10.Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
I’ve sort of had it with wunderkinds. It’s probably just because I’m aging and haven’t found anything that will make me famous yet, but I’m just baffled at (and envious of) really young people who have totally developed their artistic identity. I don’t really remember what it’s like to be 22 anymore, but I’m sure I never had a vision as concise and a craft as developed as Laura Marling. Born in 1990 (gross — I know), her second record has a mature, old-world feel. She’s a restrained and sensitive songwriter and while “I Speak Because I Can” isn’t necessarily a whirlwind of a listen (it’s a soft, contemplative record), it’s amazing how her arrangements and earthy voice can transport you. And it’s not “good for a 20-year-old,” it’s just good.
My Post review.
Best tracks: “Blackberry Stone,” “Goodbye England: Covered in Snow”
9. Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History
Speaking of UK musicians who are absurdly 16-going-on-17, Two Door Cinema Club’s debut is just as fully-realized but sounds more like what you’d expect a talented trio of kids to make. The Irish band plays an appealing brand of dance beat-fueled rock. And while their musicianship and production may seem incongruous with their age, their lyrical fixation on girls. The melodies are bright and the beats give the band a distinct flavor.
Best tracks: “Undercover Martyn,” “I Can Talk”
8. Best Coast – Crazy For You
Best Coast seems to get a lot of shit for keeping it simple. Frontwoman Bethany Cosentino’s lyrics aren’t necessarily profound (“I lost my job/ I miss my mom/ I wish my cat could talk”), but sometimes you just don’t need things to be wrapped up in a metaphor. This is a record about simple emotions. And while it sounds hacky to call things “pop gems,” that’s exactly what this “Crazy For You” is full of. It’s an album of beachy songs fueled by the kind of high school angst that I’m not sure ever goes away.
Best tracks: “Bratty B,” “Boyfriend”
7. Sleigh Bells – Treats
There’s a part of me (a large part, truthfully) that loves music without any sort of nuance: the sad songs can’t have a glimmer of hope, the happy songs are oblivious to any potential cloud on the horizon. That’s part of the reason why I love Sleigh Bells so much — it’s not music to think to. It’s music to drive fast to or take an aggressive run through the park to. Derek Miller’s brutal beats and schlocky heavy metal guitars get a shiny gloss from singer Alexis Krauss, giving the listener an overblown, speaker-exploding catharsis.
Best tracks: “Crown on the Ground,” “A/B Machines”
6. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
“Gorilla Manor” sat in my iTunes for months before I finally ‘got it.’ In fact, it took seeing the band live and witnessing them deliver glorious three-part vocal harmonies that made me appreciate how beautifully crafted the songs were. Even when the songs aren’t as elaborately arranged as the string-based lament “Airplanes,” the band’s understated guitar work and uncommonly skillful singing prove that they don’t need any bells and whistles. One note: it’s really uncommon for me to hear a three-or-more part harmony and not find it cloying or off-puttingly a cappella-y. This is vocal talent with the douche factor excised.
Best tracks: “Airplanes,” “Wide Eyes”
5. Diamond Rings – Special Affections
Ever since Diamond Rings came into my life last summer, I’ve ceased to tire of the sunniness of “All Yr Songs.” For a simple pop song that relies heavily on crude, homemade beats, it’s remained in my heavy rotation for the better part of a year and a half. John O’Regan’s long-awaited debut, which finally saw the light of day in late 2010, makes good on that song’s promise although (and for perhaps for the best) the rest of the album isn’t quite as happy-go-lucky as “All Yr Songs.” Not to speculate on the artist himself, but this is definitely gay-friendly music, between his enthusiastic and extravagant live performances, his choreographed videos and his synth-heavy production. But it’s always a rare treat to find “gay” music with grit — some crunchy guitars to give some soul to the beats and some lo-fi tricks to make the music sound a bit more real.
Best tracks: “Wait and See,” “On Our Own”
4. Seabear – We Built a Fire
Seabear is one of the quietest, strangest bands I listen to — but the Icelandic folk-pop band grew by leaps and bounds on its sophomore record. “We Built a Fire” covers a variety of emotions, from despair to glee, but tackles them all with the same bizarre, distinctly Icelandic, folk charm. “Cold Summer” is one of saddest god damn songs of the year, featuring weeping violins and whispered vocals, and “Warm Summer” gets a startling blast of melancholy from an electric guitar that goes off like a live wire in the middle of the song. But “Softship” and “Wolfboy” show the bands lighter side and balance out the album.
Read my Post review for the whole story.
Best tracks: “Cold Summer,” “Warm Blood”
3. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
The brogue, the beard, the bitterness: all things that I love about Frightened Rabbit. But the much-anticipated follow-up to “The Midnight Organ Fight” is considerably less focused on romantic foibles. Thankfully, there is plenty of beardy Scottishness still in the mix. “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” raises the bar considerably from a production standpoint — expanding the band’s sound far beyond the traditional pop structures. All of the band’s gambles pay off, as the record’s highest points are also its most ambitious. “The Wrestle” and “Skip The Youth” aim bigger than a ditty or a dirge about broken hearts. Seeing the band live is funny — he may seem like a sad bastard on record, but Scott Hutchison is really just a beer-drinking Scottish bloke who happens to be really in touch with his feelings. And, for the record, he can call me anytime. Rowr.
Best tracks: “The Wrestle,” “Skip the Youth”
2. Forest City Lovers – Carriage
Site Map On the last track of their sophomore album, Forest City Lovers unexpectedly dropped their grandest pop song to date. Known for playing understated, twee-leaning folk, the Canadian troupe unleashed “Orphans” – a galloping rock track laden with giant hooks that demonstrated never-before-seen energy. A year after leaving listeners with a dangling morsel of pop goodness, the band makes good on that promise with “Carriage.” The new album ups the ante in multiple ways – from frontwoman Kat Burns’ maturity as a singer (her voice is cool and bewitching, but ever-so-slightly smoky) to the group’s stepped-up production values. Mostly, though, this is the first Forest City Lovers that actually feels like it was made by a full band, rather than a dressed-up solo album. Two of its most memorable tracks are their loudest to date – the propulsive “Constellation” and the percussion-heavy “Minneapolis.” With the rest of the album boasting a mixture of breezy ballads and blissfully melodic rockers, Forest City Lovers (the band) appears to have finally found its voice.
Best tracks: “Constellation,” “Phodilus & Tyto”
1. Jonsi – Go
Sigur Ros sounds like whales — or at least that’s always been the joke. Between the band’s long, patient notes and singer Jonsi’s other-worldly tenor, that band’s music often sounded like the distinct call of the humpback. But with his solo debut, Jonsi has diverted from his tendency toward beautiful atmospheric post-rock and embraced the pop melodicism that the band hinted at in its most recent album “Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust” (whatever that means).
People will disagree, but this is more powerful than any Sigur Ros material. The opening one-two melodic punch of “Go Do” and “Animal Arithmetic” are enough to realize the game has changed. Both feature pounding, sometimes primitive, percussion and anthemic choruses that leverage Jonsi’s the power of Jonsi’s high register. And even when Jonsi turns down the volume, the softer songs burn more intensely than anything I’ve heard him produce.
It’s direct, it’s glorious, it’s heartbreaking. And the gorgeously theatrical live show (a separate blog post entirely) is probably the best live show I’ve ever seen.
Honorable mentions: Junip – Fields, The Album Leaf – A Chorus of Storytellers, The Bird and the Bee – Interpreting the Masters Vol. 1, Tokyo Police Club – Champ, Dawn Landes – Sweetheart Rodeo, Kristin Hersh – Cats and Mice, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way