Saturday, January 1, 2011

Best albums of 2010 (Honorable Mentions and general thoughts)

     The first year of the new decade is coming to a close, and with that comes year end lists. Some people think these types of lists are superfluous, but I find it is a good exercise in gauging what actually happened during the year. During the first year of last decade, some monumental shifts in music happened. Kid A was released and spawned an entire wave of laptop musician innovators, and peer to peer file sharing was finally catching on, which would change the way music was consumed forever.

    I looked for trends in this year, and maybe its the lack of hindsight that we have with the year 2000, but there really wasn't much of a defining trend. Major Labels are still going after their consumers with lawsuits, Lady Gaga is still making a watered down version of electropop mainstream, the Grammy's and VMA's are still recognizing musicians who are artistically bankrupt, and internet forums are still arguing over what the name of the newest hippest genre should be (this year I would pick witch-house for that award.)
     The one thing I did notice though is that music is widening, the outlets to which we can consume it are expanding, and as a result the listener is rewarded with as much music as he or she can handle. I know a lot of people who say that they wish they could have lived in the 60's or 70's and experienced the music of those generations, but I believe that we now live in the best time for music as consumers. The only problem is wading through the mountains and mountains of music that is released every year, which is what these year end exercises in list making are for.This year I chose to make my list in installments. 10 honorable mentions, and then my top 30 albums of 2010, posted in installments of 10 albums each. I posted links to my favorite tracks from the album at the end of each review snippet so that you can check out whatever you want. If anyone wants a download of the full album let me know and I will be happy to upload it for you. So onward to the super self indulgent top albums of 2010, enjoy.
Aloha - Home Acres
Aloha is a band that isn't very well recognized, and those who do recognize it know it as "that band with the dude that plays glockenspiel", even though that is just a small part of their sound. The band has never been able to capture my attention in LP format, but this album takes what made their 2007 EP Light Works and makes it work in the album format. One of the things I like most about the album is the production, as it isn't nearly as polished as it could be. The instruments and vocals all blend into each other, which serves their subtle pop sound well. Hopefully they will change their name from Aloha to That Band With The Dude Who Plays Glockenspiel (TBWTDWPG). Then surely droves of ironic indie rock fans would flock to them.
Aloha - Moonless March
Altered Carbon - Altered:Carbon
The way that music is distributed has changed so drastically in the past decade that it is hard to think about what it would be like if you had to buy every album that you wanted to hear. This change in distribution has brought up some interesting predicaments, piracy aside. For instance I thought this album was an Autechre album the first 4 times I listened to it. It was billed as the first leak of Autechre's Oversteps, so I downloaded it immediately. All the tracks were tagged as the Oversteps song titles, as well as the album art. The funny thing is that I was fooled the first time through, but upon subsequent listens my fanboyism turned off and I started noticing it sounded nothing like Autechre. And yet I do enjoy this release. It shows in an interesting way that while it is easy to imitate the controlled chaos of Autechre it is impossible to get it just right. Where Altered Carbon differs is in their use of more simple beats, as well as a handful of vocal samples. In the end I am glad that I was duped, because if I hadn't been I probably wouldn't have given this release much of my attention.
Altered Carbon - Tinted Corvettes
Beach House - Teen Dream
Sometimes music can sound too much like the album live. Sitting at home listening to an album is one experience, going out to see a performance live, in the best cases, is something different. It shows you a different side of the artist/songs that you have listened to over and over in their prerecorded format. Earlier in the year I saw Beach House perform, and while it was impressive to the amount that they reproduced the sound of the album in the live setting, it left me a little unsatisfied. Don't get me wrong though, Teen Dream is a wonderful piece of beautifully crafted music. It ditches the lo-fi of earlier Beach House releases and puts the melodies out in front where they belong, yet it retains a hazy wooziness that can best be described as romantic. This is a case of the songs and album itself being more memorable than the live experience.
Beach House - Walk In The Park (Live)
Anni B Sweet - Start Restary Undo
I enjoy a lot of female singer/songwriter music, but the genre definitely has its issues. The thing I can't stand is an artist coming off as "precious". Prime examples of this would be the cutesy yelps of Regina Spektor and the unbearably adorable lyrics of Joanna Newsom. Anni B Sweet is a Spanish singer/songwriter who straddles the line between precious and serious in a respectable fashion. I was introduced to her music through her cover of A-Ha's "Take on Me", which is in 3 minutes a pretty good microcosm of what you will hear on her album as a whole. Her guitar playing is tasteful, her vocal range evokes the little girl aspect of Joanna Newsom but with none of the trappings, and the video features her and her band running around as furries. My only complaint is the only version of the album I can find sounds as if it were recorded off of a cassette tape, which is quaint in its own right.
Anni B Sweet - Take On Me
The Bird and the Bee - Interpreting the Masters
There is an interesting resurgence of 80's ish music that lacks any sense of irony or parody. Personally I would much rather have this than a bunch of idiots in Iron Maiden T-shirts playing hip as fuck indie rock. Interpreting the Masters is a prime example of how to capitalize on 80's nostalgia without coming off as smug. The album itself is a collection of Hall and Oates covers, which seems like it could be a disaster. When I first hear about the release I imagined a bunch of tongue in cheek versions of the songs, but in actuality the album is actually very tasteful. It takes the incredible hooks and melodies of the original tracks, takes out the cheesy 80's synths along with the unbearable 80's drum machine sound, and creates something that is just different enough to be interesting. The mix of The Bird and the Bee's subtle electropop and the infectious Hall and Oates melodies is nearly impossible to not at least hum to. And at 9 songs, it doesn't overstay its welcome, although it does drag a bit towards the end.
The Bird and the Bee - Kiss on my List
School of Seven Bells - Disconnect From Desire
On Alpinisms, School of Seven Bells previous album, the focus was on the layers of sound piled on top of the twin lead singers melodies. While I love the shoegaze of the earlier record, Disconnect From Desire is enjoyable on a different level. The vocals are no longer buried under layers of haze, they are way up front in the mix. The music itself, while not as interesting as on Alpinisms, serves the dual vocal interplay between the singers well. Certain tracks feature no percussion, just the vocals and some synths, and those tracks really show what this band is capable of. Sadly, one of the two twins left the band recently, which doesn't fare well for a group who's most interesting feature is the interplay of two identical female voices.
School of Seven Bells - Heart is Strange
White Hinterland - Kairos
White Hinterland is the artist name of Portland based Casey Dienel who has a dreamy airy voice similar to that of Beach House but with more of an improvisational fun vibe. She has a really good ear for subtle harmonies, as shown on the ooh's and ahh's on "Moon Jam" and the clinking Psapp'ish toy sounds on "Bow & Arrow". Another touchstone for White Hinterland that I would mention would be Feist, but she doesn't fall into the preciousness that I was alluding to earlier that Fesit often does. And no i didn't hear about her from the Revlon commercial or Project Runway, HIPSTER VICTORY.
White Hinterland - Icarus
Sleigh Bells - Treats
Over the past 20 years or so albums have been getting louder and louder. I'm not talking about the playing itself, rather the post production level adjusting. If you listen to a cd (cd, lol) from the early 90's, then compare the volume level to one released today the difference is startling. This is largely due in part to compression, which brings the levels of different tracks in line with each other. In some regards this is good, but in a lot of ways its bad. Lost is the quiet interplay in volume dynamics that has been a huge part of music since its beginnings, and it is replaced with an assault of volume that mashes everything together. Sleigh Bell's Treats is this taken to the extreme. All the levels are maxed on purpose. You can hear the music itself clipping because the volume was cranked up too much. To some this is grating, and if I had to listen to music all the time like this I would be annoyed as well, but as a one off curiosity it is really good. The complete barrage of layers and layers of guitars over slowed down bass driven hip-hop beats with sweet female vocals over the top makes for a unique listening experience. The first song on the album "Tell 'Em" is one of the best opening track mission statements that I have ever heard, and the Funkadelic sampling down tempo "Rill Rill" gives me a glimmer of hope that these guys aren't just a one trick pony. I am interested to see where this group goes to next, hopefully they will not rely on the clipping gimmick and move into other interesting territory, but it would not surprise me if this ended up being their only album, or only interesting album for that matter.
Sleigh Bells - Tell 'Em
Sleigh Bells - Rill Rill
Michael Mayer - Immer 3
I was recently having a conversation about the lost art of making a good mix cd. Gone are the days where I would slave over a tracklist and wonder which tracks to put on a mix and in what order, now I can just put everything I want into a *.rar file and send it to whoever I want, all at the same time. While Immer 3 isn't strictly a mix cd, as it does have some very subtle mixing, it sounds as if Michael Mayer slaved over the tracklist and running order for an extended period of time. Which makes sense, he has only released 3 of these mixes in the past decade. Not a single beat sounds out of place, and the way in which it flows is perfect. If I wanted to introduce someone to the beauty of a subtle DJ Mix I would give them this album and tell them to listen to it front to back. In many ways it is the anti Girl Talk in that it rewards patience and attentive listening, where as Girl Talk is merely a series of HEY MAN I KNOW THAT SONG I REMEMBER THAT SONG OMFG SO CRAZY ITS ALL MASHED UP!!. 9/10 times subtlety comes off infinitely more sincere than rampant heavy handedness. Also, the track I linked is probably my favorite song of the year.
Charlotte Gainsbourg - The Operation (Superpitcher Remix)
Yeasayer - Odd Blood
I'm really not much of a fan of the whole Psychedelic Pop thing that is currently making a resurgence. It seems to me like a tired take on a genre that is better off staying in the 70's. Yeasayer however has been able to straddle the line between psychedelic freak out and pop sensibility in a way that his peers have not. It helps that on this album he toned down the fuzzed out stoner rock and amped up the melodies. Each track has a great hook, interesting musical choices, and solid production. Hopefully on future releases he keeps going in this direction. Also the music video linked is one of my favorite videos of the year, in which an aspiring actress mourns the loss of her pet/boyfriend, who happens to be a unidentifiable lump of flesh. Its cooler than it sounds.
Yeasayer - Madder Red

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