At this year’s Record Store Day – the April one, not the November shindig – I felt something that hadn’t occurred to me in probably 10 years. I felt excited to hold a record. Standing in line, clutching the inside of my far-too-thin hoodie (thanks, Chicago wind), I paced back and forth in my mind, thinking, God, I hope I get this album. The item in question? Big Star’s unreleased Third.
Of course, I didn’t get it. Nobody did. The store didn’t even receive a copy. So, instead, I spent a couple bucks on some singles, bit my lip, and went home somewhat satiated. But, for the 45 minutes prior to that moment, it was something slightly alien, but moreover familiar. There used to be a time when you couldn’t get an album.
Not everyone can remember that feeling, but they should. Prior to the digital revolution, music was somewhat of a privilege. As a child, you might spend weeks saving up money for something that takes less than two clicks to grab now. Don’t get me wrong — it’s liberating. But value gets partly tossed aside now. It really shouldn’t.
The album is by far the most integral facet of the music industry. People throw out EPs, toss in singles, but albums really mean something. If it’s even halfway decent, it’s essentially then a collection of perfected thoughts, emotions, and creations that are meant to be consumed, examined, and experienced. This year, we had far too many experiences – seemingly overloaded by an open-door policy of music thanks to Spotify.
That didn’t stop us, however, from finding 50 albums we thoroughly enjoyed.
50. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
In 2011, a record like this with precise craft, honest and bare songwriting, and gorgeous, subtle polish seldom gets made. Ashes & Fire is a mainstay because of its demeanor: authentic, exposed, and sublime. It’s a departure from the soaring years with the Cardinals and the rowdy solo work of yesteryear. Instead, Ryan Adams is mellow and content; his voice gleams from artfully sparse production (see: “Dirty Rain”). A tightly focused survey of the remaining ashes of his past, the album subtly questions what to do with all that history in light of a different self and becomes a modern classic in the process. -Liz Lane
49. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
The Joy Formidable may very well be the most appropriately named band to make their full-length debut this year. On The Big Roar, the Welsh trio’s brand of hook-laden guitar pop is a delight to behold as Ritzy Bryan’s urgent delivery transforms song after song into something anthemic. Their swirling layers of guitars and rapid-fire percussion pack enough of a forceful punch to live up to the other half of the band’s name. Full of catchy choruses and relentlessly energetic guitar crunches, The Big Roar is a stadium-sized album amidst a sea of clubs. -Frank Mojica
48. Astronautalis – This Is Our Science
On This Is Our Science, Astronautalis, aka Charles Andrew Bothwell, sounds as convincing singing about a turbulent relationship on “Secrets on Our Lips” as he does spitting verses on cryogenic experimenter Robert Nelson on “Midday Moon”. But it’s not just for intellectuals: Bothwell duets with Tegan Quinn on “Contrails” and features rapper P.O.S. on the album’s title track, gaining both indie and hip-hop street cred. This diversity catapulted Astronautalis’ fourth album into the iTunes top 10 downloads when it was released. In addition, producer John Congleton’s signature desperate, moody arrangements add emotional depth to This Is Our Science’s largely intellectual material. -Harley Brown
47. Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread
At just 24 years old, Goodbye Bread is Ty Segall’s fifth full-length, and again he plays every instrument. The stats are impressive, but this spotless collection of West coast garage tunes handily earns this spot. Less howl-y and punky than previous releases, Segall varies his influences from John Lennon (“I Can’t Feel It”) to smokey blues rock (“The Floor”), all loaded with warm, fuzzy reverb. Songs like “Comfortable Home (A True Story)” show the young artist’s growth into a more personal songwriter, his half-languid falsetto more revealing than ever. It’s mellower, sure, but it’s also some of his most carefully considered output yet, leading to some of his best. And there’s still plenty of stomp and roll. -Benjamin Kaye
46. Summer Camp – Welcome to Condale
The cover of Summer Camp’s Welcome to Condale features a woman in a bathing suit doing a keg stand. So appropriate for an album that tempts the imagination, concocting this place called “Condale” where the kids are hot, the music spacey and romantic. The album is jaded Americana (even though the band is from England), conjuring images of the boardwalk, $2 beer specials, and sand in your hair. Their foreign nature only makes their fascination with American culture that much more apparent. This is an album for losing your virginity in the backseat (“Last American Virgin”), getting sunburned by the lake (“Summer Camp”), and smoking your first joint (“I Want You”). It doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that it relishes in the cliché while embracing a nostalgic beauty that makes the frivolity of youth so universal. -Summer Dunsmore
45. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Watch the Throne, likely the most widely anticipated album of the current decade thus far, sounds exactly like what it is: Two of hip-hop’s most powerful overlords reveling in knowing that they’re just that. In barely 45 minutes, Yeezy and Hov plow through the likes of bionic pop-rap (“Lift Off“), borderline-dubstep (“Who Gon‘ Stop Me“), exotic grandeur (“Murder to Excellence“), and bare-bones soul (“Otis”), all of which is – this cannot be overstated – immaculately produced. Plus, with these two guys constantly playing verbal ping-pong, the whole album is indubitably and nearly incessantly fun. And that’s really all it ever needed to be. -Mike Madden
44. Yuck – Yuck
Admittedly, every sound on Yuck’s self-titled debut is one we’ve all heard before. Rather than embracing one particular influence, Yuck seamlessly pays tribute to nearly all of indie rock’s greatest legends from song to song (e.g. Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr.). Sure, there is a revitalization of the fuzzed-out sounds of the late 80’s and 90’s here, but Yuck also taps into the spirit and emotional highs and lows that made those bands so intriguing in the first place. Sometimes, it’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. -Frank Mojica
43. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin
A few months back, our own Jeremy D. Larson wrote that the tone of Mikal Cronin’s self-titled debut falls “somewhere between Velvet Underground’s Loaded and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells.” For one, he’s right. Yet moreover, the album exudes this sentimental presence that recalls ’60s mainstays like The Byrds or Jefferson Airplane. It’s a hazy experience that’s quite addicting, like a 151-glazed night in your college heartbreaker’s dorm room. (What? Stay with me, folks.) Check into Cronin’s living room stunner “Hold On Me”, a track that frolics with mousy percussion and cyclical acoustics. It’s a moody think piece. Not moody in the sense that you’re out to scratch the world’s eyes out, but sort of like that welcoming isolation you pine for from time to time. Fact: Sometimes being alone feels better. With a voice and ear like Cronin’s, it’ll always sound better. -Michael Roffman
42. Kendrick Lamar – Section .80
Twenty-four-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar is a native of Compton, CA, but you’re not likely to figure that out while listening to Section.80. Its beats bear almost nil resemblance to the storied G-funk of the city’s past. Rather, the album is built around electro-tinged, blurry near-boom-bap that gives Lamar more than enough room to do whatever he chooses on the mic, something he takes full advantage of. Plus, his finest verses (found on “A.D.H.D.” and “Fuck Your Ethnicity”) occasionally evoke 2Pac at his least thuggish. No small feat there. -Mike Madden