Mostly dominated by foreigners, with only a trio of American artists (St. Vincent, Telekinesis!, and Girls) making the list, this year's top 10 albums underscores the Janus-faced trends in "indie" music this year: the look forward with the continuing rise of "indietronica," the so-called indie dance genre, and a look backwards with the revival of lo-fi sounds such as surf rock and 60s garage.
Destroyer - Kaputt
I put this on the list after a single listen. Seriously, it's that good. And it gets better with every listen. Dan Bejar (also part of the Canadian super-group The New Pornographers) creates a sound I shouldn't like by satirizing all the elements he pulled together to make it. The album is defined by a sort of lite jazz flavor with a full-fledged horn section and everything, very 80s and very much the sound of the suburban SUV crowd. But the lyrics aim a sharp, sardonic wit right at the heart of America's obsession with consumption and fame whores. In a year where the $25 million farce wedding of Kim Kardashian received more coverage than either the deaths of Gaddafi or Kim Jong Il, Destroyer hits all the right notes.
Cut Copy - Zonoscope
Oh, Cut Copy. How I love you guys. I think I saw them a total of 3 times this year. Maybe only twice. But every time was a booty-shaking good time. Not every song on the album hits but when they do, it's pure dance fun. It may just be the Australian accent, but something about them affects a very Men at Work vibe. They also win the first runner-up for cheesiest dance moves on stage behind Canada's Diamond Rings.
The Weeknd - House of Balloons
Man, this guy rounded out the year by releasing a third free, full-length mixtape. I don't know if the sleazy, sex and drug crazed persona portrayed throughout these 9 songs is just a character or these are autobiographical tales from a date rapist. I wouldn't want to run into this Canadian artist downtown at night but listening to him recount his exploits the next day set to r&b beats is pure bliss.
St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
What can I say, I love Annie Clark. She blends such muscularity on the guitar with deft lyrics. This time around, she's more overtly sexual. It's a great one.
Telekinesis! - 12 Desperate Straight Lines
This is the only band who breaks the "don't listen to them for 48 hours before the show rule." Michael Benjamin Lerner's "band" (he plays all the instruments on the album and only tours with others) is pop fun distilled into its purest form. Telekinesis! covers the same lovelorn, lovesick terrain as your basic top 40 crowd but without all the hackneyed cliches that make pop so boring and predictable.
Young Galaxy - Shapeshifting
Another indietronica album on this list. But whereas Cut Copy is mostly up and active and happy, Canada's Young Galaxy dwells on more introspective planes. Listening to Shapeshifting is like waking up to find yourself still moving around in a dreamscape thanks to Catherine McCandless' vocals. You know it's all still real but you're seeing things, love, friends, the party, the world, through a fog and haze that makes it both more alien and more familiar. For some reason, I can't help thinking his is what Stevie Nicks would have sounded like if she started recording 40 years later.
I Break Horses - Hearts
I can't quite put my finger on what it is about this Swedish duo that I like so much. Perhaps its the complex and rich digital soundscapes of the title track Hearts and Winter Beats. Or the more traditional gauzy shoegaze aesthetic of Wired. But whatever it is, it added up to be one of the biggest surprises for me this year.
Veronica Falls - Veronica Falls
The last album I added to this list is London's Veronica Falls. It's bizarre and poppy and goth and absolutely wonderful. From the silly, morose opener Found Love in a Graveyard, about an affair with an apparition, to closer Come On Over, which rattles and jangles with some of the same lo-fi moves that have been so popular both here in the States and across the pond in England in recent years, this debut album bristles with exciting electricity. Bad Feeling and Misery are both great cuts, too.
Dirty Beaches - Badlands
A Taiwanese-born Canadian now taking up residence in California, Alex Zhang Hungtai plays a kind of lo-fi, early rock n' roll that's immediately recognizable and yet wholly strange. I got the pleasure of seeing him, and it's just him, on tour in London over the summer. His guitar snarls, pounds, cries, and whoops with all the frenetic, blues-inspired energy of the year rock broke.
Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
I didn't rank this list, but if I had, there's no doubt about the number 1. This San Francisco duo's album is unrivaled in its overall quality from beginning to end and sheer number of absolute ear worms that bury themselves deep into your psyche and emerge at random times as the tune you're humming while standing in line at the grocery store. In a year dominated by bands throwing back to the 1950s and 1960s with lo-fi, to the 1980s with synth pop textures and dance beats, and in the year that the Holy Grail of genius unreleased finally found a release date in Brian Wilson's SMiLE Sessions, Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost easily stands out. It's a kind of kitchen sink melange of an album, with everything from Pink Floyd-ish lush instrumentals to simple, quiet, soulful tunes like Forgiveness represented. There isn't a single dominating style except for evocation of other styles. An experiment like this often gets panned as being too loose, too unfocused but here it succeeds magnificently. The perfect album in the age of digital downloading singles instead of buying records and hitting shuffle on an iPod that contains everything from Lionel Richie to Li'l Wayne and Silver Apples to The Apples in Stereo.
Neon Indian - Era Extraña
Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Twin Sister - In Heaven
Honestly, I haven't had much exposure to the first full-length from Long Island's Twin Sister as an album proper instead of a collection of singles to rate it as an album. But what I heard I thoroughly enjoyed. We'll see in a few weeks if their formula translates well to the stage.
Washed Out - Within and Without
Cloud Nothings - Cloud Nothings
Wye Oak - Civilian