20. Spoon – Transference
Bought this album as soon as it was released. Hated it, didn’t touch it for six months. Saw them kill at Lollapalooza. Pulled the album back out. Loved it. Guess I just had to wrap my head around the distractingly odd timings.
19. The Head & the Heart – S/T
There is a ton of buzz on this band, and with the songwriting talent shown on its debut, it’s easy to see why. The balance of piano, acoustic guitar and cool-headed singing makes for a sound that will catch the attention of anyone within earshot.
18. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
It’s straightforward, sweet, and in no way resembles the band I fell in love with in 2006. But dammit, these are good songs that are sequenced perfectly. Now excuse me, I’m going to listen to “Dilly” seven times in a row.
17. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
Bridging the gap between 90s alternativia and afrobeat apparently makes for fun, danceable pop rock.
16. Broken Bells – S/T
To be perfectly honest, it’s exactly what you’d expect from the combination of James Mercer and Danger Mouse — greatness. That trademark Danger Mouse production — a little retro crackle, a good helping of modern beats, some uneasy undertones — is the perfect platform for Mercer’s hushed style.
15. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Mojo
Petty and Co. go all 60s white-boy blues, ending up with some killer riffs and their best album since Wildflowers.
14. The New Pornographers – Together
One thing I know: Canada’s got the market cornered on gang-heartland-folk-rock (see also: Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene). The New Pornos turn normal rock songs into singalong parties, and it’s a blast to hear on “Moves” and “Your Hands (Together).” And if they get bored with that, they just let Neko sing (“Crash Years,” “My Shepard”), which is never a bad idea.
13. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Purple Rain. Stankonia. Late Registration. Put this right next to all three. The ArchAndroid is a style-shifting suite (the music never stops, like a club mix gone horribly kick-ass) that could rewrite the book on how pop albums are produced from here on out.
12. The Moondoggies – Tidelands
Let me say this: Seattle is damn lucky to have this band in town playing several shows a year, especially considering that they followed up the near-perfect Don’t Be A Stranger with a sophomore effort that is just as deserving of repeated listens. “What Took So Long” may be their best song to date, and there’s just enough charm (“Empress of the North,” “It’s A Shame, It’s A Pity”) to offset the undeniable churn (“Tidelands,” “Down the Well”).
11. Warpaint – The Fool
Gorgeous, unassuming, and entrancing melancholic rock from four super talented ladies from Southern California. Female Radiohead. There, I said it.
10. Hobosexual – S/T
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what rock and roll is all about. Hot, stinky, sweaty, head-banging, ass-shaking rock and roll. These are some badass sons ‘a bitches.
9. Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
If I can continue to get a new Blitzen Trapper record every year or two, I will be a happy man — especially if they continue to sound like Furr and Destroyer of the Void. The Portland boys have hit their stride, producing Dylan-esque story songs (“The Man Who Would Speak True”) and Neil Young-worthy mellowness (“Evening Star”) alongside Who-style mini-operas (“Destroyer of the Void”) and Elton John-like pop (“Sadie”). And then there’s “Love and Hate,” which rules on an entirely different level.
8. Fitz & the Tantrums – Picking Up the Pieces
The spirit of Motown is alive and well. “MoneyGrabber,” “L.O.V.,” “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” — they all would have been hits in the 60s. Now? They’re just good-ass songs you need to listen to RIGHT NOW.
7. Punch Brothers – Antifogmatic
Chris Thile (Nickel Creek) is an astoundingly good mandolin player, and with Punch Brothers he’s found a way to let them fingers fly bluegrass style while branching out into more creativity-stimulating genres. “Rye Whiskey” is a modern bluegrass masterpiece, “You Are” inserts jarringly catchy pop melodies into a clever arrangement, and “This is the Song (Good Luck)” is a stark ballad that is among the year’s best.
6. The Besnard Lakes – Are the Roaring Night
It’s an all-encompassing atmospheric sound that swirls around you and takes you away to a dark and fiery distant land full of Vikings and shit. I don’t read Lord of the Rings. This is my Lord of the Rings.
5. The Black Keys – Brothers
Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach are an unstoppable force of nature. While the Blakroc experiment was more or less a dud, the influence from the blues-rock duo’s foray into hip-hop adds another dimension to their sound on Brothers. Subsequently, I keep coming back to the record no matter what mood I’m in. This is just about as good as it gets.
4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Do I even have to say anything? Oh, I do? Okay, well, this is a remarkable album. The lyrical content is relatable to pretty much everyone of this generation, and though some songs are fun and punchy, as a whole The Suburbs sounds … important. Really important. Also, I love “Sprawl II,” and that girl cannot sing worth a lick. That’s saying something.
3. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
The L.A. answer to harmony-heavy folk rock is trendy, sure, but it’s also the owner of an exciting sound you can’t really find anywhere else. The clatters and pangs and obvious influence of Talking Heads (an excellent cover “Warning Sign” is a highlight) keep the record on the upbeat, but the album wouldn’t be so addictive if it weren’t for the band’s uncanny ability to get the most of its songs with its musicianship and chemistry.
2. Beach House – Teen Dream
Whatever lines that are drawn between pop, folk, and electronic music do not apply here. On Teen Dream it all comes together in a beautiful record that is carried by Victoria Lagrand’s smoky vocals and Alex Scally’s dream-gaze instrumentals.
1. Alain Johannes – Spark
Spark is Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age sideman Johannes baring his soul after losing his partner in life and in the band Eleven, Natasha Schneider, who succumbed to cancer in 2008. In short, it’s a haunting yet uplifting trip that leaves you gasping for air by the end.
When Johannes strums his guitar as hard as he can in “Make God Jealous,” you feel his pain. When he screams, “It’s killing me that I must go on living” in “Endless Eyes,” you understand his grief. When he uses that sweet falsetto in “Spider,” you hear the love he holds for Schneider bleed through the speakers.
But it’s not just the emotion that makes Spark so special. Johannes is known primarily for his technical mastery as a instrumental jack-of-all-trades (and believe me, that is on display throughout), yet he really stands out as a melodic genius on Spark. The most obvious examples are the show-stealing vocal overdubs on “Return to You,” which includes a pair of washtub bass-mimicking mouth solos. There’s also the well-placed wordless vocals and mini orchestra he creates with an overdubbed cigar box guitar on “Speechless,” the tremendous harmonies on the “The Bleeding Hole,” and the way he uses his voice to complement a guitar solo in “Gentle Ghosts” to lift it up to the stratosphere.
Spark is Johannes’ best work, an incomparable piece of art that could only have been created by someone experiencing something remarkable in its pain