As I am writing this the day after the NBA Draft, I’ve decided to break my favorite albums into tiers. These are my current contenders for Album of the Year. Dig in.
TIER 1: THE FAVORITE
Sun Kil Moon: Benji (Caldo Verde)
Not a lot of people make their greatest album at age 47. Of course, the difficulty of that feat is compounded when you have a back catalogue as essential as Mark Kozelek. I’ll probably need at least five years to decide whether the near-perfect, Benji, will age like the seminal Rollercoaster, Ghosts of the Great Highway, or Songs for a Blue Guitar. Hell, last year’s Mark Kozelek & Desertshore, an album nobody seemed to give a shit about, was my second favorite album of last year. Suffice it to say, the former Red House Painter has previous.
But the fact that I (and many others) am even considering its place in the Koz’s canon means Benji is one hell of an album. It is. Its 11 songs set a new standard in musical storytelling. Over his trademark, masterful mostly nylon-stringed pickin’, the Ohio native digs into his past, weaving insightful, poetic narratives about the ensemble cast that has stumbled into his life. Yes, he almost always starts at the end. But if you think this album is only focused on death, you aren’t listening carefully. This is an album about life. It’s about finding depth and beauty in the tiny lives we live and the deaths we die. If you ever wondered whether anything we do has any meaning, give Benji a spin, and see if you can’t be convinced.
TIER 2: THE CONTENDERS
How to Dress Well: What is this Heart? (Weird World)
One of the (many) great things about Tom Krell’s unforgettable debut, Love Remains, is that its architect was shrouded in mystery. We had a name, but there was no face, no printed lyrics, and hardly a clear, human voice under all that sonic mist. Like watching a gripping drama through drawn curtains, it was beautiful but sometimes totally incomprehensible.
Now, four years later, the curtains haven’t only opened. Krell has stuck his head out the window and invited us into his bedroom to flip through his dream book and read all the letters under his bed. The result is a masterpiece of craft and bravery, as the Chicago resident leads us on an arresting journey through his myriad influences (pre-release mixtape, NO WORDS TO SAY, is essential listening), psyche, and desire to understand the things that make us most human. A fucking knockout.
August Alsina: Testimony (Def Jam)
While the critics have mostly ignored the New Orleanian’s first proper LP, Testimony is one of the best debuts I’ve heard in a long time. Anyone with ears can appreciate his vocal talent, but he’s one of the rare vocalists who also brings serious songwriting and storytelling chops to the table. Really, it’s that storytelling that really sets him apart. For a 21 year-old, he has a bewildering array of stories to tell. Whether he’s dealing with the death of his brother (“Testify”), being homeless (“Right There”), or admitting his flaws as a lover (“You Deserve”), Alsina’s honesty and erudite perspective is a breath of fresh air in a scene where those kinds of feelings are at a premium.
Anybody who has successfully navigated such pitfalls better have a buoyant, resilient spirit, and the Radio Killa has that in spades. He attacks every topic with a weightless swagger, manifested by his effortless tenor. He is as adept at crafting club bangers (last year’s monster hit, “I Luv This Shit”), as he is classic love songs (“Kissin’ On My Tattoos”), gospel-tinged numbers (“Benediction”), moody strip club cuts (“Get Ya’ Money”), and feelingz-free boner jams (“No Love”). Hell, even the clumsy, Kellz-ian raunch of “Porn Star” works, even though it should be a disaster. Debut albums are meant to introduce you to an artist, and Testimony tells me that Alsina is one of the most talented new R&B singers in recent memory and one who will be around for years to come.
Future: Honest (Epic/Free Bandz)
It’s easy to forget how different hip-hop was in April 2012, when Nayvadius “Future” Wilburn released his audacious, influential debut, Pluto. When it dropped, nothing, I mean nothing, sounded like it. He was initially derided for not being a non-lyrical, non-singing (UGH AUTOTUNE) sensitive thug, who wasn’t really enough of anything to move the needle. However, those who listened closely found that Pluto was the sound of an infinitely creative, sonically curious artist who had the balls to deal openly with his feelings.
Two years later, everybody sounds like Future. What does the consummate outsider do when he becomes Empire? Just keep doing you. Honest still sounds like an album only Wilburn could make, highlighting his elastic voice, evocative songwriting, and singular personality. In fact, the only clunkers on the lean, sharp 12-song set are the ones where he sounds least like himself, namely the just-ok, radio-rap-by-numbers “Move That Dope” and the forced Andre 3000 collab, “Benz Friendz” (Whatchutola). Its best, most Future moment is saved for last. On gorgeous closer, “Blood, Sweat, Tears,” where Wilburn free associates a heartfelt confessional about how he got here and where he’s going. At this point, it seems like the 4.67 billion miles to Pluto is merely a rest stop on an even greater journey.
TIER 3: THE FRINGE CONTENDERS
The War on Drugs: Lost In The Dream
With song titles like, “Disappearing,” “Suffering,” and “In Reverse,” it doesn’t take a genius to decipher that the man behind The War on Drugs’ third LP might have been going through a bit of a tough time. Surprise, surprise, frontman Adam Granduciel spent much of the early process going through a break-up, and goddamn, you can feel it. That said, this is far from a sad-sack affair, as Lost in the Dream poignantly and deftly captures the range of emotions you go through when you have to start over. While there may be precious little lyrical light to be found, the Philly native’s warm synths and cleansing guitar work act as a sort of sonic flashlight, reminding you that there is always light just around the corner. The result is an affecting post-mortem, that feels more like a refueling than a dead end.
Lewis: L’Amour (Light in the Attic)
Light In The Attic’s reclamation of the forgotten Canadian singer-songwriter’s only recorded LP (originally put out in 1983) was one of the fascinating stories of the year. We may never learn anything about the man who created it, but now, at least, we can celebrate his achievement. Though it is oft-compared to Springsteen’s Nebraska (probably one of the ten best LPs of all-time), I see it as a really singular album, like a musical message in a bottle that just washed ashore one day. Lewis’ hushed, sometimes unintelligible vocals are unforgettable, especially when paired with this caliber of arrangements, ripe with transportative synths and impeccable finger-picked guitar. It’s an artifact that we are damn lucky to have.
Copeland: Because I’m Worth It (self-released)
It takes Inga Copeland all of two minutes of her proper debut LP to reintroduce us to her Inga-ness. First track, “Faith OG X,” opens with lurching, delicious dollops of sub-bass. Just when it sounds like the beat’s going to kick in, a piercing, high-pitched tone materializes, leaving the rest of the song a painful experience to get through. Even on the most streamlined, digestible album of her career, the ex-Hype Williams member wants to challenge you. The rest of the disc’s seven tracks highlight her singular sound and prodigious talent. Because I’m Worth It somehow manages to sashay into nearly all corners of the musical spectrum (sometimes in just one song) without ever feeling disjointed or slapped together. It’s a rare trait that she (and her ex-partner in crime, Dean Blunt) has carried with her for her whole career. We have never had any clue where she is going next, but wherever it is, we know she’ll bring her Inga-ness with her.
Ricky Eat Acid, Three Love Songs (Orchid Tapes)
You’d be hard pressed to find an artist who has wielded more influence over music than Aubrey Drake Graham, and that influence doesn’t end in hip-hop. Take, Maryland-based bedroom producer, Sam Ray. If it wasn’t for the incredible, tongue-twisting Drake sample he employed in “In My Dreams We’re Almost Touching,” his gorgeously esoteric debut album would have likely never made its way into my earbuds. Lucky for me, it did, because Three Love Songs is an album that is alive like few others: a collage of sonic polaroids, dusty backroads, and fire-and-brimstone preachers. These days, few albums have such an engulfing quality, drawing you into a 360-degree environment in the way that great films, literature, and TV do. Though the story is challenging, opaque, and quite creepy at first glance, successive listens will draw you deeper into Ray’s fascinating, murky world, revealing an underbelly of resplendent light, understanding, and love just below the surface.
Real Estate, Atlas (Domino)
There are very few bands who start their career with three great albums, but even fewer of those groups have gotten better with each successive LP. The Brooklyn-based quintet’s exquisite third LP puts them in that rarified air, thanks to their understated songwriting mastery and signature lush guitarwork. Real Estate albums have always sounded brilliant, but none has said as much as Atlas. Lyricist/principle vocalist Martin Courtney is recently married and is about to have a child, and instead of focusing on nostalgia and growing up, he turns his focus to the present tense, writing articulately about the fears of commitment that so many of us share. Songs like “How Might I Live?” and “Crime” are dripping with self-doubt and anxiety, and “Talking Backwards” deals with struggling to communicate in a frayed relationship. No matter how deep Courtney goes, he is always balanced by his band’s light, breezy arrangements, which (as music does in real life) keeps things from going off the rails. Yes, there’s darkness on the edge of everything, but there’s more than enough light to balance it out.
TIER 4: THE STRONG PLAYOFF TEAMS
Young Thug x Bloody Jay: Black Portland (self-released)
Collaborative albums (i.e.,Watch the Throne, Ferrari Boyz, Like Father Like Son, The Best of Both Worlds) rarely become more than the sum of their parts and almost always yield little more than the hot single or two. However, like he has in most aspects of his life, Young Thug proves the outlier. His mixtape with the similarly iconoclastic ATLien, Bloody Jay, is a consistently explosive collection that celebrates both artists’ spastic, exhilarating styles. There aren’t many who can keep up with Thugger, but Bloody Jay proves to be up to the challenge.
Wild Beasts: Present Tense (Domino)
Four records in, the Lake District quartet have established themselves as one of the most distinctive groups in music. Their Wikipedia page lists them under a whopping nine different genres, and while there’s some truth in all of them, none of the qualifiers come close to encapsulating their nuanced, singular sound. Most conversations about Wild Beasts center around frontman Hayden Thorpe’s warbling falsetto, but that isn’t the only thing that makes them stand out. Musically, Present Tense is focused on building moods rather than structures. The utilize washes of synth, churning guitars, and deft percussion to match the dramatic timbre of Thorpe’s graceful interplay with Tom Fleming’s vulnerable baritone. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s taken them four albums to absolutely nail it. We’re lucky they have.
Kyle Bobby Dunn: Kyle Bobby Dunn & The Infinite Sadness (Students of Decay)
As is true in modern life, it’s hard to be quiet in today’s music world. Artists have roughly 2.3 seconds to catch the ear of potential fans, and if you don’t make your point loudly and quickly, it is going to be real tough to get heard. However, that hasn’t discouraged Montreal ambient/drone composer, Kyle Bobby Dunn. His warm, exquisite double album is among the quietest releases of the year, but if given the proper time, it will open itself up in a way that few albums will. Built around his aqueous, endlessly looped guitar, the delightfully-titled Infinite Sadness bobs up and undulates through two engulfing, disarming hours. If you decide to go, it will gently draw you out into its calm, soothing waters, which are also vast and deep.
YG: My Krazy Life (CTE/Def Jam)
A couple weeks before YG dropped his excellent debut LP, he released a star-studded trailer full of some of the biggest artists in rap (A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Young Jeezy, Rich Homie Quan) dropping a dizzying array of praise and superlatives on the rising 24 year old. I remember sort of scratching my head like, “damn, how did this dude get these guys to go that deep?” The answer? My Krazy Life is a fuckin’ monster. It’s been years since an artist has distilled the classic West Coast/LA experience and sound as well the Compton native does here. Kendrick and the Black Hippies are great, but they don’t embrace that vibe quite like YG does. Super producer DJ Mustard is the perfect sidekick, lacing his signature bounce to most of the album’s 14 tracks. The West Coast has been waiting a long time for an artist to bring the good times back, and YG is just the man to do it.
Owen Pallett, In Conflict (Domino)
The Canadian composer/songwriter’s music is almost always spoken about in staid, almost academic terms. While his harmonic construction remains of an incredibly high caliber, his fourth LP features some of the strongest, most emotive songwriting of his career. He’s always been a bit of a chameleonic musician — tough to get to know — but In Conflict is by far the clearest window we’ve had to the man behind the violin. Don’t let its pre-release billing “concept album on mental illness” fool you. It’s far from the scholastic, faceless experience that the description would make it seem. Pallett writes with great depth and bravery about alcoholism (“The Riverbed”), inter-generational intimacy (stand-out “The Passions”), and having children (“I Am Not Afraid”). Its most arresting moment comes on center-piece, “The Secret Seven,” a rumination on the tragic suicide of Rutgers student and fellow violinist, Tyler Clementi. When Pallett mournfully sings “It don’t get better/ The hunger, even back in his arms,” he may be nominally singing to someone else, but it’s clear that he’s sharing parts of himself he never has before.
Ana Caprix, For Seven Nights This Island is Ours (self-released)
Though the London producer remains anonymous, his (I think) debut LP is chock full of personality and character. Along with pop re-constructionists Doss and the PC Music camp, Caprix crafts music that lives in the netherworld between the cheesy and the brilliant. It’s easy to get turned off by the Emoji artwork and the silly song titles — “:))” is an absolute beauty — but the record is far from a joke. Caprix has a knack for crafting moving, electo/trancey soundscapes that also don’t take themselves too seriously. Like a lot of of internet culture, it’s hard to tell where the samples end and the original work begins, and it seems like that is by design. Some will feel uncomfortable with it, but you shouldn’t fret. It’s just the Internet, y’all.