1. She & Him: “Volume I”
She & Him’s “Volume I” is a collaboration between M. Ward and actress-turned-songwriter Zoey Dechanel. At first listen, it’s easy to mistake “Volume I” for a mere homage to the country-western and pop ballads of the 50s and 60s—the twangy harmonies, shuffling melodies, and frothily romantic lyrics channel the simplicity and naive sentimentality of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and the Beatle’s early albums. This in itself would be an interesting exercise in nostalgia. But Dechanel and Ward are more than mere antiquarians or curators. A third or fourth listen to the album reveals that they are more interested in recreating the feelings and sentiments explored by these earlier songwriters. Dechanel’s gorgeous but mournful voice perfectly captures the tales lost love in “Sentimental Heart” and “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” and then turns playful and coy in “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here” and “Black Hole.” In the meantime, the jazz cabaret ballad, “Take it Back” evokes the kind of sad, clear-eyed optimism, best experienced in an empty nightclub. From top to bottom all of the songs on She & Him offer that rare combination of irresistible hooks and emotional capaciousness. They seem more heartfelt and more pleasurable with each listen. And with this in mind, She & Him shares more in common with these earlier artists than a genre or sensibility—that is, the ability to craft great enduring (and endearing) songs.
2. Bon Iver: “For Emma Forever Ago”
The story behind the making of “For Emma Forever Ago” leaves me wondering if it’s going to be possible for Bon Iver (a.k.a. singer/songwriter Justin Vernon) to follow up with anything that matches the honesty of expression in this release. In the winter of 2006-07 Vernon was living in Raleigh, North Carolina when he simultaneously broke up with his longtime girlfriend and his band. Overwhelmed and in need of reflection, he moved to a remote cabin near his original home in Northern Wisconsin where lived on deer he had slaughtered (not kidding) and recorded most of this album, intending it to be a demo. But instead of re-recording “For Emma” he decided to release it independently and the record has since launched him darling status among critics and respectable sales too. It’s bound to become the stuff of pop music legend if Vernon continues to deliver. As for the record itself, it’s just the kind of thing you’d expect from an intensely talented songwriter, holed up in a remote cabin for three month in a Wisconsin winter. Vernon sings in a haunting falsetto that bears obvious emotional scars, even as his technique stays strong, set against orchestration composed of little more than bare bones acoustic guitar, a few drum stick clicks, and a muted horn here and there. Minimalist, passionate, and nearly flawless.
3. Girl Talk: “Feed the Animals”
I once heard an interview with the medical engineer/DJ/Mash-up artist behind Girl Talk where he asked, “What could be more hip hop than totally trashing that song? Man, that's so hip hop.” I tend to agree after hearing “Feed the Animals.” The album itself is a long succession of mash-ups where Gillis takes very well-known, high profile samples and plays them against each in ways that completely deconstruct the original sensibilities. It simply doesn’t seem possible to Aziatic’s dance rap “Hands In the Air” in the same way once it’s been run against “Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” M.I.A’s “Boyz” fused with the Cranberries, or “No Diggity” on top of the Band’s “Nazareth.” So much of what makes the album fascinating is sitting down and trying to pick these references apart. Elsewhere Girl Talk brings out a serious satirical edge by isolating particular obscene or awkward parts of well known pop songs (see Gillis’ sampling of Youngbloodz “You don’t give a damn we don’t give a fuck” and completely insane repetition of Missy Eliot talking about shaving her…ahem). Through all of this, “Feed the Animals” is eminently danceable as it transitions seamlessly from track to track. I’d have no reservations about tossing this album on at a party, hitting the repeat loop all night long.
4. TV on the Radio: “Dear Science”
It’s just too tempting for me not to wonder whether the title “Dear Science” refers to TOTR puzzling through the problem of making experimental noise rock that still maintains soulfulness and heart (as in the question “How can we address ‘Science’ as something that’s ‘Dear’ to us and not cold or antiseptic.”). If this isn’t the referred meaning, it is, to my mind, definitely the way the record turned out. The album covers a stunning rhythmic and harmonic repertoire while executing its cool sound experiments with a heartfelt sincerity. This kind of breadth is contained even in single tracks such as “Golden Age.” Here vocalist Tunde Adebimpe whispers the prayer-like hope, “there’s a golden age comin’ round, comin’ round” over noisy layerings droning horns, and humming synths. This in turn is stretched over a rhythmic spectrum of funk beats, driving rock rhythms, and ultra-syncopated African drum work. On “Family Tree” the frenetic rhythms and sonic overload are exchanged for an equally complex, but carefully restrained layering of strings and a simple driving backbeat that ebb and flow, always building to a crescendo in the song’s tragic, affecting chorus: “We’re hanging on the shadow of your family tree/Your haunted heart and me/Brought down by an old idea whose time has come.” Sonic experimentation has never sounded so poignant or so heartfelt.
5. Cut Copy: “In Ghost Colours”
Cut Copy’s in “Ghost Colours” is a very smart electronic record. Right away the album evokes the very best parts of 1980s New Wave: On the surface, the melodic vocals, electronic beeps and heavy bass announce an optimistic party atmosphere. But, like earlier New Wave bands such as New Order, Depeche Mode, and the Pet Shop Boys, the really sharp thing about Cut Copy is the way in which these bright notes are set in tension with a darker undercurrent the comes from their rock influences. In “Lights and Music,” one the album’s strongest tracks, Tim Goldsworthy’s chirpy synths and danceable beats get set against vocalist Dan Whitford singing “lights and music are on my mind” in an almost somber monotone, hinting that the nightclub is hardly a carefree night out. Like all the album’s tracks, “Lights and Music” then runs seamlessly into “We Fight for Diamonds” and “Unforgettable Season,” tracks that continue to develop and explore the tense balance between the party atmosphere and melancholia underneath. Most impressive then is the way “In Ghost Colours” weaves these various mini-dramas and moments of strange reflection into a seamless narrative that runs throughout.
6. The Dodos
It seems like a lot of bands this year are vying for the title of “the album Death Cab for Cute should have made.” Each in their own way, Margot & the Nuclear So & Sos, Throw Me The Statue, and Ra Ra Riot try to think through what’s next for the mid-tempo pop-infused sensitive-guy indie-rock that broke so big in the mid-2000s (enough hypens for you already). Oh yeah, and DCFC tried it too, probably offering the weakest effort on this count. As for the strongest record trying to fill this void, I came up with The Dodos “Visiter,” a drummer/acoustic guitar duo from California. Rather than taking this genre towards pop melodrama or loud guitars, the Dodos fuse this sensibility with a low-key vibe and tuneful songwriting. As a result, there’s an ingenuity and freshness that really sets them apart from the crowd of mid-tempo romantic indie bands. Harmonically, they typically arrange herky-jerky acoustic guitars over highly melodic percussion (think Wilco’s “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”) and then fill in the rest with banjos and toy pianos. The result is very a smart “music box” sound that still manages to sound organic and full by layering of understatement upon understatement.
7. Fleet Foxes: “Fleet Foxes”
The most noticeable thing about the album is the heavy influence from the complex vocal harmonies commonly attributed to David Crosby and the Beach Boys. Not bad influences to say the least. The album opens with a dazzling acapella on “Sun it Rises,” which sounds right out of a CSNY album. From here, “Fleet Foxes works into a series of great, folk-infused song that run the table from the minor ballads like the somber “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” to the highway anthem “Your Protector.” While there is no question that the group has the technical and vocal chops to match anything that Animal Collective or Bonnie Prince Billie do, the Fleet Foxes tend to lay emphasis on a digestible 3-5 minute song. The result is a record that is accessible enough that it’s appealing on a first listen, but complex and interesting in ways that reward multiple listenings.
8. Mates of State: “Re-arrange Us”
The husband & wife duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel is a great case study in what happens when garage rock grows up a little. Mates of State’s early albums were defined by their quirky sensibility, over-the-top vocals and frenetic arrangements. Many of these hallmarks are still here on this record, but there’s a discipline to the songwriting, a maturity, and polish that wasn’t there before. The opening track “Get Better,” for instance, trades the chaotic songwriting for a pop sensibility that layers instead of jars. Throughout, “Rearrange Us” the album reflects on the problem of what it means to grow old, get into a committed relationship, and still want to maintain the ironic sensibility and youthful abandon that makes for the best indie rock. In this sense, the overriding theme of the album can be summed up by the final crescendo of the quasi-title track “The Re-arranger:” “Love loud, don’t lose loud.”
9. King Khan and the Shrines: “The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines.”
Think James Brown on speed…What’s that? James Brown did what? Okay, James Brown on lots of speed. This gives you the basic gist of the frenetic soul record “The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines” (to be sure, one of the coolest album titles of the year). King Khan is an Indian-Canadian singer, has been popular in Europe for awhile now and he has done a fairly successful collaboration with “the BBQ show.” But until now he has not really had a proper American release. “Supreme Genius” is a kind of “best of” record that compiles materials from a number of past releases. The formula’s really simple, but really effective: Loud guitars, louder horns, and Khan’s wailing sex-ed up vocals. Oldest trick in the book, but done very well here.
10. Passion Pit: “Chunk of Change”
Okay, so this is just an E.P. and, to be honest, most of it is middling to average. “Chunk of Change” squeezed onto my top ten based almost entirely of the strength of the song “I’ve Got Your Number.” That said, you *have* to hear this song. It’s the catchiest thing ever. The pop-dance track builds from a quiet humming synths and breathy vocals to, what is, for my money, easily the most infectious pop hook written in years as Michael Angeleko cries out: “Have you seen me cryyyyyyy/Tears like diamond/Down and down they flyyyyyyy/Faster and faster at the speed of love.” Frothy melodrama and pure unmitigated pleasure.