What is it with yearly best-of lists coming out, like, a month before the year’s actually over? Yeah, we know, getting the drop on the competition is king with content these days, but things are getting a little ridiculous; Christmas music in October ridiculous.
That’s why we here at raven + crow studio wait until literally the last day of the year to release our yearly best albums list. Plus we’re, like, really busy these days, guys.
If there’s a common thread that runs through the lion’s share of this year’s list, it’s incredibly strong female voices—from Wye Oak to Middle Kids to Snail Mail to, honestly, most of these albums, the vocals, lyrics, themes, and, beyond that, the spirit and power of the individual singer-songwriter drive the music and define its path in the most compelling and moving way possible. Beyond that, as with years past, these are longford works of independent musicians who write without restraints and create albums of songs that tell a story with passion, beginning to end.
Also as with years past, this list is inherently flawed—we can never listen to everything that’s out there and, inevitably, every year, there’s that album we discover late in the game that would have been included if we’d known of it or maybe even just given it more of a listen. And this rather arbitrary cut-off of ten albums results in an even longer list of nearly-made-the-cuts, from Balún to Madeline Kenney to Twin Shadow to Young Fathers to Anderson.Paak + (Thomas) VILDE, both of whom very nearly made this final ten.
But in the end, we were awash in wonderful music this year; of it all, this is what found us and spoke to us most clearly and indelibly; we hope it does the same for you.
Hop Along | Bark Your Head Off, Dog | Saddle Creek
One of the great things about seeing shows in Los Angeles is that it’s still a place where you can catch up-and-coming bands at intimate spots, most often at The Echo in Echo Park. That’s where we caught three of the bands on this list as it happens, Hop Along being the first of those three. This band and their new album also exemplifies this common thread we mentioned—Frances Quinlan’s voice, in the literal and figurative sense, drives this band, their music, and this powerful album in the most compelling of ways.
Wye Oak | The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs | Merge Records Apr6
The duo Wye Oak is another band that we caught early in their career, back in New York at a small club that no longer exists for a festival that no longer exists, the CMJ Music Marathon, a wonderful, wandering, city-wide fest that we looked forward to every year. As it did then, Jenn Wasner’s song-writing, singing, and guitar-playing continues to ground this powerfully emotive band and this album is one of their most mature, layered, and fulfilling to listen to. They remain one of our longtime favorite bands.
Middle Kids | Lost Friends | Middle Kids/MK Recordings (self-released)
Another band we caught at an early Echo show, Sydney’s Middle Kids are a rock band build around the heart + soul of singer, song-writer, guitarist Hannah Joy and use the band’s songs as a medium to telegraph that heart + soul to the listener. Their long-anticipated debit full-length is everything it promised to be—heart-felt and emotional deep, building from sparse, quiet moments to rollicking rock in the blink of an eye and pulling you by the collar along for all of it.
Parquet Courts | Wide Awake! | Rough Trade
NYC’s Parquet Courts somehow opened up a portal to an alternate dimension where smart, deadpan punk never died and they do it seemingly effortlessly. This is one of the most beautifully strange, diverse records we’ve heard but singer Andy Savage is the agent that binds it all together with his quick lyrics and piercingly flat delivery.
Snail Mail | Lush | Matador
On paper, Lush shouldn’t be one of our favorite albums of the year—it leans pretty heavily toward the 90s in sound and our assumption going in was that the whole thing would come off as a bit derivative for us. But—as the theme’s been thus far—front woman Lindsey Jordan invests herself into her singing, songwriting, and guitar-playing in the most intimate manner, making the songs on this album a diary of sorts that we get to glimpse upon in the most wonderful of ways. The band’s currently on tour with Parquet Courts as chance would have it and they’ll be playing the Novo downtown later next month. There’s no way that show won’t be amazing.
Bad Bad Hats | Lightning Round | Afternoon Records
Terrible band name? Maybe, but then again, look at Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Minus the Bear and…well, the next band on this list. I’m sure there’s an excellent backstory (ask us the Minus the Bear one next time you see us). Bad Bad Hats’ new one is an album that snuck up on us. We’ve been fans of theirs since the beginning, but this album speaks to a skill and maturity we didn’t know they were capable of, but we clearly underestimated the Minneapolis trio—this album is full of pop gems and promises what should be a deeply affective career if there’s any justice in the world (…).
Rubblebucket | Sun Machine | Grand Jury Music
Again, I’m sure there’s a great story. But, regardless, Brooklyn’s Rubblebucket is everything we hope pop music can become—weird, inventive, and unique; anything but duplicative or cookie-cutter. They deliver a sound with Sun Machine that’s something we’ve never heard before and it’s great (not, you know, ‘hey look how weird we’re being but this sounds terrible’).
Christine and the Queens | Chris | Because Music
Our third and final ‘saw them when’ band on this list, we caught Héloïse Letissier at her first show in the US a couple years back at the aforementioned Echo. Even in those early days, Letissier put the performance itself front-and-center, stepping into this charismatic, crooning alternate persona and even bringing dancers with her to this small early show. Chris is a transformative masterpiece of work and, while we can’t wait to see where she goes from here, we’re also content to sit with this album for years. And don’t be intimidated by the track numbers on this one—it’s mostly one half English versions of the songs and then the second French, which, hats off for doing that, come to think of it.
Hippo Campus | Bambi | Grand Jury Music
As with Rubblebucket, St. Paul quintet Hippo Campus gives us a glimpse at what we want pop music to be, catchy and wildly compelling because of rather than in spite of the music’s intelligence, wit, and strangeness. Jake Luppen’s singing is every bit as quirky + glitchy as the instrumentation on this album and it works on every level.
Empress Of | Us | Terrible Records
Los Angeles native Lorely Rodriguez spent much of her musical career to date in New York, but now we’ve got her back and it’s a big win for our city—as Empress Of, she delivers unflinching, earnest commentary on life, both hers and ours; and with Us, she’s built out her sound and depth of songwriting in a way that both makes you hang on every word and tap your feet.