It's time again to look back at the year's music and try to pick out the best. Even ignoring the odd biases of my personal taste, the whole idea is foolish. There are plenty well known bands that I didn't get to, so I can't include them. On top of that, I've listened to many new and upcoming bands that aren't really on anybody else's radar. Finally, I rarely review music that I don't care for at some level, so selecting a small handful is absurd. So call this my favorite albums of the year, not the best. They're all worth checking out, whether they're from a brand new group or a familiar band. Browse through my list and find something great.
Arbouretum - The Gathering
Arbouretum channels a classic rock sound, evoking bands like Bad Company. It's unselfconsciously retro, without a drop of irony or meta. On tracks like The White Bird, the casual psychedelia of meandering guitars against a throbbing melodic bass is sweetly hypnotic. The band captures the delicate balance between power and intricate intertwining parts, without the excesses that the early '70s could produce. As much as I enjoyed The Gathering on the first listen, it's been a great album to come back to over the year for casual listening.
Dengue Fever - Cannibal Courtship
Dengue Fever finally released an album of new original music this year. Cannibal Courtship continues expanding the band's base sound, which is influenced by retro Khmer rock. Their core sound is still there on tracks like Cement Slippers, but Dengue Fever has mixed in ska, funk, and R&B. Lead singer Chhom Nimol is in fine form, whether summoning sultry appeal, dreamy desperation, or emotional aloofness. The rest of the band shines, too. Check out the psychedelic jam on Durian Dowry; Nimol's voice and Senon Williams' bass add oceans of depth to the track.
Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, but You Will
Such a heavy title, but Mogwai is just sharing their dry sense of humor. The album is full of restrained and reflective moments, as well as a strong inspiration of post punk synthesizers. But fans of the classic, post rock Mogwai will still find the cathartic waves of sound the band is known for. Death Rays offers a taste of both extremes. The title seems ironic as a softly building procession unwinds, but when a thick ragged guitar kicks in to represent the death rays, it all makes sense. The following track, San Pedro contrasts perfectly with a driving tension.
Govinda - Universal On Switch
Like Beats Antique, Govinda blends world beat influenced grooves with electronic sounds. Or maybe it's electronic grooves with world beat sounds. Govinda meshes the two elements into an inseparable whole. The title cut to Universal On Switch anchors a flitting gypsy violin to a solid electronic beat. Indian shimmers, glitched vocal samples, and a grinding bass all fold together into a hypnotic trance vibe. The band also delivers some more pop oriented sounds, like the electro pop Angel Freezing.
Other Lives - Tamer Animals
Orchestral and dreamy, Tamer Animals took a few listens to reveal its depth. My initial thought was that Other Lives had a good cinematic style, but it took time to appreciate the full sweep of the album. The band has a rich dynamic sense with extensive scope. Moving from atmospheric moodiness to lush fullness, Other Lives isn't locked into a single sound. The tracks progress through a series of moods, packed with evocative details that add subtlety and nuance. A sparse arrangement and echoing reverb set up a song like For 12 with its open western sense, but the strings and subdued piano establish the darkness of conflict and ambivalence.
Spirits of the Dead - The Great God Pan
With songs that range from Hawkwind influenced wanderings (Mighty Mountain) to psychedelic jazz jams (Leaves of Last Year's Fall), Spirits of the Dead offer a rich spectrum of sounds. And that's just within the first two songs. Even within a song, the band might stir in acid rock, art rock, and loose improvisational playing. Despite any stylistic leaps, Spirits of the Dead effortlessly create a smooth flow throughout the album with well planned transitions. The percussion work in particular is impressive as it maintains the rhythmic thread while adapting fills to match the musical shifts.
Callers - Life of Love
Does Life of Love even belong on this year's list? It came out in 2010, but I didn't review it until this January. It made such a strong impression that it seems unfair to disqualify Callers based on the release date. Sara Lucas' voice is strong and vibrant, with strains of Maria Muldauer, Phoebe Snow, and Grace Slick. Callers' music sounds loose and full of possibility. Ryan Seaton and Don Godwin's coordination on their arrangements is a thing of beauty. Subtle and open, but not thin or makeshift, from the gospel blues of their cover of Wire's Heartbeat to the muted psychedelic sparkle of Roll.
The Golden Awesome - Autumn
The Golden Awesome are masters of dreamy noise pop. They temper the cathartic throb of distortion with their sweet harmonized vocals. This kind of juxtaposition is often interesting, but Autumn toys with the balance to show the world of variation possible, from the tense mechanism of Astronomy to the heady spiraling of Where to Begin. The noise drives away all distractions while the vocals soothe. Plenty of recent bands work the lo-fi end of this mix, but none of them capture the spark of joy heard on Autumn.
Portugal. The Man - In the Mountain, In the Cloud
Portugal. The Man's major label debut hits the best of both worlds. The band has maintained artistic control, but this gave them a much better budget to work with and the production quality shows it. The sound is somewhere between Breakfast in America era Supertramp and David Bowie's Young Americans, but Portugal. The Man takes those retro elements and jams with them to create something new and trippier. Much like Flaming Lips or My Morning Jacket, PTM's studio work offers a hint of what the band can pull off on stage, but it stands well on its own.
Paley & Francis - Paley & Francis
Reid Paley and Black Francis spent a couple of days writing music together, split up to write some lyrics, and then spent two brief days in the studio to record Paley & Francis. On that breakneck schedule, they could be forgiven if the album seemed slapdash. Instead, this collection of first takes has a raw power that comes from the stripped down arrangements and immediacy of fresh material. Both men approach the songs with firm confidence and blend their perspectives from song to song. Francis' songs evoke his work with the Pixies as well classic garage rock classics. Paley's voice is warm, but infuses his songs with ragged soul. The combination is excellent.
Here are few honorable mentions - great albums that didn't quite make my 10 favorites.