As usual, I have been working on my "best of" list for a few weeks. And as usual, I am waiting until the year is over before posting it. It seems as if most publications and writers post their top albums at the beginning of December; I originally waited until the end because I wanted to hear as much music as possible. Now the main reason this doesn't get published until the end of the year is because I need the two weeks of no work to find time to write it! Thanks to Google Reader I am able to track and read more blogs than ever. This year I thought I would have some of my favorite writers and critics help me out with my list by quoting their reviews. Be sure to follow the links to read their original blog posts; most of them are better writers than me. I am still obsessed with female vocals, and 11 of my top 20 albums feature female vocals some if not all of the time.
Top 20 Albums of 2010:
1. Arcade Fire- The Suburbs** Believe the hype. It blew me away when I first heard it on my turntable in my office as my wife and I held the artwork and followed along with the lyrics. Blew me away again as we listened to it driving on the interstate from Franklin to Rome this week.
"I keep waiting for the drop in quality, but it hasn’t happened yet. This is arguably better than Neon Bible, the sophomore slump album that didn’t slump. It’s unarguably a more tightly constructed album, with recurring lyrical motifs and a unifying concept that gets poked and prodded in all kinds of different ways. Musically, Arcade Fire still do Sweeping and Epic, aiming for the back row of the arena every time. And lyrically, there is as much poignancy here as finger pointing. Yes, the suburbs are soul deadening. But they were home, even for Win Butler. It’s not surprising that he’s left this world behind. What is surprising is that he convincingly expresses a sense of loss." ~Andy Whitman for Razing the Bar
Best Song: "City With No Children"
2. Stars- The Five Ghosts** As I read on another blog, "I have always liked Stars' songs, but never a full Stars album." If remembered where I read that, I would provide a link; it wraps up my sentiments perfectly. Stars has consistently put out interesting yet far-from-perfect albums over the last decade that have contained some great songs. In the words of co-lead singer Amy Millan, "We have never written an album with this much cohesion of unity." A truer thing has never been spoken, and combine that with terrific song writing and catchy melodies, you have an outstanding album.
Best song: "Changes" (And my 2-year-old son is obsessed with it!)
3. Jimmy Eat World- Invented** Jimmy Eat World is not groundbreaking, but they have perfected their art. By now, you probably know whether or not you like them. They aren't doing anything new here, but they have added a significant amount of background female vocals, and some of their best songs to date. My current opinion is that this is the best album they have released since their best work, Clarity.
"Cornering the market on achingly beautiful narratives documenting the downfall of love and compassion, the Mesa Arizona quartet expand their horizons with ~Johnny Firecloud for Antiquiet, due out Sept. 28 on Interscope. The twelve-track collection boasts the long-overdue return of producer Mark Trombino, who worked the knobs for 1999’s highwater point & two years later and a new character-driven lyrical approach inspired by frontman Jim Adkins’ photographic enchantment."
Best song: "Invented"
4. The New Pornographers- Together** Three years ago this band, fronted by Carl Newman and Neko Case, released an album (2007's Challengers) that was lauded with press. Now, in 2010, they release their 5th LP, far better than the 4th, and it hardly goes noticed. This is arguably the band's best work, albeit much more produced than their early albums. The strings, including awesome cello riffs, add a completely new dimension.
"The New Pornographers’ fifth album, Together, strings together another string of unimpeachable pop gems, whether they’re lush Neko Case- and Kathryn Calder-sung ballads (“My Shepherd”), weird Dan Bejar-sung seethers (“Silver Jenny Dollar”) or grandiose A.C. Newman-sung blowouts (“The Moves”). Newman, Case and Bejar all get their due here, with the help of contributors both permanent (Calder, guitarist Todd Fancey, et al) and transient (Okkervil River‘s Will Sheff, St. Vincent‘s Annie Clark, Beirut‘s Zach Condon, the horns of The Dap-Kings)." ~castleqwayr for Heroes of Indie Music
Best song: "Crash Years"
5. Sleigh Bells- Treats* Unlike anything I have ever heard. Instrumentalist Derek Miller of hardcore band Poison the Well and Alexis Krauss of teen pop group Rubyblue combine to form some of the most fun, insane music you have ever heard. Imagine the Spice Girls and Rage Against the Machine in a blender and this is what you get. So high energy it makes me want to dance; and I hate to dance!
Best song: "Riot Rhythm"
6. Freelance Whales- Weathervanes** Hard to describe this band, I can thank the now defunct Paste Magazine for turning me on to them. It was the purchase of their LP that made me aware that my turntable was playing too fast after we moved in March. This guy's vocals are "pretty", but not in a bad way, and when sped up just a tad they are somewhat chipmunk-ish. (If any of that sounded negative please don't take it that way.) As much as I hate comparisons, the band sounds like a cross between Illinoise and old Death Cab.
"Whimsical and darkly uplifting,Weathervanes features strangely jubilant reflections on ghosts and lonely houses. Sounds like a combination of the musical talent of Sufjan Stevens mixed with the poppiness of Owl City." ~Joel Mayward
Best song: "Hannah"
7. Fair- Disappearing World Coming in to 2010, this was one of my two most anticipated releases. I have been following Aaron Sprinkle (& Nick Barber) for almost 20 years now, and own and love everything he has released. He was partially responsible for two of my top 20 albums of the last decade (Fair's debut and Poor Old Lu's swan song). My expectations were probably too high. Not that there is anything wrong with this album, it is great. In fact, its flawlessness is probably its biggest weakness. The production is so perfect that there is no room for experimentation. While the songs and instrumentation are great, one could possibly consider it boring. I am being too negative; don't get me wrong this album is great. Number 7 out of the dozens of albums I heard this year is impressive. I am just hoping in the future Sprinkle & co. decide to try some new things instead of sticking to the same formula.
"While it’s been nearly four years since Sprinkle’s last full-band effort with Fair (2006’s The Best Worse-Case Scenario), he certainly hasn’t missed a beat. His ability to take the best of his production skills to fill even the smallest gap is sensational. When combining his sage experience in production with superior songwriting, there is no misstep. The melodies simply convey a creativity not easily found among any other songwriters within this “scene”. While the music isn’t earth-shatteringly complex, it is certainly solid. No overuse of technicality meant to impress impressionable listeners, just to the point like a dart hitting a bulls eye." ~Kyle Lane for ReviewRinseRepeat
Best song: "Walking in my Sleep"
8. People Get Ready- s/t This is the most obscure album on my list, as this band is from the Netherlands. In 2003 I attended Flevo Festival in Holland and discovered the band This Beautiful Mess. When purchasing Temper the Wind to the Shorn Lamb, I was told I was the first American to buy the CD. This Beautiful Mess "broke up" but really all they did was change their name because of a stylistic shift- the core musicians are exactly the same. Chances are I am one of only a handful of Americans to own this album as well. That doesn't make it any less good. High energy bass-heavy melodic rock with thoughtful, clever lyrics.
"Nadat de gitarist en bassist van this beautiful mess waren opgestapt, ontstond als vanzelf een andere sound. De introverte sfeer en de uitgesponnen arrangementen werden overboord gezet, de nieuwe songs zijn fel, puntig en er wordt gerockt. Het debuut van People Get Ready is een combinatie van krachtige teksten en pakkende melodieën. Het tempo is hoog, de drums zijn luid en de longen worden uit het lijf gezongen. Het geluid is een kruisbestuiving van new wave, (post) punk en britpop, met sporen van bands als Bloc Party, At The Drive-In en Radiohead. Maar ook invloeden van Interpol, Mew en The National zijn niet ver weg." ~MusicFromNL (That was in Dutch if you need to use a language tool to translate.)
Best song: "The Ropes"
9. Sufjan Stevens- The Age of Adz** I actually don't have that much to write about this album, all other reviewers probably have many more thoughtful comments. I need to spend much more time with it and give it more complete attention. I am a Sufjan fan and this is a dramatic shift from his last few LPs. Honestly though he had to change styles to keep things interesting for himself and his fans. It is almost entirely electronic, which for me is a moderate turn-off. It is so unlike any other album this year though it keeps me interested. The lyrics are the highlight for me, as Sufjan is actually writing about himself instead of places, other people, events, etc.
"The Age of Adz is a shocking, messy, sprawling album that many have found off-putting. Almost every second of it is coated in electronic noise, oscillating from one speaker to the other and burbling up at odd times. Stevens’ voice is cracked and breaking, far from the plaintive and breathy folk singer he was just five years ago. His songs are now unkempt whirlwinds, building and breaking and meandering and rising into melodic bliss just to crash down into maelstroms of clatter. And if you get through the first 10 head-exploding numbers, there’s “Impossible Soul” waiting at the end – 25 minutes long, a suite that flirts with train-wreck for most of its running time, and includes Stevens’ first foray into the dubious world of Auto-Tune." ~Andre Salles for TM3AM
Best song: Depends. If you only have five minutes, then listen to "I Walked". But if you have 25 minutes to spare, "Impossible Soul" it is.
10. Sarah Jaffe- Suburban Nature* Gorgeous folk music; her unique vocals absolutely define and drive the music. Spent quite a bit of time getting to know this album on road trips, and it was perfect for driving through the hills and mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Terrific instrumentation that starts with an acoustic guitar but builds in all kinds of layers of other instruments.
"Jaffe does well in crafting acoustic intimacy with superb songwriting and a strong voice. Many of her tracks are slow building that rely on billowing vocals and increased layers of instrumentation (i.e. "Clementine" - cue Eternal Sunshine imagery), yet some are short and punchy like "Perfect Plan". Apparently she tore up ACL Fest last year and caught the eyes of Rolling Stone and NPR, with 2010 primed to catch the ears of even more folks (especially when opening for Midlake)." ~Nathaniel for I Guess I'm Floating
Best song: "Summer Begs"
11. The Innocence Mission- My Room in the Trees. Best album from this prolific husband/wife duo in over a decade (since "Birds of My Neighborhood"). The quietest and prettiest folk music you will ever hear.
Best song: "God is Love"
12. She & Him- Volume Two** Not quite as good as volume 1, but very fun and summery; Zooey's voice has never sounded better. It takes you back in time. "The upbeat songs put a spring in your step long after they’ve finished, but the slightly harder sell for She & Him songs are the slower tracks which to lean on the folksier crutch.
“Gonna Get Along Without You Now” is one that sticks out, employing a ‘click-clack’ drum rhythm that over the course of the song does grow over and wears thin. The short of it is that if you enjoyed ‘Volume One’ there is no reason you will not fully enjoy ‘Volume Two’. There is even a chance that if you weren’t a fan previously, songs like “In The Sun” or “Don’t Look Back” may change your mind." ~The Album Project
Best song: "Don't Look Back"
13. The National- High Violet* A few years ago The National was one of the most hyped bands in the world, having the number one album of 2007 according to many publications. While liking Boxer, I never understood the love. Now, in 2010, they have released a much better album and I get it. Strangely the press has not been as impressed as three years ago.
"High Violet, The National's fifth album, roughs up the glimmering beauty of its divine 2007 predecessor, Boxer. But the new record still achieves the balance that's made the band so widely beloved: It locates the sweet spot between majesty and mopery, catharsis and wallowing, soaring grace and wounded confessionals." ~NPR
Best song: "Anyone's Ghost"
14. Colour Revolt- The Cradle* Been following this Mississippi rock band for a few years now, and they keep getting better. Hard to describe: constantly changing tempos and rhythms, led by vocals that go all over the place.
"The first thing that really stuck with me when I heard Colour Revolt's self-titled EP (2006) was the passion in Coppenbarger's vocals. There's an inherent honesty in his delivery, in the fragility of his near-whispered vocals during the quiet sections, and in the way his voice breaks up when he pushes to sing in a higher register. That kind of character and depth can't be feigned. I feel that tenfold in this song, probably because the sparse instrumentation really allows his vocals to shine." ~Riley Breckenridge of Thrice for OC Weekly
Best song: "Everything is the Same"
15. The Like- Release Me* An all-girl band that sounds like they are 50 years late on the music scene; oh so fun.
"Right from the beginning, the candy-coating is what captures you. Opening track “Wishing He Was Dead” pounds down your defenses immediately with its mid-sixties, mod-but-not-Motown backbeat and bouncing bass line. Before you know it, you’re hooked and riding high on syrupy swells of organ long before you even realize that Berg is singing about kicking in the head of the cheating lover she wishes dead... It’s even got some sonic similarities with a Monkees classic on the production side too, in that each distinct sound seems to be trying to leap from the speakers." ~Christel Loar for PopMatters
Best song: "He's Not a Boy"
16. Frontier(s)- There Will Be No Miracles Here* If this was the first I had ever heard from Chris Higdon and company, I would be very impressed. Unfortunately I have been a fan of his band Elliott for more than a decade and his new band does not (yet) come close. It is good, but it sounds more like it should precede Elliott's 1998 debut US Songs rather than come a dozen years after it. In an interview a Frontier(s) member combated critics by saying something about how this album did not stand a chance to be as good as Elliott's False Cathedrals (my #8 album of the decade) because they did not have the time or budget Elliott had. Pretty ridiculous comment; the songs just aren't as good.
"Frontier(s), fronted by former Elliot mainman Chris Higdon, are probably the most straight rock release that No Sleep have put out. Sounding like a glorious combination of the 90’s emo scene with a more modern rock edge, imagine Mineral covering the Foo Fighters. ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’ is a definite slow burner of a record that while appearing a tad bland at first rewards multiple listens." ~Barney Dufton for Alter the Press
Best song: "Poor Souls"
17. Sandra McCracken- In Feast or Fallow I have known of Sandra McCracken for years, but this is the first of her albums I have owned. It is gorgeous with a terrific combination of songs written by herself and reworked classic hymns.
"McCracken teamed up with her producer husband, Derek Webb, for recording the album and the result in a perfect blend of worshipful music and lyrics. Blending the old and the new, the sound moves from traditional to a nuanced (and greatly subdued) expression of the electronica sound that Derek utilized more obviously in “Stockholm Syndrome“... Finally, it is heartening to see the respect and sobriety with which McCracken approaches her material and the material of Saints long dead, as she adds her own magnificent contributions to the voluminous tome of work that came before. Respecting the Tradition, yet confidently adding to it, McCracken shows great sensitivity and artistry." ~Andrew for Biblical Reformation
Best song: "Petition"
18. Starflyer 59- The Changing of the Guard** Honestly this is probably the most unimpressed I have ever been with a Starflyer album; that's right, EVER. Amazingly enough this is Jason Martin's 12th studio album in 16 years. However, as unimpressed as I may be, it is still so good, the most acoustic Starflyer album to date.
Best song: "Trucker's Son"
19. School of Seven Bells- Disconnect from Desire* One of my final eMusic finds (before I canceled my account when they raised their prices and lowered their selections). They have the dueling female vocals of Aleixa with the guitars and tempos of Curve with the sonic elements of My Bloody Valentine.
"I was saddened to hear that shortly after the release of their 2nd album, this band lost one of its members and become a duo. One of the best things about the music of School of Seven Bells is the amazing interplay between the two female voices (sisters Alejandra and Claudia Dehaza), so with one vocalist gone (Claudia) the sound will take a hit. They are at full strength on this album, however, and the eastern rhythms backing up huge guitars and synths make this band a dreamy joy to listen to."
Best song: "Windstorm"
20. The Weepies- Be My Thrill* Another great album from this terrific husband/wife folk duo. One of the few male/female duos in which I don't care if the guy sings; while I do prefer her singing, their voices blend perfectly. Not their best album (2006's Say I Am You is), but everything they write is very good and catchy. While they do have kids and are family-friendly, they need to find a new artist to design their album covers that doesn't communicate "children's music;" because that it is not.
"Departing from the melancholy niche that dominated its previous album, Hideaway, The
Weepies have instead chosen to adopt a happy-go-lucky attitude for Be My Thrill. The pairing together of mellow folk and energetic pop make many tracks off the album remarkably addictive. With upbeat tracks like "How Do You Get High?" and "I Was Made for Sunny Days," it's impossible not to sing along. Driven by acoustic guitars, tambourines and rhythmic drumming, things are kept in sync, without overwhelming vocals." ~Cristal Figeuroa for the Stylus
Best song: "I Was Made for Sunny Days"
1. Sleeping at Last- Yearbook- October, November and December. Sleeping at Last is currently working on an ambitious project in which they release a 3-song EP monthly for one year. They are three months and nine songs in, and have recorded perhaps their best work after almost a decade worth of music. I still miss the days where they rocked a little more, but these songs are beautiful, lyrically and musically.
2. Gileah Taylor- A Crooked Line and What Kind of Fool Gileah Taylor released two EPs this year, which combine for form her third album, each under a different moniker (Gileah, then Gileah & the Ghost Train, and now her full name). Fairly eclectic and rocking folk songs with her most diverse instrumentation to date.
3. Sufjan Stevens- All Delighted People. The best part about this EP is that it was unannounced. In this day and age we are usually aware of when artists are either on tour, at home, writing, recording, etc. Release dates are announced six months in advance and we count down to that Tuesday. Well, this one came out of nowhere. Sufjan sent out an email and it was up already to be downloaded for $5 on Bandcamp. Unlike the LP he released a couple months later, this one is stylistically similar to his older work, driven by banjo and guitar.
4. Theft- Breathing Underwater I have been following Matt McCartie for more than 15 years, originally as the drummer for the Throes, then as the lead singer/songwriter of Driver Eight (released their only album in 1996). For the last decade he has released demos online under a variety of names, including National (before The National gained popularity) and then eventually settled on the name Theft. In 2007 or so he began working on a Theft full-length album, originally titled Nothing Gold Will Stay. That somehow disappeared and then finally in 2010 Theft released this 3-song EP. They opened for Creed on a tour this year, and while I am sure it gained them some notoriety, I can't imagine it was worth it. Thankfully they sound nothing like Creed; Theft is melodic indie-rock.
5. Roy Ira- s/t Indie-country that sounds like it is from Nashville (and it is). Humorous lyrics about failed relationships and murder complimented by lots of acoustic instruments. This Roy Ira at their most quiet- with little to no percussion, lots of female vocal harmonies and a good amount of mandolin and banjo. They are best seen live- and expect something more intense and loud.
Brown Feather Sparrow and Friends- How to Throw a Christmas Party (Name your own price on Bandcamp. Awesome original Christmas album.)
Jennifer Knapp- Letting Go
Mates of State- Crushes (The Covers Mixtape)
Band of Horses- Infinite Arms
The Besnard Lakes- ...Are the Roaring Night
Brett Detar- Bird in the Tangle
Broken Bells- s/t
Caedmon's Call- Raising Up the Dead
Demon Hunter- The World is a Thorn
Mineral- The Complete Collection
Serena Maneesh- S-M2: Abyss in B Minor
Don't own but might buy soon:
The Mynabirds- What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood
Via Audio- Animalore
Frightened Rabbit- The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Local Natives- Gorilla Manor
Top 5 albums critics say I should love, but I don't think they are very good:
Mumford and Sons- Sigh No More
Beach House- Teen Dream
Titus Andronicus- The Monitor
Vampire Weekend- Contra
Kanye West- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Brandtson- Send Us a Signal (2004, my #23 of the decade)
The Gloria Record- Start Here (2002, my #1 of the decade)
"To be announced", not because I don't know; "to be announced" because I am not allowed to talk about it. Was one of my most highly anticipated albums of 2010, and then, not surprisingly, didn't get released. That doesn't mean it isn't complete; it was recorded and mixed nine months ago and I have heard it more than two dozen times. Soon I will get to talk about it, the world will get to hear it, and hopefully most fans of the artist won't be as disappointed as I am.
Best concert(s) of the year:
1. Thrice at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Just like 2009, I was going to make a list, but unfortunately this is the only show I saw last year. Thankfully the one show I did see is my current favorite band. Local Atlanta band O'Brother (surprising) opened and Manchester Orchestra (depressing) closed out the night. If you have never seen Thrice and would like to, I highly recommend this live video from Germany. It is a 7-song set, and I would have only watched it once, but my 2-year-old son is obsessed with it and watches it weekly! (I actually just remembered I did also see Roy Ira in concert this year.)