10. Asobi Seksu
Friendly Fire (May 30)
Asobi Seksu took an inspired leap from treasured New York City Japanese/shoegaze band to full-blown guitar rock with Citrus, shifting focus from keyboardist/vocalist Yuki Chikudate to guitarist James Hannah. He layers the record with sheets of striking noise and is perhaps one of indie rock’s most underrated songwriters.
9. Eric Bachmann
To the Races
Saddle Creek (August 22)
To the Races led me to a theory that Bachmann is best with debuts; his first albums with previous bands Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers and now this, his proper solo debut (after some soundtrack work a while back) are solid beginning to end. This understated ten-song collection was recorded in a hotel room after he spent a summer living in his van and emerged with a clear head to do his strongest songwriting in years.
8. The Fiery Furnaces
Fat Possum (April 18)
This, the other half of the notorious Rehearsing My Choir sessions, just didn’t piss everyone off as much as the band wanted: A resounding “meh” was heard upon its release. But if you look past the backward vocals and occasional inevitable tangents, this is some of the Friedbergers’ finest and most straightforward work. Please review “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” “Nevers” and “Benton Harbor Blues Again.”
7. Yo La Tengo
I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass
Matador (September 12)
Welcome back, guys, and thanks for delivering the perfect Yo La Tengo sampler, skipping through everything that has worked for you in the past, and often improving on it. It’s hard to believe you’re still this good.
6. Neko Case
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Anti (March 7)
Neko Case’s voice has been mesmerizing since “Letter From an Occupant,” but her esteemed role in the New Pornographers never quite segued into general appreciation for her solo material. Finally, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood introduces Case as a confident lyricist and storyteller: vivid, concise and slow-burning.
5. Swan Lake
Jagjaguwar (November 21)
Arguably Canada’s three most talented songwriters, Dan Bejar, Carey Mercer and Spencer Krug joined forces to birth this beast, a blurring of the lines between their talents, which have, stylistically and technically, overlapped in the past. But Beast Moans creates a distinct balance of ideas and revolving songwriting, resulting in a sound that at times transcends the individuals to hit further peaks.
4. Band of Horses
Everything All the Time
Sub Pop (March 21)
Who would have thought that cranking up the volume on Caris’¿½s Weird would turn into this? Walls of guitars blend with restrained strumming, creating “bootgaze” — a fitting term coined right here. I’ve heard this album compared to the Shins, My Morning Jacket, Built to Spill, and many others; no matter if the members of Band of Horses are culling from the past or present, it’s clear that they cull from the best.
Roots and Crowns
Thrill Jockey (October 10)
Oddly inspired by an obscure Psychic TV song — “The Orchids,” which is beautifully covered here — Roots and Crowns sees Tim Rutili and Califone setting everything back to zero after the loss of all of their equipment and emerging with a reflective and organic cross-section of loops and folk. Here, they’ve reached their highest plateau yet.
2. The Knife
Mute (July 25)
Desperation, horror, abuse, death: They all collide on Silent Shout. Creating a record that’s undeniably creepy, slyly funny and just outright strange, the Knife sharply turned from the techno pop of Deep Cuts, twisting vocals and nerves into the strangest and most singular vision to come out of electronic music in years.
Merge (February 21)
This might be Dan Bejar’s biggest year yet. Coming off of the New Pornographers’ strongest record to date, Bejar dropped this complex piece of his Destroyer puzzle on us early, leaving a good chunk of the year to jam it into place before Swan Lake provided more to chew on. Rubies has enough of his labyrinth of lyrical reference/self-reference/meta-reference to make Colin Meloy’s head spin. Here it’s served up in its most accessible package since the momentous Streethawk: A Seduction (2001), and his confident guitar work and tonal experimentation here are fantastic.
Jonathan Easley (no particular order)
TV on the Radio
Return to the Cookie Mountain
Interscope (September 12)
Now a full-fledged quintet, the major-label debut from these Brooklynites surrounds from every angle with smart poetry, dense polyrhythms and wicked cool. Rotating through bookish, badass and sexy moods, Return to Cookie Mountain also has the best single of the year “Wolf Like Me.”
Mission of Burma
Matador (May 23)
The third album in twenty-four years from the temporally choppy, stateside post-punk pioneers is incredibly loud and brutally hardcore. Apparently not mellowing with age or hampered by tinnitus, the members of Mission of Burma still use the same tape-deck manipulation and two phenomenal punk vocalists Clint Conley and Roger Miller — the latter finding some crazed sound between Chuck D. and Ian MacKaye.
Alive (October 10)
I’ve never been in the living room of brothers Andrew and Zachary Gabbard (formerly of garage-rock outfit Thee Shams), but I think it’s safe to assume that it’s stacked with Led Zeppelin, the Who, Black Sabbath and Neil Young records, and probably a glass water-bong that’s more than a yard tall. Their debut album is not a modern take on anything: It’s packed with genuine classic rock grooves and soulful howling.
Isobell Campbell and Mark Lanegan
Ballad of the Broken Seas
V2 (March 2)
I could listen to the vocals from this pair all day. The unlikely duo know this is their centerpiece as they wander, whisper, strum and cough through beautifully depressed folk songs, dusty Hank Williams covers and all kinds of existential strangeness.
Return to the Sea
Equator (April 4)
With a little help from their Arcade Fire friends and less dependence on the synthesizer, the members of Islands make a sound that is more organic and thus more mature. They’re not growing up too fast, though: Return to the Sea is still full of rough gems, epic storytelling, surreal natural disasters and, yep, a rap song.
J (May 2)
Remember these dudes? Those are lines creeping across Eddie Vedder’s face, but his fire still burns hot. Pearl Jam doesn’t return to form so much as find a nice niche in the present, blending its punk and classic-rock sensibilities into its most surprising and fulfilling release since 1996’s No Code.
Geffen (June 13)
Rather ripped, indeed. This is what I like from these late-forty-somethings: Rather Ripped mixes the clean guitar muscle of 1992’s Dirty with moments of jangly Sonic pop. Thurston Moore is seriously underrated as a vocalist, and Kim Gordon sounds like she knows what she wants and isn’t leaving until she gets it.
The Mountain Goats
John Darnielle continues a remarkable string of prolific songwriting while closing the book on The Sunset Tree. This fictional narrative follows him through a chilly breakup with all the brutally honest insight and cutting detail we’ve come to expect from the Mountain Goats.
Join Dan Sartain
Swami (September 26)
Joining Dan Sartain may be a dubious proposition: His rockabilly seems inspired by the wrong kind of pills, the wrong side of Saturday night and a misguided pride in the whole affair. Sounding like the Reverend Horton Heat blowing past the burnout point in a Bel Air, this degree of pathos could only come from the mind of a no-town, not-so-self-assured early twenty-something in the Deep South.
Drag City (August 22)
David Pajo is still whispering into a computer and his sound is still eerily reminiscent of Elliott Smith, but this time around things get a little gory. Inspired by horror films and centuries-old Persian poetry, the multi-talented name associated with Slint, Zwan, Royal Trux, Stereolab, Palace, Tortoise and Papa M takes us on a louder, bloodier trip through his psyche.
Lee Fullington (no particular order)
A Prayer for Myself
TBC (October 16)
Jim Evens has the voice of an angel — a floppy haired, plaid-shirted, guitar-wielding angel. And, man, can he sing. But its not just his stunning voice that makes this band so special, it’s the way the members layer guitars, bass and drums to create these shoegazing lullabies.
The Big Sleep
Son of the Tiger
French Kiss (September 19)
This is a mainly instrumental record that does not sound like Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky or Mono or any of their ilk. The Big Sleep has found a whole different plateau for its wall of sound to take a psychedelic tumble from, and it falls hard and heavy and honeyed on our unsuspecting heads.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Anti (March 7)
She’s got the kind of rare voice that makes you cry but also dries your tears at the same time. Couple that with her cryptic lyrics and stomping and swooning guitars and even a cello at times, and get your box of tissues ready.
Matador (March 7)
The title of this album always makes me giggle, but the music is a maelstrom of guitars and feedback and ebbs and flows — and some vocals, to boot. These musicians have outdone themselves on this one.
You Are There
Temporary Residence (April 11)
Theatrical and pummeling, it’s a classical music cranked up to 11. With drums. And thunder. And lightning. Prepare for a full-knuckled punch to the sternum when the levee breaks.
Ringleader of the Tormentors
Sanctuary (April 4)
Keys to the World
Virgin (March 21)
Though these two albums aren’t stellar in their own rights, I’m just happy that they’ve both given us something to chew on until the next attempt. Sometimes going solo yields beautiful results immediately, sometimes we just have to be patient and maybe the next record will be the one to do it. Both Morrissey and Ashcroft have spotty track records in the solo field, but there’s always that glimmer of hope.
Sony (May 16)
Each record Jennings does gets a bit louder than the last, but in a good way. He expands his sound to surround his voice and yet maintains a timeless quality to his singing — not to mention great lyrics and turns of phrase.
Archie Bronson Outfit
Domino (July 25)
These blokes show why dirty rock ‘n’ roll records need three band members to flesh them out. Yelps and riffs aplenty on this one. It just unabashedly rocks.
Band of Horses
Everything All the Time
Sub Pop (March 21)
This one’s a got a little bit of everything to satisfy your alternative-rock guitar-based palette. This debut points to an interesting future: Which genre will ultimately be this band’s destination?
Hell Hath No Fury
Re-Up Gang/Star Trak (November 28)
Though it’s not as pitch-black as everyone hoped it would be, Clipse has still made a dirty record that is lean and mean. Great beats, great rhymes. The only thing left is to see how this one ages.
9. Rodrigo y Gabriela
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Ruby Works (June 20)
A male/female Mexican duo that met in a heavy-metal band moved to Ireland and has now recorded some of the strongest instrumental-guitar music around. This is rock/flamenco/folk at its best (probably its worst, too, but whatever). Even the “Stairway” cover works. Everyone should own at least one copy of this.
8. M. Ward
Merge (August 29)
If I wasn’t assigned to review this, I would have continued being uninterested in it forever. And that’s a shame, because Noel Gallagher is right: This is a fucking great record, indie critical tidal wave or not.
I’m Still Livin’
Rap-a-Lot (November 21)
Let the Truth Be Told was the most underrated hip-hop album of last year. Z-Ro’s profile and respect in the rap community has grown over the past twelve months, but I’m Still Livin’ hasn’t seen much more success — even though it might be even better than its predecessor. Smooth choruses and excellent lyrics from the Houston emcee propel the record forward. It’s solid from start to finish, from an emcee who deserves to be recognized as one of the strongest in the game.
6. Justin Timberlake
Jive (September 12)
Am I trendy because I like Justin Timberlake because he’s popular and because I want to act like I’m so underground that I like things that are popular? Or am I so ahead of the curve that I’ve already predicted the backlash against the anti-Justin movement and I’m sticking with Justin until everyone comes around to liking him again? My head hurts. I’m gonna go listen to “What Goes Around – Comes Around.”
5. Basement Jaxx
Crazy Itch Radio
XI (September 12)
Inexplicably greeted with shrugs, Crazy Itch Radio not only lives up to the high expectations that have come to be associated with new Jaxx records, but it may be the group’s finest of all. If Britney is serious about a comeback, someone should tell her to hook up with these guys: With the right exposure, this music would rocket to the top of the charts.
4. The Game
Aftermath (November 14)
Amazing beats, a charismatic rapper that upped his lyrical skills enormously, an unending line of singles: Doctor’s Advocate is easily the best commercial hip-hop record this year — maybe the best since, ironically enough, Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
3. Kode9 & the Spaceape
Memories of the Future
Hyperdub (October 24)
As dubstep moves into the long-playing format, this album will be the measure of artistic success. After releasing Burial’s strong self-titled debut on his Hyperdub label, Kode9 followed it up with an even stronger record, filled with paranoid soundscapes and electronic hiccups. Spaceape’s speak/rap may be off-putting at first, but with repeated listens the complexities of the music will reveal themselves and the lyrics will start to get under your skin. Late-night listens alone in the dark are essential: I’ve already had two dreams directly related to this album.
2. TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
Interscope (September 12)
This year’s Illinois is just as deserving of the praise that has been heaped onto it. A brilliant synthesis of new and old conceptions of rock, Return to Cookie Mountain was light years ahead of its already-accomplished predecessor, fulfilling all the promise the band had shown. TV on the Radio also turned in the best live performance of the year, all but sealing its position for me as the most exciting rock act around.
!K7 (May 30)
Endlessly fascinating, often hypnotic, Scale is Matthew Herbert’s best album, the culmination of a large portion of his career and a true classic that will only get better with age. In one of the strongest recent years for electronic music, this release towers above it all.
Zach Hothorn (no particular order)
Australian Cattle God (October 10)
Sounds like: Hendrix jamming with Deep Purple
Smells like: Skunk weed and Schlitz
Looks like: Record store employees
MeteorCity (November 7)
Sounds like: Fandango! in space
Smells like: New Jersey
Looks like: Guitar Center employees
Level Plane (May 16)
Sounds like: Metallica had Cliff Burton made it out of Sweden alive
Smells like: Your favorite dive bar
Looks like: The kids on the smoking ramp at your high school
Chatham County Line
Speed of the Whippoorwill
Yep Roc (May 30)
Sounds like: The Grand Old Opry on a Zenith
Smells like: Brylcreem
Looks like: MENSA members in tweed suits
Howler (February 21)
Sounds like: Mountain’s Climbing on a turntable set to 45 rpm
Smells like: A road case
Looks like: Brooklyn
Small Stone (August 17)
Sounds like: Black Sabbath sans Ozzy or Dio
Smells like: Cannabis sativa
Looks like: Truckers
Age of Winters
Kemado (February 14)
Sounds like: Matt Pike’s illegitimate love child
Smells like: Freshly inked tattoos
Looks like: Poseurs
Smoke & Mirrors
Small Stone (April 11)
Sounds like: ZZ Top doing Sabbath covers
Smells like: Spilled gasoline
Looks like: The bouncer at your favorite dive bar
A Senile Animal
Ipecac (October 10)
Sounds like: A quadraphonic Stoner Witch
Smells like: Rock royalty
Looks like: Hair. Lotsa hair