One of the ironies of the digital age is while albums sell fewer and fewer copies, it feels like more and more acts release albums. What’s more, only a limited number of acts manage to fit with radio’s narrow formats, which makes it easier than ever for albums to fall through the cracks — and harder to pick a year’s best albums that flew under the mainstream radar. Hope you sample a few of these and find a new favorite album or two along the way.
No. 1: Kyle Craft, “Full Circle Nightmare” — This second album from Craft delivers a consistently rousing collection of hooky rock ‘n’ roll songs. Built around Craft’s strong vocal melodies, rollicking piano and jangly guitars, songs like “Belmont (One Trick Pony),” “Fever Dream Girl” and “Exile Rag” suggest a collision of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Replacements and Tom Petty that at once sounds both classic and modern. One of the album’s best tracks, “Fake Magic Angel” shows a poppier side, while “Exile Rag” has a Dylan-esque quality. Meanwhile, ballads such as “The Rager” and “Slick & Delta Queen” are sturdy, and like virtually all of the songs here, tell incisive, finely detailed stories. Don’t be surprised, if after another couple of albums, Craft is being hailed as one of rock’s best songwriters.
No. 2: Aaron Lee Tasjan, “Karma For Cheap” — Paul McCartney put out one his best solo albums this year in “Egypt Station,” but if you are pining for some late-era Beatle-esque pop, “Karma For Cheap” might be your best option. Songs like “The Rest is Yet to Come,” “The Truth is So Hard to Believe” and “If Not Now When,” to name a few, blend the kind of indelible melodies the Fab Four created with the fuzzed out guitars of Beatles tunes like “Revolution,” “Come Together” or any number of T. Rex songs — all without sounding like warmed-over imitations of any artists.
No. 3: Bird Streets, “Bird Streets” — The name Bird Streets may be new, but the two principles in this collaboration explain why they could turn out such a gem of an album. Jason Falkner was a key member of the underappreciated power pop band Jellyfish, while John Brodeur is a solo artist and producer whose studio credits include work with Paul McCartney and Noel Gallagher. The melodies are more than enough to sell the “Bird Streets” album, but the lyrics are another highlight, as Faulkner and Brodeur find creative ways to address topics such as wanting to move on from an old relationship (“Thanks For Calling”) and reaching the end of a romance (“Stop To Breathe”). Street Birds is a pop album in the best tradition of the Beatles, Big Star, R.E.M. or any other act you can name in that lineage.
No. 4: Idles, “Joy as an Act of Resistance” — If this second album from Idles is the sound of a new generation of punk, there may be hope for real rock ‘n’ roll again. The songs on “Joy as an Act of Resistance” are smart, sometimes strident, sometimes funny, at times chaotic and bruising, recalling the spirit of recklessness (not to mention the intensity) of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, MC-5 and The Clash. What makes it all work is the hooks don’t get lost in the racket, as songs like “Rottweiler,” “Danny Nedelko” and “Samaritans” are both bracing and listenable, a tricky combination that Idles manage to achieve with regularity on “Joy.”
No. 5: Nicki Bluhm, “To Rise You Gotta Fall” — Moving on after six years with her backing band, the Gamblers, Bluhm assembled a crack studio band and sharpened her bluesy rock and Americana sound on “To Rise You Gotta Fall.” Written in the aftermath of her divorce, the songs chronicle a range of emotions, hard questions pondered and lessons learned through this major life change. The music matches the power of the lyrics, whether it’s with the smoky title track, the gritty and hooky rocker “Things I’ve Done,” the bluesy swagger of “It’s OK Not to Be OK” or the aching beauty of the ballads “You Stopped Loving Me” and “Staring at the Sun.”
No. 6: Rock*A*Teens: “Sixth House” — This band may have the worst name in rock music, but when it comes to music, its left little room for complaint (or sarcastic pot shots) over a four-album career that seemed finished with a 2002 breakup. But the group has reunited, and “Sixth House” may be the Rock*A*Teens’ best effort yet. It’s filled with hearty guitar rock songs like “Closest to Heaven,” “Baby’s On to Me” or “Crystal Skies” that also possess a knack for catchy guitar parts and a Beatle-esque gift for pop melody. In an era where bands making sturdy, no-gimmicks guitar rock in the tradition of Tom Petty, the Pretenders or the Del Lords are in short supply, “Sixth House” is a most welcome return from the Rock*A*Teens.
No. 7: Ruby Boots, “Don’t Talk About It” — It’s hard to stay silent about this album, not when Bex Chilcott makes her presence felt with her ringing, slightly twangy vocals — and not when she’s singing songs as good as the driving rockers “It’s So Cruel” and “Somebody Else,” the sturdy mid-tempo “Don’t Give a Damn” (which comes with suitable attitude and a bit of a country accent) or the Tom Petty-ish rock of “Easy Way Out.”
No. 8: Ashley McBryde, “Girl Going Nowhere” — Splitting the difference between heart-aching ballads such as “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You),” “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” and the title track and tuneful rockers like “Radioland,” “El Dorado” and “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” McBryde’s second album is one of this year’s best mainstream country albums. The songs are impressive enough musically, but the lyrics , which tell authentic-feeling, down-to-earth tales of working class lives and the struggles, joys and misadventures that come with them, elevate “Girl Going Nowhere.” If this album is any indication, this girl is definitely going places.
No. 9: Textones, “Old Stone Gang” — This group released a pair of under-appreciated albums in the 1980s, and singer Carla Olsen went on to put out several solo albums and collaborate with the likes of Gene Clark of the Byrds and Percy Sledge. But rather than fade into rock history, the Textones reunited, and this year made their best album yet, “Old Stone Gang.” There’s nothing gimmicky here, just good no-frills rock songs with an Americana edge, sturdy melodies and lyrical intelligence. Maybe this is the start of a fruitful second chapter for the Textones.
No. 10: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Hope Downs” — Initially, the songs on “Hope Downs” seem a bit too samey, recalling the nervy jangle of the Feelies with a little acceleration in tempos. But with further listens, the hooks start to separate the songs from each other and subtle elements emerge that help further enrich the listening experience, such as the guitar interplay in “Mainland,” the multiple guitar hooks embedded into “Sister’s Jeans” and the series of non-repeating clever guitar bits that sweeten “Exclusive Grave.” For many bands, having a similar song-to-song sound could be a detriment, and on future albums they’ll struggle to sound as fresh. But “Hope Downs” suggests that Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have the songwriting ability to build on the signature sound and get even better on future albums.
Honorable Mentions: H.C. McEntire, “Lionheart”; Culture Abuse, “Bay Dream”; Nude Party, “Nude Party”; Eddie Heinzelman, “Wherever You Go”; Smoking Popes, “Into The Agony”; The Happy Fits, “Concentration”; Nectars, “Sci-Fi Television”; Joy Formidable, “Aarth”; Joyce Manor, “Million Dollars to Kill Me”; and Tancred, “Nightstand”