My top 10 of '10!
10) Haunt What's Left
by This or the Apocalypse
Sophomore albums are usually the pivotal point for any band. It is the album that either opens doors for an interminable musical career, or the album that carries a band away into the vast land of, "Look what I once did before I got my management position in the fast food business." It is the make or break record. Luckily for This or the Apocalypse, their second effort, Haunt What's Left, is proving that this Lancaster five-piece is here to stay.
After pushing their debut record, Monuments, in 2008, TOTA was swiftly acknowledged throughout the metal world for their interweaving syncopated riffs, captivating guitar leads and powerful vocal approach. This sound was only further accented in their live show, and it was more than enough to grasp the attention of Lamb of God's drummer, Chris Adler, who ended up producing the new record alongside Josh Wilbur (Atreyu/A7x). From the snooty bands and producers within the industry to the pre-teens who hate their dads and do not know how to play a power chord yet, everyone will tell you that there are 87 billion sub genres in metal. Regardless of whichever "type" of metal music you so pompously indulge in, TOTA's latest release will appeal to any metal fan.
Haunt What's Left opens without a breath, and immediately attacks you with "Charmer," easily the album's most forceful song. The pace is tempered only for a short, ambient introduction before "Subverse" explodes with a djent infused riff and my
favorite guitar lead on the record. Unlike the brief, ominous moment in the opening track, "Subverse" repeatedly displays one of the defining changes for TOTA: clean, melodic vocals. Usually when metal bands decide to incorporate singing after not previously doing so, it is a frightening risk. Fortunately for frontman, Ricky Armellino, his melodies and memorable hooks sound like something he should have been incorporating on all past recordings. In fact, his vocals on this album greatly differ from those on Monuments - all for the better, of course. Though his growls may have been more powerful on their last record, they became monotonous to the point where if it weren't for the music, you could not differentiate between songs. On Haunt What's Left, however, Armellino's signature yelps and desperate spoken-word chants transcend far beyond anything he has previously done vocally.
I could easily go through this record track by track and ramble on about how each song offers something new and refreshing to the metal scene. From the almost pop-punk feel of "Laminade," to the perfect mix of metalcore riffs and hard, djenty grooves of "Toro"
and "Deadringer," this band will baffle listeners and musical peers alike when rem
embering that this is only their sophomore release. In all honesty, This or the Apocalypse should have given this record the same name as their first, for Haunt What's Left is nothing short of monumental.
9) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
DISCLAIMER: You do not have to like an artist personally in order to enjoy their music! For instance, I do not condone all of the allegations and "pop-aganda" that revolved around Michael Jackson, but that does not discount him as one of my favorite performers and singers of all time. Kanye West is nowhere near approaching my top ten artists of all time list (he can't even see the peak from where he is standing), but his brand new record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was certainly good enough to get him a spot in my top ten albums of the year.
The album begins and ends exactly the way the title insinuates: beautiful, dark and twisted. The only adjective West forgot to mention about his lyrical styling is "egotistical," but who doesn't already know that about him? Truth is, lyrics are not exactly Kanye's strong suit. I have always hailed him as a fantastical producer ever since I first heard his work on Jay-Z's The Blueprint back in 2001, and almost every beat he has made since then has been gold (in a figurative and music industry sense). Don't get me wrong, the man has some great one liners, but if you played a Jedi Mind Tricks or early Eminem album and tried to listen to Kanye go on and on about his black balls, chances are you're going to want to kick him in said region. On tracks like "Gorgeous," and "Power," however, his puns and wit truly shine through, but all in all, he is a producer at heart, and his beats will always overpower his lyrics. His other weakness is passing out verses left and right to his peers (Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj) only to be outdone in the end. Again, he compensates by purchasing the exceedingly expensive rights to songs and creating the most unimaginable collaboration of rhythms beneath them for his featured artists to perform.
It may sound as if I am ragging on Kanye to the extent that people are actually questioning why I have his album in my favorites. Well, much like any album I classify as "favorite," I got lost within it. This is a record that you can play in any surrounding only to discover that by its end you have been consumed within Kanye's world. Forget about fish sticks, self-proclomations of being the Messiah, and what he did to a poor, defenseless grown-ass woman. Give this record a chance, keep an open mind, and get lost in his.
Jónsi Birgisson isn't a household name by any means (mainly due to the fact that not many households can pronounce it correctly), but some of you may know him better as the guitarist and lead singer for Iceland's art-rock outfit, Sigur Rós. Since his band publicly announced an indefinite hiatus in early 2010, I was exceptionally relieved to hear that Jónsi had been planning a solo debut since the year before. On April 5, 2010, he released, Go. Though this album only features one element of the Sigur Rós writing team, it does not stray far from their typical feel and format: a long-playing decrescendo.
The album opens with "Go Do," a fully orchestrated upbeat song with metallic snare hits, and flailing strings and flutes similar to Sufjan Steven's compositions in Chicago. The song is the highlight of the album, and could easily be placed in either an opening or closing scene for any magical and/or inspirational film. It also showcases the major change in Jónsi's songwriting: his lyrics are now in English! You may be wondering why that is such a big deal, and in all honesty it really is not. His transient falsetto voice has previously sung only Icelandic dialect and gibberish in a language he has created. The point is, his voice is so voluminous and bright that he could be reciting Bill Cosby jokes, and I would still find it beautiful. Still, it is nice to actually read and hear his intended message on this album. On tracks like "Tornado," and "Grow Till Tall," the music alone could do all the talking. However, hearing Jónsi's voice deliver such lines as "You kill from the inside," has fully made him an all around threat to a person's well-being. Best of luck keeping your heart in your chest if you ever reach the end of this album.
p.s. If you are an insomniac, note that Jónsi can lull you to sleep better than any amount of Ambien. Enjoy.
7) Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty
Though the album had its first single, "Royal Flush" all the way back in 2007, constant promotional videos for the record led to a successful international release in early July, 2010. "Shutterbug," the album's first official single, is a fantastic depiction of how well Big Boi can do on his own. The song features the most memorable beat, twisting verbal bass, handclaps, 70's funk guitar-styling, and the catchiest hook for any party or club. Though you may not know what a shutterbug is or how to groove like one, at least you know that this release brought Big Boi's career, "back to life, back to reality."
Other album highlights include "General Pattton," a song with charging choral arrangements and a heavy flow, truly proving Big Boi's rank in the rap world. "Fo Yo Sorrows," and, "Be Still," showcases the general's versatility. His snide references to pop-culture and quick, carnal wordplay only further exemplifies Big Boi's cleverness and whimsical charm. From beats to rhymes, from front to back, this is my favorite rap album not only of the year, but in a very long time. Play it at parties, and cut a rug.
6) Diamond Eyes
Much like any Deftones' album, Diamond Eyes erupts with a burst of down-tuned guitars, surging bass and cymbal crashes, and the haunting and haunted voice of Chino Moreno. The overall feel of the the record is more similar to their early sound in Around the Fur, but the difference of thirteen years, however, is evident not only in the band's song-writing capability, but in their delivery, as well. In fact, the thoroughly impressive songs on the album, such as "Beauty School," and "Sextape," depart from the typical nu-metal guitar style. The use of clean guitars with delay and intricate flowing arrangements is properly placed as Moreno's voice soars above a lone kick-drum. These two songs specifically allow any listener to hear how the band has grown not only as musicians, but as people.
Don't get me wrong, though, this album is a Deftone's album. It is heavy, dark and sexual even. There is always an underlying sexual message in Moreno's lyrics, and with a hint of distortion and his nefarious sounding delivery, I always feel like I'm doing something dirty and getting away with it when I listen to him sing. "Prince," is a perfect example of this feeling, as its offbeat rhythms and enigmatic bass lines make you want to love something only to destroy it later. Heavy hits with simplicity during, "CMND/CTRL," and "Rocket Skates." The Deftones have always been a band to prove that you don't need to escape the open, 1, 3, 5 chord progression in order to write a memorable, heavy riff. The highlight of the album is "Risk." From start to finish this song showcases everything that makes a Deftones song.
There is a constant sadness to Diamond Eyes even throughout its most aggressive parts. Maybe it is a reflection of all the hardships they encountered, especially while enduring the loss of a bandmate. At the end of the day, whether it was positive or negative, it is that desperation that fueled the fire to yet another classic Deftones album.
5) The Suburbs
When I first started listening to the Arcade Fire several years back, I thought them to be the typical indie band: coffee shop friends + political ideas + a hint of musical genes = let's make some money by saying practically nothing and then drowning it out with an unwarranted amount of unknown instruments and over-engineering. Of course the Arcade Fire is doing it on a much larger (and far more talented) level than your everyday band - they're more on a Radiohead playing field than a band only your brother in middle school is talking about. Still, their two previous efforts, Funeral and Neon Bible, were both musically phenomenal, but wandered off from their central ideas, disabling them both from connecting as solid albums. The Suburbs, however, changes all of that.
First off, this album contains sixteen tracks. Sixteen tracks! What is this, a rap album?! Luckily, there are a couple interludes and multi-track songs that cut down the playtime a tad, but the truth is, when the record ends, it does not drain you the way other hour-plus records do. In fact, since The Suburbs sticks to a conceptual storyline inspired by
Win and Will Butler's upbringing in... the suburbs, it is easy to let their personal stories paint a decrepit picture. An ethereal piano melody is accompanied by light drums and a folksy acoustic guitar in the opening title track. A reoccurring chorus (the same chorus that closes the album in its reprise), fades out as the second track, "Ready to Start" begins. This is where the album truly takes off. Album highlights include, "Suburban War," "We Used to Wait," and "Empty Room," with its mesmerizing violins, celestial guitar tone, and dueling male and female vocal melodies.
After two critically acclaimed albums, it seems the Acrade Fire have done it yet again. Regardless of themes or lyrics or meaning, they created another successful album with one focus: writing good music. You're welcome, hipsters.
The main aspect of their song-writing that sets them apart from other "djent" bands on the scene, is that Periphery has three guitarists... and actually utilizes them! When polyrhythmic riffs would start becoming repetitive in a song, that is where they shine through with guitar layering and impressive 7 to 8-string lead work. Misha Mansoor AKA Bulb is not only the hailed guitarist and "djent" connoisseur of Periphery, he is also their producer. Having already produced several commercial albums, including one of my favorites on last year's list (Animals as Leaders), Mansoor has had plenty past experience recording, and had an ear for how he wanted his own band's album to sound (in retrospect, though, he was a little anal about it). The production of the record, however, turned out to be one of its best features, dumbing down the overwhelming and unwarranted blasts from demo versions to make room for the defining factor that solidifies Periphery's sound: clean vocals! I'm not talking background chants or terribly muffled, highly processed backup singing from a bassist or second guitarist. I'm talking about a frontman in a heavy metal band who can sing better than his scream (on record); a man who delivers powerful and memorable melodies minus the cheese. This element is a rarity that has only come to pass once before with Protest the Hero, but the notes chosen for the melodies and harmonies within a Periphery song push the bar higher than Rody is capable of reaching (both in range and creativity).
Normally I would highlight specific areas throughout a record where you can hear exactly what I love most about it, but that is yet another great thing about this band. Periphery fully and continually exhibits each member's talents without fighting for the spotlight, and in doing so, they were able to create an album that captivates their listeners from beginning to end. With the help of electronic intros and outros for each track, strangely formatted songs with prominent variation, and even a ridiculous skit in the middle of the record, this excessively long, 72-minute album is surprisingly an easy listen. Some may argue that this has all been done before and that they are ripping off of djent-infused bands of the past, but the truth is that no one is doing it quite like Periphery.
p.s. For a general idea of what this album has to offer, listen to, "Letter Experiment."
3) God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise
The first note to be made about God Willin', is that it is LaMontagne's first release credited to a collaboration of other artists. The Pariah Dogs consists of his live band: Eric Heywood (guitars, pedal steel), Greg Leist (guitars, lap steel), Jay Bellerose (drums), and Jennifer Condos (bass). The album is also LaMontagne's first undertaking as producer, and was recorded in his home within the span of two weeks. Fortunately for him, this change wasn't all too drastic, and his best attributes were still captured.
The album starts off with "Repo Man," which is my least favorite song on the record. With a cheesy guitar line straight out of a cheap 80's porno, and lyrics such as, "I'm 'bout to do what your daddy should have done, I'm gonna lay you right across my knee," LaMontagne comes off more like a creepy uncle than a man taking a stand. This is the "jam band" song of God Willin', the song that's fun to play live, but sounds like your father going through a mid-life crisis, attempting to write music with his old college buddies. Luckily, Ray and the Pariah Dogs get it out of their system, and with the execption of those first six minutes the album evolves into one of LaMontange's most personal and resonant work.
Throughout the record, LaMontagne's effortless, yet somehow powerful whisper, creates an ever-changing dynamic that most artists cannot offer. In "Old Before Your Time," and the album's title track, he sounds like a folk/pop legend, then suddenly he shifts to a soulful cross between Otis Redding and Al Green in "This Love Is Over." His voice alone is enough to painfully pull at the heartstrings, but once you start thoroughly listening to his lyrical content, especially in, "Are We Really Through," you'll be lucky to get out of bed in the morning. Just before the full-band, bluesy closer, "Devil's in the Jukebox" marches through your stereo, "Like Rock & Roll and Radio," calmly advances. Imogen Heap (Frou Frou) once wrote, "Music is worthless unless it can make a complete stranger breakdown and cry." This is where Ray LaMontagne truly excels, and this stripped down album highlight only further proves that his voice, lyrics and delivery make him one of the most heart-wrenching singer-songwriters of our time.
It can be argued that God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise is far from Montagne's strongest work, but it was certainly enough to earn him a spot on numerous critics' favorite album lists and his first three Grammy nominations (Song Of The Year – “Beg Steal Or Borrow”, Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical). Though his work is becoming well renowned, at the end of the day Ray LaMontange is a simple man. He is a man who has lived and loved and lost, but what sets him aside from the rest of us - and his fellow peers in the music industry - is his ability to portray those common themes through some of the most sincere and heartfelt songs ever written.
Ever since we were little our parents and kindergarten teachers have asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most of us excitingly replied, "an astronaut," or "a fireman," or "a rockstar," unaware that someday soon we would come to face with the real world, and much like our parents' fabrications of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, our dreams and aspirations would start to unravel, as well. And so we succumb to early morning groans, hour-long commutes, merciless amounts of school work - you know, the daily grind - and by the time we reach high school graduation, our salary becomes the dream, not the love for what we wish to do. Fast-forward to your final year at an Ivy League school. You're finishing up your studies, ecstatic to pick up your diplomat license plates when all of a sudden... you and your friends remember your youth and decide to be rockstars instead. Enter: Vampire Weekend.
I must admit, I was extremely resentful to hear that a group of students from Columbia University (that had formed only a couple years prior to their debut release) were having such immediate success. Two years after avoiding their vastly popular self-titled album at any cost, I saw Vampire Weekend's second album,Contra, on sale in my local record store. Positive that they were nothing more than a fleeting fad in a perpetually competitive industry, I bought the record with a smirk on my face, sure of the fact that it would be a flop. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Since I refused to listen to their previous attempt (with the exception of their feature in the movie, Step Brothers), I had no idea what to expect. However, from the moment I pressed play and heard the jaunty synths mixed with African-esque beats and quirky vocals about my favorite Latin American beverage, I was in love with this band. One of Contra's major strengths lies within singer Ezra Koenig's unique vocal styling. His dog-like yeps on "Cousins" and his tastefully auto-tuned coos on "White Sky" would naturally be the gimmicks that turn me away from any frontman, but like I said, it is well-placed and tastefully done. Normally when a band has a strong vocalist, the other members tend to dumb down the rest of the accompaniment. This is not the case for Vampire Weekend. Without drowning out Koenig's unforgettable melodies and clever wordplay, the band consistently writes intricate synth arrangements, syncopated drum rhythms, and catchy bass lines.
Vampire Weekend also allows a fair amount of added production through an array of horn parts and light orchestration. Lively trumpets carry the instrumental chorus to "Run," the album's most distinguished song, while songs like "Horchata" and "California English" are moved by sprightly strings. Though the band incorporates music that cannot entirely be performed live without the addition of numerous instruments, there are still straight-forward rock songs on the album such as the short-lived, "Holiday" and the fast paced single, "Cousins." The track that sticks out like a sore thumb is the electro-rock ballad, "Giving Up the Gun." Though it dramatically changes the feel of the consistently unorthodox, spirited sound of Contra, a choir-like chant, otherworldly guitar tone, and Koenig's metaphors of caving in makes this song the album's highlight. The only mild disappointment is the closing track, "I Think UR a Contra," which doesn't leave the audience with any sense of closure, but more with an expectant feeling of what's to come. Then again, maybe that's a good thing.
Contra is hands down one of the most fun and intelligent push-the-envelop indie records I have ever had the pleasure of coming across. It only makes sense that the members of Vampire Weekend attended an Ivy League school before becoming a band. Writing and producing music of this complexity would be utterly impossible without such intellect. Regardless of their roots or sky-scraping IQ's, it is Vampire Weekend's music that has allowed them to become one of the most successful modern rock outfits of the last couple years.
1) Blue Sky Noise
Prelude: It is 2004. It is morning. I am on the bus heading to school with one of my oldest childhood friends. He is listening to his mp3 player and snickering, shaking his head as if someone told him a distasteful, yet hilarious racist joke. He removes his earphones, and with a serious and expectant look, asks me what I think of think of this metal band and their female vocalist. I insert the headphones, and I am immediately floored by her robust, yet sexy wails and surprisingly good scream (most female vocalists cannot pull it off). I tell him that I really dig their sound, and I ask him who they are. He informs me, "Their name is Saosin. Oh, and the singer's a dude."
Anyone who knows me is already aware that I am on Circa Survive's nuts harder than Kanye West is on his own dick. Before Anthony Green even founded the Philadelphia-based quintet alongside his good friend, Colin Frangicetto, I was listening to his old bands and side projects, anything with his voice on it. His tone strikes a nerve in me that no other vocalist (including Michael Jackson) could ever hit. I cannot describe it, I do not understand it, and that is fine by me. All I know is that I think his voice is sexy, and that is not something I am ashamed of admitting. However, none of his other musical endeavors came remotely close to complimenting his haunting, alto range the way Circa Survive does. When I first heard their debut album,Juturna, I was riding home after I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. Point is, their sound was so remarkably impacting, that I still know exactly where I was when I first heard it and exactly how it made me feel - breakup aside. Three tracks into Juturna I knew that this would forever be my favorite band.
Now, I know what you're thinking, and let me be the first to tell you that my love for this band and their first two albums does not make this review biased in the least! The biggest difference between Blue Sky Noise and their previous efforts is... everything. Circa Survive started their career on Equal Vision Records and recorded both Juturna and On Letting Go with the same producer, Brian McTernan (Thrice/Darkest Hour). When their contract with EVR was up, they decided to switch to a major label (Atlantic) and work with the finely polished, mainstream producer, David Bottrill (Muse/Silverchair). Even the mixing was done by high-end engineer, Rich Costey (Audioslave/Interpol). Though these all seem like fantastic upgrades for a talented and deserving post-rock outfit, I wasn't only skeptical that the major label switch was going to change Circa's sound for the worse... I was positive of it. By Fall of 2009, over a year had passed since the band started the writing process for their new album. I was positive that they had taken too long overanalyzing every aspect about the album, and that there would be a strongly noticeable mainstream influence from the new label and producers. I was positive that I was not going to like this record. Well, only fools are positive.
Upon first listen, I missed the point to Blue Sky Noise. I couldn't believe that my favorite band recorded an album I did not understand. Of course, I was not ready to give up on them that easily, so I listened a second time. I realized I liked it, especially, "Glass Arrows." The entire song was written in a 5/4 time signature, and with its interweaving guitar leads, groovy bass line and crazy drum fills, it reminded me of Circa's earlier work on Juturna. I gave the album a third listen, and miraculously something clicked. The songs that I originally disliked became the ones that I enjoyed the most. Though it may not be as intricate and instrumentally impressive as other Circa songs, "I Felt Free," hit home with me. The way Green belts out the song title during the epic chorus gave me chills, and the bands appropriate accompaniment throughout the song along with the mild string arrangement toward the end makes it a radio-worthy hit. Another highlight is, "Frozen Creek," a song where Green's range and the guitar lead during the chorus perfectly blend together, creating a sound that can only be described as magical. My favorite song on the album is actually a combination of the last two tracks, "Compendium," which serves as an intro to "Dyed in the Wool." This closing track is probably one of the most beautifully written songs I have ever heard. It is the perfect album closer, leaving the listener with an uneasy sadness, yet a feeling of aspiration to do something about it.
I could write an essay on each song if you truly wanted to hear my opinions on them, but instead I'll just share a response I posted to one of their guitarists, Colin Frangicetto, the day after the album was released:
"Music aside, this is why I love Circa Survive. The sincerity so purely rooted in you is hard to come by in almost anyone, let alone someone who possesses such amazing talent. It is unfathomable to think how insightful your words can be while still remaining humble and true. In that sense, your music cannot be cast aside in the point I am trying so desperately to make. Circa Survive is not merely a band to me, it is an idea, an idea to take everything that is simple within this life and discover the beauty in it, and most importantly to appreciate that beauty in the short time that we have it. In the past six years - I cannot believe it has been that long! - the five of you have influenced my life in far too many ways to list. Thank you for everything you have shown me. Thank you for everything you have given me. Thank you for creating, sharing, and continuing Circa Survive."
Well, that's my list! Here are a few honorable mentions that didn't make the top ten:
- Massive Attack - Heligoland
- Veil of Maya - [id]
- V.V. Brown - Traveling Like the Light
- Foxy Shazam - Foxy Shazam
- Beach House - Teen Dream
- Eminem - Recovery
- Chiodos - Illuminaudio
- Interpol - Interpol
- Janelle Monáe - The Archandroid
- The Bled - Heat Fetish
Please feel free to share your favorite albums of the year, too!