30. Sam Prekop
Old Punch Card
It was probably best to forget the unending cool breeze that is The Sea and Cake when approaching Sam Prekop’s latest. This isn’t to say that the man was suddenly austere; on Old Punch Card, he twiddled the knobs on his analog synths like a five-year-old at an old radio, often captivated for mere seconds before moving on. Naysayers will continue to dock the album for its apparent lack of editing and the transience of its best moments — and to be sure, the track divisions border on arbitrary — but somewhere between the sci-fi slapstick of the opener and the droning bliss of lead single “The Silhouettes,” Prekop was making an innovative argument: Have patience and faith in chaos, he said, and beauty will emerge. And, like any good arguer, he bluffed. This album was never chaos, and the way its sock-knocking moments compounded and increased in frequency toed the line between serendipity and design. No surprise that the album’s most captivating moments came when familiar forms hinted at coalescence — was the muddled arpeggio in “Brambles” shifting chords or just, like, melting? Prekop’s lips were sealed, and it turned out his poker face was the best part.
• Sam Prekop: http://www.myspace.com/samprekop
• Thrill Jockey: http://www.thrilljockey.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/sam-prekop-old-punch-card
29. Harvey Milk
A Small Turn Of Human Kindness
On “I Know This Is No Place For You,” Crespin Spiers made a growling confession that epitomized the dread and gloom of A Small Turn Of Human Kindness: “I’m sick of all this, too/ But what am I supposed to do?/ I know this is no place for you, especially now/ I’m just a broken man/ Look at my broken hands/ What kind of father will I make when the baby comes?” With punishing honesty, the fears and insecurities of adulthood, fatherhood, commitment, responsibility, and overall impending doom and irrelevance were revealed atop a death bed of liquid morphine-percussion and the bleakest of sludge-riffs. When Spiers made his gut-wrenching apology after the wall-gazingly epic synthesizer and harmonics peaked on “I Know This Is All My Fault” — before suddenly dropping into a bottomless pit of utterly lonely, out-of-key piano notes — you’d have to be already dead or a sociopath not to be stirred to the core. As fellow TMTer Embling claimed, Harvey Milk effectively captured an “inherent, indisguisable humanity.” The consequence of this articulation of the depths of the human condition was a feeling of profound empathy that reconfirmed not just an oft-forgotten connection, but an obligation.
• Harvey Milk: http://www.harveymilktheband.com
• Hydra Head: http://www.hydrahead.com
• TMT: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/harvey-milk-small-turn-human-kindness
28. Sufjan Stevens
The Age of Adz
Fuck the 50 States. We wanted songs with electro-fueled, mega-bass banjo-picking. We wanted songs that veered away from the usual lyrical territory about past times and old places for lyrics about deeply personal issues. Luckily, this is exactly what we got with The Age of Adz, an album that proved Stevens was no longer fucking around. While we were initially shocked by his newfound aesthetic, not quite sure to believe if The Age of Adz even was a Sufjan Stevens album, we soon picked up on the fragility, the careful crafting of mood and story, and the beautiful musical diversity for which he’s known and realized that this was indeed unmistakably Sufjan. It was erratic, experimental, and challenging, but it was also beautiful — a dichotomy best epitomized by the closing lyric: “Boy, we made such a mess together.” Yes, yes, you did, and it was an exciting mess to be a part of. From the quiet confessions of “Now That I’m Older” to the gorgeously epic closer “Impossible Soul,” The Age of Adz represented everything we love about Stevens, wrapped up in the bells, whistles, and Auto-Tune of the modern age.
• Sufjan Stevens: http://sufjanstevens.bandcamp.com
• Asthmatic Kitty: http://asthmatickitty.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/sufjan-stevens-age-adz
27. Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet
Preeminent tape musicians Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet have always been masters of manipulation, distorting their samples in order to reconfigure reality. On 2008’s The Breadwinner, the duo achieved this with great success using a soft touch: By only modestly fracturing the recordings of Lambkin’s apartment, the duo transported their listeners to a domain in which comfort and unease went hand-in-hand, permitting instances of familiarity only to later subvert this déjà entendu. By comparison, Air Supply wore their stitching far more prominently, instead using samples from Lescalleet’s Maine residence to generate an altogether unnerving departure from everyday ambiance. Alongside more organic concrète sat MacBook clicks and deranged vocal snippets, as though Lambkin and Lescalleet were willfully mocking the facade of field recordings. And in doing so, the duo went so far as to conjure up an undercurrent of menace. While The Breadwinner may have been disquieting, Air Supply was gravely disconcerting, for something malevolent lurked between those tones.
26. Marnie Stern
[Kill Rock Stars]
Marnie Stern is not a meme. That much is obvious, but it’s also an increasingly rare distinction when it suddenly seems like everyone with access to an effects pedal has started up some chillwave or witch house band that sounds like every other chillwave or witch house band. Stern has gotten a lot of attention for being one hell of a (girl) guitar player, her finger-tapping technique showcasing both originality and skill. But although that disciplined squall was well-suited to her purposefully self-titled third album, it didn’t define it. Marnie Stern’s anthems (“For Ash” and “Cinco de Mayo,” in particular) fused musical virtuosity and confessional lyrics in the service of emotional honesty. This was a record about burying your literal and figurative dead and then struggling to live on without them. Baring your soul may not get you a sarcastic writeup on Hipster Runoff, but it surely means your music will endure long after that blog and the bands it ‘champions’ are ancient history.
• Marnie Stern: http://www.myspace.com/marniestern1
• Kill Rock Stars: http://www.killrockstars.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/marnie-stern-marnie-stern
25. Lower Dens
There were a lot of attention-grabbing, challenging releases this year, and perhaps Lower Dens’ Twin-Hand Movement wasn’t one of them. It demanded one’s attention, but it was rather cozy and placid once you grew accustomed to it. That’s not to say it didn’t possess a lot of depth. Every reverb-stoked, contrapuntally rigged moment on this LP spoke of something bittersweet and always just out of reach. It was a soothing collection, but also one capable of unexpectedly sparking searing pangs of longing. In this way, it served as a nice extension from Hunter’s 2007 solo effort, There’s No Home, which, despite getting her the ‘folk’ tag, showed a consistent affinity for drifting, languorous, and icy late-century rock. There was a straight-up endearing quality to these songs that superseded fickle novelty requirements. From the reluctantly searching guitar introducing “Rosie” to the “twin-hand” guitar volley that so satisfyingly closed “A Dog’s Dick,” every song had something to keep you coming back. It was subtle and graceful, sounding fully-formed and, in terms of reverent but workmanlike guitar pop still being proliferated, ahead of the pack. Hunter’s voice may have been the linchpin — something magic there — but everyone in the band did an unmatchedly tasteful job melding palpable atmosphere with wrought iron hooks. Here’s hoping this is just the start for Lower Dens, because albums this died-in-the-wool solid don’t come around all that often.
• Lower Dens: http://www.myspace.com/lowerdens
• Gnomonsong: http://www.gnomonsong.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/lower-dens-twin-hand-movement
24. Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh)
Although nostalgia can yield a trough of inspiration, mix in too much of the stuff and you risk becoming a relic of a time that wasn’t even yours to begin with. Such is the plight of so many artists today who reach for recording methods and instruments of the not-so-distant past to achieve that nonexistent “genuine” sound. On New Amerykah Part Two, the analog sister to 2008’s ruthlessly digital first installment, Erykah Badu stepped backward for just a moment to grab some Marvin Gaye records and a Theremin, but spent the rest of the record reinventing modern conceptions of the groove. While there’s enough diamond-in-the-back-sunroof-top swagger to bring to mind the greats of gut-wrenching soul, Badu’s intimate lyrics and croon to match rooted the album in a vision so deeply personal that not even a murderers’ row of producers (Madlib, J Dilla, 9th Wonder) could wrest attention from the reigning Queen of (Neo-, if you must) Soul’s poetic reflections. All the emotion on display was set to such a rich, rumbling soundtrack that it was easy to miss during a party, but throw this baby on at home and you’ll understand more about Badu’s inner struggles than even Andre 3000.
23. Keith Fullerton Whitman
Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness
While 2010 saw its younger crop of synthesists (Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds) turning their conceptual knobs toward grander new-age tapestries and generally more pleasing and cohesive sound structures, Keith Fullerton Whitman opted to delve deeper into abstraction with Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness, his first full-length album since 2006’s monumental Lisbon. A combination of live and studio recordings, the record was a half-decade-in-the-making homage to the aleatoric tape experiments of Boulez and Cowell and the automated synthesis of Subotnick and Richard Pinhas. Comprising two side-long electronic poems, the album showcased Whitman’s staggering compendium of knowledge concerning 20th-century composition, polished off with a shiny 21st-century veneer. For years, KFW accrued field recordings and added synth modules to his ever-growing behemoth of a modular unit, and Disingenuity was the monumental culmination of all that work. A true labor of love and a rousing document of Whitman’s proverbial long strange trip, Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness reestablished a yeoman’s approach to music-making and an attention to detail that sometimes seems lost in a growingly lo-fi, half-asleep, and defiantly arrogant musical world.
22. Kurt Weisman
With Kurt Weisman’s Orange, the co-founder of freak-folk outfit Feathers made a bit of a departure from his 2008 solo debut Spiritual Sci-Fi, as unadulterated guitars and vocals gained prominence. While Orange was much more focused on relatively straightforward song structures and instrumentals than its predecessor, that welcome bit of weird was still present. Take Weisman’s delicate falsetto, for example, striking not just for its tremulous beauty, but also for its disarmingly fragile openness evocative of Daniel Johnston (minus the crushing depression). Take also the layering of various unexpected sounds into a lovely instrumental guitar song like “New England Snakes”: high and faraway ghostly whistling noises, chimes, a recorder section. Recorders will always add a degree of unease when they’re not heard in the context of a 3rd grade play, and Weisman blended their inherent spookiness into the song so well that they seemed inextricable. This aptitude for melding was further apparent in the infusion of tonal keyboards into the fluid guitar-picking of “Let My Spirit Rise,” neither atmospheric nor dominant, but simply elemental. This deftness for hybridization characterized Orange. It wasn’t just about taking one fully formed set of sounds and throwing in dashes of another set for flavor; it was about seamless integration, the synthesis of a new, fuller form of composition.
• Kurt Weisman: http://www.myspace.com/kurtweisman
• Autumn: http://www.autumnrecords.net
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/kurt-weisman-orange
21. Yellow Swans
When it was announced that Going Places was to be Yellow Swans’ final studio album, we were upset. Hearing just how powerful and how flawless this record was only intensified the feeling. Although much of the music that Pete Swanson and Gabriel Mindel Saloman released leading up to their Type Records excursion pointed in the direction they were going — especially with Deterioration and their entry in the Mort Aux Vaches series — nothing could have prepared us for the subtle beauty found in the pulsating and dense walls of noise on Going Places. Through industrial textures and atmospheric gauze, the album elicited a psychedelic experience in the listener, akin to a volcanic eruption of distortion that produced melodies hanging in the ether above flowing magma. Or something like that. To say Yellow Swans will be missed is a massive understatement. For now, the best we can do is bask in the afterglow of Going Places.
• Type: http://www.typerecords.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/yellow-swans-going-places