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Our critics make their picks for the best albums of the year

Just like all other rags, the Weekly is home to resident music nerds who feel the need to make lists of their favorite albums each year—not the ones they think are going to matter 20 years from now, or the ones they think are the most groundbreaking, but the ones they simply couldn't stop listening to this year.

Here is the first round in a two-part series.

Gene Armstrong

(in alphabetical order)

Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop)

The third album by this Baltimore-based duo represents shoegaze at its finest, dreamy and edgy at the same time. Classic pop-song sensibilities rise via The Beatles and the Beach Boys, but the influence of 4AD bands such as Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil is also apparent. It's the sound of crumbling buildings and blossoming love.

The Bird and the Bee, Interpreting the Masters, Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (Blue Note)

Inara George and Greg Kurstin use their timeless electro-lounge sound to cover the ultimate pop-rock duo. The results are faithful to the originals, while still sounding fresh and inventive. Their interpretation of "Sara Smile" is sublime.

Breathe Owl Breathe, Magic Central (Hometapes)

The Michigan-based chamber-folk trio finds magic in the mundane, leavening charming song stories with gentle rhythms, aching melodies and more substance than you might initially think. Best love song of the year: "Dragon," a fairy tale about the doomed epistolary affair shared by a dragon and a princess.

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul (Capitol)

This bittersweet psychedelic pop triumph also serves as a tribute to the late Sparklehorse impresario Mark Linkous, who passed away in March. He collaborated with Danger Mouse and a stupendous cast of guest singers (from the Flaming Lips to Suzanne Vega to David Lynch) on a project almost too beautiful for words.

Das Racist, Shut Up, Dude (independent release)

The Brooklyn trio satirizes the tropes of rap music while celebrating it, tossing in stoned logic, pointed social commentary and pop-culture references so kaleidoscopic that you may need footnotes. This is one of two great albums released by Das Racist this year; both are available as free "mixtapes" on the Internet. It contains the underground hit "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell."

Galactic, Ya-Ka-May (ANTI-)

Working in the musical melting pot of New Orleans, this amazing band blows the doors off with a joyful combination of jazz, funk, second line, Creole and hip-hop music. Guests range from legends Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint to gender-bending Big Freedia and crunk-style rapper Cheeky Blakk. "Cineramascope," featuring Trombone Shorty, is revelatory.

Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me (Drag City)

A three-CD set by a cult-favorite singer-songwriter—she of the fairy-sprite voice and classically trained harp skills—doesn't seem like the most obvious choice for a Top 10 list. But Newsom's solid sense of songcraft and her talent for creating edgy arrangements make this a masterpiece.

Sade, Soldier of Love (Sony)

After 25 years, Sade is a pioneer, her now-classic style of exquisite heartbreak and desperate desire influencing many of today's neo-soul chanteuses. She took 10 years between studio albums, but still nails it, slipping from blissed-out funk to heady R&B revivalism, and nodding to hip-hop, Latin and Caribbean music.

Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (Young God)

On the first Swans album in 14 years, singer-songwriter Michael Gira leads the band in rumbling sonic assaults and delicate folk-formal melodies, demonstrating his obsession with the sacred and the profane, finding a moral center in the pollution of human chaos.

Thrift Store Cowboys, Light Fighter (independent release)

These Fort Worth country-rockers trade in heartfelt lyrics and dark undercurrents. The songs range from galloping to contemplative, and are embellished with violin, pedal steel, banjo and accordion. Singer-songwriter Daniel Fluitt steps aside so fiddler Amanda Shires can sing lead on two tracks. Produced by Craig Schumacher at Tucson's Wavelab Studio.


Michael Petitti

(in order of preference)

1. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge)

From its lush angst to its shimmering beauty, and even through its bouncy disco grooves, The Suburbs was a series of pleasant surprises. Under the weight of expectation, and when most of us were least expecting it (following the middling Neon Bible), Arcade Fire managed to deliver an album of innumerable heights and immense depth.

2. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)

A solipsistic musician manages to turn his personal demons and public therapy sessions into the year's most mind-melting, grandiose statement. Even when Kanye overreached, like on the swollen yet sublime "Runaway," he outpaced the competition. Also, it's hard to imagine another album that could make any combination of Bon Iver, Elton John and Gil Scott-Heron work.

3. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor (XL)

This group of cranky, smart youngsters enveloped its grand statement in fiery bombast, drunken balladry and sprawling epics. Although they tied their ennui to the Civil War and New Jersey, their throttling rock was universal.

4. The National, High Violet (4AD)

Packed with surrealistic, droll observations ("Summer lovin' torture party," anyone?) and delicately crafted, stunningly potent songs, it would be easy (but unadvised) to start taking these guys for granted.

5. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts and Crafts)

Inexplicably overlooked, this Canadian musical posse may have topped themselves with this collection of grungy guitar thrillers, languid, breezy jams and sparkly dance tunes. They sing against big oil, endearingly for masturbation and heartbreakingly about abuse—without getting silly or maudlin.

6. Vampire Weekend, Contra (XL)

An album of airy, bratty, driving pop, executed with more class and wit than their critics want to grant them. The music indulged calypso, reggae, Afro-pop, new wave, ska and pop without hitting a false note.

7. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam)

While Kanye was busy reinventing hip-hop, Big Boi was perfecting it. This is a throwback to old school hip-hop, funk and soul; Big Boi was cutting when he needed to be, yet always smooth. Despite the label drama and questionable guest list, this album was a cohesive, celebratory statement.

8. Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (Fat Cat)

Building off the naked, honest sorrow of the album before, this Scottish group realized there were even greater heights and more pathos in struggling rock anthems and resigned pop gems. This album also succeeds by wrapping its caustic and/or falsely proud lyrics in equally bold presentations.

9. Wolf Parade, Expo 86 (Sub Pop)

Recorded mostly live, Wolf Parade discovered that muscle, not quirks or finesse, was their strength. Whether Dan Boeckner was flailing his guitar or Spencer Krug was choking off his vocals, they provided listeners with countless entertaining and unhinged moments.

10. Grinderman, Grinderman 2 (ANTI-)

Nick Cave is a dissenting and frank voice without boundaries. There are no politics beyond the carnal buried in his mad, swooning, throbbing tunes, but he's backed by a ferocious band, and it all sounds just fine.


Jarret Keene

The best albums I heard this year were all self-released and available for download online. Maybe the old music industry is stone-cold dead, or maybe today's artists simply want more control over their final product. Whatever the reason, here are the CDs that moved me to tears, rage and joy—and made me proud to support truly independent (as opposed to "indie") artists.

Best Metal: The Sequence of Prime, Virion (thesequenceofprime.com)

Earlier this year, Kansas graphic designer Brandon Duncan unveiled his one-man thrash/doom/industrial project, earning rave reviews in just about every metal magazine being published today. A concept album about man's increasing vulnerability to plague and disease, Virion is the sound of Revelations, the Earth finally shrugging off its most aggressive parasite. The scintillating riff that powers "Dandelions in Spring" is at once liberating and harrowing. A breathtaking debut, and it's only a matter of time before Metal Blade signs this boy genius.

Best Power-Pop: Kirby Krackle, E for Everyone (kirbykracklemusic.com)

Seattle nerd-rock duo Kyle Stevens and Jim Demonakos, who made my 2009 Top 10 with their self-titled debut full-length, somehow found time to write and record 11 more songs, and this time, they maxed out their credit cards on actual pro studio time. If the blisteringly bright "Ring Capacity" doesn't end up blasting its way into the end credits of the forthcoming Green Lantern film, there's no Justice League on this planet. "On and On" takes on the blues of The X-Men's Wolverine and delivers a hook sharper than the dude's claws. E for Everyone gets an A-plus for Everything.

Best Indie Rock: Minor Suns, Minor Suns, (minorsuns.bandcamp.com)

Three of the best Las Vegas alt-rock guitarists, who've been performing in bands since their early teens, finally teamed up to create an unrivaled supergroup already being pressured by labels to sign. The six-stringers (Jesse Harvel, Ryan McIlvaine and Jared Luke) split songwriting duties, and the result isn't the hodgepodge you'd expect. Rather, the songs complement each other, from the desert-fried ambient-country of "Rising Sun" to the drum-smashing post-punk introspection of "Close Second" to the cubicle-enslaved catharsis of "Medium Crisis." I say go with Matador, fellas.

Best Punk: Chambers, Old Love (chambersrock.com)

Whodathunk that the U.S. answer to British hard-core success Gallows would hail from New Jersey? Whether one-upping Motörhead riffs with the eardrum-ravaging "Ripper" or killing anything that moves in the oblivion-obsessed "The Nest," Chambers doesn't spare any ammo; it's all expended at point-blank, in-your-face range. Simply put, Old Love is full-on basement riot-punk rock designed to blow your expensive woofers and pretentious Bose speakers to smithereens. Whatever you do, don't let your girlfriend hear "Fuck It Out," or she may start looking at you askew.

Best Electronic: How to Destroy Angels, How to Destroy Angels, (howtodestroyangels.com)

Technically an EP (yet a satisfying 30-plus minutes in length), this collaboration—involving Trent Reznor, his wife Mariqueen Maandig and dark ambient programmer Atticus Ross—achieved something quite profound by pushing the goth-industrial audience that NIN has long nurtured into grown-up yet still crepuscular torch-song territory. Cinematic to a fault, this is bad-mood music for people with good taste in electronic music.

Best Local: The Early Black, Life:Love :: Love:Murder (facebook.com/early.black)

This shoegaze trio from Tucson fashioned a monstrous, massive, super-loud guitar album adorned with pop melodies that, in my opinion, bested anything else made locally. "Melting Face" will do just that to you should you opt to crank this disc. Once the single-note guitar refrain of "No One Cares" burrows its way into your mind, you'll be reliving the feeling Ride's Nowhere gave you 20 years ago—goose pimples and an adrenaline rush. The Early Black transports listeners to an earlier time in music history when walls of amplifiers shook us to the very marrow.

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