This is the third installment of the “My Year In Lists” feature that takes a look back at the year in music. It will ultimately culminate with my picks for the Top Albums of 2010, hopefully by the end of this week.
I think most people would agree with me that 2010 was one of the best years for new records in recent memory. There were so many quality releases from all different directions that I simply could not include all of my favorites among the 35 that I have picked for my “Top Albums of 2010″ list. These albums are great in their own right, and deserve a listen just as much as the other albums on my next list. So without further ado, here are my Honorable Mentions for 2010:
Active Child: Curtis Lane EP; There is no denying that Active Child mastermind Pat Grossi is a gifted vocalist. His ability to go from a deep and warm tenor to a heavenly falsetto is nothing short of jaw dropping, and his voice gives the EP’s harp and synth tinged tracks an otherworldly quality. Songs like “I’m In Your Church At Night” soar to amazing heights, and Grossi has a knack for knowing how to optimize his arrangements to maximum effect. Active Child will be a force to be reckoned with in 2011 if they expand upon what was presented here.
Allo Darlin’: Allo Darlin’; This London group, led by Australian-born Elizabeth Morris, proved that so long as there is substance behind the music, it is still okay to be overly cutesy and optimistic. While there has been a decent amount of backlash against the shy and overly sentimental trajectory of indie music (thanks, Michael Cera!), the songs here are so well developed and earnest that they transcend the scene and stand on their own. Besides, not everyone can get away with singing the lyrics of “El Scorcho” during the middle of a song and avoid sounding contrived.
Buke & Gass: Riposte; These Brooklynites embody the DIY aesthetic in the most literal sense. Their homemade instruments, a baritone ukulele (Buke) and a bass-guitar combination (Gass), and use of stomping foot percussion alone separate them from their contemporaries. However, what makes the songs on “Riposte” stand out are how they work in conjunction with Arone Dyer’s voice, whose unhinged delivery brings to mind Beth Ditto and other front women who possess a distinctive wail. The result is one of the most unique albums to emerge in 2010.
The Corin Tucker Band: 1000 Years; While my fingers are still crossed (tightly) for a Sleater-Kinney reunion, Corin Tucker’s “1000 Years” will serve as a nice holdover until the day that news comes (and I run through the streets with glee). While the songs here are more restrained than the vast majority of Sleater-Kinney’s work, it’s a change of pace that suits Tucker well. The songs here are sparser and less immediate, and Tucker’s voice is far more controlled than it’s been in the past, but her ability to pen excellent tunes is still fully intact. Her ruminations on growing older and slowing down a little are just as powerful as anything she has produced in the past, something that given her track record is quite a feat in and of itself.
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest; There’s a certain aura about Deerhunter that I just don’t get. Bradford Cox could produce a record of himself making fart noises and the critics would still swoon. That doesn’t deny the fact that “Halcyon Digest” is a very good record. Cox has songwriting chops and the band’s tightness is something to marvel at, with songs like “Helicopter” and “Memory Boy” providing ample evidence. If somebody wants to enlighten me as to why I should worship at the Altar of Cox, I would be more than happy to listen. But for now, I will be comfortable with acknowledging that this is a good record by a good band, nothing more and nothing less.
Foals: Total Life Forever; Along with fellow countrymen These New Puritans, Foals used their second album as a way to make a statement rather than give audiences more of the same. And what a statement it was. The band traded in the fire-on-all-cylinders approach of their debut for songs that built on themselves and were epic in scope, making for arrangements that were at once dense and beautiful. However, the MVP award here goes to front man Yannis Philippakis, who made the shift from chanting phrases to actually singing the lyrics, and his great singing voice helped propel this album to heights the band may have otherwise never achieved.
Free Energy: Stuck on Nothing; There’s a lot to be said for a group that perfectly encapsulates their influences, and Philadelphia’s Free Energy were the band to prove that in 2010. Channeling many of the best aspects of classic rock and guitar hero antics, the band comprised an album that is filled with fun, straightforward songs that would not seem out of place on your dad’s iPod. The group has a knack for catchy choruses, impressive guitar exhibitions, and celebrating the joys of youth. The gum attached to the shoe on the album’s cover was no mistake; these songs will stick with you for weeks at a time, and provide the perfect soundtrack for joyriding with your friends.
Grinderman: Grinderman 2; It seems that there has been no stopping Nick Cave over the last half decade. From his work with the Bad Seeds to his budding literary career, he has continually proven why he is one of rock’s most interesting and fascinating storytellers. His Grinderman project has allowed him to put many of his primal urges and tendencies to music, and this year’s “Grindeman 2″ is full of the blistering raw power that he has rarely incorporated into his day job. Despite the primitive nature of the music, many of the songs here have amazing staying power thanks to Cave’s always entertaining delivery and the band’s increasing tightness. While some may have dismissed their first album as a Bad Seeds stopgap, this album shows that Grinderman aren’t messing around.
The Hold Steady: Heaven Is Whenever; While the loss of keyboardist Franz Nicolay was a devastating blow to America’s premiere bar band, The Hold Steady soldiered on and managed to release a good (if not great) album with “Heaven Is Whenever.” Front man Criag Finn has lost none of his lyrical prowess, as songs like “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J” rank among his best songs, and the band have a certain power in their playing that many groups could only wish for. They may have had to compensate for the lack of keys, but “Heaven Is Whenever” showed that the Hold Steady are still one of the most consistent groups around, and that top-notch songwriting is not easily punctured by a band member’s departure.
Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid; I’m going it say it right now; if this album were five or six songs shorter, “The ArchAndroid” would have placed high on my final list. Monae is a true talent, and her ability to experiment with both the styles of music backing her and her knock-out voice distinguish her from almost every other solo artist out there. Songs like “Cold War” and her collaboration with Big Boi on “Tightrope” are easily two of the best songs of the year, and one can do nothing but marvel at her versatility. However, the sheer scope and ambition of the album make it lull in spots and keeps it from being a true classic in my book, making me hopeful that her next album will tighten her focus and make for the masterpiece this could have been.
LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening; James Murphy’s contributions to music over the last ten years have been nothing short of vital. Whether as a producer or with LCD Soundsystem, he has left his mark due to his ear for what works in dance music. This trend mostly continued this year with “This Is Happening.” However, while the songs here are strong, it can be argued that this is LCD Soundsystem’s weakest album by far. This is mostly because Murphy’s lyrics don’t have the same vitality that they once did. “Drunk girls take an hour to pee” is one of the most embarrassing lines I’ve heard this year from any group, and moments like it across the album keep “This Is Happening” from being phenomenal. That said, LCD’s B-Material still beats the hell out of a lot of other group’s A-material, and for that they should be commended.
Pantha Du Prince: Black Noise; The painting of a secluded house on a mountain lake that graces the cover of “Black Noise” almost perfectly encapsulates the music of Hendrik Weber’s third album as Pantha du Prince. Far from the club aspirations of his contemporaries, Weber’s brand of minimal techno is both grand in scope and almost entirely secluded. This is electronic music that is best enjoyed alone, as the textures and shifts in tone require the listeners full attention. “Black Noise” is an enchanting listen, filled with nuances that continue to surprise after multiple listens. While you may not hear songs like “Lay In A Shimmer” at your next rave, this album is the perfect electronic comedown after a night of partying.
Sade: Soldier of Love; After a ten year absence, Sade returned this year with “Soldier of Love,” an album that went gold in it’s first week, and showed that the band has lost none of the elements that have moved over 50 million units since 1984′s “Diamond Life.” Sade Adu’s instantly recognizable voice was used to masterful effect, and her backing band’s blend of soft rock and smooth jazz made for some amazingly lush arrangements. The album’s title track ranks as one of the best singles of 2010, a forceful anthem to those who believe that true love will find them in the end, anchored by Adu’s triumphant and determined delivery. If they can continue to write songs as strong as what is presented here, I will gladly wait until 2020 for the next Sade album.
Shearwater: The Golden Archipelago; While many bands crumble beneath the weight of their own ambitions, Shearwater are able to walk the fine line between grandiosity and earnestness. “The Golden Archipelago” is filled with build ups, releases, and everything in between that continually wallop you over the head long after the first listen. Jonathan Meiburg has one of the most powerful and emotive voices you are likely to hear, and it gives the already sweeping music the added force necessary to take the songs to the next level. This album is big in every sense of the word and bucks the commonly held notion that reaching for the rafters comes at the expense of quality.
The Soft Pack: The Soft Pack; Sometimes, a few catchy riffs, great choruses, and universal sentiment are all a band needs to make a successful album. The Soft Pack’s self-titled debut benefits from this tried and true approach, as their brand of garage rock is filled with songs that don’t need anything more than the simplest of elements to be effective. While the band does nothing new with this album, songs like “Down On Loving” and “Answer To Yourself” are the kind of tracks that ably prove if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In playing well to a type, The Soft Pack have made an album that is worth revisiting, even if you feel you’ve heard this somewhere before.