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Album Reviews, Audio Feedback: Music Blogjams, Top 10 lists

Albums of the Year 2010

15. Come Down With Me – Errors

Having first stumbled upon Errors pounding out their breezy brand of wordless electro-grooves at a London festival some two or three years ago, it wasn’t until the release of this, their second full-length, that repressed memories of clammy tents, bubbleless cider, and crooked dance shapes were unearthed from the deepest recesses of my brain.

These memories are not unpleasant. And neither was my time spent re-acquainting myself with this Scottish quartet through ‘Come Down With Me’.

It doesn’t take a Glasgow Mega-Snake to detect the influences of Mogwai in Errors. Indeed, much of the boosting of Errors’ popularity has come from supporting these post-rock megatrons. But thankfully for me, unlike Mogwai, Errors couldn’t care less for creating dense and imposing atmospherics. Instead, they have built a bridge (an Erskine Bridge you might say) between the brooding intensity of Mogwai and the playful enthusiasm of, say, Battles. This is music to excite; music determined to show you a good time.

Ok, so they never teeter on the brink of insanity like Battles, but there is a frisky energy to tracks like ‘A Rumour in Africa’, ‘Germany’, ‘Jolomo’, and ‘Supertribe’, that is hard not to feel invigorated by. ‘Supertribe’, in particular, deserves extra plaudits for being the only instrumental song I’ve ever heard that has proved catchy enough to thwart me sleeping. Its relentless rotating through my weary membranes late at night has driven me insane in ways only Cypress Hill can comprehend.

Fantastic Track – Supertribe

14. The Suburbs Arcade Fire

I have tried so hard to attain the levels of appreciation that have made music critics everywhere go all goo-goo ga-ga over this but I can’t… quite… do it. And this is a shame, not just because I’m missing out on some serious self-congratulation by not connecting with the “biggest rock band in the world”, but also because I bloody ADORE their first two albums.

However, such is the incredible might of the Arcade Fire juggernaut, I can be slightly disappointed with their 3rd album and still sneak it in my top albums of the year. This is down, quite simply, to five or six of 2010’s most outstanding tracks being housed on here. It’s just unfortunate they have ten or so less enchanting neighbours.

I’ve tried but it’s no use, I gradually start zoning out. The all-purpose beginning is great, with the fabulous, swinging melodies of ‘The Suburbs’ merging to thrilling effect with its more rambunctious partner ‘Ready to Start’. But, after basking in the humble sincerity of ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Rococo’, it’s not until the punchy insistence of ‘Month of May’ four songs later that I realise I’ve not been paying enough attention. The same happens again after this, with album standout ‘Sprawl II’ calling me from my coma with a moment of such glorious cathartic release that I can only assume the four inconspicuous tracks leading into it are a deliberate ploy to make it more emphatic. Strangely, it’s the most fantastic album moment of the year for me, and worth waiting patiently for.

So, perhaps ‘The Suburbs’ deserves its due as a concept album well realised. Yes, for long stretches it might be a bit samey, kind of boring, and feel like forever, but then, out of the blue, something quite wonderful happens and you realise it’s not all empty rooms and wasted hours after all. And I can think of no better definition of life in the suburbs than that.

Fantastic Track – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

13.  Congratulations MGMT

What on earth do you do with your sophomore release if you’re MGMT? In 2008 their inventive debut of radio-friendly megahits, ‘Oracular Spectacular’, provoked such a frenzy of superlatives from the likes of Radio 1 and NME that their incessant drooling was detected oozing out of car-stereo speakers and strewn magazine pages for months on end.

And certainly OS was good – very good even – if a tad front-loaded. But just how does an ambitious young band follow the “most in-demand debut” in the world? Well, if you’re MGMT, you ditch all that easy, brilliant pop accessibility and embark your expectant audience upon a voyage into a farcical universe swelling with psychedelic goofiness, dastardly song structures, and, err, Brian Eno.

And, you know what, congratulations are in order. Ok, so it hasn’t had Jo Whiley squealing all over the airwaves like a cat whose tail’s been stamped on by a stiletto. All the better. ‘Congratulations’, despite the absence of an audience-wower like ‘Time to Pretend’, is a denser, more consistent effort than its well-hyped predecessor; a unified listening experience rather than a mere compilation of singles. It’s a daring departure from the formula that won them so much favour and, whilst it doesn’t quite risk alienating listeners in the vogue of a ‘Kid A’, the sheer boldness of the move does invite such comparisons.

It’s more fun than Kid A, that’s for sure. ‘Flash Delirium’, with its impish vocal delivery of lines like, “Here’s a growing culture deep inside a corpse, ages stuck together taking it to the source”, draws a smile still, and there’s a bouncy mischievousness to tracks like ‘Song for Dan Treacy’ and ‘Brian Eno’ that retain their playful appeal on repeat listens.

Fantastic Track – Flash Delirium

12. Cosmogramma – Flying Lotus

Oooooooooooooooooo…k.

How best to sum up this galaxy of insanity in a mere smattering of words? Maybe, in the vein of the album itself, I should just toss a ream of ideas at you and see which ones stick. Yeah, we’ll try that. A dense and labyrinthine techno jungle of hybridized influences. No? How about: A boundary-bashing surge of electronica fuelled by a jazzed up compulsion for adventure. Not working for you? One more: A mind-constricting quest along a cosmic timeline of hip-hop misfits, pummelling dubstep, and punctuated funk. Surely that’s it?

Ah, I give up. All I know is it is one hell of a mindfuck; especially if you whack it on your player whilst reading Danielewski’s equally trippy House of Leaves. Not advised.

A confusing feast, but one I find myself drawn to more times than is healthy for a stable mind.

Fantastic Track – Do the Astral Plane

11. Sea of Cowards The Dead Weather

Newsflash: The Dead Weather are not The White Stripes.

Oh. And another exclusive: THEY DON’T WANT TO BE.

Believe it or not, Jack White isn’t trying to make The Dead Weather or *cough* The Raconteurs as good, or even comparable to, The White Stripes. Christ, if he wanted that he would have put at least one iota of effort into penning some decent lyrics. He’s not stupid. A guy who writes such lyrical delights as ‘Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise’ and ‘Rag and Bone’ surely knows that to spew out guff like “Crack a window, crack a bone, crack your knuckles when you’re at home, lick an ice cream cone” is to achieve a lameness that has even Scouting For Girls palm-bashing their keyboards in a failure to muster.

Clearly The Dead Weather isn’t about the lyrics. This, of course, is about the blues. Gothic, psychotic, slasher-flick blues that hacks into your eardrums till there’s blue blood squirting over your speakers. Blues this mad, this off the rails, this utterly BLACK doesn’t need lyrics. It’s too consumed by its vicious lacerations of strings and jaw-breaking death wails to offer petty lyrical inspiration even a second to fight for its life. And, because of this, Sea of Cowards is a brash, senseless, and fiercely captivating listen. Yes it’s angry, but it rocks.

Fear not though, Stripes devotees. Once our beloved Jack has drained all this Dead Weather out of system he’ll be back, one of these days, as the mother serenading, apple blossom rejoicing, guest of Hotel Yorba we all yearn so tragically for. In the meantime, if The Dead Weather is too much for you to stomach, well, I’d take shelter. It could be a while before this black tidal wave dies down.

Fantastic Track – The Difference Between Us

10. Shit Computer – Kids & Explosions

Firstly, some reactions: “It gives me a headache”, says clemsonbrownie. “This is what happens when you have too much time on your hands”, reckons ryan tranzmission. And, my personal favourite; “Really borders on pure wankery” (Needle Drop).

What you need to understand is that these aren’t necessarily negative reviews. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with every one of them, and still adore this skipping stutterfest of sliced and spliced samples. Many will be outraged, finding it abusive, not just to their eardrums, but to the pop and hip-hop classics they so cherish; hearing them being ripped out of context, hacked into tiny pieces before their very ears, knitted to other similarly mutilated bitesize bits, and then sent tripping through ever-more unfathomable loops. And many will merely think there’s a glitch in their ‘shit computer’.

You see, this is not cut and paste sampling ala 2 Many DJs. It’s more likely to invoke premature come-downs in late-night ravers than soaring ecstatic highs.

What’s marvellous though, is that there is melody in the meldings. Oh yes. I defy anyone not to admire the fusing of White Stripes’s ‘I Can Tell We Are Gonna Be Friends’ with Blur’s ‘Girls and Boys’ on ‘The New Science’; these two combining flawlessly as a hip-hop backing track. Oh oh! And how about the hip-hop backing (apologies, I’m rubbish at spotting the hip-hop samples) provided by Whitney Houston’s vocals in ‘I Will Always Love You’ and the piano solo in The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’. Awe-inspiring stuff!

At turns hilarious (Swear Words), euphoric (For the Love of God), genuinely moving (There is a Burning Ball of Fire in Outer Space) and, of course, infuriating (where the hell is the Muse sample that’s meant to be buried in there?!), any album that can stimulate this range of emotions, and still be justly labelled “pure wankery”, should be roundly applauded.

Fantastic Track – There is a Burning Ball of Desire in Outer Space

9. Contra – Vampire Weekend

After the bubbly irresistibility of their debut, it was important for the still bafflingly named Vampire Weekend not to rest on their laurels with their second LP, and show us their flair for producing zippy pop dazzlers could carry them beyond the afro-beat vibe they’d tapped into thus far.

On first listen, though, I found their follow-up Contra, well, rather more resistible. The flaunting of their eccentricities upfront was initially off-putting, however impressively arranged, and this no doubt invited the people itching to take a chunk out of these supposedly pretentious Ivy League prepsters, to stick their teeth in and have a good suck. And let’s face it, not many lager-swigging chanters of Oasis or Kasabian will be having a go at the Auto-Tune yelpings of ‘California English’ in the karaoke pubs, necking down rounds of Horchatas mid-verse.

However, after some revelatory re-listens, I’ve frequently noticed my itunes cursor hovering poised over this album as the year has plodded on.

So, it’s a grower then. This is because, unlike the easy gratification of indie club knockouts ‘A-Punk’ and ‘Oxford Comma’,  Contra is packed with tracks that reward once you begin poking through their decorative surface, to find that fun pops out all over you as if from a bright, dangly piñata. The Paul Simon parallels are ripe as ever but now there are also touches of calypso, as on succulent starter ‘Horchata’, revvings of ska on ‘Holiday’, and drizzlings of synthesiser from ‘White Sky’.

Make no bones about it, Vampire Weekend have worked wonders with this album, consolidating their place as alternative indie’s most optimistic intellectuals, and leaving me dribbling down my chin at the prospect of where their 3rd album might take them.

Fantastic Track – Cousins

8. How I Got Over – The Roots

In a year when Eminem and Rihanna gaily slapped their styles together during a sloppy, chart-oriented pasting session – a worn-out gimmick by the way, superficially juxtaposing his ferocity with her oh so tender emotion – it’s a relief to find rap music collaborations can still breed an organic balance between discontented hip-hop verses and soul-enriching choruses.

The two main reasons The Roots ‘How I Got Over’ is a more accessible and agreeable form of rap for me is, firstly, because they are a bona fide hip-hop band, with sweeping dynamic instrumentation between their multiple parts, and secondly, because they have sewn funk and soul deep into the fabric of their music, with an innate ease I find comforting.

Here each chorus genuinely is a fantastic pick me-up after the sobering struggle being played out in the verses. In fact, it’s quite the sobering struggle picking a favourite out of these soundly structured tracks, with each flowing seamlessly into the next.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Roots; or how I got over Eminem’s latest travesty.

Fantastic Track – They’re all equally fantastic, but alright… Now Or Never

7. This Is HappeningLCD Soundsystem

Expectations were high enough for LCD Soundsystem’s third LP without main man James Murphy declaring before its release that it would also be their last. And, as if pre-empting any doubts about the strength of this assertion, he slapped powerful statements of intent all across it, beginning with its title, ‘This Is Happening’. Whether you like it or not, this IS happening.

Luckily for Murphy, most people did like it. A lot.

At the zenith of an 8 year career that has produced two near faultless albums and a smattering of other estimable EPs, I certainly didn’t expect Murphy’s climactic release to veer wildly from his winning formula of ironic reflection and meticulous dance marathons. And it’s true; there is nothing new on ‘This Is Happening’. In fact, we find even heavier doses of introspection from Murphy, locked up within grander and even more ambitious towers of electronics, as he wrestles with the demands of living up to the expectations of others.

This dilemma occupies his mind throughout, from the very first line of pulsating opener ‘Dance Yrself Clean’, “Walking up to me expecting words, happens all the time”; through the moving relationship drama ‘Can Change’, “I can change… if it helps you fall in love”; to the self-reflexive masterpiece ‘You Wanted A Hit”, which dashes the hopes of its listeners directly; “You wanted a hit. But that’s not what we do”.

So, this is post-punk disco urging you to both dance AND think. Personally, I still believe ‘Sound of Silver’ is Murphy’s real masterpiece. And perhaps the ever self-aware Murphy knows this too. LCD Soundsystem’s winning formula isn’t as original as it once was, when ‘Losing My Edge’ first staggered so successfully on to the scene in 2002. But 8 years on, LCD Soundsystem have surely exceeded even Murphy’s highest expectations.

Fantastic Track – You Wanted A Hit

6. Say Us – Zeus

Not the Canadian band you were expecting to find settled comfortably in my top 10 for the year? To be honest, it’s not who I was expecting either. But congratulations Zeus – or should I just call you Jason Collett’s backing band? – you’ve come higher than Arcade Fire. Come to mention it, you’ve absolutely tonked them.

Unless you’re reading this in Canada – no correct that, Toronto – you’re likely to be scratching your head and saying, “What the deuce? Who are Zeus?!” Well, simmer down, I’ll enlighten you…

Following several years peering at audiences from behind Broken Social Scene’s Collett, in 2009 this Toronto-based band decided it was time they seized the stage for themselves, and released the ‘Sounds Like Zeus’ EP as a signal of their intent. Sunny pop bubbler ‘Marching Through Your Head’ in particular caught the eye – or the ears more like – on this EP, that hinted of exciting things to come.

Come 2010 and the release of their debut full length, ‘Say Us’. I hardly remembered it on my token initial listen, but after witnessing their energetic, and surprisingly hard-hitting, show at Hillside Festival, I came straight back and stuck it on my itunes for a reassessment. I still think the first two tracks are the least captivating, to me sounding like a new band hesitantly feeling their way. Then track 3, ‘Kindergarten’, springs from the speakers and suddenly they’ve nailed it; a zesty, playful pop tune that merges sharp-witted lyrics with a catchy swagger.

From then on, ‘Say Us’ displays an assurance in song-writing that will have even Collett pondering how they pulled it off. ‘Marching Through Your Head’ is again a stand-out, slipped slyly in near the back of the pack, but ‘You Gotta Teller’ has a startlingly heavy grunge, and how ‘Greater Times By the Wayside’ slides smoothly into ‘River By The Garden’ tickles my eardrums every time.

An unashamed joy. Says me…

… says you?

Fantastic Track – Kindergarten

5. Brothers – The Black Keys

I’ve hopped on the Black Keys band-wagon pretty late in the day, and though I am partial to their earlier, grittier, blues-ier (is that a word?) releases, their 6th album ‘Brothers’ is close to my pick of the bunch… with album 3, Rubber Factory, probably still the bees-knees where this duo is concerned.

However, if you’re a fan of early Black Keys this album isn’t difficult to enjoy; it’s certainly a closer relation to their garage-blues roots than their last, very worthy, effort ‘Attack and Release’. The Black Keys have brought the worthwhile lessons they’ve learnt from recording that Danger Mouse produced album to the table, as well as those from Dan Auerbach’s superb solo endeavours, and revived their old grungy sound by augmenting it with additional instrumentation and layers of studio trickery. Auerbach’s falsetto vocals on clomping opener ‘Everlasting Light’ is a new caper for sure, and we even get gorgeous swathes of harpsichord on ‘Too Afraid to Love You’.

It’s no mean feat, performing an evolution of this kind, which stays true to their primal, thick and freaky instincts yet still supplements it with enough fresh instrumental flourishes to keep their sound ticking along nicely an immense 6 albums in.

Fantastic Track – Everlasting Light

4. Wild Smile – Suckers

The title of Suckers’ very first full-length is stupendously apt; a wild smile is precisely what it draws from me each time I play it. The cover is pretty appropriate too; a close-up photo of a baboon’s frowning face. And, err, a frowning baboon is precisely what I… well, yeah, you get the picture.

I was in love with this band well before I saw them live in Minneapolis on my birthday, but to hear them singing a song entitled ‘Before Your Birthday Ends’ at the culmination of the day pole-vaulted them to legendary status in my eyes.

And there is much to smile over on this album. Audacious opener ‘Save Your Love For Me’ is a bold first track for a band making their debut, but they master the slow build, sauntering solo and slamming kick-in with such aplomb that they feel compelled to celebrate like a pack of wailing hyenas for the remaining two minutes of the song. Next comes ‘Black Sheep’, top in my songs of the year chart, due mainly to the impact of its AWESOME bassline on 52 seconds, but it also receives a vigorous nod of approval for the Pixies-esque screaming that follows.

And the Pixies aren’t the only band Suckers mimic. Of course they owe a lot to Modest Mouse, but there are moments where the vocals go all Wild Beasts (as on ‘Before Your Birthday Ends and ‘Martha’) and even Yeasayer, who they’ve supported, might find themselves in awe of the kaleidoscopic invention and potent vocals on display in ‘A Mind I Knew’.

It’s not perfect. The few critics that have bothered with Wild Smile heap praise on ‘It Gets Your Body Movin’, and with this song climaxing their live set it clearly is a favourite of the band, but I find that track a tedious builder that eventually reaches an uninspiring chant-along finale.

This is a minor gripe though. Wild Smile is an album of such freewheeling eccentricity, it makes Suckers my favourite debut band of 2010 by a country smile, I mean mile.

Fantastic Track – Black Sheep

3. There is Love In You – Four Tet

Yes Kieran Hebdon, there is indeed love in me, and certainly more than enough to devote a generous portion of it to your latest Four Tet release.

In choosing to show off his tender side, Hebdon has waved goodbye to the thrilling eclectic nature of his early century releases – you certainly won’t be caught off-guard by tetchy invaders like ‘No More Mosquitoes’ or ‘Spirit Fingers’ – and afforded us a sublime and effortless listening experience, that reveals an affecting sensitivity throughout. Ambient, subtle, but never dull, I often discover it settling and unfurling itself deep within my consciousness, with such an assured grace that the gleam never fails to surface on my face as a big, beaming smile.

A point of contention I’m sure but, for me, this is Four Tet’s finest achievement. It practically breathes beauty.

Fantastic Track – Love Cry

2. Odd Blood – Yeasayer

You tell me; is it good, is it proper, to have as number 2 for the entire year an album that parades such horrendously cheesy lines as, “I remember making out on an airplane. Still afraid of flying but with you I’d die today”? Level with me, these are embarrassing tastes right? Ok, how about another: “Oh, it’s hard having fun. It’s much easier said than it’s done”. Yikes! Wrong in the head, aren’t I?

The reason I survive lines like these without heaving all over my bedroom carpet each time I listen is, a) because I’m having far too much fun grinning and leaping around till humongous holes appear in my fluffy clean carpet, and b) because Yeasayer were clearly having this much of a riot themselves, when they threw together this spasticated, polyrhythmic synth-fest in the recording studio.

For me, it’s so refreshing to find a band unashamedly enjoying themselves. I imagine them in the studio, cackling manically as they tinker with their tracks, tongues planted so firmly in their cheeks that they’ve gouged great holes in their faces where the tips of their protruding tongues flap crazily to the beats. Not since Late of the Pier’s debut two years ago have I been so infected by the experimental exuberance of a band.

There’s not much sign of the impending party on lurid opener ‘The Children’ though. Thankfully ‘Ambling Alp’ swoops in to save us from this trudging salvia mirage, whisking us away on an other-worldly adventure of beguiling melodies and oddball bass hooks. From then on Odd Blood, for all its flamboyant flipping of genres, is heavily infused with pop-charged rhythms, designed simply to get you on your feet, swerving and grooving. Chris Keating’s powerful vocal delivery is a force to behold, shining through the garish sample arrangements that flitter and tease all around him.

All in all, I can think of no better soundtrack for a day out at Laser-Quest… hey, I told you I had embarrassing tastes.

Fantastic Track – Ambling Alp

1. Swim – Caribou

Completing this heavily Canadian-influenced list (a whopping 4 entries, can you tell I spent ¾ of the year there?) is Caribou. Formerly known as Manitoba, Caribou is Dan Snaith, an electronic artist I have been kicking myself for missing out on all these years, and yet simultaneously celebrating having discovered finally in 2010, because this allowed me to rummage through his entire back catalogue during one splendidly hung-over afternoon, hidden away from the stinging cold in my Toronto apartment.

I was besotted with Swim’s quirky charms the moment I encountered it. Ominous brute ‘Odessa’ is such a roaring start, gripping hold with fierce purpose, and dragging you biting and snarling through a bruising undergrowth of piercing percussion and screaming torments. It is the hardest hitting track of the 9 on here, so those expecting an album chocker block with stellar knockouts like this will probably come away disappointed.

The remainder breezes by like an acid daydream on a sunny afternoon. There is still room for plenty of punchy percussion (as on epic instrumental track ‘Bowls’) but there is a silky fluidity to how these tracks flow past that is prone to lull you into a trance. ‘Kaili’ is my favourite, Dan Snaith setting his slippery vocals soaring round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round a languorous loop without ever threatening the tedium I just invoked with my imitation in text. Then on ‘Lalibela’, 5 songs later, the same vocal loop emerges from a squishy mesh of techno like an acid flashback your mind had spent many painful hours going round and round and round trying to repress.

Whether it is Snaith’s finest hour is another matter. Each one of his albums, as both Caribou and Manitoba, could make a strong claim for this honour. I’m undecided. All I know is, I’m grateful that 2010 will now go down as the year I at last got the chance to swim triumphantly through them all.

Fantastic Track – Kaili

Thanks for reading folks!

 

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Discussion

One thought on “Albums of the Year 2010

  1. The writing in this piece is lovely. Just sayin’.

    And the Kids and Explosions review: NAILED IT!

    Posted by Em | January 11, 2011, 11:03 pm

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