Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top Ten Albums of 2010

2010 was a pretty excellent year for music, but only 10 albums have been chosen. These were the ten that got my ear. Sorry for the delay in publishing.

10. The Sword - Warp Riders - The Sword lost one of their integral parts in 2010. Trivett Wingo, their drummer, left the band. Not on bad terms, but just needed to end his tenure. Luckily, it was before the recording of Warp Riders, easily The Sword's cleanest and most rock influenced record yet. The riffs are huge and the rhythm section is bone crushing. On their first "concept album"of sorts, The Sword ditch the Viking lore of their past two records and create a universe of their own. Interstellar travel, mystic orbs and a lone archer wandering a desolate planet litter the lyrics with stoner metal geekery. Rush's 2112 must have been an influence here. "Tres Brujas" owes a lot of it's sound to southern rock. The obvious send up of ZZ Top's bluesy guitar licks are backed up by a nasty cacophony of Wingo's drumming. "The Chronomancer I: Hubris" is the albums chunky epic with riffs that go back and forth. The pinnacle of the record is in "Lawless Lands", a blues metal masterpiece. With Zeppelin-esque guitar effects and the albums best guitar solos, it stands as the best hard rock song of 2010. The Sword gets a bad rap for their vocalist J.D. Cronise's kind of laid back delivery, but not every metal singer needs to scream their convoluted lyrics. In fact, the more blues rock delivery makes this record sound like a step forward in The Sword's sound.

9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs - It's no surprise that The Suburbs would be the record to bring indie favs Arcade Fire to the forefront. I'm still surprised that this record hit #1 on the charts. That being said, it is definitely Arcade Fire's most ambitious and relateable record yet. The Suburbs is a very intense and complex record. It takes a few listens to fully absorb everything that Win Butler is trying to tell us in his indie rock opera. This album doesn't have the same kind of vibe as either Funeral or Neon Bible and in that, it really stands out. "The Suburbs" is the perfect opening to the record, setting the scene of the story to come. "Ready to Start" is a static yet tense track, building the kind of tension that explodes later in the album on tracks like "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)", the apex of Arcade Fire's epic intensity on the album. It's a long record to listen to, with 16 tracks and clocking in over an hour. But ultimately, it's as gratifying as any Arcade Fire album.

8. Black Mountain - Wilderness Heart - Black Mountain ditched their lofty, grandiose prog rock anthems in 2010 in exchange for a mixture of fast-paced rockers and acoustic power folk. Wilderness Heart's longest track clocks in at five minutes and fifteen seconds as apposed to their last album (a sixteen minute epic called "Bright Lights.") This is a welcome change. For psych rock, nostalgia bands like Black Mountain to keep it fresh, you got to change your game up from time to time. Take for example the extraordinarily catchy "The Hair Song." The layers of instruments make it sound like a Who song with acoustic and electric guitars playing the main riff and the rhythm section keeping it real and a touch of Deep Purple organs. "Old Fangs" is an eerily static song with nary a guitar solo to be found. The creepy organs take center stage here. Other highlights are found in the more metal moments like the lone highway biker anthem of "Let's Spirits Ride" and the pastoral closer "Sadie." It's Black Mountain's catchiest record yet. Short, but sweet, Wilderness Heart was the crossover that never happened.

7. Brian Eno featuring Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams - Small Craft on a Milk Sea - Ambeint king and producing juggernaut Brian Eno elicited the help from Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams for easily his best instrumental record since 1983's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. As far as calling this an ambient record, I think that's a little off. It starts off quiet with the beautiful "Emerald & Lime" but by the time you reach track three, a darker edge takes shape. The mid-section of the album is where the real magic happens. Tracks like "Horse" are fodder for electro-remixes and dance club backing tracks, but on this record they take another more harrowing effect. You feel as if you are adrift on the titular sea, weathering the elements bombarding you in a foreign landscape. "2 Forms of Anger" is static yet tense and layered. "Paleosonic" is a feast for the ears. It slowly builds with bleeps, gurgles, scraping synthetic waves and electric guitars that pierce and pull apart. What does it all add up to? The years most intense headphones experience and a beguiling record filled with otherworldly sounds that really put you in another dimension.

6. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach - An album about materialism, societies wastes and the digitizing of the world, Plastic Beach is the best concept album of the year. With loads of cameos from Bobby Womack to Little Dragon to Snoop Dogg and back again, it's a huge collaboration of an album. At it's center is Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlitt steering the Gorillaz in a more grandiose direction. There is hardly a song such as "Feel Good Inc." on this record. Instead, the real shining moments come in the melancholy spacescapes. "Empire Ants" is easily the Gorillaz most poignant and beautiful track to date. It oozes with melody and saccharine sweet hooks. The album also has mostly a darker undertone, especially on the Mos Def show stopper "Sweepstakes" and the static anti-funk jam "Stylo." Bobby Womack steals the show on "Stylo" with improvised lyrics that seem to come from the inner depths of his soul. And if you are looking for the danceable side of Gorillaz, you aren't completely out of luck. The kitschy consumer culture lampoon "Super Fast Jellyfish" and the Bashy and Kano led "White Flag" will tie you over for now. It's a busy album with a ton going on, but in the world of the Plastic Beach, it's all about excess and waste.

5. MGMT - Congratulations - MGMT's Oracular Spectacular lit a fire under the indie rock scene as well as the radio airwaves of your local alt-rock music station. "Kids" was inescapable and "Electric Feel" was the real shining star of that record. But Congratulations to most seemed to be a sophomore slump. A study in art rock deemed too weird to set the world on fire the way the previous album had. Well, for my dime, the experimentation and wackiness of Congratulations is far and away better than the faux pop of it's big brother. Say what you will about MGMT's horrid live show, where they lib synch their most beloved song to a crowd expecting to get that in full glory. Songs here are sprawling, like the 12 minute epic "Siberian Breaks" that essentially dissects all things psychedelic into a beautiful landscape. "Flash Delirium" may be the closest to a single you can get off this album, but as the song builds and builds it explodes in a fury at the end. "I Found A Whistle" is a delightful psychedelic fever dream and "Brian Eno" is a art-rock ode to the patron saint of all things weird. As far as albums go, Congratulations shows more experimentation and has more moments than Oracular Spectacular did. Sure, nothing is going to launch them to fame off of this record, but I have a feeling that is exactly what MGMT wanted. And they are better off for it.

4. Grinderman - Grinderman 2 - Nick Cave is unstoppable. Be it writing awesome screenplays for badass Australian westerns, writing novels of depraved lunatics, scoring films with Warren Ellis, releasing albums with his Bad Seeds or taking a load off with Grinderman, the 52 year old rock veteran has yet to slow his pace. On Grinderman 2, he ups the ante big time. The depravity, the distortion and the overall intensity are through the roof. "Worm Tamer" is a harrowing affair. A classic blues riff with a raspy recitation of his "serpent wrangler" of a woman; it's a dark yet fun track. "Heathen Child" is just as dark. For fans of King Crimson, there is a brilliant reworking called "Super Heathen Child" with Robert Fripp tearing at your skin thanks to his ridiculous guitar work. Slow burn to start, but bombastic and loud by the songs midsection, "When My Baby Comes" is one of those Nick Cave affairs that oozes with melody until exploding forth with noise care of Warren Ellis' distorted violin and Jim Sclavunos' ferocious bass line. Some would say this seems like a mid-life crisis, as Cave's lyrics swoon over dangerous women and depraved activities that no 52 year old should be writing about, but Nick Cave is a special kind of person. He's above it all and with a new Bad Seeds record coming in 2011, there is no end in sight.

3. The Black Keys - Brothers - The Black Keys have always been on my radar, and select songs have always caught my grasp. But something about their dirty blues production was never enough to captivate me. It wasn't until this years Brothers that I was able to really fully immerse myself into one of their albums. Top to bottom, it's hands down their best. Rather than stripped down guitar and drums, this album is filled with sound and layers of instruments. The big single, "Tighten Up" is an undeniably catchy track, but it's B-Side, "Howlin' For You" is the true highlight of the pop sensibilities of this record. "Ten Cent Pistol" is a good bluesy number and "Too Afraid to Love You" is about as close to R&B the Black Keys have ever gotten. In a time when pop music is riddled with over-produced junk and a lack of good rock and roll, The Black Keys really stepped up to the plate to save us from the muck and mire of today's rock music wasteland. I'd rather be blasting "Next Girl" with it's guitar fireworks and blues stomp then ever hear any other new rock song on the radio ever again. It's lyrically excellent and excellent musically. Not a lot of rock bands out there that can say they nail both on one record.

2. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker - When Kevin Parker posits on album opener "It's Not Meant To Be" that "...I boast that it is meant to be, but in all honesty/I don't have a hope in hell..." he is definitely not talking about the greatness that is Innerspeaker. Far from the truth. Tame Impala's full length debut is a workout in psych pop unmatched by any other album that I can remember. It's pop songs are drenched in a haze of reverb and effects beaming in songs like "Alter Ego" from another dimension. Their undeniable comparison's to The Beatles due to Parker's eerie similarity to 60's John Lennon can sound like they are any other run-of-the-mill 60's nostalgia act, but that's not the case. There is still something new about these hooks and the sound design. Soaring effects take front and center, but effects can just be that. Luckily, the songwriting is just as strong. "Lucidity" crackles and fizzles with a hook as good as any rock song from the past 10 years. "Jeremy's Storm" is a sprawling instrumental that is surging and relentless. The closer, "I Really Don't Mind" is an apathetic anthem for the times. All in all, the voyage from start to finish on Innerspeaker is what makes this album so good. You are quickly whisked away to a psychedelic landscape and you'll end up getting lost in the wash of reverb that ensues. As far as psych rock albums go, this is easily one of the best in a long history of psychedelia.

1. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM - It's safe to say that Charlotte Gainsbourg is the best muse around. Her second album, 5:55, was beautifully crafted by the hands of Air, Nigel Godrich, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon. It's a beautiful record. This time around, she has just one callaborater in Beck Hansen. Beck writes, produces and surely plays copious instruments on the best album of 2010. After a water skiing accident that left a blood clot in Gainsbourg's brain, it's no real surprise that she'd team up with Beck. The titular track is just as jarring as the experience of being put into an MRI machine. All the tracks are ladelled with death imagery, but it's all sort of accepting. rather than a fearful record, IRM is an album that's dark, but willing to admit the fragility of life. That's where Charlotte Gainsbourg's voice comes in. "In The End" is a short poem where Gainsbourg's fluttering voice really soars. "Who's to say it's all for the best in the end" is a beautiful epitaph of sorts. Although death is a constant overtone on the record, the album isn't short of it's sultry turns as well. "Trick Pony", a bluesy riff embedded in a bass and drum showdown is about as sultry as it gets on IRM. Just like on 5:55, some of the best songs on IRM are in French. "Le Chat du Cafe des Artistes" is an eerie string laden track that sounds sinister and below the sultry French spoken are easily the albums darkest lyrics. The album wraps up nicely with "La Collectionneuse" that slowly spirals out of control, unraveling at the end. Charlotte Gainsbourg is the finest muse oen can find these days. The music and lyrics are easily Beck's best since Sea Change, which is saying a lot as he's released several decent records in the past ten years. The two duet on "Heaven Can Wait," a straightforward pop song, but don't be mistaken, this is still Charlotte's show.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top 30 Tracks of 2010


Sorry for the long delay! Between work, life, getting engaged and the holidays, I've been stressed and too lazy to write. So we're back. Grooves will continue with Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks in 2011. Until then, here are some year end insights starting with In The Wake's Top 30 Tracks of 2010!

30. Mumford & Sons - "The Cave" - My sister demanded me listen to the Mumford & Sons album Sigh No More for quite some time and sadly I took too long to get to the quality folk rock record. "The Cave" is definitely a stand out single for the new band. When the banjos kick in, this song really takes off.

29. John Legend & The Roots - "Compared To What" - The smoothest man in R&B plus the smoothest band in hip hop team up for an album of 70's soul cuts with a slant on social justice and change? Yes please! This cover of the Les McCann and Eddie Harris stands up nicely with todays world politics and the American experience in 2010. You can get this track on Wake Up!

28. Neil Young - "Walk With Me" - Neil Young + Daniel Lanois = LeNoise. A strange album of sorts as it's just Neil and his guitar plus effects and production care of Lanois. The end result is a spaced out take on Neil's chunky, grunge guitar playing. It's a refreshing track.

27. Broken Bells - "The High Road" - Although Broken Bells is an overall disappointing album, it has a of few catchy, inescapable tunes. The straightforward poppy goodness of this track is undeniable and is one of those songs that you can't help but sing along to.

26. Goldfrapp - "Alive" - Goldfrapp's Head First is a slice of delightful pop music. Where many are swooning for Lady Gaga, I swoon for Alison Goldfrapp. A blindingly catchy synth pop tune in the vein of Olivia Newton John in the 80's, it's saccharine sweet and amazingly fun to party to. The video is also pretty amazing.

25. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - "Bright Lit Blue Skies" - Although this may be the worst band name of the year, the album Before Today has some crazy good pop tunes smattered around some weirder experimentation. This track is a surf pop anthem, simple in it's hook but catchy as hell. This song reeks of California.

24. The Black Keys - "Tighten Up" - Brothers was a revelation for the Black Keys. extending their sound past their gritty Delta blues roots into the realm of soul, rock and R&B at times really extended the fan base of the veteran blues men. The lead single from the album is definitely one of their catchiest tunes yet.

23. School of Seven Bells - "Dust Devil" - Much like their first album, the sophomore effort Disconnect From Desire is taking a while to really sink in for me, but it's a great musical experience. The incessant beat and static musical track intertwined with the Deheza twins' impressive vocal arrangements lives up to the intensity of the titular windstorm.

22. Sleepy Sun - "Marina" - Psych rock was KILLING it in 2010. Sleepy Sun is no exception. Fever is a fantastic record and the lead off track "Marina" is a hodge podge of great sounds. Starting off with a fuzzy, heavy riff and swaying into sublime vocals and back again before breaking into an islandy breakdown, it's got everything a psych rock fan could want.

21. Autolux - "Spots" - Waiting for Transit Transit was the worst. When it finally came, it was good but it was hyped up for me being a huge Autolux fan. That being said, the record has it's fair share of great tracks and this sleepy, swooning track is definitely the best of the lot. Carla Azar's jazzy drums are the highlight of this beguiling track.

20. Gorillaz ft. Bobby Womack & Mos Def - "Stylo" - The darker cousin of "Feel Good Inc.", this track is hectic, static and overwhelmingly catchy. Bobby Womack steals the show.

19. Kylesa - "Tired Climb" - Another late addition to the 2010 album line-up, Kylesa's intense Spiral Shadow starts off with a raging blast. "Tired Climb" feels like the title, an uphill battle of heavy guitars, snarling vocals and an catchy hook that digs in deep.

18. Surfer Blood - "Floating Vibes" - Remember Weezer? Neither do I until I listen to Surfer Blood. Astro Coast is what Weezer should aspire to. Smart yet still catchy. Youthful yet not cliche. Lyrically great and with a hook to speed down the Atlantic City Expressway to, "Floating Vibes" was the real song of the Summer of 2010.

17. The Black Angels - "Yellow Elevator #2" - Honing in on a much more concise and hook laden approach, The Black Angels' Phosphene Dream is just as psychedelic as their previous two albums. Jefferson Airplane and The 13th Floor Elevators (wonder if this an homage?) melted into a new psychedelia. One of the spaciest tracks of the year.

16. Owen Pallett - "Midnight Directives" - When Owen Pallett was forced to drop his former moniker Final Fantasy due to a video game franchise, he emerged with his most triumphant record. "Midnight Directives" is a revelation. It's frantic, melodic and bombastic.

15. Brian Eno - "2 Forms of Anger" - Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abraham create one of the most paranoid songs I've ever heard. Starting out with what sounds like the churning of some robotic fortress, the song slowly builds and builds with sounds both foreign and rudimentary. The pulsating bleeps that come in and out and echo to the final building guitar riff. It's a glorious feast for the ears.

14. Teenage Fanclub - "Sometimes I Don't Need To Believe In Anything" - Power pop's greatest revivalists came out with their best albums in years. The sprawling album opener is about as good as it gets. Swelling synth strings, smooth vocal harmonies and and a catchy fuzzy riff bring this song to new heights of catchiness.

13. Grinderman - "When My Baby Comes" - Nick Cave's Grinderman is obnoxious. But it's the best kind of obnoxious because it's Nick Cave. The first half is a weird tribal croon that swells with Warren Ellis' strings before the build to ecstasy, then takes a dive into dark, twisted guitar snarl and drums that break bones. A fantastic song from the coolest record of the year.

12. The Sword - "Lawless Lands" - ZZ Top meets Iron Maiden with a dash of Zep. The Sword finally has found the right balance of southern blues rock, cock rock swagger and back to basics metal on Warp Riders. This track is easily the best unheard hard rock song of the year.

11. Charlotte Gainsbourg - "IRM" - Have you even had an MRI? This song embodies that feeling perfectly. Echoey, bone rattling percussion, buzzing sounds that are unnatural and that come in and out randomly and somehow just in time with each other. Charlotte's dazed vocals add just enough dynamic to this drone of a song.

10. Tame Impala - "Alter Ego" - Psychedelia is definitely on the upswing, especially in inide rock circles. Tame Impala's Innerspeaker is a fantastic record. When this track beams in and starts it's otherworldly shift into guitars drenched in all sorts of effects, you are instantly transported to another place that is all at once unique and familiar.

9. MGMT - "Siberian Breaks" - I'm a sucker for epics and "Siberian Breaks" is the best of the year. A pop epic is something that doesn't come often. Usually metal or prog will cover that, but MGMT have written their most dynamic song here. Shifting from Kinks-esque sunny pop and morphing into McCartney style melodies and landing in a future scape of synthesizers, this is a travelogue for an acid trip.

8. Dr. Dog - "Shame, Shame" - Philadelphia's own freak folkers consistently release quality albums and Shame, Shame follows suit. Their songs are honest, heart wrenching and fun. This titular track pulls on the heart strings and Toby Leaman's fantastic vocal performance brigns this song to it's lofty pop goodness.

7. Grinderman - "Worm Tamer" - Have I mentioned how badass Nick Cave is? He doesn't get all the credit as Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos and Martyn Casey are a helluva backing band. "Worm Tamer" is a static garage rocker that snarls with beeps, buzzes and all sorts of feedback squeals as Cave croons about his girl being a "mambo rider" and a "serpent wrangler." It's dark, sexual and it's creeps forth like the worm of the title. And it fucking rocks.

6. Black Mountain - "The Hair Song" - Black Mountain ditched the long-winded epics on Wilderness Heart and the songs are better for it. The poppiest Black Mountain song yet, "The Hair Song" is the best the Webber/McBean vocal duality and features one of the most wonderfully constructed psych pop tracks of the year.

5. Arcade Fire - "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" - The best song to encapsulate the overall feeling of The Suburbs (both the album and the place.) Regine Chassagne steals the show with yet another brilliant vocal performance over what sounds like the end credits to a lost John Hughes film.

4. Charlotte Gainsbourg - "Time of the Assassins" - Producing and writing the album, Beck has lifted Charlotte Gainsbourg's music career to new heights. Her brush with a near death experience and his obsession with death matched perfectly on IRM and this haunting tune is the perfect embodiment of that. slow plucked acoustic guitars, lofty backing vocals and strings combine with Charlotte's gentle voice for a dark yet sweet tune.

3. The Black Keys - "Howlin' For You" - Starting off with a Gary Glitter infused drum beat and developing into a fuzzed out reconstruction of classic blues riffs drenched in muddled fuzz, "Howlin' For You" is undeniably my favorite Black Keys song yet. It's quirky, catchy and ultimately satisfying.

2. Tame Impala - "Lucidity" - When bands tap into the sound of The Beatles, a lot of people shrug, but I must completely disagree. Taking a taste of "Tomorrow Never Knows" acid and launching into a crunchy garage rock riff drenched in reverb, this song takes off (much like the video) and immediately lifts the listener into the stratosphere before crashing back down in a fury of guitars and fuzz.

1. Gorillaz featuring Little Dragon - "Empire Ants" - The dreamiest song of the year. What is so special about this particular Gorillaz track? Well besides it sounding unlike anything else in the Gorillaz canon, it's a space rock anthem for the ages. Beautiful shimmering piano, dream pop guitars and Damon Albarn start the song up and midway through, Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano takes over as does the synth parade. It's a beautifully melancholy song (superior to "On Melancholy Hill" from the same record.) If you were to tell me that Gorillaz, the makers of "Clint Eastwood" and "Dare" were to ever release a song of such pop sweetness, I'd probably have laughed in your face. But on Plastic Beach, there are several of these moments, none of which compare to "Empire Ants."