10) "Kid on My Shoulders" by White Rabbits [Fort Nightly]
White Rabbits are a new indie force to be reckoned with. This is the first song on their debut record, and it introduces them with a bang: a propulsive guitar & piano combo first comes in, followed by a yelpy, somehow ominous voice. It sounds like an indie-punk tune out of a spy movie.
9) "Maybe Lately" by Miracle Fortress [Five Roses]
"Maybe Lately" sounds like a long-lost Beach Boys track - from the "Be My Baby"-mimicking opening drums to the dreamy guitars and Graham Van Pelt's voice, which sounds remarkably akin to a softer Brian Wilson. It's the musical equivalent of running through a field of gumdrops and frosting and unicorns with the one you love, especially with lyrics like "Lately, lately / I've been thinking it could be forever / just us two."
8) "If I Could Cry (It Would Feel Like This)" by Jens Lekman [Night Falls Over Kortedala]
"A Postcard to Nina" has gotten a lot of well-deserved raves from the blogosphere, but it's not the catchiest song on this album. Lekman kicked his well-crafted Swedish pop into high gear with this song, which sounds like a Phil Spector record on crack, complete with soaring violins, chimes, exaggerated handclaps, bongos, and an all girl backing choir. Plus the lyrics are heartbreaking, even though they consist of only one line: "If / I could cry / it would feel / like this."
7) "I Feel It All" by Feist [The Reminder]
The heck with "1234," "I Feel It All" was the best statement song that Feist produced this year. Yeah, her sound has changed a bit, but that doesn't mean it's worse. "I Feel It All" is country-tinged and a bit dour, looking back on the past and vowing that in the future it is she alone who will be responsible for breaking her own heart with a decisive "ha!". But it was also a great summer song, all acoustic guitars and tambourines.
6) "Good Old Friends" by Figurines [When the Deer Wore Blue]
Figurines' last record was tense pop-punk, but they did a complete turnaround this year and produced a sticky-sweet album that was straight out of 1967. "Good Old Friends" is one of the most understated songs on the album, which is a good thing; with its haunting organ and simplistic piano/tambourine arrangement, it lets the lyrics work their magic with the refrain "And it breaks me to see you cry / and it hurts when you can't deny / but it thrills me to see you're more than / someone that I love."
5) "All I Need" by Radiohead [In Rainbows]
In Rainbows was undoubtedly the most-discussed record of the year (how much did you pay?), and thankfully it actually merited at least some of that discussion. "All I Need" was the perfet mix of old & new Radiohead. The lazy electronic drumbeat is accompanied by synthesizer and later tiny bells, with Thom Yorke's soaring voice singing "You are all I need / you're all I need / I'm in the middle of your picture / lying in the reeds."
4) "The Apocalypse Song" by St. Vincent [Marry Me]
St. Vincent scares the hell out of me. Marry Me is chock full of creepy love ballads, but "The Apocalypse Song" may take the cake with its lyric about her lover "wak[ing] up / with the stitches / over both [his] eyes." But you can't help but admire the structure and instrumentation of the whole thing. The chorus hits you right in the heart with soaring strings and Annie Clark's bizarre but technically good voice chiming "It's time / you are light / I guess you were afraid / what everyone is made of." That chorus hits me every single time, even after dozens of listens.
3) "John Allyn Smith Sails" by Okkervil River [The Stage Names]
A sometimes first-person sometimes sympathic third-person meditation on the life & death of poet John Berryman, "John Allyn Smith Sails" closes out Okkervil River's good-not-great follow-up to the magnificent Black Sheep Boy. The song makes up for a lot of the album's shortcomings, though, because of its bizarre structure, outstanding and strange lyrics, and of course, the reworked version of "Sloop John B" as its ending.
2) "2080" by Yeasayer [All Hour Cymbals]
The bloggers were all about Yeasayer this year, and while I can't say they've changed my life, "2080" is a really damn good song. The band was originally described to me as "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but better," which I would say is a fair estimation. "2080" is just a perfect indie rock song: hazy guitars, typically whiny lead voice, mesmerizing harmonies, a unique and cool bridge, and at the end, a precious children's choir.
1) "Gospel" by The National [Boxer]
I never understood The National before this year. I remember listening to their last record Alligator 2 or 3 times through and eventually deleting it because I just did not understand what everyone saw in them. I did the same with their 2007 release, Boxer - but this time I didn't delete it, I "got" it. "Gospel" is just a brilliant song. It's a heartbreaking rumination on everything from suburbia to holiday lights to failed relationships, warbled by the tenuous baritone of Matt Beringer. It sounds like a dreary late-winter night in a suburban living room, and it's beautiful.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: "Melody Day" by Caribou; "Either Way" by Wilco; "Violator" by White Williams; "A Paw in My Face" by The Field; "On the Bubble" by The Broken West.