1. SAINT ETIENNE Tales From Turnpike House

Twelve songs spanning a single day in the life of a London apartment building, all of them painstakingly crafted miniatures seeking out little specks of brilliance in the most ordinary things. Actually, Sarah, Bob and Pete have made an entire career out of accentuating and celebrating those often mundane quirks that make a life transcendent and whole. Not to put down an impressive, voluminous back catalogue, this album reiterates everything great about them while somehow managing to create something more pop, delicate, poignant and stirring than anything that came before—especially in the final one-two punch of “Teenage Winter” and “Goodnight”, quite possibly the most beautiful, haunting songs they’ve ever recorded. Released in Europe last June and finally set to hit U.S. record stores January 24 (albeit with a rearranged track listing), this isn’t a perfect album (as I originally claimed), but it’s a perfectly lovely one.

2. KATE BUSH Aerial

On November 8, the dozen-year itch finally ceased. All that time spent wondering if she’d ever release another new album again: What would it sound like? Would it be any good? Well, Bush’s at-last-eighth album, a double, includes touchstones that beam in like satellites from various points of her career while never committing to just one era or style. But nothing is a retread: this is Bush moving on, giddily exploring the unknown whether she’s singing over a lone piano of doing the laundry or playfully conversing with birds. Speaking of which, her voice has only strengthened, not diminished, during her absence. A dazzling place to get lost in, with repeated listens, AERIAL reveals itself to be a dense and muted but ultimately exhilarating opus. I can’t yet say it’s her masterpiece, but it’s definitely of a piece with THE DREAMING and HOUNDS OF LOVE.

3. Sufjan Stevens ILLINOIS

Still thoroughly blown away by last year’s intimate SEVEN SWANS, I suspected this more outwardly ambitious follow-up wouldn’t have as strong a pull on me, and I was half-right. Regardless, it’s a substantial improvement on 2003’s similar MICHIGAN, and it bodes well for hope of even better things to come (provided he doesn’t freak out at his burgeoning success). A mesmerizing blend of folk, community theater, Charlie Brown music and symphonic experimentation, ILLINOIS, like all of Stevens’ oeuvre, meshes story songs and autobiographical essay into a daring, demanding gestalt. For many months, the surging, stunning “Chicago” was it for me, but that’s before I succumbed to “Casimir Pulaski Day”, a gentle, weirdly jaunty song about death that’s not maudlin or morose but, in its own affectionate way, joyous—even as you helplessly tear up during the final, wordless chorus.

4. THE GO-BETWEENS Oceans Apart

Leave it to this long-underappreciated Australian duo to buck the dreaded reunion curse. This is their third effort after a decade apart, and the first to hold its own with any of their seminal ‘80s work (and at times, it even rivals the stuff). From the first jangle of the veering ever-so-slightly out of control opener “Here Comes a City”, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan exude the passion and drive of power-poppers half their age. But their age is also the key here, especially for Forster: his “Born to a Family” and “Darlinghurst Nights” brim with a wisdom and resonance that only comes with time, while McLennan’s not-in-the-least-silly love songs bespeak an ecstasy you wouldn’t expect to find in most geezers.


Occasionally, taking time off to record a solo album does a band good. Witness this Canadian collective’s exemplary third album: following leader A.C. Newman’s transitory, self-explanatory 2004 release THE SLOW WONDER, it retains all the hooks and smarts of their previous efforts, but also refines them, allowing for some much needed room to breathe. The title track, “The Bones of an Idol”, “Use It” and the tremendous “The Bleeding Heart Show” make for a most spectacular first-four-track run, and the quality rarely flags thereafter. They’re still cleverer than you (who else could “Sing Me Spanish Techno”?), but on this record, Newman and company also let their vulnerable sides surface, the heart gradually, touchingly surpassing the mind as their impetus.

6. IVY In The Clear

Their best since APARTMENT LIFE (1997), and, coming from someone for whom that is a perfect album, that’s not faint praise. It barely throws any new ideas into the band’s template—just ten more tracks overflowing with dreamy cadences, perky melodies, and Dominique Durand’s arresting, tuneful Nico coo. Sharpening up their songwriting (and their guitars) while losing not one hint of beguiling ambience, they continue to rise above and beyond the lounge-pop tag they’ve been branded with for over a decade. Taking a cue from its evocative cover, it ought to be piped into every commercial cross-country flight.

7. ANDREW BIRD and the Mysterious Production of Eggs

Drifting even further away from the revivalist swing he used to play with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, this violinist/guitarist/whistler resists categorization: imagine a more sexually ambiguous Rufus Wainwright minus the operatic bombast, singing enigmatic ditties about “Measuring Cups”, “Opposite Day”, and, um, “Fake Palindromes” (still trying to figure out what those are), crafting subtle, intricate arrangements that at one seem familiar and not of this world. I don’t think I’ve heard anything else this year that sounds so baffling, and at the same time, oddly reassuring.

8. SPOON Gimme Fiction

This indie-rock outfit from Austin, TX has been kicking around for years, but I suspect most people (myself included) have never heard of ‘em until this, their fifth (and I’ll bet best) album. They don’t skimp on the melodies; nor do they lack any literary prowess (the first two songs are called “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine”). However, this concise, immediate set is most noteworthy for its rhythms, from the blissful shuffle of “I Summon You” to the sparse, taut funk of “I Turn My Camera On”, which shows the flashier Franz Ferdinand how such things should be done.

9. TOMPAULIN Into The Black

I raved about this obscure Brit band's excellent singles compilation when I had to review it last year; on this follow-up, they’re unexpectedly a touch more somber and dour, eschewing feedback (except on the opener) and sunny choruses for contemplation and resolve. Fortunately, the change of pace suits ‘em well. When Stacy McKenna sings “I’ve got darkness in the morning” at the onset of the stark, remarkable “Brave”, you just stop dead in your tracks; when she languorously duets with The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid on “Seams”, you know they’re what you always hoped/dreamed Mazzy Star would become.


James Murphy has no shame. He gleefully traffics in one-word choruses on ten-minute long songs (“Yeah”), dumbs down weird Prince for the indie-rock kids (“Disco Infiltrator”), liberally cribs from Eno (“The Great Release”) and late Beatles (“Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up”) and throws in a gratuitous cowbell solo or two. And all of it is fan-fucking-tastic, straight down the middle between stupid and clever—never more so than on “Losing My Edge”, a self-deprecating minimalist masterpiece that heads off the bonus disc of collected singles, which by itself is enough to secure a spot in this top ten.


Startling, genuine, impossibly beautiful—makes the cut for “Hope There’s Someone” and “Fistful of Love” alone.

FIONA APPLE Extraordinary Machine
Neither the Jon Brion-produced version nor the “official” version is definitive (or better than WHEN THE PAWN…); I’m just happy it was finally released.

EMM GRYNER Songs of Love and Death
While I wish she’d get around to recording some new songs, this idiosyncratic set of covers (celebrating her Irish heritage) is a fine appetizer for the eventual main course.

SHIVAREE Who’s Got Trouble?
With a name like Ambrosia Parsley and a voice like a hip Jill Sobule, you have to be this good.

STARS Set Yourself on Fire
Canadian equivalents to Belle and Sebastian deliver a charming, electro-orchestral epic that could’ve made the top ten if I had more than two weeks to process it.

Starts off incredibly strong with a literal *splash!* and retains most of its laid-back effervescence thereafter.

As distinct and impressive a talent as her brother, her long-gestating debut shows considerable promise, most so when she’s ruthlessly chewing out her famous father.


TORI AMOS The Beekeeper
ERASURE Nightbird
AIMEE MANN The Forgotten Arm
ORANGER New Comes and Goes


Critics who never paid much attention to them before inexplicably went ga-ga over this atypically bloated murk, which doesn't help anyone who misses the gals' no-nonsense, no-bullshit economy. I'll still buy the next one, though.