10 sonic youth, the eternal
i'll be the first to admit that this is here because i love sonic youth more than because i love every last second of this album. but here's the thing: no matter how many of the lyrics are dumb (but sung as though they're awesome) or how much the song "anti-orgasm" feels pretty much like it was assembled specifically to annoy, those guitars are still...THOSE GUITARS. and sonic youth is still uncannily adept at building discordant note on discordant note and then instantly turning on a dime into moments of grin-inducing or jaw-dropping loveliness. and they still make music that can be simultaneously described as "noise" and "fantastic". and thurston moore still sounds like the coolest guy ever. and i still love listening to whatever they put out. so there.
09 grizzly bear, veckatimest
i'm really ambivalent about this album. on the one hand, yes, it is probably the most carefully and flawlessly assembled, arranged, and executed album this year, and the harmonies and reverb and instrumentation are always interesting, but somehow it just never all becomes the sum all those parts seem to be building toward. it's a bit like meeting a really pretty girl who dresses in unique scarves and sweaters, and you imagine she must be really cool and interesting, but then you start talking to her and realize...there's not much more there. that's this album, for me. so why is it on my list? that's the thing--that boring but pretty girl is still very pretty. and in this analogy, this album is a very, very pretty girl. you could sit and listen to this girl talk about jersey shore for several hours before you realized you were bored to tears.
08 metric, fantasies
metric's collection of infectious synthpop songs buffed to a superglossy shine won my ear's affections all year by giving every song at least 30 seconds of greatness, whether in an unforgettable chorus, with a badass guitar lick, or with emily haines and her careful, whispy voice (finally delivered with more rock star cool than pop princess cutesiness). it's impossible to listen to this album and not walk away humming SOMETHING from "help i'm alive" or "sick muse" or "gimme sympathy" or "stadium love" or...well, you get the idea. compared to their previous work, fantasies feels more substantial and grown up, a bit more varied, and maybe a little more willing to get dirty.
07 califone, all of my friends are funeral singers
this is probably as much as i can like an album without being surprised in the least by it. califone is just consistently great: unique songwriting, and always imaginative and original production that is somehow both fresh and yet familiarly and distinctly califone. as on previous albums, the adjectives "rusty", "weary", and "dusty" will probably never be more applicable to a band making music in the 21st century, and while in some ways this album feels like a continuation of roots and crowns, this is hardly rote repetition. it's just that this band has found a way to explore new and interesting sounds by digging deeper down instead of always searching for new ground. and it seems the further they dig, the more gold and diamonds they find.
06 a sunny day in glasgow, ashes grammar
this album was a great surprise for me this year. i enjoyed ASDIG's debut in 2007, but after a few listens, i felt the reverb:song ratio was just a little too high, and it seemed like repeated listens left me less and less to enjoy. ashes grammar, however, is filled to the brim with great ideas (and yes, reverb) and the perfect blending of programmed beats with pop and rock that is often (OFTEN!) attempted but rarely done well. i'm sorry for this, because ugh, another loveless reference, but i feel like this album and MBV's classic have a lot in common. in particular, i've really enjoyed the way this is both a headphone and speakers album, and can be both background/ambient, almost study music, or at a louder volume, a really intense listening experience that demands a listener's complete attention. it sounds almost every time i hear it like there's more going on than i've noticed before, and the discovery process the last several months has been a very rewarding one indeed.
05 animal collective, merriweather post pavillion
i suppose this exposes me as having missed the boat on the greatest visionaries of our time, but i've found myself enjoying animal collective more and more the more accessible they become. i LOVE their harmonies, vocals, and melodies. i am less interested in the plinkings and bleeps of whatever electronics they're into this week. and this album showcases the best songwriting of AC's career while relying less on their experimental tendencies. the result this time is an album full of great music, and several songs i'll still be listening to when i'm 40. "my girls", "bluish", and "brother sport" in particular are pretty much masterpieces. there are a few songs that sort of drag for me, but every song has SOME moment of staggering immensity, like they're singing to me from the top of the grand canyon, and i never find myself wanting to skip ahead. just a really great album, and really 5 is probably too low for this album, but this was just a very good year for music.
04 phoenix, wolfgang amadeus phoenix
pop music: fun, sure. enjoyable, sounds great at a party. but how good can it really be? well, it can be this good. on very rare occasions, pop music can be this good. everything in this album--every acoustic guitar layered lightly in the back of the mix, each practically metronomic click and snap of the drums, every synth tone and note everywhere, and even every single gosh darn crack in thomas mars' voice--feel so perfectly placed that you'd swear it was all made by computers from the future if it didn't also sound so refreshingly organic and full of life. "lisztomania" and "1901" are the best possible versions of the incredible album opener some band you've never heard of and never hear from again occasionally comes up with, and "love like a sunset" is apparently just there to show you that these guys can make the slow-building ambient song some bands spend an entire career trying to write, as pretty much just a really long intro to ANOTHER super cool song. and that's just side 1! can you tell from my run-on and poorly worded sentences how much i like this album?!? (a lot! i like a lot!)
03 st. vincent, actor
i've heard lots of people call this music "dreamy", and that definitely fits. annie's guitar wizardry definitely often feels otherworldly, and this album often seems and sounds in particular like the kind of dream where everything is going along swimmingly as you walk through some fantastical forest, and then you discover a lovely little flower, which when you stoop to smell turns out to be one small part of an enormous monster that slowly rises above you and attempts to eat you. have you ever had that dream? no? well, the album always feels simultaneously beautiful and dangerous, lovely and disturbing, like at any moment some dark, distorted guitar could swoop in and turn everything into chaos. the songwriting here is stronger than marry me, as is the production and range of the songs. this is a fantastic second outing from ms. clark which somehow avoided being a personal disappointment despite my probably ridiculous expectations after her impressive and memorable debut.
02 antlers, hospice
a few months ago, my first patient died. she was in her mid-50's, and had watched for several years with her family as the cancer that began in her colon slowly advanced, winning battles against surgeries and chemotherapy and claiming more and more territory as it spread to her lungs and liver and brain. when she came to the emergency department the first time i saw her, she was so weak she struggled to swallow, and she was in so much pain that simply articulating the need for more pain medication required an immense effort of concentration and will. despite her obviously terminal condition, her family resisted beginning hospice care, which would have meant not pursuing further curative treatments, but would have also meant nurses coming to her house and keeping her comfortable instead of weekly emergency visits to the hospital to try once again to manage her pain and progressing organ failure. over the 2 weeks she was at the hospital, i was puzzled by the family's refusals until i sat with a resident as she carefully explained to the patient's daughter and mother that she was dying, that there was nothing medicine could do to heal her, and that the best we could offer was to ease her passing. the patient's mother listened quietly, and after a long pause, asked why a surgery that had been performed shortly after diagnosis hadn't worked. and suddenly i understood that even though she had witnessed her daughter's irreversible decline, and perhaps knew on some level beneath her denial that the fight was over, she just wasn't ready to face that fact, to admit defeat. hospice, to her, was a surrender she couldn't accept. we talked further, and as the four of us cried together, they came to understand and accept her death. a few days later the struggle was over, and we cried together again, the patient resting peacefully at last, released.
for me, hospice's story of a man's relationship with a cancer patient carries in its alternatively terrified and grieving lyrics and heartbroken vocals the heavy feeling of the hallway outside that patient's door, the lightness of the release of death, and the darkness of the room's drawn windows the morning my patient died. because every listen must be from beginning to end, and because it's such an experience of sadness and devastation, i've never listened so little to an album i love so much. but every time i do, its honesty, emotion, and beauty more than restore what it takes.
01 dirty projectors, bitte orca
i haven't ridden them all, so i can't say for sure, but i'm willing to bet that there's more stunning, surprising, and exciting twists and turns in the first minute of this album than in any roller coaster ever built. the labyrinthine song structures, and the virtuosic performances thereof, are worth the listen merely to map new sonic territory in your brain: "this, too, is possible!". but this is more than just a proof of concept--there are great songs here, with incredible hooks, soaring melodies, and some really good lyrics. most reviews i've read talk about this album as a cerebral, test-tubey sort of affair, and i guess i get what they're getting at, but if this is a science project, it's happening in the middle of a 3-ring circus, right between 4 motorcycles riding in the globe cage and the man taming the tiger with the chair and whip, and directly underneath the tightrope walker juggling 6 flaming torches while riding a unicycle. yes. that is the science project this album sounds like. regardless of all of that, this album was by far the most consistent, interesting, enjoyable record i heard all year, and it has proven very durable in the face of incessantly repeated listens. and as a bonus, i got to see them live and left even more blown away by the mastery that went into each every song. my favorite album of a year full of really great albums.