Arcade Fire is artist/album of the year; among
our other top picks are Justin Townes Earle, Deerhunter, Kanye West, Flying
Lotus and Joanna Newsom.
BY FRED MILLS
It was the best of years,
it was the… er, well… yeah. It was the best of years. Please feel free
to slap that person standing next to you who is griping about not hearing
anything good in 2010. And ask us sometime about trying to pare down a list of
some 200-odd worthy new releases from this year into a manageable Top 50 (okay,
we cheated; Top 51). We might even let you know who the runners-up were. Seriously.
But in the end, we don’t take it all
that seriously, because we’ve been doing this year-end stuff long enough to
know that (a) our list is prone to change within five minutes of publishing it;
and (b) the only folks who read these lists are the ones who write them! The artists themselves are too busy thinking
about their next projects, their upcoming tours… how to pay the rent. Important
stuff. So no navel gazing here; no what
everything means, maaan…from us. Here’s our list – let’s do this.
(Honorable Mentions follow the main list.)
ARTIST & ALBUM OF THE YEAR: ARCADE
FIRE – THE SUBURBS (MERGE)
Really, we were expecting
this… no, no, no. No one was
expecting this. The steady,
step-by-step progression of the Canadian band from their early self-titled EP
to 2004’s breakthrough Funeral to
2007’s complex Neon Bible has been
anything but inscrutable; it was inevitable, not to mention downright
inspiring, particularly in light of the band’s determination to stick with
great indie label Merge. Yet still… a couple of years spent touring and
solidifying even further as group; a year or so devoted to writing songs and
recording; then suddenly this past August a re-emergence with The Suburbs, an album about, well… the
Uh-oh, concept album alert! But right
from the get-go, with the tuneful, deeply wistful title track, the record
announces its intentions to be anything but grandiose. Sure, there are moments
of densely-arranged grandeur (the
almost baroque “Rococo,” for example), but here, hubris takes a distant back
seat to humanism, with rockers (the propulsive, anthemic “Ready to Start”) and
ballads (the darkly brooding “Suburban War”) alike maintaining a crucial sonic
and psychic balance. Point of fact, you don’t even have to ponder the so-called
concept to enjoy the album, which in a weird way makes the brief final song
– titled “The Suburbs (Continued)” and
serving as a kind of coda to both the opening track and the entire record – one
of the most delightful musical surprises of the whole year. (Try this little
trick of sequencing: Next time you start to play The Suburbs, cue it up with that last cut positioned as the first
one and then followed by “The Suburbs” as the second one. You’ll feel a tingle,
ado has been made of how The Suburbs did
gangbusters its first week, topping the Billboard charts and temporarily bumping Eminem, not to mention the fact that the
album earned a Grammy nod for Best Album and is also up for two additional
Grammys. Which is as it should be; it’s a fantastic, timeless-in-feel record
with a broad appeal.
Yet in the independent label world, this
doesn’t happen that often. Actually, it never happens. So it’s as much a vindication for indies – bands and labels – as it
is for those fans who have stuck with the band all this time even as A.F. got
bigger and, inevitably, outgrew the “they’re our band” status that helped fuel the buzz in the first place. With
all the turmoil and transition these days in the music industry, only a fool
would attempt a prediction as to the overall and lasting significance of A.F.’s
success – but you have to admit, it did feel at times like a “Yay! We won!”
But you can’t read too much into all
this. Simply put, Arcade Fire has worked as hard as any combo out there, while
at the same time not allowing its musical imagination to stagnate or grow
complacent, remaining artistically hungry and unwilling to compromise. Those
are qualities that should be celebrated beyond matters of record sales, chart
placings and awards ceremonies.
To just add a personal note: when an
“important” and much-talked-about album such as this can also become the
hands-down favorite of a certain nine-year-old child (er, that would be mine) –
a kid who won’t be worrying about what
everything means, maaan… for at least a few more years and for now simply
revels in how immediate and how engaging the music itself is – well, somehow
that seems, to me, what’s actually significant. It means that a torch is being
passed, and in rock ‘n’ roll, there is no greater gift. Thank you, Arcade Fire.
—————ALL THE REST:
1. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem
River Blues (Bloodshot)
WE SAID: Not only is Harlem River Blues the third album in three years
for Justin Townes Earle, it’s his third winner in a row. That’s a prolific
streak that should be the envy of his contemporaries. Earle and co-producer
Skylar Wilson maintain consistency through clean, dry production that keeps the
focus squarely on the tunesmith’s plainspoken voice and bullshit-free
2. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (4AD)
WE SAID: Halcyon Digest blends new elements into
Deerhunter’s already lush template while emphasizing its pop inclinations.
Psych-pop vibes insinuate into the sunny thrum of bells and jangly guitars…
processed beats [and] glam pop plus epic guitar fuzz equals some of the most
weirdly arresting songs you’ll hear all year.
3. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
WE SAID: He’s no Prince.
But once you get past the ridiculous flights of ego disingenuously (sometimes)
cloaked in self-deprecation (this is, after all, a record where a dude talks
about sending photos of his dick to ladies), you encounter a genuinely dizzying
array of soundscapes, as thickly layered as early Public Enemy in places, yet
unerringly tuneful. Songs, even. Orchestral flourishes complete the picture – a
3-D one at that, and not just a snapshot.
4. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (Warp)
WE SAID: Through the
utilization of live instruments threaded into the mix of this 45-minute
“space opera”, FlyLo maps out a sonic genealogy directly inspired by
the genius of his aunt, the late Alice Coltrane. While many multigenerational
artists tend to shy away from the shadows of their elders, it is nothing short
of incredible to hear this immensely talented figure in the brave, new world of
West Coast hip-hop embrace his legacy.
5. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me (Drag City)
WE SAID: Harp-led epics
with turns of phrase and melody, but with less of a wildhorse quality about the
structure than Ys. These
songs are both instantly hummable and enduring.
If these 124 minutes can be reduced to one sentiment, which they ostensibly
cannot, really – let that be it. That’s the feeling you can’t deny when you’re
bonechilled and gasping after the wave.
Coast – Crazy for You
WE SAID: Girl-group,
garage-rock, shoegaze and just unabashed tingly pop all collide in this
janglysexycool wall o’ sound that is Best Coast, aka Bethany Cosentino and Bobb
Bruno. Cosentino’s torn-from-her-diary lyrics may at times seem too intimate, but ultimately the
sumptious sounds give ‘em the prolonged heft they deserve.
7. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (ATO)
WE SAID: Frankly it’s the
band’s strongest collection of songs since the mid 2000s heyday of Decoration Day and the Dirty South. Patterson Hood and main
songwriting counterpart Mike Cooley are front porch scribes who both know how
to unearth the down and dirty of Dixie’s
underbelly without cliché.
8. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone (Anti-)
WE SAID: 55 years
into her recording career, Mavis Staples is making music that ranks with the
best she’s ever done. She returns with her fellow Chicagoan, Wilco’s Jeff
Tweedy at the helm [and] fills each song with the breath and breadth of life
9. Darkstar – North (Hyperdub)
WE SAID: Darkstar
developed an authentically enigmatic atmosphere for North, steering from the potential black hole of overusing
computer vocals… rather than exploring a nuanced brand of the dubstep that the
producers had already established, they built a Mars-red epic [and a] hybrid of
techno and science fiction film score fanaticism. This record is beaming, even
as every measure is taken to keep out the light.
10. Sharon Van Etten – Epic (Ba Da Bing!)
WE SAID: Van Etten has
moved from the hushed ethereality of her first album towards a warmer, more
propulsive aesthetic, and in the process, created some of her most compelling
songs to date. Her voice is stronger, duskier, surer, easily able to crest over
rough-edged guitar strumming. There’s something elemental about her performance.
11. Alejandro Escovedo – Street Songs of Love
WE SAID: As visceral and
uncompromising as his early solo outings were cerebral and widescreen, Street Songs of Love makes a strong
case for Escovedo being one of our pre-eminent rock ‘n’ roll artists now
operating well outside the parameters of the so-called Americana realm. To hear
him exploding out the gate with material that recalls classic raveups from the
Stones, Mott the Hoople and the Clash is to bear witness to the eternal
fountain of (mental) youth that rock ‘n’ roll has always represented.
12. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (DFA)
WE SAID: LCD Soundsystem
can do no wrong sonically. James Murphy has the knack and talent for creating
bodaciously catchy tracks that range from ‘80s new wave to dance-punk to
hypnotic trance. And again Murphy contemplates sizeable subjects such as love,
life, and hypocrisy, all behind the upbeat veil of electronics.
13. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – I Learned
the Hard Way (Daptone)
WE SAID: There are any
number of soul and funk revivalists working these days, many of them very good,
but Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are right now the finest at sounding both
old and fresh at the same time… They know the secret to great soul music is
allowing it to breathe naturally and expressively, while absolutely nailing
down the tightly syncopated rhythmic elements provided by every instrument.
14. Robert Plant – Band of Joy (Rounder)
WE SAID: Band of Joy, which features Patty
Griffin and Buddy Miller as key collaborators, explores the American songbook
with strong results. Plant sounds inspired throughout, acting as a curator of
songs by artists like Townes Van Zandt, Los Lobos and indie rockers Low.
15. Of Montreal
– False Priest (Polyvinyl)
WE SAID: A doggedly,
desperately upbeat album, undertaken with the determined notion that sex and
psychedelia will prevent a slide into Morrissey-style miserablism. Ultimately,
this potent mix of effervescent pop and melancholy self-exposure has done more
than any flame demon or horny porcine to vault Of Montreal so far past its
16. Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 – Northern
Aggression (Yep Roc)
WE SAID: The sonics are
sumptuous from the get-go, feedback-laced thrumming rockers gradually turning
widescreen in the grand psychedelic tradition, equal parts MC5, Spacemen 3 and
Echo & the Bunnymen, but filtered through a thoroughly contemporary
cranium-crunching sieve. The first new studio album from Wynn and the M3 in
five years finds the songwriter at his most vital, both songwriting- and
performance-wise, since the very first M3 release.
17. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy)
WE SAID: She’s equal parts
futuristic new wave and sweat-inducing funk. Her songs are robotic without
being cold. Her vocals are endearingly romantic and passionate with an elegant
operatic howl, clarion clear diction and a soul-sonic scream that’d break James
Brown’s car windshield. And somehow, Monáe’s oddly sci-fi detailed,
character-driven songs are up close and intimately personal
18. Fresh & Onlys – Play It Strange (In The
WE SAID: The attention
bestowed upon these folks should not come as a surprise once you catch wind of
the band’s killer sound – a perfect storm of Gun Club-style goth-punk twang,
Seeds-esque freakbeat and Chronic Town-era
R.E.M.-style jangle stuffed within the echo-laden confines of a homegrown
“Wall of Sound”… In a music landscape cramped with a baby boom of
derivative revivalist garage acts, this sets an immensely talented group apart
from the pack.
19. Four Tet – There Is Love In You (Domino)
WE SAID: Not unlike his
rapidly accelerating eleven-year career, Kieran Hebden’s output as Four Tet has
splintered across the horizon in a dizzying multitude of musical directions.
Crackling atmospherics, unrelenting locked grooves, and layers of immaculately
organized, cascading accompaniment – There
Is Love In You stirs and sweeps, its loop-centric tapestries as lively and as affecting as its
uncoiling electronic flourishes.
20. Roky Erickson w/Okkervil River – True Love Cast
Out All Evil (Anti-)
WE SAID: After 45 years,
the third shoe has finally dropped. Roky Erickson’s first new album since Bill
Clinton moved into the White House puts an exclamation point to a tale of
personal redemption. Now backed by Austin-based indie-rock hotshots Okkervil River, his latest is a total mindblower.
21. Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the
Sky (Young God)
WE SAID: Michael Gira and
Co. don’t solely go for the raw powered pummel or the broad strokes of
art-damage. There is clever nuance and cool tension throughout – to say nothing
of blame, idolatry, confinement and adoration. This Swan-y moment is all Gira’s
and a testament to his dramatically dire yet rapturously passionate aesthetic.
22. Caribou – Swim (Merge)
WE SAID: For Swim, Dan Snaith seems to be moving
inside his own head, inside the clubs. This is the first Caribou record
that would sound completely at home being spun from the booth over the dance
floor – it’s trancier, dancier, more solidly rooted in loop and repetition than
any previous Caribou release.
23. Gaslight Anthem – American Slang (SideOneDummy)
WE SAID: In three years,
The Gaslight Anthem has gone from being just another tattooed punk band from Jersey to the closest thing this generation may have to
The Clash thanks to brilliantly memorable songs and lyrics that read like
working class poetry. Their best record to date and one of the great rock
albums of 2010 (punk or otherwise).
24. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist
WE SAID: This taut, tight
collection of 13 songs that make up the DNA of The Brutalist Bricks find Leo’s trademark indie punk sound
getting the major kick in the ass it so desperately needed. It sounds as though
Teddy boy is out to take over what’s left of the rock radio airwaves.
25. Wavves – Wavves (Fat Possum)
WE SAID: The beauty and
appeal of this new record is how it manages to make slightly off-kilter,
avant-garde rock music entirely accessible. Of course, it could be argued that
this makes that classification null and void. It doesn’t really matter anyway,
because when the fuzzy noise blasts from your speakers, genres and labels
26. Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
WE SAID: With Teen Dream, Beach House transplant the
woozy pop haze of the vintage West Coast and transplant it beneath the shadows
of the Shawangunk Mountains, crafting the masterpiece many of their fans knew
they had in them all along.
27. Deadmau5 – 4 x 4 = 12 (Ultra)
WE SAID: Whether you like
it or not, you’re familiar with the oversized head and the big mouse ears of
progressive house music maven Deadmau5… There are just enough happily dastardly
surprises afoot at every turn here… lustrously spare and ripe with eerie yet
sweetly catchy melodies that act as through lines through the album’s weirdly
28. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
WE SAID: It’s safe to
assume the members of the band were raised on a steady diet of Weezer, The
Pixies, Built To Spill. But they’ve managed to absorb all of this and more and
regurgitate something all their own… Simple ideas made interesting through
excellent recording and production – no shitgaze, this – and executed by an effusive
bunch of rock musicians more concerned with quality than scoring scene points.
29. Crocodiles – Sleep Forever (Fat Possum)
WE SAID: Sleep Forever, cut in an isolated
Joshua Tree studio with Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, elaborates upon all
that but is a leaner, meaner affair [than 2009’s Summer of Hate], equal parts fuzzed-out glam slam, Krautrock boogie
and latterday disco-punk… [An] astonishing record that serves up pop’s head on
a platter and makes for one bloody good buffet.
30. Superchunk – Majesty Shredding (Merge)
WE SAID: Unlike some
outfits that draw on an insurgent attitude, Superchunk doesn’t succeed through
intimidation. Rather, they exhort their listeners to share in their celebratory
revelry, so that in a real sense, the new album exudes at least as much modesty
31. Tyvek – Nothing Fits (In The Red)
WE SAID: Cranked, cracked,
bashed and frantic, Tyvek’s second full-length pogos on a tightrope. There’s an
abyss dropping away on either side, an endless bottom one missed mortgage
payment or judicial crack-up away. And yet a sense of manic joy permeates, too…
A quick hit of adrenaline, a battering, disorienting blast of surplus energy
that channels, occasionally, unexpectedly, into tuneful pop. It’s one of the
best punk albums out there right now.
32. Megafaun –
WE SAID: Praised for its elastic take on Americana,
this North Carolina
trio flexes its know-rules/break-rules muscles on a mini-LP of roots-solid
songwriting and experimental subversions, recalling the subtle roots-and-noise
alchemy of bands like Califone and Akron/Family. [The band displays a] talent
for making the old sound new again.
33. Rangda – False Flag (Drag City)
WE SAID: A jaw-dropping,
landmark sort of record, False Flag documents the all-but unrehearsed collaboration of three exceptional musicians
– Sir Richard Bishop of Sun City Girls, Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance
and Chris Corsano of multiple, much-admired free jazz outfits. It is
alternatingly bruising and serene, harsh and liquidly beautiful – and so
beautifully structured, overall, that it’s hard to believe it came together so
34. Massive Attack – Heligoland (Virgin)
WE SAID: They’re so good
at on Heligoland that they’ve
made a lasting art object – their form-is-statement command of trip-hop is as
masterly as is Pet Shop Boys’ similar work with post-New Wave dance music.
Using sound like a painter uses material to build up color and texture on a
canvas, they use individual songs to create an album recognizable as theirs for
its characteristic traits – an overall introspective, studio-processed swirl of
35. Parting Gifts – Strychnine Dandelion (In The
WE SAID: Together, these
guys (members of The Ettes and Reigning Sound) kick up a dustcloud of Mekons-esque
cow punk and what one may or may not hear as a post-Dolls David Johansen backed
by Thee Headcoats within the confines of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
36. !!! – Strange Weather, Isn’t It? (Warp)
WE SAID: !!! has long
survived the dance-punk explosion of the early aughts. Credit its
sustainability not to simply mating drum machine programming with stabbing
guitars, but cleverly roping the sounds of disco, Sandinista-era Clash, ’90s house, and dub into the mix.
37. Tony Joe White – The Shine (Swamp)
WE SAID: White’s voice may
have lost the very slightest touch of the deep swamp rumble that made ‘em
shiver and swoon when “Polk Salad Annie” hit in 1969 but it’s still a
hell of a voice… Mystery haunted Southern Gothic landscapes that draw one into
a world that exists somewhere between William Faulkner and Elmore Leonard, and
where low ‘n’ lazy gets the job done just fine every time.
38. Women – Public Strain (Jagjaguwar)
WE SAID: Women perfectly
capture the industrial dissonance of the [Alberta, Canada] terrain, harboring a
barren, disconnected sound that is equal parts Joy Division, Bastro and
Cluster… further testament to the subtle sea change in the indie rock universe
away from the precious and fey sounds of the last 10 years and back to the caustic
nihilism of the good old days.
39. Giant Sand – Blurry Blue Mountain
WE SAID: It’s the
strongest and most cohesive GS album since 2000’s masterful Chore of Enchantment, and before that,
1992’s blazing epic Center of the
Universe. It features some of Howe Gelb’s most
directly affecting lyrics in years, plus wonderfully fleshed-out arrangements
and a yin/yang balance of rockers and ballads, of guitar-centric numbers and
40. Los Lobos – Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory)
WE SAID: Los Lobos’
creative wellspring is muy ridiculoso. It’s
because their collective heart is huge, and their eye sees all. As usual, the
wolves couch these scenes and stories in lowrider rhythms, vox somnambulant and
spirited, dirty guitars, skronking sax and techie touches.
41. Greg Laswell – Take A Bow (Vanguard)
WE SAID: Laswell has
developed a signature sound that’s served him well, one that emphasizes a
hushed atmospheric ambiance that subtly drapes the music like an early morning
mist but leaves an emphatic impression nevertheless. Self produced and
performed almost entirely solo, Take A
Bow furthers this motif, and yet, it finds a sharper focus than any
of his previous outings.
42. Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton (Brassland)
WE SAID: The fifth
full-length for classically-influenced quartet Clogs begins with two voices, at
first staccato and spare, a little later lush with madrigal harmonies and
finally oddly birdlike, the main melodic line twittering and fluttering over
complicated counterpoints… the resulting songs are [as] disarmingly beautiful
[as] the composing process was rigorous.
43. Posies – Blood/Candy (Rykodisc)
WE SAID: With Blood/Candy, they’ve one-upped their
personal best. It’s a feast of sweet, coppery power-pop that’s at once
familiarly spacey and more down-to-earth. B/C is ultimately fresh and diverse with hallmarks intact, and
undoubtedly the Posies’ finest work.
44. Mynabirds – What We Lost in the Fire We Gained
in the Flood (Saddle Creek)
WE SAID: For all the
so-called innovations, experimentation and genrefucking that suffuse the indie
rock world, there’s still nothing like a good old-fashioned song. Reflecting
the ‘70s singer/songwriter tradition of margin walkers like Laura Nyro, Harry
Nilsson or Allen Toussaint, Laura Burhenn (ex-Georgie James) forgoes oddball
arrangements or deliberately jarring production tricks and just gets on with
the business of performing ten soulful pop songs.
45. Bettye LaVette – Interpretations: The British
Rock Songbook (Anti-)
WE SAID: Her song
selection is so spot-on that it’s tempting to lay them all out here, but
suffice to say that on this album LaVette goes as far as anyone ever has to
break down the forced and superfluous barriers between rock and roll and rhythm
and blues. This album will break your heart at least half a dozen times and put
you flat on your ass with your mouth wide open.
46. Neil Young – Le Noise (Reprise)
WE SAID: A series of
atmospheric soundscapes featuring Young alone on guitar, directed through the
ambitious agenda of producer Daniel Lanois. Loud, overdriven chunks of feedback
and distortion blow raspberries at the slightly (just slightly) less unruly
strummed segments, while Uncle Neil delivers – bizarrely, but welcome –
reflective observations on love, hate, peace, war ‘n’ stuff.
47. Bettie Serveert – Pharmacy of Love (Second
WE SAID: Scanning like a
live set keyed to maximum dynamic impact (both sonic and emotional) and
boasting a beefy sound, tuneful gems power past in rapid succession… the most
adrenalin-pumping slice of New Wave garage since Blondie’s “Hanging On the
48. Eux Autres – Broken Bow (Bons Mots)
WE SAID: It’s amazing how
much the band has grown since the early days and this, their 3rd full-length is easily the best thing they have ever done with compact, focused
pop songs that really move. If Broken Bow doesn’t get the band more fans, well, then, it’s obvious those pop fans need
some more education.
49. Tony Allen – Secret Agent (World
WE SAID: With a subtly
stormy style comprising sprightly jazz, R&B, traditional Nigerian and
highlife rhythms, Allen’s cross-cutting beats instantly propel each track. Secret Agent is a spaced-out spacious
work too that benefits from dub and the electronic avant-garde… A party album
with Allen proving to be a most amiable host.
50. Susan Cowsill – Lighthouse (Threadhead)
WE SAID: The songs on Lighthouse are guided by two themes –
loss and hope. Both have been a part of music since the beginning, but Susan
Cowsill (formerly of the family band the Cowsills) taps into some pretty
weighty experiences for inspiration.
Cowsill and her band have the power to their conviction and they pull it off.
15 HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Jónsi – Go (XL);
Oval – O (Thrill Jockey); Titus
Andronicus – The Monitor (XL); Marnie
Stern – Marnie Stern (Kill Rock
Stars); Spoon – Transference (Merge);
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Mojo (Reprise); The Sword – Warp Riders (Kemado); Kings Go Forth – The Outsiders
Are Back (Luaka Bop); Antony and the Johnsons – Swanlights (Secretly Canadian); Budos Band – III (Daptone); Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs – Medicine County (Transdreamer);
Grinderman – Grinderman 2 (Anti-);
Jon Langford & Skull Orchard – Old
Devils (Bloodshot); Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses – Junky Star (Lost Highway); Black Angels
– Phosphene Dream (Blue Horizon)