Technically, this is a list. But it’s not much of one. Unfortunately, I was even less excited about new music this year than I was in 2009, and the same thoughts have returned. I had a number of questions all lined up, all asking some version of, What does this mean? But I’d rather get to what I liked, and why.
These are the eight 2012 albums I liked enough to feel like writing about. For me, there’s a clear top pick, and it’s a bit harder to differentiate the others. So, I didn’t. Lazy? Honest? A bold new direction? Your call. Undoubtedly, I’ll eventually discover other albums from 2012 that I enjoyed. (That’s how it works, and thank goodness for that.) But for now ….
1. Dr. Dog – Be The Void
I always think the newest Dr. Dog album is the best. Still do, it seems. What’s the ceiling for these guys? I don’t know, but Be The Void has to be close, doesn’t it? Effortless melodies that run circles around anything else I heard this year — it’s an unstoppable hit parade. It’s fair to be a bit wary of any band that gets praised for having a “classic rock” sound, but Dr. Dog doesn’t strike me as a band that wishes it was recording in the 60s or 70s. They never point to outdated recording techniques or cling to one specific style. Far from it. This bounces all over the place, never stepping wrong.
There are many standouts here, but “That Old Black Hole” is the showstopper, starting as a steady, lurking groove and somehow ending as a joyous, frantic romp. I’m still trying to figure out how they pull it off so naturally. And more than a few of the words remind me of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.”
Others, in alphabetical order:
Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes
Craig Finn didn’t just go and make an album that could have maybe been a Hold Steady album. He made a true solo album, which is respectable and only right. It wasn’t an initial standout, but a later return found it stuck with me.
Hospitality – Hospitality
Hospitality was the only new band I really cared for this year. Nothing flashy here, just well-crafted songs with depth. The many comparisons to Belle & Sebastian certainly have some merit, but they don’t tell the whole story. A band that kicks off with “Eighth Avenue” and “Friends of Friends” is not to be ignored. There are points later on where it can get a tad sleepy, but I’m quickly drawn back in. It’s all so charming.
Islands – A Sleep & A Forgetting
A collection of bittersweet lullabies. Whereas the synthy Vapours stripped away the overwhelming fullness of Arm’s Way, this goes further. It’s subdued, controlled, quiet. But right there in the thick of it all, there’s “Hallways,” for dancing the tears right off your face.
The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea
A sticker on the album cover declared Love at the Bottom of the Sea to be The Magnetic Fields’ best since the legendary 69 Love Songs, and you know what? I think I agree. Fifteen songs, the longest at 2:39, and plenty of high points, including “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and “Goin’ Back to the Country,” a classic country song in disguise. Speaking of disguise, it’s “Andrew in Drag” that shows Stephin Merritt in top form. It’s shake-your-head-and-smile clever. It’s also funny, sad, catchy, short, and sweet, and it’s one of the best songs of 2012.
The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
It’s not quite The Wild Hunt, but I get the feeling Kristian Matsson could appear on these little lists of mine for as long as he makes albums. Here’s hoping for a long career, with all of us lucky enough to have an expansive collection of TTMoE to enjoy on a future winter morning — tunes like “Revelation Blues” and “1904.”
M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion
Parts of A Wasteland Companion are very Him & She, which isn’t such a bad thing. The quieter last half of the album seems to fade out when compared to the start, but it grows on you with time. “The First Time I Ran Away” is like the spiritual successor to “Hold Time,” an easygoing wonder that packs emotional punch without any real punctuation or climax — it simply drifts away. An example of restraint as the perfect choice.
Jack White – Blunderbuss
I never seem to have enough interest in Jack White’s non-Stripes projects. I never felt much of a connection to most Raconteurs or Dead Weather stuff, though perhaps I haven’t really put in the time. Blunderbuss is as good as any post-Elephant Stripes album, which makes it more than worthwhile, of course. You’re never quite sure what to expect from track to track — he’s doing what he wants, which is what we want him to be doing.
Also, some songs I really liked:
Best Coast, “The Only Place”
Fun., “We Are Young”
Japandroids, “The House That Heaven Built”
Killer Mike, “Reagan”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, “Same Love,” “Thrift Shop”
I seem to recall a friend of mine saying this album was awful. Maybe it was a disappointment, but awful? No, that didn’t seem right. Angles is actually pretty good. Maybe we all expect too much of the Strokes, but don’t forget that First Impressions of Earth was no great shakes. This is better. “Machu Picchu,” “Under Cover of Darkness,” “Taken For a Fool,” “Gratisfaction” … I wouldn’t kick any of those tunes out of my ears. I’d say half of this album holds its own against Room on Fire. Maybe that’s not everything we’ve ever wanted, but what else can we ask for at this point?
9. Okkervil River — I Am Very Far
Speaking of holding a band up against prior expectations, I Am Very Far doesn’t grab me like, oh, just about every other Okkervil River album. It’s hard to put a finger on why, exactly. Maybe the emphasis on making the sound bigger doesn’t give any time for rest — the coherence of the album actually takes away from the smaller, affecting moments found on past works. That’s just a theory. Maybe the songs just aren’t quite as good this time around.
8. Wilco — The Whole Love
Kind of a provisional ranking here, because I feel I haven’t spent enough time with The Whole Love yet. But I really like what Wilco has done here — this is more of a push back to the sound and experimentation of the group’s peak era. “I Might” is the band’s best song in ages.
7. They Might Be Giants — Join Us
The Johns haven’t lost it, have they? I’m starting to wonder if they’re just ingeniously designed song-making automatons, never slowing down, never growing old, writing unforgettable melodies all the while. In some cases, the band that created “Boat of Car” is getting even weirder … listen to “Cloisonné.” But I suppose one wouldn’t expect any less from two guys who have continued to push themselves in every and any direction for the better part of three decades.
6. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks — Mirror Traffic
Good to see Malkmus didn’t follow Real Emotional Trash down the jammy rabbit hole. (Oh, you’ve never met the jammy rabbit? He loves carrot-based clothing and his guitar solos never end.) Mirror Traffic is more vintage Malkmus — sly melodies, full of Malkmus lines: “For history is not a phase/a doughnut glaze/will rot your teeth/and leave you crazed.” “I have no idea when we crystallized into talking bookends.” “We’re unevolving, have you heard of us?/Virtual unvirtuous/A game of faro, can’t you see?/Bastardized biology.” And so on and so forth. I suppose I should mention something about how Beck produced the album. Well, I don’t see how it could have hurt.
5. My Morning Jacket — Circuital
First off, at the top, I’m going to have to address this again. I know I’ve written about it before, and I talk about it too often. I don’t want to do this, but I read too much stuff this year that forced my hand. So, once more, with feeling: Evil Urges is, at the very least, the band’s second-best album. And maybe the best. So stop letting “Highly Suspicious” mess your entire perception of MMJ’s strongest overall collection of songs. I will argue this for as long as necessary.
Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, Circuital. There’s a lot of groove going on here. “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” is one of the coolest things I heard all year. Then you have “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” which is such a quintessential Jim James song — he brings that gorgeous warmth to the slower tracks. I feel like he could write a few classic songs like this every year. It seems effortless. To me, most of Circuital feels like a natural expansion of the MMJ sound, and I wouldn’t mind if the group pushed it even further next time around.
4. TV on the Radio — Nine Types of Light
It seems I always end up thinking the newest TV on the Radio album is the band’s best. But this time, I mean it. I swear. More of a grower than anything the group has done before, TVOTR brings a confident, assured sound to Nine Types of Light. And I find myself going back to it more than any other TVOTR album in the past. It came on quietly, but it’s the group’s strongest set of songs.
3. tUnE-yArDs — w h o k i l l
Who is this? That was my first thought when I heard “Bizness.” Man? Woman? Otherworldly being? Merrill Garbus is a woman, but her voice is from another realm. And so is this album. Garbus layers sounds and loops — anything goes, really — and creates something unique. Which, I realize, is similar to what I wrote about Sufjan Stevens’ masterpiece The Age of Adz. But although neither discriminates when it comes to merging noise and melody, Garbus and Stevens go about their work in different ways. Garbus doesn’t mind jarring and shaking you a bit more — one gets the sense that, often, she’s going for just that. And her voice is so reckless, it’s glorious. Take-no-prisoners, pull-no-punches vocals.
The only thing I don’t like about the album or the artist are the crazy spellings. I suppose you could say its reflective of her sound or ethos or whatever, but c’mon now.
2. Let’s Wrestle — Nursing Home
There will always be a place in my heart for brilliant British pop-punk/post-punk. And if it comes with some humor, even better. Let’s Wrestle carry on that tradition proudly.
Many seemed to enjoy the group’s debut full-length, In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s. But few people seemed to pay attention to Nursing Home. (It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, for crying out loud.) Maybe they thought Let’s Wrestle was an amusing one-trick pony. Maybe it was the too-clever King Crimson reference.
Well, whatever the case, you folks are missing out, because this trio has gotten even better. Wesley Patrick Gonzalez’s songwriting is stronger, the Steve Albini production is stellar (of course), and Let’s Wrestle is just as funny as before. But, lest you be concerned that Let’s is too immature (one song is titled “Bad Mammaries”), be assured that the guys are in on the jokes. Gonzalez wrote the second great “Suburbs” song in the last two years. But where Win Butler and Arcade Fire looked to the suburbs with bittersweet nostalgia and found those times didn’t always lead to an ideal future, Let’s Wrestle is younger. These guys love the suburbs, and they’ll miss it, and they’re not afraid to admit it:
“In the suburbs,everything will be all right/In the suburbs, friends will come over each night/In the suburbs, I’ll have dinner with my mother, then play computer games all night/All I’ll ever worry about is feeling out of sight/’Cause I feel so safe here.” But they’re also worried about when school ends, ” ‘Cause that’s when I’ll have to move from here.” It doesn’t have the scope and vision of the Arcade Fire song, sure, but it’s just as honest. Maybe even more so.
If nothing else, enjoying Nursing Home lets me know that I’m not too old yet. Because when you’re too old, sometimes, it’s hard to know.
1. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues
This is what you want a second album to be. Fleet Foxes’ full-length debut was very good, with some amazing high points. But spots of the album did drag just a bit. Not the case here. The sound is larger and completely assured. Rather than just a talented band carving a niche for itself, on Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes sound like a group fully aware of its many powers.
The opener, “Montezuma,” grabs you from the outset. Shimmering and wonderous, I believed almost immediately that it was the band’s best song. But it has major competition on this album alone. “Battery Kinzie,” the title track, “Lorelai,” “The Shrine/An Argument” are all worthy foes.
Fleet Foxes have earned comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills and Nash, among other classic bands. There are times when I sense a bit of slower prog-rock influences creeping into their work, as well. But all of these comparisons — which can be scattershot — only convince me the band has its own sound now. Its own instant-classic sound. Maybe we couldn’t all hear that before, but it’s been solidified with Helplessness Blues. And the lyrics are a thing of beauty. From the majestic title track:
“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique, like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, distinct in each way you’d conceive. And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me. But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be. I’ll get back to you someday, soon you’ll see.”
“I feel the pain of everyone. And then I feel nothing.”
- Dinosaur Jr., “Feel The Pain”
I didn’t write much about the Steelers this season, though there was plenty to write about. And I certainly haven’t written anything since the Super Bowl.
Your favorite team losing the Super Bowl … it’s a strange feeling. It took me a few days to get over it. Different moments played back in my mind. The penalties. The turnovers. So many what-ifs.
But what-ifs are just that. Sports fans grow old with their what-ifs. They hold onto them for their entire lives.
“What if he caught that ball?”
“What if he makes that tackle?”
This line of thinking quickly gets you to the “if only” stage. “If only he would have caught that ball … we probably would have won.”
But in the end, the what-ifs and if-onlys only matter in our minds. The record books will read Green Bay 31 – Pittsburgh 25. And yes, I winced a bit when I wrote that.
That being said, right after the Super Bowl … I was OK. I was almost too OK for someone whose team just lost the Super Bowl. The Steelers had a great year. They were beaten by a better team, or at least, a team that was better on that final day. I don’t subscribe to the view of many NFL fans — that fans of 31 teams have virtually no reason to feel good about the season. After everything the Steelers went through this past season … if you tell me they have one last drive to win the Super Bowl, in the last two minutes? Again? Somehow? With that O-line? I take it every time.
Yeah, I was OK. But not great. Far from it. I didn’t get much sleep that night. I kept thinking about all the mistakes. The missed 52-yard field goal. The interception for a TD. Keyaron Fox’s asinine penalty. And most of all, Mendenhall’s fumble. The momentum had turned at that point. The Steeler running game was starting to look unstoppable. The Steeler fans in the crowd started to believe. You could hear the “Here We Go” chant fill Jerry Jones Stadium. And then…
So why wasn’t I depressed for weeks, or longer? Two main factors, as best as I can tell, and both are fairly obvious.
1. A recent championship.
Bill Simmons writes about a five-year “grace period” after your team wins a championship. No complaining. I don’t know if there’s an actual time limit for it, but that period does exist. It’s probably different for everyone. As a fan, you know the players should want to win it all every year. But you also know that’s not a realistic expectation. And it’s a bit greedy. (Yankee fans cannot comprehend these last two sentences.)
The Steelers have won two Super Bowls in the past six years. Throw in all the Roethlisberger stuff, and no one other than Steeler fans wanted to see them win a third in that time frame. (And you know what? That was fine with us.)
Same reason why the Penguins’ exit to Montreal wasn’t nearly as painful as it should have been. If we did feel like crying, we still had the Stanley Cup waiting to collect our tears.
I don’t, however, think this extends to other sports teams in the same city. Non-Pittsburgh fans tell me the Pirates are our penance for all the winning. I disagree. Because as things stand now, the Pirates have no chance to compete for a championship. Every baseball season is a guaranteed L. The Steelers and the Pens could both have poor years, and the Pirates would not be lifting our spirits. Call me greedy, but I just want the Bucs to have a fighting chance.
And what about the people who are just Pirate fans, or the folks who are Pirate fans above all? Whither fellow one-time Beaver County Times sports correspondent, Doc Emrick?
Again, obvious. As you get older, it’s not necessarily that you care about sports less … it’s that you start to care (and worry) about other things more. Family. Career. House. Money. Et cetera. My nonna always said she never understood why people cared so much about their favorite teams. After all, “They don’t care about you.”
Maybe this is an Italian thing. Chazz Palminteri’s character said the same thing about Mickey Mantle in “A Bronx Tale.”
All right, here’s one more…
It’s human nature. If you don’t expect much, you’re happier with each extra game. If you expect the world, you can end up fearing defeat more than you’re anticipating victory.
Even though Pats fans were spoiled from three recent championships, those titles couldn’t have been much consolation after the Super Bowl loss against the Giants.
I’m one of those people who believes that sports fans connect with each other — and their teams — more through losing than through winning. Anyone can support a winner. The pain binds us. And after all, losing allows you to play the what-if game. Conversations about winning teams often turn into:
“That was awesome, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, they were a great team.”
It’s easy for me to say, of course, because my teams have won titles. I live in Buffalo, and trust me, these folks don’t want to hear that. And why would they? Buffalo fans don’t want to hear about my pain. They’ve got more than enough of their own. They treat me like I’m some young, bright-eyed man who fancies himself a real blues singer. And I just walked into the oldest, smokiest, bluesiest club in town.
“The blues? What do you know about the blues?”
But I will press on. The following are my most painful moments as a sports fan — one for each Pittsburgh sports team. These are dictated by my own personal feelings. Yours might differ drastically. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh fans … prepare for heartbreak.
The Steeler list would be the longest. Not because I care about the Steelers so much more than the other teams — it’s just the nature of football. There are relatively few games, so the moments always feel that much more important. This is especially true with the Steelers, who, despite their success, often seem incapable of winning (or losing) a game handily.
Non-playoff moments are immediately out. Neil O’Donnell’s second interception in Super Bowl XXX would be a great candidate, but I was 13 years old at the time, and my memories of that game are a bit hazy. Thankfully.
That leaves us with a number of brutal playoff losses, most of them home AFC championship games. The one that hit me hardest — and I think this will be a popular choice among Steeler fans — is the 2001-02 loss to the Patriots.
Unlike the 2004-05 loss to the Pats, I felt like the Steelers were the superior team in ’01-’02. The Pats took an early lead on a Troy Brown punt return TD. Drew Bledsoe then took over for an injured Tom Brady, and promptly threw a TD. It was 14-3 at the half and we had to listen to Sheryl Crow sing “Soak Up The Sun” live. Nobody was in the mood for that.
Especially me. I was watching the game with my girlfriend at the time, who was from Massachusetts. That wasn’t the issue, though. She claimed to be a Patriots fan, but she wasn’t really. As I watched the first half in horror, it became clear that she’d rather see the Steelers win, because it was causing me such grief. Most people — myself included — thought that it would be the Steelers and the Rams.
Still in a state of disbelief, I slowly began to pull out of it. The Steelers were setting up for a gimme field goal, which would at least cut the deficit to one score.
Kris Brown’s field goal attempt was blocked. It was recovered by Troy Brown — who else? — who lateraled to some guy (Antwan Harris), who ran it back for a touchdown. 21-3. If I was still in the state of denial as the ball was snapped, I went through the rest of the grief stages in the time it took to score that touchdown. The internet has spared me … I can’t find a video clip.
It was over. On a blocked field goal return, of all things. The second spectacular special teams failure in the game. (The Pats only scored one offensive touchdown in the game, a 24-17 final.) There was of course, a comeback, because these are the Steelers. But the inevitable Kordell Stewart interceptions notwithstanding, the blocked field goal was the true killer. And a lesson. Nothing is guaranteed. Especially in the NFL.
Duh. Francisco Cabrera. Sid Bream. I was 10 years old. And I haven’t seen a Pirate playoff game since.
Sid Bream never gets any faster, does he? If Bonds’ throw is accurate, he’s out by 10 feet.
But as bad as that was, the moment is much worse in hindsight because of what’s happened to Pirate baseball since. We couldn’t have known then what would happen in the following decades.
It still doesn’t compare to my most painful moment of being a Pittsburgh sports fan.
A number of possibilities exist, from the David Volek OT goal to Tom Fitzgerald’s slapshot from Polish Hill. (That Eastern Conference Finals against the Panthers will probably always be the most frustrating series to me. What if the Panthers weren’t allowed to hold onto Lemieux and Jagr for seven straight games? Someone needs to make a “History Will Be Made” parody for that.) But nothing compares to…
It was the 1998-99 season. The Penguins were bankrupt. Relocation rumors were swirling. The future of the team in Pittsburgh was completely uncertain. There was a chance the playoff run was only delaying the inevitable.
The run wasn’t long, but it was memorable. The Pens were the eighth seed. Not a great squad, but they had the league MVP, and the world’s best player. Jaromir Jagr put the team on his back and the Pens defeated top-seeded New Jersey in seven games. This series is exhibit A when someone tries to tell you Jagr’s not a winner, or that he’s not clutch. His heroics in game six of that series — tying the game late, then winning it in overtime — are legendary.
Jags and the boys chugged along admirably, until they found themselves in an elimination game. Game six, at home against the Leafs. Enter former nondescript Penguin Garry Valk.
Valk’s OT goal to eliminate the Pens in the 1998-99 Eastern Conference Semifinals was the goal that really could have ended a franchise. It could have been the last on-ice moment in Penguins history. No other loss could top the feeling of what could have been the last loss. Ever. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t. I was just numb. Completely numb.
I don’t know how I, or anyone, would choose to watch their favorite team play its last game. There’s no good way, really. But Garry Valk? In sudden death? Please. Not like this.
I have an excellent memory. But somehow, I’d completely forgotten what Valk’s goal looked like. I haven’t watched a replay in years. But this is all about embracing the pain. I know what I’ve got to do.
I don’t know how hundreds of Pittsburghers weren’t arrested for pummeling the Leaf fans that night. They either exhibited an amazing amount of self-control, or they were just as numb as I was.
When it comes to sports, the worst losses make the great wins feel even better. It’s true. To my Buffalo friends, I know that sounds like something people say to make you feel better. But for now, you’re just going to have trust me on this one.
Just a phenomenal year. Unlike 2009, there’s no shortage of great albums. I’m sure it’ll take me years to catch up with all the great stuff that came out in 2010. For now, I’ve got 20 for ya.
20. MGMT – Congratulations
It’s a good psychedelic rock album. I think many people were disappointed because that’s all it is. And that disappointment makes some sense. Why try to sound like the past when you already sound like the future?
19. Of Montreal – False Priest
I like this album, but I think it’s the end of the line for Kevin Barnes and this latest electrodisco-Georgie Fruit phase of his career. It started with Hissing Fauna, which was great. I also enjoyed the messy Skeletal Lamping more than most. False Priest starts off strong, but portions of it seem like weak rehashes of the past two albums. Time to evolve again.
18. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
Living with the Living wasn’t quite up to Leo’s normal standards. Here, he’s sounding urgent again. He knows it, too, as the album starts off with a jolt and “When the cafe doors exploded…” Personal favorites are “Even Heroes Have to Die” and “Bottled in Cork” — vintage form there.
17. The New Pornographers – Together
You know it’s a monster year when a new New Pornos album can’t even crack the top 15. Unlike all the other NP albums, I think Bejar brought the best songs to Together. That’s not an indictment of its quality — it’s just the way it worked out this time around. Another solid effort here, but not a standout.
16. Miles Kurosky – The Desert of Shallow Effects
It’s good to have Kurosky back. After fronting the late, great Beulah, he disappeared for a while, but he re-emerged to release an album that wasn’t completely dissimilar from something Beulah would have released. OK, maybe The Desert of Shallow Effects is both a bit more subdued and quirky than Beulah’s albums were — that newfound freedom reminds me of Stephen Malkmus’ solo debut.
15. Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love
After the dizzying heights of The Life Pursuit, it took four years for Write About Love to appear. Despite the wait, this album kind of flew under the radar for me. It’s solid, with a few top-notch additions to the formidable B&S catalog, but the Norah Jones duet, like everything else I’ve heard from her, is snoozeville.
14. The Apples in Stereo – Travellers in Space and Time
I’m glad Robert Schneider has gone off the deep end and completely embraced his inner Jeff Lynne. If the Apples are today’s ELO, well, there are lesser goals to be sure. There was a sticker on the cover of this album … it read something like ”A symphony of robots and humans” or something like that. I don’t remember the exact wording. But anyway, it was a fairly accurate statement. “Symphony” might be a bit much, but Travellers sure is fun.
13. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I’ve always been more of a singles guy when it comes to rap. Everyone is aware of the critical euphoria this album has received. It is very good. But I don’t quite understand the endless acclaim. There are some killer tracks — “Dark Fantasy,” “Power,” “Monster” — but MBDTF is flawed. Kanye gets a lot of credit for being ambitious, but why shouldn’t he be ambitious? What has he got to lose? It’s a thin line between ambitious and bloated, and I don’t think Kanye’s always on the proper side here: “All of the Lights,” for instance, is overloaded and ultimately empty.
You should buy this album. It’s worth owning. But personally, I still prefer Graduation.
12. Spoon – Transference
Transference doesn’t really grab you right away like the last few Spoon efforts, but who doesn’t trust Spoon? You give it a few spins, and hey — another winner. Of course. It’s almost boring how consistent Spoon is, but I’ve gotta say something else. How about that “Goodnight Laura?” That’s a new kind of pearl from these guys. Quite welcome, too.
11. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
Modern surf rock. The band name, album name, the shark cover, the song titles: “Floating Vibes,” “Swim.” But really, who doesn’t need an album they can blast at the beach? I’d be concerned about the long-term prospects of Surfer Blood if I wasn’t enjoying the songs so much. “Twin Peaks” even makes David Lynch and Syracuse sound sort of sunny.
But back to that shark attack cover: Astro Coast does have some bite. It’s not all palm tree gazing.
10. Let’s Wrestle – In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s
I adore this. It’s the kind of funny, clever, haphazard record that only seems to come out of England. Let’s Wrestle come off like a trio of post-punk pranksters, but the melodies will take you by surprise. Technically, I suppose Wesley Patrick Gonzalez isn’t much of a singer, but I don’t listen technically. The guy sings with his heart, even if he’s havin’ a laugh.
9. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
Solo musicians and their monikers these days. TTMoE is the Swedish Kristian Matsson, and his talent is the stop-you-in-your-tracks sort. He’s got an earnest voice, whether it’s yelping or soaring, he’s a dynamo on the guitar, and man, can the guy write a tune.
There have been a thousand new Dylans over the years, so as for that, I’ll refrain. But Mattson’s gotta be The Great Folk Rock Hope at this point. If you’ve got no hope, he’s folk’s new king. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he prefers shouting to whispering. May his reign be long.
8. The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
There’s something just a little off here, isn’t there? The lyrics are still great, the songs still sound like they’re hitting the mark, everything seems to be in order … but it just doesn’t keep pulling me back in like past Hold Steady albums. Perhaps the production is getting a tad too polished for a band that won me over with its hard-working grittiness. I love Heaven is Whenever. Just not as much as I expected.
7. Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
For me, Dr. Dog’s music has always had a glow to it. It’s inviting and warm, and those who would rather talk about the group’s influences probably didn’t feel that quite as much. I’d like to think Shame, Shame is where those thoughts fade away, because this is the strongest batch of songs the Dog has created yet. When my least favorite tune here is the steady title track (featuring Jim James, no less), it’s clear something special is at work.
6. She & Him – Volume 2
I don’t really care how calculated or cultivated the whole thing is. I will listen to these lovely, breezy pop songs forever. I almost typed “simple.” That would have been a mistake. She & Him are making new songs that sound like standards, and that’s one of the toughest tricks there is. I still don’t think of Zooey Deschanel as a musician who acts, but I should.
5. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)
I don’t understand why Janelle Monáe isn’t the biggest star in pop music today. She has the ambition of Kanye, she takes far more musical risks than Lady Gaga, her live show is incredible (saw her twice last year), she’s gorgeous, and this, her first full-length album, plays like a hit parade. Perhaps Monáe needs to start some kind of controversy. That’s what sells the most records these days. As if we’re listening to controversy when we buy music.
I’ll stop myself before this turns into a full-blown old man rant. The ArchAndroid is an inventive explosion that puts most modern pop and R&B to shame. It works as both a pop/funk album and a concept album — The ArchAndroid refers to Monáe’s continuing concept, the tale of android Cindi Mayweather. Sounds a bit out there, no? It is. Gloriously so.
One gripe is that the album is too long. A small price to pay.
4. The National – High Violet
High Violet is where it all came together for The National. Alligator and Boxer are great albums, but they both have their dull moments. It’s hard to put a finger on why, exactly, except to say this is just a great collection of songs. The typical mood is established — dark, serious — but it never drags things down. These are well-crafted songs that stick with you.
Even after five studio albums and burgeoning commercial success (High Violet debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200), The National is still an acquired taste. High Violet is the well-aged choice.
3. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
It took a few listens for this one to sink in. The songs I liked best initially (the title track, “We Used to Wait,” “Sprawl II”) are still my favorites, but the depth is there. It just took a little while to hear it.
The greatest triumph of The Suburbs is how this band can create such bittersweet nostalgic feelings without using any lo-fi recording techniques or falling back on knowing musical nods to the past.
“In the suburbs I — I learned to drive. And you told me we’d never survive. Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leavin.’ “ There’s a mystery to the way Win Butler sings that. It’s like the beginning of a great short story.
The Arcade Fire has released three full-length albums now — all are tremendous. The band remains poignant enough to resonate on headphones and powerful enough to rock arenas. Refraining from historical hyperbole, I’ll just say it’s great to have ‘em around.
2. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
The Monitor strikes me as a masterpiece. It’s the sound of a band throwing it all out there, and succeeding. It’s been billed as a Civil War concept album, but that concept is very loose — the first song, the towering “A More Perfect Union” name-checks Fung Wah Bus, the Newark Bears, Billy Bragg and makes an almost-obligatory-at-that-point Springsteen reference before it eventually barrels on into the “Battle Cry of Freedom” near the end of its seven-minute running time. Titus Andronicus is serving notice.
The rest of the album, somehow, keeps the momentum going, through songs short and long, through pianos and saxophones, through death, life, piss and Keystone Light. Sometimes, you’ll hear touches of The Replacements, or The Hold Steady (Craig Finn has an obscure guest spot here), or a number of any great bands, but Patrick Stickles’ inspired ranting and raving never lets you forget this is a Titus Andronicus album.
It’s grand, theatrical, ambitious punk rock of the highest order, but American Idiot it is not. The Monitor is fearless, drunken, raw and unsanitized. Don’t hold your breath waiting on the Broadway adaptation.
1. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
I’ve always respected Sufjan Stevens’ talent more than I actually enjoyed his work. Like anyone who’s heard it, I love “Chicago,” but most of Stevens’ songs are too delicate for me. Gorgeous melodies, floating away into the ether.
The Age of Adz begins with the sparse and pretty ”Futile Devices,” and after that, everything changes. All sorts of noises take hold, as Stevens’ voice dips in and out of these new crashing waves.
Now, Stevens has done more electronically-oriented music before, but I was never too familiar with it. It was clear Stevens wanted to move in a different direction, though, and it was a smart decision from a smart guy. The very first time I heard The Age of Adz, I listened in awe. My main problem with most all “electronic music” is its relative lack of soul — that’s never a problem here. Stevens is pulling sounds from all over the place — orchestral, electronic, conventional, unconventional — and making something completely new and affecting out of the madness. It’s truly stunning. I don’t think of The Age of Adz as an electronic album. I’ve never heard anything quite like this before — it’s impossible to categorize.
The album title refers to (and the cover features) artwork from Royal Robertson, an American artist who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. After listening to the album, it makes sense. This does sound a bit like the work of a schizophrenic genius.
It’s probably a prerequisite when discussing this album to bring up the closer, the 25-minute “Impossible Soul.” There. I mentioned it. I won’t write about it further than that, because the song is not a gimmick, and doesn’t deserve to be singled out as such. It only feels like another great part of the impossible whole.
What a letdown. I didn’t care for most of the critical darlings of 2009. This list should at least include an even 10 albums, but I can’t do it. I really only liked seven albums last year. There you have it. That’s why it took me so long to publish the list. Eventually, posterity defeated lukewarm enthusiasm.
So, I thought maybe that 2009 was the end of the line for me musically — I wasn’t feeling what the kids were feeling anymore. I wasn’t feeling much of anything, even from bands that I’d previously loved in the past: Wilco, The Flaming Lips, Super Furry Animals, White Rabbits. This is your stop, Phil.
But as it turns out, 2010 is more than making up for last year’s musical wasteland, so I guess I’m still enjoying the ride. You sure put a scare into me, 2009.
7. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
I’ve got a couple Wolf Parade albums, which I like, but don’t love, and I probably feel the same way about Dragonslayer. Well-crafted songs that take an unexpected turn every now and then. The kind of album that’s ripe for rediscovery in a year or two.
6. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
“Lisztomania” and “1901″ are so outstanding that the rest of the album sounds like filler at first. If you can get past that fallacy, you’ll be fine.
5. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
This is the Monkeys become “accomplished,” and that’s not as boring as it sounds, or as you might expect it to be. So: Slower, but the songwriting is still top-notch.
4. Julian Casablancas – Phrazes for the Young
Better than the last Strokes album, and by a fair amount, this is Casablancas free to throw things at the wall. Most of it works. Why? Well, it seems his only intent on Phrazes was to make great songs, and maybe, this was one of the few times where a solo project was the right move.
3. Islands – Vapours
Not completely dissimilar to Phrazes for the Young, I suppose: Free spirits, synths and pop tunes. I liked Arm’s Way, but it was an exhausting listen, which could never describe Vapours.