If one could wear out digital files, I would have torn up these ten albums.
1. Iceage, New Brigade (What’s Your Rupture)
I can’t even in begin to describe how terrible the songs were that I wrote when I was 17. So, the fact that these four teenage Danes blast out of the gate with such refined taste just boggles my mind. Adorned in Fred Perrys, blunt, close-cropped haircuts, and instigating bloody noses at shows, Iceage plays rudimentary, retrograde UK post-punk, which can feel tiresome if approached without bringing something new or at least interesting to the table, but Iceage defies all logic with this energetic, thrilling, and bold statement of intent. Dark wave, no wave, Warsaw. Some bands make you think. Some bands make you feel … like smashing your face in a windshield. This is unquestionably my new favorite band.
2. Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know (Ribbon)
When I read that Ryan Adams threw away an entire new batch of tunes because he heard Laura Marling’s last record, I Speak Because I Can, I immediately had to seek her out. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so bowled over by anyone’s raw talent since the first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. At 21, Marling seems like a wise-beyond-her-years cliché, yet her songwriting is so sharp, her lyrics so vivid and insightful, and her voice so piercing that “cliché” is the last word that comes to mind. She is truly in a league of her own. If you play guitar and write songs, your inferiority complex may require medication after listening to A Creature I Don’t Know.
3. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant)
PJ Harvey’s career trajectory should be taught in school as an example of how to make it in music on your own terms. Uncompromising almost to a fault, Harvey has followed her muse through her own growing pains as a woman. The fact that she’s so vital at this stage of her career is a testament not only to her talent but also to her vision as an artist. Let England Shake is Harvey’s artistic pinnacle, wherein she lets history inform her storytelling in a way that speaks beyond her usual crushing intimacy.
4. The Drums, Portamento (FrenchKiss)
I wrongly assumed The Drums were just another NME-approved blog-hype buzz band before even hearing a note of music, so I dutifully ignored them, thinking I’d done myself a favor in skipping the latest fly-by-night trend. Then I randomly heard a song on Sirius XMU attributed to The Drums and thought, “uh-oh, I kind of love this.” Thus began my infatuation. The Drums play infectious indie-pop with references as disparate as The Shangri-la’s, The Smiths, The Beach Boys, and New Order. Portamento is a dark left turn compared to the poppier self-titled debut, but I return to it far too often to ignore. And by “too often” I mean every single day.
5. The Horrors, Skying (XL)
For a band that began as a silly-looking Goth gimmick, The Horrors have matured into one of England’s finest exports, gaining experimental ground on every new record. Skying pushes the envelope a little further, fusing retro synths with the darker side of 80’s post-punk to form a more modern tribute to shoegaze, all without compromising its Cramps-meets-Birthday Party edge. Skying is awash in guitars and cocksure attitude with expansive breakdowns and tangents that prove The Horrors are not afraid to showcase their chops. It’s a confident step forward, despite all the obvious reference points. Of course, only the best bands can steal ideas this blatantly and still sound inspired.
6. Class Actress, Rapprocher (Carpark)
Since Depeche Mode was my gateway band to the underbelly of alternative music when I was a teenager, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for any type of dark synth pop. Class Actress delivers a sleek, skeletal brand in spades. The choruses are instantly lodged in your memory bank and what the vocals lack in power, they more than make up for in style. That style happens to be glassy-eyed, detached boredom, which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but, as a Stereolab completist, it’s right up my alley.
7. Elbow, Build A Rocket Boys! (Polydor)
Elbow straddles a difficult line in presenting its anthemic, intricately crafted, expansive modern rock against the personal politics of the everyman. It’s hard for bands to expand their musical scope while maintaining mass appeal. Elbow doesn’t seem too concerned with commercial viability here, considering how musically dense this album is, but vocalist Guy Garvey has such an instantly relatable voice that the melodies seep in whether you want them to or not. The songwriting itself seems very simple in terms of chord structures, but the orchestration and subtleties betray a higher level of sophistication than most bands could hope to achieve. Garvey sounds sincere and broken without coming off overly sentimental, and it’s his voice that makes this album so profoundly rewarding.
8. Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow (EMI)
I was obsessed with Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love in high school. I’d never heard anything like it or her. It was cartoonishly grandiose and pretentious but also absolutely heart-rending in its intimacy and immediacy. Bush has an extraordinary voice and an uncanny ability to transport you wherever her wild imagination wants you to be. 50 Words for Snow is a bleak return, but Bush is always best when she’s forlorn.
9. Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See (Domino)
Not everyone “gets” the Arctic Monkeys. Particularly Americans, for some reason. Maybe it’s Alex Turner’s accent. But in England they have the fastest selling debut of all time. This is no accident. Over the course of their last two albums, the Arctic Monkeys have shifted into darker and heavier territory, leaving some fans of the earlier, catchier tunes more than a little befuddled. But with an inflection that makes the mundane sound devastating, Turner is a one-of-a-kind presence, and as long as he’s writing and singing the lyrics, everything else falls into place: “I heard an unhappy ending/it sort of sounds like you leaving.”
10. Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now (Tape Modern/S Curve)
Let’s check the wristwatch. Yep, 2011. So I’m puzzled as to how Duran Duran is putting out a record of this caliber a good quarter century beyond its teeny-bopper expiration date. Mark Ronson should be credited with this late-career, most unlikely of unlikely comebacks. He persuaded the band to bag keeping up with its contemporaries with transparent, gimmicky collaborations and just do what it does best: soaring hooks, analog synths, and Chic, Roxy Music-inflected dance-rock. Ronson, evidently, has the magic touch to make this band sound vital again. Without laying the hyperbole on too thick, All You Need Is Now can hang with Rio in the cannon. No small feat. And Simon Le Bon is just a bad ass singer. The man is in his 50’s now and naturally nails choruses bands today can’t even ProTools their way near.