My Favorites (Thus Far, At Least)
1. Of Montreal—Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes synopsis of this odd concept album: Suffering from crippling depression and growing apart from his family, Kevin Barnes reluctantly turns to anti-depressants. They make good on their promise to save his life, but not before taking him on a hallucinogenic, glam-rock journey. Hissing Fauna’s autobiographical premise is so idiosyncratic (and its depiction of depression so harrowing) that the album might never have found an audience had it not been so relentlessly catchy that it’s easy enough to look past all the despair and just escape into all the erratic, candy-colored hooks. Those who dig deep, though, will discover some of the most honest, imaginative songwriting of the year.
2. Kanye West – Graduation
After two albums filled with self-doubt, insecurity and conflict, West has apparently come to terms with himself. He takes a well-deserved victory lap on his third album. So what if he’s flawed? “Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” he boasts. Asked if he realizes that he’s a champion, he responds without pause: “Yes I did!” And what of the adversity he used to dwell so much on? This time around he simply brushes it off: “That that don’t kill me can only make me stronger.” West’s self-confidence can rub some the wrong way, but he’s not being arrogant—he’s being inspirational. Endlessly optimistic and riff with posh, celebratory beats unlike any West has ever created before, this is the ultimate feel-good rap record.
3. Arcade Fire—Neon Bible
Scaling back some of the grandiosity of their flawless debut, the Arcade Fire settled into a warmer, more lived-in, Echo and the Bunnyman-inspired sound for their follow-up, but even with less theatrics, their potent confessionals still invite goose bumps. In the face of unrealistically high expectations, the Arcade Fire still managed to astonish.
4. Radiohead—In Rainbows
Lyricists have been trying to convey the pain of unrequited love for ages, but few have come closer than Thom Yorke when he sings, “I’m an animal trapped in your hot car” on “All I Need,” one of In Rainbows' many string-kissed laments. Although Yorke has spent much of the last decade making music for machines, this soulful, almost painfully pretty record proves that he still understands the human condition.
5. Okkervil River—The Stage Names
Other acts released stronger albums this year, but make no mistake about it: All things considered, there isn’t a better, more accomplished contemporary indie-rock band than Okkervil River. Over the past five years, they’ve released three killer albums, a trio of masterful EPs, and a glorious assortment of splits and singles. They continued that winning streak this year with The Stage Names, another set of bookish yet combustible songs. The Stage Names lacks Black Sheep Boy’s fairy-tale intrigue and epic sense of tragedy, but Okkervil River’s triumphant, exclamation-laden folk rock has never sounded more radio-ready than it does here.
6. The National—Boxer
A rock album every bit as intimate and special as even the most adulatory reviews have heralded it as.
7. Tegan and Sara—The Con
As a general rule, break-up albums are mopey. The Quinn sisters, however, have no interest in self pity, and they’re far too self-aware to pass themselves off as the victims of their failed relationships. Lovable as they may seem, throughout the course of this brainy power-pop record the girls reveal themselves utterly updateable. “I’m not unfaithful,” Sara swears, “but I’ll stray when I get a little scared.” She’s so adorable that it’s easy to understand why anyone would endure such manipulation. The lyrics beg you to stay, but the songs scream “run.”
8. Les Savy Fav—Let’s Stay Friends
How the tables have turned: Les Savy Fav’s hairy, frenzied frontman Tim Harrington used to be the one frightening people, but here he’s the one who seems scared of the world at large. Thank God that despite his newfound vulnerability, Harrington finds the strength to rally his band, long rumored to be on its last legs, for at least one more round of kinetic punk anthems about perilous parties and deviant sex. “This is where it stops, and this is where it ends,” Harrington shouts defiantly, chasing the early shakiness out of his voice, “this band’s a beating heart, and it’s nowhere near its end!” Hopefully, he’ll make good on that promise.
9. Scout Niblett—This Fool Can Die Now
Without abandoning the bluesy tension of previous releases, Scout shifts her attention to matters of the heart for her fourth album. Will Oldham joins her for several disarmingly serene duets, but lest listeners forget what’s at stake, every three or four tracks, Scout plugs in the distortion pedals and unleashes all manners of hell. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, but this eccentric songstress is as adept at playing Bonnie Prince Billy’s princess as she is Kurt Cobain’s corpse bride.
10. The Shins—Wincing The Night Away
The Shins pushed their sound in some genuinely unflattering directions on their third album, introducing sonic turmoil to their usually agreeable underdog pop. The consensus? They should have stayed in their comfort zone. But even at their ugliest, The Shins are still pretty damn gorgeous, and this record benefits from a sense of danger previous ones lacked. Wincing the Night Away may be the redheaded stepchild of The Shins oeuvre now, but in a few years it will almost surely earn a more flattering reappraisal.
Honorables: Nina Nastasia and Jim White, Avril Lavigne, Ghostface Killah, Feist, Dinosaur Jr., Modest Mouse, Jana Hunter, Thurston Moore, Common, Elliott Smith, White Rabbits
(Cross posted from Shepherd Express.com)