Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away
The first three tracks on the new album from my favorite verbose Idahoan – “Curtains,” “Change of Time,” “The Curse” – are so gut-wrenching, it took me several continuous listens before I could finish the rest of the album. Sadly, it couldn’t hold up as a whole, but that start is so strong it can’t be denied.
Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
Like Weezer’s first self-titled album, if it had a little more testosterone and a little less “ooh wee oooh’s.” Fantastic use of distorted power chords and grit.
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
A wonderful mish-mash of noise, falsettos and complex orchestration. The 8-hour long (ok, 25-minute long) “Impossible Soul” is a love it/hate it closing track – I lean toward the former.
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Yeah, gurl, I’m way into Paul Simon, too. Want to take this pill and see what transpires?
She & Him – Volume Two
Sure, I’m a little Zoeey-biased, but this was somehow an improvement on Volume One. When she “uh huhs” and “mm hmms” on “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” a million boys/men freak the fuck out. Not that I would know.
It seems like every November I stumble on an album that just dominates my earholes for the remaining weeks of the year. George Lewis, Jr., aka Twin Shadow, put out Slow at the perfect time to take that coveted slot. His Morrissey-like vocals pair up wonderfully with sullen sadboy dance music. Yes, I know, that’s not exactly breaking the mold — it’s just quality synth pop that will remind you that your life isn’t a John Hughes movie. Sad trombone.
Noise pop is one of my favorite genres, because it just seems like an oxymoron from the get-go. Noise is just noise, amirite? No, youarenotrite. Sleigh Bells brings heavy, distorted guitars that sound like they’re about to explode, and chanting, pep squad-like, feminine vocals — two things that would drown the other in a toilet — and makes it work, to a high level. These are bouncy sing-a-longs that just happen to be very, very loud.
8. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
An endearing mish-mash of psych-rock and dream pop. The album cover is my favorite of the year, and I feel like it sums up the album quite nicely — kind of charming, kind of freaky, totally awesome. “Helicopter” is a wonderfully lush experience, like swimming with a manatee that’s totally willing to cuddle with you (simile win!).
7. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
I read a review a few months back that called this Arcade Fire’s “Automatic for the People” — completely accessible and totally brilliant. I feel like this is a spot-on assessment, although I don’t think it can match up with AFTP. That album is R.E.M’s best — it just so happens to be their most radio friendly. Now, The Suburbs is a fantastic album, but it is not Arcade Fire’s best work. I’d put it below both Funeral and Neon Bible. It’s still an incredible homage to growing up in cookie cutter subdivisions, something I can totally relate to as a middle-class white boy. The crowning achievement of the album is how easily “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” fits in with the rest of the tracks. It’s euro-disco (see: ABBA) surrounded by anthemic Springsteen rock.
6. The Radio Dept. – Clinging to a Scheme
I’ve already used up “dream pop” and “synth pop” in this list, so I guess I’ll have to describe this album as “shoegaze.” Basically, this was the year my ears lived in Partly Cloudy Drowsy Town. This album was in heavy rotation during a whole bunch of atmospheric nights spent riding on subways and walking through parks. It will put you to sleep and make you dream about girls with bangs. I should email their publicist and have that quote added to their website.
5. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
My love for The Tallest Man on Earth, or Kristian Matsson, has grown exponentially this year, thanks to this album and an EP that subsequently followed (Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird). Matsson’s debut Shallow Grave was an incredible example that sometimes a voice and a guitar is all you need (the opposite example would be Jack Johnson *hacky sack!*). No complex instrumentation, deep production, nothing. The Wild Hunt takes this model and mostly sticks to it — only occasionally does Matsson throw in a second guitar or a piano. Ain’t broke, don’t fix, you know? Yet, somehow, this sophomore album is an improvement. At this pace, his 4th album will cure cancer (hyperbole win!).
4. Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue
This is a bittersweet choice for me. It is easily Ben Folds’ best album since Rocking the Suburbs — it may even be better — but it can’t be called a “Ben Folds album.” Nick Hornby wrote the words, Ben wrote the music. This was 100% a collobrative effort between the two. Does this mean he does his best work when he has a little help, a la Ben Folds Five? Ugh, probably, but let’s look past that for now. This album could have easily been a short story collection, which is not a shock, given Hornby’s profession. Each song has a character, or characters, and a story to tell. Combine that with some of Folds’ best melodies and orchestrations in a decade, and you have an instant classic. “Belinda” is the best song Barry Manilow never wrote (totally not a backhanded compliment).
3. Beach House – Teen Dream
DREAM POP! SHOEGAZE! ATMOSPHERE! Man, I’m starting to paint myself into a very specific musical corner, huh? But what sets Beach House apart from acts like Twin Shadow and The Radio Dept. is Victoria Legrand’s vocals. They are physically over-powering, like getting caught in a tornado. You find yourself stepping back during tracks like “10 Mile Stereo.” The driving rhythms paired with her husky voice — they just pick you up and carry you along.
2. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
Now I’m not one to dance in public — only on special occasions, like when I black out from too much boxed wine — but James Murphy’s latest puts a little spring in my footwork, no matter where I’m stepping. His lyrical combination of self-deprecation and eye-opening truisms speak to me, MAN. He gives you hope, while at the same time keeping you steeped in snarky reality. That’s hard to do. Thus, I am his disciple and I will white-boy shuffle in almost-but-not-quite perfect unison when he asks.
1. The National – High Violet
There’s just something about The National that — for the lack of a better term — speaks to me. When I listen to their albums, I feel involved, like these songs were my own creation. High Violet struck a very specific nerve: feeling isolated while surrounded by millions of people. Matt Berninger’s social anxiety, that lingering feeling that he could suffocate out in the open under the weight of his own thoughts, is at the forefront:
“You’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think. Meet our friends out for dinner. When I said what I said, I didn’t mean anything.” – Conversation 16
“This pricey stuff makes me dizzy, I guess I’ve always been a delicate man.” – Lemonworld
“I live in a city sorrow built. It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk.” – Sorrow
“You said I came close as anyone’s come to live underwater for more than a month.” – Anyone’s Ghost
This album is soaked in melancholy, despite it reaching new heights musically. Berninger pours his heart out with his almost mumbly baritone, while grand sounds rise and fall around him. No wonder he feels the crush of it all.