I considered filling my Best Album list with all the ‘Taylor’s Version’ re-releases, but it turns out I am a coward. As always, a Spotify playlist is at the bottom of the page.
Runner Ups – Stay in the Car by Bachelor, Rap Shit by Sam Dew, Like Me by Caveman, and State by Laura Stevenson
10. Head Cheerleader, Pom Pom Squad – It’s a fantastic song in many ways, but this song made the list for the guitar.
9. Hold Yourself, Tune Yards – This song captures the conundrum of parenthood: knowing that our parents screwed us up, but still not being able to help but give our kids their own issues.
8. U&ME, alt-J – The origins of this song were created during a concert warmup and were forgotten by the band members, providing a great example of why bands should have a dedicated staff around them to make sure potential great songs aren’t lost.
7. Wash, Lindsey Bitson – A great audio depiction of a gradual descent into a mental breakdown as the layers of chaotic instruments are slowly added to the song.
6. That Life, Unknown Mortal Orchestra – The groove is irresistable, plus the video has a muppet!
Top 5 Songs:
5. Unpleasant Breakfast, The Hold Steady
There is a lot going on in this song, for some reason the horns and the “ghost” noises combined with poetic vignettes from a summer working at a hotel are extremely compelling. I have always liked The Hold Steady, but for me this song reaches new heights. Right when the song is losing steam, the piano comes in hard, and gives the song another life.
4. Far Out, Ben Howard
Howard has been putting out great music for years, but hasn’t cracked the list until now. This song features complex and playful lyrics with themes of overconsumption at the cost of the natural word.
“Time to make a new plan”
Said the gravedigger man
“How am I to make a killing
What with all of this living?
It’s abysmal the state of the union”
3. Afrique Victime, Mdou Moctar
I am a fan of the Tuareg guitar sound, but never have I heard it as vibrant as when Moctar plays. The guitar is a great foundation for the group vocals that decry the crimes against innocent Africans, citing Gaddafi and referencing the Arab Spring. That would be a great song by itself, but then Moctar adds a virtuoso guitar breakdown for four minutes.
2. Damn, Ada Lea
I am always a fan of a song that feels like a short story, this song provides the visceral setting of a New Year’s Eve party where the protagonist is realizing that her friend’s downward spiral is bound for a tragic end. Her vocals are full of intimacy and pain, while the other instruments provide the perfect backing. In the middle of the song Ada Lea includes an instrument that sounds like a theremin for a few seconds putting emphasis on an admission by the narrator. She understands that by using the theremin sound less, she increases the effectiveness. We will be hearing more from this songwriter.
1. Days Like These, Low
While there are plenty of interesting songs on Low’s new album HEY WHAT, this song stands out with its power. Low uses a static wall of sound to emphasize the instrumentation on the second verse, creating an enthralling effect. It’s great to hear that after 13 albums Low is still creating complicated and beautiful songs. They repeatedly find ways to keep their sound fresh, it sounds like they might have found inspiration from the work of Dirty Projectors to help them create new fantastic textures for this album.
When you think you’ve seen everything
You’ll find we’re living in days like these
They say you only take what you bring
Maybe that’s just the way they speak
Runner Ups – Today We’re The Greatest by Middle Kids, Blooms by Jaguar Sun, and Long Lost by Lord Huron
5. Smiling with No Teeth, Genesis Owusu
The Australian rapper does an amazing job layering complicated percussion and vocals to create a full sound for his upbeat songs. On the slower songs he pulls back and creates a smooth R&B track, like the standout Waitin’ on Ya (a song about the manifestation of depression seducing a lover into the grave…yup). Owusu also investigates the complicated position of a black man in a majority white society, but his comedic lyrics reflect his determination to laugh through the pain.
4. We Are, Jon Batiste
If you need a musical lift filled with life and positivity, put this album on. The lead track We Are is a rousing declaration of accomplishments that will be made in the name of social justice. I’ve got to give Batiste credit for having the confidence to include a classical composition at track 7 (right in the middle of a pop album). Apparently Batiste is having a moment in his career as this album was released in the year after his fantastic work composing the jazz tracks for the Pixar film Soul.
3. BOY ANONYMOUS/Red Hand Akimbo, Paris Texas
Okay so this is actually an album and an EP, but they were both released this year, so I’m including them both. While it is surprising to name a hip hop group after the moody 1984 independent film, it fits with the duo’s preference to keep their audience off-balance. The two childhood friends are new to the national audience, but their decade of making music together provides them with sophisticated song crafting abilities and an impressive flow. The references are packed in so tightly that it often takes several listens to get the reference or the joke.
2. The Future, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Rateliff and the Night Sweats paired up again and they are better than ever. The retro-soul compositions are compelling, highlighted by the dynamic horns and Rateliff’s electric vocals. Rateliff’s bleak poetry needs the passion inherent in the Night Sweats music to bring his songs out of the dark. Of all the albums created as a direct result of the pandemic, this was my favorite. I didn’t love the album at first, however, after several listens I finally began to hear a complexity and innovation packed into this album.
You say you thirst for vengeance and you crave for fire
On the roofs of innocence
You watch them rage and writhe
And it don’t bother you
You feel so brave
1. YAK: A Collection of Truck Songs, Angel Du$t
This band out of Baltimore is capable of successfully genre hopping between punk, surf rock, alternative, pop, and grunge each track without missing a beat. They credit their musical influences (Lou Reed, The Feelies, The Replacements) for their ability to move across the musical spectrum. Their music definitely holds an irreverent spirit as seen in comedic songs like All the Way Dumb. It is clear that they found a magical combination of bandmates, but this arrangement could be temporary as the members have commitments with other bands. I will enjoy it as long as it lasts!
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