This year everything old seems particularly new again. Perhaps that is because I am now officially over forty, and I have been paying more attention to what is in the past than I ever did before. There was a time not so long ago when bands were empowered to communicate directly with fans through a short-lived (in retrospect) juggernaut called MySpace.
Flash forward a few short years, and a few companies (Twitter and Facebook) have enabled bands to speak directly to fans without interference from the advertising littered, corporatized chaos that MySpace had become. In an age where musicians rely on touring more than ever before, the portability of music on phones, tablets, Pandora, and wifi connected TVs and stereos has finally made listening to anything and everything, whenever and wherever, as easy as we thought it would be when we first started imagining a new paradigm a decade ago.
For me Sonos, Spotify and my iPhone are the paraphernalia that hold my drugs of choice. This year I fell into an entirely new crop of retro soul, folk and power pop. With countless hours logged on airplanes and in airports, it's hard to imagine what I would have done without the persistent soundtrack blown through headphones, on moving walkways and 747s. In a world without record stores, live shows fill the void, and the universal language of music is never more tangible than experienced from right in front of the stage at Fillmore, Coachella and the Greek, and this is what I listened to:
1) Local Natives -- Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss)
There are moments in life when the joy of the unexpected trumps the predictably incredible. This is rarely truer than when your first real exposure is watching a band you know very little about play live. This is how I first experienced Local Natives. I caught them early in the day at Coachella, not far from their LA home, and watched them rip through 50 of the most joyous moments of the festival. The blogosphere refers to the band as a kind of "Weekend Foxes," but to me they are more percussive and with the anthemic intensity of a much bigger band. You can hear bits of "English Settlement" era XTC mixed with the rootsiness of the Fleet Foxes and the emotion of the Frames.
With all festival and internet buzz bands, there is a chance to outgrow the hype and really build an audience that extends beyond the tiny clubs of Austin or Indio. In an age where many bands can make a great recorded piece of work, the real skill shows in playing live and delivering contagious energy and authenticity. Local Natives are young, but their songs are big. On "Shape Shifter" think Coldplay, and perhaps My Morning Jacket on "Wide Eyes." I listen to them as I write this and can't help but smile. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Silverlake, CA.
2) Stornoway -- Beachcomber's Windowsill (Rough Trade)
It took perhaps thirty seconds for me to know that "Beachcomber's Windowsill," the debut from Stornoway, was something rare and special. It reminded me immediately of how I felt when I first heard Belle & Sebastian well over a decade ago - a kind of pure happiness usually reserved for children, best heard on songs like "Boats and Trains" and "We Are Battery Human."
Stornoway makes perfect pop music, theme music for a fairy tale, innocent yet cool. Musically the band mixes strings, banjo, and piano into a more traditional indie pop structure like their thematic and instrumental soul mates, The Decemberists (see 'The Coldharbour Road'). But ultimately Stornoway soars on the wings of infectious vocals and harmonies, part barbershop quartet part orchestral hipster. Every year there is one record that seems miles out in front of the next. I hope this band can make as prolific a career of this as Belle and Sebastian have done. We all could use a little piece of our childhoods back, even if only for three or four minutes at a time.
3) Twin Shadow -- Forget (MRI Associated Labels)
I only vaguely remember downloading this album from eMusic (which I only just sadly quit after five fruitful years when they made the terminal mistake to abandon their indie roots for the majors), listened to it once and then promptly forgot about it. But there is nothing like travel to reacquaint you with overlooked jewels. "Forget" is as hard to label a record as any of this year's favorites, but I guess you would have to anchor it in 80's era Roxy Music new wave. The most recent equivalent would be the records of Yeasayer, but Twin Shadow is much lower key, and more chill than dance.
There are plenty of synthesizers, but they are melodic not thumpy, the vocals are mildly seeped in hushed romanticism, but without some of the theatrics. On tracks like "When We're Dancing" or "Shooting Holes" you are transported to the set of some old John Hughes film starring Cusack or Ringwald. The 11 tracks alternate between the relentlessly catchy, and the more downbeat and thoughtful. I'm not sure how this record ever really breaks out (perhaps a car commercial or a credible film soundtrack or a shout out from Twitter celeb) but this is a bona fide minor masterpiece- accessible, uplifting and nostalgic.
4) The Decemberists -- The King Is Dead (Atlantic)
It is virtually impossible for a band to so accurately reinterpret another band, especially one as important as the 80's era REM, without being without being excommunicated for outright theft. That is unless the band in question happens to be The Decemberists and in close collaboration with Peter Buck. For almost a decade now I have been gushing about the music of The Decemberists. Montana born leader and supremely gifted storyteller, Colin Meloy has always managed to infuse his songs with the expansiveness of his childhood's big skies and with the textures and the history of traveling minstrels reciting our oral histories and legends.
As such, the marriage of REM and the Decemberists completes a kind of perfect circle in the history of American indie rock. At least half of the songs on "The King is Dead" feature first initial guitar lines and homespun southern melodies that could easily be forgotten tracks from "Murmur" or "Reckoning." Key differences exist, and that is what makes all the difference. Instead of Stipe's mostly hard to decipher vocals, you have the souring and soothing vocals of Meloy and company. Instead of Stipe's awesomely weird lyrics, you have the similarly odd but comparably memorable ones. On the standout "Calamity Song" you get "In an age of the chewable Ambien tab/all that remains is in the arms of an angel." Weighing in at ten songs, there is zero waste, only the most respectful tribute to any band in recent history.
5) The Budos Band -- III (Daptone)
For almost a decade now the resurgence of Afrobeat music owes much to the confluence of three core factors: the great records by the Femi and Seun Kuti (sons of the afrobeat originator Fela), the increasing globalization of music, and the Broadway hit "Fela!" One of the core reasons that this genre never spread as broadly as reggae or rock is both the musical complexity and the sheer number of band members required. The Budos Band, a five year old Staten Island instrumental big band of retro-funk and Afrobeat aficionados, is among the most sophisticated to have emerged from the movement in years.
But what makes The Budos Band a natural and creative evolution of these core styles is the subtle incorporation of Middle Eastern ("Natures Wrath"), Cuban and other various world music rhythms woven into a vibe suitable for a Blaxploitation chase scene ("Mark of the Unnamed"). A tune like "Unbroken, Unshaven," swings like the best of Fela's big band classics, but if there is one kink on "III," it is that these songs are too short, almost like little teasers for what becomes long infectious grooves when performed live. For most people, instrumental music just feels empty, but to let yourself just drift into the luscious Budos grooves is to miss nothing and let every beat get under your skin. Like label mates Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, this band is a product of something very old, but very clearly something very modern.
6) Beach House -- Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
The beautiful but just a bit too sparse early Beach House records came dangerously close to being great. The difference this time around is partially due to the wonderfully lush production job on the Maryland duo's first Sub Pop release. "Teen Dream" is filled with bright, sweeping epics like "Norway" which literally shimmer with keyboards, drums loops, and the occasional guitar. But mostly what makes this blissed-out magic work so well is the pitch perfect lyricism sung with the breathy androgyny of Victoria Legrand. There are shades of Feist and Cat Power, but Beach House has neither the pop edges of the first nor the muted blues of the latter.
Most truly great albums make it difficult to isolate individual standout tracks and "Teen Dream" poses such a dilemma. Not only is there is not a weak song in the bunch, but the record is so consistent and fluidly sequenced it would almost diminish what makes it so good to focus on one track. This was the first really great album of 2010, and has been out for almost a year now, which is a good thing primarily because the follow-up should be due sooner than many of the others listed here. I can't wait.
7) Girls -- Broken Dreams Club EP (True Panther)
I am not sure if it is technically fair for an EP to compete with full length records for Bestest slots, but when it is as perfect as "Broken Dreams Club" there are no arbitrary rules. Girls' 2009 debut "Album" was my absolute favorite, so I am obviously at least a bit obsessed, but it is hard not to be. "Broken Dreams" sounds at times a bit more like young Elvis Costello than I had noticed before and the six songs here alternate between a swanky brass-tinged lounge vibe and more pure guitar-drenched indie pop. The heartbreaking "Hellcat Ratrace" was easily the finest song of 2009, and the clear winner this year is the aptly titled "Heartbreaker," whose slow build gives the band such a distinctive signature sound.
Singer Christopher Owens' personal Horatio Alger story (runaway, high school dropout, refugee from a bizarre cult) influences everything from his lyrics to the authenticity of emotion in each song. With swirling, meandering epics like "Carolina" and country-tinged confessionals like "Broken Dreams Club" it is hard not to find yourself on the verge of tears and joy with every steel plucked note.
8) Deerhunter -- Halcyon Digest (4AD)
Bradford Cox, the prolific brainchild behind Atlanta's Deerhunter, and side project Atlas Sound, has a knack for clean, dreamy pop songs. On his prior records you could very clearly hear the signs of budding brilliance both as a guitarist and vocalist, but for me there were always a few tunes that seemed unnecessary, which I guess somehow tarnished my desire to over listen, but "Halcyon Digest" is front to back a collection of songs as catchy as it is cool.
Songs like "Helicopter" and "Desire Lines" both tend to loop around these incredibly uplifting choruses wooing you into some peaceful trance. To the uninitiated, it is probably hard to place the time period that this album belongs too. For me, ironically enough, it owes much to that truly classic catalog put out by the first incarnation of the ethereal 4AD label (Cocteau Twins, Lush, Pale Saints, Red House Painters). It is quite fitting, and even a bit nostalgic to find this record on the new incarnation of that same label. This is my feel good record of the year.
9) Midlake -- The Courage of Other (Bella Union)
It took me a month to listen to and process the latest Midlake record before I felt qualified to speak objectively about "The Courage of Others." I would have to go back to Buckley's stunning "Grace" fifteen years ago to find another record that had as much of an impact on me as Midlake's predecessor "The Trials of Van Occupanther." It is rare that I read other reviews before attempting my own, but in the case of Midlake, my three years of eagerness for the follow-up left me feeling too biased to resist the urge. What I found was a massively polarized reaction to a record that took longer to come around to than I would have expected. "Courage" is occasionally more somber and precious than it needs to be. That said, with every listen, I am increasingly drawn into its reflective and emotional web.
Midlake has grown closer to new influences this time around, but also tends to go further back than the Fleetwood Mac vibe from last time, settling into the mid-sixties Brit folk of The Fairport Convention more than west coast Americana. Vocalist Tim Smith has a voice as pure and urgent as anyone making music today, and like previous efforts, it is bathed in impeccable production. Songs like "Rulers, Ruling All Things" and "Winter Dies" represent the closest approximation to singles or pop songs, but to describe them as such would be to miss the point - this record takes some getting used to. There is much emotional build-up, but below the surface where initially there seems pretension, there is joy and hope. The songs build to a triumphant crescendo, and in the end, with headphones at least, this is an epic voyage that is both uplifting and contemplative. Just surrender yourself to something truly special, and use the music to help express emotions often to hard articulate.
10) Sufjan Stevens -- The Age of Adz / All Delighted People (Asthmatic Kitty)
As much as I am a zealot for the orchestral sophistication and angelic vocals of Brooklyn via Michigan native Sufjan, it is really the combined output and expanse of both the "Delighted" EP and the poppier, full-length "The Age of Adz" that made him so important in 2010. Neither work is as good as the flawless "Illinois" from a few years back, but like all truly great artists, Sufjan and his vast orchestra of classically trained hipsters move forward, take chances and are generally evolving curiously, covering a massive amount of ground.
Both efforts seem to abandon the homespun banjos for more electronica and auto-tuned vocals and mysterious transitions that tend to explode into full blown epics like the 17 minute "Djohariah" to close out "Delighted" and the 25 minute "Impossible Soul" to close out "Adz." But in between these melodic walls of sound there are loads of sweet, incredibly distinctive personal songs, rooted in his devout Christianity, but not at all religious. There are great bands and great albums and then there are great artists. Sufjan delivers on all fronts.
11) Laura Veirs -- July Flame (Raven Marching Band)
I had almost forgotten how much I loved "July Flame" until it came up on an old playlist that I unearthed a few weeks back. On a list shamefully light on female vocalists, Veirs, who looks a bit like Toni Collette wearing hipster glasses, is the artist we would have assumed Liz Phair would have become. She is not, however, an artist exploding with post-collegiate angst, reinterpreting the Stones through the eyes of an American woman, but she translates the urgency and intensity of "Exile in Guyville" into something warm and serious in a way Phair's late career diva yearnings strayed dangerously far away from.
Veirs is an accomplished guitarist, both acoustically as heard on "Life Is Good Blues" and electrically as on the title track. Paradoxically her songs manage to both rock, albeit quietly, and groove at the same time. Her incredible knack for melodies paired with her gorgeous vocals and a vibe just enough off the beaten track, make this the most accessible yet satisfying release of the year. Yes, perhaps the fact that everybody from NPR to the Washington Post loved this record signals something, but even this adult exposure couldn't lift it into a more deserved stratosphere.
12) The National -- High Violet (4AD)
For years I have been wondering what it would take for The National to reach their commercial potential. This is a band of serious professionals who marry the dark intensity of Radiohead with the more conventional song structure of more traditional guitar-based indie bands. Immediately identifiable primarily because of the deep brooding vocals of Matt Berninger, the band reaches well beyond just a classically charismatic front man, building toward big broad chorus on even bigger musical canvases.
On an album chock full of bona fide hits like "Bloodbuzz, Ohio," "Terrible Love," and "Anyone's Ghost," this album has established the band as being as competent musically and lyrically as anyone. With "High Violet" there is no need to lobby loud for their place in the modern pantheon of truly great bands; the result is obvious. They have arrived, and without comprise. This is an "album" in the truest sense of the word, in a world more interested in songs and hits.
13) The Tallest Man on Earth -- The Wild Hunt (Dead Oceans)
In recent years it seems "folk-inspired" records by bands like Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, and Midlake have dominated the upper parts of the Bestest, but "The Wild Hunt" is probably the purest and most authentic folk record I have fallen for since the earliest and the rawest Elliot Smith albums. The Tallest Man on Earth is a young Swede who plays solo acoustic guitar accompanied by a very specific sounding nasal tone that inevitably invites comparison to Dylan, but actually harkens back even further to Woody Guthrie or Phil Ochs.
As distinctive as his vocals are, he is actually an incredibly accomplished guitarist whose finger picking and strumming is as free and easy as anyone else's, in the past few decades. "The Wild Hunt" is a modern relic, complete with earthy mellow ditties like the title track, and more infectious and upbeat numbers like "King of Spain." Oddly I am not a Dylan fanatic, but I am increasingly zealous about this music at this time when electronic beats tend to make their way into so much new music. It seems strange that some of the most authentic folk music today tends to come from Sweden (Nicolai Dunger, Jose Gonzalez, Kings of Convenience), but whatever it is that seems to blow through the air in Northern Europe seems to be rooted in the most American of music.
14) The Black Keys -- Brothers (Nonesuch)
During my childhood in Northeastern Ohio, I was always proud to be able to say that Devo and Chrissie Hind were products of the Akron's rubber city heritage. In the many decades that followed as the city crumbled, so did the music that emerged from my neighboring town. But no band has had such a sudden, deserved and unexpected ascent as the two piece Black Keys. They play raw, delta infused blues music whose credibility and authenticity will never be questioned.
Six records, and multiple side projects, into their decade long career, the band is not only prolific, but intent on pushing further and deeper into the cannon of blues with almost no regard for commercialization. On songs like "Tighten Up" you hear the ghosts of Hendrix, and as you travel deeper in you get swirling organs and chunkier more angular efforts like "Everlasting Light" that sound like mash-ups of Tom Waits and the falsetto of Jeff Buckley. Elite company indeed, but the raw power of this duo deserves each and every favorable comparison they receive. For me this genre will be divided between White Stripes and Black Keys fans. I'll take my keys black every time.
15) The Fresh & Onlys -- Play It Strange (In the Red)
As of late, in addition to producing killer social networking and gaming companies, San Francisco has been on a roll nurturing exceptional indie rock bands such as Girls, The Morning Benders, Rogue Wave and now The Fresh & Onlys. Most of the best of these local favorites can't completely escape the psychedelia that must still flow through the water 40 years after the Summer of Love. "Play It Strange" is a minor garage pop masterpiece. Behind the eleven consistent songs is a summer day jangle you can't help but fall for on first listen.
Beginning appropriately with the aptly named "Summer of Love" and rolling right into "Waterfall" you hear the refreshing echoes of a bygone age, but with a much updated sound. Musically this is a pretty straightforward effort that incorporates everything from rockabilly to pure sugary pop, leaning heavily on guitar and drums, but with hipster friendly vocals and lyrics. This one will no doubt fall between the cracks for truly broad audiences, but certainly qualifies for a diamond in the rough award. Play often and loudly.
16) Arcade Fire -- Suburbs (Merge)
There is not much I can say that hasn't already been said about the best and the biggest indie band on the planet. But it is still hard to believe that "Suburbs" is only their third record, given the awesome influence and sprawling ambition they have provided to the increasingly fragmented world of music. This album is almost too obvious a choice for me to include here, but to leave it out would be a foolish omission. Just as with The National, each and every song here is an intensely urgent classic, but these songs are both political and nostalgic, instead of merely being personal and intimate.
A song like "Suburbs" feels like the perfect meditation on a white picket childhood framed on a contemporary canvas of guitars, while songs like "Sprawl" weave those same distant memories through the fabric new wave epics of the 80's that informed the band that they would become. Have no doubt singer Win Butler is a rock star, but Arcade Fire is a "band," and one that can fill stadiums with a sound that is as original as it is reminiscent of everything that has come before.
17) The Radio Dept. -- Clinging To A Scheme (Labrador Sweden)
I have absolutely no recollection of how I found this record of impeccably produced retro, new wave pop, but like list mates Deerhunter, Ariel Pink, Twin Shadows and Beach House, it gives me the sense that the cyclical nature of pop music has finally found its way back to the 80's and 90's. Although I am not suggesting that you will find OMD or New Order buried inside the digital sleeves, what you will find is music that would be perfectly at home at the kegger thrown by that goth kid in your high school class. This is crisp, shiny pop music that transcends the prepackaged crap that plays behind most mindless romantic comedies today.
Two of this year's most optimistic songs "Domestic Scene" and "Heaven's on Fire" sparkle and shimmer like the moon on some still body of water. Singer Johan Duncanson's vocals just kind of melt into a lush symphony of synths as naturally as a human voice and a computer could do. "Clinging To a Scheme" is yet another great Swedish band to grace this list and is as bright and polished as anything else you are likely to hear this year.
18) Fitz & the Tantrums -- Pickin' Up The Pieces (Dangerbird Records)
I can't tell if I should think of this record as a guilty pleasure, or just good clean fun. Most people can be classified as either broadly rock OR pop (I am pop), and blues OR soul (I am soul). As such, "Pickin' Up The Pieces" seems to split the middle nicely for me: "pop soul," or "soul pop." In general this goes down pretty easy (my five year old loves it), and it didn't get much press in the zines and blogs I tend to read (not even reviewed on Pitchfork), yet it is really compelling. This is one of a handful of retro soul albums I fell hard for this year (see Budos Band and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) but it is also the most accessible (more Hall & Oates than Curtis Mayfield), and that is okay.
Although Mark Ronson can be credited with reviving the 60's soul scene and almost overnight replaced Phil Spector as the star maker and studio magician of our generation, this record was created outside his tight ecosystem, and is a refreshing if occasionally saccharine joyride. The songwriting here is uncommonly consistent, and peppered with wonderful vintage organ, piano, flute, and undeniably infectious composition (see "Don't Gotta Work It Out" and "Pickin' Up The Pieces" in particular). Even as I write, while listening to it again, I flash back to warm summer nights listening to Fine Young Cannibals as a teenager ... and wish I were back there again.
Also great, but you need to draw the line somewhere:
19) The New Pornographers -- Together (Matador) Five records in to it, they still make the some of the poppiest indie rock on the planet.
20) Gil Scott-Heron -- I'm New Here (XL) Still as angry, political, and innovative as he was 40 yrs ago.
21) Spoon -- Transference (Merge) They just keep getting better with age.
22) Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti -- Before Today (4AD) Another joyful, consistently anchored in the 80's work of nostalgia and modernity.
23) Best Coast -- Crazy For You (Mexican Summer) Kind of like a 2010 version of a cooler, more indie rock version of the Go Go's, and I mean this as a massive compliment.
24) Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse -- Dark Night Of The Soul (Capitol) Danger Mouse (genius) + Sparklehorse (RIP genius) + David Lynch (genius) = eerie, otherworldly , brilliant.
25) Jonsi -- Go (XL) Perhaps the brightest, weirdest, record of the year from one of those kooky Sigur Ros Icelanders.
26) Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings -- I Learned The Hard Way (Daptone) The best old school R&B band playing today, led by today's heir apparent to Aretha.