The compiling of year-end lists is sort of a dubious practice. So rather than imposing an artificial ranking system on roughly 12 months of musical releases, here’s a non-exhaustive list of what this reviewer thought was pretty great this year. This alphabetical (not ranked) list is a labor of love; hopefully you’ll think some of it is pretty great, too.
Arcade Fire “Afterlife”
Is there anything more heartbreaking than the line “When love is gone, where does it go?”? This cut exemplifies what makes Arcade Fire so great: it pairs expertly melodic songwriting with thematic content (Orpheus, etc.) that only serves to make it more resonant. Plus, most songs that make you want to dance don’t also rip your heart out and stomp on it quite like this. Well done, Win and Régine.
Atoms for Peace “Amok”
Thom Yorke’s falsetto seems to get more chilling as he ages. Here, he has the rest of the Atoms for Peace supergroup (whose notable members include Flea of RHCP fame) supporting him. What results is an admittedly Radiohead-esque track with a glitchy polyrhythmic percussion section.
Burial “Rival Dealer”
There’s something profoundly unnerving about “Rival Dealer.” Maybe it’s the eerily transformed Gavin DeGraw sample, the distinctly rave-y feel of the whole thing, or the destroyed-sounding patina of hiss and pop. This is unsettling but brilliant music.
“Cherry tells me some things I don’t want to know,” Ruth Radelet coos drowsily, “And I can’t see a light at the end for us anymore.” This dark, Schoolboy Q-sampled track is a nu-disco stunner, complete with sparkling synthesizers and a shuffling bassline.
At first glance, Chvrches brings to mind two other acts: The Knife ("We Share Our Mother's Health" may or may not have been the inspiration for "The Mother We Share"); and Purity Ring, for the juxtaposition of sunny synthesizers and chillingly clear female vocals. Happily, Chvrches manages to not sound quite like either: "Recover" demonstrates that Mayberry and company are more than just derivative.
Clams Casino, “Pull Me Down”
Sure, it’s also a Mikky Ekko song. And if that’s your thing, the version with vocals is still pretty good. But the Instrumental Mixtape 3 cut showcases exactly what’s so great about Clams Casino in the first place—his music is often more resonant and profound without the vocals. This is cough-syrupy, somnambulistic production at its finest and most gorgeous.
Cults “High Road”
Well, we knew Cults wasn’t going to put out anything nearly as sunny as their debut LP after Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin broke up. But “High Road” is bitingly frank in a way that makes the listener wonder how the two look each other in the eye after playing the song live.
To describe Doldrums as eclectic doesn't begin to do the noise-pop outfit justice. In "Anomaly," Airick Woodhead blends disembodied female vocals, hyperactive percussion, thundering bass, and his own singing. The result is something inexplicably catchy that doesn't sound quite like anything else.
FKA twigs “Water Me”
There’s something haunting in this sparse, clattering slow-jam. The remains of a relationship rattle around inside the track: “He told me I was so small,” FKA twigs mourns. “I told him water me.” Buzzed-about producer Arca contributes, too.
Glass Candy “Warm in the Winter”
This warm, sprawling masterpiece has the ingredients necessary for any outstanding Italians Do It Better track. Arpeggiated synths? Check. Spoken word interlude? Check. Buzzy bass? Check. Johnny Jewel and Ida No are in their element here.
The National “I Need My Girl”
Matt Berninger certainly has a way with words. "I am good, I am grounded. Davy says that I look taller," he intones sadly. "But I can't get my head around it, I keep feeling smaller and smaller." This ballad is alternately hopeful and foreboding, with gorgeous chiming guitars and characteristically vague lyrics that are peppered with sentimental details.
Sky Ferreira “You’re Not the One”
Sky Ferreira is sort of a polarizing figure in indie music—as a young performer whose career started off more top-40 than BNM, she’s been subject to some scrutiny. But when her debut LP, Night Time My Time, came out, despite the NSFW cover art, it was immediately apparent that she had the talent to back up the hype. “You’re Not the One” is a high point on this LP, sporting the same brand of subtle angst that made “Everything is Embarrassing” such a slam-dunk.
Volcano Choir “Comrade”
True to his Bon Iver roots, Justin Vernon's vocal performance in this song takes on several personalities: there's the soft delivery, the full-on wail, and the AutoTuned alto. This song ebbs and swells from verse to chorus, and features tremendously varied and densely textured instrumentation. It isn't just beautiful: it sounds like Vernon and company are also having a lot of fun.
Waxahatchee “You’re Damaged”
“This place is vile and I'm vile too,” Katie Crutchfield sings on this Cerulean Salt cut. Here, the lo-fi aesthetics that govern Waxahatchee's debut LP, American Weekend, resurface. This track is grittily melodic and showcases Crutchfield's considerable songwriting prowess.
Wet “No Lie”
Kelly Zutrau gets to the point quickly in this devastating slow-jam: she’s not wasting any more time. The slow, vaguely druggy production here puts the focus where it belongs: on the vocals, where Zutrau’s performance is cathartic and soulful.
Youth Lagoon “Raspberry Cane”
This fuzzy, jangly cut from the sophomore Youth Lagoon LP Wondrous Bughouse finds Trevor Powers at his best. The instrumentals are heavily warped and reverberant, and sound like an old record played to an empty room. Here, Powers' songwriting is more complex, varied, and touching than ever.