7. Calexico & Iron and Wine, “Years To Burn”
A surprise, belated sequel to their last collaboration, 2005’s In The Reins EP and something of a career-reviver for both bands. Predominantly acoustic, it finds Beam and Burns/Covertino on the same wavelength even as their differences are readily apparent. The former’s folk songs and the latter’s jazzier and structural experiments (like the three-song suite on the second half) end up melding into a consistent, at times shimmering whole. Reserved and reflective but not aimless or necessarily laid back, its sturdy presence seems to serenely reverberate right out of one’s speakers (or earbuds as the case may be.)
6. Michael Kiwanuka, “Kiwanuka”
Working again with Love & Hate producer Danger Mouse, I feared an inferior follow-up; fortunately, Kiwanuka again subverts expectations by going further baroque (seven-minute-long “Hard To Say Goodbye”) while also moving closer to a song-suite approach, with one track nearly bleeding into the next like ’70s Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder. And yet, he remains a singular talent—retro-influenced, for sure (“Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” sounds like 1974 in all the best ways), but his sensibility and lyricism both feel present and firmly of the moment. Like # 9 on this year’s top ten, it requires patience, but it’s also easier to get lost in.
5. Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”
As I hoped for last year when it was announced, her fifth album ended up her first great one. It’s still a bit too long (I would’ve preferred 10 or 12 instead of 14 tracks) but by stripping down her velvet noir to the bare essentials, she allows her ever-sharpened songcraft to be heard and deeply felt. “Mariners Apartment Complex” is still tremendous, but the title track (with its lovely Fiona Apple-isms), “The Greatest” and “Fuck It I Love You” aren’t too far behind, and I even appreciate the lengthy, wonky “Venice Bitch” in this context. Sure has come a long way since that infamous SNL performance.