1. Cursive - The Ugly Organ
This is where Jeff gets to let out a big fat "I told you so." My first introduction to Cursive was the song "The Rhyme Scheme" off of "The Storms of Early Summer," back in 1998 or so. Unfortunately, the Saddle Creek bandwagon I jumped on was Bright Eyes' and not Cursive's, so I missed out on a lot -- including, at first, this gem. While some of the "oh, fame is so rough, art is so rough!" sentiment -- however genuine or jocular -- is tiring, the album succeeds in being a concept album without taking that onus too seriously. The instrumentation varies from sweeping, lush and haunting arrangements to a pummeling aural assault. The narrative songs, such as "Driftwood" and "Sierra," are the most successful with their sad, compelling tales. Plus, the Saddle Creek Chorus can sing me to nightmarish slumber anytime. Most solid, addictive disc of the year.
2. Steve Burns - Songs for Dustmites
Yes, yes, "Blue's Clues," etc. This guy is for real. Songs about science and love, nanotechnology and loneliness. What isn't lost in the wash of Lips-propelled buzz is the talent and depth that permates this solo debut.
3. Rufus Wainwright - Want One
Upon first listen, I rejected this disc outright for not being "Poses." Of course, I wasn't being fair. Nothing can be "Poses". But this, the first disc in a musical exploration of Wainwright sorting out his desires and needs, is pretty damn good in its own right, and features the same orchestral beauty and lyrical introspection that "Poses" fans fell for. But songs like "Vibrate" painfully illustrate that cellphones are not yet commonplace enough to be as acceptable songwriting material as, say, pens and paper.
4. Amy Rigby - Til The Wheels Fall Off
Don't know her yet? You will soon. Like Kathleen Edwards? Give this middle-aged, beer-guzzling, indie rocking wife and mother a spin. Her latest effort is just as deliciously blunt (see track five, "Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?") and empathetically vulnerable (see track nine, "Even the Weak Survive") as her earlier efforts, but the production and songwriting is tighter.
5. The Postal Service - Give Up
omg! wtf. Ben Gibbard, the poet of a generation's worth of doubts and insecurities, puts the brakes on the Death Cab and, together with Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel, throws us for a loop - literally - with this sublime electronic indie pop effort.
6. Fountains of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
As Adam said, yeah, it's not their best, but the good songs on it are REALLY good. 'Managers' suffers only from not knowing when to stop the album and relegate the extra tracks to B-sides, thus tremendous tracks like "Hackensack," the dark horse hit "Stacy's Mom," and the sweet ditty "Valley Winter Song" are diluted by the comparative drivel of "Peace and Love" and "Bought for a Song". Nonetheless, FoW not only solidly reclaimed their long-vacated throne of power pop prominent but also snagged a good chunk of mainstream audience, who are going "wow!" while we're like, "well, duh!"
7. Longwave - The Strangest Things
Yes, another band out of New York. But don't worry, it's not the latest Strokes clone. Longwave, threading strands of Idlewild and Interpol into their lush, accessible rock, released their sophomore album on a major label, and while they haven't broken out of the pack yet, they're due.
8. Loveless - Gift to the World
Finally, the antisocial rock band! These major label castoffs, including Dave Wanamaker and the darling-yet-bitter Jen Trynin, aren't trying to land a major label deal, or a nationwide tour, or much of anything really. Whatthey end up doing, however, is releasing a powerful, melodic album that will definitely rock you.
9. Belle and Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
I still cling tenaciously to "Tigermilk," but this album is great, with the catchy opener "Step Into My Office, Baby," the sweet "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love," and other very memorable tracks. I think it's the best B&S album I've heard since "If You're Feeling Sinister."
10. Radiohead - Hail to the Thief
Yes, yes, hype machine, omg thom yorke!!! etc., but this album finally achieves what we were promised (and not delivered) on the haphazard "Amnesiac". I'd even venture to say it's my fave since "OK Computer," but legions of "Kid A" fans would probably pummel me to death with Casio keyboards or something.
White Stripes - Elephant: I'm not going to spend anymore ink extolling this album to the high heavens, nor will I prostrate myself before the altar of Jack White. It's a great disc, enough said. Settle!
Guster - Keep It Together: The band branches out, and their experiments are successful for the most part. These songs have a way of crawling into your head and not leaving -- which is a good thing. Please see the entrancing harmonica solo in "Backyard," or Ryan's exposed choruses in "Come Downstairs and Say Hello."
Mates of State - Team Boo: The cutest duo in show biz 'twees along swimmingly, sticking to the formula, though you can hear them straining for more, which is encouraging. Nonetheless, this album is incredible fun.
Travis - 12 Memories: Most unmemorable, bland album I've heard in a while. I sold it a few weeks after buying it, knowing I'd never listen to it again. That's quite a step down from being everyone's darlings from across the pond. Tell me, why DOES it always rain on you?
Thorns - s/t: Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins, and Matthew Sweet collaborate, and this is all we get? Oh wait, I forgot, the project involves Pete Drog and Shawn Mullins.
Wheat - Per Second Per Second Per Second... Every Second: "Oh, we abandoned rewarding experimentation with electronic noise to produce the best pop rock album ever!" Come on, guys. I haven't accidentally seen you live three times to hear lines like "I met a girl I'd like to know better / But she's already with someone". "Raised Ranch"! "Raised Ranch"!
Barenaked Ladies - Everything to Everyone: The band everyone loves to love but hates to admit loving ambles down a lyrically vague and musically uninspiring path. Sigh.