Hear/Here: Snail Mail, Culture Abuse and more


Snail Mail – Lush

Lindsey Jordan’s debut album is a confident collection of indie rock that could fit well in any decade – they’re confident, full-bodied anthems that have endless playback. “Pristine” is an amazing example of this – “Is there any better feeling than coming clean?” I’m marveling how “Heat Wave” starts as kind of a dreamy ballad before it nosedives into a straight-from-1993 speaker blaster. “Let’s Find An Out” brings things down with its simple strums as does the breezy vocals of “Golden Dream”. It’s an instant classic from a young artist on her first full length. With Lush as an example, whatever Snail Mail shows a ton of potential. She’s already an artist without limit. That’s so exciting.

Culture Abuse – Bay Dream

A runaway album of the summer in so many ways. Listening to their 2016 debut Peach, you’d think it’s an entirely different band. In some ways, it is. Frontman David Kelling is singing a lot more here, and it shows. While Peach had plenty of sludgy, ugly riffs, in place there’s big, bright riffs about songs about being kind to the bugs (Bee Kind to the Bugs), the sweetness of “S’Why” with lyrics like “I feel you pushing me forward/To the place I wanna go/There is no melody sweeter” and the California pop of “Bluebird On My Shoulder”. It’s the sound of a band spreading its wings in a totally unexpected, totally welcome way. I mean, it’s all really good. Get on this train now. Culture City Rockers forever.

Also enjoying:

Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever – Hope Downs – Breezy, jangly Melbourne-based indie rock that I’m still unpacking.

The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE – A few requisite bangers, a nice way to cap off Lemonade and 4:44 but nothing totally major I think.

Flasher – Constant Image – D.C. punks from ex-Priests member Taylor Mulitz and others.

Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past – Great songwriter, “Short Court Style” is awesome.

Of course, the Wyoming sessions, too.

Pusha T – DAYTONA
Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Kanye West – ye
Nas – NASIR

Hear/Here: New Hop Along, Young Fathers, Kacey Musgraves and Wye Oak

Hop Along – Bark Off Your Head, Dog

Hop Along have been on a tear since the release of their 2012 debut, Get Disowned and came to proper prominence with 2015’s Painted Shut, a showcase of a young band coming into their own, and placing the extraordinary voice of singer/guitarist Frances Quinlan center stage. It’s a low-key classic in it’s own right, so the release of Bark Off Your Head, Dog comes with some high expectations. Happily, it doesn’t disappoint.

The nine-song collection adds some new hues to Hop Along’s rapidly kaleidoscoping sound – the rawboned riffs of the first single “How Simple,” the acoustic guitar and strings of the gorgeous “How You Got Your Limp” and the funky-mathy rhythms of “The Fox in Motion”. Then there’s some littler experiments: “What the Writer Meant” starts with brushed drums that break into a gorgeously power-pop chorus while “Look of Love” fucks with some serious psychadelic-era Beatles harmonies. Bark Off Your Head, Dog is album that pushes Hop Along forward, showing band striving to find what’s possible in their sound, opposed to making something that sounds like them. It makes sense – that’s never quite been their DNA. Hop Along sound a bit restless here, but that’s why it works. It’s very clear that Bark Off Your Head, Dog is just the tip of the iceberg.

Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

Every once and a while there will be an album that pretty much levels the musical plane, one that becomes an earworm in the most serious of ways, rendering everything else kind of secondary. For me, right now, that is “Cocoa Sugar” by Young Fathers.

It’s hard to classify exactly what genre the Edinburgh, Scotland-based group are, because they encompass so many different ones at once. It’s a little hip-hop, it’s a little indie rock, and then there’s some weird touches of R&B. They won the Mercury Prize in 2014 for their debut album Dead and were featured prominently on last year’s Trainspotting 2 soundtrack. “Cocoa Sugar” is a densely layered collection melding Gospel choirs, skitter-stop raps and Radiohead-inspired sound beds.

I keep coming back to it time and time again because I’m always hearing something a little different each time. There’s not really any sort of comparison I can make for it from anywhere. Listen to “In My View” for some burnout balladry, the buzzing aria of “Lord” or the narcotic daze of “Wow”. It all changes from song to song and it couldn’t come from anywhere else. Don’t sit on this record or this group. It’s an excellent record which centers them on the cusp of greatness. They’re building a hell of a case for it.



Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Let’s get it out of the way: Believe the hype. All of Kacey Musgraves’s records are the real deal – slices of contemporary country that don’t sound like shit and hint at something greater and more progressive. Hint no more. Golden Hour is Musgraves best and most fully realized record, one that transcends country, or any genre really, with the focus on crystalline songwriting, gorgeous arrangements and something entirely different with the startling disco bump of “High Horse”. It’s the defining career achievement of which there are already many moments that have had that mantle previously. Just don’t waste any more time not listening to it.

Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs

Wye Oak have never made the same record twice, and on The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, it’s not about to change. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack grow by leaps and bounds on each release, and this, their first proper studio album since 2014’s Shriek has them taking the synth heavy sounds of that record and Wasner’s excellent Flock of Dimes side project and bridging that with the hypnotic drum and guitars found on 2011’s classic Civilian in a way that sounds panoramic. “Lifer” sounds like a conservative synth track before it blows wide open into Wasner’s gargantuan guitar solo, while “Symmetry” sounds like a track from an 80’s action flick doused in nightmare fuel and lit ablaze. Wye Oak always make records worth checking out. Dig right in and stay for a while. This one is damn near untouchable.

Superchunk’s What a Time to Be Alive Handles the Turbulence with Confidence

The world feels like it’s coming apart at the seams, some new scandal or piece of terrible news hits daily, or sometimes with even more frequency. It takes more effort to simply keep up than it does just to be able to digest the news. The result is mind numbing. Then you look to find respite from these things. There’s music. Superchunk knows this well, and somehow they found a way to channel the rage and anxiety of this turbulent time in history into their 11th album, the sardonically titled What a Time To be Alive.

Since the band’s return to recording at the top of the decade after taking most of the ’00’s off, 2010’s Majesty Shredding reintroduced listeners to Superchunk as a punk band with power-pop leanings, but imbued with an immediacy that at times make them sound like a different band from their earlier years. This continues on the album’s opener, the title track, a cascading ripper which pretty much puts this administration in the crosshairs – “There’s a crooked line that runs/through every crease in this map/and you want to take us all the way back” singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan sings. There’s virtriol in his voice – by the time the chorus hits “the scum, the shame, the fucking lies/oh what a time to be alive”, there’s barely a moment to catch your breath.

Just as that song halts, the punk stomp of “Lost My Brain” begins. McCaughan echoes the sentiment felt by so many pretty early – “I surrendered to the flow of shit/I gave up all my all my sleep/and I didn’t learn anything from it”. It’s a sobering lyric, but the rhythm section of bassist Laura Ballance and drummer Jon Wurster are pummeling, keeping the band buoyant despite the desperation of the lyric. If it already wasn’t clear,”Lost My Brain” makes it crystal – this is an album about trying to make it day by day living under the Trump administration.

Yet, the record is hardly downcast. McCaughan is pissed, but many of the album’s angry statements are filtered through classic Superchunk – the hooky as hell earworm “Bad Choices” with guitarist Jim Wilbur’s zig-zag leads and the similarly catchy “Dead Photographers”. Among these is the soaring standout “Erasure,” which is like a Merge Records roster showcase with Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields guest on background vocals. What these songs all have in common is that Quicksilver energy and pitch perfect execution of a band who has played together for decades.

Perhaps that is what makes What a Time to be Alive a great record. Nearly thirty years in, Superchunk are not only still making music, but they’ve made a vital record that rivals even their classic material. It’s a near impossible task, yet they keep accomplishing it time and time again. Now, during a time where getting up every day means feeling like you have to brace yourself for something terrible, there’s a record that comes out swinging in the face of that ugliness. It’s an album referencing a time and a place that somehow feels timeless. Superchunk’s exuberance and confidence in pushing forward is a good example that everyone can learn from.

What a Time to Be Alive is out February 16 on Merge.

Favorite Songs of 2017 and Other Stuff

My Top Songs of 2017 playlist, favorite non-2017 discovery and Honorable Mention albums, as well as my Favorite Moments of 2017.

My Top Songs:

Also, 4:44 by Jay-Z.

Everything I Listened To:

I made a playlist for every month this year of everything I listened to individually (excluding albums). Check it out. This will have additions through December 31.

Favorite Non-2017 Discovery:

Silkworm – Lifestyle
Culture Abuse – Peach

Honorable Mention Albums:

Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder
Daddy Issues – Deep Dream
Thundercat – Drunk
Cory Branan – Adios
Jay Som – Everybody Works
Iron Chic – You Can’t Stay Here
Worriers – Survival Pop
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
Telethon – The Grand Spontanean
Arcade Fire – Everything Now

Other Stuff

Personal: Writing for Noisey, being published in an actual magazine writing about music for the first time in New Noise Magazine. All the cool opportunities through Riot Fest, VinylMnky, Scene Point Blank and others. Seeing Springsteen on Broadway. I think about it every day. Hamilton on New Year’s Day. Meeting musicians I admire all year long.

Travel: Louisville, Memphis, New York a few times, my first trip to Vegas (which I loved). Eau Claire for a quick weekend trip (It’s a cool little town!)

Health and Wellness: PRing my fourth 5K on the April 29 Race to Wrigley. Going to the chiropractor, massage and acupuncture for the first time in my life.

The Hold Steady: Two residencies in Chicago and Brooklyn. The Empty Bottle show is and will remain a great and perfect show in my memory. Stage invasion. Helping develop the coffee blend with Dark Matter is a personal sense of pride for me. Brooklyn, also fun, crazy busy as usual. Watching everyone freak out about “Entitlement Crew” and “Snake in the Shower” was awesome, too.

Wrestling: Witnessing Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate at NXT Takeover: Chicago, Finn vs. AJ, Cena vs. AJ at the Rumble. Good shows generally all year. I purchashed my first Bullet Club shirt. Found myself watching less this year than last, but it was still very enjoyable and match quality is so good these days.

Food: SO MANY great spots.

Chicago area: Mi Tocaya Antojería, Fat Rice, Wyler Road, MingHin Cuisine, Bleuroot, River Street Tavern, Proxi, Big Jones

Cleveland: Bakersfield Cleveland, Sokolowski’s University Inn, Mabel’s BBQ

Eau Claire: The Lakely

Grand Rapids area: Spanky’s Pizza

Las Vegas: China Poblano, Yellowtail Sushi

Louisville: Grale Haus, Milkwood, Steel City Pops

Memphis: Hog and Hominy, Tops BBQ, Catherine and Mary’s

New York: Frankel’s Delicatessen, Má Pêche

Music: Trash Pandas released an album this year called Apocalypse Nah. No one bought it. We were very tired and in a hot basement.

Shows

I saw a personal record 47 shows this year. Take a look.

Top Albums and Tracks of 2017

For someone who consumes a lot of music, I’m usually pretty late to the party on a lot of things, so it’s always hard for me to compile a year-end list. I’m giving it a go this year because I think there’s been a lot of important work done – not to mention some certifiable bangers coming out.

1. Daddy Issues – Deep Dream
I would start this out by noting that 2017 was a rough year for women, but that’s not true – it hasn’t been any more awful than previous years. The only difference is that this year we’re talking about it. Nashville power-trio Daddy Issues’ debut full-length Deep Dream is my album of the year because not only is it well-crafted, catchy grunge with lyrical context that has been sorely missing from women in rock, but also because their take-no-shit attitude is refreshing in an industry that has long told us to sit still and look pretty. (Or shut up and sing, if you’re a Dixie Chicks fan.)

It’s awesome to not only discover such angsty, grungey music being made by powerful women this year, but they’re also young, and I can’t wait to hear what they have for us next.

Best Song: Emily Maxwell’s “I’m Not,” written about her assault trauma and played by me ad nauseum this summer as I worked through the same.

2. Cayetana – New Kind of Normal
Without Daddy Issues, I never would have found Cayetana. Early in the year I tweeted, soliciting songs that people listen to when they need some cheering up, and Bass Jenna suggested “Am I Dead Yet?” by Cayetana. And boy, did this record hit me right where I needed it. I’ve been open about my own mental health struggles and search to feel “normal” for most of my adulthood, and this album hits the nail on the head. “Am I Dead Yet?” echoes exactly the thoughts I have when I’m in a depression pit, “Grumpy’s” encapsulates the anxieties I’ve long had around dating (“was I your friend or your drinking buddy, your first call or the understudy?”) and “Mesa” looks back on a relationship that had potential but ended. It’s a realistic look at what it’s like to be a woman trying to navigate mental illness and living the life you want.

Cayetana is hands down my favorite discovery of the year, and I am so lucky that I got to see them play. Highly recommend checking them out – they were very sweet as I almost fell over myself fangirling them as well.

Best Song: “Am I Dead Yet?” and “Grumpy’s”

3. Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
No surprise that Craig’s third solo album ranks highly on my list, so I won’t drone on about it for too long. It’s an amazing album with more instrumental depth than previous records (that flute though) and continues his tradition of being one of the best writers in the game.

Best Song: “Birds Trapped at the Airport”

3. Cory Branan – Adios
I never thought there would be a year where a Cory Branan record would land so far down my “best albums” list, but here we all are. When I saw Cory play last summer, he said that the new album was his “death” record – and I immediately perked up. For me, his dark songs (“Survivor Blues” and “Hold Me Down” from MUTT, specifically) have always been where his writing shines, so I went into Adios with high hopes. It delivered.

Sonically, it’s very diverse – from the 80’s synth of “Visiting Hours” to the southern blues take on “Walls, MS” or “Cold Blue Moonlight”‘s waltz – but it all fits together well. “The Vow” is some of his most personal songwriting, a tribute to his late dad that his wife finally convinced him to record, and the killer-cop song “Another Nightmare in America” that floored me the first time I heard it (and continues to affect me on every listen.) He brought back a track from an old Jon Snodgrass split with “Yeah So What?” and I’m taking that as a personal victory after years of shouting to hear it live.

Best Song: “Visiting Hours”

4. Kesha – Rainbow
Thank you, Saint Kesha.

When she dropped “Praying” out of nowhere, I think everyone in a ten-mile radius heard my shrieks of excitement and subsequent sobs after listening to it on repeat for a few hours. Her very public sexual assault trial against Dr. Luke (and the treatment and reaction of the label afterward) was perhaps the first time a lot of people were hearing about sexual misconduct in the music industry and as a precursor to #MeToo, her career stagnated as she wrestled with getting out from under working with and for her abuser. It’s impossible to listen to “Praying” and hear it as anything but an anthem for survivors.

Rainbow is still full of the traditional Kesha-style bangers: “Woman”, “Learn to Let It Go,” and “Bastards” are all empowerment anthems to dance around your room in the style of her past albums – but with a little more substance.

Best Song: “Praying”

5. The Menzingers – After the Party
True to form, I was a bit late to the Menzingers party. A few years ago a friend played them during a drive around Nashville and passed me the CD when I said I liked it, but I never listened to it again. Late last year when I heard “Lookers” for the first time, I immediately got on board. I turned 30 this year, so the album’s theme of “aging punks” does feel just a little on the nose, but I don’t mind a little pandering in my music.

(And I love being Midwestern, so anything that pays tribute to my great nation helps hold some weight for me.)

Best Song: “Lookers”

6. Chris Gethard – Career Suicide
This isn’t the type of album most people would expect to see here, but this was the Year of The Geth for me. For the uninitiated, Chris Gethard is a comedian and host of The Chris Gethard Show now on truTV, occasional actor, pro wrestling fan, and very outspoken about mental health. His stand-up special from last year, Career Suicide, is so named because he tracks back his illness, starting from when he was first starting to realize that something was wrong and that having suicidal thoughts wasn’t normal, and tracking through diagnoses, addiction, prescriptions and side effects, and how to start feeling better.

The special is available on Hulu, and I can’t recommend it highly enough (with the suggestion that it’s maybe best viewed on a Good Mental Health day.)

7. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Another band I was late to the train on, it took me a long time to get into them – and it wasn’t actually until I saw them live that my mind was changed. I love how big the guitars are, I love the energy of the live show, and the sing-along choruses on songs like “North South East West.” (Plus I love geography songs, so that’s really just hitting me where I live.) The shift in “Arc of Bar” gives a nearly-8 minute song a refreshing shift in tone, and “No Known Drink or Drug” is a great album closer, and one of the year’s most romantic rock songs.

Best Song: “North South East West”

8. Paper Tiger – In Other Words
If you’ve been around me for longer than five minutes, you will have heard the following words come out of my mouth: The Hold Steady, Daddy Issues, Cory Branan, Doomtree. Paper Tiger’s In Other Words was released this year, a full album version of four four-song EPs he put out over the course of a year. The first installment came out last year on the day Prince died, and while everyone else was blaring through his catalog, I was lost in In Other Words, Pt. 1. I described it as “musical Xanax,” and Paper Tiger continues his streak of releases that always make my year-end list.

Best Song: “Light Music”

9. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Potential controversial opinion: I think Jason Isbell is much better when he’s playing with the 400 Unit than his solo releases. While I take issue with the sequencing of The Nashville Sound (how do you not open with a song like “Anxiety”?) it’s a great Nashville rock album… and yes, I probably did just invent that genre.

Best Song: “Anxiety”

10. Penny and Sparrow – Wendigo
I discovered Penny and Sparrow a few years ago and their sparse, literary songs really resonated with me. 2017’s Wendigo sees them continue on with their tributes to Les Miserables and explore more complex musical compositions. It’s perfect music for cozy winter nights, so let Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke soothe your winter blues.

Best Song: “Smitten Pt. 2”

Favorite Songs:

Ten Albums That Made 2017 Worth It

I can’t think of a year in my life that has been defined by numb horror quite like 2017. Between mass shootings and exposures of our pop culture heroes as abusive creeps and the erosion of political norms, it feels like we’re running on empty, coasting on the fumes of whatever we had that made us great. All year, I’ve not stopped thinking about Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and how we’re living in the wreck of the past, fighting an oppressive machine force designed to eradicate all that is good and human.

But, lo, there are bright spots. I moved back to Virginia this year just in time to cast my “I’m-so-progressive-don’t-just-save-the-whales-elect-them” vote as part of a Democratic wave that took back the state. I spent election night feeling as if a dam had burst inside me and every ounce of joy I’ve thought forever lost this year was flooding into the world. We’re still in the shit, but now we’ve got some hope back. We’ve got some proof that we can make a difference again. We’re a T-800’s fist closing into a thumbs up despite being lowered down into molten steel.

So, it’s not all bad. In fact, some of 2017 has been really good; mostly it was the music. Oh man, the music. The music was good.

I’m happy to offer a list of ten albums that have sustained me in 2017. I told myself that I was going to make it through this year if it killed me and these albums carried me, excited me, crushed me, or swept me away when I needed it most.

Two caveats:

First, the best album released in 2017 was Hanson’s Middle of Everywhere, an incredibly thorough retrospective of their 25 years as a band. If you’ve missed out on Hanson, or if you’re still making the same joke from 1997 about how cute those girls are, you owe it to yourself to get this record and experience a rock group that has been at the top of their game for decades. If you get a chance to see the Tulsa trio live, do not pass it up: they are one of the best American bands on the road. That being said, a greatest hits record doesn’t precisely honor the spirit of the list, so this recommendation will have to suffice.
Second, when I find myself in times of trouble, indie rock comes to me. I slept on so much hip hop, pop and R&B this year so my list is embarrassingly guitar-heavy and white, and therefore incomplete. I know for a fact that there are dozens of albums from more diverse artists that should be on this list and I’m excited to go back and listen to them. Send suggestions.

Sorority Noise – You’re Not as _____ as You Think
If rock and roll has any sort of eternal ethos, it’s this: when in doubt, stick to the basics. Guitars for melody, drums and bass for rhythm and earnest, honest lyrics to tie it all together with emotion. That combination never fails to get the listener dancing or crying or driving too fast. On You’re Not as _____ as You Think, Sorority Noise sound like the perfect evolution of the indie rock band (distilling, among others: Smoking Popes, Gaslight Anthem and Defiance, OH). This is a “first summer home from college” album, the one you drive around listening to with your friends, hoping to recapture some sort of magic, and knowing that instead you’ll have to settle for forging something new.

Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
No other band name in history has channeled the feeling of listening to their music better than Cigarettes After Sex. From what I can tell, Greg Gonzalez started Cigarettes After Sex nearly ten years ago to crickets. Then, somehow, a YouTube algorithm picked up his song “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” which went on to millions of views and inclusion in several prestige cable shows. Jump cut to 2017’s self-titled debut album, absolutely dripping with dark, wet songs about wanting sex, having sex, regretting sex, obsessing over sex, remembering sex and…well, you get it. I took a poetry workshop in college once and I brought in a pretty graphic poem about an imagined sexual encounter. Sharing it was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done and it was not received well. Cigarettes After Sex is an entire album full of that kind of awkward bravery, except the poetry works and it sounds like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Concrete Blonde. *shiver*

Lorde – Melodrama
Lorde surprised us all with Pure Heroine, which was pretty much a perfect album. Her long-awaited follow-up isn’t necessarily better, but none of her Top 40 competition has come close to delivering anything with the texture she achieves on Melodrama. Apparently, the album loosely traces a wild night out, a kind of long night of the soul set at house parties and LA nightclubs. I don’t know how much I connect with that, but I do connect with Lorde, who will not be denied her right to feel her feelings and dance like an escaped lunatic to sick darkwave beats. May we all be more like her in 2018.

Lydia Loveless – Boy Crazy and Single(s)
I’ve worshipped at the altar of Lydia Loveless for some years now and when I heard she was releasing an old ep and a bunch of B-sides for a new collection, it was like mana from heaven. Sure, a lot of this music pre-dates 2017, but it’s the first time it’s available for most folks in one place and it’s a great starting point in your spiritual journey towards Lydia. Loveless has my favorite voice in modern rock, pop or country and she absolutely shreds her vocals and her guitar to make sure we can still feel. She’s one of the last true rock and rollers, I think, giving us a direct line back to those roadhouses where they first amplified the blues. I’ve been a recovered punk long enough to know how loaded and dangerous the concept of “authenticity” is, but all I can think of when I listen to Loveless’ work is that she’s the real deal.

The Regrettes – Feel Your Feelings Fool!
When the revolution comes and men are meant to answer for our crimes, it will be well-deserved. Lest you doubt, look to the news. I’m sure some famous man has been found out to be a harasser or abuser in the time since you began reading this list. It’s probably reductive to say it, but 2017 felt like the first year where any attention has been paid to women fighting back. And, hoo boy, hearing 17-year-old frontwoman Lydia Night yowl “I’m like nobody else / so you can just go fuck yourself” as the hook to “Seashore” is more than enough of a reminder that women rock, and have rocked, forever. The Regrettes’ music is confessional, stripped down and built around the band members’ confidence in themselves. If this is what’s coming from Gen Z, then this try-hard millennial dude is happy to step out of the way.

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
I got to see Japandroids a couple weeks before Near to the Wild Heart of Life was released and they knocked me on my ass, as you’d expect from such a renowned live band. When I finally got to sit down with the album, I got knocked down again. As I said earlier in this list, the thing that makes rock music stick to your heart is earnestness. It’s a common thread picked up by all my favorite bands, and it’s the driving force on this album. It’s a departure from their punk-ier early stuff, but it’s still Japandroids using distortion and rat-a-tat snare hits to explore life, death, love and the importance of staying in motion. They mean every lyric and they bleed for every chord. The only thing they don’t do is apologize for it; they may be Canadian, but if you’re waiting for the “Oh, soory for rockin’ your face off, guy,” it ain’t comin’.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without emcees sniping at each other over their bona fides. Who’s the meanest? Who’s the baddest? But this is 2017 and I feel genuinely bad for every rapper standing in Kendrick’s way. Is it too early to call him the GOAT? Probably. But, here, today, when Kendrick talks, everybody listens. We all rushed out to call To Pimp a Butterfly his masterpiece, and it feels like he took it as a challenge. This year, he slapped us with DAMN. and we were awed again. This is the album where he showed us he’s incapable of picking a dud beat, incapable of letting a stray word interrupt his flow and incapable of being anything less than the best emcee working today.

Harry Styles – Harry Styles
I would not have guessed in a million years that one of the biggest teen idols of all time would go solo, go quiet for a couple months, and then come back as the fully-formed second coming of everything good about 70’s-era classic rock. Harry’s debut is self-assured tribute to the music that apparently shaped him most: dad rock. You get the sense that in channeling Jagger and Plant and Prince, he’s letting us see his real self for the first time, and that real self wants to lie with you on the shag carpet and fill his wood-paneled basement with smoke from the finest Panama Red. The album has incredible songwriting that shades the small, quiet moments and amplifies the grandest emotions. By all accounts, the live show is excellent as well. But what really knocked me out about Harry Styles is how much bravery it must have taken to release it. Conventional wisdom tells us that tween girls don’t have any interest in their (grand)parents’ Donovan or ELO records. Harry bet against those odds big time, and while the results are out on if Harry Styles will herald of a rock renaissance, it is a stellar debut with songs that deserve to become part of the canon.

Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
Probably the best I felt all year was when I was dancing in the pit at three nights of Hold Steady shows in Chicago. Something about the other fans and the sweat and wet confetti and everybody screaming “stay positive” lifted me higher than I thought I could go anymore. Craig is their lead singer, and We All Want the Same Things is his third solo outing. His first two albums were very, very good, but they didn’t always lift me as high as The Hold Steady could. We All Want the Same Things does. This is a record about self-care, about needing others and about loving your neighbor even when it’s hard. And now, more than ever, that’s the thing this country needs. Earlier this year, I was listening to this album in the car. My wife was out of town and I was a bit lonely. I was driving around, looking for something to do. It was raining. And then “God in Chicago” came through the radio and it felt like our love story was riding shotgun and like it was everyone’s love story and like everything would be all right and “four years didn’t seem like much anymore / we both want the same things / we kissed on the corner we kissed in the corridors / we fumbled with clothing / we all want the same things.”

Cayetana – New Kind of Normal
I’m glad Cayetana exists now, as I close out my twenties. If they had been around when I was 15 my heart would have never recovered. For my money, they’re the best punk-pop-riotgrrl-whatever band making music today. They might just be the best band making music today. New Kind of Normal, their second album, takes the idea of a sophomore slump to a shooting range, shouts pull and demolishes it in the air. The three-piece from Philly has delivered unto us one of the most heartbreaking collections of self-examinations to ever be pushed out through an amp. The songs here are bleak and uncompromising, full of fear and self-loathing, but sung as defiant anthems, each one imbued with enough hope to remind you that it ain’t over until it’s over. They’re not quite doing punk covers of the DSRM, but that’s the neighborhood. In a year of mass, shared depression, defiance in the face of hopelessness is what keeps us going. On “Easy to Love,” Augusta Koch is pleading when she sings “maybe you will find / someone easier to love.” Maybe that’s true. But I don’t want anyone else. I want you, Cayetana, with every bit of sadness, anger, volume swell and reverb you have to give me.