Top 10 Albums of 2017

2017 AlbumsI wrote about my 10 favorite albums of the year over on Medium. Check it out.


Top 10 Songs of 2017

10. “Brave” – Jonathan Coulton

There’s no shortage of recent tunes about how people on the internet suck, but Jonathan Coulton stands out by wryly examining the issue in the first-person with “Brave.” From the perspective of a self-righteous online troll, he captures the pathetic swagger of men that think their anonymous little online flame wars are somehow noble excursions in modern bravery (“Counting up the lonely nights, all the little slights / I’m taking to my grave / When I torch the place, cover up my face / that will make me brave”). The tune’s psychology makes for a far more cutting and clever takedown of the culture than simple call-out songs, and the swift guitar melodies on the choruses provide an irresistible musical hook.

9. “Leaving LA” – Father John Misty

Do you get the joke yet? Do you get the “joke” of all of this? Over the course of 13 sprawling minutes, “Leaving LA” finds Father John Misty somewhat exasperatedly examining the own mythical musical figure he’s created, then stripping away the satire to find if there’s any substance. Over a few repeated chords and sparse string accompaniment, he lays out unvarnished lyrical sketches of fame, love, a traumatic childhood incident in a JCPenny, ambition, his lack of guitar prowess, and more, while not being afraid to gaze into the proverbial mirror (“Oh great, that’s just what we all need / another white guy in 2017 /  who takes himself so goddamn seriously”). When laid out together and looked at from a distance they form the persona that’s revered by many and loathed by many others. When examined up close, they just form another flawed human being. Get it?

8. “Smoke Signals” – Phoebe Bridgers

Serving as the haunting introduction to Stranger in the Alps, “Smoke Signals” quickly establishes everything a listener needs to know to be absolutely floored by Phoebe Bridgers. There’s the sincere yearning in her soft voice. There’s the songwriting deftness of detail (“One of your eyes is always half-shut, something happened when you were a kid”), the dexterity and cleverness that leads to using “Walden it” as a verb, and the ability to evoke melancholy through the personal and universal (including the deaths of Lemmy and Bowie). There’s the reserved musical backing that marries light guitar, string and electronic sonic specters fading in and out of the frame, and the gut punch of the chorus’ plodding bass line. “Smoke Signals” is the type of entrancing track that you can get lost in for a whole afternoon.

7. “Green Light” – Lorde

After the pop perfection of Pure Heroine, the pressure was squarely on Lorde. Rather than deliver more entrancing electro-pop, she decided to announce her return over with a piano-driven track. As the solid chords morph into a jaunty rhythmic bounce, “Green Light” opens its sonic ceiling and blossoms into a break-up dance party for the singer and all her best mates. She was just looking for that proverbial green light to move onto the next phase of her life, career, and sound. No need to wait for it any longer. It’s been found.

6. “Run for Cover” – The Killers

A sleek blend of Sam’s Town‘s Americana and Hot Fuss‘ headstrong bravado (almost grown-up cousin of that period’s stellar b-side, “Under the Gun”), “Run For Cover” manages to deliver panic with a swagger. Brandon Flowers excels with vocal performance that feels on the edge of bursting through during the verses before exploding in cathartic warning on the chorus. In case anyone forgot, peak The Killers can trade blows with any rock band on the planet.

5. “Mesa” – Cayetana

If there’s one thing that makes Cayetana’s New Kind of Normal stand out from the melodic indie punk pack, it’s Allegra Anka tremendous lead bass work. “Mesa” captures Anka’s playing at its bouncy, sugary, ear candy peak. The steadiness of Augusta Koch’s ever-repeating guitar chord progression and Kelly Olsen’s tight beats lay a foundation for each delightful bass outburst when the growled lyrics about doomed relationship plans take a pause.

4. “In Your Head” – Daddy Issues

Find a song with a better opening salvo than “Fuck you forever.” I dare ya. From that brilliantly blunt greeting, Daddy Issues crafts a grunge pop gem about the delusional imagined fantasies of a spurned ex-boyfriend. Over a steadfast wave of distorted guitar and bass, Jenna Moynihan coldly delivers line after line that cuts the legs out from underneath said dude’s dreams of her being constantly sorrowful, hating his new girlfriend, and forever pining for him (“Imagining me sad when you’re sad, makes you feel a little better”). There really can’t be enough middle fingers directed at toxic men in 2017, and “In Your Head” is a double-barreled salute.

3. “In Undertow” – Alvvays

You know how it’s fascinating when people put up isolated vocal tracks of classic songs? I’d love to listen to every single isolated track of “In Undertow” by Alvvays. Each layer of the song feels so detail rich: the softness of the opening keys, the sudden changes in background guitar rhythms, the dreamy sway of Molly Rankin’s vocals as the lyrics maturely examine a relationship post-break-up, the comparative harshness of the tone on the guitar solo, and so on. All the parts come together to create an ethereal soundscape that feels like a magical carousel ride. I just want to take a turn riding all of the horses.

2. “Glitter” – Charly Bliss

Bubble gum power pop doesn’t get much sweeter than “Glitter.” It’s damn near cavity-inducing. As Eva Hendricks sings about the friction in a relationship where both parties kind of treat each other horribly because of their extremely similar attention-craving personalities, the rest of the band continuously builds a musical tension that’s paid off in the euphoric outbursts each chorus (and for one guitar solo). The whole package feels like a devious fangs-out smile in the sunshine. (There’s also the part that I’m 99% sure the song is directly dragging one of the signature “Horrible Men of 2017.”)

1. “Tonight” – Dude York

Few things can be as frustrating as feeling like you’re hopelessly wasting your time and mental energy on someone. Dude York balls up all those emotions and turns them into pop rock bliss on “Tonight.” As Peter Richards intercuts chunky rhythm guitar with bursts of lead lines, Claire England’s bright yet biting vocals lay out the internal struggle of trying in vain to read such a situation (“The way you talk to me, makes me feel like just a friend”) before eventually getting fed up with all of it. After the prechorus’ dismissive line “Let’s wrap this up, there’s somewhere else I gotta be…”, the titular repeated one-word chorus feel like a anthemic release of all those pent up frustrations. Realizing that one can simply slough off this weighty mental burden, the second verse’s opening line–”Holy cow, the air feels so fucking good!”–rings with a life-giving relieved jubilation. Armed with Dude York’s precise pop sensibility, the tune bubbles with a sense of hope on the horizon. Better days can start tonight.

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.