CDs | Mike Rengel

cd-vampire.jpg1. Vampire Weekend | Vampire Weekend (XL)






1. Vampire Weekend | Vampire Weekend (XL)

Shove aside the funky aftertaste of initial hype and inevitable backlash. Vampire Weekend is a remarkably accomplished debut album, bringing an irresistible mixture of white-boy world beat, collegiate charm, chamber pop, jerky rhythms bouncing off of smooth melodies, and wry wit. It’s easy to sneer at something so unabashedly steeped in Ivy League privilege and upper class, Northeastern WASPiness, possessing all the "ambiance" of shopping at the Gap while listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland. Yet Vampire Weekend overwhelmingly resists indie-rock pretension by virtue of knowing exactly what it is and where it’s coming from. It’s a record that’s intellectual and fun. Most of all, knowledgeable, effortless songwriting and strong musicianship, much like Gap jeans, never really go out of style.

2. Elbow | The Seldom Seen Kid (Geffen)

Elbow specialize in connecting the dots that are the unspectacular, yet meaty, hours of the day, the type that are anything but glamorous but make up the bulk of life. The Seldom Seen Kid illuminates the magic and insight in the mundane, carried by the true soul in Guy Garvey’s husky voice. This is the band’s most complex, yet assured and accessible album to date, each song a veritable musical "kitchen sink drama," full of yearning art-rock angles, pop melody and pure, honest emotion.

3. Son, Ambulance | Someone Else’s Déjà Vu (Saddle Creek)

Most bands that look backwards to the 1960s zero in on the Beatles and the Stones. Both are major touchstones, for sure, but there’s so much more to the decade. Someone Else’s Déjà Vu lovingly fills in the blanks, melding buttoned-up pre-Beatles pop, samba and bossa nova rhythms, Simon & Garfunkel folk-rock, and a little bit of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd psychedelic freak-out with Son, Ambulance’s already strong piano-led confessional songwriting. It’s an album of romantic daydreams and quiet passion, subtle melody and surprising grace.

4. R.E.M. | Accelerate (Warner Bros.)

It’s always heartening to witness a favorite act reclaim its soul, doubly so when it does so not with a classicist rehash, but with something so vital. Accelerate is R.E.M. with a fire in their bellies for the first time in far too long. It’s not experimental, but it is the passionate rock record they’ve been threatening to make for years. It’s easily their best album since 1996’s underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, one with sharpened teeth and ready to pounce. R.E.M. instill great confidence in their future by closing out the decade as the polar opposite of the timid, uninspired band they’d languished as for most of it.

5. M83 | Saturdays=Youth (Mute)

Where most ’80s revivalism is uninspired aping, Saturdays=Youth is more of a love letter. It’s M83’s majestic electro-shoegaze filtered through the joyful lens of youthful nostalgia and an attempt to "make us sound like us, but if we were around back then." It’s fun, atmospheric, and expansive; the kind of album that envelops you in its depth and is perfectly encapsulated by its title.

6. Conor Oberst | Conor Oberst (Merge)

Considering that Conor Oberst basically is Bright Eyes, why even bother releasing a record under his own name? There’s no practical reason, but it’s symbolically resonant. In direct contrast to the often overcooked, druggy paranoia of Bright Eyes’ last album, Cassadaga, this disc basks in a liberated atmosphere, serving up unfussy, contemplative songs that breathe free. Simple, yet effective arrangements drive what’s essentially escape music—the sound of a psychologically cleansing road trip, or digging your feet into the sand of a sunny, remote beach where nobody knows your name.

7. Marillion | Happiness Is the Road (Intact)

Most middle-aged bands on their 15th album aren’t experimenting, they’re hitting the nostalgia circuit and milking past glories. Marillion have always been different, and still are. Happiness Is the Road is no exception, following Marillion wherever their muse takes them and offering up two albums’ worth of dreamy, metaphysical "eureka" moments. Happiness revels in quirky, jammy rock, inventive, melodic guitar, classic British pop and a dash of prog-rock grandeur tempered with oddball bits of reggae and an underpinning of electronic sequencing. Tying it all together is Steve Hogarth’s magnificently aging voice and a gloriously understated, English sense of humor. Hailing from the most unfashionable arm of our galaxy, Marillion remain one of rock music’s most idiosyncratic, best-kept secrets.

8. Sun Kil Moon | April (Caldo Verde)

A Mark Kozelek project is the musical equivalent of a windowless monolith whose interior holds a lush, inviting garden. His mumbly wordiness and use of drones and acoustic repetition make April a shuffling, talking-to-its-shoes project, a tough nut to crack. But once it’s been split open, it’s an expressway to Kozelek’s heart. The album is replete with the sadness and beauty inherent in the passage of time and shifting of place, using comforting melodies and astonishingly precise turns of phrase to raise the ghosts of bittersweet memories of family and lost love. It’s an album that’s initially off-putting and depressing as all hell, until time helps unearth the beauty and affirmation hiding beneath.

9. The Gaslight Anthem | The ’59 Sound (SideOneDummy)

It’s uncommon to encounter a band that so successfully plants one foot in the present and one firmly in the past. The Gaslight Anthem do this with no shortage of roaring punk guitars and thunderous drums, growling vocals, romantic, Springsteen-esque mythos building and hot-rod bravado, and an vital, unexpected touch of Smiths-style indie jangle. The ’59 Sound is, for all of its gruff toughness, an album with a secretly sentimental heart, one that’s equally able to get fists pumping in the air and put lumps in throats.

10. Coldplay | Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol)

Straight up, self-improvement is hard. It takes a lot for an act to look in the mirror, take honest stock and realize that even the biggest band in the world could be better. Plus, it helps to have a good teacher. On Viva La Vida, Brian Eno takes Coldplay under his wing and guides them into somewhat more adventurous territory, with the band doing their part to overcome their hammiest, most banal tendencies. The result is still get-the-crowd-singing-along "big music," but far more nuanced than usual from a band that normally paints in painfully broad strokes. Nearly every song tries something different, be it a wee bit of psychedelia, martial drumbeats, brand new guitar tones, or Chris Martin singing in a different register and ceasing to rely on his trademark falsetto. Let’s be real: This isn’t a sudden foray into death metal or minimalist electronica, but it’s a stellar set of songs from an underachieving band that’s finally doing its homework.

Honorable mentions:

Nada Surf | Lucky (Barsuk); Girl Talk | Feed The Animals (Illegal Art); Bloc Party | Intimacy (Atlantic); Fleet Foxes | Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop); Death Cab for Cutie | Narrow Stairs (Atlantic); Hot Chip | Made in the Dark (EMI); The Hold Steady | Stay Positive (Vagrant); Flight of the Conchords | Flight of the Conchords (Sub Pop)

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