Top 30 albums of 2009

As always, this is a subjective project. I do think that everything on here is legitimately great, but I’m not going to pretend that my tastes correlate perfectly with some objective standard for the best. This is a list of the records I liked this year. Nothing more. The emphasis is on indie rock, but there’s a bit of punk, quite a few instrumental records, a decent amount of rootsy stuff, and a bit more straight-up pop music than in previous years.

In some ways, it’s been a weak year for music. I’m working on my lists for the best songs and albums of the decade, and I think 2009 is going to end up with one solitary entry on each. Still, where the absolute best has been trailing a bit from previous years, it’s been a tremendously deep year. I stretched it out to 30, but really could have gone to 40 or 50 and still been talking about records I genuinely enjoyed.

Watch out for my best of the decade lists in the next week or two.

30. Hildur GudnadottirWithout Sinking

This is an album that places you among the clouds – sometimes dark, heavy, full of rain and thunder, ready to muffle your thoughts and wipe away all memory – sometimes bright and weightless, shining like crystals in the light of a noon sun – always pulsing with some kind of self-contained life. You can see their beauty and maybe catch a glimpse of their place in the grander scheme, but they remain forever distant. Even as Gudnadottir’s cello takes you gliding through them, they fall to the side, forever beyond your grasp. Their seeming solidity revealed to be an illusion wrought by your own imagination.

Without Sinking is dark, gloomy even, but it is not sad. The somber tone does not imply a sense of futility or purposelessness – it simply reflects the deep incongruity of the sensational world.

Highlights: Elevation, Ascent, Aether

29. PurplespaceA Tiny Little Spark

Vaguely shoegaze, just a bit electronic, gauzy dreampop – this is music that makes you want to stare at the stars. The vocal harmonies all the way through verge on perfection. To be sure, it’s a different kind of harmonizing than, say, The Beach Boys or folks of that ilk. While that sort of work tends to soar, Purplespace is much more about the way that voices can merge and sink into you.

Highlights: Kaleidoscope, When I Signed Your Yearbook, I Needed You

28. Saxon ShoreIt Doesn’t Matter

They hold true to the sort of sweeping landscapes that they’ve been doing for years, but offer just a little bit more oomph, and a bit more consistency. They do the loud/soft thing as well as anyone and are experts at creating mini post-rock arias. Apart from the plodding and painful “This Place” everything else on the record is solid. If you’re into this sort of music, you’ll love It Doesn’t Matter. If not, well, it’s probably not going to change your mind, but give “Tokyo 412am” a try. If you don’t like that, you’re probably never going to be convinced.

Highlights: Tokyo 412am, Nothing Changes, Tweleven

27. And You Will Know Us By the Trail of DeadThe Century of Self

This is an ablum with a lot of excess – tracks that bleed out past 6 minutes, codas that crackle and hiss, dips and dives through the movements of miniature rock operas – but it’s excess that feels essential, if that makes any kind of sense at all. The main thing is that, for the first time in years, these guys sound like they’re making music that exists for no other reason than to tear everything apart, so that it can be rebuilt from the bottom up, without any of the pretense. Hearts are broken, fields covered in flames, and on the horizon you can see a great dark mass emerging to assert its place.

So sure, this album is overstuffed. But in spite of all that, there is a magnificent record to be found here in the midst of the madness. Mistakes are made, but they are noble ones, made in good conscience, and with a will that faces only forward: ready for whatever joyous carnage may be unleashed over the next hill.

Highlights: Halcyon Days, Fields of Coal, Ascending, Isis Unveiled

26. A Fine FrenzyBomb in a Birdcage

There’s always a place in my heart for a solid, if unspectacular, collection of pop songs. This is not an innovative record – in fact, there’s probably hundreds of very similar to it from both mainstream pop starls and indie songstresses – but it’s a pretty solid collection. Think Lisa Loeb, with a little less aspiration toward poetic cleverness, or (to reference someone else on this list) Brandi Carlile without as much musical sophistication, or The Cardigans without Nina Persson’s voice or quite as solid a handle on the construction of a perfect pop song. It’s the sort of record that’s almost categorically incapable of blowing you away, but still manages to be very nice.

Highlights: What I Wouldn’t Do, Bird of the Summer, The World Without

25. The Mary OnettesIslands

The best 80’s record released this year. Which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because, well, 80’s music is great (in moderate doses, of course), and they do it well. It’s also a bad thing because, well, stuff has happened since the 80’s – stuff which The Mary Onettes seem completely unaware of. This record isn’t an homage to the 80’s, or a reference to it. It’s an outright replication. These guys can clearly put together a great little pop song, but as good as Islands is, I really wish they could expand a little more. I’m not asking them to abandon the genre by any means – I’d just like to see a little more elbow room for them to express a unique contribution. If they can put their obvious talents to work on that project, the sky is the limit.

Highlights: Puzzles, God Knows I Had Plans, Bricks

24. Burning HeartsAboa Sleeping

A beautiful little album, a sort of low-key Postal Service without all the hype. Or a lost Magnetic Fields record from the mid-90s. They’ve got a light touch, and a great handle on how to build a song out of some very simple elements. It’s full songs that like they wafted in effortlessly on the breeze, but which are full of subtlety and depth once you start to pay attention. It moves from sleepy dreamscapes to sunny afternoons and rippling waves on a lake.

It’s intimate, but with none of the dour attitude or quiet melancholy that usually implies. This is a friendly, joyful record, and it’s irresistibly full of life. It moves with its own pace, unmeasured and free. And they take the time to explore. The result is a bunch of songs that seem like they fall out of the spaces in between other records.

Highlights: I Lost My Color Vision, Close to Her, We Walked Among the Trees, A Peasant’s Dream

23. Asobi SeksuHush

It seems silly to complain too much about such a nice album, but I just can’t help myself. I just can’t help but wonder: what happened to the shoegaze? I mean, sure, it’s still dreamy and has more than a few moments punctuated by swirls and eddies. But it’s all pretty tame. Where are the cascading waves of guitar, the machinegun rattle of the drums, the long meandering trails that seem to lead nowhere but take you into the heavens? What drew me to the band was the way their music sounded like an Impressionist painting. From too close, it might seem like mere splotches of paint with no form but from sufficient distance the colors and shapes emerge like magic. Hush doesn’t really accomplish that. There is far more attention to detail, which produces much more intricate and textured music, but may come at the cost of the messy beauty found in the relationships between sounds.

It’s not all gloom and doom of course. In particular, there’s “Me and Mary,” which is one of the best songs they’ve put together and a sign that they can do this kind of thing and still tear the house down. It’s also telling that it’s the shortest song on the record. Where too much of Hush is devoted to build-ups that never burst, “Me and Mary” doesn’t mess around. It hits you full force right from the start and tosses you like a rag doll from verse to bridge to chorus and back again – no time for worries, or even for catching your breath. That’s the way it’s meant to be done, and Hush would be a truly great album if it held onto a little bit more of that attitude over the course of the record.

Highlights: Me and Mary, Transparence (formerly Sunshower), Familiar Light

22. Loney, DearDear John

An album of dark textures and a tangled web of pulsing synths. Most of its tracks generate a thick cloud of intricately constructed and finely balanced tones. You get the sound of a lost soul standing in the midst of thousands of strangers – disconcerted and unsure. The sensation is much more about letting the music flow past than it is about any kind of direct engagement. And that probably applies to the record as a whole. It’s a stranger that you never quite come to know, but increasingly grow to appreciate despite the maintenance of distance.

Highlights: Summers, I Was Only Going Out, Harsh Words, Violent

21. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

This is a good album, but I mostly find myself feeling negative about it. It’s a shame that my expectations were set so high by their previous work. My biggest problem this time around is that everything just sounds so stuffy. Tracyanne Campbell has always had a bit of a nasally voice but up until now it was deployed in contexts that let it signify an earnestness and openness. This time around, the surrounding music treads dangerously close to creating a stifling atmosphere – one wholly at odds with the expressiveness and wide open spaces that made their best work so good.

Witness “French Navy” which has all the makings of a perfect blissout, but which just sounds so BUSY during that chorus that all of the delicate work done to put things together can’t quite sustain itself. Or “The Sweetest Thing” which ends up in much the same place. Both are very nice songs, but they remind me just a little bit of what happens when you try to intensify ALL your colors and realize that your ‘improvements’ have done little more than leave things with a hint of the garish. I desperately WANT to like it, but there’s simply too much going on for me to grasp it.

Still, there are some big successes. “You Told a Lie,” for example, plays quite a bit more with the idea of open spaces in the music. The way the strings glide through the gaps in the percussion, to offer one example, is absolutely marvelous. Along these lines, “Swans” is another rousing success. It swoops and dives like it’s just learned how to fly. Same thing with the album closer “Honey in the Sun.” These demonstrate that Camera Obscura retain an impressive capacity to make music to make you revel in simply being alive.

Highlights: Honey in the Sun, James, You Told a Lie, Forest and Sands

20. ThermalsNow You Can See

I like this record, but I find it very hard to explain why. It certainly doesn’t have the energy and lo-fi magic that made me fall in love with this band back in the day. And honestly I have a really hard time distinguishing most of the songs on the record. They all tread on the same pretty similar terrain of post-punk power-pop. They all feature the appealing-for-reasons-that-can’t-quite-be-satisfactorily-explained voice of Hutch Harris. And they’re all good.

I guess my concern is just that the whole record feels like it’s a 19th century plane that doesn’t really ever convince you that flying machines could be real. It has all the ingredients and you know that if the Wright Brothers could come along and tweak just a few things suddenly it would take flight. But you aren’t the Wright Brothers so you simply can’t figure out what you want to change. You want to be a believer, and you enjoy the product, but it doesn’t strike you as something likely to change the world anytime soon.

Highlights: All the songs? None of them? I suppose I prefer I Let It Go, Now You Can See, and I Called Out Your Name

19. PlushgunPins and Panzers

Sleek electro-pop with a slightly overwrought sense of the emotional. When everything works, you get delightful, airy, energetic hooks and a sense of good feeling about the world at large. See, for example, “Dancing in a Minefield” which glistens and shines. It’s tough work to write a song about empowerment through dancing without veering into the utterly preposterous or the monumentally fey, but they pull it off.

You can honor and respect the vivacity of youth without lionizing it. See, for example, the classic John Huges films. At times, that’s precisely the spot that Plushgun finds. In those moments, they are vibrant, cognizant of a sort of deep absurdity in youth but joyful nonetheless. If they could find that balance on every track, this would be a truly great album. Unfortunately, they don’t, and we’re left instead with an extremely enjoyable, occasionally poignant, and often exhilarating record that also suffers from occasional moves toward schlocky-hyper-sentimentalization.

Highlights: Dancing in a Minefield, Just Impolite, Let Me Kiss You Now

18. Lady GaGaThe Fame Monster

Lady GaGa reveals herself on this EP to be far more than a simple copycat. She doesn’t just exist in the wake of Madonna; she is post-Madonna. It’s a record from someone who is fully aware of her place within the litany of pop starlets, who is using that fact to propel herself beyond it. It’s not an imitation, it’s a genuine re-enactment of the form that Madonna pursued. It’s dark and ugly and more than a little bit disturbing. It’s also an almost perfectly pure slice of pop sugar. And somewhere in between those two lies a confusing and impossible set of songs.

I’m normally not one for the argument that bad music is actually clever music because it’s intentionally bad. The sentiment of “no, see, it’s clever because it’s a commentary about how bad most popular music is!” is the mark of someone who isn’t interested in art but is enormously satisfied with crap culture.

However, I think Lady GaGa is doing something far more sophisticated. What you’re supposed to read into them, I think, isn’t the obnoxious faux-pomo sense of “gee, isn’t our culture vapid?” It’s really the opposite. She doesn’t want to make the thoroughly obvious point that most of what passes for popular culture is bereft of depth or meaning. That’s true, of course, but by it’s very nature is a totally banal commentary. Any clown can accuse bland culture of being bland. It’s far more interesting to jump headfirst into it and, in so doing, reveal just how much horror and weirdness it actually contains.

It’s also a series of brilliantly constructed pop songs – as it would have to be for any of this other stuff to work.

Highlights: Bad Romance (youtube link), Monster, So Happy I Could Die

17. Passion PitManners

Hands up, everyone who predicted this record would be this good. Anyone? I certainly didn’t. “Sleepyhead” was a great track, but it had all the marks of a classic one-hit wonder band. It turns out though, that Manners is far better than anybody would have guessed.

They avoid both traps: first, the risk of issuing a bunch of insipid re-treads of their one hit; second, the risk of trying to prove themselves to be far more than their one by producing a bunch of songs that aim for sophistication but in fact are merely listless and indifferent. The secret seems to be an utter lack of concern with how the record will be received. Rather than trying to make any particular statement or point, they appear utterly satisfied with the project of churning out delicious pop songs. In so doing, they completely capture the spirit that made “Sleepyhead” such an earworm without needing to simply replicate its sound.

There’s plenty a great dance track here, as they draw out all the best elements from the past three or four decades of music. Meld together the 80s euphoria that made Cut Copy so much fun last year with a pure pop bliss that would make Brian Wilson blush. Add some disco-infused indie electronica and set the whole thing free. The major highlight, of course is “Moth’s Wings.” Intricately constructed, bombastic, and oh that chorus. It’s Miracle Fortress with the afterburners turned on. And it’s far better than “Sleepyhead,” too.

Highlights: Moth’s Wings, Eyes as Candles, Seaweed Song

16. RaveonettesIn And Out Of Control

It’s a bit darker, more driven, than their mid-decade forays into a purer form of doo-wop. Most of the songs here buzz along at a fast clip and while the instrumentation certainly continues with the ‘wall of sound’ approach, it’s all far more self-contained. Which does not mean its restrained – when done well, the centrifugal force of containment holds everything together, compacts it, and produces a neutron star of buzzing pressure.

The one conclusion to draw is that their genius lies in the chorus. Most of the music is nice enough, but it’s really there just to set the stage for choruses that can rip you apart. In “Bang!” it hits you with all the force and glory of a hundred perfect summers, of a million songs about youthful abandon and true love. Then there’s “Suicide” which is easily the best work they’ve done to date. It’s dark and vicious but also a paean to the possibility of transcendence and beauty. It’s the moment of hope and belief that’s only possible in the midst of chaos and collapse. And, once again, it all comes to a head in a chorus that brings together all of that latent energy and releases it in one enormous burst: “Lick your lips and fuck suicide.” It’s one of the finest moments in music not just this year but any year.

Highlights: Suicide, Bang!, Last Dance, Gone Forever

15. Grand ArchivesKeep In Mind Frankenstein

It’s the logical successor to their debut record last year. If that one conveyed a sense of looseness – the joy of making music for fun – this one takes that to an even greater extreme. Both darker and more buoyant (sometimes simultaneously) this one is a free-flowing affair. The atmosphere is moody, but never fearful, and the sound never strays far from the organic sound of a band practing in a barn. Not surprising, given that most of these songs were written, practiced, and recorded over the course of only a few days. At times you can’t help but wish they had spent a bit more time perfecting the craft, but you also can’t deny the vitality.

The highlight is “Oslo Novelist,” one of the most beautiful and understated songs I’ve heard this year. The pedal steel guitar manages to hold together the feeling of a windswept Scandinavian plain and the emotion of the old American West. This is a song too beautiful to be contained.

It’s probably my least favorite record of the Mat Brooke catalog, but that’s like saying Beatles for Sale is the weakest Beatles album or calling The Horse and His Boy the worst Narnia book. It’s a friend you didn’t realize you had, the ghost of a time you can’t quite remember but feel deep inside yourself.

Highlights: Oslo Novelist, Silver Among the Gold, Left for All the Strays

14. MewNo More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry, They Washed Away

I keep going back and forth on this record. Is it merely good: a nice record, but a little overdone? Or is it pure genius, a pitch-perfect essay on the grandiose scope of life itself? In the end, I’m finding myself trending toward the former sentiments. If I had reviewed it a month or two ago (as I meant to) I probably would have raved a bit more.

There certainly is a lot to love here. In a lot of ways, this is 21st century prog rock at its best. Big, glorious melodies. Intricate harmonies, meshing all the sounds to produce something that feels like it completely surrounds you. There are (relatively) straightforward pure pop songs like “Beach” that evoke a sense of magic and wonderment. There are throbbing beats, like the one that drives “Introducing Palace Players” which simply cannot be resisted.

Another note in their favor is avoidance of most of the insufferable alleyways that plague the prog tradition: namely, long and meandering solos to nowhere. Most of the songs here are relatively tight. Only “Cartoons and Macreme Wounds” is clearly too long. And while I could do with a little bit less of the album’s second half (“Vaccine,” “Tricks of the Trade,” and “Reprise” are all pleasant enough, but I’m not sure they add much), it’s not a record that feels like it’s been overstuffed.

Still, there’s something undefinable that I wish was here but can’t quite find. It may just be that I’d like for a few more songs that really drive at you. They are at their best in the first four tracks, when they are conveying a sense of insistent movement. There’s certainly an argument for slowing things down and offering a bit more freedom, but the necessary return of direction stutters quite a bit. It’s really not until the penultimate song “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” that they really hit their stride again. And that song is so good that you wish there had been a little more like it earlier.

Highlights: Beach, Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy, Introducing Palace Players

13. Jonsi and AlexRiceboy Sleeps

The Guardian called it “a delicate, sad, little record, but one that ripples with beauty.” I think that’s precisely right. The first solo release Jon Thor Birgisson of Sigur Ros (with partner Alex Somers) – I think it might be more finely crafted than any of their work. It doesn’t have the same heft or grandeur – which means it strikes you far less deeply. But it you take the time to get to know it, you may come to appreciate the slow movement of its ambience.

This record sings in a way that’s almost impossible to characterize. So I won’t try. I’ll instead just say that if you listen to this, what you’re really hearing is something inside yourself. That’s how powerful this is – it can show you what was already there with in yourself that you could never have otherwise seen.

Highlights: Boy 1904, Happiness, Indian Summer

12. BalmorheaAll is Wild, All is Silent

All of dulcet beauty of their previous work, but it also offers quite a bit more emotional (and musical) heft. The arrangements are intricate, but never forced. They reveal themselves gently, soothing the soul and caressing the heart, which is not to say this is all soft touches and whispery notes. They bring the noise on occasion, if only in a relative sense, and some of the finest moments are when the songs are set free amidst a round of handclaps. All told, it’s a thing of unqualified beauty. I think this is the highest I’ve ever rated an instrumental album but it’s too good to be resisted.

Highlights: March 4, 1831, Settler, Elegy, November 1, 1832

11. Tegan and Sara – Sainthood

I adore Tegan and Sara, and this record doesn’t change that fact. Still, it was a modest disappointment. In some ways, it’s a ‘better’ record than most things they’ve done before. The technical proficiency is higher, the songwriting is tighter and cleaner, the lyrics are more sophisticated. But really, I think that’s also the problem. It seems like they took to heart the success of “Walking With a Ghost” and “Back in Your Head” and basically tried to replicate that approach.

And while I liked both of those songs, I also found them to be some of their less interesting work. To me, there’s only so much that can be extracted from small variations on the same beat and riff. Tight music can be a positive thing, but it can also convey a sense of constriction or claustrophobia. I love Tegan and Sara most when they burst outside of the boundaries, when they make music that is simply too big and bright and fantastic. On Sainthood there’s very little of that. The result is a record that’s easy to appreciate and enjoy, but hard for me to love.

That said, I enjoy these sisters so much that even a relatively sub-part effort from them beats virtually everything else out there.

Highlights: The Ocean (youtube link), Hell, Sentimental Tune, Alligator

10. Metric Fantasies

I’ve never quite clicked with Emily Haines. I like a lot of her work and I can tell that somewhere there’s a place where her music and my brain might be able to mesh perfectly – but it’s only ever been a matter of hints and tantalizing moments. I know she can write a song that speaks to me; I just haven’t been sure if it was ever going to be sustained for a whole record. Fantasies doesn’t quite bridge that divide, but it’s mighty close.

The best description I can offer is that it’s an attempt to meld together the epic scale of stadium rock with the bedroom charm of indie synths. It’s big, it’s in your face, and it sparkles with the urgency of her fantastic voice. On the best tracks, most notably “Gimme Sympathy” she pours out her heart and gets everything back in return. The chorus for that song is one of the finest I’ve ever heard: big and glorious and full of sunshine and synth-magic and rock and roll. “Sick Muse” is another standout – and perhaps her best straightforward rock song yet. Once again, the chorus is the highlight, but there’s a ton to love in the fuzzy bass that pokes its way in and out of the whole track.

The first six tracks of this record stand up with pretty much any run of six songs this year. Unfortunately, the second half loses the plot a bit, offering weaker variations on the themes already covered. “Front Row” and “Stadium Love” are just a less interesting and more masculine versions of “Help I’m Alive” while “Blindness” and “Collect Call” lack the sophistication that kept “Twilight Mind” from collapsing into being the-boring-slow-track.

Still, those opening six tracks are superb, and it’s enough to make this a genuinely great record.

Highlights: Gimme Sympathy, Sick Muse, Satellite Mind, Help I’m Alive

9. Banner PilotCollapser

A lot of the songs on this record sound similar. At first, I thought that was a criticism. In fact, it was several months after I first heard this album before I really sat down and listened to it, in large part because I was a bit underwhelmed by the homogeneity of their raspy pop-punk. Sure, it’s all good (there’s not a bad, or even mediocre, song on the record), but there’s only so much sameness a guy can take.

Luckily, I went back and heard it with a fresh ear. Because it is true that most of these songs sound pretty similar, but it turns out there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I constantly find myself lamenting bands who have an awesome formula and feel obligated to mess with it to make themselves more sophisticated. Not that there’s something wrong with trying to develop, of course, but I often think that some bands would be better served by recognizing where they excel and focusing their creative talents on extracting as much as possible within that terrain.

That’s precisely what happens here. No messing around with the silliness of the obligatory acoustic-slow number. No bizarre guitar solos to break up the flow. No insistence on trying to pretend that they can sing pretty. Just straightforward, ass-kicking pop-punk. It’s not complicated, but then again very few bands out there can do it with anything close to the talent and musical sense that Banner Pilot manages.

Highlights: Central Standard, Skeleton Key, Empty Lot, Losing Daylight

8. God Help the GirlGod Help the Girl

The latest product from Belle and Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch – it’s a wonderful and occasionally mystifying journey into new terrain. It’s also the moment when the line between Stephin Merritt and Stuart Murdoch (already blurry) may have completely disappeared.

Which is hardly a bad thing, of course. As much as I enjoyed the old fey Belle and Sebastian, it’s hard to argue that the latest orchestral pop incarnation of Murdoch hasn’t been a good thing. And it’s particularly true this time around – with the revolving cast of singers offering a lot more depth than there might othewise have been.

It’s full of beautiful pop songs (the title track, “Come Monday Night,” and “Pretty Eve In the Tub”) and big swinging choruses (“Perfection as a Hipster” or “Musician Please Take Heed” – the final 2/3 of which is lightning in a bottle). And the unification of these elements is achieved most perfectly in the final two tracks – which provide a capstone, and the hope for a happy conclusion, for all of the passion and energy up until that point. How could anyone listen to the insistent ‘I’ll keep on dancing’ at the end of “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” and not feel just a little bit better about the world? Then things wrap up with “A Down And Dusky Blonde” which brings it all together and gives everyone a final chance in the spotlight. It’s the sound of good times coming to an end, full of memories and the hope of a bright new future, but melancholy about the parting of ways. Or rather, it’s the sound of eventful times coming to an end – and the way that all the pain and loss drops away and for just a moment all you can think about is how it felt to be so alive.

Highlights: A Down and Dusky Blonde (youtube), I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie, God Help the Girl, Perfection As A Hipster

7. Brandi CarlileGive Up the Ghost

A major return to form. Her debut record absolutely blew me away – channeling all the best of Jeff Buckley and Jeff Tweedy – but I was a little let-down by the follow-up. It was good, but didn’t make my spine tingle.

Well, things are back to normal again, because this record hits you with almost as much force as that first one did. There’s the opening track “Looking Out” – which comes out swinging and absolutely blows you away about a minute in. Or the barn-burning “Dying Day” which demonstrates just how much power can be find in her voice. It almost acts as it’s own percussive accompaniment. And there are few finer moments in music this year than the chorus of this song, particularly the version at about 1:20 which performs that magical trick of transforming ideas into pure empathic waves.

And that’s the theme of the whole album – you won’t get nearly as much from it if you insist on analyzing it. After all, it’s a solid, tightly performed, and enjoyable record but isn’t anything particularly ground-breaking. If however, you simply let it wash over you and take you where you don’t expect to go, you’ll discover a depth you never would have guessed.

There’s only two real mis-steps The first is bringing in Elton John to sing on “Caroline” which is carried perfectly by her voice alone and somewhat ruined by Sir Elton butting in. I still adore the song, but it could have been absolutely beautiful without the star power. The other problem is the closing track “Oh Dear” – which is almost certainly the weakest song I’ve heard yet from her. It’s dull, and appears to be an effort to pull off the ‘slow, pretty closing track’ idea, but the complete lack of a meaningful melody, and any hint of tension or self-awareness, renders it purile and tepid. It’s a shame, because the opening 10 tracks are so good and “Touching the Ground” would have been a perfectly good closer.

Highlights: Dying Day, Looking Out, Caroline, Touching the Ground

6. Lily AllenIt’s Not Me, It’s You

A major step forward. I thought her debut album had a few nice tunes on it, and she was more than capable of delivering them with the necessary verve, sarcasm, and self-awareness to pull it all off. But if the sophomore record had been a re-tread, that stuff would have gotten old quickly. Fortunately, it’s exponentially better. In part, that’s simply because the production quality is substantially higher and the tunes themselves are far more sturdy. The musicianship is solid, the melodies flow freely, and pretty much every track floats with a freedom and sense of purpose. The biting wit remains but has been sharpened to a razor edge.

It also helps that there is a whole lot more maturity on display this time around. Not in a boring “I’ve grown up and care about Important Issues” sort of way. But just in a slightly expanded sense of awareness. Effectively, she managed the debut album sense of ridiculousness and wonderment and then skipped immediately over the sophomore slump into a slightly more tempered variation on what made her so appealing in the first place. It cuts where necessary, but there’s also a lot of empathy buried beneath the snark.

It’s not exactly breaking the mold to pen a song about the weirdness of suddenly being famous, or criticizing the cookie-cutter style of the culture industry. And yet she manages to make “The Fear” feel fresh and insightful. Or, along the same vein there’s “22” which could be a disaster or utterly trite but somehow ends up being neither. The lament for the woman on the verge of 30 imagining her life to be virtually over is caustic, but also sympathetic. You’re meant to dismiss the ridiculousness of a culture which churns through its subjects so quickly but you also feel some of the pain of those who end up on the other side. That’s a difficult task: poking fun while also putting an arm around a shoulder, and to combine it with such a great beat (almost reminiscent of what you’d imagine might come from some old timey saloon) is something else.

Sure, it’s cool to be jaded. And we all have to get that way eventually. But maybe, just maybe, this album helps us to remember that there’s something beautiful about being naive, about not realizing just how long ‘forever’ is. She’s not pitch-perfect on every song – and there’s not really enough musical variation to declare this an absolute triumph – but in all honesty, I’d have a hard time picking a more complete record this year.

Highlights: The Fear (youtube link), I Could Say, 22, Fuck You

5. Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone

This is an elemental record. Like any Neko Case album, you almost can’t help but see the earthiness. But here, it’s even more clear. The entire record, after all, delves into the basic structure of life, our deep and essential animality. I already listed “People Got a Lotta Nerve” as my favorite song of the year – and it captures this well: “I’m a maneater, and still you’re surprised when I eat you.”

But this is a record that contains so much more. Tracks like “This Tornado Loves You” smolder and burn – you almost can’t get too close to them for fear of getting singed. But this is an airborne kind of fire: it sounds just like the tornado that is its subject: powerful, destructive, helpless to do anything about the wreckage that it leaves behind. And then there’s the title track, which doesn’t convey fire so much as it does smoke. It wafts around you light and free – but you can sense the heat that lies underneath. It’s also one of her finest vocal performances (which is really saying something, of course). You can really sense the delicate passion, the fear of broken hearts, and the intense vulnerability that comes from refusing to make yourself vulnerable.

On the other side of the equation, there is a liquidity buried within the record. For one thing, I simply can’t hear her voice without imagining it to be a dark and cool mountain stream. It is beautiful beyond words, and you imagine it springing from some deep and dark underwater pool. But it’s also treacherous–you also sense that it could carry you into the rapids if you’re not careful.

Highlights: People Got A Lotta Nerve, This Tornado Loves You, Middle Cyclone, Don’t Forget Me

4. Lucero1372 Overton Park

The record I’ve been waiting for from these guys. It’s as gruff, as dirty, and as raucous as the best of their other work – but it also has something much deeper. For one thing, they’ve added a Memphis horn section which adds an entirely new dimension to their sound. It’s fuller, more vivacious – giving them the chance to get bigger and brighter on the rockers and to generate some serious mood on the slower numbers.

“The Devil And Maggie Chascarillo” may be the best song I’ve heard from them – loud and crazy enough to shred the stereo, but absolutely heartfelt. I can’t even begin to explain how hard it hits me on the line at the end of the chorus: “And Maggie says don’t mind me, I’m just another graveyard ghost / Oh Maggie, oh Maggie, don’t you know?” As I said on the songs list, it hits you so hard that you never even have time to notice that all this tension is over a girl from a comic book.

The great songs on this record stand up with the best of anything I’ve heard this year. It’s not quite in the same class as the top three, though, because the middle of the record is so weak. I recognize that it’s to some extent idiosyncratic, and a ton of people like these songs, but the bluesy “Sixes And Sevens” is simply a road too far for me. It’s caustic, where the rest of the record is beautiful and ragged. That applies even more to “Johnny Davis” which doesn’t even have the benefit of sounding interesting. It’s just a generically straightforward and entirely dull ‘rocker’ that feels wildly out of place on a record that takes a far more interesting route.

Still, these couple tracks aside, it’s a stunning record.

Highlights: The Devil And Maggie Chascarillo, Smoke, Hey Darlin’ Do You Gamble, Can’t Feel a Thing

3. Vanessa PetersSweetheart, Keep Your Chin Up

I said that her last album was the record I’ve been waiting for Aimee Mann to make for years. That’s even more true this time around. But I would say it’s also the record Gram Parsons might have made if he had gotten the chance

It’s a mark of a great song that it can work on a number of different levels. And almost every song on this record does that. They work as allegory, as symbols for some of the grand concepts: love, fear, loss, friendship, fear. They work as literal short stories. They work as snapshots, bereft of all meaning except the pure joy in a single shared moment. Through it all, war is a constant theme, as befits a record in a time when you sometimes struggle to remember just how long this state of affairs has lasted. But while war infuses the record, this is by no means an album about war. Instead, it’s a subtle backdrop to stories that range from the truly mundane to the universal. There are lives lost in the Twin Towers – or loves broken apart inside them. There are soldiers who leave in glory and lives torn apart. And you gain more and more as you peel back the layers. The camera pulls back and the metaphors blur into mythology.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for great art. The more I consider it, the more I’m convinced that Kurt Vonnegut got it absolutely right:

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

I hope, then, it means something when I tell you that Sweetheart, Keep Your Chin Up makes me appreciate being alive.

Highlights: Drowning in Amsterdam, The War, Good News, Just Down, The Grammar of a Sinking Ship

2. Built to SpillThere Is No Enemy

An awesome return to from from Boise’s finest. It’s their best record since Perfect From Now On – and might even be their best overall. The guitar work is as clever and well-constructed as usual, but this time around it carries more significance. The percussion is far more insistent, driving than in their past work. It’s not as sparse and thumping as in their 3-minute pop days, remaining far more subtle, but it’s a force of nature that demands movement. The guitars don’t float on the surface anymore; now they’re caught in the midst of the current struggling to breathe.

The result is a record that cuts in a way that feels more like 90s era Modest Mouse than it does Built to Spill. It’s beautiful, and if you’re not paying attention you pull it close, only to realize how deeply you’ve been scored.

The biggest highlight for me is “Hindsight” which may well have become my favorite Built to Spill song – and that’s saying something. It doesn’t have the stateliness of “Untrustable,” or its gentle forcefulness, but it does have an almost preternatural capacity to MOVE me. And it’s all in that guitar. These guys have always been wizards with the instrument, but this record is the first time they’ve been able to communicate empathy, pathos, the passion of a living soul. It’s visceral.

But the whole album is great. In part because of the emotional heft it carries – something previously unknown to the band. The power of these songs is not in what they tell us, but in what they leave unanswered. Is there a reason for all of this? Do we believe in things because they’re right, or just because we’d go mad if we didn’t latch onto something? Are we doomed to endlessly wander through the hallways of our own minds or is there some kind of connection, a true one, not mere seeming?

We can’t know for sure, but somehow it’s all okay. And the guitars…oh the guitars…

Highlights: Hindsight, Life’s a Dream, Planting Seeds, Things Fall Apart, Aisle 13

1. Bombadil Tarpits and Canyonlands

I’ve loved Bombadil from the very beginning, but this is the record where they really became a major musical force. They take a long folk tradition and make it completely their own. It’s hard to identify specific places where it happens, but the total product is something that somehow transcends all expectations.

The astonishing thing about this record is the way they constantly manage to produce music that sounds so absolutely right that you can’t believe it didn’t already exist. It isn’t that they reveal something new. It’s that they reveal what was already there but you had so completely inured yourself to that it had been lost.

There might be better albums this year for some people, I suppose, but not for me. And that’s because it’s hard to imagine one that more fully communicates and embodies the richness of life. It’s not about finding answers. It’s just about knowing that that there are other folks out there struggling, trying, failing, getting back up again, and wondering what it all means. You share the road with your fellow travelers, and together you sing along with the end of “25 Daniels” and remind yourself of how much we all have to share with each other if only we could remember it.

So get yourself a copy of the record, and give yourself permission to remember what it feels like.

Highlights: Sad Birthday, 25 Daniels, Honeymoon, Marriage, Matthew

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