10 - Grizzly Bear "Veckatimest"
Aside from the disappointment of hearing the best two tracks from this album months before its release (“Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others”), this album was highly anticipated in light of my number one album of last year (Grizzly Bear side project Department of Eagles). Too much anticipation can do as much harm to my reception of an album as four year-old iBook G4 speakers (they sound terrible). This album didn’t seem to capture the moody range of “Yellow House” or “In Ear Park”, but its baroque pop songs did contain enough goodness for me to include it on this list. I won’t listen to any advance singles from the next album, I promise.
9 - Cass McCombs "Catacombs"
Having recently developed an appreciation for 2007’s “Dropping the Writ”, I was excited for this stripped-down version of McCombs’s songwriting. He’s got a great ear for melody, and I was particularly happy with the evolution of his lyrics into clever, memorable capsules such as: “You’re not my dream girl, you’re not my reality girl, you’re my dreams come true girl” on the opener “Dream Come True Girl." There's much more clever musicianship and word-working to be had here on "The Executioner's Song" and "My Sister, My Spouse" among others.
8 - Califone "All my friends are funeral singers"
(See earlier post on this blog)
7 - Cymbals Eat Guitars "Why there are mountains"
As my friend Jeremy said: “I like any album that goes for epic in the first 15 seconds.” It was easy to just listen to “And the Hazy Sea” over and over as if that were the only track, but this band’s not-so-subtle mixture of Modest Mouse, Built to Spill and Pavement pays dividends throughout these nine tracks. This was one album that I knew instantly would make this list for the sheer go-for-broke nature of the opening track, but I found much more to like in the familiarity of the music heard through its influences. Sometimes "derivative" doesn’t mean reductive.
6 - Atlas Sound "Logos"
Last year’s Deerhunter album really stuck with me, so it’s not too surprising that I have found this album (from their side project) so enjoyable. Bradford Cox seems to be more interested in the ethereal tendencies of Deerhunter, and here he exploits them as the album drifts between proper songs and more airy, un-tethered pieces: “The Light That Failed”, “An Orchid”, “Kid Klimax”, and “Washington School” could be loosely classified as the latter. The central six or seven songs of this album help to anchor its more ambient pieces in the solid earth of songwriting. Unsurprisingly, Noah Lennox’s (of Animal Collective) collaboration on “Walkabout” make it a standout, along with “Attic Lights,” “Shelia” and “My Halo”. As on last year’s “Microcastle,” “Logos” is another hazy Bradford Cox-related release through which the more structured songs shine through brightest.
5 - Phoenix "Wolfgang amadeus phoenix"
These songs are nearly too polished, almost too robotic, but it’s this seemingly unfeeling pop precision that makes every melodic twist cover a remarkable emotive range. Phoenix gave me an album of shrink-wrapped pop that I will return to often. The one-two punch of “Listomania” and “1901” could be the best openers of the year, and the wave of hooks keeps rolling through all nine tracks. It’s nice to have an album like this once a year: tight, melodic pop-rock.
4 - St. Vincent "Actor"
There is a wonderland of sounds and songs to behold here. With Annie Clark functioning much like Lewis Carroll’s Alice as both protagonist and wide-eyed wonderer, the listener is welcomed into this world and cautioned that his/her surroundings may be unsettling. The monster that reveals itself to be lurking beneath the niceness of “The Strangers” emerges in the darker second track, “Save Me From What I Want”, and finally pushes through in the third, “The Neighbors”. Clark has said that she wanted the guitar to act as a dark monster that arose from beneath the songs to overtake them. It works quite nicely to this effect, threatening to destroy the carefully constructed pop song when it enters in “The Neighbors”. It soon takes over in “Actor Out of Work”. The titles of the tracks also point to this darkness and paranoia that consistently overcome Clark’s more poppy tendencies: “Black Rainbow”, “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood”. I’m happy to have heard this album. It contributed some dark wonder to the year: pop music is to be feared.
3 - The Antlers "Hospice"
One Saturday morning in the fall, on the whim of a good review, I downloaded this album expecting to be overwhelmed by tragedy. I was, and I continued to be. Loosely inspired by the singer’s personal experience, the music of this album is well suited for its storyteller aim – especially for the weight of the tale. It remains unclear exactly what relationship the characters have, but through each somber melody and slow-building climax, cancer, death, pregnancy and dread are each given their voice in the narrative. The highs and lows of human tragedy are what make this one of the most openly autobiographical albums I’ve ever heard. For that, and for its restrained, meek lows and emotive, explosive highs, “Hospice” will be an album marked in my mind for the singular impression it left on me.
2 - Dirty Projectors "Bitte orca"
1 - Animal Collective "Merriweather post pavilion"
I have tried to discuss how the special qualities of these albums are related in an attempt to understand how they produce such similar reactions with such contrasting musical landscapes. Both albums are fairly avant-garde and do not shy away from their intentions to shock-and-awe the listener. “Bitte Orca” erupts with “Cannibal Resource”, an anthem that does well to announce the kind of labyrinthine pop suites to follow. The harmonies fly in from left field, the disjointed guitar riffs shift between “rawk” and artful noodling, and the warbling vocals do little to calm the album’s barrage of aural vertigo. Not unlike “Bitte Orca”, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” also wants to transport the listener to another world via its sound-scape. When I listen to the pulsating sense of life that this album gives off, I hear trees; I hear wind, rain and the entire range of the primitive, organic and vibrant world in which I live. The same basic musical palette that Animal Collective has employed for a few albums is made new to me with lyrics that reach much deeper into the human experience (see: “Also frightened” and “Bluish”, especially). This album is a complete body of work in much the same way that “Bitte Orca” is, but whereas BO is a disjointed rollercoaster ride of hooky and harmonic amusement, MPP is more coherent, more cohesive, and because of that, more complete in my mind. My bottom line is: “Bitte Orca” sounds like it belongs in a museum with other pieces of fine art. It deserves to be appreciated and gawked at by the masses for its outlandish pop constructs. “Merriweather Post Pavilion” never lets that visceral, soul-seeking part of me into the museum: as much as I try, I always end up running outside to experience the instinctive allure of the world.
Well, that's all for this year!