Best Albums of 2021

Here we are again, with another round of our favourite albums of the year. Perhaps some are familiar to you, dear reader. Perhaps some are new discoveries. Either way, we hope you enjoy our trifling reflections and that you might be able to offer up some of your favourite offerings from 2021 in the comments!

Elijah & Greg


ELIJAH’S TOP ALBUMS OF 2021

10. Madison
Sloppy Jane

Sloppy Jane is the brainchild of one Haley Dahl, a Los Angeles-born Brooklyn-based musician. Perhaps one cannot help but appreciate the magnitude of her latest release, Madison. Here, Dahl exhibits her preternatural compositional and performative deftness in tremendous fashion – echoing from the damp walls of the Lost World Caverns in West Virginia, where the album was recorded (and what an ordeal it was to record a 22-piece orchestra in a cave). For Dahl, Sloppy Jane does not stop with the music, but is part of a wider multimedia artistic project. Yet, for all the strengths of Madison (and there are many), there remains a slight degree of off-putting self-importance (clearly, Dahl sees herself as quite the clever one – and in truth, she is). This experimental chamber [read: cave] pop is indeed of a high order, but perhaps it would maybe benefit from some more germination.

9. Reason to Live
Lou Barlow

The indie god Lou Barlow is Lou Barlow. Reason to Live is a Lou Barlow album. When Lou Barlow releases an album, I am compelled to listen. I must thank Greg, who first planted the Barlow seed in me almost 20 years ago. Reason to Live isn’t ground-breaking Barlow in the same way that 2005’s Emoh or even 2009’s Goodnight Unknown are, but it sees more of a return to the Barlow magic than does his previous release, 2015’s Brace the Wave. For more on Reason to Live, I defer to Greg’s more seasoned and astute Barlow reflections in his list below.

8. As the Love Continues
Mogwai

This is Mogwai’s tenth full-length album and their first to reach the top of the UK music charts. Bravo to the lads! At times, this record is familiar, perhaps even to a fault, but there are also real moments of grandeur. The album’s fourth track, ‘Ritchie Sacramento’ features rare unaffected vocals by Stuart Braithwaite as he reflects on the loss of friends including our beloved Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit) and David Berman (Silver Jews), who took their own lives in 2018 and 2019, respectively. All-in-all, As the Love Continues is, like their previous two records, another excellent effort from Mogwai, and with a few poignant surprises.

7. Little Oblivions
Julien Baker

Julien Baker’s previous records didn’t capture me – I found them indistinguishable from other albums by similar indie artists I’ve encountered over the last few years: those wispy vocals over familiar indie-rock orchestration (cough*Phoebe*cough*Lucy*cough). Little Oblivions might well verge on generic at times (I would put this down to production, primarily), but there are excellent moments of musical climax. Lyrically, it seems as if Baker is more liberated than before. Her familiar reflections as a queer person of faith are so refreshing with their unapologetic presentation. There is no case to answer, no chip on any shoulder. Baker is ‘at one’ with herself and it is inspiring.

6. Mandatory Enjoyment
Dummy

Dummy entered my radar with the release of two EPs last year (Dummy and EP2). Their first full-length, Mandatory Enjoyment, builds on the art-pop avant-garde of these initial releases to present something fuller, both in length and sound. There is a [heavy] touch of ambient and the abstract throughout the whole album, delivering a fresh Talking Heads-esque sound while pushing through new wave barriers with fuzz and drones. The album is full of this energy and, living up to its name, is just plain fun.

5. För Allting
Makthaverskan

Post-punk Swedes Makthaverskan (Swedish for ‘The Ruler’ and pronounced ‘Makthaverskan’) have been at it since 2008, though this album is the first of theirs I have ever heard – and I regret this. For all intents and purposes, their style has not changed dramatically. If one appreciates the dream-pop and Scandigaze of För Allting (Swedish for ‘For Ever’), one will appreciate the development of the whole of Makthaverskan’s back catalogue. If the Cocteau Twins, New Order and My Bloody Valentine made a Swedish baby in the late 1980s, it might well sound something like Makthaverskan and För Allting. This is not to suggest that För Allting is a simple variation on a theme. Instead, this ambitious record weaves between terrible elation and beautiful desperation, both musically and lyrically, with vocalist Maja Milner bringing oh-so-much to the table.

4. Ultrapop
The Armed

I love hard music. I love clever hooks. I love the Detroit Tigers. So it comes as no surprise that I love the Armed, the Detroit-based anonymous post-hardcore collective. Their previous effort, 2018’s Only Love was one of my favourite records that year and Ultrapop is surprisingly superior to its predecessor in most every way. Mind you, it is difficult to compare albums for an anonymous band with a rotating line-up, but taken as a whole, Ultrapop lives up to its name (and familiar, Armed-esque touches, such as the influence of Converge’s Kurt Ballou, are plentiful). Ultrapop doesn’t take itself too seriously (the pitfall of many artists within the metal/hardcore/post-hardcore genre), yet delivers on all fronts – exquisite melodies, powerful percussion, a stunning combination of aggressive and ethereal vocals, virtuosic guitar riffs. Yes, please.

3. buds
ovlov

As with most unfamiliar albums, I wasn’t sure about buds at first. Its under-25-minute runtime struck me as more of an EP than an LP. But I didn’t give up on buds after the first listen, and for this I am grateful. It elicits some significant adolescent flashbacks (more having to do with musical style and not learning how to shave): I can’t help but hear a wee bit of 1990s Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Foo Fighters and the Lemonheads. Their fuzzy pop-rock is contagious and there’s something timeless about buds. Admittedly, it is not as fuzzy as ovlov’s previous releases, but the musical depth and focus only prove to enhance the strengths of the album.

2. A Beginner’s Mind
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine

The inclusion of A Beginner’s Mind should come as no surprise to seasoned readers of Lost in the Cloud’s ‘Best Albums’ lists. Given the sheer size Sufjan Stevens’ output over the last two years (2019’s The Decalogue with Timo Andres, 2020’s Aporia with Lowell Brams, followed by The Ascension, and finally, his five-volume Convocations from earlier this year), I had admittedly low expectations for his collaboration with Angelo De Augustine for A Beginner’s Mind. While The Ascension was a cracker, I began to feel that acquiring The Decalogue, Aporia and Convocations were more to do with my commitment to Sufjan Stevens completism rather than the irresistibility of 2015’s Carrie & Lowell. I feared that A Beginner’s Mind would be another ‘completist’ investment.

I am pleased to report that A Beginner’s Mind is no such investment. The concept of the album (with specific films acting as muses for each song) is novel, but just as the film selection can range from inspired (Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire, for example) to banal (Damon Santostefano’s 2004 Bring it On Again), the tracks demonstrate some degree of that range. A number of songs on the album feature lyrics that are stunningly beautiful, while at least two are a bit too ‘on the nose’ for my liking (see ‘Pillar of Souls’ and ‘You Give Death a Bad Name’). Regardless, the album as a whole is brilliant, showcasing the talents of both De Augustine and Stevens in surprisingly equal measure. I am a particular fan of the hints of Elliott Smith I hear in the heartbreaking melodies throughout the album.

1. Any Shape You Take
Indigo De Souza

Indigo De Souza’s second album, Any Shape You Take secures this top spot. This album begins with the auto-tuned ‘17’, which may seem like pop radio fodder until it bursts into the first of many continuous surprises on this record. Its unpretentiousness is disarming. While De Souza delves into common broken relationship themes, she does so with poise, confidence and musical competence beyond her years. She explores broad musical territory—from pop to grunge—leaving me wanting more, but not in a dissatisfied way. She is both gentle and aggressive, with tone and melody reminiscent of the high points of St Vincent’s first three records. It also remains catchy without any danger of being obnoxious or repetitive. Any Shape You Take is very listenable and I find that it grows more endearing with subsequent listens.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Call Me If You Get Lost Tyler, the Creator

Voyage to Mars MUNYA

A Way Forward Nation of Language

Shade Grouper

As Days Get Dark Arab Strap

I Want the Door to Open Lala Lala

Henki Richard Dawson/Circle

The Death of Speedy Ortiz & Cop Kicker…Forever (compilation) Speedy Ortiz

Seek Shelter Iceage

Garbology Aesop Rock/Blockhead


GREG’S TOP ALBUMS OF 2021

10. Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar

I honestly only heard this album for the first time two days ago (and here I’m violating my personal rule that I need to have PURCHASED the albums on my top 10 list), but I was checking out a few best of 2021 lists this week to see if I’d missed anything and I was intrigued by the description of this Saharan psychedelic rock outfit (Mdou Moctar is the singer and lead guitarist of the band). I was immediately entranced by the swirling, cyclical guitar licks which suddenly ascend into heavenly bursts of melody and hypnotic vocal lines that transported me to far off lands. It’s been on repeat as I go to sleep and when I wake up. So this is why we NEED lists like these end of year posts, so that we can discover what we might have missed in the midst of the myriad music that has come out each year.

9. Little Oblivions
Julien Baker

I’ll get this out of the way right up front: the lyrics on this album feel like fake angst to me. But her uncanny ability to create epic soundtracks for love gone bad and convince me to care about her fractured, angry heart with her husky, soaring vocals are a kind of beguilement to which I’ll happily accede. She is a master at bewitching the listener.

8. A Color of the Sky
Lightning Bug

Some groups that came to mind in a melange of associations as I listened again and again to this languid beauty of an album would include the Cowboy Junkies, the Cranberries, shoegaze band Curve, and a touch of the Cocteau Twins. It made me wistfully remember drives along empty highways towards cloud-covered horizons…or something like that.

7. Smothered
Oberhofer

I was a fan of this guy back in the mid-2010’s, but hadn’t heard much of him of late. Then this album crossed my path and I was immediately smitten again with his throwaway talent for writing infectious melodies and singing in his falsetto so languorously over glittery synth-pop hooks. It’s like he’s not even trying, he makes it look so easy!

6. Reason to Live
Lou Barlow

SO glad that one of my favorite ever lo-fi indie folk heroes re-discovered his downstrum mojo after a few middling efforts. While not quite up to his Sebadoh/Sentridoh-era rueful perfection, each song here is a solid contribution to his catalog. (NOTE: he’s on the outside looking at Christianity with disdain (i.e. “All you people suck – YOU’RE the ones who don’t believe that we’re all connected”). His domesticated life away from the music scene has yielded some poignant home-recordings that address old wounds and habits, along with glimmers of a new kind of joy with the life he’s found.

5. Home Video
Lucy Dacus

I’m a sucker for her lovely, laid-back voice and coy storytelling. The songs are just so solid and perfectly constructed, a deft nostalgic trip into the treachery of youth. She’s taking apart her own experience of growing up evangelical, singing about VBS and “sermons saying how bent and evil we are” (fundamentalist faith is like some great source of trauma for this generation…I’m not so sure that it’s as bad as they all make it out to be, but there truly were a whole lot of misguided youth pastors and power-hungry preachers in 90’s America, trying hard to hang onto the glory days of a time gone by—probably the same people who turned into these snarling, insane Trump zombies—oh culture wars, so much to answer for…).

4. Frailty
dltzk

I can’t remember where I first heard about this lo-fi, bedroom pop, electronic rock masterpiece, but I really fell for its poppy chops meets chaotic digital breakdowns (it often sounds like a CD that is skipping/mis-reading the 1s and 0s). It’s like a blender mix of Weezer and that kid from Owl City with the Electric Light Parade and some video game soundtrack. Now that I think about it, I don’t really love any of those ingredients on their own, but together it becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. It feels like the youth soundtrack to the last two years’ pandemic experience…

3. HEY WHAT
Low

I was not a fan of this band’s last album, Double Negative, wherein the band’s songs were subjected to some kind of sonic Picasso-like deconstruction.  But THIS album, with songs that have been dismantled and simplified in its own way, totally won me over from the opening overdriven, but gated guitar chords of “White Horses” until the bookended track “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off”).  The strength of the powerful harmonies of the husband/wife singer-song architects and their straightforward/oblique lyrical duality ensures that this band still is operating at the height of their understated rock powers.

2. Mixtape for the Milky Way
Jeremy Messersmith

Here is another album so far under the radar that it’s practically sonar. Jeremy Messersmith is one of my favorite indie-pop songwriters, but I didn’t know about this gorgeous confessional masterpiece that he put out under a new band name until four months after it had been released (apparently self-released with little fanfare). Many of these songs here deal with his evangelical Christian upbringing (seemingly abandoned by now, due to fundamentalist homophobia, threats of eternal torment, and his confusion/wonder at pondering the metaverse, which he comments upon in various songs). These tracks have a beautiful, fragile melancholy to them, as if Messersmith ended each song teary-eyed from the pain of looking back at things that were once so important that he has now lost (“You said I’d walk with you on streets of gold, where no one ever dies from growing old, somewhere everything is perfect…”). I wish that I could be this band’s PR person—I would take over a radio station like some deranged fan if I could just get people to listen to the genius of his work, even though I also wish I could show him a better version of what it means to follow Jesus.

1. A Beginner’s Mind
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine

A new album from Sufjan will always be a contender for my best album of the year, but it’s no guarantee (Phoebe Bridgers took that spot from him last year!). But this collection is truly worthy of the highest accolades and so I’m finding it rather disturbing that this incredible collaboration is not making many best albums lists this year! (Sufjan’s label probably spends more on fun extras like the “A.B.M. movie club cards” included with the deluxe vinyl package than they do on marketing.) The project that these two gifted singer-songwriters came up with, to watch a film at night then write a song together inspired (sometimes loosely) by their viewing the next day, yielded a lovely batch of mostly folk tunes that alchemically turn even straight-to-video fare into lyrical and melodic gold. There are only two songs on the album that I don’t deeply love (tracks 4 & 5), but I’ve listened to this album so many times I know it will hold its own among Sufjan and Angelo’s best other work. The only real downside to this album is the off-putting artwork on the cover, but even that has a delightful backstory…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Collapsed in Sunbeams Arlo Parks — This album is SO amazingly well produced, the band is so tight, the singer is a beautiful young woman with a charming British accent…the only problem is that the lyrics feel like they’re derived from a hackneyed teenager’s diary.

The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows Damon Albarn

Friends that Break Your Heart James Blake

A Billion Little Lights Wild Pink — This album is so calming to listen to—amazingly well constructed on all levels, but somehow just a little bland.

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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.

+++++

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.

+++++

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.

+++++

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)

Band Evangelist, ch. 4

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!