Well, here we are... another year of music to look at. Truth be told, it was a pretty weak year. I hate saying that, but I think it's true. The standout albums were easy to spot and the ones that came close had some serious flaws. We've been spoiled the last few years and this was the year the karma cycle paid us back. Still, the top 10 I have are excellent. And it was an excellent year for "electronic" music.
As always, my top 10 has a "second opinion" so you know I'm not nuts (or at least someone is as nuts as me). First, a few notable albums that, in my mind were good, but not quite the top 10:
U2 - No Line on the Horizon - This was easily U2's best entry since Pop. I know that a lot of U2 "fans" would dispute this, but these people seem to eschew creativity in favor of pedestrian arena rock. U2, for the first time in more than a decade took risks. And while it's not their best work ever, it's an album that shows that U2 remains relevant, even if their best work still seems to befuddle many of their listeners.
Franz Ferdinand - Tonight: Franz Ferdinand - A solid, if not entirely amazing effort from one of the best Scottish exports of the aughts. Franz plays around with their sound a bit on this disc... it's more hit than miss, but one gets the idea this is the album where the band is stretching its wings, figuring out what will connect on a later effort.
Moby - Wait For Me - Moby confounds a lot of people both with his music and his ultra-left righteousness. But this album shows he's still able to put together a cohesive disc of tracks that bottle up all manner of emotion into, now and then, breathtaking short works.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! - This was very nearly in the top 10. It's a really solid entry. When you consider that this is a band that made it's name on affected post-punk, to hear what starts as a dance album is something. That they pull it off is something entirely more. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs establish themselves as one of the more versatile bands in rock right now and give us a reason to look forward to more.
10) Matthew Good - Vancouver
Second opinion: Chart
I don't mind saying this... Matt Good is easily the best artist that has been ignored by the bulk of American listeners over the past 10 years. Some of this is not his fault. Most of his material is not available in the United States. If it weren't for the magic of the iTunes store, I wouldn't even have this. But, once again, Good crafts the kind of rock songs that few bands make any more. Relying on his talent and his knack for writing fine rock songs, Good eschews all derivative and creates a concept album about his Vancouver neighborhood that sounds fresh, yet recalls the anthematic work of his past. Good is proving that years after breaking with Underdogs, any album he makes is noteworthy out of the box.
9) Discovery - LP
Second opinion: NME
I like Ra Ra Riot. I like Vampire Weekend. As a sort of fusion, one would think it's automatic that I would like Discovery. The truth is, though, I really liked this album, especially sitting beachside this past summer. Yes, its 30-minute brevity begs questions of just how far this can go. In this case, let's leave it at the band made as much of an album as they had to make... much like a BBC TV series. Songs like "Carby" and "Slang Tang" make it a fun ride, but even "Can You Discover" - a reworking of sterling Ra Ra Riot track "Can You Tell" - show a whole other side of these "preppy" bands. I hope I can expect a Discovery album between each entry from the original bands.
8) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Second Opinion: Pitchfork
Brooklyn indie is very trying. These guys make it easy. Flat out indie pop that despite constant references to shoegaze, is as catchy and heartfelt as the band's name implies. Few bands have been this accessible and, while Belle and Sebastian references don't hurt ("Come Saturday"), songs like "Stay Alive" and the evocative campus tryst of "The Tenure Itch" make this album an easy listen.
7) Dan Deacon - Bromst
Second Opinion: AV Club
I very nearly made this album of the year. Nothing sounds like it and nothing offers the same payoff. Why not, then? Accessibility. I bet 50% of the people I could play this for, or more, would hear it and go "huh?" And accessibility has to count for something. That said, if you can get into this, you will be rewarded at a level unthought of for this kind of music. If anything, Deacon is playing with a new form of classical music. Themes play off counterthemes, songs are more arranged than played... it's startling. "Red F" shows Deacon's ability to toss it all together into a frenetic mix that, despite a lack of real lyrics makes me want to stand up and sing. But other songs like "Snookered" show the depth of ability here. Deacon has said he wants to work with orchestras. After hearing Bromst, I hope they line up.
6) Pearl Jam - Backspacer
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone
Another one where, seemingly, just by being released, it is notable. PJ continues to chug along, turning out outstanding rock time after time. Selections like "Got Some" provide quick power rock that, despite imitators, they can only put out. But after Eddie Vedder's solo effort for Into the Wild, a song like "Just Breathe" shows a side of PJ that fans always knew was there but reinforces why we're likely to be hearing form this band for years to come.
5) Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You
Second Opinion: Spin
Can we make all pop stars like Lily? Intelligent. Catchy. Brash. Wonderful. You cannot help but fall for this disc. While other poppers find one-and-done pop anthems, Lily Allen is pretty determined, it would appear, to use the format to actually be an artist. This means she occasionally mis-steps, but considering how few throwaways there are on this disc, she's clearly doing well. And it is, in many ways, showing the dark side of pop stardom. The jadedness ("The Fear"), tabloid attention ("22") and parental conflict ("I Could Say") are all here, in frank detail. But brilliantly executed.
4) Dave Matthews Band - Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone
Death was very good to Sublime, but it meant that that band was done with making music. You hate to say this, but the too-early death of LeRoi Moore seems to have, yikes... energized Dave Matthews Band. This is a ridiculously good album. And while songs like "Shake Me Like a Monkey" bring the kind of old-school DMB energy, it's other songs that put Matthews at a level we haven't heard on an album since Before These Crowded Streets. It's a track like "Time Bomb" that sets this album apart from other albums this year and some of DMB's previous work. The death of a bandmember - and friend - brings issues to the forefront that may be painful to deal with, but make startlingly good music in capable hands. And Matthews undoubtedly possesses those.
3) Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Second Opinion: Pitchfork
Another album that was perfect for summer but astoundingly diverse... and executed masterfully well. Find another album that manages to include a track like "Stillness is the Move" to something as "indie" as "Temecula Sunrise." Possibly the most complete album of the year in terms of continuity, Bitte Orca is about as accessible an indie album as you can find. And the truth is, I normally expound upon an album this high, but this is a case where the music really does speak for itself.
2) Fever Ray - Fever Ray
Second Opinion: Pitchfork
Dear lord this is bleak. And beautiful. The Knife put out a masterpiece with Silent Shout a few years back and one half of that outfit, Karin Dreijer Andersson, puts out a solo album that might even up the ante on The Knife. This is absolutely challenging music and it will not appeal to everyone. And while accessibility may mean something, this is one where I say if you cannot acquire the taste for the music, you are missing out. And big time. It sounds minimal... but that belies a depth both of lyrical content and sound. And there, we have perhaps the biggest brilliance of the album. Dreijer Andersson puts more into less than you might possibly expect. "If I Had a Heart" provides the creepy factor, but it is offset by songs like "Seven" that project a more reflective tone. Give me all the dark Swedish music you can if it's all this good.
1) The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
Second Opinion: Paste
I hate to say it... in the end, it wasn't even close. I may be the only Charlottean to have yet to see this band live, but maybe that even helps make this album all the more remarkable. I think this band has had trouble with some reviews because they cannot be completely assigned to "folk" or "country" or "rock" or "bluegrass." They do take the Appalachian influence and do the most with it... but the most is far and above the best thing I have heard this year. And, again, it was immediate. After two or three listens, there was no doubt this was something beyond the other music of the year. And while it was a weak year, this album would be near the top in any year I've done a list like this. From the opening title track, the Avetts showcase a virtuosity paired with a keen ear for good songwriting that was missing in just about every other release this year. End to end, there are few weak moments. And the high points are insanely high, most notably, in my mind, a song like "Ten Thousand Words" where the Avetts have nothing to rely on other than their songwriting ability. And, as more and more people in areas have started to ask about that band from near Charlotte, this album captures a band on the cusp... and, excitingly, potentially not at its peak. Still, if this is as good as the Avetts get, we've been given a classic.