After gleaning over 100 albums I’ve gotten this past year, I have put together a list that I think most everyone will see a couple of albums they liked, a couple of albums they didn’t like, and some albums that they have never heard of on it. Overall, this has been a great year for music. A lull in genres like hip-hop and country was made up by stellar electronic albums and indie-rock/pop. A lot of follow up CDs from great bands that definitely left an impression (Arcade Fire, MIA, Arctic Monkeys) while others, not so much (The New Pornographers, Architecture in Helsinki, and my god that Rilo Kiley album was BAD!). Without further ado, let’s look at some of my picks for the top 30 albums of the year (feel free to leave comments too!) It should be noted that the original write-up was over 20 pages, so this is greatly reduced for length and isn’t as in depth as the original…
Here is a link to my iMix (must have iTunes open):http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewIMix?id=270256455
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
Feist: The Reminder
Explosions in the Sky: All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone
Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity
!!!: Myth Takes
Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Jose Gonzalez: In Our Nature
Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Living with the Living
Panda Bear: Person Pitch
Band of Horses: Cease to Begin
30. Burial: Untrue
This year’s winner of the Scott Walker “what the hell is this” award is Burial’s album entitled “Untrue.” Now most likely no one outside the underground dance scene is familiar with this artist (and to be honest even they don’t know his identity, he is like the Bansky of the music world, without the popularity), in fact you probably are not even familiar with his genre (Dubstep), however you should definitely give this a listen if you want to hear some of the darkest electronic music ever created. With intense bass and downright eerie samples and loops, this music is arguably the craziest thing you will have listened to all year.
Highlights: Near Dark, Untrue, and UK
29. Jens Lekman: Night Falls Over Kortedala
If you have ever listened to a Jens Lekman interview, you know that he is pretty crazy. I heard him guest DJ-ing on NPR’s All Songs Considered and he played music that even Bob Boilen had never heard of (quite a feat). His eccentricities are definitely reflected in his music. Jens dresses his comical lyrics up in quite possibly some of the most beautiful melodies. You want to take Jens seriously as a musician, you really do, but you can’t with songs titled “Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo.” Thank god for Jens though, he can always make me laugh.
Highlights: Maple Leaves, Sipping on the Sweet Nectar, A Postcard to Nina (nominee for song of the year)
28. Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Sank
Definitely a setback from one of my favorite albums ever, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News,” but overall it is still strong. A lot of coverage was given to the addition of The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, however, his presence isn’t particular felt in the album (I think the guitar work is about as good as Good News). Isaac Brock’s somewhat cryptic REM-esque lyrics still are there (as is his unique voice) and the sharp staccato background guitar is still present. After listening to an advance copy of the single “Dashboard,” I definitely felt that the band was trying to make a “radio ready” album and was rather disappointed with this turn of events (however I would much rather listen to “Dashboard” than any other song on the radio presently), but the album as a whole maintains that indie-rock feel to it.
Highlights: Florida, Missed the Boat, and Spitting Venom (nomination for best song of the year)
27. Ryan Adams: Easy Tiger
Ok, my bias towards alt-country/rock&roll/freestyle rapper (welcome to ryan-adams-dot-com-mother-fucker) needs to be disclosed: I am a Ryan Adams fan. I know he’s an asshole live, I know he wears MisFits concert tees on David Letterman, I know he makes about 5 albums too many each year (this year being an exception), but I don’t care, I still like him. With that being said, this is definitely a middle of the road album for him (not remotely as good as Heartbreaker, but infinitely better than 29), however it is a solid album that takes him back to his alt-country origins. Granted, he could have chosen his duets better (Two featuring Cheryl Crow is probably one of the weaker songs on the album), but his strength has always been his simple lyrics and simple melodies sung by his rather normal voice, and this album has all of that.
Highlights: Oh My God Whatever Etc., Halloween Head, and Two Hearts
26. Caribou: Andorra
I must admit that I first wanted to listen to Caribou (aka Daniel Snaith) because he had a PhD in Math and makes great electronic music (two things I want to accomplish in my life). While listening to this album with songs like “Melody Day” I kept on thinking that this type of music epitomizes what the 70s must have been about (at least in my imagination) and wish that I was part of the hippie movement. If one was to describe his music in Andorra, I would say that it is cheerful airy pop recorded over semi-electronic background music.
Highlights: Melody Day, Sandy, Sundialing
25. The Hives: The Black and White Album
Everyone has probably heard of The Hives because the summer of 2001 was the year of the “The” bands (The Vines, The Strokes, The Hives, etc…). Their hit song “Hate to Say I Told You So” garnered them some fame and a spot at the MTV Video Awards. After a mediocre follow-up album “Tyrannosaurus Hives,” The Hives have returned to their Swedish garage band roots with “The Black and White Album” (I wonder if Danger Mouse gets royalties off the name). With this album I expected unabated high energy songs with tempos to match, and that is definitely what I got! You can tell from songs like “Return the Favour” that the band is heavily influenced by early punk acts like The Ramones and The Clash, which is never a bad thing.
Highlights: Return the Favour, Well Alright, and Tick Tick Boom (nominee for song of the year)
24. The White Stripes: Icky Thump
Jack and Meg are back with some of their “minimalist” two-piece rock and are in fine form with Icky Thump. Although I don’t realize their concept of the album as a whole (it seems a little disjoint ranging from experimental, to Spanish mariachi, to Irish bagpipe music) the music is still excellent on a song-by-song basis. If I had to pick the best qualities from this album it would have to be songwriting (like in Effect and Cause) and the random experimental guitars (like in Icky Thump and Catch Hell). Overall, it is a great album from a great band.
Highlights: Rag & Bone, Catch Hell, and Effect and Cause (nominee for song of the year)
23. Sunset Rubdown: Random Spirit Lover
I don’t know where lead singer Spencer Krug finds all of his time. Besides fronting the exceptional band Sunset Rubdown, he leads a montage of others (Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, and Swan Lake). Anyways, Sunset Rubdown gives him a chance to let his quivering voice go more experimental. Although I must admit that Wolf Parade is my favorite project, this album is definitely as good as Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to Queen Mary,” but then again it is like comparing apples to oranges. This album is definitely a twist on experimental indie-rock and a great listen.
Highlights: Colt Stands Up Grows Horns, Trumpet Trumpet Toot! Toot!, and Child-Heart Losers
22. Dntel: Dumb Luck
If you are familiar with the Postal Service, you might recognize the name James Tamborello, otherwise known as the solo act Dntel. If you aren’t familiar, you should be because he is great. There are definitely some Postal Service sentiments in “Dumb Luck” (I guess you can’t escape the bloops and blips!) but otherwise it is a more experimental album than any of Postal’s stuff. Dntel relies heavily on scratched up/static-y sounds on tracks accompanied by some rather popular artists (Grizzly Bear, Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst, Mia Doi Todd) with very strong lyrics.
Highlights: Dumb Luck, Roll On, Rock My Boat, and Breakfast in Bed (nomine for song of the year)
21. The Tough Alliance: A New Chance
I was first introduced to this band when I was listening to Jens Lekman’s interview on NPR All Songs Considered (as noted before, Jens had some interesting tracks to play for NPR). Evidently there is something in the water in Sweden because The Tough Alliance (or TTA as they are commonly called) is just the most recent great band coming from this Scandinavian country (The Knife, Peter Bjorn and Paul, Jens Lekman, Jose Gonzalez are a couple more). The Tough Alliance has possibly some of the most infectious lyrics recorded over some of the most poppy sounding loops. In addition, TTA makes some of the best cheerful tracks to dance to!
Highlights: First Class, A New Chance, and Neo Violence (nominee for song of the year).
20. Arctic Monkeys: Favourite Worst Nightmare
Already exalted as the best British act of the past 10 years and producing a stellar album with the appropriately titled “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” the Arctic Monkeys creativity diminish slightly with their follow up album “Favourite Worst Nightmare.” They maintain the energetic Brit-Rock of their debut, however, most of the songs sound similar to the debut (I guess if you do one thing well, stick with it…) Maybe I ranked them lower because I was turned off after seeing their below-average performance at ACL (just play the tunes, no interaction, and no encore, however they are touted as the “band who never plays an encore”), however this album is still one of the best of the year.
Highlights: Brianstorm, If You Were There Beware, D is for Dangerous (nominee for song of the year)
19. The Go! Team: Proof of Youth
Listening to Ian Parton (creator of The Go! Team) describe the complex process of creating a Go! Team track, one can only admire the amount of time and energy spent he and his fellow Brightonites (?) put into their music. Constantly sampling random tracks ranging from educational records, big band discs, to soul albums and then combining them with in-the-studio guitars, keyboards, drums, and (sometimes) female vocals from a person simply known as Ninja, the Go! Team incorporates everything to make a great album. Although I will never get the “wow factor” from listening to their first album the first time ever again, Proof of Youth still packs several punches which make getting the album worthwhile.
Highlights: Patricia’s Moving Picture, Keys to the City, and Grip Like a Vice (nominee for song of the year).
18. Bright Eyes: Cassadaga and Four Winds EP
I decided to lump the Four Winds EP with the Cassadaga album together because there are parts that I like about both albums and thought it unfair to judge the two against each other. Although this is probably Conor Oberst’s weakest album of his past four musically and lyrically, it is a testament to how strong Oberst’s singer/songwriting ability is. Different from his other albums, Cassadaga and Four Winds is more of a collaboration with his band than just a solo effort. Oberst’s distinct voice and gifted songwriting over him and his band’s country music melodies make this album and EP one of the best of the year. However, some of the best tracks were deviations from the usual alt-country sound (Coat Check Dream Song and Hot Knives for example).
Highlights: Coat Check Dream Song, Middleman, Cartoon Blues, and Four Winds (nominee for song of the year).
17. Gogol Bordello: Super Taranta!
I first got introduced to this band by music critic Robert Christgau when he made a bold comment on NPR’s All Song’s Considered that one of Gogol Bordello’s past albums was the best rock album of the past 15 years. The sound of Gogol Bordello is heavily influenced by Eastern European sounds (primarily because the lead singer Eugene Hutz is from Ukraine) as well as classic punk rock making many people to call them a “gypsy punk band.” If you ever have seen them live, you will agree that they definitely give 110% because they need to in order to keep up with some of the insanely fast tempos! In addition, the song writing from a non-native speaker is far most advanced than most native speakers. Lines like “If we are here not to do/what you and I want to do/and go forever crazy with it/why the hell are we even hear?” definitely describe aptly life better than most anything I have ever heard.
Highlights: Wunderlust King, American Wedding, and Ultimate (nominee for song of the year).
16. The Shins: Wincing the Night Away
Still riding on the heels of the Garden State promotional machine, the Shins release an album that is definitely worthy of their billboard success (#1 album for a week). Still just as pop-y and just as catchy as their past two critically successful albums “Chutes So Narrow” and “Oh, Inverted World,” “Wincing the Night Away” is a type of album you can put on and listen to and be in a good mood afterwards (James Mercer’s voice makes you feel like you can sing along and hit all of the right notes!).
Highlights: Phantom Limb, Spilt Needles, and Australia (nominee for song of the year).
15. Battles: Mirrors
I don’t know what it is about the electronic album put out by Battles, but whatever it is, it’s good. It might be the cycling loops which don’t ever resolve, it might be the fast pace tempos on some of the songs carried throughout by sharp staccato notes, or it might be the otherworldly vocals which no one could possibly replicate live. Anyways, Battles have put out one of the most interesting and enjoyable electronic albums this year. They also have the coolest album art too!
Highlights: Leyendecker, Atlas, and Tonto (nominee for song of the year)
14. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Is Is EP
The newest release from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was in the form of an EP with an accompanying live music video for the song “Down Boy.” A complete 180 from “Gold Lion,” “Is Is” is definitely harder than its predecessor primarily because of Karen O’s shrilling voice and Nick Zinners (random at time) guitar work. The video is just as crazy and makes you want to catch the nearest live show.
Highlights: Rockers to Swallow, Kiss Kiss, and Isis (nominee for song of the year)
13. Lil’ Wayne: Da Drought 3
You didn’t expect to get through a greatest albums list without me mentioning Lil’ Wayne, did you? If anyone knows me well, you know that I think Lil’ Wayne is the greatest rapper alive and has a dense resume proving it. Lil’ Wayne continues his dominance of the rap game with a slight step backwards from his Dedication II mixtape (mostly because the beats aren’t as good), but still makes some of the most cunning and thought provoking rhymes ever. Somehow he manages taking an incident where he kissed his “daddy” (Birdman from Cash $$$) for a rap magazine cover, something where hardcore street rappers made fun of him for, and twists it into an insult on his opponents. Absolutely Incredible.
Highlights: Upgrade, Walk it Out, Black Republican, and We Takin’ Over Remix (nominee for song of the year)
12. Stars: In Our Bedroom after the War
If you are unfamiliar with Stars, they are fronted by a combination of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan and produce very airy and beautiful indie-pop (as their name might have suggested). This album is one of the firsts on the list where the band has produced their best work with their most recent album. The voices of Torquil and Amy complement each other perfectly and the addition of light keyboards make the album complete. As for lyrics, most of the songs sound like excerpts from a personal journal (or in “Personal,” an excerpt from a newspaper). This album is definitely a must get (Audra would probably agree with this!)
Highlights: Take Me to the Riot, Personal, The Night Starts Here (nominee for song of the year).
11. Two Gallants: Two Gallants
You know it is sad state of affairs when the best alternative-country album doesn’t crack the top ten on my list (one of my favorite genres). Anyways, the Two Gallants definitely improve with this album (most notably their songwriting abilities). Still fronted by the duo Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel, their minimalist construction of their country songs is something I think the genre could learn from (Bright Eyes/Ryan Adams with their Meatloaf-esque type of production is getting out of hand). Thank goodness they didn’t get thrown in jail like last year!
Highlights: The Hand that Held Me Down, Trembling of the Rose, and Despite What You’ve Been Told (nominee for song of the year)
10. Jay-Z: American Gangster
One thing that you can say about Jay-Z is that he is the most comfortable MC behind a microphone. For the Linkin Park mash-up album, he spit the lyrics to “Jigga What” in ONE TAKE! That is INSANE. Anyways, he is just as laidback rapping on American Gangster which is loosely based off the film starring Denzel Washington. All it takes is one listen to American Dreamin’ (sung over a Marvin Gaye sample) with lyrics like “For now I’m just a lazy boy / day dreamin’ on my lazy boy / and the cloud of smoke / and playing is Marvin / momma forgive me / I should be thinking ‘bout Harvard / but that’s too far away/and n****** is starvin’” to fall in love with this album.
Highlights: Ignorant Shit, No Hook, and American Dreamin’ (nominee for song of the year)
9. LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver and Bunch of Stuff EP
The only thing that I regret with this CD/EP combo is that I wish I could have heard James Murphy perform it live at ACL. This is a great electronic-pop album with the standard pulsating bass, repetitious melodies, but it does have that quality of songwriting which is absent in the genre (granted songs like Get Innocuous, not so much…). In addition the remix album (Bunch of Stuff EP) is just as strong as the original featuring remixes from Franz Ferdinand, Soulwax, and Gucci Soundsystem.
Highlights: Get Innocuous!, North American Scum, All My Friends (Franz Ferdinand Remix) (nominee for song of the year)
8. Kanye West: Graduation
First off, this album is weak musically compared to the musically perfect albums College Dropout and Late Registration. After hearing the single “Stronger” I was hoping that more of the album would be incorporating beats which are definitely avant garde, however Kanye slips back to same routine of sampling soul songs, remixing, and repeat. However, lyrically this album is the best one to date. Kanye seems at ease rapping over his beats on this album that it almost seems second nature. You know you are doing well lyrically when you show-up Lil’ Wayne on the song “Barry Bonds.”
Highlights: Good Morning, Flashing Lights, Homecoming, and Stronger (nominee for song of the year)
7. Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
With their previous album “Funeral” I liked everything I heard. The same can not be said with Neon Bible. If they replaced, most notably, “Black Mirror” and “Black Waves/Bad Vibrations” this would have easily been album of the year. There was just too many songs that I found too discordant, and honestly musically bizarre, that I had to rate them lower. If you have never heard of Arcade Fire, please get their Funeral album (one of the greatest albums of the past 10 years) as well as Neon Bible and you will understand where I am coming from. On all the other songs, the creativity is there (including an organ in Intervention for example), the songwriting is there (Ocean of Noise), and their energy is there (No Cars Go). There were just too many tracks which I went “meh” on… Also, for any fan, check out their cover of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByaPsZernn8
Highlights: Intervention, Windowsill, My Body is a Cage, and Ocean of Noise (nominee for song of the year)
6. Daft Punk: Alive 2007
I have NEVER liked Daft Punk (too French, too electronic).
I watched this: http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/download/45758-daft-punk-one-more-time-aerodynamic-live-at-wireless-festival-2007-video
Now I LOVE Daft Punk.
Highlights: Every song, they are meant to be heard as a group not as individuals (they blend and mix into each other)
5. The National: Boxer
Melanie first introduced me to this album by burning me their album “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” and then I got the album “Boxer” and was pleasantly surprised by how the two albums compliment each other. Usually I’ll listen to both of them in one sitting, alternating the tracks (sometimes I get the impression that the tracks on Boxer are the slow songs missing from Sad Songs). Taking separately, Boxer has some of the most beautiful poetic lyrics of any album out there with the melodies reflecting the mood set by lead singer Matt Berninger’s baritone voice. The album is meant to be listened to intently (not casually as most are) something that can’t be said about most of the music out there.
Hightlights: Fake Empire, Green Gloves, and Start a War (nominee for song of the year)
4. Radiohead: In Rainbows
“In Rainbows” is my second favorite album from Radiohead (behind “Amnesiac”). What I find interesting about Radiohead fans is that if you asked them what their favorite album is, it will most likely be equally distributed. That is what makes them so great: you can’t pick a favorite because they are all so good! Now I have always felt that Radiohead is stronger on up-tempo songs, however I must admit that In Rainbows made me appreciate their slower stuff. Pretty much everything has been said about Radiohead (so there is nothing that I could possibly improve on in such a short paragraph): Thom York = lyrical genius, Jonny Greenwood = amazing guitarist, etc etc…With that being said, everybody should shell out the $0.00 and download the music for free from their website http://www.inrainbows.com/
Highlights: Bodysnatchers, Videotape, and Jigsaw Falling into Place (nominee for song of the year).
3. Justice: Cross
This album has/will single-handedly revolutionize electronic music. Period. It is amazingly dynamic, strongly musical, and most importantly original. Even if you don’t like electronic music at all, play this at your party and you will get everyone dancing to it (hell they even have a track called “D.A.N.C.E.”). I would say it is recommended to have a pretty good sub-woofer (base intensive, something which makes this album unique) to play Justice, but you can still appreciate it even if you are listening to it on your iPod headphones. They also have a pretty cool remix of the Justin Timberlake song “Lovestoned”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=so_emNz1hg0
Highlights: Genesis, The Party, and Phantom pt. I (nominee for song of the year)
2. M.I.A.: Kala
The first time I put on an M.I.A. album (“Arular”) I hated it. In typical cliché fashion, the more I listened to it the more I appreciated the combination of her unique British via Sri Lanka voice combining with noisy urban beats and loops. When listening to “Kala,” it is like listening to a more polished version of “Arular.” M.I.A. uses crisper lyrics mostly concerning social and political issues which sting a lot more on this album (Do you know what the cost of AKs up in Africa?/ 20 dollars ain’t shit to you/but that’s how much they are). The beats are clearer and pack more punch (compare “Bamboo Banger” to something like “Hombre” from “Arular” and you’ll see what I mean), and she even has the audacity to use a Timbaland beat (!!!) which turns out to be so good he used it for his album (UK and Japanese versions). Actually some of the highlights are the tracks where she features artists (Afrikan Boy on the track Hussel being the best one). Anyways, this year M.I.A. amazed all the skeptics and put out a stellar album.
Highlights: 20 Dollar, XR2, Come Around, and Bamboo Banger (nominee for best song of the year)
1. Of Montreal: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer
A couple of side-notes considering the best album of the year: The day before the CD release, they put on a show in Lubbock (amazing I know) and I only recently got into them by getting their first two albums. Anyways, we are waiting for them to go on and they start off this crazy track which turned out to be the intro to “Faberge Falls for Shruggie” and everybody in the crowd is like “what the hell is this.” This is a testament on how much Of Montreal reinvented themselves (and most likely the genre of indie-pop) with this album. They have completely transformed from the quarky pop outfit featured on Outback commercials (Let’s go Outback tonighttttttttttt….) to more of an artistic force to be reckoned with. This can best be noted on the first track where they open with the typical strumming of guitar chords and then –WHAM – full-fledged synths. In addition to the music changing completely on the album, the songwriting dramatically improves from past attempts. Definitely a highlight has to be “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” where the only thing carrying this 10 minute plus song is Kevin Barne’s vocals. Anyways, this album was a wonderful surprise from a season of overall great albums!
Highlights: Suffer for Fashion, The Past is a Grotesque Animal , Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse, and She’s a Rejector (nominee for song of the year)