So here it is. The list. Well at least the list as it was cobbled together with twine, duct tape and ample amounts of chewing gum. I am pretty confident that these few were my favourite albums this year and while glancing over I realize there are few obscure picks here, it was a pretty great year for popular rock music overall.
If you read this and have comments or suggestions, or your own list feel free to add to this chain, or to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. So without further ado… read on.
10) Belle & Sebastian — The Life Pursuit
After hearing this album, it was apparant the recent staleness of the last few albums had subsided. The band sounds rejuvenated and trying new approaches to their Scottish chamber pop. Very few opening tracks stayed with me like this album’s “The Act of the Apostle Part 1.” A great catchy album worthy of road trip sing-a-long when you’re looking for that boost of energy.
9) Sparklehorse — Dreamt for Light Years In the Belly of a Mountain
This might the one questionable vanity pick I am championing higher than it probably deserves because I really love this the melancholy vibe so much. As a relative sequel to the previous It’s A Wonderful Life, not much is radically different, but that is not a bad thing. Nice to have Mark Linkous back to writing these darkly morose yet wonderfully warm, orchestrated dirges.
8) Regina Spektor — Begin to Hope
Probably one of the most perfectly constructed pop songs of the year is that of the lead track, “Fidelity.” The album is richly emotional and cinematic. Regina’s voice can be so sharp tounged and funny, with an adorable fragility underneathe. Add that to her dexterous piano arrangements and you have an album that is lovely and delicately fun.
7) Juana Molina — Son
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Molina was once a comedian on Argentinian television. But only because her free form songs are so lushly exotic and romantic. The surreal electronic swells and burbles border on experimental pop yet they compliment the intricate guitar work and seductive yet hushed voice. A perfect record for a quiet late night road trip. That is if you drive through the Midwest late at night and you like songs in Spanish sung by beautiful women.
6) Cat Power — The Greatest
As I look at this list more closely, it seems the albums that resonated the most are female singer songwriters. And this one by the fragile and often tormented Chan Marshall is a great example. There is something appealing about singers of this ilk (Fiona Apple for instance) because you feel like in some way you are strangely intruding on some painful personal experience. Yet the motifs they explore to exercise that pain are universally thematic. Marshall is backed by Al Green’s Memphis Rhythm Band on this soulful collection. Cat Power has never sounded better: strong, vibrant and perhaps a little less anxious.
5) M. Ward — Post War
Finally an album that is not only about the war (or at least a war) but a world afterwards. Matt Ward’s songs are filled with poignent vignettes and song structures that harken back to a long forgotten era of music. His attention to old song styles and mysterious melodies are further benefited by Ward’s gravelly husk of a voice and impressive guitar work.
4) Neko Case — Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Further exploring her love for Southern country roots music, Case slinks and slides through this new collection of entrancing and engaging tunes. Case’s elegant voice is instilled with a beauty that is both cinematic and hard worn that make it easy to relate to such as the highlight track “Star Witness.”
3) Jenny Lewis — Rabbit Fur Coat
While a fan of Lewis’ indie pop band Rilo Kiley, I always found some of the arrangements a bit straight forward. The songs I was drawn to were the more personal quiet moments that unfolded the more private moments. In her solo debut, Lewis has crafted a series of intimate songs that also tackle the bigger questions of love, religion and God. The music takes on a gospel country feel especially when joined by the equally lovely and transcendent Watson Twins whose backing vocals shimmer and emotionally swell underneathe each titular phrase. This is a nearly perfect character study and glimpse into Lewis’ mind and a great sign of music to come.
2) TV on the Radio — Return to Cookie Mountain
This was one of the most anticipated records of the year and yet for me, still lived up to the initial hype. It is by far the most interesting and unique sounds of the year. I have waxed on and on about this band all year in many forms so I am not sure what else to say about the futurist noise cluster of rock, hip hop, doowop and soul. The songs are not simply a collage of static-filled soundscapes. When you strip them down, the record proves to be a fully thought out collection of real pop songs. While I enjoyed the first album, this one will surely be difficult to top. There really is nothing else like it this year.
1) The Decemberists — The Crane Wife
Upon first listen, I knew this would be an album that stayed with me the rest of the year. As soon as the chorus to “The Crane Wife 3” came in, the song was so instantly recognizeable and memorably catchy. I was already singing along as though I had heard it many times before. And for me, who has trouble hearing lyrics, that is saying something. The band has made the segue to major label success without any noticeable murmur or palpatation. One would expect them to make a quick and easy album that treads on the waters of the past, but that is not the case here. Colin Meloy and company have pushed the boundaries of their literary minstrel indie folk sing-a-longs by incorporating traces of prog rock and fusion that would give Jethro Tull or Yes a run for their money. Not only was this album stellar, but the band delivered one of the most memorable and unpretentiously fun nights of live music I can remember in a long time. When it comes down to it, The Decemberists have that perfect mix of superior songcraft and great showmanship. I eagerly anticipate this band’s next tour and next album. I know I’ll be there.
Mike’s SPECIAL BONUS!… albums that might have made my top ten but barely missed and deserve some attention and love (i.e. the runner-ups) in no particular order:
Bob Dylan — Modern Times
The Walkmen — Hundred Miles Off
Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton — Knives Don’t Have Your Back
Tilly & The Wall — Bottoms of Barrells
The Flaming Lips — At War with the Mystics
Camera Obscura — Let’s Get out of this Country
Beck — The Information
Thom Yorke — The Eraser
The Black Angels — Passover
Joanne Newsom — Ys