Not a single Lost in the Cloud post in 2015. We could give excuses, but we don’t think anyone is suffering without our ramblings (Greg and I have an audience weekly in our respective congregations…). We won’t insult our readers with elaborate promises of innumerable posts to follow in 2016. All we can do is offer you our modest annual delight, albeit a wee bit late. This being 6 January, for your Epiphanic pleasure, we hope you find some winners amongst our favourites.
Greg & Elijah
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2015
10. Brace the Wave Lou Barlow — Former and present Dinosaur Jr. bassist, a songwriter so dear to the hearts of both of your Losers in the Cloud, has returned for his first studio album since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown. Admittedly, there are a few tracks that don’t stand up as well as others, but in Aristotelian fashion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Several tracks might even be considered some of Barlow’s finest.
9. Fading Frontier Deerhunter — Gently, Bradford Cox pulls us into Fading Frontier. Those accustomed to the sometimes jarring brokenness of Deerhunter’s previous albums will find familiar hints in softer packages. Whilst not the greatest Deerhunter effort to date, Fading Frontier is full of excellent material, showcasing Cox’s ever-improving songwriting.
8. Weirdo Shrine La Luz — Vague references to an erotic sci-fi-horror comic? No problem. Surf rock? Even better. La Luz’ second album, Weirdo Shrine, is full of instrumental, vocal and lyrical precision, wrapped tastefully in reverb and harmony. There’s a paradoxical playfulness and seriousness to singer Shana Cleveland’s lead, which, accompanied by equally paradoxical arrangements, makes Weirdo Shrine a supremely satisfying listen and causes me to long for those autumnal twilights along the Californian coast of my youth.
7. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Neither ones for a short band name, nor short album titles nor short songs, Godspeed You! Black Emperor demonstrate once again that they’re not for settling down. The soundscapes of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress are especially suited to a drookit trek through a Hebridean peat bog, but other contexts, such as sitting in your front room, having a shower, walking your dog or driving to work, are also suitable. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes distressing, sometimes triumphant and always moving, GY!BE deliver the goods.
6. Vulnicura Björk — I wouldn’t say that as of late Björk has fallen out of favour in my listening patterns, but her last two records, Volta (2007) and Biophilia (2011), left me feeling less engaged than the previous three. This may well be due more in part of my own shortcomings than those of Björk. But Vulnicura has left me with something I cannot put down. As with most, though not all of my favourite records this year, this album is a grower. Upon every listen, I discover more to love. It is a complex sonic tapestry that demands attention. Unlike so many artists, Vulnicura proves that even as she approaches 51, Björk is brimming with creativity still. She also demonstrates her willingness to engage with fresh talent, collaborating with the Haxan Cloak and Arca, among others. Oh, and check this madness out:
5. I Love You, Honeybear Father John Misty — FJM returns with a new record, but as Greg observes astutely, so returns J. Tillman’s ‘self-obsessed cynicism’. Surely there’s only so much one can take of a disaffected man, hellbent on constructing a new world around himself. But there’s another side to I Love You, Honeybear that stands out to this listener. The apocalyptic Americana bard could content himself with repeating the same winning formula with which we fell in love from Fear Fun (Greg’s top pick of 2012 and one of my honourable mentions). But he ventures elsewhere on Honeybear, bringing a fuller, heavier and more convicted sound to the record, earning him a mid-table slot on my list.
4. Viet Cong Viet Cong — This debut release from the Canadian post-punkers is most definitely a grower. The onslaught of energy is apparent from the onset, but the finesse is the wee bit that reveals itself to you upon repeated listens. In what seems like a time when so many post-punk-labelled bands churn out album upon album of the same song, Viet Cong has done something extraordinary. The ground covered in Viet Cong far exceeds its seven-tracks over 37-minutes. The third track alone gives the listener six minutes and twenty seconds of breadth – a repetitive electronic introduction lulls the listener into head swaying territory, waiting for the floor to drop from beneath you with the oncoming deconstructed harmonies that build into relative despair before the return of a dance beat. It’s really something to hear for yourself: ‘March of Progress‘.
3. Depression Cherry Beach House — Whilst finishing my doctoral dissertation this past autumn I was spending a lot of time listening to Cocteau Twins (engagement with shoegaze and dream pop formed a significant part of the third chapter). I have always sensed a kinship between Cocteau Twins and Beach House. A lad and a lass. Dreamy, simple arrangements. Idiosyncratic female vocals accompanied by reverberating and chorus-laden guitars. And although I would argue that Depression Cherry isn’t as easily consumed as Beach House’s previous albums, Cocteau Twins reminded me to be patient with their dream pop heirs. When one makes the time to absorb Depression Cherry, they will find some of Beach House’s strongest material. For example, I think that the sixth track, ‘PPP‘, is their best to date. I would encourage you to give this record a go — it’s worth every penny and every second.
2. Currents Tame Impala — The Perth-based psychedelic rockers have been a favourite of us here at Lost in the Cloud since we first heard Innerspeaker in 2010. Their follow-up, Lonerism (2012), also impressed (though not as much for Greg as for me). But Currents is most assuredly ‘next level’. The persistence of the phased beat remains, as do Kevin Parker’s George Harrison-esque vocals. But the band is forging new boundaries. They are demonstrating what it means to evolve as musicians and doing so with expert precision and maturity. Tame Impala have not lost their psychedelic, trance-inducing edge — they’ve just sharpened it.
1. Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens — It comes as no surprise to me that both Greg and I have chosen Carrie & Lowell for this top slot. It’s hard to believe that Illinois was released over a decade ago. Many of us Sufjan-obsessed lot wondered where he would go after that album. We saw him through his early songwriting, a mixture of delicate pop folk and low-fi noise (A Sun Came, 2000), through his electronic odyssey (Enjoy Your Rabbit, 2001), through his intensely personal meditations on life in the Midwest (Greetings from Michigan, 2003), joyous folk theodicy (Seven Swans, 2004) and outright indie pop. In danger of professing what may be blasphemy to many, I was never as sold on Illinois as a whole as I had been with his previous efforts. I feared that Sufjan wouldn’t find new territory as he had during the first five years of his career. He lay silent for a while (2006’s Avalanche is composed of songs from his 2004 Illinois sessions). We who heard ‘Majesty Snowbird’ performed live braced ourselves for something extraordinary. But we were made to wait. In 2007, Stevens showed his film The B.Q.E., which was accompanied by a live orchestra. Its soundtrack was released in 2009. By his own admission, Stevens had lost his faith in the form of ‘song’. Then we heard news of an album proper to be released in 2010, which was preceded, without warning, by the All Delighted People EP. We had heard the new sound and it was glorious. Two months later we entered into the Age of Adz. Both Greg and I knew from very early on that it was our shared favourite album of 2010. Then he fell silent again. We wondered where he could go from the satisfying chaos and vulnerability of Age of Adz. Finally, nearly five years later, we got our answer. Much has been, can and should be said and written of Carrie & Lowell. A masterpiece. A revelation. A portrait of serene torture. There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness that carries throughout Carrie & Lowell, but with it is a natural sense of hope and the affirmation of life. In his essay ‘The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible’, American philosopher John Caputo posits:
Hope is only hope when one hopes against hope, only when the situation is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is only hope when all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope. There is no hope, I know that and I am convinced of that, but I still hope.
In this way, I must extend my gratitude: Thank you, Sufjan, for giving us hope.
- Escape from Evil Lower Dens
- Natalie Prass Natalie Prass
- Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit Courtney Barnett
- New Bermuda Deafheaven
- Return to the Moon EL VY
- The Agent Intellect Protomartyr
- Have You in My Wilderness Julia Holter
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2015
It was lovely to find a few more albums than last year that I knew would be on this list as soon as I heard them—and I’m gratified that my and Elijah’s lists converged more this year than some. I always find myself having to catch up with some of his more esoteric choices and I hope that I am able to help any of our dear readers catch a scent of some new sonic pleasures as well. Bon appétit (wow, a muddle of metaphors if there ever was one)!
10. Times Infinity Vol. One The Dears — I do love this Canadian indie band quite a bit, even though they don’t always live up to their potential. This album feels a bit slight (supposedly there is a Vol. Two forthcoming), but honestly it’s nice to see a band not fill out an album with padding of middling material or playing a song to death with endlessly-repeated choruses at the end of a song (ok, The Dears are sometimes guilty of this). They ask in their almost funky lead single, ‘I Used to Wait for the Heavens to Fall‘: ‘Whose side are you on?’ I am on your side, Dears.
9. Return to the Moon EL VY — Part of me wanted to love this album (more Matt Berninger from The National!), part of me wanted to ignore it (don’t be unfaithful to your bandmates with some poppy, multi-instrumentalist from Oregon!). I gave it a number of focused listens & I just can’t help but get taken in by it–his lyrics, his low melodic rumblings, they are just too brilliant to neglect & the arrangements have grown on me (I wasn’t a huge fan of the title cut at first, but it’s all really quite good), even the ‘haunted house’ feel of ‘Silent Ivy Hotel‘ (love the faux-Elvira/Beetlejuice video…such a great sense of humor!!).
8. Sprinter Torres — Her 2013 self-titled album would have come close to making my list that year if I’d heard it in time (that was such an AMAZING year of music!!), this album is a wholly other turn. When I heard it (on Amazon Prime Music no less), I immediately thought of the early PJ Harvey (it turns out she has a member of Harvey’s old band playing & producing!) and even the primal punk power of the young Sinead O’Connor. Supposedly, the album is about her rejection of Christian faith/upbringing (I need to listen more carefully to the lyrics to sort it all out), but she is IN CONTROL HERE—tight arrangements, in-your-face snarls & howls, layers of harmony on top of crunchy guitars…check out ‘Sprinter.’
7. Brother The Brilliance — This is a Christian group and we use a number of their songs in worship services at my church, so it may seem strange a bit odd here. But honestly, this band, more than any other Christian worship group ever, makes it eminently beautiful at every level—haunting melodies on cello & piano laid down beneath a voice filled with tenderness and longing (there’s a good deal of the spare instrumentation reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens here, so that’s probably part of my affection…though the Age of Adz-y synth bleep-bloops on ‘Love Remains’ is a bit much). Exhibit A: ‘Does Your Heart Break?‘ (note the Elliott Smith shout-out near the end of the song—which is only instrumental on the YouTube video link there, but they actually sing ‘everything means nothing to me’ on the album). The lyrics are poignant & filled with questions of God such as ‘Are you watching as your children die?’ (some of which I take theological issue with, but still think are legitimate forms of lamenting confusion). So many amazing songs here—their whole catalog is filled with this level of quality.
6. Depression Cherry Beach House — Just listen to it. The opening Phillip Glass by way of Mazzy Star track is only the beginning. There’s part of me that realizes that this is just a guy & girl in a studio with a drum machine & a bunch of keyboards & some guitars, but it comes out so transcendent, so ethereal…it’s musical alchemy. Don’t know what else to say. (I would allow you to skip the second song with its shoegazy sort of distorted acoustic guitar, but that would be the one exception).
5. Dear Wormwood The Oh Hellos — Discovered this band through a free download of their album Through the Deep, Dark Valley on NoiseTrade (which sadly usually has more misses than hits for me) a couple years back and felt like I’d been given a bag of gold. I ordered this album sight unseen (and I suppose more importantly, sound unheard) and here it is, right at the top. It’s an immediate masterpiece, not an album of songs per se, but an ALBUM’s album. You should listen to the whole thing to understand it. I found myself choking up on the title track—’I know who I am know and all that you made of me / I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy’—the triumph of pursuing the good over giving in to the evil that can worm its way into our lives.
4. Bashed Out This Is the Kit — Matt Berninger wasn’t the only one playing around outside of The National this year. The Dessner bros are producing & playing on this album. This album came out of nowhere for me. I saw somewhere that Elbow’s Guy Garvey had recommended this album, so I downloaded it. Then fell in love with this album. It is like being inside the head of someone who is so true and kind and lovely; such a captivating vocalist, with layers of sounds and lovely tunes surrounding it. This is an intuitive recommendation—my affection for this album may translate for you. No worries. I’m just so glad I found this band. A good entry point might be ‘Silver John,’ but it’s not really representative of the whole album.
3. Vulnicura Björk — While I followed Björk pretty faithfully through the Sugar Cubes and early solo years, her albums got a bit too out there for me (conventional sort that I am). But this, while wildly experimental at times, is undoubtedly a work of genius. It’s a cathartically painful account of a relational break-up, but it is a masterpiece of exploring the loss with perfectly apt musical accompaniment & vocalization. I feel so terrible for her, but as often happens, hard lives make great art. You have to make the time to listen to the whole album in one sitting—it’s profound, heartbreaking, and epic.
2. Currents Tame Impala — Another break-up album, but this time from the one who left (I think!) rather than the one who was left (a la Björk). I secretly think that the one-man band that is Kevin Parker challenged himself to take a bunch of non-cool musical materials (the most cheesy 80’s synth sounds conceivable—think Spandau Ballet, handclaps, falsettos) and make the most awesome album imaginable. Beggaring belief, he succeeded. A few little filler tracks aside, this is a record of the highest level of song-writing ability and musicianship possible.
1. Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens — So much has been said and written about this album. I don’t think I can even describe what this album means to me. Loss, longing, despair, regret captured by God’s own bard.
- Brace the Wave Lou Barlow (I love Lou and was so delighted to see him live this year, but this album didn’t measure up to his previous solo work for me)
- I Love You, Honeybear Father John Misty (it’s quite a good album, I’m just so sick of his self-obsessed cynicism)
- The Waterfall My Morning Jacket (really good, I just didn’t listen to it enough to evaluate)
- Love Songs for Robots Patrick Watson (always worth listening to)
- Star Wars Wilco (I only started listening to this last week. It’s REALLY good. Too late to include, but may have made the cut)
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