Choosing a top five was really difficult for me this year, but the post-Christmas lethargy brought on by too much stuffed cabbage is keeping me from mustering enough energy for a top ten. So here goes my best shot:
5. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
When I first heard 2009’s Post-Nothing, I thought I was back in high school, listening to unabashed punk rock without a hint of irony. 2012’s aptly named Celebration Rock only ups the ante- there are times one can picture a sold-out arena singing along. The stand out track for me is opener “The Nights of Wine and Roses”. When frontman David King shouts “Don’t we have anything to live for?” I hear a rallying cry for a generation.
4. The XX – Coexist
If there’s a word to describe London-based The XX, it’s subtle. Whether it’s the steel drums on “Reunion” or the sparse guitar of “Angels” it’s the little details that reveal the album’s genius. One always get the impression this band is holding back, like the sinister slow build of “Missing”, which for me is the selling point.
3. Grizzly Bear – Shields
Grizzly Bear is a band at the height of their craft, and Shields might be their magnum opus. The grandiose seven-minute closing track “Sun in Your Eyes” is the best track I’ve heard yet from the Brooklyn four-piece. The oft-repeated mantra sends chills down my spine: “By the look on your face, the burdens on your back, and the sun is in your eyes.”
2. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
I first heard the title track of There’s No Leaving Now live in Dublin a couple of summers ago. Kristian Mattson played the song with a full band, and I was struck by how the song was a sonic development for Mattson but faithful enough to his discography that he wasn’t likely to have any Dylanesque “Judas” moments. Although the album version is just Mattson and a piano: the observation could speak for the whole record. TNLN features Mattson’s first usage of multi-track recording, although it’s rarely more than some cascading electric guitar lines or a light rhythm section. Not surprisingly, the strongest tracks stick to the singer + guitar formula. Remarkably absent from TNLN is any romantic angst. Mattson is the most forlorn on “Little Brother”, but it’s fraternal concern that leads him to croon, “Why are you drinking again little brother/ When your ramblings the hard part of loving you?” Perhaps it’s his recent marriage to Amanda Bergman that gives TNLN such an optimistic feel.
1. Beach House – Bloom
It’s hard picking a favorite album of the year, especially for an egalitarian middle child like myself, but this year I didn’t have to think twice: Beach House’s masterful album Bloom stood a head above the rest. 2010’s Teen Dream was an epiphany moment for me: Victoria Legrand’s haunting alto and Alex Scally’s ethereal instrumentation had an effortless beauty that seemed out of place in a cynical musical industry. With Bloom Legrand and Scally have perfected their aesthetic language: at times it’s nothing short of angelic.
It’s fitting that the first words of opening track “Myth” are “Drifting in and out…” because the album plays like a half-remembered dream. At times the ecstasy of the music is in tension with the longing of the lyrics, like when Legrand wails on “New Year”: “All I wanted comes in colors/ Vanishes everyday”. Elsewhere Beach House is triumphant, like penultimate track “On the Sea” which concludes “It begins and we’ll be fine/ shadows bend and suddenly/ The world becomes /And swallows me in.” In all, Bloom is an emotional tour de force. Perhaps the listener will wonder with Legrand, “What comes after this momentary bliss?”