In alphabetical order:
Adult.- The Way Things Fall. This is the album I kept waiting (in vain) for Ladytron to make. It’s dark, catchy, and bratty, but in a way that strays more decisively into 90’s-Goth-club-style synth pop. It’s one hell of a dance floor record, and if you have an interest in dark dance music, I recommend it highly.
Apparat- Krieg Und Frieden (Music for Theatre). This album has a lot of things going for it: it’s an excellent ambient electronic album, it’s the score for a theatrical production of War and Peace, and it has my favorite album cover art of the year (in large part because of how different it looks at different scales on a computer screen). But let’s get down to brass tacks: the violin line at the beginning of the album (“44”) is a ridiculous ear worm. I’ve been hearing it in my sleep all year, to the point that I started leaving it on repeat, and using it as a test track for new audio equipment. The rest of the album is also great, but I’ll remember that violin theme until I die.
Boards of Canada- Tomorrow’s Harvest: This album perfectly encapsulated the creeping anxiety I’ve been feeling about our collective future for the past few years, and should be mandatory listening for artists working in a dystopian mode. It explicitly expressed some half-formed ideas that I’d been groping my way through for the past few years, and foregrounded them for me in a way that made my own feelings much clearer to me. I don’t really “come away changed” from music very often anymore, but this album definitely took a bite out of me.
Dutch Uncles - Out of Touch in the Wild. I’m kind of a sucker for unusually complicated pop music. If it’s synthy and slickly produced into the bargain, you may as well just ship me a copy on release. Art rock/pop of any kind is of interest to me, and while Dutch Uncles are not quite punching in the same class as a Roxy Music or the second King Crimson, they’re making glossy, catchy music that scratches the same itch for me.
Grim Tower- Anarchic Breezes. Dark psychedelic folk music is hard to make memorably good (although easy to make memorably bad). This album does well by only occasionally trying to do all three at once. Most of the tracks manage two out of three (dark folk, folky-psychedelia, or dark psych), but one or two manage to hit all three (e.g. Let Death Become Your Comfort). At it’s best the album sounds like King Dude without the Grand Guignol vocal filters, or occasionally like a lost Love album. If you’re an apocalyptic folk fan who doesn’t appreciate Nuggets-style psychedelia, you might want to give this one a pass, but if you (like me) enjoy psych rock as much as you do dark folk, this one’s a clear winner.
Lycia- Quiet Moments. Calling it a come back would imply that they’d ever left, and calling it a return to form would imply that they’d tried something different at some point. There’s not much stylistic innovation here: it’s a Lycia album and sounds very much like the other Lycia albums. But (and it’s a big but) it’s a truly exceptional example of their style. If you ever liked them or any of their fellows-in-harness over at Projekt: Darkwave, I can recommend this album highly. It’s probably my favorite Lycia album.
No Joy- Wait to Pleasure. High quality dream pop/shoegaze does not need a letter of introduction from me. If you like Lush, the Cocteau Twins, or especially Curve, run, don’t walk.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Push the Sky Away. The best album Nick’s been attached to since Abbatoir Blues. It’s solid, well executed, and has an immense amount of energy cooked into it. Every time Nick tosses off yet another “late career” masterpiece, I always greet it as an additional proof that time cannot alter, nor custom stale, his infinite variety (to paraphrase a famous man). Bonus: the “Higgs Boson Blues” were eerily prophetic in re: cultural appropriation and Miley Cyrus; add “seer” to Nick’s list of job skills.
Savages- Silence Yourself- Strait-laced, high-energy goth rock. They try to pass it off using the less-loaded genre designator “post-punk,” but this album is clearly stealing its riffs from JuJu-era Banshees and Bauhaus, not from Wire and the Fall, not to mention that the vocals are a pitch perfect Siouxsie Sioux impression. There is nothing remarkable about this album except for its quality and meticulous devotion to genre; if you told me this was a lost gem by a first-wave goth rock also-ran from 1983 (or a Banshees side project for that matter) I would believe you.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan - Uzu. This album was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, based on last-year’s semi-eponymous EP, and Uzu did not disappoint. I generally enjoy genre fusion, and YT//ST deliver fusion in spades: primarily doom or prog metal, combined with east-Asian pop musical elements, as well as flirtations with industrial music and opera (both eastern and western). And they manage to make the whole sound impressively heavy. Fusion, in general can be hit or miss: sometimes it just sounds comical, but sometimes it gels into something really tremendous (and this is it).
Honorable Mentions for memorable releases by-
Gatekeeper, Wax Idols, The Haxan Cloak, Youth Lagoon, Zola Jesus and J.G. Thirwell, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Tropic of Cancer.