Saturday, December 18, 2010

Best of 2010

Welcome back Music Lovers.

As alluded to last month, I had been working on a longer than usual Top Ten list and it is time to publish it now. My period of writers block last year coincided with my annual list of the best albums each year and so have posted/published no such list for 2010 as yet. While its absence at the time may not have been noted, it does offer a great excuse to revisit a lot of the great music that was released in 2010.

In retrospect, a delay to anointing the best albums in any particular year is not necessarily a bad idea. Most album releases from UK/US bands are still frustratingly released in New Zealand several weeks, if not months, after coming out in their home markets. As such, albums released late in the year often have no chance of making the Top Ten list. By the time they have reached my CD stacker, I have already published my Top Ten and moved onto the new year. I can think of several releases from previous years which I ended up loving but were not considered for the annual list. As we will see, 2010 turned out to be a pretty good year for music helped in part by the inclusion for consideration of several quality releases which I have only come to love in 2011.
So now, with the full candidate list published and available to all, it is time to find out what were the Nevstar's....

Top Ten Albums From 2010

10. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise

It was in the mid 1970s that Bruce Springsteen finally produced the classic album his undeniable talent suggested he was capable of producing. Born To Run ranks up there amongst the finest rock albums of all time. His road to stadium filling super-stardom was assured. However, while there was a lot of touring in support of Born to Run, a follow-up album did not quickly eventuate. There was indeed a four year interlude between the multi-platinum smash released in 1975 and Darkness At The Edge of Town which followed in 1979. The reasons for the delay are not known but it certainly wasn't due to writer's block as this release testifies. Springsteen wrote and recorded over 40 songs during this period and a number of them found their way onto Darkness At The Edge of Town. But many did not and a great number were left on the cutting room floor seemingly never to be released.

But now, in 2010, they have been released for the first time as the double sided album, aptly entitled The Promise. And what an absolute treat it is. Hearing it for the first time is a revelation as you immediately realise you are listening to NEW material from an artist during his most creative song writing period. The tracks are undeniably 1970s Springsteen, not 2010 Springsteen. It is a lost album in the truest sense. It demonstrates all the traits of his earliest albums; cracking stories full of equal measures of wit and remorse sung to a soundtrack of unadorned musical simplicity. A few of the tracks are recognisable from those familiar with his live albums, but overall this is a great lost album which we have finally found. Essential for any Springsteen fan (and aren't we all?).

The only dilemma - for recordophiles like myself - is whether to place it in our collections under 1977 or 2010. Maybe best solution is to simply buy two copies and place one in each slot for completeness!

Best Track : Because Of The Night

9. Best Coast – Crazy For You

Best Coast
is effectively Bethany Consentino, a child actor turned musical prodigy. She released a number of near perfect pop-tunes in her teens which soon garnered quite a following on MySpace. The major labels soon came knocking and more professionally produced efforts soon followed. Combining with instrumentalist Bobb Bruno under the moniker Best Coast, this is her first full length release.

The album is beguiling in many respects. It is full of sugary sweet pop music with gorgeous vocals lathered over perfect melodies and inoffensive background instrumentation. But dig further and you find the songs have dirty and dark undertones as she sings about not only whimsical love, but revenge and heartbreak following on from the passion. It is an album about falling in love but forewarning the angst from a break-up which may follow. As such, the album flies past in a blur of boyfriends and bitches all sung in such innocuous dulcet tones that you would swear it is a girl band from the 50s singing not a child of the 90s. It is the perfect album for the soon to come summer and then you can also delve deeper into it during the long dark winter months. Remarkably, you will find it matches both seasons. Highly recommended.

Best Track : I Want To

8. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Music companies are not our friends. They are the enemy; content to try and deliver to us the same music that we have already bought before. There is no room for originality or even a slightly different approach. Mumford & Sons are thus the quintessential band of the new century. A record company would never green light an album such as Sigh No More because it is not like other acts that have succeeded before. But Mumford & Sons quickly found a following online mainly because they are genuine, have great songs and can really really play.

Their sound, if it can be categorised, is an conglomeration of indie/alternative/country/folk. Being described as 'folk' music is near instant death in the music business these days, but Mumford & Sons make it cool by simply being who they are. You can easily chose not to listen. But it would be a mistake. The entire album is replete with irresistibly catchy folk tunes sung by a band clearly enjoying themselves. It possibly has a few too many slow songs, but the heights which are reached on tracks like Winter Winds makes up for such lapses. It is an album that bears a lot of repeat listens mainly because it is so damn interesting.

Best Track : Winter Winds

7. The National – High Violet

Regular readers of the Nevstar Music Guide will already know of my undoubted affection for The National. They are one of my favourite bands and their concert at the Powerstation towards the end of 2010 was perhaps the best of the year for this scribe.

I have written about this album previously. Check out my full review here.
Suffice to say that it is very close to the stratospheric standards set by their immediately prior albums, Alligator and Boxer. As noted earlier, their songs are "quietish, moody poems set to instrumentation dominated by intricate percussion or subtle basslines. The songs are smouldering classics, working their way into your subconsciousness and residing there long after the speakers have gone silent."

Best Track: Afraid of Everyone

6. Julia Deans – Modern Fables

New Zealand, it seems, is blessed with song-writing talent the equal of anywhere on the planet. Although undoubtedly we are biased in the assessment of it, every year there is an album released from a New Zealand artist which just floors me for the quality of song-writing on display. This year, that album was Modern Fables by former Fur Patrol lead vocalist Julia Deans. This is her first solo album, and judging by the quality, it wont be her last.

Modern Fables is chock full of highly original, catchy, tuneful compositions which sound instantly familiar. Overall, it is less rockier than her Fur Patrol output, but is probably a little more intelligent. The tunes are more thoughtful, but they are all quite distinct as well. Upon purchasing it, I listened to it solidly for about a month and never tired of it. Putting it on again six months later for this review and was instantly reminded of how good it is. Not just one song but the whole album. It is one reason I like albums over singles as it is a bigger sample of the artist's talent. Julia Deans certainly has talent. Seek this album out the first chance you get.
And if you do, make sure you listen to the very end. The best two tracks might just be the two that close the album, Run and Ice Cream. The latter is a Pink Floyd influenced mind-addled space flight!

Best Track : Run

5. Underworld – Barking

As regular readers know, I'm not a huge fan of electronica/dance music with my core music taste leaning in the rock/blues direction. However I tend to purchase a couple of electronica albums a year on the recommendations of those who follow the area closely. It is a rewarding way to find music (in the same way that hopefully the Nevstar Music Guide is for you dear reader!) in that you don't have to trudge through mountains of releases to find the quality albums that will endure.

This year's top electronica album, in this reviewers ever so humble opinion, is the latest effort by Underworld entitled Barking. Underworld are almost elder statesmen of the dance music scene now having been around since 1988. But, along with Chemical Brothers, that doesn't mean they aren't worth listening to. This is mainly due to their songwriting prowess which continues to experiment with dance music rhythms without forgetting the appeal of simple pop pleasures. Barking is an absolute treat with an entire album of high quality tracks each deserving of its own adulation and recommendation. Rarely do you come across albums where you like every single track but I can, unhesistantly, say that in this case here. I even randomized the track list on occasion just to check that my high opinions of some tracks weren't unduly influencing my adoration of the others. If anything, it only highlighted my appreciation of the entire album. Simply put, this is a great piece of dance music and would highly recommend to any music follower whether you like dance music or not.

Best Track: Grace

4. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Next come two bands who I only started following once the artist list for Laneways was announced and I have come to love them both. Deerhunter is up first and they can probably best be described as an experimental indie rock band. The songs are epic quests charting previously unknown waters in the vast 'Sargasso Sea' of the noise spectrum. The songs are challenging and rewarding yet satisfying and comforting. While each track is quite distinct the link between them all is a complex wall-of-sound accompaniment supported by sparse yet sharp lyrical content.

Listening to the album is a bit like climbing a mountain; it starts slowly before ascending more rapidly and climaxes at the peak with the absolutely epic track Desire Lines sitting right in the middle of the album. Then, as the euphoria from attaining the summit wears off, the climb down is rewarding as the adrenalin drops away. A great album from some seriously talented musicians.

If you like this, be sure to check out their 2008 release Microcastle / Weird Era. This is an astonishing double album. As I understand, they were all set to release Microcastle when a copy of it was accidentally leaked online. Rather than short-change those who actually paid money for the CD, they promptly recorded a second album (Weird Era) and included it on the same release. Incredibly, the second release, written and recorded in less than a month, is possibly better than the first release. A seriously talented band.

Best Track : Desire Lines

3. Holy Fuck – Latin

Next up come the band Holy Fuck who operate in a similar spectrum to Deerhunter except they do it without any lyrics at all. I first noticed the band in a record store. Whatever you think about the name, it is inarguably eye-catching. Then, when they were also named to play Laneways, I had to check them out and so I purchased Latin before hearing a note.

Latin has one of the slowest starts of any album I can recall. I found myself checking to see if I had actually pressed "Play" or not. But, one minute in, the sounds start emanating from the stereo. And what enchanting sounds they are. HF operate primarily by building tension through the agglomeration of various sounds, chords and loops. It is electronic rock music in some respects featuring intensely catchy loops surrounded by sharp pincer movements of staccato drums and guitar. It is like listening to a soundtrack of rumbling thunder whilst lightning periodically lights up the sky. The overall sound is incredibly menacing and ominous featuring energetic playing and tenacious song-writing.

I'm struggling here. The music is awfully hard to describe. Do yourself a favour and purchase it to see for yourself. Would be very surprised if you didn't find something you like.

Best Track : 1MD

2. Broken Bells – Broken Bells

I've already talked about The National and a similar band who I also enjoy are The Shins. However they did not release an album in 2010. Fortunately lead singer James Mercer teamed up with legendary producer Danger Mouse and released an album under the moniker Broken Bells. I almost missed it actually only being alerted to its presence by a record store employee (and in a side note, what are we going to do without this valuable source of musical knowledge in the digital future?)

Upon playing it for the first time, I was intrigued. Replaying again instantly, I was captivated. Playing it immediately a third time, I was stunned. It is exceptionally good and rivals anything that the Shins have produced. The songs resemble delicate pieces of silk, spun with care and precision, touching and titillating with a softly-spoken charm. There is an innate confidence in the quality of their work. The best comedians are funny because they know they are funny and thus don't appear to be trying hard to be funny. Broken Bells are the same. They are so confident and assured that the output is relaxed and immediately accessible. The songs are mainly low-fi indie pop with the vocal registers never stretched. It is the perfect album to play on a Sunday morning as you let the waves of dreamy pop wash over your tired soul.

Best Track : The Ghost Inside

1. Robert Plant – Band of Joy

Listening to Broken Bells early in the year, I thought it would take a stunning album to top it for Album of the Year. So it proved. Robert Plant's latest solo release is one of my favourite albums of the last five years. On purchasing it, I played it virtually non-stop for about two months and am still yet to tire of it.

Plant has had a bit of a career resurrection of late in part because he has not allowed himself to be typecast. Much as we all love his Zeppelin catalog of work, it would ultimately be a little dull if he simply tried to re-produce this sort of material each time. Instead, he has experimented with a number of genres making full use of his formidable musical knowledge. We had the album Mighty Rearranger in 2005 which was terrific and closed with a (gasp) dance funk effort. Then he combined with Alison Krauss in 2007 on the highly acclaimed Raising Sand which was more of a country effort. Now, in 2010, he returned with Band of Joy which is the name of his original band back in the 1960s before joining up with the New Yardbirds and becoming Led Zep.

Band of Joy is simply amazing. It is a roots album in a number of respects, paying homage to his own musical roots, but also to the music that inspired and shaped his musical pedigree. Thus we have a rather obscure collection of reworked songs, some old, some new; some traditional, some contemporary but all interesting. They were written by a diverse and eclectic number of artists ranging from 60s folk hero Richard Thompson to the indomitable Low. The latter is a fabulous cover of their track Monkey off their terrific album The Great Destroyer. In Plant's hands it acquires a seriously disturbing disguise equal measures delightful and terrifying. Other tracks contain re-interpretations of traditional songs for a new century.

It sounds like a mess, but Plant's genius is to make it sound like a unified whole. His voice is in fine form and it is put to good use across an incredibly wide variety of material. Each song is a story in itself and the joy in listening to the album is digging deeper into both the history of each track and Plant's interpretation of it.

Anyway, enough of me rambling about it, go out and acquire it now. Without hesitation, I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who has even the remotest interest in music. It is that good and as such a worthy winner of the Nevstar's vote for Best Album of 2010.

Best Tracks (way too hard to pick one!) : Monkey, Silver Rider, The Only Sound That Matters

So there you go, there are my top ten albums for 2010. The quality of the candidates meant a lot of very good albums didn't quite make the final cut. Here then is a list of the next best.

Best of the Rest (in alphabetical order)

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) : Strange Weather Isn't It?
Arcade Fire : Suburbs
Black Keys : Brothers
The Drums : The Drums
Gaslight Anthem : American Slang
Gorillaz : Plastic Beach
Grinderman : Grinderman 2
Passion Pit : Manners
Paul Weller : Wake Up The Nation
We Have Band : WHB

What do we think of that? Any absolutely egregious omissions? What were your Top Ten of Twenty Ten? Send me a list and be happy to publish it in the next guide. And if I have missed your favourite release of last year, send me an impassioned dissertation on why it should have been considered.

Until next month.

The Nevstar

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