When the best-of-the-year lists started to appear a month or so ago, I despaired of coming up with enough content for one of my own. That's why I devoted my Zeek slot to the past decade instead. As New Year's approached, however, I realized that there were plenty of albums I wanted to praise and, what is more, ones that were left off most of the lists I'd been seeing. So I set out, belatedly, to compose a list of my own. Here it is, a few hours late, but supplemented with links to enhance your reading pleasure:
• Neko Case, Middle Cyclone -- Although I doubt whether Case will ever make a record that will displace Furnace Room Lullaby in my personal rankings, I think this superb album is superior overall. It's more consistent from start to finish. And her songwriting has never been better. Plus, I feel about her the way Gimli felt about Galadriel. Except that I forgot to ask her for a lock of her hair on my night of fannish rapture.
• The XX, XX -- The missing ingredient in so much "alternative" music? Sex. But not here. If the Young Marble Giants had tumbled down the Stax rabbit hole, this is the music they might have made. The perfect soundtrack for the aberrant marriage of flesh and chrome. Minus the vinyl upholstery, thankfully.
• Tortoise, Beacons of Ancestorship -- Maybe it was the circumstances under which I wrote about this record, up all night after finding my cat had been killed by an owl, but it slipped past my post-rock defense and showed me a passion that I'd previously found lacking in this band's work. Even now, I can't listen to it without being transported into the state of mind that consumed me that sad night.
• Yas, Arabology -- The thrill of hearing electronic pop music à la the early 80s sung in supple Arabic is reason enough to take the plunge. But you'll stay in the delightful waters long after the novelty has worn off. While there are plenty of nods to acts like Yaz(oo), the Human League and Depeche Mode, this debut ranges more widely than those touchstones suggest.
• The Field, Yesterday and Today -- I can't help but think of this record as Axel Willner's response to LCD Soundsystem's Sounds of Silver. Both albums break significant new ground while staying true to precedent. And that means sticking in a groove far longer than seems prudent without ever becoming tedious. I love writing to this one.
• Califone, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers -- This band befuddles me. I am frequently awestruck by the way they make the negative space of folk music audible. But there are times when I am put off by the lack of melody that such inverted form entails. Tim Rutili's gravelly drone doesn't help matters, either. In the end, though, the frequency with which I have turned to this record for sustenance makes its presence on this list a must.
• The Swell Season, Strict Joy -- While I can't imagine why a backlash against the film Once or its soundtrack would be necessary -- few pictures have done a better job of following through on the modesty they promise -- I got the sense that this album was the victim of one. It took me a while to get around to hearing it. When I did, I was surprised by both its stylistic range and emotional depth. Aside from Neko Case, whom I love for reasons that exceed the bounds of wholesomeness, this was my favorite Starbucks-marketed record of the year. Yes, that says a good deal about the music and even more of the people who purchased it. But I am not ashamed to confess temporary membership in that set.
• Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs -- Although Dinosaur Jr.'s Farm got better notices, this album made more of an impression on me initially. Maybe it was the catch-all format, which ranges from neo-Motown to meandering guitar excursions or the fact that Ira and Georgia sing winsome duets. The band was superb when I saw them in October, too, which helped to reinforce my sense that I'd sold them short in the past.
• Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul -- This record, the product of an intriguing collaboration with DJ Danger Mouse and David Lynch, is almost too easy to like, both because it followed The Gray Album into commercial limbo and because the many cameos provide something to satisfy most alternative tastes. That said, there are enough tracks, like "Just War" with the Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys and the title track with the sadly departed Vic Chesnutt, that have burned themselves into my brain that I must include Mark Linkous' latest melancholy offering on my list.
• Oneida, Rated O -- Furious and cerebral in equal measure, this ambitious throwback project -- a triple album, friends -- would have lasted me through the year if it had been my sole new acquisition. A powerful reminder that the spirit of prog rock still "geht um," as The Communist Manifesto puts it. Plus, writing about this record and the Yes concert that inspired me to muse upon it for Zeek was one of my best music-related experiences of the summer.
• The Foghorns, A Diamond as Big as the Motel 6 -- While my affection for the conjunction of country and rock is as strong as ever, I've become more finicky over the years. This low-budget, lower-publicized affair, shared with me by a dear friend from the band's native Seattle, moseyed its way to the bulls-eye of my pleasure zone with surpising efficiency.
• Open Strings: (compilation) -- I immediately fell in love with this remarkable project, in which the first disc offers a rich selection of Middle-Eastern string music from the 1920s -- the decade when the modern music industry came to the region in earnest -- and the second features heterogeneous responses to that archival provocation. It's almost impossible to tackle "world music" from an Occidental perspective without committing egregious errors of judgment, but this album comes as close as I've seen to negotiating its way through the post-colonial minefield unscathed.
• Beirut, March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland -- Although I'd heard friends express great devotion for Zach Condon's work, it didn't really register in my consciousness until I decided to sample this album at one of Zia's listening stations. Like Yas's Arabology, Condon manages to conjure the best of 80s synth pop without advocating ghost worship.
And now it's time to contemplate opening the cava I have been saving for far too long, a mental exercise that will probably result in my falling asleep having done nothing to mark the arrival of 2010 aside from finally completing the list you just read. Happy New Year!