The Top 30 Albums of 2015

The trappings of the holiday season are numerous and familiar: family, parades, travel, fancy dinners, pleasant 70 degree weather all along the east coast… oh wait, that last one is just this year. But nestled in between Thanksgiving and the celebration of the New Year is a very special holiday near and dear to the hearts of music lovers everywhere: Listmas!

Year-end music lists provide an excellent opportunity to revisit all the great new music that was released over the past year, highlight the things we liked and, perhaps most importantly, discover the artists, albums and songs that passed us by or might deserve a second look. While the accolades of being #1 or the fun of comparing top ten lists might be nice, the sharing and discovery function has always been my main attraction to these year-end lists. Since there’s no meaningful prestige associated with my list (which, this year, includes one album I found on other lists!), I like to think of this as a personal recommendation to the friends who stop by looking to find some great new music.

Although I listed to a little over 650 artists on Spotify in 2015, plus some others I heard via Bandcamp, YouTube, and my own music library, there’s a bunch of albums I would have liked to spend more time with. After all, a quick sample or a couple of album spins aren’t always enough to make a reasonable judgment. Four of the artists on this year’s list produced albums that were either honorable mentions or completely unmentioned when the 2011, 2012 and 2013 editions of this list were written up, only to be reconsidered after the fact, such that I now consider them all to be among the top 20, if not top ten albums from their respective years. Sometimes it just takes a while to sink in.

Another trend among this year’s listed albums is psychedelia. Psychedelic rock, psych-pop, psych-metal, psych-disco, psychedelic Motown… they’re all here and they’re all great. Click through the write ups and reviews and you might think I spent half the year high on Robitussin, but no, there were just a bunch of great freaky sounds out there this year.

Oh, and since I’m not a music writer, I’ve left the album descriptions to the pros here, providing excerpted blurbs from reviews that resonated with me. I’ve also provided a link to a collection of reviews over at Album of the Year if you’d like to know more about any of the choices. Also, the album titles link to album playlists on YouTube if you want to listen in while you read up.

2015 was a good year for music, so there were lots of candidates for the top spots and not everything worthwhile made the cut. Here’s ten honorable mentions (roughly in order, 40 to 31) before we get to this year’s top 30:
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, Mas Ysa – Seraph, Gramatik – Coffee Shop Selection, The Bird and the Bee – Recreational Love, Noveller – Fantastic Planet, Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie, A Shelter in the Desert – Pequeñas Hiroshimas, Pure Bathing Culture – Pray For Rain, Floating Points – Elaenia, PINS – Wild Nights

30. YACHT – I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler
“YACHT isn’t out for shock, even if they want to inspire a few double-takes. They’re here to make high-concept pop with easy entry points, to ruminate on the future without getting bogged down in nihilism. The fact that they manage to have so much fun while pondering the extinction of the human race is testament to Evans and Bechtolt’s skill as songwriters.” – Consequence of Sound | I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler on AotY
29. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
“For all of Viet Cong’s well-worn ugliness — not least of which their immature tendency to conflate personal suffering with historical atrocity — their desperate, life-or-death romanticism ultimately leaves a stronger impression than mere shock value.” – Tiny Mix Tapes | Viet Cong on AotY
28. Holly Herndon – Platform
“The huge beats, massive-sounding production and layers of laptop genius make this an album of consistent, complex pleasures. Herndon’s voice is looped, bent and time-stretched.” – A Closer Listen | Platform on AotY
27. Public Service Broadcasting – The Race for Space
“The real story is told through the music, and that’s what elevates Public Service Broadcasting way out of the novelty dangerzone. Make no bones about it, this is a beautiful record, which tells a story of ambition, tragedy and triumph using a palette of vintage electronica, swelling strings, ethereal voices and some properly funky drumming.” – Drowned in Sound | The Race for Space on AotY
26. Colleen – Captain of None
“On first listen, these seem like straight-ahead acoustic tracks, but their brilliance is hidden beneath the surface. The simplest, “Soul Alphabet,” might be the album’s crown jewel: soft, scratchy and vaguely mysterious, it loops simple ideas until they seem profound.” – Resident Advisor | Captain of None on AotY
25. Baio – The Names
“‘The Names’ has been a long time in the making, and that devotion is evident in every breezy refrain, chiming melody, and pulsating rhythm. Take a glance behind those things, peer underneath the contagious hooks and echoing choruses, and what you’re left with is an ode to devotion, passion, and emotion. Each track is infused with a love for it’s own creation, and that enjoyment echoes in every verse and chorus hook. ” – DIY | The Names on AotY
24. FFS – FFS
“[T]he self-titled debut album from this six-piece group is impeccable and slyly funny, full of songwriting that’s clever and intelligent without devolving into smugness … FFS also seamlessly meshes the sonic styles of the two bands. Jaunty piano, cheeky keyboards, glammy guitars, rhythmic digital jolts and theatrical arrangements lead to music that’s akin to a mashup of Broadway musicals, ’70s classic rock, and perforated electropop. ” – A.V. Club | FFS on AotY
23. Baroness – Purple
“You’d never go so far as to say this is a happy record, but there’s plenty of intact hopes and dreams stirred amid the spilled blood and broken bones. ‘If I Have To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain?) is the black clouds parting, beams of brilliant light pointing the way forward again – it quite literally sounds the bells of a revitalised Baroness.” – Drowned in Sound | Purple on AotY
22. Wilco – Star Wars
“Star Wars continues a precedent set by the band’s previous 2011 effort The Whole Love in an effort to move away from the complacent, “dad rock”-flirting lite country of its late-Aughts releases. The record boasts snappy hooks, passive-aggressive bon mots, and plenty of noise, proving that Tweedy has no intention of calming down anytime soon.” – Pretty Much Amazing | Star Wars on AotY
21. Cayucas – Dancing at the Blue Lagoon
“There are tons of things to fall in love with about Dancing at the Blue Lagoon; songs are packed full of catchy hooks and swiftly shifting melodies and rhythms, making for an unpredictable and riveting listening experience.” – Paste | Dancing at the Blue Lagoon on AotY
20. LoneLady – Hinterland
“Effusive, highly danceable and crammed with hooks, Hinterland plays like a greatest hits from a parallel universe.” – Line of Best Fit | Hinterland on AotY
19. Diane Coffee – Everybody’s A Good Dog
“Defined by the musician himself as “Psychedelic Motown” (he gets no argument from me there), Everybody’s a Good Dog is glammy, soulful, and full of comfortable musical corners.” – The 405 | Everybody’s A Good Dog on AotY
18. Grimes- Art Angels
“She routinely riffs on uncool or dated sounds, from pop-punk guitars to swirling late-’90s electronica, and sends it all through the lens of her kaleidoscope. Art Angels isn’t any weirder than past records—Boucher is just more sharply in focus.” – Resident Advisor | Art Angels on AotY
17. Deafheaven – New Bermuda
“All of these references, which bring together many bands that wouldn’t normally have much to do with one another, points to something dreamlike and uncanny in Deafheaven’s grand sound. At a moment when guitar-centric music feels less central to the conversation, and great indie-rock bands have retreated into hardy local scenes, Deafheaven play like a beautiful, abstracted dream of guitar music’s transportive power.” – Pitchfork | New Bermuda on AotY
16. Destroyer – Poison Season
“[T]he stirring E-Street rock of lead single Dream Lover suggested Bejar had liberated his inner Springsteen, setting aside the previous album’s rich sophisti-pop for something more openly heart on sleeve. But, true to form, Poison Season’s true nature is more nuanced and idiosyncratic, taking cues from a spectrum of influences from chamber pop to nocturnal jazz.” – The Skinny | Poison Season on AotY
15. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain
“[T]his is the sort of music that gives the phrase “power trio” a good name, with the musicians bringing their fair share to the performances without getting in one another’s way, and Rose Mountain is dominated by full-bodied and emotionally powerful music that doesn’t overplay its hand.” – AllMusic | Rose Mountain on AotY
14. Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
“Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is the purest expression of the big, bright sounds that have always been within the band, visions of Belle & Sebastian as Naked-era Talking Heads or an ABBA for 2015.” – A.V. Club | Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance on AotY
13. Jacco Gardner – Hypnophobia
“[N]arrative sleights of hand are matched by surprise instrumental breaks, chord changes, and codas which function like trapdoors and secret passageways into new compositional avenues.” – Under the Radar | Hypnophobia on AotY
12. Haiku Salut – Etch and Etch Deep
“[T]he quirky and imaginative sound world the band have created makes itself known, full of slight but utterly charming changes of gear, with light and shade, seriousness and humour, intimacy and tub thumping, all wrapped up in one package.” – MusicOMH | Etch and Etch Deep on AotY
11. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
“‘Ornamental’, ‘fantastic’, ‘maze’, ‘labyrinth’. These words make perfect sense in the context of Holter’s songs. Have You in My Wilderness drops the overarching themes which informed her previous three albums in order to accomplish something more intuitive and intimate.” – Drowned in Sound | Have You in My Wilderness on AotY
10. Battles – La Di Da Di
“La Di Da Di is that increasingly rare thing in the age of streaming and multi-choice. It’s a record that you have to take in as one complete whole. You’ll enjoy individual slices, but won’t be truly fulfilled unless you take a deep dive straight in and luxuriate in all its sonic weirdness and insane brilliance.” – Music OMH | La Di Da Di on AotY
9. EL VY – Return to the Moon
“Berninger’s storytelling struts through the occasionally unnerving terrain of American suburbia with an illumined eye and wicked tongue, and with the help of Knopf’s pristine and protean arrangements it’s never sounded so good.” – Loud and Quiet | Return to the Moon on AotY
8. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
“By abandoning familiar touchstones and rebuilding strangely shaped new things from the scratch, Nielson and Unknown Mortal Orchestra have created a genuinely psychedelic pop gem in the sense that it has virtually zero on in common with what psych-pop is supposed to sound like.” – Line of Best Fit | Multi-Love on AotY
7. Will Butler – Policy
“This record’s like a charming stroll through a garden maze with ludicrous traps and surprises around each hedge, dashing lyrical expectations aside and plumbing emotionally fraught harmonies in the same breath.” – Spin | Policy on AotY
6. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
“To understand everything about this album requires a working knowledge of English literature, Greek mythology, and Australian punk rock, but you don’t really need any of the above to enjoy this album for what it is: a batshit crazy rock opera about what it’s like to be batshit crazy.” – Consequence of Sound | The Most Lamentable Tragedy on AotY
5. Mikal Cronin – MCIII
“The mixing on MCIII is superb, deep but supple; it’s no wall of sound—there’s just enough space between every instrument to tell what’s doing what—but the layering of acoustic and electric guitars, the occasional pianos and strings and horns, and the beautiful vocal harmonies all coalesce into a rich, warm lather.” – Paste | MCIII on AotY
4. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
“Courtney Barnett’s skill is in making the pedestrian sound poignant. Everyday observations and mundane afterthoughts become focal points. … Who else writes songs – really good songs, to be precise – about roadkill, hayfever, organic vegetables and doing backstroke without coming off like a bit of a prat?” – DIY | Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit on AotY
3. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
“With no song longer than four minutes, the hooks—both vocal and instrumental—dominate the mood of each track. Whether it’s Tucker’s sweetly melodic chorus in “Hey Darling” or the deranged guitar interludes on “No Anthems”, there’s an immediately memorable section in each song, making for what is probably the band’s most widely accessible album to date.” – PopMatters | No Cities To Love on AotY
2. Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs
“These may be 10 love songs, but the focus is very much on the darker, more obsessive side of love – anyone wanting a fluffy selection of tracks to celebrate Valentine’s Day is best off looking elsewhere. For everyone else though, Ten Love Songs is an enormously creative, endlessly surprising album.” – Music OMH | Ten Love Songs on AotY
1. Tame Impala – Currents
“It’s a despairing, open-ended psych-disco hybrid whose closest modern analog is Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories — a record that cast disco, yacht rock, and dance pop as shared founts of old-school, hands-on music-making … And make no mistake, Parker is writing pop songs here, and doing them justice.” – Pitchfork | Currents on AotY
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The Top 30 Albums of 2014

Rock is dead. At least so I’m told. With country, EDM, hip hop, R&B and perhaps even pop music all more popular than ever (and coalescing into the monogenre), there seems to be a widespread belief that guitar rock is passe and on the way out. On the NPR Music All Songs Considered year in review, Stephen Thompson asserted that he had hardly found any notable guitar rock this year as it had all but disappeared from popular music. Thompson’s notion that 2014 was devoid of rocking guitars was quickly dispelled as the rest of the NPR team reeled off several albums and artists that had simply slipped his mind. Nevertheless, the exchange was representative of the way that even some fans are mechanically internalizing the “conventional wisdom”.

Yet as I look over my top albums from the year gone by, one thing that stands out to me is how much great rock music there was this year. Sure, the list has some pop, synthpop, and even a touch of disco, but more than anything else, there’s rock. That’s not to say it’s a monolithic list; there’s some garage rock, indie rock, folk rock, art rock, post rock, punk, psychedelia, experimental, prog rock and plenty of metal influence, even in flamenco and latin funk forms. Suffice to say that there’s enough here to say that the heart of rock and roll is still beating, even if it’s bubbling under the surface of commercial radio.

For me, 2014 was dominated by two albums that I kept reaching for time and time again and are more appropriately labeled #1a and #1b than one and two. The rest of the list was remarkably difficult to order, to the point that I almost wanted to pull names out of a hat to make the list. I also thought about producing an unordered list, but I kind of felt like that would have been a cop-out. Then again, I have 31 albums on a top 30 list, so I’m not entirely above cop-outs (even if I placed the tie at 30 instead of number one just to preserve the optics of having the last item on a top 30 list be #30 instead of #31… tortured logic, ahoy!).

I’m not at all sure about what order most of these albums should be listed and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway, as the list will inevitably be obsolete in a week or two. Maybe I’ll revisit an album that didn’t impress me on first listen and it’ll connect, maybe some of the choices I made just won’t stick, and maybe I’ll discover an album on another list that’s really, really great. And that last point is a big reason why we make these lists: they’re about sharing a snapshot of what we liked and what made an impression over the last year and hopefully introducing others to great albums and artists that they might have missed. Inevitably, these lists will change over time, but as we stand at the end of 2014, this is the music that has soundtracked my year.

Album titles link to YouTube playlists, where officially available, Spotify albums where not. And for the one guy whose album is on neither one, you can chase that down on YouTube as well. I’ve also included a blurb from a review of each album that I appreciated as well as links to album profiles on Album of the Year, which has plenty more information and perspectives. And because there’s always Honorable Mentions, here’s who just missed the cut: Todd Terje, The Horrors, Stars, King Tuff, Liars, Jack White, Ages and Ages, The Colourist and Chromeo.

30 (tie). Future Islands – Singles
“When Future Islands recently performed their new marquee song on “Letterman”, the stunning “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, the secret was out: Here’s this guy, this dude with a tucked-in shirt, khakis, and a receding hairline bobbing and weaving, grinding gears in his throat, giving a “fuck yeah” gesture before a perfect pop modulation takes him to the chorus.” – Pitchfork | Singles on AotY
30. (tie) Mark McGuire – Along the Way
“Like a book where you can choose your own ending or a sandbox video game, the true beauty of Along The Way and the rest of McGuire’s output is that it is so free from the shackles of any genre or scene and so ‘out there’ that it is completely open to each listener’s interpretation.” – The 405 | Along the Way on AotY
29. Spoon – They Want My Soul
” It’s not exactly classic rock, not quite post-punk. It’s not the soul of indie idealists blindly conflating modesty and virtue. Instead, this band is about capturing the unknown—those “finer feelings,” as Daniel once put it—and simply letting it float.” – Pitchfork | They Want My Soul on AotY
28. Gemma Ray – Milk For Your Motors
“Sultry British singer/songwriter Gemma Ray relocated to Berlin to make her fifth album, a collection of noir-ish surf-doom ballads, and the kind of expansive pop-exotica fans have come to expect from this creative shape-shifting artist.” – AllMusic | Milk for Your Motors on AotY
27. Rodrigo y Gabriela – 9 Dead Alive
“Famed for their dextrous digits and finger-tut finicky fret freneticisms, Mexican twosome Rodrigo y Gabriela are two of the world’s most impressive guitarists. Performing ‘fusions’ as opposed to any pigeonhole-y style, their music flits between jazz, flamenco, Latin pop, heavy metal and rock.” – MusicOMH | 9 Dead Alive on AotY
26. Ex Hex – Rips
“Rips sounds fine on headphones or at home, but it’s best enjoyed in the car where it’s possible to feel more perfectly tuned into the music’s steady velocity.” – Pitchfork | Rips on AotY
25. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
“Lose, despite its detours in sound, is remarkably cohesive and whole. It’s a real gift, that the band could tackle tragedy without making it sound saccharine, but also without making it sound too glib.” – PopMatters | Lose on AotY
24. Ballet School – The Dew Lasts an Hour
“They know their way around a captivating (if not subtle) hook, so whilst it sounds bigger than the sum of its parts, there are enough great songs to justify this super-stylised and fearless approach to pop.” – MusicOMH | The Dew Lasts an Hour on AotY
23. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
“All of these techniques — the streamlined mixing, the honeycombed harmonies, the poppy sci-fi synths — build a sonic unity made all the more bright when surrounded by the irreverent lyrics.” – Consequence of Sound | Brill Bruisers on AotY
22. Real Estate – Atlas
“While some of their self-titled debut and Days had a tendency to float over the listener, each track here has a hook that pulls you in.” – MusicOMH | Atlas on AotY
21. Strand of Oaks – Heal
“Showalter hops from rock genre from song to song in an effort to exercise demons of self-hate, substance abuse, alienation, and heartbreak. It would all be very bleak if the ultimate effect wasn’t catharsis, and if the music wasn’t so jubilant and full of life.” – A.V. Club | Heal on AotY
20. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon
“It’s chock full of summery motifs, a John Hughes sheen and stomping chorus earworms, and if you can remove it from yer noggin without a team of skilled surgeons then get in line for canonisation, ’cause that’s a miracle.” – The 405 | Days of Abandon on AotY
19. Goat – Commune
“Like giant psychedelic wondersplats, their music gloops and gets bigger and more expansive every second, emitting bizarre rays of curling guitar lines from the jammy puddle. It’s so darn good that it makes your brain do a fuzzy little leap of joy, and hijacks every dancey muscle in sight.” – DIY | Commune on AotY
18. Kishi Bashi – Lilight
“Unless you can’t handle your musical tea with any sugar in it whatsoever, this is a staggering achievement of fun. It’s got serious chops, but at no point is it melodramatic.” – Line of Best Fit | Lilight on AotY
17. Alvvays – Alvvays
“Decked out in fuzzy warmth, youthful themes and angelic ebullience, the spangly sprogs add many a fresh twist on the tried-‘n’-tested scuzz-pop” – Line of Best Fit | Alvvays on AotY
16. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
“Though pace is rarely shaken up, this is a grandiose collection of songs with operatic tendencies. It’s the kind of record that would be backed by an orchestra during live performances.” – The 405 | I Never Learn on AotY
15. CEO – Wonderland
“an immersive experience that teeters perilously on the periphery between dream and nightmare and jubilation and despondence, while remarkably never getting lost amidst the confusion.” – Pretty Much Amazing | Wonderland on AotY
14. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags
“While Pavement were a vanguard against commercial sterility, here Malkmus chooses to embrace his status as a classic artist of a by-gone era.” – Drowned in Sound | Wig Out at Jagbags on AotY
13. The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits
“Perro and the other Men … clutch to rock music like it’s a flotation device. Accordingly, Tomorrow’s Hits reflects decades of reverent listening and plays like it’ll have some say in whatever becomes of the now 11-year-olds this record will transform like Tommy transformed William Miller.” – Consequence of Sound | Tomorrow’s Hits on AotY
12. Music Go Music – Impressions
“What would you get if you took the icy, remote pop of disco-era ABBA and added just a touch of the warm, enveloping sound of peak period Fleetwood Mac?” – AllMusic | Impressions on AotY
11. Chet Faker – Built on Glass
“Despite having the kind of voice that would make your mother go weak at the knees, Chet Faker also has a strong left-field sensibility that appeals to those more discerning music aficionados out there.” – Line of Best Fit | Built on Glass on AotY
10. Mogwai – Rave Tapes
“The songs on Rave Tapes seem to be far more visceral than before – you can almost picture the scenes that each track could be soundtracking.” – The 405 | Rave Tapes on AotY
9. Archie Bronson Outfit – Wild Crush
“There has always been something of a primordial quality about Archie Bronson Outfit, whether it’s in thestomach-churning rawness of their garage-rock inspired sound, the bubbling sexual undertones of their lyrics, or perhaps simply in the facial hair…” – Line of Best Fit | Wild Crush on AotY
8. Wax Fang – The Astronaut
“The Astronaut is not without its fair share of camp. Certain lyrical choices and the degree to which the band’s tastes lean towards antiquated-sounding sci-fi rock at times brush dangerously close to the tonality of an overly-synthed New Wave groove.” – PopStache | (no AotY entry)
7. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
“Transgender Dysphoria Blues will be remembered as a milestone not because it’s the first widely known punk record performed by a trans woman, but because it brandishes a genre saturated by empty, male-centered politics to broadcast the most punk statements possible: Fuck the haters, be who you are, hold fast to those who love you.” – Consequence of Sound | Transgender Dysphoria Blues on AotY
6. Ty Segall – Manipulator
“Although Manipulator does exude a certain level of polish, there’s a sugary aggression to songs like It’s Over, Feel or The Faker, the latter being more of a Blues Magoos fuzz track.” – No Ripcord | Manipulator on AotY
5. The Budos Band – Burnt Offering
“For the first time, “funk rock” becomes an accurate descriptor for the still-complex musical sprawl, which now evokes the likes of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin right alongside Fela Kuti.” – Paste | Burnt Offering on AotY
4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
“It isn’t hardcore itself, but St. Vincent doesn’t give a fuck, and sounds weird doing it.” – PopMatters | St. Vincent on AotY
3. The Juan MacLean – In a Dream
“In A Dream is brand new, but has the feel of a timeless dance record, the kind of record that is pulled from the crate on the most special (and danceable) of occasions.” Exclaim! | In a Dream on AotY
2. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
“But while it comes close often, Lost never fully lets go of its classic rock footing to delve fully into art rock. Instead, we get a brilliant record that serves as a perfect blueprint on how to make something new out of something old.” American Songwriter | Lost in the Dream on AotY
1. Swans – To Be Kind
“Instruments are being played, undoubtedly, but only the drums are distinct amid the chaos. The rest have been folded into a protoplasmic fist.” – A.V. Club | To Be Kind on AotY
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The Top 50 Albums of 2013

[I had meant to publish this about a month ago, but writing up blurbs about 50 albums proved to take much more time than I had available. So instead of being posted “on time”, it’s “late” … but all that means is that I get the last word on 2013. Woo!]

2013 was a great year for music. Now for someone writing about music, maybe that’s about as cliche as the President annually declaring that “the state of our union is strong”, but I’m not quite that predictable. Notably, I thought that 2012 was pretty disappointing, with its parade of one underwhelming or mediocre release after the next.

After so many albums fell flat in 2012, I was definitely ready to move along to new releases in 2013. Early in the year, I found so many albums to look forward to that I needed to start maintaining a list just to keep up. Good records aren’t just made of anticipation though and albums can fall flat anytime. But one by one, 2013’s releases delivered the goods. A wide net cast in fear of a high failure rate turned into a veritable cornucopia of outstanding 2013 releases. In fact, there were so many great records released in 2013 that I couldn’t contain my year-end list to my top 30 albums. This year, the list ballooned to 50, with a heaping helping of honorable mentions to boot.

The only catch was that Amazon’s mp3 store pricing changed this year. Two or three years ago, Amazon’s aggressive pricing in its mp3 store converted me from only buying physical media to being (mostly) a purchaser of digital downloads. But if it was the price point that pushed me into digital downloads, it was also the pricing that pushed me away. When Amazon’s “sale” prices on mp3 albums rose to $7.99 this year, I stopped buying and waited for old sale prices to return… and they never did.

One consequence of this was that my listening environment for the year lacked diversity. I couldn’t soundtrack my work day with new music on my iPod, I couldn’t burn discs of new albums to play in my car. It meant lots of listening at home, (usually) after work, at night on Spotify (I do find it ironic that Amazon would push me to be more reliant on renting music than buying it, but that’s another discussion for another day).

Since there was so much good stuff to hear and I had less time in which to listen, it meant that I spent a lot less time with my favorite albums in 2013 than I had in years past. That, in turn, made compiling this list even harder than it ordinarily has been.

Unlike the last two years when there were two or three albums jockeying for the top spot, I wasn’t able to spend enough time with this year’s releases for any of them to create much separation from the pack… at least not for more than about a month at a time. I think that if I had spent more time with these albums, it might have created more separation and more clearly-defined favorites, but that’s not what we have today. Instead, what we have are a bumper crop of very good albums and some difficult choices atop the list.

But before we get to that, here’s the honorable mentions that – on a different day – might have appeared at the bottom of the list. These tend to fall into three groups. First, there are the albums that had features that I really liked and other bits that I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t quite connect with them on the first go-round, but I can imagine revisiting them in a few months to find that I regret not putting them in my top ten. Albums like The Haxan Cloak’s Excavation, Deafheaven’s Sunbather, Julia Holter’s Loud City Song, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away, Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven and Mountains’ Centralia all fall into this bucket.

Then there’s some more accessible albums that were good and enjoyable; albums that I might put in the top 50 next month, but probably not in the top half of the list. Those would include Portugal. The Man’s Evil Friends, Franz Ferdinand’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, Phoenix’s Entertainment, Classixx’s Hanging Gardens, Mikal Cronin’s MCII, Karl Bartos’ Off the Record, the Appleseed Cast’s Illumination Ritual and Melt Yourself Down’s self-titled release.

Anyway, enough reading. You’ve been waiting long enough. Time for the list! Album titles link to the album on Spotify and highlighted tracks link to the songs on Soundcloud [s] or YouTube [y].

50. Teeth of the Sea – Master
Responder [y]
Reaper [y]
49. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
24 Hours [s]
You’re Not The One [s]
48. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito
Sacrilege [y]
Despair [y]
47. Bibio – Silver Wilkinson
À tout à l’heure [y]
You [s]
46. Cayucas – Bigfoot
High School Lover [s]
Cayucos [s]
45. Deltron 3030 – Event II
City Rising From the Ashes [s]
What is This Loneliness? (Radio Edit) [s]
44. Kvelertak – Meir
Kvelertak [s]
Bruane Brenn [s]
43. Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
Drew [s]
Annabel [y]
42. Man Man – On Oni Pond
Head On [s]
Loot My Body [y]
41. Atlas Genius – When It Was Now
If So [s]
Trojans [s]
40. William Tyler – Impossible Truth
Cadillac Desert [s]
A Portait of Sarah [y]
39. Washed Out – Paracosm
It All Feels Right [s]
Don’t Give Up [s]
38. Moon Hooch – Moon Hooch
Low 4 [y]
Number 9 [s]
37. AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Attracting Flies [s]
Kaleidoscope Love [s]
36. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – English Electric
Metroland [s]
Night Café [s]
35. Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
San Francisco [s]
No Destruction [y]
34. Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?
Decorate [s]
Katachi [s]
33. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
Late March, Death March [s]
Holy [y]
32. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Black Belt [s]
GMF [s]
31. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
The Mother We Share [s]
Lies [s]
30. !!! – Thr!!!er
One Girl/One Boy [y]
Californiyeah [y]
29. Delorean – Apar
Spirit [y]
Dominion [y]
28. Savages – Silence Yourself
She Will [y]
Shut Up [y]
27. Ricardo Donoso – As Iron Sharpens Iron, One Verse Sharpens Another
The Sphinx [s]
The Redeemer [s]
26. Pond – Hobo Rocket
Xanman [s]
Giant Tortoise [s]
25. Yo La Tengo – Fade
Ohm [y]
Is That Enough? [y]
24. Solar Bears – Supermigration
Our Future is Underground [s]
Happiness is a Warm Spacestation [s]
23. Veronica Falls – Waiting For Something To Happen
Waiting for Something to Happen [s]
My Heart Beats [s]
22. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
Play By Play [s]
Ego Free Sex Free [y]
21. Postiljonen – Skyer
Plastic Panorama [s]
Atlantis [s]
20. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Down the Deep River [s]
Stay Young [s]
19. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Open Eye Signal [s]
Collider [s]
18. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Closer [s]
I Couldn’t Be Your Friend [s]
17. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Satellite [y]
While I’m Still Here [y]
16. Chris Forsyth – Solar Motel
Solar Motel: Parts I & II [s]
15. Son Lux – Lanterns
Lost It To Trying [s]
Easy [s]
14. Jagwar Ma – Howlin
Come Save Me [s]
The Throw [s]
13. Unknown Mortal Orchestra- II
So Good at Being in Trouble [s]
Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark) [s]
12. Suede – Bloodsports
It Starts and Ends With You [y]
For the Strangers [y]
11. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
Q.U.E.E.N. [y]
Dance Apocalyptic [y]
10. Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides
Pendulum [s]
Dream the Dare [s]
9. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Afterlife [y]
Reflektor [y]
8. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Uzu
One [s]
Windflower [s]
7. Holy Ghost! – Dynamics
Dumb Disco Ideas [s]
Don’t Look Down [s]
6. Darkside – Psychic
Golden Arrow [s]
Paper Trails [s]
5. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
When I Knew [y]
Stare at the Sun [s]
4. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Fragments of Time [y]
Instant Crush [y]
3. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Stalker [y]
Hidden X’s [y]
2. Forest Swords – Engravings
Thor’s Stone [s]
The Weight of Gold [s]
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Ya Hey [y]
Unbelievers [y]
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366TAS: Beyond 7:55

The trip from 1:50 to 7:55 is complete and we’ve enjoyed a bunch of great music across all of those times. Early in the year, I mentioned some of the better songs shorter than 1:50. Obviously, there’s a limited set of options there; you can only make a song so short and there’s only so much you can do with a shorter time. But what about the epic anthems that run longer than the times we sampled? There’s a lot more of those, including some highly celebrated songs, many of which are as renowned for their length as their greatness. Here’s a quick survey of 70 of the songs too long to make the cut over the last year. They’re not always the best long song by that particular artist and they aren’t always the longest the artist has to offer, although the list does end with the longest single track in my library…

7:58 – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – More News from Nowhere
7:59 – Weezer – Only in Dreams
8:00 – Steely Dan – Aja
8:01 – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – No More Shoes
8:03 – Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
8:06 – Primal Scream – Come Together
8:14 – Faith No More – The Real Thing
8:14 – Phish – Maze
8:16 – The J.B.’s – It’s Not the Express, It’s the J.B.’s Monaurail (Parts 1 & 2)
8:16 – Simian Mobile Disco – Thousand Year Egg
8:17 – Medeski, Martin & Wood – We’re So Happy
8:17 – Red Hot Chili Peppers – Sir Psycho Sexy
8:21 – The Beta Band – She’s the One
8:22 – Ministry – Scarecrow
8:26 – Destroyer – Suicide Demo for Kara Walker
8:27 – Metallica – Orion
8:28 – Ricardo Donoso – The Bow and the Lyre
8:31 – Drums and Tuba – No Accomodation for Buffalo
8:33 – Yes – Roundabout
8:34 – Bob Dylan – Hurricane
8:35 – M83 – Couleurs
8:37 – Don McLean – American Pie
8:39 – The Chemical Brothers – The Sunshine Underground
8:41 – Prince – Purple Rain
8:46 – Bill Callahan – One Fine Morning
8:48 – The Polyphonic Spree – Suitcase Calling
8:51 – Spiritualized – Hey Jane
8:52 – Digital Underground – Doowutchyalike
8:54 – Cloud Nothings – Wasted Days
8:54 – Genesis – Tonight, Tonight, Tonight
8:57 – Guns N’ Roses – November Rain
8:59 – The Phenomenal Handclap Band – The Circle is Broken
9:02 – Gogol Bordello – Baro Foro
9:12 – DJ Shadow – Blood on the Motorway
9:12 – The Allman Brothers – Back Where it All Begins
9:21 – The Propellerheads – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
9:25 – Kraftwerk – Autobahn
9:26 – Parliament – Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)
9:29 – Stereolab – Outer Bongolia
9:34 – Bruce Springsteen – Jungleland
9:37 – Rush – La Villa Strangiato
9:39 – Alaksa! – The Light
9:41 – Music Go Music – Warm in the Shadows
9:49 – The Outlaws – Green Grass and High Tides
9:50 – Discodeine – Figures in a Soundscape
9:52 – Nurse With Wound – Two Shaves and a Shine (Concerto For Bouzouki And 3 Piece Rock Group In 93 Six Second Segments)
9:57 – Frank Ocean – Pyramids
10:00 – Daft Punk – Too Long
10:07 – Explosions in the Sky – Let Me Back In
10:08 – Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird
10:21 – Swans – The Apostate (Edit)
10:54 – Royal Space Force – Uber Code
10:55 – Cat Power – Nothin But Time
10:56 – The Doors – When the Music’s Over
11:00 – Cannonball Adderley – Autumn Leaves
11:06 – Creedence Clearwater Revival – I Heard it Through the Grapevine
11:22 – Gang Gang Dance – Glass Jar
11:27 – moe. – Rebubula
13:31 – Pink Floyd – Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)
14:02 – Titus Andronicus – The Battle of Hampton Roads
14:19 – Dire Straits – Telegraph Road
15:07 – Cut Copy – Sun God
15:45 – Herbie Hancock – Chameleon
16:04 – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Cappriccio Italien, Op. 45
16:19 – Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
17:02 – Iron Butterfly – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
20:07 – Godspeed You! Black Emperor – We Drift Like Worried Fire
30:15 – Santana – Freeway (live)
46:05 – LCD Soundsystem – 45:33

Here’s a Spotify playlist to give you a taste of most of these selections (note that several are unavailable on Spotify):

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366TAS: 7:55 – Stereolab – Metronomic Underground

As the 366TAS project comes to a close today, I’ve saved (one of) the best for last. Stereolab is one of my very favorite bands. A framed copy of one of their albums hangs on my wall, one of their song titles serves as my nom de plume and only Belle and Sebastian (109) and Pink Floyd (108) place more songs in my iTunes library than Stereolab’s 98. When the band played DC supporting the 2008 release of their album, Chemical Chords, I went to the show and came home with one of the best bits of merch booth I’ve ever seen at a show: the Stereolab laundry bag!

The Stereolab laundry bag!By the time I got around to listening to Stereolab in the early 2000’s, they had been a going concern for about a decade. However, their lack of commercial success meant they got no airplay on the radio. As a result, I hadn’t heard of them for most of their career and when I finally did, I had no idea if they were the kind of thing I would have liked. I was also a poor college student at the time, so I couldn’t just go out and take a flyer on all the bands that I heard some good buzz about. Being a reasonably tech-savvy 21st century youth, I did what most music fans of the era would do: I turned to file sharing services to find out.

Sure enough, I downloaded a few tracks and really liked what I heard out of Stereolab. Their rich sonic blend of pop, lounge and krautrock, heavy on vintage keyboards and breezy guitars was a refreshing break from the countless interchangeable bands that dominated alternative rock radio and the singer/songwriter types with whom WYEP was so enamored.

Shortly after graduation, I moved down to Gaithersburg, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. Within a few months, I had started working 12 hour days doing document review. The work was miserable and the commute – an hour each way – may have been worse. The good news was that I finally had some spare cash to start buying albums again and my first purchase, one that came to define what I listened to during the six months I spent in Gaithersburg, was the Warren Zevon anthology and a pair of Stereolab albums. My daily trips from home to the Metro were often soundtracked by Stereolab’s Margerine Eclipse (the album now on my wall) and before I got my first iPod toward the end of that project, these few minutes in my car were often the highlight of my day.

Since then, my Stereolab collection has grown substantially and they’ve spent several years in my regular rotation as an essential influence. Although I was oblivious to Stereolab’s work for far too much of their career, I was fortunate to get on the bandwagon when I did, because shortly after I saw them live in 2009, they went on indefinite hiatus. Hopefully, they’ll reunite sometime in the future, but if not, they’ve left us with a great treasure trove of music filled with odd sounds and odder song titles.

For me, none of this experience would have been possible without file sharing. Now I understand full well that there are those who abuse the system, sucking up the music like a leech. However, the discovery function that they provided for me was invaluable. After all, nobody loves a band they’ve never heard of.

Nowadays, the availability of streaming services places a ton of great music out there for anyone to discover their own personal Stereolab, and that’s great for fans. As we’ve found this year, however, it’s not such a great arrangement for the artists. As more and more people shift their listening patterns to streaming-only, the economic question becomes all the more pressing for artists. Much more well-informed people than I have pondered the issue of fair compensation for artists all year and, as far as I’m aware, they’ve come up empty so far.

I continue to use Spotify regularly to listen to new music, but I can’t quite imagine it taking the place of actual album purchases. Right now, I have a budget of about $20 a month that I’ll spend to buy new music. More often than not, that’s mp3 albums, but I do still buy a few favorites on CD. I’m a little old-fashioned like that. To some folks, this music-purchasing regime may sound extravagant, but it’s less than a Starbucks habit of two trips a week, and I’m pretty sure I enjoy a lot of the music I’m buying a lot more than you like your cup of coffee. For a truly great album, I’m sure that it’s “worth” all of the misses that come with the territory of finding those few hits. So go out and buy a few albums. It’ll make you happy in the long run.

I’ve found a way to make this work for me. How can it work for you? How can you hear about bands you’ve never heard of? Well I like to think that I’ve hopefully introduced you to a few new names throughout this past year with the 366TAS project. Beyond that, there’s loads of music blogs to read, year-end lists of recommendations and even something as simple as browsing Wikipedia entries can help lead you to new bands and musicians. With so much information and music at your fingertips, “I haven’t heard of them” is no longer a valid reason to “not like” a band.

Otherwise, stay tuned to Corsairs Affairs. Even as the 366TAS project has come to a conclusion, I’ll be carrying on with playlists, polls and other music recommendations going forward. Oh, and here’s Stereolab to take us home…

Metronomic Underground – Stereolab

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366TAS: 7:54 – VHS or Beta – Solid Gold

I wonder if you were to take a survey of kids in college today, how many of them would understand what would be up for decision when asked to choose between VHS or Beta. I mean, they probably haven’t heard of LaserDiscs either, but I suppose that’s kind of understandable. The band is of relatively recent vintage, putting out their first album in 2004, so they were referencing obsolete technology from the get-go. That has a certain retro coolness to it and sometimes the etymology of a band name is enlightening, but it’s one that more and more kids are going to have to investigate going forward.

Solid Gold – VHS or Beta

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366TAS: 7:53 – Boards of Canada – Happy Cycling

Back in the good old days, bands were up front about where they came from. Boston was from Boston, Kansas was from Kansas, Chicago was from Chicago, Europe was from Europe (Sweden, to be specific). It was simple, life was good. But what’s in a name has changed and you just can’t be certain about a bands’ origins anymore. I’m From Barcelona isn’t actually from Barcelona; they’re from Sweden. Architecture in Helsinki is only in Helsinki if they’re on a world tour, because they hail from Australia. The Japandroids are Canadian, unlike Boards of Canada, who are Scottish.

Boards of Canada also gets bonus credit for great song titles like “Under the Coke Sign”, “Turquoise Hexagon Sun”, “Oscar See Through Red Eye”, “Everything You Do is a Balloon”, “Sherbet Head” and “Pete Standing Alone”.

Happy Cycling – Boards of Canada

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