Tired of seeing a certain kind of list – the very same albums, described the same way, year after year in different publications – our critic sits down to craft something special, or at least something different than a Metacritic rundown.
Thus, this unconventional, and probably crazy, format.
Not that I hate consensus – I don’t – but these are the albums I listened to the most, the ones that meant the most to me, whether or not they’re the quote/unquote best. I long ago decided I wouldn’t write objectively, considering that’s not how we interact with music.
Some of these albums you’ve probably heard – or read all about on another year-end list – so here they are again in their universal glory. The others, like Eisley, perhaps you’ll seek out, just because they’re really good, and maybe even different.
All of these albums mattered to me. Telling you why seems equally important.
My apartment, the office, and especially my car, and anywhere else I listened to music.
Cast of Characters
1. Once Soundtrack
A busker wearing his scruff on his sleeve. A stranger with a voice of gold. They meet just once, and everyone knows, their music is better together, forever. Picture them, hear them, as your most romantic self, perhaps at a time when you weren’t afraid to sing, and maybe you’ll discover the music in yourself. Meet them once; you won’t forget. The truest art they’ll ever create, the most real magic they’ll ever make, their music is simple, heartfelt, timeless – and still not crushed by the weight of such hyperbole. It helps if you yourself play guitar, or if you’ve ever been in love. The guy wears sweaters. The girl wears a scarf. Both of them walk with grim determination, but also with the bounce of hope in their step. Voices carry; chords are struck. Once is not, is never, enough.
2. Rufus Wainwright - Release the Stars
Ebullient, joyous, glorious, fey. Baroque, operatic, phantasmagoric, happy. A genius unbound from commercial expectations, he’s free to compose and perform his own fate, vamping on stage like the diva he is; twinkling, in his suit of mirrors, as if he were a star, as if he were the brightest light his music helps you reach. His honeyed voice engenders doubt – perhaps you want to be him, yes? The spotlight shines. You make a wish. He sings as if he’ll grant it.
3. Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklight
The girl next door you want to corrupt. The girl gone bad you want to hug. L.A. lady, blue jean baby... dancing in some smoky bar where indie kids grow up. Charming, flirting, teasing, seducing, she still sounds sweet and sorta surprised, the way her voice attracts attention, the way the men behind her play. She knows she can get whatever she wants, whatever that means, whatever the sound, cooing or purring or belting it out – so what does she want? A band? A boyfriend? A chance to make, and shake, some money? She sells herself, but she does it with conviction. Which only makes you want her more.
4. Eisley - Combinations
The house band of idealized youth. The very kids you wish you’d been. Cute, precocious, potentially unlimited, they’re growing up quickly before your ears. Amazing, astonishing, aspiring to greatness, they play as if their dreams are timed, as if they know how fast youth fades. It’s humbling, too, how nice they sound, how talented they clearly are, how lyrically wistful despite their youth – and oh, you condescend to them, and oh, you sell them short, just because you’re way too old and no one plays your songs. They’re not a band of young adults, they’re just an awesome band. That’s all. They’re not the former whiz kids yet. They’re living in their moment, now. They’re people you wish you could hear all the time, as happy as they make you feel.
5. Brandi Carlile – The Story
Country, folk, acoustic rock? She tries to write the truth she’s learned. No one knows how fierce she is. Until she opens her mouth to sing. Until she makes you listen.
6. Kanye West – Graduation
The guy who knows how good he is... at popping everyone’s expectations. A blend of spaceman, mall rat, and B-boy, he stomps to the beat of a different scratched record. A guy you sorta want to punch. But that would only stop the party.
7. Common – Finding Forever
Kanye’s older, wiser brother. Knows the importance of being earnest. Drops bon mots like a black Oscar Wilde. Consciously (?) rocks the conscious tag. Sounding smooth is what he does. Jealous, perhaps, but he hides it well. This dude brings the peace and love.
8. Lily Allen - Alright, Still
The kind of girl you shouldn’t fear, a girl with maybe more problems than you, the least of which is a penchant for reggae. Dancing, drinking, getting dumped, she’s an adorable sloppy mess. Picture her sloshed and stumbling, but hot, enough to where you’ll take her home, as long as she keeps that cute British accent. Plus, she tells a wicked joke. And it’s not like she’s Amy Winehouse or anything. She’s actually nicer than all of this sounds. But yes, spending time with her requires some finesse, a certain concentration to her brash yet pretty voice. Make her amusing, she’s one of the girls. Make her mean, you hate that chick. The line between charm and smarm is thin. To get it, you have to listen again, exposing the cracks beneath the veneer, the doubts beneath the bad-ass facade. Listen again, you kinda relate. Even if you’re not a chick.
9. Tori Amos – American Doll Posse
Quoted from the text: “I am an M.I.L.F., don’t you forget.” Albeit incomplete and lacking in context, it remains one option for playing this character. Feminist texts and wigs aren’t included; her sharpest tunes in years sure are.
10. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
You already know how this band’s supposed to sound, either from hearing them or from reading about them everywhere. And yet, the sheer size of their sound still surprises. Outfit them in military garb and nontraditional instruments. Give them memorable slogans for choruses. Listen, watch, enjoy. Repeat.
11. Fall Out Boy – Infinity on High
OK, you definitely want to punch them. One of these dudes is proficient in makeup; the others are better at selling catchy choruses. Remember the screaming, 12-year-old extras – and maybe yourself, if you’re not afraid to sing. Disregard the fact that you’re almost twenty-nine, a generation older than most of their fans. Surprise yourself by giving them a chance, and then by how often you play their little screeds. But only if you’re open to that kind of thing, and if your wrists are still intact.