1. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell Eleven sparse, harrowing and beautiful tracks focused on Stevens’ late mother—and re-cementing the folk singer’s standing as one of this generation’s foremost songwriters.
2. Joanna Newsom, Divers When the real world gets you down, tune out and let Newsom transport you to a magical land built on breathtaking composition, bright instrumentation and vivid lyricism.
3. Everything Everything, Get to Heaven Big British aspirations tunnel in some strange directions (see: Jonathan Higgs’ rap-ish vocals on a few songs), but somehow they always hit huge pay dirt. Art-pop at its most excellent.
4. Kamasi Washington, The Epic The saxman’s album title is on point: three discs, 17 songs, a hair under three hours. Also: The adventurous opus is putting jazz back on the map, and deservedly so.
5. Elder, Lore This Boston trio pumps its heavy anthems full of prog, keeping 10- and 15-minute tracks moving by packing them with interesting changes.
6. Tom Carter, Long Time Underground A life-affirming masterwork from the experimental guitarist, who survived a near-death medical episode while on tour in Germany three years ago.
7. Built to Spill, Untethered Moon The first-wave indie survivors’ best record since the ’90s reminds us why guitarists can still be heroes, especially when they also write songs that stick to your brain.
8. Rival Consoles, Howl London electronicist Ryan Lee West’s skittish tracks wiggle one way before shimmying somewhere else that’s usually even more satisfying.
9. The Myrrors, Arena Negra Creeping psychedelia out of Tucson, Arizona; great for desert drives, pitch-black nights and clearing your mind completely.
10. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, A Year With 13 Moons The Tarentel co-founder and Root Strata label head cooked up my favorite ambient trip—a crackling noise crust with a hazy melodic center—in a year loaded with strong contenders (Steve Hauschildt, Christopher Bissonnette, FIS, Benoît Pioulard and on and on).
1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic Even for those familiar with the mid-20th-century progressive jazz movement, the Brainfeeder tenor saxophonist’s all-encompassing cosmic opus felt like pure discovery. (See also: his work on this year’s Jagged Rocks by Throttle Elevator Music.)
2. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell A heartbreaking work of staggering tunefulness, made all the more potent once you discover it’s about the Michigan-born prodigy’s parents.
3. Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete Should Ridley Scott make that Blade Runner sequel, he ought to just plug in mad scientist Daniel Lopatin’s dystopic, post-everything soundscapes.
4. Blanck Mass, Dumb Flesh Benjamin John Power’s time-out from F*ck Buttons was a less tense, more human clatter. (See also: this year’s The Great Confuso EP.)
5. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly Hip-hop music can be an afterthought or half-baked, but the jazz-centric mastery here (partly provided by the Brain-feeder family) served as a guiding, inspirational force to the MC’s world-weary ruminations.
6. Neon Indian, Vega Int’l Night School Imagine the electro-pop equivalent of Abbey Road’s last half and you’re close to the melodic, unpredictable eclecticism of Alan Palomo’s third studio effort.
7. Shamir, Ratchet The most genre-packed, pop-smart record of the year (sorry, Grimes)—and by far the best international release by a Vegas artist since Hot Fuss.
8. Deafheaven, New Bermuda Another album of metallic heartswells and dynamic song structures by the San Fran quintet, but with evolutionary tweaks.
9. Viet Cong, Viet Cong During a year of solid post-punk offerings (Beach Slang, Bad//Dreems, Protomartyr), the band soon to be formerly known as Viet Cong was the most forward-thinking of the genre, per its debut LP.
10. Autre Ne Veut, Age of Transparency Former Daniel Lopatin roommate Arthur Ashin managed to bridge R&B, James Blake and Björk with his pleading, spare art-pop.
1. Grimes, Art Angels The producer/songwriter touched on everything from Technicolor synth-pop and stinging hip-hop to dreamy electro-punk on her latest LP, which ended up a treatise on the pleasures of progressive pop music.
2. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love S-K’s first album in a decade underscored why the band is one of the best live acts going: excursions into sinewy post-punk and bluesy guitar riots featured airtight hooks and precise arrangements.
3. Wilco, Star Wars The barnstorming rock vets surprise-unleashed a loose-limbed, raw-sounding collection indebted to everything from ’80s noise-rock to stripped-down alt-country to the British Invasion.
4. Duran Duran, Paper Gods The ’80s New Wave icons once again proved why they’re dance-music kingpins; Paper Gods nodded to futuristic funk and disco, sophisticated electro-pop and space-age soul.
5. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday The ever-quotable Brit let his songwriting speak for itself on his second solo effort, which never skimped on Stonesy swagger, blustery nods to Brit-pop and psych-tinged interpolations of his beloved Beatles.
6. FFS, FFS Franz Ferdinand’s post-punk might met Sparks’ theatrical keyboard bravado on this collaborative record, which struck the perfect balance of cleverness and intrigue.
7. Line & Circle, Split Figure The specter of early R.E.M. hovered over the debut record from this LA band: Enigmatic lyrics, summery guitar jangle and misty production boosted well-crafted songs.
8. Veruca Salt, Ghost Notes The ’90s alt-rock darlings quietly released one of the most resonant reunion records of recent times, one marked by surging, melodic guitar jags and Louise Post’s and Nina Gordon’s mesmerizing harmonies.
9. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion Frothy ’80s Top 40 and New Wave crossed with sleek production from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes equaled one of the smartest, most enjoyable pop albums of the year.
10. Rhett Miller, The Traveler With guests like R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and members of The Decemberists, the Old 97’s frontman split the difference between earnest folk-rock and raucous alt-country.
"I can’t believe Foster the People didn’t play ‘Pumped-Up Kicks.'"
A few tips: Bring a water bottle and keep it filled, wear earplugs and be ready to deviate from your itinerary.
The sixth LIS fest will feature The Flytraps, Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout, Snailmate and many more.
- Get More Music Stories