First off, there are a ton of great records not on this list, from the sleek and fantastic sounds on Charles Manier's American Manier to the thrillingly updated Americana noir of the Whiskey Charmers' debut. Additionally, a slew of cool releases (among them Duane the Brand New Dog's CD-R, Shigeto's Intermission, and Jamaican Queens' Bored and Lazy) were ineligible because they're EPs, rather than albums. A great list of not-on-this-list records would be twice the length of this list.
All this is a testament to how much exceptional music the Detroit area has produced, and continues to produce, in these strange times. There is no "Detroit sound." Detroit music is in transition. And while there might not be much in the way of overarching sounds and musical movements, this place is filled with amazingly talented people.
There are two lists this year, one of hip-hop tracks, and the following list of albums which skew toward pop, rock, folk, and experimental music. Our hip-hop expert, the poet and photographer Kahn Santori Davison, is in love with what's happening in the city right now. I am too!
1. Wolf Eyes, I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces (Third Man)
What a heartbreakingly excellent, heavily textured, total jam this record is. I expected they'd toss off at least some measure of a "fuck you" to garage rockers on their debut for Third Man. Instead, the trio went to serious emotional depths and brought out this fully realized longplayer that might have the legs of your favorite classic LPs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Stooges, or Otis Johnson. It gets brutal-sounding in points. How could it not — this is Wolf Eyes, the band Henry Rollins is scared of (and loves)? A few songs even approach the outsider squall of Royal Trux's masterpiece Twin Infinitives. But more than anything, this is a heavy Detroit record that will sound at least as good as it does now in 20 years' time.
2. Tunde Olaniran, Transgressor (Quite Scientific)
Speaking of rich and emotionally complex experiments, here's the debut album from a man who sings and raps and make various arty worlds collide in the best way. Flint-based Olaniran is an activist and very strong performer, and the album got rave reviews around the world. I was thinking, "Oh this is as close as we'll ever get to the perfect gene-spliced pop bon vivant who's got the talents of Prince and Bjork," but Pitchfork compared him to the Dirty Projectors combined with Kanye West, and that's both more correct and also more terrifying. It's hard to believe this is anyone's debut album — every song is an anthem, and each of them seem to demand Broadway plays be written about each number. Olaniran's only fault seems to be that he is trying to say too many things at once, here. But that might not be too much of a problem.
3. Arch Mystics, Colors in the Water (self-released)
Stunningly beautiful music created by Samantha Linn and Matt Thibodeau, Colors in the Water was labored over for years and released to no acclaim from anyone at all on bandcamp in October. This needs to see a physical release, perhaps from a small label like Three Lobed or Feeding Tube. It's some secret fairytale elves cavorting type mystical folk rock shit, with jazzy samba beats here and there. It has hidden musical barbs, impeccable arrangements, and strong lyrics — everything that makes an album from 40 years ago get reissued today in gorgeous gatefold sleeves and 150 gram vinyl. So why not pay it heed when it's here and now and new? Perhaps the sound might be a bit "clean" for some psychedelic rangers, but those folks just need to open their ears to the bright, digital present. After all, that's Detroit's very own McKinley Jackson on arrangements. Man, this is good.
4. Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art)
Now that everyone loves Protomartyr and the band seems to have become so popular they might as well be talking to Terry Gross for an hour tomorrow, what is one to do with their most commercial-sounding third release? What else to do but turn that thing up and dance around the fire in a postpunk apocalyptic party, of course! It's hard to resist the pogo urge when Joe Casey intones "I am the founder of myself/ And I'm never gonna lose it." The going got weird, so the weird turned pro.
5. Captwolf, Liquor Store Pizza Party at My Crib (self-released)
Genius slacker hip-hop made by six young men who clearly know what they're doing when it comes to inventive wordplay, messed-up samples, and how to get the attention of bored music writers by showing that they have a sense of humor. You wouldn't believe how rare a sense of humor is in musicians. Anyway, Captwolf took part in our "15 Best New Bands" feature and we're happy to report none other than Complex described the online mixtape as "808s & Space Invaders — a woozy and wonderful jam session, a mix of dorm room dirges and karaoke gusto. "
6. Viands, Temporal Relic (Midwich)
Recorded all in one go, Temporal Relic is an improvised collaboration between David Shettler and Joel Peterson (both on keyboards), which at first sounds like a lost 1970s science fiction soundtrack. I expected this to be an entirely zoned-out dronescape, but it's very rich — melodically, rhythmically, and in terms of its sonic palette. These oscillating and reverberating double keyboard jams are far more challenging than the average hipster synth record (which is great because hipster synth records are so 2013, anyway). Truly one of the biggest surprises of the year, one that bodes well for the new record label Midwich.
7. Beekeepers, Beekeepers II (self-released)
I wasn't sure if I'd liked this, the Beekeepers' second LP, the first time I heard it. But I had to immediately go back to the turntable to flip it over and see what it sounded like. After listening a few times, I was sure I liked it, but could hardly tell you what it sounds like. Each song is different, and nearly all of it is awesome and intentionally skewed. There are a few duds, but whatever, I never said this is Corky's Debt to His Father. This band is so good, they just might be the indie-punk-whatever reincarnation of (early) Soft Machine.
8. Daniel Kroha, Angels Watching Over Me (Third Man)
Finally, the Gories/Doll Rod/OG garage kingpin delivered a truly solo album. And this is all stripped-down gutbucket early roots music, delivered in a manner that's deeply personal and free of bullshit. It's referential, sure, but not too reverential. You just don't hear people sing folk music in these styles much anymore. He hasn't quite achieved that massive tonal flatness that, say, Bascom Lamar Lunsford had, but I'm also not sure any of us want him to.
9. Will Sessions, Mix Takes 3 and 4 (Fat Beats)
And here we come to the big confession/ apology part of this list. I should have written about this record when it was released. It's not like Doug Coombe didn't hep me to it! This record brings massive funk and several old-timers (including Dennis Coffey on an absolute tear) into the mix. It's big, vibrant, brassy and you can instantly see why this hybrid jazz/soul/hip-hop crew has been one of Detroit's most active bands for many years, now.
10. Fred Thomas, All Are Saved (Polyvinyl)
Confessional, lovely folk-pop music from the man best known as the leader of the great indie-pop act Saturday Looks Good to Me (and the secret weapon in the control room for dozens of area bands). Thomas' lyrics are so strong you want to call them "literate," but then you remember how awful all those schmndie bands who also get called that are, so you don't even mention it. Since releasing this album, Thomas has gotten married and moved to Canada, where hopefully he's busy crafting more personal and heartfelt gems along these lines.
11. Timmy's Organism, Heartless Heathens (Third Man)
We all know that Timmy's Organism perform blistering, raw, impossibly fun, balls-to-the-wall space truckin' glam-punk just the way God intended it. We accept no substitutes. Timmy's Third Man record is unimpeachably excellent, from start to finish. Is he playing the Super Bowl halftime show, yet?
12. Sick Llama, Head Transplant vol. 3 (Fag Tapes)
Michigan's noise scene remains surprisingly eclectic and alive, and part of that is definitely thanks to former Tyvek founder Heath Moerland's Fag Tapes. His solo project Sick Llama is consistently gnarly and inventive, and the Head Transplant series are each frighteningly strong.
13. Moonwalks, Lunar Phases (Manimal)
Just one year ago this good-looking bunch was a buzz band playing Hamtramck bars on Tuesday nights, and now they are close to headlining good-sized venues in Brooklyn, New York. This pro-sounding, Jim Diamond-produced, glammy effort shows why. They're already a far better moody psychedelic rock band than the Brian Jonestown Massacre ever were, so huzzah.
14. Warren Michael Defever, Sunship (Northern Ashram)
The guy behind His Name Is Alive has dabbled in experimental jazz, drone, and synth-based sounds for decades. But you had to be a superfan (or live in Detroit) to know this. His contribution to the gorgeous Northern Ashram series of cassette tapes is a bit overbaked, but in the best way (especially the second half of the first side).
15. Casual Sweetheart, Always/ Never (Cold Slither)
So great that they got such excellent sounding recordings, finally! Guitar lines and vocal melodies coil together before going out into the forest to hunt for prey. The Casual Sweetheart tape is so good, you'll have to ration yourself a few listens per week, or else you might burn out. This might be one of the best recombinant garage-punk acts since Grass Widow or La Luz.