November 21, 2010

AwkwardSound Presents: The 25 Best Albums of 2010

When the music 2010 brought us is looked back on years from now by a new generation listeners, there's a strong chance fans will genuinely appreciate it in the same light we look at the year 2000. That year, the music world was bestowed with such iconic and influential albums as Radiohead's Kid A, Sigur Rós' Ágætis Byrjun, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Lift Your Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven and Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica. Judging by the top picks on our list, there certainly is the potential for some of these albums to do the same. It's been a superb year for the artist and an even better year for their fans. AwkwardSound proudly presents The 25 Best Albums of 2010...

25. SHARKS' Show of Hands EP

Combining the gruff of early Clash, the punk intellect of Hüsker Dü and the anthemic abilities of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, SHARKS' Show of Hands EP has the rebellious attitude that allowed so many of the band's influences to turn the music world on its ears. There aren't too many contemporary punk bands left who aren't more caught up in artsy trends than merely being DIY, so it's refreshing that SHARKS can still pull the latter off without acting like they have something to prove.

24. Kylesa's Spiral Shadow

Metal has a specific formula to it that many in the genre are tentative to mess with. Kylesa took on this daunting task with the result being the most progressive-thinking metal album of the year. Not willing to create another psych-metal cliché, Spiral Shadow contains sludgy guitar riffs amid deep melodies that bring to mind '90s grunge and indie rock. While it's a recording that will surely broaden their appeal, Kylesa biggest success is how they reexamine the genre instead of distance themselves away from it.

23. Joie de Vivre's The North End

Breakthrough artists Joie de Vivre are one of the many promising young bands who are helping clean up that dirty word "emo," and their sophomore effort is reassuring to fans of the genre that the glory days will be restored. Picking up from where fellow mid-western emos American Football and Mineral left off, The North End is chalk full of twinkling downtempos and post-hardcore melancholy. They may never get as big as the bastardized mall emo bands of today, but it's the cozy, nostalgic feeling Joie de Vivre display that made emo such a special secret to begin with.

22. Tamaryn's The Waves

San Francisco nu-gaze duo Tamaryn formally arrived onto the music scene this year with their first collection of darkly romantic songs. Lead singer Tamaryn (for whom the band is named after) has a gliding voice that coos like a new age Hope Sandoval and burns around the slow-plodding distortion and guitar loops like a fading ember. It helps make the The Waves one of those albums that will keep you warm no matter which season you find yourself in.

21. SALEM's King Night

At some point down this list, you will find out what "witch house" is not. Yet, if any band is to be credited with creating the genre, it's SALEM. Aside from this Michigan band's name making that obvious, their debut combines a variety of unlikely pairings (Such as trance, shoegaze, dub-step, goth and Southern hip-hop) which results in a spooky form of electronic music. The genre distinction is probably unnecessary, but SALEM's ability to unify polarizing music isn't an accident.

20. Wavves' King of the Beach

King of the Beach is the album that could have broken Nathan Williams' Wavves career for good. The San Diego noise-pop artist was arguably the most over-hyped new act of 2009, garnered negative press following a few live show mishaps and thus, the pressure was on to prove critics wrong. Luckily for Williams, there's no sophomore slump here. In fact, he shrugs off last year's missteps with a fun set of re-energized snot-nosed fuzz rockers that do away with the lo-fi veil heard on his debut. While he's still young and growing as an artist, Williams brash attitude gets him where he wants to go.

19. WOMEN's Public Strain

It seems more often than not that "indie rock" is becoming a dirty word and every band must obligatorily be compared to others within the genre. The sophomore album by Calgary's WOMEN will make you think twice before doing so. While their debut was filled with an assortment of styles, ranging from lo-fi to psychedelic pop, Public Strain has WOMEN pursuing a simply artistic song-writing structure with a thinking man's version of the guitar-based rocker at it's base. Simply put, it's the purest indie rock album of the year.

18. Bruce Springsteen's The Promise

Technically, this double-album isn't made up of any brand new material, but it's the first time Bruce Springsteen has allowed these tracks to finally see the light of day. Why The Boss shelved the work attests to his discipline as a musician, as they're nearly as good as anything on his seminal albums, Born to Run and Darkness On the Edge of Town. Between those LPs is when the songs from The Promise were recorded, so it goes without saying there were some very high standards that had to be met in order to make it onto a Springsteen release.

17. Past Lives' Tapestry of Webs

Past Lives
sprung from the ashes of early 2000s art-core act, The Blood Brothers, but aside from Jordan Billie's characteristic vocals, you would never guess it. It's evident why The Blood Brothers imploded, as the members who formed Past Lives have moved on and grown exponentially on their debut, Tapestry of Webs. The music still contains the volatile loudness as its heartbeat, but Past Lives don't seem interested in sounding like their former selves -- They just want to create some new noise of their own.

16. Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest

Until Halcyon Digest, Deerhunter was a band known for their weirdo rock experimentation. It could at times include dreamy instrumental tracks filled with hiss and fuzz while lead man Bradford Cox allowed his voice to come in second to everything else. The fourth album by these Athens indie rockers changes all that, as Cox takes the spotlight with his most ambitious vocals to date while all the clamor is stripped down to a more typical arrangement of instruments. Through the clarity, Deerhunter finally finds themselves.

15. Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

To be allowed to step foot into the Kanye West's creative mind is always a treat, but this album is something entirely else. Turning personal turmoil into emotive art, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the definition of an ego-driven hip-hop genius confronting his demons for a grand public spectacle. It's bloated with exploratory ingenuity, guest appearances and hip-hop songs that carry on for nearly ten minutes long. Kanye West is in the business of changing the game but this time around, he may have just created an entirely new one.

14. Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz

"Pretentious" doesn't even begin to describe Sufjan Stevens' work ethic. After battling a bout of writer's block, Stevens returned to the music world this year with The Age of Adz, an experimental pop album to which all subsequent indie pop should be compared against. It's not to say that this is an accessible album (It's actually filled with complex layers of electronic blips, bleeps and orchestral arrangements) but just when you thought Auto-Tune was dead, Sufjan resurrects the often-criticized "instrument" by putting it to use in a completely necessary way.

13. Liars' Sisterworld

The fifth studio album by these experimental noise rockers strikes a balance between the quiet, subdued recording structure of Drum's Not Dead and the loud, schizophrenia heard on their early releases. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as Liars have never made the same album twice. Yet, the marriage of these different eras across their career marks the first album where Liars sound grounded, and it surprisingly suits them well.

12. Trash Talk's Eyes & Nines

If you've ever wondered how long it takes to make a head explode, it's about 18 minutes -- or so Trash Talk's Eyes & Nines leads you to believe. Aggression and speed doesn't even justifiably describe the third album by this Sacramento hardcore punk act. While Trash Talk aren't as flashy or artistic as their fellow modern hardcore counterparts, Eyes & Nines is a gut-check that captures the authenticity of hardcore's glory days just the same.

11. Xiu Xiu's Dear God, I Hate Myself

Avant-pop deconstructionist Jamie Stewart and his Xiu Xiu project have a reputation for challenging listeners, but their seventh studio album fringes on being their most accessible release to date, right behind 2004's Fabulous Muscles. Jamie Stewart's cynically comical sense of humor shines as it's multiplied by the tenfold in the lyrics, while Xiu Xiu's music is completely fleshed out as a four-piece using instruments that don't even have names amid 8-bit pop bliss.

10. Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal

There was plenty of press regarding a new genre called "witch house" this year, and somehow Daniel Lopatin and his electronic project, Oneohtrix Point Never got thrown into the mix. The truth is Oneohtrix Point Never was around before the contrived genre term was coined. Upon closer speculation, you'll hear there really isn't a correct way to categorize his music. Returnal is a remarkable dark landscape of synthetic ambiance, prismatic noise and droning electronics that stand alone as a superb listening experience not to be associated with any other type of sound out there.

9. Robyn's Body Talk

The final album of Robyn's Body Talk series is the crown jewel in her three-part album project. By mainstream standards, this is the best pop album of the year, and it's unlikely that we've heard or will hear anything as good as this coming from Lady Gaga's end of the world. While it's unfortunate the vast majority or radio music fans haven't once again made Robyn a household name, the Swedish songstress's ability to create cutting-edge dance pop without succumbing to industry expectations is probably why Body Talk succeeds.

8. Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me

There can never be such thing as too much Joanna Newsom is the lesson learned on Have One on Me, Newsom's ambitious three-disc release. The hipster harpist has approached a couple of different songwriting directions over her career, from short-form folk songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender to a baroque orchestra adventure on Ys. Have One on Me contains the best of both of these worlds and in Newsom's most cohesive manner to date. Along the way, her elfish vocals have matured and become more assured, losing that acquired-taste edge and just merely becoming a part of the beauty.

7. Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

The latest album by Canadian supergroup, Arcade Fire, is their lengthiest endeavor to date. Where Funeral was a celebration of death and Neon Bible questioned religion and fame, The Suburbs keeps with visceral themes as a haunting portrayal of life in the sprawl. While still drawing influence from Springsteen, The Talking Heads and Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire have made these sounds their own. The Suburbs also is a graduation for the big-time indie rock band -- They've transcended the genre here by creating one of the finest examples of modern rock, period.

6. Abe Vigoda's Crush

With last year's Revival EP, Abe Vigoda began hinting at a shift away from the tropical noise punk they became known for on their first two releases. Crush confirms these suspicions as most of the spastic, angular punk riffs you'd expect to hear now take the backseat to gothy coldwave drum beats and synths with deeper basslines and guitars. It's a drastic -- albeit nostalgic -- metamorphosis for the Smell scene alumni, but it's difficult to argue that they aren't pulling it off with ease. While some artists merely put out the same type of music over and over again, Abe Vigoda's Crush proves them to be up for a challenge.

5. Zola Jesus' Stridulum and Velusia EPs

With 2010 marking the resurrection of goth pop, it's Zola Jesus who is the new wave's brightest star. Garnering strong comparisons to '80s goth icon Siouxie Sioux, her combined EP releases Stridulum and Velusia displayed Nika Roza Danilova's wide range of dark vocal abilities. The former found Zola Jesus' music to be dark, haunting yet lovely while the latter had Danilova's powerful voice afloat among glimmering electronica and synth beats. Together, it made for one of the best and most promising breakthroughs by a new artist.

4. LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening

LCD Soundsystem has always been the life of the party, but on This Is Happening, James Murphy and company are thinking twice before they head out for the night. The band's third album is driven by innovative disco beats, flashes of punk and danceable electronic experimentation, but the man behind the mic has a much more serious tone. On This Is Happening, Murphy let's us all know that he's ready to feel the world's sobering pain as a reminder that he's still alive instead of distortedly viewing it through a pair of beer goggles.

3. Beach House's Teen Dream

The use of the word "dream" in the album title makes for the perfect way of describing what you're about to hear on the third release by this Baltimore duo. Following a string of strong releases, Teen Dream is Beach House's culminating breakthrough that pulls you into an entrancing cloud of hazy shoegaze and slo-core mixed with twinkly keys as lead singer Victoria Legrand's bustling vocals guide you by the hand. Like the many great adventures we experience only when our eyes close and we drift into the subconscious, this Beach House album is its soundtrack.

2. Ceremony's Rohnert Park

Channeling influences from hardcore and punk rock luminaries such as Black Flag and The Stooges, this Bay Area group released another reason to believe why hardcore isn't dead. Sure, there's the obvious heavy-edged riffs, fast-paced tempos and aggressive vocals that usually make up the backbone to a hardcore track but there's a lot more going on here than just that. Like fellow modern hardcore mainstays, Fucked Up and Pissed Jeans, Ceremony's Rohnert Park isn't afraid to dabble in artsier, experimental sounds like shoegaze and noise along the way. This is what the new breed of hardcore is all about.

1. No Age's Everything In Between

On just their sophomore effort, it took No Age less time to make a huge leap forward as artists than some musicians take over their entire careers. 2008's formal debut, Nouns, was a tightly organized spunky collection of fuzzed-out pop punk tracks. Instead of opting for more cranked out rockers, Everthing In Between makes good use of a pallet of noise. Randy Randall and Dean Spunt's way of proving themselves as more than just a one-dimensional drum and guitar duo is evident, as they flex their creative muscle to bring us an album that states the case as to why these two LA DIY leaders are the heir apparent to the noise rock throne.

1 comment:

  1. Question mark to most of the bands here, but that's to be expected. The ones I do know get their due, especially beach house (number 3 on each of our lists!). I actually just got into Stridulum, and now I'm thinking Velusia is next.

    One day I'll try No Age out. Some folks (you) really seem to like them.