20. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
You’ve got to hand it to Arcade Fire. Four albums in and they’ve embraced marketing and big arena tours almost knowing everlasting fame is only for a select few in the music world. This time around they pull LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy to produce with pretty constant results. The electronics add a pop sheen that can be hard to resist even by the most snobbish of music fans and several songs are immediately likable. There is no real central theme this time; just a bunch of fun songs.
Favorite songs: “Normal Person” | “You Already Know” | “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”
19. Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
Goldfrapp’s latest is oh, so quiet. Quiet and beautiful like a forest fleshly blanketed with snow hiding its secrets. Tales of Us is a character study with each song about a different person and — like people — the music doesn’t became interesting until you delve into the inner depths of each track’s personality. This collection is not for the impatient who want nothing more than hooks. But for those who take the time to study each song, the rewards can be surprising.
Favorite songs: “Annabel” | “Drew” | “Thea”
18. David Bowie – The Next Day
Bowie surprised us this year announcing an album on his own 66th birthday with no other media buildup. It’s been 10 years since his last and that distance definitely made our hearts fonder. He sounds older on The Next Day with his vocals revealing his age, but the music is as good as anything released since Let’s Dance. He wanted to evoke the days of Ziggy Stardust and nearly succeeds on a few songs especially the “spacey” tunes. This is a definitely a needed addition to any Bowie fan’s collection.
Favorite songs: “Love Is Lost” | “I’d Rather Be High” | “(You Will) Set the World on Fire”
17. Paul McCartney – NEW
Whereas Bowie looked back, McCartney turned toward the now. Gathering up three young producers including Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse), Paul Epworth (Adele) and Giles Martin (son of Beatles’ producer George and the man who meshed-up Beatles music for LOVE), McCartney has brought together some hip talent to produce some of his best pop songs in decades. NEW is full of vibrant, bright numbers even if his voice — like Bowie’s — is beginning to sound like an old man’s. Simply, it’s good musical fun.
Favorite songs: “On My Way to Work” | “New” | “Everybody Out There”
16. She & Him – Volume 3
Charming and innocent, Zooey Deschannel and her producer partner, M. Ward, make mincemeat out of Tennis. Here’s the way throwback 50’s should sound: roomy, light and with only a touch of reverb. Not quite sure why Volume 3 sticks out more than the first two of their collaborations. Perhaps it’s the intelligent cover picks (their “Sunday Girl” is great), the way it sounds as if Zooey is singing with a smile, or simply that her songwriting skills have greatly improved with practice; however, the result is clear: a lovely album that evokes a more innocent time in life.
Favorite songs: “Never Wanted Your Love” | “I Could’ve Been Your Girl” | “Somebody Sweet to Talk To”
15. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – Unvarnished
Joan Jett needs a title at this point. The Grand Dame of Rock? Throughout her long career, she’s been a mainstay in the rock world. The last few albums have been overlooked by the public and for mostly good reason. They were bland and forgettable. Well, she’s got her mojo back. Unvarnished is chock-full of ditties that would make younger Joan Jett proud. They are full of the hooks, the riffs and the snarls you’d come to expect from her 80’s output. Sure, there is nothing here that is a true stand-out single, but the collection is constant and enjoyable.
Favorite songs: “Any Weather (606 Version)” | “TMI” | “Fragile”
14. Gary Numan – Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind
You won’t find the new Nine Inch Nails in this countdown as it would seem the master has outdone the student. Gary Numan’s latest is powerful, raw and emotional. Coming from a very personal space, Splinter is a dark album of loss and heartbreak, but then what would expect from Numan? Don’t be turned off by the dour mood though. Here you’ll find a collection of his strongest material in years which draws you in with its emotional carnage leaving you not only empathic to his hurt, but thoroughly entertained.
Favorite songs: “Here in the Black” | “Splinter” | “Love Hurt Bleed”
13. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
I’ll say it again: Random Access Memories is the first Daft Punk album that doesn’t induce listener fatigue. Because of the use of real instruments in the mix, Daft Punk has made their first collection of complete songs. Greatly reduced are the repeated snippets and in their place is music inspired by the 70’s icons such as Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer, Blondie’s “Call Me”) and Paul Williams (Kermit’s “Rainbow Connection”). Yes, the album dips into aspects of disco, but never is it permanently stuck there. This apparently has done well for them. The last song recorded was the Panda Bear collaboration “Doin’ It Right” which slides back to their snippet approach except it’s arguably the best song here and points to a future where Daft Punk has honed their formula to indefatigable heights.
Favorite songs: “Give Life Back to Music” | “Touch (feat. Paul Williams)” | “Doin’ It Right (feat. Panda Bear)”
12. Young Galaxy – Ultramarine
A couple of years ago I took a chance on an album exclusively based on the cover and was rewarded with my first exposure to the current state of dream pop. Young Galaxy’s Shapeshifting was a etherial journey full of fun dreams and a couple of great pop songs. On Ultramarine, the band takes a further step in refining their sound. This time around they make the smart move of having Catherine McCandless sing leads on all ten tracks. Her voice is a perfect match for the mood and arrangement of the sound the band attempts which makes for a superior follow-up. It’s quite lovely to hear.
Favorite songs: “Pretty Boy” | “Fever” | “Sleepwalk with Me”
11. Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals
…and sophomore slump redeemed. Reign of Terror was a mess with their best song hidden in the middle. If only the rest of the songs were half as good as “Comeback Kid.” The good news is Bitter Rivals is pretty damn good. There is more focus on melody in the midst of the thrashing guitars, drum kits and the over-the-top synths. This is still noise pop with cheerleader-style vocals, but with more focus on cutting through the noise to hook the listener thus making it fun: something a band named Sleigh Bells needs to have.
Favorite songs: “Bitter Rivals” | “Sing Like a Wire” | “Young Legends”
10. Sam Phillips – Push Any Button
Sam has and always will be an artist who will never hit the big time. She receives acolytes from critics, but seems to lack public appeal which is a shame because she is quite the connoisseur of Beatles-style pop experimentations. On her first publicly released album since 2008 (not counting the collection culled from her members-only series of EP’s called Long Play), she sounds positively elated to be back in the studio and she’s brought with her some of her strongest songs since Martinis & Bikinis. She has even added horns this time to her production which is at times quite beautiful as showcased in “See You in Dreams.” Push Any Button is polished garage pop and is worthy of a listen or five.
Favorite songs: “When I’m Alone” | “See You in Dreams” | “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You”
9. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind
Remember the awesome dance music of the early 90’s? Bands like Blackbox, Sunscreem and Bizarre, Inc. all rocked my world in my mid-20’s when I went out nearly every weekend to burn up the dance floor. Cut Copy channel this on their latest and it’s like welcoming a friend unseen for 20 years. Free Your Mind has everything crammed into 90’s house: big beat, bouncing two-note piano chords, screaming background divas, and weird noises used merely for effect. Add to this Dan Whitford’s panache for new age lyrics and you’ve been teleported to an alternate 90’s full of party and transcendentalism. The album loses some steam at the end, but that is more than made up by tracks 1 – 4 which kick some serious house-music ass.
Favorite songs: “Free Your Mind” | “We Are Explorers” | “In Memory Capsule” | “Meet Me In a House of Love”
8. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
It’s amazing these guys are still creating high-quality music. So good, in fact, that Modern Vampires of the City is #1 on at least two year-end best-of lists. This is a more moody affair than previous attempts. Even though there are many beautiful songs — “Step” is incredible — not all are slow tempo and all seem to be about these guys maturing out of their college years and wondering why their friends aren’t following suit. (“Diane Young” = dying young. Get it?) Ok, so not everyone is into lyrics so just suffice it to say that the music is excellent. They’ve dropped their African noodlings and have made one of the best alternative pop albums of the year.
Favorite songs: “Obvious Bicycle” | “Step” | “Diane Young” | “Finger Back”
7. Holy Ghost! – Dynamics
This, their second album, is their first proper one. Holy Ghost! was more a collection of singles they had made over the years. On Dynamics, they’ve come up with some fun dance numbers, but also explore a more mature sound. Some of the tracks here owe much to 70’s pop music — ironically before disco. The 80’s are still prevalent in their chosen New Order-esque synth sounds, but the slower songs like “It Must Be the Weather” are like Genesis gone completely electronic and “I Wanna Be Your Hand” might as well be an England Dan & John Ford Coley song. Not as strong as their debut, Dynamics is at times fun and introspective; however, if they continue to write disco epics like “Dumb Disco Ideas,” they will keep their fan base.
Favorite songs: “Okay” | “Dumb Disco Ideas” | “It Must Be the Weather” | “Don’t Look Down”
6. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
And we come to the part of the list where every remaining album is outstanding. Tegan and Sara have been making good-to-great alternative sounds since 1995, but then they hit their 30’s and wanted something new. They picked up with Greg Kurstin of The Bird and The Bee (Kylie Minogue, Lily Allen, P!nk) and made their first honest-to-goodness straight-up pop album. Yes, this has alienated some fans who didn’t give Heartthrob much of a chance which is unfortunate. Tegan and Sara brought with them some of the strongest songs in their career and then worked hand-in-hand with Kurstin to come up with an incredible album that is half emotional, old-school T&S and half forward-looking marathon of radio-friendly singles. Their risk has paid off with a worthy addition to the solid Tegan and Sara discography.
Favorite songs: “Closer” | “I Was a Fool” | “How Come You Don’t Want Me” | “Now I’m All Messed Up”
5. Alison Moyet – The Minutes
Alison has been making music for 40 years running through new wave, electropop, and balladry all with her trademark panache for torch song and all of which are splendidly displayed on her “return to roots” The Minutes. Songs like “When I Was Your Girl” and “Remind Yourself” look back as both are well-practiced, burned-heart numbers; however, what is surprising is this 52-year-old songstress dabbles in dub step most prominently on “Changeling” and “Right As Rain” and it works. The intensity of the electronics are perfectly paired with her passionate voice and biting “fuck off” lyrics. And what lyrics. Here is the main reason to listen to any Alison Moyet album: “You jump too soon and miss all this/Now something beautiful happens,” “If you can’t find peace in my arms/Find dis-ease in my arms,” and “Take with you when you go/The smile that you’ve been sketching on my face” are just a few of the anger-filled hurt of The Minutes — an amazing and surprising entry from a well-practiced torch artist.
Favorite songs: “Horizon Flame” | “Changeling” | “Love Reign Supreme” | “Filigree”
4. Fitz and the Tantrums – More Than Just a Dream
It’s the story of a nice band getting bigger. I’ve never known a band so sincerely appreciative of their fans and with their second album they get some pay back with “Out of My League” being their biggest hit to date. 2011’s “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” was the party record of the year with its 60’s homage and stomping beats, but the Tantrums aren’t ones to rest of their laurels. When they went in to record their follow up, they had the vision of being more of an alternative band so they could massage and experiment with their basic sound. “More Than Just a Dream” is just that — a slight break from their first album. Here you will find more new wave influences than soul plus a more polished production. Not that it sucked the life out of them, “…Dream” is still a fun, up-beat collection that is instantly likable and able to get any party started with its big shout-out choruses and boogie beats (The break in “The Walker” kills it). Their political statements are a bit more obscure now in accordance with their passion to play to a wider audience, but it doesn’t stop them from trying to call an army to action in “Break the Walls,” “Spark” and “The End.” Don’t worry, they are still fun songs and there is plenty of wooing going on in the incredible “6AM” and heartbreak in “Last Raindrop.” And go see them live. The studio albums are just scratch the surface of the energy they exude.
Favorite songs: “Out of My League” | “The Walker” | “6AM” | “The End”
3. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – English Electric
When it was announced that OMD was getting the entire band back together, new wave fans everywhere rejoiced. When History of Modern was released in 2010, it was apparent the rejoining was a huge success being a well-balanced album of old and new. For English Electric, they have placed themselves firmly in their past with songs paying equal time to their inspiration, Kraftwerk, their own experimental Dazzle Ships, and their pop concoctions of their heyday. The album begins with one of the four interludes which invoke Dazzle Ships. “Please Remain Seated” along with “The Future Will Be Silent and “Atomic Ranch” are experimentations which would feel at home in the dystopian worlds of “Logan’s Run” and “Blade Runner” while “Helen of Troy” (yes, another Joan of Arc song) and “Dresden” are straight up OMD during their classic period. It’s when they channel Kraftwerk that the band truly shines. “Kissing the Machine” is all robot love and “Our System” seeks the answers of the universe. The songs which mesh Kraftwerk and OMD’s own sense of pop are the strongest. “Metroland” is an epic theme song for a not-entirely-mythical land where “Today is yesterday every day” is the slogan. It’s “Night Café” which combines the two perfectly. Here is the sequel to “If You Leave” that nearly matches that song’s magical spell. He’s been abandoned, but what is left behind is a hopeful melancholy. It’s the same feeling English Electric leaves: a feeling of nostalgia for the past, but hopeful for the future.
Favorite songs: “Metroland” | “Night Café” | “The Future Will Be Silent” | “Dresden”
2. Pet Shop Boys – Electric
Pet Shop Boys are a sort of Dorian Gray of pop music. Sure, the boys are getting older, but their music still sounds young. Last year’s Eylsium was a despondent affair full of the melancholy of getting old seemingly produced to fulfill their long-standing contract with Parlophone. In the meantime, they had started work on forming their own label x2 which in turn seems to have shaken all the woe away. Electric is just that. This is a 9-track, 50-minute celebration of doing what they love: getting people’s asses on the dance floor. Unlike their contemporaries, PSB have become masters at the tongue-in-cheek, ironic approach to their subject matter which has always given their blips and washes of electronic waves much more weight than most. “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” may sound like an elitist, artsy title, but the Boys are much more complex than that. One listen to the lyrics and it becomes apparent the song is downright hilarious: “I’ve been thinking how I can’t be bothered/To wash the dishes or remake the bed/What’s the point when I could doss instead?” Elsewhere you’ll find an incredible Bruce Springstein cover (“The Last to Die”) and an honest-to-goodness rap break by Example on “Thursday”. However, the true joy comes at the end. “Vocal” drops all pretense of the sly wink and becomes an anthem of sincerity. Here in a six-and-a-half-minute song Chris and Neil make you believe Electric is exactly what they want to be doing: “And everything about tonight feels right and so young/And anything I’d want to say out loud will be sung,” Neil sings with love and joy. This is their kind of music and, from now on, they will be doing it exactly how they want.
Favorite songs: “Axis” | “Bolshy” | “Shouting in the Evening” | “Vocal”
1. Capital Cities – In a Tidal Wave of Mystery
Barry Manilow did it, so who not Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian. Here is a debut album by two jingle writers who also happen to be producers. Merchant and Simonian gave us something many of the current slew of hit makers have forgotten to do: have fun. In a Tidal Wave of Mystery is almost a slap to the many artists who have won some singing contest and take themselves far too seriously. How? They started with releasing covers that were serious enough to not be parody, but goofy enough to create smiles. Bee Gees, Madonna (great cover of “Holiday”) and even Pink Floyd get the treatment. In fact, their cover of “Breathe” with a Tupac rap sample is mentioned in “I Sold My Bed, But Not My Stereo”.
The covers were enough to get them a record contract. What they then created was an album full of radio-ready singles that became an amusement park in the middle of a funeral home. Part of the secret here is not only their love of making music, but the production which has either one singing in only one ear, but the combination beefs up their gruff vocals that make each song more playful. Songs like “Kangaroo Court,” “Chartreuse,” and “Center Stage” bounce and swerve as well as any of your favorite upbeat selections. “Safe and Sound” ends up being a lovely vow of commitment with a killer video. Even “Chasing You” — a wonderful song about unrequited love and being flaky — mixes a bit of real emotion, but is still humorous. The biggest surprise here is the oddball checklist that is “Farrah Fawcett Hair” which blends NPR, André 300 and soul divas into a bizarrely fascinating song which name drops things that are good. The song is so good it needs to add itself to the list, but perhaps that is a bit too self-conscious for this collection that needs only to be described as it describes all the things it loves: it’s good shit.
Favorite songs: “Safe and Sound” | “Kangaroo Court” | “Farrah Fawcett Hair” | “Origami” | “Chasing You”