40. The Twilight Sad - Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
The mournful alt-rock of The Twilight Sad has made a fantastic soundtrack for December. The Smiths-esque melodies and hazy shoegaze instrumentation lend a weight to James Graham's rakish brogue and sketch out a wintery landscape. Choruses pass by and latch into your head, urged forward by dexterous drumming and pulsing baselines. To me, this album would be the soundtrack to driving through a snowy state when the sun has just set.
Download: "Drown So I Can Watch", "I Could Give You All That You Don't Want", "Sometimes I Wished I Was Asleep"
39. Mimicking Birds - Eons
Mimicking Birds' Eons is both gentle and twitchy. I first investigated the band because I saw that they were handpicked by Okkervil River's frontman Will Sheff for his vanity label, and have not been disappointed by what I've heard. Eons is dense in spite of its fingerpicking and lullaby vocals, detailed by flickerings of didgeridoos and muted electric guitar washes. Tempo shifts and dense coils of rhymes (check out the lyrics to "Owl Hoots", which seem nearly rap-influenced in their attention to assonance) make this an album that continues to draw the ear, and keeps it worth listening to again and again.
Download: "Water Under Burned Bridges", "Owl Hoots", "Memorabilia"
38. Mø - No Mythologies to Follow
The crystalline pop of Mø is a little bit Björk and a lot Lykke Li, if Lykke cribbed all her greatest melodies from 60's girl groups. "Never Wanna Know" and "Don't Wanna Dance" sound especially like they were musically and lyrically written for the Supremes, forgotten to the annals of time, and dusted off and recorded with sparkling modern production and a decidedly un-Rossy voice. Mø daintily tip-toes through melodies, letting electronics burst behind her like far-off fireworks and hip hop-inspired beats push but not fling the songs forward. For a debut, it shows remarkable vision and an ear for both melody and trends before they hit the mainstream; Mø will be one to watch closely in the future.
Download: "Never Wanna Know", "Glass", "Slow Love"
37. Busdriver - Perfect Hair
Busdriver remains one of the most distinctive and unusual voices in rap, and Perfect Hair carries on his tradition of esoteric lyrics, improbable rhyme schemes and a voice that can burble like a creek or bend like taffy. Perfect Hair is like listening to witty, fresh rap music from a few decades into the future, where for all the glories of technology and the kaleidoscope of cultures, the problems of humanity remain the same.
Download: "Colonize the Moon", "Motion Lines", "Upsweep"
36. Nicole Scherzinger - Big Fat Lie
I have no shame about my unironic love for Nicole Scherzinger. She puts out slick, fun pop albums with excellent production, and her voice is charismatic enough to elevate a boring track and imbue it with personality. Fortunately, she doesn't even have to do much legwork on this one, as the tracks are surprisingly inventive for a major label vehicle. The key-change at the end of "God of War", the foreboding pulse of "Heartbreaker" and the sensual shudder of "First Time" all help to bring this above just a satisfying collection of catchy songs and into a very good R&B record.
Download: "God of War", "Your Love", "Heartbreaker"
35. Sims - Field Notes
Minnesota continues to put out some of the best hip hop on the scene, including with this short album of rough ideas. Sims' boyish, whipsmart voice darts and dashes from rhyme to rhyme like some sort of wild animal, aided by colorful but unobtrusive Doomtree production. Though most of the subject matter isn't particularly innovative (the rap game doesn't pay, the government is corrupt, alcoholism), the dexterous nature of Sims' flow and his ability to slip a whole verse-ful of importance into a single line push the release over just another hip hop album. Sims pushes into frantic desperation on The Whale, into self-possessed, wide-eye mantra on L'audace, through self-satisfied, razor-edged disdain in Uh Huh, and elsewhere through this outing. These songs are worthy sketches with watercolors, if not oil paintings.
Download: "The Whale", "Uh Huh", "L'Audace"
34. Chumped - Teenage Retirement
Some bands confuse youthfulness with immaturity. Chumped is not one of those bands. Sounding like Rilo Kiley with more jagged edges, the indie pop band uses a sharp eye and a sharper pen to write about the trials of aging into a time in your life with no structure, no guidelines, no shelter from yourself. The oft-neglected topic of learning to take responsibility for yourself, missed opportunities and all, pervades this record, and comes to a head with the fantastic closing song, "Old and Tired". Lead singer Anika Pyle portrays a painfully specific picture of someone who's allowed the meandering of their twenties to wreck their future, but in spite of her startling empathy, has no greater answer than to "sleep away the pain of being old and tired". Just because Chumped can name the problem doesn't mean they've figured it out.
Download: "Old and Tired", "The Pains of Being…", "December is the Longest Month"
33. La Roux - Trouble in Paradise
La Roux's second album lacks the immediacy and edge of her debut, but she trades them not for blandness but sunniness. Each song has a warm, memorable melody nestled into the summery production, and even La Roux's brattish voice seems smoothed out to give the whole record a feeling as if it could be the soundtrack to the most relaxing vacation of your life. It's an album that makes me, a sand-avoidant girl who never learned to swim or wear a swimsuit, an understanding for why people long for the beaches of the Bahamas.
Download: "Tropical Chancer", "Sexotheque", "Silent Partner"
32. Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy
I was never much of a fan of Damien Rice prior to this record, but I'm so glad I picked it up on a whim. The song craft here is stellar; Rice knows how to build up a crescendo or change a lyric in just the right way to slip it past the heart's barriers. If it weren't for how earnest his delivery is, it might feel calculated, but never once in this record have I felt the emotional denouements were unearned. When the strings swell and transforms simple piano or guitar ballads into grand statements of loss and regret, it wrenches something deep in the gut, and there's just a sense that Rice is better than the average bear at communicating where words fail.
Download: "I Don't Want to Change You", "The Box", "Colour Me In"
31. Future Islands - Singles
Singles comes right out the gate with the much-lauded and fantastic track "Seasons (Waiting on You)" and, for the most part, keeps up the energy from there. Sunny synth pop, buoyed by Samuel Herring's Waits-ish voice, romps and rolls like ocean waves. "Sun in the Morning" is a delightful love song that I have to resist putting on every mix for my girlfriend, and aside from the metal-voiced cheese bomb that is "Fall from Grace", Herring's unique vocals and the spry beats make this an enjoyable, sweet and completely individual record.
Download: "Seasons (Waiting on You)", "Sun in the Morning", "Back in the Tall Grass"
30. My Brightest Diamond - This Is My Hand
On her best album since Bring Me the Workhorse, My Brightest Diamond approaches music with almost supernatural confidence. Shara Worden's voice is like cream, glazing its way through numbers both militaristic ("Pressure") and jazzy ("Lover Killer"). Her songs are as ornate and detail-oriented as flower arrangements, the works of someone who could call herself a maestro instead of a songwriter. She's honed her pop sensibilities to craft stronger melodies than ever before, and the addition of horns and a marching band to her repertoire has allowed her to explore new sounds with the sort of stately craftsmanship only she seems capable of. When she expresses in the title track the self-possession of a woman in lust, it seems remarkable that someone so poised could ever doubt herself.
Download: "Lover Killer", "Pressure", "Looking at the Sun"
29. Charli XCX - Sucker
This may not be the pop album I wanted from Charli XCX, but it may have been the pop album I needed, Though Charli's knack for a good melody is all over this record, it's a far cry from the dreamy, spaced-out romp of True Romance. Everything is more obvious, from the singalong choruses to the huge kick drum beats to the lyrics, but while that may have made the singles seem ominously brainless, it works in the context of the whole record. This is a short, high-energy, devil-may-care affair that's made for getting shitfaced and dancing on your kitchen table rather than dealing with your daily troubles, and there's a place for that in my heart.
Download: "Breakin' Up", "Famous", "Boom Clap"
28. Nothing - Guilty of Everything
"Doomgaze" may be the flat-out stupidest genre name I've heard since "tumblr rock", but Nothing is essentially a shoegaze album on a metal label, and the claustrophobic swathes of fuzzed-out guitars certainly have an oppressive atmosphere. All the better, too, given that the album was written after the frontman got out of prison for attempted murder. Plenty of the songs here deal with that experience, either lyrically or in sound, but the record feels less like being caged and more like the awkward, nerve-wracking and unsteady feeling of being released. It's the soundtrack to waking up from a bad dream or returning from the depths of a living hell unsure of how to proceed afterwards.
Download: "Hymn to the Pillory", "Endlessly", "Bent Nail"
27. Mujuice - Metamorphosis
Mujuice's instrumental album reminds me most of Jóga by Björk, only stretched out into an album's length. The record is an exploration of the landscape of Roma Litvinov's home country of Russia, and he deploys an arsenal of clever melodies, some original and some cribbed from traditional Russian songs, to convey the vast dynamism of his motherland. The album is simultaneously cohesive and varied, with each song distinct from the ones before it, some crowded and peppy and others moody and harsh as the tundra.
Download: "Owl Path", "King Pony", "Theory I Practice"
26. Tinashe - Aquarius
In all the hubbub about Thalia Barnette, another R&B songstress seems to have gotten overlooked. Where FKA Twigs is adventurous, Tinashe is more mainstream with her edges smoothed, but no less in control of the message and mood she wants her album to convey. Aquarius is a masterful, cohesive statement about young sexuality and need, stitched together seamlessly with songs that bleed into each other. Her voice weaves and winds through cascades of electronics and slightly off-kilter beats, setting a moody, boozy, tempestuous tone for this dollop of sensuality and vulnerability. Her voice, like the production, is full of subtle turns and surprising nuances. And when she finally breaks free of her breathless coos into belting on the aptly-named "Bated Breath", it feels earned in the best way.
Download: "Bet", "All Hands on Deck", "Bated Breath"
25. Tanya Tagaq - Animism
Tanya Tagaq's Polaris Prize-winning record is one of the most unique and flat-out visceral works of art this year. Tagaq draws from her culture, from the earth and from womanhood in her gripping picture of the modern age. Tagaq's snarls, coos and shrieks are as in turns sexual, terrifying, grotesque, transcendently beautiful and gut-wrenching. This album sounds like nothing else out there right now and was a worthy winner in a year of fierce competition; so few other records out there, not only this year but in general, craft such a compelling and well-realized vision.
Download: "Caribou", "Fight", "Genetic Memory"
24. White Sea - In Cold Blood
White Sea's debut album is a feast of sounds both old and new. The M83 keyboardist draws on a heavy 80's influence to add drama to her power ballads and empowerment anthems but keeps things fresh and modern with a decidedly 21st Century take on femininity and sardonic lyrical flair. All these influences orbit around her voice, which could topple skyscrapers if she decided to use it as a weapon. This is an album of bright colors and extreme emotions, from the hair-undone wildness of "Warsaw" to the open-armed warmth of "NYC Loves You", all digestibly packaged for the dance floor or for an outdoor concert with lighters up.
Download: "Future Husbands, Past Lives", "Small December", "Prague"
23. White Hinterland - Baby
White Hinterland's record is a messy, beautiful, difficult and rough-edged affair. Casey Dienel mashes together a stew of breakbeats, piano ballads and blaring horns, often all at once, to cacophonous and beautiful effect. Her statements are bold and wild, raised beyond mere sentiment with her soaring, operatic vocals. Sly comments about being "the razor in your bar of soap" and saving all her best love only for herself paint the picture of a bold, swaggering young woman who's unafraid to break a few eggs or draw a little blood to make her omelets.
Download: "Dry Mind", "David", "Ring the Bell"
22. Azealia Banks - Broke with Expensive Taste
The fact that I enjoy Azealia Banks' album after her batshit Twitter shenanigans is telling, because I was entirely ready to ignore her as some premature has-been and was predisposed to dismiss the album when I first heard it. What I found from the very first track was not water cooler gossip fodder, but a distinct and creative new voice in rap music. Banks boldly skips from genre to genre across the record with the enthusiasm of a child in a toystore and hooks that'll be stuck in your head for absolute days. She challenges herself more than any other emcee this year and then, more importantly, she rises to meet the musical, lingual and lyrical goals she sets for herself. A stunning debut.
Download: "Idle Delilah", "Ice Princess", "Chasing Time"
21. Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems
Enough has been said about Leonard Cohen's career that I don't need to elaborate on it here. He's a stylistic chameleon, and despite the changes in production, instrumentation and even in his voice, his lyrical ability to turn a wry wit to politics and religion and to imbue the simplest of love songs with deep, plaintive longing is his calling card. This most recent album is no different; working alongside arrangements so pretty it seems as if they're trying to balance out the roughness of his voice, he lays out several songs that are worthy entries in his discography. The sarcastic "Almost Like the Blues" fits in easily next to "Darkness" and "I'm Your Man", while "You Got Me Singing" may be the most straightforward peaceful song Cohen's ever put to tape.
Download: "Almost Like the Blues", "Nevermind", "You Got Me Singing"
20. She Keeps Bees - Eight Houses
n the musical vein of Cat Power's You Are Free, She Keeps Bees creates a record where a short, plainspoken song, when delivered expertly, can tell a much greater story than dramatic orchestration and overwrought melodrama. Focusing mostly on the displacement of the Native Americans from her home state, Jessica Larrabee has created an enchanting and troubling series of vignettes. She hinges her bluesy voice on top of straightforward but powerful guitar lines or tom-toms, crafting her tales with sound as much as with lyrics.
Download: "Is What It Is", "Greasy Grass", "Breezy"
19. Foxes in Fiction - Ontario Gothic
Foxes in Fiction frontman Warren Hildebrand has gone on record saying that after the death of his brother, he wanted to make music to bring people comfort the way music did for him in those difficult times. The result is hazy, detailed dream pop, as delicate as spun sugar and equally sweet, the sonic equivalent of a blanket fresh out of the dryer. Lead single "Shadow's Song" has been described as 'the prettiest song about a panic attack ever', and wish Owen Pallett's lush bed of strings and Hildebrand's gentle, androgynous voice, it would destroy all competition for that singular title. If there's a thesis to take from this record, it's that music doesn't need to have sharp edges and anger to address darkness, and that giving voice to kindness doesn't have to mean making your songs syrupy.
Download: "Ontario Gothic", "Shadow's Song", "Glow (V079)"
18. Arca - Xen
Arca's electronic compositions sound like they're barely trapping strange natural forces inside them. Chirps, thrums and hiccups bounce through delicate, ornate menageries that blur the lines between what's music and what's just sounds; while these fifteen songs are undoubtedly the first, they seem entirely liberated from expected musical structures and tropes. The entire album gives off the effect that nothing is quite planned, and that melodies and beats are directing the songs towards wrinkles that most composers would iron out. Arca, however, indulges these impulses, and has the mastery of his craft and attention to detail to keep the pieces from sounding sloppy or unfinished, elevating their idiosyncrasies from problem areas to delightful surprises. This is art's counterpoint to the repetitiveness of EDM and a fierce vindication for electronic music as something that transcends just the dance floor.
Download: "Thievery", "Sisters", "Family Violence"
17. Kishi Bashi - Lighght
Kishi Bashi's Lighght is a playful, virtuosic romp of keening violins, thumping 808's and layered vocals that finds Kaoru Ishibashi at his most adventurous. Him being experimental, however, doesn't mean inaccessible or avant garde; here, the big risks are taken in dressing up gigantic pop melodies in Ishibashi's trademark strings aesthetic, or in crafting huge worlds of sound blooping with synthesizers alongside orchestras. The lyrics are bizarre to the point of being endearing, with tales of dancing prime ribs and choruses that comprise only of laughter. The hooks are huge, and Ishibashi's sound is at its most welcoming yet, whether it's the plainspoken ballad "Q&A" or the sweeping, lush closer "In Fantasia".
Download: "In Fantasia", "The Ballad of Mr. Steak", "Carry On, Phenomenon"
16. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
Media drama aside, Lana Del Rey has staked her claim as an 'album' artist, creating cohesive works with clear vision and direction. Ultraviolence is easily her best collection so far; though the Ennio Morricone-influenced guitars and dreamy reverb throughout the record may be uniform, it isn't necessarily repetitive, and Lana's singular voice breathes life into stereotypes that could be limp or cliche. Her voice is her calling card, and for good reason. When Lana Del Rey feels blue, she feel ten shades of blue, and can sing each one of those tones on the spectrum. Check out, for example, the way she oh-so-subtly varies her delivery on the verses of "Black Beauty". She is a master at selling a song. Side note: get the b-sides "Black Beauty" and "Is This Happiness" for sure.
Download: "Money Power Glory", "West Coast", "Old Money"
15. Sage Francis - Copper Gone
Sage Francis comes back to the rap scene swinging after a few years of solitude and depression. The backstory behind the record is all over the lyrical content, and the fact that Francis is triumphant in battling his demons doesn't mean he treats them lightly. Tapping on producers like Cecil Otter for that windy Midwest sound, he lays boasts and self-loathing and anger in his bleak poetry (and it is poetry), but arrives at a conclusion he aspires to live by: no matter how weathered and beleaguered, there is still a reason to get up in the morning. Even if it's just to feed your cats.
Download: "Make 'Em Purr", "Vonneguts Busy", "Once Upon a Blood Moon"
14. Fatima al Qadiri - Asiatisch
Instrumental artist Fatima al Qadiri went out of her way to make an album of imaginary China, a conglomeration of stereotypes and kitsch approached with a critical eye and an adventurous sonic palette. The result is unlike anything else I've heard this year even as it turns over time-honored riffs Western culture has used as a shorthand for 'Asian culture'. Al Qadiri's vision of China is futuristic and menacing, full of slick lines and towering synthesizers, the soundtrack for a sci-fi dystopia that happens to include a Prince cover. Best of all, Al Qadiri's globally-conscious perspective on the tropes she draws from keeps the album away from being an insulting caricature, while her mastery of mood and texture allow what could be a thought exercise to transcend academic trappings.
Download: "Dragon Tattoo", "Wudang", "Shenzhen"
13. Tove Lo - Queen of the Clouds
Forget Taylor Swift - Tove Lo wrote the pop album of the year, a hook-after-hook powerhouse of songs delivered with a winning combination of vulnerability and smirking. Tove is willing to get her hands a little too dirty in her lyrics to join the echelons of role models, and comes across as a little bit too sincere to follow in Ke$ha's footsteps - and that all makes her even more appealing as she drapes her coy, vulgar sentiments about sex, drugs and abandon over booming singalong choruses and undeniably danceable beats. Check out literally any song on this record and find yourself humming it for days.
Download: "Not on Drugs", "Talking Body", "My Gun"
12. How to Dress Well - "What Is This Heart?"
How to Dress Well's album is dark, earnest, blissful, haunted, sexual and chaste in equal measure. There's an urgent sense of romanticism to it, as if these are the emotions spilling out of an overflowing vase, unfiltered by a dignity that might advise against such heartfelt-but-cheesy lines about hearts going on and childhood hopes and faith in love or a filter that would have dissuaded using male choirs, washes of acoustic guitars and waterfalls of pianos as decor. It's an album about reconciling the harsh realities of the world with a steadfast belief in higher happiness, and it's raw as an open, bloody wound, and equally fascinating.
Download: "Face Again", "Words I Don't Remember", "See You Fall"
11. Sharon Van Etten - Are We There
Some of the best albums about breakups out there - Boys for Pele, Homogenic, Hospital Music - draw their strength from understanding that passion and pain and volume can be arranged in any sort of combination. Sharon Van Etten carries on in this proud tradition with her punishing chronicle of an abusive relationship. Bookends "Afraid of Nothing" and "I Know" are delicate and gentle, but the album orbits around "Your Love is Killing Me", the roaring anthem of a woman immolating herself upon a funeral pyre before her lover's even dead. Van Etten's album is a bold guts-on-the-floor extraction from the worst kind of love.
Download: "Your Love is Killing Me", "Afraid of Nothing", "You Know Me Well"
10. Pity Sex - Feast of Love
The 80's retro trend seems to be fading, and mid-90's shoegaze guitars and 2000's pop punk are the throwback sounds du jour. Pity Sex was, to me, the first harbingers of this trend, and they were a welcome one as they made nostalgic sounds into a bed for fresh and memorable ways to illustrate apathy, depression, loneliness and intimate bliss. Taken individually, Feast of Love's songs are all strong individual portraits of the trials of a twenty-something; taken as a whole, the album is a heartbreaking account of a friendship falling into the ruins of sex and drugs. Both vocalists are completely able to sell the emotions they inhabit, from Brennan Greaves' deadpan "might as well" delivery on the self-loathing opportunism of "Honeypot" to Britty Drake's despondent melodic dips on "Keep". Even though it's less than half an hour, by the time Drake closes the record with "I'm alive while you are dead" the hope and sorrow of the sentiment feels earned and cathartic.
Download: "Keep", "Wind Up", "Hollow Body"
9. FKA twigs - LP1
Everything to say about FKA twigs has likely already been said in the year-end lists she's made very deserving appearances on, but I still want to make note of how her completely inventive take on R&B has given voice to an element of the female experience that's rarely expressed with so much craftsmanship. The electronic arrangements, always a wisp away from scattering into ether or shattering like glass, provide a dense and fantastical forest for twigs' delicate voice to tip-toe and slink through on her quest to make through sound the pain of yearning for power so you have something to part with visible when it cannot be put into words.
Download: "Pendulum", "Two Weeks", "Numbers"
8. Cold Specks - Neuroplasticity
There are some voices strong enough to anchor a music in personality no matter where the arrangements or melodies may go; the earth spirit-like quality of Al Spx's voice ensures that Cold Specks will be able to wander across any musical landscape without ever feeling barren of her wide-open soul. Neuroplasticity sees Spx adventuring away from the stark hymnal qualities of her fabulous first record and embracing a Tom Waits-esque rabbling, mixing bleating horns with xylophones and clattering drums with chilling effect. Her lyrics are less abstract and more incisive this time around, becoming downright terrifying as she threatens to choke her lover on dead air or take every old knife in her back and drive it into his. The album is at once gruesome and pious, the musical equivalent of a crucifix in the best way.
Download: "Old Knives", "A Broken Memory", "A Season of Doubt"
7. Grouper - Ruins
Liz Harris' latest album couldn't sound more intimate if you were listening to it from inside the very base of her throat. Ruins is a record that is stuffed with tiny details not in spite of the hazy, breathy nature of Harris' recordings and vocals, but because of them; there's nothing quiet as human as the edges that we buff away when we present ourselves to the world. Harris has decided here not to hide any of the imperfections, the beeps of microwaves in the distance, the hiss of recording equipment, the chirp of unidentifiable, uncontrolled crickets outside, the mumble of her consonants, and that's why what she presents to us here is something that transcends our foolish efforts at showing people who we want to be. Liz Harris shows us who she is.
Download: "Clearing", "Holding", "Labyrinth"
6. White Lung - Deep Fantasy
When I was sixteen, Courtney Love taught me that anger on my own behalf was the seed of self-respect. It was a seminal lesson for me, and I hope that this generation's sixteen year-old proto-feminists can find the same message in the works of White Lung. Mish Way's screams and howls refuse to be contained by politeness, and the arrangements of White Lung's furious punk music doesn't restrain her so much as direct her like tracks on a runaway train. For all the noise and chaos, blood and piss of this album, there's a surprising knack for melody, and the resulting record is one that dresses up rage and hate in a way that's relatable instead of merely aggressive.
Download: "Down It Goes", "Lucky One", "Face Down"
5. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
Run the Jewels is one of the most-lauded rap albums of the year, and with damn good reason. From top to bottom Killer Mike and El-P have created a hard-hitting, punchy record full of brutal disses and righteous anger, a swirling maelstrom of frustration and pomp. El-P's beat are experimental and multifaceted, strong enough to carry songs on their own but elevated to greatness when paired with the dexterous rhyming. The chemistry on this album is undeniable, and I'm sure Mike and El would be satisfied to see that their formula has created explosions.
Download: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)", "Early", "Oh My Darling Don't Cry"
4. The Raveonettes - Pe'ahi
Very rarely have "daddy issues" been dealt with with so much nuance and craftsmanship. Pe'ahi is a gut wrenching record about loss and conflicting emotions, about burying someone you were supposed to love knowing that that cosmic crime will never go righted. The waves of guitar fuzz break to reveal some of the strongest Raveonettes melodies yet, and it's clear that the band pushed into new territory with each track - whether it's the shuffle of "A Killer in the Streets" or the drum-less surge of "When Night is Almost Done", it's evident that the band looked at the structures they had prior to the creation of the record and found them lacking for delving with such painful and fraught subjects, spurring a sort of reinvention. The bookends of "Endless Sleeper" and "Summer Ends" are stately pallbearers, despite being filled with turmoil.
Download: "Endless Sleeper", "Summer Ends", "Kill!"
3. The Antlers - Familiars
The best kind of art is the kind that gives us the tools to understand the world around us and ourselves better. Familiars, for me, is one such record. It's clearly a lyrical masterwork, dealing in aging and anxiety and self-reflection with a sort of nuance almost singular in the musical landscape. While the mellow instrumentation at first put me off, after repeated listens I realized it was the architecture for the messages to a younger self, a better self, that Silberman was selling. The music isn't utilitarian; it aches with the longing to break past the restraints of the wisdom that sometimes the best course of action in accepting tragedy is understanding that there's nothing you can do. Even when that tragedy is the years you wasted turning into someone you don't especially like.
Download: "Intruders", "Revisited", "Palace"
2. Perfume Genius - Too Bright
Few albums arrive with such adamance as Too Bright does, and fewer still delve into the realms of horror, homophobia and disease with such unflinching honesty. Mike Hadreas, formerly a soft-spoken balladeer delivering songs that sounded almost fetal in their looseness and fragility, hasn't made an album; he's made a weapon, one as pointed as an icepick and as brutal as any bloody instrument. The lyrics are unforgiving, the music punishing in both its aching beauty and guttural screams and gasps. Hadreas pulls noises out of his throat that sound like the mouths of Hell opening, and a few songs later swoons over trails of heavenly strings about being hung and drawn for life. When he sings at the end that he doesn't need love or understanding, but just for us to listen, it seems as if it's been impossible not to.
Download: "Queen", "No Good", "Grid"
1. Owen Pallett - In Conflict
There's nothing simple about In Conflict. String arrangements cross each other like ice crystals while blobs of electronics spiral out in tessellating patterns. The lyrics are loose, calling up scenes from a life (a room filled with Emily Dickinson, riding a bicycle in the sun, sex with a younger partner to the Smiths) rather than making blanket statements. The subject matter, heralded by the title, is turmoil and opposition, an inherently mercurial state of being. It's the masculine brushing up against the feminine, freedom bowing to commitment, the future dragging itself forward from the past. It's doing what's bad for you in the moment, refraining from that cigarette or burning the whole place down, knowing that it's better for you in the long run. It's giving of yourself to a universe that makes no promises of reciprocity.
Pallett's sophistication with his instrument allows him to paint the subtlest details and smoothest curves of complicated thoughts. The lyrics are evocative but unresolved, beckoning more questions rather than providing platitudes. The songs are structured chamber pop with undeniable choruses, but always kept just left of being obvious. Even "Soldiers Rock", the catchiest of the bunch, stubbornly refuses to be put into a pop song's time signature. "I Am Not Afraid", the colossal opener, is little more than a single sawing note and a lugubrious metallic beat backing the vocal melody until after the first chorus.
This album is, in itself, a portrait rather than a plan. Pallett lays out survival strategies - reaching out to others, kissing and telling, physical labor to escape philosophical angst - but not any answer to the question of why people always have to fight themselves to grow. There's nothing simple about this record. There's nothing simple about life, either.
Download: "I Am Not Afraid", "Song for Five and Six", "Soldiers Rock"