10. Flaming Lips – Embryonic – I have to give the Flaming Lips a lot of credit for this one. They could have easily churned out another album’s worth of the big, bizarre pop they’ve been pushing for a couple of years now, since they are at the peak of their fame and could have made plenty of cash doing it. Instead, they made what has turned out to be a very difficult and dense album that is closer in sound and spirit to the strange material that launched their career. They allowed themselves to experiment, and the results turned out very well, with the highlights being “Watching the Planets” and “Silver Trembling Hands.”
9. Pearl Jam – Back Spacer – It’s easy to take a band like Pearl Jam for granted at this stage in their career. Much like the Flaming Lips, they could just make another album’s worth of decent material and cash in on the huge tour that would follow that. Instead, after freeing themselves from the major label system, they went on to create probably their best album of the decade. They plow through 11 tracks in the blink of an eye, with “The Fixer,” “Gonna See My Friends” and “Supersonic” reminding us why they were on top of the rock world for quite a while. Bonus points to the show “FlashForward” for perfectly using “Unthought Known” beautifully through the opening of one of the key episodes of the entire season.
8. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion – This is the band every hipster has been bending over backwards to praise in the last two years, but this is the first album of theirs that is worthy of so much praise. The band is all over the map on this one, at times jammy, rocky, dancey, trancey, and just plain out there. It’s too bad they didn’t give a damn about their Lollapalooza performance this year, because it would have been great to see them attempt some of these songs live. “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” are deservedly being praised as two of the best songs of the year by far.
7. Passion Pit – Manners – This was the breakthrough band of the year based on this cd. Main man Michael Angelakos wrote an ep’s worth of material as a gift to his then-girlfriend for a Valentine’s Day gift. It didn’t work, but instead the ep made the rounds online, and built up a huge amount of hype around the band waiting for their debut album. “Manners” is the result, and it’s a pretty amazing start. The first half of the record is flawless, absolutely irresistible dance rock, with fantastic “Make Light,” “The Reeling” and “Little Secrets” are perfectly designed to get a crowd dancing, while a gorgeous song like “Moth’s Wings” show they’ll be able to do more beyond the dance music as they move forward from here. The only drawback with this one is that the album becomes a bit forgettable in the second half, minus the lone carryover from the previous ep, the bizarre, swirling “Sleepyhead.”
6. Metric – Fantasies – Emily Haines, the lead singer of Metric, pulls off the rare feat of being sexy and sensual without beating people over the head with it, like most modern female music icons (well, she kind of does in her guest appearance in the video for Julian Plenti’s “Games For Days,” but we’ll ignore that). On “Fantasies,” Haines leads the band well through the dance rock of “Satellite Mind” to the pulsing “Help I’m Alive,” wrapping it up with the massive rumble of “Stadium Love.” And how can any indie rock male resist her voice singing a lines like “Who’d you rather be/ The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?/ Come on baby play me something/ Like 'Here Comes the Sun'"? Pretty impossible.
5. Weezer – Raditude – After two very disappointing albums, Weezer returned to their glory with the awesomely titled “Raditude.” With a little outside help, featuring Butch Walker on his second great production and songwriting work for the year, and the main members of All-American Rejects, the band sounds rejuvenated and happy to be playing poppy, upbeat rock once again. “If You’re Wondering If I Want You To (I Want You To)” is just as perfect of a pop nugget as can be expected between Walker and Weezer, and the other album highlights like “I’m Your Daddy” and “Let It All Hang Out” live up to the legacy of Weezer’s greatest songs. Yes, the band even flirts with Indian music on “Love Is the Answer” and hip-hop rock with “Can’t Stop Partying.”
4. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing – This was a solid album from top to bottom by an Atlanta band I knew very little about before this year. This album has it all, massive hooks, big fist pumping choruses, from the powerful opening duo of “The Only One” and “Shake It Out” to the equally powerful closers “Everything to Nothing” and “The River.” The surprise is the emotion buried within the lyrics, especially in some of the quieter moments on the album. The album contains the most beautifully sad lyric of the year in the centerpiece of the album, “I Can Feel a Hot One,” which I don’t know the story of, but it is haunting nonetheless: “To pray to what I thought were angels/ Ended up being ambulances/ And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter/ She was crying inside your stomach/ And I felt love… again.”
3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatamist – Besides Animal Collective, the indie rock community has another icon for this year, and that is Grizzly Bear. They’ve been touring regularly since their previous album, and somehow went into the studio, and quickly knocked out this impressively arranged and details work in no time, and were right back out playing it live. The four member band writes and performs incredible harmonies, with main man Ed Droste providing the most incredible voice in the band. The influence of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” is noticeable here, which is quite a compliment since that is my favorite album of all time. “Two Weeks” is definitely one of the best songs of the year, and the album concludes with the livelier “While You Wait For the Others” and “I Live With You,” before concluding with the gorgeously delicate “Foreground.”
2. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – The Century of Self – After a disappointing turn on their last cd, the Trail of Dead returned in a major way with this year’s “Century of Self.” Like A Place to Bury Strangers, they are best when they are functioning like a force of nature, whirling around like a tornado in “Isis Unveiled,” seeming to sputter out before springing back to life and whipping themselves into a frenzy once again. Throughout the album, the band can switch from the majestic to the pummeling and right back again and make it work. What’s possibly even more impressive is that the cover art is a pen and ink sketch done by the main frontman Conrad Keely.
1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca – This album is about as artistic and complex as it gets in indie rock, before it trips over the line and goes from being enjoyable to just be self-indulgent and academic. Let’s put it this way, if you actually believe that Nickelback are in fact the group of the decade (thanks for the link Brian), then this is not the album for you. The instrumentation is precisely arranged, the vocals are precisely layered and performed, the rhythms seem to turn different time signatures on and off on a whim.
Band leader David Longstreth is rumored to be something of a dictator in his efforts to record the sounds in his head, and thankfully the fruits of his labor were worth the negative press that may get him. The highlight of the album is the 3 of songs at its center. “Stillness is the Move” is a great slow thumping song, sounding like Prince making a lazy dance track, which then gives way to the gorgeous, string heavy “Two Doves.” A thumping bass beat then leads into “Useful Chamber,” which cascades beautiful, intricate harmonies around the thumping beat, before nearly randomly exploding mid-song into a rock freakout, jarringly switching back into the thumping beat again, before exploding once more to the freakout. It’s a very difficult and standoff-ish album, but if you can give it a chance, you will be richly rewarded.