Bring it back, bring it back, bring it back.
Returning to Transit squared several months after its unheralded release, I’m struck by the vast lunar spaces captured by Autolux. The veteran LA art rockers conduct their transportation exercises among nebulae and quasars, capturing a cold world of found and forgotten sounds. Yet rather than invoke the cosmic drug jams of indie predecessors Spaceman 3, they cast an opaque and scientifically precise spell — space rock for scientists not slackers. Falling victim to a half-decade lacuna between records, Autolux’s record was mostly greeted with polite un-enthusiasm, but the hybrid of Warp Records electronics and guitars reminds me of a minor Kid A — not a masterpiece, but a fully-fleshed out portrait of alienation and isolation. Stoner rock for those too paranoid to burn. –Jeff Weiss
One of the year’s least surprising developments was the news that Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch was releasing a book. After all, the literary Glaswegian has been penning short stories disguised as songs since the last time flannel was in vogue. Following a five-year hiatus, Belle & Sebastian’s return drew mostly polite but unenthusiastic reviews because it’s precisely the sort of record the Internet ignores. A veteran band opting for refinement rather than reinvention doesn’t send bells ringing, but with trademark lyrical and melodic beauty, they crafted a quietly stunning and picaresque record that will resound for the next half-decade. Plus, “Calculating Bimbo,” might be the song title of the year.--JW
You have to wonder how much time Thomas Meluch spends in his bedroom. After fastidiously crafting two albums of gorgeous, expansive ambient-folk, Lasted— his third full-length– may have very well topped the extremely high watermark set by Précis (2006) and 2008’s excellent Temper. Continuing in the vein of the lush soundscapes he’s known for, the nomadic 26-year-old (relocating from Michigan to Portland to England since his debut) has stepped up his songwriting prowess even more, creating songs that could very well stand alone as great tunes without its radiant underpinnings. Case in point: when Meluch played an extremely rare acoustic set in Seattle earlier in the month, songs like “A Coin on the Tongue” and “Shouting Distance” kept an enraptured crowd seated on the floor and as reverent at church mice, where a cough was treated on a level of distraction usually reserved for jackhammers. Even though you’re welcome to cough or sneeze or fry bacon in the privacy of your own home, Lasted is still a record worth paying a generous amount of attention to. — Douglas Martin
It’s unfathomable how a bespectacled whiskey-slugging Canadian outfit who sing prog-rock burners about spies and albatrosses could not be massively popular. Maybe it’s fathomable. If music critics took more drugs (and they don’t), there’s little doubt that Jace Lasek and Co. would run this town tonight — or at least get booked at Webster Hall. Out of any record to grace this over-looked extravaganza, the Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night may be the finest of the bunch. You’re not supposed to judge things by their covers, but pictures are worth a thousand words. To piggyback off the latter cliche, everything about this year is encapsulated by the cover photo– an explosive beauty interspersed with violent explosions, soaring falsettos airily glide over rough psychedelic guitars. When something is this raucous it should be impossible to sleep. –-JW
One of the most frustrating things about a year as excellent for music as 2010 is how, even though it’s one of the most thrilling punk-leaning records of the year, the biggest claim-to-fame East General will likely have in 2010 is making Pitchfork’s Worst Album Covers of the Year list. As regrettable a choice as the cover art was (and as aggravatingly much as the use of the cover was cited in actual reviews), the eleven songs that make up East General far outstrip the sleeve in which the music is encased.
While Ben Cook (best-known as a member of Fucked Up) provides the album’s grit, grime, and left-turns of the music, the spotlight is clearly cast on Aerin Fogel, with her infectious snarl (“Wild Beast,“ perfect closer “I‘m Feeling Good“), badass charisma (“East“), and remarkable tunefulness (“Impatient as Can Be,” “Travelin‘ Girl“), sometimes carrying all three in the same song (“No Anchor“). Together, Cook and Fogel crafted a debut that carries a disregard for safety not seen since Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell, only The Bitters are too tough to sneak something like “Maps” into a collection of songs this bruising. — Douglas Martin
Rather than submit to the blistering Pacific Northwest cold, Black Mountain opted for the sunshine and star-crossed absurdity of Los Angeles. Unabashedly descended from Zeppelin and Sabbath, Stephen McBean & Co. called this their pop album, but their stoner rawk has no home on the terrestrial dial. Wilderness Heart plays out like forgotten gems from an alternate Dazed and Confused Soundtrack (Yet Even More Dazed and Confused). Like their labelmates the Besnard Lakes, Black Mountain bring a propulsive fury unmatched by almost any band on KROQ. Jagjaguwar may just have to break down and fork over the cash for a major radio promotions guy. If nothing else so that a generation of teenage sociopaths will have a soundtrack for paddling incoming freshman. –-JW
Some artists peak early, writing their best material in the lifetime that comes before their debut record. Others hit their stride around their third or fourth, releasing a string of incredible albums in the mid-period of their tenure as a musician. Saint Bartlett is Seattle indie mainstay Damien Jurado’s tenth album. Saint Bartlett is Damien Jurado’s best album.
Recorded in the Oregon home of friend and collaborator Richard Swift, the album is Jurado’s strongest collection of songs about love, loyalty, and loss in the form of late-night telephone calls and watching your friend being buried alive in an avalanche. And though there are Seattle references abound (“Wallingford” and “Beacon Hill” are both titled after Seattle neighborhoods, while “Harborview” is named after a hospital located just outside of downtown), the themes of Saint Bartlett are very universal, with Jurado’s admirable talents as a songwriter being matched with Swift’s ambrosial production, making the album a deeply affecting yet endlessly replayable mid-career triumph. –DM
A lousy five bucks. That’s how much it costs to get your hands on half an hour of the best power pop released all year. That five dollars won’t make you cool, though. Disco Vietnam possess an un-hip dedication to melody and song structure, but after a couple of spins of Totally Awesome Decisions you won’t care. Barry and Kenny Schwartz pull that rarest of tricks– they make it seem easy to write peerless pop. It’s a quality evident throughout the album, but best utilized on the suite-like “Ghosts In The Night”, which comes packed with more hooks than A.C. Newman would know how to handle. –Matt Shea
If you were to keep a running tally of the ingenious musical ideas weaved into So I Ate Myself, Bite by Bite, you’d probably end up either losing count towards the middle or giving up after about three tracks. Whether it’s sparkly pop tunes, ear-splitting drone, or banjo-led folk-rock, no album in 2010 has more creativity bursting from the seams. Ryan Graveface may not have topped the best work of his Black Moth Super Rainbow bandmate Tom Fec (better known as Tobacco), but So I Ate Myself.. is a stunning album in its own right, and proves that at the very least, Graveface’s restless creative spirit allows him to be able to keep up. –DM
She started this girl-group-inspired-punk shit, and this the motherfuckin’ thanks she get? With all due respect to Vivian Girls, Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls et al., the woman who penned the classic “Where Do You Run To” for the former band and briefly played drums for the latter is eating everybody’s food. And rightfully so. When Rose can record an excellent album that filters decades of rock music through the kaleidoscope of dream-pop– a record that finds the melodic garage of “Candy,” the fizzy sugar rush of “Girlfriend Island,” and the ethereal haze of “Save Me” coexisting peacefully on the same playing field- she deserves to eventually be regarded as one of contemporary indie’s greatest talents. Even if she’s one hit away from indie stardom for the rest of her career, at least Frankie Rose and the Outs raises the bar for a genre she singlehandedly created. –-DM
The most obvious way to tell The Fresh & Onlys have been aggravatingly slept-on is to observe other media outlets referring to them as “one of the best new bands of 2010,” even though they’ve spent the last 24 months becoming the scourge of landlords and the favorite son of electric companies by recording two full-length records and an utterly insane amount of EP’s and singles. Despite critics conflating the analog recording of their prior two full-lengths with “lo-fi,” Play it Strange, their debut for virtually untouchable garage label In the Red, immediately brings forth a better recording quality, making Tim Cohen’s songwriting sound more focused even though it’s just as consistently great as it’s always been. The diversions Cohen and his band do take, however– the glistening beauty of “Waterfall,” the strong, classic balladry of “I’m a Thief,” the climactic “Tropical Island Suite”– show their growth as a band who might finally receive the big break they deserve. –DM
In spite of her traditionally pretty icy-blue eyes, flame-red hair, and face spotted with freckles, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark if you confused Cameron Mesirow as coming from some mystical land inhabited by Bjork, Bilbo Baggins, and a smattering of congenial elves emitting purple radiation from their bodies. This otherworldly quality is brought front-and-center on Ring, her debut album under the Glasser name. Opener “Apply” combines buzzing synths and tribal African percussion, a move seemingly pinched from the formidable playbook of TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. “Home” is a dance track– complete with handclaps– built around a kalimba. There’s not a guitar to be found, but there are Asian flutes, Kyoto drums, and whatever that is on “Glad” that sounds similar to a didgeridoo. An album that has rightfully been described as “futuristic,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a debut record as original as Ring in 2010. Or at least you’d be hard-pressed to find it on Earth. –DM
You get the feeling that 2010 was the year Las Robertas were supposed to blow up. Praised by Gorilla vs. Bear and lampooned by Hipster Runoff, the Costa Rican band released a remarkably addictive album of visceral grunge offset by gorgeous harmonies and then re-released it on stellar Los Angeles label Art Fag. Yet still, the album– with songs like the galloping “Ghost Lover” and the emotionally climactic “V for You”– bizarrely received no widespread acclaim, not even as much as a review from any mainstream alternative media outlet. So, while the few of us who have heard this album and loved it keep it in our hearts like a secret we wish everybody knew, Cry Out Loud slips through the cracks of the world at large, making Las Robertas the rare cult band that is a cult band by default. -DM
Moon Duo do everything but stumble. Less spin off and more sequel to Wooden Shjips, the duo of guitarist Erik Johnson and keyboardist Sanae Yamada burn gasoline with the same motorik groove as their obvious Krautrock forebears. But if the original open-road exhaust of Neu and Cluster was meant to mushroom above the obsidian Autobahn, Moon Duo offer a starker vision, thundering with a built-in tension that betrays their impulse to create space within a dense terrain. It’s music for the freeways of metropolitan cities, accessible only at odd hours, when the traffic is thin and the collision of lights, velocity, and concrete creates a wobbling infinity.
On the keyboards, Yamada channels equal parts Alan Vega and Ray Manzarek, keeping the atmosphere tense, fuzzy and imprecise, always weaving an arabesque groove. Guitar riffs rent like frayed copper wires. Atavistic drum beats. Johnson, tungsten eyes, Freeway beard, mumbles muffles unintelligible incantations, trance music for people who hate trance, sorcery for atheists. –-JW
If this is the part where I’m supposed to write a few words on the artist before I get into why the music is good, then I’m at a loss here, because the person (or persons) involved with Monster Rally does (or do) an excellent job at keeping his or herself (or themselves) completely anonymous. The only concrete evidence we have of Monster Rally’s very existence are the small batches of music released through the act’s Bandcamp page every couple of months or so: tropical loop-based psych broken up into bite-sized chunks, here-and-gone before even being welcomed in the first place, let alone overstaying it. The first two releases (the appropriately-named EP and its follow-up, the stellar Palm Reader) together come out to less than twenty minutes of crate-digger brilliance, showing that whoever is responsible for Monster Rally is too busy flipping through dusty record sleeves to worry about managing their public image. And God bless them for it. –DM
While their former partner Bethany “Best Coast” Cosentino produced the year’s least overlooked record, Amanda Brown and Pocahaunted stealthily took strides towards a greater accessibility than ever before. Striving for the sweet spot between Parliament, Lee Perry, and a gang of bizarre noise bands I’m too lazy to Google, Pocahaunted recruited Cameron “Sun Araw” Stallones to lace them with a wobbly levitative organ lines that helped buoy Brown’s psychedelic guitar lines and lend shape to their previously formless drones without abandoning their experimental roots. It’s so good that it’s enough to make you forgive them for inspiring the Wire to coin the term, “hypnagogic pop.”–JW
Despite the negative connotations that occasionally accompany being tagged an NPR band, it’s worth noting that sometimes the Cabernet and Camembert set gets it right. While Williamsburg bands get praised for their outre pretensions, Los Angeles’ Pollyn bear a subtle experimental streak. The remix EP’s that followed This Little Night drew them attention for their work with Freddie Gibbs, Nosaj Thing, James Pants, Debruit, Blue Daisy and an array of others. But if you listened closely to the original record, their singular blend of moody down-tempo electronic music, Genevieve Artadi’s seraphic vocals, and hip-hop drums. The music is tasteful but tough enough to disorient — and it’s already aging quite well.--JW
Carving a spot at the intersection of psychedelic, dub and drone music, Sun Araw’s music is full of humid and hypnotic groove, tranquilized tribal drums and a slow swamp water slink. If you shut your lids and listen hard enough, you can hear the faint hints of his idols: the cosmic slop of Funkadelic, the ferocious locomotion of Fela Kuti, the bizarre shape-shifting of Sun Ra, obscure Swedish psych-rock and the sorcerer minimalism of Terry Riley. You’d be forgiven for mistaking his recording studio, the Sun Ark, as being located in a sub-tropical paradise filled with pastel sunsets, rather than proximity to the smog-strangled shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains…On Patrol is the soundtrack to imaginary yage binges, visions of chimerical beasts and the hard heartbeat of the Los Angeles sun. -JW
Last week, I went to see Thee Oh Sees at Sailor Jerry-sponsored free show at a small-ish Seattle rock club, and was taught a lesson in chemistry. According to Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures, mixing 22-year-old kids with five-dollar shots of rum and the most exciting live band in the world makes for a very messy scene. As I foolishly held onto my spot front-row, center-stage, I was pushed around by a tidal wave of bodies, barely successful at keeping one of the monitors from flying into Mike Shoun’s drum kit (whose stage placement was directly in front of me), almost tripped on a pair of shoes without feet attached to them, and got kicked in the face by a renegade crowd-surfer. I think that appropriately describes the element of danger that is built into the thrilling psychedelic garage-punk of Thee Oh Sees.
Thee Oh Sees are a band that summons the age-old scuzzy garage-rock template through the hallucinogenic effects of psychedelic drugs, undeniable charisma, and good old-fashioned elbow grease. The recordings are a tangible document of their incredibly wild and downright life-affirming live shows, where John Dwyer swills beers, swallows microphones and still is able to play riffs with a surprisingly adroit technical prowess, all while the rest of the band (guitarist Petey Dammit, drummer Mike Shoun, and the effortlessly cool Brigid Dawson on keyboard and backing vocals) manages to not only keep up (which is an impressive feat in itself), but add to the chaos and physicality and fun of everything.
Warm Slime, the band’s fourth full-length in 36 months, is the tangible document that comes closest to replicating what it’s like to find yourself in the thick of one of their live sets. That’s partially because the entire album was recorded in a single day, but mostly because it shows the band at both their most artistically fearless (the title track is 13 ½ minutes long and takes up the entirety of the album’s A-side) and their catchiest (every other song on the album, especially fan favorite “I Was Denied”). The dynamics are striking, the charisma is bottomless, and the album is the most creative thing to happen to garage-rock practically since garage-rock was invented. Maybe those kids were a little too drunk that night, but it doesn’t change the fact that Warm Slime is a record well worth getting a little overexcited about. –DM
Other critics have been mentioning the “new, darker” direction of the Detroit band’s new longplayer, and while that is true in the cases of songs like “Underwater” and “Future Junk,” Nothing Fits still bears the mark of the slacker-ass-slackers that have enchanted the indie-punk scene over the past couple of years. If you don’t believe me, check out the contagious, thrashy “4312” and try not to sing along. Or listen to the second verse of closer “Blocks” (you know, the part where frontman Kevin Boyer wakes up from a nap and is convinced that he’s Jesus) and try not to laugh. Or put on the entire record in a sweaty basement full of DIY punks and expect them not to mosh or crowd-surf or generally lose their minds. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. –DM