Best music of 2010


The year is over: it's list time, people! Time once again to review for no one in particular the new music I obsessed over.
Continuing the tradition since I turned 40, I feel no obligation to cover the musical landscape in any comprehensive way. I haven't listened to Kanye's new album (you're welcome to tell me it's the best album since Sgt Pepper, or at least Nevermind, as so many people seem to think), andI'm still trying to figure out what I think of Sufjan's. Furthermore, despite the best of intentions, I find it difficult to fully appreciate the latest developments in electronic music when I've had to disable the subwoofers so my kids can sleep (although this was obviously cool). But with more than enough riches in 2010, I didn't spend much time lamenting all the music I failed to get around to. Here's what grabbed me in 2010


Album of the year: Beach House, Teen Dream
Beach House's third album came out in January of the new year and held off the contenders all year to keep the top spot. Their trademark elements — the roller-rink organ, the noodly guitar, the cough-syrup rhythms, Victoria's breathy alto — are still here, but they transcended the gauzy introspection of their earlier recordings to create songs of astonishing impact. If you ask me, these were the emotional anthems of 2010.


Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffitti, Before Today
Ariel Pink is a mystery man. His recording process is a mystery — no, those aren't samples, yet clearly his songs are built around musical snippets and hooks from years past. And his penchant for scatology is just befuddling. Really, he had to title a song "Butt-House Blondies"? I suppose that prevents anyone from calling him indie rock's Paddy McAloon, because in at least a few places this album recalled the sonic sheen and awkward, idiosyncratic compositions that made the early Prefab Sprout albums so great. "Round and Round is case in point: the track is so entrancing in its technicolor scope, it just had to be hidden by the video's graininess and breast-milk references.


The Walkmen, Lisbon
Where are the Strokes these days? Run aground by overcooked hype. Interpol? Discarded as their recycled influences became yesterday's new (old) thing. Meanwhile "that other group" from NYC's early noughties goes from strength to strength. It's hard to explain what's distinct about this classy garage band — the twang on a guitar, the placement of a vocal mike — but through fine-tuning and character-building over ten years, the Walkmen have become pretty much unassailable at what they do.


The Fall, Your Future Our Clutter
Sure, I like the Fall; every college-radio veteran of the 80s likes the Fall. But after 30 years of existence, with maybe the last 15 frittered away on inconsistent albums and Mark E. Smith's personal dissolution, there's no good reason why the Fall should record suddenly record one of the best albums of their career. But they have, and it is! Here their repetitious din hit harder, with more focus and purpose, than anything they've released since, what, I Am Kurious Oranj?


Black Mountain, Wilderness Heart
Slightly more "alternative" than their usual indie/stoner-rock fare, this may or may not be the band's best work. However, in 2010 Black Mountain reached a tipping point in their recorded output — three albums, an EP, and a Subpop single so far as I can tell — by which its breadth and development made for essential, repeated listening. In other words, I put the iPod on shuffle and clicked "Black Mountain" a hell of a lot this year.


Local Natives, Gorilla Manor
I've come to think of a whole slew of current bands as following the indie-rock blueprint set out by Grizzly Bear. Their members play inventively and proficiently, disposed to singing in 3- or 4-part harmonies, and they're not too proud to grow an ironic moustache. In this category, Yeasayer was probably the year's most visible example, although I'm ambivalent about the way their album recalls the production values of 80s bands like Mr. Mister. I prefer Local Natives, who don't quite push the envelope as far (still got something different going on with their second, er, drum) but consolidate the charms of this sub-genre quite well.


Sleigh Bells, Treats
I'm sort of surprised this debut album still sounds good by the year's end. Maybe it's because their cheerleading-chants-meet-heavy-guitar-and-rockbox-beats schtick points a way out of the false binary that "Glee" would offer the youth of today: that the only way to protect your soul from the hegemony of evil cheerleaders and homophobic jocks is to embrace the schlocky musicality of "American Idol." (However, I'd kind of like to see what Cheerio Brittany Pierce could do with this material.)


Anthology of the year: The Fleshtones, It's Super Rock Time! The I.R.S. Years 1980-1985
Considering how I'll not just listen to, but continue to think about a band decades after I bought their last album, I can get very excited about a new anthology or box set. Suede's 2-CD Best of made a strong argument for the glammy 90s band as the crucial link between the Smiths and Oasis. However, because it didn't include my favorite song of theirs, I'll capriciously dismiss it in favor of an unexpected retrospective of the Fleshtones' classic period. A band who epitomized the fruitless scramble out of obscurity when all of their peers seemed destined for greater things, released on a reactivated label now scrambling fruitlessly out of obscurity, the Fleshtones in their 80s heyday were a glorious, sweaty joy of 60s garage revivalism. I challenge you to find a dud on (or at least do better than) any of these 25 songs.


Single of the year: Crystal Castles, "I'm Not In Love" (feat. Robert Smith)
I'm not going to go there and try to embrace the latest electronic dance music duo with post-collegiate attitude to spare. No better to let them come to me via Robert Smith of the Cure. He gives them gravitas (which is ironic, considering he was the voice of 80s teen melancholia), they give him a kick in the ass, and everyone benefits. If I didn't know better, I'd say that chorus was pretty emo.


Video of the year: LCD Soundsystem, "Drunk Girls"
Anyone else nonplussed by LCD Soundsystem's new album? If James Murphy wants the acclaim that so many are giving it, then James Murphy has to do better than record not one but two songs that irritate in their intentional resemblance to Berlin-era Bowie (specifically, this and this). But dude is certainly one of the most important musical figures of the last 5 years, and his vision for the band and his label remains an attractive one, as the first video (directed by Spike Jonze) reminded us.


One to look out for next year: Veronica Falls
I've always loved a collaborative aesthetic I call "new wave adult dance party." Think vintage B-52s, or Martha and the Muffins. (Or, for the ten of you who might remember, my grad-school band Hans Christian Rodeo.) It's girls and guys in a band, usually on crappy little instruments, a little shaky in their DIY skills but clearly having a ton of fun playing together. With their songs they're trying to make each other laugh, or just describe what's on their mind, or maybe someone came up with a story to share with the others. But it's guys and girls playing for each other, regardless of who else is listening, and it's usually sunk once career ambitions enter into the picture and things get serious. I really know next to nothing about Veronica Falls, but their single "Found Love In A Graveyard" makes me optimistic that the new wave adult dance party never has to end.


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