Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2010

As with any list, I can hardly claim this to be all-encompassing, as it focuses primarily on the genres of most interest to me (alternative/indie rock, folk, minimalist, ambient). I've also included a handful of 2009 albums, and in one instance, a selection from 2008, making this less a definitive year-end music list than a personal collection of various albums that made an impact on me throughout the year. Without further ado, here's the list.

1. The Walkmen - Lisbon

The Walkmen return with their breeziest, most stripped-down album yet. Hamilton’s voice is at its most relaxed and triumphant, and the songwriting is simple and timeless. It seems that the more the band strips away from their already spare sound, the more resonant their music becomes. Standouts like "Blue as Your Blood", "Juveniles", "Woe is Me", and "While I Shovel the Snow" demonstrate impeccable craftsmanship even as they downsize with the most basic ingredients of rock'n'roll (guitar, bass, drums, organ). No other album this year grew so intensely in my affections; I’ve listened to it over 50 times. It’s a shame that The Walkmen are so consistently ignored by music outlets, presumably just because they don’t pander to fleeting trends.

2. Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

Another example of a sadly neglected album with huge, iconic power in spite of its modest ingredients (a guitar and a voice, for the most part). Kristian Mattson’s folk songs have the gift of being universal, like the best of Bob Dylan and Dock Boggs, and intensely singular, marked by Mattson’s expressive growl and virtuosic finger-picking.

3. Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People

I don’t care much about how this is formally called an “EP”. Aside from the gargantuan length, it’s more complete and varied than most conventional full-lengths. The title track is an incredible marathon with about as many hooks as you could hope for in a great pop song, and an equal number of avant-garde orchestrations. It’s infectious music, alternating from the big and bold to the deliciously intimate (“Owl and the Tanager”), and it’s a greater joy than Sufjan’s other release this year, The Age of Adz.

4. DM Stith - Heavy Ghost (2009)

There’s two voices of D.M Stith on Heavy Ghost: an eerily intimate, nakedly produced one that suggests someone whispering in your ear and a ghostly, propulsive one that swerves around in the background. They are constantly competing in his elaborate songs, which range from hobbling folk waltzes (“Pity Dance”) to darkly beautiful piano numbers (“Braid of Voices”). How I missed this in 2009 is a mystery to me.

5. Dr. Dog - Shame Shame

Such a consistent rock band. There’s nothing extraordinarily inventive here; just a collection of contagious pop songs. It’s also the band’s most high-fidelity album, which gives new clarity to their nuanced textures.

6. David Sylvian - Manafon (2009)

I love how Sylvian’s bellowing, expressive voice is laid bare by the intensely minimalist contributions of his collaborators. Manafon quickly settles into a Zen-like state with its first slow-burner (“Small Metal Gods”) and never ceases. Sylvian’s elaborate and enigmatic stories are supplied shape and emotional support by the hushed static, the unexpected violin swells, and the various acoustic clicks and pops across the album.

7. Jonsi - Go

There’s not much contemporary pop rock that sounds quite like Jonsi. Even though his first solo album incorporates orchestrations by ubiquitous indie composer Nico Muhly, the youthful, energized sound is unlike anything the two have ever done. The dynamic range of this record – from euphoria bursts like “Boy Lilikoi” to loose epics like “Grow Till Tall” – is astounding. What’s more, it was the most overwhelming concert experience I had this year.

8. Sam Amidon - I See the Sign

Sam Amidon’s previous album All is Well is undoubtedly one of the greatest folk records of the decade, so it’s perhaps inevitable that I See the Sign had tough ground to follow. To his credit, Amidon doesn’t try to rehash the same method. Instead of the elegant simplicity of All is Well’s chord structures and instrumentation, the Connecticut native excavates more discordant experimental sounds and unexpected time signatures, lending unique auras to the ageless Appalachian folk songs he reinterprets. If there has ever been an opener that more pointedly announces a different direction than the bizarre murder shuffle of “How Come That Blood”, then I’m not aware of it. I See the Sign, albeit in its own distinct way, is almost as affecting and lovely as its predecessor, and that’s no small feat.

9. The National - High Violet

High Violet is bigger, bolder, and less pensive than 2007’s excellent Boxer, but it worms its way into your brain with a similarly lasting impact. Aside from the colossal misstep that is “Terrible Love”, the veteran Brooklyn quintet spare none of their melancholy beauty, and Matt Berninger’s sardonically pained lyrics are at their most enigmatic.

10. She and Him - Volume Two

I’m clearly a big fan of music that sounds timeless, that refuses to get swept up in current trends and resists short-term interest. As such, the second album from She (Zooey Deschanel) and Him (M. Ward) doesn’t leap at you. The songs mostly sound like something you’ve ever heard before (and in many instances they are, given the duo’s propensity for covers), but they have instant, timeworn appeal, and they are filled to the brim with subtle instrumentation and clever production ideas courtesy of Ward. Moreover, Deschanel’s voice has really matured, capable of sounding as rich as Patsy Cline but still retaining a child-like self-awareness with all those “hmms”, hiccups, and giggles.

11. The Caretaker - Persistent Repetition of Phrases (2008)

Ghosts of 1920’s ballroom music obscured by the thick crackle and pop of static. These are ambient dreamscapes to get lost in for hours, a kind of impressionistic music that summons up the best and most mysterious of mental pictures.

12. Amiina - Puzzle

Amiina’s first album since 2007’s Kurr fortunately keeps their signature sound intact, but they’ve added some decidedly modern flourishes to their primarily organic instrumentation. The brooding opening track, “Asinn”, doused in anticipation, utilizes electronic beats that gradually swell into a clashing acoustic kit. This is all married perfectly to their typical base of bells, violins, accordions, and other various acoustic gadgets. The overall effect recalls Icelandic natives Mum, but Amiina retains their own distinctive lullabies.

13. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

The persistent thematic ambition of Arcade Fire is what separates them from most big indie acts. Even if The Suburbs suffers occasionally from being overlong, generic, and redundant, the standout tracks (“Ready to Start”, “Rococo”, “We Used to Wait”), which dutifully capture suburban angst and nostalgia, keep things interesting. And something tells me we have to savor what might be their last engaging effort before an impending sellout.

14. Norberto Lobo - Pata Lenta (2009)

Norberto Lobo is a Portuguese acoustic virtuoso who spends his time on both six and twelve string guitars, never ceasing to amaze with the sheer technical brilliance on display. Pata Lenta showcases Lobo as a writer of dazzling instrumental pieces that take unexpected left turns and a pure avant-gardist, using the acoustic in unconventional ways to create haunting atonal textures.

15. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

I’m still skeptical of how comfortably Sufjan’s tender voice sits atop these bombastic electronic symphonies, but The Age of Adz has definitely grown on me in recent listens. One has to respect his ambition and his desire to challenge himself artistically. I tend to vacillate between thinking the album needs more moments of quiet repose (“Now That I’m Older” being the one soaring exception) and realizing it may not be necessary given the amount of delicate folk songs he’s already treated us to in his career. In a word, this is the most problematic great album I have on here.

16. Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Swans’ My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky is thick with dread and otherworldly force, conjuring up a variety of different musical styles in the process from screaming prog-rock to quiet blues to Lynchian noise. Sometimes it’s not as cohesive or tight as one would hope, which has supposedly been a spot of continuous trouble for frontman Michael Gira, but it holds on with a wealth of creative ideas and a general atmosphere of anxiety and gloom.

17. Timber Timbre - S/T (2009)

This Canadian blues act is fascinatingly minimalist on their self-titled third album, restraining their delivery to guitar, organ, piano, and subdued drums. It’s as if each instrument has been performed as quietly and infrequently as possible so that only the beating of a tom or the wheeze of a sustained organ punctuates the silence. Taylor Kirk’s eccentric voice helps articulate the emotions only hinted at by the music.

18. Of Montreal - False Priest

Kevin Barnes embraces the funkiest R&B side of his musical personality, unafraid to look goofy or regressive even as he invigorates ridiculous retro flourishes like call-and-response vocals and beefy 80’s synths. False Priest is a more enjoyable album than 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, which covered similar ground, and it features the band’s most anthemic tune in a long time (“Sex Karma”). Also, one senses Barnes frequently voicing deep-seated and resolutely serious opinions from beneath all the silliness, a notion that is made explicit in the final agnostic screed of “You Do Mutilate?”.

19. First Aid Kit - The Big Black and Blue” (2009)

When these two Swedish sisters can fully shake off their obvious Fleet Foxes idolatry, I think they’re capable of records they can call their own. They’ve got the shtick down pat though, and there are certainly glimpses of greatness on their first LP.

20. The Black Keys - Brothers

I much prefer their raw early records, but The Black Keys have certainly embraced their growing rock-star status in admirably exciting ways, introducing new sounds to their bluesy foundation and higher fidelity production. Individually, the songs on Brothers are as full of attitude as anything they’ve ever done, but as a whole, the album stumbles with too many mid-tempo grooves, making the long running time really feel excessive. But they did release the most entertaining music videos of the year.

(Numbers 21-28 refer to albums I have only recently begun listening to and am therefore incapable of providing an appropriate encapsulation. Given more time though, I'm sure they'd make the list.)

21. Mount Eerie - Wind’s Poem (2009)
22. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma
23. Antony and the Johnsons - Swanlights
24. Dirty Projectors + Bjork - Mount Wittenberg Orca
25. Hildur Gudnadottir – Without Sinking (2009)
26. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me
27. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
28. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Also worth noting: my own band, Old Abram Brown, released our second album this year. It's called Restless Ghosts, and it's available for purchase here.


Ed Howard said...

Nice list, with a few of my own favorites from this year showing up, alongside a whole bunch that I haven't heard. I love Sylvian, Of Montreal, Mount Eerie, and Sun Kil Moon, and all four of those albums are great. The Sylvian and Mount Eerie discs in particular are total masterpieces.

That Swans album is the best rock album I heard all year. Funnily enough, I'd describe it as very tight and cohesive. Also energetic and sizzling and really powerful. But then I've been really into all things Gira lately, and this album seems to me like a great continuation of where that band left off in the 90s.

That Newsom album is a real grower. At first I was disappointed with it in relation to Ys, but I've since been listening to it a lot and finding lots to love about it. In its own way, it might even be as ambitious and bold as its predecessor, though I wonder if she'll ever really top Ys.

I like a few songs on the new Arcade Fire (especially "Sprawl II," which is just sublime) but I agree with your criticisms: overlong, generic, and I'd add overbearing at times. It's got its moments but it's kind of like I forget it's even on in between the handful of standout songs.

That Dirty Projectors/Bjork collab is cool too, but it's a bit of a tease. The moments when Bjork cuts loose over the backing vocals and minimal guitars are just amazing, exactly what I'd expect of this union, but it seems like the real collaborative moments where it all comes together like that are too few. Most of the disc just sounds like a stripped-down Dirty Projectors, which is nice but doesn't really capitalize on Bjork's presence as much as I would've wished.

Anyway, this was a good read, and there are definitely some albums here I need to check out. Norberto Lobo is a name I haven't heard before, and sounds like someone I should certainly give a listen to. I'm working on my list now, probably to be posted in the new year.

Carson Lund said...

Ed, thanks for commenting. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on music. Incidentally, it was your "Thursday's Track" postings that got me into Wind's Poem and Manafon. Like I said, I haven't listened to the Mount Eerie record enough, but the latest Sylvian is incredible. I'd only heard some of his stuff before, but "Small Metal Gods" inspired me to get both Manafon and Blemish. I agree with you that Sylvian at his most minimal is a special thing indeed.

The Swans record is not the kind of thing I would normally get into, but there's definitely a great deal of power to it. I particularly love "No Words/No Thoughts" and "You Fucking People Make Me Sick", though it is a bit of a letdown when the latter track drops its mounting tension at the end for two minutes of aimless atmospherics. On its own, I like the jangly noise Gira builds, but I wish it occupied its own track rather than getting in the way of a pretty great song. In this way, I feel like Gira isn't the best "songwriter", though of course that's not the be-all end-all of a good musician.

I got the feeling that Have One on Me, like all of Newsom's work, would be a grower. That's why I knew it would have to about a year at least before I could really grapple with this lengthy album.

It's funny that you mention "Sprawl II", because, far from being sublime, I feel like it's one of the most generic tunes on the album.

I would definitely recommend Norberto Lobo - a prodigy in the truest sense. Also, there's a great cover, or reinterpretation, of Bjork's "Unravel" on Pata Lenta.

Something else worth mentioning is The Caretaker, whose Persistent Repetition of Phrases is an album I suspect you'd enjoy. It's gorgeous atmospheric noise that recalls the great ballroom scenes in The Shining.

Ed Howard said...

Nice, I'm glad those music postings got you to check out Sylvian and Mount Eerie. That Sylvian album is packed with a who's who of contemporary electroacoustic improv, so it was really exciting for me to hear all these musicians I love so much in other contexts collaborating with a vocalist of Sylvian's caliber.

Re: Gira, considering what the early 80s Swans sounded like, it's downright amazing that he's come so far as a "songwriter" now. That said, I think the surprising shift to the droning noise on "You Fucking People Make Me Sick" is well-done, and in it's own way is a pretty great songwriting maneuver. It's probably my least favorite song on the album, though, despite Devendra Banhart's nice vocals. I'm much more into "No Words/No Thoughts," "Jim," and "Eden Prison." Especially the barely contained menace of "Jim."

If you like Gira's more "songwriter" side, incidentally, you should check out his project Angels of Light, which was his main band for most of the 2000s, while the Swans were broken up. It's not totally dissimilar, but it's not quite as heavy as Swans, with more country/folk touches and bits of pop backing vocals and things like that. The album Sings Other People is great, but really all their stuff is top-quality.

Lobo and The Caretaker have been added to my d/l list now. The latter seems to be an alias of V/Vm, whose Mego-style electronic music I've heard before and never been blown away by, but I'll check out the one you recommend.