40. Antony and the Johnsons
There’s an awful lot of music out there that exists solely to trick you into thinking you’re feeling something while actually keeping you from feeling anything at all. But from the cover image and text describing the sad death of a beautiful polar bear to Antony Hegarty’s infinitely sliding melismatics, Antony and the Johnsons’ Swanlights (like the band’s whole career) took an ice axe to anyone’s attempts to deny human feeling. This album was deliberate, and for its first half was a trek as mournful as that over the surface of a glacier, climaxing with the smokey, swirling abstraction of the title track. But from there, beginning tentatively with “The Spirit Was Gone,” things turned just as intensely hopeful as they had been grim. Antony has a lot of artistic soulmates, from Lou Reed to Boy George, but none seems likely to beat this record’s amazing duet with Björk, a testament, along with the unhesitating “Thank You For Your Love,” that even those who find themselves outside the everyday can discover support, acceptance, and even transcendence.
• Antony and the Johnsons: http://www.antonyandthejohnsons.com
• Secretly Canadian: http://www.secretlycanadian.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/antony-and-johnsons-swanlights
39. Little Women
Little Women’s Throat was one of 2010’s most simultaneously abrasive and beautiful albums. As implied by the title, its sound was organic and primal, one of violence and forced displacement coupled with carefully executed moments of lucid tranquility. Alternating between aggressive free-jazz blasts, incisive math rocking, and the reserved but ominous tones of dual saxophones, the album was consistently (and satisfyingly) disorienting. It felt like being shot in the face, being squeezed through a meat grinder, being lit on fire, with only occasional moments of recalibration to string us along. Indeed, Little Women managed to forge jarring sonic pathways between the polar opposites of human emotion, making it hard to believe that the music was performed by just a quartet consisting of two saxophonists, a guitarist, and a drummer. It was even harder to believe that it was recorded in a single day.
• Little Women: http://www.myspace.com/littlewomensounds
• AUM Fidelity: http://www.aumfidelity.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/little-women-throat
38. How to Dress Well
Love Remains, the full-length debut from Tom Krell’s bedroom project How to Dress Well, represented a natural but significant evolution for the “glo-fi” pop scene already well-represented by artists like Ariel Pink, Neon Indian, and Washed Out. Without intending any slight, Love Remains was perhaps more “of a piece” than any others on this list. It was a nocturnal, cocoon-like record, an ebb-and-flow of reverb distortion, mumbled falsetto, and more reverb — sleepy and hypnotic, frequently heart-rending, and always deeply nostalgic. When Krell tucked in snatches from well-known (and lesser-known) R&B, it gave the songs an even more overt feeling of familiarity. Recycling hooks might seem a cop-out to some, but it reinforced How to Dress Well’s — and the genre’s as a whole — governing concept: nostalgia as a tangible element in original music. As a confirmed trader in nostalgia, HTDW represented a convergence between Girl Talk’s mashup and Ariel Pink’s 70s soft-rock resurrection. Love Remains wasn’t the year’s most complex or even original record, but from the first minutes, it plainly stated its aims and eloquently met them.
• How to Dress Well: http://howtodresswell.blogspot.com
• Lefse.: http://lefserecords.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/how-dress-well-love-remains
37. LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening
Just look at that cover art. James Murphy is all decked-out, a far cry from “that fat guy in the t-shirt doing all the singing.” It makes sense. If you’re throwing together some spirited pastiche, simply slapping on a t-shirt will do. The immaculate constructions of This is Happening, however, deserved a little bit more. Murphy’s own musical geekiness has long been a talking point, but This is Happening found the practicality of that geekiness reaching a new peak. Where the group’s debut was thin and Sound of Silver overly flashy, This is Happening was a carefully considered creation that used Murphy’s musical memories as its core. Here, his confidence in utilizing his influences resulted in a classy sense of economy and consistently cutting, personal lyrics, as well as some pretty daring risks. Extract an iconic chorus, modify it into the year’s dumbest (“DRUNK GIRLS! DRUNK GIRLS!”), and throw it to the wolves, stopping only to see if they pick up on some of the year’s smartest lines. Moments like that ended up being This is Happening’s surprise M.O.: still a lot of fun, just wise when you least expect it.
• LCD Soundsystem:http://lcdsoundsystem.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/lcd-soundsystem-happening
Dan Snaith, multi-instrumentalist/DJ/electronic music composer and originator of the Caribou moniker, spoke to Tiny Mix Tapes last spring about Swim being akin to a sonic whirlpool, with each musical element washing around together like an endless round of waves cresting upon each other. He spoke of his fifth proper full-length’s tidal premise as incarnating fluidity: a “shifting” of sounds, melodies, rhythm, and key changes. And indeed, “shifting” has been the only constant for fans of Snaith’s 10-year canon, from gleaming, glitchy atmospheric nocturnes as Manitoba to shoegaze, Krautrock, and finally pastoral psych-pop. Even his live setup grew from a solo-set laptop into a full band that would revolve with different collaborators. Swim could be the basin where all the stylistic/presentational tributaries mixed together. On top of being something of a montage that blended pure electronica, effervescent pop flares, and dizzying club explosiveness, it was also, lyrically speaking, his most personally revealing work. But Swim was no mere autobiographical retread. Very much its own entity (distinctly electronic and danceable at its core while maintaining its more earthy layers), Swim was not only Snaith’s strongest album in terms of a front-to-back listen, but also his most realized and exciting one.
35. Christine Sehnaoui / Sven-Åke Johansson
In a recent interview with United Arab Emirates publication The National, Christine Sehnaoui jabbed a double-edged sword into the conversational airspace: “I don’t really have a historic appreciation of the saxophone,” the Lebanese-born, Paris-based saxophonist proclaimed. While there’s little plausibility in classifying her music as jazz, her instrument of choice (despite how hyper-anti-jazz her saxophonic idiom is) makes her vulnerable to the jazz tradition: a canon whose police pride themselves, sometimes while blindfolded, on tracing the ancestry back with ridiculously reductionist and conservative consequences. An autodidact, Sehnaoui has evaded the academicization that has tamed many American jazz musicians; rather than blabber on in a classroom about exploring the border between improvisation and composition, with extended breath-techniques and unorthodox interfacings with her instrument, she’s creating an inimitable soundworld more akin to noise, musique concrète, and electronic music than jazz. Whether she can reduce her idiom to Bill Dixon, or account for its overlap with contemporaries like Nate Wooley or nmperign, is extraneous. On La Vase/Slikke, with Swedish percussionist Sven-Åke Johansson scraping and thrashing on a kit made of cardboard boxes, she encountered her ideal interlocutor. Across seven pieces, the duo unleashed inconceivably blasphemous acts against their instruments. Even more surprising than how severely they ripped apart preconceptions and imploded vocabularies with violent disregard for traditional music histories was how absolutely beautiful it all sounded.
34. The National
Some records become instant and immutable snapshots of their time and place: Kid A, Fear of a Black Planet, Blonde on Blonde. Add High Violet to that list. At once grandiose and crushingly claustrophobic, The National’s magnum opus was the decade’s end encapsulated. Exactly what it all means still eludes me — like many great albums, its mystery is part of its charm — but the mood, the feeling, was unmistakable. Besides using his deep, delicate voice as an instrument for the first time, frontman Matt Berninger also came into his own as a lyricist — if there was a better relationship-as-zombie-attack metaphor this year than the one in “Conversation 16,” I must have missed it. High Violet was enigmatic, yes, but it was hard not to read the zeitgeist into the album’s dark, foggy tales of urban malaise. It chronicled the increasingly pervasive uncertainty of American life with detached gloom (“Afraid of Everyone”), but, lucky for us, it also encouraged perseverance (“Runaway”). It was apolitical, but we were not; as lingering Bush-era fear and indignation gave way to Obama-era optimism and then — perhaps inevitably — deflating disappointment, High Violet was there to provide a beautiful, anxious soundtrack.
• The National: http://www.americanmary.com
• 4AD: http://www.4ad.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/national-high-violet
33. Kemialliset Ystävät
Nearly anywhere outside of a laboratory, we associate “experiment” with “fun.” From sexual experimentation to “oh, I was just experimenting in the kitchen,” if you’re experimenting without a labcoat (or with a raincoat), you’re probably more concerned with enjoying the ride than with your final destination. But I’d wager that for many listeners, “experimental” music feels like an exception, more concerned with the point being made than the pleasure produced. Whether or not that’s true in general, it sure wasn’t on Finnish group Kemialliset Ystävät’s lilting Ullakkopalo. Poppy hooks emerged from non-pop landscapes, and booty-wiggling rhythms formed in the absence of big beats (see “Niity Veden Alla” or the opener “Kajastusmuseo”). Altered slide whistles, chimes, kazoos, “toy” keyboards, and muppet-esque vocals populated many of the tracks — the familiar sounds of childhood defamiliarized. You wanted to hum along, even though you couldn’t predict what the next note might be. While its construction must have involved at least as much concentration as giddiness, Ullakkopalo’s complexity distracted our big adult brains enough for us to experience that sense of discovery we felt constantly in our younger, dumber years. And what’s more fun than that?
• Kemialliset Ystävät: http://www.kemiallisetystavat.com
• Fonal: http://www.fonal.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/kemialliset-ystaumlvaumlt-ullakkopalo
Eschewing the more experimental compositional and recording practices of their second and third albums, Liars reinvented themselves as a primal, kick-ass rock band on their eponymous 2007 album. With Sisterworld, the band delivered another heavy blast of rock music, but also called upon many disparate stylistic elements they’ve utilized in their decade of existence to create as confident and cohesive an album as they’ve recorded. Powered by noisy guitar riffs and driving, repetitive drums (a Liars specialty), the album retained much of the eeriness and sonic complexity of their “difficult” period, and even hearkened back to their early New York dance-punk days, at times all within the same song. Described by the band as a sort of meditation on Los Angeles, the music and the intermittently intelligible lyrics reflected the anxiety, dread, insecurity, nervous excitement, and overall weirdness of living in that uniquely American metropolis in the 21st century. Oddly familiar but entirely fresh, Sisterworld wasn’t representative of the sound of any scene or genre, but a singular, intelligent work by one of the most consistently interesting bands operating today.
• Liars: http://thesisterworld.com
• Mute: http://www.mute.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/liars-sisterworld
31. Beach House
[Sub Pop; 2010]
Reinvention can be a maddeningly overvalued directive. I don’t know if I’d have the chutzpa to say that to Thom Yorke — the guy’s career path could make for a fairly convincing rebuttal — but sometimes it’s hard to justify fixing something that ain’t broke. With two well-received albums under their belts, Beach House can’t be blamed for having knocked out their pivotal third album with such trusting pragmatism. That is, Teen Dream wasn’t entirely unpredictable, but it worked. The Baltimore duo opted to muscle-up their signature dream-pop with some snazzy production and a full-bodied drum section, and the result seemed like a markedly natural — albeit concurrently more elegant and more accessible — extension from Beach House and Devotion. But the aforementioned embellishments should not be seen as enticing little red herrings intended to hoodwink the listener into thinking an otherwise unadventurous band had ‘evolved.’. Go back and listen to 2006’s “Apple Orchard” and then listen to Teen Dream’s “Walk in the Park” or “10 Mile Stereo.” The songs exist upon the same trajectory, but the emotional and technical profundity of the latter signified a maturation that the listener can only applaud. When you’re making records as good as Teen Dream every few years, changing things up is hardly necessary.
• Beach House: http://www.myspace.com/beachhousemusic
• Sub Pop: http://www.subpop.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/beach-house-teen-dream