50 Favorite Albums of 2010: #20-11

The Morning Benders – Big Echo

It might not be obvious on first listen, but The Morning Benders know how to rock a song almost to the brink of bursting: just listen to the layered-vocal climax of “Hand Me Downs”, the break around the 3-minute mark in “All Day Daylight”, or most of all, the gradual build over the course of “Stitches”–seeing them live especially helped to drive this one home. In general, they seem very interested in the idea of sonic “bigness”; I mean, it’s right there in the title. Frontman Jonathan Chu has a self-proclaimed fascination with Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recording technique, and they piled a bunch of musicians into the studio to recreate it for an alternate take on album highlight “Excuses”. I think that’s an interesting context in which to hear this collection of richly-textured pop songs: as a maximalist takes on some of indie rock’s current sounds. What’s great about Big Echo is that they did it in a subtle enough way that you still feel like you can fit this record in your pocket.

The Roots – How I Got Over

The Roots have gradually morphed into an entity quite unlike any other in hip-hop–hell, in any genre–and in 2010 that was more obvious than ever. They’re practically an institution, putting out albums of such consistent quality that it’s barely a talking point when they do it again. They’ve showed themselves to be The Greatest Backing Band On Earth, in collaboration with a whole plethora of artists (from Public Enemy to The Lonely Island) on Fallon and on their enjoyable team-up with John Legend, Wake Up! And here, on their ninth (!!) studio album, they show a more pronounced interest in the “band” mentality and in the use of the studio as an instrument than on any of their previous records, let alone what you hear on most rap albums. (Well, maybe there were a couple of studio-obsessed rap albums released this year…we’ll see.)

From the restrained “Walk Alone” all the way up to the stomping “The Fire”, How I Got Over is a series of tracks escalating in intensity ever so patiently, with fierce, socially conscious lyrics throughout. Unfortunately, the two closing songs–“Web 20/20” and “Hustla”–take a complete left turn and end the album on a sour note. Maybe they wouldn’t sound so horrible in another context (although I hope to never again hear a song with Auto-Tuned crying babies), but here they are such a drastic shift in tone and stylistic range that it feels like ?uest and the gang are throwing that whole delicate build-up out the window. Still, up until that point, How I Got Over is a completely gripping listen, elegantly mixed and masterfully sequenced; an “album” in the truest sense of the word.

Local Natives – Gorilla Manor

Like The Morning Benders, Local Natives show that there’s still a lot of mileage to get out of indie rock sounds that the way-too-cynical have said is already too “familiar”. Clearly, they haven’t had their socks knocked off by the Natives’ live performance, a super-energetic attack blending triple harmonies with kinetic percussion and raucous instrumental breakdowns like those found on “Sun Hands” and “Who Knows, Who Cares”. I was first exposed to them at a show where they opened for Fool’s Gold and Edward Sharpe a little over a year ago, before I had heard of them and before they had anything more than an EP released; I instantly knew I would have to pick up their full-length when it came around. Cramming in one exuberant song after another, with almost no lulls in energy, Gorilla Manor doesn’t disappoint.

Vampire Weekend – Contra

I understand the sentiments of Vampire Weekend’s detractors. That whole Columbia grad, boutique-culture-referencing image could be a bit off-putting if I gave a shit about things like that. But I also must instruct these detractors to take a closer look at Vampire Weekend’s lyrics. Whether or not Ezra Koenig’s donning of madras shirts for some shows is ironic or not, we can never be sure, but their music is much more a critique of the elite lifestyle than a celebration of it. But it’s an excellently disguised critique–and anyway, wouldn’t you rather listen to a band that gets you to tease apart their lyrics instead of one that shouts a Marxist lecture in your face? Not to mention, they wrap that whole nuanced postmodern discourse in a delectable, 35-minute package of deceptively simple pop songs that all sound like they could be the single. This is just their sophomore album, and if they continue the rate of musical and lyrical growth that occurred between their self-titled debut and this record, who knows where they’ll be a couple albums down the road.

Fang Island – Fang Island

This could so easily have been one of those debut albums I passed on–buzzband name, buzzband album cover with cryptic washed-out photograph, etc. Boy am I glad I didn’t. It’s amazing that Fang Island makes this kind of music work; pitchforkreviewsreviews calls it “ALL GUITAR SOLO and drum fills that sound like journey or queen guitar solos and fills. for the whole album,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. (For the record, he also loves the album.) It is absurd, the number of solos, riffs, and fills they manage to cram into a 31-minute record, and they speed with which they move from one to another. But it’s some of the most FUN music released this year, and for something so damn LOUD all the time (look, I can’t even refrain from using caps when talking about it!), it’s incredibly breezy. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have one of my highest play counts for the year, higher ever than some albums that I gave a better ranking to on this list. If they’re having as great of a time as it sounds like they’re having, I’d kill to see them live.

Delta Spirit – History From Below

For whatever reason, most of the outlets dedicated to “independent” (shmindependent!) music haven’t really taken much notice of Delta Spirit. As far as I can tell, they seem to be steadily building in popularity (though I don’t really have any great way to gauge this). I suppose it’s that they might just barely miss the cutoff for pushing the musical envelope or having a “buzzable” personality. How to explain my love for them, then? Last year, in my “Best of ’09” list, I said that they play “the type of rambly, folksy rock that I instantly jive with,” and this is no less true of their sophomore release. They do some successful stylistic branching out on this one, but it still all comes down to solid songwriting, Matt Vazquez’s powerful vocals, and the energy and economy of their playing. They could keep making records like this one and I would keep coming back for more.

Beach House – Teen Dream

I’m tempted to say that this is one of the biggest breakthrough albums of the year–like Phoenix was last year–and really one of the most surprising success stories of 2010. Excepting Kanye, I’ve seen this album turn up on more year-end lists than any other. This is especially true when musicians or writers are just picking their personal favorite record; not the most sweeping or “Important”, just the one they formed a personal connection with. It makes sense; capital-I-important acts like Arcade Fire or LCD Soundsystem are much more likely to be divisive, but Teen Dream is so simple, catchy, well put-together, and uniquely pretty that it’s almost impossible not to like. In that sense, it’s almost the opposite of Kanye’s album, as the songs are made up of little besides muffled percussion, woozy keyboards, Alex Scally’s quietly excellent guitar playing and Victoria Legrand’s not-so-quietly incredible vocals. That’s not so different from the elements that went into their music up until now, and yet for two albums they were a stuffy dream-pop band with a niche following; to me, something about their music felt somewhat claustrophobic. Now, with just a few slight tweaks, they’ve crafted one of the most listenable records of the year, with songs (like “10 Mile Stereo” and “Take Care”) that feel like they’re stretching out for miles.

Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record

Welcome back, gang. I liked Spirit If and Something For All Of Us, the two “Broken Social Scene Presents…” albums, but there’s nothing quite like a straight-up BSS record. FRR finds them right back in their sweet spot, even if they did have to find some replacement Feists and Haineses (though Emily Haines does make an appearance to sing the incredible “Sentimental X’s”). It’s sprawling, passionate, and messy and casual in the best possible way. I can almost picture one of them saying, “hey guys, these four notes sound really cool when you play them like this, why don’t we just do that over and over and play it REALLY FUCKING LOUD?!” and then recording that as the face-melting instrumental “Meet Me In The Basement”. Other great songs, like “World Sick” and “All to All” show a little more patient studiocraft, but in both of these modes, they still know how to rock the hell out, creating fist-pumping indie rock in the way fewer and fewer acts are doing in these days of chillwave and lo-fi bedroom projects.

Twin Shadow – Forget

Man, did this album sneak up on me. One minute I’m spinning it with a moderate, “hey, I dig this,” reaction, and next thing you know I can’t stop listening to it and it’s nearly cracking my top 10 for the year. The second album on this list to which Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor lent his production touch (Morning Benders being the first), Forget has some of that slightly baroque quality of a Grizzly Bear recording, but Twin Shadow mastermind George Lewis, Jr. takes it in quite a different direction. There’s a distinctly retro feel, and it’s been pointed out how the yearning in Lewis’s voice is reminiscent of Morrissey and other 80’s New Romantics. Most of all, Lewis’ and Taylor’s attention to detail shows in Forget‘s impeccable sequencing; it has a wonderful ebb and flow to it, especially in the gradual buildup over the first five tracks. Though I came to it late in the year, I can already tell that Forget is an album I will not tire of.

Spoon – Transference

Like The Roots, Spoon suffers from the not-so-terrible curse of putting out releases of such consistent quality that albums like Transference, which engage in a few more risks and experiments than usual, are bound to be underrated. They’re a band known for their exceptional level of precision in the studio, so while their seventh LP may not be their most polished or most addictive set of material, it is conceptually one of their most brilliant, and it fits in nicely with the incredibly nuanced aesthetic they’ve developed over the course of their career.

The title refers to a psychological phenomenon consisting of a sort of misplacement, and Transference is a record that lives in its incompletions and (deliberate) imperfections. This is where some of the most magical moments occur: in trying to find the “one” on the lurching “Is Love Forever?”, and the way the end of “The Mystery Zone” suddenly cuts off a groove that could’ve stretched to infinity. Or how about the balls of kicking things off with a song as elliptical and weird as “Before Destruction”? Then there’s “Written In Reverse”, the album’s centerpiece and one of it’s singles, which starts and stops, is filled with dissonance, and is generally all over the place. Transference may not have a “The Way We Get By” or a “The Underdog”, but the sense that these songs have some missing pieces but can still bury themselves in your skull makes this an incredibly satisfying record to sink your teeth into.

Back to #30-21 | Onward to #10-1


~ by toren on December 16, 2010.

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