This year, building a music discovery platform called TastemakerX, I was looking harder than usual at new music. I was doing this primarily to prove my thesis that music discovery is becoming increasingly more difficult. This is due in part to the enormous decrease in the costs of producing and distributing music, thanks in part to technology (for production) and the Internet (for distribution). As a result there is much more music being produced than ever before and, not surprisingly, it is nearly impossible to stay on top of it all. You'd think that the Internet would have solved this problem, but algorithms don't turn people onto music, people do, and for the most part digital music hasn't been very social up to now. With that said, this has been another stellar year for music. You should make a point to try it all.
1) Angus Stone -- Broken Brights (Nettwerk)
I didn't pay much attention to Angus & Julia Stone last year, so when I stumbled in to see Angus playing a gig supporting his new solo album I was woefully unprepared. As history will prove, I am a sucker for the warm modern but nostalgic music of today's bearded neo-hippie indie folk scene (Fleet Foxes, Head and the Heart, Midlake). "Broken Brights" is far and away the album that has stuck with me most deeply.
Although, Stone is an Aussie, the 13 songs on this record are cut crisply from '70s Americana lore. There are all sorts of obvious reference points from Neil Young ("Bird and the Buffalo") to Dylan ("Monsters") but there is nothing merely derivative here. The band, which features a lovely assortment of strings, brass, guitar and banjo, is just sublime. Every year there is one that raises above all others, and this year it is Angus Stone. This is that warm, woody music that will never feel out of time or place.
2) Alt-J -- An Awesome Wave (Ribbon Music)
Some music just gets under your skin. Alt-J is an acquired taste but once you turn onto it it sticks hard -- like the first Violent Femmes record for a dated example. An Awesome Wave is a delicate, textured experiment in genre bending rock. There are quiet pianos, and soulful vocals, that come across almost like B-sides from a Windham Hill record juxtaposed with songs held together by a broad smattering of loops, blips, and drum lines that bounce around like bare feet on hot pavement.
A bit like Zappa filtered through a lava lamp, but every song here is sliced from the same pie in an impeccably produced series of soundscapes as potent as anything this year. From the edgy and beautiful "Dissolve Me" and "Fitzpleasure" to the pristine balladry on "Mathilda" or "Bloodflood." Like Django Django, Alt-J runs the modern history of rock through a psychedelic sieve and comes up multi-colored roses.
3) Django Django -- Django Django (Ribbon Music)
As much as I love mellow countrified indie rock, my other real musical love is for groove based new wave music. This includes almost any music that probably uses the Velvet Underground as a starting point, passing through Pink Floyd en route to Radiohead. Django Django is one of two bands that broke through using that blueprint this year (the other being Alt-J).
The band is another in a series of great Scottish bands (The Beta Band, Hot Chip) that fuse incredibly catchy songwriting with approachable electronica. Django Django is a relentlessly upbeat album ("Default" and "Hail Bop") although it is more light bursting through the shadows than beach music. It's hard to resist the toe tapping beats, and bite sized chorus' throughout, and they rarely give you time to catch your breath.
4) Polica -- Give You the Ghost (Conveyor)
Polica's singer Channy Leaneagh, a former member of Minneapolis supergoup Gayngs, and starring Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, is a legit star. Just watching her move on stage is something else, and then she starts to sing. On tracks like "Lay Your Cards Outs" and "Dark Star" you fall immediately into the smoothest grooves, with the double drum tracks steering gently towards something on a hazy horizon.
I first saw Polica at SXSW in 2012. I knew almost nothing about them, but the music felt immediately recognizable yet brand new. Like a torch passed from the great female vocalists from the 90's (Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Frazier, and Morcheeba's Skye Edwards), trip hop it seems is again alive and well.
5) Dirty Projectors -- Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
Although it's fair to describe Swing Lo Magellan as the Projectors most "accessible" album to date, it is still a challenging record. Swing Lo Magellan is truly a brilliant accomplishment: complicated, melodic, harmonious, discordant, catchy, and somber. It is the most unique "pop" record of the year by a city mile, bathed in lush instrumentation and Ivy League lyrics.
The band is the brainchild of Yale dropout David Longstreth, and what is most distinctive about Dirty Projectors music is both the ridiculously difficult guitar lines and tunings, and the incredible transitions. In the end what we get is a collage of sweet discovery ("Swing Lo Magellan" and "Impregnable Question") mixed with strange pop incarnations like "Dance With You" and "About to Die." It is a weird and wonderful joy.
6) Michael Kiwanuka -- Home Again (ATO)
Not since the '70s masterpieces by Curtis Mayfield, Issac Hayes, Rodriguez (and others), has there been a record this soulful and authentic. Kiwanuka is a 24-year-old Brit with a voice as smooth as anything you are likely to hear. Discovered by The Bees Paul Butler, himself a musical revivalist, Home Again is an album of anachronistic magic, and old-fashioned modern soul.
Kiwanuka originally imagined himself primarily as a guitarist, but on instant classics like "Tell Me Take" and "I'll get Along" you hear Hendrix filtered through Van Morrison, silky and smooth. The production and instrumentation is a perfect compliment to the truly special magic that happens on Home Again. It doesn't get much better.
7) Sharon Van Etten -- Tramp (Jagjaguar)
I remember the first time I saw Jeff Buckley live, solo and plugged into a small amp at Sin-é Café on St. Marks in NYC. I had heard the tapes, but to see him live was to get the context that made it all make sense. I feel the same way about Sharon Van Etten. She is a blossoming genius with a heavenly voice, hugely personal lyrics and a presence that is both surprisingly whimsical yet profoundly intense.
Some artists write beautiful lyrics or music, others have voices like angels or devils, while others bleed passion and genius across a complete spectrum. But the very best of them transport us to a totally new place, they get hold of us and don't let go until the last chord is strummed, the last lyric falls, leaving us longing for more. Sharon Van Etten is that rare combination of raw honesty and accessible emotion. Three albums into what will hopefully be a long career, Van Etten, has found a middle ground between the precious, raw and spare "We Are Fine" and the straight forward rock "Serpents." I'm in love.
8) Foxygen -- Take the Kids Off Broadway (Jagjaguar)
When two kids about a third the age of their apparent idols: Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, and Nick Cave, reinterpret the '70s, the result will either be disastrous or incredible. Take the Kids Off Broadway is a brilliant breezy trip to the past channeled through something uniquely modern. If Wes Anderson were looking to score his movies with modern artists, Foxygen would be his house band.
On tunes like "Waitin' 4 U" you are hurled back into a Stonesy state of mind, and a moment later on "Make it Known" it is more like David Johansen's New York Dolls swagger. For most people born after 1965, this whole era of music was missed completely, which is a tragedy. Thanks to bands like MGMT and Foxygen, dirty, dirgy rock music is alive and well again.
9) Tame Impala -- Lonerism (Modular)
Australia's Tame Impala is an old school, big time psychedelic rock band. From the very first chords on Lonerism (the sublime "Got to Be Above It") you feel transported back to an epic Pink Floyd show from an age long gone. Most of the band members were born a decade after The Wall but with a breadth of keys, swirling guitars and a steady baseline, everything just falls neatly into place despite the controlled cacophony.
To see the band live is to re/experience what a rock show used to be like: extended jams, trippy lights, and long improvisational moments of musical theater. Songs like "Elephant" thump and thud with an irresistible hard rock beat, while much of the rest of this minor masterpiece reflects the past through a two way mirror into the future.
10) Grizzly Bear -- Shields (Warp)
Like the Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear aspires to something well beyond conventional rock music. Their musical abilities have finally caught up with their ambition. Alternating between precious and raucous, the band refuses to play it straight and instead chooses a stranger road paved with unexpected transitions and odd tunings.
Occasionally they make it easy on the listener with tunes like "Yet Again" and "Gun Shy," which seem to glide on a careful pop structure, filled with crystalline vocals exchanged among the band's multiple vocalists. Other times they tend to push you into an entirely different direction, as in "Sleeping Ute," where the melodies explode into a wall of sound. Shields is a magical place, filled with magical players and sounds.
11) Frank Ocean -- Channel Orange (Def Jam)
Frank Ocean's music is way outside my sweet spot, but it is impossible to deny how good this record is. I suppose it's broadly R&B, slow jam style, but it is the lyricism that makes much of the difference. Like Stevie in his heyday, Ocean glides through this 17 track classic, bending genres but cohesive throughout.
The clear single "Thinkin Bout You" best showcases his smooth delivery and commitment to telling real stories, but the rest of the album is quite a bit subtler. The nearly ten minute "Pyramids" is something different entirely, with a few songs that bleed into each with some contemplative guitar solos punctuating transitions. Ultimately, I'll usually go the soul and folk route when I want a vibe like this, but this is something entirely different and oddly new.
12) Alabama Shakes -- Boys & Girls (ATO)
It was only a matter of time before the space that the Black Keys reopened for rock and blues loving indie rock lovers, began to be filled by a blues rock revival that would eventually find its way into the mainstream. Alabama Shakes is a four piece Southern rock band lead by the incredible Brittany Howard, a former postal worker turned rock goddess.
From the initial chords on the signature track "Hold On," the band channels the Allman Brothers through Janis Joplin, bringing together a few of the most uniquely authentic American musical styles: blues, rock and country. Sure, perhaps the music hype machine has placed insurmountable expectations on this band, but in an age of computer music, it sure is nice to hear the real deal.
13) Glen Hansard -- Rhythm and Repose (Anti-)
I have loved Hansard since his debut in The Commitments eons ago, and throughout a half dozen beautifully emotive Frames albums. But it was the film "Once" and the beautiful collaboration with Marketa Irglova as The Swell Season that finally brought Hansard to the quasi mainstream.
Ryhthm and Repose is another bitter sweet masterpiece by one of the finest songwriters since Astral Weeks era Van Morrison. Hansard wears his heart on his sleeve, but does so in such a genuine way it is hard to judge "Love Don't Leave Me Waiting" as anything other than the best love song of the year. To see Hansard live, strumming his tattered acoustic guitar, is to understand again how powerful live music like this can be.
14) Beach House -- Bloom (SubPop)
Lush, orchestral, and deadly serious. Beach House has evolved from almost too sleepy and precious early on, to a band who creates some of the biggest warmest, songs on the planet. In fact this album is so good, it almost seems too obvious to include. After the epic "Teen Dream" a few years back, you had to wonder where they would go next and what they would do. The answer is, they didn't move very far, but it was just the right amount.
Led by the other-worldly vocals of Victoria Legrand, "Bloom" is an overall optimistic affair with tracks like "Myth," "Other People," and "Lazuli" all thrusting you into some weightless space adventure, drifting calmly about the stars, gravity all but gone, like listening to a dream.
15) Gary Clark Jr. -- Blak and Blu (Warner Brothers)
Gary Clark is a guitar savant in the same mold as Hendrix. He plays blues, R&B, crunchy roots based guitar rock, and even a bit of hip-hop. This is a blessing and curse. I almost wish he covered less ground, or at least compartmentalized the styles better. He has the unique power to take you on many journeys but they tend to meander mightily.
Although it's impossible to translate what he does live to a recording, there is no real solution for this, and part of the reason this album doesn't track higher for me. Like the Black Keys, this is loud in your face old school American rock music (see "When My Train Pulls In") and the album tracks are merely appetizers for the live main course. A musician like this appears only once in the bluest moon, so make sure you check it out.
16) Lord Huron -- Lonesome Dreams (IAMSound)
Luscious, alterna-country-folk, from LA-based Michigan transplant Ben Schneider. Half the record is as gorgeous as anything you heard this year, echos of Fleet Foxes and Palace Brothers abound.
17) Husky -- So Far (Sub Pop).
Like Australia's version of Rogue Wave, Husky makes perfect pop music. It is a sound drenched with a soulful optimism -- a kind new wave revision of '70s era California rock.
18) Lower Dens -- Nootropics (Ribbon Music).
Weirdly and transcendently gorgeous, like Beach House on Xanax, Baltimore's Lower Dens spin deep mellow grooves.
19) Cloud Nothings -- Attack on Memory (Carpark Records).
Like many of the eclectic Ohio rock bands before them (GBV, Pere Ubu) Cloud Nothings play straight forward punk rock from a wonderfully wholesome place.
20) Japandroids -- Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl).
Not since the Glory days of SST, with Husker Du, Buffalo Tom and Dinosaur Jr. has there been a committed punk rock band this melodic and soulful.
21) The Maccabees -- Given to the Wild (Fiction), is like Coldplay's best. An eponymous debut parachutes this album as a soaring testament to the power of impeccably produced pop.
22) Miike Snow -- Happy to You (ATO).
Swedish pop phenoms Miike Snow combines all the elements of what is great about electronica music but with an orchestra of beautiful voices.
23) Father John Misty -- Fear Fun (Sub Pop).
Ex-Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman, interprets all the cynicism and superficiality of Los Angeles into a glorious, alt-rock debut.
24) Cat Power -- Sun (Matador).
Chan Marshall is a emotional open book, and "Sun" is perhaps her sunniest most pop-oriented effort, written in a post break up haze, that glows brighter than anything since her classic "The Greatest."
25) Here We Go Magic -- A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian).
This is an impeccably produced, impossible to pinpoint, amalgam of indie goodness, filled with jangly guitars, trance like vocals, and the deep colorful grooves that make it impossible to resist standing still.
26) Grimes -- Visions (4AD).
Blissed out ethereal vocals, mixed with unshakable beats, and the genuine artistic glow from Canadian Claire Boucher = something truly special.
27) Woods -- Bend Beyond (Woodist).
Folk pop preciousness from another of the great Brooklyn bands, that mixes moments of Ween with that of something much more homespun.
28) Chromatics -- Kill for Love (Italians Do It Better).
It's hard to not fall immediately for the unassuming beats and melt-in-your-mouth vocals of Ruth Radelet -- that plus the best Neil Young cover of all time ("Into the Black").