1. Bill Callahan, “Apocalypse”
Nobody makes every word count like Callahan. Delivered in his penetrating, deadpan baritone, each line sounds like it is being handed down from the heavens to be etched into stone. Direct and oblique, tender and tense, introspective and universal, it’s another peak in the career of one of America’s great songwriters.
2. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
Proud iconoclast Dan Bejar is always shifting styles and he glides in for a smooth landing here with a serene and inviting take on ’80s jazz and soft rock. Soothing sax and flute solos mingle with the most gently pulsing disco beats. His nasal voice becomes a gentle exhale, inscrutable lyrics are almost-scrutable and for the first time it sounds like he actually wants us there with him.
The most pleasant jingle-jangle of the year comes from these New Jersey dudes who have stumbled upon the perfect speed at which to live life, stick it in cruise control and we all enjoy the ride.
Mystery is an increasingly rare quality in hip-hop but it’s this album’s strongest asset. The beats are stilted and slippery but eventually seductive. Ishmael Butler (of ’90s group Digable Planets) doesn’t shout or puff out his chest, and makes you do a bit of digging to decipher his wisdom. It’s well worth it.
5. Eleanor Friedberger, “Last Summer”
Here’s the most thrillingly voyeuristic album of the year. The solo debut from the Fiery Furnaces frontwoman is a collection 10 vivid short stories of a season spent in Brooklyn, following our protagonist through side streets, city parks and shops. She spills every detail in an excited and unadorned speak-sing. When she crashes her bike on “My Mistakes” you feel like you’ve skinned your knees with her.
6. Yuck, “Yuck”
This young U.K. group clearly did its homework on ’90s American indie rock. But they didn’t just cram and memorize the answers — they seriously studied up, getting those fuzzy, grimy, chuggy, droney guitar tones just right. But this debut album never sounds like a clinical recreation — and when they rip off songs, at least they’re ripping off the classics.
7. F----- Up, “David Comes to Life”
One of the most exhausting albums of the year is also one of the most rewarding. A hardcore, rock opera that covers 18 songs in 80 minutes, with the tireless Damian Abraham barking the entire time. As one song slams into the next — with piles of guitars screaming as loudly as the singer — it simply feels cathartic, never excessive.
Beautiful, haunting, pristine — all those adjectives that are so over-used in music reviews should be saved for an album like this. Barwick uses minimal instrumentation and layered chants to create a spiritually-cleansing album of perfect stillness. It’s one elongated, chill-inducing moment.
9. Total Control,“Henge Beat”
This quintet features members from a handful of Australia’s best rock groups (Eddy Current Suppression Ring, the UV Race) and the band manages to exceed its pedigree. The songs precisely veer from sinister Krautrock grooves to thrashy synth-punk, always maintaining a straight-line intensity and squeezing out every last drop of vitality.
10. The Bats ,“Free All the Monsters;” David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights, “Left By Soft;” The Feelies, “Here Before”
A three-way tie between acts that got their start three decades ago and haven’t so much aged gracefully as not aged at all, living in a vacuum where crisply strummed guitar chords echo across continents.