So, as we’ve previously established, I am absolutely terrible at making Best Of Anything lists. The lists are either unwieldy or never get finished. But as I was sitting around trying to come up with some songs to play on my year-end CHIRP Radio show, I figured that I might as well make up a list of albums that I liked.
Here are my top 11 choices of Albums I Actually Got Around to Listening To and Enjoying this year, posted in alphabetical order.
Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
Mitchell followed up her 2010 mythology-themed folk rock opera project Hadestown with Young Man in America, an album which honestly took some time to grow on me, for no real reason, because it’s a superb release. Mitchell has an interesting voice which she uses to full effect here. This is a very modern folk album, firmly rooted in the world today. Her songwriting is divine and she manages to find a very emotional center for her works which may pass you by if you’re not listening carefully.
Young Man in America was released February 28 on Thirty Tigers.
Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
With each release, Andrew Bird edges closer to mainstream music, but never quite loses the eclectic charm that’s been gathering him fans since the mid-90’s. His lyrics are slightly less cryptic, but he hasn’t stopped making up words, either. “Danse Caribe” manages to seamlessly fuse traditional Irish fiddle with African themes he’s been playing with. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) provides vocals on “Lusitania”, a song about relationships and conflict (and also history and electricity: this is an Andrew Bird album after all). “Fatal Shore” is both an extension of the Orpheus myth and a riff on an old Charley Patton song. A friend described Bird’s last album, Noble Beast, as “a breakup album about nature”, which sounds absurd but is true. Break It Yourself is the logical extension of that album: it’s about coming through on the other side, finding joy again.
Break It Yourself was released March 6 on Mom+Pop
Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory
Shameful admission time: it actually took me a very long time to listen to and fully appreciate Hands of Glory. This is dumb, and I know it’s dumb, because a) Andrew Bird superfan b) folksy sort-of-alt-country-sort-of-bluegrass album c) come on seriously why wouldn’t I like it. But I needed to be in the right mindset to appreciate it, and even then, there was still something missing. Until Birdmas this past week, I was on the fence here — I liked Hands of Glory, but I didn’t love it. I wanted it to be fleshed out more, to exist as a full album rather than something just slightly longer than an EP. But now… now I get it, and I wonder what I was missing. If you’re looking for the true, authentic Andrew Bird, the performer who exists when the stage lights are off and the curtains are drawn, this is as close as we’re going to get. These simple, unadorned folk-tinged songs are what have been driving Bird’s music for 15+ years now, only he’s never put them down on an album in this pure a form. He has now, though, and I hope every Bird fan out there gets to come around to loving this album as much as I do.
Hands of Glory was released October 30 on Mom+Pop
Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Father John Misty is the newest project from former Fleet Foxes drummer J. (Josh) Tillman, although the album for the most part doesn’t sound particularly Fleet Fox-y, which is probably the sound that Tillman was going for. The album bounces between several different sounds — dreamy, high harmonies; straight up country rock; your stereotypical jangly indie rock — and seems to be struggling for an identity just as much as Tillman is. Fear Fun is an album with meandering, tortured beginnings; in press for the album, Tillman talks about sinking into a deep depression, doing lots of drugs, driving aimlessly down the west coast, and holing up in a California house to make some demos. It’s an interesting twist on the standard indie rock narrative of “sensitive guy holes up in cabin to write sensitive songs”, and the album is better for it. The lyrics can be a bit too precious at times, but the overall sound is good even if the words sometimes struggle.
Fear Fun was released May 1 on Sub Pop.
First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg return with their second full-length album, a collection of simple indie-folk songs which feature their well-matched vocals above all else. Beyond the lyrics and the songwriting — none of the lyrics are particularly groundbreaking — their voices are the real draw on this album. They’ve been previously compared to a female version of Fleet Foxes, which is understandable, given their tight harmonies and simple backing music. Most of the tracks fit that model of gentle but mostly upbeat folk-rock songs. “Emmylou”, a sweet tribute to country greats like Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, is heavy on lap steel and could easily be mistaken as a track from any of the current Americana-inspired US bands rather than a pair of Swedes. “Dance to Another Tune” starts off slower and more moody than the rest of the tracks, if you need something a little less uptempo. “King of the World” features a guest appearance on vocals by Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes).
The Lion’s Roar was released January 24 on Wichita.
Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
Canadian alt-country singer Kathleen Edwards returns with her first album since 2008. Voyageur was co-produced by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and features guest appearances by numerous other artists, including Norah Jones, Phil Cook (Megafaun), Sean Carey (Bon Iver), Brian Moen (Peter Wolf Crier), and, of course, Justin Vernon. Voyageur is less rootsy-sounding than her previous releases, a result of Edwards working and cowriting with many others. There’s not a single bad song on the album, and only a hint of country twang, if you’re twang averse. “Going to Hell” is mostly a full-on rock song, with some jangly guitar riffs that aren’t usually found on alt-country albums. RIYL: Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten, Gillian Welch
Voyageur was released January 17 on Zoe/Rounder.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
This one is a bit of an unorthodox choice for a best-of list which is otherwise full of alt-folk and indie rock picks. I got turned on to R.A.P. Music when it made its way into rotation over at CHIRP, and I was impressed with how smart and savvy the lyrics are. Rap music (the genre) isn’t something I feel I’m well versed enough in to talk about at length, but this album has been one which I’ve kept in constant play since first discovering it.Anyone who says that all rap music is dumb and unsophisticated and [insert other stereotypes here] needs to pull up this album, stat.
R.A.P. Music was released May 15 on Williams Street
The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
Let’s be honest here, John Darnielle could put out an album where he is singing lines from the phone book and I’d like it. But Transcendental Youth is more than that, and we are better off for it. Darnielle consistently writes about people who don’t always get voices in popular music – his subjects are people who are broken, damaged, moderately self aware, and trying to come out through clean on the other side. There are few artists who can reduce me to ugly sobbing upon the opening track of an album, and fewer artists still who I feel it is a privilege to be in the presence of. Darnielle manages both of those, and my life somehow feels more full whenever his music is in it. Let’s also not forget the contributions of the other 2/3 of the Mountain Goats: bassist and all-around dapper dresser Peter Hughes, and Jon Wurster, one of the best drummers in the business. Darnielle might write the words, but Hughes and Wurster help bring those words to life.
Transcendental Youth was released October 2 on Merge.
Mumford & Sons – Babel
Look, if you like Mumford & Sons, you’ll probably like Babel. If you don’t like them, you are probably rolling your eyes and muttering something about inauthentic hipster sell-outs or something. I don’t know. I love it, I can’t help it. I have a sort of hipster music snob fondness for them, the I liked them when they were still playing itty bitty rooms thing, and now they’re selling out stadiums. Yes, the songs are all very samey-samey; the band has a formula and the formula works well and so they do it for most of their songs. I think their lyrics are top-notch, and I enjoyed watching the songs of Babel grow and take shape over the past few years. Haters to the left, I loved this album.
Babel was released September 25 on Glass Note.
Murder By Death – Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon
This is a fairly upbeat-sounding album from the Bloomington, IN-based band, all things considered. Their sixth album finds them on a new label home, Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, and it’s a perfect fit for their brand of moody alt-country. Despite being a bit less overtly morose than in the past, the songs are still modern day murder ballads, soaked in alcohol and dread. The tracks don’t linger or meander, instead moving steadily forward thanks to some high-energy, driving percussion. Songs are frequently punctuated with horns, cello, and accordion RIYL: The Handsome Family, The Waco Brothers, O’Death
Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon was released September 25 on Bloodshot
Sera Cahoone – Deer Creek Canyon
Sera Cahoone’s third album is a bittersweet collection of stories about growing up and moving on. There’s something deep in here, past the twang and the heartbreak. It’s about wondering what home is whenever you’ve left the place you grew up in; it’s about wondering if you can ever go back again. The album is titled for the area in which she grew up, and the title track is very evocative of those central themes. The songs are built on Americana and roots music, with a bit of banjo and fiddle running throughout, although there are hints of more modern pop sensibilities every so often. The best songs, for me, are the ones where she doesn’t stray too far from her roots. RIYL: Kathleen Edwards, Kelly Hogan, Gillian Welch
Deer Creek Canyon was released September 25 on Sub Pop