Playing favorites, or resisting “best of”: 2010 edition

Every December, a personal dilemma arrives: The “best of 2010” music list. To make one or not? Such lists often feel stifling, sometimes bullying, and I don’t particularly feel justified in claiming the decidedly dubious title of “tastemaker.” Last year, I chose to, instead, create a mix honoring some of my favorite musical discoveries of 2009 and did not make my personal list public. This year, instead, I created a series of 8tracks mixes to accompany a brief essay here on the blog (while I still reserve the right to devote a blog to my favorite discoveries of ’10, too!) While this still feels weirdly preachy, I welcome you to indulge my selections for what they’re worth (not much!) and possibly even discover something you may have never heard before — the best part of being a music junkie, in my book.

My personal favorite albums of 2010:

1. Titus Andronicus – The Monitorlisten to the top 10
2. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
3. Twin Shadow – Forget
4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
5. Jonsi – Go
6. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
7. Male Bonding – Nothing Hurts
8. Owen Pallett – Heartland
9. Glasser – Ring
10. Marnie Stern – s/t
11. Local Natives – Gorilla Manorlisten to #11-21
12. Lower Dens – Twin-Hand Movement
13. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
14. Robyn – Body Talk
15. Wild Nothing – Gemini
16. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
17. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
18. The National – High Violet
19. Menomena – Mines
20. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way
21. Dessa – A Badly Broken Code
22. Sharon Van Etten – Epiclisten to the rest
23. Matthew Dear – Black City
24. Beach Fossils – s/t
25. Diamond Rings – Special Affections
26. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
27. No Age – Everything In Between
28. Foals – Total Life Forever
29. S. Carey – All We Grow
**Girls – Broken Dreams Club
**Active Child – Curtis Lane
**Generationals – Trust

Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus

Honorable mentions: Salem – King Night, Warpaint – The Fool, PS I Love You – Meet Me at the Muster Station, Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), Eternal Summers – Silver

2010 was a great year for music, and as such, I must add one important caveat to this list: I was fortunate enough to see several of the acts listed below live in concert and those experiences surely colored my enjoyment of their recorded material ever since. LCD Soundsystem and Titus Andronicus at Pitchfork, Twin Shadow at Schubas, Jonsi at the Vic, Local Natives at the Metro and Owen Pallett at Lincoln Hall were all fan-freaking-tastic (if not brilliant, in the case of some) live shows that really spoke truth to the power of each of their albums released this year. On the flip side, I didn’t so much jive with either Sleigh Bells’ or Best Coast’s sets at Pitchfork this summer, and it soured me on their albums. I have a feeling that, were my economic situation different, had I seen a few of the other acts on this list in concert – namely Janelle Monae, Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens – they likely would have been higher, but such is life.

Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom

What I really loved about albums like Titus, Jonsi and LCD’s releases were that they were able to take huge, grandiose things — in the case of Titus and LCD, some pretty epic songs; with Titus, a nerdy historical concept; with Jonsi, some pretty epic instrumentation — and made it work. They made it near-perfection, in my mind. Other albums – like Joanna’s and Sufjan’s – also had lofty ambitions and have some really glimmering moments, but on the whole, I think both suffered from their lack of editing.


The opposite extreme of the spectrum: Somewhat simple, often brief music, also really stood out to me this year. The Lower Dens’ debut album, as well as Carey and Van Etten’s, provided us with a much-needed break from the grandiose. Their voices are endearingly raw at times and it all adds up to so much more than the sum of each song’s parts.

All of these albums helped me through the difficult times this year and if you haven’t heard any of the above artists before, I’d highly recommend you check out the mixes and if you like what you hear, head out and buy their album, see their show the next time they’re in town and tell your friends about what you’re listening to. I highly doubt you’ll regret it.

Give a listen to… 10 in ’10

Though originally tempted to join the club of “best-music-of-2009” blog writers, I decided, given the fact this post is arriving already two weeks into ’10, to instead take the opportunity to give a shout-out to some of my favorite artist discoveries of the year. These are musicians who have graced many-a mix CD of mine and gotten me through a number of stressful deadline-meeting sessions. Here are 10(ish) of my new-ish-found favorites to given a listen to in ’10.

If you like what you hear of these musicians, Google them, go to their show, buy their tunes. And tell them I sent you.

Generosity (mp3)

I had to start this list with an artist who was really more of a re-discovery in 2009 than a newfound treasure. I must admit that when I first heard Mirah’s tunes several years back, I wasn’t overly moved by the folksy-woodsy queer jams. But (a)spera, Mirah’s newly-released album from this past year, is magnificent and has been greatly overlooked by many of the blogosphere’s lists-that-be. The album combines deeply personal lyrics with swelling string orchestrations and deserves to be held in the same – if not higher – company as some of the other, newer ladies-of-weird who shone this past year.

Local Natives
Wide Eyes (mp3)

These California boys are a very recent find, as I was tipped off by the Guardian’s profile last month. This track – off the yet-to-be-released Gorilla Manor – is the first track of theirs I heard. I was immediately struck by the wintry piece of harmonious heaven, and later impressed by their use of unusual, African-esque percussive rhythms to break up their beautiful vocal glissandos. Their sound is slightly reminiscent of Justin Vernon on uppers. On vacation in LA. In fast-forward. Or Fleet Foxes, but actually good.

Golden Silvers
True No. 9 Blues (True Romance) (mp3)

One of the biggest joys of no longer being unemployed – probably my biggest accomplishment of the past year – was the ability to buy music again, and my vinyl collection has since swelled. One of the first albums I picked up with my bits of discretionary income was True Romance from Golden Silvers, a band that belies easy classification. I’d already heard one track – the pleading “Please Venus” – via a blog, but the full record – which is a lovely hue of lavender – took my appreciation for the band to a new level. Their music is flamboyantly poptastic to be certain, but its psychodelic vibe felt surprisingly refreshing on first listen. Despite holding a certain retroness to it, their sound grows more addictive with each listen.

Bombay Bicycle Club
Always Like This (mp3)

Another Brit pop outfit that rocked my headphones this past year is Bombay Bicycle Club. This track, off their endearingly-titled “I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Off,” is particularly pleasing, and has become a staple of my frequent mixes made for friends. It plays well as a transition song between the opening, upbeat first-third of a mix and the more introspective, slower middle-third, indicative of the band’s successful combination of soul-searching lyrics (like “I’m not whole / I’m not whole / Oh, you waste it all”) with undeniably catchy instrumentation. Other tracks on their debut go into unexpected, more experimental directions, proving this is a band whose next move is never predictable. What is it about Brit boys and their mastery of the pop music machine – and my heart?

Ramona Falls
Clover (mp3)

Ramona Falls, the solo project of Menomena’s Portland-based Brent Knopf, at times feels like a psychiatrist’s exercise. But that’s OK. Intuit, the debut album looking inside the songwriter’s head, is not exactly an optimistic creation, but proved both ambitious and delicious to this listener’s ear. This track is particularly epic with its bleak lyrics –  “My heart wants just to know that it exists / My heart wants just to know” – and slow-building, then quietly-dissipating  guitar and percussion. Other songs bring in haunting piano and plenty of unusual structures. Even if he could be in need of a good pharmacist, Knopf is clearly a musical prodigy, and his debut solo effort is remarkable.

Lightning Dust
Dreamer (mp3)

Speaking of the structure of a mix CD – this is the portion of the list dedicated to those aforementioned introspective songs that usually compromise the middle section. And the Canadian band Lightning Dust could not fit better anywhere else on this list. I was first clued into the project of Black Mountain’s Amber Webber and Joshua Wells by Carrie Brownstein via NPR’s All Songs Considered, and the hype she lent their music was clearly well-deserved. Their album, Infinite Light, is one of my favorites of this past year. The songs are laden with nostalgia, desire and a quiet sense of optimism shining just under the surface of their sparse musical creations.

My Gold Mask
Violet Eyes (mp3)

Naturally, this list would not be complete without at least one local contribution, and My Gold Mask are one of the hottest bands to watch in the Windy City. I first came across this duo after having a few too many vodka-sodas at the Decibelle kickoff party at Berlin last October. Playing after French electro-singer-songwriter Emilie Simon, the couple blasted into their set with an energy – and surprising amount of sound – that could not be ignored. The release party for their A Thousand Voices EP last weekend at the Hideout was sold-out and equally impressive. Her presence is particularly transfixing, similar to an early Karen O.

Perfect Fit (mp3)

Given this Montreal band’s previous roots – including former members of the Unicorns and Arcade Fire – it is not surprising that their sound is a feast for the ears, at least if you dig somewhat dark vaudevillian, cabaret pop stylings. Their self-titled debut – out last year – is another that I was surprised did not make more best-of-’09 lists. The album combines bizarre, often grim lyrics with song structures that land all over the map but never, never bore. So get a clue – har – and give this band a listen.

Ellie Goulding (feat. Frankmusik)
Wish I Stayed (mp3)

If you haven’t yet jumped on the Ellie Goulding bandwagon, you are, frankly, running out of time before takeoff. Goulding has found herself near the top of most Brit critics’ ones-to-watch lists in recent weeks, and the accolades are well-deserved. Her voice has that incredible quality that hipster remix-creating DJs and pop audiences alike fall in love with. Her EP was fantastic and her other endeavors – including vocals for Starsmith’s beautiful remix of Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead” – have only furthered the case for her impending stardom. Her debut album – Lights – is out in March. (And this track features another adorable Brit, Frankmusik, who narrowly missed this list. He’s like Cher’s bi-curious electro-baby.)

Chew Lips
Salt Air (mp3)

These exciting Kitsune darlings from South London are also remix-friendly and more than ready to boil over with just a bit more time to simmer. Their electronic creations combine somewhat sinister lyrics with sleek production. They represent a lot of styles that are catching on right now, without being too much of any particular musical trend to remain enticingly fresh. This is electro-pop at its finest – keep an eye out for their debut album – Unicorn – out this month.

Cold Cave
The Trees Grew Emotions and Died (mp3)

I realize this Philly-based project – led by the former hardcore head Wesley Eisold – makes eleven, but I couldn’t bring myself to narrow the list down any further. And technically, Cold Cave’s sound is so derivative-at-times (see: “Love Comes Close,” New Order) that it nearly fits into the category of “re-discovery.” But this stuff – based in synth beats, feedback and distortion – is so solid that I really couldn’t care more that the sound may not be the most original.