I guess I'll throw my metaphorical hat into the metaphorical ring, assuming that makes any kind of sense, metaphorical or otherwise. In compiling this list, I had the same sorts of troubles I had with my list of jams: Was this album even from this year? What did I listen to the most? Should I rank by frequency of listening, or musical innovation? Does anybody even care about my "favorite" albums from this year? Eventually, I put together a long list of candidates and tried whittling that down to a smaller list, finally settling on a Top 13. Yes, 13; I'd like to simultaneously break out of the Top 10 mold and dispel the belief that 13 is unlucky, all at once. Check out the short list below, along with accompanying blurbs of opinion, album arts, and video jams (and links to info about the artist and places to buy the album), then check out the "long list" at the bottom of the page for all of the candidates. And understand that I'm just one guy with some thoughts and this is my list of "favorites"; they're not necessarily the inherently "best" or "ground-breaking" releases of this annual calendrical period. That said, I like a lively discussion, so please comment with your opinions!
The Short list (Top 13):
13. The Soft Pack / The Soft Pack [Kemado]
This quartet of guys from San Diego used be known as The Muslims but after "a slew of nasty emails" they changed their name to the term for "a fake flaccid penis that can be worn in the trousers of someone who doesn't have a penis that wants to convince people otherwise". That said, their brand of rousing, fast-paced, fuzzy, guitar-heavy, pump-your-fist-and-shout-along-with-the-chorus punk/rock makes perfect sense. And it's mighty satisfying. These 10 songs clock in at just over 30 minutes, and only "Mexico" slows down the pace below "blistering". The whole thing leaves you wanting to reexperience it again, but even louder and faster.
The Soft Pack: Website, MySpace
The Soft Pack: Kemado site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
12. Citay / Dream Get Together [Dead Oceans]
It's tough to have a 7+ member band and have the songs come across sounding uncluttered and clean; Citay manages to make these songs sound perfectly uplifting and fun, at the same time, and they deserve much praise. Ezra Feinberg lays down the main vocals with two female backers, while three guitarists play some delicious riffs born from bright, running-on-the-beach-and-collapsing-into-the-waves California sunshine. It's fun to listen to, humming along with the guitars and letting the mood completely engulf you. Tack on a wonderful cover of a Galxie 500 tune and you've got yourself a solid album.
Citay: Website, MySpace
Dream Get Together: Dead Oceans site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
11. Dum Dum Girls / I Will Be [Sub Pop]
I'll admit it: I'm a genuine sucker for catchy garage rock. But when it's done really well and with an interesting twist, I feel like my interest is more deserved, somehow. Dum Dum Girls certainly fall into this category, and the beautiful female vocal melodies and soft, sweet, and slow songs (including a cover of Sonny and Cher) put them in a class above all others. They're completely captivating live, too; I felt like singer Dee Dee's eyes were burning through my soul while I watched them, and I'm not sure now that she even looked in my direction the whole time. No matter, listening to the album makes me feel the same way, and that merits a lot of artistic credit.
Dum Dum Girls: Website, MySpace
I Will Be: Sub Pop site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
10. Dr. Dog / Shame, Shame [ANTI-]
I'm finding it hard to describe what's ultimately really solid and listenable pop music. Dr. Dog fits together the guitars and drums and piano and vocals so well and unlike anyone else, really. You can hear the influences of 60s pop and folk music and current indie rock and whatever else you want to hear, really, but the bottom line is that they sound like no one else but themselves, especially given the fairly unique vocal stylings of the two main singers. These songs make me try to whistle and sing along simultaneously, and I hate them for making me want to do both at once and necessarily failing, but I love them for making such infectious and enjoyable music. "I do believe that there's no more tricks up my sleeve"? I beg to differ, Dr. Dog!
Dr. Dog: Website, MySpace
Shame, Shame: ANTI- site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
9. Love Is All / Two Thousand And Ten Injuries [Polyvinyl]
There's something magical about the songs of Love Is All, and there must be something special about this album, in particular, because since finding it randomly via some Polyvinyl "garage sale" I've gone back to their older albums but didn't feel the same smile-inducing wonder as with this one. Admittedly, Josephine Olausson's vocals are kinda "love it or leave it" but count me among the totally-infatuated/love-is-all-I-have-for-it camp; it's tough to figure out her words (they're in English, but the heavy Swedish accent and tipsy warbling make it tough) but I think it's a fun game, and if I get distracted by the awesome guitar/bass jams in the meantime, I'm not gonna feel bad about it. Seriously, tell me that you aren't instantly caught by the opening drum/bass riff of "The Birds Were Singing With All Their Might" or the strained vocals over a bare bass line in "Early Warnings" or the stop/start guitar/drum intro to "Repetition" or . . . I could do that for every song on this album, and that's hard to ignore.
Love Is All: Website, MySpace
Two Thousand And Ten Injuries: Polyvinyl site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
8. Meeting Of Important People / Quit Music EP [Authentik Artists]
At first, I thought that maybe my liking of this album was influenced by how frequently I've seen (and thoroughly enjoyed) MOIP playing live, but after looking back on the playcounts on my media player and iPod and thinking for a bit more, I have to admit that I really liked this album and listened to it a lot. And for good reason! Garage rock, punk, grunge, folk, reggae, this album has it all, and everything's filtered through the super fun, leg-kicking, toe-tapping, rock-out-like-nobody's-watching stylings of Josh, Matt and Aaron. They've put together a slick (albeit short) collection of upbeat and original pop-rock songs, plus a fun cover of a 60s bubblegum tune. I could listen to every one of these songs over and over and over, and you should too.
MOIP: Website, MySpace
Quit Music: Authentik Artists site, eMusic, Amazon
7. Woods / At Echo Lake [Woodsist]
This might be another band where the singer's voice could turn you off completely, but I find Jeremy Earl's high-pitched, ragged, mic-effect-driven melodies totally endearing. It fits right in with the general lo-fi, psyechedelic folk-rock vibe of the band (and their label, Woodsist, as a whole, too), and it's to their credit that they achieve that without sounding like they're screwing up the audio quality for the sake of doing so; rather, it generates the perfect feeling of sitting on the floor of your friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend's basement, sipping whiskey straight from the bottle, and having a raucous sing-along jam session. Opening track "Blood Dries Darker" (see video below) really sets the mood for the album, jumping right in with a riffy psych-guitar solo and letting those falsetto vocals really shine. Other numbers run along that vein, like "Suffering Season" and "Get Back" and "From The Horn" (a fun raga-influenced instrumental, in fact) but now that I'm playing the album straight through again for critical purposes, I can't help noticing how many of these tracks are on the slower and softer side. It doesn't feel like a slow or sad or downkey album, though; Woods just sneaks those songs of respite in and you're caught up in the ride so you don't even notice. That's a testament to their power to wrap you up in their fuzzy, reverberating blanket of sound and keep you all comfy and cozy.
Woods: Website, MySpace
At Echo Lake: Woodsist site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
6. Sharon Van Etten / Epic [Ba Da Bing!]
I kept hearing about SVE from the guys on NPR's All Songs Considered. I mean, Robin Hilton said that he cried at one of her SXSW concerts. I had to check her out, and I'm glad I did. If these 7 songs don't move you deeply and forcefully, then I just feel sorry for you, because you're missing out on an intense emotional experience that only music with this kind of raw honesty, brutal heartache, and beautiful sound can induce. Even listening to this one on my iPod, it feels like SVE is in the room with me, pouring her heart and soul into a cup, adding in some strummed acoustic guitar, some lap guitar riffs, some plinky piano and percussion, some dirgeful, drawn-out guitar (I think?) sounds, and of course her stirring and hauntingly beautiful vocals and, in the end, making a wonderful, languid mixture of sounds and words. It's amazing how I still feel the same emotional power every time I hear the beginning of "Save Yourself" or the crest after the long, opening crescendo in "Don't Do It" and . . . yeah, I really love the first 3 songs on this one since they have the most immediate pull (for me anyway) but the second half of this short album has been a real grower. Please, at least listen to this album once, straight through. If it doesn't hit you, sobeit, but if it does, you'll thank me. Better yet, thank her.
Sharon Van Etten: Website, MySpace
Epic: Ba Da Bing! site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
5. The Black Angels / Phosphene Dream [Blue Horizon]
This is definitely a rehashing of 60s psych-pop, but I really don't care; they recreate that sound and feeling so well, right down to the 13th Floor Elevators-esque jug on "Entrance Song" and the microphone effects on the howling screams in "Telephone". At 36 minutes, this album is much shorter than their other LPs (59 for Passover and 70 for Directions To See A Ghost), a reflection of their choice to stick to quick, upbeat radio-single songs instead of the long and haunting and mostly instrumental stuff they've done previously. But I like that change and they've pulled it off magnificently; if I'm fixin' for some of their older stuff, I'll go listen to that, but for now I'm welcoming the new style. The guitar riffs in their songs are so tight and clean and catchy that I find myself humming along and playing air guitar immediately without even realizing. Also, despite the inherent "poppy" sound here, this album is still full of gloomy imagery and dark, sinister sounds. The opening track, "Bad Vibrations" (video below), has an awesome eerie vibe and lyrics about "eating hearts", and then there's a straight-up ghost story on "Haunting At 1300 McKinley". There are no bad songs on here, and I love the overall sound. Great stuff.
The Black Angels: Website, MySpace
Phosphene Dream: Band site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
4. Beach Fossils / Beach Fossils [Captured Tracks]
I'll admit I wrote this band off early on for being just another surf rock buzz band. Lesson learned: never judge a band by its name. Beach Fossils sounds much, much better than the name indicates, and main man Dustin Payseur admits that it was a bad choice. No matter, I'm glad I finally gave this album a chance. It's truly simple (as in, not dense (as in, clean and uncluttered)) jangly guitar rock and simple (as in, not so complicated) drum rhythms, layered over with Dustin's vocals, and then everything's washed over with a little bit of fuzzy lo-fi echo. (Luckily, the record comes with a lyric sheet so I can actually understand everything.) It's a simple formula, I suppose, but it's so hard to do it this way and be infinitely repeatable. I've put this on the turntable so many times since buying it over the summer. At first, it felt like a perfect "end of summer" record, then it felt like a great "beginning of autumn" record, and now it just feels like a perfect "anytime" record. Part of what I like about it is the homogeneity and the way I can just listen to it straight through and feel the sound style envelop my mind. I honestly can't even name half the songs off the top of my head, which might make it sound odd that this is #4 on the list, but that just stems from the fact that I play this one and kinda space out. Favorite records don't require endless fandom on the order of memorizing the alternate touring bassist's mother-in-law's birthstone or shit like that, you know? Beach Fossils just has perfect little jangly pop songs and I want to listen to them all in a row and do it over and over again.
Beach Fossils: MySpace
Beach Fossils: Captured Tracks site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
3. Lower Dens / Twin Hand Movement [Gnomonsong]
I'm very glad I happened to see Lower Dens live earlier this spring, but it meant I had to wait a number of months for their album to drop, and that was painful. They were awesome in person, projecting an incredible wall of sound from the stage, full of shimmering guitars and rollicking bass lines and metronomic drum pounding and ohmygod Jana's voice is super and sexy and amazing. Part of the allure of their performance and this album is the enigmatic nature of the muffled vocals and washes of guitar sounds. It feels like I'm talking to a guru who can only give me advice in cryptic nuggets of wisdom like "A donut with no hole is a danish". I think "Tea Lights" is a good example of that vibe, but some other songs have a decidedly punkier punch to them, like "A Dog's Dick" or "Rosie", whereas songs like "Hospice Gates" let the swirling, shoegazey guitars lead the way. In short, there's a lot of innovative song structuring and sound-crafting going on here, and all of it is incredibly catchy without fitting into any standard genre classification or sounding like any other bands. I like that. A lot. And I really love "I Get Nervous". It's so fucking pretty that it almost hurts:
Lower Dens: Website, MySpace
Twin Hand Movement: Gnomonsongsite, Insound, Amazon
[Side note: the folks of Lower Dens are downright nice people, too, and lots of fun to hang out with.]
2. The Spires / Curved Space EP [Beehouse]
Maybe it's strange that a 7 song, 23 minute EP could rank this high on my list, but that's a true testament to just how much I've enjoyed these songs. I'd been a fan of The Spires for a year or more since randomly finding them on the interwebz, and was actually eagerly awaiting the release of this one and downloaded it on eMusic the day it came out. It's markedly different from their previous albums which focused more on clean, sunshiney guitar pop and catchy sing-along strummers. This time, they took their whole sound and fed it through entire clouds of reverb and fuzz and it came out sounding even better. Sometimes, this type of lo-fi scuzz is a defense mechanism to mask poor songwriting, but not here; far from it, even. I'd argue that these are some of the best pop-songs the group has put together, but it just happens that they chose to smother these in delicious layers of guitar fuzz and vocal echoes. "Kent Studies" kicks the whole thing off with some foot-stomping percussion and it just never stops. Every song on here is catchy and makes me want to hum and sing along, if I could only figure out the damn words! Seriously, overall, this is the album I listened to this year the most, by far: on my iPod walking to and from campus, on my laptop in the office, on my speakers at home, etc. And apart from the overall appeal of the album, there are just tons of little moments that grab my attention every time and keep me waiting for that part in the song to come up so I can say to whoever else is listening with me, "Ooh ooh, wasn't that so good?" Examples include: the way the word "Telephone..." echoes away into the ocean of reverb on "Kent Studies", the way the guitars almost stop around 1:15 in "Curved Space" but then they kick back in again even louder, when singer Jason Bays breaks into "It's taking control" in "Dreamer In My Mind" (definitely belted that one out during a long car ride with the windows down), the entire song "Held", the drum fills leading into the choruses in "Orange Yellow", the feedback intro to "Today Was Tomorrow", and the way that spacey and mellow instrumental "Yellow Orange" winds everything back down, leaving you wanting to experience the whole thing all over again. I cannot wait to see what else The Spires can accomplish in this paradigm. Or if they abandon it completely, who really cares, since I'll still have this gem of an EP to cherish.
The Spires: Website, MySpace
Curved Space: Beehouse site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
[Side note: The band posted some videos of live alternate takes of songs from Curved Space that sound a bit more stripped-down. They're different but also quite awesome. Check them out.]
1. Tame Impala / Innerspeaker [Modular]
Shamefully, this is another band I almost wrote off at first without giving them a fair shot. Yeah, I saw they got a good Pitchfork score and the album cover was kinda trippy or whatever, but for some reason I just didn't feel compelled to investigate, until the guy at P4k Reviews Reviews kept raving about them (the description of "a sumptuous slab of psychedelic joy" really piqued my interest). I sampled some previews at eMusic and liked it enough to download the whole thing, and I've been listening to it nonstop since. It really is a perfect psychedelic rock record, filled with shimmering waterfalls of guitar sounds and effects and glorious, pounding drum fills and skippy rhythms, plus some seriously druggy lyrics (opener "It Is Not Meant To Be" is ostensibly about a failed romance because she doens't like "sitting around smoking weed") that still sound as sweet as honey and marshmallows (but not together, eww). I'm incredibly impressed by the song-crafting here, but it's also an outstanding studio production. I can't imagine the kind of work it took to put all of the effects together in such a well-balanced way: nothing sounds too echoey or too dampened or too loud or too soft or anything that's not fucking perfect. Every song on here is outstanding, not a note or tune out of place, but the 3 song run of "Lucidity", "Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?", and "Solitude Is Bliss" right in the middle of the record really steals the show, for me. For a while, I would just play that section over and over on my iPod when I walked around town. Lately, though, I've been playing it straight through at least twice a week, and I can't imagine ever not listening to at least a few songs on this album in any given week. It's that good.
Tame Impala: Website, MySpace
Innerspeaker: Modular site, Insound, eMusic, Amazon
[Interesting observation: Of these 13 albums, I own 8 on vinyl, purchased 4 on eMusic, and got 1 as a free CD at a live show (thanks MOIP!). So fuck you, people who don't pay for music.]
The Black Keys / Brothers [Nonesuch]
Kurt Vile / Square Shells EP [Matador]
Mariage Blanc / Mariage Blanc [Self-released]
The Long List:
Beach House / Teen Dream [Sub Pop]
Beach Fossils / Beach Fossils [Captured Tracks]
Bear Hands / Burning Bush Supper Club [Cantora]
Belle and Sebastian / Write About Love [Merge]
Best Coast / Crazy For You [Mexican Summer]
The Black Angels / Phosphene Dream [Blue Horizon]
The Black Keys / Brothers [Nonesuch]
Blue Giant / Blue Giant [Vanguard]
The Books / The Way Out [Temporary Residence]
Breathe Owl Breathe / Magic Central [Hometapes]
British Sea Power / Zeus EP [Rough Trade]
Broken Bells / Broken Bells [Columbia]
Citay / Dream Get Together [Dead Oceans]
Deerhunter / Halcyon Digest [4AD]
Disappears / Lux [Kranky]
Dr. Dog / Shame, Shame [ANTI-]
Dum Dum Girls / I Will Be [Sub Pop]
Dungen / Skit I Allt [Mexican Summer]
Frightened Rabbit / The Winter Of Mixed Drinks [Fat Cat]
Charlotte Gainsbourg / IRM [Elektra]
Glasser / Ring [True Panther Sounds]
Holy Fuck / Latin [Young Turks]
Lohio / Family Tree EP [Self-released]
Love Is All / Two Thousand And Ten Injuries [Polyvinyl]
Lower Dens / Twin Hand Movement [Gnomonsong]
Maps & Atlases / Perch Patchwork [Barsuk]
Mariage Blanc / Mariage Blanc [Self-released]
Meeting Of Important People / Quit Music EP [Authentik Artists]
Moon Duo / Escape [Sick Thirst]
The New Pornographers / Together [Matador]
of Montreal / False Priest [Polyvinyl]
Amanda Palmer / Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele EP [Self-released]
Ty Segall / Melted [Goner]
The Soft Pack / The Soft Pack [Kemado]
The Spires / Curved Space EP [Beehouse]
Spoon / Transference [Merge]
Strand Of Oaks / Pope Killdragon [eMusic Selects]
Tame Impala / Innerspeaker [Modular]
Titus Andronicus / The Monitor [XL]
Sharon Van Etten / Epic [Ba Da Bing!]
Kurt Vile / Square Shells EP [Matador]
The Walkmen / Lisbon [Fat Possum]
Warpaint / The Fool [Rough Trade]
Wavves / King Of The Beach [Fat Possum]
Woods / At Echo Lake [Woodsist]
Woodpigeon / Die Stadt Muzikanten [Boompa]
Wye Oak / My Neighbor, My Creator EP [Merge]