Year-end lists are gratuitous, back-patting, and masturbatory, but, like death and taxes, they are unavoidable. So, we succumb. We’re doing things a little differently this year, inviting current and past contributors as well as a few respected peers to submit their lists, while linking back to their respective blogs. They will be posted sporadically over the next day or so. Here’s how my top records shake out this year:
1. Foals – Antidotes (Sub Pop)
This record was love at first sight. The moment I heard the song “Red Sox Pugie” I knew this was my new favorite band. With intricate guitar work that melds Battles-esque interplay with ear-bending melodies, Antidotes is chock full of clever surprises. And most importantly, it rocks. David Sitek’s pristine production makes the band sound slightly cleaner than it is live, but it gives the album a strange and enduring allure. It’s weird, arty rock, for sure, but its depth and precision make Antidotes essential listening for fans of post-punk with a kink of new wave.
2. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (XL)
I understand backlash against bands that get a lot of press, especially in this shallow cell-phone blogging media shit-heap time we live in; I just don’t pay much attention to it. I love this record. All the talk of Graceland and Talking Heads is just lazy. I would never sit through Graceland on purpose; it’s just not my cup of tea, whereas I have listened to the shit out of this record. Seriously, if digital files could wear out, mine would be out of order from constant repetition. I tend to shy away from music that could be characterized as “fun”, but good is good and Vampire Weekend’s ambitious twist on worldly pop is infectious. And they dress better than anyone else. Well, except, maybe, Chuck Bass.
3. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me (Domino)
I had trouble at first with this record simply because the last Notwist album, Neon Golden, was practically perfect. It was my favorite record of 2002, hands down, and it’s still one of my favorite records of all time. Any time I listen to it, I am immediately sucked into its uncharacteristically warm world of German glitch-folk. A lot of bands have caught up with The Notwist in the intervening years, so The Devil, You + Me doesn’t sound nearly as ground-breaking or fresh, but the songs are strong and lure you back in for repeated listens. There’s something remarkably intimate about Markus Acher’s fragile voice that makes him sound like what he has to say is the only thing that matters. Never mind the fact that his lyrics are often beyond incomprehensible.
4. M83 – Saturdays = Youth (Mute)
It’s been said in practically every review of this record, but that’s because it’s true: distilled down to its essence, this is John Hughes soundtrack music. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but if you grew up in the 80’s, and these movies meant anything to you, then you will be all over this album. With a shoegazer’s watchful eye, Anthony Gonzalez recreates his teen angst through washed-out synths, big, bombastic beats, and whispered, echoing vocals. It’s not a one-dimensional retro-fitted ploy, either. Gonzalez knows this territory well, and he mines it delicately, so that it comes off as homage rather than blatant rehash.
5. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)
Putting aside the hackneyed “is sampling really art?” argument, Girl Talk records are insanely fun to listen to. I appreciate and admire Greg Gillis’ ridiculously sophisticated ear for blending seemingly disparate songs and styles into a pummeling listening party that makes you think and dance. And, yes, sampling can be an art, if you’re good at it. And Gillis is genius at it.
6. The Walkmen – You & Me (Gigantic)
The Walkmen are one of my favorite bands, evidenced by the fact that their last two records were both in my top tens for their respective release years. They’re just one of those bands that can transport your attention to some weirdly familiar context that’s both beautiful and sad. They have a sound that’s instantly recognizable, even though they crib elements from so many different styles. It’s not every band that can make its influences sound like a unique, unified whole. You & Me is at times gritty, atmospheric, joyous, languorous, and melancholic, yet you leave the record feeling cautiously optimistic. Hamilton Leithauser’s voice is the kicker. His bellyaching warble is in top form. This is a record that will probably surpass others ahead of it in this list over time.
7. Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls (In the Red)
I can’t think of too many better ways to spend 22 minutes than with this debut full-length by the Vivian Girls. Psychocandy meets Phil Spector. If this description means anything to you, then welcome to one of your new favorite bands. With a gauzy garage-rock foundation, the Vivian Girls harmonize in odd, off-kilter melodies that propel an ordinary song into a celestial hymn. No one song stands out on this record, and, since it’s so short, that hardly matters. It’s the (Lord, forgive me for using this word) vibe that matters here. The lyrics are opaque and often inconsequential. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what’s being said; it only matters how it’s said, and the Vivian Girls possess one of those rare combinations of voices that immediately sets off alarms in your brain to tell you that you are listening to something special.
8. Marnie Stern – This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That (Kill Rock Stars)
Marnie Stern plays guitar like one of those weird, prog-rock dudes obsessed with Don Caballero. On top of that, she has one of those bone-chilling voices that sounds more than a little scary when it’s double-tracked. She can also write challenging, wildly off-kilter songs that wouldn’t be alien to a Deerhoof record. And just to make your chances with her dwindle even more, she’s very cute. Also covers Journey like nobody’s business.
9. Appomattox – A.O. (Triple Down)
This Brooklyn by way of Boston trio’s frantic guitar lines remain grounded only because its rhythm section is so taut. The blistering shards evoke a searing mix of Polvo and Fugazi packed through a thinking man’s power-trio filter. An aggressive, angular Police, perhaps. Nick Gaynier’s voice bleats through the chaos with pellucid power. The highlight of the record is the searing rocker, “Either Way”, an instantly familiar loud/soft dynamic with an incredibly catchy chorus. It will garner many, many repeated plays should you bother to track it down.
10. Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ’08 (Matador)
I wish I could hear things before I read about them. I was late to this party, simply because I was annoyed by the way he was covered. Ridiculous, I know. Biases and prejudices aren’t our most evolved qualities. When I finally heard a Jay Reatard song, I wanted to punch myself for ignoring him for so long. This collection of 7”s perfectly encapsulates the man’s rambunctious punk-pop panache. Matador released six 7”s total, each one in more rarified quantities and each one better than the last.
Portishead – Third (Mercury)
No Age – Nouns (Sub Pop)
Santogold – Santogold (Downtown)
Beck – Modern Guilt (Geffen)
Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl)
Stereolab – Chemical Chords (4AD)
Bottomless Pit – Congress EP (Comedy Minus One)
Bonnie "Prince" Billy – Lie Down in the Light (Drag City)