1) SUFJAN STEVENS--The Age of Adz
This is a unique choice for me, and I'll be the first to admit it. I've never been much of a Sufjan fan, as I found some of his down home folk-isms a bit silly, and his state homages uber-pretentious. Stevens has taken five years to break away from the state-history concept, and in that time, has learned how to find a way out and reinvent himself. The Age of Adz is the first album featuring a heavily synthesized texture, and while at times it may seem like everything and the kitchen sink, mostly it works masterfully. Stevens knows how to layer sound to create magic, and there are some soaring moments here that show his compositional prowess better than anything he has previously committed to record. Lengthy and expansive, AoA is an album made by a child of the Radiohead generation, and it shows. It also belies a certain Bjork Homogenic/Vespertine influence, and I cannot think of more fantastical things to be compared to. Just check out the final track, the 25-minute epic, "Impossible Soul", to see what I mean. It remains to be seen where he goes from here, but at the moment, Sufjan, you finally won me over.
2) ARCADE FIRE--Suburbs
Another odd choice for me--am I resorting to some untraveled indie-land lately? Arcade Fire's third record is not only their best produced album, it is also their best from beginning to end. Gone are some of the mock pretensions of the previous Neon Bible album, and in are some wonderful songs that play like a story about the disillusion of the suburban lifestyle of North America (the Fire are based in Montreal, after all). Suburbs is also the album they learn to make the best of their shortcomings, as lead female Renee never had the loveliest voice; here they manage to integrate it to good use, especially on songs like "The Sprawl II", where she is juxtaposed with a heavily melodic keyboard texture and undulating rhythms. Songs like "City With No Children" and "Suburban War" feel like the most important songs they've ever recorded. Do not pass this one up!
3) OMD (ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK)--History of Modern
Now this might be something you'd expect me to recommend, but I'm not doing it just because I've loved them forever. I'm doing it because it's a damn fine album, and the best record they've made beginning to end since 1982. OMD released their first album in 1980, with the core duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys splitting up in 1989, leaving McCluskey to carry on with the OMD name. In 1996, McCluskey released the last OMD album, Universal, and, unhappy with the commercial reception and his place in the pop world, retired from making and performing music to create teen pop sensations (in the UK) Atomic Kitten. That only kept his interest for a little while, and in 2006 the original OMD lineup reconvened, with this album being the eventual product. And what a product it is. The 2-part title tracks alone are worth owning this album, and while some songs see them stretch a bit, most are in the expected grand style of classic OMD, with little bits taken referenced from all periods of their history. I especially like the Kraftwerk tribute, "RFWK", and the final track, "The Right Side?", which sounds like OMD's own take on Kraftwerk's ambling electronica. Simply smart, classy, and elegant.
Speaking of smart, classy, and elegant...this album is the definition. While they get compared to everything 80's, from Pet Shop Boys to Johnny Hates Jazz, Hurts seem to be filling a certain void existing in pop music now, namely, polished and produced sad balladry with an electronic edge. Depeche Mode may be a touchstone, but Hurts are far too conventional for that, and don't have the wry wit of PSB nor the blandness of JHZ. They are purveyors of mood and melody, and have crafted some of the most beautiful sorrowful ballads in recent memory. Theo Hutchcraft's voice was made for music like this, and it positively soars against these achingly yearning backdrops. If you like your music big and important, here you go.
5)ROSE ELINOR DOUGALL--Without Why
Once in a while, a voice and album come along that seem quite special and somehow timeless. Rose Elinor Dougall's debut has that sort of feel. With a voice that seems like a spectral mix of Siouxsie Sioux and Harriet Wheeler (Sundays), and music that mostly echoes indie-Britain (think Sundays and Cocteau Twins), this rather unexpected release from a former Pipette never ceases to amaze. Rose has a way with harmony which must have been partially influenced by her former group, and Without Why is a bold and rather uncompromising leap into something new for her. She has become so well-respected that UK super-producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse) has enlisted her vocal duties for some of his most recent album. Hopefully Rose will be able to pay some of the bills now.
6) PIPETTES--Earth Vs. the Pipettes
Poor Pipettes. Since their first album was an underground indie hit in 2007, they lost two of the three singers (one being the aforementioned Rose Elinor Dougall), gained two new ones, and lost another upon finishing the recording of this album (lead singer Gwenno and her sister Ani remain). The de-facto Destiny's Child of British indie, Pipettes found a way to soldier on by moving from the 60's to the 80's, and while some may bristle at the shift in direction, EvtP is actually still quite melodic, and just as fun. Getting their CD released has been a chore as well, as they were dropped by their US label, and have had to find a new home, with the album coming out in the fall, even though it has been readily downloaded (aka STOLEN) for over two months at the time of writing. PLEASE, if you like this band AT ALL, BUY a copy when it is officially released (it may be out in England already) if you ever want to hear from them again. It's an amazingly good record if you ever liked 80's bands like Bananarama or Wham.
7) MAXIMUM BALLOON--Maximum Balloon
TV on the Radio are a band I admire, but don't really love, and Dave Sitek has contributed to lots of production jobs in the past, but here he lets his party flag fly, and he's all the better for it. A loosely collected album featuring vocals from Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeah's), Little Dragon, members of TV on the Radio, and even David Byrne(!), Maximum Balloon is a well-produced party record that actually sounds like Talking Heads at their party best at times, but also echoes Berlin-era Bowie with that Eno influence. If you want brainy music that you can tap your feet to and not feel guilty about it in the morning, here you go.
I really want to like Interpol, and have for a long time. I loved their first album, liked the second a lot, and found myself being rather ambivalent to the last one. Even still, I've seen the band live, and while I was impressed with their sound, I find it difficult sometimes to enjoy them as a band. Their latest record has done a lot to rectify this distance I feel, as the dark textures are really represented well again. Every time "Lights" begins, I get chills. This self-titled record which marks their return to an indie label may be their most claustrophobic album, but I'm finding that's how I like them the best.
9) JAMES--The Morning After the Night Before
I don't know if this really qualifies as an album as it really functions as two long EPs, one rather hushed (Morning); the other more pumped (Night), but I like it. While I think some song shuffling may be in order depending on your mood (the Morning disc tends to be a bit quiet for a long time), the material here ranks with some of their best. Inspired by the death of Tim Booth's mother, some of the new material is especially heartfelt, and benefits from that sense of purpose. Their last album, the reunion of Hey Ma, was quite good, but this one goes even one step better. Will somebody please explain to me why they aren't as popular as U2 yet?
Another rather unconventional choice, as I had somewhat given up on Underworld around the time of Two Months Off. Oblivion With Bells was just too somber for me, and it seemed to signal creative burnout for a band that had existed for nearly three decades, but had lost their DJ member, Darren Emerson, a few year prior. Emerson makes a bit of a return here, as do other famous names like Paul van Dyk, much to the benefit of the record. Barking is the most alive sounding Underworld have been in years, and my God, there are even the beginnings of TUNES here! If you liked this band but had given up on them, give this a try. You won't be disappointed (or shouldn't be, anyway).
Other albums of note I quite enjoyed:
HUNDRED IN THE HANDS--Hundred in the Hands
KIM WILDE (!)--Come Out & Play
THE DRUMS--The Drums
NICK CAVE & GRINDERMAN--Grinderman 2
MARK RONSON--Record Collection
BLONDE REDHEAD--Penny Sparkle
PAUL HEATON--Acid Country
MONARCHY--Monarchy (this isn't coming out now til 2011?)
MATTHEW DEAR--Black City
ROBYN--Body Talk Pt. 2*
*(This may still get a higher ranking once the third and final part is released in November)
Records I found disappointing:
I know, this is supposed to be the slow, downtempo cousin of last years FABULOUS Junior, but can we find a pulse here? A vocalist here & there would have been nice too. Bah-ring (sorry guys).
KATIE MELUA--The House
I was really looking forward to this for once, but other than the single, no go.
HOOSIERS--Illusion of Safety
A bit too far into pop territory, perhaps. Hopefully it sells, guys.
I like about 70% of this album, so it isn't all that bad, but a bit flawed. I find this continual Vegas talk getting a bit tiring, so songs like "Only the Young" actually work for me, while the more referential ones don't. I get that he wants to make it his private New York, but even Sinatra gets tiresome whenever THAT song comes on. Hey Brandon, next time, why don't you sing more about your emotions and who you are, not who you saw get arrested and where you are (but no more lyrics about dancers).
So close but yet so far, this is the best Weezer record since Maladroit. No, really. Plus, everybody thinks it's Jorge Garcia's album.
Not so intrigued.
There are a lot more disappointing albums, but I chose to only refer to the ones I had high hopes for personally. Maybe next time???
Albums to get excited about: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Human League (!), Alphaville (!!), KT Tunstall, Annie Lennox (Christmas), Duran Duran (prod. by Mark Ronson--will you PLEASE do a Boy George record next?).
Where are your albums?: Kraftwerk, Darren Hayes, Justice, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Amy Winehouse, George Michael (will it ever happen?).