Top 10 albums of the year? Here’s my take. I don’t count compilations or live records (such as Matthew Good’s excellent Live at Massey Hall), and I may yet find a great 2008 album in 2009, but … let’s get to the countdown.
10. Eric Ayotte, Remnants of Storytown. This is lo-fi indie rock, pretty much Ayotte and his guitar. Not for everyone, but his acoustic troubadouring on songs “Mr. & Mrs. Everyone,” “Throw A Brother Some Gigawatts” and “We Are What We Consume” would make Woody Guthrie smile.
9. Joe Jackson, Rain. Jackson is, admittedly, an artist who is much easier to admire than dance to. But all he does is keep putting out polished, intelligent albums where the piano and writing on tracks like “Invisible Man,” “Citizen Sane” and “Good Bad Boy” are sublime.
8. Longwave, Secrets Are Sinister. Longwave’s highwater mark remains 2003’s seemingly effortless stunner The Strangest Things, but Secrets at least recaptures the sonic ringing guitars. The songwriting and vocal power still aspire to greater things, although “Sirens in the Deep Sea,” “Life Is Wrong” and especially “Shining Hours” show the band is doing plenty right.
7. Gemma Hayes, The Hollow of Morning. As always, Hayes shows an ability to wrap her sexy/smoky voice around dazzling stories in songs like “This Is What You Do To Me,” “Out Of My Hands” and “January 14th.” But her albums, this included, always seem to feature a few tracks that feel like filler. Her talent is worth staying tuned.
6. Rachel Yamagata, Elephants/Teeth Sinking Into Heart. While Yamagata’s sultry voice could read the phone book and be exciting, this effort suffers from Wilco/Being There syndrome: adding filler to stretch a good record into a short album and EP. But no denying the power of sweeping ballads like “Elephants” and “What If I Leave,” “Duet” with Ray LaMontaigne and the driving “Sidedish Friend.” If only she could get a good producer to put out one full-length album, it would be amazing.
5. Augustana, Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt. Augustana once again shows an ability to make a sneaky-good album: It slides smoothly through you and then you want to listen again. Twangy melodic hooks in songs like “Meet Your There,” “Either Way, I’ll Break Your Heart Someday” and “Where Love Went Wrong” stay with you for days, while “I Still Ain’t Over You” is one of the jangliest catchiest songs of this (or any) year.
4. The Killers, Day & Age. If only The Killers would fire their A&R team. Lead single “Human” is probably the worst song on the album, while two iTunes-only bonus tracks, “Tidal Wave” and “Forget About What I Said,” should have made the cut. That said, the band mostly scores with its epic, evocative pop/rock on songs like “Losing Touch,” “Spaceman” and “Good Night, Travel Well,” while the wonderfully constructed “A Dustland Fairytale” gets my vote for song of the year.
3. Julia Nunes, I Wrote These. At first glance, one could write her off as a puckish ukulele teen DIY YouTube sensation, but the more you listen to Nunes, the more you realize her brilliance. The quirky perky pop of tracks like “Maybe I Will,” “Pen To Paper” and “Short and Sweet” take on new layers when you grasp their dark lyrics, and in a fairer world “Into The Sunshine” would be a huge hit. Also an amazing live act who will only keep getting better.
2. The New Odds, Cheerleader. In the 1990s, The Odds put together a large yet unheralded body of clever, catchy pop rock. So their reunion was good news for fans, and better yet when they released an album full of gems like “My Happy Place,” “Getting My Attention” and “I Can’t Get You Off” worthy of their legacy. It’s a good enough project that any music lover should hope for new New Odds albums in the future.
1. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs. No, it’s not as good as Transatlanticism, but that housekeeping aside, Narrow Stairs is not just solid, but it could be the band’s hardest-rocking to date. Those who would characterize the band as emo should recognize the muscular musicianship backing Ben Gibbard’s evocative and poetic lyrics. Dark topics such as loss (“Bixby Canyon Bridge”), obsession (“I Will Possess Your Heart”), insecurity (“You Can Do Better Than Me”), disaster (“Grapevine Fires”) and disillusionment (“Your New Twin-Sized Bed”) have never sounded catchier or smarter.
EDIT: Since one good link deserves another, here are other cool year-end takes worth checking:
– Andrew Careaga gives us his Friday Five view of top discs.
– Largehearted Boy compiles a whole bunch of year-end best album lists.