I have heard it said that listening to new music with the eventual goal of making a year-end list is ultimately detrimental to both the listener and the music: If you’re constantly concerning yourself with how one piece of music stacks up against another piece of music, you’re really not judging either one on its own merits. When that is multiplied several hundred times over—assuming you hear several hundred new records a year—you’ve effectively reduced your entire listening experience to a complicated grid of checks and minuses, and almost eliminated the possibility for any genuine emotional reaction.
It’s a theory, anyway.
But it’s also July, and that means we are exactly halfway through 2010—six full months have passed, six full months are ahead of us. It is the midyear point, the point at which we can take stock of what has come already, and clean the slate somewhat for what we have yet to experience. Of course, artistically speaking, calendar years are fairly arbitrary measures—a band might have written songs for an album over the course of the last five years, spent parts of the last two years recording those songs, and only released them as a completed work this year. So what does that have to say about 2010?
Probably nothing. Maybe nothing. But just the same, now is as good a time to clear the books.
What follows are my 10 favorite albums of 2010 thus far, in alphabetical order. However, if 2010 were to end today and this was how the year closed out, I would consider it to have been a very, very good year. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
France’s Alcest are often called a black metal band, though their catalog is much more My Bloody Valentine than Mayhem, and better than both. The band’s mastermind, Neige (also the man behind the similarly essential Amesoeurs), is one of music’s most exciting innovators, and everything he releases commands a stop-whatever-you’re-doing-and-listen response. And Écailles de Lune rewards it. Lush, haunting, wondrous—like a dream or a memory or some gorgeous hallucinatory fantasy.
Teen Dream came out in January—I think I had a copy of the record in December—which is why year-end lists are so flawed. I’ve listened to it a million times, lived with it all winter and all spring; last week, I heard its single, “Norway,” in Old Navy. Six months from now, will I still be able to hear its immense and subtle beauty? Its shimmering loss, wisdom, darkness, lightness? Its generosity of melody and its scarred humanity? I think so—because I think it’s timeless—but still.
See: Beach House, above. Different side, same coin. Crazy For You isn’t even officially released yet; I got a copy of it last week. By that logic, it shouldn’t be on this list, but I wanted to write about it, and even if it doesn’t make my year-end list, it will make a lot of others. By then, Bethany Cosentino, the woman behind Best Coast, will be an icon, a symbol, an academic discussion—so for the moment, it’s nice to see her just as a really great songwriter and one of the coolest singing voices on the planet.
I really don’t write about hip-hop because I don’t listen to a very wide array of hip-hop: just the artists I already know or the artists recommended to me. For that reason, I’m hesitant to recommend hip-hop to others—because what the hell do I know?—but it’s impossible to not recognize the greatness of Outkast member Big Boi’s solo debut. Sir Lucious Left Foot is probably the consensus choice for Album of the Year right now, but sometimes the consensus is actually right. Luscious abounds with the playfulness, verve and innovation of vintage Outkast—vintage Prince, even.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Another French black metal band that is not really black metal? What the heck is up with this list?” Hey, it’s my list, and that’s the best music I’m hearing right now. Les Discrets have some artistic ties to the aforementioned Alcest—frontman Fursey has worked with Neige in numerous incarnations—but these two works are distinctly different. Septembre Et Ses Dernières Pensées is shoegaze-y darkwave—think Katatonia, Catherine Wheel, early Red House Painters—nuanced, powerful and grand.
I liked the first album from MGMT a lot—it was on my year-end list in 2007—but Congratulations is so far superior to that debut that it sounds like a different, and much better, band. It’s Technicolor psychedelia, stunning songcraft, weird as hell and endlessly listenable—like Love’s Forever Changes, in so many ways—and it seems destined to be remembered as a lost classic.
Wow, yet another black metal band (this one from America) producing expansive music that evades the closed-minded sensibilities of many uptight fans of the genre? Yep, it’s that kind of year (so far). As I wrote about Addicts just last month: “It is better, certainly, than the pointless and arbitrary constraints black metal fans place upon its practitioners, better than pretty much anything the genre is producing right now.” And, here, a few weeks later, I stand by those words. Another victory, and another step forward, for one of the country’s most exciting bands.
I won’t play coy: Mark Kozelek (of Sun Kil Moon) is my favorite artist, ever, and his albums rarely don’t make my year-end lists. That said, his albums always deserve to be there—they are glorious works of art that stand alongside the best of Neil Young, David Sylvian or Nick Drake. Admiral Fell Promises is his most hushed and gentle work to date—no small feat—influenced by Spanish classical music and performed entirely on nylon-string guitar. (Kozelek may now be one of the finest guitar players in the world; certainly he is among the very best in the world of “pop” music.) Utterly, amazingly heartbreaking. As usual.
I can see a lot of aesthetic similarities between Innerspeaker and the previously mentioned Congratulations. Both are sprawling works of melodic pysch-pop with boundless imagination and countless outer-space explorations and places to get lost. Both have shades of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, but neither get swallowed up by those lofty (and oft-stifling) references. Indeed, both rise above them, using those musical worlds as places to find new ideas, not places to mine the past. Innerspeaker is bigger and goes further out there and is more immediately exciting than Congratulations, however, both are essential.
Twin Sister are originally from Long Island, though they moved to Brooklyn (of course). Still, I’m going to continue saying they’re a Long Island band, because they are from Long Island, and I want Long Island to get some credit here—people know us for Billy Joel and Eddie Money and Taking Back Sunday. Horrible. Twin Sister make ambient-noise-pop that is lush, jagged, hypnotic, gauzy, arresting and sweet, and which recalls, like, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Stereolab. This is beautiful, intoxicating music. Why wouldn’t Long Island want to boast of this, take some ownership of this, be proud of this?
Five on the cusp: Javelin—No Mas (Luaka Bop); Mark McGuire—Guitar Meditations Vol. 2 (self-released); Shearwater—The Golden Archipelago (Merge); Watain—Lawless Darkness (Season of Mist); Yakuza—Of Seismic Consequence (Profound Lore)