Favorite Albums of 2010

It’s my birthday, so I’d like discuss the albums I liked last year, no matter that it’s been 2011 for over a month.

1. Beach House – Teen Dream
Slow and soothing sometimes, rocking other times. Brilliant the whole way through. I have trouble talking about this record without using words like “perfect” or “absolutely perfect” or “best album ever”. It’s woozy and melancholy, uplifting and sonorous. I can’t listen to it enough. Sounds perfect on vinyl.

2. Sleigh Bells – Treats
Whereas Beach House is made for being played on vinyl, Sleigh Bells’ debut album, Treats, sounds perfect being played from an iPod. It’s constructed specifically to be lossy–it’s a noisy, violent mess. It’s all the best parts of metal and pop rolled into one. See my previous post about them to learn more of my obsession.

3. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
James Murphy is nothing if not consistent. When this album first leaked, there was a lot of disappointment floating around the internets. A lot of people pointed out the obvious Berlin-Bowie reference point of a couple of songs, and the album was basically written off. But a strange thing happened: as time progressed, the internet’s (and my) attitude towards the album changed. I warmed up to the songs in a big way (seeing them live at the Hollywood Bowl helped immensely–some LCD sounds you just need to hear live) and found some of my favorite tracks of 2010 (Home, anyone?).

4. Yeasayer – Odd Blood
Experimental pop sounds like such a joke genre. “We just take pop songs and play ’em weird, you know?” sounds like something some ‘experimental pop’ dude would say in a half-drunken interview. Well, the dudes from Yeasayer don’t mess around like that–even though you could describe their music like that and you wouldn’t be necessarily wrong. The guys from Yeasayer write fantastic, catchy-as-hell songs and then find the perfect off the wall sounds for them.

5. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
Local Natives were my first big surprise of the year. Their name makes them sound like some pothead rap-rock band, and they went to middle school with my sister in Mission Viejo, the center of boring white suburban Orange County. But these harmonizers have been listening to a lot of Brooklyn bands like Grizzly Bear (a personal favorite) and combining an East coast-chamber pop aesthetic with a West coast sunniness that really gets me moving.

6. Chris Schlarb – Psychic Temple
“It’s sorta this ambient jazz thing…” is a terrible way to describe such a beautiful album. Chris Schlarb knows how to take disparate elements and layer them in a way that’s practically transcendent. This album works for folkies, jazz guys, ambient music nerds and plain ol’ indie fans in a way that’s honestly surprising. Please, give it a listen and you will be surprised with how much you like this album.

7. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Oh man. This guy. He takes a break from writing albums full of gorgeous, swelling orchestral folk-pop songs. Writes a Steve Reich-by-way-of-Warp records symphony to a much-hated highway in New York City. And then this album. It’s as if you took his Illinois album, combined the electronic leanings of his first couple of albums, and then replaced any self-editing tendencies with raw ambition. How else can you explain the 25-minute pop opus track that closes the album and encompasses everything from autotune to raw acoustic guitar (more to come about this later…)

And now we come to the cop-out portion of the list:

8. Baths – Cerulean / Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
I had two very different halves of this year. I started this year with an office job that made living comfortable, I ended up with a very different job that I greatly prefer but that makes life a bit more difficult. And here are the respective soundtracks. Both beat- and sample-heavy, Baths is floating and light in a way that FlyLo is deep and heavy. Both take different touchstones from which to produce serious beats (Baths: pop and R&B/soul, FlyLo: psych and jazz) and both are fantastic.

9. Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett / The Mynabirds – What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood
These two albums are easy to lump together because they share Richard Swift as their producer. He brings such a similar vibe to both albums: he scrapes open a doorway to a more raw past for both artists. Jurado’s sad, truthful vignettes and laments never sounded so hopeful and nostalgic, and Laura Burhenn (the only mynabird in The Mynabirds) sounds churchier and southern-ier than she ever did as part of Georgie James.

10. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast / Best Coast – Crazy For You
One’s a group of Floridian dudes, the other is an LA girl. Both of them like fuzzy summer pop rock and getting high. Weezer (early Weez, obviously) is a touchstone for Surfer Blood; Best Coast is more of a 60’s pop fan. Both of them clearly prefer sunny days and the beach.

Runners Up (in no particular order) after the jump:
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Sleigh Bells: Ideal Music Now

Sleigh Bells released their album, Treats, earlier this year. It came out in iTunes in May, and on CD and vinyl in September. They’ve been releasing songs since late last year and have enjoyed a steadily increasing buzz since their first myspace post. I get a distinct feeling that they’re going to be enjoying exponentially increased popularity by this time next year, especially bolstered by the youths who are just now discovering them.

Sleigh Bells is two people: singer Alexis Krauss (formerly of mostly-unheard pop group Rubyblue), and Derek Miller (formerly of very influential metalcore band Poison the Well). The pedigree of these two are not just colorful trivia–it’s the basis of the music. Sleigh Bells is, in its essence, 2000s nonsense-pop shrouded in heavy metal and noise. It’s what every 16-and-17-year-old couple wants to hear: singalong hooks for the girlfriend, shredding guitars for the boyfriend, and bass for the backseat. There’s a coyness in the vocals mingled with a menace in the backing track (which often overwhelms the vocals entirely) that encompasses the range of teenage emotions more than any “emo” band in the last ten years has come close to. And holy crap does it sound amazing coming out of your nephew’s truck’s multiple 12″ subwoofers.

Sleigh Bells was discovered, as usual, by the music bloggers and mp3 nerds on the internet. They started releasing songs on their myspace soon after their inception, and tellingly released their album on iTunes months earlier than it was available in any physical format. Their live setup typically involves a microphone, a guitar, and an iPod. The album’s production (and their ear-destroying live shows) is heavily distorted and overblown in a way that someone who grew up using terrible iPod earbuds can fully appreciate. In his discussion with Perfecting Sound Forever author Greg Milner blogger (and all-around cool guy) Matthew Perpetua discusses the intended listening experience for Sleigh Bells: “It’s kinda perverse, but it’s so much better to hear that really loud on mp3 on bad speakers. It’s just how it’s intended to be heard!” This isn’t how teens’ parents listened to music. It isn’t even how their older siblings listened–crappy computer speakers or cheap earbuds are very much the modern way to listen to music, and it’s the perfect way to listen to Sleigh Bells.

Sleigh Bells’ music itself is fun, bombastic stuff. With its roots in metal, in pop, in hip hop, it’s universal. I, a former-college-radio-DJ/”music snob” can’t get enough of it. My No Doubt/pop-punk/Mariah Carey-fan wife loves it. My Disney princess  and Yo Gabba Gabba-loving two year old daughter declares that it is “so beautiful” particularly after asking to “turn it louder, please!” Listening to it loudly (the best and only way to listen to it) will cause involuntary fits of air-ing: air-guitaring, air-drumming, lip-synching–the music lends itself naturally to all of these things in a way that many Rock Band songs fail to do. It sounds great coming from truly awful speakers (it’s pre-distorted) and it sounds epic coming out of a system with enough power to make the bass explode. That said, it’s noisy as all get out. The recording is far from clean, with compression, distortion and lossy crunches surrounding each beat. Any “adult” who unironically loves yacht rock or “the greatest hits from the 80s, 90s, and today” might have a tough time getting into it at first. But in three years when Black Eyed Peas rip the sound off wholesale, they’ll love it. And so will everyone else.