#20. Band Of Horses – Cease To Begin
A haunting album both literally (several songs mention ghosts) and figuratively (it boasts the best break-up song of the year, “No One’s Gonna Love You”), Cease To Begin benefits from Band of Horses recent line-up change that put South Carolina’s Ben Bridwell firmly in the driver’s seat and allowing him to temper the band’s swirling indie-rock with a little more Southern gothic twang.
Key Tracks: “Is There A Ghost” “No One’s Gonna Love You” “The General Specific”
#19. Shout Out Louds – Our Ill Wills
Lead singer Adam Olenius’ yelping vocals certainly sound very familiar, which leads most people to make a hasty comparison between S.O.L. and the Cure. Vocals aside, the Cure’s tired shtick can’t hold a candle to the percussive, driving sound of this album. The bright, pop-oriented production counterbalances the dark themes of the lyrics, creating the aural equivalent of drinking a black-and-tan.
Key Tracks: “Parents Livingroom” “You Are Dreaming” “Impossible”
#18. Jackpot – Moonbreath
Local favorites (Sacramento) make my list for the third album in a row. Sonically, Moonbreath genre-hops between deadpan, Bowie-esque swagger (“Chemical Reaction”), Belle & Sebastian style chamber pop (“Tongue Tied”), and the alt-country and blues pastiches that are their specialty. An entire disc’s worth of hidden “bonus” material, far from being throwaways that didn’t make the final cut, actually strengthen the album’s overall appeal, especially the acoustic lament “Womanly Slippers.”
Key Tracks: Noted above, along with the love-it-or-hate-it “Vital Signs” (I love it).
#17. Jason Isbell – Sirens Of The Ditch
A member of the Drive-By Truckers from 2001 to 2007, Isbell wrote some of the band’s strongest material of that era (check out “Outfits” or the title track from 2003’s Decoration Day). As a solo artist, Isbell tones down the Skynyrd-style raunch of his former band to craft a more intimate, singer-songwriter sound. Imagine if Paul Westerberg had been born in down in Dixie.
Key Tracks: “Down In A Hole” “Dress Blues” “The Devil Is My Running Mate”
#16 Kaiser Chiefs – Yours Truly, Angry Mob
The Chiefs avoid the sophomore slump by toning down the jangly pianos and dance-rock synths of their debut, and exchanging them for cranked-up guitars. They have kept the jittery, quadruple-espresso energy and pub singalong lyrics.
Key Tracks: “Ruby” “The Angry Mob” “Retirement”
#15 Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Baby 81”
A band that began as a better-than-average Jesus And Mary Chain knock-off came close to permanently imploding before roaring back to life with 2005’s semi-acoustic, gospel & blues-tinged Howl, recorded as a duo. The follow-up has the band back at full capacity, and combines the roots-rock song structures of Howl with the electric, hornet’s nest buzz of their first two albums.
Key Tracks: “Berlin” “Cold Wind” “666 Conducer”
#14 Wilco – “Sky Blue Sky”
A solid return to form after the aggressivley anti-melodic A Ghost Is Born. Jeff Tweedy has remembered to write actual songs here, and treats recently-joined guitarist Nels Cline like a new toy, spraying his jazzy licks all over the tracks like a drunk with a garden hose. The songs sport a mature, confident sound, reminiscent of “Rolling Thunder”-era Dylan.
Key Tracks: “Impossible Germany” “You Are My Face” “What Light”
#13 Vietnam – “Vietnam”
Sounding like a tripped-out bar band through a haze of cough syrup, New York quartet Vietnam reel off their tales of losers and junkies to an audience they seem to believe is not really listening. Their loose, sometimes lazy, melodies are punched up with deft touches of brass and keyboard, but the guitars are the stars here.
Key Tracks: “Step On Inside” “Priest, Poet & The Pig” “Mr. Goldfinger”
#12 The Hives – “The Black And White Album”
As much as I like the Hives, I have to admit that their earlier albums tended to run out of gas before they were over. Not that they lacked energy (the Hives have no shortage of that), but the songs would begin to sound the same. Finally, with this album, they have crafted a batch of songs that are unique (and even experimental) from track to track without sacrificing their trademark sound.
Key Tracks: “Tick Tick Boom” “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” “Well Allright”
#11 Against Me! – “New Wave”
Normally I enjoy politics in my music about as much as heavy cream in my screwdriver, but activist-minded Against Me! have managed to slip in their messages about the state of the world with enough subtlety so that it doesn’t weigh the album down into a pedantic lecture course. Long-time fans (I am not one) have cried “sell-out” due to this album’s toned-down agenda and hi-fi production…but people who cry “sell-out” tend to be no goddam fun.
#10 Rilo Kiley – “Under The Blacklight”
Jenny Lewis, after her smashing success of a solo album last year, wrests control of Rilo Kiley away from bandmate Blake Sennett, and uses the band to further explore her sometimes disturbing obessessions. Abandoning the country lilt of her solo album, she somehow manages to create dance-rock that is sad and cynical. I’m pretty aware of my limitations as a music writer. I have no practical musical training, and I have a bad habit of describing an artist or an album either in comparison to other artists, or in terms of alcoholic beverages. I’m going to do both here: Under The Blacklight sounds like Fleetwood Mac at their most coke-addled, produced by Quincey Jones at the top of his game. And it goes down like a fizzy vodka and cherry 7-Up.
Key Tracks: “Breakin’ Up” “Dejalo” “Smoke Detector”
#9 Spoon – “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”
The most consistent band of the new century. I’ve said before that a band doesn’t need to be a ten-piece social experiment with a flugelhorn player and a cellist to be unique and innovative. Over the course of a half-dozen albums Spoon has proven that you can’t beat the basics. A few guitars and a drum kit in the hands of skilled players, and a little imaginative songwriting, can sound as fresh and exciting as any Swedish underground art/dance/mathrock collective that you care to name. (OK, I’m cheating a little here. Both “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog” benefit from an expanded line-up featuring brass & marimba. But they’re the exception that prove the rule!)
Key Tracks: Named above, plus “Don’t You Evah”
#8 Arctic Monkeys – “Favourite Worst Nightmare”
British guitar bands are bigger now than at any time since the days of the Oasis/Blur wars. I admit I have a soft spot for most of them. Franz Ferdinand led the way a few years back, and now a bunch of bands that sound like Franz’s kid brothers are littering the scene. What puts the Monkeys a notch above worthy contenders such as the Maccabees and The Fratellis (and even #16 Kaiser Chiefs)? Lyrics that dig a little deeper into the human condition than boy-girl-dancefloor dynamics, and a smoking lead guitarist (Jaime Cook) worthy of picking up Dave Davies’ Gretsch.
Key Tracks: “Brainstorm” “Balaclava” “Flourescent Adolescent”
#7 The Apples In Stereo – “New Magentic Wonder”
I don’t know what kind of favors bands think they’re doing by padding out albums to twenty-plus tracks by including a bunch of thirty-second song fragments. Only about half of the 24 tracks on this album qualify as real songs, but those songs are an explosion of pop radiance. Except for the occasional electronica squiggle and trendy production work, a lot of this stuff would not sound out of place on a 1973 top 40 AM playlist – “Coming at ya this hour, ‘No Matter What’ by Badfinger, a little ‘Brandy’ by Looking Glass, and a new platter by the wonders from the Mile-High City, The Apples…in Stereo!”
Key Tracks: “Skyway” “Energy” “Play Tough”
#6 Iron & Wine – “The Shepherd’s Dog”
Iron & Wine mastermind Sam Beam perfects his sound here, by adding a full-band dynamic to his formerly bare-bones folksy ruminations. A touch of R&B grit and/or world music exotica flesh out Beam’s bizarre short stories to wonderful effect. And I thought only the Beatles could wield a sitar or bass harmonica with such mastery.
Key Tracks: “White Tooth Man” “House By The Sea” “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”
#5 The Arcade Fire – “Neon Bible”
Spoon represents my stripped-down ideal of the four or five-piece rock band. The Arcade Fire is the argument used to shut me up. Big, baroque sound. Melodrama. Lots of instruments (including a church organ that sounds like it’s the size of a house trailer on “Intervention”). Yet their sound is still relatively uncluttered, rooted to the beat, and not disappearing up its own ass in a haze of fragmentary, free-form dissonance like many of their peers.
Key Tracks: “Intervention” “Keep The Car Running” “(Antichrist Television Blues)”
#4 The White Stripes – “Icky Thump”
Like several bands in my top ten, the White Stripes are on a decade-long winning streak. If the Ramones took the melodicism of American pop music and rabidly gnawed it down to its skeleton, the White Stripes do the same for the primal urgency of American roots music. And they go even deeper than the roots, digging in the folk-music soil of Africa and the British Isles that gave birth to blues and country. And they do it all with a feral, electric energy that sounds as if it could not possibly come from only two people.
Key Tracks: “Icky Thump” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” “Catch Hell Blues”
#3 The New Pornographers – “Challengers”
Intended to be a side project for eight members of second-tier Canadian bands, the New Pornographers have spent the last seven years proving that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Challengers” is more muted and melancholy than the exuberant power-pop of earlier releases, especially toward the end, but it’s still filled with enough hooks & harmonies for three albums.
Key Tracks: “All The Old Showstoppers” “Myriad Harbours” “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth”
#2 Bruce Springsteen – “Magic”
How often can an older, established artist put out an album that can rest confortably alongside his or her reputation-making statements of two or three decades ago? Imagine if the Stones put out a 2007 album that, track-for-track, matched Let It Bleed? Or if the Replacements got back togther and cranked out another Tim? Springsteen and the E Street Band have pulled off that minor miracle. Sonically, this batch of songs is a throwback to the musicianship of Springsteen’s own Born To Run and The River (and the symphonic production techniques of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson), and lyrically, Springsteen has completely outclassed the 2007 field.
Key Tracks: “Livin’ In The Future” “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” “Long Walk Home”
#1 Modest Mouse – “We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank”
Ever got romantically involved with someone, and knew deep down in your heart of hearts that it was doomed from the get-go? The title (and general theme) of this album sums up that feeling of tension and impedning disaster on the horizon perfectly. Never in my musical memory has such exquisite anger married itself to such beautiful, well-crafted music. Without the lyrics, many of the songs are downright danceable. With the lyrics, the songs become a sick taunt. “We’ve Got Everything”…except fulfillment, connection, contentment, etc. This album is the aural equivalent of grinding teeth and burning eyes, where real tears are choked off and denied the freedom to fall. There’s no release or catharsis here. That sad, familiar frustration is summed up when Isaac Brock spits out in “Parting of the Sensory” : “Awww, fuck it…I guess I lost…”
Key Tracks: Noted above, plus “Dashboard” “Missed The Boat” “Fly Trapped In A Jar”