For The Record…
Written by Shay Davis on January 20, 2011
Returning from Winter break, I set up a whiteboard in the KPSU lobby with a simple prompt at the top, â€œFavorite Record of 2010â€. On the lines below I hoped to learn which records were most enjoyed by our fantastic team of DJs over the last year. A lot of the usual suspects made appearances, along with quite a few I had never heard of. This is no surprise, however. Being a Music Director for a radio station carries with it expectations that I will know about and be familiar with the music of every band making records at any given time. Allow me to dispel that myth right away. Anyone working in or around the industry, or even simply music enthusiasts, will likely know that the amounts of new music released on a weekly basis are somewhat insurmountable for anyone, especially full time students. I try my best to listen to everything that is recommended to me, and a majority of what passes across my desk, but the odds are against me, plain and simple.
With that in mind, here is my disclaimer. I am not making the case that these are the best records released in 2010, but merely that these records were most impressive and enjoyable to me. These are the records that I kept going back to, over and instead of the multitude of great releases of the year (and yes, there are MANY records which I listened to, enjoyed, played on my show, recommended to friends, and yet did not make this list). I offer it not as a definitive ranking, but rather as a guide, a recommendation, and maybe even a starting point for a larger discussion about what I consider to have been one hell of a great year for music. Please donâ€™t use this as a forum to disparage the musical tastes of others, but rather to find common ground as well as shed some light on deserving but overlooked releases.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz
â€œIt’s been a long long time since I’ve memorized your face,” begins Futile Devices, the opening track from Sufjan Stevens’ latest The Age of Adz, and it has been a long time. Five years removed from Illinoise and all the hype and hysteria that came along with it, we find Sufjan returning from his self imposed and strikingly Salinger-esque exile. Adz is without a doubt a Sufjan Stevens record, from the lush orchestrations tumbling from chorus to cadence, to the inquisitive and doubting lyrics. Going so long without releasing a proper record can place a lot of pressure on the shoulders of a much ballyhooed musician, but Stevens is not one to shy away from a challenge. Age of Adz is built on a foundation of electronics and glitch-ish pop we haven’t heard in his songwriting since 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, but doesn’t neglectÂ bothÂ his mastery of layered instrumentation and ghostly sparse arrangements that made his (somewhat) more recent works so amazing and endearing. On first listen this album can be difficult to wrap your head around but, like previous efforts, the audience will be rewarded for their repeat visits as the fog of a seemingly jumbled mess begins to give way to the realization of a larger vision. And oh, what a sight it is.â€
Or so I thought last October, when I wrote this review for the KPSU Fall Newsletter. In the time since Iâ€™ve listened to Adz many, many times through and for a period of a few weeks almost listened exclusively to this record when I wasnâ€™t reviewing music for the station. I still feel similar to the way I did at that time, but Iâ€™ll just add a bit more. Age of Adz integrates instruments and influences about as disparate as American popular music gets without losing continuity and cohesiveness, matching flutes and choirs with screaming electric guitars and the occasional auto-tuned vocals (for effect rather than, as is often the case, to cover sour notes). Lyrically, Adz fluctuates between unbridled optimism for the future and introspective dirges, and reflects upon the schizophrenic artwork which adorn the album.
I was lucky enough to see Sufjan perform at the Schnitz (a spectacle in itâ€™s own right), something Iâ€™ve been hoping to do since Seven Swans first made itâ€™s way into my ears in 2004. The show was amazing, and I left convinced of Stevensâ€™ importance and uniqueness in the larger scope of musical advancement. Between songs, Sufjan told the audience of the artist whose drawings, Royal Robertson, who spent countless hours obsessively illustrating the walls of his home with epic science-fiction-esque prophecies, ultimately leading to the unraveling and destruction of his mental health and his family. As he wove the story, I couldnâ€™t help but feel that Sufjan identified with this man and his vision, his determinacy to produce his art, regardless of whether or not others understood it. While Sufjanâ€™s music has long been stigmatized as pandering to hipsters and their kin, I contend that he is actually an incredibly gifted songwriter on par with masters like Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Elliot Smith, and Thom Yorke. Age of Adz, especially in conjunction with All Delighted Peoples, an â€˜EPâ€™ in name only (itâ€™s 8 tracks come less than a minute short of an hour), is a masterwork which I believe will separate itself from the rest of the pile in the decades to come. There is nothing else out there that sounds like this. I donâ€™t doubt that there will be imitators, but Sufjan has firmly and unquestionably planted a flag in the soil.
2. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
Now when I initially created the Favorite record board that I this article is based on, I listed Local Nativesâ€™ debut album, Gorilla Manor, as my pick. Over the weekend I had one of those suddenly wide awake at 3am epiphanies that Sufjan was in fact a more impressive, more adventurous, and ultimately more important record. In addition, while Gorilla Manor was released stateside in February, it was initially released in the UK the previous November. That might contribute to it not being my #1, but it certainly wonâ€™t keep it off my list.
Local Natives are a 5 piece band from California who play jangly indie rock that takes influences from post-punk and afro-pop as readily as they do the fore-bearers of indie rock. With superb 3 and 4 part harmonies flying over highly danceable polyrhythmic drumming, Local Natives produced a rare specimen, a record as enjoyable for itâ€™s technical precision and inventiveness as it is for itâ€™s feel good melodies and unforgettable hooks. In most years, this record would be unparalleled, but Age of Adz is something that most yearâ€™s releases canâ€™t come close to as far as Iâ€™m concerned.
3. The Morning Benders – Big Echo
You may know them as the band from that Reeseâ€™s commercial, but the MB have been creating wonderful pop music in the Bay area for the past few years. Big Echo, produced by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear fame, continues that trend offering up 10 tracks of layered and tripped out pop, somewhere between Brill Building and modern indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective. The opening track, Excuses, ably demonstrates frontman Chris Chuâ€™s growing comfort with and fondness for recording techniques
4. Dungen – Skit I Allt
The sixth full length from Swedish quartet Dungen found them beginning to edge away from the psychedelic guitar rock that dominated their early records and moving closer to the jazz sound that they began toying with on previous records. Hereâ€™s what I wrote about this album in KPSUâ€™s Fall Newsletter, â€œThis is the second album written and recorded largely by the full band as a cohesive unit, and in comparison to the groups previous efforts, which include 2004’s standout Ta Det Lugnt, Skit is a much kinder, gentler collection of songs, moving a few steps away from the band’s cacophonous guitar-based psych-rock roots and a few steps closer to a calmer flowing melancholy led by Ejstes’ piano and flute stylings. However, that’s not to say that Dungen has forgotten how to get loud. Within single songs Dungen takes you across a range of soundscapes, exploring the boundaries of good sense, yet never passing the line of good taste. Building from meditations on a single riff or chord, growing unforced into grandiose distortion filled jams, and back again within the course of a few minutes, Skit I Allt sounds like the output of a band comfortable with their past, their present, and their future. Unwilling to color within the lines laid down on previous albums, Dungen instead create a new reality for themselves, in which beautiful music is much like pornography, hard to define but you know it when you hear it.â€
5. Black Keys – Brothers
The Black Keys dropped yet another fantastic album. On Brothers, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney loosen the reins a bit, bringing in more production (in a good way, unless you are one of those people who makes a big deal about bands staying â€˜true to their rootsâ€™, in which case.. well, I just disagree), more instrumentation, and more disparate influences. Everyone knows who these guys are and what they do. Not much to say on this one. This was one of the biggest releases of the year in the college radio world, and I think it deserves all the kind words it gets.
6. Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
The third KoC album is similar to their last outing, Riot on an Empty Street, but is a much more focused and refined collection. Where Riot.. was a loose gathering of songs, Declaration feels like a cohesive unit, one story separated into thirteen chapters. There is a bit of an island feel injected into the songs, but the basic idea is the same, Norwegian indie pop idols singing (in glorious harmonies) wry tunes about women on acoustic guitars. Somewhat like Simon and Garfunkle, if that duo were a great deal more interested in making people dance.
7. Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Swedish solo artist Kristian Matsson released his second full length in April, and since that time has been gaining respect and admiration around the world. Kristian is a small man, but his voice is larger than mountains, and his proficiency with a guitar is nearly as large. Start to finish this is an album of beautiful and heartfelt americana-esque (except swedish??) folk. The production of this record is far superior to his previous effort, Shallow Grave, but nowhere near overdone. Just simple recordings of a man, a guitar, and a voice that truly is a thing of wonder.
8. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang – The Wonder Show of the World
Bonnie â€˜Princeâ€™ Billy, otherwise known as Will Oldham, has been around for ever. Seriously, this guy has 17 albums, 22 eps, and 5 live albums under his belt in various incarnations, whether it be Bâ€™Pâ€™B, Palace Music, or just plain olâ€™ Will Oldham. He specializes in what might be called sad bastard music, but also might be called the soundtrack to being a hermit in the woods, and further called gorgeous americana celebrating the joys and sorrows of life. Similar to his 2006 release, Let Go, Wonder Show.. is a collection of folksy guitar based tunes that provide a melancholy accompaniment to Oldhamâ€™s smoky vocals. There is no better music in the world for a drive through the wilderness as the sun sets. Seriously, did that, and it was perfect.
9. Vampire Weekend – Contra
Vampire Weekend, otherwise known as that band from the Honda commercial, play a blend of bouncy indie rock with afro-pop guitar licks and heavy reverb vocals. This record was pretty much everywhere you looked this year, so I wonâ€™t go in to much detail. It was good, and people liked it. I was one of those people. For what itâ€™s worth, the closing track, I Think UR A Contra, by all accounts a rather simple and dreary number, ended up being one of my favorite listens on the bus. Itâ€™s one of those songs that makes gazing out the window seem almost cinematic.
10. First Aid Kit – The Big Black and the Blue
Yet another Swedish act making the top ten, First Aid Kit is comprised of sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg. Although neither is old enough to order a drink in the US of A, these girls are writing incredibly mature and stunningly lovely folk music much akin to Fleet Foxes, a band who interestingly enough may be indirectly responsible for the Soderbergâ€™s success. In 2008, equipped with a guitar and a camera, Johanna and Klara filmed a cover version of Fleet Foxesâ€™ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song, currently about 18 thousand shy of 2 million views on youtube. FAK then released an EP called Drunken Trees, which was so so, as so many first releases tend to be. They returned in early 2010 with The Big Black and the Blue, 11 tracks of wonderful folk typically built around a single guitar and some of the most incredible vocals I have ever heard.
EP of the year:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – Horse Power
This is the first release from Detroit duo DEJrJr, and Iâ€™m so glad I happened across it. In just four songs, three really considering the last track is a cover of the Beach Boys classic God Only Knows, these guys have made the case for their inclusion in this list. Regardless of diminished quantity, there is quality abound on Horse Power..With soaring vocals, perky instrumentation (saxophone!), driving beats, and liberal application of handclaps, Dale is(are?) capable of putting a smile on my face in even the most dire of circumstances. Bus is full? Thatâ€™s okay, I have Dale. Dog ate my homework? No problem, Iâ€™ve got Dale. And what the hell, I donâ€™t even have a dog. Rumor has it they will be dropping a full length in early 2011.
â€¨â€¨Honorable Mentions in no specific order:
Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming Yet another AMAZING record from the Dap-tone label. Bradley has an incredible voice which speaks(or sings I suppose) to a life hard lived. Dude is for real. If any of these records should have made the top ten, itâ€™s probably this one. Might even have post-post regrets.
Suckers – Wild Smile Weirdness abounds, and itâ€™s a lot of fun.
Jonquil – 100 Suns Like Culture Club covering Paul Simonâ€™s Graceland.
Beach House – Teen Dream Fantastic synth pop, very dreamy and danceable.
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest This is just good stuff, but hard to describe.
Y La Bamba – Lupon Combining your typical Portland indie rock schtick with latin influences. Very cool.
David Bazan – Curse Your Branches The man formerly behind Pedro the Lion returns with his first full length under his real name. No longer singing praises to God, Bazan instead sings of his trials and tribulations, and coming to grips with losing his religion.
Jenny and Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now Jenny Lewis and her boytoy, Jonathon Rice, make a record that sounds like She and Him covering Bruce Springsteen. Or something.. I dunno.
Surfer Blood – Astrocoast One of the better bands to come out of that whole beach-core craze that hit last summer. Just plain fun.
Typhoon – Hunger and Thirst Local band makes good. This expertly produced record put Typhoon in the big leagues.
Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society Portland born jazz singer and bassist. Esperanza does amazing things which reinvigorate a genre which has been lacking bold direction for quite some time.
So there you have it, my favorite music of 2010. What’s yours?
KPSU DJ’s Year End Lists
first, here are the results from the aforementioned whiteboard:
Jaycation – Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz
Devin James- LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
John Rau – Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Cosmic Jim – Tilda Flipers
Peter Sampson – Bear Hands – Burning Bush Supper Club
Dangerous Doug – Rusko – O.M.G.
Uncle Larry – Gaelic Storm – Cabbage
Jeff – Led Zeppelin – II (har har har..)
Pale Rider – Curren$y – Pilot Talk
Da Sage – Ras Kase – A.D.I.D.A.S.
Matt Nelkin – Dave Aja – Flexa
Casey Hardmeyer- Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
Chad Thomas – Black Keys – Brothers
Alex Fiks – Black Keys – Brothers
Victoria Joanne – Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Jason – Dr Dog – Shame, Shame
Oh, Charlene – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
Chris – PMONAT! (?)
DJ Simmerdown – The Slacker – Great Rocksteady Swindle
And here are some individual best of lists:
Deerhunter- Halcyon Digest
LCD Soundsystem- This is Happening
Sun Araw- On Patrol
Women- Public Strain
Julian Lynch- Mare
Poison Apple Records
The Estranged – The Subliminal Man
Beach House – Teen Dream
The Fall – Your Future Our Clutter
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Personal and The Pizzas – Raw Pie
Amiina – Puzzle
Anathallo – Canopy Glow
Anoushka Shankar & Karsh Kale – Breathing Under Water
Balmorhea – All Is Wild, All Is Silent
Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
Dylan Mondegreen – While I Walk You Home
Freelance Whales – Weathervanes
Hey Marseilles – To Travels & Trunks
Janelle MonÃ¡e – The ArchAndroid
Ã“lÃ¶f Arnalds – Innundir Skinni
1. Mondo Cane – Mondo Cane. Mike Patton with a full orchestra reinterpreting Italian pop songs from the 1950s and 60s. Enough said.
2. Bear Hands – whatever that record is called. Pretty much the first record from a “new” band that i’ve loved in probably 3 years.
1. Borgore – Borgore Ruined Dubstep Vol. 1 & 2
(The man who took dubstep to its DIRTIEST, Borgore comes with a solid release, which is quite contrary to the title. With a strong background in metal, Borgore brings hits & speeds unfound in other areas of dubstep. This one is sure to be a favorite.)
2. RUSKO – O.M.G.
(One of the pioneers to the dubstep genere & one of the few big names in dubstep actually bringing home the bacon, Rusko’s latest release brings amazing rhythms, old school garage 4×4 beats, over hard hitting drums & breakdowns. Solid album start to finish.)
3. Magnetic Man – Magnetic Man (self titled LP)
(Bringing together 3 of dubsteps biggest names, Magnetic Man is SKREAM, BENGA & Artwork. Mind blowing album, with tastes from all over the genre, an obvious force to be reckoned with.)
4. Nit Grit – The Awakening EP
(Straight from the Left Coast, Nit Grit brings spacey, tripped out melodies to hard hitting, almost Sci-Fi sounding drums & bass. Amazing production on each track, none which disappoint.)
5. Curren$y – Pilot talk 1 & 2
(The only hip hop artist to make my top 5 of 2010, Curren$y delivers classic New Orleans swagger and banging rap anthems about the essentials of life: zigzags, women & having your shit on lock. Curren$y motto, J.E.T.S. has little to do with the football teams recent success, but more importantly, highlights an important part of life: JUST ENJOY THIS SHIT. )
Cody Austin Rich
01.) Ke$ha – Animal
If, for no other reason, “Tik Tok” made this album all worth while. I kept coming back to it, even when I knew I shouldn’t.
02.) Moment In Static – Demos
Local math-rockers are stellar, live and recorded. Check out one of their rare live shows, or their archived KPSU performance.
03.) The Oblik – Demos
Pop rock like they used to make, with equal-parts goth and glam. Hooks and then some, and rewarding upon multiple listens.
04.) Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings – I Learned The Hard Way
You need this album the way you need to hit the clubs on a Friday night, but this is better for the wee hours of the night, when you’re feeling introspective.
05.) The Black Keys – Brothers
This is what rock and roll is all about. The hyper-color disc says it all: this band either polarizes you one way or the other. For me, I became a full-on convert.
06.) Grinderman – 2
The most anticipated record of the year, and well worth the wait. Nick Cave with a sense of humor is the best kind of Nick Cave to listen to, and this record is something to get genuinely creeped out about.
07.) No Age – Everything In Between
Get this album. Listen to it twice daily. Then try telling me I’m wrong about it. I dare you.
08.) Weekend – Sports
This album snuck in late for me, as I found only a week or so ago. But it is, without a doubt, the best album of 2010.
09.) Quasi / Pavement – Live!
A chance to see Pavement was the highlight of the year, and the show delivered everything I wanted and more. Quasi was great, too.
When all was said and done, I had my computer locked on kpsu.org. It had all of this, and more, 24 hours a day.