That time of year has arrived once again, dear readers and listeners. The time when bloggers crack their heads together, duke it out in December and spit out carefully constructed “Best of” lists. Then, the wringing of hands begins when we all see each other’s lists and think “Oh, I hadn’t really listened to that” or “I’ve never heard of that band, but they’re great too!” The Wounded Jukebox wishes to bestow upon you its Top 20 albums of 2010. For explanations of why we think these albums are wonderful, simply read the entries here. For samples, check out the songs posted with each album write-up.
Today, we’ll start with the first half of the list. The Top 10 of our Top 20 is coming very, very soon. We promise. Enjoy!
20. Laura Veirs – July Flame
Laura Veirs, with a little urging from me, fought her way on to our Top 20. July Flame is just a solid album. It’s hard to pick one standout song; almost all of them are well written and soothing. I often listen to Laura Veirs while trying to sleep. Although it may not sound like it at first listen, July Flame has a melancholy aura. That may be due to her singing style, or something sad like many of her songs. “Life is Good Blues” is a good example: how can it be the blues if life is good? Veirs sneakily slips her solid guitar riffs under the radar in many of her songs. She has a unique and understated style of playing that fits superbly with her voice. One solid track is an ode to “Carol Kaye,” one of the most prolific bluegrass guitarists, and contributor to legendary Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, along many other famous songs. I wouldn’t even know who she was if it wasn’t for Laura. I’m gonna give credit to my friend Molly for introducing me to July Flame. She kept telling me that I would like it, and I finally listened, and liked. — Glenn
19. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
This album quickly became a staple in my music collection when it appeared early this year. The debut record from south Floridian back Surfer Blood is chalk full of pithy lyrics about love gained, love lost and a weakness for cocaine. Being from the beach, Surfer Blood definitely has a surf rock sound with twangy guitar riffs in songs like “Swim” or “Neighbour Riffs” but add in the indie lo-fi flavor and you have a band that has managed to fall into the 2010 standings of Beach House and Local Natives.
One of the appeals to this record is its simplicity. Lyrics aren’t overly complicated just listen to “Take it Easy,” a love song with words like: I wish I knew everything it takes to get along/ Then we should take it easy or we will both be sorry. The refrains are repeated often and John Paul Pitts wailing and wooing follows the flow of the song. The album tells the story of meeting someone and then losing love and the anticipation and heartbreak of each. One of my favorites is “Anchorage” where Pitts talking about the love lost: I don’t care for anyone/ Probably not a lot of fun/ You’ve got your own thing going on. Like I said, I have been a fan of this album for most of the year and I’ve yet to grow tired of it. I’ve decided that it’ll be a nice escape from this blustery weather. That’s my advice for winterizing. — Allison
18. Apollo Ghosts – Mount Benson
From completely off TWJ’s radar come Apollo Ghosts, a trio of rockers from Vancouver. What’s remarkable about Mount Benson is that virtually every track manages to be more compelling in 90-150 seconds than some bands are able to pull off with 4- or 5-minute stretches. There are pace-changes, both vocally and musically, throughout every memorable song. It’s the musical equivalent of doing shots. Takes less time and gets the job done more effectively. Except there’s no brutal hangover here. Only happiness.
The band has a gift for having a lot of fun. Whether it’s with catchy guitar riffs, well-intentioned shouting, or lyrics that teeter between silly and insightful, Apollo Ghosts are who they are and they aren’t afraid to embrace it. There’s something to be said for that kind of confidence. And skill. It’s really hard to believe how many interesting touches are packed into an album that clocks in at 25 minutes (Wow! I had to double-check that to make sure it was correct).
Mount Benson is quirky and earnestly crafted. A gem, to be sure. — Sean
17. Phantogram – Eyelid Movies
Released early this year, and fighting its way through all the other countless releases, is Phantogram’s debut; Eyelid Movies. Officially the only “street beat/psych pop” record on our list, it’s also the guy/girl duo that makes sounds that fillllllll the room uuuuupp. The beats and layers created by a single keyboard and a single guitar do wonders, and your head will bounce and bobble in easy, carefree ways. In my opinion, THIS is the year’s answer to the noise rock of Sleigh Bells: trippy grooves and waves that have more depth to them than just their volume. I’ve never wanted a dark room and spinning lights more than when I’m listening to this record. It’s perfect before AND after the party, with innumerable eye-locks with that beautiful stranger across the room in between. If dance and sway and love were one thing, it would be this album. This is why Phantogram deserves to be at number 17 on our list. — Matt
16. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
Sunshine. That’s really the only word that could describe the whole of Gorilla Manor by Local Natives (formerly Cavil at Rest). Harmonial sunshine. It doesn’t hurt that the L.A. residents mention the sun about 56 times throughout and reflect it off their knife-edged guitar riffs straight into your skull. It’s a good thing. A few of us got to see the guys live at Pitchfork this summer. And their album translates very well to live shows, and to me that conveys a sense of honesty in the way they made Gorilla Manor (named for their Orange County house). If they perform just as well on a stage for a crowd, it means they were having that much fun when they made the recordings. It’s a wonderful first album, and a fantastic listen. You’d do well with some frozen yogurt, a car ride and Local Natives playing your way home. — Matt
15. Marnie Stern – Marnie Stern
Think of a world where all of us were as talented at anything as Marnie Stern is at the guitar. Our cars would never need tune-ups. Our power grids would be self-sustaining. No wars would ever be fought because of master negotiators. The technology alone would be astonishing.
Stern’s self-titled LP is a fuzzed out, rifftastic masterpiece that has enough layers to keep the listener’s ears occupied for days. And Stern’s unique, occasionally screeching vocals compliment the structured chaos perfectly.
These songs are personal reflections wrapped in a sonic rock blanket, and that well-crafted noise tests the listener’s ability to soak in all that’s being thrown at them. Some of the plucking and strumming here is truly astonishing, particularly when it’s coupled with lines like the ones from “Cinco De Mayo”: Don’t remember if you loved another one, the rainbow, or the wind on your face. / I miss you. I’m shouting it out to the gods. / How can I explain the cold I’m feeling since you left me? / You were the love of my life. / There isn’t a fairy tale ending.
No Marnie, there is no fairy tale ending. Only the one we imagine where people have talents such as yours in all walks of life. We should all be so lucky. — Sean
14. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
I listened to Sigh No More the most out of any other CD in 2010. I liked it the first time I listened, and I’m still listening at the end of the year. I rank songs using stars on iTunes, and usually pretty harshly at that. Sigh No More only had one song that didn’t get 2 stars or over. It was different than what I was used to hearing. It’s folk, but at the same time it’s not the slow moving Woody Guthrie style folk, it’s also rousing, like an Irish drinking song, and makes you want to move to the banjo. Most people like “Little Lion Man,” and it is definitely in my top three. I also love “The Cave” (Make sure to check out the video) and “Timshel”. You really can’t go wrong with any song you choose. After seeing them perform live, I think they would probably be the winner of the “which band would you like to be in” game. M&S are a band that can put so much energy alongside thoughtful lyrics, and beautiful strings, to create Sigh No More. — Glenn
13. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Of all of the albums of 2010, Halcyon Digest is one of the few that doesn’t have a single song that can be replaced or removed. It flows gracefully from track to track, but at the same time being careful not to repeat musical ideas or styles. Each song sounds completely fresh and essential to the overall theme: loneliness, depression, death, friendship, and ultimately acceptance of who you truly are and how your memories, good and bad, shape your life. Deerhunter pull off the seemingly impossible feat of creating an album that is sonically and lyrically depressing, but leaves you strangely uplifted throughout, up through the dreamscape ending of “He Would Have Laughed”. As Halcyon Digest starts popping up on best of lists across the music-sphere, it seems like it would be easy to name the standout tracks. Contrarily, the obvious choices that have been thrown out, like “Desire Lines” or “Helicopter”, don’t immediately come to mind. It’s hard to pick a favorite song, because truthfully, they are all just so good. And when it comes down to what makes an essential album, isn’t this all you can ask for: a collection of songs that you enjoy listening to over and over again? — Cole
12. Oh No Ono – Eggs
Coming in at number 12, is the Danish quintet Oh No Ono. Their 2010 record is the only one that took my brain on a journey. From start to finish, Eggs is ODD. I’ll be honest, some of the tracks are downright weird. But they all somehow seamlessly fit together to bring you right out of your physical environment, and scoop you up into a visual trampoline for your ears. So this album isn’t a sum of it’s parts. It is instead a whole, a piece of musical art that can sway you to feel and almost see things in front of your eyes. The use of orchestral strings throughout is bloody brilliant (“Icicles” especially), and the hopping from one vocalist to another is mesmerizing. There’s nothing boring here. But you will be challenged by new stylings of sound and aural themes will take your brain by storm. I can’t think of another album this year (or the last 5) that does it so effectively. –Matt
11. Vampire Weekend – Contra
January as a new release is a double-edged sword. Sure, you get plenty of buzz if you’re the first standout record of the year. But unless you’re a shameless self-promoter, get your songs in tons of commercials or keep dating and breaking up with supermodels, that record will likely get buried beneath 11 more months of noteworthy releases.
But this group of Columbia grads have done this dance before. Their self-titled debut emerged in January of 2008, and its brand of Afro-Caribbean indie-pop buried itself deep in the brains of several bloggers and critics for an entire year, ending up on several best-of lists. While Contra might not be quite as unforgettable as the band’s initial release, it is a remarkable piece of work nonetheless.
This time around, the world-wise sounds are produced by VW’s own Rostam Batmanglij, and the well-orchestrated, catchy harmonies and fun, steady beats are all the more impressive because of that DIY attitude. There is not a single track on Contra that doesn’t come close to nailing, or indeed does nail, IT. So what is it? “It” is the chimes and kickdrum that welcome in “Horchata”. “It” is the breakneck pace and rapid-fire vocal stylings from Ezra Koenig on “Cousins”. Or, you know what, “it” might just be the reggae-keyboard beat of “Diplomat’s Son” or the chugging bassline and somber and insightful lyrics of “Giving Up The Gun”.
Those touches are all over Contra, and new ones emerge in different ways with each subsequent listen. January curse be damned. — Sean
–The Wounded Jukebox