Best Albums of 2020

And here we are in the nick of time, before the closing hours of 2020, to present you with the highly-subjective lists of our favourite albums of the year. We won’t pretend that 2020 wasn’t an especially horrible year for many people, but we can highlight that excellent artistry may arise despite tragedy (and it has been argued that the finest artistry emerges from tragedy necessarily). We would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading and to wish all of our readers a very happy New Year, full of love, peace and joy.

Elijah & Greg


10. Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple

Full disclosure: 2012’s The Idler Wheel… passed me by. In fact, I haven’t given Fiona Apple much of a listen since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, which I found relatively underwhelming. I am grateful for venturing back into Apple territory for this record, which is the first of her five records (a slim catalogue over a 25-year career) in which she oversaw all of her own production. Without Jon Brion’s instrumental settings, Apple has produced something more primal. The title of the record comes from the television programme The Fall. In the scene in question, Gillian Anderson’s detective protagonist Stella Gibson is seeking to reach a torture victim through a locked door.

Without wanting to belabour the parallel, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an expression of artistic liberation: ‘Fetch the bolt cutters… I’ve been in here too long’ (from the title track). Additional percussion is provided by the bashing of walls and floor of her Los Angeles home. These are accompanied by barking dogs (à la Brian Wilson), and, apparently, her deceased dog’s bones. Perhaps she is musing on her prodigal beginnings as a seventeen-year-old pop star when she sings ‘I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill’. Whatever artistic journey she has been on, she has rediscovered a particular artistic freedom with this album.

9. Women in music Pt. III
HAIM

HAIM is comprised of the three Haim sisters: Este, Danielle and Alana. Women in Music Pt III is their third studio album and explores various personal challenges faced by the sisters as well as the sexism faced by women in the music industry (especially in the Joni Mitchell-esque ‘Man from the Magazine’). (A geeky side-note is the fact that the album cover was photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson [one of my favourite directors] at the famous Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. Anderson also directed the several music videos from the album singles.) In addition to the deeply personal lyrical content of WIMPIII (each of the three Haim sisters have expressed personal traumas faced in the period leading up to the recording of the album), this record is notable for its employment of a wide variety of musical genres. Even with (though not necessarily in opposition to) the sometimes depressive content, WIMPIII is full of momentum, harnessing the energy of 1990s West Coast pop rock.

8. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

When Greg first introduced me to Tame Impala over a decade ago, I was enamoured with the ‘band’s’ sound. Neo-psychedelic rock soundscapes with heavily-effected drums and vocals. There was something simultaneously classic and contemporary about the sound and I couldn’t get enough of it. When I discovered that the band was actually just Kevin Parker, my mind was well and truly blown. Since 2010’s InnerSpeaker, every Tame Impala record has scratched its way into my top ten lists.

When I first heard this record, I didn’t know whether The Slow Rush would buck the trend or not. It is both very Tame Impala and very much a departure. The psychedelic and effected elements remain, but The Slow Rush, in keeping with its name, features a distinctly softer sound than previous Tame Impala records while keeping time with punchy disco beats. In the opening track, Parker sings ‘Not caring if we do the same thing every week / of living like I’m only living for me / of never talking about where we’re gonna be / of living like the free spirit I wanna be.’ As an admitted superfan of the more distorted guitar-driven, gravelly Tame Impala sound, I remain entranced with the intimate interlude that is The Slow Rush.

7. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Perfume Genius

Michael Alden Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius has continued the trend of exploring embodied existence through song in his fifth album. Somewhat familiar narratives remain, but Set My Heart on Fire Immediately picks up on Hadreas’ decade-long musical journey from the art rock industrial ballads of his early releases, through the land of the flamboyant showman and to this amalgamation of a considerable number of musical styles and influences spanning the last sixty years of pop music. And while Hadreas persists in his exquisite lyrical poeticism, he also leaves the sonic soundscapes to complete the picture, to express the verbally inexpressible. The tone of the whole of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is one of more confidence and earthiness (as opposed to the equally-valuable frailty and dreaminess of his previous releases).

6. songs / instrumentals
Adrianne Lenker

Since the release of Masterpiece in 2016, Big Thief has been one of my favourite bands of the last decade. This has been due primarily to the contribution of lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker. In both songwriting and musicianship, Lenker has been a pleasure to explore. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, she has been writing and releasing music for the last 16 years.) Having released two excellent records last year (U.F.O.F. and Two Hands), Big Thief was set to embark on a European tour when, due to the pandemic, it was cancelled (boo…). As a result, Lenker saw an opportunity to take a break from the demands of recording and touring (as well as to work through a recent break-up), staying in a small cabin in Western Massachusetts to be near to her sister. It may come as no surprise that with a creative force such as Lenker, these circumstances proved ideal for the gestation of new material.

While Lenker’s previous material is known for its lyrical honesty, Songs in particular is a further journey into her feelings, borne, was The Independent’s Roisin O’Connor puts it, ‘with complete abandon.’ The opening track, ‘two reverse’ indicates this complete abandon: ‘Lay me down so to let you leave. / Tell me lies, I wanna see your eyes. / Is it a crime to say I still need you? / Crime, wanna feed you.’

In the midst of this vulnerable outpouring of emotion, Lenker continues to demonstrate her musical confidence, albeit stripped down to mostly her guitar and vocals (and the occasional sound of falling rain). This doesn’t feel like a Big Thief album, but perhaps something better, or at the very least, something more intimate.

5. græ
Moses Sumney

It is perhaps a testimony to my own musical ignorance (rather than the opposite) that I don’t often hear an album and feel as if it is unlike anything I have ever heard before. Even albums that may catch me off-guard tend to also harbour a strong relationship to my other musical interests. Without a doubt, Moses Sumney’s græ bears little resemblance to other music with which I am familiar. This is not to say that Sumney’s influences are unrecognisable, but instead that the composition of græ is a wholly unique expressive force. In addition to the experimental melding of genres including jazz, classical, folk, art pop/rock and spoken word, græ is also an exceptionally personal record. With confidence and skill, Sumney approaches various issues close to home including immigration (Sunmey was born in California to Ghanaian immigrants and spent a number of years in Ghana as a child), race, gender and queer culture. While these genres and concepts might appear ham-fisted or pretentious on any other record, the pacing and tone of græ facilitates natural expression and is a triumph of contemporary music.

4. RTJ4
Run the Jewels

I have been a fan of El-P since 2002’s Fantastic Damage. I even loved the electronic jazz fusion of High Water (recorded with The Blue Series Continuum in 2004). When he partnered with Killer Mike for 2013’s Run the Jewels, El-P went from strength to strength. Every subsequent RTJ record has continued to impress (albeit, peppered with humour on the level of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] programming), but none so significantly as this latest release.

RTJ4 is the quintessential 2020 record. Pandemics, although horrific in their destruction of human life, come and go. Police brutality/racism is the more enduring illness in the United States. The opening track, ‘Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)’ heralds the tone of the record, closing with the words, ‘Yankee and The Brave are here / everybody hit the deck / we don’t mean no harm / but we truly mean all the disrespect.’ Run the Jewels have always exercised pointed social commentary, but RTJ4 is a step up in terms of agitation and clarity of thought. The lyrics express the reality of black Americans resisting systematic racism as well as the solidary in this struggle that can be expressed by allies of the black community. In a sense, Killer Mike and El-P are a shining example of what a unified, pragmatic and socially-conscious America can be, all bolstered by the superb production for which El-P has become legendary in the field of experimental hip-hop.

3. Hannah
Lomelda

Hannah is Lomelda’s fourth studio album (although ‘Lomelda’ is Texas songwriter Hannah Read, who has been releasing music for nearly a decade, in one form or another). Last year’s release, M for Empathy passed me by. Approaching Hannah with a tabula rasa was probably the best way in for me. As it turns out, whether by nature or design, Hannah Read is one of the most unassuming contemporary musicians I have encountered. There is a profound modesty in her songwriting, paralleled by the gentleness and unmilled tone of her singing voice. Hannah feels like a series of letters that Read has written to herself (as opposed to the convention of most self-titled records). It is almost as if Read is not interested in performing, per se, but rather, expressing herself in the most natural way possible – almost as if she is singing in the privacy of her bedroom. This openness disarms the listener and draws them in to Read’s narrative. She unveils grace and beauty in the mundane and ordinary, and through this, the listener is absorbed into that transcendence.

2. THE ASCENSION
Sufjan Stevens

I resisted. I promise that I resisted. When the album’s first single, ‘America’ was released in July, I had assumed it was a one-off, perhaps a comment on the state of play in the United States, what with the ongoing pandemic and the circus of a presidential election on the horizon. (In reality, Stevens penned ‘America’ during the Carrie & Lowell sessions.) Then August brought the second single, ‘Video Game’. As soon as it was released, I listened with measured anticipation. Was this to be the sound of The Ascension? I wondered, ‘Maybe this won’t be my cup of tea…’ ‘Video Game’ was followed by ‘Sugar’ in September and then the release of the album in full. I had placed a pre-order as soon as the album was announced, but I was beginning to think that its addition to my collection would be a matter of mere Sufjan Stevens ‘completism’, rather than a treasure to be cherished.

In part, I was relieved when I didn’t fall in love with The Ascension after hearing it for the first time. In the past, every time had Sufjan Stevens released an album of new material, it always seemed to climb its way to the top of my ‘best of’ list. To be sure, I am under no impression that my end of the year lists are anything more than subjective rambles about music that I—an ignoramus—enjoy. Yet, the more I listened, the more I realised that this was a true grower. Stevens has grown tired of folk music convention (he tends to dip in and out of love with this form) and songwriting in The Ascension exercises more force and certainty (even while expressing uncertainty) than ever before. In an interview with Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic, Stevens admits that this album is ‘bossy and bitchy’. In a sense, The Ascension is less dynamic than most of Stevens’ previous releases, but when that dynamism appears, it really pays off. The Purple Rain-era-Prince-sounding ‘Death Star’ stands out especially — I could not have guessed that jingle bells would give me the chills time and time again.

1. Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan

Here are several potentially controversial statements: This is easily Dylan’s finest original work since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. This might well be his finest release since 1975’s Desire (or, when the notion takes me, 1989’s Oh Mercy). For all of the strengths of 2001’s “Love and Theft”, 2006’s Modern Times and 2012’s Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways showcases Dylan’s Nobel-prize winning, transcendent and perhaps, unparalleled songwriting prowess better than anything he has produced in the last two decades.

I find only two weaknesses in Rough and Rowdy Ways. The first is a single phrase in ‘I Contain Multitudes’. In the midst of throwing out seemingly-pithy pop-culture references intermixed with more profound figures among the ‘multitudes’ he ‘contains’, Dylan offers up this cringe-worthy line: ‘And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones’. At 79, I can accept Dylan’s characterisation of the The Rolling Stones here—who were beginning to favour of edgier rock-n-roll cuts like ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and ‘Paint It Black’ when Dylan was making his own transition to the electric guitar—but referring to them as ‘British bad boys’… I shudder even as I type the expression. My second grievance is with Dylan’s occasional dependence on cookie-cutter blues rock arrangements. Yet, even within the likes of ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, his exceptional songwriting genius shines through. Thanks, Bob, for reminding me why you’re my favourite artist of all time.

Shore Fleet Foxes

Fountain Lyra Pramuk

Mystic Familiar Dan Deacon

Flower of Devotion Dehd

Microphones in 2020 The Microphones

Healing is a Miracle Julianna Barwick

SHall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? The Soft Pink Truth

Whole New Mess Angel Olsen

Fear of Death Tim Heidecker

Live Forever Bartees Strange


10. SURVIVORS EP
Tim Baker

I had originally slotted the new Car Seat Headrest album into this tenth slot, but then I realized that… I honestly REALLY only like about 3 songs on it. And so I came to the conclusion that I should instead honor this 5 song EP from my last year’s top album artist, Canadian troubadour Tim Baker. The song “Survivors” was MY ANTHEM for this year, so here’s to you Tim, for helping me to get through the lousiest year on record. You spin gold out of tragedy…

9. Born again
Ellis

Her voice is hard to distinguish from another dreamy bedroom pop singer named Clairo, but there’s something deeper in her deconversion narrative that keep this album from turning into another collection of broken heart stories. The lyrics aren’t too profound, but they’re honest, like a gauzy reflection on a #metoo world from the evangelical subculture with smashing cymbals and guitars on overdrive. I guess I’m just a sucker for a song that starts “Lately I have been romanticizing shit…” (“Embarrassing”).

8. Color Theory
Soccer Mommy

To be honest, a lot of the songs on this album sound the same to me… but the thing is, it’s such a great sound that she’s mastered. 90’s atmospheric rock with a girl-ish wistfulness (“I’m the princess of screwing up”) beneath which lies trenchant insights pulled from the wreckage of self-doubt, depression, loss, and splintered relationships. She’s like the prettiest, smartest, saddest, and angriest girl in the world at the same time, standing at the mic with a Fender Strat wrapped around her shoulders.

7. SLEEPYHEAD
Cavetown

For the first time ever, I have an album on my top ten that MY DAUGHTER Katrina turned me onto. This Gen Z wunderkind, whom his parents named Robin Skinner, wrote, produced, and played most of the instruments on the record in his major label debut and he is the most earnest of bedroom indie heroes imaginable, singing about how he hates the way he looks as an adult (“Snail”), wanting someone to tell him that they like him after he confesses his own affection (“Sweet Tooth”), and recounting how he almost killing himself at age 13 (“Empty Bed”). His double tracked vocals are charmingly lovely, he strums the acoustic minimally or grinds the electric Weezer-ly in just the right amount of accompaniment. It gives me hope for the future.

6. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

This album had to grow on me. The dance-y vibe didn’t originally capture me as much as the sonic homages of Kevin Parker’s previous work (Beatles, 60’s psychedelic, 80’s pop, etc.), probably because I’ve never been a fan of songs that repeat a theme over and over, building and dropping out again and again. But, in the end, I had to give into the groove that this kid laid down. He’s a genius, this one.

5. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Bright Eyes

This is a triumphant come back after 2011’s The People’s Key, which I found almost unlistenable. Conor Oberst may have been reinvigorated by his new muse (hint: see my #1 album) after creating the masterful collaboration Better Oblivion Community Center with her last year. His lyrics, songwriting, arrangements, and instrumentation are all back to the highest level of some of his best previous work with his long-time band. He touches on some deep wounds and finds cathartic creative power amidst the pain. Let’s hope that he stays this inspired for some time to come!

4. The New Abnormal
The Strokes

You know, I’ve never actually owned an album by The Strokes before. I mean, I knew and liked the songs that everyone did, but I would not have considered myself a fan. Perhaps I should have listened more closely. When I put this record on, I immediately connected with the catchy post-punk melodies and weary nostalgia that they were peddling. I even found myself cracking up at the melodic thievery (Psychedelic Furs in “Eternal Summer”), inside jokes (“Drums please, Fab” and “I was just bored, playing the guitar / Learned all your tricks, wasn’t too hard” in “Ode to the Mets”), and the bands coming to terms with being the old guard at this point in their career. This album brought me a lot of joy in this joyless crapheap of a year, so I thank them for that.

3. Shore
Fleet Foxes

This was the album that made me feel like everything would be okay again one day. Robin Peckhold et al were a bit obscure (though still brilliant) on 2017’s Crack-up, but it was like he was now inviting us to explore “land / Overgrown / No words, no false, no true / Water stands / Waves just pass through it / Like something moves through you.” That’s what listening to this album feels like… just the thing that I needed so much.

2. The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens

I had a listening party for this album on the night that it was released. For the first few songs, I was dialed in, willing to follow Suf wherever he wanted to take us. But then, beginning with “Die Happy” I became pretty… unhappy. Song after song began to revel in discordance, melodically and lyrically. I felt like it was a repudiation of the old Sufjan that I loved so much—his faith (“I want to be my own redeemer” and “I was acting like a believer when I was just angry and depressed”), his love of his country—though this somewhat understandable—in “America,” and his musical aesthetic (it was hard to make out any discernible natural instrument on the album—even Age of Adz allowed for the occasional acoustic guitar or orchestral part! It’s funny that the “America” B-side “My Rajneesh” was the EXACT Sufjan sound that I wanted!!). But then… I just decided to let Sufjan do what he needed to do, to say what he needed to say. And I once again recognized his genius and began to appreciate the album more and more. I may not love it as much as previous albums (I’d rank his oeuvre as follows: Illinois, Carrie & Lowell, Age of Adz, Michigan, The Ascension, Planetarium, A Sun Came, Seven Swans, Aporia, Enjoy Your Rabbit), but I will stand behind my artistic apotheosis whatever path he takes.

1. Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers

I’ve seen the Phoebe Bridgers backlash. It’s a real thing. And it’s not pretty. But to my ears, this is it. This is the best that this damnable year had to offer. She kept at it too, releasing the orchestral re-mix EP Copycat Killer and a melancholovely Christmas EP as well. I won’t say any more other than to say, “Take up and listen.” (PS. Katrina loves it too!! She dressed up as Phoebes for Halloween, which is meta, cause it’s one of the song titles on the album.)

folklore Taylor Swift (my beautiful youngest daughter is looking over my shoulder right now to make sure that I included this album on my list… heh heh)

Another Decade of Bests (2010-2019)

This post is the second of two parts. With hindsight and in living with particular albums for longer, we have compiled lists of our ten favourite albums for each year from 2000-2019. Perhaps these lists will be of some interest for those who wish to walk down Memory Lane, or indeed, for those who might wonder if any of these [subjective] gems passed them by (as we have discovered from comparing our respective lists). Whatever you—dear reader—might glean from our produce, we are grateful for the opportunity to indulge in our list-making and music-listening passions here.

Elijah & Greg


— E —

  1. The Age of Adz / All Delighted People EP
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. The Winter of Mixed Drinks
    Frightened Rabbit
  3. Halcyon Digest
    Deerhunter
  4. The Suburbs
    Arcade Fire
  5. Teen Dream
    Beach House
  6. InnerSpeaker
    Tame Impala
  7. High Violet
    The National
  8. This is Happening
    LCD Soundsystem
  9. Clinging to a Scheme
    The Radio Dept.
  10. The Monitor
    Titus Andronicus

— G —

  1. The Age of Adz / All Delighted People EP
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. The Suburbs
    Arcade Fire
  3. The Winter of Mixed Drinks
    Frightened Rabbit
  4. InnerSpeaker
    Tame Impala
  5. Forget
    Twin Shadow
  6. The Reluctant Graveyard
    Jeremy Messersmith
  7. High Violet
    The National
  8. Contra
    Vampire Weekend
  9. Together
    The New Pornographers
  10. So Runs the World Away
    Josh Ritter

— E —

  1. The SMiLE Sessions
    The Beach Boys
  2. Belong
    The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  3. Dye It Blonde
    Smith Westerns
  4. Strange Mercy
    St Vincent
  5. Bon Iver
    Bon Iver
  6. Let England Shake
    PJ Harvey
  7. Humor Risk
    Cass McCombs
  8. Helplessness Blues
    Fleet Foxes
  9. The Year of Hibernation
    Youth Lagoon
  10. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
    M83

— G —

  1. The Last of the Country Gentlemen
    Josh T. Pearson
  2. Helplessness Blues
    Fleet Foxes
  3. 100 Acres of Sycamore
    Fionn Regan
  4. Rapproacher
    Class Actress
  5. Build a Rocket Boys!
    Elbow
  6. Strange Negotiations
    David Bazan
  7. Making Mirrors
    Gotye
  8. Endless Now
    Male Bonding
  9. The Family Tree: The Roots
    Radical Face
  10. 12 Desperate StrAight Lines
    Telekinesis

— E —

  1. Shields 
    Grizzly Bear
  2. Bloom 
    Beach House
  3. Dept. of Disappearance 
    Jason Lytle
  4. Lonerism 
    Tame Impala
  5. Silver & Gold
    Sufjan Stevens
  6. America 
    Dan Deacon
  7. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
    Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  8. All We Love We Leave Behind 
    Converge
  9. Shrines 
    Purity Ring
  10. Sweet Heart Sweet Light 
    Spiritualized

— G —

  1. Fear Fun
    Father John Misty
  2. Silver & Gold
    Sufjan Stevens
  3. Break It Yourself
    Andrew Bird
  4. Tramp 
    Sharon Van Etten
  5. Port of Morrow 
    The Shins
  6. Adventures in Your Own Backyard 
    Patrick Watson
  7. The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Drive of the Screw… 
    Fiona Apple
  8. Lonerism 
    Tame Impala
  9. Through the Deep, Dark Valley 
    The Oh Hellos
  10. Who’s Feeling Young Now?
    Punch Brothers

— E —

  1. Pedestrian Verse
    Frightened Rabbit
  2. Reflektor 
    Arcade Fire
  3. Partygoing 
    Future Bible Heroes
  4. m b v
    My Bloody Valentine
  5. Big Wheel and Others 
    Cass McCombs
  6. Trouble Will Find Me 
    The National
  7. Wondrous Bughouse 
    Youth Lagoon
  8. Love’s Crushing Diamond 
    Mutual Benefit
  9. Monomania 
    Deerhunter
  10. Muchacho
    Phosphorescent

— G —

  1. Pedestrian Verse
    Frightened Rabbit
  2. Modern Vampires of the City
    Vampire Weekend
  3. Torres
    Torres
  4. The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
    Neko Case
  5. Promises
    The Boxer Rebellion
  6. Trouble Will Find Me
    The National
  7. The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand / Threeep
    Matt Pond PA
  8. Alone Aboard the Ark
    The Leisure Society
  9. Us Alone
    Hayden
  10. Lily & Madeline / The Weight of the Globe EP
    Lily & Madeline

— E —

  1. pom pom
    Ariel Pink
  2. Burn Your Fire for No Witness
    Angel Olsen
  3. Nobody Wants to Be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave
    The Twilight Sad
  4. Lost in the Dream
    The War on Drugs
  5. St Vincent
    St Vincent
  6. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
    Damien Jurado
  7. Some Blue Morning
    Adrian Crowley
  8. Too Bright
    Perfume Genius
  9. Owl John
    Owl John
  10. Are We There
    Sharon Van Etten

— G —

  1. Heart Murmurs
    Jeremy Messersmith
  2. 1000 Forms of Fear
    Sia
  3. Second Sight
    Hey Rosetta!
  4. Brill Bruisers
    The New Pornographers
  5. Stay Gold
    First Aid Kit
  6. Upside Down Mountain
    Conor Oberst
  7. My Favourite Faded Fantasy
    Damien Rice
  8. Are We There
    Sharon Van Etten
  9. The Take Off and Landing of Everything
    Elbow
  10. In Conflict
    Owen Pallett

— E —

  1. Carrie & Lowell 
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. Currents 
    Tame Impala
  3. viet cong
    Viet Cong (Preoccupations)
  4. Depression Cherry 
    Beach House
  5. I Love You, Honeybear 
    Father John Misty
  6. Vulnicura 
    Björk
  7. Weirdo Shrine 
    La Luz
  8. Fading Frontier 
    Deerhunter
  9. White Men Are Black Men Too
    Young Fathers
  10. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
    Courtney Barnett

— G —

  1. Carrie & Lowell
    Sufjan Stevens
  2. Currents
    Tame Impala
  3. Teens of Style
    Car Seat Headrest
  4. Vulnicura
    Björk
  5. Bashed Out
    This is the Kit
  6. Dear Wormwood
    The Oh Hellos
  7. Depression Cherry
    Beach House
  8. Brother
    The Brilliance
  9. Sprinter
    Torres
  10. Times Infinity Vol. One
    The Dears

— E —

  1. Masterpiece 
    Big Thief
  2. My Woman 
    Angel Olsen
  3. Teens of Denial 
    Car Seat Headrest
  4. Painting of a Panic Attack 
    Frightened Rabbit
  5. Puberty 2 
    Mitski
  6. A Moon Shaped Pool 
    Radiohead
  7. Skeleton Tree 
    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  8. You Want it Darker 
    Leonard Cohen
  9. Emotions and Math
    Margaret Glaspy
  10. Next Thing 
    Frankie Cosmos

— G —

  1. Teens of Denial
    Car Seat Headrest
  2. Are You Serious
    Andrew Bird
  3. Painting of a Panic Attack
    Frightened Rabbit
  4. Puberty 2
    Mitski
  5. The Birds Outside Sang
    Florist
  6. A Moon Shaped Pool
    Radiohead
  7. Arranging Time
    Pete Yorn
  8. Remember Us to Life
    Regina Spektor
  9. Front Row Seat to Earth
    Weyes Blood
  10. 22, A Million
    Bon Iver

— E —

  1. A Crow Looked at Me
    Mount Eerie
  2. DAMN
    Kendrick Lamar
  3. Capacity
    Big Thief
  4. Planetarium
    Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister
  5. No Shape
    Perfume Genius
  6. Slowdive
    Slowdive
  7. Last Place
    Grandaddy
  8. Sleep Well Beast
    The National
  9. Powerplant
    Girlpool
  10. Antisocialites
    Alvvays

— G —

  1. (I Am) Origami Pt. 2 – Every Power Wide Awake
    John Van Deusen
  2. Stranger in the Alps
    Phoebe Bridgers
  3. Pure Comedy
    Father John Misty
  4. Planetarium
    Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister
  5. Crack-Up
    Fleet Foxes
  6. Swin Inside the Moon
    Angelo De Augustine
  7. Sleep Well Beast
    The National
  8. Ruins
    First Aid Kit
  9. Mentall Illness
    Aimee Mann
  10. Painted Ruins
    Grizzly Bear

— E —

  1. 7
    Beach House
  2. Be the Cowboy
    Mitski
  3. And Nothing Hurt
    Spiritualized
  4. Only Love
    The Armed
  5. God’s Favorite Customer
    Father John Misty
  6. You Won’t Get What You Want
    Daughters
  7. Lush
    Snail Mail
  8. In a Poem Unlimited
    US Girls
  9. Singularity
    Jon Hopkins
  10. The Future Me Hates Me
    The Beths

— G —

  1. Be the Cowboy
    Mitski
  2. God’s Favorite Customer
    Father John Misty
  3. Something in the Rain (OST)
    이남연 & Rachel Yamagata
  4. Lush
    Snail Mail
  5. Boygenius
    Boygenius
  6. 7
    Beach House
  7. Big Red Machine
    Big Red Machine
  8. Love is Dead
    Chvrches
  9. You, Forever
    Sam Evian
  10. Hell-On
    Neko Case

— E —

  1. It Won/t Be Like This All the Time
    The Twilight Sad
  2. All Mirrors
    Angel Olsen
  3. U.F.O.F.
    Big Thief
  4. Remind Me Tomorrow
    Sharon Van Etten
  5. Reward
    Cate Le Bon
  6. Titanic Rising
    Weyes Blood
  7. Ghosteen
    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  8. Anima
    Thom Yorke
  9. 2020
    Richard Dawson
  10. Two Hands
    Big Thief

— G —

  1. Forever Overhead
    Tim Baker
  2. Cala
    Fionn Regan
  3. Better Oblivion Community Center
    Better Oblivion Community Center
  4. My Finest Work Yet
    Andrew Bird
  5. Titanic Rising
    Weyes Blood
  6. Tomb
    Angelo De Augustine
  7. Father of the Bride
    Vampire Weekend
  8. Remind Me Tomorrow
    Sharon Van Etten
  9. Anima
    Thom Yorke
  10. Immunity
    Clairo

See our lists from 2000-2009 here.






Best Albums of 2016

best-albums-of-2016

Remember us? Neither do we. On with the show.

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

nattesferd

10. Nattesferd  Kvelertak — Listening to Nattesferd, Kvelertak’s third full length album, is something like travelling back in time. The album is a marked departure from aural onslaught of their previous record (2013’s Meir, produced by one of my all-time favies, Converge’s Kurt Ballou). Don’t get me wrong, Nattesferd is an onslaught, but of a much different nature. Fears that Kvelertak might be headed toward a more mainstream rock sound are allayed continually throughout this 47-minute masterclass in capturing the familiar energy, precision and fun of the American heavy metal sound of the early eighties and the aggression and fullness of the Norwegian black metal sound of the 21st century without losing any of their respective charms.

puberty-2

9. Puberty 2  Mitski — There are two distinctive threads running through Puberty 2. Firstly, there is innovation and a refusal to adopt a singular form of songwriting. Mitski demonstrates that she can write high quality and accessible pop tunes (see ‘Your Best American Girl’) whilst verging on proto-grungey post-punk (see ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’) and occupying more familiar, yet refreshing indie territory in between. The second thread demonstrates that Puberty 2‘s variety is not the result of simply compiling tracks from across a repertoire — this is Mitski’s fourth album. Looking past the fact that she’s only 25 (what have we done with our lives?), Mitski is demonstrating that she is a seasoned and consummate artist.

next-thing

8. Next Thing  Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing is the epitome of ‘big things in small packages’. This album lasts under a half an hour, with the longest of its fifteen tracks lasting only 164 seconds (that’s 2:44). But the listener will not feel cheated. Somehow, Frankie Cosmos (22-year-old Greta Kline) is able to capture complete, common, yet complicated thoughts with each track. In fact, the album is summed up quite well by the cover. As you can see, the perspective of the image is from that of a passenger in a car, doodling in a notebook. At the same time, the passenger is revealed to be using a mobile to take a photograph – captured as the cover image itself. The car is veering left, perhaps making a turn to the ‘Next Thing’. We also observe typical things – a fallen tree branch, a littered plastic bag, paw prints, a car driving off in the distance. It’s a brilliantly simple yet interesting composition, much like the record.

skeleton-tree

7. Skeleton Tree  Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — This album, as so many albums on my list this year, caught me by surprise. I first heard ‘Jesus Alone’ on 6 Music on 2 September and I knew Skeleton Tree was going to be special. The production was sparse and moving. Cave had moved from his typical narrative formula (in the accompanying documentary, One More Time with Feeling, Cave claims that he has lost his faith in narrative-based songs). The rest of the album reflects these shifts. With both the stirring words and ambient musical tone, Cave is reflecting on a profound sense of loss (having lost his young son Arthur in the summer of 2015) and engaging in some serious existential inquiries. So really, Skeleton Tree is not so atypical of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds after all.

teens-of-denial

6. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — There’s been a slight tendency toward slacker rock in my listening this past year. It’s probably a hangover from 2014’s GARAGE ROCK BONANZA. When Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial first appeared on my radar, I despised the names of both the band and the album. But as with a lot of things in life, those become invisible or at least inconsequential to an individual once a relationship is solidified. I could write a lot about this record, but Greg expresses it so well that I’ll cede the floor to him for this one (see Greg’s comment on Teens of Denial below).

painting-of-a-panic-attack

6. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — A familiar face. I’m going to be honest here: when I first heard this record I was convinced that I would consider it nearly, if not the weakest Frightened Rabbit album to date. Something about it fell flat for me. So I put it away for a few months. Maybe six months. Then I picked it up again – I knew there had to be something I was missing. Even upon the first re-listen I asked myself, ‘Was I even paying attention?’ It was as if I had never heard these songs. And they were actually quite good! Maybe you share my initial impression. If you have not got back to Painting of a Panic Attack, I implore you to give it another shot. I admit that there are times when it feels less adventurous/emotionally porous than FR’s other material, but there is a quality to the songwriting (thanks to the ever insightful pen of Scott Hutchison) and production (thanks in part to the National’s Aaron Dessner) that keeps me listening.

emotions-and-math

4. Emotions and Math Margaret Glaspy — Margaret Glaspy’s debut album makes one wonder, what comes next? Emotions and Math is as competent and complete as a veteran release. That’s not say that Glaspy has gone stale – far from it! She touches on Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith in equal measure and brings her own sophisticated musical sensibilities to the table in well packaged yet positively aggressive and unpolished pop rock tunes. Emotions and Math improves upon subsequent listens and leaves us thirsty for what Glaspy will do next.

a-moon-shaped-pool

3. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — I’ve done the maths and have discovered that the period between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool is the longest gap between Radiohead albums since their first release, way back in 1993. That’s five years, two months and 20 days between KoL and AMSP! I know it might not seem like much, but perhaps you will remember that long gap between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows – a mere four years, four months and one day. Okay, maybe it’s not so much about the quantity of time between records as it is the quality of material on each record that leaves us thirsting for more. The King of Limbs has its charms, including the special edition packaging, featuring the world’s first (and probably last) ‘newspaper edition’. But it fails to reach the bar set by previous releases, especially since In Rainbows seems to have become so loved amongst the Radiohead intelligentsia. But A Moon Shaped Pool proves to be not so much a simple return to form as it is a uniquely profound yet thoroughly ‘Radiohead’ collection of haunting and atmospheric orchestrations. It is unassuming, gritty, yet polished. It is all the things for which we admire Radiohead and with an added expanse of lyrical coherence.

my-woman

2. My Woman  Angel Olsen — Angel Olsen is another familiar face among my end-of-the-year picks. Her previous record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was my third favourite album of 2014. When an artist produces something as good as Olsen’s previous outing, it’s difficult to know how to approach subsequent releases. Should one set high standards only to be disappointed or should one go in expecting the worst? I was still weighing out this question when I first heard My Woman. According to Olsen, the album’s themes revolve around ‘the complicated mess of being a woman’. As one who does not self-identify as a woman, I believe this album also has plenty of energy to contribute to ‘the complicated mess of being a human’. Olsen’s lyrical, vocal and musical presence is stronger than ever and the record seems to hold together more fully than her earlier releases. In complete self-awarness, she addresses themes of despair, broken expectations and ultimately, hope, all borne with her trademark wit and defiant boldness.

masterpiece

1. Masterpiece  Big Thief — It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely surprised by an album. There are great albums from great artists that I can see coming from miles away (such as Sufjan Stevens’ masterful Carrie & Lowell from 2015) and there are the general surprises that make me a new fan (such as Emotions and Math and Teens of Denial above). But then there’s something like Big Thief’s Masterpiece. I had already heard the album before I realised it was released on Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records, which might have coloured my first listen with Midwestern angst. But the Midwestern angst found me over the course of that first listen. I grant that this is all becoming a wee bit self-indulgent for an Angeleño-Glaswegian commenting on an album from a Brooklyn-based band that reminds him of the American Midwest. (To give me some tenuous credit, singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker is from Minneapolis.) But there are serious, though probably unintentional musical and vocal hints of the Anniversary (1997-2004) among others, which is enough to send me spiraling into an adolescence-fueled hunt for a [misplaced] sense of ‘authenticity’. Because of these fleeting emotions, I feel some sort of shame that I can’t help but make this album my top pick of 2016. Beyond these fleeting emotions, Masterpiece is an album with superior breadth and depth, musically and thematically, driven by Lenker and Buck Meek’s vocals and guitars, completely deserving of any scanty honour that I may offer. It will haunt me well into 2017, which, unlike UK and American politics, is no bad thing.

Honourable Mentions

  • Love  Muscle and Marrow
  • You Want it Darker  Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
  • Slow Forever  Cobalt
  • Blackstar  David Bowie (1947-2016)
  • Air  Astronoid

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

everything-at-once

10. Everything At Once  Travis — Elijah may be holding his nose with this choice, but I felt like these Scottish lads (who’ve been together for 26 years!) finally found their way back to the simple, lovely tunefulness of their turn of the century apex (The Man Who, The Invisible Band) with this strong release. I’m a sucker for the gentle melancholic hopefulness of Fran Healy’s voice (check out 2:03 on this video) and shimmering indie instrumentation of the band.

winter-lives

9. Winter Lives  Matt Pond PA — I have a weak spot for this chamber-pop troubadour. He once again demonstrates a songwriting brilliance that has made me love his poppy, life-affirming tunesmithery over the years. His voice has such a perfect sincerity and tone, the lyrical nostalgia of songs like ‘The Glow’ and ‘Whoa (Thirteen and Sledding with Kerry in Northern New Hampshire)’ warmed my sentimental heart, and the arrangements are solid and masterful.

light-upon-the-lake

8. Light Upon the Lake  Whitney — You listen to this album and you wonder, what time-machine did these guys fall out of with their perfect falsetto over tight bass/drum combo and 60’s & 70’s guitar sounds. They may be aching for those ‘golden days’ but for my money, they’ve captured them quite perfectly here.

arranging-time

7. Arranging Time  Pete Yorn — Ah Pete Yorn, yet another brilliant songwriting flame from the early 2k’s that had somewhat flickered out over the years (a la Travis). But he found that former fuel somewhere and picked up right where musicforthemorningafter left off with this new release. Check out tracks 1-3, ‘Shopping Mall’ and ‘Walking Up” for shambling, big-hearted, melodic indie goodness.

daughter-not-to-disappear

6. Not To Disappear  Daughter — Oh her voice just slays me from the first word to the last: like smoke hitting a rain-covered window. Her elegant lyrical delivery taps into the deepest sadness you could imagine, but then soars into the sun over a cascade of guitars and throttling drums (check this video out, as well as this one and fail to be impressed).

a-moon-shaped-pool

5. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — This collection of songs (arranged alphabetically it seems) took a bit to grow on me. Initially, I thought it was just some stray songs they’d never really finalized that they’d figured they would finally put on a record, but as I listened more carefully, it opened itself up to me—a staggering heartbreak woven through with gorgeous orchestration and unexpected turns of phrase and melody. They are back at the heights of their powers after the floundering The King of Limbs.

the-birds-outside-sang

4. The Birds Outside Sang  Florist — This is just a gentle, artless, and moving reckoning of dealing with the aftermath of a serious accident. The singer’s voice is fragile, child-like, but full of wonder and hard won wisdom…remembering the light coming into the room where she lay recovering, re-imagining the moment of the accident, but also whimsically meditating on the beauty and capriciousness of life. The instrumentation is lo-fi guitar strumming, Casio keyboard humming, and some droning organs, with the occasional full-band kicking in to make a point.  It’s just so sweet and tender—the mending of a confused soul.  (You can sample the record here. I particularly love the title track.)

painting-of-a-panic-attack

3. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — Ok, earlier I had told Elijah this wouldn’t probably be on the upper half of my top 10, but as I’ve gone through and listened again to the 12 tracks, it really is strong (I was basing my early sense of the album on the deluxe edition with 3 extra b-side worthy tunes). I think I was initially turned off by some of the ‘radio-friendly’ tendencies I was picking up (‘Get Out’, ‘An Otherwise Disappointing Life’) and though it loses it’s way a bit on the second half, man, when you listen to ‘Death Dream’ and ‘I Wish I was Sober’ and ‘Still Want To Be Here’ and ‘400 Bones’, it’s clearly the same undeniable genius we’ve celebrated on their last 3 albums.

are-you-serious

2. Are You Serious  Andrew Bird — I’ve always been a fan of the Birdman, but sometimes his meandering obscurity (addressed here on the title track: ‘Used to be so willfully obtuse / or is the word abstruse? / Semantics like a noose / get out your dictionaries’) and multi-layered loop tracks could sometimes become a bit tiresome. Here, he is the TIGHTEST he’s ever been with a strong backing band, streamlined songwriting, and his most straightforward reflections (‘this is all non-fiction’) delivered sincerely alongside delicious whistled melodies. It’s an almost perfect album (save the two-chord gruelling groove ‘Truth Lies Low’).

teens-of-denial

1. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — I resisted listening to this album for a long time, despite (or because of?) the accolades coming in from various quarters of musicdom. I can’t remember what made me give in, but I’m so glad I did not hold out one moment longer. This is a concept album about a troubled teen exploring some deep universal themes (mortality, depression, anxiety) and others more teen angst-y (experimenting with drugs, drunk driving, relationship drama). The vocalist sounds (and reads) like two parts Ray Davies (Kinks), one part Beck, one part Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) with a dash of Black Francis (Pixies) to taste. The sound of the record is a blend of 90’s alternative rock (open chords through chunky overdrive pedal; double-tracked vocals) mixed with kind of a classic rock aesthetic (hello cowbell!), but as with all of the artists on this list, the song is king (the only number I’m not crazy about is the nearly 8 minute jam ‘Vincent’). This kid is only in his early 20’s but, to my ears, he has already been writing songs for years that hold their own with the greatest ever written.

Honourable Mentions

  • 22, A Million  Bon Iver — I actually like this experimental collection from the falsetto king, but it just didn’t seem substantial enough to qualify as a full-length LP—it’s only like 22 minutes and 22 seconds long (hey wait a second, that was on purpose!!).
  • Young Mood  Colt — It really is a great collection of songs—I just couldn’t get over the singer’s grating, narcoleptic baritone voice.
  • I also didn’t find the time to listen more carefully to a few records from artists I admire (Remember Us to Life Regina Spektor and Ruminations Conor Oberst, so they perhaps would have ended up on this list had I given their albums some attention).  I also want to keep my ears tuned to the Spanish alt/indie band Mourn, who had a so-so album come out, but have potential to be a great band in the days ahead.

Dishonourable Mentions

  • Painting With  Animal Collective — Not as bad as 2012’s Centipede Hz, this album still failed to make much of a dent in the AC canon, which is so disappointing as I love this band so much.
  • Mangy Love  Cass McCombs — I swing back and forth on this guy from album to album, but I almost felt like he was pranking his audience with this collection of his usual esoteric lyricism put to “easy listening” accompaniment.  It won many fans in a wide range of music critics, but I’m calling the Emperor’s New Clothes on this one.
  • Here  Teenage Fanclub — Oh how I love these Scottish indie gods, but this album, their 10th LP, bored me to tears.