What follows is my unsolicited list of the finest 10 music albums of this year. Full disclosure: I have a rather limited musical palate and have been called a bit “elitist” when it comes to music (i.e. all tastes are not equally valid), so I apologize ahead of time for any arrogant presumptions or pretentious hype.
1. Frightened Rabbit—Midnight Organ Fight: three immediate reasons you might not like this album: almost every song contains at least one very vulgar or obscene word (c’mon, they’re Scottish!), most of the cuts are about sex (the “organ” of the title is not the one with pipes) and finally, as my beloved brother might say, the vocalist sings like a whiny bitch. However, it also contains some of the best songwriting and hooks I’ve ever heard, thoughtful and original lyrics on topics like casual sex (“You won’t find love in a hole / it takes more than f—king someone to keep yourself warm”), suicide and longing for that which has been lost, as well as a sense of sincerity, self-deprecation and contemplation that it’s difficult to find in the Age of Irony. It’s nearly a perfect album.
2. Sigur Rós—Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust: I simply love the way this album vividly expresses a range of emotions with wonder and delicacy in its beautiful vocal lines, alternately grandiose and melancholy instrumentation and an often driving kick drum. It’s not the most original thing they’ve done (borrowing from themselves as well as Animal Collective and some folky stylings), but it is still an epic of the human experience…if this album doesn’t make you feel something, your heart is a cold dead lump of petrified stone.
3. Elbow—The Seldom Seen Kid: I’ve loved Elbow for some time now, but this album is a triumph of sophistication and nuance they have not captured on their last two efforts. With one exception—the duet “The Fix”, which I probably dislike for it’s retro pastiche and pseudo-cinematic theme—the songs on this album soar and ponder, kick and lament like a dazzling jewel lying in a gutter. The band deservedly won one of the UK’s highest music awards (The Mercury Prize) for this amazing effort.
4. Fleet Foxes—Fleet Foxes: A while back, I had 4-5 people write to me telling me to check out this band, which disinclined me to listen in, fearing the bandwagon. And when I finally did give in, I initially dismissed it as a step-brother to My Morning Jacket and Grizzly Bear. However, the album grew on me like angel’s wings, with its reverb-drenched harmonies from another decade, and I love this album even if it means that I’m jumping on the hipster convoy.
5. Coldplay—Viva La Vida: At the risk of losing any indie cred I have deposited in my account at the Bank of Cool, I have to say that I really, deeply enjoyed more than half of this album. I’ll give credit to Elijah’s hero Brian Eno for pushing these boys beyond my expectations & simply say that I have a weak spot for this band’s output, regardless of sentimental lyrics or pilfered anthemic devices.
6. Department of Eagles—In Ear Park: I honestly was not such a huge fan of Grizzly Bear, but Elijah turned me on to a song of theirs entitled “While You Wait For The Others” which was written by the newer guitarist/vocalist in the band, Daniel Rossen. This album is Rossen’s “side project,” but it is anything but left over material. It is pure melodic and instrumental genius…In Ear Park is parked in my ear for good.
7. The Helio Sequence—Keep Your Eyes Ahead: A friend gave me this CD at the end of summer & having never heard of the band (and not favorably disposed to their name) I put it in for a listen. It is unbelievably good—indie electronica with a 21st century Dylan on vocals, writing superlative material with the greatest of ease.
8. Hayden—In Field & Town: Hayden’s voice is a bit battered, like a third-string singer in a lonely bar in a coastal town, but it perfectly captures a low-key, melancholic sweetness in lovely sad sack songs.
9. Greg Laswell—How the Day Sounds EP: Laswell will be the new voice heard on network shows anxious for accessible lovelorn soundtracks, but honestly, he has the pipes, the songwriting & production skills to become one of the greats. He also had an album out this year, but this EP is nearly perfect & absolutely gorgeous.
10. She & Him—Volume One: Half of this album is a bit fluffy, but the combo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward makes for some sweet forays through unfamiliar sonic styles and moods. Plus, Z.D. is incredibly adorable, as she laughs and croons through her own original material plus a few covers.
Other albums of note:
• Tobias Froberg—Turn Heads (this would get my vote for the most underrated album of the year…just missed the top ten)
• Vampire Weekend—Vampire Weekend (the most overrated album, but actually not half bad)
• Jeff Hanson—Madam Owl (I’m really growing to appreciate this multi-instrumentalist genius kid who sounds like a chick)
• Winterpills—Central Chambers (they are great, but may benefit from being less prolific)
• The Dodos—Visiter (covers some of the same aural ground as Animal Collective; [sic] on the title)
• Bon Iver—For Emma, Forever and Ago (kind of a “one-trick pony,” but beautiful at that)
• The Dears—Missiles (their last album, Gang of Losers, is quickly becoming one of my favorites EVER, but this effort—with most of the former band MIA—is more miss than hit)
• Travis—Ode to J. Smith (just got it & it’s growing on me, but they’ve lost a bit of the magic)
• Aqualung—Words & Music (same as Travis; no false advertising on the title here)
• Bloc Party—Intimacy (if I was a teenage boy, this would be one of my favorites, but being an adult, only a few songs really connect)
• Snow Patrol—A Hundred Million Suns (same old, say mold…but mostly enjoyable nonetheless)
Anyone who has made it this far is entitled to my end-of-the-year mix CD, including the artists above along with some other cuts from Santogold, Conor Oberst, Juana Molina and more! Simply email me at greg(dot)stump(at)biola(dot)edu with your address and I will send you a copy…