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WVFI Top Albums of the Semester

John Siegel | Wednesday, December 6, 2006

WVFI Music Director John Siegel compiled a list of the top albums of the past semester. Individual opinions from members of the WVFI staff and the weekly charts from the past semester are the basis for the list.

There are new releases by old favorites from both the independent and mainstream music scenes. Many independent artists transitioned to mainstream record labels and began new chapters of their careers. Some new faces also made big splashes this past semester and left a last impression on listeners.

The Hold Steady: “Boys and Girls in America”

The Hold Steady’s first release for Vagrant Records builds off of the high points of their previous albums “Separation Sunday” and “Almost Killed Me.” Front man Craig Finn continues telling tales of love, faith and the odd characters that inhabit Finn’s Minneapolis.

Guitar riffs run wild, but the band also knows how to slow things down on tracks like “First Night” and “Citrus.” The album also highlights Finn’s improvement as a singer. His gruff voice balances the right amount of edge and melody to cement The Hold Steady’s status as the best bar band in America.

Brand New: “The Devil and God are Raging Inside of Me”

Brand New returned from their self-imposed exile from the world of emo with a confident and intense follow up to 2003’s “Deja Entendu.” Primary songwriter Jesse Lacey approaches the songs with the same struggle between arrogance and insecurity that “Deja Entendu” displayed. However, Brand New shows how much they have grown as musicians and artists, using more complex instrumentation and producing sometimes soothing and sometimes chaotic music.

Bob Dylan: “Modern Times”

Dylan’s 31st studio album debuted to both critical acclaim and wild success. “Modern Times” proves that Bob Dylan is still making relevant and thought-provoking music. The music on “Modern Times” falls somewhere between more traditional country and folk, but Dylan’s artistry overcomes any reservations listeners might have about either country or folk.

Ben Kweller: “Ben Kweller”

Ben Kweller has mellowed in his mid-20s and his latest album showcases his newfound musical and personal maturity. Kweller’s third release gains from its clear production, which removes the harsher elements of Kweller’s early releases.

The songs on “Ben Kweller” center on piano melodies and acoustic accompaniment, but Kweller is a gifted songwriter who can add emotion and energy to simple arrangements. Kweller also looks into himself, recalling his past on the intimate track “Thirteen.” Kweller’s latest is a credit to his songwriting and a preview of his potential as a top-notch musician.

TV on the Radio: “Return to Cookie Mountain”

Fans may have been apprehensive of TV on the Radio moving to a major label, but “Return to Cookie Mountain” shows that any fears are unfounded. TV on the Radio delighted both critics and fans with a more straightforward approach and energetic songs like the single “Wolf Like Me.” TV on the Radio fan and Classic Rock legend David Bowie guests on the track “Province.”

Joanna Newsom: “Ys”

The track list of Joanna Newsom’s latest album is only five songs long. However, Newsom’s second album contains almost an hour’s worth of music. Newsom composes longer and more ornate songs on “Ys.” Newsom’s voice still stays in the foreground with its elegant soaring and charming chirping. A full orchestra accompanies her unique voice and signature harp. The orchestra adds interesting layers to each song and enhances the Newsom’s lyrical tales.

Cold War Kids: “Robbers and Cowards”

Cold War Kids are one of the year’s indie rock success stories, having built up hype with a series of EP’s and tours over the past year. Eventually, they released their full length album “Robbers and Cowards” in October. The album highlights the blues-influenced vocal and piano talents of Nathan Willett. The band backs Willett up with a quirky mix of guitars drowned in echo, overdriven bass guitars and loose drumming. Willett’s voice is filled with enthusiasm and a soul not often found in today’s rock music. “Robbers and Cowards” opener “We Used to Vacation” contemplates a family man’s struggles to deal with his despair and his family. Cold War Kids approach the song with optimism singing, “Still things could be much worse. We still got our health, my paycheck in the mail.”

Malajube: “Trompe-l’oeil”

In recent years, Montreal has established itself as one of the most interesting and successful music scenes in recent years. The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Islands all started in Montreal. All three bands also have enjoyed breakout success outside of Canada. Malajube is another one of these bands from Montreal, and employ the same elements that make other Montreal bands interesting and successful. Their musical talent overcomes a potential barrier given their French lyrics. “Trompe-l’oeil” is full of fun pop songs. The rollicking “Montréal -40°C” is an energetic and enjoyable jumble of keyboards, drums and loud guitars.

The Decemberists: “The Crane Wife”

“The Crane Wife” was one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2006. The Decemberists produce 12 tracks, weaving their way through Japanese folk tales and stories of family feuds. Lead singer Colin Meloy’s slightly nasal voice gives “The Crane Wife” a charming and personal quality. The Decemberists show that they are able to run the gamut of songs, from the love ballad “O Valencia!” to the epic and wandering “The Island.” The band gets a little help from Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. In the end, The Decemberists make a great album that balances the epic, the earthly and the odd.

Lupe Fiasco: “Food and Liquor”

In recent years, many hip-hop artists out of Chicago have found success nationwide. Lupe Fiasco is the next in the line of Chicago rappers to have done this. Taking cues from Kanye West, Fiasco produced his debut album to completely take over the creative direction of his music. The result is a mix of Fiasco’s personal experience and his observations of life. The lead single “Kick, Push” discusses the problems of some of his friends, but emphasizes skateboarding as a way to escape everyday problems.