Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten Releases of 2010

I am still avoiding reading about other ‘top ten’ lists -- got mine together so I can start seeing what other people think! Actually, this list was submitted to PopMatters for their year end compilation, where I was thrilled to have my vote count along with all the other music bloggers on the site. Some people still refer to collections of music created and published by bands/artists as albums or CDs but I’m trying to get used to referring to them as releases. That's what is really happening: a song is let loose online as an entity with others, or to pick and choose from as singles. In no particular order here are my favorites from 2010, a great year in music with these picks enjoyed many times over and lots of opportunities to see the bands in concert. When I did buy the physical CD, many times I was disappointed with the lack of lyrics and liner notes. (Why offer a booklet of artwork only?) But I'm ever grateful for the heavy toil of rehearsing and production hours, so I can't get that upset. The music is clearly what it’s all about.

1. The Suburbs/Arcade Fire
This third offering from the popular indie band was one of the strongest collections of the year. Some complain that musically things seem more calculated, but there’s still lots of originality throughout. Watching their show from Madison Square Garden live online was one of the unexpected highlights of my year – I just didn’t expect to enjoy the energy of band so much sitting in front of a computer screen. It’s also where I learned that Will Butler is just as important to the band as his frontman brother, Win Butler.

Seeing this band was another highlight of my year even though their show at Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina felt more like a rehearsal run through. It was somewhat lackluster beyond a standard lightshow. However, poring through this sophomore song cycle many times after it appeared last spring was a real treat. It's complicated at times and some of the over-the-top experimental tracks lost a few fans, but what's wrong reaching for something new?

3. Teen Beach/Beach House
Chill wave and dream pop became buzzphrases thanks to bands like Beach House. This duo from Baltimore prides itself on making music to make out to and from the first layered chord you can easily see where they get that label from. Lush soundscapes are the goal while moody effects create the foundation -- another musical genre is born. They warmed up for Vampire Weekend at Radio City this year and showcased the hall's excellent acoustics with a spare but mesmerizing stage show.

4. High Violet/The National
This fifth release from the Brooklyn band originally from Ohio is its most commercially successful by far. Solid songwriting has always been part of the plan but the brooding baritone of Matt Berninger picks it up a notch to allow some more melodic playfulness in some of the tunes. I learned how seriously he takes his frontman duties seeing him rev up the crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last spring. Plus the opening line of Bloodbuzz Ohio has to be one of the sexiest lyrics ever.

5. This is Happening/LCD Soundsystem
Producer James Murphy has stated that this is the last release under the current band set up but I'm guessing there's plenty more in store for their fans. The wry lyrics, killer beats and layered tracks instantly create another fun dance party with every listen. I'm sure the party will continue with whomever he decides to invite along.

6. Transference/Spoon
Spoon's seventh release is self-produced, though it doesn't necessary show in every song. The band is still just as edgy with a solid, tightly knit group sound, but now and then things get a little self indulgent. This is not always a bad thing.

7. Contra/Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend came out with a strong sophomore release, with more of the same mash-up of genres and themes close to home – traveling privileged lives which took them to Mexico and beyond. During their tour they were also all business, recreating their carefully crafted tunes but since everything sounded great it was hard to complain.

8. Gorillaz/Plastic Beach
This was the most anticipated release in my book (or blog?). The five year wait was over with an extended track list boasting many stellar collaborations. Funky grooves, a children's choir and hard-to-pigeon hole sound remained true to their cause, and the fact this group no longer hides behind a scrim at gigs was a welcome change.

9. Sufjan Stevens/Age of Adz
That Sufjan Stevens would veer toward electronica was another pleasant surprise of the year. Folky leanings were given an futuristic update, with danceable tunes and cascades of complicated sound. His concert was also a highlight, with easy banter about songwriting, a dozen musicians on various instruments, and background dancers (who he even joined now and then!)

10. Broken Bells/Broken Bells 
Danger Mouse teamed up with James Mercer of The Shins to create this band after meeting backstage years ago. The sensibility of a hip producer brought the laid back vibe of Mercer's vocals into a trendier place and it's full of musical ideas for all.