Two years ago, a small personal project cataloguing our most-played albums of 2014 kicked off one of our favorite traditions. We gave it a second go-round in 2015, and we’ve now found ourselves at the end of another year. We don’t necessarily assert that these five albums are the best albums of the year, as authoritative lists like that are best left to music blogs and magazines. They are merely the ones we played the hell out of – a glimpse into an important part of our company culture: our collective soundtrack.
1. Bayside – Vacancy 
Following a messy divorce and a subsequent stint living in the motel pictured on the album’s cover, you’d think Bayside frontman Anthony Raneri would be writing far darker music than Vacancy. Make no mistake, Vacancy is dark as hell. But the pained, broken, and lonely thematic material is not delivered somberly; instead, it is on the backs of sweeping and theatrical melodies. Over catchy, anthemic arrangements, Raneri examines with raw and pleading honesty the position he’s found himself in and everything that led him there. His impressive vocal range and crisp enunciation add to the Broadway-style flare, weaving and snarling amongst big, soaring, Built To Spill-style guitar riffs and anthemic major-key hooks. In the end, the glimmer of hope still shines through, finishing with the straightforwardly-titled “It’s Not As Depressing As It Sounds”.
I’ll be the first to admit that Vacancy isn’t wildly innovative. It falters when it leans too heavily on formulaic pop-punk compositions. But Bayside’s genre-bending seventh album is certainly varied enough to warrant regular listenings, making for an experience that’s as enjoyable as it is reliable.
If you’re only going to listen to one song: Pretty Vacant [3:12]
2. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo 
We’ve all been made well aware by this point of how Kanye West feels about Kanye West. He’s a neurotic and unpredictable narcissist who’s seemingly morphed into a caricature of himself via his constant string of high-drama media outbursts and bizarro-world commentary. Taking cues from both the highly polished maximalism of 2009’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the gritty, industrial minimalism of 2013’s Yeezus, The Life of Pablo feels like a manifestation of his volatile public persona: a glitchy, messy and unpredictable collage of sound.
The jagged pile of audacious boasts, however, is layered with admissions of deep insecurities – especially when it comes to family. As Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield notes, Kanye “hides behind the douchebag mask” so not to be seen as “a restless husband (“FML”), a guilt-ridden son (“Wolves”), a manipulative phony (“Real Friends”), a distant dad (“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2″) and all the other things he worries he is.” The man-child prodigy we all love to hate still has quite a bit of soul-searching to do, and he continues to give us a deeply personal front row seat.
If you’re only going to listen to one song: Waves [3:02]
3. Cubicolor – Brainsugar 
Two Dutch producers and a British vocalist make up the deep house trio Cubicolor, whose unique flavor of electronic music comes to life in their debut album Brainsugar. It’s quiet and atmospheric, the kind of soundtrack best suited for a peaceful late night drive or a foggy early morning. Lush compositions of gently pulsing rhythms form the liquid undercurrent upon which haunting tenor vocals float. Layers of smooth, clicking percussion, spacious and meandering piano arrangements, dark, textured synths and rich basslines paint a cavernous yet elegantly muted landscape. Like its title would suggest, Cubicolor’s first go-round is an immersive and cerebral experience.
If you’re only going to listen to one song: Falling [4:30]
4. Classixx – Faraway Reach 
The level of esteem with which we’ve held Classixx’s first album Hanging Gardens (2013) certainly made for high expectations concerning their sophomore release. Moving in a more pop-focused direction but still retaining the bouncy, retro world-beat vibes present on Hanging Gardens, Faraway Reach features an ensemble cast of vocalist collaborators (from Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos to T-Pain) to round out the sun-drenched tropical house melodies. Their signature effervescence returns in full technicolor, gliding to and fro through cascades of blips and pings – the musical equivalent of rainbow Dippin’ Dots, minus the brainfreeze.
If you’re only going to listen to one song: Safe Inside (ft. Passion Pit) [4:03]
5. Band of Horses – Why Are You Ok 
By all standard technical metrics, Band of Horses’ newest release Why Are You Ok is a mediocre album. It’s a bit over-simplistic, relying on many of the same sonic cliches that made many of their previous albums so homogenous. But to bring this back to beer for a moment, Why Are You Ok is like a well-made pilsner: what it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in accessibility. The theme of home is woven throughout the album, a fitting topic for an album that excels within its own four walls. The few boundaries that it does push are Band of Horses’ own, amplifying all of the best elements from their previous work and wrapping them up in a more polished package than we’ve seen from them in the past (as with any project involving Rick Rubin). It’s a simple, sweeping indie rock crowd-pleaser soaked in reverb, warmth, and nostalgia, and that’s all it needs to be.
If you’re only going to listen to one song: Solemn Oath [4:00]
Honorable Mentions: Our Individual Picks
ASA’S PICK: Lord Huron – Strange Trails 
Strange Trails is an Americana epic with all the flow of a classic movie. Melodies and hooks resurface in multiple places and forms, popping up in reprises and callbacks that feel like theme songs for its many characters and locations. The soundscapes recall the pastoral deciduous vistas of Hudson River Valley School-style paintings, a folktale Odyssey winding through field, stream, and prairie.
If you’re only going to listen to one song: La Belle Fleur Sauvage [5:41]
MATT’S PICK: Various Artists – Anjunadeep 08 
Another year, another Anjuna family pick from me. Even though it was released only a few weeks ago, the Anjunadeep 08 compilation has already received heavy air time. Producers James Grant and Jody Wisternoff spent the better part of the last eighteen months building one of the most eclectic compilations to date. The result is deep, danceable, and vibrant, a two-and-a-half hour journey will surely move you (or get you to move).
If you’re only going to listen to one song: Yotto – Edge of Affection [5:10]
BREWHOUSE PICK: Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere 
Thrice returns from a five-year hiatus to deliver their 9th full album, To Be Everywhere – a forceful and dynamic adventure across the veteran band’s ever-changing musical spectrum. Punishing guitars, melodic bass, and powerful political lyrics, fall under a blanket of ambient harmonies, the type of complexity we’ve come to expect from such a diverse and longstanding group.
If you’re only going to listen to one song: The Long Defeat [4:11]