Pop Rocks: Year in Review 2009
Published Nov 22, 20091. Animal Collective
3. Grizzly Bear
5. Dirty Projectors
6. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
7. The XX
8. Flaming Lips
9. Bat For Lashes
10. Handsome Furs
12. Wax Mannequin
13. Future Of The Left
15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
16. The Thermals
17. Young Galaxy
18. Passion Pit
19. Dinosaur Jr
20. St. Vincent
1. Animal Collective Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
With Strawberry Jam in 2007, it seemed that these outsider darlings had snuck a toe into the doorjamb of (indie) mainstream success. Merriweather Post Pavilion not only proves that the Animal Collective haven't let that mainstream door hit them in the ass on the way back out, but that they've decided to pry it open even wider.
According to Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare), "We stand by and enjoyed making all our records, but with this one the experience was so positive we're definitely glad other people appreciated it." Only hardcore cynics would fail to appreciate these tracks ― they're so suffused with colour and joyful noises they'd make Peter Pan glad to grow up... and form a rock band. Initial listens garner appreciation for the odd constructions of loops and echoes apparently held together by Noah Lennox and Portner's layered vocal harmonies. Further exposure reveals the real step ahead on Merriweather is the band's growing ability to wield loops and samples the way most groups play instruments. Complex melodies are hidden behind every square centimetre of dayglo scenery. On their creative inner workings Portner says, "I heard Paul McCartney interviewed on how to write a song and I thought 'that's really similar [to what we do].' You have a line that gets into your head and the line becomes part of a melody, then the line will change. It just grows."
With greater visibility comes different responsibility to their new audience. "For our sanity's sake we've pretty much maintained how we feel about doing stuff [live]. But I realize there are people coming to see us who are just interested in hearing 'My Girl.'" If this is their concession to success, it's minor and kicks ass.
2. Japandroids Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar)
Given the year they've had, it's hard to believe that 12 months ago, Japandroids were on the verge of calling it quits. Thankfully, the Vancouver-based duo stuck around to release their debut full-length. A blast of sonic energy, it left critics and fans drooling for more and tracks like "Young Hearts Spark Fire" that had everyone worrying about those sunshine girls. With their fuzzy wall of sound could have easily been lumped in with the slew of other lo-fi rockers making the round. But true to the record's title, the band eschewed classification, creating a sound all their own.
3. Grizzly Bear Veckatimest (Warp)
What's impressive about this album is that every instrument and set of vocals has its own place. They are clear, thus have room to explore. Veckatimest is indeed a new venture for the attention spans of this Brooklyn-based band's listeners, but the result is decidedly fitting. Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen's vocal harmonies are perfect together, highlighting each other's textural differences. The slow, soft percussion by Chris Bear is the stem for the long branches of carefully plucked guitars and Chris Taylor's bass. Spiced up with strings, keyboards and more, Veckatimest contains a plethora of charming sounds that together create one everlasting discovery.
4. Phoenix Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glass Note)
It only took them a decade, but these Parisians finally won the popular vote with their fourth and best album. To call this a perfect pop record feels like an injustice. Phoenix went for broke ensuring everything was at the listener's disposal ― childlike hooks, danceable rhythms and two of the year's best singles ― while appeasing their creative appetites with an epic, two-part show-stealer. Thanks to their painstaking attention to detail, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix provided us with an unforgettable love buzz equivalent to a big, delicious French kiss.
5. Dirty Projectors Bitte Orca (Domino)
Every bit of Bitte Orca is as meticulous as the next. But what draws each one together is the follow-through. Collective vocals fit for a campsite fire or small family choir are paired with impressive sound engineering for a humble exotic feel. In nine tracks, this Brooklyn-based band keeps the pleasant surprises coming. Bitte Orca should make you want to get up early to a "Temecula Sunrise" and sing with "Two Doves." It's a fairy tale, complete with bursts from a small orchestra, incredible vocal abilities by four of the members, fuzzy bass lines, flittering guitar solos and percussion that's off-kilter but creative.
6. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)
A mixture of hazy optimistic pop and head-hung shoegaze coalesces on this dreamy, joyful debut. The New York quartet captures the essence of bands such as the Smiths and the Pixies, without becoming clones of the past. Sparkling, fuzz-filled guitar sections and effervescent male/female vocals invade the self-titled release, and remind us of romantic ideals that could only be found in Molly Ringwald movies. Thankfully the Pains of Being Pure at Heart survived the harsh realities of innocence that their name suggests, to deliver this fresh, imaginative record.
7. The XX xx (Young Turks)
The XX, just like their name implies, are all about succinctness. Their music, like Young Marble Giants before them, is sparse, economical and beautifully direct. With duelling boy/girl vocals and the bleakest guitars in a long time, they capture the essence of love, lust and claustrophobia and package it as pure pop. Every single word and note is placed with such precision that they are delivered with devastating effect. This London foursome have managed to create the kind of assured album many bands strive their entire careers to create. Except this is their debut. And they're all 20. Simply incredible.
8. Flaming Lips Embryonic (Warner)
It's a rare satisfaction one gets to savour when a band makes some of their best work 12 albums in. Where 2006's At War with the Mystics hinted that maybe Oklahoma's Flaming Lips were taking their craft just an iota too lightly in favour of simple pop songs and novel quirkiness, Embryonic veritably brims with musical ideas and some of their most powerfully emotive work to date. While the title aptly hints at the raw, spontaneous sound of the album, it understandably fails to convey the gentle melodiousness, bombastic psychedelia or unbridled joyousness surging from every pore of Embryonic.
9. Bat For Lashes Two Suns (Astralwerks)
A vocalist with perfect pitch and pristine tone usually errs on the side of conservatory conservatism, but Natasha Khan crafts her own musical planet on Two Suns. It's a world light years away from her tentative debut, full of "a thousand crystal towers, a hundred emerald cities," and one that came into being some indeterminate point in a 30-year period between the debut albums of Kate Bush and Fever Ray. Khan's natural instincts are inventive and unusual; her goals are equally gloomy, gorgeous, goth and grandiose. And on Two Suns, she's got an entire fantastical world to herself in which to roam.
10. Handsome Furs Face Control (Sub Pop)
Before its release, Dan Boeckner talked up his new album in readymade comparisons to one-up the Springsteen-meets-Suicide notices that greeted Handsome Furs' 2007 debut: No Age meets Spank Rock, the Knife meets Sunn O))). But influences aren't as important as the songwriting and production here, both of which tower over everything Boeckner has accomplished in his short but productive career so far (Wolf Parade, Atlas Strategic). Raw guitars and Alexei Perry's pristine drum machines rarely complement each other as well as they do here, creating a retro-futurist clash that situates Handsome Furs in timeless territory.
11. Wilco The Album (Nonesuch)
After 15 years of consistently experimenting with their sound, the enigmatic Chicago sextet offer their most engaging album since 2001's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This release more than makes up for the dud that was 2007's Blue Sky Blue, and reveals that front-man Jeff Tweedy isn't afraid of penning simple, straight-ahead rock tunes. "You Never Know," which highlights the effortless splendour of the album, toe-taps the end of the record with a lively piano-driven melody complete with soulful "Ooos" filling in the background. Wilco have found their mark, once again.
12. Wax Mannequin Saxon (Zunior)
It's no surprise why Hamilton's Chris Adeney has stated that Saxon is the record he's been hoping to make his entire life. Yes, it's his crowning achievement, but the album stands tall as a great Canadian masterpiece because it's somehow timeless and ahead of the curve all at once. Wax's brand of future-folk has certainly been alluring before but he's never nestled his knack for embittered absurdity so well with his more earnest impulses as a bona fide popsmith. With the utmost sophistication, Saxon rocks and sways with equal measure.
13. Future Of The Left Travels With Myself And Another (4AD)
Yes, ex-Mclusky is an easy way to describe them, especially given vocalist Andy Falkous' unmistakable shriek. But with Travels, the second FOTL full-length, Falco and company created a brilliant record that earned them freedom from "former members of" stickers. Songs like "Chin Music" barrel forward like an unhinged hardcore train wreck, only to stop on a dime and remind you that the band know exactly what they're doing. Melding tightly wound rock and roll fury with inventive musicianship and stupidly catchy melodies, Travels is a riotous piece of clever, destructive madness.
14. Girls Album (True Panther Sounds)
Ignore the almost too perfect, well documented back story of Girls, with its religious cults, drugs and millionaire benefactors, and it turns out that the music can stand on its own. Album finds the middle ground between Ariel Pink, Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys, and then adds a hazy wash of guitars and some lo-fi hiss to make charming indie pop that shimmers and shines. Sure, there's a darker undertone reflected in the lyrics and the not-quite-right guitar solos, but that's no surprise considering their background, which apparently can't be ignored after all.
15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs It's Blitz (Interscope)
Believe the exclamation mark: It's Blitz! is massive. Exponentially expanding upon uneven ― albeit sporadically brilliant ― past efforts, the third LP from New York's Yeah Yeah Yeahs adds spiky pop hooks and disco flirtations to Karen O's sensual bravado and Nick Zinner's chameleonic guitar. Regardless of the newly danceable sound, the album's greatest achievement is a trio of slow-builders: the operatic "Little Shadows," the faux-bagpipe ballad "Skeletons," and the heart-shatteringly ascendant "Hysteric." At turns bombastic and tender, It's Blitz! is a shimmering, diverse, and stirring record.
16. The Thermals Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars)
The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006) was an angry and unexpected detour into a scary God-mongered America, but the Thermals return polished and poised on Now We Can See, a post-mortem memoir that's both a (lyrically) personal and (musically) professional turning point for the band. The art of the three-chord pop song is resurrected for nu nerds on tracks like "We Were Sick," and rarely has it sounded so warmly smudged, so expertly sloppy, and so deliberately repetitious while still bristling with the brains and the punk edge and enthusiasm that has always fuelled the guy/girl-next-door trio.
17. Young Galaxy Invisible Republic (Independent)
Invisible Republic finds the Montreal band gone rogue (straying from labels such as "sweet indie couple" or... Arts and Crafts) and sounding better than ever. Having concocted an aural brew that is equal parts lemonade and Molotov, their sophomore release is more compelling ― for its thrilling intensity ― than their self-titled debut. Stephen Ramsay (ex-Stars) and Catherine McCandless's smooth delivery of their tart verses contrasts beautifully with the ethereal darkness that hovers over their new wave infused synth-pop. The rhythm progresses as if it were escaping the band's corral; and the lyrics are spiked with just the right measure of uncomfortable realism to mess with your soul.
18. Passion Pit Manners (Frenchkiss)
James Murphy played Daft Punk for the rock kids, thus ushering in a new era in indie-dom: the dance epoch. Filling skinny-jean dance floors the world over, Passion Pit's debut full-length, Manners, employs a bevy of keyboards, Michael Angelakos' sky-scraping falsetto, and more hooks than a fishing boat. Ebullient numbers "Sleepyhead" and "The Reeling" herald the album's zeitgeist while contemplative moments give it depth. Tying it all together, Chris Zane's crystalline production emphasizes painstakingly rendered constituent parts, joyfully fusing late-period dance trope (i.e. laptops) with rock standbys (i.e. an actual front-man).
19. Dinosaur Jr Farm (Jagjaguwar)
These seminal '80s purveyors of ear-bleeding volume had already recorded a triumphant reunion album, so what else was there? First, continue to prove rock is not the domain of the young. Second, prove that post-reunion output can reach the vaunted status of their earlier material. The guitar solos are louder and longer, the drums more ferocious than ever and the songs catchier than shit. Leave it to this crusty trio to show us that years of turmoil and experience can lead to the best art of a whole career. How original.
20. St. Vincent Actor (4AD)
The second St. Vincent album was written entirely on Garageband and then printed out as sheet music for her to learn to perform afterward. It's a move indicative of Annie Clark's eagerness to stretch herself beyond her means to make music that is as cerebral and complex as pop is allowed to be. But the record is more than a musical brain-teaser: Actor is an alternately delicate and sweeping pop album of hypnotic melodies sung in Clark's signature haunting and mellifluous alto where Clark is the actor, imbuing a script she created for herself with equal parts emotion and musicality.