Coldplay -- Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
Who knew I’d ever get hooked on Coldplay? But from the moment I heard the thundering riff and powerhouse vocals of “Violet Hill” -- worlds apart from the saccharine “Yellow” -- I was sold. With Brian Eno at the helm, Chris Martin and Co. crafted a batch of songs that retained all Coldplay’s signature sweeping emotion but threw in new sizzle and grit along the way (and just try to get the punchy synths of “Viva La Vida” out of your head; it’s proven impossible).
Best Of The Best: Album Of The Year
Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago
It’s hard to describe this album, Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver: ruminative, wintry, bittersweet, brilliant -- absolutely, all of that fits. It’s also one of those discs that cuts clean to the bone, which exists – for me, at least – in a constant cycle of playing to death and resurrection. Vernon’s strikingly wrought lyrics and equally rich instrumentation reveal something new and deeper upon each listen, until out of all the isolation and agony comes a tentative strength, a hope; or as “Lump Sum” closes, “Balance we won’t know / We will see when it gets warm.” And it’s feeling less chilly already for having songs like this to lend sound to the silence.
Best Cover Art
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds -- Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
Nick Cave’s fourteenth studio album with The Bad Seeds is all the more intriguing for its barreling insanity. It swaggers and sways, turning Biblical allusions on their head and carving subtle ballads out of a bitter, bleak landscape. Whether Cave is punning on Hemingway or reimagining Homer’s Odyssey, his distinctive growl, breathless wordplaying, and the disc’s fierce, scraping instrumentation come together here with a lurid glee that is nothing short of epic.
Best Kitsch Appeal
MGMT -- Oracular Spectacular
I wasn’t really too sold on this album, but the debut from Brooklyn-based twosome MGMT won its way here on the sheer brilliance of its three singles. Pairing slick beats with shimmering, nostalgic lyrics, it’s nearly impossible to get songs like “Kids” or “Electric Feel” out of your head once they’ve jammed their way in. Though as a whole Oracular Spectacular is too top-heavy, MGMT seem on their way to pinpointing a signature sound that can couple the best of their euphoria to something a little more solid.
Exceptional Edward -- Lost At Sea
I said at first that this, the full-length debut from Columbus, Ohio indie-rockers Exceptional Edward, was Death Cab For Cutie as Death Cab couldn’t do it. But Lost At Sea is far more than just an aping of their major-label counterparts. At times it’s tender and toned-down (“Buried By Gray,” “Never Come Down”), while other songs, like opener “Change My Mind” or the roiling, riff-based “Sea Captain,” are all slow-burning energy. This is a tight and varied disc, and Exceptional Edward’s evocative lyrics and shimmering instrumentation add up to one well-navigated, more than promising debut.
The Sort-Of Best:
Death Cab For Cutie -- Narrow Stairs
Oh, Death Cab. Plans was flawless; Transatlanticism’s title-track hits the same raw nerve every time I spin it. But while Narrow Stairs, their seventh and second major-label release, is good, I guess I expect more. When they’re on (the sparkling, evocative “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and “Grapevine Fires,” the creeptastic single “I Will Possess Your Heart”), Death Cab is brilliant, that inimitable Ben Gibbard-blend of quiet sorrow and breathtaking beauty. When things start to meander or dip into worn sentiments, I can’t help but wonder what this disc could have been.
Islands -- Arm’s Way
I suppose there was really no way to top 2005’s uniformly awesome Return To The Sea, and Arm’s Way does trade in its predecessor’s dizzying sound switch-ups for a more unified pace – but it turns out, that hyperactivity was what worked so well for them. Still, for the most part, that silky-smooth instrumentation, biting lyrics, and baroque energy still plays to Islands’ advantage here, and the first half of this disc is unmissable (and “Creeper” makes an unexpectedly apropos follow-up to Death Cab’s “I Will Possess Your Heart”!).
Okkervil River -- The Stand Ins
Admittedly, Austin, Texas-based Okkervil River can do no wrong by me. Will Sheff’s cerebral anthems still move with breathless ease, whether the accompanying instrumentation is symphonic or straight-up rock n’ roll, and this disc, which follows on the heels of 2007’s brilliant The Stage Names, is another excellent chapter in the Okkervil River catalog. At its best, The Stand Ins is revelatory and dynamic – certainly not just a bookend to its predecessor.
My Morning Jacket -- Evil Urges My Morning Jacket’s fifth studio album is a shape-shifter – thirteen tracks that swerve from slinky, Prince-ly falsetto on the title track and Pink Floyd-esque otherworldliness (“Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2”) to a lead single that sounds ripped from soft-rock radio (the glorious, groovy “I’m Amazed”). Still, this never resembles a pastiche, and the Louisville, Kentucky rockers have pulled out a shimmering, insistent, and surprisingly fluid disc – really, the only bad thing here is the cover art.
Beach House -- Devotion
Devotion, the sophomore offering from Baltimore, Maryland duo Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand, is lulling and lovely, full of poppy gems that aren’t quite catchy, but are sensual and sparkling all the same, washing over you like a dream. Weaving carnival organs and dashes of tambourine with ghostly vocals, this disc, for all its atmosphere and haziness, is solidly resonant.
Best Live Album
John Mayer -- Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles
I usually have to preface my love for John Mayer, since he tends to get into all sorts of douchebaggery in the tabloids, but like Freddie Mercury used to proclaim, “Talent will out, my dear.” And John Mayer is the real deal, which is shown in spades on this double-disc live album. Mayer jam-packs two hours with three separate sets: a five-song acoustic set launches things out (and includes the brilliant fan-favorite “Daughters” and a resurrection of “Neon” from his 1999 debut); then, he follows with eight songs with the John Mayer Trio (Pino Palladino on bass and equally legendary drummer Steve Jordan); finally, things swerve into a full band set, which features fleshier versions of his already stunning songs from Continuum, plus some choice covers. This is good stuff, the sound of Mayer stretching and deepening as a musician -- and it’s even better live.