LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2018

After posting my favorite songs of 2018, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from another outstanding year of new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.

20. Blood Orange Negro Swan (“Saint”)

19. Robyn – Honey (“Honey”)

18. Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (“Loading Zones”)

17. Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine (“Gratitude”)

16. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (“How Simple”)

15. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (“Star Treatment”)

14. Wild Nothing – Indigo (“Partners In Motion”)

13. Flasher – Constant Image (“Pressure”)

12. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (“Nameless, Faceless”)

11. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (“Nervous Young Inhumans”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2018:

mitskibethecowboy10. Mitski – Be the Cowboy

People loved Mitski’s last record, Puberty 2, but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. That was not this case with this year’s Be the Cowboy, a stunning treatise that flips gender-based tropes on its ear and puts toxic masculinity in its rightful place. These songs are statements from the ever-talented Mitski Miyawaki, spanning all kinds of genres and never losing its pace across a record that just explodes over 32 minutes. My favorite track here is the disco-flavored jaunt “Nobody,” where Mitski’s isolation sounds downright danceable. Be the Cowboy puts Mitski in league with fellow indie iconoclasts like St. Vincent in overall inventiveness and amazingness.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever_ Hope Downs9. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

The five Aussie dudes who make up Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever play with an unbelievable amount of energy at their live shows. It’s an energy that served them well on their full-length debut this year, Hope Downs. These songs are overflowing with hooks, riffs and licks from their three-guitar attack, with none better than the uber-prescient “Mainland,” a song that doubles as an endorphin-rush rocker that also deals with immigrant hardships. They’re a fun band who made an endlessly fun record. Also, if you feel as icky as I have about continuing to listen to Real Estate, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is a more than adequate substitute.

320x3208. Kississippi – Sunset Blush

Philadelphia has become something of an indie rock Mecca these last few years; it probably has something to do with the cost of rents in Brooklyn. What started with the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile developed into blossomings for Waxahatchee and Sheer Mag and now Kississippi, a tremendously promising rock band led by Zoe Allaire Reynolds. On her full-length debut, Sunset Blush, Reynolds chronicles the journey of self-discovery across 10 standout tracks with none better than the cutting “Cut Yr Teeth,” a jam Reynolds says is her fighting back against the people who held her back for years. Now that Kississippi is out there, nothing should ever hold Reynolds back again.

Hatchie_ Sugar & Spice EP7. Hatchie – Sugar & Spice EP

I typically haven’t considered EPs for this list in the past, but two were so good in 2018 I couldn’t deny them spots. The first you’ll read about comes from Australian newcomer Harriette Pilbeam and her indie pop outfit Hatchie. Across five songs in a brisk 19 minutes, Pilbeam and her crew weave tales of love on Sugar & Spice against sugary sweet guitars and synths and Pilbeam’s multi-layered vocal stylings. It doesn’t get any more melodic and blissful than what she does on “Sure,” “Sleep” and “Sugar & Spice” and more longing and beautiful than her efforts on “Try” and “Bad Guy.” I can’t to hear what Pilbeam can do across a whole album.

Golden hour Kacey Musgraves6. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

I love music. However, for most of my life, I’ve consistently held scorn for just one kind of music: the formulaic and brainless country drivel that’s been churned out of Nashville for decades now. I like a lot of stuff you’d call country, but just don’t play me anything you’d hear on a modern country radio station. So, I was thrilled this year when what was ostensibly a country record scored massive crossover appeal AND turned out to be awesome. Kacey Musgraves flipped those decades of formula on its head with Golden Hour, a daring and richly successful venture. “Lonely Weekend,” “Butterflies” and “Love is a Wild Thing” take new spins on old ideas. “Space Cowboy” is one of the most cleverly-written breakup songs I’ve ever heard. “High Horse” is a genius dance track that doesn’t lose its country roots. Musgraves opened a new world with Golden Hour, one I’m so glad exists.

Soccer Mommy5. Soccer Mommy – Clean

I do wonder if someday, perhaps very soon, 20-year-old Sophie Allison will regret naming her band Soccer Mommy. The quality of the name of the band thankfully has nothing to do with the quality of the band itself. On her studio debut, Clean, Allison displays outstanding songwriting chops across a varied and diverse collection of melodic guitar rock tunes. There’s the breezy and fun “Last Girl,” the contemplative ballad “Blossom (Wasting All My Time),” the vitriolic fervor of the Local Natives-tinged “Your Dog” and the Liz Phair-inspired fare of “Skin” among the highlights. On standout “Cool,” she imagines herself as a high school badass (“I want to be that cool”) amidst rollicking guitar on a song that crackles before whomping to a downbeat finish. If you can get beyond the name, there’s so much to like when it comes to Soccer Mommy. Allison is just finding her stride with Clean.

boygenius_st4. Boygenius – Boygenius EP

For a certain segment of the music-loving population, the emergence of Boygenius this year more than qualifies as a supergroup in today’s landscape. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus are three insanely-talented singer/songwriter/guitarists, all under 25 with disparate but connecting styles. They recorded their self-titled EP in four days in LA earlier this year and toured this fall, closing each show with their songs blending Dacus’ unforgiving guitar rock, Baker’s contemplative and emotive renderings and Bridgers’ folksy, humorous sensibilities. The result is a reckoning of immense power, leaving a trail of unworthy subjects in its wake. “Me & My Dog,” a Bridgers-led tour de force, examines a failed relationship from start to finish; the Dacus-helmed “Bite the Hand” pulls no punches with a former lover while Baker and Bridgers harmonize; Baker’s “Stay Down” brings her signature emotionality to a song where she observes “I look at you / And you look at a screen.” The biggest collaboration here is the searing, visceral “Salt in the Wound,” a true put-down of the music industry (“Trick after trick / I make the magic / And you unrelentingly ask for the secret”) where all three take the lead and amidst a maelstrom of sounds there’s a ripping solo from Baker. There’s still room for softness, with the three idyllically wishing for an escape to “Ketchum, ID” on the acoustic final track. I hope beyond all hopes these three artists find time to continue making music together. But if not, this EP is a gift certain to age well.

Lucy Dacus_ Historian3. Lucy Dacus – Historian

Lucy Dacus returned to the indie consciousness late last year when “Night Shift,” the first single from her second full-length album Historian, popped up online. Her debut, 2016’s No Burden, was a solid effort pointing towards something more for her as a guitarist, songwriter and singer. With “Night Shift,” it was immediately obvious she’d arrived at “something more.” The track builds behind Dacus’ matter-of-fact lyrics about a former companion. But, midway through, things shift: guitars and cymbals crash while her warm voice maintains composure. In the last chorus, she unleashes a chill-inducing wail, eviscerating her ex in memorable terms. “Night Shift” wound up being the first song on Historian and sets the scene for this incredible effort by Dacus, a record dealing at different turns with loss, heartache, alienation, how relationships evolve and how people change. On “Nonbeliever,” Dacus recounts a friend who left her hometown in search of something more. “If you find what you’ve been looking for / Write us a letter and tell us what it is / Everybody else looks like they figured it out.” On the expertly-crafted penultimate track “Pillar of Truth,” Dacus sets the death of her grandmother against an incredible rock song. “I’m weak looking at you / A pillar of truth / Turning to dust.” Later on her voice breaks again, bringing her grief and pain fully to bear. This is heady stuff for Dacus, and the stuff that makes Historian such a great album. I’m so excited to see her once again go for “something more” next time.

Beach House_72. Beach House – 7

I first became aware of Beach House around the release of Teen Dream in 2010. I was drawn immediately to Victoria Legrand’s room-filling voice and evocative synthesizers and Alex Scally’s spellbinding guitar work. You feel their best songs right in your chest. For the last 10 years or so, the term “dream pop” has been bandied about so much it’s lost any semblance of meaning. Basically, any band that sounds like My Bloody Valentine with synthesizers gets labeled as dream pop. But to me, any dream pop act gets stacked up to the best work of Beach House and ultimately has paled to what they’ve done. Despite this, the two albums they released in 2015, Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, represented a slight creative lull for Legrand and Scally. It sounded like they were getting bored with their formula. So, for their seventh album, appropriately titled 7, Beach House razed their house to the studs and started over. They took nearly a full year to perfect 7 and throwing out old recording rules allowed them to expand their sound in creative, unexpected and fully rewarding ways from start to finish. There’s the winding snyth romp of “Dive,” the dramatic and charging “Dark Spring,” the creeping dread of “Lemon Glow,” the dreamy bliss of “Woo” and the unforgettable twists and turns of “Drunk in LA.” It’s as successful a reinvention of any band in recent times. Amazingly, a beloved, established indie rock band stripped down their sound to almost nothing, built something completely new that only they could have done and released probably the best album of their career. Guys, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. Bands don’t, or in most instances can’t, operate this way, not in 2018. We’re so much better for bands like Beach House, willing to take bold chances.

snailmail21. Snail Mail – Lush

Lindsey Jordan, the lead singer, guitarist and creative force behind Baltimore-based Snail Mail, was born 10 months before the Patriots drafted Tom Brady. Whenever you’re done feeling old, I want to tell you about Jordan’s superlative debut album, Lush. Buzz started to build around Jordan and her guitar pop cohorts this spring with the release of a couple advance singles and that buzz still hasn’t subsided. Her skills on guitar are extremely advanced and her gnarly voice emits both a youthful innocence and a wiseness beyond her years. There’s no telling what she’ll accomplish. But for now, we’re just seeing the beginning with Lush. There’s a power here that you can feel on the finger-picked wonder of “Let’s Find An Out,” the longing aching of “Stick” and “Anytime,” the tear-inducing emotions of “Deep Sea” and the indie guitar brilliance of “Heat Wave.” These are songs with something to say beyond teenage angst and heartache. It’s art, on a deep level. As successful as this album is as a whole, it’s the second track that stands out most. “Pristine” comes across with its rolling opening guitar line, crashing chorus cymbals, Jordan’s devastating lyrics about a love never maintained and an outro with blissful, powerful guitar stylings. She’s dealing with perhaps her first taste of heartbreak, and truly understanding her feelings for the first time in her life. It’s breathtaking to witness. “Don’t you like me for me? / Is there any feeling better than coming clean?” She’s finding her way, in her own way, and she found the right way with “Pristine.” After so many listens to Lush, I still can’t believe someone so young could do something so complete, so emotionally-cutting, so perfectly-crafted. It’s the type of record that makes you get down on your knees and thank your higher power of choice that there are still kids who want to make great rock records, who have ambition to be something great and aren’t afraid to show it, and who despite only knowing all the bullshit awful things that have happened in the world this century aren’t so jaded and downtrodden that they can still make art like Lush.

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LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2018

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s December, I’m ready to share with you what made the cut for my favorites of the year, starting with my 25 favorite songs of 2018.

I’ll let the songs speak for themselves in this post and reserve longer thoughts for my 10 favorite albums post later this month.

I considered songs for this list that had any kind of release (be it on a single or an album) in 2018. And, as always, I only included one song per primary artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Here are my favorite songs lists for 2012201320142015, 2016 and 2017.

Lastly, I created a Spotify playlist of these songs here and embedded at the bottom for your listening pleasure (the playlist is meant to be listened to as a 25-1 countdown, despite the numbers next to each song).

Enjoy these awesome songs and stay tuned for my albums post.

25. SMASHING PUMPKINS – “SILVERY SOMETIMES (GHOSTS)”

24. CHVRCHES – “GET OUT”

23. DAVID BYRNE – “EVERYBODY’S COMING TO MY HOUSE”

22. BIG RED MACHINE – “I WON’T RUN FROM IT”

21. ARCTIC MONKEYS – “FOUR OUT OF FIVE”

20. ROBYN – “MISSING U”

19. UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “HUNNYBEE”

18. JANELLE MONAE – “MAKE ME FEEL”

17. JAY SOM – “PIROUETTE”

16. COURTNEY BARNETT – “CITY LOOKS PRETTY”

15. FLASHER – “MATERIAL”

14. WILD NOTHING – “LETTING GO”

13. CAR SEAT HEADREST – “BEACH LIFE-IN-DEATH”

12. KACEY MUSGRAVES – “BUTTERFLIES”

11. JOHN MAYER – “NEW LIGHT”

10. MITSKI – “NOBODY”

9. KISSISSIPPI – “CUT YR TEETH”

8. SOCCER MOMMY – “COOL”

7. JIMMY EAT WORLD – “HALF HEART”

6. HATCIE – “SUGAR & SPICE”

5. LUCY DACUS – “PILLAR OF TRUTH”

4. BEACH HOUSE – “DIVE”

3. ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER – “MAINLAND”

2. BOYGENIUS – “SALT IN THE WOUND”

1. SNAIL MAIL – “PRISTINE”

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LISTS

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2013

It’s the moment about a half dozen of you have been waiting for! After unveiling my favorite songs and concerts of 2013 earlier this month, I’m now ready to share with you my 10 favorite albums of the year. For reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011 and 2012.

Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from that album.

20. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (“Lose Yourself to Dance”)

19. Toro y Moi – Anything In Return (“So Many Details”)

18. Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull (“Family Tree”)

17. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (“Can’t Live Without Your Love”)

16. Kanye West – Yeezus (“Bound 2”)

15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II (“Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”)

14. Washed Out – Paracosm (“All I Know”)

13. Arcade Fire – Reflektor (“Afterlife”)

12. Phoenix – Bankrupt! (“The Real Thing”)

11. Foals – Holy Fire (“Inhaler”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2013.

Jimmy_Eat_World_-_Damage10. Jimmy Eat World – Damage

I’ve counted on Jimmy Eat World to deliver the melodic rock goods since freshman year of high school. Every three years, they release a new album of pop-rock tunes. They tour, make a couple Boston stops, then head back to Arizona to cook up more. This year, the result was the superb Damage. Like 2010’s Invented, there’s a common thread here, with lead singer Jim Adkins calling it an “adult breakup record.” Adkins is rarely oblique with his lyrics, with hooky opener “Appreciation” evoking someone moving out (“We build / We box / We carry on / As people we forgot”). The landscape of Damage is littered with these heartfelt rockers: the frantic “Lean,” with its fuzzy riff; lead single “I Will Steal You Back” carrying a signature ripping Tom Linton guitar solo; straight-forward rocket “How You’d Have Me” with the best drum work here from the underrated Zach Lind. “No, Never” enters my Jimmy Eat World pantheon, hitting an emotional pitch with breakup lyrics, ringing guitars and their unmistakable pacing. “No, Never” could be on any Jimmy Eat World album, which is no small feat. And, for the first time ever, they end an album without a grandiose closer: in fact, they went completely counter with the sparse “You Were Good,” a beautiful acoustic ditty masking the most scathing lyrics in their catalogue. Adkins sings that “it was good, it was good, and it was gone.” The same goes for the 38 minutes of Damage. I can’t wait until they come back around in three years time.

SoftWill9. Smith Westerns – Soft Will

Smith Westerns were bound to grow up at some point. Sure, their hair still gets in their eyes, they still have a general pissant attitude, and, hell, the best song on their third album, Soft Will, is called “Varsity.” Yet it’s impossible to listen to this more complete, more polished body of work and not be happy about their direction. While lacking some of the anthemic punch of Dye it Blonde lynchpins like “Weekend” and “All Die Young,” Soft Will shows a band maturing around the ever-expanding songwriting chops of Cullen Omori and the playing of his bassist brother Cameron and lead guitarist Max Kakacek. The newfound growth takes Soft Will in surprising and rewarding directions. “Idol,” with its shimmering, liquidy licks, appears to be Omori speaking fondly of a father figure in his life who later does him wrong. Faster-paced “Glossed” sounds so George Harrison-esque I suspect several Rickenbacker 12-strings were used in its production. “White Oath” has a funereal feel until the guitars really kick in around the 2:55 mark, when budding virtuoso Kakacek takes over. There’s even a super-ominous instrumental, “XXXIII.” On the aforementioned closer “Varsity,” Omori goes to new glam-rock inspired heights with his lyrics (“Safety came in numbers / But all I needed was just one”) and longing guitars and synths from beginning to end. Now that Smith Westerns have finally started growing up, there’s no telling where their new wisdom will take them.

 FreeYourMind8. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

I’ll say this about Cut Copy: they’re not afraid to take chances. After their last two successful LPs, Zonoscope and In Ghost Colours, the Australian electro-rocking quartet went in a different direction with Free Your Mind. Lead singer Dan Whitford said they drew influence from the two Summers of Love in 1967 and 1988-1989 and that’s palpable throughout. The blow-away title track is an explosion with congas, keyboards and lyrics that could have been conjured by Timothy Leary. That’s followed by the dance stomp of “We Are Explorers” that still has euphoric blasts and a mid-song conga solo, then trance-like “Let Me Show You Love,” a hypnotic jam with major Whitford voice effects. Already, this is the most unusual Cut Copy music ever put to record and we’re not at the weirdest aspect of Free Your Mind yet. That would be the absurd spoken word interludes that unfortunately bring the album down as a whole. Making up for that is the brilliance of bass-driven “In Memory Capsule,” acoustic-fueled “Dark Corners & Mountain Tops,” and Zonoscope-ian “Meet Me in the House of Love.” But they chart new territory on “Take Me Higher,” a joyous take on the acid rock inspired by that latter Summer of Love. “Take Me Higher” could have been a Stone Roses song from a day they messed around with a synthesizer in the studio. Free Your Mind isn’t Cut Copy’s best, yet the results can’t be denied when they’re at their most focused.

mbv7. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

And then one night, it existed. Kevin Shields, the genius of noise who created My Bloody Valentine’s flawless Loveless, announced to Earth his 22-years-in-the-making follow-up was finally ready in early February. m b v isn’t Loveless, nor does it aim to be, nor is it possible for any album to be, even by the band that brought it to life in 1991. Instead, m b v stands alone, oblivious of anything else currently in the pop music consciousness. Shields draws from a most logical source, the only one that’s ever mattered to his painstakingly-complex style: himself. So many highlights are reminiscent of the past: opener “she found now” has the longingly beautiful balance of “Sometimes”; poppy triumph “new you” is a redux of the highly-regarded “Soon”; and the bone-crushing “nothing is” harkens back to the Isn’t Anything era. But relying on the past doesn’t stop Shields from looking forward. While the trippy, synthed-out, daring “in another way” is a breath of disquieting air, closer “wonder 2” bears no resemblance to anything I’ve heard in my life. It sounds like a helicopter stuck inside a washing machine. Yet somehow it’s melodic and listenable, just like everything My Bloody Valentine has done. Some view m b v as a gift merely for existing, with many of these songs originating at various points over the last two decades of work by Shields. But I hope beyond all hopes that Shields is nowhere close to finishing his exploration of the possibilities of guitar sound.

BonesWhatBelieve6. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

What Scottish trio Chvrches are attempting to do isn’t easy. To occupy a spot in the crowded electro-pop scene in 2013, a band or artist really has to stand out. How can you get notoriety when near every other band was weaned on New Order and Depeche Mode? And, truth be told, Chvrches debut full-length is a relatively no-nonsense effort in this space. What makes them different? It’s simply the quality of the songwriting, their fully-formed maturity as a band, the sheer number of outstanding songs and the distinctive vocals of lead singer Lauren Mayberry. Her fantastic voice makes songs like lurching opening “The Mother We Share,” frantic and fast “We Sink,” cool and creeping “Tether” and hard-stomping “Lies” so indelible and part of an outstanding stretch that opens The Bones of What You Believe. The only missteps on this album are the ones where Martin Doherty takes lead and on future releases I suspect Mayberry will be the sole vocalist. What I find so impressive about Chvrches here is their ability to alternate between catchy electro-pop in songs like “Recover” and “Gun,” then go to a much more dark, moody and dramatic place with “Night Sky” and “Science/Visions” in effortless motion. The way they move between the two makes me believe Chvrches will go as far as their talent will take them in the coming years. Bands like M83 and Passion Pit better watch their backs; these Scots are for real.

AM5. Arctic Monkeys – AM

It’s been fun to not only watch Arctic Monkeys grow but to grow with them. Amazingly, they’re already five albums into their career as they, like me, approach 30. There’s a sense in AM the once-wild boys are ready to settle down, but not without a fight. While some of the songs really rock, like very early single “R U Mine?” and building crusher “Arabella,” there’s something new linking most of the songs together: a killer groove. It starts early on slinky opener “Do I Wanna Know” with its heavy riff and lead singer Alex Turner’s unmistakable croons. With images like “spilling drinks on my settee” and that “nights are meant for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” Turner hits the theme of getting over late, drunk, pointless nights out. On similar creeper “One For the Road,” Turner “thought it was dark outside” when his potential partner felt much differently about their prospects. The album’s one slow song, the disguised-titled “No. 1 Party Anthem,” is about a prowling, collar-popping douchebag trying to score, only the way Turner tells it, that sunglasses-indoors a-hole is you. “Call off the search for your soul / Or put it on hold again,” Turner advises. Now that’s a definitive statement worthy of a generation that can’t make up its mind. There’s also the classically-long titled “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” that’s the closest thing to funk in their catalogue. Once we get to the finale, “I Wanna Be Yours,” Turner is finally ready to declare love to his one and only. But again, there’s a catch: the words aren’t his, instead belonging to legendary English street poet John Cooper Clarke. Still, Arctic Monkeys continued their growth on AM, and there’s no doubt we’ll be respecting them in the a.m. now, too.

 ModernVamp4. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend haters piss me off. “Oh, Ezra Koenig is SUCH a TOOL.” “They make music for people who wear boat shoes and drive BMWs.” “How FREAKING pretentious can a band be?” Spare me. Each Vampire Weekend album has represented a step in the development of a great band, with their debut establishing a unique Afro-pop sound and their second pushing their boundaries in numerous-if-disparate directions. Modern Vampires of the City finds Koenig and his compatriots settling into an area of creative cohesion among their influences and touching on a score of worldly topics, among them God, faith and existence. Anyone who still hates Vampire Weekend after this is just trying to be cool and needs to try harder. Plaintive, piano-driven opener “Obvious Bicycle” saunters into the acoustic guitar and organ jaunt of “Unbelievers,” which is the first of Modern’s songs to explore faith and the speaker’s place on Earth. “Step” is faux-funky; “Diane Young” is a frantic pop marvel with its play-on-words title and chorus; “Don’t Lie” is 2013 chamber pop at its finest. “Hannah Hunt” is the album’s emotional center, telling the story of a cross-country break-up with Koenig’s best-ever and most tortured vocals. “Everlasting Arms” comes off like a stripped-down take on Paul Simon’s iconic Graceland, harkening back to Vampire Weekend’s early African-influenced era. Quirky and fast “Finger Back” (with its great couplet “I don’t wanna live like this / But I don’t wanna die”) and “Worship You” follow before theological anthem “Ya Hey,” yet another great play-on-spiritual-words. Koenig pulls no punches with his lyrics “through the fire and through the flames.” The hype was right in every way on Modern Vampires of the City. If critics of Vampire Weekend still exist, it can’t be possibly on artistic merit anymore.

hummingbird3. Local Natives – Hummingbird

In 2010, Local Natives burst onto the indie rock scene with their fantastically-great debut Gorilla Manor. It was the soundtrack to a summer spent traipsing around Seacoast New Hampshire, providing welcome hard-rocking, somewhere-between-Grizzly Bear-and-Fleet Foxes melodies for the many miles I logged thanks to my job. For 2013, follow-up Hummingbird was a soundtrack of its own, representing the entirety of this year because of its January release. There isn’t a breakout hit from Hummingbird like Gorilla Manor’s knockout opener “Wide Eyes.” Instead, Hummingbird is stocked with impressive highlights showcasing a natural sophisticated progression of their sound, stoked by producer Aaron Dessner of the National. It’s marked by both quiet and loud moments, melded together for maximum emotional exposure. There was a lot of sadness surrounding the creation of Hummingbird, between the departure of original bassist Andy Hamm and the death of guitarist/keyboardist Kelcey Ayer’s mother. That sadness is felt most fervently on penultimate masterpiece “Colombia,” where Ayer openly wonders if his love in his mother’s final days is enough. It’s so personal, it’s like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation you shouldn’t hear, making it a moment of stunning courage for Ayer to share with us. Other lighter spots include opener “You & I” and its great Ayer vocals; “Ceilings” and its beautiful guitar arpeggios; “Three Months” with its soft piano and guitar colors. There’s also mid-tempo wonder “Heavy Feet,” where co-lead Taylor Rice takes over with Matt Frazier’s scattering drumming. Then, we’ve got the rockers, like the clash of Breakers, the catchy guitar romp of “Black Balloons,” and the urgency of “Wooly Mammoth.” They all come together in a serious sound crafted by these Los Angelenos and their well-versed producer. I got the chance to meet Local Natives in March and I told Frazier, quite bluntly, that I although I loved Hummingbird, there were still heights his band could reach. Instead of getting defensive, he was pleased. Matt said, “That’s good. That means we can still get better.” I have a feeling Hummingbird won’t be the last soundtrack for my life to come from Local Natives.

DaysAreGone2. Haim – Days Are Gone

I discovered Haim earlier this year when they were scheduled to open for Vampire Weekend at BU. Either the schedule was incorrect or the three California-based sisters never made it to Agganis that night, because I never saw them. Little did I know Haim, with guitarists Danielle and Alana and bassist Este, would become my favorite new band of 2013 and make one of the best pop-rock albums this decade with Days Are Gone, working with VW producer Ariel Rechtshaid. The sisters who range in age from 22 to 27 have played together most of their lives and while being a “new” band in a popular sense they’ve worked hard to develop an eclectic, rock-based sound so polished it’s downright scary. It starts immediately with world-beating opener “Falling,” a perfect Thriller-era marvel of dramatic pop. Things get more fun on the next few tracks, with “Forever,” “The Wire” and “If I Could Change Your Mind,” each with their signature pop flair and all three sisters taking lead vocals at various times, showing off the full range of their talents. A lot of the lyrics deal with scorned or soon-to-be-scorned lovers, with “The Wire” particularly venomous. (Have we figured out exactly what the hell Danielle is saying during the choruses?) Things go a bit deeper on “Honey & I,” the at-times quiet loomer that builds to a crashing crescendo. Lighter and underrated pop ditty “Don’t Save Me” is followed by two semi-experimental rockers, the synth-propelled title track and the out-of-this-world “My Song 5.” It’s hard to believe anyone besides Justin Timberlake could pull this off and call it pop, but “My Song 5” (that title had to be influenced by GarageBand, no?) is just weird enough to be a classic. Next, “Go Slow” is the album’s bedrock, a beautiful catharsis about a failed relationship with incredible Haim sister harmonies. Days Are Gone closes with fast-moving “Let Me Go” and the almost-celebratory “Running If You Call My Name,” capping an unforgettable debut. It’s hard to believe this is only the beginning for Haim.

TroubleWillFind1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

For many reasons, I found myself in a much better place in 2013 than any other year of my life. Because of that, I wondered how I’d receive new music from the National. In 2011, I tweeted the National were the perfect band for “a white 25-year-old college grad who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment.” It’s hard to call anything the National released on their previous four albums as sunny or bright. On 2010’s unimpeachable High Violet, song titles included “Sorrow” and “Terrible Love.” This spring brought news of a new album to be called, of all things, Trouble Will Find Me. How could I identify with Matt Berninger, the Dessners, the Devendorfs and their dour tones if I was no longer dour myself? It didn’t matter. Trouble Will Find Me finds the National as masters of their indie rock domain, at worst on par with their finest work, showcasing what they do best. As with all their slow-burning albums, you have to live with it over time to appreciate it. From the opening acoustic strums of “I Should Live In Salt” to the expressly downbeat and more-monotone-than-normal “Demons”; from the “Bloodbuzz Ohio” callback of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” to Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers power chords of “Sea of Love”; from the exhausted yells of “This is the Last Time” to Bryan Devendorf’s typical galaxy-shifting drumming on “Graceless”; from the sad shuffle of “Slipped” to the lilting longing love of “I Need My Girl”: you’re in the presence of greatness with each listen and with each listen you want more. Berninger is either at his most brilliant or most mad with his lyrics, his common contrast taken to extreme. “I was teething on roses / I was in Guns ‘n Noses” he blurts out in brooding opus “Humiliation.” Yet penultimate stunner “Pink Rabbits” has downtrodden Berninger as “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park” and “a television version of a person with a broken heart.” It’s both perfect and so terribly broken. Sentiments like those helped me realize connecting with a great album isn’t necessarily about identifying it with a place and time in your life. It’s about finding something that simply connects. Over the last six years no band has done that for me like the National, with Trouble Will Find Me perhaps the best collection of those connections yet.

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LISTS

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2012 So Far

Last year, I came to you with on this date with my nine favorite songs to that point in 2011. This year, there have been 10 songs released I feel similarly motivated to tell you about, in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.

ARCTIC MONKEYS – “R U MINE?” 

As they did with “Leave Before The Lights Come On” after their debut album, Arctic Monkeys unleashed this bone-crusher as a non-album single a few months after the release of Suck It and See. “R U Mine?” is a terrific combination of the Black Sabbath-esque power trips they’ve attempted the last few years and the inescapable energy of their early era. When I hear “R U Mine?” I’m reminded of the pissant teenagers who dominated my college musical tastes. Is this a sign they’re moving away from the melodic Suck explorations, and going back to the angry tones that made them famous more than a half-decade ago? We may know in the coming months.

BEACH HOUSE – “LAZULI” FROM BLOOM

My favorite album so far in 2012 has been this Baltimore dream pop duo’s fourth album, Bloom. The first two songs, “Myth” and “Wild,” are tunes I regard as much as any on this list. But it’s “Lazuli,” the third song and the centerpiece of Bloom‘s knockout opening, that makes me fall deeper in love every time I hear it. It’s clearly defined by its two halves with a shift from the first to the second coming literally in the middle. Following the delicate hums of the first part, we’re whisked away by the soft arpeggios of the latter part. The song just feels huge in every spot. Victoria Legrand’s voice soars everywhere and never sounds better when she hits that refrain: “Like no other you can’t be replaced.” There’ll likely be no other song this year that replaces how I feel about “Lazuli.”

CHROMATICS – “KILL FOR LOVE” FROM KILL FOR LOVE

I was naturally smitten with Chromatics when I fired up their fourth album, Kill For Love, and the first track was a synthed-out cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” It didn’t hurt that the following title track encapsulated everything great about this release from Johnny Jewel and Ruth Radelet’s group. The pulsating drums, the longing guitar riffs, the breathless vocals, the perfectly-timed synth expressions, the general feeling of weightlessness: It boils down dream pop to its essence, a success for anyone attempting mastery of 2012’s most imitated indie subgenre. Does it make me feel like it’s 1988 all over again? Indeed. Yet, I was two years old then. So “Kill For Love” will have to placate me for now, and I’m fine with that.

HOT CHIP – “FLUTES” FROM IN OUR HEADS

London electronerds Hot Chip have established themselves as one of the most consistent, highly-regarded dance rock groups around. The absolute no-doubt-about-it apex of their fifth album, In Our Heads, is the intense, angry, destructive “Flutes.” Clocking it at over seven minutes, it accomplishes two difficult tasks for any song of its ilk: mixing fiery ferocity with delicious danceability. It builds and builds and builds some more until breaking down just past three minutes in. “All this talk is getting me down,” Alexis Taylor croons. “Nothing’s making sense in my brain.” As if we’re inside that brain, the drama rises up once again. There’s so much going on here, with one voice after another, drums that could be real or mechanized, even an ’80s-inspired marimba sound pops up. It ends somewhat softly, but the point is made. Then you hit the play button again.

JACK WHITE – “SIXTEEN SALTINES” FROM BLUNDERBUSS

Jack White has rarely been about subtlety. On his first solo album, “Sixteen Saltines” represents perhaps his least subtle attempt  ever at ear-bleeding rock. The deafening main riff reminds me of what attracted me to White the first time I heard “Fell In Love With A Girl” 10 summers ago. This is certainly one of those songs that doesn’t require a drawn-out explanation: it rocks, it rocks hard and White clearly doesn’t care about anything here but causing hearing loss. The classic organ tinges behind the bridge riffs, the high-pitched guitar squeals leading up to the end, White practically screaming throughout the entire song: it all fits perfectly into exactly what we expect from White.

JOHN MAYER – “A FACE TO CALL HOME” FROM BORN AND RAISED

Born and Raised is not John Mayer’s best work. My initial disdain for the album has been greatly tempered since that first listen, there are more good songs than poor, however some still make me say, “Shit, this should be a B-side.” Yet I couldn’t possibly say that about the perfect, penultimate “A Face To Call Home.” Alongside two previous Mayer epics, “In Repair” and “Edge of Desire,” “Face” is the third in a Mayer self-examination trilogy. Where “Repair” is about not being together (but getting there), and “Edge” deals with being together but with scared uncertainty, “Face” finds Mayer at his most content while still bringing his incredible blues-rock chops to give the song his signature feel. “Maybe I could stay a while / I’m talking like all of the time.” This isn’t a Mayer we’ve heard before. I always wondered what happy Mayer would sound like. I love the answer.

PASSION PIT – “I’LL BE ALRIGHT” FROM GOSSAMER

In 2009 Passion Pit came out of nowhere with Manners, which doubled as the best debut album I’d heard in years and the album that provided me a turning point as a music fan. Gone were the days when I eschewed sounds made by machines. Michael Angelakos, Nate Donmoyer and the rest turned me on to the magic of electropop. There’s no 2012 album I’m anticipating more than Gossamer, which I can’t believe won’t be out for three more weeks. Lead single “Take A Walk” is tremendous, but it’s the second tune released, the gigantic-sounding “I’ll Be Alright,” that takes me back to the best parts of Manners. The frenetic pace, heavenly Angelakos vocals, squawking samples and out-and-out optimism tells me Passion Pit isn’t skipping a beat with their sophomore effort. I can’t wait to hear more.

THE SHINS – “SIMPLE SONG” FROM PORT OF MORROW

I never really listened to James Mercer’s longtime rock excursion the Shins before the sterling Port of Morrow was released this year. What I found was an album overpopulated with future classic rock radio staples for whenever 2012 earns “classic rock” status.  There probably won’t be such thing as “classic rock radio” when that happens, but I digress. “Simple Song” has become its biggest song, bursting with arena-rock, Dennis DeYoung gravitas. It presents itself as a simple song about love, but it’s not entirely clear it ends well. Mercer successfully trumps up those awkward interactions (“Remember walking a mile to your house / Aglow in the dark / I made a fumbling play for your heart / And the act struck a spark”) we’ve experienced while the guitars jam along. Makes you feel like a teenager again, doesn’t it? That’s what good rock should do.

SLEIGH BELLS – “COMEBACK KID” FROM REIGN OF TERROR

Few indie rock acts have been more polarizing in recent years than Sleigh Bells. I haven’t encountered many people lukewarm on the duo’s scorched-earth style. It’s a love-hate thing and for the most part, it’s been a love thing for me. The finest song on their polished second album is “Comeback Kid,” which hits just about everything we’ve come to expect: Alexis Krauss’ sweet vocals meshed with Derek Miller’s power chords, a wild mess of percussion and a time signature you need a degree in physics to figure out. It manages to be far from predictable while still an easier listen than much of freshman effort Treats. Will they ever be more than a niche indie novelty? Will they ever appeal to more than a sliver of listeners? Will they ever get an actual fucking drummer to play with them live? If they keep making songs like “Comeback Kid,” I don’t care about the answers.

TEAR TALK – “SLEEPWALKING” FROM PORT SUNLIGHT EP

I know pretty much nothing about this band. From what I can tell, they are from Liverpool, they have one EP (which I still haven’t heard in full) and their Facebook page had a robust 172 likes as of Saturday (myself included). I came across this song on an indie rock mix torrent that comes out every month. Finding something worthwhile from an unknown artist on one of those is a trying task, but I unearthed a gem in “Sleepwalking.” Quick down-stroked guitar dominates alongside the reverberated vocals and there’s a terrific deep drum sound that reminds me of Bryan Devendorf’s work on High Violet. I love the fun keyboard line that drives the melody amongst hushed vocals. Sometimes it takes a little digging to find good music. This is one dig that paid off.

****

In the second half of the year I’m looking forward to new music from Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Dave Matthews Band, the xx, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Two Door Cinema Club and Dum Dum Girls in addition to Passion Pit. It’s shaping up to be a very good year.

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LISTS

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2011

I’m happy to finally update this blog for the first time in months with write-ups for my 10 favorite albums of 2011. Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from that album.

20. Cold Cave: Cherish the Light Years (“Confetti”)

19. Washed Out: Within and Without (“Amor Fati”)

18. Radiohead: The King of Limbs (“Give Up the Ghost”)

17. The Strokes: Angles (“Taken For a Fool”)

16. Wilco: The Whole Love (“Dawned On Me”)

15. Cults: Cults (“Abducted”)

14. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (“Grown Ocean”)

13. The Black Keys: El Camino (“Lonely Boy”)

12. Panda Bear: Tomboy (“Friendship Bracelet”)

11. Real Estate: Days (“It’s Real”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2011.

10. Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams

We’ve seen an influx the last few years of girl-driven California indie pop, including Best Coast, Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls. The latter group, led by the velvet-voiced Dee Dee, became my favorite of the bunch this year with the aces EP He Gets Me High and their second full-length, the perpetually-jangly Only in Dreams. There isn’t much variation to the song structure and the drumbeats on several tunes are virtually the same. But the surf-guitar sound on tracks like opener “Always Looking” and single “Bedroom Eyes” make this record stand out. In a year when so many acts were attempting to mask their words, Only in Dreams is refreshingly straightforward. There’s depth here too, with three-chord sermon “Coming Down” and the melancholy sadness of closer “Hold Your Hand,” which conjures the feelings of being with a loved one as they slip away to the great gig in the sky. For my money, Only in Dreams hits its peak on mid-album rocker “Heartbeat.” Dee Dee’s voice has been endlessly compared to Chrissie Hynde, perhaps my favorite female vocalist. On “Heartbeat,” Dee Dee reaches Hynde-like heights of beautiful, deep confidence. “Take it away,” the chorus pleads over and over. On Only in Dreams, Dee Dee and her ladies only give, and they give just about everything.

9. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

The story of Christopher Owens, the genius behind Girls, reads like The Blind Side but with a white kid with a guitar. Born into the Children of God cult, Owens had an older brother who died due to the cult’s beliefs and a mother who prostituted herself on its behalf. Later, Owens was taken in by a Texas millionaire and then moved to San Francisco, where he started Girls. Their debut album, fittingly titled Album, was a ‘60s-style rock triumph, but Owens takes the more fleshed-out group further on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Opener “Honey Bunny” is an honest examination of Owens’ shortcomings over with one of the happiest-sounding guitar tracks of the year. “Alex” is about a girl Owens pines for, with the common refrain of “Who cares?” describing feelings going both ways. “Die” rocks unlike anything on Album while the building “Vomit” takes the band to a mountainous crescendo. There’s plenty of playful tracks like “Saying I Love You,” “Magic” and “Love Like a River,” but the album also displays an incredible amount of depth, nowhere better than on “Forgiveness.” You can hear Owens’ heart break as he croons “nothing’s gonna get any better” and “no one’s gonna find any answers.” His acoustic guitar and the plodding keyboards tell the story before the mid-tune breakdown and emotional solo. The song’s final words always give me chills: “I can see so much clearer / When I just close my eyes.” Without a doubt, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is one of the best albums of year to just sit back, close your eyes and love.

8. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Speaking of back stories, this is one you may be more familiar with: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon wrote and recorded the project’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago in a remote Wisconsin cabin. For his second act, Vernon went quite a bit bigger. A cabin couldn’t possibly hold back Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. Every song on Bon Iver feels massive. From the marching drums and guitar of “Perth,” the soft arpeggio brilliance of “Holocene,” the folky touches of “Towers” and the quiet strength of “Wash.,” it’s no wonder this is the record where Vernon crossed over into mainstream accolades. My biggest issue with Bon Iver is Vernon’s continual insistence in recording with multiple tracks of his lead vocal, which masks his incredible falsetto voice and typically mangles understanding of what he’s singing. Vernon’s live performances are usually more powerful than his recorded work. Still, it’s hard to not be enraptured by Bon Iver’s soft sonic mastery from beginning to end. And it’s the end that seems to get people talking. Easily the most divisive indie rock song of the year, closer “Beth/Rest” very easily could be mistaken for an easy listening ballad in the mold of Bruce Hornsby or Richard Marx. But, dammit, the song is amazing. You have to respect the hell out of Vernon for taking a chance like this and pulling it off in a totally non-ironic and completely earnest fashion. The degree of difficulty, and effortlessness of Vernon’s sound, makes Bon Iver an indelible highlight of 2011. He sure is a long way from that cabin now.

7. Foster the People: Torches

Admit it: a year ago, you’d never heard of Foster the People. Now, it’s impossible to exist without hearing them. Their debut, Torches, exploded this year in a maelstrom of viral hits and tunes you’d hear everywhere from movie trailers to coffee shops to car commercials. For 2011, they were next in a line of synth-dance-indie-pop-rock groups to gain insta-fame, following in the footsteps of MGMT and Passion Pit. The common thread of the groups is that beyond the hype and the annual chorus of fans saying “I knew them back when…” it really comes down to the solid sounds they’ve forged. At first, I wasn’t crazy about Torches, thinking songs like “Color on the Walls (Don’t Stop)” cribbed a bit too much from the MGMT playbook. But unlike many albums I heard this year, there wound up being cohesiveness to the overall product that simply worked. Mark Foster and Co. created a sound that so many millions will closely associate with where they were in 2011. Each song is different but so clearly comes from the same place: “Waste” brings heavenly choruses; mega-smash “Pumped Up Kicks” creeps along a bouncy beat and tells a story about why you probably shouldn’t play with guns; “Houdini” and my personal highlight “Call it What You Want” are whacked-out dance-a-thons that undoubtedly birthed hundreds of unplanned hipster dance parties this year. Truth is, to some, it’s probably already uncool to like Foster the People. Anyone who tries to say that is trying too hard to be cool themselves. Love Torches now, and wait to see who’ll be the Foster the People of 2012.

6. Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See

Arctic Monkeys were the first band around my age I loved. Debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and sophomore Favourite Worst Nightmare defined my college years with tight punkishness while 2009’s Humbug was a step back with mostly hardcore sludge. It came out after college during a strange time for me. This year, Suck It and See was released when I was starting to figure things out. Clearly, Arctic Monkeys also figured things out, with an album that culls from their best work. Lead singer Alex Turner, who mostly yelled early on, is now a bona fide hard rock crooner. Standout tracks “She’s Thunderstorms,” “Black Treacle,” “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” and “Reckless Serenade” combine bouncy riffs with rocking attitude. Heavier tunes “Brick By Brick” and “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” were the best songs not on Humbug. “Library Pictures” is a blast-from-the-past, an angry rant befitting the Sheffield boys’ early days. But it’s the end of the album that hits home hardest, showing the band’s maturity as they enter their mid-20s. Closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” (starts 1:50 into video) is their best song since “Fluorescent Adolescent.” This sounds of a band that’s waged the battles of youthful expectations, coming out the other side with their talents and brains intact, reaching a point where they’ll be supporting the Black Keys on a 2012 arena tour. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” shows how far they’ve come with Suck It and See. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Jamie Cook launches into a high-pitched solo as the song turns triumphant. “Don’t take it so personally,” Turner says. “You’re not the only one.” Maybe getting older, and wiser, isn’t so bad.

5. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde

I’m pretty sure the guys in Smith Westerns are tools. I saw them at Great Scott and while they played well, the long hair of brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori were in their respective faces the entire time. Cullen quickly unplugged his microphone and ran off stage at the end of their set without playing an encore. These Chicagoans, weaned on Beatles and T-Rex records, will soon realize their audience is the wrong group of people to piss off. But with Dye It Blonde, they’re at least in a mature place when it comes to their recording style. George Harrison is smiling in rock heaven, knowing his signature guitar sound lives on. “Weekend” is a piece of glam perfection that goes a bit deeper than just having fun on a weekend. Because to Cullen weekends are never fun “unless you’re around here too…” Showing a bit of their age and feelings of mortality, mid-record masterpiece “All Die Young” winds down with a massive chorus and a truthful refrain: “Love is lovely when you are young.” “Dance Away” is awfully danceable, “End of the Night” chugs along with some really fun riffs, “Only One” recalls the Britpop of the late-80s and early-90s. The final tune, “Dye the World” has perhaps the best guitar work on the entire album and ends with an awesome melancholy riff. Dye It Blonde is the work of a band trying to find its way in the wide world of indie rock. Between their garage-y debut and this very polished second effort, I’d like to think their best work is to come. I’d also like to think they wouldn’t be douchebags when I see them again in January.

4. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

The fourth studio album from these Brooklyn indie heavyweights was released on April 12. Eight days later, bassist Gerard Smith died following a bout with lung cancer. Nine Types of Light was likely written and recorded with the knowledge Smith was undergoing the fight of his life. Because of that, an odd darkness permeates much of the album and gives it an aura unheard on their other records. Even upbeat songs, like ironically titled opener “Second Song,” lead single “Will Do” and the truly repetitive “Repetition” all feel like something is desperately wrong. This album lacks the star power of 2008’s Dear Science but works nearly as well. The frantic “No Future Shock” introduces us to a brand new dance craze conjuring the plight of many today. “Keep Your Heart” features lengthy coos from Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, who come into their own as vocalists. The finest moments come in the form of a mid-album sandwich with “Will Do” providing the tasty filling and two of the best pieces of bread ever baked up by TV on the Radio. (OK, that was lame. Sorry.) “Killer Crane” is similar in feel to the epic Dear Science ballad “Family Tree” and explodes with sad beauty. It includes what has to be the most depressive use of banjo I’ve ever heard. The light touches of synthesizer, followed by slight acoustic strumming take it to another level. Just one song later, they strike a decidedly different tone. Dripping with sex, “New Cannonball Blues” reaches down into the deepest recesses of their funkitude. Only “Golden Age” can rival this song’s access to the dirty and forbidden. There aren’t many bands with the range of TV on the Radio. Nine Types of Light is an incredible exhibition of that range. Although things will never be the same, I hope they never lose their ability to reach for new places.

3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong

Over the last few years my musical tastes have made a significant shift. There was a time when I hated anything that wasn’t guitar-bass-drums with no frills. You could play piano, but it better not be plugged into anything. As you can tell from this list so far, and the two albums to come, I’m way more open to machine-made sounds. Yet Belong, the second album from New York indie cool kids The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, is an effort I would have appreciated at any point of my life. Their self-titled debut touched on many of the late-‘80s fuzzy British themes. On Belong, they creep forward a few years, pumping up variations on the ‘90s alt-rock I grew up on. Working with ‘90s mavens Alan Moulder and Flood probably had something to do with that. These short guitar-pop joys fly by quickly. The first three tracks are wonderfully breezy, with single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” the most adorably fun song of the 2011. “The Body” frenetically recalls yesteryear, with a video that will make you hate yourself for growing up. There’s a deep longing in “Even in Dreams” not previously experienced by this band. “Even in dreams,” Kip Berman wails, “I will not betray you,” followed by the crashing Clinton-era guitars and cymbals. The final two songs here, “Too Tough” and “Strange,” harkens back to their My Bloody Valentine-tinged debut with some of the finest shoegaze you’ll hear anywhere. Do The Pains of Being Pure at Heart do anything supremely different or special? If this were 1994 I’d say no. But in an indie world where nostalgia rules the day, they used Belong to separate themselves from the thundering herd. “Our dreams are coming true,” Berman coos over and over on “Strange.” Here’s hoping this band’s dream continues to come true for years to come.

2. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Two years before his death, Irish literary titan James Joyce published Finnegans Wake, a novel considered incomprehensible at the time and only slightly more understood by readers and scholars more than seven decades later. One thing is universally recognized about Finnegans Wake: Joyce was attempting to synthesize in words what we experience in dreams. He spent 17 years writing the book, mostly in France. That also happens to be the home country of Anthony Gonzalez, the progenitor of M83, a group now six albums into their career. Unlike Joyce, Gonzalez spent just three years crafting this breakthrough release, the double-disc Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Gonzalez has tried a similar feat here: a musical form of what happens when we sleep and dream the things we dream. Don’t mistake what you hear on this album for anything close to reality. Over the course of 79 minutes there’s little Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming doesn’t possess: huge synthesizers, frenetic guitar work, perfect drumming, beat-you-over-the-head obvious lyrics, what-the-fuck-is-he-saying unintelligible lyrics, unreal bass fills, well-placed saxophone solos, train sound effects, clarinet bursts, heavenly choruses on heartfelt ballads, a song named after a ‘60s movie star, ghastly instrumentals and a little girl yammering about magic frogs. Yet so many songs are based on simple chord changes and themes, things you know you’ve heard before but just never placed like this. “Intro” is a grand opening with gigantic synths; “Reunion” rollicks with tremendous guitar work; “Claudia Lewis” lives and dies on an astounding bass line and a vibe straight out of 1987;  “Steve McQueen” probably has nothing to do with Steve McQueen but sounds damn amazing. M83 reaches their peak on the second song and lead single “Midnight City,” which was far and away the best song I heard in 2011. The unmistakable synth hook leads into an awesomely fun jaunt that always gets my head weaving. “Waiting for a car,” Gonzalez and company sings, “waiting for a ride in the dark,” and later, the most affecting line of all, “the city is my church.” From there the song elevates along a simple progression, leading to the final heightened refrains and the sax solo everyone’s been talking about since it came out. Is it out of place? Does it belong in any song released in 2011? That’s the great thing about Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Nothing Gonzalez does here is what you can expect because, well, we can never expect what we see in our dreams. The album has flaws; it could have been shortened by a few indulgent instrumentals and the dirge of slow ones like “Wait,” “Soon My Friend” and others make the pacing somewhat odd. But there’s no denying Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming will go down as one of the classic indie albums of this era. James Joyce would indeed be proud.

1. Cut Copy: Zonoscope

I had never listened to Cut Copy, the Aussie electro-pop quartet of nerdy-looking dudes led by Dan Whitford, before their third album, Zonoscope, was released in February. That’s probably why I never got caught up in the “oh, it’s really good but not as good as In Ghost Colours” line of thinking that seemed to pervade the criticism of this near-perfect album. Listening to this for months without being influenced by the greater star power of In Ghost Colours allowed me to fully appreciate Zonoscope‘s ‘80s-inspired indie electronica for what it truly was: the most complete, most listenable and most memorable album of 2011 for me. Leading off with the builder “Need You Now,” Zonoscope contains everything we want from indie pop these days: catchy hooks, well-placed drums, synthesizers everywhere, sneaky-great guitar and bass work and lyrics that leave the deciphering up to you. The bassy fun of “Take Me Over” includes wonderful synth work through the choruses. There’s the clap-along stomp of “Where I’m Going,” the Bananrama vibe of “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution,” the Cars recalling on “Alisa,” the longing of “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat.” It finishes on 20 minutes of deadly serious dance-punk, a stretch Cut Copy picks up the baton from the dearly-departed LCD Soundsystem as purveyors of raw emotion in the electric indie world. “Corner of the Sky” hits a funky verse about 2:30 in that makes you feel like Whitford and his drones are going to reach out through the speakers and grab you. The final 15-minute jam “Sun God” is borderline creepy, with obsessive lyrics sung over and over: “Please please please please please / Won’t you give your love to me?” and “Are you gonna give me your love? / Love won’t be enough” among them. Eventually the lyrics go away and we’re left with a kraut-rockish jam that dissolves into a barrage of synth blasts. Again, no band I heard in 2011 released anything like this. Where Zonoscope separates itself from the pack is the astounding “Pharaohs & Pyramids,” a dance romp that takes the listener to Egpyt and beyond. There are prickly synths, cryptic lyrics and excellent percussion leading up to a breakdown with Whitford yapping about disco sounds and lights (which is something he does a lot). The breakdown zooms into a wild build-up then a euphoric burst of energy, a veritable volcano of sonic bliss. A plaintive guitar solo even shows up midway through. Every amazing sound on Zonoscope, everything great about the album and everything great about music in 2011 is rolled into these last two minutes of “Pharaohs & Pyramids.” So many different tastes have resulted in the creation of so many different sounds. Maybe disco indie rock isn’t your thing. But there’s a ton of diversity on Zonoscope, and the quality of all the different sounds makes it my favorite of the year.

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LISTS

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2011 So Far

2010 was an epic year for new music, at least in my opinion. Three albums released last year rank among my all-time favorites (The National’s High Violet, Jimmy Eat World’s Invented and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) with two others hot on their heels (LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening and Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor). There were so many great albums last year that I had to spend at least a portion of this year listening to some of the 2010 awesomeness I’d missed (like Total Life Forever by Foals and Tourist History from Two Door Cinema Club).

So six months in, how does 2011 stack up? It’s hard to judge at this point, but it doesn’t appear it’s going to be quite as prolific as 2010. However, there’s been a lot excellent music so far. Here’s a rundown of nine of my favorite songs in 2011 to this point, in alphabetical order by artist.

ARCTIC MONKEYS – “THAT’S WHERE YOU’RE WRONG” FROM SUCK IT AND SEE

The finale from Arctic Monkeys’ Suck It And See, the British band’s fourth album in six years, is perhaps their strongest overall song to date. It’s a far cry from the speed and intensity that marked Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which back in 2006 was the fastest-selling debut album in UK history. Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders have experienced some real growing pains over the years, but on Suck It And See, they’ve finally figured out who they are. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” is literally the culmination of their career to this point. Cook’s melodic lead and Helders’ timely beats perfectly match the feeling in Turner’s croon. Who knew a two-chord chorus could hold so much power?

CUT COPY – “ALISA” FROM ZONOSCOPE

If you aren’t listening to Cut Copy, you’re definitely missing out. Informed by ’80s nostalgia and pages taken directly from the LCD Soundsystem playbook, their third album, Zonoscope, has definitely been my favorite album of 2011 so far. Every song feels like another step toward mainstream relevancy for electronica, a magnificent blending of all the styles that have become so vogue in indie these past few years. On deep cut “Alisa,” I think this Australian quartet hits their peak. Lead singer Dan Whitford sounds like Ric Ocasek and David Byrne’s lovechild while the band chugs along at an Aquanet-inspired backing track. This is a band with a lot more interest than just what’s going on out on the dancefloor, and it shows here.

DUM DUM GIRLS – “WRONG FEELS RIGHT” FROM HE GETS ME HIGH EP

On March 1, all-chick California surf-pop quartet Dum Dum Girls released four-song EP He Gets Me High. Three of the four songs are fantastic, including the aces title track and a rollicking cover of the Smiths’ iconic “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” But it’s the first track, “Wrong Feels Right,” that I just can’t stop listening to. I’ve always been a huge sucker for Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, and this embodies what I’ve always enjoyed about Hynde. Lead singer Dee Dee hits a deep-voiced female confidence that Hynde has trademarked for the last 35 years. And while Dee Dee sings with such depth, the song is so bright and happy-sounding that I always find myself upset the song is only 2:31. Wrong does indeed feel right.

LADY GAGA – “THE EDGE OF GLORY” FROM BORN THIS WAY

It took two albums, one sorta-album, a zillion tweets and campaigns, a boatload of headlines and questions that had nothing to do with music, but it finally happened. On “The Edge of Glory,” the finale of her latest record, Lady Gaga realized her artistic potential. Everything works perfectly here: the feeling conjured by her lyrics, the largeness of the hook, the epicness of the overall sound, the simplicity of the chorus, the attitude in the message. I’ve grown partial to calling Gaga “The Last Pop Star,” because that’s really what she is, and she finally earned it with “Edge of Glory.” Of course, the song would be incomplete without the astounding work of Clarence Clemons on what sadly became his last musical contribution to this earth. What a way to go out.

THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “HEART IN YOUR HEARTBREAK” FROM BELONG

You wanna talk about fun? Look no further than this crew of New York nerds, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Their name might be complicated, but their tunes are anything but. On their first self-titled album they explored the vagaries of 80s noise pop and on this year’s Belong, they jump forward a few years, embodying the most fun of the 90s alternative rock singles I was weaned on. That fun shines through best on “Heart in Your Heartbreak.” It’s flippin’ adorable! Come on, tell me you don’t love the chorus of “She was the heart in your heart break/She was the miss in your mistake.” A perfect pop tune in any era, it’s capped off by a phenomenally not-ironic-at-all synth solo. PLEASE listen to this album, if just for the pure joy of “Heart in Your Heartbreak.”

PANDA BEAR – “FRIENDSHIP BRACELET” FROM TOMBOY

Noah Lennox, the Paul McCartney of Animal Collective, went four years between the release of his landmark Person Pitch and this April’s equal-if-not-better masterpiece Tomboy. The standout track from this terrific collection of genre-bending electronic indie is “Friendship Bracelet,” which is without question the most complicated track on this list. By the time the first chorus comes to a close, it sounds like Panda Bear is playing three different songs at once. Yet all the varied sounds come together, strung along by Lennox’s trademark harmonic inflections. I can’t even begin to guess what kind of instruments he used to put this song together. All I know is it sounds amazing. The next song on the album, “Afterburner,” is also excellent for much different reasons.

RADIOHEAD – “GIVE UP THE GHOST” FROM THE KING OF LIMBS

Let’s face it: The King of Limbs is not a great album. Certainly not up to the impossibly lofty standards Radiohead has set for themselves. Releasing three generation-defining albums (The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A) makes the rest of your career awfully tough. That’s not to say Limbs is without great songs. One that I believe immediately enters their canon is the haunting, circular “Give Up The Ghost.” Here Thom Yorke pays tribute to someone we share as a hero: Neil Young. The influence of Neil’s attention to detail and minimalist recording techniques is felt throughout, right down to the way Yorke sings. I can totally imagine this as some long-lost outtake from the On the Beach sessions. Its proves sometimes the best crib from the best. That willingness pays off immensely on “Give Up The Ghost.”

SMITH WESTERNS – “WEEKEND” FROM DYE IT BLONDE

These are young, brash Chicagoans I saw in Boston earlier this year. They played great but displayed immaturity and a lack of professionalism at the end of the set by bolting the stage before playing an encore. Like I said, they’re young and brash and will learn from their rookie mistakes. It may take some time before their personal maturity catches up to their musical maturity. “Weekend” is the Beatles-drenched opener of their second album “Dye It Blonde,” which is loaded with songs of its throwback ilk. “Weekend” is rife with catchy hooks and guitar licks and beautiful, longing minor 7th descending chords and tinges of young romance in the lyrics. There’s so much to love here. It’ll be nice when Smith Westerns start to love their fans back.

TV ON THE RADIO – “NEW CANNONBALL BLUES” FROM NINE TYPES OF LIGHT

Outside of the extremely funky “Golden Age” from Dear Science, I guess I never thought of TV on the Radio as a particularly funky band. I mean, a lot of their songs are about sex, but when you look at the guys, they don’t exactly scream “deep funky sexiness.” The first time I heard their new record about a month ago, I thought it was very good through the first six tracks. Then out came “New Cannonball Blues.” Holy. Crap. This song is the hottest thing this side of Kate Upton. It sounds like it was baked in a kiln before being applied to disc. It’s so smooth yet so forceful at the same time. And it’s nothing like anything TVOTR has put out before. I was worried Nine Types wouldn’t stand up to its prolific predecessor, Dear Science. But Dave Sitek and crew assuaged any of those fears solely based on “Cannonball.”

What have I missed? What have you listened to this year that I may not have heard? Let me know. I expect to be doing some reviews here in time, I can tell the first one I do will be Bon Iver’s new self-titled album. Hint: It’s amazing and you should listen to it.

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