1. Richmond Fontaine—We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River
Without question the finest musical moment from Richmond Fontaine stretches its collective legs and waits all 14 songs before finally hitting stride. Like nearly everything associated with (soon-to-be) literary titan Willy Vlautin, We Used to Think... beams with a deep love of human expression and a freewheeling use of poetic prose. As expected there are sad-luck tales of low-end prize fighters with detached retinas, nights wasted in depressing bars, and transient hotels that rent by the week, but like any of the characters that trudge through Vlautin's music—and novels—the sheer amount of humanity on display here is downright staggering. The album's final track, "A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses," best portrays Vlautin's strengths, as told in brief passages that center around a couple during their uneventful march toward middle age and beyond. The wine coolers shared in the car, the thrill of a quick glimpse of exposed skin, the fear of losing the one person in your life who truly cares for you, and placing faith in the understanding that despite it all—the cancer that swallows a man whole, the depression of falling asleep in front of a television's glow—there are moments of sheer pleasure in our lives. This record is such a moment.
2. Bat for Lashes—Two Suns
Natasha Khan was certainly set to fail with her second full-length under the Bat for Lashes moniker. A conceptual tale of two personas—herself and an extroverted blonde named Pearl—intertwined around her sulking pop numbers seemed like a terrible, if not overly pretentious, idea. But Two Suns is a magnificent recording that hemorrhages emotions in a similar manner to her Fur and Gold debut, yet still shimmers with a dignified charm. Watching Khan absolutely captivate a crowd—I'm not alone in stating that her June show at Doug Fir was, without a doubt, the finest live music moment I witnessed this year—proves that her music and persona(s) are on a far superior plane than her peers.
3. Brother Ali—Us
To listen to Brother Ali is to love the man. He's taken us from the unsteady beginnings of 2003's Shadows on the Sun—where his boisterous flow masked an insecurity and tender vulnerability not normally witnessed in the hyper-masculine ways of hiphop—all the way through the snaking scars left by a soul-crushing divorce and personal reinvention on 2007's The Undisputed Truth. Steady waters have not softened the Minnesota emcee on his latest, Us. Bookended by a pair of swaying gospel-tinged songs—not bad for a devout Muslim—Us is a logical evolution for Ali, the next step in his journey from unsure kid to heartbroken man, and finally moving toward his newfound role as one of the last emcees truly worth believing in.
4. Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca
Until its inevitable 33 1/3 book comes out, there really isn't much left to say about Dirty Projector's Bitte Orca. Okay, one more thing: It's a wildly inventive and absolutely incredible record, proof that there is still plenty of room to tread new ground within the vague constraints of pop music.
5. David Bazan—Curse Your Branches
The one-time Pedro the Lion frontman surprised just about everyone in dropping this splendidly dark break-up record this past fall. Who go dumped? God did. Bazan, a longtime Christian, chronicles the falling out with his lifelong religion in a complicated and heavy divorce that tore down his faith and left this fine record in its place.
Frank Turner—Poetry of the Deed, Lovers—I Am the West, Drake—So Far Gone EP, Bon Iver—Blood Bank EP, Ramona Falls—Intuit, Portugal. The Man—The Satanic Satanist, Rainbow Arabia—Kabukimono EP, Alela Diane—To Be Still, Herman Dune—Next Year in Zion