Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The 30 Best Discs of 2010

30. Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride - The Black Ryder (Mexican Summer)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Grass", "To Never Know You", "All That We See"

I have to admit that my like of The Black Ryder's debut album is largely nostalgic. Reminding me much of the old '90s dreamy shoegazer bands I loved so much, this Australian duo really does pay homage to that genre across the eleven tracks here. Channeling My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Mazzy Star, the songs are formulaic in that old shoegazer fashion, but you would expect and want nothing different. The slow whispery vocals of Aimee Nash start off over methodical, plodding, soft-ish music, then the crash of noise, droning, during the middle of the song before finishing as it started. Rinse, repeat. But it's not boring at all and, despite its musical repetition (on which shoegazer was built anyway) it satisfies. Adding a nice twist is the inclusion of occasional male vocals provided by the other half of the duo, Scott Van Ryper, which would be a fantastic porn name, by the way. The Black Ryder might not be everyone's style, but if you miss those days of fuzzed out, atmospheric rock which provided a great soundtrack to early adulthood ennui, do yourself a favor. Buy the album and take the ride.

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29. Black Dub - Black Dub (Jive)
Put these on your iPod right now: "I Believe In You", "Nomad", "Surely"

The latest project led by musician/producer Daniel Lanois is a smoky, sultry, soulful affair. Powered by the mature-beyond-her-hears Trixie Whitley, who sings lead on most of the self-titled album's eleven tracks, Lanois and company definitely are masters of creating a mood. The music here is nicely separated - all of the instruments are easily discernable and the band does wonderful work using space and silence. Daryl Johnson's bass work here is particularly impressive - the good kind of filthy bass lines that just make your ears perk up. But the atmosphere created here is really what shines through. There is a consistent groove in the music and it's hard to not marvel at how all the instrumental elements mesh so well with Whitley's otherworldly vocals. And if Whitley is the front-and-center star, Lanois definitely is the Wizard of Oz in the background, crafting, executing, and producing a real audio treat. It might be hard to categorize Black Dub and it may also be a disc that requires a certain "mood" in able to fully enjoy, but once you get into that mood, enjoy it you will.

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28. World Travels Fast - Decibully (Polyvinyl)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Let's Not Fight", "Weakest Kind Of Heart", "Get In The Car"

The third proper full-length from Milwaukee's indie rock outfit Decibully is an exercise in song construction. Particularly impressive with the thirteen tracks here is is the depth of the music - multi-layered and sometimes discordant. Never losing sight of melody, however, the six-piece never sounds muddled or overwrought, rather, focused and purposeful. Mixing in ambient sounds and noise with pop hooks and William Seidel's unique, higher-register vocals, the band is effortlessly able to run the musical gamut. While the more up-tempo numbers like "Let's Not Fight" and "Get In The Car" are obvious strong tracks, the band is also able to get the most out of the more experimental droning tunes here (like "Broken Glass"). Points for a great band name notwithstanding, World Travels Fast doesn't need to rely on pure volume or aggression to get its musical point across. Instead, Seidel and company embrace sound and melody as a whole and produces what is shamefully probably the least known entry on the list.

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27. Catching A Tiger - Lissie (Fat Possum)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Worried About", "Look Away", "Loosen The Knot"

What a voice. There's a little bit of blues and attitude in there, but make no mistake. Despite some edge, it's pristine and perfect. She always knows just what note to hit. The Illinois-born Elisabeth Maurus makes some serious inroads into the realm of the female singer/songwriter sorority with this, her debut full-length release. Everything from piano ballads to rock tunes are here and each song more than shows off her powerful and arresting vocals. The great thing about Lissie's instrument here is just how effortlessly she seems to sing - whether she is whispering or belting out the note of her life, she is in complete control, driving the song with vocals. The songwriting here is also impressive. A lot of pop (if you aren't already hearing this on the radio, you should be soon) amidst the smoky voice, Catching A Tiger is a stirring first effort from Lissie. A definite peek into an artist poised to take off.

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26. Hawk - Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (Vanguard)
Put these on your iPod right now: "You Won't Let Me Down Again", "We Die And See Beauty Reign", "To Hell And Back Again"

The continued, strange, beauty and the beast relationship of Campbell and Lanegan returns with yet another solid offering, their third. Campbell and Lanegan have mastered this dynamic: she of the ethereal, angelic whispering, he of the big bad wolf, whiskey and cigarette-ravaged growl, all behind minor keys and acoustic Americana. With help from folkie Willy Mason, Campbell and Lanegan vocally dance throughout the album's fourteen tracks, with the strongest being the more sparse and sinister compositions. The upbeat "Lately", complete with some striking gospel-tinged soul background vocals is mildly out of place among the doom and gloom, but is also a welcome respite and nice change of pace. I'm not sure how much longer this partnership is going to last, but Campbell and Lanegan have definitely found a successful formula - one that touches upon each of their strengths as vocalists and demonstrates the stark contrasts in their styles and does it with haunting and interesting tunes.

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Previous list appearances: Ballad Of The Broken Seas (#5 in 2006), Sunday At Devil Dirt (#15 in 2008)

25. Transference - Spoon (Merge)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Before Destruction", "Written In Reverse", "Got Nuffin"

A little more stripped-down and low-fi than more recent works, Spoon's latest certainly satisfies with catchy hooks interspersed in these eleven songs that are a bit unconventional. Shying away from typical verse-chorus-verse song construction doesn't make the album less of a pop success. Occasionally bratty vocals, staccato drums, jangly rhythms, and guitar bursts punctuate each song and while there might not be as much melody and "hum-ability" in these tunes, they certainly give credence to the age-old adage that sometimes less is more. It might take a little while to totally appreciate what Spoon accomplishes on Transference, but if you are looking for something a little deeper than your run-of-the-mill formulaic pop, you'll find this offering quite satisfying.

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24. Mastermind - Monster Magnet (Napalm)
Put these on your iPod right now: "Hallucination Bomb", "Mastermind", "100 Million Miles"

Monster Magnet frontman Dave Wyndorf knows what he likes. And what he likes is trippy, heavy, stoner space rock. With extra cheese. And the latest from this band from Jersey proves Wyndorf to be the master of providing what he likes. All the elements of a classic Monster Magnet album are here. The enigmatic apocalyptic lyrics, the outstanding guitar crunch, and especially Wyndorf's pitch-perfect voice, which I maintain is one of hard rock's best. While more recent Mag releases tended to shy a bit away from the psychedelic sounds of the band's earlier efforts, Mastermind shows Wyndorf and company back to embracing it all, mixing it up, and producing something on par with the band's strongest releases. The sinister undertone to the songs does little to overshadow the cheeseball bombast, but something tells me Dave wouldn't have it any other way. If you are searching for a hard rock album that could have sounded just as viable 15 years ago as it does now, Mastermind is for you.

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Previous list appearances: Powertrip (#4 in 1998), God Says No (#10 in 2001), Monolithic Baby! (#15 in 2004), 4-Way Diablo (#25 in 2007)

23. I Learned The Hard Way - Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings (Daptone)
Put these on your iPod right now: "Give It Back", "The Game Gets Old", "I'll Still Be True"

2010 will be known as the year Sharon Jones "landed", but followers of the 54-year-old funk/soul singer will tell you she has been putting out some nasty (in a good way) retro funk/blues/soul with her band, the Dap Kings, for almost ten years. A gifted and powerful singer, Jones propels each of the dozen songs here solely with her voice. The band, tight, perfect, and talented, often shrinks a little in the background, but that's less an indictment on them and more a testament to Jones' vocals. Fans of Jones' live shows might need some time to adjust to I Learned The Hard Way. The record is more of a slow, soul burn which is significantly different than her fierce and ferocious live shows. But if you can accept that the release is a jumping off point for the live renditions of these songs, you can definitely hear it for what it is: a fantastic retro funk/soul/blues amalgam of a record.

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22. Warp Riders - The Sword (Kemado)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Arrows In The Dark", "Tres Brujas", "Lawless Lands"

If you like your metal with a lot less screaming and a little more melody, look no further than Austin, Texas' The Sword. And while the vocals thankfully sacrifice the guttural belches of much of their metal brethren, Warp Riders does not give up one iota in providing face-melting fury. The riffs here are thick and heavy - classic metal with a little bit of stoner rock mixed in. The guitar solos pierce through the sludge and combine for a great headbanging experience. Throw in the perfect amount of cheese and bombast (how can you go wrong with song titles like "The Chronomancer I: Hubris"?) and what's left is a solid hard rock record that dusts its growling counterparts far behind. One might argue that the album itself is a little one-dimensional, but when that one dimension is 100% Kick Assery, who can complain?

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21. Aim and Ignite - fun. (Nettwerk)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Be Calm", "Benson Hedges", Take Your Time (Coming Home)"

A clue to the strength of this record is the fact that I got it late December and it already managed to make an impression. Difficult to categorize, the first full length release from New York's Nate Ruess and friends is a pop delight, mixing dance beats, quirky songwriting, and even some Queen bombast into an easily digestible collection. It's, ahem, a fun record - energetic and catchy and even sometimes poignant ("The Gambler".) While Ruess' reckless abandon vocals might take a little bit to get used to, once you settle into Aim and Ignite's groove, it's a wonderful ride. The arrangements and orchestration are impressive and just the overall mood crafted by the band is one of wonderment. I wish I had a little more time to spend with this before the list came out, because I think it would have placed higher, but clocking in where it does, on very limited listenings, is a testament to its quality.

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20. The Five Ghosts - Stars (Vagrant)
Put these on your iPod right now: "Dead Hearts", "Fixed", "I Died So I Could Haunt You"

On the heels of 2007's masterful and grandiose In Our Bedroom After The War, this Canadian quintet continues to churn out emotional pop albums that expertly utilize genres like electronica and borderline dance music to paint an interesting musical landscape. The Five Ghosts is a mostly dreamy, ethereal affair - what you would expect from the album's name. And drawing on great songwriting and the vocal interplay of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, the tunes are a brilliant mixture of being sonically lush and eerily sparse. Delicate piano and strings round out the mellower tunes while electronic drums punctuate the more up-tempo numbers. The Five Ghosts further solidifies Stars' place in the underrated pop artists pantheon and is also proof of a band hitting their creative stride.

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Previous list appearances: In Our Bedroom After The War (#4 in 2007)

19. Shame Shame - Dr. Dog (Anti)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Someday", "Stranger", "Later"

Shame, shame on you if you don't know Dr. Dog. The Philly band's fifth proper full length release is full of all the usual psych-pop hooks and energy of their previous offerings. And while the band hasn't necessarily made tremendous musical leaps since 2008's excellent Fate, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality when it sounds this good. There's a bit of a '60s psychedelic undertone to a lot of the songs here - discernable piano, excellent group vocals - yet the collection of eleven songs never sounds dated. Lead guitarist Scott McMicken and bassist Toby Leaman share lead vocal duties, but make no mistake - the Dr. Dog sound is a true, full collaborative effort. The compositions are lively get the toes tapping, but the true strength is just the solid melodies and great songwriting. The funny thing, especially with Shame Shame, is you could listen to each song and say, "That sounds like ________." But the band you fill in the blank with changes track to track and at the end of the day, Dr. Dog might sound like a lot of bands out there. But no one band can sound like them.

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Previous list appearances: Fate (#8 in 2008)

18. The Monitor - Titus Andronicus (XL)

Put these on your iPod right now: "A More Perfect Union", "A Pot In Which To Piss", "Four Score And Seven"

Fuzzy, raucous, and sometimes disturbing, this loosely conceptual album by New Jersey's Titus Andronicus is filled with a drunken swagger that is surprisingly cohesive. The lyrics are delivered with a gravelly bark, so as to invoke sitting in a filthy pub swinging your stein in the air. Never shying away from a lengthy tune, the band manages to extract a fine, straight-ahead rock record from the discordant chaos all while riffing on Springsteen and Velvet Underground lyrics to construct what seems to be a record that fuses Civil War themes with the present day, and even a mention of a Fung Wah bus. And if that isn't worth at least one listen, I'm not sure what is.

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17. You (Understood) - Samantha Crain (Ramseur)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Two-Sidedness", "Equinox", "Religious Wind"

The latest offering from Oklahoman Samantha Crain is a complex, mature folk rock collection. Amazingly, Crain is only 24, but her compositions and oddly unique voice seemingly belong to an artist well beyond her years. Crain proves she is growing as an artist and there are definitely some welcomed veers off the traditional folk path here - guitar solos, some interesting discord, and even a vocal part that is more rap than croon ("Toothpicks") really accentuate how far out of the genre Crain is daring to go. Weirdly, the album has a little trouble finding its groove at first, but its placement in this list is testament to how great that groove actually is once it is found. You (Understood) walks a fine line here - it could be considered too rocking to satisfy the hardcore folkies and a little too restrained for folks who like a heavier edge to their rock. But songs like the outstanding "Two-Sidedness" really show Crain not being concerned with such labels and, instead, making a record that showcases her ample talent.

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Previous list appearances: Songs In The Night (with the Midnight Shivers) (#22 in 2009)

16. 1,000 Years - The Corin Tucker Band (Kill Rock Stars)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Doubt", "1,000 Years", "Half A World Away"

Sleater-Kinney's former front woman returns from a musical hiatus with a richly satisfying and mature rock record. While the oppressive musical crunch and high pitched wails from S-K's swan song The Woods are long gone and hard to find, where 1,000 Years succeeds is just how measurable Tucker's musical growth is since the Portland-via-Olympia trio disbanded four years ago. There are some remnants of the Sleater-Kinney sound here and Tucker unleashes her trademarked howl a couple of times, but the record remains edgy despite its restraint. Whether it's the bratty pop of "Doubt" or the droning of "Big Goodbye", 1,000 Years is a triumphant return for Tucker. And, like most S-K fans, I'm left wanting just a LITTLE more rock and just a LITTLE more wail, but this release solidifies the fact that a mature, restrained Corin Tucker is still infinitely better than no Corin Tucker at all.

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15. Treats - Sleigh Bells (Mom & Pop Music)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Tell 'Em", "Riot Rhythm", "Infinity Guitars"

This Brooklyn, NY duo's debut a pure noise pop delight. Genre-defying, Derek E. Miller's crunching guitars combined with Alexis Krauss' angelic vocals run the gamut of metal, dance, bubblegum pop, and everything in between. The songs are relatively short, but pack a wallop in their time. Treats starts off with an immediate explosion of sound and never lets up, even culminating in the minute-and-a-half thrash of "Straight A's." For all their noise, the tunes here are quite catchy, relying on the wall of Miller's guitars and processors all fighting it out with Krauss' floating voice for your attention. While the lyrics won't win any acclaim from the Neil Pearts of the rock world, there's something about the immaturity of the content, coupled with the intelligence of the music that makes Treats endearing and a fun 2010 release.

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14. Mines - Menomena (Barsuk)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Taos", "Oh Pretty Boy, You're Such a Big Boy", "Queen Black Acid"

It's a little hard to put your finger on Menomena. They sure do like their noise. But they also like their quiet. Maybe that's what makes Mines, the band's fourth full-length release so enjoyable. It can be rowdy and loud ("Taos") as well as quieter and pensive ("Intil") with neither outplaying the other. Never sacrificing melody for discord, the impressive production here (done by the band themselves) excels in showcasing all of the many instruments employed by the trio. Nothing is drowned out, nothing deemed unimportant enough to not hear. Particularly nice are the consistently rolling drums and the complicated bass lines that appear throughout. There's a ton going on here and it may take you a few listens to hear everything Menomena meant for you to hear. But with an album this strong and audibly diverse, listening multiple times is a welcomed activity, rather than a chore. There is a restless pace to the tunes and, when it all ends, you miss the franticness and want it to come back. Which is the hallmark of an excellent record.

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13. Sigh No More - Mumford & Sons (Glass Note)
Put these on your iPod right now: "The Cave", "Thistle And Weeds", "Roll Away Your Stone"

London-based quartet Mumford & Sons are a polarizing band and, fittingly, so is their debut album of a dozen indie folk rock tracks. You're either into that kind of folk rock scene or you aren't, and if that genre ain't your cup of tea, there's nothing I can do to convince you this is a good album. But, if you happen to like this sort of thing, Sigh No More is a stunning and emotional release, worthy of praise and placement in some of the genre's best work over the years. While some of the lyrics may seem forced, what is really impressive is the musical depth of the songs. Relying on acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins and the like to tell the stories here, the band is tight and streamlined and the entire offering benefits from repeated listenings. Not perfect, but thoroughly enjoyable, Sigh No More is an excellent start to a career. As the band further develops their songwriting chops, one can see the slight flaws in their game slowly going away. If their debut can't convert new fans of the indie folk movement, it wouldn't be surprising if the next one did.

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12. The Ghost Who Walks - Karen Elson (XL/Third Man)
Put these on your iPod right now: "The Truth Is In The Dirt", "Stolen Roses", "Mouths To Feed"

If I told you that Karen Elson is a British model who is married to White Stripe and all-around musical genius Jack White and that she put out a record this year, what would you think? What would you expect? Would you believe it would be an extraordinarily strong release that merits inclusion in my ultra-exclusive best-of list? You'd better. Elson's debut effort is hauntingly retro, expertly calling upon her songwriting (yes, songwriting) strength of perfectly crafting Appalachian murder ballads and gothic folk. While White's musical presence is hard to deny here, he very much stays in the background and lets Elson's unwavering voice and surprisingly complex compositions steal the show. If you find yourself considering this release, do yourself a favor and look around for the bonus tracks, because tunes like "Mouths to Feed" and the iTunes-only "In Trouble With The Lord" are far from throwaway songs. Elson proves here she is way more than just another pretty face. Another release like this and she might end up being known as "that musician who also models" instead of the other way around.

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11. Infinite Arms - Band Of Horses (Fat Possum/Columbia)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Loredo", "Factory", "Compliments"

Quite possibly the most mainstream record on this list. I'm not really sure what impresses me so much about this, the Seattle quintet's third full release. The songs structures are simple, for the most part. There's not a noticeable sharp musical edge. The lyrics aren't challenging. But maybe now that I think about it - perhaps those are precisely the reasons why I do enjoy this record so much. It's dreamy, comfortable, and familiar. It's an easy listen, chock full of great melodies and vocal harmonies. Not every great album has to feature a whacked out time signature or an eight minute theremin solo. Not every great album is sometimes a chore to plow through. Sometimes, a dozen of so really good songs is simply enough. Then, once you tack on the textured orchestration - there's enough going on to keep you interested, but not enough to be oppressive - you're left with a surprisingly solid album. What leader Ben Bridwell and the boys have wrought here is not an edgy album, but solid just the same.

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10. We Are Born - Sia (Jive)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Stop Trying", "Clap Your Hands", "Big Girl Little Girl"

Sia Furler unquestionably possesses one of the most captivating and unique voices in music today. She doesn't hold back in her latest release either, instead completely unleashing it amidst a storm of upbeat electro-pop dance music. Fans of Sia's previous releases might find the tempo of We Are Born a little jarring as largely missing are the softer, contemplative pieces (save an amazing cover of Madonna's "Oh Father") in favor of toe-tapping and side-to-side head shaking tunes. But her unmistakable talent as a vocalist AND a songwriter still shines through here. Whether it is the retro feel of "Bring Night" or just the overall fun vibe to We Are Born, Furler proves that not only piano ballads are showcases for powerful voices. Sometimes a good dance number can do the same thing.

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Previous list appearances: Colour The Small One (#17 in 2006), Some People Have Real Problems (#16 in 2008)

9. Grinderman 2 - Grinderman (Anti)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man", "Bellringer Blues", "Evil!"

If you ever thought that Nick Cave's band, the Bad Seeds, was a little too squeaky clean and reserved for your tastes, look no further to his side project, Grinderman, to satisfy your perverse needs. Grinderman's sophomore effort is raunchy, difficult, and brilliant. More focused than their debut, the band still excels with producing fuzzed-out noise as the soundtrack to Cave's unmistakable vocals. Even when the band slows things down, like in "What I Know", there is still a sinister and creepy undertone. It is admittedly a little tough to digest at first - the songs aren't constructed in a manner to get stuck in your head - but the more you spend with Grinderman 2, the more you are apt to like it, even though the feeling of needing a shower after listening to its sludgy nine songs never seems to abate.

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8. Brothers - The Black Keys (Nonesuch)
Put these on your iPod right now: "Howlin' For You", "Tighten Up", "Too Afraid to Love You"

Despite putting out quality releases for almost ten years, this Akron, Ohio garage blues trio has largely flown under the radar. Until now. With Brothers, the band's sixth album, the Keys have taken to further refine their sound and explore a depth to their compositions not seen before. This isn't to suggest that they have lost any of their snarl. Sure, there are few ballads here, but for the most part, guitarist vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney maintain that garage-y sound, with Auerbach's soulful vocals soaring over fuzzed out guitar riffs and percussive punctuation. The growth here is largely due to the band making a slightly higher-than-low fi disc. Auerbach's bass lines are audible and drive some of the tracks, the production level seems to have increased, and even background vocals from R&B songstress Nicole Wray propel a couple of tunes. Some long-time fans of the band may pine for the days when the band sounded raw, but sometimes adding a little polish to something so sharp doesn't have to make it dull. Brothers succeeds on this level and instead of flying under the radar, the band seems poised to fly well above it.

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Previous list appearances: Magic Potion (#22 in 2006), Attack & Release (#7 in 2008)

7. The Suburbs - The Arcade Fire (Merge)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Ready To Start", "The Suburbs", "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)"

The Arcade Fire has many members. Each member plays multiple instruments. You might think this would result in a muddled mess, with people and sounds all tripping over each other. Luckily, for us, it doesn't. Rather, their recordings, particularly this, their third, are remarkably focused and captivatingly complex without being overwrought. The songs here are eclectic, but not alienating. From the shuffling title track to the grandiose "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)", the band successfully walks the fine like of being different and interesting while still producing songs for mass-consumption. In this day and age of the "Shuffle Brain", one might find a 16 track release a little too much of one band to digest in a single sitting. But don't let the album's length fool you. The time breezes by in the Arcade Fire's pop glory and you may even find yourself pressing the repeat button when you are done.

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6. Crooked - Kristin Hersh (Self-Released)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Krait", "Sand", "Robidoux"

Kristin Hersh has to be one of the more daring and prolific artists out there today. Tired of having record companies dictate her art, she now relies on fans' paid subscriptions to finance her operation. The upside for contributing fans is limitless, including unfiltered, untainted music. Hersh's latest continues to showcase her immense musical and songwriting growth. While Crooked isn't saturated with catchy choruses and polished pop, it instead relies more on atmospheric compositions, interesting guitar work, and Hersh's ever-unique vocals. The soaring "Krait" might be the closest thing to a radio single here, but the great part about Hersh's place now is she no longer has to worry about such things. And it shows here with mature, non-formulaic songs that are pensive, focused, and brilliantly executed.

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Previous list appearances: Strange Angels (#8 in 1998), Sky Motel (#3 in 1999), Sunny Border Blue (#1 in 2001), The Grotto (#15 in 2003), Learn To Sing Like A Star (#6 in 2007)

5. Mini Mansions - Mini Mansions (Ipecac)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Crime Of The Season", "The Room Outside", "Wunderbars"

What a pleasant surprise and an oddball little record this is. Mini Mansions, an L.A.-based trio, claims among its founders Michael Shuman, who just happens to be the bass player for stoner rock outfit Queens of the Stone Age. The remarkable thing about about the dozen tracks here is that it couldn't possibly sound any LESS like QOTSA if it tried. Instead, imagine some Beatles, a little Minus 5, and a dash of Elliott Smith all put together. What emerges sounds like the best outtakes from the Revolver sessions. Richly layered and relying on otherworldly vocal harmonies and melodies, the tunes are soothing, but far from boring. Keyboards and Shuman's great bass lines propel most of the tracks, but make no mistake. This is pure, unadulterated pop. Catchy songs, well-written, and well-performed. The cool thing about Mini Mansions is there aren't a lot of bands out there right now that are willing to sound like this, popularity-be-damned. Solid beginning to end, the band's first full length really boasts their influences, and still manages to sound unique.

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4. Wilderness Heart - Black Mountain (Jagjaguwar)

Put these on your iPod right now: "The Hair Song", "Rollercoaster", "Buried By The Blues"

I'll put it to you bluntly. If you don't like "The Hair Song", the first track on this Canadian trippy-rock outfit's latest offering, you are an idiot. Black Mountain comes out with my personal song of the year and manages to have the rest of the disc be practically as solid, which is quite a feat. There's no question the band wears their influences on their sleeves: singer Stephen McBean does a great early Chris Robinson and, in between psychedelic tones, a heavy Zeppelin hand is felt. But the addition of Amber Webber's vocals, both in conjunction with McBean's and leading on her own give the disc an entirely different feel than their influences. Even taking the absurdly catchy "The Hair Song" out of the equation, songwriting is a strength here and the gamut is run with everything from acoustic ballads to some low, deep end rock and roll. And considering there is little, if any, drop off between my favorite song of the year and the rest of the nine tracks, I'd say that makes a pretty damn good album.

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3. Broken Bells - Broken Bells (Columbia)
Put these on your iPod right now: "The High Road", "Your Head Is On Fire", "Trap Doors"

The debut collaboration between James Mercer (he, of the Shins) and Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse) is an odd, mellow affair, but one that is strangely rewarding. The ten songs on their eponymous release benefit strongly from each artists' obvious strengths: Mercer's dynamic vocals soaring over trademarked acoustic pop and Burton's genius-level production capabilities that turn everything he touches into a sonic masterpiece, as well his ability to write songs with seemingly any partner. There's some nod to 80s keyboard pop as well as the psychedelic 60s, but the album does not rest or rely on the past. Instead, it forges a collection of dreamy atmospheric pop that clearly demonstrates what a true collaboration is and should be. Even more importantly, the songs are catchy - unconventional at times (save for the excellent single "The High Road"), but not so much that the idea of "song" is lost. Broken Bells is a stunning work and, hopefully, proof positive that these two talented artists have the chemistry and drive to keep up their teamwork for more releases in the future.

Listen to samples and buy here.

2. Gorilla Manor - Local Natives (French Kiss)
Put these on your iPod right now: "Wide Eyes", "Sun Hands", "Who Knows Who Cares"

Wow, were did these guys come from? Just wonderful, complex pop here. A much more accessible version of Vampire Weekend with even some My Morning Jacket thrown in, this LA-based quintet is masterful in driving rhythms (thanks mostly to bassist Andy Hamm and drummer Matt Frazier) and tight melodies. Each of the dozen tunes is strong, thanks to pretty insane three-part vocal harmonies and taut writing. A band that employs so many different sounds is a natural fit to cover a Talking Heads song, which they triumphantly do ("Warning Sign") and while one can belabor how to best categorize the band, one's time is much better served just basking in the excellent musicianship and enjoying Gorilla Manor. While the albums title refers to a beyond-messy house, its contents are just the opposite: tidy, pristine, and expertly executed.

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1. I Speak Because I Can - Laura Marling (Astralwerks)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Devil's Spoke", "Rambling Man", "Alpha Shallows"

The sophomore release from Britain's Laura Marling is striking on many different levels. Taking her mature-beyond-her-years songwriting chops and guitar playing even another step higher from her debut, 2008's Alas I Cannot Swim, Marling continues to blur the lines between contemporary folk and music from a long ago age. Her guitar playing crisp and clean, she builds her songs orchestrally rather than relying on the usual folk sparseness. Banjos, slide guitars, dobros, percussion all dot the songs, making them transcendent. I Speak Because I Can is a mature offering with mature themes and mature music. While it can sometimes be frail and delicate, it bites back just when you get too comfortable with majestic heart-breaking ferocity. Basking in how majestic and impressive this release is, there is one final piece that makes it even more so - Laura Marling is just 20 years old.

Listen to samples and buy here.


Blogger March to the Sea said...

excellent work man. Lotsa stuff I have no idea on which I really like. I'll have to do some borrowing. #1 has me curious for sure..never heard. Titus A appeared on a few lists as well. Great read, I know its never easy but I dug it man.

10:47 AM  

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