|Artwork credit: Alyssa Shapkoff
Delorean | Subiza (True Panther Sounds) [buy]
The Spanish electro-synth quartet Delorean has come a long way from its early punk rock roots. 2009 brought about this punk-to-dance transformation with the Aryton Senna EP. 2010’s LP Subiza has taken this transformation to a whole new level. The synth-fueled tracks that make up Subiza swirl, race, grow, and build layer upon layer of sound to create bright and complex aural tapestries that would be at home in a club or on a beach. “Stay Close” and “Real Love” lead the record off with two absolute gems, but the peak of Subiza comes in the form of “Grow,” a true dance catalyst that has vocalist Ekhi Lopetegi asking: “Will you ever understand this decision I’ve made? And will you ever make yourself this decision I’ve made?” If the decision was Delorean’s shift to the electro-synth world, we understand, and we approve.
Laura Marling | I Speak Because I Can (Astralwerks) [buy]
To our ears, Laura Marling already sounds like a songwriting veteran. Her songs on I Speak Because I Can echo the writings of Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams, mostly because they resonate as a full album, not as individual pieces. That’s pretty rare these days, especially when it’s so easy to pick and choose what you want to hear, when you want to hear it. Trust us, though: you’re better off letting these songs tell their stories, track one through track ten. We’re pretty sure Ms. Marling would want it that way, too.
LCD Soundsystem | This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin) [buy]
Dear James Murphy,
We heard you said that This Is Happening may be the last LCD Soundsystem record. Please take it back.
Sincerely, Speakers in Code
Murphy & Co.’s 2010 LP, This Is Happening, is a masterpiece. This record is absolutely teeming with inimitable beats and primo sonic compositions. From “Dance Yrself Clean” (the huge, crazed leadoff), to “All I Want” (a dance ballad if there ever was one), to “You Wanted a Hit” (a slick and groovy climax), there are only highlights and no letdowns. This Is Happening closes with “Home,” an epic anchor that starts gently and gradually builds to an adroitly crafted and intricate dance stimulus package. If This Is Happening truly is, in fact, the final LCD Soundsystem record, we have been left with the best. For that, we are thankful.
Arcade Fire | The Suburbs (Merge) [buy]
Critically acclaimed, award-nominated, and award-winning following two awe-inspiring records (Funeral and Neon Bible), the Canadian rock collective, Arcade Fire, was on everyone’s radar leading up to the release of 2010’s The Suburbs. Expectations were set at seemingly astronomical levels, and Arcade Fire did not disappoint. The Suburbs plays out as a musical critique of a bleak suburban landscape (inspired by the Butler brothers’ childhood in Houston, TX). Though Win Butler told NME that the record was not an “indictment” of suburban life, it is truly difficult to find happiness in The Suburbs. Despite this, the record is rewarding and satiating. Perhaps greater than any other contemporary band, Arcade Fire is able to create visual imagery in the listener’s mind with words and instruments. “Ready to Start,” “We Used to Wait,” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” are all jaw-droppingly impressive in that enormous, multi-faceted, Arcade Fire sort of way. In “Sprawl II,” Regine Chassagne and her distinguishable howl shine forth and deliver what just may be the lyrics of the year to signal the end of one of the best records of 2010: “Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small / That we can never get away from the sprawl / Living in the sprawl / Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there’s no end in sight / I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.”
Neil Young | Le Noise (Reprise) [buy]
Perhaps you already need to be a Neil Young fan to really enjoy this album. We get that. But let’s face it, it’s been a while since Uncle Neil has been this focused and this passionate. We’ll gladly credit producer Daniel Lanois for pushing his creative limits and giving Le Noise a sonic makeover – songs like “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Sign of Love” wouldn’t be the same without the added texture. But let’s remind ourselves that this album is largely the work of one man and his guitar. For most artists, that’s probably a recipe for a bland record. For Neil Young, it’s just another reason why he’s one of the best ever to write a song.
Beach House | Teen Dream (Sub Pop) [buy]
We saw Beach House at Pitchfork over the summer and were absolutely floored by the tragic beauty of Victoria Legrand’s live vocals. And that voice – full of smoke and velvet and longing – is what really puts the cherry on top of Beach House’s hypnotic and ethereal dream pop sundae. The ten-track, noticeably reverb-less, Teen Dream, was one of our earliest contenders for this 2010 year-end list. (Almost) twelve months later, “Norway” still puts us in a sublime trance, and “Walk in the Park” still breaks our pitiful, little hearts. This record, both timeless and yet, forward-thinking, has us anxiously waiting Beach House’s next move.
Frightened Rabbit | The Winter of Mixed Drinks (Fat Cat) [buy]
“I’m not miserable,” Scott Hutchison screams near the end of Frightened Rabbit’s third album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks. While this isn’t exactly a happy batch of tunes (Hutichson later asks on “Yes I Would,” “What if this tear in my side just pours and pours and pours?”), it’s brighter than the band’s previous release, The Midnight Organ Fight. The songs on Mixed Drinks are powerful (“Things,” “Nothing Like You”) and reflective (“Foot Shooter”). Hutchison’s songwriting again shines, proving he’s more than capable of crafting songs that play with our emotions while ultimately finding a permanent place in our brains. Still, we’re not frightened by these rabbits; we love ’em to death.
Freelance Whales | Weathervanes (Frenchkiss/Mom & Pop) [buy]
You already know the deal: Freelance Whales sounds like The Postal Service and Sufjan Stevens had a baby. Despite this overused comparison (hey, we’re guilty, too!), we often find ourselves fixated on, haunted almost, by the the band’s fresh take on powerful organic elements tangled with synthesized beats. Frontman Judah Dadone’s lead vocals make a big impact on Weathervanes: his syrupy-sweet vocals drape “Hannah” with childlike nostalgia but ground high-concept songs like “Location” and “Starring.” Doris Cellar, the sole female of the group, is shiny and bold, comfortably caught up in harmonies and percussion. But, it’s when the five members of Freelance Whales come together on songs like the ethereal “We Could Be Friends” that a symphony of eclecticism is happily created.
The Mynabirds | What We Lost in the Fire, We Gained in the Flood (Saddle Creek) [buy]
Almost a year ago, Laura Burhenn, one half of the now-defunct Georgie James, traversed the country, set up shop in Oregon, and recorded the debut album of her new band, The Mynabirds. Burhenn was on a mission to make a record “that sounded like Neil Young doing Motown.” Interestingly enough, the band gets its name from the fabled R&B group formed in 1964, The Mynah Birds, which at one time featured Neil Young himself. The entirety of What We Lost is sleepy and soulful and southern, and Burhenn’s vocals can be dichotomously described as at times, sultry, and other times, desperate. “Numbers Don’t Lie” boasts a teasing playfulness not often captured in love songs, while “Let the Record Go” is a frenzied carousel number ending with an ex-lover booted from the ride. We can tell you this: unlike that dude, we won’t be leaving The Mynabirds’ amusement park anytime soon.
Sleigh Bells | Treats (Mom & Pop) [buy]
Ultimately, the things that make Treats so wonderful are very simple when singled out one by one. But, what makes this album truly special is the tightrope act Sleigh Bells nails when melded together. It’s both immediately accessible and challenging at the same time. It’s recognizable yet sounds completely unlike anything we’ve ever heard. It’s beautiful but messy. Pretty but almost too loud. It’s these incredible contrasting elements that assemble each song on the record. “Crown on the Ground” is a brazen jam, calling listeners to forget tapping that Chuck clad-toe and start pumping that fist as guitars detonate in a swell of static. “Rill Rill,” arguably the highlight of the album, trades the amplifiers for a lazy guitar and cutesy lyrics, and “Infinity Guitars” takes us on a journey to what sounds like a futuristic step-show. It’s an album that makes us want to crank up the volume, even though the knob is already set to 11.
Sufjan Stevens | Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty) [buy]
It took Sufjan Stevens five long years to follow up the critically acclaimed, Illinoise. And at best, Age of Adz fills the conceptual trench that began to signify his previous work leading in to his hiatus. But, Age of Adz is also a schizophrenic album, with its sprawling range of topics, arrangements, and styles. As it unfolds, we can actually hear his songwriting focus change as he grows and pushes the boundaries that existed during his last outing. Opener “Futile Devices” gently starts the listener upon this trek, with the familiar sounds of wistfully plucked guitars and heavenly vocals. We’re almost transported to the days of yore in 2005. But that nostalgic set-up is short lived and quickly demolished by the epic “Too Much” and its massive bursts of synth. The flux capacitor switch is then flipped, and the date dial reads 2010. Sparks fly, and Age of Adz shows it’s true soul: Stevens’ most diverse, immense, and accomplished work to date.
Deerhunter | Halcyon Digest (4AD) [buy]
Whenever Deerhunter is discussed, pretty much the only name thrown around is Bradford Cox. On the fourth album, however, we should all be talking about guitarist Lockett Pundt. For example, “Desire Lines” is built around the tension between a guitar line that falls as the riff below it rises, before unwinding into a mighty chanting chorus. It’s a gloriously entrancing piece of psychedelia anyone listening to a Deerhunter record would hope for. Cox’s contributions are, of course, still the driving force behind it all. Classic sounding songs like “Revival” is vintage garage pop, elevated nicely by inventive percussion behind the fuzz. Deerhunter isn’t just channeling past works, though. On album closer, “He Would Have Laughed,” the combination of melody, harmony, and instrumentation results in a song that manages to look forward and backward simultaneously. Like the entire album does, really. Halcyon Digest has a soul that asks us not to stray from what we’ve always loved about music.