It's that time again. Another year gone and another year of lamenting bad decisions with the help of whiskey. I mean...Another year ends with hard task of picking the top ten albums of the past twelve months. It's very hard for me to do top albums of the year. I feel that I don't have enough time to digest every release and form a solid list of great albums. Ask me to do a top ten of 2009 or 1997 and I can bust that out in no time. But these are the albums that made an instant and/or lasting impression on me this past year. There might be a few albums on here you might not expect, but I hope you check them out and enjoy them. Without further ado, I now cram my subjective opinions down your throat in the form of my top ten albums of 2010. In particular order:
I never know how I’m going to receive a young singer/songwriter’s work. They’re younger than me. What would they possibly sing about that I could relate to? But Avi Buffalo’s group of 19 year olds won me over with their debut release. Their Built to Spill guitar work and Shins-esque vocals may be off-putting to the most snotty of music-snobs (as I’m sometimes accused of being), but their teenage sensibilities are not dumbed-down for the sake of the casual listener. Though the lyrics and track titles can be a bit adolescent (Five Little Sluts), the execution of the music and the overall themes of the songs more than make up for the bit of high-school wit scattered throughout the record. “What’s It In For” is a song that anyone of any age group can relate to, regardless of your experiences in life. Give these young folks from Long Beach a listen and you might find yourself in the same mindset as I am.
One listen through Trampled By Turtles Palomino and you’d think you were right in the heart of Kentucky. Well, think again because you’re smack dab in the middle of Duluth, Minnesota. On the band’s fifth release, they bring everything they possibly can to get you clapping your hands and stomping your feet. From the furious finger-picking opener “Wait So Long” to the lighter “New Orleans”, Trampled by Turtles provides a raucous concert type tone through the entire album. Palomino also highlights much more of the instrumental talent of the band. “Feet and Bones” makes me wonder just how many banjos the band goes through during a tour, seeing as how their lightning quick picking can easily set an instrument ablaze. I’d urge anyone remotely into bluegrass and folk to nab this album and, if you have the chance, check them out live.
Catharsis is defined as purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art. This word seems to pop into my head whenever I think about Zola Jesus’ 2010 Stridulum EP. Zola Jesus (Nika Roza Danilova), a 21 year old classically trained vocalist from the deep of Wisconsin, shows the full range of her astonishing operatic voice on her second EP. Stridulum takes away the lo-fi sound of her last full length release, The Spoils, and brings her voice to the forefront, cutting through the equally large synthesizer and pounding percussion. Her lyrics are not profoundly deep, nor do they have to be, but it’s her delivery of them is that brings out their cathartic nature. The opening track “Night” drives forward with pulsing tones leading to Danilova proclaiming “At the end of the night I can be with you”. This EP has been in heavy rotation for me since I discovered it this summer, and I don't plan on cutting back anytime soon. Though only six tracks in length, it’s a proclamation of what she can do on her next full length release.
I’m always excited to see debut albums on a year-end “best of” list. And Local Natives Gorilla Manor was one of the easiest albums for me to add to that category this year. Though often compared to other multi-vocal groups, Local Natives use their talents and come together to create a sort of garage-psych-folk ensemble. The three-part harmonizing is backed by some of the best percussion I’ve heard all year from drummer Matt Frazier. “Sun Hand’s” a cappella gang vocals caught me completely off guard, but in the “Oh my god, that was so amazingly out of nowhere” kind of off guard. “World New’s” poppy upstrokes and “Camera Talk’s” cheerful chorus have a very easy-going, So-Cal vibe about them, making this a perfect album to get lost in on a sunny, summer afternoon. Gorilla Manor is full of impressive hooks that are both flourishing and peaceful and can effortlessly make a lasting impression.
There’s one thing that you can count on Laura Marling always providing in her music: raw, gripping emotion. Her lovely, vociferous quality would make you think she’s lived through a lifetime of love, heartache and everything in between. It’s mind-boggling to imagine she is a mere twenty years old and putting out her second full-length release. Compared to her last release Alas, I Cannot Swim, I Speak is a much darker album. Marling weaves a tapestry of stark poetry using her entire vocal range. She provides some chilling moments when she dips her voice to almost a whisper (What He Wrote), and then jolts you to life with an uncontained flourish (Alpha Shallows). This isn’t to say the entire album is a downer. Rambling Man and Darkness Descends provide a well placed uplifting change of pace. But on a whole, the heavyhearted themes of I Speak shows the early maturity of a woman who still has a wealth of untapped talent.
This is probably the hardest album to sum up. Why? Well, here’s the deal. I absolutely love this album. What’s the problem? I have a tough time trying to describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it. Julian Lynch, an ethnomusicology grad student from New Jersey, has created something so profound with the release of Mare. He seemingly uses everything he’s learned about music and has constructed an album that has uses heavy influences from world music and mixes them with lo-fi, drowned out vocals, woodwinds and a touch of maracas. On the track “Ruth, My sister”, a clarinet plays alongside the muddied vocals while an organ keeps time in the forefront. “Still Racing” has a more traditional folk feel, with acoustic guitar plucking alongside angelic vocals. If you’re looking for something that veers off the beaten path, Mare is definitely worth giving a listen to.
I have, and probably forever will, love Arcade Fire. Having said that, putting The Suburbs on this list was a tough decision at first. Whenever the indie-rock “community” is buzzing about an album or band, I tend to go into listening with reserved judgment. But buzz or no buzz, a great album is just that; great. I live in a sprawling, suburban nightmare, so hearing front man Win Butler lament about the pitfalls of being stuck on a veritable dead-end environment has a lasting impression on me. Almost all aspects of suburban life can be found throughout the album. From growing up and moving forward (My old friends / They don’t know me now) to refusing to be put in the “friend zone” (But I would rather be alone / Than pretend I feel alright), Arcade Fire takes lyrical themes that could be considered hackneyed and turns them into consequential scenarios. Back by the dramatic, bracing sound that the band is known for and Butler's beautiful wife Régine Chassagne, The Suburbs offers plenty of sing-along moments over the course of it's sixteen tracks.
I’m very skeptical about high-profile releases. I just can’t help it. It’s the music snob that lives deep within me. And at first, I felt I was correct in that skepticism during my first few listens through The National's High Violet. But this was one of 2010’s “Grow on me” albums. Matt Berninger’s baritone singing of self-loathing stories started to seep into my brain, while the orchestrated tones of the music kept me constantly interested in moving from song to song. Tracks like “Sorrow” and “Afraid of Everyone” struck personal notes, which made the connection to the album that much easier. High Violet is a beautifully crafted, expertly produced album offering numerous breathtaking moments. Each track is a buildup of tension, and Berninger's vocals act as a sort of lighthouse in a building fog. Though The National aren't getting avant garde with this album by any means, High Violet can easily keep you hooked well through 2011.
It’s very hard for bands to “out-do” a great debut album. Frontier Ruckus’ Orion Songbook is still one of my favorite albums of the past ten years. But with the release of Deadmalls and Nightfalls, that album was knocked down one notch. Matt Milia and company return and take their sound forward by leaps and bounds with their most recent release. Tempo, instrument breaks and even the overall theme displays the maturation that occurred since Orion’s release. Milia’s lyrics flow more poetically and brilliantly on Deadmalls, while banjo, horn, singing saw and backing vocalist Anna Burch compliment his quivering tones to perfection. The album highlights travels through urban decay and corrosion in a way that makes those environments somehow seem beautiful. Fruckus takes songs that don’t just captivate their home state of Michigan, but also make the songs accessible to anyone around the country looking for some amazing pop-folk.
Kristian Matsson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man on Earth, has been my musical obsession for the past couple of years. Since the release of his debut EP in 2006, it’s rare that a day goes by where I don’t listen to TTMOE at least once. On his latest full length release, Matsson uses every track on the album to slowly evolve, all leading up to the piano driven finale “Kids on the Run”. Throughout, he switches between expertly plucking his strings and a forceful strum while using his strident voice to provide raw, gritty emotion to every lyric that flows through your speakers. “You’re Going Back” shows the petulance that rarely comes forward in any of The Tallest Man’s songs (You said "Driver, please don't go that fucking way). On the opposite hand, “Love Is All” demonstrates Matsson's despondent side (And I'll throw it in the current that I stand upon so still / Love is all, from what I've heard, but my heart's learned to kill), yet still has a hint of optimism in the tempo. Reinforced by themes of nature and hopeless romanticism, The Wild Hunt is handily my top pick for the year that was 2010.
Honorable Mentions (Everyone does it...) - Lost In The Trees - All Alone In An Empty House, Phantom Buffalo - Cement Postcard With Owl Colours, Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be, Wolf Parade - Expo '86