Preface: I was going back and forth this year about writing an End Of The Year list. Most music sites make a list of their favorite albums, but the thing that always strikes me about them is they’re all essentially the SAME. Do you need me to tell you (again) that Kanye West’s Yeezus is a deeply flawed masterpiece, or that Vampire Weekend created the catchiest record about death I’ve ever heard? So instead, I’ve decided to list some records that haven’t gotten a lot of press this year…
The 1975 – The 1975
If I could recommend one album to someone this year, it would be the debut self-titled effort from The 1975. This is the first band I’ve heard in a long time that has made me feel like I’m 17 again, from their effortlessly fun music videos to their songwriting chops to lead singer Matt Healy’s relatable lyrics about searching for love (among other things) in the big city. To me the album is flawless from front to back, combining inescapable melodies with a healthy dose of mid-80s Michael Jackson worship.
Recommended Tracks: “Sex”, “Settle Down”, “Robbers”
Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
Chance The Rapper (please say ‘The Rapper’) is probably the most well-known artist on this list, but he’s still not a household name yet. His second mixtape takes its name from ‘Acid Jazz’—a hodgepodge musical genre that combines jazz, soul, funk, disco, and hip-hop—with swirling and jagged beats that are heavily influenced by Kanye West. He’s got something to say over the beats too, with a unique voice (both literal and figurative) that isn’t afraid to get deep into his own head or the conditions in his native city of Chicago.
Recommended Tracks: “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, “Juice”, “Chain Smoker”
Rhye – Woman
This is intimate music. Soft vocals from lead singer Milosh (who, contrary to what you might think, is male) recall Sade and the xx, while the instruments build this beautiful downtempo bedding that would go perfectly with some candles and bottle of wine. It’s an atmospheric way to set the mood, but what really sets Rhye apart from their peers is their gift for getting a chorus to worm its way into your blood vessels.
Recommended Tracks: “The Fall”, “Open”, “Hunger”
Tegan And Sara – Heartthrob
The first great record that was released this year, I think Heartthrob got left off of a lot of lists simply because too much time had passed. The indie rock twin sisters’ seventh album goes straight synth-pop, and it’s a good look—they infuse their gift for soaring melodies to the most energetic production they’ve ever had, and the result is 10 straight anthems. Lead single “Closer” get some play on pop radio, but it’s the mid-tempo tracks that will really lift you up if you let them.
Recommended Tracks: “Drove Me Wild”, “I Was A Fool”, ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’
The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
This is the most appropriately-titled album of all time. After a promising debut, Nashville singer-songwriter duo Joy Williams and John Paul White recorded their followup and went on hiatus, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences”. These are sorrowful and delicate tunes that cut right to your core, and when you hear them harmonize, it feels like God put them on Earth to sing together. That they’ll likely not do that again for a long time feels like a cruel joke, but at least they released this beautiful goodbye of a record.
Recommended Tracks: “Eavesdrop”, “Dust To Dust”, “Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins)”
Foxygen – We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Light And Magic
If you can’t tell from the album art and title, these guys might have a bit of a screw loose. Foxygen is a psychedelic pop band that definitely owes a debt of gratitude to pretty much every single musical act of the 60s from Bob Dylan to The Beatles. But they do this style better than anyone I’ve heard in years, with lyrics that can be bitingly funny (“I met your daughter the other day…well that was weird”) and songs that swing from mood to mood like somebody dropped acid. It’s disarming until you get used to the way it flows, and then you wonder why all music doesn’t take chances like this (and love Foxygen more for it).
Recommended Tracks: “No Destruction”, “Shuggie”, “San Francisco”
ON AN ON – Give In
Purpose. That’s what holds these songs together. Electro blasts, drum fills, and vocal filters smash together, and it would all be a big mess without the relentless sense that these compositions are leading somewhere. Every track is different, running a gamut of sound that takes you on a journey out of a primordial ooze and through a world of wide open dream pop. By the time you get to the completely understated closer, it feels like a well-deserved sigh from a thoroughly worthwhile experience.
Recommended Tracks: “American Dream”, “Every Song”, “Ghosts”
Postiljonen – Skyer
Postiljonen have a sound that could take over the world, but I don’t know if they want to. Breathy female vocals, chopped-up synth lines, and the occasional saxophone combine for a band that sounds like M83’s peppy little sister. Honestly, if they cut away a lot of the noise, there are some actual hits here (especially the anthemic “We Raise Our Hearts”). In the meantime, it seems like they’re content creating intelligent club music for a group of kids who don’t really go out to clubs.
Recommended Tracks: “We Raise Out Hearts”, “Supreme”, “On The Run”
Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
Waxahatchee sounds nothing like Nirvana, but I feel like Katie Crutchfield and Kurt Cobain would get along really well. They both sing about being stuck in ruts, being both afraid and resigned to the fact that you’ll probably never get out of them. The people that populate the town of Cerulean Salt are growing up to be just like their parents, wandering home drunk and hoping for something more. It’s female-fronted sad bastard music that’s somehow uplifting, an interesting place to visit even if you wouldn’t want to live there.
Recommended Tracks: “Coast To Coast”, “Lively”, “Swan Dive”
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
I would’ve been shouting about this album all year, but I literally only heard it for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s funny; my music friends were telling me I’d love this collection of Ryan Adams-esque storytelling since its July release, but for some reason I never got around to it. My first listen finally came in December, and from the opening notes of “Cover Me Up”, I was completely hooked. This album is remarkable, with the ability to put elegiac songs like “Elephant” (which I’ve already written extensively about) and folk rockers like “Flying Over Water” on the same map without feeling out of place (give or take a “Super 8” motel). Isbell’s voice is earnest, and with lyrics this poignant and detailed, he immediately does what some folk singers spend their entire lives trying to do: he connects.
Recommended Tracks: “Cover Me Up”, “Different Days”, “Traveling Alone”