The Top 20 Albums of 2017

Music is the best. Nothing that happened this year could change that. For every stress-inducing headline, there was a soothing melody. For every messy situation, there were 16 perfectly constructed bars. Every time we wanted to scream, a great metal song provided an outlet. Here are just 20 of the recordings that made life easier for me this year. The next time you can’t believe what you’re hearing, start listening.

20. Nick Hakim – Green Twins

Nick Hakim approaches his brand of earnest R&B like a master restauranteur, valuing the ambiance as much as the meal. On his debut LP, the gifted Brooklynite refuses to just point and say “isn’t this catchy?” It’s seductive. At first listen, the reverberating piano chords of “Needy Bees” are merely soothing; by listen five, they’re inescapably beautiful, supporting every twist and turn of the melody. As a songwriter, Hakim is refreshingly astonished by things like love, and dreams, and pregnancy. He attains poignancy through simple language, including one of the most romantic sentiments of the year: “If there’s a god / I wonder what she looks like / I bet she looks like you.”

19. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

As a legend of the Scandinavian black metal scene, Kristoffer Rygg understands the mechanics of slow-building soundscapes and folkloric songwriting. And on his 11th album fronting the shapeshifting outfit Ulver, Rygg applies these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it works. Over the nine-plus minute expanse of “Rolling Stone,” the band rides a throaty synth riff until we’re in its thrall. And on “Nemoralia,” Rygg goes full Depeche Mode, his voice floating over hauntingly catchy synths, connecting the pagan feast of the goddess Diana to the tragic demise of the princess of the same name. Obsessed with ancient history and aglow with gloomy beauty, this is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.

18. CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch

This Chicago rapper first garnered attention in 2015 with exuberant, X-rated club tracks like “Deep Throat.” But her music is as much about tension as it is about release. Her second mixtape, Queen Elizabitch, is full of empowering, sex-positive summer jams – she’s got clever genitalia metaphors for days. But these moments are complemented by darker tales pulled from the artist’s childhood, when she spent years living in homeless shelters. After hearing her spit fire about having to share clothes with friends or watch rats run over her mother’s feet, the calendar-exploding swagger of “33rd” and the horn-fueled sex-work anthem “Barcodes” become more than tracks to dance to. They’re states of mind to aspire to.

17. Drake – More Life

Ever the savvy brand manager, Drake decided to follow up his massively successful 2016 by pursuing a little less market saturation. More Life isn’t exactly a “playlist,” as its cover proclaims. But it is a gorgeously sequenced, decidedly low-stakes affair. The Toronto rapper steps down from his chilly CN Tower perch and ups the Celsius levels with forays into pulsing dancehall, UK grime and Atlanta trap. A lengthy guest list promotes the party atmosphere – Young Thug, Quavo and Skepta are given all the bars they need to steal the show. And whether he’s reflecting on pre-fame Applebees runs or picking through the ruins of a relationship, our headliner sounds more comfortable on the mic than he has in years.

16. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness

When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacks feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.

15. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two

The first line on this L.A. rapper’s second album isn’t your typical hip hop boast – “You never seen a man so calm in your life.” Released after the artist announced a break from touring due to his struggles with alcohol, Rap Album Two makes good on that initial claim in low-key, redemptive fashion. Jonwayne is a steady, comforting force as a rapper, his reflective bars gelling with serene, meditative loops. As he pours his heart out about his demons, and how he fears his art will suffer without them, the quiet understanding in his voice makes it obvious it’s not an act. “I need to slow down / But I need a good friend to come and tell me how,” he raps. It takes a significant amount of calm to admit that on wax.

14. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe

This Australian psychedelic rock septet went on a studio bender in 2017, releasing five full-length albums and showing no signs of letting up. All are worthwhile listens, but Murder of the Universe is the crown jewel – a breathless fusion of propulsive riffs and sci-fi fever dreams that reminds us how fun a concept album can be. As spoken-word narration guides us through tales of human/beast mind-melds, balrog fights and cyborgs who would give anything to understand how it feels to vomit, the Gizzard’s relentless dual-drummer attack feels capable of carrying us anywhere – even to the end of it all.

13. SZA – Ctrl

SZA songs are the sonic embodiment of the phrase “hopeless romantic.” On her striking debut album, she cuts to the quick of how it feels to get cheated on: “I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me,” she sings to a philandering ex, mourning the self-confidence that could have been. The production is intimate, with little reverb added to contemplative guitar figures and raw, one-take vocals. But there’s a reason this record is called Ctrl. SZA is not wallowing here. She’s settling scores via slow jam, directly confronting assholes by exposing how they’ve hurt her. All while refusing to lose faith in love.

12. Brockhampton – Saturation II

This summer, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up two mixtapes with enough personality and adrenaline to distract the grumpiest pessimist. The first was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power. On the second, they start wielding their magic. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision: rappers getting shit off their chests over party-ready golden-age beats. It’s compulsively listenable music, full of instantly memorable choruses and effective, cathartic verses. How they made a record featuring seven rappers feel this light is beyond me. All I know is, I want more.

11. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic

God bless the power chord. Just three notes splitting an octave to create a simple, beautiful symmetry. As the Dallas thrash band Power Trip proved this year, these compact sonic gifts can be utilized to brutal, exhilarating ends. These guys aren’t just out to detonate your eardrums on their punishing second LP. Chaos isn’t their game. Instead, Nightmare Logic is a relentless succession of irresistible guitar riffs, which were crafted with as much attention to rhythm as volume level. Whether it’s the chugging eighth notes of “Executioner’s Song” or the circular triplets that kick off “If Not Us Then Who,” this shit swings. As frontman Riley Gale cries out against “the slumber of reason” in his strangled yawp, those power chords roil and slither underneath, girding us for whatever nightmare the world’s gonna belch up next, reminding us of the power inherent in noise.

10. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

2 Chainz has been a reliable source of fun, wordplay-encrusted bangers since “I’m Different” kicked off his second wind in 2012. But the Atlanta veteran has never made a record like this. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music finds the rapper formerly known as “Tity Boi” slipping wistful drug-game reminiscences in between inspired bursts of fantastical materialism (this time he’s got a see-through fridge). His knack for painting pictures is buoyed by a vibrant and versatile slate of beats – the opening “Saturday Night” features a dramatic torch song groove from the always-in-demand Mike Will Made It. “I went to work and I made an abundance / Gucci flip flops with the corns and bunions,” 2 Chainz raps over the sinister synth strings and throbbing bass of “Riverdale Rd.” All that hard work is paying off.

9. Haim – Something to Tell You

If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips, the rise of Haim should correct that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continues to revel in the supermarket pop of yesteryear, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drums and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs are the singles, which pair catchy choruses with quirky production wrinkles – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender. The sum and total of this commitment to fizzy pop hooks is a significant amount of joy. Even during this very, very difficult year, it made me sing in my car like a fool – helping me hold on for one more day.

8. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – Drool

In 2014, while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and playing drums in several bands, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya wrote this on his Chicago apartment wall: “You’re not normal, so why are you trying to be?” Three years later, the restless artist turned his focus to rapping and made a record that is thrillingly, definingly weird. Drool weaves together squelching synths, programmed drums and rat-a-tat sing-raps like distorted DNA strands, with Ogbonnaya exploring his full vocal register in the process. It’s not as intimidating as that sounds. “Hop Off” marries thrumming bass with chirping organ runs, and when the rapper enters the fray, we get within a stone’s throw of the radio. It’s purposefully off-kilter, yet easy to enjoy – a sign we’re dealing with a serious talent. We should follow him closely, even if he doesn’t necessarily want us to.

7. Kreator – Gods of Violence

The legendary German thrash band Kreator released its 14th album one week after Inauguration Day. It was a bomb to my headphones, and a balm to my nervous system. “Resistance must rise when freedom has died,” screamed Millie Petrozza in a voice as violent and alive as it was in ’85. Gods of Violence is full of visceral rallying cries like this. It stares fascists in the face, catalogs their sins, and tells them to beware the power of the people, over jet-fuel drums and riffs full of manic, Pixie-stick energy. It’s a goddamn reckoning. And by the time we make it to the penultimate track, “Side By Side,” Petrozza has decided that catharsis isn’t enough. So he makes an oath: “As we crush homophobia / We’ll never let the shame turn our vision to ice / And I’ll remain by your side.”

6. Feist – Pleasure

A decade after a song called “1, 2, 3, 4” made her a star, Leslie Feist is thinking even simpler. Her fourth album, Pleasure, finds new depths within her moonlit folk aesthetic. It’s been six years in the making, and it feels like it’s been in a slow cooker for that entire time. Each arrangement has been boiled down to its essential elements, finding its rhythm in the marrow. The fortunes of “I’m Not Running Away” rest completely on a swaying blues guitar riff, and it’s as exciting as a high wire act. “Any Party” relies on a chorus of non-singers to deliver its grand romantic refrain. “Century” breaks down time itself into its smallest components. And through it all, Feist’s voice is strong and clear, never straining to get its point across. It’s the sound of an artist in complete control.

5. Thundercat – Drunk

Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner has made his mark. Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that have entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicts, the potential of this artist is only beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of a versatile, funny, kaleidoscopically imaginative songwriter. The music is rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, and it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sings about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with the same awestruck, childlike energy. As a result, Drunk makes you feel the opposite of wasted.

4. Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”

3. Pallbearer – Heartless

It’s appropriate that Pallbearer uses Roman numerals instead of typical track numbers on its staggering third album. The Arkansas quartet has written an honest-to-god symphony – a grand, interconnected composition that takes its time to unfurl, demanding to be seen as a whole. Heartless draws a direct line from the cavernous power chords of doom metal to the immersive atmospherics of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” In between long, seamless suites of guitar music, which bellows and soothes as it seeks our emotional core, singer Brett Campbell belts gorgeous vocals about the end of the world. It’s like hearing tectonic plates moving, conspiring our demise in ancient, beautiful ways.

2. Kesha – Rainbow

“I’m waiting for my spaceship to come back to me / And I don’t really  care if you believe me,” sings Kesha on her ambitious, assured comeback album. Released in a year when “I believe the women” began to be said out loud, in public, Rainbow is both a zeitgeist-capturing statement of what it means to be a survivor and a canny, genre-bending ’10s pop album par excellence. Kesha deftly augments the pulsing dance-pop we’ve come to expect with elements of arena rock, modern country, piano balladry and twee folk. She belts out sweeping anthems of empowerment, threatens a would-be cheater with a wink and a smile, and looks to the skies for hope, revealing an impressive vocal range for the first time on tape. Rainbow sounds better than anything Kesha ever recorded with her longtime producer Dr. Luke, who the artist sued in 2014 for sexual assault. She lost that lawsuit in all-too-familiar fashion. But no court can stop this album, this free-spirited outpouring of emotion, from inspiring others to believe – in UFOs, in basic human decency, and in themselves.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN

In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released a song called “How Much a Dollar Cost,” about ignoring a panhandler who turns out to be God. Throughout the sprawling crisis of faith that was his To Pimp a Butterfly album, this was one of the most overt pleas to trust in humanity. Then, a year and a half later, Election Day came to prove him wrong. Lamar didn’t make any public statements after Donald Trump’s victory. I can’t imagine how it’s affected him. But this spring, with the release of his laser-focused fourth album, it became clear that the effect on his art has been extraordinary. Determined instead of conflicted, realistic instead of religious, DAMN outlines a vital artist’s transformed approach to navigating a fucked-up world: Have faith in yourself. It’s a “back to basics” record both psychologically and sonically, where the artist has stripped away everything he can’t count on in the world and started over from there. That’s why DAMN is, to me, the best album of 2017. It’s titanically satisfying music that’s driven by the kind of visceral, personal feeling that will never stop being relevant. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” the rapper shares, over and over again, throughout this album. The first time he says it, it’s a plea. Eventually it becomes a mantra. By the end, it’s a declaration of independence. We may not be praying for you, Kendrick. But to our great benefit, we’re listening.

Honorable Mentions: 21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin – Without Warning; Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice; Beachheads – Beachheads; Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time; Bjork – Utopia; Bob Dylan – Triplicate; Hus Kingpin – 16 Waves; Kamaiyah – Before I Wake; Migos – Culture; The Mountain Goats – Goths; Randy Newman – Dark Matter; Angel Olsen – Phases; Syd – Fin; Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm; Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls

The Top 20 Albums of 2014

2014 was a year. A year in which there were records. A year in which some of those records were downright pleasant. A year in which 20 of those downright pleasant records made me particularly happy in my ears and brain:

Dead Congregation 20. Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall

When I discovered metal, I was 12, and would share a Walkman with my similarly inclined Catholic school pal. We couldn’t get enough of Cannibal Corpse’s debut album Eaten Back To Life, specifically one moment when the cacophony abruptly ceased, and singer Chris Barnes intoned in his throaty roar, “Fuuuccccckkkk yooouuuuuuu!!!!!” It made us laugh, but it was also a form of nourishment, a blast of roughly hewn vulgarity to remind us that the world was a ridiculous place, and that if we were born with original sin, well then so be it. Promulgation Of The Fall brings me back to that feeling. Because this underground Greek ensemble is uncompromisingly brutal in a subsuming, freeing way. The riffs are simple and undeniable, layered and deepened to appropriately pulverizing levels. Solos are short and never showy. And singer Anastasis Valtsanis belts his demonic screeds in a steady, guttural growl, on songs that embrace chaos with open arms, jettisoning millennia of human guilt in the process. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus,6/9/14)


19. Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

Kiss Me Once, Kylie Minogue’s 12th album, continues an impressive streak of ruthlessly addictive dance music that dates at least as far back as 2001’s aptly titled career rejuvenator, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Smartly, Minogue and her deep bench of producers and songwriters stick with the winning formula of caffeinated synth-pop and disco, with a touch of dubstep tossed in for the kids. When it works best, it results in the kinds of choruses that make platitudes sound like rallying cries. The killer, clavinet-laden groove of “Sexy Love” does something to the human brain that makes us forget we’re listening to a song called “Sexy Love,” with a chorus that goes “Gimme that sexy love.” Kind of like how John Lennon’s harmonica tricked us into thinking “Love me do” was a sentence. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14)


18. Coldplay – Ghost Stories

There are times when a truly great movie is precisely what you do not want to see. You want to watch Reversal of Fortune instead, because it’s Sunday and you’re hung over and there’s something gently entrancing about Ron Silver’s hyperactive yin meshing with Jeremy Irons’ laconic sleazeball yang. Coldplay’s sixth LP was this year’s Reversal of Fortune of rock albums, a well-crafted, well-executed drama that wields clichés like hot water bottles – after a long day grappling with intense, ambitious works of art, Chris Martin is here to soothe those aching joints by singing “I love you so / So much that it hurts.” Ghost Stories is possibly the calmest, unfussiest breakup album ever; it’s far more concerned with sounding beautiful than sounding hurt. By weaving elements of James Blake’s bedroom dubstep into the band’s usual earnest-verse/bear-hug-chorus formula, these nine songs possess a touch of winter that does wonders to Martin’s lyric sheet, which would seem pretty hoary on its own. He sounds like a man who is capable of poetry, but has been made indifferent to it by loss. So he makes simple observations about birds and stars and the ocean, leaving the deeper metaphors to those who feel strong enough to plunder them.

Archibald-Slim-Hes-Drunk17. Archibald Slim – He’s Drunk!

On his debut mixtape, Archibald Slim weeds America’s uneven playing fields until all that’s left are the ugly truths in the soil, proving himself as the most accomplished artist of Atlanta’s ever-expanding Awful Records crew. Producer KeithCharles Spacebar gives the tracks a midnight jazz solemnity that would bend the ear of a young Nas, squashing any expectations that the title of this tape is an entrée to wackiness. In this context, “he’s drunk” is a quote, attributed to anyone who responds to the marginalization and oppression of an entire people by blaming the victims. People who would scoff with a hitch in their voices when they hear “Stay Black and Die,” a song delivered by Slim with something more harrowing than mere fury in his voice: “They tell me, ‘No don’t do it, go and get a job’ / They don’t understand that a fella play the game with different odds / So I know task one is stack dough for your bail / Cause you won’t pass go / Just go straight to jail.” (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

cibo_matto_hotel_valentine_1391874927_crop_480x48016. Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

“I wonder how many people know their life is like this / Staying at the hotel, renting times, renting a body,” muses Miho Hatori on Cibo Matto’s first effort in 15 years. The sentiment works to chilling effect as the preview to the one-two punch that closes this satisfyingly strange meta-comeback album – the ominous storm of “Housekeeping” and the fragile rise to the heavens that is “Check Out.” I leap toward the close of this brief record because it’s so compellingly open-ended. Hatori and Yuka C. Honda have great fun setting the stage – the catchiest track, “Déjà vu,” combines their trademark rubbery bass lines with a triumphant stroll of a chorus. But it’s those last two songs that make this more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. We’re lured in by the lulling groove of “Housekeeping,” the playful vocalizing of guest Reggie Watts keeping the disquiet at bay for a little bit. But then that maid keeps saying she’s going to “set us free.” And then, before we know it, we’re floating. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 2/14/14)


15. Jungle – Jungle

By writing simple, irresistible pentatonic melodies, singing them almost exclusively in falsetto, and pairing them with the kind of moody, heavily synthesized soul grooves that suggest an unhealthy obsession with Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album, this camera-shy British duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface. Jungle is at its best when its clear goal is to get heads bobbing, like when it argues for the cathartic benefits of endless partying on “Time” – “Don’t let it in / Just let it out / Time and time again.” Or when it leverages the swagger of hardcore capitalists on “Busy Earnin’,” explaining how we “can’t get enough” over hooks so insidious that they’d make any bleeding heart understand. It’s no coincidence that both of these songs possess lively bass lines. The duo is stingy with the low end on much of Jungle, preferring to keep its heads and equalizers in the clouds. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters, 7/15/14)


14. Ty Segall – Manipulator

Ty Segall must be haunted by riffs. How else can you explain the absurdly prolific number of sickening garage rock hooks he’s already churned out (five LPs’ worth since 2012)? They must come to him in dreams, demanding to be released. Last year’s autumnal folk album Sleeper was still mighty catchy, but it also sounded like the kind of palate cleanser that could precede a more significant tonal shift. It wasn’t. Manipulator is an embarrassment of classically Segall-ian riches, 15 tracks that boogie you ragged like a forgotten disc from the Nuggets box set. That his Kinks and Stooges jones hasn’t gotten old is a testament to the songwriting – “Ask your bossman for a raise / Tell your mama she better keep her change” nails that classic rock sweet spot between nonsense and bad-assery – and Segall’s evolving gifts as a singer. The hushed instrumentation of Sleeper pays dividends here, with the artist paying close attention to his vocal melodies and intonations even though they’re back in the fuzzbox fray.

Rich Gang

13. Rich Gang – Tha Tour: Part I

Even though he’s only 22, Young Thug’s major label misadventures are already legion. But if there was any doubt that he couldn’t mold his inimitable quirks into universal entertainment, Tha Tour: Part I laid them to rest. Rich Gang consists of Thug, fellow Atlanta mixtape veteran Rich Homie Quan and Dirty South Svengali/Cash Money Records founder Birdman. The latter lays down the recipe for the tape’s luxurious syrup with a spoken word intro about the group’s affinity for “gold turlets,” his pronunciation crucial to his swagger—this is provincial materialism, thousands of miles away from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Thug and Quan sing as much as they spit, over the lush, organ-fueled R&B soundscapes of producers like London On The Track. It’s the lava cake after Black Portland’s backyard barbecue, a satiated dream state triggered by the kind of artistic chemistry you can’t fake. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)


12. The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

When The Roots became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009, it was such a good thing – for black artists; for hip hop; for television in general. But for Roots fans, it was also a little scary. A year earlier, the band had inflamed our brains with Rising Downa raw, sickening ride on the American merry-go-ground of poverty and violence. Now that they were the next Doc Severinsen, would albums like this be a thing of the past? With And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – the third high-quality Roots album of the Fallon era – those fears have been put to bed. Like 2011’s Undun before it, Cousin is supposedly a concept album, but it’s best if you ignore the “story” and let the poverty-stricken poetry and mournfully gorgeous production wash over you. “Never” is an epic achievement, complete with a scratchy choral introduction, pizzicato-sprinkled breakdown, echoing canyon of an opening verse, and that exhilarating moment when all the elements come together. Keyboardist Kamal Gray remains the perpetual unsung hero, grabbing all the best hooks – the solemn backbone of “When the People Cheer”; the dusty saloon groove of “Black Rock”; the triumphant, cathartic chords at the heart of “Tomorrow.” “Some say that happiness will never find you / Until you find yourself,” sings guest Raheem DeVaughn on the latter. As a band that’s as self-aware as any, yet keeps piling on the challenges, The Roots must be happy as hell.


11. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Is it better to have loved and been shot in the head, or to have never loved at all? This is the grim scenario we’re confronted with on “Gunshot,” one of several over-the-top relationship eulogies that haunt Lykke Li’s third album. Those who had their hearts set on another batch of coy, cloudy electro-pop from the Swedish singer/songwriter might consider the song a bummer, but for the rest of us, it and the other eight tracks that comprise I Never Learn make for a stirring, pristinely rendered expression of heartache. The artist isn’t interested in poetry here. She fills her songs with theatrical 1980s adult contemporary visions – rainy days on lonely roads; hearts that shatter and crack; other hearts that are made of steel; the one that got away. Every lyric lands, however, because they’re not the result of laziness – their author is just too wracked with guilt to bullshit us. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 5/12/14)

Mastodon_-_once_more_'round_the_sun10. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun 

It’s probably unfair to compare Mastodon to Metallica. They’re from different eras, command different-sized spotlights, and play by different music industry rules. But humor me. Mastodon has been challenging its die-hard fans with a less-thrashy, more-accessible approach, at the same point in its career that Metallica did – on its fifth and sixth records. The good news is, they’re doing it in a different way. Once More ‘Round the Sun is the catchiest, most sludge-free metal LP in its catalog, but what it forsakes in lyrical weirdness (no Cysquatch this time around, folks) it makes up for with a clutch of instant-classic riffs, some of the most powerful singing in the genre, and yet another amazing album cover. Its counterpart in Metallica’s catalog is 1996’s Load, that glossy, “bluesy” turd of betrayal that played to all of the band’s weaknesses (e.g. lyrics that aren’t about war/injustice, singing that does not involve growling). Some cries of dismay have cropped up here and there, but Mastodon has avoided Metallica’s fate by embracing cleaner, richly layered prog instead of melodramatic classic rock. And by being talented enough to help us forget about subgenres while we sing along at full tilt. The thrash is gone, but by no means is the thrill.

nikkinack9. Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack

After 2011’s w h o k i l l topped the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, Merrill Garbus found herself touring arenas with Arcade Fire while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring priorities, with the Oakland-based vocal acrobat railing against social stagnation while simultaneously celebrating the world’s fluorescent beauty. It all works because Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner stick to what they do best: chopped, clattering percussion; sophisticated, bluesy vocal melodies; walls of harmonies that jar and swirl; and spare funk basslines that make thrilling sense of it all. Perhaps nothing possesses the dualities of Garbus’s state of mind more than the album’s first single, “Water Fountain,” an irresistible, manic playground chant of a song, its beat shaped from a Waits-ian junk heap of claps and clangs and Brenner’s punchy bass, with the gusto in Garbus’s voice doing the rest. When the chorus rolls in, it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but then the first verse begins: “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and bones.” There’s no water in the water fountain, and that’s not just a catchy turn of phrase. This is a song about a failed public works system and a gleeful sing-along. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 5/3/14)


8. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

The chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on last year’s Run The Jewels, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of two talented, wise-ass artists having fun. This second volume represents Run The Jewels as a primary career focus for both. The beats are richer and rangier; more attention is paid to sequencing, and all of that boasting comes from pride and momentum rather than just the desire to blow off steam. That said, part of their secret still has to be catharsis. Killer Mike is a legend of the Atlanta underground, whose most famous moments remain guest verses on Outkast tracks, even though his solo work rivals that of his hometown peers. El-P is a candidate for indie-rap Mount Rushmore, thanks to his work as a member of Company Flow and as the founder/house producer of Definitive Jux records, but he’s never sniffed the mainstream. Run The Jewels 2 is a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s the pent-up frustration that makes you want to hug your loved ones and thank god for each breath while you set fire to the neighborhood. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 11/5/14)


7. Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland

If the tidal wave of creativity in Atlanta hip hop has a center, it’s probably Young Thug, whose humdrum moniker is belied by a mesmerizing energy on the mic. Here is the next level of Outkast and Lil Wayne’s alien self-identification—a man who is bilingual in the sense that he’s speaking English and Venusian at the same time. Thugga was on three tapes in 2014, and while Black Portland is begging to be remastered, it’s still the best. At the point where rubber bands break, Young Thug is just starting to stretch out, littering his natural, lackadaisical syncopation with quizzical squawks like a chipmunk Busta Rhymes. He finds an ideal foil in Bloody Jay, who sounds gruffly amused throughout, his DJ Holiday basso tipping the scales of tracks like “Movin’” and “No Fucks” from gritty street theater to one deliriously unique party. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

Swans_To_Be_Kind6. Swans – To Be Kind

If you were creeped out by the snarling wolf that adorned Swans’ 2012 album The Seer, it’s probably best to avoid the cover of To Be Kind—a screaming, Rockwellian baby that David Lynch would hang above the fireplace. The album within delivers on this unsettling entrée, boiling the meaning of life down to basic human needs while it methodically destroys the world. Yet this appeal to our animal selves is belied by the band’s exquisitely crafted annihilations, like when the angular funk groove of “A Little God In My Hands” gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, making Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy”. When bandleader Michael Gira screams “I’m just a little boy,” it’s not a performance. It’s an expulsion. It falls somewhere between the sneer of a playground bully and the sickening croak of a bloated raven. Maybe we all are just infants alone in our cribs, pretending that there are things we need other than love and warmth and bread. If so, this record makes for one hell of a blankie. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters12/8/14)


5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

“Here’s my report from the edge.” If you’re looking for a premise statement for Annie Clark’s stunning fourth album, well there you have it. On St. Vincent, the diminutive axe-slinger sits on all kinds of edges – between pop and avant garde, satire and confession, guitar solos and blood spatter patterns. In her effortless ability to make her singular personality feel universal, Clark summons the spirit of another diminutive axe-slinger; you know, the one who could claim to approximate the sound of doves crying without sounding like a flake. And while there was plenty to like about the two Prince albums we got this year (especially the sci-fi funk opus Art Official Age), it’s St. Vincent that gives us a closer approximation of the Purple One in his ruffled, enigmatic prime. Its guitar riffs consist of hyperactive clusters of notes. Its synthesizers coat everything with a thin layer of late-November ice. Yet it’s pop bliss through and through, delivered with poetic urgency. Clark makes you feel what it’s like to be chased by a rattlesnake, or hallucinate a conversation with Huey Newton, or understand that somebody out there loves you more than Jesus ever could. If you’re looking for a one-way ticket to the edge, she’s comped one for you.


4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warrants comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.


3. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs

The line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums gets thinner every time another gorgeously produced triumph shows up on DatPiff (see #13 on this list, for example). But one listen to Hunger Pangs and you know you’re hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is fearlessly utilized as a coda. And goddamn is the emcee going off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa is no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs is on another level. Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise for spiking our adrenaline levels this year. They simply can’t touch Cakes on tracks like “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” – just listening to one of his verses should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.


2. Pallbearer – Foundations Of Burden

The greatest poetry tends to spring from the simplest subject matter. Fire and ice. The west wind. Lightness and dark. It’s the latter dichotomy that’s woven through the ravishing gloom of Pallbearer’s second album. If you’ve ever wished that Black Sabbath had a more nuanced lyricist than Geezer Butler, Foundations Of Burden is probably gonna be your jam. “Darkened heart / Enlightened mind / Whole world apart / Remain entwined,” goes the chorus to the 10-minute opening salvo “Worlds Apart,” exploring the human struggle between instinct and intellect with an astonishing economy of words. A feeling of immensity begins here and never wavers, the result of producer Billy Anderson’s shamelessly decadent approach. Every sound is given to us in its richest, warmest tone. Guitar chords fall like velvet curtains. Brett Campbell sings in a gravel-free tenor that would make him a prime candidate for the Church of Satan’s choir director. I know this is technically doom metal, but it sounds more like bloom metal to me.

Azealia_Banks_-_Broke_With_Expensive_Taste_album_cover_20141. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Broke With Expensive Taste deserves to be the next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the careening masterpiece that gets dropped by its shortsighted label and ends up selling like crazy once it hits the light of day. Azealia Banks’s long-shelved debut dares to enter a churning sea of genres and attitudes, and then calibrates our voyage so skillfully, it feels like we’re standing upright on a speedboat with no need for the rails. It cares not for the cycle of intense hype and curdling frustration that preceded it. It doesn’t even remember what an “Interscope Records” is. Banks is always in complete control, even when she needs to sing in perfectly inflected Spanish or summon the spirit of Annette Funicello. If you’ve been following her since “212” shook the earth three years ago, you’ll already know five of these tunes. Yet this particular familiarity does not breed contempt. Yes, we had only been given little pieces for so long, and we were tired of it. But here is the whole puzzle in all its glory. Here are those songs we love, reenergized by the context we were dreaming they’d get. This shit is better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s better than anything that came out this year. Now let’s finally stop talking about it, and listen.

Honorable Mentions: Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere; Behemoth – The Satanist; Bloody Jay – #NAWFR; Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems; Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata; Future – Honest; Future Islands – Singles; Gangsta Boo & La Chat – Witch; Migos – Rich N**a Timeline; Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke; PeeWee Longway – The Blue M&M; Prince – Art Official AgeSylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso; TV On The Radio – Seeds; Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow; YG – My Krazy Life