Best Albums of 2020

And here we are in the nick of time, before the closing hours of 2020, to present you with the highly-subjective lists of our favourite albums of the year. We won’t pretend that 2020 wasn’t an especially horrible year for many people, but we can highlight that excellent artistry may arise despite tragedy (and it has been argued that the finest artistry emerges from tragedy necessarily). We would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading and to wish all of our readers a very happy New Year, full of love, peace and joy.

Elijah & Greg


10. Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple

Full disclosure: 2012’s The Idler Wheel… passed me by. In fact, I haven’t given Fiona Apple much of a listen since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, which I found relatively underwhelming. I am grateful for venturing back into Apple territory for this record, which is the first of her five records (a slim catalogue over a 25-year career) in which she oversaw all of her own production. Without Jon Brion’s instrumental settings, Apple has produced something more primal. The title of the record comes from the television programme The Fall. In the scene in question, Gillian Anderson’s detective protagonist Stella Gibson is seeking to reach a torture victim through a locked door.

Without wanting to belabour the parallel, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an expression of artistic liberation: ‘Fetch the bolt cutters… I’ve been in here too long’ (from the title track). Additional percussion is provided by the bashing of walls and floor of her Los Angeles home. These are accompanied by barking dogs (à la Brian Wilson), and, apparently, her deceased dog’s bones. Perhaps she is musing on her prodigal beginnings as a seventeen-year-old pop star when she sings ‘I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill’. Whatever artistic journey she has been on, she has rediscovered a particular artistic freedom with this album.

9. Women in music Pt. III
HAIM

HAIM is comprised of the three Haim sisters: Este, Danielle and Alana. Women in Music Pt III is their third studio album and explores various personal challenges faced by the sisters as well as the sexism faced by women in the music industry (especially in the Joni Mitchell-esque ‘Man from the Magazine’). (A geeky side-note is the fact that the album cover was photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson [one of my favourite directors] at the famous Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. Anderson also directed the several music videos from the album singles.) In addition to the deeply personal lyrical content of WIMPIII (each of the three Haim sisters have expressed personal traumas faced in the period leading up to the recording of the album), this record is notable for its employment of a wide variety of musical genres. Even with (though not necessarily in opposition to) the sometimes depressive content, WIMPIII is full of momentum, harnessing the energy of 1990s West Coast pop rock.

8. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

When Greg first introduced me to Tame Impala over a decade ago, I was enamoured with the ‘band’s’ sound. Neo-psychedelic rock soundscapes with heavily-effected drums and vocals. There was something simultaneously classic and contemporary about the sound and I couldn’t get enough of it. When I discovered that the band was actually just Kevin Parker, my mind was well and truly blown. Since 2010’s InnerSpeaker, every Tame Impala record has scratched its way into my top ten lists.

When I first heard this record, I didn’t know whether The Slow Rush would buck the trend or not. It is both very Tame Impala and very much a departure. The psychedelic and effected elements remain, but The Slow Rush, in keeping with its name, features a distinctly softer sound than previous Tame Impala records while keeping time with punchy disco beats. In the opening track, Parker sings ‘Not caring if we do the same thing every week / of living like I’m only living for me / of never talking about where we’re gonna be / of living like the free spirit I wanna be.’ As an admitted superfan of the more distorted guitar-driven, gravelly Tame Impala sound, I remain entranced with the intimate interlude that is The Slow Rush.

7. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Perfume Genius

Michael Alden Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius has continued the trend of exploring embodied existence through song in his fifth album. Somewhat familiar narratives remain, but Set My Heart on Fire Immediately picks up on Hadreas’ decade-long musical journey from the art rock industrial ballads of his early releases, through the land of the flamboyant showman and to this amalgamation of a considerable number of musical styles and influences spanning the last sixty years of pop music. And while Hadreas persists in his exquisite lyrical poeticism, he also leaves the sonic soundscapes to complete the picture, to express the verbally inexpressible. The tone of the whole of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is one of more confidence and earthiness (as opposed to the equally-valuable frailty and dreaminess of his previous releases).

6. songs / instrumentals
Adrianne Lenker

Since the release of Masterpiece in 2016, Big Thief has been one of my favourite bands of the last decade. This has been due primarily to the contribution of lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker. In both songwriting and musicianship, Lenker has been a pleasure to explore. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, she has been writing and releasing music for the last 16 years.) Having released two excellent records last year (U.F.O.F. and Two Hands), Big Thief was set to embark on a European tour when, due to the pandemic, it was cancelled (boo…). As a result, Lenker saw an opportunity to take a break from the demands of recording and touring (as well as to work through a recent break-up), staying in a small cabin in Western Massachusetts to be near to her sister. It may come as no surprise that with a creative force such as Lenker, these circumstances proved ideal for the gestation of new material.

While Lenker’s previous material is known for its lyrical honesty, Songs in particular is a further journey into her feelings, borne, was The Independent’s Roisin O’Connor puts it, ‘with complete abandon.’ The opening track, ‘two reverse’ indicates this complete abandon: ‘Lay me down so to let you leave. / Tell me lies, I wanna see your eyes. / Is it a crime to say I still need you? / Crime, wanna feed you.’

In the midst of this vulnerable outpouring of emotion, Lenker continues to demonstrate her musical confidence, albeit stripped down to mostly her guitar and vocals (and the occasional sound of falling rain). This doesn’t feel like a Big Thief album, but perhaps something better, or at the very least, something more intimate.

5. græ
Moses Sumney

It is perhaps a testimony to my own musical ignorance (rather than the opposite) that I don’t often hear an album and feel as if it is unlike anything I have ever heard before. Even albums that may catch me off-guard tend to also harbour a strong relationship to my other musical interests. Without a doubt, Moses Sumney’s græ bears little resemblance to other music with which I am familiar. This is not to say that Sumney’s influences are unrecognisable, but instead that the composition of græ is a wholly unique expressive force. In addition to the experimental melding of genres including jazz, classical, folk, art pop/rock and spoken word, græ is also an exceptionally personal record. With confidence and skill, Sumney approaches various issues close to home including immigration (Sunmey was born in California to Ghanaian immigrants and spent a number of years in Ghana as a child), race, gender and queer culture. While these genres and concepts might appear ham-fisted or pretentious on any other record, the pacing and tone of græ facilitates natural expression and is a triumph of contemporary music.

4. RTJ4
Run the Jewels

I have been a fan of El-P since 2002’s Fantastic Damage. I even loved the electronic jazz fusion of High Water (recorded with The Blue Series Continuum in 2004). When he partnered with Killer Mike for 2013’s Run the Jewels, El-P went from strength to strength. Every subsequent RTJ record has continued to impress (albeit, peppered with humour on the level of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] programming), but none so significantly as this latest release.

RTJ4 is the quintessential 2020 record. Pandemics, although horrific in their destruction of human life, come and go. Police brutality/racism is the more enduring illness in the United States. The opening track, ‘Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)’ heralds the tone of the record, closing with the words, ‘Yankee and The Brave are here / everybody hit the deck / we don’t mean no harm / but we truly mean all the disrespect.’ Run the Jewels have always exercised pointed social commentary, but RTJ4 is a step up in terms of agitation and clarity of thought. The lyrics express the reality of black Americans resisting systematic racism as well as the solidary in this struggle that can be expressed by allies of the black community. In a sense, Killer Mike and El-P are a shining example of what a unified, pragmatic and socially-conscious America can be, all bolstered by the superb production for which El-P has become legendary in the field of experimental hip-hop.

3. Hannah
Lomelda

Hannah is Lomelda’s fourth studio album (although ‘Lomelda’ is Texas songwriter Hannah Read, who has been releasing music for nearly a decade, in one form or another). Last year’s release, M for Empathy passed me by. Approaching Hannah with a tabula rasa was probably the best way in for me. As it turns out, whether by nature or design, Hannah Read is one of the most unassuming contemporary musicians I have encountered. There is a profound modesty in her songwriting, paralleled by the gentleness and unmilled tone of her singing voice. Hannah feels like a series of letters that Read has written to herself (as opposed to the convention of most self-titled records). It is almost as if Read is not interested in performing, per se, but rather, expressing herself in the most natural way possible – almost as if she is singing in the privacy of her bedroom. This openness disarms the listener and draws them in to Read’s narrative. She unveils grace and beauty in the mundane and ordinary, and through this, the listener is absorbed into that transcendence.

2. THE ASCENSION
Sufjan Stevens

I resisted. I promise that I resisted. When the album’s first single, ‘America’ was released in July, I had assumed it was a one-off, perhaps a comment on the state of play in the United States, what with the ongoing pandemic and the circus of a presidential election on the horizon. (In reality, Stevens penned ‘America’ during the Carrie & Lowell sessions.) Then August brought the second single, ‘Video Game’. As soon as it was released, I listened with measured anticipation. Was this to be the sound of The Ascension? I wondered, ‘Maybe this won’t be my cup of tea…’ ‘Video Game’ was followed by ‘Sugar’ in September and then the release of the album in full. I had placed a pre-order as soon as the album was announced, but I was beginning to think that its addition to my collection would be a matter of mere Sufjan Stevens ‘completism’, rather than a treasure to be cherished.

In part, I was relieved when I didn’t fall in love with The Ascension after hearing it for the first time. In the past, every time had Sufjan Stevens released an album of new material, it always seemed to climb its way to the top of my ‘best of’ list. To be sure, I am under no impression that my end of the year lists are anything more than subjective rambles about music that I—an ignoramus—enjoy. Yet, the more I listened, the more I realised that this was a true grower. Stevens has grown tired of folk music convention (he tends to dip in and out of love with this form) and songwriting in The Ascension exercises more force and certainty (even while expressing uncertainty) than ever before. In an interview with Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic, Stevens admits that this album is ‘bossy and bitchy’. In a sense, The Ascension is less dynamic than most of Stevens’ previous releases, but when that dynamism appears, it really pays off. The Purple Rain-era-Prince-sounding ‘Death Star’ stands out especially — I could not have guessed that jingle bells would give me the chills time and time again.

1. Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan

Here are several potentially controversial statements: This is easily Dylan’s finest original work since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. This might well be his finest release since 1975’s Desire (or, when the notion takes me, 1989’s Oh Mercy). For all of the strengths of 2001’s “Love and Theft”, 2006’s Modern Times and 2012’s Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways showcases Dylan’s Nobel-prize winning, transcendent and perhaps, unparalleled songwriting prowess better than anything he has produced in the last two decades.

I find only two weaknesses in Rough and Rowdy Ways. The first is a single phrase in ‘I Contain Multitudes’. In the midst of throwing out seemingly-pithy pop-culture references intermixed with more profound figures among the ‘multitudes’ he ‘contains’, Dylan offers up this cringe-worthy line: ‘And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones’. At 79, I can accept Dylan’s characterisation of the The Rolling Stones here—who were beginning to favour of edgier rock-n-roll cuts like ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and ‘Paint It Black’ when Dylan was making his own transition to the electric guitar—but referring to them as ‘British bad boys’… I shudder even as I type the expression. My second grievance is with Dylan’s occasional dependence on cookie-cutter blues rock arrangements. Yet, even within the likes of ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, his exceptional songwriting genius shines through. Thanks, Bob, for reminding me why you’re my favourite artist of all time.

Shore Fleet Foxes

Fountain Lyra Pramuk

Mystic Familiar Dan Deacon

Flower of Devotion Dehd

Microphones in 2020 The Microphones

Healing is a Miracle Julianna Barwick

SHall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? The Soft Pink Truth

Whole New Mess Angel Olsen

Fear of Death Tim Heidecker

Live Forever Bartees Strange


10. SURVIVORS EP
Tim Baker

I had originally slotted the new Car Seat Headrest album into this tenth slot, but then I realized that… I honestly REALLY only like about 3 songs on it. And so I came to the conclusion that I should instead honor this 5 song EP from my last year’s top album artist, Canadian troubadour Tim Baker. The song “Survivors” was MY ANTHEM for this year, so here’s to you Tim, for helping me to get through the lousiest year on record. You spin gold out of tragedy…

9. Born again
Ellis

Her voice is hard to distinguish from another dreamy bedroom pop singer named Clairo, but there’s something deeper in her deconversion narrative that keep this album from turning into another collection of broken heart stories. The lyrics aren’t too profound, but they’re honest, like a gauzy reflection on a #metoo world from the evangelical subculture with smashing cymbals and guitars on overdrive. I guess I’m just a sucker for a song that starts “Lately I have been romanticizing shit…” (“Embarrassing”).

8. Color Theory
Soccer Mommy

To be honest, a lot of the songs on this album sound the same to me… but the thing is, it’s such a great sound that she’s mastered. 90’s atmospheric rock with a girl-ish wistfulness (“I’m the princess of screwing up”) beneath which lies trenchant insights pulled from the wreckage of self-doubt, depression, loss, and splintered relationships. She’s like the prettiest, smartest, saddest, and angriest girl in the world at the same time, standing at the mic with a Fender Strat wrapped around her shoulders.

7. SLEEPYHEAD
Cavetown

For the first time ever, I have an album on my top ten that MY DAUGHTER Katrina turned me onto. This Gen Z wunderkind, whom his parents named Robin Skinner, wrote, produced, and played most of the instruments on the record in his major label debut and he is the most earnest of bedroom indie heroes imaginable, singing about how he hates the way he looks as an adult (“Snail”), wanting someone to tell him that they like him after he confesses his own affection (“Sweet Tooth”), and recounting how he almost killing himself at age 13 (“Empty Bed”). His double tracked vocals are charmingly lovely, he strums the acoustic minimally or grinds the electric Weezer-ly in just the right amount of accompaniment. It gives me hope for the future.

6. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

This album had to grow on me. The dance-y vibe didn’t originally capture me as much as the sonic homages of Kevin Parker’s previous work (Beatles, 60’s psychedelic, 80’s pop, etc.), probably because I’ve never been a fan of songs that repeat a theme over and over, building and dropping out again and again. But, in the end, I had to give into the groove that this kid laid down. He’s a genius, this one.

5. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Bright Eyes

This is a triumphant come back after 2011’s The People’s Key, which I found almost unlistenable. Conor Oberst may have been reinvigorated by his new muse (hint: see my #1 album) after creating the masterful collaboration Better Oblivion Community Center with her last year. His lyrics, songwriting, arrangements, and instrumentation are all back to the highest level of some of his best previous work with his long-time band. He touches on some deep wounds and finds cathartic creative power amidst the pain. Let’s hope that he stays this inspired for some time to come!

4. The New Abnormal
The Strokes

You know, I’ve never actually owned an album by The Strokes before. I mean, I knew and liked the songs that everyone did, but I would not have considered myself a fan. Perhaps I should have listened more closely. When I put this record on, I immediately connected with the catchy post-punk melodies and weary nostalgia that they were peddling. I even found myself cracking up at the melodic thievery (Psychedelic Furs in “Eternal Summer”), inside jokes (“Drums please, Fab” and “I was just bored, playing the guitar / Learned all your tricks, wasn’t too hard” in “Ode to the Mets”), and the bands coming to terms with being the old guard at this point in their career. This album brought me a lot of joy in this joyless crapheap of a year, so I thank them for that.

3. Shore
Fleet Foxes

This was the album that made me feel like everything would be okay again one day. Robin Peckhold et al were a bit obscure (though still brilliant) on 2017’s Crack-up, but it was like he was now inviting us to explore “land / Overgrown / No words, no false, no true / Water stands / Waves just pass through it / Like something moves through you.” That’s what listening to this album feels like… just the thing that I needed so much.

2. The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens

I had a listening party for this album on the night that it was released. For the first few songs, I was dialed in, willing to follow Suf wherever he wanted to take us. But then, beginning with “Die Happy” I became pretty… unhappy. Song after song began to revel in discordance, melodically and lyrically. I felt like it was a repudiation of the old Sufjan that I loved so much—his faith (“I want to be my own redeemer” and “I was acting like a believer when I was just angry and depressed”), his love of his country—though this somewhat understandable—in “America,” and his musical aesthetic (it was hard to make out any discernible natural instrument on the album—even Age of Adz allowed for the occasional acoustic guitar or orchestral part! It’s funny that the “America” B-side “My Rajneesh” was the EXACT Sufjan sound that I wanted!!). But then… I just decided to let Sufjan do what he needed to do, to say what he needed to say. And I once again recognized his genius and began to appreciate the album more and more. I may not love it as much as previous albums (I’d rank his oeuvre as follows: Illinois, Carrie & Lowell, Age of Adz, Michigan, The Ascension, Planetarium, A Sun Came, Seven Swans, Aporia, Enjoy Your Rabbit), but I will stand behind my artistic apotheosis whatever path he takes.

1. Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers

I’ve seen the Phoebe Bridgers backlash. It’s a real thing. And it’s not pretty. But to my ears, this is it. This is the best that this damnable year had to offer. She kept at it too, releasing the orchestral re-mix EP Copycat Killer and a melancholovely Christmas EP as well. I won’t say any more other than to say, “Take up and listen.” (PS. Katrina loves it too!! She dressed up as Phoebes for Halloween, which is meta, cause it’s one of the song titles on the album.)

folklore Taylor Swift (my beautiful youngest daughter is looking over my shoulder right now to make sure that I included this album on my list… heh heh)

Best Albums of 2012

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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.

Love,

Elijah & Greg

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Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Valtari

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’:

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Gentle Stream

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.

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All We Love

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.

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Sweet Heart

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.

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Don't Bend,  Ascend!

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.

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America

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:

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Lonerism

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 Kevin Parker’s 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 mediocrity of your stage name name yet again and coming up with another excellent piece of psychadelic groove rock!  Oh and isn’t it groovy!

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Bloom

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’?

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Dept of Disapearance

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’.

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Shields

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 2009Shields 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.

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Elijah’s honourable mentions

Elijah’s dishonourable mentions

  • Mirage Rock  Band of Horses
  • Silver Age  Bob Mould

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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

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Young Man Follow

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.

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White Rabbits

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!

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Fiona Apple

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.

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Port of Morrow

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…

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Adventures in Your Own Backyard

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.

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Heaven

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.

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Tramp

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:

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Break it Yourself

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.

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Silver & Gold

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.

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Fear Fun

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.

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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)

Top 20 Bands: 1

1. Bob Dylan

Surprise, surprise – Bob Dylan is my favourite ‘band’.  From a critical perspective, Dylan’s monumental place in the history of popular music is indisputable, yet despite his massive popularity and critical enshrinement, he is and has ever been elusive, in a constant state of artistic evolution.  In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, Dylan states, ‘I had ambitions to set out to find…this home that I’d left a while back. … I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be so I’m on my way home.’

In Greenwich Village, the epicentre of the post-McCarthy folk revival in the early sixties, Dylan would pick out which performers were ‘doing it for real’ and then pick up how they were doing it.  Dylan states regarding performers he admired, ‘[There] was something in their eyes that said “I know something you don’t know” and I wanted to be that kind of performer.’  He describes the folk scene in the early 60s as divided into two camps: pop music for college kids and intellectual folk music – Dylan considered himself neither.  In his 2006 autobiography Chronicles, Volume One he writes,’ There were a lot better singers and musicians around [Greenwich Village] but there wasn’t anybody close in nature to what I was doing.’ (London: Pocket Books, 18)

Eventually Dylan’s uniqueness brought him to the attention of Columbia Records’ John Hammond and although Dylan’s voice was not the standard at Columbia—home to the beautiful voices of those like Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis—Hammond’s track record for sales convinced the executives at Columbia that Dylan would be worth their investment.  It was with Columbia that Dylan’s massive repertoire (over 600 original compositions) would take off and progress over the course of the last half-century.

Throughout his career Dylan’s music has undergone several significant shifts.  In 1965 he ‘went electric’ with Bringing It All Back Home. This transition brought about accusations of ‘going commercial’ for money and fame.  Famously, one audience member criticised Dylan, exclaiming ‘Judas!’ during a now-infamous performance at Royal Albert Hall in 1966.

In a 1965 interview with the Chicago Daily News, Dylan stated, ‘I’ve never followed any trend, I just haven’t the time to follow a trend.  It’s useless to even try.’  Instead, Dylan saw his ‘going electric’ as a natural progression from his earlier style.  In No Direction Home, he states, ‘An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. … You’re constantly in a state of becoming.’

In 1966, not long after the release of his third electric record, Blonde on Blonde, Dylan was injured badly in a motorcycle accident.  ‘Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race,’ Dylan writes.  ‘Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on.’  (Chronicles, 114)  He refrained from touring for the next eight years, but still wrote and recorded prolifically.  During this time he returned to more traditional roots and explored country music with several excellent pieces such as ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’, ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, ‘If Not For You’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, but had not achieved a significant amount of critical or commercial success—at least anything that could be likened to the success of his earlier material—until the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975.

Dylan describes Blood on the Tracks as a product of his ‘painting period’ in which the songs were more ‘like a painter would paint’ rather than those a musician would compose.  In The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, Carrie Brownstein writes, ‘By examining music from a visual perspective, with colours and lines instead of notes and chords, Dylan laid out on the canvas what would be Blood on the Tracks.’  (Kevin J. H. Dettmar, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, Part I [Cambridge: Cambridge, 2009], 157).

As can be observed from many of his early influences such as Hank Williams’ ‘When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’, Dylan was not unfamiliar with the usage of religious motifs.  He employed them in his own work on a regular basis, as is the case with ‘Masters of War’, ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, etc.  At the time, these expressions were not so much a matter of Dylan’s personal faith as they were the custom of the tradition he was drawing from and his employment of the language of a largely ‘Christian’-literate American society.  But by the mid-seventies Dylan began to gain greater interest in religion and God.  In a 1975 interview for People magazine Dylan expressed, ‘I’m doing God’s work.  That’s all I know.’  Dylan’s interest in faith continued to grow in the late 70s and he converted to Christianity in 1978.  Not long after this he began work on his first ‘born-again’ record, Slow Train Coming.  Regardless of however outspoken and off-putting Dylan’s conversion might have been to many fans at the time, the single ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ earned him his first Grammy Award for ‘Best Vocal Performance’ in 1979.

As Dylan had unwittingly become the spokesperson for the folk elitists in the early sixties, he found himself in a similar predicament with regard to the religious community in the eighties.  With his 1983 release, Infidels, Dylan began distancing himself from any explicit avowal of faith and the institutions to which he was inevitably linked.  After Infidels, Dylan experienced what may be considered a creative, critical and commercial lull.  In 1997 he released his ‘comeback’ album Time Out of Mind, which was followed by a string of successes: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009).  In No Direction Home, artist, musician and friend of Dylan, Bob Neuwirth comments, ‘I think [Dylan] always made exactly the work he wanted to make at the time he wanted to make it. The audience came to Bob.’

While I can’t deny that his work from the mid-eighties through the early-nineties is not my favourite, the magic of Dylan’s music and his ability to constantly reinvent himself en route to ‘becoming’ have significantly shaped the way I see music and how I both personally and creatively interact with the world.  Because of this profound and unparalleled impact in my life he belongs nowhere but in this number one slot.

Three of his records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list (and actually reveal my partiality to his earlier material): The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) and Blonde on Blonde (1966).

‘Chimes of Freedom’ from Another Side of Bob Dylan, live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964:

‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited, live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965:

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In addition to his massive discography, here are some titles of suggested books and films related to Dylan:

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Top 20 Bands (as of May 2012)

  1. Bob Dylan
  2. Elliott Smith
  3. Sufjan Stevens
  4. Belle & Sebastian
  5. Radiohead
  6. The Smiths/Morrissey
  7. Converge
  8. Pink Floyd
  9. The Clash
  10. Grandaddy
  11. The Beatles/George Harrison
  12. The Beach Boys
  13. The Kinks
  14. Neil Young
  15. Tom Waits
  16. The Velvet Underground
  17. Danielson/Daniel Smith
  18. Sebadoh/Lou Barlow
  19. Spiritualized
  20. Descendents