What does music do for you? Is it your escape from the mundane everyday life? Does it help you relate and connect to the world around you? Is it your party fuel? Or is it just something you put on so the car ride doesn’t get awkward?
The beauty of music is that it can be all of the above. It’s the very reason “best-of” lists nearly always miss the mark. It’s impossible to take into account the ever-changing moods, environments, and inner workings of the individual listener. Music is the ultimate experiment in subjectivity.
All that said, there’s some seriously good music being made right now. Here are the albums that will forever transport me back to this point in my life.
The War on Drugs has created something special in their latest effort, Lost in the Dream, a record that’s done the unthinkable and made classic rock feel fresh again. All the elements are there. It’s U2 without the Bono pretension. It’s the earnestness of Springsteen. It’s the piercing, soaring guitar work of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. What makes this album damn near perfect, though, is the modern effects the band uses to connects these influences, typically with layered keyboards and delicate reverb. This is music made for the sentimental highway, with one eye on the rear view mirror and the other on the road ahead.
This album by jazz and funk upstarts Snarky Puppy will throw you around the world in fifty minutes. Building off momentum from its Grammy win for Best R&B performance, it features numbers with African, Middle Eastern and Indian instrumentation to complement the groove-based jazz of their previous efforts. These guys are a rotating miniature orchestra with over forty musicians involved. It’s no wonder they achieve such a large sound throughout this set. It’s the sophisticated funk dance party this year.
What initially hooked me on Americana and newgrass band Railroad Earth years ago is lead singer and guitarist Todd Schaffer. His songwriting is always hopeful and human, and his acoustic lead guitar is sometimes reminiscent of the folksy side of the Grateful Dead. It’s the immense talent and versatility of the entire band that shines here, though. Mandolinist John Skehan finally gets to bring his classical roots to the table, adding gut-wrenchingly beautiful piano work throughout the record. Violinist Tim Carbone adds more electric guitar than typical of a Railroad Earth record. Multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling plays everything from banjo to saxophone to flute to lap steel. There’s also a 21-minute section of instrumental music that is essentially a psychedelic classical suite. These are musicans’ musicians, and they are breaking new ground. With the exemption of the Punch Brothers, it may be the most notable release in the newgrass genre in the last decade.
My discovery of ambient electronic producer Tycho in 2012 was as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve had with music in a long, long time. Producer Scott Hansen’s otherworldly, ethereal soundscapes were heaven to me, but they were still missing one thing – the human element. The additions of a guitarist and drummer solve that problem immediately. There may be a bit less of the hauntingly meditative qualities of 2011’s Dive, but the packed-on punch of energy is a positive trade-off that makes Tycho’s wall of transcendental sound even more striking.