It’s hard for me to do a top albums list. There are plenty of albums that I enjoy each year, but for me to truly enjoy a record from front to back takes more than a little bit of listening. I’m going to talk about my top songs of the year. I don’t have a number because as of this moment, the moment that I am writing the introduction to this list, I have not decided which songs will be on it.
Okkervil River, “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” from The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar). This album was the soundtrack to my summer, especially ten days spent in Providence, Rhode Island. I walked and biked around an unfamilar eastern place alone and this song and album got me through every minute of my loneliness and every minute of my happiness. The lyrics to this one kind of summed up what was happening and what happened. Will Sheff has a knack for describing my life as it happens. Also, melodically this one is every song I can’t write. He knows how to pull at heartstrings and earlobes.
Why?, “Simeon’s Dilemma” from Alopecia (anticon). “These Few Presidents” has the album’s finest single lyric, but this song has the album’s finest lyrics. The swirling xylophone and sparse heavy beat contrast beautifully with this one, Yoni’s soliloquy, his swan song, his eleven o’clock number about not knowing how to control your love. This song, if any, will put you in a place. Oakland.
Crystal Stilts, “Prismatic Room” from Alight of Night (Slumberland). I listened to this about thirty times in a row one day. Caught in the darkness, in the melody, in the simplicity. Frankie Rose made the right choice. Every band channels the Velvets; Crystal Stilts do it without rabbit ears. This is effortless music that should take a lot of effort. I can’t wait to hear what’s next, and I definitely regret missing them to celebrate Obama day.
Women, “Shaking Hand” from Women (Jagjaguwar). I struggled choosing between this one and “Black Rice”, which might be a better tune on the whole, but “Shaking Hand” blows me out of the water with the guitar interplay. I saw these guys at the Cake Shop when I was at CMJ and it was a hell of a show. This song was the highlight. The end of this song is riff heaven, and this song is the most unabashed use of the guitar as an instrument in a non-metal, non-math rock sense.
Beach House, “Wedding Bell”, from Devotion (Carpark). This was the most ethereal performance I saw this year. Beautiful, underground venue in Manhattan, streams of lights, streams of sound. Victoria Legrand sits at a keyboard and the most beautiful things come out. I had a few drives down the coast with this record and it complements the county line shift as well as anything, save Neil. The guitar parts are huge. The question “is your heart still mine to save?” is one that I can’t answer.
Mount Eerie, “Voice In Headphones”, from Lost Wisdom (P.W. Elverum and Sun). The first Mount Eerie release that I was bubbling over is this one. Julie Doiron is one of the greatest and least heralded (sadly) singers of the past ten years. Her voice and Phil’s, layered deeper than I could ever have hoped, Fred Squire’s electric guitar punctuating the mix. There’s no need for those huge Elverum drums on this album; unlike Mirah of late, Julie Doiron can just clone herself to save the day. Nothing is more welcoming than this album. It’s also a trim 23 minutes, and spins at 45rpm (12″!). The packaging, too.
Stephen Malkmus, “Gardenia” from Real Emotional Trash (Matador). Gardenia is a silly pop song written by one of the greatest to ever write them. Of course, it’s not as silly when you listen to it. This album, according to my former housemate Nick, is about Malkmus being tired of being the poster child for indie rock brilliance (“shake me off the knife, because I want to go home”) and just wanting to jam out. He does it brilliantly on this album, but “Gardenia” is no shredder. It’s short, succinct, and will not leave your head even if you were to ask it kindly to do so. Richard Avedon would surely agree. Don’t parcel out Malkmus again.
TV on the Radio, “Family Tree” from Dear Science (Interscope). This was never, ever, ever a band I could understand. This record is completely understandable. I really liked “Crying” the first time I heard it, it’s funky without being a funk song, it’s dance-y without sounding a touch like Justice (thank god), but “Family Tree” is honest and as human as this band has ever sounded. Vocally, it’s stunning. Dude has some pipes. I was moved by this one the first time around. That’s more than I can say for the rest of their records, and this one topped some year end lists. Then again, this barely beat out the Jonas Brothers on RS’ list.
The Dutchess and the Duke, “Out of Time” from She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke (Hardly Art). One of the bands I saw this year without knowing who they were and was immediately a fan. These songs sound like they should be standards already. A band that manages to straddle the line between vintage and fresh. You know, kind of like Urban Outfitters. Except for not evil, shitty, or deplorable. Jesse Lortz also pulled the act of the year when I saw them in San Francisco, kicking a girl in the front row’s beer over when she was talking with her back to the band. I understand the Vice Magazine crowd just wanted to see King Khan (I was there to watch BBQ, that’s the show), but the Dutchess and the Duke are creating classic music before our eyes.
The Botticellis, “Who Are You Now” from Old Home Movies (Antenna Farm). I’ve been in connection with these songs since I was in high school and this band sounded completely different. This is the record that everyone slept on this year and I don’t get it. They are the most lush, wonderful, heartwarming band to watch play live, and the record is literally gorgeous. Every element of it; this is music that breathes the dust from the tape it was recorded on, it’s soulful and poppy and surfy and Alexi sings like he’s coming from the sky. The guitars in “Who Are You Now” start like a Shuggie Otis number (so do the vocals), and then they arpeggiate all the way down to the most classic of sounds. The strings, the strings. There’s no denying that this is a record I could listen to in any mood, any day.
Times New Viking, “Times New Viking vs. Yo La Tengo”, from Rip It Off (Matador). This song sounds like everything I wish I could write. The fuzz is there alright, this is the loudest record I’ve heard since Guitar Romantic, and at times, it’s the catchiest. This is one of those times. This is the only instrumental on my list, and they’re not an instrumental band. The guitars and keys sing a chorus of melody on their own fuzzy selves. “Post Teen Drama” almost takes the cake right after this, but the Yo La Tengo reference pulls this one over. And the handclaps (or is that a snare drum) buried under layers of fuzz. This song is like velour.
Fleet Foxes, “He Doesn’t Know Why”, from Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop). There was more hype about this than anything this year, it seemed. Seattle buzz band, long hair, flannel, beards. The album is sort of a pastoral masterpiece, I saw them twice this summer and each time was pretty magnificent. The difference in fanbase between the first show (as well as the venue size) was startling. This is proof that the internet can blow up music, and that live shows are not on any sort of decline. This also proof that the internet, sometimes, is right. Robin Pecknold’s voice is gigantic, bigger than the trees from which atop he sits. Fleet Foxes brought the crowd to tears, this is what did it for me. They let their songs stretch out without giving you time to do so. That’s a compliment, right there.
Bon Iver, “For Emma”, from For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar). I wonder if Justin Vernon thought his year would end up like this. My old radio co-host and dear friend Caitlin tipped me off to this one way long ago. The album is tremendous, but this one really stands out, because he lets it. Vernon lets this one actually sound like a bon iver, not one full of tragedy. Even as he scolds, “go find another lover to string along, with all your lies, you’re still very lovable”, the horns flesh out the melodies like nothing else on this record. The Nebraska of 2008.
The Magnetic Fields, “California Girls”, from Distortion (Merge). Terrible, terrible album cover. That aside, this song is irresistable. The lyrics are so straighforward and blunt, there is zero metaphor in this song. I appreciate that. It’s also some of the best Magnetic Fields material I’ve heard. “The Hardest Walk” was always my favorite Jesus and Mary Chain song. This one kind of follows it. Plus, the lyric “they breathe coke and they have affairs with each passing rock star”. Bonus points, Stephin, bonus points. And rhyming “backs” with “battle axe.” And, “they will hear me say as the pavement whirls, ‘I hate California Girls!'” is just stellar. Really.
Animal Collective, “Water Curses” from Water Curses (Domino). This song sounds like complete and utter bursts of joy. It’s like they’re flying off off the ground that they’re on and floating up into the galaxy that Merriweather Post Pavilion inhabits. A galaxy that I would love to live in. This is almost tropical music, it’s definitely gorgeous. This will be the transition track people talk about. It’s like strawberry ice cream.
Throw Me the Statue, “About to Walk” from Moonbeams (Secretly Canadian). Saw them as an opening band on a pretty bad day (I had just broken up with the girl that I was dating, I had just turned 21, and my dad had just died) and they made me glow all bright (and then Jens Lekman made me crumble). This song has a great electro acoustic feel, a relatively lush sound palate for something that’s so small. It’s pretty honest warm music, and I definitely listened to this record a lot. This deserves to be on my list because I like it.
She and Him, “Sentimental Heart” from Volume One (Merge). Who knew?
Desolation Wilderness, “Come Over in Your Silver Car” from White Light Strobing (K). This is the way indie rock should sound to me. This album sounds like autumn, this song is guitar heaven, it’s also quite dreamy. Sadly, my dreams involve things a lot worse than this.
The Walkmen, “In The New Year” from You and Me (Gigantic). This band has a sound. They have had this sound for some time, and I love this sound. Hamilton Leithauser’s voice is massive, the organ is massive, the drums are massive, and everything is equally hot and cold. This is the kind of song that A Hundred Miles Off didn’t have enough of. Besides “Louisiana”, there weren’t enough tracks where the band (especially in a vocal sense) gets to open up and stretch out. The little buildups to the chorus really do the trick. Their best album may be their next one.
Girls, “Morning Light” from Lust For Life/Morning Light 7″ (True Panther Sounds). This band’s videos make me sick. They know how hip, cool, and attractive their female friends are. That’s why the videos are mainly them. This song is perfect though. Fuzzy, dreamy, and loud. For being called Girls, this band sure has a lot of balls, especially writing a song called “Lust for Life”. The aesthetic this band puts forth is kind of like American Apparel. That aside, the tunes (and the sweatshirts) are pretty incredible.
Blitzen Trapper, “Furr” from Furr (Sub Pop). See this blog post.
Vivian Girls, “All the Time” from Vivian Girls (Mauled by Tigers/In the Red). I want to hate this band, and by all rights everyone does. However, I can’t. This song sounds like a ball about to fall off a cliff. It is exuberant as it picks up steam, and carries the track over the edge. Faster is better. So is the demo. They just need to stop talking about Applebee’s.
Nodzzz, “Controlled Karaoke” from Nodzzz (What’s Your Rupture). When you can’t stop singing something, that’s enough. This band is silly in all the right ways (song topics), and serious in all the right ways (guitar sounds). Big things, if your world is terminal boredom. I can dig.
Nobunny, “Mess Me Up” from Love Visions (Bubbledumb). One minute and some change. That’s all Nobunny needed to get on my list. The revival of bands who sound like this is a great, great thing for the world. Hopefully great enough to convince people to dance to rock music and not CSS. However, I’m usually wrong about things like that. This song is fantastic.
Ponytail, “Beg Waves” from Ice Cream Spiritual (We Are Free). The last song on my list, and definitely one of the best. Watching this band is incredible. Seeing them at 2 AM in a New York City basement is even better. The singer looks like she’s having the time of her life, pawing at the air and just shedding her joy into the crowd. The song is riff city, it builds and churns on its own steam, and by the time it climaxes, it’s as if the singer is telling you to suck her proverbial dick because she’s so goddamn cool and this band is so fucking good. There is more confidence here than I ever imagined, and the song flies off the record. I’m not normally into this kind of music; Ponytail is irresistible.
Honorable mentions, and songs that would have been on a longer list, or albums that didn’t have a track I could discern as a standout, or things I accidentally left off and don’t want to write as much about:
“Block of Ice” by Thee Oh Sees from The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending the Night in (Tomlab)
“Stuck on a Boat” by Port O’Brien from All We Could Do Was Sing (Self-Released)
“Lord” by Sleepy Sun from Embrace (Self-Released)
“Highland Crawler” by Gentleman Jesse and his Men from Gentleman Jesse and his Men (Douchemaster)
“Son the Father” by Fucked Up from The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador)
“Teen Creeps” by No Age from Nouns (Sub Pop).
Thank you for reading.