Songs announce themselves as essential in different ways. Some knock you off balance; some help you find your rhythm. Some insinuate themselves into your life slowly, until you can't imagine a time they didn't exist; some leap out of car windows, change the course of your week and then vanish.
At the year's halfway point, with summer just about to flip the calendar over to Side B, it's a challenge to get a satisfying picture of the year in music, even if you're just looking at a single genre. Consider the voices of the couple dozen obsessive listeners from NPR Music and our public radio partners who made this list, and the only thing that remains undeniably true is that great albums come out of every genre, from every corner of the world.
"The madness runs in cycles," Tom Clarke sings forebodingly in "The Glow," one of the highlights of the U.K. duo Cloud Boat's second album. The music rushes along, propelled by the high-efficiency tick of a drum loop, but there's no trace of madness or even anxiety in his voice. Instead, Clarke radiates priestly calm as he gives listeners a set of vague, odd instructions: "Take some of these candles," he intones darkly, as if calling from some Middle Ages theater. "The glow will guide you."
"New wave" is a much more precise descriptor than it gets credit for. Originally a space-filler genre title when "punk" was deemed bad for sales — when bands like Television and Talking Heads were nodding to but branching away from nose-bloodying Sex Pistols mayhem — "new wave" has left its interstitial 1970s origins and been refined to a point.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Braid in 2014 is not Braid in 1999. As an album title, No Coast is either a clever turn on geographic identification or a challenge to reunited '90s bands not to rest on their laurels. As Braid returns with its first full-length album in 16 years, it's probably a little bit of both.