Tag Archive for '2010 countdown'

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AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #11. Corinne Bailey Rae – The Sea

The Sea

put her records on

#11. Corinne Bailey Rae – The Sea

Corinne Bailey Rae made a giant leap with her second album. Unfortunately, tragic circumstances led to it. But The Sea ended up one of the most soulful and emotional records of 2010.

After the quiet success of her first album, Rae’s husband died of an accidental drug overdose. When she returned to record The Sea, she clearly channeled her feelings into her songs. Don’t get me wrong–The Sea is not a downer of an album. It reflects on love and loss in an emotional way, but never reaches the level of Harrowing. “It’s hard to recall the taste of summer / when everywhere around, the chill of winter,” she sings on “Are You Here,” probably the most nakedly emotional song on the album. In “Paris Nights/New York Mornings,” she remembers “love filled nights,” but with the caveat that they are running out of time. And while “the sea breaks everything,” she also realizes that it “cleans everything.” Wiki says she wrote about half the songs after her husband’s death, and I can’t speculate which ones were or weren’t, but all the songs tie in: she looks at love, the good and the bad, the memories, the struggles.

Musically, though, is where The Sea is the most impressive. Rae’s self-titled first album was more or less pop music. Except for some touches, the music does not sound organic — drums are created, vocals and lyrics clear and romantic, rhythms perfect and predictable, her voice warm and inviting. I say this not to demean it, I enjoy it, but to contrast with The Sea, which, upon listening close, is absolutely nothing like it.

First, she recorded The Sea with a band. The energy that comes from a band performing is perfect for her voice, and they combine to create atmosphere and a bit more drama. She shows more skill in singing, as well. Instead of pop clarity, she purrs more, like a real soul singer should. Soul music is about passion and feelings, and she finds that, ironically, by pulling her voice back. You don’t have to go big to get there. Her natural voice is big anyway, so to keep things slightly mysterious does nothing but enhance the emotion and ambience.

As I have mentioned a couple of times on this countdown (and will a couple more, I’m sure), I went to Coachella this year. Rae was one of the acts, which was a great and welcome surprise. I was stoked, and made sure I didn’t miss her. She did not disappoint, and I even stood near her in the crowd later as we watched Sly Stone have a crazy meltdown. If people skipped her, wrote her off as one of the “pop” acts Coachella sometimes adds, they really missed out.

They also would be missing out on The Sea, if they wrote her off after her debut.

Corinne Bailey Rae “Paper Dolls”

Corinne Bailey Rae “I Would Like To Call It Beauty”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #12. Adam Haworth Stephens – We Live On Cliffs

We Live On Cliffs

this living ain't for the faint of heart

#12. Adam Haworth Stephens – We Live On Cliffs

Unfortunately, much of my countdown this year consists of artists I already knew before. There were a few who were new to me (Pterodactyl Plains, Flying Lotus, Sleigh Bells), but mainly it was a good year for people I already liked. There were, though, some debut albums, by artistst who decided to step out and go solo. Adam Haworth Stephens is one of them. Stephens is the lead singer/guitarist in the intense and atmospheric blues duo, Two Gallants.

I cannot quite figure out why, but I’ve been having trouble coming up with much to say about We Live On Cliffs. (So I’ll just ramble.) It isn’t like the music is terribly extreme. Nor is it bland. There is a complexity to Stephens’ songwriting here, which I guess can make it hard to process. With Two Gallants, Stephens taps into the blues and comes up with new songs that feel amazingly authentic. It is quite a skill for a modern songwriter to have. On We Live On Cliffs, though, the blues influence is much more subtle, and the songs are much more laidback. The rawness of Two Gallants feels like it has been smoothed out, which as a description, sound terrible. But once you get into the songs, it is still there.

I reckon that the “cliff” metaphor used in the title of the album is key to many of the songs. The idea that taking a step will cause a sheer drop. Living on the edge can also leave you directionless. These are but some of the themes buried in Stephens’ songs here. On the stunning “Heights Of Diamond,” Stephens sings “‘Cause your touch still lingers on my shaky fingers / As the feeling fades away / And the bells are chiming / In the heights of diamond / As I’m trying to find my way.” Here he is, at a very particular moment, and he is not sure where he’ll go. Off the cliff? It’s possible. There are different cliff edges throughout, as well: reality vs. dreams, night vs. morning, life vs. regret. On “Southern Lights,” Stephens writes, “you know the sweeter the candy, the bitter the aftertaste / So don’t let the morning catch me here / I’m not the man that I appear.”

Anyway I feel like I just have a pile of random thoughts about these songs, which I’m sure undermines the complexity of his language, the chill melodies, the talented band. We Live On Cliffs is a skilled work by one of the top songwriters around. It is as if Stephens dug around in the blues with Two Gallants for a few albums, processed all he could, and now is finding his own style. Perhaps it is a natural progression for a songwriter to go from exploring a favorite old genre to absorbing it into your own style. Many great artists follow a similar path, like Bob Dylan or Beck. High comparisons, I know. But Stephens is moving forward in his songwriting, and I can’t imagine it dropping off a cliff.

Adam Haworth Stephens – “Angelina”

Adam Haworth Stephens – “Heights Of Diamond”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #13. Sleigh Bells – Treats


did you do your best today?

#13. Sleigh Bells – Treats

For a little background, Sleigh Bells started making some waves on the internet when their demo started floating around. They signed to M.I.A.’s record label, and then I saw them at Coachella before their album dropped. They showed up, blasted the packed tent in the early afternoon for about 20 minutes, leaving everyone blown away. I definitely bought into the hype after seeing them in person.

Similarly, the explosiveness of their debut album, Treats, lands it high on my countdown. Treats is a compact blast of razor-sharp riffs, modern in its simplicity and lo-fi arrangement. Alexis Krauss (the singer) subverts the hard guitar with her female energy, giving Sleigh Bells a more interesting sound. Krauss and Derek Miller’s guitar make up the entirety of the band, and their interplay is what impresses. (Live, they use a drum machine, I assume on the record too.)

The basic set-up is that Miller riffs like crazy, while Krauss goes all out too. She brings a slight pop catchiness to the mix. Imagine M.I.A. with an electric guitarist. There are a couple of tracks, like “Run The Heart,” where Krauss sings like she’s the guitar, riffing with her voice, while Miller plays more atmospherically behind her. Some songs they trade back and forth, like “Riot Rhythm” or “Crown On The Ground.” Subtle, but they are not doing the exact same thing in every song. It hints to me that they may be capable of changing things up as they move on.

The songs touch on a lot of young topics: best friends, straight As, cowboys & Indians, boyfriends, braces. However, the lyrics don’t take place in, say, high school, but from later on, looking back. Krauss seems to be using the act of remembering to remind that, hey it can be stormy when young. It’s nostalgiac, but looked at as sincerely and real as one should. That said, the lyrics are pretty much the last thing to focus on with Sleigh Bells. I hate to write that, I always like to give them the thought they deserve. They are entertaining, but for me, they get lost beneath the music.

While I definitely think Treats is a killer, I am left wondering about its staying power. This style of music could lose its draw when there’s a second album just like it. Or might it eventually sound dated? Right now, it works because Sleigh Bells is right now. Looking back at 2010 though, they were a highlight.

Sleigh Bells – “A/B Machines”

Sleigh Bells – “Tell ‘Em”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #14. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma

they wanna see me on my satellite

#14. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

hits on a wide range of sounds. The prevailing bits are electronic, glitch. But as befitting the nephew of John and Alice Coltrane, Flying Lotus approaches his music with a jazzy outlook. Jazz can be made on a computer! I don’t know if Flying Lotus is at the forefront of this movement, or if he is the only one trying. But it sounds unique to me, and is pretty awesome.

“Clock Catcher” starts things off with some video game jazz. “Pickled!” is some glitchy bebob. All sorts of things keep coming at you, like bits of new age strings, scat singing, thick bass, Alice Coltrane’s harp. “Recoiled” has a beat that reminds me of an old chain gang blues. Thom Yorke shows up and murmurs his way through the best track on here, “…And The World Laughs With You.” “Table Tennis” uses a ping pong beat. Literally. Not sure what it really adds, but it’s a good example of Flying Lotus’ grab bag of tricks.

That description probably makes it sound as if the album is noisy and crazy. And in a way, it is, I guess. But all the different sounds fits together, and the end result is a long medley of sorts. The songs aren’t joined together, but listening in a row, they all just flow. You get the sense this was a fully conceived album. Since I really haven’t heard anything like Cosmogramma before, it really stood out for me.

Posting just one song or two will probably defeat the purpose of Cosmogramma, but here’s a few tracks anyway:

Flying Lotus – “Satelllliiiiiiiteee”

Flying Lotus – “Do The Astral Plane”

Flying Lotus – “…And The World Laughs With You (feat. Thom Yorke)”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #15. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

This Is Happening

LCD Soundsystem Is Playing At My House

#15. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

Many of LCD Soundsystem’s songs on This Is Happening are about moments. The moment you get lost in music, forgetting all your troubles (“Dance Yourself Clean”). The moment you make a connection (“One Touch”). In “All I Want,” James Murphy writes of another moment: “from now on, I’m someone different / ‘Cause it’s no fun to be predictably lame / From now on, there’s true indifference / ‘Cause I want what I want.” Like the lyrics, LCD Soundsystem’s music is also usually about moments. You ride through the amazing production of “Dance Yourself Clean,” as the instruments dance all around each other, waiting for that moment it breaks into a phat groove. Numerous moments slide in and out of the album, catchy harmony vocals, keyboard licks, beats, percussion.

It took me awhile to figure out what was happening with This Is Happening though. I had trouble placing it. Right now, maybe it’s overrated on the list. But next time I listen, it might be underrated. I’ve moved it all up and down and this is where it ended. I’m not sure why. It’s not as if James Murphy had any big change in style. In fact, if anything, he has expertly learned to trim the fat on his records, and now puts out strong, lean albums. Nothing is extraneous. His first album has some epic tracks but is at times a little goofy, a little hectic. He has an impressive ability to write music that is simultaneously locked-in tight and builds dramatically.

This Is Happening is his third album, and there’s less goofiness (though I’m not sure what to make of “Drunk Girls,” I could do without it). He’s also cut out the occasionally heavy electric guitar riffs that he used to use sometimes. What remains are the phat grooves building into dramatic release, and some notably emotional tunes (“I Can Change” and “Home”). If that’s what you like best in LCD Soundsystem’s music, you should dig This Is Happening.

LCD Soundsystem – “I Can Change”

LCD Soundsystem – “All I Want”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #16. Robyn – Body Talk

Robyn - Body Talk

a single pulse repeated at a regular interval

#16. Robyn – Body Talk

There were a number of fascinating pop albums this year, like Nicki Minaj (bonkers) and Kanye West (huge) and Justin Bieber (kidding). But my favorite comes all the way from Sweden. Robyn released three EPs this year, Body Talk Pt. 1, Pt. 2 and Pt. 3. She also released Body Talk, which had five tracks from each part. All together, her Body Talks are an enjoyable and deep collection of songs.

Robyn’s music is built on the basics of pop music. There’s dancing, dancing alone, crying, boredom, heartbreak, dangerous love, robots. She hits on something primal, that when the body talks, listen. If you’re hurt, you’re hurt. Frustrations happen. Hearts break. Love kills. But through it all, she just keeps moving. “We Dance To The Beat” nails it all down: “we dance to the beat of continents shifting under our feet / We dance to the beat of false math and unrecognized genius / we dance to the beat of gravity giving us a break.” “Fembot” is the most poppy song here, and the main lines are “you split my heart in two / now whatcha gonna do?” Many of the songs have her reacting to this split heart, mostly by dancing. Other times by being sad. Other times by taking on the world.

A few songs show off Robyn’s sometimes dark and dry humor. “Criminal Intent” finds her pleading guilty to “lewd and indecent events” and is being incarcerated for getting “somewhat X-rated on the floor.” (“Would you pardon me for being inappropriately attired?”) This isn’t a surprise if you’re aware of Robyn’s raunchy and hilarious rodomontade from a few years ago, “Konichiwa Bitches.” Here, she and Snoop Dogg effectively write a sequel. On “U Should Know Better” the duo warn the French, the Vatican, Russians, the FBI, the CIA, the LAPD, and the Prince Of Darkness not to fuck with them.

Wikipedia has a quote from Robyn describing one of her songs as a “sweet and sour bon-bon wrapped in melancholy,” which sums her up better than I ever could. The melancholy wrapper around fun electro pop music and ideas makes Robyn’s Body Talk one of the tastiest albums of the year.

Here’s one song from each of the EPs:

Robyn – “Dancing On My Own”

Robyn – “U Should Know Better (feat. Snoop Dogg)”

Robyn – “Stars 4-Ever”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #17. Record Club – Oar

Beck Wilco Jamie Lidell Feist

I could use me some yin for my yang

#17. Record Club – Oar

Beck’s superb and on-going Record Club project is my next choice for this countdown. Beck organizes a handful of fellow musicians and friends, and in one day, they cover an entire album. The tracks are recorded as videos, and then released on Beck.com weekly. He tackled Skip Spence’s Oar for the third project, which is an unbelievably good record. It is a sometimes strange mix of folk and jazz, but with the emotion of one man singing the blues. Skip Spence was an obscure genius, a lesser-known Syd Barrett-type who also went mad. His story is fascinating, but better saved for another post. Beck has been a long-time fan of Spence’s, and has covered him a couple of times prior to this as well.

The first couple of Record Clubs were a fairly random bunch of musicians. This time, the third project, Beck surrounded himself with a band, Wilco, who already have their own chemistry. This brought an added dimension to the proceedings, and the ability to go almost anywhere musically. Further, the other musicians (Feist, Jamie Lidell, Brian LeBarton, James Gadson) are all supremely-talented collaborators, who can easily fit in with whatever is going on. With Beck overseeing everything, this Record Club was set up to succeed.

And succeed they do. They all jump into Oar with unbridled enthusiasm and creativity, relishing the brilliant songs. They handle the project in two sections, basically. Eight of the tracks were done with all the musicians, and the remaining were done as a killer funk band of Beck, Lidell, Gadson and LeBarton (i.e., without Wilco). These two set-ups really complement each other, and make for a very well-rounded album.

The tracks with Wilco and Feist for the most part play the songs straight. Beck sings lead on “Little Hands” and “Diana,” sticking quite close to Spence’s original vocals. Wilco fills out the music in subtle and playful ways, like those lead guitar licks on “Diana.” Feist gets to sing the staggering “Weighted Down,” which was a perfect decision. I don’t think Beck or Jeff Tweedy would have been quite right for the song, neither’s voice has the necessary heft for it. Feist, however, brings it. Similarly, the band starts Spence’s slow and spooky “War In Peace” slow and spooky, but then drop a crazy guitar solo by Nels Cline. They never overdo anything, which is a perfect skill to have when doing an album in a day. For example, on “All Come To Meet Her,” they strip the song all the way down, and the entire group sings it acapella.

Meanwhile, the funk band lets loose with more abandon on the remaining songs. While the Wilco tracks are beautiful and tasty, after Wilco left (or before they got there, not sure), the other guys jammed. Jamie Lidell has a high soul falsetto, James Gadson is a legendary funk drummer on all the classics, Beck and Lebarton are groovy dudes. They must have realised, what else are we going to do here? “Books Of Moses” and “Cripple Creek” are the answer.

As you can see, this Record Club was up for anything-acappella barbershop, ’70s funk, acoustic guitars, rock, Ace Of Base (yep), whatever. That they were doing it from a template of Skip Spence’s songs is pretty inspiring. The project both stands on its own, and brings new light into the sometimes shady corners of Spence’s genius. If you’re not following Beck’s Record Clubs, you’re missing out. (It’s on hiatus at the moment though, I’ll certainly post when it returns.)

You can watch/listen to all of the songs on beck.com by clicking here.

Record Club: Record Club – “Grey / Afro”

Record Club – “Broken Heart”

Skip Spence:

Alexander Skip Spence – “Cripple Creek”

Alexander Skip Spence – “Weighted Down (The Prison Song)”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #18. Vampire Weekend – Contra

Vampire Weekend - Contra

look psychotic in a balaclava

#18. Vampire Weekend – Contra

I know this choice is particularly hipster of me. But so is counting down my top 25 albums of the year on a friend’s blog, so whatever. I’ve been charmed by Vampire Weekend. I saw a bit more than half of their set at Coachella this year (another hipster alert, what am I turning into?) and thought they were pretty fun. I’ve listened to more than half of their new album, as well, and also find it pretty fun.*

Anyway, I find Vampire Weekend’s music tantalizing. Their songs all seem to be right on the edge of busting out into some massive LCD Soundsystem-like funk. But they don’t. They hold it back. Or they just flash it briefly. This tension is what they do best, and is pretty addictive. The African polyrhythmic drums mix with Ezra Koenig’s catchy and creative melodies are a blast, and by the time you get to the heart of the album, it all makes sense and you’re groovin’.

“Horchata” kicks Contra off, taking you somewhere warm in December, trying to “forget a feeling you thought you’d forgotten.” What is he trying to escape? Many of the songs hint at this escape, of feeling disconnected and instead of dwelling on it, getting away. I won’t lie though, while I find Koenig to be an interesting lyricist, I am struggling with them a little. They do at times come off preppy and overly clever. But the preppy and overly clever can feel worried and disconnected too, right? Honestly though, it took me many listens to even begin to look at the words; it’s Vampire Weekend’s music that won me over. And if that makes me a hipster sometimes, then so be it.

*Just kidding, I’ve listened to all of it!

Vampire Weekend “Giving Up The Gun”

Vampire Weekend “Horchata”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #19. Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer

Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

fuck you!

#19. Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer

Yea, Cee Lo Green The Soul Machine! I’m sure you’ve all heard “Fuck You” to death, and it’s certainly a great song. But what about the rest of The Lady Killer?

A slightly cliched intro sets up the entire album. This intro is straight out of a James Bond film (not only does Cee Lo announce that he’s licensed to kill, but the music is pure spy movie). The ‘licensed to kill’ theme shows up numerous times on the album, from the surprisingly complex and dark “Bodies” which compares seduction to a crime (“at sunrise the morning paper is read / they found a body in my bed”) to the poppier “Love Gun.” There is also a lot of movie soundtrack riffs throughout the album, you’ll be regularly reminded of an ’80s detective show. But not in a cheesy way. OK, sometimes, in a tiny bit cheesy way. But good soul music can be a tiny bit cheesy if the passion is there. And Cee Lo always brings it, getting into these songs and belting them out.

Cee Lo’s brand of soul music never sounds like he’s mimicking the genre, even on songs like “Satisfied” which begins with horns that wouldn’t be out of place on any Otis Redding song. It is clear that this is what Cee Lo is meant to be doing. His work with Gnarls Barkley or the Goodie Mob has always been solid, but this sound, this is him. He can let loose over groovy soul soundtracks, or even random Band Of Horses covers. He’s the soul machine!

And if I have any criticism here of The Lady Killer, and it’s small, is that a few songs are entirely cruise control. A soul song called “I Want You”? Choruses of “I’m a fool, such a fool, for you” or “hey it’s ok / say that you love me”? These are soul music basics, almost a stereotype of the genre. Cee Lo’s best songs take some pure soul and put new life into it. “Fuck You” is a pretty basic soul story at its core, but Cee Lo’s storytelling and chorus kick it up a notch. “Bright Lights Bigger City” throws a Miami Vice beat into the mix.

Also I want to note that Cee Lo, a few months before The Lady Killer, put out a mixtape called Stray Bullets. It’s a bit more hiphop and funk than The Lady Killer, as Cee Lo raps and sings over samples of Heart, Nick Cave (!) (“Night Train” below samples “Red Right Hand” and is hot), the B-52s and other fun things like that. These two albums make a fantastic collection of songs, and Cee Lo’s stardom was definitely a highlight of 2010.

From The Lady Killer:

Cee Lo Green – “Satisfied”

Cee Lo Green – Bright Lights, Bigger City

From Stray Bullets:

Cee Lo Green – “Night Train (feat. The Goodie Mob)”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #20. Tobacco – Maniac Meat

constellation dirtbike head

TV All Greasy

#20. Tobacco – Maniac Meat

I’m not sure what this means about me, but I think Tobacco’s Maniac Meat is one sexy album. The keyboards and grooves and vocals saying stuff like “I ate all your watermelon” are totally seductive! There’s soul in this trippy electronic album, that’s for sure. Now, I’m not a big electronica fan, a lot of it bores me. But what I like about Tobacco (and his main project Black Moth Super Rainbow) is this soul buried in among the psychedelia. The beats and drama make the music feel quite natural. And on top of it, Tobacco is an amazing producer, the entire sound of this record is superb.

Tobacco’s song and moments and lyrics can go from utterly silly to menacing like it’s the most normal thing in the world. For instance, the lyrics on “Heavy Makeup” include “you get sick from a lolli lolli lollipop / you feel free when you’re killing me.” All the vocal effects mask what are some minimal yet entertaining lyrics. He even gets Beck to play along, and he writes a fantastic couple of verses for “Fresh Hex” (and blends right into “Grape Aerosmith”). The music can match, as on the best tracks, Tobacco goes from huge chords to funny little melodies, sunny synthesizers to metal guitar, all back and forth. Maniac Meat rides the remarkably thin line between goofy and evil, and is massively entertaining. It’s also a tad insane, and one of the best albums of the year.

Tobacco – Fresh Hex (feat. Beck)

Tobacco – Heavy Makeup

- almostaghost