Monday, January 10, 2011

The Top Albums of 2010

1.  Titus Andronicus - The Monitor - XL

Without an enemy, there can be no heroic battle; there can be no call-to-arms.  As The Monitor seems to ravage through harsh diatribes against the many perils of living in suburban New Jersey, it becomes progressively clear that this campaign is more introspective than political, and while all this careless mudslinging may serve as a form of purging; such aimless conflicts produce no true victors.  Ingeniously threading the narrative of modern-day fatalism with the then unfathomable horrors of the American Civil War, these literary indulgences seem perfectly well-suited in unifying and conveying the broad sweeping themes that give the album true scholarly weight.  Contemporary pop and indie has in recent years strayed away from subjects who might confront how a community or individual view themselves and has given rise to a comfort culture which readily passes on anything the least bit disagreeable.  Tearing through this barrier of conformism not only requires a great amount of fortitude, it also demands that your work be grounded both aesthetically and ideologically.  Instead of trying to come off as some type of quasi-guru to lead the lost masses, frontman Patrick Stickles’ lyrics are brutally forthright and unflattering to such a degree that, though we might agree with a number of his conclusions, we’d rarely confuse our feelings for his.  This break from being pelted with self-infatuating material and unremittingly going through more than hour’s worth of irreverence and lacerating reflection may not be wholly enjoyable but it is indisputably warranted.  

2.  Beach House - Teen Dream - Sup Pop

There was a cunning simplicity behind the template Beach House employed on their previous two records.  Their consistency might seem overly innocuous for the adventurous type or perhaps too uniform to be taken as anything but ear candy.  Teen Dream represents a turning point for any naysayers in large part due to the fact that it finds this rising duo moving beyond their comfort zone and incorporating styles ranging from Stevie-Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac to the soulful urgency of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.   Victoria Legrand’s chillingly angelic voice shimmers alongside a fuller accompaniment which despite being densely stacked, never feels jammed or overbearing.  Once getting past the allure of the album’s sheer beauty, there is a melancholic underbelly which gracefully resonates and becomes more stirring with every listen.  Her blurry pleas of uncertainty and nearly gospel-like force are the centerpieces for what is an untouchable show of emotional resolution.  

3.   Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti – Before Today - 4AD

It’s hard to imagine how Before Today would have worked if it hadn’t been the ludicrous reputation of Ariel Pink that had preceded it.  Having always been a disquieting and bizarre figure, this alienation allows him to pull off stunts that would otherwise feel contrived or mocking.  His otherworldly fascination with 70s and 80s soft-rock at times comes off as unfettered and nonchalant while injecting just the right dose of irony and unpredictability.   A new band and stark improvement in fidelity lets the listener finally fully partake in the outlandish hysteria that make his songs always sound slightly off-center while obviously integrating units from a previous time.  Be it jingles, blue-eyed soul, or a chorus that would make Peter Gabriel weep, Before Today contains a new focus that was markedly absent on his earlier home-recordings.  The overall creepiness aspect of the whole ordeal salvages it from being cheesy but instead transforms it into a monolith for the walking wounded.  

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - "Can't Hear My Eyes"

4.  Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma - Warp

There is a prevailing philosophy in contemporary music that anybody able to layer a few samples on a laptop is entitled to call themselves a “producer”.  This democratization of the creation process has resulted in a flourish of energizing new artists (many of whom appear on this very list) which leave us feeling that we too could create a similar product with just a minimal amount of time and effort.  This lackadaisical and easily-imitated posture is entirely absent from Cosmogamma, in large part due to its lofty goals and profoundly endless list of reference points.  The unstable movement between styles from both present and past causes the record to never fixate on any concept for long enough for the listener to settle in and process what they’ve just heard.  These astral fragments which only begin to congeal and take form once any preconceived notions of what is meant to be expected have been abandoned and one understands that they are witnessing a commitment to vision that is practically unclassifiable.  Though freeform jazz clearly plays a dominant role throughout the record, the whirls of hip-hop inspired beats and quasi-organic vocals like on “…And The World Laughs With You” make it impossible to conventionally pinpoint any moment on this radically bold and forward-thinking work of art.

5.  El Guincho – Pop Negro - Young Turks

2007’s Alegranza was met with waves of admiring praise in large part to its progressive synthesis of textured fuzz and ecstatically addictive loops.  The album however was meant to be experienced on a purely linear basis and now that three years have passed since its release and the word “tropical” no longer signifies “exotic”. There was a great deal of mystery regarding how El Guincho would be able to distant his bright brand of coastal rapture from the ever-evolving work of his contemporaries.  Instead of following a safer or artier route, Pop Negro’s brashness in embracing familiar song structures is largely what makes it so gratifying as both a dance and pop record.  The most prevalent distinction between these two records is Pablo Diaz-Reixa’s newfound determination in belting out floating melodies over sheets of walloping rhythms.  Songs like “Soca del Eclipse” would fall flat if it weren’t for his acute punctuation being placed front-and-center and acting as a propeller to push it through.  This explosiveness can be jarring if taken all in one sitting, but Pop Negro’s true charm comes from the lively impact of its immediate kinetic reaction and the subtle joys that can only be discovered after repeated listening.

6.  James Blake – The Bells Sketch EP / CMYK EP / Klavierwerke EP - R&S/Hessle

James Blake does not see silence as a hazard to a composition to be saturated with notes as quickly as possible.  He allows his listener to wrap themselves in its ephemeral solace only to jerk them back into the parallel narratives that encompass his brief but impeccable evolving set of material.  Within these songs, there is underlying conflict between two radically different dogmas, one represents the retro, the natural, the unblemished whereas the other, wholeheartedly espouses the disequilibrium of modern life and the potentiality of its technological advances.   Voices are savagely mangled only to be reconstructed to something consolingly intimate, the addition and subtraction from a single tinny piano note is all that is needed to bring about deeply earnest mood changes that few other contemporaries are capable of.  The great incognito is whether these beautifully executed concepts can be taken to the point where they no longer seem like just sketches but rather a panoptic creation.  

7.  How to Dress Well – Love Remains - Lefse/Tri Angle

Having spent the better part of my adult life ransacking the endless vaults of pop music, the enjoyment of discovering an artist like How To Dress Well serves as a reminder of the vast wilderness of possibilities that dwell within the niches of every genre.  Loves Remains low-fi opacity yet tangible exigency is exceptional in that it is a scion of 80s and 90s R&B that couldn’t have been created in any other era but ours.  The most articulate and perhaps most revealing moment of the record comes early with a quivering reinterpretation of Ready For The World’s 1986 glossy hit “Love you down”.  The use of diluted vocals to extricate the original’s banal subject matter leaves the track with a purposefully sculpted rawness which elevates its violently-twisting ardor to unprecedented new heights.  The vulnerability behind these unintelligible stories of loss and bygones gives the album a congruity that few other bedroom producers have yet been able to conjure.     

8.  Wild Nothing – Gemini - Captured Tracks

More than any other year in recent memory, the musical output from 2010 has been evasively difficult to label due to its lack of a central theme or defining work.  One of the bright spots in this rampage of splintering movements has been the cadre of surfacing revivalist artists who pay homage to past genres through cannily reconstructing and handpicking these distinctive ingredients to mold their own idiosyncratic representations.  As much as Wild Nothing’s apathy for 80s and 90s dream pop might be instantaneously recognizable, his creations of vast and achingly stunning soundscapes make Gemini more effective when heard as a whole rather than a sum of multiple parts and influences.  By not allowing his devout fanhood for artists such as Cocteau Twins and The Stone Roses to serve as fixed blueprints for his pieces, the true skill of his songcraft lies in evoking feelings of nostalgia without ever feeling overly familiar.  

9.  Twin Shadow – Forget - 4AD/Terrible

As an artist who is undoubtedly well-versed in new-wave tradition, Twin Shadow shows impressive restraint in choosing what features to employ as parts of his seductively vague narrative.  Beginning as a soft whisper and gradually allowing the full potency of his voice to be exposed, there’s no rush to throw all his cards on the table until it’s absolutely imperative.  While just using a limited palette of analog synths and clicky drum machines, Forget’s gauzy homemade feel shimmers with a honed intricacy that mixes the wistfully nostalgic with the playfully sinister.  Album highlight “Castles in the Snow” thoughtfully weaves between tormenting childhood imagery and unreachable expectations to create eerie Echo & the Bunnymen-like aura that sounds surprisingly adequate in the present.      

10.  Owen Pallett – Heartland - Domino

While Owen Pallett’s uncanny dexterity as a string section composer has been praised and utilized by an array of artists ranging from The Arcade Fire to The Pet Shop Boys, it isn’t his use of ornate texturing alone which is marveling.  Heartland’s sophistication and audacity can be appreciated by any casual listener, the album is blessed in that its density doesn’t reach the point of making it impenetrable, but further examination reveals an album peppered with jovial self-depreciation that eliminates any notions of imposing pretention.  Thankfully, the loss of his childish moniker Final Fantasy didn’t act as the catalyst for any sort of paramount shift in style or approach, Heartland continues employing concepts that are as far-fetched as they are undecipherable, but it stands apart from the work of similarly Herculean artists in that it indulges us with reassuring glimpses into the palpably human dimension of being lost within one’s own imagination. 

Owen Pallett - "Keep the Dog Quiet"