These ten bands share a perspective on the world that doesn't shy away from tough questions or feelings.
5. The Clientele: Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge)
The Clientele's sixth album is an especially elegant turn in their career – picking up where they left off seven years ago, with their same mythological and surrealist interests, their same knack for gorgeous tunes, full of longing, that make time seem to stand still for a few moments. Their atmospheric pop songs began in compact daydream style back around the turn of the century. Here they've stretched out, expanded into different explorations of similar moods and ideas – featuring collaborations with Anthony Harmer, playing an Iranian dulcimer called a santur. It adds a new texture to the group's pleasingly familiar sound.
4. Fred Thomas: Changer (Polyvinyl)
Fred Thomas has gone through his one-man Brill Building years (as Saturday Looks Good to Me, mainly) and emerged as a sort of sharp-eyed poet laureate of wistful restlessness. Youth has faded, bringing even more questions and doubts. You long for wilder years and at the same time long for more mundane habits to stabilize you. Changer is jam-packed with observations born from memories that taunt and life situations that befuddle. All this to the sort of where-did-that-come from melodies that Thomas specializes in, and music that switches styles song-to-song yet always seems to come from one man's intuition, his sense for space and tune.
3. Milk Teddy: Time Catches Up With Milk Teddy (Lost and Lonesome)
A lot of the pleasure found in listening to music lies in not following exactly what a song is about, in literal terms, but in catching the feeling of the song. Milk Teddy always keep me a little confused, perhaps not on purpose. Their songs use little scenes, thoughts, and stories as the basis for really brilliant, beautiful, tuneful guitar-pop songs. Their second album Times Catches Up With Milk Teddy is even lovelier and more fascinating than their first, 2012's excellent Zingers. One persistent theme involves the feelings a particular place can stir up; songs reference the gothic architecture of one city, the airport of another. Train journeys, whirlwind adventures through a new city. There's so much yearning in these songs, which also possess hooks and melodies that surprise in their twists and turns. Singer Thomas Mendelovits sounds joyous and sad at once, with an amiable demeanor and a singing style somewhere between pop crooning, poetry-rambling, and rock striving. The final song "Too Young to Vote Too Old to Cry" is at turns funny, sweet and heartbreaking, and an appropriate final tone to strike.
2. Alvvays: Antisocialites (Polyvinyl)
Toronto's Alvvays drew a lot of attention for their 2014 self-titled debut, with its instant-classic single "Archie, Marry Me". Yet their second album, Antisocialites, surpasses it in every way. On the first one, as good as it was, they were still in development, moving towards something greater. Here, start to finish, the album exudes confidence in what they're doing -- which is playing swooning, romantic, bittersweet, hopeless sorts of gorgeous pop music, with jaw-dropping melodies tenderly sung by lead vocalist Molly Rankin. At around a half-hour, the album's brevity is part of its charm. After nine songs that mix regret with infatuation, there's the finalé of the year in "Forget About Life", which starts like an intimate invitation and blows up partway through into a glorious cinematic escape, driven by a home-grown dance groove and a soaring call that's both a surrender and a proclamation as close to hopeful as they get.
1. The Ocean Party: Beauty Point (Spunk/Emotional Response)
Beauty Point opens with a gorgeous rumination reminiscent of the Blue Nile. Not a bad place to start. Sensitive, literary pop of the '80s is a definite starting point for the Ocean Party, a prolific group from Australia now on their seventh album in six years. A six-member band where all six sing and write songs, the Ocean Party have a distinct sound that neatly encompasses multiple sounds within it. Their always enjoyable music has hit a new height with this one, an album that travels a stylistic journey while its characters travel theirs -- marked by internal crises (one song is called "Crisis") and complicated relationships with the places around them. They wonder where they can be happy, whether their lives are the right size for them. The songs open up in beautiful ways with keyboards and saxophone lending different shading, song to song. The splendid last song, "Cracked and Shattering", finds them trying to figure out what's next. Only good things, it seems, as far as the Ocean Party and their music is concerned.