I love year end lists. Love reading them, love writing them. Something about listing music in particular captures the spirit of the year in a bottle. So here’s mine. I don’t have many thematic insights this year, except the fact that in some years my favorite artists let me down and this was not one of those years. I think Calexico, Protomartyr, and Sleater-Kinney of all bands, put out records at the top of their body of work. And some surprises from bands like Jamie XX and Grimes, who I was only a little into before but blew me away this year. And of course, all of the runners up, mostly because I just haven’t had a chance to listen enough—Titus Andronicus, Beach Slang, Eskimeaux, a Mount Eerie record I somehow completely missed.
So without further ado.
10. Ryan Adams, 1989
A musical experiment, a lark, a publicity stunt, a waste of time, an impressive reimagining—Ryan Adams’ 1989 was the magic mirror from the Neverending Story. Look into it and your true self is revealed. This was as much a fascinating exercise in patriarchy, rock snobbery, and commercialism as it was an album. But it was also a pretty good album! I think the most interesting thing about it to me is just the way songs I didn’t love on T.Swift’s 1989 (which I loved overall) like Shake it Off, I liked much more on the Adams version. A fascinating look at why we like the music we like.
9. Grimes, Art Angels
This one is almost too late in the year for me to include, since I haven’t spent a ton of time with it. But what an incredible full-of-life surprise from an artist I never got that into before. If there were zero good songs after California and SCREAM, I would still love it. But that’s not the case.
8. Christian Scott, Stretch Music
This is the most exciting jazz record I’ve heard in a long time, and that’s not a knock on jazz. There is a freshness and experimental sound to it, coupled with traditional themes, that set it apart from the crowd.
7. Low, Ones and Sixes
Everyone’s favorite Mormons from Duluth. I’ve always sort of liked not loved Low, but for whatever reason this one really got me. Maybe it was the haunting, repeated chorus, All you innocents / Make a run for it.
6. The Helio Sequence, S/T
Another standby, I pretty much love anything this band puts out. I went and saw them play in Cambridge this year with my friend Swedlund, and I could watch the drummer of this Portland duo play for hours. A tiny little ball of clockwork energy putting down unexpected beats under catchy pop songs.
5. Jamie XX, In Colour
I was hooked when I saw the space-themed video for Oh My Gosh, which I watched multiple times in a row. Then I quickly got hooked on whole album, which is full of surprises and unusual takes on house and other genres that weren’t so much in his earlier music.
4. Destroyer, Poison Season
Dan Bejar made us wait a few years since his anthemic easy listening record Kaputt, but it was worth it. I think I still like Kaputt a bit better (I put it on all the time), but it keeps the dreamy, exotic sound that feels like wandering in a city.
3. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
I saw this band, not once, but twice this year. Mostly due to the terrible venue of the first show, but also because they are a complete rush to watch. Carrie Brownstein has a level of charisma on stage that easily competes with frontmen like Mick Jagger or Nick Cave. How absolutely incredible that this band took a nine year hiatus and picked right up with a set of songs as good as any in the earlier albums.
2. Calexico, Edge of the Sun
Calexico’s best since Feast of Wire, hands down. I’m clearly biased because I’ve always loved this band, and we even danced to one of their songs at our wedding. For all the talk about past “crossover” attempts, this one has some of their best pop songs, intermingled with their more mariachi-influenced standbys. Some young additions to the band, including Sergio Mendoza, have added a new level to their live show too (I saw more shows than I thought this year).
1. Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect
Another year, another amazing album from my favorite new band. Saw them live too and like them even more. As Greg Kot put it more or less, just when you thing you can’t ever be surprised by guitar and drum based rock, a band like Protomartyr comes along and does something completely fresh and exciting.