It was a pretty good year in music. A handful of artists produced absolutely fabulous CDs and a lot more managed releases ranging from “worth the money” to “are you sure that shouldn’t be rated a little higher”?
Here’s the format. Instead of the tedious task of actually ranking CDs – a torture I used to inflict on myself every year – we now have four tiers: The Slammy, awarded to the CD of the Year; the Platinum LP, awarded for superior achievement; the Gold LP, for significant achievement; and Honorable Mention, for things I bought and liked enough to keep. Today, the Gold LP winners and Honorable Mentions (presented in no particular order).
The National: Boxer
Critics loved it. It was one of the top downloads at eMusic. And I sampled it, but was unimpressed. Finally a friend convinced me to spring for the download, and on about the fourth listen I all of a sudden realized what the hype was about. Its thoughtfulness and nuance didnâ€™t strike me at first (and Iâ€™m admittedly bad about this – some of the greatest albums of all time I didnâ€™t begin to grasp until the fifth spin), but it has a depth that grows on you, with each listen revealing a little more than the last.
LoveLikeFire: An Ocean in the Air
Outstanding dream/noisepoppers from San Francisco (what is it about that town, anyway? – BRMC, Minipop, these guys…) fail on only one count: the disc is too darned short. Seven tracks, under 30 minutes, so I guess itâ€™s an EP. Still, thereâ€™s such a nice resonance to these songs.
The Choir Practice: The Choir Practice
Imagine if your favorite indie pop artists joined your high school choir and kicked the director out of the building. Itâ€™s kinda like that. Same concept as The Polyphonic Spree, only better than this yearâ€™s TPS effort. Unassuming, bright-eyed even in its dark moments – perhaps the yearâ€™s most irresistibly likable CD.
Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Another heavily hyped release thatâ€™s probably best known for its Billy Joel knockoff, â€œThe Underdog,â€ but the disc is even better when itâ€™s not riffing on pop icons. â€œYou Got Yr. Cherry Bombâ€ is about as perfectly conceived and executed as any power pop song Iâ€™ve heard in awhile. Like infectious guitar rock/pop? Youâ€™re going to want this one.
Lily Allen: Alright, Still
The cheeky, pottymouthed Brit was the source of some animated debate on at least one of my lists this year. Is she a pop genius or simply the beneficiary of a lot of hype? I gotta tell you, I think her songs are clever as hell, both lyrically and musically. Cute, too, but a note for all the guys out there: you donâ€™t ever want to be her ex-boyfriend. Or relative. In fact, if youâ€™re at a party and somebody introduces you to her, run as fast as you can.
Mitch Easter: Dynamico
This is Easterâ€™s first release since … when? The last Letâ€™s Active album in 1988? Has it been that long? Itâ€™s certainly been too long. Easter has never been a great vocalist, exactly, but these are fantastic songs and the ringing guitars here make clear why Robert Plant has tried so hard through the years to get Easter into his band. This may be the best Mitch has ever sounded, and represents (along with Ian Hunterâ€™s Shrunken Heads) one of the two best comebacks of the year.
The Frames: The Cost
Did you see Once yet? If not, go see it right now. Frames frontman Glen Hansard is the male lead, and youâ€™ll recognize some of these tunes from the film. Earnest, quietly dramatic, and heartfelt in a way that proves you can be an emotive guy without being a simp. (Once you have this, go get his 2006 duet release with co-star Marketa Irglova – itâ€™s at least as wonderful.)
Jag Star: The Best Impression Of Sanity
Letâ€™s see. Chick singer whoâ€™s actually hot enough that sheâ€™s landed a national deal as a make-up model, songs that sound like they were crafted by an army of industry hookmongers, and a band thatâ€™s smart enough to stay the hell out of the way. Sounds like another cynical Avril-esque put-up job. Except that the hot chick, not The Matrix, wrote those songs, and theyâ€™re a real band, not a corporate prefabrication. Damn, itâ€™s just one oughta-be-hit right after another, and Sarah Lewis (yeah, the hot chick has a name) can both sing and command a stage. If youâ€™ve followed the curious career path of former indie diva Liz Phair, I think this is the thing sheâ€™s been trying to be. Congrats to Jag Star for proving that â€œpopâ€ doesnâ€™t necessarily have to be a bad word.
Sarah Nixey: Sing, Memory
The former singer for Black Box Recorder offers up a witty, breathy debut thatâ€™s sort of the Imogen Heap/Goldfrapp moment of the year. Thereâ€™s a wealth of engaging electronic girl-pop out there, stuff that seems to draw from a fusion of mid-â€˜60s California pure pop and â€˜90s trip-hop – think Burt Bacharach meets Portishead – and while itâ€™s comparatively easy to do, itâ€™s not at all easy to do it this well. The yearâ€™s best CD to grab a martini and chill with.
Fountains of Wayne: Traffic and Weather
When youâ€™re consistently great you run the risk of people getting lost in the â€œconsistentâ€ and losing sight of the â€œgreat.â€ Such is the case with FoWâ€™s latest. Itâ€™s not really any better than anything else theyâ€™ve done, but itâ€™s not much worse, either. Which means that Traffic and Weather is insightful, clever, and hooky as hell – yet another brilliant series of snapshots capturing the drama of the American Mundane.
Ian Hunter: Shrunken Heads
I just kind of assumed that Hunter had retired and was living on a private estate somewhere trying to figure out how to spend all his money. And then, out of nowhere, comes Shrunken Heads. Whatâ€™s oddly gratifying is how his reliance on a back-to-basics approach manages to feel very contemporary instead of self-consciously retro. It’s certainly not going to remind you of Mott the Hoople and “All the Young Dudes,” and maybe not even “We Gotta Get Out of Here” – instead he comes off a little more like Warren Zevon. Which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Ron Hawkins: Chemical Sounds
One of the surprises of the year. Iâ€™d never heard of Hawkins (or his old band, The Lowest of the Low) until a friend turned me onto them. Wow – intelligent, energetic guitar pop-rock that works really well as a driving-around soundtrack and works even better if youâ€™re sitting and concentrating closely. A real gem – forget that you never heard of him before.
Slightly avant electro-pop. Trippy in spots, ambient in others, and even borderline melodic/poppy on occasion. Challenging, and not the warm/fuzziest release of the year by a long shot. But awfully interesting, and a potential revelation for people looking for something a little different from their normal fare.
Nicole Atkins: Neptune City
The best word I can think of to describe Atkinsâ€™ voice is â€œepic.â€ When she hits the chorus of â€œThe Way It Isâ€ she conjures a landscape empty of all but longing and loss, and then she fills it with the most amazing beauty. In other spots she comes off as a darker reincarnation of Dusty Springfield. Sheâ€™s not doing anything terribly new, but the sheer passion with which she trods the familiar path is remarkable.
Black Francis: Bluefinger
This, I believe, is the first time Charles Thompson has used the Black Francis persona since The Pixies split – previous solo efforts have been produced as Frank Black. Regardless of which incarnation youâ€™re listening to, BF is always grating and in your face, and Bluefinger is classic in that respect. A disjointed homage to Dutch painter Herman Brood, Bluefinger is a veritable full-Monty parade of lust, decadence and strangeness, and Iâ€™ll leave it you to decide whether weâ€™re lamenting or celebrating.
The Chromatics: Night Drive
A late-in-the-year discovery, Night Drive is another of these wonderfully languid electro-pop bands fronted by a seductive female vocalist. Downbeat, trippy, moody and atmospheric in a way that occasionally recalls Saint Etienneâ€™s outstanding Good Humor CD, with at least one haunting descent into brooding goth ambience. Features a nifty update of Kate Bushâ€™s classic â€œRunning Up That Hill.â€
The Flaws: Achieving Vagueness
If Iâ€™d had to place a bet 20 years ago on which bands would be exerting the greatest influence on music in the last half of the â€˜00s, I canâ€™t imagine Iâ€™d have plunked any chips down on Joy Division. But here we are, and from Interpol to The Killers to She Wants Revenge to any number of other neo-post-punk nu wavers dotting the landscape, the legacy of Joy Division is now clear. In a nutshell, The Flaws are JD meets The Killers with a smattering of Johnny Marr. Achieving Vagueness isnâ€™t achieving anything terribly innovative, but the songs are compelling and the execution is more than accomplished. Great CD for the indie crowd, and I suspect a lot of people who grew up in the â€˜80s are going to like it, too.
The Killers: Sawdust
All good outtakes discs need to offer B-sides, demos, alternate versions, remixes and covers, and it helps if thereâ€™s a solid new track, too. Sawdust delivers on all counts. The tracks from the Samâ€™s Town and Hot Fuss sessions were clearly omitted from those records for good reason (although the good news is that The Killers are obviously good at knowing what to leave out – a talent many other bands should work on cultivating), but the alternate takes (an acoustic piano version of â€œSamâ€™s Townâ€ and a techno remix of â€œMr. Brightsideâ€) provide outstanding new perspectives on songs that most fans have probably only imagined one way. The cover of Dire Straitsâ€™ iconic â€œRomeo and Julietâ€ doesnâ€™t surpass the original, but itâ€™s faithful, pretty, and earnest in a way that makes clear the respect Brandon Flowers has for one of rockâ€™s greatest bands. It also adds a bit of fuel to the Springsteen comparisons that seem to annoy many Killers fans, because the piano on the Dire Straits original was provided by none other than the E Street Bandâ€™s Roy Bittan. Hmmm. The cover of Joy Divisionâ€™s â€œShadowplayâ€ (which they also performed live on their 2007 tour) is fun, too. The most intriguing track, though, is â€œTranquilize,â€ a pitch-dark collaboration with Lou Reed. Sawdust is a must-own for Killers fans, and thereâ€™s plenty here for the non-hardcore, as well.
Ligion: External Affairs
So many of the cool new bands these aspire to the indie ethic, which is to say theyâ€™re basically plinky, twee little wankers whoâ€™ve turned their lack of talent into an aesthetic philosophy. They hope you wonâ€™t notice that they canâ€™t play and when it comes to production itâ€™s just easier not to even try, right? Ligion is sort of the opposite of that. Their goal seems to be to make huge, radio-ready arena-scale rock like the great ones did back in the day. In this sense, then, they probably live in the wrong decade, but I appreciate a band that comes at me with some attitude and polish. External Affairs manages to be an old-style rock record without sounding like theyâ€™re trying to knock off the classics, and thatâ€™s a plus, too. Itâ€™s a fresh hard-charging sound, and hereâ€™s hoping they have enough success to inspire some of their contemporaries to, you know, practice a little more.
Minus the Bear: Planet of Ice
Is there any such thing as â€œindie progâ€? MtB was one of the most startling discoveries of the year, as they manage to fuse the clean spareness of indie rock with a structural aesthetic that suggests â€˜70s progressive. They do so without seeming quite as obvious about it as, say, a Coheed and Cambria, and the result is a surprising fusion of complexity and accessibility. Maybe itâ€™s not quite fair to invoke King Crimson here, but this is a CD I can imagine Robert Fripp liking quite a lot.
Maria McKee: Late December
One of McKeeâ€™s best efforts, either as a solo artist or as founder of Lone Justice. Less country than You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, less homicidal than Life is Sweet, but still distinctly McKee – edgy, full-throated, folk-inflected rock Americana that calls on influences as wide-ranging as Phil Spector, Tammy Wynette and Brian Wilson as appropriate. McKee has matured from a swaggering juke-joint bad girl into a confident, nuanced woman whoâ€™s as comfortable with her mind as she is with her body. Itâ€™s a shame the American musical mainstream has insisted on overlooking her rare talent for so long.
The New Pornographers: Challengers
Disclaimer – The New Pornographers are practitioners of a style that Iâ€™ve never fully loved. Itâ€™s a little too self-consciously … twitchy? … for me. However, thereâ€™s no denying the critical acclaim that follows them everywhere they go (although I think the consensus is that Challengers isnâ€™t their best work). This is an awfully likable and thoughtful record, and itâ€™s also one with some fabulous high spots (I love â€œMy Rights Versus Yoursâ€ and the title track). Itâ€™s also guilty of unevenness, with a couple of tracks (like â€œMyriad Harborâ€) that I could go the rest of my life without hearing again. (And The Choir Practiceâ€™s version of â€œFailsafeâ€ is infinitely better than the NP take here.) If this list were about â€œlikeâ€ instead of â€œgood,â€ I probably wouldnâ€™t include Challengers. But it would be grossly unfair not to credit the discâ€™s considerable depth and craftsmanship.
The Polyphonic Spree: The Fragile Army
Historically you donâ€™t really know about a band until their third album. The first two PS records could have emerged from the same session, but on The Fragile Army we begin to see a more … worldy? … group. Theyâ€™ve traded their colorful choir robes in for black uniforms that seem almost military and while their songs are plenty melodic, thereâ€™s a darker undercurrent at work. Itâ€™s an accomplished disc, to be sure, but maybe I was hoping for something a little less professional. Still, I always value growth and evolution, and while I still prefer the debut, this is on my Gold list, isnâ€™t it?
The Primary 5: Go!
Did you like Teenage Fanclub? Then youâ€™re going to like The Primary 5, which is headed up by former TF drummer Paul Quinn. Jangly guitar pop that recalls The Byrdsâ€™ happier moments – like some other stuff on this list itâ€™s not breaking any new ground, but itâ€™s certainly chock-full of bright toe-tappers.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: 100 Days, 100 Nights
If you donâ€™t know the Daps, hereâ€™s the short version: theyâ€™re essentially dedicated to pretending that the last 30 years or so never happened, serving up a faithful brand of neo-R&B and soul that sounds (all the way down to the production values) like it could have appeared on the same card as James Brown back in the late 1960s. So yeah, itâ€™s a novelty act, albeit an incredibly good one – had they appeared alongside the Godfather, the question is would Sharon Jones have stolen the show. 100 Days, 100 Nights is a bit of a progression for the band, though – itâ€™s darker, smokier and sultrier than their first two releases, with the focus having shifted from the dance floor to the bedroom. I hate to make too much of a fuss over the unapologetically retro, but itâ€™s just that damned good.
Skinny Puppy: Mythmaker
One of the pioneers of industrial (theyâ€™ve been at it since Reaganâ€™s first term) is back with an effort thatâ€™s very much a Skinny Puppy record. Faithful to their legacy, not really feeling the need to break new ground, but nonetheless solid and accomplished. Itâ€™s kind of like what I said about the last Cure record. This is a Skinny Puppy disc, and if you like Skinny Puppy discs youâ€™ll like it. End of story.
Trances Arc: XOXOX
One of the two or three best power pop/rock releases of the year. Sadly itâ€™s only eight tracks and 35 minutes long, which leaves you wanting more. But if youâ€™re a fan of boys with guitars and a highly developed sense of melody and harmony, XOXOX is for you.
Minipop: A New Hope
While significantly less dissonant than Blonde Redhead, these two bands share a lineage, as Minipop derives more from the ethereal Cocteau Twins side of the shoegazer family tree. Their brand of dreamy, hypnotic swirl-pop seeks to hook the listener with a blend of pure sweetness and deceptively assertive power chords, and the end result is perhaps like drifting through space with a morphine drip. Some critics accuse them of lacking any real depth, and this is perhaps true – A New Hope isnâ€™t what youâ€™d call literary. But it succeeds quite nicely at the task it sets for itself.
Editors: An End Has A Start
If Editors donâ€™t remind you – a lot – of Interpol, then your ears just arenâ€™t programmed like mine. Huge doses of post-punk influence (maybe a little too much in spots), especially Joy Division, perhaps limit the potential of the band, but that said thereâ€™s an art to constructing and executing a compelling song, regardless of influence or genre. And this is a CD chocked full of engaging, atmospheric tunes.
We Start Fires: Magazine
Musically, We Start Fires arenâ€™t doing anything that Elastica didnâ€™t do. They are, however, doing it very well. There is a refreshing sort of in-your-face feminist edge on things, though – almost reminiscent of Micki Berenyiâ€™s songs for Lush. Kind of a fun change of pace in an age when so many of indieâ€™s most interesting bands are taking their cues from post-punk – hereâ€™s a group settling into that Wire/Elastica lineage, and while theyâ€™re not breaking a lot of new ground, theyâ€™re also young enough to keep an eye on.
Drowning Pool: Full Circle
Decent effort, as 2000s metal goes. The main attraction here is the ass-kicking cover of Billy Idolâ€™s â€œRebel Yell.â€
White Rabbits: Fort Nightly
A talented group of players, but if you caught them on Letterman their stellar rendition of â€œThe Plotâ€ might have led you to think their a lot more accessible than their quirky avant-pop actually is.
My Teenage Stride: Ears Like Golden Bats
Seems like every year thereâ€™s an artist or band whose debt to their influences is so strong that theyâ€™re barely a step away from being a Holiday Inn tribute act, but that despite their lack of originality they still manage to put out a record thatâ€™s damned enjoyable. Last year it was She Wants Revenge, this year itâ€™s My Teenage Stride, which poaches gleefully from New Order, The Smiths, the Go-Betweens, REM and Jesus and Mary Chain, to name a few. Iâ€™m not asking you to respect its originality, but I am suggesting that sometimes plagiarism can be fun.
The latest side project from the kings of the side project, Rhys Fuller and Bill Leeb (aka Delerium, Noise Unit, Synaesthesia, Front Line Assembly). Fauxliage is a collaboration with Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash, who had worked with Fuller and Leeb on Deleriumâ€™s Poem and Chimera CDs. Short version: this effort lacks the spark of Deleriumâ€™s best work (1994’s Semantic Spaces and 1997’s Karma), but is still quite nice. If you loved those discs youâ€™ll like this one.
Stars: In Our Bedroom After the War
Sophisticated, theatrical, occasionally dramatic chamber pop – not your run-of-the-mill indie fare by any stretch. Engaging and ambitious, but Iâ€™m left thinking that while theyâ€™re very good, theyâ€™re certainly never going to be great.
AngÃ©lique Kidjo: Djin Djin
A lot more joyous and overtly â€œAfricanâ€ than her last couple of releases – and more satisfying for precisely that reason. The high spot is her cover of â€œGimme Shelter.â€ Yes, that â€œGimme Shelter.â€