1. Andrew Bird: Noble Beast
Mr. Bird is incapable of creating anything less than extraordinary. His wit combined with his immaculately crafted music, I swear, makes you a more intellectual listener. With lines like “the young in the larval stage orchestrating plays in vestments of translucent alabaster” and, “fecundates like a natural disaster” a scholar could see a theme in the songs, but I, for one, needed a dictionary.
“The beauty all over is an exceptional vessel. Bird maneuvers his way through various styles, connecting them all with a brilliant, steady, mix of finger-plucked strings, earnest lyrics that are some of his most direct to date and a whistle here and there.
While his erstwhile album featured songs that were expanded into true compositional works, Noble Beast is a tighter sounding release. Whether he is delivering those lush string arrangements, melodic strands of music or even just that wistful whistling, this is an album that puts to shame even the finest musician.”
Track picks: Oh No, Fitz & Dizzyspells, Natural Disaster
2. Diane Birch: Bible Belt
Like Andrew Bird, Diane Birch is a Suzuki-trained musician. Taking influence from the likes of motown, gospel, 70’s singer-songwriters, Diane Birch seems to put herself in a league of her own in contemporary songwriting genre reincarnating trends from recent history like playing the Fender Rhodes piano. In conclusion, Bible Belt is a superbly crafted album that fans of a wide variety of genres can easily enjoy.
Something Else! says:
“…there’s a thread of old soul that runs throughout the whole set, but each song is this artist’s own personal interpretation of a form of classic American and British popular music style, or a melding of several of these styles. Nearly all of them armed with big, radio-ready hooks…Nonetheless, Bible Belt is a pretty impressive debut overall for this precocious talent. Diane Birch didn’t set out to forge new kinds of music, but she’s done a nice job recasting music that’s new to her.”
Track picks: Valentino, Rewind, Don’t Wait Up
3. Alela Diane: To Be Still
To Be Still was my introduction to Alela Diane and I soon found out that she has a pretty faithful following spawned from her first release, “The Pirate’s Gospel”, released back in 2006. Since then, she has progressed from a more bare bones approach to her haunting folk songs, to a more intricately produced manner that, while still maintains her excellent storytelling artistry, is more focused on vocal melody and layering of instruments.
Here’s what Alela has to say about her album:
“I wanted to record this collection of songs using arrangements which would represent them in their finest form. These songs requested more instrumental filigree than those on The Pirate’s Gospel. It was challenging to delicately yet purposefully incorporate instrumentation into songs that I was so used to singing by myself. I was determined to make it work, because I wanted percussion! I wanted to hear the lonesome bow of the violin! I heard many harmonies in my head, and so I set out to capture them.”
Track picks: White As Diamonds, To Be Still, The Alder Trees
4. The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love
The Decemberists are back with another concept album that’s a most ambitious 17-track folk-rock opera. They’re one of the few bands that can actually pull such a maneuver off without causing a train wreck. The band’s added two new vocalists, Becky Stark and Shara Warden, to the roster to give voices to the female characters in the album’s story. Warden, in particular, adds an ounce of brilliance in the track “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid”. Also, take note of illustrator, Carson Ellis‘, wonderful album art.
“If this all sounds rather pretentious, well, it is. But the Decemberists—in particular, lead singer Colin Meloy—seem to have realized that pretension is somewhat expected of them at this point, and have found a sort of freedom in that expectation…The music here is as strong as anything that the band has ever done, though the album is distinctly different than their others—sparser, perhaps, in timbre and in instrumentation, but more varied in style.”
Track picks: Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In the Taiga), The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid, Annan Water
5. Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
Recording part of the album in a 200-year-old barn in rural Vermont, Neko fills her songs with metaphors, dream images, and has twisted the ambiguous genre of “alternative country” into something completely unrecognizable, completely wonderful, and in touch with the ground below us. She’s a purveyor of unorthodox love songs when she intends to and when she doesn’t, while giving her songs unexpected structures entwined with her velvety voice. Check out her cover of a Sparks’ song.
Writes the Music Box:
“Anyone who has closely followed the career of Neko Case undoubtedly has found immense pleasure in watching her development not only as a singer but also as a songwriter and overall performer. Case has always had a powerful voice, and right from the start, it allowed her to establish a commanding presence from the concert stage. In the recording studio, however, it frequently overpowered and consumed the arrangements that surrounded her. For the better part of the past 12 years, Case has been learning how to work with her gift rather than against it. Her vocals remain larger-than-life. Yet, there now are subtleties and nuances lurking in her inflections, and her poetic lyrics combined with the cinematic orchestrations of her music at long last are able to withstand the forcefulness of her delivery.”
Track picks: This Tornado Loves You, People Got a Lot of Nerve, The Pharaohs
6. Joel Plaskett: Three
As ambitious as a triple record is, Joel Plaskett’s approach is top notch, or “rattling off” as he would put it. The pride of Canada’s eastern Maritimes, I find that his best songwriting is at work on these three discs, which as a whole, was short-listed for 2009’s Polaris music prize. For some added charm, there are numerous things around and about the album that have to do with the number three.
“By sticking to what he does best and keeping the delivery simple and straightforward, Plaskett manages the remarkable feat of not including a single standout clunker. They’re certainly not all classics – many drift by with just an amiable nod – but anything that does catch jump out and grab the ear does so because it’s exceptional, and there’s no shortage of those, particularly on disc two. Generally, these are the quieter, more thoughtful compositions – a fact that may mark Plaskett’s transition from rocker to balladeer complete, but one that should be celebrated.”
Track picks: Every Time You Leave, Sailors Eyes, Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’
7. Florence and the Machine: Lungs
Florence Welch seems to be unfairly compared to the likes of Lily Allen and Kate Nash. This parallel is derived from her single, “Kiss with a Fist” being released last year, long before the full length album, “Lungs”, was released. While it may have been relevant at the time, it turns out that the rest of the album was completely different, highly sophisticated, theatrical, and..really not all about comically abusive relationships or about liking boys.
“Instead of giving this gothically pale 22-year-old with megaphone vox some classy pop-soul to work with à la Duffy or Adele, Lungs takes the smorgasbord approach. Welch bursts mouth wide wide over garage rock, epic soul, pint-tipping Britbeat, and– best of all– a mystic brand of pop that’s part Annie Lennox, Grace Slick, and Joanna Newsom. A lesser talent might fall prey to such veering stylistic change-ups (cough, Kate Nash, cough), but Welch powers through, her ear-snapping alarm call of a voice making Lungs sound like the work of a courageous artist rather than a group of well-paid producers.”
Track picks: Dog Days Are Over, Rabbit Heart [Raise It Up], Drumming
8. Heartless Bastards: The Mountain
I was introduced to Heartless Bastards from their explosive opening set at the Decemberists’ show back in the summer, so I wasn’t able to see the evolution of vocalist and guitarist, Erika Wennerstrom’s musical style. While having a distorted wall-of-sound aesthetic to the bulk of the album, different forms are thrown into the mix that call upon roots rock, and experimental qualities that feel like Velvet Underground & Nico.
Writes Paste Magazine:
“Erika Wennerstrom’s enormous voice typically dominates discussion of this Ohio trio, and for good reason. Hers is a mighty blues holler, projecting self-conflict not just to the rafters, but to the rafters in other states.”
Track picks: The Mountain, Hold Your Head High, Out At Sea
9. Thao with the Get Down Stay Down: Know Better, Learn Faster
Thao’s new album is a break-up album, but not in a ‘boo hoo’ way, but rather, a ‘good riddance, let’s dance’ way. The record is a piñata full of fun with horn arrangements and a string and whistle cameo by Andrew Bird in the title track.
“Her [Thao Nguyen’s] follow-up is the post-party comedown, a collection of hard-learned lessons about love, sex, and human connection. Know Better Learn Faster is a more mature record, slightly disillusioned with the world, but no less playful and with no less personality.”
Track picks: Cool Yourself, Know Better Learn Faster, Body
10. Bishop Allen: Grrr…
Although Bishop Allen have yet to top their debut release, “Charm School”, “Grrr…” is the next best thing. Frontman Justin Rice doesn’t seem to be fatigued from writing over 45 songs prior to the current release. The band got some exposure making an appearance in the Michael Cera movie, “Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist” but hasn’t given Rice the popularity laziness.
Oklahoma, one of my favourite tracks from the new album, is an infectious pop number. Here’s what the band’s Justin Rice says about it:
“Well, I grew up in TX near the Oklahoma border. So I’ve spent a lot of time there. Oklahoma is this big, flat scrubby unwanted place. But the sky is tremendous and there’s something about it that feels kind of raw and inspiring in a way; but also overlooked.
But there’s also something interesting about the settling of Oklahoma too. The Sooners were these people who basically left to settle in Oklahoma before they were allowed — it’s this whole state that is founded upon the principles of jumping the gun, or cheating; not following the rules but going out and acting in your own self interests. It’s this positive thing, but also a fucked up thing.”
Track picks: Oklahoma, Rooftop Brawl, Cue the Elephants
11. Charlotte Gainsbourg: I.R.M.
Following up her elegant and elaborate release, 5:55, Charlotte continues to experiment with sounds and structures. This time around she drew her inspiration from what could have been a tragedy. She had multiple MRI scans after sustaining brain-hemorrhages from a water skiing accident. IRM is a wonderfully produced album with highs and lows that are equally elaborate and mysterious.
“I had to do so many [MRIs] and every time I was in that tube I was thinking it would make great music,” she says, referencing the song’s stuttering, machine-like rhythm. The lyrics chronicle her trips to the brain-buster with acute detail: “Following the x-ray eye from the cortex to medulla,” she sings in a Beck-y, spoken-word cadence. Fact: MRIs have never been as cool as they are right now.
Track picks: Heaven Can Wait, Me And Jane Doe, Time Of The Assassins
12. K’Naan: Troubadour
Recording his album in Bob Marley’s studio in Jamaica, I’m sure there was no doubt that K’Naan would create a great record. He considers himself a poet over a rapper and it shows in his work–while dropping sweet beats he also gets his political and social messages out that are far more eloquent than other attempts made in popular culture.
From the Boston Globe:
“While hip-hop is relying on the same beats, subjects, and silly swagger, K’Naan is seeking something more diverse and more humane. There’s a taste of folk in a lot of the songs, which you’d expect from a sharp storyteller with a sense of narrative, detail, and humor. His rhymes are taut, and the self-proclaimed “visual stenographer” sees the cost of war and what has happened to the underprivileged in a world of overconsumption and greed…K’Naan’s quirky vocal stylings – he’s got a thin voice and relies on a dextrous flow with tricky rhymes – are not immediately accessible, but that’s part of the appeal.”
Track picks: ABC’s, Dreamer, Fatima
13. Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career
This group of Scots have their fingers on a dimmer switch that has been slowly brightening since they began making music. Not to debase their previous records, the switch analogy is directed to the lushness of their sound, which has been steadily increasing through more intricate layering and arrangements. Camera Obscura also has a strange facade of creating cheerful sounding pop songs reminiscient of 60’s pop, while singing about something completely heartbreaking. This aural irony is pretty pronounced here, but it’s a sort of melancholic incongruity that keeps them charming.
According to Lost at Sea:
“Clever, catchy, and moody, Maudlin Career is what contemporary pop music should be. It is wholly as satisfying as Campbell is unsatisfied. Like a true underdog, we want and expect Camera Obscura to be slightly battered, but triumphant in the end. Although they come out only mildly scathed, it is not for certain who the victor really is. If, between sobs, you catch a smile on Campbell’s face, you’ll know she won.”
Track picks: French Navy, My Maudlin Career, Forest And Sands
14. Howie Beck: How to Fall Down in Public
With associations with the Arts & Crafts gang, Beck operates his own record label, 13 Clouds, on which he released his own work. His recent album has gone mostly unnoticed by the music blog pundits, but that’s not to say Howie Beck isn’t a talented musician who writes his songs like a craftsman.
Chart Attack says:
“Beck’s predilections have made a further shift another five years on, but only a slight one. He’s adopted a somewhat Sondre Lerche-like vibe both musically and in vocal style. There are also moments on How To Fall Down In Public where Beck’s guitar work is reminiscent of Neil Halstead’s solo material. While the subject matter is as personal as ever — with veiled references to relationships and amour — Beck has some fun on this disc, too.”
Track picks: Watch Out For The Fuzz, Flashover, Save Me
15. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca
Enduring an organic cut-and-paste aesthetic, the Dirty Projectors are like audio dadaism, but not outright anarchic. Allmusic’s review is far more articulate:
Dirty Projectors’ mastermind David Longstreth appears to be attracted to sounds that will simultaneously draw in and confound the average listener; he has a clear, sweet voice and a gift for well-crafted harmonies and melodies that bring out the innate beauty of his music, but he often weds them to fractured time signatures that cause the songs to shift gear at the least expected moments, and he tosses in sudden bursts of atonal skronk that are either bracing or puzzling, depending on your point of view.”
Track picks: Stillness Is the Move, Two Doves, No Intention
16. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: Outer South
I’m beginning to wonder is Conor Oberst’s gradual shift towards southern-y folk from soul-crushing emotion was to intentionally gain new fans who weren’t hair-dyed teenagers. I hope it worked out for him.
“The end result is an album that retains quintessential Oberstisms–his penchant for soulful lyrics, his rebel-rousing holler, and yes, occasionally his softly quavering voice—while simultaneously hinting that the singer-songwriter is all grown up. In short, arguably for the first time, Oberst gives us an album rife with liveliness—and it sounds like he had a damn good time making it.”
Track picks: Slowly (Oh So Slowly), Difference Is Time, Bloodline
17. Islands: Vapours
Nick Diamonds, frontman for Islands, went through a lot of changes for his new album and reinvented the band once again. The album’s sound draws from several sources that, when blended together collectively, could have been terrible, but instead, it was rather refreshing.
Dusted Reviews says:
“Islands’ new album Vapours is a good example of what it means to incorporate as opposed to what we can call appropriate. At this point in the narrative, it seems useless to keep criticizing Western indie artists who borrow other cultures’ ideas from their elite perch. Cultural gentrification is no longer an outlier strategy, but rather is being employed by band after band and label after label.”
Track picks: Switched On, Vapours, Heartbeat
18. Gentleman Reg: Jet Black
I got a preview of the new album at a concert at Soundscapes in Toronto that ended up being a perfect appetizer to the full release soon after. Gentleman Reg continues to write uppity pop songs perfect for dancing alone to in your room.
From Now magazine:
“Reg has matured a lot, and Jet Black is easily the most dynamic and upbeat record of his career. Unlike his past efforts, which were mainly filled with quiet pop tunes, raucous tracks like You Can’t Get It Back are the norm here. But it’s We’re In A Thunderstorm, an incredibly infectious but slightly odd (for Reg) chill-out club track, that’s the best of the bunch. Signing with A&C brings great expectations, and Reg meets them all.”
Track picks: Coastline, You Can’t Get It Back, How We Exit
Hero Hill says:
“The United Steel Workers of Montreal will kick your ass. I’m not really sure what else needs to be said about the urban hillbillies from Montreal, but seriously, one listen to their new record – Three on the Tree – will leave you battered and bruised and emotionally spent.
I could start with the basics; banjo, squeezebox, guitar, and double bass that make you want to stomp a hole in the dance floor or talk about Gern’s gruff, whiskey sloshed vocals. I could even mention the tender ballads the band routinely adds to the mix (the old-time feel of Little Girl is a great example of how they control the tempo of the record) or how perfectly Felicity Hamer drifts into falsetto, but trying to dissect this record takes away from the end result.”
Track picks: Son, Your Daddy Was Bad, Shot Tower, Rise Up
20. Slow Club: Yeah So
From The Line of Best Fit:
“Musical compartmentalisation is of course a bad thing more often than not, but it’s increasingly an exercise in chasing one’s own tail trying to work out where Slow Club fit in. They’re not really twee, or indie, or folk, or anti-folk, or acoustic roots, but you can see how the confusion might have arisen. Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor’s harmonies and summery faux-ramshackle approach is one that doesn’t reach out for approval or, despite the album title, smug superiority but suggests in an implicit, low-key fashion that people discover them under their own steam. Which, with more than a couple of years’ worth of singles and well placed support slots behind them, seems to be working out fine.”
Track picks: When I Go, Giving Up On Love, It Doesn’t Have To Be Beautiful
The Vine says:
“Who said R&B was all about bling, vocal histrionics and uninspired lyrics? Swedish diva Jenny Wilson shows it doesn’t have to be as she continues to chart her own course on Hardships!, the follow up to her ground breaking 2005 debut, Love and Youth.
Though at first listen this new collection of songs from Wilson appears to be either an art-school pastiche of Beyonce-style pop or a genuine mix ‘n mash of indie, electro and R&B, this is a record very much its own.
The arrangements chop and change from song to song and showcase an inventive approach uncommon in this genre – like a more song oriented and less annoying version of French experimental songstress Camille. Strings, horns and flutes, programmed beats, pumping bass and real drums pepper the songs as the album winds its way through softly spoken ballads, crunchy hip-hop infused rhythms, performance poetry and straight up R&B.”
Track picks: Like A Fading Rainbow, The Wooden Chair, Only Here For The Fight
22. Darwin Deez: Darwin Deez
I saw Darwin Deez perform with his band before Bishop Allen took the stage at the El Mocambo. To be short, not only was it the best opening band I’ve ever seen, but one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Dressed like teenagers from the early 90’s they blasted new wave in between songs and literally danced along to them in hilariously delightful choreographed moves. Every song had pumping bass, echoey background guitar and juicy melodies. They made the, usually hapless Toronto crowd, get up and dance. Check out NME’s post about Darwin Deez.
Track picks: Constellation, Radar Detector, Bad Day
23. The Raveonettes: In and Out of Control
The Raveonettes are good at knowing when it’s appropriate to move on. Their first two releases were fuzzy, deep red Jesus & Mary Chain inspired albums all in the key of B flat. They were smart enough to know this couldn’t possibly work for another record so they changed it to something taken more from the Phil Spector category. They knew continuing that phase would only lead to accusations of appropriation, so they went back to a dark and noisey sound for 2008’s Lust Lust Lust, and with their current release, they seem to have blended to two seamlessly together.
“It’s perfect that the Raveonettes hail from frozen Copenhagen—their sound is seriously chilly. Take the icy charms of second track “Gone Forever”, which has all the romantic warmth of a dead fish. It’s not that the Danish duo is ironic or disaffected; it’s more a question of musical inclination—they like it cool, and they like it sharp. Though the Raveonettes takes their cues from classic girl groups like the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, their sound is anything but straightforward nostalgia. By mixing My Bloody Valentine feedback with dance beats and retro winks, this duo combines so many different influences that they manage to sound completely unique.”
Track picks: Bang!, Last Dance, Suicide
The Trip Wire says:
“It’s difficult not to find Scattergood’s work compelling from the very beginning, though it may take a few listens to make sense of the record as a whole. This is by no means a medley of sounds and moods; rather, it’s a well-orchestrated whole that executes each musical shift with a smooth elegance. What’s most remarkable is that no matter how far into the depths of despair Scattergood reaches (and when she channels death by suicide as in “Untitled 27″ or by cancer in “Breathe In Breathe Out”, those depths are very deep), her work retains a strange sense of hope. Polly Scattergood succeeds in evoking the serious while nodding at the irreverent, making for a most impressive debut.”
Track picks: Other Too Endless, Please Don’t Touch, Nitrogen Pink
25. Miss Li: Dancing the Whole Way Home
The Queen of piano triads, Miss Li released three albums from 2006-2007 that were difficult to pick out many drastic differences between them. Her new release is surprisingly refreshing that seems to consciously make nods to her old work as well as referencing riffs and themes within the album itself. Dancing the Whole Way Home has some nice arrangements and although maintains some of the naïveté of her previous work, Miss Li explores some other topics to discuss other than boys. You might also recognize her song, “Bourgeois Shangri-La”, on a recent iPod commercial.
Track picks: I Heard Of A Girl, Dancing The Whole Way Home, Bourgeois Shangri-La
“Rock & roll lifers that they are, Wilco knows the implications of a self-titled album, how any record bearing an eponymous name is bound to be seen as a reintroduction. That’s why they puncture Wilco (The Album) with a parenthetical aside, a slyly ironic joke that deflates the notion that Wilco is returning to its roots while signaling that the band is finally lightening up again, a notion reinforced by the llama birthday party on the cover. And, to be fair, “reintroduction” is indeed too strong a term for a band that never went away, they merely spent a decade-and-a-half on a walkabout, consuming anything that came their way, changing their tone and tenor from record to record. Wilco (The Album) finds Wilco the band happily returning from the wilderness, taking stock of where they’ve been and consolidating all they’ve learned into one tight, likeable record.”
Track picks: Wilco (The Song), Deeper Down, You and I
27. Regina Spektor: Far
“Far” gets the award for worst album cover of the year, but it shouldn’t be judged by what appears to have been done by a 14 year-old with Photoshop. Not her most spectacular work, but the album still has some bouncy piano numbers, dramatic crescendos and sobering narratives.
“There’s no denying though that most of Far would sound quite at home ‘on the radio’, to quote one of her earlier tracks. The Calculation, which opens the album, marries a jaunty piano hook with sad lyrics about a disintegrating relationship and quickly establishes itself as one of her best songs. The fact that her vocal is also given free rein to perform her trademark kooks and inflection is also a promising sign.
Lyrically, although she can still be obtuse. there’s a sense of big issues being deliberated on. Religion in particular hangs heavy over Far – lead single Laughing With questions whether anyone can truly be an atheist, especially in situations such as “famine, fire or flood” or “when they see the one they love hand in hand with someone else and they hope that they’re mistaken”. It’s a beautiful track, set to one of her most heartbreaking melodies, that succeeds in being thought-provoking while avoiding po-facedness.”
Track Picks: The Calculation, Eet, Machine
28. Sondre Lerche: Heartbeat Radio
Mr. Lerche has taken a step back in the right direction after “Phantom Punch”, which only had a few songs that did it for me. “Heartbeat Radio” calls more upon his roots with string sections, esoteric themes and pretentious chords that come across as commonplace.
LA Times writes:
“‘Wait till you hear the refrain,’ sings Sondre Lerche in the title track of his new album, “Heartbeat Radio.” That’s not bad advice: No matter what genre he’s working in — fuzzy garage rock, breezy vocal jazz, acoustic folk-pop — this young Norwegian singer-songwriter crafts catchier choruses than many musicians who’ve been working twice as long as he has. His refrains always pay off.
But skimming Lerche’s songs for their juiciest bits leaves a lot of juice behind. He’s a highly meticulous record-maker with a deep and abiding love for intros and verses and bridges; in his mind, each deserves to be lavished with attention.”
Track picks: Good Luck, Like Lazenby, Don’t Look Now
“Ben Kweller’s latest solo album entitled Changing Horses is just that, a change from his indie-rock persuasions to full-blow outlaw country rock. In his past projects Kweller has touched upon his Texas outlaw roots but here he embraces it head-on and does a good job with his country excursion. Kweller, who in the past has been known to play all the instruments on his CDs has brought in a fine cast of musicians to back him up and make this album a fresh and compelling masterwork.
Previously, Kweller fell in the class of indie rock on the same level as Weezer on his more rocking tunes and Bright Eyes on his sappier sides. Being so young, just a teen when he started, and brilliant is what set him apart, making him stand a bit taller among his peers. Now in his mid-twenties this is the record he needed to make as his stories are told in the honky-tonk hardwood-floor manner that a kid of nineteen, 99 percent of the time can’t pull off. But as Gram Parsons did with his country-rock masterpieces G.P. and Grievous Angel, Kweller is at an age where you can believe his stories as he has had time to live, know, love and lose.”
Track picks: Fight, Hurtin’ You, Sawdust Man