Jbird: Best of 2010

2010 was a strange year for me and music.  It seemed like every other week (especially in the first half of the year), yet another of my old favorite bands was releasing a brand-new album: The Hold Steady, Wintersleep, The New Pornographers, Shout Out Louds, Les Savy Fav, Wolf Parade, Apples in Stereo, and on and on… The number one casualty of this situation was my ability to keep up with anything relatively newer bands were doing: Best Coast? Waaves? Frightened Rabbit? School of Seven Bells?  Florence and the Machine?

Who were these guys?  Were they even worth paying attention to?  And what about legendary old bands I always regretted not getting into before, like Swans?  In the end, I have to plead the Fifth on a lot of their releases this year.  On the other hand, when I did catch the new bands (on the Dutch radio station VPRO’s awesome website, for example, or in posts on The Sound of Indie), I found very little to be impressed by.  Reports from equally thirty-something music fans lead me to believe I am not alone in identifying 2010 as a good year for music, but a lousy one for debuts…with precisely one exception:

1. Sarah Jaffe – Suburban Nature

I never would have heard of Sarah Jaffe had she not opened for the otherwise-forgettable Midlake at Spanish Moon in February.  I caught the last half of her performance and was transfixed by bittersweet country songs with a grown-old-too-fast perspective on love and loss — aching is precisely the word one wants here.  Her voice is all her own, the lyrics a little naive — but properly so.  Her delivery and melodies are reminiscent of the reigning queen (in my opinion) of alt-country chanteusery, Jolie Holland.  Big winners are “Clementine” (not a cover of the classic), “Better than Nothing,” and “Summer Begs.”  Buy Sarah’s album — this is non-negotiable.  She deserves stardom.

2. Superchunk – Majesty Shredding
As I said, on the other hand…someone needs to show the other new guys how it’s done, and who better than the power-pop overlords of the ’90’s, Superchunk?  Majesty Shredding, their first album in almost a decade, is the perfect one for aging pseudo-hipsters (like me), who can relate to the out-of-touch feeling embodied by “My Gap Feels Weird” — ostensibly it’s a song of unrequited love, but it seems to me more like a description of watching the music scene evolve and maybe getting left behind by it.  Lots of high-energy songs with sing-along choruses here, like “Crossed Wires.”

3. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
Bear with me here: The Hold Steady used to be incapable of doing wrong in my eyes — Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America will forever be two of my all-time top albums.  They’ve suffered some mis-steps, though: 2008’s Stay Positive was beset with problems from composition to production, while this year’s outing, Heaven is Whenever did have its moments, but was nowhere near as strong as their earlier work.  It looks increasingly likely, therefore, that Titus Andronicus is going to assume the mantle of being the super-literate, powerful, versatile, shout-singing, straight-up rock band we need in these hard times.

The irony is that The Hold Steady’s leader, Craig Finn, actually appears on this album, reading — yes, reading — as Walt Whitman, in support of the conceit that the album somehow documents/commemorates the Civil War (when it’s really all about the suburbs of New Jersey).  There’s an enormous range in this record, from the rocking (and Springsteen-upending) opener to low-key heartfelt ballads.  Patrick Stickles’ vocals present a more-tolerable (to me, at least) version of Conor Oberst’s nasal whine.

4. Walkmen – Lisbon
The Walkmen keep chugging along with their twangy, spare guitars, thumping drums, and wailing vocals — as if they were the Ennio Morricones of urban loneliness.  “Blue as Your Blood” typifies their
cinematic m.o.  These songs aren’t hummable, but they are beautiful.

5. Menomena – Mines
There was no album I was awaiting with greater anticipation this year than Mines.  2007’s Friend and Foe was a classic, and this album is rock-solid, too.  Fuzzy bass;  beautiful, carefully arranged tunes mixing strong rhythms and soaring horns and guitars; and intricate wordplay, all showing a band more dedicated than just about any to the total package.

6. Stars – The Five Ghosts
The first proper pop album in the list.  LCD Soundsystem screwed everything up when they followed up their initial hit, “Dance Yrself Clean” (almost the song of the year; see below) with the eight worst, most repetitive, stupidest songs to emerge this year.  Hot Chip pulled a similar trick, unfortunately.   But Stars, at least, seems to have taken over The Cardigans’ old role of turning out an album that is catchy, pithy, and perfectly produced with our beloved dueling male-female vocals.  No duds here.

7. Laura Veirs – July Flame
Laura Veirs has carved out a role as a Pacific Northwest singer-songwriter with a few absolutely killer folk-rock tunes to her name (“Galaxies” and “Pink Light” spring to mind — and I thank Ed Smith for bring them to my attention a few years ago).  Her new album, named for a kind of peach and recorded just before the birth of her first child, carries through on the theme without being maudlin; the second half of this album is as delicious as anything else that came out this year.  “Carol Kaye” is like Simon and Garfunkel resurrected.

8. Spoon – Transference
This seems to be the year when forgotten Spoon gets re-evaluated — I’ve seen it coming already on Pitchfork and The AV Club.  I’m not sure what about this record has re-awakened people to the pop perfection that this band has always offered — maybe it just seems somehow less contrived this time, even though I’m sure the whole thing is as carefully planned as it could possibly be, swaggery and
too-cool-for-school.  Just as Spoon has always been.

9. The Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years
“The Tool” — what Corin Tucker’s bandmates in Sleater-Kinney used to call her voice — is back.  After the last S-K album, The Woods, one might expect more overwhelming, crunching, overdriven rock, but that’s largely missing here (“Doubt” is probably the closest this record comes, but even it’s not at all as deliberately off-putting).  It’s been replaced by a broad range of styles — sometimes stripped-down staccato guitar work (“Half a World Away”), sometimes softer vocals over waves of guitar and keyboard (“Handed Love”).  Fans may yearn for S-K to get back together, but if all the members’ forthcoming side projects, like Carrie Brownstein’s collaboration with Helium’s Mary Timony as The Spells, are as successful as 1,000 Years, they can probably live with it.

10.  Arcade Fire — The Suburbs
Last year, the guilty pleasure was Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix; this year it’s the Arcade Fire.  When you take on a universal modern theme like suburbia as the concept behind your art, you ought to have something new and unusual to say, which isn’t really the case here.  The lyrics and posturing here are lame, inauthentic, or teenager-obvious compared to Titus Andronicus, but in the end this album needs to be mentioned on this list because dammit, it is hard (embarrassingly hard!) to stop listening to these songs.  Call me a self-aware sucker.  If you haven’t checked out their collaboration with Google on the video for “We Used to Wait,” you should.

Honorable mentions: Wolf Parade, Expo 86, and Apples in Stereo, Travellers in Space and Time

Song of the Year: My cousin Orlagh sent me this link a few weeks ago from Dublin.  It’s a pair of comedians from Limerick called The Rubberbandits singing their song, “Horse Outside.”  If it’s not the number one song in Ireland right now, it will be shortly.  I’m not saying it’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard, but Carlie and I couldn’t stop watching it. Whatever — it’s fun, so it’s as good a pick for this award as any.

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