This is a big freaking list. Either I’m getting worse at narrowing down my choices for favorite albums, or maybe it really was just that good a year. There were a ton of releases I really liked, with an exciting blend of new talent along with reliable veterans making some of their best records in ages.
The downside of this phenomenon is that it takes me a hell of a long time to write this annual music post, and I’m inherently lazy. But man, there’s some music here I just really have to talk about. So here we go.
>> Like It <<
She Wants Revenge – Valleyheart - Though their latest effort is less consistent than their first two records, there are enough good songs on Valleyheart to justify further faith in the band. When they’re at their best, they explore the obsessive/compulsive side of sex and love. When the band misses the mark, it’s because they get a bit too self-indulgent. I hope a little more darkness creeps into their next record.
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy – I must admit this was one of the records I was waiting all year to hear, because the last album, Actor, was unadulterated brilliance. Strange Mercy is a bit more grounded and, in places, slower moving than its predecessor. Still a really strong record, though I’m not sure anything could live up to my expectations. Honestly, I’m trying not to sound like a downer–this is great stuff–but I can’t say it’s gripped me as much as I’d hoped.
Tom Waits - Bad As Me - If you’re intimidated by the huge and varied back catalog of Tom Waits but want to dive in and discover what all the fuss is about, Bad As Me makes a fantastic entry point. Waits sounds as gravelly as ever, and the songs here are as accessible as anything he’s done before.
Lights – Siberia - How does a Canadian electronica act make my annual list of favorite records? By releasing an album of catchy, danceable anthems that happen to be great pop songs. It doesn’t hurt that Valerie Anne Poxleitner has the kind of spare, hypnotic vocals that I find so intriguing. The production here is tight and direct, emphasizing the charm but retaining a hint of the bleak landscape that gives the album its title.
The Lonely Island – Turtleneck & Chain – Usually, musical comedy albums have a pretty short shelf life for me. Exceptions to this rule–including records by Flight of the Conchords and the Lonely Island–are because the songs are more than funny; they are legitimately catchy. To successfully spoof any art form, you have to understand its principles. The Lonely Island knows its stuff, and peppers in enough guest stars to keep the album timely and relevant. Did I mention these are just plain good songs? Sure, some are better than others, but the stand-outs make the disc worth the listen.
Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures – In a better world, this year’s list would include Amy’s second or third new album since her breakthrough Back to Black, and I’d be raving about her continued genius. Sadly, we live in this world, where Winehouse was unable to overcome debilitating addictions that eventually took her life. So instead we’re left with bits and pieces, fragments of what might have been. This is a great collection, but its flavor is unquestionably bittersweet. Oh, what might have been.
The Airborne Toxic Event – All at Once - After a solid debut album a couple years back, the ATE returned with an even better follow-up. The influences are quite varied, with some cuts sounding a bit like Joy Division/early New Order while others are much more joyous and relaxed. A great alternative pop record that isn’t ashamed to get your feet tapping.
EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints – Critical darling EMA may be a young PJ Harvey in the making. She’s not there yet, but Erika M. Anderson has all the right ingredients: angst, edginess, and axes to grind. Her debut solo album is loose enough to take the listener in a lot of different directions; it will be interesting to see which path EMA ventures down in the future.
Apex Manor – The Year of Magical Drinking – This was one of the first albums I bought in 2011, and it remained a solid listen all year long. Apex Manor veers from catchy indie pop to Replacements-style raunchiness, all with a directness and charm that feels absolutely genuine. Don’t let this album slip under your radar.
The Decemberists – The King is Dead – There are few bands in the universe more charming than the Decemberists–seeing them live even once will convince you of this. Yet their last couple records have been a bit disappointing to me, trading the brilliant naivete of Picaresque for heavier-handed, over-produced material. The King is Dead is a return to form, focusing on catchy songs that tell great stories. That’s exactly what I hope for from a Decemberists record.
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light – Despite Courtney Love’s eternal ire, Foo Fighters have released some of the most solid and dependable alternative/pop records of the last 15 years. Yet rarely have they felt as well-crafted and complete as this year’s Wasting Light, a project rich with the band’s penchant for catchy hooks and soaring choruses. Whatever has fueled Dave Grohl’s ambitions, I hope he consumes more of it, because this set is catchy and tight with nary a wasted note. And having the legendary Bob Mould appear on the infectious “Dear Rosemary” was a work of perfect pop genius.
Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest - Welch has been around a long time, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with the likes of Ryan Adams, the Decemberists, and countless others. Her latest effort is a charming folk/country affair that highlights what she’s best at: writing great, moving songs. You’ll find no artifice here, but plenty of direct, engaging art.
Zola Jesus- Conatus – Another relative newcomer, Nika Roza Danilova blends goth, electronica, and a hint of prog into a layered sound that belies her years. The sound is so thick in places that you have to cut through it with a knife, but as you dig deeper you find more and more that captivates. Treat this record like a treasure hunt or just let the music wash over you–your choice.
>> Love It <<
Bon Iver – Bon Iver – How do you follow up a record as iconic and intensely personal as 2008’s brilliant For Emma, Forever Ago? In Bon Iver’s case, you maintain the emotional heart while expanding upon the cabin-in-the-woods sound of the first album. This would be a tricky act for anyone to pull off, but Justin Vernon and crew make it sound effortless. The fuller production never gets in the way of songs that just take hold and refuse to let go. Having cleared this sophomore hurdle, the future is wide open for this band.
Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys! – If Elbow had no greater ambitions than to be a Peter Gabriel cover band, they probably could have made a pretty good living, since singer Guy Garvey has a rare ability to match the former Genesis frontman’s range and tone with eerie precision. Instead, thankfully, Elbow has opted to make clever and challenging records that can appeal to the art-house crowd while still blending into a post-Coldplay world. The songs range from soaring and inspiring to gritty and burrowing, a balanced blend that conveys an impressive range of talent.
Brendan Perry – Ark - Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since the last Dead Can Dance record, but there is something delightful about this album that was lacking on Perry’s first solo effort, Eye of the Hunter. Sure, Ark is rich with Perry’s signature mopey croon, and the lyrics still dance on the precipice of pretentiousness, but there’s also a joyfulness and immediacy to the songs that I find compelling. The usual array of exotic instruments and sounds is here, but this time out it’s tempered by layered synthesizers and danceable beats. Give this record a shot and you could find something unexpectedly delightful.
Cults – Cults - If, on first listen, you had told me that this catchy wall-of-sound record was crafted in the 60s by legendary producer and psychopath Phil Spector, I probably would have believed you. But digging deeper uncovers a pop-punk sensibility that brings this collection of crisp songs into the modern age. If you can resist shaking your thang to this infectious album, I think there’s probably something wrong with you.
Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean; Morning Becomes Eclectic – I must confess that, if I had my druthers, I’d lock Sam Beam in a room with an acoustic guitar and a four-track recorder and wouldn’t let him out until he’d produced a handful of albums that sounded like the epic and wonderful Our Endless Numbered Days. While Kiss Each Other Clean proves once again that Beam is as great a songwriter as anyone working today, its dense production styles makes me long for the less refined sound of his earlier efforts. The KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic serves as a testament to the purity of the core songs, as the live format really makes the material shine. At the risk of sounding like a musical Luddite, I hope Iron & Wine returns to a more stripped-down sound in the future.
Kate Bush – Director’s Cut; 50 Words for Snow – To describe Kate Bush as influential is the greatest of understatements; you need only look at many of the other acts on this list to see plenty of examples of how much she has shaped a whole generation of talent. Though prolific in her early years, she’s been heartbreakingly quiet in the past decade plus. So when she released Director’s Cut earlier in the year, we had to assume that this collection of revised cuts from two earlier albums would have to tie us over for a few years. That wasn’t so bad, since the album brought some much-needed freshness to some great songs that suffered from 1990s production values. Yet much to my surprise, Kate was true to her claim that new music would be coming soon by releasing 50 Words for Show before the end of the year. Despite the title, it’s not a Christmas album, although winter is certainly a major thematic element. Instead of carols, you’ll find Kate’s gorgeous voice delivering some lovely new songs, mostly featuring piano and vocals. Though my favorite of her albums remains the epic Hounds of Love, the new effort has enough interesting twists to prove that Kate has what it takes to inspire yet another generation.
David Sylvian – Died in the Wool - For an artist who isn’t fond of looking back on previous work, Sylvian has been doing a lot of it lately. With this collection, he turns his recent Manafon album over to composer Dai Fujikura, who took the spare original tracks and layered in classical arrangements. The strategy mostly works, though I confess I enjoyed the open feeling of the original recordings in most cases. Still, the new songs here are standouts, more than justifying the existence of Died in the Wool.
My Brightest Diamond – All Things Will Unwind – Shara Worden has covered a vast amount of musical ground with her My Brightest Diamond project, blending elements of rock and pop and classical with her amazingly distinct vocals. Her latest focuses more on the classical side of things, but her lyrics–as well as the music itself–run the gamut from thoughtful to playful. The newest album hasn’t gripped me quite as much as A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, but this is the kind of record that works its way slowly under your skin and makes the investment worthwhile.
Peter Gabriel – New Blood – Oh look, another aging artist records classical versions of his old hits. That’s a formula a lot of listeners might opt to overlook, but don’t dismiss this effort so quickly. As he’s done before, Gabriel takes what sounds like an old idea and makes it interesting. There’s plenty of lush and lovely moments like “In Your Eyes” and “Mercy Street”, but the first time I heard “Intruder” I was driving home late on a foggy night and just about peed my pants at the creepiness of it. Gabriel really did find a way to pump some new blood into these songs, and the effort is well worth the listen.
Radiohead – The King of Limbs; TKOL RMX 1234567 – It was a busy year for Radiohead, with both a new record and a very worthwhile remix set released (they sneaked out a live DVD as well). There’s no question the band remains hugely influential, but are they still fresh and relevant? I say yes–the songs here are just so damned compelling that you almost can’t help but be drawn in. Radiohead somehow takes a modern sound and layers it with the feel of jazz improv. It’s a siren’s call that consistently makes me want more.
Wild Flag – Wild Flag – Music remains inherently tied to image and artifice; that’s part of its charm as well as its detriment. So when a band comes along that eschews image and focuses on the simple things that make rock ‘n’ roll so great and enduring, you just have to go with it. The gals of Wild Flag bring with them an impressive indie rock pedigree, but all that would mean nothing if the songs here weren’t so damned awesome. There’s no fakery or posing to be found here; simply put, they will rock the shit out of you. And I think that’s awesome.
>> Gotta Have It <<
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues – After a fantastic debut album, a group has nowhere to go but down on the next one, right? In the case of Fleet Foxes, that assumption couldn’t be more wrong. Somehow the band manages yet another collection of rousing, touching songs with vocal harmonies that seem almost impossibly surreal–like they come from some other planet. Helplessness Blues has a timeless quality that is both classic and modern. Don’t question it; just listen.
The Knux – Eraser - On this ridiculously catchy record, the Knux effortlessly blend hip-hop with the purest pop-punk sensibility. There is nothing wasted here–just three chords, catchy beats, and hooks galore. If it weren’t for the foul language necessitating a warning sticker, this album could (and should) have been all over the radio. I defy you to listen to these songs without tapping your toes at the very least. More than likely, you’ll be shaking what the good lore gave ya.
Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials - At the risk of repeating myself, here’s another act that had the potential to flounder a follow-up to a hugely successful first record, yet managed to knock it out of the park. Ceremonials takes the best of what went before and kicks it up a notch. The beats are bigger, the anthems more anthemic, and the soaring vocals simply rocket out of the stratosphere. Florence is an artist who, instead of sliding by on past popularity, took what she’d earned and poured 100% of it back into her craft. An amazing album.
TV On the Radio – Nine Types of Light – This is another band that’s hard to categorize thanks to their effortless blending of varied musical styles. Yet nothing feels forced or unnatural here; the band has perfected its own sound that simply works. Underneath it all are solid songs that rock when they should and are poignant when they need to be. This album covers an expanse of musical ground, yet it all just feels right. What a great band.
The Black Keys – El Camino – On another collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, the Black Keys deliver their signature blend of blues, funk, and 70s power rock–this time with a somewhat greater emphasis on the latter. Why change a formula that works? Their songs are catchy and fun, with sexy grooves that conjure Bad Company and even Led Zeppelin in their heyday. The Keys aren’t reinventing the wheel here, but they have honed their craft and are writing the best songs of their career. This is a great album.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake – I’m not sure if PJ has been listening to a Matt Johnson marathon, but not since The The’s classic albums of the late 80s/early 90s has there been so crisp and direct a musical criticism of the UK’s politics and customs. Harvey has never sounded better, somehow staying absolutely fresh and vital. Proof that great songs can be both instantly catchy and thought-provokingly deep. Runner-up for my album of the year.
The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow – Once in a while a band comes along that sounds like it’s been together for a thousand years, where everything they do sounds inherent to their very being, with nothing forced or unnatural. The Civil Wars are such a group. The songs on Barton Hollow are instantly gripping and mesmerizing, rising above a folk/country/pop crowd in effortless and ethereal fashion. Every piece on this record is like a soundtrack to its own film, gripping and personal and haunting. This is one of those records that fills you with wistfulness, longing, and just about every kind of emotion. Throughout the year, this is the one I’ve come back to time and time again. My record of the year.