Mojave 3: So they decided to rock it a little harder this time around, and by all accounts, it worked. The standout tracks are stellar, and the songs that would normally merit only a listen or two actually become the album's draw. Bonus points for the album art, which distinctly reminds us of that art-kid in 7th grade's doodles. (A-)
Beck: Aside from our general "eh" response to Guero, Beck plows through with another batch of consistency in Beckdom. This might not be the best work of his career, but the dude still seems to be on top of his game and making music that is more interesting than almost everything else out there. (A-)
The Pipettes: Having finally gotten his hands on a copy of We Are the Pipettes, Mister Toaster proceeded to fall madly in love with their pop mastery. Tracks like "Pull Shapes" and "Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me" never fail to get us out of our seats (or, more accurately, singing in public with our headphones on). The madness that is Pipettes is highly endorsed. Even on the clunkers (and there are a few), the clear lack of pretension wins us over. (A)
M. Ward: Sure, we'd been enjoying M. Ward tracks we'd nabbed over the past couple years, but we were truly won over by his performance in Nashville in September. Post-War might not yield a lot of No. 1 singles, but the album plays like a pair of already-broken-in jeans feels. (A-) >> Highlight: "To Go Home" (Robert Johnston cover)
The Mountain Goats: Somwhere along the way John Darnielle got lonely. And dragged a few dozen of us with him and his new vocal approach - relying much more on a delicate falsetto that made its way onto a few tracks on The Sunset Tree than his typical straightforward vocal gait. It's not his best work, but it's hard to deny his prowess as a songwriter. We just wish there were a few more tracks we could bob to. (A-)
The Long Winters: Far and away, this was our favorite surprise find of the year. We'd heard a bit of these guys in the past and always dug what we'd heard, but on Putting the Days to Bed the band proves it's one of the most original and consistent indie rock acts out there. The art of writing a pop melody has advanced yet again. (A) >> Highlight: "Hindsight"
The Hold Steady: Looking back, the Toaster feels no shame in our premature declaration of Boys and Girls in America as the No. 1 album of the year. Craig Finn and Co. bring the house down in a way that complements Finn's compelling lyrics, recurring characters and themes of boozing, sexing and drugging. The sinning aside, this is an album about what it's like to be young. And it nails it. (A+) >> Highlight: "Stuck Between Stations"
Smoosh: Eels' opening act and Death Cab for Cutie friends Smoosh have warmed our hearts and won us over. Under ordinary circumstance (read: if Sufjan put out an album like this), it'd probably get a solid B, which is pretty remarkable considering these sisters were 12 and 14 when they recorded Free to Stay. (A-)
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: (A-)
Cat Power: (A-)
Neko Case: (A)
The Elected: (A)
Belle and Sebastian: (A+)
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs: (A-)
Camera Obscura: A solid album with Belle and Sebastian-esque song stylings that strays only occasionally from where we'd like to see it go. (B++)
Be Your Own Pet: "Adventure" is a classic and the album plays so fast and fun that we see why the reviewers have fallen in love with these teenagers. But occasionally BYOP starts to grate...and, well, no amount of hype or youth or happy sunshine can beat that. (B)
Snow Patrol: Man oh man, when we first rooted ourselves among D.C. indie rockers, all they could breathe was how freaking cool Snow Patrol is. So, naturally, we were excited to hear Eyes Open. Without much reservation, The Toaster can say it's a solid album with a few excellent songs ("Hands Open," "Set Fire to the Third Bar," etc), but some moments are greatly over-reaching and overbearing in a way that Coldplay can be on occasion. It's no biggie, just not or deal. (B)
The Decemberists: After swearing our undying love for them, the Decemeberists managed to find a way to underwhelm us. Not that The Crane Wife is a bad album; to the contrary, it's probably among the best of the year. But expectations are expectations, and Picaresque set the bar awfully high. (B+)
Sufjan Stevens (The Avalanche): Even his outtakes! Even his outtakes! (B)
Ben Kweller: Just as Ben Lee did to us last year with Awake Is the New Sleep, except probably not as egregiously or completely, Ben Kweller is slipping into some adult contemporary cocoon. And there are quite a few clinkers among only a handful of keepers. Still one or two songs rank among the better he's ever written, which is why he still earns the grade he does. (P.S. You don't get as many brownie points these days for playing all the instruments on your album, especially when your band would have actually made the album better...) (B-)
Laura Veirs: (B-)
The Arctic Monkeys: (B+)
The Concretes: (B+)
The Streets: (B)
The Weepies: (B+)
Pearl Jam: (B)
Tilly and the Wall: (B++)
Gnarls Barkley: (B)
More end-of-the-year reviews to come next week...stay tuned.
Happy xmas, folks.