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Monday, December 6, 2010

My Top 50 Albums of 2010

My Top 50 Albums of 2010

To my ears there weren't a lot of GREAT releases in 2010, but there were a lot of REALLY GOOD albums. There were a lot of records that I was surprised I could not fit into my Top 50, which is a good sign to me that it was good year for music. Last year's Top 50 shook out like this.

#50 - the ALARM - Direct Action (Twenty First Century Recording) - Mike Peters is the only original member left in the Alarm, but he sounds totally recharged and offers a collection of rocking anthems and charged up acoustic numbers with the same passion and energy of first two Alarm records. There's nothing earth shattering or innovative here - Mike Peters hardly ever strays from the template he mastered almost 30 years ago. But this time around he's doing it better than he has in years, with the energy level is ramped up and an ocassional Stiff Little Fingers-like intensity. Gilby Clarke does some of the production and Ranking Roger even shows up to guest on a song.
Direct Action video

#49 - BASTARDS of MELODY – Hurry Up and Wait (FDR) - Straight ahead power-pop from New Jersey with ringing guitars and classic pop harmonies falling somewhere between Cheap Trick and the Posies. This New Jersey trio has been kicking around for a little over a decade, playing slightly garagey high energy power pop with above-average songwriting and a seemingly endless supply of memorable hooks. They're probably better known for the more rocking songs, but they also turn a few very good songs in the Raspberries vein.
BANDPAGE w/ audio samples

#48 - ROBERT WEGMANN – Keeper of the Bees (self released) - Artrock pop from Tampa singer songwriter that sounds a bit like a cross between XTC and Adrien Belew era King Crimson. I’m not familiar Robert’s previous 5 albums, but this one seems equally rooted in power pop and art rock. The instrumentation and arrangements can be a bit busy in places, but they never get in the way of the strong melodies. I hear subtle nods to XTC’s whole catalog as well as Andy Partidge’s Fuzzy Warbles demo series. Robert even resembles Andy vocally and, if that weren’t enough to draw in an XTC fan, Andy even co-writes one song.
Cathode Ray video
Marconi video

#47 - DWIGHT TWILLEY – Green Blimp (Big Oak) - Legendary power-pop veteran makes another album of typical Twilley well written jangley power pop, which is OK since by now nobody really expects him to do anything different. Dwight Twilley put the breaks on his musical evolution somewhere in the early 80's. He is perfectly comfortable making the same classic power pop songs he did thirty years ago and he hasn't updated his production much either. But he is so damn good at the style and always hits his marks it's actually quite charming that he refuses to let go. For Twilley fans there's the added plus in the return of guitarist Bill Pitcock IV. It's splitting hairs to try to dissect his albums, but this one seems a little stronger to me than anything he's done in the past 20 years.
Dwight's site with audio streaming

#46 - the LOONS – Red Dissolving Rays of Light (Bomp) - No holds Nuggets style garage rock from the San Diego trio led by garage historian and Ugly Things founder Mike Stax. Mike Stax is one of the authorities on garage rock and he applies what knows to one of the stronger albums of garage revival movement. The band references English Freakbeat and Nuggets-like garage bands without actually copying any of them, which is something most other bands in the scene hard a hard time doing.
Loons page at Ugly Things
A Last Goodbye live

#45 - PHOSPHORESCENT - Here’s to Taking it Easy (Dead Ocean) - This is the 4th album from Matthew Houck, the one man folk/Americana outfit called Phosphorescent, and it's a twangy affair with it's roots in the early 70's laidback country rock sound of Laurel Canyon. There's a haunting beauty to Houck's songs that can be both calming and unsettling, often in the same song. They are moody and relaxed with an early Neil Young or country Dylan feel. The arrangements sound loose and are allowed to unfold naturally, giving the songs an openness that could be a soundtrack for a desert night.
"Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)" video

#44 - TEENAGE FANCLUB – Shadows (Merge 06-08-2010) - For their eighth full length the Scots have grown into a more sedate, almost sleepy, pop band reliably making nice Summer pop songs with beautiful melodies. I've listened to this album a ton this year, but even after so many plays, I don't really remember any of the particular songs once it's done playing. The songs are very consistent, almost to the point of blending together, which is odd for a band that made their mark with such memorable hooks. TFC no longer goes for the giant in-your-face hooks – instead they now specialize in subtle melodies that aren’t as instant, but ultimately just as enjoyable.
"Baby Lee"

#43 - NICK CURRAN and the LOWLIFES – Reform School Girl (Electro Groove 2010) - Supercharged 50's rock-and-roll with a punk-rock attitude and raucous lead vocals that are equal parts Little Richard and Gerry Roslie (Sonics). Nick Curran has his roots in blues and rockabilly (he's toured as a member of both Ronnie Dawson's band and the Fabulous Thunderbirds), but this new album is full-steam-ahead old school rock and roll with a garage edge. He excels at the primal wrong-side-of-the-tracks brand of rock-and-roll with an authentic sound and sincerity. Highlights include ripping covers of songs by Etta James and AC/DC and a guest spot from the Blasters' Phil Alvin.
label page with bio and audio
live version of AC/DC's "Rocker"

#42 - BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB – Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (Vagrant) - After a few uninspired records BRMC return with a surprisingly strong batch of slow-burning wall of guitar garage psychedelia. BRMC have been a band of diminishing returns ever since their stellar debut a decade ago. But on their sixth album it all comes back together and reminds me of why I used to like the band so much. They're back to sounding like a dirgier Jesus and Mary Chain or an American roots based Ride. Everything sounds huge on this record - the drums pound and the spacey guitar riffs are up front. I didn’t realize how much I missed them until I heard this album.
Beat the Devil’s Tattoo video

#41 - BROKEN BELLS – Broken Bells (Sony) - Danger Mouse and Shins vocalist James Mercer team up for a dreamy electronica pop record full of sonically lush arrangements. This record has similarities to Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz (both of whom Danger Mouse played an essential role) and Air, but really doesn't sound like any of those bands. There's a lot going on, but the record somehow never sounds too busy thanks to some fantastic production. Bonus points for having the restraint to keep most songs under the four minute mark, which doesn't happen often in studio collaborations.
"High Road" on Letterman
"the Ghost Inside" live

#40. STEPHANIE FINCH – Cry Tomorrow (Belle Sound) - Nice collection of timeless pop songs from Finch, whose voice reminds me a bit of Melanie and Aimee Mann. For the 10 years before recording this debut, Stephanie played keyboards and sang with Green on Red's Chuck Prophet, who also produced and is her husband. Occasionally there's a bit of twang in her songs, other times it's Velvets-like flourishes, for the most part it's a confidently performed batch of warm and intimate sounding pop numbers. Along with Prophet, the band also includes a pop favorite of mine, Kelley Stoltz. The album features a great reworking "Sensitive Boys", a song Prophet wrote with Alejandro Escovedo for the Real Animal album.
My Space page

#39 - BLACK KEYS – Brothers (Nonesuch) – Soulful and sludgy alt blues with deep funk grooves and fuzzed out rhythms. For their 6th album the Ohio duo self produced in Muscle Shoals and only use Danger Mouse on one song. Sonically this a big step forward for them, adding much more innovation to their roughed up blues sound while still keeping the arrangements simple and direct.
Black Keys site
"Tighten Up" video

#38 - CROWDED HOUSE – Intriguer (Fantasy) - The second album of the reunited Crowded House (#6 overall) is a subtle record that takes several listens to fully appreciate, but the reward for staying with them is a beautifully crafted bit of songwriting. Intriguer is lacking the big single or two that leaps out on first listen, which initially disappointed me with this record. But with repeated plays the intricacies of the songs began settling in and the songs started to sound bigger. This one plays better as a cohesive album rather than as individual songs, but is much stronger than a casual listen might suggest. It’s a decent addition to their consistently wonderful catalog, but not quite up to the caliber of what I expect from Neil Finn.
Band Site
"Twice If You're Lucky video

#37 - GIL SCOTT-HERON – I’m New Here (XL) - After a troubled almost two decade absence the poet/singer returns with a voice weathered by age, but perfectly suited for the mournful autobiographical tales of turmoil and acceptance. Gil is best known for his activist lyrics and social commentary, but for this very personal comeback record he focuses on his own demons. He tackles his demons head-on and offers no apologies, just observations on where he sees himself today. His voice is a bit more worn than his seventies work, but his poet's command of lyrical timing and pacing hasn't faltered one bit. Some of the songs are built around hip-hop rhythms, but in no way is this an old veteran trying to make a younger man's record. The focus is always on Gil and his words, which is what makes it such a powerful listen.
"Me and the Devil" video
"I'm New Here" video

#36 - JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE – Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot) - For his third, Justin starts with a very convincingly authentic old-school country base and expands it with elements of delta blues, Woody Guthrie-esque folk, Carl Perkins-like rockabilly, and Southern gospel. I was a huge fan of his traditional country debut, but thought that he lost his footing with the second album. But this time he is back in fine form, with his most confident record yet. Many of these songs sound like they could be classic country standards, but Justin writes everything here, with an ear for tradition without copying anyone. His stellar band features members of Old Crow Medicine Show, Calexico, and Drive-by Truckers.

#35 - HOODOO GURUS – Purity of Essence (Hoodoo Gurus) - The 9th album from the Australian rock heroes is an occasionally great slab of garage fuelled power pop classics, but the band have a hard time keeping up momentum through the whole record. Almost 30 years into their career the Gurus have the energy and enthusiasm of a band twenty years their junior. The band is tight after years of touring and recording - Dave Faulkner & Brad Shepherd have led the band through their whole catalog and the rhythm section is the same since Magnum Cum Louder. Mars Needs Guitars producer Charles Fisher is back and they even brought in Ed Stasium to mix the album. Five or six of the songs stand up to their best work of the 80's, but many of the other songs would be more at home on Kinky or Crank in the early 90's. There's not a bad song on here, but after coming out the gate so strong, they gradually lose steam. 16 songs is probably a bit too much, but for any Gurus fan this is still must-get record.
Gurus My Space
"Cracking Up" video

#34 - MIDWAY STILL – Note to Self (Boss Tuneage) - It's been 17 years since their last album, but the Kent England band picks up exactly where they left off, with a powerful punk pop record that sounds like a British take on Husker Du, the Descendents, and Dag Nasty. It's pretty amazing how after such a long break the band can make an album that easily stands next to their other two albums. The guitars are American hardcore loud, but hooks are more pop with a heavy edge - fueled by a driving rhythm section.
Midway Still's MySpace page
Label site

#33 - PAUL COLLINS – King of Power Pop (Alive) - Collins turns the clock back to his Nerves/Paul Collins Beat days for an album of instantly likable power pop that makes the bold claim of the title seem reasonable. Paul sounds like he is having a damn fun time revisiting his classic late 70's power pop roots, and it's hard not to get caught up in the fun. The songs are tight, energetic, and loaded with ringing guitars and punchy melodies. Everything a power pop could hope for. Rather than sounding like a calculated retro flashback Collins delivers the songs like someone that has the style embedded in his his DNA and just needed to get it out.
King of Power Pop trailer
Paul Collins page @ Alive Records

#32 - PERNICE BROTHERS – Goodbye Killer (Ashmont 06-15-2010) - Joe Pernice's sixth album under the Pernice Brothers moniker doesn't deviate much from his normal strummy Americana pop, which is both a good and a bad thing. Individually I like everything on this record, but it's getting harder to distinguish one Pernice Brothers record from another. There's a great warmth to Joe Pernice’s songs and he is a top drawer songwriter, marrying heartbreak and despair in his lyrics with lushly arranged organic pop, but I hope at some point he expands his palette a bit.
Band site.

#31 - the YOUNG VEINS – Take a Vacation! (One Haven) - Debut album of authentic 60's sounding pop from a California 5 piece band that features two former members of Panic! at the Disco. The Young Veins deal in sunny 60’s styled California pop merged with Something Else/Village Green era Kinks. The songs are short (11 in under 30 minutes) with sunny melodies, ringing guitars, clean harmonies, some Phil Spectorish flourishes, and a great sense of fun.
“Change” video

#30 - SHE & HIM – Volume Two (Merge) - Lighthearted Summery pop from Zooey Deschanel and M Ward that sounds like a sweet pop record from mid 60's America. Zooey Deschanel surprised me with how dedicated she appears to be to her singing and songwriting on this second She & Him release. Rather than being just a side project for an established actress and a restless musician, this is a fully realized record with surprising sincerity. Along with many great originals, a highlight for me is the fabulous version of "Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now" (Patience and Prudence and Skeeter Davis amongst others).
"In the Sun" video
"Thieves" video

#29 - ROBYN - Body Talk (Cherry Tree) - Swedish dance pop spanning a wide range of dance and electro sub-genres with innovative twists and giant pulsing grooves. I'm not much of a dance music fan and I'm not well versed on the reference points of what's derivative here and what's innovative, but I know this is the most interesting electro dance record I've heard in years. The synths sound like Giorgio Moroder's whole career thrown into a blender, from icy cold minimalism to bubblegum earcandy to oversized dance anthems. Robyn is fearless in her experimenting with sounds and melodies without every losing sight of serving the songs. This record combines the best of two other mini-albums (both released earlier this years) with new songs.
Robyn site
"Dancing On My Own" video
"Indestructable" video

#28 - TITLE TRACKS – It Was Easy (Ernest Jenning Record Company) - Likable toe-tapping power pop from DC in the vein of the Nines, early Joe Jackson, and a less adventurous New Pornographers. Titles Tracks is actually a one man studio project from John Davis of Q and Not U and Georgie James (two bands I've never heard). The music upbeat and quite enjoyable, but it took me a few listens to realize that the lyrics were full of despair and melancholia. There’s nothing very innovative here, but it’s a record that I keep coming back to.
Title Tracks MySpace page
"Every Little Bit Hurts" live on KEXP

#27 - RICHARD BARONE – Glow (Bar None 09-14-2010) - First new studio album from the former Bongos frontman in 17 years features prisitne pop songs with slick production from Tony Visconti. Richard Barone is an observent student of songwriting, and he is well studied in the work of his heroes like McCartney, Bowie, and Bolan. Here applies his writing skills along with co-writers Visconti, Jill Sobule, and Paul Williams (yes - that Paul Williams). He is a great songwriter and performer, but he can sometimes overthink his craft to the point of polishing off too many edges in his quest for perfection. This is a pure studio record, making heavy use of high-tech production equipment resulting in an almost unbelievably clean album. I wish Richard would have the confidence to loosen up and make a more spontaneous record, but the songs are so solid that I still love this album despite the over slickness.
Richard Barone's site
"Glow" video

#26 - GIRL TALK – All Day (Illegal Art 2010) - Hundreds of songs spanning several decades sliced, diced, and rebuilt into 12 new fun-as-hell party cuts of bastard-pop that goes beyond the spot-the-reference novelty and stands up to repeated listens. I feel like it's cheating to put an album on my year end best-of list that's made up entirely of other people's records, but Girl Talk does it so skillfully that these really do become new songs. This is the fifth Girl Talk record and it's the strongest of the lot. It's always fun to be surprised by an out of place snippet of an old fave popping up, but All Day doesn't rely on that familiarity to be enjoyed. I don't know much of the current pop or rap songs, but they're repurposed so well that it doesn't matter. The songs he builds stand up on their own (stolen) legs.
“Oh No” video
whole album download

#25 - TED LEO & the PHARMACISTS – Brutalist Bricks (Matador) - The 6th album is big on punk rock fueled pop melodies that are too diverse to be labeled as simply pop or punk. Leo effortlessly melds genres into one tight package - incorporating mod, American indie rock, Brit pop, new wave, and power pop into punchy song bursts that are direct and to the point.
"the Mighty Sparrow" video
"Bottle in Cork" video (w/ Paul F. Tompkins & John Hodgman)

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: Some titles that Didn't make to 2010 Top 50:
DUM DUM GIRLS, LES SAVY FAV, WEEZER, MILES KUROSKY, CHRISTIAN SCOTT, BIG BOI, BLACK ANGELS, DEVO, ROBERT PLANT, JANELLE MONAE, and PETER CASE. Plus there were two records I really dug but didn't meet my anally retentive eligibility criteria. One is the fabulous tribute to Graham Nash's "Songs for Beginners" album (featuring Brendan Benson, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes and more), but I never include comps. And the other is NADA SURF's "If I Had a Hi-Fi" covers collection - which I think they were selling at shows in 2009 and already appeared on some other 2009 lists, so it didn't seem right to put it on this list even though it didn't hit stores until Record Store Day this year.

#24 - PAUL WELLER – Wake Up the Nation (Yep Roc) - Solo album #10 from the Modfather and he's fully energized with a fun mix of angry power-chord rockers and wonderful soul pop. I don't know where the spark came from, but Weller has not been this exciting in many years. He rips through these songs with a youthful urgency - 12 of the 16 are under three minutes. Guests include Bruce Foxton (did Hell freeze over?), My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, and Bev Bevan from the Move/ELO. After the first Style Council record I've had to cherry pick songs I like from Weller's albums. There's always something good, but there was always more filler than killer. But here the entire album is not only enjoyable, it's essential. Also, the song "No Tears to Cry" might out-Scott Walker the actual Scott Walker.
Paul Weller site
"Wake up the Nation" video
"No Tears to Cry" on Jools Holland Later
"Piles of Paper" live on KEXP

#23 - RICHARD THOMPSON – Dream Attic
(Shout Factory 08-31-2010) - 13 new songs from the incredibly reliable master songsmith and guitar virtuoso, recorded live with a loose and spontaneous energy. Although recorded live, the applause is faded pretty quickly, making this sound more like a live-in-the-studio recording. But being in front of the crowd gives the songs an immediacy you wouldn't get in the studio, and it allows Richard and the band to stretch out (and more room for Richard's truly awesome fluid and natural guitar). It's not often I ask for longer songs or guitar solos, but in Richard's case, he makes a convincing case for both. Lyrically this is up there with his bet work - complete with his cynical sense of humor and twisted character studies.
“Bad Again” video

#22 - BLONDE REDHEAD – Penny Sparkle (4AD) - Cool hypnotic dream pop with seductive synths and ethereal vocals reminiscent of Cocteau Twins or Kate Bush. Gone is the dissonant chaos of the early records from this New York trio. Instead, for their 8th studio album they get deeper into the atmospheric electronica of their last album, pushing the little guitar that is left in their sound further into the background. At times the production gives the songs an icey sheen, but more often the songs have a delicate and seductive beauty. 4AD is a perfect home for them now. It's hard to believe the band that used to grate on my nerves so mush would evolve into such a captivating outfit.
"Not Getting There" video
"Love or Prison" 4AD session
"Here Sometimes" 4AD Session

#21 - the FALL – Your Future Our Clutter (Domino 05-04-2010) - The 28th studio album from the Fall is ferocious and has an edgy excitement I haven't seen from Mark E Smith in a while. Over the Fall's 34 years, they have always been interesting, but you have to cherry pick the records that Mark E Smith seemed totally committed to and decide which aspect of their sound most appealed to you. The band is tight this go around (2nd album in a row with the same line-up, which is a rarity in Fall history) and Smith appears to be fully engaged in doing what he does best. Everything I like about the Fall is here: crazy shouted vocal rants from Smith, powerful guitar repetition, strong grooves, and an anything-can-happen chaos. Once again the Fall sound dangerous and relevant.
"Cowboy George" live in Berlin

#20 - the LEN PRICE 3 – Pictures (Wicked Cool) - British trio's third album is full of energetic garage pop fun in the vein of the early Who and Creation singles. The Len Price 3 are about as retro as they come, playing the maximum R&B pop of the Shel Talmy era Who, complete with the propulsive drumming and backing harmonies that could almost be sampled off of the A Quick One album.
MySpace page
"The Girl Who Became a Machine"
"Mr Grey" video

#19 - PETER WOLF – Midnight Souvenirs (Verve) - At 64-years-old the the former J. Geils Band frontman is in grand form, turning out an inspired collection of good old fashioned rock and soul. Peter doesn't innovate, but he does build on his diverse influences and confidently takes ownership of the new creations. The core of the record is the R&B he's always excelled at, but he seamlessly incorporates bits of country and blues into his sound the same way Van Morrison and the Stones have. There are three fantastic duets with Shelby Lynne, Neko Case, and Merle Haggard that work perfectly within the context of the album. It's easy to take Peter Wolf for granted since this sounds so natural, but he's made a special album of the utmost craftsmanship.
“I Don’t Wanna Know” on Letterman

#18 - ELVIS COSTELLO – National Ransom (Hear Music 11-02-2010) - With T Bone Burnett producing again, Elvis offers another wide reaching collection of rootsy Americana with subtle twists of styles, sounding at times like King of America for 2010. Elvis has made twenty-something solo albums (really, it's hard for me to count definitively), and yet he's still pulling out new tricks and going places he hasn't gone before. This fantastic follow up to last year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (also produced by T-Bone) expands on that record's sound, dipping into pre-war styles along with folk, country, and jaunty pop. Elvis is still as vital as he's ever been, although not as immediate and urgent as he was at his creative peak(s). At 16 songs and over 70 minutes the record is a bit long, but I don't know what I'd cut off or even where I would change the running order. As a long time fan there’s a comfort and familiarity in each Elvis record, but is not one to pick up just as a fan obligation to a reliable old friend, pick it up because it’s a really good record.
"National Ransom" on Letterman
Nation Ransom EPK

# 17 - APRIL SMITH and the GREAT PICTURE SHOW – Songs for a Sinking Ship (Little Roscoe) - Cabaret pop fun from a charismatic Brooklyn singer/songwriter with a wickedly clever sense of humor delivered in they styles of a bygone era. April has a sassy voice rich in the tradition of 30's and 40's vocalists, but when she vamps it up it's pure burlesque. This is the music of juke joints - a quirky combination of pop, ragtime, swing, and a bit of country, but with a modern spin. April lists Tom Waits as an influence, and that's a pretty good reference point for the sprit of her songwriting. It's playful, a little sinister, and highly original.
Website (where you can stream the whole album)
"Terrible Things" video

#16 - LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III – 10 Songs for the New Depression (Proper) – Loudon at his best backed with just his acoustic guitar/ukelele and a topical collection of recession folk songs. Loudon manages to make a collection of songs about the housing crisis, unemployment, political uncertainty, and times or turmoil into something funny and strangely optimistic. As always, he uses a keen sense of observation and biting satire (and a heaping helping of gallows humor) to zero in on his targets. This is Loudon’s most focused and consistent album in years.
“the Krugman Blues” live

#15 - GRINDERMAN – Grinderman 2 (Anti) - Savage and visceral blues-punk from Nick Cave and a stripped down version of the Bad Seeds, living in the seedy underbelly without ever taking themselves too seriously. On one hand Cave sounds outright dangerous as he spews out tales of various unwholesome characters and ne’er do-wells. But then a few seconds later you can practically hear the smirk as he shifts gears. Despite the air of dour seriousness, Grinderman is fucking hilarious. The anger and conviction Nick attacks sacred institutions with is real, but he does it with a twisted sense of humor expertly delivered with the wink of a veteran actor. The whole package is topped off by the writhing rhythms and Warren Ellis’s guitar freakouts. I've never enjoyed a Nick Cave album as much as this one.
"Heathen Child" on Jolls Holland
"Heathen Child" video
"Worm Tamer" (RAK Session)

# 14 - JOHN MELLENCAMP – No Better Than This (Rounder) - Surprisingly authentic and heartfelt American roots folk with a stripped down sound thanks in part to production from T Bone Burnett. John Mellencamp is a solid songwriter that knows how to push the right buttons for maximum appeal, but outside of a few singles I've never been much of a fan. His "just a regular small-town guy" image always seemed a bit precious and too calculated, so I never really gave his albums an unprejudiced listen. I was caught totally off guard by the absolute sincerity and passion of this, his 21st studio album. On paper there is plenty of reason to be suspect: a mono recording done with one mic on a portable 1955 Ampex tape deck recorded in "historically significant" settings (Sun Studios, Savannah's First African Baptist Church, and hotel room where Robert Johnson cut some of his records). But rather than being a cheap gimmick Mellencamp is liberated by the organic process and sounds almost reborn as songwriter. There is a raw minimalism in the production and instrumentation, which puts the focus on his lyrics and voice, which are both in fine form.
"No Better Than This" video
"Thinking About You" on Tavis Smiley

#13: - DESSA – Badly Broken Code (101 02-09-2010) – Like a cross between Lauryn Hill and Basehead, Minneapolis rapper/poet Dessa offers intelligent and multifaceted hip hop effortlessly shifting between smooth flowing rap, soulful pop, and beautiful a capella. Some argue if Dessa is even a hip-hop artist since she breaks with the conventions of the genre so freely, but the foundation she works from is a hybrid of her hip-hop and spoken word roots. Along with being part of the Doomtree collective, she is a poet, published author, and member of an all-girl a cappella group. She incorporates all of that into a literate and fresh sound delivered with great confidence and control. This is a record filled with subtleties that grow stronger with repeated plays. I can't wait to hear what she does next.
MySpace page
"Dixon's Girl" video
"Poor Atlas"
"Alibi" video

#12 - NEW PORNOGRAPHERS – Together (Matador) - Fifth album from the Candian indie pop "super group" is once again a quirky pastiche of assorted pop forms expertly pieced together into an oddly cohesvie and highly enjoyable album. New Pornographers manage to make records that are overloaded with diverse influences and ideas without ever getting into the guess-the-reference musical puzzle trap. They turn in big pop songs with stellar male/female harmonies and sound like no other band (except for maybe default leader AC Newman's solo records). The contributions of each member (A.C. Newman, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder and Dan Bejar) are apparent, but they work so well together they sound more like a single unit this time than they ever have.
MySpace page
“Crash Years” video
“Sweet Talk Sweet Talk” on Letterman

#11 - the SADIES – Darker Circles (Yep Roc) - Psychedelic alt-country with jangly surf-rock guitar tones and production from the Jayhawks' Gary Louris. This is the 7th studio album from the Toronto band, not counting the full albums they made behind Andre Williams, Jon Langford, Neko Case & John Doe. They are all ace musicians and well versed in country tradition, although they approach it from a more psychedelic rock angle, ending up sounding like a modern hybrid of Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Roky Erickson, and Mike Nesmith's First National Band.
MySpace page
"Cut Corners" video
"Postcard" video

#10 - the NATIONAL – High Violet (4AD) - For their fifth album the Brooklyn quartet fine tunes their sound and makes a more subtle and rewarding album, sounding like a brooding American version of Joy Division. With each record the National have strayed further away from the rockers and focused more on dark soundscapes. They create bleak mood pieces with a smooth, radio ready production, highlighted by the moody baritone lead vocals and melodramatic arrangements. But while other bands rely on the mood to carry the record, the National are working from a base of very strong songs with intriguing lyrics and slow building grooves. This is one of my favorite late-at-night headphones albums, but it also works surprisingly well during the day or even when isolated to just a single cut or two.
“Bloodbuzz Ohio” video

#09 - ARCADE FIRE – the Suburbs (Merge) – The epic sound and ambitious reach of the first two Arcade Fire albums are still here, but for the third they've pulled back on some of their excesses and put more focus on making a cohesive record. While I enjoyed the first 2 Arcade Fire albums, at times it seems like they tried too hard to impress, which buried some great songwriting in a mess of partially realized ideas. But they sound more relaxed this time, letting the songs breathe a bit more and not giving everything away up front. By practicing a little restraint the songs are actually more stirring and the band sounds even larger than before.
“Ready to Start” video
“the Suburbs” video

#08 - CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG – IRM (Elektra/Asylum) The third album from the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin is an eclectic mix of dreamy pop and cool electro-pop brilliantly produced by Beck. IRM has a surprisingly smooth flow for a record that spans several genres and moods, including organic acoustic downtempo numbers, electronica, orchestral pop, and even a dingy blues stomper. Much of that can be attributed to Beck, who not only produces but also writes all of the music and co-writes the lyrics. Beck's eccentric arrangements and abundance of ideas make the record more interesting, but they never step in front of Charlotte's vocals or detract from her cool, sometimes eerie presence.
MySpace page
“Trick Pony” on Letterman
“Heaven Can Wait” with Beck on KCRW
“Heaven Can Wait” video

#07 - JASON & the SCORCHERS – Halcyon Days (101) –This live-in-the-studio album is the most consistent and solid album of bar room rock and twang from the Scorchers in 25 years. Jason and guitarist Warner Hodges (with some new fulltime and guest Scorchers) return after a 14 year break. This sounds less like a reunion record and more like one from a road tested band with something to prove.
“Moonshine Guy” live
making of the album

#06 - the MOONS – Life on Earth (Phantom) Summery jangle pop in the British tradition of Merseybeat, mod, Dodgy, Small Faces, the La’s, early Supergrass, and Paul Weller. This is classic, very British sounding pop that is relaxed and has a warmth that few bands seem to shoot for anymore. The band is fronted by Paul Weller's former keyboardist Andy Crofts and Chris Ketley from the Rakes.
"Let It Go" video
"Torn Between Two" video
"Ragman" video

#05 - KELLEY STOLTZ – To Dreamers (Sub Pop) - San Francisco singer/songwriter Stoltz returns with another collection of fanboy pop songs that plays like a love letter to the early Kinks, T-Rex, Velvets, Ziggy-era Bowie, Standells, Byrds, and a host of other 60's and early 70's artists. As with his previous records, this is a mostly one-man affair, recorded in his own studio. Kelley is a power popper with a great ear for 60ish pop and a chameleon-like ability to step into the styles of his musical heroes without ever losing his own unique voice. As an extra treat, he does a cover of "Baby I Got News For You", a 1965 by one of his heroes Big Boy Pete Miller, and has Miller playing on the cut. I recently became a Big Boy Pete fan after seeing Kelley open for Echo & the Bunnymen earlier in the year and he raved about Pete and urged everyone to check him out. I did and I’m grateful for the recommendation.
Kelley's MySpace
A Big Boy Pete bonus (the original version of the Song Kelley covers)

#04 - the LIKE – Release Me (Downtown) – 60s girl group styled pop sounding like a modern-day Shangri-las with toe-tapping melodies, vox organ, and big harmonies. Five years after their debut, LA’s the Like shifted gears a bit with the help of producer Mark Ronson and reinvented themselves as a very convincing 60’s girl group pop band. There’s an obvious kitsch to the concept, but the songs are executed with such sincerity that they sound like a fresh update to a classic style rather than being just a novelty imitation. The whole record is fun, but there’s an edge thanks in part to the raspy tough-girl lead vocals.
"Whishing He Was Dead" video
"He's Not a Boy" video

#03 - SPOON – Transference (Merge) - For their 7th album Spoon pare down the accessibility and cleanness of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga for a more experimental and rewarding album of highly catchy songs built on challenging ideas. Britt Daniel writes great pop hooks, but he seldom takes the direct path when putting his records together. He excels at putting seemingly unrelated ideas together and making them sound natural and unforced. He's adventurous in his approach to arranging his records, but has the restraint to never let the experimentation overpower the songs. In an age where it's getting easier to categorize artists, Spoon is a true original. This is my favorite Spoon album since 2001's Girls Can Tell, which is my favorite record of the past decade.
"Mystery Zone" on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic
"Written in Reverse"

#02 - SLEIGH BELLS – Treats (Mom & Pop Music) - Treats is a joyfully relentless assault of over-modulated electro-pop filled with monstrous beats, jagged synth bursts, and heavy distorted guitars countered with Alexis Krauss' sweetly hypnotic vocals. Hiding behind the bombastic wall of noise on this debut from the Brooklyn duo is a charming bubblegum dance pop record filled with handclaps and playful cheerleader/jump-rope rhymes. Everything is pushed into the red to the point of almost being overwhelming, but the band's grand sense of fun and the catchiness of the songs make it a highly addictive and enjoyable sensory overload. This is one of those polarizing records that some love and others really hate, and I can see both sides. Obviously I’m in the “love it” camp – few albums got as much as play from me this year as Sleigh bells did.
Infinity Guitars video
fanmade video for "Treats"

#01 - SUPERCHUNK – Majesty Shredding (Merge) – For their first studio album in 9 years Superchunk delivers an amazingly fun collection of oversized melodies and hyperactive indie pop anthems. The last few Superchunk albums were fine efforts, but the band had begun to turn down the energy level (and volume), which resulted in those albums not having the urgency that made their earlier records so essential. It seemed almost unimaginable, but it’s as if Superchunk stepped into a time machine and have gone back fifteen years to the youthful enthusiasm they had for On the Mouth and Foolish. This isn’t a band struggling with a pale imitation of their glory days, it’s a fresh return to form. There is a propulsive adrenalin rush that pushes this record from one giant pop punk chorus to the next. It’s what Superchunk does best.
“Digging For Something” video

1 comment:

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