Best Albums of 2010

I present the 21 best albums of 2010, simply because I like to think that my opinion on such matters is important to you. Of course what makes music “best” is really just a matter of personal taste and my taste runs all over the place. The point is, something here is bound to speak to you, maybe something unexpected, and I’m listing them in alphabetical order for the sake of keeping it simple on my part.

1. Bassnectar: Wildstyle

While some weren’t in love with Bassnectar’s new seven track “Wildstyle” release cause it didn’t deliver his more tried and true formula, given that Mr. Lorin has been ahead of the game from the beginning, I found it refreshing that he was putting new spins on things and taking listeners places that weren’t as expected. And whether it’s spaced out or whomped out, when it comes to Wildstyle it’s great hoop dance music. There’s just something about his delivery of bass that goes directly to the spine. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

2. Bear In Heaven: Beast Rest Forth Mouth

These guys end up on the year end list not only because this is a great record, but because their appearance at the Troubadour was my favorite live show of 2010. There were so many moments that gave me chills listening to them live that Beast Rest Forth Mouth was possibly taken to a whole other level. While defying simple categorization, one of the things I love about these guys is that you don’t have to go bombastic to still deliver something huge and important. It’s like music in IMAX and it’s chock full of sounds you want to feel, plus the iTunes release includes so many remixes taking things in different directions that are also incredibly delicious. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

3. Beats Antique: Blind Threshold

I have to admit that while I’m a huge fan of these guys, Blind Threshold didn’t grab me right from the start like some of their other works. Instead it was a record that slowly seduced me over time until ultimately I was just as in love with it as the rest of their catalog. You should probably know that Beats Antique started as a soundtrack project for band member Zoe Jakes’ unique style of belly dancing. So expect some Middle Eastern flavor fused with other sound stylings that are sure to get your hips moving. It’s the perfect soundtrack for getting that Burning Man “life on the playa” feeling, even when you’re back at home in the safety of your dust-storm free bedroom. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

4. Bilal: Airtight’s Revenge

People toss around the term “neo-soul” too much, especially when a lot of what is supposedly new soul sounds pretty much like the old, not that that’s a bad thing. And then there’s Bilal’s “Airtight’s Revenge” which borrows as much from psychedelic rock and the glitch underground as Otis Redding, delivering something truly fresh and funky. Ultimately this record is all about texture and honesty and those who have called it “confusing” or “too complex” or “too deep” need to quite frankly shut the fuck up and stop trying to make such talent fit into some marketing team’s small-minded square hole. Airtight’s Revenge is art that can hit you in the heart that you appreciate more with every listen. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

5. Efterklang: Magic Chairs

Would you ever marry a band and move to another country? If it were Efterklang I’d seriously consider it. I’ve been in love with these guys from the beginning and after a few albums I can’t help but wonder if they can do any wrong – and how is it that they can blow me away and then continue to just keep getting better? Perhaps the sounds and textures speak to my Scandinavian genetic code or something, although the few I’ve turned on to these guys without ancestors from the northern lands have wound up singing their praises too. Efterklang is from Denmark just in case you were wondering and Magic Chairs, their first album for the 4AD label, finds the band clearer and more focused than ever, more accessible, all the while maintaining that sound and vision that makes my soul sing. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

6. Gayngs: Relayted

I think I’ve listend to “Relayted” more than any other record this year. Perhaps it is because I’m a night owl and it’s such a great soundtrack for the later night life hours, cause it’s really all about atmosphere. Once I learned that they were inspired by 70’s pop rock icons 10cc, it all made sense – right down to their cover of 10cc’s “Cry” – which they do reasonably well, but probably should have left alone. Admittedly the second half of the record isn’t nearly as strong as the first, but the first is so good and there’s no way Relayted wasn’t making the list when “The Gaudy Side of Town” is without question my favorite song of 2010. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

7. The Glimmers: Whomp That Sucker!

This isn’t dubstep boys and girls. At no point will the bass rise up to kick your ass, but trust me, your ass will be movin’ and a groovin’. Why? Cause this is disco baby. Simple, pure, straight-up disco for a new generation electronic style. And let’s face the facts, shall we? Disco never sucked. Several years of straight top ten singles that had everyone on the entire planet dancing and every artist in the world from The Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra to Kiss trying to get a slice of it – no boys and girls, disco never sucked. Given that I’m often distracted by shiny objects it’s no surprise The Glimmers caught my attention, especially now that they signed to Gomma Records. I love that the lyrics are mindless and sung with the same kind of detached elegance you’d have expected twenty years ago. Perhaps they are samples? I’m not sure, but one thing is clear – it’s time to dance. More cowbell! (Listen/Download on iTunes).

8. The Legendary Pink Dots: Seconds Late For the Brighton Line

Having seen these guys many times over the years, it was a treat to catch them live at the Echo recently, on their 30th Anniversary tour no less. With more than 40 albums to their credit it’s a wonder more people haven’t heard of them. After all, their apocalyptic psychedelic experimental goth rock has been, at times at least, somewhat inviting. I often find great humor in their doom and gloom. So why aren’t they more famous? It seems to me that every time the public starts catching on, the Dots’ release a new record that is rather inaccessible, so much so that many haven’t stayed on the train for more than a stop or two. But with “Seconds Late For the Brighton Line” you’re in luck! It’s rather upbeat, for them I mean, so get on board. I doubt there’ll be a warmer invitation to enjoy the most beautiful, ironic and tragic soundtracks for the end of days. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

9. Lisa Gerrard & Marcello De Francisci: Departum

Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance fame teamed up with Marcello De Francisci on the soundtrack for the film “Tears of Gaza.” The two hit it off and felt so good working together they decided to do another project on their own terms. The result is “Departum” and it’s probably the best work Lisa has done since Dead Can Dance dissolved. Soundscapes, echoing chasms, haunting vocals, eastern tribal influences, it’s all the stuff that made Dead Can Dance work with a bit of a different flavor. Quietly spiritual, yet not new agey, the record nonetheless feels like a healing. Lisa’s voice is as amazing as ever. I think this record proves she does better when she’s collaborating with someone. Now if only Brendan Perry would figure that out. His new album “Ark” truly needed another set of eyes and ears. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

10. Loscil: Endless Falls

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest I find something very comforting about the sound of rain. Loscil (Scott Morgan from Vancouver, British Columbia) was inspired by the ever ongoing downpour up there on “Endless Falls” and he includes field recordings of rainfall from his home to bookend the album, as well as weave into other tracks. It all works beautifully with the cover art – photographed by his four year old daughter Sadie from the backseat of the family car. Loscil delivers ambient soundscapes for quiet nights, rainy or otherwise, that are at times hypnotic, melancholic, reflective and thoughtful. Looped drones, subliminal melodies, modulated bass notes, all of it quietly gorgeous. The final track “The Making of Grief Point” features a long, intimate spoken word piece by Daniel Bejar that is brilliant and a little disturbing and the quiet thoughts and pulsing tones play off one another beautifully for the finale. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

11. Marconi Union: A Lost Connection

Having loved everything that Marconi Union has released previously, I listened to “A Lost Connection” for the first time with great anticipation and wasn’t disappointed. It’s their strongest set to date. The duo from Manchester, England, deliver minimal, introspective electronica that exists somewhere between post-rock and ambient music. Whatever it is, it’s deeply chilled and beautiful and the seven compositions here migrate between gentle twilight harmony and late night cold. Everything they do is about airtight production with haunting beauty, working the loveliest night light into every track. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

12. Matthew Dear: Black City

Matthew Dear’s Black City is brilliantly produced and executed, but then Dear is the force behind Ghostly International, one of my favorite record labels. Black City conceptualizes a futuristic metropolis that never sleeps. Dear says, “Well, there’s a kind of timelessness to it in the sense that I don’t want things to run on a 24-hour clock. It seems like a city that’s always awake, maybe always dialled in electronically, and cannot be turned off. It’s this imaginary weird never-sleeping town. But yeah it’s full of lust, and love, and dark shadows. Weird things around the corner.” It sounds like that and “Little People (Black City” is one of my favorite dance tracks this year. These grooves are a dirty good time and the closing track “Gem” might just be the crown jewel in Black City’s crown. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

13. Midlake: The Courage of Others

Uhm, why isn’t Midlake selling out stadiums? I for one can totally see the masses smoking a doobie in the open air amphitheater, singing along with every freakin word, or maybe that’s just because they bring that old America 70’s rock sound back so beautifully that you can’t help but see it all come back with it. The musicianship, the harmonies, you just want to crank it up that early morning AM car radio and drive that Ventura Highway. Their new album expands on their rather somber, subtlely-layered, folk-infused Fleetwood Mac-y album rock sound. The lyrics, filled with vivid medieval imagery, are as cerebral as ever. The songs get better with repeated listens. The production is exquisitely warm with layers of acoustic guitar, vocal harmony, violin, and woodwind all coming through clear. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

14. Mimosa: Psychedelic Stereo

I know, it’s only a four song EP – but it’s all Mimosa released this year and every track puts such a big smile on my face that we’re going to ignore that fact, cause after all – this is west coast sound. He goes deeper into varied tempos and leads the way with strong synth sounds and melodies before clunking you upside the head. It’s a psychedelic stereo space age urban bittersweet journey of ecstasy and the only thing wrong is that it’s not long enough. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

15. The National: High Violet

There’s something incredible about Matt Berninger’s lyrics and the baritone he gives us that sells the lines in such a way that you can’t help but buy every word. While The National had more fireworks on their earlier releases, as they mellow out somewhat here, as it were, they’re even more phenomenal. There are so many strengths in the subtleties, which is testament to the control in their chaos that even the cover displays so well. It’s a gorgeously arranged and performed set of songs of strength and grace with a finger resting on some uncomfortably relevant truths about life and ourselves. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

16. Pretty Lights: Glowing in the Darkest Night

Pretty Lights released a total three EPs this year for whatever you want to donate on their website and all of them are most excellent, but for me personally “Glowing in the Darkest Night” stands up just a little higher than the others, but had it not been shared with the world, well, either of the other two would have easily taken it’s place. Derek Vincent Smith is a master DJ producer weaving different styles and often contradictory ideas into his “electro hip-hop soul” songs can defy even that description. I mean wait a minute, now he’s got me wanting to rock out. I’m often amazed by the beats and texture and tapestries of this true artist. (It’s on their website).

17. Rome: Nos Chants Perdus

Rome, the performing name of Jerome Reuter from the tiny country of Luxembourg, has been doing this military-esque goth folk music since 2005 and quite frankly I’ve loved it all. On Nos Chants Perdus, however, he opened the doors further, dropping some of the overall weight, and the result was even more intimate. It made sense with his progression as an artist in recent years giving up his solo-ness and joining forces with Patrick Damiani in 2008. And in 2009 violin player Nikos Mavridis officially joined what had then become a band – and the trio began leaning more towards the traditions of (French) Chanson and (American) Folk. In fact they referred to their unique sound as “Chanson Noir”. Whatever it is, I love his music and especially this record. Jerome’s vision guides the glockenspiel, the distant sound of weeping strings, the warmth of his voice casting spells. And then came the announcement that he was done. I mean check it out. He closed his YouTube and removed all his videos too. I’m not sure what happened, but there has always been fragility in his strength. I sincerely hope we hear more from him in the future. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

18. Samantha James: Subconscious

I must admit I was a little surprised when this album became the official soundtrack of my relocation to Los Angeles this year. It makes sense in retrospect, given that it’s chock full of light. Feeling the sun on your skin, the warm breeze off the Pacific tossling your hair, playing at the park with new friends with giant smiles – life is good, life is hopeful, life is delicious and dreamy so let’s savor the miracle of it. When Samantha sings “Free the burdens from your soul, watching the world fall at your feet as you let go” she not only means it, she wants you to. I know I’ve softened living in Los Angeles and my heart is bigger and brighter – and Samantha James gets a piece of the credit. Have you ever cried from joy? It’s something that comes from the Subconscious, but first you have to be open to it. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

19. School of Seven Bells: Disconnect From Desire

Disconnect From Desire is a windstorm, a tornado that’ll pick your house up and drop it on a witch that nobody wanted around anyway. Twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza spin up harmonies that call on ancient musical forms, while the guitar pop and driving beats take us somewhere weren’t not entirely used to electronically that twirls everything into a bleary wide-eyed dream state. Can something so dense really be this bright? The answer is yet, and mysterious. “Dust Devil” is one of my favorite songs of the year and while the band’s debut last year was incredible, the band seemed at times confused about where they wanted to go exactly. Their sophomore release on Ghostly International, however, has that figured out and the result is spellbinding. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

20. Scuba: Triangulation

We descend below the surface. Are you ready to dive? Paul “Scuba” Rose’s shapeshifting electronic tracks are in a class of their own, triangulating dark house, dubstep and drum n bass. Triangulation convulses with jittery breakbeats, while its downtempo moments remain abundant with subterranean atmospheric nuances. Remember, we’ve gone below and even when we tunnel into techno, all of Scuba’s micro samples rarely allow for a clear stretch of beats – and then the bass rolls in to steal the spotlight. Scuba’s step into the caverns has elements of the past, but it’s clearly a step forward. (Listen/Download on iTunes).

21. Underworld: Barking

Who expected Underworld to deliver an album with several straight-up feel-good dance tracks? I certainly didn’t, but with the departure of Darren Emerson from Underworld, UK duo Karl Hyde and Rick Smith decided to collaborate with seven different electronic music producers from different genres and the result is “Barking”. And so long Emerson, we won’t be missing you. All the different influences somehow come together as even more distinctly Underworld with greater cohesiveness, and greater appeal. When Hyde sings “Heaven” I start to believe they’ve found it and I’m climbing on board to join them. Oddly enough Paul Van Dyk’s contribution “Moon in Water” is easily the weakest because we don’t get to hear Hyde sing, but it does set the tone for a Louisiana lullaby ending. (Barking – Underworld)