I haven’t done one of these for a few, well, several, years. That’s been the result of multiple factors, but at least some of the blame goes to a downward trend in my acquisition of new music in recent years. I managed to reverse that trend this year with the help of a Don Giovanni Records music subscription (incidentally one of the best musical value propositions I’ve ever availed myself of), so I feel on better footing in rendering some year-end judgments. No weird format experiments this year, just a basic Top 10:
- Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!: I was fully on board with the slacker punk of Parquet Courts’ first album back in 2012, but I’ve also appreciated their subsequent maturation, musically and thematically, beyond songs like Stoned and Starving. Wide Awake! feels like a culmination of that growth, full of songs that are rich, varied, and incisive. There are no losers on this album, but I especially love the funk groove of Tenderness, the echo of early-career Elvis Costello in the vocals of Freebird II, and the frenetic energy of Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience, just to name a few.
- Speedy Ortiz, Twerp Verse: My first impression of this album was that it reminded me of Guyville/Whip-smart era Liz Phair, which is perfectly fine in my book. Subsequent heavy listening has perhaps made that connection seem more tenuous, but only because the songs have solidified as more distinctly themselves in my mind. Frontwoman Sadie Dupuis’s voice bobs and weaves among the nervously angular rhythms of these songs, carrying them with expressivity even when the lyrics get a bit opaque. Top tracks: Lucky 88, Alone with the Girls, Sport Death.
- Wussy, What Heaven Is Like: I probably shortchange Wussy a bit because their output has been of such consistently high quality that I’m no longer surprised when they release yet another outstanding album. The things you’d expect from a Wussy album are all here: the densely layered, droning guitars; the brooding, Midwestern Gothic lyrics; the tense interplay of Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker’s contrasting vocal styles. The overall effect seems darker: the bleakness of songs like One Per Customer and Oblivion is that of a pervasive despair rather than particular regrets. One perhaps under-appreciated aspect of Wussy is their genius as a cover band: prior to this album all their covers appeared only on scattered singles and EPs. Their version here of the Twinkeyz’ There’s Aliens in Our Midst is the most affirmative song on the album, made all the more relevant by the inflection current politics has put on the “aliens” of the title. Other top tracks: Tall Weeds, Cake.
- Weakened Friends, Common Blah: This was one of the fruits of my Don Giovanni subscription, and one that I would have been unlikely to run across on my own. At first glance, this debut album by the Portland, ME-based trio seemed like fairly straightforward, guitar-heavy indie rock, but it proved remarkably infectious, and it didn’t take long for it to shoulder other records aside and become one of my favorite releases. I think what sells it for me is the snarling drawl with which singer Sonia Sturino delivers lyrics like
I’ve got a-a-a-aches in my bra-a-a-ain. Top tracks: Aches, Common Blah, Younger.
- Shopping, The Official Body: Three albums in, I should probably be finding something more to say about this London dance-punk trio than the inevitable Gang of Four comparison, and yet the comparison is so available and so tempting. So I’ve tried to at least earn the right to the comparison by actually re-listening to all the Gang of Four I have on hand (mostly Entertainment! and Solid Gold and the parts of Hard I could tolerate), and I can report that while the similarities are indeed undeniable, some distinctions can be made. Lyrically, the best Gang of Four has a satiric bite (as in Anthrax or I Found That Essence Rare that Shopping never quite manages. Musically, both have the characteristic rhythmic jaggedness that invites these comparisons, but in Shopping the jaggedness resides primarily in the guitar which cuts into and across the more conventional (not to say uninteresting) dance grooves being laid down by the rhythm section. The result is a fusion of the authority-defying aggro of punk with the booty-shaking beat of disco which sets Shopping apart from both predecessors and peers. Top tracks: Control Yourself, Overtime, Suddenly Gone.
- Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel: I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I find so charming about this Australian singer-songwriter, and I think it comes down to confidence, which is an odd thing to say about an album that features a (great) track titled Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence. But for as much as Barnett may write about her feelings of doubt and uncertainty, her singing and playing are never hesitant or tentative. Rather, she glides through her songs with the easy grace of a top athlete. There is an economy to her music that is less a matter of being “laid-back” (as I have seen her characterized) than of knowing exactly where and how much she needs to press to hit the emotional effect she wants. Other top tracks: Charity, Walkin’ on Eggshells.
- Snail Mail, Lush: Released a week before her 19th birthday, Lush is an impressive debut for Baltimorean Lindsey Jordan. Her songs of (mostly) heartbreak are sincere and naive in a way that perhaps only a teenager’s can be, as when she promises she’ll
never love anyone elsein Pristine, but they are never maudlin or overwrought. Jordan’s delivery is assured, and the music is, indeed, lush, such that the result are 10 indie rock gems of almost aching intimacy. Top tracks: Heat Wave, Full Control.
- Car Seat Headrest, Twin Fantasy: A hi-fi, full-band reworking of an album originally released in 2011 (when Will Toledo comprised the entirety of Car Seat Headrest), this is an ambitious record. The title announces a recurring theme of doubling or mirroring, which plays out as song titles, lyrics, and melodies that appear and then reappear, reflected or distorted, across the album. I enjoy the overall effect, but it makes it hard to single out individual parts of the album for praise or comment. Also, because I mostly listen to music on shuffle, I’ve hopelessly jumbled up my experience of a record that, I suspect, is meant to be a sequential experience. Nevertheless, I like and endorse everything here. Top tracks, such as they are: Beach Life-in-Death, Sober to Death.
- Hop Along, Bark Your Head Off, Dog: I fell in love with Philadelphia’s own Hop Along when I saw them open for the Thermals back in 2013. What caught my attention then and what remains their greatest strength are the gutsy vocal gymnastics of singer Frances Quinlan. She can leap from breathy whisper to soaring lyricism before tumbling down into a raspy growl, all in the course of a single song. I had some initial qualms that on this, their third album, Quinlan’s voice had been reined in and sanded smooth in favor of a poppier sound, but with further listens, it’s still there, unruly as ever, though perhaps sharing the spotlight with other aspects of the music, which is more varied in tone and instrumentation than on previous records. Top tracks: What the Writer Meant, Prior Things, Not Abel.
- Izzy True, Sad Bad: Another of my Don Giovanni acquisitions and another band that was completely unknown to me previously, Izzy True walk the well-trodden path of dreamy, melancholy indie rock. What distinguishes these upstate New Yorkers is the level of craft that goes into the songs and the streak of defiance that steels what might otherwise be somewhat limp fare.
Crawl in your hole and stay, chastises singer/guitarist Isabel Reidy to the unspecified antagonist of Clover.
How how how dare you, they demand of another in the album’s closer. The specifics of these grievances are only hinted at; what we are meant to attend to is the strength they find to put those who have hurt them in their places. Top tracks: Funny Thing, How Dare U.
Special acknowledgment is due to Screaming Females for their A.V. Club Sessions single, which contained my only (as of this writing) Perfect Song of the year, their stunning remake of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, which transmutes the pop pabulum of the original into anthemic rock with both groove and attitude. The B-side of that release, a cover of Sheryl Crow’s If It Makes You Happy, is fine as well, though less transformative.
I’ve put together selections from all of the above as an 8tracks playlist. Also included are standout tracks from a number of albums that didn’t crack my top 10, including releases by Bad Moves, Alice Bag, Dusk, Ex-Vöid, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Screaming Females, Blizzard Babies, Bat Fangs, Jeffrey Lewis, Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, Roadside Graves, Swearin’, Fat Tony, Superchunk, Neko Case, Vacation, Yo La Tengo, Hprizm, and Waxahatchee.