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 2012

Stars - North10. Stars – The North

Compared to previous Stars records, The North is positively joyous. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s dual vocal attack remains as tight as ever, but there’s more hope in the words they’re singing. The instrumentals are also more upbeat with shimmering indie pop backings being boosted by deep groves. It’s a sweet collection of love songs that begs listeners to sway along.

Menzingers - Impossible Past9. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past

The Menzingers is the band I thought I was getting when people first started raving to me about The Gaslight Anthem. The music wonderfully blends an angry punk sound with lyrics the pine for the elusive American dream in a way that’s Springsteen-esque. On the Impossible Past fiercely kicks off with “Good Things,” one of the year’s best songs, and barrels full steam ahead from there.

Erik Blood - Touch Screens8. Erik Blood – Touch Screens

Touch Screens is the classiest, most polished filth of the year. Erik Blood’s ode to pornography mixes a variety of guitar-driven rock styles while (naughtily) touching on everything from porn star biographies (“The Lonesome Death of Henry Paris”) to selecting a daily dose of smut (“Today’s Lover”) to the complexities of porn actor’s relationships away from the job (“Share Your Love”). Each song is fine tuned with the deft production skills that have made made Blood one of the go-to producers in the Seattle scene. Touch Screens may leave you feeling dirty, but it’s too pleasurable to deny.

Sharon Van Etten - Tramp7. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

There’s beauty in stability. Sharon Van Etten wasn’t shy about letting her personal pain spill out on her first couple records, but Tramp finds her exploring music with a new sense of poise. It’s much more of a full rock record than her previous efforts and the fleshed out sound shines on songs like “Magic Chords” and “Warsaw.” While her words can pack an emotional, cutting punch (“Serpents”), its pleasant to see that Van Etten has found some personal peace of mind.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist6. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

After spending years of honing their craft and slowly building their brand, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis finally delivered their breakthrough record. Macklemore is equally deft at deft at delivering swagger (“Thrift Shop,” “Can’t Hold Us”) and vulnerable reflections (“Same Love,” “Neon Cathedral”) and Ryan Lewis’s sample-free compositions help The Heist have a feel that’s distinctly it’s own. When you add a host of terrific guest choruses (Allen Stone, Mary Lambert, and more) to that mix, the result is the most solidly diverse hip-hop album of the year.

Father John Misty - Fear Fun5. Father John Misty – Fear Fun

No one bombastically burst onto the scene in 2012 quite like Father John Misty did. Fear Fun is a wildly entertaining drug-fueled ride through L.A.’s underbelly in a manner that would’ve made Jim Morrison proud. Whether he’s dwelling on darkness (“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”), the tragic absurdity of art (“Now I’m Learning to Love the War”), or the chemical substances in his system (“I’m Writing a Novel”), FJM does so with a sly sense of humor and bravado. It’s a throwback rock album that revels in how silly the very idea of a throwback rock album is.

Now, Now - Threads4. Now, Now – Threads

With the aide of producer Chris Walla, Now, Now found its tonal sweet spot on Threads. Everything the band did well on previous records is distilled into an immensely accessible album full of superb vocal and guitar harmonies and unintrusive drum beats. And while the band still excels at slow jams (“School Friends,” ), it’s also great to hear the band unabashedly rock out for once (“Thread”).

Deep Sea Diver - History Speaks3. Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks

While Deep Sea Diver frontwoman Jessica Dobson served a stint as The Shins’ lead guitarist this year, her own band’s first LP History Speaks was clearly her crowning achievement in 2012. The album bursts with lively energy while blending melodically tight guitar rockers (“Ships,” “You Go Running”) and piano pop ballads (“NWO”). The entire package is crisp, clean, and undeniably hooky. One listen to History Speaks and you’ll be humming the melodies for days to come.

The Helio Sequence - Negotations2. The Helio Sequence – Negotiations

With each passing album, The Helio Sequence’s music has become more focused on atmosphere and flow. Drummer Benjamin Weikel’s synth backings now feature much more open sonic space and frontman Brandon Summers’s guitar work also no longer forces the issue. As a result, the band keeps getting better and better. Negotiations almost feels more like a single composition featuring a series of movements instead of a traditional rock record. No individual track reaches out and grabs you, rather they all welcome you warmly into their collective embrace.

Japandroids - Celebration Rock1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Celebration Rock got me back in the pit. While my body and age had kept me on the pit’s fringes for years, this record made my instinctively rush into the sweaty throng to thrash, bruise and scream along when Japandroids came to town. Every note on Celebration Rock pulsates with youthful electricity: every thundering drum beat, every massive split-signal guitar riff, every “woah-oh-oh-oh-oh” chorus — all of it. Japandroids elevated its game to a new level. It’s as if your favorite dumb punk two-piece band suddenly got arena rock ambitions while making a record and somehow nailed it.

Top 10 Songs of 2012

Even more so then previous years, it appears I was really into guitar rock in 2012. It’s not exactly a diverse list in that sense, but I can live with it.

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10. “Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten

While the solemn serenity of Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp gets better with each listen, the album lacks is the authentic sense of pain that was prevalent on her first two official records. The one exception to this comes in the form of “Serpents.” Van Etten’s signature angry sorrow comes through as she tremblingly snarls the line, “You enjoy sucking on dreams…” It’s a spine-shivering delivery. While it’s great that Van Etten has found a sense of personal peace, it’s terrific as a listener to hear her pent up venom momentarily seep thorough.

9. “Comeback Kid” – Sleigh Bells

Waves of huge guitar noise helped Sleigh Bells build buzz, but “Comeback Kid” is the band’s first real stab at melodicism. Backed with typically massive riff, the song maintains Sleigh Bells’ sense of chaos and noise while Alexis Krauss’s layered vocals cut through the shredding with an upbeat enthusiasm that makes the song by far the band’s most accessible track to date. It’s a rare high energy track that can be equally enjoyed in the offices of the Brooklyn music blogosphere and in football weight rooms across the country.

8. “Ships”– Deep Sea Diver

Before the day of Deep Sea Diver’s album release show, I hadn’t ever heard the band’s music. I rolled out of bed, checked Twitter, and saw that the band’s new album (History Speaks) was streaming on Bandcamp. On a whim, I clicked play on the first track – “Ships.” I was immediately hooked. The song showcased the best of the band: Jessica Dobson’s killer guitar work and vocals, terrific off-beat drumming (plenty of rim action here), and melody in spades. I quickly snagged a ticket to the release show, bought the album that night, and Deep Sea Diver eventually became my favorite Seattle band of the year. Not bad for a first listen.

7. “Thread” – Now, Now

Now, Now mainly sticks to finely crafted tunes that are relatively slow; borderline plodding. “Thread” unabashedly kicks things into a higher gear with a straight-forward rocker. Everything about the song is pitch perfect: Cacie Dalager and Jess Abbott’s vocal and guitar harmonies, the frenetic tempo, Chris Walla’s production, the jumbled clap beats in the post-chorus. Pulling a thread and watching it all unravel hasn’t been this enjoyable since Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song.”

6. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” – Father John Misty

I want Father John Misty to be my L.A. tour guide. I imagine he’d get a kick out of showing a bus full of tourists his version of the city, the one that exists on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” As the rhythmic guitar riff messily crashes about, FJM bellows the refrain of “Jesus Christ girl…” (or more accurately “Je-e-e-e-e-sus Christ girl…”) with a sense of desperation, exasperation, and a hint of condescension. All the while, his tongue is planted so firmly in his cheek that one might worry that it’ll bore a hole in his pretty little preening face. What a delightful way to play in the dark. Continue reading

Top 10 Songs of 2010

Songs. 2010 had a lot of them. Here are the 10 best, along a pithy reason as to why it’s on the list.

10. “Fuck You” – Cee-Lo You

Why it’s here: For the simple fact that any list without it would seem incomplete.

It’s shock value gimmickry prevents it from ranking higher, but on the strength of the musical orchestration alone it had to be here.

9. “Her Words Destroyed My Planet” – Motion City Soundtrack

Why it’s here: The combo of the guitar line and the effect used on the screams during the interlude lead.

Whatever producer Mark Hoppus did, the result is best single sound of the year.

8. “I Don’t Believe You” – The Thermals

Why it’s here: Bratty brilliance.

Heck, the song doesn’t even really fit with the other tracks on Personal Life, but it’s so snotty and brash that it doesn’t matter.

7. “You Wouldn’t Have to Ask” – Bad Books

Why it’s here: One word – Efficiency.

1:53 is all this slice of of flawless pop rock needs.

6. “Fragments” – Rocky Votolato

Why it’s here: Simple deconstructionism.

Votolato’s song about the troubled pieces that make up the mind is layered with luscious detail, but strip that all away and the core of Rocky’s voice and guitar is all that’s really needed to connect emotionally.

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Top 10 Albums of 2010

2010 turned out to be an incredibly solid year for music. What the year may have lacked in terms of a blow-you-away album or two (like 2009’s Hospice by The Antlers), it made up for with the depth of quality albums, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 2006. It made it a tough year to sort out which 10 albums reigned supreme (or what order those 10 would rank), but here’s the list…


10. The Game of Monogamy – Tim Kasher

On his first solo effort, Kasher finds the most accessible sound to date while still thoroughly wallowing in his signature level of despair. His musings on matrimony range are all emotionally crushing, but the music backing it ranges from the peppy and clap-happy “I’m Afraid I’m Gonna Die Here” to sparseness of softly plucked guitar on “The Prodigal Husband.” The Game of Monogamy is the feel bad album of the year, but it’s so finely crafted that it entices listeners to come back for more lyrical suffering.


9. Personal Life – The Thermals

Personal Life is downright mushy. Except for the blissfully snotty “I Don’t Believe You,” The Thermals put their rabblerousing ways on this album in favor of pining deeply for love. Thanks in large part to Kathy Foster laying down 2010’s best collection of bass groves, the swooning succeeds. Personal Life is that warm fuzzy feeling you got around your first crush pressed onto an LP.


8. White Crosses – Against Me!

With White Crosses, Against Me! continued the sonic shift from rawer punk to bigger rock without abandoning their scrappy spirit. From the vile filled boot-stomper “White Crosses” to the tender pain of “Ache With Me,” Tom Gabel proved why he’s one of the best songwriters around. Even the song where they break-up with their anarchist punk past, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” featured a chorus that ringed with universal anthemic appeal. Against Me! have their eyes to the future and will smash all that stand in their way.


7. My Dinosaur Life – Motion City Soundtrack

My Dinosaur Life lays out the blueprint for aging gracefully in pop punk. The album buzzes with a youthful energy on songs like “Worker Bee” and “Hysteria” without seeming kiddie in the least. Tracks like “@!#?@!” find Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre doing what he does best – pop culture saturated lyrics back by catchy hooks. My Dinosaur Life proves MCS isn’t anywhere near extinction yet.


6. Where the Messengers Meet – Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band

Where the Messengers Meet is a complete departure from Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band’s terrific self-titled debut album, but the band doesn’t miss a beat despite the stylistic change. The music slowly bubbles up as if from some unknown bayou on the outskirts of Seattle. On tracks like “In A Hole” the cavernous echoes and Benjamin Verdoes understated wail call to mind Thome Yorke, while “Leaving Trails” showcases Marshall Verdoes’ and his bandmates’ terrific knack for distinctive rhythms. In just two years, Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band have already released two albums which place the group at the musical pinnacle of under the radar indie.

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Best of 2008 – Albums

theheavenlystates-delayer-cover-hires-correct

1. Delayer – The Heavenly States
2. Everything Is Borrowed – The Streets
3. Natural Selection -1090 Club
4. Day and Age – The Killers
5. Walk It Off – Tapes ‘n Tapes
6. Narrow Stairs – Death Cab For Cutie
7. Stay Positive – The Hold Steady
8. Visiter – The Dodos
9. Flight of the Conchords – Flight of the Conchords
10. Rabbit Habits – Man Man

Full reviews to come and be linked in the coming weeks…

Best of 2008 – Songs

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1. “Stay Positive” – The Hold Steady

From the Arcade Fire school of depressing songs that sound like joyous hymns comes this year’s best song, “Stay Positive”. As Craig Finn’s lyrics rumble over an organ drenched soundscape with muted power chords, the listener is presented with a somewhat bleak picture of a dying scene. But when the chorus kicks in there is full on euphoria. It’s rather difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes this song so great, but I can’t get it out of my head and I don’t mind. I guess that says enough.

2. “Don’t Trust Me” – 3OH!3

Look, I know that it’s not hip to like this song. I know that it’s target audience is 14-year old fake scenester girls. But it’s so good that I don’t care, and you shouldn’t either. Yes it’s ridiculous, but it’s also ridiculously catchy. I can’t not dance and clap along every time I hear it. With pulsating beats and deceptively clever lyrics, this is the anthem for your 2008 dance party. Plus who can argue with a lyric as brilliantly absurd as “Shush girl, shut your lips. Do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips.”? No one. At least no one I want at my party.

3. “After Hours” – We Are Scientists

While We Are Scientists’ Brain Thrust Mastery might be the most disappointing album of 2008, the album’s first single, “After Hours”, is golden. An ode to nights on the town, the songs simple rhythm guitar part fits perfectly with the quick high open E-string lick. The does the time honored trick of constantly growing to crescendos with ease. It also stays with the We Are Scientist formula of no part of the arrangement (guitar, bass, drums) doing a similar thing, while adding a slew off small detail sounds by a wide range of instruments to the background. Overall, it’s just the perfect nightcap for anyone lit more by artificial glow than sunlight.

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