Top 10 of ’10

Delorean – Subiza

When I checked iTunes to see what I played most this year, Subiza by Delorean was way out on top. There’s two types of music I listen to – songs that have well-written lyrics and accompanying tones to match the theme. In a sense, narrative music. The other type is just pure aesthetic emotion. Subiza is the second type – almost like they captured a ray of hot July beachside sun and pressed it into record. I listened to this most when I *was* sitting out on beach in July (reading the Sun Also Rises, about hot slaughter in the Spanish sun), so it kind of all came together. That’s the way art works when it really hits you – all the random serendipitous bits of chaotic life congeal to make something more than the piece itself. But there’s no arguing with the unfiltered sugar buzz joy in these songs:

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I’ve written more here, and on a purely objective (as objective as music reviews can be by someone who’s listened to maybe 1/10000th of the music that came out this year) basis, Kanye should win. But hasn’t the guy won enough? I will say though, modern pop music is an ego machine, and perhaps ego is as essential an ingredient as talent and sampling skills.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

You can kind of see the Suburbs as the closing of an Americana trilogy. If Funeral was about growing up and leaving the cozy confines of family, and Neon Bible was about the seductive elements of religion, politics and pop culture, then the Suburbs is the resigned melancholy of mature adulthood. The lyrics are surprisingly more nuanced and introspective then something like Green Day’s Jesus of Suburbia. They aren’t complaining about white picket fences and tree lined avenues with manicured lawns – they’re crying out that sort of thing doesn’t exist anymore, the loss of innocence, exploration and possibility, both in the Pitchfork-ing of music (Rococo) and the closing of the “wilderness” (Sprawl II). Musically, they’ve expanded as well, be it synth beats (Sprawl II) or old school punk rock chords (Month of May).

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

We decry someone like Kanye’s ego, but James Murphy’s narcissism is right up there. Perhaps because his genre (indy electronica) is less visible, or because he looks like a schlubby high school science teacher, he’s not blamed for this. But his shtick: talk-singing over minimalist techno, fits him perfectly. Usually, DJs seek out some sort of mathematical perfection to their output, either tonally or rhythmically. LCD does neither, with the backing percussion often drunkenly performed on real instruments, and James’s vocals somewhere between endearing karaoke and cacophony. The only thing that carries them through is his ego. For some reason, This is Happening (which is supposedly Murphy’s last LCD record) reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This is because of the way the record is laid out, with the opening piece Dance Yrself Clean a long minimalist intro of tik-toking that reminds me of Time. Then Drunk Girls, a “single” that’s short, noisy and somewhat obnoxious, like Money. And then a long session of songs that blend together and achieve some sort of melodic harmony – One Touch, All I want, I Can Change, like Us and Them / Any Color You Like. As it reaches the end, the record is increasingly soothing, melodic, perhaps peaceful. Home is positively chilled out, none of the crass superiority in Murphy’s voice. Maybe that’s what he was seeking all along, an exit from the madness of the clubs after a long night out, finally home.

The National – High Violet

The National are a band that exists solely to support a voice – the baritone of singer Matt Berninger. High Violet is the latest record to highlight his particular gifts, eliciting a particular brand of nostalgic melancholy. In the past, most of their songwriting was downright cryptic, but the lyrics of this record feel a bit more autobiographical, notably Bloodbuzz Ohio, with all its tumultuous emotions of returning home after a long, life-altering hiatus. The record is also a mix of their past styles, which vary from the intense rock-outs of Alligator (Lit Up, Abel), to the sad intimacy of Cherry Tree and Boxer. And because of that, it feels a bit scattershot, more like a collection of new singles rather than a cohesive album. It’s tough to pick up any sort of overarching theme to High Violet, other than a rehash of their past motifs. And despite the fact that this isn’t anything new, they’re such a solid band they merit a spot in the top 10.

Holy Fuck – Latin

Holy Fuck is a Canadian instrumental collective (like Godspeed you Black Emperor) that’s more interested in legitimate artistic experimentation than any sort of commercial success. Their “goal”, if you could call it that, is to create music that approximates the look and feel of electronica without the use of computers, loops, or mixers. They play traditional instruments with incredible speed and precision, and more than that, their rythm often congeal into a sort of hallowed awe that so often shows up in trace music. Of course, they’re using electric guitars, drum sets and reverbed vocals instead of synth samples, so you get something both strangely familiar and brand new.

Vampire Weekend – Contra

It feels so long ago that Vampire Weekend was riding the zeitgeist, with their boppy Ivy League charm and Wes Anderson love story lyrics. Now, they’re selling Hondas and Tommy Hilfiger with the ever-catchy Holiday. The actual record is a bit more adventurous, with the auto-toned vocals of California English, the rock-out anthem Giving up the Gun, or the remixed M.I.A sample in Diplomat’s Son. They may have left Columbia’s Upper West Side, but they haven’t strayed far from the elite enclaves that made them so infectious in the first place.

Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me

JN isn’t really my style. I’m not really into the whole singer-songwriter aesthetic, and most folksy female vocalists don’t do it for me. But there’s something strangely seductive about Joanna Newsom’s latest. She’s reigned in the high-pitched birdlike squawk of Ys, but the songs are still full of symbolism and folksy motifs. There’s a sort of lilting pace to whole record, almost like jazz. This one is unique enough; I thought it deserved a nod.

Naked and Famous – Passive Me Aggressive You

Given the unbalanced ratio of time I spend on the computer/internet vs the car listening to radio, it’s surprising how many bands I’ve discovered from the local college radio, 88.5. Naked and Famous is one such band, hailing from New Zealand, and sounding somewhere between M83 and Silversun Pickups. They play a fine catchy guitar hook, and beneath that lay impressive atmospheric synth work. Young Blood is the tune that got me initially hooked, all plinking strings and sing-along “yea yea yea’s”. Eyes and The Ends feels like outtakes of Saturdays=Youth. And the record closes with Girls Like You, perhaps an ode of the male vocalist to his female counterpart, the perfect blend of those two aesthetics.

Girl Talk – All Day

It’s strange giving GT a top ten spot, but All Day was some impressive work. Some of Gillis’s early work suffered from switching samples too quickly, leading to a jarring, schizophrenic feel. The new record is mixed with a much smoother flow, rolling from one classic rock or 80s pop hit and maintaining rhythm. Highlights include Twista’s light speed spitting on Wetter over U2’s With or Without You, and transitioning Modern English and Jay-Z to UGK’s One Day and John Lennon’s Imagine to close the record. Even better, the site that shows all the overlapping songs in real-time.

Best Of 07

It’s been an excellent year for new music. My top ten:

1. Radiohead – In Rainbows
For a while, Radiohead got way more press for their innovative distribution scheme than the music itself. But by now, everyone’s had a few good listens of the record. The evolution they started with Kid A has come full circle, through the drab arrangements of Hail to the Thief and Yorke’s The Eraser. A word I’ve heard thrown around is “accessible”. The weirdness is still there, the strange time signatures, Thom’s voice ethereal as ever. But instead of cold nihilism of HTTT, there’s warmth here. The tempos pick up (and they’re produced by real drums, not a machine), and while it’s still heavily digitized, there’s some life behind the performance. Bodysnatchers harks back to the old days, a good old rocker with actual grungy guitar distortion. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is a great hybrid between the new and old Radiohead. The vocals are clean, it’s played with real instruments, possesses some vibrancy. But it’s still shaped in the motifs of new Radiohead: cold expanses, the empty loneliness of technology, alien worlds, dehumanization (although it could be argued these were always their motifs). None of ten songs are filler by any means, but Reckoner and Jigsaw Falling into Place are other standouts. In Rainbows closes out in a sad poem, a brilliant comparison between two hellish immortalities – dragged down by Mephistopheles and preserved on damning Videotape.

2. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Indy-rock darlings, hailed by the press, headlining huge tours, taking the stage with Springsteen, is it any surprise this record is on the list? The praise is deserved. If Funeral was a record about Canada (excluding Haiti) – cold winters and small towns – Neon Bible is America in all its sensational glory. These are ballads and requiems for the television preacher, the pop-star manager, the soldier. Two of the best – Keep the Car Running and No Cars Go, ride on our love affair with automobiles. Melodies and lyrics are on par with their debut, but the themes are bigger, perhaps more political. Deservedly, it’s up for a Grammy.

3. Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Panda Bear is Noah Lennox, one of the guys from Animal Collective, so the sound is going to fall under the same genre. Person Pitch is highlighted by Bros, a 12 minute opus that touches everything brilliant about Panda Bear. The song is a maelstrom of samples, pulverized in a blender to a warm concoction. After a duo of hooting owls, the underlying foundation kicks up, a lulling melody of holiday bells, then the vocals – Beach Boys in purgatory. The whole reverbed thing sounds piped in from another world. The song undergoes a number of evolutions, set off with some unique samples (crying babies, moaning men, softly orgasming woman), but each is smooth enough the entire twelve minutes is like a holistic glorious ball of noise. Certainly one of the most original records I’ve heard this year.

4. The National – Boxer
I enjoyed Alligator a ton, and initially I thought Boxer was a bit boring in comparison. The songs were even more depressed and never rocked out in the fashion of “Abel” and “Lit Up”. But after a number of listens, it grew on me. Matt Berninger’s baritone is fully employed and works well in the politically appropriate Fake Empire, which starts off the album, utilizing a nice faux trumpet fanfare to offset the imperialistic laments. The songwriting is perhaps better here than previous efforts, lots of clever turns of phrase both sad and bittersweet. The whole record is solid, and although without any rock-out songs, it works. Berninger is too depressed and tired in these tunes to put on his rockstar hat. The great thing is he pulls it off. This is a perfect autumn album when the leaves are brown and falling, the wind picking up and growing cold.

5. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
AC has been pushing the limits of music for some time now, and Strawberry Jam is their latest foray into audio weirdness. It certainly delivers, and a few of the songs are career-best knockouts. Peacebone boots up with menacing digital synth, coalescing into a bouncing danceable bass and Avey Tare’s absurd lyrics. Perhaps it was his work on Person Pitch, but Panda Bear takes a backseat on vocals on this record (as opposed to Feels, where it was split evenly). Avey is in full form with his well-timed screams, and nowhere are they better integrated than in Reverend Green, the record’s standout. There’s an anguish to his singing here, matching the warped minor-key accordion. The song transitions perfectly into feel-good Fireworks, with a quicker tempo, strummed guitar, Panda Bear’s hoots morphing into a sampled avian. The other songs aren’t as amazing, but the record is a great addition to their collection – it embraces the spirit of AC, a group of maddened beasts, constructing “textures” of sound and trance-inducing chants.

6. Sunset Rubdown – Random Spirit Lover
Thanks to A for the recommendation. Sunset Rubdown is a spinoff band for Spencer Krug, lead singer of Wolf Parade. The band’s sound is similar – complex arrangements of piano, guitars and synthesized noise. Krug’s vocals are even more intense, his voice constantly on the edge of tears or pain or exaltation. The songs often remind me of some sort of circus act, the same pompous marching band melodies mixed through synthesizers, topped with Spencer Krug’s pompous leadership. Sometimes the amount of sound is almost overwhelming, verging on cacophony. But before it gets out of control, they pull off some dramatic tonal shift and go in a different direction. The record quickly builds from the start, culminating in Up on Your Leapord, an Irish bagpipe stomp and rousing sing along. From there it churns deeper, perhaps even sinister with Colt Grows Horns and Stallion, then rising back into spectacular finishers – Taming of the Hands and Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot! Toot!

7. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
There’s been a bunch of hype around James Murphy’s project. It’s not often a dance offshoot gets shot to the top of the “Indy” favorite lists. But the last few years have been a perfect storm for electronica (witness The Knife crowned king of Pitchfork’s 2006 list), a resurgence and rediscovering of old sounds that were thought buried. In a way, LCD Soundsystem is a reaction against the over-produced trancey sounds that have become staples of European electronica, the whooshing blends and rushes, the lack of harsh synth tones. Murphy embraces them in Sound of Silver. Then there’s Murphy’s voice. At times, it’s a cold moan (Get Innocuous, Sound of Silver), quirky disco-punk (Time to Get Away, North American Scum), or an honest lucid anthem (All My Friends). Which, by the way, is probably the best song of 2007. They’re up for a Grammy.

8. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
Like National’s Boxer, I was initially disappointed with Cease to Begin. I thought it literally lived up the title and never really got started. Even the opener – Is There a Ghost, never answers the posed question, building up the amplification then puttering out. The rest of the record is a sullen lullaby. Band of Horses has always had southern rock sensibilities. Ben Bridewell’s heartfelt vocals match that aesthetic, lyrics about dogs and small towns, weddings and rivers. Bridewell made a conscious decision to move away from the overwrought barn-burners like Funeral, despite the corporate paychecks it’s cut him. Instead he’s slowed it down, explored twangy alt-country (Window Blues, Marry Song) and mellowed into tender farewells (Detlef schrempf). And once you get used to it, there’s still some energetic guitar rock under it all (Ode to LRC, Islands on the Coast).

9. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
Just as “Indy” has embraced electronic music in recent years, folk and bluegrass have also entered the fold. Iron & Wine, the stage name of songwriter Sam Beam, is one of the new standouts. Shepherd’s Dog brings a lot to the table, mixing staple folk ballad structures with well-written lyrics and original instrumentation. The tempo’s been upped from some of his earlier stuff, injected with bluesy sounds reminiscent of Led Zeppelin (White Tooth Man, House By the Sea). In some songs Beam’s breathy voice even goes under the mixer (Carousel), distorted like early Black Sabbath. Even the standard bluegrass templates are well done (Resurrection Fern). I also like how the guy has embraced the digital format, online distribution, even some synthesized tweaks and tones (Arms of a Thief), all while staying true to his sound.

10. Menomena – Friend and Foe
Menomena are a talented band made more so by clever uses of technology. On the surface, they come off as your standard rock ensemble, supplemented with saxophone and piano. Then you realize its only three guys and wonder how they pull it off. Their trick is a cool gadget (Deeler) that records and plays back samples in real time. A few other bands are experimenting with this (Battles). There’s a giddy energy to their songs, employing whistles, wide acoustical shifts, dramatic pauses and tempo changes. All this coupled with the vocals (the three distribute this responsibility as well), a clear high tenor that perfectly offsets the dirty saxophone blurts. I’ve heard these guys put on a great live show.

Runners Up: Just not enough room to give everyone props.

Battles – Mirrored
Blonde Redhead – 23
Explosions in the Sky – All the Sudden I Miss Everyone

Let Downs: I blame the jump to major labels. You can hear the shiny plastic gloss on top of what was once awesome indy rock.

Interpol – Our Love to Admire
Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight