Talking Music: Reflections & Recommendations by Admohr

Admohr’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

Posted in 2010, The Year's Best, Top Ten by admohr on December 21, 2010

The Wild Hunt
10. The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Solo-acoustic albums are the musical equivalent of a small-font, thick dusty novel. Even if you know it’s going to be great, that doesn’t mean that it won’t still be an exhaustive effort to enjoy. Kristian Matsson (The Tallest Man On Earth) has the remarkable ability of transforming the solo-acoustic album to something that feels like it is anything but. The magnitude of sound & the ease in consumption that comes out of a single man (who is actually quite short) & acoustic guitar is simply overwhelming on The Wild Hunt.

Matsson tends to be compared to Bob Dylan – but honestly that influence is detectable in vocal-tone only, as Dylan just didn’t write songs as engaging as what Matsson has done here. The Wild Hunt flies by the listener in a way that an acoustic songwriter’s album never has before. And the sheer amplitude in sound created on “You’re Coming Back” or “The King Of Spain” is just simply a talent that distinguishes the man amongst other songwriters & performers as verified by witnessing him live, by himself, with just a guitar in a cramped room full of several hundred people who wanted to be – and undeniably were – rocked & impressed.

Love It To Life
9. Jesse Malin – Love It To Life
Musicians at their strongest provide the context to our lives, scoring the scenes of every pivotal or inessential moment we’ll remember forever or try to forget. Malin’s fist-pumping, night-on-the-town pop-rock is the type of soundtrack to one’s most triumphant moments & when Love It To Life is at its strongest – inspires the listener to get out and find even more joy. Certain songwriters are forever revered for their ability to inspire the listener to embrace the sadness – even depression – that exists deep within their souls. But to be fair, draining one’s soul is comparatively easy as opposed to inspiring the listener to realize the joy that exists within their lives. Love It To Life is the antithesis of Joni Mitchell – Blue.

To be fair, there’s nothing distinctly new to Malin’s writing from his solo albums prior to this one. What distinguishes Love It To Life is how seemlessly each track flows into the next, and how for once Malin’s songwriting is in top form throughout all. Opening scorcher “Burning the Bowery” is riddled with so many vocal hooks the listener doesn’t get a chance to say no. “The Archer” and “Lonely At Heart,” are sad songs that can’t help but become hope-filled thanks to Malin’s band which just cannot be restrained. Love It To Life is the type of album you throw in the car in the middle of a road trip, just because you want to create the momentum that feels like you’re over halfway there, whether you actually are or not. It’s a warmed-soul masterpiece.

Crazy For You
8. Best Coast – Crazy For You
Crazy For You’s opener, “Boyfriend” is actually the exact same literal concept as Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” the distinguishing difference that “Boyfriend” is the song that the misunderstood, under-appreciated author would write (or at least listen to) while Swift’s actual output of pasteurized-pop is what the hated “Cheerleader/irresistible object of wanted-male’s attraction” would definitely have on HER iPhone. Lyrically, Bethany Cosentino will not be winning anyone over with her songs about wanting, lusting, or being confused about boys – but fortunately for the listener, her lyrics don’t tell half the story that her swooning vocals & noise-fuzz-pop tell throughout Crazy For You.

Song “Our Deal” illustrates the complexity throughout Crazy For You – layers of guitar noise on a gleaming yet over-reverbed shimmering vocal while lyrically Bethany plods along about frustration in an unsatisfied relationship. The other half of Best Coast – Bobb Bruno generates claustrophobic sound scapes for Bethany’s sunny-day pop, a dynamic and duality that pushes the overall sound into something truly memorable. Songs “I Want To” or “Each And Everyday” & their inability to be content with just being a straightforward pop song, offering change-up responses at the end of each track give the album the complexity you’d assume is otherwise impossible for something inaccurately pegged as (just) beach music. Crazy For You seems like it should be sunny day music, but the listener’s conscience knows better and with all the noise & murk gloriously submerging each and every vocal – you know that this is music that you can’t let your guard down on.

The Guitar Song
7. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song is actually a classic double album (unlike all of today’s records that just get pushed onto 2xLP for necessity/profit) with 12 & 13 songs for each half – the second half being a collection of less-essential, not nearly as convincing pieces about redemption that follow a first half so comprised of utter depravity & complete hopelessness that pretty much any other mindset pales in comparison to the conviction that Johnson employs in his resignation & despair. “That’s How I Don’t Love You” and “Cover Your Eyes” are unsettlingly blunt on relationships that have run their course to the point you feel like you’re going through the split yourself. “Poor Man Blues” is classic country-hatred of men with opposite values, yet he’s so understated as he not-so-subtly threatens the subject of his attention (without actually doing so) that it makes you feel like Nick Cave was just joshing everyone on those songs about murder.

This is not to completely deprive the listener of the enjoyment to be found on the 2nd record – really, “My Way To You” is a beautiful, endearing & powerful performance that finds Johnson actually trying to salvage a lost relationship & realize his undoing – but it’s too hard for the listener to emotionally recover from the first record – even after some 25 total tracks between the two – when he sings a line like “You can’t cash my checks / You can’t feel this hunger / You can push me into the water / But you can’t hold me under” on the first. Lyrically, there’s hope, even pride in Johnson’s words there, but his expression makes such perceived hope sound almost tongue-in-cheek. The expression in true country music is known for being curt and above adornment – just telling it as it is. But Johnson gives the listener such an unfiltered stream of hurt, loss & anger here that you can’t help but think that the follow-up, generally more-lighthearted record on hope may have been better served as an ensuing release a few years later. Because on the heels of a track & vocal performance like “Cover Your Eyes,” finding reason to believe that it will ever be any different seems like a waste of time.

Cry Out Loud
6. Las Robertas – Cry Out Loud
Las Robertas had me hooked at the words “All-Female Costa Rican Noise Rock Trio,” borne from gorillavsbear & hipster runoff blog entries that just did not do justice to the confidence & power coming from a track like “The Curse.” Unquestionably my “no-volume-high-enough” collection of the year, Las Robertas evoke more performance influence from bands like Mission Of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., or Hüsker Dü than the girl-dominated fuzzy buzzies of Best Coast, Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, or even the harder Screaming Females.

Track “Damn 92” showcases the relentlessness of noise rock at its most convincing – when the band delivers understated lyrics, letting guitars + distortion tell the story that the listener needs to hear (the rock that follows the vocal-bridge of “Damn 92” just might be the hardest rocking moment of 2010). Tracks “V for You” and “In Between Buses” continue the album’s dominance in not just creating a powerful sound that drowns the listener, but in each song’s unexpected progression in keeping the listener completely overwhelmed. It’s tempting to write this record off as part of a trend/meme of 2k10, but you’ll have to trust me when I say that follow up listens to Cry Out Loud are needed to fully comprehend how strong this debut effort really is.

Clinging To A Scheme
5. The Radio Dept. – Clinging To A Scheme
Picking your favorite element of The Radio Dept.’s sound is as difficult as it is to pick a singular track from the flawless Clinging To A Scheme LP to represent the band’s sound. Track “This Time Around” layers muted vocals on a sea of gentle distortion that embraces the listener, yet it may actually be the progression of the song over chord changes that sticks with the listener the most. Meanwhile the ensuing track “Never Follow Suit” displays a rhythm influence with a skipping groove that feels a world away from the accelerated pace of the track that preceded, yet is still connected via the same atmospheric density that clouds this entire record in a way that is more engaging than I could ever possibly describe.

There’s an innocence and yet something very determined going on throughout Clinging To A Scheme, where Johan Duncanson’s vocals narrate the listener through each of the sonic landscapes created & then destructed from a track bathed in distortion (“The Video Dept.”) to something completely minimal in the next moment (“Memory Loss.”) The warmness that surrounds the entire listening experience around Clinging To A Scheme is driven from each composition completely insulating the listener from their world that exists outside the headphones. The listener forms a trust with Duncanson’s voice & words via the accessibility of every track and the bond only grows as each unexpected progression in those tracks reward the listener for investing themselves so heavily in the experience. Along those lines, closer “You Stopped Making Sense” may be the most bittersweet performance of the year – if only because the listener is slowly extracted back to a world where their trust cannot be taken for granted.

Grinderman 2
4. Grinderman – Grinderman 2
The career arc of Nick Cave is one that has found his song craftsmanship go decidedly more refined – if not also reserved – when compared to the depraved, hardcore stuff he was performing from pretty much The Birthday Party all the way through 1994’s Let Love In. And while his performances with The Bad Seeds have been well established as compositional masterpieces, the edge to which Cave truly established himself had almost completely disappeared until his 2007 side project Grinderman. The tracks from Grinderman undeniably reestablished Cave’s edge (see: “No Pussy Blues”), but most notably were decidedly unpolished & raw performances that stood in stark contrast to the sweeping compositions of albums like No More Shall We Part or The Abbatoir Blues / Lyre Of Orpheus LP’s. As an outlet for both Cave & the Listener, Grinderman provided enjoyable (if not necessarily essential) domination rock.

What’s most noteworthy then about 2010’s Grinderman 2 is not that the lyrical content or even that the industrial-sounding terror-rock has changed much from the original – it’s that the compositions are bigger, and while they may still be abrasive they are decidedly the opposite of the rawness of the 2007 LP. The original Grinderman played as a night bender, an undeniably fun yet ultimately-throwaway side-project. Tracks like “Bellringer Blues” and “Evil” from Grinderman 2 no longer play like 4 guys sitting in a basement trying to out-man one-another over a bunch of liquor: it plays as a practiced, layered, massive effort that retains the spirit of the original but cannot be cast aside with assumptions of carelessness because there’s simply too much sonically going on throughout these tracks. Selections “What I Know” and “Palaces of Montezuma” muddy the distinction between Grinderman & The Bad Seeds altogether by almost completely taking the edge off, a concept completely foreign to Grinderman’s self-titled. But what ultimately distinguishes Grinderman 2 from the entirety of Cave’s incredible discography is how concise & perfect the LP plays from beginning to end. For the first time in Cave’s career, he may have assembled an album that simply roars from one track to the next – and even when the themes are changed up, the listener still follows along naturally. Grinderman may have started out as the mistress to Cave’s marriage w/ the Bad Seeds, but Cave’s inability to just leave the Grinderman side project as simply that – a side project – may have been one of the best surprises of 2010.

Before Today
3. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
Before Today is a dizzying mess of an album, characterized as much by the rapid succession in changes in tune, melody & vocals within just one song as much as it is characterized by the melodies & vocals themselves. Reviewers tend to characterize this music as lo-fi, which seems completely misleading of the glimmering production employed on Before Today – not to mention that any perceptions on the fidelity of the sound are completely beside the point on this album. Before today is an advanced concept in listening – songs that actualy have hooks, like the masterpiece “Round and Round” are so riddled with hooks & changes in progression that the listener almost feels that they’re being tricked by the end – and it isn’t until Pink returns with the vocal choruses at the conclusion of “Round and Round” that the listener finally feels rewarded for this onslaught of song pieces – in just one song. And it is at that point that the listener realizes just how brilliant – and fantastically rewarding this one can be when you come back to it repeatedly and frequently.

Before Today reminds me more of Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand more than any other album, despite there being no presence of Pollard-style rock whatsoever throughout Pink’s work. Each of these albums challenge the listener to ditch the notion of thinking in terms of songs & instead forces them to embrace one fleeting moment to the next, and in the process the sum of the entire work reaches the listener in a way that even a concept album cannot. And much like Bee Thousand – while the music may be characterized by perceptions in the performances’ fuzziness, or by the fleeting nature of one sample to the next – at the root of Before Today are just great individual song performances like “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and its progression into “Reminisces” – songs that could stand on their own beautifully, but just take on even added meaning as part of the whole in the beautiful buzz that the collection of everything here provides.

Harlem River Blues
2. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
A year ago I wrote of the blended influences, expression & songwriting prowess of Justin Townes Earle – how the record & his writing struck me as earnest & genuine yet meticulously crafted. Earle followed up 2009’s Midnight At The Movies with 2010’s Harlem River Blues – an album in its strongest, most endearing moments puts Midnight… to shame.

Track “Workin’ For The M.T.A.” will have you thinking Springsteen from the second he croons “I’m the son of a railroad man,” and the spirit of Springsteen’s accessible-rock songwriting overwhelms the listener even on a track completely devoid of actual rock contributions – all the while as we feel like we’re actually riding w/ Earle as he tells us a story from the train itself. The track in itself is one of the most affecting & striking moments of 2010 – a song undeniably timeless yet unlike nothing we’ve truly heard before. Earle’s uncomfortably frank with the listener in “Christchurch Woman” (“she may be pretty / but someday I’ll get sick of her shit”) yet the song’s performance is so seamless, it could play unnoticed in a Texas dance hall or even (ironically) a wedding reception. Track “Harlem River Blues” could double as a hymnal or as a pub-sing along (“dirty water’s gonna cover me over / I’m not gonna make a sound”).

Yet it’s track “Rogers Park” that moreso than any other track on any of his previous albums, will define to the listener who Justin Townes Earle is as a songwriter. A track defined by surrender, Earle speaks of coming ‘here’ with hopes & dreams, yet now has noplace to be, is alone & unable to sleep. The conviction in his voice on the lines: “i’m tired of lying awake / feel like i’m running out of time / ain’t got no place i can fall” takes on added meaning once you remember that Earle suffered from respiratory failure due to being awake for 14 straight days the result of drug addiction & drug use from the age of 12. But even in this song’s grisly back-story, the lasting impression on the listener is in the beauty of the melody, performance & vocals of the song itself. Because despite being characterized by his dream-pedigree & life’s experiences and influences – Justin Townes Earle is ultimately just a brilliant songwriter. His life gives his songs meaning, and there is so much for the listener to come back to – but what distinguishes his writing most is how every breath the man puts on record is inspired. Earle alone tells us who he is in every piece of his writing, and any attempt to capture who he is outside of his own words & music just feels inadequate.

Halcyon Digest
1. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Typically, we tend to define the greatest albums by either the presence of a unifying theme throughout, or the result of just being so chock-full of fantastic songs or influential performances that nothing else can seemingly compare. It’s difficult to peg Halcyon Digest in these characterizations, though that’s not to suggest that all of the performances here are not fantastic or influential. It’s more about how Deerhunter have created something that feels immediately timeless but challenging & unique – even if the foundation of every performance is rooted in (fairly) traditional rock & pop concepts. The whole of every moment of Halcyon Digest is as a meticulously constructed environment or soundscape, and plays as a band with history & influences in noise rock – yet are creating a dream pop listening experience that completely engages & develops the listener’s train of thought. Often music is employed in our life to provide context to our emotional & most personal experiences, but Halcyon Digest is so engrossing in its performance that it really creates an alternate universe for the listener to escape into. Much of Halcyon Digest (“He Would Have Laughed” comes especially to mind) actually seems beyond emotion – which is not to suggest that there are not emotional elements throughout all of these pieces. It’s just – this record is more than that.

Not that I feel comfortable characterizing this record as a Dream Pop record either. One of the best moments in rock in 2010 is the looping, completely engrossing guitar in the second half of “Desire Lines,” though “Revival” and “Memory Boy” are just as engaging. Halcyon Digest really reaches the listener once they have become completely consumed in the progression of texture-ridden “Helicopter” to “Coronado” to the glimmering “He Would Have Laughed,” the three tracks that close the record and capture the listener’s attention and imagination and doesn’t cede until the abrupt ending of “He Would Have Laughed.” The record is ultimately a celebration in the listening experience itself, because the music & performance demands your entire attention and refuses to be confined to the resources of only the listener’s experiences. Halcyon Digest becomes the most powerful music statement in 2010 because its compositions alone force every single listener to concede their mental awareness in order to fully embrace how unbelievably powerful a listening experience can be.

The Next 5 In:
Beach Fossils – Beach Fossils

Free Energy – Stuck On Nothing

The Mynabirds – What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks

The Morning Benders – Big Echo

Special Mention:
Roky Erickson with Okkervil River – True Love Cast Out All Evil
Excluded from my year-end albums consideration only because many of these tracks are not actually original compositions, but reworked elements from Erickson’s past records: here Okkervil River guests with Roky to create a beautiful statement on the story of Roky’s life of psych rock, mental issues, frustration & endearing love. Tracks “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” and “John Lawman” absolutely shred with a nod to Roky’s influential role in 60s psychedelic rock while devotional “Please Judge” gets blasted off its course in a wave of white noise from televisions: a nod to Roky’s past battles with schizophrenia where he would turn on every television and radio in a house just to drown out the voices in his own head. But it’s “True Love Cast Out All Evil” that may be the most touching, endearing performance of the entire year in music. Because as Roky’s lived a life of glory, pain, and suffering – for him to close an album on the story of his life with a simple song of unbridled hope & love is simply the most affecting statement that any listener will experience this year.

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