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…It was another year in which I listened to a lot of really good new music and didn’t write about it enough. In any case, out of about 90 new albums I listened to in 2014, here are my 25 favorites, determined by a precise formula of individual song ratings and listening counts.

Interestingly, American artists dominated the list, taking 18 of the 25 spots, but the top three spots were all taken by non-Americans (two English and one Irish). My interest in listening to female musicians continued, with 11 of the top 25 being either female solo artists or female-fronted bands. My list includes a husband and wife who each made the list with their own solo album and a pair of singers who made the list twice, once with the own band and once for their backing vocals on a different album.

1. Villagers – {Awayland}

I really enjoyed their first album, 2010′s Becoming A Jackal, which was really almost a solo project by Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien. With their second album, Villagers have truly become a band. Mostly gone are the simple acoustic songs of the first album and in its place we get a broader and more complex sound — it’s nice to see musicians exploring new territory and stepping out of their comfort zone. From start to finish, {Awayland} is a really satisfying album that constantly surprises.

The Bell — official video

 

2. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

For much of 2013, I was convinced that this album was destined to be my #1, but it was just edged out at the finish line. Doesn’t matter — this was a total masterpiece by Marling, who just manages to churn out album after album of deep compelling songs even though she’s still in her early 20s. The album starts with an arc of seven songs that just stream out in a continuous wave of emotion, centering on the best song among them, Master Hunter. I think I’ve said before that she is our time’s Joni Mitchell and this album was another exhibit proving that fact.

Master Hunter — live performance on Later…with Jools Holland

 

3. Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma

Just like Villagers, Stornoway had a 2010 debut album that I liked a lot and put out their second album in 2013. But in this case, Tales From Terra Firma is a lot like Beachcomber’s Windowsill, full of beautiful catchy alt-folk anchored by the voice of lead singer Brian Briggs.

The Great Procrastinator — live performance (a remarkably high quality fan video)

 

4. Frontier Ruckus – Eternity of Dimming

I was completely blown away by this album by a band I hadn’t heard of until this year. A very ambitious, lyrically dense, double album of quirky folk pop that just captivated me. I’m somewhat mystified why this album never took off more — maybe critics and listeners were a little turned off by singer-songwriter Matthew Milia’s nasal voice. But this album is just a treasure of creative lyrics and a theme of fading memories and nostalgia.

Eternity of Dimming — live performance of the title track from back in 2011

 

5. Volcano Choir – Repave

I’m not sure if Volcano Choir is a side project of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon or if Bon Iver is a side project of Volcano Choir‘s Justin Vernon. In either case, I find I like the music he produces with Volcano Choir a bit more — heavily autotuned vocals and, especially on a song like Comrade, a sound that starts from nothing and just builds and builds.

Comrade — live performance

 

6. Typhoon – White Lighter

Big, bold, complex, richly satisfying: it’s not a fine Belgian beer, it’s an album by an 11-member band from Portland, Oregon. I love the complicated arrangements that they put together. And based on the live performance below, they must be a phenomenal band to see live.

Hunger and Thirst — live performance at Brighton Music Hall (and why wasn’t I there???)

 

7. Nataly Dawn – How I Knew Her

Nataly Dawn made a name for herself with the duo Pomplamoose and here is her first solo album. Her music reminds me a bit of Regina Spektor — songs that tell stories in a deeply engaging way that’s hard to ignore. I was vaguely curious about this album at first, but I just kept going back to it.

Please Don’t Scream — video of recording session

 

8. KT Tunstall – Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon

In the midst of a list of albums full of exclamation points, here is something way different — quietly understated and reflective. Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall took off to the American Southwest to record something that was a step above the average break-up album.

Invisible Empire — live acoustic performance

 

9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

The album that everyone loved (by a large margin, it won the NPR Music audience poll) — and well they should. Indie pop that’s impossible to resist. This was a reliable go-to album for me throughout the year.

Unbelievers — well-made lyric video

 

10. Boy – Mutual Friends

Technically, this is really a 2011 release by a German/Swiss duo, but it was not released in the US until February 2013, so I’m counting it as a 2013 album for me. Super-accessible pop that I just thoroughly enjoyed.

Little Numbers — official video shot in Barcelona

 

11. Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends

An inspired collaboration of this indie rock band and super-producer Dangermouse that was my favorite thing to listen to in the car on the way home from work — great escapist rock with tons of energy.

Evil Friends — official video

 

12. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

I can’t believe I never managed to stumble upon Josh Ritter’s music until this year, when he released his fifth album. Here’s a really engaging folk-pop singer-songwriter who writes great songs. New Lover is a great example — he’s moving on from a relationship and he’s not bitter about it, until the last few lines show that, well, maybe he still is a little bitter.

New Lover — official lyrics video

 

13. Daughter – If You Leave

Shoe-gazy pop from an English band that produced one of my absolute favorite songs of 2013, Youth. Great singer, great sound, sad lyrics — it’s a combination that never goes out of style.

Youth — live performance on KEXP Seattle

 

14. Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost

Sam Beam, performing under the name Iron & Wine, is yet another singer-songwriter who produced great music this year. Some long-time fans don’t like Ghost On Ghost as much as his earlier work, but I actually prefer this — it’s more complex musically and that complexity is nicely demonstrated in the song Lover’s Revolution.

Lovers’ Revolution — lyrics video

 

15. Lucius – Wildewoman

Lucius, anchored by their co-lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, produced their first album this year, after an EP last year. Infectious indie pop with heavy bass and percussion and another band that’s supposed to be very fun to see live. Wolfe and Laessig also play a key part in #18 below.

Turn It Around — live performance on KEXP Seattle

 

16. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

People raved about Jason Isbell for a long time before I finally gave Southeastern a listen and was not disappointed. Isbell wins my 2013 “country music for people who don’t like country music” (CMFPWDLCM) award with this album of beautiful storytelling. Elephant, a heartbreaking song about a barfly dying of cancer is a fine example of what Isbell does here.

Elephant — live performance on SiriusXM

 

17. Lucy Wainwright Roche – There’s a Last Time for Everything

Daughter of Suzzy Roche and Loudon Wainwright III, she proves herself very much worthy of her folk-music pedigree. Great voice and great songwriter, but I kept being drawn to the sole cover on the album, an absolutely inspired acoustic version of Robyn’s dance pop hit Call Your Girlfriend.

Call Your Girlfriend — video of recording session

 

18. San Fermin – San Fermin

I enjoyed San Fermin for a lot of the same reasons I loved Typhoon: intricate, almost operatic, songs created by a large ensemble of musicians. But this album has a very different origin. It was conceived and composed by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who brought in studio musicians, including singers Allen Tate, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, to execute his vision. Because this isn’t a “band” in the traditional sense, this may be a one-off project, but I hope to hear more from Ludwig-Leone in the future.

Methuselah — live, with other singers filling in for Wolfe and Laessig on their parts (Ellis Ludwig-Leone is the guy playing keyboards)

 

19. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Absolutely the most over-hyped album of the year, a double album based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s a little hard to set aside all the noise surrounding this album and just focus on the music — “indie” bands striking it big tend to make inviting targets for ridicule and the band were often their own worst enemy. But this is a solid album of rock with dance overtones that proved worthy of a spot in my top 20.

Reflektor — official video

 

20. The Head And The Heart – Let’s Be Still

The Head and the Heart may be the anti-Arcade Fire, though I looked forward to both of their albums equally. I loved the first Head and the Heart album and this one is just as good, full of crowd-pleasing, rootsy and rocky folk pop.

Shake — official video

 

21. Amanda Shires – Down Fell The Doves

Amanda Shires gets edged out by her husband Jason Isbell for this year’s coveted CMFPWDLCM (“country music for people who don’t like country music”) award, but she still manages to grab a spot in my top 25 with this engaging album of folk-pop-country. Yet another singer-songwriter who’s worth keeping an eye and ear out for.

Bulletproof — live performance

 

22. Laura Stevenson – Wheel

This one came out of nowhere for me. It was released in April, but I didn’t stumble upon it until November. I know almost nothing about her, but I really enjoyed this album of folk pop and it managed to sneak into my top 25 at the last moment.

The Move — live performance

 

23. Hey Marseilles – Lines We Trace

Did I say The Head and the Heart were the anti-Arcade Fire? Maybe Hey Marseilles is. Like THATH, Hey Marseilles produced their second album after a debut that I really enjoyed several years ago. This is quintessential music by musicians who clearly like making music, multi-instrumental folk pop that I like a lot.

Heart Beats — official video

 

24. Tennis – Small Sound (EP)

Tennis is one of those bands that’s all about the interplay of a great singer (Alaina Moore) and a great guitarist (Patrick Riley). The result is a very poppy sound combining girl-group vocals with surf guitars that I find incredibly infectious. After I enjoyed last year’s Young & Old, I was happy to find this EP and I assume a full-length album will be coming out soon.

Timothy — very lame audio-only “video” but it’s a great song

 

25. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record

While I’m disappointed that a bunch of very good albums just failed to make the cut, I’m so glad to see Eleanor Friedberger grab the 25th and final spot on my list. This is just straight-ahead fun pop rock by another singer-songwriter with a knack for crafting a pop hook. There’s nothing grandly ambitious here, just enjoyable music to get you through the day.

Stare at the Sun – official video

 

Honorable Mentions

I listened to some other really good albums in 2013 that for a variety of reasons just failed to make my top 25 list. Some highlights of good albums that just missed the cut:

  • Vienna Teng — Aims
  • Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
  • Erin McKeown — Manifestra
  • Frightened Rabbit — Pedestrian Verse
  • Alela Diane — About Farewell
  • Foxygen — We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic
  • Bettie Serveert — Oh, Mayhem!
  • The National — Trouble Will Find Me
  • Sam Phillips — Push Any Button
  • Sarah Jarosz — Build Me Up From Bones
  • Camera Obscura — Desire Lines
  • Valerie June — Pushin’ Against A Stone
  • Eels — Wonderful, Glorious
  • Emiliana Torrini — Tookah
  • Laura Veirs — Warp & Weft

OK, onward to 2014!

I’m vowing to resume blogging about music after a long break. Here’s a quick snapshot of what I’ve enjoyed so far in 2013. In no particular order:

  • Erin McKeown – Manifestra
  • Frontier Ruckus – Eternity of Dimming
  • Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
  • Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common
  • Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
  • Hey Marseilles – Lines We Trace
  • Robyn Hitchcock – Love from London
  • Josh Ritter – The Beast in Its Tracks
  • Villagers – {Awayland}
  • Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
  • Nataly Dawn – How I Knew Her
  • Stornoway – Tales from Terra Firma
  • Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
  • Bettie Serveert – Oh, Mayhem!

I’m also eagerly awaiting a bunch of new releases that are forthcoming, from Laura Marling, Camera Obscura, Eleanor Friedberger, KT Tunstall, Sigur Rós, plus a new Neko Case album that doesn’t have a release yet, but it is supposedly coming out this year.

manifestraErin McKeown – Manifestra

…This was one of my most eagerly anticipated releases of 2013 and it’s as good as I hoped/expected. Erin McKeown has built a long career as an independent singer-songwriter out of being bold and fearless, and that really shows on Manifestra. She fills the album up with highly political songs (plus a few personal ones) that are willing to jump around stylistically and are always a joy to listen.

A great example is the opening track, The Politician. In it, she portrays a hypocritical public figure with dark secrets (“if nobody knows, tell me what’s the crime?”) who hides behind religion when he’s caught (“pray pray pray, I’m so sorry…love the drinker, hate the wine”). But it’s easy to forget the lyrics and just enjoy the driving beat with a fun horn solo in the middle. Similarly, she takes on the misdeeds of Wall Street in In God We Trust (“late night government policy/cant make one and one make 3/calculate the size lobby/buy another friend”), which features a brilliant chorus that reworks the words of America the Beautiful and tosses in a nice beefy guitar solo from McKeown herself.

Like several songs here, The Jailer is built around the catchy rhythmic structure created by Marc Dalio’s drums. The title character appears to be a Joe Arpaio-type character (“for every man that jailer keeps, his soul is getting darker”). And Baghdad To The Bayou, co-written with Rachel Maddow, is a funky call to action (“who’s watching the watcher?/whose hand is in the pie?”) with a cast of vocalists that grows and grows from verse to verse.

The heart of Manifestra is its title track — over drums and her guitar plus some strings and a sax solo, McKeown raps her way through her personal philosophy. “I forgot about the water and chased the whale/The myth that the prize is all that ought to be…Every day give me the strength of a thousand beams.” She’s said the word “manifestra” is supposed to echo “manifesto,” “manifest,” and “fenestra.”

To all this, she adds a delightful little duet with Ryan Montbleau called Instant Classic that is the perfect 4-minute pop song — or maybe too perfect? Filled with romantic cliches that appear to be deliberately ironic considering McKeown’s queer identity, the song seems to be skewering the idea of a perfectly packaged pop song or Hollywood love story. But it’s easy to just skip the irony and enjoy the song. But it is also a nice intro to the Ryan Montbleau Band, which I really need to check out.

Next: Frontier Ruckus

Favorite Songs of 2012

One more item to wrap up my 2012 in music: a rundown of my favorite songs of 2012. I created five playlists, each just tight enough to squeeze onto an 80-minute CD. Each playlist is in no particular order. Now, on to 2013!

Best of 2012 – Rocky

  1. Serpents – Sharon Van Etten from Tramp
  2. Hold On – Alabama Shakes from Boys & Girls
  3. A Simple Answer – Grizzly Bear from Shields
  4. Charmer – Aimee Mann from Charmer
  5. Jackson – Craig Finn from Clear Heart Full Eyes
  6. Used To Rule The World – Bonnie Raitt from Slipstream
  7. Pretty Girl From Michigan – The Avett Brothers from The Carpenter
  8. Pirates – Jenny Owen Youngs from An Unwavering Band of Light
  9. The Way You Were Raised – Admiral Fallow from Tree Bursts in Snow
  10. North Side Gal – J.D. McPherson from Signs & Signifiers
  11. Big Parade – The Lumineers from The Lumineers
  12. Sidecar – Kathleen Edwards from Voyageur
  13. Generals – The Mynabirds from Generals
  14. Nothing To Remember – Neko Case from The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 And Beyond
  15. You As You Were – Shearwater from Animal Joy
  16. The Only Place – Best Coast from The Only Place
  17. Bend Beyond – Woods from Bend Beyond
  18. Eyeoneye – Andrew Bird from Break It Yourself
  19. Hey Jane – Spiritualized from Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Best of 2012 – Folky

  1. Dyin Day – Anais Mitchell from Young Man In America
  2. Guttersnipe – Bhi Bhiman from Bhiman
  3. Walk the Furrows – Bowerbirds from The Clearing
  4. Mahalla – Carolina Chocolate Drops from Leaving Eden
  5. Harder Before It Gets Easier – David Wax Museum from Knock Knock Get Up
  6. Bun In The Oven – Eleni Mandell from I Can See The Future
  7. Emmylou – First Aid Kit from The Lion’s Roar
  8. Empire Of Our State (featuring Emily Saliers) – Girlyman from Supernova
  9. Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed – Laura Gibson from La Grande
  10. Harlem Roulette – The Mountain Goats from Transcendental Youth
  11. Into Giants – Patrick Watson from Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  12. The Golden Age and the Silver Girl – Tyler Lyle from The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
  13. Live And Die – The Avett Brothers from The Carpenter
  14. Venus – Anais Mitchell from Young Man In America
  15. The Fire – Laura Gibson from La Grande
  16. Chameleon/Comedian – Kathleen Edwards from Voyageur
  17. The Storm, It’s Coming – Glen Hansard from Rhythm And Repose
  18. Call Me the Breeze – Beth Orton from Sugaring Season
  19. September – The Shins from Port Of Morrow
  20. California – Tyler Lyle from The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
  21. This Girl – Punch Brothers from Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Best of 2012 – Poppy

  1. Firewood – Regina Spektor from What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  2. Ghost – Ingrid Michaelson from Human Again
  3. All I Can – Sharon Van Etten from Tramp
  4. King of the World – First Aid Kit from The Lion’s Roar
  5. Lakeside View Apartments Suite – The Mountain Goats from Transcendental Youth
  6. All Alone – Fun. from Some Nights
  7. Friends Of Friends – Hospitality from Hospitality
  8. The Fish and the Bird – Sylvie Lewis from It’s All True
  9. Valle de Magnolias – Gaby Moreno from Postales
  10. Something More Beautiful – Beth Orton from Sugaring Season
  11. I’m Not The Same Without You – Donald Fagen from Sunken Condos
  12. Little Talks – Of Monsters And Men from My Head Is An Animal
  13. Robin – Tennis from Young & Old
  14. Greatest Revenge – The Mynabirds from Generals
  15. Never Ending Happening – Bill Fay from Life Is People
  16. Small Town Moon – Regina Spektor from What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  17. Magic Summertime – Eleni Mandell from I Can See The Future
  18. Mountain Sound – Of Monsters And Men from My Head Is An Animal
  19. Now Is The Start – A Fine Frenzy from Pines
  20. Cut The World – Antony & The Johnsons from Cut The World

Best of 2012 – Quirky

  1. Danse Caribe – Andrew Bird from Break It Yourself
  2. Garden – Lost In The Trees from A Church That Fits Our Needs
  3. Bright Whites – Kishi Bashi from 151a
  4. Stitch the Hem – Bowerbirds from The Clearing
  5. The Good Life (Is Wasted) – Lambchop from Mr. M
  6. Quiet Crowd – Patrick Watson from Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  7. The Forest Awakes – David Byrne & St. Vincent from Love This Giant
  8. Amanaemonesia – Chairlift from Something
  9. Gun Has No Trigger – Dirty Projectors from Swing Lo Magellan
  10. Manhattan – Cat Power from Sun
  11. Dark Star – Poliça from Give You The Ghost
  12. Walking On a Wire – The Casket Girls from Sleepwalking
  13. Valentine – Fiona Apple from The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  14. This Dead Bird Is Beautiful – Lost In The Trees from A Church That Fits Our Needs
  15. Travelers – Bright Moments from Natives
  16. Marienbad – Julia Holter from Ekstasis
  17. Varúð – Sigur Rós from Valtari

Best of 2012 – Extras (basically the songs that wouldn’t fit onto the other four CDs and that I couldn’t bear to leave out)

  1. Love Is Luck – The Walkmen from Heaven
  2. 40 Mark Strasse – The Shins from Port Of Morrow
  3. Fields Of Progeny – Great Lake Swimmers from New Wild Everywhere
  4. I Will Wait – Mumford & Sons from Babel
  5. Nothing Is The News – Damien Jurado from Maraqopa
  6. The Rumors Are True – David Wax Museum from Knock Knock Get Up
  7. High Hope – Glen Hansard from Rhythm And Repose
  8. Something Like Olivia – John Mayer from Born And Raised
  9. Please Be My Third Eye – La Sera from Sees The Light
  10. Missing – The xx from Coexist
  11. Sailingsong – A Fine Frenzy from Pines
  12. Broke – Sea Of Bees from Orangefarben
  13. Radio Song – Esperanza Spalding from Radio Music Society
  14. Video Games – Lana Del Rey from Born To Die
  15. Left Alone – Fiona Apple from The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  16. Keep Your Heart Young – Brandi Carlile from Bear Creek
  17. Fire – Ingrid Michaelson from Human Again
  18. Myth – Beach House from Bloom
  19. Linda Mañana – Ondatrópica from Ondatrópica

At last, my list of favorite albums of 2012. This was an odd year for me and music. I listened to a ton of new music, but this blog languished as I spent time learning to play guitar and just listening to music. It was not hard to identify what my favorite albums were, but ranking them was not easy — and singling one out as my #1 favorite was nearly impossible. But, it turns out that I just needed a method and that solved my dilemma. In retrospect, my #1 makes total sense to me now.

By listening to all my 2012 songs randomly and rating each one, I was able to rank all 86 albums I purchased this year. I then added a second value for how many times I listened to the album this year — this arguably provides an unfair benefit for albums released earlier in the year, but I wonder whether the song rating process benefits newer songs more.

In any case here’s my top 30 and honorable mentions, following by my complete list.

#1 : Laura Gibson – La Grande

A hauntingly beautiful album by soft-voiced alt-folk singer-songwriter Laura Gibson. I love everything about every moment of this album, from the drum-driven title track that opens it to the elegiac finale, Feather Lungs. Gibson may be the voice who inspired NPR Music to start the now wildly successful Tiny Desk Concerts series (basically to showcase understated musicians who need an intimate setting to showcase their work), but there is huge depth here and as she assures us in Lion/Lamb that “I am not a lamb/I am a lion.” Truly a masterpiece.

La Grande official video:

Feather Lungs live on KEXP (Seattle):

#2: Bowerbirds – The Clearing

Another album that was just strong from start to finish. Alt-folk with chamber folk tendencies, this North Carolina band produced an album of wonderfully complex songs with multiple layers. A great example is the opening track, Tuck the Darkness In, which exhibits one of my favorite song characteristics: starts quiet, gets loud.

Tuck the Darkness In official video:

Brave World live:

#3: First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The best Americana album of the year just happens to have been produced by a pair of 20-something sisters from the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden. This work by Johanna and Klara Söderberg fits just like an old shoe, instantly comfortable and essentially timeless. It’s fitting that in Emmylou, they name-check two great Americana couples: Johnny & June Carter Cash and Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris.

The Lion’s Roar live on the streets of Paris:

Emmylou official video:

#4: Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur

A great album in the long list of great moving-on-from-a-breakup albums. This one has the interesting twist of being co-produced by Edwards and her new significant other Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The going and coming emotions of this album may be best summed up by Soft Place to Land and Sidecar.

Soft Place to Land live on CBC:

Sidecar live in a park:

#5: The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter

Can “country music for people who don’t like country music” be officially defined as a musical genre? Much like my reaction to First Aid Kit, I liked this album immediately and never stopped liking it. Fun music that just entertains. Oddly, I had the opposite reaction to the very similar Mumford & Sons, which left me cold even though it was widely acclaimed — go figure.

Live and Die official video:

#6: Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

Really breathtaking piano-based pop of the lyrically rich variety. I was totally captivated by this album, with its many emotional high points — I even forgive the misstep that is Oh Marcello (Russian-American singer adopts really bad Italian accent for one song). Highlights for me were Firewood and How, plus the brilliant two and a half minute The Party.

Firewood song only:

#7: Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose

Proof that I’m capable of warming to a male singer-songwriter. This album of guitar-based folk-pop quietly smolders with emotion. It sounds like he and Marketa Irglova will be reuniting (musically though not romantically) for another Swell Season album soon. It seems clear to me from these songs that he’s found his muse in Marketa — almost every song he sings seems like it’s about her.

High Hope official video:

#8: Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

Hypertalented multi-instrumentalist delivers another album of complex and interesting folk-rock. Like Bowerbirds, Bird proves that fascinating and multilayered music can also be thoroughly enjoyable — it’s art and it’s entertainment. Danse Caribe is a great example: Bird plays his amped violin in multiple ways in the same song and the whole thing just rocks.

Danse Caribe live on KCRW:

#9: Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal

Ultra accessible power pop from Iceland that made a big splash in 2012. Good timesy sound, singalong choruses, male-female vocalists, hooks a-plenty — lots here to like. I knew this band had made it big with their debut album when I saw they were playing a feature about the band on a bank of TVs at a Best Buy I was walking through.

Little Talks live:

#10: Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard

Like Andrew Bird, a talented musician produces a wonderfully complex album of intricate folk-rock. Each song appears to be carefully crafted, following its own course at its own pace to its own conclusion. This is far from a solo album — Watson’s impossibly high voice anchors things, but he’s got a strong band backing him too.

Into Giants live:

#11: Beth Orton – Sugaring Season

A late release that managed to make it way up the list, thankfully. Orton has said she nearly gave up on music after her last album, but I’m glad to see she’s sticking with it. I love her trio of earlier albums, Trailer Park, Central Reservation, and Daybreaker, but this one may have topped those. Quiet reflective music that deepens with each listen.

Something More Beautiful official video:

#12: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Yes, the title is a little annoying, but like Regina Spektor’s, this album is impossible to ignore or forget. Like Jesca Hoop way down at #55, Apple is clearly serving a demanding muse (one that asks her to wear a rubber octopus on her head, if the video below is any indication), but the results here are more accessible while just as uncompromising.

Every Single Night official video:

#13: A Fine Frenzy – Pines

An ambitious indie pop concept album about a tree contemplating its future from Alison Sudol, aka A Fine Frenzy. I think there are moments when her reach exceeds her grasp, but overall this is an excellent album that really demands a complete listen without interruption or distraction.

Now is the Start official video:

#14: Lost In The Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs

I’m a little sad to see this fall to #14, frankly. A brilliant tribute to band leader Ari Picker’s mother that’s got more emotional depth than a carton of albums. Chamber folk at its best — pushing musical boundaries and always challenging their listeners. How many bands out there boast two cellists?

This Dead Bird is Beautiful live:

#15: Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

This album is a milestone for Van Etten, who proves she’s more than a confessional solo artist, but is capable fronting a fully fledged rock band. Her songs lose none of their emotional depth, but now pack a sonic punch. I can’t wait to see where her continued transformation takes her.

All I Can live:

#16: The Mynabirds – Generals

The most outspokenly political album that I was aware of this year. Laura Burhenn, fresh from touring as the keyboardist for Bright Eyes, produces a feminist manifesto that rocks.

Generals live:

#17: The Shins – Port Of Morrow

I’m struggling to find words for this one. Simple and highly effective pop-rock that doesn’t blow you away with its brilliance, but just entertains. Clearly, there’s craftsmanship underneath, but this album for me is all about accessibility — just sit back and enjoy.

The Rifle’s Spiral official video:

#18: Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America

If the Mynabirds had the most outspoken political album, this one may be the most understated political album. Mitchell subtly tells stories that mostly focus on the joys and sorrows of rural life. Folk with a quiet message.

Young Man In America live with good sound, bad video (hey, it’s radio):

#19: Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again

The nice thing about a January release is that it’s possible to rediscover it many times throughout the year. This is wonderful indie pop (or as “indie” as you get with an album that was featured at Whole Foods) with a vulnerable core — a more accessible version of Fiona Apple (but maybe the comparison is unfair to both of them).

Blood Brothers live on Conan:

#20: The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

During a two-decade career, mostly as a solo artist by more recently as a band (but always under the Mountain Goats name), John Darnielle has created absorbing stories of people in the shadows, sung with a fierce urgency and intense empathy that is breathtaking. The opening line of the first song here, a tribute to Amy Winehouse titled Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1, pretty much sums up this album: “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive.”

Harlem Roulette explained and performed live in Brooklyn:

#21: Eleni Mandell – I Can See The Future

Another longtime singer-songwriter who just keeps at it, recording this album while pregnant with twins. There are softer edges here than her previous albums — she’s still a great songwriter, but maybe a little more content. After loving Eleni Mandell for years, I was very grateful to be able to see her live this year in a solo show at Passim in Harvard Square.

Magic Summertime official video (with a so Eleni ending):

#22: Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts in Snow

A Scottish power pop band that I’ve grown to love. After their 2011 debut, Boots Met My Face, they avoid any sophomore slump with a strong followup. Has a lot in common with Of Monsters and Men and The New Pornographers — lots of instruments involved (including flute and clarinet) and catchy as you could ever want.

Isn’t This World Enough?? live:

#23: Tennis – Young & Old

I was pretty shocked to see this album show up so high in my rankings, but the numbers don’t lie. And it makes total sense. Though I’d forgotten about this album, another listen showed me what I like so much about it: female lead vocalist, catchy pop hooks, jangly/fuzzy guitars — they are a carbon copy of Velocity Girl, a late-90s band that I loved until they disappeared after three great albums.

It All Feels the Same live on David Letterman:

#24: Tyler Lyle – The Golden Age & The Silver Girl

Enjoyable acoustic folk that just works for me. This one came out of the blue, but he earned his spot with a debut album that rose above the thousands of other young singer songwriters out there.

Love is Not Enough official video:

#25: David Wax Museum – Knock Knock Get Up

A fun and catchy album of folk pop with a bit of a Mexican accent tossed in. Leaders David Wax and Suz Slezak put together an unusual sound that nonetheless works really well. Schedule conflicts have stymied my efforts to see this Boston-based band live, though I hope that changes in 2013.

Harder Before It Gets Easier live:

#26: Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band of Light

You’ve gotta love this woman’s attitude — engaging and charismatic, plus she creates music that absolutely rocks. Every time I played this album, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I just can’t figure out why she isn’t hugely popular — maybe in 10 years, with another half dozen albums under her belt, she’ll be in Eleni Mandell/Mountain Goats/Aimee Mann territory of survivor who just never hit it big.

Pirates song only:

#27: Gaby Moreno – Postales

I love how Moreno defies genre, wandering around ballads, rock, R&B, and jazz. Interestingly, the LA-based Guatemalan singer songwriter seems to be singing more in Spanish as her music career develops. In last year’s Illustrated Songs, she sang mostly in English. Here, every song is in Spanish. Amazing voice.

Valle de Magnolias song only:

#28: Bhi Bhiman – Bhiman

A wonderful discovery whom I’ll be watching closely from now on. Mix witty lyrics with a beautiful wide-ranged voice and you get an astounding singer-songwriter. On Guttersnipe, I always marvel at how he stretches the line in the chorus about “I’m well on my way to feeeeeeeeeeling fine.”

Guttersnipe official video:

#29: fun. – Some Nights

Maybe my indie cred takes a little hit with this one, but it was impossible not to enjoy this album. Much more than just the megahit We Are Young, this one just did everything right.

All Alone live:

#30: Aimee Mann – Charmer

Another survivor who keeps on producing solid music year after year. Master of bitingly witty lyrics with an ear for a catchy melody, this is great stuff. There’s even a duet with James Mercer of The Shins (Living a Lie).

Charmer official video:

Honorable Mentions

Lots of interesting albums fell short of my cut-off at 30, but many of them are still worthy of attention.

  • Chairlift – Something (#32)
    Retro-80s synth pop that I enjoyed a lot. Thanks to my niece who saw them at live SXSW and urged me to stick with them.
  • Hospitality – Hospitality (#33)
    Like Tennis, a hyper-poppy female-fronted band that I liked a lot, though I’d love to see them delve deeper emotionally. Still, a strong debut.
  • Grizzly Bear – Shields (#36)
    This is one I may find myself shaking my head about later — should have ended up higher on the list. Grizzly Bear made a lot of top-10 lists and it is clearly a quality album of complex prog-rock, but it’s a “grower” that’s still growing on me.
  • Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (#37)
    This may simply be a case of a few too many slow ballads that drew their score down, but when they turn up the heat there’s no one better. I like this band a lot and they deserve all the acclaim they’ve gotten.
  • Girlyman – Supernova (#39)
    A band that I like a lot that seems to make albums that I like less and less with each release. Their wonderful mix of folky/countrified close harmony is lots of fun, but maybe they feel stuck in a rut to me.
  • The Lumineers – The Lumineers (#41)
    Sorry to see this one drop so far, but it was probably squeezed out a bit by the Avett Brothers in the “good timesy countryish” category. This seems like a very fun band to see live.
  • Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True (#42)
    She may be the poster child of the disadvantages faced by later releases. This album came out in June, but I didn’t stumble upon it until November. Even though I loved it, she drifted down the list to 42. A charming singer-songwriter who’s definitely one to watch.
  • Kishi Bashi – 151a (#48)
    Really thrilling experimental pop by a wildly creative violinist/vocalist who’s got a bright future ahead of him.
  • Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built (#55)
    Jesca Hoop is one of those artists who I just know will one day produce an album that will knock all of our socks off. So far, she’s produced three very original albums that boast tons of creative fireworks and an admirable desire to push the envelope, but her masterpiece still awaits.
  • Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (#57)
    This is a case of an album that was brilliant at times, but had some songs that I just found tiresome — “hit and miss” gets penalized pretty badly by my system. But the creative energy of this group is something to behold. Unto Caesar, with its off-the-wall lyrics that eventually cause the backup singers to start questioning (“Uh, that didn’t make any sense, what you just said.”), was one of my favorite songs of the year.
  • Heartless Bastards – Arrow (#86)
    Here it is everyone: officially my least favorite album of 2012. The thing is, this is a pretty good album that I actually enjoy, but maybe my ranking method (rating random songs) just doesn’t do justice to something like this: low-key (but still loud) songs that work much better when played in album format. Erika Wennerstrom’s beyond-languid voice is probably not my cup of tea, but this album deserved better than dead last.

The complete list

  1. Laura Gibson – La Grande
  2. Bowerbirds – The Clearing
  3. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
  4. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
  5. The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
  6. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  7. Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose
  8. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
  9. Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal
  10. Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  11. Beth Orton – Sugaring Season
  12. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  13. A Fine Frenzy -Pines
  14. Lost In The Trees -A Church That Fits Our Needs
  15. Sharon Van Etten -Tramp
  16. The Mynabirds -Generals
  17. The Shins – Port Of Morrow
  18. Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America
  19. Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again
  20. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
  21. Eleni Mandell – I Can See The Future
  22. Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts in Snow
  23. Tennis – Young & Old
  24. Tyler Lyle – The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
  25. David Wax Museum – Knock Knock Get Up
  26. Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band of Light
  27. Gaby Moreno – Postales
  28. Bhi Bhiman – Bhiman
  29. Fun. – Some Nights
  30. Aimee Mann – Charmer
  31. Beach House – Bloom
  32. Chairlift – Something
  33. Hospitality – Hospitality
  34. Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek
  35. Bright Moments – Natives
  36. Grizzly Bear – Shields
  37. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
  38. Cat Power – Sun
  39. Girlyman – Supernova
  40. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
  41. The Lumineers – The Lumineers
  42. Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True
  43. Great Lake Swimmers – New Wild Everywhere
  44. Sea Of Bees – Orangefarben
  45. Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos
  46. The Little Willies – For The Good Times
  47. Damien Jurado – Maraqopa
  48. Kishi Bashi – 151a
  49. Azure Ray – As Above So Below
  50. M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion
  51. Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes
  52. Lambchop – Mr. M
  53. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
  54. Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
  55. Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built
  56. The Walkmen – Heaven
  57. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
  58. John Mayer – Born And Raised
  59. Shearwater – Animal Joy
  60. Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory
  61. Sigur Rós – Valtari
  62. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
  63. Bill Fay – Life Is People
  64. Frankie Rose – Interstellar
  65. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
  66. The xx – Coexist
  67. Poliça – Give You The Ghost
  68. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
  69. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
  70. Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts
  71. Best Coast – The Only Place
  72. Julia Holter – Ekstasis
  73. La Sera – Sees The Light
  74. Mumford & Sons – Babel
  75. Woods – Bend Beyond
  76. The Casket Girls – Sleepwalking
  77. Antony & The Johnsons – Cut The World
  78. J.D. McPherson – Signs & Signifiers
  79. Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society
  80. Ondatrópica – Ondatrópica
  81. Bob Dylan – Tempest
  82. Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
  83. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Here
  84. Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
  85. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
  86. Heartless Bastards – Arrow

WL #31 – St. Vincent

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

…In listening to a new CD I often find myself fascinated with the decisions made in setting the order of songs. What an artist selects as the first song says a lot about their expectations for how the listener will experience the music. Often, an musician chooses one of the most accessible songs, eager to make a good impression and not wanting the listener to tune out immediately.

Interestingly, St. Vincent (the musical identity of prog-rock guitarist-singer Annie Clark) chooses a very different strategy on Strange Mercy. Rather than the obvious choice of starting with the listener-friendly Cruel, she starts out with the intense and idiosyncratic Chloe in the Afternoon before moving straight on to Cruel. Chloe is a really odd song to start an album — more of a provocation than an invitation (as if saying, “Don’t get too comfortable here”), consisting of a disjointed blend of keyboards, bass, guitars, drums, and an odd chorus that’s just the song title repeated multiple times. It’s an engaging song that seems to be about the sexual adventures of a femme fatale (“No kisses/No real names”), but it certainly knocks you off-balance the first few listens.

But Clark follows with one of the catchiest songs here in Cruel, which blends so many good things into an engaging mix — a catchy melody, an engaging guitar solo, and interesting lyrics about alienation and social expectations (“They could take or leave you/So they took you and they left you/How could they be so casually cruel?”).

Along the same lines as Cruel is Surgeon, which is built around a line from Marilyn Monroe’s diary (“Best finest surgeon/Come cut me open”). As recounted in an interview, Clark takes that line to build a song about longing for an easy fix to all that is broken in yourself.

Northern Lights is probably my favorite song on the album, a perfect showcase of Clark’s guitar talents. I particularly like how her final over-processed guitar solo of the song seems to push closer and closer toward some sort of breaking point and then… rather than turning back at the last moment, it simply breaks across into chaotic euphoria.

Every song on this album is good for a different reason, from the mellow Strange Mercy and Champagne Year to the hyper-kinetic Neutered Fruit to the steamy Dilettante. But I’ll highlight just one more: Year of the Tiger, which ends the album. Starting with a driving drum beat and the great opening lines “When I was young/Coach called me the tiger/I always had/A knack with the danger” the song proceeds to tell a tale of America in recession (“I had to be the best of the bourgeoisie/Now my kingdom for a cup of coffee”). Musically, the song contains many of the elements found in the rest of the CD, shifting between a long stretch with mellow guitar and keyboards and a drum-fueled ending.

This is one of those albums that contain a potent mix of technical skill, artistic imagination, and catchy songsmithing, but that don’t mix them so well that the various elements disappear — like a stew not a melting pot. Reminds me a lot of Sufjan Stevens’ 2010 album The Age of Adz. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

Next week: Kate Bush

WL #30 – Laura Marling

Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

…Truly awe-inspiring. A 21 year old British singer songwriter who puts out songs that grab your attention and simply don’t let go. Fascinating lyrics, a strong band of musicians, and a voice that seems remarkably intense and grounded — this is an album of jazz-inflected folk pop to marvel at from someone who appears might be this century’s Joni Mitchell.

The emotional core of the album is certainly an aptly-named song called The Beast. It starts slow and intense with Marling singing quietly “Where did our love go?/you will never know,” but it soon shifts to angry catharsis as drums and guitars come in and almost take over the song. Marling sings “he lies/so sweet that I choke/tonight I choose the beast/and tonight he lies with me.” This Beast may just be an aspect of herself — complemented by Sophia, “Goddess of power,” whom she tries to invoke when the beast approaches and who gets her own song near the end of the album. In any case, utterly amazing stuff.

Here’s the best video I could find of Marling performing The Beast in concert.

It would be tempting to just treat the rest of the album as just the songs that introduce The Beast and the songs that follow. Except each of these songs stands on its own so well. On the first track, The Muse, Marling sardonically recounts meeting a man “that talked to me so candidly/more than I’d choose.” But, after the band goes off on some truly catchy banjo and piano riffs, she comes back to introduce the man (and us) to the beast: “Don’t you be scared of me/I’m nothing but the beast/And I’ll call on you when I need to feast.”

This is a very nice live performance of The Muse on Later… with Jools Holland.

The Beast is such an emotional climax that Marling puts the three most subdued songs on the album right after it. The all acoustic solo Night After Night stands out, but even here, she’s outspoken (“I don’t stand for the devil/I don’t whisper in ears/I stand on the mountains/and call people to hear”).

Another highlight near the end of this album is the song Sophia. It starts slow and quiet with just an acoustic guitar and gradually builds as Marling sings, possibly to an ex-lover, “Where I’ve been lately/Is no concern of yours.” The song has a nice country twang to it.

Here’s the official video of Sophia.

I love how emotionally intense this music is and I marvel at how seasoned Marling seems to be for a singer-songwriter of her age. Looking forward to hearing more from her.

Next week: St. Vincent

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