Category: Album Reviews


This third installment of my “Top 35 Albums” list is one filled to the brim with great music from both established artists and fresh faces. While there are undoubtedly some albums that may have slipped through the cracks, and though some of you may disagree with my inclusions and omissions, my hope is that you will find this feature entertaining and informative. It is the least I can do for those who continue to support me in my music journalism endeavors, and I hope that you discover some great music as you’re reading this.

35.  Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean Sam Beam’s major label debut saw the former four track superstar continue his transformation into a full fledged band leader, and Kiss Each Other Clean proved to be a worthy set of songs to ease him into his new role. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the album was Beam’s full embracing of his voice. No longer content to whisper his lyrics, his confident and rich singing voice mirrored another troubadour legend, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, and it injected his words with life in a way that was only hinted at on previous albums. Beam’s willingness to diversify and experiment with instrumentation was another sign of growth, as everything from synthesizers to saxophones gave his songs a kind of wide screen splendor that one would have never expected from him only a few years ago. These new found aspects of his sound allowed him to create several songs that rank alongside his best work, including “Walking Far From Home,” “Tree By The River,” and “Big Burned Hand.” While many people may lament the fact that they will never hear his beard bristling the microphone amidst tape hiss again, Kiss Each Other Clean marks an exciting future for Iron & Wine, and one that continues to prove why Beam is one of the most talented songwriters of this generation.

34. The Decemberists: The King Is Dead Most people figured it only logical that the Decemberists would make a full-fledged rock opera, but 2009’s Hazards of Love saw the band courting their indulgences to a polarizing effect. While a few songs still stand their own, the album as a whole marked a low point for the band, as their ambition came at the cost of overall quality. As a stark contrast to their magnum opus that wasn’t, The King Is Dead saw the band paring things down and delivering their most straightforward effort to date. Band leader Colin Meloy decided to forego the English folk that had influenced most of the band’s earlier material, and instead looked to Americana and old R.E.M. records for inspiration. The result was a solid set of songs that fit naturally in the Decemberists catalog. Meloy’s musical and lyrical shift, along with the band’s ability to morph along with his vision, allowed him the breathing room needed to concentrate on actual songwriting instead of story arcs. While this is far from the best Decemberists album, the band’s renewed focus marked The King Is Dead as a turning point for them both artistically and commercially. They recovered nicely from what most people considered a grave misstep and gained scores of new fans along the way, something that should be commended for a group who almost burrowed themselves into obscurity.

33. Neon Indian: Era Extrana While I listed it as one of my favorite albums of 2009, I quickly grew out of Neon Indian’s lauded 2009 debut Psychic Chasms. It got to the point where I would immediately try and find the skip button upon hearing the first notes of “Terminally Chill” or “Deadbeat Summer,” as the initial highs from that album left an uninspired aftertaste in my mouth. As such, I was a little skeptical as I approached Alan Palomo’s sophomore effort, Era Extrana. However, this album finds Palomo’s sound maturing in a way that no one could have predicted. This is a much darker album that largely abandons the acid induced haze and 80’s video game feel for more fully realized electronic soundscapes, with harder hitting drums and more pronounced synth lines. Additionally Palomo’s lyrical outlook shifts from lazy summers to the more adult subjects of love, and his vocal performance injects his songs with a kind of emotional heft that was sorely absent in Psychic Chasms. Palomo’s sound has grown a lot in two years, and this fact makes Era Extrana a more rewarding listen than Neon Indian’s debut and reason to care about his future endeavors.

32. Old 97’s: The Grand Theater: Volume 2 Hot on the heels of last year’s excellent return to form, The Grand Theater: Volume 2 continues Old 97’s winning streak with an equally high quality set of songs. Recorded during the same sessions as The Grand Theater: Volume 1 (both were initially planned to be released as a double album), there are plenty of moments that demonstrate just how focused and determined the band was when they entered the recording process. Rhett Miller’s character studies are just as affecting as ever, and tracks like “I’m A Trainwreck” and “Manhattan (I’m Done)” add a few more feathers to his lyrical cap. Meanwhile, Murray Hammond’s contributions, the left of center “White Port” and the wistfully gorgeous “How Lovely It All Was” are just as affecting. Though it does not differ too much from the tones and motifs of Volume One, The Grand Theater: Volume 2 sees the gifted men of Old 97’s continuing to produce some of the best music of their careers. If consistency is the lifeblood of keeping a band relevant, there’s a good chance that we will still be discussing this band in another ten years.

31. Yuck: Yuck For a band that wears it’s influences like a badge of honor, it is quite an achievement that Yuck were able to craft an album with the level of quality as their self-titled debut. Taking heavy cues from just about every band this side of late 80’s/early 90’s shoegaze and noise pop, the project of former Cajun Dance Party members Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom combined just about every enjoyable aspect of those genres and came away with a memorable homage. The sheer bombast and enjoyability of rockers like “The Wall” and “Georgia” see the band in pure fuzz mode, and particularly highlight Blumberg and Bloom’s able guitar work and the group’s punchy rhythm section. On the other side of the coin, ballads like “Shook Down” and “Suicide Policeman” serve as tender counterbalances. Regardless which end of the shoegaze spectrum they embody, there are plenty of moments here that show that Yuck are quite content with building upon the template of those that came before them. Of course, when the results are this good, you’re usually given a free pass from accusations of idol worship.

30. Toro y Moi: Underneath the Pine While it was a little late to the chillwave party, Toro y Moi’s 2010 album, Causers of This, managed to distinguish itself thanks to Chaz Bundick’s ability to incorporate a more groove and funk driven aesthetic amidst the wash of laptop noise. Less than a year later, Bundick returned with Underneath the Pine, an album that one would be hard pressed to associate with the genre that gave him his start. The addition of a full time bassist and drummer allowed Bundick the ability to expand upon his funk tendencies, and the increased production values gave the low end grooves of songs like “New Beat” and “Got Blinded” the necessary push they needed to make their way into your head. While Bundick may not have the best singing voice, his performance here sees him even more assured of himself, and it is clear that the shift in artistic direction didn’t phase him in the slightest. The colorful atmospheres, serious grooves, and inspired performances make Underneath the Pine an album that is very easy to like, and one that shows that all Bundick needed to do to realize his vision was simply close his laptop.

29. Washed Out: Within and Without Though many of his contemporaries rushed at the opportunity to distance themselves from the confines of chillwave, Washed Out’s Earnest Greene felt that there was still enough redeemable qualities about it to construct his full-length debut. Within and Without proved his theory to be right, as this collection of songs work comfortably within the chillwave motif to create something lush and inviting. While much of Green’s early material was defined by it’s lo-fi production and hazy atmospherics, the absence of these qualities lends songs like “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati” a distinct feel to them that is both warm and sensual. Greene’s vocals are mixed higher and cleaner here, finally bringing his musings on love more to the forefront among his denser arrangements. Additionally, the album has a kind of cohesion to it that allows it to flow at a natural pace, a nice touch for an artist who made a name for himself releasing singles and EP’s. There were plenty of signs of growth and maturity on Within and Without that signal Greene’s talents as a career artist, and whether or not he decides to follow his peers in leaving chillwave behind, this album remains one of the genre’s best.

28. Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise It’s extremely difficult to categorize Nicolas Jaar’s debut. Space Is Only Noise is an album that has it’s roots in electronic music, but feels more like a collection of noises and sounds than anything one would normally associate with the genre. From the calming sounds of running water and spoken dialogue of album opener “Etre” onward, Jaar fuses his various influences into a quietly affecting piece of work. Despite how easy it is to listen to, this is a curveball of an album that is unlikely to please the average consumer. The flirts with beats and grooves are too slow or strange to be danceable, and Jaar’s deep voice and laconic delivery are unlikely to motivate people to shuffle their feet. However, those who go into Space Is Only Noise with an open mind will be rewarded for their patience, as little details continue to unveil themselves after repeated listens. The way Jaar effortlessly combines elements of house, dub, jazz and many other styles with his voice and samples into something so subdued and beautifully strange makes for a fascinating listen, and one worth revisiting many times over. It may have been one of the quietest releases this year, but the imprint that Space Is Only Noise leaves is anything but.

27. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde While their self-titled debut may have garnered attention for arriving at the peak of the lo-fi craze a couple of years ago, Smith Westerns were able to differentiate themselves through their nearly criminal ability to write tightly constructed pop songs. Armed with a bigger studio budget, the band returned this year with Dye It Blonde, an album that perfectly captured the wide-eyed essence of youth through a delightfully fuzzy glam rock lens. Anchored by Max Kakacek’s scuzzed out guitar riffs and Cullen Omori’s sweetly innocent voice, the band managed to create some of the year’s most memorable songs. The albums is filled with tales of budding romances (“Fallen In Love,””End of the Night,”) weekends spent together (“Weekend”), and the joys of embracing a significant other (every other song), and the band’s ability to write musical and vocal hooks could not be denied. Throughout, the band exude levels of confidence that defy the still young age of it’s members, and not a single note sounds out of place. Dye It Blonde is a pop record in the purest sense, and in the capable hands of Smith Westerns, it is one of the year’s best.

26. Handsome Furs: Sound Kapital The untimely hiatus of Wolf Parade left the group’s two principal songwriters to their own side projects. While Spencer Krug’s eccentricities may gain more attention from critics, 2011 belonged to Dan Boeckner. Along with his wife Alexei Perry, they released Handsome Furs most accomplished and fully realized album to date. Boeckner’s guitar heroics, while still present, take more of a backseat on Sound Kapital, and this shift works to highlight Perry’s agile synth lines and pulsating beats. The result is the most vital and urgent sounding music the band has produced. Many of the songs were inspired by the group’s travels to eastern Europe and Asia, where they got to experience first hand the difficulties that musicians face, and it’s clear from the refrain of “When I Get Back” onward that Boeckner and Perry took the experience to heart. Boeckner’s lyrics are just as world weary and politically conscious as ever, and they are injected with life and emotion through his raw and unhinged vocal delivery. He is a true rock star in an age where to be one is decidedly uncool, but there is an honesty in his performance that lets the listener know that he is okay with that fact. Sound Kapital is a loud, brash, and cathartic record, and one that shows that no matter what venue he does it in, Boeckner will find a place to emote and have his story heard.

25. The Antlers: Burst Apart The Antlers last album, 2009’s Hospice, was one of the most emotionally intensive albums of the last decade, one that saw front man Peter Silberman’s personal anguishes unfold in the form of a gut wrenching narrative. It would have been unwise for both Silberman and the group’s followers to expect that level of intensity on Burst Apart, but is not a retread from emotions so much as an altogether different way for Silberman to express them. Though this is far from being another concept album, Burst Apart’s lyrical motifs revolve around love, and Silberman proves here that his choice of words and vocal delivery are where the majority of the emtional heft derives from. The apprehensions about commitment on album opener “I Don’t Want Love” turn into sexual frustrations on “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out,” and by the time “Putting The Dog To Sleep” has concluded the album, Silberman is begging for someone to “Prove to me/ I’m not gonna die alone.” Meanwhile, the band’s shift to a more electronic sound manages to make Silberman’s laments hit just as hard as any of the guitar swells on Hospice, as each arrangement is carefully crafted for maximum impact. Burst Apart serves as a more than worthy successor to Hospice, and is another accomplished work from a band who knows a thing or two about the ways of the heart.

24. Wild Flag: Wild Flag Guitar rock was alive and well in 2011, and Wild Flag managed to make one of the genre’s most assured and enjoyable albums. This should come as a surprise to no one, though, as Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders had a combined decades worth of quality material before Wild Flag came into being. What makes Wild Flag such a success is the fact that the band came into the studio after touring the project for several months, allowing them to build a kind of chemistry that is evident throughout the course of the album. Wild Flag is a diverse album filled with winning numbers like lead single “Romance,” the Timony lead “Black Tiles,” and Brownstein and Weiss’ “Future Crimes,” not to mention the psychedelic “Glass Tambourines.” Most importantly, it is easy to get the sense that the band had fun recording this material, as these songs and the group’s vibe are free from the pretensions or posturing that has plagued so many other supergroups. It may be a while before we get to experience any of the group’s members reliving their past glories, but if albums like Wild Flag are a byproduct we all can be okay with crossing our finger just a little longer.

23. Fucked Up: David Comes To Life Fucked Up are one of the few bands that continually produce astoundingly high quality records regardless the size of their ambitions. This year saw them unleash the nearly 80 minute punk rock opera David Comes To Life, arguably their best work to date. One would be hard pressed to mistake this as anything other than a Fucked Up album, as layers of aggressive, hard hitting guitars and hardcore rhythms serve as the backdrop for Damian Abraham’s instantly distinguishable growl. However, only a band like Fucked Up would be willing to take as many risks as they did, as the narrative structure, multiple guest vocal spots, and willingness to experiment could have just as easily fallen flat. Thankfully, in the able hands of one of Canada’s finest musical exports, David Comes To Life is a stunning achievement. Many of the songs can function independently of the story, and there’s something bewildering and commanding about Abraham’s bark and the group’s musical chops that is quite unlike any other hardcore band. The only reason this isn’t Fucked Up’s masterpiece is that there is always the possibility that they will outdo themselves again in a few years, and we will all be waiting patiently to see that happen.

22. EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints One of the most emotionally charged albums of the year, Erika M. Anderson’s solo debut finds the former Gowns frontwoman displaying her talents like never before. The singer/guitarist creates tense and often captivating atmospheres that are both dense and memorable, as exemplified on the multi-factied opener “The Grey Ship” and many times throughout the album. However, despite her musical chops, it is Anderson’s lyrical openness and vocal delivery that elevates Past Life Martyred Saints into a realm of it’s own. Whether it’s the spellbinding rant against her newly adapted home state on “California” or the desperate plea for love on “Marked,” Anderson injects her words with so much emotion and urgency that the listener can’t help but hang on to every word. Past Life Martyred Saints is a singular release from a woman who is not afraid to bear the darkest depths of her psyche to complete strangers. It is a confident statement that shows that Anderson has a bright future ahead of her, even if her worldview doesn’t necessarily reflect that.

21. Iceage: New Brigade In less than 25 minutes, the young Danish men of Iceage blister through 12 brilliant slices of old fashioned punk mixed with smatterings of other genres that make for an exhilarating listen. Despite their nilhistic and DIY ethos, New Brigade was recorded in a studio, making the wiry guitars and the band’s agile rhythm section hit that much harder. Lead singer Elias Ronnenfelt’s lyrics are often incomprehensible, yet leaving his words open to interpretation is part of the fun. The band’s ferocious intensity never waivers, and it is very hard not to like the sheer manic qualities of songs like “White Rune,” the title track, or album closer “You’re Blessed.”. But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of New Brigade is the fact that, despite being hyped to death regarding their mysterious nature and being written about like the second coming of punk, there is no air of pretension on the part of the group members. Iceage are simply four guys who like to get together and play loud, fast, and hard, and we’re all the better for it.

20. Dirty Beaches: Badlands Whether it was intentional or not, Dirty Beaches’ sole member Alex Zhang Hungtai created an instantly recognizable yet singular sound with Badlands. In both his musical stylings and personal ethos, Hungtai exhibits the 1950’s greaser persona almost too perfectly. Through the use of gritty, distant sounding loops and his fragmented guitar playing, he creates a musical landscape that would sound perfectly at home in a James Dean movie. The front side of the album is all attitude, and sees Hungtai proclaiming himself a “Speedway King,” lusting after a young girl with Jerry Lee Lewis levels of swagger in “Sweet 17,” and perfectly encapsulating the isolated open road feel of Route 66 on “A Hundred Highways.” However, like even the hardest of Fonzi-era badasses, Hungtai is a romantic at heart who is capable of writing memorable and affecting ballads like “True Blue” and “Lord Knows Best.” Though only six of the album’s eight songs feature Hungtai’s voice, Badlands is one of the most singular listening experiences of 2011, a gritty and personality infused gem that would fit right alongside any album in your parent’s record collection.

19. The Rural Alberta Advantage: Departing It’s a familiar story that has played out in the blogosphere time and time again over the last decade. A band who seemingly came out of nowhere with a (initially, in this case) self-released debut is met with lukewarm reaction when their sophomore album fails to capture the magic of it’s forebear. It’s a narrative that some publications unfairly bestowed upon The Rural Alberta Advantage’s sophomore release. However, taken outside of the context of the group’s back story, Departing sees the band improving on just about every aspect of their sound rather than trying to recreate their debut. The core of the band’s aesthetic (Nils Edenloff’s nasally and conversational delivery, the largely acousitc instrumentation, and Paul Banwatt’s intensive percussion) are still intact, yet the band sounds more sure of themselves this time around. It shows in the way that “North Star” arrives at it’s climax at just the right time, the visceral sentiments of album standout “Stamp,” and in the group’s improved musical cohesion and sense of purpose. All of the potential that was shown on Hometowns was fully realized here, and it is a shame that the same publications that built them up were more than willing to write this off as an inferior record. In actuality, Departing is a heartfelt and assured outing that should stand on it’s own regardless of narratives or it’s place within the zeitgeist.

18. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues While others were singing high praises for Fleet Foxes 2008 self-titled debut, I was one of the few people who abstained from placing it at the top of my year end list. It didn’t even finish in my top 10. To me, it was a well executed and pleasant album, but it was not the kind of blindsided smack to the face that my friends and music publications made it out to be (that honor belonged to The Walkmen’s You & Me). However, this year’s Helplessness Blues managed to better it’s predecessor by replacing that albums innocent sameness with a sense of urgency that better demonstrated the group’s songwriting prowess. Robin Pecknold’s tales of red squirrels and Blue Ridge mountains are scrapped in favor of more personal confessions, pondering everything from his place in the world on the gorgeous title track to why he has fallen in love on “Sim Sala Bim.” Meanwhile, the rest of the band continues to branch out their sound, incorporating all kinds of instruments alongside the acoustic strumming and vocal harmonies they have become famous for, and the songs here are performed with the drive and insistence that their debut lacked. It all works to make Helplessness Blues an experience rather than a collection of sweetly sung folk tunes, and though it may not be canonized in the ways that Fleet Foxes was, it is a sign that the band is willing to build upon themselves into something deeper and more meaningful.

17. Active Child: You Are All I See While last year’s Curtis Lane EP showed endless amounts of promise, Pat Grossi’s full length debut, You Are All I See, saw him completely shatter all expectations. Ethereal washes of harp and synth make this album one of the most beautiful listening experiences of the year, but it’s Grossi’s voice that elevates him above and beyond his peers. The way he eases himself from rich tenor to heavenly falsetto shows a level of control that is simply stunning, and his lovelorn lyrics are performed with a sense of urgency and finesse. It also didn’t hurt that Active Child are responsible for two of the year’s best singles, as “Hanging On” and “Playing House” (featuring a guest spot from How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell) highlighted Grossi’s talents as a songwriter who can pen gorgeous arrangements and memorable vocal hooks. The rest of the album fares just as well, with moments of sheer beauty being commonplace throughout. You Are All I See finds Grossi living up to his potential while at the same time showing that he is an artist with a clear idea of what he wants Active Child to be, making it one of the most assured and confident first outings of the year.

16. St. Vincent: Strange Mercy Annie Clark’s talents know no boundaries, and Strange Mercy sees her crafting another work of genius with little more than a standard rock setup. This is a confrontational and extremely personal endeavor, one in which Clark’s clairvoyant voice can be swallowed up by the swells of noise around her at any instant. Always a master of playing to extremes, Clark easily transforms moments of calm beauty into chaos through her fuzzed out and fractured guitar playing, and each change in mood is timed precisely for maximum impact. She remains a commanding presence even in moments of fragility and vulnerability, exemplified on songs like “Cruel,” “Cheerleader,” and the harrowing album closer “Year Of The Tiger,” a quality that only the most accomplished of performers can claim as their own. Strange Mercy marks another high point for Clark, even though she arrived fully formed on 2007’s Marry Me. If anything, it reaffirms her uniqueness and serves as a testament to her abilities, setting the expectation for future releases even higher.

15. Cold Cave: Cherish The Light Years After Caralee McElroy left Cold Cave, there were a lot of questions as to what direction the band should take. Band leader Wes Eisold saw it as an opportunity to go for broke, and Cherish The Light Years sees the band expanding upon the promise of 2009’s Love Comes Close by turning up the volume and tightening up their sound. The result is a gloriously loud record that features arguably the year’s best opening trifecta. The synth and guitar driven adrenaline rush of “The Great Pan Is Dead,” “Pacing Around The Church,” and “Confetti” are some of the best genre exercises of the last few years. Each song features driving hooks, memorable choruses, and is loud to the point where you can’t help but be enveloped by the group’s dark and foreboding soundscapes. The rest of the album follows the same motif, and though they don’t reach the highs of their early album brethren, there is not a single dud to be found across the album’s nine tracks. This album proves that both Eisold and Cold Cave demand to be taken seriously, and if listening to Cherish The Light Years means going deaf an hour sooner, so be it.

14. Destroyer: Kaputt Who would have guessed that channeling the music of Avalon era Roxy Music would result in one of Dan Bejar’s best albums as Destroyer? The satin sheet motif of 80’s soft rock managed to be the perfect backdrop for his heady musings and laid back voice, and Kaputt ends up being one of the most exquisite sounding records released in some time. Though Bejar’s lyrics remain as open to interpretation as ever, they sound right at home amidst these arrangements. Trumpet and saxophone blares meet soft electronic drums, washes of synth, and clean guitar tones that are both easy to listen to and musically dense. Songs like “Blue Eyes,” “A Savage Night At The Opera” and the album’s title track are natural fits in the Destroyer cannon, and the whole album is performed with the kind of effortless air that so many people love about soft rock. Kaputt  serves as further evidence that Bejar can take just about any genre and craft gold out of it, and it also severs him by exemplify his strengths.

13. Regina: Soita Mulle For their fourth album, the relatively unknown Helsinki band Regina decided to largely abandon the light synth-pop of 2009’s Puutarhatrilogia for a more driving shoegaze approach, with synths contributing rather than dominating their sound. The result is Soita Mulle (which translates to “call me”), a strikingly gorgeous and melodic album that shows the band at their most straightforward and affecting. Album opener and first single “Unessa” should be more than enough to draw people to Soita Mulle, as the immediately memorable keyboard line gives way to an almost hypnotizing guitar driven arrangement that compliments Ilsa Pykari’s vastly improved vocal work. In fact, Pykari’s voice is arguably the biggest draw, as she sings in Finnish with a kind of ethereal quality that is at once soothing and forceful. Though the album is only a half-hour long, the band’s attention to songcraft and melodies never waivers, and their ability to weave gorgeous dream pop sequences is highlighted time and time again. Soita Mulle is without a doubt one of the most pleasant listening experiences of the year, and establishes Regina as one of Finland’s premier bands that don’t have the words “black” and “metal” ascribed to them.

12. Danny Brown: XXX By the end of XXX (30), there should be little doubt that Danny Brown released one of the best rap albums in a year filled with high profile releases. It’s a raw and gutsy record that shows that behind his wreckless partying and blatant misogyny is real hurt. Brown flows in a very abrasive tone for most of the album, a high pitched and nasally yap that most other rappers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. However, songs like “Die Like A Rockstar,” “I Will,” and “Adderall Admiral” are perfectly and immediately contextualized by it, as he exudes the kinds of excess and manic psychosis that even Heath Ledger’s Joker would shudder at. However, while these detailed and often hilarious accounts of a mad man would be enough to make for a solid album, it is in the album’s last third that XXX distinguishes itself. Beginning with “DNA,” Brown begins to question his lifestyle in a sobered and deeper voice, revealing details of his upbringing and family life that add a whole other dimension to his character. The listener is able to sympathize with Brown, and it’s this kind of brute honesty that makes XXX such an engaging listen from start to finish.

11. Future Islands: On the Water The full on catharsis of last year’s In Evening Air was a breakthrough for Future Islands. It stands as one of the most emotionally intensive break up albums put to tape, with Samuel T. Herring’s anguish and one of a kind vocal delivery propelling the group’s music from very good synth pop into a thing of harrowing beauty. Herring’s outlook is a bit brighter on the group’s follow up, On the Water, and while there aren’t any songs as devastating as “Tin Man” or “Inch of Dust,” there are still plenty of great moments that make it one of the year’s best releases. Gerrit Welmers’ brighter and fuller sounding atmospherics and William Cashions nimble bass playing lend the album a more wistful and airy quality to the music this time around, and the increased production values make this the best sounding Future Islands album yet. Meanwhile, Herring’s toned down vocals demonstrate that his softer side can be just as affecting as his throat shredding growls. His crooning, urgent and theatrical, makes songs like “Before the Bridge,” “Close To None” and “Balance” beautiful in a different way. While nothing will ever compare to the sheer emotional brilliance of In Evening Air, On the Water is a more than worthy follow up, and one that continues to demonstrate why Future Islands are one of the most unique bands making music today.

10. Real Estate: Days The gray skies and sepia toned houses that grace the cover of Real Estate’s sophomore effort are exceedingly misleading. Days is one of the most lush sounding records of the year, and one that added the right amount of polish and careful attention to an already winning formula. The band was never shy about their sense of melody and ability to write simple yet affecting songs, but the increase in production values and the group’s overall growth as musicians managed to bring the group’s sound into glorious high definition. Martin Courtney continues to improve as both a singer and lyricist, and the wistful nostalgia of “Easy,” the ecstatic feeling of falling in love on “It’s Real,” and the confusion and yearning of “Municipality” all serve as testaments to the notion. Additionally, guitarist Matthew Mondale and bassist Alex Bleeker’s song contributions are just as high of quality, highlighting how much the band members trust each other. Of course, at the core of the band’s appeal is their music, and the immaculate guitar lines and steady rhythms are given extra room to shine thanks to the group’s more refined approach. Real Estate were without question one of the elite bands to emerge from 2009’s summer of sand and sun, but Days is an album that should more than prove that they deserve a spot high above their contemporaries.

9. Los Campesinos!: Hello Sadness Los Campesinos! will always be the band that I associate with my years as an undergraduate. From the dough eyed and twee infused Hold On Now, Youngster through their fourth masterstroke in as many years, I have had the privilege of growing alongside them. No other band has so closely paralleled the trials and triumphs of my life like they have, and these sentiments are undoubtedly shared by many in the group’s loyal fanbase. Hello Sadness feels like a thank you letter from the band, and those willing to give the band a chance will be rewarded endlessly for taking the leap of faith. The sonic exploration of last year’s brilliant Romance Is Boring returns, and even in the most straightforward representation of the band’s sound (the astounding first single “By Your Hand”), there are continuing signs of maturity and refinement that mark Los Campesinos! as a continually evolving force. Gareth’s painfully detailed and self-depreciating accounts of love, heartbreak, and everything in between are sung with more conviction than ever, and the group manages to create new and exciting soundscapes unlike anything they’ve tried before. From the swelling title track to the gorgeously grandiose “To Tundra,” the band continues to push themselves in ways that excite with each repeated listen. Los Campesinos! managed to maintain their status as one of Britain’s most exciting, inventive, and unique groups, and I can say with great pleasure that Hello Sadness is the perfect album to take with me as I prepare to enter the next chapter of my life.

8. Arctic Monkeys: Suck It & See Since their landmark 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Arctic Monkeys have maintained a level of professionalism that has allowed them to drown out the scores of hype and expectations that managed to crush just about every one of their contemporaries. This level of dedication showed in their music, and the band continue to grow musically and prove their worth with Suck It & See, an album that once again shows that the band is not content to stay in one place. The Monkeys once again shift their sound, this time towards the brighter and slower paced psychedelic and glam jams of the 60’s and 70’s, with effortless aplomb. As with anything he touches, Suck It & See finds Alex Turner continuing to add evidence as to why he should be placed alongside Britain’s greatest songwriters. Though his lyrics are more cryptic and a far cry from the riot vans and darkened pubs of his youth, his ability to stitch words and phrases together remains as sharp as ever, and the group’s shift in musical tone perfectly matches his increasingly mystifying wordplay. Six years on and four albums later, Arctic Monkeys remain one of Britain’s most important bands, and Suck It & See is arguably their most accomplished work to date.

7. tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l One of the biggest artistic leaps in quite some time, Merrill Garbus elevated her tUnE-yArDs project from enjoyable lo-fi also-rans into a unique and dominant force in the span of one album. w h o k i l l is an album teeming to the brim with life, as Garbus injects every bit of herself into this set of songs. From her captivating, almost primal, voice to her ability to craft moving arrangements out of little more than drum and vocal loops with a bit of bass, saxophone, and ukulele thrown in, each track is a clear sign that she has one of the most exciting musical minds around. Songs like “My Country,” “Gangsta,” and “Bizness”  hit with a kind of force that shouldn’t be possible from their seemingly minimal arrangements, and every word that Garbus sings/chants holds the listener’s attention like a magnet. w h o k i l l is the sound of an artist boldly stepping into her own, while in the process creating something wholly original and quite unlike anything else released this year. It is a left field classic in the purest sense, a work that resonates because of it’s uniqueness, singularity, and fulfillment of the artist’s vision.

6. Cut Copy: Zonoscope After 2008’s groundbreaking In Ghost Colours, it would have been easy for Cut Copy to try and recreate the instant gratification of standouts like “So Haunted,” “Lights & Music,” and “Hearts On Fire.” Knowing that to do so would be utterly impossible, the band decided to populate this year’s excellent Zonoscope with songs that take their time in reaching those lofty highs. The band continued to prove they are masters of crafting affecting arrangements, as the builds and verses sounded just as vital and important as the lofty choruses. This was the sound of a band continuing to exude confidence in their sound, and songs like “Need You Now,” “Take Me Over” and the multi-faceted “Sun God” stand as some of Cut Copy’s best work. Though the release of Zonoscope was unfairly drowned out during a very hype intensive first quarter (see: Odd Future, James Blake, et. al), it stands strong as one of the best electronic releases of the year. Cut Copy may never be able to recreate the ecstatic rush of In Ghost Colours, but Zonoscope is ample proof that they don’t need to.

5. Wye Oak: Civilian Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak hit their creative apex this year, riding on the momentum built from each of their increasingly better releases to create one of 2011’s finest albums. Civilian sees the band exhibit a kind of understated confidence that can only come from hours of hard work, and their execution throughout the album is something to marvel at. Wasner is easily one of the most underrated guitarists in the indie world, but after the one-two punch of the thundering “Holy Holy” and the subdued yet affecting title track, there is little doubt that she deserves to be mentioned alongside the genre’s six-string titans. Her voice carries a kind of urgency that was only hinted at on earlier records, and that sense is mirrored through both her and Stack’s performance. Whether they’re squalling at full volume or constructing moody and understated tones, few bands this year were able to achieve such a fully developed sound from such a limited personnel. Wye Oak are one of those rare bands that continue to improve with each passing year, and Civilian is a striking document of a band arriving at its artistic peak.

4. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost One of the most unique things about Girls is how they are able to craft something wholly theirs out of familiar sentiments and sounds. Father, Son, Holy Ghost sees the band exploring different musical motifs with stunning results, whether it was the California highway feel of “Honey Bunny,” the Black Sabbath nod “Die” or the beautifully arranged “Love Like A River.” This genre hopping makes for an engaging listen, and highlights the fact that great songwriting can work regardless of the musical backdrop. Still, the group’s calling card remains front man Christopher Owens’ ability to take even the most straightforward sentiments and infuse them with the kind of passion that makes you feel as though you are hearing them for the first time. Both he and the rest of the band have grown by leaps and bounds since their brilliant 2009 debut, Album, and Father, Son, Holy Ghost serves as a manifest to their talents in a way that was only hinted at just a few years ago. (This blurb also appears in the Austinist’s Top Albums of 2011 feature)

3. Braids: Native Speaker To say that Braids arrived fully formed on Native Speaker would be a gross understatement. The Montreal band effortlessly crafted a debut that was a world unto itself, one filled with dense instrumentation, dream like aesthetics, and arrangements that reveal nuances with each repeated listen. It also didn’t hurt that lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston possesses one of the most powerful voices to emerge from the indie scene in the last several years. Her ability to go from a fragile and angelic coo to an unrestrained primal yelp, as exemplified on “Glass Deers” and the album’s title track, breathe life into her lovelorn lyrics in a way that is simply breathtaking. Every note on Native Speaker sounds lovingly labored over, and as such it is an album that requires intense concentration and dedication on the listener’s part. However, those willing to invest the time will discover that there were few albums released this year that achieve the levels of beauty Native Speaker so often does, and it is without question one of the best debut albums of the last five years.

2. The Field: Looping State Of Mind Axel Willner, the mastermind behind The Field, is without question one of the most talented electronic artists of this generation. The Swede’s third album, Looping State Of Mind, should do little to alter this claim, and it may in fact be his best work to date. Willner is a master of combining loops that at first seem unrelated into sheer ambient beauty, building upon them and adding nuances such as micro-samples of voices and sounds that sound perfectly natural, perhaps best exemplified on the near perfect “Burned Out.” This maximalist approach to minimalist techno is bolstered by the addition of both a bassist and drummer, allowing many of his songs to devolve into grooves that perfectly complement his arrangements, such as on album openers “Is This Power” and “It’s Up There.” No matter the source material, Willner’s loops are filled with life, and they work to create soundscapes that are at once dense and majestic. He didn’t need to prove himself after 2007’s game-changing From Here We Go Sublime or 2009’s equally stunning Yesterday and Today, but Looping State Of Mind should solidify Willner as a godhead of a genre in which simply distinguishing yourself is enough of an achievement.

1. Wild Beasts: Smother For a band that has gained a reputation for it’s eccentrics, including their liberal use of falsetto and graphic tales of debauchery, England’s Wild Beasts struck a chord of genius by toning themselves down. On Smother, the group’s third album, the band decided to take a more subdued approach to their craft, with downbeat arrangements that simmer rather than burn, and lyrical motifs that explore the darker sides of physical and emotional intimacy. Hayden Thorpe’s gorgeous falsetto and Tom Fleming’s brooding baritone drive the songs with heartbreaking intensity, and they elevate songs like Thorpe’s “Loop the Loop” and Flemming’s “Invisible” far and above the group’s contemporaries. The level of maturity that the group displays is staggering, and their attention to detail and careful craftsmanship can be felt at every juncture of the album’s ten songs. The sheer seductive beauty of the group’s music is part of the reason that it continues to grow on the listener after multiple listens, and it is one of those rare records that is a completely immersive experience. No other album released this year sounds like Smother, and its creators deserve both praise and respect for charting a new artistic direction while still maintaining the qualities that make them one of the most singular groups around.

It was a telling moment when Arctic Monkeys were introduced to the world in 2005, largely thanks to this video for “I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor,” that front man Alex Turner urged viewers, “Don’t believe the hype.” While the justified buzz surrounding the band reached near deafening levels before they even released their first album, the band itself could not be bothered by it. Rather than taking it as a sign that they were destined to be the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world, a notion that rocketed countless bands on their side of the pond to mediocrity, the band were able to stay humble and keep their focus on making music.

As such, the band has yet to release a bad record. Each album has shown the band’s willingness to evolve and take musical risks, and they have built a solid back catalog filled with some of the best guitar rock songs of the last ten years. Suck It And See, the band’s fourth release, finds them combining many of their strongest qualities into another solid addition to their discography. While the sheer impact of their debut will never be duplicated, the album ably proves that the band are among the best at what they do.

There was plenty of skepticism leading up to the album’s release, and for good reason. The first song to be released to the public, third track “Brick By Brick,” was a somewhat underwhelming tune that featured drummer Matt Helders on vocals. Some felt that the band were simply replicating the desert rock sensibilities from 2009’s Humbug, an album that was nowhere near as immediate as their multi-platinum predecessors. However, it is far from a terrible song, and it makes more sense in context of the album.

This time around, the band has turned to 1960’s English psychedelic music for inspiration, as many of the songs have a sunny vibe to them, but the the heavier tendencies of Humbug turn up in all the right places to add an effective counterbalance, such as on album opener “She’s Thunderstorms”  and the excellent Josh Homme featuring “All My Own Stunts.”

This new sound suits Arctic Monkeys well. It would have been foolish to expect the band to keep turning out the lightning fast arrangements and witty observations of English lad life of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and Favourite Worst Nightmare, and they delineate even further this time around both musically and lyrically. The band has slowed things down considerably in most of their songs, with the exception of  a section in “Library Pictures,” allowing the band to add an extra layer of sun tinged haziness to their sound. A near perfect example of this, and also one of the album’s best tracks, is “The Hellcat Spangled Shalala,” which sees the band building up to it’s simple and endearing “Shalala” chorus before filling out the arrangement towards the end. Tracks such as “Black Treacle,” Reckless Serenade, and “Piledriver Waltz” follow this kind of approach, and they continue to reveal themselves with repeated listens. “Don’t Sit Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” is just as effective, though in a different way, utilizing an almost instantly catchy guitar riff to serve as the back bone  to a heavier arrangement that would have fit right in on Humbug.

Turner’s lyrics, one of the major aspects that have set Arctic Monkeys apart, continue to move away from the kind of scene criticism and youthful concerns with bouncers and dance floors into more cryptic territory. No longer the kind of the verses that one can instantly connect with, many of the songs here demonstrate his way with the phrase in more universal, though increasingly challenging, terms. “Don’t Sit Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” contains lyrics like “Go into business with a grizzly bear” and “Do the macerena in the devil’s lair” that are just  as captivating as anything he has written, simply for the amount of interpretation that can be derived from them. Moments like this permeate the album, but Turner can still be straightforward when he wants to be. Many of the love songs on this album, including the title track and the excellent “Love Is A Laserquest,” feature some of his most devastating lyrics. With lines like “I’m sure that you’re still breaking hearts with the efficiency that only youth can harness” and “I poured my aching heart into a pop song, I couldn’t get the hang of poetry,” they are sentiments that anyone who has ever been in love can relate to. Along with his more complex lines, they serve as further evidence as to why Turner has been one of the most consistently good lyricists of the last decade.

There are still a sizable number of people who are pining for Arctic Monkeys to put on their dancing shoes once more and return to the sound that gained them legions of followers in the first place. However, the band knows quite well that a return to form would only stifle their growth as musicians, and Suck It And See benefits all the more for ignoring those pleas. Like Humbug, this album is a grower. With every new listen, the band’s ability to write good songs becomes harder to deny, regardless of the musical or lyrical motif. Suck It And See is simply another great Arctic Monkeys album, and while many of their contemporaries from the Class of 2005 have struggled to replicate the success of their first outings, the Sheffield quartet demonstrate a strong sense of identity that has manifested itself in another great batch of songs.

Rating: 8/10

Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam may have established himself as through his whisper-like singing and straight to four track acoustic recordings, but his continued growth as a musician has come full circle with his fourth album, Kiss Each Other Clean.  Beam has gone from the kind of reserved yet haunting style of Nick Drake to the full on bombast of another 70’s folk troubadour, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. It’s a suit that fits him well, as Kiss Each Other Clean manages to strike the balance between song craft and experimentation that struck a chord with audiences forty years ago.

From the first note of opening track and instant standout “Walking Far From Home,” it is clear that the full-band approach incorporated on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog has come to define the new Iron & Wine sound. However, Kiss Each Other Clean takes that template several steps further by adding diverse instrumentation and a willingness to experiment and take risks. Saxophones, funky guitar solos, and African inspired percussion are only some of the new tools in the band’s repertoire, and they are given room to build thanks to the more progressive slant of the album. The amazing thing is that the experimentation never sounds contrived or gets in the way of a strong hook. In much the same vein as The Flaming Lips, the musical flourishes and indulgences Iron & Wine utilize here only work to strengthen the pop foundations the songs are built upon.

While the change in musical direction is a marvel in itself, Beam’s voice is what truly elevates this album into its own. While he was able to convey some level of depth through his whispering into the mic, Kiss Each Other Clean sees Beam throwing all caution to the wind and singing with force to astounding effect. The songs are given an extra layer of warmth and color through his performances here, exclaiming the nostalgic love sentiments of the excellent “Tree By The River” and the delicate yet beautiful “Godless Brother In Love.” Much like Anderson, his vivid lyrics are brought to life through his emotive singing, and it is hard to believe he has been hiding a voice this rich from listeners all of these years. Even the tracks that return him closer to his roots, such as “Half Moon” and to an extent and the Aqualung nodding “Glad Man Singing,” benefit from his newfound confidence as a singer, and it makes just about every song on the album an absolute joy to listen to.

With Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine have taken a bold step forward into the spotlight. While there will be a good number of people who will miss the crack and hiss of Beam’s first couple of albums, he makes a strong statement for this new direction by sticking to what he does best. Like his British predecessors, he effortlessly crafts memorable songs that stand on their own regardless of the musical canvas he paints on, and Kiss Each Other Clean adds new shades of color to his once black and white palate.

Braids: Native Speaker

The fact that the members of Montreal’s Braids are as old as I am makes me question what I’ve done with my life up to this point. Barely old enough to drink in the United States, the Montreal via Calgary quartet have arrived fully formed on their debut, Native Speaker, by taking the dream-pop template and implementing force, heavy experimentation and a front woman with an outlook well beyond her years. Couple that with her unbelievable vocal abilities and you have an early candidate for one of the top debut albums of 2011, which is if you’re willing to give it a chance. Native Speaker is a slow burn of an album in much the same as Warpaint’s The Fool, requiring multiple listens and an open mind to even begin to “get it.” However, the rewards far outweigh the initial investment, and for that Braids are worth commending.

Braids’ leading lady, Raphaelle Standell-Preston, first gained notoriety as the vocal half of Blue Hawaii. The duo’s gorgeous Blooming Summer EP introduced most of the music world to her stunning voice, an instrument that is used to a just as astonishing effect on Native Speaker. This is evident straight from the start, as opening track “Lemonade” demonstrates her ability to go from a delicate echo to a powerful cry almost effortlessly. In most instances, she sounds almost otherworldly, yet in other places she is able to bellow out in unhinged fashion, such as on the astonishing “Glass Deers.” Lyrically, Standell-Preston continues the almost overwhelming heartbreak and sexual frustrations found on Blooming Summer. Lines such as “We’re all just sleeping around…All we really want to do is love” are delivered with such force and passion, her almost catastrophic outlook on love and sex is given even more emotional force as a result. Her performances on Native Speaker amply solidifies her as one of the most powerful voices to emerge from the scene since Amber Coffman joined Dirty Projectors.

The music that backs Standell-Preston is just as intriguing as her voice. While there are plenty of synth lines, bubbling aquatic sounds, and layered guitar work to forgive one for labeling Braids as dream-pop, the band one ups this notion by giving many of the songs a strong percussive force rather than overtly relying on drum machines and subdued beats. Additionally, the group is not afraid to veer off in multiple musical directions during a song, usually with each member exploring the intricacies of their instruments in the process. Songs will slowly build, erupt, and cave in on themselves, yet it is all done with careful consideration and precision that makes every note sound intentional. The closest thing to instrumental hooks on the album comes courtesy of “Plath Heart” and “Same Mum,” and even those eventually get consumed through the course of the tracks. Each listen will undoubtedly reveal something new to the listener sonically, making the album worth coming back to. It also allows the album’s 45 minute runtime to seemingly pass by unnoticed, something that few experimental bands are capable of achieving.

While the album may disappoint those looking for immediacy or sing along choruses, Native Speaker will reveal itself to patient listeners over time for what it is: a dense, emotionally charged, and stunning album that shows a band that is in full control of their sound. It is one of those rare albums that you don’t have to fully understand in order to enjoy it, and that in itself is more than enough to proclaim it as one of the strongest first statements by a band in the last couple of years. No matter what direction Braids decide to take next, Native Speaker should hold it’s own for years to come.

Being a student, it is nearly impossible for me to listen to everything during the course of a given year. While I’m very satisfied with my Top 35 Albums of 2010, I knew there were several releases that I had initially missed due to seemingly endless amount of obligations. During my (somewhat) relaxing time off these last few weeks, I finally had the chance to listen to several albums I never got around to listening to in 2010. While there were many good ones, these albums are the cream of that crop, and would have gotten serious consideration for both my Honorable Mentions and Top Albums lists if I had given them more consideration when they were released.

Blue Hawaii: Blooming Summer EP; The kinds of emotions usually associated with chillwave are those of simple nostalgia, a desire for a return to a simpler time or to the carefree days of youth. Blue Hawaii, however, believe that the genre is also capable of providing the perfect backdrop for exploring the deeply personal feelings of heartbreak and longing. Over Alex Cowan’s gorgeous arrangements that walk the line between dream pop and the tropical sunniness of the group’s namesake, lead singer Raph delivers downright devastating lines like “You seem to be the kind of friend that I long for…I’ve never wanted anyone this bad before” on “Dream Electrixra” in her delicate yet emotive voice. The end result is one of the most beautiful records of 2010, and one hell of a debut for a duo that has only been working together for a little over a year. Raph’s main band, Braids, are set to release their full length debut later this month, and needless to say this album has only made me more eager to have that record in my hands. Whether or not that means Raph has less time to dedicate to Blue Hawaii, Blooming Summer will always be remembered for it’s emotional immediacy and sheer effortless beauty.

Emeralds: Does It Look Like I’m Here?; I’m sure it’s been said time and again, but this Cleveland trio has a way with atmosphere that makes Does it Look Like I’m Here? an invigorating experience. In much the same vein as purveyors of early electronic music, Emeralds’ tracks are primarily focused on combining synth loops, waves of noise, and various other sounds into something massive and undeniable. It all comes together to create an almost natural sounding ambiance, making the album’s hour long run time seemingly fly by. This album can work as either background music or the subject of study, as it is easy to be consumed by everything going on within the songs. Either way, Does It Look Like I’m Here? is an album that handily demonstrates that you don’t need a rhythm section, vocals, or a barrage of hooks to be memorable. Sometimes, the slow burn is the deepest.

Fang Island: Fang Island; With their self-titled debut, the boys in Fang Island have created the musical equivalent of drinking an entire crate of Red Bull without the negative bodily implications. Filled with a gratuitous amount of guitar hero antics, thundering percussion, breakneck speeds, and plenty of organ-like keys, this predominately instrumental album is the perfect way to psyche yourself up for any of life’s challenges or celebrations. The sheer amount of technical proficiency the band possesses is phenomenal, and the fact that they sound like they’re having fun while doing it is a marvel in itself. The life-affirming lyrics complement the music perfectly, and the way they are chanted Animal Collective-like rather than sung furthers the sugar rush, taking tracks like lead single “Daisy” and “The Illinois” to near euphoric heights. The band has described their music as “everyone high-fiving everyone,” and it’s safe to say there will be plenty more high-fives to go around if they continue on the path they’ve established here.

Matthew Dear: Black City; Having established himself as a techno and dance music pioneer under his many different aliases, Black City sees Matthew Dear take cues from a style that hasn’t been fully reexamined as of late, the darker realms 80’s dance music. The majority of the songs on the album sound as though they belong in a neon blue and pink tinged Miami lounge circa 1988, with plenty of funky grooves and synth atmospherics. Dear explores many of our deepest, darkest and most self-indulgent desires on this album. Particularly on songs like “You Put A Smell on Me,” which urges the listener to go for a ride with Dear in his “big black car” or through his lusting on “I Can’t Feel,” there is a seductive quality to Dear’s music that is at once sophisticated and borderline creepy. It is how he strikes this balance that keeps Black City from sounding contrived, and makes this a great album to dance to while wearing a suit.

(Photo: Blue Hawaii; Credit: Alex Cowan)

This concludes the “My Year In Lists Feature.” I hope that you have enjoyed reading. I plan to take a (small) break from the blog over the next week or so, but I will be still be tweeting. You should follow me @musingsonmusic!

After a full week of non-stop writing and a lot of deliberation, I have finally compiled my list for The Top 35 Albums of 2010. This year was an especially strong one for music, and featured bands that hit their stride, many new artists worthy of the hype that surrounded them, and plenty of amazing albums. This year, I have decided to join nearly every other site out there and rank my picks from #35-#1. Let me know what you think I should have included or what should have taken top honors. I would love the feedback. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the best music of 2010.

#35 James Blake: The Bells Sketch/CMYK/Klavierwerk EP’s; If there was one musician who made me question what I was doing with my life this year, it would be London electronic wizkid James Blake. At the age of 21, he managed to release three EP’s that ably demonstrated his talent in different ways. His ability to combine his manipulated singing voice, ghostly samples that recall Burial’s landmark album Untrue, and insistent beats made for some of the most interestingly catchy tracks of 2010. Take, for example, the title track to CMYK, where the phrase “If I found her (damn) red coat” is looped and pitch altered to an alarm clock like tone before the track explodes into a maximalist haze. While there are a few less than stellar tracks on each EP, they all come together to make for an excellent display of Blake’s potential that should be more fully realized on his self-titled debut full-length come February.

 

#34 Lindstrom & Christabelle: Real Life Is No Cool; After releasing a bombshell of an album with 2008’s Where You Go, I Go Too, Hans-Peter Lindstrom decided to recruit longtime collaborator Christabelle for the next foray into his world of spaced out disco exercises. The songs on Real Life Is No Cool don’t come close to matching the 30 minute run time of his last album’s title track, forcing  Lindstrom to be more immediate in his arrangements. As a result, many of these songs come right out of the gate as opposed to building up over time. The beats pulsate, the synths are insistant, and many little touches (such as the disco horns on “Can’t Stop”) help to create an atmosphere that can only exist above the ground. Meanwhile, Christabelle’s airy mixture of singing and speaking the verses perfectly complement Lindstrom’s futurisitc sound scapes. Real Life Is No Cool is further proof that no matter what form his music takes, Lindstrom is among the elites of electronic music.

 

#33 Superchunk: Majesty Shredding; A pop-punk band in every sense of the term, Superchunk have been releasing anthems since they first made a splash with their 1990 self-titled debut and arguably their most well known song “Slack Motherfucker.” It’s been nine years since the band released their last album, 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up, but Majesty Shredding could have been released any year since then and it would still prove why Superchunk are experts at what they do. Filled to the brim with sing-along choruses, front man Mac McCaughan’s earnest vocals, and a dual guitar attack that allows McCaughan to shred away, the album is an absolute blast from start to finish. While a new Superchunk album may not garner the kind of attention it did during the mid-90’s, Majesty Shredding is another solid addition to the band’s catalog, and should succeed in turning on a new generation to one of indie rock’s most significant groups.

 

#32 Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love; The band that can be best described as twee royalty returned this year with another record of pleasant and well crafted songs, continuing to build on the hot streak they reignited with 2006’s The Life Pursuit. Few other writers know how to pen a sentimental love song or vivid account of everyday life like Stuart Murdoch, and this album contains some of his best lines yet.  Meanwhile, the more upbeat chamber pop of The Life Pursuit has made a return, and the arrangements here are both fully formed and uniquely theirs; gorgeous guitar tones, horns that fit right in place, and bits of piano pairing with Murdoch’s instantly recognizable voice. While the band may not have done anything new with this album, Write About Love succeeds in reaffirming what we already knew about Belle & Sebastian.

 

#31 ceo: White Magic; The Swedes have always been miles ahead of much of the world in churning out quality electronic music, and in 2010 they gave us ceo, an alias for The Tough Alliance’s Eric Berglund. While American electronic music has shifted towards the maximalist beat processing of Flying Lotus and Baths, White Magic is about as lovely a counterpoint as you will get. Much like the work of TTA and fellow country men Air France, ceo is all about setting the beauty of nature against traditional electronic beats and flourishes. The acoustic guitar during the mid section of the title track combines with a pulsating backbeat to create the illusion of riding through a snow covered field, and many other moments conjure the kind imagery reserved for the most pristine of natural experiences. It is this attention to detail and craft that make White Magic such an enjoyable experience, and it furthers the argument that Europeans just do electronic better.

 

#30 Toro y Moi: Casuers of This; Of all the bedroom poppers to emerge over the last few years, Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick arguably has the best shot at a long-term career. This is because rather than pigeonhole himself in one mode of music, like the increasingly boring Neon Indian, he produces songs that incorporate a variety of styles and instrumentation to bring his vision to life. Causers of This is filled with diverse numbers that don’t rely too heavily on the chillwave template and succeeds because of it. The use of guitar, the funky bass lines that form the foundation of almost every track, and Bundick’s great singing voice lend an added amount of depth to the songs, and they reveal themselves to the listener across multiple listens. With the recent addition of a full time bassist and drummer to his lineup, it will be exciting to see where Bundick goes with his sound. Regardless, Causers of This will be the record people return to long after chillwave loses it’s steam.

 

#29 Best Coast: Crazy For You; An album that simultaneously embraced and surpassed the aesthetic of it’s contemporaries, Crazy For You transcends the bloated lo-fi scene by focusing on songwriting rather than simply sounding retro. Best Coast front woman Bethany Cosentino’s rich, warm voice anchored each of the album’s thirteen tracks, and the easy going, sun-drenched guitar rock is given emotional weight by her plaintive tales of heartbreak and longing amidst a beautiful setting. The fact that “not even TV or a bunch of weed” is enough to make her happy speaks just as loudly as the most flowery of prose, and it’s this simplistic nature that makes the album infinitely relatable. Add to that the band’s ability to write some killer hooks, and it’s easy to see why Best Coast succeed where many of their peers flounder.

 

#28 Jonsi: Go; Far from the more experimentalist leanings of early Sigur Ros, Jonsi used Go as an opportunity to more fully embrace the pop trajectory that his band increasingly embraced over their last few releases. This new suit fits Jonsi like a tailor-made suit, as the songs on Go show him at a creative high, offering something that would otherwise be impossible working with his normal cast of players. Producer wunderkind Nico Mulhy helped the singer acheive his vision by providing some of the most gorgeous arrangements set to tape this year. Complete with string swells, suitcase banging percussion (literally), and enough otherworldly sounds to make even the darkest corners of the world brim with light, Go is a symphony of beauty that will impress the most picky of audiophiles. But perhaps the greatest thing about the album is that Jonsi sings in English on most of the tracks. While this may have upset many Sigur Ros purists, the sense of wide-eyed wonder that he emotes through the majority of his lyrics give the songs that extra push to make them positively huge. And Jonsi knows a thing or two about huge.

 

#27 The Roots: How I Got Over; Despite their seemingly cheerful appearance as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, The Roots’ last couple of albums, 2006’s Game Theory and 2008’s Rising Down were incredibly dark affairs, exploring many of the darker aspects of contemporary society. While this mood dominates most of the rap collective’s ninth studio album, How I Got Over turns the gaze inward and explores the world’s effect on the self and how to cope with it. The music is more subdued and intricate here, but the verses are just as vivid and hard hitting as they’ve ever been. Black Thought’s authoritative flow continues to punctuate the realities of a “post race” world, and the group utilizes some of the most unlikeliest of guests to add more emotional depth to their philosophizing. Dirty Projectors, Monsters of Folk, and even Joanna Newsom combine with an onslaught of talented MC’s to make for one of the most diverse, focused and quality rap albums of the year. Things may not get better in the Roots’ world, but thanks to them we are aware that we as a society still have a long way to go.

 

# 26 The Morning Benders: Big Echo; Filled with soaring choruses, thundering percussion, and plenty of vocal layering, Big Echo marked a huge step forward for The Morning Benders from run of the mill indie rock band to being hailed as the West Coast Grizzly Bear. This is thanks, in no small part to that band’s Chris Taylor, who refined the group’s sound into something as epic as the waves that no doubt inspired many of the songs here. There are musical nuances to be found all over, yet the production gives enough space to let the songs achieve the highs that the band aims for. Aside from being a great sonic achievement, Big Echo also succeeds in being an excellent pop record. The band knows how to construct epic and memorable moments. Try not singing along to the vocal interlude of “Excuses” and you’ll see what I mean. The marked improvement of Big Echo over the group’s 2008 debut gives promise that the band will only continue to get better from here on out.

 

# 25 Spoon: Transference; After the universal acclaim that 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga received, it was inevitable that Britt Daniel and company’s subsequent release would be greeted with less enthusiasm from critics and audiences. It’s a shame really, because Transference is as strong a set of songs as any that Spoon have released in their fifteen plus years together. As opposed to the more polished tunes of 2005’s Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band decided to go for a more stripped down approach, something they achieved exceedingly well thanks to their gifts as producers and sound engineers. Daniel’s near throat-shedding howl on “Written In Reverse” best exemplifies their plan of attack, it’s raw and unhinged quality serving as metaphor for the rest of the album. Filled with concise and expertly crafted songs and enough studio tricks to surprise even the most critical of listeners, Transference sees Spoon continuing to push themselves by refining what they know best.

 

#24 Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz; In what was one of the most surprising and important left turns that any artist made in 2010, Sufjan Stevens abandoned his banjo in favor of synthesizers and drum pads for The Age of Adz, an intensely personal collection of songs loosely based on the life of artist Royal Robertson. Save for album opener “Futile Devices” and the heart wrenching “Now That I’m Older,” each song here is filled to the brim with electronic glitches, synth swells, and flurries of strings that give off an impending sense of doom. It is over this cacophony that Stevens delivers some of his most candid lyrics yet, exploring the identity crisis he experienced after releasing 2005’s Illinoise, death, and love with the same heartfelt lyrics that have come to establish him as an indie god. Hearing Stevens explore his inner demons in this way may not please those who fell in love with the freewheelin’ bard from Michigan, but it makes The Age of Adz a captivating listen for those willing to give it a chance.

 

#23 Old 97’s: The Grand Theater: Volume One; On the verge of entering their third decade together, Old 97’s prove that they’ve lost none of their vitality with The Grand Theater: Volume One. Rhett Miller is still one of the best songwriters of any genre, and though his tone has shifted from his barn-raising lady killer days, his tales of love, heartache, and growing older are told with a precision and honesty that few other front men can claim. Meanwhile, Murray Hammond’s two contributions allow his gorgeous singing voice to take front and center. As opposed to the more scaled down approach of their last few outings, this album sees the band reenergized and unafraid to play the kind of faster paced and livewire music that made some of their earlier work stand out. This makes The Grand Theater: Volume One the best batch of songs Old 97’s have released since 2001’s Satellite Rides, and adds another win to the group’s incredibly consistent streak.

 

#22 Hot Chip: One Life Stand; Who would have guessed a few years ago that Hot Chip would make one of the most emotionally gripping albums of 2010? While known primarily for their knock-out slices of electro-pop (and there are plenty of those here), One Life Stand is a mature album that serves as an effective argument for connection and real human emotion. It is also the group’s best body of work to date. Combining some of their catchiest arrangements and lyrics celebrating unrequited love (“One Life Stand,” “I Feel Better) and closeness (“Brothers”), the band strikes an emotional nerve that was only hinted at in past efforts. While these songs are ready for the floor (this is Hot Chip after all), they can just as easily be enjoyed by yourself or with the one you love. One Life Stand proves that dance music can have its heart pulsating just as hard as the beat, making it stand out in a genre overrun by self-indulgence.

 

#21 The Drums: The Drums; After releasing a near flawless EP with last year’s Summertime!, the expectation for The Drums to follow through on their proper debut was astronomical. Fortunately, The Drums followed through on the band’s immense promise by continuing to channel new wave romanticism amidst a sound that has been described time and again as a post-punk beach party. Front man Jonathan Piece has an innocent and wide-eyed, yet melodramtic singing voice; his tales of love, heartbreak and everything in between are delivered with a kind of swagger that few other young band leaders possess. The music itself is bouncy and full of hooks, such as the bass line to “Let’s Go Surfing,” the synth heavy chorus of “Forever and Ever, Amen,” and Pierce’s vocal flurries on “Best Friend.” The Drums are a band who are not afraid to be poppy, and as a result they have crafted a strong debut that shows promise for the years ahead.

 

#20 Four Tet: There Is Love In You; Kieran Hebden’s first proper LP in five years sees the artist who’s music was once described as “folktronic” take a more traditional route. There Is Love In You is filled with the kind of electronic bloops and bleeps that harken back to the genre’s early days, yet Hebden runs with the framework like an overly enthusiastic schoolchild. By injecting vocal samples, jazz-like drums and character into his tracks, the listener can’t help but keep their body moving, whether tapping their foot to the beat or through full on dancing. The album succeeds in creating many bliss inducing moments, such as the stunningly gorgeous “Angel Echoes” and the 8-bit anthem “Sing,” thanks to Hebden’s ability to let the songs continually build upon themselves rather than keep them in one place. But perhaps the biggest achievement here is that all sounds so effortless, as if Hebden had these songs in his head way before the writing process, and it is this that made There Is Love In You worth the five year wait.

 

#19 Wolf Parade: Expo 86; Say what you will about Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs; Wolf Parade is where Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug are at their best. Expo 86 saw the band loosening up their approach to making an album, recording everything but vocals live, and the result is some of the strongest work of their careers. Boeckner’s more straightforward rock stlyings benefit from Krug’s added flourishes, and Krug’s eccentric tendencies are kept within the stratosphere by Boeckner’s knack for structure. The two of them have an energy that is only stronger when they are together, and that energy translates to the rest of the band. Great moments like “Cloud Shadow On The Mountain,” “Ghost Pressure,” and the marvel that is album closer “Cave-O-Sapien” are the result of two creative forces in their element combining to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. No number of respected side projects can ever take that chemistry from Wolf Parade.

 

#18 Zola Jesus: Stridulum EP; Over the course of six songs, Stridulum simultaneously marks a transition for Zola Jesus while best displaying the huge voice of Nika Roza Danilova. While her earlier releases were filled with the kind of lo-fi hiss and pop that worked to mitigate her pipes, Danilova’s use of cleaner, more atmospheric production and ominous synth lines provide the perfect setting for her most distinguishing feature. Her voice embodies the kind of dark, gothic beauty that only a classically trained vocalist could carry. Whether she’s urging a lover to come closer on “Night” or reassuring a lovesick friend on “I Can’t Stand,” she manages to effortlessly convey her emotions through her singing, making even the simplest of phrases sound downright earnest and heartfelt amidst a dark industrial backdrop. If her next full length continues down the path taken on Stridulum, Zola Jesus is destined for greatness in 2011.

 

#17 Caribou: Swim; Dan Snaith’s third album as Caribou finds him taking his music in a far different direction than 2007’s sun-drenched, euphoric Andorra. Rather than create another layered opus filled with nods to 60’s psychedelic music, Swim sees Snaith heading onto the dance floor, where he creates some of the darkest music of his career. And by dark, I don’t mean that he’s gone goth on us, far from it. The big bass lines, synthetic drums, and vintage synths that dominate the musical landscape work to create a foreboding mood while still keeping things upbeat, crevices of light peeping through. At the same time, the attention to songcraft and his lovelorn singing makes for some of Snaith’s most memorable tracks yet, with “Odessa,” “Sun,” and “Leave House” serving as career highlights. It is this combination of mood and continued earnestness that make Swim arguably Snaith’s best album as Caribou.

 

#16 Robyn: Body Talk; American pop stars can learn a lot from Robyn, the Swedish songstress who is finally gaining traction in the States. Body Talk manages to surpass everything the pop manufactures on this side of the pond could come up with by obeying rule number one: let the music do the talking. Robyn’s tunes are injected with enough personality to where you can understand what she’s all about independent of her public image, something that artists like Katy Perry and Ke$ha can’t exist without. Additionally, many of her songs appeal to universal sentiments that have a far greater emotional impact than the “let’s get drunk and party” narrative that permeated American pop this year, such as the longing in “Dancing On My Own” or the warnings of the pitfalls of love on “Love Kills.” If pop is supposed to be vacuous and empty, nobody told Robyn, and Body Talk is a strong argument for substance in an otherwise barren landscape.

 

#15 These New Puritans: Hidden; These New Puritans took a huge risk by abandoning guitars in favor of a thirteen piece orchestra, children choirs, and Japanese Taiko drums. In the hands of many other groups this would have been dismissed as an act of pretension, where unchecked ambition yields middling results. Then again, These New Puritans are not just any other band, and with Hidden they utilized every ounce of creative energy they had to create an album that can only be described as primal in the best possible way. The theme of war and conflict that serves as an undercurrent to many of the songs is accentuated by the huge percussion, samples of knives being sharpened, and the sweltering crescendos of the orchestra that persist throughout. It is the musical equivalent of being thrust into a futuristic battlefield with only your wits to serve as your aid, and is truly genre-defying in every sense of the term. While the direction the band will take next is unclear, Hidden is more than enough to ensure that these Brits next moves will be closely watched.

 

#14 Diamond Rings: Special Affections; With his rainbow eyeliner and YouTube infused back story, one might expect Diamond Rings’ John O’Regan to be the male embodiment of Lady Gaga levels of excess and drama. It turns out that rather than being a self indulgent fame whore, O’Regan is a new romantic with an uncanny ability to write emotive, memorable and infinitely endearing songs. His debut, Special Affections, is an almost perfect pop record, filled with great tunes and plenty of personality. With only a drum machine, synthesizer and an electric guitar, he crafts arrangements that are at once grand in scope and are of a kind of pop genius that many producers would kill for. The piano line of album opener “Play By Heart” is downright devistating, while the guitar lines of “Something Else” make way for a chorus as heartfelt as they come. Tying it all together is O’Reagan’s dry yet emotive baritone and his way with a phrase, making for songs as universal in sentiment as they are appealing.

 

# 13 Surfer Blood: Astro Coast; Few other bands this year encapsulated the power of the recent guitar rock revival like Surfer Blood, and Astro Coast was their testament to the power of six strings. From the bite of “Flotaing Vibes” opening riff onward, it’s clear that these Floridians are serious about their trade. Each song on the album manages to have at least one major hook, and several of the tracks hit two or three. The overall carefree vibe that these songs carry make the band sound effortless in what they do, and provide instant gratification regardless of what track number you’re on. Surfer Blood are well versed in what makes for an effective pop song, and the fact that Astro Coast is full of potential singles is evidence to that. If they continue to churn out tunes like these, their recent signing to Warner Bros. will prove to be one of the label’s best decisions in a long time.

 

#12 The Tallest Man On Earth: The Wild Hunt; Continuing the upward trajectory that began with his 2008 debut, Shallow Grave, Kritstian Matsson once again proved why he is one of folk music’s brightest shining stars with The Wild Hunt. With little more than a guitar and his Dylan like croon, he further set himself apart from his contemporaries by refining what he does best. His vivid lyrics and prowess on his instrument take songs like “You’re Going Back” and “King of Spain” to euphoric heights that many other singer-songwriters fail to achieve over the course of an entire career. This is because Matsson injects an ungodly amount of energy into his work, and it shows through the sheer quality and consistency of The Wild Hunt. He is a singular talent that is quietly establishing himself as a folk institution, and if he continues the trajectory of the man he is most often compared to, he has a long and prosperous career ahead of him.

 

#11 Warpaint: The Fool; A lot of the criticisms surrounding Warpaint’s debut album were centered around the idea that it all sounded too effortless, like it was a bad thing that creating quality music came so easily for them. However, in my book, this is cause for an immense amount of praise, and something that should be marveled at. With The Fool, Warpaint truly succeed in creating something wholly their own. Borrowing aspects of psychedelic, post-punk, and ambient music, the band channels beauty through their tunes in a way that sounds well beyond their years. This is largely thanks to their tightness as a band, one of the most insistent rhythm sections this side of Interpol (circa 2002), and their ability to create atmosphere through harmonies both vocal and instrumental. The Fool will disappoint those who want instant gratification, but for those willing to give it a chance the slow burn will eventually become all-consuming, leaving you no choice but to submit to the four sirens that are Warpaint.

 

#10 Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; It only took two years of non-stop PR nightmares for Kanye West to release his magnum opus upon the world. Consciously evaluating his ego, his lifestyle, and their implications, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sees West giving us one of the most robust character studies that hip-hop has ever seen, all presented over some of the most robust and engaging arrangements you are likely to hear in 2010. The amounts of excess (both musically and lyrically) presented in many of the tracks borders on ridiculous, and one could easily read it as an even greater inflation of West’s ego. However, throughout the album, there is a sense that Kanye is both afraid and ashamed of what he’s created, whether it’s the admittance that “no one man should have all that power” or the loneliness he feels on “Lost In The World.” Moments like these give the album a sense of humility that is sorely lacking in mainstream hip-hop, and make West’s fantasy one that is worth revisiting again and again.

 

#9 Sleigh Bells: Treats; When I first heard Sleigh Bells’ Demos when we spun them on WOXY late last year, I knew that Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss were on to something special. The songs were loud and in your face, yet they still managed to be sweet pop tunes that would stick in your head for weeks. Treats brings back many of those tracks in a (slightly) more refined form, and along with the new songs they create something that a few years ago was unfathomable: an accessable noise-pop album. Against Miller’s pounding beats and overblown, heavily distorted guitar hooks, Krauss sweetly sings cheerleader like phrases that are effective despite not being of much substance. By themselves, the two components of Sleigh Bells sound would flounder, as Miller’s beats might be too abrasive for some and Krauss’ voice may be dismissed as too sugar coated by others. But together, they make for a winning formula that actually makes you look forward to blowing out your car’s speakers, making Treats one of the most exciting listening experiences of 2010.

 

#8 Beach House: Teen Dream; When you stop and think about it, dream pop is arguably one of the hardest styles to do right. How do you put into music the involuntary, vivid scenarios that enter your head when you’re not fully in control of your thoughts? Beach House gave their answer in the form of Teen Dream, an album filled with downbeat percussion along with bright and airy guitar and synth lines. Victoria Legrand’s lush and full alto is a thing of beauty that adds to the mystique, her ruminations about a lost love serving as the voice to the group’s vision. Coupled with their ability to know exactly when to elevate their music, such as the soaring chorus of “Zebra” or the breathy “ah’s” of “Norway,” it makes for an album that remains as mystical and ethereal now as it was when it was first released in January. Beach House really outdid themselves with Teen Dream, and if their next album follows the same path, the group have the potential to soundtrack dreams for years to come.

 

#7 Future Islands: In Evening Air; Nobody in 2010 embodied catharsis more than Future Islands front man Samuel T. Herring. His one of a kind voice, imagine Meat Loaf or Tom Waits with a Victorian-era accent, was performed with such finesse and precision that it elevated In Evening Air into a category all of its own. On display was a man completely destroyed by someone he had loved, and all there was left to do was wallow in his grief. The beautiful thing, though, is that this pain is communicated in a way that encompasses the sheer agony that comes from a loss of that kind while never once feeling contrived. It also didn’t hurt that Garrett Welmers’s electronics and Matt Cashion’s powerful bass lines provided the perfect backdrop for Herring to mourn over, whether it’s the gorgeous steel drum hooks of “Tin Man” or the grand sound scape that closes “Inch of Dust.” It all comes together for something completely original and unique, a beautifully brutal album that demands your attention from start to finish.

 

#6 Arcade Fire: The Suburbs; I think it’s safe to say that after this album, no other band can ever tackle the complexities, harms, and overall life-shaping effects of suburban life, at least not for an entire LP. With their uncanny ability to explore the emotional depths of a subject and pen massive songs about it, Arcade Fire returned this year with The Suburbs, an album that looks at the middle class lifestyle with both a sense of nostalgia and contempt. Amidst the ever amazing arrangment of instruments in the band’s arsenal, which now includes disco-esque synths and synthesized drums, the group has composed some of their finest work to date. Win Butler’s vivid accounts of growing up, living in, and dealing with the suburbs are those of someone who appreciates what growing up on the outskirts of town gave him, but upset at what the suburbs have come to represent. In true Arcade Fire fashion, even the most downtrodden, angry moments on the album still manage to sound beautiful, never crumbling beneath their emotional weight, a fine balance that few other groups strike quite like them.

 

#5 Titus Andronicus: The Monitor; No album released this year contained as much ambition as The Monitor. Having already established themselves as one of the premiere indie punk bands with 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus decided to go all out for album number two. Incorporating a loose Civil War theme to mask a breakup, spoken word interludes, and songs that reach up to 14 minutes in length, it was easy for some to be skeptical of the band’s intentions. However, in the hands of one of the most earnest punk bands to grace the scene in quite some time, the album shines. Filled with lyrical allusions to everything from Bruce Springsteen to Keystone Light, nervous punk energy, and Patrick Stickles’ forever triumphantly pained vocals, The Monitor is a behemoth of a record that is as fun as it is thought provoking. These are the thinking man’s drunken anthems performed by a group that shows no signs of slowing down, and has set the bar for all punk bands to follow at almost unreachable levels.

 

#4 The Walkmen: Lisbon; After 2008’s jaw-dropping You & Me reaffirmed The Walkmen as elder kings of the New York City indie scene, Lisbon finds the band embracing that album’s sound while still continuing to expand sonically. Heavily inspired by the recordings of Sun Records, this album is their most stripped down affairs, yet they masterfully milk their intentionally limited pallet to the last drop. The rocking “Angela Surf City” is one of the group’s most bombastic songs in years, with front man Hamilton Leithauser on the verge of doing permanent damage to his vocal chords while the rest of the band tries to keep up. Meanwhile, Paul Maroon’s guitar tone continues to be one of the most unique around, lending unique textures to songs like “Juveniles” and “Torch Song,” and Matt Barrack’s drumming is just as vital when it’s slowed down as it is when it’s firing on all cylinders. Lisbon is ultimately about acknowledging the past, both good and bad, and using it as a way to make yourself a better person. It also shows The Walkmen continuing to come into their own as musicians, and elevates them even higher on the platform where only they stand.

 

#3 Twin Shadow: Forget; Rarely does an artist come along who actually improves upon the music that served as an inspiration. Yet here we are in 2010 and Twin Shadow (aka George Lewis Jr.) has managed to create a debut that not only pays homage to 80’s romantics, but one that would have easily sold a million copies if released 25 years ago. From containing some of the smoothest bass lines of the last ten years to his precise use of synths, guitars and other instrumental flourishes, Forget is an expertly produced piece of art that expands upon an often used/abused template and shoots it’s creator into an elite stratosphere of those who have touched perfection within the genre. Lewis’ voice is simply stunning, achieving Maury Lightburn like heights with his warm and soulful croon, and it lends lines like “As if it weren’t enough to hear you speak, they gave you lips like that” the kind of romantic quality that’s impossible to deny. There is not a weak song on the album, and while some tracks may resonate more than others, Forget is best experienced as a whole, a shining example of what is possible when you successfully outdo many of your predecessors.

 

#2 Los Campesinos!: Romance Is Boring; I can sympathize with those who miss the exuberant, dough-eyed bunch that Los Campesinos! introduced themselves as with 2008’s Hold On Now, Youngster. However, even on that album, there were songs that indicated that the sugar rush would not last forever, and that the come down would be a lot harsher than the high. Much like that fall’s We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, Romance Is Boring displays Los Campesinos! as an infinitely more complex group of accomplished musicians, led by a man who knows a thing or two about the anger and melancholy that comes with heartbreak. Continuing to establish himself as one of indie’s most compelling lyricists and band leaders, Gareth Campesinos! pours every ounce of energy he has into delivering his intricately detailed journal entries. Likening sex to the anti-climatic tendencies of post-rock, instructing a former lover to “drag my corpse to the airport and lay me limp on the left wing,” and strak revelations like “all’s well that ends, I suppose” are painfully beautiful moments that only the most original of lyricists can compose, and Gareth is chock full of those sentiments. At the same time, the band itself refines it’s approach, letting the music build and develop over time instead of throwing their instruments into a blender, something that makes for some of the group’s most accomplished songs yet. They may not be the same bunch that released “You! Me! Dancing!” upon the world, but with Romance Is Boring, Los Campesinos! have offered us something far deeper and worthwhile than an evening of bedroom dancing ever could.

 

#1 The National: High Violet; On High Violet, The National manage to improve upon their breakout album Boxer by offering a suite of tracks that see the group at their creative apex. Front man Matt Berninger’s lamentations and observations about the perils of adult life were some of the most brutally honest lyrics to be found anywhere this year. His words were vivid portraits of those who feel helpless in a world of tight finances, crippling depression, and grim relationships, desperately searching for a way out. The band provided the perfect musical backdrop for Berninger’s musings, with plenty of carefully calculated orchestra flourishes, foreboding guitar, melancholy piano, and Bryan Devendorf’s undeniable percussion work. Berninger’s voice is that of a man defeated, yet he sings with so much conviction that one can’t help but be captivated by his voice, making his baritone one of the most valuable musical forces of any band. High Violet is The National’s most accomplished work yet, a full fledged masterpiece that serves as one of the new decade’s first classic albums, and the best album of 2010.

James Blake: The Bells Sketch/CMYK/Klavierwerk EP’s; If there was one person who made me question what I was doing with my life this year, it would be London electronic wizkid James Blake. At the age of 21, he managed to release three EP’s that ably demonstrated his talent in different ways. His ability to combine his manipulated singing voice, ghostly samples that recall Burial’s landmark Untrue, and insistent beats made for some of the most interestingly catchy tracks of 2010. Take, for example, the title track to CMYK, where the phrase “If I found her (damn) red coat” is looped and pitch altered to an alarm clock like tone before the track explodes into a maximalist haze. While there are a few less than stellar tracks on each EP, they all come together to make for an excellent display of Blake’s potential that should be more fully realized on his debut self-titled LP due in February.

This is the third installment of the “My Year In Lists” feature that takes a look back at the year in music. It will ultimately culminate with my picks for the Top Albums of 2010, hopefully by the end of this week.

I think most people would agree with me that 2010 was one of the best years for new records in recent memory. There were so many quality releases from all different directions that I simply could not include all of my favorites among the 35 that I have picked for my “Top Albums of 2010” list.  These albums are great in their own right, and deserve a listen just as much as the other albums on my next list. So without further ado, here are my Honorable Mentions for 2010:

Active Child: Curtis Lane EP; There is no denying that Active Child mastermind Pat Grossi is a gifted vocalist. His ability to go from a deep and warm tenor to a heavenly falsetto is nothing short of jaw dropping, and his voice gives the EP’s harp and synth tinged tracks an otherworldly quality. Songs like “I’m In Your Church At Night” soar to amazing heights, and Grossi has a knack for knowing how to optimize his arrangements to maximum effect. Active Child will be a force to be reckoned with in 2011 if they expand upon what was presented here.

 

Allo Darlin’: Allo Darlin’; This London group, led by Australian-born Elizabeth Morris, proved that so long as there is substance behind the music, it is still okay to be overly cutesy and optimistic. While there has been a decent amount of backlash against the shy and overly sentimental trajectory of indie music (thanks, Michael Cera!), the songs here are so well developed and earnest that they transcend the scene and stand on their own. Besides, not everyone can get away with singing the lyrics of “El Scorcho” during the middle of a song and avoid sounding contrived.

 

Buke & Gass: Riposte; These Brooklynites embody the DIY aesthetic in the most literal sense. Their homemade instruments, a baritone ukulele (Buke) and a bass-guitar combination (Gass), and use of stomping foot percussion alone separate them from their contemporaries. However, what makes the songs on “Riposte” stand out are how they work in conjunction with Arone Dyer’s voice, whose unhinged delivery brings to mind Beth Ditto and other front women who possess a distinctive wail. The result is one of the most unique albums to emerge in 2010.

 

The Corin Tucker Band: 1000 Years; While my fingers are still crossed (tightly) for a Sleater-Kinney reunion, Corin Tucker’s “1000 Years” will serve as a nice holdover until the day that news comes (and I run through the streets with glee). While the songs here are more restrained than the vast majority of Sleater-Kinney’s work, it’s a change of pace that suits Tucker well. The songs here are sparser and less immediate, and Tucker’s voice is far more controlled than it’s been in the past, but her ability to pen excellent tunes is still fully intact. Her ruminations on growing older and slowing down a little are just as powerful as anything she has produced in the past, something that given her track record is quite a feat in and of itself.

 

Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest; There’s a certain aura about Deerhunter that I just don’t get. Bradford Cox could produce a record of himself making fart noises and the critics would still swoon. That doesn’t deny the fact that “Halcyon Digest” is a very good record. Cox has songwriting chops and the band’s tightness is something to marvel at, with songs like “Helicopter” and “Memory Boy” providing ample evidence. If somebody wants to enlighten me as to why I should worship at the Altar of Cox, I would be more than happy to listen. But for now, I will be comfortable with acknowledging that this is a good record by a good band, nothing more and nothing less.

 

Foals: Total Life Forever; Along with fellow countrymen These New Puritans, Foals used their second album as a way to make a statement rather than give audiences more of the same. And what a statement it was. The band traded in the fire-on-all-cylinders approach of their debut for songs that built on themselves and were epic in scope, making for arrangements that were at once dense and beautiful. However, the MVP award here goes to front man Yannis Philippakis, who made the shift from chanting phrases to actually singing the lyrics, and his great singing voice helped propel this album to heights the band may have otherwise never achieved.

 

Free Energy: Stuck on Nothing; There’s a lot to be said for a group that perfectly encapsulates their influences, and Philadelphia’s Free Energy were the band to prove that in 2010. Channeling many of the best aspects of classic rock and guitar hero antics, the band comprised an album that is filled with fun, straightforward songs that would not seem out of place on your dad’s iPod. The group has a knack for catchy choruses, impressive guitar exhibitions, and celebrating the joys of youth. The gum attached to the shoe on the album’s cover was no mistake; these songs will stick with you for weeks at a time, and provide the perfect soundtrack for joyriding with your friends.

 

Grinderman: Grinderman 2; It seems that there has been no stopping Nick Cave over the last half decade. From his work with the Bad Seeds to his budding literary career, he has continually proven why he is one of rock’s most interesting and fascinating storytellers. His Grinderman project has allowed him to put many of his primal urges and tendencies to music, and this year’s “Grindeman 2” is full of the blistering raw power that he has rarely incorporated into his day job. Despite the primitive nature of the music, many of the songs here have amazing staying power thanks to Cave’s always entertaining delivery and the band’s increasing tightness. While some may have dismissed their first album as a Bad Seeds stopgap, this album shows that Grinderman aren’t messing around.

 

The Hold Steady: Heaven Is Whenever; While the loss of keyboardist Franz Nicolay was a devastating blow to America’s premiere bar band, The Hold Steady soldiered on and managed to release a good (if not great) album with “Heaven Is Whenever.”  Front man Criag Finn has lost none of his lyrical prowess, as songs like “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J” rank among his best songs, and the band have a certain power in their playing that many groups could only wish for. They may have had to compensate for the lack of keys, but “Heaven Is Whenever” showed that the Hold Steady are still one of the most consistent groups around, and that top-notch songwriting is not easily punctured by a band member’s departure.

 

Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid; I’m going it say it right now; if this album were five or six songs shorter, “The ArchAndroid” would have placed high on my final list. Monae is a true talent, and her ability to experiment with both the styles of music backing her and her knock-out voice distinguish her from almost every other solo artist out there. Songs like “Cold War” and her collaboration with Big Boi on “Tightrope” are easily two of the best songs of the year, and one can do nothing but marvel at her versatility. However, the sheer scope and ambition of the album make it lull in spots and keeps it from being a true classic in my book, making me hopeful that her next album will tighten her focus and make for the masterpiece this could have been.

 

LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening; James Murphy’s contributions to music over the last ten years have been nothing short of vital. Whether as a producer or with LCD Soundsystem, he has left his mark due to his ear for what works in dance music. This trend mostly continued this year with “This Is Happening.” However, while the songs here are strong, it can be argued that this is LCD Soundsystem’s weakest album by far. This is mostly because Murphy’s lyrics don’t have the same vitality that they once did. “Drunk girls take an hour to pee” is one of the most embarrassing lines I’ve heard this year from any group, and moments like it across the album keep “This Is Happening” from being phenomenal. That said, LCD’s B-Material still beats the hell out of a lot of other group’s A-material, and for that they should be commended.

 

Pantha Du Prince: Black Noise; The painting of a secluded house on a mountain lake that graces the cover of “Black Noise” almost perfectly encapsulates the music of Hendrik Weber’s third album as Pantha du Prince. Far from the club aspirations of his contemporaries, Weber’s brand of minimal techno is both grand in scope and almost entirely secluded. This is electronic music that is best enjoyed alone, as the textures and shifts in tone require the listeners full attention. “Black Noise” is an enchanting listen, filled with nuances that continue to surprise after multiple listens. While you may not hear songs like “Lay In A Shimmer” at your next rave, this album is the perfect electronic comedown after a night of partying.

 

Sade: Soldier of Love; After a ten year absence, Sade returned this year with “Soldier of Love,” an album that went gold in it’s first week, and showed that the band has lost none of the elements that have moved over 50 million units since 1984’s “Diamond Life.” Sade Adu’s instantly recognizable voice was used to masterful effect, and her backing band’s blend of soft rock and smooth jazz made for some amazingly lush arrangements. The album’s title track ranks as one of the best singles of 2010, a forceful anthem to those who believe that true love will find them in the end, anchored by Adu’s triumphant and determined delivery. If they can continue to write songs as strong as what is presented here, I will gladly wait until 2020 for the next Sade album.

 

Shearwater: The Golden Archipelago; While many bands crumble beneath the weight of their own ambitions, Shearwater are able to walk the fine line between grandiosity and earnestness. “The Golden Archipelago” is filled with build ups, releases, and everything in between that continually wallop you over the head long after the first listen. Jonathan Meiburg has one of the most powerful and emotive voices you are likely to hear, and it gives the already sweeping music the added force necessary to take the songs to the next level. This album is big in every sense of the word and bucks the commonly held notion that reaching for the rafters comes at the expense of quality.

 

The Soft Pack: The Soft Pack; Sometimes, a few catchy riffs, great choruses, and universal sentiment are all a band needs to make a successful album. The Soft Pack’s self-titled debut benefits from this tried and true approach, as their brand of garage rock is filled with songs that don’t need anything more than the simplest of elements to be effective. While the band does nothing new with this album, songs like “Down On Loving” and “Answer To Yourself” are the kind of tracks that ably prove if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In playing well to a type, The Soft Pack have made an album that is worth revisiting, even if you feel you’ve heard this somewhere before.

The first thing that should be mentioned about Come Around Sundown, Kings of Leon’s fifth studio album, is that none of it’s 13 tracks match the god-awfulness of “Sex On Fire” or “Use Somebody.” The album that contained those overblown pieces of cheese, 2008’s Only By The Night, saw the Tennessee band trade in the southern charms and sensibilities of their early work for stadium sized ambitions and the idea that every moment of every song had to be of U2 proportions.

The financial returns were phenomenal, gaining the band scores of new fans, while at the same time ostracizing those who had followed them since 2003’s Youth and Young Manhood. While it is nowhere near as bad as it could have been, Come Around Sundown is a forgettable collection of songs that reiterate how the chase of fame and fortune can compromise a band’s artistic merits.

It’s readily apparent from the first notes of album opener “The End” that the Followills have not abandoned their quest to be the biggest rock band on the planet. The song’s huge chorus and self-important tone would not sound out of place next to slightly more blatant commercial rock of Daughtry or late-era Aerosmith. Lead single “Radioactive” contains a guitar line that can be mistaken for a keyboard preset, while “Mary” sounds like a tribute to 80’s hair metal bands such as Def Leppard, complete with over sung verses and a heavily distorted guitar solo. Not only do the songs sound contrived, they lack the staying power of songs from the band’s early catalog, as they tend to let the tracks here get swallowed up in their grandiosity.

Whereas the lyrics on earlier Kings of Leon albums were interesting depictions of Southern living and it’s people’s perspectives on life, death, and everything in between, Come Around Sundown is filled with clichés and wordings that are nothing more than empty gestures This is because lead singer Caleb Followill decided to ad-lib most of the album’s lyrics in the studio rather than write them out before the recording process. As such, phrases like “Little shaking babies and drunkards seem to all agree: Once the show gets started its bound to be a sight to see” (off of “Pyro”) rear their nonsensical heads into the final product. It’s as if the lyrics were an afterthought, making the majority of songs here real head scratches.

Determined not to be labeled as sellouts, the band tries to remind listeners that they haven’t forgotten their roots with mid-album cut “Back Down South.” With allusions to dancing, “spitting on the rivals,” and “pretty little girls naked to their curves,” the band aims to capture the essence of the region they used to depict so well. The uninspiring lyrics and banal use of steel slide guitar and honky-tonk violin lends an inauthentic feel to the song, serving as a metaphor for the band’s trajectory. While they have achieved massive success by shooting for the stars, they have forgotten the honesty and down to earth story telling that made them compelling all those years ago.

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz

There’s a false sense of security emanating from “Futile Devices,” the first track off of Sufjan Stevens new album, The Age of Adz (pronounced odds). The hushed vocals, piano, and plucked guitar notes recall the qualities that made him a godhead figure in the indie community. But those expecting to revel in the singer-songwriter’s folksy orchestrations for next 75 minutes will be taken aback upon hearing the first minute of “Too Much.” Gone are the days of Stevens as a banjo carrying bard, as his Americana infused sound has been traded in for synths, break beats, and even autotune. While it will undoubtedly anger those who want more of the artist they discovered in “Little Miss Sunshine,” The Age of Adz is an excellent case study of a man utilizing all of his strengths in order to keep his creativity intact, while pushing his sonic boundaries in the process.

In an interview with Paste Magazine last year, Stevens admitted that his one time plans of doing an album for each of the fifty states, out of which spawned his two most beloved albums Greetings From Michigan and Illinois, were not going to come to pass. His 2007 BQE project, an orchestral, audio-visual ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, had made him question the importance of the album as a medium, and as a result he experienced a sort of creative roadblock in writing the follow up to Illinois. The Age of Adz, then, can be seen as a response to his feelings of stagnation that the flourishes and preciousness of his last few albums afforded him, instead opting to return to the aesthetic he was exploring on one of his early albums, Enjoy Your Rabbit. Fortunately, none of the substance was lost in the transition, as several of the songs presented here are career highlights for Stevens.

The album was partly inspired by Royal Robertson, an artist with paranoid schizophrenia who believed that he had divine visions of the future. Some of the songs on The Age of Adz share these sentiments. The title track immediately recalls a dystopian disaster scene, as swirling electronics, horns, strings, and choral chants open the song in an ominous fashion. Stevens sings urgently, “This is the age of adz, eternal living,” conjuring up the sort of religious imagery that may have driven Robertson, while “Get Real, Get Right” urges the listener to “get right with the Lord.”

However, these same songs can be interpreted as Stevens turning his gaze inwards, as some of these lyrics are extremely personal. For example, on “Vesuvius” Stevens finds a parallel to his own life in the volcano that destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii. He then contemplates suicide on “I Want To Be Well,” boldly proclaiming “I’m not fucking around.” All of this coming from the same man who is most well known for driving to Chicago in a van, with his friends. While the tone and point of view may have changed from his wistful narratives, Stevens attention to detail and nuance is still intact, as his words are rife with the imagery and symbolism that he has become revered for.

After multiple listens, the initial shock of hearing Stevens delicate voice amidst the messy wash of electronic sounds and mechanized beats disseminates, and you are left with an album that is filled with intricate, deep arrangements and some exceptional performances on Stevens’ part. Over a soft piano, an auto-harp and eerie choir harmonies, he delivers one of the best vocal turns of his career on “Now That I’m Older.” He sings with a sense of remorse and sadness that is nothing short of breathtaking, and the song creates a mood that is guaranteed to leave a lump in the listener’s chest.

The sprawling, and testing, 25 minute closer “Impossible Soul” contains so many instrumental layers and musical movements that one can only marvel at how Stevens is able to keep your attention for almost a full half hour, not to mention the thought process that went into writing it. It is proof that no matter the mode of expression, be it with an acoustic guitar or a work station, Stevens is a supremely gifted artist that can make artistic risk look carefully calculated and intentional. The Age of Adz may not please everyone, but then again, not all great works of art do.

The Walkmen: Lisbon

The Walkmen are a band that have happily ignored many of the passing musical trends that seem to sweep the New York indie scene every couple of years, and they have been doing so for a decade now. The group’s maturation over the years has been nothing short of amazing to watch. From the angry and nervous energy of 2002’s “Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone” and 2004’s “Bows + Arrows” to the ways they focused that energy on 2006’s “A Hundred Miles Off” and 2008’s astounding “You & Me,” the band have become masters of channeling catharsis in unpredictable and exciting ways. Throughout, they have constructed a sound that belongs to them alone, and this is expertly demonstrated on “Lisbon,” the band’s fifth album. Front man Hamilton Leithauser’s increasingly vivid laments of complicated relationships, missed opportunities, and dreams of escape and the lushness of the band’s music serve as a testament to why they are still important, despite the fact that many of their peers have run their course.

Musically, “Lisbon” opts for more sunny and open arrangements compared to the more moody and atmospheric tendencies found on “You & Me.” In recent interviews, the band said that the sound for this album was inspired by two trips to Lisbon and the recordings of Nashville label Sun Records, where Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash recorded some of their earliest material. Many of the songs presented here echo those ideas, whether it’s in the way that the excellent “Blue As Your Blood” bounces along with it’s simple yet elegant guitar line or through the slower, waltz-like “Torch Song,” which gives off the feeling of watching the sun set on the Atlantic. The band have always excelled at creating mood through their music, and “Lisbon” is no exception.

The main reason they are able to create such elegant sound scapes is the sheer talent each member possess as musicians. Leithauser’s voice can go from a soulful croon to a yowl that sounds as if he’s going to shred his vocal cords at any second, his delivery so refined and professional it’s almost scary. Guitarist Paul Maroon’s contribution to the band’s uniqueness is undeniable, as his guitar’s one of a kind sound provides many of the song’s hooks through his knack of finding guitar lines and chord progressions that work well in context with Leithauser. Meanwhile, the incessant and pulsating percussion of Matt Barrick, Peter Bauer’s consistent bass playing, and the textures of Walter Martin’s keys round out the band’s sound. It all comes together naturally, and the group sound as if they knew what they wanted to play before entering the studio, something they’ve been doing since day one.

One of the most striking aspects about “You & Me” was Leithauser’s seemingly effortless ability to use minor details to add depth to his stories. The sand in his suitcase on “Donde Esta La Playa” and the way the steel of his knife was reflected in the object of his desire on “Red Moon” only added to the emotional resonance of the tales he was telling. This sort of attention to imagery continues on “Lisbon.” “Underneath the juniper tree, I sing a sad song of you and me,” he sings on the excellent “Blue As Your Blood,” indicating that while he is surrounded by immense beauty, he is still saddened by the fact that an affair with a Spanish speaking woman didn’t work out.

Despite this, there is still an overall sense of optimism in his words. “The lord came down and said to me throw off your worries and be at peace,” he sings a few verses later. While he may have lashed out at those who wronged him or drowned his sorrows on earlier albums, these sentiments indicate that he is able to move past the pain onto something better. It all points to Leithauser’s growth as a songwriter, and how he has came into his own as one of the most dynamic front men of this generation.

There are plenty of highlights throughout Lisbon’s 45 minute run time. “Stranded” brings back the brass section that was utilized on “A Hundred Miles Off” and “You & Me” and puts it in the forefront, perfectly complimenting Leithauser’s smoothed delivery. Meanwhile, “Angela Surf City” is the most rocking song the band has put out in quite some time, as it’s played with the same kind of manic energy and breakneck pace that drove the group’s most beloved song, 2004’s “The Rat.” Barrick’s drumming is authoritative and sounds like a well oiled machine, while Maroon’s guitar chimes away and Leithauser lets go of all inhibitions during the chorus. That same sort of approach is brought to “Woe Is Me,” though in a more subtle way. Even in the band’s slower numbers, they are still just as effective and emotionally resonant as when they’re firing on all cylinders. “All My Great Designs” and the piano driven “While I Shovel The Snow” are slow burners that still drive the message home. The only song that feels out of place is the entirely too short “Follow The Leader,” but it’s easily forgiven considering the quality of the other songs on the album.

With “Lisbon,” The Walkmen show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. They have utilized all of the things that make them unique and continue to expand upon their sound, something that many bands with members approaching middle age simply can’t do. While it may not have the immediacy or bite that their earlier albums had, the band have found other ways to make “Lisbon” sound fresh across multiple listens. They are one of the few bands that have been able to transcend the scene that spawned them, and they are all the better for it.