Saturday, January 1, 2011

Top 25 of 2010

Happy New Year everyone! 2010 was a really solid year for music and I hope you all take the time to expose yourselves to some new sounds. These artists are all worthy of attention.

1.The Joy Formidable
A Balloon Called Moaning
“Popinjay” 7”
“I Don’t Want to See You like This” 7”
(Black Bell)

This debut mini LP from Welsh trio The Joy Formidable has sent a rush of adrenaline through me this year that has not ceased! This is truly a breath of fresh air and why I will always be one who seeks out new music. These highs are too hard to stay away from! Somehow TJF have captured in this crudely recorded – yet still majestic and full sounding set – a combustible mix of early Catherine Wheel, Compulsion and the dreaminess of such purveyors as the Cocteau Twins! But mostly, these kids rock and they bring it. The tiny front woman cranks out guitar lines that rival the best of the post-punk greats and coos over her own din. She is a revelation. Yet she is counter balanced by the swift and busy pounding of drummer Matt Thomas and Ritzy’s significant other Rhydian Dafydd on shredding bass. There are no moments on this rollercoaster ride that aren’t fucking amazing - “The Last Drop” and “Whirring” being the highlights of highlights.
The “Popinjay” single from this summer continues their winning streak of a nice start/stop chorus, but a non- essential B-side. While the new pre-LP (their The Big Roar is due out in about 3 weeks! Holy shit yes!!) “I Don’t Want to See You like This” single (still a non-essential B-side) could be the song of the year! This song benefits with a full, no HUGE, sound by coming from a proper studio and apparently major label backing (Atlantic), meaning they may be a bit easier to track down. Please do that!

Night Falls

2007’s Thrushes debut LP Some Come Undone is a favorite of mine because it is comfortable. Its warm electricity has been like a soft blanket to wrap myself in when I’ve needed it over the last couple of years. This Baltimore foursome portrayed a gentle blend of sounds that harkens back to the shoegaze days of the late 80s and early 90s along the lines of Slowdive crossed with Pyschocandy era Jesus and Mary Chain, or Black Tambourine. For their second offering, Night Falls, they have continued with this basis, but exploded with some added energy and urgency! Opening with the stellar “Trees,” vocalist Anna Conner proclaims that she’ll “make you cry” atop a wash of splashing cymbals and barely contained drive. This is one of the songs of the year! While their debut lingered in a misty and vague beautiful haze, Night Falls lands with a direct message full of broken hearts and bitterness and buzzing catchy tunes.

3.Standard Fare
The Noyelle Beat
(Bar None)

A ramshackle affair! This spirited collection surprises by evoking the best bands of the so-called C86 Brit indie-pop scene and yet sounding unbelievably current. This three-piece are masterful at capturing the thrill and drama of crushes and fresh love. Emma Kupa’s vocals are the highlight here. She sings with an exuberance that finds her stretching for heights that she may not be able to achieve, but is all the more brilliant for it. Guitarist Danny How, whose playing is lithe, clean and joyously loose, takes the lead voice on a couple of tracks here and is not outdone – as his “Edges & Corners” is a two plus minute burner. Would like to see these guys do more duet numbers such as the back and forth high point of “Nuit Avec Une Amie,” but this is a minor grump, because what is here is fresh and fun as hell! Phenomenal debut! More please!

4.Trembling Blue Stars
Fast Trains and Telegraph Wires/Cicely Tonight Volume One

This is reportedly the final TBS album and that is a shame, because this collection (an album and a seven track EP) may be their best. Robert Wratten has left the legendary winsome Field Mice in the dust, the experimental Northern Picture Library (a personal favorite) after only one album, and now his longstanding Trembling Blue Stars are finished only to be revered as influential years from now due to their heart on sleeve quiet reflection and delicate perfection. Some of these tracks would make their greatest singles (“My Face for the World to See,” the Cath Carroll sung “The Imperfection of Memory,” the downbeat “Half-Light” and the stellar “Cold Colours”), but the 11 tracks on CD1 are cohesive and flow together like the soundtrack to a really cool movie. On the second disc we see a bit of house cleaning possibly, as it includes some instrumental ambient pieces, a cover of the Dream Academy’s “Not for Second Prize,” the return of Anne Mari (of Field Mice/NPL) to lead vocals on “The Lowest Arc.” However, CD2 fittingly closes with a hidden track titled “No More Sad Songs,” a perfect epitaph for one of the great bands of the last 15 or so years.

5.The Corin Tucker Band
1,000 Years
(Kill Rock Stars)

It’s about time! After lamenting Sleater-Kinney’s disbandment in 2006, I have been waiting anxiously for some Corin Tucker material - hoping she would grace us all again with her insightful and emotional music. Yes, she is best known for her in your face banshee wail from those S-K albums, but we’ve always known that she’s a powerful lyricist with a penchant for tackling big subjects with a one on one individual slant. She does so here winningly! Her solo debut (with major help from multi-instrumentalist Golden Bears’ Seth Lorinczi & Unwound’s Sara Lund on the drums) is as personal as can be with ranging subjects of missing her husband (“Half a World Away”), battling depression (“Dragon”), the unnamed crisis of an old friend (“Riley”) and the damage of losing ones means of a living in the touching “Thrift Store Coats.” Her vulnerability is expressed so poignantly throughout and we’re all the better for it. And with a less forceful set of songs than those of her old trio, we are given a chance to hear Tucker’s full range as a singer. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another 4-5 years to hear more material.

6.Bad Religion
The Dissent of Man

30 years man! 30 years! Bad Religion celebrates 30 years as a recording entity this year with their 15th album. It’s hard to believe. And to be honest, though I always like their albums, they have had a serious case of diminishing returns over the last 15 years. This new one felt the same at first too. However, after repeated listens, it became clear that these 15 tracks really feel like the proper follow-up to 1993’s Recipe For Hate. Stylistically more diverse (check out the return of the pedal steel on “Cyanide”), they prove that they are still hard at work trying to improve and progress. Besides, who can resist a band whose words are so incisive and educational on top of some of the best double time punk rock riffs ever put to tape? Happy Anniversary guys.

7. The Secret History
The World That Never Was
(Le Grand Magistery)

After their fantastic debut EP from 2008, The Secret History finally unleashes their debut LP and it was definitely worth the wait. Much has been made of their story. Darren Amadio and Michael Grace Jr. (principal songwriter) are holdovers from the much talked about NYC band My Favorite. In this setting, however, they rely less on an 80s synthesized sound, and more on expansive and well thought out full band arrangements (augmented with piano, strings and horns) to give this a more classic and timeless sound. Helping with this move are the cool lead vocals from Lisa Ronson, the striking daughter of the famous Mick Ronson (guitarist with David Bowie as a “Spider from Mars”). Lyrically, Grace’s songs haven’t strayed far from his past, as they are filled with Catholic image laden scenes of runaways, outcasts, the broken hearted and rock-n-roll hoodlums. These songs are absolutely hook-laden gems that strike a need to sing along upon the first listen.

The Stormy Petrel
(No Idea)

A year full of surprises - not only is Leatherface back, but original guitarist Dickie Hammond is back in the fold where he belongs, alongside Frankie Stubbs. This album is not their best (look to ‘91s Mush, ‘93s Minx and ‘94s The Last), but it's so welcoming to hear these two intertwine their guitars with such deft touches. Hammond’s staccato fills are so warm and lush against Stubbs’ rhythm work. This is their eight LP overall and first since the 2004’s middling Dog Disco, so it’s additionally welcoming to hear Stubbs’ roaring and heart wrenching voice howl its way through 12 new tracks. And new is the key here, because they are not revisiting their past here. They belt out a downright hit with the soaring “Never Say Goodbye,” and surprise with the fleet-footed shuffle of “Another Dance.” Other standouts include the early Police sounding “God is Dead,” the odd “Belly Dancing Stoat” and the amazing “Diego Garcia,” which puts a personal feel on the island’s shameful history. This is like receiving a long letter from a long time friend you haven’t heard from in a long time.

9.Northern Portrait
Criminal Art Lovers
“Life Returns to Normal” 7”

Much has been made of Northern Portrait’s similarity to the Smiths, and yes, this five-piece from Denmark do have a striking resemblance to those Mancunian legends. There’s the energetic, intricate, and tasteful guitar work driving these catchy tunes and vocalist’s Stefan Larsen’s pleading Morrissey crooning (with a touch of Roy Orbison when he goes falsetto). The comparison doesn’t simply stop with the sounds either. These songs are filled with self-deprecating underdog lines that can bring a smile to one’s face or help one wallow in their misery. This debut album (on the heels of 2008’s great twin 4 track EP’s) is truly worthy of a listen. They do need to find more of their own voice, but this is a solid foundation to start with and, hell, I cannot stop listening to it! What could be higher praise for a record recommednation?
As for the 7”, “Life Returns to Normal” is a nice example of their sound pulled from the middle of the LP that captures their melancholy essence in about four flowing minutes. The non-LP B-side is a cover of “Some People” from the UK’s massive pop superstar Cliff Richard.

10.Defiance, Ohio
Midwestern Minutes
(No Idea)

Defiance, Ohio has won me over again! This is their fourth LP (third for me) and it continues to showcase their thinking man’s punk rock with serious folk leanings (the band play violin, cello, piano, banjo, upright bass, and mandolins, along with the basics). Sonically, they remind me most of early Camper Van Beethoven, but with a lyrical bent that is heavy on how our society is unfolding before us and how that can affect us individually. It can get a bit political at times, but never preachy. They come off as earnest and curious as to how we’ve gotten to where we are at this point and it is contagious. “The White Shore,” “Hairpool” and “Dissimilarity Index” all touch on cultural segregation and our self-imposed limitations and numbness from media overload. It’s a lot to tackle in short catchy tunes, but they do it and they make it lively and fun! This is heartfelt stuff that makes you think and fires you up.

11.Midway Still
Note to Self
(Boss Tuneage)

Wow! I would’ve never imagined that I’d be hearing new Midway Still material again. After loving their first two LPs from ’92 and ’93, it seemed that they were gone forever like so many of their brethren from the UK punk revival of that period (Leatherface, China Drum, Mega City Four, and Drive). Midway Still were maybe the closest to fitting in with the Nirvana craze during that time they were never able to capitalize on those comparisons. I always thought those were lazy though. Midway still’s shredding and LOUD guitar work felt more in common with the heaviness of My Bloody Valentine (who they’ve covered) and the propulsion of Bob Mould’s work in Husker Du. Yet, here we have 12 new Paul Thomson songs to enjoy and they sound as fresh and ass-kicking as they did 17 years prior. Welcome back!

12.Young Galaxy
Invisible Republic
(Paper Bag)

Young Galaxy has gone through quite a transformation since their very good 2007 debut for venerable Canadian label Arts & Crafts. Since then, they have split with that label and the duo of Stephen Ramsay (ex –Stars) and Catherine McCandless have expanded the band to a four-piece. Gone are the slow-building shoegazing epics from the first LP (reminding and Slowdive, Chapterhouse and Engineers). Enter in some bolder upfront downright danceable songs. The swirling layers of sound remain, but they are more for background atmosphere, while beats and basses guide this hip-shaking collection to the dance floor. There’s a bit of an 80s quality to these rhythms, and I have to admit that though I miss where they were going on their dream-like debut, I really like the sound of this. Hell, the track “Dreams” is worth the price alone.

13.Killing Joke
Absolute Dissent

Another 30 year anniversary is celebrated this year. This one is a major shock too, because this new Killing Joke album finds the original lineup from their hallowed first two LPs reuniting for the first time since 1982! Twenty eight years is a long time, however, these guys are as fierce and potent as ever. It’s so welcoming to hear Paul Ferguson’s tough but absolutely swinging drumming style back in the fold. It all fits so neatly with Geordie’s signature guitar scrapings, Youth’s relentless basses and of course Jaz Coleman’s unmistakable growl. This is a band that was at the forefront of post punk, industrial, goth and even punk music. They have done it all and it’s so good to find them releasing another classic this late in the game.

14.Lanterns on the Lake
“Lungs Quicken” EP
(self released)

This is the third self released CD EP from the UK’s pastoral Lanterns on the Lake. I discovered them after hearing a few amazing songs from their previous hard to track down Greenspace configuration and learning that they were now recording under this name. Luckily, I am now on their mailing list, so I send them my dough when they let me know something new is out and about. This is my favorite EP yet. “Lungs Quicken” is a gentle builder and begins with what could be the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings and ends with the band slowly adding touches of atmosphere as the beautiful vocals plea for her lungs to work as she seems filled by a subtle urgency for survival in difficult times. This reminds me of the non-country moments of Rubber Rodeo. This would be a great 12” single, as the warmth of vinyl would really give this an added depth. “Sapsorrow,” and the short ambient “Cello Song” round out this short collection in fine style. This is definitely worth tracking down.

You Forget So Easily 10”
(Chess Club 2009)

I was a bit late to the game on this one, as I only managed to get this hard to find 10” vinyl EP about a year ago. These five songs are worth the effort. The title track is as likely to get stuck in one’s head on the first listen as any song out there, and that’s a really good thing! Same with the equally spirited jangle of “Just a Silhouette,” or the straight ahead rocker “You’re so Quiet.” The remaining two songs are acoustic ballads that evoke the greatness of Elliott Smith. They remind me of fellow UK popsters Fields (with their simultaneous male/female vocals!), if they decided to drop the inclination of reaching towards the epic and simply went for 3 minute catchy nuggets. This is fantastic stuff and finally they are due to release an album in 2011!

16.Beautiful Things
Dream World
(Summerside 2009)

This band is clearly driven by the L.A. singer/songwriter Dina D’Alessandro, whose previous two solo albums captured a crisp and clean pop rock with a 90s Brit-Pop slant. Her last offering, 2005’s Is it Safe?, was a personal favorite, as it dealt with a kind of hurt and disappointment that living with health issues can cause. This Beautiful Things debut does not change her stellar sound a bit! We’re still blessed with songs that bridge the gap between sounding best on a sunny summer day, or on a cold lazy reflective day. This album sonically reminds me of Richard Butler’s (Psychedelic Furs) late 90s Love Spit Love’s second album Trysome Eatone. D’Alessandro’s lyrics here have a definite slant towards dreams – both sleeping and waking – that gives this collection a sweet cohesiveness. This is a truly underrated artist who writes and records very solid and tremendously addictive songs. Also, check out her overdriven cover of A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song.”

17.Emma Pollock
The Law of Large Numbers
(Chemikal Underground)

Former Delgados front woman graces us with her second solo LP since that great band’s sad farewell. Where 2007’s Watch the Fireworks felt a bit like Delgados-lite (still high praise), this one named after a mathematical theorem is like its title - much more angular and difficult. Things can at times feel clinical, but over time, the precise playing and production reveals a warm hearted center that finds our heroine reaching new heights of creativity and a clear separation from her old band. Warm yourself in the glow of the twin piano bookends “Hug the Piano,” the pounding “Hug the Harbour,” and the touching “House on the Hill.”

18.Lloyd Cole
Broken Record

It seems that roughly every 10 years or so Lloyd Cole emerges with his best work. In 1990, it was the appearance of his flawless self-titled debut solo album (after years with the Commotions). In 1999, he ended that decade with The Negatives, which didn’t leave my stereo for months. Now, he hits in 2010 after several years of basically completely solo (and a bit forgettable) releases and silence, with this Nashville tinged beauty Broken Record. Here we find him working with much of the crew that made his solo debut 20 years ago. Back is the muscular drumming of Fred Maher and the keyboards of former Commotion Blair Cowen. Back is the full band and lush production with the deepest bass tones and a richness and clarity that suits these catchy as hell tracks. He’s back and cooler than ever.

19.Eux Autres
Broken Bow
(Bon Mots)

Brother and sister duo Heather and Nicholas Larimer return with their third LP (that I know of) and are now augmented with a third member (drummer Yoshi Nakamoto). This addition allows them to expand their neat little pop songs and give them added adornments. Remaining are the nasally passé vocals of the siblings that somehow work in favor of adding depth to their sneaky lyrics. Broken Bow feels inspired by the classic folksy moments from old Bruce Springsteen (covered here “My Love Will Not Let You Down”) crossed with the early 90s Slumberland noise pop bands like Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine and Henry’s Dress. This is a fantastic sound, but unfortunately, either the recording and/or the mix are fairly poor here – dimming the shining songs’ impact. This is a minor flaw that cannot keep this one from repeated listening.


Anyone that knows me knows that I love the Swedes. Musically, they seem to take the best pop moments from the US & UK scenes and boil out the frivolous bits and condense everything to the tastiest morsels. My love affair started in the early 90s with the powerhouse loud dreamy guitar bands Popsicle and Easy, but has expanded over the years to include the lush full arrangements of bands like Sambassadeur. This is their third offering and subtly their best yet. The opening “Stranded” goes from a slow classical sounding piano to a propulsive pop number adorned with a magical string arrangement and Anna Persson’s rich voice. And so it goes from there. It’s a comfortable stretch of simple sounding songs filled with layers and layers of tiny details and finishes with a Tobin Sprout cover (“Small Parade”). I think anyone who likes Camera Obscura would really dig this. Check out my beloved Swedes.

On the Ones and Threes

Another unexpected return in 2010: Versus reappear after 10 years away. They were one of my consistent stalwarts of the 90s – from the moment I received their demo tape in 1992 all the way through to their swansong Hurrah in 2000. Many are hailing this new collection (their 5th official LP) as maybe their best one yet. I am not ready to go there, because I have a soft spot for the glossy Two Cents Plus Tax. However, On the Ones is a grower. With each listen more nuances and subtleties uncover themselves and I am finding that what was once a lukewarm welcome back has become a rebirth of why I loved them all along. Listening to it again at the moment has it sounding even better than the last time. Let’s hope all of these successful comebacks stick around.

22.Tracy Shedd
(Eskimo Kiss)

I have always had a quiet respect for Tracy Shedd’s straightforward and clean songs. I have always sought out her records when she releases one, but then kind of forget about her until the next one comes along. This year saw the release of a 10” vinyl 5 track EP by her and cohorts. This one finds her returning to her piano roots. Apparently, she grew up with some serious skills on the piano but abandoned it for writing songs on guitar all these years. The change back to piano is noticeable and these tracks seem built on a more solid foundation. They feel lasting and timeless. It’s a moody grouping here that is stunningly pretty and reflective and melancholy.

23.The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
“Say No to Love” 7”
“Heart in Your Heartbreak” 7”

These NYC pop upstarts graced us with two vinyl singles of new material while we anxiously await their sophomore LP effort. Their progression is apparent from the get go. These recordings are fuller, smoother and cleaner productions, yet they are still based in these guys’ ability to write the most effortless youthful sounding melodies heard in years. Both singles are excellent and make the anticipation for the new LP all the higher.

My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
(Young God)

Swans are back! This may be the most shocking return of the year. Michael Gira had proclaimed the Swans as dead on their final live release in 1998. Yet, here he is again, with some of the old cohorts and it is devastatingly and convincingly a Swans album. The Swans’ darkness and bleaker than bleak words are accompanied by an ever evolving sound, but one that is, as always, unmistakably their own making this a strong claim this is not some cash in reunion. There is a beauty in what Gira has always put together in the many incarnations of this band, but what I think has often been overlooked is that there is a certain sardonic quality to his words. Yes, they are serious as all get out, but you can almost see him grinning as he sings of setting all the world's lairs ablaze in the most straightforward track on the LP “Reeling the Liars in.” We also hear, who I’m guessing is Gira’s young child singing a duet with Devendra Banhart in “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” which is as disgustful as it sounds. Oh boy, this is brutal and scary stuff – just like we hope for. I shouldn’t love this stuff, but I can’t help it.

25.Various Artists
Auteur Labels: Independent Project Records

This is what I wrote elsewhere about this compilation earlier this year: “This release features the fantastic US label Independent Project Records founded in Los Angeles in 1980 by Savage Republic co-founder Bruce Licher. This 23 track compilation spans the history entirely (notice the clear gap from ’96-’08) showcasing its varied assortment of artists and their amazing groundbreaking sounds. I first ran across this label in the mid-to-late 80s when I picked up Camper Van Beethoven’s landmark debut Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985), featuring, of course, their quirky single “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (included here). The next time I ran into the label was when I found the debut LP from Nebraska’s For Against’s Echelons (1987). It wasn’t until late 1990, while away at college that I encountered a For Against release on the label which absolutely changed my life. The first in IPR’s series of 10” colored vinyl only releases featured some unreleased and experimental tracks from this amazing band. This “Archive Series” debuted with the promise of a new installment every other month which could be had via subscription. These records were interesting, thought provoking, and most importantly, entertaining, but the bonus was the fantastic artwork that made up these special records. The records were numbered and pressed in an old fashioned letterpress printer and looked otherworldly. They provoked the imagination and upon arrival would send me off to stereo to absorb every nuance of these incredible products. These records expanded my horizons and exposed me to what felt like a special secret world.”


  1. excellent reviews! now i have a lot to look up. but 'you forget so easily' by the exlovers was definitely one of my favorite songs of the year. thanks for the introduction!

  2. The only music reviews I bother to read all year (with the slight exception of the occasional Big Takeover quickie scan). You are the king.