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 alldaysamples.com site that shows all the overlapping songs in real-time.

New Tunes

British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

With a mixer squawk and ominous booming drum, British Sea Power start their third record Do You Like Rock Music? Immediately, their anthemic sound draws comparisons to Arcade Fire. Lights Out For Darker Skies puts to use the bands musical talents, featuring a building lead guitar that will test the limits of any wannabe Guitar Hero. Lyrically, this is a political record, references and motifs of warfare, patriotism, encroaching darkness. But there’s a solidarity, “We’re all in it,” perhaps found in the essence that is rock music. Other standout tracks: Waving Flags, Great Skua, Atom.

Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV

On the coattails of Radiohead, Trent Reznor has become an anti-establishment rabble-rouser. It’s a welcome change, as With Teeth and Year Zero felt like some of his most commercial records. Out of nowhere he’s released Ghosts I-IV, 36 tracks of instrumentals. Most are ambient, atmospheric (similar to The Fragile), though some return to the angry energy of his earlier work. The entire package is incredibly professional, complete with a pdf (or printed book, depending on what you purchase) of high quality photographs to complement the music. The record has a cold aura, stark vistas of naked trees, winter skies, rainy days, etc. Ghosts III is a bit more industrial, II minimalist. Even better, Trent’s released the thing under Creative Commons, so quality remixes and music videos should be on the way. Stand out tracks – 3, 12, 16, 22, 28, 32.

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

A name like Vampire Weekend instills images of club-going Dracula, or at least city denizens slavering over some sort of bloody vice. Instead, we get a jolly pop record of bouncy baselines, garage-band guitar and orchestral accompaniment. The record feels like the spiritual sibling to The Strokes (A-Punk, Campus), but its more lyrical, namedropping preppy brands and locales, and often ditching the grunge for summery island riffs (Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa). M79 opens with a harpsichord arrangement fitting for Louis XIV’s court, settling into a snappy bass jam. And Walcott’s the sing along standout – I can only imagine the hipsters screaming along “Outta Cape Cod tonight!” If the season’s got you down, this is the essential spring-time record.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Melancholy Folk will always have its place, and there’s no better time to indulge then late winter. Bon Iver is the stage name of Justin Vernon. He starts with the standard acoustic guitar and blends in ghostly ambience and reverb, in some songs (Lump Sum) even replicating his voice into a blissed out cathedral drone. The lyrics are sad, appropriately mournful, his voice betraying a sort of wild colloquial Americana (recorded in a remote Wisconsin cabin). The Wolves (Act I and II) and Blindsided are the twin peaks of the record, the first ascending a path of rattling railcar percussion, the latter a slow build, filled with imagery of snow and crows. The same crow motif is repeated on re: Stacks, the record’s closer and best song. “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization,” he sings. “It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”

Daft Punk – Alive 2007

Daft punk have always been the biggest spacehelment-wearing French House artists around, but 2007 saw a rise in popularity aided by Mr. Kanye West. They also released a live record featuring all the songs that made them so legendary in the fist place. Their format – mix two (or three) songs in a pulsing escalation. Example – Around the World / Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. Sound quality is strong here (its electronic music after all), with enough hints of the crowd to up the energy. Other Standouts: Too Long / Steam Machine, One More Time / Aerodynamic.