Another year down in the music world, and there’s a tremendous amount of great stuff to talk about. On Death By Audio Records, we saw releases by French Miami and Coin Under Tongue, as well as a new album by Sisters. There have also been great releases this year by my friends in Golden Ages from Philly and EwwYaboo from Wilkes-Barre. Though I dabbled in a few different projects, this has been the first year in a long time that I didn’t really play a lot of music. Anyway, here are some links to lists from years past:
Best Albums of 2009
Best Albums of 2008
I had a really hard time narrowing down ten albums, especially with so much good music coming out of my house this year. I decided to single out my favorite EP of the year before I tackle the albums:
French Miami – Motor Skills
French Miami, the three-piece from San Francisco, recorded their first album in since 2008 and self-released it on Death By Audio records. Motor Skills is a six-song EP that showcases a wide range of talents, from finger-tapping math rock to synth-laden 80’s horror movie soundtrack. The melodies are contagiously catchy, and the most obvious example is “Older,” where a syncopated snare drum and finger-tapped guitar complement Heiselman’s reverb-heavy lyrics. The other obvious standout track is “Jon Odyssey,” an instrumental that is straight out of a John Carpenter film. It’s so evidently different from the rest of the songs that you have to wonder what’s in store for their next album. It’s a shame this one has only six songs.
10. Woods – At Echo Lake
After last year’s Songs of Shame, I became obsessed with Woods. The weird, lo-fi Neil Young-esque vocals, the folky campfire melodies, the fuzzy psychedelic jams. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Yet, for as catchy as parts of Songs of Shame were, other parts were drawn out and a bit tedious. This year, Woods trimmed the fat with At Echo Lake. This album is a mere thirty minutes and it’s solid all the way through. Leadoff track “Blood Dries Darker” is a poppy jaunt, drowned in that lo-fi vocal reverb that makes Jeremy Earl so distinct. The bright “Suffering Season” is contrasted by the dark “Death Rattles,” but both sides of Woods are effective.
9. Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz/All Delighted People
Last year, Sufjan Stevens came out of the blue for the first time since 2005’s Illinois with “You Are The Blood,” a 10-minute track on Dark Was The Night that combined his soft, soothing vocals with abrasive electronic sounds, brass fanfares, and a lo-fi piano interlude. It was one of the most experimental and amazing songs I’d heard in a long time, and a welcome change from the 50-states project.
When I first heard the All Delighted People EP in August, it was exciting to hear some of Stevens’ first work in five years. The song “All Delighted People” is the obvious highlight, with two versions to listen to, both clocking in at 11 and 8 minutes respectively. The rest of the EP is filled with quiet, stereotypical Sufjan filler, including the stellar “Heirloom,” then ends with “Djohariah,” a sprawling 17 minutes of choirs, horns, piano, acoustic guitar, and random electronic buzzes and beeps. Eight songs, over an hour long. Hardly an EP, but we knew what was on the horizon.
Less than two months later, Stevens dropped Age of Adz, chock full of weirdness and abrasive sounds. If you know about Sufjan’s past as an electronic musician (A Sun Came, Enjoy Your Rabbit), it would make sense that he would incorporate a heavy digital influence on an otherwise soft and melodic album. Tracks like “Too Much” and “I Walked” have pretty straightforward vocal melodies, like you’d find on Seven Swans or Michigan. What makes them unique is the digital drums, piercing beeps and hums, and vocal effects. Stevens doesn’t opt for accessibility on Age of Adz and that is what makes the album interesting. There’s none of the folky, banjo-plucking soft rock that everyone loved on Illinois. In fact, you’ll even hear him drop the F-bomb on this one, as the chorus of “I Want To Be Well” exclaims over and over, “I’m not fucking around!”
So it’s a serious, edgy album, although it ends on an optimistic note. 25-minute closer “Impossible Soul” claims “Boy, we can do much more together/It’s not so impossible.”
8. Caribou – Swim
Swim is the third proper release from Daniel Snaith’s moniker Caribou. A vast departure from 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness and 2007’s Andorra, Swim is an exploration of digital music. It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. Caribou has been performing with samplers, electronic drums, and Ableton tracks for years. Of course, these were always taking a backseat to guitars and drums. On Swim, they’re at the forefront, and this album would be more likely categorized under “house” rather than “indie rock.” Take the second track “Sun” for example. The only lyrics are the song’s title, sung over and over with a wobbly synth line and driving drum beat. Or “Bowls,” an instrumental exploration of percussion, ranging from maracas to bells to castanets. This album does have its catchy moments too. Leadoff track “Odessa” stands out above the rest, a catchy melody that bridges the gap between Caribou the rock band and Caribou the club DJs.
After witnessing their 2009 performance as the Caribou Vibration Ensemble, complete with a boys’ choir and Marshall Allen from Sun Ra, I’ve gained a new respect for Caribou. Subsequent performances utilize more electronics than ever before. The drums are all digitized, linked up to an Ableton track. Samplers drive the beat, and Snaith alternates between keys, guitar, drums, or just maracas as he conducts his digital orchestra. I’d be lying if I said this performance wasn’t one of my primary influences when combining drumming with electronic music. I’m just excited to see what direction Snaith heads next.
7. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
For the first three minutes of This Is Happening, James Murphy may as well be whispering over a minimal drum beat and sparse synthesizers. Once “Dance Yrself Clean” kicks in, however, the next five minutes combine multiple synth lines into that unique LCD Soundsystem sound, complete with Murphy’s wails. The single “Drunk Girls,” the one song I can do without, is a testament to the club scene, and a lot of the lyrics hit pretty close to home. The pinnacle of the album is the one-two punch of “All I Want,” a Strokes-esque ballad, and “I Can Change,” a catchy pop song reminiscent of 80’s dance music.
Though LCD Soundsystem is pretty well nestled into their niche, they improve with each new release. This Is Happening has more introspection and less optimism than 2007’s Sound of Silver and as Murphy matures, his lyrics become more intense and his music more intricate. On “Somebody’s Calling Me,” the slightly off-key synth gives a unique abrasion to an almost lounge-y dance track. James Murphy continues to surprise and impress me, and I don’t even really like dance music that much.
6. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
In 2005, I considered Demon Days one of the best albums I had ever heard in my life. Damon Albarn’s cartoon creation had hit the mainstream, and the hip-hop collaborations and animated music videos made the Gorillaz one of the most unique bands (bands?) in existence. After five years, with little more than the flop Monkey Albarn came back in full force with Plastic Beach.
The collaborators on the new album are a bit more well-known: Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, and De La Soul. A brass orchestra opens “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” before allowing Snoop Dogg to take over and lay down some slow verses about pollution (plastic beach, get it?). The single “Stylo” is probably one of the best tracks, with a driving bassline guiding Albarn, Mos Def, and Womack along. Check out the video with Bruce Willis. With 16 tracks, there is a bit of filler. “Superfast” is a cheesy melody, though it has some entertaining lyrics about fast food and breakfast cereal. “On Melancholy Hill” is a fantastic, uplifting pop song, which breaks up the second half of the album nicely. Since five years have passed, it’s hard to compare Plastic Beach to Demon Days, but since I expected to dislike the new album after Albarn’s Monkey phase, it’s nice to have a surprise like this.
5. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Here’s an album that’s going to place on almost everyone’s year end list. In 2010, Arcade Fire solidified their place alongside iconic rock bands like U2 and Radiohead with The Suburbs, an album that hits close to home with young people growing up in an unstable economy with memories of the safety and security of their childhood. Tracks like “The Suburbs” and “Wasted Hours” reminisce about a past life, where working a 9 to 5 and raising a family was the norm and no one worried about losing their job or scrounging for financial security. Even the interactive album includes scenes from suburban sprawls, including a video for “We Used To Wait” that invites you to enter your childhood street address so you can go on a Google Earth adventure through your old neighborhood.
Along with the memories, Arcade Fire addresses the present with tracks like “Modern Man” and “Rococo,” with biting lyrics about kids today following trends and not understanding the world they live in. The fiery passion we saw on Funeral has evolved into a mature, introspective look at the world. Sure, songs like “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” still have that signature Arcade Fire sound, and they’ve garnered enough respect to sell out Madison Square Garden (along with a live feed directed by Terry Gilliam). With this release, Arcade Fire has redeemed their reputation that was soiled by the sub-par Neon Bible, and will continue to appeal to both mainstream and indie audiences because of their concepts and lyrics.
4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I have every inclination to hate Kanye West. He’s an egomaniac, an asshole, and a crybaby. But goddamn, the guy is one hell of a song writer. This album, though probably not a 10.0, is a return to the brilliance we last saw somewhere between Late Registration and Graduation. In “Runaway” he even addresses his twisted ego with a “toast to the douchebags,” as if this will somehow forgive his Taylor Swift incident at the Grammys. Of course, when was there a superstar pop idol who wasn’t a lunatic? Take a look at Michael Jackson, his demise an eventual result of the pedestal he stood upon. Kanye is unabashedly picking up his flag, with a literal tribute to the King of Pop in “All of the Lights” as well as a parade in his honor in the ridiculous 35 minute music video for “Runaway.” So taking into account his self-centered lyrics, his excessive glamor, and his penchant for being the center of attention, whether positive or negative, and you can understand the genius behind My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
3. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
Every year or two, a songwriter comes around wielding a single acoustic guitar and proving his musical prowess solely through his vocal melodies and poetic lyrics. Channeling the nasely style of Dylan, Neil Young, and Devendra Banhart comes Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth. Although The Wild Hunt isn’t his first release, it’s a fantastic follow-up to his 2008 debut album, Shallow Grave. However, despite the thousands of Dylan comparisons, the one distinct difference between the two is Matsson’s placated lyrics, casting off the problems of the world and singing about the Scandinavian countryside and past lovers. While his style isn’t groundbreaking or completely original, you can feel the emotion in his voice when he reaches the chorus of “You’re Going Back” or “King of Spain” as he cracks and strains through the choruses. The anthemic end of the album, “Kids on the Run,” is a piano-driven ballad calling for a return to fleeting childhood memories. As a modern folk album, The Wild Hunt is beautiful and its melodies are addictively catchy.
2. Ariel Pink – Before Today
It’s hard to imagine that Before Today was released in 2010. So many sounds and melodies just sound so familiar. Didn’t I hear that bassline in a Cure song? Isn’t “Bright Lit Blue Skies” a 60’s doo-wop song? This amalgamation of vintage pop is what makes the new record by Ariel Pink so accessible. Ever the minimalist, Ariel Pink has been known for his lo-fi recordings. Up until this record, I never really gave him a chance. Once he teamed up with his current band, the Haunted Graffiti, everything took off. The polished sound of Before Today is on par with a mainstream pop album (at least in the 80’s it could be mainstream). Tracks like “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and “Round and Round” break into catchy choruses in the vein of The Police or Culture Club. Though usually not my cup of tea, Pink’s twist on the genre, the sound effects all made with his mouth, and the weird intrusions of jet plans, screeching tires, and telephones ringing make this album amazing. It’s by far the catchiest album of the year.
1. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
I was first introduced to Joanna Newsom’s unique shrill voice during college when my roommate incessantly played The Milk-Eyed Mender on repeat for weeks on end. At first, I found her unbearable, like nails on a chalkboard. I warmed up to her eventually, and discovered that she had a modern Shakespearean quality to her lyrics, as well as a flair for the harp. This combination of sprawling epic poetry and minimalist harp-plucking was reminiscent of some sort of transplanted traveling minstrel from hundreds of years ago. So when Ys was released in 2006, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the five songs made up an hour-long album full of metaphorical tales about monkeys and bears, and a grammatical conversation about the difference between “meteors” and “meteorites.” I became obsessed. Unfortunately, with the exception of a Van Dyke Parks rendition of a few tracks, we would hear nothing from Newsom for four years.
In early 2010, Joanna released the triple LP Have One On Me. Alternating between solo harp ballads and full-band orchestrations, her new album allows you to digest 18 tracks in three sittings (or if you lack a record player, as many as you want). It’s about two hours long, and the melodies switch between slow, sprawling lullabys (“Baby Birch”) and comparatively fast-paced jaunts (“Good Intentions Paving Company”). It’s impossible to describe the layers of orchestration or lyrical intensity on this album, and I’m certain most people will despise her style upon first listen. For me, I’ve fallen into the category of Joanna Newsom fans who crave the dense orchestration and intense lyrics.