22 Dec 2010

10 From '10: My Favourite Albums Of The Year

I don't have the money to assess every new record that comes out, or even all the critically-praised or hyped ones, so I wouldn't presume to comment on the 'best' albums of the year. I can, however, say with confidence that this short list represents my ten favourite albums released in 2010.

10. Jónsi - Go

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Sigur Rós. They have a brilliant sound and have channelled it into some fantastic songs. And yet, to me, Go is the sound of Jónsi being set free. Sigur Rós have always made quite heavy music - sprawling in scale, epic in tone, momentous and serious, the soundtrack to helicopter shots of ancient geological formations or slow-motion battle scenes. Go is very different; Jónsi - the elemental spirit - and his incredible voice have been released from the textural, temporal and intentional obligations of his band. He skates fairy-like through these nine songs, more concise and pop-orientated, yet also more varied, than any of his band's output. For all its new-found lightness, there is much that still connects the two projects. Those rosy visions of childhood sincerity, translated by the band's incredible videos, are further distilled in this most childlike of albums. Bedecked in feathers, Jónsi expresses both a fascination and a horror with the idea of growing up. He is free to play the ultimate Lost Boy, and with the genuinely magical colour and variety of instrumental sounds at his disposal, he is empowered to realise his daydreams all the more vividly.

Boy Lilikoi — Jonsi by tomshone

9. The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

I don't think it's too controversial to maintain that this isn't the Arcade Fire's best album. Of course, that says very little, because all of their releases have been great events. No other traditionally-equipped indie rock band have managed to produce unified conceptual statements of such integrated artistic purpose and perspicacity. This huge treatise on a semi-mythical Suburbia, re-lived both in reality and in personal and collective memory, manages to handle the kind of nostalgia that most indie music throws around gratuitously, with a novelistic delicacy. Each track, meanwhile, supports this vision effectively without calling undue attention to itself, resulting in a remarkable consistency, the only outrageous high-point being - with brilliant, calculated irony - the most cynical of them all: the dazzling 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)'. The Suburbs captured the imagination of the world, and stands as an encouraging signal of the mainstream's interest in uncompromisingly independent pop.

Arcade Fire - We Used to Wait by evolucionrock

8. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

The only debut album on this list and, perhaps more surprisingly, the debut of a card-carrying guitar outfit, yet Astro Coast is all the more remarkable for this quality. The band have flared up with a universally distinctive sound, and somehow managed to sum up a zeitgeist without the need to resort to any faddish gestures or production tricks. The kind of perfection they achieve on tracks like 'Floating Vibes' and 'Twin Peaks' seems all the more perfect given the traditional format of the songs. It's one of the qualities which made the Shins' songs all the more miraculous, and it's very comforting to think that we still haven't exhausted all the potential melodies that are floating around out there. (There are more riffs in heaven and earth, Horatio...)

06 twin peaks by eldiabloyelritmo

7. Wavves - King Of The Beach

King of the Beach resurrects with a vengeance the kind of bratty pop punk melodicism that transmuted the casual thrash of a guitar from a sign of angry alienation to one of giddy hedonism at the death of the last millennium. The album is a catalogue of brightly-coloured import bubblegum, and yet the furious, endless summer over which Nathan Williams reigns is resolutely the Summer of 2010. The sun-warped production makes this a skate-pop album for the post-AnCo generation. I can't think of a more beguiling concept...

Linus Spacehead - Wavves by redsoxpugie

6. Sam Amidon - I See The Sign

The importance of Sam Amidon in his present guise goes way beyond independent or even folk music. In their collaboration, Amidon and Nico Muhly continue to create the most innovative, modern and important folksong arrangements since Berio. The enfolding, post-minimalist instrumental textures transform these songs into something utterly contemporary, brushing the boundaries of the popular and classical genres as delineated by Muhly. But furthermore, their context within a pop setting, rather than amongst the historicising, anthologising tendencies of classical culture, ensures that the meanings of these 'recomposed' songs, not just their music, can be accepted as present and contemporary, without a hint of exoticism or quaintness. To give Amidon his due, he totally owns all of these songs; from the playground rhymes of the Georgia Sea Islands to a brilliant R. Kelly cover, his voice is perfect - channelling time and ancestral memory, accessing an apocalyptic weight of past significance and present omen.

Sam Amidon - Pretty Fair Damsel by schulsport beutel

5. Yeasayer - Odd Blood

What some have criticised in this album as a chaotic overabundance of stylistic elements, I have always heard as an utterly enrapturing parade of beautiful mutants. One of the best things about this album was that I really couldn't have expected it from Yeasayer, who I'd always considered a slightly disappointing band, given that none of All Hour Cymbals lived up to the promise of '2080', and even '2080' wasn't very good live. But what an enchanting menagerie Odd Blood turned out to be. Fused together by a fantastic pop/dance impulse - the family resemblance which really unites these songs, rather than any clumsy eclecticism - the odd appended limbs of freakish Eurodance, raga or R'n'B monsters serve only as decoration to this many-backed party beast. 'O.N.E.' remains my song of the year; if The Age of Adz had been a bit more like this, it might have had a chance at this list.

Yeasayer - Love Me Girl by Robogeisha

4. Corey Dargel - Someone Will Take Care Of Me

Corey continues, purposefully or not, to remain beyond the remits of the alternative pop music community. Perhaps this album's provenance as two theatrical 'song cycles' - one with six-piece chamber ensemble, the other with synth track and live piano - would seem to situate him elsewhere generically. But where should he fit? Despite an absolute mastery of classical chamber writing (circa Copland), despite a ruthlessly inventive attitude towards metre, textures which operate horizontally rather than vertically, irregular melodic phrases and lyrics which explore the psychological and emotional circumstances behind hypochondriac episodes and 'voluntary amputation', this is still as attractive and accessible an avant-garde pop album as any. Dargel's innovations and technical expertise never get in the way of a clear belief in the importance of melody and the role of the performer-persona. His lyrics are both hilarious and devastating, he keeps a stock of choruses that would make Stephin Merritt jealous and a command of pop-oriented orchestral writing to rival Owen Pallett's. In fact, lined up alongside very similar projects by Pallett and Muhly, Dargel's work is arguably more creative, yet the most important implications are those for the future of art song and tonal art music. By combining a thorough understanding of what classical music can do and what pop music should be, his explorations across genres never get in the way of what is essentially a beautiful, funny and very sad collection of love songs.

Corey Dargel 05 Fingers by IndieRockReviews

3. of Montreal - False Priest

of Montreal have, of late, achieved something like perfection. False Priest is an uncannily flawless sequence of pop songs, to which any brief exposure to the melodies of 'Hydra Fancies' or 'Sex Karma' should instantly attest, yet it is also so much more. By raiding a huge costume chest of genres, the band have managed to put sexiness back into the deeply ascetic genre of indie pop. Their enactments of funk, soul and disco are unfeasibly natural and convincing, to the extent that they actually inject much of the alien kitsch and subversiveness back into these old and often cliché-ridden styles. This mission is aided considerably by Kevin Barnes's superb vocal performances throughout, and moreover by some of the best lyrics of the year. The key to the brilliance of False Priest's lyrics is that they manage to be exotic and extra-terrestrial without ever actually leaving terra firma and floating into meaningless abstraction; the bizarre but never nonsensical relationship stories recounted on 'Our Riotous Defects' and 'Famine Affair' illustrate this particularly well. Here's hoping Barnes has just a few more records like this in him before the next colossal, obligatory change in direction.

of montreal - hydra fancies by letskeepgoing

2. Xiu Xiu - Dear God, I Hate Myself

Xiu Xiu continue to release albums, and they continue to be Xiu Xiu, and perhaps this is why Dear God, I Hate Myself was fairly ignored on its release. And yet this is one of this exceptional group's strongest albums. Rejuvenated by the new presence of Angela Seo, Dear God turned out to be the most pop-oriented of all the band's albums, a welcome trait since Xiu Xiu's melodic streak has always been one of their defining features. The band has never sounded so distinct - their black tunefulness, the clashes of naivety and chaos, the arch and desperate lyrics, reiterating all the little horrors of life without ever relinquishing originality of statement. With their new deployment of the Nintendo DS, Jamie Stewart has found a typically idiosyncratic tool, sketching innocent discord on tracks like 'Apple For A Brain' and the title track, while on 'Impossible Feeling', they explore a new, disquieting sound involving machine-like, dystopian strings. Xiu Xiu continue to access dark neuroses that no other artists can, while combining melody, electronics and noise in a focused, unique and horrifying way. It's just never been this catchy...

Dear God, I Hate Myself by killrockstars

1. Owen Pallett - Heartland

The brilliance of Heartland isn't in Owen Pallett's apparently unique understanding of both pop and orchestral music. It isn't in his unprecedented familiarity with the capabilities of a 20th-century orchestra, all those little effects and techniques, timbral combinations, the power of colouristic dissonance and the virtue of restraint, in combination with an acknowledgement of what pop structure and tonality has to encompass. It isn't even in his enviable melodic inventiveness. What makes Heartland so brilliant is that, despite all this, it is not an album about orchestration or cross-over. All his effects and inventions are harnessed to the purpose of creating a sophisticated allegorical fantasy saga which combines an array of narrative moods without ever losing the immediacy of individual pop structures and getting mired amongst proggy diversions.
   Heartland is effectively an explosion of the fabulous title track from previous album He Poos Clouds. Like that song, the new album is deeply indebted to video games - not just in the epic tone of their soundtracks or their fantastical content, but in the poetical exploration of the relationship between the world of the controlled character and the controlling player. 'He Poos Clouds' was a love letter to Link, twinkish hero of The Legend of Zelda games. Heartland expands this letter into a full-blown epistolary novel, while the perspective on the relationship is shifted to that of Link (or 'Lewis') as he travels across Hyrule (or 'Spectrum') to free himself and his world from the destructive love of his Butcher-deity, 'Owen'. Bearing all this in mind, the success of Heartland is clearly down to Pallett's flawless judgement. Potentially treacherous elements - a concept album, a fantastical setting, videogame allusions - are handled as deftly and sensitively as he handles his orchestra. The story is pitched perfectly - never too literal, always open to a personal, allegorical reading - and the resulting work is something even bigger than a love story, it's an unprecedentedly sensitive musical exploration of a complex, homoerotic relationship in which two strong-willed individuals battle to delineate their own roles and make sense of their situation.
   The construction of such varied and complicated materials into one effective whole, with some outstanding stand-alone moments such as 'Lewis Takes Off His Shirt' and 'E Is For Estranged' as a bonus, should be seen as the achievement of the vision of a composer-performer whose ultimate aim is always to say something new and affecting about real life and love in his own inimitable way.

Lewis Takes Off His Shirt by DominoRecordCo