This is a highly unscientific, highly subjective look at some records which, in my opinion, were overlooked. This is not to say that they did not receive critical praise: it’s just that these records somehow were not talked about as much at the annual “end of the year” retrospective pieces.
1) Sigur Ros – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
I don’t know why album is not talked about more in critical circles. Sigur Ros changed their sound on this album, especially in the first half, to a more accessible, poppier sound, while the second half of the album retained the epic/cosmological/prog/spiritual aspect of their older albums. This album sounds great, as it mixes both the new and the old, and usually critics fall over themselves praising Sigur Ros. Nevertheless, this is an excellent album.
2) Aimee Mann – @#%&*! Smilers
There are not many other people working in the industry today that can write a song better than Aimee Mann, not to mention her impeccable voice, which, in this album, has acquired a deeper tone that complements her usual lilting phrasing. Plus, no one can write concise but insightful character studies of people in various stages of defeat and resignation quite like Aimee Mann. Also, this album has a different sound, as it heavily focuses on keyboards and rhythm, with almost no electric guitar. I guess this album was overlooked because consistency does not wow, but these songs stay with you. Is it her best album? No, that title belongs to Bachelor No. 2, but this album has some very strong songs.
3) Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun
I think no one will disagree with me that Fleet Foxes are the critical darlings of this year, but ask yourselves this: would there even be Fleet Foxes if not for Brian Wilson? The answer is a definite no, because Fleet Foxes’ sound is the direct progeny of Brian Wilson, and pretty much all indie pop albums in general. Therefore, I find it ironic that Brian Wilson’s album this year did not receive a lot of attention. Sure, it’s not as monumental as Smile, but then again, what can possibly be? Nevertheless, Brian Wilson remains a genius of melody, and he shows the youngsters a thing or two about musical arrangement.
4) David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
What do you get when you put two eccentric musical mavens together? A secular gospel record, that’s what! While not as radical as their earlier collaboration, this record possesses a self-assured grace. And of course, with David Byrne, the lyrics are never what they seem. And Brian Eno can still twist knobs like it’s nobody’s business. Plus, applause for both of them to embrace the new distribution model by allowing fans to pay a small fee for the digital copy of the album while the hard copy is being pressed.
5) Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
This is Conor Oberst’s “mature” album, as it finds himself settling nicely into his niche: that is, writing lyrically smart, melodically engaging songs about heartbreak, personal liberation, and social commentary. And hey, his singing voice even improves compared to before. It’s not an opus, but it is a very well executed record.
6) Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV and The Slip
Getting clean and sober has done wonderful things for Trent Reznor’s productivity, as he released two albums’ worth of material in a single year, a feat that in the old days would take at least a decade. I lump these two together not only because of their chronological proximity, but also because they are experiments for Reznor to test out his distribution model. Freed from his major’s contract, Reznor decided to pull a Radiohead and release Ghosts for free with an option to purchase the hard copy, and he released The Slip for a very small fee. Ghosts show that Trent Reznor has tremendous skills in the studio, while The Slip remains solidly enjoyable. They won’t match The Downward Spiral, but these two albums should definitely satisfy your noise cravings.
7) Spiritualized – Songs in A&E
This album isn’t quite as expansive and epic as Ladies and Gentlemen, but its more stripped down sound better reflects its creator’s near death experience. So if you feel like contemplating Life, Love, and God, and if you prefer to contemplate these things at the same time, listen to this album. This is the spiritual cousin to the David Byrne album, as both deal in large, spiritual themes. Another secular gospel record, if you will.
Again, all of these albums received pretty good critical appraisals, but somehow they are overlooked at the year-end retrospectives. And sometimes, the only way these records are heard is through those retrospectives. While none of these albums is a masterpiece, they are nevertheless highly enjoyable. And if you like music, you should check them out.