10. Fleet Foxes-Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes self titled debut was a tremendous effort however it always left me wondering what they were going to follow up with. With the band possessing such a strong 60s folk influence and of course those harmonies, it would be easy to assume that these guys would have stagnated and not pushed forward. Additionally I wondered if they would search too deeply into expanding influences just for the sake of doing so (especially when the record was called 'Helplessness Blues'...were they going to make a blues record?). I was really happy to find on 'Helplessness Blues' that though their comfort zone of 60s folk & harmonies were largely intact, the band still managed a fantastic update to their sound with truly excellent lyrics and songwriting without wandering too far off of the original road map. Here there was no need to go deeply experimental in one direction or another for the simple reason that the songs are just that good and manage to go to some really epic places while maintaining the base aesthetic of the band. Key song on the record is the title track 'Helplessness Blues' which is as mournful and downtrodden as it is anthemic and uplifting. The break at the 3 minute mark where singer Robin Pecknold exclaims "If I had an orchard, I'd work til I'm sore' just hits me like almost no other musical moment did this year.
Late in 2010, I was teased by a truly mysterious 7" from Cult featuring songs "Go Outside", "Most Wanted" & "The Curse". Finding information about the band was nearly impossible. About all I was able to dig up was that these were 2 NYU students who had put together a record and they were not touring and did not have anything else, anywhere...no website...no real shows...no nothing...then came the buzz. The music blogs seemed to simultaneously jump on Cults all at once and oddly, there was still next to no info out there about them, a major label deal later and some confirmation that they really existed, the band delivered a really tremendous debut. Living up to their name with a truly dark and creepy take on some mix of 60s girl groups and psychedelia, Cults debut album delivers some of the catchiest songs that came out throughout the course of the year with some mix of little kid sounding vocals, way off simple instrumentation and lyrics that dive into some pretty dark territory that would play the perfect soundtrack to any whimsically horrifying axe murder flick out there. All wonderful juxtapositions. See also- "The Shangri-Las: I can Never Go Home Anymore' ....more or less the same thing....love it.
8. M83- Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
The sprawling 6th album from Frances M83 is truly a massive undertaking. A double album with a total of 22 tracks on it, the thing takes off like a rocket ship with an incredible intro track with Zola Jesus on guest vocals and leading directly into the albums lead single 'Midnight City' (which in my opinion is probably has the potential to be one of the big radio hits for next year)....the funny thing is if you go to disc 2 and start with 'My Tears are Becoming a Sea' and 'New Map'....it does that exact same thing! As I listened to this album considering it for a spot on this year's list, I started to realize that the way that I listen to albums truly has changed since the physical product age has given way to the digital age and in some ways my opinion of the record had suffered because of that. The physical action of changing discs (let alone flipping a record 4 times) gives you a fresh start that you don't get if you just roll the itunes straight through. 'Hurry Up, We're Dreaming' is 2 separate (but related) works and really deserves to be listened to that way. I would honestly recommend starting with the 2nd disc in many cases to take a moment to appreciate some of the beauty that exists there. I haven't seen them live yet although, I've heard the shows are incredible 'floyd-esque' experiences which makes me very happy to hear and above all relieved that it was a real band and not just a guy checking his e-mail from a laptop on stage. see also- the greatest double albums of all time: http://www.zeitgeistyreport.com/the-lists/2010/08/16/the-25-greatest-double-albums-of-all-time/25/
7. St. Vincent- Strange Mercy
St. Vincent (AKA Annie Clark) returned for her 3rd album 'Strange Mercy'. As with past efforts, 'Strange Mercy' presents a massive juxtaposition--on one side-- dark & twisted lyrics, heavy guitar shredding and level of virtuosity that you rarely see in indie rock--- on the other side a rich level of expansive beauty and melodic sweetness that can leave the listener truly conflicted. In a lot of ways 'Strange Mercy' for me really fleshes out what St Vincent is all about. To me it feels like an ongoing narrative between two characters where the dark side of Clark is taking the beautiful side hostage and holding it for ransom. The video for the lead single 'Cruel' in essence portrays as much on screen, where Clark is kidnapped by a family to perform motherly and homemaker duties (presumably to replace their former mother/wife). When she doesn't perform up to snuff, the family has no choice but to bury her alive in the back yard. It's all done with a sense of humor...nonetheless, it's awesomely unsettling. One of Clark's first foray's into prominence was as a member of Sufjan Stevens' touring band on 'Come On Feel the Illinois' in which Stevens' band members dressed up as cheerleaders. In listening to Clark's sing "I don't wanna be a cheerleader no more" on the albums 3rd track "Cheerleader", it's hard to imagine that it's not some sort of reference to that and even if it's not, it certainly feels like a great statement for just how much 'Strange Mercy' has found Clark comfortably asserting herself as an established artist with a tremendous amount of incredible work yet to come.
6. Beirut- The Rip Tide
I have been eagerly anticipating the 3rd record from the prodigious world traveler and eclectic Zach Condon, otherwise known as Beirut for quite some time. Condon's first 2 records came out in close succession to each other (2006 & 2007) at a time when Condon wasn't even 21 years old. Other than a couple of EPs that were mostly experimental, Condon waited 4 years to release another proper album. 'The Rip Tide' is truly a worthy reward for such a long wait. Though "The Rip Tide" doesn't come over the top with the epic qualities you would have expected for such a long wait, what it does for me is even more exciting as we see Condon allowing his songs to take control of his influences (as opposed to the other way around) and is now developing what is a genuine sound that is not dependent on whether in brings in balkan, mariachi and the myriad other sounds he brings to the table. Things are still as cinematic and compelling as ever and make no mistake, the influences are there however even more so than in the past, they are not used as a novelty or device to distract from the songwriting. Condon's world influence and specifically the lush brass that is signature to his sound is a compliment to truly great songs and one amazingly endearing voice. I'm really hoping that he doesn't wait another 4 years to come out with another album. I just don't know if I'm going to be able to stand the wait to 2015.
5. Tune-Yard- WHOKILL
Bombastic, insane and completely brilliant is how I would describe the outrageously ambitious 2nd album "WHOKILL" from the musical vehicle for singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus. "WHOKILL" comes out swinging with a wild, raw mix of soul, funk and sheer quirkiness that ties together with a sense of humor but also some very real intensity as well as a deceptive level of depth and complexity. Onstage, Garbus builds every song as essentially a solo effort from the ground up through sequencers and loops, essentially doing live multi-tracking with a level of skill and creativity that is absolutely stunning. I've always been a little bit hesitant to buy into the live sequencing from a solo artist because it lends itself to being just sort of a cool trick that while it works in the live setting, tends to make for mediocre records. WHOKILL is nothing of the sort. Instead you can truly imagine Garbus being backed by the massive band that she really deserves (although it's hard to imagine having the ability to find back up vocalists with ability to match the pipes on Garbus). Overall 'WHOKILL' is a wild ride that you really need to experience for yourself.
4. The Antlers- Burst Apart
Led by the sorrowful falsetto of frontman Peter Silberman, The Antlers 2nd album 'Burst Apart' is a richly atmospheric work that packs a potent dose of equal parts passion and pain. While Silberman's soaring voice (often mistaken for a female voice) is without a doubt the centerpiece of the band, it would be easy to forget that there are some really interesting complexity going on here instrumentally and above all lyrically. The band is all about voicing fears, pain and in fleeting hopes. For me the key track on the record is "Putting the Dog to Sleep". The lyrics here are absolutely gut wrenching, heartbreaking and indicative of just why this band is so good. With lyrics like 'Prove to me, i'm not going to die alone, put your arm round my collarbone,...don't lie to me if you're putting the dog to sleep, the pet you couldn't afford to keep' ....i'd say it's some pretty heavy stuff. very good record.
3. Washed Out- Within Without
When Ernest Greene's 'Washed Out: Life of Leisure' came out, it was immediately lumped in with a myriad of other artists that were collectively referred to as 'Chillwave'. I'm still not sure what that means...wikipedia says something along these lines http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chillwave. (so basically something along the lines of minimalism with synths??) Whether or not labels really matter to this stuff or whether Washed Out fits into that category, it's pretty clear to me that 'Within Without' is one of the best records of the year. Greene's voice throughout the album is used more like an instrument than a vocalist and that paired with electronic elements that can only be described as belonging to the loneliest kid on the dance floor. My favorite track on the album 'You & I' really ties all of these assets together nicely. The female vocal and monologue that leads in somewhere around the 3 minute mark is a section I could listen to all day and never get tired of. Washed Out 'Within Without' is an intensely intimate experience to listen to and in a genre where a soul is sometimes hard to come by, it delivers in that department 10 fold.
2. Wye Oak- Civilian
Damn....Wye Oak's Civilian was an amazing surprise for me this year. On 'Civilian' the Baltimore duo marries and incredibly potent combination of solid songcraft and avant garde elements. The songs move into very natural directions whether it's straightforward verse, chorus structures or swirling off into far reaching tangents that are in a lot of cases not afraid to let the song deconstruct completely. Wye Oak just delivers beautifully on this idea of taking really traditional, simple songwriting elements and exploding things, then putting them back together. This is most widely pronounced on the title track "Civilian" where it starts out with sort of a haunting southern shuffle and by the end of the song devolves into pure, intense, chaos. I thought it was really fitting that the song was used in the initial trailers for the 2nd season of the TV show "The Walking Dead", because that's about the same experience as watching the show. Both are really superb. Wye Oak live is another experience altogether when you realize that not only is this a 2 piece, but they are doing so without the use of any (or at least very few) sequencers or non-live track. Instead, drummer Andy Stack plays drums and keyboards (often acting as the bass line) at the same time, completely live. Combine that with singer Jen Wasner's downright amazing guitar work and you have one incredible duo. It's a shock to me that this is not one of the biggest indie bands in the country right now. They are truly the total package and well worth your time.
1. Bon Iver- Bon Iver
Success is a really weird thing, especially when it emerges from somewhere like the world of indie rock where there tends to be a real tendency from the intelligencia to eat their young. I have to admit some guilt in that area myself. I definitely become more critical of a an artist or album when the mainstream takes note of it and also tend to give slack to artists that maybe don't have the profile that I feel they may deserve for their music. I also will be clear that I don't think that mindset is entirely flawed. There is definitely some value in propping up artists that don't normally have the platform to do so. That being said, although i went back and forth on whether or not Justin Vernon's 2nd album was truly my number one album of the year, once I was able to mentally divorce myself from the tendency to abandon an artist as a mainstream audience was embracing it, I came to the pretty clear conclusion that 'Bon Iver' is easily my favorite record of the year. Huge, lush elements and some amazingly epic moments. 'Bon Iver' is indeed the record charged forward from 'For Emma, Forever Ago' and showed that Vernon's musical voice to be an incredibly versatile and powerful thing. To me honestly, the more stunning thing is that a record with the that takes the amount of chances and experimentation that 'Bon Iver' does, has been able to reach a mainstream audience in relevant way. You just normally wouldn't imagine a mainstream audience to have the patience for an album this complex(but maybe that's called universal appeal?). There are certainly some divisive elements on the record and if you simply can't accept the presence of soprano sax in music of any kind, it's highly possible you won't like this music. That being said, if you let the sax ruin 'Bon Iver' for you, I would suggest that you probably aren't listening very closely. 'Bon Iver' has some moments on there that just truly remind me why music has the ability to move people in an emotional way and why when we're younger, concerts can become religious experiences. Let's just hope that once we get older and more cynical, we all remember what we loved about that music in the first place without the baggage we've picked up over the years. Bon Iver brings me right back to that place every time.
City & Colour- Little Hell
Dallas Green formerly- of the post-hardcore band Alexisonfire does a musical 180 and delivers a surprisingly beautiful record. Give it a try. I bet you'll like it a lot more than you think you will.
Lykke Li- Wounded Rhymes
Sweden's indie-rocktress Lykke Li delivers another extremely solid effort. How M83 got the Victoria's Secret ad and Lykke Li's "Get Some" didn't is a complete mystery to me. Don't worry, I'm sure someone else will figure it out.
The Decemberists- The King is Dead
I love The Decemberists unconditionally. The King is Dead is a tremendous record (it may be the best R.E.M. record R.E.M. never wrote....except Peter Buck..who is on it). Not quite as experimental as I like my Decemberists, but that just me.
Cut Copy- Zonoscope
Great record that shows Cut Copy has some real songwriting chops in addition to commanding the dance floor. Still does not do the live experience justice. One of the best shows I saw all year without a doubt.
Other rad jams:
Twin Sister- Bad Street
Twin Sister for the 2nd consecutive year releases a great single and an ok record.
Friends- I'm his Girl
No full length out yet. Definitely a funky jam....Some days I've put this song on in my car no less than 3 times in a row.
Azealia Banks- 212
Again, no full length but plenty of buzz already for this 20 year old rapper/singer. Who knows if it'll be any good but this is a lot of fun anyway....advance warning...she's a dirty girl.