Ten Best National Releases
1. The Wombats - "The Wombats Present: This Modern Glitch"
Literate, funny, biting, sincere and maudlin, all the same breath. This collection of indie-pop/electro gems has the wearying problem of being too good too consistently. Every song on this 14-track sorta-concept album is good. And that's something you don't hear often.
2. Hail Mary Mallon - "Are You Gonna Eat That?"
Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic team up and wreak havoc on tracks. It boasts big, blustery tracks stacked with verbose rhymes and a dense sorta-mythology, making it the hip-hop equivalent of a Mars Volta album.
3. Kanye West & Jay-Z - "Watch The Throne"
Some would give me hell for including this album on my list, but you can't deny the sheer gut-punch power of Kanye and Jay-Z's collaboration. Though it does occasionally misfire ("Lift Off" featuring Jay's wife Beyonce reeks of nepotism).
4. Wild Flag - "Wild Flag"
Sleater-Kinney is dead. Long live Sleater-Kinney. The synth-heavy debut by an indie-rock supergroup of sorts, this first outing is a doozy, turning what could have been a retread of old ideas into something visceral and youthful and alive.
5. Mister Heavenly - "Out Of Love"
Stomping from New York with a brand of music they've affectionately called "Doom Wap" this other supergroup-ish collaboration slinks through styles, never really settling on one, save for power-chord overload.
6. Telekinesis - "12 Desperate Straight Lines"
Indie rock so baroque and perfect, you'd wonder if you had accidentally slipped a Guided by Voices best-of. In fact, Telekinesis cover GBV's "Game of Pricks" on their EP that came before this album. The comparison, though less lo-fi, is apt. Jangly alterna-pop with a Beach Boys bent and a savvy penchant for lyrics. Short, but never disappointing.
7. Tom Waits - "Bad As Me"
Once and future king of weirdness returns with a more straight-forward record than even last year's "Glitter and Doom" tour album. Which says a lot. Mr. Waits' latest twangs and strums and bangs and does all the other things we're used to, but somehow it's more streamlined. And that's a good thing.
8. Peter Bjorn and John - "Gimme Some"
The story was tailor made as a kind of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs-in-reverse, an electronics-heavy band ditches the electro for guitars. And, unlike the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it actually delivers on the premise. The Cure-biting "Eyes," cowbell-banging "Second Chance" are the standouts, though the whole record is top-to-bottom excellent.
9. Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds, Damian Kulash and Neil Gaiman (aka 8in8) - "Nighty Night"
A one-night writing, editing, performing and singing session brought together a British author, his wife the piano-banging punk-cabaret singer, their friend the lead singer of YouTube superstars OK Go and producer to the stars Ben Folds. It's about as awesome as expected, particularly Neil's singing debut on "The Problem With Saints" wherein Joan of Arc wreaks havoc in modern times.
10. M83 - "Hurry Up We're Dreaming"
Electronic and dreamy and synth-heavy, somehow it still stands out because of how human it all sounds. Messy and illogical and purely pop, it takes leaps over other pop albums for its sheer audacity.
Ten Best Local Releases
1. Troubadour Dali - "Make It Right"
Psych-rock makes their world go 'round and this record proves it. Euclid Records' second release by these local mainstays (and Sonic Youth dopplegangers at this year's Under Cover Weekend) veers into guitar-rock territory and pretty much stays there, which is nothing to complain about with songs this good.
2. Warm Jets USA - "Warm Jets USA"
This album is the perfect rock blast to put on while we wait for the new TILTS album -- heavy, classic-sounding rockers mining the pasts' riffs for new gold.
3. Rusty Nail - "Boozers, Bastards and Bards"
Owing less to the Pogues than Flogging Molly, this batch of barroom ballads and fist-fight anthems hits the sweet spot of Celtic music and fast punk-y guitars.
4. Morgan Nusbaum - "Let It In"
This solo debut from the voice behind Bruiser Queen (which includes a former BQ song "Every Night") owes more to Cat Power than the Stooges' "Raw Power." Hell, she even does CP's "Metal Heart" and slays it. And elsewhere on the record, rather than wailing above serrated guitars, Nusbaum stretches her range and shows off her considerable songwriting skill.
5. The Blind Eyes - "With a Bang"
Not content to just re-release 2009's "Modernity," which would keep many a band happy, Blind Eyes whipped their band into a frenzy to record this collection of Mod-leaning rock numbers, recalling the best parts of both Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe's careers, with a side of the Jam.
6. Sleepy Kitty - "Infinity City"
Former Harvey Danger drummer and fresh-faced noise-nik join forces and create, oddly enough, a loving peon to pop music. Despite burying it in noise (the extended jam on the sorta-kinda Beatles cover "17", the furious outro of "School Night") there's pop music in them thar songs.
7. Firedog - "Wait to Die" (7")
The story is heartbreaking enough - friends of Dave Hagerty, the late guitar player and singer for STL band Fattback hold an auction in his honor and the trio in Firedog win, earning themselves some recording time. They then ask Hagerty's girlfriend, Ellen Cook (aka Ellen the Felon) to perform on a track. The resulting recordings are a loving tribute to a departed friend and a fun, short EP as full of life as can be, given the subject matter.
8. Bunnygrunt - "Lady, You Just Got Von Damaged!" (7")
Another short-but-sweet EP, this one from STL lifers Bunnygrunt. They've now covered every band member in album titles ("Jen-Fi" "Karen Haters Club" "Matt Harnish and Other Delights" and now Erik Von Damage gets his due). It's short, full of lo-fi goofy songs and a handy intro into what to expect at any of their million gigs a year.
9. The Breaks - "Odd Man Out"
Comparisons to the Hives, the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys are apt, and at the same time, kind of insulting. The Breaks have the brawny power-pop muscle to make these older bands stand up and pay attention. And for the few rabid songs they deliver on this stellar release, it works.
10. Various Artists - "STL LOUD Volumes 1-3"
Ryan Albritton and Ryan Lewis created R&R Music Labs, their home recording studio, in the hopes of making quality records for local bands. They did so by starting with a series of EPs designed to be a showcase of local talent. Recorded for free, these five-or-six track compilations feature a new, unreleased track by an STL favorite. Each one is great, but standouts include the fiery Via Dove track "On a Roll" on Volume 1, the somber My Molly tune on Volume 2 and -- how bout that -- Firedog's "Giveaway" on Volume 3.
Ten Best Reissues
1. Archers of Loaf - "Icky Mettle"
They wanted to be Pavement so hard, it hurt. And for a few glorious weeks in the mid-'90s, they almost were. A second disk of outtakes and demos makes the art-rock band that coulda been somebody that much more human.
2. Nick Cave - "Murder Ballads"
A dark, demented work by music's second most fertile mind for weirdness (next to Mr. Tom Waits, of course). This album of brutal beauty (see duets with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue) and overt, gut-wrenching frankness ("The Curse of Milhaven") is equal parts familiar and haunting.
3. U2 "Achtung Baby"
Long before stadium-sized egos outstripped the actual songwriting, Bono, Larry, Adam and the Edge used the screech and skronk of the then-nascent industrial music scene to serve as frames for their fractured pop tunes. The sustained popularity of songs like "One" and "Mysterious Ways" and, to a lesser degree, "Even Better Than the Real Thing" are testaments to this album's staying power.
4. Smashing Pumpkins "Siamese Dream"
Kind of a no-brainer, really. Full of the noisy bluster that had made their previous album "Gish" a favorite of the "120 Minutes" crowd, but with enough songwriting chops to actually matter and cut through the haze of the dueling guitars of Msrs Corgan and Iha, "Dream" is almost the perfect '90s alternative album. There's a few questionable moments -- 8-minute guitar mangles like "Silverf*ck"can really grate on the old eardrums -- but overall the record still holds up.
5. Grandaddy "The Sophtware Slump"
A trippy, weird piece of rocking melancholia, complete with chirping electronics and (one assumes) sampled crickets. Far more influential now than when it was released, it got another life this year, earning songs like "The Crystal Lake" a well-warranted second listen.
6. Megadeth "Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?"
Metal albums tend to age poorly. Songs that make our teenage selves pump our collective fists tend to wear out their welcome by the time we reach our 30s. Strange, then, that this brutal collection of stomping guitar god anthems still has the power to make you feel 13 and angry again. The title track alone is worth the cost of admission.
7. M.F. Doom - "Operation Doomsday"
Doom disappoints yet again in 2011 by not delivering a new record. This reissue is a nice treat, reminding us of his remarkable skill while giving us a nice collection of B-sides and unreleased material, some of it not quite as good as the album proper, but something new all the same.
8. R.E.M. - "Life's Rich Pageant"
For a band that called it quits in 2011, this reissue sure brought the best moments of their career to light. Somber when it needs to be, sprightly and playful when other songs call for it, it's the band at their most flexible.
9. Sebadoh - "Bakesale"
An unflattering photo of Lou Barlow adorns the cover (yep, that's his one-year-old self reaching into the toilet). The record lives and dies on short, lo-fi burners like "Magnet's Coil." In an alternate universe this 1994 release could have been a huge alternative smash. But it wasn't. It was, as with Sebadoh III before it, just another could-have-been success from a great band whose influence is much bigger than we realize.
10. Nirvana "Nevermind"
It was heard to get away from this year's 20th anniversary. Twenty years on, the record still screams with teenage angst, still sways with pop sensibilities, still occasionally rips of other peoples' tracks (the Killing Joke aping "Come As You Are" the infamously Pixies-biting "Smells Like Teen Spirit") and still makes people talk about mainstream vs. underground.
Jason Robinson hosts the Mixtape on 88.1 KDHX, every Monday evening, 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Central.