#20: Caribou – Our Love
Dan Snaith’s been doing this a long time, stretching back to when he used to call himself Manitoba. His two previous albums, 2007’s Andorra and 2010’s Swim, were big successes, introducing the EDM world to his particular brand of psychedelic electronic pop grooves and getting award nominations left right and center, especially at home in Canada. Our Love tops even those albums, being at once his most dance-oriented album and his most sonically experimental, mixing foggy vocals, strings, 808-sounding drums, and a whole host of studio effects. Even with all of the genre-bending sound work, he keeps it accessible, crafting wicked-edged pop hooks that keep things bouncing from beginning to end. Snaith himself referred to it as “mind-numbingly simple”, but this has to be kept in context with the fact that his pre-music background is in deep tech research and that simple to Snaith is more complicated than pretty much anything else.
#19: White Lung – Deep Fantasy
Vancouver’s White Lung trades in blistering punk rock that brings back the feel of Dischord Records, Sleater-Kinney, and early Hole. Deep Fantasy is a mile-a-minute collection of abrasive rock and roll that flies by so quickly that you might miss the more off-the-wall moments, mostly courtesy of guitarist Kenneth William’s love of weird patterns and oddball chord changes. Some of this stems from a metal influence – black metal rhythms and hair metal swagger. Singer Mish Way rides this hybrid wave of blackened thrasher punk with songs that focus on depression, body image, power structure, and rape. She also has a number of essays online that expound upon these themes, because academic punk rock is and should continue to be a thing. White Lung are ultimately a very subtle band, which sounds strange when you consider Deep Fantasy as an abrasive punk rock record that comes and goes in less than twenty minutes.
#18: Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
Southern rock is hard to come by these days. The late 1970s were a long time ago now, and bands like Marshall Tucker, 38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd are now relegated to State Fair nostalgia tour circuits. Don’t tell that to Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, though; they’re banking on the fact that southern rock is a viable artform, and they’re proving themselves correct with every album they put out. While their previous albums skewed towards the country side of the country-and-rock combo, English Oceans buckles down onto the soulful rock and roll side and the result is electrifying. As always, however, the real strength of the album lies in the songs themselves. Character sketches abound on here, and English Oceans is a litany of disappointment, shady nights out, marital problems, family disagreements, and an undertow of low seething rage. They’re brilliant stories that get into your head, and suggest that maybe southern rock isn’t the ball of deep fried cheese that the beer-bellied greybeards lounging near the rickety stage near the edge of town might have you believe.
#17: Ex Hex – Rips
Mary Timony has cycled through Helium, Wild Flag, and Autoclave before putting together Ex Hex, a new band that takes its name from a solo album Timony once put out. Ex Hex is a band based around the ideal of guitar heroics, rooted deeply in 70s power pop and shot through with glittering guitar solos. It’s part Go Gos and part Sleater-Kinney, a hurtling, snarling album that manages to glam up the proceedings to great effect. Each riff lands with a punch, and then walks it along with a swagger befitting a Great Rock And Roll Band. “New Kid” is the track that proves this – it’s literally impossible to avoid breaking out into air guitar right from the beginning. She may have played second fiddle to two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney in Wild Flag, but in Ex Hex Timony answers to no one, and her strengths are on full display.
#16: Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
It was kinda sorta released in 2013, sure, but that was in Australia, and I refuse to recognize the existence of Australia. 2014 saw her twin EP set released in North America and found a whole slew of new fans suddenly enamoured with her casual conversation style of songwriting. Her life is a string of mundane disappointments, at least according to her, but she relates them in such a way as to make them the most fascinating things anyone could say. Case in point: “Avant Gardener”, a five minute tale of going out to fix up the front gardens (because the neighbours must think she runs a meth lab), getting overwhelmed by the heat, having a panic attack, and having the ambulance called. She screws up her oxygen mask (she was never that good at smoking bongs) and feels uncomfortable with the EMS worker thinking she’s cool just because she plays guitar. This double EP is stuffed full of these kind of stories, welded to psychedelic slacker music that is threaded through with tinges of old style country wistfulness. Rumour has it she’s releasing a proper debut LP in 2015, darker than Split Peas but along the same lines. Put it at the top of the highly anticipated pile.
#15: Black Milk – If There’s A Hell Below
Detroit’s Black Milk is one of the most underappreciated figures in the rap game, a consistently good MC and producer who’s been bringing it for twelve years now with no real breakthrough. If There’s A Hell Below is an excellent summation of everything that he’s about: loop-driven production strongly reminiscent of J. Dilla, Detroit techno bangers, thick gospel samples, and lyrics that come off as a little sketchy on paper but come alive when he puts them into the beat. The lyrics here on If There’s A Hell Below focus on his upbringing in the hard parts of Detroit, learning about rap and losing his innocence beat by beat. What sets it apart from his previous albums is the sheer attention to detail here. Even 2013’s No Poison No Paradise pales in comparison to this album, with its meticulously constructed beat scapes that bleed with every bit of the influences he’s been building on since 2003. If it happens to be the height of his powers, it’s a hell of a peak to crest on.
#14: Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
At first glance the music of Cymbals Eat Guitars is pure 90s indie rock revival, a crunchy mix of bands revolving around a Built To Spill worship. What keeps it from being a mere early treble charger exercise in counterfeit sounds is the lyrical work of Joseph D’Agostino, who crafts literary narratives that pulse with the seriousness of modern poetry but also show a real willingness to get playful with the English language. Like the title implies, these are poem-songs about loss – the emotional and physical toll taken upon people (New Jersey residents, mainly) who experience loss in one form or another. The heart of it, though, stems from the death of D’Agostino’s best friend Benjamin High in 2007. There were hints at mourning him throughout the band’s first two albums (the magical Why There Are Mountains and the great-but-commercially-toxic Lenses Alien) but on LOSE he opens the floodgates and lets it all out. These songs soar and crash, allowing D’Agostino to craft big rock and roll gestures that double as outpourings of grief and healing. It’s a big album that draws both from the aforementioned 90s indie rock and from the earlier tradition of massive arena rock, and it feels all the more cathartic for it.
#13: Single Mothers – Negative Qualities
Single Mothers broke up in 2009 and have been touring ever since. So says their Bandcamp page and there’s a history behind it, of course. It revolves around frontman Drew Thomson, a scrappy Ontario kid posessed of a busted-ass smile and a heart of blackly hilarious observations. Before he devoted himself full-time to the band (before ’09) he was a full-time gold prospecter in the wilds of eastern Ontario. The call of punk rock was too strong to ignore, though, and thank the lord for it. Thomson is the perfect punk frontman, perfectly suited to spewing bile but able to convey that bitterness in a way that comes across as wildly intelligent. There’s a strong streak of Craig Finn in his songs: the boozy nights out, the kids blowing off steam from their studies at the University of Western Ontario by getting blackout wasted, the strange allure of Dundas Street, straddling between bachelor’s degrees and cocaine deals. If the Hold Steady are the bards of 1990s Minneapolis, Single Mothers are the poet laureates of London, Ontario circa pretty much forever. The only thing that would make the album better would be the inclusion of their 2012 self-titled EP, which is comprised of 4 perfect songs that sum up living and dying in Ontario.
#12: Spoon – They Want My Soul
Four years after the somewhat difficult Transference, and a sidetrack into a supergroup (Divine Fits) Spoon returned and reconquered the world. The thing about Spoon is that they spent fifteen years putting out albums that were consistently great, peaking with 2007’s perfect Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Transference seemed weary and torn, but They Want My Soul is as fresh as if the band just woke up from a nap. Lead single “Rent I Pay” conjured up the laid-back groove of classic Rolling Stones, “Do You” brought back the classic vibe of 2007, “Knock Knock Knock” gets in that pocket and never leaves. “New York Kiss” sounds like it came straight out of Britt Daniels’ work in Divine Fits, and “Let Me Be Mine” affirms that Transference was, in fact, a great album given time to consider it. From the moment the album begins it feels as though the band never left, and in the end it’s yet another superb entry in a catalogue that is wall to wall superb entries.
#11: Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Sophomore slumps be damned: Parquet Courts are out to show that there’s no such thing. The band’s second album picks up where Light Up Gold left off, stuffing fun wordplay into songs that either race by or slouch by, slacker-style. It’s a little angrier than their debut, a little more deliberate and seething, but the rampant hyperactive energy that marked them out as a band to watch is still very much present. It’s still that heady mixture of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Wire, and the Fall, but it buckles down with greater intent this time out. The title track is the perfect example of their newish tone: it darts out of the gate, grabs ahold of you, and shakes you until every bone in your body is broken, then drops you and lets the slower tracks soothe you back to health. Amongst the slower tracks this time there are some real moments of classic rock homage, especially on “Raw Milk”, “Instant Disassembly”, and “Always Back In Town”. They add some weight to the faster-than-light tracks and make Sunbathing Animal into a work of actual substance.