Favorite Music from 2015

In what has become the only personal blog post regularly written since 2012, I’m excited to share my top 10 favorite albums from the year.

End-of-year lists are odd. I’ve long given up trying to position music I enjoy as objectively better than others. I’ve dropped the passive aggressive nature of forcing specific genres on those who don’t reciprocate the same level of interest.

But—I do enjoy sharing for the simple pleasure of potentially being the conduit to something new for someone else.

With that, here are the top 10 albums I really enjoyed in 2015. The rubric is simple: albums are ordered by how much I enjoyed the album as a whole.

If even one friend or colleague or reader stumbles across a musician or album they hadn’t considered, and it becomes a gateway to a new sound they never thought they’d enjoy, then I am happy.

01 Jamie xx — In Colour

Wasn’t really close this year, which is saying something, because 2015 was a fantastic, deep year for music. Rena and I listened to Jamie xx’s first full-length album more than any other album without question. We had a chance to see him live in Seattle at an outdoor summer concert the first week we moved here, which added to the personal mystique.

The album never lost steam. The highs are euphoric; there are no lows. It gets your body moving without being staid club music with cheap bass drops. In Colour is so complete it competes with many of my favorite electronic albums of late, from Four Tet to Caribou. Jamie has truly arrived as one of the best of the best DJs in Britain if not the world.

02 Deerhunter — Fading Frontier

I was not a fan of 2013’s Menomena. I get why people liked it, and Bradford Cox’s explanation made sense. But it lost the melodic charm that often only Deerhunter can provide. Simply listen to “Helicopter” or “Desire Lines” or “Agrophobia” to understand the simplistic power of Deerhunter song constructions.

Which is why Fading Frontier was so interesting. This was a pole opposite sound; the closest thing to pop Deerhunter has been or likely ever will be. It is soft, melodic, suburban sound, and that’s okay. It could have easily been a disaster. Some Deerhunter fans hate it, probably simply because they tried to do it.

Interestingly, while the first few songs got all the public press, it was the second half of the album which gripped me. “Ad Astra” and “Carrion” weren’t just album hits, both I considered some of my favorite songs of the year. “Carrion” in particular is classic Deerhunter, and may be their best song to date.

03 Martin Courtney — Many Moons

It’s no secret my love for the band Real Estate and its members. They are without question my favorite group of the last 5 years, especially when you consider the wonderful side projects of each band member.

Martin Courtney, the lead for Real Estate, published a full-length solo album during a Real Estate off-year. In many ways it has the same Real Estate sunniness to it, but with more Americana, which was a surprising pleasure. Martin had an interesting blend of Real Estate softness and Tom Petty loudness. I loved most every song on the album, and appreciated the periodic guitar jams to break up the 3-minute templates.

04 Floating Points — Elaenia

Later in the year Sam Shepherd published his first full-length album as Floating Points. In many ways, Sam is considered to be the “smartest” producer in Britain. His music is complex and complicated. A mix of genres, but mostly a break-through take on modern jazz in a DJ setting. It’s Gatorade for intellectual wanna-bes.

Floating Points isn’t a new project, though. He has been publishing music for years, but always in a drip format. A single here, a 3-song EP there. Never has he done a full-length album until Elaenia. I wonder if it’s because he takes the music so seriously and didn’t want to publish an album that wasn’t its own story. With Elaenia, he accomplished that.

For anyone interested in what the great New Orleans jazz musicians of the 1920s would make if they were millennials living in London today, check out this album.

05 Khruangbin – The Universe Smiles Upon You

Came across this band completely by accident. For years I’ve been meaning to listen to more jazz. I get it—jazz is the foundation of so much music; it’s one of the true expressive art forms uniquely birthed in America; it’s where most sophisticated music fans end up. I need to get there at some point, right? Well it has been hard, almost intimidating. Jazz as a genre I seek out consistently escapes me.

Which is why Khruangbin is so interesting. It is not straight jazz. I saw it described as Thai-Brazilian-Disco-Jazz. The distant mixture is not hyperbole: the band puts together many flavors of beat-based jazz without it sounding like a junior high experiment.

06 Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell

What an amazing return from Sufjan! Most of his fan base has yearned for him to drop the experimentation and continue to produce the beautiful epics only he can create. It’s true: many believe the perfection of Michigan or Illinoise is a sound only Sufjan is capable of. When he veered towards new musical direction in the mid-2000s, we all had to put up with the inevitability that we’ll never get another work of art like them again. He must have felt the pressure too.

Carrie & Lowell isn’t the same style or exact sound as his Midwest state motif, but it was a return to beautiful, heartfelt music that could have only truly came from Sufjan. Once you learn the backstory—Carrie is his mother and Lowell his step-dad; Carrie died in 2012, so this album is a tribute to her—you realize how incredible the story strung throughout the album can be. His mom left him as a child. She had mental issues (bi-polar?). She moved to Oregon and became estranged. They met up again. Then they lost touch again. He resents her, but he loves her. You feel the emotion in every song.

We had a chance to see him live in Milwaukee last March. The best concert of the year, and the best since we saw Beach House in the same city a few years earlier. He played the entire album from start to finish. No covers, no additional music. Just the album. Mid-show, he paused and told a story about his grandmother’s funeral which brought the entire venue to tears. There isn’t a musician like Sufjan, and we’re all blessed to have him.

This would have been higher in the list, but honestly the second-half of the album, while lyrically moving, was musically just-okay.

07 My Morning Jacket — The Waterfall

It’s good to have My Morning Jacket back. It feels like an eternity since Okonokos filled my earbuds for months on end. (2006 to be precise!) Their work since then has been good, but never captured the unique-yet-familiar folk/jazz/hillbilly/rock sound that their mid-2000s work had. I’m very happy to report The Waterfall appears to have captured the magic from a decade ago.

The reactions on this album have been split, especially among My Morning Jacket fans. Some felt it was a weak reversion to something we’ve all heard many times over. Others praised the flawless execution on just that familiar sound. I personally fell in the latter camp.

08 Gun Outfit — Dream All Over

A band which has been around for a while but I’m only discovering this year. It’s sound surprised me. We listened to it while driving the rural Cascadia landscapes of our new Pacific Northwest home, and it was a perfect fit. Gun Outfit is the rock’n’roll folk you listen to when driving to a bar in the woods.

09 Kurt Vile — b’lieve i’m goin down

Kurt has grown into a reliable source of annual music. His 2015 album is one of his better works since early early Kurt Vile. “Pretty Pimpin'” played on-repeat for a solid week in my headphones. I’m starting to wonder if Kurt has officially taken over as torch holder of modern Americana. I can’t think of anyone else who produces the sound as well as him as consistently as he does.

10 Tame Impala — Currents

Okay, fine. I’ll put Tame Impala in the top 10. Just know that I didn’t want to. I really really didn’t. In fact, I’m slotting it in as number 10 only so you can listen to it and decide for yourself, but also to give me a reason to quickly rant about why it doesn’t deserve to be here.

Kevin Parker is a turd.

The band leader is about as egocentric as a modern musician can come. He’s the worst parts of Jack White, Wayne Coyne, and Bono. There are countless stories in the music journalism sphere which detail his feuds, his belief that his music is the best, his protectiveness of his copyright, his sell-out tendencies, and how he in general sees the world with him at the center.

Who knows how much truth there is to that. The fact that I didn’t have any immediate links on hand to give you a reference to that conjecture demonstrates it could all be rumor, anyways. I could be just another unchecked Internet voice echoing an old story.

But when I listened to Currents and the album’s story, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. All the songs are literally about him, and how hard his life happens to be because of others. It’s pretty wild to put the album through the lens of the rumors above.

And yet… the post-production is really good. Like best-of-the-best good. The songs are perfectly rendered. The sound produced is potentially the best on the whole list. That’s why I am torn, and leave it up to you to decide if this is a classic album worth raving or something we’ll all forget about in a couple years.

A few other singles I loved

Mac Demarco – “No Other Heart”

The undisputed king goofball of troll indie rock.

Pender Street Steppers – “The Glass City”

Huge fan of Jack J, the Vancouver-based DJ on the Mood Hut label. This is a group project on the same label is a part of.

Jack J – “Thirstin”

Speaking of Jack J!

Shamir – “On The Regular”

Oh man, Shamir. This single technically came out at the end of last year, but was on an album release in March. I love this song. Shamir is great because he is himself and doesn’t care what you think. I like people like that.

American Wrestlers – “Holy”

Really love these guys. This album would have been my #11. It’s like if you combined Wild Nothing, Bear in Heaven, and 1988 rock’n’roll.

Tobias Jesso – “Without You”

The new, good Ben Folds mixed with an homage to 1970s ballads? Fun.

Julia Holter – “Sea Calls Me Home”

She’s really fun.

DIIV – “Dopamine”

DIIV’s 2012 release Ochin is one of my biggest oversights in the last several years. I missed out on that album and now it’s one of my go-to punkie-indie sounds. “Dopamine” is a teaser single for their new album coming out next year. I can’t wait.

Dam Funk – “Free”

Not what you’re expecting.

Neon Indian – “Slumlord”

Tycho Sunrise Mix

I still think there is something interesting about SoundCloud and the future of music. DJ mixes are the new radio: it’s how we get trusted curation of new music. Tycho’s sunrise mix at Burning Man (LOLs, festival not with standing) is a good example of a fun mix.

Jamie xx – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

I loved “Gosh” the most, but this was his most popular single. It’s explicit, featuring Young Thug. Here is the 1960s song he sampled played at the Capitol Hill block party Rena and I attended. Life is fun.

Top 10 Singles of 2014

1. Nils Frahm – “For” (Luke Abbott Rework) RHIZOME

2014’s favorite single isn’t really much of a single at all. It’s a 42-minute DJ mix by Luke Abbott, who I’ve mentioned a lot in previous music recaps. Luke’s latest album was underwhelming for me, but he’s emerging as the king of DJ mixes.

Let me take a minute to discuss the culture of these mixes. In America, we tend to poke fun at the concept of a DJ mix, and rightly so because 9 times out of 10 it’s done by a hobbyist. A famous Portlandia sketch summed up the over-saturation of the “DJ”.

In Europe, however, it has become fashionable for the best-of-the-best musicians to do DJ sets at famous clubs. In the same way Kevin Spacey has migrated away from the Big Screen to the smaller screen of Netflix, top-tier European musicians find the DJ set as a liberating way to artfully blend the wide range of their musical inspiration. Mixes aren’t a collection of top 40 hits—what you’d see in a typical American bar. Instead, they tend to be seamless blends of every genre imaginable.

Personally, I’ve migrated towards listening to these mixes a lot more the past few years. It’s one reason Sound Cloud has become such an integral part of a music fan’s lifestyle. It’s a new form of radio, one that beats Pandora’s algorithm, Spotify’s suggestions (it’s just top 40 stuff), and of course the radio itself. What we are seeing is hour+ sessions of curated music from expertly skilled musicians. They are handpicking suggestions for us.

Without question these mixes have been the biggest source of “new” music for me. I’ve been exposed to more 80s reggae, 70s Brazilian soul, 60s Indian folk, and early British jazz than I ever would have via modern software or business models.

There are different tiers of music fans, no doubt. Some are casual, while some are rabid. Somewhere along the spectrum when music starts to mean something deeper to the listener, I believe the Spotify software and Hollywood business model breaks down. New music discovery becomes a personal, trusted conversation with others in a similar or more aggressive tier. Personal recommendations end up being the way we find music, not Pandora.

These DJ mixes are basically the best digital representation of that dynamic. Luke Abbott, a skilled musician from Norwich in the UK, can share his personal recommendations instantly thousands of miles away with Kris Gösser, a simple guy hanging out in Madison, Wisconsin, with a mix like this.

To me, this is the future of music I see for the deeper music fan. I find myself listening less and less to albums, or the algorithms of Pandora and Spotify, and more to these mixes you find on Sound Cloud. It’s an interesting time in music.

At any rate, this particular mix from Luke earlier in 2014 was my favorite of the year, and is without question the thing I listened to the most. Every other European-based musician I hold in high regard—Four Tet, Matthew Dear, Caribou, Floating Points, Pearson Sound, Jamie xx, Thom York, and so on—had mixes throughout 2014. It was a blast listening to them.

Interestingly enough, Luke had another mix in August that would be my #2 “single” selection, but for the sake of diversity, I’ll just link to it here.

2. Sun Kill Moon – “Ben’s My Friend”

I like Mark Kozelek. While I struggle to connect with his albums as a whole, he has continuously provided awe-inspiring singles. “Ben’s My Friend” was my favorite formal single this year.

3.Todd Terje – “Inspector Norse”

Who likes to dance?! Oh man, that got weird quickly.

4. Pure X – “Starlight”

I had a chance to see Pure X open for Real Estate in Minneapolis. It was the first I had heard of them. They opened with “Starlight”, and it blew us away. I love this 1980s Golden Girls sound, but done in an artful, slower way. A great romantic song.

5. Bahamas – “All The Time”

The song featured in a James Franco / Verizon commercial. I know, commercial music is bad. But this song is fantastic. Rena and I absolutely loved it.

6. Tiga – “Bugatti”

My favorite music video of the year. I love the story that it tells too. Tiga is a genius.

7. Eno • Hyde – “Lilac”

Brian Eno and Karl Hyde came out with a fun album this year, and “Lilac” was the best song of a worthy bunch.

8. Arial Pink – “Black Ballerina”

I can’t think of an artist with as big of a gulf between the high highs and low lows as Arial Pink. A few years ago, “Round and Round” was my favorite single, and continues to be one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. He consistently has certain singles that stand out as complete works of art.

Then his albums underwhelm with a few tracks that are immediate skippers. If wink-wink-nudge-nudge is part of his allure, then I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate his work a whole.

Regardless, “Black Ballerina” is another example of the fun singles Arial consistently creates. So weird, but so good.

9. Tops – “Outside”

This was a fun find. It reminded me of the music you’d find on the Drive soundtrack. Once in a while I like the sound of an 80s prom dance.

10. DJ Dodger Stadium – “Love Songs”

Cool music video. What I call an “ear worm” song, where it gets in there, and then you can’t get it out.

Top 10 Albums of 2014

1. Real Estate – Atlas

Friends know I have strong admiration for the entire Real Estate group. I’m happy to report their early 2014 release Atlas is their best album to date, and firmly puts the band as my current favorite, which made me reflect on how music fans might go through the process of determining that.

The way music fans evolve their preferences is similar to a phenomenon in sports, particularly boxing. We mentally have a “championship belt” that one musician holds in our heads and hearts. They hold onto the belt until a challenger takes it away. Different life experiences are the trigger that transfers the belt. Maybe you come across a band in high school that spoke to your teenage angst. Maybe another reminds you of the time you fell in love. Or another is the perfect representation of your self discovery as you age into adulthood. Whatever the case might be, these moments prompt a change in musical preference, and in choice of favorite musician.

For me, I was introduced to music during high school. I know that sounds silly, but you know what I mean. Obviously I was aware of music as a thing while a child, but my only exposure was through pop culture mediums: TV and the radio. Up until that point my enjoyment of music was the latest top 40 hit. Of course I was a fan of Limp Bizkit and Kidrock as a 12 year old. What rural kid in the late 90s whose only exposure to music was the radio and Walmart CDs wouldn’t? At some point, though, someone introduces you to what music is really about. You become exposed to the art of it, and how it can move you. You shed the acceptance that music is a business force-fed to you. At that point, you’re at the genesis of an intimate relationship with music that will last indefinitely.

That first band was Modest Mouse, circa 1999. Isaac Brock held the championship belt until I stumbled across Radiohead and Kid A, which, retrospectively, seems so cliché. At any rate, Thom York was the holder until I grew into Sufjan Stevens in the mid 2000s, then Four Tet around 2010, and now Real Estate has taken the belt for the time being.

I’m glad they are making music, and I’m happy Atlas exists. It remains to be seen how long they hold the belt, and who takes it away from them.

2. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

It’s funny. The first 6 months this album was out I ignored it because of the album cover. I don’t think this is uncommon. We DO judge books by their cover. Often music is no different. I constantly find myself assuming a music’s genre based on the album cover, only to discover later that the music is completely opposite what I believed—and in fact is pretty damn awesome.

Todd Terje fit this year’s mold, but I’m glad a close friend and trusted music compatriot kept nagging me. It’s Album Time was a treat from front to back.

3. War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream

Of my entire list, I think War on Drugs got the most public pop punditry. Few talked about it at release, but by the time year-end top 10 lists were in full fashion, Lost in a Dream was consistently in people’s top 3, which surprised me. I guess new-age americana has taken hold in the pop world.

And that’s ok with me. I hope Adam Granduciel makes a lot of money because he deserves it. For me personally, this album was tied with Real Estate with the most consistent quality from start to finish. It was only lacking the star single that Todd Terje had to make it number two.

4. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days

Oh man, Mac DeMarco is crazy. Fortunately he is a gifted guitarist, and boasts a legitimate new sound. Every time I listen to Salad Days or his earlier work, I’m shocked at how difficult it is to think of an earlier artist he sounds like. He is truly his own sound.

Salad Days is fun and goofy. Anyone who likes summery guitar drawl should check it out.

Favorite single:

5. Bahamas – Bahamas Is Afie

Uh oh, an album whose main single was in a James Franco / Verizon commercial. Anti-pop zealots, of which I shamefully tend to tilt towards too frequently, would be disgusted.

But Bahamas has put a legitimately stunner album as a whole. This was Rena’s favorite album of the year, and I found myself signing along and enjoy every song when she would play it.

The album reminds me of a mix between the electric guitar found on early Wilco albums and the poppy folksy pace you get with a Feist album.

6. Jack J – Looking Forward To You

Just a three-song EP, but yummy. I love the energy found in European dance music, but often it’s difficult to get past the obvious formula. Instead, I’ve started to appreciate the sub-genre of club music that pulls heavily on jazz, and in particular dropping the thumping 1/4 bass machine for actual drums and a bass guitar. This style has emerged as my favorite dance music.

Jack J, a Canadian, produced three exquisitely fun tracks that perfectly represent my sentiment above. Looking Forward To You is a simple treat. Put it on when making dinner.

7. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

First Confession: I didn’t start listening to this album until around the holidays. It laid dormant in the back of my awareness since release.

Second Confession: Seeing her do a live version of “Birth In Reverse” on Saturday Night Live was a revelation (Jesus, that last minute was incredible). I was completely in love with what I saw. Inspired by the subtle beauty of a simple song, and the way it was performed.

So why did it take me three seasons to check out the album since that live performance? I honestly have no idea, and I’m slightly embarrassed I didn’t get on the St. Vincent bandwagon earlier. She’s a talent, an inspiration, and makes incredible music. I have a feeling either this album or the next one from Angel Olsen will be 2014’s underrated album.

8. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

When end-of-year lists started trickling out around Thanksgiving, I saw a lot of Angel Olsen mentioned. I hadn’t come across the band prior, so decided to check them out. I’m glad I did. The last month I’ve been steadily listening to Burn Your Fire For No Witnesses. I’m betting this is the 2014 album that I listen to the most in 2015 while I wonder, “Why didn’t I check these guys out sooner?!”

9. Alvvays – Alvvays

I first heard about Alvvays when they opened for Real Estate. Over time I listened more and more to the album, and became impressed with what I heard. It’s an excellent first album, and I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.

10. Caribou – Our Love

Dan’s best album. “Silver” is a banger, but “Julia Brightly” is bliss for two minutes. I wish it were longer.

Top Albums of 2013

1. Ducktails – The Flower Lane
One macro element of music that has fascinated me recently is regional influence. Certain sounds tend to come out of certain geographies. And because music communities are generally smallish wherever you find them, one group of musicians tends to know another. As with any creative endeavor, the artist is generally shaped by his or her immediate influences, like places and things. But the main noun—people—has the greatest influence. That is why lately I have explored the who-knows-who social graph of musicians as a way to discover new music.

It is essentially an extension of the label approach. If you like one artist, exploring other musicians on the same label is a quicker way to find other music you might enjoy because labels usually employ the same stylistic qualities. I find the people connection to be more successful because the relationships are more symmetric and influential.

So here we arrive to Ducktails, the authors of my favorite album of 2013. Ducktails is the solo project of Matt Mondanile, a Brooklyn artist originally from New Jersey. Matt is also a member of Real Estate, who took my top stop in 2011’s rankings. The Real Estate crew went to the same New Jersey high school as Titus Andronicus and now-Madison-resident Julian Lynch. Getting hooked on Real Estate lead to the discovery of all these guys, including individual side projects.

This has been a format I’ve started to use elsewhere, like the British DJ scene. Or the branches coming from the Deerhunter tree. It has been the most reliable way for me to discover new music that I enjoy.

As for the album itself, it is incredible. Matt blends the jazzy electric guitar with the breezy sea-side vibes Real Estate is known for, yet doesn’t forget Ducktails’ roots of experimentation. His music is silly yet expertly refined—a dichotomy that makes me genuinely happy when I listen.

2. The Field – Cupid’s Head
Make no mistake—Axel Wilner’s The Field project is something special. Axel has the unique ability to invent a new musical category, then continue to innovate within it. I believe this is his best album to date, as each subsequent piece of work by him has gotten more refined and better sounding. He’s the physical manifestation of iterative improvement.

I went down to Chicago to see Axel at Empty Bottle on a Tuesday night mid-summer. He came on stage at 12:30am. It was a late night; I was tired and hated myself the next day. But it is nights like this were crazy stories happen. He happened to be hanging around by the bar during an opening act, so I snuck up to him and said hello then thanked him for his awesome music. It was worth it. Fun times.

Evidence of the encounter submitted as a grainy iPhone photo taken in low light a few feet away. Seems fitting for his style, no?


Anyways. The Field is unique music that is special. We’re all so lucky to hear it. No other sound has the ability to make you feel lost yet secure. Nothing will compare to the feeling you get from it.

3. Washed Out – Paracosm
I recently watched a short documentary from the Creator’s Project series featuring Ernest Greene, the genius behind Washed Out. In it, he ventures all the way to Calgary (Ernest Goes To Canada? Anyone? Damn.) to find a literal museum of old instruments, which, to his delight, can be manipulated to produce similar sounds to our current Garage Band digital norm. Elsewhere we find out that he used a live band and several of these instruments to record Paracosm, thus achieving his patented chillwave vibe, yet having a physical connection to the music. I’m a fan.

In some ways this has been the reason I’ve embraced collecting vinyl records as a hobby. I could care less about popular movements or trendy brand association–I like vinyl records because as a technologist I constantly have the feeling of emptiness with my every day interactions with the world. There is little to connect with in the physical world. Sometimes I wish I was a carpenter or architect so I’m building a real skyscraper, not a metaphorical one. That I can connect with my music physically rather than digitally makes me appreciate the music that much more. This relationship only added to the interest in Washed Out’s 3rd, and best, album.

4. Wild Nothing – Empty Estate EP
With the exception of The Flower Lane, Wild Nothing’s 2013 EP release was the album I returned to the most in 2013. I played the heck out of it. It’s the first time I felt a band had nailed what seems to be the trend du jour: capturing that 80s vibe while still feeling like 201X. Seriously good 80s music found here. If that’s a style you periodically enjoy, don’t miss this EP.

5. Caveman – Caveman
I remember discovering Caveman via Rdio’s recommendation of artists similar to Grizzly Bear. While I don’t think they are as similar as Rdio’s algorithms would make you think, they do achieve similar levels of chemistry and harmony that Grizzly Bear are known for. (I would argue that Caveman is more traditional folk sounding with less vocals while Grizzly Bear is more experimental with more focus on multiple vocal harmony.) Caveman’s second album, self-titled Caveman, is a promise of what is to come. They are one to watch.

6. Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond
Did someone say folk? I’m not all electronic, mind you. Mutual Benefit is the classiest new folk sound you’ll hear this side of Mark Kozelek (who I also adore). Echoing the sentiment of one of my best friend’s review, a song like “Advanced Falconry” makes me want to wrap into a ball and long for sleepy human embrace. Anyone who appreciates Andrew Bird or Mark Kozelek will love Mutual Benefit, as they are a warm new sound that blends both styles perfectly.

7. DARKSIDE – Psychic
This is the type of album that you reject upon the first one, two, or three listens. But eventually, it clicks. Darkside has an entirely new sound that is fresh and engrossing. It pulls you in once you accept it. In 2011, I rated Lotus Plaza’s release as average. But two-plus years later, it is probably the album I have returned to the most, save maybe Real Estate. Those of us who keep track of music on a yearly basis always have an album or two like that. You know it’s good, but you don’t rate it as highly as you will 5 years from now. I have a sneaky feeling that Darkside will be that album where in 2019, I’m still listening to it and wondering why it wasn’t number one.

8. Evenings – Yore
A friend whose music opinion I hold in highest regard nudged me towards Evenings. I’m really glad it happened because Yore is one hell of an album. Its style isn’t necessarily new, but Evenings’ execution is perfect for what it tries to be.

9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Similar to my points about Lotus Plaza in the Darkside review, Phosphorescent’s 2010 release Here’s To Taking It Easy is an album I’m still returning to today. Muchacho was a fine follow up. It has grown on me with each listen, and cements Matthew Houck’s style of music as one of my current favorites. I wish there were more Aww-Shucks-Southern-Folkrock bands who produce as pleasurable works of art as Matt.

Honorable Mentions

You know, I struggled picking a 10th album, but because of lack of quality. There were just too many deserving releases that I couldn’t list just one. So instead, here is an unorganized list of other albums that I genuinely enjoyed this year in some way or another.

  • Toro Y Moi – Anything In Return
  • The Besnard Lakes – Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO
  • Mark Kozelek and Desertshore – Mark Kozelek and Desertshore
  • All Tiny Creatures – Dark Clock
  • Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze
  • Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
  • Bonobo – The North Borders
  • Young Man – Beyond Was All Around Me
  • My Bloddy Valentine – m b v
  • Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
  • Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
  • Julian Lynch – Lines
  • Holden – The Inheritors
  • Beacon – The Ways We Separate
  • Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God
  • Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
  • Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
  • Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
  • Volcano Choir – Repave
  • The Fatty Acids – Boléro
  • Faux Fur – Faux Fur

Top Songs of 2013

1. Janelle Monáe – “Q.U.E.E.N.”

It wasn’t even close. The music itself was fantastic, but the story telling is powerful. I’m not one for lyrics. In fact, I often consider them a distraction dragging down a song. But when words sung cross several tiers of meaning, and are genuine, I pay attention. You can’t help but think that she is addressing four topics all with a single message: the state of pop music, the soulessness of corporatized record labels, the unfair stigma of women who act original and really are unique, and the unfair bias against homosexual women artists. (Though Janelle playfully buffs questions as to whether this album was a statement about her sexuality, the undertones of “Q.U.E.E.N.” and other singles powerfully speak to the topic.) Incredible.

It didn’t hurt that the music video was well done or that the ending of the song is as powerful as Oscar-worthy dramas.

Janelle is who should be pushed upon little girls everywhere. Not the Nikki Manaj’s or Rhianna’s or Lady Gaga’s, et al. She is authentic and genuine, cuts across musical categories, speaks about matters that are important. Youth could do few better as a musical role model than Janelle Monáe.

2. Ducktails – “Under Cover”

Every year I look forward to an album that will stick with me indefinitely. Ducktail’s January release was just that. “Under Cover” was the best song among many excellent tracks. Both the song and the music video shows Matt Mondanile’s unique ability to blend seriously artful music with light air silliness.

3. Hood Internet – “You Know You Like Gas (Sage The Gemini x Iamsu! x AlunaGeorge)”

I’m a huge Girl Talk fan. Gregg Gillis hasn’t published any new work lately, so I was delighted to stumble upon Hood Internet earlier this year. Hood is a duo who take Girl Talk’s stylistic torch and adventure into new territory. They are slightly more focused on prominently premiering the rap/hip hop song and relegating the 70s/80s/90s/2000s song selection to the rear. But their sound can be just as fun, and this “You Know You LIke Gas” remix illustrates why. It was easily my favorite party song of the year. You’ll have to excuse the lyrics, yet if you’re a hip-hop genre fan, how can you not like them?

4. Julian Lynch – “Lines”

Long-time music friends of mine know that I’m a huge fan of Julian Lynch. The New Jersey native has been getting his PhD. at UW-Madison for a few years now, but has still found time to put out several incredible albums. This year’s release, also titled Lines, was not quite as good as his previous two to my tastes. The title track, however, is his best single to date. I seriously hope he continues to make music!

5. Kurt Vile – “Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze”

I’m a shoe-gaze fan. I don’t care. I don’t get why shoe-gaze and chillwave sub genres are picked upon by music pundits and fans alike. Kurt Vile is on the Mount Rushmore of modern shoe-gaze curators, and when he isn’t making some of the best 60s-era recreations under the War on Drugs name, he’s producing fun solo work. “Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze” was the track I found myself returning to the most this year—with the exception of anything from Ducktails—because of the looseness of it. At 9 and a half minutes, it’s a guitar lover’s dream.

6. David Bowie – “Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA)”

For those unfamiliar, James Murphy is the guy behind LCD Soundsystem. Any year without music from Murphy is a bum year, so with him officially retiring the LCD project some time ago, we were poised for a year without James Murphy. No one wants that. Thank goodness he came out of nowhere with this David Bowie remix.

7. Tame Impala – “Mind Mischief (Ducktails Remix)”

Sorry for all the Ducktails love this year, but seriously, Matt Mondanile is really good at this music thing. Tame Impala published two remixes of “Mind Mischief” this year, one by Ducktails and one by The Field. Friends should know that I’m a huge The Field fan too, so as you can imagine my head promptly exploded when I got this A/B side vinyl this summer. I liked Ducktails’ remake slightly more. For reference, this was Rena’s favorite song of the year.

8. Foxygen – “No Destruction”

Foxygen has some of the closest Bob Dylan sound I’ve ever heard. “No Destruction” was an exceedingly fun song to throw on all through summer and autumn. The album wasn’t so bad itself.

9. Justin Timberlake – “Suit & Tie”

I prefer to avoid pop music, but can sympathize with those who enjoy it. But boy am I a JT apologist. The double-release album itself was pretty terrible, but “Suit & Tie” was my guilty pleasure pop song of the year. I think JT transcends the common denominator pumped out by the pop music scene. It’s a pity the album was so bad overall, because if it was as strong as this single, I think in a few years we’d be talking about how he is the next Michael Jackson. He’s that magnetic and talented.

10. Beacon – “Bring You Back”

Loved this find. I’m a sucker for synth drum machines, and the tonal style Beacon expertly crafts in “Bring You Back” is one of my favorite musical approaches.

More Music!

2012 was a weak year to me. I think 2013 rebounded nicely. To show my excitement, I’m including another 10 songs to round out a top 20 in singles. There was just too much good music not to share!

11. Boards of Canada – “Reach For The Dead”

The album was good, but “Reach For The Dead” competes as one of their best singles to date.

12. Big Black Delta – “Side Of The Road”

This is probably the moment of the list where the word “hipster” could get thrown around. I hate that label, which in its current iteration is the defacto term used to denote a culture that is different and uncomfortable than what one is comfortable with.

There will always be a sub culture of individuals who self select out whatever is mainstream, regardless of medium, ad infinitum. There are those who enjoy certain sports that aren’t the NFL. Or those who enjoy foreign films or anime instead of Super Hero Remake 17. Or those who seek out authentic Japanese cuisine instead of going to Applebees. Or those who watch obscure BBC TV programs instead of Two And A Half Men. Or those who wear obscure sweaters instead of clothes found at Mayfair Mall. The list goes on.

Music is no different.

In casual observance of Big Black Delta on the Internet, I’ve seen more “hipster music” trolling thrown on this band than any other I’ve been exposed to this year. That is unfortunate. Music is music, and you enjoy the taste properties you personally identify with. When I see “hipster” lobbed as a criticism, I see a vocabulary term being leveraged as an abstraction for anything the individual finds different than they identify with. Yes—the other person or thing is different than you, but by degrading the difference with a critical term from society’s lexicon meant to elevate yourself, I shake my head in silence.

So, anyways, Big Black Delta everybody!

13. Suuns – “Sunspot”

Heard these guys for the first time on WMSE, Milwaukee School of Engineering’s radio station. I’m now a full-time convert to this awesome station when driving. It is an example of what’s good about music.

14. Four Tet – “Parallel Jalebi”

I’m still a huge Kieren Hebden fan, but the last few albums have been a bit of a let down for my tastes. I guess that’s to be expected since his 2010 release, There Is Love In You, I still regard as my favorite album of all time. “Parallel Jalebi” was his best song produced this year—a year in which he released a vinyl-only collection of 90s tracks he made, had several remixes, several more DJ sets, produced several other albums, and finished up with an all-new album release which this track featured on.

15. Evenings – “Friend (Lover)”

Really glad these guys were introduced to me this year. “Friend (Lover)” was the best track on a fantastic album top to bottom.

16. Jim James – “A New Life”

I love My Morning Jacket so I was excited for Jim’s solo album. It wasn’t as good as I anticipated, but I loved this single. I chose to share his live rendition on the Jimmy Fallon show because it’s a good reminder of how elevated his live shows are—even if just on late night TV—compared to the studio work.

17. Caveman – “In The City”

Really enjoyed Caveman’s first album, so it was a delight to unexpectedly find a self-titled release this year. “In The City” was the best single, and worthy of a spot here. This is a live version that shows how great of chemistry the band has together.

18. Holden – “Renata”

James Holden is one of the more underrated British artists at the moment. I’m glad that The Inheritors is getting the press he deserves. “Renata” is a loud, powerful electronic ballad.

19. Fuck Buttons – “The Red Wing”

It seems like Fuck Button’s 2013 release had mixed reviews. You really need to be a fan of their style to appreciate what they do. I felt the album itself had several clunkers preventing it from being a classic, but “The Red Wing” was a banging single. Get ready to get loud.

20. Wild Nothing – “The Body In Rainfall”

Rounding out my top 20 list is the best song from the Wild Nothing EP Empty Estate, which was one of the top albums I returned to over and over again. It’s pretty close to perfect indie pop that has a twinge of experimentation to throw off your scent.

Top Songs of 2012

1. “Brains” – Lower Dens

The song I probably listened to most. The song I thought was best constructed. The song that sounded the best. And a great music video. Tough to beat this one.

2. “Baby” – Ariel Pink

I know it’s a cover, but hot damn it’s good.

3. “Her Fantasy” – Matthew Dear

My favorite “party” song. I forced it on everyone every party I went to so we didn’t have to listen to Usher. I have no regrets.

4. “Myth” – Beach House

This one means a lot to me. It’s easily the most emotional of the group. It’s just a touch too short, or else it’d be number one.

5. The Fall – Rhye

Who? What? Only a few singles out, but she’s great.

6. “House Shape” – Mount Eerie

This and “Through The Trees pt. 2” made for a great album. This one was my favorite of the two though.

7. “Oblivion” – Grimes

Best song off the album of the year for me. It beats out “Genesis” because it has a better music video.

8. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” – Tame Impala

Alright, I get it.

9. “Modern Driveway” – Luke Abbott

Title track from his five-song EP. The song I listened to most through headphones while walking. It makes me feel happy and refreshed when it’s done.

10. “Flower Lane” – Ducktails

This song was an early single off Matt’s full length album coming out early 2013. He knows how to tweak my heart.

Honorable Mentions

“Lover” – Blondes

Great “get in the groove” song.

“Sweetie & Shag (The Field Remix)” – Battles

No list is complete without Four Tet or The Field in my mind.

“Cooking Up Something Good” – Mac DeMarco

Late 2012 entry. Glad I found him.

“Headcage” – Matthew Dear

Matthew Dear had two spectacular singles. This wasn’t quite as good as “Her Fantasy”, but it’s a blast.

“Depak Ine” – John Talabot

When music was sparse in Spring, I found myself listening to this album more than I probably should have. Part of the reason was because I could not get this song out of my mind. It’s fun.

Top Albums of 2012

1) Grimes – Visions
My single most important criterium is quantity of quality. From first to last, does each song challenge me? grow on me? sound great? Grimes’ album was that rare masterpiece we all live to discover: we get hooked on a fantastic single or two; then we check out the album—woah, a few more great songs, but the rest of the album is only ok; then you find yourself three months later contemplating if the one song you thought was the worst on the album is actually the best. Hats off to you, Claire. Your style is appreciated and will be in my queue forever.

2) Beach House – Bloom
With subjective rankings, often we have personal reasons for rating something higher or lower. This year, Bloom is overloaded with personal moments that admittedly puts it higher than others.

See, I share a lot of music with my lovely wife, Rena. Most of the time it’s a miss, but once in a while I hit a bullseye that becomes something fun to share with her. In the past, Animal Collective, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, and Real Estate were major successes. (Sadly, Grimes is not!) Well, this year Beach House was the hit, which I parlayed into an introduction to her first music festival, Pitchfork in July 2012. Beach House was tremendous closing out a fine summer Saturday, a day we’ll soon not forget.

The duo’s impact didn’t stop there. During their tour, they stopped in Milwaukee to play at The Pabst the weekend of our one-year anniversary, and promptly blew our minds. One of the better shows I’ve seen.

So what about Bloom itself, beyond just seeing it live? It’s a style all its own, and it doesn’t deviate from it. So if you like the style, you’ll love the album. If you struggle to get past the first song, everything else will be difficult. For me personally, it’s great summer music.

3) Luke Abbott – Modern Driveway
Luke is my little gem. I found him via a Four Tet remix in 2010. Kieren covered Holkham Drones in a two-hour DJ set. The sound was so unique I had to find out the source. After much research, I discovered Luke. This year saw him release two separate EPs, one in summer and one in winter. Frankly, the winter EP was only average. But summer’s effort, Modern Driveway, was my second most-played album this year. Five songs to play anywhere, anytime. I always feel good about tomorrow when I’m done listening.

4) Grizzly Bear – Shields
Not as good as Yellow House nor Vecktamist. I see a lot of Modest Mouse in them—the history, not the sound. The gritty, folksy, honest, unpolished sound that made their first work so real is slowly giving way to nicer studios and evolving musical ambitions, resulting in music that is well done but missing heart. But it’s fun and well crafted, and guldarnit, I play it loud every time.

5) Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action At A Distance
Late entrant. Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt sure does do simple, strong bedroom rock well. Spooky rose up my list as I realized how much I love Deerhunter’s sound. Retrospectively, I don’t praise Halcyon Digest enough. This album is the closest thing to Deerhunter’s sound, and included heartfelt personal anguish. This one is filed under “I didn’t realize I liked it this much until I thought about it.”

6) Matthew Dear – Beams
I’m a Matthew Dear apologist. Why can’t I find more Matthew Dear fans? Beams did not get a lot of pump, both by press or peers, but I loved it. A few of my favorite dance tracks lead the charge—if you haven’t given “Her Fantasy” or “Headcase” a good strong listen to on a Friday night before you’re about to meet friends, you’re missing out.

7) Tame Impala – Lonerism
Alright, I get it.

8) Lower Dens – Nootropics
Man I love these guys. “Brains” is one of the best singles of the year. They could have risen higher, but quality really drops after “Propagation”. All good stuff, but to go from the perfection of the first four tracks to the average display in the last six was disappointing.

9) Mac DeMarco – 2
Weird and fun.

10) Blah
Couldn’t even make it to number 10. I’m proving a point: this was a disappointing year in music for me. I look back at years past—like the best-music-year-ever 2010—and scratch my head why I couldn’t find as many diverse works of art this year. Frankly, only the top three albums on this list will stay in my roation long-term. Everything else is just average and I’ll revisit in a couple years.

Another way to phrase it: I like to collect vinyl records, but I make it a point to only buy albums that I hold in high regard and wish to play 30 years from now with my kids. Grimes, Beach House, and Luke Abbott were the only albums this year I plan to purchase. Everything else is relegated to MP3 consumption.

It’s striking to me how many bands, with past music I adored, produced clunkers this year:

  • Animal Collective (so, so bad)
  • Blondes (Touched EP made my top 5 in 2010, think about that! Terrible LP follow up)
  • Lower Dens (could have been better)
  • Matthew Dear (could have been better)
  • Grizzly Bear (could have been better)
  • Nada Surf (meh)
  • Bear In Heaven (lost what made them great)
  • AIR (not AIR like)
  • Of Montreal (nothing catchy)
  • Sleigh Bells (not as good)
  • Andrew Bird (forgot about it)
  • The Shins (commercial music)
  • Sigur Ros (boring)
  • Sun Kil Moon (good, not great)
  • Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (great singles, always too much wink wink nudge nudge; very frustrating music)
  • The xx (also boring)
  • Ben Folds Five (he should stop)
  • Tame Impala (I honestly think Innerspeaker was much better)
  • Crystal Castles (they keep getting weirder)

I’m sure there are others I missed, which proves the point further.

And the biggy… Four Tet! I appreciate Kieren Hebden’s adaptation the most. He moves with what interests him. So Pink gets a pass because this year he was simply more interested in making club music. But boy what a letdown. Let me be clear: Four Tet is my favorite musician of all time. The shear amount of beautiful music he makes is staggering. It’s remarkable how he can make music as uplifting and positive as Bob Marley without using lyrics. So any year with a Four Tet album is a good year. But Pink is easily his worst effort to date.

Before I part ways, there are several musicians I would like to give a hat tip to. They produced great music, but simply did not resonate with me, so did not make my list.

  • Frank Ocean
  • Jack White
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Sharon Van Etten
  • Norah Jones
  • Fiona Apple
  • Yppah

I’m looking forward to 2013.