2010 was an excellent year for music. By April, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of good releases hitting shelves each week. That pace ebbed and flowed for the remainder of the year, but golly - this was surely one of the better years for music in recent history. As always, trying to narrow it all down to 80 minutes or less proved a challenge. But with perseverance and geeky obsession, I accomplished the mission. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you:
PRESENT COMPANY EXPECT IT:
GONZO'S 2010 MIX
1. LCD Soundsystem - "Dance Yrself Clean" This is Happening (Virgin)
Somehow I knew in June that this would end up kicking off the 2010 mix. I love the build in this song. For the first three minutes, you can barely hear what's going on (a la "Long Long Long"). Suddenly you're suckerpunched with that sixteenth note leading into a solid four-on-the-floor beat with some groovy synth punctuation as James Murphy's vocals become more soulful. And then there's the seemingly arhythmic break down which always throws me for a loop as well. I admit that I can't quite wrap my head around Murphy's lyrics, which critique the same hipster subculture that his career depends upon. Nevertheless, This is Happening was a winner with me from the moment I streamed it on the band's official website, and it is certainly deserving of all the attention that it's received this year.
2. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - "Round and Round" Before Today (4AD)
I'd never even heard of Ariel Pink until the buzz around Before Today began to circulate. Fellow WIUP DJ and occasional co-host Marc Morrison chose this one week for our summer program First Impressions. Upon first listen, I wasn't completely taken in by the album, but I could tell that it had room to grow on me. Turns out, I was right. A few late nights of writing spent with Before Today swung my opinion more fully. "Round and Round" remains my favorite track from the disc, and is very representative of the album's overall sound. It's indie rock meets AM Gold meets something slightly haunting (ergo, the name?). It's a catchy number, and I can't be the only one who thinks that the bridge pays homage to Julian Lennon's "Too Late for Goodbyes, can I?
3. Vampire Weekend - "Giving Up the Gun" Contra (XL)
2010 was perhaps the year of Vampire Weekend. They got quite a bit of attention for their 2008 self-titled debut, but the buildup and eventual success of Contra pushed them into the mainstream spotlight. The album is great, though I know many people have tired of it, claiming it wore its welcome pretty quickly. That may well be the case. I can no longer tolerate "Holiday," thanks to the excessively-run Honda ad featuring the track. I would have pegged them for a Target commercial, actually. Anyhow, the fact of the matter is that Contra is still a great album, even if we're sick of it. More than any other song from the album, "Giving Up the Gun" sticks out primarily because WIUP student DJs gave it heavy play. But it also has a lot going for it - a catchy melody, a stop-start chorus, and a relative lack of pretension (which can't be said for many VW songs).
4. Yeasayer - "O.N.E." Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian)
I believe my introduction to the new Yeasayer was actually Alan Wilkis' remix of "Ambling Alp." The original version of that track was up for consideration on this mix, but "O.N.E." beat it out, in part once again because a few WIUP DJs gave it heavy play in the spring. It's surely the most dance-oriented track on the disc, which sees the band generally moving into a poppier realm. Odd Blood still sports a good deal of the darker, weirder elements of All Hour Cymbals, which is great. But I have to say, it's the poppier tracks that stand out. I also got to see them live back in September, and they put on an excellent show.
5. Twin Sister - "Around and Away We Go" Colour Your Life (Infinite Best)
A totally random discovery that happened to pan out. I stumbled upon Twin Sister over at Gorilla vs. Bear, who had posted a few tracks from the band's then-upcoming EP. Twin Sister put the entire EP up for free download, so I gave it a shot. And boy howdy, did it pay off. Twin Sister have a light, almost dream-like sound, but maintain a pop sensibility throughout. You can almost hear a bit of Tom Tom Club in there. There's also something rather charming about lead singer Andrea Estella's accent. It doesn't really sound like a New York accent (the band hails from Brooklyn), but I can't quite place it. They've toured extensively, though sadly not anywhere on my radar. Nonetheless, Colour Your Life is one of my top picks of the year - you know it's good when you download it for free (legally) yet make an eventual CD purchase as well. I'll be interested to see where Twin Sister goes from here.
7. Beach House - "Norway" Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
I'd heard Beach House's previous release (2008's Devotion) and liked it well enough. But it cannot hold a candle to Teen Dream. When I heard Teen Dream in January, I billed it as "an early contender for album of the year." While there have been a number of worthy challengers, I say with conviction that Teen Dream is hands down my favorite album of 2010. I've played the hell out of it for 11 months and it affects me just as deeply in December as it did in January. The album is so unbelievably gorgeous, so lushly arranged and produced. It was a perfect winter release, to be played at full volume in a warm abode while Snowmageddeon raged outside. To put things into perspective, by the time I get to ripping tracks for the year-end mix, I have a general idea of how it will take shape. In the interest of time, I'll rip 2, *maybe* 3 tracks from the pile of discs that I accrue. When it came to Teen Dream, I pulled 6 of the album's 10 tracks, because there are just that many standouts on the disc (though the other four tracks are good too!). "Norway" won out from those other 5 tracks simply for purposes of fit and flow. It was otherwise quite difficult to pick one track from this dynamite album. Victoria Legrand also has one of the most alluring, beautiful and unique voices in indie rock. Interesting range as well. I was fortunate enough to see Beach House over the summer, and they faithfully execute their material live, with the aid of a live drummer (which is generally a plus in my book). If this mix prompts you to buy one album, it should really be Teen Dream.
8. Band of Horses - "Laredo" Infinite Arms (Fat Possum)
Band of Horses has been around, but I admit that I hadn't heard them until this year. I heard "The Funeral" on the radio and thought it one of the most emotionally intense songs I'd ever heard. After acquainting myself with their first album, I was intrigued to hear of the pending release of Infinite Arms, their third album. I can't speak for what their second album sounds like (it's on my "to buy" list), but Infinite Arms has a hint of southern influence, which isn't quite the case with Everything All the Time. That southern flavor is probably most evident on "Laredo," the album's second single. That said, the song is indicative of the general vibe of Infinite Arms. This album gets the award for "Best disc for driving on the highway in the summertime." Perfect road trip music. So I thank an unnamed WIUP alum as well as blogging pal Pete Icke for hipping me to this wonderful band.
9. Grinderman - "Worm Tamer" Grinderman 2 (Mute/Anti)
Speaking of bands that somehow escaped my radar until this year, Grinderman's second album was a surprise favorite. Nick Cave (along with a few Bad Seeds) fronts this dark, loud, straightforward rock outfit with a raw power (pun intended) unparalleled in 2010 rock releases. I believe I only checked out the album on account of some of the online buzz around it's release, which panned out in the end. "Worm Tamer" is the album's second single, (preceded by the equally in-your-face "Heathen Child"). Check out this live in-studio performance from the RAK Sessions in London:
10. The Dead Weather - "Die by the Drop" Sea of Cowards (Third Man)
2009 saw the introduction of The Dead Weather, yet another JW project. The band's debut hit shelves in July of last year. Sea of Cowards was in our grubby little paws by May. And let's not forget all of the touring in between! In some senses Sea of Cowards is more of the same brand of gritty rock and creepy blues established on Horehound, but it seems a bit more focused as an album, and in general an all around tighter execution. Seriously, when does Jack White sleep? This guy's productivity is reaching comical proportions. ?uestlove is the only other figure I can think of that might give White a run for his money, though I'm certainly not complaining. Word on the street is that 2011 will bring us a new album by country gal Wanda Jackson produced by White (they'll also be touring together), and who knows what else. I'm certainly looking (and listening) forward.
11. Sleigh Bells - "Tell 'Em" Treats (N.E.E.T./Mom and Pop)
While there was a lot of great music released this year, Sleigh Bells was one of those rare albums that made my ears perk up as I thought, "Well this sounds different than pretty much anything else I've heard before." It definitely has some echoes of labelmate M.I.A., but they aren't copping her style by any means. Most notably, Sleigh Bells are a hell of a lot nosier than M.I.A. The sheer amount of overmodulation on the album is reminiscent of the Stooges' Raw Power, while the music is a clash of pop hooks, punk ferocity and guitars, and danceable beats. Wikipedia categorizes the band as "Noise Pop." Usually I ignore such labels, but this one actually fits. They've taken aggressive, distorted noise and placed it within the 3 minute pop format. And somehow, it works.
12. Crystal Castles - "Celestica" II (Fiction)
The sophomore disc from Crystal Castles took a very close second to the Beach House record as my pick for album of the year. They were certainly my two most played discs, with Crystal Castles having the added element of extreme anticipation. And the band certainly disappoint - there isn't a bad track on the album. From the "fun facts" file, Wikipedia claims that Crystal Castles II was recorded "in various places including a church in Iceland, a self-built cabin in northern Ontario, a garage behind an abandoned convenience store in Detroit, and the London studio of Paul "Phones" Epworth (Bloc Party)." But I digress. The album showcases Crystal Castles in a variety of modes, but none too far of a stretch - dancier tunes (such as "Celestica"), noisier, more aggressive tracks ("Doe Deer"), and darker electro tunes that have earned them the rather absurd label of "electro goth" ("Vietnam," "Violent Dreams"). And they put one hell of a live show. Aside from the seemingly endless DJs that preceded them, Crystal Castles' show at the Electric Factory was by far the best (and sweatiest) live show I saw in 2010. The icing on the cake is a remix of one of the album's tracks, a cover of Platinum Blonde's "Not in Love," featuring Robert Smith on vocals. I admit, it sounded like a bad idea, but holy cow, it works beautifully - dare I say I like it even more than the album cut. Check it out:
12. New Young Pony Club - "Lost a Girl" The Optimist (The Numbers)
You may recall that the New Young Pony Club's 2007 debut was a favorite of mine that year. That being the case, I was very much looking forward to The Optimist. It isn't as strong as its predecessor, but The Optimist is a solid effort in much the same vein as Fantastic Playroom. If ever there was a band that could be described as "hipster pop," this is probably it. I sure don't have a problem with it. I just wish they would tour the US.
13. Chromeo - "Night by Night" Business Casual (Atlantic)
Oh, we're dancin' now! Chromeo came back onto the scene this year with the follow up to their 2007 breakthrough/automatic dance party Fancy Footwork. It's an admirable return that follows the FF format, but Business Casual does leave one wondering just how long Chromeo can ride the wave of retro-'80s synth funk. In any genre , the retro game is only interesting for so long (I'm looking at you, Jurassic 5 and Amy Winehouse). While Business Casual is a fine disc, it does suggest that Chromeo's next move is going to have to step out side of the (talk)box for them to retain audience interest. But to end on a positive note, the songs on Business Casual maintain a too-sexy vibe. "Night by Night" is a great example of this - and the video is every bit as seductive as the song:
14. Goldfrapp - "Rocket" Head First (Mute)
Speaking of retro, there's also a clear 1980s influence throughout Goldfrapp's Head First. Some call it a return to roller disco. I believe my hetero life partner said "Rocket" sounded "like Flashdance circa 2010." I'll take it. I was not a big fan of Goldfrapp's previous effort, 2008's Seventh Tree - but I had to respect their move to play outside of the electro sandbox for a bit (though I'm thinking I ought to revisit that album). Ultimately though, Goldfrapp is at their best when they're making dance music. Their decidedly retro approach on Head First works very well, a more playful contrast to their previous work (such as 2005's Supernature).
15. M.I.A. - "XXXO" /\/\ /\ Y /\ (N.E.E.T./XL/Interscope)
I didn't have much hope for M.I.A.'s third studio album (read: "Maya"). Her off-stage antics (most notably her feud with a New York Times writer) and schizophrenic Tweets seemed like she might be heading into Kanye territory. Upon hearing the album's stream via NPR's First Listen, I was pleasantly surprised. This is absolutely M.I.A.'s weakest album to date, but there are a number of gems scattered about. Quite simply, it would have been a great 10-track LP. Among those gems is "XXXO," which is apparently one of the biggest love-it-or-hate-it singles of the year (at least according to the blogosphere). I love it. One reviewer criticized the track for being so "club ready," but that's one of the things I like about it. It's a contrast to the multi-genre cultural amalgamation she's known for, true. But a welcome one, I think. I will say that in this track and others on the album, the references to Twitter, iPhone, the Internet, etc. seem incredibly forced. Maybe it's done tongue-in-cheek, I don't know. Nevertheless, "XXXO," "Born Free" (and it's controversial video), "Teqkilla," and "Tell Me Why" are standout tracks that make /\/\ /\ Y /\ a worthwhile album, if an overall less interesting one. She also loses points for not including a download code with the vinyl release (seriously?).
16. Robyn (feat. Snoop Dogg) - "U Should Know Better" Body Talk pt. 2 (Konichiwa Records)
Ever since Bowie's canned Outside trilogy, I've instinctually been skeptical of any artist announcing a multi-volume project to be released over time. 2010 may force me to rethink this position. Erykah Badu released the second installment of her New Amerykah trilogy this year, and Robyn met her goal of releasing the three-part Body Talk set over the course of 2010...sort of. I can't help feeling that the third installment (simply titled Body Talk) was a bit of a copout, boasting 5 new tracks and 10 cuts previously issued on Body Talk pts. 1 and 2. Seriously? Of course I bought it, but that's beside the point. So is this little tirade for that matter. I digress. While 2005's Robyn received international acclaim, I found much of it fairly pedestrian, save the electro-infused tracks that opened the album. But those two tracks were enough to leave me thinking "She has a great album in her. This just isn't it." So I was very excited when I heard that among other people, Philly's own Diplo would be doing production work on the Body Talk project. "This is exactly what she needs," I thought. And while Diplo was only involved in a few of the project's tracks, collectively Body Talk is the album I've been wanting Robyn to make. Her pop tendencies aren't buried, but given a makeover that makes these albums stand out amid the sludge of contemporary dime-a-dozen dance pop artists. Pop, electro, dancehall (hi, Diplo!), acoustic ballads and Swedish folk combine for a consistently enjoyable toe-tappin', booty-shakin' listen. Here's hoping that Robyn continues to innovate and reinvent her sound in interesting ways.
17. Janelle Monae (feat. Big Boi) - "Tightrope" The Archandroid (Bad Boy)
Being such a Prince fan, friends of mine will fairly often recommend an artist claiming, "they sound a lot like Prince." This was how I first learned of Janelle Monae. Skeptical, I gave The Archandroid a listen and wasn't that taken, especially after seeing her Prince tribute at the BET Awards. Her "look at me, I'm weird" shtick just seemed too contrived. Months later, I thought that I may have been too harsh, and gave it another listen.
I had been too harsh.
The Archandroid covers a lot of ground. It's soulful, it's funky, it's accessible yet unconventional. And guess what - I *can* hear the Prince influence on a few tracks. So all apologies to Ms. Monae - I was too quick to judge (this is why I try to give everything at least two spins before writing it off).
18. The Roots (feat. Dice Raw) - "How I Got Over" How I Got Over (Okay Player)
Three words: "return to form." The Roots' body of work has been consistently good, but I admit that their last few records have been mixed bags. Not that they were bad, but they lacked the consistency of earlier discs like Do You Want More?!!!!??!, Illadelph Halflife and Things Fall Apart. How I Got Over is easily the group's best disc since at least 2002's Phrenology. There are some atypical guest appearances (Joanna Newsom, Monsters of Folk, that somehow work, sounding totally logical and natural. As always, the album is littered with social commentary. While the group's previous two records (2006's The Tipping Point and 2008's Rising Down) were generally dark in lyrical and musical tone, How I Got Over exudes a more positive vibe, one focusing on perseverance and triumph. Though I can't find the interview now, one Roots member (?uestlove or Black Thought, I believe) stated that The Tipping Point and Rising Down were reflective of the George W. Bush era, while How I Got Over is in some senses a snapshot of moving into Barack Obama's America. Musically, the album has a stronger soul element than previous efforts, almost a "Curtis Mayfield goes hip hop" sound. It makes perfect sense then, that The Roots' second project this year was Wake Up, a collaboration with vocalist John Legend (though I wasn't so taken with that album). As with M.I.A., The Roots lose some points for not including a download code with the vinyl edition, but I can overlook that given the quality of the music.
19. Cee-Lo Green - "F**k You" The Lady Killer (Elektra)
Undeniably the viral hit of the year. Sure, it's a bit of a novelty tune. Sure, absent the F-bomb it wouldn't have reached the level of success that it did. But you know what? It's a great track despite a pretty blatant pandering to shock value. Plus, it's Cee-Lo back on his own, redeeming himself from the slop of the second Gnarls Barkley album. To Cee-Lo's credit, The Lady Killer isn't another retro-'60s soul album, but has a somewhat wider breadth. (though the catchiest tracks do fall into that category). However, the radio friendly version ("Forget You") sounds so forced and awkward, and its regrettable that they even bothered trying to capitalize on a clean version of a song that's appeal is largely it's use of expletives. Speaking of awkward and regrettable, there was that Gwenyth Paltrow performance of "Forget You" on Glee (which I would in fact like to forget):