These guitars sound like I have metal things rolling around my brain. The songs lurch like you’re being dragged across the floor. The songs don’t so much end as stagger away.
Listen to: 'The Virgin'
This year, DIRTY PROJECTORS and BJÖRK released an EP together and it was about a FAMILY OF WHALES. How awesome is that?? You should download it, it’s for charity yo.
Listen to: 'Beautiful Mother'
38) Caribou – Swim
Gorgeously-crafted electronic pop that’s more like a track-based IDM record than electro-pop... this has been so universally hyped, and it’s well-deserved.
Listen to: 'Odessa'
37) Teebs – Ardour
The Brainfeeder set have had a great year, even if perhaps it was just Flying Lotus who received all the accolades. Lorn, The Gaslamp Killer, and Daedelus also made some great music, but I found that Teebs was FlyLo’s most exciting apprentice. Ardour is an album that almost feels like a collection of rough sketches, formed of a broad sonic palette, a ton of ideas that only need to last a couple of minutes.
Listen to: 'Humming Birds'
All you really need to know is, there was a new Books record out this year. If you’ve never heard them before, they’re heavily focused on spoken-word samples but also have some lovely cello & guitar noodlings, with some fantastic production techniques. This is their 4th in a series of consistently great albums.
Listen to: 'I Didn't Know That'
Whatever post-dubstep is, I don’t think Mount Kimbie are really it – in fact I think that cover art is purposefully mocking that monicker, because Mount Kimbie eschew bass-heavy soulless dubstep, but make shuffling beats in the vein of Burial, with a lot of cleverly-used organic samples. It’s chill, but also sort of disconcerting – check out ‘Before I Move Off’ for never a complete syllable of chopped-up R&B samples.
34) Zs - New Slaves
Noise music is usually characterised as serious, psychologically intense music designed to shift your soul. But Zs do to the genre what Battles did to post-rock – New Slaves is cartoonish, incorporating free jazz instrumentation in a way that can be abrasive (as in the title track), but also, almost lighthearted (‘Don’t Touch Me’).
No proper tracks on Youtube but check them out!
Philip Jeck regularly releases very similar, but very consistent ambient records, and there’s something about his aesthetic that really stands out to me personally. It engulfs me more than Fennesz, it feels more soulful than Tim Hecker, and I can feel the essence of his decaying analogue equipment, but in a way that isn’t as exhaustive as The Disintegration Loops (whereas William Basinski used disintegrating tape loops, Jeck mostly uses warped and worn-down vinyl). An Ark for the Listener is perhaps Jeck’s droniest, most towering record to date.
Listen to: 'The All of Water'
[I sort of find it hard to evaluate ambient/drone/noise music... there are a lot of critically-acclaimed, consistent artists who I namechecked here, who make music which I know I’ll dig if I’m in the mood for ambience. This year, I also really enjoyed Knoxville by the Fennesz Daniell Buck collaboration (if you want something more melodious), Going Places by Yellow Swans (if you want something more noisy), Holkham Drones by Luke Abbott (just, awesome studying music), and Landings by Richard Skelton (mostly experimental acoustic).]
Well this is my favourite cover art of 2010. I can’t explain it. Chillwave kind of died this year but Tanlines might yet prove to be one of the most exciting bands of the movement, fusing their sound with strong Afro-pop elements (and by that I mean hella kettle drums).
‘Real Life’ is the JAM.
I feel like maybe I’ll be raving about this record in a few listens time. It doesn’t really make sense to put it so far down the list, I know, but at the moment it feels like Sufjan’s genius (‘Too Much’, ‘I Want to be Well’) is wavering (‘Impossible Soul’, which is still an unbelievable achievement).
Listen to: 'I Want to be Well'
Dark, unpolished electro-pop grotesquery.
Listen to: 'Slowdance'
This is where I talk about how Abe Vigoda made a startling transition from tropical punk to synth-pop or whatever – but this is the first AV record I heard, and they’re just as adept at fusing synth with post-punk... this record is a real grower, at first I found it almost generic-indie-rock, but I’ve come to realise how wrong I was: it’s full of rewarding, unique songs.
Listen to: 'Throwing Shade'
Dessa sometimes raps and sometimes sings her markedly serious & gritty lyrics, across a really varied record: the album is as effective at being forceful (‘Alibi’) as when the only instrumentation is Dessa’s looped vocals (‘Poor Atlas’) or restrained woodwind (‘Memento Mori’). It’s a very clever album in spite of its directness, (and you can sort of tell Dessa knows it), but nonetheless, remarkably honest.
Even my sister listens to ‘Tightrope’ over and over again, because it’s awesome, but of course the album is much more than that. Monáe has tons of ambition, as she uses suite forms (complete with overtures) without it sounding forced; it makes it sound like people should’ve been making albums like this for years (like, ones that aren’t prog...) I have to admit, it completely overshadows of Montreal’s recent attempts to make soul music (Barnes’ cameo, ‘Make the Bus’ just sounds like recent of Montreal...)
Listen to: 'Cold War'
The frontman of an influential, cult indie pop band (Hefner), still making albums solo after having split up the band nearly ten years ago despite slipping into relative obscurity, should NOT have made an album this good. I expected this to be really middle-of-the-road, but Hayman’s songs are as insightful and singalongable as ever, this is probably his most consistent release (Hefner included!). After only the second time I listened to this record, several songs were stuck in my head all day.
Listen to: 'Nothing You Can Do About It'
It’s a concept record retelling the Orpheus myth featuring a plethora of indie-folk stars. Each unique voice is assigned a character (including Bon Iver as Orpheus), and YES it’s as awesome as it sounds. I can’t physically understand how this slipped under Pitchfork’s radar, as it had universally glowing reviews everywhere else. Seriously, it’s the best reviewed record in over two years, according to Any Decent Music [as of Feb 2011], although the same site shows it was neglected from end-of-year lists. I honestly believe that this goes to show the influence of Pitchfork; had they reviewed this album, it wouldn’t have been forgotten.)
Listen to: 'Way Down Hadestown'
Girl Talk released a new album this year (he mashes up chart-rap with critically-acclaimed classics. And it’s still free!)
Listen to: 'Get It Get It'
I’m really surprised about the success of this album – the band seem to have gained a lot of fans amongst NME kids, despite sounding like a British Dismemberment Plan. I can imagine all the songs started out pretty basic, then the band threw in idea after idea in an attempt to make themselves sound as quirky as possible. Yet it still sounds like singles from start to finish, mathy and unpredictable but with triumphant, radio-friendly choruses.
Listen to: 'Suffragette Suffragette'
It’s getting more and more popular for bands to be lo-fi for the sake of lo-fi, but it’s clear from the opening salvo of ‘Tell Em’ that noise is Sleigh Bells’ THING. Standout ‘Crown on the Ground’ is a pop song that sounds powerful because of its overwhelming noisiness, and here’s the thing, it couldn’t exist without that noise. It turns out crazed-cheerleader-core is incredibly entertaining.
Dark Terry Riley synth spirals, gorgeous electro squelches and soaring guitar lines. Like Fuck Buttons were being sci-fi rather than noisy.
Listen to: 'Candy Shoppe'
I listened to Andre 3000’s half of the “split” OutKast album, The Love Below, way more than Big Boi’s half Speakerboxxx, which I didn’t get into aside from the singles... I wouldn’t have thought Big Boi had an album like this in him, until the release of awesome summer anthem ‘Shine Blockas’, followed by more shifts in style with the excellent ‘General Patton’ and ‘Shutterbugg’. He’s still as sharp a rapper as he was in OutKast, and this album just proves that the group’s experimental tendencies weren’t just Andre’s doing.
Listen to: 'Shine Blockas'
This year I discovered that you can rarely go wrong with a band that is emo + noisy + maths (Cap’n Jazz being my best discovery!) Castevet take cues from that tradition here, but interestingly, they incorporate post-rock/shoegazey textures, managing to infuse the genres while avoiding the tendency of post-rock to be exhaustive, and the tendency of emo to be overly spontaneous. I’ve listened to this record a crazy amount of times, and it has a song called ‘Cities & Memory’, my two favourite subjects for a song!
Listen to: 'Model Trains'
Maybe this record got overlooked back in the winter when it was released, because it’s perfect summer music, from joyfully simple folk songs like ‘Life is Good Blues’, to breezy choruses ‘Summer is the Champion’, and gorgeous string arrangements ‘July Flame’. This is the last of a series of albums on the four elements, ending on fire – but rather than depart from her reserved tendencies, Veirs writes songs about warmth, completing a quadrilogy of records which perfectly encapsulate their themes. She’s one of my very favourite songwriters.
Listen to: 'July Flame'
Trying to assign this a genre at the CD library, I ended up with “experimental choral metal???” It’s a fairly appropriate description to be honest. The album opens with about 8 minutes of beautifully-harmonised female choral parts, until the sludge metal hits like a sledgehammer (‘A Body’). Elsewhere they chop up tribal chants like a skipping CD on ‘Empty Hearth’ and subvert standard stoner rock with those frantic vocals sliding way back in the mix beneath sheets of noise (‘Song of Sarin, the Brave’). I like my metal really leftfield, and although this is one of few metal records of 2010 I properly listened to, it’s super awesome.
Listen to: 'A Curse'
[Other metal records I really liked: Rose Kemp’s Golden Shroud is really genius prog-metal but I only just listened to it now!, Alcest’s Écailles de Lune is some pretty cool shoegaze/metal.]
I’m still a bit confused by the success of this record. It puts a skew on everything from hair metal (‘Butt House Blondies’) to lounge jazz (‘Hot Body Rub’), but the production always makes it sound spontaneous and uncommercial – see ‘Fright Night’, a song that really only SUGGESTS cohesivity, all lost because under weird noises and Pink’s mumbled delivery. Whereas sometimes it almost sounds too cheesy-pop (‘Can’t Hear My Eyes’) to really appeal to trendy alt/experimental types (hardcore fans prefer his old stuff). It feels like listening to one of your parents old cassette tapes, but with much weirder sounds than you were expecting.
Listen to: 'Round and Round'
As with any Wave Pictures record, I had to listen to this at least 5 times before it sunk in... it’s mostly darker than their previous work, and less twee (‘I Just Want to Be Your Friend’ is the exception), but I love this band so much and they can do no wrong. Stunning songwriting.
Listen to: 'American Boom'
I realise that this is a work of genius, but it went straight over my head. I wasn’t really sure where to place it on here because I feel like the songs are still clicking, one by one. I’m beginning to see it as a unified work – sparser than predecessor Ys (one of my favourite records of all time) but no less lyrically rewarding.
Listen to: 'In California'
Referencing everything from Google (in several tracks) to Arundhati Roy (‘Ek Shaneesh’) to Captain Beefheart and Grouper (‘Amazing’), Das Racist are zeitgeisty, quirky, and yes, obsessed with race – but they’re primarily hilariously witty. It’s the nature of mixtapes to sound a bit unrefined, and while the hits are awesome - ‘Chicken & Meat’, ‘Rainbow in the Dark’, ‘hahahaha jk?’, and ‘rapping 2 u’ - there’s weaker points too, like the end-ish of Shut Up, Dude and tracks 5-8 of Sit Down Man, but it’s well worth sticking with it for the good stuff. Especially cause these are free too!
Listen to: 'Rainbow in the Dark'
“The songs on Heartland form a narrative concerning a ‘young, ultra-violent farmer’ named Lewis, commanded by an all-powerful narrator—named Owen.” Despite being probably the worst concept album ever, Heartland is up here purely because of the gorgeous arrangements... Pallett has a wonderful ear for harmony, and here he perfectly synthesises electronic and orchestral textures.
Listen to: 'Lewis Takes Off His Shirt'
I don’t know whether this is free jazz, punk, noise, sax-metal, or what... At first I thought Little Women were skronking skilfully, with astonishing command of the mind-boggling mathematical structures of their music, but where were they going with it? The left turn comes at ‘Throat IV’ (which I don’t want to spoil for you, but it’s incredible). They do so much with two saxophones, drums, and a guitar (and then rip it all away again for the scary finale ‘Throat VII’). An album so powerful and terrifying that you’ll have difficulty taking it in.
Listen to: 'Throat I' (and then the whole thing, in order!)
For some reason I had Deerhunter down as indie-rock auteurs, doing weird guitar shit while still being cool as fuck (kind of Sonic Youthy). It’s actually a lot simpler than that, but the album’s a grower so it took a while to hit me. While they’re fond of the odd mathy, layered breakdown, the songs are actually deceptively simple, fragile but warm, with reverb you can bask in.
Listen to: 'Desire Lines'
The bare bones of the new Girls songs are underwhelming (when I saw Girls live over a year ago, they played a couple of these tracks and they pretty much sounded like the weaker tracks on their debut, Album). What elevates this EP is the arrangements; the production. I can’t really say it better than the Pitchfork review, but this is possibly the most effective use of a studio I’ve ever heard. Christopher Owens’ lyrics are, on paper, trite and unoriginal (although I’m lead to believe he’s at least being sincere). But on the record, augmented with lush arrangements and insane production embellishments at every step, Owens might as well be a lyrical genius.
Listen to: 'Thee Oh So Protective One'
People don’t treat SMZ with the reverence reserved for parent band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Yet the group have retained their emotional force. It’s not as raw, or as revolutionary as Godspeed were back in the day, but it still hits those cathartic heights: ‘There is a Light’ and ‘’Piphany Rambler’ demonstrate that SMZ have perfected the art of the long-form song.
I first heard this in the car on the way to band practice; it was just swords and terrifying chanted vocals, soon I just burst out with “THIS IS AWESOME”. I thought it was something from Anticon; it has this subverted hip-hop swagger and meaty, bassy beats, but also a bunch of bassoon and foley techniques (those awesome swords – see ‘Attack Music’). Turns out These New Puritans were actually just Brit rockers who tired of conventional songwriting, choosing to enlist a woodwind section and focus on mantras and tribal drumming. The result is a violent, brooding record; every experimental element proves successful.
Listen to: 'Attack Music'
Try as I might to get this record past the CD library purchase list vote, it’s always dismissed as “another guy with a guitar”. But, (although there’s only so far I can go without mentioning Bob Dylan), Tallest Man is idiosyncratic not just in his astonishing voice (I can’t even describe it), but he also hones out his aesthetic in his use of open tunings. Having learned a few of the songs on guitar, they all fit similar patterns (and they’re all so much fun to play), but all have different tunings. Every time he strums it sounds like a thing beyond something any open-mic night Oasis-covering acoustic guitar hack could muster – the effect is aided by earthy production. And the songs work on lyrical references I still can’t get my head around; each is an elaborate puzzle, and I enjoyed the album for its pure tone before I listened to the lyrics, (which is unusual for me, as his textures are so bare). He puts down the guitar for gorgeous closer ‘Kids on the Run’, proving himself just as adept at piano – far from just “another guy with a guitar”, then.
Listen to: 'The Wild Hunt'
Everyone seems to think the Perfume Genius performs this album solo on piano. It’s because it’s intimate, but that’s not because it’s just him – every detail of the production makes a huge difference. It’s lo-fi, but very methodical. The first thing that will strike you about it is his evocative voice, and those lyrics: ‘Mr Peterson’ is especially arresting, but you’ll start to notice that droney, vibrato organ, the tapped feet, and that even the tape hiss sounds like it’s been processed so it’s like a wavery veil over the whole thing. Turn it right up at the end and there’s another song being played in the background. The record’s songs which are practically built out of these techniques (the gorgeous ‘No Problem’ for one) are kind of overlooked, but as important to Perfume Genius’ cathartic songwriting process as more obviously emotional songs like ‘Learning’. It’s actually not so much of a personal record as you might have heard. It’s based on feelings rather than his experiences, and it should resonate with anyone who’s, just, ever felt sad.
Listen to: 'Mr Peterson'
Perhaps the most ambitious record of the year (Kanye I’mma let you finish...), Flying Lotus wanted to create the best trippy music ever. His sonic palette is colossal, drawing on the influences of his aunt –jazz harpist Alice Coltrane, and J. Dilla-esque quirky instrumental hip-hop, but introducing more orchestral, experimental elements; the record transcends, even invents, genre.
Listen to: 'Do the Astral Plane'
Titus Andronicus make cathartic post-punk, with lyrics that are remorseful and caustic, but at the same time it feels triumphant. They’re as adept at riff-based punk rock (‘A More Perfect Union’) as when they add in piano (‘A Pot in which to Piss’) or even bagpipes! (epic closer ‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’). It’s also an expansive loose concept record (based on the US Civil War), and the song lengths add to its truly epic nature; it’s one of the best-crafted albums (as a whole) I’ve ever heard.
Listen to: 'A More Perfect Union'
It’s really awesome when I meet other people who love LC! as much as me – it actually happens quite a lot; the nature of their music will immediately turn some people off, but those who like them REALLY like them. And their brilliance is marred by so many flaws that their music is almost built around them. First of all Gareth’s awful singing voice is something that I find absolutely brilliant, and his lyrics are so TMI it can make you cringe (‘Straight in at 101’ offers the couplet “I think we need more post-coital, and less post-rock/Feels like the build-up takes forever, but you never touch my cock”). ‘In Medias Res’ never really establishes any sort of structure, more sways around song fragments. ‘Plan A’ is a complete anomaly, an uncharacteristic dance-punk song about Gareth’s dream of blagging himself into the Maltese national football team. The two highlights are spazzy math-pop single ‘There are Listed Buildings’ and sombre, string-laden ballad ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future’. But all these things are what endear them to me so much – the lyrics are awkward, but therein lies their insight (and that’s why I relate so much), and its musical incoherence only highlights a multitude of flavours of awesome.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. It surprises me to not put an indie-rock record up here, to be honest. It might be that you skimmed over this record, if you’ve heard of it at all. It’s often lumped in with chillwave (frequently compared to Toro Y Moi), but Baths transcends that genre – while the percussion and synths are woozy, that usually just serves as a bed for something far more powerful. It’s so subtle that it takes a while to sink in (all the best records are growers). But you can see it in the haunting lyrical mantras (‘Rain Smell’, ‘Departure’), in the gorgeous melodies (‘Indoorsy’, ‘Lovely Bloodflow’), and dense but uncomplicated production (‘Maximalist’, ‘Hall’). It’s flippant (‘Aminals’ is a lovely Bibio-esque glissandoed melody with lots of samples of cute kids “We’re elephants, we love giraffes!!”), but there’s something honest, intensely emotional behind these songs. The lyrics on Cerulean are minimal but complex, more subversive than you realise at first – for instance, ‘You’re My Excuse to Travel’ seems to be a love song about travelling rather than the 2nd-person addressee. All this belted out in Will Wiesenfeld’s gleeful falsetto, which is often in the mix even when there are no lyrics (‘Apologetic Shoulder Blades’ being the best example).
I was utterly bewildered when I discovered that the copy I’d initially been listening to was actually the unmastered demo version. It packs three extra tracks, removed in the version I bought: the most typically Baths-y Baths song ‘Mecha Joy’ pitches his voice against light piano over earthy beats; ‘Seaside Town’ uses hazy panpipe/flutes and samples Kirsten Dunst in Kiki’s Delivery Service to create something at once slightly cheesy and heartbreakingly beautiful; ‘Palatial Disappointment’ is just a staggeringly emotional song, packing more lyrics than any other Baths song, proving Wiesenfeld as brilliant a poet as producer. Why these three tracks were dropped escapes me, however, the mastered record redeems itself with the addition of the wonderful ‘Plea’, and when I heard the extra flourishes on ‘Hall’ and ‘Apologetic Shoulder Blades’ I fell in love with the album all over again. It is music that fits all moods.
And a couple shout-outs to two amazing visual albums released in 2010 – Animal Collective’s ODDSAC and Dustin Wong’s Infinite Love. Listening to/watching these releases is much more special than listening to any of the albums and I’ve actually only watched them once each, but found both very rewarding - however, ODDSAC is probably the best example of this form. Most people think of Wong’s release as an album with accompanying visuals, but I found that both were intertwined, and found that the visuals made the music sound way more awesome. I’d like to see more artists create things like this in the future!
PS: I've started up a new music blog - haven't yet posted on it so watch this space, I'll edit in a link soon. I realised that music journalism is something I'd absolutely love to do as a career, and as of yet I don't have anything structured to show for it. Also, I want this to mark a refinement of my style of music journalism so it's probably going to be a bit less daft than this post. I actually intend to update pretty regularly, with a fairly broad range of material that will focus on the experience of music as much as the music itself.