As the year draws to a close, it is customary for publications far more esteemed than this humble blog to compile a list of the best albums of the year, ranging anywhere from ten to 100. Some may choose to scour the EDM wasteland that is modern Top 40 radio, while others may opt to cover more obscure releases. This is not an objective ranking, or even a ranking at all; rather, this is simply a list of the ten albums that have made the biggest impression on me this year. Some have much longer reviews elsewhere on this blog, while most will be covered in this posting for the first time. Anyway, enough expository introductions – on with the list!
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Boards of Canada is a group that has been a driving, defining force in the so-called IDM (intelligent dance music) movement ever since their inception. Despite this, they’ve been ever changing, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin never resting on their laurels. Tomorrow’s Harvest, the first Boards of Canada album since 2005’s The Campfire Headphase, sheds the pastoral haze of that album while also distancing itself from the warped nostalgia of the band’s early albums. There are damaged-sounding synths and vocal samples, yes, but this is no Music Has the Right to Children, Part 2 or anything – this is a quiet, gloomy, apocalyptic album, a soundtrack for the inevitable end of the world. Album highlights include pre-release single “Reach for the Dead,” with its slowly building crescendo, and the fractured, syncopated composition of “Jacquard Causeway;” though as with many albums on this list, Tomorrow’s Harvest is an album that needs to be listened to as a whole in order to get its full effect.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Daft Punk’s inimitable house-disco-robot persona has been a dominating presence in both the pop and electronic musical landscapes, a unique achievement for a band with so few proper releases. Random Access Memories is the first “proper” Daft Punk studio album since 2005’s Human After All, and to say the album came with an immense wave of expectations and hype would be a tremendous understatement. Luckily, Random Access Memories is a success, featuring some of the most stirring, epic songwriting of Daft Punk’s career. The album peaks early on with the shifting, musically kaleidoscopic “Giorgio by Moroder,” though the deranged Broadway-meets-disco pastiche of “Touch” is another strong contender for album highlight. It’s not perfect – Noah Lennox’s contributions on “Doin’ it Right” are, as I’ve expounded upon previously, awful – but Random Access Memories is still, simply put, damn good.
Deafheaven – Sunbather
Deafheaven is a group that, upon first glance, may not draw much particular attention. “Yet another in the seemingly endless wave of US black metal groups drawing inspiration from non-metal genres – it’s been done,” is what a long-winded skeptic might think. But with their sophomore album Sunbather, Deafheaven has proven to live up to the hype. This is no group of hipsters bandying about the aesthetic and philosophical trappings of European bands, but rather a band earnestly and effectively marrying multiple genres to an overall black metal base – less Liturgy and more Jesu. Taking equal inspiration from black metal as it does post-rock and screamo, Sunbather is a captivating, emotional experience that is both joyous and harrowing. Highlights include the opener “Dream House,” with its sunny, Alcest-esque guitar harmonies that run throughout; and 14-minute epic “Vertigo,” which sees a clean, atmospheric intro give way to a gritty black metal fury.
Gustavo Santaolalla – The Last of Us (Original Soundtrack)
Video game soundtracks are often lumped into two distinct categories: generic 8-bit chiptune-sounding stuff that sounds like it could have been pulled from any arcade cabinet built after 1972, or generic orchestral filler that sounds like it could have been pulled from any first-person shooter released after 2001. Bringing in film composers isn’t a new concept in gaming, but a soundtrack actually being able to stand on its own merits is indeed a rare thing, and Gustavo Santaolalla’s work for The Last of Us is certainly rare. In contrast with the usual video game standard of writing a song for each unique encounter, Santaolalla’s soundtrack is composed of recurring motifs and variations on particular themes – see the title track which has five variations, each performed on different instruments and channeling different moods. Running the emotional gamut from utterly mournful to quiet resignation and even triumph, the original soundtrack for The Last of Us is every bit as moving as the game itself.
Kanye West – Yeezus
Many questions have been asked about Yeezus since its initial release, usually in relation to Kanye himself: is West a key voice of this musical generation or a rambling idiot (or both); does Kanye actually, literally believe himself to be a god; and just what the hell was Kanye thinking with that “Bound 2” video, anyway. Yeezus won’t provide concrete answers to any of these questions (especially that “Bound 2” video), but it does certainly lend credence to West’s merit as an artist. Though not as accomplished or polished as West’s 2010 release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus is a daring and provocative album. In an era where seemingly everything about a popular artist is about maintaining and expanding a brand name, Yeezus is shockingly anti-commercial. West voices his opinion on everything from the black man’s place in society to his favorite sex acts, all above churning electronic beats that lie somewhere between acid house music and the works of Death Grips. Standout tracks include “New Slaves,” a minimalistic, angry piece, or the Nina Simone-sampling “Blood on the Leaves,” a career highlight for West.