Apologies for my hiatus -- I needed to turn into an elf for Santa for a couple of weeks. That and my physical exhaustion after teaching for most of a semester (my annual facial tick is gradually dying) made writing about music a low priority. However, depending on how much I write over the break, I'm hoping to go back to a daily schedule.
Speaking of which, this year I wrote almost 200 posts, which meant I had a lot of incredible music to choose from. You'll see a number of critics' mainstays on here. If I had listened to Jason Isbell's and Chris Stapleton's albums, they'd probably be on here, too. But I'm suspicious of hype and like giving limelight to folks who wouldn't otherwise get it. That being said, the majority of this list was a no-brainer, and it was really just a fight for 9 and 10. In the end, I chose all of these albums based on their scope, intensity, and the amount of growth these artists had shown from their previous releases (if reviewed here.) Thanks to everyone whose music I posted in the past year, but these were the 10 who truly captured my heart and my brain.
10. Norma MacDonald -- Burn the Tapes
Burn the Tapes was a sleeper for me. There were a couple of songs, like "Blue As a Jay," that fit me to a t this year. When I went back to listen to the album for a refresher, I realized that MacDonald's effortless pop melodies and delicate folk layerings had seeped into my bones in the six months I've been listening to it.
9. The Pollies -- Not Here
If you haven't listened to it yet, this is one hell of an album. Not Here saw the Pollies transform from a rock band that wrote serious songs to serious artists who write rock songs. I hope the Pollies continue to push themselves, but if this is where they peak, they'd have a lot to be satisfied with. Seriously, this is a gorgeous set.
8. Gregory McKillop -- Little Demon on the Backseat
I have a hard time resisting intelligent lyrics delivered in a straightforward way. McKillop is blunt to the point of viciousness in Little Demon, which slips and slides between folk and acoustic punk. While a lot of this album is McKillop spilling his guts, his determination to be better, and his faith that he can be better, are important reminders for all of us.
7. frog -- Kind of Blah
Hands-down my favorite albums about New York City. Kind of Blah should be listened to the whole way through. frog, a Queens-based bedroom pop duo, builds a beautiful sense of place through these disaffected, but somehow cheerful, tunes.
6. John Moreland -- High on Tulsa Heat
I could not be more thrilled that this is John Moreland's year. High on Tulsa Heat does the man ample justice as a gifted songwriter and musician. At first I had trouble digging in to the album because there aren't many songs that will grab you and stay stuck in your head. I've found that approaching them as art songs instead of folk songs helps -- every so often a flash of Moreland's poetry will pop into my mind, and I suddenly realize that maybe that's what the song is about. It's an album that will stick to your bones.
5. Alabama Shakes -- Sounds & Color
I have yet to go to a holiday party where someone didn't play at least one song from this album. We all knew the Shakes were a good band, but we didn't know they could redefine cool. But that's what happened with Sounds & Color. The album has cemented them as more than entertainers, but as tastemakers as well.
4. Animal City -- Bump Head Go Home
Santa got me my very first turntable this year. I decided to christen it with Animal City's Bump Head Go Home. I love this album to pieces, and it'll probably be the first one I literally wear out. Amid the frenetic, punk-inspired lyrics about drug use and the anxiety of youth, the songs have both a deeper intelligence and sweetness than first meets the eye.
3. American Aquarium -- Wolves
No year-end list is complete without some love for American Aquarium. There are few bands who deserve mainstream love more, but with Wolves, they just might get it. Go see them live. Stream the hell out of them on Spotify. Buy their albums. Buy their t-shirts. BJ Barham is searingly honest and earnest. If country music still valued these qualities, the band would've been well on its way to gold record status years ago. Wolves is a triumph in its own right -- acknowledging that where you are is right where you need to be, and that everything you work for is worth it in the end.
2. Sam Gleaves -- Ain't We Brothers?
Gleaves' debut album is gorgeous. His reverent approach to the music he so clearly loves makes all of his original songs sound like instant classics. Deeply rooted in tradition and with a sober approach to the social struggles of today -- indeed, the bread and butter of this genre -- Ain't We Brothers has already established Gleaves as an important voice in folk music.
1. Joey Kneiser -- The Wildness
I already said this would be the album of the year for me. It distills all the things I care about into ten rock'n'roll songs. See if it doesn't make you feel the same way.