A few observations about the music of 2010: First, and I pointed this out in July, so you can imagine what December must’ve been like, there was a ton of music to absorb. Second, synth-based music, with nearly 40 years of material to draw from, thoroughly has my attention. Third, the whole “beach/summer” sound may or may not be played out (pun intended), and I’m not sure how I feel about it (Summer, is after all, a mighty fine season). Fourth, genre, for all intents and purposes, is pretty much over, or if not over, at least soft around the edges. And lastly, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog that I finally decided my number one record.
To this end, my number one and number two albums are virtually interchangeable; they are both sonic wonders that spoke to me using different vocabularies and connected with me — right here-right now– in a deep, spiritual way.
In the end, I settled on my number one for the reasons mentioned below (see the album description), but also because my dear friend Greta (whose musical instincts, let alone lists, I respect with a bowed reverence) said it would be a copout to have a tie. “You need to commit, Tony”, she said. Which– if you ask me– is really just nicer way of saying, “Shit or get off the pot, Tony”.
Is she right? Perhaps. You tell me.
The 50 best albums of 2010
50. The Octopus Project: Hexadecagon
49. Diamond Rings: Special Affections
48. El Guincho: Pop Negro
47. Twin Shadow: Forget
46. Wild Nothing: Gemini
45. Ra Ra Riot: The Orchard
44. Robyn: Body Talk
43. Tame Impala: Innerspeaker
42. Trentemoeller: Into The Great Wide Yonder
41. Lower Dens: Twin-hand Movement
40. Motorama: Alps
39. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
38. Netherfriends: Barry and Sherry
37. How To Dress Well: Love Remains
36. Groove Armada: Black Light/White Light
35. Junip: Fields
34. Best Coast: Crazy For You
33. Cee Lo Green: The Lady Killer
32. Caribou: Swim
31. Charlotte Gainsbourg: IRM
30. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Before Today
29. Houses: All Night
28. Owen Pallett: Heartland
27. The Tallest Man On Earth: The Wild Hunt
26. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
25. Chancha Via Circuito: Rio Arriba
24. Broken Bells: Broken Bells
23. Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles
22. Clubfeet: Gold On Gold
21. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening
20. The Philistines Jr.: If a Band Plays in the Woods..
In a time when the distribution of music has become so simple, it would seem the Philistines Junior’s appropriately titled LP if a band plays in the woods…?, could be taken as a comment on this zeitgeist. I mean, at the very least it can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating pronouncement of where the band sees the LP’s mainstream acceptance potential let alone it’s ability to reach the hearts, minds and ears of indie fans. And if indeed it’s a prescient title after all, well, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be. This is lovely folk pop filled with beautiful melodic tunes, that while seeming large on the surface, are really all about the minutia.
19. Delorean: Subiza
Last year’s wonder of an EP, Ayrton Senna, was no fluke; it was an auspicious introduction of things to come. Subiza is every bit as infectious as its predecessor, but with a broader palette. This is a house music valentine, filtered through a modern-indie dance aesthetic; keys climb, beats pound, surprises happen and the soul feels happy.
18. Hot Chip: One Life Stand
It would be a shame — almost tragic, really — if the LP with my favorite song of the year (by far), “Take It In”, with a chorus so anthemic and beautiful you need to take care your heart doesn’t explode, lacked the meat to make it in my top 10. Fortunately, this isn’t a case. Instead, Hot Chip have delivered their best — and dare I say — most satisfying record to date.
17. Avi Buffalo: Avi Buffalo
In spite of the group’s age — which comes across in the “spirited” lyrics (and which I otherwise wouldn’t mention) — there’s a knack for songwriting here that transcends precociousness and veers into downright gifted savant territory. In other words, these kids have the goods. Jangly and raw in the best of possible California ways, this self-titled debut, feels good going in, and equally as good hanging around.
16. The Bambi Molesters: As The Dark Wave Swells
In the late 70s/early 80s Southern California saw a second wave renaissance of the reverb drenched instrumental surf music of the 60s snake its way into the punk and new wave scenes of Los Angeles and Orange County. And while a third wave is yet to happen, it could be argued that the “beach/summer” sound that has defined chillwave and scores of super lo-fi indie pop bands of the last two years, is as close as it’s going to get. And quite possibly. Unless, of course, you look toward the Balkans. Hailing from one of the most unlikely homes for surf music, Croatia, The Bambi Molesters have created an authentic album of melodramatic, bombastic, spaghetti western influenced surf music this side of, well, 60s Malibu.
15. Hooded Fang: Hooded Fang Album
As much as I love the experience of an album that grows on you over multiple listens, there’s something age-of-five-Christmas-morning-like about one that grabs you out of the gate and keeps delivering as each song folds into next on that first listen. Of course, the experience is further heightened when you know nothing about the band or LP you’re listening to and Hooded Fang fell into this category. A lot of this depends on “where you’re at” at the time and I guess for this listen I was vibing on super melodic folktronica. Not an odd state for me to be in, per se, but nevertheless a certain amount of alignment had to occur. All that said, this is a great record no matter how many times you listen to it. Fun, upbeat pop.
14. The Radio Dept.: Clinging to a Scheme
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, could an end of the year “best of” list ever be complete without at least one Swedish pop group? Coming in at around 35 min., you’d be hard-pressed to find another LP this year that represents the age-old adage “quality over quantity”. Sun kissed around the edges and buoyed by electronics that give most the songs a preternatural ability to cause one’s head to bounce, this is catchy, brooding, smile inducing pop.
13. Germany Germany: Last Summer/Radiowave
It’s been a good year for synth-based music–a really really good year. And while a lot of the best stuff is drawing directly off the synthpop of the 80s, it would be too easy to call it derivative (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Rather, the best synth music of 2010 is drawing from a deeper well– electro, disco, house, kraut rock, trance, etc.– and Germany Germany is no exception. Categorically synthpop/electro at its foundation (see the audacious yet successful sampling of New Order’s iconic drumbeat from “Blue Monday” on “River”), it walks a successful line between four to the floor dance rhythms and washed out, nestled deeply into the mix melodic vocal lines that beg to reach into your chest with anthemic sweetness and yank out your heart. Two albums in one year… not bad!
12. Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here
Arguably one of the most important/poignant political-musical documentarians of the 70s and early 80s, Heron’s free jazz baritone, spoke truth to power where few were as successful or poetic. I’m New Here, his first record in 16 years, is a surprise of sorts, given all the record is and is not. What could’ve been a referendum on all that’s passed in the last decade or so, is instead a naked look inward, and feels like the perfect way to go. Sharp, direct, moving, this is a stunning, thought-provoking piece of music.
11. Tanlines: Volume On
I’ll admit, throwing this up there as one of my favorite albums of 2010 might be considered a bit of a cheat, if for no other reason than half of it is from the EP Settings (2010) while the rest of it is filled out by mostly remixes; but damn if it doesn’t feel like an LP. Part of that–oddly enough–may come from the acoustic version of the standout track “Real Life” that closes the collection–a version that shouldn’t work in this context, but does. It just feels like a natural bookend. Of course, my love for the collection runs much deeper than its sequencing; it’s the buoyant, infectious tropical synthpop that has me grinning ear to ear which warrants its placement on my end of the year best of list. And, really, what else could it come down to?
10. Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid
It seems every decade or so (sometimes less, sometimes more) an artist takes R&B/hip-hop for a left-field spin out toward the genres edges: Parliament/Funkadelic, Prince, De La Soul, Outkast, etc. With her debut album–the second piece of a “rock opera”–Janelle has made a compelling argument she should be considered amongst those rarefied names. Epic in ambition–the album is a genre bender of the highest order; throwing rap, disco, cabaret, contemporary R&B, classical and even some James Bond styled theme song theatrics into the mix (Of Montréal were even invited to the party). It should be an overreaching disaster, but at its core– and holding it all together–is Janelle’s voice and unwavering commitment to the material, making it anything but a disaster.
9. Sun Ariway: Nocturne of Exploded Chandelier
The idea of ambient music has always appealed to me, but upon execution, well, it simply drifts into the background and we’re no longer connecting in a meaningful way. Now if you throw in some sunshine, reverb, syrupy sweet, singing from beyond the ether vocals and a rhythm track that can just out race the BPM of most hip-hop, then you’ve got what the kids are calling these days “chillwave/glo-fi” and now we’ve got a meaningful relationship. The problem I find with this splintered offshoot of a genre, however, is the color by numbers approach to hitting all the categorical marks. Not a bad problem per se, given that most of its pleasant enough. On the surface–and why you shouldn’t judge a book entirely by its cover–Sun Airway would appear to be colored in with expert numerical precision; the summery name, the floaty, ephemeral album title, the washed out, psychedelic album art, etc. But here’s the thing–and all of that may be ironic, I don’t know–what separates this album from its peers are the great songs. Two, in fact, the stunning; “oh naoko” and “waiting on you”.
8. The Drums: The Drums
In the same way that The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psycho Candy took the whole Beach Boys meets Phil Spector thing to ridiculous but satisfying distorted extremes, so do The Drums take the synthpop ‡ la beach pop fusion to their own satisfying ends. Like no other record this year, this LP screams summer. And while some of that’s due to the lingering vapor trail of the infectious single “Let’s Go Surfing” off The Drums debut EP (included on the album as well), I’d say most of its due to the melodic bubblegum instincts the band so effortlessly lays down.
7. The Love Language: Libraries
The downbeat, lo-fi debut that sparkled with melodies arising from a muddy DIY mix was–despite its lyrical content–a joy to experience. And while some of the authenticity of the songs were buoyed by the intimate DIY production, it was easy to see the possibilities that lay ahead. Libraries, for me, was a confirmation of sorts: on the one hand, it confirmed the songwriting talent of Stuart McLamb, while on the other, showing authenticity can be found in an actual studio with cleaned up, clear sonics just as easily as it can in the bedroom with fuzzy vocals. In many ways, this record–with its filtered 60s Mersey meets Phil Spector influences (very filtered mind you)–is a soul record as much as it is a rock one. And as such, it digs in deep.
6. Girls: Broken Dreams Club
Last year’s much-hyped (albeit worthy) debut Album from San Francisco’s Girls was no fluke, all the lo-fi melodic songwriting instincts were just seedlings taking root for the bounty to come. And come it has. Technically an EP (clocking in with just seven songs), it feels bigger than that. Its scope, particularly the closer “Caroline”, gives it an epic feel that renders the number of songs meaningless. Away from the lo-fi aesthetic of the debut, the tighter, cleaner production on Broken further enhances the quality of the songs. This is tight, thoughtful songwriting and an exciting next step for The Girls.
5. Summer Fiction: Summer Fiction
A record such as this is precisely the reason I listen to so much music; every now and then, in the middle of what seems like an un-sortable mix, a gem rises to the surface and slays me. Summer Fiction’s just-released (November 30) eponymously titled debut, is just such a record. Crisply produced jangle pop folk with melodious instincts that run for days, the only downside I can find to this LP is its release date, and the fact that you probably won’t find it on many “2010 best of” lists. A real shame too, because it deserves to be heard. To this end, be suspicious of all lists that came out before December.
4. The National: High Violet
I’ll admit when I first heard High Violet, I was like, meh, it’s good, but definitely no Boxer. Outside of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, with one of the most poignant lines of the year — “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe” — I was finding it difficult to latch on to any of the melodies (which is saying something given Matt Berninger’s instincts in this regard). But here’s the thing, it began to grow on me. And after seeing the majority of the LP performed live, it’s depth and sonic emotion made complete sense. Sure, it’s the same melancholic stuff of previous records, but what’s a little co-misery amongst friends.
3. Beach House: Teen Dream
Dream-Pop, for good or for bad (for me, at least), is a genre best taken in a heightened state. This may seem like contradictory advice, but to truly appreciate the sugary, fuzzed out, languorous sonics you want to be wide awake. That said, it’s the sleepy quality of the music, that gives it its mojo … and Teen Dream is no exception. Tighter and more focused than previous Beach House releases, this feels more like a re-occurring dream than one that will quickly fade as the morning unfolds into the subsequent hours.
2. The Books: The Way Out
At least once a month or so when I was in undergrad at Cal I would go to the UC Art Museum and sit in front of a giant Hans Hoffman painting they had in their permanent collection on the top floor and simply get lost in its scope. Nine times out of 10 I would lose track of the time, and on more than one occasion found myself weeping with joy because of its beauty. Abstraction has always done this for me, far more so than literal expression. I find intention is able to take a backseat to interpretation and that’s liberating. The Books, for the most part, have always dealt in abstraction, but in the long player format–in my opinion anyway–with mixed results. Which isn’t to say the albums aren’t good (quite the contrary), just lacking an overall cohesion. The Way Out doesn’t suffer from this problem and that’s why this album is so exciting; it walks a fine line between having a point of view–intention–while remaining abstract enough to allow the listener to shape it for themselves. Were tears shed in the process? Oh yeah, this was a transcendent LP.
1. Jonsi: Go
Jumping off and running with the exuberance that made the leftfield pop opener “Gobbledygook” off Sigur Ros’ last album so exciting, Go — as the title would seem to suggest — is about movement. Which isn’t to say it’s a record about going from point A to point B, but rather about ignition — that bursting out of the gates moment; the exhilaration and the fear. His falsetto, the crescendoed songwriting, the layered instruments, all feel like a mouthful of Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola. Which — when you think about it — might be the ultimate liftoff.
Ultimately Go was my favorite album of 2010 for one very simple reason; every time I came back to it I fell more in love with it. From the moment I heard it back in the spring — those squeaky, unabashedly joyful synth pulses opening the record on the track “Go Do” up until two days ago, when I stopped doing what I was doing and just got lost in the cacophonous ending of “Grow till tall” — this record has had me in a state of wonderment. Ambitious and optimistic in a way few records ever are, it wears its heart on its sleeve with unwavering courage.
Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!