This time last year I was making a resolution to improve my life. Nothing too specific or unrealistic like ‘lose 15.85 pounds’ or ’embark on a fabulous new career’. Just work on making my life a little bit less shitty. And guess what! I’ve succeeded! I’ve improved my life in little increments all across the board. One of the most significant betterments of last year was I bought a car, after four years of shlepping it out on public transit. And incidentally, it’s because of the car that I’ve made another improvement. It’s been an unprecedentedly good year in music, and it’s because I now listen to the radio in my car that I even know about it. A little shout out to iHeart Austin is due here, for being a fantastic radio station that plays great new music as though it were actually popular. Last year I was so discouraged the shortage of albums I really loved I didn’t even do a best-of list. This year I’m doing an expanded best-of, and I’ve decided to make it a double-whammy, with separate lists for albums and singles.
- The Next Day – David Bowie
The biggest and most important event of the year was, without doubt, the unexpected comeback of David Bowie. After a near decade of silence, he sprang a new song on us almost exactly a year ago, followed it up with an album, and continued to feed us videos throughout the year, all without saying a word to the press or participating in any of the usual publicity activities that are supposed to accompany a new release.
*Best David Bowie Song* Valentine’s Day
2. Random Access Memories – Daft Punk
If it wasn’t for David Bowie defaulting to number one, this would hold the top spot. It’s probably the album I listened to the most, and will have future associative memories of. In an age of electronic super-saturation, Daft Punk, the guys who helped precipitate the trend in the first place, did a complete one-eighty and made a disco album. Not a fake disco album, a real disco album, with no less than Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder bringing the authenticity. So old-school and yet so modern.
3. Reflektor – Arcade Fire
I’ve always filed Arcade Fire under ‘good but not that great’, but now they’ve finally graduated to being great. They’ve provided the best song of the year, which I can only describe as propulsive, and the rest of their hefty double album is pretty impressive too. Dense and ambitious both musically and intellectually.
*Best Fake David Bowie Song* Reflektor
4. Pure Heroine – Lorde
Witness the improbable overnight success of an Aukland teenager who sings with the sophistication of a woman three times her age. She might sound as though she sprang into the pop stratosphere fully formed out of literal nowhere, but Ella Yelich-O’Connor has been groomed for stardom by Universal Records since age 14. She is 17 years old now and released her first single and EP just last year, to immediate acclaim. That, my friends, is the best possible example of a record company getting it right, in terms of discovering and nurturing young talent. The amazing thing is that Universal has presented Lorde to us not as a commodity but as an artist. It’s pretty clear that she has an infinite future as such.
5. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic – Foxygen
Psychedelic music is not dead! Foxygen’s third album sounds like it was funneled through a magic time portal directly from the Summer of Love. I suspect that the whole Haight-Ashbury vibe is pure pasticeh, but it sounds authentic enough that when they pop up on my iPod I fleetingly wonder what long-forgotten nugget from 1969 have I stumbled across. It’s also a reminder that a lot sixties psychedelia was total hokum, all awash with drug-fueled self-seriousness, and it’s really best enjoyed with tongue firmly in cheek.
6. Wolf’s Law – The Joy Formidable
Their name captures their essence. The Joy Formidable is high energy, with euphoric vocal hooks and catchy melodies and at the same time formidable aggression and heavy guitars. Original enough that I can’t instantaneously place who their big inspiration would be. Definitely one of the most enjoyable out of a crop of young indie bands breaking big right now.
7. Woman – Rhye
Sexy bedroom music with a distinct sixties cocktail lounge vibe. The slow-burn torch singer vocals are so impressive and bring so much atmosphere. Imagine my shock when I found out the singer is really a dude named Milosh. Yeah, he always sings like that. I wonder if there’s some element of camp here that I’m missing, but it doesn’t feel so. In the end, knowing that I’m not hearing the sexy woman I first imagined but just some man with an unusual voice doesn’t detract from the overall effect of sleepy sensuality.
8. Isles – Wild Belle
A group that struck me the first time I heard them. Singer Natalie Bergman has a memorable voice, and she and her bandmate brother have a boatload of influences in play, from the reggae of Keep You, to classic soul and jazz. They’re definitely playing the retro angle – just see the videos.
9. Mosquito – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Hideous album cover aside, this might just be the best Yeah Yeah Yeahs album yet. It’s certainly their most diverse. Still plenty of their old punk energy, but with lots of unexpected touches, like an elevating gospel choir. I don’t remember them being a particularly touchy-feely band in the past, so the number of emotionally naked ballads on this record is unprecedented. Turns out they’re really good at it, too.
10. The Bones of What You Believe – Chvrches
Chvrches is another new electro-pop/indie rock band that appears to have a bright future, making uplifting catchy pop tunes that hit the sweet spot. Call them children of Blondie, if you will. They have an indie edge and an affinity for synthesizers, and a cool girl image in the person of singer Lauren Mayberry.