Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top 50 Albums of 2010 (10-1)

10) The Black Keys - Brothers. For the second album in a row, the blues rock duo has opted to work with producer Danger Mouse. Last time, on Attack & Release, the change in approach was hardly noticeable. The record seemed a little slower and more mellow than the band's earlier, more raucous material; but besides that, it was just another Keys album. With Brothers, the change is much more pronounced. As we found out with his excellent solo album, Keep It Hid, Dan Auerbach's voice and writing style works very well outside of the guitar/drums minimalist arrangements that have been the Keys' stock and trade for years. Fleshing out the instrumentation did not, necessarily, dilute the impact of the songs. Back in band mode, Auerbach, drummer Pat Carney, and Danger Mouse utilize the more fleshed out arrangement style of Keep It Hid, though doing it in a way that sounds less traditional and more modern. Don't worry, though, The Black Keys still sing the blues. The tempos may be a bit slower, and the guitar riffs may be a little less abrasive, but on Brothers, the boys show that change can be good. It is possible to grow as a band without growing old and tired.

9) It's True - It's True. On paper, the music of Omaha's It's True makes no sense. Saying a band mixes elements of Britpop, shoegaze, doo-wop, and good old fashioned "sad bastard" music sounds absurd. But after listening to It's True a few times, the mixture of those elements seems completely natural, and makes me wonder why experiments like this have not been tried before. The first thing that is likely to hit you when you first listen to It's True is the seemingly angelic voice of singer/guitarist/mastermind Adam Hawkins. The voice can be soft and unassuming in the band's quiet parts, and then become bold and strong during the louder parts. Hawkins' lyrics tend to me on the depressing side, frequently visiting themes of despair and hopelessness. Yet, at times, Hawkins shows that he is not such a sour puss, and does show signs of optimism. The musicianship of It's True, the band, is a large step above the average band on its first recording. So much so, that It's True, the album, sounds like a recording from a band with at least a decade under its belt. When It's True began generating buzz in late 2009 in Omaha, many who chronicle the local scene (including myself) felt that they were the best local band to emerge since the "mighty three" from the early 2000s: Bright Eyes, Cursive, and The Faint. The release of the CD only solidified that belief. When It's True announced its "break up" following its set at the MAHA Music Festival, a lot of musical hearts were broken. How could a band with so much potential just end after one album? It's a question for the ages. I have heard rumors that It's True is reforming with a slightly altered lineup. Cross your fingers.

8) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs. Arcade Fire are pretty much at the top of the heap in the current indie music world. What other rock band on an independent label can sell out Madison Square Garden? I'd venture none. With that status, however, comes a ton of extra pressure. After Arcade Fire's debut caused a worldwide freak-out, its excellent follow-up, Neon Bible, was criticized for being a little less awesome. For the band's third album, The Suburbs, the men and women of Arcade Fire have risen to the impossible challenge of topping their previous work. The record is a concept album of sorts that details leader Win Butler's youth growing up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. He described the sound he was going for as a combination of Depeche Mode and Neil Young. I'm not sure he achieved that, per se, but it's a great combination of sounds and styles, nonetheless. If anything, I think The Suburbs makes Arcade Fire this generation's R.E.M. Would that make The Suburbs Arcade Fire's Document?

7) The Hot Rats - Turn Ons. The Hot Rats are Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey of the defunct band Supergrass. The two wanted to make a covers record along the lines of David Bowie's Pin Ups. They enlisted Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for the project, and the result is, perhaps, the best album of unoriginal material I have ever heard. The Hot Rats take songs from a number of different eras and genres and make them their own. The best example of the guys' ability to genre-bend is their cover of Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)," which comes out sounding like the early Who. It will take you a bit before you realize what song it is. It's so excellent. Other artists covered on the collection include Velvet Underground, Squeeze, Sex Pistols, The Cure, The Kinks, Elvis Costello, and more. This is a thoroughly enjoyable album, and one that makes me lament the end of Supergrass even more than I already did.

6) Spoon - Transference. On its seventh album, Spoon makes maturity cool. It's been one helluva long time since Spoon's music was confused with that of early inspiration the Pixies. By now, Spoon has developed its own unique sound, and the challenge for them now is how to keep long-time fans happy while continuing to move forward into new musical areas. Occasionally, that has meant augmenting the sound with horns or other instruments. On Transference, it means experimenting with tempos, textures, and styles. "The Mystery Zone," for example, is downright funky. "Written In Reverse," the first single, dabbles in piano blues. The songs, overall, are less overtly poppy, and force the listener to spend more time with them to appreciate the complexity. Perhaps this new approach is a reaction to the more mainstream success the band received from its last album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, or maybe its because produced the record themselves. Regardless, Spoon's Transference shows that after more than 15 years, this band is not out of new ideas, and refuses to rest on its laurels. I hope to be listening to Britt and the guys when they reach 30 years. I'm sure I will still marvel at what they come up with.

5) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Beat The Devil's Tattoo. BRMC has always been of two minds musically. On the one hand, the band loves the noise, fuzz, and droning feedback of early 90s shoegaze music; while on the other, they are hopelessly devoted to the blues. Finding a way to meld the band's two strongest musical influences has proved a challenge in the past. On its second record, Take Them On On Your Own, BRMC went 100% shoegaze; then on its next, Howl, they went all the way in the other direction. For the band's fifth, Baby 81, BRMC seemed to find the perfect merging of the two. It was something of a stalemate in the war of two muses. It would appear, however, that the blues has ultimately won out in Black Rebel land, as Beat The Devil's Tattoo, the band's newest, is steeped in it. The record opens with the very bluesy title track (complete with foot stomping and hand clapping) and stays knee deep in the delta for much of the record. There are hints of the other side of the BRMC coin later in the album ("Shadow's Keeper"), but just a few hints.

4) LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening. On the third proper album from James Murphy's LCD Soundsystem, much of the danceable punk sound that made the band an underground sensation is pushed aside in favor of longer, more melodic pop. Perhaps because this is rumored to be the final LCD record, Murphy and company decided to try some things that they had been wanting to try. Nowhere is this new pop sensibility more evident than on the amazing songs, "All I Want" and " I Can Change." There are certainly elements of 80s synth pop present, but it is hard not to notice a strong hint of late 70s David Bowie as well. Murphy clearly has a wide variety of vinyl in his collection, and you will have to as well to be able to figure out where he is coming from at any given time. But that is what record nerds (like myself) do. For everyone else, This Is Happening is just a great listening experience -- one that takes you all over the musical map without having to get up off the couch.

3) Jenny and Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now. In this reporter's opinion, Jenny Lewis is probably the best songwriter of the modern era. She is freakin' amazing. Whether it is her songs on the various Rilo Kiley albums, her record with The Watson Twins, or her solo album, Jenny Lewis just does it for me. Her direct and conversational lyrics can paint the most vivid pictures, and her melodic sense is both unique and timeless. I feel like I can relate to Jenny Lewis more than any other contemporary rocker, even though we share almost nothing in common. For I'm Having Fun Now, Lewis teamed up with frequent collaborator Jonathan Rice to form Jenny and Johnny. And as the title implies, they sound like they are having a load of fun on this brief album. The songs implore Lewis's storytelling lyrical style with breezy, simple pop arrangements, and sing-a-long choruses. The two meld their voices together so much that sometimes it's hard to tell who created what. Generally, either Jenny or Johnny is taking the lead, but this is a very collaborative effort. My only complaint would be that I'd like a little more Jenny and a little less Johnny, which is why I would have preferred a proper solo album from Lewis. Still, it is a minor complaint because I'm Having Fun Now is really great.

2) Autolux - Transit Transit. Next to My Bloody Valentine and Guns 'N Roses, few artists seem to take as long between albums as Autolux. In the ten years since its formation, this is only the band's second album. But over the years that I have been an Autolux fan, I have learned the virtue of patience. That patience is rewarded with Transit Transit. Richly rewarded. Autolux, in many ways, is a band out of time. They should have existed in the early 90s when their feedback soaked, psychedelic, shoegaze music was more in vogue. In 2010, Autolux has few peers. For those who remember early 90s bands like Swervedriver, Ride, and My Bloody Valentine, listening to Autolux is like manna from heaven. Like MBV, Autolux eschews traditional rock arrangements for a looser, more spacey sounding feel. Drummer Carla Azar (formerly of Ednaswap) has a minimalist approach to her instrument, which is heavily complimented by the spaced out guitar wails of Greg Edwards (formerly of the legendary band Failure). The music is often at a slow simmer when bassist/vocalist Eugene Goreshter slides in with his soft ethereal vocals, and then rages into a full boil during the instrumental breaks. Despite the extra wait, I am so glad that Autolux does what they do. They don't seem to be on anyone else's timetable but their own, which is probably why they are supported by folks like Thom Yorke of Radiohead (known for his stubborn independence as well). Whatever the future holds for Autolux, the band can die happy knowing that it made a practically perfect album...twice.
1) Superchunk - Majesty Shredding.

It's been nearly nine years since North Carolina's finest delivered a new album. At the beginning of the 2000s, with over a decade of touring and recording under its belt, the members of Superchunk decided to part ways for a bit and focus on other things. Most notably, this included Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance's Merge Records label; but it also included taking time to raise families and work with other people. They never broke up, but there was not a real game plan for getting back together and making music. Seeing as how Superchunk are one of my favorites of all time, this was a great disappointment. But listening to the band's last two albums before the hiatus - Come Pick Me Up and Here's To Shutting Up - it seems obvious now that Superchunk were burning out. The tight, punchy, pop-punk that filled more than a half dozen albums in the bands career was being replaced with slower, more depressing music that featured keyboards, strings, horns, and other elements that just a few years earlier would have seemed incredibly out of place on a Superchunk record. But no band wants to keep repeating itself, no matter how great their past accomplishments might have been. Change is natural, and the desire for this band to change is understandable. But that didn't mean I had to like it.

Perhaps over the (almost) decade the band was apart (except for sporadic performances), the members realized what they liked about their past and what they liked about playing together. They must have, because when they finally returned with Majesty Shredding, they are playing with a renewed fervor and musical purpose not seen since 1995's Here's Where the Strings Come In. Majesty is a tremendous effort and a total return to form for this excellent band. Tunes like "Crossed Wires" and "Digging For Something" easily rank among the band's best singles, and when Superchunk chooses to slow it down ("Fractures in Plaster"), it no longer seems depressing and/or monotonous. After seeing Superchunk twice this year, I can attest to the fact that the band members seem to really be enjoying themselves again. It's hard for any band to re-capture the magic of an earlier time, but with Majesty Shredding, one can make a case for Superchunk doing just that. Love this band. Love this record.

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