Technically there are 17 songs here, but there are two repeat artists, because I’m incredibly indecisive about everything.
17. “I Ain’t The Same” – Alabama Shakes:
Alabama Shakes — who you’ll be seeing again later on this list — dropped the absolute best album of the year with Boys & Girls, a fusion of southern rock, blues, soul and garage thrash that was anchored by Brittany Howard’s commanding voice. And while it’s easy to get lost in Howard’s incredible acrobatics, the rest of the band thrashes and wails alongside her like something we haven’t heard in far too long.
16. “Artificial Nocturne” – Metric:
“Artificial Nocturne” starts with one of the best opening verses of the year, as Emily Haines cooes “I’m just as fucked up as they say, I can’t fake the daytime, I found an entrance to escape into the dark” over a dramatic wave of synths. And for the first two minutes the song eases along at the same pace, before a simple drumbeat kicks in, and everything grows to a noiserock crescendo and another bed of synths and keyboard lines to take us out. Eerie. And awesome.
15. “Sweet Life” – Frank Ocean:
If Alabama Shakes had the all-around best album, Frank Ocean released the most important and most moving. Channel Orange was a brilliant patchwork of voices and characters meditating on lives of wealth and youth and loneliness in California. The warmth and sex of the music offset the existential crisis of the lyrics into something beautiful and sad.
14. “Carry On” – Fun.:
Occasionally, Fun’s breakout hit “Some Nights” would come on the radio, and whoever was near me would say, “Oh, Ryan, I hate this band.” And then I’d have to explain to them that, “No, you don’t. You’re just tired of hearing them.” Overplayed? Definitely. Overrated? Not even close. No traditional band has done so many interesting, inventive things with pop music since Queen. And Nate Ruess’ fantastic voice is at its best on the band’s best track: “Carry On.”
13. “State of the Art” – Gotye:
Yes, this album came out more than a year-and-a-half ago in Australia; and yes, I’m as sick of hearing “But you didn’t have to cuttttttttttt me off” on the overexposed (yet catchy) “Somebody That I Used to Know.” But if all you heard from Gotye this year is that single, then you missed out on an album full of ridiculously lush sonic texture and experimentation. “State of the Art” is a mash-up of sound and beat that so perfectly matches its equally-imaginative video that they need to be experienced together.
12. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” – Father John Misty
Drumbeat backbone set to Americana guitars? Check. Sorrowful lyrics about a lost grandfather? Check. Weird / sexy video featuring Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza that descends into a nightmare vision of sleeping with one’s own corpse? Double check.
11. “Heart Donor” – Lupe Fiasco featuring Poo Bear:
Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Record wasn’t the full-fledged return to glory that fans were hoping for from an album titled as a sequel to his first — and still classic best — record. But it was a return to the biting lyrics and complicated verses that were sometimes missing on Lasers. “Heart Donor” is the standout track because Lupe’s relaxed flow and knack for compelling lyrics are on full display. I love those opening lines: “I’m just a conduit, to keep you calm through it / So you respond lucid, that means you’re non-stupid / You think you gonna lose it, but you don’t bounce, but you just bond to it.”
10. “Heaven” – The Walkmen:
The best description I have ever heard for The Walkmen is that you listen to them for ten years and one day you suddenly realize they’re your favorite band. “Heaven” features the trademark jangling Walkmen guitar lines, but this time they are set to a straightforward drum beat and Hamilton Leithauser’s always perfect, everyman-vocals about friendship in a gilded world. It’s some of their most straight-forward and mature work of their career.
9. “Cabaret” – Alice Smith:
Who has the best pure voice in music that no one knows about? I’ll submit Alice Smith as a candidate. The first 40 a-capella seconds of “Cabaret” let Smith show off her powerhouse abilities (easily on par with the likes of Leona Lewis or Adele, and I fucking love me some Adele) before the electronic R&b bounce and handclaps carry the rest of the song off in an easy grove. It will be in your head for weeks, and you’ll be grateful.
8. “Younger Us” – Japandroids:
Based on my subjective experience, I would estimate that 97% of all YouTube comments consist of either “ZOMG love ^” or some kind of homophobic comment. But occasionally, someone makes a comment so perfect it doesn’t need much elaboration. Case in point: the top commenter on “Younger Us,” who wrote, “This is the band we all wanted to start but didn’t.” That’s exactly right. Japandroids are all piss and sweat and thrashing drums and feedback and beer and girls and nostalgia and noise and everything great about a garage, a guitar and a drum set. And if you’re needing more from David Prowse and Brian King, try the noise-rock gold of “Crazy/Forever” from their first album, Post-Nothing.
7. “Easy to Love” – The Jezabels:
Yes, Hayley Mary’s voice is fucking incredible, but so is the subtle complexity of the drums, guitar and keyboard from Nik Kaloper, Sam Lockwood Heather Shannon, respectively. Especially Kaloper’s drum work, which gives a propulsive spine to this expansive track.
6. “Rise to the Sun” – Alabama Shakes:
Because this album is so good, and so consistent, from it’s head-nodding start to its rollicking end, that picking one track from the record was impossible. Listen to the guitar chords cut like a metronome turned into a knife at the 2:47 mark and be glad you have ears.
5. “Ho Hey” – The Lumineers:
Rule of music #47: Folksy guitar music always sounds best when accompanied by someone with an Irish, Scottish or British accent. A simple love song with hand claps and layered vocals, and you know you love it. For the best effect, sing it at 4am with all your friends after a night of drinking.
4. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” – Kendrick Lamar:
The best rap album of the year is mostly a meditation on growing up in Compton, a place real for those that live there, but an imagined place to a generation of 90’s gangsta rap fans. good kid, m.A.A.d city is subtitled as “a short film,” and Lamar weaves a story about a boy borrowing his mother’s van to see a girl, and then experiencing the death of a friend in a gang shooting. The album veers from glossy production to stark vocals, and feels fresh at every turn. I think it sounds cliche to describe something as “fresh,” but in this case it’s warranted. The whole album is vital.
3. “Wasted Days” – Cloud Nothings:
This is nearly nine minutes of raw cynicism and anger set to the best drum fills you’ll hear all year. Just as the noise and feedback that dominate the middle of the song start to grate, they fade into a single percussion and bass line and grow back into Dylan Baldi’s ragged screams of “I thought I would be more than this.” Brilliant.
2. “Bad Religion” – Frank Ocean:
While much of Channel Orange is a pastiche of different characters, “Bad Religion” feels the most like it comes directly from Frank Ocean, and is perhaps the best metaphor for the album’s aesthetic: a man slumps into a cab and tells his sorrows to the driver. It’s an intensely personal moment narrated to a stranger, and perfectly captures the album’s balance of intimacy and isolation for people searching for some tranquility.
1. “Hot Knife” -Fiona Apple:
While Fiona Apple has always been an expert composer, she stripped all of her arrangements down to little more than offbeat percussion and raw vocals for her latest and best album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. It allows her lyrics to standout even more than in the past, and her wordplay is sharp as hell. The best line comes on the opening “Every Single Night,” where she describes her pain as being “like a second skeleton, trying to fit beneath the skin.” On the last track, though, she layers her vocals over herself so many times that the fantastic double entendre — “I’m a hot knife, he’s a pad of butter” — recedes into nothingness, and her voice just becomes another instrument of rhythm.