To be read by my family out of obligation (who do not own and do not want to own the below described albums) and my friend, Andrew, who inexplicably values my opinion on music.
This year for me, more than all others, was defined by music. My memory of any given trip, deadline, date, run, party, conversation is firmly associated with what album or albums I was listening to. I attribute this to two things. First, I spent countless hours in airports and airplanes this year traveling for work. I rarely want to engage in conversation with my fellow flyers, and with headphones in and book in lap, I send the nearly universal signal that I am rude do not want to talk.
Second, since moving to always sunny southern California, I have found that my memory is not what it once was. Before, my timeline of events was set within seasons or with the weather. I could easily recall when so and so happened based on whether it was cold, what jacket I was wearing, whether it was raining, or humid as hell. Now, those associations are impossible. Don’t get me wrong; I love the endless sunny days. It’s my brain that isn’t so happy. I cannot remember if something happened three months ago, last week, or two years ago. It’s maddening for someone who prides herself (annoyingly so) on a stenographer-accurate memory. Where before listening to a song would elicit a memory, my memories now elicit songs. I hope that this is an indication that my brain is evolving and finding new triggers, like music, to file my memories.
All this to say, I had a lot of time to listen to music this year and I think it made me smarter. These were my favorites – in no particular order. Ok, no particular order, EXCEPT
1. Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Bar none, this is my favorite album of the year – maybe even on my top ten EVER (in the mythical world where making a top ten list of all time is possible – and gnomes are real). It is an achingly beautiful autobiographical collection of Sufjan’s childhood memories intertwined with his raw grief from the recent death of his mother. In my estimation, there is no songwriter who is so adept at creating such a poignant story with so few words. It is magical. I was fortunate enough to see him perform this album in its entirety at the Chandler Pavilion this spring. I pretty much cried through the whole concert.Favorite Songs: Should Have Known Better Fourth of July
2. Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES
I loved CHVRCHES’ first album, The Bones of What You Believe. And by love, I mean I listened to my favorite songs on that album over 100 times each (as tabulated in iTunes). I didn’t want to be disappointed by the new album, so I kept my expectations low. But holy cow, guys – THIS album! Lauren Mayberry is the female singer of the Scottish trio and her vocals are even stronger – or more confident – than they were in the first album. I find myself engaging in full-on karaoke in my car, daring someone to make eye contact with me.Favorite Songs: Leave a Trace Clearest Blue Down Side of Me
3. Yours Dreamily, – The Arcs
The Arcs is the band that all of the other cool bands are listening to. I imagine the likes of Spoon, Liz Phair, Modest Mouse, Wilco, St. Vincent, Neko Case, The Smiths (reunited, of course) all in a dark bar in Nashville, or Brooklyn, or Portland, wearing leather jackets, drinking whiskey neat, taking in the soul-filled sound of this band. When I was recently discussing The Arcs, I compared them to the Black Keys and felt like an idiot when I was informed that Dan Auerbach, the lead singer of the Black Keys, formed The Arcs as a side project. Sooooo, if you like the Black Keys, you’ll really like The Arcs.Favorite Songs: Put a Flower in Your Pocket Pistol Made of Bones Chains of Love
4. Art Angel – Grimes
Grimes has a sound that I think is incomparable. I am sometimes reminded of The Fifth Element– there is a sort of sci-fi futuristic component to her music. Her songs make you want to run out to the dance floor or make your own in your apartment. But it’s not just Claire Boucher’s beats and mixing skills that are so appealing. It’s her. Her voice, her lyrics, and her persona. She is unflinching in her directness and defiance. I’m pretty taken with her and with lines like “California you only like me when you think I’m looking sad.”Favorite Songs: California Flesh Without Blood
5. Return to the Moon – EL VY
EL VY is a collaboration between Matt Berninger, frontman of The National, and Brent Knopf of Menomena and Romana Falls. The National’s 2013 album, Trouble Will Find You, was my favorite that year, so I was excited to hear something new. On this album, Berninger’s super deep voice is paired with some quirky and fun beats that I find addictive. I have never been able to fully discern the meaning of Berninger’s lyrics, but I am still strongly affected by his songs. As an aside, Berninger’s brother films many (if not all) the videos for The National and EL VY. They’re a fun watch.Favorite Songs: Paul is Alive No Time to Crank the Sun
6. 1989 – Ryan Adams
I unabashedly admit that I not only own Taylor Swift’s album, 1989, but I really, really like it. Like, a lot. When I heard that Ryan Adams was doing a cover, I was kind of excited to hear what a guy with just a guitar would do with an upbeat pop album. Generally, I am lukewarm about Ryan Adams. There are a few songs I really enjoy, but like Bright Eyes, I tend to find his singing a bit whiney. That’s not how I feel about this cover. I don’t think it’s because his vocals changed, but rather, I like what happens to pop songs when you strip away all the production and slow it down. It goes from an amusing, fun, make-you-want-to-dance album, to one that makes you weepy and nostalgic. “Out of the Woods” reminds me of the very morose Damien Rice. And unlike Swift’s tongue-in-cheek “Shake it Off,” where she makes fun of herself and the haters that hate, in Adams’ version you envision a deeply depressed teen sitting in front of a mirror willing herself to shake it off but resigned to the fact that she never will.Favorite Songs: Blank Space I Wish You Would 7. Eclipse – Twin Shadow
There are few activities I enjoy more than walking through an airport with my headphones in – a soundtrack to all the best and worst (mostly worst) of human interaction. This album is my go-to when I step off a plane. The songs build and build, then back down, and then build again. Everyone in the airport is rushing around, dealing with lost luggage, delayed flights, or just enduring the endless line at Starbucks. This album is in perfect sync with all the chaos.Favorite Songs: Flatliners Half Life Locked and Loaded
8. Another Eternity – Purity Ring
Gosh, I love this album. Megan James’ voice is almost ethereal and when it’s juxtaposed with hard beats and slow building electronic intensity, I find all the songs hypnotic. And don’t be fooled – this album may sound like an upbeat pop album, but the lyrics are dark.Favorite songs: Push Pull Stillness in Woe
9. Are You Alone? – Majical Cloudz
Disclaimer: So this album is sad. Really sad. The very first note of the first song sucks you in with full-on sorrow. Then Devon Welsh starts singing and you might as well forgo showering for the day or week since you’ll be pouring through old photo albums and emails from every past relationship as you suffer through the heartbreak that this album evokes. Think Bon Iver and then add the Sarah McLachlan dog commercials. You’ve been warned.Favorite Songs: Control Silver Car Crash Downtown
10. Sky City – Amason
The Swedes have it going on. They’ve got the Skarsgårds, meatballs, single payer healthcare, and the likes of Abba, Ace of Base, Robyn, Jens Lekman, and First Aid Kit. Amason’s album, Sky City, has a very 1980s feel with the use of synthesizers and even some saxophone riffs reminiscent of the Sexy Sax Man. It’s full of fun songs that make you want to dance in that head-bopping kind of way.Favorite Songs: Duvan Went to War
Other Good Stuff
While these songs didn’t make it onto my highly selective and entirely arbitrary album list, I think you’ll find them pretty darn pleasing to the ears.
I Can’t Figure Out What’s Going On – Half Moon Run
Alright – Kendrick Lamar (and the video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-48u_uWMHY)
Pretty Pimpin – Kurt Vile
Love/Paranoia – Tame Impala
No No No – Beirut