TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2009

Another year of music has ended, and with it, an entire decade of innovation and development gives way to the future. If 2009 has anything to say about it, we have a lot to look forward to. Here are my favorite 25 albums of the year, with a few honorable mentions to albums that I couldn’t resist squeezing in a word about.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Beirut/ March of the Zapotec and Real People-Holland- Since this actually a combination of two albums, one which relies heavily on Spanish mariachi band influences and another that experiments more with dance beats (both new territory for this constantly evolving artist), there is a problem with continuity. Nevertheless, the second half succeeds especially behind tracks like the bouncy synth of “My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille” and the softer electronic keyboards on “Venice”. The mariachi stuff is enjoyable enough, but the standout of the first half is “The Shrew”, with its theatrical and slightly unsettling horn and accordion progression.

Russian Circles/ Geneva- Hometown Chicagoan Russian Circles take a step forward with Geneva, which advances upon their purely instrumental music by thickening guitar lines that sound like they came straight from the dark, cold corners of the meat-packing district. The industrial grind is most present early on the album on tracks like opener “Fathom” and the eerie, chiming guitar riff and rollicking percussion of the title track, but later on things mellow out and broaden. “Melee” builds softly into a cascading arpeggio, while closing number “When the Mountain Comes to Muhammad” escalates from its hopeless opening riff into layers of fuzzy lawnmower bass, soaring electric guitar lines and off tempo percussion.

Florence and the Machine/ Lungs- Young British import Florence Welch shows off her impressive vocal range here, spanning from high octaves to a Natalie Merchant-esque alto, on this solid and upbeat debut. In between the engaging, rocking opener “Dog Days Are Over” and the excellent closing cover of “You’ve Got The Love”, Welch experiments with darker percussion structures on the moonlit “Cosmic Love” and highlight “Blinded”, the latter featuring haunting synthesized organs and strings (think Britney Spears’ “Toxic” without the fun). It isn’t all dark though, despite the fact that a lot of these songs deal with violence and death, as tracks like the motivating, confident “Hurricane Drunk” and aptly titled “Drumming Song” resonate as some of the most immediate and memorable moments on this solid effort.

Dinosaur, Jr./ Farm- These old-timers have not lost their knack for putting together a classic guitar riff and and a perfectly executed melody, and the songs here sound astoundingly fresh and not regurgitated. Opener “Pieces” proves that these innovators of the alternative music scene still have their act together in that regard, while “Plans” ranks among the best of their entire catalog. “I Want You To Know” rocks with the ferocity of “Freak Scene” or “Little Furry Things” and proves that pure, riff-driven rock still has the life that it had no reason to lose in the first place. I wonder why Pearl Jam can’t make music like this anymore? Complete with heart-wrenching melodies like “See You”, Farm is right on par with 2007’s equally surprising Beyond, if not better.

Annie/ Don’t Stop- After a label dispute, Annie’s long awaited sophomore album arrived, and I had high hopes for it. What I received for my patience was an album that was disappointingly middling. Despite two immediate classics (“Bad Times” and “Songs Remind Me of You”), Don’t Stop is laced with average dance pop tunes (“Hey Annie”, “Loco”, “I Don’t Like Your Band”), repetitive attempts to innovate (“Marie Cherie”, “When The Night”), and a couple of unspeakably horrible songs (“The Breakfast Song”, “My Love Is Better’). One has to wonder why standouts like “Anthonio” and “I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me” were left off the final version and released as singles instead, but even with only the two aforementioned classics, the admittedly awesome hook on the title track and the darkly lit “Take You Home”, Annie still put together an album worth owning.

#25: Cymbals Eat Guitars/ Why There Are Mountains

Perhaps the year’s most surprisingly solid debut effort came from New York’s Cymbals Eat Guitars, which despite its scattered, admittedly innovative structure succeeds on nearly every account, complete with what might be the best band name in recent memory. Shifting between soft melody and all out screaming vocals, opener “And The Hazy Sea” is daring and gripping, while folkier elements are present on standout piano waltz track  “Indiana” and summer anthem “Wind Phoenix.” There is a lot of diversity here as well, as softer songs like the beautiful “Share” implement shoegazer guitar distortion elements behind soft piano keys and horns that eventually strive for epic status, and the string and horn elements behind “Cold Spring” communicate genuine emotion before shifting into an explosive emo dirge a la Modest Mouse through the song’s midsection and coda. I don’t think Cymbals Eat Guitars has figured out what kind of band they want to be quite yet, but they sure have some great ideas.

#24: Japandroids/ Post-Nothing

Short, poppy punk-rock garage tunes didn’t sound as good from anyone else this year than this duo with the ridiculous name. And while they aren’t anywhere near the experimental brilliance of the recent work of No Age or the classic lo-fi fuzz of Guided By Voices, they certainly get straight to the point on their debut album, as the raw power of these eight deceivingly simple songs resonate.  Opener “The Boys are Leaving Town” isn’t lyrically complex as the title is essentially repeated over and over while the Japandroids ponder “Will we find our way back home?”, but at least it gives us an idea of the highlights to come. Of those, “Wet Hair” certainly hits the hardest, even with its ridiculous, albeit hilarious repetition (“We must go to France so we can French kiss some French girls!”), while a tone of seriousness permeates the thick percussion and heavily paced riff action on “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, a coming of age tune that admits, “Oh, we used to dream/ Now we worry about dying.” Towards the end, there’s a shift in the pace, as “Sovereignty” uses an honest rhythm to leave the past behind, and closer “I Quit Girls” demonstrates genuine heartbreak.

#23: The Pains of Being Pure At Heart/ The Pains of Being Pure At Heart

This cheery indie pop debut earned higher accolades elsewhere than I am willing to give it, but one can’t deny its sugary teen-pop infectiousness. In fact, “Young Adult Friction” might very well be the best pure single released in 2009, dripping with bittersweet indie-pop perfection and bursting with energy as keyboardist Peggy Wang-East adds a memorable background harmony to an already impressive tune. Elsewhere, opener “Contender” sets the stage nicely with its crisp, clean acoustic guitar balladry, while “Come Saturday” follows with more directness and a fuzzy but incredibly catchy riff. After that, ventures like the shoegazer imitation “Stay Alive” and early 90s Brit-pop ripoff (James anyone?) “The Tenure Itch” are admirable even if they seem a bit soggy, while anthems like “This Love Is Fuckin’ Right” would seem cheesy if not for humorous (we think?) suggestions of incest. Even if the 80s synth on “A Teenager In Love” stretches the boundaries of credibility, it all still sounds quite listenable.

#22: The Decemberists/ The Hazards of Love

On the follow-up to their best album to date, The Crane Wife, The Decemberists, always eager to create songs packed with lyrical imagery, undertook the creation of a full-scale rock opera, a complex fairy tale set to the band’s well-established indie folk sound and scattered with bursts of heavy metal riffs. The key to appreciating this album is to follow the story, as the songs likely won’t have the same power otherwise, but highlights include vocal guest Shara Worden portraying the Queen on the riff-laden centerpiece “The Wanting Comes In Waves/ Repaid”, as well as the more familiar soft sounds on “Isn’t This A Lovely Night.” Horrific, dark imagery resonates behind the pounding acoustic chords on “The Rake’s Song” and the foreboding “Annan Water”, while “The Hazards of Love Part 4 (The Drowned) provides a heartbreaking conclusion to the tale. While the songs themselves are arguably a notch below the band’s prior work and the themes somewhat repetitive, you have to hand it to the band for taking such a chance on such a massive project and pulling it off with impressive flow.

#21: Isis/ Wavering Radiant

For a band that has created a name itself through a hard rock sound that borders on heavy metal, there is something lush and melodic about the beauty and accessibility of Wavering Radiant. Opener “Hall of the Dead” is dark and ominous, alternating between growling vocals and a contrasting baritone, and don’t miss the eerie organ breakdown at the end before the track stops abruptly. “Ghost Key” begins on a brighter note, with an airy guitar riff grazing over a more subdued vocal presence, before it breaks down into layers of echoed noise, while centerpiece “Hand of the Host” pairs its subtle bassline with heavy riffs, pounding drums and patient, evolving vocal work that culminates in utter chaos. These songs, for the most part, are long, loud and challenging, but are prettier than you’d expect, mastering the balance between soft, lifted bass and its transition into dark, haunting riffs and terrifying vocal sounds.

#20: The Very Best/ Warm Heart of Africa

Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit bridge the world music gap on debut LP Warm Heart of Africa, simultaneously bringing authentic African sounds from past and present to the American ear and maintaining a decisive accessibility throughout thanks to the addition of more familiar pop elements. I feel like I am watching “The Lion King” as the opening chants of opener “Yalira” materialize into the 80s synth sounds of the following track “Chalo”, both of which set the stage for an album that eventually develops a continuity of upbeat, bright African melodies. Guest appearances by Vampire Weekend leadman Ezra Koenig on the title track and M.I.A on “Rain Dance” add to the accessibility factor while also maintaining standout track status, while “Nsokoto” really brings the dance beats and “Kamphono” progresses with a tropical vibe. The album’s center boasts the immediately engaging and poppy “Julia”, as well as more layered, dreamy Moroccan sounds of “Angonde”, both of which really pull the album together. Upon repeated listens, there is something fascinating about the ability of The Very Best to combine such decisively exotic musical elements into a structure that is so pleasing throughout.

#19: Fever Ray/ Fever Ray

The Knife’s Karin Driejer’s solo effort is less immediate than Silent Shout, opting instead for subdued, downtempo beats and dark vocal arrangements, and succeeds on the whole. Brother Olof Dreijer’s deep, haunting voice adds to the power of the slowly building, greed-indicting opener “If I Had a Heart” and somewhat repetitive “Dry and Dusty”, but the beats pick up a bit with Karin on the album standout track “Seven” and on “Triangle Walks.” Towards the end, the devastating back to back combination of “I’m Not Done” with its subtle guitar grind and the atmospheric wooden flute background on”Keep the Streets Empty For Me” exudes hypnotic darkness, and seven minute closer “Coconut” builds steadily with its synth and drum beats before the vocals come in and the track evaporates everything in its path. As you would expect, this is very dark and depressing overall, but quite captivating.

#18: Neon Indian/ Psychic Chasms

There’s a distinct nostalgic and homemade feel to this album, as 80s synth runs rampant throughout, creating a surprisingly refreshing collection of sunny, dreamy, and easily replayable tunes. Songs like “Local Joke” almost feel like the new millennium’s blend of Wham! and New Order, while others like the title track carry behind high-pitched, screeching synth. At its best, the understated vocals of Alan Palomo glide along beneath catchy melodies and Atari video game jabs on standouts like “Deadbeat Summer” and “Laughing Gas.” It doesn’t get much better than the combination of robot sounds and atmospheric hums on “Terminally Chill”, while the sprawling synth on “Should Have Taken Acid With You” and its underlying hook will be stuck in your head for days. I’d equate Neon Indian to some combination of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy’s laid back vocal combined with the music of Air France, all created in Atlas Sound’s bedroom. It’s all over so quickly, and begs for another listen, succeeding in practically any conceivable environment.

#17: jj/ N 0 2

This mysterious Scandinavian project follows in the footsteps of Air France, and betters them with this effort, creating twenty-eight minutes of airy, ambient pop that is so lifted in nature it seems to be almost luring us into a dream, and is the quintessential relaxing beach album. A Caribbean rhythm assisted by gorgeous string instrumentation begins the album on a strong note, as “Things Will Never Be the Same Again” moves along swiftly with its incredibly relaxed vocals. This is an easy album to just throw on and enjoy, as the familiar sounding “Ecstacy” samples the melody from Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop”, while the completely instrumental “Intermezzo” is mesmerizing with its zither chimes and bongo beach beat. There’s a bouncy beat to standout track “From Africa to Malaga”, which hits in all the right spots with its vocals, while “Masterplan” is brimming with optimism through its synthesized keyboards and bittersweet guitar line. N 0 2 is so relaxing and pretty yet rhythm-focused all the way through, and sounds nothing like anything else released this year; put it on and drift away from everything that you want to drift away from.

#16: Atlas Sound/ Logos

Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox surpasses his previous solo effort with this concentrated collection of melodies. While impressive debut album Let The Blind Lead Those Who Cannot See was experimental and fragmented, Cox sticks to more approachable, immediate melodies on Logos, and this is best demonstrated on the catchy “Sheila” and broad “Criminals.” Cox benefits from contributions from Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox on the sunny “Walkabout” and Stereolab’s Laetita Sadier on the epic “Quick Canal”, which both add diversity. Towards the end, we get a feel for Cox’s more melancholy style, but the looping synth on “Kid Klimax” and “Washington School” will be difficult to get out of your head.

#15: Moderat/ Moderat

This unique collaboration between Modeselektor and Apparat combines elements of hip-hop, dream pop and Burial-esque dubstep. Those styles can be easily separated between songs, as the techno and trance elements on opener “A New Error” and penultimate track “No. 22” are more heavily influenced by Modeselektor, while the dreamier pop and dubstep on standouts like the vocalized “Rusty Nails” and closer “Out of Sight” get their qualities from Apparat. Still, there is evidence of contributions from both artists throughout the album, and there is intricate repetition and build on the layered “Seamonkey” and “Les Grandes March.” A few missteps toward the middle break up the flow a bit, but then there is the added complexity of the ominous “Porc #1” and triumphant “Porc #2”, which evolve from a synthesized guitar twang into a fuzzy, sunrise shoegazer track, which ultimately save the day before the album’s strong last few songs.

#14: Fuck Buttons/ Tarot Sport

We didn’t see a better pure electronic album in 2009 than this sophomore effort, as never is a word spoken over seven captivating and surprisingly accessible tracks from a band whose debut effort was a tad on the noisy side. These songs are incredibly streamlined yet dark and textured, repetitively structured only for the sake of their devastating undercurrents and codas. Opener “Surf Solar” consists of a simple loop that is repeated over a solid ten minutes as soaring shoegazer guitar builds with intensity in the distance, while the closing combination of “Space Mountain” and “Flight of the Feathered Serpent” blends in a manner that renders them virtually indistinguishable from one another, a perfect combo of triumphant, all-encompassing acid techno. However, the real treat of Tarot Sport is its belly, as the brilliant evolution of beats and soundscapes on “The Lisbon Maru” and “Olympians” combine for twenty minutes of mesmerizing electronica that are over way too quickly.

#13: St. Vincent/ Actor

Annie Clark likes to play guitar, but there’s a decisive electronic groove to this innovative sophomore effort. On the surface, songs like “The Strangers” and “The Party” initially seem gentle, mellow and sweet, but Clark, recording under her stage name St. Vincent, reveals a dark, experimental undertone as theses songs evolve and throughout Actor. Addictive percussion arrangements behind gorgeous melodies render “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood” and “Save Me From What I Want” the standout tracks here, but there’s more depth on songs like “Marrow”, which breaks down into a fit of fuzzy, futuristic chaos, and “Black Rainbow”, which shifts from a subtle waltz track to an underbelly of dark, distorted paranoia. On repeated listens, despite the general beauty of Clarke’s unwavering vocals and melodies, it is really the little things, like the drumming and the shifts in instrumental sounds that give this album its true identity and communicate its general air of uncertainty.

#12: The XX/ The XX

xxHow can an album that essentially repeats the exact same haunting guitar line over and over again sound so hypnotic and brilliant? The debut album from these British youngsters is simplistic but also dark, mysterious and addictive, with dueling male and female lead vocalists that purr their lyrics over eerie, distant guitar lines that are reminiscent of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” The album succeeds most from its ability to build into each track, especially on the more upbeat numbers, such as the guitar breakdown on “Crystalized” or the dark tropical vibe of “Islands.” Impressive guitar breakdowns abound in the album’s later half on tracks like the spacious, eerie “Basic Space” and steadily evolving, resolute “Night Time.” In between, the songs seem to simply glide from one to the next, and are uniquely mesmerizing.

#11: Dirty Projectors/ Bitte Orca

bitteorcaOn their second album, this often polarizing and highly experimental indie rock band compacted their style into a much more accessible and refined version of their previous work. Every song here is surprisingly memorable and approachable despite the considerable genius of the instrumental arrangements and sounds behind them, and the album runs the gamut of genres from pop to balladry and even R&B funk. The harmonies on “Cannibal Resources” and “Remade Horizon” are memorable highlights here, but the diversity that carries the album is more present on the upbeat funk jam “Stillness is the Move” and the carefully layered “Useful Chamber”, which eventually breaks down into a hyperactive chant of the album’s title. Even with all of that, my favorite songs on Bitte Orca are probably the softer tracks, including the lovesick beauty of “Two Doves” and the simple but effective pop on “No Intentions.”

#10: Girls/ Album

girlsalbum200If you’re looking for a feel-good story about an underdog, try this on for size: Girls lead singer Christopher Owens grew up in a cult, and as a teenager, ran away and lived in a gutter. Now he has recorded his debut album, and it displays a wide range of styles from sunny pop to fuzzy shoegaze, sounding fantastic at every turn. Opener “Lust For Life” is as catchy and poppy as they come, with Owens’ nasally vocals racing to keep up with the addictive riff. “Laura” is an immediate highlight early on, easily besting the opening track, as Owens tries to reconcile a fading relationship, using gorgeous guitar lines as his backdrop. The range of styles demonstrated here might Album‘s most impressive attribute, as the fuzzy guitar pop on “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” would have fit perfectly on a California beach in the 1960s, while two songs later, the spacious, dreamy “Headache” is all relaxation. In between those two is the centerpiece, “Hellhole Ratrace”, which builds slowly with its acoustic guitar and broken-hearted plea “I don’t wanna cry/ My whole life through/ I wanna do some laughing too/ So come on, come on, come on, come on and laugh me” before it eventually soars behind its sweeping electric guitar backdrop and collapses back onto itself. Towards the end, we get a pure shoegazer song in standout track “Morning Light” before the concluding, “Darling”, with its country guitar twang and optimistic vibe, and Girls pull off a broad combination of styles without ever sounding lost or uncertain.

#9: Royksopp/ Junior

juniorOn Junior, Swedish electronic duo Royskopp delivered an impressively solid effort, complete with both cheery, poppy synth and dark techno elements. Opening track “Happy Up Here” is immediately likable for its catchy loop, while the group enlists a star-studded cast to assist on some of the other tracks. Robyn lends vocals on the anthemic, energetic dance tune “The Girl and the Robot”, while The Knife’s Karin Driejer makes an appearance on the darker, pumping “This Must Be It” and the even scarier “Tricky Tricky,” which boasts the memorable world play lyric “Six afraid of seven/ Cause seven ate nine.” Sweeter, prettier sounds are evident on songs like the layered “Vision One”, the Lykee Li-assisted “Miss It So Much” and the subtle piano chords of “You Don’t Have A Clue,” but even these are laced with fresh, synthesized beats. The space-funk undertones of “Royksopp Forver” evolve slowly into a violin line that starts with an ominous tone before turning brighter, while closer “It’s What I Want” lets us off easy with bittersweet piano lines and airy vocals. These are all dance floor ready tunes, and there is something here for everyone.

#8 Phoenix/ Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

wolfgangamadeusphoenixAs the title would suggest, Phoenix intend for this album to play somewhat like a symphony of pop-rock, and the French band succeed admirably by placing impossibly catchy riffs around a center of experimental expansion, all masking lyrics of frustration and despair. Bittersweet, foot-stomping opener “Lisztomania” sets the tone perfectly, while the stabbing keyboard fuzz on “1901” builds into a fiery, motivated coda. The groovy “Fences” is a personal favorite here, while the determined, enthusiastic “Countdown” breaks down into the matter-of-fact rallying cry “We’re the lonesome!” Interestingly, the band breaks the flow of the album a bit by placing the experimental, mostly instrumental “Love Like a Sunset” tracks in the center, as the first track builds slowly before eventually exploding and giving way to a simple acoustic guitar strum and the lyric “Acres/ Visible horizons/ Right where it starts and ends/When did we start the end?” The bittersweet tone hits its pinnacle on “Rome”, where lead singer Thomas Mars compares a fallen relationship to a fallen empire, and the awesome intensity over the last minute of closer “Armistice” might be the best piece of composition that Phoenix has ever achieved. Every track here is a winner, and with its compact, upbeat pop-rock sounds, this was the album of the summer and undoubtedly among the year’s best.

#7: Raekwon/ Only Built For Cuban Linx Part 2

cubanlinxii200The highly anticipated follow up to the classic drug trade and organized crime lyricism of its predecessor was well worth the 14 year wait, as Raekwon picks up right where he left off and delivers a dark, intense collection of tales that continue the Mafioso theme, complete with vivid imagery and a well-rounded supporting cast. After an opening track that pays homage to the final track of the 1995 album, the 2009 version hits us right in the face with the J Dilla beats of “House of Flying Daggers”, complete with the classic Wu lineup of Inspectah Deck, GZA, Method Man, and Ghostface. Speaking of Ghostface, his presence here is just as vital as it was to the first album, as some of his electric moments here are among the best work of his career. Take his opening line in the final verse of standout track “Cold Outside”, as he frantically narrates “They found a two year old strangled to death/ With a love daddy shirt on/ In a bag on the top of the steps”, or his encounter with a street soldier after being caught with the man’s girlfriend on the jamming “Gihad”, “C’mon son gimme the gun/ You gonna kill me over this bum-ass bitch you can’t resist?” Another early highlight is “Black Mozart”, which utilizes an eerie synthesized organ that samples the Godfather theme and benefits from a deranged RZA verse through its conclusion. However, as much as the Wu members add balance and diversity of style here Raekwon himself is still in control of the album’s concept, and dominates on tracks like the business plan explanation on “Surgical Gloves” and the vivid crack-cooking imagery and minor guitar line on “Pyrex Vision.” Early leak highlight “New Wu” is as catchy as anything these guys have ever put together, while familiar Elton John samples on “Kiss The Ring” sends the album off on a strong note. At 22 tracks long, there’s a lot going on here, and the album’s biggest credit is that it is so incredibly thick and consistent that every track remains engaging.

#6: Bat For Lashes/ Two Suns

batforlashes_twosunsNatasha Khan’s project reminds me of what would happen if Bjork, Ladytron and Cat Power had a three way love child. Like those acts, at its best, Two Suns is dark and mysterious with its electronic beats, catchy choruses and out-of-this-world vocals. The eerily produced drum beats on “Daniel” (an instant classic) and “Sleep Alone” especially encompass these traits, while more experimentation works well on the atmopsheric “Two Planets.” I almost wish there was more electronic syncopation here, but the softer tracks succeed as glue and add complexity, especially the slowly building, gorgeous electronic organ on “Good Love” and the deep, bass-heavy piano on “Traveling Woman.” And one certainly can’t forget the insane vocals on captivating opener and standout track “Glass” which sets up perfectly for Khan’s impressive range over the rest of the album, or her collaboration with Scott Walker on impossibly soft piano track “The Big Sleep”, which combined with closer “Wilderness” create a tone of heartbreak throughout its beautiful entirety.

#5: The Flaming Lips/ Embyonic

embryonic200_Pushing aside the bubble-gum pop of the disappointing At War With The Mystics, The Flaming Lips bounced back with a shocking change of pace on Embyonic, an album that showcases deep paranoia, fear and darkness. Some of me feels that is almost unfortunate that the band didn’t wait until the new decade to release this, as it seems to convey a heavily futuristic tone throughout its dense, sweeping collection of songs. The production quality permeates a distant feel and captures the tone of the album perfectly, and the band builds upon sounds that made albums like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots instant classics, adding bursts of guitar screeching intermittently to create a foreboding, industrial sound. Given these new elements, this isn’t exactly an album to listen to on a hungover Sunday morning, but with a clear head and the time to fully dive into the challenging Embyonic, the payoff is massive. The striking repetition on the ominous opener “Convinced of the Hex” leads into early highlight “The Sparrow Looks Up At the Machine”, which moves along its synthesized drums with a heavy bassline and eerie electric keyboard reminiscent of Yoshimi as lead singer Wayne Coyne fearfully sings “What/ What does it mean/ To dream what you dream/ To believe what you’ve seen.” The full horror of Embyonic embodies itself on tracks like “See The Leaves” with its terrifying bursts of electric guitar, and with the heavy guitar fuzz, chimes and explosive percussion on “Worm Mountain,” which evolves into one repeated, ringing and incredibly spooky guitar note as Coyne howls in the background. At seven minutes long, the devastating “Powerless” serves as the perfect centerpiece, building patiently with its slow, hopeless bassline before exploding into more industrial sounding guitar squeals. Towards the end, a couple of massive highlights include “Silver Trembling Hands”, which shifts suddenly from the pounding paranoia of its verses and into the album’s prettiest moment as Coyne croons “She forgets about the fear/ When she’s high”, as well as the chimes and forceful pecussion on the all-encompassing, raucous closer “Watching the Planets.” At 18 songs in length, there’s a lot to tackle here, and Embyonic certainly has moments where it seems overwhelming and relentless, but is truly another epic accomplishment for The Flaming Lips, and more than anything, it was about the last thing we were expecting.

#4: The Antlers/ Hospice

hospiceA daring and gut-wrenching concept album that follows a boyfriend as he watches his verbally abusive girlfriend die in a cancer ward, Hospice takes a seemingly simple musical structure and adds depth and intimacy by adding an intricate detail of sounds and lyrical imagery. Songs like “Two” are reminiscent of the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, and while nothing here strikes as immediately as that album did, it is almost certainly more focused on its overall concept. To that end, where Hospice succeeds most is in the perfection of the song placement; this isn’t an album where the songs stand alone to be listened to in a short sitting, but instead one that when heard in sequence, in its entirety, produces an emotional effect that is nothing short of overwhelming. Opener “Ketterings” sets the stage for the story under a soft melody that bursts into a stunning crescendo and leads into highlight “Sylvia”, which benefits from its contrasting soft verse/ explosive chorus structure as well as some of the album’s finest lyrical work. A track by track breakdown misses the point here, but the moment that really pulls the album together is the astonishing, aptly titled “Shiva” in the later half, as a hypnotizing lullaby melody and a hanging, distant final chord serves as a metaphor for the death, and with such peaceful, almost hopeful sounds, this wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

#3: Camera Obscura/ My Maudlin Career

mymaudlincareerI find this album to be so pretty that it literally hurts. From the horns and excessive string arrangements to Tracyanne Campbell’s angelic vocals, My Maudlin Career possesses a certain heartbreaking sweetness that runs throughout the album’s entirety and never gets old, combining with a fullness from a production standpoint that borders on unbelievable. Early on, there are upbeat highlights from opener “French Navy” and its catchy drumming and sunny melody as well as the delicious coda on album standout “Swans”, not to mention the triumphant horns on big-band-esque closer “Honey In The Sun.” However, I feel more affected emotionally by the softer tracks and simple, straight to the heart lyrics on songs like “You Told A Lie” (“I’m stuck with them/ and they’re stuck on you”), “James” (“You broke me/ I thought I knew you well”), “Away With Murder” (“Someone told me love conquers all/ Well he was a fool/ Because it doesn’t at all”) and “Careless Love” (“I don’t think/ that we should really be friends”). Forming such a collection of bittersweetness at such a relaxed pace is a risk on the listener’s ear to be sure, but Camera Obscura pulls it off with hypnotic perfection here, delivering a tender collection of melodies and lyrics that stick with you for days after each listen.

#2: Grizzly Bear/ Veckatimest

veckatimest200On the highly anticipated follow-up to their debut, Grizzly Bear created an album that is as good as music of this leveled tempo style can possibly sound, demonstrating impressive focus and delicate precision regarding its vocal harmonies and musical arrangements. Vecaktimest starts powerfully, as opener “Southern Point” is gripping with its sitting-around-the-campfire acoustic guitar that explodes into all out chaos before coming full-circle back to where it began. The poppy summer tune “Two Weeks” is perhaps the band’s best harmonizing track to date with its addictive “oohs” and “aahs” soaring behind an already lights-out melody, while “All We Ask” pleases with its march-step percussion and eventual surrender into singer Dan Rossen’s hopeless lyric “I can’t/ Get out/ Of what I’m into/ With you.” The album’s darker, mesmerizing midsection is less immediate than its bookends, but adds substantial balance, especially on somewhat eerie sound of teen tale “Cheerleader” and the absolutely haunting organ on “Ready, Able.” The band lets us down as powerfully as they draw us in, as the final three tracks are all huge highlights in their own right. “While You Wait For The Others” gives “Two Weeks” a run for its money in terms of harmonic arrangement and arguably builds better into an equally catchy chorus, while “I Live With You” shifts between its atmospheric horns and foreboding melodies before exploding into an all-out dirge. Closer “Foreground” sums up everything that is great about this album, as a soft piano line carries throughout, highlighting both the beauty and simple perfection that permeate throughout this effort, which as it turns out, is more than anyone could have hoped for.

#1: Animal Collective/ Merriweather Post Pavilion

Animal_Collective_Merriweather_Post_Pavilion

Speaking of highly anticipated albums, on their most recent effort, Animal Collective combine and expand upon elements of their hugely innovative prior work to deliver their most accessible and complete album to date, full of pop melodies and not lacking for advancement in their continuing journey of musical discovery. I often suggest to people not familiar with Animal Collective’s wide, diverse and generally genre-less catalog that the best way to begin to understand and appreciate this band might be to start with this album, looking no further than standout track “My Girls” early on. This song exemplifies everything that the band has accomplished to date and points toward a promising future, with its looping synth beats, catchy pop melody, building song structure, well-intertwined background vocals (WOO!) and universally applicable lyrics for a recession-ridden nation, “I don’t need/ To seem like I care about material things/ Like social status.” Gone on Merriweather Post Pavilion are the shrieking vocal improvisations from lead singer Avey Tare that hard core fans have grown to love, but there is still a lot of aggressive but engaging repetition that will remind fans of the old school sound, such as the bursts of percussion on the upbeat “Summertime Clothes” (“I want to walk around with you!) and the more melodic “Guys Eyes” (“I want to work!”). There’s a pleasant psychedelic tone over much of the album, as “Also Frightened” drifts through layers of sound before exploding into one of the band’s prettiest chorus melodies to date, while “Daily Routine” sputters around between its lifted organ notes and synthesized, uptempo percussion. Unlike their prior work, this album is impressively polished and doesn’t have any rough spots, which is a testament to a band with such huge ambitions. The balance is probably best exemplified on the mesmerizing centerpiece “Bluish”, which sounds like a distant love song recorded while on a scuba dive, and the rollicking, constantly evolving world music influence on closer “Brother Sport.”

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