Haunting vocals, bone-chilling harmonies and measured hipster-snubbing.
By Maria Popova
Today begins our “12 Days of Christmas” series of best-of lists. Every day between now and December 25, we’ll be publishing our favorite pieces of culture from the past 12 months — ideas, events, reading, apps and more — beginning with music. And just to throw out the necessary disclaimer, this is by no means a be-all-end-all or an attempt at universal tastemaking — we’ll leave that to the Pitchforks of the world — but, rather, just a highly subjective list of the albums that made us smile, cry or dodge repeated requests from coworkers to let go of the Repeat button. And, no, at the risk of hipster venom, we will not be including LCD Soundsystem‘s, Arcade Fire‘s or even, gasp, Broken Bells‘. So sue us.
It’s easy to attribute The Morning Benders’ utterly refreshing sound to their remarkable age — they’re practically teenagers. But something about their breathtaking blend of Berkley and Brooklyn makes them utterly enchanting. Big Echo did for 2010 what Noah and The Whale’s First Days of Spring did for 2009 and Fleet Foxes did for 2008 — quietly deliver tender, harmonic punches to your deepest gut.
For fans of Local Natives, Deerhunter, Mumford & Sons, Emiliana Torrini.
THE LADY KILLER
Two years ago, Cee-Lo Green made waves as one half of acclaimed duo Gnarls Barkley (the other half being the infamous DJ Dangermouse). This year, Cee-Lo not only milked the viral circuit for all it’s worth, but he also delivered one of the year’s most memorable albums. The Lady Killer is the kind of stuff you can’t get out of your head OR off your playlist. Powerful and punchy, Cee-Lo’s vocals don’t just meld with the beat, they ARE the beat, like blood throbbing through your very veins.
For fans of Black Eyed Peas, The Roots, Jurassic 5.
Besides being triumph over personal tragedy for Ra Ra Riot — the death of original drummer John Pike — The Orchard is an exercise in chamber pop perfection, complete with cello, cymbals and all stunning string magic that boosts the vibrant vocals to an even more mesmerizing place. It’s the record that got the most play in our iTunes this year, showing no signs of the usual wear-and-tear and ear fatigue that music overdose tends to inflict on an album.
For fans of Vampire Weekend, Le Loup, Metric.
Easily our favorite act at SXSW this year, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ unique brand of 60s revivalism shines with full foot-tapping, head-bopping, booty-shaking glory in I Learned the Hard Way. It’s Amy Winehouse meets Motown, without the drugs and the bad hair, flowing between sweetness and indignation just like love itself does.
For fans of Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, She & Him, Cee-Lo Green.
Glasser easily has the most haunting sound we’ve heard in years. From the entrancing drum beats to Cameron Mesirow’s soul-binding vocals, Ring is the kind of record the sound of which you imbibe and get drunk on, losing yourself in its sonic rabbit hole like Alice in a vertigo-inducing Wonderland.
For fans of Bat for Lashes, School of Seven Bells.
It’s been a good year for West Coast bands. With their spellbinding vocal harmonies and enchanted rhythms, LA’s Local Natives may just be the new Vampire Weekend. Gorilla Manor will kiss your mind with its salty lips and leave the aftertaste of the ocean on your breath, then walk away quietly, leaving you restless and longing for more.
For fans of Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, Anathallo.
13 MOST BEAUTIFUL
Commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum, singer-songwriter duo Dean & Britta wrote and recorded 13 original scores and classic covers for Warhol’s little-known silent films — black-and-white portraits of cultural icons like Nico, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Ann Buchannan, Freddy Herko and Dennis Hopper, shot between 1964 and 1966. The result was the two-CD gem 13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests — a deluge of rich guitar strums and dreamsome, melodic honey-vocals, with a kick of head-bobbing beats in just the right places. We reviewed in full here.
For fans of The Love Language, The Velvet Underground, The Swell Season.
INTERPRETING THE MASTERS
It’s rare for a tribute album to make a best-of list. (Ours, at least.) But The Bird & The Bee‘s superb tribute to the great Hall & Oates, Interpreting The Masters Volume 1: A Tribute To Daryl Hall And John Oates is in a league of its own. The band’s siguature 80’s revivalist sensibility already seems like a perfect fit, but rather than merely covering the iconic songs, they truly make them their own. Inara George’s soft and sensual vocals flow with the chill-synth arrangements to a captivating effect, breathing exuberant new life into the beloved dusty classics.
For fans of Hall & Oates (d’oh…), Belle & Sebastian, A Fine Frenzy.
Yeasayer have been — quite rightfully — described as “musical magpies.” Odd Blood, their sophomore album, more than substantiates this claim with its psychedelic spunk, paradoxical blend of vocal apocalypticism and chirp, and hypnotic instrumentation. Ambling Alp was positively one of the stickiest tracks we heard all year.
For fans of MGMT, Animal Collective, Radiohead.
WRITE ABOUT LOVE
For nearly 15 years, Belle & Sebastian are among the most prolific indie bands of all time. After a four-year hiatus, Write About Love was welcomed with a polarized response as some longtime fans found it, for lack of better words, terrible. We, however, fall on the other end of the spectrum and think it delivers the same kind of perk-perfect vocals and immaculate chamber pop we’ve learned to love. It is, ultimately, happy music. And we could use a bit more of that.
For fans of She & Him, The Smiths, Love, Nick Drake.