01 Iron and Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (Sub Pop)
We hate it when our favourite artists change their sound. We hate it when our favourite artists make the same album over and over again. Either way it’s a trap few except the “made” ones (Radiohead, Björk) are lucky enough to sidestep… usually by consistently confounding expectations until there are none remaining. Sam Beam rose to notice with a hushed, home-recorded poetry that was the aural equivalent of one thousand fuzzy sweaters on a cool spring night. He could’ve kept knitting for a few years and no one would likely complain. The signs that a changes was coming were contained in the The Woman King e.p. and collaborative album In the Reins that saw Beam throwing in with the Calexico family. So it’s not exactly a blindside when The Shepherd’s Dog starts out with a full, loping rhythm chock with strings and butcher block percussion. Woman King producer Brian Deck (Red Red Meat, Califone) is on hand to push everything just a little off-axis until it clatters and Calexico’s Joey Burns and Paul Niehaus also pitch in to crowd the arrangements with unexpected yet sensitive input. But the key is that Beam himself is the quiet, beating heart still sliding across bright acoustic strings and his stories with lines like “A boy with a coin he found in the weeds / With bullets and pages of trade magazines / Close to a car that flipped on the turn / When God left the ground to circle the world.” It’s Iron and Wine’s best album… and our favourite album this year.
02 Akron/Family – Love is Simple (Young God)
There’s something satisfying about a gradually changing relationship. Akron/Family is a band that has gone from a nodding acquaintance (they were the band behind Michael Gira for that Angels of Light album? Cool.) to sharing common friends (they contributed to the last Do Make Say Think album? Cool.) to tentative traveling visits (they’re playing down in Saint John? Cool.). So when they release the eccentric yet cohesive and retro-friendly song cycle like Love is Simple we are happy to say our pals have done us proud. The Family have a peculiar ability to pinpoint the aspects of “hippie” rock that renders it nauseating and extract them, leaving behind all the warmth and sometime strangely dark corners that engage heart and id simultaneously. They downplay the more cosmic freak-out elements of past releases sticking to a blend of harmonic folk and elliptical mantras that have as much to do with No Neck Blues Band as Crosby Stills and Nash.
03 Panda Bear – Person Pitch (Paw Tracks)
There’s a list of musical touchstones in the liner notes for Person Pitch that name checks a long and varied list of artists from Erik Satie to Neu to Cindy Lauper. Each name elicits a quick cocked eyebrow immediately followed by the recognition that, yes, that’s in there too. In interview Noah Lennox has referred to the music he makes with Animal Collective as “folk music.” If Folk music is defined by its reactions to and reflections of the current cultural climate then AC’s spasmodic carnival noise-pop is indeed folk music for the text-messaging CNN crawl-saturated celebrity news choked here and now. But Person Pitch is not that, exactly. If anything it’s an escape from the here and now into a kinder, gentler and wholly invented patchwork past where Brian Wilson and the members of Can kick back in a Malibu beach hut and play pong on a black and white big screen television. Panda Bear knocks out layers of individually simple loops that accumulate into a clanking rondelle equal parts honey sunset and errant sand; then plunks a few more harmonizing vocal layers on top. It’s not pop perfection… it’s something way more ephemeral and satisfying.
04 Deerhunter – Cryptograms (Kranky)
There are many examples of the “twist,” not in the Chubby Checker sense… but in the O. Henry / Twilight Zone / Star Trek classic sense where the big bad threat turns out to be merely a child-like alien creature at play. Deerhunter aren’t exactly child-like, but there is more than a little alien in them… and Cryptograms is an album that pulls the neat twist of slowly turning from an experimental excursion into a solid pop/rock record. It’s hard to pinpoint any definitive precedents for them, but a decent comparison could be sequencing The Beatles’ White Album tracks from “Revolution #9” to “Dear Prudence” and letting it fly. Except it isn’t really that either, exactly…. That’s the strange, wonderful non-hook/hook of the album: it can’t be neatly explained as an experimental pop album or a pop experimental album. It is a twist… a new branch off the old DNA strands.
05 Loney, Dear – Loney, Noir (Sub Pop)
If you’ll allow for a little anecdotal reviewing here… nearly a year ago I was hanging out with a few friends at home and we were listening to some of our favourites from 2006. As the evening wore on it became increasingly apparent that our listening tastes were somewhat anchored in melancholy waters: Weakerthans, The Mountain Goats, Sufjan Stevens. The question was finally asked, “why do we only listen to sad music?” I remembered just getting the Loney, Dear album and I quickly popped it in and skipped to the “I Am John” track. Things to know about Loney, Dear: the band is essentially one gentleman named Emil Svanängen and he comes from Sweden. Now Swedes seem largely incapable of making out and out sad albums. In fact some of them seem to revel in altitude derived euphoria constantly. Albums by the artists listed above have a quality of sadness that is tempered by resolve and hope that allow us to share in their quiet desperation (or loud desperation in cases) but feel better afterwards. Loney, Noir is a happy-sounding album that is tempered with an awkwardness and uncertainty verging on the teenaged. Although it is a one-man effort, Svanängen has a deft and diverse touch on several instruments and an ear for orchestration that makes familiar hooks sound fresh and exciting again.
06 Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam (Domino)
A lot of laser printed ink has been fused over the last five years trying to define the song-to-noise ratio delivered by the Animal Collective. Strawberry Jam tips the scales on the song side to an even greater degree than Feels did a couple of years ago. Still, it seems strangely less accessible… as though they found a way to infuse the noise within the song the same way Caramilk hides the caramel inside the chocolate. On their earlier noise jams they distinguished themselves from their more aggressive counterparts with a weirdly enthusiastic and innocent abandon both in their sound choices and stage shows. Here they’ve funneled this enthusiasm into a stylized hyper-pop structure that borders on manic… like children’s entertainers who’ve had their Kool-aid dosed with Ecstasy. Whatever the chemical imbalance, it’s an album that pushes back claustrophobic boundaries in a very necessary way.
07 Vic Chesnutt –North Star Destroyer (Constellatiion)
Vic is one of those singer/songwriters who is beloved as much for his eccentricities as for his storytelling skills. The last decade he’s been toiling away at a slow but steady pace that hasn’t yielded a great deal of exceptional work or media notice. North Star Deserter pairs him with a backing band made up of Montreal’s Constellation Records alumni with help from Fugazi’s Guy Piccioto and others. This turns out to be the catalyst that focuses his energy in a way absent since his early Texas Hotel releases. Early tracks suggest that this might be a work full of crashing crescendos and drunken choirs but it soon settles into a darker, quieter pocket. Chesnutt tells wry and uneasy stories of over-medication and vision quests that abut a damaged modern world. The Godspeed / Silver Mt. Zion folks are equally good at bringing the loud as filling out the spooky intervals with subtle detail. Let’s hope a return visit to Canada is in the cards.
08 The National – Boxer (XL)
With Crocodile The National popped up at the tail-end of the New York rock sweepstakes with an album that sat atop a strong if largely unnoticed back catalogue on Brassland records. Boxer is not a remake of that last album, though it shares many obvious qualities, most notably singer/lyricist Matt Berninger’s slightly abstract and askew take on the love song’s landscape. The soundtrack is a little more spare and spacious… to good effect… and the band’s late night feel is even a little later and darker than before. Like Roxy Music and Tindersticks before them, they manage to sound glamorous, romantic and a little sinister without being extroverted about any of it. The perfect soundtrack for any passive-aggressive stalemate.
09 Rick White – Memoreaper (Blue Fog)
Fifteen years on from the release of Eric’s Trip cornerstone Love Tara ringleader Rick White has gone through a series of expansions and contractions of sound (and band name). His Elevator to Hell / Elevator Through / Elevator project has given way to a solo recording set-up with him playing all instruments. Memoreaper sounds as much like a career overview as a new album, with noisy pop songs that would slide nicely next to any ET track; spooky forest dwelling psychedelia; even quasi-punk two stepping barnburners. This may be the most consistently ear-catching release since Elevator’s Taste of Complete Perspective or even Tara herself.
10 Bill Callahan – Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City)
Though he dropped the Smog moniker in favour of his given name, Mr. Callahan still inhabits a thick-aired realm where Indie and Alt-Country overlap with added friction. The production by Royal Trux / Howling Hex frontman Neil Haggerty merely tweaks and/or roughens up a general sound Bill has been mining for a half-dozen albums or more. Where A River Ain’t Too Much to Love had a spare looseness and more off-the-cuff feeling, Whaleheart plays like a 60s or 70s Nashville session that went way off track at some point. When the ending refrain “a man needs a woman / or a man to be a man” is tossed out you get the feeling this isn’t quite Tennessee anymore.
11 Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (DGC)
Adding an ex-Smiths guitarist as a permanent member of your band could be either a gigantic music coup or a publicity prank… or both. But when Johnny Marr’s guitar lines gently sink into now-signature Modest Mouse cacophony you realize that, no, he’s just another member of the band… period. Some critics have been quick to call We Were Dead… a retread of their breakout success with Good News…, but in fact this album reaches back a little further and revisits the longer song experiments absent from that last album. Isaac Brock’s venom still drips all over these songs, but the abstractions seem broader and farther reaching than the usual self-diagnosed alienation themes. It didn’t have the radio-cracking immediacy of the ubiquitous “Float On” but this ship was still stuffed to the gunnels with hooks and pops.
12 Caribou – Andorra (Merge)
Dan Snaith began his recording career under the Manitoba alias fiddling around with samples, beats and instruments that slotted his work comfortably between contemporaries like Amon Tobin and label-mate Four Tet. After being sued by 70s punk “icon” Handsome Dick Manitoba over possible confusion arising from the name, Snaith took on Caribou and obviously used the new name as a jump-off point for a new direction. Andorra anachronistically places 60s vocal pop and doo-wop in the current digital world, mixing-down the group sound into a solo artist project. The results speak for themselves: all the shaking, shimmying energy of its influences writ widescreen and technicolour with CGI explosions to press the point home. Snaith’s breathy near-falsetto is sometimes nearly trampled by the stampede of instruments, but it provides an anchor his previous instrumental album lacked.
13 Six Organs of Admittance – Shelter from the Ash (Drag City)
Depending on your choice of magazine, website or general point of view the term “Freak Folk” is either a red flag, a dirty word or an altogether useless genre tag. Ben Chasny (also of Comets on Fire) plays music as Six Organs that may have occasionally drifted over this field, but on Shelter from the Ash he grounds in the kind of 70s apocalyptic folk rock that encompasses everything from Incredible String Band to Black Sabbath or even Uriah Heep. Helped out by Matt Sweeney (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Chavez) and Elisa Amrogio (Magik Markers) the band shines a bright light through the haze and forges on. The title track may or may not be an homage to Cormac MacCarthy’s book The Road, but it certainly suits a bleak landscape. Not that there’s an absence or raging against the dying of the light… oh, they rage, man.
14 Besnard Lakes – Are the Dark Horse (Outside)
If you’ll permit me yet another instance of anecdotal reviewing… I received a box of playcopies earlier in the year that included both this album and the new Low release (also listed further down). I had heard Besnard Lakes’ previous album when the group was still just a duo and was curious about their progress so I popped it in and went about my in-store busy-work. My mind drifted (as it usually does) and I soon had cross-wired the playcopies, attributing what I was hearing (and liking) to the next chapter in Low’s peculiar evolution. Only after it finished and I went to put it back in case did I realize my mistake. The Brian Wilson / Beach Boys harmony gets mentioned a lot, but I find a closer kinship to the Sparhawk’s husband and wife melodies and their willingness to follow a quiet guitar meditation with a crush of feedback and drums. Montreal has been the seat of melancholy and dramatics for a few years now and the Lakes certainly have a place in that pantheon.
15 Okkervil River – Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)
My first exposure to Okkervil River
16 Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars)
Deerhoof are another band who seem to be pulled in two directions. With each new album reviewers divisively and simultaneously praise their more “pop” sound and their new “experimental” direction. Friendship Opportunity won’t break this trend. Now pared down to a trio the band has stepped back from their prog-for-wind-up-toys style of heaviness, but still relies on complications of structure when verse-chorus-verse might do. There is a lot more breathing room… extended passages where mood seems to take things over before someone grabs the reins. They may have a perfect pop album in them, but one suspects they’ll keep in buried there.
17 Kings of Leon – Because of the Times (RCA)
The Followill clan stepped up their game with this heavier sounding album with harder edges and bigger boom. At the core though they still are sex-and-God obsessed southern boys who know what they want but aren’t sure they’ll ever get it. Caleb’s lyrics are still marvelously semi-opaque, going for the feeling more than the exact meaning of things. Most importantly they still rock in a way that is immediately familiar but somehow just off enough to avoid “been there” reflexes. Favourite song “Fans” also has one of the best lines of the year: “She has a hat / and all the hat says is ‘asshole.’”
18 David Vandervelde – The Moonstation House Band (Secretly Canadian)
This year’s new wunderkind award might go to David Vandervelde. An early-20-something classic rock obsessive who’s debut was nurtured by ex-Wilco journeyman genius Jay Bennett. Playing the lion’s share of instruments on most tracks Vandervelde bangs together a noise that traps Slider era T.Rex, Big Star and Hunky Dory Bowie in its snapcase. It’s a brief affair, barely over 30 minutes, but it leaves room to dream of what might come next.
19 Tiny Vipers – Hands Across the Void (Sub Pop)
Jesy Fortino’s debut album has gotten some easy comparisons to Cat Power and Joanna Newsom as they are the current paradigm of folk-leaning weird women. Her purported bouts of stage fright have only helped to cement this parallel. Hands Across the Void’s songs are extended acoustic meditations that, slowly and over repeated listens, reveal a harnessed manic energy that is perhaps more reminiscent of Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses or even Jean Smith of Mecca Normal. Occasional bursts of electricity also indicate something darker hiding in the clouds.
20 Angels of Light – We Are Him (Young God)
Michael Gira re-enlisted Akron/Family as his backing band to great effect on this newest, and perhaps most superficially upbeat album of his long career. The buoyant energy of the cosmic crew can’t totally obscure the still-disquieting topics and lyrics that Gira continues to work through. At times the combination resembles Nick Cave at his grand guignol best, elsewhere a stately but twisted mountainside funeral band. It is music to describe prophecies coming to pass.
21 P J Harvey – White Chalk (Island)
22 Elliott Smith – New Moon (Kill Rock Stars)
23 Beirut – The Flying Club Cup (Ba Da Bing)
24 Samamidon – All is Well (Bedroom Community)
25 DNTEL – Dumb Luck (Sub Pop)
26 Songs of Green Pheasant – Gyllyng Street (Fat Cat)
27 Liars – S/T (Mute)
28 Grinderman – S/T (Anti-)
29 The Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)
30 Menomena – Friend or Foe (Absolutely Kosher)
31 Low – Drums and Gun (Sub Pop)
32 Parts and Labor – Mapmaker (Jagjaguwar)
33 Laura Veirs – Saltbreakers (Nonesuch)
34 Pissed Jeans – Hope for Men (Sub Pop)
35 Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends (French Kiss)
36 Interpol – Our Love to Admire (Capitol)
37 Mohawk Lodge – Wildfires (White Whale)
38 Weakerthans – Reunion Tour (Anti-)
39 Sandro Perri – Tiny Mirrors (Constellation)
40 The Sadies – New Seasons (Outside)
41 The Book of Lists – S/T (Scratch)
42 The Good, The Bad and The Queen – S/T (Virgin)
43 Air – Pocket Symphony (Astralwerks)
44 Wooden Stars – People Are Different (Sonic Unyon)
45 Von Südenfed – Tromatic Reflexxions (Domino)
46 Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)
47 Blonde Redhead – 23 (4AD)
48 Patrick Watson – Close to Paradise (Secret City)
49 Chet – Fight Against Darkness (Aaargh!)
50 HRSTA – Ghosts Will Come and Kiss Our Eyes (Constellation)