By: David Colburn
The past twelve months have seen a considerable collection of well-produced, eclectic, and simply catchy albums that span through multiple genres and past influences. Billing this article as a “Top Album” feature would be inaccurate, as there are hundreds of recent releases not yet experienced or even remotely acknowledged. Also certain albums (including Vampire Weekend’s Contra, Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz) have been omitted due to their previous individual reviews. Simply put, the following feature is a compilation of albums that exert the necessary qualities to warrant at least one, if not one hundred, full listening experiences. Whether strikingly original, warmly nostalgic, or just oddly fascinating, this alphabetized collection includes works that have ascended beyond the standard aural ambience of the speakers and shamelessly demanded much greater attention.
Antony and the Johnsons- Swanlights
Beauty may be in the eye (or, in this specific case, the ear) of the beholder, but Swanlights provides an almost universal persuasion for the title. Many adjectives instantly sprout to mind when attempting to describe the aural atmosphere accessed: “comforting”, “enticing”, “melodic”, “soulful”, and “emotional” serve as only a few words of appropriate description. In the expressive vocal timbre comparable to that of Nina Simone and the minimal instrumentation that allows the listener to breathe in its delicate subtlety, Swanlights may not fit everyone’s definition of a “great album”, but it undoubtedly fits the definition of an “album worth checking out.”
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti- Before Today
“Chillwave” (an independent subgenre that’s recently increased in popularity) is generally enjoyable, but most examples tend to focus their respective influence from the popular music of the 1980s. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti applies basic, synth-laden elements of the subgenre with a Zappa-like humor, Residents-like quirkiness, and the pop sensibility of Electric Light Orchestra’s vocal harmonies on Before Today. Instantly accessible but relentlessly intriguing, the album is generally comforting yet simultaneously bizarre to ensure a memorable listening experience.
Avey Tare – Down There
For fans of the band Animal Collective, of which David Portner, or Avey Tare, is a member, Down There features many warmly familiar aspects that comprise the band’s signature sound. For those unfamiliar with Animal Collective, Down There features delightfully odd aspects that comprise a fascinating sonic environment. In either respect, the album strays from any sense of boredom in its creative arrangements and its distinct rhythmic approach. The album ultimately wields the ability to transport the listener to a different aural universe, far away from bland predictability, yet comfortably accessible in its own way.
Beach House – Teen Dream
Teen Dream flows with the sensation of a worn vintage vinyl in a trance-like and disarming euphoria. There isn’t a focus on a specific instrumental timbre, but rather on the potent combination of alluring aural elements found throughout the work. Even the sunniest examples of psychedelic pop are contrasted with a notably dark edge and unnerving, mantra-like repetition.
Caribou – Swim
Perhaps Swim features the most fitting title and album cover found on this list: tracks confidently flow and hypnotically cycle like meticulously-formed whirlpools of serene pop nostalgia in a far-from-shallow atmosphere. Even among the assortments of ambient noise and slightly dark bits of distortion, the album ultimately plays in as much bliss as an afternoon swimming session on a warm summer day. The sense of reluctance upon leaving even exists, and Swim undoubtedly begs for multiple listening experiences.
Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (2010)
Violent and exciting electronica, pulsating in rhythm and immersed in a very coarse energy, is what Crystal Castles delivers in abundance. Each track relentlessly demands the undivided attention of the listener, but rewards the commitment just as quickly. Noise-drenched exclamations remain hopelessly addictive after the initial rush, and one may find the “repeat” button in heavy usage. Moments of beautifully produced vocal ambience attempt to carry the listener away to ethereal heights, while the dissonant clangs of synthesized percussion attempt to drag the listener toward seedy depths in equal prowess and potency. The ultimate result is a fascinating and unforgettable listening experience.
Das Racist- Sit Down, Man
A vast collage of pop culture references, clever wordplay, and unabashed pervading humor makes Sit Down, Man one of the most intriguing albums in recent memory. Hypnotic repetition in the choruses of many tracks proves to be a remarkably effective device in the group’s specific lyrical style: when one hears the phrase “Das Racist” after the initial listening experience, one will undoubtedly remember that they’re “not joking, just joking about joking” in the instant of a finger’s snap.
Flying Lotus- Cosmogramma
Flying Lotus’ music invokes an eclectic sonic universe of greatly cluttered, yet undeniably compelling ambience. Glitches of electronica overtake the soundscape and warm remnants of vintage jazz emerge and naturally blossom all around its uniquely-constructed atmosphere. Cosmogramma frantically flows around the listener’s mind in an unpredictable and eternal pattern and never sheds any of its potency.
Girl Talk – All Day
In the all-encompassing, fragmented pop culture universe of Girl Talk’s craft, subgenres of hip-hop harmoniously coexist with iconic samples of classic rock, Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” melodically compliments Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”, and the common ground between Lil Wayne and Kraftwerk is blissfully accentuated. All Day provides a listening experience rife with technical awe, whimsical humor, and overwhelming catchiness, bringing forth a new sense of musical significance to the album’s final John Lennon sample: “I hope someday you can join us and the world will live as one.”
Gorillaz- Plastic Beach
Damon Albarn’s musical project Gorillaz has always been based on collaboration, and some of the most diverse musicians – including Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith and Snoop Dogg – have brought their respective talents to the construction of Plastic Beach. The resulting album exerts the most aural variety to be found in the Gorillaz discography, expanding beyond the “trip-hop” influence and into newer seas of pop sound. Perhaps the most impressive element of Plastic Beach is the growing sense of unity found in each listen, one that confirms the clichéd notion of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Collaborators have committed time to constructing and bettering the World of the Plastic Beach, and the result is greater than they could have imagined.
Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring
Los Campesinos! have always provided frenzied and instrumentally active power-pop and Romance is Boring is no exception. All of the signature elements of the band’s sound (the bombastic bursts of noisy melodies, the intimate lyricism delivered in youthful fervor, and the impressively simultaneous balance between coarse dissonance and irresistible pop) are delivered with as many memorable excerpts as one would expect from the group. Even in the moments of darker maturity that surround the album, Romance is Boring remains as energetic as the exclamation mark at the end of the band’s moniker.
Salem – King Night
Salem’s tendency to hold a listener’s attention through almost-violent yet rhythmic dissonance does not differ greatly from Crystal Castles or Sleigh Bells on the surface, yet the album is able to access an intriguing middle ground in its burgeoning hip-hop influence. With a sound vaguely reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain, early Ween, and Liars, Salem’s King Night can be as commandingly dark as the title would suggest in its endless fields of distortion, delirious layers of reverb, and bizarrely relaxing excerpts of rap.
Sleigh Bells- Treats
If mainstream pop music was produced in a slightly darker alternate universe, the result would be similar to Treats. There exists an almost primal joy from the heavy, pulsating rhythmic distortion as it frantically blends among the album’s sharp sense of melody and rotating energy in surprisingly natural euphoria. Beyond the comparative simplicity of the album’s songs is a genuinely exciting sound which ultimately reveals the appropriate nature of the album’s optimistic and rewarding name.
The Walkmen- Lisbon
Simple elements, from the nostalgic, reverb-laden guitar timbre to the expressive nature of the vocals, have allowed The Walkmen to craft a notably distinct style throughout the majority of their discography. Lisbon is similar to the group’s previous works in both specific style and strong arrangements that gradually reveal the full potential on each unique listening experience. There are not striking elements of aural innovation or intriguing points of stylistic contrast, but the album’s qualities remains in the mind of the listener long after the initial discovery.
Wavves- King of the Beach
Summer’s over, but the basic sensation of summer never has to end. Listening to King of the Beach transports the listener to the short-sleeved weather and vibrant solar energy of many people’s favorite season, and it achieves the task in a manner that is euphorically reminiscent of the syrupy psychedelic pop of the late 1960s while retaining its own self-deprecating, simplistically punk identity. As autumn slowly freezes into winter, King of the Beach can provide a great source of slightly dark musical fun in welcome seasonal contrast.