Top 10 Albums
10. Bristol, Bristol (Kwaidan Records)
While the rampant ’90s musical nostalgia this year has mostly been grunge- and indie-focused, Marc Collin turned to trip-hop. Collin—the man behind Nouvelle Vague, which gave us brilliant French-accented bossanova covers of new wave, punk, and post-punk classics by Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Buzzcocks, and Blondie, among others—now has created Bristol to give the ’60s treatment to ’90s trip hop. Bristol’s reinterpretations include Portishead’s “Roads,” Tricky’s “Overcome,” Morcheeba’s “Moog Island,” and Monk & Canatella’s “I Can Water My Plants.”
9. Bully, Feels Like (Columbia Records/StarTime International)
Feels Like begins on full blast with the scorching “I Remember,” a bittersweet breakup tune on which vocalist Alicia Bognanno tears through reminiscences, both good and bad. Though the volume isn’t always loud—the vocalists that she at times channels span from Juliana Hatfield on “Reason” to Joan Jett on “Brainfreeze”—the sound is always mighty. Bognanno, an audio engineer, co-produced and mixed the record at Steve Albini’s Electric Audio, where she once interned. While Bully’s refreshing take on indie rock is rooted in the present, there are moments during this Nashville four-piece’s standout debut when Feels Like feels like something one might have mail-ordered out of the back of Alternative Press in the ’90s.
8. Dilly Dally, Sore (Partisan Records)
Every track on the powerful debut from this Toronto foursome radiates cool, self-assured nonchalance and attitude. Led by vocalist Katie Monks and guitarist Liz Ball, Dilly Dally is loud and brash, churning out pop melodies that are often as beautiful as they are raw. Monks’ distinct vocals set the band apart; at times it sounds as if she could gargle gravel (in a good way), yet it’s when her voice drops to something gentle that it’s often for emphasis. The band gets a lot of ’90s comparisons, not only because of Monks’ riot grrrl growl but also, more than a specific sound, there’s the attitude of a laid-back, introspective melancholia mixed with an aggressive urgency.
7. The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness (XO/Republic Records)
I tried to be too cool to like The Weeknd, but like the reluctant audience in his “Can’t Feel My Face” video, I eventually couldn’t resist the catchiness of one of this year’s inescapable singles, nor could I ignore the eerie undertones of “The Hills.” This was Canadian R&B singer’s Abel Tesfaye’s year. It’s also pretty entertaining to hear The Weeknd angelically croon lyrics that are explicit (as in the sex- and drug-drenched “Tell Your Friends”) or harsh (delivering some truths in “Shameless”), hopefully with his tongue firmly in his cheek. From the haunting Lana del Rey duet “Prisoner” to the channeling of Michael Jackson for “In the Night,” The Weeknd’s pop blockbuster delivers both the promised beauty and the madness.
6. Major Lazer, Peace is the Mission (Mad Decent)
No one seems tired of the ubiquitous “Lean On” from Major Lazer’s Peace Is the Mission, as evidenced by its billion (really, not an exaggeration) video plays on YouTube and it status as the most streamed song of all time on Spotify. The mesmerizing dance track is the crown jewel of Diplo’s producing magic this year. His Major Lazer project, which includes the current line-up of Walshy Fire and Jillionaire, melds dancehall, EDM, and a slew of guest stars (among them Ariana Grande, 2 Chainz, and Pusha T) for an album that transcends the “digital reggae” Major Lazer described to The Agit Reader back in 2009. From the near trip-hop slowness of “Be Together” featuring Wild Belle and “Powerful” with Ellie Goulding and Tarrus Riley to the frenetic “Too Original,” Peace Is the Mission is all pleasure, no guilt.
5. New Order, Music Complete (Mute Records)
Music Complete marks the departure of Peter Hook, the founding member responsible for the signature basslines that helped define the sound of New Order (and, before that, Joy Division). But even without Hooky’s bass, the new record is undeniably New Order, from the soaring synths to the often dark lyrics that belie the danceable music. With Bernard Sumner’s predilection for electronics now more prominent, Music Complete has been drawing comparisons to 1989’s Technique, but you can also hear haunting guitar tones reminiscent of New Order’s earliest records on cuts like “Singularity,” for example. Ultimately, New Order delivers a triumphant collection of tracks as solid as the title suggests.
4. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Style (Matador Records)
In a way, Car Seat Headrest’s official debut, Teens of Style, is already a best-of for Will Toledo, whose 11 albums released on Bandcamp over the past five years span from when he was a 17-year-old recording in the family car (inspiring the moniker) through his college years in Virginia. The prolific songwriter, who now lives in Seattle and is joined by bassist Ethan Ives and drummer Andrew Katz, seems to be incapable of creating something predictable. The twists in almost every song are purposeful, never seeming incongruous or for novelty’s sake, and fit well with the lyrics, which are simultaneously youthful and world-weary. “Sunburned Shirts” almost imperceptibly shifts from melancholy introspection to a gentle, listen-with-the-windows-rolled-down summer track. The single “Something Soon” is as if the Beach Boys went lo-fi and traded the sand for Toledo’s garage. In fact, unlikely surf choruses show up throughout the record in tracks like “Strangers” and “The Drums” (right after a confession of “when I was a kid, I fell in love with Michael Stipe”). They’re just a few among many other surprises (horns, a New Wave keyboard) on this DIY musical gem.
3. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop Music)
Courtney Barnett’s deadpan delivery of lyrics that are as smart as her hooks has made her full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, a favorite among everyone—from her musical peers to critics and cynics (myself included) wary of singer-songwriters. Against a backdrop of fuzzy guitars and catchy melodies, the modern-day Aussie storyteller has a clever lyrical take on relatable subjects and observations, offering a peek inside her head with songs that touch upon anxiety, insomnia, the tedium of long drives, and hilariously trying (and failing) to impress someone at the pool. Self-aware, Barnett seems to prophesize her own success on the irresistible lead single, “Pedestrian at Best,” with the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, “Tell me I’m exceptional. I promise to exploit you. Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami honey.”
2. Shopping, Consumer Complaints / Why Choose (FatCat Records)
Now that it’s possible to buy Sex Pistols sneakers, refreshing UK post-punk trio Shopping offers the salve we all need. As the tongue-in-cheek titles of the band’s two releases this year (though Consumer Complaints is a re-release of their 2013 debut) suggest, the band has plenty to say about conspicuous consumerism and instant gratification. Drawing comparisons to Gang of Four and The Slits, Shopping’s Rachel Aggs, Billy Easter, and Andrew Milk create a sound that’s stripped-down yet often beautifully complex—particularly on Why Choose’s “Say It Once”—with infectious basslines, clever lyrics, and a punk attitude. If their message sinks in, you should feel conflicted when you want to run out and buy these records.
1. Royal Headache, High (What’s Your Rupture?)
From the exhilarating opening track “My Own Fantasy” to the pure punk energy of “Electric Shock,” Royal Headache’s arresting High is rock & roll perfection. The follow-up to the Australian four-piece’s 2011 debut has a timeless quality; it would sound as at home in a ’70s garage, an ’80s club, or during the indie-garage revival of the early ’00s. The ebullient title track is as soaring and emotive as the name suggests and full of the infectious energy that pervades the entire album, even on the slower-paced tracks. You’ll want to sing along, stomp your feet, dance, hoist a drink—this captivating record doesn’t allow for passive listening.
Favorite Live Shows
Brooklyn Vegan CMJ Showcase, Baby’s All Right, October 17
I caught only a few hours of this free show at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, but the lineup was impressive. After a slew of CMJ shows, Shopping played a final afternoon set; Toronto’s Dilly Dally offered a blistering performance; and Liverpool’s Stealing Sheep was a nice surprise, offering delightful and ethereal melodies.
Zola Jesus, Warsaw, June 14
Zola Jesus always delivers a powerful performance, with her commanding operatic voice and larger-than-life sound. Among the highlights were the a capella intro to “Nail” and the performance of “Long Way Down” from her most recent album, Taiga. (We were also in good company: the sight of David Byrne exiting the venue sent The Agit Reader’s Stephen Slaybaugh into a moment of apoplectic shock.)
David Gahan & Soulsavers, Town Hall, October 22
With David Gahan & SoulSavers’ Angels & Ghosts, the Depeche Mode frontman explores the bluesy sounds he favored on Songs of Faith & Devotion. Gahan’s lounge act melded perfectly with the Soulsavers, supported for some songs by a trio of backup singers. Gahan’s lithe moves—particularly his butt-wiggling—set the female audience members into squeals of delight.
Mötörhead, Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, September 16
While Lemmy’s health was failing during this summer’s tour, the legend couldn’t be stopped, displaying more fortitude than most of the audience during Mötörhead’s blistering set. RIP Lemmy.
Stevie Wonder, Central Park SummerStage, August 17
Sometimes, you just want to stay in and get stuff done, and then Stevie Wonder announces a surprise free show in Central Park and destroys your plans. New York City was the last stop on his whirlwind, one-day Songs in the Key of Life tour promotion that also included performances in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. At the SummerStage show, the audience got a little teaser of the actual tour—including “Sir Duke” and “As”—with all of the energy that makes Wonder a legend.
Sleater-Kinney, Kings Theater, December 12
More than a decade ago, I was supposed to get Sleater-Kinney tickets for myself and a friend, but I forgot. I ended up scoring a last minute ticket myself, but I still feel guilty to this day. I similarly ended up with tickets to the show at the beautifully renovated Kings Theater just hours before the doors opened, but this time without the guilt as it seemed like half the people I know were also at the show. Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss gave my friends-packed audience an amazing set, which included songs from their latest, No Cities to Love, as well as “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” (during which it sounded like Brownstein changed “Thurston Moore” to “Kim Gordon” in the lyrics) and an encore of the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight.”
Ex Hex, Music Hall of Williamsburg, June 12
Mary Timony, Laura Harris, and Betsy Wright delivered a kick-ass night of power-pop.
Avengers, Bell House, August 4
The Avengers, with founding members Penelope Houston on vocals and Greg Ingraham on guitar (and wearing an Ex Hex t-shirt) showed why they are punk legends.
Vaselines, Bell House, January 16
The dynamic Glasgow duo performed classics (“Molly’s Lips,” “Monsterpuss,” “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”) as well as cuts from their 2014 V for Vaselines. While the Vaselines always put on a good show, the onstage banter between Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee alone is worth the price of admission.
EMA, MoMA PS1, February 15
Erika Anderson (EMA) sat on a couch in a living room stage set up in MoMA PS1’s VW Dome on a February afternoon for “I Want to Destroy,” a performance piece that included a musical portion as well as a virtual reality interactive component. Anderson created a narrative, reading missives that sounded as if they could be from friends and family, interspersed with performing tracks from The Future’s Void. The audience lined up to put on virtual reality headsets and delve into a world of clouds and a bizarre living room as the images seen from the headset were projected onto the dome. The whole experience was intimate, steps away from EMA, yet surreal and futuristic.