20. God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise - Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs
When I first heard the name of this album (and saw the name of the backing back), I thought to myself, "Oh no...Ray has gone bluegrass." And he has...to a certain extent. While a lot of the instrumentation has a bluegrass element to it, you'd be hard-pressed to call this a bluegrass album. I wasn't a huge fan on the first couple of listens, but the more I listened to it, the more I loved it. The instrumentation may have been veering a little more towards bluegrass than on his previous albums, but it worked well. The things I loved about Ray (the songwriting, the voice, the melodies, etc.) were all still there. The more I listened to it, the more I realized that I liked this one more than his previous album. There's a delicateness to these songs that I haven't really heard since his first album.
Favorite track: "Like Rock and Roll and the Radio"
19. Plastic Beach - Gorillaz
Gorillaz past albums are a mishmash of pop, rock, hip-hop, and, at times, cartoon-level goofiness. That's what I expected with this album. And there was some of that, but there was more of a theme to this album. An overriding atmosphere that permeates the album. In this album, a world has been created...a world that may seem like paradise, but has a sinister layer underneath it all.
Favorite track: "Rhinestone Eyes"
18. Sigh No More - Mumford & Sons
Mumford & Sons create a dark blend of bluegrass, folk, and rock. But it's something more than that. They're able to create songs that sound like they were recorded centuries ago, in a mountain range you've never heard of...yet it still sounds strangely modern. Their songs start of slow and sparse, then build until they explode. It's impossible not to tap your foot to this album.
Favorite track: "Little Lion Man"
17. Brothers - The Black Keys
I've been a Black Keys fan for a while. There was a time (around the release of Magic Potion, I believe) that I thought, "Where do they go from here?" They had released a handful of albums, but they were all beginning to sound pretty similar. They had a sound deeply rooted in the blues...but they didn't really seem to pull from any outside influences. For Attack and Release, they teamed with Danger Mouse, and they changed their sound. Not dramatically...just enough to where it felt different. They added more instruments. They played around with arrangements. For the first time, it felt like they were being creative, rather than just being content in playing blues.
I can't say that they stepped it up a notch with Brothers, but they definitely took some things away from Attack and Release. This isn't just a blues album...it's a rock album as filtered through the blues. There are songs that seem to borrow from T. Rex ("Everlasting Light") and 60s soul ("Unknown Brother') as well as their standard blues sound. They even throw in some harpsichord and organ for good measure.
It's a terrific album. It shows that they're able to retain their blues sensibilities, while still branching off into different directions. The different directions never seem forced; they never seem out of place. It all seems to fit. And while the album does feel a bit long (15 tracks), it's hard to find a track that you would want to cut.
Favorite track: "She's Long Gone"
16. Treats - Sleigh Bells
They took elements from rock, pop, and hip-hop, threw the lead vocals to a peppy girl, then distorted everything they could. The result is about a half-hour of upbeat, manic, ear-rattling music that is ridiculously catchy, and really, really good.
Favorite track: "Crown on the Ground"
15. O Ye Devastator - Doug Burr
Doug Burr makes beautiful music. He's a folk singer, but the thing that struck me first about him is the atmosphere of his music. It's not just the instrumentation...it's the feel of it all. There's a lushness to it, even when there's not much going on. I can't fully explain it, but there always seems to be something going on that you can't quite hear...something filling in the spaces. It doesn't make sense, but, for some reason, that's how his music feels. On top of all that, he has a terrific voice (it's unique, but it works really well with his music), and he's a fantastic songwriter.
Favorite track: "High Blood and Long Evening Dresses"
14. The Wild Hunt - The Tallest Man on Earth
A new album, but the same formula: man plays guitar and sings, then throws in some banjo a little later (the last song on this album features a piano, but that's the exception rather than the rule). The description doesn't look like much, but he has a way of drawing you in. He sings with such passion that you can't help but love the songs. His voice is gritty, but full of depth. He plays guitar with a delicateness that can turn into violence in an instant. He is The Tallest Man on Earth. If you haven't listened to him yet, this is a good place to start.
Favorite track: "King of Spain"
13. Buzzard - Margot & The Nuclear So & So's
I fell in love with the sound of Margot. For their first two albums, they built songs up with a wall of instrumentation. They took folk songs and enveloped them with horns and percussion. It was a beautiful sound.
With this album, they ditched all of that in favor of a more rock-oriented sound. Because of that, I didn't like it right away. Seemingly everything I loved about this band had been stripped away.
But the more I listened to it, the more I realized there were still some elements of that sound left over. The songwriting was still there. They still had songs that started off stripped-down and heartbreaking that ended up exploding into noise. Sure, the "noise" didn't include the standard horns and percussion, but it was still there.
Margot has changed their sound on this album. I still don't love this album the same way I love their past albums, but it's still a terrific album.
Favorite track: "Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic"
12. IRM - Charlotte Gainsbourg
This album was produced by Beck, and you can definitely tell. In fact, at times it sounds like a Beck album with a female singer...but that's not a bad thing. The trashy instrumentation. The slightly out-of-tune guitar. The off-kilter melodies. Charlotte doesn't have what I would call a great voice, but she has a voice that works very well with the music. Sometimes it soars over the building strings (as it does on "Time of the Assassins"), and sometimes it sounds a little odd (as it does on "Me and Jane Doe"), but it always fits perfectly with the music. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck seem to have found a kindred spirit in each other...and we can all be thankful for that.
Favorite track: "Me and Jane Doe"
11. Volume Two - She & Him
There are no surprises here. The fact that this album is called Volume Two makes sure that you know what you're getting: it picks up exactly where Volume One leaves off. It's an album full of 50s-60s inspired pop songs. While it's not quite as good as Volume One, it's still a great (and catchy) album. Here's to hoping there's a Volume Three on the horizon.
Favorite track: "Thieves"
10. Heart That's Pounding - Sally Seltmann
Having put out a handful of albums with her band New Buffalo and being a fairly successful songwriter (she co-wrote Feist's "1 2 3 4"), Sally Seltmann is no stranger to the music scene. But this is her first solo album, and it's obvious from the get-go that she knows what she's doing. She has a sound that has roots in 50s girl-group pop and the smoky soul of Dusty Springfield. It's a terrific album that feels older than it is.
Favorite track: "Dream About Changing"
9. My Best Friend is You - Kate Nash
Kate Nash's first album was a piano-based pop album. It had some great songs, but it had a handful of songs that I didn't care for too much. This album is great, start-to-finish. While there's not anything on here that ranks up there with the best songs on her first album ("Foundations", "We Get On"), there are some that come extremely close ("Kiss That Grrrl", "Doo-Wah-Doo", "Don't You Want to Share the Guilt?"), and the album itself is stronger. She seems to draw from a bigger pool of influences on this album (the doo-wop sound is evident on a handful of songs), but the pop sensibilities from her first album are still very heavy here.
Favorite track: "Don't You Want to Share the Guilt?"
8. Odd Blood - Yeasayer
An odd combination of electro, space-funk, rock, and world music. It doesn't sound like that would work well, but it does. Surprisingly well, in fact. It all melds into a strange combination of sounds to create a truly unique and oddly catchy album. Give it a little time, and you won't be able to stop listening to it.
Favorite track: "Mondegreen"
7. Loveless Unbeliever - The School
An album that borrows their sound heavily from the girl group pop of the 50s and 60s, but borrows just as heavily from The Smiths. It's an album that sounds simultaneously classic and modern. It's immediately catchy, but there's a depth to the songs kept me coming back to the album.
Favorite track: "I Want You Back"
6. Broken Bells - Broken Bells
Danger Mouse's involvement all but guaranteed that I would love this album before it came out. Then it came out, and my love was immediately justified. It has a lush and unique pop sound, one that is extremely addictive. James Mercer's voice fits perfectly with the music. It's a short album...concise. But it's catchy, and there's enough going on in each song to guarantee that you will never get bored.
Favorite track: "October"
5. The Age of Adz - Sufjan Stevens
To say that this is a radical departure for Sufjan is to completely miss the point. It's not a huge departure: while this is not the same sound as Illinois or Michigan, those influences aren't completely gone. They just seem a little less prominent and a little more sinister than on his previous albums. There's a dark undertone to the arrangements, and the strings seem to signal that something bad is coming. More often than not, when those strings come in, they're behind a skittering, glitchy beat.
Some of those stripped-down Sufjan moments show up from time to time (most notably the opening track, "Futile Devices", and at the end of "The Age of Adz"), but they're not a prevalent as they have been.
It's a strange album. Even though retains some of the same sounds as he had used on his previous albums, we see them here in a different light. This is a different direction for Sufjan, but it's still terrific.
Favorite track: "The Age of Adz"
4. The Lady Killer - Cee Lo Green
Cee Lo has been around for a while, but he really burst onto the national scene in 2006 with the release of Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere. With this album, he seems primed to show people that his name is not really Mr. Barkley. This is an album that combines retro soul (which comes from his obvious love of Al Green) with modern pop. It's a big, polished soul album, and it's amazing. His voice was made for this kind of album, all big horns and building strings. Even the "non-soul" songs (the 80s inspired "Bright Lights Bigger City" and the murderous "Bodies") work extremely well, which is a testament both to Cee Lo's voice and the stellar production. If you like soul, or even a good pop album, you're sure to love this one.
Favorite track: "I Want You"
3. So Runs the World Away - Josh Ritter
With each album, Josh Ritter just gets better and better. His songwriting is amazing (he's currently my favorite songwriter), and his instrumentation seems to improve with each album. He writes beautiful love songs about mummies ("The Curse"), heartbreaking tales of murder among characters from classic songs ("Folk Bloodbath"), and a loving ode to a ship named The Annabelle Lee ("Another New World"). He tells beautiful stories at ease, and backs them up perfectly with music. Josh Ritter is amazing, and he shows no signs of slowing down. In a career filled with terrific albums, this is his best.
Favorite track: "The Curse"
2. The Suburbs - Arcade Fire
My expectations were unreasonably high for this album. How could it not, after how great their first two albums were. The sign of a great album is taking high expectations and exceeding them. This album did exactly that. It's a strong and tremendous album, start-to-finish. While there are a couple tracks that aren't great on their own, they fit extremely well into the album as a whole.
As I've said before, this may well end up being my favorite Arcade Fire album. I have listened to this album a ton of times, and that opinion has only gotten stronger. With as impressive as Funeral and Neon Bible were, that's a truly impressive accomplishment.
Favorite track: "Suburban War"
1. High Violet - The National
Where Boxer was loud and thunderous, High Violet has a kind of delicate thunder to it. Those huge drums are still there, but it's clear that the album is not based around the heavy percussion this time. That's evident from the first track, the muddled, distorted "Terrible Love". When the piano kicks in, it seems to be breaking out of the gloom and doom. It's the first clear thing you hear on the album, and it's certainly a sign of things to come. For me, the album seems to revolve around that piano...that beauty in the midst of turmoil and thunder. And, while it does not appear on every song, the piano seems to be the central instrument here. It's a dark, beautiful album, and it only gets better with each listen.
Favorite track: "Conversation 16"