This year’s Top 50 was definitely the most difficult one to put together since I started doing it. It shares with last year a clear #1 that I still didn’t put up there until my second or third time through… mostly because of the artist’s steadfast creativity and tireless productivity. Everyone loves an underdog to win, and maybe Will Oldham is that rare example of an underdog with a crazy slugging percentage. The year had its share of underdogs… or at least first timers breaking in; Nineteen of the 50 are debut albums. It also had the fewest major label releases present: only three… and two of those were below 40, both by bands who were in the top 10 before when they were on indies. The labels of the year were clearly Sub Pop, with six albums making the cut, and the midwestern family of Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar who released or licensed another nine. There are a few glaring omissions some might notice… Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Portishead, Mercury Rev, and so on. These were albums that either never made it into the collection out of oversight or finite listening time. Had they been given their fair run through they likely would have made the list.
01 Bonnie Prince Billy – Lie Down in the Light (Drag City)
Artists this prolific usually hit some sort of plateau where they release the same album over and over again with ever diminishing returns (see R.E.M. through most of the 90s). Will Oldham has a core model he works from: weirdly anachronistic phraseology, apocalyptic poetry and psycho-sexual double-entendres... and he manages to make the works sound superficially like pleasant folk country/rock odes to summer and puppies and green green grass. Like Lynch, when the camera swoops into the high grass and into the severed ear a darker and wigglier reality is revealed. Where The Letting Go was touched by the snows of Iceland, this album is dappled in amber sunshine, not to mention backing vocals by Ashley Webber (twin to Black Mountain's Amber) and a little tasteful clarinet here and there. Cleverer folks have mentioned this being the flipside to I See a Darkness (ergo I See a Lightness), and I would not disagree. What it is is an album of questions pointed skywards and earthwards about death and love and all things that make life a head-scratcher.
02 Atlas Sound – Let the Blind Lead Those Who… (Kranky)
When the Deerhunter album leaked in November I did the typical thing of grabbing it, giggling and sliding it into iTunes... then listening to a handful of songs and ignoring it until it actually came out. While waiting I went back to Bradford Cox's semi-solo album to fill in the time. Later the side by side comparison yielded this fact... I liked the Atlas Sound album more (if only a little). Cox seems freer to roam further into left field here, less bound by anything like a rock structure. At the same time he has a well-honed sense of how to craft a song out of fragments that still sounds like a song and not a loose patchwork of samples. It mirrors the Panda Bear / Animal Collective double punch of last year.
03 Why? – Alopecia (Anticon)
The fact that Anticon stickers his releases with a "File Under Rock" recommendation may hint at why Yoni Wolf slips through the cracks in year's end critic polls. He made his name with the kitchen sink surrealism of cLOUDEAD's corroded hip hop, but other than a couple of sing/spoken pieces Alopecia is all about the indie bedroom confessional. It seems like camp A has turned away while camp B hasn't opened it's door yet. His fragmentary apporach to lyric is still intact, though, and it makes for an overflow of cross-connects that the brain sometimes balks at... but you can always press repeat. And you should.
04 Bon Iver – For Emma Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
Heartache is the great font of all things rock, and Justin Vernon has reap the rewards of its overflow. What started as a retreat from a band/girlfriend break-up combo turned into a three month remote cabin recording session. Even after essentially finishing For Emma, Vernon was treating the project as a demo, hoping to scare up interest and putting together a band to "properly" record the album. As it stands the album is both a raw nerve and a masterclass in vocal overdub, like Elliott Smith miraculously fronting TV on the Radio. Perhaps never expecting the world to hear it frees you to be achingly honest. Here is a document of just that.
05 Deerhunter – Microcastle (Kranky)
The biggest complaint I heard about last year's Cryptograms was how the band's noise experiments marred the flow of excellent songs. Microcastle will likely satisfy those folks' desires for a more linear approach to album logic. What hasn't changed is Deerhunter's idiosyncratic manner of suggesting threads from previous art-rock progenitors disparate as Sonic Youth, Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers and Morton Feldman yet sounding exactly like themselves. Instead of a hidden track they've included Weird Era Cont., an entire "hidden" album that satisfies those of us with a thirst for da noize. Unless something goes off the rails this is a band to watch for some time.
06 Department of Eagles – In Ear Park (4AD)
If you were a fan of Grizzly Bear's Yellow House, In Ear Park is the Empire Strikes Back to its Star Wars. Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus make music that has as much to do with Gershwin and Weil as it does with any contemporary touchstone. The crash-bang of drunken percussion and tinkle-twinkle of keyboards are an antidote to the overly straightforward "modern rock." The duo manifest a strand of tinpan alley that recalls Tom Waits' days with swords, fish and dogs in the rain, but with a slight touch of effeteness that makes them a little bit like dandies with dirty faces.
07 Fleet Foxes – S/T (Sub Pop)
Another West Coast American band (Seattle) that seemed to sweep in out of nowhere and become suddenly enormous. With only a demo and a MySpace page, a handful of regional gigs and a four-part harmony that CSNY would donate livers for they found a happy home on Sub Pop. Their sound combines early 70s California wave babies from the obvious Beach Boys to the nascent country-rock of Eagles and above-mentioned CSN(Y) with a slightly more inland and mountainish folkiness. Their presence consolidate a roster that includes Iron and Wine, Band of Horses, Blitzen Trapper, Death Vessel and more. Not bad for the house that grunge built.
08 The Walkmen – You & Me (Gigantic)
Initially sounding a little tame and downbeat, this was an album that proved that The Walkmen had a little late night soul up their sleeves to. Hamilton and company let the low end rumble and the snare buzz under drunken pianos and more than tipsy guitars. These are last call songs, or sung off-key while cutting through alleys and scaling fire escapes back to your bedroom, or someone elses.
09 Arms – Kids Aflame (Melodic)
Another New Yorker, Todd Goldstein, premieres his nom de plume with Kids Aflame. Taking time from the even lesser known combo Harlem Shakes, Goldstein makes romantic, literate pop that tweaks the soft bits of The Smiths, The Strokes and more than a few other hard outfits with poet's hearts. It's a rare album that you can love right away and not get sick of soon after.
10 War on Drugs – Wagonwheel Blues (Secretly Canadian)
You know those weird songs that Wilco do? The ones that sound like maybe they're ripping off Velvet Underground or Can (they are)? Well War on Drugs like those songs a lot, and they like Galaxie 500 and Tom Petty and a whole bunch of other stuff that's cool and shouldn't fit together but does. If you need to add a little drone to your twang... here's the place.
11 Damien Jurado – Caught in the Trees (Secretly Canadian)
Jurado is a super-steady troubadour, and this is his eight full length. By now his plainly told tales of losers with big hearts should have worn out their welcome, but like Will Oldham (see above) Jurado has that ephemeral quality that makes each new album special. Jenna Conrad has been his vocal foil for the last little while and she breathes a little sweetness into the dark corners he visits. There's a midwestern mythology that lives in here. Visit it, take polaroids.
12 High Places – S/T (Thrill Jockey)
The tale told is of a duo, a couple in band name only, who hit it off so well they moved in together in NYC to make weird sample based pop. It's hard to pinpoint any specific origin for their sound. It sounds superficially like Stereolab at their most eliptical, except the loops are often built from found sounds captured with archaic video cameras. It's as if they've discovered a Euro-Munchkinland where all the little people have been handed Casios, opium and ecstasy and set loose in a fountain to pass Bastille Day.
13 Ladyhawk – Shots (Storyboard)
A more fully realized version of their self-titled debut, Shots should shake the Black Mountain jr. tag the band was saddled with early on. Like on their first, they know when to let a slack pace linger and then suddenly snap tight... and when to just go for it out of the gate. There a band you want to have a beer with, and maybe play a little frisbee on Sunday afternoon... if you're not hungover.
14 Vampire Weekend – S/T (XL)
Do you remember the BUZZZZZZZZZZZ? As it turned out, well warranted. Some cried foul... theft of Paul Simon... but there was a little more going on than that. Their vintage keyboard sound had a little Attractions action too, alongside more worldly influences. The whole college/prep image aside they made a slinky sound that was easy to smile to. Whether they can follow it up with something as tight or, preferably, deeper and grittier, will help decide if they are more than just bright flash.
15 Sun Kil Moon – April (Caldo Verde)
Mark Kozelek has settled into the pocket of his post-Red House Painters project, finding strength in the stretch of 7-10 song structures. Unlike his last non-covers full length, Ghosts of the Great Highway, Kozelek keeps things at a simmer, never quite breaking the surface tension that holds the album together. As with previous work he seems as much attracted to the places and things in his songs as the people in the landscape. It is postcard rock for those who might wish they were there, only to find out maybe they really didn't want that after all.
16 No Age – Nouns (Sub Pop)
The California duo behind No Age was featured in a Filter (I think) cover story early this year. The article credited them with re-invigorating the tired (and I mean TYE YERD) punk rock sound of the W. Coast. At the time I was not exactly stoked to explore, expecting to discover a White Stripes-ish clank that incorporated NOFX drumbeats. Boy. What they've done is find a way to channel a little of the Noise Rock craziness that's been infecting the East for a while now into something that resembles melody if you squint just right. It's a bit of a tightrope between esoteric and predictable, but they have so far stayed well balanced.
17 Blitzen Trapper – Furr (Sub Pop)
If the band is a bit of a mishmash of other folky staples like Iron and Wine, My Morning Jacket and Okkervil River, it's a well written mishmash with a slightly weird flipside. They sound like they've also been listening to the 60s and early 70s wellspring of Big Star and Bowie that first blurred the lines between easy genre. Wisps of electronics and exotic instruements add little flavourful bursts into the acoustic heart of the songs. And murder ballads? Yeah they have those too.
18 Black Mountain – In the Future (Scratch)
They did not break it last time out, so no repairs were necessary. If anything the Vancouver outfit has amped up their 70s muscles with touches of Uriah Heep to counterpoint their Sabbaths and Crazy Horses. The touch of epic rock has enlivened them with more prominent keyboards and wailing two-part vocals. You totally need to get that goddam Camaro fixed up, dude.
19 FemBots – Calling Out (Weewerk)
Meanwhile in the middle of Canada. Brian MacKinnon and Dave Poirier are the solid core and purveyors of Winnipeg's robotic crew that thrives in the echoes of Neil Young. They last hit a really rich vein of bedrock on 2003's Small Town Murder Scene, touring that album with members of The Weakerthans and Bob Wiseman Band among others. Calling Out has a definite eye on zealotry of all types, from religious fanaticism to rock myopia. Where Small Town was more about small tales, this seems writ more large. Their mission seems simple: Find Barn, Burn Barn.
20 Throw Me the Statue – Moonbeams (Secretly Canadian)
Scott Reitherman has one of those voices that is just barely better than yours... making you feel like, "why don't I have a rock band?" And the truth is you don't for no good reason... and Scott does because he does... that and he can write great hooks, is helped out by friends that include Pedro the Lion members, and isn't bothered by the limitations of his voice. Add in the slightly toy-like instrumentation and cool acoustic guitar chops and you have all you need to struggle to swim in the indie rock pool. See you at the deep end.
21 Wye Oak – If, Children (Merge)
22 The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me (Domino)
23 Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer (Sub Pop)
24 Grand Archives – S/T (Sub Pop)
25 Castanets – City of Refuge (Asthmatic Kitty)
26 Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – We Brave Bee Stings… (Kill Rock Stars)
27 Crystal Stilts – Alight of Night (Slumberland)
28 Los Campesinos! – Hold On Now, Youngster (A&C)
29 Joan of Arc – Boo Human (Polyvinyl)
30 Parts & Labor – Receivers (Jagjaguwar)
31 Death Vessel – Nothing is Precious Enough for Us (Sub Pop)
32 Evangelicals – The Evening Descends (Dead Oceans)
33 Abe Vigoda – Skeleton (Parts Per Million)
34 Brightblack Morning Light – Motion to Rejoin (Matador)
35 The Black Angels – Directions to See a Ghost (Light in the Attic)
36 Dodos – Visiter (French Kiss)
37 Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna (Social Registry)
38 The Welcome Wagon – Welcome to the … (Asthmatic Kitty)
39 David Vandervelde – Waiting for the Sunrise (Secretly Canadian)
40 Sigur Ros – Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (Geffen)
41 Times New Viking – Rip it Off (Matador)
42 Benoit Pioulard – Temper (Kranky)
43 Xiu Xiu – Women as Lovers (5RC)
44 TV on the Radio – Dear Science (Interscope)
45 Retribution Gospel Choir – S/T (Caldo Verde)
46 A Weather – Cove (Team Love)
47 Thee Oh Sees – The Master’s Bedroom is Worth… (Tomlab)
48 Women – S/T (Flemish Eye)
49 Hayden – In Field and Town (Hardwood)
50 Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride (4AD)