1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I am so excited about the direction Fleet Foxes are heading in with their music. I love their first self titled record with its beautiful harmonies and great songwriting but I was hoping Fleet Foxes would write some more relatable lyrics with their next release. And they did! You’ve heard the saying, “The examined life is not worth living”, well Robin Pecknold (lead singer) seems to have taken that to heart and crafted an album in which he examines his life and the mysterious world that we live in. With this record Fleet Foxes created a folk record that is for the people and speaks of our fears, anxieties, love, and finding our place in this mysterious world. “Helplessness Blues” is one of the best folk anthems of the year. In this song Pecknold sings, “If I had a orchard I’d work till I’m sore,” which is a metaphor that alludes to the classic folk song written by Pete Seeger “If I Had A Hammer”. In the epic near 8 minute song “The Shrine/The Argument” you can feel Pecknold’s pain in wake of a breakup with a lover. When Pecknold sings, “When you talk you hardly even look in my eyes,” you can hear the pain in his voice. It is a powerful song that even has a crazy sax solo at the end. We would all do well to ask ourselves the question Pecknold asks in the first song of the album “Montezuma”, “Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?”. We need more artists like Fleet Foxes who encourage people to examine their lives and make changes in themselves and the world they live in. Though Fleet Foxes delve into weightier subjects with this album they don’t sacrifice their great sound and harmonies. Helplessness Blues is a thoughtful and great album. We all can rest happily knowing that folk music is alive and is in good hands with Fleet Foxes. Well done Fleet Foxes, well done.
2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
There’s nobody out there making music quite like Annie Clark aka St. Vincent. She blends pop sounds with guitar shredding and has vocals that can be sweet, delicate, and also fierce at times. There’s more focus on guitar work in this album and her sound becomes even more unique because of it. Strange Mercy is a lot of fun to listen to because it has so many diverse sounds and memorable lyrics. It’s the humanity Clark portrays in the stories she tells that make this record one of my favorite records of the year. Whether she is singing about not wanting to be a cheerleader or a dirt-eater anymore or about trying to hard to be clever in “Cheerleader”, or singing about depression in “Surgeon”, or telling a story about a single mother’s love and mercy for her son in “Strange Mercy”, she tells stories that are humanistic. Clark delves into our insecurities and flaws as human beings but she also sings about people making changes in their lives or just trying to do their best in the face of resistance. She also sings about sex, love, desire, and heartbreak in the songs “Neutered Fruit” and “Dilettante”. There are also little things that I notice and love in this album, like the way Clark sings the word “air” in a crackling whisper in the song “Champagne Year”. Strange Mercy is a rewarding album each time I listen to it. This album also makes me excited for St. Vincent’s future releases. Annie Clark is so good that I believe she’ll get even better with time. Strange mercy, beautiful mercy, Annie presents both to us masterfully with this album.
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
No song hit me harder on first listen this year than Bon Iver’s “Perth”. It is a truly epic song with great guitar playing, military like drumming, and the beautiful horn playing near the end of the song. Bon Iver’s self titled album is truly magical. Justin Vernon (lead singer/ songwriter) builds upon the beauty of his first album For Emma Forever Ago with this record. Where For Emma mostly had folk, acoustic arrangement this album takes that same formula and adds lush instrumentation. The lyrics are great on this album. Vernon is truly a musical poet. Phrases stick with you from these songs and also are moving and powerful each time you hear them. An example being when Vernon sings in the beautiful song Holocene, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent”. When he sings this he seems to me to have sung some of the most humble and honest words of any singer-songwriter this year. I also love the very first line in Perth where Vernon sings, “I’m tearing up, acrost your face”. To me it seems like he’s singing about the shared emotion of a relationship breaking apart. Though the whole album was pleasantly surprising on first listen, the final song “Beth/Rest” was definitely the biggest curveball Vernon threw with its 80’s piano ballad feel to it. Justin Vernon has proven himself to be one the most exciting artists of this day and age, and I believe he will be surprising us with great music for many years to come.
4. Low – C’mon
If you’re looking for one of the best alternative albums that is both dark and beautiful from this year then look no further than Low’s C’mon. This was the first Low album I’ve listened to and I’m glad I gave it a chance. It’s a very affecting piece of work. The music is orchestrated beautifully on every song, and the songs are easy to sing along to. This is a dark record but there is also glimpses of hope in it as well. Low give us reassuring words, like the repeated phrases “My love is for free my love” and “I’m nothing but heart” in two of the record’s songs. C’mon is a record for the down and out, the poor in spirit, the lost, and and the broken hearted. We all need a record like this sometimes.
5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
This marvelous concept album about the Great War came out early this year and is certainly one of the strongest releases the year. PJ Harvey created with this album a powerful and haunting meditation on war and its affect on people and the world. Harvey familiarized herself with war by researching the history of conflict, including the Gallipoli Campaign, and reading modern-day testimonies from civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. A cool fact about the recording of this album is that much of it was recorded live in St. Peter’s Church Eype in Dorset, England. Let England Shake belongs in a place beside all the acclaimed novels, films, and art pieces that depict war and its horrors.
6. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
One of the best surprises of the year for me was Lykke Li’s album Wounded Rhymes. She has a truly unique pop rock sound. Lykke Li’s vocals are great, sexy, and expressive. With deep drum sounds her music has an even tribal sound to it. There are aggressive and fun songs on this album such as “Youth Knows No Pain”, “Get Some”, and “Rich Kid Blues”. There are also beautiful pop ballads such as “Love Out Of Lust”, “I Know Places”, and “Sadness Is A Blessing”. The more I listen to this album the more I love it.
7. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
When I first heard the song “Honey Bunny” off Girl’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost I knew I was in for special album. I immediately loved this song, it’s so much fun to listen to. It’s fast with a pop rock sound and has great lyrics, like, “I’ve been messing with so many girls/ who can give a damn who I am?/ They don’t like my bony body, or my dirty hair.” It’s a short song, only two minutes and thirty three seconds, but it became my favorite track of the year. Another standout song from this record is “Vomit”. It’s a slow, burning song about foolishly returning to one’s own mistakes. It was named after the verse in the Bible in the book of Proverbs that goes like this: “As a dog returns to his vomit, so does a fool return to his folly”. This song is epic. It moves slow for the majority the song, then rock outs, and then a gospel choir sings powerfully at the end. My other favorite track is “Forgiveness” which is about forgiveness and the good and bad we possess in our soul. This song includes zen like lyrics at the very end of the song: “And I can see so much clearer when I just close my eyes”. Girls are able with their music to create a classic sound, that is also fresh. Christopher Owens (lead singer) is able to convey pain and honest feeling with his voice. With mindful lyrics that connect with our humanity and music that is timeless, Girls have made one of the best records of the year.
8. Destroyer – Kaputt
Kaputt by Destroyer is an album that is just plain fun to listen to. It’s a sophisticated pop album, which has an 80‘s pop sound fused with great horn arrangements. The lyrics are abstract and they’re written very well and paired with the great music they create a very listenable album. This album has a classic yet innovative sound. When Dan Bejar sings “Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves,” in the song “Blue Eyes” I believe he is speaking to us all.
9. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart are a band that possibly would have been even more popular in the 80’s. Their heart on sleeve lyrics and sugary hooks would fit in the 80’s pop scene perfectly. But the nice thing is that this music belongs just as much in this day and age as it does any other year. Belong is an album that I think best captured teenage love within its music and lyrics this year.
10. Washed Out – Within And Without
“Your faith decides the world you are going to find,” sings Ernest Greene aka Washed Out, in the very optimistic song “Amor Fati”. Washed Out is a chill-wave band who creates beautiful music that true to the genre’s name is easy to chill to. Washed Out’s music glistens, shines, and flows like a stream. I always walk away feeling good after listening to this album.
12. Wild Beasts – Smother
13. Typhoon – A New Kind of House
14. TV On The Radio – Nine Types of Light
15. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
16. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
17. Grails – Deep Politics
18. Wilco – The Whole Love
19. A Winged Victory For The Sullen – Self Titled
20. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
21. The Black Keys – El Camino
22. Explosions In The Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
23. Cults – Cults
24. Beirut – The Rip Tide
25. The Roots – Undun
26. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
27. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer
28. The Rapture – In The Grace Of Your Love
29. Active Child – You Are All I See
30. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
31. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
32. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
33. F—D Up – David Comes To Life
34. Korallreven – An Album By Korallreven
35. Wye Oak – Civilian
36. Cut Copy – Zonoscope
37. Big K.R.I.T. – Return Of 4Eva
38. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
39. Switchfoot – Vice Verses
40. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
41. Little Scream – The Golden Record
42. Panda Bear – Tomboy
43. Youth Lagoon – The Year Of Hibernation
44. Gotye – Making Mirrors
45. Mint Julep – Save Your Season
46. Austra – Feel It Break
47. James Blake – James Blake
48. tUne – yArDs – W H O K I L L
49. Katie Herzig – The Waking Sleep
50. Nicholas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise