1. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope). Critical consensus suggests that the members of TV on the Radio are some sort of interstellar academicians. But really, they're just a bunch of arty fellas from Brooklyn hellbent on making compelling music. Ascending Cookie Mountain is challenging thanks to the dense, unsettling backdrops created by guitarist/producer David Andrew Sitek. Fortunately, the penetrating melodies of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone blaze a trail to the top and reveal some stunning vistas along the way.
2. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time (Sub Pop). Everything All the Time is achingly beautiful from start to finish. From the first wash of guitars that introduces the album, to the plaintive arpeggiated intro of "The Funeral" that seamlessly swells into sweeping grandeur, to austere ballads like "Part One" and disc closer "St. Augustine" that spotlight Ben Bridwell's (ex-Carissa's Wierd) helium-pitched vocals, Band of Horses' debut is the most exhilarating listening experience of the year. Giddyup.
3. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant). Led by frontman Craig Finn -- who delivers dependably engaging narratives with a threadbare, Beat-poet-like delivery -- the Hold Steady has outdone itself on its third full-length. This time out, the arena-sized riffs are even Thinner, Lizzy, thoughtfully augmented by swaggering piano and organ lines. As Finn spins the ballads of this year's also-rans and otherwise romanticizes various outcasts, his mates brazenly indulge their affinity for bygone rock. The result: Boys and Girls is an instant classic.
4. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, The Dust of Retreat (Artemis). Although The Dust of Retreat was introduced to the masses this past spring by Artemis Records, the outstanding debut from this Indy outfit was originally issued on the Standard Recording imprint in 2005. Regardless, the act's folksy chamber pop still sounds as fresh today as it did then. Understated orchestral flourishes perfectly complement Richard Edwards's beguiling compositions, which are as charming as his tuneful croon -- whether he's ruminating about love being an inkless pen or meowing (no shit!) like a house cat.
5. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (Capitol). The Decemberists have always come across as a bit, um, precious. But on this, its major-label debut, the band seems...aw, who am I kidding? Only the decidedly erudite will appreciate Colin Meloy's subject matter (a Japanese folk tale) or the fact that he sings with an accent that makes Jeremy Enigk sound like Merle Haggard. Nonetheless, Meloy's songwriting is solid, and there are enough interesting, organ-heavy prog moments to make the pretense palatable.
6. Gomez, How We Operate (ATO). I never really cared for these cats, who seemed interchangeable with the rest of the endless parade of thumbsucking messy-hairs from across the pond. But dang if Gomez didn't put together a nice one here. The perfect Sunday-morning-coming-down record, Operate is gentle and engaging. The trio of vocalists shines on everything from tranquil acoustic numbers such as "Notice" and the Nick Drake-owing "See the World," to semi-brooding, bass-driven tracks like "How We Operate," to Brit-pop janglers like "Girlshapedlovedrug."
7. Kevin Devine, Put Your Ghost to Rest (Capitol). It's not hard to see what Capitol saw in Former Miracle of 86 frontman Kevin Devine. His burnished tenor and phrasing so evoke Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard that if the Cabbies were ever to strike, Devine could step behind the wheel in a pinch. Devine himself cites Elliott Smith as a touchstone, even going so far as to tap Rob Schnapf as his producer. When the rubber meets the road, though, Devine has his own way with words and a penchant for crafting memorable, heartrending tunes.
8. Brightblack Morning Light, Brightblack Morning Light (Matador). Brightblack Morning Light is the product of Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes. These Alabama-bred tree-huggers loaded up the truck and moved to Northern California, where they lived in tents and put together an album that the term "psychedelic" doesn't even begin to describe. Judging from the rambling, reverb-drenched vocals that drift aimlessly above the smoldering haze of organs and drowsy guitars before evaporating, these freaky folkers definitely smoked some of those trees --- or something, bro.
9. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino). Earlier this year, the Arctic Monkeys were on the tongues of tastemakers and (ack!) hipsters everywhere. The hype machine was stuck in overdrive, and I swore I wouldn't fuel that funny car. But in the end, I just couldn't resist. Drawn in by the disheveled, frenetic bedlam of "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "Dancing Shoes," I finally bought into the spunky, tangled, three-chord rock-and-roll swindle, and now I can't get the monkey off my back. Sucker? Guilty as charged.
10. She Wants Revenge, She Wants Revenge (Geffen). There are plenty of reasons I shouldn't dig She Wants Revenge. For starters, the act's sound is completely derivative -- and obviously so. I mean, a song titled "Tear You Apart"? And the skuzzy, minimalist electro come-ons seem too calculated, in a Hot Topic-goth sort of way. In spite of all this, though, there's something oddly riveting about a band that can deliver lines like "She's in the bathroom/She pleasures herself" with a straight face.
Upbeats and beatdowns: For broke, sentimental saps like me who get wistful when they hear the first few bars of "Do They Know It's Christmas?," there's a worthy cause this holiday season. Homeless for the Holidays, slated for Friday, December 22, and Saturday, December 23, at the Toad Tavern, will feature performances by Rubber Planet, Buck Wild, King for a Day, Robert Eldridge, Something Underground and Prayata, among others. And 100 percent of the proceeds will go to the Denver Public Schools Educational Outreach Program, which is geared toward helping homeless kids and their families.
For the second year running, Rainie Kelso -- aka the "Royal Mouthpiece" of Maris the Great and VP of the Lowry Optimist Club of Denver -- has teamed up with Planet guitarist Brice Hancock to put together the show, which raised more than $1,400 last year. Kelso hopes to double that amount this time around; any other venues that would like to contribute a portion (or all) of their door charges to the effort on those two nights should contact her at [email protected]. On the Record