Surprisingly, I listened to a lot of good albums this summer. I’m usually not an album person; I prefer to make mixes. However, I’m trying to change that, and it helped that my job allowed me to listen to music while I cleaned. I listened to a lot of albums that way, and it also helped that I was busy and couldn’t flip through songs. List behind the cut.
1. The Hazards of Love – The Decemberists
I guess we could call this my first “concept album.” I had listened to The Decemberists a bit before this, but was unaware of this album until my friend (who saw them at Sasquatch Music Festival) made me listen to “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.” She told me a bit about the story of the album (a girl, Margaret, falls in love with a shape-shifter, William; his mom, the Forest Queen, isn’t pleased, and a villain has set his sites on Margaret) and I thought it sounded like a Broadway show, so I knew I had to check it out. I was not disappointed. There are some insanely catchy songs (“The Rake’s Song” in particular), and some great riffs. What really makes this a bit different from other Decemberists albums is that it has two guest vocalists: Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, who plays the Forest Queen, and Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond, who plays Margaret. They fit their roles perfectly. Worden’s voice is a bit reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s, with more of a rock edge, and its powerful huskiness befits the somewhat evil Forest Queen. Stark has more of a high voice, somewhat small, but perfect for the young and rather timid Margaret; it’s more melodic, like birdsong. They attempt to add something to their roles that isn’t in the lyrics (I would say that the characters aren’t very defined, but it seems like that’s secondary to the music anyway).
Best Tracks: “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing,” “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” “The Rake’s Song”
2. 3 Rounds and a Sound – Blind Pilot
This is the debut album from Portland based band, Blind Pilot. With its acoustic-based sound and pensive lyrics, I’d say it leans a bit towards folk music, but with a nice, soft almost pop sound to it. While none of the tunes here are super upbeat, a few (“Go On Say It,” “One Red Thread”) add in nice drum beats and frenzied guitar strumming that are a nice change from the rather dreamy quality of the other tracks. All of them are aided by the pretty lyrics and sweet instrumentals.
Best Tracks: “One Red Thread,” “Go On Say It,” “The Story I Heard”
3. For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver
The fact that Bon Iver (a.k.a. Justin Vernon) wrote and recorded this album himself in a house in the woods definitely comes across to the listener. It has a rustic feel, and with Vernon’s ghostly vocals laid over top, it creates a great haunting atmosphere. The lyrics are very poetic (“Only love is all maroon,” from “Flume,” may be my favorite line), and rather mysterious. They could be interpreted different ways by different people at different times; it all depends on circumstance. But, either way, the pain that Vernon was feeling when he recorded it (he had broken up with his girlfriend and his band) is obvious. It’s the kind of album that almost makes one hurt inside just from listening to it.
Best Tracks: “Re: Stacks,” “Flume,” “Skinny Love”
4. Far – Regina Spektor
I’ve been a fan of Regina Spektor for years now; her albums got me through a difficult time in my life (I remember listening to the song “Somedays” in my room and just bawling). This latest album is pretty much in line with her previous release, “Begin to Hope,” although she seems to get more mainstream and accessible with every new album. Listening to one of her first albums, like “11:11,” it’s obvious that her sound is evolving. Yeah, she still does some weird stuff (like singing with a dolphin voice on “Folding Chair”), but that quirkiness is toned down a lot. I’m not sure how I feel about that; part of the reason I loved her music so much before was because it was so freaking weird. However, I do like the more mature and complex orchestration on this most recent album; back in her early days, it was mostly voice and piano, maybe a bass or something like that thrown in. It’s certainly not a bad effort, though, and hopefully it’ll introduce some less adventurous listeners to her and ultimately to her earlier work.
Best Tracks: “The Calculation,” “Machine,” “Dance Anthem of the ’80s”
5. Words Are Dead – Horse Feathers
Horse Feathers is a folk band that my friend introduced me to, otherwise I probably would’ve never heard them. I’m so glad she did, too, because they are awesome. With just an acoustic guitar, voice, cello, and violin (with the occasional saw – yeah, like the tool – or other string instrument thrown in), they have a really organic sound, like they grew their music instead of writing it. Despite the fact that there are never any drums on their songs, they still manage to be extremely percussive (staccato bursts of violin and cello and singer Justin Ringle’s unique voice and way of singing definitely help). Like Bon Iver, they have very poetic, thought-provoking lyrics. If I could describe this album in one word, it would simply be beautiful.
Best Tracks: “Finch on Saturday,” “Hardwood Pews,” “Falling Through the Roof”
6. Combat Rock – The Clash
Although I’m sure that this list would suggest otherwise, I can really get behind a nice rock song. The Clash is a band (duh) that I’ve always been interested in (“London Calling” is probably my favorite song of all time), but have never put the effort into really listening to. My dad had this album laying around, so I stole it and have been listening to it in my car. It has some iconic Clash songs on it, “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and those are probably still my favorite tracks on the album, although I loved “Straight to Hell” (which I realized was sampled by M.I.A. in her hit, “Paper Planes”) and “Overpowered by Funk.” I wasn’t the biggest fan of the songs like “Know Your Rights,” where Joe Strummer is speaking over the music more than singing. Still, a nice introduction to the band; I think I’ll probably try out “London Calling,” the album, next.
Best Tracks: “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Rock the Casbah,” “Straight to Hell”
7. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis
I’m a huge fan of Rilo Kiley, so frontwoman Jenny Lewis’ second solo album, “Acid Tongue,” was definitely one of my favorite listens of the summer. She got a bit of help from M. Ward here, and you can definitely hear a bit of his alt-country/folk influence. Although she is joined by guest artists like Zooey Deschanel, Johnathan Rice, and Elvis Costello, Lewis is never overshadowed. Her voice is original, smooth and deceptively powerful. She sounds like it takes her very little effort to sing as well as she does. Every time I listen to this album, I get a little sadder that I had to work the night she was performing nearby.
Best Tracks: “See Fernando,” “Carpetbaggers,” “The Next Messiah”
Other albums, which I won’t write about because they’re by artists already on the list:
8. House with No Home – Horse Feathers
Best Tracks: “Working Poor,” “Curs in the Weeds,” “Heathen’s Kiss”
9. The Crane Wife – The Decemberists
Best Tracks: “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” “O Valencia,” “Summersong”
10. Picaresque – The Decemberists
Best Tracks: “The Infanta,” “The Sporting Life,” “16 Military Wives”