By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Fiona Apple: ‘The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do’
I do think this is, without a doubt, the best album of the year.
More than 15 years into her career, Apple has distilled how it feels to live inside her skin into 10 songs. Not only are her lyrics at turns ornate and direct as the emotional mood requires, but her musical language feels uniquely her own.
Stripped of long-time producer Jon Brion’s orchestration, “The Idler Wheel” is her sparest, rawest album, the one she must fully inhabits, and her best in a career already full of highlights.
Frank Ocean: ‘Channel Orange’
This was my most-anticipated album of the year, and it lived up to my expectations: an uncommonly smooth and sympathetic R&B album born of impressive ambition.
Here’s what I wrote about it in August: “‘Channel Orange’ brings together many strains of black music combining the 21st-century confessional quality of Drake with the idiosyncrasy of D’Angelo and the genre-bending (and falsetto) of Prince. The album, however, has been compared most often to Marvin Gaye’s bizarre 1978 masterpiece ‘Here, My Dear,’ probably because both are ruthlessly personal works of art.”
Taylor Swift: ‘Red’
Shortly after its release in November, my initial appraisal of the fourth album by the young superstar was mixed, and my central criticism that it doesn’t hang together as an album as well as her previous efforts still stands. But as a collection of sharp, pleasurable pop songs that withstand repeated listens, it’s phenomenal.
The three songs touched by pop impresario Max Martin are the crowd favorites Ñ “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22” Ñ but there’s also the propulsive, almost indie rock of “Holy Ground,” finely observed torch song “All Too Well” and stadium rocker “State of Grace.” Swift offers up a little something for everyone.
Ty Segall: ‘Twins’
I’ve seen the Segall, the young garage-rock phenom, perform live twice now. Each time his music was equally pugnacious and playful, a toy gun aimed squarely at the audience.
The second time I saw him, earlier this year, the band did a great cover of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” proving they’re not above playing pure crowd pleasers. “Twins,” a collection of accessible, speaker-rattling rock and roll, was Segall’s third album released this year, and his best.
Dirty Projectors: ‘Swing Lo Magellan’
A couple months ago I watched Dirty Projectors live and was surprised by how awesome the soft-loud-soft dynamic of “Offspring Are Blank” sounds like a slightly askew version of a ’90s alternative-rock hit. It was my favorite five minutes of live music this year.
If there’s a recurring theme running through my favorites this year, it’s directness. The Dirty Projectors have made a career out of circumspection and roving over strange vistas. But on the Brooklyn band’s latest album, they reign the experimentation in, playing straightforward love songs and folk-rock songs without losing the outre personality that defines the band.
When I wrote about the R&B singer and rapper Future’s single “Turn on the Lights” last week as one of my favorite songs of the year, I wasn’t sure if the album on which it appeared would crack my top 10. But I recently realized I can’t stop returning to “Pluto,” an album of simple music made with processed sounds that has ingratiated itself with each repeated listen.
Here’s what I wrote last week: “Future sings in an open-hearted, digitized croon, making music as if we’re still partying and trying to fall in love long after we’ve been atomized to 0s and 1s.”
Fresh and Onlys: ‘Long Slow Dance’
There is nothing groundbreaking about this album, but it provides a specific utility for me: a charming long player redolent of a half-dozen of my favorite records. It has such a sense of place, resting at the intersection of early R.E.M., The Byrds’ country phase and the first two albums by The Shins, that once I start playing it, I can’t stop until it’s finished.
Cloud Nothings: ‘Attack on Memory’
This spot could’ve easily been taken by Japandroids’ excellent “Celebration Rock.” Both sound great cranked up loud. But there’s a brainy quality to the Cloud Nothing’s album of throwback alternative rock and a sonic oomph provided by Steve Albini, who in the ’90s produced albums for Nirvana, Bush and P.J. Harvey, that always gives me more to dig into.
Jens Lekman: ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’
From a column earlier this year: “The fool who ignores everything that doesn't fit into his romantic worldview is a good comedic trope, but Lekman seemed to realize that's what he was in danger of becoming himself and corrected it with his latest album, ‘I Know What Love Isn’t.’ Here his style isn't radically different, but by making a breakup album closer to realism than the heavily aestheticized epiphanies he's leaned on previously, he approaches something closer to wisdom.
The music is smoother and more muted on ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ than the bright pomp of his other albums, but it’s also more stately and sadder. His best song to date is ‘Black Cab,’ a beautiful bummer of a pop tune about riding around in a cab, but there the melancholy has the larger-than-life quality of a self-aware teenager. On his new songs, there’s hard-won regret and bitterness, which are in short supply in the rest of his work.”
Father John Misty: ‘Fear Fun’
This album reeled me in with a couple of great songs, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “I’m Writing a Novel,” and it kept me because of its easy pleasantness. There aren’t too many albums in the hipster-country-crooner tradition established by Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” in 1969, but Joshua Tillman, a former member of the indie-folk band Fleet Foxes who records under the name Father John Misty, made one beautiful exemplar of the genre this year.