10. Chromatics - Night Drive
Lots of people seem to be picking the Italians Do It Better comp for their year-end lists, but I prefer the proper album put out by label members Chromatics. Everything you could love about the new sound of italo disco is here. There's creepy horror flick undertones and a tremendous feeling of loss and despair, but there's hope and tenderness as well. The album plays out at a cinematic pace, beginning with an opening "scene" where a woman calls her lover to say she's headed home, but going on a drive first, hence the album title. The mood reminds me quite a bit of M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us, but the ambiance here is far more sparse, and paranoid. Often the beats and guitar ticks feel like they're stalking the vocals. It helped that I kind of got into Italian horror soundtracks this year, thanks to Justice's sampling of Goblin's "Tenebre," and Night Drive operates in a similar way to those with the exception that you feel like you're getting the whole package here instead of a piece of a much larger artwork as with a film score. Despite how great it is, I was considering placing this album lower on the list, but then I gave "Let's Make this a Moment to Remember" (a truly moving song) another good listen and decided this album belongs at least in the top 10.
9. The Tough Alliance - A New Chance
Having picked up on TTA last year via a remix of "Leg 7" I expected more along those lines this year. I was surprised to find out that there are actually vocals in in all the songs, and that they actually have a back catalog consisting of a number of albums and EPs. The album A New Chance is their best work to date though. And even though I had this downloaded and liked it, I'm glad Kyle (and those crazy Swedish bloggers) kept prodding me to listen to it because it brought me back to it. In turn I deepened my appreciation for the album and it has made the leap into my listening cycles rather than becoming something that I would probably never come back to after half-listening to it maybe once. Sad, yes, but that's usually the way it goes when I'm sifting through a new chunk of downloaded material. TTA rose to the top though, as most really good stuff does, and reeled me in with their sweet pop hooks and mesmerizing instrumentation. They sound a lot like fellow countrymen Studio with more vocals and more of a pop music sensibility. Whether you choose to believe what has written about TTA and their stage antics and what their lyrics mean is totally up to you, but I greatly enjoy the ambiguity of the bands true intentions and the way myths about them get built up simply by them not doing any press or in any way overexposing their "personas." Hmm, maybe that's kind of a theme for me this year.
8. Radiohead - In Rainbows
This is the funniest thing I've ever seen Radiohead do. For a band that's had the spotlight on them for such a long time, to still be making great music and having fun is quite the feat. It had been quite a while since album number 6 was released, and I'd all but forgotten that Radiohead would ever put out new material. Then the there was a countdown which turned out to be a tremendous hoax, and everyone's hopes were dashed...until like 2 days later when the real band announced a real album that we could all have real cheap. Oh, it turned out to be pretty good too. The upbeat tracks soar with perpetual motion, and the slower songs (most of them) are some of the most sensuous and intimate in Radiohead's career. The album highlights for me are the beginning and the end. The sample of the children's cheering exclamation followed by stittering AFX-style drum machine drills in "15 Step" is one of my favorite musical moments of the year, and "Videotape" is almost inexplicably glorious. These two songs sandwich the rest of the nothing-but-quality songs that make up the rest of the album. Here Radiohead is showing that they can do guitars and they can do electronics and they can make them all fit together with songs that were written across many different years and have all of those elements function towards a cohesive whole. That's impressive. Is this the last Radiohead album? Who's to say, but it would be a helluva way to go.
7. Boys Noize - Oi Oi Oi
As hard as Justice can rock, Boys Noize can rock harder. Clearly I feel Oi Oi Oi works as an album, just not the same way Justice chose to do it this year. Oi's pacing as an album is more like a rampaging bulldozer than an up-and-down roller coaster ride, which fits perfectly with the heaving distorted synth waves and consistently pounding basslines of which it consists. A lot of people criticize Boys Noize for reusing samples and sounds from his remixes in the songs on this album, but I think he was trying to give everyone the remix compilation they wanted, but have it be in the form of totally original tracks. For example, "Let's Buy Happiness" definitely takes the signature sound from the BN remix of Teenage Bad Girl's "Cocotte," but the actual song is rather different in terms of its structure. It's probably not as good as the remix, but that was one of BN's strongest reworks, so it's just plain tough to top. The way he used the "dance dance dance" line from his remix of Shiny Toy Guns in "& Down" is an example of how well it can work though, as that becomes one of the strongest tracks on the album and bests the remix at least twice over. All this talk is so technical and responsive to what other have said though. The sound of Boys Noize is exceedingly thrilling in its own right. Avoid the hype. Follow the Noize.
6. Battles - Mirrored
As others have said, this album hasn't aged all that well this year. Had it come out this month rather than so many moons ago, it definitely would have been number 1 or 2 on this list. Having genuinely enjoyed the B, C, and TRAS EPs from Battles, I was eagerly awaiting this album's release. I was not disappointed. Yeah, they added lyrics, but they just use them as another sonic element. As someone who grew up listening to mostly instrumental electronic music, this is a stylistic decision that I appreciate. Having been weaned on vocal pitchshifting by The Knife last year, the helium-induced squeals on the likes of "Atlas" make perfect sense. There's something very cold and calculated about the way the songs are put together, very outworldly, but strangely alive. It helps hold everything together when you have as talented a drummer as Battles has (helps to have a background in Metal too). I actually like the way everyone in the band seems to get equal time here, often divvying up who's turn it is to play by single notes at a time. The interplay between bandmembers is apparent and thus we get a sense of the infrastructure of what it took to make the record. This is illustrated further by the band's two excellent (and I mean excellent) music videos this year: "Atlas" and "Tonto." I actually don't know of another band that's doing anything like this, which is pretty, ya know, unique.