Thursday, December 30, 2010

James Gapinski's Top Ten Albums of 2010

Since I was unaware of this blog last year, I'll just start by saying that there were a lot of good releases this year, but 2010 is still eclipsed by some of last year's amazing albums. In 2009, Au Revoir Simone's “Still Night, Still Light” provided some of the best electro dream-pop of the decade, Anti-Flag returned to an independent label and old-school punk sound with “The People or the Gun,” Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard's album “'Em Are I” redefined anti-folk, and Schwervon!'s “Low Blow” blended grunge with a beautiful assortment of other artistic styles. The year 2009 bore witness to true artistic innovation on the aforementioned albums and many others—a tall order for 2010's releases to top.

And without further adieu, here is my digressional list:

1. Kate Nash: “My Best Friend is You” - Even with a long-awaited freshman release from The Bundles, Kate Nash's sophomore album deserves the number one spot on the list. This young artist continually revises her sound, and she never disappoints in every genre attempted. Naturally, she does revisit tried and true stylistic directions on some tracks. Nash's early lo-fi proclivity for acoustic recordings reemerges, as does some of the pop influence from her previous studio album. However, many songs on “My Best Friend is You” are faster, louder, and yet contradictorily more polished and mature than her subtler work. On this new release, fiery spoken-word segments, fuzz-box guitar pedals, more complex drum beats, and increasingly passionate lyrics highlight a musician with immense promise and a willingness to take chances in her work.

2. The Bundles: “The Bundles” - The Bundles first began nine years ago as some ad-hoc collaboration between Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson. In 2010, these impromptu jams finally led to an official album release. The debut self-titled record delivers some of what you'd expect from these anti-folk greats, but it also explores new ground. The Bundles is perhaps better described as “experimental” than anything else. In the album's delightful mix: playful keyboards, unexpected drum interludes, syncopated guitar riffs, and occasional idiosyncratic vocals make for a truly unique listening experience.

3. Adam Green: “Minor Love” - Adam Green's “Minor Love” feels like less of a studio album than his previous “Sixes & Sevens” album. The music returns to the more minimalistic vibe of Green's early solo career and his work with The Moldy Peaches, leaving behind some of the pseudo-blues influence and harmonization exhibited on “Sixes & Sevens.” On the other hand, lyrics and vocals continue in the eccentric vein of “Friends of Mine” and “Sixes & Sevens,” with poetic refinement and a subtle melody fully appropriate for the album's subject matter.

4. Emmy the Great: “First Love” - This first album from London singer/songwriter Emma-Lee Moss features lyrically poignant tunes that speak with an authority and prophetic wisdom beyond Moss' young age. The fingerstyle guitar is all that's needed to make the songs pop with an airy delicacy that juxtaposes nicely against heavier themes of love, lust, and loss. It's best to sit down when you listen to “First Love,” because it has the capacity to floor you.

5. The Hundred in the Hands: “The Hundred in the Hands” - The Hundred in the Hands' self-titled release navigates the breadth of psychedelic-pop's potential, delivering danceable up-tempo house beats on a few tracks, and softer tracks reminiscent of Lykke Li or R√∂yksopp on others. In short, it's really good.

6. Wild Nothing: “Gemini” - When I started assembling my picks for 2010, this album was not initially in the top ten. Perhaps I was just really hesitant to bump Frightened Rabbit's amazing album “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” off the list to make room for “Gemini.” Regardless, once I moved Wild Nothing onto the list, I found it continually rose as I weighed it against other contending albums, until finally reaching a respectable sixth place. “Gemini” grows on you symbiotically the more times you listen. This debut album by Wild Nothing has such a good ebb and flow; it has memorable staying power even on endless repeat. Each listen-through makes the melodic riffs and soothing vocals more pronounced. “Gemini” provides a modern take on the dwindling shoe-gaze genre, mixing it with overt touches of indie and dream-pop: it's an amalgamation that works on many levels.

7. The Cribs: “Ignore the Ignorant” - With former The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr in the band, it's no wonder that this contemporary alt-rock group has released several albums that recapture the very best characteristics of the 1980s post-punk sound encapsulated by The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs, and The Cure. “Ignore the Ignorant” strips some of the pop and electronica influence from post-punk for a progressive take on the genre.

8. Laura Marling: “I Speak Because I Can” - Like Laura Marling's “Alas, I Cannot Swim,” “I Speak Because I Can” retains a bare-bones vibe, but still throws in subtle backing sounds that provide a new experience every time you listen to a track. At first glance, her music is redolent of what you'd expect to hear from Marling as a wonderful busker or coffee shop act. But upon closer inspection, occasional embellishments catch your ear for a near-symphonic experience packed within a handful of carefully selected tones, an acoustic guitar, and Marling's beautiful vocals. “I Speak Because I Can” is the perfect merger of lo-fi realism and hi-fidelity complexity.

9. Lightspeed Champion: “Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You” - On his second release as Lightspeed Champion, Devont√© Hynes displays the breadth of his compositional abilities. Hynes musical career is mostly one of background contribution—among his many musical accomplishments, Hynes composed songs for Florence and the Machine's debut album “Lungs,” and he showed his versatility with work on techno and trip-hop songs for The Chemical Brothers. When playing in the forefront, Hynes offers rich baroque-pop piano riffs, funky guitar parts, and soft vocals. “Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You” gives listeners a taste of the true potential of this talented composer.

10. Wavves: “King of the Beach” - When you're dealing with a garage-band-esque sound, the messy tracks have a choreographed beauty to them—this was definitely the case with the Wavves' 2008 self-titled release. “King of the Beach,” however, is noticeably less sporadic and gritty than the 2008 incarnation. Fortunately, the change doesn't hinder the listening experience for this band. “King of the Beach” manages to deliver what few records can: sidewalk sound with studio cleanliness. The album is noise-pop at its finest, rivaling early 1980s contributions from trailblazers like Jesus & Mary Chain.

All things considered, 2010 had plenty of its own artistic innovation. I'm still not sure if these releases top last year's, but does it really matter? The assortment of captivating 2010 albums is nothing to sneeze at. And perhaps more relevantly, four of these albums are freshman albums, and another three are sophomore releases—there was a lot of really good music from relatively “new” bands in 2010, and I suspect these artists will continue to impress in years to come.

Some Honorable Mentions (in rank order)

- “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” by Frightened Rabbit

- “White Crosses” by Against Me!

- “Darwin Deez” by Darwin Deez

- “Flaws” by Bombay Bicycle Club

- “Oh Little Fire” by Sarah Harmer

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