This year has been a perfect storm of a year for getting behind on my music listening- I'm broke, my stereo crapped out in April, and my computer crashed in September. Nevertheless, I shall soldier on and valiantly attempt to post a top-1o albums list. A few house rules on this list- first and foremost, I can only include albums I listened to and have properly digested. I don't feel comfortable discussing albums I've listened to maybe once or twice. So no Radiohead, Justice, Lil' Wayne, Panda Bear, Animal Collective, or Battles, just to name a few. Also, if I discovered an album last year that was released stateside this year, it's excluded. That means no Lily Allen on this year's list. And.... OK, I guess that's it. Without further ado:
Honorable Mention: Liars- Liars
Liars are a band that's made me realize the difference between liking and appreciating. I always sort of like the Liars albums (except the 1st one- that's just great), but I always appreciate them immensely. I honestly don't know if they simply follow their own muse, or if they aim to piss people off and defy expectations. In a strange way, they're the modern equivalent of Tim Buckley. Both artists changed styles so frequently and to such a radical degree that people gave up following them, one album never predicted what the next would sound like, they were both unafraid to make something completely unlistenable, and neither seemed to care a lick. This album is their most straight-up collection of songs since They Threw Us All In a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top, so they drench them in noise and squall. I'm not sure how much I like it, but I certainly do appreciate it.
10: Patrick Wolf- The Magic Position
I'd pretty much stayed away from Patrick Wolf up to this point. After listening to this album, I'm not entirely sure why that was. Wolf's melodic sense is rivaled by only a select few, and clearly comes from a lifetime (short as that is for him) of musical theater. Crashing drums, piano, violin, and electronic ephemera round out one of the more inventive pop albums of the year. It's dense enough to reward multiple listens, whether you're digging through multiple layers on headphones or putting it through big cabinet speakers and letting yourself drown in it.
9: Ted Leo/Pharmacists- Living with the Living
This is probably Leo's weakest album with the Pharmacists, which means it's only better than 95% of the releases this year, rather than 99%. Filler like "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb." is unnecessary, and this is Leo's first album with serious pacing problems- the third quarter couldn't drag any more if it had a club foot. But songs such as "Sons of Cain," "Army Bound," and "Bottle of Buckie" are future staples, and he's written one of his best songs ever in "La Costa Brava." I'm starting to worry that Leo's well is running dry- his albums have become somewhat predictable, and there's a certain formula to his songs. Then again, Coca-Cola is a formula too. Sometimes, they work.
8: Andrew Bird- Armchair Apocrypha
This album seems much more straightforward than Mysterious Production of Eggs- the instrumentation seems simpler, and it lacks the elliptical song structures of the aforementioned album. But somehow, AA manages to sound like a direct sequal to MPOE. It's as if Bird is a director in rehearsal for a play. MPOE is the restrained take on a scene, and it works. But then Bird steps back and implores the actors to try it one more time, raw, more energetic, more free, as if Bird said "Let's rub some sandpaper on the edges." That rendition became Armchair Apocrypha.
7: The White Stripes- Icky Thump
I liked Elephant less and less the more I listened to it, and I could do withouth everything after track two on Get Behind Me Satan. Now, this is the White Stripes- all told, there isn't much variation album to album. So what makes this better then? Well, the songs sound like more effort was put into them. The lyrics are better, sharper, more pointed. The guitar parts are also better- the riffs sound like they were toyed and tinkered with to make sure they're in the best possible configuration, rather than rushed out onto tape half-baked. But mostly, there's a sneer to this album that's been missing since White Blood Cells. Some tracks recaptured it briefly- "Ball and a Biscuit" comes to mind- but I can't imagine Jack White with anything but a scowl on his face recording these tracks. That attitude carries the album above their last few efforts (y'know, along with the more developed songwriting).
6: Twilight Sad- Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
This album sounds like peering through a cold, frosty windowpane into someone's innermost thoughts and feelings. There's no veneer to the lyrics at all- no metaphors, nothing is fashionably obtuse. The singer just says what he means. And the music- whether quiet piano and slide guitar, or fuzzed out bass and crashing drums, or more often both- is always in service of the intended emotion. There's a sonic eruption to match the emotional catharsis on every song. It's a short album, but like a teenager the emotion burns white-hot in about six different directions, making it one of the most engaging listens of the year.
5: Arcade Fire- Neon Bible
Second albums always get the shaft. Everyone will remember Funeral, bursting on the scene making a grand, new statement with energy and youthful enthusiasm. But Neon Bible is a more purposeful work, made by a tighter band. It hangs together better than Funeral, with a more cohesive sound. The songs aren't a slouch either- "No Cars Go," "Keep the Car Running," and "The Well and The Lighthouse" to name a few- are as good as anything on their first album. The same thing happened with the Shins, the Strokes, and any number of other bands. Unless the second is a real classic, either a better distillation of basic elements or a quantum leap forward, it loses out to the sheer novelty of the first album. I hope this isn't one of those cases.
4: Of Montreal- Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
There's one story that explains better than anything else why I like this album. As I mentioned above, my stereo broke some months back. Basically, it stopped reading CD's. So one night I flip it on, just to see if it'll read anything. It manages to pick up one album that's already in there, so I pressed play. A burst of synthesizers came from my speakers. I couldn't place the album- it sounded like 70's glam mixed with 80's synth-pop (the good kind), like a lost classic I hadn't realized I'd ever found. It wasn't until about fifteen minutes into the album that I'd remembered I'd bought the new Of Montreal album, and that this was it. This album will eventually belong to the same pantheon as Love's Forever Changes, an album that's not famous but loved and respected by people in the know.
3: LCD Soundsystem- Sound of Silver
This album could have been "All My Friends" and 30 minutes of barn noises and it still would have cracked my top 10. But we get "North American Scum" and "Time to Get Away" and the rest of James Murphy's A-game too? It's really not fair that one person should be this good with rhythm, but at least we get to reap the sonic benefits.
2: M.I.A.- Kala
I'm not sure what I could say about this album, or how I would describe it, that would be new and unique. International Block Party, Third World Hip-Hop, yada yada yada. It's all true. This album just makes me want to move. But more than that it's interesting to listen to, assuming you can sit still long enough to give it a good listen. The beats are so thick, so dense, that getting all the way through them requires a machete. And whether or not you like M.I.A.'s revolution-chic lyrics, she has the ability to perfectly mesh her flow into the beat, creating a rhythm experience unlike anyone else.
1: Jens Lekman- Night Falls Over Kortedala
I'm a sucker for good pop music, and right now few people are better at creating a pop song than Jens Lekman. His melodic gifts are extraordinary, and his lyrics are as witty and touching on the thirtieth listen as they are on the first. As if that weren't enough, Lekman deftly integrates samples of other's music into his own songs, and does so well enough that it can be tough to figure out where his writing ends and others' begins. "Sipping on the Sweet Nectar," with it's disco flute hook, and "Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo," where the chorus segues perfectly into the sax part, illustrate this well. But those aren't even his best songs. The bouncing, gee-whiz-won't-anything-go-right "Opposite of Hallelujah" and the vivid short story "A Postcard for Nina"- dear God what an amazing song- are the sort of song that most songwriters would kill to be able to write once. Lekman wrote an entire album of them.