9. The Gaslight Anthem--American Slang--This is good, old-fashioned rock and roll. Though Gaslight Anthem has shorn off most of their punk-rock edge, the songs are still strong enough to carry the album. If this album has one weakness, it's that the lyrics are a bit too obtuse to tell the All-American story vocalist Brian Fallon seems to be going for, but that is a tiny weak mark against a very strong album.
8. Mono--Holy Ground: NYC Live--Of course, if you are Mono, you do not need lyrics. Accompanied by the aptly named Wordless Music Orchestra, Mono plays through most of their 2009 release, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, as well as several older songs. The two guitars, bass, and drums already sound like an orchestra of their own, so Mono's post-rock stylings slip perfectly into the setting. This is perhaps the most emotionally powerful album of the year, and no one utters a word.
7. A Plea for Purging--The Marriage of Heaven and Hell--From the first scream, A Plea for Purging vocalist Andy Atkins sounds extremely angry, and that tone carries throughout this pummeling album. The title here is literal--the band spends all ten tracks attacking preachers who bring business into the church--and the attitude is relentless. APfP also toss in clips from absurd "prosperity" sermons throughout, amping the outrage, and by the time the final sample is burned away, one feels like they just got into the fight of their life, lost, but somehow won.
6. The Contortionist--Exoplanet--If a death metal Sci-Fi concept album tickles your fancy...Actual lyrics from this album:
A warning to conducting officers of the machine:
You are exposed to the diatomic focused gravity.
Stray cosmic rays are threatening our generational biosphere.
Celestial missiles envelop nearby space climate zones in the void.
Prolonged exposure to trace amounts of dark matter produces an exponential decomposition.
These are actually somehow all the lyrics from The Contortionist's song "Oscillator" and most of the other songs on Exoplanet follow in this mold. Also, this is probably one of the most beautiful heavy albums ever created, and contains at least three moments that are consistently tear-inducing. It's pretty.
5.The Chariot--Long Live--And on that note, perhaps this list tilts heavier than usual, but I feel like there was more innovation in heavy music this year than any other genre. With a so-called "soft-rock indie revolution" being touted by hip websites like Pitchfork, it's no wonder that the really interesting things actually happened in the genre at the far opposite end of the spectrum. The Chariot are as heavy as it gets, channeling chaos into ear-confetti, and Long Live is their masterpiece, miraculously more atonal than anything they have released, yet also more listenable than almost anything anyone else has released. Soft-rock can suck it.
4. Letlive--Fake History--And on THAT note, my major complaint with the direction music has taken lately is a lack of energy and passion. With a misconceived notion of irony and a missing interest in anything real, hipsters have popularized many bands that are far less interesting than hearing Lambchop's "Song that Doesn't End" on a five-day loop. Conversely, I can't think of any album I've heard this year with more passion or intensity than Letlive's Fake History. Their hardcore roots are only a starting template, and throughout the album they rip through so many unexpected directions, multiple listens are needed just to process. It's lively.
3. Portugal the Man--American Ghetto--I feel like classic rock throwback bands are a dime a dozen these days, with bands trying desperately to emulate the sounds of past greats. Instead of doing this, Portugal the Man actually sounds like the natural progression of classic rock. They respect what came before, but keep their eyes on the present. On top of that, they actually sound like they are having fun, and American Ghetto plays out like a breezy summer day in a well-planted city-park.
2. Deftones--Diamond Eyes--Art-rock pioneers Deftones should have nothing to prove, but after their last few albums hit depressing dark lows (while still being quite good) and losing their bassist to a coma, they have come back to show that they can release an album that doesn't seem to be coming from the perspective of rock bottom. Simply put, Diamond Eyes is a beauty, bringing out some of the dreamiest sounds Deftones have ever recorded while also containing some of their most brutal. I never thought this band would release a "feel good" album, but it's impossible not to do so after listening to Diamond Eyes. Chi Cheng would be proud his brothers have forged ahead.
1. Gorillaz--Plastic Beach--Gorillaz's previous album Demon Days was a tough act to follow. Maybe that's why it took front man Damon Albarn five years to do so. Demon Days was a cohesive triumph, finding hope during dark times. In these more confusing days, Plastic Beach conveys conflicting emotions but is an even greater victory for Gorillaz. Though Gorrilaz is fronted by cartoon characters, no one else has songs with the honest emotions of "Melancholy Hill" or "Cloud of Unknowing" or that sound as downright cool as "Stylo" or "Empire Ants." As usual, it's near impossible to put Gorillaz into any kind of genre, but if you've ever felt a little left behind, lonely, sad, happy, confused, or really anything, than you can probably feel this album. It's the best thing I've heard this year.
I apologize for bagging so heavily on hipsters and so-called Indie music during this, and the previous year's list. I only do so because I feel like people are caring less and less and feeling less and less, and honestly anything that is real and not just trying to approximate emotion (isn't that what sociopaths and serial killers do?) is worth praising these days. Unless of course it is promoting killing yourself or hurting people in which case no, no, no, that is bad.
Also of Note this Year (In Alphabetical Order):
Anberlin--Dark is the Way, Light is a Place--Anberlin proved something in 2010: they are a cheesy rock band. They can write a good, hard-driving rock song as well as anyone, but apparently the one time they decided to load an album with them (2007's Cities) was a fluke. What Anberlin would really like to do is record a few good rock songs and bury them in between schmaltzy ballads. Then again, if cheesy rock ballads are your cup of tea, I really can't think of a band that does them better.
Arcade Fire--The Suburbs--While Arcade Fire has always put out enjoyable music, I've never bought this whole saviors of rock thing (about them or anybody). Win Butler's voice doesn't have the power to carry a great hook and wife Regine Chassagne's voice can be tweetingly grating at times. That said, their first two albums had some great songs, and this one does, too, but not as many, and the attempts to branch out into electronica do them no favors.
Demon Hunter--Storm the Gates of Hell--Demon Hunter have their most major member shakeup yet, and they lose a bit of the epic edge in the process. The guitarists are completely new to the band, and while their contributions are noble and Ryan Clark's voice has never sounded better, this release feels like it is missing something.
Interpol--Interpol--Interpol continue their downward spiral of diminishing returns. Their first album was a masterpiece., their second was okay, their third felt tentative, and their fourth just sounds unnecessary. It doesn't help that the band's strongest asset--its rhythm section--is handcuffed for almost half the tracks, bass low in the mix and drums non-existent.
Jars of Clay--The Shelter--Jars of Clay dropped another excellent album this year, featuring guest contributors on each song. If I was actually normal and made a top-ten list instead of a top-nine, this would have snagged the ten spot. At this point, this band can do no wrong. Every song is strong, and the guest artists add a feeling of community to the proceedings, but never distract. This isn't a hard-rocking release, but it is full of energy, spontaneity, and joy.
Joanna Newsom--Have One on Me--This three disc monster is a hard listen. Half of the songs are only harp or piano with voice-accompaniment, and to be honest, the band-backed tracks are much stronger. I can't help feeling that culling the best tracks into one disc would have made for a much more engaging listen.
Jonsi--Go--Sigur Ros' lead-vocalist, Jonsi, is a major reason the band reaches ethereal heights, but without the rest of his band, many of these tracks feel small and undercooked. Don't get me wrong, this is a beautiful album in it's own way, but this is dolphin leaping through a hoop at Sea World where Sigur Ros is a Blue Whale hurtling through the depths.
Linkin Park--A Thousand Suns--When Linkin Park first attempted to deviate from their fun but familiar rap-rock format, the result, Minutes to Midnight, was horrendous. They set themselves up for an even bigger failure here in an attempt to create a concept album centered around impending nuclear apocalypse as a metaphor for the way we treat each other...but somehow, it's actually...good. The rapper raps again, the singer sings again, every band member seems intent on doing what's best for the song, and they succeed in their concept. When singer Chester Bennington belts out the line Love keeps us kind at the end of the album, I actually felt it. It's a shame this album is being overlooked. The sum really is greater than the parts, so singles in this case don't really cut it. I applaud Linkin Park for sticking to their guns, producing the album they wanted and not selling out to popular tastes. I think it works.
The National--High Violet--I hate to call The National overrated because I really like this album...but The National are overrated. Because they come from an indie background but actually have a singer who can sing, and a band that can play, they inspire a lot of awe. The fact is that they have recorded some songs on this album that sound so epic they could be made into films, but once the 3/4 mark hits, everything kind of begins to slip into the same groove. Maybe next time they can bring more diversity into each track so that everything doesn't bleed together.
Norma Jean--Meridional--I have made no secret of my dislike for Norma Jean's previous album, The Anti-Mother. This is certainly a step in the right direction, a full-sounding album without any throwaway tracks. Three huge flaws from the last album still loom--The lyrics make no sense, the drums sound weak, and the guitars don't take any risks. Somehow this is still an enjoyable listen, and I can only hope they continue to go up from here.
Sade--Soldier of Love--From start to finish, this is fun to listen to, like talking to an old friend, even though a close listen reveals that musically she is doing things differently than she has before. I hesitate to call anything Sade releases aggressive, but the title is Soldier of Love, and she does step more heavily here than she has before.
Starflyer 59--The Changing of the Guard--As usual, Jason Martin's music is a blast to listen to, but if he gets any more low key, he will be dead. I miss the old bombast and 40 guitars layered on top of each other. After a pretty laid-back decade, I am ready for this guy to rock out again.
Sufjan Stevens--The Age of Adz--I could almost give this album its own blog entry, but to be concise: Sufjan ditches his banjo and any landmarks of previous music to present an almost entirely electronic album with some of the most straightforward lyrics he has written and some of the most schizophrenic arrangements. It has its merits (and to be honest, almost made my list), but it is just a bit too out there. Only a little bit, though.
Weezer--Hurley--This is leagues better than Weezer's previous album, Raditude, but that is not saying much--that album was terrible. On the bright side, at least half of the songs on Hurley are actually quite strong, but as has been the status quo for recent Weezer, the lyrics are sloppy, the riffs feel recycled, and there are hardly any guitar solos to be found. With that said...
Weezer--Pinkerton (Deluxe Edition)--Weezer finally releases the long-awaited re-issue of their 1996 masterpiece, Pinkerton, along with a ton of long-awaited B-Sides and live material. Just hearing the B-Sides awakens a hunger for the sound of the Weezer of yore and shines an even harsher light on the music they have been churning out as of late.
And finally, as always, there were plenty of albums I wanted to hear and haven't, or have heard but haven't formed an opinion of yet. Those albums will have to wait until next year for a mention, just like the following did:
Albums from 2009 that would have made that list had I heard them:
P.O.S.--Never Better--The best rap album I've heard in quite some time, with some of the best lyrics, and the most interesting backing tracks.. Vastly underrated.
That's it. I was shockingly on the ball last year. There was other stuff from 2009 I've recently heard that I liked (Phoenix's or Zombi's newest albums, for example), but nothing else I liked as well as the nine I listed then.
And if you made it all the way through this, you get a cookie.
Happy New Year!