WE LIKE THINGS 2010: Amazingness you need to hear & see from last year.
So, the Grammys are well and over, so I guess it’s about time to get the Official Space City Rock Top-Ten Lists of Amazingly Cool Things You Must See/Hear/Whatever (late, late, late, sure, but hey, we meant to do that, alright?). Read it, and obey.
Well, okay, “obey” is a bit strong, but we here at SCR do happen to listen and see a crapload of stuff, and we like to think we run across some very, very good musical-type things that other folks might foolishly overlook when they shouldn’t. And because we genuinely, really-truly love this stuff, we want to let everybody and anybody know about it. I’ve never, ever, ever understood the whole possessive, elitist thing when it comes to music — I really haven’t. If something’s great, and worthwhile, and awesome, it deserves to be shared.
At the end of the day, that’s what this site’s about: sharing the stuff we love with the world, whether that means trying to get jaw-dropping H-town-dwelling bands like, say, The Wild Moccasins and Bright Men of Learning out to the non-Houston public or talking up an awesomely cool band from elsewhere like Ketch Harbour Wolves or Priestess. Great music is its own reward, and the more people who hear it and love it, the better.
I can’t speak for everybody, but that’s why I keep doing this, at least. 2010 was a trying year in some ways, and there were several points where the thought crossed my mind that, y’know, life would be a whole lot simpler if SCR just went away. But every time it comes up, right then is when I stumble across something else that’s cool or memorable or worth talking about, and things just keep rolling on, in spite of pain-in-the-ass hosting issues and way too many panicked moments trying to get things done in time.
Granted, the “Best Local Music Blog” award we won this past year was a very, very cool thing — yeah, got to toot our own horn a little — even coming out of the blue like it did. And I’m always floored by the awesome people who volunteer their time for this here site; I owe y’all a big, big, big debt of gratitude. The site wouldn’t exist without you, and it makes me happy beyond belief that we’ve got folks on-board here who feel the same way about music that I do.
Anyway, sappiness over. Enjoy the lists, y’all.
I’ve been dreading this a bit, to be honest. I’ve put it off a while already, even though around this time last year I swore up and down that I’d keep better track throughout the year of all the cool, great, awesome stuff I run across. I’m not sure why, but it’s been an especially tough list to compile, this time around.
Frankly, I think it’s partly because I was disappointed by quite a few hotly-anticipated (by me, anyway) albums this past year. The Roots and Gorillaz both put out albums that friends and fellow writers raved about, but when I finally got to hear ‘em…eh. How I Got Over‘s probably established The Roots as the best funk-jazz band going these days, sure, but in terms of hip-hop albums, I could take it or leave it. And while Gorillaz’ tropicalia-inflected beach-bummery on Plastic Island was interesting, it comes nowhere near the dark, misanthropic lurch of Gorillaz, Demon Days, or even D-Sides.
Similarly-hyped releases from Crystal Castles, Women, No Age, and Local Natives were decent but not wonderful, and a whole slew of other folks didn’t make it past my “good-but-not-great” list. There was also the new Jimmy Eat World, Invented, about which I had (admittedly unrealistic) high hopes in the wake of Chase This Light. And don’t even get me started on Fixin’ the Charts, Vol. 1, from Eddie Argos‘s side project Everybody Was in the French Resistance…Now!, which I still haven’t been able to bring myself to review.
Maybe it’s just that this past year has seen me feeling curmudgeonly and contrarian. I’ve somehow managed to make it through the year without hearing the new Kanye West or anything by Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber (not at all sad about the latter, mind you), instead preferring to hang out and revel in my own little musical backwater. Of course, the fact that I had — and still have, sadly — so much other stuff to listen to helped, as did the curtailed music-buying budget for the year. There’s plenty of stuff out there that I’m pretty sure is great but haven’t gotten to listen to yet.
One reason for me shrugging about the world outside, by the by, is because this was a banner year for my own little adopted hometown (see the “little musical backwater,” above). Every year the flood of releases from H-town-dwelling bands gets greater and greater, with no signs of stopping — and this year’s already looking pretty awesome, with new stuff right around the corner from The Literary Greats and Something Fierce, among others. So when I could have put, say, the new Beach House (which isn’t bad, mind you) in the car’s CD player, I found myself reaching for Bright Men of Learning or Omotai or Co-Pilot or Roky Moon & BOLT, instead. Take that for whatever it’s worth, y’all…
1) Ketch Harbour Wolves, Anachronisms
When I first put on Anachronisms, I honestly had no inkling that by the year’s end, it’d top my list of the best things I’d heard all year. The thought seriously didn’t even cross my mind; I knew I liked it pretty early on (like, say, from the first three lines of “Body Without Organs”), but I had no clue that it’d spend the bulk of 2010 living in my car’s CD player and provide a perfect soundtrack for long drives up through the Hill Country and back. But there it is: when I think back on 2010, Ketch Harbour Wolves is/are the band that immediately comes to mind, before anybody else. I know the words for every damn song on here and find it hard to skip a single one.
It’s funny, but more than anything else, Anachronisms reminds me of the similarly-obscure, woefully-underappreciated Primitive Radio Gods album White Hot Peach — the two don’t sound all that similar, but both are solid, literate, amazingly well-crafted albums from start to finish, and they both have this quiet, smart grandeur about ‘em that gets me every time. Ketch Harbour Wolves write distant-sounding, epic songs that are both somehow modern/urban-sounding and rural at the same time.
Over it all, vocalist/guitarist Jonathan Tyrrell unfolds that brooding, somber, heart-breakingly sincere voice, sing-speaking like a downtuned Ben Gibbard (especially on the aforementioned “Body Without Organs,” which has a serious Death Cab resemblance). The result is music that paints a subtle-yet-mesmerizing story about worlds both crumbling and regained, people lost and searching, and the futility of fighting against time itself. And it’s flat-out brilliant.
2) Bright Men of Learning, Fired
It feels like I’ve been waiting a long, long time for this record. Seriously; I’ve been listening to and liking Bright Men of Learning frontman/principal songwriter Marshall Preddy‘s music for more than a decade now in all its various incarnations, and while it’s always been good, it’s never quite been amazing. ‘Til now, at least. Fired is everything I’d been looking for all along, all in one tight, economical, rough-edged package. Preddy and his bandmates crank things up this time out, playing down the more alt-country aspects of their previous stuff in favor of sharp-edged, fist-throwing guitar lines, bitterly spat-out lyrics, and layer upon carefully-crafted layer of little riffs and melodies and whatever else.
“Blood Rain” and “One That Matters,” in particular, make me shake my head in admiration whenever I hear ‘em — and then, of course, there’s “Western Hearts,” which is possibly the best damn song you’ll ever hear about a maybe-corrupt politician from an unnamed Western state who dies while doing an aerial photo-op stunt. Imagine back-in-the-day Pavement with guitars gleefully swiped from the Archers of Loaf, filtered through mid-’90s roots-rock (with just a hint of Son Volt roughness to the guitars), and you’ll be somewhere in the neighborhood. And yeah, it’s the kind of neighborhood you’ll never want to leave.
3) Muhammad Ali, Smilin’
Okay, so this is a weird one, mostly because I’m not sure it really is an “official” release, but considering the way the Muhammad Ali guys work, it may be the closest thing that exists right at the moment. I picked it up from one of the scattered merch tables at last year’s Summerfest, just a CDR with a handmade sleeve featuring an awesome cheeseburger/unicorn creature floating in soap bubbles on the back(?) side (courtesy of an un-Googleable somebody who calls themselves “frenemylife“), Muhammad Ali’s Myspace address, and the word “SMILIN” on the front, and bought it having no clue what was actually on the damn thing.
All of which is to say that this is likely the best album of 2010 you’re never, ever, ever going to be lucky enough to hear, because this release is as limited-edition as they get. And that’s a shame, considering that these guys make some truly mind-blowing throwback indie-rock, pulling from Hüsker Dü, Mudhoney, Treepeople, and (no, seriously; listen to this next to “Precision Auto” and be amazed) On the Mouth-era Superchunk to make a furious squall of frenzied sung/yelled vocals, buried-yet-addictive melodies, fuzzed-out feedback, and pounding, barely-controlled rhythms. Live they may seem like a gang of drunken, sloppy punks, but don’t be fooled: they write some truly great songs, the kind you can’t get out of your head.
4) Co-Pilot, The Course of Empire
With The Course of Empire, Co-Pilot threw me a bit of a curve ball. I’ve known these guys primarily as a soaring, swooning spacerock band aiming for the stars above, disconnected from the ground below their feet, but here they’ve morphed sneakily into something…well, something else. There’s still plenty of roaring/sweeping guitar atmospherics going on on the band’s latest EP, but that’s by no means the band’s only trick this time around. Alongside the shoegazer mainstays, I’m now hearing a heavier, more metallic, more thoughtful sound, a sound that’s reminiscent of folks like Pelican, Isis, or Godspeed You Black Emperor! This time the band’s not content to float — there’s a real weight to the music they’re making.
To go along with that stylistic turn, there’s a shift in the band’s songwriting focus, to boot. I said it back when I reviewed the EP, but I can’t get away from it: Empire feels to me like a real-live story arc without words, a five-part soundtrack to something that never(?) happened. And that something, to put it bluntly, is a war. The EP builds slowly from a gently droning start with “Breathe Together” and the delicate “Sunlight Breaks Through,” steadily getting louder and more martial through “Land Empires,” which sees the armies massing and moving into place, then finally clashing on some darkened forest battlefield. “Broken Shield” is the site of the battle after the fighting’s stopped, when the survivors bind their wounds and bury their dead, while “Only Myths Remain” serves as the coda to it all, surveying the destruction.
Am I thinking too much into an EP of metal-tinged instro-rock? Yeah, maybe. But each time I listen, I can’t help but see those ranks of warriors slipping through the trees, crashing together and falling beneath the forest canopy. Take that however you want.
5) Superchunk, Majesty Shredding
Sure, it’d be easy to dismiss the over-the-top, wide-grinning adoration I feel for legendary indie-rockers Superchunk as pure nostalgia — I mean, yeah, fond memories of classics Foolish and Here’s Where the Strings Come In were definitely part of the reason I bought the damn CD — but that’s really, truly missing the point: there’s a reason for that nostalgia, namely that this band was (and is) one of the best indie-rock bands of, well, pretty much ever. Back in the day, I wanted to be this band. They were fiery and smart and melancholy and addictive as all hell, and they served as the soundtrack for some of those crucial formative years of my life.
All that said, I was a little nervous when I heard the band had regrouped (I don’t think they ever really broke up, just sort of got busy with other things) and were recording a new album. How in the hell were they going to be able to recapture the bottled magic of, say, Foolish? Was it even possible? Once I saw the video for lead-off single “Digging For Something,” however, it was immediately apparent I needn’t have worried. Despite the years, the band’s barely missed a step.
Of course, they’re not the band they were back then — time changes you, after all, whether you want it to or realize it — and the music on Majesty Shredding isn’t Strings Pt. II, by any means. It’s lighter and cheerier at points, bouncing along almost like it’s Ted Leo playing and singing and not Mac McCaughan, but there’s still that sharp-edged, biting sound on tracks like the excellent “My Gap Feels Weird” and the Foolish-esque “Fractures In Plaster”. Listening feels like hearing from friends you haven’t talked to in a long time and discovering you still connect like you used to in the old days, and that’s a truly great thing.
6) Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way
The latest from Sharon Jones and her jaw-dropping “backing” band, The Dap-Kings, caught me by surprise not by being good — that was pretty much a given — but by being, well, utterly and completely bleak as hell. Sure, Jones & co. have made their career to date partly based on the hard-luck stories of love and pain, but on I Learned The Hard Way, it just feels different somehow, deeper and more final.
The album cover gives a hint at what’s inside; there’s no funky party scenes or warm, inviting earth tones here, just a bunch of serious-looking dudes in turtlenecks and jackets behind a serious-looking lady without a hint of a smile on her face and a tough, kick-your-ass stance, all standing in a trashed-out inner-city back alley. And the music follows suit, with somber-yet-triumphant horns and plenty of songs about realizing things have crashed and burned and moving on. With Hard Way, Jones sounds like she’s been hurt, badly, and has picked herself back up off the ground and resolved to be stronger because of it.
7) Featherface, It Comes Electric
Those four guys in Featherface are sneaky, sneaky bastards. I get a crap-ton of music to listen to each week, a lot of which zips past my overstimulated, overtired brain in a flash, even if it’s something half-decent; as a consequence, I’ll freely admit that I occasionally forget a whole damn album or EP or whatever that I just listened to a couple of months previous.
That’s somewhat what happened with Featherface’s It Comes Electric — I listened to it, was pretty impressed by it, wrote about it, and then had to set it aside to listen to other stuff and, um, kinda forgot about it. Fast-forward to now, when I’m putting the CD back into the player, and you’ll see my jaw drop, and my brain frantically scramble to catch up: “wait…that’s where that song came from? The hell…?” See, in the intervening months, I’d had various little songs bopping around my head, forcing me to hum snatches here and there, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember who actually did the songs that had apparently been engraved onto the inside of my skull.
And yes, it turns out it was those Featherface guys — sneaky, sneaky bastards, again. They managed to craft an EP’s worth of quirky, smart, quasi-psychedelic, quasi-prog pop-rock songs that dwell in the heretofore-unrecognized middle ground between OK Go and the Animal Collective and that are so insidiously catchy and addictive that I could somehow fall under their charms and not even realize it with my subconscious mind. That’s both terrifying and amazingly cool.
8) Omotai, Peace Through Fear
On their debut EP, Peace Through Fear, this unassuming, friendly-beyond-belief trio somehow manage to make a noise massive beyond their puny physical forms. No, seriously; when I listen to the stomping, thundering, howling-into-the-whirlwind, doom-/prog-tinged metal Omotai makes, I don’t picture three people playing this music, but rather some kind of gigantic, Balrog-like gang of creatures, hammering out chords and rhythms on instruments made of solid lava on the crest of a volcano somewhere. I dare you to listen to this and not foot-drum ’til your legs ache. These folks are destined for great, great things, believe it.
9) Priestess, Prior to the Fire
Ah, Priestess. This one turned out to be a bit of a grower, at least for me, although in the end it was well worth the effort. Coming off the fires-a-blazing stoner-rock high of 2006′s Hello Master, I was initially stunned and disappointed by Prior to the Fire — and judging by some of the expressions I saw on fans’ faces at the Quebec-based band’s last H-town appearance, I wasn’t the only one. The songs on Master had metal elements, sure, but Fire jumps into the genre feet-first, landing heavy in the rarefied realms of brainy, thematic prog-metal, and anybody who really, truly loved the band for, say, “Run Home” or “Talk to Her” may find themselves left behind.
After a few more listens, though, Fire began to work a magic of its own. Sure, the album’s a hell of a lot more metallic, but the intelligent-as-hell songwriting still shines through, maybe even helped along by the heavy dose of prog-rock the band apparently ingested between releases. Opening track “Lady Killer” is all-out badass, and the stutter-stop shifting of “Raccoon Eyes” and “Murphy’s Law” make me think happily of fellow Canadians Voivod, with plenty of sharp angles right where you wouldn’t expect them. With this album, these guys have established themselves as a seriously thoughtful metal band, one that balances out the heaviness with both melodic hookery and ridiculously inventive prog-rock riffs.
Oh, and the next time they come to town, definitely check out the show. Beyond how great the band is live, watching a bunch of drunk meatheads in the audience try to headbang to the band’s off-time arrangements is absolutely hysterical…
10) Freelance Whales, Weathervanes
Since The Postal Service’s Give Up came out back in 2003, it feels like I’ve heard dozens of pretenders try to grab hold of that band’s sound and make it their own, mostly with mediocre results at best. Then along came Freelance Whales, whose album Weathervanes not only channels to sweet, bouncy, electro-yet-warm-and-friendly sound crafted by Gibbard and Tamborello but grafts it onto an organic framework of real, quirky instrumentation.
The drums skitter and stutter along beneath gorgeously cheery indie-pop melodies and high-flying keys/banjo lines, all with main Whale Judah Dadone‘s Sufjan Stevens-esque vocals floating over the top of it all, waxing ecstatic about rooftops and God-knows-what-else. A lot of indie-pop these days leaves me cold; this particular brand of it actually works.
11) Roky Moon & BOLT, Roky Moon & BOLT
Okay, so imagine you’re driving late, late at night, not so much on the road to or from somewhere as just completely between two places on the map. And you’re scanning through the radio dial (yeah, some people do still do that, honest, and not just to find their favorite right-wing talk station), and you hit this strange, static-filled AM station you can just barely pick up, just in time to hear a raspy-voiced DJ mumble an introduction and this nail-you-to-the-floor music come roaring tinnily out of the speakers.
It’s loud and bluesy and theatrical, tongue-in-cheek yet still somehow sincere, and you find yourself thinking it must be a Bowie song you’ve never heard before, something from early on in his career. But it’s not, definitely not — it’s way too raw and rock-n-roll for that, more like early Meat Loaf if he’d spent time hanging out with The New York Dolls. And the whole thing sounds like a play or something, or maybe a B-movie musical with a half-assed, barely comprehensible plot, like Rocky Horror with vampires and werewolves. And there’s this great boogie-woogie piano, and this crazy Springsteenian blue-collar vibe, and in spite of itself, it all fits together like it’s meant to.
And then the song ends, and the station fades, and you’re left smiling out into the dark. Roky Moon & BOLT‘s album? Yeah, it’s kind of like that, only even better because it really does exist.
12) Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
This band actually made both 2009 and 2010 for me, in a way. Late in 2009, Surfer Blood released the phenomenal “Swim,” a song I absolutely couldn’t get out of my head even if I’d have tried using a knife to do it; it really was one of the best things I heard all year. So when 2010 rolled around, and Astro Coast came out, I was psyched as hell.
And against all odds, it lived up to my expectations. True to its name, the band channels that “watery” feel from “Swim” throughout Coast, with the end result coming off somewhat like the “U.K. Surf” version of The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” that showed up in Pump Up The Volume, as played by Silversun Pickups. The music drifts beautifully, feeling utterly unforced and warm, like sun on skin. Now if I could only get the damn thing to play on my computer…
13) Holy Fiction, Hours From It
There’s this amazingly spiritual feeling to Holy Fiction‘s Hours From It — and no, the “Holy” in the band’s name has nothing to do with it. It’s more an overall vibe you get, an alone-but-not-lonely thing that makes the band sound like they’re playing for nobody in particular out in an open field somewhere, just playing for the sake of the music.
And what music it is. Holy Fiction swoop and swoon in a genteel, deliberate way, seamlessly interweaving African-sounding percussion (think the less-funky moments on Peter Gabriel’s So) in through the delicate, understated, folky guitars, the subtle string parts, and singer/guitarist Evan Lecker‘s Mark Kozelek-like voice. It’s countryish at times but still holds onto something otherworldly, something that doesn’t fit the easy country-folk mold.
There’s not a smile in sight, but it’s not oppressive, even for that — just serious. Which is apt, in a way, because what Hours From It sounds like, more than anything else, is an orchestral, thoughtful song cycle. This is music meant for epic things; climb a mountain, stare off into the distance, and listen.
14) The Wild Moccasins, Skin Collision Past
A lot of bands I run across fall into the “promising, but not there yet” category; they’re good, sure, but there’s something missing, some little piece that isn’t quite where it needs to be. The potential’s there, but the band has yet to really hit the mark. And sadly, a lot of those bands never make it beyond the “promising” stage.
So it’s gratifying when a band I’d previously put in that category smashes down that wall and blazes upwards into the stratosphere. If The Wild Moccasins hadn’t quite hit the mark prior to Skin Collision Past, well, with the full-length they poured gasoline on it and lit it on fire. The band’s trademark jangle-pop is tighter and more focused than it’s ever been before, with the band zeroed in on each song and playing like their lives depended on it.
With this album, the Moccasins demonstrate what they’re really capable of; namely, writing and playing these gorgeous, lush little gems of songs, halfway between later-period Anniversary and Belle and Sebastian (with a little Teenage Fanclub thrown in for fun). It’s wonderful, wonderful stuff.
15) Kelli Scarr, Piece
Possibly the biggest surprise of the year, at least for yours truly — I stumbled blithely into Kelli Scarr‘s debut full-length, not expecting a damn thing from it, and was completely bowled over by the whole damn thing. Scarr’s got a voice that’s equal parts Neko Case and Chan Marshall, with a teeny-tiny dose of Jolie Holland strangeness on the side, and she wraps it languidly around jaunty/melancholy, oftentimes starkly beautiful little songs that Aimee Mann would be proud to call her own.
The best tracks are the most gentle ones, like the late-night, desperate croon of “Brother,” which digs a new tear in my heart each time I hear it, or the Azure Ray-esque haze of “The Wonder,” but even the faster, more “full” songs on Piece are pretty great themselves. Take a listen to the sneaky Cat Power-gone-Motown rave-up of “Driftwood” if you want proof.
16) The Orbans, When We Were Wild
This one caught me pretty well completely off-guard, too; I’d heard of Forth Worth-dwellers The Orbans, but until I finally put on When We Were Wild, I really had no clue what they were about. Now that I do, well…um, wow. The band manages to meld the best elements of roots-rockers like Son Volt, The Jayhawks, or the more indie-fied Buffalo Tom and the more out-and-out modern, electrified sounds of smooth-edged pop outfits like Fountains of Wayne or Big Star.
The closest analogue I can come up with is to The Stills’ later stuff; The Orbans ride the line between power pop and countrified rock in a very similar way, although I find myself liking Wild a whole heck of a lot more than I have anything The Stills have done (sorry, y’all). Best of all, none of it feels stitched-together in any way — instead, it all flows perfectly along, with the moody-yet-bright guitars, awesome singalong choruses, and pounding drums fitting together like pieces of a finely-tuned machine. I could seriously listen to opening track “New Dress” on endless repeat.
- LIMB, The Shape of Punk for Some
- listenlisten, “dog”
- The Niceguys, The Show
- The Gold Sounds, Seismic Love
- The Manichean, Whispers
- The Hold Steady, Heaven Is Whenever
- Balaclavas, Roman Holiday
- Ghost Town Electric/Defending the Kingdom, Ghost Town Electric/Defending the Kingdom
- The Sword, Warp Riders
- Girl Talk, All Day
- Caddywhompus, Remainder
- Paris Falls, Reverse Mirror Image
- Ólöf Arnalds, Innundir Skinni
- Born Liars, Fast Songs Is All We Know
- Paul Weller, Wake Up The Nation
- The Fox Derby, Regular Dreams
- Beach House, Teen Dream
- The Roots, How I Got Over
- Blitzen Trapper, Destroyer of the Void
- Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
SONGS THAT BLEW ME AWAY THIS YEAR:
- Bright Men of Learning, “Blood Rain”
- Holy Fiction, “More Than Ever”
- Muhammad Ali, “Smiling”
- The Niceguys, “Mr. Perfect”
- Ketch Harbour Wolves, “Body Without Organs”
- Cee-Lo Green, “Fuck You”
- The Orbans, “New Dress”
- Featherface, “A Youthful Offender (The Men We Will Be)”
- Lissie, “Little Lovin’”
- Superchunk, “Digging For Something”
- Linus Pauling Quartet, “Porno In The Sink”
- Retribution Gospel Choir, “Hide It Away”
- Katey Sagal & The Forest Rangers, “Bird On A Wire”
- Priestess, “Lady Killer”
- The Gold Sounds, “She Got Me Singin So Low”
- Kelli Scarr, “Brother”
- Sara Van Buskirk, “Halfway”
- Co-Pilot, “Land Empires”
- LIMB, “Prayer to Shellac”
- Roky Moon & BOLT, “Five Dollar Fame”
- Omotai, “Rotting Hill”
- The Fox Derby, “Hold On The Breaks”
- Wails, “Lucky”
- Glasvegas, Glasvegas
- Red Fang, Red Fang
- The Little Heroes, Thank You
- Miike Snow, Miike Snow
- The Courteeners, St. Jude
- Cory Branan, 12 Songs
1. Kate Nash, My Best Friend Is You (Geffen/Fiction). It’s not that Nash is saying much of anything different than on her 2007 debut Made Of Bricks. It’s more that she’s figured out how to say it, even if she still doesn’t quite know what it is. Sometimes, as in “Mansion Song,” she spits out things that are deliberately provocative and, yes, maybe a little dumb. But it’s unself-conscious provocation, if such a thing exists; she comes by it honestly, as a way of figuring out how the world works. Smart enough to know that she doesn’t have all the answers but engaged enough to keep asking questions, she lashes out, she pays attention to what happens, she learns.
It’s that last bit that sets her apart from the Katy Perries and Ke$has of the world, her determination to find her place instead of blankly embracing her dissoluteness. Like some glorious amalgam of Regina Spektor, the Pipettes, Lily Allen, Nellie McKay, and Florence And The Machine, My Best Friend Is You can be immature, sloppy and embarrassing — though, as in the case of opening one-two punch “Paris” and “Kiss That Girl,” it can also be staggeringly wise, hooky, and perfect — but it is always always always exciting.
“Don’t You Want To Share The Guilt?” is all of those things and more, downloading every thought, every frustration, everything she’s got in her head and heart all at once. If My Best Friend Is You were her debut, I’m sure I’d spend the rest of Nash’s career becoming slowly disappointed that she never again matched it. The fact that it’s her followup actually suggests that greater things lie ahead. And her very fallibility is ironically what puts her in a much better position to live up to her promise.
2. Tift Merritt, See You On The Moon (Fantasy). In which I discover — through the effervescing guitar rings of “Engine To Turn,” the sultry fetishization of obsolete tech in “Mixtape” and the sensuous warm sting of “Papercut” — that Merritt saves her good stuff for her even-numbered albums. That doesn’t mean that you can skip the next one, though. You won’t know to get the doozy that’s sure to come after it if you’ve lost count.
3. Sally Seltmann, Heart That’s Pounding (Arts & Crafts). I could never quite get into the work Seltmann was putting out as New Buffalo, which I found conceptually intriguing but impenetrable. On Heart That’s Pounding, she drops the pseudonym and opens up, and light pours out.
4. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding (Merge). When Superchunk delivered the spirited “Learned To Surf” on this past spring’s Leaves In The Gutter EP, it seemed like a lone blast of focused intent, a backwards-looking career summation in the guise of a mission statement. Instead, it cleared the cobwebs, paving the way for a lean and fiery record that proved Superchunk more intact than anybody could imagine. For as much as the band served as a totem of everything I wanted to hear (and everything I wanted to do) during the most fertile years of my burgeoning music fandom, I’ll have to leave it to others as to whether or not Majesty Shredding is Superchunk’s best album. But the fact that it’s even possible to seriously have that conversation here and now, a full 18 years after they first spat their tuneful guitar noise into my ears, is just about all the evidence I need.
5. Sleigh Bells, Treats (Mom + Pop/N.E.E.T.). I’m not sure I could tell you what any of these songs sound like, just that they’re like tiny explosions going off throughout my brain. But Treats‘s lack of stickiness isn’t the album’s key failing. It’s its prime virtue. With each spin, it exists exclusively in the now, and everything else collapses to get out of its way. And Sleigh Bells are happy to push.
Widows and orphans:
1. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, “Telephone.” The song is cathartic and effortlessly ecstatic, pulsing with electricity and weaving a subtly complex thicket of emotions as the singer opts to sever direct communication in favor of losing herself in the crowd. The video is a borderline-genius fever dream that looks as if no idea was turned down, no matter how ludicrous or nonlinear. The inclusion of Beyoncé is a masterstroke of power politics disguised as a bid for bilateral chart domination, Lady Gaga frankly telling her, “Join me or get left behind.” So she does, because Beyoncé’s not stupid and Lady Gaga has no intention of blinking.
2. Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days Are Over.” If there’s a more purely joyous song that sparked into existence in the past decade, then I haven’t heard it, and you’re probably a liar. So great that I was even willing to overlook the stupid-to-the-point-of-meaningless line “Dogs days are over/Dog days are under.” So great, in fact, that that’s not even the lyric, which, as it turns out, is actually a drawn-out “…Dog days are done.” Hey, that’s not stupid at all. More miracles!
3. Cee-Lo Green, “Fuck You.” Sure, the title seems crassly designed for maximum publicity, and the pronouns get a mite confused before the first chorus is over. But not only is the song a top-notch (if modernized) Jackie Wilson-style soul number, with Green squeezing out a top-notch (if modernized) Jackie Wilson-style vocal, the genius of that shock-value title eventually becomes clear. (And not just because radio edit “Forget You” seems to exist primarily to point out just how dumb a cleaned-up “Fuck You” sounds.) I mean, Green’s just singing what was already the subtext of a lot of classic soul. All he’s doing is dragging it to the fore.
4. Kate Miller-Heidke, “Caught In The Crowd.” A heartbreakingly sad account of teenage hurt, made all the more devastating by the fact that the singer’s the one doling it out. Miller-Heidke realizes that she can’t make it better, but she can… Nope, she can’t do anything. It’s far too late for that.
5. Miranda Lambert, “That’s The Way That The World Goes ‘Round.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pretty solidly cemented Lambert‘s status as the country thrush that even cynical rock critics could get behind. Revolution‘s complete detonation of John Prine’s song, raging with the flattened rhythm and heedless velocity of punk, just seems like rubbing our noses in it.
The song’s just your everyday exemplar of sparkling, expansive New Wave drama. What lifts this specific performance is Régine Chassagne, standing awkwardly in front of her band and bawling out a vocal that’s screechy and borderline out of tune. But it’s a funny and magical thing about pop music, the way elements that are wrong in every detail can be thoroughly transformed by the proper context and infinite charm. Given five minutes by her achingly sympathetic bandmates, Chassagne grabs hold of her twitchy agitation, raises it proudly and spins it into triumph. It’s no wonder Win Butler ran up to give her a kiss as soon as it was done. That’s what you do when your wife reminds you why you fell in love.
8. Sia, “Bring Night.” Ms. Furler‘s insistence on being the best singer with the worst articulation continues to nag at me. The hard, New Wave pop charge of “Bring Night” is what will keep me on the hook for a while longer. Don’t abuse it, lady.
9. Jimi Hendrix, “Mr. Bad Luck” (Valleys Of Neptune version). On the face of it, a ripoff. I mean, are we so devoid of fresh Hendrix material, yet so determined to milk him dry, that we must resort to overdubbing new rhythm sections onto otherwise complete songs and slapping a new price tag on them? But while “Mr. Bad Luck” in its original form (available on West Coast Seattle Boy, also this year) is swell enough, the Valleys Of Neptune version is something else entirely. Distinguished not so much by the guitar as by its volcanic bass and drums (added in 1987 but unheard until now), the song churns forward with an inertia like a train rumbling directly underneath your feet. It’s transformed into one of Hendrix’s toughest playful moments, even if he wasn’t around to experience its full power.
10. The Thermals, “Canada.” Whoa.
Ask yourself this: when was the last time you considered Steve Winwood? I mean, really gave him a second thought beyond hearing “Higher Love” on the mix radio station playing the last time you got a haircut? But Revolutions — The Very Best of Steve Winwood (Island), the one-disc budget-minded little brother of the identically-named four-CD box set, gets this year’s Better Late Than Never slot by doing for Winwood what Decade did for Neil Young: it convincingly argues that an apparent journeyman is in fact a major artist.
Revolutions spans his entire career, from keyboard-mashing, teenaged Ray Charles devotee in the Spencer Davis Group to psychedelic folk warlord in Traffic and Blind Faith to studio-rat pop perfectionist. Even arranged more or less chronologically, the songs veer wildly from disparate projects and eras while still sounding great: the burned-out nylon-string haze of “Can’t Find My Way Home” leaps the entire 1970s to the glossy “While You See A Chance,” which positively shimmers both in sequence and entirely on its own. Refusing to sell Winwood short, Revolutions has the nerve to include all ten-plus minutes of “The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys,” but then, Winwood had the nerve to commit fiercely to them in the first place. Docked a point for omitting “John Barleycorn,” but hey: I bought that album last year. Turns out it was pretty great.
The new year is already into full gear and I’ve yet to reminiscence on the passing of 2010. RIP. Reading the numerous top ten lists of 2010 actually brought a tear to my eye. Everything was covered, from last year’s best singles and albums to top artists to the top-ten show posters or which band’s fans suck the most. The only topic I didn’t see get its due was Houston’s top ten YouTube music moments.
I youtube like a monster. What’s great about YouTube is that anything you can think of is on there. If you want to see an grandma stripping, or a guy eating ants, it’s on there. I’m serious, look it up. With the site that launched many a 15 minutes of fame for nondescript nobodies, gave Daniel Tosh a career, and started the whole craze of wanting to “go viral,” you’d figure that it would be a snap to find great YouTube videos that feature the best and brightest from our fair city. And you would be right.,
Here are my Top Ten Houston Music YouTube Moments:
10. B L A C K I E @ Free Press SummerFest 2010
The classic thing about this video is that the audio is so bad you can’t understand a word B L A C K I E is saying. Which, ironically, is the case no matter how good the audio is.
9. A dream Asleep, “Horus -vs- The Juggernauts”
Progressive hardcore rockers. House party. Drinking bears and heavily tattooed women. I’m deathly afraid of all of these things.
8. Tax The Wolf, Live from Joe Mathlete’s living room
These guys just sucked me in and made me believers in their free-form process of musical creationism.
7. Fat Tony, “LIKE, HELL YEAH”
I used to have dreams of going to house parties, smoking spliffs, getting mad hoes, all while I was rapping about going to house parties, smoking splits, and getting mad hoes. Good to see someone’s living the dream.
3. Paul Wall beats fan with a microphone
This was in close contention for number one, but having me sit through a commercial loses major points. Anyway, I wonder if Paul Wall lost a paycheck over this. No wonder so many rappers have grills: to keep Paul Wall from busting their teeth out.
2. Phedra Syndelle, “Let’s Make Love”
Never have I had any girl come up to me and say this. Not too mention that there’s a line that comes dangerously close to sounding like, “It’s been two weeks since I last saw your pee-pee.”
1. Peekaboo Theory, “Cataclysm” (Live From SugarHill)
I had already been long fans of these guys, but after seeing this video of them tearing it up live at SugarHill Studios, I fell in love all over again. My favorite line is when he says, “Don’t Facebook your life away.” Too late for that, baby.
There it is. Only a top ten list of YouTube videos could truly put the year in perspective. If there are any videos that should have made the list, drop me a line. But I can assure you: no one does YouTube better than me.
Making a top ten list for the music of 2010 is, if you think about it, kind of like trying to pick which gigantic bucket of candy to jump into the second after you realize you got yourself locked in the mall and hey, all the world’s made of pixie sticks, at least for tonight. There were way too many great albums to choose from last year; so this list comes with a preface that goes “I’m really sorry that I got it wrong.”
I could have written this list every single day of the year, just about, and the list would have been in some ways different than the day before. Make a list of your own, and I’m positive that you’ll find that last year, more than any other, was a year made of music for the feeling that makes you realize that the kind of music enjoyed most is the music that makes you feel that music isn’t supposed to have you question even a little bit whether or not this music is making you feel something. In other words, don’t think about it.
The list, in order, is like this:
10. Broken Social Scene: Forgiveness Rock Record
When you listen to a Broken Social Scene record, you have to keep two things in mind: they used to be the best band of all time, and then they were the worst band of all time. Because of this, their fan base is incredibly divided. You have your obsessives and your once-obsessives — one side saying they’ve always been the greatest, and the rest of us just don’t understand music, and the other side saying they’re tremendous sell-outs that belong in the same conversation with the only other successful (or are there more? whatever) Canadian pop-stars: Nickelback.
Both sides have a point, really, and I think Forgiveness Rock Record is the album that brings everyone back together to make us understand what made BSS great in the first place: the hyper-complicated lyrical texturization of Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew, on top of the indie-Baroque experimentation of the woodwind section, layered with the simplistically beaten-down drums. There are straight pop-songs here, and there are novelistic stylings that make the listener feel like they might be stuck underneath an out-of-control wagon during a gun fight in 1880s Wyoming. It’s romanticist realism brought to song — shocks the brain.
9. The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
It’s hard to describe what The Arcade Fire has done to indie music since they hit the super-big time in 2004. They have in many ways constructed the context for the mythology that the genre is now known for: small-time independent band makes low-fi record all by themselves and releases it (cheaply) to immediate critical acclaim that goes on to find its way onto the album shelves of smart kids who hate band t-shirts. But really, Arcade Fire has always been a major label band (and yeah, I know they’re on an independent label, but it’s an independent label that makes gazillions of dollars, like every time you breathe) with designs on Radiohead-style stadium fame, but always with an American sound.
And that’s why The Suburbs is their best album to date, and it’s not even close. It’s an album that perfectly addresses the growing ennui that encompasses the lifestyle of the listener that this band helped create — the indie one. They’re singing to themselves, and they’re singing to us. They’re singing about the lives they hate, but mostly about the lives they love to hate. We all have the some suburbs in us, and The Suburbs tells us that that’s ok.
8. Beach House: Teen Dream
To make a very, very long story (as to why these next few words are more important than any other few words in this article) short, lead vocalist Victoria Legrand is the most culturally significant female musician since Blondie; and Teen Dream is the reason why. Like Blondie, Legrand makes being a female in a male male male male world something that doesn’t matter. She puts the significant in not-significant.
7. Jonsi: Go
Lead vocalist of Sigur Rós turned lead vocalist of your dreams, Jonsi Birgisson, released this album smack in the middle of springtime, which is appropriate because it sounds exactly like tulip petals. Here’s what you should do — and believe me when I say that doing this will make you understand why smiling is different than only pretending to smile — get on a bicycle, put on your headphones, turn it to “Animal Arithmetic,” start to ride, make one arm in the shape of an airplane wing, and make it go whoosh whoosh. Happiness.
6. (Tie) Justin Bieber: My World 2.0 (his album), First Step 2 Forever (his book), Cigarettes (cigarettes)
Can’t have one of these without the other two. The album: buy it now and really love it; that way you can tell your kids that you listened to the Beatles when they were called Bieber. He’s gonna be bigger than them, he really is. And that’s because he’s better. The book: read it while listening to the album, so you can realize that your childhood was actually a childhood and being famous isn’t actually what you want after all, no matter how much you believe otherwise. Cigarettes: self-explanatory.
5. LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening
It’s no secret that indie white kids love to dance, but until LCD Soundsystem came along, all that dancing was largely done inside a used-up bubble of irony. Prepare to check yoself. Leader of the band and self-styled mega genius James Murphy writes overtly simplified songs but performs them with an intellectually complex aplomb that would melt the face of any number of surrealist weirdos. This is Happening is an album full of songs that help listeners understand that knowing yourself fully means not knowing anything about anything, but at the same time, it’s an album that makes you think that thinking these types of thoughts is (1) not necessarily wrong and really the only thing that young people have anymore, and (2) more fun when it’s music telling you this is not only possible, but preferable.
4. Frightened Rabbit: The Winter of Mixed Drinks
The long list of sad, super-sad singers is, more often than not, kind of redundant and boring to consider. It just seems too easy to write lyrics that talk about broken relationships and love that went wrong because of yeah yeah yeah yeah. There are a few musicians who get it right, and sometimes even those who get it right, get it really wrong (The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come and Eliot Smith’s posthumous New Moon are two obvious examples).
For their part, Frightened Rabbit seems to be a band that, at least so far, know how to sing sad, likely because lead man Scott Hutchison started the band out of a context of misery. The Winter of Mixed Drinks is a bit different than Frightened Rabbit’s other releases, because it sounds weirdly optimistic in the light of so much unhappiness, even though just about every song is a chapter in the ongoing end of a relationship Hutchison has been dealing with for the better part of a decade. There are songs on the record that are glass half-full types, though the liquid in the glass is probably acid or some such. Winter will undoubtedly go down as an album of iconic sadness, and it feels as if the best is yet to come.
3. Band of Horses: Infinite Arms
Band of Horses is the most underrated band in the conversation of indie music, and there’s really no explanation for it. Some may think of them as too countrified, too commercial (as in, in commercials — car ones), too forgettably pitch-perfect, too ugly (check the teeth, you’ll see), but fifteen years from now, we’ll all be looking back at an album like Infinite Arms and kicking ourselves for missing our chance to listen to Pet Sounds when it was fresh. There isn’t a mistake on the entire album, not a missed note, no lyrics out of place, not a single skipped chance at musical transcendence. Superlatives seem silly when describing an album like this — it’s one of the better 60 or so minutes to come along in the past decade, but no one seems to care. They’re a band who should be headlining festivals and leading the way for Pitchfork-type “who’s better than them?” comparisons — so why aren’t they?
2. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
It must suck being a hip-hop artist in 2011. Because now it can’t be done better. Kanye West rules the world, and everyone knows it. Even if don’t admit they know, they know it. Ask. Pretend you have the ability to go through five minutes of your life where each second is full of meaning, and not just meaning but meaning that can change your understanding of what meaning means. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is that five minutes, multiplied by ten and added to twenty. Song one is perfect, song two is better, and song thirteen is song three through song twelve compounded by themselves at a speed of zippity.
For all those music critics out there (and there are a ton) who try and find ways to come up with a rhetoric to explain why this album isn’t as good as they know it actually is — stop it. It’s an album that has, and will continue to, set the standard by which to judge hip-hop albums for decades to come; and it’s ours to study, and ours to enjoy. I wish it hadn’t come out, so that it could come out again. There’s really no reason to not put it at number one on this list — no reason that is, if not for…
1. Taylor Swift: Speak Now
In the same way that Kanye West has changed hip-hop, Taylor Swift has changed the world. She has, in the short span of three albums, re-articulated (or maybe articulated for the first time) the female position of privilege in pop music. Madonna never did it like Swift is doing it, because Madonna wanted to make it clear that being a female musician meant being a sexual musician. Britney Spears never did it because Britney Spears was always a product of the boy-band culture she found herself able to take advantage of — she was a boy band without being a boy or a band. Miley Cyrus never did it because Miley Cyrus was the Monkees.
There isn’t a precedent to judge Taylor Swift against, and it’s not often we’re able to say that about a musician, particularly a musician this young and this talented. It’s fun for people to dismiss Swift in the same way they’ve dismissed pop stars for years, but Speak Now should at least temper those dismissals for a while. Keep your eyes open on this one — she’s different.
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella)
Not Kanye‘s best record by far. But even at less than 100%, Kanye is still better than anyone else. His beat-making inspirations continues to expand outward — from the King Crimson sample to the Turtles to Black Sabbath — and he still has his ear for absolutely killer beats. And his rapping technically continues to develop, getting stronger, more rhythmic, and more flexible.
What he raps about gets somewhat tiresome — he’s now rapping exclusively about himself in self-aggrandizing ways. If he’d rap about other things and people, like he did on his first two or three records, it would be even better. But it gets somewhat annoying having him rapping about himself all the time. But the beats are so good you don’t really even need to think about the rapping and just get carried away in the sounds. ‘Cause the beats are magnificent, inspired, and completely brilliant, and even with the new sounds he incorporates here, they still sound like Kanye. And that is all we really need.
The Roots, How I Got Over (Def Jam)
The Roots are in a better mood than they were on Rising Down — maybe they’re still excited about being the band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. That certainly would do it. Although it’s not all wine and roses — Black Thought still likes to rhyme about the problems of real people — their fears, anxieties, and frustrations, and more evocatively than anybody. And they still have the ear for beats — from “Walk Alone,” with its “Radio Daze,” a slow jam with a big chorus hook and minimal piano chords, to “Now or Never,” with its killer keyboard line and beautiful chorus, to “How I Got Over,” rightly the title track, with bouncy keyboard work, amazing chorus harmonies, and banging congas. Of course, ?uestlove can make anything sound good (as he did on their first records). His right foot is like Michael Jordan’s basketball — it can carry the team alone, but he doesn’t usually need to. The Roots have gotten better and better over the years, but they’ve really been on a roll recently — their last couple of records were also amazing. Here’s hoping they’ll keep it up for a long time.
Mike Reed’s Loose Assembly With Roscoe Michell, Empathetic Parts (482 Music)
Finally, Mike Reed comes into his own. His previous albums unearthed local little-known bop and post-bop tunes by obscure musicians, and while the results were sincere and thoughtful, it still lacked spark. Moving from jazz to something farther afield, Reed has finally done something with his prodigious talent.
The heart of the album is a piece called “Empathetic Parts,” a partly-structured improvised piece which gives each musician control of sections of the piece. You need trustworthy musicians when performing this kind of material and the rapport built up over the years shows in the music, which can turn on a dime from big free explosions to pastoral, minimal interludes to beautiful melodies to soundscapes, with everybody finding imaginative ways to complement the others. And Roscoe Mitchell is the perfect hired gun for the group — though he’s the newest member of the group, his discipline, counterintuitive playing, and sheer ability lets him blend in with the others. Mike Reed has really turned a corner with his music — it’ll be fascinating to see where he goes from here.
Tatsuya Nakatani, Abiogenesis (H&H)
Abiogenesis is probably the only solo record by a drummer not to have drums on it. The last album you would expect a drummer to make, the record sounds more like ambient music than anything else. Tatsuya Nakatani is a master at bowing, rubbing, and striking cymbals, gongs, and other implements to produce unusual sounds. Each track features a different technique and type of percussion, so each one sounds very different. His real mastery is with a bow, using it to produce a ridiculous range of sounds, from sweet singing to abrasive percussive to alien synthesizer sounds. And he’s brilliant at getting a remarkable range of sounds on each song that it’s never boring. Tatsuya Nakatani is the only drummer who can play solo and have it be as fascinating as a full band.
Agusti Fernandez & Barry Guy, Some Other Place (Intakt Records)
If Spain can only have one brilliant improvising pianist (and they do), Agusti Fernandez is the ideal candidate. Proficient enough to play any kind of music, he decided on an excellent path. His playing ranges from John Cage-esque sound blocks and regular pianism and back again, and throughout it all, he’s still his own thoughtful self. With Barry Guy as his sparring partner, they range from quasi-classical interludes to free jazz blowouts to ambient soundscapes without missing a beat. And his range of sonic tricks is second to none — with just a couple of implements he’s able to get an amazing range of sounds. It’s no surprise that he is so in demand as a musician.
Tony Allen, Secret Agent (Nonesuch)
Tony Allen continues to keep the Fela gospel alive. Secret Agent shows his songwriting is as good as it was while he was in Africa ’70, maybe even better. The songs on the album encompass a range of styles of afrobeat, from highlife-inflected horns and vocals on “Bosybody,” to an almost electro-sounding keyboard on “Ijo,” to afrobeat rap on “Swift.” And the band pulls everything off effortlessly, bring each song to life in a different way. And his playing — his inimitable groove, ability, and taste — remains unmatched. His doubled-bass drum beat groove floats underneath the whole thing, effortless and relaxed, but with plenty of vigor. What was the joke about albums by drummers again? Allen dispels the whole thing.
The Budos Band, The Budos Band III (Daptone Records)
The Budos Band finally finds their ground. And their groove. While their previous albums (and concerts) left something to be desired, they finally figure it out on The Budos Band III. Epic horn lines, killer keyboard, and authoritative grooves add up to an amazing record, from the JB’s horn lines of “Rite of the Ancients,” to jazz inflections on “Black Venom,” with its interesting chromatic melody, to their ballad “Unbroken, Unshaven” (which is still pretty fast), with its mournful melody and an even more heartbreaking bridge. With their endless melodies, tart arrangements and teriffic groove, this one is a keeper. All you need to know: Fela would be proud.
Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone (Anti-)
People might have had reason to cringe when it emerged that Jeff Tweedy wanted to produce her record. And even more when he was going to write songs for the album. But rest assured, the result is a beautiful and stirring album. Tweedy still writes his trademark clunkers, but Staples carries them off much better than he does his own songs. And the songs are perfectly matched to her soulful voice.
The centerpiece is the title track, “You Are Not Alone,” a slow, sorrowful song, sort of a contemporary spiritual about loss, heartbreak, and isolation, and with a magnificent, stirring melody, and powerful gospel harmonies. This might be the best song Tweedy’s ever written. And Staples is the perfect person to sing it, with her knowing, restrained, but still uplifting voice. The best album for the economic crisis – at a time when everybody needs reassurance, this album is a wellspring of support and faith.
The Fiery Furnaces, I’m Going Away (Thrill Jockey)
The Fiery Furnaces‘ album I’m Going Away [Ed. Note: Actually, the album was released in 2009, but eh.] is their fun rock album — it’s more linear and stripped down than their previous records, with much less of the crazy proggy stuff. The record is for those people who wish they’d cut out that wanky prog stuff and just ROCK. It also has some of the most indelible melodies they’ve written — the melodies on I’m Going Away are big, simple, catchy, and fun. But even though the melodies are more straighforward, it still has plenty of the Furnaces’ trademark whimsical chaos. Most “weird” bands that find a sound try to milk it for everything they can, or if they try to do something different, they fail utterly. It says something about Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger‘’s writing that that also have so many different ideas for sounds and songs, and they make everything work well. They’ve chosen a much harder course, but it rewards their efforts very well.
The Hold Steady, Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant Records)
The Hold Steady are finally back in form. Fans have been waiting for another album as solid as Separation Sunday. Their previous two albums had decreasing good moments, but lacked oomph overall. Heaven Is Whenever isn’t quite up there with Sunday (though that’s unlikely and probably unfair), but it still is great from beginning to end, and exciting joyride through Craig Finn‘s usual subjects of troubled teenagers, drugs, and salvation.
And the keyboard player’s departure isn’t really missed — they use slide guitar and clarinets and other instruments to add new textures to make up for it. And Tad Kubler, the guitar player, has no trouble stepping up and handling the extra instrumental duties. From “The Sweet Part of the City,” a mid-tempo anthem with its wistful slide guitar riffing, to “We Can Get Together,” a slow ballad with a cool guitar riff and beautiful harmonies (what does it mean that their most tender ballad is about music?), to “Hurricane J,” a mid-tempo rocker with big anthemic harmonies and an epic guitar solo, the Hold Steady are clearly back in form.
Here we go, everyone — what you’ve all been waiting for…my top 25 albums of 2010.
#25 Findlay Brown – Love Will Find You. I saw Findlay Brown at SXSW, and he was excellent. He’s definitely a throwback to the early-’60s Roy Orbison style — probably the best Orbison-style album anyone’s done in a long time. He recorded his album with another all-time music hero of mine, Bernard Butler, former guitarist of Suede.
#24 Rose Elinor Dougall – Without Why. Coincidentally, we saw the gorgeous Rose the same day as Findlay Brown at SXSW. Her early singles were very promising, but the rest of the album didn’t deliver as much as the singles. Still, it’s worth a listen if you love The Smiths, Stereolab, or The Sundays.
#23 The Rocketboys – Wellwisher EP. This is a late addition to the list, as I just started to get into this band after seeing them at Walter’s in November. They’ve got an epic and melancholic sound reminiscent of the recently-disbanded As Tall as Lions. I’m sure that in a month I’ll wish I’d ranked this higher.
#22 Maserati – Pyramid of the Sun. I bought this album because Alkari is going to record in Austin at the same studio where this album was recorded. The story behind the recording is tragic. Gerry Fuchs, Maserati‘s drummer, died in a freak elevator accident, leaving behind recently recorded drum tracks. The rest of the band decided as a testament to him to record the songs with Gerry’s drums. It must have been emotional and cathartic to record the songs. I’m not usually a fan of instrumental dance-rock, but there are some gems here. Pink Floyd fans should especially enjoy this.
#21 MGMT – Congratulations. These guys must have inherited Syd Barrett’s drugs when he died. That’s the only explanation I can figure out for this album feeling as much like Piper at the Gates of Dawn as it does. I listened to this a lot when it first came out, but not as much lately, so it’s dropped down the list quite a bit. This might be the most nationally popular album on my list.
#20 H.I.S.D. – The Weakend. 2010 saw the tragic death of my favorite hip hop artist, Michael Larsen (Eyedea & Abilities). What a shame. Honestly, I don’t search out much hip-hop, but sometimes it finds me. When Kwesi Sackey of Electric Attitude recommended this album, I told him I’d give it a try. He said H.I.S.D. put out the best album in Houston this year, and it’s tough to argue with him. Except for one album (which you’ll read about soon), the rest of my favorite Houston releases are EPs. There’s a jazz and ’70s disco/funk vibe here, and the rapping is solid. There’s even a concept and flow to the album. Don’t be surprised to see this nominated for Houston Press Awards next year.
#19 Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer. Pernice Brothers used to be guaranteed a top-five slot on my favorites list, but the songwriting, though still beautiful, has begun to grow a little predictable. Nothing seems to match up with their amazing late ’90s and early 2000s releases. Having said that, it’s still Pernice Brothers, and I will always buy whatever they’re selling.
#18 Blue Water White Death – Blue Water White Death. Jonathan Meiburg, the singer of one of my favorite bands of the last few years, recently teamed up with Jamie Stewart from the band Xiu Xiu to make this haunting, turn down the lights, pour a scotch, and pull out the vinyl album. The songs are delicate and beautiful, with splashes of jarring organic noise thrown on top, not unlike a Jackson Pollock painting.
#17 Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest. Well, these guys sure are the media darlings, aren’t they? I can’t believe how many top-10 lists I see this album on, especially considering it just came out in late September. That means you only listened to it for two months max, if you made your list on December 1st.
Ah, well — despite the hype, it’s a beautiful-sounding album with some decent songs, but make no mistake, what’s really going for this band is the production. It’s great to see the 4AD label doing well, and this album truly sounds like the 4AD I grew up with. It actually reminds me of The Pixies a lot in parts. The strongest song is the single, “Helicopter.”
#16 Rufus Wainwright – All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu. This came out in April, and I didn’t even know about it until November, but it’s full of beautiful and moving Rufus Wainwright songs. This time it’s just Rufus and a piano. Be careful. There are some tearjerkers here.
#15 Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines George Gershwin. I love The Beach Boys, and I love George Gershwin. Putting the two together sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but just the fact that Brian Wilson is remaining active as a musician and songwriter is fascinating and inspiring. I keep hoping he’ll come back to Houston again! My Smile shirt is starting to get faded!
#14 Roky Moon & BOLT – Roky Moon & BOLT. The last three weeks have “opened up my peepers” to this album. I got it at their CD release, and at first couldn’t get over how derivative it is of mid-’70s glam. A few listens later, I couldn’t get the songs out of my head. Facts are, most rock music is derivative, so you can’t really be snobby and knock down one band for being derivative when just about all of us musicians are in one way or another. Yep, just looking at my top 10, I can think of a past artist that almost every one of them is paying homage to. And paying homage to ’70s glam is something Roky Moon & BOLT have knocked out of the park. What’s even better is their live show…
#13 The Manichean – Whispers EP. This EP got to me as a CD-R last year, so I included it in my tops of 2009. This year saw The Manichean begin to come into their own, with a CD release party, the Summerfest gig, Houston Press nominations, and a slot opening for Tyagaraja upstairs at Fitzgerald’s. They are no longer the secret they were last year. This EP is a great slice of strange progressive rock and foreshadows greater things to come.
#12 Midlake – The Courage of Others. I was proud that Midlake, a band that I consider friends of mine, became successful enough to play Glastonbury this year, and I’m happy and proud of them with their release, The Courage of Others. With it having been four years since their last album, my expectations and hopes for this album were sky high. They wrote more slow, beautiful, sad songs for the album and less of the pop epics that I prefer, but it’s still a beautiful album that I go to frequently.
#11 Superchunk – Majesty Shredding. I admit, I missed Superchunk in the ’90s. During their early years, I was interested in Blake Babies from the same area, and later on I loved Superdrag, Supergrass, and Super Furry Animals, but Superchunk never really entered my consciousness. Now I’m in a band with a bigtime Superchunk fan, so when they came out with a new album, I felt obligated to check it out. Superchunk played it smart and kept their sound very similar to their classic years. There are some catchy and fun songs (especially “Digging for Something” and “Crossed Wires”) that kept me coming back to this album when I needed a pick-me-up.
#10 Of Montreal – False Priest. Unlike Superchunk, I have been an Of Montreal fan since the ’90s, and also unlike Superchunk, Of Montreal has changed its sound considerably over the years, going from a very Bealtesque sound to the Disco Bowie sound that they employ on False Priest. Kevin Barnes‘s wit, melodies, and basslines are what made me an Of Montreal fan in the first place, and they are here in spades.
#9 The Like – Release Me. This group is produced by Mark Ronson. If you’re familiar with his work, then this might be something you enjoy. Take an all-girl group with modern-day lyrics and put ’60s production to it. It seems a little like Elastica went back in time. One look at the video, and you’ll know what makes them special. Let’s just say Don Draper would have a hard time deciding which one he likes most. The songs and the band’s attitude are fun and catchy. Ha — most of my top 25 varies between “fun and catchy” and “really serious stuff”!
#8 Supervolcano – Insides Out EP. I am the self-declared biggest Supervolcano fan this side of the Mississippi. I am even bringing them out to play Houston on their way to SXSW in March. Sometimes, if you want to see a band play, you have to set up the gig yourself!
I met them two years back in Austin and kept in touch. Now they have a new EP that matches their self-titled album. They’re progressive rock students at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and they manage to write great melodies while at the same time challenging the listener with Mars Volta- and Shudder to Think-style rhythms and chord progressions. Don’t go with the flow and listen to the same old thing all the Pitchfork folk do — listen to this!
#7 Jimmy Gnecco – The Heart. Most of my friends know that my two favorite bands of the last 10 years are Muse and Ours. Jimmy Gnecco (the greatest voice in rock today!) is the force behind Ours, but decided he wanted to record an album of songs that made sense acoustically more than with a band. The Heart is that album, written and recorded while Gnecco was coping with the cancer and death of his mother. You may also know that I have dealt with the same loss in my life, which made these songs even more touching. I haven’t cried so much to an album in many years. You should also find it and be comforted in the beauty of Gnecco’s music.
#6 Carney – Mr. Green Vol. 1. Carney is the surprise band of the year for me. I had never heard of them before I started doing research on bands that were playing SXSW 2010. At that point, they had one song on Rhapsody, and I listened to it a few times and put them in the back of my mind to try to see them during the fest. In the end, we couldn’t get into a certain party and ended up free to go see them. It turned out to be one of the best shows of the fest.
Carney have the intangibles that many of the great bands I love have. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley, and Radiohead can be felt when they’re playing. After we saw them, I introduced myself and let them know I’d be looking for them to come to Houston. Sure enough, by the end of the summer, they came to Mango’s and opened for Athlete. Reeve Carney (and the rest of the band) is now on Broadway playing Spiderman, but I will always think of them for that day in Austin where they knocked me off my feet (a difficult task considering how jaded I have become). Oh, and I forgot to mention: their album came out not too long after SXSW, and I’ve been listening to it ever since.
#5 Murdocks – Distortionist. Now we finally get to the top five. These are the albums that when one song is over, I start hearing the next song in my head before it starts. I played these albums that much this year! I found out about The Murdocks while researching Cacophony Recorders (studio in Austin). Erik Wofford produced this album with The Murdocks and got such great results that it sealed the deal for me to encourage Alkari to decide to record there. The songs are super-catchy. I often wake up with these songs in my head. You have little chance to recover between songs before the next one beats you over the head with poppy grunge pop. After becoming a fan, I have been able to get in touch with the band and get them to come back to Houston. 2011 is going to be fun!
#4 The Whigs – In the Dark. I discovered The Whigs because they were listed on Rose Hill Drive’s Myspace top friends. They did some shows together. A few months later I found out they’d be playing SXSW 2010. We went to see them at SXSW (taking a $20 pedi-cab ride to get there just in time) on the first day of the fest, and they were one of the most memorable shows for me. Out of all the bands releasing an album this year, they remind me the most musically of my own band. That’s reassuring in a way, because they are currently opening for Kings of Leon in Australia. Hopefully I can get them to come to Houston on their own, instead of opening up a $35 show at The Woodlands that I have no interest in.
#3 Winter Wallace – Holiday EP. I had heard a couple of the songs on this EP online and thought they were beautiful, so I was excited to find out that Winter Wallace would be releasing a full EP, complete with a CD release party. The CD release show instantly made me a fan, but it wasn’t until I started digesting the EP that I fell in love with Winter’s music. The CD has stayed in my car CD changer for five months now, and I listen to it when I need a comforting voice.
Lyrically, Winter must have made some mistakes in her young life, because it seems like she’s asking for forgiveness a lot. I can relate, and I would have no problem forgiving her. The most impressive thing about this EP is the instrumentation and orchestration, which I assume producer and Sugar Hill Studio wizard Dan Workman must have had a lot to do with. Musically, Winter and her songwriting partner, Nolan Ryan Burke seem influenced by Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and Fiona Apple, though they uniquify (yes, that’s a word I just made up) themselves with unusual time signatures, such as on the song “Here’s To Everything.” Well, when people tell me that Houston has nothing going on, I can point to this (criminally overlooked) EP and tell them that in a just world, Houston would be a major national force in the indie-rock music scene.
#2 Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings – I Learned the Hard Way. Authentic. That’s the word to best describe Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. How fantastically cool is it that this band with a 54-year-old singer, whose sole aim is to get funky and entertain people, has been able to find fame and fortune far beyond the realm of Walter’s on Washington, where I saw them in 2008? In 2010, I got to see Sharon at Stubb’s on the first night of SXSW and naturally, the show was just as entertaining. Though these songs do seem almost stolen from a late 1960s Dionne Warwick album, they’re still beautiful and fun, and I listened to them over and over this year.
#1 Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago. The most important part of my day is the 30-45 minutes I spend walking Jake, my Rottweiller mix. This album is perfect for that walk. Somehow through their music, Shearwater is able to take you to far away dreamlands: to hidden islands full of tropical birds, to the sea on ancient vessels, to the mountains in a biplane, to wherever you can imagine. The sound is cinematic. I loved Rook, their last album, and checked their Website regularly to find out when the new album would arrive. I bought it as soon as it was available. It has been the album to beat since February, but no other album has matched it.
Well, there’s my list! I always do my best to uncover as much music as I can. I can’t say 2010 was the best year for music ever, but it wasn’t the worst, either. I’m sure there are gems that I missed out on, so I’ve been looking at other lists. So many of them have the same albums over and over. I’d try listening to some of those albums and just end up asking myself, “What’s so good about this?!” So thanks, but no thanks to all those critics who seem to be issued 100 albums from which to choose 20. END
Photo by J. Hart.