I don’t know that I actually reviewed appreciably more albums for Spectrum Culture this year than the previous one, but it was enough that I sometimes felt I had a difficult time keeping up with my “outside listening.” I offer that as humble acknowledgement that my list is heavy with material that I specifically sat down and gave a close listen to in order to bang out a few hundred words extolling virtues and identifying flaws. (This may also be the spot where I acknowledge that I really don’t hear the supposed genius of Kanye West, no matter how hard I try.) I have my musical soft spots and this list absolutely represents that.
1. Yo La Tengo, Fade — I’ve been trying to figure out why this emotionally mature, musically interesting, deeply compelling album has been almost entirely absent from other year-end lists. Seemingly informed by Ira Kaplan’s own brush with mortality, the album is smartly elegiacal while adhering to the band’s longstanding policy of reality over sentiment. Maybe it’s because the album was released so long ago (January 15th, to be precise) or maybe music writers have collectively decided Yo La Tengo simply isn’t a band they need to pay attention to anymore. Either way, it’s their loss. Fade revives the potential of the album as a singular, cohesive statement.
2. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City — I’ve liked Vampire Weekend previously, but I’ve also found their music to be a touch too precious and self-regarding. For me, then, Modern Vampires of the City is a breakthrough, notable for its earthier concerns and subtle but identifiable diversification of the band’s signature sound. The album sounds sounds like day-to-day life instead of a weekend jaunt to a beachside vacation home.
3. The National, Trouble Will Find Me — The National, on the other hand, are doing well by playing to their strengths, especially making sure they’ve got songs of ache and remembrance well-suited to Matt Berninger’s emotive vocals. By now, they’ve almost managed to make “stately” its own genre.
4. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories — Dance music fueled by audacity, Daft Punk essentially mash the whole disco-spawned history of their chosen style into one beaty, glittery stew of an album. They somehow manage to employ sincere tribute and sly parody at the same time, no more effectively than on the hands-down best single of the year, “Get Lucky.” Daft Punk takes the party-all-night theme that dominates current pop hits and shows the repetitive, dim bulb whippersnappers that crank such tracks out like assembly line pacifiers exactly how crafting a dance song should be done.
5. Haim, Days Are Gone — The California sisters of Haim were the beneficiaries (and victims) of a ludicrous amount of hype, but their debut full-length proved all the digital ink was justified. Haim is the coolest uncool band there is, delivering crazy-catchy pop songs that owe debts to the likes of Fleetwood Mac and (for gods’ sake) Wilson Phillips but still feel lively and original. Any time I hear “The Wire,” the damn thing lodges in my skull for days.
6. Washed Out, Paracosm — The second album from Ernest Greene under the name Washed Out finds him shifting away from the ease of chillwave mood-setting for perpetual headphone-wearers and starting to concern himself with shaping interesting, dynamic songs. There’s still plenty of ambient electronica to get lost in, but there’s a welcome willingness on Greene’s part to also carve a path worth walking.
7. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, We the Common — Building up from the political and community support activities that leader Thao Nguyen has taken on in recent years, We the Common represents her band’s first album that arrives like a true statement of purpose. Her enticingly idiosyncratic voice remains the chief appeal, but there’s a finely-wrought soundness to the songwriting that demands close listening.
8. Cults, Static — There remain few things as satisfying in rock ‘n’ roll as a good break-up album, providing the ideal expression of the mixed anger and romanticism that have long been the main elements in the musical compound. The report of broken promise between Cults lead singer Madeline Follin and guitarist Brian Oblivion–a couple for the band’s debut, exes by this sophomore release–gives their chiming, retro-tinged music weight and resonance.
9. Eleanor Friedberger, Personal Recoed — The second solo outing from the Fiery Furnances’ Eleanor Friedberger expands on the pleasures of her fine debut. Away from the heavy studio layering of her band, Friedberger sounds genuinely liberated, singing songs that are full of vivid detail and yet wonderfully direct. Here I will concede an automatic weakness for any song that makes a warm, funny “Come On Eileen” reference.
10. Arcade Fire, Reflektor — An album that was actually ill-served by the heavy promotional push it received since it usually entailed Arcade Fire playing individual songs. Reflektor works far better as a whole album, where the oddball digressions, strange rhythms and sonic textures feed off of each other and become one full, fascinating statement of artistic wanderlust.