2010 marks the 18th consecutive year that I’ve published an “Albums of the Year” list in print or online. I’m pleased to be posting this year’s list at Indie Albany, and hope that it’s the first of many annual album recaps to come here. As always, these picks are subjective and based on my own listening habits, so they don’t purport to represent the totality of recorded and released music over the past twelve months, but rather only the small slice of the total musical pie that I actually consumed.
Despite the preponderance of intolerable and forgettable commercial fluff that dominated the popular charts this year, which seem to have become ever more closely linked to commercial television pap, I thought that 2010 was an excellent year for new music. But reaching that conclusion required me to put in the effort to find things that weren’t pre-chewed products of the of the big league music making industry’s manufacturing assembly lines. In some years, it’s been a stretch for me to come up with 20 albums that I want to highlight in December, but this year, it took some effort to cut the list back to 25. And that’s a good thing.
It really didn’t take a lot of thought and effort, though, for me to pick my 2010 Album of the Year, as one record clearly dominated my listening habits over the past twelve months more than any other: Snog’s Last of the Great Romantics.
Snog is a long-running musical outlet for the insanely prolific Australian David Thrussell, who also records as Soma and Black Lung, and does a fair spot of soundtrack work as well. He’s aggressively anti-corporate, anti-capitalist and anti-statist, and has put some astoundingly apocalyptic lyrics atop great beats that you can dance to over the years. What sets 2010’s Snog offering a sizable step above any earlier works in Thrussell’s vast canon is a greater embrace of melody, richer vocal arrangements, an increased deployment of organic/acoustic instrumentation amidst the crashing beats, and a growing sense of emotional frailty and community spirit in the lyrics. While railing against “The Man” is always great, and still features strongly throughout Last of the Great Romantics, Thrussell looks inward on this disc a lot, at what he labels the “hole in the heart of a man.” He also more fully embraces the importance of community in troubling times like these, noting “we’re all in this together, as quaint as that may be / it’s you and you, and you and you, and little old me.”
In a year when I made a conscious, active decision to move my own main writing outlet from a commercial to an independent venue, I find it fitting and honorable to uplift an album by an artist who has spent his entire career questioning the meaning and menace of modern commercial culture. What Indie Albany is seeking to achieve in our little market (a running dialog about the connections between commerce and creativity, and a home for those who choose the latter over the former), David Thrussell has sought to achieve on a global basis for decades. And with Last of the Great Romantics, Thrussell has reached a new pinnacle of creative achievement, offering an album that is topical, timely and true. It’s the best thing I listened to in 2010, hands down, and it’s still holding my attention, months after its release. That’s the mark of truly great stuff, I think.
Here are my other 24 Best Albums of 2010, listed in alphabetical order, since there’s really not any meaningful distinction between something ranked as #4 and something ranked as #11 or #23, is there? A: no, there’s not. I’ve included brief blurbs and links to help you explore, and every one of these discs will reward a spin or three.
Aloe Blacc, Good Things: Fabulous original R&B music, tapping Marvin Gaye and Philly Soul in equal measures.
Black Mountain, Wilderness Heart: Beefy boy-girl folk-rock-blues from a British Columbia based collective.
Broken Bells, Broken Bells: Gnarls Barkley’s Dangermouse pairs with James Mercer of The Shins for an album that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards: A triumph of album design: I bought this for the cover, and didn’t realize it was a side project of The White Stripes’ Jack White until after I’d listened to it a few times. Good thing, since I like it a lot, and would likely not have purchased it had I known its provenance beforehand.
Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest: Indie rock from Atlanta, with some choice pop hooks in between the sneaker-gazes.
Devo, Something for Everybody: Utterly astonishing return to form after a quarter-century absence, sounding fresher than they ever have.
Max Eider, Disaffection: Another brilliant disc from the dyspeptic English singer-songwriter-guitarist who continues to offers style and taste to a world gone crass and dull.
Fang Island, Fang Island: Triple-guitar indie rock from Brooklyn by way of Providence, Rhode Island. Much, much better than most of the other hipster-friendly fare coming out of Brooklyn of late.
Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks: I was certain this worthy disc from the Scottish band was going to be my Album of the Year, until I heard Snog’s 2010 contribution. Beautiful songs, richly arranged, passionately sung. Definitely the year’s Silver Medalist.
Future Islands, In the Evening Air: And here’s the year’s Bronze Medalist, an extraordinarily unusual album from a band that was birthed at East Carolina University, where, once upon a time, I spent a lot of unhealthy time. Singer Samuel Herring is one of the most exciting musical finds I experienced this year, and I think this unique band’s potential is huge.
John Grant, Queen of Denmark: Brilliantly skewed pop with spectacularly innovative arrangements from the Denver-based former lead singer of The Czars.
Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer: The summer hit “F**k You!” was just the tip of the iceberg. I wouldn’t have actively wished for Gnarls Barkley to break up, but since their split put two albums instead of one into my Top 25 this year, I guess I can’t complain.
Grinderman, Grinderman 2: Another successful scuzz-fest from Nick Cave and cronies, spawning the year’s best video to boot (“Heathen Child,” which is not suitable for work or for those with sensitive constitutions).
The Joy Formidable, A Balloon Called Moaning: Brilliant female-fronted Welsh pop-rock, incredibly catchy, vibrant, and vital after but a single listen.
Korn, III: Remember Who You Are: The remaining members have ditched the glossy production that marred their last two studio discs, and returned to the scummy, hard, low-end fare that earned them their fame. Smart move, as “Oildale” is their best song in a decade, easy.
The Left Rights, Bad Choices Made Easy: Another great spattering of scatology and scurf from this side project by Mindless Self Indulgence’s male half. Worth the price of admission just to hear Darth Vader say “When last we met, I was the catcher . . . now I am the pitcher!”
Menomena, Mines: A challenging and rewarding disc from the Portland, Oregon-based trio of multi-instrumentalists, who seem to arrange and perform every song as though it were a unique, special, one-off item. The resultant album variety is stunning.
Miri, Okkar: I picked this album up in Reykjavik, Iceland this summer at the 12 Tonar Record Store, courtesy a recommendation from Einar the record clerk. It’s a great disc of mostly-instrumental post-rock following in the traditions of the early Fall, Slint, Polvo and the like. Nice work, Einar. I appreciate it.
The Radio Dept., Clinging to a Scheme: Swedish Indie Pop, with all that you’d expect from such a description: sweet melodies, glossy production, frosty song-craft.
Stornoway, Beachcomber’s Windowsill: Gutsy and grand folk pop from Oxford, England. “Zorbing” may well be the year’s best single, and “We Are The Battery Human” is certainly among the most thought-provoking.
Suckers, Wild Smile: Another Brooklyn-based Indie Rock quartet, as much as I hate to admit that I listen to such hipster fare. I guess it’s like what they say about a million monkeys and Shakespeare.
Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky: Sounds more like Angels of Light than Swans to me, for the most part, but whatever Michael Gira chooses to call it, this is the best record he’s put out in 20 years, at least.
Tame Impala, Inner Speaker: Spectacular psychedelic rock from the Western shores of Australia, sounding like it could have been recorded in 1973, only with modern studio equipment. Tasty and nice.
Neil Young, Le Noise: A solo electric album from the ever-eclectic Mister Young and collaborator Daniel Lanois (hence the album title); I think this is the best record Neil has released since 1981’s Re-Ac-Tor. Of course, most casual Neil Young fans hate that earlier album, so I suspect they won’t like this one either, but, hey, good is good, and that’s what this is.