Top 10 lists are problematic for anyone writing them because it’s like they require us to imagine there’s some kind of objective criterion by which we can measure pieces of music. That’s really not true, despite the stock we often place in them – the works themselves and the lists we quantify them in. Certainly, I – like any other music listener – have my own reasons for critiquing pieces: aesthetic value, texture, production, and lyricism all play a part. But also the artist’s validity as an “artist” in terms of the part they play in the music industry machine. I’m comfortable situating a piece of music within the context of political economy and critiquing it on those grounds. Others are not, and that’s fine.
I liked “Call Me Maybe” but I can’t address it on the same playing field as Grimes’ Visions, because unlike Carly Rae Jepsen, Claire Boucher was – at least at the outset – largely an outsider. I can knock Japandroids because, among other things, I think they play sanitized suburb-rock. And for how they prefaced Rollie Pemberton (Cadence Weapon) by more or less apologizing for his presence at multiple Northeast U.S. gigs this past summer. Sorry, white kids! We’ve got a rapper here, and we know how you feel about rap. Well, I don’t like them for those reasons and because I can’t help but laugh at “We yell like hell to the heavens!” on “The Nights of Wine and Roses.” Hell yeah, dude. It’s Springsteen with brain damage and not in a good way, because that sounds kind of great.
But I digress. This is all to say that perhaps in the end, one person’s Carly Rae Jepsen is another’s Scott Walker and vice-versa. Anyway, here’s a list of things I liked this year, and some reasons why.
10. d’Eon – LP
Montreal-based producer d’Eon sounds like Phil Collins – if he smoked a ton of weed and spent all day aligning his chakras and on the Internet. LP takes you on a transcendent journey through spacey pads, snapping R&B snares, and a goofy-but-kind-of-awesome story about finding God on the Internet. Songs with titles like “My iPhone Tracks My Every Move” and lyrics like, “I wonder if Siri can get me in contact with Gabriel?” are kind of silly but get at questions like what it means to encounter the more ephemeral elements that make us human when we exist in an always-on communication network. The music is rewarding, and the concept is interesting.
9. Light Asylum – Light Asylum
Light Asylum’s impressive debut mines New Order to the nth degree and makes it work. Shannon Funchess’s presence provides the real power behind the duo and listening to her deep, commanding voice feels like receiving a shot of adrenaline. This is especially true when she sings lines like “Slap girls / Get tough / Fight cops / Who try to rape us” on “IPC” (which I think stands for Innocent Petty Crimes). The album does drag on lesser tracks like “Heart of Dust” and “Angel Tongue” that just seem to drone on and on. But once again, Funchess’s voice salvages some of these songs and even makes them into something striking as with “Shallow Tears.”
8. Goat – World Music
There’s a lot to love here for fans of 70s psych-rock and afropop. World Music‘s title seems to be a little tongue in cheek, not least because the term itself is incredibly problematic, but because the album sounds more like the fuzzy British/American 70s than the groovy, clean sound of afropop pioneers like Fela Kuti and Thomas Mapfumo. Still, some of the elements are there in the ever-present pounding percussion and ecstatic gang vocals. The psychedelia is laid on thick here, and it’s fun to get caught up in the intensely kaleidoscopic aesthetic. This album sounds like it’s in technicolor, man.
7. Beat Connection – The Palace Garden
This album is a lot of fun. It’s not particularly timeless, as its nods to what’s Hot Right Now with its shimmering guitars and atmospheric synths are incessant, but it all comes together under an unstoppable groove like on album standout “Palace Garden, 4 am.” In a welcome break from the springy optimism, the album takes a darker turn with moodier compositions like “Trap House” and “Think / Feel.” Sure, they’re doing the Cut Copy thing, but they’re doing it really, really well.
6. Mac Demarco – 2
Mac Demarco’s second album is a far more even affair than this year’s earlier front-loaded release, Rock And Roll Night Club. From the bouncy, warbling guitar that opens “Cooking Up Something Good” until the moment the final falsetto falls away on the hazy and sentimental “Still Together,” 2 is a dreamy cruise in a top-down convertible. Demarco is one of the most unique guitar players I’ve heard in a long time with a signature chorus-laden and energetic style that washes over you at times and kicks things up a notch at others, like on “Freaking Out the Neighborhood” – a song that seems to be an apology to his loved ones for his wild and androgynous antics surrounding Rock And Roll Night Club. 2 is beautifully produced, skillfully performed, and lyrically satisfying. Demarco lazily letting the word “Viceroy” hang in the air in “Ode to Viceroy” is a dead simple hook that sticks with you because of how perfectly it’s delivered. A lot like 2.
5. Matthew Dear – Beams
Matthew Dear has had a long career stretching back to 1999’s seminal minimal Detroit house single, “Hands Up For Detroit,” but his 2012 release Beams situates him at the forefront of experimental electronic dance-pop. “Her Fantasy” is a rowdy, Carnivalesque slow burner of a dance tune that mixes hand claps, whistles and all manner of party whizzers with Dear waxing philosophic about being “a great design” in his arresting baritone. “Ahead of Myself” is a real standout here, too. Dear’s vocal delivery falls all over itself while he seems to chuckle and sing about coming to bed with blood on his knees and licking wounds just to get blood on his teeth.
4. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Mature Themes is a trip into pop’s past as it took place in the weird world of Ariel Pink. “Mature Themes” cops the riff from Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” and “Symphony of the Nymph” breaks into The Ventures’ “Apache” for a bridge. On his safari tour through a Dali-esque landscape of pop and rock’s history, the past is fragmented and pieced together in a vibrant – almost garishly so, at points – quilt that only Ariel Pink could assemble.
3. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid M.A.A.D City
“Bitch, Dant Kill My Vibe,” “Money Trees,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” and “Good Kid” are just four amazing reasons among many great ones that put Lamar’s debut studio album on the list. The man’s flow is flawless and his lyrics are intelligent, visceral and really hooky. Lines like, “It go Halle Berry or ‘hallelujah’/ Pick your poison tell me what you doing / Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever” on “Money Trees” will stick with you all day. “Swimming Pools” is an elevator ride right into a fucking emotional pit.
2. CFCF – Exercises
This is technically an EP, but rules were meant to be broken and I’d be doing a huge disservice to the weight this release carries by not including it here. The atmosphere that runs through the whole thing is so cold and airy – and despite the architecture that inspired it, it feels almost fragile at times. “Good” music has to move me, to transport me, and Exercises does this. When I close my eyes and listen to “Exercise #3 (Buildings),” with its arpeggiating synths, floating leads and plinking piano, I go somewhere else for a few minutes. I can’t really ask for more from the music I love.
1. Chromatics – Kill for Love
Kill For Love is seventeen tracks of moody bliss. The plodding, atmospheric cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” that opens the record hooks you because of how unexpected it is. It also demonstrates how Johnny Jewel and the gang can take simple arrangements and make them soar – or sink; deep into the depths of whatever dystopian, night-shrouded metropolis this album sounds like it came from. Washed in chorus-laden guitars, airy vocals and buzzy synths, the record plays like a non-stop high speed car chase with angst-y barn burners like the title track and the stomping “These Streets Will Never Look the Same.” Even the more atmospheric and ethereal numbers like “The Eleventh Hour” and “Running from the Sun” smoulder with teeth-gritting intensity. The perfect album for 3 AM.
Cadence Weapon – Hope In Dirt City, Jesse Ruins – Dream Analysis, Elite Gymnastics – RUIN 3/4, Emeralds – Just to Feel Anything, Flume – Flume, Grimes – Visions, Lil B – God’s Father, How to Dress Well – Total Loss, Daphni – Jiaolong, Jessie Ware – Devotion, Main Attrakionz – Bossalinis and Foolyones, Trust – TRST, Mount Erie – Clear Moon, The Men – Open Your Heart, Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill, Taylor Swift – Red, Capsule – Stereo Worxxx, The Walkmen – Heaven, The XX – Coexist
–Jordan Pearson is the Editor-in-Chief of OPENWIDE Vol. 12