#20 – Bright Eyes, The People’s Key: A voice pondering creation myths and possible alien ancestors starts The People's Key and pops up throughout, not surprising on an album so concerned with spiritual matters – to the exten that Conor Oberts sees a parallel with Haile Selassie (the god of Rastas) on the track of the same name. A mix of electronic and indie rock, a shift away from the roots music Conor Oberst has spent much time exploring, this is another f*** you to anyone who has expectations for this consistently restless musician.
#19 – Viva Voce, The Future Will Destroy You: This album ranges all over the musical map, sometimes psychedelic and spacey, sometimes slinky and funky, but always melodic and adventurous. Anita Robinson’s voice is a wonderful instrument, highly expressive and oft dark and moody.
#18 – EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints: A dark blend of psychedelia, goth and noise rock, this is a dramatic and fascinating album. This is especially evident on "The Grey Ship," the seven minute track that opens this album with a simple distorted acoustic guitar strum and builds to a crescendo with the addition of drums, bass, violins, piano and electric guitar.
#17 – The Antlers, Burst Apart: Lacking the thematic unity of their debut isn’t a bad thing here. Not sure I’d want to hear another paean to a dying friend! This is an assured second album, exceeding expectations by ignoring them, full of swooping falsettos, background noise and orchestral keyboards. The music even feels occasionally upbeat, as on sneaky “French Exit” or the jazzy “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out.”
#16 – Fucked Up, David Comes to Life: A punk opera (set, as near as I can tell, in Great Britain during the Thatcher era) from this Toronto-based band. I don’t normally go for the hoarse scream that constitutes hardcore singing, but the give-and-take of Pink Eye’s voice with two guest female vocalists (Jennifer Castle and Madelaine Foulin), the underlying melodicism, the energy, and the sheer ambition makes the piece work. Just listen to the one-two punch of “Let Her Rest” (a majestic “overture”) and “Queen of Hearts” that open the album.
#15 – Kate Bush, 50 Words For Snow: One of the most delicate and haunting albums I’ve ever heard, built around the theme of snow and winter. Sometimes accompanied by the sounds of snowstorms, the music is dreamy and lulling, often featuring repetitive themes over which her melodies float like, well, snowflakes. Mostly piano (classical and jazz-flavored), accompanied by simple and softly beaten percussion, with quiet touches of keyboard and strings.
#14 – My Morning Jacket, Circuital: I could listen to this album all the time. In fact, I think I did! It’s got more plays than almost anything else in my collection. From the dramatic clarion call opener of “Victory Dance” through the acoustic breakdown in the title song, even to the odd “Holding Onto Black Metal,” this is a kick-ass collection of stadium-ready Southern fried rock ‘n’ roll.
#13 – Beirut, The Rip Tide: A move away from the Balkans-inspired sounds that made this band's name results in a move forward. Coherent and inventive without straying into preciousness, this travelogue of an album defies categorization. Beautiful and restrained playing, and some of the best horn arrangements I've heard in years.
#12 – Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What?: He might not produce new music very often (this is his first record in five years), but when he does, Paul Simon shows why he’s one of the great songwriters – and why he’s managed to stay relevant and interesting even at this late stage of his career, pulling different sounds from around the world together to get a completely unique sound.