A good album, to me, is a coherent whole. It needs variety but the individual songs complement, rather than struggle against, one another. It should flow logically from beginning to end (with no shuffle play). There are no bad songs or “filler.”
Not a great year for albums (the album is suffering a slow death with digital music – see my top songs here) but still some gems out there. I found myself listening to more music with electronic touches, although my tendency is still toward well-crafted songs in the power pop, singer-songwriter, folk-rock, and indie pop veins.
This list comes with my usual provisos: I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t listen to near as much music as I’d like. There are whole genres (mainstream country, dance, hip hop) I know nothing about. (And, btw, if you’d like to help support my blog, you can order any of these albums, or for that matter anything else, from Amazon through a link on this site.) And this list is in no particular order.
“Crazy for You” by Best Coast – A debut album from this West Coast band that features Bethany Costentino on vocals. She sounds like she’s channeling Neko Case, which is a good thing, and the music has a nice poppy ‘60s feel, very melodic with a slight edge. You’ll hear chiming guitars and lots of reverb on the vocals, and the longest song is only 3:02. Where to Start: Crazy For You
“Oh Little Fire” by Sarah Harmer – I wrote about Sarah Harmer earlier. She continues to produce quiet gems full of superb yet simple lyrics, and nice hooks. Her musical approach is definitely “less is more” with no unnecessary flourishes. She just lets the songs stand on their own. Where to Start: Captive
“Go” by Jónsi – “Jonsi” is Jón þór Birgisson, the lead singer of Icelandic band Sigur Ros. With Go, he seems to have adapted the playful spirit that inhabited much of Sigur Ros’ last album (Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust). He also sings in English, mostly, instead of Icelandic (or “Hoplandic,” the made-up scat-like language he occasionally uses on Sigur Ros songs). His falsetto perfectly suits this set of chiming orchestral uplifting songs. Where to Start: Animal Arithmetic
“Teen Dream” by Beach House – Both the band and album names are misnomers. Beach House makes me think of a band that’s producing surfer music or doing some sort of Jimmy Buffett/Margaritaville schtick. And Teen Dream has a bubble-gum pop feel. Neither captures the kind of slightly brooding pop music contained within. Driven by keyboards and slightly delicate vocals, the music has an occasionally medieval feel. Where to Start: Better Times
“Of the Blue Colour of the Sky” by OK Go – This album came to my attention when I saw the phenomenal video for “This Too Shall Pass.” Just real good power pop with a white funk sensitibility and great falsetto vocals. Where to Start: WTF?
“Sigh No More” by Mumford & Sons – This is a great new folk band from England. (It’s also the second highest of any of my picks on the Billboard Top 200 for 2010 at #83.) Great passionate vocals and harmonies, driven by the typical folk-rock instruments (mandolin, banjo, accordion, acoustic guitar) and occasionally a kind of stomping bass drum that propels the music along. Where to Start: Little Lion Man
“High Violet” by The National – I almost pulled this album off the list: there’s a sameness to this music, a droning quality that at first made me feel there wasn’t enough variety here. The more I listened, however, the more hypnotic it became. The vocalist, Matt Berninger, is a baritone, fairly unusual for a rock band. He has a tendency to let his voice go down when you expect it to go up, and vice versa. And there’s a great sense of drama in the music. Where to Start: Terrible Love
“Ring” by Glasser – Glasser is basically just Cameron Mesirow, and her debut album has a mystical, sweeping feel with keyboard flourishes and Peter Gabriel-like percussion. This is as good an example as any of the kind of electronic music that’s appealed to me this year: strong songcraft (even if the songs don’t always follow traditional patterns) with the electronics serving the music, rather than overwhelming it. Where to Start: Apply
“This Is Happening” by LCD Soundsystem – My first experience with James Murphy and his band. Nice mix of electronica and rock, and just plain fun. He’s not the strongest vocalist but uses what he has to good effect, such as on “Dance Yrself Clean” where his voice rises from a chant to a falsetto whoop. He sounds Bowieesque on the party song “Drunk Girls.” Where to Start: I Can Change
“So Runs the World Away” by Josh Ritter – “Quietly understated” has become a bit of a cliché but that does describe Josh Ritter’s entire career. He keeps issuing albums of beautifully crafted folk-rock featuring Dylanesque lyrics and an ever-changing array of instrumentation, all without losing his fundamental focus on exceptional songwriting. This is the latest in the series. Where to Start: Rattling Locks
“Come Around Sundown” by Kings of Leon – This was a hit (although it is behind Arcade Fire in the Billboard Top 200 at #97) so it’s an unusual inclusion for me. I’m seldom interested in mainstream music (not because I automatically discount something if it’s popular – I don’t usually know what’s mainstream – but it just seems to work out that the music I like doesn’t sell that much). But we visited friends in October and they played this album and it really stuck with me. Just great tuneful music from beginning to end, with a great rock vocalist. Where to Start: Radioactive
“Forgiveness Rock Record” by Broken Social Scene – While I liked a couple of songs right away, this album took time to grow on me, partly because it initially seemed to lack the coherence of previous BSS albums, and partly because they tried to some new things (such as an almost Eastern string bit in “Chase Scene” and the Caribbean vocal opening “Highway Slipper Jam”). But it grew on me. In addition to the new sounds, it features the usually BSS flourishes: slightly ragged timekeeping that gives every song a fresh feel, great melodies, and an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to instrumentation. Where to Start: Texaco B*tches
“Broken Bells” by Broken Bells – Another one of the rare albums on my list that made the Billboard Top 200 (at #126), this album has a nice electronic feel, without the musical wanking that seems to accompany so much electronic music. The electronics instead serve the songs and lend a lush and occasionally dramatic feel to the music (e.g. “October”). Where to Start: The Ghost Inside
“The Wild Hunt” by The Tallest Man on Earth – Thanks to my friend Laura for introducing me to Kristian Matsson, who performs as The Tallest Man on Earth. This is certainly the simplest selection here: every song is just Matsson and his acoustic guitar (except for two songs with piano instead of guitar). This music just radiates heart and energy. He plays the hell out of the guitar on practically every song (he must go through a lot of strings live), and his voice is a kind of a soaring prairie whoop. Hard to believe he’s from Sweden. Where to Start: Burden of Tomorrow
“The Winter of Mixed Drinks” by Frightened Rabbit – Listening to lead vocalist Scott Hutchison makes me think that Andy Partridge (XTC) had a Scottish son: I haven’t heard accents like this since The Proclaimers “This Is the Story.” A wonderful diverse collection of tunes. A joyous handclap drives “The Loneliness and the Scream” whereas album opener “Things” builds from a simple guitar figure reminiscent of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” to a soaring conclusion. Where to Start: Swim Until You Can’t See Land