Monday, December 20, 2010

2010 End-Of-Year Celebrations: TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2010

2010 was clearly a diverse year. The cultural landscape is getting to a point nowadays so broad and dense that the musical world is a conflagration of multiple influences, not just its own styles and genres. That’s not to say that the heritage and DNA of music’s history has been erased, quite the opposite, but the elements of the past are now cherry-picked.
Whether it was Flying LotusCosmogramma taking in a comsic palette of jazz experimentalism and instrumental hip-hop indebted to videogame soundtracks as much as G-funk. Or Sleigh Bells with their cacophonic take on bubblegum pop, constructed from the same blueprint of three-minute rushes to the chorus, but with crunching guitars and processed drums. It seems it was the emerging talents that seemed to have a better grip on what turned ears better than the old vanguard did.
In fact, twentyten was not without its fair share of disappointments. Many highly-anticipated albums failed to deliver on their expectations (Interpol, MGMT, Daft Punk, Nicki Minaj) or simply failed to materialise entirely (Radiohead, The Strokes, Beastie Boys). their absence however, left room for other successes. The blockbuster indie album - a trend established thanks to 09’s trifecta of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors – made a welcome return in the form of Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and The National; while artists I’d previously dismissed made records that were just too good to ignore (Deerhunter and LCD Soundsystem anyone?). And if the strength of *deep breath* The Jezabels, Cloud Control, Hungry Kids of Hungary, PVT, Parades, Gypsy &The Cat, The Tiger & Me, Young Heretics and my personal faves Big Scary and Kimbra, are anything to go by *phew* the close of the oughties was a banner year for new Australian music.
In short, two zero one zero brought an unexpected close to the decade that was. Full of delightful surprises and unexpected twists. I think the best way to summarise it would be to think that if you had sat me down at the start of the year and asked me to write a list of what my favourite albums of the year would have been, then shown me what they turned out to be, the resulting look of pleasurable puzzlement would be the sound of the year.
Speaking of surprises, I've finally caved. That's right the traditional Top 15 has expanded to a Top 20. This year finally proved the breaking point, after much toying and tinkering (an Honourable Mentions list? Scrapping a ranking altogether?) I decided that giving a little bit of breathing room to the list manages to really highlight the many and varied treasures of 2010's soundtrack.
As a result I'll strive to keep the (usually epic) word count to a manageable amount, and with twenty albums, it splits the reveal into two handy sections rather than three. Less reading for y'all over this busy xmas period - aren't I generous?
As a final reminder, this list is really about those bands and artists who make the most of the ALBUM format, the cohesion and organisation of songs to make a statement and impression.
So breakout the iTunes gift cards and JB HiFi gift vouchers, ladies and gentlemen, the Top 20 albums of 2010.

20.  Cloud Control - Bliss Release
Hailing from the Blue Mountains, you can almost imagine Cloud Control’s hummable revelry wafting over the forest canopy above. Opening with the psychedelically-tinged Meditation Song #2, with its acid-lite lyric “make my head a pool of water now” and mantra of “why, oh why” repeated ad infinitum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Cloud Control were tilting for a softer version of Tame Impala’s sixties psychedelia revival. But then There’s Nothing In The Water cuts through the feedback riding a solid new-wave groove and it’s clear Cloud Control are after a prize of their own. Mixing jangling guitar rock (The Rolling Stones), gorgeous harmonies (Gold Canary, Just For Now), folky introspection (Hollow Drums) and even a turn at Talking Heads (with Al Wright’s David Byrne-esque delivery on This Is What I Said) – their delightfully spry debut is never short on highlights or potential.

19. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma
Cosmogramma may well be the perfect title, just as grammar is the study of how words and their components combine to form sentences, Flying Lotus is equally studious with how sound and its components work within his his spacey configurations. As if aliens were beaming in transmissions of their version of lost vinyl classics, Flying Lotus – the functional moniker for Steven Ellison – works from seemingly familiar influences (jazz, hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, avant-garde) but like a DJ surrealist - mixes them into startling new compositions, at once experimental and comprehendible.
There’s an entire new breed of chilled-out soul to Mmmhmm,  guest Thundercat’s crooning vocals seem to bounce and slither as they are pillowed by rubbery bass and splashing percussion. Thom Yorke gets equal treatment on the skittering And The World Laughs With You. Do The Astral Plane takes its scat intro and throws it into a blissful vacuum, while Table Tennis samples just that, to hypnotic effect. Cosmogramma is an inventive, daring and provocative artwork disguised as a pleasurable headtrip.

18. Yeasayer - Odd Blood
It had been a long-awaited (and gestating) return from the New York art-rockers, but it seems that those three years were well worth cocooning for. The resulting transformation, from the world-savvy bohemians of All Hour Cymbals into a kaleidoscopic, bubbling, chart-bothering entity was a dazzling one. Taking their cues from Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors the year previous, Yeasayer prioritised infectious melody, quirky musical backings and brought their pop nous to the fore. In heralding single Ambling Alp and O.N.E. they had left-field pop hits par excellence, but left room for more experimental manoeuvres on the batty Love Me Girl and schizophrenic Mondegreen. At a quality control pleasing ten tracks it ensured a gloriously colourful and eventful album, determined in its focus and deliciously vibrant in its appeal.

17. Lightspeed Champion - Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You
Dev Hynes’ sophomore effort as Lightspeed Champion sees him successfully extending the sound of his debut with greater musical ambition and scope. Debut album Falling Off The Lavender Bridge had no shortage of self-loathing and confusion over the sweetest of sonic backings, but Life Is Sweet! tones down the pop culture references and amps up the drama and theatrics with all the dazzle and vigour of a broadway musical. A threaded semi-narrative about, yep, self-loathing and tragic romance cuts a swathe through a glut of musical styles,  but never overstretches itself, maintaining a tight-rope worthy balance of widescreen, progressive arrangements without denying a knack for melodic hooks.
The musical melodrama begins with the overture of Dead Head Blues, exploring the album’s audio palette and introducing a protagonist positively baffled by modern romance. Next comes, Marlene, a paean to a girl to “stop being cool/woah oh,” introduced a sleek edge to his audible worry-worting  with cutting guitar, whip-tight drums and some dusty strings. Elsewhere, Faculty of Fears and Madame Van Damme mine fifties, cheek-to-cheek style pop even as they evidence the worries of contemporary courtship. The latter juxtaposes a guilt-ridden, post-coital encounter with a prostitute against a sugar sweet chorus of “Kill me baby, won’t you kill me.”  It’s evidence enough that Hynes’ idiosyncratic style has diminished none, equally tongue-in-cheek on the call and response of The Big Guns Of Highsmith. A poignant cry of “hurts to be the one who’s always feeling sad” is met by a crowded chant of “Oh just stop complaining.” This is the key to Lightspeed Champion’s success, for every heart-rending moment of martyrdom there’s still a self-conscious wit that’s there to keep things in check.
It’s entirely possible that it’s all part of some post-modern defense mechanism, including that rosy title, but it’s still music that’s strong in character and quality, ensuring Hynes’ continued status as a likeable, inimitable talent.
16. Gayngs - Relayted
Starting with a mission statement to write an album’s worth of material indebted to 10CC’s Not In Love may not seem the greatest idea, let alone the kind of doctrine to rope in an endless list of underground collaborators. But that’s precisely what the unique manifesto of Ryan Olsen and Solid Gold members Zack Coulter and Adam Hurlburt did. Gayngs soon spiralled into a supergroup that brought back fuzzy keyboards, honeyed sax solos and mid-tempo, mid-eighties soft-rock to the indie scene. Leadoff cut Gaudy Side of Town takes the 10CC blueprint and runs with it for seven hazy minutes, and as it unspools into an instrumental breakdown it’s clear that this is a record that is best taken as a whole. Each reverb-drenched moment dripping into the next, until we come to album closer Last Prom On Earth. Featuring Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver as the leader of an arch wedding band. With soulful crooning, autotuned vocals and even a Bone Thugs N Harmony-inspired mini-rap . A tune deliciously dripping with irony, the perfect exit for an album that should have been a joke, but is in actual fact, deadly, seriously good.

15. Mark Ronson - Record Collection
The writing and performing credits for the delightfully eclectic Record Collection read like celebrity producer Mark Ronson’s little black book of contacts. As well as being a spotlight for fresh talent the likes of MNDR, Theophilus London and Rose Elinor Dougall; Ronson hosts the only party where eighties icons like Boy George and Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon can rub shoulders with rap royalty like Ghostface Killah and Q-Tip. It’s only fair that the resultant noise is as big a party as its guestlist. Mixing hip-hop verse with dance floor happy choruses, such as on the electric Bang Bang Bang or the merry The Bike Song; or throwing down electro-funk shapes with Somebody To Love Me’s yearning dubstep or the D’Angelo featuring Glass Mountain Trust – it’s an album that begs to voice that old cliché “there is something for everyone.” Keeping the whole show ticking along are instrumental numbers that demonstrate the robust backing of the Business Intl band themselves, complete with their own grandstanding entrance music on, handily, Introducing the Business with Atlanta, Georgian rapper Pill and the London Gay Men’s Chorus.
A bizarre mixtape to be sure, but also a key indicator of the popular musical landscape circa the close of the oughties. A melting pot of influences and styles, whose alchemy emerged a strange if no less desirable treasure; and one whose cross-over appeal made pleasing multiple audiences look easy. An album that charms with the kind of pan-transatlantic couture that only an English-born New-York –based super DJ such as Ronson can provide.

14. Warpaint - The Fool
Warpaint are an entity borne of the wrong musical era. Their dark atmospherics have more akin to the 4AD label roster of the eighties and Siuoxsie Sioux or The Cure than it does contemporary guitar rock, but there is something distinctly modern about an all-female line-up performing woozy witchcraft rock. There’s a dreamy eloquence to their sorceress-made rhythmic brew that outstrips mere imitation of the past, and still draws on current reference points even as it belies them.
It’s all the product of growth, originally forming way back in 2004, it’s taken this long for the group to settle on a line-up as well as taking the time to develop their empyrean brooch of psychedelic fog. The results are keenly haunting, aided in large part to the shimmering production – in part the band’s and mixed by dance producer Andrew Weatherall. It helps explain the hypnosis of their intriguing drum patterns and rhythmic drive. There’s a sinister mood to their atmospheric swelter too, Bees features chiming guitars plinking over the rumbling of brooding bass and Shadows casts its spell with wonky guitars, a sprinkle of piano and muscular drumming. Baby is delightfully unsettling as lead singer Emily Kokal intones over a lonely acoustic guitar “don’t you call anybody else baby/ cause I’m your baby still.” Its desperately pitiful and positively threatening all at once.
It encompasses Warpaint’s duality, a deft feminine touch for atmosphere and mood mixed with all the warmth and clarity of a snowstorm. These aren’t delicate damsels we’re dealing with, their brand of indie is the equivalent of a fevered hallucination, an oblivion you’d gladly sink into and lose yourself. 

13. Demians - Mute
Demians, and more specifically Mute, are an exemplary ambassador for those that still think that prog is a dirty word. Containing all the sophistication and high-brow intelligence of the genre without the baggage of pomposity or the cardinal sin of self-indulgence, an enormous compliment considering that Demians is actually the working moniker for French virtuoso Nicholas Chapel. With a production savvy and purpose to rival Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, it's no wonder Chapel won the adulation of Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson with his debut Building An Empire. But Mute is an even more focussed and lush affair. It's nine tracks shine and sparkle with the polish of much dedicated craftsmanship, with finely-honed details and precise layering. The pacing is equally immaculate, witness how the blistering, knucle-white rocker Tidal transisitons into the stately, nagging piano of Rainbow Ruse. Or how the build and swell of anthemic opener Swing of the Airwaves gives way to the muscular assault of Feel Alive.
There's tender moments to be had to,  Porcelain is a postively sumptuous beauty trilling with defeat and regret - that is until its transcendantal chorus. So too, Black Over Gold, yawning and stretching over gleaming instrumentation until it hits its peak with Chapel yearning "it doesn't matter that much to you or to me/whether we die on the land or the sea."  
Mute proves that the rich tapestry of his debut was not merely beginner's luck, and it just as quickly dismisses the trivialities of the 'difficult' second album.

12. Amplifier - The Octopus
An extremely late arrival to the 2010 party, but a highly anticpated one. The Octopus is the third - and entirely self-funded - album from British outfit Amplifier. A double disc, two hour affair, there's only three words to describe it's grand scale of ambitious rock. Absolutely. Fucking. Epic. It's a sheer understatement to say there's an awful lot to take in, taking the guitar-bass-drums set-up to the farthest stretches of its abilities and back again, but it's clear from even a few spins that it's one of this year's greatest musical releases. Grand in its construction and inspiring in its execution, it's a record all the more impressive for being released completely independently. Available only through the band's website
and produced entirely from their own pocket, it waves the flag of the independent spirit proudly. Make no mistake, this is not a DIY record in sound nor scope. No concessions have been made,  from the hammering groove of The Wave to the noodling histrionics of Trading Dark Matter on The Stock Exchange it's nothing if not a professional sounding record, rich in textures, layering and ideas. Oh lordy, the ideas.
Where to begin? The grinding majesty of Planet of Insects, the prog-rock harrowing shifts of White Horses At Sea//Utopian Daydreams, the low-slung crunch of Fall Of The Empire, the dramatic Minion's Song, the show-stopping Interstellar. Every track, every moment is glittering with rewards for those patient enough to discover them. If you're a fan of progressive-leaning, thought-provoking, head-nodding Rock (with a capital R), then allow yourself to be ensnared by the tentacles of The Octopus.
11. Sleigh Bells - Treats 
You all know the story, boy meets girl. In this case, boy: Derek E. Miller - former guitarist for hardcore group Poison The Well - meets girl: Alexis Krauss, while waiting tables at a Brooklyn restaurant. The resulting  musical partnership was one many fell in love with, and easily one of this year's most hotly-tipped acts, made good in a storm of noise pop ditties.
Gelling monstrous beats and heavy guitars with bubblegum pop and more hooks than a fisherman's tacklebox; the head-on collision between wilfully chaotic noise and three-minute chart mathematics shouldn't work on paper, but in action it's glorious, to the point that you it leaves you wondering why it hasn't been done before. 
For all it's sugar-rush allure (Treats anyone?) it's not so easily-disposed. The nagging repetition of Infinity Guitars, Crown On The Ground and especially A/B Machines should wear down, but they don't. The simple call-and-response of Kids and Riot Rhythm should bore, but they excite. The looping guitars of the title track and Run The Heart are easy to swallow but impossible to ignore.
There's something deeper to Sleigh Bells. Maybe they're the ultimate expression of stereotypical gender representations of male rock and female pop writ large into catchy hits. Or maybe they're the audio equivalent of youth cool, a mess of adolescent restlessness delivered in ADD satisfying chunks. The truth is, you don't need academics to enjoy the moment Tell 'Em kicks in with its air siren riff or when you find yourself reciting Rill Rill's pretty sing-song melody.

The Top 20 thus far...
as always feel free to add to discussion below, otherwise watch this space for the final ten.

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