Remember us? Neither do we. On with the show.
Greg & Elijah
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2016
10. Nattesferd Kvelertak — Listening to Nattesferd, Kvelertak’s third full length album, is something like travelling back in time. The album is a marked departure from aural onslaught of their previous record (2013’s Meir, produced by one of my all-time favies, Converge’s Kurt Ballou). Don’t get me wrong, Nattesferd is an onslaught, but of a much different nature. Fears that Kvelertak might be headed toward a more mainstream rock sound are allayed continually throughout this 47-minute masterclass in capturing the familiar energy, precision and fun of the American heavy metal sound of the early eighties and the aggression and fullness of the Norwegian black metal sound of the 21st century without losing any of their respective charms.
9. Puberty 2 Mitski — There are two distinctive threads running through Puberty 2. Firstly, there is innovation and a refusal to adopt a singular form of songwriting. Mitski demonstrates that she can write high quality and accessible pop tunes (see ‘Your Best American Girl’) whilst verging on proto-grungey post-punk (see ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’) and occupying more familiar, yet refreshing indie territory in between. The second thread demonstrates that Puberty 2‘s variety is not the result of simply compiling tracks from across a repertoire — this is Mitski’s fourth album. Looking past the fact that she’s only 25 (what have we done with our lives?), Mitski is demonstrating that she is a seasoned and consummate artist.
8. Next Thing Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing is the epitome of ‘big things in small packages’. This album lasts under a half an hour, with the longest of its fifteen tracks lasting only 164 seconds (that’s 2:44). But the listener will not feel cheated. Somehow, Frankie Cosmos (22-year-old Greta Kline) is able to capture complete, common, yet complicated thoughts with each track. In fact, the album is summed up quite well by the cover. As you can see, the perspective of the image is from that of a passenger in a car, doodling in a notebook. At the same time, the passenger is revealed to be using a mobile to take a photograph – captured as the cover image itself. The car is veering left, perhaps making a turn to the ‘Next Thing’. We also observe typical things – a fallen tree branch, a littered plastic bag, paw prints, a car driving off in the distance. It’s a brilliantly simple yet interesting composition, much like the record.
7. Skeleton Tree Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — This album, as so many albums on my list this year, caught me by surprise. I first heard ‘Jesus Alone’ on 6 Music on 2 September and I knew Skeleton Tree was going to be special. The production was sparse and moving. Cave had moved from his typical narrative formula (in the accompanying documentary, One More Time with Feeling, Cave claims that he has lost his faith in narrative-based songs). The rest of the album reflects these shifts. With both the stirring words and ambient musical tone, Cave is reflecting on a profound sense of loss (having lost his young son Arthur in the summer of 2015) and engaging in some serious existential inquiries. So really, Skeleton Tree is not so atypical of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds after all.
6. Teens of Denial Car Seat Headrest — There’s been a slight tendency toward slacker rock in my listening this past year. It’s probably a hangover from 2014’s GARAGE ROCK BONANZA. When Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial first appeared on my radar, I despised the names of both the band and the album. But as with a lot of things in life, those become invisible or at least inconsequential to an individual once a relationship is solidified. I could write a lot about this record, but Greg expresses it so well that I’ll cede the floor to him for this one (see Greg’s comment on Teens of Denial below).
6. Painting of a Panic Attack Frightened Rabbit — A familiar face. I’m going to be honest here: when I first heard this record I was convinced that I would consider it nearly, if not the weakest Frightened Rabbit album to date. Something about it fell flat for me. So I put it away for a few months. Maybe six months. Then I picked it up again – I knew there had to be something I was missing. Even upon the first re-listen I asked myself, ‘Was I even paying attention?’ It was as if I had never heard these songs. And they were actually quite good! Maybe you share my initial impression. If you have not got back to Painting of a Panic Attack, I implore you to give it another shot. I admit that there are times when it feels less adventurous/emotionally porous than FR’s other material, but there is a quality to the songwriting (thanks to the ever insightful pen of Scott Hutchison) and production (thanks in part to the National’s Aaron Dessner) that keeps me listening.
4. Emotions and Math Margaret Glaspy — Margaret Glaspy’s debut album makes one wonder, what comes next? Emotions and Math is as competent and complete as a veteran release. That’s not say that Glaspy has gone stale – far from it! She touches on Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith in equal measure and brings her own sophisticated musical sensibilities to the table in well packaged yet positively aggressive and unpolished pop rock tunes. Emotions and Math improves upon subsequent listens and leaves us thirsty for what Glaspy will do next.
3. A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead — I’ve done the maths and have discovered that the period between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool is the longest gap between Radiohead albums since their first release, way back in 1993. That’s five years, two months and 20 days between KoL and AMSP! I know it might not seem like much, but perhaps you will remember that long gap between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows – a mere four years, four months and one day. Okay, maybe it’s not so much about the quantity of time between records as it is the quality of material on each record that leaves us thirsting for more. The King of Limbs has its charms, including the special edition packaging, featuring the world’s first (and probably last) ‘newspaper edition’. But it fails to reach the bar set by previous releases, especially since In Rainbows seems to have become so loved amongst the Radiohead intelligentsia. But A Moon Shaped Pool proves to be not so much a simple return to form as it is a uniquely profound yet thoroughly ‘Radiohead’ collection of haunting and atmospheric orchestrations. It is unassuming, gritty, yet polished. It is all the things for which we admire Radiohead and with an added expanse of lyrical coherence.
2. My Woman Angel Olsen — Angel Olsen is another familiar face among my end-of-the-year picks. Her previous record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was my third favourite album of 2014. When an artist produces something as good as Olsen’s previous outing, it’s difficult to know how to approach subsequent releases. Should one set high standards only to be disappointed or should one go in expecting the worst? I was still weighing out this question when I first heard My Woman. According to Olsen, the album’s themes revolve around ‘the complicated mess of being a woman’. As one who does not self-identify as a woman, I believe this album also has plenty of energy to contribute to ‘the complicated mess of being a human’. Olsen’s lyrical, vocal and musical presence is stronger than ever and the record seems to hold together more fully than her earlier releases. In complete self-awarness, she addresses themes of despair, broken expectations and ultimately, hope, all borne with her trademark wit and defiant boldness.
1. Masterpiece Big Thief — It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely surprised by an album. There are great albums from great artists that I can see coming from miles away (such as Sufjan Stevens’ masterful Carrie & Lowell from 2015) and there are the general surprises that make me a new fan (such as Emotions and Math and Teens of Denial above). But then there’s something like Big Thief’s Masterpiece. I had already heard the album before I realised it was released on Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records, which might have coloured my first listen with Midwestern angst. But the Midwestern angst found me over the course of that first listen. I grant that this is all becoming a wee bit self-indulgent for an Angeleño-Glaswegian commenting on an album from a Brooklyn-based band that reminds him of the American Midwest. (To give me some tenuous credit, singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker is from Minneapolis.) But there are serious, though probably unintentional musical and vocal hints of the Anniversary (1997-2004) among others, which is enough to send me spiraling into an adolescence-fueled hunt for a [misplaced] sense of ‘authenticity’. Because of these fleeting emotions, I feel some sort of shame that I can’t help but make this album my top pick of 2016. Beyond these fleeting emotions, Masterpiece is an album with superior breadth and depth, musically and thematically, driven by Lenker and Buck Meek’s vocals and guitars, completely deserving of any scanty honour that I may offer. It will haunt me well into 2017, which, unlike UK and American politics, is no bad thing.
- Love Muscle and Marrow
- You Want it Darker Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
- Slow Forever Cobalt
- Blackstar David Bowie (1947-2016)
- Air Astronoid
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2016
10. Everything At Once Travis — Elijah may be holding his nose with this choice, but I felt like these Scottish lads (who’ve been together for 26 years!) finally found their way back to the simple, lovely tunefulness of their turn of the century apex (The Man Who, The Invisible Band) with this strong release. I’m a sucker for the gentle melancholic hopefulness of Fran Healy’s voice (check out 2:03 on this video) and shimmering indie instrumentation of the band.
9. Winter Lives Matt Pond PA — I have a weak spot for this chamber-pop troubadour. He once again demonstrates a songwriting brilliance that has made me love his poppy, life-affirming tunesmithery over the years. His voice has such a perfect sincerity and tone, the lyrical nostalgia of songs like ‘The Glow’ and ‘Whoa (Thirteen and Sledding with Kerry in Northern New Hampshire)’ warmed my sentimental heart, and the arrangements are solid and masterful.
8. Light Upon the Lake Whitney — You listen to this album and you wonder, what time-machine did these guys fall out of with their perfect falsetto over tight bass/drum combo and 60’s & 70’s guitar sounds. They may be aching for those ‘golden days’ but for my money, they’ve captured them quite perfectly here.
7. Arranging Time Pete Yorn — Ah Pete Yorn, yet another brilliant songwriting flame from the early 2k’s that had somewhat flickered out over the years (a la Travis). But he found that former fuel somewhere and picked up right where musicforthemorningafter left off with this new release. Check out tracks 1-3, ‘Shopping Mall’ and ‘Walking Up” for shambling, big-hearted, melodic indie goodness.
6. Not To Disappear Daughter — Oh her voice just slays me from the first word to the last: like smoke hitting a rain-covered window. Her elegant lyrical delivery taps into the deepest sadness you could imagine, but then soars into the sun over a cascade of guitars and throttling drums (check this video out, as well as this one and fail to be impressed).
5. A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead — This collection of songs (arranged alphabetically it seems) took a bit to grow on me. Initially, I thought it was just some stray songs they’d never really finalized that they’d figured they would finally put on a record, but as I listened more carefully, it opened itself up to me—a staggering heartbreak woven through with gorgeous orchestration and unexpected turns of phrase and melody. They are back at the heights of their powers after the floundering The King of Limbs.
4. The Birds Outside Sang Florist — This is just a gentle, artless, and moving reckoning of dealing with the aftermath of a serious accident. The singer’s voice is fragile, child-like, but full of wonder and hard won wisdom…remembering the light coming into the room where she lay recovering, re-imagining the moment of the accident, but also whimsically meditating on the beauty and capriciousness of life. The instrumentation is lo-fi guitar strumming, Casio keyboard humming, and some droning organs, with the occasional full-band kicking in to make a point. It’s just so sweet and tender—the mending of a confused soul. (You can sample the record here. I particularly love the title track.)
3. Painting of a Panic Attack Frightened Rabbit — Ok, earlier I had told Elijah this wouldn’t probably be on the upper half of my top 10, but as I’ve gone through and listened again to the 12 tracks, it really is strong (I was basing my early sense of the album on the deluxe edition with 3 extra b-side worthy tunes). I think I was initially turned off by some of the ‘radio-friendly’ tendencies I was picking up (‘Get Out’, ‘An Otherwise Disappointing Life’) and though it loses it’s way a bit on the second half, man, when you listen to ‘Death Dream’ and ‘I Wish I was Sober’ and ‘Still Want To Be Here’ and ‘400 Bones’, it’s clearly the same undeniable genius we’ve celebrated on their last 3 albums.
2. Are You Serious Andrew Bird — I’ve always been a fan of the Birdman, but sometimes his meandering obscurity (addressed here on the title track: ‘Used to be so willfully obtuse / or is the word abstruse? / Semantics like a noose / get out your dictionaries’) and multi-layered loop tracks could sometimes become a bit tiresome. Here, he is the TIGHTEST he’s ever been with a strong backing band, streamlined songwriting, and his most straightforward reflections (‘this is all non-fiction’) delivered sincerely alongside delicious whistled melodies. It’s an almost perfect album (save the two-chord gruelling groove ‘Truth Lies Low’).
1. Teens of Denial Car Seat Headrest — I resisted listening to this album for a long time, despite (or because of?) the accolades coming in from various quarters of musicdom. I can’t remember what made me give in, but I’m so glad I did not hold out one moment longer. This is a concept album about a troubled teen exploring some deep universal themes (mortality, depression, anxiety) and others more teen angst-y (experimenting with drugs, drunk driving, relationship drama). The vocalist sounds (and reads) like two parts Ray Davies (Kinks), one part Beck, one part Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) with a dash of Black Francis (Pixies) to taste. The sound of the record is a blend of 90’s alternative rock (open chords through chunky overdrive pedal; double-tracked vocals) mixed with kind of a classic rock aesthetic (hello cowbell!), but as with all of the artists on this list, the song is king (the only number I’m not crazy about is the nearly 8 minute jam ‘Vincent’). This kid is only in his early 20’s but, to my ears, he has already been writing songs for years that hold their own with the greatest ever written.
- 22, A Million Bon Iver — I actually like this experimental collection from the falsetto king, but it just didn’t seem substantial enough to qualify as a full-length LP—it’s only like 22 minutes and 22 seconds long (hey wait a second, that was on purpose!!).
- Young Mood Colt — It really is a great collection of songs—I just couldn’t get over the singer’s grating, narcoleptic baritone voice.
- I also didn’t find the time to listen more carefully to a few records from artists I admire (Remember Us to Life Regina Spektor and Ruminations Conor Oberst, so they perhaps would have ended up on this list had I given their albums some attention). I also want to keep my ears tuned to the Spanish alt/indie band Mourn, who had a so-so album come out, but have potential to be a great band in the days ahead.
- Painting With Animal Collective — Not as bad as 2012’s Centipede Hz, this album still failed to make much of a dent in the AC canon, which is so disappointing as I love this band so much.
- Mangy Love Cass McCombs — I swing back and forth on this guy from album to album, but I almost felt like he was pranking his audience with this collection of his usual esoteric lyricism put to “easy listening” accompaniment. It won many fans in a wide range of music critics, but I’m calling the Emperor’s New Clothes on this one.
- Here Teenage Fanclub — Oh how I love these Scottish indie gods, but this album, their 10th LP, bored me to tears.
Dear faithful LITC readers,
Our favourite post of the year is here! We apologise that it’s taken so long, but think of it as a late Christmas gift. As with previous years, we’ve included our respective Top 10 Albums of the year as well as some honourable mentions and some not so honourable ones. Feel free to share your favourite records of the year in the comments section. Maybe you’ll even discover some unknown treasures within our lists. Take care, readers. See you in 2013.
Elijah & Greg
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012
10. Valtari Sigur Rós — Whilst I loved 2005’s Takk…, I found that 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust left much to be desired. Valtari leans more toward Sigur Rós’ earlier style, a more ambient and reflective record although I’d hesitate before calling it ‘samey’. Incredible tracks like ‘Varúð’ and ‘Varðeldur’, some of the finest I’ve ever heard from the Iceland post-rock legends kept me from pushing this record out of the top ten. For this record the band also came up with they’ve called the ‘Valtari Mystery Film Experiment‘ in which they employed twelve filmmakers to make music videos for the album based upon what the song brought to their minds and without the final approval from Sigur Rós. See ‘Varúð’ below, created by Inga Birgisdóttir, who designed the album cover and also directed the video for ‘Ekki Múkk’:
9. Gentle Stream The Amazing — This was the first record of 2012 that really caught me by surprise. Released in Sweden in 2011, Gentle Stream proves to be just that, a gentle yet wide stream of quality, what I would describe as a subtle mixture between Simon & Garfunkel and Dinosaur Jr. Like their previous releases, The Amazing and Wait for Light to Come, there are still hints of psych rock (influenced by the presence of various members of Dungen) and classic rock and the finished product it is most satisfying.
8. All We Love We Leave Behind Converge — Before I listened to this record, I didn’t want to include Converge in this list because it’s starting to look like whenever a few of my favourite artists make a new album they inevitably end up on my ‘Best Albums’ list. For those who know how I rate music, it’s unlikely that the top four will come as any surprise this year. But give me some credit; I can betray bands I love when they make subpar records – like Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz or my ‘dishonourable mentions’ below. Or last year when I resisted We Were Promised Jetpacks’ In the Pit of the Stomach, Atlas Sound’s Parallax, David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations, DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers, Danielson’s Best of Gloucester County, etc. See, so when I include one of my favourite bands in my top ten I really mean it!
All that being said, I didn’t want to include Converge this year, so when I heard the first track, ‘Aimless Arrow’, I was relieved and heartbroken simultaneously. I would consider the track their weakest opener to date (especially compared to their last record’s first track, ‘Darkhorse‘), and with its hints of ‘screamo’ and melodic hardcore (don’t worry, there’s no ‘singing’ on this track), I was fearful of listening to the rest of the record. But the eight tracks to follow are all heavy, quality tunes! The rest of the record features some spoken word, which works on top of the slow, thoughtful guitar work by Kurt Ballou. But my heart was nearly torn in two upon listening to the tenth track, ‘Coral Blue’. It’s not all that frightening until the chorus, which isn’t quite ‘screamo annoying’, but more confusing for those who listen to Converge. Thankfully, that’s the extent of this ‘singing’ charade on All We Love We Leave Behind. It closes out with the sufficiently epic title track and sufficiently heavy ‘Predatory Glow’. No, on the whole this was no serious transition for Converge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They tried that on You Fail Me and they failed me indeed.
7. Sweet Heart Sweet Light Spiritualized — I know, great cover, right? OK, it’s probably one of the worst album covers this year, but don’t let that put you off! This here is an excellent record. Jason Pierce, also known as J. Spaceman, the creative force behind all of Spiritualized’s incarnations over the last 22 years, wrote the album whilst undergoing serious medical treatment for his liver, which was left in a sore state as a result of many years of drug use, both prescribed and recreational. But unlike 2008’s Songs in A&E, which was also inspired by a serious medical emergency (aspiration pneumonia and periorbital cellulitis), Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a much more hopeful, inspiring record, somewhat in the vein of 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space.
6. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! Godspeed You! Black Emperor — This is the Canadian post-rockers’ first record since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O., and whilst I found Yanqui rather uninspiring after 2000’s masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, ‘Allelujah! is a return to form and then some. Godspeed has a rare skill (shared with Sufjan Stevens) for making 20+ minute songs engaging throughout. The tracks are engrossing and become, as the album title suggests, transcendent objets d’art, ushering the listener into heavy aural ascension.
5. America Dan Deacon — I appreciated Dan Deacon’s music before (his 2009 release, Bromst was among my honourable mentions that year), but this record caught me by surprise. The opener, ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’, is a buzzy digital number, which flows into the two subsequent tracks until Deacon decided to change the pace with ‘Prettyboy’, which seems to ruin the rhythm of the album, that is until we’re brought back into the jam with ‘Crash Jam’. The highlight of the album is the four-part ‘USA’ opus below:
4. Lonerism Tame Impala — Tame Impala’s last record, Innerspeaker, which came to me as such a surprise thanks to Greg’s preaching of the gospel, ranked 6th on my Best Albums of 2010 list, so in my desire to not be let down, I was suspecting that the follow-up wouldn’t be as good. As with their previous material, Lonerism draws much from the past (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards‘ could’ve been part of Magical Mystery Tour, right between ‘Blue Jay Way‘ and ‘Your Mother Should Know‘, or it could’ve totally replaced the latter and I wouldn’t have minded), but always with a sense of artistic integrity and completeness. Thank you, Tame Impala, for defying the awfulness of your band name yet again and coming up with another excellent piece of psychadelic groove rock! Oh and isn’t it groovy!
3. Bloom Beach House — After their excellent third album, Teen Dream (which ranked 8th in my Top 10 Albums of 2010), I expected Beach House to lose steam. Every subsequent record was getting better and no band can keep that up. Well, this loss of steam will have to wait until their next record, because I’d say that Bloom might very well be their best record to date. Whilst their sound remains distinctively ‘Beach House’ (those keyboard and guitar-driven dream pop soundscapes and that husky female voice), the songwriting in Bloom has taken a step forward. And even though this record demands more time and attention than their previous releases, the payoff is tenfold. And how amazing is this Ghostbusters-inspired video for ‘Lazuli’?
2. Dept. of Disappearance Jason Lytle — This was an exciting year for us Grandaddy fans: the band reunited after six years apart! And very fortunately for us, the excitement didn’t end there. Grandaddy principal songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, Jason Lytle, has kept busy since the break up in 2006. In fact, Grandaddy’s final record, 2005’s Just Like the Fambly Cat, was written and recorded entirely by Lytle. After the break up, a move inspired by lack of commercial success, Lytle relocated from California to Montana and toured with Rusty Miller in support of Just Like the Fambly Cat. In 2009, Lytle released his first solo record, Yours Truly the Commuter and followed that with an EP, Merry X-mas. Lytle and former drummer of Grandaddy, Aaron Burtch, joined with members of Earlimart to form the band Admiral Radley, who released their debut record, I Heart California, in 2010. Each of these incarnations were superb (I Heart California was an honourable mention in my Best Albums of 2010 list), but none seemed to capture the magic that Lytle’s earlier work possessed in great measure. Until now. It’s safe to say that Dept. of Disappearance is a grower, but there was enough of pure goodness present from the first listen to keep me going. Each track is excellent, and some are among the best Lytle’s ever written, such as the title track, ‘Matterhorn’, ‘Last Problem of the Alps’, ‘Somewhere There’s a Someone’ (below), ‘Gimme Click Gimme Grid’ and ‘Elko in the Rain’.
1. Shields Grizzly Bear — I won’t make excuses or defend my pick despite the fact that Grizzly Bear’s previous record was my number one album of 2009. Shields is just that good. Still present are the Grizzly Bear trademarks we know and love, but this record is the band’s most aggressive and coherent to date. At times it is far darker than their previous material (‘Speak in Rounds’), yet it still takes the listener into the clouds (‘Half Gate’). In the midst of this more aggressive direction, Grizzly Bear also ventures into the realm of more accessible pop music, music that isn’t as dissonant as their previous releases yet retains its creative bearings. On top of all of their unique qualities as proficient musicians and songwriters, Grizzly Bear demonstrate a continuing process of maturation, one that solidifies them as—in this listener’s opinion—one of the best bands of their generation.
Elijah’s honourable mentions
- Silver & Gold Sufjan Stevens — A massive five-disc, 58-song, 2.7-hour Christmas feast!
- Shrines Purity Ring
- Fear Fun Father John Misty
- Information Retrieved Pinback
- Cancer 4 Cure El-P
- Love This Giant David Byrne & St Vincent
- Tramp Sharon Van Etten
- The Seer Swans
- Tempest Bob Dylan
- Coexist The xx
Elijah’s dishonourable mentions
- Mirage Rock Band of Horses
- Silver Age Bob Mould
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2012
Another conflicted year of listening for me: some of my favorite bands put out albums I thought were shite (Animal Collective, Sigur Rós) and other bands that I expected more from turned out mediocre fare (Passion Pit, The Avett Brothers). Then there were the albums that had real moments of brilliance on them…but which couldn’t sustain that level of greatness throughout the entire record. The following albums didn’t break into my top ten, but you should definitely check out the songs indicated:
- Bloom Beach House — ‘Myth’, ‘The Hours’, ‘Irene’
- Charmer Aimee Mann — ‘Labrador’, ‘Soon Enough’, ‘Slip and Roll’
- Confess Twin Shadow — ‘Golden Light’, ‘Five Seconds’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’
- Lonerism Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Sun’s Coming Up’
- Shields Grizzly Bear — ‘Yet Again’, ‘Gun-Shy’, ‘Half Gate’
- Time Capsules II Oberhofer — ‘HEART’, ‘I Could Go’, ‘oOoO’; also did a great cover of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway‘
10. Young Man Follow Future of Forestry — I don’t mind if I lose all indie credibility for putting a Christian, anthem rock band on my top ten. This album falls somewhere in between Delirious?/Phil Wickham and post-Pop U2/Snow Patrol (right now, Elijah is raising his eyebrows/giving me a look of consternation/experiencing a slight taste of bile in the mouth). I know that there’s a strong hint of songwriting formulae, mixed with sentimental emotionalism, strategic falsetto insertion, and derivative production sleight-of-hand, but I can’t help it…I eat it up. This is my sonic Kryptonite. It moves me and I can’t help loving it. So there you go.
9. Milk Famous White Rabbits — This was a late addition to the list. I had loved the track “Everyone Can’t Be Confused” earlier in the year, but never got around to purchasing the whole album. Two weeks ago, I finally got it and have enjoyed the carefully orchestrated arrangement and production of each song immensely. As I began reading reviews, many of which were not kind, there was some talk about the band selling out and transforming into Spoon-lite (one of that band’s members produced the album). I actually can’t stand Spoon, but I love these guys!
8. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do Fiona Apple — I’ll be honest, I’m not such a fan of the craziness that exists inside this woman’s head, but her startlingly stark songwriting, passionate confessionalism, and uncompromising originality make this album a work of undeniable greatness.
7. Port of Morrow The Shins — There may be some measure of sentiment and nostalgia in this pick. The 2001 album Oh, Inverted World was a life-changer for me (a moment captured and corrupted in Zach Braff’s film Garden State) and I can hear echoes of those glorious times in songs like “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” and “For a Fool.” For those purists who find this a shameless exploitation of The Shins brand (being that only one member of the original band plays on this album), a stance which I myself initially considered, I respectfully disagree. The magic is still here…
6. Adventures in Your Own Backyard Patrick Watson — Watson is one of those artists whose voice alone puts him into a category of talent and beauty that should earn accolades–but he is also a brilliant songwriter and musician whose idiosyncratic vision comes into its own on this release. If you’ve never listened to his work before, his catalog is well worth exploring, including his work with The Cinematic Orchestra.
5. Heaven The Walkmen — This band has been loitering in the periphery of my musical tastes for a while–a great song here or there, but no album that absolutely blew me away. Until now…you MUST listen to this record.
4. Tramp Sharon Van Etten — Such fine, delicate songwriting; beautiful, haunting, and frequently spare instrumentation to accompany her striking, melancholy voice; and brilliant production & instrumental assistance from The National’s Aaron Dessner (who better be working on a new album himself!). I love so many of these songs with an affection that is reserved for a select few artists. Listen to the song belong and try not to simultaneously smile AND ache:
3. Break It Yourself Andrew Bird — I wrote about this album earlier in the year, wondering if it would grow on me more and more. Boy, did it ever. As I said before, Andrew Bird cannot make a bad album, but here, he’s certainly made a great one. I think it really comes alive after the first 1/3 of the album is over, so don’t give up on it if you don’t immediately sense the genius.
2. Silver and Gold Sufjan Stevens — I’m considering this a 2013 release, even though it is a collection of EP’s that Sufjan had privately given out to friends and family over the last five or six years. Of course I love it—I’m a Sufjanite through and through. But beyond my dedication to the man, this really is a beautiful collection of 58 songs that I think transcend the holiday season itself and act as a meditation on the human condition as a whole, refracted through the hopes and disappointments that we connect to a particular time of year and experience of faith, family, community, and tradition. There are haunting covers of Christmas & holiday classics (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Let It Snow!” and “Silent Night”), worshipful church hymns simply arranged and devoutly performed (“Ah Holy Jesus,” “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” and “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”), and Sufjan originals or adaptations that stand up to any of his other records (“Justice Delivers Its Death,” “Christmas in the Room,” “The Midnight Clear,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The Child with the Star on His Head”) along with a myriad of lovely instrumental meditations (my favorites include “Make Haste to See the Baby,” “Go Nightly Cares,” and “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way”), crazy experimental electronica (not my favorite genre but occasionally delightful), and simple fun communal musical merry-making. It’s also fun to view the collection in tandem with the albums he was working on during these years (The BQE and The Age of Adz). You can actually download some of the best tracks for free on Sufjan’s Noisetrade page—and that is a truly wonderful gift from the greatest artist of our age.
1. Fear Fun Father John Misty — One day this year, I was listening to an unbelievably compelling live set of songs on KCRW by a band whose name I somehow kept missing. I finally went onto the station website and discovered that it was Father John Misty. This is the first release under this band name by J. Tillman, former drummer from Fleet Foxes. I had some of his previous solo releases post-FF, which were pretty average folkish meanderings. But this! On this album, Tillman discovers some kind of alchemy that turns his melancholy into the rarest kind of beauty and wonder. His songs sound like they were written 40 or 30 or 20 years ago—any age but now, yet they simultaneously capture the hidden spirit of some mystical contemporary world surrounding us that we may not perceive. Even the songs I don’t absolutely “like” have a tangible genius to them. I didn’t want to like this album—the creepy cover, the hipster pedigree, the critical darlingness of it. But, for me, in 2012, this was it.
Greg’s honourable mentions (albums)
- Among the Leaves Sun Kil Moon — Such lovely instrumentation and melodies; such bothersome narcissistic lyrics
- Born to Die Lana Del Rey — I think one is not supposed to like this album due to its contrivances, over-production, other myriad reasons—nevertheless, I found it strangely compelling in a fashion from start to finish
- Lonesome Dreams Lord Huron — Quality folk/Americana
- Strange Land Yellow Ostrich — This ended up on exactly no one’s top ten—yet really quite a solid indie rock record!
- Who’s Feeling Young Now Punch Brothers — Not enough substance to crack the top 10, but some real winning songwriting here, with a eminently listenable sound throughout
Greg’s honourable mentions (EPs)
I have neglected my musical prophetic calling as of late, but LO, I have returned to separate the melodic wheat from the chaff and to baptize you in the tuneful rivers of new music (the evangelist metaphor is wearing thin, I know). I have put together a mix of some of the latest songs to catch my ear–cleverly entitled “2012: My Own Apocalypse”–but since sharing music online is a dangerous pastime, I will simply offer to send you a link to the songs (if you know me, shoot me an email; if you don’t know me, post in the comments section and I should be able to see your email…AND make sure you are not an undercover agent of the RIAA!). Most of the following artists I’ve highlighted have a track on this mix…
To begin with, two years ago, in my first “Band Evangelist” post, I lamented the break-up of a band that I believed had great potential to be among the indie greats: The XYZ Affair. Well, the singer of that band has just released a free 5-song EP under the moniker Leonard Friend. It’s a bit more quasi-ironic 80’s electronic poppy than I might wish, but this singer/songwriter’s talent cannot be hidden under a bush & heck, it’s FREE!
Another singer/songwriter–Ramesh Srivastava–from a similarly lamented & potentially epic indie band that broke up several years ago–Voxtrot–has just released a few new songs as well, which can be heard for now at his website (the song “The King” was on my best of 2010 mix). I think Ramesh may someday rise again like the phoenix to the heights he reached with Voxtrot (whose must-have songs include “The Start of Something,” “Fast Asleep,” “Firecracker;” their self-titled album from 2007 is worth a purchase, though not essential), but for now, these few songs are all we have to remind us of what could’ve been.
Some of the kings & queens of indie-dom from years past also have new albums out/coming out that must be reckoned with:
- Andrew Bird/Break It Yourself (out now): I did buy it & I do like it thus far. I’m sure it will grow on me even more (straightaway, I was taken with the penultimate 3 tracks quite a bit). The man is so multi-talented (composing melancholic melodies, playing guitar/violin/violin like a guitar/whistling, etc.), he cannot make a “bad album,” but to be honest, I think he could stand to have a producer other than himself (it lacks a sonic fullness and critical perspective that a talented outsider could have brought), he should focus his lyrical impressionism just a bit, and, this sounds harsh, but he needs to drop his brushes/soft kick drum percussionist Martin Dosh, who, while an incredibly talented musician himself, I think, brings out a soft-rock mildness and self-indulgence in the Bird that keeps him from attaining his full greatness on record (when they play live together, as a two-piece, they are able to create an entire symphony of sounds through looping).
- The Shins/Port of Morrow (out now): After a few listens, I am uncertain what I will ultimately think of these 10 tracks. Having loved the early Shins, it is hard to see this new line-up, sans any other original member than singer/songwriter James Mercer, as anything more than just Mercer resurrecting a “brand” that’s proven to sell records. But his voice & lyrics are so great to hear again (though the instrumentation on this album may have been a bit OVER-produced) and the old sparkle does emerge in some of the attempts to recapture the old Shins magic (much more glimmer than I found in the Mercer/Dangermouse collaboration, Broken Bells).
- Daniel Rossen/Silent Hour/Golden Mile (out now): This lovely throated & absurdly brilliant songwriter from Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles has released a five-song EP that I have found wonderfully enchanting, lovely to the bones, and all other kinds of goodness. Yep, you should buy it!
- Sigur Rós/Valtari (May 29): Now I have to admit that I am getting my hopes up ionospherically high for this forthcoming album–to the point that I do not want to hear any tracks until I have the album in my hands. I was personally disappointed with singer/composer Jonsi‘s recent solo release, so I’m hopelandic (or Vonlenska, if you prefer) for a aural reconciliation between my fey Nordic friend and me.
- Regina Spektor/What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (May 29): I’m not totally sure what to think of this quirkstress any more. I did love so much of her last album, Far, but the initial single for this album, “All the Rowboats,” is cloyingly precious (oh, poor paintings that want to escape from their museum prisons) and I fear the worst. Still, she does have heaps of talent, a golden ear for melodies (until she kills them with an intentionally dissonant note to the throat), and a certain sweet naivete, so I’m certain I will give it a listen.
- Other releases of note to check out or watch for include: White Rabbits/Milk Famous (out now)–I don’t know much about them, but I love the song “Everyone Can’t Be Confused,” Damien Jurado/Maraqopa (out now)–“Museum of Flight” is pretty as all get out, Rufus Wainwright/Out of the Game (April 23), Silversun Pickups/Neck of the Woods (May 8), Beach House/Bloom (May 15)–the song “Myth” from this album is soaringly lovely, Best Coast/The Only Place (May 15)–get a free song off the album here, The Walkmen/Heaven (June 5), and a new Passion Pit album in June. Post in the comments about any albums I missed!
SO those are releases from the KNOWN bands…but let me list out a few NEW (to me & perhaps you?) acts that I’d like to commend to you all:
- Sharon Van Etten/Tramp: This singer-songwriter caught my ear with “Serpents” before I’d heard that The National‘s Aaron Dessner had played on/produced her album (which is reason enough to take note). Her voice is a mix between Cat Power, Kathleen Edwards, and Sarah Jaffe (who also shares a similar composing style & sound). This woman has an incredible future ahead of her. I’ve been playing this album non-stop of late.
- Yellow Ostrich/Strange Land: This LP is the apotheosis of indie-songsmithery. Haunting at points (“Up in the Mountains,” “Wear Suits”), darkly epic at others (“Marathon Runner”) and hopping off walls at yet many other points.
- Pandercakes/Paint By Numbers EP: I don’t quite remember how I heard about this band, but you can download some songs here. Read this music blog to find out more about their sound, which I like immensely–densely layered & yet fun and catchy at the same time.
- Oberhofer/Time Capsules II: I have only listened to one song of of this album (“Heart”) but it has set expectations quite high. This song is a mix of Animal Collective, Explosions in the Sky, Page France, and Muse (the piano parts)–to my ears at least. This kid is the next generation of indie genius.
- Dry the River/Shallow Bed: A friend with impeccable taste just turned me on to this band via a set on KCRW. Check out this quote from their online bio:
“This five-piece band has all the hallmarks of the latest folk sensation: elemental name, beards, acoustic guitars, even a violinist. But what sets Dry the River apart is a background in hardcore and post-punk bands, hence the tattoos, lyrics that read like a Steinbeck novel and a sonic palette that sweeps from gentle to giant like an incoming storm.”
Well, that should keep your ears busy for a short while…until our next gathering at the edge of the river, let the “Glory Hallelujah’s” roll!
Since Greg shared his more finalised version of the ‘Best Albums of 2009’ I figured it was as good a time as any to revisit my list. I would have simply updated the original post, but there have been some significant changes to my ‘Best Albums of 2009 (thus far)‘ list due to the release of several amazing records since I left America. I have therefore removed the following from my previous list:
- Cass McCombs—Catacombs
- Andrew Bird—Noble Beast
- Sunset Rubdown—Dragonslayer
- The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I must say that the four records above are worth buying, but in narrowing my list down to ten with the inclusion of a larger canon of new albums in 2009 (my previous list was posted nearly three months ago) I needed to revise my list. Therefore I give you my more official and updated ‘Best Albums of 2009‘.
10. We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls
I still stand by the excellence of this record, but it has slipped three slots (from seven to ten). Enjoy the incredible Scottish sincerity and steady flow of energy.
9. Atlas Sound—Logos
Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter) really did an excellent job on this record (released 19 October in the UK) with a little help from Noah Lennox (aka ‘Panda Bear’) and Lætitia Sadier (of Stereolab). Cox demonstrates his exceptional and deeply personal writing abilities and leaves room for many more excellent Atlas Sound records to come.
8. Times New Viking—Born Again Revisited
I first heard Times New Viking last year when they released Rip it Off. That album proved to be a great surprise (which was enhanced by the energy and precision of their live shows). This next record (released 21 September in the UK) proves to employ the same techniques – simple pop songs performed by a three piece band (drums, guitar, keys) and production that is intentionally downgraded for an extremely primitive and lo-fi sound. But the songwriting on this album represents a broader stylistic spectrum than their previous work which makes this record more accessible and even more listenable (for someone who usually enjoys what others have sometimes deemed ‘unlistenable’).
As I mentioned previously, this album was very surprising, and it has proven more surprising as I’ve listened on, securing it a rank of number seven (previously eight). At this point one might ask, “Wait, with this subjective switch aren’t your reviews worth the computer screens they are illuminated on?” Correct, the albums I deem worthy of listen are based upon my dynamic personal preferences. But in the end, we must wait for NME’s ‘Top Albums of the Decade’ instead of taking their top album from each year of the decade because of developing musical trends and tastes, so I don’t feel so guilty. This album deserves this spot and maybe even a higher one. This album possesses a near-perfect amount of creativity, innovation, skills and utter fun! A great improvement from Chris Cohen’s previous work on Asthmatic Kitty (Curtains).
I first heard the track “Hellhole Ratrace” back in August. It was raved about by Pitchfork and Stereogum and I found the track very enjoyable, but not as incredible as the reviews were claiming. I bought the record soon after its release on 22 September and gave it a listen. By the second listen I was hooked. Think of a more nihilistic and energetic Elvis Costello circa 1977, with a hint of Buddy Holly.
5. Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
This record (along with Cursive’s new record) slipped a slot entirely due to the release of my new number three record of the year. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is probably my favorite release from Camera Obscura. The more I’ve listened the more I appreciate the record and also the more sure I am that I didn’t simply “love it so much because Belle & Sebastian hasn’t released an LP since 2006.” Well orchestrated and executed indie-pop, with plenty of Scottish wit. Even if there is a hint of my love for B & S in this pick, the album (and the band) stands on its own through musical precision and artistic maturity.
4. Cursive—Mama, I’m Swollen
Mama, I’m Swollen probably seems to be an odd pick for this number [four] slot, but I will always have a soft spot for Cursive. This is not to say that this album is undeserving of praise. Cursive is not interested in being another experimental freak-folk-electro-post-rock-cross-genre-remixed piece of overproduced crap like so many other groups are becoming (namely Dirty Projectors). They are faithful to their expressive indie roots, this album being far less poppy than Happy Hollow. It reminds me of Domestica even. Tim Kasher is still obsessed with refuting a theistic/morally superior worldview, but he does it with so much passion and angst I can’t help but be stirred. Cursive encourages us to realize the failure of our Enlightenment/modern ideals and to accept our animalistic/primitive nature. I don’t buy it (but not because it’s not packaged well). I say we drop the Enlightenment and read more Kierkegaard and Barth.
3. Converge—Axe to Fall
After all these years Converge is still bringing ‘it.’ What is ‘it?’ ‘It’ is unrelenting energy. Of all of the bands on this top ten album list, Converge is by far my favorite. This album (released 20 October) is both extremely heavy and true to Converge’s metal roots while remaining very accessible (like 2001’s Jane Doe). Axe to Fall has also made its way into my top three all-time Converge records.
2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion
Retaining its number two slot, Merriweather Post Pavilion – though it is more accessible (think Pet Sounds) than their entire repertoire (a bad start in my odd musical sense) – is very unique, big (to the point of breathtaking at times), and yet more cohesive with itself than any other Animal Collective album. The songs don’t leave you asking, “When is this going to end/how does that even fit?”
1. Grizzly Bear—Veckatimest
I raved about their performance in Glasgow earlier this month and I stand by this pick as the ‘Best Album of 2009.’ My first listen of this record was a positive, but not profound experience. Only two tracks really stuck out to me: “Two Weeks,” and “While You Wait for the Others.” I was even a little disappointed with the album version of “While You Wait for the Others,” at first (compared to their incredible live performance I saw on Morning Becomes Eclectic last year). I sat with the album for another month and at that point it hit me. This is by far (maybe I’ll get harassed for saying that) Grizzly Bear’s best record. By best I mean that they demonstrate great maturity and excellence both in writing and execution, two points that have always seemed to miss one another by an ever-so-slight degree. This record is certain to remain among my favorites unless I fully give myself over to jazz-fusion or something.
It’s late August and I’ve already got a top ten list for the best albums of the year. As I pointed out in an entry last year, it isn’t really my thing to jump on ‘new’ music per se. I am typically balancing myself between ‘new’ music and ‘old’ music that’s ‘new’ to me. This year I wanted to challenge myself to listen to more “new” music (i.e. music that has been/will be released in 2009).
With the trusty aid of music blogs, Lala, random databases, and Greg I’ve been able to become exposed to a larger body of ‘new’ music this year and I decided that before I leave to Scotland and my postgraduate occupation with a large number of books, I would compile a list of my top ten albums of the year. Who knows, maybe this will be my final top ten list for the year (though it has been altered a bit even in the last 24 hours).
10. Cass McCombs—Catacombs
Cass McCombs reminds me of T Bone Burnett and Neil Young more than ever. He remains very unpretentious and sincere, perhaps on this album more than his previous records. Two tracks to reel you in: “You Saved My Life,” & “Lionkiller Got Married.”
9. Andrew Bird—Noble Beast
I really thought I would hate this album. I’m not much of a fan of Andrew Bird’s music. I’ve never enjoyed his voice. Perhaps Noble Beast’s inclusion on this list is a response to how much I tolerated it as opposed to how much I loved it. But I am leaning more toward its inclusion because I thoroughly enjoy listening to this album. Two tracks to reel you in: “Masterswarm,” & “Not a Robot, But a Ghost.”
This album was very surprising. I hadn’t been very impressed with Chris Cohen’s work with Curtains on Asthmatic Kitty, so I didn’t expect a lot. I saw Cryptasize for the first time with Danielson last November and they didn’t leave a very strong impression, but this album really brings out their strengths. It has a great mood—unpredictable but not irritating (like the Dirty Projectors’ new album…). Two tracks to reel you in: “Blue Tears,” & “Gotta Get Into That Feeling.”
7. We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls
Thanks to Sgt. Grumbles for this suggestion a couple months back. It reminds me of high school, in the best way possible. Enjoy the lovely accent, the token glockenspiel, and the incredible sincerity—one of the most important qualities I look for in an artist. Two tracks to reel you in: “It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning,” & “An Almighty Thud.”
6. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
American faux-Brit pop never felt so great! It’s delightfully reminiscent of The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. Two tracks to reel you in: “Young Adult Friction,” & “A Teenager In Love.” Note: the album cover bears a ridiculously close resemblance to Belle & Sebastian’s 2006 album, The Life Pursuit:
5. Sunset Rubdown—Dragonslayer
This album is a great step forward for Sunset Rubdown. It’s not obnoxiously poppy like Shut Up I Am Dreaming tended to be. There’s a lot going on musically, yet no component is overpowered by another within a song. Two tracks to reel you in: “Silver Moons,” & “Idiot Heart.”
4. Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
Let’s face it, I’m a sucker for Scotch indie-pop. This is probably my favorite release from Camera Obscura. Maybe I love it so much because Belle & Sebastian hasn’t released an LP since 2006. Even if there is a hint of my love for B & S in this pick, the album (and the band) stands on its own through musical precision and artistic maturity. Thank you Tracyanne Campbell for your exceptional wit. Two tracks to reel you in: “French Navy,” & “My Maudlin Career.”
3. Cursive—Mama, I’m Swollen
Mama, I’m Swollen probably seems to be an odd pick for this number three slot, but I will always have a soft spot for Cursive. This is not to say that this album is undeserving of praise. Cursive is not interested in being another experimental freak-folk-electro-post-rock-cross-genre-remixed piece of overproduced crap like so many other groups are becoming (namely Dirty Projectors). They are faithful to their expressive indie roots, this album being far less poppy than Happy Hollow. It reminds me of Domestica even. Tim Kasher is still obsessed with refuting a theistic/morally superior worldview, but he does it with so much passion and angst I can’t help but be stirred. Cursive encourages us to realize the failure of our Enlightenment/modern ideals and to accept our animalistic/primitive nature. I don’t buy it but not because it’s not packaged well. Two tracks to reel you in: “From the Hips,” & “Let Me Up.”
2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion
Though it is more accessible (think Pet Sounds) than their entire repertoire (a bad start in my odd musical sense), this album is very unique, big (to the point of breathtaking at times), and yet more cohesive with itself than any other Animal Collective album. The songs don’t leave you asking, “When is this going to end/how does that even fit?” Two tracks to reel you in: “My Girls,” & “Summertime Clothes.”
1. Grizzly Bear—Veckatimest
My first listen of this record was a positive, but not profound experience. Only two tracks really stuck out to me: “Two Weeks,” and “While You Wait for the Others.” I was even a little disappointed with the album version of “While You Wait for the Others,” at first (compared to their incredible live performance I saw on Morning Becomes Eclectic last year). I sat with the album for another month and at that point it hit me. This is by far (maybe I’ll get harassed for saying that) Grizzly Bear’s best record. By best I mean that they demonstrate great maturity and excellence both in writing and execution, two points that have always seemed to miss one another by an ever-so-slight degree. This record is certain to remain among my favorites unless I fully give myself over to jazz-fusion or something. Two tracks to reel you in: “Two Weeks,” & “I Live With You.”
Compilations worth mentioning
Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison – a compilation of George Harrison’s solo music spanning his entire post-Beatle career.
Dark Was the Night – a compilation release benefiting the Red Hot Organization.
Royal City – a Royal City B-side compilation released by Asthmatic Kitty.
God Help the Girl – a music/film project written Stuart Murdoch, the singer of Belle & Sebastian. Members of Belle & Sebastian with guest vocalists. CD Booklet features a short story that goes with the music.
Lou Barlow—Goodnight Unknown
David Bazan—Curse Your Branches
Castanets—Texas Rose, the Beasts, and the Thaw
The Decemberists (primarily because of Shara Worden’s contribution)—The Hazards of Love
Wye Oak—The Knot
Look out for
Converge—Axe to Fall (20 October)
Atlas Sound—Logos (20 October)
Why does anyone like
Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca – It could’ve been so great, but it’s incredibly obnoxious.