The year is rapidly drawing to a close, which means that it is time for our favourite annual post here at LITC: OUR BEST OF ALBUMS LIST. This has been a very satisfying year for music. Not much is needed by way of introduction, so let’s just jump into it. As may be expected, we (Elijah & Greg) have several albums in common among our top ten. We will first share our overlap.
Shared entries from Elijah & Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
- InnerSpeaker Tame Impala (Greg) — This is a band where every ingredient (vocals, instruments, lyrics, production, etc.) makes an essential and vital contribution to the final result–remove any element and the entire sound would collapse. Everything I like about ‘classic rock’ (a hideous term that conjures up images of some white trash hessian screaming out ‘FREE BIRD!’) is to be found on this album, yet, to my ear, it in no way feels dated. It’s often uncomplicated, but as if the band simply understood exactly what needed to go where to make each song perfectly what it eventually was meant to become (goodness there were a great many adverbs in that sentence!).
- High Violet The National (Elijah) — The National caught me by surprise this year. I was not as big a fan of 2007′s Boxer, unlike Greg and many of my other highly revered friends. But from the first note of the first track, ‘Terrible Love’, I was entranced. This album is incredible on the first listen, but is also a ‘grower’, with its share of immediately outstanding tracks and tracks that reveal their ultimate reward after a series of faithful listens. There’s something pure and straightforward about High Violet that seldom makes its way into indie playlists these days. Also, listen for Sufjan Stevens’ contribution on the excellent track ‘Afraid Of Everyone’.
- The Suburbs Arcade Fire (Greg) — I admired their first album immensely; their second was a mixed bag. I assumed that this would be continuing in that downward trajectory. I was wrong. This is a masterpiece. I originally felt like there was something derivative about the genres of various songs (Byrds here, ABBA there), but ultimately, I took this to be part of their apocalyptic vision of a decaying world of garden cities where ‘the music divides us into tribes’. Win Butler is one of the best living songwriters…
- The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit (Greg) — My expectations were unreasonably high for this album (their last was my favorite album of 2008). FRabbit surpassed them. So much greatness to be found. Aside from ‘Man / Bag of Sand’ (which was reminiscent of another filler-esque reprise, ‘Extrasupervery’ on their previous record), there is nary a miss to be found. This kind of material is paving the way for a career that will end up with FR being among the great bands of all time. (Elijah adds: FR’s principal songwriter Scott Hutchison wrote this record over the course of two weeks in Crail, Fife, near my home in St Andrews, so the tone of the whole record gives me a warm feeling of geographic familiarity.)
- The Age of Adz & All Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens (Elijah) — Our Sufjan thirst twas quenched this year and our cup runneth over. Not only did the contemporary musical genius release a surprise EP, but also a mind-blowing full length — a grand total of two hours, fourteen minutes, and eighteen seconds of new and very worthwhile Sufjan material (though among other Adz tracks, a version of ‘The Owl And The Tanager’ from ADP was publicly performed in 2007). Several months ago, Greg wrote a great piece analysing The Age of Adz. This album is strikingly personal and apocalyptic, and musically Sufjan is pushing the boundaries of pop, perhaps alienating those who are looking for the ‘older stuff’ (or more correctly, the ‘mid-career stuff’, namely Illinoise – A Sun Came is very much the progenitor of The Age of Adz). Sufjan has written his best record to date (and Adz‘ ‘I Want to Be Well’ might be my favourite Sufjan song of all time), which has brought about several modifications to our preexistent lists: The Age of Adz has been added to my Top 50 Albums list (displacing Black Flag’s hardcore punk gem, Damaged for the time being) and as an artist, Sufjan has surpassed The Smiths, Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian in my Top 20 Bands list. (Greg adds: This album is a museum worthy work of art. [Elijah adds: Here, here!])
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
10. Belle and Sebastian Write About Love Belle & Sebastian — If the listener is looking exclusively for a return to form, an album resembling Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister or The Boy With the Arab Strap, he or she will be let down by Write About Love. It is evident that B&S have grown up a bit over the last 1.5 decades and don’t want to keep writing the same albums, something which we cannot blame them for, can we? But this record doesn’t need to be exhaustively defended – it stands well on its own. Its slightly less poppy than their previous release, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, finding a medium between 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and The Life Pursuit, as if in the place of 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress (which is also an incredible record). Ultimately, Write About Love is a success if we are willing to see something that isn’t pre-2000 B&S as such. It is an excellent record that certainly improves with every listen.
9. King of the Beach Wavves — For those who have not previously seen this album cover, yes, that is a cat wearing a marijuana leaf-laden hat smoking a joint. But at least he has an all-seeing eye necklace, right? Maybe it will come as no surprise that Nathan Williams, leader and creative force behind Wavves, had a serious drug/alcohol-induced freakout during a concert in Spain last year, causing the other two members of the band to quit. Fortunately for Williams (and for us as listeners), the late Jay Reatard’s backing band (Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope) decided to join Nathan’s group and Wavves was reincarnated to give us the incredibly catchy (I mean, REALLY CATCHY), garage rocky, King of the Beach. Billy has since left the band.
8. Teen Dream Beach House — This record is one of a number of surprises for me this year. Prior to this record I did not find Beach House especially engaging, which delayed my purchase of Teen Dream until Greg included the new version ‘Used to Be’ (the old version was released as a single in 2008 following Devotion) on a mix he made for me. This is an incredibly original record, superior to Beach House’s previous releases, which are rendered mediocre in light of Teen Dream. Singer Victoria Legrand’s vocals power this record into the realm of the serene and sublime. While some tracks are stronger than others (like ‘Zebra’, ‘Norway’, ‘Used to Be’, and ’10 Mile Stereo’), this is an amazing record as a whole.
7. This is Happening LCD Soundsystem — Much like the case of Beach House with Teen Dream, I never found LCD Soundsystem’s music to capture my interest before this record. James Murphy has been at it for ages, and while 2007’s Sound of Silver was a critical and commercial success for his LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening demonstrates a finesse that secures his place as a veteran. This record is both very raw (‘Drunk Girls’) and sophisticated (‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which combine to give us a incredibly interesting, fun, catchy, and pretensionless album. I also hear a lot of tasteful 1974-77 Eno-esque sound on this record (like ‘All I Want’ and ‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which pleases me to no end.
6. The Suburbs Arcade Fire
5. InnerSpeaker Tame Impala
4. High Violet The National
3. The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit
2. Halcyon Digest Deerhunter — Back in September I wrote concerning this record, ‘The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.’ I’m not merely placing Halcyon Digest at number two to save face so that no one can condemn me with, ‘Elijah gives disingenuous praise.’ No, every single track is an amazing audio experience, and as a whole they function as a battering ram made up of all that is good in independent music, breaking down the doors of pretension by merely doing what they love – and doing it well. Deerhunter makes their last two records (2008’s Microcastle and 2007’s Cryptograms) while brilliant in their own right, sound like mere warm-up sessions for Halcyon Digest. Bradford Cox—whose solo record as Atlas Sound, Logos, was my ninth-favourite record last year—and Lockett Pundt deliver with their unique sense of melody and lyrical strength (even in Bradford’s stream-of-consciousness manner).
Elijah’s Honourable mentions
- Boys Outside Steve Mason (of The Beta Band)
- The Changing of the Guard Starflyer 59 (which improves over time)
- Crazy For You Best Coast (useless fact: Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is in a relationship with Wavves’ Nathan Williams, and the covers of Crazy For You and King of the Beach both feature cats)
- Crystal Castles (II) Crystal Castles
- Daughters Daughters
- Everything In Between No Age
- I Heart California Admiral Radley (featuring Jason Lytle of Grandaddy)
- Hidden These New Puritans
- Looks Like a Flood, Feels Like a Drought Preacher’s Sons
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
10. Contra Vampire Weekend — I’ll be honest…I didn’t want for this album to make my list. Vampire Weekend has such a hipster aura that I tend to avert my eyes. In fact, their first single, ‘Horchata’, with its contrived, graceless rhymes (balaclava, Aranciata, Masada) and reek of Paul Simon’s Anglo-appropriation of world music nearly drove me away from the album. But the melodies…ahh, the melodies are sublime, and the singer (Ezra something?) has a delivery of lilts and arcs that makes me love his intention despite the ostentation of his diction, and, really, they pull off the ethno-musical robbery just as ‘Al’ did so many years before (he said I could call him that). Recommended tracks: ‘Run’, ‘Giving Up the Gun’, ‘I Think Ur a Contra’.
9. Fang Island Fang Island — This is a last minute addition (sadly bumping off Josh Ritter’s album, which has some tremendously lovely cuts). But this album is so DELICIOUSLY HOOKY and DELIRIOUSLY FUN that I had to include it. Like a synthesis of early Muse & Weezer playing the old Disneyland Electric Light Parade possessed by the spirit of Brian Wilson. If you don’t enjoy it, I would recommend a good proctologist.
8. Heartland Owen Pallett — This guy was a discovery made driving along a dark road one night listening to KCRW. I used Shazam to figure out who he was, then weeks later remembered to check him out/download the album (at some point, I will need to own a physical copy of this album for the brilliant cover art). I was a bit put off by some of the dissonance on this album at first…but I could immediately sense a lyrical/melodic/arranging genius at work, so I listened to it many more times. It’s one of the most stylistically original and creative albums I’ve come across in years & there’s something about his voice and words that reveals a profoundly singular craftsman, in the manner of Sufjan and Andrew Bird. Recommended tracks: ‘Keep the Dog Quiet’, ‘E Is For Estranged’, ‘What Do You Think Will Happen’.
7. InnerSpeaker Tame Impala
6. Forget Twin Shadow — If you like the Smiths & have any nostalgia for 80’s pop music songcraft, combined with a generally melancholic outlook on life, you will love this album. If not, you will hate it. It’s so distinctive, it is sure to have a polarizing effect–it almost has some sort of mystical power over me. I don’t know what he’s talking about half of the time, but it feels like he is singing my deepest emotions. Recommended tracks: I happen to think that ‘Tyrant Destroyed’ and ‘Castles in the Snow’ are two of the best songs I’ve heard all year.
5. Together The New Pornographers — I’ve followed the NP’s for a while, often finding inspired songwriting/performing genius mixed in with merely human tune smith ‘capability’; however on this album, the genius overshadows the capability by 11 to 1. There are a number of songwriters in the band–one of whose style I have little accord with (see ‘Daughters of Sorrow’), but the rest of the songs have enough buoyant loveliness to keep the Titanic afloat. Recommended tracks: ALL, except the above track and ‘If You Can’t See My Mirrors’.
4. High Violet The National
3. The Suburbs Arcade Fire
2. The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit
Greg’s Honourable Mentions
- Go Jónsi
- Green Grow the Rushes EP John Vanderslice (it was free online!)
- July Flame Laura Veirs
- Light Chasers Cloud Cult
- Lisbon The Walkmen
- Pharmacy of Love Bettie Serveert
- Suburban Nature Sarah Jaffe (this could have been on the list, but I only own two songs from it, both of which are amazing…PLEASE check her out!)
- So Runs the World Away Josh Ritter (bumped off the list at the last minute, but check out ‘Change of Time’, ‘The Curse’, ‘See How Man Was Made’, and ‘Another New World’)
- The Universe Is Laughing The Guggenheim Grotto
Before I move into the Top 10 of my Top 20 Bands, I feel the need to mention ten significant bands that might have been part of my ‘cut’ at various points in recent history, but just didn’t make it into my Top 20 this time around. (Perhaps this could be seen as my ’21-30′.)
- Frightened Rabbit – Let’s see how the whole longevity thing plays out – the first two records have been a steady improvement from ‘incredible’ to ‘phenomenal’.
- Pedro the Lion/David Bazan – Excellent songwriting, but albums are often incoherent with themselves.
- Cass McCombs – There’s a quality to Cass McCombs that convinces me he’s one of the greatest living songwriters.
- Starflyer 59 – Something’s absent on most of their recent material…
- Grizzly Bear – Also needing a bit of longevity – It feels strange to consider Grizzly Bear one of my favourite bands, but they most certainly are.
- Deerhunter – Let’s hope they keep up this steam…
- Brian Eno – Mostly hit, but sometimes miss.
- Camera Obscura – There’s something to this group that keeps me listening, but I am hoping for something to make them stand out.
- Cursive – Maybe it’s because they still haven’t grown up?
- Curl Up & Die – I wish they had made more material before disbanding.
Perhaps you are thinking, ‘Who can beat the bands above along with Spiritualized, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Neil Young?’ I hope not to disappoint, but prepare to find out just how bad my taste actually is in the coming week…
Yesterday I was in H&M—guilty—and a familiar tune came through the sound system. It was obviously a holiday-themed lineup and what to my wondering eyes ears should appear, but Starflyer 59’s “A Holiday Song (Happy Holidays)” to bring me great cheer. This track is rather an oddball off of 1998’s The Fashion Focus and what struck me most about hearing this song in public is that Starflyer really hasn’t gained much notoriety over the past fifteen years that they (or rather “he,” referring to Jason Martin, the only consistent member of the group) have been making music.
Starflyer is fairly prolific, having released eleven albums to date, and even with that under their belt, they remain under the radar. They’ve a sound somewhat difficult to pin down (what if Galaxie 500, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., New Order, and David Bazan produced magical offspring…), though characteristically shoegazing indie rock. Maybe I’m a sucker for music that requires patience, but if you’ve not given Starflyer 59 a significant listen I’d encourage you to change that. To perhaps help change that, here is a quick guide I’ve made to briefly describe each of their studio albums:
Silver (1994) – Shoegaze/dream pop, highly-distorted/effected, rock.
Gold (1995) – Slightly more pop than Silver.
Americana (1997) – More of the same shoegazing rock, though less engaging than Gold and Silver.
The Fashion Focus (1998) – Less My Bloody Valentine-esque, more keys.
Everybody Makes Mistakes (1999) – Moving in the same direction as The Fashion Focus, (except “A Dethroned King,” perhaps the thickest track on the album). Excellent songwriting.
Leave Here A Stranger (2001) – Similar to Everybody Makes Mistakes, though a little darker (lyrically) and recorded in mono (as opposed to stereo).
Old (2003) – Back to the harder rock/shoegaze style. Perhaps their best release to date.
I Am the Portuguese Blues (2004) – Loud guitars, straightforward rock n’ roll. Jason Martin is Portuguese.
Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice (2005) – Resembles a lot of 80s pop and new wave music (even some synth bass), with some very dancy/catchy tracks. A very fun listen.
Dial M (2008) – I also don’t own this album, but it just came out this past October and from what I’ve heard it’s pretty fun rock. There are currently a few tracks from the album on Starflyer’s Myspace page. The album artwork is pretty bitchen’ too.
[The Changing of the Guard (2010)]