Friday, December 17, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010 | Part Four

Artwork credit: Alyssa Shapkoff

Well, this wraps it up, folks. If you want to see the entire list of Best Albums of 2010 (all fifty of 'em), click thisaway. Thanks very much for playing.

Dom | Sun Bronzed Greek Gods (Burning Mill) [buy]
Dom’s Sun Bronzed Greek Gods is built like a rock-solid soundtrack for a fun loving summer. This Massachusetts group’s debut record only has seven tracks, but it is quality over quantity for Dom. Sun Bronzed Greek Gods kicks off with “Living in America” a gleaming groove with a tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek hook: "It's so sexxxyyy, living in America." The record then rolls effortlessly into the scintillating “Burn Bridges,” a dreamlike number with another memorable chorus: “Burn bridges / make yourself an island / just forgive ‘em / and forget ‘em.” “Jesus,” a silky little ditty comes next and is chased by the catchy surf-rocker “Bochicha,” which is named after the cat that graces the record’s cover art. Sun Bronzed Greek Gods closes out this incredible start with three more on the money tracks, “Rude as Jude,” “Hunny,” and “I Wonder” (each toe tappers and head bobbers in their own right). Dom’s seven songs don’t last very long with one spin of the record, but they will embed themselves in your brain and have you spinning this disc over and over and over. Sun Bronzed Greek Gods simply never gets old.

Josh Ritter | So Runs the World Away (Pytheas) [buy]
Josh Ritter suffered from a lengthy case of writer’s block between his last album and So Runs the World Away. Luckily, the magic returned for the singer-songwriter from Idaho, as he churned out another impressive batch of songs. Sure, Ritter’s best album might always be Animal Years, but songs like “Change of Time,” “Lantern,” and “Remnant” give his current piece of work a beautiful edge. “I am assured that peace will come to me,” Ritter sings on “Lark,” which might be the best song Paul Simon never wrote. So Runs the World Away finds Ritter as confident as ever, and we’re pretty sure he’ll keep finding his way on our “Best Of” lists for many years to come.

The Drums | The Drums (Downtown) [buy]
The Drums hail from Brooklyn, but if you told a friend they were a lost Brit group from the early '80s, you’d have an easy time convincing that friend. All you would have to do is play The Drums’ eponymous debut record. The record’s lead track, “Best Friend” could be a buried b-side from The Cure (perhaps when Robert Smith had a happy couple of days in a row). Next comes “Me and the Moon,” a full blown jam that encapsulates all of the new-wavey and post-punky elements that makes this band so mesmerizingly great. And then you have the sugary sweet, “Let’s Go Surfing,” and one can’t help think that The Drums may be taking a shot across the bow of the current surf-rock trend…or not. Maybe they really do “care about nothing” and just “wanna go surfing.” Either way, we don’t care, because the track is top notch. In the face of the sonic pigeon holing that often comes with these post-punk channeling groups, The Drums are by no means one dimensional. “Down by the Water” exhibits The Drums’ softer side with what may be the best Pajammy Jam of the entire year.

Twin Shadow | Forget (Red General Catalog) [buy]
Brooklyn's Twin Shadow, AKA George Lewis Jr., is a throwback genius. His debut LP, Forget, calls on, nay commands, us to remember (and desperately long for) the late '70s/early '80s heydays of the new wave and post-punk genres. Twin Shadow channels these periods (as well as Morrissey's voice) expertly to craft something unique, something nostalgic, but somehow still modern and fresh at the same time. The record abounds with new-wavey jams. "Slow" showcases Twin Shadow’s sound in distilled form. This offering is a danceable one, accentuated by synth notes, but paced and pushed forward by the steady drums and racing guitar. During the chorus and the final run of the track, George's unique vocals shed any links to that fella from The Smiths and take on a life of their own. He sings softly, then howls, "I don't wanna, believe, but be, in love / I don't wanna, be, believing, in love." Forget is a time machine, and the ride is a pleasant one.

Brooke Fraser | Flags (Wood and Bone) [buy]
In her native home of New Zealand, Brooke Fraser is already a superstar, and with good reason. One listen to Flags reveals an artist who excels in pop, rock, and confessional balladry. Her songs bring us hope (“Coachella,” “Flags,” “Orphans Kingdoms”), swagger (“Something in the Water,” “Betty,” “Jack Kerouac”), and maybe also a few tears (“Who Are We Fooling”). Oh, and we also love her because she’s one of the most polite artists we’ve ever interviewed (that has to count for something, right?). Whatever you like most about Brooke Fraser – and Flags gives you many choices – we’re certain that you’ll fall for her pretty hard, just like those New Zealanders who are already obsessed.

The National | High Violet (4AD) [buy]
Jesus, where do we begin? Emotionally, this is an album that moves us to no end. We’ve already declared “Bloodbuzz Ohio” our song of the year, and we’ll gladly stand by that claim. However, as a whole, High Violet is a puzzle of greatness. This is an album that deserves to be played loud, so loud that the pictures on your walls should rattle when Matt Berninger screams, “It takes an ocean not to break!” during “Terrible Love,” or when “Afraid of Everyone” hits its crescendo. High Violet’s ten songs say the things we’ve been trying to form in our brains for years to describe the moments that reveal the struggle, the passion, the rollercoaster…the freaking war that is life. Yeah, High Violet is a hell of a war, one that will always be coursing through our veins, in good times and in bad.

Kanye West | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella) [buy]
Kanye West certainly knows how to drum up excitement. Scandal, controversy, and paparazzi seem to follow him everywhere his Louis Vuitton footwear takes him. Matt Lauer, George Bush, and Taylor Swift aside (and did you hear the new rumor that he impregnated Kim Kardashian?), the best way Mr. West cultivates buzz is with his consistently groundbreaking brand of hip hop/rap/R&B music. In the lead up to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye inundated his fanbase with free music as part of his G.O.O.D. Fridays series (with memorable tracks like “Monster,” “So Appalled,” and “Devil In a New Dress” ending up on MBDTF). Anticipation was at a fever pitch, and MBDTF was received with much critical acclaim. “Runaway” is the unquestioned centerpiece and highlight of the record, but to be honest, it took us a while to come around on this one. Maybe the VMA and SNL performances distracted us (so many ballerinas and gold chains). With each listen, however, the genius of this inward-looking, self-critical ode to escapism becomes more apparent. Kayne’s skills as a writer, producer, and performer have never been more sharp and refined as they are with “Runaway.” In the end, Kanye’s larger than life persona and senseless antics challenge fans and listeners to look past the drama and find the astonishing music. The same can be said for some of the extended intros/outros (Chris Rock? Really?) of MBDTF. When you look past the distractions and get to the true kernels of the tracks - the beats and the rhymes - Kanye wins again. This is a record that grows on us with each spin, and is taking up more and more time in the headphones. Let’s have a toast…

Sam Quinn | The Fake That Sunk A Thousand Ships (Ramseur) [buy]
“I never needed anyone except myself,” Sam Quinn sings on “Fanboy,” a six-minute gem on his debut solo album. The ex-everbodyfields member proves that he’s doing just fine without Jill Andrews’ harmonies (although we’d welcome them back any day of the week). The Fake That Sunk a Thousand Ships was recorded in a barn, and its overall sound is the most organic of any album we’ve heard this year. Quinn sounds like his heart has been broken about a thousand times on songs like “Hello,” “Help Me,” and “Goodnight,” and there really aren’t any happy moments to be found here. But, we can’t deny that the whole album is beautifully sad, so much that we’re ready for the next rainy day where we’ll happily blast it for hours. Thank you, Mr. Quinn.

First Aid Kit | Big Black & the Blue (Wichita) [buy]
Sweden has long been bringing its A-game when it comes to musical exports. And now, First Aid Kit, the sisterly duo of Klara and Johanna Soderberg are the next shining example of Nordic talent. The two play wise-beyond-their-years, country-tinged, folk-pop. They happen to not look a day older than a newborn babe in the woods, but my oh my, they sound like world weary women. Their lyrics point an indicting finger at unfaithful lovers, Bible thumpers, and disbanded dreams amidst a sea of continuous water imagery (see what we did there)? Despite the absurdity of our stupid little lives, all hope is not lost. First Aid Kit intelligently crafts lyrics about the happiness we can find, if we look hard enough, in a otherwise senseless world.

Futurebirds | Hampton's Lullaby (Autumn Tone) [buy]
It's easy to simply classify Futurebirds as an alt-country outfit and leave it at that. But, in fact, the Athens band is so much more. Equal parts southern barnburners and shoegaze-on-acid trippers, Futurebirds' songs stand at the crossroads of genres. "Yur Not Dead" is borderline arena rock, with its anthemic flare, and "Johnny Utah" begins with Asian-inspired guitar plucking (yeah, we said it) that sturdies the pedal steel guitar and falsetto harmonies through the rest of the track. When it comes to the band's debut LP, Hampton's Lullaby, we quickly learned to expect the unexpected. In this day and age, what could be better than that?

Admiral Radley | I Heart California (The Ship) [buy]
Jason Lytle and Aaron Burtch of Grandaddy joined forces with Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray to create the indie-pop band, Admiral Radley. The long-time friends toured together and collaborated musically over the years, and those songs finally saw the light of day on this year's release, I Heart California. Jocular in tone and quirky by nature (just look at song titles "I'm All Fucked On Beer" and "I Left U Cuz I Luft U"), the album screams with irresistable summer jams, particulary the titular track, an ode to 90210 living, and "Sunburn Kids," which employs sound effects that Police Academy's Michael Winslow would absolutely adore. So, if you are one of many still mourning the demise of Grandaddy and the California indie-rock that sank with it, now you know where to turn.

Local Natives | Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss) [buy]
Coming in to 2010, few bands had as much buzz surrounding them as Local Natives. Generated by stellar reviews from 2009's SXSW, Local Natives impressed enough of the right people to qualify as a "band to watch" driving out of town. Few albums ever live up to the hype in this situation. Luckily for us however, Gorilla Manor does. It instantly reminds us of our favorite bands. Though not as rustic as Band of Horses, or as melodic as Fleet Foxes, Gorilla Manor can't be contained by classifying them as knockoffs of either influence. The songs simultaneously bristle with a twinge of paranoia and bask in sunshine, as they resist the urge to monkey around too much with formulas etched before them. Three-part harmonies proudly replace the need for a conventional frontman. But, the band’s also perfectly capable of delivering big anthems. Strong on memorable hooks, "Shape Shifter" and album opener/standout, "Wide Eyes," are sure to hang around playlists for years. And while, yeah, this accessibility can be attributed to the groundbreaking work of their influences, Local Natives’ flawless execution of these looming ideas while integrating their own thoughts and soul, gives them the right to be hearlded for this fantastic collection of songs.

Salem | King Night (IAMSOUND) [buy]
King Night is an album that contains no classically structured songs. In fact, the songs seem to lack a path, rather, choosing to roll by, riding on a rumbling clap of thunder. The songs contain typical elements: guitars, synths and drum machines. They contain vocals, but they are usually horribly obscured, or altered beyond recognition. Words just tend to drift along in the background as multiple elements also fade in and out, blowing through each track. It's been classified as "witch house" a new, darker version of shoegaze, and the rays of that influence crack through the clouds at times, whether it's through the eerie moans of "Release Da Boar" or the ethereal chants of "Frost." Only the lumbering haze of drunken distortion and the thudding drum machines, which often feel as if they're antagonizing the tracks rather than coaxing them, are allowed to escape. But don't go thinking it's all done to be contemporary or trendy. In fact, King Night is so good that a trend will develop around it most likely. At this point though, it stands completely by itself.