Making a best-of list at the end of every year is both a fun and frustrating endeavor. Fun because it’s my one last swing at promoting some of my favorite music, music many people may not even have heard of. Frustrating because I know there’s a lot I haven’t heard that could very well belong on my list. My wish lists are full of albums I just simply haven’t had the opportunity to buy yet; as it is, I already spend more money on music than I should. And what I buy at any given time relies simply on that moment’s whims.
So some things that may be just as deserving of a place on this list end up left off, and as someone with great passion for music, it does hurt me a little that I don’t have the opportunity to represent everything great, or even just good, because, like my wallet, year-end lists have limits. One thing I can say for sure, however, is that everything I have managed to include on this list I hold in the highest regard and hope you can take a chance to hear. They are the albums from which I derived the most enjoyment this year. It won’t be like what you see in the major publications. For the most part, these are releases that you probably haven’t heard, so this list is an opportunity to discover a lot of new music that you won’t be able to find on other lists. And that’s precisely why I keep doing this year after year. (P.S. These are only loosely in order.)
1. Mia Pharaoh by Miniature Tigers
Nothing has delighted me quite as thoroughly this year as Miniature Tigers’ third full-length album, Mia Pharaoh. The band’s pop sensibilities have always been strong but they’ve taken a significantly synthy turn on their latest, with sexually suggestive overtones in the lyrics (“Flower Door”) and special appearances by some slow jam beats (“Cleopatra”). Jeremy Malvin, aka Chrome Sparks, contributed some of his expertise on this album, which turns out to be a very smart pairing with Charlie Brand’s style of musical preciousness.
2. Blonde Album by Lightning Love
After a few years of waiting, we finally got our wish of a sophomore release from Michigan’s golden-tressed trio and, boy, did they ever deliver. It’s always seemed like bandleader Leah Diehl can do no wrong in her music; every song she creates is just as perfect as can be, with melodies that are impossible not to sing along with and lyrics that are as self-aware as they are sassy. There’s much pain and much surrender in Diehl’s words, and whether she pairs them with punchy beats (“Awkward”) or sparse minor chords (“I’ll Never Love No One Else”), they resonate on a level so deep, you’ll think you’re feeling it all yourself.
3. Once Upon a Time in the West by The White Buffalo
I discovered the music of Jake Smith, aka The White Buffalo, several years ago and knew immediately I’d found something special. A good portion of Smith’s songs are murder ballads, and that alone is enough to pique my interest. Along with his dark folk tales is a deep, growly voice that sounds as if Eddie Vedder combined his DNA with a bear. His gritty Once Upon a Time in the West is as good for lively boot-stompin’ (“Hold the Line”) as it is for solemn beer swillin’ (“Ballad of a Deadman”), and even behind the wheel of my Subaru Impreza, the hardened desperado in me comes alive whenever these songs are playing.
4. Great Ideas in Action by Archie Powell & the Exports
Archie Powell’s got a lot of heavy stuff on his mind, but he sure does have an enjoyable method of getting it off his chest. With help from his trusty team of Exports, Archie parties away his woes in classic bratty power-pop style, as though the ’90s never went away. The band steps everything up for their supercharged second album and, even through job stress (“Job Fair”) and heartache (“You Might Be Cruel (Or I Might Be Dumb)”), these boys just pour themselves another round and keep on chooglin’.
5. Thou Art the Dream by Branches
Right now, at this time in music, not many people do banjo as well as Branches. And as far as modern indie-folk bands go, this one’s got better material than The Head and the Heart and Of Monsters and Men combined. Suffice it to say, any fan of those bands would be doing themselves a favor to check out Thou Art the Dream if you’ve got a new-music-itch to scratch.
6. The Bloom and the Blight by Two Gallants
“I didn’t know Two Gallants rocked,” remarked a pleasantly surprised Brent Stecker one night in Turntable while I played “Ride Away” from The Bloom and the Blight. Not only do they rock, but they rock hard; this is one of those albums you pull out when you need to beat the crap outta some air drums and maybe even scream at the world a little bit.
7. Forgetters by Forgetters
I’m not much of a sentimental person, but when I learned that one of my favorite musicians, Blake Schwarzenbach (Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil) was part of a new band, I figuratively peed myself with excitement. Forgetters is everything I’d hoped it would be, with long, droning electric guitar and drums tumbling recklessly throughout the album.
8. Wildlife Pop by Stepdad
Stepdad is all about fun dance beats, and their debut full-length confirms that in spades. The electronic sounds wafting through Wildlife Pop are like sugared cereal for the ears — a delicious treat that you’ll find is also quite wholesome if you read the label (also it’s great for either breakfast OR dessert, or WHATEVER. We’re grown-ups now, we make the rules).
9. A Stranger Here by Dillon Warnek
When a friend of mine in Wenatchee told me about Dillon Warnek last year, I had no idea I would end up treasuring his music as much as I do. Warnek is a genuine talent on the guitar, picking strings like he’s been doing it all his life. A Stranger Here combines delicate yet meticulous music with thoughtful lyrics. There’s so much beauty in Dillon’s solo songs, but after seeing him perform with his newly formed band in October, I’m eager to see where he goes from here.
10. What You Wanted by Dynoride
It’s not always easy these days to find good hardcore, lo-fi grunge that sounds authentic, original AND well-written. What You Wanted is full of great rock music, unconcerned with complexity. How did Dynoride know that, sometimes, what I want is to just bang my head until my neck aches?
Click the links to hear/buy:
11. DRRT by Lost Lander
12. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats by Regina Spektor
13. Rot Gut, Domestic by Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s
14. Threads by Now, Now
15. Warrior by Ke$ha
16. History Speaks by Deep Sea Diver
17. All of the Unknown by The Drowning Men
18. Fight! Fight! Fight! by The History of Panic
19. Icky Blossoms by Icky Blossoms
20. Sees the Light by La Sera
21. Ancient Mars by The Zolas
22. Cynic’s New Year by Horse Feathers
23. Aux alentours by Marie-Pierre Arthur
24. Rooms Filled With Light by Fanfarlo
25. La Grande by Laura Gibson