Still playing catch-up as I tick through years of writing backlog as my 2009 list indicated. This time it’s short and sharp with a showcase of 20 great records. I believe my goal in these lists is to reveal that the album is not dead as long as artists commit to their vision. iTunes/YouTube ADHD culture and the downfall of physical media can’t kill conceptual songwriting mastery and emotional honesty.

Envy - Recitation

Envy

Recitation

Sonzai

Tokyo’s Envy hit again with Japanese spoken word over tremelo melodies interrupted by explosive, cathartic hardcore and post-rock guitars. This time around, tunes like “Dreams Coming to an End” and “A Breath Clad in Happiness” contain sections that can be considered downright uplifting. Slowly building crescendos still lead to intense screams and heavy doom but its duration runs the full gamut of emotions.

Autolux - Transit Transit

Autolux

Transit Transit

Fuzzy Swervedriver-like guitars of Autolux’s 2004 debut are replaced by subdued abstract ambience that rarely travels faster than mid-tempo. Male/female vocals, detuned guitars, and Carla Azar’s technical drumming are accentuated by electronic noises. Cerebral shoegaze for complex compositions that avoid bombast. It’s not a face-value hook-driven affair but each song is packed with unique ideas that take other bands a lifetime to assemble.

Minus the Bear - Omni

Prominent synths, funky guitars, and relaxed vocals give this fourth album a summer airiness while retaining their brand of angular but danceable math rock.

Kylesa - Spiral Shadow

Kylesa

Spiral Shadow

Not scared of breaking genre conventions, Kylesa takes sludge/crust metal to new melodic highs – “Don’t Look Back” is pretty much the Pixies rocking two drummers.

Torche - Songs For Singles

Torche

Songs For Singles

If you wish Foo Fighters would ditch rock radio conventions, now-trio Torche’s 22 minute EP is filled to the brim with one-to-two minute catchy riff bangers characterized by vocal/guitar harmonies. The four minute instrumental trailing “Out Again” will put a smile on the face of any person with ears and a soul.

Holy Fuck - Latin

Holy Fuck

Latin

Canada’s ultimate live dance party band have matured by no longer cluttering their mix, allowing plenty of room to breathe without sacrificing layered complexity of bouncing instrumental tracks. Less Nintendo rock, more propulsive dynamics now they have a stable rhythm section.

The Ocean - HeliocentricThe Ocean - Anthropocentric

The Ocean

Heliocentric / Anthropocentric

A double release exploring man’s transition from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment, German prog-metal beasts The Ocean (Collective?) deliver on the concept album goods. They’re still pushing the kvlt envelop via piano ballads (“Ptolemy was Wrong”) and female-fronted trip-hop (“The Grand Inquisitor III (A Tiny Grain of Faith)”).

Field Music - Field Music (Measure)

Field Music

Field Music (Measure)

Twenty art rock tracks that balance angular prog tendencies with infectious pop arrangements. Outrageously pretentious for material that’s so accessible by the Brewis brothers from North East England.

The Walkmen - Lisbon

The Walkmen

Lisbon

Builds upon You & Me‘s sombre mood with 50s Sun Records, uplifting surf rock, and mariachi brass. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser drunkenly croons and wails over this diverse set while distancing from the band’s disenchanted beginnings to a more mature outlook on life.

Black Mountain - Wilderness Heart

Black Mountain

Wilderness Heart

An abundance of acoustic guitar as Vancouver’s Black Mountain offer up a more economical take on reviving classic rock. Amber Webber has a more prominent role duetting or singing solo and the band also maintain heaviness with a less-is-more approach to songwriting. Vintage organs and synths keep them rooted in the space rock sphere, making this bright record the richest to date.

The Unwinding Hours - The Unwinding Hours

The Unwinding Hours

The Unwinding Hours

Ex-Aereogramme members continue down the lush rock path laid down by My Heart Has a Wish That You Would Not Go.

Retribution Gospel Choir - 2

Fronted by Low’s Alan Sparhawk, this trio jacks up amp volumes for stadium-ready, riff-oriented rock. A short album at a half-hour, there is slow-tempo material that wouldn’t stick out from a Low release (“Poor Man’s Daughter”, “Bless Us All”) but the real meat and potatoes are slices of three minutes with big choruses (“Hide It Away”, “Workin’ Hard”).

Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Swans

My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

First studio album in fourteen years contains no traces of being a reunion cash-in. Michael Gira’s reinvigorated line-up is again moving forward by laying down intense, uncomproming experimental rock with an esoteric edge.

Amplifier - The Octopus

Amplifier

The Octopus

Two hour double concept album of UK prog space rock with psychedelic guitar lines where most songs reach the seven minute mark? Sign me up.

Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit

Agalloch

Marrow of the Spirit

Revisit their extreme metal beginnings while maintaining progressive structures introduced by recent albums. Production gleam of Ashes Against the Grain and The White EP is replaced by analogue recording to give their cascadian black metal an organic feel. Highlight is 17 minute opus “Black Lake Niðstång”.

Crippled Black Phoenix - I, Vigilante

Crippled Black Phoenix

I, Vigilante

CBP refresh by immediately writing a streamlined album, its mood expectantly melancholic using piano/organ, horns, and strings to back Joe Volk’s restrained vocals (his last release with the band.) Post-rock meets blues arrangements contain guitar solos that David Gilmour enthusiasts can respect. 12 minute thematic centrepiece “Bastogne Blues” acts as a Battle of the Bulge veteran’s tribute while the build-and-release of “We Forgotten Who We Are” is damn euphoric.

Menomena - Mines

Menomena

Mines

Democratically sharing duties between three singers/musicians, indie rockers Menomena have come into their own from a songwriting perspective. Despite panning multiple genres within songs, expressions still comes across as cohesive and honest. Each eclectic track is filled with seamless creativity, but unlike landmark album Friend and Foe there’s more room for ideas to play themselves out rather than getting ousted by the next best.

Anathema - We're Here Because We're Here

Anathema

We’re Here Because We’re Here

Taking seven years to vet the best ideas and hone their craft, Anathema manage to assemble their strongest release. Lee Douglas has been added as a main band member for male/female vocal harmonies and piano-led songs add new dimensions to their constantly evolving sound. Dramatic gravity of their doom metal beginnings are maintained albeit as self-affirming optimistic prog-rock drenched in Pink Floyd atmospheres and string arrangements.

Shearwater - The Golden Archipelago

Shearwater

The Golden Archipelago

Austin’s art rock group perfectly sequenced album is majestic without over-the-top grandiosity. Leader Jonathan Meiburg’s gentle whisper to soaring shout and Thor Harris (whom also performs with Swans) thunderous percussion find song-by-song ebbing and flowing with subtly when compared to predecessor Rook. The resulting tension reveals Peter Gabriel-meets-Talk Talk artful, orchestrated beauty.

Oceansize - Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up

Oceansize

Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up

During the aughts tail end, Oceansize would re-enter my listening queue weekly due to a love of post-rock married with grunge, bridged by shoegaze using a triple-guitar attack. This swan song album is their most diverse collection yet as twinkling prettiness of “Pine” and explosive prog-metal of “Build Us a Rocket Then…” showcase the range Oceansize expertly explores.