Another year, another list of my favorite music from the past year. This year’s list skews to established indie rock/pop artists, especially ones with a slightly retro bent. Here’s my top ten albums in no particular order:
The National – Sleep Well Beast – The band with the difficult-to-Google name returns with an energetic new album. The two uptempo singles (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Day I Die”) effectively deploy repeating guitar motifs as hooks, and the slower numbers have hypnotic drum and synth patterns that provide an ideal accompaniment for Matt Berninger’s sonorous baritone and jagged, impressionistic lyrics. I’ve been a fan of the band for a decade and a half, and this is one of their finest albums alongside Alligator and Boxer.
The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding – Building on the success of their 2014 album, Lost In The Dream, the band has crafted a near-masterpiece. Classic rock (from both vinyl and cassette era) remains an abiding influence, but the rich, layered music stands on it’s own against the very best of the past. Only the click-track drumming seems occasionally rote. The lyrics are emotionally charged with a hint of pathos — affecting and powerful. The War On Drugs seem to be scaling new heights with each successive album. With A Deeper Understanding, they have reached rarefied air.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Echo Of Pleasure – If you are a fan of indie-pop with a bit of a sentimental streak, Kip Berman, the leader and only constant member of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart is still delivering the goods. The knock on the band has always been that they aren’t very original. Sure, they remain in debt to their 80s/90s forebears, but they also continue to write refreshing and catchy songs that, while not expanding boundaries, are certainly welcome additions to the indie-pop canon. I think The Skinny summed it up best in their review of the album, “It’s a low-key record for a certain type of listener – this isn’t a band clamouring for arena-rock status, just one that is happy making good music and having fun doing it.”
Day Wave – The Days We Had – The proper album follow up to last year’s compilation of EPs, Headcase / Hard To Read, this is more of the same in the best way possible. If you enjoyed that release, you definitely need this new album bursting with subtle, earworm tunes. If, in spite of Jackson Philips’ songwriting prowess, you found the songs too same-sounding, well, this doesn’t have much more variety than the last release. I happen to find his take on indie-pop/rock entrancing, so it was a big winner for me.
Arcade Fire – Everything Now – More so than any other modern artist I enjoy, Arcade Fire have built their career on concept albums. Their masterful debut, Funeral, a celebratory, life-affirming, meditation on loss was an absolute classic. Neon Bible was a less successful treatise on religion. They nailed the finer details about coming of age in the suburbs with the aptly titled The Suburbs. Reflektor was an ambitious tour of Jamaican and Haitian music styles, filtered through an art-rock prism, a la Talking Heads. Everything Now finds them grappling with everything the Internet age has wrought – information overload, social media anxiety, Internet celebrities, etc. Musically it leans towards a 80s synth/dance-rock style, with their trademark pulsing grooves and tempo-changing intros/codas. The overall message seems to be that the conveniences of the modern age have led many to a lifestyle that is more lonely, distracted, and unsatisfied than ever before. It’s an admirable theme, but one that is hard to pull off without coming off as too earnest, didactic, or curmudgeonly. To their credit, Arcade Fire manage to stay on the right side of that line for the majority of the album, delivering another winner.
Slowdive – Slowdive – This self-titled comeback album took me by surprise. While the brilliance of their 1993 album Souvlaki is undeniable, I have always preferred Ride and Lush when it came to the more pop-oriented shoegazers. Lush reformed in 2016 and released the decent Blind Spot EP before breaking up again. Ride returned this year with Weather Diaries, which had some passable tunes, but completely lacked the depth and atmosphere that marked their best work. Slowdive, on the other hand released an album which is on par with their very best. It’s very much how I would hope any shoegaze band might have matured. The sound is cleaner and more controlled than in the past, but the swlirling guitar melodies are better than ever. Many band comebacks are doomed to fail. Here’s to hoping this one continues to bring us more quality music!
Phoenix – Ti Amo – A loose concept album about a fantasized summer holiday in Italy. The songs set the scene perfectly — hot weather, cool gelato, even cooler Italian discos, and, of course, summer romance. It’s a very conscious escapism — in the face of all the negative forces in the world, it makes enjoying the simpler pleasures in life seem like an act of defiance. Phoenix have completely mastered their rock-pop/disco-lite sound, and the little lyrical flourishes in Italian and French give the songs an authentic continental feel. It’s their finest album since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix back in 2009. Godere!
White Reaper –The World’s Best American Band – I’m not sure if White Reaper completely do their audacious album title justice, but damn if they aren’t close to hitting that lofty target. They’ve polished their warm, fuzzy, power-pop sound into a gleaming, powerful buzzsaw. It makes their best songs hit with that much more impact. Conversely, lesser songs don’t have as much sonic space to let their charms develop and win you over. Still, they sure know how to hit those basic rock and roll verities. As one of their choruses goes “If you make the girls dance, the boys will dance with ’em”. Indeed.
Spoon – Hot Thoughts – I don’t think Spoon has ever made a bad album. Considering their career stretches 9 albums and over 20 years, that’s pretty impressive. They’ve come a long way from the Pixies-style rave-ups on their first album Telephono to develop their own signature sound. Spiky, lean, muscular grooves that are somehow perfect and off-kilter at the same time. Austin’s finest band is really something special, and their new album Hot Thoughts is one of their best. Savor it.
The XX – I See You – On their third album, they finally open up their sound just a little bit and it’s wonderful. The he-said/she-said vocals and subtle melodies are fully intact. But an unexpected sample here, a melodic flourish there — it gives the music depth — like a color splash photo; black and white, but with one color to emphasize an object or mood. They are really starting to hit their stride. Definitely their most accessible album, and very possibly their finest.
Timecop1983 – Lovers (Part 2) EP
Future Islands – The Far Field
Haim – Something To Tell You
Ted Leo – The Hanged Man
Com Truise – Iteration
Radiohead – OK Computer (OKNOTOK 1997-2017)
Prince – Purple Rain (Deluxe)
Hüsker Dü – Savage Young Dü
Richard Hell & The Voidoids – Blank Generation (40th Anniversary Deluxe)
The Cars – Candy-O (Deluxe)
The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (Deluxe)
R.E.M. – Automatic For The People (Deluxe)