Category Archives: Albums Of The Year

The Top 25 Albums of 2016

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The disclaimer – I’ve never sat through a Drake song. But if you’re into stuff influenced by ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s rock/pop/punk/soul/disco, then, great: I liked these and possibly you might, too.

25. CHARLIE HILTON – Palana (Typical Captured Tracks wannabe-new wave, but boosted by smart lyrics with icy chanteuse delivery of same. Sort of if Nico or Daredevil’s Elektra went to one of Jarvis Cocker’s St. Martin’s College parties in 1983 and made a record about it.)

24. ICE CHOIR – Designs In Rhythm (Sort of if Prefab Sprout, China Crisis and Curt Smith took pictures of their teeth after a 1985 afternoon at the dental hygienist’s and transferred the result into music…)

23. STILL CORNERS – Dead Blue (Glossy, late-night, girl-singer-boy-keyboard-boffin synthpop, not a mile from what Yazoo or Eurythmics might make if they’d started out in 2011 and the label told the singer to sound like Daredevil’s Elektra after getting stuck in an elevator for an hour with New Girl’s Schmidt.)

22. WILD NOTHING – Life Of Pause (Latest development in Virginia-bred twentysomething’s trawl through the Factory and Rough Trade label discographies.)

21. WHITNEY – Light Upon The Lake (Spoils from the unfortunate Smith Westerns divorce: still beholden to the ‘70s, but trading the gauzy, twinkling glam for close-miked, Sunday afternoon AOR, gorgeously recorded.)

20. ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING – Lazarus (A celebratory romp through the tears: Bowie’s NYC play cast members singing 17 canonicals the day after his death. Bonus: three fresh Bowie originals to deepen the sense of loss.)

19. M83 – Junk (Whomping synth-rock. Best parts interchangeable with his earlier hits, including the one that went all Play-era Moby [soooo many T.V. ads] about five years ago.)

18. ROOSEVELT – Roosevelt (“File under M83,” basically. It’s 1986 and you’re on holiday in Europe, listening to a two-year-old tape of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 while wearing Jams shorts.)

17. KRISTIN KONTROL – X-Communicate (Dum Dum Girl consolidates Siouxsie/Motels/Branigan fetish, and if they ever remake all those John Hughes flicks, here’s yer soundtrack.)

16. THE MONKEES – Good Times! (All the king’s horses and all the king’s men stitch the Prefabs together – even Davy’s back from the grave [or from 1967, at least] – into a programme of summery ‘60s pop/rock. Fan-fiction at its purest [Weller, Gallagher, Partridge, Cuomo, Gibbard and Schlesinger all submitted tunes].)

15. DOUG TUTTLE – It Calls On Me (If you’re tired of all my ‘80s references above, consider this hit of groovy ‘60s folk-tinged rock. Lovely one-man-band harmonies and mid-volume freakouts, sort of like 1967 Byrds if Crosby wasn’t such a dick.)

14. QUILT – Plaza (Boston four-piece ups rhythm quotient [slightly!] whilst maintaining multi-part girl-plus-boys harmonies and hazy Laurel Canyon vibe. Could’ve played house band in a Mod Squad episode, I bet.)

13. JAY ARNER – Jay II (Vancouverite sets time machine to early new wave but sands edges down to better highlight quietly caustic lyrical introspection. The sunniest earworm is a chorus chant about “a world of suffering,” so I think he’s winking at us.)

12. TEENAGE FANCLUB – Here (Scottish vets still sticking their landings. Some chugging psyche passages adds gristle to the motorik pop-folk, the sort of adult-alternative record that nestles within that wheelhouse all masters-of-their-domain eventually locate.)

11. MITSKI – Puberty 2 (College alt.-rock from a quarter-century ago reborn here – some of the squalling anger echoes Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey and others – with modern-day profundity: whisper-to-a-shout ‘Your Best American Girl,’ about a parent’s institutionalized racism toward her white boyfriend, is one of the best songs of ‘16.)

10. XENO & OAKLANDER – Topiary (Austere coldwave duo makes adjustments: turns all vocs over to the girl, adds roaming piano lines and cinematic brushstrokes for eerie warmth. Sort of if Chris & Cosey remade Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine with OMD’s gear.)

9. EAGULLS – Ullages (Brawny Brit post-punk, especially recommended if you think the Bunnymen have gone soft, Killing Joke have gone hard and The Cure have gone missing.)

8. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – Skeleton Tree (Side two floored me first time through; thus prepared, subsequent plays engendered more admiration than awe – loss isn’t easy to make into sing-song and this doesn’t even try to. It does help one believe in the concept of recovery, though.)

7. OPERATORS – Blue Wave (Once I thought “Wolf Parade had to die for all these side-projects to live?” Now I fret about the reverse. In my dreams, Operators earn all of Images In Vogue’s, Darkroom’s and Blue Peter’s support slots for Simple Minds, Ultravox and Depeche.)

6. LEONARD COHEN – You Want It Darker (He hardly sings a syllable and the backing’s sombrous to the brink of severity, but of course it’s positively riveting. A wise old rake’s dissertation on ghosting.)

5. PREOCCUPATIONS – Preoccupations (Canada’s [Calgary’s!] answer to The Horrors absent the dance groove, but chock-a-block with the noise and steel so prevalent in the no-makeup/no-haircut wing of UK post-punk. The 11-minute epic’s a bruising treat and the closing Magazine soundalike is even better.)

4. IGGY POP – Post Pop Depression (Wherein Josh Homme plays the Bowie instigator role as Ig finally finishes that brawling, come-at-me-bro Lust For Life followup.)

3. DANIEL ROMANO – Mosey (Soundscapes turned me onto this one; this is why record stores must never perish. Someone knew I liked Lee Hazlewood, kitchen sinks, Rachel McAdams and Nuggets-and-AM-radio mashups and found it all wrapped up in this 49-minute reification.)

2. SUEDE – Night Thoughts (Good enough to make me reconsider whether Pulp wasn’t the best Britpop band after all. The older/wiser brother to 1996’s Coming Up, aging gracefully within expected boundaries while actively pushing against same.)

1. DAVID BOWIE – ★ (I’ve long since escaped that OMG-this-was-his-awesome-goodbye-note? phase to enjoy ★ strictly on a musicological level, but year-end lists and nostalgic summations have a way of re-engaging sociological considerations, and to see Bowie easily topping 2016’s worldwide year-end aggregator lists gives me fierce pride [Beyonce and Frank Ocean nabbed silver and bronze, respectively]. The death narrative was inescapable for most list-makers: rightly so, because pop music’s never seen this particular measure of artistic achievement before. Musically, ★ is grandly admirable in every damn sense of the word, the spine-tingling sound of deeply intelligent accomplishment come late in the game for post-war pop’s greatest long-and-winding career. Every rock fan’s a little cowed by avant jazz in the way people are upon meeting brain surgeons, but Bowie’s look-Ma-no-hands fusion of the avant to pop melody, daringly wild singing and adroit wordplay ticked accessible-coolness boxes in every neighbourhood. Highly lauded-but-“difficult” art-rock records from newer artists abound this millennium [Radiohead, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors], but the old master painters are presumably incapable of capturing the youth vote with current work, which makes ★’s initial pre-death reviews all the more admirable. The mood swing between January 8th and 11th last year was the sharpest for any fanbase since John Lennon’s in 1980. We’ve all a few “biggest fan of ‘x’ that I know”-type friends and I’m probably the Bowie guy to a number of acquaintances. I’ll never forget the dreadful dawn of realization, the viral detonation of shock and grief, the communal swell of admiration and story-sharing…or the seven weeks I couldn’t bring myself to play the record, like some cry of denial, before I remembered that music is made to be played and enjoyed no matter the circumstances behind its creation, delivery and reception. 2016 was the year of David Bowie and ★ was the record of my year.

(Honourable mentions: Wild Beasts, Trashcan Sinatras, Night Beats, The Lemon Twigs, The Radio Dept.)

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The Top 25 Albums of 2012

Top 25 Albums of 2012

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Among the zillion albums released in 2012, here are the top 25. As I heard ‘em, anyway. (And what’re they putting in the water down in Brooklyn?)

Top 25 Albums of 2012, 25-21

 

25. TANLINES – Mixed Emotions

For me, one terrific song – even more precisely, a spectacular 79-second passage within – overshadows everything else, but if I sidestep my oneitis for a sec, here’s why Mixed Emotions made the cut: a neat aesthetic recalling a preeminent force (Vampire Weekend) without tipping into simple-minded imitation (nor in this case, VW’s arch wordplay). The songs are a little samey, but the presentation is excellent. Vigorous percussion tracks, sparely catchy synth and guitar squiggles, oddly accented vocal phrasing. Alluring stuff. Go stream “Cactus.” It’s delicious.

 

24. VIOLENS – True

Not as glossy as the debut: I expected a Spandau Ballet moment given the LP title and the players. But True shifts the timeline a few gens along to early shoegaze, artfully bruised blurs of guitar distortion and other-end-of-the-tunnel singing. The pace is quick, lively. The songs are short, lively. True doesn’t play out like an album might, more like a series of compilation tracks, which might account for its rootlessness. It sounds like satellite radio set to an early-‘90s alt channel in a sun-baked world where rainy Seattle never happened.

 

23. ESCORT – Escort

Disco revivalism, good enough to share the same breath as non-Hegarty Hercules And Love Affair, mining the post-Fever vein that offered two basic approaches: rich Nile Rodgers rhythm guitar or gleaming NRG synths as lead instrument. That there’s little runaway 4/4 hi-hatting speaks to Escort’s determination to avoid cheese while paying homage to the likes of CHIC and Cerrone. Escort is actually a collection of singles topped up with new tracks, an ideal band primer and a surprisingly cohesive listen. Long may they boogie. I hear the live show is excellent.

 

22. GRIMES – Visions

Before long you’ll have to beat the copycats off with a stick, but as the pool dilutes it’s important to remember how good Visions sounded last winter, when its clubby loops and surprisingly sturdy songs withstood critical listening and gimmicky singing. This is a patchwork quilt of deceptive ruggedness. Even as the songs’ recurring motifs take root, dropped beats and sudden incursions function as creative disruptions, building tension. Loops spring back into action, refreshed and rested, with new momentum. It’s just a new way of remixing the same sandwich. Today it’s GarageBand, 35 years ago it was Tom Moulton and a scalpel. The song still matters most.

 

21. ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI – Mature Themes

He’s got me playing a five-minute, one-note joke about schnitzel on repeat. I’m also partial to the gloriously stupid rock star confidential one (“I don’t want to burn any bridges/but I can’t get enough of those bitches…my name is Ariel, and I’m a nymph”). And then for good measure, a totally believable ‘70s soft-rock AM pastiche (“Only In My Dreams”), and a fuzzy, strobe-lit miniature about ordering pink slime for dinner (that’s be “Pink Slime”). It’s not quite as good as Before Today, but that was a record of past triumphs re-made, while this jolly little thing was built from scratch. The surface LOLs obscure sinister strangeness. What was that Bukowski line about insanity?

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Top 25 Albums of 2012, 20-16

 

20. JOHN CALE – Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood

That point in “Hemingway” where he takes his line endings into shrieking falsetto is vintage Cale, that no-nonsense post-Velvets arty bastard with the stentorian voice and bravura instrumental dash. People fell over themselves this year with Springsteen’s bid for old glory; I say longtime Cale admirers are in for a similar treat. Sonically, Nookie Wood is closer to Artificial Intelligence than his Island Records peak, but the craft and delivery is worthy of the younger, chip-on-shoulder 1970s Cale. Keening keyboards cut a jagged swath through the trampling “Scotland Yard” and the misty “Vampire Cafe,” noise pollution pock-marks the more sedate tracks, Cale and producer Danger Mouse (!) play audio tricks with his voice throughout. Nookie Wood’s energy would look good on an artist half Cale’s age. We’re still learning how long rock artists might produce top-grade work: to date, this stands as the best record made by a septuagenarian.

 

19. FRANKIE ROSE – Interstellar

Starkly pretty, kohl-eyed post-punk from a Dum Dum Girl drummer who clearly heard her calling, and we’re luckier for it. (There’s an even better record from an indie stalwart’s drummer later in this list: Ringo and Moony never made albums this good.) What I like here is all the dark and lovely tension’s achieved without resorting to death grips and trickery: Interstellar builds its moody grooves on simple Severin and Budgie-calibre bass and drum tracks, its modest melodicism on chorused guitars and two-finger synth washes. All building block basics, but the arrangements are a blast: after all those years in garage-pop bands, Frankie knows how to fill a room in sound without fury.

 

18. HOT CHIP – In Our Heads

Looking back across five Hot Chip LPs it strikes me this is the first really good one. I don’t know if they’re cured of the tendency to pad with tuneless synth ballads, but In Our Heads raises HC’s game a couple notches. Non-single “Motion Sickness” equals anything they’ve ever put out on 45. First side’s paced with three singles that wouldn’t be out of place on Some Great Reward, such is its emotional relevancy and dedication to songcraft. The record backslides after that, although “Let Me Be Him” is terrific: the kind of soft-hued reflective sprawl that turned to mush on prior LPs hangs tough this time, peaking and cooling like a distance runner training in intervals. That the warm down lasts three minutes hardly matters – “Let Me Be Him” is one of the best eight-minute songs of the year, and maybe the best tune in the HC canon.

 

17. TOY – Toy

Where motorik meets psych, with a dash of flinty-eyed post-punk and better shag hairdos than anyone since Badfinger. Mojo’s treating TOY like the cool new kid at school with the to-die-for genealogy, and I can hear where its readership might want to slip this on between Tame Impala spins. Jesus, that’d be quite the double-bill down at the Marquee, actually. The sound is beautiful – better than the songs at this point (meaning we might get very lucky with this group, in time) – a throbbing, charging mass of gargling guitars, gnarled keyboards, Neu! drums and Tom Dougall’s frosty speak-singing. The groove songs’ll lift you out of your seat, the mopey-yet-brighter pop tones sport traces of Devoto and the Reid brothers. Score another point for record collector rock.

 

16. SUN AIRWAY – Soft Fall

Windswept and widescreen synthpop. I might be more careful about invoking “Your Silent Face” if this were my last bullet, but “Symphony In White No. 2” really does share New Order’s stately, epic sweep. The strings are more rhythmic motif than hook, but the gambit works. That rush of blood to the head permeates Soft Fall; “Close” sounds like Chris Martin fronting Cut Copy’s “Unforgettable Season.” In fact, you could argue Sun Airway = “Speed Of Sound”-era Coldplay – Jonny Buckland – Capitol quarterly operating budget + better lyrics. Or: gateway purchase for indie kids who fret about getting caught buying guilty pleasures.

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Top 25 Albums of 2012, 15-11

 

15. WILD NOTHING – Nocturne

I confess it took me two months to split the shrinkwrap on Nocturne. ‘Til now, Wild Nothing’s been one of those Anglophone bedroom bands with one great tune and nice sound design. But on Nocturne’s third song, a he-man strides out from the perfumed fog to snap “I know where to find you, I know where you go” in a pretty decent Phil Oakey, and it’s jarring. And we’re off: the songs mean business. A jagged guitar riff here, a helicoptering delay-ridden line there, singing that doesn’t disintegrate on re-entry, rhythm beds that might even nudge the woofer. Point is, there’s been quite enough of this wallpaper indie, and now that seems to have passed, good writers like Jack Tatum are making better records. I’ve never had to learn his song titles before: “Only Heather,” “Nocturne,” “This Chain Won’t Break,” “Rheya”: collect ‘em all!

 

14. DIVINE FITS – A Thing Called Divine Fits

The kind of rangy, snarly rock record that sounds super cool coming out of any speaker in any circumstance, simple and catchy as an old Roy Thomas Baker Cars LP, without the gang vocals. I don’t want Spoon to die for Divine Fits to live, but Britt Daniel’s a mensch for going all the way on his date with newly single Dan Boeckner. It’s a Reese Peanut Butter Cup ad as rock parable. You’ve never heard so much dry ‘n’ gritty synth on a Spoon record, nor so much white-knuckled tension on a Wolf/Furs set. On the writing front, Boeckner outpoints Daniel by a nose, but he’s got nowhere else to put his songs right now: this is his day job. He’s also a proven master collaborative partner; now Daniel is too. Extra points to vet producer Nick Luanay for the snappy, tinder-dry sound, and third Fit Sam Brown for beating the blood out of his kit.

 

13. TRUST – Trst

I saw Trust open for Washed Out in 2010, and although the vibe was great the songs choked in deadpan gothic squalor. That problem’s been resolved. Cavernously reverbed yet thoughtfully gated, good melodies ooze over Maya Postepski’s clipped drumbeats, mostly via bell-like synths , thickly whooshing pads and the Vincent Price-with-a-mouthful-of-marbles vocal stylings of Robert Alfons, who manages to sound like the sleaziest cryptkeeper since Peter Murphy, without actually tipping over into stagey ridiculousness. Alfons’ range is good: the peppier tracks sound awfully energized with his filthy-sounding lisp in a higher, brighter register. Trst wraps with its best track, “Sulk,” which restates the band’s strengths: pretty gusts of atmos, monophonic melodies, a vampire singing on the edge of sunlight, a metronomic beat and sympathetic mixing from Damien Taylor, who recorded Postepski’s other band, Austra.

 

12. TINDERSTICKS – The Something Rain

Night music. Something like The National, but more soulfully cinematic and instrumentally varied, with shards of sax, twinkling glockenspiel and keening violins complementing trad rock tools to build mid- and crawl-tempo set pieces about disorientation and disappointment. “Show Me Everything” and “This Fire Of Autumn” exemplify The Something Rain’s deft restraint, with each instrument, including Stuart Staples’ voice, woven into a fluid mass, determined but mostly absent of typical rock accents. These songs have momentum, and eventually steam up the windows, but the thing is you never see the switch being thrown. Nice work, you magicians. “Come Inside” is gorgeous and it knows it, hovering for nearly eight hypnotic minutes, a reminder of mood music’s supreme purpose: to enhance what’s already in play. It works even better on repeat. (Trust me, there are worse ways to spend 23 minutes.)

 

11. CHROMATICS – Kill For Love

“Moody as film music” is metaphorically apt in the wake of Johnny Jewel’s work on Gosling’s Drive; Kill For Love never hurries to the payoff, like it knows you’ve paid your admission and aren’t budging before the end credits. I used to delight in playing 45s at 33 RPM because of the detail the speed reduction uncovered. Kill For Love sounds like one of those experiments, just fast enough to outrace claims of sluggishness, brimming with noirish menace. Think Bowie and Moroder’s version of “Cat People.” The pristine percussion clicks, new wave guitars dripping in phase and flange, serrated synth lines and just-fucked vocs are as compelling as an ‘80s coke-and-crime flick. Two-thirds of Kill For Love – don’t forget, this is an 80-minute double – is very, very good.

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Top 25 Albums of 2012, 10-6

 

10. GRIZZLY BEAR – Shields

I haven’t listened to Veckatimest since the end of ’09 for a reason – I remember it as forgettable – but I’m glad I don’t hold grudges. On Shields, the tight chamber pop combo playing and singing remains the signature, but a new vigor drags songs out of their precious insularity and into a space where they might be enjoyed, not merely admired. Some of the best songs emerged from writing sessions pitting Ed Droste’s singing against Daniel Rossen’s strumming, surviving the transition from bristling demo to sophisto group arrangement. The new explosiveness – throttling (“Speak In Rounds”), tumbling (“Sun In Your Eyes”), thundering (“Half Gate”) – is bracing.

 

9. PORCELAIN RAFT – Strange Weekend

Bowie once said the dullest thing you could do with a synthesizer was stick to the presets. As someone who once tried to write a Jan & Dean surf soundalike using general MIDI sounds, I sheepishly concur. So does this record. It’s a masterclass in slicing, dicing, whipping and mashing every enlisted instrument, before loading each back into fairly straightforward dream-pop arrangements. The result is a kaleidoscopic, trebly shimmer built into some spectacularly lovely music. Sonic architecture, first order.

 

8. KILLING JOKE – MMXII

This lot must be on Creatine. Not that Joke ever needs an apocalypse prediction to rattle off a list of complaints, but MMXII did give ‘em a handy soapbox. And Jaz Coleman did disappear for a bit there in the summer. There’s possibly more automated response in the Joke camp than in Morrissey’s, except these guys make better records. And what a record! Every major facet of the Joke sound’s present – throbbing dub, galloping dance-punk, brawling industrial metal, glowering synthpop – united by consistently gripping writing, a spacious mix and Coleman’s commanding vocal presence. MMXII plays like a custom-built festival bill of quality, likeminded acts pared down to a 50-minute highlight package. Against stiff competition,possibly the best Joke LP of this millennium.

 

7. CHAIRLIFT – Something

And to think: this was a shrug-and-buy record by a band on the bubble. Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make. Chairlift 2.0 has largely traded precious art-song for hustling synthpop, using Caroline Polachek’s flexible voice as its bead on the competition. “I Belong In Your Arms” sounds like a breezy 45 from about ‘84; “Sidewalk Safari” churns over wobbly, interweaving melodic lines; “Met Before” kitchen sinks stately keys and heavily reverbed girl-group vocals over thudding Californian garage rock. The chichi numbers which made the cut are simply better than before: “Frigid Spring” is one of the prettiest songs of the year. Chairlift lost a member in the lengthy gap between albums – the guy Polachek was dating. I don’t know how he feels about it, but it’s worked wonders for his old band.

 

6. BAT FOR LASHES – The Haunted Man

It’s more reserved than previous records, nestling into the Hounds Of Love-The Sensual World neighbourhood, if you require a Bush parallel. What lifts “All Your Gold,” “Oh Yeah” and “A Wall” out of the ordinary – twinkling backdrop sounds, a male choir, thundering “Running Up That Hill”-style percussion – might seem elementary, but it’s the intensity that impresses. And when she goes for broke – “Marilyn,” a swirling, soaring set piece with full orchestration in a support role – there is the sense she’s got a “This Woman’s Work” moment in her future. Grand, elegant, soundtrack-calibre art pop.

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Top 25 Albums of 2012, 5-1

 

5. ICE CHOIR – Afar

Unreservedly recommended to anyone with a yen for the sound of ‘80s synthpop – specifically, the sumptuous 1983-1986 vein mined by the likes of Nick Heyward, Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti, Tears For Fears, China Crisis and Bill Nelson. If you own these records – and surely Kurt Feldman, on a busman’s holiday from his day job as The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s drummer, must – the Memorex impersonations of moments found in deep tracks will resound, the sonics and manoeuvres as comfortable as that old CFNY or KROQ radio tape in your childhood desk drawer. Afar could stand sharper choruses and/or a few sore thumbs, but it’s a confident, glowing, splendid ride.

 

4. PAUL BUCHANAN – Mid Air

Album number five wasn’t in the cards for The Blue Nile. The usual agonizingly long wait between albums (1984, 1989, 1996, 2004) wouldn’t be enough to get the band back together this time, to soothe over old slights, so the singer would have to take his song sketches and deliver them in the mode they’ve always called for in the first place, that wee-hour, one-for-my-baby-and-one-more-for-the-road-style dive bar balladry inherent in Sinatra’s suicide records and personified by Tom Waits in the 1970s. But Buchanan was never a piano player like Sinatra’s Bill Miller or Waits himself, so these tracks would stay rudimentary in the extreme, with none of the polish of classic Blue Nile tearjerkers (“Regret,” “From A Late Night Train,” “Family Life”). And although some of these songs are so wonderful you can’t help wishing for some of The Blue Nile’s hallmark sparkle – an oceanic delay, a shiver-inducing string pattern, a couple more choruses – they stand on their own, and it’s a treat to have a Buchanan record like this. He is that good.

 

3. TAME IMPALA – Lonerism

Superb conceptual cohesiveness notwithstanding – namely, Kev Parker’s determination to not only play everything on the record, but to play it like a fully functioning band with hungry egos to serve – the most exciting thing about Tame Impala is where the writing looks to be heading. He’s peacocking straight down Broadway with payoff singalong choruses you’ll remember next decade, songs that might even hook a future Rock Band iteration. Have you seen the YouTube clips with the song recognition audience whoops? This guy’s filling a void, a need for rock music with as much immediacy as the gross earworms production orgs are whipping up for the Katys and Justins and Whatnots. But because he’s coming at it from a hypno/psych angle, and because he’s writing songs about longing and belonging, there’s pathos and surrender in even the largest moments. A bear hug of a record.

 

2. SAINT ETIENNE – Words And Music By Saint Etienne

Etienne’s book smarts have never kept them from making terrific pop/dance records, but the conceptualization has ever provided the resonance behind the glittering veneer. Words And Music keys the best Etienne concept yet, a love letter to music fandom from Britain’s greatest music fans. Given the subjectivity of terms like “best” and “greatest,” you only get as much mileage as your belief allows. But I still buy records and read sleevenotes and make end-of-year lists and blabber on with brick-and-mortar clerks, so I might be different from you. (But probably not, if you’re reading this.) Words And Music basically functions as a symposium on music nerding, Etienne smorgasbording several dance music styles in the spirit of Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday, each rendered in would-be 45 single brevity and pop IQ. As such, it’s that rarest of creatures – the mid-to-late-career LP that captures the essence and excellence of a band, a totally serviceable introduction for new initiates who might only have a remix or two on their iPhone. The less clubby tracks are superb: the narrative-styled “Over The Border,” the guitar-led “When I Was 17,” the summery summation piece “Haunted Jukebox,” and my favourite, one of my top two songs of 2012, “Answer Song.” Saint Etienne also produced a 10-song More Words disc for the North American tour leg that might’ve made this list on its own merit, by the way. The best pop group of the past two decades hasn’t lost a step.

 

1. BEACH HOUSE – Bloom

Last spring a lucky stroke of scheduling saw four personal favourites release new albums in a three-week span. The new Beach Boys (#30, 2012) was a minor miracle after decades of sad adversity and ridiculous stupidity, while the other three? – they finished in my top four. I’d call that a pretty great showing from this stalwart group. Beach House is, far as I’m concerned, the best band going right now, on the strength of consecutive album-of-the-year wins (Teen Dream – #1, 2010). As they move further away from the indistinct fizz of their 2006 debut, an acute pop sensibility gives their songs greater reach than ever. It’s a given every Beach House song will arrive in a cloud of dry ice, on a bed of boxed beats, wrapped in gauzy organ drones and gnarly liquid guitar lines, with that stentorian contralto on top. But the new dynamic, in place since Teen Dream, is the payoff built into these newer songs, sunburst realized in the form of a soaring vocal bridge or guitar solo. With Bloom, this approaches formula: I’m not sure it matters when the songs are this terrific. The pop tangibility is something their dream pop peers cannot consistently match. The records don’t wear out, the T.V. appearances sound great, the romantic buzz at their shows is palpable. Legrand and Scally have surged to the top of the league as singer, guitar player and co-creators. The incandescent “Lazuli” is one of my top two songs of 2012. The October Kool Haus gig was my favourite small/medium venue show of the year. Beach House is on a roll.

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2012 honourable mentions:

Chris Cohen – Overgrown Path; Stars – The North; Passion Pit – Gossamer; David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant; The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio.

The Top 25 Albums of 2011

Here’s what I’d like to tell you about my 25 favourite albums of 2011.

25. MIRACLE FORTRESS – Was I The Wave?

Angular, almost architectural art-pop, sort of like the Brewis brothers’ Field Music and The Week That Was projects rolled into a one-man band, but with emphasis on keys, not guitars. Expansive, widescreen concepts with one foot in each of the minimal and complex camps, and one of the great headphone records of the year. I think the restraint straightjackets his brightest pop song, “Spectre,” which is a lovely, soaring thing missing only a live drummer’s gristle. Others – “Raw Spectacle” and “Miscalculations” among them – are fine as they are. Delicate but sturdy, unmistakeably ambitious.

 

24. WASHED OUT – Within And Without

Most of the chillwave class polished their presentation skills for this year’s records. Whether money, label pressure or a dose of ambition’s the reason, the wonky gaucheness and hit-and-miss brilliance of yore’s been buffed to a blinding sheen, which is actually rather easy to do with synths. Think “Avalon,” as opposed to “Virginia Plain.” Despite the absurdly reverbed vocals – stop being so precious, Ernest – I really like the first batch of songs, especially the sporty pair of “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati.” I saw Washed Out with Small Black last year and didn’t think his then-unreleased stuff was any great shakes, so this rates as a pleasant surprise.

 

23. PJ HARVEY – Let England Shake

“Soldiers fell like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief.” A world away from Rid Of Me, Peej’s still pushing buttons whatever she’s singing about. What gets me is her delivery:  pitching her voice close to trilling, sing-songy blitheness, and matching it to melodically catchy – even breezy – tunes about the Gallipolli Campaign and its impact on England’s psyche. From the army bugler almost trampled underfoot in “The Glorious Land” to the villagers diving into the sewage-infested rivers to escape the carnage in “Written On The Forehead,” Harvey’s characters are drawn right at the life-altering moment of realization. Like love and other personal politics, war cuts across the boundaries of fashion and era: her subject matter, as ever, has a timeless, challenging appeal.

 

22. ST. VINCENT – Strange Mercy

Less immediately gratifying than previous records – and disfigured by the abominably self-conscious opening tune – Strange Mercy doesn’t rewrite the rulebook so much as it rearranges the furniture, but it’s still the Annie Clark show, her placid singing masking querulous lyrics, leaving the harrumphing to angular guitar bursts. The “Cruel” single – daft, deftly charged art-rock – is another good stab at Kate Bush’s Dreaming-era territory, although it’s slightly undercut by milky production.  “Surgeon,” “Cheerleader” and “Champagne Year” rise above the straightjacketing sound, but the reason this isn’t higher is because I don’t like the development. Hey, I care.

 

21. ANNA CALVI – Anna Calvi

In contrast to the St. Vincent record, here’s a beautifully visceral recording I may like better for the sound than the songs. Early in the year I wrote: vividly dramatic accompaniment for the RKO studios B-movie playing in your head. A motel crime scene, a cop on the take, a shifty femme with a gold-plated cigarette lighter, sweltering air you could cut with a letter opener. A little freshman-year creative writing, but it was worth a shot. Speaking of the songs, I’d put “Suzanne And I,” “First We Kiss” and “Love Won’t Be Leaving” on the podium, each benefitting from Calvi’s sinewy guitar and muscular singing. Vibrant stuff.

 

20. DUM DUM GIRLS – Only In Dreams

J &M Chain/surf-beat-girl-group amalgam given the latter’s period raunch by Richard Gottehrer’s knowing production. At 36 minutes it won’t overstay its welcome, humming and thrumming along with great sound and groovy singing. “Teardrops On My Pillow” is my jam right now, a blister-in-the-sun mesh of shoegazey guitar blur, nervy singing and a soaring harmonic hook you’ve heard a hundred times before. Done right, it’s impossible to put down. That’s why it’s never that far out of fashion. Check out “Coming Down” too: six minutes’ worth of “Fade Into You”-style mope given an intense buzzcut. Something that’d sound great at the end of a Californication episode.

 

19. MAGAZINE – No Thyself

No Thyself’s erudite snark buttresses the Magazine rep. Despite absences (John McGeoch is RIP, Barry Adamson did a short tour but returned to scoring film), the classic Mag sound’s intact, corrosive and cinematic to the last drop. I think it gets better on the backside, where “Holy Dotage” runs religious faith into the ground to a tune as insistently catchy as ‘79’s “Rhythm Of Cruelty,” while “The Burden Of A Song” stomps along like “The Light Pours Out Of Me.” Running throughout: glutinous basslines, arch keyboards, Howard Devoto’s needling voice. It really was quite a sound, wasn’t it? Well, here it is again! Message to my post-punk peer group: ignore at your peril.

 

18. SOFT METALS – Soft Metals

Crisp, neon-lit, night driving record cast in various shades of spare club music from the tag end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. If the Chromatics band name wasn’t taken – by a similarly inclined group, mind – the moniker’d fit like OJ’s glove. I’ll give you two more specific reference points – Bertrand Burgalat’s work with Lida Husik, and early Saint Etienne: “Join Our Club” springs to mind, as does Etienne offshoot Cola Boy, especially in Patricia Hall’s vocal on “Pain,” which strongly recalls that band’s “He Is Cola.” These were all good-sounding records: acres of open space, pinging synth washes, floating femme vocals, rounded, insistent basslines. Comedown/chillout music without the hipster taint of ‘60s soul loops or horn samples. While “The Cold World Melts” breaks formation – it’s a little dirtier, like early Nitzer Ebb with a girl singer – the gleaming, chrome stuff – “Psychic Driving,” “Eyes Closed” and “Pain” among ‘em – would’ve fit, say, the Drive film soundtrack beautifully.

 

17. JOHN MAUS – We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

Madcap analog synthpop with ridiculously vampiric bellow-singing, and it’s great. Censors is a gauzy, gothic, Halloween romp with the structural backbone of an Ariel Pink record, but it succeeds on those wiles, whether evincing a Miami Vice death scene vibe (“Cop Killer”) or a heroic, you-’n’-me-’gainst-the-world-babe stance (“Believer”). The grainy, mid-‘80s, station ID song intros often recall the first Neon Indian record. The most normal-sounding song, a hauntingly dark piano ballad called “Hey Moon,” is an obscure modern cover that wouldn’t be out of place on a Peter Murphy record. Murphy dared you to take him seriously too.

 

16. DURAN DURAN – All You Need Is Now

I’m all for fountain-of-youth recoveries because there’s nothing beats overspending on a club gig by a former chart stalwart playing recognizable versions of pop classics which don’t utterly embarrass the current material sprinkled throughout the evening. Duran hired Mark Ronson to Memorex their loftiest achievements, and the product had all the swishy disco chug and zeitgeist insouciance of bygone days. Even the “Girl Panic!” video had the swagger of old. Sure, the album’s too long and a little bit form-over-content, but it’s the best Duran since Nick Rhodes was about 12 and thoroughly redeems the notion of Duran as an ongoing proposition. The April 25th concert review was my biggest blog hit of 2011, by the way. A place in my heart, then.

 

15. HOLY GHOST! – Holy Ghost!

Idiot-proof Italo-disco/new wave off the DFA imprint. They found a way to crap it up by adding a guitarist for the end-of-year tour, but the record’s a summer vacation of simple pleasures and direct hits. And there’s surely no song I spent more time singing imperfectly than “Wait & See,” an irrepressible, pop ‘n’ lockin’, Baltimora-styled throwback that would’ve ruled middle schoolers’ walkmans in 1986. Honestly, if this ends up in the Fox & Fiddle karaoke songbook, watch out. Sony’s making cassette walkmans again, simply to play this tune in its proper place. Ghost! stays peppy and preppy until the last number, when Michael McDonald stops by to belt the soulling “Some Children” outta the park like the yacht rock slugger he is. Style points.

 

14. THE DRUMS – Portamento

“Ridicule is nothing to be scared of,” sang Adam Ant, and so I admire The Drums’ thrift-shop sound and musical pilferage for the insular things they are. I imagine The Drums are in terminal decline already – one of the guitarists quit, everybody flipped musical instruments, sales and airplay dropped through the floor – which is a shame, because they have excellent musical taste and a real commitment to getting it across genuinely. At its best, Portamento’s grumpy tunes distil the essence of indie – always a day late and a dollar short, doggedly pursuing the production trickery and musical chops their favourite records sported at something less than the original’s cost. The Drums still don’t sound like they could play anything but their own songs. The band is a perfect, closed circle. Portamento isn’t as good as 2010’s bigger and bolder The Drums, but I know the music they’re compelled to recreate, and they’re doing a nice job. Even if it kills them.

 

13. NEON INDIAN – Era Extrana

I’ll miss Psychic Chasms’s cosmic farts and bleeps and may forever wonder whether Alan Palomo might’ve done even more with its bonkers blueprint, but he’s got hefty writing chops and may well be cut out for bigger things than blog love. You see that PAL198X informercial? Why hide your light under a bushel, right? Era Extraña is the new normal for Neon Indian, an almost-solo record that sounds like a almost-band record, stuffed with what would’ve made nice, left-of-centre U.K. radio singles circa 1983. More than a few times I’ve caught myself comparing Neon Indian to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, never moreso than during a gig performance of “Fallout” in October, in which a wordless bridge transmogrified into the kind of gracefully spare passage that powered Architecture & Morality-era tunes. An album written in a lonely, wintry place, about being in a lonely, wintry state of mind.

 

12. JUNIOR BOYS – It’s All True

Some amazing manoeuvres on this one. Whether sparely cinematic (“Playtime”) or sparely danceable (“Itchy Fingers,” “You’ll Improve Me”), Junior Boys stitch parts – and I mean both sound fragments and song fragments – together with the touch of great film editors. Most songs are arranged to peak twice, like classic disco twelve-inchers. The resulting tension’s delicious. The release is thrilling. The dizzy echo orgy at the climax of “Second Chance” is as good as Junior Boys gets, the payoff after five minutes of painterly bleeps and squibs and faux peaks. Christ, that’s good stuff! It’s All True closes with the super-sized, house-influenced “Banana Ripple,” which offers more of the same push-and-pull for a longer run-time and is surely the giddiest thing they’ve done yet. They wear it well, surprisingly.

 

11. SMITH WESTERNS – Dye It Blonde

All Pop Rocks ‘n’ Coke and Michael Kelso throwing the devil’s horns, or, less impressionistically: woozily high-pitched vocals over pillowy classic rock, spiked with declamatory guitar lines recalling the taffy tang of T. Rex. Dye It Blonde’s emotional gravitas is somewhere below heavy-hitting, but its best songs are affecting anyway. Maybe it’s in the way these kids fill their songs with tempo changes (“All Die Young,” “Dance Away”) or where-have-I-heard-that post-chorus guitar hooks (“Weekend,” “Still New”). Maybe it’s the redemptive quality of something normally defaulting to masculine softened by the youthfully wan singing. Blonde’s time capsule qualities don’t exactly scream sound of tomorrow, but the tracks are so pleasingly layered I found lots of little treasures while trying to figure it out. The only trick these Smiths left out is glammy handclap accompaniment. You may find yourself supplying your own.

 

10. GIRLS – Record 3: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Sad songs about regret and resignation, with a kind of stark confessionalism that’s alternately depressing and strangely uplifting. In “Vomit,” the limited lyric’s spun into hypnotic gold by means of repetition and discipline – at seven minutes it takes after the first record’s “Hellhole Ratrace” – but by never relaxing its white-knuckle grip the post-song track break which follows sounds like room tone jumped up several db. In “Forgiveness,” Chris Owens sings “nothing’s gonna get any better if you don’t have a little hope, if you don’t have a little hope in your soul.” It’s as simplistic as Conan’s speech on cynicism on his final Tonight Show, but it’s a bullseye. Girls have progressed from blistered indie rock to ‘70s FM sumptuousness. Quickly, too: two LPs and a long EP in 24 months. All worth a listen during dark nights of the soul.

 

9. CRAFT SPELLS – Idle Labor

Why don’t I just buy everything out on Captured Tracks? Although Idle Labor toes the label’s dusty ‘80s UK indie line, I think it most closely resembles Magnetic Fields circa Holiday and Get Lost, minus the lyrical acuity. Fragilely pretty, tinkly keyboard melodies tied to thrusting new wave basslines and simple drums. There’s a lot of this going ‘round right now – Radio Dept., Wild Nothing, Kisses – but Craft Spells steals ahead on the strength of lead Justin Vallesteros’ splendid Curtis-lite baritone. Like most of this brat pack, he’s content to douse his vocals in reverb – doesn’t anyone want to be heard? – a minor grievance that doesn’t imperil songs like “Scandanavian Crush,” “Given The Time” or “You Should Close The Door,” but undoes some of the good. Get this record to Martin Hannett up there in heaven, stat.

 

8. REAL ESTATE – Days

A sparkling guitar pop record, with nods to Television, Felt, The Feelies and the L.A. paisley underground scene, a beautifully played and paced twin-guitar attack – if that’s the right word – that wouldn’t sound nearly as great if either player held the upper hand. Days might not be chock-a-block with choruses built for bus-stops and arenas, but as sunny afternoon drive-time music, it’s a champ. (The notable exception, the giddy “It’s Real,” runs rings around Coldplay for wordless “whoa-oh-oh” refrains.) I also hear a little Grant MacLennan in Martin Courtney’s singing and in the comparatively dour “Younger Than Yesterday”’s bassline, and a little Go-Betweens is always welcome. After nine idyllic gems, waiting patiently at the end, lies “All The Same,” which is 2011’s “Desire Lines,” a hypnotic showpiece with a lengthy outro that might be termed “epic” if it didn’t seem so at odds with Days’s pristine glimmer. Lipsmacking.

 

7. COLD CAVE – Cherish The Light Years

Obsidian dancepunk for rhythmically inclined Goths, who would probably disagree even as they twisted the night away to this sneakily poppy stuff. It was the easiest damn thing in the world to turn a friend onto Cold Cave with the mighty, howling “The Great Pan Is Dead.” Who needs iTunes Genius, anyway? My favourite is “Confetti,” a spectacularly baleful homage to the spirit of 4AD and black mascara, dropping a magnificently anguished, Andrew Eldritch-styled vocal over a pulsing bed of electro-tom fills, crystal-clear guitar figures and churning synth lines. With a perfectly gothic yearbook quote-as-hook – “It’s important that evil people look good on the outside” – the spell’s complete. Cherish also goes in for muscular dance music in the vein of New Order’s Brotherhood, a spiky-but-frothy sound best repped by “Alchemy And You” and “Villains Of The Moon.”

 

6. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

No one, but no one,­ has ever made a great double album a trim regular-sized wouldn’t better, and the  Saturday=Youth singles might trump anything here, but still. Even when he saddles the lead single with the worst bleating synth hook since “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” it still sounds like something Thor would work out to. “Midnight City” even got lingerie models to shake their ennui like a Polaroid. Hurry Up is essentially the same 36-minute record twice, meaning the blurry mistakes get repeated too, but there’s so much development going on – including plaintive Peter Gabrielesque peals from the suddenly mic-comfy Gonzalez and a killer acoustic-electronic ballad of woe – it’s hard not to admire the guy’s stones. Hurry Up’s release felt like an event, and while a touch short of its gonzo critical reception, its mammoth synth rock highlights are indicators of a great modern talent.

 

5. AUSTRA – Feel It Break

With but one notable flaw – elementary song arrangements – this is a great first record by an act with immense potential. Feel It Break sounds incredible: gloomy, taut synthpop in a darkwave vein, beautifully recorded and mixed, topped with an honest-to-goodness opera-schooled singer bright enough to restrict her vamping to displays of vibrato and dramatic positioning. Even within the relatively predictable song structures, tantalizing teases: the ghostly suspended breakdown in “The Villain,” the insinuating pulse driving “Hate Crime,” the blocky art-pop piano riff supporting “Shoot The Water.” Best of all: the slinky, twinkling “Darken Her Horse,” which has all the icy hauteur of early Goldfrapp, or even mid-period Banshees. Watch this one.

 

4. DESTROYER – Kaputt

Kaputt’s shivery, end-of-the-‘70s production sheen overcomes the record’s only shortcomings: samey song tempos (mid) and static basslines (no scales, all heartbeats). Then I realized I’d been hypnotized. Drizzling sax and flute over the glassy grooves like the second coming of Wild Bill Moore’s exploratory What’s Going On riffing, Kaputt conjures a twilit sky from atop the Love Boat with the house band playing disco jazz below deck. Soundwise, it’s a yacht-rockish paean to pre-MTV American AM radio, but Dan Bejar’s masterstroke is in identifying the sucker punch hallmark of great early disco records: regret and longing trussed up in a Cinderella-like desperation to make it to the ball on time. Nostalgia infuses the fat, held, synth notes and gingerly enunciated lyrics, Bejar’s ginger enunciation detailing his protagonist’s voyage from hedonistic young gun to sage mage. Eventually Bejar rouses himself and sends the last revellers home. Too mellow to be a dance record, too shifty to soundtrack romance, Kaputt is a terrific, sturdy, headphones album of intelligence and craft. Recommended songs? Nearly all of ‘em.

 

3. LYKKE LI – Wounded Rhymes

This isn’t the first record to detail the reciprocal connection between joy and pain, but it’s a very good one, a lustrous – and lusty – record that brings to mind the writer Nik Cohn’s memorable description of Pet Sounds: “sad songs about loneliness and heartache; sad songs even about happiness.” That’s a telling interpretation, because even if there are a couple of places where Wounded Rhymes’ rainy day purview approaches the Spectorian-Wilsonian wall of woe, they’re only half of the story. The thematic centrepiece is “Sadness Is A Blessing,” which addresses the resiliency of youth over a “Be My Baby” heartbeat, with a gorgeously erotic vocal drag on the line “the only lover I’ve ever known,” and a clever bit of lyrical dexterity in the chorus. By following the titular phrase with “sadness is a pearl” instead of the expected “sadness is a curse,” you realize Li’s motored past the first four stages of coping, straight on into acceptance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt could’ve used this in (500) Days of Summer. “Silent My Song,” which sounds massive despite its spare instrumentation, offers more of the same. The production and economy of arrangement by PB&J’s Bjorn Nittling lavishes every bawdy lyrical urge with ravishing sound; even the cage-rattlers (“Youth Knows No Pain,” “Get Some”) that come out swingin’ with percussive “I Want Candy”-like clangour aren’t particularly angry: they’re rapturous, defiant, determined. So, if acceptance is the one state you’d prefer to meet in a dark alley, Wounded Rhymes is your ticket back to the light. Or, hell, as the artist herself puts it: “That must mean I’ll live again/And get back what I gave my men/Get back what I lost to them.”

 

2. CUT COPY – Zonoscope

Dan Whitford’s preference for trad song structure over cycling hooks is one reason Cut Copy look to have the legs to run awhile. For all the things Zonoscope could have been – a two-dimensional commercial sellout; an In Ghost Colours clone; a well-intentioned bummer – the most encouraging thing about its near-excellence is the clear sense of upward development: stronger lyrics, deeper arrangements, increasing mastery of form. CC blew a lot of ammo with 2010’s pre-LP single, the amazingly assured, giddily expansive “Where I’m Going,” and still more with “Take Me Over” in November, but there’s a lotta gold in Zonoscope’s hills, including the ab fab “Alisa,” the soaring successor to Colours’ “Unforgettable Season.” One saber-rattling, sugar-rush rocker per LP really isn’t enough when CC does ‘em so well, but we’ll make do when they’re this good. Zonoscope’s club-friendly bookends ply Whitford’s build/breakdown/release paradigm with the same assurance as their crowd-pleasing live shows: 15 minutes of “Sun God” went down a treat during the festival season. Cut Copy’s in pretty heady space after three LPs, with the discog already sounding like one of the all-time great dance-rock mixtapes. And there’s the feeling they’re only getting warmed up.

 

1.  THE HORRORS – Skying

About 40 years ago the UK label Pickwick footed the bill for a weird series of cash-grab LPs aimed at the youth pop market, wherein hack studio players re-recorded chart hits for budget compilations. As a form of rights circumvention, it’s not as though the practice ever disappeared: Dancing With The Stars does it today. If ABC ever wants to up the ante for a new wave-themed episode, I’ve got the house band for them. Skying could be the next instalment in Rhino’s Postpunk Chronicles, only with The Horrors playing original songs while dressed up as Comsat Angels, The Teardrop Explodes, The Chameleons and Simple Minds. And doing a bang-up job. Throughout, the band’s grasp of dynamics is excellent:  nervy (“Endless Blue,” “Moving Further Away”), stomping (“I Can See Through You”) or stately (“Still Life”), the sound and presence of Skying crackles with a ballsy sprawl melding chart ambition and record-collector wonk. It seems like a mainstream record only because the sound’s so familiar. But after playing spot-the-reference for 50 minutes, I’d like to note the only nod to Joy Division – seemingly every other postpunk-biting band’s go-to influence – is the drummer’s Ian Curtis bowl cut. He also plays more ride cymbal than anyone I’ve heard in ages. Many of 2011’s best albums sported shamelessly overt nods to once-derided and disinherited genres. In Retromania, Simon Reynolds writes about hypnagogic pop: “memory-mangled traces of eighties music…crisp funk bass and spangly guitar parts redolent of the slickly produced rock ‘n soul of that decade…the taut sequenced rhythms and bright digital synth sounds of eighties Hollywood soundtracks.” Dusting off these quarter-century-old signposts, The Horrors may simply be another band in an indie scene seemingly determined to eat itself to death. But they’ve also made the best record of 2011. Ultimately, music always comes down to songs, sound and playing, and Skying hits more targets than any other release of the past 12 months.

Honorable mention: Friendly Fires – Pala; Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong; The Cars – Move Like This; Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine; Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See.

Proof I don’t love everything Brian Wilson does: In The Key Of Disney missed the Top 50.

The Top 25 Albums of 2010

After gobbling up about 55 2010-stamped LPs this year, here’re some thoughts on the best 25. As a bonus, you may also consider this my albums-of-the-decade list! For about a week.

25. BELLE AND SEBASTIAN – Belle And Sebastian Write About Love

That old guff about so-and-so’s off-day being a good one for everyone else applies, as an overworked Stuart Murdoch’s stack of slightly underwritten chamber pop charms once the initial disappointment’s passed. Fatigue’s apparent in the abundance of truncated vocal melodies (the lazy call-and-response chorus to “I Want The World To Stop” would never make a top-drawer B&S LP), and in the inclusion of a dull Norah Jones duet that would’ve better served as a selling point on a charity comp. Uh-oh, I’ve just slagged off #25!

“I Didn’t See It Coming” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UeFaayyw3o

 

24. ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK – History Of Modern

Some younger rock reviewers would have you believe the old men of the reformed OMD are chasing the pups and falling short. I don’t hear it that way. I hear a pair of master painters -McCluskey and Humphries – effortlessly layering vintage synth sounds over the same gushing, hi-hatted, post-disco beats as every other sweet young thang on the hipster highway, and keeping pace. Not to belabor the point, but the song’s the thing. And these old masters know about songs.

“History Of Modern (Part 1)” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOShjnNpcWg

 

23. SPOON – Transference

Spoon records sound so good the songs are almost secondary. Thankfully they have those too, the Factory Records totem “Out Go The Lights” being my favourite here. Britt Daniel’s music sounds like my stomach feels after too much coffee on too little rest. Probably the internal soundtrack for the cubicle mate with the twitchy leg. You should ask him his favourite band. He’ll stammer, “Spoon!” and you’ll have gained valuable insight. But you’ll never get his tendency to cut off sentences withou    Here he goes agai    Spoon in a nutsh

“The Mystery Zone” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yb1V2yprIJE&NR=1

 

22. INTERPOL – Interpol

Another Interpol record produced to sound like a high-end sound system test disc. Martin Hannett would be proud. The irony is that for all the early-career pigeonholing as a you-know-who soundalike, I’d suggest an “accept no substitute” tag applied to Interpol itself. Pretenders try to replicate the guitar interplay, but they’re nowhere near as fleet of foot. Even half-speed Interpol grooves. You may come to miss departed bassist/arranger Carlos D’s disco bump, but at the rate these guys work at least it’ll be awhile. In the meantime: Interpol – Accept No Substitute.

“Lights” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NogpBvVAZb8

  

21. VIOLENS – Amoral

Spend a good chunk of the year listening to smeary, cassette-quality, 80s-fetishising indie, and then pop this sucker into your player. It sounds like Ryan Atwood if he’d turned into Luke after moving in with the Cohens. It’s that shiny. It also sounds like 1986, just after the new wavers got their first MTV money, and just before they totally ran out of ideas. A little fussy, but these guys can sing and play. Welcome to the O.C., bitches.

“Acid Reign” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rrOQBF8OB4

20. BRYAN FERRY – Olympia

Following Nile Rodgers on Twitter in mid-2009 afforded a novel glimpse into the recording of the ex-Roxy leader’s first real solo record in eight years. For all Ferry’s legendary control-freak machinations he seemed cool with tweeted leaks. But then his people filmed everything too, if bonus DVDs are your thing. Still singing well, if emoting about nothing beyond lipstick traces and caviar dreams, Ferry guides his crack band – heavily comprised of ex-Roxy musicians (just reunite already) – through more of what you – and he- have come to expect. Inessential, but highly recommended to fans.

“Song To The Siren” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4KC9Vr6x7Y

 

19. JANELLE MONAE – The ArchAndroid (Suites II And III)

Instead of being put off by the double-album length hubris or concept-album skepticism, just dive in like it’s an Easter egg hunt and count the glammy gems you come up with. I bet it’s somewhere between six and 10, which is a damn fine yield for anyone. And no two are alike! Soul, pop, folk, rock and Shirley Bassey orch-pomp colours are here in all their iPod-shuffled glory. Prince-like in its magpie appetite for bending genres, I’m still not sure the story’s worth a damn. End justifies means? Sure.

“Wondaland” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYuPoXx188g

 

18. BEST COAST – Crazy For You

With indie pop swamped in the sounds of yesteryear, why not a distaff Jesus And Mary Chain? Where JAMC fearlessly tred, so steps So Cal’s Best Coast: you’ll be seeing ScarJo and Bill Murray on the Tokyo street of your dreams, too. The half-hour run-time hearkens back to another reference point (Ramones), as the songs – mostly good, mostly very similar in cast and content – rarely overstay or overreach. Hazy, lazy, crazy, phase-y, swoony, summertime surf pop.

“Boyfriend” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fjMYI33E8Q

 

17. SHE & HIM – Volume Two

Not to be dismissed as a vanity project by a cute actress – which She undoubtedly is – and a gifted indie guitar hero – which Him undoubtedly is – this is in fact more of Volume One, except better. The last third falls off, but the honeyed rush of the first 25 minutes more than compensates. Sometimes it’s a little treacly – isn’t love always? – but you haven’t lived in 2010 until you’ve grinned like a loon through “Don’t Look Back,” maybe the most adorable song of the year.

“Don’t Look Back” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhWRpx81Nk4

 

16. WOLF PARADE – Expo ‘86

Not like they invented the twin songwriter/lead singer dynamic or anything (I’m more of a Boeckner man, by the way), but Wolf Parade’s done well by it and it’s a bummer to hear that damned “hiatus” word. Wolf Parade’s the result of friendly competition, and the whole’s exceeded the sum of parts, if you ask me. Hefty synth-rock with theatrically ragged singing. Like wolves on parade! The latest – last? – record’s great moonshot is “Yulia”, which stomps along like “Rebellion (Lies)” and affectingly recasts Major Tom’s fate with the Russian cosmonaut program. Here’s hoping Wolf Parade ain’t lost in space with him.

“Yulia” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQgqNwfMDYk

15. GIRLS – Broken Dreams Club

Post-tour EP, a little light on the blistering furies dotting the preceding LP, but just as heavy on the bruised heartbreak. Mopey horn swells compete with weeping pedal steel, coated in swales of early rock-era reverb. Closing track “Carolina” is the hot-tears epic, “Heartbreaker” the snappier, would-be hit. As a singer, Owens taps into some of Alex Chilton’s timeless post-adolescent angst. Different timbre, different back story. But he’s filling a void with this sort of crushed, cautious beauty. You’re a wasted face, you’re a sad-eyed lie, you’re a holocaust.

“Heartbreaker” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PjoMx8mmJI

 

14. TAME IMPALA – Innerspeaker

Remember Ganglians? Sacramento band from a couple years ago? Sounded like they’d fallen into a field of Nuggets comps? Tame Impala’s better. After decades of great bands from Australia’s east coast, Perth’s finally won one for the west: stately, expansive, sun-powered psych rock for beardos, with untrammeled Beatle-studio-era Lennon vocals floating overhead. Every week I had a different favourite, until I ended up with about eight. Wisely, the kid in charge – Kevin Parker – mixes short bursts with longer set pieces, making the whole thing resemble a pleasant afternoon spent in Championship Vinyl. And I’d take this over The Beta Band.

“Solitude Is Bliss” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxvf7gR4-2M

 

13. THE RADIO DEPT. – Clinging To A Scheme

Home to this year’s most summery springtime jam – “Heaven’s On Fire” (decidedly not the KISS song) – and another half-dozen similarly evocative tunes. Fragilely pretty, but rhythmic enough to hint at remixing possibilities, the dated Balaeric beats  send much of this time travelling back into Saint Etienne’s loved-up world of froth, c. 1991, but that’s okay because it’s not presently being done to death. In fact, it’s charming. Love the Swedes. Count on them to never sound like today, but rather some temporally challenged universe where everyone looks like Vendela or Pete Forsberg (yes, dated references). Pure pop for “then” people.

“Heaven’s On Fire” fan video: http://vimeo.com/14026378

 

12. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE – Forgiveness Rock Record

More ramshackle spatter-rock from our favourite hive-mentality arts collective. The last record, too indulgent, broke the spell. I don’t even bother learning their song titles anymore. Lisa’s lighter-than-air electro-pop one. Andrew’s pretty rocker with the punchy horn section. Kevin’s song with the “Crimson And Clover” tremolo vocal. The thing is, much of this is pretty neat. And tighter. Now I’m in that Larry Sanders Show episode come to life: Thanks for booking me Larry, what’s your favourite song on the record? Uh…track five.

Track five live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71-RhS2lhTQ

 

11. ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI – Before Today

I remember a summer in the mid-1980s, when I’d just begun collecting comics and listening to rock radio. My eager mind sponged it all, tripping out on Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man and reeling from the parade of MTV-era pop stars bursting out from tinny bedroom speakers. It was a hot summer, and I’d often go on after-dinner walks with my parents once the air cooled, a rush of daring song choruses, superhero feats, gonzo singing styles and garishly dressed super villains buzzing in my brain, competing for attention, informing my tastes well into adulthood. This record reminds me of that summer.

“Round And Round” fan video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST04DzjLmpA&feature=related

10. DEERHUNTER – Halcyon Digest

One hell of a beautifully recorded record.  “Helicopter” is every bit as crystalline as OK Computer, so is “Earthquake.” I like albums where I can imagine the engineer’s brief. Make it sparkle. Full of winking sound effects sparking neat moments throughout (a meaty sax solo, a high-steppin’ banjo, ear-splitting percussion surprises). The peak comes mid-album on “Desire Lines,” written by the band’s second-in-command. Seven blissful minutes that could’ve been 14, chugging along in locomotive splendour, like Television covering “A Forest” at Hansa-By-The-Wall. Delirious.

“Desire Lines” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW2jOA6uIaM

 

9. ACTIVE CHILD – Curtis Lane

Bit of a crap-shoot, this thing with chillwavers. Save the odd Fallon-to-the-rescue moment (still haven’t gotten over that Neon Indian appearance), there’s no mainstream outlet for the music. Soundscapes, the great Toronto store, told me they “can’t carry everything that gets picked up by the blogs. We don’t have the space.” Which makes this EP’s appearance on my list – or its absence from yours – an exercise in randomness. So it goes for small potatoes like Active Child. Singer’s a choir-trained harpist playing gorgeous Prefab Sprout-by-way-of-New Order synthpop, and he’s unafraid of letting it all hang out. Six songs of soaring, rich, rippling Christmas lights brightness. There’s also a Classixx remix of “When Your Love Is Safe” free to any interested party, and it might be the most beautiful l thing I heard all year.

“When Your Love Is Safe” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8hQZ9Fo6LU

 

8. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – This Is Happening

Had feverish anticipation for this one, not only because the last one was the best record of its year, but because Murphy hinted the LCD laboratory was closing shop after the requisite touring period. That’d be a shame, but at least he’s been up-front about it. Helps ticket sales too. This Is Happening isn’t as good as Sound Of Silver, but it’s a heavy humdinger nonetheless. Any Bowiephile will enjoy “All I Want” and any Yellow Orchestral Blancmanger “I Can Change,” unless slavish imitation outrages. They’re the twin towers at the heart of a knotty, audacious dance-rock hybrid that reaffirms Murphy’s Johnny-come-lately excellence. I hope he’s as indecisive as Favre.

“All I Want” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ojYi_5tA-I

 

7. KILLING JOKE – Absolute Dissent

No-one ever thought to ask these guys to autograph old vinyl on Bands Reunited? Paul Raven’s death papered over old wounds and his legacy is this sexy beast of a record, a founders-only event 28 years after the original Joke went kaput. I don’t listen to enough dance-metal to know whether there’s anything else remotely as good out there, but I know my Killing Joke, and here’re the deliverables: the death disco groove, the white-hot guitar chording, and the serrated synth effects imparting not a little warmth into the eye of the hurricane. This is no mere career footnote. And good Killing Joke will give you wings, as evidenced by the boogieing skinheads at the show I saw in December. Groovy.

“Absolute Dissent” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGBUxb6yIaM

 

6. TWIN SHADOW – Forget

Twentysomething  Brooklynite does the one-man-band trope proud with debut that poaches from all sorts of new wave standbys without actually sounding like anything in particular. Maybe if Prince hadn’t sought world domination, or found that snare sound, he’d’ve made this record in 1985. But here we are, a quarter-century later, driving along a highway at 2 a.m., with this record blaring. “Shooting Holes” turns the steering wheel into a synthesizer, “Slow” transforms the front seat into a drum kit, and the title track, replete with showy guitar solo, suggests a new purple reign. Through it all, this kid achieves terrific conceptual unity in his playing and arranging. A real shot across the bow. Not a wasted note, nor a waste of your time to investigate.

“Slow” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyO7P6LE7nA

5. BRIAN WILSON – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

He sure doesn’t need any help in the songwriting department (and Gershwin’s never wanted for suitors either), but Wilson continues to amaze anyone paying attention to his late-career surge. Romping through a canon completed 20 years before rock ‘n’ roll – and fiercely protected by elitists ever since – Wilson sidesteps the jive turkey pandering by Rod Stewart et al, taking only the essence of the song into consideration, rather than the definitive versions laid down generations ago. Thus freed – the masters always know how, don’t they – the songs breathe anew in various surf-, baroque- and rock-pop configurations. Plenty of Beach Boys-derived manoeuvres, as expected from a mature, commericial artist. But some of the moves are new even for Wilson: a little spy-flick soundtrack here, a dash of ‘50s sock-hop there. Old styles for even older songs – the uninitiated are still advised to seek out standard treatments (Ella, Sinatra), as the sheer revisionism contained herein kind of limits this record’s appeal to a minority. But the gorgeous musicianship – from the same brilliant band that replicated all those towering SMiLe and Pet Sounds arrangements onstage last decade – guarantees a good time for that select crowd. (Elitists of another stripe, I guess.)

“Summertime” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud2o38cJtDY

 

4. THE NATIONAL – High Velvet

First record issued from the perch of success by one of the great modern bands, and it’s a winner. The National’s song remains the same: the singer plying his voice like a traditional instrumentalist, slurring and repeating phrases, locking into the circular structures laid out by the no-nonsense band. Impressively, this changes from pleading to insistent to angry, depending upon the needs of the song. Where all this teeth-gritting could get tiresome, The National’s head-nodding grooviness lifts them well above the rest of the mid-tempo pack. Maybe it’s in the melodies: “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Afraid Of Everyone” and “Conversation 16” aren’t just loner playlist fodder, they’re also classically excellent songs: rugged, but with a spectral lightness peeking through the cloud cover.

“Afraid Of Everyone” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5C2WVCruPM

 

3. ARCADE FIRE – The Suburbs

Everything about the Summer of Arcade Fire™ screamed BIG DEAL, from the giddy Can-press rollout to the MSG gig to the coronation atop the Billboard 200, and despite the overlong running time (I generally don’t like being bossed around for more than an hour on record by anyone), this record’s worth the investment. AF’s Springsteenian earnestness renders them a little like Tinkerbelle, in that the less you believe, the lower the flame burns. I find AF totally disposable. And yet, despite hardly ever humming their songs in my head, I also find each of their albums awfully appealing in their grandiloquence. I guess that means I don’t mind being bossed around, sometimes. Just please don’t ever make a triple album, Win. The Clash was ridiculous.

“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains”) live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L6ZFhZVOx0

 

2. THE DRUMS – The Drums

The Drums’ list of transgressions should strike chords with anyone who ever dreamt of taking their garage band (or Apple GarageBand) dream to the next stage (or to MySpace). They know they’re not original. They’ve admitted they can’t play their instruments beyond the self-taught arrangements. The singer affects a hammy Bowie-esque croon on tour because a throat injury limits his range. Their music, adolescently transparent love letters to the songs that saved their lives, is pure pastiche: the singer’s phrasing, the drum sound, the tone of the guitar, the build-and-release to-and-from each chorus – it all betrays deep record collections and limitless enthusiasm. Limited musicianship turns the emphasis to writing, which is remarkably adept. The spare arrangements are based upon repetition and simple refinements, but they’re rhythmically persuasive and the choruses are fantastically catchy. Oft-ridiculed singer/producer/main writer Johnny Pierce’s vocal stacking is masterful: he builds chords and shadings on mannish swoops and falsetto trills, an arsenal that sounds brilliant on headphones but has proven impossible to replicate on-stage, which has led to all sorts of split opinions in the blogosphere. But on record at least, The Drums’ hubris hearkens back to a time when pop stars wore crazy frocks and crazier haircuts, but earned their spurs on the back of unforgettable songs. Let the goddamned peacocks strut.

“Best Friend” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LigFu4cQmoY

“Skippin’ Town” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vK5YMrRU9ew

 

1. BEACH HOUSE – Teen Dream

Live clips from this record hooked me: Alex Scally seated, legs dancing above his effects pedals, looking like Bowie’s split-screen Saturday Night Live marionette, somehow keeping time with Victoria Legrand bopping over her organ, face partly obscured a waterfall of Dreaming-era Kate Bush hair. The music on Teen Dream is stately, to the point I’d first taken it for loops and sample triggers. But the clips show the music is alive, all heartbeat and toil, which is what the songs essay as well. “Walk In The Park” is about the dissolution of relationships; the massive, M83-intensity of “10 Mile Stereo” conjures the image of Lloyd Dobler and his boombox. “Limbs parallel, we stood so long we fell.  Love’s like a pantheon, it carries on forever.” I just realized I’ve referenced John Cusack movies twice in this year-end review, one about music fanaticism and the other about romantic fixation. Permit me this, because they’re the twin engines that power most great records in the first place. Teen Dream’s songs are built on such ideals, frosty-sounding creations with furious heat pounding away from within: illicit temptation in “Lover Of Mine,” naïve trust and subsequent demolition in “Norway,” warning bells sounded by re-engaging  the wrong person in “Silver Soul.” It’s a staggering album. My brother criticizes my restless interest in new-gen music when my age group’s generally slid into playlisting the songs of their formative years. My counter is it’s a shame how many Beatles/Beach Boys/Motown fans likely slagged off The Smiths, Talking Heads and Factory Records in the early-‘80s on the grounds of newness. Which happened a lot, so brother has a point. But do you really want to be that guy?

“Norway” fan video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHbtR8uO81M

“Walk In The Park” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ihr_xQ6M62M

“10 Mile Stereo” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITOAtVwF5Wc

The Top 20 Albums of 2009

Hi, you’re reading this list because it’s too cold to do anything outside and you maybe like music. I’ve written this list because I definitely like music and it’s definitely too cold to do anything outside.

I’d like to congratulate Lily Allen for “The Fear,” the first great single of the year. It was, in fact, a year dominated by womenfolk: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Annie, Sally Shapiro, Bat For Lashes and St. Vincent each helmed super neat work. Yay to girls. I’d like to commend Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective for delivering the two most-overrated “good” albums of 2009, if that makes any sense. Normally if you say “Beach Boys harmonies” and “synthesizers,” I’m a really easy, cheap date, but try as I might these records never rose above okay. “Summertime Clothes” was a brilliant piece of kaleidoscopic pop from AC, and Grizzly’s “Two Weeks” sounded lovely in a reverb-drenched Letterman performance a few months ahead of the record’s release. But neither band writes great songs in quantity, and if hipster bloggers are going to namedrop Brian Wilson they ought to choose better agents.

Alright. 2009-stamped albums made up about 30 per cent of my intake for the year, and here are the 20 best of ‘em. Presented in order, because that’s how it oughtta be.

20. EDITORS – In This Light And On This Evening

Solid rebound from shabbily crap sophomore effort. Not as gripping as the clipped, Joy Division-Comsat Angels rock of the first album; this time it’s slavishly mopey synth-rock on the menu. It’s as secondhand as a trawl through Kensington clothing shops but they’ve written some nice choruses. “You Don’t Know Love” and “Papillon” are worth seeking out for the curious.

19. JARVIS COCKER – “Further Complications.”

The new Jarvis overcomes a sludgy start and gains momentum as it plays, checking in at all sorts of interesting, typically Cocker-like checkpoints on its merry way. While it’s not as fluidly chintzy as prime Pulp, he’s on form through most of the entertaining second half: it’s that voice making those familiar smartarse observations over melodically sturdy songs like “Hold Still,” “Fuckingsong” and Slush,” although the disco experimentation of the closing “You’re In My Eyes” overstays its welcome by half. We’re a long way from “My Legendary Girlfriend,” but the greybeard has some fight in him yet.

18. SALLY SHAPIRO – My Guilty Pleasure

This one trades the spare grace of her wonderful first record in for a fuller sound, which isn’t as striking, but still works well during the nicely written second half. “Moonlight Dance” sounds like a lost mid-‘80s gem that wouldn’t be out of place on a Miami Vice episode. As before, the guileless vocals sound just like another instrument in the pleasantly Eurodisco-ish mix. A producer’s record.

17. THE CLIENTELE – Bonfires On The Heath

This stylish quartet’s put a little more rhythmic pep into their songs lately, stripping away much of the reverb-heavy gauze that marked earlier records. It’s a better balance, actually, switching between shimmering loveliness and light, bookwormish funk. Alasdair MacLean’s hushed, close-miked vocals haven’t changed, and his lyrics still scan like particularly well-written diary entries. I think the songs are missing something without Louis Phillippe’s superb string arrangements, but I won’t argue against the lullaby-like beauty of the closing pair, “Graven Wood” and “Walking In The Park.”

16. PHOENIX – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix write riffs, not songs. So far, it’s kept them from writing a start-to-finish classic record, but in an era of listener ADD, the ability to sew tight pastiches like “Lisztomania” and “1901” together makes every record a Happy Meal. “Girlfriend” is just as good. And the sound is amazing. I’d suggest they steer clear of aimless instrumentals, however.

15. DOVES – Kingdom Of Rust

All the fourth Doves album was missing was a killer single. Because there was nothing on the order of immediate classics like “The Cedar Room,” “Pounding” or “Black And White Town,” it took a while for this to sink in. A grower, then. More epic, earnest arena rock. Curiously, club elements from Doves’ prior incarnation as dance band Sub Sub are finally creeping into the mix. On “Compulsion,” it gives them a huge leg up on lead-footed peers like Coldplay and Snow Patrol.

14. DEPECHE MODE – Sounds Of The Universe

Trucking along a dozen years after losing arranger Alan Wilder, Depeche made their best album of the decade by returning to analog synths and resisting the urge to beef up the sound with modern processing trickery. While the songwriting edge is no longer sharp enough to guarantee winning singles, Depeche’s managed to shore up compositional deficiencies by allotting a few songs to Dave Gahan, who’s blossomed late-career into a capable second writer to Martin Gore. DM won’t win new fans with this work; it’s an album for devotees, deep and resonant and ultimately rewarding on a very specific scale.

13. FRANZ FERDINAND – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

I think the three-and-a-half year break from Franz Ferdinand did wonders for everyone. I know I was pretty Franzed out after 2005’s “You Could Have It So Much Better.” This one’s a rebound of sorts. While T.V. performances still betrayed Alex Kapraonos’ cheesy self-love, the songs were much more vivacious this time around. Same general blueprint: spiky, danceable guitar-pop. “No You Girls,” “Twilight Omens” and “Live Alone” don’t break any new ground, but they’re fine additions to the canon, if you’re already part of the Franz-friendly camp.

12. VARIOUS ARTISTS / SOUNDTRACK – “God Help The Girl”

Essential for any Belle & Sebastian fan, this sprung from the pen of Stuart Murdoch as the soundtrack to a film set for 2010 release. With full backing from B&S themselves, Murdoch takes the mic a few times, but leaves most of the work to a crew of heretofore unknown girl singers – Catherine Ireton foremost among them – who make fine work of songs written from a feminine perspective, a welcome return to one of Murdoch’s early career vehicles. Usual soundtrack limitations aside, good songs abound, with the twin towers “Come Monday Night” and the stomping “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” setting the pace. Murdoch is the best vocal melody writer over the past 15 years and his gift’s very much in effect throughout.

11. BAT FOR LASHES – Two Suns

Concept art-pop with synths and inventive drum patterns usually sets my heart racing with thoughts of Kate Bush, c. “Hounds Of Love,” and Natasha Khan’s second album doesn’t disappoint. The narrative takes some work to get into, but the core songs – “Sleep Alone,” “Daniel” and “Pearl’s Dream” – are bold, standalone delights. A real headphone treat, “Pearl’s Dream” plays like a muted cousin to Kate’s ecstatic “The Big Sky.” The class of the field is “Daniel” – good on record, but brilliant in its rearranged live incarnation. Watch the Letterman clip on YouTube, where you can almost hear the host’s mouth drop in appreciation after a stupendous take on a terrific song.

10. PASSION PIT – Manners

For the fan of bearded, eunuch-voiced, synth-rockin’ Greeks in all of us, I give you Passion Pit and the amazing five-song stretch at the heart of debut album “Manners.” Never mind the other songs surrounding “The Reeling,” “Eyes As Candles,” “Swimming In The Flood,” “Folds In Your Hands” and album highlight “To Kingdom Come.” Concentrate on this delightful, rattling, 21-minute run of extroverted geek-pop, it’s more than enough.

9. MORRISSEY – Years Of Refusal

A brawny tour-ready rock record from music’s best inside joke, “Years Of Refusal” fitfully welcomed Moz into the ranks of the fiftysomething club with a bitchy set of moderately quotable diatribes about pills, ex-friends and self-reliance. I’d rank it lower but for the fact he’s still improving as a singer even at this late stage, and that he’s somehow able to squeeze decent songs out of his nondescript sidemen two decades after Johnny Marr’s well ran dry. Every Moz record adds a few winners to the neighbourhood, and “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” and “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” are on quality street. Oh, and the record soundtracked our infamous “Roadtrip of Refusal” to Buffalo in March, which surely counts for a few points.

8. NEON INDIAN – Psychic Chasms

Whatta romp this is. 31 minutes of twitching, tasty, keyboard-heavy pop. Imagine Chromeo writing theme music for a Saturday morning kids’ program, c. 1985. Or early Brian Eno crossed with early Cut Copy. It boils down to this: there’s a chunk of sighing, chugging, colourful pop songs, treated with the kind of low-fi glaze that died with cassette tapes and the advent of digital compression. Bound by nothing bar imagination, “Deadbeat Summer,” “Terminally Chill” and “Local Joke” throb like burbling, smoking, science-fair projects. There were a lot of good records released this year, but this one delivers the most fun.

7. JUNIOR BOYS – Begone Dull Care

Depth perception is the key to enjoying the third Junior Boys album. Like an expertly framed, low-light photo, “Begone Dull Care” doesn’t give much away until it’s scrutinized, its undulating grooves defining “sinuous” in terms white dudes from Hamilton aren’t supposed to be able to deal in. Twinkling, knowing keyboard fills abound in these flexibly funky, hip-shaking, mid-tempo tracks. Jeremy Greenspan’s become a master deployer of the hushed come-on delivery. “Hazel” raises the bar far beyond the ken of likeminded bands. Marvellous stuff from a duo that dared to cover Sinatra last time out, remember? The grooviest, slyest synth-pop band on the planet. CD booklet doesn’t do anything for me, though.

6. ANNIE – Don’t Stop

A record of disco extravaganzas produced by the likes of Xenomania, Richard X and Paul Epworth, Annie’s long-delayed sophomore effort has more stylistic consistency than you’d think, given all the hands on board, and the first side’s lousy with awesome idiot-proof bonkers stompers. Seriously, if you like any of Madonna, Kylie, sleazy Goldfrapp, Girls Aloud or Saint Etienne, I don’t see how this could fail to grab you. Second side’s got some weak spots but I can hardly bring myself to bitch about them. This girl should be huge.

5. THE CHURCH – Untitled #23

Another veteran band whose longevity and quality control is beginning to accrue serious Mount Rushmore consideration. Five songs in, all this stately, gorgeous, shimmering guitar rock had me shaking my head in amazement: how is it they write this well after 29 years and nearly two-dozen records? It’s as lovely as the quieter moments from the last Radiohead, but as fashion-aware as Tony Bennett: The Church long ago entered that “respected elders” phase, enjoyed only by long-time fans and ignored by everyone else. Let them be our secret, then. “Cobalt Blue,” “Happenstance” and “Operetta” headline the new additions to a very long list of very good songs.

4. ST. VINCENT – Actor

Between Bat For Lashes and Annie Clark’s St. Vincent project, Kate Bush fetishists have a lot to be thankful for. “Actor” conjures memories of Kate c. “Sat In Your Lap,” with all manner of crunchy, coiled art-rock songs like “Marrow,” “Actor Out Of Work” and “Save Me From What I Want.” Despite the implied mayhem behind the music (check out her strangled lead guitar parts), Clark sings in a beautiful, measured tone I initially mistook for bet-hedging: oceans of elliptical reserve on the record’s delicate ballads like “The Party” left me expecting ugly rage on the knottier material. On later listens, I realized that’d be too obvious: Clark is inhabiting a world of desperate, unhappy characters, struggling to maintain order over lives bursting at the seams. Her voice represents the heavily dolled-up public face, the music is the beehive of misery hidden behind the designer shades.

3. GIRLS – Album

My top lo-fi entry in a list populated by high-sheen keyboard pop. Girls make fuzzy, buzzing, sloppy Jesus And Mary Chain jangle-pop, mixed with some of that snot-nosed heartache Alex Chilton and Chris Bell wove into the first Big Star record. It’s lazy, late-summer, daydreaming music for people with good intentions but low ambitions, which I think is how some people used to describe shoegaze, but that stuff never had the sun-kissed quality of “God Damned,” “Summertime” or “Morning Light,” which tickle and fizz like a packet of Pop Rocks on a swig of Jolt Cola. And the epic “Hellhole Ratrace” is every bit as good as Pitchfork says. Go be a teenager again.

2. CAMERA OBSCURA – My Maudlin Career

The heir apparent to both Belle & Sebastian and Spector’s Wall Of Sound, evidently. The last two albums have seen Glasgow’s Camera Obscura shed their prim folk-pop for swaggering, ‘60s-bedecked orch-pop, and even if there isn’t anything quite so thrilling as “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” here, “My Maudlin Career” might be the better album. Tracyanne Campbell’s lyrics are endlessly quotable reflections for the crestfallen set (“In your eyes there’s a sadness enough to kill the both of us/Are those eyes overrated? They make me want to give up on love”), but the gushingly big music is as hopeful as Charlie Brown lining up to kick that frigging football. There’s something regal about “The Sweetest Thing,” “Swans,” “Honey In The Sun” and the title track’s bulldog intensity in the face of piled-on romantic failures. Doesn’t this girl ever win? Even here, she finished in second place. Fuck!

1. YEAH YEAH YEAHS – It’s Blitz!

By a narrow margin, the record of the year, and also home to the song of the year in “Hysteric.” YYY’s wove synths into their web of agit-rock and let the inherent sweetness of Karen O’s vocals take centre stage on a record that recalls the lush romanticism of the great singles Siouxsie And The Banshees were cutting around 1982. Now, nothing then was quite as tightly compressed as the remarkable, fevered “Zero,” or quite as high-stepping as the chunky, discofied “Dragon Queen,” but I totally hear Siouxsie in the closing “Little Shadow” and the madcap “Heads Will Roll.” And of course, there’s the ecstatic “Hysteric,” the gorgeous ballad favourably compared to “Maps,” which nails its chugging, one-word chorus with all the wonderment of a summertime swoon. “Flow sweetly, hang heavy/You suddenly complete me, you suddenly complete me,” she sings, and just like that, eight months after I first melted into her delirium, knowing then I’d found my song of the year, and maybe its album too, we’re done with 2009, and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s have won the gold star.

The Top 20 Albums of 2008

The 40 2008-stamped records I bought made up a little over a quarter of my total intake. Here are the 20 best.

20. The Cure – 4:13 Dream
19. Al Green – Lay It Down
18. Long Blondes – Couples
17. Tindersticks – The Hungry Saw
16. Duffy – Rockferry
15. Black Kids – Partie Traumatic
14. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
13. The Week That Was – The Week That Was
12. Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke
11. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

10. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
09. Presets – Apocalypso
08. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
07. Hercules And Love Affair – Hercules And Love Affair
06. M83 – Saturdays = Youth

05. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
04. The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age Of The Understatement
03. Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree
02. Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun
01. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours

The Cure’s (#20) newest was Robert Smith’s attempt to return to shorter song structures, in the spirit of the band’s mid-1980s dalliance with skewed pop (‘The Lovecats,’ ‘In Between Days,’ et al); Al Green’s (#19) was his third run at recreating his classic Willie Mitchell Hi Records sound, albeit with some modern production touches. Both got halfway there. The Cure was accessible but short on melody; ironically, the best song (‘Underneath The Stars’) was a gauzy, six-minute dream sequence that recalled Disintegration. Al Green still sounds very fine, if a bit feathery, but his record was undone by wan choruses and grade-school poetry.

The Long Blondes (#18) set was a disappointment compared to its daughter-of-Pulp debut, but the songs sounded better in concert and the record was a bit of a grower. Mostly, they missed on singles beyond ‘Century’ and ‘The Couples.’ Sadly, Blondes won’t get a chance to evolve, as guitartist and prime writer Dorian Cox suffered a stroke mid-year and the band is done. Tindersticks (#17) aren’t ever going to change, and we shouldn’t want them to. An eight-year hiatus did nothing for Stuart Staples’ narcoleptic view on romance; the band’s first noteworthy personnel shift likewise failed to spark change. Tindersticks remain a solid bet for dark nights of the soul. The songs are deeply affecting when they hit (‘The Turns We Took’ is great), although a little goes a long way. A mood piece, then.

A little Duffy, Black Kids and Crystal Castles goes a long way, too. All acquired tastes. Duffy’s (#16) celebrated debut was more style than substance, and I really think she loses in any Amy Winehouse comparison, but Winehouse is looking like a casualty and Duffy’s songs were reasonably sturdy. She hasn’t mastered live performance yet, (hello, ‘SNL’?), but when the day comes, her tear-stained approach may yet ignite a four-alarm fire. The Black Kids (#15) album is under 40 minutes long, but it still plays like a yappy puppy or an annoying cubicle neighbour, so it’s best approached in pieces. But while the sum fails to equal the parts, most of the songs are actually pretty swell. Singles and non-singles alike. Toronto’s much-hyped Crystal Castles (#14) put too much material on the debut, but in halves it’s also nice. Glitchy, distorted, unloved and ugly, I dunno whether they’ll be around in the new decade, but while they’re here we have ace shit like ‘Magic Spells’ and ‘Air War.’ And a revamp/remix pointed the way to Australia’s Van She, so I owe Castles for that tip.

Peter Brewis poleaxed Field Music and helmed a song cycle under the banner of The Week That Was (#13), an understated set that combined elements of Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Japan and screamed “intelligent.” INTELLIGENT! Like that. ‘The Airport Line’ and ‘Scratch The Surface’ are reccommended songs to sample if the antecedents noted above float your boat. New Zealand’s Ladyhawk (#12) sure floated mine. Also deeply indebted to the ’80s, Ladyhawk is as glossy as The Week That Was is matte: bouncing basslines and thrumming rhythm tracks underscore a series of choruses that recall Van Halen and Stevie Nicks, but the songs are sturdy enough to defeat the derisive cries of retro cheese. Plus Ladyhawk is a cute 27-year-old blonde, and who doesn’t want that to succeed? Especially if the visual alternative is something hirsute and corduroy-clad, like Seattle’s Fleet Foxes (#11)? The alternative media’s consensus #1 LP of 2008, I’ve got it at #11 because it took awhile for me to adjust my sights. It’s gorgeous work. Robin Pecknold drapes his Jim James pipes in swales of reverb; his able mates suffuse the songs with more harmonics than James’ band, so if it’s thick, pillowy group vocals you’re seeking, this is safe shore. ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ has a fuck-wow melodic progression that doesn’t quit and really must be heard on headphones. Not earbuds. Headphones. The record is sumptuous.

TV On The Radio (#10) improved upon an already pretty good blueprint, making a record long on brass and verve. Literally, in the case of the former, on “Golden Age,” which introduced skittering funk to the program. Teamed with an overpoweringly intense opener, “Halfway Home,” and the restless “Shout Me Out,” which plays like three discrete songs spread over four art-rocking minutes, TVotR played the verve card to the hilt. Nothing about these guys is lazy.

Presets (#9) toured North America with Cut Copy this year, playing the cooler, harder cousin to the friskier headliner. The notion of heavily treated vocal lines shouted over a churning synthetic backdrop recalls Nitzer Ebb, but the songs have greater variety than dedicated club-floor chants. ‘This Boy’s In Love’ was an addictively straight-forward single with a falsetto chorus, fronting an LP full of mangled, diamond-cut weeble-wobbles that hold together as songs by virtue of colourful production touches. The best song is ‘A New Sky,’ deeply impressive on record and insanely driving in concert, a punishing groove made huge by the massed vocal opening and a phalanx of percussive overdubs that could make your ears bleed.

Wolf Parade (#8) made another imposing album of Big Songs, like ‘California Dreamer’, ‘Fine Young Cannibals’ and ‘Kissing The Beehive.’ The panoramic production suits the songs, too: the cross-channel guitar scrapes building to the thrilling climax in ‘Dreamer,’ the severe channel isolation in ‘Cannibals,’ the increasingly busy but ordered clamour that marks ‘Beehive’ all make At Mount Zoomer a great headphones album. But the record’s also got ‘The Grey Estates,’ the shiniest pop moment in Wolf Parade’s chaotic clutch of nervy, coffee-splattered songs, sounding like The Psychedelic Furs circa Mirror Moves, all skittering synths and chugging rhythms. Best of all, co-leads Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner sound gobsmacked by the material they’re singing.

15 years of listening to disco hardly prepared me for the sheer authenticity of the first side of the Hercules And Love Affair (#7) debut. You can slip down the rabbit hole opened up by genre bios and blogs into an underground only hinted at by “Saturday Night Fever” and “Behind The Music” specials, and there you’ll find music that sounds like this: woolly, organic horns and string charts tied to timbale- and cowbell-led rhythm tracks that appear to have been smeared all over reels of tape – not digital workstations – the culmination of untold hours of sweat and other bodily fluids spent learning the ropes of early Miami and New York clubs and the music both offered, leaping off of 12-inch vinyl, through state-of-the-art sound systems, down into your bones, turning your legs to jelly and your stomach to mush. The second side lost some of that inspiration and went for easier marks, but ohhh, that first half: “Time Will,” “Hercules Theme,” “You Belong,” “Athene” and the astonishing “Blind” – it of the starmaking Antony Hegarty vocal – are club anthems for all time.

In a year brimming with stylistic throwbacks, every ‘A’ grade review noted how eighties the new M83 (#6) sounded. I don’t totally agree. There are stylistic referents: opening piano ode ‘You, Appearing’ strongly recalls Seventeen Seconds-era Cure, and ‘Skin Of The Night’ melds Knight Rider electronic tom hits to a Kate Bush-like vocal, but the rest of Saturdays=Youth sweats off the easy comparisons with three absolutely heroic singles. Each of ‘Kim & Jessie,’ ‘Graveyard Girl’ and ‘Couleurs’ rush breathlessly from verses to choruses with an intensity that feels like rude awakenings from inertia, as if something very important is happening to you, too quickly, and too permanently, with nothing to stem the flow. Pure adrenaline. The first half of Saturdays is exceedingly fine; the second less so. Blame the fact M83 dropped three of the most brilliant songs of the year in the opening salvo. Anthony Gonzalez is reaching for the sky; a newfound sense of structure and song suggests he is almost there. How good can M83 get?

British Sea Power (#5) pumped up the volume for its lively third record, whilst maintaining the softer melodic hues incorporated into the last LP. What caught the ear was the emphasis shifting from nominal lead Yan Wilkinson to shared billing with sibling Hamilton, the latter a softer, dreamier singer lacking his older brother’s theatrical catch-in-the-throat stammer. Sometimes, this works: Hamilton’s lead on the ballad “No Need To Cry” is a lovely thing, but every BSP record needs a few Yan-fronted barnburners, and “Atom” and amazing lead single “Waving Flags” address that neatly. Hamilton’s 45, “No Lucifer,” is cut from the same cloth, actually. Whether BSP can effectively sally forth with two captains remains to be seen, but the first fruit from the rearrangement retains the likable swagger from a band that may rate as the decade’s best. In a nice touch, the record debuted at #10 in the U.K., a nice accomplishment for a band regularly viewed as below-the-radar.

The Last Shadow Puppets (#4) record did what Arctic Monkeys records could not: it made me dig Alex Turner. A side project with Miles Kane, Puppets turned back the stylistic clock to the pomp and kitchen sink drama of Scott Walker, mining a different vein from the currently popular retro flavours, delivering marauding songs with galloping kettle drums and bold orchestral swooshes. Good as the record is, it’s overshadowed by the best song of Turner’s career, and one of the best songs of the season: ‘The Meeting Place.’ Drawn time and again to the scene of his lost shot at perfect love, Kane and Turner’s tragic hero in subsumed by regret over the inexorable march of time and a complete inability to stop the Groundhog Day-like repetition from ripping him a new one every time he closes his eyes. The lyrics scan well, but Owen Pallett’s incredible, goose-bump inducing string arrangement elevates this to instant awesomeness, with hints of everything from Lou Reed’s ‘Sad Song’ to film-score caliber flourishes. The first time I played ‘The Meeting Place’ I stopped dead in my tracks and marked it as one of those very special songs you associate with a person, a time and a place.

After a pair of records that successfully explored the easy mark of modern disco with stomping glam overtones and better-than-the norm singing, Goldfrapp (#3) turned its back on charts and product placement to confuse the fuck out of the current fan base with the best record of their career to date. By God, did they nail an elegiac mood. Real-life romantic losses inform the lyrics throughout, and I can’t tell you how great it is to hear that strong, flexible voice coo lines like “I’m not your kind, I’m not your girl/See, I’m in your car, but not your life,” instead of “take me dancing at the disco when you buy your Winnebago/ I wanna ride on a white horse.” That the music occasionally hearkens back to the delicious cinematics of early wonders like ‘Utopia’ and ‘Pilots’ is most welcome. Elsewhere, exchanging gleaming synthetics for woodwinds and acoustic picked guitar lends a pastoral feel to great songs like ‘Road To Somewhere’ and singles ‘Happiness’ and ‘A&E,’ and lends genuine rock heft to the driving ‘Caravan Girl.’ I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next, but for the couple years, this’ll do.

With 2004’s SMiLE, Brian Wilson (#2) supposedly sealed the time capsule on a remarkable end-of-career resurgence that saw him headlining tours and revisiting old works before a fan base stunned into joyous servitude. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The most gifted talent in the history of rock music was able to tack a happy coda at the end of his main body of work by overcoming fear and creative blockage. And as 2004 ended, I think we all figured he was done, and anything else was gravy. First there was a so-so Christmas album in 2005. Gravy. Then he began touring some new work, which morphed into a suite-like performance constructed around the old American Songbook relic, “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day).” It became an album proposal, which was when it started soaking up valuable concert time while the Brian Wilson band worked out the kinks. And then… Well, just let the record show that in 2008, Brian Wilson recorded an album that stands up to anything The Beach Boys recorded after 1967, an unpretentious love letter to Los Angeles that recalls orange groves and Venice Beach, California girls and starry-eyed dreamers. With unheralded team player Scott Bennett riding lyrical shotgun on most of the songs, Wilson pulled genius melodies out of his brain and hammered out winner after winner. I’d tell you how amazing “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl,” “Southern California,” “Going Home,” and the spine-tingling “Midnight’s Another Day” sound by using words like glorious, rousing, daisy-fresh and classic, but it’s more fun to hear the songs themselves. There’ll never be a better pop record made by a sixty-something rock legend, ever. Unless he’s got another one in him. By making this album, Brian Wilson re-opened the capsule on his career. I’m almost prouder of him for this record than I am for “SMiLE.” How about that?

In a year marked by so much brilliant music, from artists old and new, and from seemingly every corner of the English-speaking world, the best record of the year and in many a year belongs to Melbourne’s Cut Copy (#1). Building on the promise of 2004’s solid “Bright Like Neon Love,” Dan Whitford turned to DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy in a production coup that resulted in both a second-consecutive Album of the Year honour for the DFA label, and Whitford’s emergence as a major player in the new pop market. Cut Copy’s appeal is easy to suss: at their best, they make youthfully romantic dance music that recalls Spoons of “Nova Heart” yore, crossed with the gleaming synthetic perfection of “Quick Step And Side Kick”-era Thompson Twins and Dubstar. It’s that good. “In Ghost Colours” runs 15 tracks together into a seamless, 50-minute sequence ripe with lung-bursting choruses and delicious melodic invention. Each of the nine full-length songs sound like could’ve-been singles, and the ones that did get the nod (in order: “So Haunted,” “Lights & Music,” “Hearts On Fire” and “Far Away”) are sublimely catchy. Cut Copy’s strength is in avoidance of repetition: guitar plays a key role in defining the bruising, euphoric “Unforgettable Season” and the swooning “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found,” but the sound and deployment are markedly different. Likewise, drama: lengthy builds before the exultant release of each chorus in “Lights & Music,” and during the cycling chorus in “Hearts On Fire.” The fact Whitford cut his teeth as a DJ likely has much to do with his mixmasterstrokes; the fact he’s a goddamned brilliant songwriter covers the rest. Lucky us, he can sing, too. Cut Copy’s lyrics won’t cost Morrissey sleep at night, but they are effective and emotive. Cut Copy made a record that sounds like love in bloom: excited, barely able to control its emotions, nor seeking to. In concert, the record took flight, with Whitford and his three mates extending sequences like ‘80s twelve-inch singles, creating a heavenly DJ mix from their own material. Jeez, it’s like finding a lovely girl who also likes hockey and action movies. What can’t this band do? After the stunning achievement that was the Album of the Year, as well as the one that begat the Song of the Year in “Far Away,” waiting for the next album will seem like an eternity.