Trying to whittle down a list of the best music I heard this year to only 10 titles was a difficult but rewarding exercise in that it forced me to listen to it all again. This list is by no means comprehensive but I hope it encourages you to check out one or more of these titles to hear some of the wonderful music released this year.
David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)
Released two days before he died, “Blackstar” is a stunning farewell from one of rock’s most luminous of creators. What initially sounded like yet another new direction for Bowie has become a talisman for fans seeking solace in its driving mediations on transience.
Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
Ocean recorded his second album over a three-year span at Abbey Road Studios in London and in New York City at the studio built by Jimi Hendrix - Electric Lady. “Blonde” is strong on melody and expansive in its use of textured layers of sound, utilizing instrumentation not always associated with R&B and hip-hop. Most hour-long albums have moments of obvious padding but Ocean gets the most out of each track here.
Wilco – Schmilco (dBpm)
Wilco have a tendency to release records that only fully reveal themselves upon multiple listens. On their 10th studio album, the Chicago band pull a 180 following last year’s “Star Wars,” which saw the sextet rediscover the joy of cranking the amps and rocking out live in the studio. “Schmilco” is a quieter album musically but louder lyrically. Jeff Tweedy’s songs touch on love, loss, anxiety, age and “normal American kids” without sounding like a depression record. In its own way, it’s hopeful, optimistic and rocks (figuratively) as hard as anything they’ve done.
Jeff Beck – Loud Hailer (Rhino)
Unlike anything he’s done before, “Loud Hailer” is proof that Jeff Beck is one of the most vital and endlessly creative artists who came of age in the mid-1960s. In the past, he’s given us blues, jazz fusion and techno. On his latest, Beck collaborates with vocalist Rosie Bones; her sing-speak vocals intertwined with his guitar, on eleven tracks commenting on the state of the world. At this point Jeff Beck has nothing to prove but you’d never know it from “Loud Hailer.” Rock’s most dangerous guitarist has reinvented himself once again.
The Lemon Twigs – Do Hollywood (4AD)
The parents of these Long Island kids certainly brought them up on the right music. Melody and harmony are king on “Do Hollywood,” a record that sounds like Queen and Todd Rundgren having a boys’ night out with 10CC and XTC. Ten tracks and not a duffer in the lot.
Courtney Barnett – Good For You (Mom + Pop Music)
The Australian singer-songwriter was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy this year. That she didn’t win that career kiss of death is probably a good thing. This six-track compilation is the follow-up to last year’s winning “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit.” Barnett’s songs are melodically arresting nuggets; personal yet universal, full of relatable scenarios and imagery. A gifted songwriter.
Gallant – Ology (Mind of a Genius)
I think I heard one of his songs while grocery shopping last summer and a made a point to remember a lyric for later identification. “Ology” is the first full-length from the Columbia, Maryland singer. Combining elements of R&B, hip-hop, indie rock and electronica, Gallant’s voice ties it all together with very strong songwriting.
DeWolff – Roux-Ga-Roux (Electrosauraus Records)
This Dutch band has got it going on. Original blues and pysch workouts dominate on the group’s seventh album that might remind you at times of the Allman Brothers Band, Dr. John, The Black Crowes and Keith Richards. Tasty stuff.
The Weeklings – Studio 2 (JEM Records)
I am a total sucker for Beatles-inspired pop and this band does it well. Recorded in the same room where the Fabs laid down the law all those years ago, The Weeklings are a New Jersey-based power-pop quartet that have distilled the Mersey-beat vibe and sound to its essence on eight original songs and four obscure Lennon/McCartney tunes. One of the most tuneful and fun listens of the year.
The Anderson Council – ‘Assorted Colors’ (JEM Records)
Another New Jersey band inspired and informed by a mutual love of great power-pop bands of the past, Anderson Council (creatively derived from the surnames of blues-men Pink Anderson and Floyd Council and a nod to another of their influences) have created a career-spanning collection while adding some newly recorded tracks, for one of the most sonically joyful records I heard this year. This isn’t merely a spot-the-influence exercise so much as the sound of a band doing what they love.