Alive's music reporter ranks his favorites from the past year.
20. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else
19. Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions
18. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
17. Benjamin Booker: Benjamin Booker
16. Charli XCX: Sucker
15. Electric Wizard: Time to Die
14. Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
13. Ben Frost: Aurora
12. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
11. YG: My Krazy Life
10. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
The Kentucky-based country crooner follows Willie Nelson's footsteps, both in musical form (this is traditional country at its best) and recreational habits ("Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT/ They all changed the way I see," he sings on the hazy "Turtles All the Way Down"). Best of all is a cover of When In Rome's 1988 hit "The Promise" that the singer delivers with devastating earnestness.
9. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Instead of some grand statement, the volatile sixth album from tuneful Florida punks Against Me! - the band's first since singer Tom Gabel became Laura Jane Grace - turns the focus inward, with the frontwoman leading the band through a tumultuous 29-minute set that builds from confusion and self-loathing to tracks exhibiting a hard-won resolve.
8. Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
The Southern singer-songwriter packs 20 tunes into two discs, yet the record never feels bloated or overstuffed. Musically, Williams blurs the line between blues, country and soul, while her lyrics, some of which were adapted from verses by her poet father, find her looking backwards with startling clarity.
7. Swans: To Be Kind
The title To Be Kind is a misnomer. Rather, the 13th album from the experimental rock crew is universally cranky and cantankerous, building around crusty riffs as tough and terse as Clint Eastwood's curmudgeonly "Gran Torino" character.
6. Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else
The Columbus singer-songwriter is open about her introverted tendencies, but she throws herself into the raw heartland-punk tunes populating the career-best Somewhere Else with an admirable lack of restraint.
5. D'Angelo: Black Messiah
According to reports, the reclusive soul man sped the release of his long-in-the-works third album to add his voice to the growing chorus of protesters that have risen up in the wake of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite these revolutionary roots, the music maintains a loose, late-night feel, and D'Angelo, whose supple pipes remain as pliable as Silly Putty, approaches the material with more questions than answers. On "Till It's Done (Tutu)," for one, he surveys a country where black lives are commonly undervalued and asks "Where do we belong?" - a shattering observation on an album well worth the nearly 15-year wait.
4. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
While the Missouri singer-songwriter's sound grows more expansive on her second album, incorporating strains of country ("Hi-Five") and shaggy psychedelia ("Dance Slow Decades"), her words have become increasingly blunt. "Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart," she sings with startling directness on "White Fire." "But when I look into your eyes it pieces up my heart."
3. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
Van Etten's fourth album is so deeply tortured it wouldn't surprise if the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a detailed report on the recording. Throughout, the singer-songwriter subjects herself to grueling punishment ("Break my legs so I won't run to you/ Steal my soul so I am one with you," she sings on the battered "Your Love Is Killing Me"), but the results are unfailingly gorgeous.
2. Protomartyr: All Passion No Technique
The Detroit post-punk crew's sophomore album can be as dark, abrasive and unforgiving as the harshest corners of its hometown, but singer/ranter Joe Casey (think a pessimistic Craig Finn) injects the music with a black humor late comic Lenny Bruce would've appreciated. Witness "Tarpeian Rock," where he directs his growing ire at everyone from "gluten fascists" to "adults dressed as children," threatening to toss each group one-by-one from a cliff.
1. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
No album released this year feels more of-the-moment, with twin bullhorns Killer Mike and El-P taking direct aim at corrupt institutions (crooked lawmen and religious organizations are steady targets) atop a bevy of booming, buzzing beats that come on like field recordings of urban warfare. El brings a healthy dose of cynicism, casting himself as the "dirty boy come down on the side of dissonance," while Mike imbues the album with its growing Grinch heart on redemptive cuts like the staggering, deeply felt "Crown."