Disclaimer: I was on the road for much of the year and have not put in the hours and hours of listening that I usually complete. This list, which has been presented in random order, is based on albums that I was exposed to whilst traveling and the music that I have been obsessively catching up with over the past two weeks.
1) Austra - Feel it Break
With a Stevie Nicks vibrato and charging keyboard accompaniment, Katie Stelmanis' Austra creates songs that are melodramatic but catchy. Like The Organ and Beach House (who were on my list for 2010), Austra creates a distinctive sound by combining deep, commanding vocals with New Wave synth. While Stelmanis is tempted to wander into pop territory once in a while, this is essentially music of sacrifice and Gothic beauty. Darken Her Horse and The Choke will hook you on this kickass Canadian band.
2) The Jezabels - Prisoner
Boy, is this a good year if you are into bands led by women with deep, haunting, octave-hopping vocals. I saw The Jezabels in Adelaide this past November and was really impressed with the wall of sound created through the use of their chorused guitar strumming, the spacey keyboard backing, the steady syncopated drumming on most tracks, and Hayley Mary's "banshee" vocals (great description, Beardo). This is their first LP, and it is evident that The Jezabels need to explore new sounds. I don't think Hayley is really able to alter her singing style, so it will be up to the band to lead her away from her epic, Kate Bushesque tendencies. The following video is awesome for two reasons: first, it features the music of said band; and second, it contains some of the most jaw-dropping BMXing I've ever seen...
3) Gotye - Making Mirrors
With tickets still available for his Vancouver show on April 8, Wally (oh, sorry...Gotye) has been selling out mid-sized venues down under for over a year now. Man he's popular in Australia and New Zealand. With musical stylings echoing Sting and his fellow Melbournians Crowded House, Gotye produces eclectic pop-rock that borrows from many, many genres...he even busts out the Auto-Tune for one track. When I first heard Eyes Wide Open I pictured Gotye as a middle-aged, Irish, ex-member of a folk group from the early Nineties, who is making an effort to revitalise his career with help from a clever production team and primarily rock-based tracks. I was very, very wrong. One more thing I like about Gotye is that he was born in Bruges, one of my favourite cities!
4) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Before seeing the Fleet Foxes in Paris this past May, I was indifferent towards the asymmetrical harmonising of this sextet from Portland. I found their flower power a cappella and heavy reliance upon ballads kind of passé, and I thought they needed to grow some balls, in general. When I saw them this spring, it was an incredibly warm evening and the venue's air conditioning just happened to break down an hour before the band hit the stage. There was no circulation, and the hundreds of bodies in La Bataclan began to drive the temperature into the nineties. Unlike The Kings of Leon, The Fleet Foxes did not cancel the show due to extreme heat. They stuck out a ninety-minute set, thanking us for tolerating the crappy conditions, and also exposed me to the excellence of Helplessness Blues. This album has a great mix of ballads, solo pieces, Sixties psych-folk, and indie rock. I also think that The Shrine/An Argument is one of the best songs I have heard all year.
5) Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
I have a few favourite bands that always deliver (to my particular tastes, that is). Releases by Hot Water Music, Sigur Ros, Radiohead and Mogwai never fail(ed) to progress and contain a great deal of complexity. EITS also falls into this category. Ever since my sister bought me How Strange, Innocence ten years ago (wow...TEN years ago?!) this band has been on constant rotation on my computer, in my CD players, and on my various i-gadgets. With songs that often exceed six minutes in length and are composed of various transitions/movements, EITS albums can stand up to countless listens and are great to play when studying or reading. Fortunately, I still have a term to go before obtaining my MA!
6) The Roots - undun
There was really no need to make me like you even more than I already do. Your unexpected collaboration with the amazing Sufjan Stevens, and your creation of a clever concept album - akin to Pedro the Lion's Winners Never Quit and The Who's Tommy - has elevated you to one of the most prolific and dynamic hiphop bands ever. If you continue to push the boundaries of jazz, rap, and urban music, and keep creating albums of this caliber, I may have to promote you to my Favourite Bands category. Don't make me do this, Roots. Once I do this, there is no going back.
Postscriptum - the short film is just excessive...you have no right to be this productive while you are playing for Fallon every night:
7) M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
I am not a multi-instrumentalist, nor am I a musician! If I were, I could definitely imagine becoming obsessed with pushing my own skills and output, and becoming less in tune with the needs and desires of my audience. M83 is becoming more complex and epic, but the group is always accessible, and this is just one of the reasons why I really appreciate the astral electropop of Anthony Gonzalez and company. Since their first release in 2001, band members have come and gone, the group has switched from stellar instrumental work to lyric-based pop, and they have managed to remain relatively unknown despite recently touring with the Kings of Leon and Depeche Mode. This double album based on the fluidity of dream logic is the band's most epic effort to date, and I was very happy to hear Morgan Kibby on many of the tracks. I would have her babies.
8) Kimbra - Vows
Holy cow, can this pint-sized Kiwi belt the tunes! I attended Adelaide's Parklife Festival this year to see another New Zealand outfit, The Naked and Famous, but Kimbra stood out as one of the best acts of the day. With the intensity of Florence + The Machine and lithe allure of Lykke Li, Kimbra creates songs with clever mixing, numerous layers, and a soulful edge. I have heard comparisons to Amy Winehouse, but Kimbra's music is more playful and positive. She recently collaborated with Gotye (see above) and won the New Zealand Critics' Choice Award, so I am sure you will be hearing about this one in no time.
9) Real Estate - Days
Music in this genre is usually too straightforward for me. While the Beach Boys and Weezer made careers out of producing peppy (yes, I just referred to Weezer's career in the past tense), carefree tunes that are perfectly suited to barbecuing and chino shopping at the Gap, their lyrics and compositions could often be unpackaged and understood after the first few listens. I have known about Real Estate for a few years but always thought their music was one-dimensional, vapid, and sloppily produced. With this album, Real Estate is still one-dimensional and fairly superficial, but they sound great and have produced some catchy songs that should accompany such mundane but enjoyable tasks as folding laundry or taking an afternoon drive to get ice cream on a warm summer day.