On The Download: Animal Collective’s Magnificent ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’

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It’s only January, but critics have already called Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” the best album of the year – and come December, they may well be right.

The album is the prolific band’s ninth since 2000, an exhausting pace that would leave most musicians out of gas – but “Merriweather” is the band’s best work, a collection effortlessly melding psychedelic pop, ambient noise and hip-hop energy into a seamless, singular release.

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Animal Collective began as an experimental act more concerned with fuzzy tape loops and field recordings than songs, and it’s that noisy sensibility that’s stayed with them throughout their career – even at their most poppy, as on last year’s relatively straightforward “Strawberry Jam” the band still punctuated their rapid-fire melodies with tribal shouts and eschewed traditional rock instrumentation in favor of electronic samples. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the quartet has never approached mainstream fame – until 2007, when band member Noah Lennox, who goes by the name Panda Bear, found surprise success with solo release “Person Pitch.” That album inched the band closer to critical mass – and with “Merriweather,” they’ve crafted an album that could put them over the top.

Though the album’s already been name-dropped on ABC News’ new music segment and earned an “A-“ from Entertainment Weekly, the songs don’t need any help as they speak for themselves. Take “My Girls,” the album’s best track – a joyous exercise that finds Lennox asking for a simple life instead of “material things”: “I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls.” Like many of the songs, it floats along with a woozy, psychedelic vibe that recalls the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” – but adds a thumping bass line that brings the track into focus, and maybe even onto the dance floor. On first listen, it seems the product of typical rock instruments, but further spins reveal the track’s electronic and sampled elements looping under the drums and earnest vocals.

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“Merriweather” full of similar efforts, tracks hot enough to blare from car windows and too richly textured not to enjoy on headphones. Fans of the Beach Boys’ sunny vocal harmonies or the Beatles’ more drug-influenced excursions will find much to explore here, as will experimentalists more interested in the sound collages of tape loops and warped electronics, but with its themes of joy and release, Animal Collective have made something meant for everyone. The band sounds not just happier, but wiser – “My Girls” refers to Lennox’s wife and daughter, and the lyrics find him accepting the responsibilities of adulthood without growing nostalgic for the revelry of youth.

In this day and age, that’s a message that should reverberate even beyond the band’s echoing pianos. It’s hard to say what “Merriweather Post Pavillion” will sound like in 12 months – and it doesn’t matter. Now, with a new year and a new president, it captures the feeling of the moment at the time we need it most – hope.

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