Well, here it is. I tried, throughout the course of the past few months, to review as many of the albums that I have heard this year that I could. This has been quite a year for new music, a year that caught me by surprise. I did not realize all of the great albums that came out until about mid November. Many of the albums that I heard I did not get until several months after they were released. These are the ones that got the most spins, and for good reason. Here they are in order, well reverse order, to heighten the suspense.
I had to go with 15 because I really couldn’t narrow it down any further. If there is a problem, please write your congressman.
15.) Animal Collective -“Strawberry Jam”
This band out of Baltimore turned out a great electronic, rock, noise album this year in “Strawberry Jam”. The hooks are just as catchy and the vocals are at times soaring and hopeful and at others thoughtful or just plain surreal. It’s always interesting to see how a band operates outside of the “rock” idiom, and the Collective definitely make things interesting. It is unclear as to the instrumentation in each of the songs. Sound manipulation plays a more important role than that of a “drum part” a “guitar part” and verse-chorus-verse structure. Working in the experimental genre can be a tricky balancing act but the Animal Collective do it well. Just the right amount of reaching out and trying new things and straight up classic “good songwriting”.
14.) Marnie Stern – “In Advance of the Broken Arm”
For me this album came out of nowhere. Kirstie was shooting her for Venus and told me about this crazy two-hand tapping technique that Marnie used. My brother said it was like Maps and Atlases and I can see the connection with her densely contrapuntal and layered guitar sound and vocals that are alternately screamed and sung Marnie’s sound is quite unlike anything else that I have ever heard before. Her lyrics speak of self-confidence and metaphysics and everything in between. The album, however, does seem to weaken a bit towards the end and I think that is going to be quite a challenge to follow up an album like this with a set of songs that are equally intense and interesting without beating the style to death. The use of Hella’s Zach Hill on drums is the perfect choice, as his all out assault on the drums is the perfect match for Stern’s continuously moving and perfectly articulated guitar textures.
13.) Battles – “Mirrored”
The clean and precise production on this album speaks of its straddling the line between prog-rock and jazz-fusion. Like Interpol, or Marnie Stern for that matter, the guitars of Battles create a very layered and contrapuntal sound that creates as much forward motion as to propel the listener through a 10 minute track without getting bored. Many of the tunes on this album don’t rely specifically on the talents of one member in particular but as the band truly working as a single unit. The track “Tonto” is a perfect example of this with it’s slow and controlled build up and the perfectly engineered dénouement that closes the track with a gradual slowing of the tempo until everything dies away the way that the track began. There is attention paid to the form of each piece on this album, as well as the form of the album as a whole, with opening and closing tracks working together to form perfect bookends. The album is quite demanding on the listener though, by the end I usually feel rather worn down. This is not quite mindless background music, it is pretty heady and well thought out music that may only appeal on certain levels to true music dorks.
12.) Liars – “Liars”
The follow up to the sparse, hallucinogenic inspired tomes of “Drums Not Dead”, “Liars” finds these Australian crazies synthesizing all that they have accomplished to date. Tracks like “Freak Out” still feature out of tune guitars, but with a funky bass groove that would remind fans of early work such as “Mr. You’re on Fire Mr.”. Elements from their more far out and experimental albums is still present in some tracks like “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Dumb in the Rain” but for the most part, from what I can tell, this is just an album of great songs. There is no hint of a super-intellectual story-telling going on in this album, which is great. This album was the perfect decision for Liars to follow up an early-Sonic Youth-esque stage in their careers, get back on track with some really catchy, yet characteristic songs and probably continue to frighten audiences around the world with their astounding live performances. If you ever have the opportunity to catch this band live I would suggest it highly.
11.) Caribou – “Andorra”
Simply put the songs on this album are great. I know that that is a cop-out, as, well, it is obvious that I find the songs great on this album, why else would I put it on my year end best-of list? But I find it to stand out particularly from this years other contenders partly because of it’s seeming stance to bring back the Motown production sound, mixed with a little bit of Phil Spector. The reverb used on this album, along with the sleighbells (particularly the ones heard on the opening track) make it sound like a forward thinking relic of an album. I can’t imagine that there was too much state of the art equipment used in the making of this album, though I could be very wrong. I just really like the authentic sound of this album. One could imagine that this would eventually happen with Caribou, as there are strands of this sound in development in “The Milk Of Human Kindness” though this album benefits from tighter songwriting and less tinkering in an instrumental abyss than past work. This album is a great step forward and according to people I know that have seen Caribous live since this album came out he is definitely an act worth catching.
10.) The Bad Plus – “Prog”
Cracking my Top 10 is an album closer to the stylings of jazz than anything else. The performance ability of each of the three guys in The Bad Plus is absolutely amazing. They are all masters in their own right, working closely together as composers and performers. This album of covers (yes, it is that good, that I would even consider an album of mostly cover songs shows how great this album actually is) with a few original compositions mixed in for good measure is quite amazing. Covers of David Bowie, Rush and Tears for Fears mix seamlessly with original compositions. The covers are each treated to their own very unique process, parts are added and solos are taken to a whole new level of virtuosity. Though this album clearly stands squarely in the jazz idiom there is a rock sensibility that touches upon each song on the album. The precision, attention to detail and high standard for excellent performance stems from three well-trained jazz musicians but the reckless energy of rock stands behind everything.
9.) Thurston Moore – “Trees Outside the Academy”
The latest solo release from Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore is, obviously, quite similar in style to many of the songs that he recently penned for SY’s “Rather Ripped” but there is a more simple style at work when he is without his cohorts. Thurstons strips down the guitars a lot, and the result is a much more clear and relaxed album. The addition of violin is a nice touch, and actually is the element that truly sets the songs quite a far distance apart from anything Sonic Youth has done. This album also shows that Thurston has evolved quite a bit from the “Psychic Hearts” days, the songs here are more focused and calm, but his punk energy still shines through. He’s getting older but he’s always going to be the coolest guy on the planet.
8.) Field Music – “Tones of Town”
Much like The Futureheads Field Music has a densely layered and contrapuntal sound that sounds like the next generation of 70’s prog rock. Obviously heavily influenced by Yes and other bands of that era these Brits manage to pack quite a lot of excitement and energy into a very diverse album of very catch tunes. This album, for me, was a late entry in my year end lineup and if I was given more time with it I’m sure it would be much higher up on my list. Each song is great in its own way, and it sounds wonderful too, great production quality. I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to their first album, as I didn’t know that they existed prior to November but I am definitely going to make it a point to look into this band further.
7.) Cuff the Duke – “Sidelines of the City”
I truly think that Cuff the Duke can do no wrong. They are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. Every song that I have heard from them is great. They jump comfortably from genre to genre and sound great and confident no matter what they are doing. The lead singer has a unique, very instantly recognizable voice. The instruments change up a bit from time to time. This time out the opening track adds a single violin playing in a folk style, country inflicted (as many of their songs are) and truly sounding like an American folk-tune. This is an album that I never skip a track on, and I have listened to this album many many times in the past few months. I am already looking forward to their next effort. Unfortunately they aren’t too popular in the U.S. and seeing them any time soon would probably be a dream. To me seeing Cuff the Duke would be a legendary, unforgettable event, though to many Canadians I’m sure that it is just commonplace. Check out this band! You will not be disappointed.
6.) The Good, The Bad and The Queen – “The Good, The Bad and The Queen”
An incredibly dark album about war, times of frustration, uncertainty and suffering. This is a great album, if it all is kind of the same sound over and over again. Each of the songs put you in a place that is dark with a sense of foreboding doom. I have never heard an album that sounds like this before and I am almost positive that this super group of sorts will not be putting out another album, or if they do it will not be anytime soon. I am quite jealous of Damon Albarn’s ability to crank out music all over the place with several different projects going at once it seems. Each of the tracks on this album feel monumental, noteworthy and legendary I would place it higher, but like I said, each of the songs sort of sound a bit the same, thankfully they are all excellent.
5 .) Menomena – “Friend and Foe”
Menomena is a great group of musicians, in case you didn’t know. Three guys, all great songwriters and multi-instrumentalists, sharing singing and songwriting duties. They are just as tight live as they are on record. Each of the guys has a distinctive songwriting voice and several instruments are used to create a lush sound. Tracks range from the tragic to the imploring, light and gentle to dark and unnerving. Whenever a band chooses to operate in this manner it can be just what is needed to propel an album through to the end, a distinct amount of variety. Their sound is distinct, to say the least, yet they don’t stray too far from tried and true forms and catchy hooks. What it really comes down to is that these guys are fantastic songwriters and great instrumentalists. This is another album that has been in heavy rotation on my itunes for months and months, and will continue in this manner for a long time to come I’m sure.
4.) Joel Plaskett Emergency – “Ashtray Rock”
Another album from a fantastic songwriter and amazing guitarist. I don’t even care if he rips off Jimmy Page left and right, it’s fun and it sounds great and he does it well and that’s all I care about. Have you heard Jimmy Page lately, he sounds like shit, but I digress. Joel can write a song about anything, I’m convinced, after seeing him live twice and watching him rewrite lyrics on the spot. He has strung this album into a series of songs that tell a rather simple story, not sure if it’s a true story or not but that is nearly beside the point. The album is so well thought out and well put together and every song is catchy as hell and great (yes even Fashionable People, I happen to love that song). Plaskett blasts through each song with a mind boggling array of guitar sounds and at the same time jumping from inspiration to inspiration making the album truly sound like a recollection from his childhood. This album is also proof that if an album is made by someone that truly has fun while playing music the album will be fun to listen to and in general great, it’s contagious. I could go on for days about how great this album is and how much I love Joel, but I won’t, if you haven’t heard this album, go now and listen.
3.) Interpol – “Our Love to Admire”
New York City neo-shoegaze turned gloomy math-rock band Interpol just keep getting better. Does it matter that it takes them 3 years to create an album? They hardly toured for the better part of 2 years, didn’t do any interviews, were not on TV and when they emerge Carlos D. has a creepy mustache and the guys have put together a truly mindblowing album of thoughtful and complex tunes with cryptic lyrics. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I listened to this album when it first came out. The album itself got into my bones like a virus, slowly working it’s way out from “The Heinrich Maneuver” and eventually spreading to the rest of the album. I couldn’t get enough and soon I was hooked, listening to it everywhere and several times a day. I would say more things about the album in detail, but I think I already did a pretty good job of that here.
2.) Radiohead – “In Rainbows”
Well if I had any indie cred I am apparently about to shoot it out the window. I don’t know why hating Radiohead seems to be the cool, hipster thing to do these days, but you can not deny that these Brits can write an absolutely phenomenal album, without a doubt. I, no exaggeration, listened to this album 10 times a day for at least 2 weeks immediately following its release. Not a bad second, no complaints, nothing that I could possibly imagine changing. The gentle lulling of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” featuring a great, closely voiced double guitar line is my favorite of the album. The closing track “Videotape” is reminiscent of other Radiohead closing tracks. This is a truly great album, it is an important album and if you are not listening to it because you think they are too popular or you want to be different and it seems that everyone loves Radiohead, well, pull your head out of your fucking ass, swallow your pride and listen to this album. It will blow your mind. It is legendary. No joke. Next.
1.) Spoon – “Ga ga ga ga ga”
The best album of the year happens to have the worst title of any album, ever. Whatever. I have already talked about this album here. This is a great improvement from their last album “Gimme Fiction” a truly overblown, overdone near piece of garbage. “Ga ga ga ga ga” is stripped down, intelligent and great from cover to cover. Nothing truly mindblowing here, just great rock tunes that position Spoon, I feel, much in the same place that Sonic Youth was upon the release of Daydream Nation. Spoon has become the indie band that any other smart indie band wants to be like. They have a large following, are writing great songs, have been at it a while and became the talk of the town after this album was released. I am hoping that the electricity that I felt when they were playing Saturday Night Live was not imagined. I want to believe that not only did they play perfectly but that they connected with the home audience and got some more, well deserved fans. This album sounds fantastic and I am still obsessed with it, and that will last a long long time I’m sure. I am probably the only one that has this at the top of their list, but as Brit says “you got no fear of the underdog, that’s why you will not survive”.