I tried my best to be unnecessarily ignorant in regards to the music of this past year, but you know what? I didn’t hate all that much. In fact, I think I went out of my way to not listen to things I knew would be terrible. Hence, why I have yet to listen to the latest Jet or Hinder albums. That list would come about way too easily, and that’s just cheating. I also could have taken the low road and blatantly ripped on bands I’ve never even given a fair shake, like The Knife, TV on the Radio, and The Hold Steady. It’s routine every year; bands come along with critical appeal, and I can’t listen to more than one song without going cross-eyed. It’s not that they are terrible; I just don’t get their appeal. You could blame it on my complete lack of “hipster cred,” or my penchant for pap like Snow Patrol. Either way, I’m far too much of a Muse fan to like something that’s actually good. So, I will not be doing a Most Overrated or Biggest S**teaters list this year. Instead, I will bring nothing but love. Feel free to hate everything I name. I surely deserve it.
This was a late entry onto the list, bumping off The Format in the process. Even with only a few listens under my belt, I get the feeling that this would be much higher on the list if it had come out months earlier. Every new listen I catch some different nuance, kind of like when I put on Tom Waits or Sufjan Stevens. Sure, N&W don’t quite compare to those two, but this is fairly darn close. If a band can throw in banjos, grammophones, saws, and a four minute long instrumental waltz on one album and have it work, then they deserve a spot of their own, even if it’s at the bottom.
Let’s forget the fact that she’s batcrap insane, and instead, we can focus on something other than her blatant Joe Cocker impersonation during live performances. Yes, she goes by a pseudonym. Yes, she wears oversized hats to hide her face on stage. And, yes, sometimes she bolts mid-song due to anxiety. But none of that changes the fact that her voice is like velvet. I’m talking the kind of velour only found in Tony Soprano’s sweatsuits — soft, yet tough at the same time. Give “Where Is My Love” a first listen in an empty room, and take in the piano and her words with your eyes closed. I don’t mean to go all Deepak Chopra on you, but it will do wonders for anxiety. Fantastic, fantastic stuff. Also, if you don’t mind that she’s bonkers, read her interview with Fred Armisen on Pitchfork. It’s the most meandering, strange conversation ever put down in print. It wasn’t so much of an interview as it was an advertisement for Zoloft.
It makes me a little sad to put this so high, considering how long I waited for the album. It’s no secret that Jenny Lewis is one of my all-time favorites. From ’04 on, it was Rilo Kiley or nothing for me. It wasn’t even fair to other music. It was a time of musical neglect and I regret nothing. When I heard she was working on a solo record, I lost it, proclaiming this to be the greatest thing since, well, the last Rilo Kiley record. Consider me buzzcocked when I only “sorta” liked her effort. It was too, I don’t know, too simple, too bare boned. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I mean, I was even aware beforehand that it was a white girl got soul record, yet I still wanted more. Maybe it was just the presence of Conor Oberst on “Handle with Care” that threw me off. He has that effect on most of humanity, including his immediate family. At least, that’s what I hear. But, slowly, after we put it on heavy rotation at work, I realized that there’s beauty in simplicity, and I suddenly felt like a raging jagoff for leaving the JL bandwagon so rashly. Jenny knows how to tell a story with her songs, kind of like painting a picture. I mean, every song on More Adventuous is a short story on its own. With this album, I felt like a mid-westerner, complete with a denim shirt and a broken family. Is this a good thing? I’m not too sure, but at least I found something to hold onto. And while this isn’t really her credit to take, the drum work at the end of “Born Secular” is outstanding. I’ve heard that song a few dozen times, and I still can’t drum along with it beat for beat. Solid stuff.
I don’t have much to say about this record other than it’s the dance rock album of the year. It’s not as good as Bloc Party’s from the year before, but it’s an American, less pretentious version. With songs about drinking too much and embarrassing yourself, friends that never call, and instant sexual attraction, it’s perfect for the whiny broseph that hates all his friends, all women everywhere, and basically anything else you can imagine. But, hey, at least you can dance away the pain!
Blake Sennett, the other former childstar of Rilo Kiley, also put out a side project album this year, and you know what? It’s two spots better than the hot redhead’s effort. That I did not expect. I enjoyed The Elected’s first record, Me First, but really only because if his connection to the main band. His voice was always a little too frail for me to take it seriously. But this time around, he showed off some chops no one knew he had, probably not even himself. On “Did Me Good,” he summons some Al Green-like powers even the Reverend would be impressed with. That first record was Ryan Adams style alt-country, but this last one was more like an old Eagles album, full of melodies that invoke the west coast. I don’t want to sound like a massive tool, but the best way to describe the sound is “breezy.” If you go out for a ride on a cool, sun-soaked day, this would be the perfect soundtrack.
My first thought upon hearing YYY’s second LP: “Man, Karen O isn’t nearly as horny on this album.” To this date, I still have no idea what I meant by that. I suppose since their debut was full of strange, animalistic grunts, that made me think Karen really was needin’ some sexual healin’. Well, I guess one break-up with Spike Jonze later, and she’s suddenly no longer “horny,” she’s “mature.” That was the label most tried to place on this record: “The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s have grown up!” Mostly, they just added some texture to their sound, and added a few semi-acoustic thinkers at album’s end. “What, what, what?!? They’re not throwing out party anthems anymore? I feel betrayed,” said the average consumer. Well, hold on there, Johnny Drama. Give “Phenomena” a listen. That right there is your arena rock cut of the year. It had the best of many worlds: your rip roarers of the first album, some meathead tracks, and some legitimate literary themes. What’s not to love… besides Karen’s bowl cut, which I do have to admit is still a step-up from her rat tail.
“In the lowlands, nestled in the heat
A briar cradle rocks it’s babe to sleep
Its contents watched by Sycorax
And patagon in paralax
A foretold rumbling sounds below the deep.”
Can you repeat that? You lost me at lowlands.
You may have noticed that this list has a very folk feel to it, and you can blame this album for swinging me in that direction. It’s not your typical folk album, because the majority of the songs are heavily orchestrated with strings, percussion, and the like, but if you focus on some of the stripped down cuts, like “Talking in Code,” you’ll notice that the rest of the songs would have sounded just like this one if left to guitar and vocals. It just goes to show that you can take a song anywhere if you choose to do so. This really was my theme of the year: folk acts with heavy intstrumention. Actually, this isn’t much different than last year, considering Illinoise, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Cold Roses were my favorite albums last year. Okay, maybe The Dust of Retreat didn’t sway me in this direction, but it sure did keep me here.
This was supposed to be an album of thrown away B-sides and outtakes. Usually when that happens, you’ll give them a listen and think, “Yeah, that’s garbage that belongs in the garbage.” But with The Avalanche, Sufjan produced something that was nearly as good as the A-side stuff that became Illinoise. How is that stinking possible? The album, once again, is over an hour long, with 20+ songs, so some of this has to be terrible. It just has to be. That’s just how the world works; you eff up somewhere in the creative process and things get discarded. Well, apparently that doesn’t happen very often in the land of banjos and awkward guitar solos. This album is left over junk, and it’s better than 99% of the stuff that’s crapped out on the adoring public. Hell, “Pittsfield” wasn’t good enough to make the varsity squad, and it’s my favorite Sufjan song ever. Remarkable.
When I listen to this album, I suddenly feel the need to smother a growing death wish by maintaining a five pack a day cigarette addiction. What, this isn’t a good thing? Apparently, you’re not a music fan. Well, that’s certainly the image I get when I envision LaMontagne recording this record. Over the course of the album, his gruff but smooth vocals float over insanely beautiful melodies, and several months later, I cannot get enough. This one gets a daily listen, I never miss a day. But I give Ray three more years. He’s not meant for this world. From day one, I knew Elliott Smith was a goner, and once “Empty” poured out of my speakers, I felt the same way about LaMontagne. Let’s hope not, because he’s capable of creating something truly wonderful, and that’s pretty rare these days.