Wow, it’s the last day of January, and John asked us to put together a 2010 list of favorites two weeks ago. Sorry ‘bout that John. I thought 2010 was a really quality year for music, so I was a little surprised when I compiled my Top 20 list and only got 17 albums. I think a year-end best-of list shouldn’t be a ranking of the albums you bought, where albums you bought but really didn’t knock you over get on there because, you know, you’re running out of albums to list. So this is the list of all the albums this year that I really, really liked.
1. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor – I love everything about this record. It is loud as hell. There’s lots of cussing and songs about the drinking. It’s literate but not pretentiously literary. Patrick Stickles constantly reminds me of 1984 Paul Westerberg. It’s totally overindulgent. I think belongs in the canon of truly great records that we’ll crank to at least 6 while we sit in our nursing homes doing fermentation experiments with last week’s applesauce. Yes, it’s that great.
2. The Walkmen, Lisbon – Where Titus Andronicus are snotty and sweaty, the Walkmen are suave and urbane. This is a collection of beautiful songs; beautifully played and sung, beautifully recorded. Although I must confess to liking the rocking songs like ‘Angela Surf City’ best, I cannot resist the gauzy barroom conceits like ‘Stranded’ either. And the singer’s name is Hamilton Leithauser, and they’re on Fat Possum Records. Hamilton Leithauser? Fat Possum? Remember when Rawly Eastwick was a relief pitcher for the Big Red Machine? You don’t? Never mind.
3. Kylesa, Spiral Shadow – I can’t believe there’s all this great metal music coming out of Georgia. They’ve got Mastodon, High on Fire, Baroness, and Harvey Milk, all of which have put out great records the past couple of years, but without a doubt two of my two favorite metal albums during that time are this one and Kylesa’s 2009 effort ‘Static Tensions’. These songs aren’t from the metal template – they’re generally around 3 minutes of fevered squall. They’re structured more like Fugazi songs than Isis songs but more primal (two drummers!). Anyway, there’s something in the water in Georgia. No wonder Mikheil Saakashvili thinks he can kick Vladimir Putin’s butt. Check out the opener:
4. Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises – I’ll admit it, I’m an unrepentant Mark Kozelek fanboy. Seriously, he could remake this album, call it ‘Admiral Farts Promises’ and I’d pre-order two copies. I also will admit that I was disappointed when I heard that this album wasn’t recorded with a band, but rather was pretty much unaccompanied Kozelek on a nylon string classical guitar. I love the live solo records he puts out every two or three weeks, but I miss the full band sound that’s so necessary to the genius of songs like ‘Salvador Sanchez’and ‘Tonight the Sky.’ This album, though, works in every way, and in some ways is a departure for Kozelek. The subtle multitracking (especially of the vocals) and the stunning flamenco sketches combine with the expected stuff – the sepia-tinted place descriptions (matching much of the art of his album covers) and the expansive compositions – to form something utterly gripping. And like all excellent records, the more you come back to it, the more you take away. It’s quiet and contemplative music, but in no way can it be considered easy listening.
5. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding – I think Superchunk was the greatest rock and roll band of the 90s. I also think that if they hadn’t taken the better part of the last 10 years off, and instead had made a few more albums like this, they’d be making a play for best band of whatever that last decade is called as well. This sounds like the follow-up to “Here’s Where the Strings Come In”, which to me was right where they were hitting their stride. I think it was my buddy Slainte Joe who described them best by saying they write perfect pop songs and then crank the absolute shite out of them.
6. Vampire Weekend, Contra – This is the second album on my list (along with my number 1 above) from Brit label XL Recordings, so a congratulatory bollocks to them, or whatever. When you peel away the layers of studio varnish, this actually might be a stronger set of tunes than the first album. I saw them live at an amphitheater with a terrific PA system a couple of months ago and was blown away at how great they sound when simply played (there was a little bit being piped in, but not a ton, as far as I could tell). This is a great band with a unique musical vision.
7. High on Fire, Snakes for the Divine – Where I applauded Kylesa above for their compact metal songs, Matt Pike on the other hand really needs supertanker-sized songs to create a proper framework for his epic (and I’m going for a non-hipster employment of the word here) guitar work. That’s not to say he can’t work his magic in a short song. Look at ‘Rumors of War’ for goodness sakes. The songs on ‘Snakes . . .’ are mostly longform by comparison, though, and they make for an exhilarating experience. Why they’re no longer on Relapse Records is something I can’t figure out. Oh yeah, and there’s also the moment on ‘Frosthammer’ where the music stops and then restarts with Pike bellowing ‘FROSTHAMMER!’ four times before the lead starts. Hearing this has caused my 9 year old son to begin to believe in the devil that I’ve been telling him about for years; you know, the one that watches him night and day, but especially at night, waiting for a chance to drag the little guy to the basement of hell. It’s musical behavior therapy.
8. Far, At Night We Live – I was really surprised at how good this album turned out. They hadn’t been heard from since 1998, the year we got System of a Down. They had become what no real rock and roll aspirant wants to become, i.e., an obscure but significant point of influence for a raft of bands, including a lot of pretty bad ones. This album is a lot closer to ‘Water & Solutions’ than ‘Tin Cans With Strings for You’, in that it’s got a lot of quality pop sensibility to go with the bonecrunching bar chords, and Jonah Matranga sings more than he screams (although he’s got a great voice for either).
9. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks – I swear I saw the title of this album and almost resolved not to buy it. Ted Leo’s one of the few people whose lyrics I actually listen to for content, but I am not interested in a rock album that is self-consciously concerned with aesthetics as a lyrical subject matter. Thankfully, if I remember correctly, I went into the record store with fifteen bucks burning a hole in my pocket, didn’t find what I went there for, and bought this instead because Ted’s an ND guy, after all. Turns out I should have known better than to draw such conclusions in the first place. He’s really at the top of his game here, with pretty much every song perfectly blending his east coast punk edge with another of his inexhaustible supply of Elvis Costello-like pop hooks.
10. No Age, Everything in Between – While I still probably like ‘Nouns’ better, in a way this album is more exciting because it shows a band working very hard at developing a kind of musical vision. They don’t seem content to be lumped in with the vanguard of lo-fi punks hitting the scene right now (although as can be seen from some of the entries on this list, I’d have no problem with that myself). So while they’re still cranking out great songs (“Fever Dreaming” has to be one of the best songs of 2010), they seem to be taking pains both instrumentally and in the production process to create an overarching ambience to the album. Some may find that to be pointless noodling. I think it’s great – or at least it really works here.
11. Deftones, Diamond Eyes – This is the best the Deftones have sounded since ‘White Pony’.
12. Male Bonding, Nothing Hurts – Check out the videos of this band that I posted a week or so ago. Well played and full speed ahead.
13. The National, High Violet – Another great effort by what’s probably my favorite band of the last five or ten years. I ranked it here because of the band’s five full length albums, this would fall at number 4 or 5 for me.
14. Robert Pollard, We All Got Out of the Army – I can’t keep up with all the Pollardiana that’s been steadily streaming out of Dayton since the demise of Guided by Voices, but this is not one of those records where there are only five songs you’d add to your Pollard playlist. This is front-to-back solid – sounds like a less anthemic ‘Isolation Drills’.
15. Wolf Parade, Expo ’86 – This looks like it will be the triumphant last hurrah of the combined efforts of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. They were my favorite of the bands to come out of the Montreal scene of the early to mid-00s. Bands that have two accomplished singer-songwriters (Uncle Tupelo and Husker Du spring to mind here) tend not to last too long.
16. Wavves, King of the Beach – I like this album a lot more than his first, which is saying something. Much I’ve read in the music media has portrayed Nathan Williams as an ornery prima donna, but I saw Wavves play the Cat’s Cradle this past weekend, and he came across as a very likeable guy who was trying hard to play a great set. He succeeded well beyond my expectations. By the way, this is another great album brought to us by Oxford, Mississippi’s Fat Possum records.
17. Ty Segall, Melted – Ty is not just another California noise punk – not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you like your pop music drenched in feedback and distortion you need this album. Although I’m partial to the tune “Four Score and Seven” by Titus Andronicus, a solid case can be made that ‘Girlfriend’ from this album is the song of the year. This is from the great Memphis label Goner Records, home to the sadly departed Jay Reatard and the happily whoopass Eddy Current Suppression Ring (John has given them some much-deserved praise on this site) among other great garage warriors. Here's 'Girlfriend'. Turn it up.
I promise that these are not the only 17 albums released last year that I actually bought or listened to. There are some that I bought and didn’t fall in love with, including a few that were on most year-end lists you’ve probably seen. There were others – LCD Soundsystem and Deerhunter come to mind – that I plan to get but haven’t gotten around to yet. There look to be some promising albums on the 2011 horizon from the likes of the Twilight Singers, Rival Schools, maybe Mastodon, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a new Bloody Hollies release. So I’m hoping I get to 20 on next year’s list.