5. Pearl Jam-Lightning Bolt
After a lengthy four-years since their last LP, Pearl Jam, the legends of alternative rock, returned with a strong 12-song release that is heavy on intense emotions, both positive and negative. The album opens with energy and anger on "Getaway," arguing personal religious freedom, and "Mind Your Manners," but it also leans hard on powerful ballads such as "Sirens" and the beautiful "Future Days" which range from the feelings of worry and loss to the powerful optimism of a life of love with one's partner. The album would have been even stronger with one more rocker in place of one of the lesser ballads, but it is always important to welcome Pearl Jam back, and even more important to take notice that they've never left.
4. Nine Inch Nails-Hesitation Marks
After an announced end of the project followed by a lengthy goodbye tour in 2009, Trent Reznor kept himself busy musically with his Oscar-winning film score work and the band How To Destroy Angels, a side project with his wife, Mariqueen. This year, he stunned fans by announcing the resurrection of his famous and influential industrial-alternative band, which included a world tour and a solid new album full of many of the same dark textures and themes he has explored in the past, but from an older and more experienced perspective. The infectious lead single, "Came Back Haunted," explains the need to at least try to look at things from a different point of view, possibly referencing the 2009 break-up, only to find that impossible and so retreating to the comfort of the familiar. The stand-out tracks here are "Everything" and "Satellite," the songs where Reznor continues to challenge himself by experimenting with completely new sounds that have not been part of previous NIN releases. The new wave propulsion of the former may be the closest thing to a "happy sounding" song the band has ever done. Rocking guitars and a heavy reliance on loud, distorted electronic loops and beats bring back most of what was good about this project, and it is a welcome return.
3. Kanye West-Yeezus
It is difficult to separate Kanye West's public and often ignorant persona from an analysis of this innovative and original album, which is unfortunate for him but also for those who will avoid giving it a listen because of some of his quotes. It's not that some of that classic hip hop and rock and roll bravado doesn't appear in a couple lines of lyrics here and there, but what West continues to do, as he has for most of his career as a performer, is to aim for sounds, ideas, and to elicit emotions that have never been represented on a recording. By anyone. This year's most creative album is a minimalist masterpiece, with only 10 songs in about 40 minutes rather than double that like on most hip hop records, including Kanye's previous releases. Within those 40 minutes, however, legendary producer Rick Rubin assists West in a combination of post-modern electronic experimentation, classic hip-hop, and, finally, a return of West's signature speed-modified classic soul and R&B samples, most notably on the closer and best track on the album, "Bound 2," which has since become the subject of parody due to its poorly conceptualized music video. Daft Punk themselves co-wrote and co-produced almost half the record, so there is certainly an EDM lean to a good portion of the songs as well, but no one has successfully worked with a fusion of this type before, and that makes this the most successful "21st century music" release of the year.
2. They Might Be Giants-Nanobots
One of the hardest working, quietly successful, and overlooked bands of the past 30 years returned with their 16th LP, a confounding blend of genius melody, extreme variety, and, as always, lyrics that require true listeners to keep their dictionaries nearby. Brooklyn's ambassadors of love, They Might Be Giants, have been participating in the fringes of pop culture for years now, on everything from Tiny Toons to Malcolm in the Middle, to The Daily Show, and about 50 other things you've seen and heard without realizing they were involved. This 25 track release showcases all of TMBG's strong suits, with both John Linnell and John Flansburgh getting plenty of equal opportunity to entertain themselves with the hopes of engaging their audience. Thankfully, it works very well. The singles "Call you Mom," "Icky," and "You're on Fire" are classic Linnell ear worms (though they are not doctors), and the medley of extra-short songs, as in 10-40 seconds each, recalls the classic "Fingertips" from 1992's Apollo 18, though in classic TMBG fashion, that concept, too, is compromised by inserting a few full-length songs within the medley. While their songs are full of pop-rock accessibility, they are also full of satirical and contradictory lyrics, unconventional segues, and references the average person may miss, but that mean twice as much to those who catch them. This album is easily one of the most entertaining of the year.
1. Queens Of The Stone Age-...Like Clockwork
Without a doubt, the year's best collection of new songs, by any project, was the sixth album by Josh Homme's Queens Of The Stone Age. This super-tight collection of 10 tracks flies by in about 40 minutes, and there is not a bad note to be heard in them. A surprisingly successful achievement for a band who assembled it while essentially falling apart, limping along, and then rebuilding to full strength. Former band member and Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl returns to beat the shit out of the drums on half of the tracks, and former members Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri make a brief appearance on backing vocals on "If I Had a Tail." Extra-special guest Elton John contributes piano and vocals to the rocking "Fair Weather Friends," after having offered Homme his services as "an actual queen." The singles "My God is the Sun," and "I Sat by the Ocean" rock as hard and are as well-produced as the deeper cuts like "Kalopsia" and "I Appear Missing," but there's really no going wrong in any point of any song here. The title track, also the closer, hints very strongly that this may be the band's final album, though they are still touring for it, and while that would be very unfortunate for the few remaining hard rock fans that are out there, at least we got to enjoy a top-notch project for a solid 15 years that went out on top. This record, if it is their last, is the exclamation point at the end of their catalog.