This is my year end list with the caveat that these aren't necessarily the best albums out in 2010 but the ones I liked the most. And since I listen to like 0.005% of all available music in the world this is not even close to the definitive list of anything. Having said that, it was a cool year for my music listening. I do not discern any pattern in any of this stuff, except that almost all music I listen to these days is derivative, as in, everything sounds like something you've heard before. As I've mentioned before, this is not necessarily a bad thing, just that real sonic innovation has moved to the fringes of popular music while what is popular generally tweaks or updates or excavates (or all three) old formulas. There were a few eras when sonic/lyrical innovation moved into the pop area (late '60s, late '70s/early '80s) but these were short-lived phases.
A second comment: There were a lot of good albums but none that truly knocked the ball out of the park. As someone mentioned on some blog somewhere on the internet, this is actually a good thing in a way, cause that means there's a lot of good stuff instead of a few stellar records.
A third comment: A lot of music I listen to is from the past. My friends at Kick Out The Jams Mofo made the same observation. I don't know that what means beyond the fact that I am old. But then I asked one of my 19-year old students what they listened to, and to my horror, he answered Rush, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Yes.
A final comment: A lot of year-end lists are floating around. I'd like to give props to Kick Out The Jams Mofo whose year-end lists were also mentioned in (gasp or shudder, depending on your perspective) Rolling Stone magazine. He has an awesome list; check it out. KOTJMF 's absolute best pick was Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid which also features on my list. There's also Paper Street Cinema, who is apparently some kind of obssessive movie genius freak who also has time to listen to music and have a job and a life.
Here is my list in some order that makes sense exactly right now but will be disowned by me ten minutes later. In fact, I already disagree with my list and I haven't even started to write it down.
1. Deerhunter -- Halcyon Digest: I put Deerhunter's last album as my top choice for 2008 so this is strange that they made it to the top for another year. I realize that kinda liking Deerhunter is pretty easy--after all, they make good pop music, the kind that just washes over you. On the other really liking Deerhunter is hard--after all, they make good pop music, the kind that just washes over you. Their modus operandi is not complicated: they write good pop songs with fantastic hooks with a deep tinge of nostalgia; the songs are impeccably arranged and produced, and every song has a strong hint of reverb. Their music harks back to the 1960s and 1970s in many ways; you hear shards of Motown, early 1970s pop (like Big Star and the Raspberries), pre-Who's Next Who, but are never antiques. The songs sound modern and old at the same time. The main songwriter of Deerhunter is Bradford Cox, a young and incredibly prolific songwriter who seems to live and breathe music. His side band Atlas Sound is a bit more 'experimental' (or demo-ish) but he seems to put his heart and soul into Deerhunter. Yet, the best song on the album, "Desire Lines," was not written by Cox, but by guitarist Lockett Pundt. Yes, his name is Lockett Pundt. Watch a fantastic live performance of the song here; watch especially as the song begins to spiral into the stratosphere at around the three minute mark. Heavenly stuff.
2. Swans -- My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky: In their original incarnation, Swans had two distinct phases: the blood-curling sludge noise phase of their early to mid-eighties phase, and the almost tender (and often pretty) but undeniably doom-laden latter phase which began with White Light From the Mouth of Infinity in 1991 (which was pretty much my soundtrack to that year). Sandwiched between these two distinct phases was the album Children of God, a work of mad genius that distilled the best of both phases into a potent tour de force, and The Burning World, the Swans brief foray into 'commercial' (and I use that word loosely) folk-ish music. I think I listened to all three albums non-stop in 1991. You can tell I was happy that year. In between all of this, they managed to influence just about every twisted musician in the world and sold almost nothing. For sure, Maynard James Keenan got something out of it. In a playlist on a radio show back in 2001, Keenan played Swans' "Coward" (from Holy Money) (right after he played Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow" (of Hejira). As The Guardian says:
Like the Velvet Underground 15 years before them, Swans were an affront to almost everyone of decent sensibilities, and were also remarkably influential -- most visibly as a blueprint for later US industrial artists such as Ministry and Nine Inch Nails.
For sure, they are an acquired taste. Not for the faint-hearted. So what does the new album sound like? Well, for starters, it grabs you into a vortex of null and void. Gira's idea of a party is to spew all sorts of venom at the world and at himself; his is a commentary on the ugliness and betrayal of life, and when ugliness and death and betrayal have reached a crescendo, he finds beauty, some sort of salvation. Without being religious, this is overtly spiritual music. There are few chords, there are only pummeling drones, repeated into oblivion until you lose yourself in the music. Gira explains the whole album track-by-track here.
Gira originally disbanded the Swans sometime in the late nineties, but continued to make music either solo or with his new band Angels of Light. I actually saw him live a couple of years ago; he showed up with an acoustic guitar and basically pummeled the entire crowd into mute submission. Now, suddenly, in 2010, he decided to resurrect the Swans moniker.
3. The Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs: I was not a big Arcade Fire (have never heard Neon Bible, for example) but I picked this up on a whim and I really liked it. I mean really. I liked every song and that's saying something for an album that has, like, 16 songs on it. The music is neither innovative nor revelatory but it is really brilliant, almost perfect 1970s rock. Yes, they do have a little of the early Springsteen in the them but they have really created their own sound. They are also much more versatile than people give them credit for. Here, the songs veer from gentle quasi waltzes (the title track) to four-on-the-floor punk ("Month of May") to an awesome synthpop number ("Sprawl II") that wouldn't be out of place next to Kim Carnes in 1981. The album is supposedly some sort of commentary on urban sprawl and perhaps it is. When I hear this album, I see in my mind 1970s American suburbia, the kind with ugly modernist houses and post-Wonder Years colors. The music pallet is rich, the production is lush, and Win Butler's voice is always yearning for something, often for something better, often for an imagined landscape of youth and expectation that exists only in an adult's imagination. This album is so good, I sometimes wake up to melodies from it, half-dreaming, with ghosts of melodies in my head.
4. Gorillaz -- Plastic Beach: Damon Albarn is now very deep into his second (third?) career as some sort of early 21st century David Byrne who has transcended pretty much anything he might have represented in the 1990s. Plastic Beach is the sound of an album rich, just rich, with unlikely sounds. Albarn and Jamie Hewell pretty much do what they do, it's the continuing adventures of the pomo band, lots of genres, lots of sounds, lots of ideas, lots of guest stars. But despite all this variety, it's really cohesive and surprisingly consistent; it maintains a mood throughout (vaguely pessimistic), grounded with a deeply electronic sheen. It's a superb album, and even the filler songs are listenable. The good songs are just brilliant. I don't know if this is the sound of the future. But it does feel like the sound of now.
5. Baths -- Cerulean: For sure, this is an acquired taste but something about it keeps nagging me, growing on me, taking me in. It's electronic music, a little bit glitchy, some weird vocals (the stuff that takes getting used to), and up front in-your-face electronic percussion. In fact, if there's one word that describes this music, it's that it's percussive. These are beats that hit you in the head. This is headphone music for 2010, meant as a distraction music (isn't all music distraction...?) for those long train rides into or out of the city. You stare out the window, you had a long day, the scenery rushes by, all urban grime. I've listened to this album a million times and I still have no idea what the songs are called. It doesn't really matter.
6. Broken Bells -- Broken Bells: Over the years, I've grown to like more and more the music and voice of James Mercer, the lead architect behind the Shins. It's been only recently that I've realized how amazing the pop of the Shins is/was. Mercer's voice can be chirpy and happy but there is a mournful quality about it. He's the guy you know as a teenager who seemed to think a lot but never let on that he was. Here, Mercer teams up with Danger Mouse to produce what is a great poptronica album that compels you to sing along after the third or fourth listen, the tunes are that good. This is a superb pop album full of imagination and odd twists and turns (the kind of stuff Mercer excelled at) that wouldn't be out of place in Beatles' White Album from an alternate reality.
7. Janelle Monae -- The ArchAndroid: Ah, the pop sublime. I totally accidentally heard this on Sound Opinions, resisted it, and then began to like it a lot more than I should ever have. I confess I don't know much about her but she seems to have a acute sense of the history of pop music. In fact, this album is like a short history of pop music as sang by a weird mutant between classic Motown and eighties R&B pop; throw in some rock, soul, Prince, Tricky, and hip hop, and you get this totally delicious album. Unfortunately, you can't embed her "Tightrope" video but you should check it out anyway. Is she a genius or is she voyeur?
8. The Radio Dept -- Clinging To A Scheme: I know absolutely nothing about this band but I do know that they made this song ("Domestic Scene/Heaven's On Fire"). The album is great. I'm a lame reviewer because I can't describe it. Or am too lazy to do so.
9. Wild Nothing -- Gemini: Anyway, so imagine you are spending a year in Cambridge (Massachusetts) for some reason. You rent an apartment somewhere. It's a good time. Imagine you took a picture of someone as she stood on Mass Ave near Central Square. She has sunglasses on, a scarf, with a giddy smile, young. Nothing can break her. Now imagine it's a 35 mm movie from a long time ago. People (you, her, others) are walking fast in the movie, the colors are a little washed out. That girl in the picture? You no longer know her, all you got is the movie. Now imagine that Wild Nothing's "Summer Holiday" is the soundtrack to that. Just wait for the break at 2.10. It will break your heart in two.
10. LCD Soundsystem -- This Is Happening: So I've written about these guys before and honestly there's not much to write about them. Everyone knows that their music sounds like something you've definitely heard before. You know you have. You've heard it before. You think it's David Bowie but it isn't. Is it Lou Reed? Is it some sort of Gang of Four ripoff? Hard to say. It's too melodic. If it's such a facsimile of the original, why is it so good? You keep listening to it over and over, and after a while, you don't even remember that it's a copy of something else. And you actually enjoy it.
OK, that's the top ten. Here are some other albums I liked. The order of the rest of it is rather arbitrary. Some quick one sentence reviews.
11. Four Tet -- There Is Love In You: Happier than the usual Four Tet
12. Call Me Lightning -- When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free. A bit like the Who circa Live at Leeds.
13. Oneohtrix Point Never -- Returnal. Almost as weird as Boards of Canada.
14. The Chemical Brothers -- Further
15. The Besnard Lakes -- The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night. A bit like My Bloody Valentine with Brian Wilson as a woman.
16. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse -- Dark Night Of The Soul. So sad.
17. Flying Lotus -- Cosmogramma. This is a super fucking cool vibe. You need to be high.
18. Neil Young -- Le Noise. Well, you know he does whatever he wants.
19. School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect From Desire. Amazing anthemic blissout rock with a couple of chicks.
20. The Books -- The Way Out. As weird as ever but funnier.
21. Robyn -- Body Talk
22. Clive Tanaka y su orquesta -- Jet Set Siempre No. 1. I have been listening to this cassette nonstop for weeks. I have no idea who Clive Tanaka is but I assume he is googleable.
23. The Drums -- The Drums
24. Nest - Retold: Enjoyment of ambient music depends to a great degree to how little it forces you to pay attention. It's about mood, repetition, movement, sometimes at glacial pace, and yes, ambiance. Nest, a duo comprising Otto Totland and Huw Roberts, make music that crosses the delicate boundaries between modern classical music and modern electronic ambient genre. The album begins quietly, with tracks played often on a single instrument but builds up to orchestral swells by the end that would perfectly score a movie awash in deep melancholia. It's easy to dismiss much of ambient music as variations on a single (or couple of) themes; we have all heard the common complaint that "nothing much happened." But this is undeniably one of a kind, a beautifully constructed, meticulously executed set of music designed to transport you to a place where details don't matter anymore.
25. Robert Plant -- Band Of Joy
26. Summer Fiction -- Summer Fiction
27. Foals -- Total Life Forever
28. Grinderman -- Grinderman 2
29. M.I.A. -- Maya: I know, it's supposed to be crap. The other day, I went back and listened to it, and I liked it! I didn't want to, I really didn't. But I did. I can no longer show my face.
30. Beach Fossils -- Beach Fossils
Clint Mansell -- Black Swan
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross -- The Social Network
Reissues, Live Stuff, Whatever
1. Bob Dylan -- The Witmark Demos (The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9, 1962-1964)
2. Mogwai -- Special Moves
3. Various Artists -- The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria (Parts 1 & 2)
4. Serge Gainsbourgh & Jane Birkin -- Je T'Aime...Moi, Non Plus
5. John Spencer Blues Explosion -- Orange
6. Neu -- Neu! Vinyl Box
7. Orange Juice -- Coals To Newcastle
8. The Stooges -- Have Some Fun: Live At Ungano's
9. The Who -- Live At Leeds: 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Collectors Edition
10. John Lennon -- John Lennon Signature Box