1.PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Polly Jean Harvey has been my favorite artist for almost 20 years (!), but I haven’t felt this strongly about one of her albums in at least a decade — maybe even since 1995 and To Bring You My Love. Casting herself as an English patriot just to knock those ideals off their pedestal, Harvey uses discordant sounds, off-kilter rhythms, skewed stereotypes…and her tremendous vocal range to create a haunting, hypnotic record. Just a stunning achievement.
2.Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some
Probably the record that spent the most time in my car stereo this year, this is pop gold that resuscitates the reputation won by Writer’s Block back in 2006. I could have done without the album cover, one of the least appealing I’ve seen in a long time (it features a cartoon amputated hand with three thumbs up, viewed from the viscera end), and the pseudo-punk “Black Book,” which reeked of trying too hard, though.
3.The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
POBPAH have moved into the big time, getting production on this album from the likes of Flood and Alan Moulder. You can still hear some of the Cure-influence left over from their debut, but the songs are considerably cleaned-up. Now they sound more like early-’90′s shoegaze, which certainly works for the themes of teenage love and loss that dominate Belong. Fun show, too, when we caught them in New Orleans in March.
4.TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
On first listen, Nine Types of Light isn’t much of an evolution from 2008′s Dear Science. But the slowed-down tempos on many of the songs may signify that the band has reached a comfort zone. I would suggest that lyrics such as those in the first single, “Will Do” (which repeats cliches, co-opting them to create heartfelt meaning), imply a willingness to show a sense of humor, too.
5.Cults – Cults
I see Cults as producing a New York version of the vintage ’60′s instrumentation that Generationals has been perfecting over the last few years in Louisiana. (I have to admit, by the way, I have no excuse for not having heard the Generationals album Actor-Caster yet, except that it came out in the summer while I was abroad and then moving halfway across the country. Probably it’s insanely good and deserves to be on this list, too.) There’s more of the synth stuff with Cults, and of course the front-and-center female vocals that call back to Phil Spector.
6.The Feelies – Here Before
New Jersey’s Real Estate won all the plaudits from journalists this year for Days, but if you ask me, that album was small beer (boring, even) compared to Here Before, which was released by The Feelies, a legendary band from the same region (and one that obviously influenced Real Estate). The Feelies take up where they left off twenty-some-odd years ago, with sweet songs that are somehow both casual and precise at the same time. As with (now-departed?) Sonic Youth, I think the feeling of precision comes from the drumming; Stanley Demeski is rock-solid against the loose guitars. The slowed-down “Morning Comes” is a real stand-out.
7.Beirut – The Rip Tide
Like Nine Types of Light, The Rip Tide is not a radical change from what came before it. The traditional European instrumentation creates an appealing contrast to so much indie rock, and Beirut seals the deal by avoiding the too-clever literary lyrics of The Decemberists. There isn’t much that I listen to that really transports me to another place on the planet, but Beirut does it.
8.St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark is a weirdo — in the best way: madly creative and a virtuosic musician. It’s one thing to listen to tiresome weirdness like Animal Collective, Panda Bear, or The Fiery Furnaces and say, “OK, these guys are just being weird for weird’s sake, or because they’re high, or because they’re messing around with their equipment to no real end, or all-of-the-above, and it’s just annoying and I don’t care.” Annie Clark’s music is, in many ways, equally weird — to the extent that I usually spend half my time listening just trying to understand how she came up with these ideas — but it’s also beautiful and moving and challenging…and clearly not weird merely for the sake of being weird.
9.Yuck – Yuck
Dumb band name, great record. I said in my post on a show they opened in Baton Rouge for The Smith Westerns back in February that they reminded me of old Superchunk (especially on songs like “Operation”), and I still think that comment fits — brash, charming power-pop from young folks.
10.Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
Anna Calvi is totally derivative — it just so happens that she’s derivative of probably my favorite album of all time, the aforementioned To Bring You My Love. The same twangy, Morricone reverb on the guitar; sultry, blues-style, low female vocals — this is a formula that never needs updating.
Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams
It happens every year in the last spot: an album I listened to over and over, even if I can spot its deficiencies straight away. In the case of Only in Dreams, the real problem is a lack of imagination — phrases like “I need your bedroom eyes” or “I think I’m coming down” are repeated ad nauseam rather than livening them up with even minor variations. Otherwise, the songs are terrific, with a moody atmosphere like Mazzy Star and Wall-of-Sound-style production.