[26 January 2010]
Musicologists may struggle to classify Porcupine Tree. Its genus, surely, is progressive rock, but Porcupine Tree has branched out from its roots in Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Neu!, Opeth and the Beach Boys to become its own species. As such, this four piece, indigenous to Britain, doesn’t slot easily into any radio format. No matter. The band’s 10th album, The Incident, entered the top 25 charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Chalk it up to word of mouth and a mainstream shift toward ambitious and nonlinear music (witness 2009 breakthroughs by Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and Animal Collective). The double album’s songs range from a lament for the children of a polygamous cult (“Blind House”) to the wane of childhood’s eternal summer (“Time Flies”). Throughout, songwriter Steven Wilson is more interested in melody and emotion than the operatic pomposity and instrumental verbosity so prevalent in prog rock. Here’s the only Porcupine Tree classification that matters: They’re great. Stephen Humphries
While much of the soul and R&B world rests on its laurels, intimidated by giants of the past like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Michael Jackson—and even more recent monoliths such as R. Kelly—Waajeed and Saadiq of PPP (formerly Platinum Pied Pipers) boldly made a statement only a couple of producers from Detroit could make. Namely, that soul is not dead. Like a lot of the current neo-soul movement, there is a very obvious debt to J Dilla’s brand of swing, but beyond the drums Abundance stands out as a fully unique work in a field that currently rewards retreading contemporary ideas with marketing dollars and ‘hype’, but little in the way of substantial product.
The highlight is certainly “Sanctuary”, a syrupy pseudo-religious celebration of comfort love that effortlessly blends the tropes of both hardcore Detroit hip-hop and smooth Detroit soul in one motion. That this is followed by the floor-burning hand clap single “Ain’t No Ifs ands or Maybes” only speaks to the excellent sequencing work done here. “Dirty Secrets” is another big-time highlight, ramming distorted guitars into a soulful romper that would have sounded much more pedestrian and easy to stomach in the hands of, say, Rich Harrison and Amy Winehouse. Abundance, thankfully, is raw and forward thinking soul that defies pigeon-holing and inspires musically like few other R&B performers are willing or able to.
Abundance doesn’t dare conflict with the shadows of the past, but this is because it’s one of the few recent R&B records to sound wholly unconcerned with the goings on of the outside world. This is that new Deeeeeee-troit soul, and hopefully the sound is here to stay. David Amidon
With the tepid reception of 2004’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned firmly behind them, 2009 found Prodigy bandmates, producer Liam Howlett, emcee Maxim Reality, and John Lydon-throwback Keith Flint, reinvigorated and ready for war. During a year that was mired by saccharine-laced, Auto-Tune-slathered electro-pop, enter Invaders Must Die, the Prodigy’s long-awaited fifth LP, which is, in short, a sonic mud-hole stomping behemoth of an album. From the darkly textured riotous synth-bomb “Omen”, to the ‘91 old school sampling of True Faith’s “Take Me Away” on the anthemic, beat-labored “Warriors Dance”, to the bass-heavy cerebral assault banger “Take Me to the Hospital”, Invaders Must Die proves to be a genuine return-to-form record for the Essex-based dance act. What’s more, the album title itself serves as an apt response to the Toytown imitators and critics alike, who’ve long since written them off as nothing more than rebel-rousing rave-junkie has-beens, to pack it in and go home because those firestarters, twisted firestarters, the Prodigy, are back—to redefine that shining gold standard that they had set upon dance music so long ago. Aaron Basiliere
Rodrigo y Gabriela’s follow-up to their self-titled breathrough album offers more of the same, but nobody else is doing what they do. The metal-loving flamenco guitar duo add small new touches on 11:11 that subtly expand their sound, but the basics are the same. The two play the hell out of their acoustic guitars, from amazingly fast solos to surprisingly intense riffs, with a healthy side-dish of guitar-based percussion. Each song is dedicated in some way to an artist that influenced them, from the familiar (Santana, Hendrix) to the more obscure (Jorje Reyes, Le Trio Joubran). Testament’s Alex Skolnick even shows up for a tasteful electric guitar solo on the dedicated-to-Dimebag-Darrell tune “Atman”. The end result is energetic, upbeat flamenco with more than a bit of darker metal style thrown in for contrast. Rodrigo y Gabriela show that excellent musicianship and fun are not mutually exclusive terms in popular music. Chris Conaton
After finding success in 2001 with their chillout masterpiece Melody A.M., Röyksopp floundered a little on their followup, 2005’s The Understanding, which saw the Norwegian duo struggle to marry the gorgeous sounds of their debut with attempts at more traditional songwriting. The release of Junior revealed that they had overcome that particular hurdle, as the songs the album contained were as notable for their subjects and hooks as they were for their transcendent sonic tones. Ranging from the continuously-climaxing lament of the Robyn-starring “The Girl and the Robot”, to the squelchy, stuttering march-along of “Miss It So Much”, the earworms were inescapable, as were the icy-thrills of a pair of tracks featuring Karin Dreijer of the Knife. Unfortunately, while Junior did well with long-time fans, it failed to make much of an impact in a year when so many pop-starlets and indie-rockers were making their own forays into electro-pop. Alistair Dickinson
When former members of Bay Area hardcore band Yaphet Kotto decided to start an old school metal band, the “hipster” warning immediately sprang from the keyboards of skeptical metal purists. With every new record, though, Saviours has been gaining credibility, and their third is a true breakthrough. Like their peers High on Fire and Bison B.C., the foursome celebrates the camaraderie, escapism, and overall aesthetic of traditional heavy metal, but on Accelerated Living they finally start to forge their own identity, alternating between simple, early ‘80s thrash metal and the looser sounds of underrated British metal bands as Tank and Jaguar. With the quality of the riffs and hooks on “F.G.T”, “Acid Hand”, and the rip-roaring “Slave to the Hex” (as good as any metal/hard rock single that came out in 2009), it’s clear these fellas’ sincerity can’t ever be called into question again. Adrien Begrand
When not recording full-length albums with his idols or covering Ol’ Dirty Bastard songs for fun, Max Bemis must simply sigh and relegate himself to the fact that he’s merely fronting what is arguably the greatest emo-rock band working today. Of course, “emo-rock” is still a relative term to Bemis, who manages to totally steal the chord progression for “I Fought the Law” on the lead single from Say Anything’s self-titled third album, the biting stunner “Hate Everyone”. After paying tribute to his forebears with 2007’s In Defense of the Genre, Bemis—being perpetually too smart for his own good—now dissects emo-rocks cliches with laser-precision, knocking the Kings of Leon one moment before halting songs midway through because they sound too similar to his earlier hits the next. When Bemis goes pop, no one does it better (the utterly spectacular “Do Better”, the yearning plea of “Crush’d”), and when he wants to rock out (“Young Dumb & Stung”), he shows his legion of imitators just what they’re doing wrong. Meditating on deep issues like faith, fidelity, and even his own snarky sense of sarcasm, few groups make self-conscious rocking seem so effortless or fun. Then again, few groups are as good as Say Anything. Evan Sawdey
Shpongle broke the mold when they made 2005’s sprawling epic Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost. For that masterpiece, they constructed 20 brilliant explorations and aural phrases without regard to genre classification, averaging about three minutes per track. Somewhere between progressive trance and psy-dub, given a distinctive character by choice samples plucked from Waking Life and The Simpsons, it was reported to be the final album spawned from the collaboration between Simon Posford and Raja Ram. However, the cat came back with a big bag of Terence McKenna, three tabs of Robert Anton-Wilson, and a saltshaker full of Bill Hicks. Ineffable Mysteries From Shpongleland teleported the duo back to their roots. Their first two pioneering, hypnotic hippy-dripping albums averaged eight tracks each at around eight minutes long, and so does their 2009 resurrection. The production is as razor sharp and intricate as anything off Nothing Lasts, the mood has never been more overwhelming and psychedelic, and the format is classic, right down to the Storm Thorgerson (Pink Floyd) cover art. It’s the perfect Shpongle album. Alan Ranta
Grounded in sex, death, and loss, Sonic Youth’s The Eternal kicks off with two discordant riffs, then “Sacred Trickster” breaks into a racing guitar/drum combo over Kim Gordon’s ghostly wail: “I want you to levitate me, don’t you love me yet?” As the first track slips seamlessly into the second, the band is at full roar when Thurston Moore sings: “Violation, penetration, anti-war is…” and Gordon shouts back, “It’s Anti-Orgasm!” On the hauntingly evocative “Malibu Gas Station”, Gordon sounds like Nico fronting the Velvet Underground. After 11 stunning songs, the band shuts it down on the last one, “Massage the History” and stares into the abyss of dissolution and despair: “All the money’s gone, funny it was never here,” Gordon laments, “Oil dripping on my head… bring you back from the dead.” In a year dominated by cheery pop, The Eternal is a dark, chaotic masterpiece. John Grassi
The eccentric back-story is an indie rock shortcut these days. In almost every case, this strategy overcompensates for the pedestrian music attached to the label-ladled exposition. Athens/Dayton institution Southeast Engine ignores this tactic along with nearly every other ephemeral trend of modern rock, and the result is From the Forest to the Sea. Placing the story in the songs where it belongs, Adam Remnant uses a novelistic approach that conveys the experiences of an American everyman. Underpinning this character’s journey is distinctive, live-recorded musicianship that blends the timeless qualities of classic Americana with the band’s homespun rock. This is not so much a “concept album” as it is an exploration of the physical, philosophical and spiritual conditions that shape life’s uncertain path. A song cycle through ambition, prosperity, temptation, condemnation and grace, From the Forest to the Sea is an exceptionally conceived and realized work of art. Thomas Britt
Filled with disarmingly catchy and deceptively simple songs, Regina Spektor’s latest album, Far, depends heavily on her accented and oddly cadenced delivery, often with only minimal piano accompaniment. Spektor is at her best when she keeps her arrangements spare. She is also that rare artist on the indie scene who seems unafflicted by sarcasm or abstraction. Maybe it is too romantic a notion to attribute Spektor’s ability to transcend American snarkiness to her childhood years living in Soviet Moscow, but I am tempted nonetheless. The hummable melodies alone make this album worth owning, but when you layer on her commentary about death and religion, it becomes one of the best of the year. Like a well-crafted short story collection, Spektor captures the truth about human nature throughout this set. Few artists can get away with lyrical turns such as “No one laughs at God at a funeral”; Spektor can. Mike Landweber
Springsteen’s fifth studio album of the decade, capping a remarkable resurgence and rediscovery of his rock voice, did more than simply demonstrate his continued prowess as one of rock’s preeminent songwriters or provide a vehicle for another barnstorming run of E Street ministry. Working on a Dream was also Springsteen’s most radical departure and musically ambitious record in decades, a lush suite of ‘60s wall-of-sound ballads featuring the iridescent grandeur of Brendan O’Brien’s production and a sonorous, Orbison-esque singing technique from the Boss. Too divergent perhaps to reach beyond the faithful, the decorative splendor of “This Life”, “Kingdom of Days”, “Surprise, Surprise”, and others were nonetheless regal jackpots of prime pop vintage. All told, Dream was Bruce’s most romantic album ever—not in the pulling-outta-here mystique of his ‘70s highway restlessness, but in the open-hearted embrace of finding something good and settling in to win. Steve Leftridge
Louden Swain, you have stolen my toasted breakfast heart. “I dreamed that I ate your heart / It was like a strawberry Poptart / All hot and soft and sweet” quips singer/guitarist/lyricist Rob Benedict in his quirky croon, and that about sums up their third album, Brand New Hurt, right there. The LA pop rock band has a polished sound reminiscent of Marvelous 3, one that crackles and sparks with wit, humor, and a powerful mix of intellectual and musical playfulness and maturity. Bursting with energy and whimsy, Brand New Hurt holds testament to the band’s live personality and the simple unadulterated fun lost in so many jaded LA acts these days. Benedict draws you into his confidences and coterie with songs about finding your way in your 30s, declaring: “I’m gonna keep my fires burning / Gonna keep my records turning.” Put this record on, and keep it turning. Kayley Thomas
I’ve adored Sweet Billy Pilgrim since I first heard “Stars Spill Out of Cups”, and loudly trumpeted the merits of their debut (where it eventually found a home) to anyone who’d listen. Twice Born Men came out in March, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in July, and featured a few songs I already knew I loved. So, why the hell did I not give it more than a cursory listen until December, when I fell hard and fast for an album that more than lives up to its predecessor’s merits? Blame my fear of a sophomore slump, or the same instinct for denial of gratification that saw me wait a good six months to finally watch the fifth season of The Wire. Just don’t blame the band, who’ve made a gloriously inventive, sweeping record that hits you on all levels (brain, heart, guts) simultaneously. It’s the kind of album that deserves better acolytes than my lazy ass; listen to that Mercury panel instead. Ian Mathers
Tegan and Sara
There is a tendency to confuse the real lives of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová with the characters they played in the extraordinary film Once, and this is not limited to the movie’s fans; Hansard himself has referred to it as a documentary in several interviews. Since the scruffy film’s remarkable success and after a year spent touring together, the members of the Swell Season reemerge on Strict Joy as a thoroughly cohesive unit. This is both a blessing and a curse, though, since much of the first album’s charm is a result of the spontaneity and excitement seen in the film and heard on the album.
In its place, Strict Joy is a much more controlled and confident affair, stuffed with ballads and ruminations about a breakup (Hansard and Irglová’s) with a few polished, up-tempo songs sprinkled throughout. The ballad “In These Arms” is the clear standout, though it suffers by direct comparison to “Falling Slowly”; upon repeated listens, however, it reveals itself to be one of several excellent songs presented here. It’s easy to imagine Irglová singing the forlorn “Fantasy Man” and “I Have Loved You Wrong” while walking through the streets of Dublin listening to headphones—her delicate performance here evokes that famous scene from Once. Many reviews dislike these songs and criticize her performance, but I find them completely consistent with what I liked about her contributions to the earlier album. At best, her tremulous voice provides a worthy foil to Hansard’s assertiveness, and their harmonies continue to be incredible. Ultimately, although it is unlikely to have the cultural impact of the first album and accompanying film, Strict Joy is an engaging and enjoyable sophomore record. Matthew W. Paproth
The audacity of Canada’s favorite twin rockers, Tegan and Sara Quin! It’s not enough to reach the forefront of indie rock, breaking through with 2007’s The Con. They had to make Sainthood, all sparse and pristine, playing up its predecessor’s pop-rock edge. Oh, the gall of being titled after a line in Leonard Cohen’s “Came So Far For Beauty”. How dare these sisters craft an album straight from the 1980s new wave playbook! It’s like early ‘80s Madonna and Cyndi Lauper formed a duo and enlisted appearances from Tony Basil and the Go-Gos. Sainthood is intent on attracting new listeners but unwilling to comprise the duo’s lyrical heft. Tegan is the belting, hook-driven power pop rocker. Sara’s the soul searcher with the exquisitely quirky voice. Both navigate the terrain of unrequited passion and persistent heartbreak. Neither seems capable of penning a forgettable tune. They’ve got a lot of nerve, don’t they? Quentin B. Huff
Three young spitfires from Murfreesboro, Tennessee released what is arguably the most authentic, and indisputably the catchiest, alt-country album of the year. The Darlins are crackshots with serious range. When 18-year-old Jessi Darlin isn’t channeling Uncle Dave Macon and warning of the need to keep one’s skillet good n’ greasy, then she’s illustrating and directing a stop-motion animated music video for the Darlins’ first single “Red Light Love”. Kelly Darlin founded the Southern Girls Rock N’ Roll Camp, and all those would-be Lucindas would be wise to enroll if this collection points to what they’re preaching ‘round those campfires. The songs lean on the classic forms of the highwayman canon, feel as lived-in as Bad Blake’s bluejeans, and are topped off with the late-night drunken boasts of a David Allan Coe.
However, the Darlins aren’t just rockabilly revivalists—they break down these constructs and make them their bitch—charging down that smoky mountainside on revved-up choppers with the heart and soul of three Shangri-La leather tuscaderos. Their songs tell stories—good ones—ranging from the hilarious (“The Whole Damn Thing”, “DUI or Die”) to the heart-wrenching (“Mama’s Heart”). While the collection stands up on its own, it must be noted that the Darlins’ live show routinely blows minds. With speed, tautness, and focused rage, it might as well be Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee up there in in wigs, worse accents, and better legs. Let’s hope ukulele-playing Nikki Darlin’s recent engagement to Deer Tick’s John McCauley bestows upon the hipster generation its very own John & June, turning out beautiful music like this debut collection for decades to come. Ryan S. Henriquez
About half-way through the year I wrote about Fondo, Vieux Farka Touré’s follow-up to his remarkable self-titled debut. Half a year later, it has not lost even a little of its luster. Indeed, it has accrued additional value, and this is one to cherish –- now and for the future. That he is ably carrying the torch his father, Ali, ignited several decades ago is wonderful on many levels. More importantly, the music Vieux has made (and presumably will carry on making) provides that proverbial window into other cultures and perspectives. After lurching into a new millennium that has increasingly obliged us to question some of our stalest assumptions, Fondo is a small, refreshing reminder of sounds and rituals that exist beyond our borders. This is world music and it is desert music, but it is above all compelling music. That Fondo provides considerable joy and exhilaration makes it an indispensable source of light at the start of an uncertain decade. Sean Murphy
There has been many an homage paid to New Orleans in the wake of the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina, from Dr. John to Lil’ Wayne. However, none have truly captured the touching combination of joy, sadness, pride and pontification beamed down upon this legendary American city quite like this jazz masterpiece by one of its most cherished sons. Allen Toussaint, whose contributions to the varied universe of New Orleans music through his collaborations with the likes of LaBelle, Professor Longhair, the Meters, Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey to name but a few is as quintessential to the fabric of this terrain as Beale Street itself, has the most perfect final say on the matter with The Bright Mississippi.
Toussaint, who was displaced from his home along with the countless legions of his townsfolk when Katrina hit the NOLA shores, pays homage to his beloved motherland through this stirring, excellently executed collection of compositions associated with such Nawlins immortals as King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Produced by the great Joe Henry and backed by arguably one of the most mind-blowing ad-hoc jazz ensembles in recent memory featuring the likes of Marc Ribot on guitar, Don Byron on clarinet and Nicholas Payton on trumpet, with cameos from master piano man Brad Mehldau and saxophone colossus Joshua Redman, this is more than the best jazz album of the year. Favoring the triumph over the trouble in his city waters, The Bright Mississippi could very well go down as the best of the last decade. Ron Hart
How much of a burden is the impossible precedent of the hall-of-fame past efforts of the world’s only soccer-stadium-filling rock leviathan? Quite a millstone, indeed, when No Line on the Horizon, an album of triumphal texture and almighty musicality is viewed as a letdown. The Lanois/Eno team fill the record with bloops and cosmic propulsion, and the boys in the band play with the unmistakable power of a group fighting for its one big break, not one that’s already put its flag on the summit. In doing so, U2 has crafted a set that recaptures the dark hunger of the group’s early punk-wave riot, yet the record also crystallizes into a pastiche of sensuous, shivering post-modern rock. The Edge, for his part, turns in a wonder, conjuring up his trademark of buzzes and starbursts and some of his best riffs to date. And the singer—perhaps you’ve heard of him—30 years in hasn’t lost a drop of range, power, or conviction. Just as it takes hardened cynicism to knock a guy for ardent activism, it takes real pretending to dismiss No Line, an album that serves as an accumulation, an innovation, a celebration. Steve Leftridge
After releasing a slew of fuzzed-out, folk-rock/psyche-pop albums, singles, and EPs over the past two years—along with his work on one of last year’s best albums, Wagonwheel Blues by fellow Philly outfit the War on Drugs—Kurt Vile stomped his way onto the scene in 2009 with Childish Prodigy. Unlike the Midwestern pastoralism of Bon Iver, or the West Coast mysticism of Wooden Shjips and Six Organs of Admittance, Childish Prodigy presents Vile as a distinct urban, East Coast variant to the whole freak-folk scene. The album also demonstrates that Vile is a capable craftsman in several sonic traditions, managing to somehow simultaneously conjure the voices of Townes Van Zandt and Ariel Pink (“Overnight Religion”), with guitar work recalling both John Fahey (“Blackberry”) and Neil Young (“Hunchback”). “Freak Train” even shows Vile shaking along to his drum machine as well any of today’s other electro-rockers. Sprinkle in some Pavement here, some swampy, urban blues there, with a little Metal Machine Music on top, and you get a great album that is easily more prodigious than childish. Louis J. Battaglia
One of the year’s best albums is also one of its least celebrated. You Can’t Change That Boy, the delicate, sincere, even beautiful debut by Glaswegian quartet Wake the President, might not have gotten the acclaim it deserved. However, with the Smithsian jangle of “Remember Fun?”, the brilliant lyricism of kitchen-sink tales like “Miss Tierney” and “Just Give Me Two Secs”, complaining about commercial success doesn’t really seem relevant. Combining winsome lyrics with ‘80s-inspired (but never clichéd or derivative) riffs, Wake the President have a knack for melody and genuine heart. In a year that was all about spectacle, Wake the President provided the substance. Emily Tartantella
While no one was looking, my favorite Monster of Folk put out the most sadly overlooked piece of beautiful since Ed Harcourt’s Strangers. Maybe he sings too much about God for the fashionably agnostic to abide. However, for those of us who have a power greater than ourselves to thank for our lives, but don’t want to listen to anything with the word “Winans” attached to it, Ward is nothing short of a revelation. Music I would love anyway, that also happens to talk about themes that inform my everyday existence? This is not something I stumble upon often. Hopefully, his collaborations with more famous consorts (like his fellow Monsters and Zooey Deschanel, the “She” to Ward’s “Him”) will eventually bring people around to the quiet brilliance of Hold Time. Jennifer Cooke
This Glasgow-based four-piece offers melodic post punk infused with such exuberance and youthful confidence that I completely failed in my (shamefully earnest) attempt to hate them. Seriously, who names their band We Were Promised Jetpacks and expects to win the support of dorky critics? Well, I guess if your début record is this good—this fun, this melodic, this raw, this passionate—you can call yourself whatever you want and eventually we’ll come around. “Quiet Little Voices” is the tune that finally got me: it’s one of those songs that makes you want to push the pedal a bit further down, to run a little faster, to sing out loud, maybe even to do something grand and romantic and embarrassing. Come for the goofy band name, stay for the good old rock ’n’ roll. Stuart Henderson
Little-known but sharp and talented, Albertan alt-country-rockers the Wheat Pool followed their outstanding 2007 debut LP Township with last year’s aptly-titled Hauntario. Couched in visceral melodies and passionate melancholy, it’s an album of wonderfully-crafted elegies to restless wandering hearts. Grand highlights like “Lefty” and “I’m Not Here” reflect the humbling panoramas of the Canadian West, a perspective that leaves the fraternal songwriting/vocalist duo of Robb and Mike Angus feeling rootless and delicately pained. They grasp at the bruised poetry of roots music to make sense of these bottomless feelings, as Glen Erickson’s exquisite lead guitar flourishes add touches of indie rock and classic country to the tapestry. At once simple and sophisticated, beautiful and wrenching, Hauntario is eerie in its tensile maturity. Like a fine view, it’s worth the extra miles’ drive. Ross Langager
While most fans of the power trio format were forced to settle this year with choking down the crappy, foul smelling hype of Them Crooked Vultures, White Denim—a smoldering, insanely good trio out of Austin, Texas—dropped Fits, their third full-length release, and an elephant of an album. Wailing like the Mars Volta on Frances the Mute, freaking like the Chili Peppers on Blood Sugar Sex Magic, and sneering like a Texas take on the Stooges, White Denim bangs out an evolved, complex, but still raunchy form of garage rock fit for the 21st century kid with the MC5 shirt. Veering into deeper, more hypnotic realms on “Mirrored and Reverse” and “Sex Prayer”, however, White Denim shows they are not just raw energy. The band also hits a rather poignant pop note on “Paint Yourself”, while successfully trying funk and soul on for size with “I Start to Run” and “I’d Have It Just the Way We Are”. Louis J. Battaglia
Edinburgh has never been renowned for its indie rock. Certain beacons from post-punk stand out, but its always brought the folk more than the skronk. Appropriately enough then, a great alternative album has come out of the city which is cloaked in the vestiges of folk. Withered Hand’s first album Good News is meditative and ethereal, helped by reverb laden mastering work by Galaxie 500 producer Kramer. Yet, singer-songwriter Dan Willson’s lyrics are all downbeat navel gazing and skewed slacker prophesy, as if Dave Berman picked up sticks and settled in Leith. His voice, timid but full of Neil Young style “soul”, is defiant amongst the pessimist imagery. “Religious Songs” is his anthem, a tune which renders the lyric “I beat myself off while I sleep on your futon” exultant. Still, there’s much more to recommend it, from the Kellogg namechecking anti-folk ramble “Cornflake” to the Pavement-gone-folksy “New Dawn”. A minor classic of 2009. Kieran Curran
The Wye Oak was the honorary state tree of Maryland. Knowing that, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the Old Line State in the music of Wye Oak, the Baltimore two-piece. On their second album, The Knot, Wye Oak weave together strands of shoegaze, slowcore and folk with just a hint of country twang, producing ten songs that ebb and flow like a gentle tide. That said, The Knot is by no means a quiet affair: walls of distorted guitar and thunderous drums counterbalance the record’s more tranquil moments, lending the album an almost naturalistic dynamic bent. The end result is ten songs that evoke the state of Maryland in all of its beauty, ugliness and glory, from the mean streets of Baltimore to the placid eastern shore. Et tu, Sufjan? Mehan Jayasuriya