1. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote)
What I love most about Phoenix is its unabashed celebration of pop music. There’s no hidden agenda here. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a pure pop record. Catchy hooks, big multi-tracked choruses, retro synths, and an almost primal sense of rhythm make this record an undeniably infectious listen. Perhaps, over-played by year’s end, it still takes the cake.
2. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (Domino)
I want to hate what the Dirty Projectors do. It’s flauntingly experimental music played with an air of pretentiousness that just begs for someone to take it down a few notches. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t jaw-droppingly good, too. David Longstreth is a musical wunderkind, and he knows it. Despite the complex harmonies, unpredictable guitar runs, and vocal gymnastics, there’s an underlying sense of melody grounded in bare-bones emotion that keeps the Dirty Projectors from pushing its experimental proclivities into an unlistenable domain.
3. The Horrors, Primary Colours (Xl)
As an admitted Anglophile, I tend to veer towards the upstart British bands in hopes that they can fulfill the endless promises of hype, even against my better judgment. Such wishful thinking is rarely gratifying, as bands that get plastered on the cover of NME with heaps of praise tend to fall by the wayside faster than I can process. The Horrors, however, might have some staying power, as evidenced by a brilliant sophomore album. The band has outgrown the showy garage punk of its early days with a reinvigorating brand of art punk that stays true to its darker tendencies, while expanding its musical breadth significantly. The Horrors echo great bands (Echo & the Bunnymen, The Velvet Underground, Jesus & Mary Chain) without aping them gratuitously.
4. The Life and Times, Tragic Boogie (Arena Rock)
Tragic Boogie is the culmination of Allen Epley’s musical vision for his life post-Shiner. The trio even built its own studio to make it happen on its own terms. The result is a glacial wave of crushing shoegaze that ebbs and flows to extremes. It’s beauty versus noise, where there’s no clear winner. Everything about this record is huge. The guitars are layered so thick that even Kevin Shields would be proud. Epley’s raspy voice hovers over the colossal movements, but the vocals serve as another layer of texture rather than as the music’s guiding force. The album flows better as one piece of music rather than as individual songs because the production is such an integral part of its personality.
5. Arctic Monkeys, Humbug (Domino)
Humbug was such a slow grower for me that I almost gave up. The songs don’t jump out of the speakers quite how I expected. Instead, for its third album, the band opted for a much moodier approach. With a steady diet of Black Sabbath and various stoner rock records thanks to producer Josh Homme, the Arctic Monkeys betray their rambunctious post-Libertines flavor of British indie for a much more menacing, methodical style. The parts that rock, rock harder, while the parts that meander show off the band’s new found sense of tension. Unfortunately, Alex Turner’s natural pop sensibilities are sacrificed for this overarchingly downcast mood, but his endlessly witty lyrics keep this record engaging on a level most bands will never achieve.
6. Polvo, In Prism (Merge)
As with any reunion of a band I hold in high esteem, I sort of squinted apprehensively when I first heard “Beggar’s Bowl”, Polvo’s first new song in a decade. I quickly relaxed as the song progressed, and by the end I was anxious to listen again. Polvo’s self-imposed hibernation didn’t seem to affect the core if its genius. I’ll even go so far as to say that In Prism is quite possibly Polvo’s best record. How this band can sound tighter, more aggressive, and more experimentally aware after lying dormant for ten years is beyond me.
7. The XX, XX (Young Turks)
It’s knowing when not to play that’s the key this record’s surreptitious climb into the collective consciousness of those tuned left of center. There’s nothing showy or gimmicky that sets this band apart. In trying to describe the music, it can sound perfectly adequate on paper, yet when you listen there’s something indescribably unique in the way the male and female voices provide foils to one another. It took me a long time to come around, but it finally clicked, but not because of anything anybody said or wrote. I just had to listen for myself.
8. Julian Plenti, Julian Plenti Is…Skyscraper (Matador)
Interpol’s Paul Banks is so pretentious it’s almost funny, yet I can’t get enough of it. What with his kooky solo moniker, the bored-rich-louche cover art, and the promotional pictures of Banks dressed like a hipster dandy, the whole solo album thing seems to be passive aggressively making fun of the listener. But he’s got a voice that I stop everything for.
9. Lily Allen, It’s Not Me, It’s You (Capitol)
Avoiding the buoyant ska-inflected pop of her debut, Lily Allen returned as a sleek pop priestess of the dancefloor, which suited her new found fame sophisticate stature just fine. The horns were traded in for synths, as Allen cooed her way through another batch of self-deprecating one-liners that betray her own foibles as much as those of her unfortunate lovers.
10. Cursive, Mama, I’m Swollen (Saddle Creek)
Having not one but two career-defining albums (2000’s Domestica, 2003’sThe Ugly Organ) is a burden most bands would never overcome. And some might argue that Cursive still has not. So, while Mama, I’m Swollen is not the band’s masterpiece (that would be The Ugly Organ), it still ranks as a damn good Cursive album. Tim Kasher has grown by leaps and bounds as a songwriter, taking his lyrical devices to new levels of sophistication, but the music has taken a decidedly less aggressive approach. This may displease long-time fans, but I wouldn’t try to top The Ugly Organ, either.
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (Warp)
Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, It’s Blitz (Interscope)
Sonic Youth, The Eternal (Matador)
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career (4AD)
Dinosaur Jr., Farm (Jagjaguwar)
*Land of Talk, Some Are Lakes (Saddle Creek) (This would easily be my number 1, if it hadn’t come out in 2008, as I listened to it more than anything.)