ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Sara Bareilles, Little Voice
Sounds like: Linda Rondstadt singing the writings of Gloria Steinem
Best Tracks: “Love Song,” “Bottle It Up,” “Come Round Soon,” “One Sweet Love”
Representative Lyrics: “There’ll be girls across the nation that’ll eat this up / babe, I know that it’s your soul but could you bottle it up”
Notes: Blending traditional pop hooks and melodies with her husky, bluesy voice and piano plaing ranging from honky-tonk to plaintive, Bareilles crafted a fun, interesting, and unique debut album.
Keane, Perfect Symmetry
Best Tracks: “Perfect Symmetry,” “Spiralling,” “Again and Again”
Representative Lyrics: “I choose this mortal life / lived in perfect symmetry / what I do / that will be done to me”
Notes: Keane’s third album takes the sound of synth pop and incisive, socially critical lyrics and creates and album worth more than the sum of its parts. With the “golden rule” as its moral center, “Perfect Symmetry” examines our historical moment with foresight and concern, building an argument in which everyone is encouraged to stop, consider, and foster change.
Sounds like: Pre-heroin Amy Winehouse or Petula Clark on downers
Best Tracks: “Melt My Heart to Stone,” “Chasing Pavements,” “Best for Last,” “Cold Shoulder”
Representative Lyrics: “Then I hear your words that I made up / You say my name like there could be an ‘us’ / I best tidy up my head, I’m the only one / in love, I’m the only one in love” (“Melt My Heart to Stone”)
Notes: Adele is the clear standout in the retro-soul crowd of singers. While Winehouse may have a great (yet inconsistent) talent and Duffy a lot of promise, Adele has cornered the market on the melancholic.
Black Kids, Partie Traumatic
Sounds like: 80s synth pop + 21st Century irreverence + 1/2 Olivia Newton John + cheerleaders
Best Tracks: “Hit the Heartbrakes,” “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You,” “Hurricane Jane,” “Listen to Your Body Tonight”
Representative Lyrics: “Don’t be scared to fall in love because you don’t like heights / Listen to your body tonight; it’ll treat you right.”
Notes: This was one of the two best musical recommendations I’ve ever gotten from a friend. I liked the album instantly and thought it was fun and interesting and well-crafted pop.
Blake Lewis, Audio Day Dream
Sounds like: Wal-mart’s version of Justin Timberlake with a Fisher-Price drumkit
Best Tracks: “How Many Words,” “Hate 2 Love Her,” “End of the World,” “1000 Miles,” “I Got U”
Representative Lyrics: “I don’t know where this is / I don’t know what I’m in / I can’t see down the road / But it don’t matter long as I got you”
Notes: I accept the criticism that will come with including this on my list, but I will say he’s here partly for not sucking (as a few people on this list are as well). Lewis has a good voice (beat-box aside) and the songs are straightforward pop music without many surprises…except for the meshing of hip-hop and 80s new wave sounds.
The Bravery, The Sun and the Moon [Complete]
Sounds like: Joy Division on Prozac
Best Tracks: “This Is Not the End,” “Every Word Is a Knife in My Ear,” “Fistful of Sand,” “Angelina”
Representative Lyrics: “I can touch your skin but you aren’t there / Frustration burns in me, it’s more than I can bear / I want to take you in my fist and squeeze the life back into you / But there is nothing I can do; you are gone.”
Notes: The Bravery have done something respectfully ballsy by retooling their The Sun and the Moon release as a “complete” set that includes inspired “Moon” versions of the original album. The collection is a truly brilliant example of instrumentation’s impact on music–both albums are great: the original versions are frenetic rock-pop with strong guitar riffs and clear vocals; the “Moon” version inverts these songs and replaces guitars with synths and pulsing beats, gurgled vocals, transforming the “sunny” album into something much darker and more mysterious. They are also amazing live.
Britney Spears, Circus
Included after handicap scores were calculated
Sounds like: The drugs are wearing off!
Best Tracks: “Circus,” “Unusual You,” “If You Seek Amy,” “Kill the Lights”
Representative Lyrics: “Mr. Photographer / I think I’m ready for my close-up / (Tonight) / Make sure you catch me on my good side / (Pick one)
Notes: Almost a kind of revision of Blackout, Circus builds on a more mature sound for Spears, although I suspect producers aren’t totally comfortable giving her carte blanche to manufacture her own album just yet. Britney’s here because the album doesn’t suck. It’s not as good as many others on this list, but it is proof that reinvention is almost as important as creation.
Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours
Sounds like: (Depeche Mode – goth) + Apple computer + the gays
Best Tracks: “Out There on the Ice Again,” “Heart on Fire,” “Lights & Music”
Representative Lyrics: “You don’t know what to do / There’s a game now; who’ll be there for you?”
Notes: Cut Copy has a sound fit for a Macintosh computer ad–tricky beats, ethereal vocals with a slight foreign accent. (All that’s missing is Juliet Lewis.) This is another “fun” album of danceable rock music, which to me is the height of our civilization.
Fall Out Boy, Folie à Deux
Sounds like: Fall Out Boy’s last album
Best Tracks: “I Don’t Care,” “America’s Suitehearts,” “What a Catch, Donnie,” “She’s My Winona”
Representative Lyrics: “I’ve got troubled thoughts and self-esteem to match / What a catch, what a catch”
Notes: Pete Wentz’s confessional yet flippant lyrics sung through Patrick Stump’s bellowing, rangeless voice continue to be the traits separating Fall Out Boy from their guyliner peers. While this album isn’t much of a departure from the recent classic Infinity on High, it borrows from other traditions like ska, ZZ Top, and even–yes–a little hair metal.
Heloise and the Savoir Faire, Trash, Rats, and Microphones
Sounds like: Pat Benatar starring in a remake of Foxes
Best Tracks: “Members Only,” “Datsun 208z,” “Disco Heaven,” “Po’ T”
Representative Lyrics: “Purple plastic lipstick bitches / butting in line is flipping our switches / and we’re too too cool with our frozen margaritas / chewing the fat, pulling on our heaters”
Notes: Frontwoman Heloise Williams has a voice of equal snarl and sigh. Coupled with the disco-rock beats of the band and nostalgic 80s lyrics, the band produced an album both amnesiac and prescient. Although it owes a great debt to its New Wave and disco predecessors, the album is purely theirs: fun, aggressive, and chic.
Hercules and Love Affair, Hercules and Love Affair
Sounds like: Scissor Sisters circa 1974
Best Tracks: “Hercules Theme,” “You Belong,” “Blind,” “Raise Me Up”
Representative Lyrics: “Now that I’m older / the stars should light up my face / but when I find myself alone / I feel like I’m going blind”
Notes: Laying vocals by Antony of Antony and the Johnsons over looping, inane beats takes what would otherwise be cotton candy fluff and makes it both poignant and mature. Hercules and Love Affair have a haunting (and haunted) sound only made stronger by their otherwordly connection to disco’s past (and to the trauma and sadness disco sought to obscure or cure).
The Hush Sound, Goodbye Blues
Sounds like: Honky-tonk-rock-pop-soul-etc
Best Tracks: “Medicine Man,” “The Boys Are Too Refined,” “As You Cry”
Representative Lyrics: “As you cry / I don’t wanna lie / and say I love you so / even though I don’t / There’s no easy way to heal the pain”
Notes: A genre-bending band, The Hush Sound cross all sorts of instrumental and vocal boundaries, including snarling guitars, tickled pianos, a male vocalist, a female vocalist, and thumping drums in their path.
Jack’s Mannequin, The Glass Passenger
Sounds like: Coming Out of the Dark, leukemia version
Best Tracks: “Spinnin’,” “Swim,” “American Love,” “Bloodshot,” “The Resolution”
Representative Lyrics: “You gotta swim / Swim for your life / Swim for the music that saves you / When you’re not so sure you’ll survive”
Notes: I love Jack’s Mannequin. Andrew McMahon’s creative child has grown into its own since the dissolution of Something Corporate–and with good reason. McMahon is an excellent songwriter. This album lacks some of the aggressive piano and guitar of his last work, but the change is for the better. These songs are more complex, documenting his treatment for and ultimate survival over his illness.
Kate Nash, Made of Bricks
Sounds like: Lily Allen’s poorer cousin
Best Tracks: “Pumpkin Soup,” “Foundations,” “Mouthwash,” “Skeleton Song,” “We Get On,” “Nicest Thing”
Representative Lyrics: “Then I’ll use that voice / that you find annoying and say something like / ‘Yeah, intelligent input darling, why don’t you just have another beer, then’ / And then you’ll call me a bitch and everyone we’re with / will be embarrassed, but I won’t give a shit.”
Notes: This album resists categorization but would probably exist comfortably among your pop albums. Nash’s odd lyrics and song subjects often belie their depth, addressing abusive relationships, unmet expecatations, doomed crushes, or pure longing.
Natasha Bedingfield, Pocketful of Sunshine
Sounds like: Radio Disney in a string bikini
Best Tracks: “Put Your Arms Around Me,” “Pocketful of Sunshine,” “Piece of Your Heart,” “Angel”
Representative Lyrics: “Who doesn’t long for / someone to hold? / Who knows how to love you / without being told / Somebody tell me why I’m on my own / if there’s a soulmate for everyone?”
Notes: Skating on dangerously cheesy ice, Bedingfield departs from her adolescent girl- and single girl-anthems to deliver what would otherwise be a steaming pile of crap. In her voice, with its reedy vulnerability and smoky experience, though, they become something else, excusing the teenage diary lyrics, which are more often about being happy than they are about being heartbroken. Or anything else, for that matter.
Panic at the Disco, Pretty. Odd.
Sounds like: Somebody spent their summer listening to the Beatles, and wow!
Best Tracks: “Nine in the Afternoon,” “She’s a Handsome Woman,” “That Green Gentleman,” “Northern Downpour,” “Pas de Cheval”
Representative Lyrics: “I never said I’d leave the city / I never said I’d leave this town / A falling out we both tiptoe around”
Notes: Quite a turn away from their last effort, but Panic do their Beatles tribute album well enough, bringing another singer up to meet Brandon Urie’s lead vocals (or take them over from time to time). On the tour this summer, the four bandmates seemed more like satisfied elder statesmen than a band supporting their sophomore album. While it’s not as good as their last disc, I give them props for taking risks and trying something new.
Sounds like: Avril Lavigne singing with AFI
Best Tracks: “Crushcrushcrush,” “Misery Business,” “For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optmistic”
Representative Lyrics: “No sir, well I don’t want to be the blame, well not anymore”
Notes: Paramore have cultivated a really nice sound by combing Hayley Williams’s melodic voice with their dissident punk-inspired guitar riffs. It took me a while to get into this album and I do think Hayley and Avril have more than a passing vocal resemblance, but where Avril defers to pop, Hayley absorbs rock music. Paramore are a tougher, rougher approach to Avril’s sound.
Katy Perry, One of the Boys
Sounds like: A drag queen singing Liz Phair’s lyrics over Benatar riffs and beats
Best Tracks: “One of the Boys,” “Waking Up in Vegas,” “Hot N Cold,” “Self-Inflicted,” “I’m Still Breathing”
Representative Lyrics: “I saw a spider, I didn’t scream / And I can belch the alphabet, just double-dog dare me / And I chose guitar over ballet / And I’ll take these suckers down cuz they just get in my way.”
Notes: I regret we were introduced to Perry through “Ur So Gay” and “I Kissed a Girl.” Even with the latter, I can get behind this album, though I always skip “Gay.” Perry’s voice alternates between a masculine growl and a lighter, more delicate upper register, and much of her album finds her trying to reconcile the pressure/desire to be feminine with her natural inclination to act a little more butch than that. Even in person, she takes on the cultural figure of the drag queen–almost comically representing a hyper-feminine look that belies (or supports) her dangerous “masculine” sexuality. I’m hoping a little maturity in her next album will show her detractors that she’s more than just a fad.
Rihanna, Good Girl Gone Bad
Sounds like: An R&B hit-making robot with dancer’s thighs
Best Tracks: “Disturbia,” “Shut Up and Drive,” “Push Up on Me,” “Rehab,” “Umbrella,” “Good Girl Gone Bad”
Representative Lyrics: “It’s gettin later baby / I’m getting curious / My body’s lookin at ya / I feel delirious”
Notes: Was it possible to turn on your radio last year without hearing one of Rihanna’s unending string of singles from this album? The standout track is “Disturbia,” which I’ve seen a wide variety of people get into. When this album hits the mark, it knocks it out of the part, but for as many great tracks as it has, there are three or four real clunkers. But it’s not to say that Rihanna won’t continue to be one of the most influential pop musicians of the next several years, especially the way she works at a tireless, frenetic pace.
Sounds like: Gwen Stefani & Björk made a baby
Best Tracks: “L.E.S. Artistes,” “Say Aha,” “Creator,” “Lights Out,” “I’m a Lady”
Representative Lyrics: “Go ahead / I’ll be your junkie / I’ll be deplete you can heap all rubbish here / Go ahead, now dump it on me / if I go quiet will the itch go down with me”
Notes: One of the oddest albums this year, Santogold’s debut disc sounds like a sonic kitchen sink (thanks, Björk) with a firm pop sensibility (Gwen) that incorporates elements of punk, R&B, rock, dance, and even reggae. Often at the same time. One of the oddest tracks, and a favorite, is “Creator,” an aural assault that pulses with jungle beats and feline snarls. Fun stuff!
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
Sounds like: Cape Cod meets Cape of Good Hope
Best Tracks: “Oxford Comma,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “Campus,” “I Stand Corrected”
Representative Lyrics: “Why would you speak to me that way / Especially when I always said that I / haven’t got the words for you / all your diction dripping with disdain / Through the pain, I always tell the truth”
Notes: I’ve never heard music that sounded so much like it belonged at an Ivy League University in my life, but this is that album. Although it reeks of brick buildings and grassy malls, Vampire Weekend maintain an odd connection to work music sounds like reggae and African-inspired rhythms and chants. The end result is something oddly engaging (many people, including myself, asked other people why we liked this band even as we liked it) and utterly unique. Bonus points for writing a song about grammatical style (“Oxford Comma”) without seeming smarmy.
Various Artists, OMFGG: Original Music from Gossip Girl
Sounds like: Veronica Mars Soundtrack
Best Tracks: “Do You Wanna,” “One Week of Danger,” “Got Your Number,” “Crimewave,” “We Started Nothing,” “Glamorous [Constance Billard Girls Choir version]”
Representative Lyrics: “Is there something that you wanted from her? / I want her legs, her body and her cash / And was there something that you needed from her? No. And if she’s playing hard to get I’m out the door.”
Notes: I wonder if the thicknecked dudes at my gym realize that half of the songs playing on LA Fitness radio were featured on a TV show aimed at seventeen year old girls. Or that they’re also playing on my little iPod. I’m not usually a fan of soundtracks, but this one would serve as a great party backdrop. Most of these bands were new to me, except The Ting Tings and Phantom Planet, but almost all of the tracks are catchy and fun–especially the girls choir take on “Glamorous.” That’s pure genius.
The Veronicas, Hook Me Up
Sounds like: The Donnas, if they lived in our decade and were popular in their high school
Best Tracks: “Untouched,” “Hook Me Up,” “Take Me On the Floor,” “Revenge is Sweeter (Than You Ever Were),” “In Another Life”
Representative Lyrics: “Even if I leave you now / and it breaks my heart / even if I’m not around / I won’t give in / I can’t give up / on this love”
Notes: This album will probably always remind me of getting settled in DC since it was in heavy rotation on my Metro stranger repellent device (iPod). It’s unabashedly poppy, but the twin sisters who front the band dabble in a little bit of everything, which is the recipe for great pop. You can sing it in the shower, you can dance to it, and you can play it on your guitar at home–it doesn’t get better.