It’s been a strange year, folks. Plenty of new albums were conjured from the depths of hell, but I find as I get older and older I’m more and more attracted to artists who
are pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they started playing in. And while this list is comprised of a variety of artists doing a variety of things, 2010 stands out for one major reason: It’s the year that the hardcore/metal community found melody and harmony.
I’ve oft been a huge proponent of those bands that play to the gray area between metal and hardcore, but as my own personal musical tastes mature, so does the songwriting of these bands. Do you know what’s more menacing than gigantic crushing riffs? A motherfucking three-part vocal harmony layered on top. But while this is a revelatory revelation (bla-dow!), plenty of other artists were expanding their scope in 2010. So this year is a tribute to the new, the exciting, the rulebreakers.
I know that since I’ve taken a more administrative role as Copy Editor here at Punknews.org, there hasn’t been as much of my voice in the site’s articles and reviews. So for all those out there who have begun doubting, don’t worry: I’m still cooler than you, and I’m one hundred percent correct in my judgment.
You can't deny that Yeezey's got immense talent. His production is always supremely layered, lush and spot-fucking-on. His rhymes have always been whack. But on The College Dropout and Late Registration, you could tell he was working on delivering the best possible raps he could, and had put time and effort into his words. Dark Twisted Fantasy shows some of that same gumption on a fairly traditional hip-hop album. Ye's subject matter is a bit weird and gross and strange, but you have to hand it to the guy—to be as famous and popular as he is, putting out an album where he describes sending out emailed pictures of his wang and talking about how all he wants to do is hump is pretty weird and humbling. Of course, Hov's guest spots deliver mad crazy, and he steals the hip-hop line of the year: "Would you rather be overpaid or underrated?," making me wonder why he couldn't be that astute on his own album...
Yeah, I know. Shove it. They're a pretty great band. But their expansion of their sonic range sort of killed the magic of their loose, jangly first record. Either way, choice tracks on this one, and if you don't believe me, then you're just a hater.
This album is pretty hit or miss—while I, too, love the 1971 Yes tribute with their prog-rock leading lines, some of these tracks are just way off the mark, and even embarrassingly bad. But others are SUPER awesome. Chalk this one up to growing pains. However, best use of the dual drummers so far.
I may have dropped the ball on this one. My bad. Ted Leo makes solid albums, and I said "Eh" after a few listens the first time through. Fast-forward to the Year-End Album Crunch, and me going "Oh, shit. A Ted Leo album." Ted Leo is totally badass, and The Brutalist Bricks is probably better than how I'm ranking it here. Like I said. My bad.
Finally. Eschewing their two-man schtick, Pat and Dan wrote the full-band space-disco funk album that we've all been waiting for. Okay, not every song is a space-disco funk anthem, but fleshing out their instrumentation led the Black Keys to one of those great albums that you can't stop listening to, and can't stop hearing in commercials. The only problem is overexposure, because the album is so good that everyone wants to listen to it too much.
So, yeah. Remember how I was talking about metal bands finding melody? Nachtmystium is probably the best example of this. As a true kvlt black metal group,
they've somehow evolved into a really melodic, uh, rock band? With black metal vocals. Sort of industrial, a lot of post-rock, and some dude shredding his vocal chords over the whole lot of it. Some songs tap into those melodic sections that power metal can slide into, but it's really, really good, and impossible to describe. Like a monkey itching his own butt and then sniffing his finger and falling off a tree, you have to see it (or hear it) to believe it.
Diesto operates with a constant sense of just how long they can stretch an ambient atmospheric guitar interlude before launching into a crunchy riff. A really great doomy album that should immediately appeal to fans of Pelican and Isis. But you know, better. And harder.
The Roller: Wasted Heritage
The exception to the rule. You won't find any melodic interludes on this beast. Four tracks, 40 minutes long, the most relentless and punishingly mid-tempo doom metal album I've heard in years. Some bands just have a certain magic when it comes to crafting demonic grooves. And maybe some of that magic comes from living in Texas. Who knows.
The Budos Band: The Budos Band III
Ethiopian chord progressions backing up an instrumental soul-funk band on traditionalist label Daptone? Yes please. You're dumb if you don't have this album. It's the new soundtrack to every imagined chase scene that occurs in your day-to-day life.
Probably the least expected group to be a part of this whole "metal finds melody" track of 2010. But instead of pursuing their grind-scream dreams of the past, Daughters has congealed into a more industrial, experimental mass. Featuring Danzig-style vocals over a constantly shifting plane of low-end grooves and high-end freakouts, Daughters has found something they do better than anyone else—which is finding something that no one else is doing. That doesn't make much sense. Oh
El-P is a bit of a Kingmaker. His contributions to the world of hip-hop redefined what was possible to be acknowledged as real and amazing rap music. His production knows no bounds, and in 2010 he released his third instrumental mixtape in a series, though calling it a mixtape discredits the amazing beats he has crafted on this album. El-P's dedication to early boom bap hip-hop is—as always—a present theme throughout this work, but his musicality finally has a chance to shine through fully.
Flying Lotus : Cosmogramma
Few electronic musicians grew up with notable avant-garde jazz greats in their family. As Alice Coltrane's nephew, Flying Lotus had a schooling in music at a young age. Still, that does nothing to explain his mastery of hip-hop, house and psychedelia. Cosmogramma is a textured, intricate, insanely awesome album.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy & The Cairo Gang: The Wonder Show of the World
Every so often, Will Oldham collaborates with another musician to round out his sound. His collab with Matt Sweeney, Superwolf, was deemed an instant classic, while his Tortoise collaboration didn't sit as well with the critics. With his last album, Beware, as a sort of tribute to the big full sound of those early Nashville albums, it seems strange to pair with the Cairo Gang and to explore a softer dynamic. The spaces in between the music on this album help define it as much as Oldham's poignant lyrics and simple melodies, and like all of Oldham's work, there's an inherent genius and complete understanding of early Americana that most people would sell their soul for.
The Sword caught flack for Gods of the Earth. Their stoner metal roots garnered them a following of stoner metal fans. When they dropped the low end, turned up the thrash, and went raw in their recording, they became the most insanely awesome imitation heavy metal band around. And you know I say that as a good thing. Real heavy metal bands have no self-awareness. The Sword has enough self-awareness to shift their sound to fit the content of their concept. For Warp Riders, a sci-fi-themed heavy metal album, they brought back the low end and sharpened their riffs with simplicity, late '70s hard rock, and a heavy helping of soaring leads. It's like Billy Squier Does Heavy Metal. Solid album, through and through.
Matt Pike has finally decided that he wants his albums to trample the listener with no remorse and no quarter. If you don't "get it," I feel really, really sorry for you. One of the only non-repenting, unapologetic heavy metal bands still in existence.
Spoon is the last Great American Rock and Roll band. It's true. Their song structures come straight out of the stoked fires of the late '60s, re-interpreting the British re-interpretation of early American rock and roll. If you have doubts, listen to "Trouble Comes Running," which could have been a Kinks B-side from '69. Year after year, Spoon really is showing the world that you can have massive appeal, and write really fucking great songs. You can hate all you want on Spoon, but they're still immensely more talented and better songwriters than your favorite band ever will be.
Aloha built their foundation with jazz-influenced prog-rock, and layered a modern indie rock band's sensibilities over it. While their previous albums may have been a little inaccessible for the common listener, Home Acres is the equivalent of their big stadium rock album. Straightforward melodies, spot-on arrangements, big hooks, and hyped-up rhythms. This time around, their foundation is "rock" solid (ugh, puns), and their proggy influences manifest themselves in the details. It's a sweet, solid listen for sure, and these guys are far from finished when it comes to redesigning American independent music.
Coliseum started as a fairly traditional thrash-influenced hardcore band. And then something started shifting. As Minor Threat begat Fugazi, Coliseum begat, well, Coliseum. Okay. Coliseum's self-titled album begat House with a Curse. Twelve songs that run the gamut from straight Motörhead-style riffing to angular guitar hooks to tambourine-laced poppy choruses and guest vocals from Will Oldham, to atmospheric interludes. Each song is crafted from start to finish with a nice sheen of polish; a band working smarter, not harder. It truly is a spectacular display of maturity of songwriting.
Aziz Ansari: Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening
Yeah, it's a comedy album. But it's more than that. This is a cultural milestone for our generation. You may not know this now, but homeboy here knocked it out of the park on his first major-released comedy album. He captures the zeitgeist of 2010 in his subsequent lampooning and admiration of notable genius musicians/crazy people Kanye West and R. Kelly. He touches on key current events, like Walking with Dinosaurs, and his cousin Darwish's fight with the previously mentioned Kanye West. He discusses and dissects the philosophical implications of impersonating someone else, and the ramifications of doing so on the Internet (namely Facebook, to torment his cousin Harris). Whatever. This album is beyond hilarious, and unlike most alternative comedy heavy-hitters, the appeal is 100% mainstream. You could play his joke about picking out sheets to your mom, and she would laugh. She might not appreciate the language, but this is one of those albums that just destroys a room. Aziz is one red leather jumpsuit away from Eddie Murphy's Raw, but his acquaintance Mr. West has already brought that back, so I think we're solid.
Sweet Cobra have always been the go-to guys for big riffs and Chicago-style fortitude (that is, deep dish, and served with a side of celery salt and no ketchup). With Mercy, the band took a deep breath, nutted up, and weaved bits and pieces of melodic interlude in between their punishing, never-ending, despairingly pounding riffs. And those quick sighs of relief in their songs only make the hard parts harder. Shortly after the completion of this album, guitarist Mat Arluck passed away from cancer, leaving this album as his legacy. And you know what? What a fucking legacy to have. To Mat: This is the best fucking album of the year, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. You are greatly missed.
Melvins had a good album this year, but failed to capture the magic of some of their past work. So it goes. It’s the Melvins. My Disco and Maserati both showcased some
great instrumental works, and Joanna Newsome got rid of the cat’s yowl and made a nice three-part record. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings can write a funky groove, but
there’s no modernity to it and they were sideswiped by the Budos Band this year for Daptone domination. Midlake’s new album was snoozier than it should have been,
and Neil Young’s guitar-only contribution was interesting, but not particularly great.
Hey, somebody figured out how to make hardcore interesting again Nothing too revolutionary—a stoner rock low end, crushing riffs, double-time phrases, and heavy breakdowns. At the end of the day, though, there's a bit of the magic to it. Just find yourself gang-shouting along in your head, and replaying that part when the bass hits the open strings and it sounds like a Harley revving up.
I considered lumping this in with the albums. It's 25 minutes long, and requires way more dedication and concentration to listen to than most of the year's 12-song albums. Fucked Up isn't a hardcore band—it's a band of record nerds making music for record nerds. Year of the Ox is a fantastic tribute to both Krautrock's relentless repetition, and the emotional power of orchestral strings and majestic, melodic leads. Such an immense undertaking, and such a fantastic payoff.
Torche has quickly become one of my favorite bands. Who are you to tell a sludge metal band that they can't write poppy, minute-long finger-snappin' ditties? Meanderthal expanded on their sludge metal roots by incorporating melody and harmony to the album—Songs for Singles is 21 minutes of positivity and toe-tappin', poppy rock tunes. Okay, it's a smarter album than that, but those of you waiting for another "Warship" probably shouldn't hold your breath. These dudes just jumped the cliff on the genre map, and their jeep is in unknown territory right now. And it couldn't be more awesome.
It’s been a strange and awesome year for music. Let’s hope it gets stranger and awesomer in 2011.