“I don’t wanna work in a building downtown…”
This is by no means a complete list — there are a lot of albums that have gotten good reviews that I haven’t had a chance to listen to (Spoon, White Stripes, Modest Mouse, and the New Pornographers amongst others), as well as a lot of recommendations from friends whose taste in music I trust that I’ve ignored so far. I also would say whatever critical abilities I have are far inferior when dealing with music than anything else. In any case, here is a list of my five favorite albums (plus one) that were released last year, however incomplete it may be. Accompanying the list is my favorite song off each album, or at least my favorite song I could find a streaming version of online. The list is not in any particular order.
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (song: (Antichrist Television Blues))
The first album by the Arcade Fire, 2004’s Funeral, took awhile to grow on me. I listened to it a few times and for whatever reason, nothing stood out and it wasn’t until months later when I decided to give it another listen that I realized how great an album it is. (True story: My car got broken into and all my CDs were stolen, except for the one in my CD player, which was Funeral. So for a while it was all I had to listen to, and I didn’t get sick of it. Then my car got broken into again and my CD player got stolen.) On the other hand, their follow-up album and this year’s best album, Neon Bible, caught my attention on the first listen. Starting with the dark opening track, “Black Mirror” and the anthemic second track “Keep the Car Running” all the way through to the soulful closing track, “My Body is a Cage”, husband/wife team Win Butler & Régine Chassagne have crafted the rare album that works better as a whole than as individual tracks. I’ve listened to the album dozens of times and it wasn’t until I wrote this that I knew a lot of the names of the songs, a testament to how smoothly the album transitions between songs. Butler & Chassagne work better together on vocals here than on Funeral and while there aren’t standout songs on par with Funeral’s “Rebellion (Lies)” or “Wake Up” it is certianly a worthy second act.
Radiohead – In Rainbows (song: 15 Step)
Radiohead is one of my favorite all-time bands and even with all my expectations and the hype that came with their “choose your own price” scheme (I paid 3 pounds, I think), In Rainbows did not disappoint. Like 2003’s Hail to the Thief (“2+2=5”) it opens with a loud, guitar-heavy song, “15 Step”, perhaps to distance them from the more electronic heavy Kid A and Amnesiac, and in both cases I felt the track was probably the strongest on the album. Rainbows follows with another fast, guitar-driven song, “Bodysnatchers”, also a great song, and another example of Radiohead’s greatest strength — their ability to make great music that sounds so different from each other, even with Thom Yorke’s distinctive wail. I also like “All I Need”, a song that sounds like it could be off of Kid A, and the closing song, “Videotape” a slow, soulful piano piece. With In Rainbows, Radiohead has once again proved why it’s the best band of our era.
Kings of Leon – Because of the Times (Song: My Party)
Before Because of the Times I had always viewed Kings of Leon as a better story than band — 3 brothers (sons of a traveling preacher, no less) and a cousin who led a nomadic childhood through the South form a rock band together. Oh, yeah, and they play that cool song from that Volkswagen commercial. For whatever reason, the Kings are HUGE in the UK (Because of the Times opened at #1 there) and more of a cult band here, despite (or maybe because of) how much of an American sound they have. I listened to their first and second albums without coming away too impressed. But on Because of the Times they, and singer Caleb Followill have really taken a step forward in their maturation as a band. On songs like the strong 7-minute opener, “Knocked Up”, “On Call”, and “My Party” it seems like they’ve found a style that really suits Caleb’s scratchy southern rock voice in a way they hadn’t found before. It is still an uneven album but I am looking forward to their next release.
Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (song: Boy With A Coin)
I saw Iron & Wine play here in October, right around the time The Shepherd’s Dog was released, and though I hadn’t listened to it, I knew it would mark a departure from Sam Beam’s “a guy and his guitar” albums (the brilliant The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days), mostly because, well, there were a lot of other people on stage for the new songs. However, The Shepherd’s Dog feels like a natural progression from those albums, as Beam has taken their heart and beauty and added more layers and depth and sped it up a little without losing any of its soul. And as he previously showed on the more electric guitar-oriented EPs (Woman King and In the Reins w. Calexico) you can pretty much add anything to his melodies and his voice and it’ll turn out pretty good. “White Tooth Man”, “Carousel” and “Boy With a Coin” are the standouts here.
The National – Boxer (song: Fake Empire)
More than most bands, the National relies on how far their lead singer, Matt Berninger can take them. His deep, distinctive, almost loungy voice forms the backbone of Boxer, which opens with its best two songs, “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken for Strangers.” The album fades a little after that, although “Slow Show” and “Apartment Story” are strong tracks as well. Unlike the other albums on this list, its placement is based on the strength of some of the individual songs rather than the album as a whole, though there aren’t really any bad songs. It is a dark, moody album that requires at least a few listens before passing judgment, and it’s certainly not the type of music that everyone will like. I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but for those who like this style, Boxer is worth listening to, and the best songs really are exceptional.
Song of the Year
Explosions in the Sky – Catastrophe and the Cure (off the album All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone)
I first was introduced to Explosions in the Sky by their contributions to the soundtrack of NBC’s Friday Night Lights (including the memorable theme song), a show that uses music better than any show I remember. A rock band from Austin that does not feature any singing, Explosions in the Sky is absolutely perfect soundtrack material but they’re good enough to be more than just “that band that doesn’t have a singer.” Their music is powerful, soaring, and beautiful, but it also definitely rocks, and their guitar work is amazing. The album is great, but this song is awesome, and was by far my favorite of the year.
What do you think? What were your favorite albums of the year? Favorite songs?