Music: Christian Death: Ashes (1985)
For the past five years I’ve been publishing a list of my favorite “pop” albums before the new year begins. I’ve limited myself to “pop” because it’s my favorite genre, but also because I like just about everything “music” and I need constrain my adoration to make this annual ranking possible to write in a timely fashion.
The trouble with being a music-lover in the digital age is that there is simply too much to pick from; I listen to as much music as I can cram into my day (it’s constantly on), but even then, I know I have missed out on a number of choice artists that I might love even more than those I recommend below. That’s what the comments section is for, friends: every year y’all tell me to check out something that is awesome. I expect you to bring it!
Here are my top fifteen pop picks for 2010, in alphabetical order. I’ve tried to recommend bands or artists that are less familiar to the mainstream (for example, Cee-Lo’s The Ladykiller is unquestionably among the best albums of the year, but I suspect y’all know that already). Here we go!
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs: Alright, I know my rule about not recommending bands that have already “made it” is broken by mentioning this album. But shit: it’s that good. This is a band that is making music from experience, and from sentiments that I find myself implicated in, but in a way that is not courting the top-40 chart. Not one of these songs aspire to radio, but branch out on a narrative that attempts to capture our childhood experiences in the “development” in the middle of nowhere. It just nails it (especially the song about “waiting”; nothing captures suburbia better than the theme of waiting). Jangly guitars, fiddles, minor chords. This is a band that writes pop music that is catchy, but is not marketed. And that’s probably why it’s so marketed (it feels genuinely inspired, not produced for profit). There’s just no denying the honest affect of the album. What I’m so very, very appreciative of is that this is an album. Arcade Fire have made an a record that doesn’t make much sense as a series of “singles.” You need to listen to the whole thing to get the statement. And the whole is dramatic and beautiful; they make the cul-de-sac a philosophical statement. Now that’s something.
The Besnard Lakes: The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night: Although I’m listing my favorites alphabetically, this album is up there as the top or runner up album of the year. A husband and wife indie outfit from Montreal (Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas), the Besnard Lakes create epic-style pop reminiscent of Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky, but with lyrics that evoke film noir plots and spy novels. Lots of power-chords. Lots of swelling guitar wankery. And lots of Beach Boy harmonies. I’ve always had a penchant for long songs, songs that build and build and take their time to develop. This album is full of that sort of sonic construction, easing into melodies that drift and melt only to end in triumphant crescendos of powerful strumming and four-part harmonies. It’s melancholic stadium rock with a story and a kind of cryptic introspection not typical of pop. It’s a big, Phil Spector “wall of sound” kind of sound. With just two of ’em, I do I wonder how they pull this off live—and I hope I’m lucky enough one day to see and hear for myself!
Blonde Redhead: Penny Sparkle: This album has not reviewed terribly well (Pitchfork declared it boring “chillwave”), but I think that’s because headphones were not handy. In this recent effort the twins have ditched the dissonant guitars and picked up a few syths and drum machines. The result is a soulful, meandering, Eno-esque romp through gentle melodies and hushed sentiments. Careful listens reveal layer upon layer of subtle details—synth-lines that buoy, base-lines that undulate, and vocals that float on top like ice. The contrast of warm and cool—created in harmonious tones and subtle beats—overlaid with hushed and high feminine vocals (whether sung by dude or dudette) creates a relaxing vibe. I confess that 23 was among my best of the decade (slut for My Bloody Valentine that I am), and this doesn’t come close to that perfection. But it’s a different direction for Blonde Redhead, it’s their own R.E.M.’s Up. If you hated Up, you’ll hate this—but I like R.E.M.’s ambient experiment very much, and I very much like Penny Sparkle for similar reasons. It’s a soundtrack for lovemaking, not fucking. And that’s just fine—divine—by me.
The Delays: Star Tiger Star Aerial: Australia’s the Delays have a problem, and it’s their 2004 debut album Faded Seaside Glamour. That album remains in my top 100 best pop albums of all time (a fiercely competitive list, I should add); it is about as close to pop perfection as albums get (the song “Closer to Heaven” touches the face of God). The Delays subsequent albums have been progressively bad, teetering into the saccharine and groveling toward commercial recognition. Star Tiger registers the band returning to what it does best: following inspiration, not the AUD or the airwaves. Less electronic than the last two albums, Star Tiger amplifies the “rock”—most pointedly in the drums and electric guitar—but still holds on to that dream-pop sound aided by well-placed synth-riffs. Greg Gilbert’s voice is still the shining instrument, with a range that can only be compared to Frankie Valli: a gravel-y bottom and an angelic falsetto. Their sound is unquestionably singular, but fans of The La’s and the Beach Boys will like this album; it’s upbeat, harmonic, and soaring. It’s the Delays’ second best album to date, and one you shouldn’t miss.
Drive-By Truckers: The Big To-Do: One of my biggest live music disappointments this year was seeing the DBT at Stubb’s amphitheatre. They put on an amazing set—one that really took off in the second half (as they worked toward a Lenard Skynard-style jam-along). It was a great show, except for this: they only played three songs from The Big To-Do. I reckon they reckoned the album was too new to play too much from, but I went to the show thinking this was the album they would highlight (it was, after all, The Big To-Do album that they were promoting!). DBT have yet to make an album that sucked, and their genius of songcraft is unparalleled in the country-rock genre. They craft songs that tell a “story,” but unlike most country songsmiths, the stories their songs tell are all true. The twangy highlight here is “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” which relates the story of Matthew Winkler, a pastor who was killed by his wife after years-long (sexual) abuse. This is southern gothic music, to be sure: dark chords, melancholy lyrics (hell, there’s a mellotron on “You Got Another,” which sung by the bassist Shonna Tucker), and soaring builds of chords. This album rewards with repeated listens—the music is so expertly crafted and tight, and the lyrics are just so damn artful: it’s as if Morrissey plopped into a country band, but didn’t make shit up. I guess what I love about DBT is that the band captures so precisely my experience growing up in the deep south—a sound that makes sense, and lyrical acumen that is both smart and true to southern sensibility. Not all country music is cliché and stupid. DBT is ample proof.
Hurts: Happiness: Most folks this side of the Atlantic will have no idea who these guys are. I feel smug. And feeling smug is part of the enjoyment of the Hurts duo, since their image is that arrogant Duran Duran style: suits, tight hair, and . . . er . . . an opera singer as back-up (that is the one novelty of the act). This duo has flogged the airwaves in Europe (with some success) but yet to hit the US—and I suspect it’s merely a matter of time, since the 80s-come back music has been with us for at least five years. The music is delightfully over-the-top, in the vein of Camouflage, but with a difference, of course. The 80s references are in year face, but the homage is honest, as are the lyrics. The showpiece is lead singer Theo Hutchcrat’s pipes, which have a fairly good range from mid to high. He sings with an exaggerated breathiness and a pregnant restraint; when he lets the high notes fly, it’s . . . well, it’s operatic. This is unabashedly smart synth-pop that will feel very familiar to us 80s kids. But unlike a lot of synth-80s-revival bands of late—all whiteness and jangle—this album has a soulful underbelly with smooth, Sade-style sensibility (e.g., understated sax swoons on a track or two). Despite one schmaltzy “up with people” movie credits song that makes me throw-up in my mouth just a little (“Stay”), it’s a marvelous album, and lays claim to the territory staked-out by La Roux in 2009.
Junip: Fields: Acoustic guitar strumming up against fuzz-drone electronics. This is stoner music, no question. But it’s just done so well and sounds so effortless—like Cat Stevens making love to Steely Dan, but with lots more pot and a kooky mushroom or two. Woozy organ plays a large part in these tunes. Jose Gonzalez’s voice is soft and sweet, reminiscent of Bill Withers after a happy-ending massage. The album has a strong, California feeling with ambling melodies and occasional harmonies; it’s a “doo doo doot” kind of vibe. It’s what you play in the a.m. to chill out and wind down, just before sleep. It’s what you play after your third bong hit. Or, it’s what you play to stay calm in Austin traffic (my tack).
LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening: The minimalist, repetitive Bowie-esque remix of Roxy Music moves me. It’s all derivative, but still unique and a hell of a lot of fun. The difference between James Murphy and his influences, however, is humor: dude absolutely does not take himself seriously, which makes this album such a hoot. In “All I Want,” a blatant rip-off of Bowie’s “Heroes,” he sings “Wait, for the day you come home from the lonely park/Look, for the girl who has put up with all your shit/You’ve never needed anyone for so long.” Pretentious music this is not, which is why, I think, we give Murphy so much slack for wearing his influences on his nose. This is a compellingly good romp—and it’s precisely because the artist is down-to-earth and laughs at himself that we let him get away with this. Oh, and it’s good pop music, that too.
Monarchy: Monarchy: Gimme an electronic handclap for another Australian/British synth-pop duo, Monarchy. I discovered Monarchy last year when Travis posted about them on the his “big stereo” blog; I fell in love with the music video for their second single, “The Phoenix Alive”. The album is consistently good, from the opening track that announces “Black is the Colour of My Heart” (you know, he knows she loves him but still) to brilliant closer “Travelling By Ambulance.” The duo are probably better known for doing remixes (the Lady Gaga remix of “Dance in the Dark” probably got them more notoriety than anything), but I think that’s about to change. Their dance-friendly debut will land in the states in January 2011, and I hope this smart pop gets the notice it justly deserves. The lead singer’s voice is “high” and often flits up to falsetto, and just about all the songs are about love and its loss. Highlights for me include “Floating Cars,” a slower ballad that plods along an electroclash/Gary Numan bassline as it aims for that home key: “Lost our patience we want floating cars/no grace for doves/Lost our patience we want floating cars/no god for us, no god for us.” I don’t know what it means exactly, but the song is real pretty. Finally, Monarchy gets bonus points for the most inventive use of Autotune on a couple of tracks (they use to for vibrato—a weird effect, but it works!). This one is tied with the Besnard Lakes for my top album of 2010. Very, very good.
The National: High Violet: I’m a sucker for falsetto done well, but I’m an even a bigger sucker for a booming baritone. The National get critical floggings for their anthemic pretensions, but these working class heroes actually make the anthem convincing, and not in the Coldplay douchebaggy sort of way. Mixing a bed of drone for more intricate guitar work set against some muddy percussion, the songs on High Violet reek of late night urban desolation. Happy music this is not, conjuring death-bed scenes in overwrought filmic dramas when Matt Berninger hits the high notes in the albums opener “Terrible Love” (“It takes an ocean not to break/It takes an ocean not to break”). Without question, the National make music that is your late-night, lovelorn drinking buddy. The highlight on the album is “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a rollicking ditty in which Berninger sings he stills owes money to the money he owes, and laments he’ll never marry (Morrissey reference? Probably not, but if Morrissey lived in the states it would be in Ohio). The secret weapon of the National is a rumbling, thudding piano, played as much for percussive effect as melody. This is a powerful album, admittedly not as strong as 2007s Boxer, but still earnest and authentic enough to imagine it as a soundtrack to your contemplative moments driving away from a city in which you hope your problems will remain and not follow. In the rain.
Passion Pit: Manners: The Berklee College of Music spawned this electronic pop fourtet (or at least three of the four), who make intensely happy, screamy ditties about . . . well, I’m not sure. The lyrics are fancy word plays about, I dunno, clouds and stuff. The lead sings in a high-register, reminiscent of the “scream” range of heavy-metal hair band croonage. The band layers strummy, tingly guitars on top of wicked electronic beats and a real drum kit. When it gets real good, they enlist the backing vocals of the famous Public School 22 elementary chorus from Staten Island, New York. The stand out track here is the single “The Reeling,” which begins with some inventive filter sweeps, drum kit, and then electronic vibes to a disco-dance beat. You’re probably heard this song somewhere, if not on a radio than in a grocery store: “Look at me, oh look at me/Is this the way I’ve always been? oh no, oh no,” with the PS22 lending a background vocal assist. If there’s one criticism of this fine debut, it’s that it’s so goddamn happy—who dey kiddn’? Still, this is a mood-lifting bit of boogie-pop, snappy and sharp and heart-rate raising. Work out to it.
O. Children: O. Children: Fronted by a baritone, six-foot-eight bad boy, Tobi O’Kandi, the O. Children’s debut album is intimidating at first listen: Joy Division meets Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds meets Grace Jones. Tobi’s voice is very deep; it’s “Old Man River” quality, I tell ya. This is a more radio friendly post-punk/goth-pop album with lots of rim-shot drumming, although I’m sure they avoided the “goth” label on purpose; this bleeds significantly beyond what folks would consider goth (e.g., the hand-claps on “Pray the Soul Away”). The bass is high up in the mix, often leading off tracks, the guitar is gothy at times and twangy-jangly at others (for And Also the Trees fans, you’ll find kindred souls here). They sing about death and a woman named “Malo” (which should be a tip-off, yes? Don’t date a lady named such unless you have bad teeth or wanna die). This is the sort of music you play only after dark, and preferably while riding a motorcycle. Or at least in a dark, smoky club. It’s influences are obvious, but it’s also very original and, well, brilliant. Johnny Cash and Bauhaus would be pleased.
Salem: King Night: As a teenager my musical nose always found it’s way to the weirdest, most out-there sounds, which I would embrace. I remember walking into the Turtles (an old record store chain, like Sam Goody) in Snellville as a 14 year old and asking the clerk, “what’s the weirdest music you have in the store?” I was handed Skinny Puppy’s ViViSect VI, and initially the music just flat-out baffled me. After a week with it, though, I “got it” and fell in love. Older now, I’m no longer the weird-seeker I once was, but . . . I can only explain the thrill I got when I listened to Salem’s King Night to my 14 year old music habits. This stuff is weird—delightfully weird. Dubbed “witch house,” Salem electronically bend and morph synths in a muddy Robotussen overdose mess: part “chopped and screwed,” part dub-step, part Boards of Canada, King Night offers up a moving, at times beautiful, experiment in genre busting. You can’t mix this with anything. You can’t compare it to anything. It is very interesting, and it does have melodies—ethereal ones, unless the song is more hip-hoppy (there are an equal dose of each). The closest comparison is probably to Crystal Castles, but this bests the latter’s output significantly. Just amazingly weird, and worth your money. Creativity like this deserves reward and praise.
School of Seven Bells: Disconnect From Desire: I fell in love with SVIIB’s debut album, first, for the Curve/Lush-like song “My Cabal” and that delicious ethereal drone and, second, for the beauty of twin vocalists Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. The second album was slow to grow on me, but once I “got it,” I got it. Unlike the debut, which is more dreamy in lyric and timbre, Disconnect is a more aggressive, rocking/dancing album. The electronics are more pronounced, and the beats are more dance-heavy (lots of drum machine here). The songs are built around the close harmonies of the Deheza sisters, which are slow and often build to a crescendo after flirting together in long, drawn-out croons. Despite the more upbeat, dreamy sound of the songs, the lyrics point to the end of a relationship or a nasty break-up. What sounds and appears like a love song, upon closer scrutiny, is anything but. The lovely song “I L U,” which builds on piano and a moaning texture reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, states: “I didn’t realize/I’d lost so many nights/Just trying to lose the pain/And I was a fool to think/It would be easier to leave/Than to be left behind.” The song sounds like it would be about abstract, ethereal observations about clouds and cupid, but clearly it’s about telling a past lover “I loved you” and have moved on. Bummer for that person. Anyone who makes music this pretty deserves better, I agree.
Scissor Sisters: Night Work: After a rather boring, too-heavy-on-the-Elton-John-70s-catalog sophomore effort, the subtly queer Scissor Sisters are back with an all out, scroticular, electronic, dance-floor assault. In many ways, this is their Thriller—only two ballads (thankfully). My favorite track, “Invisible Light,” features a monologue from Ian McKellen—the out and about counterpart to Jackson’s Vincent Price. And while the album stands up on it’s own merits, I have to say the video for “Invisible Light” is nothing short of genius, especially if you’re a fan of Italian horror movies from the 70s. This is just awesome:
SCISSOR SITERS| Invisible light from MGdM | Marc Gómez del Moral on Vimeo.
Don’t think this is an homage to bad Italian horror film? I defy you to watch The Visitor and tell me otherwise (I can loan it to you).
For the most part, Night Work is a dance-floor extravaganza, besting their first two albums for booty-shaking inspiration. And, unlike the first two albums, this one is gay on a stick. They out-gay any Erasure or Pet Shop Boys album you can name. They out-gay Jimmy Sommerville. The falsetto is toe-curlingly gay. The lyrics, unambiguously gay. They just explode gay more spectacularly than any pop outfit I can think of (even the Village Peeps). I think this album’s gay-popping gayness is a major artistic achievement, but unless you’ve seen the Scissor Sisters live, this is going to be hard to explain. I saw the Sisters on their first tour in 2003 in New Orleans at the House of Blues; during the show, I felt like I was at an Erasure show on steroids: the finale featured a giant, flashing bank of the rainbow flag with Jake pumping his semi-hard, spandexed groin in the air as confetti rained on the crowd. There’s nothing on the first two albums that comes close (pun intended) to hinting of the intense queerness of their live show. This album fixes that, but somehow in a way that does not veer into the sentimental cheesiness of majority of gay pop. This album is dirty and unapologetic. This is going to be the nu-disco album to top. Or bottom.
Yeasayer: Odd Blood: I bought this album by picking it up from an end-cap at Target. Such a move is the epitome of uncool—but hell, it was seven bucks! I learned of the band after the buzz they created here in Austin playing at both SXSW and ACL more than once, and they have been a darling of local radio for some years. It’s electronic pop fronted by yodel-y singing. Yeasayer combine interesting percussive rhythms with slabs of electronic tweaks and doodles; they make music that you wanna clap to. The stand out track is the single “O.N.E.,” which takes whoosh-whoosh percussion, rim-taps, and cowbell to new heights of electronic strangeness. What they do so well is combine fairly traditional lyrical melodies with inventive electronic experimentation and bass-driven rhythms. Reminds me, in a way, of “Fine Time” era New Order, but with superior vocals. The entire album is a gem of pop crispness, and I’m looking forward to hearing the next album of material. Yeasayer is the Cut Copy of 2010.