Future-Islands-SinglesFuture Islands— Singles (4AD Records)

Future Islands might be one of the first bands willed into popularity because of a meme, but crediting the success of Singles one Letterman performance would be selling this band short. The song they performed on Letterman, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” is an aching, beautiful piece of driving synth-pop that’s easily one of the best things in the band’s oeuvre. The rest of the album is a grand leap forward for a group that has hinted at bigger things for some time. Singles has the band focusing on what is arguably their greatest strength in Samuel T. Herring’s voice, and Herring repays that faith with one stirring performance after another. The band is eager to follow, backing Herring with bigger, more sweeping songs than ever before. If there was ever a group perfectly fit to craft melodrama into pop music, Future Islands is it. – Kevin Korber

tycho-awake1Tycho – Awake (Ghostly International)

For over a decade, Scott Hansen has built a growing base of electronic music and visual works via his blog ISO50. As the fervor for experimental electronic soundscapes reached new heights this year, Hansen introduced a more organic, human element to his fourth full-length effort as Tycho,Awake. The ambient vibe remains soul-wrenching, but Hansen and his workstation were no longer the sole force behind the project. With the support of Zac Brown (bass, guitar), Rory O’Connor (drums) and Joe Davancens (bass, keyboard, synthesizer), Awake is saturated with more emotion than most of today’s Top 40. Along with The Emancipator Ensemble and Baths, Hansen is at the forefront of a new indie-ambient renaissance. – Derek Staples

St-Vincent-album-coverSt. Vincent – St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic)

Annie Clark was one of the most polarizing musical guests on “Saturday Night Live” in recent memory. Fans heralded St. Vincent’s enthralling season finale performance, while the internet was atwitter with snide comments from those who simply had no idea what they were seeing. On her self-titled fourth album, the wild-haired, silken-voiced Clark shreds with the best of them, crafting moments both frantic and introspective. St. Vincent’s production is slicker than anything Clark has done before. “Digital Witness” showcases Clark’s occasional Talking Heads influences (she did, after all, team with David Byrne on 2012’s Love This Giant collaboration), “Birth in Reverse” throws down an infectious guitar frenzy and “I Prefer Your Love” is both gorgeous and iconoclastic. With Annie Clark’s star on the rise, there’s little doubt that the next time she appears on national television a lot more people will know the name St. Vincent. – Josh Goller

rashadIsaiah Rashad— Cilvia Demo (Top Dawg Entertainment)

Isaiah’s Top Dog Entertainment label-mates command more attention with their dis tracks and extroverted antics, but Rashad is more relatable. His flow is instantly familiar, taking you back to those hip-hop tapes that warmly spun on crappy car stereo tape decks. The record’s title is the pet name he had for his old Honda Civic, but the tracks ring clearly through both modern speakers and a contemporary lens. Alongside name-checks to No Limit Soldiers, a time “Back when Juve was the great”, he drops slick Walter White references and rewind-worthy rhymes. Over laid-back beats, listeners get homespun tales spawned from a half-dead hatchback and an album worthy of the repeat button. – Brian Hodge

benjiSun Kil Moon- Benji (Caldo Verde)

The first time I listened to Benji, I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was hearing; Mark Kozelek’s lyrics are straightforward accounts of everything from deaths in the family to childhood days and odes to mom, dad, and Newtown victims. But the details, imagery, and honesty were almost shocking and original. On subsequent listens, I can’t stop the tears from flowing, not on “Carissa” or “I Would Die Without My Mother’s Love,” and certainly not on “Pray For Newtown” or “Micheline.” But Benji is not just a wondrous album full of heartbreaking, autobiographical lyrics—it’s one of the best albums about mortality ever made. Each of these songs gives its stories power and grants each life resonance beyond its natural limits. You could mull over lyrics trying to ascertain geography or chronology, make a grander narrative out of them, or simply take them as vignettes that resonate not just because of the subject matter, but because of the masterful storytelling. Benji is heart-shattering and revelatory. – Forrest Cardamenis

sturgillSturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)

If modern country music is bankrupt of the soul and lyrical heft that traditionally defined the genre, Sturgill Simpson has figured out how to fill that void. Simpson’s second solo record, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, is full of drugs and psychedelic acid trips, cosmic visions, and an unrecognizable cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise,” packing in all things foreign to Top 40 radio country slop and most Nashville songsmiths. Simpson’s vocal similarities to Waylon Jennings combine with the record’s acid-washed instrumentals in a visionary, new-age take on outlaw country. More importantly, Simpson’s musings on traditional themes—weary ramblers, hard-earned love and bittersweet nostalgia—approach those tropes from unexpected angles. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music isn’t just a novel interpretation of classic ideas; this excellent sophomore record redefines the whole idea of what country can be. – Michael Merline

swans-to-be-kindSwans- To Be Kind (Mute/Young God)

We’re now three albums in since Swans returned from a 14-year hiatus. The Seer (2012) was an epic masterpiece that ran more than two hours and featured some of the band’s must punishing music. With the 10 new tracks that make up To Be Kind, Michael Gira and company again make music that is immediate and feels infinite. With songs that stretch well past the 10 minute mark, its center is the 34 minute “Bring the Sun”/”Toussaint L’Ouveture,” which unfurls with a hypnotic fury, moving across the record like a slow-churning hurricane. Some songs even recall the breakdown in the final section of “The End” by the Doors, unhinged tribal music beating its way into the psyche’s core. No other album this year puts you through such an experience as To Be Kind. You will be elated and exhausted by the time it’s over. – David Harris

ibibioIbibio Sound Machine—Ibibio Sound Machine (Soundway Records)

UK publications praised the self-titled debut of Afro-British outfit Ibibio Sound Machine earlier this year, but I’ve yet to see column inches stateside. It’s a shame: fronted by Nigerian-born Eno Williams, who sings in her family’s native Ibibio tongue, ISM brilliantly combine Ghanian highlife, Nigerian Afrobeat, electronic post-punk, funk and Hi-NRG disco into the dance album of the year. On “The Talking Fish (Asem Usem Iyak),” a burbling bassline lives up to the ichthyoid title as fat horns, spaced-out electronic tones and funk guitar compel one’s feet to move. “Uwa the Peacock (Eki Ko Unuen Uwa),” gently tests subwoofers with a low rumble livened only by Williams’ vocal and Spanish-esqueguitar. Only the gentle closer “Ibibio Spiritual” gives you a break, but otherwise this is one of the great records of the year, and a parallel-universe vision of what Talking Heads’ Fela/Eno period might have sounded like if George Clinton was their shepherd instead of David Byrne. – Jake Cole

arewethere.lpoutSharon Van Etten – Are We There (Jagjaguwar)

Sharon Van Etten has grown immeasurably as a songwriter, arranger and producer, and it all comes together in Are We There. The strong songwriting is lush, full and beautiful, led by Van Etten’s haunting croon, which sometimes descends to a rasp and always brings across the most incredible emotions. This is not antiseptic indie rock but rock music of the highest order, reminiscent of Stevie Nicks and other ’70s wailers without copying them. “Your Love is Killing Me” slides along to a blast of organ while “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” pulses with Phil Spector beats and Van Etten’s most melodic vocals yet. If you can’t find something to like in this music, then I’m sorry, because these are songs custom-built to connect with an audience, preferably one as wide as possible. – Robert Rubsam

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