Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Top 30 ALBUMS of 2010: Part Two


As is custom, a new decade ushers in an abundance of ideas. It seemed as if every artist or band created some form of music this year and when it was good then hell, it was good. Album sales continue to peter off but somehow the creative process flourished. The album, a medium of conversation that critics felt was being eroded, is back as a talking social point across the world. This second part- of three parts-- looks at the very best of the year and features four hip/hop records. And there are more to come. This part also highlights singer/songwriters and bands that have held it together and are in their prime. Here we go:

11: Sharon van Etten


By track one (the brooding A Crime), van Etten has us hooked with her electro-folk musing and is not emitting a strong vibe that doesn’t appear to tire at all. It’s a stunning turn from her mostly instrumental debut that sounded like a woman chasing a broken heart. Epic is the sound of that realization met and now being dissected. Her improved efficiently is fiercely on show: D sharp G is lulled into a structured space that would’ve floundered previously. Peace Sign never caves into its repetition, instead it radiates strength. Don’t Do It does the craftily impossible: delivers a stinging but non-bitter examination of infidelity. When she croons, ‘and, you want to do it/ if you want to do it/ you will do it/ even if I don’t want you to’, its painfully but realistically faced. I haven’t even mentioned the heart-breaking effect of One Day, a track that features just her gorgeous voice with a guitar.

12: Robyn

Body Talk: Series

The coolest Swede on the planet returns with a trio of dance/pop songs split up in three separate discs. While not everything is as booty-shaking as previous work, Robyn has uncovered some definite groove. Love Kills sounds like a 80s Madonna dust up and it works well. She reveals thuggish intent on U Should Know Better (‘even the Vatican knows better/ than to fuck with me’) but grabbing Snoop Dogg for the ride. Disc I is the most successful because it offloads the newest version of her pop style: the melodic intonation of Dancehall Queen and Dancing on My Own. Ethereal and Bjork-like on None of Them and Femot. Don’t Fucking tell Me What to Do is all her original sass though, laced up on an 808 groove.

13: Active Child

Curtis Lane EP

Active Child clearly believes in second opinions: after a less-than-stellar fill LP, he turns around and delivers this EP, a far more interesting concept. Buoyed around Wilderness, the flow of the opus is dreamy, ultra chillwave and compelling. Wilderness is the standout but it’s all uniformly good, with deep, brooding beats that show how complexity can be structurally broken down by sheer vocal work. When Your Love is Safe features a club feel juxtaposed to soaring vocals. Weight of the World minces the beats to showcase the music on show. Take Shelter has a haunting reverb propelling it above the average fare out there.

14: Black Milk

Album of the Year

It takes guts to title a body of work as album of the year but when one exudes confidence like Curtis Cross then who cares? The rapper is retro and now in his fourth reinvention. A transformation marred with pain after losing a close friend and nearly his manager to a stroke. Cross buries his pain with loud, jarring hip/hop beats and outsized collaborations (Over Again). Like his mentor Jay Dill, he’s never pessimistic though nor trying too hard to convey a mood. The music flows seamlessly along with his verbal barbs. Welcome (Gotta Go) ups the ante with a haunting sampled beat driving everything else and unearths an inevitable Kanye West comparison.

15: Cee-Lo Green

The Lady Killer

When I opined a few years ago that Gnarls Barkley was done as a group, many scoffed at the idea but, as both Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo have moved on I guess I was right after all. Cee-Lo’s talent is as immense as is his determination to remain in our sight. The Lady Killer tries too hard to be seen as what its not (to swoon the ladies)but when he just simply wants to rock then the results are at turn stunning (Bright Lights, Big City), affirming (I Want You) and groovy (It’s Ok). Lead single, Fuck You is where it all swings classiest though, because his disparate urges unite. And that voice, so reminiscent of Al Green, can shake one down to the core.

16: The National

High Violet

The photo cover of High Violet features what looks like an ornate junk drive emitting fuzzy, colours and textures and that’s totally fitting, given the atmospherics on the album. The band has long established a solid rock base so they’re veterans now, polished and secure. In essence, one could see Grammy awards now aligned in the not to distant future. Lemonworld is the subtle two-step that U2 has been failing to replicate for years. Afraid of Everyone and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks explore a type of vulnerability that we rarely see a successful band expose. It’s to the National’s credit that in rummaging through their experience that they haven’t lost the human touch even while moving on.

17: Deerhunter

Halcyon Digest

Diverting slightly from his Microcastle-era recordings a bit have not hurt Bradford Cox but rather expanded his genius. Halcyon Digest is the work which most embodies his expansive idealism for a genre that, quite frankly, he is rapidly outgrowing. The opener Earthquake ripples with tiny electronic riffs and shards of guitar feedback to the point of unclassifiable beauty. The album is full of sadness however, the type that comes by spending way too much time alone (Basement Scene, Sailing). When he lifts the gloom then we get stompers like Coronado and Revival, stuffed with blissful horns and his gorgeous vocals. Everything pales though to the seven minute ending track He Would Have Laughed, a tribute to his friend the late Jay Electronica.

18: Erykah Badu

New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

After getting some heavy analog shit off her chest, Badu reconnects to her Baduizm phase and it’s yet another wonderful effort. This is the victory lap segment of her riveting career but Badu’s mature posterity incites much clarity: Window Seat thus distances her while pleading for understanding simultaneously. Turn Me Away is a sweet, introspective look at her love life. Even when she borrows from others or her own past, Badu skilfully navigates the waters, as life. It’s interesting to hear her uncovering more while her contemporaries struggle to remain as relevant, as fresh. At times inspired, at times almost drunk on revivalism, Badu strolls out yet another winner.

19: Shad


Born in Kenya but raised in Ontario, Shad is basically the non-American version of Lupe Fiasco. That said when TSOL is on its shit then that comparison seems skewered. His clear, wry delineation of the black urban experience cuts through regions like a knife in hot butter: Telephone may lament about a ‘mixed bag’ then buries itself in a lovely sample but its shockingly real. It’s yet another old joint record but this is the best one of the year because his perspective isn’t chuffed up with flashy accessories...Shad’s too busy parting dollops of wisdom upon us (Yaa I Get It). Of course, Rose Garden is the highlight. It features his best line (‘those who have eyes/ should act like it’) and an infectious sample that grooves for days.

20: Wolf Parade

Expo 86

I could limit this mini review to just three words: Krug is back. Yes, let the bromance flow like good bubbly because Wolf Parade’s third opus is all about reliving their past lives. Cloud Shadow on the Mountain dusts up familiar territory while everything else rallies back to the 80s hard. Yulia and Pobody’s Nerfect both are down-tempo numbers, heavy on synths and an almost reggae beat. But it is Krug’s now trademark growl that snaps back everything into contemporary relevance: it shifts the ground that In the Direction of the Moon finally touches down on as well as the jittery suitability of Ghost Pressure. And even if this is really their last record together then it’s still a hell of a way to bow out.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Top 30 ALBUMS of 2010: Part One

As is custom, a new decade ushers in an abundance of ideas. It seemed as if every artist or band created some form of music this year and when it was good then hell, it was good. Album sales continue to peter off but somehow the creative process flourished. The album, a medium of conversation that critics felt was being eroded, is back as a talking social point across the world. This first part- of three parts-- looks at the very best of the year. Though there will be outrage in some quarters by the placing of two of the albums here, it must be noted that any spot on my list means excellence and at the expense of someone else. Besides unlike a lot of indie critics, I hold no bias in terms of genre or expectation. A year-end list must be void of favoritism but look squarely on the music. It must purge track-by-track an album and not the existential meaning of a grand release only. Here we go:

21: Arcade Fire

The Suburbs

The year’s most anticipated record also feels like the most unsettling. That’s both blessing and curse because no matter how far Win Butler strains, he can’t get past Funeral’s comparative state. The title track nicely sets the stage for the theatricality to follow. Whereas Neon Bible felt joyless, The Suburbs paints its angles with a surprising amount of invigoration (Empty Room, Ready to Start). It’s not as brilliant as their debut of course but here, at last, Butler successfully is questioning his current life and his inevitable future. It’s a poignant move and one that’s technically great and well executed even though Butler may want to give the others more airtime in subsequent releases because what Regine does to Sprawl II is criminally too good to be upstaged.

22: The Irrepressibles

Mirror Mirror

If the point of popular music is to challenge then The Irrepressibles will find the going good this year with Mirror Mirror, their debut album. The ten-piece orchestral band is headed by Jaime McDermott whose vocals will remind one of Antony Hegarty, pre-Another World. McDermott, however, doesn’t frame a personal transformation on record though…no, his theatrical force is central to the appreciation here but it doesn’t become burdensome. He has a sense of humor too: opening track, My Friend Jo teases with the line, ‘my friend Jo/ was a crazy bitch’. His stunning falsetto vocals is what holds this venture together even though it nearly tips over in its own intricate excess. The lovely improvisation of Anvil is the highlight, with its maddening vocal wrap and guitars. McDermott’s unmitigated gayness comes through hauntingly because Mirror Mirror does not reflect fabulously but truthfully everything that affects his life and that—like the art his band seeks to provide---is stark reality.

23: Holly Miranda

The Magician’s Private Library

Though tackling the same fantasy themes as Owen Pallett’s Heartland, Miranda’s debut is the superior opus because she never gets stuck too deeply into her own idealism or bore us with the samey approach that Heartland suffers from. Produced by David Sitek (band-member of TV on the Radio), the album takes what could have been the weakest link (her voice) and deposits it squarely into our consciousness. She may be feather-light vocally but unlike Norah Jones, her aesthetics are fresh within the audio waves we’re presented. Bass lines meander throughout gently (Waves) or beats plod minimally (Slow Burn Treason) or the harmonies weave a pattern that mesmerizes (High Tide).

24: Beach House

Teen Dream

The revelation of Teen Dream surely is the deepened effect of Victoria Legrand’s vocals. The way she tears into Silver Soul could break the hardest heart. Alex Scally, the other half of the band, wisely sits back and paints the landscape with haunting refrains and sad guitars and atmospherics. Though the dream-pop market is mainly monochromatic, Beach House has found a way to apply icy layers that melt eventually with solid production. Walk in the Park swirls with a pre-programmed drum and the effect is hazy and psychedelic…just one of the many pointers of the amazing progress they’ve made from their past two albums.

25: The Tallest Man on Earth

The Wild Hunt

There’s no avoiding the Dylan comparison so let’s get that out of the way. Whether that continues to damn or lift Kristian Matsson could hinge on so many things but let’s focus squarely on the music. His nasal delivery drives home the intensity of his lyrics, especially the nice title track. Matsson’s world is deeply introspective yet not alienating. Tracks like Love is All and Kids on the Run may have an easy musical intuitiveness but that doesn’t mean they’re simple. The Wild Hunt succeeds when its stealth is allowed to shadow everything and that occurs often here. Besides, there are worse things to have haunt you than being a Dylan clone.

26: Of Montreal

False Priest

Kevin Barnes’ dedication to hot, messy albums continues its winning streak with False Priest. The album is less cohesive that it’s two immediate predecessors but it’s more melodic. He’s stepped way back into a decidedly 80s vibe sans the Prince-aping stance. What he unearths though is a type of hurt locker: Famine Affair juxtaposes its tenderness with hectic beats. Our Riotous Defects begins slowly then unwinds with spoken word but it works. Enemy Gene features Janelle Monae in a warm moment of subtlety. Girl Named Hello is the quirkiest number though: a disco-laced track that lays the funk and cheese on thickly simultaneously. Good stuff indeed.

27: Curren$y

Pilot Talk

Nothing ground-breaking here but the execution is remarkably fresh despite the cheese. Beyond the obvious homage to swag though, Curren$y has a decidedly sensitive touch. Skybourne spreads it groove evenly between hip/hop and R&B a-la Outkast. Then there are the show-stoppers like Prioritize that dish the fast-talking rap in mesmerizing spells. Audio Dope II evades a drawling effect by its stirring beat and demonstration of mic hunger. It’s parallel to Mos Def’s The Ecstatic is clear enough but the bits this youngster is chomping at holds more menace and soon he’ll arrive at that exalted point of his career.

28: Future Islands

In Evening Air

Sometimes trying to define genres can be lugubrious but when a band steadfastly sticks into one then it can be a joy. Enter Sam Herring and his raspy voice, re-defining how cool the 1980s were upon a generation of singers. Future Islands is unreservedly retro but that’s cool when you hear the transformative power of Walking Through that Door then note that you’re in for a treat. And yes, it touches on those bad hair bands that we liked for their five minutes of fame but here is true beauty, the type that lasts. As I Fall leads the sad charge, repeating the line, ‘I can’t touch you anymore’, over a smooth groove that oddly reminds me of watching Randy Ram in The Wrestler. It’s the same thematic look at loneliness and isolation that’s being explored and it is exquisite.

29: Method Man, Raekwon & Ghostface


While no one is holding their breath for another record to feature all nine members of the Wu, almost no one expected this very rushed project to ever see the light of day. Purportedly recorded years ago, the three emcees involved have kept it tight and short; itself another feat. Our Dreams is a stab at the sample-heavy past that’s current again and it works as well as It’s That Wu Shit, with its rhyming deftness. While the trio still steps thickly into that great puddle called self-importance, Meth rises time and time again to cut through the red tape with amazing sharpness. Time surely has robbed them of some thunder but the guys are still very, very hungry.

30: Small Black

New Chain

Just like Micha Levi last year, Small Black is a band out to sculpt the sound of everyday life. The band, led by Ryan Heyner, is interested in showing us the beautiful atmospherics of synths in a recording studio. It results in a uniformly good batch of chillwave and demonstrates that bands are finally finding variety in the genre. Search Party deftly ups the ante with disco grooves that go for days. But the remarkable thing about this debut is how affirmative it sounds and the link to what is basically a simple DIY mode of living. I can imagine noise geeks in basements assembling ideas like Crisp 100s and marveling at their perceived coolness. And, in some great unstated way, that’s just the point of New Chain.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


2010, by and large represented the comeback of the single as an event instead of merely being a tool to drive album sales. In this fourth part of my list, the controversial M.I.A makes two more appearances while Joanna Newsom—who features very prominently from here on—debuts. This bloc of songs features mostly, slow, winding expressions that delve into love and its separation mostly. Here goes:

21: Joanna Newsom

Baby Birch

Builds its guilty abortion theme slowly with a hectic staccato burst of folk and overwhelming sadness.

22: Eels


The funky, retro sound of love deserting a relationship.

23: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Fright Night (Nevermore)

They don’t make such beautiful minimalism any more.

24: Corrine Bailey Rae

The Blackest Lily

Far more interesting when she spikes her mood, Bailey Rae invites loud guitars into her sedated world and the result is blues magic for what could have been a sappy dirge for her late husband.

25: The Department of Eagles

While We’re Young
Can Daniel Rossen do any wrong? The ending line, ‘what are you trying to prove’, is simply divine being sung repeatedly.

26: Sleigh Bells

Infinity Guitars

Loud and unabashedly proud.

27: Lunar Eyes


In typical Bill Baird fashion, “Lunar Eyes” features a memorable yet catchy chorus plus hooks deep enough for us to joyously lose ourselves in.

28: M.I.A

Born Free

Sampling Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” was a brilliant but you’d only get the gist of it once you decide not to look at Romain Gavras’ distracting video.

29: Daughters

The Unattractive, Portable Head

Still trying to figure out the existentialism behind this Daughters track but when the beat is this heavy, this brilliant, who really needs to unravel its mystery?

30: Seabear

Fire Dies Down

A song about getting gracefully old and yet despite telling lines (‘one day our bodies will break/ one day our hands will shake’) this is far from depressing.

31: Tanya Stephens

No Strings Attached

An interpolation of past songs but shimmering into so much vocal richness that it’s an embarrassment of talent as well as a real modern day dating guide in Jamaica and everywhere else for that matter.

32: Spoon

Got Nuffin

A deceiving title, Brit Daniel breaks out feverish soul when he drops the line, ‘I got nothing to lose’.

33: Sufjan Stevens

I Want to be Well

Like the rest of you I’m still dazed and buzzing from the ornate pop appeal of Sufjan’s latest but I Want to be Well is drips with the most pop by miles. But just when he’s done wowing you, Stevens then delivers a closing ‘fuck you’ to us all and it’s exhilarating.

34: Portugal. The Man

The Dead Dog

A sad yet reflective look at the growing up on youth and the friends one loses along the way.

35: M.I.A

It Iz What It Iz

It’s taken three studio albums for us to get a more vulnerable Maya Arulpragasam. Here she is, stripped off all her usual riff-raffing and fiery and somehow managing to sound more intriguing than ever. We end up with a seamless cross between blues and pop, warmly revealing the woman behind the music and her struggles.

36: The Irrepressibles


Astonishing that no one seemed to remember this band in year-end lists but Anvil is such a standout that no way could I have left McDermott singing like a younger, more relevant Antony Hegarty. McDermott’s loneliness descents into a canon of madness.

37: Arcade Fire

The Suburbs

The ongoing battle with privileged upbringing haunts Arcade Fire as if they’re guilty by association. Butler hits the right stride almost immediately though and really there is no other band—save for Radiohead—that can paint such a mournful picture with every song.

38: Glasser


Cameron Mesirow immediately reminds one of Bat For Lashes---and come to think about it, this track was this year’s “Glass”, an electronic pop masterpiece that paces its innovation with so much technical skill. Funny, but until I wrote the words I hadn’t realised that her moniker already has the word ‘glass’ in it. It may be coincidental but what a coincidence.

39: Method Man, Raekwon & Ghostface

It’s That Wu Shit

The closing track on an album that was already too brief but it does beg the question to be asked: how long do you need your menace to be?

40: Boomsnake

Totem Tales Blues

Misery loving its own company.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


2010, by and large represented the comeback of the single as an event instead of merely being a tool to drive album sales. In this third part of my list, the controversial M.I.A makes two appearances with two singles as well as Gaga’s juggernaut. The nuance in the pop music here swings widest as even when paired with other ideas the basic melodic intonation remains. Here goes:

41: Summer Camp

Round the Moon

Every year there’s one new act that is obviously brilliant but not high profile enough for critics to give a damn about. That honour rests with Summer Camp this year which is weird given how stunning this lead-off track is. Round the Moon is some heavy retro, spaced-out dub/soul. And that Elizabeth Sankey hits the spot with her vocal work like every time.

42: Active Child


The Bon Iver comparisons will ring loudest once you hear Pat Rossi open up Wilderness’ first lines but he adds deep synths and a low wattage soul, like a light bulb buzzing on and off. The effect is indescribably pretty and utterly effective.

43: Wolf Parade

Cloud Shadow on the Mountain

It’s Spencer Krug so what more needs to be said…dude fucking rocks this myth-building shit as always.

44: Toro Y Moi


Chaz Bundick’s dreamy sound no doubt is influenced by the juxtaposition of shoe-gaze and pop but his vocal warp incorporates a sexy blues slant that is undeniably groovy.

45: Holly Miranda


A lovely, psychedelic track that absorbs tension even while it unburdens its bleeding heart.

46: Lady Gaga feat. Beyonce


She’s the most talked-about diva since Madonna but, if you’re a serious music critic, then her actual music hasn’t mattered up to now (it’s been all fashion and gender-bender button pushing and you know it). But, here is Telephone, by far, her most thrilling exploration of pop as a tool for statement. Twinning her ubiquity with the only global devise (besides the internet) capable of projecting her career was a thematic masterstroke. It helped that Miss Knowles worked her lines like they were last too.

47: Arcade Fire

Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains)

Regine Chassagne strikes solo gold again, this time as dissatisfaction personified with a ho-hum life and an artist’s clear view of the pessimistic proletariat around her.

48: Panda Bear

Slow Motion
To paraphrase a track from his previous album, the search for delicious continues…oh, and this is a ‘mere’ B side track. Can you imagine the rest of this album when he finally releases it?

49: Deerhunter

Guitars! Jazzy textures! A Saxophone!

50: M.I.A feat. Jay-Z

XXXO (remix)
The closest thing she’ll ever come to generic pop and it still totally rocks.

51: Robyn

Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do

Unrivalled in dance/pop circles, Robyn hands out yet another bossy LP (Body Talk: Part I) and its opening track lists over fifty everyday issues affecting her over an infectious groove that’ll be the toast in clubs all over the world.

52: Avey Tare

Heads Hammock
A huge water-logged gem that stands isolated from his work within Animal Collective but still resonates with their themes.

53: Christina Aguilera feat. Nicki Minaj

Xtina is back with this summer’s ode to, um, cunninlingus. Over a funky up groove she teases that, ‘you don’t even need a plate/ just your face/ licky licky yum yum’. It’s not all instructive to guys either; towards the end she reminds women, ‘bitches, keep it clean…’ Ouch.

54: Erykah Badu

Fall in Love (Your Funeral)
Short and sweet-- the perfect lay-over from her previous masterpiece that serves as the foil.

55: Here We Go Magic

Old World United
Luke Temple returns with a fully fleshed out funk concept and, voila, he still has the touch and those yummy electronic flourishes.

56: M.I.A

Lovealot rides a stunning ruckus bag rhythm while racking up controversial mileage. When she croons, ‘like Obama needs to love up Chen’, the jarring beats can’t drown out the geopolitical statement but damned if it doesn’t try hard to.

57: The Tallest Man on Earth

The Wild Hunt
Simple ballad yet right on point, just like all the Dylan comparisons we cram upon him.

58: Future Islands

Walking Through that Door
A charming ode to all the under-appreciated 1980s pop songs that we’re all now just getting into.

59: Emma Pollock

I Could Be a Saint
Not a total rejection of love but Pollock constructs a feminist ode here to having a right in whom to love and when to. Within the folds of conformity we all get trapped into, the wrong decisions get made (‘you’re sending roses/ while I’m seeking refuge’). This is a real stop-to-think record.

60: Of Montreal

Girl Named Hello
Behold, Georgie Fruit.