The Best Music We Heard In 2015

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2015.

Top 12 (in random order) (it would have been 13; Cory tried to list “1989” again!)

Honorable mention
Best Coast, “California Nights” (2015)

Waves x Cloud Nothings, “No Life For Me” (2015)

Selena Gomez, “Revival” (2015)

Beach House, “Depression Cherry” (2015)

A Is Jump, “Weird Nostalgia” (2015)

Blackalicious, “Imani vol. 1” (2015)

Brandon Flowers, “The Desired Effect” (2015)

Carla Morrison, “Amor Supremo” (2015)

Elder, “Lore” (2015)

Failure, “The Heart Is A Monster” (2015)

Halfwit, “II” and “III” (2015)

High on Fire, “Luminiferous” (2015)

Kowloon Walled City, “Grievances” (2015)

Monolord, “Vænir” (2015)

No Cave, “Eyes Brighter Than The Sun” (2015)

Sheer Mag, “II 7″” (2015)

Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love” (2015)

Tame Impala, “Currents” (2015)

Torche, “Restarter” (2015)

Viol, “Deeper Than Sky” (2015)

Descendents, “Milo Goes To College” (1982), “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” (1985), “Enjoy!” (1986)

Joy, “Under The Spell Of” (2014)

Run-D.M.C., “Run-D.M.C.” (1984), “King of Rock” (1985), “Raising Hell” (1986), “Tougher Than Leather” (1988)

Sturgill Simpson, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (2014)

Excited to check out:

Leon Bridges


Joanna Newsom

The Best Music We Heard in 2014

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2014. “I had a sparse year for new music” says Cory. “I wish I could say that I fell in love with more tunes this year. But, I have a deep, deep fondness for the records I did discover this year.”

Top 8 (in random order)

Next 13 (also in random order)

MR|Review – Snowden, Ladyfinger (ne), Palms, Aesop Rock, and Elder

What a beautiful surprise; seven years after Anti-Anti (which I still listen to regularly), Snowden returns in top form on No One In Control, hitting all the marks you might want based on their past work, and subtly expanding on it, too.


The band’s bread and butter is a backbeat-leaning, dark new-wave dance jam, coupled with stuttering kick/bass rhythms and a droning key or guitar line (see “Hiss,” or “Not Good Enough”). They’re so good at these, they don’t get old. No One In Control also twists and stretches this template successfully, building the title track up slowly over the course of seven minutes that could go on for twice that, integrating a cool, retro synth-stab sound with “The Beat Comes,” or dialing down Snowden’s usual burn to a simmer on “Don’t Really Know Me,” focusing rather than cutting its energy.

What can I say about the perfect “Anemone Arms?” Its simple, pure, eternal-but-counterintuitive theme? The beautifully understated arrangement? I invite you to give yourself over to it, especially if you’re in need of a moment of grace.

Every time I hear this record, I’m grateful Snowden made it.


I’ve tried for a couple weeks not to be disappointed by Errant Forms, unsuccessfully. But, I love Ladyfinger. Their show at the Riot Room a few months ago, with mostly material from the new record, was great.

In the end, though, “Dark Horse” is the only good song (and it’s really good) that shows any growth from the band. “Blue Oyster” and “He Said She Said,” relegated to the last two tracks of the album, adequately invoke the old Ladyfinger; the rest of the set is toothless and meandering, two words I never expected to use about Ladyfinger’s music. Plus, “Meathead” is simply embarrassing in its unintentional irony. It’s a dumb, reductionist song trying to snark at dumb, reductionist stereotpyes.

My expectation that this album would be something other than what it is is something I’ve been wrestling with and trying to suppress before forming a solid opinion about Errant Forms. One angle on art that I like thinking about is sussing the artists’ intention, and the extent to which they accomplished it. Other than from “Dark Horse,” I haven’t gotten any sense of why Ladyfinger made this record. It feels mostly checked out of its own existence. The guitars are muted and indistinct, and the drums are fussy and tapped. I think my disappointment has more to do with the specific recording, not the band or the songs (since the live set was energetic and a little edgy).  I’d gladly trade my copy of Errant Forms for a bootleg of the Riot Room show.

As a Ladyfinger listener, I needed to know what this album was. It’s good to know, but I hope the next one has some bite.


Palms’ self-titled debut is exactly what you’d expect from the press blurb; a Chino Moreno (Deftones)-fronted Isis side project. Ambient metal, or some such. In spite of that, I like it a lot and have it in heavy rotation, but that doesn’t mean it gets a strong recommendation by MR|Review.

Nothing here will reach up and grab you. Overdriven, heavily delayed arpeggios permutate around Chino’s moans and steady, sometimes angular, rhythms. If you listen closely, you’ll notice details changing from section to section.  Otherwise, it mooshes all together.  Rinse, repeat.  “Patagonia” is my favorite example.

The first half of closer “Antarctic Handshake” indicates a direction forward, should the group ever convene again. It has a straightforward dream-pop feel that, maybe blended 50/50 with the languid space-rock of the rest of Palms (start with the metal section of “Mission Sunset,” guys) and written into complete songs, could be noteworthy on a wider scale than “interesting metal supergroup side project.” I hope Palms makes that record, but in the meantime I’ll dig revisiting this one periodically.

Aesop Rock’s Skelethon is over one year old, but I won’t relax about it until I’ve done everything I can think of to convince you to check it out.

It’s basically a perfectly-executed record, with Aesop Rock rapping over his own intricately-constructed beats; arrangements as tight as German engineering, every ounce of sound aimed squarely at making your head nod *so* *hard,* and it never lets up. I’m jealous, in an inspired way, of how thoroughly Rock executes his singular vision and practically forces his point of view on listeners.

Ahh, words don’t do it justice. You have to bang this once, and then tell me if you don’t feel it.


Elder’s Dead Roots Stirring – is it or is it not metal? – is so inviting and infectious it should spill over from stoner/doom/desert rock silos. If you love this shit like I do, you’re welcome. If you don’t (yet?) but have the slightest interest, here’s a gateway.

Hitting the sweet spot between straight blown-out blooze and alternately broken and augmented psychadelic riffing, Dead Roots Stirring is that kind of heavy that puts a smile on my face. There’s a joy in volume, a release in mutual submission, and egolessness in waves of fuzz.

Twelve-minute guitar jams aren’t for everyone; I get that. Just don’t assume they’re not for you until you’ve listened to a couple good ones.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 13
Good 9
Fans only 10
Skip this 3
Owww! My ears! 0

The Best Records We Heard In 2012

In random order, here are the best records we listened to in the past twelve months.  The usual caveats and quirks apply; no one, not even professional writers (never mind us music fans), hear everything in a given year, and most of these records were released in 2012, but a few weren’t (we just heard them for the first time this year).

Most of these albums are available to stream, in full, from

Honorable mention:
Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society
Beach House, Bloom
Frankie Rose, Interstellar
Dirty Projectors, Swing Low Magellan
Craig Finn, Clear Heart Full Eyes
Big K.R.I.T., 4Eva N A Day and Live From The Underground
Indian Handcrafts, Civil Disobedience For Losers

Still excited to check out:
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
Jessie Ware, Devotion
Tame Impala, Lonerism
Pilgrim, Misery Wizard
The xx, Coexist

Looking forward to in 2013:
Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God
UUVVWWZ, The Trusted Language
Ladyfinger, Errant Forms

MR|Review – The Killers, “Battle Born”

What if this was a debut record?

I’d say the band has good arena pop chops, and maybe a touch too much love for some kind of indefinite ’70s FM sound, but at least a sense of humor and panache enough to pull it off.

In 2012, though, this is a Killers record and unfortunately, it’s the Diet Coke of Sam’s Age.  The individual tracks are pleasant reminders of what the Killers, and Big Rock Music, used to be, but the sum is less than its parts.  Some good (!) lyrics (“Don’t break character … ,” “Hey, from here on out, friends are going to be hard to come by … “) notwithstanding, I can only admit – as a person who tends to give bands’ late-period albums the benefit of the doubt! (see U2 since Achtung Baby, Foo Fighters between The Colour and The Shape and Wasting Light, and Chicago after III) – that Battle Born is a disappointment.

What can the firm of Flowers, Keuning, Vannucci, Flowers, Stoermer, and Flowers do?  Something fresh (“Daddy’s Eyes,” “Move Away,” and “Sweet Talk” from Sawdust hinted at possible directions), or at least go back to “Human,” their last forward-looking single, and pick up from there.  Shake it up: write and record an album quick, on the road, head to Berlin, bring in a collaborator (Jacques Lu Cont, who remixed “Flesh and Bone,” might be a place to start), make up a rule (no sounds that could be described in reference to Springsteen, for example).  Change.  References get stale.  I still believe in the old magic, and that the Killers can conjure it again, maybe in time for the 10th anniversary of Hot Fuss

… or, maybe on Letterman, a few days after I drafted this review.  Battle Born earned another spin that night.  This record’s going to sound great on tour (“Deadlines and Commitments” has a huge, Gabriel-sounding vibe), but stick to “Runaways,” “Miss Atomic Bomb,” and “A Matter of Time” for your library.  I’m skipping this one, but I’ll give it two stars instead of one because I know I’m probably crankier than the average Victim.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 8
Good 7
Fans only 7
Skip this 1
Owww! My ears! 0

MR|Review – Miguel, “Art Dealer Chic” EPs, Paul Krugman, “End This Depression Now!” Pallbearer, “Sorrow and Extinction,” and Bloody Knives, “Disappear””

Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction is the best thing I’ve heard so far this year.  Yes, it’s pure doom metal; who knew I’d been missing doom all my life?

Doom is a metal sub-genre characterized by extremely slow tempos, down-tuned guitars, and clean vocals (no cookie monsters here); for that reason I hope that more mainstream listeners will take a risk on Pallbearer and find it more approachable than the equally good metal albums two out of three of my friends have found to be just too much.  If you can detach and let the blissfully overdriven tones do their work, you can get into this.

I streamed Sorrow and Extinction based on reading a review, and it spoke to me at a level below words from the first full band entry in the 12-minute opener “Foreigner.”  The band’s glacial tempos turn my mind to questions of time, suggesting both eternity through the monolithic amp tone and riffs, and transience via the linear arrangements.  I feel small, yet affirmed.

It’s the wide range of emotion Pallbearer reaches through their mostly traditional doom sound that makes this album something I’ll be listening to for a long time.

Mars Lights played with Austin’s Bloody Knives the other weekend, and they tore up Czar Bar pretty seriously. The trio plays a fractured sort of punk/electronic hybrid with fast, kraut-y drums, bass and vocals reminiscent of the Cure, and a burly guy who triggers samples and dances.  You can grab Dissappear from their bandcamp page for free, and if what I’ve said so far sounds at all good to you, I think it will make your regular rotation.

Bloody Knives has one speed; hurtling toward the edge of a cliff with no brakes.  Shards of hooks cut through the haze occasionally, but the main sense of Disappear is reckless forward motion.  If anything, the live versions of these songs were even more interesting, in that the samples weren’t necessarily synchronized to the drums, which accentuated their brokenness.  It’s their own thing, they own it, and I look forward to their next visit to KC.

I’m a giant Krugman fanboy, and there’s no sense in hiding it.  The fact is, I’ve come through this depression in better financial shape reading Krugman than I would have following the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s advice.  This makes the political right’s attempts to discredit him as a socialist, Keynesian (as if that’s a dirty word!), budget-busting liberal all the sillier; they could make more money if his recommendations were heeded*, and history demonstrates it over and over.

End This Depression Now! is a compilation of Krugman’s best thinking on our macroeconomic trouble, including both diagnosis and prescription.  For readers familiar with his New York Times column and blog, it’s familiar territory, though there are new bits.  For readers who aren’t, if you’re going to read one book about our economy from 2008 to the present, this should be it.

So why only three stars?  The book isn’t quite the forward-looking plan to end the depression that Krugman claims it is, repeatedly, in the first eleven of thirteen chapters.  Its stated purpose, in the introduction, is to answer the question “What do we do now?” but clear policy recommendations don’t come until chapter twelve.  The background information is vital, but I wonder if it will bog casual readers down.  Perhaps another type of organization – for example, one chapter per recommendation, with the relevant context to support it and explanation of what’s gone wrong right there – would have worked.

As it stands, End This Depression Now! is a useful text, but, fairly or not, we hold Krugman to a higher standard as progressives’ policy MVP.  He’s been better, and in this election season, we need him working at his peak more than ever.

* Mostly that the WSJ repeatedly predicted immanent runaway inflation and a Greek-style rise in US borrowing costs, neither of which has happened; if you moved your money around based on one or both of these assumptions, you’ve lost.

After seeing a couple glowing, high-profile reviews of Miguel’s Art Dealer Chic series of EPs, I tracked them down to see what the noise was about.  “Adorn” started things off well with a nice blend of modern and (dare I say it?) new jack sounds, skillfully deployed; a touch of class, a touch of the club, and a runtime that leaves me wanting a little more made for a jam I’ll be happy to hear on shuffle all summer.

Unfortunately, “Adorn” is the best thing here.  The rest of the set is mostly standard 2012-edition electro-R&B with a couple arty touches, reaching its nadir with “Broads,” which is a waste of a halfway decent beat and anyone who hears it’s four minutes.

If you’re into this, pull the highlights (“Gravity,” “Arch n Point”) for summer mixtape fodder and go back and listen to Kenna’s superior Make Sure They See My Face.  If not, skip it, unless you can explain to me what the fuss is about.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 8
Good 7
Fans only 6
Skip this 1
Owww! My ears! 0

MR|Review meta – I hope you like the minor re-design of the stars and ratings.  It’s a little cleaner to look at, and I’ve added the “totals to date” column (below) to track the distribution of rankings.  I’ll have to look for one- or no-star albums to talk about, just for reference.  The idea is sort of to organize music that’s released into a normal distribution for critical purposes, but that doesn’t mean that the number of reviews at each level will correspond exactly to that.

MR|Review – Mastodon, “The Hunter,” Nada Surf, “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy,” Kanye West & Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne”

The Hunter should be a moment for metal in the musical mainstream like Metallica (“The Black Album”) was for Lars & Co.

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This is a potentially troubling comparison for several reasons: the Black Album, besides spawning a ton of hit singles, can be criticized as a commercial sellout, as an aesthetic betrayal of the band’s sound and identity (and fans’ expectations of such), and for not rocking nearly as hard as Metallica’s earlier work.  These points 1) have some truth to them regarding Metallica, 2) could also be applied to The Hunter, but 3) would be absolutely wrong in Mastodon’s case.

The Hunter has cleaner vocals, more straightforward rhythms, and lacks an overall narrative or conceptual structure relative to Mastodon’s previous albums – things fans, myself included, love – but it shreds as hard (dare I claim… harder?), presenting the band’s strengths and signature elements in a new context that happens to be accessible to anyone who likes loud music at all.

In a parallel universe, The Hunter is where radio-friendly metal should be in 2012; pushing the boundaries of what the mainstream can absorb in terms of polyrhythms, weird riffs, and song structure, while also providing immediacy and viscereality that can bring you under its spell on the first listen.  Don’t miss it.

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There are a million guitar-pop bands (I’ve been in at least six of them myself), and the tiny variations among bands’ styles can elicit widely varying opinions of those bands.  Cory adores Surfer Blood, for example; I think they’re good, but they haven’t struck me as anything special yet.

On the other hand, within the walls of my house, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy is a four-star record, and I’ve listened to it every day since CA gave me the vinyl a couple weeks ago.  (We’re also seeing them in Omaha in March; psyyyched!)  Nada Surf’s particular spin on catchy, literate, slightly muscular guitar-pop hits me exactly the right way; I just can’t predict if you’ll feel the same.

Case in point; people went nuts for the Yuck record last year which, again, seemed solid but nothing to get excited about to me.  So we’re in a weird situation where 90s revivalism is over-hyped (I don’t know why; maybe it really felt that good in the moment), and I’m under-rating a record I love (because of how I imagine some imaginary aggregate of listeners and readers will feel about Astronomy‘s place in the musical universe a few years from now, when it’s not new).  Yuck is an 8.1, Astronomy’s a 2/5, I feel the opposite, and I’m half of the issue because I’m trying to bring a normal distribution to my ratings and have chosen to offer them as a guide to readers, and not necessarily a reflection of how I feel about the record myself (which is what these paragraphs are for).

You might find Nada Surf more of a four than a two if you like: subject matter that goes beyond boy-likes/hates-girl, vocal melodies and phrasing that follow more intricate lines than usual in guitar-pop, stellar rhythm sections, and unpredictable harmonic shifts between verses and choruses.  I’m not sure why I love Nada Surf and not Surfer Blood, but these are some of the musical differences, for what they’re worth.

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What happened to hip-hop being the black CNN?  Hip-hop is much bigger than the conscious stuff, Public Enemy, and black Americans’ experiences, but in this period of national import, as we struggle with economic depression and serious differences regarding what kind of country we will be, I hoped two of our biggest stars in not just music, but culture as a whole, would have more to say.

Nada Surf managed to weigh in on global warming pretty artfully (“No Snow on the Mountain”), which is a concern that’s no less real or acute for being very Stuff White People Like.  What about jobs, wages, and working conditions?  As I type I realize I’m projecting my own concerns onto this album, but it still seems like an opportunity has been missed.  I haven’t written much about those issues either, so I’ll commit to working on addressing them while calling on Kanye and Jay to do the same.

Watch the Throne is a good record because of its constituent parts – beats, especially, but also flashes of lyrical brilliance – but it adds up to less than the sum of them, and is culturally significant as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does.  It’s of its moment, good for what it is, but falling short of its potential to be less time-bound in the way that The Blueprint or Late Registration, in their greatness, are.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience.

Records and 2011 Listening

Several notes from the frontier…

The Sleepover mixed our EP last weekend in Omaha with AJ, and I’ll be starting mastering this week.  We hope to have it out in digital and CD-R formats in October sometime.

I’ve picked up some great vinyl over the past couple weeks, including a pristine copy of Sabotage from Halcyon (Heaven & Hell as well) Duran Duran’s self-titled record, Nick the Knife by Nick Lowe, CSNY’s classic 4 Way Street, Pet Shop Boys’ Please (“West End Girls!”), and The Human League’s Dare (they were in town last night, but we were at Foo Fighters, of course!).

A lot of the new stuff I’ve checked out seems to be missing some spark.  Acclaimed albums by Washed Out, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, David Bazan, EMA, St. Vincent (Actor), Wolves in the Throne Room, and Gomez (and solo records by Ian Ball and Ben Ottewell), are fine records, but somehow just not knotty enough for me, or give me enough to bite into.  A couple songs on each have it, maybe, but nothing close to a front-to-back experience.  Liturgy’s Aesthethica, which I almost turned off halfway through, is the only thing that seemed to have it.*  (St. Vincent’s new Strange Mercy has the potential, too; I just haven’t listened to it enough, but I’m pretty psyched about it.)

This has me wondering if I’m getting old man ears, and the noise the kids are making these days just isn’t moving me.  (Though, these artists are my peers in age.  Hrm.)  I had another idea, though; maybe different people need different amounts of novel music in their life.  If you’re a casual listener, you probably find enough music to satisfy you by the time you’re in your teens or twenties, without really even trying.  If your appetite is bigger, you seek out more stuff, and still become satisfied by the time you’re 30 or so.  That’s not to say we don’t all love a sick new jam once in a while, but just that overall, we build up our libraries of what we know and like and need to a point that satisfies us, and then we curate more carefully, only adding the very best.  I wonder if I’m getting there.

This has all be a giant preamble to telling you about the one thing I’ve found in the past few months that deserves five stars: Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life.”

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“Life” is everything you would want from it, like hanging out with Keef for a weekend while he tells his story, from birth to the present, focusing on the Stones, of course.  The war stories are fantastic, the guitar stuff is brilliant and insightful (though there’s not too much of it; non-musicians, don’t worry!), and I couldn’t have imagined beforehand how much I’d have in common with a guy like Keith, both musically and philosophically.  We’re incredibly different on the outside, but our inner lives have some surprising similarities.  I can’t thank Doc J and Dorie enough for loaning it to me.  That’s all – check it out!

* Liturgy has been freighted with a sort of black metal philosophical controversy; I’ve distilled it into two things you need to know, if you care:

  1. Liturgy makes life-affirming black metal, as a response to the genre’s more typical nihilism
  2. The “burst beat” is Liturgy’s characteristic rhythm; it’s a black metal blast beat played with expressive tempo changes.  It started as something the singer would do with a drum machine and manual tempo knob, but their live drummer learned how to do it now.
Some black metal people are really upset about these things.  I guess they don’t see how that pretty much makes Liturgy the black metal -of- black metal.

MR|Review – Foo Fighters “Wasting Light,” TV On The Radio “Nine Types of Light,” Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues,” Wye Oak “Civilian,” and The Twilight Singers “Dynamite Steps”

New Foo records carry a heavy load of expectations from fans and critics alike, so it’s taken some time for me to resolve how I feel about Wasting Light; damned good.

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It’s raw, it’s loud, it sounds pretty good for a modern rock record (a big deal’s been made of the use of analog gear and tape, and Dave must now have the most famous garage in the world, so much ink and so many pixels have been spilled), and the band seems hungry again.  After the initial rush of the clear standout tunes like “Rope,” “White Limo,” and “Bridge Burning,” other songs took their turn sticking in my head.  “Back & Forth” has slowly revealed itself as a top-shelf jam; “These Days” really works emotionally, almost in spite of some potentially clunky lyrical moves, and “Arlandria” is proving surprisingly durable on repeat.

Some writers have mentioned that the choruses aren’t as rousing as they’d hoped, but I have another take on that; I think the verses are so strong, good choruses pale a bit in comparison.  “Rope” is the textbook case.  It has a riffy, rhythmic verse with a great melody, cool vocal harmony, and weirdo turnaround.  The wide-open chorus is almost a notch down in energy until it gets to “You… go… I… come… loose!”

(Sidenote – Just like last time, note the P4k is still talking about what the record isn’t, instead of what it is!)

One change on Wasting Light is the shift in the spirit of Dave’s lyrics.  Scattered across their records to this point are defiant, life-affirming, and subtly philosophical little glimmers like “What if I say I will never surrender?” (“Pretender), “Memory mend me / Know I’ve seen my share, things I can’t repair / I’m breakin’ to you / Pleased to meet you take my hand, there is no way back from here…” (“No Way Back”), or simply the “On and on and on…” that closes “Aurora.”  On the new album, this space is filled with lines like “Whatever keeps you warm at night / Whatever keeps you warm inside” and “Tell me, now, what’s in it for me?” (“Bridge Burning”) that sound almost selfish and defeatist.  “One of These Days” may give a clue for interpreting them, though; there, the line “But it’s alright, yeah it’s alright,” sounding pat and trite, is followed by a rebellious “Easy for you to say!” suggesting that Dave is playing with some irony.

All of the “Best record since The Colour And The Shape” claims do a serious disservice to the outstanding There Is Nothing Left To Lose, but I understand the feeling.  I’ve already gotten more mileage out of Wasting Light than I felt I had reason to expect, and it will keep cruising for me for a long time.

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All that said, the record I need to tell you about, the record that’s been saving my life this spring, is Nine Types of Light.  And it was a huge disappointment at first.

I love TV On The Radio, and was excited for …Light, but my first spin of it left me thinking “Huh?  Banjo?  And the second half of every song sounding like it doesn’t belong to the first half?  Why does it seem like this band is just playing to my head, not my heart… and not even doing a great job of that?”  I couldn’t be happier that I gave it a second and a third chance.

Now, “Second Song” and “Killer Crane” can make me misty just by their opening bars.  “No Future Shock” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” bounce me up and give me a jolt of verve any time I hear them, on the stereo or just in my head.  The whole record’s subtext, to me, is that it’s OK to be alive, to be human, to be in the time and place I am, and to keep being.  I can’t promise it will sing you those same things in between its notes, but in true evangelistic fashion I can’t avoid sharing with you that that’s what it’s doing for me.

Technically, Nine Types of Light is a small evolutionary step for the band; some fresh textures (like the banjo mentioned earlier, which I can dig at this point, or the pentatonic clean guitar line in “Keep Your Heart”) and new types of songs, but in line with their trajectory to this point.

I would love to give TV On The Radio five stars for their work, but I think too much of my attraction to …Light is personal to justify it.  I don’t know if music culture as a whole will be looking back on this record in 10 or 20 years as a high point, but I’m sure I will be.

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I write this as a Fleet Foxes fan, and someone for whom Helplessness Blues holds many treasures and continues to reveal more; this record will not convert anyone to the band, and while it’s excellent on its own terms, I can’t give it a general recommendation within the purpose of MR|Review (see the end of this post).

Fleet Foxes’ unique musical vocabulary of American folk, indie rock, backwoods harmonies, and art-rock arrangements arrived fully formed on their debut, self-titled LP.  Helplessness Blues takes some risks in expanding that language, and some of them work.  The overall effect has an undertone of self-consciousness and headiness, though, rendering the new album a more distant experience.  The exceptions, such as the first half of the title track, only put the general vibe in relief.

Helplessness Blues is growing on me, but if you are wondering whether to check out Fleet Foxes, get Fleet Foxes.

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Wye Oak’s Civilian was an impulse buy from the Amazon mp3 store’s daily deal, and holds up.  I’m impressed with the guitar work, which adds noise and atmosphere to the already-solid songs, and Civilian combines a broad appeal with a strong aesthetic voice.  The deeper I get into it, the cooler it is.

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Here’s another record that demonstrates that a two-star rating in MR|Review is actually an honorable evaluation.  I have an irrational love for Greg Dulli’s work, whether in The Afghan Whigs or The Twilight Singers, and the Singers’ new Dynamite Steps is a great record for fans, but maybe not newbies.  (That would be Blackberry Belle.)

It hits its marks a little better than Helplessness Blues, though in fairness, it’s less ambitious.  There are rockers, slow burns, and an epic closer.  Its biggest effect on me may be that, for the first time, I’m checking the Singers’ tour dates regularly, hoping to catch them soon.

Dulli’s always played a sort of gorgeously self-destructive romantic, and one thing I think about when I listen to his bands is whether the music speaks to the romantic in me, or whether I take vicarious pleasure at its debauchery precisely because I lack that drive.  Dynamite Steps hasn’t moved me any closer to an answer, but I’m grateful for the provocation, commiseration, and celebration. -h

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience.

Best Records We Heard In 2010

20. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire – The highs are so high – “We Used To Wait,” “City With No Children,” and the unstoppable “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” – it doesn’t matter that the album as a whole sprawls like its subject.  What could have been a predictable polemic on the inner and outer rings many of us occupy is, instead, a diverse set of snapshots that resist quick judgments.  Arcade Fire is now three-for-three, and practically indie rock perennials at this point; let’s not under-appreciate them (as that other band you can set your watch by, Spoon, seems to have been this year).

19. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem – If James Murphy & Co. end their run here as reported, it caps an impeccable 3-album streak. The bangers (“Dance Yrself Clean,” “One Touch,” “Home”) groove as hard as anything in their catalog. LCD Soundsystem’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall also reaches its peak here; from the breezily self-referential “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” we’ve come all the way to “You Wanted A Hit,” where self-awareness upstages the song itself.  In a few songs like that, Murphy’s lyrics have become the main course instead of a spice, and they aren’t enough to hang the weight of a whole track on, keeping this record out of my top 5. -h

18. Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens – I don’t understand this record yet. It’s overwhelming, it’s occasionally frustrating, and it sweeps me off to some other headspace. Seems like I’m always doing something weird when I decide to listen to it, or maybe it’s that it makes whatever I’m doing feel a bit weird. I would say it’s one of those that everyone should hear once, exceptonce simply can’t do right by it. “Adz’s” spot on the list is because, whatever else it is or becomes for me, it’s a capital-A musical Accomplishment. -h

17. History of Forgotten Things – Jed Whedon & the Willing – I can’t add much to my MR|review, except that it continues to hold a place in my regular rotation. -h

16. Maximum Balloon – Maximum Balloon – Critical consensus was that Dave Sitek’s solo-plus-guest-vocalists work as Maximum Balloon was TV on the Radio Lite. I think that reflects a shallow listen; this album is poppier and cleaner than his full-time band, but equally creative and an outstanding listen.  Opener “Groove Me,” in particular, has been in heavy rotation for me, but Maximum Balloon is one sexy chunk of smart pop from top to bottom. -h

15. Together – The New Pornographers – After the exuberance of “Electric Version,” which I picked up earlier this year, “Together” was a grower, but after living with it for a few months it has fully flowered as a complex, but still immediate, pop record. -h

14. Body Talk – Robyn – Along with the rest of the hipster nation, I nominate Robyn for the place in mass culture currently occupied by half a hundred interchangable electro-pop songstresses. This record can be our Madonna, our U2, and our Michael Jackson all in one for 2011. -h

13. Lisbon – The Walkmen – I’ve been a casual Walkmen fan until this year, but I’ve become an evangelist for this record.  Perfectly sparse, hauntingly melodic, it’s a union of craft and small moments writ with wide emotion that was unequaled in 2010. -h

12. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison – Like I’m going to say about another record coming up, this one has been reviewed almost to death.  But I always liked Van Morrison, and figured I should pick up the album he made that everyone considers his 100% essential classic can’t-live-without record.

I am not sure what I expected; maybe I thought it would be racked with songs like “Domino” or “Brown Eyed Girl.” But this record isn’t really a pop record at all, almost. It’s more of a long jam session with lots of improvisation and mournful melodies. It’s a gorgeous record, and all the tracks seem to sort of blend in together with each other. But it’s inspiring, and it’s heartbreaking, and more than anything, it shows off what an absolutely amazing vocalist and lyricist Van Morrison is/was. I still can’t quite get over how unique his voice sounds on this meandering soul-folk record, especially on songs like “Madame George,” which I think is my favorite.

I am not sure if this record is as essential as everyone says it is, because I’m not sure if everyone would (or should) like it. But I think I get it. -Cory

11. Survival Story – Flobots – Cory’s been on me about Flobots for a while (full disclosure; he knows and hangs out with some band members semi-regularly), but after seeing them –kill– at a free all-ages warm-up show in KC this year, I got it.  It took a room full of kids responding to this band and vice versa in a way that is honest, precious, and too rare, but I got it.  “Survival Story” plays to Flobots’ strengths: aggressive live-band hip-hop jams, progressive rhymes, passion born of conviction coupled with openness to others and our ideas, and an intangible sort of “we’re all in this together” community spirit.  A couple standout tracks, “If I” and “Whip$ and Chain$,” push in a soul-influenced direction that I hope they’ll continue to explore.  It’s not a perfect record; I always skip “Superhero,” and the hook on “Good Soldier” has two extraneous notes (“…again”) that drive me nuts.  But consider this an invitation; see them before you form an opinion, and see if they don’t draw you in.  -h

10. What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood – Mynabirds –  The Mynabirds are an Omaha band by way of DC, and the main songwriter, Laura Burhenn, writes songs that are at once totally new and interesting and original but also instantly nostalgic. This record’s production is fucking rad and perfect for this kind of music; you want to say you’ve heard these songs before, because the tactics used on this record (the guitar sounds, the bled-together-sounding soul techniques, the soulful vocals, the falsetto background vocals) are familiar, but they aren’t really used anymore. On top of that, she’s written a bunch of amazingly unique songs that, if recorded differently, could have sounded like a hundred other indie releases this year.

This record works perfectly because it’s an epic blend of honest-to-goodness genuine soul music and lovely pop music. “L.A. Rain” sort of sounds like a song that’s been in played in movies and at wedding receptions for 40 years, and could easily be amongst classic soul songs without any disruption. I think the challenge for her will be to switch it up on the record to keep her aesthetic fresh. I’m thinking she could make a big riff-record. Possibly with dance-synths. And 100 backup dancers on each song (you can really hear the dancing). -Cory

9. High Violet – The National – Reviews of High Violet tended to stress its continuity with The National’s previous records, “Alligator” and “Boxer,” but I heard it as a subtle, but giant, leap ahead. Those records are fantastic indie rock music. The first time I heard “High Violet,” it sounded like just music, unbounded by genre or instrumentation or history. It was raw and pure, and as each song built and ended I didn’t know what I would hear next.  Even though I try not to be too jaded in general, exhilaration is a rare emotion for me to have with a record.  I found it here.  -h

8. Everything In Between – No Age – I kind of thought No Age would gradually get poppier and a little tighter and more produced, since that’s just sort of what bands do, especially as they have more access to gear and studios and engineers and stuff. Plus I think No Age has a third member now, helping them flesh shit out.

What I was pleasantly surprised at was how well it suits them; I always figured that a big part of their appeal for me was the fact that their albums sounded like live recordings, or even one-mic basement recordings. I thought better production make them lose some of their charm. But with this record, I feel like they’ve found the perfect balance between their brand of fuzz-weirdo-punk and their minimal recording aesthetic.

Everything I liked about their music before is still there (the really weird and beautiful effects; the really weird and beautiful vocals; the really weird and beautiful guitar solos and drum sounds); they’ve just clarified it a bit for us. I think if they kept getting less scuzzy an more glossy, they might eventually become less exciting, but I could also see them somehow having a hit single that played on “True Blood” or some shit. They could be the band that shocks/pleases their old fans while completely blowing the minds of their new ones. They could be the band that brings this kind of music into the mainstream arena. I’d be just fine with that. -Cory

7. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy / G.O.O.D. Fridays – Kanye West – Everyone has already said just about everything one could possibly say about this record; it was highly anticipated for artistic and sociological reasons (this is Kanye’s return to hip-hop from “808s and Heartbreaks;” this is first record since his total meltdown; his personal tragedies; etc.). Everyone was waiting to see if his arrogance and creative genius would continue to produce instant-classic albums. If there ever was a record whose reception was based on and wholly intermingled with everyone’s expectations of it, I think this is it.

Despite everyone’s astute observation that this album is really weird and creative and fun and lyrically schizophrenic, and despite that fact that I DO enjoy the record quite a bit, I feel like the most honest thing I can say about it is that it’s a really, really good hip-hop record. A lot of critics are calling this the most important record ever, giving it a 156% out of 100%, and letting the record sleep with their girlfriend. What I think they’re missing is that this wasn’t even the best hip-hop record to come out this year. Howie’s gonna cover this, but I think Big Boi, for example, knocked it out of the park even harder and with less flaws.

Some of the weird shit on Kanye’s record that everyone is praising, I think comes across as cheesy/sloppy. I don’t know who sings the “Oh oh oh”s on the first track, but it’s too much: it sounds like someone’s doing a cartoon voice. Nicki Minaj has a great verse on “Monster,” but she (even more so than Lady GaGa) seems to epitomize the “Being weird is really big right now so I am going to be really weird all the time and see how far that gets me” approach. And she’s obviously a good rapper; I am not sure why she has to go all over the place with her vocal affectations. And can I say that I’m not a big fan of fake British accents?

Finally, for the list of guest stars Kanye’s got on this record, I think they’re underutilized. I think he could have made a better record by making the songs shorter and taking out the vocorder solos (????) and letting his buddies shine a little more. That all being said, it’s on this list for a reason. Kanye West is one of the best rappers/producers out there, and this album is just as fun to listen to as Graduation or Late Registration; I think selfishly, I just want him to dial it back a little bit and make another College Dropout.  -Cory

A “really, really good hip-hop record” and an “instant classic” are the last things I’d call “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which suggests a reason for all the ink spilled over it; it’s a Rorschach test.  Between “…Fantasy” and the free releases on the “G.O.O.D. Fridays” series, Kanye’s had as productive a year as anyone else in the game, and it’s the struggle to grasp his music in 2010, rather than its ultimate cultural status or aesthetic quality, that earns it a place on my list.  No one has challenged me more this year, precisely because I’m not sure yet whether this album is at all classic or really good.

Kanye’s ego gets most of the attention, but it’s his uninhibited expression of id that raise questions for me.  Do I identify with this?  If so, what does that mean?  If not, does it suggest I’m afraid of something in myself it’s hard to see expressed?  This has always been a part of Kanye’s music, but it’s never been this raw, with fewer of those classic hip-hop signifiers running interference, allowing me to enjoy records like “Late Registration” without being too disquieted.  Together, “…Fantasy” and “…Fridays” are an amazing body of work by a man who is both pop star and artist, and I’ll be wrestling with it long after the year-end lists and blogs have moved on. -h

6. Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son of Chico Dusty – Big Boi – This one caught me by surprise; I expected a solid record, but I hadn’t bargained for the schizo-bounce, the neutron star-density of the rhymes, or the out-sized hooks. Whether you kick back, lace up, or buckle in, enjoy. -h

5. Transference – Spoon – Simultaneously deconstructing their indie-iconic sound and hitting all their marks on “Transference,” Spoon make it seem easy.  But it isn’t. -h

4. The Fame – Lady GaGa – As opposed to my #2 pick this year, this record is immaculate pop music produced with a top-40 gloss in mind. What sets Lady GaGa’s record apart from a ton of other big pop acts is that she clearly cares a LOT about ingenuity and progress.

I think a lot of people like her because her music sounds like the other really fun dance music that’s out, and they’re just hearing the big beats and wacky synths. That’s a big part of why I like her music, but I also hear immensely well-written songs! I feel like when/if these songs are performed acoustically, the beauty and the originality is still there; it’s not just a mediocre album dressed up with party beats and autotuned vocals; it’s 10 amazing pop songs that also happen to be fun as shit to listen to and perfect for pants-off-dance-offs.

Part of me gets a little peeved when she’s obviously just being weird for the sake of being weird. I feel like that detracts from her songwriting sometimes, as if she’s trying to make up for a lack of talent. But when I hear songs like “Paparazzi” and “Starstruck,” I am impressed every time with her sense of melody and transition. And my pants are usually danced all the way off.   -Cory

3. How I Got Over – The Roots – The increasingly desperate and hungry emotional arc from “Game Theory” (2006) and “Rising Down” (2008) reaches the breaking point on “Now or Never,” almost midway through this record.  The next song, “How I Got Over,” points ways forward both for the implicit narrative of the albums, and for The Roots themselves, as they write their way out of the dark corner they’d painted themselves into.  The rest of the album sounds like a band of kids exploring sound and following whatever catches their ears, but with the experience and chops of true pros. I love this record on its own terms, but the way the band wrote themselves out of the situation they were in prior to it makes it amazing. -h

2. Astrocoast – Surfer Blood – It was awesome when Pitchfork still had their agreement with InSound: if you read a review of an album or a track and you thought it sounded cool, you could just scroll to the right and click “play,” and listen to it as much as you wanted. I remember reading the review for this record and thinking that I would love it, solely based off of the review. It said something like, “This is a great guitar album like Weezer’s The Blue Album,” and I figured if it was anything like that record, I’d probably be pretty stoked.

When I clicked “play” and heard the first few bars of “Floating Vibes,” it was love at first peep. I understand why people compare this band to Weezer and Pavement: they play riff-driven rock music with big melodies and guitar solos (where have they gone, anyhow?). On paper, I supposed they’re very similar. But things that drew me in were more universal, and less specific to a small group of bands.

Simply, the melodies are amazing. They’re the type of melodies you can instantly sing along to, but that aren’t contrived or predictable or obvious. This is my favorite type of melody, and this is my favorite part of listening to music. Also, the production was another huge factor. They self-recorded this record as bands are often wont to do, and they caught the absolute perfect mix of scuzz, reverb, low-end, lo-fi surf garage-pop-rock awesomeness. More and more, I find myself most impressed with pop music that’s produced as if it weren’t pop music at all. Surfer Blood embodies that sentiment for me. They’re not pop-punk; they’re punk-pop.  -Cory

1. Contra – Vampire Weekend – Cory suggested I write about our top pick, since I was a late convert to the charms of 2008’s self-titled record.  The band doubled down on their aesthetic this year, turning the “Catchy melody,” “Weirdo sound,” and “Universal emotion via detailed snapshots” knobs each up a few notches.

What excites me most about Vampire Weekend is that these guys seem to have a rock-solid sense of themselves as a group.  “Contra” is an album made by men who are following their hearts and ears, regardless of what anyone is saying or expects or thinks they should do.  Not only has that made for our top record of the year, it’s a hopeful sign that they may have more in store for us.

Old school – I’ve been building my Beatles and Stones LPs up over the past two years, really, so 2010 I’ll designate the Year of David.  Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars,” “Aladdin Sane,” and “Low” all made their way into my life this year, and I’m grateful to the artist, his band members over the years, and whatever gods of used vinyl have been smiling on me.  These should be on the list next to Cory’s “Astral Weeks,” but I just couldn’t find the right place; it felt like apples and oranges.  -h

Best Records We Heard In 2009 | 2008 | 2007

Best Music Drew Heard In 2009