When Funeral landed in 2004, taking Arcade Fire —instantly, unexpectedly— from unknown Canadians to stadium institution, the best four of its 48 minutes were "Haiti," Régine Chassagne's buoyant, bilingual ode to her blood-splattered homeland. Six years on, on the statement-making The Suburbs, Chassagne again makes a star turn: her joyous "Sprawl II" performance reminiscent of a girl with a hairbrush, singing along to Blondie in her bedroom. It's a moment of synthy levity amidst Win Butler's self-conscious song-cycle, which Springsteens through suburban sprawl with an eye less on detail, more on the big picture. Arcade Fire's ambitious third LP wants nothing more than to be a study of a generation, couched in the landscape they grew up in.
8. Beach Fossils 'Beach Fossils'
Beach Fossils is the home-recorded work of Dustin Payseur, a Brooklyn hipster whose guitar just happens to be blessed with a most magical jangle. Chiming those six-strings like a young Johnny Marr, Payseur cranks out glimmering, shimmering, lovelorned, forlorned, guitar-driven tunes athrill with daydream, romance, nostalgia, and aching sadness. Beach Fossils' debut, self-titled set mints a feelbad summer-pop sound; "The Horse" finding Payseur moaning the doleful lament "I lost my heart for you" as its guitars dance and frolic in the sun. The slightly-fuzzy 'production' at play has found Beach Fossils lumped in with the recent rise of no-fi garage rockers, but, to me, Payseur's ringing-like-pealing-bells guitars sound utterly timeless.
Once Beach House slumbered in a languorous lo-fi haze, their music summoning summer days thick with humidity. But, on their third LP, Teen Dream, its stark, crystalline, hi-fidelity sound speaks of the sparkling lights and deep blacks of night. This midnight-hour sound is evocative: its pulsing organ chords and rippling piano building a beautiful bed for Victoria Legrand's deep, moaning vocals to lay upon. Contrast comes from foil Alex Scally, whose overdriven slide-guitar ricochets from one side of the mix to other, amping up the (sexual) tension. Fittingly enough, all this staged intimacy, drawn out over an album-long slowburn, has been described by Legrand as "very sexual"; Teen Dream equal parts hot and heavy.
On her debut White Hinterland album, 2008's Phylactery Factory, Casey Dienel sang wordy, writerly lyrics over barreling, piano-driven tunes. After an experimental excursion into French lyrics, free-jazz flourishes, and Brigitte Fontaine evocations on the Luniculaire EP, Dienel has taken a full leap-of-faith with Kairos. Abandoning the piano entirely, she's fashioned a set of slippery songs out of old synths, drum machines, ricocheting hand percussion, and, seemingly, household appliances. Drawing influence from modern R&B production, Björk's more minimalist moments, and Arthur Russell's sense of perpetual compositional motion, the album is a tender set of intimate lullabies; awash in Dienel's sweet voice, and steeped in sonic rewards.
5. Zola Jesus 'Stridulum'
Sure, Stridulum is only an EP, but it's an utterly undeniable one. After a run of records full of mysterious, muffled, noisy Goth dissonance, the hyper-prolific Zola Jesus —21-year-old Wisconsinite Nika Roza Danilova— let loose her love in grandstanding fashion. Over top of massive, anthemic synth sounds, Danilova barrels out an operatic bellow bathed in so much reverb that it drowns the speakers in its throaty power. She gets compared to the standard female figureheads —Kate Bush, PJ Harvey— but Danilova's singing reminds me of Ian Curtis: all torture and woe and a tone that sounds like she's ingesting the microphone. Across these six songs and 20 star-making minutes, Zola Jesus takes the leap from fringe figure to bonafide indie pin-up.
If another artist boasted of working with "Quincy Jones' grandson," it'd be an unintentionally-funny clutch at tenuous celebrity. But, for Ariel Pink, it's perfect. The Los Angelino lo-fi alchemist has long nicked licks from Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson et al, burying them in his dense, druggy, cruddy home-taper sound as both homage to past pop and self-reflexive commentary on nostalgia. Made in an actual studio with an actual producer and an actual backing-band, Before Today lets the world in on a revelation: underneath all the hipster reappropriation of his tape-hiss-riddled past, Pink's had serious pop-chops all along. The melodic glories of "Round and Round" introduce Ariel Pink anew: irony now dead, sincerity reigning.
Few have the artistic gumption to author the kind of high-concept, narrative-driven, fantasy-minded record Owen Pallett has here. Heartland, his first own-name album after two LPs and three EPs as Final Fantasy, finds the violinist-cum-multi-instrumentalist delivering this story-in-song: in the mythical world of Spectrum, Lewis, a simple farmer turned radical insurgent, offers devotionals to the sole, omniscient deity of his world, an indifferent, divine God named Owen. It's quite the concept, and, when delivered with the heft of a Czech orchestra, an Arcade Fire drummer, and Pallett's razor-sharp lyricism, it's impossible to keep down. Heartland is one of those rare records that gets better, that reveals more, with every listen.
2. Sufjan Stevens 'The Age of Adz'
Sufjan Stevens was stuck in a malaise. "Sick of [his] conceptual ideas" and questioning himself as artist, Stevens longed to rediscover the simple joy of making sound. So, he ditched the thematic formalism, the months of research, the modern-composition pastiches, and the kooky song-titles. Instead, in response to this artists crisis, Sufjan turned within: The Age of Adz, in turn, finds him singing "I" 278 (give or take) times; the writer laying himself out, in song, as never before. The album matches such with a dense palette of skipping electronic programming, multiple layers of voice, and complex orchestral parts; its symphony-of-self daringly experimental and endlessly impressive. It makes for the bravest, best album of Stevens' career.
Who else but Joanna Newsom could pull off an 18-track, 124-minute triple-album with such aplomb? The 28-year-old is in utter command of her songcraft on Have One On Me; shipping from tiny harp odes, to jaunty Joni Mitchell/Laura Nyro-styled piano numbers, to shape-shifting epics dappled with hand-drums, guitar, and strings. Each tune is a revelation, Newsom's achingly sad songs —like "Esme," a glorious hosanna for a newborn child, and "Baby Birch," a sorrowed lament for a never-born child— scoring a succession of emotional bull's eyes. It amounts to a two-hour floodtide of poetic imagery, orchestral whorls, cascading harp meters, and rippling emotion; an achievement that crowns Newsom as one of the truly great artists of the 21st century.