Public scrutiny can often ruin musicians entirely. Its not so much the fact that the person themself is ruined, its that their music itself reflects societies view of their art rather than their own personal vision. Crystal Castles previous album, which was self titled as well, reflected a mish mash of nihilism mixed with darkwave mixed with the icy cool of synthpop, yet didn't sound like a fully formed music project. The duo toured, was accused of musical plagiarism, had multiple on stage public meltdowns, and seemed to be getting attention for all the wrong reasons. Needless to say I thought this album was going to be trash, it seemed likely that they would either make a quick cash in on their coverage or target the mass market. What actually happened is Crystal Castles took the format of the first LP and pushed their influences in every direction.
The first single released off the album, "Doe Deer", is a cacaphony of blown out synths and distorted vocals which is reminescent of early 2000's no-wave bands like The Sick Lipstick and Black Cat #13. Other tracks such as "Celestica" and "Babtism" effectively throw big rave synths together with low key chillwave beats. As a whole, the album balances the noisier songs with the dance tracks and comes out in the end as a record that keeps you wondering what the next song will bring.
It is a wonder to me that Crystal Castles survived the shitstorm after their first album to release one of the strongest releases of the year, and one of the best releases in the genre itself. It is a testament that the public spotlight doesn't turn everyone into raving egomaniacs that put their public persona's miles ahead of whatever artistic expression got them noticed in the first place.
Crystal Castles - Celestica
Crystal Castles - Doe Deer
Crystal Castles - Empathy
9. The Books - The Way Out
Rarely do albums come along that requires active listening to the extent that releases by The Books do. This is an album that I could stare at a wall while listening to and be completely entertained. The Books create music using field recordings, found sound, original string quartet work, and a sense of storytelling woven throughout. On The Way Out, a lot of the tracks revolve around clips from obscure self help recordings and the videos that The Books have drudged up from who knows where. Where the songcraft really comes in is how little these sound like hodge podges of noises. Every track has its own personality and theme, and are arranged in perfect sequence. Those who listen to the album as a whole will be rewarded much more than those that pick and choose tracks. Another thing that the books do well is humor, and not in the way that you would expect. Maybe humor isn't the right word for it, the best way I could describe it would be a clever sense of self awareness that what they are doing is a bit rediculous.
"Beautiful People" is what sounds like a reading of a geometry text book over a subdued high hat and manipulated in a way that makes math sound like it was handed down by God himself. "A Cold Freezin' Night" is rooted in a series of cassette tape recordings from childrens' TalkBoys (remember those?) that The Books found at a thrift store. The result is a mix of statements and threats that only children could pull off backed by a music video that is bonkers enough to not make the spoken words sound too ridiculous. There are also more traditional sounding songs, such as "All You Need is a Wall", which is a pretty straightforward track about loss. If I had to pick one track as my favorite I would pick "Thirty Incoming" which is centered around a series of answering machine messages. It tells a story in 4 minutes more effectively than most films. Is the woman in question leaving? Will they work things out? IS he stalking her or is she actually interested in him? Its not often that I have questions like these about songs, which is an indicator of the quality present.
The Books - Beautiful People
The Books - A Cold Freezin' Night
The Books - All You Need Is A Wall
The Books - Thirty Incoming
8. Owen Pallett - Heartland
2010 was a year where artists singular visions reigned supreme. This of course has its ups and downs, on one hand we get the full impact of the bloated egos of people like Kanye West, but on the other hand we get strong singular artistic visions such as the albums by Janelle Monae and Jonsi. Owen Pallett's Heartland definitely falls into the latter category. Owen Pallett has previously released a couple of albums under the Final Fantasy moniker, but he was prompted by Squaresoft to either change his name or face legal action. He seems to have taken the opportunity of the name change to put together his most lush and realized music yet. You can definitely hear Final Fantasy on Heartland, but it is so much more developed and fleshed out that at times it sounds like a completely different artist.
Owen's main instrument of choice is the violin, and there are numerous passages of his playing that sound like they could be out of a violin concerto. From what I understand this is a theme album about a man leaving the midwest for opportunities abroad, but the theme itself never overshadows the album. The most defining thing about Owen Pallett is his ability to mix virtuosic arrangements with infectious melodies. Take for example "Lewis Takes Action", about three fourths through the song, the strings descend into an offkey take on the main musical theme, only to have the melody lock in again, making it that much more memorable. The album is full of little tricks of the ear that are both subtle and at the same time breathtaking. Standout track "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" features Owen Pallett's most powerful vocal performance yet, with a ascending chorus that shows off the fact that not only is he a brilliant songwriter, but also a great vocal talent. With the amount of singer/songwriters out there it is refreshing to hear someone who actually knows how to play well, making him more of a songer/composer.
I saw him open for The National, and honestly he blew them out of the water, even though it was just him and another multi instrumentalist on stage.
Owen Pallett - Lewis Takes Action (Live with Orchestra)
Owen Pallett - Lewis Takes off his Shirt (Live)
7. The Black Dog - Music For Real Airports
It bothers me that people dismiss music out of hand that isn't either instantly accessible, danceable, bass heavy, or vocally based. What these people are missing out on is music that affects through mood and tonal shifts, which is a completely different listening experience than from vocal based albums. I find it easier to listen to music such as this because I hardly ever pay attention to lyrics in the first place, I am much more affected by the way the music itself moves. That being said, Music For Real Airports is one of the most emotionally effective releases of the year.
The album itself is billed as a sequel to Brian Eno's seminal 1978 ambient album titles Music For Airports. The Black Dog, who are typically a more straightforward techno group, have taken influence from the warm ambient sounds of Eno's ambient albums, and added a subtle backbeat that is never intrusive but effectively propels the album along. All of the loneliness of a modern society where you can be surrounded by hundred of people in an urban environment, or millions of people digitally online, is conveyed on this album. If you think about it, words can't really describe feelings such as these, which is why the album gets them across so effectively using subtle changes of key and tone.
The opening two tracks set the mood appropriately, signifying arriving at an airport in a daze, not sure why you are there or where you are going. Then the album really shifts into gear with "DISinformation Desk", where percussive tones roll alongside dubby washes of sound, reminiscent of their peers Monolake. "Sleep Deprivation 1" begins with what sounds like a busy signal and a crowd of voices far off in the distance, which subsequently drop out in place of a deep bass beat that goes throughout the track. By the end of the album we are in a daze, ready to leave the airport, ready to get away from the society that packs us together in a way that makes it so we can never truly know eachother, and thats when "Business Car Park 9" starts. This is what the album has been leading up to, a cathartic release of melody and emotion. There is something about this track that is beautifully intangible, and really has to be heard to understood.
The Black Dog - Business Car Park 9
The Black Dog - Disinformation Desk
6. Thomas Fehlmann - Gute Luft
2010 was a great year for dub. Whether it was the locked in groove of Echospace or the smokey chilled out cool of Pulshar, the genre consistantle produced great material. Thomas Fehlmann is a legend in electronic music circles, mainly for his work in the late 80's and early to mid 90's with techno innovators and legends The Orb. Since leaving that small collective he has released a few albums and singles under the consistantly solid German techno label Kompakt, as well as producing tracks for his peers. Even though he is in his early 50's he is still DJ'ing regularly and producing some of the most forward thinking minimal techno/dub, as evidenced by his latest work, Gute Luft.
The album is actually a soundtrack for a documentary based around and on the city of Berlin, which isn't essential knowledge for listening but provides context for the very urban sounding Gute Luft. the album explores musical themes and passages that were first heard on Fehlmann's previous solo works. Take for example the melody that is first heard on the track "Wasser Im Fluss". The theme itself first showed up on 2003's excellent album Lowflow, but is given new life on Gute Luft, where it shows up on multiple tracks providing a sort of narrative that holds the album together thematically. It makes perfect sense as a soundtrack, in that certain passages are obviously meant to be heard as motifs. On "Permanent Touch" Fehlmann takes the main theme and puts it over snapping fingers and synth stabs, forming a marching rhythm that seems like it would be evocative of Berlin itself.
Yet its not the straightforward minimal techno tracks that make this such a great album, for Gute Luft is also heavy on dubby ambient tracks that serve as the mortar that holds the soundtrack together. It is in these more withdrawn moments that Fehlmann truely sets himself apart from his peers. His sense of rhythm and thematic flow is something that he has been building and emending for 25 years, which makes Gute Luft a must have of 2010.
Thomas Fehlmann - Permanent Touch
Thomas Fehlmann - Wasser Im Fluss
5. Autechre - Oversteps/Move of Ten
All of the elements of Autechre (AE) make them perfect candidates for rabid fanboyism. All of their releases are first pressed onto vinyl, with sometimes elaborate, sometimes minimal, but always beautiful artwork. They helped pioneer a genre of electronic music, IDM, that is still going strong today. Not content with that legacy, they went off the deep end musically in the late 90's/early 00's, creating albums that polarized their fans as well as music critics. Gone were the melodies of Incunabula and Amber, in their place was a form of percussive musical chaos that was in is incredibly abrasive and hard to digest. Confield, the pinnacle of their experimentation, is a must have for any eclectic music fan, in that it pushed societies idea of what music is and should be to its most extreme limits. Since that 2002 release, AE have taken a bit of a step back from extreme experimentation, reincorporating tonal melody into their still percussive heavy sound. Oversteps and Move of Ten are both reflective of AE's musical past as well as a look into the future of music itself.
Oversteps was AE's first release of 2010, and it starts things off right. Lead off track "r ess" will sound familiar to AE fans, featuring a skittering without of this world melodies thrown seemingly at random over the top. AE are notorious for starting their releases with a kind of mission statement on what to expect from the rest of the record, which makes them easy to browse. The following track is my favorite from the album. "iLanders" is both claustrophobic and expansive, apocalyptic and beautiful. It is one of the more organic sounding songs on the album, and has a memorable bass melody that is evocative and seemingly always just out of reach. On "Treale" AE wear their hip-hop influences on their sleeves. In a perfect world this is what hip-hop beats would sound like, challenging, forward thinking, curious, and musically exploratory. Instead we get the same Fruity Loops garbage repeated ad-nauseum.
A wonderful thing about AE is how they work in movements. They always release and EP or two around the same time as the full length album, which further explore the direction taken by the larger work. For instance, 2008 saw the release of Quaristice, which was an album that consisted of twenty short musical ideas rather than the long form tracks that AE are typically known for. While it was an interesting change of pace, it ultimately came off as sounding unrealized and incomplete. That was until the release of quadrange/quaristice(versions) shortly after the release of the album proper. These contained the same songs as the full length, but in their more fleshed out and expansive forms, and ultimately surpassed the quality of the album itself.
This is not the case on Move of Ten, which is a ten song EP released months after Oversteps. While the art is similar, and some themes are shared, they are ultimately two sides of the same coin. Oversteps is heavy on ambiance and reflection, where as Move of Ten is more immediately accessible. For an AE newbie, this would be a good place to start, in that its not too long, not too abrasive, and each track has unique musical themes. The first half of the EP really show AE on top of their game. Opener "Etchogon-S" starts with a bear only AE could forge, with stabs of bass and synth providing the fleeting melody. "pce freeze 2.8i" is a post industrial march with otherworldly instruments playing a repeating motif over the top, while horror movie string provide the listener with a disconcerted claustrophobic feeling. Rounding out the opening half od the EP is "nth Dafuseder.b", which sound like a deranged collaboration with fellow IDM and Warp label mates Boards of Canada.
Overall the two releases mark a strong and sure footed point in AE's long career. They aren't doing anything completely new in their 2010 output, but they are providing some of the most consistently rewarding, jarring, and thought provoking music in a year full of great albums.
Autechre - r ess
Autechre - iLanders
Autechre - Treale
Autechre - Etchogon-S
Autechre - pce freeze 2.8i
Autechre - nth Dafuseder
4. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
Even though I have had my top 30 albums set in stone since the first week of December, I have been endlessly messing with the order than the albums would come in. Originally I had this album around #9, but every time I listened to it I would tell myself, "Come on, this has to be higher than that." That it ended up a position higher than my favorite group is a testament to how much I love The ArchAndroid. Another pitfall of putting my top 10 out so late is that I have already read what everyone else has had to say about the album at hand, but I think the best way to approach this is to pretend that I, as well as the reader, haven't been exposed to any of that commentary.
For the uninitiated, KCK native Janelle Monae plays an incredibly eclectic mix of styles. I read and interview in which Monae complained about arists of her ilk playing the same type of music in the same tired genre over and over, and that it was her mission to break out of that box. With the amount of styles represented this could have been a failure and huge mess, but instead it is the most exciting and surprising album of the year. The styles flow together seamlessly, from the bubble gim of "Locked Inside", to the straight forward rock of "Cold War", to the off kilter hip-hop of "Tightrope", Monae innovated as well as entertains.
The three best tracks on the album are indicative of the album as a whole, and are also the weirdest and most eclectic. In "Come Alive" Monae sounds as if she is channeling the undead version of James Brown over a riff that sounds straight off an early B-52's album. Her high pitched wail towards the end of the track is unnerving and at the same time incredible. "Mushrooms and Roses" starts off as a straightforward slow burn classic, and then Monae's digitally altered robotic voice comes in. This isn't auto-tune, it is vocal manipulation at its most effective in that it is essential to the mood and the vibe of the song. It also features one of the most gorgeous string arrangements on an album heavy on gorgeous string arrangements.Then there is the blissfully oblivious "Wondaland", which has Monae singing in a sing-songy nasal voice that would come off as obnoxious in lesser hands. Yet in hers it sounds perfect, and makes sense even though it sounds nothing like anything else on the album.
The ArchAndroid is so packed full of ideas and styles that its a wonder that is came off as cohesive as it did. Where Kanye gets credit for changing hip-hop, he merely sampled from an already heavily sampled plate of appetizers. Monae on the other hand embodies her influences, and in so adds to them, expanding the musical lexicon rather than simply regurgitating it.
Janelle Monae - Tightrope
Janelle Monae - Cold War
Janelle Monae - Come Alive
Janelle Monae - Mushrooms & Roses
Janelle Monae - Wondaland
3. Deftones - Diamond Eyes
I listen to a lot of different music than my 16 year old self, but Deftones are one of those bands that I have consistently enjoyed since first purchasing their Around the Fur album in 1998. Honestly that album kind of changed the way I looked at music, it was heavy in the same way as other garbage I was listening to at the time (Korn, Coal Chamber, yikes), but had a melodic undercurrent that their angst driven peers severely lacked. With each new album, Deftones have consistently pushed their sound in interesting directions, but always revolving around the bottom heavy riffs of Stephen Carpenter and Chino Moreno's non sensicle lyrics and unparalleled delivery. Up until the release of Diamond Eyes, I thought White Pony was and would always be their best album. It had the perfect mix of slow tracks, melody, and stubborn angst. Yet Deftones have surprised me once again, and released their strongest album yet nearly 20 years into their career.
One of the immediately noticeable differences between Diamond Eyes and previous albums is the 8 string guitar that is in use. Deftones have always revolved around seemingly simplistic yet solid riffs, and this new low end is the perfect backing for Chino's directionless wails. Although the entire album is good, the greatness doesn't really show up until the third track on the album "So You've Seen the Butcher". Chino's vocal performance on this track is pretty amazing, getting across longing, disappointment, and desire without ever falling into the trap of sounding emo. The following track "Beauty School" follows a similar tact, and features probably the most epic sounding chorus Deftones have ever penned. I don't know if I am being blinded by nostalgia, but the chorus sounds like something I have been listening to and loving for ten years rather than a couple of months. It is this blend of potent nostalgia and solid playing that really makes Diamond Eyes a different beast than their past albums. By far the strongest track on the album is "Risk", which has the simplest, yet coolest main riff on the album.
Musically the album is easily their best. The guitar and drums are perfectly locked in, and Chino's vocals sound better than ever despite his recent throat problems. I have a hard time convincing people that don't listen to Deftones that they are a serious band and nothing like the bands that they are associated with, and I think this album maybe the album that finally breaks them out of that mold. That is if they stop opening for shit like Alice and Chains, but that's a completely different story all together.
Deftones - Beauty School
Deftones - You've Seen the Butcher
Deftones - Risk
2. Nina Nastasia - Outlaster
I love music that surprises me. Sure I have my musical stalwarts that I will always enjoy and listen to their new material, but the best moments come from artists you either haven't heard of or have already passed judgment on only to have your previous expectations vaporized by the quality of a new album/ep/song. I've liked Nina Nastasia for a couple years now, and listen to all of her albums regularly, but never would have considered her a favorite. I was charmed by her direct delivery and stripped down approach to songwriting, and enjoyed basically all of her music. I had her pegged as a consistently good (not great) songwriter, only to have my expectations completely destroyed. Outlaster, and I am trying to not be too hyperbolic, is the best singer/songwriter type album in years.
I am always skeptical when listening to a singer/songwriter. Too often they fall into the trap of relying to much on themselves and their own stories. While this is a topically effective way to get people interested in your music (the experiences written about are often so generic that anyone could put themselves in the songwriters shoes), it ruins its shelf life. Once that first layer is exposed, the listener can only be disappointed, because each subsequent layer is either a repeat of other common themes or completely non existent. Nina Nastasia sidesteps these pitfalls by creating music that on the surface is relatable, yet also is ripe to expose multiple layers underneath that the listener can explore.
The first thing she did right on this album is her choice to employ a talented backing band. Typically her albums have been merely her and a guitar, maybe some sparse backing, but nothing compared to what is on Outlaster. Its not that I don't enjoy the stripped down sound, because I do, and I like all of the old Nina albums, yet the band really gives her a chance to flesh out what she only hinted at on previous recordings. The backing instruments never outshine or overpower Nina herself, yet they add a dimension that in conjunction with Nina's voice really pack an incredible emotional punch.
This is an album that I was immediately enamored with, maybe because it has the best example of a perfect opening track in quite some time."Cry, Cry Baby" is a perfect song. No seriously, it is PERFECT. It opens with Nina strumming her guitar and singing a few lines, followed by some beautiful strings. The lyrics are simple, moving, and to the point. Never has someone expressed the confused feelings of anguish and relief that often result because of a break up in such an effective and concise way. The chorus, which is only sung once, is incredible heart wrenching, and often stops me dead in my tracks. Words that in lesser hands could have come off sounding cheesy or ironic sound purely sincere; we are right there alongside the artist going through this with her. The second time the chorus rolls around it is as if Nina is in too much anguish to sing the words, she can merely strum her guitar and let the strings take over the melody in place of her voice. Its a clever slight of hand that is incredibly emotionally satisfying and effective. Then the song ends abruptly, hardly providing the listener the time to breathe. The video for the track isn't as effective as the song itself, but does provide a great context to what we are hearing, and the tenseness of the room is palpable.
Nina Nastasia's voice itself isn't boundless. On many tracks you can hear it on the verge of breaking, which gives it that much more of a down to Earth quality. On "You Can Take Your Time" you can hear her pushing her voice to its limits to great effect, the crescendo of the strings works perfectly with her ascending voice on the powerful chorus. There is a strength in her voice that is somehow at the same time delicate. Another thing that sets her apart other than her unique vocals is you never get the sense that she is cashing in on the whole female singer/songwriter thing. While some of her lyrics do have undertones of femininity, she never sounds as if she is victimizing herself. Many times when I hear this type of music it sounds as if the artist is patting themselves on he back, which isn't helped by the media stigma of such artists. She does use her femininity to her advantage though. The noir'ish "This Familiar" has a dark waltz type feel to it, a sense of smokey mystery. The cheeky "You're a Holy Man" provides the album with a much needed light hearted moment, but doesn't sound out of place in the context of the rest of the album.
The best example of Nina using her limited vocal range to great effect is on the wrenching "Wakes". The track starts off in a minor key with lyrics about a funeral, but then an interesting thing happens. The track quickly switches to a major key which propels it into its soaring chorus, where Nina literally wails, especially later in the song. The effect is both jarring and curious, and always makes my ears perk up a little bit. The track ends with a exasperated confession, that no matter how much she wants things to be differently it cannot be that way.
The album ends with just as strong of a statement as it began, but in different ways. "Outlaster" is in the vein of traditional seafaring songs, using imagery of ships and oceans that is a perfect metaphor for the longing associated with large amounts of time spent apart from what you want more than anything in the world. The song is mysterious, open ended, and gives itself plenty of room to breathe. The simple guitar is perfectly minimal, and provides the backdrop for the tale that is being told. Nina Nastasia has definitely raised the bar for herself on this album, and since she is never one to repeat herself completely it will be interesting to see where she decides to go from here.
Nina Nastasia - Cry, Cry Baby
Nina Nastasia - You Can Take Your time
Nina Nastasia - Wakes
Nina Nastasia - Outlaster
1. Scuba - Triangulation
Its interesting that in a year full of incredibly generic dubstep that the album of the year ended up being a dubstep album. Well it really isn't fair to pigeonhole Triangulation as merely a dubstep album, as it takes influences from a lot of other places as well. Most people upon thinking dubstep will just think of insanely loud bass, wobble, and a heavy grime influence, but the way in which Scuba both works within the confines of the genre as well as seemingly outside them pushes it to new places. The easiest comparison to throw out for Triangulation would be Burial's 2008 album Untrue, which was a landmark for the genre. While the albums don't sound incredibly alike on the surface, the mood and feel of the records are very similar.
The problem I have with dubstep as a genre is that the market for it is becoming increasingly saturated. It is an easy genre to emulate, throw together a shuffle type beat with some simple synths and heavy bass that is pretty much it. What makes Scuba different is the way in which he understands the importance of space. Most of the tracks on Triangulation have plenty of room to breathe and grow, so that when the bass does hit it fills the emptiness in an extremely gratifying way. Rather than rely on a constant barage of wobble Scuba knows how to draw back, to heighten the tension, and then to open the valve and release the pressure. That's not to say that there aren't some very standard dubstep tracks on the album because there are. "Three Sided Shape" has a slow burn build for the first minute or so, and then becomes a pretty standard track. But the way in which Scuba manages the space between the and within each track on the recording is what makes this such a good album. It never falls into the same place for long, varying the tempo from song to song so that it doesn't feel like you are just listening to dubstep for an hour.
The thing that shines most about Scuba is his subtle use of vocals. Where as his labelmates Joy Orbison use vocals as a standard gimmick, Scuba's use of them is more in the vein of Burial. For example on "Before", Scuba tweaks and manipulates a short vocal sample over and around a 4/4 beat that really doesn't sound like dubstep at all. I think that dubstep is goign to branch soon into two directions, one way is going to be the bass assault that most people associate with dubstep, and in 2011 we will definately see some popular pop stars toying with the genre and bringing it more into the mainstream. The other direction is a more subtle one, one that respects dynamics and timbre over bass overload. This direction is best signified by the track "So You Think You're Special", which is one of the coolest and most exciting tracks of 2010. The way in which it isn't rushed, and allows the listener ample time to get into the mood of the track before the main emphasis of it becomes clear, makes it that much more rewarding. It is one of the most organic sounding electronic songs, not in that the instruments themselves sound live or anything because they definitely sound programmed, but in the way that you can tell Scuba put his heart and soul into the track. Once the vocal sample kicks in two minutes in, you know that you aren't in standard dubstep territory anymore. It would have been a perfect way to end the record, but there are still 3 tracks following it, which are in themselves very solid songs as well. The actual last track on the album, "Light Out', is heavily influenced by dub, and is a good send off for the best album of 2010.
At the beginning of the year I felt kind of through with dubstep, it seemed very few people had interesting visions for the genre. Scuba however has proved that there is still a lot to be mined and explored, and that definitely excites me.
Scuba - Three Sided Shape
Scuba - Before
Scuba - So You Think You're Special
Scuba - Light Out