Normally, I would restrict my end-of-the-year blog posts to my top reads of that year but for some reason, whether it’s because everyone’s posting their Spotify summaries or because I’ve been listening to and sharing my thoughts on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (currently at 238), I feel compelled to share my top albums from this past year as well.
In a way, this list is different from books. My book list never gets restricted to what came out that year. I simply keep a running list of what I’ve digested. For the sake of this list, though, I’m only looking at what came out this year. These may not be the best albums from the year but they are the ones I found myself returning to time and time again. Once again, here are my five (in no particular order).
- Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Zombies on Broadway
Anyone who knows anything about me knows that Jack’s Mannequin was and is my favorite band of all time. So, when Andrew McMahon decided to retire the moniker to make pop music, I was a bit saddened and skeptical. All of this went away with the first Wilderness record. But on this second album, Andrew McMahon has done something I didn’t realize he was doing nor did I think it possible: he’s creating soundscapes for cities. If the first album sounded like laidback southern California, this one is the bustling city of New York. With only ten real songs, it’s a lean album full of surprises. And, while we’re at it, can we talk about “Birthday Song”? Both heartbreaking and beautiful.
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
After taking nearly three years to follow up his debut album, I was a bit skeptical when DAMN. was released only two years after To Pimp a Butterfly, especially considering how radical of a departure his sophomore release was from its predecessor. How does someone follow up such a complex record? With the most seemingly-straightforward album of his career. If Good Kid, MAAD City was a movie, and To Pimp a Butterfly a thesis, then DAMN. was just an album. So straightforward, in fact, there was speculation that this was actually the first installment of a two-part album. When rumored NATION. didn’t make its appearance, it occurred to us Kendrick Lamar did surprise us again. DAMN. listened to in reverse order told a completely different story. The answer to the “wickedness or weakness” lies in which order you listen. To me, this album demonstrates Kendrick’s mastery of music. Even in those moments where it seems imperfect (I don’t love every song here), I have no doubt that Kendrick knew exactly what he was doing.
- The Maine – Lovely, Little, Lonely
The Maine is one of those bands that not only reinvents themselves, but gets better with each release. When their first album came out, I remember thinking it pop-punk that lacked bite. On American Candy, they gave themselves over to their pop-sensibilities and it created for one of my favorite albums that year. This was one of those sneaky albums that I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it on first listen so I re-listened. When I couldn’t figure it out after a second listen, I listened again…and again…and again…until it became my go-to album. Cohesive in a way American Candy wasn’t and a bit more lyrically/thematically mature than its predecessor, it picks up where it picks up where the last album left off but drives where former bounced. Still bummed I missed their Modern Nostalgia tour where they played both albums in full.
- I The Mighty – Where The Wants To Go/Where You Let It Go
I’ll be honest, when I heard the first couple singles to this album I wasn’t skeptical. I was scared. Having followed these hometown heroes from their Talking House Records days, I had always been amazed at their progress from the first time I heard them. “Silver Tongues” and “Chaos in Motion” didn’t excite me. I was scared this would be the first I The Mighty project I didn’t absolutely love. Then the album came out and everything made sense.
Though some would disagree, this, to me, is the first real I The Mighty record. It’s the album where they stopped trying to be someone they weren’t and allowed themselves to be themselves. There are no political songs, no overtly conceptual songs (they finished The Frame trilogy on Connector). It’s their most musically diverse record yet. And even though “Symphony of Skin” makes me more uncomfortable the more I think about it, I still feel like there are less lyrically cringe-worthy moments here. Hands down my favorite album from them thus far.
- The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
The War on Drugs is one of those bands I often forget exists. Then I give them another listen and I wonder how I could’ve ever forgotten. This is an album you get lost in, allowing your emotions to swell with the sound. This is the album I couldn’t stop recommending to people if they were looking for something to listen to. Adam Granduciel is a master at texture and creating lush tones and this album is as beautiful as they come.
- LANY – LANY
I think part of what draws me to this album is its surprise. LANY has been dropping EPs since 2015 and though I’ve followed them, they haven’t been my favorite synth-pop outfit. Lyrically, they’re a bit too casual for me. But something about this album works well. “Dumb Stuff” pulls you in and you find yourself still engaged by “Flowers on the Floor” and still by “Purple Teeth.”
P.S. Yes, I know Jay Z’ 4:44 came out this year. Yes, I know SZA’s CTRL dropped this year. Yes, I know Ryan Adam’s Prisoner, Metallica’s Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, Taylor Swift’s reputation, Ed Sheeran’s ÷, U2’s Songs of Experience, Betty Who’s The Valley, Lorde’s Melodrama, Haim’s Something to Tell You, John Mayer’s The Search for Everything, and Drake’s More Life all came out this year. The list still stands.