Thursday, December 30, 2010

End-of-year-lists clog internet - please send plumber

Oh my gosh, it's the end of the year, and you know what that means! The best-of year-end lists for just about everything are currently making its way across every website, magazine and entertainment news program out there. (Random question: Does Vogue Knitting have a best-of list for, like, best yarn? Most ably producing sheep? Also: There's a Vogue Knitting magazine?!) On the one hand, I love these lists because they expose me to music, films, bits of news items that I missed during the year, and may enlighten the next year to come. It's especially helpful with sorting through the slush pile of albums that come out, distinguishing the ones I should give some more attention to. On the other hand, it limits my own capacity to view artists/albums/films as equals. How does one choose between The National's High  Violet or The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs when they are both such effective and affecting albums? And Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz - what if that's left off the list entirely (like it has been in a few places)? If Pitchfork tells me that Kanye West made the best album of this past year, that's going to be marked down in Wikipedia - Wikipedia! - and people will cite My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the best alum of 2010 because Wikipedia told them that Pitchfork said it was the best, and how can they be wrong? Of course, there's always lots of debate in the comments section of these posts, and that's healthy. It's part of the larger music community dialogue, and as no two music-lovers will ever have exactly the same end-of-year list, I really shouldn't worry. 

So I'll give a list and add to the slush - why not? My opinion will matter a lot less than Pitchfork or Stereogum's (at least to any average music site scourer. Also, I just realized that both those sites named Kanye as their number one of the year...), but in the end I would like to retain my ability to think for myself and continue to love the things I love.

10. Holy Fuck - Latin

My love for Holy Fuck is well documented. Although Latin isn't really a game changer, it did display a positive growth in the group's ability to funnel their live charisma into recorded material. This group is producing some of the most original dance electronic noise rock around and they aren't getting the recognition they deserve. I can only see them continuing their upward trajectory for their next full-length - let's just hope that we don't have to wait too long.

9. Owen Pallett - Heartland

It took me a while to get to Heartland, despite Owen Pallett's current position as reigning prince of Toronto's indie scene. With Heartland, Pallett (who recently abandoned his previous moniker, Final Fantasy, for obvious reasons) has crafted an album documenting the existential thoughts and woes of an "ultraviolent farmer" named Lewis. It's a concept record - not an ugly word, just difficult to pull off well - that follows Lewis' frustrations with God (conveniently-named Owen). It's like a warped pastoral, where things like nature and faith turn against Lewis and instead of calming, they drive him mad. Pallett is a classically trained violinist, and although his knack for dramatic orchestration is present, it's his experimental use of drum machine, subversive lyrics, and often off-putting mix of instruments that really highlight what's fascinating about his work. Naked drama mixes with opulence, and we come out the better for it.

8. Yeasayer - Odd Blood

Odd Blood is a psychedelic mish-mash of synth, odd vocoder-processed vocals, dark and at times ominous lyrics, and rhythms coming from all different directions and styles. With Odd Blood, Brooklyn-based Yeasayer manage to make their experimental rock without going too far and alienating potential listeners. The difficult tracks on Odd Blood - album opener "The Children" is a bit discouraging as a lead in to an otherwise melodically rich album - often blossom upon repeat listening after you get over the initial strangeness of what you're hearing. Each track is built, deconstructed, and swayed in surprising directions, all guided by singer Chris Keating's propulsive vocals. The Middle-Eastern influence is clear, but rather than adding a sense of novelty to their sound, it feels natural, almost lived-in right next to the rhythmic quirks that distinguish Yeasayer's sound. Odd Blood may be a more pop flavoured record than their 2007 debut, All Hour Cymbals, but this newfound sound creates a door into the warehouse that stores Yeasayer's - and the rest of the indie music world's - catalog of strange and beautiful sounds.

7. The Books - The Way Out
Found-sound collage noise electronic band with classical sensibilities - this is how I've been trying to describe The Books to anyone foolish enough to ask me about them. It shouldn't come as a surprise that The Books are hard to classify, and although this obscurity may be a barrier for some people, the payoff for more adventurous ears is constant. In The Way Out, the sampling is used to both clever ("The Story Of Hip-Hop") and poignant ("Free Translator") effect. It's rare that an album can have so many striking, honest portrayals like The Way Out does with "A Cold Freezin' Night" and "Thirty Incoming". This album is incredibly affecting; anyone willing to open themselves up to it won't regret the choice.

6. Jonsi - Go

Go is an amazing record based on it's wonderful orchestration alone (fluttering flutes and swirling violins sit with a cacophony of rhythm section all under Jon Por Birgisson's ethereal falsetto), but it's been bolstered by the best live tour this year. For the most part, the album is exuberant and unabashedly joyful ("Go Do" and "Lilikoi Boy"), but there's also moodier shades of Birgisson's other project, Sigur Ros, in tracks like the beautiful "Tornado."

5. The Black Keys - Brothers

The Black Keys have single-handedly brought down and dirty blues rock back into fashion. They first came to my attention with 2008's excellent Attack & Release, then in 2009 they released Blakroc - a potentially disastrous collaborative album that paired The Black Keys' rock with a slew of different hip-hop artists (it was actually pretty good, and will reportedly be seeing a follow-up sometime in the new year). These guys do not rest on their considerable talent for crafting break-up ballads; they experiment and expand their sound, getting better and better with each record. Brothers is immediately accessible; opener "Everlasting Light" sets the tone for a classic blues rock album with a modern aesthetic twist. Despite the professional production polish behind Brothers, it still sounds as natural as any garage band practice, allowing singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach to let loose his genre-perfect wail while singing about crazy ex's ("Next Girl") and warn of the perils of a woman scorned ("Ten Cent Pistol"). Catchy hooks without lowest common denominator pandering, gnarled vocals to match crunchy guitar and drums, that abrupt shift in tempo and tone in "Tighten Up", that weirdly wonderful cover of Jerry Butler's "Never Gonna Give You Up" - all things that make up one of the best albums this year.

4. Caribou - Swim

From album opener "Odessa" straight through to closer "Jamelia", Caribou's Swim is a tremendous achievement in layering. Dance floor-ready electronic beats accumulate and fold in upon synth-orchestrated motifs, all while allowing for plenty of precious breathing room. The lyrical content is, like most of Caribou's catalogue, somewhat desolate (both in that there isn't a whole lot there, but also in the dark, emotionally charged places he goes). It's the musical ideas, however, that make Swim an outstanding record. Chord progressions appear, repeat, transform, and eventually explode outwards as a collection of well-timed beats-vs-synth-vs-horns (or woodwinds, or strings, or whatever). Caribou makes use of the distinct textures of different instruments like a painter utilizes her colour palette, elevating the borrowed '80s dance beats to a state with which both sound aficionados and straight-up dance enthusiasts can satisfy their addictions.

3. The National - High Violet

This and the following two albums are almost interchangeable as my number one album of the year. Listening to High Violet, you really wonder what sort of sinister pact The National have entered into in order to create music with such fantastic beauty. Singer Matt Berninger crafts affecting lyrical poems that tap into familiar feelings (depression in "Sorrow", abandonment in "Anyone's Ghost", or simply the things that go unsaid in a relationship in "Conversation 16"), only they're expressed in ways you'd never imagined before. I don't think there's any other singer out there that could deliver a line like "I was afraid I'd eat your brains" and make it simultaneously hilarious and touching. The lyrical content alone would be enough to make The National one of my favourite bands, but there are many musicians whose prowess with the pen doesn't always extend to their musicality. The National have come a long way to craft sonic landscapes to match their sprawling gin-soaked lyrics. It's the repeated humming, distorted two guitar chord opener for "Terrible Love", the regal horns on "England", and the drum lines throughout the entire album that show a sophistication that's far removed from their early bar-band days. As long as The National keep making music that, despite their stadium rock readiness, are intimate thoughts/conversations/feelings captured on mp3s, their albums will continue to appear on every year-end list they can grab.

2. The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Another high concept album, another stellar payoff. Shortly after its release, a friend described The Suburbs to me as "Funeral light." Every band that ever made a huge, sound-defining record, like Funeral was for the Arcade Fire, knows and has to live with the daunting task of distinguishing their follow-up records for every fan that will automatically say it's not as good as their other album. Thanks for the criticism, but now lets discuss the album in question based on it's own individual merits; when you do that (release yourself from the onus of having to compare every album with the one that came before it!) you will see that The Suburbs is an affecting look into consumerist-heavy, soul-deprived western culture. The RĂ©gine Chassagne-led "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" is one of the best tracks of the year; it's a constant on my iPod and its synth-pop brilliance will probably see that it remains so for a while to come. The rockier tracks ("Modern Man," "The Suburbs") are reminiscent of only the best Bruce Springsteen works, while the moodier pieces manage to wring new pathos out of the 'oft traversed territory of existential suburbanites.

1. Sufjan Stevens - The Age Of Adz

Last year's number one album for me was Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest. It was creative, psychedelic in parts, but overall melodic and accessible. This year's number one has the first two traits in common, but eschews the second two, making it a difficult work to get into. Certainly, the 25 minute album closer "Impossible Soul" (a song cycle with mood swings, a lengthy disco dance sequence, and some much-maligned auto-tune) is a tough sell to short attention spans; but like all good things in life, it's not supposed to come easy. Sufjan Stevens is not one to hold himself back too often, and good for him (for us!), because that's hard to do when every fan and critic around you is asking for more of the same. As neat as a record for every state in the US sounds, if you actually think about that sort of output - who would want that? It seems insulting that people would actually want an artist of Stevens' calibre to relegate himself to churning out a novelty album every year until he was well into his 80's. Although Illinois was an accomplishment in sublime song-craft, The Age Of Ads covers material that's much more immediately personal to Stevens, and the weird, stuttering electronic stuff mixed with the choir, string, and brass elements is thrilling to hear. I love how Stevens takes a line of music or lyric, plays it over and over (each time with subtle variations) until it has lost almost all meaning, then switches to something completely different. It's like when you repeat the word "tomato" 20, 30, 40 times until you can't remember what it means - it could mean almost anything! This is a recurring theme in The Age of Adz - even the title doesn't mean what you think it should. It can be read like an essay, with opener "Futile Devices" outlining the main argument in its closing line ("Words are futile devices."), then, for the rest of the album, Stevens' usual reliance on literary narrative is abandoned in order to outline the importance of more immediate, less artful words and sounds. With themes running from grand apocalyptic sighs, to the relatively small yet equally devastating death of a relationship, The Age Of Adz is as ambitious as it is long, as thoughtful as it is schizophrenic, and the best thing I've heard all year.

I realize that there's nothing terribly off-the-beaten-path here. I'm not trying to impress anyone with how obscure I can get. I just hope you think that my reasons for liking what I have hold up. What were some of your favourites?


Carl said...

Great list, friend. I totally love Caribou, Arcade and Sufjan. I definitely would have included Joanna Newsom and Janelle Monae, however. Both had OUTSTANDING albums this year.

Colleen said...

I saw Janelle Monae open for The Arcade Fire. She is an amazing performer! I haven't given the album much of a listen, though. And I've only recently gotten the Joanna Newsom album, but it definitely sounds like something I'll like. If you like Newsom, and don't already have it (since it's several years old), you should pick up "The Golden Apples Of The Sun". One of my favourite compilations ever.

Carl said...

I'm looking into it RIGHT NOW!