Beach Fossils practically set themselves up to fail in the unflattering glare of critical spotlight. A lo-fi-ish (groan) Brooklyn band (groan) playing sun-kissed post-punk (GROAN), reaching for the indie zeitgeist by practically naming themselves after the go-to overused inspiration for most run-in-the-mill indie bands since 2008, the BEACH (come on, dudes, WTF). The only thing that prevented the band from being a footnote in the annals of Trendy Band History was the actual music. Head Fossil Dustin Payseur was reportedly heavily influenced by jazz while recording these summery tracks, and it shows. On each song, every instrument sounds like the parts for them were written in direct correlation with everything surrounding them, countermelody after countermelody stacking on top of each other until a musical vortex is formed and you’re floating in vertigo. It’s safe to say that Beach Fossils conquered lower expectations than any band in 2010. What’s in a name, anyway? –Douglas Martin
Dagger Path sounds like nothing else on this list. It has got dub echo and western guitar, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it bass music, world music, chillwave, or psychedelia. It’s that an increasing rarity – a unique beast defying genre tags while burrowing into your brain and scoring your dreams. Singlehandedly bitch slapping the picked-o’er bones of Chillwave (let alone the turd trend, “Hauntology”), Forest Swords’ high/low fidelity wasn’t an empty grab at nostalgia accompanied by a random faded Polaroid. Instead, it was a carefully crafted sonic world enveloping the listener and transporting them to a shadowy universe where cowboys and samurais war on ravaged wastelands. The perfect soundtrack to an evening chain-smoking spliffs — an album so atmospherically thick and dedicated to its own moodiness that it initially dropped unnoticed, slowly attracting attention and reissues throughout the year, quietly becoming a minor music crit sensation. It’s a testament to Dagger Path’s quality that it achieved this success without pandering to the dance floor or bespectacled vegans, picking up outcasts and misfits from all walks of the sonic graveyard. The underdog pick of the year, Forest Swords’ album will surely be slashing skulls deep into 2011. –Sach O
Women don’t apply themselves to modern indie-rock standards. In an age where “indie” is less way-of-life than lifestyle, where bands don’t have to sand down the edges to receive mainstream love because they’re edgeless bear to begin with, the Calgary band delves deeper down the rabbit hole. While the year’s big trend was for pale-faced indie kids playing music so beachy you’d think they sported Jersey Shoe tans, Women’s cover art depicted a blizzard. While most bands gave you blissed-out fuzz, Public Strain gave you blistering, ear-splitting noise.
Many bands have used static and distortion to rough up their recordings, and so do Women, but that’s not the end-all, be-all of their musical capabilities: “Narrow With the Hall” takes a garage-pop tune almost as catchy as their own “Black Rice” and blasts it to bits; “Drag Open” finds frontman Patrick Flegel singing, “You’re such a drag, oh man!” in the midst of the band’s gleeful destruction; “Locust Valley” combines chiming guitar lines and a cyclical bassline with a Krautrock-like groove, while “Venice Lockjaw” finds the band playing the most beautifully melancholy tune they’ve ever laid to tape. By the time the clanging “Eyesore”– probably the band’s best song at this point– goes into the end coda, every member is hitting all cylinders, bashing away at their parts during a long, thrilling fadeout akin to the end credits rolling during a movie’s final battle scene.
Public Strain is the work of four individuals who are very well-aware of a time before “art-rock” meant just a cool pose to sell records and concert tickets. Few have ever made such artful use of feedback, alternate tunings, and unabridged, undistilled dissonance. After all, there’s so much uncorked tension on this record that things only resolved themselves via a band-ending on-stage fistfight. Let’s see the Arcade Fire do that. —Douglas Martin
Ikonika brought a hyper-color sheen to London’s urban sound, contrasting its shadowy bass to a brilliant palette of evocative melodies and timbres. Indebted to the classic videogame hooks and funky garage rhythms of her 90s childhood, Sarah Abdel Hamid’s debut album was fun without being cloying, rhythmic without being overly functional and tough without degenerating into a bass-driven circle jerk. The perfect soundtrack for nocturnal subway rides, spring time jogging or a night trying to beat M. Bison at Street Fighter IV, Love, Want, Contact, Have fulfilled Hyperdub’s potential to go beyond the dark and dangerous edges of dubstep into the future. Despite beats seemingly designed for a particularly rhythmic octopus, the album’s melodic sensibility took center-stage as each track featured a whirlwind of synths competing for attention, all without crowding the spectrum. The result is a beautifully emotive album that never takes the easy way out, surprising you with every twist and turn and leaving you wanting more. With upcoming releases on her own Hum & Buzz Records, a recently released batch of remixes, and a long lineup of DJ engagements, Ikonika is sure to go places in 2011. However, the repeat spins of her 2010 classic will surely ring the loudest. –Sach O
I can’t help but feel that this record disappointed folks because it wasn’t quite what they expected. Putting aside New Amerykah Pt 1’s roughneck Hip-Hop beats in favor of a smoother, more feminine sound; Erykah Badu offered the mirror image of that record’s streetwise black rage: a sensual, cosmic journey into space-age soul. Though perhaps not quite as bracing as its predecessor, Return of the Ankh offered plenty of sterling moments from its Tribe Called Quest-sounding intro to the breezy “Window Seat,” to its multiple Biggie tributes and a Paul McCartney-sampling deep cut. To top it off, Madlib came through with his best beat of the year with “umm Hmm,” undoubtedly the single most beautiful moment in R&B this year.
A deep meditation on love, the album proved that Erykah Badu could go on to produce mature work without losing her edge. At this point in her career, she may well be the only vocalist capable of bringing together J Dilla, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and Jay Electronica fans together, putting everybody under her spell until we’re all wearing crocheted pants. It’s impossible to predict where she’ll go from here, but all that’s certain is that Badu is a world-class artist whom forward-thinking music fans can ignore at their own peril. –-Sach O
I’m not going to bother describing this album. This site already spent a week doing so. If you cared about music in 2010 you’ve heard this album, and spent at least a few hours pontificating on the grandiose meaning of it all. No one album this year has had more words spilled about it than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the wake of it’s release, Kanye unleashed a firestorm of conflicting judgment and critical opinion. The mainstream outlets embraced Kanyes’s fearless inventiveness and ambition. The always ornery and ever skeptical internet rolled it’s eyes at the navel-gazing, woe-is-me attitude and pointlessly long run time. The power of this album should be evident when you consider the wealth and strength of the emotion it elicited from of the public. My opinion? I believe in its genius. Whether you agree or not, it was the most significant album we’ve heard from an artist in a very long time – a portrait of falling through a declining world.–Doc Zeus
I don’t know what kind of fool believed he ever knew the real Noriega to begin with, but besides being 2010’s best meme generator, “B.M.F.” was also the year’s most important hip-hop track because it allowed Rick Ross to break kayfabe and just flat out say: This. Shit. Isn’t. Real. Finally freed from the shackles of factual accuracy and genuine life experience, rap is at its most exaggerated on Teflon Don and all the better for allowing only the most domineering, expensive beats and extravagant boasts. The sheer range of the co-signs are evidence enough that complete suspension of disbelief is what the game’s been missing – Gucci and Drizzy, Diddy and Kanye, Erykah Badu on a song called “Maybach Music” – but if you need further proof of the appeal held by Rozay’s Hip-Hop Fantasy Camp, the vocal opposition of 50 Cent and Young Jeezy only seemed to accelerate their frightening descent into irrelevancy. Big Meech, Larry Hoover, MC Hammer, hell he could think he’s MC Skat Kat for all I give a shit. Point being, Teflon Don negates the idea of rap as the ghetto CNN and instead turns it into the ghetto Fox News- wildly entertaining sensationalism not the least bit beholden to the truth. —Ian Cohen
Sach summed up Freddie Gibbs as a “lab-created rap Frankenstein comprised of East Coast wordplay, West Coast attitude, Midwest flow, and Southern inflection.” While Straight Bangin’s appraisal remains the (Acapulco) gold standard. This website has 14 posts tagged under the “Freddie Gibbs” category. The idea of writing another one makes me want to scream “fuck the world. There’s only two opinions available in this lampless cavern of the Internet — you either think Gibbs is one of the most consistently excellent rappers of the last two years or you crave your rap music with 22 percent more David Guetta (he is so wonderful that his pecs shoot golden lasers).
There is arguably no one else in rap as effective at condensing an aesthetic into one sentence. On “Dollar$ 4 Dope,” he “bumps Suga Free in my 83/as I’m slanging D/I make a bitch take a trip to push the shit from A to B.” It’s superficially simple but immaculately constructed — all pinpoint accuracy and complex internal rhymes — the rare combination of lyrical detail and effortless cadence. Or there’s “Slammin,” where he boasts about “shipping a gang of skanky to Kankakee, Illinois.” Or the obscure shout-out to “Charlie’s Candy Store,” a reference lost to anyone outside of Gary, but indicative in how firmly he grounds his record in real time and place. This approach is embedded in every 16.
He demolishes everything from original beats to minor Golden Age classics about defying racist police officers with maximum volume — underground cult hits from obscure white rappers and soulful melodic reworkings of a slinky R&B jams once sung by female pop stars from Gary, Indiana. The entirety of “Crushin’ Feelings” is a viable candidate for rap quotable of the year. To a small but growing cult, Gibbs’s songs powerfully convey the idea of struggle — both internal, external, and as a way of actively resisting American buffoonery. They’re honest, brutal and even very funny. Gibbs’ few detractors imagine him as a bland rap automaton, technically good but not technicolor. But on Str8 Killa No Filla, he even stops to crack jokes, turning “Rocksteady” into a goofball 80s rap called “Slangin’ Rocks.” Or the album’s closing moments, where he mocks a clueless label exec bragging about having worked with Dre (Lil 1/2 Dead put his dick on her head). After all, Gibbs remembers everything — most notably getting dropped from Interscope which perpetually looms as the subtext to his revenge soundtracks for the aggressive and aggrieved. But that’s the thing, when you rap this well, you don’t need to detox. —Jeff Weiss
2010: the year even Brooklyn was sick of Brooklyn. You could argue there was a general malaise towards the hype cycle as a whole, but compared to what was going on in Los Angeles, San Francisco or damn near anywhere else in the country, the borough felt more like an endless conveyor of terribly named CMJ timekillers than indie rock’s vital nerve center. It’s fitting that in this cratered scene, the rookie of the year was someone who came off like a true outsider completely uninterested in blog politics. Unlike Jay-Z, George Lewis Jr. didn’t make a huge deal out of being a black guy down with Grizzly Bear and his accompanying videos pushed unnerving anachronism and distance. Fitting since while the presence of Mozz and Richard Butler hang heavy over his debut Forget, what makes it such a haunting document is the eerie disembodiment. “Everything I see looks like gold/everything I touch goes cold” sings Lewis over clattering drum machines and funk guitar stabs, and it’s real talk since for all the pretty in pink sonics, Forget often finds Lewis numb to the underlying menace of every romantic encounter – a climactic dance-floor showdown (“I Can’t Wait”), the unspoken violence of “Shooting Holes,” the implication of racial discord in “Tyrant Destroyed, “Slow”’s climactic cry of “I don’t want to believe or be in love.” An ironic statement for an album that crushed it on the mixtape circuit, but the truth is that you don’t have to agree with Lewis to believe in him. —Ian Cohen
Of all the artists that released music in 2010, nobody benefited more from comeuppance than Ariel Rosenberg. He was once deemed as too unfocused, too jarring, too weird, even by indie standards. But really, the only difference between Before Today and, say, Worn Copy, is in its approach. Gone are the instruments and cassette tapes littered across Rosenberg’s Los Angeles apartment floor, erased are the elements of tape hiss and decay that served as underpinnings of art-damage in stark contrast to the soft-rock pastiche he quietly and diligently mastered. Vintage Haunted Graffiti songs are rerecorded with a personnel greater than one with the advantages of a professional recording studio (formerly owned by Tito Jackson, no less!) to reach their maximum potential, while new songs– like stunning disco tune “Round and Round,” easily one of the best singles of 2010– are documents of the man known as Ariel Pink’s exponential growth as both a musician and songwriter.
Case in point: the spellbinding “Menopause Man,” which uses a slinky, 70’s funk-lite bassline as the vessel for the most striking lyrics on the album, using sexual imagery– every bit as brutally explicit and provocative as anything Odd Future has committed to tape this year– to reinforce a universal sentiment: “You’re trying too hard to be what you already are.” And just like that, Rosenberg went from perpetually undervalued to belle of the ball. Regardless of how tethered this record is to the past– in both its influences and old recordings revisited and revamped– what happened before today doesn’t really matter, because right now, Ariel Pink has the last laugh. –Douglas Martin