Thursday, January 6, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010 - #1 Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons


I'm a little bit late on this post, and I apologize. Turns out having a real-life job can be just as consuming as grad school (or more). However, without further ado, I'm happy to announce our number one pick on the list of very awesome albums of 2010: Mumford & Sons' Sigh No More.
Those who know their stuff may question the legitimacy of our choice—yes, the album did technically debut in 2009. However, it wasn't released in the U.S. until 2010, and, unless you have the time and funds to keep up with British music charts, you likely didn't hear about this fantastic band until this year.

I still remember the day last spring that my roommate Desiree called me into her room, excitedly voicing her belief that she had just found a band that I just had to listen to. She was right. I was instantly struck by both the sound and the poetic lyrics of the title track, and I continued to be impressed and, even, moved by each track on the album.

Since purchasing Sigh No More last spring, I've seen the band live twice and purchased anything else they've released, so this review is by no means unbiased. However, I can honestly say I would recommend this album to just about anyone. There is an earnestness in Marcus Mumford and co's music that seems to reach across genres. Despite their heavy dose of banjo and upright bass, the band enjoys a heavy rotation on alternative rock radio. And though they can certainly rock, the group has an old-tyme, spiritual feel on tracks like "Timshel."

Lyrically and musically, the four members of Mumford & Sons seem to be wise beyond their twenty-something years. In a very short period of time, they've developed a massive following in their home country and abroad, and it's for good reason. If all you've ever heard of Mumford & Sons is "Little Lion Man," check out the rest of the album. It's the most uplifting, rollicking, and—in my personal opinion—the best album of 2010.

This is the is the first Mumford & Sons video I ever saw, and "Winter Winds" is still one of my favorite songs on the album:

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010 - #2 The Family Jewels by Marina and the Diamonds

The first time I heard Marina Diamandis (singer-songwriter of Marina & the Diamonds), I was smitten: her single, “I Am Not A Robot”, was the Starbucks pick-of-the-week. Per usual, I binge downloaded all the Starbucks picks in my wallet at the same time I was shredding old receipts. Some days this process yields a winner; other days, nothing; on the rare occasion I’ll uncover a gem (pun intended). Whatever else I downloaded that day (perhaps regrettably) has been forgotten, because Marina outshone it all.

“Marina & the Diamonds” is Marina’s stage name. “The Diamonds” are not her backup band (as I wrongly assumed) but rather her fans. She says on her MySpace page: “I’m Marina. You are the diamonds”. In this offbeat vein, her single, and indeed much of her album, plays out like a quirky, indie movie. It does what it wants without any self-consciousness about being different. A song about (not) being a robot. Random vibrato. Vocal synthesizers and echoes. Doesn’t every song have these? Marina leads you to believe so with the confidence and personality she emits with her music. It’s fetching how the song creeps up on you, with the dainty piano and delicately performed vocals. The first time I heard it, I never expected a full-fledged pop-dance number would follow. Pleasant surprises like this are widespread in Marina’s debut studio album, “The Family Jewels”. Akin to Regina Spektor (another much adored female singer-songwriter), Marina uses her voice like an instrument. For her, it’s more than just hitting the right pitch. There’s dynamics. Not just in volume, but also speed. Short, separated notes. Long, fluid ones. And like a seasoned jazz musician, Marina mixes these elements in a way that feels spontaneous. There’s times when Marina alters her voice to lend the melody and lyrics a specific personality – like a robot in “I Am Not A Robot”. Or in “Hollywood” when Marina uses her lower range, her voice takes on a dreamy, almost underwater quality. Sometimes she jumps to her falsetto even though she could hit the same note without it. It’s these nuances that make Marina’s music unique, impromptu and intentional, all at the same time.

If you mixed the off-color attitude and cynicism of Lily Allen, the charisma and electronica of Lady Gaga, and the spontaneity and experimentation of Kate Nash you’d have the makings of Marina’s sound. But in the end, it’s what Marina does with these qualities that truly makes her music singular and extraordinary. Listening to “The Family Jewels” was, for me, like watching an indie movie: it’s eccentric and strange at times but the pleasure rests in the unpredictability.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010 — #3 Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens

Age of Adz starts out gently enough, with the tender "Futile Devices," which doesn't sound far off from a Michigan or Illinois track, with its acoustic simplicity and honest lyrics.

From there, the album takes a turn with the electronic orchestrations of "Age of Adz," which might shock those whose exposure to Stevens is limited to the two albums in the now-defunct (probably) fifty-states series. However, for those die-hard fans who know either Stevens' dabbling in electronica with Enjoy Your Rabbit or his extended orchestrated, instrumental soundscape to his film, The BQE, Adz will likely seem a logical progression.

The album is a bit strange, I'll admit it. Like Derek Webb's transition from acoustic to electronic last year, this isn't an album for everyone. But for the fan with an open mind—the one who can forgive Stevens for deviating from the fifty states project and can accept that Adz has more synth than banjo (don't worry, there's still banjo)—the album is not to be missed.

At the least, it must be conceded that the album is ambitious—in many ways a departure from what Stevens has become known for, Adz was a risk. When he performed in Portland this winter, he acknowledged the risk, somewhat sheepishly thanking fans for coming out to the show and patiently listening through a set of almost completely new songs—songs released (on Adz and its preceding EP, All Delighted People) after most of them had purchased their tickets for the show. Even with his apologetic thanks, Stevens likely left few fans feeling shafted. He put his heart and soul into the technicolor, multisensory show, and I'm sure most fans left feeling the way I did—that they had just seen the most bizarre and most excellent show.

On Adz, Stevens does more than just experiment with new sounds. Without the convention and themes he built up around the fifty-states album, he was able to create songs that were less about telling a story and more about expressing an emotion. And Adz is highly emotional. At times angry (with the anger sometimes aimed at another, like on "I Walked," and sometimes at himself, like on "I Want to Be Well"), and at times melancholic, the album seems to be, ultimately, a call (like the art of the tortured Royal Robertson, which influenced Stevens heavily as he wrote) to "Get Real Get Right."

There's a lot more I could say on the subject, but, rather than gush, I'll leave you with the newly released video for "Too Much" and let you decide for yourself:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010 - #4 Lonely Avenue by Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

Ben Folds adds music and melody to Nick Hornby’s words in “Lonely Avenue” (as is written on the CD’s cover). Depending on how you count, this is Ben Fold’s seventh studio album. Things get confusing when you start distinguishing between band albums, solo albums, compilation albums, collaboration albums, etc. Although “Lonely Avenue” is a collaboration album in the truest sense, I consider it to be the seventh official installment in the Ben Folds repertoire (in order: Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Rockin’ the Suburbs, Songs for Silverman, and Way to Normal). Of course, the diehard fan will also know there exists a plethora of EPs, collaborations (including two with William Shatner), second cuts and other miscellanies written by Ben. He is a musician who is not afraid to try things out, embraces experimentation and is inclined toward diversion. Perhaps this is why he teamed up with novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch, An Education) to create “Lonely Avenue”. But what may have began as a diversion, something different, something new, turned into a remarkably fulfilling and mature album.

“Lonely Avenue” begins with “A Working Day” – musically, it may be the worst song on the album. You might even call it annoying. But inside of it there’s a message. Midway through the song, Ben sings, “Some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know; He's got his own blog”. In other words, it’s easy to be a critic. To sit back at a computer and judge someone’s music*. It’s not easy to put your heart and soul on the line in song. *I might add, it’s not exactly easy to write thoughtful and interesting music reviews, but it certainly is easier than songwriting. Songwriting is toilsome.

After that, “Lonely Avenue” takes off with one sensational song after another. My favorite songs are “Picture Window” and “Password”. “Picture Window” is a beautiful, sad and cynical song about hope during difficult times. Though the lyrics are bitingly pessimistic, the melody is still somehow hopeful. “Password” is also a sad song (come to think of it, much of the album has tragic undertones; I guess it is called “Lonely Avenue” after all). “Password” is a point-of-view story about a crumbling relationship told through passwords that are sung letter by letter. It sounds strange, but is extremely effective and makes the song’s conclusion all the more heartbreaking. A lot of “Lonely Avenue” is about relationships and they do not all have happy endings. Yet still, the album is emotionally fulfilling. Dave Matthews was right when he sang, “Somebody’s broken heart becomes your favorite song”.

Top 10 Albums of 2010 — #5 Together by The New Pornographers

Speaking of bands made up of seven highly talented band members, it only makes sense that The New Pornographers' Together should follow the Arcade Fire's Suburbs on our top ten list.

I confess, I resisted checking out the Pornographers for awhile, based on their name* alone. However, I had a chance to cover their show in Portland this past fall for the music website I write for, and I can rarely say no to a free show. Plus, when I realized Neko Case, who I'd been a fan of for some time, was one of the members of the Canadian power-pop group, I knew there was a good chance I'd love them.

I started listening to Together in preparation for covering the show, and the album instantly grabbed me. There isn't a bad track on the thing. From lead singer A.C. Newman's staccato on the album-opening "Moves" to Neko Case's powerful vocals on the stand-out "Crash Years" to Dan Bejar's distinctive, raspy stylings on "Silver Jenny Dollar," each track is completely different yet somehow complementary to the next. And on tracks like "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk," the group shows their ability to blend together their divergent sounds to create one beautiful, very catchy song.

The twelve track album is a brilliant collection, worth a listen or a purchase by both old New Pornographer fans and those who've never given the band a listen. It's an album that functions equally well as an introduction to the group as it does an expansion on what the group has created with other albums, including the beloved Mass Romantic.

*I decided I didn't mind the band's name, once I read someone's commentary that claimed the name was chosen by Newman in response to a comment by Jimmy Swaggart that rock and roll was the "new pornography." However, in researching this blog, I learned (via Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), that that information may not actually be totally true.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2010 - #6 The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

What do I know about Arcade Fire? They’re from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. They consist of a husband and wife duo (Win Butler and Regine Chassagne) along with five other members. And their song “Wake Up” was featured on the “Where the Wild Things Are” trailer (which was the most adult, kids-movie I’ve seen in a while, I might add. “Adult” in terms of theme and profundity). Before aforesaid trailer, I hadn’t knowingly heard a song by Arcade Fire. I downloaded “Wake Up” and listened to it many times. I loved its progression. It was like several songs in one. Just when you think you know what it’s up to, it changes course. When one of my art students burned me a copy of Arcade Fire’s 2010 release, “The Suburbs”, and told me I had to check it out, I didn’t know what to expect. Having only heard “Wake Up”, I had no clear conception of Arcade Fire’s “sound”. After having listened to “The Suburbs” several times now, I still don’t have a clear concept of the band’s “sound” (if, in fact, they have one).

In part, this is what makes “The Suburbs” so enjoyable: there are so many sounds. Perhaps this is the result of seven band members contributing to the album. Or a wild instrumentation that includes a glockenspiel, French horn, accordion and hurdy-gurdy. A couple tracks sound like they came out of the 80s. Whatever the cause, the effect is an expansive album that ascends on many levels. Even after several listens, I haven’t wrapped my head around this album – which in this case, is a good thing, because it is so enjoyable to play. It surprised me that an entire LP would be as diverse and unique as the first song I heard by them. Even amongst this list, “The Suburbs” is an idiosyncratic album. It entices repetition by its assortment of diverting and wonderful melodies.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2010 — #7 Weathervanes by Freelance Whales

Everybody loves a good ghost story. When that story is told through delightful lyrics and accompanied by myriad instruments, from banjo to glockenspiel to harmonium to synthesizer, it becomes even more irresistible. The songs on Weathervanes are spun from childhood memories and dream journals, centering on the idea of a young boy in love with the ghost who inhabits the old house he lives in. Some songs fit the theme better than others, but, together, they paint a dreamy, spectral picture.

My first introduction to the Freelance Whales was "Generator (First Floor)," a song I stumbled upon accidentally but was instantly captivated by. I watched their tiny little desk concert over and over and over again:

And, then, even though I heard mixed review of Weathervanes from a friend, I decided to purchase it, and I haven't regretted it. Their music is light and airy and reflects the playful nature of the band who spent their earliest days busking the streets of New York. At other times, the songs tend toward the more reflective and melancholic, like "Location," on which lead singer Judah Dadone reflects on the "tinder box we live in / and what a flammable heart I've been given."

If you haven't yet, do yourself a favor and download "Generator (Second Floor)" for free here. And then think about getting the rest of the album too.