This year’s best alt-rock albums are a prickly, usually noisy collection that fails to fulfill the reunited Sleater-Kinney‘s promise of “No Anthems.”
The album opens with, “I used to live in a world of rock ‘n’ roll,” but Royal Headache’s second album is a little world of rock ‘n’ roll, from the title track’s raw-throated hollers to the achingly pretty sway of “Wouldn’t You Know” and the furious four-minute epic “Garbage.” It’s all over in half an hour, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave its little world.
Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
The title track — a fuzzed-out anthem to escaping maturity late, nails the earnestness you use on your mom — or your loan officer. But it’s the six-minute minimal groove “Deeper Than Love,” pulsing along on a drum machine and Green’s little-girl whisper, that’s the clearest about why growing up is hard.
The Mountain Goats, Beat the Champ
To Satanists, meth heads, alcoholics and new fathers, John Darnielle adds his latest subject: pro wrestlers, who, like the others, glory in standing up to fate. “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is the thesis statement, but “Heel Turn 2” — it’s shimmering piano trailing into a long coda — is ready for everyday use. On “Werewolf Gimmick,” drummer Jon Wurster pushes Darnielle a little closer to the metal he’s always loved but never tried.
The first album by the original lineup since 1997 doesn’t change anything radical: “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl” is breakneck bratty power-pop and “Black and Blonde” sets Louise Post and Nina Gordon’s interlaced sneers amid a cloud of buzzing guitar. But the band’s messy history (breakups, recriminations, reunions) grants songs like “The Museum of Broken Relationships” (featuring a chorus slyly borrowed from Simon and Garfunkel) a casual, rueful cool-girl wisdom they didn’t have before.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Barnett’s wordy, rhyme-happy songs about mundane things — insomnia, realtors’ house tours, moderate drunkenness — are patiently attentive to details. Underneath these ultra-quotidian images, an abyss of panicky feeling will abruptly open, then close, as Barnett’s fuzzy, playful melodies add light and wit in “Pedestrian at Best,” “Dead Fox” and “Kim’s Caravan.”
Dan Bejar’s latest album replaces the crowd pleasing synth glitz of 2011’s Kaputt with a dark, dynamic soundscape of strings and pattering percussion. But fewer synths doesn’t mean less ’80s. Bejar’s seasick strings are the ones that used to propel Kate Bush, “Forces From Above” uses a Scott Walker-style arrangement with the languid, wordy swoon of a Pet Shop Boys chorus and the perky horn hook and drawled vocals of “Dream Lover” recall Bob Dylan‘s lushest period.
Deerhunter’s seventh album is warm, relaxed, and comfortable — definitely not what’s expected from Bradford Cox. Opener “All the Same” boasts a stoned-and-sunny Beatles melody while “Snakeskin” tosses in some raucous spice. The album’s best moments are its weirder ones, especially the deep, subaquatic background that gradually absorbs “Ad Astra”‘s dreamy vocals.
With the help of a rambling indie-rock guest list including Band of Horses‘ Ben Bridwell and Iron & Wine‘s Sam Beam, the veteran Southwestern rockers turn in one of their most assured albums from a Mexico City studio. It’s a collection of wistful Americana that juxtaposes purring ’80s synth with mariachi horns on the opener, and from there flows naturally through the whispery clatter of “Bullets & Rocks” to “Woodshed Waltz”‘s loping country-rock balladeering.
The Londoners’ debut stands out amid the thicket of British indie rock with their patient, folky, playful song structures. Dig the periodic dropouts and peek-a-boo guitar on “Your Loves Whore,” and Ellie Rowsell’s pillowy vocals, which occasionally sharpen into gleeful squeals. There’s also the rhythm section willingly and eagerly throwing the band into overdrive with sudden blasts of rock swagger on “Lisbon” and “Fluffy.”
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
The trio’s thrilling sonic attack, knotty melodies, and the uncanny double-helix of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s voices haven’t atrophied in the decade-long hiatus since The Woods, and this album is their hookiest and danciest since 1997’s Dig Me Out. “Price Tag” and “No Anthems” barrel forward on Janet Weiss’ lurching beats. It’s impossible not to welcome them back.
The band’s 13th album stuffs their early psych-pop, mid-period acid-flare glam rock, and the warm and mellow folk rock of Lousy With Sylvianbriar into one album — sometimes into one song (“Virgilian Lots”). But the turns come sharp and fast, and the tracks don’t balloon.
Beach Slang, The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
On their debut, these howling Philly punks — including frontman James Snyder, veteran of scene luminaries Weston — offer up a brief, 10-track blast of hissing, feedback-drenched noise-pop. Disaffected, bare-hearted lyrics about small-town ennui and creative liberation sink happily into roiling seas of guitar.
Nathan Williams transmutes bedroom lethargy and numbing addiction into the sharpest, happiest hooks he can find. “Redlead” goes from “I’m broken and insane” to a peppy guitar solo to “I can’t feel my arms or my legs/I’m bleeding out,” while “My Head Hurts,” delivers a silvery hiss that forms the album’s scruffy lo-fi disguise and becomes the oppressive haze of a migraine.
Fall Out Boy, American Beauty/American Psycho
The second album since Fall Out Boy’s 2013 reunion courts relentless bombast — always the band’s most dangerous muse — with more wit and confidence than ever. Tense, histrionic tracks like “Immortals” and “Irresistible” fuse jagged snatches of punk into a halting dancer’s stomp; “Uma Thurman” makes a blaring hook out of the gleeful over-enunciation of the Bride’s name. The wistful, gorgeous “The Kids Aren’t Alright” is Fall Out Boy’s hugest, most majestic ballad.
The track lengths on the Danish band’s sixth album (four songs over six minutes; one over 10) may be within striking distance of the prog they’ve never quite been, but the distended melodies stay foregrounded and sticky-sweet.
Katie Crutchfield’s third album refines her wry, thorny indie rock singer/songwriter style to a warm, dusky glow. She possesses a musical confidence that underscores the unbanishable anxiety of her lyrics while her scratchy, full-throated country-singer’s voice lends weary, witty authority.
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Much closer to the spare indie-folk of Seven Swans, Carrie & Lowell is Stevens’ tribute to his mother, who died in 2012. It’s a genuinely harrowing record: earnestly, honestly, crushingly sad, suffused not so much with death as with the fear of death.
Screaming Females, Rose Mountain
The sixth album from these prolific New Jersey guitar gods is their cleanest and most focused, but forsakes none of the power of Marissa Paternoster’s cavernous voice and squealing guitar. On the title track’s pocket epic intro or the knotty anti-anthem “Triumph,” you can hear something like the world’s best hard-rock band; but then they pivot with expert punk agility to the clean picking and spacious mix of “Wishing Well.” A band with the enviable, even frightening potential to be X-Ray Spex and Blue Öyster Cult at the same time.