Things were easier in 2009. Even before tallying the votes, we knew that Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion would place first and Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca second. We knew that sunn 0)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions would be our top “metal” pick, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II our top hip-hop pick, and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Zones Without People our top “experimental” pick. We knew Mount Eerie, Atlas Sound, and The Flaming Lips would place high, and we knew that TMT favorites like Graham Lambkin, Zu, and Emeralds would, you know, actually make a year-end list.
This year, however, the narrative got all fucked up. Who would’ve guessed that a cassette release by Bee Mask would place higher than No Age? Who knew artists like Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu would place on the same list as Sean McCann and Kemialliset Ystävät? And while our favorite album of each year has always been relatively predictable — from Deerhunter to Joanna Newsom, Panda Bear to Arcade Fire — we are certainly surprised by this year’s #1 choice. We’re even surprised by our #2. Will these albums be looked upon as “classics” five years on? Do they have the staying power to transcend the critical jaws of time?
Probably not. And who cares? This isn’t a guide (we hate guides); it’s simply a list of our favorite albums, specific to our current group of writers. But to say our tastes are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan doesn’t really do justice to the individual lists that were anything but. In fact, part of the unpredictiblity of this year’s list is due to a wonderful, much-needed lack of consensus. And it’s not just about a Eureka!-oriented writer having vastly different picks from another Eureka!-oriented writer (which happens all the time). Some of the bigger releases of the year — Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens — had an almost equal share of lovers and haters, exemplified most pristinely by Kanye West’s latest, which was described by one TMTer as “brilliant” and another as “the worst piece of shit I’ve ever heard.”
Whether or not these albums survive future critical scrutiny is hardly our concern, because having a lack of consensus comes with a sense of possibility: We love the fact that each individual list this year had a profound impact on the overall order, that these 50 albums were in fact only a small sampling of what was actually worth listening to this year, that so many albums this year had a good chance at claiming the top spot. From Sun Araw to Sun City Girls, Women to Little Women, and Swans to Yellow Swans, our 2010 list is dominated by no one in particular. And we are perfectly happy with that.
50. Sun Araw
[Not Not Fun]
If Heavy Deeds was the sonic equivalent of Sun Araw settling back on a long beach lounger, then On Patrol was most surely his break back into the urban-minded deep-grind. Cameron Stallones has been laying the foundation of a psychedelic utopian vision since his early output under the Sun Araw moniker, but with On Patrol the sometimes harsh vibes of livin’ real have placed themselves into his sonic and visual landscape. Like a late-era Roy Wood without the burnout, Stallones’ mythic world might be on a decline, but in its place resided an aesthetic that comfortably transcended the beachy mists for something much more emotionally polar. The placement of seedy-underbelly tracks like “Beat Cop” and “Deep Cover” created a symbiotic balance to Stallones’ penchant for chiller vibes and heavy listening on cuts such as “Conga Mind” and “Ma Holo.” Keeping you in that purgatory-like trance between the conscious and unconscious fields of texture, On Patrol is Sun Araw’s most pivotal statement to date. It’s also the only statement that he could have made at this point: It let us know that, in the end, life is super chill, really it is, but we gotta do what we gotta do, even if that means makin’ killer psych tunes. Like the man said in a recent interview, “For the rest of the time, you gotta get On Patrol, you gotta Mind Psalm and get on it.”
• Sun Araw: http://sunaraw.com
• Not Not Fun: http://notnotfun.com
• TMT Review: http://www.tinymixtapes.com/music-review/sun-araw-patrol
49. Xiu Xiu
Dear God, I Hate Myself
[Kill Rock Stars]
“That’s what pop music is all about — for a guy to look ridiculous and effortlessly cool at the same time.” So goes a quote from everyone’s favorite punching bag Noel Gallagher, as he discusses the eternal brilliance of The Smiths in a YouTube interview. As hilarious as the hyperbole from the ex-Oasis emperor is, it also says a lot about the music of Jamie Stewart (another unapologetically fervent admirer of Morrissey and Marr). One of the most brazenly-titled albums in recent memory, Xiu Xiu’s Dear God, I Hate Myself featured a song called “Chocolate Makes You Happy,” a Nintendo DS spurting Mario syncopation over upbeat ditties about Death and beatings, and the most overly dramatic pop song to reference a cat — all within the album’s first half. “If you expect me to be outrageous,” Stewart warned on “Gray Death,” “I will be extra-outrageous.” Minus longtime collaborator Caralee McElroy, this may not have been the same shrill aberrancy that once polarized audiences, but the Xiu Xiu sound was still as remarkable as it was unmistakable, capturing the same aesthetic that old-bloke Gallagher comically pinpointed. Is it ridiculous to put Stewart in line with goth-pop heroes like Curtis, McCulloch, and Morrissey? Maybe it’s too early to tell. But I’ll be damned if that assertion doesn’t get less ridiculous with every Xiu Xiu album.
• Xiu Xiu: http://xiuxiu.org
• Kill Rock Stars: http://killrockstars.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/xiu-xiu-dear-god-i-hate-myself
48. No Age
Everything In Between
When No Age’s Randy Randall described their new album as “maturing, not getting boring, just getting… richer,” we weren’t fully prepared for just how true that statement was. Everything In Between, No Age’s second studio album, took the best parts of their sound and amplified them. Somewhere between utilizing sound manipulation that would make Kevin Shields proud (“Glitter,” “Fever Dreaming”) and writing some of the most self-aware lyrics of their career (“And when I reach into myself/ My past comes true” on “Life Prowler” and “Everyone around me knows/ I’m in trouble” on “Common Heat,” for starters), No Age had clearly grown up. Still, the album’s razor-sharp riffs and bursts of noise were constant reminders that Randall and drummer Dean Spunt were still the same punks who got their start playing shows at The Smell for the same 20 kids every weekend. They may have honed their sound, but they did so without abandoning their roots and alienating their audience, a feat that speaks to both the fluidity of their music and the passion of their fans.
• No Age: http://www.myspace.com/nonoage
• Sub Pop: http://www.subpop.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/no-age-everything-between
When Nick Cave announced his second album as Grinderman (aptly titled Grinderman 2), we welcomed the news with jokes about erectile dysfunction and old farts rocking out. Nick Cave is 53 years old, and the few Bad Seeds that join him for the Grinderman project aren’t too young either. Still, their second album as Grinderman left no questions about their ability to perform like virile, 25-year-old greasers ready to knock into old ladies, muss their white hair, and then hit on their daughters. The cover of the album alone, brazenly featuring a real live wolf, was a testament to its raw intensity; there was nothing fake about the record, nothing artificial. Nick Cave wanted a real wolf, Nick Cave fucking delivered a real wolf, and it darted throughout the music video for “Heathen Child” as the band shot lasers from their eyes. To those indifferent to Nick Cave, this may seem like another album from a guy who, yes, is now past his prime sexually but still howls like a lupine prowler looking for tail. But anyone who actually listened to Grinderman 2 would have a hard time denying the material’s renewed energy and freshness.
• Grinderman: http://www.grinderman.com
• ANTI-: http://www.anti.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/grinderman-grinderman-2
46. Broken Water
In a music world devouring 80s culture like Cheez-Its, the 90s renaissance that’s slowly emerging echoes the transition 20 years ago, slaying bands obsessed with image rather than substance. Buried beneath the pile of reunited alterna-acts lies Broken Water, a band that shares little more than a stripped-down style and a lackadaisical attitude toward attire with their elders. Whet rekindled our love with the 90s without rehashing it. It’s impossible to ignore the hints of no wave, shoegaze, and grunge that dot Whet, but admit it: The world has been in desperate need of rock ’n’ roll. Everyone is dressing up or dressing down their music in an attempt to fit a mold, to find their niche; Whet challenged us to stand on our own, like what we like, and to hell with the naysayers. Bring on the Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and MBV comparisons, because Broken Water will not only rise to meet them, but will exceed them with a charm and style all their own. They are not slaves to the past, but preservers of the big riff.
45. Janelle Monáe
The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)
So much of contemporary music is pastiche that sometimes it just boils down to how well you blend the ingredients together. Arriving out of nowhere like a lost starchild from some distant P-Funk galaxy, Janelle Monáe landed with not merely a promising debut, but a fully realized double album, one that incorporated such disparate influences as Prince, Bowie, OutKast, Debussy, Pentangle, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Arthur Brown, James Brown, Tommy James, and everything else under the Sun Ra. Monáe’s attempt to fuse these elements together could have easily been written off as indulgent, derivative, or overblown; after all, Metropolis-based science fiction concept albums are usually the work of fading progressive rock bands desperate for attention. But the magnetic force of young talent prevails, and The ArchAndroid was nothing if not a tour de force of Monáe’s considerable flair and versatility, a remarkably coherent “wondaland” that spanned a wide range of musical styles and eras.
44. The Magnetic Fields
After 2008’s (intentionally) overcooked, fuzz-driven Distortion, The Magnetic Fields took the next logical step in 2010 and delivered Realism: a “variety folk” record that eschewed almost every trace of electronic instrumentation in favor of acoustic exoticism. We had seen the band go down this peculiar path before, but never had the passage been so strictly enforced and orchestrated. Stripped-down but not minimal, Stephin Merritt and his superb cast of regulars and irregulars kept the album twisting like a freshly-caught fish, always a few flip-flops ahead of the listener. Tracks like “Painted Flower” and “The Dolls’ Tea Party” captivated with intelligence and beauty, and on “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” and “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” Merritt displayed his widely-accepted genius, shuffling between romance and sarcasm like no other. While new folkists have been praised for far inferior performances, Realism was an adventitious performance that sounds only like The Magnetic Fields, which is to say that it pissed from on a rather high mountaintop over imitators and upstarts alike. Daring and compassionate, Realism surprised everybody at TMT who thought they may have finally had this group pegged.
• The Magnetic Fields: http://www.houseoftomorrow.com
• Nonesuch: http://www.nonesuch.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/magnetic-fields-realism
43. Bee Mask
Canzoni dal Laboratorio del Silenzio Cosmico
It takes a piece of music like Canzoni dal Laboratorio del Silenzio Cosmico to remind us how tied music is to culture and celebrity. Musicians are usually required to pass a threshold of visibility before we deem it “okay” to start liking them, where their entrance into cultural consciousness serves as a way to validate and perpetuate their careers. However, the expansion of DIY, short-run labels has presented the idea of The Stranger, standing in direct contrast to America’s celebrity-centric music culture. Bee Mask is one such Stranger, someone presumably like you or me — an everyman, the opposite of the Kanye West illusion. There is no conglomerate with monetary incentive telling you to like his music, only a specific context from which his music springs, leaving us with several choices: we can use the same mental devices to ‘celebritize’ our burgeoning DIY culture by making arbitrary ‘stars’ out of a select few musicians; we can assess the music at face value — in Bee Mask’s case, a dazzling display of synthesizers and haunting sound collage — or we can accept the sprawling, untenable nature of the musical underground, and realize that our critical landscape could use more of these Strangers.
• Gift Tapes: http://www.gifttapes.com
42. Arcade Fire
With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire painted a dystopian portrait of suburban America, a maze of shifting streets stalked by faceless modern kids, a prison where the inhabitants live in perpetual fear of the coming Suburban War. But that undercurrent of paranoia was itself only a way of coping with an even more terrible reality: the somnolent march of hours and days, a slow death measured in marks in a punch card, the certainty that no moment of cataclysm will ever arrive to put an end to this ceaseless desire for anything to happen. (It’s telling that the word “wait” appears in at least five songs, and that anticipation is the default mode of being for many of the songs’ protagonists.) If this was all Arcade Fire had to say, we could dismiss The Suburbs as the work of cultural elitists picking low-hanging fruit from the sagging branches of the petite bourgeoisie, but the band didn’t shy away from the magnetism of those prefab houses boxed in by neatly manicured lawns or the pellucid moments of connection they make possible. And it was those memories that kept calling back to us, no matter what comfort we had found in the glow of city lights.
• Arcade Fire: http://www.arcadefire.com
• Merge: http://www.mergerecords.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/arcade-fire-suburbs
A Sufi and a Killer
The Gaslamp Killer pulled out all the stops for A Sufi and a Killer, the genre-bending, transcendent lo-fi soul debut album from Sumach Ecks, also known as Gonjasufi. He sampled traditional First Nations chanting for the untitled opening beat, touched on old-school Bollywood for “Klowds,” evoked late-60s psych-pop ragtime on “She Gone” and mid-70s proto-punk on “SuzieQ.” Rounding out the production duties was a series of four funky, electronic-based beats from Mainframe and one compressed, Asian-influenced instrumental from Flying Lotus, creating a rich aural tapestry as ornate as a Persian rug. But it was the scratchy, voice-cracking tone and expansive lyricism of GonjaSufi that carried the listener through the album’s cacophony of styles. Although the beats told a vibrant story on their own, Sumach’s presence on this record was as massive and unsettling as you’d expect the gene-spliced clone of George Clinton and Captain Beefheart to be. He didn’t have to try to blow minds; he just did. As the man said, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.”