December 23, 2010

Albums of 2010 part 2 (10-1)

10. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker (Modular)
It's nearly impossible for me to listen to Tame Impala without thinking of the Beatles and getting a bit nostalgic about classic rock. On Innerspeaker, there's no shortage of psychedelic jams; Zeppelin, Hendrix are all invoked here. And surely some of the credit for this big "classic" sound is due to Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann. Remember that supposed garage rock revival in the early 00s? Tame Impala's high octane riffs and melodic vocals wouldn't have sounded out of place during this retro revival, but their Aussie rivals (i.e., the Vines) would have fled for the hills.

"Solitude is Bliss"

9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Merge)
This record provided part of the soundtrack for my relocation to Edmonton. It was especially appropriate for the drive through Calgary (shudder). The Suburbs isn't perfect, but it has the kind of emotional energy that only Arcade Fire can provide. Thematically, it's also the group's most sophisticated record; sure, the ideas are big and obvious (that's kind of a given in pop music), but the Arcade Fire handle them with delicacy and nuance. (Read my initial review.)

"Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)"

8. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me (Drag City)
With every release, Joanna Newsom becomes more surprising and less compromising. That being said, Have One on Me is more relaxed and refined than both Ys and The Milk-Eyed Mender. When the drums kick in on the effortless, swaggering "Soft as Chalk," for example, Newsom seems unsurpassable in her coolness. She steals a few octave jumps from Joni Mitchell, clumsily pounding the ivory like every great folk artist before her. By now, it seems inappropriate to even question her place among the finest of folk-singers.


7. Future Islands - In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey)
Over the last six months Sam Herring has become one of my favourite vocalists. Channelling Frank Black, Carey Mercer, and Ian Curtis, Herring's ecstatic growl cuts against up-tempo beats and new wave ornaments. Amounting to nine tracks in under forty mintues,  In Evening Air is a punchy record, as affective as it is economical. (It also doesn't hurt that In Evening Air boasts some of the best album artwork of the year.) Musically, Herring & co. demonstrate plenty of range (from the angsty "Tin Man" to the hopeful, introspective "Swept Inside"), and the emotional drive that sustains this album (which rests heavily on Herring's vocal maneuvers and the chugging basslines) never feels forced or contrived.

"Tin Man"

6. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest (4AD)
2008's Microcastle seemed like a big leap for Deerhunter (a leap that ended up being my favourite of the year); on Halcyon Digest, the band's feet are firmly planted. The ambient diversions and transitions have all but disappeared. Instead, we get a more diverse display of Deerhunter's best qualities. At times it's a pretty heavy record: mortality, aging, and transcendence are, as usual, heavily mined themes. Bradford Cox still seems preoccupied with obscure stories of religious affectation ("Revival" and "Helicopter"), while secondary songwriter Lockett Pundt aims for arena-rock with "Desire Lines." Cox & co. have yet to disappoint with their songwriting, but it's the stylistic moves and the instrumental additions (like the wicked saxophone solo on "Coronado") that make Halcyon Digest a great record.

"Desire Lines"

5. Beach House - Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
Sometimes its a good thing that music puts you to sleep. On Teen Dream, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally practically pull open the covers and crawl into bed with you. When this album leaked early last spring, I made sure to keep it circulating through my stereo. Nearly every song could be a single and nearly every song could make for a great cover by a children's choir (please do yourself a favour and check out "Zebra," sung by the P22 Chorus). No record this year was as soft around the edges, as warm or as comforting. Teen dreams make for the best kind of nostalgia; Beach House present them with all of emotion and none of the regret.


4. The National - High Violet (4AD)
I like to imagine that The National's frontman Matt Beringer is the Don Draper of the indie rock world. It works on a few levels. Both dudes manage to embody a sadness that's not only believable, but attractive; they're both solitary figures with family problems (see, for example, the heart-wrenching "Lemonworld") and neither one is shy about his dependence on certain substances to make it through the day (and night). But the parallel breaks down just as easily. Beringer comes by his confessions honestly. Not only that, he's a sad dude you can actually relate to. I've given up wondering whether High Violet improves on 2007's Boxer, or even 2005's underrated Alligator. It may take less time to warm up to the National's new material than it used to be, but songs like "Anyone's Ghost," "Bloodbuzz Ohio," and the unbelievably epic "England," have serious staying power. And how can you not love I guy who confesses, "I was afraid I'd eat your brains"? I want to see this song ("Conversation 16") on The Walking Dead. I love albums that finish strong. High Violet ends as strongly as it begins. (Read my initial review.)


3. Menomena - Mines (Barsuk)
No one sounds quite like Menomena; but somehow Menomena manage to sound like almost everyone. Paradox! Well, it might be if I didn't have qualify it so much. But the point still stands. Menomena dwell in contradiction, and it appears they're quite suited for it. Brent Knopf's slight vocals appear pinned against massive walls of sound, while the rich baritones of Danny Seim and Justin Harris are just as often laid bare. If this is music for the end of the world, why do these guys insist fighting the forces of darkness with the weapon's of a bygone era? Why do they keep singing about religion when it's just as dead as everything else? Those familiar tropes keep popping up, and just as often, Menomena go for boldly sentimental choruses, with equal parts squealing guitar rawk and booming choral chant. With three brilliant multi-instrumentalist songwriters working together, Menomena's music is always more than the sum of its parts, and the songs on Mines move around so much you never know quite where you'll end up. (Read my initial review.)


2. Balmorhea - Constellations (Western Vinyl)
Thank God for this album. For most of the semester it was the only music I could study to. But classifying it as "study music" sells it short. Constellations is an achingly beautiful hybrid of southern folk and classical arrangements; imagine a cross between dust-bowl sounds of Gillian Welch and the careful precision of the French pianist, Debussy. It's the only instrumental album on my list, but the fourth album by this band from Austin, Texas seemed like a special discovery this past year and I'm grateful for the composure it offered during the long autumn months. There's nothing immediately jawdropping here; instead Balmorhea strive for slow-building understatement while staying true to their southern beginnings. Perhaps this strange fusion explains why these carefully arranged Constellations sound so warm and inviting.


1. Women - Public Strain (Flemish Eye / Jagjaguwar)
Women had a mixed year. After releasing their second album to critical acclaim, the band made headlines for self-destructing on stage at show in Victoria, BC. I had tickets for their show in Edmonton the following weekend. I've never had to return tickets and I never expected that I'd have to do so because a band broke up the week before I was supposed to see them. By this point in November, I knew Public Strain was my favourite album of the  year. It may be odd to say for an album this noise-y, but this was my go-to album when I felt stressed out during the past semester. Like the snow storm featured on their album cover (totally surrounding its victims, making for poor visibility), Women smother their surf-guitar pop in dissonant feedback. That might have been too obvious, but I'd add that Women's musical blizzard is the kind of storm you take comfort in. At times Public Strain feels like the musical equivalent of wearing beer-goggles: disorienting, disconcerting, and kind of fun. Like the best experimental art-rockers (seriously, Sonic Youth, just quit and pass the torch to these guys; the same goes for No Age), Women make you work for those melodies; there's some digging to do here, but when you find that golden chord it feels new every time. I'm looking forward to their reunion tour. (Read my initial review.)


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