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Records of the Year 2010, Part Two

January 15, 2011

Now for contenders for 2010 Album of the Year (standout songs and gigs too, below). Unlike 2009, when nearly every blogger’s and journalist’s end-of-year list culminated in the omnipresent one-two of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, 2010 seems to have been a somewhat more diverse year. I’ll confess that of the various majorish online Best Of lists I’ve looked at, I have heard precisely none of their suggested title-holders. Pitchfork predictably went with Kanye West, following the rapturous perfect-10.0 review they gave My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as did Stereogum; I’ve heard bits of the Janelle Monae record feted by the Guardian, but rather lost the will to live before getting to the end; and the NME and Drowned in Sound picked albums by These New Puritans and Emeralds respectively. All of which passed me by, I’m ashamed to say. Maybe this time next year?

So here goes, with my own rundown.

Deerhunter Halcyon Digest

Their fourth record draws together and sharpens the strongest bits of previous Deerhunter albums, and jettisoned (mostly) the lack of focus that prevented those past albums being wholly embraceable. Here the songs are disinterred from electronic washes, the drones and static have largely vanished, and the tunes themselves are presented with a new shine and swagger. There’s so much power to these songs — the emotional clout of ‘Helicopter’ and ‘He Would Have Laughed’ — and such an easy, casual complexity to them (the interlocking puzzle-box arpeggios of ‘He Would Have Laughed’ (again), the variations-on-a-theme long outro to ‘Desire Lines’). Bradford Cox sighs, coos and rants: he somehow sings opener ‘Earthquake’ as if he’s inhaling it through a cigarette going to embers in extreme close-up, and his wordless sigh at the end of the tremendous ‘Helicopter’, an improbably beautiful song about drug-abuse, prostitution and murder, is the saddest and most uplifting sound on an album that had more emotional clout than anything else I heard all year.

The National High Violet

This unexpectedly gained points from the ‘expanded version’ which came out six months after High Violet‘s initial release, and included a new version of album opener ‘Terrible Love’ which this time didn’t sound like it had been recorded inside a sock. That first track was the weakest point on an exceptional record, and the new version seamlessly replaces it. A graceful, articulate and moving album, with some of Matt Berninger’s best lyrics yet (on ‘Lemonworld’: “I gave my heart to the Army, the only sentimental thing I could think of; | With cousins and colours and something overseas, but it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”). There’s some sense of by-numbers, however: in ‘Conversation 16’, “I think the kids are in trouble | To not know what all their troubles are for” recalls similarly recursive lines from past National highlights (the opening line of ‘Ada’ on Boxer is “Ada, don’t talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk”): this gets distilled into a line like that in the glorious ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’: ‘I still owe money to the money to the money I owe’, a perfect summation of where we are, societally, at the end of the first decade of the new century. The album ends, implausibly, on not one but three highlights: the aforementioned ‘Conversation 16’, a modern-life-is-a-nightmare fantasia where the singer dreams he’s a zombie feasting on his lover’s brains; ‘England’, a cathedral-sized anthem*; and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, which builds itself into a somehow crestfallen crescendo: like Arcade Fire, further down this list, The National can pin weary, teary lyrics to the most uplifting and soaring of sounds. And no review should avoid mentioning Bryan Devendorff’s brilliant drumming, which starts and stops ‘Lemonworld’ so precisely, or punctuates the new ‘Terrible Love’ with pulse-racing flourishes. All through High Violet he’s there adding a subtle, persistent and winning underscore.

*I wanted to expand on this by giving the lyrics to this song’s coda, which is so good it makes me want to run into walls, but the internet has foiled me here: the words may be “Try to be nice, spend a night with the sinners”, “Afraid of the heights, spend a night…” or even “Afraid of the house, spend a night..” — or, most likely, none of the above (even the The National message-board users can’t agree). Whatever Berninger’s singing, it’s likely the most persuasive message I’ve ever failed to understand.

Caribou Swim

Fluid dance music. Pulsing ‘Kaili’ sloshes from speaker to speaker, primordial ape-squawks punctuate ‘Odessa’, and on closer ‘Jamelia’ the album’s only full vocal (sung by honey-voiced Luke Lalonde) competes with a demented, cartoon-queasy steel drum onslaught. On my favourite, ‘Leave House’, the numerous modular elements from which the song is constructed are individually identifiable to the point where you could, if bored, relatively easily deconstruct the piece back to a sort of circuit diagram — thus its similarity to dance music — yet this isn’t to the song’s detriment. Somehow flute loop, percussion track, glaring synth wash, incantatory vocal lines, et al, produce this uncannily enveloping effect. I didn’t love Caribou’s psychedelic, post-Mercury Rev workouts or their footling electronica, back in the early 2000s (when the band was known as Manitoba, before the entire Canadian state sued musician Dan Snaith for stealing the name — no, not really), but Swim is a revelation, warm and seductive enough for beach listening but chill and precise enough for winter too.

Titus Andronicus The Monitor

The only album I heard all year, possibly all decade, which deployed bagpipes without sending me rushing to change the record. ‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’, fourteen minutes long, turns into a martial anthem in its last section, capping off a spectacularly literate (and highly scatological — I don’t think there’s one full song on it without bodily functions mentioned) album from people who are frankly too damned young to be making music so articulate and thrilling. From the moment ‘A More Perfect Union’ crashes in, (mis)quoting Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg in the space of two lines, this is something special: a theme record about the American Civil War which turns the terrorised refrain ‘The enemy is everywhere!’ into a rallying call — then even more spectacularly, on ‘Escape from No Future’, does the same for the seemingly hectoring phrase ‘You will always be a loser’. I watched the CAMP Basement audience turn into a pogoing, air-punching, bellowing mass for that one, berating themselves, each other, the band, existence itself. Without doubt the liveliest, cleverest record of the year.

 

Crystal Castles Crystal Castles [II]

I ‘m just the right age to remember Rave but not to have participated in it, had I the inclination, which both does and doesn’t explain why there are songs on Crystal Castles that make me feel like I’m having some incredible nostalgia flashback. But the buzzsawing rave-electro of ‘Baptism’ takes me… somewhere, and ‘Not in Love’ (the non-Robert Smith version) seems as familiar and comforting as if I’d been familiar for twenty years with the original Platinum Blonde version. Some of their more abrasive corners have been sanded off this second CC record, but there’s enough enjoyable Radiophonic Workshop squawk to ensure this isn’t a total reinvention: ‘I Am Made of Chalk’ illustrates the progression, howls and fuzzes and pulses giving way to a glacial soundscape. ‘Suffocation’ is strangely sweet, and there’s an 8-bit boxing match on penultimate track ‘Intimate’ which will appeal to listeners whose favourite parts of their first LP were the ones which sounded like two Nintendo Gameboys having a violent argument or rowdy sex.

Matthew Dear Black City

More or less only here because of the title track, which is really three distinct and excellent songs squashed together. This is a darker, more industrial take on Dear’s particular brand of electro-pop: where previous LP Asa Breed was all about trying different songwriting techniques and styles, Black City is a more coherent and concrete statement. It all gets a little too dark at times, with ‘Monkey’ being especially silly, but elsewhere its goth-glam mix makes it sound like a strange parallel-universe version of David Bowie’s Young Americans (‘I Can’t Feel’ is Thin White Duke gone dark). ‘You Put a Smell on Me’, meantime, just about overcomes its awful title and clear debt to ‘Warm Leatherette’ by being insistently, industrially danceable. Opener ‘Honey’ is gloriously sleazy, Dear chanting “Would you like some? Would you like some?” in a way which is either dirtily seductive or worryingly violent.

Arcade Fire The Suburbs

All right, it’s too long. But… while I could lose ‘Wasted Hours’ and ‘Deep Blue’ without much regret, it becomes increasingly difficult after that to edit Arcade Fire’s third album down any further: maybe the husky, vaporous closing track? But that revisits and ties off so many of the album’s themes, musical and metaphorical — this is a record about might-have-beens, past lives, the meaning of ‘home’, the need to escape suburbia and suburbia’s simultaneous need to consume and embrace and absorb. These themes are established on the title track, whose lyric is reprised halfway through the record on ‘Suburban War’: we get a brief, pointed sketch of the suburban scene (“In the suburbs  I learned to drive, | and you told me we’d never survive — | so grab your keys: we leave tonight”) This is elaborated throughout: “Dead shopping malls rise | Like mountains beyond mountains, | And there’s no end in sight,’ sings Regine on the justly-celebrated ‘Sprawl II’, which improbably but winningly reinvents the doomy Canadians as 80s synth-pop shimmerers. All this sounds potentially snotty — those cramped suburbs we escaped! — but Win and Regine’s ghost voices at the end, singing almost acapella, reflect on these formative experiences: ‘If  I could have it back, all that time we wasted, I’d only waste it again… I’d love to waste it again’. Elsewhere Neon Bible standout ‘Keep the Car Running’ gets a makeover as ‘Ready to Start’ (the drum line is very similar, but no less storming for that); Arcade Fire do Stereolab drone on ‘Month of May’; the gorgeous string-saturated ‘Half Light I’ leads into the thundering ‘Half Light II (No Celebration), and, completing the central trio of the record, ‘Suburban War’, this record’s highlight, explores these sub-city streets and their weird self-awareness: ‘This town’s so strange: they built it to change, and while we’re sleeping, all the streets get rearranged’ (a particular obsession of mine, the geography which rewrites itself when you’re not looking, which is what you get for living in Soho for twelve months). Then there’s ‘Rococo’, oh, and ‘We Used to Wait’ — almost too good. Obviously this is not a perfect LP, obviously you would get hammered playing a drinking game based around the lyrics’ mentioning of the words “kids” or “suburbs”, and obviously it’s not going to live up to all those Arcade Fire fans’ expectations — you know, the ones who are kicking Neon Bible in their Suburbs reviews. The fact remains, though, that these guys are better at their craft than any other world-class band of 2010.

Zola Jesus Stridulum/Stridulum II/Valusia EPs

Three EPs from which one can compile an ace ten-track CD-R. Zola Jesus threw off the murkiness and cavernous vocals of previous full-length The Spoils to produce a series of gleaming-clean, sci-fi goth-pop EPs this year. She’s sort of a dark Robyn, with the additional kudos (or impediment) of seemingly having invented the unlikely witch-house genre without really realising it. Of the ten songs she released in this prolific year, ‘Poor Animal’, a sort of ‘Tainted Love’ for 2010, is my current favourite, though it’s rivalled by the cloak-twirling ‘Night’, ‘Manifest Destiny’ (built around what could very well be a sample from the soundtrack to a 1988 Doctor Who serial) and the monumental — if you’ll pardon the pun — ‘Tower’, on whose second verse her awesome vocal falters and cracks in a peculiarly affecting way, an icon displaying human weakness. True, it can be a little one-note — upbeat sentiment sung to sound doomy — and that may be the inevitable consequence of having so distinctive and powerful a voice. But ‘Poor Animal’, her last song of 2010, suggests a potential change of emphasis to something more overtly dance-orientated, which could be fun. Of all the artists on this list, Zola Jesus is the one I’m most excited to see what they do next.

Sufjan Stevens The Age of Adz

Sufjan’s comeback after both the unsurprisingly abrupt end to his fifty state-themed albums project (curtailed after two and a half, plus a motorway) and what he alludes to in interviews as a very difficult year was a blitz of squelchy, glitchy electronics grafted, with varying degress of success, onto his customary exceptional songwriting and busy, modular song structures. Where these fizzes and clatters underscore and carry the music (‘I Want to be Well’, the gorgeous ‘I Walked’), the results are lavish and exquisite, or in the case of ‘The Age of Adz’ itself, enjoyably terrifying — the addition of electronic gubbins hasn’t meant leaving out any of the other kitchen-sink instrumentation, so operatic yelps and punishing orchestral crashes are blitzing around here too. More is always more for Sufjan, which leads to the record’s most outlandish statement, ‘Impossible Soul’, the twenty-five minute closer I have managed to listen to precisely once (with a tea break halfway) and which is more endurance test than showstopper. I do, though, rather miss those quiet, sighingly simple, devastating songs such as ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’ or ‘For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti’, which on previous albums eclipsed his busier, buzzier pieces.

Robyn Body Talk

Pop album of the year, obviously. I defy anyone not to fall for the triple-whammy of ‘Indestructible’, ‘Call Your Girlfriend’, and ‘Dancing on My Own’, which draw from three decades of dance-pop to bedazzling effect. I can hear a burst of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Always on My Mind’ in ‘Dancing on My Own’, and ‘Indestructible’ not only quotes Kylie Minogue’s ‘Hand on My Heart’ but very considerately leaves a gap after the line where a sample of same could, by some enterprising DJ, be patched in. It’s difficult to talk of highlights, though the barbed sympathies of ‘Call Your Girlfriend’, in which the new boyfriend is advised to phone his old flame and tell her a whole list of reasons Robyn’s a better bet, is pretty delicious. This Body Talk is a pick’n’mix of songs from the three mini-LPs Robyn released during 2010, and while I imagine that fans who picked the trilogy up might quibble with the track order here, or lament exclusions from this distillation, the casual listener gets the impression that Robyn has thrown out fifteen glorious pop songs, high-energy but tinged with a Nordic gloom familiar from Annie, Lykke Li, Fever Ray et al, as easily as breathing.

Bubbling under: Ring by Glasser, which is half Bat for Lashes-style weird warmth (‘Apply’, ‘Home’ and the beautifully melancholic ‘T’) and half meandering, offensively inoffensive background music; Dum Dum Girls’ spiky, clever, and touching I Will Be, which rushes from the brutal ‘It Only Takes One Night’ to their lovelorn cover of ‘Baby Don’t Go’ in barely thirty minutes; and the second Yeasayer album, Odd Blood, whose cartoony and — dare I say it — zanier moments (‘Ambling Alp’, ‘Rome’, ‘Mondegreen’) are effortlessly outshone by the beautiful ‘Madder Red’, whose unironic warmth of sentiment made it seem a transmission from a parallel-universe Fleet Foxes.

Best songs of the year: Kurt Vile’s beautiful ‘In My Time’, from a forthcoming LP due early in 2011; Keep Shelly in Athens’s ‘Running Out of You’ and ‘Eyesore’ by Women, both of which I’ve blogged about before; Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s glorious ‘Round and Round’, and the equally brilliant, soaring ‘What’s In It For?’ by Avi Buffalo, neither of whose records lived up to the impossible promise of these two brilliant singles; and Owen Pallett’s beautifully constructed ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’, which likewise was so good I didn’t dare listen to his LP; two soul-fed-through-distortion masterpieces of atmosphere, How to Dress Well’s ‘You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going’ and Wise Blood’s ‘Loud Mouths’; ‘Comin’ Through’ by (the horribly-named) The War on Drugs; and the song which lived up to the hype about Janelle Monae, ‘Cold War’, a song that never seems to get old or less intensely felt. Brilliant.

Most disappointing releases: well, I’m sorry to say that Joanna Newsom’s comeback Have One On Me left me quite cold, though that’s something to do with the sheer quantity of music, and the fact that for the most part this is two hours in much the same tempo and mode throughout. Turns out that some of those squeakier mannerisms might have been better not being shorn off. On the other hand, the outstanding ”81′ and ‘The Good Intentions Paving Company’ make me hope that this will be a long-term grower: thus far, though, while the honesty and cleverness of her lyrics is intact, the record feels the absence of, say, the divine (melo)drama of ‘Only Skin’ from her last album Ys or the wildly weird Lisa-Simpson-vs-harpsichord plonking of ‘Inflammatory Wit’ from her debut. Also disappointing, Wolf Parade’s third, Expo 86: again there’re a couple of properly awesome songs on there, but rather too late, even if ‘Yulia’ and ‘Cave-O-Sapien’ make for a tremendous closing pair. The rest is slick and unexperimental, and sounds like the work of a much more confident and polished band — and regrettably a less interesting one — than produced Apologies to the Queen Mary. Only Wolf Parade, contradictory to the last, could make ‘getting better’ a detrimental thing. And LCD Soundsystem’s maybe-not-final-after-all-record This is Happening failed to live up to its title: though maybe ‘This is a series of watered-down retreads of James Murphy’s favourite records, including ‘White Light/White Heat’ (‘Drunk Girls’), ‘”Heroes”‘ (‘All I Want’) and ‘Nightclubbing’ (‘Somebody’s Calling Me’)’ would have been a bit difficult to fit on the cover. ‘Pow Pow’ and the glorious ‘Throw’ (a genuine cover rather than a knock-off) showed that LCD could still do it when they wanted to, but this was a bit of a misstep in a career which had previously seemed unimpeachable.

And finally, gigs of the year. 2010 was another year of variously exciting reunions, and I was glad to finally see Pavement (in not-too-churlish mood) and to be reacquainted with Suede, Glasgow’s forever bouncy The Yummy Fur (largely ignored during their heyday, such as it was, despite releasing the astoundingly good Sexy World album, it’s strange but nice to see them now regularly quoted as vastly influential on today’s post-Arctic Monkeys indie music) and Canada’s dour, brilliant Godspeed You! Black Emperor (and their moveable exclamation mark), now something of a curio in many ways. As mentioned above, Titus Andronicus put on a frantic and exciting show, as did Fucked Up, the gig I looked forward to with most trepidation, though as hugely entertaining frontman Pink Eyes goes through the crowd he does seem to have a preternatural ability to know which of the audience members (your correspondent) doesn’t want to be bear-hugged, permitted to sing a line, or otherwise interacted with. Surprise highlight of the year was Throbbing Gristle, briefly reunited before the not-unexpected rapid redeparture of singer Genesis P. Orridge and the much less expected and adder death of founder member Sleazy. Playing the fully-lit Village Underground in Shoreditch, TG won over a crowd of hippies, hipsters, fashion students, drugged-up lovers, and everyone else besides. I knew nothing of their oeuvre and came away fantastically impressed. See the storming ‘Discipline’, which they reluctantly played as a much-demanded encore, on Youtube for a flavour.

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One Comment
  1. partikal7 permalink

    Check the history according to P-Orridge:

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