songsLykke_Li_-_I_Never_Learn25. Lykke Li – “Never Gonna Love Again” [Atlantic]

The product of a catastrophic breakup, I Never Learn contains the saddest music Lykke Li has recorded to date, making it one of the most heartbreaking records of the year. Yet despite the specter of loss that casts black and lovely shadows over all of these songs, I Never Learn is also a staggeringly beautiful document of that heartbreak. Li ramps up the theatrical melodrama on ballad “Never Gonna Love Again”—a trend that continues throughout the album—but her clichés sulk in a way that only magnifies the sincerity fueling her grand gestures. Despite her sentiments being intensely private, Li revels in that pain and turns in a performance as triumphant as it is wounded. Walls of reverb turn “Never Gonna Love Again” into a broad chamber that focuses that emotion, Li’s anguished anthem soaring above the swirl of snares and murky key figures. Love still hurts, and “Never Gonna Love Again” is about embracing the drama of it all and channeling it into spectacle. – Michael Merline

stay-gold24. First Aid Kit – “Stay Gold” [Columbia]

The lush pop harmonies are woven together with the pensive intricacy of a finger-picked acoustic guitar and both are cosseted by a warm string arrangement. It’s a sweet blend of classic American folk rock and ‘70s easy listening, recalling sun-dappled California bands and Karen Carpenter’s sweet vulnerability in equal measure. The Söderberg sisters may hail from Stockholm, but this song should qualify them for musical citizenship here.

The song takes its inspiration from a moody Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and the lyrics reflect his fatalism, but First Aid Kit still makes the case for hope and action in face of entropy. In general, pop music is either rooted in denial—denial of aging and mortality, denial that things fall apart—or it embraces nihilism. “Stay Gold” is refreshing for its philosophical perspective, acknowledging that our wishes can’t all come true, but that, “there is only forward, no other way.” More importantly, they’ve taken that bittersweet message and made a nuanced, beautiful song. – Jester Jay Goldman

Transgender_Dysphoria_Blues23. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” [Red Distribution]

Laura Jane Grace had a habit of overwriting on the old Against Me! records as she tried to cram as many words and syllables into her songs as she could. However, for this—the first song off of the band’s first album since Grace came out as transgender—the thesaurus takes a backseat in favor of visceral, plainspoken honesty. Though Grace seems to be reminding herself of the insults and slurs that will sadly come her way, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is more anthemic than anything else. It’s Grace owning this new identity, taking every good and bad thing that comes with it because it is who she really is. Grace sounds reborn, both as a person and as a musician; it’s certainly the liveliest Against Me! have sounded since they opened an album with the searing protest screed “Miami.” This one may last longer in the minds of music fans, though; the conviction with which Grace tells her story makes for an experience that resonates. – Kevin Korber

a-little-gos22. Swans – “A Little God in My Hands” [Young God]

Since their 2010 reunion, Swans have been cranking their sonic meat grinder and churning out some of the most wickedly delicious oddities in music today. Vaunted for their incomparable live performances, Swans can be both sprawling and succinct on their records. While the highlight of 2012’s The Seer was the 34-minute title track, the standout of this year’s To Be Kind release clocks in at a relatively tidy seven minutes. That makes “A Little God in My Pocket” no less gargantuan in its impact. An ominous, loping beat shambles along, providing the backing for Michael Gira’s snarling vocal, which is multi-tracked to make a singular voice become legion. There’s mention of “A pink little lamb, on a granite slab” and a creeping black chasm, while Gira also cries out “Oh shit and blood/ Forever love!” to set the ink black tone. By the time a difficult to decipher chant emerges on top of everything else, the track is chilling in its disorienting bleakness, and another triumph for the grim post-punkers. – Josh Goller

Ought-More-Than-Any-Other-Day21. Ought – “Today, More Than Any Other Day” [Constellation]

I’m unsure why Tim Beeler has an obsession over the differences between 2% and whole milk, but who am I to question his methods when he makes a song this great? Beeler, along with the other mad gentlemen of Ought rip through “Today, More Than Any Other Day” like the exhilarating rollercoaster it is. The song sounds like prime Gang of Four, if those bastards had brightened up for half a second. The way the song builds is brilliant, with Beeler’s hushed voice slowly growing into a wild-eyed yell as his guitar picks up the tempo before crashing into the main section. Beeler’s sudden motivational speaker on speed vocals holds it all until Ben Stidworthy’s oddly hypnotic bass takes over the bridge. The groove moves wildly, and Beeler’s shouting is anthemic enough on the ending “TODAY TOGETHER TODAY TOGETHER” to rouse even the sleepiest of hearts. Even “I am prepared to make a decision between 2% and whole milk” sounds absolutely vital. – Nathan Stevens

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