10. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
For some reason, it took a few listens to really take to this one. I remember reading, earlier in the year on the Metacritic forums, that contributors were somewhat divided in whether or not to embrace Armchair Apocrypha's more guitar-based approach. The violin, Andrew Bird's primary instrument, while still featured, is not the primary emphasis, nor is his trademark whistling. But, these elements are all there, as are his cleverly odd lyrics with more than occasional scientific references, and they all come together to create another wonderful and cohesive collection of songs.
This is one of those albums that is so consistent that, it seemed everytime I listened to it, I changed my mind about my favorite songs. In the end, though, I'd say that "Imotosis", "Simple X" and "Scythian Empires" were the tracks that most frequently stood out, the latter two being among the songs with a greater emphasis on Bird's beautiful whistling.
9. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
I really thought my admiration of Sam Beam and Iron & Wine had run its course. The debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, was a masterpiece of stripped-down acoustic indie-folk. Nick Drake comparisons were thrown around loosely but not undeservedly. His work that followed, though, failed to live up to my expectations, partly because he had already perfected his formula, but also because the material just wasn't as good. The collaboration with Calexico, In the Reins, provided some hope, but I couldn't help but feel that Beam and Co. had run out of steam.
As it turns out, Iron & Wine have continued the momentum gained by In the Reins with their second best record yet, The Shepherd's Dog. Benefiting perhaps from the influence of Calexico, or from the fact that Beam replaced almost every member except himself, this album gets the full band treatment and pulls it off extremely well. While it still doesn't stray far from the original aesthetic of Iron & Wine, it is easily their most diverse record and I wouldn't even question anyone who considers it their best.
8. Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover
Spencer Krug is quickly climbing the ladder as one of my favorite musicians. If not for last year's Shut Up I Am Dreaming finishing at #11, this could have been the third straight year that an album on which he was featured made the top ten. Regardless, this is quite impressive, given it has all been accomplished in the post-downloading era.
That's what I've decided to call the time period from 2005 on. Just as Major League Baseball has the pre-segregation and post-segregation, and, of course, the pre-steroids and post-steroids, eras, music has pre- and post-downloading. Since the availability of massive amounts of music has become much more prevalent in this time period, making the top ten takes on greater meaning.
In the post-downloading era, only The Hold Steady, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird and one other artist have made the top ten twice. Actually, that's quite a few, considering it's only three years we're talking about. Sunset Rubdown just misses that distinction, but no one has figured quite as prominently in all three years as Spencer Krug has, with Wolf Parade's Apologies to the Queen Mary being the third album I'm referring to.
7. Two Gallants - Two Gallants
Two Gallants' last album, What the Toll Tells, was good, but the singer's voice was even a little grating even for my taste. So, after a few too many listens, I grew a little tired of it, although I still honored it in my top 50. The songs on this, their self-titled third album, while not necessarily earning better reviews from the critics, are so good, in my opinion, that they overcome the same pitfall. In fact, the nature and subject matter of these songs make Adam Stephens' voice a perfect fit.
I've certainly listened to a lot of music that has addressed the subject, but this has to be my all-time favorite breakup album. It so exquisitely captures the typically competing feelings of bitterness, longing and regret that I considered sending a copy to a friend who ended a six-year relationship this year. But, that would've been risky, so I didn't. Still, if I were him, I would have found comfort in this album, as strange as that sounds, although I probably would have done so while drinking. So, I guess it's a good thing that the only breakup I experienced this year was from a 2+ month relationship.
6. The New Pornographers - Challengers
I'm not sure what it is that fans of this band are so disappointed with on this album. The formula has changed a bit...the music seems to be inspired by a mellower brand of pop than its more powerful predecessors. A.C. Newman claims it is a salute to early Roxy Music. I don't know enough about that band to really say either way...I'd be more apt to say I hear a little nod to E.L.O., although I'll admit that I seem to throw around that comparison a little too often. Regardless, all the ingredients that make everything New Pornographers sound so infectiously catchy are still here, and it makes for another brilliant album.
I've never been a fan of Dan Bejar, or his main band, Destroyer, the indie darlings that they are. I've always loved The New Pornographers despite him, on the strength of Newman's material, not to mention Neko Case's compelling voice. Maybe one of the factors that makes this album so great to me is that I actually really like Bejar's contributions, even to the point that I'm considering putting one of his songs on my year-end mix.