I’ve already blown a couple hundred words on what a good year for music it has been. I had composed a little rant about how, despite the high quality to be found across wide-ranging genres, there really wasn’t a clear high-water mark, and then Stephen Hyden went and wrote a longer, better piece about that very phenomenon in the AV Club. So that sort of boned this introductory paragraph about how difficult it was to crown a number one without a cultural swing (whether generic or broader) to join or rally against. Enjoy this really great top 10 even if it is devoid of material which made Zeus quake or stirred fears of revolution in the late Kim Jong-Il.
10. Rene Hell - The Terminal Symphony (Type Records)
Listening to Rene Hell, Jeff Witscher‘s current nom de plum, always reminds me of catching the opening minutes of Doctor Who while scanning the channels on lonely Saturday nights in junior high. As Hell, Witscher’s compositions have found the more elegant elements of what our weird uncles thought was super futuristic music; teasing the symphonies out of synths.
Type Records made the whole thing available to stream through SoundCloud, you can check it out below:
9. A$AP Rocky – LIVELOVEA$AP (RCA/Polo Grounds Music)
As a long-time advocate of Southern rap (my entre to Hip-Hop was OutKast’s Stankonia), I was not prepared to accept, let alone enjoy, or even embrace a New York MC taking all my favorite trappings of the regional sound and making it his own. But I’ll be damned if this kid from Harlem, with a gut full of syrup, didn’t win me over.
LIVELOVEA$AP is as purely indulgent and hedonistic as it is complex and contemplative–even if most of the contemplation lies in the production. LIVELOVEA$AP might also when the student became the master. It may be premature to start unseating kings, but with Lil’ Wayne off his syrup in over-indulgent messes–with only a handful of successful tracks per album, guys like Rocky might have the thirst and the drive to and the talent to actually match the dizzying heights of Tha Carters II and III.
8. Grand Tetons – They Do Move in Herds (Mission Freak Records/Sweat Power Tapes)
If you’d told me that a shaggy dog alt-country outfit from Iowa City would almost perfectly encapsulate my lost year–really about 5 months the winter before I turned 24–on their debut album, I would have been skeptical at best. But that’s exactly what this quartet did. They Do Move in Herds is an album for all those who didn’t have something lined up right after graduation–so, dropping the homework, picking up 30-40 hours per week, and soldering on with a herculean drink-load was the best option.
Herds perfectly documents an attitude, a time, a place (the back booth, near the juke box, just before bar close), right down to all the imperfections. The passionate grandeur, the delusion, the unchecked libido, it’s all there; Grand Tetons is so damn wrapped up in being so damn wrapped up that it won’t bother to trim a verse here, a guitar lick there, it all feels too important. And for about 5-12 months, it all really is fucking important.
7. Peaking Lights – 936 (Not Not Fun)
Super cool, laid back, DIY jams may have hit critical mass on Peaking Lights’ second LP, 936. Where other counter-culture movements seemed rooted in angrily or mopely lashing out at the status-quo, Peaking Lights and other reverb-drenched cohorts seem perfectly fine just cooling the status out of its quo.
As flippant as all that sounds, 936 is still a knockout. This husband and wife duo from Madison, WI has created something equally suited for cold, claustrophobic Midwestern nights, as for that vegan “BBQ” accompanied by 90 degree heat and a pleasant northwestern breeze.
6. Liturgy – Aesthetica (Thrill Jockey)
Back in June, Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix wrote a wonderful essay about the power of black metal has as an expressive form, but artistically crippling limitations imposed on the genre from fans and the community. The essay was a response to the backlash in the metal sphere over the grave injustice that was Liturgy’s Aesthetica.
Aesthetica is certainly not a cookie-cutter black metal album. For the all the polyphonic rhythms, blast beats, and vocal chord-shredding wails, Liturgy’s latest album utilizes any means to convey Hunt-Hendrix’s vision. If that means fierce, tinny, synth arpeggios or freak/psych-folk chants and harmonies before breaking into a pummeling cacophony, then that’s what’s gonna happen.
Liturgy photo courtesy of Bull City Records
5. Tim Hecker – Ravendeath, 1972 (Kranky)
It almost goes without saying now: Tim Hecker releases a new album, therefore, Tim Hecker will appear on numerous best-of lists come December and January. From the pulsating attack and decay of the opener “Piano Drop” through chorus of cooing on album closer “In The Air III,” Hecker proves to be one of the finest ambient composers this side of Brian Eno. Hecker’s ability to not just create moods but to trigger subtle shifts in the listener is unrivaled.
At the core of Ravendeath, 1972 is a giant church organ. You can’t help but think of the religious services this organ must have enlivened, and the composer knows this. There is something massive and imposing about the size and scope of these pieces, the glacial drones seem to cut that much deeper into the crust, the wind coursing through the massive pipes has that much more bluster.
Photo of Tim Hecker from Anti-Gravity Bunny
4. Danny Brown – XXX (Fool’s Gold Records)
Danny Brown has been electrifying those who’ve been listening since he dropped Hybrid in 2010–plus some stunning guest turns on Black Milk LPs. But now we’re finally on board with Brown’s out-of-this world flow.
And Brown finally has a pack of producers and a purpose to back up his versatile micsmanship. XXX is a rare concept album that doesn’t need you to know the concept to absolutely love it to pieces. The day-in-the-life sojourn of XXX is freaking loaded story. Brown’s all over the place on loads of different substances, but between blunts, beers, and aderall, Brown also has moments for reflection and introspection. Tracks like “30,” “Party All The Time,” and “Fields” not only show off Brown’s keen observational skills but his deft hand at turning personal demons, negative familial dynamics, and socio-economic evils into interesting and entertaining songs.
3. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra (self-released)
Frank Ocean was part of a sea change in indie and underground circles and R&B finding a middle ground. A more emotionally faceted brand of singer, one who is still keen on getting in them drawers, but may actually share a story or two over pancakes in the morning–maybe about a fatherless childhood, a romance from his youth, or maybe scare you out of his t-shirt with suicidal thoughts. Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra is a stunningly apt title. The Odd Future crooner’s debut mixtape reads like a diary. Beyond all the stories listed earlier, there are obviously ex-girlfriends, a one night stand, an annulled marriage, and the singer’s personal history with music and girls. With the confessional tone, there’s still poetry to be found, but Ocean doesn’t do a whole lot to obscure the heart on his sleeve.
Though Nostalgia can get a little clunky, and could use a bit more varnish here and there, it’s a refreshingly open album. It feels like it took more time to work up the guts to sing this stuff than it did to write it.
2. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica (Software/Mexican Summer)
Daniel Lopatin was crowned the king of experimental ambient music sometime late 2009 or early 2010, and, under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never, he may have finally released an album deserving of the throne. Lopatin’s sixth substantial Oneohtrix release–though through a logistical fluke, his first proper LP, Replica, is a sumptuous collage. So much of the magic in Replica seems to be from Lopatin’s expert editing, taking sounds (whether sampled or created) and finding the most exciting juxtapositions and transitions. Replica is a masterclass in editing as composition. It’s almost the aural equivalent of Man With A Movie Camera. Where Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov created vignettes with a semblance of narrative or cohesion by carefully editing and arranging disparate images, Lopatin finds beauty and cohesion in the sometimes violent collision of wildly different sounds. “Child Soldier,” toward the end of Replica, features a jarring snippet, like a cut off synth stab, for beat while lush strings ebb and flow and Lopatin loops a warped soul vocal track atop; two beautiful elements find harmony with this percussive jab with one foot always out the door.
1. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (self-released)
With House of Balloons, Abel Tesfaye (a/k/a The Weeknd) threw down a gauntlet. For all the Drake apostles out there, hell even the sap slinger himself, Tesfaye has released the emotionally complex, yet somehow-still-sexy album that they’ll spend their careers trying to top. Balloons is the record from an introverted extrovert–that dude alone in a crowd. Everything is mediated or medicated, no experiences are pure or in-the-moment; everything’s conducted through a marijuana fog or dipped in lean.
Even on a narcotic cocktail that’d keep most of us in the dark for a day or two, Tesfaye finds startling emotional depths. While many of the lyrics read just north of cliched trite, the crooner finds some heart-breaking specificity to elevate some of the flabbier platitutes. And maybe even more importantly, Tasfaye can flat out sing. Like how Marvin Gaye would still be a national treasure without complex records in the vein of What’s Going On, Tesfaye would still be one of the most exciting young singers around if House of Balloons wasn’t so well-rounded, so damn sexy, and so endlessly catchy.