John Mayer Trio
Try! Live in Concert (Aware/Columbia)
My pleasant surprise of the year, for sure. I enjoyed bits and pieces of Mayer's previous studio records, but not enough to consider myself much of a fan. This record changed that. And it also changed my initial belief that only studio records should make my list. But unlike typical live records, Try! is not mostly comprised of previously-released material. Rather, there are seven new songs, two covers, and two carry-overs from 2003's Heavier Things. What this adds up to is a new direction for Mayer, a shift towards blues-inspired rock that just sounds... well, cool. It's rare that a live record overhauls my perspective of an artist, but Try! has done just that. If you have even a passing interest in Mayer, do yourself a favor and pick this up.
Key Tracks: "Vultures," "Another Kind of Green," "Gravity"
The Weight is a Gift (Barsuk)
Destined to be a one-hit wonder after 1996's buzz-clip "Popular," Nada Surf reemerged in 2002 with Let Go, an album that would cement them as one of the most revered indie bands around. I hesitated on picking this album up immediately, as only a handful of tracks from Let Go really enticed me. After giving it a listen, I immediately found The Weight is a Gift to be a more compelling package than it's predecessor. "Do It Again" is a catchy, upbeat track that begat the title with the line, "Maybe this weight was a gift/like I had to see what I could lift." It's one of the best tracks of the year, and it's a great indie rock album.
Key Tracks: "Do It Again," "Always Love," "Your Legs Grow"
The Starting Line
Based on a True Story (Drive-Thru/Geffen)
It had been three long years since the release of Say It Like You Mean It, still a cornerstone in the pop-punk community. In that time, singer Kenny Vasioli clearly graduated from the teen ranks both literally and figuratively: years of touring, relationships, and label drama gave their new songs a harder edge, lyrically and musically. Based on a True Story is a concept record about the record industry, as hinted by titled like "Making Love to the Camera," and "Inspired by the $." While the record gets bogged down a bit in the middle, the last five tracks are pure gold (including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Max Bemis of Say Anything) and ultimately take this record to a higher level.
Key Tracks: "Ready," "The B-List," "Surprise, Surprise"
Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
In his second state-inspired album (following 2003's Michigan), Illinois uses historical information to stage his epic about this great state and the people within it. In what other album would you expect to hear a lyric like, "Steven A. Douglas was a great debater/but Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator." It may sound boring, but it's eminently compelling, even for non-residents of the state. It's a much more personal album than you might expect. "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." attempts to humanize the serial killer, leading to the year's most heart-breaking track, hands-down. It may be an odd concept, and it's a lengthy listen, but Illinois ultimately rewards those willing to take a chance on it.
Key Tracks: "Come On! Feel the Illinoise," "John Wayne Gacy, Jr," "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders"
11:11 (Saddle Creek)
I've only been listening to this album for two weeks and I'm already convinced that it's one of the best albums of the year. In fact, with more time, I think it may crawl into my Top 10. Taylor is one-half of indie group Azure Ray, though this is my first exposure to her talents. Her voice is quiet, breathy, and stunningly effective at hitting you right where it counts. When she says, "I will wait for you/but please come soon," you feel it, hard. I'm really in awe of this record right now, and can't help but listen to it everyday. It falls somewhere between Rilo Kiley and Bright Eyes, but Taylor has a voice of her own and should be enjoyed by all, even if you're not typically a fan of female singers.
Key Tracks: "Leap Year," "Nature Song," "Hitched!"