Yes, there was a lot of good music produced in 2010 outside of Milwaukee too; not much in the way of rock and roll, but we’ll hold down the fort here in the Brew City while the rest of the world takes care of the dreampop and chillwave and experimental electronica. I’m so sick of deciding whether or not to harp on the tidal wave of 80s retro I could puke. But if you dig post-punk and synthpop, 2010 has been a second golden age, despite how derivative it may be (cue the everything’s-a-rerun-since-The-Beatles choir). It really has been a terrific year for music (particularly for the 4AD label, holy crap), and there are buttloads of really good albums that I won’t even mention here, but everything on this list is essential listening front to back.
This is technically number eleven, but top ten lists must end with ten, and I can’t leave this album off the list. It may not be as catchy or as mass-appealing as Big Boi’s old band Outkast’s masterpiece Stankonia, but it is damn near as good. It might even be better; I don’t know, it tickles somewhat different funny bones but both records are epic wins on the fun-to-listen-to scale above all, and it’s tough to imagine that Sir Lucious is any less fun than anything Outkast has done.
There was a gigantic void in popular music where macho, badass but still clever and boundary-pushing rap used to exist, and Big Boi finally came along to fill it. Sir Lucious pulls the rug out from under most of mainstream rap; it’s all either unimaginative or sloppy as hell or just plain vapid compared to this. This is braggadocio, it’s insensitive, it’s dirty, but it’s intelligent and dexterous and catchy. Big Boi brings in plenty of help on almost every track but the only real scene-stealer is Janelle Monáe on “Be Still”; the rest are all bit parts in Boi’s show.
The only weak spot on the album is the Jamie Foxx-infused quasi-ballad “Hustle Blood”, which is has some cool moments but every chorus is an utter drag. Producer Lil Jon seemed intent on pumping out a booty-call jingle and wound up sabotaging what could’ve been a nearly perfect album. Just take that track off your playlist and shorten up the mellow portion of the record, featuring one of the best weed anthems in recent memory, “Fo Yo Sorrows”. Then settle in for the sublime pop romp of the final four tracks, and don’t even bother resisting the urge to listen to “Shine Blockas” over and over again; it’s one of the very best songs of the year.
(TIE) 9. Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (Warp)
The two most sampledelic releases of the year are neck and neck on my list. Cosmogramma is obviously the more dance-oriented work, but it can also be a very calming experience, making it one of the all-time great roadtrip albums (say, Milwaukee to Noblesville, for example); too interesting and beat-driven to make you drowsy, and a soothing stress-reliever to boot. It can be background music if you want, but it works equally well when you’re concentrating purely on listening.
The trick Steven Ellison pulls is never letting any one idea play out completely. The tracks are brief and never cluttered even at their busiest, lending the music somewhat of an improvisational feel but without a sense of meandering. As a giant puzzle, the album is pieced together immaculately, defying you to pinpoint by memory exactly where one track ends and another begins, but taken as individuals, the songs are all self-contained and satisfying.
The most impressive moments are when FlyLo plays pure DJ, taking a basic hook and adding layer after layer of harmonious sound, stripping away elements and adding more, creating a seamless patchwork of sound but challenging you to remember how exactly it all started. My favorite example is “Computer Face // Pure Being”, one of the most pointed and concise pieces on the album. But he’s equally adept at spacing out (could you guess from the title?) into moody, blippy atmospherics with only the loosest attachment to song format. “Arkestry” is little more than a brief jazz warm-up/workout set in zero-G, but it has depth and personality all the same. And then there are pure cosmic pop songs like “MmmHmm” that give you the chills thinking about what could happen if FlyLo ever decided to just make a pop album, but hopefully not at the expense of shit like this.
(TIE) 9. The Books: The Way Out (Temporary Residence)
This would be a fascinating and hilarious experiment in found sound collage even if it weren’t for the musicality. But in between giggling at sound bites, you tap your feet, you bob your head, and you get sucked in by some ingenious hooks. The guitar and bass lines in “I Didn’t Know That” and “A Cold Freezin’ Night” (the latter almost has to be a tribute to Captain Beefheart’s “The Blimp”) are what the kids refer to as “sick”; you could almost call ‘em rock and roll. But not really.
The Books are the ultimate stoned-college-kid late-night dialogue/music composite mixtape engineers, but with better equipment and much more fully realized concepts. Once the album sinks in as a whole, much of what initially seemed like a joke becomes poignant, disembodied fragments of lives forgotten by those who lived them, here for our amusement, pointing out how hard it is sometimes to see the line between cliché and universal truth.
The crux of the album requires no samples; a dull percussive throb and a resigned bit of poetry barely hummed, “We Bought The Flood” is like an absolution, for those whose voices were co-opted for the album and for the artists themselves. You might not even notice it on your first couple listens, but it might be the best song on the album.
And personally, I don’t know how anyone can listen to “The Story Of Hip Hop” and not think it’s genius. The moral of the “Story”: “And even the flowers talk to each other, like people do, but the sounds they make are different. Listen carefully, and try to understand what they say.”
8. Yeasayer: Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian)
I have been trying for months (on and off) to think of another band whose first and second album were so radically different that some dude off the street would never guess they were the same artist, yet both as awesome as 2008’s All Hour Cymbals and this year’s Odd Blood. Fail. I’ll never get those minutes of thinking-time back. Thankfully, most of them happened while I was also listening to Yeasayer, so none of them were completely wasted. My most-highly-anticipated and most-listened-to album of 2010. (Read my original review of this album here.)
7. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge)
It's hard to call Arcade Fire's 2007 second album Neon Bible a sophomore slump; it sold almost as well as 2004's Funeral and expanded the band's fanbase by leaps and bounds, although this may have been more a function of its dynamic live shows than anything else. But Neon Bible was a step down creatively; humorless and accusatory, the album was sometimes powerful but ultimately an oppressive listen. On The Suburbs, even with another potentially depressing theme unifying the album, AF has rediscovered some joie de vivre.
Win Butler's voice doesn't have a low-key setting, but he pulls off a somewhat convincing lack of anxiety on the opening title track, and even though it's a relatively lazy stroll for this band, it's invigorating. Then the album busts into a classic AF sprint with "Ready To Start", with its perfectly timed lyrical and musical release. Timing is AF's deadliest weapon, and Suburbs pops with these pinpoint revelatory moments, from the rousing surge at the end of "Rococo" and the anti-anthemic chorus that rises from the handclap mist of "City With No Children" to the unrelenting enthusiasm of "Month Of May", broken only by a breathless drum break, negative space as dynamic focal point.
The band's best moments exult in triumph over strife rather than just lamenting it, but sometimes recognition of the issue is a triumph in itself. Nowhere is this clearer than on the album's climactic tour de force, "Sprawl II", which doesn't exactly offer a solution but it does acknowledge the need for one, and the way Régine Chassagne belts it out, it feels like a catharsis every time. Only those who have never yearned for something greater out of life will be unable to relate to it. It could be the most perfect song of the year. AF may not be masters of subtlety yet, but when the music is bursting with this much power and beauty, who needs to take a breath?
6. The National: High Violet (4AD)
Sometimes, it pays to listen to your friends. I probably would’ve given up on this album about two listens short of falling madly in love with it if it hadn’t been for the lavish praise of it from folks whose opinions I respect. I’d seen the band perform twice, and the latter time left me with the distinct impression that Matt Berninger is a big fat phony. If he’s really that tortured while he’s up there, the grasping girls’ hands in the front row, wading through the adoring crowd, all that antisocial behavior, that’s obviously not working, and he should try something a little less narcissistic-rockstar to help him get over his “stage fright” or whatever it is he’s pretending to be so crippled by occasionally.
But on record, I believe him. He has me so fooled on these songs, I feel like he wrote them about me. I mean, I’m not a vampire or other mythological beast, but I get these emotions. I’ve had that longing, I’ve felt that loss, I’ve cursed and doubted and scoffed at myself and everybody else just like that. Sometimes if I strain hard enough, I can make myself think that I thought those exact words that he’s singing: I still owe money to the money I owe…I didn’t wanna be anyone’s ghost…I’ll explain everything to the geeks. If I pore over old journals, I might find those exact lines.
The band is good; so-and-so on guitar has the indie/post-rock thang down, and the rhythm section is impeccably tight, but it’s Berninger’s show all the way. It’s his haunted voice and his peculiar, biting lyrics that cut to the bone, and the music is just an unobtrusive conveyance. And it seems he’s pretty much done with the primal scream gimmick (except when he’s onstage), so to evoke such white-hot passion within his limited natural register is something I still can’t quite fathom; has anybody but Leonard Cohen ever managed such a feat before?
5. The Acorn: No Ghost (Paper Bag)
This album reminds me of a cross between Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Fog’s last rock-song-ish incarnation. Or maybe more like a folkier, more song-oriented Tortoise. Even as I write this, it's still growing on me, and I'm still not sure what to call it. Once list-making season is over, I have to go back and listen to 2007’s Glory Hope Mountain again. I may not have given it enough chances the first time around. I feel like I’m going to spend years trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that makes me love No Ghost.
The genius is how The Acorn traps pastoral fresh-air breathing room and mystery in deceptively conventional pop songs. You can choose your approach to the album: if orthodox guitar rock is your enemy, you’ll have no trouble ignoring that element, but if perfection necessitates accessibility, the eccentricities are little more than background flourishes. As long as you're not scared of interesting, you should find an angle from which to appreciate this album.
There’s somewhat of a Grizzly Bear aesthetic at work, only less pristine, more stream-of-consciousness musically, more focused lyrically. And definitely more urgent more often. Walls of sound are the toast of indiedom right now, but the musicians of The Acorn aren’t interested; they want each strum and pluck and tap and ping to be heard clearly, none of that blending together to hide the individual inconsistencies. They all weave around each other so deftly that the ascent makes you shiver, and the intensity’s got nothing to do with loudness.
The title track might be the first time you realize how integral a part the electric guitar has played in this album, but it's always there, just never flamboyant, kind of like the choice vocal harmonies. There's nothing that sounds overtly exotic, but you might catch the hum of a mandolin or frogs chirping or some unplaceable percussion in the background. The songs never feel labored over, but at the same time, I kinda suspect they were; you don't accidentally come up with such immaculate arrangements and capture such emotion within them.
But there's no need to sit and decipher the album like this; I just can't help myself. You can just go, “'Crossed Wires' sounds kinda like Arcade Fire, but without the melodrama." Or, "'Bobcat Goldwraith' makes me want to dance for some reason." Or, “'I Made The Law'--holy shit, what a song!" There's a song for whatever mood you want to put yourself in, and they are all awesome. Get ready to leave them on your iPod for a long time, and to smile whenever you shuffle into one.
4. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (4AD)
This is the sound of one of the defining artists of our time emerging into a new level of confidence but with no sign of complacency. His secret: he's some regular guy you'd make friends with at a show or something. He just happens to have this mutant creativity that is thankfully fated to pour out of him at all times.
All of Bradford Cox’s songs play like diary entries, even when they’re addressed to someone else. He’s got a drowsy, stream-of-consciousness delivery and a first-burst energy to his creativity, and the increasing sophistication of his music is held graciously in check by the innocent musings of his lyrics--not juvenile, but simplistic and universal in scope.
What you get is half an album’s worth of hazy, loping dreampop of the narcotic variety, so intoxicating that its net effect is intense as hell (beware: “Basement Scene” might actually put you in a trance), punctuated by caffeinated bursts of uplifting indie rock like “Memory Boy” and “Fountain Stairs” and the incredible “Helicopter”. You won’t catch yourself pepping up; it’s not that kind of uplifting. You just can’t help feeling good about such well-crafted, subversive pop music, blissful with no trace of ignorance.
It’s clever variations on themes that end up making this album seep into your slipstream all the more deeply. “Don’t Cry” is a creepier, harder-edged and dreamier “Basement Scene”, but the similarities end with the riff and rhythm. The energy and pace of “Memory Boy” is cloned in “Fountain Streams”, but not the mood. The album is paced in a disorienting series of confessional dirges and lucid dream sequences punctuated by sudden bursts of overt intensity--sort of like life. There’s nothing escapist about this album. You get the sense that when Cox isn’t laying bare his own soul, he’s peering straight into someone else’s, possibly yours.
3. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella)
To begin with, the title of this album is genius. Then, for the first time ever, I’m able to listen to the first two tracks and not be completely off-put by Kanye’s vocal flow. It’s still a pretty far cry from rapping for the most part, but not bad. (But imagine how incredible “Gorgeous” could be if West was a real MC!) And then he goes and samples “21st Century Schizoid Man” for “Power”, and I’m starting to think I’m actually going to like this album.
My brain, so ingrained with anti-Kanye sentiments, struggles to pay attention to the vocals anyway; it takes a few listens. But those few listens (which turn into many, many listens) wouldn’t even happen if it weren’t for the astounding craftsmanship of the tracks. I’m used to West’s virtuosity as a producer and songwriter, but this is a new level. The combinations of instrumentation and samples, vocal hooks and beats, these are incredibly unique creations. It’s almost as if he’s aiming to trump Girl Talk at his own game, but without caring if you know where any of it comes from, but instead of layered pop song fragments unrelated except for time signature, these are tight and naturalistic collages of components.
Then, in “Power”, he raps with some authority, with some art. Does it again on “Monster”, shockingly not put to shame by his guest stars (well, maybe by Nicki Minaj, just a little…). And when the song fades into a minimalist bass pulse and some reflective ruminations, we’re really in uncharted territory.
Or maybe once-charted. This album is the (I can’t believe I’m saying this) true successor to Kala. It’s an astoundingly varied but cohesive beat-driven pop album that stuns you without even trying. It might be the only album of the year where I thought to myself, part of the way through, ‘Savor this first listen. You only get one.’ So I find myself finally freed from the chains of caring one whit about Kanye’s public idiocy, apparently because he has boosted the quality of every aspect of his music, and I think he’s created a classic here. Seriously, how can he and M.I.A. not have romance in their future? How can they not be the Brangelina of egomaniacal pop stars?
The way the denouement of “Devil In A New Dress” segues into the stark piano intro of “Runaway” is chilling. Aside from Kanye’s slightly embarrassing auto-tuned singing early on, this song is absolute gold; the singalongs when he performs it live will be mind-blowing, but the last two minutes or so of subdued strings and a talkbox solo that almost resolves into lyrics might be the most enthralling moment on the album. Just getting your head around it takes several tries, but it’s haunting every time.
Here’s the review of the album: amazing track after amazing track. It makes you think the emo kids ought to have put their energy into hip hop instead of punk, because this shit works. It’s disturbing, it’s demented, it scarcely resembles anything happy but any time it’s not heartbreaking it’s somehow fun. Even when it’s unpleasant, it’s impressive. And if you think Volcano Choir perfected Bon Iver’s “Woods”, think again; I thought so too, until I heard “Lost In The World”. Finally, the auto-tune to end all auto-tune (PLEASE), to end by far Kanye's best album yet.
2. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (4AD)
Once again, it’s the maximum catchy and maximum weird casserole: I can’t resist it. By definition, Before Today is inescapably retro, drawing heavily from 60s psychedelic pop (to the point of actually covering an obscurity from that era, Rockin' Ramrods' "Bright Lit Blue Skies"), blatantly mimicking Bowie
on "Little Wig", and commandeering the trippiest grooves from the decades
that followed. If that were the end of the story, I would hate this album. I
At times, it’s as if they heard everything that came out in 2010 in advance and decided to show everybody else how retro is done.
Believe me, when I first heard the album, I was already sick to death
of hearing music that had already been done to death. But the songs
kept making me come back to Before Today, and after a half dozen
listens or so, the album legitimized itself. The title, and the song
"Reminiscences", and the way the first track, "Hot Body Rub", sucks you
straight into a tongue-in-cheek but unironic, um, hot tub time
machine...on one hand, it facilitates a quicker mainline to your brain,
but that kind of device rarely resonates deeply. Before Today somehow transcends camp and familiarity to become one of the most moving releases of the past decade.
Musically, the album
is hotboxed in psychedelia, which also should make me hate it, but it
doesn't just sucker you into feeling trippy. It functions more as a
challenge: create meaningful, uplifting art within the confines of this
tired gimmick--I dare ya. Only a fool would try. They push the dreamy
aspect as far as your psyche can take, then start rocking out like
nobody’s business. “Butt-House Blondies” (song title of the year, no
contest) gets heavy and genuinely disturbing at times, and then “Little
Wig” cranks like the second coming of “Suffragette City” and then goes all vocal-Mogwai for its finale Then, right back into dreampop for "Can't Hear My Eyes", possibly the most 80s-Fleetwood-Mac song of the year, and that's saying something (looking right at you, Beach House). Even after you fall in love with it, you'll never remember what's around every corner.
there is some rock and roll left in indie rock. Maybe there is still
dangerous humor in the future of music. Maybe we can still think and
feel at the same time. If Ariel Pink keeps making music this good,
maybe some other folks will realize they can do it too. Maybe
revolution isn't a lie.
It’s been an enticing thought throughout the band’s existence: what if Agalloch found a perfect synthesis between its atmospheric and melodic tendencies and its black metal roots? That said, here are some random excerpts from the novel I could write about this album. Hope you enjoy.
The first track, "They Escaped The Weight Of Darkness", gives nothing away: running water, atmospherics, a neoclassical violin piece that lulls you but not into anything comfortable. "Into The Painted Grey" is the statement of purpose. I notate it thusly: modern Kralliceish black metal intro > piercing harmonic guitar theme > punishing screamed verses > almost Wolverine Blues-style death rock > melodic black metallic build with acoustic guitar flourishes, culminating in a rush of brilliant twin leads and ending with a deep sustained vocal chorus. And somewhere in there, notice the insane tribal drumming of Aesop Dekker, who barely keeps the madness from destroying the song. That's the first song.
For one thing, this album is a marvel of old-school stereophony; the various sounds and effects that assault your ears from both sides create a miasma of sensation, adding to the primeval resonance of the music. Every subtle difference between the two strummed acoustics in “The Watcher’s Monolith” adds to the rich atmosphere. I’d say “retro” but “timeless” is more to the point.
As a whole, the album is prog in the best sense, a stylistic synthesis that's greater than the sum of its parts. A mournful piano interlude backed by a magnified recording of a forest ends "The Watcher's Monolith"; it's interrupted by a post-rock noise jam that explodes and lands in the martial, tribal acoustic strum/chant that begins "Black Lake Nidstång". Somehow, nothing feels abrupt or out of place. Following a vintage organ dirge, just prior to the final raging blast, there is a mesmerizing guitar loop tapestry, reprised at the very end of the song, that sounds exactly like an interlude of a Phish jam. Agalloch might not want to hear that, but it's true.
In a sense, this is by far Agalloch’s most straightforward, accessible album, but it’s also the band’s most complicated. It’s the kind of album that could unite metalheads under one flag or splinter them irrevocably. The greatest miracle may be the way the group blends the songs together with sounds of water and weather and fauna, seamlessly as if they were just more instruments. The band has tapped Mother Nature herself to contribute to this masterpiece.
I could go on like this for an hour. It would take as long to verbally describe everything that goes on on this album as it does to listen to it, after which all those words would become meaningless anyway. It's a bona fide classic, 'nuff said.
The Blood Of Heroes: The Blood Of Heroes (Ohm Resistance)
This intriguing blend of dub, hip hop and industrial is one of the dozen or so projects Justin Broadrick had a toe in this year, and it’s a striking success on most fronts. If only he and his cohorts (including the other busiest man in showbiz, Bill Laswell) had found themselves a couple top-notch vocalists rather than the uncharismatic Dr. Israel, who provides the occasional lyric on this record. Call me crazy, but I suspect this lineup ain’t stable anyway; next album could be a doozy.
Eminem: Recovery (Aftermath)
It would be easy to overrate Recovery based on how godawful its predecessor (last year's Relapse) was. Usually when an artist stoops that low, it's over, especially when it's on the heels of a "retirement". But Eminem must have punched himself in the nuts enough last year to motivate a return to form. It's not quite on par with his best work, but his commitment to new ideas and his remarkable flow are once again at the top of the mainstream rap heap.
Em's goofy voices and outrageous personas were played before he drove them into the mud, so it's nice to have the real guy unembellished and freaking out. His new thing is bizarre plays-on-words like "standing on my Monopoly board" (on top of his game) and "my filet is smokin' weed" (the stakes are high), which aren't as clever as he thinks but they're still a cut above poop jokes in a Middle-Eastern accent, and he's made a full return to the tongue- and head-twisting rhymes that few other rappers can compete with, and that he couldn't seem to come up with on Relapse. This is the real comeback album.Enslaved: Axioma Ethica Odini (Nuclear Blast)
This album may not break any new ground, but it is a flawless work of progressive blackish metal. If you're looking for blood-curdling riffs spliced together with maddening precision but never abandoned until you've gotten the full effect, this is where you'll find them. In an age where many metal bands are developing their sensitive and/or experimental side, Enslaved is still all about putting the fear of the devil in you and making you love it. This isn't the last refuge for headbangers by any means, but it's the creative, technical and raw-power pinnacle for meat-and-potatoes metal at this point.
Shining: Blackjazz (Indie Recordings)
On the strict scale of guitar-based heaviness, this album doesn’t get the top spot, but in terms of seizure-inducing intensity of the darkest possible mood, it’s the heaviest album of 2010. Part of the trick is an oppressively alien style, more proof that everything has not already been done. Nobody has done anything this powerful and this impossible to categorize since Mr. Bungle. (Read my original review here.)Derek E. Miller's voice. Like its corresponding record of 2009, xx, Treats succeeds with resonant minimalism, juicy bursts of simplicity that any embellishment would tarnish. Sleigh Bells are AC/DC for indie kids, and "Rill Rill" is their "Ride On"--okay, maybe a bit less world-weary, but it's that perfect slow number you didn't see coming amidst a barrage of heavy guitar and screaming. Go ahead and license the shit out of this album, guys; I'll never get sick of these tunes.
Sufjan Stevens: The Age Of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty)
I have a feeling this one is only going to grow in my estimation; it came out late in the year so I feel like I haven't really had the chance to fall madly in love yet. Musically, it's extremely different from the hand-crafted organic indie pop that made Sufjan Stevens somewhat of a household name over his last few proper albums (particularly 2005's Illinois), but the vocal melodies and lyrics are vintage Sufjan. It's not radically experimental, just very electronic and brighter and bolder than what we're used to, but immaculately arranged and produced all the same. You get the visceral rush of what seems like an explosion of creativity but you still feel like you've scored another super-detailed work of art as only Stevens can deliver.
George Lewis, Jr. is sneaky: the first track on his debut album barely has any bass. It's almost false advertising, but I guess if he wants to keep his secret weapon holstered for a bit, the better to blast you when he whips it out, who can blame him?
I love that this came out the same year as Sleigh Bells: electronic music with effective use of heavy guitar (just not nearly as often by Twin Shadow) and a foot each in retro and nouveau. But where Sleigh Bells chill and freak out in a childlike manic depression, Twin Shadow reeks of sophistication, anything but frivolous. Some of these lyrics (particularly “Tyrant Destroyed” and "Yellow Balloon") might make you uncomfortable with their striking emotional baring; the gothic ache running through this album is genuine and moving.
It’s nearly impossible to fathom that this is the work of one man, however. The guitar/bass interplay on “For Now" is the sound of a band, dammit! And speaking of bass, it's the dominant force on this album, and it's amazing; emotional and organic and often hummable, if you remember one aspect of a song on here it's probably the bass, and this fact alone makes it one of the coolest and most unique albums I've heard in a long time.
Avey Tare: Down There (Paw Tracks)
Yeah, I love Animal Collective, and all things considered, this isn’t a bad album. This section isn’t called “BAD ALBUMS”. Lots of good songs here, but seriously: you’ve outgrown the intentionally shitty production schtick, Avey. Go ahead, fuck around, experiment, be inaccessible! You’ve earned it and you’re really good at it. But knowing what incredible music could’ve arisen from these germs of ideas that have been belligerently steered towards weird and hard to hear and at some point given up on makes listening to the album not very enjoyable. It’s shitgaze for hippies, and that’s not good enough any more.
The Ocean: Heliocentric (Metal Blade)
And then there were the truly BAD albums like this one. Last year it was Mute Math; this year, The Ocean built on the perfection of its previous release, Precambrian, by utterly losing its way and delivering a painfully cheesy and stupid bunch of songs. It's not so much a step backward as a complete destruction of identity and integrity. (Read my original review here.)