Many of the names on this list are becoming almost annual inclusions. It might be that I am growing older, out of touch and relying on old standbys to make up for pathetically missing their rightful successors. I hope not. Or perhaps it is that these bands, some of whom I have been writing about for over a decade, are in fact getting better as they age along with me. But there is one point that seems quite relevant this year, and that is that many of the songs from these artists are longish, artfully arranged and constructed, and strategically sequenced within full albums. People say the “album” as concept is dead, but I couldn’t disagree more. Read the words, research the band and make a leap of faith. These are full length pieces of art and deserve to be treated as such. There is quite a bit of new folk, some slightly psychedelic rock, and a little electronic music, but everything here is a modern classic.
1. Cat Power – “The Greatest” (Matador)
After years of deep admiration for Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, more for her aesthetics and potential than any one album in particular, I have finally fallen fast and hard for her music with “The Greatest.” Even with all the potential in the world, it would have been hard to predict a record quite this good. It is a piece of music that far exceeds expectation. A contemporary reinterpretation of Dusty Springfield’s Memphis classic, this is a flawless, timeless collaboration with a group of Memphis session musicians that oozes with something so simultaneously old and new that you can’t help but be transported to another time and place. Her voice is as silky and sultry as any in this day and age, and as the band digs into one satisfying groove after another time opens up and invites in a new classic.
2. Alexi Murdoch “Time Without Consequences” (Zero Summer Records)
Alexi Murdoch appeared seemingly out of nowhere. From his very first recording it was hard not to compare his silky vocals and gentle guitar pickings to Nick Drake’s elegant pastures but in a slightly modern context. Even the title of his first full length album, “Time Without Consequence” refers to Drake’s own posthumous compilation album “Time of No Reply” With a similar sounding folk inclination, Murdoch has tread on this hallowed ground and walked away a faithful and effective disciple – perhaps the only artist I have ever heard to pay tribute so closely without sounding shamefully derivative. “Time Without Consequence” is Drake draped in a much richer sound with the guitar and piano at the center of it all, but there are also some wonderfully warm loops made of tambourine and a few songs that even provide quiet electric guitar groove as backdrop. Inevitable comparisons aside, this is a record of awesome emotional power, and addictive cool.
3. The Long Winters “Putting the Days To Bed” (Barusk)
With the release of their third full-length, The Long Winters have established themselves as among the most criminally unheard bands of the past few years. The Seattle band crafts songs as catchy as anyone: imagine Coldplay without the overproduction, The Decemberists but less quirky, Death Cab without the preciousness. Singer John Roderick sings with a kind of earnestness that is likely to seduce even the most finicky indie enthusiast. With “Putting the Days To Bed” the band alternates between melodic power pop and slow going acoustic ballads, both featuring a rare infectious chorus that is just strange enough, think Flaming Lips, to elevate it beyond the standard fair. But whatever the commercial world ultimately decides about this band, it is hard not to be hopeful that there will be many more records like this one.
4. The Decemberists “The Crane Wife” (Capital)
In less than six years singer and head Decemberist, Colin Meloy, has evolved his esoteric sea shanty-odd parable rock idea into a fully realized, quasi-commercially viable phenomenon. On “The Crane Wife,” their major label debut and Japanese folk tale concept record, the band comes away sounding almost completely accessible. Oddly Meloy sounds, at times, like late 80’s era Michael Stipe, and with songs like “The Perfect Crime Part 2” there are finally choruses infectious enough to latch onto and scream into the night. Without question, The Decemberists have become one of the most important and innovative American bands of the new millennium.
5. Sean Lennon “Friendly Fire” (Capital)
Being Sean Lennon the singer-songwriter must feel a bit paralyzing at times. Every time he lifts a guitar or opens his mouth to sing he will be “compared.” But “Friendly Fire” looks boldly down the barrel of the best Lennon Sr. rifles -Revolver/Rubber Soul, and effortlessly picks up where he left off (see “Wait For Me”). With an eerily familiarly voice and a luscious production aesthetic, Sean Lennon has crafted a beautiful ghost. It took almost eight years to follow up his accomplished debut, but this largely melodic and understated masterpiece establishes him as a genius in his own right.
6. Destroyer “Destroyer’s Rubies” (Merge)
This one takes a while to sink in, but somewhere, buried under a sound that can only be described as vaguely Robyn Hitchcock, is an irresistible pop record that sounds intentionally dated, and curiously progressive. As member of the wonderfully accessible and relentlessly happy New Pornographers, chief Destroyer Dan Bejar has extrapolated on this pop sentiment but surrounded it in a lush symphony of piano, horns and his oddly British sounding vocals. This is a small indie record that sounds like a lavish studio record from the past, and one to find before it gets swept away in the wind.
7. Yo La Tengo “I am Not Afraid of You and I will Beat Your Ass” (Matador)
Some bands have only one trick that they just tend to beat to death slowly over many albums, or quickly once they realize the shallow nature of their beast. Yo La Tengo, however, is that rare breed, who over the course of over twenty years and ten full length masterpieces, have managed to evolve just enough to stay fresh, but not enough to shock and offend loyalists. Much of the beauty and longevity of the band has to do with the chemistry created by husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, and mid-career addition James McNew. These are serious artists, not much interested in singles and radio airplay, as they are creating albums intended to be listened to from start to finish. On “I Am Not Afraid” the band both picks up where they left off a few years back with “Summer Sun,” but also refreshes that “quiet-loud” rock direction that they shed before discovering their now signature atmospheric pop stylings. Bookended by two 10+ minute jams, “I Am Not Afraid” will leave you more with the feeling of the songs in between – quirky multi-instrument affairs (horns, piano, guitars) mixed with trademark harmonizing and provocative themes and lyrics. With almost every album I find myself thinking that Yo La Tengo has finally recorded their definitive masterpiece, but then a few years later another even better one emerges.
8. Silversun Pickups “Carnavas” (Dangerbird)
The most common and accurately inane comment you are likely to read about this band is some reference to the Smashing Pumpkins. Okay, they do sound a bit like them, but that was then, and this is now. Ever since Joy Division and Siouxsie brought the Goth to the mainstream, there has always been a band to pass the torch to. Almost every song can stand neatly on its own, which is an impressive feat for a young band swimming in the age of the downloaded track. “Carnavas” is a mostly pulsing, polished, pyramid of posh post-punk pleasure. Led by singer Brian Aubert’s seductively nasal vocals, the band’s tight guitar-bass-drums accompaniment, this is a rock record for those growing too old for rock music.
9. The Hold Steady “Boys and Girls in America” (Warner Brothers)
Hype is blinding – so blinding in fact that my silent protest against the raves, which started on the band’s last record, almost kept me from carving out the time to really listen to this one. “Indie Bruce Springsteen,” I suppose, but who cares. This is a big time little rock and roll record, more hipster club scene than arena rock tailgate, more academic and anthropologic than black velvet poster and classic rock radio. With “Boys and Girls in America” you get the chance to go back in time and play that character in High School that you always aspired to be.
10. Band of Horses “Everything All The Time” (Sub Pop)
This is a short, tight indie rock masterpiece thrown together by veteran Seattle musicians who just seemed to hit all the right cords this time around. Although the band is often compared to My Morning Jacket, underneath it all I hear is shades of new wave where My Morning Jacket hints at country rock. These are crisp emotionally charged pop songs
10. Lambchop “Damaged” (Merge)
Lambchop makes some of the quietest, loveliest music I know. They do it record after record , year after year, not so much changing as evolving so slowly that you need slo-mo to sense the movement it at all. But therein lies the genius. The band is big, fifteen and counting, lush with strings brass and everything else you’d expect in a rock band but more like an indie symphony of sorts. The ten songs on “Damaged” are exquisite slowly building masterpieces, that just kind of glow with intricacy and warmth. This record requires attention and meditation, but if you have the time this one soothes the soul.
11. Richard Ashcroft “Keys To The World” (Virgin)
For almost the entire duration of the nearly decade long career, I was convinced that Ashcroft had one of the finest voices in the history of rock. He does, and blended with the rolling guitars of that defined The Verve, there was an almost trance-like quality that was evoked. A few disappointing solo records, hundreds of cartons of cigarettes and an admirable quantity of booze later that voice has aged a bit. But on “Keys to the World,” it just kind of works again. For one thing, the songs are better, and the craggier vocals help shape things and create a texture that makes sense. Ashcroft may never make a record as good as the first few Verve records, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t keep trying.
12. Neko Case “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” (Anti-)
In some ways there is not a better female voice in music today than Neko Case. Often, however, my favorite of her songs tend to be the less common pop songs that she tends to sing with New Pornographers or occasionally sprinkles across her own records. “Fox Confessor” is kind of a hybrid Neko solo record. In part it is grounded in that signature country twang that more or less defines her work, but this time around it feels more like a garnish than the main dish. When Neko is in full stride her voice is an instrument that sounds better than anything, and “Fox Confessor” is a wonderful story to hear her tell.
13. Gomez “How We Operate” (ATO)
It struck me initially, like a brick hitting my head from two feet away, as a very bad idea for the wonderful and historically hippy-trippy British collective Gomez, to have signed to Dave Matthew’s label to make a pop record. Together with spiritual brethren The Beta Band, for almost a decade the two bands owned there own genre – a kind of stoney, groove-laden, indie rock. But as the Beta Band struggled to recapture the infectiousness of the debut “Three-EP’s” collection, Gomez migrated further along the pop spectrum but never quite as directly as this. This is a warm pop record that drifts along like part Wilco part Beth Orton, and part David Gray. But all of this familiarly still exists in that unique framework that Gomez began fashioning years ago. There is not much to criticize here, unless you believe that guilty pleasures in music are for the weak of heart. I guess we are all growing up and as they croon gloriously and insightfully on “Charley Patton Songs” the band sings that “they are they are … old enough to know how .. and young enough to still try.”
14. TV On The Radio “Return of Cookie Mountain” (Interscope)
If there exists a consensus album of the year, this year the winner would be TV On The Radio by a landslide. I must admit that there is something challenging and provocative about this music. On the one hand it is occasionally discordant and slow moving but then out of nowhere shines a rather sneaky melody and a rising tide of psychedelic art rock. Those seeking instant gratification, snippets snagged on iPods at the beginning and end of every day, will never really understand this record, but if you can find the right time it will all come together.
15. Joanna Newsom “Ys” (Drag City)
I wrote about this oddly warbling harpist folkie a few years ago. At the time I remember being so transfixed by the foreignness of her voice and originality of her accompaniment that I couldn’t help but spend a great deal of time in her strange often unsettling world. She is back with an even more ambitious, academic project in “Ys.” The album contains five songs, each seven minutes or longer, with lyrics and iconography that forces us to some place other than the present for inspiration or understanding. This is absolutely not for everyone, but for those willing to invest the time and energy, below the surface is the most original folk-baroque record of the year.
16. Zero 7 “The Garden” (Atlantic/Warner Music)
Three full lengths and a few remix records into an already solid career, “The Garden” continues to solidify Zero 7 as the flag bearing leader in the quasi-mainstream race for the electronica hall of fame alongside Morcheeba, Thievery Corporation and the Stephane Pompougnac’s Hotel Costes records. The band’s revolving cast of vocalists is again led by the sexy chantreuse and three-time alum Sia Furler, but the real gems of “The Garden” are the four tracks sung by Swedish crooner José González. Zero 7 again manages to make easy-on-the-ears lounge music good enough to make its way onto hipster retail compilation CDs, and strong enough receive multiple listens from dedicated music enthusiasts. It’s hard to hold success and mass appeal against these guys. They know how to push buttons and spin dials.
17. Beth Orton “Comfort of Strangers” (Astralwerks)
“Comfort of Strangers” is more of the same, which is a very good thing, from one of the most accomplished neo-folkies of the past decade. “Comfort of Strangers” is a more stripped down affair than earlier albums. Gone is much of the mellow electronica that used to provide her easy loops to sing over, and what is left is that same lovely voice, those gentle guitar lines and silky melodies that just slowly make their way under your skin.
18. Arctic Monkeys “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (Capital)
Okay this record is pretty damn good. Anything this overexposed should raise eyebrows, but if you bother to look under the hood long enough you’ll hear something that will make you smile.
Missed it in 2005 but found it this year:
19. The Frames “Burn the Maps” (Anti-)
The Frames are an Irish powerhouse that have been around since 1990 and have a sound that should fill large venues with hoards of intelligent music zealots nodding hypnotically to perfectly off center rock. This might happen somewhere, but I suspect only in Ireland. “Burn The Maps” is as edgy, emotive album as you are likely to find, but it is also one that changes pace drastically from song to song: hushed whisper to rock anthem and back again. But really the band revolves around Glen Hansard’s crisp swirling vocals and the driving U2y guitar lines, and they are the real thing.
Liked them a lot, but you gotta draw the line somewhere:
Bert Jansch “The Black Swan” (Drag City)
Robin Hitchcock and the Venus 3 “Ole! Tarantula” (Yep Roc)
Eric Matthews “Foundation Sounds” (Empyrean Records)
M. Ward “Post War” (Merge)
DJ Shadow “The Outsider” (XL/Beggars Banquet)
Belle & Sebastian “The Life Pursuit” (Matador)
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy “The Letting Go” (Drag City)
Heartless Bastards “All This Time” (Fat Possum)
The Kooks “Inside In Inside Out” (Astralwerks)