20. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
This time last year we would have told you that Against Me! was toast. Band members were leaving left and right. Release dates were being pushed back. Tours were being cancelled. They were a punk band making a concept album, and that almost never works out the way you want it to. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. All that turmoil resulted in one of the most powerful and personal records in a generation, an album that reframed the angst and anguish of Against Me!’s anarchist years, the confusion and questioning of their major label foray, and their chaotic hiatus as an amazing document of complex struggle. It also features the band’s strongest songwriting yet — Grace’s razor sharp insight and righteous indignation haven’t been this catchy since their days of sleeping on floors and Reinventing Axl Rose. There is a platonic ideal for what punk rock can and should make a listener feel, and Grace and Company nail it and nail it hard.
19. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
Mac DeMarco is many things to many people — critics’ darling, stoner heartthrob, affable goofball and a performer who could very well lead the world’s best cover band if he wanted to (you should hear him do Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”). But above all he’s a knockout of a songwriter, as evident in the stunning array of pop janglers on his third album, Salad Days. The eleven songs on this Polaris Prize-nominated set largely continue the breezy and easy vibe of 2012’s 2, but with a touch more sophistication and nuance, yielding some of his best songs yet, including the gorgeously grooving “Brother” or the bold, synth-laden gem “Passing Out Pieces.” DeMarco shows off an impressive evolution here, but without shedding any of his previous releases’ scruffy charm. Salad Days goes down easier than an ice-cold PBR.
18. Lee Ann Womack: The Way I’m Livin’
Those concerned that a seven year layoff would find Lee Ann Womack in diminished facilities need not have worried. She knocks it out of the park on 13 impeccably chosen covers that place her exquisite vocals in contexts that display a wide emotional range and pure vocal control. Co-producer (and Womack’s husband) Frank Liddell crafts the sound to each track, shifting from gutsy swamp rock to unexpected but expertly placed full orchestration on the epic title cut. The singer has near perfect phrasing, using the catch in her voice to push the tunes forward or emphasize a thought. It’s the rare artist who can take others’ material and improve on the original, but that’s Womack’s M.O. and she makes it look easy. She digs deep into the singer/songwriter songbook too, unearthing off-the-radar gems from unheralded rootsy artists such as Chris Knight, Julie Miller, Adam Wright, Mindy Smith and two from Bruce Robison. Call it the comeback of the year. Let’s hope her next album doesn’t take as long.
17. The Felice Brothers: Favorite Waitress
On their follow up to 2011’s divisive, occasionally challenging Celebration, Florida, the Felice Brothers decided to stick to their tried-and-true formula and play things a bit safer. The result, Favorite Waitress, contains some of the best songs the band has produced since their career defining albums in the late aughts. The album is bookended by two tracks–“Bird on a Broken Wing” and “Silver in the Shadow”– that capture the band’s off-kilter, dark pastoral romanticism as well as anything they’ve ever recorded. Loose, unhinged hoedowns like “Cherry Licorice” and “Lion” perhaps owe a debt to the group’s tragically under-the-radar, semi-official 2012 collection of folk traditionals and ancient-sounding originals God Bless You Amigo.But the band hasn’t forgotten about the electronic flourishes and off-kilter experimentations of Celebration: the album’s clear highlight, “Saturday Night,” which is driven by a droning synth riff and a muttering lead vocal from bassist Christmas Clapton, wouldn’t exist had the band not taken some risks the last time around. We’re grateful they did.
16. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
One of the year’s most ambitious albums, Perfume Genius’ Too Bright sees the thirty-something Mike Hadreas exploring not just new sonic territory, but venturing far more deeply into the introspective, confessional tone for which he’s come to be known since releasing debut album Learning in 2008. Too Bright is aggressive, angry even, a stark departure from the pretty, gently cooed piano ballads of his first two albums. Hadreas’ newfound sense of defiance, rendered most vividly on first single “Queen” (a track dripping with confident sarcasm, its centerpiece the line, “No family is safe when I sashay”) and noise rocker “My Body,” comes, quite literally, from within, as most songs come back to one subject: the body. No stranger to the difficulties the body can present, Hadreas channels his complicated feelings towards his own into one a gorgeous, singalong-worthy “fuck you” of an album.
15. Conor Oberst: Upside Down Mountain
Making the transition from wunderkind to respected veteran is never an easy one in music, even for the most talented artists. For Conor Oberst, relinquishing for long periods of time his status as indie-rock’s most eloquent oversharer was his way of accomplishing this. By occasionally burying himself in a sea of genre experiments and side projects to cleanse his palette, he’s able to occasionally emerge from under those guises for a more pointed singer-songwriter statement every now and again. Upside Down Mountain is one of those statements, a dispatch on the “ennui of our times,” as Oberst puts it in one song (and, really, who else could pull off a phrase like that?) It is also one of his most consistently rewarding efforts since the heady early records. Conor sounds more relaxed than ever before, even as his lyrics suggest that consistent comfort in these turbulent times is nothing but a pipe dream.
14. Lera Lynn: The Avenues
Lera Lynn used to put her voice further out front on her recordings, as you’d expect from a torchy roots-pop singer. Somewhere along the way, though, she started playing with other possibilities, other sonic silhouettes, finally arriving at the alluring elusivesness captured on this year’s 11-song set The Avenues. Now her sultry alto is swathed in moony steel guitar and the ever-so-gentle swinging and sighing of a countrified jazz club combo. What she’s done is spin solitary confessions into an immersive, sensual experience, which is no small feat.
13. Robert Ellis: The Lights from the Chemical Plant
While contemporaries like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell have received accolades for music that showcases two of alt-country’s biggest voices, it’s Robert Ellis’ finely-honed sense of understatement that makes his most recent album one of the year’s best. The sparse, tightly wound arrangements on The Lights from the Chemical Plant, produced by Jacquire King, allow breathing room for Ellis’ gentle voice to spin tangled yarns about the trials and tribulations of small town life, no detail (including a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper on “TV Song”) too small to escape his trained, unassuming eye. Ellis’ least traditionally country offering to date, Chemical Plant would be just as at home among records by Simon & Garfunkel, making his cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” as fitting a choice as he could have made. The Lights from the Chemical Plant is the year’s quietest triumph, one that doesn’t need to be loud to be heard.
12. Ty Segall: Manipulator
We knew that Ty Segall was going to have a breakout year when our grunge-loving 20 year-old intern boldly declared that Ty Segall had “totally sold out!” When pressed as to why or how Segall had sold out, her only response was “it’s so…clean,” with the kind of sure-footed disdain that can only be mustered by a music-critic-in-training. What our padawan was mistaking for a commercial move was infact the hyperactive electric warrior shifting gears from hyper-productive psychedelic prodigy to all-growed-up glam-rock guitar god. That Segall only released one album this year — down from from what seems like eighteen albums a week — is news enough, but the massive jump in songcraft, focus and texture is worth the price of admission. While our intern, bless her lil’ hipster heart, might be disappointed that Segal isn’t so scrappy these days, we see this as a sign that the dude isn’t going to burn out any time soon. Which, let’s face it, was a real possibility for a minute there.
11. Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love To London
On the cover of Give My Love to London, Marianne Faithfull exhales a drag of smoke, her head almost appearing to float separately from her body in a photograph that looks like a still from Blue Velvet. It’s an appropriate image, one that perfectly captures the ethereal, nearly mythical mood of the album, her twentieth solo release of her fifty-year career. Despite a diverse array of collaborators that ranges from Steve Earle (on the title track) to Nick Cave (“Late Victorian Holocaust”), Give My Love to London is one of Faithfull’s most authoritative collections, one that cements her status as a living legend without resigning her to the creative stagnancy that so often afflicts artists who have been putting out music for even half as long as she. If Give My Love to London is any indication, Faithfull still has a fruitful career ahead of her, several chapters left to be written in what has been, so far, one hell of a mythology.