20. Sleigh Bells
[Mom + Pop]
Treats, the debut album by Brooklyn’s Sleigh Bells, took the catchiest components from disparate genres — cranked-up, metal-like dual guitar lines and hip-hop’s heavy beats — and funneled them into one of 2010’s most irresistible albums. With cheerleading imagery aplenty and lofty pop vocals that somehow, someway worked with the instrumentation, Treats played like the sound of a pep squad willing and able to beat the living daylights out of you. But there was also some mystery ingredient there, an ineffable combination of badassery and glee that lent every song the cohesion necessary to pull off its outrageous sound. Despite its potential to feel like an audio assault, Treats was varied enough that a straight-through listen was not only rewarding, but charming. And hey, it must be worthwhile if Wayne Coyne described it like this: “It’s hard to say why I like this — it’s like saying, ‘Why do I like pizza? I just like the way it tastes.’ Their sound is so simple. Why didn’t a million people think of this before?” Yes, it’s surprising no one has attempted this before, but we can’t imagine anyone doing it any better than Sleigh Bells.
• Sleigh Bells: http://www.infinitybells.com
• Mom + Pop: http://www.momandpopmusic.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/sleigh-bells-treats
19. Four Tet
There Is Love In You
Kieran Hebden, the multi-talented musician behind Four Tet, has long played with various formulas that splice the acoustic and the electronic. His sound experiments as Four Tet have most often imbued playful electronics with a rustic sensibility, leaning toward pastoral headphone soundscapes buoyed by his own nimble jazz drumming and love for breakbeats. On There Is Love In You, Hebden took this balancing act to the dancefloor. The result was a sleek yet stunningly human record populated with intelligent, propulsive jams. It took over four minutes for a human voice to grace house-flavored lead single “Love Cry,” but once it did, it caressed and cajoled you with pleas for love. “Sing” was another highly sophisticated dance song, layered densely with the shifty clicks and cuts of microhouse, a song that would sound right at home on Kompakt or Perlon. Despite its dance leanings, There Is Love In You fit comfortably into Four Tet’smodus operandi, and longtime listeners found comfort in the delicacy of songs like “This Unfolds” and “She Just Likes To Fight.” As urban as it was pastoral and as fitting for a Berlin dance club as it was for a university library, There Is Love In You was a versatile, balanced record that gave love in spades.
• Four Tet: http://www.fourtet.net
• Domino: http://www.dominorecordco.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/four-tet-there-love-you
18. Sean McCann
Sean McCann was busy this year. Possessed of a Midas touch uncommon among most artists who manage to pump out a dozen or so releases in a year, McCann’s young body of work is already an expansive, diverse cornucopia of sonic explorations united under the banner of his steady artistic rigor. Amid the pack of worthy releases he produced in 2010, Open Resolve emerged from our year-end wagon-circling as the favorite. Originally released in a criminally limited run of 111 cassettes, the collection was an ambitious, freewheeling psychedelic transmission of deep, pure color. From the brittle, red-clay incantations of the viola chorus on “Scapula” to the cosmic malfunctions of “Cottage Coffee Patch” and “Broken replicator,” from the snowed-in minimalism of “Dissolving Memory” to the orchestral, free-improv splendor of “Pass Away,” McCann covered several marathons’ worth of ground without letting up. Befitting his rare combination of prolificacy and consistency, there was a wealth of hyperbolic ballyhoo showered on McCann from many different corners of the internet, TMT among them. Allow me to join the fray: Open Resolve is a head-turning accomplishment and a high-water mark in the form. This is planet-devouring music. Turn it up and let it cut you wide open.
• Sean McCann: http://www.myspace.com/thosesaints
• Stunned: http://stunnedrecords.blogspot.com
• TMT Review: http://www.tinymixtapes.com/column/tmt-cerberus-12
17. Dirty Projectors + Björk
Mount Wittenberg Orca
It was already present in abundance last year on Bitte Orca, underneath that record’s explosions of virtuosity and its exploitation of obscure medieval compositional devices: the hunger for empathy, the will toward communion. But Bitte Orca, born out of a period of sustained effort, hid its soft heart inside its odd proportions and its prickly intellectualism. This year’s Mount Wittenberg Orca, born instead out of an impossibly brief gestation period, wore its heart on its sleeve. Where Bitte Orca was obscure, Mount Wittenberg Orca was emotionally direct. Where Bitte Orca was explosive, Mount Wittenberg Orca exercised modesty. This project was interesting as a meeting of Longstreth and Björk, singers who both have idiosyncratic ways of approaching melodies, and it was fascinating as a showcase for the Projectors’ trio of gifted background singers. But above all, it was indispensable for the way Longstreth weaved his project’s diverse array of voices and perspectives together. In the EP’s finale “All We Are,” the narrative’s conclusion expressed itself symbolically in Longstreth’s composition: The separate threads of the song come together in a masterpiece of both storytelling and counterpoint, with voices and themes from throughout the work joining together all at once to reveal a depth of communal possibility that registered in the attentive listener as an epiphany.
16. James Blake
CMYK [EP] / Klavierwerke [EP]
22-year-old Londoner James Blake brought an unmistakable lyricism and austerity to dubstep this year. His first masterpiece of 2010, the CMYK EP, transfigured memories of the late 90s into heartbreaking nonsense poetry. Blake subjected samples of Aaliyah, R. Kelly, and Brandy to the same intense micro-editing as others have to the “Amen” break, creating a shifting, shattering cadence of phonemes. If the CMYK EP rendered the sampled voice as percussion, then Blake’s Klavierwerke EP imagined percussion as an expressive voice. Hissy piano shards recorded on a laptop microphone, lonely handclaps, and startled cries were cut up into dreamy, plosive nocturnes. The compositional logic of much electronic music, particularly in the post-laptop era of FruityLoops and Ableton, follows a quantitative strategy of addition and subtraction — songs are formed from the progressive layering of samples and textures. Blake’s songs on these EPs, however, were layered less vertically than horizontally, each sample floating in a pristine spotlight before the light moved on to the next sound. Judging from recent stunners such as his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” Blake himself is moving on to a lusher, more (New) Romantic sound, but his EPs this year marked an exciting moment of rapid evolution that we’ll return to in the years to come.
15. Future Islands
In Evening Air
“Listening to Future Islands, eh? Y’all are obsessed. It’s cool. When that first Linkin Park record came out, I listened to it like WHOA.” This is what my co-worker Steve said to me in passing as I was getting out of my car (let’s ignore the Linkin Park thing). And it was true: I was obsessed — but who could blame me? In Evening Air, the second full-length from Baltimore-via-Greenville “post-wave” band Future Islands, managed to be resounding and grandiose, despite only having three members. Needless to say, each member was vital to the album’s success: Sam Herring delivered the dramatic, poetic vocals; William Cashion provided the dynamic, rhythmic, aggressive bass lines; and J. Gerrit Welmers was the man in charge of synths, beats, and blips, usually with one hand behind his back in a live setting. But whether on record or on stage, it’s not often that a band is able to make you feel invincible or want to dance or want to cry or want to rip your heart out of your chest, but In Evening Air did just that. While my co-worker might think I’m weird for listening to a record as much as I have listened to In Evening Air, I haven’t tired of it and I don’t think I will.
• Future Islands: http://future-islands.com
• Thrill Jockey: http://www.thrilljockey.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/future-islands-evening-air
As warm sonically as its album cover was icy, Public Strain, the sophomore release from Alberta, Canada’s (hilariously all-male) quartet Women, revisited the inexplicably welcoming abrasive sonic territory introduced by the band’s self-titled debut in 2008. But where Women was angular and frenetic and harried, Public Strain seemed to take a less aggressive approach, with tracks like “Penal Colony” even lilting toward docility. But as is always the case with Women, what’s to be found on the surface wasn’t the whole story. Public Strain somehow possessed both atonal dissonances and chord progressions you could fall into like an overstuffed armchair (the comforting cadences in “China Steps,” for example). Shrouded in snowstorm-like curtains of reverb and electronic hiss, it was through all this that Women’s true selves emerged, armed with their own brand of almost unmatched kineticism. This was how they hooked us — Women promised fuzz and detuned guitars, but what they delivered was gloriously interlocking contrapuntal guitar riffs, lyrical shrewdness, and a whole, nuanced auditory world we had at our fingertips, if only we took the time to look. Public Strain, like their self-titled debut, was a tactile album, one to be felt like someone unseeing recognizes a face, complete with all the relief found in that face’s familiarity.
• Women: http://www.myspace.com/womenmusic
• Jagjaguwar: http://www.jagjaguwar.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/women-public-strain
13. Sun City Girls
The final album by Sun City Girls was an appropriately ambivalent postscript to a 27-year career defined by indeterminate musical hybrids and profligate surrealism. It was also a haunting masterpiece, a refined, studio-hermetic album that explored a largely underdeveloped side of the band. Although the group’s trademarks were present — brilliant ethnic forgeries combining cod-Arabic and Indonesian musical modes — their seething garage-psych tendencies were smoothed out, domesticated. Somewhere between the channel-surfing Sublime Frequencies of “Ben’s Radio” and the elegiac jazz improvisation of “Funeral Mariachi,” SCG mapped out undiscovered territory, far from the familiar trade routes. The ghosts of Spaghetti Western and Mondo film soundtracks caravaned through a landscape of exotica, Egyptian surf guitar, Bollywood, and fingerpicked folk. It was the kind of casually eclectic, vernacular travelogue favored by Van Dyke Parks, but with a dark undercurrent of quiet menace lent by a long career of political and aesthetic provocation. Listening to Funeral Mariachi created a profound dislocation, a sense of being simultaneously lost and home. This was the kind of psychedelic mystification that can lead to flashes of satori: ”When I was dead I looked exactly like you/ Now I’m alive and nothing is true/ This is my name, I have opened my eyes/ To watch you melt in the scissoring sky.”
• Sun City Girls: http://www.suncitygirls.com
• Abduction: http://www.suncitygirls.com/abduction
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/sun-city-girls-funeral-mariachi
12. Infinite Body
Carve Out the Face of My God
[Post Present Medium]
It may seem either annoyingly obtuse or arrestingly counterintuitive to hypothesize that an artist’s ventures through abstraction could at some point deliver them to focus and structure. While most tend to dwell in those shattered worlds once they find them, discovering truth in their complexities and unpredictable nature, it has proven to be the path of Kyle Parker (Infinite Body). Shedding the layers of harsh noise from his previous project (Gator Surprise), Carve Out the Face of My God was an abrupt and often beautiful study in the interplay of abrasion, repetition, melody, and silence. Both minimal and expansive, its tracks breathed hope into their own self-generated desolation. Assembled via computer using loops, recordings, and synth flourishes, the album moved us gently through mood and temporal space gaining in volume, tempo, and structure only to release them into static. At times, Carve Out the Face of My God played like shattered dark-wave, culling its melancholy while jettisoning its dread and pop-angling tendencies. Most significant though was its introspection that cast the mind of a developing artist against a hopeful, lonely world.
11. Titus Andronicus
Sorry, Assange, but WikiLeaks has nothing on this. The Monitor was the most explosive political document of the year, leaked or not. This should have been Shepard Fairey’s hope poster; this should have been the health care debate; this should have been tax reform. But forget red state/blue state, forget even blues and grays; The Monitor was not just a political statement or a concept album, but an epic feat of historical re-engineering. By framing the blood-and-dust brutality of the Civil War through the lens of punk rock assholery (and vice versa), it at once dismantled and restored the politics of dissent. The album danced between sheer nihilism and violent commitment, and so asserted a rock-bottom, shit-hole righteousness as the first and last defense of citizenship (just don’t let Rand Paul hear it). A Union divided, but a band galvanized — this was one long, glorious battle hymn, the sound shifting as often and as swiftly as the enemy, from dream pop to berzerker punk to Irish toast to E Street epic. Indeed, the album was as much a work of musical revision as of historical revision, and it raised its impossible rallying cry on the fine line between traitor’s hymn and national anthem. In the future, as a nation of free citizens, we will either die by suicide or by teaching The Monitor in our history classes. To Titus Andronicus, keep the white flag in your pocket and your guitars plugged in.
• Titus Andronicus: http://www.titusandronicus.net
• XL: http://www.xlrecordings.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/titus-andronicus-the-monitor