Monday, January 03, 2011

Our favorite 15 Non-Canadian albums of 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a list of my favorite 15 Canadian albums of 2010. I had a pool of about 23 new releases in my library to work from, so it wasn't too difficult to narrow it down to 15. The non-Canadian list was tougher I have about 40 in that pool of new releases. A couple were added to the pool at the very last minute, and one even snuck into the top 15 with a late entry. Some of the ones that didn't make the final cut will come as a surprise or even a shock, but it is what it is. This is the stuff that was playing in heavy rotation at my house in 2010.

Sometime in the very near future, I'll compile a composite top 15. I'll also do a quick write-up about some of the omissions (cough, cough, Sufjan Stevens, cough) from both lists.

So let's cut to the chase

15. Beach Fossils -- "Beach Fossils"
Not quite surf-rock. Not quite indie-pop. Not quite dream-pop. Not quite any of these, but close enough to draw comparisons to Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. And with enough low-fi street cred to make Robert Pollard blush. I'm not sure what draws me so much to this Brooklyn band, but this is one of those records that grabbed me with the first 15 seconds of the first song on the album. Judging from the youtubes of these guys' live performances, nobody has told them that they're not from Manchester and it isn't 1991 anymore. Still, they're clocking in at #15. Here's "Sometimes", which is the first song from the album:

14. Glasser -- "Ring"
This isn't so much a band as it is one woman with a laptop, a drum machine and a bunch of synths. Cameron Mesirow is American and that's all I know about her. Because of the diversity of influence, one could just as easily classify this as "world music", "electronica", or any mashup of the words "dream", "synth", "goth", "pop" and "weird". This woman does some seriously amazing things with her voice, and that's what makes me like this more than I probably should. That and the fact that there's quite a bit of vibraphone on the record. Here's the video for "Mirrorage":

13. School of Seven Bells -- "Disconnect from Desire"
This is the second record from this NYC three-piece, and it was my introduction to them. It's unfortunate that people often describe them as "like My Bloody Valentine" because I don't get that at all. When I listened to this record all the way through the first time, I got the impression that it was heavily influenced by "Dopplegänger" by Curve. This band is fronted by identical twin sisters, and one of them cuts her hair like Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star. She has apparently left the band and I don't know what their future holds. The standout tracks "Babelonia", "I L U" and "Windstorm" all come from what would be side A of the album, but the whole thing is really good. This video for "I L U" is really steamy:

12. Tamaryn -- "The Waves"

The recurring theme in this non-Canadian list, so far, is "it sounds like a new record that I loved in 1992", and this one is no different. In a lot of ways, this record reminds me of "Blow" by English dream-pop band Swallow. On paper, Tamaryn is pretty much a one-woman show, but has a full band on tour. She's New Zealender by birth and living in San Francisco by choice. This is her first record, and it's super-dreamy and super-awesome. The vocals are so washed out that it's almost impossible to tell what's going on lyrically, but it doesn't matter. There's a lot to like on this album, and one of my favorites is the song "Sandstone":

11. Peter Wolf Crier -- "Inter-Be"
This Minnesota two-piece is 2010's answer to Bon Iver. I don't have a parallel for this. Almost, though. In all the live videos I've seen, frontman Peter Pisano's voice sounds like Jeff Buckley's. And really, the music isn't that much different than what Buckley would have done. I'm not sure why the vocals are treated differently in production, but he doesn't sound like Buckley on the album.
Here's a pretty great live performance from South by Southwest. It's "You're So High", one of the standout tracks.

10. Sharon Van Etten -- "Epic"
This one snuck in the back door. I only got it on December 30, but it warranted multiple listenings right away and after it had time to percolate in my head, it muscled its way onto the big board. This is her second record, and it clocks in at a tidy 32 minutes and seven songs. By most standards, it barely qualifies it as an "album", but there's no reason to have a semantics debate about this extraordinary recording. She says that these songs, which are chiefly about some form of heartache, are written from experience, and were penned as if they were letters. She sounds a bit like Chan Marshall from Cat Power, and there's not much of a stylistic difference. This New Yorker, though, seems much more comfortable in her own skin. And she's okay with "sad".
Here's my favorite song on the record, "One Day", which is one of my very  favorite songs of the year.

9. Thrushes -- "Night Falls"
We're back to the 1992-ish theme with this one. These Baltimore shoe-gazers rocked my world with their first album a couple of years ago, and they got stronger with this, their second. This reminds me so much of Velocity Girl, with the heavily effected guitars and Phil Spector-esque production. Somehow, through the wall of sound, the vocals of Anna Conner take center stage. Here's the video for "Crystals".

8. Versus -- "On the Ones and Threes"
This one dropped on me like a bomb. I had no idea that, after a ten year break, this NYC indie rock juggernaut was putting out a new record. As the band members have entered their 40s and have families and all that stuff, they never quit making music. They just quit making it together. Until now. I didn't get to see them when they played in support of the album, and they weren't on the Unrest reunion show down here, but it's just great to know that they can still crank out great music. It's still all about the incendiary guitars and the great harmonies of Fontaine Toups and Richard Baluyut.
Sadly there aren't any decent quality videos of the new stuff, so here's a little interview they did for ABC News about the new record:

7. Bettie Serveert -- "Pharmacy of Love"
This is the seventh proper album in the Betties' discography and the first in six years for the Dutch indie-rock quartet. Not only was the wait worth it, but they made up for the previous LP, which was a mild disappointment. They've been making records for 18 years and they've had nine different drummers, but the core of Carol van Dyk, Peter Visser and Herman Bunskoeke has stayed intact. As much as I love this record, I love their live shows even more. I saw them again in the fall and I was completely awestruck. And as a nice bonus, the audience was entirely made up of people my age. The 9.5 minute "Calling" is my favorite song on the album, and while it takes a while to get off the ground, once it does, it's a dizzying song. The Betties don't "sound like" anybody. If you don't know them, you should. Here's another of the fantastic new songs "Deny All". For fun, look out for Peter rocking a Cat's Cradle tee-shirt in the video.

6. The Corin Tucker Band -- "1,000 Years"
The Sleater-Kinney frontwoman is out on her own (sort of), and made an amazing debut. She's had two babies and has described this band and the album as "middle aged mom music". Don't be fooled by that. This isn't for soccer moms. This is still very much punk rawk. Okay, if I'm honest, it's much more subdued than Corin has been in the past, and the songs are a bit more mature. She's not screaming for the sake of screaming anymore. Thankfully, she's still got that lovely tremolo in her voice. As a package, it's not as aggressive as some of the early S-K stuff, but it's still plenty of rock and roll fun. All that said, one of the highlights of the record is the closing song, which is just piano and singing. There's not a bad track on the album, and here's a video for "Riley"

5. Zola Jesus -- "Stridulum II"
In 2010, it was en vogue to compare a band to Siouxie and the Banshees, and this is one of those bands that got that. Really, it's just Nika Roza Danilova from Phoenix Arizona. With her thickly layered vocal tracks and the heavily effected guitars and the darkness of it all, it's easy to make that comparison. I heard a lot of buzz about this, got it and listened to it a few times and thought "that's quite nice". And then I listened to it on headphones and was breathtaken. This is a very good record that doesn't quite lend itself to classification other than "goth-y". It's big and dark and warm. And I love it.
Here's "Sea Talk"

4. The National -- "High Violet"
A rare appearance in the "favorite of 2010" list by a band fronted by a man. Not only is it all dudes, but this Ohio quintet is comprised of two sets of brothers. Evidently, they always dress well. Partly because they look damn sharp with their beards and their suits, and partly because they treat their band like a business. I get the sense that they don't joke around very much. It may not be very much rock and roll fun, but it sure is good. This record is on just about everybody's year-end list. A lot people are even picking "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" as their favorite song of the year. It's a great song, but it's my second favorite on the album. Here's a live performance of my favorite, "Anyone's Ghost":

3. Kristin Hersh -- "Crooked"

This album from the Throwing Muses frontwoman was released in a really unique way. You had to buy a book, which contained some really beautiful photography and a series of essays. Each of the essays correlates to a song on the album. Within the essays is a code, with which you downloaded the album from Kristin's website. Like most of her solo stuff, it's driven mostly by acoustic guitar, lush production and some pretty unusual time signature that I'm not smart enough to figure out. The last year or so has been really big for her. There was the death of her best friend Vic Chesnutt on Christmas Day 2009, the release of this, her eighth proper solo record, the publication of her memoirs, she moved twice, and she's been very hard at work on a new Muses record. The title track is one of the best songs in her oeuvre, "Glass" is another from the top drawer, and "Krait" is one her most densely layered songs with some haunting sting section instruments over her guitar. Like the stuff from "Hips and Makers" but with much much better production. "Mississippi Kite" is unbelievable, but I think it's more suited to be a Muses song. That said, here's "Mississippi Kite":

2. Frightened Rabbit -- "The Winter of Mixed Drinks"
This is the third album from the Scottish group, but I had never heard of them before 2010. It kept coming up in those RIYL suggestions on eMu and lastfm and stuff like that. The first dozen or so times, I ignored the recommendation, as I had ignored the recommendation of Bear in Heaven (it was a mistake to ignore that!), but I finally got the album, and just like I did with Bear in Heaven, I smacked myself for taking so long. The album may have been available in other parts of the world in late 2009, but not in the US until sometime in 2010, so it's good to go here. It's not particularly dark (although there's a lot of burial imagery throughout), it's not at all folky and there aren't any women in the band, so I'm not supposed to like it this much, but this record is just too darn good. The opening track, "Things", starts off with a nice warm shoe-gazy feel, and I was reeled in after that. Without being particularly awesome in any one way, every song has its own incredible hook. The song " Living in Colour" has a ridiculously infectious rhythm, and for some reason it makes me think of some stadium show where the crowd is just going nuts over the song. Like "Sit Down" by James. I absolutely lurve the song "Swim Until You Can't See Land", and the simple but brilliant video. It's just plain fun. Here it is:

1. Warpaint -- "The Fool"
People often want to compare these California gals to Mazzy Star or to Siouxie and the Banshees, but I'm not getting either one of those. Whatever it "sounds like", this record has been in uber-heavy rotation at my house since I first laid ears on it after a brilliant recommendation by a friend. I guess the Mazzy Star vibe comes from the slightly psychedelic feel to everything, but it's much too energetic and the sex appeal of the whole package is on a much more primitive level. This record was recommended to me in the same breath with the aforementioned Zola Jesus record, so I'll recommend them as a bundle. Pay particular attention to the drumming on this record, which I find to be quite nice. At one time, actress Shannyn Sossamon was the drummer for Warpaint, and her sister is still the bassist.
It's not a perfect album, and it's not for everybody, but it suits me just fine.
Here's their self-titled song:

So there it is. Those are the 15 new records that I liked the most in 2010. There are some big-name omissions, and I'll get to that at some point. Just remember that this is what it is, my tastes are what they are, and I'm no genius.

A less detailed composite list will come soon, and also a list of the biggest disappointments of 2010. Some of your #1 records will be on my "biggest disappointment" list, just as some of my favorite records will be in your "pile of crap" list.

I hope 2011 is as much fun musically as 2010 was for me. I've already got a small handful of records on my radar for the 2011 lists.