Backbeat writers weigh in on the year's best national releases

Even with the staggering amount of outstanding local music released this past year (our annual Moovers and Shakers compendium is available online at, Backbeat writers somehow managed to make room on our playlists for an impressive number of imports. And although it shouldn't be a surprise by now, it's still eye-opening to examine these end-of-the-year lists and see just how varied our individual sensibilities are: Some of the more adventurous among us naturally gravitate to the noisier, more experimental end of the spectrum, while others are decidedly more poptimistic. Think of the following list as Heavy Rotation, the deluxe edition.

And for those of you who can't get enough of this sort of thing, you'll find many more year-end picks online, as well as end-of-the-decade lists and other music-related goodness. — Dave Herrera

A Place to Bury Strangers, Exploding Head (Mute U.S.). Splicing together the musical DNA of My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Big Black with driving industrial rhythms, this album is tidily summed up by its title. Dark vortices of razory sound crash into driving, tidal rhythms that guide but never quite contain the music's volcanic aesthetic. — Tom Murphy

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino). Even amid all of the drum loops, electronic samples and synth lines that mark Merriweather Post Pavilion, the record offers an undeniably organic and human feel. The effect comes largely from Animal Collective's stirring vocal harmonies, an element the band weaves over a frenetic set of studio effects. The resulting mix incorporates the best elements of the human and the mechanical. — A.H. Goldstein

The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You (Sony). Scott and Seth Avett have made the winding journey from North Carolina to the big time. With a winsome blend of folk, alt-country, bluegrass and pop, the brothers' latest is that rare effort that strikes the balance between studio polish and dusty authenticity. It won't be long before the yearning title track finds itself on a Levi's advert. — Nick Hutchinson

Bat for Lashes, Two Suns (Astralwerks). Undercurrents of emotional urgency lend each of these songs an immediacy and intensity to match the dreamlike air of the songwriting. Clearly tapping into the unconscious mind, Natasha Khan has crafted powerful songs of reconciliation between people and between the heart and mind. Poetic pop music for skeptical romantics. — Murphy

Bibio, Ambivalence Avenue (Warp). Ambivalence Avenue isn't an easy record to pinpoint — and that's what makes it interesting. Hopping from indie to funk to hip-hop, Bibio manages to maintain consistency and variation at the same time, a difficult task for any electronic producer. — Thorin Klosowski

Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (Fat Possum). Andrew Bird has come a long way since his first forays into neo-jazz and swing, and his experimentation with highbrow classical textures and emotive indie structures continues on Noble Beast. The album layers simplistic song constructions on top of Bird's impressive skills as a vocalist, a multi-instrumentalist and an expert whistler. — Goldstein

Black Moth Super Rainbow, Eating Us (Graveface). Few bands these days can combine the feel of '70s psych, '60s MIT experimentation and vocoder vocals into a cohesive, listenable whole, yet Black Moth Super Rainbow manage to do just that on Eating Us. Slightly more hi-fi than previous records, it's still warm and welcoming. — Klosowski

Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career (4AD). My Maudlin Career's Spector-via-Stockholm strings and bits of lachrymal twang provide the appropriate melodrama for Tracyanne Campbell at her most powerful and poignant. Campbell's never-better voice, droll-yet-vulnerable lyrics and crack band gave us one of the best songs of the year ("French Navy"), and solidified these Glaswegians as heirs to the Motown/Spector legacy. — Kyle Smith

Chinese Stars, Heaven on Speed Dial (Anchor Brain). Manic, demented and informed by a wicked sense of humor, this album sounds like it was influenced as much by funhouse mirrors and Cesar Romero's Joker persona as it was by anything strictly musical — except maybe a Devo song covered by the VSS. — Murphy

Nels Cline, Coward (Cryptogramophone). One of the most multi-faceted guitarists today, Nels Cline has shown that he can successfully keep one foot in the rock world (by playing with Wilco) and the other in the avant-garde. On this solo outing, he does some gorgeous stuff on acoustic, but he also freaks out a little during the six-song "Onan Suite." — Jon Solomon

Converge, Axe to Fall (Epitaph). Having established itself as arguably the most aggressive hardcore band ever with 2001's seminal Jane Doe, Converge scaled back the abrasion somewhat with its two followups. Nevertheless, while it's probably the most melodic of the band's efforts to date, Axe to Fall is still the aural equivalent of moisturizing with Drano. — Otte

Dan Deacon, Bromst (Carpark Records). Dan Deacon's MySpace page lists him as "Americana," and while the electronic beeps and boops of his music are far from the twangy warmth that term implies, there is something quintessentially American about his willy-nilly pastiche of influences. Bromst showcases Deacon at his weird best, which, despite its spastic quirkiness, occasionally reaches surprisingly soaring heights. — Otte

Dinosaur Jr., Farm (Jagjaguwar). With Farm, Dinosaur Jr. offers a strong statement about its continued relevance. The record's soaring guitar riffs, pensive vocals and speedy tempos refine the band's early work from the '90s. Indeed, songs like "I Want You to Know" and "Plans" aren't simply a rehash of the group's glory days as alt-rock pioneers; rather, they're an ideal musical evolution. — Goldstein

Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (Domino). So you see Bitte Orca's merits — wealth, a good family name, vocal arrangements that blew Grizzly Bear's right out of the East River — but you're not in love with it? Dave Longstreth understands; all he asks for is time and respect. With these, love for his batshit but fearsomely controlled vision cannot fail to grow. You'll see. — Smith

DJ Quik and Kurupt, BlaQKout (Mad Science). The fire of youth has given way to nonchalant mastery of their craft, and years spent with the West Coast's titans haven't stifled this pair's limitless creativity. Quik is especially mesmerizing in producing "Hey Playa!" and Kurupt matches him on "9x's Outta 10" with a flow so dense we still can't find a way out umpteen spins later. — Kiernan Maletsky

Fall Out Boy, Folie à Deux (Island). Time to reconsider these dudes. The Neptunes are on the boards, and Elvis Costello shows up for a line or two. That's not why the album is good, though: Costello doesn't really know what's going on, and Pharrell's best days seem to be behind him. No, this one's a winner because it turns out that Patrick Stump can write a hell of a pop song. "America's Suitehearts" is unstoppable. Seriously. —Maletsky

Fever Ray, Fever Ray (Mute/Rabid). Shorn of the dance trappings of her work with her brother in the Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson's music becomes even creepier on her solo debut, her bizarre tales of childhood and strained domesticity reminding us that Sweden is not all beautiful people and dance pop: It's also mostly dark for half the year. — Smith

Finn Riggins, Vs. Wilderness (Tender Loving Empire). Fascinatingly eclectic throughout, this is the sound of a talented band flexing its creative muscles with songs that weave together jubilant pop music, classical structure and an experimental edge. Artistically ambitious and playful, Vs. Wilderness hooks you with infectious melodies but keeps your attention with its imaginative songwriting. — Murphy

The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (Warner Bros.). Embryonic is the Lips at their psych-freakout best. Instead of being rebirthed again, Wayne Coyne and crew crawled into a dark and moist musical womb of sorts, where kraut-rock pioneers Can play the soundtrack to S&M films. It's bass-heavy and mastered super-loud, but it's still absolutely magnificent. — Solomon

Fruit Bats, Ruminant Band (Sub Pop). A group of girls sang along to nearly every song the Fruit Bats played at the Larimer Lounge last summer. It's easy to see why, since frontman Eric Johnson just writes inherently charming songs that are catchy as hell, even if they're a bit dark at times. — Solomon

Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport (ATP). Noise and dance are still in the early stages of their flirtation with one another, but this sophomore release suggests that a marriage of the two would Ambient techno? Grandiose as the former, hypnotic as the latter, this album could make us wish we hadn't wasted the term "big beat" on the Chemical Brothers. — Smith

Future of the Left, Travels With Myself and Another (4AD). Sure, it's ex-Mclusky. Sure, it's also face-searing rock music — but that doesn't mean it can't be intelligent, introspective or fun. Travels With Myself and Another is the soundtrack of the year for those who like to drink heavy, ride fast and bang hard. — Klosowski

Girls, Album (True Panther Sounds). By now you've heard the Beach Boys comparisons and the escape-to-San Francisco-from-a-cult backstory, which makes lines like "But what is life without a dream? And even I know dreams can still come true" not trite at all. Living is fun no matter what. — Maletsky

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (Warp). In the last year of the decade, Grizzly Bear has submitted the final word on "indie folk." Where do you go from here? The dudes have all the trappings: the warm instrumentation, the dulcet tones, the soaring harmonies. Yet somehow they also sound bad-ass, unafraid to actually wail. Jay-Z isn't just a fan for show. — Maletsky

The Handsome Family, Honey Moon (Carrot Top). The evocative lyrics and stirring string work of Brett and Rennie Sparks are in top form on Honey Moon, an album that seamlessly sews together unlikely ingredients. The two easily combine vintage country-and-Western song structures with abstract verses about sparrows and paper cups. The resulting hybrid feels heady and novel. — Goldstein

Handsome Furs, Face Control (Sub Pop). True love kicks ass, somehow. Dan Boeckner can never again be that dude from Wolf Parade. Not when he and his wife, Alexei Perry, are making music like this. Their passion is palpable and that drum machine is relentless, and this time they made it sound like house music with an urgent soul. — Maletsky

HEALTH, Get Color (Lovepump United). Sounding like a weird hybrid of late-'80s Voivod, '90s house music and something the characters in the movie Tron might listen to, this latest offering from HEALTH takes the band's noise rock of old into far more sonically interesting realms. The album's menacing shimmer evokes futuristic visions. — Murphy

Levon Helm, Electric Dirt (Vanguard). Helm's plaintive, Arkansas-bred voice helped to define the legendary sound of the Band. Several decades after he stamped his vocals onto the psyche of the Woodstock generation, and after fighting and winning a bout with lung cancer in 2002, Helm continues to sing with the same immediacy that first took us in. Don't miss his take on the Dead's "Tennessee Jed" and his own "Growing Trade." — Hutchinson

Here We Go Magic, Here We Go Magic (Western Vinyl). Clearly drawing on traditional African music, this debut album is a brilliantly conceived experiment, blending together disparate elements like drum machines with live percussion and Brazilian rhythms with synth pop and psychedelia. Hypnotic, consistently compelling and never short on creative soundscaping. — Murphy

Norah Jones, The Fall (Blue Note). On the fourth studio release since her 2002 smash debut, Come Away With Me, Jones is back with a soothing combination of heartache and redemption. Here she teams pleasingly with songwriters including Ryan Adams and Okkervil River's Will Sheff to what amounts to another winner. — Hutchinson

Mark Karan, Walk Through the Fire (Quacktone). This solo release from Mark Karan — a career sideman for acts as diverse as the Rembrandts, Jesse Colin Young and Bob Weir's Ratdog — was decades in the making. The pleasingly eclectic album, which features a vocal cut by the late Delaney Bramlett, takes in Karan's own material as well as classic covers and a vintage Grateful Dead interpretation. — Hutchinson

Kylesa, Static Tensions (Prosthetic). Overshadowed by sprawling releases from Mastodon and Baroness, this concise, punchy batch of precision-tooled sludge is the best metal album to come out of Georgia this year: refreshingly genre-agnostic, catchy enough to be a pop record, and heavy as anything else out there. — Smith

Manchester Orchestra, Mean Everything to Nothing (Sony). By bridging their earnest indie sound with slick rock production, howler Andy Hull and the boys steer the Orchestra toward success on this sophomore outing. From opening cut "The Only One" to the screamo-tinged contortions of "Shake It Out," the act reflects intriguingly on topics as diverse as religion, teen angst and friendship. — Hutchinson

The Mars Volta, Octahedron (Warner Bros.). With this album, the Mars Volta proves that it has plenty of nightmarish subject matter to fuel its darkly creative songs. From brooding instrumental interludes to masterful pacing and dynamics, the band has broken out in a new direction without losing its knack for imaginative musicianship and haunting lyrics. — Murphy

Matt Wilson Quartet, That's Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto). Matt Wilson is one of the finest drummers in jazz today, and on this disc, he shows off his supreme ability to swing like a madman as well as put a bit of a lilt on a ballad and lock into a groove. With his piano-less Quartet joined by a bassist and pair of saxophonists, Wilson really pops here. — Solomon

Mos Def, The Ecstatic (Downtown). Unlike his movie-star colleague Ice Cube, Mos Def has managed to stay surprisingly relevant, even a little menacing, in spite of the inevitable softening of his image on the silver screen. Even though The Ecstatic's excellent "Auditorium" wasn't the summer radio hit it should've been, Def's integrity will keep him a force in hip-hop as long as he wants to be. — Otte

Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come (4AD). Just when the well looked like it might have run dry, John Darnielle went and reminded everyone why the New Yorker called him the world's best non-hip-hop lyricist. His characters aren't mad anymore — maybe because now his characters are him and the people he loves. He needed an album or two to adjust to the new dynamic, but, oh, man, is he there now. — Maletsky

Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, Inspiration, Information (Strut Records). Astatke and the Heliocentrics don't let their love for experimentation derail the sterling horn lines, dynamic Ethiopian rhythms and bluesy piano runs on Inspiration, Information. Instead, all of these disparate compositional elements find a clear role in the ambitious mix. As a result, the band finds a way to blaze new musical territory. — Goldstein

Mumiy Troll, Comrade Ambassador (Ryko). Despite the Russian-language lyrics, this American debut from popular Russian band Mumiy Troll proves that great music is universal. Often lively and celebratory, the core of the album is a melancholy introspection that reveals emotional depths easily forgotten in the sweep of the sheer catchiness of its songs. — Murphy

New Riders of the Purple Sage, Where I Come From (Woodstock). It's been more than three decades since the New Riders first fused psychedelia and country (with a little help from Jerry Garcia), and on Where I Come From, the band still proves plenty capable of digging into a good jam and letting it all hang out. — Hutchinson

Phish, Joy (Jemp). Phish made a triumphant return to live performance in 2009, but the noodle maestros also distinguished the year by dropping a new platter of respectable aquatic ditties, including the dorsal-swaying "Backwards Down the Number Line" and the floating, acoustic-tinged title track. Now if the guys could just figure out how to save the whales... — Hutchinson

Chris Potter, Ultrahang (ArtistShare). While tenor player Chris Potter can swing with the best of them with his big, bold, Sonny Rollins-esque tone, Ultrahang finds the saxophonist exploring more angular, groove-based tunes à la Kneebody. Potter is in damn fine form, and guitarist Adam Rogers and keyboardist Craig Taborn also display some heavy playing on this outing. — Solomon

Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II (Iceal). Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II is a sequel to a fourteen-year-old album that sounds like a fourteen-year-old album. But that's what makes it great: It's hip-hop for people who love '90s hip-hop. Let's hope it isn't a last call to a bygone decade. — Klosowski

Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall (Matador). Last year's singles collection proved that Reatard could squeeze a hook or two into those minute-long punches in the face, and this year's proper debut is accessible enough that he might be paving a path to mainstream success. Or, you know, pissing off his bandmates so much that they quit, because you cannot be a reasonable punk-rocker. — Maletsky

Rock Plaza Central, At the Moment of Our Most Needing (Paper Bag). Although not as strong of an overarching narrative as its previous record, Are We Not Horses?, At the Moment... still relies heavily on narrative to push forward through its ups and downs. And while the name might suggest 'rock' as the genre, this record is far from it, which is a good thing. — Klosowski

Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11 (RubyWorks). The rumor mill had it that after its self-titled U.S. debut, Rodrigo y Gabriela's sophomore effort would take the duo back to its roots in thrash metal. That didn't happen, and R&G ended up sticking to its formula of flamenco-infused, hyper-fast acoustic guitar shredding for 11:11 — but with a formula like that, why mess around? — Otte

Rome, Flowers From Exile (Cop International). Lush yet heady, this album combines the romanticism of neo-folk with the rustic nostalgia of dark Americana and blends in elements of slowcore bands like Low and Red House Painters. The martial rhythms are not militaristic so much as reminders of life's ephemeral nature. — Murphy

John Scofield, Piety Street (Emarcy/PGD). Showcasing his lauded ability to slip deftly between jazz , blues and other genres, here John Scofield ventures into gospel. With help from some talented New Orleans musicians including George Porter Jr. (bass), the renowned guitarist reinvents several soulful standards, including a fine "Motherless Child," and throws a few of his own on the pile. — Hutchinson

Slaraffenland, We're on Your Side (Hometapes). This Danish quintet is just as innovative on record as in its insanely great live shows. And since most of Slaraffenland's members, who are each multi-instrumentalists, have been friends since childhood, there's a joyous and playful cohesiveness to their songs. There are elements of the familiar, but the group always manages to overpower them with something unique. — Solomon

Sonic Youth, The Eternal (Matador). At it for nearly three decades, Sonic Youth has released its share of first-rate albums, but The Eternal verges on greatness. Dynamic, bold, innovative and aggressive, this recording captures much of the band's visceral stage energy. It might just be Sonic's finest album in the past twenty years or so. — Solomon

Sunn O))), Monoliths and Dimensions (Southern Lord). Horns, strings and choirs bring some color to this bone-rattling duo's walls of feedback, while Attila Csihar's sub-Lugosi croak keeps things properly medieval. Certainly the hooded ones' least "metal" album to date, but also their most satisfying. — Smith

Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar). After the occasionally exhausting Random Spirit Lover, Spencer Krug reins in his more baroque tendencies just a bit here to remind us that he was one of the best songwriters of the decade, an unfailingly evocative lyricist whose arrangements can go from spastic to majestic and back again with perfect grace. — Smith

Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down, Know Better, Learn Faster (Kill Rock Stars). A marked thematic emphasis on the fallout of a bad breakup doesn't bog down Know Better, Learn Faster. Instead, Thao Nguyen uses the theme as an effective platform for her syncopated rhythms, her dynamic finger-picking styles and her plaintive vocals. Indeed, it's a breakup album that inspires foot-tapping and smiles. — Goldstein

Tom Waits, Glitter & Doom Live (Anti). Although he doesn't tour much, Tom Waits is still a hell of a showman, whether he's belting out tunes with his sandpaper-gruff pipes or delivering his hilarious banter between songs. It's all on display, in all its mad glory, on these live tracks recorded on last year's tour. — Solomon

White Rabbits, It's Frightening (TBD Records). Putting percussion at the forefront of their sound, the members of White Rabbits take the formula for indie pop and reinvent it without overtly borrowing from a great band of yesteryear. Instead, this collection of vital, brilliantly realized songs has made these guys a great band of the present. — Murphy

Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch). While Wilco's previous effort, Sky Blue Sky, was, for the most part, recorded live in the studio, Wilco (The Album) is much more layered. There's a lot more instrumentation and a lot more happening on the record, which is as expansive as it is majestic. — Solomon

Wolf Eyes, Always Wrong (Hospital). Greetings from Michigan. Here's a friendly reminder that despite all the sunny, escapist pop we heard this year, things do continue to suck. A lot. This veteran noise trio's groans, scrapes and fuzz blasts made for the perfect soundtrack to unemployment and (still-) endless war. — Smith

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz! (Interscope). The beauty of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has always been the band's ability to infuse just enough avant-gardiness into its pop to give you a sense of elitist satisfaction while you dance. In that sense, It's Blitz! is the band's most successful record to date. From the quirky opening synth jangle of "Zero," the disc grabs on to your feet and doesn't let go. — Otte

John Zorn, O'o (Tzadik). O'o follows in the footsteps of 2001's The Gift and last year's Dreamers, two of Zorn's more accessible albums. Considering that it was named after an extinct Hawaiian bird, it's fitting that there are elements of exotica and surf on O'o, which features the same duo as Dreamers, Marc Ribot and Jamie Saft. — Solomon


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