The Top 10 Tracks of 2010


10.The Tallest Man on Earth –

The Wild Hunt

[Dead Oceans]

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Okay, so this isn’t Bob Dylan and a moniker. Yet Kristian Matsson does have a voice that ebbs and flows like a desperately ruminative, harsh-toned American, when really he is a patriotic Swede. He over-emphasises the pronunciation of the ‘er’ phoneme every single time it comes around; in ‘over’ and ‘nervous’, exactly like Dylan does “at the head of the chamber of commerce”. Like any worthy folk singer Matsson is a master of cadences, his best songs are plastered with plurals and perfects and the title track from his second LP, The Wild Hunt, is no exception.

They provide the listener with a sense of resolve that they most likely came searching for in the first place. His brief lilt into another time signature doesn’t feel calculated, but natural, and the same goes for his alternative tunings.

He came to prominence among folk fans when he supported Bon Iver on his 2008 tour, few if any had any inclinations about the ability of this wondrous solo act. . When it’s your voice, your words and an acoustic guitar, you have to master these tricks to stand out, and The Tallest Man on Earth has done so with ease.


9. Deerhunter –

Revival

[4AD]

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Halcyon Digest is an album about rediscovering past joy, and explores the way in which these memories might distort and change to suit our current feelings and circumstances. Practically living alone as a child in a big suburban house, all the while learning to deal with his Marfan syndrome, Bradford Cox was subjected to an upbringing few can relate to. ‘Revival’ denotes one of these past experiences as a religious one, “I felt his presence near me”, employing a light southern banjo riff to contrast with the darkened fuzz-bass evoking the idea of “darkness always”.

Struggling to enter 3-minute territory, that perfect ethereal moment where everything is in its right place arrives at 1.21 with reverberating wordless nothings, completely indescribable through lyrics and impossible to clarify. The moment is so satisfying that every single time the track is played, that moment evokes the same reaction, which is what the whole venture is about in the first place.


8. Brian Eno –

Horse

[Warp]

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Brian Eno is every artist’s collaborative holy grail, a guru who knows something about everything. One of his more profound titles is “the godfather of ambient music”, so when it was divulged that Brian Eno and Warp were teaming up to release his first solo album in four years, the immediate reaction was an excited match made in heaven. What has the old sport been up to in that time off? Of course, collaborations with David Byrne and Coldplay among others. It was the Coldplay project that led Eno to prolonged studio improvisation with electronic musician Jon Hopkins, who recently composed the score for (Monsters).

There is something quite alluring about the blend of acoustic percussion with electronic laptop sounds and very few carry out this combination with such conviction and style. The thumping tribal rhythms produced by angry distorted tremolo and dissonant guitar trills are phenomenal and when driven on by the brushes the effect is heavy.


7. Arcade Fire –

Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

[Mercury]

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In their debut album Funeral, one of the greatest albums of all time, Arcade Fire employed conceits like “Neighbourhood #1, #2 and #3”, and with The Suburbs we have the episodic “Half Light” and “Sprawl”; incarnations I and II. Does it sound uncertain? Attempts at all areas? It’s true they are a band whose style is often hard to pin down and this is what makes them so interesting; seven members, shed-loads of instrumentation, two lead singers, it’s a busy scene.

Régine Chassagne’s contribution to their sound is often overlooked, underrated, unappreciated or even just plain annoying to some. Usually taking lead vocal on a couple of select numbers or offering screechy backing vocals, she is alright. During the band’s performance at Reading and Leeds festival she played staccato keyboard disastrously out of time, completely down to a failure at the sound desk, but it didn’t help things with her critics who already find her irritating. Here Arcade Fire return to safe ground, their comfort zone, possibly an unrealised one on their behalf. With Chassagne’s voice dancing over the growling synth-bass and colourful synth fanfare, Arcade Fire are indie-disco. It’s the first step in heading towards a destined definable direction so it seems.


6. Joanna Newsom –

Good Intentions Paving Company

[Drag City]

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It was tough to choose between this and ‘On a Good Day’, but whilst granted the latter is a beautiful concise tune about hope, ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ weighs in at a stonking seven minutes! Yet it is still by no means out-of-place on Have One On Me, a triple album where the average song length is at least seven minutes long. Whilst this is a daring feat in itself and vulnerable to lagging, every single second is in fact a worthy creation of engaging narrative about a road-trip to a gig with a significant other.

Lines like “I regret how I said to you, ‘Honey, just open your heart,’ when I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar,” are an eyeful on the page, but Newsom’s phrasing stops them being a mouthful in verse. This natural ability is a rare one among modern songwriters, many who tend to simplify well written phrases or simply daren’t even try to be this creative in the first place. As the journey progresses and each instrument is added, the song transforms, like the protagonist’s relationship. Newsom’s quivering vibrato is just astonishing, it’s almost like a tremolo effect in itself. There is a fantastic documentary of Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold touring with Newsom in just a car, which can be viewed here.


5. Big Boi –

Shutterbugg [ft. Cutty]

[Def Jam]

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Big Boi is the typically strange stage name of Antwan Patton, better known as the other half of Outkast. Whilst his other half is perceived as the visionary in their group’s simply staggering musical career, Big Boi’s debut album Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, is without a doubt one of the best hip-hop albums since the heyday of Dr Dre, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest, and Andre Benjamin certainly isn’t looking likely to produce anything this good any time soon.

The track is all about the club-filling, low tummy-rumbling talk-box. Its staccato robot voice adds a whole new dimension to inventive bass-lines. Hip-hop is primarily all about the beat, and the skill of the rapper, and when Big Boi raps he bounces all around this Roland TR-808 beat, just churning out cultural wordplay with deft attention to rhythm. Like Chico Dusty explores varied musical styles, elements of funk are embraced here whole-heartedly; accentuating the first beat of the bar and trying out some guitar riffs that echo the talk box, and even braving fresh funk riffs of their own.


4. The Radio Dept. –

Heaven’s On Fire

[Labrador]

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Its been a fantastic year for Swedish music and especially the Radio Dept. who have only released a mere three albums in fifteen years. What~? But we must not be led to believe this is because they are unproductive, on the contrary, The Radio Dept. are quite possibly the most underrated band of the noughties thus far and I think its been getting to them. Clinging to a Scheme has finally set the band on the path to righteousness, and ‘Heaven’s On Fire’ is a fantastic example of just how much potential this trio possess. Full of cut and paste beats and a healthy dose of sixties jangly guitar strumming. The ping-pong synth riff bounces all over the stereo field, the resulting chords there to encouraging swooning. The melody is shy and unassuming, which is totally complimented purely by just the way Johan Duncanson sings it; his personality shining through, an aspect he sounds shy about. The vocal is a treated one, relying on a bitcrusher for a warmer tone.

The track samples Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore: “I think we should destroy the bogus capital process that is destroying youth culture” and the lyrics talk of “charlatans”. The chords are pure dream pop, Johan Duncanson seems almost scared to hold a note for its full value, especially when he sings “heaven’s on fire“, a naturally long phoneme he is deliberately cutting short, and its my favourite part of a really moving pop song.


3. Other Lives –

For 12

[TBD]

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Every now and then you hear a song that immediately results in the kind of reaction you experience pretty infrequently throughout your year. Everything  And you won’t ever get that exact same feeling to repeat itself, but you are able to repeat the source of that ecstasy as many times as you wish and it’s exciting. Only released as an initial demo, aimed to be a teaser trailer for next year’s proposed album, the result is far far far more than that.

Other Lives are a five-piece from Stillwater, Oklahoma, a group intent on exploring the realms of big folk expansion and the potential for subtle grandeur. The Ennio Morricone influence is there, western spaghetti guitars couple with cinematic glissando’s in the string section to create that effect. So many aspects of this track are memorable, from the epic chorus to the hummed refrain: the catchiest one I’ve heard in years. The instruments are piled up, but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic in the slightest. When singer Jesse Tabish breaks into falsetto every time “it feels like forever”, the whole world stands still. And then that giddy-up groove starts things rolling again, and frankly it would be fine for the whole demo to never end.


2. Vampire Weekend –

I Think Ur A Contra

[XL]

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Perhaps the biggest shock of the mainstream music year was when relatively unknown merry indie outfit Vampire Weekend reached the number one spot on America’s billboard 200 with only their second album, Contra. And what’s that? It was released on an independent label!? Much success has clothed such a young band in such a short time, epitomized in their 3-minute-and-under indie pop songs that simply flash by, the only style of living most twenty-somethings know.

It is therefore befitting that the final track on the album and consequently the band’s discography thus far, illustrates a soft, slow and pensive side. And like the internal deviation of any artist, the audience don’t associate the new direction with the same act. Here we are subjected to the band’s first ever recording of an acoustic guitar and even more surprisingly a ballad song format. Ezra Koenig’s melody is still an infectious, albeit more fragile, little ditty and Chris Thomson’s rhythms are still über creative in the vast space. But quintessentially, the acoustic guitar is used as a rhythmic device causing interplay between the drums, rather than as a banal production technique to fill out the sound. Koenig abandons his clever storytelling in favour of lyrics shrouded in mystery and the unexpected drunken piano line that before seemed scattered, instantly becomes a refrain when it returns at the end on guitar. They may be starting to slow things down, but they’re still contemplating and complex.


1. Beach House –

Zebra

[Bella Union]

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Teen Dream is Beach House at their best, there is no question about it. A lot of the bands and artists in this list arguably released great albums this year, but none of these efforts contained a song as poignant and crafted as ‘Zebra’. Though they have suppressed the previously favoured “lost in subway tunnel” reverb, it’s still there in hordes courtesy of the converted church they used to record. Engineered by Chris Coady (Grizzly Bear) you can hear the angelic ‘Two Weeks’ vocal harmonies taking their toll.

The distinctive guitar line in parallel sixths does wonders throughout for harmonising Victoria Legrand’s heart-warming melody, the tune rising and falling like the chest of a sleeping human. Her lyrics are assonant goldmines; “wilderness for miles, eyes so mild and wise”, a poetry technique advertisers try to utilise since assonant phrases are proved to be catchier and easier to remember for consumers. There is an ever so subtle four-to-the-floor beat throughout which is soon buried by an intricately thought out rhythmic section. And that semi-tone in the chorus! Beach House occupy the shoegaze/dream-pop realm as skilled innovators without overdoing it, and this track from their début on Sub-Pop is a master-class in song writing.


10 Tracks : 41 minutes
-James Godwin, December 15th, 2010

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.
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