Narwhal Party

Favorite Albums, 2010

This list is mostly obvious, that’s fair. But it is what it is. These are the albums that I continued to come back to, continued to get excited about, continued to think about and still love. Hopefully I’m not parroting other reviews and lists. NOTE–this is a list, in no particular order, of my favorite albums of the year. I’m not suggesting these are the “best.” That would be silly.

Sufjan Stevens, Age Of Adz
Continuing his exploration of combining the sacred and the chaotic, beautiful and ugly, Stevens put out an album that is so uniquely his, it’s unmistakable. Yes, there are grating electronic noises, synthesizers, strings, choirs, horns, woodwinds, and everything else you’ve come to expect from a Sufjan album. But they are arranged in such unique, unexpected ways, that each song is full of thrilling moments. “Now That I’m Older” is haunting and gorgeous. The title track is truly epic and the melodic shift is subtle but powerful. Big sounds can be distracting but are critical to the fabric of these songs. Where some artists try to pile on extras and end up with a mess, Stevens’ songs are enhanced and built into something inimitable and breathtaking.


Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Their iconic debut was followed by a somewhat divisive record of dark, heavy, and often murky songs that seemed to lash out in broad strokes. With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire proves that they really are the iconic band everyone hoped they were. The Suburbs mixes the internal and the external with confidence. Musically, it’s a much more subtle, controlled effort, with the bombast in check. The result is a long album that doesn’t feel overstuffed—they still channel Bowie and Bruce Springsteen and Talking Heads, but the focus is undeniable. “We Used To Wait” is sleek and steady, “Sprawl II” is a disco anthem, “The Suburbs” is jaunty with wilting strings, and “Modern Man” has a bar of 5/4 that tries to disrupt the groove but only enhances it. And “Half Light I” and “Half Light II” and “City With No Children” and the transition from “Month Of May” into “Wasted Hours.” Again, there’s a lot on the album, but I don’t think you could take any of it out without damaging the mammoth that they’ve built.

The Walkmen, Lisbon
The Walkmen are one of America’s most reliable bands. But when I read that they had scrapped an entire album’s worth of songs—ballads full of horns, like the best parts of their previous album—I was a bit nervous about what would come of it. Thankfully, they put together one of their most focused collections of songs yet. Where You & Me felt overfull and long, Lisbon keeps it brief. They make new strides in sound—they had said in interview that they were highly influenced by the Sun Records catalogue. And while it isn’t a classic country album, there are certainly obvious touchstones: shining, sustained back-up vocals (“Torch Song”), slap-back reverb on clean guitars (“Blue As Your Blood,” “All My Great Designs”). But on songs like “Angela Surf City” and “Victory,” they still retain the explosive immediacy that initially drew so much attention nearly a decade ago.

Beach House, Teen Dream
I can’t think of any other bands that have made such significant leaps while retaining their core, defining sound. It’s still a simple set up, but their Sub Pop debut significantly widens the sonic scope, resulting in their most dynamic album of their career—the haze is gone, and everything here is rich and clear. Each song on Teen Dream has significant hooks, riffs, and moments, but I’d have to say that “Norway,” “Walk In The Park,” and “Take Care” are its highest achievements. It’s cool and relaxed, but haunting and intensely memorable.

LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
It took me a while to give LDC Soundsystem a fair shake. But when I gave “All My Friends” and “Someone Great” (from Sound Of Silver) a chance, I realized there was something powerfully human and insanely catchy lurking in each of James Murphy’s songs. This Is Happening boasts much more melody than previous LCD albums, and is more immediately accessible. The lyrics are funny and poignant (“We have a black president and you do not, so shut up,” “Love is like an astronaut—it comes back but it’s never the same” “Like kissing under a bridge, it’s an entirely new discovery” “All I want is your pity. All I want is your bitter tears” “Like a book of your bad poetry, and this is coming from me” “You wanted the time, but maybe I can’t do time—we all know that’s an awful line, but it doesn’t make it wrong” etc. etc. etc.). Songs like “I Can Change” and “All I Want” are honest and candid, and “You Wanted A Hit” and “Pow Pow” rely on drawn out grooves. “Home” has to be LCD Soundsystem’s approximation of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place.” Which is important to note, because while Murphy and co. often utilize the sounds of influences (the guitar on “All I Want” is overtly similar to that of Bowie’s “Heroes”), he creates something significantly modern and current and thoroughly loveable.

The Morning Benders, Big Echo
Aptly titled. This album sounds fantastic. Like a sunnier, more romantic Grizzly Bear, or a more plaintive Shins. Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor shared production duties on the album, so there is cavernous reverb, each instrument is given precise space, etc. But most significantly, the songs are memorable. “Excuses” is sweeping and lush, “Cold War” is a brief, bouncing pop song, and the ballads build and swell with wide-eyed sincerity.

The National, High Violet
On the surface, The National is exploding less. Weirding out less. But High Violet is their biggest sounding album yet. The lyrics are still fantastic, dealing mostly with domesticity, fear, and longing, and the music is significantly darker than their last album. At times, it blows up, but in other spots, they show a disciplined restraint (the drums on “Runaway”). The big moment is the propulsive “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” but “Lemonworld” has to be one of the best songs of their career.

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The magic here is that Kanye is firing on all cylinders: conceptually, lyrically, musically, etc. The sounds are thrilling (the synthetic marching band on “All Of The Lights,” the stark simplicity of “Runaway,” the classic ‘Ye soul beat on “Devil In A New Dress,” and the immense size of “Power”), and there are quotable lines in every song. It’s always a thrill to see the way he owns up to his shortcomings with an enigmatic blend of arrogance and humility. It’s embarrassing. It’s strange. It’s a blast.

Wolf Parade, Expo 86
How can a band this good be so underrated? It’s probably due to the spark of their first album and the fact that the two that have followed are different—not necessarily worse, but different. Regardless, Expo 86 is without a doubt one of the years best rock albums. Krug and Boeckner are finding new ways to intertwine absolutely gigantic riffs, cryptic lyrics, and stadium-sized choruses. Dante DeCaro seems to have taken a bigger role with his auxiliary guitar and keyboard work, allowing for an even bigger “wall of counterpoint,” as Boeckner described it to Pitchfork back in April. I can’t think of a better way to describe their sound at this point. If you haven’t given this record a fair shake, or it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and spend some time with it. “In The Direction Of The Moon” is a force and “Pobody’s Nerfect” is Boeckner at his absolute biggest, while “Little Golden Age” and “Yulia” are up there with his most triumphant moments. And the driving disco-punk of “Ghost Pressure” and “What Did My Lover Say?” puts the songs up with the band’s best.

Twin Shadow, Forget
This album grew immensely over time. At first, it felt like another 80s throwback, but over time, the precise production and remarkable melodies proved George Lewis, Jr. as a legitimate songwriter. Forget, along with The Morning Benders’ Big Echo, was produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. It shows in the crispness and precision of each instrument. Most songwriters operating in the one-man-band format would probably continue to add more layers of synthesizers and guitars, but Forget works on a deliberately limited palate, drawing comparisons to Depeche Mode, New Order, and (particularly in the vocal delivery) Morrissey (synth piano, organ, flute, guitars with chorus effect, dry, punchy bass guitar). “Slow” is the closest thing to a rock song, with strummed guitars and strained vocals in the chorus, but most of the songs take a relaxed new wave or slow disco approach. Lewis’ songwriting skills are most apparent in his arrangements—his patience on opener, “Tyrant Destroyed,” or the way “At My Heels” begins with such a driving beat, but it’s clear by the chorus that the easy move would have been to make the song a half-time power ballad, but the result is the record’s most propulsive moment. This was my least expected album to fall in love with this year, but I can’t seem to leave it be.

Honorable mentions:
Damien Jurado, Saint Bartlett
Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
Foals, Total Life Forever
Toro Y Moi, Causers Of This
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Caribou, Swim
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor

High Violet
05/16/2010, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Music | Tags: , , , ,

The National are a band I resisted when they first started popping up on my radar with 2005’s Alligator. I finally gave in and found a strange, moody, and captivating world contained on a monster of an album. By the time their next record came out (2007’s Boxer), they had gained a considerable following, and rightfully so. Boxer marked a distinct departure from Alligator, which was at times equal parts pop and catharsis. Boxer was subdued, restrained, and absolutely lush. And now with High Violet, The National alleviate a great deal of the tension they painstakingly built. Where Boxer is a somber affair that swirls and pulses in its bleary-eyed gloom, High Violet builds and explodes and broadens the sonic pallet that kept Boxer so tightly wound. It’s not a shift or change, as much as it is a blooming.

Songs like “Afraid Of Everyone,” “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” and “Terrible Love” are explosive. Still, in places, The National take their time to let the mood simmer. “Sorrow” maintains a steady, solemn beauty and let’s the space settle between each note, highlighting the singer’s life-long romance with the titular character (“Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, Sorrow won…Sorrow’s my body on the waves/Sorrow’s a girl inside my cake”). [Side-note: Berninger uses his go-to image of cake at least twice on the album. That’s at least four or five cake references over the course of the last three records] The fantastic “Lemonworld” is reminiscent of Boxer’s “Slow Show,” quietly propulsive. Like most narrators in National songs, the lyrics detail a young man perpetually out of place. But it’s “Runaway” that is most arresting. The song wrenches and pulls, but never really builds or breaks. Less experienced bands would build up the drums and unleash a flood of crash cymbals and distortion—turning the tender, humble ballad into the Power Ballad, without any tact or grace. The National, on the other hand, decide to keep things where they are. They let it marinate. In an expert show of restraint, there’s not a single cymbal or big shaking guitar chord (in the same way, we only get the smallest taste of hi-hat on the tom-dominated “Lemonworld”). The steady repetition of the lyrics becomes a meditation, a prayer. “We don’t bleed, when we don’t fight” becomes a plea and by the end of the song, “I won’t be no runway” has turned from a shaky promise to a stubborn vow. Singer Matt Berninger has always known the power of repetition in song, and he employs the tactic throughout High Violet. On the lush, swelling “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” with the help of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the whole band melodically chants, “All of the best of us string ourselves up for love,” like a mantra.

The National succeed the most at creating moods with cycles—a small, repeating guitar riff, lyrics that are reiterated throughout a song, woodwinds and brass weaving in and out of each other, a droning harmonium. The craftsmanship of the band can easily be overshadowed by the striking results. The music can seem deceptively simple and the lyrics can seem merely impressionistic, but the end results are only reached by a calculated precision that can be found in the layers and only seem to emerge with several listens.

The band stopped by The Late Show to play “Afraid Of Everyone” (with Sufjan Stevens and Padma Newsom). The song is a coiled bundle of paranoia—Matt Berninger’s first song for his baby daughter. But when all that fear and anxiety breaks into some kind of triumph and the band finds the root (the shift from A Minor to C Major as Berninger shouts “soul soul soul soul soul…”), it’s a control that few bands can maintain and manipulate so impeccably.

Here’s the Letterman performance (highly recommended):

And you can now view an entire concert (or at least most of one), as directed by DA Pennebaker (famous for his film shot on Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour, “Don’t Look Back”), at a special YouTube site. The Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Perry shows up. So does past collaborator Doveman. And a bunch of strings. And horns. What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.