These are the albums in the middle of the pack. Some of these have the ability to move to the front depending on the day, the mood or other factors. But they rarely stay there, pulled back by the areas where they miss the mark. None of them are bad – they’re just not as good as the upper crust.
Elbow – Little Fictions
Probably the best of the latter day Elbow albums. Ironically, the departure of long time drummer Richard Jupp has led to a more rhythmically focused outing this time. There’s some real experimentation going on here and it’s all good. However, I find myself wishing that they would have gone just a little bit farther. Still, it’s a great album for a rainy afternoon drive. It’s easy to get lost in this. “Magnificent, She Said” has made me choked up on more than one occasion. I’ll never forget the day I was messing around the house with my kids and the lyrics hit me. “I think I got something in my eye,” I quipped.
Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton – Choir of the Mind
An album by an artist facing her demons. There is a lot to unpack here. I haven’t gotten around to analyzing the whole thing and I’m not sure if I’d even want to but “Fatal Gift” is one of the most hauntingly and seductively beautiful songs of the year. Haines is still a guilty pleasure. Her Metric work is fun to listen to with my girls while Choir is a late night headphone listen. Rewards with repeated listens. Gorgeous melancholy.
The XX – I See You
A welcome modification of the XX formula. On the heels of Jamie XX’s excellent solo outing, this album sees the band incorporating more outside sounds into their minimalist origins and being all the better for it. The Hall and Oats sample is as unexpected as it is perfect for the tune it inhabits. It’s a solid third outing for a band that shows that it’s more than the one trick pony hinted to on album two.
Neil Young – Hitchiker
Originally recorded in 1976, this album comes from the peak of Young’s career. For some reason, he shelved it at that time. In a way, it works better coming out now. Back then, it might have been overlooked. It’s not Crazy Horse by any means but it’s a great indication of what Young could do with a guitar and a microphone (and substances) late at night.
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel really made it with 2014’s “Lost in the Dream”. In my opinion, their peak was “Slave Ambient”. This album takes the Dire Straits, Don Henley, reinterpretation of the 80’s one step farther. It actually incorporates a little more WOD style this time around and is all the better for it. But something makes me crave a little more weirdness. Update: I listened to this on a train from Berlin to Prague and combined with the scenery, it was revelatory.
The National – Sleep Well Beast
I liked the National better when they weren’t a political band. Now it’s like they’re Barack Obama’s house band. It’s just all super-pandering and I’m a little tired of politics this year. But still, it’s a solid effort. The El Vy outing seems to have done Matt Berninger some good. There’s more experimentation in the album and they sound fairly energized in their own downbeat way.
Son Volt – Notes of Blue
I had no idea that Jay Farrar still had this left in him. I had all but stopped following his projects for the last 10 or more years. But three songs into this album, I found myself saying “oh, yeah.” The rest of the album doesn’t disappoint, either. Worth picking up if you had lost faith in this band. Can only imagine it’s great around a campfire with some cheap beer.
Temples – Volcano
I was getting kidney stones zapped this spring so I missed this show. I’m told it was incredible by the buddy who ended up with my tickets. Listening to “Volcano” it’s easy to see why. Slipping out of their 60’s Hendrix/Zep vibe of their first album, Temples have borrowed liberally from the Tame Impala playbook and put forth a synth-drenched platter of psych-pop. Again, not one to think about too much but given the right mood, a sunny sky and a destination to reach at a high velocity, it works.
Matthew Ryan – Hustle Up Starlings
In an alternate universe this guy is the next Bob Dylan. One of the best songwriters alive, Ryan brings it again. There’s enough reflection and heartbreak in these songs to fill three albums. The fact that Ryan does it so well in just one album should embarrass everyone else on this list. Not for everyone but if you’re one of the lucky few, you should be overjoyed.