Oy vey! This should not have taken so long to put together. I apologize for the tardiness of this list. The truth is I really struggled to put it together. 2010 was consumed by rampant concert-going and reviewing to such an extent that I didn’t have much time for experiencing music in its more packaged and produced form: the album. Thus, every time I started working on compiling this list, I found myself thinking of more albums I hadn’t ever gotten around to. As a result, much of the past month was spent playing catch-up. Without further ado, here are the results.
1. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty)
The Age of Adz opens with the deceptively calming and methodical “Futile Devices” – almost as if nothing had changed since the gentle days of Greetings from Michigan. Of course, it isn’t long before things start to get a little… strange. In an interview with WNYC’s John Schaefer back in the fall of 2009, Sufjan talked about his new project, saying, “Well I’m not interested really in a collection of songs in an album, but what if the song itself is the album.” The Age of Adz is a fascinating, experimental adventure – far more experimental than much of the music that typically falls under that tired tag. Yes, it is bombastic and wildly ambitious. Yes, it was met by much flak when it was suddenly released – especially on the heals of the mild and beautiful EP All Delighted People. But sometimes, it’s the art that takes the most risks and is the most divisive that is most worth a look. Take it or leave it, love it or hate it. Gather ’round. This is the age of Adz. Let the flutes flutter, the guitar sound out triumphantly, and the back-up singers belt it out and dance with glee.
Sufjan Stevens, “Age of Adz” clip:
As you will no doubt notice, observant reader, there is a significant gap in my list here. What happened to albums 2-3? You may be thinking to yourself. Well for me, the year’s number one album was obvious… so obvious that the next few had me stumped. Nothing seemed to make enough of an impression to warrant a position so close to The Age of Adz, simple as that. Please don’t interpret the gap as a cop-out. Instead, it is a powerful statement about my feelings of the year in music and my love of my top album. It’s true, I didn’t think it was the most impressive year as far as the album goes, but in this gap, it’s important to note that there is also hope. Every year, I struggle with my limitations. I’m simply not able to hear and synthesize enough albums. In 2010, some of my favorite albums of the year (DM Stith’s Heavy Ghost, Silje Nes’ Ames Room, and Holy Sons’ Decline of the West) are from previous years. I like to think that perhaps I just haven’t yet discovered my other favorites of the year.
4. Go – Jónsi (XL)
Thanks to my early love for Sigur Rós, I have long been captivated by Jón Þór Birgisson’s heavenly voice. But with many of his band members taking a musical hiatus to have kids, Birgisson had a little extra time on his hands and Jónsi was born. From the moment I saw the strange but gorgeous video for “Go Do,” I eagerly awaited more. Go is positively radiant – a celestial kaleidoscope of sound. One of my biggest regrets of the year was missing him in concert. Apparently, it was a sight to behold. (Luckily, you can at least listen to his show at the 9:30 Club, thanks to the folks at NPR Music.)
Jónsi, “Go Do” clip:
5. Halcyon Digest – Deerhunter (4AD)
I was tempted to throw Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databank on the list, but though the impromptu collection contains an intimate collection of hushed and deeply confessional lo-fi songs, Halcyon Digest is clearly the more cohesive and consistent release. Bradford Cox’s songs may often be grim, but somehow, Halcyon Digest seems – dare I say it? – upbeat… even when the lyrics cover things like perpetual darkness and abandonment. Halycon, indeed.
Deerhunter, “Don’t Cry” clip:
6. High Violet – The National (4AD)
Yes, sometimes Matt Berninger whines on this album. Yes, it may have taken me longer than it should have to get into it. But despite these caveats, High Violet remains one of the most impressive outputs of the year. The instrumentation is full-bodied and complex and the lyrics are brimming with highly evocative one-liners. (I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees sounds almost mythological, and a game of nuns versus priests sounds both comical and terrifying.) Absent of any obvious stand-out tracks, High Violet is also truly an album to be digested in its entirety.
The National, “Anyone’s Ghost” clip:
7. Cloak and Cipher – Land of Talk (Saddle Creek)
At casual listen, Lizzie Powell has the kind of smooth, innocuous vocals characteristic of an artist found on the adult easy-listening channel, but don’t let that fool you. From seeing Land of Talk perform twice this past year, I know the woman to be a powerful force, and her lyrics are some of the most powerful I’ve heard all year.
Land of Talk, “Color Me Badd” clip:
8. I Speak Because I Can – Laura Marling (Astralwerks)
Interestingly, this album was not initially on my list. Besides “Hope in the Air,” there just weren’t any tracks as good as “Ghosts,” “My Manic and I,” or “Crawled Out of the Sea.” But then I got to thinking… Alas I Cannot Swim is perhaps one of my favorite albums in the last five years. So what if I Speak Because I Can didn’t top it. The truth of the matter is that any Laura Marling album is going to be better than average. Everything from the title of this album to the tone reveals a more confident and mature Marling. Maybe there aren’t (m)any tracks I would listen to on repeat as I did with her previous material, but it remains a solid album. I eagerly await what comes next.
Laura Marling, “Hope in the Air” clip:
9. All Alone In An Empty House – Lost in the Trees (Anti)
When I first saw Lost in the Trees open for Efterklang in the spring of 2008, my friend and I were so impressed and moved by the haunting melodies that we each bought an album – a rarity for us spoiled college radio kids. For front man Ari Picker, making and playing music is a deeply moving and cathartic experience. At a recent show at the Mercury Lounge, he said, “I started listening to classical music in 2005. It was an interesting experience. I started getting a feeling like I was in church or something. It was a mind-opening experience.” Like the band’s older catalog, All Alone in an Empty House is delightfully gothic and brimming with intensity.
Lost in the Trees, “All Alone in an Empty” clip:
10. Love Remains – How To Dress Well (Lefse)
Reminiscent a bit of Bon Iver, How To Dress Well is a hazy, melodic collection of songs that seem to be made for the cold, dark days of winter. Love Remains is a complex and intriguing synthesis of bedroom music, 90s R & B, and fuzzed out, heavily distorted electronica – all accompanied by Tom Krell’s piercing falsetto. The songs flow from one to the next with ease and create a haunting and hazy tableau of sound.
How To Dress Well, “Can’t See My Own Face” clip:
11. Made in the Harbor – Mountain Man (Partisan)
For the first few times I saw the name Mountain Man floating around, I was quick to dismiss the band. Haven’t I heard this before? I thought to myself. But this isn’t Man Man, Young Man, Black Mountain, or the Pink Mountaintops. There isn’t even a man on the album. Instead, three lovely ladies team up to create Appalachian folk-inspired ditties, full of three-part harmonies, sparse instrumentation, and a lot of heart, and the result is captivating.
Mountain Man, “Animal Tracks” clip:
12. The Calcination of Scout Niblett – Scout Niblett (Drag City)
Simultaneously abrasive and demure – Scout Niblett is an enigmatic figure and a compelling songwriter. Her music is marked by furious highs and delicate lows, and she navigates between the two like a restless, overenthusiastic child choosing between new toys on Christmas. Fitting for its heavy sound, The Calcination of Scout Niblett dropped back in January, and as the colder days set in once again, I find myself listening to it with increased frequency and fervor.
Scout Niblett, “The Calcination of Scout Niblett” clip:
13. Magic Central – Breathe Owl Breathe (Hometapes)
I had this album for a couple of months before I finally got around to listening to it. Big mistake. I adored the group’s earlier material for its warmth and down-to-earth simplicity like a little kid loves his blanket. Now, with Magic Central, the sound is more expansive, but the content remains charming familiar. In his characteristic rich and relaxed tenor, front man Micah Middaugh sings of everything from the benign, everyday (an errant mustache) to bigger, heavier topics (like how to forget a former love). As the story goes, the Michigan-based group retreated to a cabin in the woods cabin to soak up the sun and play some music. The formula may be a bit hackneyed now, but the end result is no less worthy.
Breathe Owl Breathe, “Dragon” clip:
14. Write About Love – Belle & Sebastian (Matador)
After some five years of waiting, I anxiously awaited the release of Write About Love. I spent a lot of time with Belle & Sebastian over the years. A lot. After such a long hiatus, would they be able to retain the glow of previous releases like The Boy with the Arab Strap, If You’re Feeling Sinister, or Fold Your Hands, Child You Walk Like a Peasant? Sure, Write About Love may not glisten, but it certainly still has its moments.
Belle & Sebastian, “Come On Sister” clip:
15. I See the Sign – Sam Amidon (Bedroom Community)
Sam Amidon may seem like something of an odd choice for the list. After all, the man doesn’t even write his own songs… well not exactly. Instead, he adopts and adapts old folk and gospel songs (and even the occasional cover) and makes them his own. Amidon’s fast finger-plucking skills and rich, well-weathered voice combine delightfully in I See the Sign. Though the lyrics may not be his own, each song readily evokes a story. Everything from stubborn damsels to matricide, and a wayward son populate the album.
Sam Amidon, “You Better Mind” clip:
Honorable Mentions go to:
Allo Darlin’ – s/t (Fortuna POP)
The sunny, upbeat stylings of this Australian pop group are likely to get stuck in your head for hours on end.
Allo Darlin’, “Dreaming” clip:
Broken Bells – s/t (Columbia)
‘Super’ precedes ‘group’ for a reason. Take exhibit A, Broken Bells – the work of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse).
Broken Bells, “Vaporize” clip:
Efterklang – Magic Chairs (4 AD)
Efterklang is a great live act, and I like the first few songs of Magic Chairs, but for whatever reason, I never seem to get beyond the first 3 or 4 tracks before giving up.
Efterklang, “Alike” clip:
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (Barsuk)
Mesmerizing and quixotic songs couple well with Sarah Barthel’s equally intoxicating vocals.
Phantogram, “When I’m Small” clip:
Perfume Genius – Learning (Matador)
In all honesty, I have yet to obtain Learning in its entirety, but I’m digging what I have heard of Mike Hadreas’ docile, heartfelt songs.
Perfume Genius, “Learning” clip:
Glaringly and intentionally absent:
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Merge)
When Funeral came out in 2004, I remember thinking that it was a big moment in indie music history, but for whatever reason, I have still never been able to get into this band. I’m sorry.
Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
I loved Devotion as much as the next guy, but despite my fierce desire to get behind this album, I simply can’t handle how raspy Victoria Legrand’s voice has become.
Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (Glass Note)
In my book, Fanfarlo, Noah and the Whale, and Laura Marling all deserve more praise than their British folk contemporaries, Mumford & Sons. For what it is, the presentation is just too gruff for me, and the intensity seems artificially heightened.