favourite records of 2010

December 30, 2010

Best albums of 2010?  Here’s ten that i’ve been enjoying the most

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

On the first listen I was impressed, though not amazed. I had been anticipating Cosmogramma for months, but when the initial spin dealt fewer propulsive rhythms and a lot more textural ambiguity than 2007’s already texturally-ambiguous Los Angeles, my enthusiasm was tempered.  By the end of the album I knew it was an undeniable success, yet I still wished for just a little more solidity, some aspect I could hold firmly while the smoke settled around me.  In spite of this uncertainty, I continued to play the record, and it became familiar. The ambiguity began to clear, and soon I was aware of how all of the potentially disparate elements of Flying Lotus’ sound are fundamentally integrated. To claim that he “fuses” anything would miss that point: nothing needs to be fused.  Electronic beats are still at the core of Lotus alter-ego Steven Ellison’s sound, but now more than ever, they’ve become one ingredient among many, including free-jazz and impressionistic orchestral interludes, ambient drone, and Thom Yorke, who makes a surprisingly effective cameo. Ellison reputedly programs his music without quantizing (you could probably call that “playing it”), which gives the album a loose, almost live feeling, as though he somehow found a band capable of recording his strange suites. And on the tracks that actually do feature live musicians (especially the ones with Thundercat’s superhuman bass playing) the line between human and machine gets fuzzy. Flying Lotus’ mission seems to be the destruction of this boundary; here he comes closer than ever.  While it might not hit the emotional highs of some of the other best releases of this year, nothing else matches Cosmogramma in its unwavering craft, and no other album from 2010 has come to feel so essential.
(Zodiac Shit, Nose Art, And The World Laughs With You [ft Thom Yorke])


Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Nostalgic posturing could be the defining aspect of modern hipster culture, making it all too easy these days for an indie artist to rely on smeary photographs and plastic instruments to create something to fit the scene.  Deerhunter have made a nostalgic record (it’s in the title!) but unlike their (literally) pale imitators, their sentiment is neither hackneyed nor cloying. Halcyon Digest is an album that creates joy from sadness, projecting tragedy with optimism. Bandleader Bradford Cox is an ever-endearing and relatable persona; here he gracefully treads the line between pitiable protagonist and indie authority, while the band plays with the sinewy style that has always made them a pleasure to hear. And moreso than any past Deerhunter record, Halcyon Digest is intensely emotional— melancholy and euphoria in an intoxicating cauldron. (Memory Boy, Helicopter)


Midlake – The Courage of Others

This probably wasn’t the record most Midlake fans were hoping for; it has neither the whimsy of Bamnan and Slivercork, nor the lyrical pathos of The Trials of Van Occupanther, though it comes closer to the latter. Instead, Midlake have crafted (and “crafted” is really the operative word) a record with such painstaking care that they seem unaware that the subtle variations which must be obvious to a band working so intently for so long are largely lost on an audience accustomed to livelier stuff.  On first listen The Courage of Others sounds monotonous, almost bored. But Midlake is one band which deserves the benefit of the doubt, and repeat listens reveal a stirring soulfulness—The Courage of Others is undeniably restrained, but within that restraint it affirms the importance of every note. There are still hooks, but they take time to sink in—hooks aren’t really the point any more. Midlake are no longer making indie rock, they’re simply making the music they want, and it’s hard not to appreciate that honesty, especially when the results are so pure. (Rulers Ruling All Things, Winter Dies)


Spoon – Transference

There’s a looseness about Spoon’s latest album that I guess could be mistaken for a lack of effort, though it seems more the product of a band that’s been around long enough to simply know what works without belabouring the process. Transference is satisfying, due in no small part to Spoon’s typically excellent engineering, which lends the collection of rather minimalistic songs a sense of weight and richness. The band sounds less constrained than on 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; there’s an airy, improvised quality to much of Transference, and humourous touches abound—abrupt cut-offs, weird vocal effects, missed lyrics—having fun rarely sounds so polished.  And the cover art is the perfect metaphor for the album: apparent laziness transferring a brilliant result. (Is Love Forever?, Written In Reverse)


LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happen

“From this position,” declares James Murphy on “Pow Pow” (a sequel to his 2006 single “Losing My Edge”), “I can say ‘serious,’ or ‘copout,’ or ‘hard to define.’” Murphy’s final record as LCD Soundsystem takes to heart the indie-establishment’s proclamation of Murphy’s supreme coolness within the indie-establishment; so while Sound of Silver had a sort of communal comfort to it (we’re all North American scum, it’s us vs them, etc), This Is Happening sees Murphy embracing his newfound reputation with a collection of songs that are sometimes cold, sometimes confrontational, and generally more condescending than their predecessors. Even the silly single, “Drunk Girls,” is depressingly anthropological, and when Murphy’s at his snarkiest (“You Wanted a Hit,” in which he sneers “well maybe we don’t do hits,” as if anyone expected otherwise), the record gets decidedly uncomfortable.  But the synths are still explosive (“One Touch” is particularly fierce) and the more introspective pieces (“I Can Change,” “All I Want”) surpass Sound of Silver for their affect, although the dance is drearier than ever (is LCD even about dancing any more? Perhaps not). The weariness and anger that pervade This is Happening makes me hesitant to recommend it as LCD’s best work, and yet it is these same qualities that give the album its sense of assured purpose, making it a fitting conclusion to a trilogy of fantastic records. (One Touch, I Can Change)


Taylor Deupree – Shoals

Brian Eno called it holographic music, in which any given sample of a piece is encoded with the greater whole. Shoals isn’t quite the hologram as Eno’s Thursday Afternoon (which Deupree names as his favourite album), but they share a similarly static structure.  Over the course of four lengthy tracks, Deupree expands on the sound he explored in last year’s Weather and Worn 7”, making minute adjustments to loops and drones which accrue so gradually that their transformations might go unnoticed. But that’s part of the appeal: for attuned ears, Shoals is a complex and fascinating illustration of electronics and acoustics blending organically.  And as an ambient record, Shoals is as soothing and enveloping as Eno’s classics, adopting a cyclical rhythm in which the songs shift from major to minor, from slivers of hazy morning light to still fog over a midnight lake. (Shoals, Rusted Oak)


Liars – Sisterworld

After years of continually taking drastic turns between albums, Liars have finally achieved a signature sound, a refined amalgamation of everything they’ve done up to now. The stomping screaming of They Were Wrong So We Drowned, the chanting droning of Drum’s Not Dead, the bizarre melodic hooks of Liars are all present in Sisterworld, but never have these sounds been so masterfully arranged and produced.  “Refinement” might seem antithetical to Liars’ aesthetic goals, but the heart of the band has always been its careful application of tension and release, which remains fully intact here. The improved production lends a textural depth that the band has hinted at, but never entirely achieved, in the past. And the lyrical content, depending on your mood, is as uncomfortable or enthralling as ever, depicting the frustrated existence of the anxious and sociopathic. Sometimes it’s hard to take, other times it just feels great to shout along, “stand em in the street with a gun/AND THEN KILL ‘EM ALL!”  (Proud Evolution, Scarecrows on a Killer Slant)


Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal

In the cold cold north we need more good music for dark, icy times. Last year, Oneohtrix Point Never released Rifts, a sprawling compilation of three past EPs, which was about as comprehensive a winter soundtrack as anyone could ask for. Returnal continues in that style, though it’s expectedly tighter and more carefully sequenced.  Ambient and experimental records too often end up sounding contrived or meaningless. Returnal is neither—it accomplishes what only the best of the genre does, immersing the listener in its own unique landscape. And while it doesn’t quite surpass Rifts for its ability to create a synthetic world, it comes close with a lot of time to spare. (Describing Bodies, Where Does Time Go)



Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?

Like labelmate Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds use analogue synthesizers to forge a familiar yet striking sound.  But while OPN’s latest record focuses on drones, Does It Look Like I’m Here? explores guitar-driven post-rock, 80s sci-fi soundtrack, minimalist music, and, occasionally, noise. The aesthetic is similar to OPN and the result is still largely ambient, but with an added edge that, at times, almost amounts to excitement, which might be preferable depending on your listening goal. Either way, Does It Look Like I’m Here? is an excellent companion piece to Returnal, and for fans of the genre both records come strongly recommended. (Candy Shoppe, Double Helix)



No Age – Everything In Between

No Age pull a bit of a weird trick: off-key singing backed by sloppy guitar and drums that resolve into something catchy and compelling. I think part of the glue might be the duo’s fondness for guitar drones, which keep the record lush, and provide an occasional break from the poppier tracks. I don’t have too much to say about Everything in Between, I just found it to be a consistently enjoyable and engaging listen. Still wish they’d put a bit more effort into the vocals, though. (Fever Dreaming, Common Heat)


As always, lemme know what I missed in the comments!


Cuica, Bass, Melodica

December 27, 2010

ghostly improvisation