I’m not a paragon of anything. I understand that. I also understand that this is the season that fans of music and film and literature gather in small groups and yell loudly, the season where it is no longer unusual to see someone driven to violence by the smallest slight in taste. In the past three days I’ve both pissed and moaned about the Golden Globe nominations, Pitchfork’s top albums of the year and the quality of soup served at Pockets (unrelated, certainly). I understand that I’m not alone.
I also understand that the furious desire to make the things that we love known can seem, at times, immature. Does anyone really, truly care what we thought of Halcyon Days (meh on toast) or how disappointed we were by Heaven is Whenever (this disappointed: _____________________)? No, decidedly not. However the truth is that every psychopath throwing beer in the face of the charlatan who dared question the merits of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” is someone who was so touched by it that any affront is akin to slapping their child. And that highlights how beautiful this season is. It’s the time where all of us, unabashedly, lay bare our feelings and offer them to each other. And, at its purest, it’s not about proving who has the best taste, it’s about sharing the things we love with as many people as we can. Every best-of list is a tiny prayer for resonance. A manifesto to mutual understanding. A plea for polygamy.
So, with that in mind, here are the ten albums that have meant the most to me this year.
10. Beach House – Teen Dream
Truth be told, I didn’t care for this album when I first heard it. Beach House was always a band I listened to on the periphery. Music to read books to. But, over the past four months, Teen Dream has been some alien plant, who’s roots take hold as the cold weather grows. It’s a seemingly simple album whose beauty can be staggering. It’s the sonic equivalent of watching the sun rise over freshly fallen snow. I imagine that listening to this album while watching just that will kill you. With joy.
9. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
I’d be lying if I said that, at least once in my life, I didn’t have a dream about being Joanna Newsom’s boyfriend. It was pleasant, if uneventful. Piggyback rides were featured prominently. After hearing Have One on Me, I now have dreams about Joanna Newsom and I breaking up. She is understanding and kind, wistful. I am crestfallen, trying hard not to express my crushing disappointment. It’s infuriating, to watch her be so mature about this whole thing.
Have One On Me is the sister album to Bill Callahan’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, and both are heartening and heartrending in equal measure. Newsom’s voice has grown strong and confident, even as her emotions waver. Her playing is virtuosic as always. But, what impresses most on this album (other than it’s ability to span three LPs and never feel overlong) is its striking imagery, the beauty and complexity of Newsom’s words. This album also contains my favorite closing lines of the year, “And everywhere I tried to love you is yours again, and only yours.”
8. Janelle Monae – The Archandroid
I saw Janelle Monae cover Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” at the BET Awards this year. It was astoundingly good. It was also completely appropriate, because, truth is, Janelle Monae does more justice to Prince than Prince is ever likely to do again. Which says more (hopefully) about her quality than Prince’s complete lack there of.
Her Metropolis The Chase Suite EP was a perfect introduction to both her endearing geekiness and enviable talents. The Archandroid is a full representation of her otherworldly powers. She’s an exemplary songwriter with a strongly collaborative ear, and, most importantly, she seems fearless. Modern R&B bleeds into English folk bleeds into classically-based instrumentals. And it all works. I want to devour her whole.
Janelle Monae is also a scant few months older than me. Dammit.
7. Sleigh Bells – Treats
I spent a lot of time watching Nickelodeon growing up. Too much time. Occasionally, I still think of my unrequited romances as distinctly Pattie Valentine-esque. With all the feverish watching, it was inevitable that this commercial would become ingrained in my mind. Little did I know that, fourteen years later, the star-clipped girl seven seconds in would release an album that would be equally ingrained. Treats is an earworm, a pounding, pulsing thing, where every track (with the exception of the insanely good “Rill Rill”) pushes you to the limits of aural endurance. It’s one of the loudest albums I’ve ever heard. And it’s also obscenely danceable. Resisting the booty-dropping, fist-pumping power of “Tell ‘Em” and “Crown on the Ground” isn’t merely foolish, it’s damn near impossible.
6. Owen Pallett – Heartland/A Swedish Love Story
Over the past four years, I’ve been an evangelist for Owen Pallett (formerly Final Fantasy). I would gush endlessly about his talent, forcefully demand that people stop laughing when I bring up the title of his second album, and, once, denied him three times before the cock crowed. Mostly, however, people just thought I was talking about Andrew Bird.
Truth be told, Andrew Bird, stately and stolid, should be kissing Owen Pallett’s fashionably shaved head-sides. Heartland is proof of that. A mix of complex, elegant string arrangements and jittery electronics, Heartland is also a concept album about a world ruled by a god named Owen Pallett. It’s like nerd-nip. And it would all be risible if it weren’t so excellent. From the poly-rhythms of opener “Midnight Directives” to the sing-along gallop of “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” the album proves that the concept album is more than just a tired device, it’s a breeding ground for thoughtful songwriting and powerful pathos. This is a listeners album, and I doubt I’ll ever tire of listening to it. Owen Pallett is also an extraordinary live act, and, if he’s ever in town, send me a message, I’ll totally go with you, though, forewarning, I’m a pretty terrible date.
5. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
The Arcade Fire started their lives as firebrands, throwing bricks through the windows of adulthood. They raged against the idea of growing complacent, gave voice to the millions who felt that growing up meant shedding the skin of their ideals. “Wake Up” was an anthem. “Rebellion (Lies)” a warning. The Suburbs is the sound of a band who are now simply desperate to grow with grace, a band who faced their fears and found that they may be, at least in part, unfounded. Win Butler’s lyrics have found added depth, deftly painting full portraits of suburban life, not cynically railing against it. This album is not a screed or a plea. It’s an acknowledgment that we cannot always have the life we want, and all that we can do is keep living the best we can.
4. Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring
One of our earliest show reviews called us an “americana Los Campesinos!”. It almost made me cry. Romance is Boring is continued evidence that Los Campesinos! is operating on a level above the rest of us. Every good idea I’ve ever had (which are admittedly few), I’ve stolen from them. Thanks, Gareth and Co. Keep up the good work, and I’ll keep up the mediocre facsimiles.
3. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
Part of the appeal of James Murphy, and, by extension, LCD Soundsystem, is the feeling that he’s writing the music that you’d be writing if only you could write music. Music that gleans from and expands on all of the artists that you truly, truly love. Bowie, Eno, Iggy, all tenderly served up as something new and beautiful and exciting. Fanboy music done with exuberance, not pretension.
What’s most striking about This is Happening is something that ties quite a few of the albums on this list together, it’s struggle with and for maturity. The album is the result of Murphy’s relentless self-examination, both personally and musically. Even a seeming one-off like “Drunk Girls” is a clear representation of that searching, blanketed with a yearning that only grows stronger the more you listen to it. The album makes growing old sound less like a battle than a sparring match. Something to be confronted, and, in it’s own quiet way, enjoyed. There are bleak spots on this album, battles with ego and self-doubt, but, above all that, it’s an exaltation to living.
When I grow up, I want to be James Murphy.
2. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
The Monitor is an album about loving a place and leaving it. The Monitor is an album about, yes, growing up. About confronting your mistakes. About taking stock. It is, also, about the Civil War.
Titus Andronicus are a band of seemingly boundless ambition, and, unlike plenty of other bands, they have the talent to back it up. From Patrick Stickles searing words and throat-tearing delivery to the bands raucous noise, everything about Titus Andronicus adheres, but just enough to make you worry that it’s all about to come crashing down. This album contains the greatest bookends of any album released this year. “A More Perfect Union” is a face-peeling opener that acts as a rallying cry to the disaffected who have yet to fully lose hope and “The Battle of Hampton Roads” is what happens when the last of that hope starts to wear.
“And I’m sorry dad, no, I’m not making this up.”
1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
It’s all already been said, and it’s all true. Why aren’t you listening to this album RIGHT NOW (in bold, so you know full well that I’m not playing)?