Songs like “The Ring” and “Indiana” surge with catchy energy and lyrics of soured relationships. Musical quantum leaps aren’t supposed to sound this smooth, effortless, and natural.

Wimps - Repeat6. Repeat – Wimps

Repeat is the adult-made, kick ass version of every awful adolescent punk album. You know the ones… when ragtag groups of misfits first pick up instruments and try to play, but the only material they have to write songs about is the relative trivialities of their day-to-day existence: Sleeping in, hating school, pizza, and staying forever young and vital. Wimps takes that formula, adds sharper musical skills, and applies it to adult parallels: Naps, hating work, the importance of not eating expired food, and growing old and getting boring. Thankfully, Rachel Ratner’s bratty singing and lyrics dripping with sarcastic wit prove that Repeat isn’t fully grown up.

Mansions Doom Loop5. Doom Loop – Mansions

From the opening aural bombardment of “Climbers,” Doom Loop unleashes a steady stream of fuzzy bass, overdriven guitar, and seething fury. Christopher Browder’s lyrics about unraveling relationships and communication breakdowns perfectly suit his voice, which can go from conveying withheld emotions to sonic fits of angst at the proverbial flip of a switch. While there are plenty of things Browder can bemoan, the quality of Doom Loop is certainly not one of them.

The Thermals - Desperate Ground4. Desperate Ground – The Thermals

After releasing 2010’s Personal Life, its kindest and most polished record, The Thermals got brutal and raw on Desperate Ground. The album is somewhat of a throwback – mixing the aggression and venom of The Body, the Blood, the Machine with the unhinged punk instrumental edge of More Parts Per Million. Hutch Harris lyrically hacks and slices his way through song after song about vicious killing (divinely ordained or otherwise) and bellows each of his impassioned creeds to the heavens.

Colleen Green - Sock It to Me3. Sock It to Me – Colleen Green

Colleen Green is bored and enamored. On Sock It to Me, she delivers bursts of sunny, smitten lo-fi rock with a blissfully stoned detachment. With little more than some bar chords and a drum machine, Green creates unbelievably catchy, upbeat ditties (“Only One,” “Number One,” etc.) and a couple deliciously dark, brooding tunes (“Sock It to Me” and “Close to You”). It’s daydream music for the smitten souls of summer.

Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt2. Cerulean Salt – Waxahatchee

Fragility does not beget weakness. Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt showcases delicate strength at its most emotionally cutting. There’s a sense of Southern sorrow at the root of many of Katie Crutchfield stripped down tunes, but she never feels crushed under their weight; instead opting for a steadfast resilience. She’ll find a way to leave gracefully… or she’ll escape.

Lorde - Pure Heroine1. Pure Heroine – Lorde

There’s a deep-seeded sense of isolation that permeates Lorde’s sterling debut LP Pure Heroine. The roots of the seclusion are multifaceted: Growing up in a remote locale (New Zealand), general teenage angst (being an actual teenager), and an element of musical separation. But Lorde’s outsider mentality pushes the pop paradigm forward. With layered snaps, claps, and her deep, dramatic voice, Lorde forges a new brand of minimalist electronic pop that, compared to the rest of the radio-friendly landscape, sounds jarringly sparse. And yet each of Pure Heroine’s isolationist anthems shines more than any of the overproduced status quo. As she defiantly proclaims on the album’s finale, “Let ‘em talk cause we’re dancing in this world alone.”

Top 10 Albums of 2012 Revisited

Now, Now - ThreadsAs is my yearly tradition prior to posting my top 10 albums list, I look back at my top album from the previous year and tweak it with things I missed or ended up growing on me. Looking back on 2012, there’s one album that was on the list that jumped a few spots, and new entrants barely knocked out the previous slot holders at the list’s bottom.

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. Celebration Rock – Japandroids
2. Negotiations – The Helio Sequenc
3. History Speaks – Deep Sea Diver
4. Threads – Now, Now
5. Fear Fun – Father John Misty
6. The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
7. Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
8. Touch Screens – Erik Blood
9. On the Impossible Past – The Menzingers
10. North – Stars

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. Celebration Rock – Japandroids
2. Threads – Now, Now
3. Negotiations – The Helio Sequence
4. History Speaks – Deep Sea Diver
5. Fear Fun – Father John Misty
6. The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
7. Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
8. We Don’t Even Live Here – P.O.S.
9. The Kaleidoscope – Lemolo
10. Visions – Grimes

Deck the Hall Ball 2013 Recap

By Iron Mike Savoia
Over at Seattle Met, I recapped 107.7 The End’s annual holiday radio showcase. This year’s lineup featured Lorde, The Head and the Heart, Phoenix, Vampire Weekend, CHVRCHES, and more. Check it out.

Fiendish Conversation with Decibel Festival Founder Sean Horton

Sean Decibel
Seattle’s electronic music extravaganza Decibel Festival celebrates it’s 10th anniversary this year. I talked with fest founder Sean Horton about the genre’s growth over the past decade. Check it out.

Suchness – We Are Loud Whispers

We Are Loud WhispersDistance is relative. Ten years ago, Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello released an album called Give Up that they made by sending tapes back and forth in the mail. This month that side project—the Postal Service—played live in the state of Washington for the first time in nine years, headlining the Sasquatch! Music Festival. So it seems appropriate that the best local album of the month was constructed in similar means. We Are Loud Whispers’ debut electropop album Suchness was assembled via email exchanges between Seattleite singer Sonya Westcott (Arthur & Yu) and Japanese musician Ayumu Haitani (4 Bonjour’s Parties), despite the pair not seeing each other in person since 2007. The result is a collection peaceful pop tunes that mixes feelings of intimacy and distance.

Stitched together over the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Suchness is one of the most laid back and inviting electopop albums out there. Haitani builds backing compositions made of electronic blips and beeps, bells, bursts of gentle guitar, while Westcott—who has always been a master of gently cooed vocals—delivers lines with a cheerful tone. The songs excel at transitioning from minimalist noise experiments to fully fleshed out, nearly orchestral soundscapes. Most of the tracks capture a relaxed, free-flowing vibe, but We Are Loud Whispers showcases the ability to go up-tempo on songs like the catchy “Modern World.” Fittingly, the Postal Service does play a role on Suchness, as Tamborello trades vocals with Westcott on the lovely “Glossolaia.”

While Suchness was composed on separate continents, it never seems impersonal. In a world that often feels overrun by the noise of modern technology, digital pen pals Westcott and Haitani have created an album to soothe the soul.

Review Score: 6.7

*Original version published on SeattleMet.com.*

Syn-Æsthetic – Vox Mod

Vox Mod -  SYN​-​ÆSTHETIC Machines make electronic music. It’s all combinations of ones and zeros. But that doesn’t mean the sound has to have the distant, calculated coldness of synth pioneers Gary Numan and Kraftwerk, or only appeal to the sweaty, energy drink–swilling hordes that flock to Skrillex. It can be warm and inviting, even when venturing into far-off space. On his latest album Syn-Æsthetic, Vox Mod (aka Scot Porter) delivers electronic music that feels alive instead of inhuman.

Syn-Æsthetic could double as the soundtrack to satellites soaring through the cosmos, with its collection of lush compositions—soft swells and high-pitched electro-chirping. It’s easy to get lost in a trance when listening to tracks like “Prismatic” and “Quenched Consciousness.” While Vox Mod can create stunning sonic universes on his own, the album’s diversity comes from the variety of guest performances by Seattle hip-hop and indie-rock artists. “Iridescent Asteroid Mists” has bite thanks to Palaceer Lazaro’s (aka Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces) gritty raps, while Rude Boutique offers up more introspective hip-hop poetry on “In the Temple Where I Found Self.” Anna Marie’s rhythmic chanting on “Particle” echos like a sci-fi hymn. Eighteen Individual Eyes’ Irene Barbaric transforming the staccato synth and throbbing bass of “Life Forms” into a dance pop jam with her sweet vocals. And the album’s closer, “Ecophony Infinitum,” gets a touch of smooth sensuality thanks to a performance by the album’s co-producer Erik Blood. The most distinctive contribution, however, comes on “Æon + Trevor.” The track includes a reflective spoken-word performance written by Porter from the perspective of Trevor Goodchild, a character from the cult animated sci-fi show Æon Flux, and it’s actually performed by Goodchild’s voiceover actor John Rafter Lee.

Budget cuts at NASA may mean we’re sending fewer people into space, but Syn-Æsthetic offers listeners a much cheaper alternative to get lost in the great beyond.

Review Score: 6.9

*Original version published on SeattleMet.com.*