In what follows I have also provided mini-reviews of the top 25 albums. Now onto the list.
2. Arcade Fire, Reflektor. What else is there to say about this remarkable double-album by the Radiohead of my generation? Any number of reviewers have compared Reflektor to Kid A—or, more accurately, to U2’s Achtung Baby. The comparisons are appropriate. This is a divisive and demanding album that pushes Arcade Fire into new territory. Some of the sounds on the first disc are ones we have never heard from them before, and that can be an unsettling experience for those of us who were enraptured with the opening strings of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” The second disc settles into the sounds that were first intimated in The Suburbs, especially in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The second disc as a whole stands as some of their greatest work, climaxing in the emotionally gripping single, “Afterlife.” Some have argued that Reflektor is simply an album to be enjoyed. That is true in part—this is certainly one that demands to be played loud. But it is also much more than that. Many have already commented at length about the Kierkegaardian underpinning of Reflektor, and it enhances (rather than detracts from) the album to keep this in mind. According to Win Butler, the inspiration behind the album comes from Kierkegaard’s 1846 work, The Present Age, where we read that “the present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.” Ours is a “passionless, reflective age,” in which people “only desire money, and money is an abstraction, a form of reflection.” And the driving agent of this “reflective age” is “the Media,” which “creates that abstraction.” And then we also find perhaps the most powerful line: “No person wishes to abandon Christian terminology, but they can secretly change it so that it doesn’t require decision or action.” The contrast to a media-controlled, reflective age of abstraction is passion, decision, and action. Writing as if he were alive today, Kierkegaard states: “A revolt in the present age is the most unthinkable act of all; such a display of strength would confuse the calculating cleverness of the times.” Indeed, is that not precisely our situation, in which the masses have been pacified by the love of money and consumable goods? What is needed is a revolt. Arcade Fire have not issued a manifesto, but they have given us the soundtrack to rouse us from our slumber.
“Q.U.E.E.N.,” we hear her ask: “Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? / Say will your God accept me in my black and white? / Will he approve the way I'm made? / Or should I reprogram the program and get down?” She goes on in her closing rap to declare, complete with a Philip K. Dick reference: “March to the streets ‘cause I’m willing and I’m able / Categorize me, I defy every label / And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope / We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope / Will you be electric sheep? / Electric ladies, will you sleep? / Or will you preach?” According to Monáe, the acronym stands for those who are marginalized and ostracized, the queer, untouchables, emigrants, the excommunicated, and those labeled negroid. If Arcade Fire criticized the present age in favor of action, Janelle Monáe has provided us with the soundtrack of the coming revolution. Of course, one does not need to know the storyline to appreciate the songs. This is pure pop gold—virtually every song is single-worthy. And the complete album compels one to echo the title of her closing track, “What an Experience”! I, for one, cannot wait for the final installment.
6. Majical Cloudz, Impersonator. Majical Cloudz—Devon Walsh on vocals and Matthew Otto on the synthesizer—plays synth pop, but it is utterly unlike anything else out there. This is synth pop distilled into its pure minimalist essence. And in this case, thanks to the singular virtuoso performance of Walsh, that essence is a piercing, forthright, emotionally honest encounter. Every word is a direct confrontation that strikes at the heart of each person. There are no wasted words, no wasted sounds, no wasted silences. A perfectly executed album.
7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories. Arguably the most anticipated release of the year (if anything, possibly behind the new Arcade Fire), Daft Punk’s return to the studio is a resounding success. Indeed, few albums compelled me from the very first listen. Everyone has heard the single, “Get Lucky,” but that is one of the least interesting tracks. The real highlights are the two longest tracks, “Giorgio by Moroder,” featuring Giovanni Giorgio Moroder, and “Touch,” featuring Paul Williams. Daft Punk have already made the music of the future. Here they resource the past in order to reveal the music that we need to hear right now in the present.
8. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe. The Scottish electro-pop group Chvrches (or CHVRCHES) make addictive music of the highest order, the kind of melodies that worm their way into your subconscious and make you a happier person. They sound like a cross between Passion Pit and Charli XCX, or perhaps between The Postal Service and Ellie Goulding. Either way, it makes for an album that demands to be replayed. Highlights include: “The Mother We Share,” “We Sink,” and “Recover.”
15. The Field, Cupid’s Head. Swedish DJ and producer, Axel Willner, has quietly established himself as one of the premier electronic artists in the world. His atmospheric minimalist techno is a sound he has made all his own. His previous efforts have all been impressive, and this may be his best. It is certainly the most complex and layered thus far.
he describes it, his thesis is “a history of loud sound at the turn of the 20th century.” He explored his trademark sound most successfully in Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006) and Ravedeath, 1972 (2011), but his new album, Virgins, ranks up there with his best work. Here he explores themes of mortality and death—there’s our leitmotif again—in songs that have an uncanny ability to evoke a situation or space. Hecker is one of the most cinematic musicians working today.
20. Ólafur Arnalds, For Now I Am Winter. Why does so much great music come from Iceland? Whatever the reason, we can just be thankful. The latest is the stunningly gorgeous album by Ólafur Arnalds, a former drummer for various hardcore/metal bands. His solo work, by sharp contrast, is an experiment in neoclassical ambient electronica, complete with rich orchestration, looping beats, and ethereal vocals.
21. Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia. With her distinctive tapping guitar style and her unique voice, Marnie Stern is a bit of an acquired taste, but she’s also one of the most purely enjoyable indie rockers out there. Her latest is her best album since the 2008, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That.
30. Phosphorescent, Muchacho
45. William Tyler, Impossible Truth