The album may not be the cornerstone of the music industry any longer, and liner notes may have long passed, but there are certainly artists creating true testaments of rock’s greatest craft. So much so, that after months of debates, hours of downloads and excessive playlist sharing, we still had a difficult time narrowing our list to the top twenty releases of the past year. In an ever-changing industry landscape, It was another miraculous twelve months of music.
In alphabetical order
The Antlers – Burst Apart
Peter Silberman and his band The Antlers hit a collective nerve with Hospice (2009), a concept album chronicling the relationship between a terminally ill patient and the hospice worker taking care of her. It’s a sweeping, elegiac, emotionally devastating record, but its gravity does not detract from the relative levity of follow-up Burst Apart. Abandoning concept and embracing a collection of songs very much linked by texture and rhythm, Silberman and Co. prove they are very much worthy of their ironically-crafted indie music crowns.
Listen: "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out"
The Dears – Degeneration Street
The Dears’ follow up to 2008’s dramatic Missiles plays out like a Broadway soundtrack composed not from the 20th Century detritus of the theatre stage, but from the Pop/Rock Canon of late 60s arena rock to turn-of-the-century indie anthems. All the sung plot development and dialogue is mercifully left on the stage, leaving only the raw emotion and melodrama of a masterfully crafted pseudo-apocalyptic, rock ‘n’ roll, sci-fi tragedy.
Listen: “Omega Dog”
The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Where previous releases found the Decemberists plodding along with ten to twelve minute meditations about murderous butchers, mysterious fowl, and shape-shifting lovers, The King Is Dead hearkens back to the earlier days of the band where Colin Meloy and company littered albums like Castaways and Cutouts with compact, yet charitably worded, pastoral folk rock. Boosted with appearances by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and graced with guitar stylings courtesy of Peter Buck, this album gallops along like a pleasant country breeze, providing a concise rejoinder to the stylized grandeur of releases like The Tain EP and The Hazards of Love.
Listen: “Calamity Song”
Destroyer – Kaputt
On Kaputt, Bejar’s full-length follow-up to 2009’s Bay of Pigs EP, the Bowie formula that has worked so well on past releases returns, however, this time with a twist: an ‘80’s jazz-fused, electronic sound more in line with Roxy Music and Spandau Ballet than previous albums have revealed. Flutes and saxophones trickle alongside synth-heavy beats on most tracks, providing an ambient groove for Bejar’s smooth and understated voice as he croons his mysterious tales of finding purpose and meaning in a crowded, confusing, and unrelenting world:
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
When they came onto the scene with 2008’s eponymous Fleet Foxes record, people were already lining up to see what Robin Pecknold and the band had up their sleeves for the future. The Sun Giant EP was a nice bridge, especially the song “Mykonos,” but Helplessness Blues is a tighter, more sophisticated effort from a band that not only plays to their strengths but continually expands them. It’s hard to believe it’s only been four years since they started releasing music.
Listen: “Bedouin Dress”
Future Islands – On the Water
Future Islands have made their name by delivering the kind of “blood, sweat, and tears” live show that can inspire legions of fans to blindly follow the band across the miles. With On The Water, there is again nothing that immediately jumps out and demands attention. Newcomers, in fact, may again be fooled into thinking that there are two sides to the band: a furious live assemblage and a quieter, gentler studio pack. However, like Radiohead’s The King of Limbs and TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light, this album is a slow-burner.
Listen: “Give Us The Wind”
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Twenty years into her illustrious career, PJ Harvey has hit yet another career high with her latest record, Let England Shake. It’s a carefully worded yet utterly mystical ride through the English countryside as Harvey laments and investigates the role of war in history. Impeccably paced and wildly compelling, Let England Shake is a masterful reminder of PJ Harvey’s deserved place among the pantheon of rock and roll’s greats.
Listen: “On Battleship Hill”
The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart’s music is wholly ingrained in the vernacular of neo-Appalachia folk/rock, but already shows a proclivity towards experimentation and growth. The ease of their sound, matched with the skilled arrangements across the album’s ten songs indicate accomplished musicianship, and while their collective lyrical voice may be somewhat vague, it’s undeniable that this is a powerful record and a spirited debut.
Listen: “Coeur d’Alene”
The Kills –Blood Pressures
On their fourth release, the Kills place more emphasis on melody than on angsty rock riffing. Blood Pressures features fewer squealing guitars and buzzing feedback and more vocal harmonies. To quote the opening track, Blood Pressures is an album that “thumps like a broken sail.” Alison Mosshart’s vocals are more of a focus this time, but the pounding percussion and jackhammer guitar rhythms of Jamie Hince are still the backbone of the Kills.
Listen: “Baby Says”
Man Man – Life Fantastic
Listening to Man Man’s music is taking a journey down a rabbit hole, observing a world that mirrors yours but is a little less predictable, a little less sane. Life Fantastic continues that tradition, immersing the listener in a series of incongruous narratives and song structures. With clever wordplay and eccentric storytelling, front-man Ryan Kattner weaves hallucinatory tales of twisted love, drug abuse and cannibalism. Backing the unsettling stories are ridiculously catchy indie rock hooks, mostly based around Kattner’s keyboards. Man Man thrives on toying with the listener’s expectations, offering syncopated rhythms and specializing in dynamic shifts in volume and speed.
Listen: "Knuckle Down”
Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Middle Brother, composed of three like-minded singer-songwriters: Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez. Although not exactly household names, these three are no strangers to acclaim, as all three of their respective outfits’ work ranks equal to or above those of the more recognizable Monsters. Playing off the common strengths of each individual member, the album jaunts along, alternating between heartfelt emotional odes to heartbreak and desolation.
Listen: “Million Dollar Bill”
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Ever since Annie Clark’s debut with Marry Me in 2007, she’s captivated listeners and audiences alike with her endearing personality, striking looks and ability (and willingness) to shred on the guitar with abandon. Mixing delicious noir humor with sentimentality, Vincent is able to engage a multitude of subjects without every becoming trite or saccharine. Strange Mercy is a powerful build on her last two offerings, and easily her most cohesive and compelling work to date.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Revelator
With the opportunity available to explore unique collaborations, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi joined forces to give birth, to the first full length Tedeschi Trucks Band record entitled Revelator. The 11-piece band that is the Tedeschi Trucks Band yielded an end product that combines both Derek and Susan’s individual styles yet opens the listener an unrestraint that could only be captured in this type of environment. Trucks guitar works shines as the seamlessness between the musicians and their ability to communicate on a musical level that creates music which resonates greatly.
Listen: “Come See About Me"
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
San Francisco Bay Area resident Merrill Garbus turned heads with tUnE-yArDs’ debut BiRd BrAiNs (2009), which many categorized as “delightfully strange.” Garbus cranks up the volume with W H O K I L L, delivering an exceptionally fresh and inventive blend of hip hop, experimental rock, world music and psychedelia. Its deep grooves and unconventional song-writing reveal Garbus’ eccentricities without belying her narrative ability. While her live show is positively electrifying and must be seen to be believed, W H O K I L L stands on its own as a brilliant journey into the avant-garde.
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
By including his touring band, The Violaters, Kurt Vile has upped the sound quality and density, forgoing the low-fi aesthetic that had somewhat muddied his previous albums by giving them a little too much of a DIY-feel. This is an album that can be loudly played on a stereo system just as well as it can through earbuds, which hasn’t always been the case with Vile’s output. While the audiophile superiority is much appreciated, it does not come at the expense of the lyrics and songcraft. Vile is at his stream-of-consciousness best, offering forth eleven cryptic and murky narratives about life’s hardships and ambiguities all sung in a distinct, low guttural murmur.
Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
Eight years in the making, Gillian Welch’s return to folk music brings with it ten exquisitely constructed songs that she refers to as “ten different types of sad.” While slightly self-deprecating, these are certainly not the upbeat “Elvis Presley Blues” from a decade ago, but they’re extremely solid, forceful and bewitching vignettes of Americana that flow between the wistful, the lament, the hopeful and the world-weary. David Rawlings offers masterful counterpart, as usual, and the two of them weave these ten pieces into quite the opus.
Wilco – The Whole Love
After a couple “dad rock” shifts, The Whole Love is bold, yet painted with deft touches; powerful and evolved, yet simple and stripped down when need be; grippingly philosophical yet still fun enough to demand sing-alongs. In short, it is a work of measured brilliance and a statement to the masses that Wilco is still a force to be reckoned with, capable of releasing meaningful testimonials that can stand up to the giant shadows created by the legend of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Listen: "Art of Almost”
Wild Flag – Wild Flag
While more time is needed to see if these four experienced musicians can develop an original sound and ultimately distinguish themselves from their past efforts: memorable riffs, well-balanced instrumentals and a palpably jocular rapport between the band members all support this solid ten-track album. Wild Flag’s vibrant personalities ensure that an unrefined, raw sound will eventually come to define this band as catchy, spirited riffs pepper Wild Flag, adding dimension and propelling the listener through the album’s melodic twists and turns.
Wye Oak – Civilian
Civilian feels like the most decisively authentic, relaxed and dynamic expression of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack’s talent thus far. Having matured greatly in a relatively short period of time, both emotionally and musically, Civilian is a record that definitely takes time to open up, but when it does it yields some of the most fantastic results. Despite their surprising youth, these two dive head-first into the depths, only emerging to sing with an elegance and weight few of their peers can produce.
Yuck – Yuck
It is amazing how pure distortion can sound when it is distilled through 6-strings at high amplification. Yuck know this and continually present guitar tones that cradle the brain on their self titled first release. It doesn’t take long for the inevitable Dinosaur Jr./My Bloody Valentine comparisons to take root as Yuck earns the majority of their praise is inside of pedals and whammy bars with the volume kicking at full throttle.
Listen: "Get Away"
Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
Gregg Allman – Low Country Blues
Arctic Monkeys- Suck it and See
Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow
Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
Cut Copy – Zonoscope
Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
Danger Mouse & Danielle Luppi – Rome
Feist – Metals
The Gateway District- Perfect’s Gonna Fail
Girls- Father Son Holy Ghots
J Mascis – Several Shades of Why
James Vincent McMorrow – Early in the Morning
M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will
My Brightest Diamond- All things Will Unwind
My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Radiohead- The King of Limbs
Real Estate – Days
Fionn Regan - 100 Acres of Sycamore
The Roots- Undun
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Paul Simon – So Beautiful So What
Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – Marable Son
Tom Waits- Bad As Me
Umphrey’s McGee - Death by Stereo
Washed Out – Within & Without
White Denim – D