Listen to the full playlist here.
20. The Drums – “Heart Basel”
Brooklyn’s The Drums have always had a frenzied energy, a more sharply focused take on the dance rock of the early 00’s. On their fourth album, they do not necessarily slow down, but they do allow for introspection.
“Heart Basel” was written about the worst breakup of singer Jonny Pierce’s life. Pierce sings to his past partner, “Call me and tell me that you want me” with a steady new-wave beat, and the band’s oft-used jangly guitars, and a beachy harmony. The song, more than anything else, is a lot of fun, which the song explains, is sometimes not enough. (photo via Instagram)
19. GoldLink ft. Brent Faiyaz and Shy Glizzy – “Crew”
GoldLink hit his first single out of the park, gaining platinum status, and a Grammy nomination, and inclusion on the soundtrack for the HBO show, Insecure. On “Crew” the D.C. area rapper takes well-tread material (women are only interested now that I am successful) and gives it new life. It features fellow D.C. rapper, Shy Glizzy, also in a breakout year, with his hypnotically goofy inflection comparing serious dating with refusing to punt on fourth down.
The real gem of the song, though, is the bookend vocal performance by Brent Faiyaz. He sings with a slow-moving cadence that is contagious, and seems pre-designed for a rolling video montage.
18. Gunn-Truscinski Duo – “Seagull for Chuck Berry”
“Seagull for Chuck Berry” goes a lot of different places with just a guitar and drum kit. It starts with a sloppy and loose warm-up, and then floats with high-pitched picks and chords. The song then takes those high-flying notes to a place both tighter and more anxious before everything crashes into a flood of cymbals.
Steve Gunn and John Truscinski’s jams blend a warm coat around sharp metallic dissonance. In fact, the queen of dissonance, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, wrote the album’s liner notes. She prefers to listen to them as she drinks her morning coffee. And on “Seagull for Chuck Berry” the Gunn-Truscinski Duo are able to capture the open, jarring crash of a new day.
17. Kamaiyah – “Leave Em”
Sampling TLC’s “Creep,” Kamiayah made a song about encouraging a friend to leave an abusive relationship. Her voice is hushed and supportive while she gives the hard advice that, “Ain't no love up in this world that's ever worth your life.”
Kamaiyah’s sound here is different from the sharply declarative verses she presented on her first album. But her matter-of-fact tone is still all there, opening each chorus with, “Girl he's not what you need, he's a dog” and closing the final verse with “I’m here for you, every step, girl you can call on me” while 90’s horns blast a sharp warning to move on. (photo via Instagram)
16. The Horrors – “Something To Remember Me By”
With “Something to Remember Me By” The Horrors have realized their full transformation from skittish goth punk to tripped-out dream pop. The track is arena-ready, with a ramped-up synth line that would have fit well into the feel-good stadium rock of 1990’s Manchester. The song is also split with an epic two-minute segue filled with atmospheric laser shots and space-age lift-off noises.
“Something To Remember Me By” is the final song on their album, and it is an on-the-nose attempt at a magnum-opus—the heavily repeated chorus proclaims, “Now, all that's left behind, something to remember me by”—and the effort is largely successful. They reached very, very high, and hit their mark.
15. B Boys – “Energy”
“Energy” as the name suggests, has plenty of it. It is a post-punk blitzkrieg with spoken/shouted vocals, a frenetic bass line, and guitars that start off quick and only get quicker. Their sound is disciplined but visceral, which reflects their method, as they describe it: “There’s rarely an intention - we follow the vibration and try to make it our own.” (photo via Instagram)
14. Chad VanGaalen – “Old Heads”
Chad VanGaalen’s sixth album is about his anxiety regarding his children growing up with the internet. VanGaalen wants his kids to have an opportunity to be in an “environment where you can be as creative as possible at any moment” and he worries that constant exposure to the internet could stunt their opportunities for artistic growth.
This kind of existential uncertainty bleeds throughout “Old Heads,” a wildly catchy track with crunchy guitars and zany synths that VanGaalen recorded all on his own. On it, VanGaalen asks, now that the “Old Heads” are no longer in charge, “Who is the operator keeping all my cells together?” It is a new world for VanGaalen, and for his children, and he is trying to figure out who makes the rules.
13. Alison Krauss – “Gentle On My Mind”
Thirty years after she released her first album, and almost twenty years since her last solo album, Alison Krauss has released a new set of country songs. The highlight, though, may be a cover: of the 1960’s hit, “Gentle On My Mind.”
Backed with some light percussion, lap steel, and piano, Krauss sings a song about a homeless wanderer. Krauss’s version does not add levity, necessarily, but lightness. The wanderer is still “in some train yard” with a “dirty hat” and a beard as rough as a “coal pile,” but Krauss adds real hope. Her voice is as pretty and crystalline as the memories that push the wanderer to keep moving along.
12. Rostam – “Wood”
Rostam Batmanglij left Vampire Weekend last year and began working on his first solo album that came out this September. The album centers around the song, “Wood” which Rostam originally recorded by himself on an airplane in 2011, while Vampire Weekend was perhaps at the height of their popularity. “Wood” sounds like a crossover track to his new solo identity.
The song has the elegant strings of Vampire Weekend, and the propulsive vocals, and the same “world music” element—here it being a twelve-string guitar and a digital sitar. But the song also meanders, and mulls about in a non-purposeful way that would be out of sync with the full VW band. It finds a place that Vampire Weekend did not.
11. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “Sleep Drifter”
King Gizzard released four albums this year, a staggering amount of creative output that is as remarkable in its scale as it is in its scope. “Sleep Drifter” is ambitious. It is a psych-rock epic that feels five times longer than its actual length, which is less than five minutes. The Australian band dives quickly and deeply with heavy drums and gnarly guitars before fading into a funky prog outro. The song, like the “Sleep Drifter,” is constantly “drifting in and out,” which is also their “favorite state to be.”
10. Cigarettes After Sex – “Sunsetz”
This terribly named outfit from El Paso make stripped-down bedroom pop that combines the space of The XX and with the broken heart of Chris Isaak. Their music is crisp, sultry, and languid. It is bare, cavernous, and vulnerable. It is music for a deep freeze, or a deep depression.
On “Sunsetz,” singer Greg Gonzalez’s voice first appears naked but for the lightest of drums. When he sings, “When you go away, I still see you,” his words slowly fade as if made of smoke. By the end, the whole song seems to have floated away like a just-ended dream.
9. Bing & Ruth – “As Much as Possible”
Bing & Ruth is the work of David Simon, a pianist from Kansas who went to New York to study Jazz and Contemporary music. Simon is fanatically dedicated to his craft. His latest album took 20 months, 17 pianos, and 5 countries to record.
“As Much As Possible” is not much more than a gentle piano playing over buzzing, howling synths. But it is a concept fully refined. Like the first snow melt of spring, each piano key warmly drips over the cool surface below. (photo via Instagram)
8. Amber Coffman – “No Coffee”
In her first solo album after spending ten years with the band, Dirty Projectors, Coffman takes her voice center stage. Her vocals for Dirty Projectors were often distant and choppy. Here, they are warm and soulful, with the slightest bit of classic country warble. It’s a gorgeous effort, backed with light harmony, a chunky bass line, and loose guitar.
“No Coffee” was written when Coffman was crying more than eating while dealing with a breakup from the lead singer of Dirty Projectors, Dave Longstreth, with whom Coffman worked and also dated. Although it is about a breakup, the song is an uplifting affair. Coffman sings that even though she misses him and “crying on my own tonight,” she is still “strong enough.” She knows that she still has plenty of love to give, even if much of it is still directed to someone who pushed her away.
7. Charli XCX ft. Tove Lo and ALMA – “Out of My Head”
Charli XCX, still just 25, has made plenty of pop hits, including three top ten singles. She knows how to let a song speak for itself. And on “Out of My Head” she takes a back seat, letting Alma and Tove Lo tag team on a striking one-two vocal hook.
“Out of My Head” is a meta club track, with a beat ready for the dance floor and lyrics that discuss the reasons for heading to the floor in the first place. Charli XCX sings about “partying with my tears” and Alma follows suit, secretly admitting that she loves to bemoan the person who she can’t stop bemoaning about. They are escaping not because they have to, but because they can.
6. Jay Som – “The Bus Song”
Oakland’s Jay Som has recorded two albums from her bedroom studio. Her songs have a 90’s retro fashion akin to The Sundays or Cardigans, with loudly whispered vocals about the things that happen in her daily life.
On “The Bus Song” she sings that she likes to ride the bus because “I can be whoever I want to be.” Mostly, though, she wants to find someone who can ride the bus with her. And she’s willing to wait for the right person to come to her. “Take time to figure it out,” she sings, “I’ll be the one to stick around.”
5. Protomartyr – “Don’t Go to Anacita”
A lot of people have raised their hands at the prices at Whole Foods, but few have written songs about the experience. Protomartyr singer, Joe Casey, saw someone buy an eight dollar kombucha and he was inspired to write a song about how, even in the band’s hometown of Detroit, income inequality could be so starkly ignored. Casey sees “Anacita” as a place of progressive disconnect. It is a fictional city where the “liberal-minded . . . close their eyes and dream of technology and kombucha” while migrant workers do all the hard labor.
Sharp, punk guitars helicopter in the background while an up-tempo rhythm section keeps the pressure on the listener to stay away from Anacita. You can nearly hear the spittle skip from Casey’s lips as his hardy rasp claims that anywhere else would be better than a city of self-delusion. Casey sings, “You're better off living in a hole.”
4. Young Thug – “Do U Love Me”
Young Thug is difficult to pin down. This year, he was able to offend the cosmetics company, Cover Girl, and also convince H&M to give him his own line of clothing. Also this year, he dropped a well-received mixtape of relatively traditional trap music, and marketed his other release of the year as a country album.
“Do U Love Me” is, at its heart, a love song. But in Young Thug fashion, he can line up a sweet line about being ready to settle down next to a comment about pubic hair. He asks a girl to fall in love with him, but also to twerk for him. His aesthetic is, to say the least, scattered.
With a light-hearted reggaeton beat, Young Thug sings in key, and in high-pitched yelps, and in staccato raps. He is sweet and crude, elegant and rough. He is all of himself all of the time.
3. Ellen Arkbro – “Three”
Let’s get this out of the way: Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro’s “Three” is twelve straight minutes of subtly alternating horn notes. If you think that is extravagant, her last project was 26 days long. The first track on her new album features a 400-year-old German organ. For every live performance of her new album, Arkbro rewrites the entire score to the exact Hz measurement.
All of Arkbro’s efforts are laudable—if not unmatchable—but they are also jaw-droppingly beautiful. On “Three,” horns overlap at multiple second intervals, one in the foreground while the others buzz and drone underneath. Sometimes the notes change in sync, sometimes they linger slightly past one another. The cumulative effect is transportive and disarming, each horn a steeper step down the rabbit hole until everything that came before is out of sight. (photo via Instagram)
2. Dirty Projectors – “Up in Hudson”
The Dirty Projectors’ latest release is a breakup album. Specifically it is about lead singer Dave Longstreth’s romantic and professional breakup from longtime band member and partner, Amber Coffman, whose own solo project (and reflection on their breakup) appears at #8 on this list.
“Up in Hudson” is a wistful look back on their relationship. Its lyrics are, according to Uproxx, “painfully specific.” Whether it is minute details (“Now I'm listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway, riding fast”), cheesy reflections (“First time I ever kissed your mouth, we both felt time stop”), exact emotions (“I'm just up in Hudson bored and destructive knowing that nothing lasts”) or trite conclusions (“'Love will burn out and love will just fade away”), the song leaves little to interpretation.
In spite of the lyrical simplicity, Longstreth has created another genius arrangement. The song has flourishes of horns and strings and finger snaps. He sings alone, and multi-tracked, and with doo-wop harmony. The song shifts in momentum from warm, leisurely verses as he recalls fond memories of he and her together, to chaotic choruses as he acknowledges that the relationship is now over, to a steady “life-goes-on” outro made up of dizzying reverb and wooden percussion. It is a wild, sharp, and gorgeous vision of Longstreth’s very recent past.
1. Gord Downie – “Wolf’s Home”
Just a couple years ago, David Bowie recorded an album with his mortality closely upon him. Although released posthumously, he likely did not know that he was dying while he was recording it. Similarly, many other artists have material released after their death. The lead singer of the storied Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip, released an album just days after his death earlier this year. Gord Downie, though, knew that he was dying.
In the last few months before he succumbed to brain cancer, and while dealing with its symptoms, Downie tried to record as much as he could before the end. He managed to put down 23 tracks during two separate, four-day sessions. Each song on the album is relatively simple, with not much more than a piano, acoustic guitar and Downie’s voice.
“Wolf’s Home” tells the story of a man sitting down to address his family. He tells them that “Man's a god when he dreams, and a beggar when he reflects.” A life is worth more than a simple highlight reel of events.
A simple acoustic riff and a light, steady kick-drum carry Downie’s full-throated pleas as he longs to feel his life in full. He wants to touch all the people he loved and lost, all the hurt he caused, and all of his own gifts that he offered through the years, “I got great touch” he sings, and “I didn’t vanish when I was afraid.”
“Wolf’s Home” becomes more urgent as it progresses. Downie’s voice rises midway through until it disappears into the clouds as he sings, “Got more than most and yet!” He then tumbles forward, briskly listing his appreciation for “all I’ve been afforded.”
Downie concludes by repeating “All I want is you” again and again in an unflinching push to connect to the people closest to him before letting go with a final, audible sigh. Like many of the songs on Downie’s last album, “Wolf’s Home” feels like something not left behind, but sent forward; still very much alive.