Top 10 Albums of 2016

2016_Albums_xkhyfrInstead of posting it on Long Live the Album this year, I posted it over at Seattle Met. Go read it, maybe?


Top 10 Albums of 2015 Revisited

julien-baker-sprained-anklePer tradition, here’s a look back at last year’s top albums list before getting the the 2016 edition. This time really illustrates why I do this. I totally missed my favorite 2015 record in 2015. Cause I’m a dummy.

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2015

1. Beat the Champ – The Mountain Goats
2. Art Angels – Grimes
3. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
4. Policy – Will Butler
5. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney
6. Before the World Was Big – Girlpool
7. Foil Deer – Speedy Ortiz
8. Feels Like – Bully
9. Women’s Rights – Childbirth
10. Kintsugi – Death Cab for Cutie

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2015

1. Sprained Ankle – Julien Baker
2. Beat the Champ – The Mountain Goats
3. Art Angels – Grimes
4. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
5. Policy – Will Butler
6. Feels Like – Bully
7. Before the World Was Big – Girlpool
8. Foil Deer – Speedy Ortiz
9. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney
10. Women’s Rights – Childbirth

Top 10 Seattle Albums of 2016

2016_Seattle_Albums_wmyhyeMade a list of the best local records of the year over at Seattle Met. Check it out.

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.

Top 10 Songs of 2015

10. “A New Wave” – Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney loaded its superb return album No Cities to Love with sonic rallying cries, and “A New Wave” is the most immediately gripping of the bunch. As Janet Weiss provides a typically tremendous propulsive rhythm, Carrie Brownstein spits each lyric in the verses with an attention-demanding sharpness. Just try not to ride the wave of empowering positivity with a balled fist raised high and pumping to the beat when the group chorus arrives.

9. “Deeper Than Love” – Colleen Green

While known for her pop punk aesthetic, Colleen Green is at her best when she lets tunes slow burn in the dark. On “Deeper Than Love,” she ruminates on her natural inclinations to avoid meaningful connections and love while wall of hauntingly fuzzed out bass sets the mood. She delivers lines like “And that possibility worries me the most / not harm or abuse or becoming a ghost / It’s the closeness, the intimacy / I’m afraid it might kill me” with a blunt calmness that’s as chilled as it is alluring.

8. “Turn Around ” – Mikal Cronin

After an opening crash of sound, stirring strings instantly lift Mikal Cronin’s “Turn Around” (from MCIII) to a soaring among the clouds pop level. The piano’s repeated lead line marries flawlessly to the forward-pushing force of the rhythm guitar, as Cronin sings earnestly about being in love and (more importantly) living in the moment.

7. “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” – Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie’s best single since Plans explores what happens when a relationship ends in metaphorical car crash. Ben Gibbard lyrically goes the the pain of pulling out all the cutting shards of glass out of his face, deals with the visual scars they leave, attempts to move past the haunting memories of the ghost of the passenger that once rode shotgun, and tries to get over the skittishness in order to return to the driver’s seat and take another ride.  The start-and-stop rhythmic guitar riff provides ample fuel to get the vehicle moving at a brisk pace, and once on the road there’s no point of glancing in the rear view mirror to look back.

6. “The Graduates” – Speedy Ortiz

Foil Deer found Speedy Ortiz playing around with its most stylistically diverse sonic palate to date, and “The Graduates” serves as the purest pop song in the bunch (granted, by comparative measure). Against a backdrop of the band’s clangy guitar riffs, Sadie Dupuis uses her always clever lyricism to craft a surprisingly  sweet song about falling in love as a misfit.

5. “Bound 2 Glory” – iji

Are there too many songs? Probably. Iji’s “Bound 2 Glory” weaves a picture of musical saturation over a buoyantly bouncy indie rock chords. And while Zach Burba posits “Does the world need songs? More regular songs? Stacks and stack and piles of songs? That’s millions upon millions upon millions of songs? Probably not,” the song’s philosophical conclusion is anything but cynical reflection. Making music is a crazy endeavor, but “Bound 2 Glory” captures the spirit hopefulness and unity that musical creation can foster. When Burba repeatedly sings “I’ve got your back” to put a bow on things, you believe him.

4. “Maggot” – Slutever

Embrace the filth. Slutever’s pissed off ode to living bug-infesting uncleanliness is grimy and grungy in all the best ways. Nicole Snyder’s dirty droning vocals in the verse give way to the hookiest chorus ever about insecticide. Kurt Cobain would’ve been jealous early Nirvana didn’t write this one.

3. “King Kunta” – Kendrick Lamar

There are certainly more important, more artistically substantive songs on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but none of them come close to touching the unmitigated swagger of “King Kunta.” With the relatively stripped down feel of a killer beat and hypnotic guitar line, Lamar does the heavily lifting impassionately preaching a gospel of confidence, struggle, and his rise to the top of the hip-hop world.

2. “Trying” – Bully

Bully’s Alicia Bognanno burst onto the scene this year with the screeching howl of hello in the form of “Tying.” As the band expertly balances rock melody and edginess, her yelped words of fierce self-doubt and the self-aware reflection about the struggle to overcome it rings universally true. It’s rough around the edges in the best way possible.

1. “Flesh Without Blood” – Grimes

At it’s core, “Flesh Without Blood” is the same three notes repeated for nearly 4 1/2 minutes. What Grimes manages to build upon that simplistic structure showcases her pure genius. Each production layer she adds works brilliantly: her dramatic pixie queen vocals, scattered booming claps, reverb swells, momentary shifts in guitar tone,  digital whip cracks, and  jerky percussion flairs. It’s a hyper-kinetic whirlwind of pop perfection that loses none of its freshness or vibrancy even after hundreds of listens.

Top 10 Albums of 2014 Revisited

Run the Jewels 2
Per tradition, here’s a look back at last year’s top albums list before getting the the 2015 edition. There are a few minor tweaks in order after 12 more months of listening. This time around the top 5 remains the same with only a bit of reshuffling and a couple replacement entries at the bottom.

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2014

1. Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
3. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
4. Burn Your Fire for No Witness – Angel Olsen
5. NVM – TacocaT
6. Hour of the Dawn – La Sera
7. Dehumanize – Dude York
8. Cool Choices – S
9. Youth Culture Forever – PAWS
10. Soft Opening – Posse

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2014

1. Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
3. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
4. Burn Your Fire for No Witness – Angel Olsen
5. NVM – TacocaT
6. Youth Culture Forever – PAWS
7. Cool Choices – S
8. Hour of the Dawn – La Sera
9. Run The Jewels 2 – Run the Jewels
10. Nikki Nack – Tune-Yards

Top 10 Albums of 2014

Before we launch into the list, I’m going to take a moment reiterate some points (somewhat verbatim) that I made about year end lists when writing about my 10 favorite Seattle albums of the year over at Seattle Met. I’ve seen a lot of chatter recently decrying the very concept of ranking artistic endeavors as a year winds down. The main ideas behind this stance seems to be twofold:

1. “Art isn’t supposed to be a competition.”

That’s true, but one has to have a pretty warped and jaded to view to see lists like this as any sort of competition. A list is simply a way to say, “Look at all the awesome stuff that came out this year. Check out what you may have missed.” I take ranking to be merely a way of saying, “If you have limited amount of time, I’d say check out #1 first, #2 second…” and so on. People usually spend more time complaining about what isn’t on a list then thinking about what made any given countdown. Viewed them celebrations of things that provided some moments of joy rather than tools of derision.

2. “There’s no objective way to rank what’s the best.”

Duh. All year end lists are based on personal (or group editorial) preferences and biases. For example, the list below is entirely comprised of rock music. That’s weird, but that’s just how it shook out this year. I wasn’t drawn to any traditional pop, hip-hop, electronic, or other genre records enough for them to make the cut in 2014 (Lorde and Caribou have topped recent year end lists, so I clearly have no bias against any of it). And that’s totally fine. It’s all objective. It’s always objective.

Posse - Soft Opening10. Soft Opening – Posse
Posse’s throwback slacker indie rock vibe calls to mind some of the best of the ’90s bands, but it feels like the band’s simply kicking dirt on the outskirts of those forefathers’ property rather than looking to move in. The relaxed instrumental worlds the band creates seem so effortlessly natural, which offers the perfect backdrop whenever Paul Witmann-Todd interjects with another detached, snarky lyrical line on tracks like “Shut Up” and “Zone.” Soft Opening is music that’s artfully laissez-faire.

S - Cool Choices9. Cool Choices – S
Cool Choices is the breakup album of the year by a mile. From the lip-quivering opening notes of “Losers” to the finale’s (“Let the Light In”) blunt declaration “This was how I thought I’d get over you / I’d write it all down like it makes this true / Let go of the things that you said to me / And now in the end we can feel so free,” S (aka Jenn Ghetto) explores all the lowest moments in the aftermath of a love gone sour. In order to get over it, Ghetto’s got to let out all the pain. Cool Choices is catharsis in action.

PAWS - Youth Culture Forever8. Youth Culture Forever – PAWS
On Youth Culture Forever, PAWS connects with the spirit of youth while dealing with the reality of no longer being a kid. It’s about the making it through rough patches of growing up without growing old in soul. Whether it’s decrying the false pretense of cool apathy in a snarling burst of punk (“Give Up”) or reflecting on the melancholic feelings of returning to your hometown over distant, weakly gripped chords (“YCF”), the album hashes out those universal moments of old friends, old flames, and the old bullshit they bring to the table.

Dude York - Dehumanize7. Dehumanize – Dude York
Charmingly bratty is a difficult persona to pull off, but Dude York makes it look easy on Dehumanize. With manic energy and a strong melodic sensibility the band rips through songs of love (“Hesitate”), disenchantment (“Dehumanize Yourself and Face To Bloodshed”), and nihilism (“Believer”) behind Peter Richards’s berserk vocals and guitar and Andrew Hall’s deftly rapid fire beats and fills (my favorite drumming performance of the year). The album captures a delightfully foolhardy sense of passion that begs for a little thrashing.

La Sera - Hour of the Dawn6. Hour of the Dawn – La Sera
La Sera’s Katy Goodman dreams of eternal summer, but inevitably the season fades. Hour of the Dawn finds La Sera floating though a sea of warm and dreamy surf pop musings centered around the freedom, love, and decay of summer. After the blistering vitriol on the opening track “Losing to the Dark,” the band settles into a carefree groove with a touch of shredding guitar edge. There’s joy to be found by bathing in the sunshine of songs like “Running Wild” and even “Hour of the Dawn” despite its lament, “Summertime was the time of my life / Now it’s the hour of the dawn.” Don’t worry Katy, much like anyone who gives this album a listen, it’ll return.

TacocaT - NVM5. NVM – TacocaT
NVM is quite simply the funnest album that came out in 2014 than NVM. TacocaT excels at crafting silly sugary pop punk tunes out of just about any topic, from drug-fueled birthdays (“Psychedelic Quinceanera”) to menstruation woes (“Crimson Wave”) to anarchist roommates (“This is Anarchy”) to Seattle being unable to handle inclement weather (“Snow Day”). The most serious the band gets on NVM comes in the form of the audio middle finger to catcallers that is “Hey Girl,” but the rest of the time the singer Emily Nokes is more content to let her anger and tambourine banging loose on things like the bus not showing up (“FU #8”). Rocking out to stoner pop has never felt so sweet.

jag246.111834. Burn Your Fire for No Witness – Angel Olsen
While it spends most of the time softly brooding, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is without a doubt the most brutal record of the year. Angel Olsen’s haunting voice and knife-twisting songwriting make each a song a gut-wrenchingly beautiful exercise in the cruelty of love. With unshakeable songs like “White Fire,” Burn Your Fire for No Witness makes the listener feel like a slow burning candle – each passing moment they melt even further until there’s nothing left and the flame extinguishes.

Sharon Van Etten - Are We There3. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
When was the last time Sharon Van Etten wrote a song that wasn’t—at the absolute least—very good? That’s not a rhetorical question. Van Etten is a model of heart-wrenching songwriting consistency, and Are We There is another worthy entry in her impressive songbook. She struts through each track with a vet’s swagger, nailing each song’s necessary demeanor: Cooly confident on “Taking Chances, emotionally masochistic on “Your Love is Killing Me,” and breezily whimsical on “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” Even when the songs are bummers, there’s undeniable bliss in listening to a master continue to perfect her craft.

St.Vincent - St. Vincent2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
With each passing record, St. Vincent is getting slightly stranger (and slightly better). St. Vincent finds Annie Clark effortlessly gliding between electronic funk of “Rattlesnake,” angular guitar riff driven tunes like “Birth in Reverse,” the horn-heavy “Digital Witness,” and spacey ethereal odes like “Prince Johnny” and “Severed Crossed Fingers.” Her (non-severed) fingers remain ever skilled on the fretboard as she delivers her takes on the monotony of our mundane modern existence (being out on the road with David Byrne for a couple of years will do that to you). I always like to joke that Clark is a higher life form than us humans, but—considering St. Vincent is her most complete and cohesive record in an already sterling catalog—it might just actually be the truth.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues1. Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
If punk rock is supposed to give a voice to the brash, rebellious, maligned, and disenfranchised though unfettered aggression, then Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues might just be the most punk album ever. The record serves as Laura Jane Grace’s screamed declaration of arrival as an open and out transgender woman. Over the course of 10 unrelenting tracks, she says” “Here’s who I am, here are the insecurities I’ve dealt with all my life, and I’m gonna kick in the teeth of any bigot who get in my way.” Against Me! turns deeply personal explorations of transgender issue into catchy, anthemic sing-alongs and capture the heartbreaking anguish of being a true outsider.