Yes, a countdown of the year’s best – how original, right? I’ll bet you haven’t seen one of THOSE before! Nah… I’m fully aware that this is about the 853,329th year-end list to surface on the internet, and little more than yet another opinion tossed onto the rather large heap. But hey, it could turn out to be a good read – you might discover a new band, or in the very least have your own opinions backed up (or better yet, disagreed with entirely, and you can make annoyed groans at your monitor). And what else have you got to do, anyway? Why not read about what some random guy on the net thinks about the year in music? Trust me, those hot thumbnails you were checking out on spankwire ain’t goin’ anywhere. So, without further ado, let’s get on with it, shall we?
100. Interpol – Interpol
Really, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the constant criticisms this album has fallen prey to – I mean yeah, I was somewhat underwhelmed too when I first heard it, but with repeated listens this record revealed just how intricate and carefully constructed it really is. Not since their massive debut have the instruments contrasted so well against one another, or has the overall mood felt so powerful. The experimentation is quite welcome too; the looming arrangements, the pairing of their brooding and energetic sides, the questioning of how one can attach value to achievement, and hell, why not mumble in Spanish at some point? No, it’s not the next Turn On the Bright Lights, but it’s the closest they’ve gotten yet.
Recommended track: Success
99. Balmorhea – Constellations
I confess to having a soft spot for bands who more or less do away with traditional song structure and melody for sake of just sounding pretty, and as you may have guessed, Balmorhea’s latest does just this. Acoustic guitars, piano, and fragile harmonizing make for a classical-tinged sound so delicate that once the simplest percussion or flourish of strings comes into play, they feel spectacularly rousing. Constellations is admittedly one-dimensional, but that one dimension is done so intimately and beautifully that, provided of course you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, the album ends too damn soon.
Recommended track: Constellations
98. Ratatat – LP4
LP4 isn’t exactly a departure for Ratatat, but it refines what made LP3 such a fun listen – dense, intricately layered soundscapes molded into fun, head-bobbing beats. In any other hands, the bright and cheerfully psychedelic Sunblocks would be standard chill-out fare, but Mike Stroud and Evan Mast make it sound strangely upbeat and lively, with Stroud’s weeping guitar weaving in and out of Mast’s hazy production. The whole album is a barrage of drowsy hooks presented in different, interesting ways, and shows that just a bit of inventiveness in blending instruments and sounds really goes a long way.
Recommended track: Neckbrace
97. Spoon – Transference
Not too many bands are charming enough to simply do their thing album after album without giving the appearance of treading water creatively, but Spoon pulls it off with fine style. Showcasing one fantastic pop hook after another (not to mention that trademark quirk of vocalist Britt Daniel), Transference is a largely carefree and upbeat affair that feels about impossible to dislike, with scant, slower moments like the grungy I Saw the Light and lullaby-esque Goodnight Laura to mix it up a bit. In fact, it’s probably those darker shades that keep this from sounding like just another Spoon album – not that that’s a bad thing, of course.
Recommended track: Got Nuffin
96. Cee Lo – The Lady Killer
When the glorious jilted ex anthem Fuck You dropped a few months back, it seemed poised to overshadow whatever album might be unfortunate enough to contain it… but The Lady Killer holds up far better than at least I had expected. The production is absolutely superb, rich with horns, strings, and funky bass, and Cee Lo tops it off with his all-too-likable personality throughout these fourteen tracks. This is probably the best retro soul this side of Jamiroquai, ranging from animated (Bright Lights Bigger City) to mournful (I Want You) and everything in between.
Recommended track: It’s OK
95. Hindi Zahra – Handmade
For anybody who’s a fan of Django Reinhardt, Hindi Zahra is a must-hear. It’s downright inspiring to hear all the genres she takes (jazz, blues, soul, and at some points even the faintest hints of hip-hop) and molds into her own thing. Then there’s her voice; it’s not quite breathy, and not quite weathered, but something else entirely, and carries such character that songs like Beautiful Tango and Kiss & Thrills are rendered uniquely seductive.
Recommended track: Oursoul
94. B. Dolan – Fallen House Sunken City
Fallen House Sunken City provides some of the most scathing social commentary in quite a while – with as hard as these beats hit (and they hit hard), they can’t touch B. Dolan’s furious flow. He takes on societal ills from civic indifference all the way up to corporate greed, all with a passion that only a young, hungry, pissed off rapper (MC? Emcee? I dunno) can muster. His history as a slam poet is evident in his highly intelligent wordplay as well as how eloquently he’s able to express his ideas, and his stream of consciousness flow just kills.
Recommended track: Fifty Ways to Bleed Your Customer
93. Parades – Foreign Tapes
As so many albums did last year, Parades’ impressive debut does a great job of exploring the facets of indie rock, taking the tag with them as they explore other musical styles. Subtly implementing various additional instruments, toying with song structures, and a spontaneity to its ever-changing mood that ebbs and flows far better than it should. It’s always exciting to hear a new band with this many great ideas, but it’s something truly special when they can execute them this well right off the bat.
Recommended track: Marigold
92. Grinderman – Grinderman 2
Hearing that Grinderman’s sophomore effort smooths out the group’s rough edges a bit might give off the impression that it sounds more like a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds record than Grinderman… well, at least that’s the impression I got. With the exception of Palaces of Montezuma (brilliant) though, this isn’t the case at all. All the dark imagery and rawness (just listen to Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man or Kitchenette, sheesh!) is still in tact, and the side project still sounds very much like its own thing, but Nick Cave and Co.’s knack for melodious songwriting took the forefront this time around. Soulful harmonizing is as abundant as the jagged guitars, and the result is an unexpectedly great match.
Recommended track: Worm Tamer
91. Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me
True, at two hours spanned across three discs (just kidding, three folders; I downloaded it like everybody else), Have One on Me is a daunting listen to say the least. Given its length, however, it’s a startlingly personal and unpretentious piece of work; yes, three and four minute songs are stretched out to seven and eight minutes, but it feels more like Newsom taking her time and embracing where the music is taking her, so to speak, rather than egregious self indulgence. Just listening to how her harp swells on songs like Go Long is so dazzling that it’s easy for its eight minutes to fly past you.
Recommended track: In California
90. The Irrepressibles – Mirror Mirror
Oh man… it really doesn’t get any more flamboyant than this. Mirror Mirror feels like an operetta in the guise of a pop album; extremely dramatic musical flourishes, intricate arrangements, and of course vocalist Jamie McDermott’s ever present vibrato. McDermott’s range is indeed impressive; tackling everything from longing croons to commanding shouts that bring Danny Elfman to mind. Still though, what seduces about this album is the music, and its focus on texture over traditional hooks and song structures… and of course, the intense theatricality doesn’t hurt, either.
Recommended track: Forget the Past
89. Kno – Death Is Silent
Known best for his inventive southern-style beats with the Cunninlynguists, Kno picks up the mic for the first time in seven years for his solo debut, and listening to how witty he is, it’s a wonder that he didn’t venture out on his own earlier. Death Is Silent, as the title may hint, is all about death – ultimately accepting its inevitability and celebrating life while you still have it. With as dark as this album can get (I know, an album about death being dark? How unuuuusual), it never strays off into morbid fixation or self-pitying, but simply plays as an in-depth discussion about something that nobody really understands. Kno’s Slug-ish flow (as in reminiscent of Atmosphere’s Slug, not actually sluggish) is startlingly on the money, and his beats as good as they’ve ever been; frankly, I’m hoping he stays solo for a while.
Recommended track: Loneliness
88. The Walkmen – Lisbon
I am yet to read a review of this album that doesn’t make mention of the line “I am a good man by any count, and I see better things to come,” and it’s quite easy to see why; obviously it’s an awesome line, but more importantly it embraces the spirit of the whole album. Lisbon is so positive and confident that you really have to make an attempt to not feel good while listening to it. Armed with that attitude, as well as those pretty, jangly melodies that are all over the place, it may not be the most immediate record, but it’s definitely one that’s hard not to love.
Recommended track: Angela Surf City
87. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Admittedly, it’s no Demon Days, but Plastic Beach has a retro-drenched charm that grows on you like a fungus. Shamelessly dated bleeps and bloops are scattered throughout, with a bizarrely pervading warmth that exudes even on the album’s most melancholic moments (such as the rather appropriately titled On Melancholy Hill). Then there are the numerous guest spots, which at first seem somewhat gimmicky but after a while end up showing just what a specific vision Damon Albarn had for Plastic Beach. Lou Reed and Mos Def, especially, are perfectly cast in Some Kind of Nature and Sweepstakes: Reed’s detached vocal goes wonderfully over Nature‘s plodding beat, while the almost dancehall-sounding Sweepstakes makes a perfect fit for Mos Def’s alternately rapid-fire and lazy flow. I didn’t like Plastic Beach at first, but (and maybe more than any other album on this list) its aura just refused to leave me alone.
Recommended track: Rhinestone Eyes
86. Shining – Blackjazz
The term ‘Avant-garde Metal’ is a tremendously uninviting one, particularly when any given band that falls underneath its umbrella is given any sort of description. “Prog-rock, black metal… and jazz? With disseminated synthesizers and strings? And fucked up time signatures, bizarre vocals, chaotic guitar playing, and droning sections that completely forsake melody? Yeah, no thanks.” The thing is though, Blackjazz is one of those albums where as left-field as the combinations of genres feel, after a while it all starts to make sense. Blackjazz Deathtrance, for example, made me think that perhaps synth pop, drone metal, and breakbeats are more parallel than they seem. This is an extremely dense record that requires a good few plays to make much sense of, but it makes for a truly fascinating listen.
Recommended track: Fisheye
85. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (II)
For a band that can’t be bothered to give their albums proper titles, Crystal Castles certainly knows how to deliver the goods. Frankly I wasn’t expecting this to be so good, as their debut seemed more to be capitalizing on the 8-bit trend than to make any sort of individual statement, but it startled the hell out of me when it dropped back in April. Smoothed out melodies, dark synths set up next to random blowouts (the synth pop bliss of Celestica and Baptism sandwiching the ear-scraping Doe Deer, in particular), and an atmosphere that borders on haunting, the duo really came into their own on this one.
Recommended track: Vietnam
84. The Dig – Electric Toys
The Dig’s lack of popularity is not the most confounding thing; after all, they’re a pretty standard indie rock band. They’re hardly original, and could in fact be called downright derivative. Their style is nothing that hasn’t been done before, and is hardly unique at all. So, you might ask, what the hell makes them so damn special, then? The answer is that they’re just so good at it, so good that when you hear blatant flourishes of indie heroes like The New Pornographers and Spoon, you’re so caught up in the moment that it’s kind of hard to care. Through the intensifying passion of Sick Sad Morning, the fist pumping I Just Want to Talk to You, and so on and so forth, the band’s personality and knack for hooks just proves to be too irresistible.
Recommended track: Two Sisters in Love
83. Vex’d – Cloud Seed
While Jamie Teasdale and Roly Porter’s second full-length under the name Vex’d is a far cry from the harsh and abrasive sounds of their debut, it is by no means any less menacing. Cloud Seed sees the duo shifting from one extreme of dubstep to the other, focusing significantly less on hitting hard and more on creating a strong groove and atmosphere. On tracks like Out of the Hills and Disposition, the groove is absolutely enveloping, and particularly on the latter, it feels like, well, dub. Then there are also moments where the different components are aligned beautifully, like how the closer Nails descends into a cacophonous bedlam and abruptly ends.
Recommended track: Killing Floor (MAH Mix)
82. Hammock – Chasing After Shadows… Living with the Ghosts
Looming, atmospheric, and doleful, Hammock’s latest is textbook post-rock, albeit a tad more on the minimalist side. The duo of Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson has a fantastic capacity for milking as much emotion as possible from every somber moment, be it the earnest build up of tracks like Tristia or the dense ambient textures found in The Whole Catastrophe and Something Other Than Remaining. While Chasing After Shadows may not offer a whole lot as far as variety is concerned, what is presented is done exceedingly well, and it’s got more than its share of stunningly gorgeous moments to offer.
Recommended track: Breathturn
81. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Given the staggering scope of Sufjan Stevens’ ambition here, just the fact that this isn’t a contrived mess is impressive, much less the fact that it’s actually really, really good. Taking inspiration from the life of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, as well as his own recent bout with severe illness, Stevens pairs his usual heavy orchestration with equally heavy and intricate electronics, breathing life into the latter to such an extent that the synths and glitches almost feel more human than the strings and brass. Although the sound is utterly massive, the elaborate junctions of melodies are very cleverly done, and his lyrical focus on life in general is surprisingly touching.
Recommended track: I Walked