Since its release in June 2010, the Books’ fourth album The Way Out has been one of the year’s most rewarding listens. The duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong have topped themselves once again, with multiple layerings of sampled percussion from vinyl, voice clips from videos and audio cassettes, and of course, their own brilliant playing and ability to organize all this chaotic sound into a beautiful work of art. The slam-dancing funk of “I Didn’t Know That” rocks the hips and stimulates the mind as “Group Autogenics II” gives the perfect come-down at the very end. In between it all, Zammuto and de Jong delve deep inside and come back out showing us the human experience in a way never seen before.
– Rob Galo
In ten years, Cee Lo’s third solo album, The Lady Killer, will probably be remembered mainly as a vehicle for the unstoppable, “Hey Ya!”/”Umbrella”-caliber single “Fuck You!,” just as Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere will always be the album that had “Crazy.” This, however, is grossly unfair to the rest of the songs on The Lady Killer, which is as strong an R&B album as has been released in a few years. Cee Lo puts on a virtuosic vocal display on the album, and sounds equally comfortable doing his thing across many different styles of soul music, from the “Billie Jean” bounce of “Bright Lights, Bigger City” to the Motown throwback “Cry Baby.” And, yeah, there’s “Fuck You!” too.
– Sean Highkin
It’s not often you hear a combination of power-pop and shoegaze but that is what the Besnard Lakes have gone for here, and they’ve done it well. Their married leaders Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas often attack vocals in unison. They’re at their best when doing this, powerfully harmonizing and punching up the impact of their choruses. Between vocals there are crashing and undulating guitars which form a fantastic platform some more playful guitar work. When all of these ingredients are mixed together, they produce a heady concoction of delightful layered, loud, yet thoughtful rock music.
– Rob Hakimian
Best Coast holds the honor for the most-hyped debut of the year, but Warpaint’s The Fool can’t be far behind. And it wasn’t really what anyone expected, with the energy of their live show being nearly impossible to record. But The Fool had much better things than energy to offer: complex arrangements, dark lyrics about addiction and heartbreak, and strong pop melodies hidden so well in stoner rock that the record truly sneaks up on you. It’s hard to believe Warpaint released their debut album this year, but fortunately for us, The Fool sounds like a first step towards something greater. They’ve set the bar high for themselves. Let’s hope they are up for the challenge.
– Philip Cosores
[Ba Da Bing]
Epic, but with a small ‘e’–that’s how Sharon Van Etten jokingly described her 2010 album Epic during a September performance at Atlanta’s 529. All kidding aside, her tongue-in-cheek summarization not only holds true for this gorgeous, melancholic showcase of these seven heartrending tracks, but also for her growth as a songwriter. More importantly, Sharon Van Etten has created one of the most human albums in a long time, allowing her emotions, thoughts and reflections to paint a stunning and honest masterpiece.
While her quiet conviction stirs with every passing swoon of her voice, the melancholic, minimalist songwriter has expanded her sound on this sophomore effort, recently adding a backing band to accompany her. This decision has brought her music to life from a longing whisper to a quiet roar. With songs like “One Day” and “Save Yourself,” she may never be “Epic” in the anthemic rock sort of way that the word is often associated with, but a small ‘e’ will certainly suffice for this talented singer-songwriter.
– Max Blau
My Chemical Romance ditched the goth Sgt. Pepper’s-influenced afterlife for a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of gunslingers and fast cars. Thematically this is just as over-the- top and bombastic as their previous albums. However, MCR decided to skip the concept this time around and make a more straightforward rock album that’s about letting loose and having fun. Gone are the melodramatic themes of death, lovers and spiritual entities. Danger Days trades all of this for a more upbeat and warm outlook on the music they make. The album seamlessly balances balls to the wall rock tunes with glossy ’80s-influenced pop gems. Whether you prefer MCR’s rock opera era or their early pop punk sound, this album finds a middle ground to satisfy both while making some interesting new steps for the band musically. At this point, fans should expect that they won’t get the same band on every release. Danger Days is no exception, and this is probably the most accessible the band has been without losing their renowned dramatics and bravado.
– Brent Koepp
It’s really not that hard to see why Owen Pallett ditched the Final Fantasy moniker for his new album. It was a confusing name to begin with, and although the music is the same on its basest levels, (this is classical-influenced indie folk after all) it’s like he’s headed in a whole new direction. While his older songs are impressive in their own right, it’s hard to go back to the Final Fantasy work after hearing Heartland’s lushly produced tracks. Just listen to “The Great Elsewhere”: its stuttering drum patterns and swelling strings are much more fleshed out ideas than something like, say, “Many LIves -> 49 MP.” The latter isn’t a bad song by any means; I still regard it as one of Pallett’s best songwriting efforts. What I mean to say is that Pallett is just all-around improving–improving on what was already great material. It’s extremely cliche at this point to praise an artist for maturing, but that’s what Pallett has done here, and it’s easy to imagine that he’ll just get even better.
– Colin Joyce
On the strength of Total Life Forever, it’s time to say that Foals are on the verge of something great. If Antidotes highlighted a band full of potential for a stunning career, Total Life Forever saw Foals not only reach that potential, but exceed it and show a tantalising glimpse of what magic they could put onto disc. Opener “Blue Blood” isn’t the most spectacular or explosive openers, but it has that typical Foals style, giving the listener a comfort zone, softening them for the differences in the remainder of the album. There’s the bright and self-assured “Miami,” which should have been the lead single given the strength of the song. “Spanish Sahara” and “This Orient” are perfect side closers and openers that sound just as good apart as they are listened to back to back on CD/mp-whatever. They’re easily a testament to Foals’ continuing maturity. It’s the second side/half of the album that’s the real triumph, though. There’s enough ambience, melody and heaviness in the last four tracks to keep everybody happy. If Foals keep growing as much as Total Life Forever demonstrated, they could be this generation’s Radiohead.
– Daniel Griffiths
Riding the London bass waves that have, in part, taken asunder drum & bass’s long-held stranglehold on the legacy of jungle and future music, Scuba returned in 2010 with a followup to 2008’s A Mutual Antipathy without faltering, woozily, and without missteps. Scuba has inherited Burial’s ability to translate dubstep to long form, keeping clear of monotony and the uninspired. He channels Joy Orbison’s house-infused undercurrents, and, to his namesake, delivers interesting dubstep with a subterranean, semi-aqueous bent. Triangulation is no instant-access vehicle; it demands close attention to sound design but delivers complex aesthetic results each time.
– Jason Cook
Transference sees Spoon relinquishing a little of the studio polish that has been a hallmark of their recent albums and producing interesting results. The album does not have as much cohesion as their previous releases but on the other hand it’s interesting to hear the band trying out some new ideas, most of which work. Aside from dabbling in lo-fi (“Before Destruction”) and Beatles-esque pop songwriting (“Goodnight Laura”) the main influence here is certainly Krautrock. Many of the tracks here set themselves into a regular groove and Spoon do what they do best by adding various audio layers to produce interesting musical collages. Spoon’s vocalist Britt Daniel is in an unusually open mood here too, admitting his faults and allowing his desires to be unveiled. It’s an interesting document showing Spoon trying something new here, which they may or may not follow up on their next release.
– Rob Hakimian