I go back and forth on whether time passes too slowly or too quickly, but either way, I’m surprised every year when it’s time to make another list. It’s always nice to go back and revisit albums that came out earlier in the year; the memories they evoke are a nice gauge of how good or bad the year was. Merry Christmas to everyone on Sputnik, and I hope you all have positive memories when you make your own lists.
25. Childish Gambino – Camp
Community has become one of my favorite television shows ever, and that’s the only reason that I listened to this album. I didn’t listen to Watch the Throne or Goblin or undun or really any other hip-hop album that came out this year. I just haven’t really been in the mood. But I’m glad that I listened to Camp, because it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable listens of the year. It’s catchy but that’s not really it. A lot of people have criticized Donald Glover for his lyrics, and I’m certainly willing to concede that some of them are pretty bad, but this is probably the album that made me listen most attentively this year. By the end of my first listen, I really felt like I’d been on a journey, like I’d gotten to know Glover a little bit. There’s a lot of confusion on Camp – most of the record seems to be predicated on Glover anticipating criticism and responding to it beforehand – but it’s endearing to me. I like hip-hop that’s a little unsure of itself. Sometimes he doesn’t know whether to snarl or smile and he does something that falls in between; life, I suppose, is never precise.
24. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
Bob Dylan + fuzz = awesome rock music.
There’s a running joke about Adele’s music only appealing to lonely cat ladies. While her songs can be pretty sad, what’s even more sad is that even though Adele is clearly not ashamed of her plus-size physique, all of her promotional photos and album covers are essentially close-ups of her face, with maybe one of her hands thrown in for good measure. It gives me a slightly uneasy feeling, because listening to 21 is such a draining experience. Her voice rips me to the core, it exposes everything, it reveals pure distillations of feelings. There is no hiding, no artful close-up meant to cover up something undesirable. She’s got one of the most honest voices I’ve ever heard, and I wish the culture that surrounded her would take some notes.
22. *shels – Plains of the Purple Buffalo
It’s a shame that it took *shels so long to finish this album; if it had come out closer to Sea of the Dying Dhow, they might be a lot bigger than they are right now. As it is, it seems like the few people who knew about them back then largely forgot about them by the time this record was released, and those that did listen to it stopped talking about it fairly quickly. That’s okay though. The album’s immense sound speaks for itself.
21. Andrew Jackson Jihad – Knife Man
Part of me really wanted to find Knife Man super annoying. Another part of me knows it’s super annoying. But there is a part of me larger than those that never wants me to utter any words ever again if they don’t come from this fucking album.
20. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
I used to listen to Bright Eyes a lot. Nowadays though, The People’s Key is really the only album that appeals to me. It seems like it’s the only Bright Eyes album where Conor Oberst isn’t channeling someone else, where there are actually unique musical ideas present instead of blunt force emotion. And it’s the only Bright Eyes album without awful samples. Let “One for You, One for Me” play until the end, and the last word you’ll hear is “mercy,” given to the speaker by someone in the crowd – a perfectly simple representation of everything that Oberst has been trying to illustrate for years.
19. Chuck Ragan – Covering Ground
Hot Water Music’s new album is probably not going to be all that great if the songs released so far are any indication, but at least we can count on Chuck to release the most solid of solo albums every two years or so.
I’m not even gonna fuckin’ try.
17. Eisley – The Valley
“I want to feel like I feel like I’m asleep,” is something I’ve never been able to articulate but always felt.
15. The Decemberists – The King is Dead
I had to double check that this album came out in 2011, because it seems like I’ve been listening to it for a really long time. Maybe it’s just because I only listened to The Hazards of Love for like a month before I forgot about it. This is very much a summer record, which is weird because it came out in the winter, and also I listened to it the other day when it was very cold and I got so nostalgic that it almost made me sick. What I’m saying is that it’s great for any time.
14. Mastodon – The Hunter
“It’s just the curl of the burl; that’s just the way of the world.”
13. The Dear Hunter – The Color Spectrum (Complete Collection)
Will The Dear Hunter have any creativity left over after this project? Who cares! Their linked concept albums have never really been worth caring about, so I’ll just listen to Green in the summer and gaze in wonder at the trees! and the leaves! and the sun! and I’ll be annoying everyone around me but I’ll just be so damn happy!
12. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math
A lot of Simple Math really isn’t all that simple. In fact, most of it is pretty damn overcomplicated. Mostly there is too much orchestration, to the point of being saccharine when it should be ominous. The album lacks the subtle beauty that made songs like “I Can Feel a Hot One” and “Tony the Tiger” classics, but I’ll be damned if the skeletons of these songs aren’t just as great. It’s just a little hard to hear it sometimes over the violins and child choirs. Generally I just let the mood that “Deer” sets dictate the rest of the album, and if I have to let my own voice reveal the human element to these songs, then so be it.
11. Pulling Teeth – Funerary
Nothing much to say here. Pulling Teeth’s music becomes bleaker and better with every release.
10. Protest the Hero – Scurrilous
Protest the Hero ditch the concept albums and focus all their energy on some of the catchiest metal songs I’ve ever heard.
9. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
John Darnielle is basically the greatest human alive. He is more beautiful than you and everyone you know, and he is more metal as well.
8. Thrice – Major/Minor
Thrice aren’t my favorite band anymore, but it’s always such a pleasure to sit down and listen to their new record for the first time. That about says it all.
Patrick Wolf’s always been a pop artist, and certainly he’s always been an unabashed person in general, but Lupercalia is really his first unabashed pop album. It’s very refreshing to hear a record full of love songs from someone who doesn’t get huge radio airplay, because lord knows the indie audience will take heartbreak over love any day. But the sheer force of these songs will win over just about anybody, and if you need more depth, there’s always his back catalog.
Even now at the end of the year, it’s still a little hard to say what makes Vacation so different from other Bomb records. Really, it brings most of the same things to the table – volume, energy, honesty – but in different ways. It doesn’t hit hard at first, but over time it packs more of a wallop than anything else he’s ever written. I guess it means he’s growing. Sometimes I wish he would just scream “We’re fucking the world!” again, but then I hear the end of “Felt Just Like Vacation,” and everything is just fine.
5. Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials
Glee is so unbelievably fucking terrible now, but at least I discovered Florence and the Machine because of it. My first listen of Ceremonials was an experience of pure joy. I was filled with such a weird happiness. I don’t know, it was just nice to hear Florence exceed the potential of her debut by such a great distance. There’s really no reason to listen to Lungs anymore. “Shake It Out” alone can make you experience every single thing that the entirety of Lungs would, and it can make you dance to boot.
4. WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Music journalists speak often of “the moment,” referring generally to a section of a song that makes them realize the greatness of an album. I spent a long time trying to pinpoint what that would be for Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, but I kept getting too drawn into the music. I like Wu Lyf; I’m very interested to see what they do with their career. I like their mystique, I like that they don’t face the camera in their promo shots, I like that they seem like a thousand nameless ideas transposed into sound instead of a group of people. You can’t understand the words, so you’re sort of forced to subconsciously listen with a different part of your brain, the part reserved more for feeling than listening. I had originally thought that this album would place a lot lower on this list, but then I realized that there’s absolutely nothing about this album I dislike. And I suppose that right there is the answer: this album is one moment that lasts for forty-five minutes.
A few weeks ago I was listening to “King Park” in my car very loudly, and for whatever reason, it hit me particularly hard even though I’d heard it many times before. I became deeply engrossed in the story, envisioning everything that Jordan Dreyer was describing, to the point where I felt like I was also in a dream. During the last minute of the song, I started to feel my breath catch short and I was actually almost brought to tears. And although I had already loved the album and given it a very positive review, that was when it hit me – this is powerful stuff. La Dispute tapped into something with this album. I’ve no idea what it is and I’m not sure I want to, because so much of it is dark, gray, and hopeless, but real enough to touch as well. The last line of King Park sums up the extreme creative leap that La Dispute made with this album – “I don’t want to know how it ends.” That’s the difference between Wildlife and Somewhere at the Bottom… – the knowledge that sometimes no great understanding or wisdom comes from loss and love, the knowledge that sometimes things happen and there is no reason for them. Sometimes there is only the continual search for clarity that refines itself with every fleeting experience.
2. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
Frank Turner is the greatest artist alive who has never written a classic album. There is always some frustrating misstep on his albums. Sometimes they’re small (“Love Worth Keeping” from Love Ire & Song), and other times they’re huge (half of Poetry of the Deed), but either way, they’re always there. If it weren’t for the awful, a capella “English Curse,” England Keep My Bones would be the best album of the year and an undeniable classic. But Frank is seemingly never able to stop short of kitsch. It drives me insane. But it’s a testament to just how perfect the rest of the album is that England is still the second best album of the year. With only one listen, “I Am Disappeared” was cemented as Frank’s best song, and one of the best songs ever, seriously. “I keep having dreams of things I need to do, and of waking up and not following through, and it feels like I haven’t slept at all.” Amazing.
I’d be hard-pressed to find a musical descriptor that I hate more than the word “cute.” There is a condescending nature to the word that is unavoidable. Then again, Sit Resist exceeds just about any word you could use to describe it anyway, but there is just so much more to this album than quirkiness and accordions. Laura says it best in “I See Dark” when she sings, “I see dark and I cannot write it.” Underneath every song, darkness pervades, lapping at the walls and threatening to break through, and there is sometimes a sense that Laura is tired of fighting it, about to give up, and it is that desperation that elevates Sit Resist to the best album of the year. Female-fronted indie can be more than something that “reminds me of Regina Spektor” or “is so quirky and cute.” It can be more than innocuous and benign; it can spread hints of darkness into the best of moods because, as Melville would say, it’s impossible to really feel and appreciate something unless you feel a little bit of its opposite as well.