For the alternative/indie world, 2010 has been a banner year of excellence. From The National’s grandiloquent High Violet to The Tallest Man on Earth’s one-man powerhouse The Wild Hunt, 2010 has produced defining albums from well-known acts to stunning debut albums from artists who promise so much more in the future. In the sweeping praise that so many albums have garnered this year, it goes without saying that some things got left behind, some things that, in less impressive years, may have risen to the top of the blogosphere. This blog will attempt to bring to light some of the lesser-known highlights of 2010.
Daniel Bjarnason – Processions [Symphonic/Classical]
We begin in February with Daníel Bjarnason’s Processions, an album that I have praised for months now–from posting the opening movement “Sorrow conquers happiness” from his multi-tracked cello suite Bow to String to reviewing the album with high praise. Yet, I cannot give this album enough praise, standing in the same echelon of excellence as High Violet, The Wild Hunt, The Archandroid, and all of the other albums that we have heard over and over. The album dances between bombastic and aggressive to hauntingly minimal, as if Max Richter decided to borrow from Stravinsky instead of Glass. In addition to Bjarnason’s brilliant compositional skills, the performers on the album (including the Iceland Symphony Orchestra) are first-rate, an indication that Iceland’s music scene goes far beyond Sigur Rós and Björk, and it is not going away anytime soon. Posted here is one of the more minimal pieces for harp and percussion, “Skelja.”
Jack Rose – Luck in the Valley [Americana/Bluegrass]
Also released in February was the late Jack Rose’s Luck in the Valley. Most will know Jack Rose from the noise rock band Pelt, but Rose’s solo material deviates entirely from Pelt’s catalogue. Instead, Rose dabbled in Americana, though throwing in a tinge of Sir Richard Bishop’s Eastern stylings with just as much virtuosity as the self-proclaimed knight. Luck in the Valley, recorded in 2009 just before Rose passed away due to a heart attack, may be his best release since his landmark Kensington Blues. Rose composes new material as well as he reinterprets bluegrass classics like “Saint Louis Blues” by W.C. Hardy, and any serious guitarist should take a listen to some of the best Americana released in a long time. Rose performs with virtuosity without taking away from melodic or harmonic beauty, creating truly resplendent music time and time again. Posted here is the first track off the album, the improvisational “Blues for Percy Danforth”, as much Americana as it is Indian raga.
Mimicking Birds – Mimicking Birds [Folk/Indie]
Surprisingly underpublicized is the self-titled debut album from Mimicking Birds, the project of Nate Lacy. I say surprisingly because the album falls right in the wheelhouse of Pitchfork-induced hype, as Lacy was “discovered” and bumped by none other than Modest Mouse’s Issac Brock. Lacy channels the best of Iron and Wine with a dash of OK Computer-era Radiohead for quiet folk numbers that either wrap their bony spines around the listener or expand into full opuses, depending on Lacy’s mood. “The Loop” is of the former category, a quiet piece based on a repetitive guitar pattern, sprinkled with bells and indistinguishable ambient sounds, and Lacy’s wavering croon.
Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy [Pop/Indie]
A Sputnik staff favorite, Shugo Tokumaru, released another album in April that has received little publicity despite three 4/5 ratings from staffers (and I haven’t rated it yet). Port Entropy is full of the kind of excellence we have come to expect from Shugo–bizarre instrumentation, wacky rhythms, and in the end, melodies that you will sing to yourself for weeks to come. Songs like “Orange” keep in line with the more ballad-like pieces that fans of Shugo often come to love more than the catchier, poppier numbers. Essentially, Port Entropy is yet another Shugo Tokumaru album, but his incredibly unique and endearing style keeps his music from growing stale. And seriously, “Orange” is gorgeous. Here, however, is one of the catchier pieces, “Rum Hee”, with a video that shows Shugo in various realms–live, studio, and djembe shopping–and portrays him exactly as you’d imagine him: some skinny Japanese hipster who looks afraid to utter a word.
Year of No Light – Ausserwelt [Post-Metal]
Sputnik’s resident metalheads might enjoy Year of No Light’s Ausserwelt, a completely instrumental post-metal release in the vein of Isis, Neurosis, and [enter post-metal band here]. What keeps Year of No Light fresh is the production of the album, mastering down-tuned guitars better than Deftones do on Diamond Eyes. Despite the loose strings, Year of No Light keeps every crystal clear, never relying purely on the heaviness of the music to convey their point. This is a melodically-based post-metal band, something the world has not heard in quite such abundance as is presented on Ausserwelt. The combination of more emphasized harmonic and melodic structures with the incredible sound the band puts out makes for a disturbingly haunting release. Here, I’ve posted the shortest track on the album, a mere 9:46, the second part of the suite “Persephone”.
Hammock – Chasing with the Shadows…Living with the Ghosts [Post-Rock/Ambient]
Where Year of No Light haunts, Hammock inspires. For years, Hammock has been making their distinctive brand of post-rock/ambient music, combining ethereal vocals with reverb-laden guitars, splashy drums, and melodies to send chills–the pretty kind of chills–down your spine. In all honesty, this should be completely banal music, but Hammock’s brilliance is that they make the major -keyed feel-good songs have just as much power as the rest of their contemporaries’ bleaker pieces. Chasing After Shadows…Living with the Ghosts builds upon their previous two releases, taking the basic foundation of the landmark Raising Your Voice…Trying to Stop an Echo (the similarities in the album titles are almost comical) and embellishing it with the completely ambient experiments on Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow. The result is a multi-dimensional album that is quite simply the most gorgeous album released all year. A few weeks back, I posted the video for “Breathturn”, and instead of posting another song, I’m just going to post that video again. It’s too good to avoid.
Konono N°1 – Assume Crash Position [Bazombo Trance/World]
In world music, Konono N°1 have stolen the crown, despite a Toumani Diabate release, for the best so far this year. Their latest album, Assume Crash Position, is a Phish jam record for the Congolese music scene. Their instrument of choice, amidst their flurry of percussion, whistles, and various vocalists, is the electric likembé, an instrument similar to the thumb piano. In terms of percussion, they are best known for their work with Björk on “Earth Intruders.” The album is uptempo, euphoric, and always impressive. But trying to describe it won’t do; listen to “Guiyome” for a pick-me-up.
Lorn – Nothing Else [trip-hop/electronica]
Flying Lotus’s label Brainfeeder just released Lorn’s Nothing Else, an album that takes all of the ambiance-centric brilliance of Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma and puts it in a context more akin to The Flashbulb on a bad trip. Just as with Cosmogramma, the brilliance of Nothing Else is its consistency. The punishing basslines are always effective, and the variety in the beats throughout the album assures that the music never grows dull. Sometimes aggressive in the vein of Venetian Snares and sometimes more repressed, allowing the synths to take center stage. “Cherry Moon” is one of the more synth-centric songs, a more extended cut that envelops rather than punishes.
Ólafur Arnalds – …and they have escaped the weight of darkness [minimalist classical]
In the same Icelandic classical vein as Daníel Bjarnason but more focused on the minimal, tonal side of the spectrum is Ólafur Arnalds, who has been making waves in the scene for a few years now. …and they have escaped the weight of darkness is easily his most purposeful, complete statement yet, an uplifting escape from a dark tunnel, composed in a way very similar to The Roots’ How I Got Over. In fact, this theme seems to be a popular theme in a lot of 2010’s music, but I digress. …and they have escaped the weight of darkness is more of what we have come to expect from Arnalds, a beautiful combination of piano, strings, and electronics to make an album that could not better summarize the warmth that comes out of Iceland’s music scene. Posted here is “Þau hafa sloppið undan þunga myrkursins,” which is the title of the album in Icelandic. It is the closing song on the album, a final release from the despair that begins the album.