By: Chris Azzopardi*/Sepcial to TRT—
10. Arcade Fire, Reflektor
Winning the big daddy of Grammys for The Suburbs didn’t just change Arcade Fire’s career – an Album of the Year trophy will do that – but it also, in part, changed their sound. The Canadian avant-gardes went bolder and older, harking back to the late ’70s for a complex and myth-inspired take on rebirth, post-love and societal standards. The concepts are vast, sure, but so is the sound. Reflektor is a sonic behemoth, where the band trots out their choral wallops for the liberating twosome “Afterlife” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” tracks that rank as some of Arcade Fire’s best. The rocking “Joan of Arc” cautions that, “If you shoot, you better hit your mark.”Reflektor gets it in the bull’s-eye.
9. Kanye West, Yeezus
So about that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian video – it gets better. The music on Yeezus – including the inspiration for Kim and Kanye’s awkward whatever-that-was on a motorcycle, “Bound 2” – is the most effectively delirious, biggity work of the rapper’s already delirious, biggity career. He’s angry and horny, he’s delusional and deranged; he’s everything you love to hate about Kanye West. And yet, he’s still a mastermind in the beat department, producing some of his most vanguard tracks via a palette of punk rock and new wave – hip-hop takes a backseat – that’s more maniacal than its creator.
8. James Blake, Overgrown
When James Blake sings, his soulful croon washing over you like water in a warm bath, you’re helpless. That sexy thing he does will sweep you away. _Overgrown_, the follow-up to his 2011 debut, is a seductive and magically poignant head trip where gospel and R&B inspire the English producer’s minimalist approach to electronica. Basically, these compositions won’t get you dancing, but hey, they’ll probably get you laid. Sultry to the touch with its bottoming bass and synth progression, “Life Round Here” is a musical boner that transports you all the way to a magical place of … ah, gotta go. Bye.
7. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe
Face it, no one does synth-pop like non-Americans, where those Swedes and them Brits know what’s up when it comes to crunking. But don’t forget the Scottish: Chvrches, a trio hailing from Glasgow, have been rolling out deliciousness since 2012, eventually culminating into The Bones of What You Believe, where the icicles of lyrical woe melt all over balmy electro anthems. “Recover,” a gem of exhilarating ’80s-fashioned electronica with Robyn-type sensitivity, is big, booming and danceable – and it’s also a facade. That’s hurt you hear in the fragility of Lauren Mayberry’s Kate Bush-like voice. Her pain, our gain.
6. Haim, Days Are Gone
One of the best pop albums of this year wasn’t from Gaga, wasn’t from Katy, wasn’t from Britney. It was from Haim. And who is that, you might ask? An underwear brand? Not exactly, though they may motivate you to dance in yours. They’re three geeky sisters from L.A. who obviously live for the ’90s and let that era’s sonic radness wash over a spirited sound so addicting it should probably be illegal. With that punchy hip-hop fever and those humdinger melodies that go down as easy as ice tea on a hot day, Haim is the modern-day answer to everything good having to do with a brilliant and bygone era in music.
5. Jason Isbell, Southeastern
It’s only his fourth solo LP, but when people look back at the highs of Jason Isbell’s career, Southeastern will be way up there. How does it get better than this – an earthy, from-the-gut triumph that already sounds like a classic? Reflecting on the hard knocks – goodbyes, addiction and domestic abuse – and the soul-country crooner’s own redemptive state with the sharpest of confessional narratives (“A heart on the run / keeps a hand on the gun / can’t trust anyone”), this deeply personal work from the former Drive-By Truckers member taps into his soul, his emotions and his heart – and then it taps into yours.
4. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
It’s true that The National’s latest is slow and slumberous, like a walk that never ends. But keep going and you’ll get somewhere. You’ll get to some of the most achingly beautiful melodies you’ve ever heard, like the lonely lament “I Need My Girl.” “Don’t Swallow the Cap” lets some light into the darkness, which is really where lead singer Matt Berninger likes to sulk. When he closes with “Hard to Find,” a wistful daydream, it doesn’t get any better for him. It does for us, though. The coda is a quiet reverie that’s just about the prettiest thing you’ve ever heard. As for Trouble, let it sink in. Play it over and over. It’ll find you.
3. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
Tegan and Sara … pop stars? It happened this year, when the songful, great-hair-having lesbian twins busted through the indie barrier, got lost in all the nostalgia of their ’90s records and turned out Heartthrob, a confectionary listen of Greg Kurstin-produced synth-rock with enough trademark touchy-feelies (they’re still sad, so that’s good) you’ll hardly be concerned that the duo has shared the stage with Taylor Swift. From the cotton-candy rush of the Cyndi Lauper-esque “Closer” to their pained plea of rejection – the lovelorn-yet-liberating “How Come You Don’t Want Me” – Heartthrob is the pop marvel no one saw coming.
2. Patty Griffin, American Kid
It’s tough to find any fault with Patty Griffin’s artful Americana, except that there’s never enough of it. And now she’s gone and spoiled us: The “lost” LP, Silver Bell, finally got its official release, and her stunning American Kid used grief and pain as a crux to illustrate, quite poignantly, the experience of letting go. It’s raw and transformative, effecting a truth that Griffin and her inimitable voice have delivered since her debut release 17 years ago. The “Faithful Son” who went his whole life underappreciated saddens, the tale of a “Wild Old Dog” is a spiritual godsend, and “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone” conjures classic Judy Garland. That’s how legendary Griffin sounds on American Kid.
1. Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
It’s about time country music got their Lady Gaga. Only 25 and easily the most outspoken of her peers, Kacey Musgraves modernized the politics of dated tradition with her major-label debut’s “Follow Your Arrow” – reminding folks that it’s fine to smoke pot and be gay (“love who you love”) – and “Merry Go ’Round,” the launch single that gave stark insight to small-town living (it’s not all it’s cracked up to be). She even surprises with a little ditty about casual lust, “It Is What It Is,” the saddest sex song you’ll ever hear. Waitress and mobile home stories have heart and humor, but Musgraves also has the simple, old-timing sound to match her impressive wordplay. All the talk of her being “the future of country music”? Yeah, believe it.
*Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.