15. Hospitality
Hospitality
[Merge]

Hospitality’s self-titled debut came and went last January with mild critical acclaim, but without the PR blitz that accompanies other buzz bands. The trio of Amber Papini, Nathan Michel and Brian Betancourt have emerged seemingly fully formed, bringing us an album undefined by genre, ranging from chamber pop to full on rock to wistful twee. Over the course of 10 tracks, Hospitality goes from chiding youthful ennui with “Always got your frown/ Got your brown bags/ Sulking in the corner” in “The Birthday” to drowning in it with “Is it gold, is it snow/ Is it all the debt I owe?” in “Julie” and a dozen states of mind in between. Hospitality is perfect music for musing on the past and the future and barely remembering to stay in the present. It’s filled with brash electric guitars and melancholy acoustic ones; it’s still and stark at times, and clattering and percussive at others. In short, it’s an almost unbelievably self-assured debut album, while still being filled with moments of uncertainty and doubt. In that sense, the album is itself like the characters narrated by Papini’s softly accented voice in their songs; both perfectly poised and unsure of themselves, but beautiful in simply being what they are. – Nathan Kamal

14. The Walkmen
Heaven
[Fat Possum/Bella Union]

Some folks have criticized The Walkmen for “settling down” too much on their seventh LP Heaven. It’s telling that a band that once loudly projected a state of dissatisfaction (see the past song titles “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone” and “Woe Is Me”) and youthful defiance (see “The Rat” lyric: “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor”) now has released a record addressing such topics as trying to make a long-term relationship work, appreciating best friends and worrying about the future of one’s children. Heaven’s back cover, which features pictures of the band members with their kids, proves that the boys have in fact grown up.

Just because the album gives off some positive, mature vibes doesn’t mean that it’s completely devoid of complexity or dark undercurrents. The record is fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity, even as it tries to depict that odd adult state called “settling.” Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser asserts one moment that “we can’t be beat” and “patience will keep you alive” and decries the uncomfortably fickle nature of love in the next (“this love is luck”). The record’s strongest message is that adult life, despite its surface-level comforts, will never reach a truly idyllic state. Leithauser’s assertion that “nobody loves perfection” is ironic, given that Heaven is perhaps the most perfect record the Walkmen have made to date. – Jacob Adams

13. Twin Shadow
Confess
[4AD]

The organ chords grow louder, resolving into something more certain and solemn as he approaches the doors of the sanctuary. But just before he succumbs to the kneeling, the slingshot release of a guitar lick ejects him from the hymn and drops him back into rock ‘n’ roll, the confession retracted. George Michael’s “Faith”? Yes. And also George Lewis, Jr.’s “The One.” This intro, though not as protracted as the original, can’t be anything but intentional homage. Indeed Lewis – recording under the artist name Twin Shadow – shares more in common with this (then-) sexy‘80s icon than just a prayerful pipe organ and trademark five o’ clock shadow.

Twin Shadow’s sophomore album Confess commits to this soulful bad boy aesthetic with total control and fantastically contemporary recalibration. Leather jacket, mesh shirt, pompadour: the costuming validates the retro musical sensations. But Lewis plucks his pastiche into other timelines, and that dislocation is what makes Confess less a tribute than invention. The Big ‘80s represent in a big way, but on a track like “I Don’t Care,” the dropped stammering thuds of the bass drum and undercurrent of gasping grunts rubs against the synth-accompanied R&B huskiness that makes girls go starry-eyed. “I don’t care/ Long as I can dance you around the room/ While I lie to you,” he sings. Confess is an album that keeps you whirling, welcoming those lies. – Stacey Pavlick

12. Perfume Genius
Put Your Back N 2 It
[Matador]

Mike Hadreas’ first Perfume Genius record, the aptly named Learning, is a shockingly delicate album. Full of intimate looks at Hadreas’ deeply felt emotions and exposed vulnerabilities, that debut is very much the first beautiful work of a bedroom auteur. Put Your Back N 2 It takes all of that sensitivity and makes everything more grand. The songs themselves sound bigger — where Learning rendered every melody with flickering keys, Put Your Back N 2 It includes exquisite instrumentation and a much more assertive pianist at the helm –but Hadreas’ lyrical scope is also broader, taking on social taboos directly instead of just watching them from afar. The baroque piano lattice behind “Dark Parts” is a stunning way to back a song about molestation, and the result is more devastating and powerful than “Mr. Peterson” in every way. That Learning track tells an unflinching story as an inspired observer; “Dark Parts” finds Hadreas’ comforting a victim directly, his scars healed enough to remedy a lover in need. Hadreas’ identity as a gay man is a vital element of this second Perfume Genius record, a source of pain and fear that he confronts in the back-to-back with the haunting “All Waters” and the emotionally raw “Hood”. He wishes to “hold your hand/ on any crowded street/ And hold you close to me,” but then expresses tender sentiments to a lover on “Hood” in a way that applies to any relationship. He dashes expectations and challenges the world around him to connect with another soul on a deeper level. That appeal is a beautiful and resounding success. – Michael Merline

11. The Mountain Goats
Transcendental Youth
[Merge]

The Mountain Goats are so damn reliable. It’s easy to take for granted that these guys have been punching the clock and giving us a good album and EPs worth of songs every year for the last decade. On Transcendental Youth, the band sounds like as confident and supple a three-piece as it ever has, with Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums deftly accenting John Darnielle’s animated guitar. Tapping Matthew E. White for horn arrangements was also an inspired choice, as his brass provides both punch and color to songs like “Cry for Judas,” “White Cedar” and the title track.

I am happy where the vermin play,” Darnielle admits early in the record, which makes sense given the rogue’s gallery of losers, villains and burnouts he spends his time painting in empathetic strokes. The list includes a fatally drug addicted Frankie Lymon, Christ’s betrayer, some forgotten characters from Scarface and, of course, Satan. It’s not that Darnielle revels morosely in darkness but rather that he drawing strength from his characters’ perseverance in the face of life’s greatest challenges. It’s this spirit that animates the album – one of finding somehow finding good in people even when they’re at their worst. By combing the band’s trademark lyrical style with an impeccably-executed expansion of their musical palate, Transcendental Youth not only holds its own among latter day Mountain Goats records but also further solidifies Darnielle’s position as one of the premier songwriters going today. – John M. Tryneski

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