1. The War on Drugs - Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)
Filled with mesmerizing, epic songs—six, seven and almost nine minutes—this record so thoroughly absorbs my attention so that listening is like a waking dream. It's expertly and subtly layered, the guitars and keyboards stacked and interwoven with patience and obsessive care. But at the core of "Lost In The Dream" is the beating, raw heart of Adam Granduciel. It's an album of alienation, isolation and deep self-examination. A musician and songwriter who was clearly on the edge of a much bigger audience, Granduciel's vision is placed squarely on those questions of how an artist approaches his world and his art. From that comes loneliness and warmth, an ever-present yearning and songs that sound like lost artifacts from some alternate history of rock 'n roll.
2. La Cerca – Sunrise for Everyone (Fort Lowell)
As a songwriter, Andrew Gardner has as much to say with his guitar as with his voice, and that's the secret formula on "Sunrise for Everyone". The album draws inspiration from the landscape and climate of Tucson, down to how guitars sound through dusty amplifiers, but it's what Gardner does after creating that atmosphere that makes for such a strong album. The melancholy of opening song "Arizon" yields to the unsteady guitar churn of "Climate Control" and then to the incredible title track, which stares down depression then moves clear in the light of a new day. "Sunrise for Everyone" is definitely a pinnacle for La Cerca, a rock 'n roll journey that brings to mind Big Star, Badfinger and Guided By Voices, musical alchemists who, like Gardner, mastered the powerful combination of sad songs and big hooks.
3. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Matador)
The classic New Pornographers sound — big power pop hooks delivered with oh-so-sweet harmonies—gets supercharged on the band's sixth album. The bright sweeps of multicolored neon that spell out "Brill Bruisers" on the cover point directly to the sound within. The band makes a shift to heavy use of arpeggiated synths, resulting in an album that sounds more like 2000's celebrated debut New Romantic than anything since. But the years of experience show in the songcraft: from the opening trio of "Brill Bruisers," "Champions of Red Wine" and "Fantasy Fools" to the closing "You Tell Me Where," there's no discernible drop in quality across the album's 13 songs. Amazing.
4. Restorations – LP3
This Philadelphia quintet moves a bit further away from its punk roots, but connects with a more welcoming and universal rock 'n roll sound that propels LP3. Bigger in scope and sound, while still edgy and raucous, the album is an evolution that capitalizes on the strengths the band had from the start: Jon Loudon's everyman growl, the three guitar lineup anchored by Dave Klyman's melodic baritone playing, and the band's fervent belief in bombastic rock.
5. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Bros.)
The star-making turn everyone was expecting since Lewis' Rilo Kiley days came with a huge splash. This Ryan Adams-produced album is a leap to the mainstream for Lewis, and one she completely nails. Her shy-ish country-rock albums with the Watson Twins never delivered Lewis' musical strengths like this Fleetwood Mac-esque one does. But beyond sound and style, "The Voyager" is a songwriting triumph for Lewis, at turns deeply personal, confident, sophisticated and emotional.
6. Protomartyr – Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art)
The sound of modern Detroit, Protomartyr is off-kilter, uncompromising and too full of life to turn away from. The band's second album is austere post-punk delivered with fiery passion, as snarling as it is captivating.
7. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings - Give the People What They Want (Daptone)
Written and recorded before her cancer diagnosis, this album's original meaning has shifted remarkably well to align with the soul legend's victorious fight against the disease. Songs like "Retreat!" and "Get Up and Get Out" now seem directed at far more than good-for-nothing suitors. Either way, Jones and her band serve up modern funk-soul classics like nobody else.
8. Delta Spirit – Into The Wide (Dualtone)
Buzzing with pent-up energy, "Into The Wide" is an escape album for Delta Spirit. Grittier and darker than the band's first three records, it draws deeply on the defiant cabin-fever yearning the band built up in their windowless Brooklyn practice space.
9. Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else (Bloodshot)
Stepping away from the honky-tonk throwback of her debut, Loveless and her band move in the direction of fellow Midwest rockers like Uncle Tupelo and The Replacements. The visceral rock sound is a fitting bed for her songs of blood and guts and ever-competing emotions: anger, desire and especially longing, both lustful and violent.
10. Ex Hex – Rips (Merge)
This female power trio is equal parts catchy and wild, with an exhilarating debut that is the year's most purely fun record. It's punk music that ignores anger in favor of an urge to dance and then unleashes Mary Timony's killer guitar. Quite simply, "Rips" rips.
Strand of Oaks – "Heal"; La Sera – "Hour of the Dawn"; The Growlers – Chinese Fountain"; "Megafauna – Maximalist"; The Hotelier – "Home, Like Noplace Is There; King Tuff" – "Black Moon Spell; Lykke Li – I Never Learn"; Brian Lopez – "Static Noise"; Lee Fields & The Expressions – "Emma Jean"; Tweedy – "Sukierae"; Cy Dune – Shake; Curtis Harding – "Soul Power"; Sharon Van Etten – Are We There; PHOX – "PHOX"; Old 97's – "Most Messed Up"; Field Report – "Marigolden"; Joe Henry – "Invisible Hour"; Cloud Nothings – "Here And Nowhere Else"; Spoon – "They Want My Soul"; Purling Hiss – Weirdon.