Well, Riffers, this will be my last Top Ten for a few weeks as I’m leaving for a European Tour this coming weekend; yes, that’s right, Europeans will apparently part with their hard-earned euros (and zloty and koruny!) to watch me play CDs. Zut alors. So for this Top Ten, I figured I’d start the long, tortuous process of winnowing down a year-end “Best Albums” list by taking a look at the Metacritic Top Ten Best-Reviewed Albums of the Year.
Metacritic is a site that tallies up reviews from around the world of cultural criticism with a somewhat fallible mathematical formula, assigning points from 1 to 100 based on the grade given in the review. They’ve been adding up the points for the year so far, and their list is interesting both for its errors and its accuracy (for instance, hip-hop is noticeably absent from the top ten). Here’s their list with my thoughts and where each album might end up on my personal year-end list.
10. Robert Wyatt – Comicopera
The 62-year-old former drummer for Soft Machine famously lost the use of his legs in an accident in 1973, and found his voice as a solo artist in the ’90s. Comicopera is airy and jazzy, and Wyatt sounds delicate and emotional, almost like the reincarnation of Nick Drake. The album’s themes revolve around protest; protest against war, against civilization in general. It’s often quite beautiful and affecting, but also a bit scattered.
9. Battles – Mirrored
Prog rock is back, and it’s got techno in it! The New York combo sound distinctly British here in their ability to combine rock intensity with electronic experimentalism, and the album was appropriately released on Warp Records, home to Aphex Twin. But despite all that, it’s immensely listenable, with lead single “Battles” taking on a kind of Gary Glitter-style swagger and ending up in Diplo DJ sets mashed up with M.I.A.
8. Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Good vibrations indeed, this reverb-laden tribute to the major-chord psychedelic pop of Brian Wilson has something in common with the Magnetic Fields: it achieves its traditional-sounding warmth via decidedly non-traditional methods. This is basically the solo project of Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox, yet the sound is full and rich with harmonies.
7. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
A triumphant and grief-stricken album of plain-spoken dance music, Silver so perfectly defines its own place that it’s hard to imagine how we lived in its absence. Band leader James Murphy digs in the crates of classic disco, Talking Heads, and New Order, and created an album that holds together as such, despite the standout brilliance of many of its singles. The unlikely centerpiece, “Someone Great,” has entered the pantheon of melancholy electro classics like “Don’t You Want Me,” with its mechanical blips coalescing into a majestic tribute to a lost friend.
6. Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends
The indie-punk band has built a reputation as a blistering live act, and this album captures an intensity that’s infectious. The Fav were doing angular guitar rock before Bloc Party knew how to walk, and Friends has moments of “this is how it’s done” greatness. “What Would Wolves Do” is the highlight, a ticking, melancholy track with soaring guitar lines reminiscent of early U2, but they also wander a bit into muddy ballads.
5. M.I.A. – Kala
I’ve written enough about Kala here to fill a whole separate blog, but the album hasn’t diminished at all for me, even after months of listening. While its most powerful tracks are, basically, hipster mashups (“Paper Planes” sees M.I.A. singing Wrecks n Effect over The Clash, and on “20 Dollar” we hear the Pixies over New Order), the rest has an eclectic open-mindedness that redefines “world music” as a kind of fluorescent-colored agit-pop techno.
4. Patty Griffin – Children Running Through
I’ll admit it: this is the least-familiar album for me in the Metacritic Top Ten, and I’m having a hard time finding an entry point. Yes, I understand that Bonnie Raitt-style country singer-songwriters can be affecting and uplifting, and “Heavenly Day” has a simple piano melody that wouldn’t sound out of place in church. But I don’t go to church, and this just isn’t my thing.
3. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Amusingly enough, my personal feelings about religion are much more in evidence on the Montreal collective’s follow-up to the cathartic masterpiece Funeral. “Working for the church, while your family dies,” they spit out on “Intervention,” and it’s as much of a mission statement as any on this ambitious attempt to turn the band’s focus outwards. It’s often deeply affecting, but rarely reaches the heights of Funeral, and unsettlingly, the album’s greatest song, “No Cars Go,” is a remake of a track from their first album.
2. Radiohead – In Rainbows
That was fast: it’s only been out a few weeks and it’s already nipping at the heels of the #1 best reviewed album of 2007, only one point behind on the Metacritic tally. Amazingly, amidst all the hype about changing the music industry or whatever, the album truly deserves the accolades, managing to somehow feel both like a great leap forward for the eternally experimental combo as well as a comfortable settling into emotional territories that might seem cliché in less talented hands.
1. The Field – From Here We Go Sublime
How odd is this: an album of abstract loopy techno from German label Kompakt is the most unifying musical statement of the year? Really? It’s not even like most of the blippy stuff on Kompakt: the tracks are made up of almost-too-simple loops of tiny excerpts of other songs, so short as to be unrecognizable, except when it’s made explicit, like when “A Paw In My Face” breaks down at the end to reveal the guitar sample has been nothing other than Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” It’s often quite lovely, but as an audio editor by trade, I can’t help but feel that this all sounds kind of easy, like the accidental loops I’d stumble across while cutting up tracks for a commercial promo or something. Could the album’s status as the most basic of “found art” be part of its genius? Maybe, but it ain’t my album of the year.
Thoughts, Riffers? Your favorite albums of the year so far, and CDs that are way over- or underrated? Comments please…