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Top 20 Albums of 2010 So Far

Ahhhh, album of the year lists. Our eternal salvation. Who doesn’t love a good meticulous ranking, taking a wild and unwieldy tangle of history and whipping it into numerated order? It’s an act akin to playing God: making order out of chaos. And, in an era utterly overrun by an astonishing, neverending influx of new music, these lists have become a true necessity: sounding out those whose amazing audio may’ve gotten lost in the new-release din. 2010 proved, once again, to be a boon for blessed releases; the year —and the decade— mere weeks old when Joanna Newsom unveiled her 3LP landmark Have One On Me

20. Club 8 ‘The People’s Record’

Club 8 'The People's Record'Labrador

Club 8’s seventh album —titled, winningly, The People’s Record— serves as a reinvention. Where the Swedish indie-pop pair’s past LPs tended towards twee meekness, lilting melancholy, and barely-there bossa nova, their latest is a blaring blow-out of Afro-Cuban percussion, highlife guitar, and balearic sway. Any cynics who’d dare suggest that Club 8 are trend-chasing will be silenced once they cop an earful of cuts like “Isn’t That Great?” and “Back to A” and “Shape Up!”; utterly joyous pop-songs delivered with irrepressible energy. The People’s Record is no better symbolized than by the giddy “We’re All Going to Die,” where Karolina Komstedt carols the refrain with unrestrained joy; Club 8 dancing in the face of their imminent demise.

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19. Wildbirds and Peacedrums ‘Rivers’

Wildbirds and Peacedrums 'Rivers'The Control Group
Wildbirds and Peacedrums employ those most ancient of instruments —just percussion and voice— but their music normally doesn’t sound ancient. That changes on Rivers, a twin-disc set whose first half, Retina, marshals military drums, a grim sense of crusade, and the Schola Cantorum Reykjavík Chamber Choir’s heavenly voices into near-medieval reverie. The second stanza, Iris, is just as stripped down and solemn, but, here, Andreas Werliin dabbles solely with dappled steel-pan drums and shakers, sending soft showers of polyrhythm down on Mariam Wallentin’s bruised crooning. Taken together, Rivers may lack the emotional peaks of 2009’s The Snake, but it hardly dents Wildbirds and Peacedrums’ reputation as one of indie’s most individual duos.

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18. Dirty Projectors and Björk ‘Mount Wittenberg Orca’

Dirty Projectors and Björk 'Mount Wittenberg Orca'Dirty Projectors and Björk

Initially written for a one-off live performance, this collision between two of modern music’s unstoppable forces-of-nature —Dave Longstreth and Björk— plays just as well as a play-at-home 21-minute suite as it did as a singular operetta. Here, Longstreth takes the titular mammal of his 2009 opus Bitte Orca and makes it a veritable totem. This song-cycle finds Björk ‘playing’ the matriarch of a pod of whales, with the cascading harmonies of the Dirty Projectors’ dames her children. It’s very much a composition for voices; a simple, unobtrusive rhythm-section sitting behind the host of caroling singers. Sure, it doesn’t quite measure up to the respective regular-works of its star-cross’d collaborateurs, but, then again, what does?

17. Ólöf Arnalds ‘Innundir Skinni’

Ólöf Arnalds 'Innundir Skinni'One Little Indian

Ólöf Arnalds’ debut, Við og Við, kept things pared to bare bones: her ancient-sounding folksongs delivered, in a sharp Icelandic tongue, over brittle pluckings of guitar and violin. Whilst it’s not surprising that the follow-up, Innundir Skinni, would build bigger arrangements, the way they totally change the tenor of Arnalds’ songs is unexpected. Here, the cold, flinty, icy sounds of yore melt into a glowing warmth. Not just in the big gestures, either (like the caroling campfire chorus of “Vinur Minn,” or the Celtic embrace of “Jonathan”), but in smaller ways; like the quiet breath of woodwinds that fog up “Madrid.” Innundir Skinni even wears a wailing Björk co-vocal, on the slow-building “Surrender,” with a sense of simple grace.

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16. Sam Amidon ‘I See the Sign’

Sam Amidon 'I See the Sign'Bedroom Community
Sam Amidon’s voice is best described as ‘strangely effecting.’ A strapping, banjo-plucking Vermont folkie, Amidon has a casual, unadorned, slightly froggy croak that never seems entirely in tune. And, yet, it’s that quality that makes it hugely moving. There’s something amazing —something utterly human— about hearing Amidon’s vocal chords stretch, creakily, to match up to the swirling orchestral grandeur plotted by his pal Nico Muhly. On the biggest moments of his third album —like his astonishing R. Kelly re-write, “Relief,” all Beth Orton harmonies, celesta sparkles, piano filigrees, and string swells— Amidon pitted against his orchestra sounds like a man genuflecting in the face of the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.

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15. Sharon Van Etten ‘Epic’

Sharon Van Etten 'Epic'Ba-Da-Bing!

Where Sharon Van Etten’s impressive debut album, Because I Was in Love, was a suite unbroken in its sorrow, her follow-up, the half-jokingly titled Epic, presents a more varied mood. The songs are still, uniformly, about navigating a destructive relationship —from the girlfriend-as-captive catharsis of “Love More,” to the barbed conflicts of “Save Yourself,” to the breezy ultimatum of “One Day”— but Van Etten dresses them in different threads; from Nico-esque harmonium gasps, to Nashville-ish dollops of sinuous pedal steel and saloon piano, to Laurel Canyon-like languour, respectively. The result is a record that finds Van Etten stepping into her own artistry; the bowed, bashful songstress of yore now steeled with conviction and confidence.

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14. Mountain Man ‘Made the Harbor’

Mountain Man 'Made the Harbor'Partisan

Though the three dames in Mountain Man are, noticeably, not men, there is something most mountainous about their music: rustic folksinging steeped in hymnal and traditional. Made the Harbor sounds born of the land: the trio singing of woodlands and meadows, of dogs and cats, of —quite literally— the birds and the bees. On the LP’s finalé, “River,” they actually sound like the birdlife they otherwise describe; hooting and cooing with full-throated trills as the tune winds its way towards a figurative, final sea. Set to, at most, a solitary acoustic guitar, the record is a study in the simple, unsullied power of the human voice; embracing both the transcendently spiritual and profoundly mortal qualities of communal singing.

13. How to Dress Well ‘Love Remains’

How to Dress Well 'Love Remains'Lefse

There are plenty of indie signifiers for How to Dress Well, the work of Cologne-based US ex-pat Tom Krell. There’s the lo-fi tone, the textural drone, the influence of Ariel Pink and Panda Bear, and his vocal similarities to Bon Iver. But, Krell also happens to be completely besotted with late-’80s/early-’90s R&B, and there’s not an ounce of irony in his devotion to ‘quiet storm’-style slow-jams and hysterical falsetto emotion. Where scores of indie artists have dabbled in R&B influence in recent years, it’s usually been an element in a polyglot mix. But, with Krell’s voice the main compositional tool of Love Remains, his near-Timberlake-ian warbling takes center-stage; even if it’s buried deep in an echoey, ghostly, lo-fidelity haze.

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12. Toro y Moi ‘Causers of This’

Toro y Moi 'Causers of This'Carpark

Confessionalists are normally earnest young charges with beaten-up acoustic guitars, not gear-working, gadget-fiddling electro nerds. Yet Chaz Bundick —the one-geek-band who is Toro y Moi— is cut from a different confessional cloth. Bundick uses his warped, wonky, washed-out, worked-over electronic songs as musical diary, spilling secrets in layered falsetto as his tunes court the dancefloor. Drawing influence from the ’80s pop of Janet and Michael Jackson, the hipsterist lo-fi fug of Ariel Pink, the summery haze of Panda Bear, and the gleaming house of Daft Punk, Bundick’s debut TYM LP, Causers of This, delivers his own unique sound: a labor-intensive, intensely-melodic, slippery-sounding, muffled-audio, heavily-confessional synth-pop.

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11. Here We Go Magic ‘Pigeons’

Here We Go Magic 'Pigeons'Secretly Canadian

After being born as Luke Temple’s four-track home-recording project, Here We Go Magic have, with their second record, graduated into a fully-fledged band with style. Temple’s Here We Go Magic debut was one of the best albums of 2009, and Pigeons is just as good, albeit in a different way. Where Temple once built thick, gauzy, hazy layers, here he and his assembled players knock out odd, elusive, teasing pop-songs. And none is better than single-of-the-year contender “Collector”: a manic, rambunctious, rollicking five minutes in which eerie multi-part vocals and ghostly keyboards float across high-wire post-punk guitars, the whole building and building to a heightened, sustained, driven-out climax that begs you to put on your dancing shoes.

10. Arcade Fire ‘The Suburbs’

Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'Merge

When Funeral landed in 2004, taking Arcade Fire —instantly, unexpectedly— from unknown Canadians to stadium institution, the best four of its 48 minutes were “Haiti,” Régine Chassagne’s buoyant, bilingual ode to her blood-splattered homeland. Six years on, on the statement-making The Suburbs, Chassagne again makes a star turn: her joyous “Sprawl II” performance reminiscent of a girl with a hairbrush, singing along to Blondie in her bedroom. It’s a moment of synthy levity amidst Win Butler’s self-conscious song-cycle, which Springsteens through suburban sprawl with an eye less on detail, more on the big picture. Arcade Fire’s ambitious third LP wants nothing more than to be a study of a generation, couched in the landscape they grew up in.

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9. Vampire Weekend ‘Contra’

Vampire Weekend 'Contra'XL

Revenge is a dish best served cold; but what makes it colder, still, is when it comes served with a smile. Vampire Weekend wear a mischievous grin on Contra, a follow-up LP that stands as tall and proud as a raised middle-finger. Subjected to a bilious blogosphere backlash when their debut album —a blithe, breezy mixture of preppy indie-rock and West African guitar-pop— rocketed off the hype meter, the combo responded in the best way imaginable: with an album infinitely more interesting, inventive, and relentless than their first. Contra‘s colorful, cacophonous songs come dressed into an array of studio tricks, marking a cocky, confident, commercially and artistically-minded outing for a band refusing to be bowed by backlash.

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8. Best Coast ‘Crazy for You’

Best Coast 'Crazy for You'Mexican Summer

Following a run of killer singles, Bethany Cosentino’s longplaying Best Coast debut, Crazy for You, comes loaded with bright, sunny songs writ in glorious major-chords, robust harmonies, and singalong choruses. “I wish he was my boyfriend,” Cosentino carols, on opening, and across its cracking 29 minutes things don’t vary; Cosentino waiting by the phone, eternally pining for this on-and-off-again love who’s off on tour. The guy in question is Nathan ‘Wavves’ Williams, but the gossip/context is unimportant and unnecessary. Cosentino may be the current queen of the fickle, prickly blogosphere, but her songs aren’t the sound of 2010. These are pop-songs pure, true, and timeless; universal tunes affixed to no time and place, no boy and girl.

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7. Beach Fossils ‘Beach Fossils’

Beach Fossils 'Beach Fossils'Captured Tracks

Beach Fossils is the home-recorded work of Dustin Payseur, a Brooklyn hipster whose guitar just happens to be blessed with a most magical jangle. Chiming those six-strings like a young Johnny Marr, Payseur cranks out glimmering, shimmering, lovelorned, forlorned, guitar-driven tunes athrill with daydream, romance, nostalgia, and aching sadness. Beach Fossils’ debut, self-titled set mints a feelbad summer-pop sound; “The Horse” finding Payseur moaning the doleful lament “I lost my heart for you” as its guitars dance and frolic in the sun. The slightly-fuzzy ‘production’ at play has found Beach Fossils lumped in with the recent rise of no-fi garage rockers, but, to me, Payseur’s ringing-like-pealing-bells guitars sound utterly timeless.

6. Beach House ‘Teen Dream’

Beach House 'Teen Dream'Sub Pop

Once Beach House slumbered in a languorous lo-fi haze, their music summoning summer days thick with humidity. But, on their third LP, Teen Dream, its stark, crystalline, hi-fidelity sound speaks of the sparkling lights and deep blacks of night. This midnight-hour sound is evocative: its pulsing organ chords and rippling piano building a beautiful bed for Victoria Legrand’s deep, moaning vocals to lay upon. Contrast comes from foil Alex Scally, whose overdriven slide-guitar ricochets from one side of the mix to other, amping up the (sexual) tension. Fittingly enough, all this staged intimacy, drawn out over an album-long slowburn, has been described by Legrand as “very sexual”; Teen Dream equal parts hot and heavy.

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5. White Hinterland ‘Kairos’

White Hinterland 'Kairos'Dead Oceans

On her debut White Hinterland album, 2008’s Phylactery Factory, Casey Dienel sang wordy, writerly lyrics over barreling, piano-driven tunes. After an experimental excursion into French lyrics, free-jazz flourishes, and Brigitte Fontaine evocations on the Luniculaire EP, Dienel has taken a full leap-of-faith with Kairos. Abandoning the piano entirely, she’s fashioned a set of slippery songs out of old synths, drum machines, ricocheting hand percussion, and, seemingly, household appliances. Drawing influence from modern R&B production, Björk’s more minimalist moments, and Arthur Russell’s sense of perpetual compositional motion, the album is a tender set of intimate lullabies; awash in Dienel’s sweet voice, and steeped in sonic rewards.

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4. Zola Jesus ‘Stridulum’

Zola Jesus 'Stridulum'Sacred Bones

Sure, Stridulum is only an EP, but it’s an utterly undeniable one. After a run of records full of mysterious, muffled, noisy Goth dissonance, the hyper-prolific Zola Jesus —21-year-old Wisconsinite Nika Roza Danilova— let loose her love in grandstanding fashion. Over top of massive, anthemic synth sounds, Danilova barrels out an operatic bellow bathed in so much reverb that it drowns the speakers in its throaty power. She gets compared to the standard female figureheads —Kate Bush, PJ Harvey— but Danilova’s singing reminds me of Ian Curtis: all torture and woe and a tone that sounds like she’s ingesting the microphone. Across these six songs and 20 star-making minutes, Zola Jesus takes the leap from fringe figure to bonafide indie pin-up.

3. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti ‘Before Today’

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 'Before Today'4AD

If another artist boasted of working with “Quincy Jones’ grandson,” it’d be an unintentionally-funny clutch at tenuous celebrity. But, for Ariel Pink, it’s perfect. The Los Angelino lo-fi alchemist has long nicked licks from Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson et al, burying them in his dense, druggy, cruddy home-taper sound as both homage to past pop and self-reflexive commentary on nostalgia. Made in an actual studio with an actual producer and an actual backing-band, Before Today lets the world in on a revelation: underneath all the hipster reappropriation of his tape-hiss-riddled past, Pink’s had serious pop-chops all along. The melodic glories of “Round and Round” introduce Ariel Pink anew: irony now dead, sincerity reigning.

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2. Owen Pallett ‘Heartland’

Owen Pallett 'Heartland'Domino

Few have the artistic gumption to author the kind of high-concept, narrative-driven, fantasy-minded record Owen Pallett has here. Heartland, his first own-name album after two LPs and three EPs as Final Fantasy, finds the violinist-cum-multi-instrumentalist delivering this story-in-song: in the mythical world of Spectrum, Lewis, a simple farmer turned radical insurgent, offers devotionals to the sole, omniscient deity of his world, an indifferent, divine God named Owen. It’s quite the concept, and, when delivered with the heft of a Czech orchestra, an Arcade Fire drummer, and Pallett’s razor-sharp lyricism, it’s impossible to keep down. Heartland is one of those rare records that gets better, that reveals more, with every listen.

1. Joanna Newsom ‘Have One On Me’

Joanna Newsom 'Have One On Me'Drag City

Who else but Joanna Newsom could pull off an 18-track, 124-minute triple-album with such aplomb? The 28-year-old is in utter command of her songcraft on Have One On Me; shipping from tiny harp odes, to jaunty Joni Mitchell/Laura Nyro-styled piano numbers, to shape-shifting epics dappled with hand-drums, guitar, and strings. Each tune is a revelation, Newsom’s achingly sad songs —like “Esme,” a glorious hosanna for a newborn child, and “Baby Birch,” a sorrowed lament for a never-born child— scoring a succession of emotional bull’s eyes. It amounts to a two-hour floodtide of poetic imagery, orchestral whorls, cascading harp meters, and rippling emotion; an achievement that crowns Newsom as one of the truly great artists of the 21st century.

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September 1, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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