Category: Lists

Klap 4 2012

By , December 27, 2012 5:00 pm

25. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror

End of the Line” Spotify

Sleigh Bells always struck me as sort of a gimmick, a one-trick pony on their debut Treats. To be honest, that trick, which makes Nigel Tufnel’s “but these go to eleven” explanation a parody of itself, is still in full effect here—Reign of Terror is loud and brash, letting the guitar slam out chunky, primordial chords with single-minded fervor. Alexis Krauss, however, is the star of Reign of Terror, putting her former teen-pop resume to good use as the shimmery shoegaze counterpoint to Derek Miller’s bludgeoning riffs. For all its volume, Reign of Terror is nuanced and careful in its use of textures and breathy harmonies, less concerned with fist-pumping and headbanging than focusing on the gorgeous tones and dreamlike atmosphere Krauss’ layered vocals achieve. It is a less brutish and far more beautiful Sleigh Bells than I ever expected.

24. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems

“Numb” | Beatport

I wish my old piano teacher was as cool as Allison Skidmore, who really opens up a whole new dimension to Andy Stott’s realm of negative space. Luxury Problems is intensely atmospheric and intricately layered, as Stott’s brand of minimal techno has tended to be, but Skidmore’s nebulous vocals give a heretofore-unseen emotional aspect to Stott’s slow, pulsing beats. And even where Skidmore is nowhere to be found, as on the grimy “Sleepless,” Stott handles himself perfectly fine with some of the finest grooves of his career.

23. School of Seven Bells – Ghostory

“Lafaye” | Spotify

Shoegaze/dream pop with a healthy serving of goth atmospherics and the deft studio hand of ex-Secret Machine Benjamin Curtis sounds similar to other, more lackluster School of Seven Bells albums, albeit now featuring just one preternaturally talented twin sister. Strangely enough, they’ve never sounded so good. Alejandra Deheza manages to maintain the same ethereal quality by herself that Claudia used to augment with the most gorgeous, yet oftentimes empty, harmonies. Ghostory combines the narcotic drone of Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine with an amorphous concept revolving around the haunting of a girl, but it works even better when you see Ghostory as a hazy kiss-off to the old School of Seven Bells and an enchanting taste of where they could go.

22. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

“Emmylou” | Spotify

Like the best pop music, The Lion’s Roar takes the building blocks of songwriter malaise—sadness, heartbreak, nostalgia, loss—and turns it into a glorious celebration. Johanna and Klara Soderberg sing with a maturity and gravitas beyond their years (22 and 18, respectively—those numbers depress me every time), conjuring up wildernesses they’ve never seen and feelings it’s difficult to imagine they’ve experienced, or at least experienced enough to be able to sing with such depth and candor. When combined with Mike Mogis’ warmly textured production, all twang and rugged mountain air, The Lion’s Roar lends more convincing credit to the argument that whatever America does, the Swedes can probably do it better.

21. Hospitality – Hospitality

“Eighth Avenue” | Spotify

As sick as I am of Brooklyn bands on the indie scene, it’s hard to not fall in love with this insolent affair from power-pop quartet Hospitality, which flits around New York landmarks and sassy little incisions from vocalist Amber Papini. It’s twee as fuck (Belle & Sebastian is a major signpost, particularly on excellent opener “Eighth Avenue”), but it’s little imperfections and the raucous stumbling blocks, an unexpectedly ragged guitar lick or Papini’s quick wit, make it a charmingly individualistic album.

20. Jack White – Blunderbuss

“Freedom at 21″ | Spotify

For once, White sounds fully involved in the creation of a record, something that hasn’t happened since the White Stripes’ mid-2000s heyday. Blunderbuss is the predictable exploration into blues, funk, and wonderfully filthy rock-n-roll that White has made his calling card, as well as a general fascination with women and the demon sorcery they employ, but its focus and tight production make it the most accessible and pound-for-pound interesting album he’s made in a decade. Plus, the guitar shreds.

19. Chromatics – Kill For Love

“Lady” | Spotify

Ballsy move opening with not just a Neil Young song but one of the Neil Young songs, but Kill For Love is ballsy in more ways than one. It is a cinematic masterpiece that moves at a glacial pace, 16 tracks and seventy-seven 77 gorgeous, druggy minutes and pretty much the perfect encapsulation of Johnny Jewel’s overall ‘80s aesthetic/fetish. It’s not the easiest of listens, but that same sprawling, repetitive, genre-twisting nature rewards dozens and hundreds of listens, which will help the hangover between now and Jewel’s next batch of creativity in 2017.

18. Islands – A Sleep And A Forgetting

“In A Dream It Seemed Real” | Spotify

I don’t know the details of the breakup that inspired Nick Thorburn to commission that void of an album cover and write the bleakest album of his career, but I feel like I now know Nick Thorburn the person more than ever before. A Sleep And A Forgetting is Thorburn’s most personal record, one that delves deep into a shattered romance and confesses everything with nearly overwhelming amounts of shame and grief. While the understated chamber-pop that informs much of the record dials back Islands’ more manic characteristics considerably, it remains an intensely cathartic record for anybody whose been on the wrong side of a sour relationship, mainly because of Thorburn’s seemingly limitless capacity for self-flagellation. A Sleep And A Forgetting ends not with hope but with a dirge (“Same Thing”), devoid of anything but an exhausted, worn out expression of nihilism.

17. Grimes – Visions

“Genesis” | Spotify

I don’t really consider myself qualified to discuss all the influences that Visions chews up and digests and Claire Boucher as an artist even less so. Frankly, the term “post-Internet” makes me want to blow my brains out, while her story of sailing down the Mississippi on a rickety, soon-to-fail houseboat with a bounty of chickens and potatoes is so bluntly DIY as to be unbearably contrived. Yet Visions is so delightfully weird without going too far off the rails that it’s hard for me to ignore the strong pop fundamentals underlining all the outsider art clichés. It’s a fascinating combination of skittish loops, industrial beats and Martian synths married to vocals almost as alien in their articulations, an effective synthesis of the past and possible future.

16. A Fine Frenzy – Pines

“Now Is The Start” | Spotify

A bizarre concept album about a tree that has been given the “gift” of free will and accompanied by a e-book and a short animated film, Pines is Alison Sudol’s third album as A Fine Frenzy and a seismic stylistic shift from 2009’s Bomb in a Birdcage. Sudol has always had a gift for composition, and in Pines’ hour-plus run time her craftsmanship achieves hypnotic heights, turning a dangerously silly tale into a mystical set piece of mountains and lakes, rivers and maps that winds its way slowly and delicately onward, painting forests and seasons and something more elemental until exploding into woozy bubblegum pop on the sinfully catchy “Now Is The Start.” It’s hard to describe an album as rambling and ambitious as Pines with any one tag, although rustic folk is a good place to start, and Joanna Newsom and Lisa Hannigan are convenient touchstones. Pines, however, is an enigma that stands securely on its own.

15. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

“Cry for Judas” | Spotify

At 45, Darnielle still trudges along with his motley crew of junkies, disorders and blips in history, painting his 3-minute picture books of agoraphobics and dead R&B singers with the more expanded studio brushes he has become accustomed to filling in the edges with. While the birth of his first child may have heralded a change in demeanor, aside from the brazen optimism of opener “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator I,” this is still the same Darnielle you’ve always known, the one who can make desperately waiting for your dealer a warm and inviting proposition on “Lakeside View Apartments Suite.” “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” Darnielle sings on “Harlem Roulette,” and it’s that struggle to live, for things to have meaning, that remains the central theme of the Mountain Goats and Transcendental Youth. Just, you know, with more horns.

14. Woods – Bend Beyond

“Cali in a Cup” | Spotify

Formerly tinkerers of a lo-fi sound that traversed a number of decades, Brooklyn group Woods’ steady one-LP-a-year output has led them to refine their sound into concise, accurate blasts of gravelly Americana and instrumental jam sessions that call to mind more experimental bands such as Neu! It’s easy to take a band for granted when they produce at the pace Woods has, but the focused songwriting and sharp production of Bend Beyond is another piece of evidence in the argument that the group hardly needs to change in order to grow.

13. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now

“1904″ | Spotify

Give Kristian Matsson a guitar and some tape and chances are the result will lead to someone invoking the D-word, but that’s more a testament to Matsson’s incredible consistency and that abrasive, airy voice, an acquired taste but one impossible to shake. I love Matsson for his ability to write lyrics that I can relate to even when I have little to no idea what they are about—a lyric like “and when the night is young but the bridge is up / something passing by I was sure / and the only one you can tell it to / well it’s the only one that ever knows” from “1904” is hard to translate but nevertheless hits so hard, maybe because of that forlorn guitar lick, maybe because when Matsson sings it makes me feel something, nostalgia, without ever knowing why. It’s a gift.

12. How To Dress Well – Total Loss

“& It Was You” | Spotify

If Islands’ latest is a straightforward breakup record for sitting at home and staring at old photographs, Total Loss is its drunken, Ecstasy-popping cousin, shambling home from a dim club night after rain-soaked night to lose itself in someone’s anonymous bed. Tom Krell coats his loss in thick, fuzzy electronic textures and a soulful falsetto, a narcotized, dreamy landscape where it’s hard to tell where resolution is supposed to come from. What makes this a superior record to 2010’s Love Remains is it no longer loses itself in the samples and sound collages and disorienting fog, but instead makes it easy to follow Krell on a heavy yet enjoyable journey from the fevered dreams of “Cold Nites” to the almost content “Ocean Floor For Everything.”

11. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs

“Catatonic” | Spotify

Lighting a match to all the unnecessary, indulgent refuse that burdened most of their post-Source Tags & Codes follow-ups, Trail of Dead finally began to move on from that Sisyphean weight of an album with Lost Songs. It’s brash and loud and wonderfully anthemic and goes over five minutes only once—in short, a minor miracle for a band that considered five-part suites just another way to close an album once upon a time. Without getting bogged down in their own ideas, Trail of Dead has reignited the raw passion that distinguished them in the first place.

10. John Talabot - fIN

“Destiny ft. Pional” | Beatport

I’ve never been to Ibiza, or anywhere on the western Mediterranean seaboard for that matter, but when I do go I imagine (and hope) that this is the kind of record that will be soundtracking what should be the most epic summer dance party. fIN has perfected the art of the buildup, creating a yacht’s worth of sensual, slow-burning tension and then gradually releasing it in the most exhilarating ways—the mesmerizing break in “Destiny,” the horror undertones in “Oro Y Sangre” unloading with a glammed-out scream, the deep house high that closes out the album on “So Will Be Now.” I didn’t know I wanted fIN until it was here, but now that I do it’s impossible to forget.

09. John K. Samson – Provincial

“Longitudinal Centre” | Spotify

I don’t know much about Manitoba or really anything about Canada aside from the fact that it’s really cold and the maple syrup there is pretty ace, but I know about hometowns and the people in them and the loneliness and the quiet despair that comes with wondering if you’re ever getting out. Samson has mellowed somewhat since his days in Propagandhi, but the rather gentle folk tunes here only serve to highlight Samson, who is as strong and relatable and in love with his town as ever, every broken, dark, crumpled corner of it.

08. Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs

“Golden Eyelids” | Spotify

An album about the life and suicide of Lost in the Trees’ leader Ari Picker’s mother is about as grim as it sounds, but it’s Picker’s maestro-like command of the proceedings that gives A Church That Fits Our Needs’ its epic, sweeping span. Picker’s classical chops are evident, masterfully arranging a full complement of orchestral instruments and a strong command of meter and melody to relate an overwhelming story of grief. “My song can try / but there are things that songs can’t say,” Picker’s full, measured tenor explains, yet A Church That Fits Our Needs is not only a fitting memorial for Picker’s mother but signals the proper arrival of a blossoming baroque pop artist.

07. Wild Nothing – Nocturne

“Only Heather” | Spotify

This is a dazzling record, one imbued with a careful sense of craftsmanship that distinguishes it from 2010’s occasionally more off-kilter Gemini, yet maintains that record’s starry-eyed wonder and teenage love navel-gazing. Jack Tatum is one of the best songwriters of his generation, putting the emotional connection before the exquisitely detailed production, the shimmering guitar tones and the ambient swoons that color in all the shadowy parts. A song like “Only Heather” sounds downright perfect in an aesthetic sense, sure, but that only accentuates the heart of the song, the juvenile love that makes this music such a blissed-out escape—it could be for you, for anyone, and Tatum is more than happy to facilitate that—and that is what properly earns it its dream-pop moniker.

06. Passion Pit – Gossamer

“Constant Conversations” | Spotify

There’s no album I listened to more this summer, and that’s partly because Gossamer is the neon-colored summer album to end all summer albums and also because it was far too easy to connect to Michael Angelakos’ anxious lyrics and the sense of frantic, rushing panic that lies uncomfortably around every major-key sunburst. “Constant Conversations” is all that you could ask for from pop music—honest, heartfelt, and not afraid to explore the boundaries of a band’s sound. Gossamer does much the same thing for all twelve of its impossibly peppy, slightly deranged songs.

05. Tame Impala – Lonerism

“Feels Like We Only Go Backward” | Spotify

Lonerism is an album’s album—the kind of record meant to be played from beginning to end, one long journey where the songs and emotions bleed into each other and it’s difficult to tell just where you end up, but damn is the trip worth it. What Kevin Parker has done takes all the choicest bits of psychedelia, metallic grooves and Britpop and infuses it with the remoteness of his native Perth, creating a massive collage that is impossible to place in any one time period, isolated from its contemporaries and incredibly easy to get lost in. As daunting as Lonerism seems on paper—a veritable army of effects and tracks that would turn the ghost of John Lennon green with envy—what Parker and producer Dave Fridmann (of the Flaming Lips) have accomplished is an expansive, kaleidoscopic album that is not all inspired when broken down into its component parts, but unpredictable and exquisite when combined under Parker’s unique vision. Lonerism has the very tough task of taking the sounds and clichés of decades past and making it sound inventive and exciting. That Parker not only succeeded but also created a classic to stand alongside those same influences is only the most impressive of Lonerism’s many accomplishments.

04. Menomena – Moms

“Plumage” | Spotify

Breakups are hard, but you wouldn’t know it from Menomena, who followed up a split with founding member Brent Knopf and another in a long line of critically acclaimed albums with Moms, which just might happen to be their best yet. Little of Knopf’s (amicable) split surfaces on Moms—instead, the breakups involve those of family, more specifically both Danny Seim and Justin Harris dealing with the loss of a parent and the emotional baggage that comes with it. It’s pretty heavy, heady stuff, examined under a searing lamp that renders everything in unflinching detail, from the ugly (“Pique”) to the reluctant (“Capsule”) to the implacably hostile (“Heavy Is As Heavy Does”). It’s a purging of old stories and older feelings that fit nicely in with some of the most aggressive music of Menomena’s careers, like the sweltering solo that roars in right after Harris finishes off a particularly virulent, self-loathing sermon on “Pique.” The production fits the lyrics, loud and clear and almost desperately urgent. It leads to some of their catchiest melodies, not so much thrown together as in records past but deliberately and forcefully constructed, even when, as on “Plumage,” the band seems to exhaust all of their energies, leaving them weary and resigned and petering out in amplifier feedback. By turning inward, Menomena have released an emotionally cathartic, venomous album that hits as hard as a punch to the gut and leaves its wounds open for all to see (and, perversely enough, to dance along to). It is also the most deeply satisfying record of their career.

03. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

“Give It Away” | Spotify

Maybe it’s just a function of Andrew Bird’s rather “lit’ry” approach to songwriting, all gentle plucks and crafty wordplay, but Break It Yourself begs to be described in superlative adjectives like “mellifluous” or “meticulous” or “contemplative,” although I’m partial to just “fucking beautiful.” On paper, Break It Yourself seems to check off all the boxes rather perfunctorily: it is along, twisty and rock-strewn dirt road into the heart of staticky AM folk and dusty alt-country that Bird has been steadfastly traveling for quite a while; it is an album impeccably designed and prudently arranged; it still revels in the effortless use of words commonly found in textbooks and the clever syllabic arrangements that remains Bird’s signature. Yet Bird has never written an album this emotionally direct yet still frayed around the edges, sepia postcards warped by time and the long, crushing weight of emotions experienced and discarded, one on top of the other. “We’ll dance like cancer survivors / like we’re grateful simply to be alive” needs no adorning, no phonetic wizardry from an artist who has finally connected the emotional underpinnings of his music with the nostalgia and vaguely melancholic miasma that his vast palette of looping strings, fiddles and that wistful whistle naturally conjure. Although the pop structures that inform his core aesthetic are well in evidence here, Bird is much more interested in building something up just to break it down. Melodies drift along string motifs that wind around as an ethereal counterpoint to Bird himself, who seems more grateful for the lovesick memories that haunt him then regretful, more pleased with the chances he’s received than the ones he’s squandered. The best songs here—the slow, bubbling “Lazy Projector,” the time-worn pastels of “Sifters,” the eight-minute-long crackle of “Hole in the Ocean Floor”—take their time, and when they arrive, as with “Lazy Projector’s” oddly triumphant climax or “Hole in the Ocean Floor’s” near-religious vocals and eventual disintegration, it’s a sad remembrance but also an infinitely hopeful one. An album like Break It Yourself never fails to remind you, for all the weight and heartbreak, life is still a pretty wonderful thing.

02. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

“Werewolf” | Spotify

This album doesn’t know when to quit, and I love it for it—indeed, I never want it to quit anyways. It’s debilitating, taxing, draining, any sort of word you want to use to describe the kind of bloodletting and incisive surgery that Fiona Apple deftly accomplishes, with Charley Drayton standing off to her side, handing her the scalpels. It’s also empathic to an almost extreme degree, telling you things you may not have heard before and perhaps don’t want to hear but too bad because here it is for everyone to consider, possibly with the occasional vocal jag that reminds you that Apple’s emotional walls are already long destroyed, so who are you to hide yourself? Everything is fair game on The Idler Wheel…, and what’s left is an album that speaks to the human condition directly and unequivocally, more than any other in her career.

01. The Walkmen – Heaven

“Heaven” | Spotify

It’s fitting that of all the “The” bands that stormed out of New York City in the early millennium, bands that lived fast and died young (or slid into irrelevancy), the Walkmen have ascended the slowest and the surest. Heaven is the high point of a career that seemed destined to fail years ago in a wonderful haze of Jameson or cigarette smoke, whichever burnt out Hamilton Leithauser’s seemingly ageless voice first. Bows + Arrows was all youthful piss and vinegar, the Walkmen taking their deserved chomp out of all the teenage drama TV marketing dollars that cannibalized the NYC scene, but beginning with 2008’s You & Me, the Walkmen found something more substantial and lasting in their sound. Less a flammable statement and more a smoldering collection of resonant tunes, that record and 2010’s near-perfect Lisbon marked a graceful maturation that has reached its peak with Heaven. Growing old has proved an unexpected golden age for the group, a transformation carefully considered and precisely handled (never better than in the video above): in Paul Maroon���s glowing guitar and that steady rhythm section; in the warm and confident tone maintained by Leithauser, whose gradual mellowing out over the years has only enhanced the timbres and depth of his voice; in the heartfelt, straightforward lyrics that the band finds in everyday life, still pockmarked with cynicism but realizing the comfort of settling down and the joy in families. With Heaven, the Walkmen truly can’t be beat.

“Our children will always hear

Romantic tales of distant years

Our gilded age may come and go

Our crooked dreams will always glow.”

Best of 2011

By , December 28, 2011 10:00 am

25. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

Spotify || YouTube

Trevor Powers’ music makes me feel a lot of things I just can’t put my finger on. When I first heard it, the walls of reverb and slow burning melodies seemed tailor-made to lull me to sleep. Like the best dream-pop records, though, it kept bringing me back, searching for the power in these seemingly nonchalant, mumbled lyrics and those chords that surge upwards, eternally hopeful. It’s more of a feeling than anything I can write down, though, the kind of satisfaction you get from waking up from a really good dream that you just can’t remember the details of. Dream music, that sounds about right.

24. White Denim – D

Spotify || YouTube

If this is what jam bands do nowadays, I need to start growing my mustache out and cultivate a stash of patchouli, because this is the kind of 21st-century music that you air-guitar along to. I don’t know what front man James Petralli is mumbling on about half the time, but that’s hardly the point – when they’re infusing psychedelic rock with prog and jazz and a healthy dose of innovative looping techniques, you’ll be plenty focused on just trying to keep up.

23. Bibio – Mind Bokeh

Spotify || YouTube

A “bokeh” is literally the photographic image of a blur, or any out-of-focus area on an image. For much of Mind Bokeh, Stephen Wilkinson refuses to clarify things. It’s typical of Wilkinson’s career that he can never really seem to stay in one place, yet Mind Bokeh never suffers from a lack of focus. It’s loose and relaxed in an after party sort of way, content to drift along in a haze of summer sounds and washed out sonic photographs that coalesce wonderfully into closer “Saint Christopher.” It’s the track that most symbolizes the aesthetic of the record, continually diverging loops and cracked samples weaving back and forth, seemingly disparate, until Wilkinson ties it all together near the end. Yes, he really does know what he’s doing.

22. Feist – Metals

Spotify || YouTube

Oftentimes when artists feel commercial success is threatening their artistic credibility, they may record a follow-up that often has the simultaneous goal of “getting back to my roots” and “alienating all the posers who liked me because of that iPod commercial.” I’m not entirely convinced that this wasn’t Leslie Feist’s whole goal with Metals, an album that has a bleak, unwelcoming landscape as its cover and no candidates to conveniently slide in next to “1234” at the Starbucks rack. Yet by refusing to kowtow to the single-oriented modern market and soaking all of Metals in a morose sheen of understated production, Feist has turned the spotlight back on what always made her a great artist to begin with: her songwriting.

21. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

Spotify || YouTube

I may be one of the few people who hasn’t correlated Conor Oberst’s continued growth in the studio with his decline as a songwriter. Just because he prefers an array of electric guitars and an army of multi-tracked studio tricks at his back to an acoustic guitar has never lessened the impact of his words for me, and the hooks –  “Shell Games” might be the best single he’s ever penned. “Ladder Song,” meanwhile, quickly dispelled any fear I might have had of Oberst losing his intimacy.

20. The Kills – Blood Pressures

Spotify || YouTube

The Kills put on one of the most distinctive performances I’d seen all year at Coachella this past April. Stark black-and-white stage lighting, and then Jamie Hince strolls onstage strumming that wicked, chugging riff to “No Wow,” and then Alison Mosshart’s voice, practically dripping with sex, enters stage left. The drums kick in, that riff turns threatening, and Mosshart’s voice leaps out across yards of grass with shit-kicking authority. These two make a hell of a lot of noise, and there’s no subtlety here – “you can fuck like a broken sail,” Mosshart sings with an edge, and that’s all you really need to know about the Kills. It’s primal, red-blooded rock ‘n roll, and it makes you want to sleep with Mosshart except for the fact that now you’re afraid she’s going to rip something necessary off of you.

19. Cults – Cults

Spotify || YouTube

I’m a sucker for twee, and this checks all the boxes off nicely: summer love lyrics, boy-girl harmonies, hooks that don’t quit and don’t overextend their welcome, either. Cults is short and to the point – when I saw the band live, they closed by saying: “This is our last song. We don’t do that encore bullshit. Good night.” It’s debatable whether this occurred due to a genuine dislike of encores or a dearth of material, but regardless it won me over. Encores suck; two-minute pop songs rule.

18. Beirut – The Rip Tide

Spotify || YouTube

The best word I can come up with to describe The Rip Tide is “stately,” which is odd because I’ve always thought as Beirut as sort of a spontaneous project. Yet “A Candle’s Fire” sets out The Rip Tide’s style quite well – horns and martial drums surrounding Zach Condon’s deliberate vocals, with a clear progression and narrative arc. The Rip Tide may be Beirut’s most structured record, but that’s all to its benefit. Giving himself only nine songs to work was a calculated move on Condon’s part, and it works because all nine are tight, focused and arguably the most relatable of any in his career. This is a record that doesn’t need a fancy backstory or foreign tones – just Condon and his ability to weave an interesting tale.

17. The Horrors – Skying

Spotify || YouTube

Ditching the monochromatic cover of Primary Colours for the hazy water landscape on the front of Skying was the best thing the Horrors ever did. I was never a huge fan of their Bauhaus image and My-Bloody-Valentine-meets-Ian-Curtis shtick, but Skying takes all that and adds in a healthy dose of watercolors. The guitar tone on this album is something Kevin Shields would be proud of, but it’s their focus on thick, drug-friendly grooves and a heavy dose of trippy atmospherics that make this a new shoegaze classic.

16. Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital

Spotify || YouTube

Music for the Soviet factory worker in all of us. Dan Boeckner has made some stellar music in Wolf Parade, but Sound Kapital is his most fully realized statement, and the fact that he does it not with his trademark guitar wizardry but with vintage keyboards makes it all the more surprising. The entire record reeks of an Eastern European industrial club scene and the heavy, analog atmosphere of the Communist bloc weighs down on every populist lyric and old school synth tone. It’s a rewarding turn for the punk-minded Boeckner and one that lessens the blow of Wolf Parade’s indefinite hiatus ever so slightly.

15. Mister Heavenly – Out of Love

Spotify || YouTube

Making up a genre and having Michael Cera go on tour with you as a bassist is a surefire way to get people to dismiss your new band, yet I was shocked to find that Mister Heavenly wasn’t just another Nick Thorburn vanity project. Out of Love succeeds because it’s not just Thorburn (who will have released three albums in a year once Islands’ new record drops) and some schmoes. It’s Ryan Kattner’s (Man Man) hoarse howl contrasting perfectly with Thorburn’s nasal whine on back-and-forth exchanges like “I Am A Hologram.” It’s Joe Plummer’s (Modest Mouse, the Shins) rock-solid rhythm work charging out of the gate like a pissed off Spoon on “Bronx Sniper.” Thorburn’s surf riffs and Kattner’s barroom piano chords call to mind music of a different era, but it’s decidedly ambiguous: when Thorburn wails, “so, you think I could ever hurt you, how? / Now, I’m gonna hold you close” on “Harm You,” it’s more Ted Bundy than Brill Building happiness. But the best part about Out of Love is that we might have the makings of an actual band on our hands than a one-off Pitchfork article.

14. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Spotify || YouTube

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Christopher Owens, a genuinely fucked up individual by all accounts, writes some truly terrific pop music. People who dismiss Father, Son, Holy Ghost as a mere pastiche are doing themselves a disservice – Owens is the best young pop classicist in the business right now. What really sets him apart from his peers, though, is his totally guileless enthusiasm. He’s the type of front man who can give out a little yelp as the guitar buzzes back in on “Honey Bunny” and make it sound totally authentic, totally right. Which, incidentally, is how the rest of the record sounds. Combine that sincerity with the kind of ambitious song structures Owens has flawlessly constructed here, and maybe those Brian Wilson comparisons aren’t so far off now.

13. Eisley – The Valley

Spotify || YouTube

Eisley’s third album paints in broad, brash strokes, leaving subtlety weeping somewhere in a Christian coffee house. If the album title didn’t tip you off, stormy first single “Smarter” certainly will. Look at these song titles, ranging from the vindictive to the obvious – “Watch It Die,” “Better Love,” “Ambulance,” “Sad.” So things are a bit dark for the DuPree family, but as it so often works out for artists in the doldrums, it’s we the audience who wins. Eminently accessible and ripe with a melodic confidence that can only come with experience, The Valley tackles real world angst with a hook-centric precision and a weariness that Eisley never could have pulled off on their cutesy earlier work.

12. Swarms – Old Raves End

Spotify || YouTube

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and listen to dubstep that didn’t predicate itself on the filthiest womps. I like that title – those mixed feelings in the hours after a rave, still buzzed and hopelessly content but also on edge after hours of partying, the mind skittering around nervously, and Old Raves End is just the kind of music to ease one after such a night. It’s after party music for those that don’t want the party to end, and in its minimal, bass-heavy tones and slithery electronic gurgling it showed me a new world of dubstep I had previously dismissed. I haven’t properly raved in a while, but Old Raves End still has a place in my heart, that consolation when I get to the end of my rope and just need something to immerse myself in. And unlike those old raves, which became increasingly more repetitive and fake, Swarms only continued to get better, every single time.

11. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

Spotify || YouTube

I think Manchester Orchestra made a mistake when they made “Simple Math” the first single. It was too big, too epic, and most importantly, too damn good to overcome. I still slot it behind “I Can Feel A Hot One” as their best, but making “Simple Math” the first taste of Simple Math could only cause the rest of the record to pale in comparison. Releasing “Virgin,” a song that, frankly, tried too hard, as the third single only made the disparity more glaring. Yet Simple Math is still the band’s most focused collection, tightening the screws on their fine tuned mastery of pop hooks and featuring a more fearless, adroit songwriter and vocalist in Andy Hull. He might occasionally get carried away with the group’s growing faculty in the recording studio, but it’s that kind of bold attitude that makes Manchester Orchestra one of the more exciting acts in recent years, not to mention one that would be a welcome boon to dusty rock radio.

10. Givers – In Light

Spotify || YouTube

It’s rare for a band to sound so fully formed on their debut as Givers do on In Light. Keyboards, flutes, saxophones, even ukuleles abound in an indie pop stew defined by the dueling vocals of Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson. It would be disingenuous to call this world music – Givers is firmly rooted in the pop tradition of contemporaries Vampire Weekend and Local Natives, with the saccharine boy-girl motif of Mates of State thrown in for good measure. But like those bands, there’s a liberal dose of world music sprinkled in; members of the band were active members in Louisiana’s Cajun and zydeco music communities, and listening to In Light is like playing a very entertaining game of Where’s Waldo, Genre Edition. There’s the afro-pop beat on “Meantime” and the island vibe of “Ceiling of Plankton” amidst many other creative pastiches, yet the band still maintain their own identity throughout it all, largely thanks to Lamson’s velvety croon and Guarisco’s more easily agitated yelp. Even if Givers fails to live up to the promise inherent here, I will be perfectly content with just listening to In Light over and over again.

9. The Dear Hunter – The Color Spectrum

Spotify || YouTube

The Color Spectrum is such a ridiculously outsized (and probably unnecessary) achievement, that it’s difficult to analyze it as an album or anything that cohesive, although the gimmick of matching up colors with styles should be applauded, even if some of them don’t always work out. I was never really partial to Black, and Red comes off as a Manchester Orchestra imitation EP, but when Casey Crescenzo really branches out it’s eye opening. The sequence from Yellow to Green to Blue and finally to Indigo, that rollercoaster through indie pop and alt country and folk and the wide open spaces of Blue and Indigo, is an actual aural adventure. I love how Violet sounds like old Dear Hunter except, inexplicably, ten times better, and how White effortlessly summarizes everything with a theatrical flourish. The biggest accomplishment, though, is the final result itself – for a project that seemed doomed to collapse under the weight of its own ambition, that The Color Spectrum is a viable album of the year candidate is nothing short of astonishing.

8. Destroyer – Kaputt

Spotify || YouTube

At a New Pornographers show last year I distinctly remember being taken aback my Dan Bejar. Dude just did not give a fuck. He read his lyrics from a torn notebook page, played with his back to the audience, and generally mumbled about like a drunkard. At one point he laid on his back facing the back of the stage while singing “If You Can’t See My Mirrors.” It’s always been that kind of attitude that’s attracted me to Bejar’s songs – often nonsensical, always interesting – and Kaputt is no different. “Just set the loop and go wild,” Bejar intones at the end of “Savage Night at the Opera,” and that’s what Kaputt is, really. The loop, of course, being a strangely sensuous, definitely deviant version of ‘80s pop and acid jazz with a healthy dose of Kenny G saxophone and a strong undertone of lonely, meaningless sex. The music, for all its flourishes, combines to create a strikingly meditative atmosphere, and that allows one to focus on the feelings Kaputt engenders upon repeated listens, feelings of marginalization and defeat that are as good a touchstone for Bejar and his faithful listeners in the 21st century as any. “New York City just wants to see you naked / and they will,” Bejar sings, and this is his message in a bottle, a warm and welcoming array of vintage sounds hiding a very bitter and desperate soul on the inside.

7. The Jezabels – Prisoner

Spotify || YouTube

The Jezabels came to me out of nowhere, fully formed and ripping my speakers a new one with the gothic organs of “Prisoner” and the resulting cascade of drums. I had never heard their previous EPs and only knew them as “that Australian band with a chick singer,” a description that, while apt, was not particularly informative. It’s so easy to tag on a lazy analogy with the help of the Internet nowadays – “the Jezabels’ adventurous song structures and innovative drumming call to mind the similarly hyped Parades,” or “vocalist Hayley Mary’s powerful pipes and dramatic style resemble a Florence Welch or a Kate Bush with a more tenebrous tone.” Really, though, Prisoner creates its own vibrant universe distinct from genre tags and simple comparisons, and the one-two combo of the dark title track and the more buoyant “Endless Summer” pushes you in and leaves you there enraptured. The Jezabels are an Epic Rock Band, one content to explore melodies for well over five minutes on a regular basis, an attitude consistent with their defiantly DIY ethos. For a self-released record, Prisoner sounds practically flawless, all cavernous reverb, stadium ready drums, fuzzy guitar lines and, of course, Hayley Mary, who oscillates between a pissed-off Tori Amos to a more versatile Dolores O’Riordan and everything in between with the ease of a veteran. There are no gimmicks here, and Prisoner stands on its own as a complete, full-bodied album, a welcome surprise in an era where so many bands can get by on the strength of one unusually brilliant song. Prisoner is not a singular event – this kind of dynamic, consistent effort speaks to meticulous preparation and a painstaking diligence that will get this band far. “Watch it grow,” Mary sings at the close of the album, and damn, that’s going to be such a pleasure in the years to come.

6. The Antlers – Burst Apart

Spotify || YouTube

At this point, everyone knows the story behind Antlers, who finally made it (indie) big in 2009 on the strength of a crushingly intimate record about an emotionally destructive relationship. It’s a narrative that has colored everything they’ve done since then, and nothing has been overshadowed by it more than Burst Apart. Peter Silberman stated in an interview, “you can put [Burst Apart] on and not feel like it had to be a severe emotional experience.” For many, this directly defeated everything that appealed to them about the Antlers. Those people missed out on one of the great records of 2011, a record that finally showcases the talents of the band the Antlers and not just the lyrical prowess (still quite strong, I might add) of Peter Silberman fronting some other guys playing instruments. Where it was Silberman’s wispy falsetto that carried all the emotional weight on Hospice, here it’s the group, exploring a variety of textures and celebrating singledom with major-key chords on opener “I Don’t Want Love.” Maybe Silberman needed to get all of that poison out of him on Hospice to make the best record of his career, because make no mistake – Burst Apart is that record, and a strong harbinger of what’s to come if the Antlers can keep evolving like this.

5. The Dodos – No Color

Spotify || YouTube

No Color is so obviously a reaction to the tepid response to Time To Die that it’s easy to dismiss this record as simply the Dodos remaking Visiter and hoping nobody notices. They got rid of that extraneous third member and the superstar producer and got back to the basics, namely Meric Long’s slithery folk and Logan Kroeber’s walloping drums. But this isn’t Visiter, Redux. The songwriting is noticeably tighter, the pop lessons they learned from Phil Ek having been comfortably merged with the pair’s inherently messy folk style resulting in the most fluid songwriting of the band’s career. When there’s a flourish, like Neko Case’s guest spot on album centerpiece “Don’t Try and Hide It,” it’s seamless and natural, not calling attention to itself but instead highlighting the muscular melody at the heart of the song. Whereas Visiter seemed more like a scattershot compilation, No Color works as a coherent album, one where it would be impossible to sever any one song from another without helplessly ruining the entire concept. It’s difficult for a band to extricate itself from a style as distinct and successful as the one they trademarked on Visiter, and the Dodos don’t even try – instead, they merely set about to perfect their craft.

4. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

Spotify || YouTube

“I’ve been ramblin’, I’m just driftin’,” Adam Granduciel sings on “Come To The City,” and that’s just what Slave Ambient invites us to do – sink in and drift along. That cover is more telling than I initially thought, an ECG of color against a cloudy background, a nice little visual of just how the War on Drugs see themselves, an image hazy through all the feedback. 2010’s Future Weather EP was okay, but meandered rather than surged forward, lost in Adam Granduciel’s smoky tenor and half-baked songs. Slave Ambient has no such qualms. “Best Night” roars out of the gate drenched in waves of reverb and the classiest of classic rock riffs, Granduciel doing his best Bob Dylan (surprise! He sounds like Bob Dylan) impression, and from there it’s an unvarnished look back through rock’s heyday as seen through a psychedelic soup. Old tracks like “Brothers” have had a fresh coat of treble fuzz applied and sound better than ever, while new ones like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” rip through the foggy production with Tom Petty-sized riffs and a rock tradition indebted to the American heartland. The guitars here don’t so much punch and kick as they do claw and scratch through the finely crafted layers of noise that drift from track to track. The overriding sensation is of being carried along, with the occasional signpost (Springsteen and Spiritualized come to mind), but mostly just you and the Ginsburg-esque mumblings of Granduciel escorting you through an abstract, stoned treatise of Americana. It’s wonderful to let go.

3. Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

Spotify || YouTube

The underrated part of Florence Welch’s success is not her set of pipes or her carefully crafted romantic image but rather her unique take on the pop arrangement. “What The Water Gave Me” is unlike any other pop song on the radio today, and frankly I doubt any other artist could pull it off. It’s the perfect mix between the progressive and the mainstream that characterizes the best of Welch’s work, that delicate interplay between oppressive goth and stadium-ready popular vocals, all coalescing into the quintessential Florence and the Machine song. It’s weird yet strangely accessible, name checking Greek mythology and playing up some heavy imagery into a pop single that appeals to the same people who buy Adele tickets and get in line for the latest Twilight movie. In essence, it’s the perfect example of just what makes Florence and the Machine such a unique success. It was so easy to dismiss Lungs as a one-off phenomenon, the perfect storm of that one-of-a-kind voice and that retro Kate Bush/prog feel, all buffeted by the mainstream press generated from “Dog Days Are Over.” Ceremonials, with its thrilling sense of continuity and the remarkable growth of Ms. Welch as a songwriter, forces us to change our perceptions: Florence Welch is the phenomenon, and we should all settle in for the long haul.

2. Wilco – The Whole Love

Spotify || YouTube

Finally, the definitive proof that Jeff Tweedy has just been fucking with us for the past several years. There seemed to be a malaise on post-A Ghost is Born material, one where Nels Cline seemed awkwardly out of place and Tweedy preferred to record easy listening duets with Feist than write anything of substance. That’s thankfully not the case here. Cline feels more a part of the band than ever before, and it’s hard to imagine a song like “Art of Almost” being quite so good without the ragged noise freakout he slices in at the outro. This is a band that isn’t afraid to travel the stylistic map, something that has been largely absent since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it’s part of what makes this a genuine Wilco album and not a dad-rock imitation that has been the band’s ball and chain the past few years. A trippy Beatles-esque ballad coexists nicely with a full-fledged rocker like “Dawned On Me,” which slides in right before the dusty, vaguely threatening folk of “Black Moon.” Wilco haven’t felt this alive in years – even an ostensible throwaway like the vaudevillian “Capitol City” has a heart and soul to it that’s been absent from a Wilco record in recent years. All this isn’t even mentioning a song that would have made this the best Wilco album in years if every other track had been utter tripe. “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is the kind of song that most Americana bands will never write over the course of their entire careers – by my count, this is the fourth or fifth masterpiece Wilco have penned, and it might be the best when all is said and done. With just “One Sunday Morning,” Wilco would have had a firm place back in my heart. With The Whole Love, they’ve recaptured their spot at the top of the American rock heap.

1. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Spotify || YouTube

I think I will look back at 2011 and its defining sound will be that instantly recognizable opening synth riff to “Midnight City.” The way it keeps declaring in bright neon lights that the ‘80s never left, they just percolated in the mind of one Anthony Gonzalez before he unleashed a whole storm of nostalgia and good vibes on us. “Waiting in the car / waiting for the right time,” Gonzalez wails, and obviously that right time is when that sexy saxophone solo lets itself go, without mercy and without any sense of proper decorum. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has never heard of the word irony – this is Gonzalez’s love letter to the music of his youth, and its sincerity and colossal scope are something to be admired. Gonzalez isn’t interested in creating or following a scene, or catering his music to the tastemakers – he’s interested in appealing to your most basic emotions, and not just talking about it – shouting them from the tallest buildings, preferably with a choir of angels and a billion sonic rainbows. Like Dan Bejar this year, he uses the oft-disparaged palette of the ‘80s to do so. Unlike Bejar, who makes me feel like I’ve done too much cocaine in a Miami strip club, Gonzalez is all wide-eyed optimism and spotless nostalgia, the world seen through the eyes of the Breakfast Club. Could any other artist write a song like “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” and sound so damn earnest about it, like he honestly believes that the power of love and an army of sparkling synths will create “the biggest group of friends the world has ever seen / jumping and laughing forever?” That’s why he has a child saying it, of course – even Gonzalez knows that’s pure wishful thinking in 2011. But that’s why I love Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming so much – Gonzalez has made a record where that ideal is a possibility, if only for twenty-two cinematic, immersive tracks. Gonzalez might be a dreamer, but he’s made one out of all of us.

Best of 2010

By , December 30, 2010 8:00 am

Happy holidays everyone. Below are my Top 20 of 2010, chosen using a complex statistical formula and thousands of man-hours. Anyone who wants to party with the Klap for New Year’s 2011 should come to the wonderful, wholesome city of Las Vegas. See you all in the new year.

20.

Simian Mobile Disco – Delicacies

+1 Records

Released: November 30

Outstanding food concept notwithstanding, Delicacies is a delicious tech-house treat, all weirded-out bleeps and ghostly bloops that are at times incredibly creepy and others strangely bouncy. I have no idea how this is going to translate live (probably with a healthy dose of psychedelics), but after last year’s weak pop outing, Simian is back on track here.

19.

Delta Spirit – History From Below

Rounder

Released: June 8

It’s always a pleasure to see a band grow, and combining that with one of my favorite genres in Americana makes History From Below one of the year’s most exciting releases. Much of the credit must go to singer Matthew Vasquez, whose growth into a true barroom singer is remarkable.

18.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You

Domino

Released: January 26

There’s always bound to be some repetition in an IDM release, and it’s what usually turns me off on the genre, but Four Tet has truly created a masterpiece with his seventh album, one that has a definite organic quality to it that adds a vibrant layer to the discordant loops and drum samples that make up his work. It’s dense and challenging at times, but it never ceases to be enjoyable.

17.

Ra Ra Riot – The Orchard

Barsuk

Released: August 24

Beating Vampire Weekend at their own game, Ra Ra Riot avoid the sophomore slump by slowing things down and bringing out the best in the band – Wes Miles’ brilliant vocals, the warm dimension the strings bring to their sound, and drummer Gabriel Duquette’s unheralded rhythm work that ties everything together.

16.

Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy

Dead Oceans

Released: May 11

In an off year for alt-country Matt Houck stepped up to the plate and delivered a straightforward home run, all muscular slide guitar and folky twang. But the best part is Houck’s melodies, which are fleshed out and given new life with the colorful compositions offered by his expanded sound.

15.

Serena Maneesh – No. 2: Abyss in B Minor

4AD Records

Released: March 23

Criminally overlooked shoegaze out of Norway, Serena Maneesh crafted some of the strangest, most endearing music of the year. This isn’t your older brother’s shoegaze; this plain rocks, with angular riffs and thudding bass lines seemingly more suited for prog than pop. But for all its oddness, it’s an album that refuses to be ignored, and I’d gladly take this over the Ambien most shoegaze bands proffer up nowadays.

14.

Spoon – Transference

Merge Records

Released: January 19

It speaks to Spoon’s consistency that I consider a #14 finish an off year for them. Transference finds the band more comfortable with their own sound than ever before, relishing in the live environment the album was created in and even letting their ties loose a little bit, meandering about on songs like “Who Makes Your Money” and “Nobody Gets Me But You.” It’s not as consistent as previous releases, but it doesn’t have to be – Spoon like where they are, and they sound damn fine with it.

13.

Free Energy – Stuck on Nothing

Astralwerks

Released: May 4

Paul Sprangers sings about girls and summer love and absolutely nothing of higher import because, frankly, that’s all he wants to sing about. It’s unfortunate that Stuck on Nothing was released in the spring, because it’s a summer record through and through. Beach cruising, salty air and salty hair, bikinis, breezy car trips, pool parties, Slurpees that always seem too damn drippy, the smell of tanning lotion, sand that will stay in my car for way too many months, days and days of doing whatever the hell you want – Free Energy have made a soundtrack for all of these things, and made it seem effortless in the bargain.

12.

Rogue Wave – Permalight

Brushfire Records

Released: March 2

Permalight came out at just the right time for me, lifting me out of the February doldrums with passionate, high-energy indie pop that seemed all too easy and potentially canned. But there was something about Permalight that made me look past its clichéd sentiments and sometimes drab choruses – this is a record that was positively sunny, one that bared all without shame or any sense of self-consciousness, and was the better for it. If I want to be happy, I listen to this.

11.

Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

Def Jam

Released: July 11

This was a banner year for big name rappers, and Big Boi was no exception – up until November The Son of Chico Dusty was the rap record of the year, and another bit of evidence to suggest that maybe Outkast wasn’t all Andre 3000’s show (where the hell has that guy been, anyway?). Southern rap has never been this enjoyable and innovative.

10.

Steel Train – Steel Train

Ingrooves

Released: June 29

Along with Free Energy, Steel Train showed me that sometimes, good rock ‘n roll can be just that; no gimmicks, no existentialist musings, no 20-minute-plus compositions swollen with strings and harps and timpani. Steel Train put their money down on ace melodies and that simple trifecta of rock: guitar, bass, drums. They only come out with some of the best songs of the year, sugary offerings that are no less potent because they revel in their hooks and sing-a-long capabilities. Not to mention a song of the year in the heartrending “Fall Asleep.”

9.

The Black Keys – Brothers

Nonesuch

Released: May 18

Speaking of good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll, The Black Keys are back to doing what they do best on Brothers. It’s hard-hitting, bluesy rock ‘n roll; bluesy like the delta, bluesy like the Sun Studio in the early ‘60s, and Brothers is nothing if not a painstakingly well made time capsule by two of the best musicians in the business. Few bands can sound like they come from another era, but the Black Keys pull it off with ease.

8.

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Def Jam

Released: November 22

I like to use Kanye West’s own Twitter to describe My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: “”This is rock and roll life my people . . . you can’t stop the truth you can’t stop the music and I have to be strong or ‘they’ win!!!;” “I can’t be everybody’s hero and villain savior and sinner Christian and anti Christ!;” “I have decided to become the best rapper of all time! I put it on my things to do in this lifetime list!” Besides an abundance of exclamation points, Kanye’s often hilarious Twitter is everything that made his newest album such a masterpiece, from his Christ complex to his feuding with the media to his undeniable artistic brilliance. Guy might be a little crazy, but weren’t all the best a bit off?

7.

Wolf Parade – Expo 86

Sub Pop

Released: June 29

Maybe Wolf Parade will never be able to recapture that spastic one-off brilliance that was their debut, but Expo 86 proves that maybe they don’t need to. It’s the band’s most cohesive collection of tracks to date, successfully ranging from Krug’s typically obtuse offerings to Boeckner’s more pop-oriented rock tunes. Most of all, it proves that Wolf Parade are still the visionary songwriters we thought we lost with At Mount Zoomer, and that’s a relief.

6.

The National – High Violet

4AD Records

Released: May 11

My road to finally realizing High Violet was right up there with Boxer and Alligator was a long one, and it took me until a long road trip six months after its release to see it for what it was: what I initially saw as boring and uninspired was actually a more mellow National, one less prone to emotional outbursts and not quite as energetic, but a wiser National, one who had a firmer grip on life’s realities and even more questions about it. It’s a fascinating listen, built around Matt Berninger’s wry observations and Bryan Devendorf’s continually amazing drumming, and a more confident record than anything the National have done to date.

5.

Noisia – Split the Atom

Indie Europe/Zoom (Import)

Released: November 30 (USA)

Noisia’s first proper LP is a shining example of everything good that can happen when a groundbreaking trio mashes all their influences together and produces something truly original. Split the Atom has it all: breaks, electro, drum n bass, funk, house, et cetera. It’s a mishmash of styles that never seems like it’s about to collapse – the Dutch group have collected everything they admire about electronica and make it their own. Noisia are not afraid to take some risks, and Split the Atom promises to be the first in a long line of relentless, heart-stopping party starters.

4.

The Walkmen – Lisbon

Fat Possum

Released: September 14

“I am a good man by any count / and I see better things to come” Hamilton Leithauser sings on opener “Juveniles,” and if there’s a better mission statement for Lisbon I haven’t found it. This is the sound of the Walkmen settling into a sweet spot, building on the rich palette of sounds they cooked up on 2008’s You & Me and imbuing it with a sense of warmth and a pleasant glow that pervades all the material here and lies in stark contrast to the band’s earlier material, which was as fiery and tense as their hometown of New York City. The National might get all the hype for being the next great American rock band, but the Walkmen would have something to say about that.

3.

The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

Dead Oceans

Released: April 13

With a voice that only a Billy Corgan could love (at least at first), Sweden’s Kristian Matsson’s sophomore record was an unlikely album of the year contender. Built almost entirely on whispery guitar licks and Matsson’s screechy vocals was a complicated web of melodies and deeply personal lyrics. The Wild Hunt is a triumph not because it polishes everything that made Shallow Grave great but because of the mood it sets. From “You’re Going Back” to “Trouble Will Be Gone” to, most noticeably, “King of Spain,” The Wild Hunt is an unbridled expression of joy, made all the more powerful by its sparse instrumentation and Matsson’s cheerfully abrasive vocals.

2.

Jonsi – Go

XL Recordings

Released: April 6

What I love about Go is it’s like Jonsi took all those nine-minute-plus Hopelandic epics and compressed them into the perfect four-minute pop song. Like Jonsi himself, everything about Go screams outsized; from Nico Muhly’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production to the hooks, which scream rainbows and unicorns and sweet, sweet honey. But it’s Jonsi and his angelic voice that really holds everything together, connecting on an almost primal level as its own instrument of unadulterated happiness. Go is a transparent record in its gaiety, with no hidden meanings or any subtext beyond a celebration of life. That’s what makes it great.

1.

Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

4AD Records

Released: September 28

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Halcyon Digest was just how warm everything sounded. Whereas Bradford Cox and company’s earlier work tended to be unwieldy messes of noise thrown loosely under the shoegaze label, Halcyon Digest continued what 2008’s Microcastle begun: transforming Deerhunter into a full-fledged rock band, feet firmly planted in pop territory and beckoning us to just relax and enjoy. When I first heard “Revival” I was astonished at just how straightforward everything was, how easy it was to connect to a band I previously had regarded as somewhat cold. But things aren’t just direct; there’s a depth to these songs that, coming from Cox, is not much of a surprise, but makes Halcyon Digest something more than just a really good rock album.

Songs like the self-destructing “Desire Lines” and the gorgeous dream of “Helicopter” seem like the new classic rock, all substance and style without a tipping of the scales one way or the other. “Coronado” is the best Strokes song since Is This It. “He Would Have Laughed” might be the most tragic song of the year, but it’s spindly buildup and cathartic ending seem positively joyful. Halcyon Digest is a record that seems destined to stand the test of time, constructed as it is out of the timeless building blocks of music: guitar, bass, vocals and drums, all done so effortlessly that it’s hard to believe Deerhunter have been doing this for years. In a way, of course, they have, but never so refined, so at ease. For Cox, someone who’s constantly fidgeting around with demos and side projects, hearing him buckle down and produce a whole album’s worth of immediately arresting music is a relief. Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter’s most deft accomplishment yet, and they’ve done it not with bells or whistles or 20-minute-plus compositions but by writing perfect rock ‘n roll, pure and simple.

Best of 2009

By , January 1, 2010 12:00 pm

Better late than never! The top twenty albums of 2009 as chosen by Klap4music after countless hours of careful statistical analysis and scientific formulas to determine the best music of the year.

20.

Kiss Kiss – The Meek Shall Inherit What’s Left

Eyeball Records

Released: July 7

Kiss Kiss don’t really have any idea what they’re going to be doing from one minute to the next, so it should come as no surprise that The Meek Shall Inherit What’s Left is a delightfully scrambled mess of an album, one that jumps from bouncy indie pop to quirky gypsy folk to outsized 16-minute concept tunes. But somehow everything holds together, making it a wonderfully effective blender of rock music.

19.

M. Ward – Hold Time

Merge Records

Released: February 17

It’s become typical to expect excellence from M. Ward at this stage in career, but even so, Hold Time was a startling consistent example of beautifully refined Americana. His best since Transistor Radio, it’s an album that flows smoothly from one song to the next, a river of songs photographing classic American music as it rolls along.

18.

Noah and the Whale – The First Days of Spring

Cherrytree Records

Released: October 6

Few bands could do such an abrupt about-face as Noah and the Whale do with their sophomore effort, but the London quintet pull it off in style. The First Days of Spring is the break-up record of the year, but it would be crushingly depressing if not for the vivid, pastoral soundscapes the band have masterfully crafted.

17.

Manic Street Preachers – Journal for Plague Lovers

Columbia

Released: May 18

It always seemed like the Preachers were searching for an identity to call their own after the disappearance of their heart and soul, frontman Richey Edwards. But Journal for Plague Lovers confidently stands tall among great Preacher records of the past, exorcizing Edwards’ ghost with his own lyrics and creating a modern rock record that blows away most of the newer competition, including many of their own previous works.

16.

The Fiery Furnaces – I’m Going Away

Thrill Jockey

Released: July 21

Ever since Blueberry Boat, the Fiery Furnaces seemed to lose their way on latter albums, unable to reconcile the experimental brilliance of that album with the pop charm of Gallowsbird’s Bark, resulting in albums that were wildly uneven and even more challenging. But with their latest, the brother-sister duo has regained that middle ground wonderfully. I’m Going Away is their most accessible album in years, without losing that distinctive oddball charm and slice-of-life lyrics that has defined them.

15.

Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing

Favorite Gentlemen

Released: April 21

Manchester Orchestra’s second album shows them maturing into something every fan of the band was desperately hoping for, the newest poet laureates of emotive indie rock. Singer and lyricist Andy Hull has sharpened his roiling tide of emotions into impassioned pleas and finely tuned angst, resulting in one of the year’s best songs (“I Can Feel A Hot One”) and a record that bodes so, so well for the future.

14.

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino

Released: January 6

It’s no surprise that Merriweather Post Pavilion became so wildly popular in indie circles – without losing any of the weirdness or experimental angles that have defined the band over the past decade, they successfully broadened their pop horizons, resulting in an extremely accessible record that appealed as much to the diehard fan as it did to the wannabe hipster. Perhaps the strangest success story of the year – after all, would anyone listening to Animal Collective in 2000 have predicted this level of success ten years later?

13.

Portugal. The Man – The Satanic Satanist

Equal Vision

Released: July 21

An alt-rock record that never seems to struggle and definitely never wants for a tasty melody or grabbing hook, The Satanic Satanist is Portugal. The Man at their best, a melding of all their previous sounds into a record that could not sound more tossed-off or carefree if it tried. It’s a brilliant trick, one that results in an album that is as light and relaxing as it is refreshing and remarkably accomplished.

12.

Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You

Regal

Released: February 9

While not as unique and defining as her debut, It’s Not Me, It’s You is the perfect pop album, mixing Lily Allen’s sizable amounts of sass and razor-sharp wit with superbly diverse production by Mark Ronson and songs that absolutely kill. Track after track is a potential hit single, perhaps derailed from commercial success only by Allen’s often-blunt lyrics. Then again, that’s what makes Lily such a treat in the whitewashed world of mainstream pop.

11.

Mos Def – The Ecstatic

Downtown

Released: June 9

This could very well be the comeback record of the year, and would easily have been the rap record of the year if it were any other year. Alas, 2009 was a special year in music, and The Ecstatic is no exception. Mos Def sounds rejuvenated, more centered in than he has in years, and the record’s confident tone and relentlessly ingenious beats and rhymes follow in turn.

10.

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

Capitol Records

Released: March 24

There’s been better Decemberists records, and there’s certainly been better concept records over the course of history, but The Hazards of Love is perfect at what it sets out to do: embody the Decemberists’ literary and musical ambitions in one giant song cycle. It’s the ultimate progression of the band’s sound, taking their penchant for wordy songs and long-winded stories and expanding it over the course of an entire album. It’s what the Decemberists were destined for, and in that respect it’s a fine piece of work. And while the story is a little half-baked, the songs are as epic and well done as ever, driving the story and resulting in some of the best instrumental work the band has ever put down.

9.

Taken By Trees – East of Eden

Rough Trade

Released: September 8

Journeying to the East to find oneself has become as much of a cliché as any over the past few decades, as has recording one’s experiences there. Luckily for former Concretes’ frontwoman Victoria Bergsman, she seems to have sublimated all those Eastern influences into her own sound rather than just throwing in a few foreign instruments and styles onto her shiny brand of Swedish indie-pop. It’s a record that is almost impossible to place, the convergence of sounds and Bergsman’s own haunting vocals resulting in a mystical, almost timeless album, one just at home in the foothills of Pakistan as it is in the indie blogosphere.

8.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

ANTI-

Released: March 3

While Middle Cyclone doesn’t quite approach the classic status of Case’s last record, the transcendent Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, it takes only three-and-a-half minutes to foresee it possibly attaining that stature. While the musicianship is top-notch and runs the gamut from smoky folk to woodsy Americana and straight-ahead rock, the focus remains, as always, on Case’s inimitable vocals. Opener “This Tornado Loves You” is proof of this and more, Case’s distinctive pipes highlighting a stormy mess of a song, one that revels in the passion of destruction as much as it does in love and longing.

7.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

Interscope

Released: March 9

It’s Blitz! is perhaps the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most complete record yet, one that runs the gamut of emotions and moods from the exhilarating opener “Zero” to the frighteningly effective, lullaby-esque closer “Little Shadow.” No longer can the Yeah Yeah Yeahs be accused of being just another one-dimensional New York garage rock band – from synth-filled new wave to mellow alt-rock to haunting ballads, It’s Blitz! is a multifaceted album that reveals more and more upon each successive listen. It shows a startling amount of growth for a band long relegated to one-hit wonder status, and gives hope that, yes, there is life after “Maps.”

6.

Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk

Shangri-La Music

Released: September 22

It didn’t come as a surprise that a collaboration between Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, M. Ward, and uber-producer Mike Mogis would be entertaining; what was a surprise, however, was just how good and refined Monsters of Folk ended up being, more the product of a long-time band than a supergroup thrown together for shits and gigs. It’s a minor miracle that the foursome are able to integrate all their own influences and ideas so seamlessly into the final product, a time capsule of classic Americana that manages to stand on its own, rather than the hodgepodge of styles one would expect. Best of all, that final product is the best example of pure, unadulterated American rock ‘n roll to come out all year.

5.

Japandroids – Post-Nothing

Polyvinyl

Released: August 4

Post-Nothing is best taken straight, no chaser, with zero preconceptions or any hint of in-depth critical analysis upon first listen. All fuzzed-out guitars, straight-out-of-the-garage drums and vocals that, frankly, don’t give a damn, it’s the sound of youth and youth’s emotions at their most free, uncaged from any hint of adult restraint. It’s a record full of anthems and undeniably vital, practically bursting with life, energy, lust, you name it: and not ashamed of any of it.

4.

Miike Snow – Miike Snow

Downtown

Released: June 9

It’s a far cry from “Toxic,” but Bloodshy & Avant’s new side project (with singer Andrew Wyatt) is deliciously unfettered pop in its own way. Perhaps the best-produced album of the year, it flits from Vampire Weekend-esque indie (“Animal”) to gorgeous atmospherics (“Silvia”) to fantastically filthy electro-pop (“Black & Blue”) to haunting ballads (“Faker”), with the ease of a musical chameleon with a liking for keyboards. It’s an instant party starter, but at its heart it’s something more, an album built on a pop foundation but with multiple layers, a heart that values superior songwriting and grade-A production to shallow sentiments and mindless hooks.

3.

Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II

EMI

Released: September 8

Raekwon’s latest is a shining reaffirmation of Wu-Tang dominance over the rap game; RZA’s production is his best work in years, the various guest spots all seem placed to perfection, speaking more to their lyrical abilities and personalities than any “oh, hey, look who we got to guest on this track” bullshit. Every spot here means something, and, more than that, every spot here frames and support the leader, the rapper whose flow and style defines this album and makes it a new rap classic. Raekwon is clearly at the top of his game here, delivering a conceptual story that wallows in the dirt and grime of New York and comes out reinvigorated in the end. The Wu are far from dead – indeed, this might be the strongest they’ve been all decade.

2.

Florence and the Machine – Lungs

Island

Released: July 6

The Voice is a major reason for this album’s success, but it’s not the only one. Just as importantly, the talented backing band does an excellent job transcribing Florence Welch’s uniquely powerful voice and haunting tone into the music. Lungs is an album as versatile as its namesake, from the thumping bombast of “Drumming Song” to the bluesy “Kiss With A Fist” to the ethereal buildup to “Between Two Lungs.” But that Voice! – from fierce to grieving to lusty, Welch is the driving force behind Lungs, one that at times seems to be like a force of nature, whirling from high to low with equal passion and equal ease. The debut of the year, and a very exciting one for the future.

1.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records

Released: May 26

When I first heard this record it certainly didn’t stand out to me as a potential Album of the Year candidate. And it still didn’t stand out after the second, third, or a dozen listens, but over the course of the summer the little things began to strike me as special, revealing a record full of layers I had previously dismissed in the guise of “just another dance-rock record.” It is a dance-rock record, and an exceptional one at that, but it’s the painstaking attention to detail, the relentlessly innovative beats and polished drumming, the appealingly earnest way these Frenchmen take English rock ‘n roll and make it their own, all these things and more that catapult Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix into a realm of its own. It’s the way the band breaks it down and then the multi-tracked harmonic guitar flies in over the end of “Lisztomania;” it’s the way “1901’s” chorus zooms in and out on the bass like a pneumatic hammer of pop as the synths take skyward; it’s the way the “Love Like A Sunset” suite resolves itself so beautifully in a haze of major-key watercolors; it’s the way singer Thomas Mars’ bares all in the heartbreaking shimmer of “Rome.” More than anything else, it’s a dance record that isn’t afraid to celebrate its own flaws, rejoicing in its ability to take a shallow genre and make something lasting, one that speaks as much to a person’s emotions as it does their feet. Here’s to my record of the year.

Most Overrated/Disappointing of 2009

By , December 20, 2009 12:00 pm

A collection of ten records from the year that I either felt weren’t up to some of the incredible hype they received, were letdowns from a band’s previous release, or just ended up as personal disappointments. It’s been a great year and I couldn’t ask for any more excellent albums, but there’s always going to be some bad with the good, and 2009 wasn’t any different.

10.

lp

Discovery – LP

XL Recordings

Released: July 7

Hey, I love Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot just as much as the next pretentious indie douche bag, but this side project, between VW’s Rostam Batmanglij and Riot’s Wes Miles, was an ill-advised dip into Auto-Tuned-to-hell pop mania that only reinforced the stereotype that side groups are where bad ideas go to die. Unable to decide whether it wants to be unironic pop or tongue-in-cheek hipster mockery, it fails miserably in both respects.

9.

livingthing

Peter Bjorn and John

Wichita

Released: March 31

For their fifth album and first proper one after their breakthrough record Young Folks, Peter Bjorn & John inexplicably decided to tone down the sunny Swedish indie pop that made them famous and go all in on a bunch of dark synths and bad drum machine beats. The hooks are still there, but they’re mired under a layer of minimalist bleeps and boops and undercooked lyrics. While an admirable effort, Living Thing ultimately collapses under the weight of its own experimental tendencies.

8.

timetodie

The Dodos – Time to Die

Frenchkiss

Released: September 15

Time to Die is a good record, but after last year’s ridiculously awesome The Visiter, this release seems more like a stopgap effort or, worse, an attempt to cash in on their blogosphere hype while it still lasts. There’s nothing wrong here, but it pales in comparison to its predecessor and never really brings anything new to the table.

7.

tintedwindows

Tinted Windows – Tinted Windows

S-Curve Records

Released: April 21

Tinted Windows debut should’ve blown the roof off power pop, considering all the players involved. Unfortunately it turned out just the opposite, a rote piece of work that is enjoyable for a spell but largely reveals itself to be less than the sum of its parts.

6.

theblueprint3

Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3

Atlantic

Released: September 8

Judging from Jay-Z’s habit of following a decent record with a subpar one, it should come as no surprise that The Blueprint 3 doesn’t match up to the American Gangster soundtrack, but it is a bit shocking that this may be Hova’s worst record since The Blueprint 2. Lackluster rhymes, vanilla production, and guest stars who routinely outshine the host, it’s a middling affair by a talent who seems content to let the young guns all pass him by.

5.

outersouth

Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band – Outer South

Merge Records

Released: May 5

Fresh off the riveting success that was his first solo album not under the Bright Eyes moniker, Conor Oberst decides to celebrate with his buddies in the Mystic Valley Band, and, less than a year after his self-titled, results in Outer South. And that’s exactly all it sounds like: a celebration that tends to find Oberst and friends fucking around in the studio and throwing together an over-long collection of half-baked Americana. Too much Mystic Valley Band, not enough sober Oberst.

4.

bitteorca

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

Domino

Released: June 9

The hype surrounding this album was immense, but for all its intriguing edges and occasional flashes of clarity, it still remains an impenetrable mess of an album. From the discordant singing and random instrumental flourishes to the hyperactive song structures and lack of anything resembling a natural flow, it’s an album that tries too hard and ends up as merely a confusing jumble of experimental ideas.

3.

veckatimest

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Warp Records

Released: May 26

A record that immediately drew me in with the fantastic “Two Weeks” and whetted my appetite for more with “All We Ask” and “Cheerleader,” I was ultimately disappointed with the overall results. It’s not that Veckatimest isn’t a good record; I can appreciate the meticulous songwriting and sharp production, as well as the rustic sort of experimental folk Grizzly Bear have mastered. But the album drags on for far too long without the kind of persistent hooks that the above songs promised, resulting in an album far better at lulling me to sleep than anything else.

2.

tilthecasketdrops

Clipse – Til The Casket Drops

Star Trak 2009

Released: December 8

Another fine example of artists at the top of their game coming up woefully short to matching the high standards now expected of them. Til The Casket Drops is, in regards to most drug-happy rap releases of the year, an excellent release, but considering the massive success of Hell Hath No Fury and the three years the Thornton brothers have had to work on a follow-up, it still comes up dreadfully short to what I’ve come to expect from Clipse.

1.

EMBRYONIC TRAY

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

Warner Bros.

Released: October 13

I can understand what the Lips were trying to do here. I can even praise them for their boldness and persistent pushing of their own boundaries. But do I have to enjoy it? While I really, really, really wanted to say yes, multiple listens eventually rendered it impossible. A grand album that is undeniable in its scope and ambition, it’s also a schizophrenic beast of a record that shunned my attentions more often than it grabbed me. In trying to redefine music, Embryonic lost me in its own meandering world, one that I struggled to get immersed in and which ultimately repulsed me.

Most Overrated/Disappointing of 2008

By , December 31, 2008 12:00 pm

Yes, 2008 had its share of duds as well as highlights. The below ten are, whether for personal or critical reasons, records that I felt underachieved or didn’t live up to the (often incredible) hype. Agree to disagree!

10.

Guns ‘N Roses – Chinese Democracy

Geffen Records

Released: November 23

Yeah, I gave this album a fairly positive review when it came out, but considering it took Axl sixteen years to finally clear the creative constipation, the end result is more than a little underwhelming.

9.

The Stills – Oceans Will Rise

Arts & Crafts

Released: August 19

A purely personal choice for me, Oceans Will Rise was a huge letdown from one of my favorite bands after 2006’s critically lambasted Without Feathers, a record that holds a special place in my heart. Maybe the critics were right after all, but I still feel like the Stills had something better than this in them.

8.

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple

Atlantic

Released: March 18

St. Elsewhere was a debut worthy of the heaps of praise it accumulated from the press, a eclectic, diverse arrangement of alternative hip-hop mixed with Danger Mouse’s extraordinarily experimental production and Cee-Lo’s oddball lyrics and fluid phrasing. The Odd Couple was pretty much St. Elsewhere redux, and considering the potential within these two guys, it’s unerring sameness was frustrating.

7.

Weezer – Weezer (The Red Album)

Geffen Records

Released: June 3

At this point, it’s hard to say that Weezer’s latest was a real disappointment, as I’ve expected nothing but that from this once-proud band since 2005 (yes, I hung on even after Maladroit). The Red Album was trumpeted as the band’s comeback, and while it showed a few fading signs of the old Weezer, the band’s delusions of grandeur and Cuomo’s declining lyrical abilities made it instead a last gasp, “Pork and Beans” reminding me only of what could have been.

6.

Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III

Cash Money

Released: June 10

An overblown, bloated, scattered collection of egoism that had just as many misfires as it had genuine hits. 2008 was without doubt the year of Weezy, but there is such a thing as too much Weezy; the over-saturation of Lil Wayne on the airwaves led to Tha Carter III as not having much more than that which you haven’t already heard. It was ambitious and defiantly creative, but not the modern rap masterpiece many critics made it out to be.

5.

My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges

ATO Records

Released: June 10

This album could’ve been a lot worse than it was, if the band had gone more with the faux-funk style of songs like the title track and the god-awful “Highly Suspicious” than the sort of country-fried rock they have mastered and made their own. Luckily, songs like “I’m Amazed” and “Librarian” prove that My Morning Jacket haven’t lost their way, but Evil Urges is just a little too close for comfort.

4.

Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

Sub Pop

Released: June 16

A shining example of where experimental urges overtook smart pop sensibilities. Apologies To The Queen Mary was a brilliant work of sharp guitar-rock and jangly chamber-pop from a few wild-eyed Canadians. Unfortunately, their unbridled creativity got the better of them here, where pop turns to prog and 3-4 minute songs turn into nine minutes of bullshit. An inspired record, but not one with the kind of staying power or the unrelenting hooks of Apologies.

3.

Black Kids – Partie Traumatic

Almost Gold/Columbia

Released: July 7

Black Kids are the reason I try not to overreact to hipster/blogosphere hype. After setting online music tastemakers and forums ablaze with their ’07 EP Wizard of Ahhhs, the Jacksonville, FL group released their debut, Partie Traumatic, a record that expanded on, well, absolutely nothing from their EP. The best songs were those everyone had already heard, and I didn’t know how repetitive and annoying singer Reggie Youngblood’s vocals could get until I’d heard thirty-eight minutes of it.

2.

Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak

Roc-A-Fella Records

Released: November 24

808s & Heartbreak proved that Kanye really didn’t give a damn what people thought; it’s fresh, bold, and inventive, remaking Kanye again in the image of a fearless pioneer of pop music, one unbound by the typical constraints and courts of public opinion that chain other stars. Unfortunately, 808s & Heartbreak is an album that is limited by its very own originality; Kanye’s insistent use of Auto-Tune, the doggedly depressing subject matter, and lack of, well, truly good songs turned the album into a double-edged sword. Okay, Kanye, we know you can do something different than what everyone expects of you; now do something exceptional with it.

1.

Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping

Polyvinyl Records

Released: October 21

Kevin Barnes has been cruel to me. After the one-two punch Satanic Panic in the Attic and Sunlandic Twins turned Of Montreal into one of my favorite bands, the experimental squall of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? was interesting, to be sure, but turned me off more than a little after the perfect electronica-meets-power-pop of the aforementioned records. Skeletal Lamping is perhaps even more disjointed and uneven than Hissing Fauna, a record that bounces from random idea to opaque lyric to out-of-the-blue musical flourish with the attention span of a ADHD-afflicted schizophrenic six-year-old with a sugar rush. Barnes is no doubt a kind of musical visionary; just not the kind I expected or really even wanted.

Best of 2008 – #10-1

By , December 30, 2008 12:00 pm

10.

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

Atlantic

Released: May 13

When I first reviewed this album, I thought it was disjointed, uneven, and lacking the sort of overall melodic pop sensibilities and good songwriting that Death Cab had been founded on. Undoubtedly, however, Narrow Stairs is a grower for the ages, and one that has only continued to improve with every listen. A record that is certainly challenging for those expecting a retread of Plans, but one that rewards its fans with a collection of Death Cab’s most thoughtful and innovative songs yet.

9.

Okkervil River – The Stand Ins

Jagjaguwar

Released: September 9

The Stand Ins, folk-rockers Okkervil River’s second half of a project that delves deep into the psyche of a performer, is a bipolar tableau of musicians killing themselves slowly on the road for the joy of their fans, celebrating the road and damning it at the same time. You have to give props to lyricist Will Sheff, who includes references from the Kinks to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia to French playwright Antonin Artaud in a single song (and makes it sound entirely normal to boot). Oh, and the music, a potent synthesis of pop-rock and country-influenced, rootsier sounds, is just as good as you would expect from the band.

8.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Sub Pop

Released: June 3

Seattle fivesome take rock back to its roots; and by roots I mean down in the country, woods, and backroads of Americana folk. After My Morning Jacket’s Evil meltdown, it’s reassuring to see a fresh band take up the mantle of good ole-fashioned country rock. Taking more of a pastoral angle than MMJ’s blazing guitar solos, Fleet Foxes is an album that calls to mind more the Appalachian Trail than the Pacific Northwest, complete with church-gathering harmonizing, various wind instruments, and frontman Robin Pecknold’s unearthly howl. Yet another of 2008’s great rookie records.

7.

The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely

Warner Bros.

Released: March 25

Consolers of the Lonely takes the Raconteurs’ power-pop promise shown on their sub par debut and blows it up in every direction imaginable. The title track is a bluesy, pulsating piece of blazing guitar work, while single “Salute Your Solution” is an up tempo rocker with an unrelenting bass line and a solo that would put White’s work with the Stripes to shame. From Americana to rustic country-rock to theatrical Southern-rock operas to good old-fashioned blues, Consolers has something for everyone.

6.

The Roots – Rising Down

Def Jam

Released: April 29

The Roots retain the throne of alternative hip-hop with their eighth studio album, a record that continues this collective’s remarkable run of intelligent and socially conscious rap. ?uestlove’s beats and production as polished and stimulating as ever, but Rising Down modifies their traditional jazzy sound with murkier synths and more digital techniques that embrace a fairly dark mood. It’s appropriate for the often-political and critical lyrics of MC Black Thought, and the album as a whole comes off as a logical evolution in the sound of a band that is constantly growing.

5.

She & Him – Volume One

Merge Records

Released: March 18

Most actresses who turn toward the music realm in order to diversify their image and develop yet another revenue stream usually are predestined for failure (see: Johansson, Scarlett), but indie heartthrob Zooey Deschanel’s first album has gone a long way toward dispelling that notion. She’s not the best singer, and the lyrics occasionally veer towards the simple and sentimental, but her heartfelt vocal approach and M. Ward’s (the Him) excellent backing arrangements and occasional vocal work create a timeless album of ‘60s Brill Building pop and twangy folk that bodes well for future releases.

4.

The Walkmen – You & Me

Gigantic

Released: August 19

Few bands can produce a studio record of such vintage sound and with such vivid feeling as the Walkmen. You & Me is a veritable kaleidoscope of sounds, from the Walkmen’s signature upright piano to swelling brass to the clattering drum work on any number of songs. It’s an album, above all else, that strives to create a genuine mood in the listener for each piece. And singer Hamilton Leithauser is one of a kind; his whiskey-soaked howl is at times affecting and at others grating, but for the most part, it fits in perfectly as another emotive instrument in painting the band’s canvas.

3.

The Dodos – Visiter

French Kiss

Released: March 18

The Dodos do it all on their second album, an hour-long kaleidoscope of psychedelic folk, world music beats, and an constantly-shifting array of melodic ideas and lyrical thoughts that fairly blow one away on first listen. Drummer Meric Long’s training in the West African style of Ewe drumming pays off incredible dividends here, as his hard-driving beats and ridiculous sense of syncopation turns nearly every song into a clinic of talent. Add to that guitarist/vocalist Logan Kroeber’s mellower Ben Gibbard-ish pipes and talented strumming and you have a largely acoustic world-folk record that makes for one of the strangest and most exciting releases of the year.

2.

Everest – Ghost Notes

Vapor Records

Released: May 6

Everest’s debut Ghost Notes is as timeless as the influences it clearly draws from, namely ‘70s-era Neil Young, ‘60s pop, and contemporary guitar-rock bands like My Morning Jacket. Vocalist/guitarist Russell Pollard’s yearning vocals are perfectly suited to the band’s music, and their seemingly effortless playing belies a strict adherence to the tenets of solid melodic songwriting and hooks that latch on and refuse to let go. It’s usually easy to find fault somewhere on a band’s debut release, but Ghost Notes is a nearly flawless indie rock/country/pop record, perhaps a result of the members’ long time spent in other L.A.-area bands. Just as amazing live as it is on record, Ghost Notes is appealing, honest, and, above all, refreshing. Everest has made the debut of the year.

1.

Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst

Merge Records

Released: August 5

Bright Eyes’ frontman and songwriter continues to make his case as our generation’s Bob Dylan with his first “solo” record, an album written and recorded in a scenic Mexican town and featuring country-rock and guitar-driven folk similar to Bright Eyes’ 2007 release Cassadaga. Lyrically Oberst is in top form as usual, singing about cancer-stricken children, road trip adventures, and life in the barrios with the ease of a natural-born poet. Never has Oberst sounded so relaxed and so carefree; while some of the songs are necessarily serious, Conor Oberst is at its core a fun and relentlessly entertaining album. When you hear an unidentified female voice suddenly come in early before the chorus on “Souled Out!!!” and Conor laughs in response before launching into the chorus himself, you can’t help but to smile. A record that deserves the “best of ’08 label.”

Best of 2008 – #20-11

Honorable Mentions

Best Songs of 2008

Best of 2008 – #20-11

By , December 29, 2008 12:00 pm

For an industry that is constantly and prematurely declaring their own demise, the music business in 2008 was looking pretty swell. While you still had your ring tone one-hit wonders like Flo-Rida’s “Low,” (a song made 1000x better in Tropic Thunder), and some more prefabricated pop by the likes of Danity Kane and the Pussycat Dolls, 2008 was a pretty awesome year for music-lovers, and a soothing antidote to the madness of an election year.

Some great things, as always, had to come to an end: legendary guitarist and rock ‘n roll pioneer Bo Diddley died, as did funk founder Isaac Hayes a.k.a. “Shaft,” while bands such as the Long Blondes, Ministry, Junior Senior, and (no!) the Spice Girls called it quits. 2008 also showed that all hope was not lost in the music world: Hootie and the Blowfish disbanded, Scott Weiland continued his band-disrupting ways, Apple’s iTunes finally topped Wal-Mart’s global music sales, and Flea enrolled at USC. Up-and-coming bands like Vampire Weekend, MGMT, and Ra Ra Riot proved that it was possible for groups lacking major label muscle to put themselves out there and let their music speak for themselves, garnering untold numbers of fans through the Internet and becoming blog sensations practically overnight. Old rock standbys like AC/DC, Metallica, the Offspring, and the Verve finally got around to releasing new material, with even Guns ‘N Roses (minus, uh, everyone except Axl Rose) finally releasing their long-awaited Chinese Democracy, a milestone most expected to arrive after actual Chinese democracy.

While a number of bands released music that was above and beyond the standard fare of the mainstream, the below best albums and songs and a few honorable mentions that I couldn’t stand to leave out are those that deserve to be mentioned not only for their artistic merit, but also for their likelihood to withstand the test of time and be looked back on as defining moments in each band’s history, as well as of 2008 in music. So without further ado…

20.

The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

Vagrant

Released: July 15

Hold Steady vocalist Craig Finn says the band’s fourth is about “aging gracefully,” but the righteous racket and vibrant storytelling these bar band rockers serve up seem as suggest that growing up is overrated. Slicker and better produced than their previous albums, it nevertheless retains the Springsteenian classic rock feel of their earlier work and Finn’s lyrics are as sharp and relatable as ever.

19.

Coldplay – Viva La Vida

Capitol

Released: June 17

Chris Martin and company were in danger of treading into soft-rock and piano drudgery on 2005’s X&Y, but Viva La Vida proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Coldplay weren’t content to sit on their laurels for their fourth record. Incorporating world music styles, multi-movement epics, and some of Martin’s best lyrics yet, Viva might be Coldplay’s best album yet, and is certainly their most original and experimental.

18.

The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

4AD

Released: February 19

Indie troubadour John Darnielle’s continues an amazing streak of folk-rock successes with this, his 16th record. Heretic Pride is a delicately produced work of gentle orchestration, acoustic finger picking, and Darnielle’s consistently insightful and evocative lyrics. His vocals have always taken a bit to get used to, and when he’s feeling particularly distressed they tend to grate, but Heretic Pride is another masterfully arranged work, and Darnielle’s expressive tales continue to elevate him to a level beyond most of his peers.

17.

Taylor Swift – Fearless

Big Machine Records

Released: November 11

My guilty pleasure of 2008, country-pop prodigy Taylor Swift’s sophomore effort is a well-written group of songs that deal with what Swift knows best: teenage heartache and high school life. Nostalgic, romantic, and endlessly catchy, Swift never indulges into (too much) power balladry and the earnest songwriting goes well with the assured, always-in-the-right-place production. Mainstream and commercialized to the extreme, but give her a chance; Swift is a talent that can’t be ignored.

16.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Jagjaguwar

Released: February 19

If there was such a thing, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon alias Bon Iver’s debut record would surely win Most Depressing Record of the Year. Almost entirely recorded in an isolated cabin in rural Wisconsin, For Emma, Forever Ago is a cathartic expression of break-up and recovery in the bleakest terms. The minimalist instrumentation, lo-fi recording, and Vernon’s haunting vocals all paint a picture of forlorn grief and regret in the frozen north. Forget rainy-day music; this is music to listen to while snowed in by the biggest blizzard of the year.

15.

T.I. – Paper Trail

Grand Hustle/Atlantic

Released: September 30

Everyone knew house arrest couldn’t stop T.I. Going back to old-fashioned pen and paper to write down lyrics and finishing with around 50 songs for the album, Paper Trail’s 16 final cuts are some of mainstream rap’s best of the year. Hard-hitting beats combine with T.I.’s inimitable vocal dexterity and lyrics that fairly drip with venom to make an album of surefire commercial hits as well as a few that stand up to any cerebral rapper’s catalogue. And, of course, that Numa Numa sampling on “Live Your Life” was true producing genius.

14.

Thrice – The Alchemy Index, Vol. 3 & 4: Air and Earth

Vagrant

Released: April 15

Former hardcore punks Thrice have come a long way from their screamo days, and the promise shown in their early albums comes to full fruition on the second half of their Alchemy Index project, a two-disc magnum opus that takes Thrice out of post-hardcore territory and firmly establishes them as art-rock auteurs. Air is some of Thrice’s most uplifting, musically accomplished work, and vocalist Dustin Kensrue’s voice has never sounded finer. Earth, meanwhile, is an out-of-left-field experiment into acoustic folk that sounds almost like an entirely different band. Both, however, show the best of a band that is progressing well beyond the abilities of many of their peers.

13.

British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

Rough Trade

Released: February 12

A simple question that British Sea Power answer in a suitably grand twelve tracks and fifty-five minutes. Intensely atmospheric art-rock that sounds more like the work of an orchestra than a band, Do You Like Rock Music? travels from guitar heroics to Britpop to U2-esque anthems to punk rave-ups to oddball instrumental works. The synchrony between the album’s beginning and ending tracks, meanwhile, is simply beautiful.

12.

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

XL Recordings

Released: January 29

I always try really hard to ignore blogosphere hype that seems way too blown out of proportion, and after hearing the somewhat underwhelming opener “Mansard Roof” I thought I could safely file Vampire Weekend under “over-hyped Internet sensations.” But this is a record that grows on you, and while initially I found it amateur-ish, I can safely say that this is one of the great debuts of the year. Ivy League pedigree be damned; Vampire Weekend is a record that can be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation for simple, catchy chamber-pop tunes.

11.

M83 – Saturdays=Youth

Mute U.S.

Released: April 15

Anthony Gonzalez, the brainchild behind electronica group M83, has always had a fetish for taking discarded, old sounds and turning them into something new. The group’s shoegaze approach to electronica, soothing sounds built atop waves and waves of sound and layers of production, are twisted into M83’s most accessible outing on Saturdays=Youth, a record that hearkens back to that cultural touchstone everyone wants to forget: the ‘80s! Lyrically focused on teen love and emo angst, the music is a blend of synthtastic new-wave pop and frothy, bubbling techno all buoying Gonzalez’s wispy voice. It would’ve made a hell of a soundtrack to the Breakfast Club.

Top 20 Albums: #10-1

More Best of 2008:

Honorable Mentions

Klap4Music’s Thirty Best Songs of 2008

Best of 2008 – Top 30 Songs

By , December 28, 2008 12:00 pm

It’s a bit tougher to separate and distinguish those songs that truly towered above the rest in 2008, as it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a great song by an otherwise sub par band than it is to find an all-around great album. The below thirty are songs that I felt towered over others on their respective records, even when those records were great, and also some songs that blew up the charts without coming off like everything else on radio nowadays. In order to keep things simple, I limited it to one song per artist. Feel free to comment/post your own lists!

30. Islands – “The Arm” (Arm’s Way)The definition of throwing everything and the kitchen sink into a song.

29. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “Think I Wanna Die” (Pershing)Perfect power-pop that was criminally overlooked.

28. Taylor Swift – “Love Story” (Fearless)Guilty as charged with the shallow country-pop.

27. Tilly and the Wall – “Alligator Skin” (O)Tap-dancing is awesome. So are boy/girl harmonies. And handclaps. And nonsensical lyrics. And…

26. Kevin Rudolf – “Let It Rock feat. Lil Wayne” (In The City)The pump-up anthem of the year with one of Lil Wayne’s best cameos.

25. Mates of State – “Get Better” (Re-Arrange Us)Married indie-popsters find bliss in gently swelling strings, rollicking drums, multi-layered harmonies, etc.

24. The Helio Sequence – “Lately” (Keep Your Eyes Ahead)Few songs this year have conveyed emotion as perfectly as this one; never has wanting to move on but being unable to sounded so good.

23. Girl Talk – “Still Here” (Feed The Animals)The “Flashing Lights/No Diggity” mix combined with The Band over Yung Joc make for one of Girl Talk’s best tracks ever.

22. Goldfrapp – “A&E” (Seventh Tree) - Forget the dance floor; electronica diva should really spend more time writing incredibly addicting ballads about drug overdoses.

21. Kanye West – “RoboCop” (808s & Heartbreak)A song so good it makes you fully appreciate the lost opportunities of the rest of the record.

20. Death Cab for Cutie – “Bixby Canyon Bridge” (Narrow Stairs)I don’t know why I like this song so much. Maybe it’s Gibbard’s simple, affecting lyrics or the epic, cathartic sonic sludge of the ending. If I had to choose any one point where this song goes from merely cool to ridiculously awesome, it’s 1:39 in when the atmospherics cut off and Death Cab ramps up the thudding guitars and pounding drums.

19. The Dodos – “Jodi” (The Visiter)Six minutes of schizophrenic psych-folk. Yes, their drummer is amazing.

18. Ben Folds – “You Don’t Know Me feat. Regina Spektor” (Way To Normal)Spektor makes any song shine, even when she’s barely used.

17. Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines” (The Stand Ins)Will Sheff proves that intelligent, insightful lyrics mix well with mindless “la la las” and a full-blown brass part.

16. Britney Spears – “If You Seek Amy” (Circus)Oh, Max Martin, you are so clever! Hopefully the censors will overlook the scandalous play on words to get this slice of delectable electro-pop onto the airwaves and get on with subverting our nation’s youth.

15. M83 – “Graveyard Girl” (Saturdays=Youth)The 80s live again!

14. The Hold Steady – “Sequestered in Memphis” (Stay Positive)A drunken sing-a-long for those one-night stands that go terribly awry.

13. The Duke Spirit – “The Step and the Walk” (Neptune)I first heard this song in an American Eagle store, and it ended up being the best thing I’ve ever gotten from there. The album is uneven at times, but singer Leila Moss is distinctive and the band’s bluesy swagger is very attractive.

12. The Raconteurs – “Salute Your Solution” (Consolers of the Lonely)The frantic verses and the burning twin guitar solos (particularly the air-guitar-worthy second one at 2:08) make this one of the best straight-ahead rock singles of the year.

11. T.I. – “Live Your Life feat. Rihanna” (Paper Trail)Everyone knows the Numa Numa sample and Auto-Tuned Rihanna make this song, but it’s T.I.’s liquid verses that truly elevate it.

10. Delta Spirit – “Trashcan” (Ode To Sunshine)The obvious highlight of a fairly excellent debut record and a song that owes its heart to singer Matthew Vasquez’s inimitable howl.

9. The Walkmen – “The Blue Route” (You & Me)A tough choice from a record filled with great ones, it’s the vintage sound of the instruments and the exceptional drum work, not to mention Hamilton Leithauser’s unique yowl, that make this one for me.

8. The Roots – “Criminal feat. Truck North and Saigon” (Rising Down)The year’s best rap track is a hypnotic jam about the less-than-legal lives many urban youth are forced to accept, all spit out with venom and virtuosity by Black Thought and the excellent guest stars.

7. She & Him – “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” (Volume One)Quirky ‘60s pop made extraordinary by Zooey Deschanel’s charming country-tinged vocals and M. Ward’s classy arrangement: check out the slick guitar solo at 1:05. 3-minute-and-under pop at its best.

6. Everest – “Rebels In The Roses” (Ghost Notes)Everest open up their debut record with this country-rock gem, the perfect blend of singer Russell Pollard’s emotive pipes and a blazing guitar part that stays with you long after the song is over.

5. Vampire Weekend – “Oxford Comma” (Vampire Weekend) - On an album filled with great, short pop songs, “Oxford Comma” stands out with its uncomplicated production, sing-a-long melody, and climactic chorus. A song that, strangely, always makes me want to air-drum.

4. Fleet Foxes – “Ragged Wood” (Fleet Foxes)Most critics prefer the lilting ‘60s folk melody of “White Winter Hymnal” or the galloping beat of “Quiet Houses,” but for me the prize has to go to “Ragged Wood,” a multi-movement masterpiece that begins with a driving drum beat and an anthemic chorus by singer Robin Pecknold before shifting into developing into a delicately fingerpicked acoustic groove and then ending dreamily with a soothing guitar line somewhere atop a forested hill in West Virginia.

3. Conor Oberst – “Souled Out!!!” (Conor Oberst)A song about having too much fun from Conor Oberst? I’m shocked, but the upbeat music and Oberst’s irrepressible joy coupled with the entertaining lyrics make for one of his most enjoyable songs. It sounds as if Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band recorded this in a single take in some tropical beach resort…which isn’t too far from what actually happened. Enjoy yourself more, Conor; it sounds great.

2.MGMT – “Time To Pretend” (Oracular Spectacular)The quintessential rock star song about models and drug habits with a fresh twist of techno-pop and a memorable synth hook. It overshadowed most of the rest of Oracular Spectacular with its lyrical wit and easily digestible melody, and that’s in no way a bad thing: the more people introduced to this band, the better.

1. Estelle – “American Boy feat. Kanye West” (Shine)This is not the deepest song on the list, nor is it the best song from the best album of the year, and it’s hard to say whether it will stand the test of time. Nope, this is pure, well-crafted pop at its catchiest best, a song that bounces from a deceptively simple disco beat to Kanye’s effortlessly spot-on cameo and Estelle’s very British, very sleek vocals. This is one song that deserved its success, the kind of song that restores your faith (however temporarily) in the public’s taste, even if the album paled in comparison. Here’s to cross-continental pop!

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