2010’s been a weird year for music, in my opinion. For a long time I thought it’d be absolutely fantastic. Lots of my favourite bands, for example, were going to come out with either sophomores or albums that were them finding their roots again and other such stuff. Moreover, a lot of the singles were fantastic enough to whet the apetite. Yet, despite having stumbled upon a boatload of wondrous new music, I cannot help but feel a little let down by more than a few disappointments.
Frightened Rabbit’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks for example, was a pale shadow of the band’s breakout album Midnight Organ Fight. Interpol’s self-titled was building up to be stunning, till you got past the third song. The new Boduf Songs and Kayo Dot albums were quite disappointing as well.
That said, a lot of other bands for whom expectations were high found themselves greater adulation as they more than stepped up to the plate. Arcade Fire and the National, chief among them, showed that some bands – at least when it comes to the final product – are unhindered by expectations.
Anyway, here’s my top 50 albums of 2010. These are not the albums I found to be the best via some barely objective method – these are just the albums I fell in love with during the year and listened to the most. Though they are in order, I wouldn’t pay much heed to it; I certainly didn’t.
50. Midlake – The Courage of Others
49. Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
48. Les Savy Fav – Root for Ruin
47. Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers
46. Los Campesinos – Romance Is Boring
45. The Magnetic Fields – Realism
44. Alcest – Ecailles de Lune
43. Slow Six – Tomorrow Becomes You
42. Olafur Arnalds – …And They Have Escaped The Weight Of The Darkness
41. Crippled Black Phoenix – I, Vigilante
40. Caribou – Swim
39. (The) Slowest Runner (In All The World) – We, Burning Giraffes
38. Sharon Van Etten – Epic
37. Gigi – Maintenant
36. Clogs – The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton
35. Foals – Total Life Forever
34. Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago
33. Goldmund – Famous Places
32. Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett
31. The Black Keys – Brothers
30. 65daysofstatic – We Were Exploding Anyway
29. The Cast Of Cheers – Chariot
28. S.Carey – All We Grow
27. Four Tet – There Is Love In You
26. Hammock – Chasing After Shadows…Living With The Ghosts
25. Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises
24. Max Richter – Infra
23. Envy – Recitation
22. James Blackshaw – All Is Falling
21. Errors – Come Down With Me
20. Surfer Blood – Astrocoast
19. Rokurro – I Annan Heim
18. Rosetta – A Determinism of Morality
17. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
16. The Fun Years – God Was Like, No
15. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
14. Deerhunter – Halycon Digest
13. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
12. Rafael Anton Irisarri – The North Bend
11. Wild Nothing – Gemini
10. Perfume Genius – Learning
Much of has been made of Perfume Genius’ (Mike Hadreas) album/band photography, where he’s shown as a waif whose just stumbled out of a bar fight. It’s not hard to, at first glance, assume that Learning will consist mostly of maudlin shite that’ll make sixteen year old girls whimper. Thankfully though, Learning is instead (though still relatively maudlin) a beast of a record written by a songwriter whose talent belies his years. ‘No one will answer your prayers / until you take off that dress’ sings Hadreas on album opener Learning, and you realize, as his fragile voice whimpers over gorgeous minor key chords drenched in reverb, that this is something you’ll find yourself aching for whenever it’s an overcast day. The record also happens to have one of my favourite pieces of verse from the year; “He made me a tape of joy division / he told me there was part of him missing / when I was sixteen / he jumped off a building.”
9. Women – Public Strain
I couldn’t get into Women’s self-titled debut back in ’08. It seemed wonderfully left-field, but for some reason or another I could never fall in love with it. Public Strain, however, was a completely different experience. Vocals lined with outrageous amounts of reverb find themselves trying to maintain some semblance of sanity amidst a violent, fuzzed out and psychedelic maelstrom. It’s a maelstrom because anything on Public Strain sounds like it could fit easily on a shoegaze, 70s psych rock, post-rock, garage rock or a straight up indie record. It really is a wonderful record, one that you’ll always find yourself surprised by.
8. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
In We Used To Wait, just before the first chorus arrives, there’s this stunning little moment of musical genius. It seems ordinary – cascading washes of synth, keys, bass and the kick drum before a crash signifies the arrival of the chorus – but it’s the perfect representation of The Suburbs itself. Lots of lovely buildup before the band explodes with their usual rancor. Yet, this isn’t Funeral with its melancholy, regardless of how ‘epic’ it may seem. This isn’t Neon Bible either. Even though The Suburbs is a decidedly Arcade Fire album, it’s far more restrained than the band’s earlier efforts. You’ll still find the bombast that’s the band’s signature, but there’s more to the orchestration than just filling the palette. Far more than both Funeral and Neon Bible combined, The Suburbs is a singular piece of music – start to finish.
7. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
How many discs of a harpist singer-songwriter can you listen to? Especially when the vocalist is one whose voice isn’t exactly one you’re likely to fall in love with immediately? 1? 2? 3? If you answered three, you’ve met the threshold Joanna Newsom arrived at as well. Have One On Me is spread over three discs, and as arduous a task as it seems listening to it, I’ve had fewer rewarding experiences this year. Newsom’s voice seems far less grating than it ever has, and Have One On Me has her at her sparsest and most vulnerable. There are no batshit insane orchestral flourishes that peppered her previous stunner, Ys. Instead, most of the songs are barren, and it’s a testament to Newsom’s lyrical and instrumental prowess that not for one instant do you feel bored listening to all three discs. It’s a stunning work of music and heralds, in my opinion, the true coming of Newsom.
6. Brian McBride – The Effective Disconnect
The Effective Disconnect was music recorded for the documentary, The Vanishing of the Bees. I can’t comment on how this works as an OST, since I haven’t see the documentary, but on its own even it’s a remarkable piece of melancholy. At times it veers towards sounding too much like Stars of the Lid – guitars swell and show up only to leave you gasping for more a few seconds later as they fade away behind those surreal, huge curtains. Embedded deep within the minimalist school of music, McBride’s fashioned a wonderfully austere album that’s made for that harsh, dry winter day when just a few rays of sunlight manages to find their way past the leaves, branches and trees that pepper your backyard.
5. Wolf Parade – Expo 86
What happens when you combine two prominent and immensely talented Canadian musicians? Actually, never mind that – Canadian indie rock/pop is incredibly incestuous as it is. Wolf Parade is Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs) and Spencer Krug (Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, Frog Eyes), and if you’re looking for this year’s catchiest, yet craziest, indie rock record, you don’t need to look further than Expo 86. Chock full of the stilted chaos so prominent of Krug’s other acts, Expo 86 is a record so full of hooks, incredible lyrics, air-guitar worthy guitar parts and Bonham-esque stick destroying drum parts that it’s fairly amazing how the material recorded for the album didn’t spill onto two discs. Additionally, the high level of awesomeness maintained on the first six tracks of the album is something that I don’t think has been matched in 2010.
4. Beach House – Teen Dream
Yummy, yummy dream-pop goodness. What more can you ask for in life? The self-titled debut was good – Devotion was even better. Teen Dream though is an absolute corker of an album with a not a single mediocre tune on board. From opener Zebra to the meandering post-rock nature of Walk In The Park, the album is strong on hooks and just the perfect amount of atmosphere to sound like a dream-pop act without overdoing the schtick. These are, at the end of the day, just fascinating, brilliant songs, regardless of genre. Legrand’s vocals and keyboard parts are integral to the creating that sense of place so important for Beach House’s music, and she genuinely doesn’t disappoint. It’s actually quite hard to pick up on anything specific with regards to what makes this album tick so well – suffice to say it’s enough to accept that it just works as a collection of remarkable tunes.
3. The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Like Joanna Newsom, Kristian Matsson too has a voice that many would immediately find off-putting. If, however, you walk away from the The Wild Hunt as a result of that after ten seconds, you’ll miss out on the best singer-songwriter album this year. An accomplished guitarist, Matsson weaves his Dylan-esque voice in tandem with mesmerizing lyrics (“I walk upon the river like it’s easier than land / evil’s in my pocket and your will is in my hand”) to construct vignettes you’re going to struggle to break away from. Often compared to Dylan (as I’ve already done half-assedly) there’s one this Matsson does possess in his arsenal that Dylan never did – the ability to be emotive. This diminutive Swede is easily one of the greatest things to come out of Scandinavia over the past few years.
2. Eluvium – Similes
If you go through my year-end lists the past few years, you’ll always find Eluvium or Matthew Robert Cooper amongst them. If you trawl through my blog for Eluvium-related posts, you’ll find quite a few; all of which allude to this man’s absolute genius. Ever since I first heard Talk Amongst The Trees, Eluvium’s been one artist who seems to do no wrong for me. Similes though, is quite different from previous Eluvium fare. For starters, Cooper’s actually singing on this record – something often unheard of in ambient circles. Yet, his voice shares in itself the same qualities that so often make ambient music inimitably stunning – that floating, ethereal, wandering nature that somehow seems unaffected by the constraints of gravity. Add in some glitchy percussion and you have Cooper making the verse-chorus-verse structure his. Similes still is an ambient album through and through, and more often than not you still see the usual Eluvium brushstrokes. What makes Similes so astonishing then is not just Cooper’s inability to traverse the same territory again, but his ability to challenge himself and still come up trumps with a product that is polished. Cooper doesn’t dip his toes into water, and that genuine sincerity in his experimental nature shows up in the album itself. This, in other words, isn’t half-assed. It is instead the greatest piece of ambient music you’re likely to hear this year.
1. The National – High Violet
It’s telling that there’s a band out there who have put out three phenomenal albums (Alligator, Boxer, High Violet) – and that it’s incredibly hard to decide which one of them is actually the best. Whereas Alligator was vociferous and Boxer pensive, High Violet has The National consolidating both of those emotions – sounding instead more focused and aware of their surroundings that they’ve ever been. Berninger’s lyrics are still effortlessly quotable (“Go out at night with your headphones on, again / and walk through the Manhattan valleys of, the dead” from Anyone’s Ghost, or “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld / I want to sit in and die” from Lemonworld). The Dessner brothers on guitar are on form as well, as their guitars build collages not familiar to their previous releases. Bryan Devendorf too, is an example of what a great drummer can do – turn a good band into a great one. Him and Berninger are the ones around whom the band fashions their songs, and it’s remarkable how they seem to shine under all that. At the end of the day, it’s not hard to step back and say that The National are sonically an unremarkable band – that their sound isn’t experimental or surprising enough; that they tread well-travelled territory. Though that’s arguable, it’s still understandable. Yet, sometimes, music isn’t all about experimentation. It is, at the end of the day, about what you hear – about the strength and the quality of the songs. The National, ultimately, write breathtaking songs that’ll stick with you for ages. This is a band you’ll find soundtracking your life in general – all those breakups, those marriages and those divorces, those children and them going off to college. It’s a band that just writes some of the most amazing songs on earth, and to hell with all else.