I wrote at the start of 2010 about how I hoped to vary my listening habits over the course of the year, about how I needed to listen to something other than guys with beards and guitars. Well I guess the past twelve months have been a miserable failure then. But I’ve had a lot of fun, soundtracked by the list below. Please share your own favourites in the comment box!
1. The National – High Violet
I’m not sure I should write anything more on these pages about this band, for fear of being batted off as a fanzine. Alas, there is more to come when I publish some fresh copy on High Violet, submitted today. Anyone who has read this blog will know why and how much I love this album. If not, you can easily find out.
The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio
2. Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett
I’d never really listened to much of Damien Jurado’s stuff before but this album is a thing of beauty. Sometimes Jurado sounds damaged and paranoid. At others, he sounds hopeful and whimsical. It amounts to an emotional, multi-paced masterpiece. The brilliant, sweeping strings of the opening track Cloudy Shoes meant that I didn’t listen to the rest of the album for ages – it’s that good. I was surprised not to hear more people talk or write about this album in 2010.
Damien Jurado – Cloudy Shoes
3. The Walkmen – Lisbon
This is my favourite Walkmen album. There is nothing here to rival the visceral, pounding on the door – balls to the wall rock of The Rat and strangely for a Walkmen record, Hamilton only sounds menacing and sneering in parts. It is framed by a lovely, vintage sound. The guitars have a real 50s feel throughout and the production of the album accentuates it: echoey and vacuous (that’s a good thing).
The Walkmen – Angela Surf City
4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
The perfect album for Arcade Fire to release in 2010. They’ve matured, but they still know how to pen songs you can sing in the shower, driving your car or teaching your kids (hope my boss isn’t reading this). Thematically, it’s DARK. You can read about this more extensively here.
Arcade Fire – We Used To Wait
5. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
This is the album that has made me want to pick up my guitar most in 2010. Kristian Matsson has a voice that sounds as though he’s sung round a million campfires. He reminds me of a young, naïve, Scandanavian (on the occasion his accent sneaks into his songs, it makes it all the more endearing) Bob Dylan. His rawness is a breath of fresh air. He sings like he’s got the world at his feet and the wind in his sails. If he keeps churning out records like this, he may just be right.
The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
6. John Grant – Queen of Denmark
This one took me completely by surprise. I’d never even heard of John Grant a couple of months ago. Nor had I heard of his former band, The Czars. The story behind this one is one that’s built for rock n roll folklore. He was just about to call it a day, following his band’s disintegration. He was suicidal and unsure if he’d ever play music again. Texan band, Midlake, saw him live and fell in love. They invited him on tour and coaxed him into the studio, performing as his backing band. Queen of Denmark is the result.
This is the album I was hoping Midlake would make this year. It’s got all the ingredients: a warm, 70s FM-friendly soft rock feel; literate, clever lyrics and a dry wit that cuts a girl named Charlie (who inspires three of the tracks)to shreds, whilst simultaneously evoking a huge sense of loss. In it’s own self-deprecating way, this album reminds me of Dennis Wilson magnum opus Pacific Ocean Blue. In some ways, it’s the Bon Iver moment of 2010. Instead of going into a cabin, he was hauled into a studio. Both records are equally poignant, but this one’s much more fun.
John Grant – Queen of Denmark
7. Meursault – All Creatures Will Make Merry
I miss living in Edinburgh. I miss the music, the gigs, the conveyer belt of talent that seems to emanate from Scotland more than any other comparably sized place. The last gig I went to see in Edinburgh was Meursault, playing at a (I think) Limbo night. Lead singer Neil Pennycook blew me away with the sheer strength of his voice. When I first heard this album, I was slightly disappointed that his voice was lower in the mix than I expected, but as the year’s gone on, I’ve grown to love it. Lumped in with the folktronica scene, there’s a lot more emotion in this batch of songs than that label would leave you to believe. Buried beneath the fuzz, there are some amazing songs here. Perhaps the album that’s grown on me most this year.
Meursault – Crank Resolutions
8. Errors – Come Down With Me
One of the highlights of my year has been running. I ran two half marathons in November and trained for them since the end of the summer. At first, I avoided listening to music too much, preferring audiobooks and podcasts instead. I felt I could dictate my pace and zone out better when someone was talking in my ear. I got halfway through Atlas Shrugged (very slow, quite boring) and devoured a few of Chomsky’s. But when I played music, I would speed up or slow down in accordance with its tempo.
The longer I ran, though, the more I got to know my own body and its limits. I began to listen to more and more music, trialing and erring to discover what was compatible. I find electronic music best, particularly intelligent stuff. Errors fall firmly within this category and alongside M83’s stellar Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, this has been my most played and most enjoyed running album of 2010. They’re signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action label and whilst they pack all the euphoria of their stablemates, their music is inherently fun: an accolade not always bestowed upon their illustrious colleagues.
Errors – Supertribe
9. Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton
I reviewed this way back in Spring for The Skinny and loved it. This year seems to have been dominated by lo-fi, synthy, murky pop music. So what a welcome change and joy to find a band devoted to creating intricate, complex and elaborate music. Clogs contain members of The National, but actually predate their more celebrated moniker. Chief architect is Padma Newsome, who also provides the arrangements for The National. This album is beautiful: fully recommended.
Clogs – I Used To Do
10. Perfume Genius – Learning
And speaking of lo-fi, Perfume Genius was the standout performer in that heavily saturated field this year, for me. It’s not just the production that’s threadbare here, though. Mark Hadreas hangs his torment out his bedroom window (for he’s almost certainly recorded this sitting on the edge of the scratcher) for all the passersby to see. Simple, beautiful and in parts stunningly effective, he shows that in the right hands, the old cliché can still ring true. Less can most certainly be more. This album is the anti-Clogs, but it’s equally poignant and beautiful.
Perfume Genius – Mr Peterson
11. Horse Feathers – Thistled Spring
Horse Feathers are a band I’ve loved for a few years and whilst this album isn’t as good their stunning debut, Words are Dead, it’s still a great album. In a year in which we’ve been starved of new material from Iron and Wine, this has capably filled the void. Lead singer Justin Ringle’s voice is all at once honeyed and resigned. His songs are nostalgic and sad; they seem to yearn for (as much as they sound of) a simpler era when people lived hand-to-mouth. A time when time passed more slowly and folks dealt with each other and little else in between. Sure, it’s a romanticized concept, but sometimes it’s good to dream, right?
Horse Feathers – Thistled Spring
12. Olafur Arnalds – And They Have Escaped Under the Weight Of Darkness
Over the course of 2010, I’ve become more interested in contemporary classical and ambient music. Most of what I’ve listened predates this, but I thoroughly enjoyed Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds’ latest album. I’ve already mentioned the conveyer belt of talent emerging from Scotland, but Iceland runs it close, particularly in this genre. I can’t help but feel the Scandinavians have a better outlook than us.
I watched a documentary last night about Wikileaks, in which they became incorporated on the Northern Atlantic island state. Having been screwed over by politicians in the past, they were determined to be as open and freethinking as they could and so welcomed Julian Assange with open arms. It’s a tenuous connection to make, but in the music of Arnalds and Jóhann Jóhannsson, I get the feeling that it’s more acceptable to slow down there; to do your own thing and move at your own pace… it’s freer, and perhaps that’s why they keep coming up with gems like this. Just a thought.
Olafur Arnalds – Hægt, kemur ljósið
13. The War On Drugs – Future Weather EP
My favourite EP of 2010, which I reviewed here.
The War On Drugs – Coming Through
14. Mountain Man – Made The Harbor
This is a beautiful album. A couple of years ago, Fleet Foxes reminded us just how powerful an instrument the human voice is. These three ladies from Vermont served up another dose of (almost) acapella loveliness. Perhaps their songs don’t have the depth of Fleet Foxes’ output. It’s certainly even more rustic. The vocals are so crystalline and the harmonies beautiful. One of the best Americana albums I’ve heard in 2010.
Mountain Man – Buffalo
15. Bombay Bicycle Club – Flaws
I never really got into BBC’s first album, but I recall being very surprised when I heard this. They’ve hung up their amps and gone for a Nick Drake inspired acoustic set and it works wonderfully well. The album’s highlights (Rinse Me Down, Dust on the Ground) stand head and shoulders above the rest and so, in that sense, the album’s a touch unbalanced, but this was one of the nicest surprises I got this year. It reminds me hugely of Vetiver, with the lead singer’s voice just as rich and smooth as Andy Cabic’s.
Bombay Bicycle Club – Rinse Me Down
16. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
As is my wont, I avoided this one when it first came out. It was getting eulogized by all and sundry and I hadn’t rated their earlier albums as highly as others. This one, though, is better than its predecessors. It still hasn’t hit me as strongly as other musos, but I’ve fallen in love with some of the individual tracks. Bradford Cox is prodigiously gifted and his level of output must be a real source of envy for other musicians.
Deerhunter – Helicopter
17. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
I can’t help but feel disappointed that this record isn’t higher up on the list. The Midnight Organ Fight was one of my favourite albums of the last decade. This one really doesn’t hold a candle to it. It is a good album, with some great tracks (particularly The Wrestle), but when listening to it, I long for the rawness of what came before. Scott Hutchison can still write a great song, I think it’s in the studio where they’ve been let down, with people getting too trigger happy on the mixing desk. It remains to be seen where they go from here, but having recently left Fat Cat for Atlantic, it’s unlikely they’ll return to the sound of yore.
Frightened Rabbit – Living in Colour
18. Bill Callahan – Rough Travel for a Rare Thing
This is a live album I’ve really enjoyed this year. Bill Callahan (aka Smog) is up there with John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) when it comes to rock / indie lyricists. His songs are some of the most moving of their ilk. Hearing them in this live setting (I’ve yet to see him in concert), gives them an extra dimension.
Smog – Cold-Blooded Old Times
19. Midlake – The Courage of Others
As with Frightened Rabbit (and Band of Horses), this album was a disappointment this year. When I first got it, I really got into it and played it pretty regularly. But after the initial novelty of having new Midlake songs wore off, I came to the opinion that it was a bit one-paced. Having given it another chance this winter, I still enjoy it. There are some gorgeous tracks and moments that leave you breathless, but it’s unfortunate to be judged against the quality of …Von Occupanther. It’s unfair to say, but their superb sophomore album might act as an albatross around their collective neck for the rest of their careers.
Midlake – Winter Dies
20. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
You can read a review of Matthew Houcke’s uber-laid back third album here.
Phosphorescent – Los Angeles