Man… this thing has really become a labor of love.
I mean… I worked on writing this; worked hard. It’s maybe ironic (a word so oft misused that I never trust myself enough to use it correctly, and pretty much know I’m not doing so here) that I feel some of my best writing is saved for an entry that most folks just gloss over. And maybe I say it anytime, but if you’re a “regular” reader I’ve done some good stuff below that I think you might enjoy even if you’re not a stupid music-nut like me. I hope you’ll check it out (despite it’s length; I know how my generation is with a wall of words and the perceived value we can derive from our time spent reading them).
Now then, without additional delay, honorable mention this year goes to: Menomena [listen], Sleigh Bells [listen], The Love Language [listen], and Yeasayer [listen]. Actually, the “honorable mentions” would fit well at the tail-end of this list and make for a more round fifteen picks – but I honestly ran out of steam and time and just wanted to post the dang thing. So I quit and took the easy road. As usual, I wanted to be done so bad that I did no real editing or “post” or proofreading… so I’m sure that, when I’m no longer sick of this entry and I decide to go back and reread it, I’ll make some little tweaks later on.
But for now, what follows are those pieces of art which ranked in my mind. Hope you enjoy them.
13. Wavves – King of the Beach [listen]
Two dominant yet antithetical themes dominated the music I fell in love with this year. I could pick tons of adjectives to describe each dueling idea, but I think boiling it down simply it would come to “safety” versus “frenzy.” In some way maybe this denotes the cycle of me this year, the Scylla and Charybdis pendulum of my own ups and downs. When the confidence is up and the sun is shining and I feel I’ve managed to shelve my sins – frenzy sounds right. When my footing is tenuous and shadows loom and press (which, for an optimist such as me, is something that doesn’t get taken out and paraded around), safety piques.
Looking for the duality, King of the Beach is definitely in the left-hand of “frenzy.” It speaks to a side that doesn’t care, a part that just wants to enjoy some loud nonsense and doesn’t mind a lack of polish. No; that craves a lack of polish. Wavves, which I think is just one person – comes presented with no polish. All the scuffs and scratches and faded leather is out-front and unabashed. Words and lyrics are stupid, chords and riffs are sloppy and shambling, rhythm is haphazard and jaunty (or cocksure, maybe that’s a better word, I can’t decide). But, egads it’s fun!! More than just novelty fun, too. Well, to me at least.
You should check it out and try.
12. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today [listen]
Before Today at times sounds like lounge music, or maybe just music to lounge to. You just loosed the cord and fired your rocket and shot straight to the moon and you put on this record and lie face-down in the thick shag. As you pretend you’re hurtling through a synthetic fiber wormhole you can kick back to the whacked-out horns, 1970s synth and sometimes jazzy bass. Apparently Mr. Pink (no relation to Messers Blue, Red, and Orange), who is new to my musical Rolodex, has been recording these same tracks for years… sometimes in snippets or as wholes, but the same songs. Before Today is simply the spendy-production “major label” release of his well-known (in some circles, I suppose) repertoire.
I don’t know about any of that; the history of the songs or their elemental versions the die-hards may be attached to. I just know these versions from 2010 and Mister, they are good. They are real good. Midyear I said of Before Today, “Some retro Bowie/Eno/Hall & Oates mashup thing? Oh no wait here comes some Velvet Undergroundy guitar stuff. Man this is oddball.” This is one you’ve probably got to hear for yourself. So what are you waiting for, click the link and check it out. Don’t forget your scag.
11. The Black Keys – Brothers [listen]
Eons ago when I was a fresh-faced twenty-something scratching out a living as a grunt at the sawmill, I had a best friend named Ben. Between the both of us we were like a two-man indie music record club. We went to concerts and streamed the latest and greatest and downloaded with abandon. Oftentimes we were united in what we liked or disliked, either coming to the same opinion independently or one of us likely swaying the other (how many of your held opinions are solely yours and free of influence?). One thing we were together on, though, was our dislike for The Black Keys.
I don’t know why… but we both decided it was cheap imitation garage blues-rock and wrote it off. I like to think this was more of decision Ben made and foisted upon me (makes me feel less guilty for this record making the list while the band flew under the radar in years past). Whoever made the call, it settled into my subconscious and led me to dismiss the band’s efforts each time they produced a new recording. How silly the way our brains work: One time we puke our guts out after eating cauliflower and for the rest of our lives we avoid cauliflower like it’s a sure-fire sick-maker. I’m afraid the Black Keys were that guaranteed emetic to me, and I’m here to set things right and overcome my mental block.
Brothers is a gritty, driving work of art. It’s music for beer and mescaline and sweat and heat. It’s simple bluesy rock that’s unadorned yet well produced; simple in the way that makes it elementally great – like eggs over easy in the morning with a cigarette after; as simple as grabbing the thing God put under the chicken and frying it and eating it. Undecorated; nothing special; yet good for it. A steak with a pinch of salt and pepper; no four hour marinade, no dry rub, no herb-infusion, and for the love of all that’s holy no salsa, A1, or catsup. You’re getting the basics here: guitar, drums, and bass. You want glockenspiel you’re on the wrong record.
So just shut up and open your mouth and chew and enjoy the stupid-good flavor of some unpretentious rock and roll. Then remember that this is what it’s supposed to be like; it’s rock and roll the way cavemen ate it. Take pleasure in your connectedness.
10. Zeus – Say Us [listen]
As I wrote halfway through, Zeus’ Say Us takes a page from the Beatles’ songbook. It’s not a bad thing. Again, as I wrote, rock bands have been emulating the Beatles since there were Beatles songs to emulate – and will likely be doing so for a time to come. When you define a genre, you’re going to end up in that oft-imitated bracket. It’s not that Zeus is doing the straight ripoff thing… they’re just mining the same vein. So, now you know what to expect… to a degree (harmonies, 4/4, verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus, etc.) – but you still need to check out the record.
I daresay that anyone who is looking for a good “periphery” record (one for backgrounding at barbecues or in the headphones while you snowboard or while you comment that subroutine in your cube) would do right by Say Us. I don’t listen to the radio much, so can’t say if any of these songs got much play – but they totally could have, that’s how approachable they are. Maybe put more simply, if you decided to get all adventurous and check out each album on my list the year and you heard that Wavves record and we’re all like, “Dave… what are you on?!,” I should redeem myself with Say Us.
09. The National – High Violet [listen]
I found it hard to shuffle High Violet into this list, but I knew (knew hard) that it belonged.
The album has something of a “subtle beauty” and a “quiet ferocity” and all sorts of other oxymoronic adjective couplets. I wrote about it at midyear by calling their albums “growers.” I guess this is as good a description as any. I wrote it this way in July, and I can’t think of a better way to sum it up here:
Sharaun has commented more than once that this album sounds “slow” and “boring,” but she’s still got the scales on her eyes and I’m just a little closer to Damascus. When those scales drop, my friends, you’ll hear such a passion in each deceptively muted rythym and baritone lyric you’ll know right away there’s substance to this one. The National do more with less (the pause between the words “blood” and “buzz” on “Bloodbuzz Ohio” drips with anticipation and is likely to make the weak swoon).
Yup; well-said Dave.
08. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast [listen]
At one point in high school I decided I wanted to surf. I didn’t want to be a surfer, with the culture and haircuts and mannerisms and groupthink likes and dislikes – I just wanted to surf. From somewhere, I got a board or two (the things are like tumbleweeds in Central Florida… blown around in the onshore breeze and passed from teenager to teenager through the years until the meet their ultimate fate falling from the bed of a truck or being crunched on the coral). My roommate and closest compatriot at the time took up the pastime with me, or he had already, I offer no pretense of memory as mine is often shot. And we, the both of us, took to the briny tides.
I think maybe if I would have picked it up earlier in life, like around the pre-teen years, I would have affected the lifestyle a lot more. I did this, in fact, with skateboarding sometime around seventh grade (there truly are limited options at that tender age… when we so want to be classed and cliqued and to cling to some taxonomy). I dressed skater, talked skater, listened to skater music, hung out with skaters. Even still, I was anything but a skater. If my chosen charade had been surfing, and if Astro Coast was thrown back in time to those years – it would’ve been the soundtrack of my feigned passion.
This music is “surf” to the core; right down to the marrow (sloshing in rhythm to the rolling sets) inside the bones under your suntanned skin. Put this record on and open up a wrapped puck of Sex Wax and you’ll actually feel the crunchy saltwater tangles in your hair. Like I wrote at the midway mark: “… it’s that record you were listening to that one time you lost your sunglasses. The Ventures and Beach Boys meet Weezer (when they were good) and JaMC.” Get it and go coastal.
07. The Local Natives – Gorilla Manor [listen]
I was enamored with this album midway through the year; a handful of really great tracks shored it up in my mind. As the year trod on, and records with slightly better ERAs trickled out, I began to see the tiny cracks in Gorilla Manor’s veneer. Yes it’s a super-fine album, and “Airplanes” is one (if not the) best track of the year, but I couldn’t even get it into the top five when I did my week of comparative re-listening.
I should be less negative, I don’t mean to dissuade anyone or bag on a record I’m including in my very own best-of list. You’d like this album. It’s very good. The harmonies and percussion particularly, sounding like a callback to folkier times (but with modernized production). There are songs that’ll knock your socks off, namely the penultimate “Airplanes,” which I can’t stop mentioning. And, like I said at the halfway point, there are parts that “droop and sag.” But in the end you’ll want to hear this to round out the better stuff of the year. I promise.
06. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [listen]
Let’s get the elitist stuck-in-his-ways stuff dispensed right up front: I don’t like rap.
No really, on the whole I just don’t dig it. I don’t discount it as an art form or anything, that would be ignorant for a music-o-phile, it’s just not my cup of tea. It’s hard not to like this record though. The tunes are memorable and catchy and the words are just perfect (sometimes maybe a little too perfect, Kanye…). To me the goodness of this album comes moreso from the attitude that comes across than anything else. Take for instance this little call-and-response triplet:
How ‘Ye doin’?; I’m survivin’.
I was drinkin’ earlier; Now I’m drivin’.
Where the bad bitches, huh?; Where y’all hidin’?
The italicized portions are delivered in this sneering, know-it-all, entitled, Angelica Pickles tone. That Kanye’s response to peoples’ hatred of him is to stoke the flames while cupping his own balls is what makes his stuff so good. Oh, that and that he makes some wicked-sounding hip-hop that even a dyed-in-the-wool rock ‘n’ roller like me can appreciate. There’s a catch, however. A reason I don’t like this record. I know it sounds odd but I actually feel indulgent for enjoying it. Indulgent, moreover, to the point of feeling guilty (I told you it would sound odd). I guess maybe all the cursing, all the trite braindead talk of sex and money… I end up asking myself, “How can you enjoy this basal crap?” It’s akin to the feeling I used to have in the morning after getting high – a guilt and a nagging “why?” and “was it worth this?” brought on, perhaps, by upbringing or Officer Dave or Nancy Reagan or Afterschool Specials.
Uh-oh this review is getting long in the tooth.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy topped nearly every single 2010 list I’ve seen. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, CokeMachineGlow, Stereogum – only PopMatters dared slight Kanye this year. I’m gonna stand with PopMatters on this. The record is really, really good. Better than College Dropout good. It’s just not top-of-my-list good and, besides, it gives me an morality hangover. Sorry Ye. You done real good though.
05. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs [listen]
I don’t know when it happened, but something bad went down between me and the Arcade Fire. We had this falling out, or growing apart, or something. I suppose maybe it’s my fault; putting them atop of the lightning rod at the summit of Mt. Olympus didn’t give them much room to go anywhere but down. So our relationship sort of soured and my hunched shoulders and folded arms whenever they came around were clear tells that I’d backed away. Maybe the Arcade Fire picked up on my aloofness, because I think The Suburbs a love letter written to woo me back, to court them into my good graces one again.
And, oh, Arcade fire! You did it! My counselor says I should take you as you are. He helped me see that, as love matures, those flirty fluttery-hearted days of Funeral will give way to the security of The Suburbs. That those times of sweaty palms, perfume highs and nary an imperfection are past us shouldn’t push me away – they should draw me closer to your constancy.
I’m sorry we waned and I’m glad we’re back. You keep making “Empty Rooms” and “Sprawl IIs” and I promise I’ll always be here for you. XOXO.
04. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz [listen] & All Delighted People EP [listen]
I guess maybe it looks like I love everything Sufjan’s ever done. I don’t. I didn’t care for that BQE thing at all. Not that it matters.
These two efforts, unbound but for the year of their release, each moved me to write their respective epics: “Djohariah” and “Impossible Soul.” But each is more than just their standouts, and both stand starkly different from each other in feel and sound. The EP, which came out first, is full of “classic” Sufjan instrumentation, while the long-player strays into beats and synthesized bass and blippy electronics. You’ll go wrong with neither.
I’ve written so much about these two already throughout the year that I’m not going to try and do more here – it’d be forced. Check those links above and see how obsessed I was with the records. Then go check out the music for yourself. Might not be your bag; that’s OK don’t feel guilty. Nickelback is just fine (and I’m being perfectly serious) – there’s no need to step to this milquetoast hipster stuff, and I’m no cooler than thou for pretending to “get it” so don’t sweat it.
03. Morning Benders – Big Echo [listen]
It was hard for me… the battle between #1, #2, and #3. I know maybe I didn’t make it sound so by my comments on Teen Dream down below… but it truly was hard. This album, Deerhunter’s album, and the Beach House record are all in what we in the corporate world, those of us who “manage” people and rank them, rate them, what we refer to as the “top bucket.” Ordinal ranking within the top bucket is not quite meaningless, but it’s close enough. Like any good statistician, the “banding” of data matters nearly as much as the top-to-bottom ordering. To be clear, the “top bucket” starts here – with Big Echo.
This music makes me so happy. Like a week’s vacation spent in sometimes-sunlight slanting through pines; like when I was at the bottom of Molokini crater with Sharaun on my flank, floating around coral; like when I sat poolside in Mexico with Jeff, more than half-crocked & daydreaming I was Jake Barnes and Sharaun in the pool was my own Lady Brett Ashley. That kind of bone-deep happiness and comfort. Maybe people who aren’t music people won’t know what I mean; maybe it’s hard to grok that music can do that kind of stuff. But I’m telling you, ye Philistines, it’s real; it’s really real.
I realized at some point that, when it comes to pop music, I like the formulaic, the patterned, the designed. I read some reviewers saying that Big Echo tries to hard to be catchy or poppy, or some crap like that. Whatever. So did the Beatles (OK so maybe they defined or discovered the formula). I enjoy the results; you’ll enjoy the results. Just go do it.
02. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest [listen]
When the first refrains of Halcyon Digest’s lead-track, “Earthquake,” come dripping through a pair of headphones – I like to close my eyes and imagine myself high above everything. Related to something I know, I’m cruising at 30,000ft looking out the window on a wide swatch of God’s (flawed) creation. Related to something I don’t know, yet something which somehow seems more appropos to the sounds, I’m floating weightless in space, tethered by a lifeline to my spacecraft; I can turn left and look down upon the world from whence I came (thanks to tons and tons of high-octane rocket fuel) and I can turn right and look out into the preponderance of seeming emptiness. Yeah, this album makes me think of floating.
So what does it sound like? What are you going to hear? I dunno. Basic stuff, mostly… but I think it’s more the tunes than the composition here (I feel like I say that a lot, maybe too much). I guess, if anything, it’s more distorted, overall, than the #1 spot (they sound not much alike at all, in fact), and edges away from #1’s “classic sounding” production. Themes you’ll hear are loneliness, regret, salvation and redemption, and the daily grind.
01. Beach House – Teen Dream [listen]
Teen Dream shimmers. It’s such an easy album to love. Hovering around your head weaving tendrils in and out of your ears. It’s an easy album altogether.
The chords and plucked themes are all suffused through this hazy fuzzy sound I try to sum up as “shimmery.” Do you remember, as a kid, learning from the fire fighters that came to your school auditorium that, if you found yourself trapped in a building that was on fire, you should get low to avoid the smoke? Get on the ground; the smoke rises. If you can, dampen a piece of cloth, a rip of your shirt, perhaps, and fix it over your nose and mouth to breathe through as a makeshift air filter. Have you ever tried that (no housefire required)? It’s not quite as easy as breathing free at all… it’s a strained fight for oxygen through the wet cloth. But man, imagine if your house were burning… how sweet would that fresh air be? How worth the huffing and sucking and sputtering? Something as easy and familiar as the air you breathe everyday – a million times more precious.
Teen Dream manages to impart that same sense of extra-preciousness through it’s layered “shimmer.” Don’t mistake me for saying it’s complicated; it’s anything but. If you tried to dissect a track you’d come up feeling short: all the elements are rudimentary – Beach House sticks to the top couple rows of the periodic table of music. Doesn’t matter though – it’s the construction that hits hard here. Midway through I wrote, “As far as songs go, I often find myself falling for tracks with vocal melodies that are well-defined enough to be standalone songs in their own right.” Teen Dream has them in spades.
Looking back over the year, this is the true capstone to me… no doubt.