20. Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures
So one day Dave Grohl was all like, “I’m tired of making adult rock hits and I wanna play drums again,” and Josh Homme was all like, “I’m tired of making hard progressive rock and I wanna relive my childhood stoner days.” So they went on a magical journey to find any member of Led Zeppelin who was still alive when they met the Fogey Rock Fairy. “Here, have Robert Plant.” “No thanks. We both sing.” “Well, then here’s Jimmy Page!” “No thanks. We both play guitar.” “Fine then, bitches. Since Bonham is dead have the least popular one!” And so the three made the first decent Zeppelin album since Kingdom Come in 1988. The End.
Favorite songs: “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I”, “Dead End Friends”, “Elephant”
19. Mika – The Boy Who Knew Too Much
Oh, the sophomore jinx. Most artists take one of two tracks: 1) remake what made them popular or 2) go in such a different direction that fans are left scratching their heads. If you’re familiar with the cover of Mika’s first album “Life In Cartoon Motion” then you’ll realize immediately that he went with option #1. Not that it’s a bad thing. The album is full of over-the-top arrangements, falsetto choruses and a good sprinkle of queer-colored glitter. The up-tempo numbers really showcase his talent as a pop star. It’s the ballads that drag this down a bit. There are no great ones like “My Interpretation” or “Erase”. Summary: if you liked the first one, go ahead and grab this one.
Favorite songs: “We Are Golden”, “Rain”, “Good Gone Girl”
18. The Boy Least Likely To – The Law Of The Playground
While looking for the album cover image, I ran across the perfect phrase to describe The Boy Least Likely To: twee pop. This is whimsy at its most sweet, childlike, and enjoyable. Of course, if you don’t like banjos and xylophones, then run. The xylophones in its higher register has always been one to denote children, but this works for the band especially with lyrics like “I need a cookie and hug”. I swear these guys only do this to get laid. Just look at the choice of words in the titles to get a feel for their philosophy on life. You can’t get any more innocent than balloons, butterflies, lemonade and fairytales. And for a bonus look for last year’s “The First Snowflake” (not included here) for one of the best modern holiday songs around.
Favorite songs: “Saddle Up”, “When Life Gives Me Lemons I Make Lemonade”, “I Keep Myself To Myself”
17. St. Vincent – Actor
Apple Garageband musicians and users rejoice! You can make an entire album using the software and be lavished with praise and critics’ love. Bought completely on a whim from Amie Street when it was $3, this proved to be one of the quirkier pop albums this year. Don’t be fooled by the innocent cover, this is a dark little album. It’s fuzzy and hard-edged with a lyrical tone that only the bitter truly appreciate. “Paint the black hole blacker,” is a good example. It may sound a bit messy with a first listen, but given time Actor is a great addition to your collection of angry, scorned woman singer/songwriters.
Favorite songs: “The Strangers”, “Actor Out Of Work”, “Marrow”
16. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a modern psychedelic acid-trip of an album and the Flaming Lips have truly nailed it here. These should have a warning claiming the album should only be listened to through headphones in a room full of black lights while partaking in mind-altering chemicals. It’s a fascinating listen as you realize that you have no hope of ever guessing into which K-hole these boys from Oklahoma are going to drop you with each track. Or even within the same track. There is one semblance of their other later more catchy work at the very end of the album with “Watching The Planets” but it may be a very long journey for most to travel with these etherial guides.
Favorite songs: “See The Leaves”, “I Can Be A Frog”, “Watching The Planets”
15. Peaches – I Feel Cream
To say that Peaches is branching out will raise a few eyebrows, but this album is not just only about putting tab A into slot B over and over again until the parties involved are drenched in their love stew. This time she wants a little romance before you start sucking on her titties. C’mon, work on that relationship with her. And then you can get all freaky in songs “Billionaire.” She also is starting to realize her age and is hilariously hitting on younger guys (or gals) in songs like “Mommy Complex” and “Trick Or Treat” (“I drink a whiskey, neat/You lick my crow’s feet”). The title track is fun as well as she dabbles in trance and 80’s dance.
Favorite songs: “Lose You”, “Billionaire”, “I Feel Cream”
14. Rosanne Cash – The List
Back in Rosanne’s late teen years, her father — you may have heard of him — gave her a list of 100 essential country songs to learn in order to gain a perspective of the history of the genre. Here are 12 of those songs reinterpreted through her years of ups and downs. The emotions infused into these songs is one of an artist looking back and feeling bittersweet. She even confides in the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright. This is not only a lovely collection of songs, but also an interesting history lesson that would probably make Johnny proud.
Favorite songs: “Miss You And The Mississippi”, “Take These Chains From My Heart”, “500 Miles”
13. Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
This was a surprise. Elvis got together with masterful producer T-Bone Burnett and came up with an earthy, bluesy slice of Americana. This Brit invokes the Louisiana bayou with the grace and ease of long generations of the repressed whose woman done done him wrong. It’s light and effortless in a way that makes it obvious Elvis has found a new niche to dabble. An impressive effort made better by Burnett’s loose, uncluttered production.
Favorite songs: “Complicated Shadows”, “Hidden Shame”, “Sulphur To Sugarcane”
12. Gossip – Music For Men
Being unsure what the hoopla was about, I decided to give Gossip one more chance with their new release. Their breakthrough, Standing In The Way Of Control, was just that — an out-of-control mess of an album that was hyped beyond the content. The positive is that there was potential there which, thanks to more focused songwriting and production, brought Music For Men to fruition. Beth Ditto’s voice sounds even better behind the sightly polished garageband sound behind her. It’s sparse and punk and pop all at the same time. Let’s hope their sound continues to mesh together because this is just plain fun.
Favorite songs: “Heavy Cross”, “Love Long Distance”, “Four Letter Word”
11. J.G. Thirlwell – The Venture Bros.: The Music of J.G. Thirlwell
“The Venture Bros.” is one of the most consistently humorous shows on television right now and you owe it to yourself to catch up with it. That said, collected here are cues and score from the show and what fun it is. Mixing 60’s-style James Bond themes, 70’s Blaxpoltation and modern electronic dance sounds, the album is full of John Barry meets Isaac Hayes meets LCD Soundsystem. Of course with a show that can take place anywhere the creators imaginations go, there is also the occasional lazy Bayou strip song and Ennio Morricone tribute. This would be a great addition to the soundtrack collector in your life.
Favorite songs: “Tuff”, “Assclamp!”, “In A Spaceage Mood”
10. Air – Love 2
“As light as…” one might say. Air has been around since 1997 and every single one of their albums takes patience to plumb the depths. The airy, simple sound is quite deceiving at first, but once you have been on a few dates you begin to appreciate the company you’re in. Love 2 is a little lighter than usual with none of the big hooks of “Sexy Boy” or “Cherry Blossom Girl”, but what is here is as beautiful as these two French guys can make it. In fact, they seem to be the anti-Daft Punk. Nonetheless, the album may be quiet, but it still ranks as one of their best.
Favorite songs: “Love”, “Be A Bee”, “Sing Sang Sung”
9. Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You
Strong, independent, foul-mouthed who speak their mind are becoming more and more commonplace in the music industry. This may be simply because the masses love shock, but it’s brought to light several greats including Liz Phair and Missy Elliott. On her second album, the straight forward Lily Allen drops the ska-lite for a pure unabashedly pop soundscape. This doesn’t mean she’s softened up. There are still her stabs at drug users (“Everyone’s At It”), bad relationships (“Not Fair”), commercialism (“The Fear”) and — to so great affect the gay community has adopted it as an anthem — racism and bigotry (“Fuck You”). Oh, she’s even finding happiness in songs like “Chinese” and “Who’d Have Known”. All this because of the help of Greg Kurstin, but we’ll wait to talk about him later in the countdown.
Favorite songs: “The Fear”, “Back To The Start”, “Fuck You”
8. Bleu – A Watched Pot
In a world of pop music, it is good to hear someone doing it the old-fashioned way: without an Autotune. Bleu has his musical sensibilities stuck squarely in the 70’s and that just fine. While there are a couple of songs that are meant to make teenage girls swoon, there is plenty of meaty stuff as in songs like the wonderfully titled theme for douches “I Won’t Fuck You Over (This Time)” and the sincere, bitter heartbreak of “No Such Thing As Love”. He also does blues-pop well in the demo-like “What Kind Of Man Am I?”
Favorite songs: “Save Me”, “No Such Thing As Love”, “I Won’t Fuck You Over (This Time)”
7. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
Initially this didn’t impress me as much as his other work, but over a year of listening has caused the many nuances to surface. I still think his use of his obtuse literary knowledge is a little overdone, but the music itself is quite wonderful. The fun thing to discover here is that Bird can write a pretty decent pop song. The first track, “Oh No”, and “Fitz And The Dizzyspells” both have hooks galore. Noble Beast may not be Andrew Bird’s best album, but it does prove again that he has found his own place in the music business with his style of modern-day baroque pop.
Favorite songs: “Oh No”, “Fitz & Dizzyspells”, “Tenuousness”, “Anonanimal”
6. Guggenheim Grotto – Happy The Man
Where The Boy Least Likely To’s twee pop may be a little too sweet for some, their Irish counterparts take a different approach by making their music a bit more earthbound and folksy. The album kicks off with a promise of the goodness that is to follow. “Fee Da Da Dee” is one of the best songs of the year with its slow electronic march and killer melody. However, this song is the exception stylistically. The rest is down and dirty folk-pop with a bit of a polish on the production. “Sunshine Makes Me High” and “Just Not Just” would fit nicely on a Twilight soundtrack being that commercial. Why no one has picked up on this with GG is a mystery, but they certainly deserve more exposure than their have received. Bonus: let’s just say they are both very photogenic. (Thanks to Cameron for making me go ahead and listen to it.)
Favorite songs: “Fee Da Da Dee”, “Her Beautiful Ideas”, “Sunshine Makes Me High”, “Just Not Just”
5. Brendan Benson – My Old, Familiar Friend
Brendan is the other creative mind behind The Raconteurs. He is the pop to Jack White’s rock and his new album adds many of the rock influences he’s picked up without sacrificing his ear for a great tune. Full of catchiness, My Old, Familiar Friend lives up to its name if you are a fan. He’s still writing great pop songs despite the fact that one may just happen to be about “Garbage Day”. The album does a nice job of being a fun trip through pop history while still holding together as a coherent piece. 50’s boy pop, 70’s soft rock, 80’s power pop and 90’s alternative all show up with the verve of someone who absolutely loves to make music.
Favorite songs: “Eyes On The Horizon”, “Feel Like Taking You Home”, “Poised And Ready”, “Don’t Wanna Talk”
4. Tegan And Sara – Sainthood
After the disappointment of The Con, the new album was approached with reserve and skepticism. What a lovely surprise. This is the follow-up to So Jealous that I yearned for. Full of quirky longings of love, Sainthood rocks with jangy guitars and girl angst. There is a certain Cars influence throughout as well with its awkward almost obsessive lyrics and flashes of keyboard coloring. Their voices mesh quite well together (which you would expect from twins) with their nasal tones that bring little pixies to mind. Sainthood doesn’t quite reach its namesake since nothing and no one is perfect, but the sisters are trying to reach it by learning about themselves and translating it to their music.
Favorite songs: “Hell”, “On Directing”, “Northshore”, “Alligator”
3. The Bird And The Bee – Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future
Oh, how I love this band. Playful, coy, sexy. And here is where we talk about Greg Kurstin (The Bee). This is his band and with Inara George (The Bird) make some amazingly sweet pop music. This — their second album — is far more accessible and immediately likable beginning with the rock arena stomp and clap rhythm of the stunning “My Love”. Full of different moods, Ray Guns… is an album filled with songs of love (“Love Letter To Japan”) and hate (“Witch”); beginnings (“Baby”) and ends (“Lifespan Of A Fly”), but mostly just beautiful, little pop ditties. The Bird And The Bee may evoke 60’s sensibilities, but their music is pure now: hip and groovy, baby.
Favorite songs: “My Love”, “Meteor”, “Polite Dance Song”, “Birthday”
See the official video here. (Friggin’ idiot no-embed music companies.)
2. Pet Shop Boys – Yes
This is unabashedly, commercially-minded music, but with the style and grace of two masters of the pop genre. In other words, it is the catchiest thing they have cobbled together since 1993’s Very. In order to pull this off, they went to the current hit making machine in the United Kingdom called Xenomania who helped coalesce PSB’s sound with the current feel of today’s hits. The outcome is an album that is all Pet Shops Boys, but with an added bounciness of today’s British hits like in “Love, Etc.” and “The Way It Used To Be.” Included also are some of the best ballads they done in a decade with “King Of Rome” and “Vulnerable.” Fans of PSB rejoice. Here is the album you’ve been waiting for since the sweetness of Very. And if you didn’t even know they were still making music, this is the perfect chance to rekindle that old relationship.
Favorite songs: “Love, Etc.”, “All Over The World”, “Did You See Me Coming?”, “Vulnerable”
1. Florence + The Machine – Lungs
I should have learned by now that the albums I go back to over and over again with no explanation are the ones that end up here at the top. This 23-year-old has completely blown me away with her voice resembling Toni Childs in indignity and Feist in quirkiness. In other words, like Sarah McLachlin on steroids. Songs like “Dog Days Are Over”, “Hurricane Drunk”, and “Rabbit Heart” are all melodrama. Others like “Girl With One Eye”, “My Boy Builds Coffins” and “Kiss With A Fist” show her twisted humor. Yet you get to the end and are blown away by the incredible love song “You’ve Got The Love”. This album defies all expectation. Lungs can be overblown at times and Florence’s intensity may not be for everyone, but it is undeniably emotional. The hurt, the spite and the love — squashed and returned — are felt here in waves of palpable empathy. We’ve all at some point felt these situations in the same complexity as her cut-to-the-heart lyrics. Lungs is a celebration of almost everything that a relationship can be whether we welcome it or not.
Favorite songs: “Dogs Days Are Over”, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”, “Kiss With A Fist”, “Girl With One Eye”, “Hurricane Drunk”, “You’ve Got The Love”