At this point, my belated coverage of the year’s albums has become a matter of my own stubbornness rather than trying to get material out to prospective readers. But enough about that! Self deprecating humor will only get you so far, particularly when what you’re supposed to be doing is getting on with the god damn article. So in the spirit of such, let’s rub our palms together and dive back in…
50. Bomb the Music Industry! – Vacation
Whenever I see the the phrase “Feel-good,” my stomach turns just a little bit, and I try to use it as seldom as possible. However, as overly maudlin and processed as this term is, I can’t come up with a better way to describe Bomb the Music Industry!’s fifth full-length. The band’s unique pop punk sound has always had a “I’m kinda sad, but fuck it, let’s have fun” attitude to it, and it’s as overpowering as ever this time around. Its real strength is how relatable it is while making you feel better about whatever’s bothering you; there’s a cavalcade of lines like this. “I’m such a guarded guy, ’cause I’ve been hurt too many times,” “The shit that you hate don’t make you special, no one cares, we’re all in trouble,” and so on and so forth. Gotta love when something naturally uplifting isn’t afraid to get gritty with its emotions.
Recommended Tracks: Sick. Later., Felt Just Like Vacation
49. Class Actress – Rapprocher
What with so many young women taking stabs at replicating the electro pop from decades ago, it’s so refreshing to hear it done this well. As I’ve pointed out numerous times (and inexplicably am about to once more), the best retro music always has a modern touch, something that belongs exclusively to the music’s creator, rather than just miming a forgotten sound and calling it original. Songstress Elizabeth Harper and her bandmates have accomplished this to a T with their debut LP’s robotic, icy pop ballads. The sounds are just so rich, from the lush synths to that sensual voice, and the songwriting is sharp as a tack – catchy, and with just the right amount of moodiness.
Recommended Tracks: Weekend, Missed
48. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
Well, this is a surprise. With the exception of their first two albums, the Foo Fighters have been one of those bands that every couple of years comes up with a handful of great songs, and accompanies them with a so-so album littered with filler. It seemed that The Colour and the Shape was about as good as it was going to get with them, and that was that. Then nearly a decade and a half after their excellent sophomore record, we have this; a consistent set of absolutely stunning songs so energetic that it feels like a private live show every time you listen. I’ve never thought of Dave Grohl as anything less than a complete bad ass, but this time he and his band have really outdone themselves. My hat’s off to you, good sir.
Recommended Tracks: Bridge Burning, I Should Have Known
47. GusGus – Arabian Horse
Funny how it took this far into the countdown for me to realize just how much house music I listened to last year, and this one is quite possibly the smoothest of the bunch. The sensual groove that drives the album is downright hypnotic, and it’s awash with utterly gorgeous synths and melodies, as well as some ridiculously smooth singing voices. Just listening to the incredible five-song streak between Deep Inside and Magnified Love, you can almost see the well-dressed Icelanders with their slicked-back hair singing into a ribbon microphone and casually playing around with their synthesizers. Very catchy and concise stuff, and probably the only house album of the year I’d recommend to someone who isn’t a fan of the genre.
Recommended Tracks: Within You, Arabian Horse
46. Emika – Emika
I’ve been waiting for someone to produce a brand of dubstep this creepy and sinister for a good while, and at long last, here we are. Emika’s self-titled debut is just staggering, with its shuddering bass clattering through a warbled darkness, occasionally tripping over the broken beats. Taking pounding bass and combining it with malevolent dark ambience has produced an utterly brilliant sound. It’s almost disturbing at times, but so intriguing at the same time that you can’t help but listen (they just gotta sit in it. They can’t move until they find out how the story ends).
Recommended Tracks: Professional Loving, Double Edge
45. Feastem – World Delirium
It’s not easy to stand out when you’re a grindcore outfit, especially when your aim is to sound as turbulent as possible, but Finnish quartet Feastem pulls it off in fine style. The touches of black metal and thrash give the material a huge boost, somewhat reminiscent of Black Breath’s debut LP from a few years back (who also have just released another excellent album, though that’s neither here nor there), establishing a bit of dynamism but without compromising any of the white-hot rage that drives the music. And the rage is utterly unyielding here, which is how any grindcore fan worth his salt likes it.
Recommended Tracks: Dead Eyes, The Lie
44. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
Not even having progressed two tracks through Anna Calvi’s impressive bluesed-out debut, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey comparisons were already ricocheting around in my head (in fact, learning that she opened for Grinderman gave me a forehead-slapping “of course” moment). Musically speaking, the atmosphere is very raw, with more than just a tinge of darkness to it. Everything from the pounding drums to the jagged guitars reels the listener in, but the real draw is Miss Calvi’s powerful vocals – this girl has got quite a range on her, and more importantly a strong sense of when to belt out a gut-busting wail and when to just relax – case in point being her performance on The Devil, where she seems to channel both Jeff Buckley and Florence Welch somehow. Keep an eye on this girl. Er, ear, rather.
Recommended Tracks: Suzanne and I, I’ll Be Your Man
43. Beyond Creation – The Aura
Of course, it’s a matter of taste, but I simply have never cared for too much melodicism in death metal – while I certainly appreciate a good polish, I just don’t feel this genre needs a whole lot of it. Like everything else, moderation is key, and Beyond Creation is one of those death outfits that nails a perfect balance. The guitars switch from crushing riffs to melodic solos and back on a dime, and when the solos do go on for a bit longer than they really need to, they’re just too catchy for you to really care (much like the great Chuck Schuldiner). Along with the spectacularly intricate drumming and great basslines that you can actually hear (the production is crystal clear), Beyond Creation’s debut LP is both sophisticated and brutal; appealing to both the urge to analyze your music, or just rock the fuck out.
Recommended Tracks: Coexistence, The Aura
42. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Justin Vernon seems to have fallen into the same trap as so many other musicians, that of producing an absolutely stellar debut album which the majority holds at near-classic status. Indeed, Bon Iver’s follow-up to said debut has been met with more than just a little flak, partly because Vernon decided to share in the creative process, and perhaps even more so because it’s frankly not as personal as For Emma, Forever Ago. But how could it? There plainly was no way to replicate such a gorgeous, aching piece of music, so rather than attempting to mimic the naked, hollowed out soundscapes, he elected to fill up the holes with a rich production, and an occasional dash of, dare I say it, hope? The admittedly cheesy Beth/Rest aside (which recalls the theme from Chariots of Fire just a little too well), Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort does a wonderful job of meeting in the middle between his personal, stripped down debut and a more lush sound.
Recommended Tracks: Holoscene, Michicant
41. Desolate – The Invisible Insurrection
Before Burial released Street Halo (and this year’s absolutely phenomenal Kindred), and another artist in a similar vein released an album which is a bit further up on this list, The Invisible Insurrection was my “I miss Burial” go-to. And yes, I realize how unfair it is to start this write-up with comparisons to superior material, but Desolate’s first LP stands on its own quite nicely. There’s a beautiful longing in the air of this album, with masterfully blended samples, choppy percussion, and light, wispy sounds floating on in the background. It’s ghostly sounding, really, but there’s so much heart present that it feels so alive; like seeing a bed sheet wrapped around nothing and walking around. …I dunno, something like that.
Recommended Tracks: Follow Suit, Divinus
40. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Like fellow 2008 folk giant Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes return with a bit of a beefier sound this time around, though with all due respect to Mr. Vernon, in this case it produced an album superior to its predecessor. Helplessness Blues is a step up in just about every way from their self-titled debut; the music is far more lush, the warm soulfulness is much more poignant, and the lyrics are a bit sharper (there’s a lot of frustration and sadness expressed here with some truly poetic lines… plus quoting Yeats can never hurt). The greatness hinted at in the debut is no doubt being reached here, with vocalist Robin Pecknold really letting go (there are points on the mammoth The Shrine/An Argument in particular where he’s not so much singing as shouting out with a barely concealed rage) and the band getting a little louder and a little fuller (is fuller a word? Meh, it is now).
Recommended Tracks: Battery Kinzie, Helplessness Blues
39. Corrupted – Garten Der Unbewusstheit
Two half-hour slabs of sludge, drone, and doom sandwiching a lovely, four and a half minute acoustic breather would be the easiest way to describe this album, but anyone who’s heard this knows that it’s far more than that. The dynamics here are incredible, from the build-ups to the climaxes, everything is so deliberate. The loudest moments still have such a delicate, human element to them, while the softer ones tend to carry a heavy sense of foreboding, as if you can already feel where the music is heading. The progressions are tremendous, and every moment is dripping with weighty emotion, almost as much as the next album on this list…
Recommended Tracks: Garten, Gekkou No Daichi
38. The Antlers – Burst Apart
Yet another indie artist with an astounding album to live up to, The Antlers follow the rather emotionally heavy Hospice with something not quite as hefty (though how could it be?), but just as sharp. The genuine bleakness is still present, but in a different light; where Hospice was the traumatic event, Burst Apart is trying to rebuild while dealing with the aftermath. There is arguably every bit as much emotion here, just channeled in a different way (if you weren’t impressed by that mournful falsetto at the end of I Don’t Want Love, then I don’t know what to tell you). The music has seen a shift as well, particularly on the almost new wave-ish French Exit or the sharp, bluesy Putting the Dog to Sleep. All in all, another excellent effort, and another example of how great it is to see a young band making all the right moves.
Recommended Tracks: I Don’t Want Love, No Widows
37. LV and Joshua Idehen – Routes
For those who want a little more dub in their dubstep. LV has long been known for their tastefully bass-heavy and, well, exotic sounding production, but what really sells it here is Joshua Idehen fronting the trio. He has such a unique delivery, and frequently switches it up; he gives a bizarrely half-spoken word and half-croon performance on Deleted Scene, and sounds almost sarcastically obnoxious with his bouncy repetition on Northern Line. Plus there’s that accent of his, it gives the music such a grimy feel, and makes you feel as if you’re walking the streets of London in the middle of the night in between pubs. This album is culturally rich, tremendously well textured, and a shitload of fun to boot.
Recommended Tracks: Lean Back, Never Tired
36. This Morn’ Omina – L’Unification Des Forces Opposantes
Here’s a group I was rather late to the party with, and are frankly one of those rare groups who sound like nothing I’d ever heard before. Combining world music and electronics (recalling Leftfield a quite a bit, actually) with an attack tailor-made for industrial dance floors, L’Unification Des Forces Opposantes is an unusual listen, to say the least. And daunting, too; this double disc monster consists of a mere thirteen sprawling tracks. but with as much as each track has going on, and as brilliantly as each one comes to fruition, the minutes really do fly by. And with as packed to the brim this album is with ideas and details, plus how left field (a-huh huh, y’see what I did thar) the pairing of genres is, the fact that it’s all so listenable is nothing short of astonishing.
Recommended Tracks: (The) Ruach (Of God), (The) Sixth Order
35. Black Swan – The Quiet Divide
Good dark ambient has a way of sinking in and chilling you to the bone with seemingly the barest of efforts, and as you may have gathered, Black Swan’s second full-length effort does just this. Easily the best ambient I have heard all year (and it had quite a bit of competition), The Quiet Divide is so relentlessly unsettling. Melodies are (naturally) scarce, but light synths are throbbing left and right, discordant piano notes are randomly dropped, static comes in and out, samples of gibberish are introduced at unexpected moments, and the air is just so god damn menacing. There is so much depth to be found with what initially sounds like very little that it goes beyond beauty; it’s utterly fascinating. This music truly puts you in a scary place, yet intrigues; like a gesturing hand beckoning from the darkness.
Recommended Tracks: Black Eulogy, Angel Eyes
34. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
Tom Waits is one of those musicians who has an incredibly broad spectrum of styles, yet never sounds like anybody but himself, and Bad As Me serves as a reminder of sorts. From the beautiful, flamenco-flavored Back in the Crowd to the dark blues of Talking at the Same Time (which features an impressive falsetto that only Waits could pull off), the songwriting giant employs a dizzying array of instruments, fantastic melodies, and clever lyrics that could only have come from his head. Waits can make surf rock on crack (Go Get Lost), he can make a love song sound like a listless night in an empty bar (Kiss Me), and he can give jazz almost John Zorn-ish levels of frenzy (Chicago). Tom Waits’ best may likely be behind him, but his music has not lost its consistently high quality by any stretch of the imagination.
Recommended Tracks: Bad As Me, Hell Broke Luce
33. Björk - Biophilia
One of my favorite things about Björk has always been her childlike fascination with everything around her, from cars to the sun, and her ability to make metaphors of these things from that mindset. Her last two albums, while good in their own right, saw her getting a bit too mature for her own good, and all the hoopla with iPad apps for each song and whatnot made me suspect that Biophilia would be more of the same. Mercifully, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The music is pieced together so intricately, but with the charm of not sounding like it at all. The shuffling beats and melodies crashing into that pulverizing drum & bass outro of Crystalline, the first song released from this album, are a perfect example. The music has an imagination to it that she hasn’t exhibited in years, as do the lyrics – a tumor singing a love song to its host? Finding a connection between love and plate tectonics? Pure brilliance, and more importantly, pure Björk.
Recommended Tracks: Virus, Mutual Core
32. Laura Stevenson and the Cans – Sit Resist
Aw shit, girl… you so cute. Seriously, this is about as charming as music gets – there’s such an honesty to Sit Resist, and it wastes no time in sweeping you off your feet (opener Halloween, Pts. 1 & 2‘s seductive emotional punch grabs you almost immediately). It’s tempting to credit it to Stevenson’s adorably quirky way of getting to the point or her tremendously emotive vocal, which can range from a fragile near-whimper to a powerful, cathartic shout, but the music itself is so vibrant and beautiful, and expressed with a tastefully wide array of instruments. There is much heartache and longing in this album, but it’s not expressed so much with melancholy as it is with an appreciation for it all, as if to support the argument that the times where you’re hurting are some of the times where you’re the most alive.
Recommended Tracks: Caretaker, 8:08
31. Omar-S – It Can Be Done but Only I Can Do It
Arrogance is almost always a turn off, be it in a person or an album title. But sometimes, it’s so justified that it ceases to be arrogance and can be interpreted as mere confidence, and that’s precisely what we have here in Omar S’ rather boldly titled full-length. Unabashedly taking house through just about every direction it’s been in since 1989, It Can Be Done is a whirlwind of an album packed to the brim with oddball ideas (like I Come Over‘s ridiculously tantalizing minute-long hook, or Look Hear Watch‘s mournful synths over porn; I assume it to be an entire scene, given the audible insertion, ass slaps, and money shot) that somehow work. It’s this kind of adventurousness and efficiency that makes house music great, and makes you loathe the talentless DJs getting by with simple pounding beats all the more. Not mentioning any Guetta names.
Recommended Tracks: Ganymede, Here’s Your Trance Now Dance
30. Ulcerate – The Destroyers of All
It feels odd referring to an album with such a crushingly bleak atmosphere as “refreshing,” but it’s just nice to see a death metal outfit running with an idea other than simply playing either as fast or technical as they can. The focus here is purely on songwriting; establishing mood, developing cohesive yet dynamic progressions, and really just getting the most out of as little as possible. The riffs are excellent, but Jamie Saint Merat’s drumming brings even more out of them by merely throwing in a simple blast beat or some rhythmic cymbal work at just the right moments. A dense and challenging listen to be sure, but a potentially addicting one as well.
Recommended Tracks: Burning Skies, Beneath
29. The Field – Looping State of Mind
The Field’s music has become infamous for its use of repetition, and as such it has become noticeably divisive. Many find it to be boring, plodding along to the same beat with a random additional sound thrown in here and there for good measure, which is perfectly understandable. I, however, belong firmly in the opposing camp, treasuring the subtle shifts, the almost organic-sounding samples, the lush and mesmerizing sonics. Listening to this album gives off such a warming, entrancing feeling, meeting somewhere between ambient and dance music. As Wayne Gale once said, “Repetition works, David. Repetition works.”
Recommended Tracks: Is This Power, Arpeggiated Love
28. Tech N9ne – Welcome to Strangeland
At one point, All 6′s and 7′s had a place on this list, but Tech N9ne’s second full-length of the year was just too damn good. Which speaks volumes about the man, the fact that he can release two albums of such high quality in one year without breaking a sweat. Tech’s trademark spitfire style with which he spits, well, fire, is here in spades, but more importantly his rhymes seem to have been bumped up yet another notch – the guy is a fucking rhyming dictionary with legs. Just listen to the chorus in Unfair, his verse on Kocky, the list goes on and on. Also there are the guest spots with astonishing exchanges, and along with the cleverly subtle story being told throughout the album, it really gives off the energetic feel of a Tech show; and if you’ve ever been to one, you know it’s not so much a concert as it is a raucous house party. Simply outstanding.
Recommended Tracks: Who Do I Catch, Slave
27. Stendeck – Scintilla
It never fails to baffle me when an extraordinarily talented artist consistently releases elite material to little or no acclaim. Now on his fourth album, Swiss producer Alessandro Zampieri sounds as good as ever, crafting charming ambient pieces with edges jagged enough to keep the listener hooked. As psychedelic, dark, and even menacing as these tracks can sound, there’s always a vivid prettiness shimmering underneath, something even more emphasized by the oh-so-poetic titles (Thieves of Watercolour Memories?? Fuck, why didn’t I think of that…), giving the arresting sounds a solid accompanying imagery. This is one of those albums that takes the notion of electronic music being devoid of emotion and utterly demolishes it.
Recommended Tracks: Catch the Midnight Girl, That Foolish Fascination of a Ghost Light Collector
26. Sepalcure – Sepalcure
Truth be told, I do genuinely hate to be sucking on the cock of a genre as overly saturated as dubstep, but in the midst of all the shit that has unfortunately seen the light of day, there have been some absolute gems as well; and as I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, Sepalcure’s long-awaited debut LP is one that positively shimmers. Beautiful, straight forward garage that isn’t afraid to throw a little house or hip-hop in the mix here and there, the music towers over the vast majority of its contemporaries in terms of sheer inventiveness and creativity. The samples and synths are woven together impeccably, and the finished product is a fiercely intelligent beauty traveling on a beat that simply will not quit.
Recommended Tracks: Pencil Pimp, Hold On