A proposition: Finding gems of underdogs far down in the CD pile is way more fun than picking the best of anything. Look around at most Top 10 Albums lists this year, and you'll likely be bored by the (admittedly warranted) sameness. Glaze over at our Top 10 soon (there will be some surprises!) but before that here's something we're really excited about: Records that we heard, that we loved, that aren't going to top any "best" lists but don't deserve to be forgotten just yet. Some of these were praised mightily but didn't catch on; others were unfairly dismissed; still others were barely paid any pixels at all. Ten albums, all good, a few great, not the best, but nonetheless:
The Mynabirds -- What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood (Saddle Creek)
Our status: Obsessed.
Fame profile: Politely praised, largely ignored.
Regarding: Laura Burhenn (formerly of D.C. outfit Georgie James) aimed to start a band that sounded like Neil Young playing Motown; she did so, and appropriately named it after a project the famous Canuck had back in the '60s with a then-unheard-of dude by the name of Rick James. The resulting piano-driven soul grooves are as snappy as you'd hope. Burhenn's whiskey-thickened purrs lend her songs a timeless hue, and her plain-as-day lyrics ("You know that the numbers don't lie/ Two wrongs do not make a right") convey every cliched grain of Real Feeling. The only thing better than Richard Swift's spacious, velvety production on What We Lose is the edge Burhenn and crew give these songs on stage.
Fame profile: Uh, slippery tires and a very low drag coefficient.
Owners' manual: Car-obsessed electronic beat music from a French duo, but bearing the obvious similarities, Bot'ox doesn't much recall Justice or Daft Punk. This minimalist tour-de-force is more like enchanted Teutonic disco -- like if, instead of two animatronic Deutschmen, Kraftwerk was instead populated by silly, svelte Italians wearing pink polo shirts and white driving gloves. They love their machines, sure, but there's a human spirit -- and some real vocals! -- under all those candy-apple red hoods and prancing equines and filter sweeps and synth lines. We'd rather drive at triple-digit speeds down midnight avenues while listening to this than any other record that came out this year.
Bottom line: Reminds us that electronic music can be quirky, dark, fun, and unpredictable.
Latest chart: Raised in Orange County, educated at USC, fired by a large accounting firm, converted from rapper-producer to soul crooner, Aloe Blacc is on a roll. Here's why: His voice could melt butter, hearts, and probably gold; his lyrics, particularly "I Need A Dollar," below, describe the basic struggle of 2K10. Blacc may be copping hugely from Curis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and others -- both for the creamy vocal sound and this album's basic '70s soul getup -- but that ain't gonna matter once you give Good Things a few spins. There's token reggae, funk, and even a Velvet Underground cover ("Femme Fatale") for variety, but it's really Blacc's warm larynx and wise words that earn Good Things a spot on this list.
Final diagnosis: "I Need A Dollar" is this year's theme song.
Our plea: Straight-up solid indie guitar rock (yay!).
Prosecutors' argument: Straight-up solid indie guitar rock (snore).
Evidence: Doomed, let's face it, by the ambivalence of a Pitchfork 6.5, this album is truly a grower. At first it sounds like capable, although plain, uptempo power-pop with wry lyrics, but oh, it's so much more than that after a few listens. We were optimistic after the grabby opening riff of "The Stroller"; eventually, we discovered a subtly infectious melodic sensibility under all those barre chord patterns. Vocalist Vincent Kircher may stop reminding you of the Shins' James Mercer, or he may not. But hopefully either outcome won't prohibit you from appreciating the elegant balance struck here between punk muscle and pop songcraft.
Final judgment: What, like you don't still enjoy catchy rock 'n' roll?
We say: Amazing Latin jazz-funk-psych-rock, and you should care.
They say: Amazing Latin jazz-funk-psych-rock.
Also: Pretty much legends of live music in the difficult-to-please town of Austin, there really isn't much dispute that Grupo Fantasma is a remarkable set of musicians. But El Existential blows our hair back with its border-crossing bravery: bolstering proggy jazz-rock with Force-10 Latin rhythm suave, exploding into clouds of fuzzy psych-guitar, falling back into grin-inducing funk, and throwing in (why not?) a muted trumpet solo. This is the sound of great musicians playing by no rules except their own. Behold.
Allo Darlin' -- Allo Darlin (Fortuna Pop!) For us: On repeat. For them: The best new band to earn the descriptor "twee" in a long time, but still mostly unheard-of. The argyle report: We're glad Belle and Sebastian put out a new album this year, but even if they hadn't, we'd have gotten our fill of heart-meltingly cute twee-pop from these Londoners. Precious and quirky male-female vocals, rainstorms of reverby guitar, and plenty of cool and/or obscure references in the lyrics (see "Woody Allen") check off almost every box on the list. Sure they're not from Glasglow, but after a few listens, you'll forget that -- Allo Darlin' has idiosyncrasies all its own. And if Elizabeth Morris' voice doesn't make you smile, well, no music is going to help whatever's wrong with you. Verdict: They quote, adorably, from Weezer's "El Scorcho" in one song. So, yeah.
Wolf People -- Steeple (Jagjaguwar) Our take: Terrible band name, rad music. Larger view: Who? Explanation: Quirky British psych-folk with flutes, crackling guitar solos, and some seriously celtic vocal melodies. Similar to Aussie wizards Tame Impala, but a bit more buttoned down and forthcoming. We really don't know why we didn't hear more about this record -- it's among the most proficient psych-rock expeditions we found all year. Declaration: Generations of WASP blood in our veins leaves us no choice but to enjoy.
Middle Class Rut -- No Name No Color (Bright Antenna) Another terrible name: Yes, but again, ignore that for now. Has anyone noticed?: Neither the name nor the music, as far as we can tell. Yes, really: Middle Class Rut is two dudes from Sacramento who figured out that the other people in their bands were just mucking things up. And while their melodramatic, titanic sound lands dangerously close to the bratty-teen emo-metal we love to hate, we find an irresistible magnetism in the racket of Zack Lopez and Sean Stockham. Maybe it's the Rage Against the Machine quality of Lopez's nearly percussive guitar playing, maybe it's the hysterical angst in his throat-grating vocals, maybe it's the seemingly arena-tuned climaxes these furious songs reach -- frankly, we're kind mystified. But we really dig it, whatever it is. Report card: Put this on and start a moshpit. And invite us. "New Low," below:
Sub Swara -- Triggers (Low Motion) Our opinion: Really effing fun. Other people's opinion: We could care less. Tasting notes: Unorthodox electronica that's as enjoyable sitting down as it is standing up, Triggers comes to us via two New York producers known for their globe-trotting tastes. With snippets of dubstep, trance, hip-hop, and exotic world rhythms -- including real live drum sounds recorded in India -- Triggers' 14 tracks yield numerous surprises. (Just wait until Freddie Mills starts spitting rhymes on "Future Fresh.") We haven't had a chance to hear it in a club yet, but Sub Swara plays Public Works this Friday. Verdict: Highbrow beat music for omnivores.
The Jim Jones Revue -- The Jim Jones Revue (Punk Rock Blues) We say: The purest incarnation of rock 'n' roll we've heard in a long time. Others say: Well, Mojo's editor called this "the best damn rock 'n' roll band on the planet." Hype check: If Jerry Lee Lewis joined the John Spencer Blues Explosion, they'd probably sound something like the Jim Jones Revue. This is take-no-prisoners barroom rock 'n' roll, led by palm-pounding piano and recorded with so much noise and grit that it sounds pretty much like the joyous explosion at the end of the world. Conclusion: The hype is deserved.