It’s been a hell of a year for music. While the big names came out swinging hard (Sleater-Kinney, Sufjan Stevens, and Joanna Newsom all in one year? Crazy.), it’s the underdogs that have stolen our hearts. Specifically, Massachusetts has us swooning hard. From Speedy Ortiz to Cousin Stizz, our city has churned out some of the best albums of the year, so many that picking the standouts saw us biting our nails from nerves. Say hello to the top 30 albums from a truly impressive turnout.
On their debut studio album, Anjimile ventures into a colorful world of subdued indie pop and jaunty rock songs that feed the mind and the soul. Put simply, it’s the only collection of songs about the afterlife that gives you life. “There’s no point if you’re never going to make any money,” a distant voice mutters on the title track, a line soon batted away by the infectious guitar of Anji Chithambo themself, determined to let music be its own reason to push onwards.
THE BALLROOM THIEVES
The Ballroom Thieves make magic within folk. You probably already know this. Calin Peters’ warm cello turns otherwise standard folk into the type of work that rustles your bones long after the album’s ended. More importantly, it all comes down to the band’s vocal harmonies, a sound so rustic you would swear the members are in your room singing behind you, waving their hands in an effort to get you to join in.
Michael Christmas isn’t messing around, even though he’s as childish as his lyrics. The local rapper (who just turned 21) dropped out of high school to focus on his lines, but it paid off in gigs opening up for the likes of Chance the Rapper and Mac Miller. Here, over the course of 18 tracks, Christmas solidifies his place in our every-growing rap scene.
Forget about filler. Rapper Cousin Stizz stuffs his 13-track mixtape full of wordy rhymes and catchy hooks. He’s seen his fame rise steadily off the heat of “Shoutout” and “No Bells”, but Suffolk County stays high apart from those with hits like “No Explanation” and “Talk”. For someone who hates singing, Cousin Stizz is pretty dang good at giving his choruses minimalist melodies.
Hardcore giants Defeater never slow their roll, even when going through their own messy lives. Give “Spared In Hell” or “Penance” a spin if you’re looking for relief amidst overwhelming stress. Recorded over the course of five months, Abandoned sees Defeater tread through some of their murkiest, harshest, and angled material yet without getting lost in the process.
Dutch ReBelle spits just as many words, if not more, into her verses than Michael Christmas, but she does so with the confidence of someone too busy to pay mind because she’s busy paying dues. Kiss Kiss illustrates her MC skills with a variety of producers on board, from Black Metaphor to Rauxxy Woodro, melting together for a cool mix that keeps you calm in summer but warms you up in winter, all without ever trying too hard.
Elder is just shy of celebrating its 10th year as a band. The psychedelic stoner-doom trio releases albums somewhat sparingly, so its with great joy that this year saw a full-length hit the web — and its melodies ache at their core. Elder writes songs five times as loud as they should be able to, especially given its only three dudes, but we’re not complaining. The extra noise is welcomed warmly.
In the wake of Fat Creeps, Gracie Jackson began working on her solo debut. The self-titled work boasts brooding, lethargic, smoky alt-rock somewhere between the hopeful sighs of Karen O and the troubled thoughts of Elliott Smith, most recognizable through her off-kilter guitar. It’s peak fall. For bummer jam lovers, this is your album of the year.
Dance punk act Guerilla Toss once again up the ante on this year’s Flood Dosed. The funk groove in “Polly’s Crystal” sounds joyful compared to the vicious stabs of “Realistic Rabbit”, proving all those “Do they even know how to play their instruments?” haters wrong. Now that they’re signed to James Murphy’s DFA record label, this is probably the last chance we have to see Guerilla Toss play these songs at basement shows.
Audrey Harrer’s debut studio release shimmers with six poetic compositions where she uses her harp to shape playful, cinematic structures that challenge the precision of Joanna Newsom. Vocally, she leaps through the tones of Julia Holter and Jenny Hval, finding strength within fragility. Harrer has done the impossible: make intricate compositions relaxed in their reveals. Jamaica Plain has something well worth harping on.
HORSE JUMPER OF LOVE
Onstage, Horse Jumper of Love get lost in their own noisy shoegaze. This year’s Make-Out Version sees them take a break from it all – and that’s what makes it such a treat. Songs like “Bagel Breath” and “Recoveries” give the same emotional hug their live sets do without all the amps, letting their lyrics stand, shaking ever so nervously, in the spotlight.
Folk punk goes pop on Kingsley Flood’s third EP of this year. Out of all of them, this feels the most cohesive, bringing a punch of energy on each track to pick you up on the gloomiest of days. If you listen closely, you can hear a hint of The Great Escape-era Damon Albarn in his voice.
For donning the moniker of miniature sea creatures, indie rock trio Krill has a surprisingly large sound and an even larger audience. Their songs place dunce caps on their heads to hide chewable intellect. The emotional instability and Pixies-like vocal warbles of its music hide the depth of well-knitted lyrics under the guise of childish imagery (“Foot,” “Squirrels,” “Tiger”). Now that Krill has called it quits, the record wrenches our guts even more.
It’s hard to make pop that just sounds right. Mini Dresses’ quick EP Four showcases those difficulties of simple songwriting. With a few chords and lackadaisical basslines, the duo craft songs like “Bracelets” and “Are You Real” where unassuming harmonies sound like they could have come from forgotten Warpaint demos. It’s bedroom pop for those trying to explore the world outside their bedroom.
Right from opener “Molly”, Dry Food proves it’s stuffed with talent. The song provokes St. Vincent and The Breeders comparisons, but later numbers like “Cinnamon” recall Pavement and “Dixie” waves to Elliott Smith. It’s hard to believe this is Ellen Kempner’s debut album, but sure enough, it is — and it’s gotten attention from Rolling Stone, NME, and everywhere in between for that very reason. Boston’s proud.
Pile are too modest to admit their own skills at rock crescendos and gut-busting energy, but the considerably large group of locals who hold them up as the definitive band of our city will. From the intricate folk fingerpicking on “Fuck the Police” to the tempo change mid-song on “Touched By Comfort”, it’s more expansive than its 37-minute timestamp suggests. Consider it the album that brings out your inner air guitarist. Right from opening number “The World is Your Motel”, the vein-busting howl of frontman Rick Maguire and syncopated drumming of Kriss Kuss set your inner insanity on fire — and for whatever reason, you never want it to end.
With a new producer and line-up change, Potty Mouth are back with their best work yet and they’re proud of it. Say hello to a new dose of ’90s alt-rock in the vein of Veruca Salt, The Breeders, and That Dog. Don’t be surprised if you start singing “Cherry Picking” immediately after you finish listening; the chorus is catchy enough to have you wondering why radio stations aren’t blasting it worldwide.
REBEL IN THE MORNING
Rebel In The Morning is Boston’s best kept secret. Under his moniker, Jonathan Searles whips out folk pop that rides an undercurrent of indie pop grooves. Whereas his split EP with Birthday Boy recalls early Animal Collective, this year’s full-length steps out from the shadows of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Fruit Bats, and Good Old War. This very well may be the only folk pop album you find yourself doing air guitar to.
Snow Pile, Sweater God, Ain’t No Future In That: a quick look at the tags on Rye Pines most recent release sums it up well. With equal doses of indie rock and folk pop, Rye Pines work out six new songs that are defeatist, uplifting, and content with whatever it is they decide to become by the time the song finishes. Dead Ocean is a helping fit for fickle friends, recalling a brand of shrugging rock somewhere between The Mountain Goats and Okkervil River.
It’s easy to fall into a lull in the city’s constant college drone. When you slip headphones on looking to maintain that, put on Sound Shaman’s noise drone full-length Black Feathers. Over eight tracks, the record spends its time carefully delving into experimental, minimalist, and psychedelic variations on the drone genre, all of which are crafted in a way to help you drift off from whereever it is you’re standing. It’s probably the only record with bagpipes you’ll fall in love with this year, too.
On their sophomore full-length, Speedy Ortiz scraps grit for gain. Foil Deer sounds closer to Liz Phair than Stephen Malkmus with cuts like “Puffer” and “Dvrk Wvrld,” but, most of all, it oozes confidence that listeners can borrow to sport themselves. Sometimes it’s as simple as a one-liner. “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” frontwoman Sadie Dupuis sings on “Raising the Skate,” dethroning the sexism present in indie rock acclaim and fame one melody at a time.
SPOOK THE HERD
Spook the Herd churn out songs so well produced it’s hard to imagine they aren’t machines. Even on their split with Connecticut punk trio Hellrazor, the alt-rock quartet keep individual notes tidy while still building a thick, fat tone that gives their music its grunge similarities. If you’re itching for more, check out the other two-song release on their Bandcamp, Freaks b/w Fermented, and pester them to release a full-length next year.
By now, St. Nothing has begun to gain a devoted following in Boston. The electro-pop trio sounds remarkably more poised on this year’s Cherry Tree EP, diverting away from M83 similarities by bringing violin to the forefront instead of overlapped synth melodies. Don’t be surprised if you see Marco Lawrence’s next album on Rolling Stone next year.
If you’re a country nay-sayer, take a moment to give Hayley Thompson-King’s album a spin. The local singer-songwriter takes a step away from her work in psych rock act Major Stars and garage trio Banditas to slow dance through six Americana tracks. Her best comes out when she delves into the blues, drawing similarities to early Angel Olsen on “Drink Her Away” and “Dopesick”.
There’s southern charm deep within Tigerman WOAH!, and it’s not just because their beards collect tumbleweeds and biscuit crumbs. The folk stomp rumble of the four piece’s music comes even closer to capturing their live energy on Up South Vol. III. Here, the upright bass plunges to new depths to keep us dancing even in the coldest of nor’easters.
California has Ty Segall and John Dwyer; Massachusetts has New Highway Hymnal and Creaturos. Ben Semeta of Black Beach took it upon himself to prove our garage rock scene is now different than the west coast’s. Over the span of 10 tracks, those three plus a handful of other local acts—Nice Guys, The Barbazons, The TeleVibes, Dinoczar—power through jagged-edged rock on the best compilation of the year.
Vundabar write jangly pop songs that never give up. Their sophomore full-length boasts another round of impeccable melodies, from the hooks of “Ash In The Sun” and “Oulala” to the refrains of “Darla” and “Chop”, all of which never get old. If you wish you knew how to dance, put Gawk on and watch your feet take off on their own. It’s medicine for rigid folk dreaming of the springtime.
Make the uncomfortable comfortable. To some degree, that’s what much of Ursula’s music pushes upon you. The shrill duo slough noise punk off their backs like it’s both a trouble and a freedom, pushing through offkilter notes with steadfast determination. The more you listen to it, though, the more it begins to ring in your head, asking you to rethink what constitutes as “music” from the get-go.
BARRENCE WHITFIELD & THE SAVAGES
Barrence Whitfield and his band The Savages revisit the days of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis with their own twists on saxophone solos and crinkling lo-fi vocal yelps. Play “Rock and Roll Baby” if you want parents and children alike to get up and dance at a party. There’s no denying it: at 60 years old, Whitfield’s got more soul-driven spunk than anyone else in town, including those a quarter his age.
RNBW sees electro-pop composer W00DY tread through experimental layers of synth that calm you down similarly to Panda Bear or a super sleepy Grimes, occasionally leaning on instruments like the flute for added dynamics. As the album title’s abbreviation of “rainbow” suggests, it’s a fascinating rove through bubbly electronics and dark undertones, mirroring W00DY’s multi-faceted personality in a manner that rewards repeat listens with hidden, saccharine details.