Deep Sea Diver, History Speaks (2/24, self-released, thedeepseadiver.com): Between her day jobs playing lead guitar for Beck and the Shins, it took Jessica Dobson a while to complete the debut full-length from Deep Sea Diver, her band with her husband and drummer Peter Mansen. But when History Speaks was finally released, it quickly did its job, establishing Dobson as a musical force much more than just a backing-band guitarist for hire. From the peppy pop melody of "You Go Running" to the sweeping melodrama of "NWO," History Speaks showcases Dobson's dynamic songwriting, her pristine guitar playing, her uniquely pliable vocals—in short, her powerful potency as a fearless frontwoman.
Dum Dum Girls, End of Daze (9/25, Sub Pop, wearedumdumgirls.com): Dum Dum Girls did in a five-song EP what most bands can't do in a full-length, what some novelists labor to accomplish in 500-page tomes—create a sincerely empathetic account of lost love, one that touches, burns, resonates, and then settles into a peaceful conclusion. It's a satisfying full Kübler-Ross cycle, with each stage represented by a darkly beautiful song—the arsenic-bitter "Mine Tonight"; the despairing "I Got Nothing"; the dazed, keening cover of Strawberry Switchblade's "Trees and Flowers"; the stunningly mournful "Lord Knows," among the year's best singles; and the gratifying, fog-lifting "Season in Hell."
The Maldives, Muscle for the Wing (10/16, Spark & Shine, sparkandshine.com): While it lacks the calloused sear of 2009's Listen to the Thunder, Muscle for the Wing affirms Jason Dodson's status as the true visionary of this sprawling country-rock ensemble. The dueling guitars are hardly muted, but here Dodson's vocals receive the spotlight they deserve. On Muscle, the Maldives simultaneously show more restraint, levity, and dexterity as they live up to their billing as The Band's 21st-century progeny, proving themselves a far more dynamic outfit than their contemporaries in Seattle's overly nostalgic beardwave movement.
Shannon Stephens, Pull It Together (5/22, Asthmatic Kitty, shannonstephensmusic.com): "I turned 35 and all of a sudden I didn't have the energy to give a shit what people thought about me anymore," says singer/songwriter Shannon Stephens when probed about this, her third solo release. Indeed, Stephens has found new confidence here; her serene voice, when merged with contributions from her studio band (including Jeff Fielder, labelmate DM Stith, and Will Oldham), is often striking. "Faces Like Ours" contrasts delicate piano work, billowy pedal steel, and resonant harmonies (hers and Oldham's) with bold lyrics on white privilege. It's Stephens' guiding instinct to include such a track that makes Together a departure from her debut, and new resolve runs like an electric current through it.
THEESatisfaction, awE naturalE (5/27, Sub Pop, theesatisfaction.blogspot.com): THEESatisfaction recently toured with frequent collaborators OCnotes, Erik Blood, and Shabazz Palaces, and the duo documented the trip with photos they posted on their website—a series of candid, honest moments frozen in time, curiosities, colorful compositions, and the occasional tourist snapshot. As a whole they constitute a minor (and decidedly understated) work of art that reinforces the astounding precociousness of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White. The ladies apply the same casual brilliance to their Sub Pop debut, an early release not soon to be forgotten.
Country Lips, Touched (4/8, self-released, countrylips.com): Did anybody play more local gigs this year than Country Lips? It seems like these guys rocked the shit out of every bar, club, tavern, and dirty dive in town at least twice. Hell, they even headlined a wedding or two (thanks, guys). The boys do a lovely version of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," but it's as if they never leave King County. It's only a matter of time until the rest of the world is introduced to the Lips' rollicking live show, but in the meantime the band's stellar debut, Touched, will have to suffice.
Erik Blood, Touch Screens (8/7, self-released, erikblood.com): Those who follow local music with any regularity probably know Touch Screens as "that album about porn." Smut is indeed Erik Blood's thematic touchstone, but that's not why his album is one of the year's best. Credit instead goes to his deft songwriting and production. Touch Screens bridges a range of styles—icy synth-rock, neo-psychedelia, even krautrock on standout track "Today's Lover"—and it's Blood's skill behind the boards that makes it cohere. Dense and lush but never busy, this is understatedly brilliant work from Seattle's most sought-after producer.
Nacho Picasso, Exalted (5/28, self-released): Villainous MC Nacho Picasso released three full-lengths this year (Lord of the Fly and Exalted with production team Blue Sky Black Death, Black Narcissus on his own), so what sets this one apart? Nacho's flow has been pretty consistent throughout his run, but BSBD turned out perhaps its most dynamic record this time around, popping off the Bandcamp page and lending itself to Nacho's clever plot games. Beats like "Bloody Murder," "Haile Selassie," "Kickin Out Windows," and "The Gods Don't Favor You" are especially hard-driving vehicles, on which Nacho works his semi-sarcastic sleazebag routine and pushes himself to spit some of his most entertaining bars to date.
Damien Jurado, Maraqopa (2/21, Secretly Canadian, damienjurado.com): Jurado says this is the first Damien Jurado album he actually likes—the first time he made the kind of album he wanted to make, not the kind he thought could get him written up in songwriting magazines. We're not sure we fully believe him. But we're sure that Maraqopa does not adhere to the singer/songwriter strictures of record. Jurado employs his talents in the service of psychedelia, jam, and expansive explorations of sound that take him out of the cozy indie-acoustic safe zone that the scene he comes from needs to flee. This is not the end of the trip. And even if Maraqopa is Jurado's best album to date, he has not likely yet made the album for which he will be remembered.
Father John Misty, Fear Fun (5/1, Sub Pop, fatherjohnmisty.com): It is by no means a dis to the Lumineers, but if you are having sex to their record, you are most likely doing it wrong. Top-40 folk at its best is a soundtrack for missionary position "lovemaking" with too much eye contact. At its worst, it's for doe-eyed tweens whose idea of male genitals are still defined by Ken dolls. Not all music has to sock you in the nether regions, of course, but isn't it so much better when it does? Father John Misty's Fear Fun injects this now-conventional sound with seedy, Southern California-in-the-'70s sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for a good-time record full of psychedelics, lust, and social consciousness.