31 Dec 2010

The List 2010

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. OK Go — Of the Blue Colour of the Sky

It’s a great feeling to be surprised by an album, and even more special when it happens more than once within the same record. Even having heard very little of the previous material I thought I had OK Go pegged: another spiky pop band in the Tapes n’ Tapes, Hot Hot Heat mould but with more innovative promo videos. It turns out there’s a lot more to the Chicago four-piece than that.

As those self-made videos attest, this is a band bursting at the seams with ideas, and on this album they let rip with a multitude of styles, delivering dance-rock (‘This Too Shall Pass’), ballads (‘Skyscrapers’) and synth-pop (‘End Love’) among others. The album highlight is a toss-up between the shockingly on-the-money Prince tribute ‘White Knuckles’ and the surprisingly tender digital lament ‘Before the Earth was Round’. In some respects it’s shocking that those two songs exist on the same album. That OK Go attempt so much here and pull it off without a misstep is deserving of enormously impressive.

  1. The Posies — Blood / Candy

Along with Brad’s Interiors (1997) and Screaming Trees’ Dust (1996), I treasure The Posies’ 1993 album Frosting on the Beater for having shaped something special out of the beautiful, melodic aspects of grunge without having felt it necessary to pretend at angst. I dipped into some of the band’s other records but didn’t find anything as consistently engaging. Likewise with albums since; I listened to 2005’s Every Kind of Light a fair bit, but I honestly don’t remember whether it claimed a place on my year end List.

Having taken a bit of a break since then it seems that some of the old magic has been recaptured. Blood / Candy is a set of three and four-minute easygoing pop gems with just the right touch of melancholic edge to them. Opener ‘Plastic Paperbacks’ is expertly judged, and enough by itself to assure you that this is a band (having been recording since the late 80s) in full command of their talents. The subtle mood-swings of ‘Cleopatra Street’ are further proof that The Posies are capable of pretty much anything they turn their mind to, and the three and half minutes of ‘For The Ashes’ prove it, crafting something heartbreaking and huge-seeming out of very little.

  1. Flying Lotus — Cosmogramma

I remember seeing a lot of positive things written about the previous Flying Lotus album—2008’s Los Angeles—but for whatever reason I never got around to picking it up. When Cosmogramma dropped in early summer I was sure to get in on the ground floor, and I discovered an album of dense, vital electronica brimming with energy and ideas.

My touchstone for this genre remains Keiran Hebden’s Four Tet, and what Flying Lotus is doing here is a little messier and, I would guess, more aimed at the headphones than Kieran Hebden’s recent output, which has been more club-oriented.

The Thom Yorke cameo on ‘…And the World Laughs with You’ is an easy highlight, but in some ways (e.g. it features vocals) it’s an outlier. This is a really interesting, layered record that I returned to a lot when zoning out during commutes.

  1. Four Tet — There is Love in You

My relationship with Four Tet is rooted in 2003’s Rounds and 2005’s Everything Ecstatic, and it seems a long time since anything new has been released. That’s slightly misleading in that Kieran Hebden is a prolific remixer of everyone from Death From Above 1979 to Radiohead, and has, in the intervening five years, put out two EPs and two very strong albums of material with jazz drummer Steve Reid.

Still, it’s nice to have a new, full-length release from Four Tet. I’ve played the 2008 EP Ringer quite a bit, but somehow it felt like something of a stop-gap, and this album shows why. Hebden has been hosting nights at Shoreditch’s Plastic People for a while now, and has talked in several interviews about how the experience has affected his music. What separates this album from its predecessors is that it was built to be played to a live audience whereas the previous LPs fall into what I would categorise as headphone listening. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t work the other way round, but the shift is noticeable here on tracks like ‘Sing’ which loops and swings with a very singular purpose. I would guess that I’ll return to Everything Ecstatic more, but this is still wonderful stuff.

  1. Loscil — Endless Falls

This was a discovery via Bleep.com, which has been good to me over the last couple of years when it comes to electronic music. On the mental list of artists in this genre, which I keep arranged by pace and tone, Loscil sits towards the slower, calmer end of the spectrum and has served as perfect reading music, winding down music, and getting-started music in roughly equal measure.

The album’s cover photograph of blurry street furniture seen through a rain-splashed window sets the mood quite well. The album starts with what feels like almost a full minute of rain noise (which I’ve always been a sucker for anyway) and the pace doesn’t pick up a whole lot from there. It’s hard to put on paper what works so well about the music here. It develops at a glacial pace and all exists within the same tonal colour pallet of greys and blues, but this is expertly and subtly constructed stuff with genuine weight behind it.

Of the instrumental music I’ve played a lot this year Endless Falls has leant itself least to being used as background music. Something about its intricate shadows and textures insists upon attention and patience, which it rewards with great depth.

  1. She & Him — Volume Two

Having this album sat next to Loscil highlights the absurdity of drawing comparisons between much of this year’s listening material. All I can say is that I listened to Volume Two a lot and, despite its seeming simplicity, it didn’t even begin to get old.

Perhaps the most apt adjective for this album is “charming”. The record is immensely and instantly likeable, thanks in part to Deschanel’s voice—which resembles a slightly softer Jenny Lewis—and also to the quirky, poppy arrangements of many of the songs. Sometimes it sounds like 1950s bubblegum (‘Gonna Get Along Without You Now’ could be a Chordettes cover), sometimes like the Beach Boys (‘Don’t Look Back’), but regardless the quality never lets up and it’s impossible not to be swept up in its enthusiasm.

  1. Joanna Newsom — Have One on Me

Unique doesn’t begin to cover Joanna Newsom. Placing her in the folk category seems dismissive of her sound’s expansiveness and her penchant for theatricality. The lyrics are certainly folky in that they often convey stories woven out of pastoral themes, but (just as with Laura Marling) there’s a lot more going on here.

On 2006’s Ys, Newsom really embraced the drama of her songwriting, bringing in Van Dyke Parks to add flourishes and even more colour to her songs. Arguably this led to the album feeling a little too dense and claustrophobic, an impression not helped by its composition: five tracks with an average length somewhere north of 10 minutes.

By contrast, though it exhibits a markedly longer running time, Have One On Me seems less weighty, airier, possessed of more space and sunlight. Many songs are stripped back simply to Newsom’s voice and harp, which have always been the core of her art and have never been better than here. To a greater extent than any other record I listened to this year, Newsom’s album offers you a chance to put on headphones and drift away to a different place entirely. She remains quite unique.

  1. Laura Marling — I Speak Because I Can

Laura Marling’s 2008 debut was that rare thing in the world of the modern music press: an unexpected delight; a surprise. That voice, the very English-ness of her sensibility, her ability to seem and sound simultaneous fragile and formidable. It was immediately clear that Marling was a prodigious talent and the purveyor of a quite unique sound, and that album was by far and away my favourite of the year.

Since then it seems that a number of acts have attempted to peddle a faux-folksy kitsch in Marling’s wake, and it has more often than not rang a little false to my ears. Marling’s sincerity is palpable and her ability to tell a story in each beautiful song is unparalleled among her peers. I Speak Because I Can is a more assured album, and a mesmerising one. The swinging melody of ‘Alpha Shallows’, the heart-wrenching beauty of ‘Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)’, the barefoot do-si-do of album closer ‘Nature of Dust’… everything here is masterfully accomplished and infused with limitless warmth and charm. If it falls short of its predecessor it is perhaps only because it comes as no surprise.

  1. Olafur Arnalds — …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness

Arnalds is a 24 year-old Icelandic multi-instrumentalist making stunningly beautiful avant-garde orchestral electronica. This has been on rotation right alongside the Loscil album as perfect examples of simple music displaying almost limitless depths. Listened to on headphones it reveals itself to be utterly compelling and endlessly beautiful, as well as quite a draining listening experience. The way the simple melody of ‘Hægt, kemur ljósið’ blossoms, for example is masterful, and the introduction of the cymbals at the three-minute mark is one of the most raw emotional moments I heard this year.

The album’s tone shares some similarities with Arnalds’ more famous countrymen Sigur Rós, and the fact that he has duplicated their sheer expansiveness of sound, and retained their balance of complexity and simplicity whilst playing and constructing everything himself is, frankly, astounding.

  1. Christian Scott — Yesterday You Said Tomorrow

When I started getting into hip-hop in the late ’90s, I started digging for those “important” and “classic” LPs from a jumping off point of Run DMC, Public Enemy and R.A.T.M.’s Renegades. But I didn’t feel properly engaged in the genre until I stumbled across a contemporary artist who blew my mind: Buck 65’s Square (2002) completely changed my thinking about hip-hop and made the music feel really alive to me.

So, when I started to get serious about jazz a few years back I tried from the outset to make it an equal part of my self-education in the genre to find contemporary artists. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper have both appeared on previous lists, but this year Christian Scott re-defined my ideas about what’s possible in jazz with this astounding record.

Listening back through Scott’s catalogue this isn’t a fluke: both 2006’s Rewind That and the following year’s Anthem are enormously assured and overflowing with brilliance. One listen to the latter’s opener ‘Litany Against Fear’ is all the evidence required for jazz’s contemporary vitality.

Yesterday… however, is probably my favourite of the three, with album highlight, the achingly plaintive ‘Isadora’, standing as the most beautiful song I heard in 2010.

  1. Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden — Jasmine

Jarrett took 14th place on last year’s list with Yesterdays, a record I described at the time as “not my favourite Jarrett album”, and this year he takes 10th with absolutely my favourite of his recordings that I’ve heard.

Jarrett’s collaboration with bassist Charlie Haden stretches back to 1967 and now numbers eight albums. Listening to Jasmine it’s easy to see why the two keep returning to this partnership. Jarrett’s playful, light piano swims effortlessly atop the subtle thrum of Haden’s double-bass undertow, knowing exactly when to allow the latter time to rise to the surface momentarily. The connection (as I said last year of Omar & Cedric) must be near psychic to produce something so effortlessly unified. It’s a joy to listen to and endlessly relaxing.

  1. Deftones — Diamond Eyes

It’s fifteen years since I fell under Deftones’ spell with the visceral post-punk thunder-dirge of Adrenaline, and a decade since they hit their peak with the heavenly White Pony, which remains on my list should I have to pack five albums for a desert island.

2005’s eponymous album, whilst still solid, felt a little lacking, but they really hit their stride again with 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist. And then the worst happened. During recording for what was to be a back-to-basics rock record titled Eros, bassist Chi Cheng was hit by a car. Eros was shelved indefinitely and it looked for a while like Deftones had come to an end.

Cheng remains in a coma, and with Diamond Eyes his bandmates set out explicitly to make an album that would honour him. And what a fantastic tribute they have paid. By turns angry, beautiful, contemplative and celebratory this is their finest album in ten years and sounds not unlike White Pony in terms of breadth of tone and dusky, humid production style. Deftones remain a singular band, devoid of genre, possessed of limitless talent and still capable of surprising me.

  1. Broken Bells — Broken Bells

I only really got into The Shins with 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, and it seems cruel to have made me wait so long for a follow-up to an album I enjoyed so much. With no sign of James Mercer getting back in the studio with the rest of his band, this will have to do for now, so it’s a good job it’s terrific.

Mercer has a very expressive voice, which, alongside his brilliant lyrics, is my favourite aspect of The Shins. It’s just as well served here by Danger Mouse’s beats, which are more melodic than some of his work (e.g. with Jemini, or arguably Gnarls Barkley); it’s perhaps closer to his production of the Sparklehorse albums and Beck’s Modern Guilt a couple of years ago. The lyrics and vocal performance remain the highlight for me, but the dreamy bedding of ‘Your Head is on Fire’ or the hazy synth strings of ‘Citizen’ are what hold this odd, lovable album together.

  1. Vampire Weekend — Contra

Where did Vampire Weekend come from? Who told them it was okay to make this twice-concentrated infectious indie-intellectual-pop with afro influences? After the 35 minutes of V.W.’s debut dominated my stereo almost exclusively for months, I remained unsure that a second album of the same kind of material would be as satisfying. What Contra proves is that this isn’t a gimmick, and that if you have it in you to produce more of this ultra-catchy pop music it should be mandatory that you do so.

Vampire Weekend are doing many of the same things here as they seemingly invented on their debut, but the trick isn’t worn out, it’s just as energising and refreshing as first time around. Absolutely devoid of cynicism and full to the brim with enthusiasm for life and music, this is another summer album that has proven to be great listening throughout the year.

  1. Surfer Blood — Astro Coast

It can’t be easy being an indie buzz band. For all of the hype-fed blog hysteria, there is (just as inevitably) the backlash. The hipsters have this down so well now that, to the average observer, the two seem almost simultaneous, leaving one unsure whether it’s cool to like Surfer Blood this week or not.

But who cares when the music is this good? I’ll admit that, perhaps as a result of buying into some of that hype, the first time I heard Astro Coast I made unfriendly comparisons to Vampire Weekend. Unfriendly in that they were tainted with a pinch of copycat accusation, but the more I listened to the album the weaker that connection seemed, until I now almost can’t understand how I made it in the first place.

Astro Coast is a killer mix of debut album Weezer and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, with a little So-Cal punk stirred in there for good measure. The result is sunny and infectious, and if there is a Vampire Weekend comparison it’s perhaps in the music seeming completely familiar very quickly. These songs feel as though you always knew them, and any time you play them it’s summer.

  1. Charlotte Gainsbourg — I.R.M.

I didn’t think much of Gainsbourg’s previous solo album, 5:55 (2006), but when I heard the single ‘Heaven Can Wait’ which preceded this album I knew I had to at least give the record a try. And it’s a revelation.

The only explanation I can find for the chasm of difference in quality between the two albums is that Gainsbourg, like a crystal, seemingly absorbs the characteristics of those around her. 5:55 had Jarvis Cocker and Air all over it, and not enjoying the work of either of those artists I was put off by its euro-poppy production and coy foppishness.

I.R.M. is a different beast. It’s tonally a little darker and packed full of the kind of tunes that the first album was missing. Gainsbourg has a strong, melodic voice, and Beck (as producer here) knows just how to use it. In fact the album exhibits Beck’s influence in myriad interesting, non-obtrusive ways; so much so that it almost feels like a collaboration. It’s quirky and knowing and unafraid to explore itself, and as a result it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve heard in 2010.

  1. Robyn — Body Talk

Full disclosure: Whiz has been into Robyn for some time, and if it wasn’t for her I don’t know how long it would have taken me to overcome my impression of Robyn (based on very little evidence) as just another dance starlet with little else to offer.

Body Talk was originally released as a set of three EPs throughout the year, but Robyn helped me out in terms of list-eligibility by collating them into a single release that stands as the most energetic and fun album to occupy my headphones all year. Full of colossal glowing synth, the kind of bass that pulls you in two directions at once and some deliciously funny and caustic lyricism, this is ridiculously catchy, grade-A, thoroughbred dance-pop.

In a sea of indie and rock albums that come freighted with issues of credibility and hipness it was a pleasure to have something that did its job unquestionably by making me dance whilst I vacuumed, sing whilst I walked, and smile each and every time it came on.

  1. Buck 65 — 20 Odd Years

Much like Robyn’s Body Talk, this was released as a series of four EPs throughout the year, but alas no collated album has been forthcoming. 20 Odd Years, however, necessitates the bending of list eligibility rules as to omit it on the grounds that it was released in parts would be nothing short of a colossal tragedy (especially as a collected edition is forthcoming).

The project marks the 20th year of Buck’s hip-hop career, and its material is suitably eclectic, taking in Buck’s various guises as romantic, goofball, virtuoso etc. etc. There’s very little Buck can’t do and do well, and the mix of styles here is somewhat dizzying. Replete with multiple guest vocalists and DJs this is a riotous celebration of a unique talent, never less than absolutely riveting and almost dangerously entertaining — just like the man himself.

  1. My Chemical Romance — Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys

It’s been a long, almost unbearable wait since 2006’s The Black Parade. Four years in which MCR have broken themselves down and built themselves back up again (less one member), taken off the black clothes and swapped them for the most colourful things they could find. And what of the music? Danger Days sounds very little like its predecessor. In places it resembles a neon-infused version of 2004’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge; like that album the overarching concept has the protagonists on the run, and the music is infused with a dynamism arguably lacking from the majority of the more meditative Black Parade.

Perhaps the key to the differences between the albums is in the music out of which they are grown. If The Black Parade was a distorted gothic version of Queen, the soil in which Danger Days is planted is pure Springsteen-esque Americana as seen through a caffeinated hurricane of comic book images, muscle cars, and toy laser guns.

Frank Iero has called the album “the soundtrack to raging against the death of the creative spark”, echoing Gerard Way’s concerns about what entering his 30s meant for his art. And this does sound like a band who feel as though they have something to prove. Unquestionably they succeed in doing so.

  1. Arcade Fire — The Suburbs

What’s the strongest run of three studio albums you can think of? The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A? Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad? Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All and Metallica?

Which band / artist has the best set of three studio albums to start their career? Nirvana? Björk? Deftones? Bloc Party? Foo Fighters?

Arcade Fire are undoubtedly something special. In an era that has seen the decline of the physical format and where “shuffle” has become the predominant listening experience, they are a quintessential album band. They are forthright and outspoken in their political convictions; indefatigable in their touring schedule; meticulous in their standards of quality. In the 44 tracks that make up their three albums and one EP to date there is not one weak song.

The Suburbs is a remarkable achievement in and of itself: a beautiful, thoughtful record of songs full of longing and loss, love and loneliness and a pursuit of meaning. Its influences—as with the band’s previous albums—come from the middle of the North American radio dial, and no band is able to make that music seem so shiningly vital as Arcade Fire do on track after track.

The most insightful commentary I’ve seen on the album reads it as part of a trilogy. The feeling of longing to leave home, which is present on Funeral (particularly the ‘Neighborhood’ tracks) is mirrored in the return here of an older and wiser narrative voice to the place of its youth. Neon Bible, which sits in the middle as the record of worldly experience is noticeably darker and more preoccupied with menacing themes. The Suburbs sounds more comfortable and reflective by comparison, but is just as emotionally wrought in its own way.

It’s a stunning collection of songs, somehow living up to the astronomical expectations with which I awaited it; it also stands as further confirmation that Arcade Fire are the most consistently inspired and inspiring band recording today. Thom, Jonny et al: the ball is in your court.

• • •


Putting this thing together was harder this year than maybe any year I can remember. A lot of great music missed out on a coveted top 20 spot and it’s only right that I make room for a couple of honourable mentions:

First and foremost, Glassjaw have been drip-feeding new material through one at a time YouTube videos and digital downloads and it’s mindblowing — a full album must follow in 2011 for the sake of my sanity.

Liars’ Sisterworld should by all rights have made this list. Along with Battles, who sadly split with Tyondai Braxton this year; they’re one of the most consistently innovative bands on my radar.

Polar Bear’s Peepers was another contemporary jazz find that got quite a lot of play — super funky and very playful.

The Monitor by Titus Andronicus missed out by virtue of being more admirable than enjoyable, but still certainly warrants a mention.

As does Wolf Parade who, in Expo 86, made perhaps their most accessible LP to date.

The return of Far was cause for much celebration by me, but in the end, despite having one of the year’s best opening tracks in ‘Deafening’, At Night We Live didn’t quite manage to live up to the expectation.

Pure Reason Revolution’s Hammer & Anvil somehow failed to grab me, perhaps because it came out relatively late in the year, and the same can be said for Warpaint’s debut The Fool and The Mynabirds’ What We Lose in the Fire we Gain in the Flood, both of which I only recently discovered and have been playing a lot — these may sneak onto The List if the year was a month longer.

Even in the best of musical years there have to be a couple of disappointments and it feels worth noting a few here:

The continued decline of Weezer is a source of great dismay, thrown into even greater contrast by bands like Surfer Blood making the sort of music Weezer used to be capable of.

The M.I.A. record was a similar disappointment after much anticipation, and Jimmy Eat World turned in a pretty lackluster effort — outdone at their own game by The Posies.

There were a number of interesting release strategies this year. As well as Robyn and Buck 65 choosing multiple EPs over the album format, there was Ash releasing one song every two weeks (the standard was pretty high too), Girl Talk and Gorillaz giving music away, and Smashing Pumpkins putting out a song every now and again from what Mr. Corgan promises will be a 44 track collection!

Off the top of my head and resisting the urge to overthink, these are my songs of the year in no particular order:

  • Robyn ‘Fembot’
  • My Chemical Romance ‘Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na)’
  • Far ‘Deafening’
  • Charlotte Gainsbourg ‘Heaven Can Wait’
  • Laura Marling ‘Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)’
  • Arcade Fire ‘City With No Children’
  • The Mynabirds ‘What We Gained in the Fire’
  • The Posies ‘For The Ashes’
  • Christian Scott ‘Isadora’
  • Deftones ‘Rocket Skates’
  • Ólafur Arnalds ‘Hægt, kemur ljósið’

And looking forward to the new year the albums which immediately come to mind as my most anticipated are by Glassjaw, Cold War Kids, Radiohead, Silverchair, Metallica, The Decemberists, Foo Fighters (?), Laura Marling and Beastie Boys.

Bring on 2011.

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