Ranking songs at the end of each year really isn’t my favorite way to share good music. I’d much rather create a mixtape of songs from the artists who stood out that year, carefully chosen and tracklisted in a cohesive, highly listenable collection. Some of the songs are singles, some are deeper album cuts; either way, they represent the state of the union of music that I like (indie, alternative, electronic, hip-hop) in 2010.
So at the end of each year, I burn such a collection on CD for my friends and attach a booklet containing commentary and criticism I’ve written about each artist. It’s a good way to share the music you love and keep the creative juices flowing. The other day, one of these friends asked: “Why don’t you put your reviews in a blog?” While trying to justify why I had the time to research, write, and print out all of my reviews, but not put them on a blog, I realized that all the answers I was giving were excuses.
So excuses be damned, here goes. In track order, the twenty songs on the Best of 2010 collection are as follows:
1 – “Stay Close” (mp3)
Delorean – Subiza
The fact that Spanish electronic artists Delorean play live instruments as well as digital sequencers during concert performances is often surprising to first-time listeners, but it makes sense when you consider they first started as a punk band before evolving into the alternative techno artists they are today. Their organic, dance-club beats have a carefree and uplifting tilt to them, almost as if Underworld had grown up on the sun-kissed coast of Ibiza instead of the bleak industrial center of Wales. With songs like “Warmer Places” and “Endless Sunset” and an album titled Subiza, Delorean fully recognize and embrace the Balearic beat stereotype with which they’ve been labeled.
“Stay Close” is a sweet cascade of staggered synths, sirens, and softly sung chants that feels austerely crafted but sumptuous nonetheless; it’s summertime music that stays with you long after the summer is over. Today, indie music is filled with so many weird sub-genres, and so many artists trying to maintain that cool, off-kilter hipster persona, that there’s something refreshing about musicians who aren’t afraid to be anything other than what they really are — a great pop band.
2 – “Heaven’s On Fire” (mp3)
The Radio Dept. – Clinging To A Scheme
Eighties’ Indie pop and New Wave have been the trendy cultural influences on alternative music lately — mix a sunny melody with plaintive, mopey vocals, add a smooth recording sheen and you’ve got your own John Hughes’ soundtrack — but few bands have done it as well this year as The Radio Dept.. As critical darlings in the Swedish indie music circuit since the early 2000’s, the foursome outgrew their cult favorite status when songs from 2005’s Pulling Our Weight EP were featured on Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette. Eagerly awaited since 2006, Clinging to a Scheme is the culmination of their efforts, a satisfying blend of shoegaze guitar distortion and synth pop sensibilities.
In requisite heart-on-sleeve fashion of indie pop, single “Heaven’s On Fire” flip-flops from full-on, love-smitten joy (“When I look at you/ Heaven’s on fire”) to suicidal gloom (“When I look at you/ I reach for a piano wire”) faster than you can say Steven Patrick Morrissey. It might sound downright morbid if not for the twinkling piano, uplifting bass line, and unabashedly blissful guitar jangling beneath Johan Duncanson’s soft croon. Each instrument has its own moment to stand out and shine, while altogether forming a finely-threaded sheet of gauzy melody. There’s even a saxophone that sneaks up on you in the last bar; like twee pop influences Belle and Sebastian, the Radio Dept. realize the understated power of a good horn part. Like the rest of “Heaven’s On Fire”, it has just the right blend of peculiarity and coziness to catch you by surprise the first time you hear it and keep you looking forward to it the next time around.
3 – “Ready To Start” (mp3)
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
There’s a line from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”: “When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse/ Out of the corner of my eye/ I turned to look and it was gone/ I cannot put my finger on it now/ The child is grown/ The dream is gone.” Arcade Fire spends the entirety of its third album, The Suburbs, trying to capture that same ephemeral sensation at which Floyd once hinted, the elusive mix of wonder, apprehension and nostalgia that surrounds our childhood years.
The songs on The Suburbs are like a collection of old hazy Polaroid images — kids playing in backyards, friends stealing their mothers’ car keys, cops shining flashlights on bike reflectors. On the title track, lead singer Wyn Butler admits: “Sometimes I can’t believe it/ I’m moving past the feeling,” but you’re never sure exactly what that feeling is, and whether Butler is desperately trying to hold onto it or is grateful to let it go. The melodies and arrangements are more straightforward and subdued than the band’s magnum opus Funeral; the closest thing you’ll find to a fist-in-the-air anthem is “Ready to Start,” a song that practically beads with anxious adolescent sweat.
In the end, Butler’s youth is a time when “damage is done” and an experience he thought he’d “never survive,” though he later sweetly confesses: “If I could have it back/ All the time that we wasted/You know I’d love to waste it again.” It’s a bittersweet contradiction, but that’s part of The Suburbs’, and childhood’s, mysterious appeal. It can be both tender and nightmarish, a source of apathy or inspiration. The only thing for certain is that as an adult, Butler is still deeply affected by this period of his life, as so many of us are.
4 – “Lights” (mp3)
Interpol – Interpol
When a band releases a self-titled album in the middle of its career, it can often signify a back-to-basics approach or a rebirth of musical aesthetics. Sadly, for indie rock juggernauts Interpol, it may simply be the end of the road. Interpol sounds both tired and overreaching — like the work of a band that has exhausted all possibilities and are resorting to aimless experimentation as a way out. Bassist Carlos Dengler left Interpol as soon as the album’s recording was complete, either because he wanted to pursue other creative avenues or, depending who you talk to, because he was unwilling to tour behind the album. Either way, he chose wisely; Interpol’s second half is embarrassingly dreadful.
Even so, the album is not without its moment. “Lights,” with its ominous guitar riff and slow-burning, methodical build-up earns high marks in the band’s impressive catalog. Interpol’s songs, though lyrically enigmatic, have consistently explored the theme of love as confinement (“Evil,” “Not Even Jail,” and “Obstacle 1”), and “Lights” does so with a terrible intensity. When singer Paul Banks confesses “That is why I hold you,” it oscillates between a lover’s tender display of affection and a declaration of total control. “Lights’” lonely presence on Interpol is a powerful memento from a band that, in their prime, had few if any equals, but also an unfortunate reminder of how far they have since fallen.
5 – “Norway” (mp3)
Beach House – Teen Dream
Singer Victoria Legrand and multi-instrumentalist Alex Scally make up Beach House, a duo whose moniker alludes to the woozy, alluring warmth of their songs, yet also suggests a summer home left vacant for the off season, high and forlorn upon the frozen dunes. Legrand’s vocals are a disarming blend of sandpaper and silk, like the low register of Stevie Nicks crossed with the gossamer-thin high notes of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. When paired with Scally’s droning keyboards, hissing drum machines, and gently bent guitar notes, the effect is at once sad, expectant, and disarmingly beautiful.
When Teen Dream was released in January, Allmusic reviewer Heather Phares cleverly noted: “There wasn’t much room to improve on [last album] Devotion so instead, the duo improved the room in which they made Teen Dream.” It’s true; the record was carefully curated in an old church to feel airy and lushly spacious, resulting in tracks that sound massive, yet virtually float from the speakers. But upon multiple listens the musicianship and arrangements on Teen Dream are noticeably sharper as well; the undulation of intertwined vocals and guitars on “Norway”, the sublime shifts in melody and meter from verse to chorus on “Better Times” and “10 Mile Stereo” — these gifts show Beach House are coming into their own not just as studio perfectionists but as songwriters of considerable power. If you haven’t come on board already, now is a good time to. Their future, much like their sweeping yet intimate sound, is tantalizingly wide open.
6 – “Empire Ants” (mp3)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
It’s not a coincidence that musical collective Gorillaz arose to fame in the age of the iPod. They’re third and best album, Plastic Beach, sounds like a playlist on shuffle — a weird amalgamation of chopped-up hip-hop, brit-pop, electronica, and synth rock that somehow makes sense in a post-millennium world. Ex-Blur front man Damon Albarn patches together a rich sonic tapestry around an exceptionally diverse cast of guest vocalists (Mos Def, De La Soul, Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, et al.) and lets all the frayed stitching hang out. Amazingly, it holds together as a cohesive effort, in large part because the very disjointedness of Gorillaz’s style and sound is essential to their genre-defying charm.
While there’s nothing as immediately accessible as past hits “Feel Good, Inc.” or “Clint Eastwood,” Plastic Beach is strewn with little hooks that you keep you coming back; the sugary chorus on whacked-out cereal ad “Superfast Jellyfish,” the live drums and brass that suddenly materialize over electronic jungle beats midway through “Sweepstakes,” and the joyous, verse-connecting shout “Here we go again!” in “Rhinestone Eyes” are just a few. Clear album stand out “Empire Ants” reveals a strange, icy beauty before gently strummed chords unexpectedly dissolve into 80’s electro-funk — it’s a reminder that Albarn’s laconic vocals floating atop a pretty melody (one that could just have easily fit on Blur’s classic Park Life) are still one of the finer pleasures in pop music.
7 – “Shutterbugg” (mp3)
BigBoi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
For nearly two decades as one half of Outkast, Big Boi recorded some of the most imaginative, critically-acclaimed music the rap industry had ever heard. But with the duo on indefinite hiatus, few expected Big Boi’s first solo album would be of the same caliber. In fact, for nearly a year, the album’s status was in limbo; the original record label Jive refused to even release it, claiming the songs were not “radio-friendly.”
But Big Boi began leaking tracks online last summer and, amazingly, each sounded better than the one before it. Sprinkled throughout the gigantic, digital beats were live guitars, horns, drums, and strings, giving the tracks a crisp, classic analog feel. When Sir Lucious Left Foot… finally saw the light of day on Def Jam Records, it proved to be a rare achievement in the rap world. Far more than just a couple of hit singles and shitloads of filler, Big Boi had made an entire album, front to back, of great songs.
Even surrounded by such quality, it’s easy to pick the stand out; during recording sessions, one of the producers presented a track to Big Boi who encouraged his musicians to “put the P-Funk on it.” The result was the electrifying “Shutterbugg” — this year’s unstoppable summer jam. In true old school fashion, that gurgling beat you’re hearing isn’t the result of an Auto-tuned voice; it’s made by a talk box, the kind of instrument that classic rocker Peter Frampton blew into on stage in the 70’s. When Sir Lucious Left Foot… debuted at #3 on the Billboard Hot 200 charts, it was poetic justice that a once discarded rap album paying such heavy homage to its rock, soul, funk, and R&B influences could now rub elbows with the best of its pop siblings. In retrospect, two things are now certain, Big Boi will be holding down the fort until Outkast returns and someone at Jive Records is out of a job.
8 – “Power” (mp3)
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can be a polarizing album; most days I really dislike it, and the days I do like it are the days I dislike myself. I think that’s because it’s nearly impossible to separate Kanye West the musician from Kanye West the person. He’s an undeniably talented rapper and producer who has consistently sculpted some of the most extraordinary, ground-breaking hip-hop of the past decade. His ability to smoothly layer bravado, humor, and intelligence with sonic grandeur and monster beats is peerless.
He’s also a world class douchebag — perhaps the poster boy for a lost generation of self-absorbed, tweet-obsessed, Prada-wearing socialites. For lyrical inspiration, rappers often use their own life experiences as a muse, and for Kanye, a self-aware narcissist, that muse is his own perceived greatness and resulting agony. He’s very much a tragic figure (and like a car crash, impossible to take your eyes off of, really) because he truly is intelligent and acknowledges his own flaws — a lack of humility, civility, and good taste — but seems utterly incapable, or unwilling, to change.
“Power” is West in all his contradictory glory — hand claps, tribal chants, and a killer sample from King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” become intoxicating firmament for both Kanye’s self-proclamation of majesty and character defects run rampant. He boasts: “At the end of the day, God damn it I’m killing this shit/ I know damn well y’all feeling this shit” even while recognizing that he’s the “abomination of Obama’s nation.” I find it’s best to neither love it nor hate it, but appreciate the music’s combination of accessibility and complexity. Bob your head and bang along with it. Just don’t let anyone see you.
9 – “How I Got Over” (mp3)
The Roots – How I Got Over
The Roots have in many ways thrived on being an anomaly — a hip-hop band that prefers live instrumentation to samples, cares less about hit singles and more about the endless pursuit of the perfect groove, and keeps one foot in the rap underground even while moonlighting as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Their prowess as a live act is as well-known as their tendency to embrace mature songwriting themes often atypical of rap — political and social activism, existentialism, and the downward spiral of modern culture. You get the sense that instead of complaining about the problems they see, they’d rather be part of the solution, and “How I Got Over is a prime example.
A languid, sun-baked guitar lick similar to the one from Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” is recreated in the song, only this time, it’s rife with the urgency and urban menace of ?uestlove’s shuffling drums. Over the top of it, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter soulfully confesses: “Out on the street, where I grew up/ First thing they teach you/ Is not to give a fuck.” In the Roots’ world, that’s not pessimism but cynical, heartrending realism, the sound of a band born in tough times from tough Philadelphia neighborhoods. But both the lyric and song end with the same glimmer of hope: “Someone has to care.” It’s not a request, but a guarantee — there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Roots should know; in many ways, they are that someone, that light — their music pulses with a confident, steel-eyed reserve, the soundtrack for a society going through tough times that takes its punches yet ultimately perseveres.
10 – “All I Want” (mp3)
LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
For the past decade, LCD Soundsystem has been the face of indie music’s love affair with the dance floor. Producer/musician James Murphy juxtaposes digitized club beats and distorted synth barrages with the unexpected analog warmth of piano and live percussion, filling the cavernous space inbetween with half-spoken, half-sung monologues that are equal parts wry humor and scathing self-analysis. It falls halfway between cheesy disco hedonism and elitist indie arm-crossing, which puts it right in the sweet spot of most twenty-something hipsters.
Murphy is indeed extraordinarily well-versed in indie music’s diverse and tangled lineage (2002’s “Losing My Edge” is the Taj Mahal of obscure band name dropping), so it’s not surprising that LCD Soundsystem sounds like a hybrid of everything. But here’s the problem; the critical acclaim Murphy’s accumulated until now seems based more on his scene-defining cleverness (several music publications labeled him “the coolest person on the planet”) than the actual songs he’s recorded. You can forgive a musicophile like Murphy for sounding unoriginal, but too often he’s sounded uninspired.
“All I Want” finally gets it right. The buzzsaw guitar riff and thick curtain of synthesizers make Murphy’s damaged declaration (“All I want is your pity, All I want is your bitter tears.”) sound almost uplifting. Certainly, a large part of the song’s emotional resonance comes from its clean swipe of the best elements of David Bowie’s Berlin-trilogy triumph “Heroes,” but ironically (and trust me, Murphy bleeds irony), it’s a fitting homage. Murphy has become today what Bowie once was in 1978 — the chameleonic sum of his disparate musical influences, a sonic pioneer in experimental pop, and, yes, even the reluctant epitome of cool.
11 – “Facelove” (mp3)
PS I Love You – Meet Me At Muster Station
It’s only fitting that the music video to “Facelove” pays homage to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Both lead singer Paul Saulnier and Ian Curtis share a certain sort of sad, beautiful awkwardness; for Curtis, it was his legendary discomfort in front of crowds and epilepsy-induced fits, and for Saulnier, it’s his gross, unkempt appearance — he’s massively overweight, wears a trucker hat and Coke-bottle glasses, and of late has taken to growing a scraggly, handlebar beard. There are only two guys in PS I Love You, and Saulnier is both lead vocalist and guitarist, so there’s nowhere for him to hide. But there’s a certain bravery in his just being there; it’s like he’s up on stage, spitting in the face of the rock star stereotype, daring you to look away. Like Curtis, you can’t take your eyes off him.
“Facelove” is the perfect microcosm for both Saulnier’s uneasiness and courage. According to his clumsily-penned lyrics, love is like “a giant strawberry”, “a delicious glass of wine,” and “naïve dreams” all “thrown in his face.” Honestly, it’s a bit painful to even see those words written down; they feel like bad high school poetry. But when the metaphors fail him, Saulnier quickly resorts to the only way he can get through to you: shredding. The two-minute guitar solo that follows is among the most inspiring, hair-raising things I’ve heard all year; it sounds like Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade, and Eddie Van Halen all thrown in a blender and spiked with amphetamines. How can two guys be making all of this noise? I don’t know. I do know that the song is misnamed; it should have been called “Facemelt.”
12 – “Trouble Comes Running” (mp3)
Spoon – Transference
Spoon have spent the last decade writing great pop songs whose offhanded casualness belie their meticulous construction. They purposefully sneak false starts, throaty laughs and the occasional control room chatter into otherwise immaculately recorded songs, but it’s done with such grinning sincerity that even the flaws feel like they’re in the right place. Transference, the band’s sixth effort has its own share of quirks; third track “The Mystery Zone” abruptly stops mid bar leaving you to wonder if somebody mistakenly leaned against the record button. Brit Daniels and company remain studio perfectionists who can’t help the fact that they are, at heart, a punk rock band.
“Trouble Comes Running” is a top-notch, should-have-been single, an exercise in triumph through restraint. It doesn’t just remind you of the Who, it actually sounds like the Who, with a flattened mono recording style that has buzz saw power chords and trash can drums feeding into one ear and Daniel’s gravelly vocals hitting the other. The opening acoustic guitar riff sounds deliberately underfed, like its being broadcast from a crackly old AM radio, until Daniels howls and the song nearly detonates out of the speakers. It’s these little risks —- like dampening monster riffs in a 60’s production style to get it sounding just right — that make every Spoon album a sure thing.
13 – “Bottled Up In Cork” (mp3)
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
Into his dependably singular sound, Ted Leo packages more styles — punk, reggae, power-pop, classic rock, folk, blue-eyed soul, hardcore — than most artists could name, and while his approach of channeling barely-suppressed idealism into barking power chords is a well-worn trail by now, you have to admire the Washington D.C. native’s ability to write great songs like clockwork. The guy is practically a mortal lock for the “best of” collection every year he and the Pharmacists make an album, and I’m convinced that by the time it’s all said and done, they’ll have their names on the greatest Greatest Hits collection in indie rock history.
“Bottled Up in Cork” will surely have its place there; in just a few minutes, Leo crams together enough riffs and tempo changes that you’d almost think there’s four hit songs glued together. Bursting with vibrant smarts and infectious energy, it’s a sort of international pub crawl, by the end of which he’s been enamored with country, family, friends, and most of all, that mysterious bartender. Although it’s never clear if it’s his heart or the liquor talking, Leo sounds positively rejuvenated at the ripe old age of 40. Here’s to more drinks in the future.
14 – “Hurricane J” (mp3)
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
The Hold Steady’s best songs offer wry, unfiltered accounts of the lives of typical American teenagers; days spent getting drunk and high, acting stupid, screwing up relationships, struggling with guilt and religion, and more often than not, getting drunk and high again. They feel huge and uplifting in spirit, yet dismal in substance, like Bruce Springsteen anthems in a world where the Boss ends up doing jail time and hanging out at AA meetings.
“Hurricane J” is a prime example. Amidst massive classic rock riffs, Craig Finn’s trademark, deadpan vocal delivery is the ideal device for delivering bittersweet satire. Finn is like a wisecracking regular who gives shit to everyone in the bar; sure, he’s whip-smart and amusing, but at closing time he’s still stuck drinking with the same burn outs and fadeaways he’s been mocking all day. “Hurricane J” cushions some of these blows with summertime harmonies and big guitar hooks, but at its core, it’s basically the story of a young girl’s tragic meltdown.
What separates Finn and company from the myriad of rock bands who are happy to sing about youth gone wild is their understanding of its futility. The Hold Steady write songs that perfectly capture the moment when said youth has begun to spoil — the drugs have worn off, the hangover starts throbbing, and for the first time, the party really makes you feel your age.
15 – “Meet Me In The Basement” (mp3)
Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
Broken Social Scene seems forever destined to be a bridesmaid. Not just any bridesmaid either, but the outgoing, smoking-hot type with a great personality — the one you can’t believe is still single. For nearly a decade, they’ve had all the elements to make it big; catchy songwriting, huge guitar hooks, a diverse range of vocalists and instrumentation, and a knock-your-socks-off stage presence that’s only enhanced on record by their studio acumen. Yet while indie rock contemporaries like Arcade Fire, Spoon and Vampire Weekend cross over to the mainstream, BSS remain a cult band. It’s baffling, until you realize that maybe they’ve wanted it that way all along.
“Major Label Debut (Fast)” from their self-titled 2005 album had hit written all over it, but BSS stuck it on a B-sides collection, leaving the dissonant “Slow” version in its place. When one of their singers, Leslie Feist, had a top ten solo hit with “1 2 3 4,” the band waited three years to release a follow-up when they probably could have cashed in with their stock at all-time high. Now there’s “Meet Me In The Basement,” the unlikely guitar tour-de-force with no lyrics; it figures that BSS would take the track most likely to be a single and keep it an instrumental, thereby eliminating any chance it had of getting airplay. In truth, it only adds to the song’s awesomeness.
Their restraint is quite admirable, actually, and touches on the tragic, romantic paradox at the heart of indie rock — if you become popular, you’re in danger of becoming the very thing you hate. Broken Social Scene beat the system by staying content on the periphery, retaining artistic control and cranking out subversively good pop music at their own pace. Bridesmaid or not, they’re the kind of rock band you take home to mama —- something this honest and good will stick with you forever.
16 – “Conversation 16” (mp3)
The National – High Violet
On their fifth album, the National sound older, wiser, and more self-assured, but also more convinced than ever that modern life is rubbish. That rattling guitar hook on “Afraid of Everyone” shakes like a frayed nerve. “Bloodbuzz Ohio’s” gorgeously sad chorus epitomizes an entire country’s financial woes, and on “Lemonworld,” when singer Matt Berninger groans “I’ll try to find something on this thing that means nothing,” he taps into a near-universal undercurrent of ennui. No band’s sound illustrates the stark beauty of America’s damaged, conflicted state as powerfully as the National’s.
As a songwriter, Barringer has honed his ability to seek insight through exploration of the uncertain. His lyrics are a mixture of mundane thoughts and obscure images, almost like a quick peek inside a stranger’s shadowy psyche. What’s remarkable is how when sung through Barringer’s massive, weary baritone, the words can evoke a flood of emotions on such a personal level. The effect is never more apparent than on “Converstion 16” in which Barringer lays bare a husband’s worst fears, doubts, and self-incriminations. “I was afraid I’d eat your brains/ Cuz I’m evil” is as chilling as catchy choruses come, and even after dozens of listens, it still startles you.
17 – “Tighten Up” (mp3)
The Black Keys – Brothers
The Black Keys are defined by the sinewy marriage of Dan Auerbach’s voice and guitar; it’s a sound that’s made for the blues — gritty, lonesome, equal parts wicked and erotic. For nearly a decade, Auerbach’s been the anonymous author behind some of the most oft heard song snippets in indie rock; the Ohio duo’s swampy blend of blues and garage rock can be found decorating the underbellies of countless commercials, movie soundtracks, and video games. But “Tighten Up” (their first song to top the US Alternative charts) is the song that has made them a household name.
Fortunately, it’s not only their best song to date, but one that holds up well with repeated listens due in large part to a stuttering, reggae-inflected guitar riff and a clever, last-minute breakdown that grinds and squeezes the song into a syrupy double-time coda. In that moment, the Black Keys finally manage to bottle up their explosive on-stage power into one compact studio stunner. Yeah, the blues is still about hard luck and tough times, but “Tighten Up” is the sound of a hardworking band finally getting its due.
18 – “50’s” (mp3)
Pomegranates – One Of Us
The lack of critical recognition Pomegranates have received this year is somewhat bewildering. It’s not that people are saying bad things — they’re saying nothing at all. Only a handful of publications even reviewed this record, and I haven’t seen it on anyone’s “best of” lists, but One of Us (their 3rd album) is a strong, imminently listenable effort from a band just beginning to hit their stride.
Pomegranates aren’t world-changers — more than anything, their music reminds you of something you’ve heard before. But that’s a good thing. When the Poms shift from indie rock anthems ala Arcade Fire (“Anywhere You Go”) or Modest Mouse (“Positive Light”), to experimental noise pop reminiscent of No Age (“Prouncer”) to romantic New Wave the likes of the Police or Echo and the Bunnymen (“50’s” and “Prouncer,” again), it feels less like mimicry and more like a band that has really good musical DNA. They’re brainy, vibrant, mindful of sound dynamics, and most importantly, capable of writing lean, likeable pop songs in their sleep, though they’d probably prefer to dress them up with distortion and punk musculature.
Standout “50’s” has an economical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that ends abruptly at two and half minutes, but when Joey Cook sings “C’mon baby/You are all that I want” in that unearthly falsetto, it feels like the song could fly on forever. This is indie guitar rock that isn’t afraid to make people think, dance, or soar — great stuff for a band whose steady maturation is a sign that their best work is probably yet to come.
19 – “Revival” (mp3)
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Deerhunter often pay homage to their influences by weaving 60’s pop melodies into feedback-laden rock psychedelia. The classic drum intro from the Ronnette’s “Be My Baby,” a chord progression from the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” and lyrics and melody from the Everly Brother’s classic “All I Have to Do is Dream” all find their way into Deerhunter songs. But there’s always a catch; in his version of the dream, lead singer Branford Cox is stoned in the basement, drenched in reverb, and contemplating the death of his friends. Deerhunter excel at inserting this kind of macabre twist into a normally idyllic scene with fascinating effect.
Halcyon Digest abandons much of the fuzzy distortion and murky vocal mixes that have been the band’s trademark, easily making it Deerhunter’s most accessible album. But its songs are no less compelling; lead single “Revival” blends rich guitar textures, chiming percussion, and a swooning vocal climax into a fervent account of Cox’s brush with the divine. “I am saved!/ I am saved!/ I felt His presence near me” Cox cries, only to later admit: “Darkness always/ It doesn’t make much sense.” The contradiction is perfectly bound in the confines of a catchy, two-minute pop song whose last guitar note is, fittingly, bent.
On the album cover, “Revival’s” paradox is brought to life — a cross-dressing midget kneels with hands locked, gazing heavenward in rapt earnest prayer. It’s a striking image that serves as a visual microcosm of Deerhunter’s sonic aesthetic—- weirdly beautiful, emotionally-provocative, and utterly arresting.
20 – “Eyesore” (mp3)
Women – Public Strain
A clever technique used in horror/suspense films like Jaws and Alien is to wait until the end to show you the creature in its entirety. All movie-long, you only see a fin in the water or teeth dripping in the darkness, and your imagination has to fill in the rest, only heightening the terror until the monster is finally revealed. Public Strain, the second effort from indie guitar band Women plays a similar trick, but turns it on its head; you wait until the very end of a half hour of raw, unsettling dissonance to hear the album’s most beautiful moment, the last two minutes of “Eyesore.”
It’s a risky move to delay satisfaction for so long. The album opens with a squall of feedback and minor key drones on “Can’t You See” then lunges unremorsefully into “Heat Distractions,” a burner that shifts between 5/4 and 7/8 time signatures to jarring effect. It’s a prickly welcome to say the least. The remaining songs recall the Velvet Underground’s noisy phase (circa 1968’s White Light/White Heat), Television’s tense, sinewy post-punk, and the more abrasive guitar work of late 80’s Sonic Youth. The hooks are there, but they’re buried. Sound production is painfully lo-fi, too — the vocals are so distorted that at time singer Chris Reimer sounds like he’s shouting down an elevator shaft. It’s captivating stuff, but undeniably difficult.
But on “Eyesore,” Women brings it all together and infuses their icy core with melodic warmth. The song evolves cleverly yet forcefully, and during its last two minutes, a darkly gorgeous swirl of guitars fuse and lock into a timeless hook, making all the darkness before it seem brighter and more worthwhile. It’s the kind of monster of a song (one of this year’s best) that you won’t mind waiting until the very end of an album to hear.