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The Year in Review 2010

Best of 2010

Critic: John Brodeur

1. Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

It’s a motherfuckin’ monster.

2. Elvis Costello

National Ransom

Still churning out records at an insane rate 35 years into his career, Costello struck gold with his latest genre-jumping masterpiece, his best full album since the mid-’90s.

3. Gil Scott-Heron

I’m New Here

The soul legend’s first record in 13 years is a stirring exploration of his trials and troubles, set to a singular electro-blues soundtrack courtesy of producer (and XL Records head) Richard Russell.

4. John Grant

Queen of Denmark

More trials and troubles, from a gay, Midwestern former drug addict. The members of Midlake provide ’70s folk-pop stylings, while Grant reels off some gloriously self-loathing prose. Some of the darkest songs you’ll ever whistle.

5. Big Boi

Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

The Outkast rapper’s first proper solo album may not be as sonically ambitious as Kanye West’s monsterpiece, but it’s every bit as cocksure and catchy. Best rapper alive? Yeah, probably.

6. Corinne Bailey Rae

The Sea

So sad, so beautiful. Dark and introspective and exceedingly well-produced.

7. The Posies

Blood/Candy

Power-pop maestros bounce back from the mediocre Every Kind of Light with the best album of their 23-year career. “Licenses to Hide” is the single of the year.

8. Quasi

American Gong

The Portland band’s first album as a trio is a lean, mean primer on all things Quasi: the flailing guitar skronk; the brilliantly cynical couplets; the sweet/sour harmonies. Start here and work backwards.

9. Neil Young

Le Noise

With Daniel Lanois at the controls, Young sets up shop and delivers the most unique set of his long career. It sounds like nothing else in Young’s catalog, and like no other “solo acoustic” album you’re likely to hear.

10. Elizabeth and the Catapult

The Other Side of Zero

The second album from the New York act led by Elizabeth Ziman is a heavenly pop exercise, with songcraft that recalls Aimee Mann and Fleetwood Mac, and production from Tony Berg that’s kitchen-sinky but never cluttered.

 

Best of 2010

Critic: Kirsten Ferguson

1. Bare Wires

Seeking Love

With 10 songs totalling little over 20 minutes, Oakland, Calif.’s Bare Wires keep it short but sweet, with a retro blast of oh-so-catchy, ’70s inspired garage-punk.

2. Kelley Stoltz

To dreamers

Sub Pop release from San Francisco indie songwriter Stoltz nears power-pop perfection; in a different world, songs like “Keeping the Flame” and “I Remember, You Were Wild” would be major hits instead of unheard masterpieces.

3. Tame Impala

InnerSpeaker

Shoegazer and stoner-rock collide in the best possible way for a hypnotic, Beatlesque batch of tunes baked in the Australian sun.

4. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists

The Brutalist Bricks

“Me I’m just a loner in a world full of kids, egos and ids,” sings Ted Leo on “Bottled in Cork,” one of his best songs yet. Leo’s had five full-lengths in 10 years with the Pharmacists and they’re all good.

5. Moon Duo

Escape

San Francisco psych-rock outfit Moon Duo, a project of Wooden Shjips guitarist Ripley Johnson, played a killer basement show in Albany this year; the duo’s first full-length has the mesmerizing grooves, freaky guitar excursions and memorable melodies of the Shjips’ best.

6. Charlotte Gainsbourg

IRM

Trippy French pop-electronica with lush arrangements, Gainsbourg’s breathy vocals, and production by Beck is not a bad combination.

7. Roky Erickson with Okkervil River

True Love Cast Out All Evil

If you saw the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, you realize it’s a major miracle that psych-rock pioneer Erickson—who spent much of his adult life comatose in front of a TV—is now recording and touring around the world. Some of his live performances are still shaky, but he did a great job with this album.

8. Superchunk

Majesty Shredding

A return-to-form Superchunk is a good thing.

9. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

I Learned the Hard Way

In a world filled with child pop singers, it’s always refreshing to hear an adult woman sing it like it is.

10. Gaslight Anthem

American Slang

They definitely don’t hide their influences, from Bruce Springsteen to Social Distortion, and maybe their music is too earnest for some, but I still think they released some of the catchiest rock anthems this year.

 

Best of 2010

Critic: David Greenberger

1. Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen

For the Ghosts Within

As in Robert, Gilad and Ros, respectively, wherein Wyatt’s vocals (and a couple of his songs) are entwined with saxophone and chamber orchestrations giving such standards as “Lush Life” and “What a Wonderful World” a bearing that is unshakably emotive and intimately in the moment.

2. Mavis Staples

You Are Not Alone

Produced by Jeff Tweedy, and with all the emotive force of her Stax recordings. The Wilco leader wisely kept the settings built around her core combo, with his two originals (including the title track) upping the ante of his own catalog.

3. Peter Wolf

Midnight Souvenirs

Though Wolf came to the fore in the ’70s and ’80s via the machinery of musical corporations, they’ve not known what to do with him for the past two decades, during which time he’s made the greatest recordings of his life. A large multinational entity has fumbled the ball, but this album will outlive those atrophying suits.

4. The Figgs

The Man Who Fights Himself

The Figgs are that rare band who have stayed together long enough to pass from youth into middle age, while maintaining control of their own destiny. Meaning, they are not peddling nostalgia, but affording glimpses into the foibles and frailties of their own lives, making those who encounter the honest force of their music all the richer for it.

5. Los Lobos

Tin Can Trust

Built from solid and simple parts, Los Lobos continue to combine poetic and economical portraiture with the rhythms of life, love and community.

6. Paul Cebar

One Little Light On

The noble bandleader and songwriter has gone into the studio without his combo for this set, mixing originals with a few well- chosen covers. This is presented with just an acoustic guitar; Cebar set aside the groove of the dancefloor for the intimate confidence of a fireside recital.

7. Various Artists

Tribute to Os Mutantes: El Justiciero Cha Cha Cha

This album is that rare creature, a tribute album that works on its own terms. It flows, honoring the originals, while allowing itself room to breathe its own oxygen, leaving room for its own metabolism.

8. Richard Thompson

Dream Attic

Yes, dramatic indeed—the drama of world events, interpersonal intrigue and mortality have again shaped Thompson’s latest set of songs, given further edge by dint of their having been recorded live.

9. Brave Combo

Kikiriki

Together for over 30 years, Brave Combo are still celebrating polkas and dance music from around the world, but they are now the leaders of their own parade, following only their own sound impulses.

10. Roky Erickson with Okkervil River

True Love Cast Out All Evil

It’s a perfectly titled album, and the grim truths found in many of the songs are offset by Erickson’s life-affirming triumphs against demons from within and without.

 

Best of 2010

Critic: Josh Potter

1. Sufjan Stevens

The Age of Adz

One lesson from 2010 is that hype and anticipation can be a serious jinx for otherwise great artists (re: M.I.A., MGMT, Yeasayer, and the Panda Bear album that wasn’t). Sufjan Stevens gave the world a month-and-a-half notice for his first proper LP in five years, and it turned out to be his most ambitious. Another lesson: The world has finally (rightly) stopped regarding ambition as pretentious. The Age of Adz is Stevens at his most crushingly sincere and emotionally direct—accompanied by a robot orchestra. It’s the sort of project that whole new genres and movements are born of, and I can’t wait to hear what gets produced in the wake of this electro-baroque-folk-rock opus.

2. Joanna Newsom

Have One on Me

Speaking of ambition, harpist-pianist Joanna Newsom has made a game of topping audience expectations with each subsequent release, this time producing a triple album of tracks averaging seven minutes in length. It’s a commitment (best digested over the course of months), but well worth the effort, as Newsom’s songwriting is dense and nourishing, often opening into Joni Mitchell-esque choruses as a final afterthought to an otherwise patient, literate track. A hip-hop producer friend of mine once lamented that Newsom is “utterly un-sample-able,” and it’s precisely this quality that makes Have One on Me such a welcome relief from disposable blog fare.

3. Fang Island

Fang Island

But sometimes the blogs are right, and bands like Fang Island go from being virtual unknowns to opening for the Flaming Lips almost overnight. Self-described as sounding like “everyone high-fiving everyone,” the band work big-group vocals and the sound of fireworks into their manic, uptempo three-guitar rock. Their debut is a short little burst of a record, but it’s worth putting on repeat.

4. Mountain Man

Made the Harbor

I get chills just thinking about this record. Such is the power of crisp three-part harmonies. Mountain Man are hardly out of Bennington College, but the female trio’s debut of spare folk tunes is so haunting that it makes you want to deny their upcoming tour opening for the Decemberists and pretend they’re your own personal band of minstrels.

5. Flying Lotus

Cosmogramma

There was a burst of excitement this year in the world of indie electronica. But while artists like Caribou, Four Tet, Gold Panda, Pantha du Prince (et al.) generally leaned on a steady pulse reminiscent of early Detroit techno, Flying Lotus produced Cosmogramma, a masterful collage of fractured hip-hop, cosmic free jazz, dexterous instrumental collaborators, and Thom Yorke.

6. Fight the Big Bull

All Is Gladness in the Kingdom

Bandleader Matthew White makes a strong case on this record that the big-band formula is as fertile as ever. It helps that slide trumpet legend Steven Bernstein is present to second the motion. Fight the Big Bull are rapidly becoming the face of Gen Y jazz, collaborating this year with Megafaun and Bon Iver, but All Is Gladness in the Kingdom is their most stirring musical treatise.

7. The Books

The Way Out

It was a MASS MoCA residency that led to the creation of The Way Out, a record that combines the Books’ sterling musicianship with their thrift-shopper’s sense for found audio. Self-help tapes constitute the bulk of the album’s cheeky vocal samples, and they’re used in a way that’s both humorous and earnest enough to complement the band’s warm, searching syncopations.

8. Vampire Weekend

Contra

Like many, I was a total naysayer when, in 2008, Vampire Weekend became poster children for the power of the hype machine. Thing is, they make really friggin’ catchy music. Contra is an album full of radio hits, and, authenticity be damned, the band’s lilting Afropop is still one of the most distinctive things to happen to indie rock in a long time.

9. Emeralds

Does It Look Like I’m Here?

During a year when every block in Brooklyn housed a “glo-fi” or “chillwave” band, synthesizer sales were not suffering under the recessionary economy. Emeralds, however, were distinct in that they understood how to operate them. Updating a brand of ambient electronica that minimalist Terry Riley originated, Does It Look Like I’m Here? is a perfect example of how thin the boundary has become between experimental and popular methods of musicmaking.

10. Tame Impala

Innerspeaker

Tame Impala are another success story of the blogosphere, and were it not for that chatty cafeteria table, we’d probably be ignorant of these Perth, Australia, natives, who’ve since toured with MGMT and the Black Keys. Their nostalgia goes back a decade more than most, to the fuzzy, driving guitar rock of the ’70s, which comes as a nice break from synthesizers and drum machines.

 

Best of 2010

Critic: David King

1.Xiu Xiu

Dear God I Hate Myself

The sound of a tortured man making gorgeous music with ugly noises: Morrissey meets Einstruzende Neubauten; Joy Division meets Laibach. My own personal heaven.

2. LCD Soundsystem

This is Happening

The glory of the Bowie’s Berlin trilogy smashed up with irony and stabbing techno synth lines. The club mix for awkward tech-nerds.

3. The Black Keys

Brothers

The Keys added bop and groove to their blues and delivered the most nuanced album of their career.

4. Kanye West

My Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West is an egotist who loves pomp, and he did this album up with the right kind of bombast. I’m the kind of prick who can’t possibly deny that kind of self-indulgent swagger. Let’s hear it for the douchebags!

5. Dax Riggs

Say Goodnight to the World

Riggs’ songs keep getting slighter and slighter. It’s almost like he is slipping away into the ethereal world he sings about. That point where life and death meet—that sweet pain. Say Goodnight to the World is simply haunting.

6. Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles

A twisted piece of electronic-punk music that plays with the listeners’ emotions better than Hannibal Lecter. Like Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy,” this album “will eat your soul.”

7. Surfer Blood

Astro Coast

Big summery riffs, cheeky lyrics, with a beach vibe, all laid out on an impressive debut.

8. Daughters

Daughters

The best metal album of 2010 explodes with art-damaged noise and a lead singer ranting and mumbling like a drunk-on-the-toilet-seat Elvis.

9. These New Puritans

Hidden

A labyrinthine album constructed with disparate styles and ideas—samples smashed together with oboes. What an absolute trip.

10. MGMT

Congratulations

What a perfectly tart f-you to expectations. And it’s catchy, too.

 

Best of 2010

Critic: Mike Hotter

1. Caribou

Swim

Organic electronica, as warm and ever-changing as the waters that inspired it.

2. Tame Impala

Innerspeaker

Everyone and their floppy-haired brother are rocking the psychedelia these days, but this Aussie outfit made a more compelling album than the rest by making sure hooks and groove won out over looks and attitude. Sonically, think Revolver-era Lennon fronting a band equal parts Sabbath and Stereolab.

3. Liars

Sisterworld

This meditation on the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout, exploding now and then into a punk fury that feels corrosively cleansing after all the slinking in the shadows.

4. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Before Today

Skuzzy, freaky, fun, unpredictable, maddening and ridiculous—a gander into a brainpan skewed by 1970s bubblegum and ’80s pop radio.

5. Sharon van Etten

Epic

Singer-songwriter gone widescreen—you love her for both the honesty of her voice and her point of view.

6. Sun Kil Moon

Admiral Fell Promises

Essential utterances from the temple of melancholy; Mark Kozelek’s Spanish guitar embodies light, his voice, a kind of wisdom.

7. Phosphorescent

Here’s to Taking It Easy

The music Gram Parsons might have made if he was stuck in 21st-century Brooklyn with the country blues again.

8. Das Racist

Shut Up, Dude/Sit Down, Man

The askew rhymes by these nerdy NYC stoners bring to mind both the eccentric creativity of early Native Tongues (particularly De La Soul) and the aggressive grime of the Wu-Tang Clan. Jokey or not, these stripped-down concoctions feel more kinetic and “true to life” than the overproduced psychodramas of most of today’s millionaire rap stars.

9. Joanna Newsom

Have One on Me

These artful if wordy tales of maturity are my kind of clear-eyed right-on.

10. Sufjan Stevens

The Age of Adz

The most dependably pensive neo-folkies of the last decade have gone maximalist on us. Acoustic guitars and banjos have been replaced by gurgling electronic filigree and warped angelic choirs, built through the arcane architecture of Pro Tools. Like Kanye West’s ballyhooed latest, this album is endlessly inventive and relentlessly navel-gazing; I prefer this one because it is even grander in its madness.

 

Local Recordings

Best of 2010

The following releases were selected by our staff as the cream of this year’s regional crop. They are presented unranked and alphabetically.

 

Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde

War Cry

The lineup of la Banda Rebelde reads like a U.N. subcommittee, and War Cry, their debut, sounds equally diverse. Taina Asili is uncompromising in her political and spiritual convictions (singing in a number of languages), allowing the record to ring with an increasingly rare element of optimism and empowerment.

Matthew Carefully

Community Balloon

Matthew “Carefully” Loiacono is a solitary man in an interconnected world. Community Balloon is his attempt to integrate a vast email list of collaborators into his guy-with-a-mandolin-and-effects- suitcase act. It works because what better way is there to draw in your audience than to make them a part of the process?

The Figgs

The Man Who Fights Himself

Sounding older and a tad more world-weary on their latest, the Figgs still offer up plenty of the instantly memorable tunes that the Saratoga boys are known and loved for; add Mike Gent’s “Stuck on Leather Seats” and Pete Donnelly’s “I Need a Reason,” among other new tunes, to the lengthy and growing canon of great Figgs songs.

The Last Conspirators

When It All Comes Down

Tim Livingston’s quartet have pulled off a rare balancing act. The sociopolitical character of his songs are given such confidently forceful flight by the taut guitar-bass-drums that the music is not a backing track to broadsides, but its beating heart equal. It’s also a well-known fact that if you don’t have a good drummer you might as well stay home, and in Al Kash, the Last Conspirators have a great one.

George Muscatello

Angel Dust

Guitarist George Muscatello makes his bread playing jazz gigs around town, but Angel Dust, his long-awaited debut album, shows his affection for metal, Cuban classical composer Leo Brouwer, and just about everything in between. It also features a great cast of local jazz talent.

Phantogram

Eyelid Movies

We’d be remiss without mentioning the record that put our part of upstate New York on the national map these last 12 months, one blog post at a time. The heavy-touring Saratoga Springs duo kicked off the year with their debut album being released by indie heavyweight Barsuk. As 2010 came to a close, their single “Mouthful of Diamonds” was chosen as “Jam of the Week” by rapper Big Boi. More like jam of the year, we say.

Rob Skane

Phantom Power Trip

By returning to his power-pop roots, singer-songwriter Rob Skane made the album of his career, at least so far. Phantom Power Trip overflows with short, sharp power-pop gems like “I Waited” and “Would You Be There,” upbeat but reflective songs that can stand alongside those of Skane’s power-pop influences.


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