We here at Spectrum Culture welcome you to our first annual retrospective of the year’s best albums. We hope you have a great holiday season and thank you for reading! We will begin publishing new content again on January 4, 2010.
20. Future of the Left
Travels With Myself and Another
Travels with Myself and Another certainly wasn’t the prettiest album of ’09, but it’s difficult to think of another release that was more cathartic. Where more “sophisticated” acts explored other cultures or made harmonies cool again, Future of the Left went in an altogether different direction, crafting a proudly ugly masterpiece that’s something like the sonic equivalent of getting away with beating the crap out of that co-worker everyone hates but no one does anything about.
The strength of Travels with Myself and Another lies in the anarchic glee of its execution, which finds the band unleashing a surprisingly tight torrent of noise that only appears to be loose. Underneath the brutal physicality of their songs, Future of the Left are gifted arrangers, using stabs of guitars and rhythm to make their point rather than filling every inch of sonic space. On tracks like “Arming Eritrea” and “The Hope That House Built,” the band deftly maneuver between relatively gentle interludes and pummeling transitions. “Throwing Bricks at Trains” even features a group harmony that wouldn’t be out of place on a Fleet Foxes album. Which makes the likes of “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” all the more potent, its relentless distorted-as-fuck synth and terrifying vocals completely unforgiving. When the apocalypse we’ve all been waiting for finally comes, this will be the soundtrack. – Morgan Davis
19. Andrew Bird
Noble Beast is unabashedly an Andrew Bird record; like all his work, it’s pleasant and hyper-literate with the pop-friendly “Oh No” your safe introduction to the album. With it, Andrew Bird takes his Andrew Bird-ness into stranger territories, balancing out solid-though-characteristic tracks (“The Privateers,” “Natural Disaster”) with ambitious sonic experimentation. On “Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” Bird attempts a haunting analog interpretation of Kid A-era Radiohead with lyrics like “I crack the codes/ And I end the war.” “Anonanimal,” appropriately, just keeps evolving– from string-plucker to hip-hop breakdown (no, seriously) to moody pop-rock. Meanwhile, Bird manages to spit out verses like “Underneath the stalactites/ The troglodytes lost their sight/ The seemingly innocuous plecostomus, though posthumous” with superhuman smoothness.
This dichotomy of established style and experimentation pays off, pleasing those who want to hear more of Andrew Bird’s pretty crooning as well as those who want a bit more to chew on from their favorite artist’s newest release. If anything, it proves that art vs. commerce is very much an issue in the indie world. – Danny Djeljosevic
18. Elvis Perkins
Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Time has a way of turning golden eggs into abominable duds, as every year critics stumble over each other to eulogize records whose flaws become quite obvious just a few years later. Such a fate won’t ever be the case with Elvis Perkins in Dearland, a brilliant album that offers sublime arrangements, clever wordplay, a timeless sound and subject matter that’s transparent enough for listeners to relate to while still leaving room for interpretation. Whereas Perkins’ debut, Ash Wednesday, largely reflected the stylistic tendencies of the singer alone, Elvis Perkins in Dearland is a more collaborative effort. Distressed by perceptions that the content of his debut was rooted in his personal life, Perkins followed it up by “making a band record removed from self and giving three other dudes a say.” Those three other dudes – Brigham Brough, Wyndham Boylan-Garnett and Nick Kinsey – combine with Perkins to create a multi-layered, sleek-but-not-overproduced effort that mixes traditional folkie arrangements with organs, harmoniums, horns, bass and guitars, resulting in one of the broadest and most captivating records of the year.
Perkins and his band may be throwbacks, frequently channeling the ghosts of a different Elvis and a different Perkins, but the band doesn’t sound out of place in 2009, and few records in recent years can so easily be embraced by oldies and indies alike. Though many reviews have focused largely on the loss and doom that appears throughout the record (most notably in “Doomsday” and “1 2 3 Goodbye”), there’s also a sense of hope and even elation throughout Elvis Perkins in Dearland. The result is an album that pays homage to the past, sounds relevant in the present and won’t lose its luster years from now. – Marcus David
17. Dan Deacon
More concentrated in its weirdness than Merriweather Post Pavilion, more ambitiously focused than just about anything else, Bromst treats the cartoonish, busy sound Dan Deacon established on his first album with the seriousness of a classical overture. Like a Steve Reich piece populated by odd squeaks and sped-up, high-pitched vocals, there’s a clear mix of serious and ridiculous that gels completely together, peppering strange ingredients into entrancing collages of sound. While 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings was a respectable diversion, Bromst clarifies Deacon’s eccentricity and distills down its best points, dispensing with fluff and keeping the silliness consistently employed. Each song is a inimitable yet integral piece of the puzzle. The repeating crescendos of “Of the Mountains” with its laser-beam beeps and persistently rolling drums. The crystalline murmur of “Surprise Stefani,” flickering with found sound and piled-on marimba lines. The layered voices of “Wet Wings,” which turn a plaintive blues cry into a scrabbling mess, the same repeated howl scrabbling endlessly against itself. None of it sounds remotely like anything attempted before, stitching circling tape loops into towering mountains of noise. Yet as imposing as these songs become they still remain refreshingly transparent, never too dense, full of fluid exchanges and vibrant with thrumming life. – Jesse Cataldo
16. Antony and the Johnsons
The Crying Light
One of the year’s best albums is a work of subtle and heartbreaking beauty. While Antony and the Johnsons’ previous masterpiece, I Am a Bird Now, relied heavily on guests like Lou Reed and Boy George, The Crying Light is a more intimate, magical affair. The songs take time to unfold- hypnotic blossoms of sonic beauty to beguile and enchant. It is also the fitting end piece to a decade filled with sorrow, chaos and bewilderment. Every song is a standout, from the quiet of “Another World” to the waltz of “Kiss My Name.” On “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground,” Antony’s voice swoons along with his piano and a cello ties it all together in perfect harmony. That’s indicative of most of the record; these songs are spare and intimate. The refrain of “Mercy, mercy” on “One Dove” is one of the most heartbreaking things you will ever hear. But, Antony’s finest moment comes in “Daylight and the Sun,” a six-and-a-half-minute paean to daylight penetrating not only the trees and mountains, but his own calcified heart. If the Antony of Bird was unsure, this new Antony looks outward, embraces the natural world and has hope. – David Harris
15. The Thermals
Now We Can See
[Kill Rock Stars]
Portland indie power punkers the Thermals’ last three albums form a kind of unofficial trilogy. Fuckin’ A (2004) found the band getting pissed off by the current political climate, The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006)- a song cycle about right-wing religion that did what American Idiot tried to do in half the time and with twice the intelligence- expanded on this righteous anger and this year’s Now We Can See feels like a hard-won celebration of survival and emerging from the darkness of the Bush Years. Recorded, like The Body, by just the core duo of Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, Now We Can See, their first for uber-indie Kill Rock Stars, offered up fist-pumping, sing a long anthems, played with punk energy and full of power pop melodies. You could yell along to it (especially at their sweaty, invigorating concerts), but you could also hum along to it. Even if it’s a more optimistic record, as evidenced by the infectious title track, the first two songs are about death and sickness. Like Sleater-Kinney before them, they can rock and be thoughtful at the same time. The album may be their most mature in terms of songwriting and showing their expanding range: “When We Were Alive” is a less than two minute burst of hard-charging energy that will get the kids hopping and “At the Bottom of the Sea,” the longest song they’ve recorded, is a reflective ballad that showcases Harris’s subtle vocals. It caps a triumphant run for them, but they’re hardly done, as they’re already recording a follow-up, which we can also expect to be great. – Lukas Sherman
14. St. Vincent
Raiding the Criterion Collection for inspiration, Annie Clark was able remake her St. Vincent moniker from a mixture of indie rock and chanteuse sensibilities into something almost visual. I don’t mind saying that I was a little frightened by much of Actor the first and even most of the second time I listened to it. From the loud horns over the chorus of “Marrow” to the dissolving lyrics and violins in “Just the Same But Brand New” there’s almost a mind’s eye mentality to Clark’s ambition. I could almost see her stories flickering dimly on a movie screen.
By writing the rough draft of the record on Garage Band, Clark gave her sophomore record and 4AD debut a taste of Peter and the Wolf songwriting. An orchestra’s worth of instruments take on distinct roles, chiming in at sharp intervals at less than a moment’s notice. Shimmering through those static harmonies is Clark shredding on guitar while hitting new warped and serpentine melodies with her own voice. She brings a black sweetness to songs that wallow in the fear of endless failure and social entombment. This is a heavy album that’s not accessible from the perspective of any rockist or pop music devotee. While not terrible abstract, there’s almost no use in trying to play these songs with simple accompaniment. Even Clark could barely manage to bench test them during solo sets before Actor’s release. What makes this my favorite release this year is the skillful execution of that sort of brevity. Clark asks us to embrace her record as a complete entity that revels in detailed beauty in lieu of breakneck thrills. I can barely tap my foot or hum along to Actor. But I can watch it all day. – Neal Fersko
13. Dinosaur Jr.
At least one indie reunion didn’t destroy the band’s legacy in the process. If 2007’s Beyond demonstrated that the trio could reunite without wrecking its reputation, this year’s Farm proved it was no fluke. Whereas other bands have tried to recreate their classic sound and failed miserably, Dinosaur Jr. didn’t even attempt to rehash its past on Farm; those expecting a redux of You’re Living All Over Me or Bug were surely disappointed. Instead, the album played to the band’s strengths while still sounding original and unique: the intricate guitar workouts, bass and drums of songs like “I Want You To Know,” “Plans,” “Over It” and “Pieces” couldn’t be mistaken for any other band, and never felt forced or redundant.
J. Mascis won’t ever be confused with a smooth crooner, but his vocals and lyrics were as evocative as anything from the band’s back catalog, especially on slow burners “See You” and “Said the People.” Myopic listeners may have tended to zero in on the band’s instrumentals – and really, who could blame them? – but Farm contained some of the strongest lyrics and vocals to grace a Dinosaur Jr. album. In a year that regrettably saw too many ill-conceived and poorly executed band reunions, Farm proved such efforts can result in something more than a shitty single and even shittier album. For once, a reunited band didn’t simply mail it in; with Farm Dinosaur Jr. created an album that came damn close to matching their best work. – Eric Dennis
12. M. Ward
While Matt Ward is noted for his whispery vocals and folksy guitar, classifying Hold Time as a simple folk album would be doing a disservice to some of the more subtle pop hooks that Ward has woven throughout his sixth album. It wasn’t a fantastically acclaimed album, quietly released back in February, but it’s nevertheless loaded with enough charm that listeners found it a comfortable presence. For some, it was the 1950s vibe, generated by a duet with She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel on the songs “Never Had Nobody Like You” and the stunning re-invention of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!” For others, it was the bluesy “Oh Lonesome Me,” featuring an appearance by Lucinda Williams, or the spiritual whimsy of Ward singing soothingly “And forget me not, this time tomorrow/ I gave all I got but this time no sorrow.” There are gospel themes on “Fisher of Men”, and redemption and salvation feature prominently on “Epistemology”, where Ward muses, “I learned how to keep my head from something that Paul said/ About keeping the fruit in the spirit from the chorus down to the hook.” Hold Time never loses its understated confidence, a quality that allows Ward to come across consistently more tranquil than despairing, working equally well on sunny days as lonesome nights. – Sean Marchetto
11. Dirty Projectors
For the better part of the last decade, Dirty Projectors were a compelling rock curiosity, writing music that walked both sides of the fine line between what’s wonderfully inventive and audibly offensive. On this, their fifth and finest record, the Brooklyn art-poppers have flashed a degree of accessibility long assumed impossible from the Dave Longstreth-helmed project, though that’s not to say it goes down easily. Leaving genres bent and convention stretched in its wake, Bitte Orca is as saturated, ornate and massive as any of the DP efforts that have preceded it. Any lesser talent than Longstreth, a Yale graduate of musical composition, would have surely left Bitte Orca a sprawling disaster. But under his sure hand and formidable vision it’s a monument to studied musicianship that packs varied influence into nine consistently brilliant tracks. Repeated listening is a requirement here–not that you’ll mind. The record is a work of intricate acrobatics; it shifts direction unexpectedly but always toward a new highlight. As for stand-out track, the R&B shaded lead-single, “Stillness is the Move,” might be a good one to give the golden star to, but what of the delicate string arrangements of “Temecula Sunrise,” the shape-shifting centerpiece “Useful Chamber” or Angel Deradoorian’s hauntingly gorgeous vocals on “Two Doves”?
This is an album for Dirty Projector fans old and new, found at an intersection of accessibility and eccentricity. With instrumental virtuosity abound and the band’s typically tight rein on melody and rhythm, Bitte Orca is brilliant almost to the point of alienation. Rarely is an album so diverse in sound and structure, but so uniformly magnificent. – Brady Baker
10. The Decemberists
The Hazards of Love
With The Hazards Of Love, Colin Meloy and company have crafted that increasingly rare thing, an album – complete unto itself and thematic, steeped in rock-opera tradition; its parts equally pretentious and brilliant. Originally conceived as a musical, Hazards unfolds somewhat slowly. Our lead characters, the fair Margaret and shape-shifting William, are introduced over layered acoustic picking that, at times, recalls Led Zeppelin III’s intimate passages. Traditional three-minute pop songs are few and far between; the band opts for movements, suites, reprisals and interludes. As the record moves into its middle third, the music gathers momentum. “The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid” shows the band veering from harpsichord verses to huge, guitar-pop choruses, followed by Sabbath-stomping metal. As one part of the narrative finishes, the musical backdrop changes and a new chapter begins.
Speaking of the narrative, it’s elaborate. An album like this demands time and effort to dissect, and as with Meloy’s last few outings, having both the lyric sheet and Ye Olde Dictionary handy are good moves for any first-time listeners. To reduce confusion, Meloy (wisely) doesn’t portray each character himself. In another traditional rock-opera move, he employed guest vocalists for the two female leads; Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark sweetly provided the voice of Margaret (proving herself to be an excellent counterpoint for Meloy), and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden is an intense, ominous presence as the Forest Queen. By the time the last slide guitars from “The Hazards Of Love 4 (The Drowned)” faded into the distance, the Decemberists’ longtime ambitions were been laid bare. And 2009 had a classic, honest-to-God rock opera to call its own. – Jason Stoff
9. The xx
With each year’s flood of music releases, all the new must-haves and those destined for the discount bin, sounding truly unique and memorable is no easy task. It’s somewhat more conceivable for aggressive, edgy, style-for-style’s sake artists to pull it off – Lil’ Wayne’s drug-addled drawl screams ‘different,’ Passion Pit’s pitchy vocals are as anti-pop as the band’s disco-aping electronica and last year Bon Iver got widespread attention via a well-conceived back story and similarly innovative vocal production. But its truly impressive when an artist sounds inherently fresh and memorable while still producing music just about anybody will enjoy – mellow, unassuming, and simple without all the boisterous genre traits. This year The xx did exactly that, and it would be a challenge to find any other 2009 release that really sounds like nobody else, yet instantly is a natural – and unobtrusive – fit in your collection or on your player. Each song is cool and glossy, wearing a delightfully emotive sheen – all hypnotic bass lines and the tangled vocals of two male and female leads. The entire album is thick with atmosphere and character. But at the most fundamental level these tracks – the rolling beat of “Crystalised” and the hushed whisper of “Infinity” – are instant classics without trying to be; this is rock ‘n’ roll like you’ve never heard in a package that feels like its spun to a rewarding finish a million times before. – Michael Merline
8. The Flaming Lips
After capping off the ’90s with The Soft Bulletin, a veritable masterpiece of neo-psychedelia, it seems only fitting that this decade would get its own Lipsian exclamation point in Embryonic. This is a 72-minute speaker-punishing journey, noticeably lacking the self-contained pop songs of recent Lips albums, but still playing on the duality of human nature and trippy cosmic shenanigans. Described by messianic frontman Wayne Coyne as something of a free-form freak-out, these veterans of experimentation have triumphantly returned to the lo-fi, acid-rock dimension from which they came.
The sheer weight and size of The Flaming Lips’ first double-album is itself awe-inspiring. Soaking in static and frequently distortion-drowned, Embryonic is a chaotic sci-fi epic that feels raw and off-the-cuff. Sonically, the record could be a post-shock-therapy take on 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic, if less melodic and more in-your-face. Squelching guitar and dubby bass dominate large chunks of the odyssey, battling a typically manic drum track, but this is by no means a full inventory. Synth surges, harp flourishes, Karen O’s animal sounds and the ramblings of a German mathematician all contribute to the mayhem.
But for all that Embryonic has to offer, its sense of balance is perhaps most impressive; each stretch of calm (“Evil”) counters a cacophonous racket (“Worm Mountain”) and each weighty commentary (“See the Leaves”) grounds a whimsical amusement (“I Can Be a Frog”). It’s a balance that few albums this year, let alone this decade, have been able to achieve. On this, their twelfth studio album, the Oklahoman freaks sprawl ambitiously in theme, structure and across planes of existence to produce one of the finest cuts of a near 30-year career; it’s earned this spot among the year’s best. – Brady Baker
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
In 2003, in the wake of the ferociously monumental Fever to Tell (and the heartbreaking single, “Maps”), it would have been nearly impossible, even silly, to guess that in six years Yeah Yeah Yeahs would release a disco-inflected album involving bagpipes. And yet, here we are in 2009- and It’s Blitz! is full of synthesizers, chopped beats and studio wizardry. A far cry from the throttled guitars and screams of the debut, their third album is a near-equal and a giant leap forward stylistically, gleaning sounds as disparate as disco beats, ’80s synths, the aforementioned bagpipes and even the occasional acoustic guitar.
Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase have refined their characteristic (and indeed, almost archetypal) qualities on It’s Blitz!; Karen O’s voice is more confident and powerful than it’s ever been, shouting out lyrics like “You’re a zero, what’s your name/ No one’s gonna ask you” where she once would have screeched. Zinner’s guitars are as vicious, but are also controlled and tamed, while Chase has somehow managed to transmute his pounding into a dance floor groove. The preemptively lauded garage rock revival of the early ’00s may have collapsed with a whimper, but it shouldn’t astound as much as it does that some of those bands praised for their sound and fury can move past it. At the very least, Yeah Yeahs Yeahs astound more than ever. – Nathan Kamal
6. Bill Callahan
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle
Does the best music come from lost love? “I used to be darker/ Then I got lighter/ Then I got dark again,” Callahan sings on “Jim Cain,” the opening track of Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. But if “getting darker” is a painful experience, it also helped Callahan produce not only one of the best records of the year, but one of the strongest of his multi-decade career. But it is easy to be lured into the hush of Callahan’s deep voice or the gentle instrumentation without truly recognizing the poetic, dark rumbling behind his lyrics.
Purported to be born from a break-up with Joanna Newsom, Eagle is a nakedly intimate affair. But while the lyrics are a personal, shattering self-reflection, the taut musical composition of Eagle is what pushes it ahead into the year’s best. Never melodramatic or maudlin, the songs on Eagle use clever metaphor and allusions to let free the fleeting specter of lost love. But perhaps the most wonderful moment comes early on “Eid Ma Clack Shaw.” “I dreamed the perfect song,” Callahan intones. After scribbling down these lyrics of truth, Callahan awakes the next morning and can barely read his own writing. “Eid ma clack shaw/ Zupoven del ba.” Absolute nonsense, yet his voice tells us it’s not. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is an album stripped of pretense and filled with naked fear. Sometimes we don’t need clear words to convey that. – David Harris
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Glassnote / Loyauté
Despite its 1995 formation, French band Phoenix has slowly developed a cult following, but with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix they exploded onto the mainstream scene with as much force and spread as the bombs on the album cover. Much like Vampire Weekend, including a highly publicized last minute appearance on SNL, Phoenix’s hyper literate brand of perfectly crafted pop has been met with only warm embraces and near universal acclaim. Singles “Lisztomania” and “1901” were ubiquitous, especially the latter, which was featured prominently in a series of ads for Cadillac. The opening keyboard chimes of “Lisztomania” act as a siren’s call. Singer Thomas Mars’ slinky upper register and emphatic pronunciation finish springing the trap, and the chant-like chorus draws the image of devoted, screaming fans, recalling the eponymous phenomenon that gives the song its title. “1901” features filthy, spacey, crunchy guitars and a futuristic piano refrain that combine and create perhaps the best single of 2009- infectious, literate, well-crafted, and supremely danceable. The band’s SNL performance was so enticing that they were granted an elusive third set, going out over the closing credits in lieu of the cast’s goodbyes. They were good enough to disrupt a tradition, and no one minded a bit.
Underlying the record is a theme of battles and conflicts, and the band humanizes this idea aptly. “Rome” is a high-concept song that compares a crumbling relationship to the empire, and closer “Armistice” takes a lovers’ quarrel and juxtaposes it as an amalgam of diplomatic resolutions and personal compromises. With the energy and effort that was put into Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band essentially declared war on the American music scene. The surrender was unconditional. – Rafael Gaitan
4. The Antlers
The Antlers created one of this year’s – if not this decade’s – most complex and profound albums with Hospice, an elegy to loss and remembrance as well as a statement of hope in the face of tragedy. Regardless of the actual events that inspired the record – in interviews lyricist Peter Silberman has downplayed much of the mythology now attached to Hospice – the album is most notable for its dense and varied musical template and richly poetic lyrics. Built around inter-connected storylines of a terminal cancer patient and a disintegrating relationship, Hospice remains a deeply moving album whose standing as one of indie’s most fully realized works is assured.
Its songs are alternately devastating and uplifting; empty cancer ward beds, childhood nightmares and dissolution of relationships are contrasted with hopeful defiance and to an extent, guarded optimism. Events are mentioned but the story’s complete picture remains elusive and dreamlike, as perspectives and timelines shift to the point that most songs are left open to the listener’s interpretation. Silberman’s voice and the band’s layered instrumentals hold the songs together, never settling on one style for very long but still giving the album an overall tone and consistency.
The world of Hospice is one of transience and fragility, but also one of devotion and, however tentative, optimism. Its characters stare down mortality and separation squarely and honestly; the album doesn’t bullshit and never gives in to resignation. With Hospice, The Antlers managed to take something deeply personal and shape it into a truly universal album. As 2009 ends, the album still is quite simply that type of rare work that serves as a reminder of just how powerful, heartbreaking and comforting music can be.
– Eric Dennis
3. Various Artists
Dark Was the Night
If you had told me last year that including a compilation album in a best-of-year list was cheating, I probably would have agreed with you. These things so rarely live up to their promise. Combining the gifts of multiple respected artists on one album, especially for charity, ought to yield a record bursting at the seams with excellence, ready to be devoured by the masses like steaks falling from the sky. And yet comp records so often end up phoned-in and uninspired.
Dark Was the Night was not one of those records. Here was a collection that sounded passionate and vital across its admittedly lengthy two-disc running time. Curators Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National pulled together a veritable Christmas-list of talent (including their own band) and host of other kindred spirits new (Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Feist) and old (David Byrne, Sharon Jones). The originals didn’t sound like B-sides. The covers venerated their sources. Most of all, everyone’s heart seemed to be in it. This was a project that made all the right choices and was more than the sum of its parts. There was something transcendent about it. Few albums, let alone compilations, achieve that. – Bryan Kerwin
2. Grizzly Bear
2009 found a lot of “difficult” groups going pop in a way that didn’t sacrifice their edge or critical respectability. Where “My Girls” had Animal Collective boiling their electro-jam-band aesthetic down to one killer single, Grizzly Bear carved out a lush, orchestral dynamic that revealed itself over the entire course of their breakthrough album Veckatimest. Like Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear didn’t really remove any aspect of their sound or image in order to win over the masses they just started writing the kinds of songs that best utilized their strengths. For Animal Collective, that meant repetition and atmosphere but for Grizzly Bear it meant harmony and arrangement.
As a whole, Veckatimest does more to earn the “this generation’s CSN” tag than Fleet Foxes ever have, a constant reminder that that supergroup of generations past was as much about delicately crafted instrumental arrangements as they were vocal ones (and let’s not forget how democratic both CSN and Grizzly Bear are in the songwriting department). To be sure, detractors will continue to label the group “boring,” “uptight,” “highfalutin” and if you remove tracks like “Hold Still” from their natural placement within the confines of the album, those tags might even hold. But there’s something downright exciting about watching a group as talented as Grizzly Bear are construct minor key pop gems that have an almost seductive swagger to them. If it’s boring you, you’re listening to the wrong things, paying attention to the seams when you should be looking at the outfit as a whole.
That excitement is there in “Ready, Able” and the palpable tension of its rhythm. It’s there in “Dory” and its rising, chilling vocals. And of course it’s there in “Two Weeks,” the single you’ve probably already fallen in love with by now. So what’s holding you back from giving the rest of the album your affections? – Morgan Davis
1. Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Few bands have followed paths in the 00’s that have been more fascinating, unpredictable, and utterly committed to its own idiosyncratic vision than Animal Collective. Perhaps no one, including the band themselves, would have predicted that they would emerge from their avant-tribal noise roots to produce an album as blissfully melodic and colorfully uplifting as Merriweather Post Pavilion, which saw the band moving closer to pop songs, without sacrificing their weird, experimental drive.
Its success, both popularly (it broke Billboard’s top 20) and critically, seemed to catch the band off guard. An incredulous Panda Bear even admitted, “We’re stumped on why this was so popular… It’s an honor.” But it’s really not that hard to figure out. The band split the difference between textured, atmospheric soundscapes that wash over and transport the listener and some of the most immediate, euphoric songs of their career, which burst with musical creativity and vocals that recall a yelping, psychedelic Beach Boys. “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” were as catchy as anything on the radio, but also full of interesting sounds and textures. And the band’s innocence and embrace of simple pleasures was, rather than corny, a refreshing and comforting contrast to indie’s usual irony and emotional distance. It’s a feel good record, in the best sense of the term. Animal Collective is one of the decade’s most tirelessly innovation bands and while MPP may be their peak, what’s exciting is that the band seems nowhere near done with exploring and making music. – Lukas Sherman