by Mike Mineo
10. Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years
Try and think of a band that has released 10 albums over the past 13 years, all of them attaining acclaim and stylistic diversity in a uniquely identifiable manner. Maybe if Super Furry Animals existed a few decades ago a few contemporaries could have shared this honor with them, but in an age where both the number and progressive quality of albums continues to decrease the Welsh collective remain one of the few. Super Furry Animals is quite an easy band to be a fan of. You never want your favorite band to change, but at the same time you realize that exploring new territory could be beneficial. The Gruff Rhys-fronted group kicked off their career with two classics in Fuzzy Logic and Radiator. Since then there has been no drop in quality, only fluctuations in stylistic maneuvers. Following the hook-filled and shimmering pop of the outstanding Hey Venus!, Dark Days/Light Years is a return to the experimentation that albums like Phantom Power and Mwng were renowned for. Super Furry Animals will always produce infectious songs by nature, and it rarely depends on Rhys’ style whether it is the electro-pop of his other project (Neon Neon) or the guitar-based rock of Super Furry Animals’ earlier material. Dark Days/Light Years takes full advantage by being spread out all over the place. Punchy electro-funk in “Inaugural Trams” and sitar-aided psychedelic pop bliss in “The Very Best of Neil Diamond” are a few instances of lovable experimentation, as is the excellent opening “Crazy Naked Girls” (which borrows both the electro-funk and sweet psychedelia of the two aforementioned tracks). As a whole, the album is a continuation of material that is simply fun for Super Furry Animals. They have always enjoyed experimentation without sacrificing their audience’s well-being, which is especially respectable for a group of their ambitious nature. Dark Days/Light Years is one of those rare achievements for a band with plenty of them already. Few can be so simultaneously eclectic and accessibly infectious, but with Super Furry Animals we have come to expect it by now.
09. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
Sunset Rubdown have always been flexible. Shut Up I Am Dreaming toyed with minimalistic electronica and rock, while Random Spirit Lover was a showcase of multi-layered art-rock expansiveness. Both albums had their stylistic exceptions that did not serve as stylistic disruptions due to their cohesiveness, but the difference in songs between the two albums was clear. For their fourth LP Dragonslayer, Krug resorts to his hardest-rocking repertoire yet and it results in eight very infectious tracks that maintain their flexibility and separable qualities throughout. Contrary to the abundant use of varying effects throughout Random Spirit Lover, Dragonslayer utilizes little in terms of studio additives. In regard to the instrumentation and content, this is one of Krug’s rawest albums yet. “Idiot Heart” evolves from the rhythmic strum of muted guitars to an anthemic sort of disposition with roaring guitars, chanting xylophones, and a build-up that rivals the likes of “The Men Are Called Horsemen There” (which Krug reminds listeners of before heading into the chorus). The lyrical-musical juxtaposition is excellent as usual, especially when Krug proclaims the following: “Now I was never much of a dancer, but I know enough to know you gotta move your idiot body around.” Immediately after speaking of an inability to dance, percussion appears for the first time and the track reclaims the rhythmic infectiousness that the introduction did not initially emphasize. The line seems ironic at the time since the progression that follows is irresistibly danceable like few Krug efforts before it, just going to show how thought-out and thematically effective the tracks on Dragonslayer really are. “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Oh!” is also one of the album’s brightest moments, whether one looks to its irresistible chorus or the outro where Krug presents a series of slick guitar progressions and catchy chants. Like most Krug efforts, the song is fun to analyze and the ambiguity simply adds to the allure. He can create vivid folk like “Nightingale / December Song”, nostalgic arena-rock like “Idiot Heart” and “Dragon’s Lair”, and fist-pumping anthems like “Black Swan”, but stylistic multifariousness is not the sole reason for Dragonslayer’s apparent success. It is the consistency, thematic focus, and sheer ability throughout the album that makes this one a potential classic.
08. Salem – Astronaut
Salem Al Fakir’s debut full-length, This Is Who I Am, was one of the most enjoyable albums of 2007. It was a debut that sounded like it was crafted with decade’s worth of experience, staying true to the clever vein of Swedish pop that the native Al Fakir appeared to flawlessly grasp. Even in that accessible realm though, the album showcased a wonderful display of worldly influences as Al Fakir successfully integrated soul, blues, and psychedelic-pop into a sound that could be most aptly described as orchestral chamber-pop with dabs of nostalgic throwbacks. Retro-y synths and showtune-like orchestral accompaniments often set the stage for large presentations that Al Fakir’s soaring voice and confident presence fit perfectly in. Al Fakir has cut off his last name from the release, but Salem’s new album, Astronaut, is unmistakably from the same talented artist that put out one of 2007’s best. The narrative allure of “Astronaut” and “Black Sun Black Moon” retell similar stories of orchestral heartbreak, but apart from that Astronaut is a pretty excitable release that is dominanted by pulses of synths, heavy percussion, and even glam-rockers. “Twelve Fingers” mixes arena-rock with synth-pop, sporting an excellent bridge where an exotic synth line cohesively ushers in the subsequent guitars. “One of the Others” and “Bluest Eyes” both succeed in the realm of blue-eyed soul tremendously, with the latter’s country-ish twang being one instance of Salem’s tendencies to unconventionally mix and match different genres. Unlike most of the other tracks on the album, “Cold Shower” has no counterpart in its piano-pop. The dominance of keys and Salem’s flamboyant demeanor awakens comparisons to Elton John, and Salem’s undeniable ability causes “Cold Shower” to sound like a lost hit from the ‘70s. Just try and listen to the reggae-inspired chorus without grinning in delight. Another interestingly rewarding track is the phenomenal “Purple Lady”, a sprawling beauty of an effort that is also the most downtrodden on the album. Al Fakir has followed up one of the best debuts of 2007 with an album that is undoubtedly one of 2009’s best. This is a must-buy for any fan of pop music; there is something on here for everyone.
07. St. Vincent – Actor
Despite naming her first album after an Arrested Development quote, Annie Clark’s debut was not something I could get into. The potential of Marry Me was evident but there was still something missing. Classified as a guitar prodigy by some, the brains behind St. Vincent delivered pleasant pop songs with a nice punch but not enough depth. Perhaps it was her immense talent overshadowing a rookie effort, but there was something missing. The Oklahoma native has taken momentous strides with her follow-up, Actor, in all aspects, especially in regard to increased focus, stylistic capacities, and overall confidence. Marry Me had a nice mix of bright and quirky songs and darker ballads, suggesting a hesitance to stick with one thematic mood. Doing so would also require sticking with the same musical arsenal, and restriction is never good for a talent like Clark. So, on Actor she does something very wise. She focuses on darker subject matter, both in an attempt to diversify her material and create a steady flow that results in Actor‘s greatness. The result is something largely melodic and reflective, one that shows Clark as more than a pretty voice. The songwriting here is quite special, never restrained by any electronic or world influence that may seep in. The brooding “Save Me From What I Want” has a chilly electronic vibe to it, its sparkling synth pad glittering over sputtering percussion as Clark pleads the listener for salvation from her desires. Unlike Marry Me, her sentiments on Actor are unbelievably convincing in her whimsical and naturally melodic approach. The track is filled to the brim with imagery that contrasts with the music quite nicely, and when the various guitar progressions and samples conclude the track it reinforces Clark’s maturing songwriting very nicely. This is also demonstrated through, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood”, which is lighter with its acoustic guitars, gentle bass lines, and twinkles of strings and keys. Clark echoing her own thoughts with a distant reverb is reminiscent of ’60s pop, as is a fantastic chorus that uses build-ups of strings and swift guitar progressions. Flourishes of jazz are found throughout the track, but by this mid-point of the album listeners are accustomed to such variation. I was one of the few not entirely convinced by Marry Me but this has done it. Actor is a true triumph. There is no other album this year that accomplishes this sound with such precision.
06. The Veils – Sun Gangs
On The Veils’ third album, Sun Gangs, Finn Andrews offers the audience his most diverse vocal showing to date. He tackles everything from piano-led balladry to heavily distorted alternative-rock, doing so in an effectively cohesive manner that proves reflective of the group’s contrasting array of moods. This should be nothing entirely new for listeners though, as both preceding Veils albums were impressively eclectic in their own right. The excellent placement of “Sit Down By the Fire” as the opening tack of Sun Gangs has rewarding intentions, greeting listeners with an effort that shows most of The Veils’ strengths in four minutes. With its fluttering acoustics, driving keys, delightful melody, and strongly poetic lyrics, it serves as a nice introduction for new listeners and a refresher for the many fans that have been waiting patiently since the release of Nux Vomica. “Sun Gangs” finds itself placed between two tracks that seem to be at least moderately intricate in instrumentation, providing a breather between “Sit Down By the Fire” and the brilliantly consuming “The Letter”. Andrews has placed tracks accordingly in order to manage the variety of moods cohesively on all of The Veils’ past releases, but the structural organization throughout Sun Gangs is his best work in this department yet. As far as “The Letter” goes, it is one of Andrews’ finest efforts to date and should make as a hugely successful single. Like “Advice for Young Mothers to Be” and “One Night on Earth”, Andrews’ alt-rock leanings are present, although one could say that this is arguably the most definitive representation of it. Guitars are most prominent here, especially after the chorus where several guitar progressions clash to produce a sound somewhat reminiscent of The Arcade Fire. Andrews’ voice and lyrics, though, make this entirely his own. After the heavy industrial-rock of “Killed by the Boom” and Celtic folk-influenced “Three Sisters”, “The House She Lives In” returns the album to somewhat more conventional territory, offering a nostalgic mixture of keys and guitars to craft a verse that is depictive of ‘60s pop. The slick chorus and accompaniment of strings is classic Veils though, and it results in being one of the best songs on the album because of it. Although the last three songs lack in the focus of other songs on the album, the moody “Larkspur” and soft-spoken “Scarecrow” and “Begin Again” are still too memorable to be classified as filler. Even stacked up against The Veils’ other albums, Sun Gangs is simply another step in the right direction.
05. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Sometimes it sounds like Dirty Projectors are showing off. More often than not actually, throughout their new album Bitte Orca, the Brooklyn-based quartet make success sound so effortless. I have always envisioned David Longstreth as a young Matthew Herbert of sorts, embedded with a more pop-oriented ideology that benefits from his interest in a wide variety of styles. The production on Bitte Orca is outstanding mainly because it holds together Longstreth’s ridiculously hefty ambition, which for the first time sees complete cohesiveness. As expected, this translates to brilliance. Bitte Orca plays like an adventure novel of sorts in its variety of themes, the constant variation almost sounding like a rock musical with some R&B and soul addeded to it. There are tracks like “Cannibal Resource” that work with orchestras as they integrate themselves within wildly accessible indie-rock, while other efforts like “Temecula Sunrise” start with lo-fi pieces of acoustical passion and grow into epic, stylistically multifarious accomplishments. Whichever way the structure seems to move, Dirty Projectors unveil something worthwhile in every song on Bitte Orca. Many songs like “Cannibal Resource” and “Temecula Sunrise” benefit from an assortment of layer and contrasting harmonies, but those skeptical of the group’s raw abilities should check out the intro to “The Bride”. Little more than a beautiful voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment forms a sound similar to traditional folk. Dirty Projectors conquer nearly every genre that has influenced indie-rock throughout the album and this is just one instance of it. It then grows into a heavier, more distorted sound to make things interesting, but the stunning verses that precede it are indicative of Dirty Projectors’ ability. Some of the tracks on the album are filled with so much variation to the point where they may be intimidating, so a track like “No Intention” really fits nicely with its joyously accessible vibe. It is really the only “feel-good” song on the album, but Bitte Orca stirs up plenty of emotions with its riveting material. This is exactly where the Herbet comparison comes in for me; Longstreth is showcasing an astute ability for several genres and mastery in production has now led him to great things. Now that his talents are showcased in such a polished and genuine way, it is incredibly easy to enjoy.
04. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
I remember fondly that Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House was one of the first features on this site. It was pretty clear that it was going to bring them considerable attention, which was shown through their enduring relevance throughout the past three years. It is hard to believe that Yellow House was released over three years ago, especially considering how great songs like “Knife” and “Marla” sound. It will likely be looked back upon as one of the better psychedelic-folk albums of the decade, which makes the equally respectable success of its follow-up Veckatimest important. While retaining the great songwriting and harmoniously serene nature of Yellow House, Veckatimest sees the group expand their horizons in terms of production and sound. A string quartet and even more interweaving vocal melodies are abundant, but they are not the only reasons for the stunning melodic repertoire of Grizzly Bear’s third album. Droste and company have crafted a beautiful pop album by any stretch of the imagination, evolving from the singular folk of their early material into a band that touches upon everything from psychedelic jazz to traditional folk. The former is immediate from the opener, “Southern Point”, which uses a brisk acoustic shuffle over a fuzzy bass through serene interludes and brilliant percussive breaks. It is a great opener in establishing an enjoyably complex sound, even if the stunning “Two Weeks” following it returns listeners to the delightfully harmonic roots of Grizzly Bear. Keyboards, various layers of choir boy-like vocals, and a placid bass line combine for a very ethereal experience that is both infectious and nostalgically touching. It presents old-fashioned pop in the best sense possible. “Cheerleader” follows in that same throwback sense, sounding like a lost ’60s gem with the glittering reverb of reverbs and doo-wop vocal accompaniments . The production on this track is stunning particularly because Grizzly Bear opted not to go the gimmick-y, lo-fi route in terms of nostalic ’60s pop. This is crisply produced bliss and it touts its strengths. By now, Droste is a natural at crafting emotionally driven gems like these. There is no need to cloak things in extraneous arrangements and, with the coherently stunning Veckatimest, this much is clear.
03. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
Distinction will never be an issue for Wild Beasts. With a voice like Hayden Thorpe’s, it almost seems as if the English four-piece could put any arrangement under his dramatic delivery and the result would sound great. The most quirkily enjoyable thing about Wild Beasts is the juxtaposition of their varying influences. Thorpe’s lead vocals are strongly reminiscent of the quivering cries for help that Billy Mackenzie made famous in the realm of post-punk, but their music often hints at lights of optimism that are rare in a genre that encompasses such an enjoyably sullen haze. But while Thorpe makes post-punk the most oblivious practice on their second album, Two Dancers, but their tendency to use unconventional practices like chirpy guitar progressions or exhilarating choruses is what creates their signature sound. They are able to reach into the depths of melancholy without coming across as melodramatic, just as they are able to scale the dizzying heights of pop elegance without coming across as too desperate for fame and fortune. These tendencies result in a sound that borrows neither too much from the past nor excess from the present, resulting in a sound that is fresh and engaging without being classified into the ridiculously flexible genre of art-rock. Two standouts, “When I’m Sleepy” and “All the King’s Men”, are direct in their respective descriptions of death and desperation. Mumbled vocals that weep over reverbed guitar tremolos are present, of course. The bass lines are subtler than typical post-punk, but the dramatics of the distorted guitars and emotive vocals are still there, stuffed with pop-oriented theatrics that make the style more accessible for those somewhat opposed to the dramatics of Joy Division or The Cure. “We Still Got the Taste Dancing on Our Tongues” finds Thorpe’s most theatrical crooning uplifted by guitar tremolos and sprinkles of haunting keys that coincide with his vocals to craft a sound that is as elegantly uplifting as it is haunting and serene. And this is what Two Dancers is; it serves as phenomenal album that quickly follows up a debut to prove that Wild Beasts are more than clever stylistic imitators. Most importantly, it shows that they are great songwriters and producers in their own right, leading to the credibility of all forthcoming recognition.
02. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
It would be easy to give the Flaming Lips a free pass at this point since they have yet to release a lackluster album in their 26-year career. Their releases are also often such a mind-consuming experience that it becomes impossible not to criticize or complement. Their twelfth studio album, Embryonic, is particularly true of this. There has been no other Flaming Lips album that is strongly comparable to this one, both in thematic effort and general style. Structurally, it is a mess when compared to the ethereal works of Yoshimi or The Soft Bulletin, where laid-back anthems like “Do You Realize??” and “Race for the Prize” were Lips standards. On Embryonic, there are no heartwarming singles like “Free Radicals” that casual fans will adore, nor overly fluttery examples of bubblegum-pop like “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” that provide some ease to the always-present level of experimentation. So, with this in mind, why exactly is Embryonic one of their best releases to date? Like many Flaming Lips releases, the reason becomes apparent after a full listen. Like most Flaming Lips albums, Embryonic begins with a kick-in-the-face sort of track. Guitar distortions whimper in disarray, the reverb-heavy percussion plays with a sense of unpredictable fury, and Coyne delivers an eerie croon that finds itself reminiscent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in its drolly robotic allure. In doing so, “Convinced of the Hex” is a clear ode to both Kraut-rock and post-punk. The layers of sound build up until the rhythm section becomes the showstopper, gradually introducing bursts of bass as the percussion intensifies with heavy hi-hats. It nearly makes the listener picture an automation line, one superb addition after another. The different keyboard chord that appears after every other measure also does a great job of keeping this one in place in adding subtly invigorating forms of melodic variation in addition to Coyne’s vocals.
“Powerless” is indeed the biggest achievement on an album full of many, combining evolutionary post-rock with the touch of sparkling keys and unconventionally boisterous guitar solos, the latter of which sounds more like impulsive chordal strikes than melodic construction. There are several guitars to accompany keys which glitter gracefully throughout, the most prominent emitting a single chord that abrasively leads the effort with heavy distortion and hand swipes. It is a wonderful technique, mainly because the subtle and less audible guitar accompaniments provide beautiful additions thanks purely to the group’s songwriting skills. The only major variation occurs when the western-y bass line suddenly drops a few pitches with each succession, the lead guitar remaining steadily boisterous as the others emit stunning melodic whispers that will send chills down under listener’s spine. The way these instruments and melodies combine to create this epic force is absolutely stunning, making this one of the best Flaming Lips tracks released. The second disc begins with another knockout force in “The Ego’s Last Stand”, an effort that shows off the rhythmic precision of this album beautifully. Percussion has never before been so prominent for the Flaming Lips, so it is nice to see a diversified amount of efforts in regard to all sorts of instruments being the beneficiary in leading tracks. Percussion and bass appear to converse here by rarely coexisting, instead taking turns speaking before guitars and brass-like mute effects concoct a truly spectacular and anthemic chorus. Embryonic is hardly the most beautiful album to the Flaming Lips’ name, but its rough edges are so defined that the result is more engrossing than any of their albums from the past decade. Like any double-album there are a handful of tracks whose absence would not be missed, but the highlights are so memorable and purely fascinating in approach that it propels Embryonic to the echelon of 2009’s best releases.
01. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
The rise of Animal Collective has been one of the most enjoyable stories of the year, particularly because they actually deserve the acclaim. Merriweather Post Pavilion, their eighth studio album, was arguably their most anticipated release for a reason. For nearly a decade they have ignored any slight conception of contemporary pop music, taking note of both classical and worldly influences in addition to relevant sample-based technology to form a style that is literally incomparable to anything before them. They write pop songs with hooks so strong and prevalent that admirers of all genres are stimulated by it, whether through the breezy psychedelia on Feels or the choppy electro-experiments of Strawberry Jam. Those with knowledge of their ambitious discography are aware of various stylistic experiments the band has undertaken, some being failures and others succeeding immensely. The issue with previous Animal Collective albums were that bursts of brilliance seemed to be subdued by occasional clutter, which was often little more than extraneous over-experimentation. Still, with each successive release they took new strides with more cohesive ideas and less clutter. Fans had anticipated an album as cumulatively successful as Merriweather Post Pavilion for some while as a result. 2009 finally fulfilled their expectations.
Merriweather Post Pavilion begins in grand style with “In the Flowers”, perhaps the best opening track of the year in its developmental brilliance alone. Its subtle growth in percussion signals an imminent rhythmic explosion that the trickling minor guitar arpeggios portray early on. Fuzzy bass, accelerated percussion, and a repeated synth effect enter during the exhilarating and lengthily foreshadowed chorus. Building up hype and then satisfying listeners entirely is just what this album does from start to finish, so “In the Flowers” is nice introductory analogy for this album’s vast scope of pleaure. Enough has been said of infectiously repetitive tracks like “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes”, but the most durable tracks on Merriweather Post Pavilion are gems like “Bluish” and “Also Frightened” that show the band’s more expansive side rather than their sample-based, repetitive ones (which can be just as great). “Also Frightened” sounds like the majestic psychedelic-pop work the band has always aimed for in their majestic ambition, restrained previously only by a lack of structural coherency. This effort is clearly from due experience because it achieves remarkable sereneness and accessibility while retaining traditional components of psychedelia. Like “In the Flowers” and “Bluish”, it is pretty much perfect. “Daily Routine” is an enjoyable novelty in its transitioning from messy organs to lush shoegaze-y synth pads, while the soft twinkle of the pop-lullaby “No More Runnin” provides for some relaxing reprieve before the hectically fulfilling “Brother Sport”. The lush throwback pop of “Bluish” is perhaps the most surprisingly rewarding track on the album though, showing a side of Animal Collective that is not hesitant to write a song not invested in innovative recording techniques or stylistic achievements. Sometimes moderation can be a good thing, and Merriweather Post Pavilion shows this perfectly by blending its styles with groundbreaking precision.
The most remarkable thing about Merriweather Post Pavilion is that it already appears timeless less than a year after its release. Although some tracks like “My Girls” boast synthesizers and sampling, the hooks and structure of the songs are relative to any period in pop music past the 1950s. Trying to spot Animal Collective’s influences is looking for a needle in a haystack since they hide them so well; their own creativity takes over in ways other bands could only dream of. Merriweather Post Pavilion is the best album of 2009 because it represents both the creativity and eclectic capacity of a band whose recognition is preceded by years of various experimentation. It will be considered a classic for years to come not because it broke out a a great band though. Instead, its legacy will live on as an influential stylistic achievement with prevalent impact on the decades of music to come.