Now that we have the let downs out of the way, here are my favourite albums this year, while most of this is in a loose order I have ordered my top 3 albums.
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Most Arctic Monkeys albums play out as a few songs that stick and a lot of average rock songs, but AM proved that they can make an album that’s varied without making it seem disconnected. An overarching feel and some amazing songs made this one of their finest albums. “Do I Wanna Know” starts the album off with the bands first real arena rock song that sets the pace for the whole album, while “R U Mine” kicks the album into gear with it’s stop and go drive. Slow jams like “Mad Sounds” and “No. 1 Party Anthem” provide an amazing change of pace for the band, sounding like 60s and 70s solo artist singles. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and “Snap Out of it provide cool, nonchalant songs that build into epic finales for the album.
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
While Neko Case’s new album doesn’t totally add anything new, it is just as pleasing as her last album and is a relaxing and deep album that can get you through a bad day. Her powerful vocals cut through the calm instrumentation and make them something more. Songs like “Night Still Comes” and “Calling Cards” provide beautiful backgrounds to let Neko’s voice and lyrics hit the listener. While “City Swan” and “Man” pick up the pace to allow Neko more powerful and driving vocals. One of the few singer/songwriters to continuously make new yet familiar albums that sound amazing.
Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
It seems as much as bands change, Franz Ferdinand has managed to stay more or less the same, while improving in subtle ways. At the same time their ability to knock out singles has been increasing since their second album. Songs like “Right Action” and “Bullet” sound like they would fit right at home on their debut with their quirky riffs and straight forward delivery. While weird songs like “Evil Eye” and “Stand On The Horizon” show a maturity in writing while still being able to make really catchy dance songs.
The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
The Joy Formidable are known for their wall-of-sound, hard rock and their sophomore album doesn’t ease up. From the start Wolf’s Law rips through its first half with brutal intensity. “This Ladder Is Ours” and “Cholla” surround distorted fast songs with heavy synth washes, all made beautiful through Ritzy’s vocals. “Tendons” and “Little Blimp” are more bass-driven versions of the first two songs. The most interesting thing of the album is around the middle, the titling becomes much more apt. Between songs like “Silent Treatment” and “Forest Serenade” that are very quiet for the band, it becomes clear that the songs go from intense to light to a great blend of the two near the end (“The Hurdle” and “The Leopard and The Lung”) emulating the actual Wolff’s Law by taking intense stress (the heavy start) and becoming stronger from it, by having the hard sound mix with the beautiful. The albums only real downfall is it starts to sound a little repetitive but it works if you get past that.
3. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
After Contra I was a little worried Vampire Weekend was slipping from the rich yet driven sound of their first album but their new album proved that it was just the stepping stone they needed. “Obvious Bicycle” starts the album feeling like the dawn, and goes into the modern Buddy Holly song that is “Unbelievers”. This is followed by what is probably the best back-to-back tracks this year, “Step” takes the band’s unique handle on harpsichord, adds a choir and puts the whole thing over a hip hop sample, with Ezra’s vocals the song is solidified as one of the most unique and catchy songs, inciting that “one more listen” feel to extremes. While “Diane Young” goes quick and hard, driving the whole time only cutting back to introduce the weird but even more intriguing (Buddy Holly-esque) vocal pitch section, the whole song uses these sections to make the next driven section even louder. The song’s snare drops are one my favourite drum parts of the year too, bringing you back into each section with vigor. “Don’t Lie” and “Hannah Hunt” slow down again but keep themselves interesting with more harpsichord and open feeling keyboards, which complements the similar but more syncopated “Everlasting Arms”. The song picks up again on the weird but fast “Finger Back”, before jumping into the vocally crazy “Worship You”. The album then hit’s its last great single “Ya Hey”, a slow yet precious little song whose final chorus backed with reverbed piano and a chorus makes one of the most beautiful musical moments of the year. The album closes with the somewhat mediocre “Hudson” before closing on the final-feeling “Young Lion” a piano led church-like song that provides a proper ending to this album.
2. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Kicking off with one of the best singles of the year, Reflektor was poised to blow minds and give us new weird Arcade Fire, and it did, just not how we’d expected.
Now before I go through this I just want to point out that I do find the inconsistent mixing to be a little confusing and annoying, I actually preferred several of the mixes off their live tv special to promote them as they were at least consistent and the “Here Comes The Night Time” parts were more pronounced.
I’ll summarize my previous post about “Reflektor” as Arcade Fire X Disco + Bowie = amazing. “We Exist” takes the bass riff from “Like A Virgin” and throws in some disco and orchestration to make a truly unique dance song. The first clear sign of the album’s Haitian influence really comes in “Flashbulb Eyes” although besides a unique sound, it is one of the damper songs on the album. This Haitian swing continues on the vibrant “Here Comes The Night Time”, whose slow bounce explodes to a bongo driven bridge. “Normal Person” starts out feeling like a meta-attempt by Arcade Fire at a regular song to fit the theme of the song, and then suddenly bursts into the solo-driven, overcharged chorus and then rides its bridge to the overpowering NO!!. The final bridge of the song shows the band’s knack at throwing variations on their own melodies within the same song. As Jonathan Ross intros “You Already Know” there is a distinct live feel to the song that works with it’s very upbeat feel, a simple song for the band, but the beautiful layering at the end more than adds enough. Disc 1 ends on the driving “Joan Of Arc”, which despite it’s punky intro, goes to a mostly bass driven song with a catchy chorus that will get stuck in your head for weeks, the French section is a great emulation of the title character as well.
Disc 2 opens on “Here Comes The Night Time II” which much like “The Suburbs (Continued)” is really just a slow violin and synth version of their namesakes. “Awful Sound” starts off a little dull but around the halfway mark turns into a dreamy string, voice and guitar wash of sound that takes you away. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” comes back to the disco sound of the album resting on its rhythm section pretty much the entire song making you want every HEY ORPHEUS it gives off, as it’s even lower-key bridge starts to make it lose grip. “Porno” is just one of those songs you won’t always listen to as it’s verses are very draggy but every time you’ll give it a go are rewarded with a passionate and dreamy chorus. The last shining moment of the band comes on “Afterlife” where the album’s main influences (Haitian music, Sprawl II and Half Light II) to create a song that sounds both like and old but evolving Arcade Fire, mixing their influence with unique sound to make an amazing track that should have been its closer, rather than the plain weird and uninteresting “Supersymmetry”.
1. Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Most of the time an album will help me gain an entry point to listen to an artist I’ve never heard before, but it’s very seldom that an album can make me redo that process to see if I missed something. Although I’d probably say my favourite singles of the year are from my #2 and #3 album this album provided me with 7 songs that I can listen to anytime without feeling a need to skip (only occasionally skipping the rest mind you), and I’ve been doing this since I started listening to the album months ago. And that’s why I chose QOTSA’s new album as my number 1 album of the year, Arcade Fire had me hyped for a weeks and hooked for some, Vampire Weekend got me back on their side and had me listening for most of my summer until I drifted to the singles, but …Like Clockwork not only has stuck with me since I started listening in September, I’m listening to it even more right now, and have spent the past few months on a QOTSA diet. To add to its amazing set of songs, it also has one of my favourite album covers of the year (more on that in the future), with a truly unique looking picture and striking red backing.
But how about the songs? The somewhat damper “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” carries out the remaining feel from Era Vulgaris and mixes in the sounds of the new album. The album kickstarts its back-to-back-to-back-to-back masterpiece (ie what could be one of the most impressive EPs ever) with “I Sat By The Ocean” the vocally driven song that really has a grindy feel to it, it also switches to a fast prechorus before reaching its exotic and darkly textured chorus. “Vampyres Of Time And Memory” is one of two piano driven QOTSA singles I know and takes it down a dark road that is the closest to a soundtrack song the band has come, with an almost bond theme-esque feel it quickly makes its way to the epic guitar exploding finale, it shows that the band has matured to something more than just a heavy desert rock band but a group of smart musicians that can pull a real range of emotions in their music. There’s a very dancy feel to “If I Had A Tail” to match Josh’s “Gitchee Gitchee oo la la” but it all gets mixed into a very dark sounding song both musically and lyrically, a lot more keyboard driven than most of their songs and it comes out just as hard as the rest, while being part of the trance-like feel that the rest of the album has been starting to show clues of. This section ends on the peak that is “My God Is The Sun”, the hard and fast, driving song that proves that even on their most hard rock song they are now masters of the multiparted (so many tempos, bridges, and overall tone changes) song, a talent that keeps the album so listenable.
The strange trance to screaming “Kalopsia” while being a little hard to listen to is a definite moment of thematic ability as its dreamy to grungy music reflects the true nature of Kalopsia, a disillusion that things are more beautiful than they really are. While “Fairweather Friends” overs a lot of great licks and layered instrumentation it just never stuck out to me next to the rest of the songs. The syncopated static that opens “Smooth Sailing” should only prove as foreshadowing to it’s offbeat, falsetto heavy and all around weird sound that I can’t enough of, Joshua Homme is probably the only singer around who can passably say the phrase “I blow my load over the status quo”. The last hard hitter is the complete trance of “I Appear Missing” whose tone creates a continuous feel of falling from start to end. While it’s verses provide a dreamy wander it’s choruses hit heavy with distortion and as much cymbal hitting as they could allow Dave Grohl. The song is also a rarity in that it seems to come to and end 3 minutes in but then comes back to be an even better version of itself, throwing in more syncopation and throwing in heavy sections every other line, and ending on an epic shredding sound that fades away to vocals. The band manages to fit one last effort of piano into its final song “…Like Clockwork” a song that goes from a tame piano ballad into a Dark Side era Pink Floyd song to great effect, mixed with some great instrumentation to provide another film fitting song to close the album.
Well that’s my list, a few half or less albums didn’t make it but I’ll be sure to put up some honorable mentions soon. What were your top picks?