I had an extremely hard time putting together a list of ten albums- I've heard a lot of good music this year. Feel free to quibble with my selections and rankings in the comments section; in fact, I encourage it. I hope I explained myself well, and with a little humor. So here are my top ten, countdown-style. But first:
Biggest Disappointment: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals- Cardinology
This album is being hailed as Adams' most consistent effort in years, and that's true. But I looked it up in Roget's to be sure, and- wouldn't you know it?- "consistent" and "good" aren't synonyms. As an unabashed Ryan Adams apologist (Heartbreaker is still a personal fave, and I even found things to like in Rock 'N' Roll) I've been doing a lot of thinking about Adams' last few releases, the ones where he's become more "mature" as a songwriter and his albums more- here's that word again- consistent. The conclusion I've come to is that Adams used to have a huge variability in the quality of songs when he tossed off albums: if we're talking a one-to-ten scale (low to high), his worst songs were a two and his best were an eight or nine, and even a ten on some albums. But his consistency doesn't just come from bringing up the twos and threes, he also brings down the eights and nines until everything is in the four-to-six range. He over-thinks the songs that at one time brimmed with casual brilliance- those eights and nines- and the result like adjusting the hot and cold tap until the tub overflows and causes a mess in the bathroom. There's a story about how Bob Dylan recorded a different Blood on the Tracks before it was released, but found it too bitterly personal. He reworked and rerecorded some of the songs, and the result is the album we all know and love. I feel that, when Adams really sits down and works through songs, something like this happens. The problem is, he's not Bob Dylan. And so it doesn't work so well. But this is just one man's theory.
I haven't even touched on the actual songs yet, but there isn't much to say. The melodies are pleasant enough to listen to, but nothing approaching memorable. He gets off a good line now and then, but mostly his lyrics are vague pap and sometimes downright bad- "Sink Ships" is built around the metaphor of love as a job application, which is either hugely cynical, unconscionably tortured, or both. I'd use the disc as a coaster, but I'm afraid the vortex of bland would suck the flavor from my drink.
(We now return to our regularly scheduled programming)
10) Magnetic Fields- Distortion
The Jesus & Mary Chain style pop gets the most attention with respect to the title, but "Distortion" is also a lyrical theme to this album. Stephen Merritt has never been one for traditional love songs, but the songs on this album are all about skewed perspectives on love and relationships. "California Girls" plays like the dark flip side to the Beach Boys song of the same name, focusing on the (well-earned) stereotypes from the bitter perspective of a girl who knows she'll never be like them. "The Nun's Litany" continually ups the ante of sexual degradation, which the singer sees as liberating. She goes from playboy bunny to topless waitress to brothel worker to dominatrix in three perfectly catchy minutes. In Merritt's world, lovers stand each other up, push each other away, and yet remain unhealthily obsessed with each other. As with all Magnetic Fields albums, the structure is basic pop, but the melodies are indelible. They burrow into your brain until you're whistling them at random times. Just don't sing the words in public- you might get some looks.
9) The Hold Steady- Stay Positive
This record had all the potential in the world to be a letdown. Boys and Girls in America was the great leap forward after two albums of increasing quality, and the logical apex of the Hold Steady sound. The best this album could've done was keep up the quality, and damned if they didn't pull it off. Stay Positive lacks the musical grandiosity of the previous album, though the songs feel just as open. The lyrics tread the familiar ground of drunk fuck-ups (or is it drunk and fucked-up?), and the music is still mining the best of classic rock radio from Led Zeppelin to (I swear to god) Fleetwood Mac. The only difference is that the Hold Steady feel like even more of a band, no surprise given the massive rehearsal and touring schedules they keep. The Hold Steady are proof that if you write good songs and play your instruments well, you don't need to reinvent the musical wheel.
8) Girl Talk- Feed the Animals
Gregg Gillis has arguably saved the mash-up from unimaginative DJs who think beat-matching and ironic juxtaposition are enough to make a good track (I know! Let's put Christina Aguilera lyrics over the Strokes! People will shit!). Not that those don't help, but it's not enough. I'm also a fan of anything that can be unpacked over multiple spins, and the samples upon samples upon samples certainly fit the bill. There's the humor in the album, with clever interplay of lyrics and titles in the source songs. Plus, you can dance to it. But more than anything, this album feels endorphins are being shunted directly into my brain. It's an aural opiate, and every bit as addictive.
7) Dodos- Visiter
How can an album that's so simple be so complex? In spite of being mostly guitar, drums, and vocals (with the occasional accoutrement, such as banjo), the album is fairly challenging at times. The recordings have a sparse feel, but the songs can be incredibly dense. This complexity is mostly the work of the drums- the rhythms are often intricate, and the percussion is high in the mix, given equal footing with the guitar and vocals. The accessibility comes from the vocals, mostly: the melodies are solid, and tough they veer in unexpected directions at times, they resolve quickly using fairly short phrases. The album also ropes you in fast, offering the catchy, Sufjan-lite lilt of "Walking" and the roiling-but-melodic "Fools" in the first ten minutes. The last two-thirds of the album is more difficult, with some longer songs and short snippets. But you've already been perfectly primed for the skittish "Jodi" and the mild dissonance of "Paint in the Rust" by the more accessible songs preceding them. In fact, "Fools" is the album in a song- catchy, melodic, with some challenging musical choices to deal with and lots of surprises hiding in the fringes of the song.
6) Lil' Wayne- Tha Carter III
Hip-Hop has always been more of a singles genre than an album genre- not that there haven't always been good albums, but the structures of the song reward track-by-track construction much more than an overarching vision spanning anywhere from ten to twenty songs. But it seems that over the past few years, it seems that the number of good rap albums in a year is increasing (citation needed). I have a pet theory that the rise of the mixtape as an art form is responsible for this: the short version is that the mixtape requires the artist to think in longer blocks of time, and that this carries over to the album. It's certainly not a one-to-one correspondence, but I think it holds some water. It would certainly explain how Lil' Wayne can release for free more good music than most artists in any genre can hope to produce in a career, and come right out with a fantastic and innovative pop album. Yes, pop album. Sure, it's rap. But there's a kind of melody to it, and an immediacy that is generally associated with pop. I think the best comparison is to Stankonia: a hook-filled and innovative album, carefully constructed and filled with purposeful weirdness and straight-up good music in equal amounts.
5) Los Campesinos!- We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
Like most people on this blog, I'm picking LC!'s second album for my list over their first. The album is all adrenaline, with propulsive and shambolic rock married to interesting melodies and angry, blunt lyrics. It's a collection of songs that hold you down by the throat and pummel you for 32 high-octane minutes; but there's more to this release than wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Being a septet, they have the personnel to add to the Pavement/Guided By Voices driving rock, with little lines and flourishes that hide in the corners of your speakers. And while lyrics are often placeholders in indie rock (I'm looking at you, Stephen Malkmus), LC! can turn a phrase. A personal favorite is "Absence makes the heart grow fonder/Fondness makes the absence longer/Length loses my interest/I'm a realist/I'm insatiable." They took a cliché, turned it on its head and made it a resigned declaration of personal weakness. There's no resting in this album; the slowest songs are just above mid-tempo and the lyrics, when you can understand them, offer no haven. And when it's done, I still find myself reaching for the play button one more time.
4) Fleet Foxes- Fleet Foxes
These songs are so intricate and beautiful, it's hard to know where to begin. Do you start with the gracefully interlocking instrumental parts? How about the harmonies that sound crafted by someone equally familiar with chamber music as Crosby, Stills & Nash? Or maybe the vivid imagery in the lyrics, like "turn the white snow red as strawberries in summertime"? To me, the most astounding thing about this album is how seamlessly all their influences are integrated into a whole that is at once unique and immediately familiar. It's pretty easy to play "name that influence" with most bands, and it's rare that any group makes it a tough or long game, let alone on a debut album. Robin Pecknold has an astounding voice- one that sounds a little thin at first, but reveals a surprising range and flexibility on repeated listens. This is an accomplished album, and one that rewards repeated close listening over weeks, months, and I imagine even years. And in spite of that, it is almost immediately accessible. It will be hard for them to improve upon this for their sophomore effort, but I'm anxious to see them try.
3) Max Tundra- Parallax Error Beheads You
To me, this album is a second cousin of The Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I (full disclosure: one of my favorite albums of all time). Both albums are challenging, with odd sounds and superficially difficult structures that unfurl themselves as pop songs upon repeated listens. Both have intensely personal lyrics rife with enough detail to allow you to step into the writer's shoes. And you get the sense in both albums that what comes out of your speakers is exactly what's inside the artists' head. The difference is that Max Tundra, instead of a traditional band setup, is one man with a laptop and a keyboard. I cannot overstate what an astounding experience listening to this album is. You can certainly hear touches of IDM and other electronic music, but also Prince and XTC, and even Randy Newman. It's jittery and chaotic, but there's a method to the madness. You might have to special order this album, but I cannot more strongly recommend doing so.
2) Vampire Weekend- Vampire Weekend
I had the good fortune to listen to this band with no expectations. I'd heard of them, but knew nothing about them, no hype nor backlash, when a student of mine put "Oxford Comma" on his iPod and handed me his earbuds after class. I went out and bought the album the next day, and was able to enjoy it for what it is- an excellent pop record. The much-ballyhooed African music influences are there, but it's not the pretentious, white-boy, ivy-league aping the haters make it out to be. It's a grafting of afropop guitars onto western-style pop songs, for the most part. It's a refreshing co-opt, and it makes the album somewhat unique, but it's not what makes the album good. That would be the assured songwriting of Ezra Koening. He has a gift for catchy melodies, and lyrics that work even though they don't say much. The arrangements are also immaculate- as a band, they know when to hold back, and when to pour it on. It wasn't something I appreciated until I saw them live. The set transcended bad- I actually spent the entire time laughing. They're not a tight live act yet, but more to the point they perform as a quartet. They lack the second guitar (and arguably the third guitar/second keyboard) necessary to flesh out the songs. This is an album I haven't stopped listening to for six months, which is a testament to how solid it really is.
1) Cut/Copy- In Ghost Colours
In Ghost Colours (love the "u") grew on me steadily over the year. I'm often averse to albums where all the tracks run together- it generally requires enough song-to-song sameness that the transitions work, and that can cause a loss of interest over the course of a full LP. Cut/Copy deftly avoid that pitfall by injecting large amounts of pop in the album, with memorable melodies that allow songs to stand apart from each other. This is the first album in a long time-maybe ever- that makes me want to dance around my apartment (I settle for the involuntary head bobbing and toe-tapping, which is occurring as I type this) when I put it on, and then stays with me to the point that I catch myself whistling "Out There On The Ice" walking down the street or singing "Hearts on Fire" when I'm the only person in my lab. The songs are as happy or as poignant as you want them to be, depending on whether you focus on the lyrics or the music. There is no time when you can't put on this record. Been dumped? Pour yourself a drink and listen to the record. About to go to a party? Get dressed and put on this record to pump you up (and pour yourself a drink while you're at it). Waking up early? Put on this record and have a spring in your step out the door. Spending the night in? Put on this record and have your own dance party. I dare you- fucking dare you- not to like this album.
Albums That Would've Made a Longer List:
Bon Iver- For Emma Forever Ago
Vivian Girls- Vivian Girls
No Age- Nouns
Ra Ra Riot- The Rhumb Line
Notable Albums I Never Got Around To
M83- Saturdays=Youth: This is unconscionable, given how much I love their other albums
Tv on the Radio- Dear Science: I don't consciously avoid them, but I've never been tempted to listen
Hercules & Love Affair- Hercules & Love Affair