What an amazing time for indie rock. Each year we take issue with proclamations that any given set of 365 days was better or worse than any other set of 365 days, but we were very excited by what we heard this year, and what we think we'll be hearing next year. Musical trends ignore the calendar, of course, but we feel like in 2011 a lot of music is going to be informed by sounds characteristic of our favorite bands of the early '90s. Just a hunch, and this isn't the place to make that argument, but we feel it. We're excited. For now, we'd like to celebrate the 10 best records of 2010, by our humble estimation.
Long-time readers will be familiar with our ground rules from lists in prior years; here it is in a nut shell. We look at our ITunes play counts, we see what was played most, and those are our picks. Simple. Some related comments: Arcade Fire does not make it into our list, and probably should, or at least would have come close. We didn't connect with Neon Bible, and as bracing as Funeral was, we felt like it was over-wrought in places. But The Suburbs, released (as we are sure you know) in 2010, really spoke to us; we connected with the themes of adulthood, distance and alienation. But we listened to the disc a lot in our car, and plays in the car aren't captured in our rankings. Sorry Arcade Fire. Other records that certainly should be heard include Bettie Serveert's Pharmacy Of Love, Joie De Vivre's The North End and Tears Run Rings' Distance, just to name a few. So what did make the proverbial grade? Read below, and avail yourself of the many streams scraped from Soundcloud.
1. Los Campesinos! -- Romance Is Boring -- Wichita/Arts+Crafts
Heavier, denser, and more focused than all prior efforts, Romance Is Boring -- to use a hackneyed phrase we hate -- finds Los Campesinos! at the peak of its powers. We've grappled with how to articulate the strengths of the Cardiff-based octet's record all year. It doesn't necessarily have Los Camp!'s catchiest jams -- indeed there are things that drive us crazy about the record (what is that grinding sound laced through the mix in the verses of "In Medias Res?" Why is it there? It reminds us of how a song on A Ghost Is Born was supposed to represent Tweedy's migraines). But the songwriting, composition and production is fully realized, impervious and whole. We really wonder where the band can go from Romance Is Boring, because the record is flawless. The musicianship of the players has wrongly taken a critical back seat to fronter Gareth Campesinos!'s personality and (at times comical, at times harrowing) lyrics; that is understandable, but if you mentally strip the words out of this set it is still gripping. That said, Gareth's performances here are amazing, and none more so than the cataclysmic album closer "Coda: A Burn Scar In The Shape Of The Sooner State," where the devastating and searing final lyric "I can't believe I chose the mountains every time you chose the sea" makes for the most crushing moments in recorded music in 2010.
Romance Is Boring by Los Campesinos!
2. Walter Schreifels -- An Open Letter To The Scene -- Dine Alone/Big Scary Monsters
As we quipped in a recent episode of CompCon, if you told us in 1990 that Walter Schreifels would release our favorite record of 2010, and that it would be a largely acoustic pop affair, we'd have thought you were crazy. But, of course, it is true. Mr. Schreifels has crafted what is perhaps the most listenable, catchy collection of the year. The fact that he is working in a sonic vernacular that to us seemed very unlikely (since we haven't really followed Schreifels' career closely since Quicksand) underscores the amazing songwriting and performance chops at his command. In fact, the more unlikely the scenario, it seems, the more convincingly Schreifels succeeds. A song about pop rapper Lil' Kim? Called "The Ballad Of Lil' Kim?" Ridiculous, right? Wrong -- somehow our hero turns out a scrappy, yearning and wistful pop classic. A song eulogizing hardcore like it was a person, called "An Open Letter To The Scene," with lyrics including "at the hardcore funeral I cried and cried?" Ridiculous, right? Wrong. This song is awesome. As is the rest of An Open Letter To The Scene. Schreifels returns with a new Rival Schools record in 2011, and the first single is great, to be sure. But it will be a very tall order for it to be as good as An Open Letter To The Scene, which is, in a word, superlative.
07 Arthur Lee's Lullaby by Dine Alone Records
3. Everyone Everywhere -- Everyone Everywhere -- Tiny Engines
We know what you're thinking. "Really? This unassuming, straightforward and sometimes a bit silly collection of pop-tinged hardcore?" To which our response is this: do not to make the mistake of underestimating the self-titled debut full-length from this Philly-based foursome. Everyone Everywhere is sneaky, just understated enough to not attract much attention, but the collection is perfectly paced, packed with hooks and Hoovers up all the right influences (The Promise Ring, Superchunk). In a way it's like those drinks that were just banned in the US that had booze and tons of caffeine. Everyone Everywhere wins with glorious guitars and big vocal melodies, which power both soaring choruses like that of "Raw Bar OBX 2002" and the dream-like reverie of "Obama House, Fukui Prefecture." It all adds up to something surprisingly irresistible.
Blown Up Grown Up by beartrappr
4. Calories -- Basic Nature -- Tough Love
Calories' hotly anticipated, but delayed sophomore set was certainly worth the wait. The perennially under-rated Birmingham, England-based power trio here delivers characteristically hooky, brawling post-punk anthems while expanding its sound to include additional textures and temperaments. "The Brink" clocks in at nearly seven minutes in length, challenging Calories' reputation for bluntness and brevity, and deconstructs into a motorik jam. Two pleasantly disorienting set pieces, "Basic Nature 1" and "Basic Nature 2," set off sections of Basic Nature and offer evidence that the trio can thrive outside its winning format for fist-banging shouters. Even so, the record's finest moments are not the singles or odd appendages, but rather the desperate quasi opener "You Could Be Honest" and the upbeat album cut "Even Stephens," which touts melody to spare, bludgeoning drumming and a brilliant sinewy lead guitar in the chorus. Basic Nature is all of your favorite things, only better.
Basic Nature by Calories
5. Johnny Foreigner -- You Thought You Saw A Shooting Star But Yr Eyes Were Blurred With Tears And That Lighthouse Can Be Pretty Deceiving With The Sky So Clear And Sea So Calm -- Alcopop!
While we predictably loved this EP from our first listen, the more we listen the more we feel like we under-estimated You Thought You Saw A Shooting Star But Yr Eyes Were Blurred With Tears And That Lighthouse Can Be Pretty Deceiving With The Sky So Clear And Sea So Calm. The more we listen, the more we hear the themes, the hurt and the desperation. Opener "The Wind And The Weathervanes" ends serenading, its final 90 seconds a stirring and beautiful coda of feedback and strings that almost makes you forget the stinging admission that the narrator's ex-lover was probably right. The coda butts against the thrashing opening of "Who Needs Comment Boxes When You've Got Knives," which at first seems like a ham-fisted bit of sequencing until one realizes the discord is entirely the point. Indeed, the achievement of You Thought You Saw... is how well it conveys the discomfort of being in one's own skin, stewing in one's own thoughts ("this is how he'll spend forever with you...," "I wish I had a part in this...") when the world seems to be moving on without you. There is solace in the goofy, beat-driven and D Plan-referencing half of "Elegy For Post Teenage Living (Parts 1 and 2)," and even deliverance in the cymbal crash and guitar crash of the verses and conclusion of the song's front half. Whether considered in parts or as a whole, the EP is further evidence that Johnny Foreigner is among the best bands working today.
6. The Henry Clay People -- Somewhere On The Golden Coast -- TBD
Ah, the thrill of the perfect pure rock record. Time was you could count on The Hold Steady to deliver the sort of goods delivered here, but while that act has begun experimenting out of its comfort zone (actually quite successfully: Heaven Is Whenever is a sleeper record full of charm), The Henry Clay People have stuck with its son-of-the-son-of-The Replacements sound and attitude. Somewhere On The Golden Coast is chock-a-block with rootsy, narrative shouters, melodic and self-deprecating odes to slackerdom. As we said in our review (link below), the People spread their wings a little wider here, going beyond the bar room for atmospheric, textures and feedback on the standout "A Temporary Fix." Of course, there are still plenty of rockers, including the driving winner "Your Famous Friends." You need this record, and having a back-up copy ain't a bad idea, either.
Somewhere on the Golden Coast by C3 Artist mgmt
7. Spoon -- Transference -- Merge
While the early warning was that this was a difficult record that the band created for its own satisfaction, the fact is Transference is characteristically strong. Perhaps, as we speculated on CompCon, the message was supposed to convey that Spoon's newest collection wasn't likely to win over news fans, wasn't likely to cross over into the more broadly embraced radio formats. At any rate, Spoon fans bought the record and have probably reached the same conclusion we have -- Transference is a taut, economical and flawless record of minimalist indie rock. Fronter Britt Daniel's lyrics are a bit more impressionistic, and there are some entrancing production flourishes (mostly just expertly applied delays and reverbs), but there are no missteps here, just great songs you can dance to or drink beer along with. Win.
Spoon -- "Out Go The Lights (Demo)" -- Spoontheband.com Bonus download.
8. Titus Andronicus -- The Monitor -- XL
We didn't review this record from Glen Rock, New Jersey's finest indie punk quintet. Frankly, we saw no reason to draft anything after reading our friend and former bandmate Jim's review (link below). So while we haven't spent much time thinking critically about this record, doing so would have missed the point. Titus Andronicus' music is visceral, pounding with a desperate energy and exalted angst. The fact that there is a U.S. Civil War theme draped around the collection, the fact that fronter Patrick Stickles coopts and spins Springsteen lyrics to his own ends, doesn't dispel the immediacy of the driving guitars or hollered vocals, or the emotional punch of a Boston/Jersey long-distance relationship collapsing -- one Fung Wah bus ride at a time -- like so many arranged dominoes. While chronicling a crippling break-up, The Monitor never broods, but instead revels in the anguish and pain, celebrates the strife, and all the while rocks right along the precipice of forcefully strummed, bluntly chorded chaos.
TITUS ANDRONICUS // A More Perfect Union
9. Distractions -- Distractions -- Plus Tapes/Infinite Best
This selection for the year-end list reminds us of that snarky t-shirt that proclaims "I Listen To Bands That Don't Even Exist Yet." That's because, as it turns out, our number nine selection is kinda sorta not out yet. The collection is a self-titled cassette put out by a Chicago-based outfit called Distractions. Said cassette version was serviced digitally to bloggers at the beginning of the summer to build hype for a pending reissue from Infinite Best. However, due to other stuff coming up, Distractions, remixed and remastered by Dev from Twin Sister and now titled Dark Green Sea, is not due for release until Jan. 18, 2011. We find it hard to believe that the cassette version can be improved upon, as it is perhaps the most specifically evocative set among the 10 we list here. Distractions just sounds like it was made by a Zombies-influenced pop band that has worked the same subterranean bar room in a seaside town for a decade. The tunes -- often awash in reverb, organ-led and paired with a deep baritone lead vocal -- just sound murky, even with the sunshiney melodies. Even if the lead track "All Night" was the only song on there, the record would be worth whatever anybody would charge for it. And that "anyone" at this point is Midheaven, the price is $13 for the LP, and you should just buy the thing now, because it is awesome. Pre-order Dark Green Sea at the link below.
10. Screaming Maldini -- And The Kookaburra EP -- Alcopop!
Note to indie labels that are not Alcopop!: keep an eye on Alcopop!, because the small label has two entries on our year-end list, which means it is doing something right, and you are probably doing something wrong. Screaming Maldini's And The Kookaburra, in case you didn't know, is the best pure pop record of 2010 -- well, EP, anyway, as the collection touts only five songs. Imagine, if you will, that Spandau Ballet was cryogenically frozen at the height of its popularity and then reborn today as a prog-pop entity with embarrassingly excellent songwriting skills: this is Screaming Maldini. And The Kookaburra's first three songs are brilliant, but the gentle, wistful penultimate track "I Know That You Know That I Would Wipe Away That Snowflake From Your Eye" is the winner of the lot, covering lover's rock territory with its spine-tingling chorus and then -- in typical Maldini fashion -- going widescreen and panoramic and diorama and maparium into a dizzying crescendo of horns and distorted guitar. It's the song that all pop will be measured against going forward. Screaming Maldini will release a new EP Dec. 18, and the act has also completed a new video that we wrote about here Saturday.
Screaming Maldini - The Albatross by fadedglamourblog