It's impossible for me to express how hard it is to take a year's worth of amazing music and cram it into a list of 10... something like pushing the whole world into a thimble. In any case, here's a list of albums that I admire, adore, and am head-over-heels in love with.
1. Yo La Tengo, Summer Sun (Matador)
With Summer Sun, Yo La Tengo have fulfilled the promise they first offered with their 1993 album Painful, when a sublime late-night mood began creeping into their music via an organ and a taste for gentle experimentation. Since then they've been slowly showing us they're as in love with jazz and quiet pop as they are rock and roll -- here they reveal that completely, with a stunning album that outdoes its predecessors (even 2000's similarly hushed but less consistent And the Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out) in both atmosphere and emotional impact. It's a real beauty, the mark of a rock band that knows that sometimes turning the guitars down can be even more powerful than turning them up.
2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Greendale (Reprise)
Greendale should be a disaster: Neil Young thinking up a town and its inhabitants and then writing a "song-cycle" about it? Sounds pretentious and silly, but it's not. Instead, we get what might be Neil's Great American Novel, disguised as some of the best Neil Young songs ever... songs which loosely but gently merge his longing to be loud and raucous with the side of him that wants to write quiet, serious songs about what the hell this world is coming to.
3. The Clientele, The Violet Hour (Merge)
A holy mix of Nick Drake's melancholy folk and Galaxie 500's dreamy surrealism, the Clientele effortlessly come up with songs that sound light as hair yet hang around you like a dark cloud. Their first proper studio album (after a series of brilliant 7"s and EPs, plus an album collecting them), The Violet Hour is a remarkable cloud of hurt and beauty which leaves questions unanswered and feelings unexplained while pulling you through a foggy day in London.
4. Matmos, The Civil War (Matador)
On Matmos' The Civil War, old meets new in some kind of warped jigsaw puzzle that may or may not be about a civil war. The duo, who are almost ridiculously obsessed with making quasi-electronic music out of any object that makes a sound, have brought a goofy warmth and inventiveness to their latest album that gives it more of an emotional appeal than their others, without in any way dampening the inherent mysteriousness of their music. It's an exhilarating example of the crazy things you can come up with when you throw seemingly incongruous elements together, from their messed-up John Philip Sousa cover to the song where they play the rabbit pelt.
5. ballboy, A Guide For the Daylight Hours (Manifesto/SL)
The Scottish band ballboy fill their pop-rock-folk songs with a wry sense of humor and a genuinely open heart, which makes you feel like inviting them over for a drink. Both A Guide..., which was released in the UK last year, and the nearly solo acoustic album The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories, which was released this year in the UK only, show lead singer Gordon McIntyre's unique talent at crafting catchy songs with lyrics that get under your skin... in a good way.
6. Tangiers, Hot New Spirits (Sonic Unyon)
Getting under your skin in a completely different way is Tangiers's Hot New Spirits, a blazing rock n' roll album that's filled with hurt, confusion, and fear, plus nonstop energy and gleeful enthusiasm reminiscent of punk when it was at its best. If you thought the best young, wild retro-rock outfits were coming out of NYC or Detroit, think again. This one is from Canada, and for my money they blow away all of the more hyped, like-minded bands. Hot New Spirits is one of those albums that'll more than do the job for anyone needing a lift, yet it has real (post-9/11) weight to it. By far the best flat-out rock album of the year, in my opinion.
7. The Radio Dept, Lesser Matters (Shelflife)
On their debut album Lesser Matters, Swedish pop-rockers the Radio Dept do enough of both ("pop" and "rock") to really warrant that catch-all description. They gently croon sweet-nothings in your ear, and then the song will take off in a cloud of fuzz, at once bringing a smile to the faces of both the "shoe-gazers" and the "quiet is the new loud" folks, plus those of us who love surprises. Lesser Matters is filled with melodic, emotion-filled songs, but also has an edge to it that keeps things from getting too placid. They're what radio should be: comfortable standing at the crossroads of a few different styles of music.
8. The Lucksmiths, Naturaliste (Drive-In/Boompa!)
Sometimes it's hard to defend a favorite band except to say, "They just write such damn good songs." That's how it had been with the literate, ultra-friendly Australian pop-sters the Lucksmiths... until their latest album, Naturaliste, where they've found a way to take some of the best songs they've ever written and make them even better by stretching them out and soaking them with atmosphere. Here, the Lucksmiths, pros at writing quick, catchy tunes, expand their songs in a way that's fitting for the album's lovelorn and slightly nostalgic (yet still in places quite funny and easygoing) lyrics. The result is enough to make one of my favorite bands even more loved.
9. Diverse, One A.M. (Chocolate Industries)
Chicago-based emcee Diverse has made one of the most intoxicating debut CDs I've heard in a while, plus my favorite hip-hop album of the year, by writing carefully constructed, deep lyrics and then rhyming the hell out of them all to some of the most complex and involving beats you'll hear (from the likes of RJD2, Madlib, Prefuse 73, and others). Diverse's word-heavy rapping style means you'll have to listen a bunch of times before all the thoughts and feelings sink in, yet the soulful, funked-up tracks and Diverse's agile flow will keep you more than entertained as you let the album's spell take over.
10. Eluvium, Lambent Material (Temporary Residence Limited)
Everybody needs a Brian Eno-meets-My Bloody Valentine-inspired cloud of noise to clear their head every once in a while, right? But Eluvium's debut album, Lambent Material, is so much more than that. It is one of those beautiful, feedback-soaked daydreams, but it's also charged with real emotions: with pain, sadness and love. There's tracks here that'll make you cry and you'll have absolutely no idea why you're crying. Eluvium (aka Matthew Cooper) is working some serious magic with these songs, lifting you up and taking you on some kind of wondrous yet slightly scary journey without you ever leaving your chair.
The Angels of Light, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home (Young God Records)
Bobby Birdman, Born Free Forever (Hush Records)
Haley Bonar, The Size of Planets (Chairkicker's Union)
The Books, The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab)
The Caribbean, History's First Know-It-All (Endearing/Tomlab)
Daniel Carter and Reuben Radding, Luminescence (AUM Fidelity)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Nocturama (Manifesto)
Guided By Voices, Earthquake Glue (Matador)
If Thousands, Yellowstone (Chairkicker's Union) and Lullaby (Silber)
Landing, Passages Through (K)
Lyrics Born, Later That Day (Quannum Projects)
The National Splits, Fontana (Recordhead)
Okkervil River, Down the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar)
Riow Arai, Mind Edit (Leaf)
Sun Kil Moon, Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jet Set)
...and so many more
5 Favorite Songs
1. "The Lower 48" by First Prize Killers, from The Powedery Parade (Eclectone)
The song I listened to most this year was from a Minneapolis band that I know next-to-nothing about. First Prize Killers' "The Lower 48" is a rustic-rock road trip about hope in the face of heartbreak that has a poetic chorus, a relaxed demeanor, searing guitar solos, and a triumphant horn section. A perfect song.
2. "Red Right Ankle" by The Decemberists, from Her Majesty (Kill Rock Stars)
There's a certain kind of song that I feel like listening to every night right before I go to sleep: dreamy, often melancholy, always mysterious. "Red Right Ankle" occupied that place for me this year, as I'm completely haunted by it. A surreal love song that I can't begin to understand but that always floors me.
3. "The Rest" by The Pines, from True Love Waits Volume Two EP (Matinee)
Is an eight-minute pop song a contradiction in terms? After hearing "The Last", I'd say definitely not. "What the world needs now / Is love without the tears", Joe Brooker sings near the song's beginning, and then he goes through a straight-from-the-heart ramble through love and loss and hurt and anxiety to a simple, breezy, catchy melody that you can hum along to and sing in the shower.
4. "Threads" by The David S. Ware String Ensemble, from Threads (Thirsty Ear)
At the center of the remarkable Threads, a showcase of free-jazz saxophonist David S. Ware's composing skills, is the title track, a stirring 12-minute mood-piece played on violin and viola by Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mat Maneri. It's one of those pieces of music that sweeps you up so effortlessly it feels like an accident, yet it's so beautiful it makes you want to cry.
5. "Wrapped Up in Books" by Belle & Sebastian, from Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
In the middle of the brilliant reinvention of Belle & Sebastian that is Dear Catastrophe Waitress lies a song that's more typical of what fans might expect from them than some of the others, yet it hits me powerfully every time. There's two simple reasons: how beautifully the singers harmonize as the song progresses, and a goofy throwaway line from Stevie Jackson that for whatever mysterious reason never fails to move me: "Summer's hastening on / I'm trying to get a feeling from / The city but I've been unfaithful / I've been traveling abroad."