As 2010 grilled our patience for new Glassjaw material from crispy to charred, we got a record from California’s Letlive that was arguably just as good as anything the former ever released. Fake History might not have Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence’s cathartic, slightly uncomfortable angst or Worship and Tribute’s deranged perfection, but what Letlive ape from their most obvious influence they amplify, polish, and release with more honesty and heart than Daryl Palumbo’s cryptic lyrics and ironic vocal style could ever allow. Letlive don’t shy away from cheese – lead singer Jason Butler’s clean vocals have more than a hint of Claudio Sanchez – but they’re not winking as they indulge in it. Fake History oozes passion, Letlive selling rage as though they are under the impression that they’re the last angry band out there. And though there’s not much density to the album, there doesn’t need to be. Letlive remind us that sometimes you don’t have to give an album a great deal of thought for it to be all sorts of awesome. - Adam D.
Modern classical composers live in a strange world, floating between a world of academia where they strive for acceptance and a world of increasingly disengaged citizens who haven’t even heard Beethoven’s 5th in its entirety. Composers have tried to transcend this gap with more accessible instrumentation and song structures, but perhaps it is the route of Iceland’s Daniel Bjarnason that will prove most fortuitous. On Processions, Bjarnason composes a suite of multi-tracked cello movements, a piano concerto with full orchestra, and a chamber piece for harp and percussion–standard classical in both instrumentation and structure. Bjarnason’s closest relative, tonally, is either Stravinsky circa Petroushka or Debussy, depending on his mood. Yet Processions connects with more ordinary listeners solely on the visceral quality of its compositions. Rage and serenity become Bjarnason’s key binary, as he injects both qualities into each of his compositions, perhaps partly inspired by his native country’s financial collapse and natural landscape. These are emotions that listeners empathize with and undoubtedly feel in Bjarnason’s music, no matter how atonal he gets. - Tyler F.
A lot of bands have reformed recently in order to give the metal scene a second try, and Atheist are one of the biggest names. The difference between Atheist and a lot of these other artists is that Atheist have come back more pissed off, more intense and more technical than ever. There are going to be those who claim that they remained within their comfort zone, but if chaotic riffs and an unrelenting attack are comforting then more power to them. Jupiter may take a while to finally click, but when it does the sheer amount of jaw-dropping power combined with an uncanny ability to make the songs catchy becomes readily apparent. - Trey S.
A number of blue chip electronic musicians pushed their style towards the more organic and minimalist in 2010. Big names like Four Tet, Caribou, Bonobo, and Pantha du Prince sampled chant vocals, forest sounds, and even field recordings from the Swiss Alps, all in an attempt to inject their music with the inimitable hum of naturalistic sounds. No matter how well-intentioned, these stylistic forays all sound like child’s play next to Gold Panda’s Lucky Shiner, an album that truly captures this characteristic placidity and breath-like quality and even adds its own personal touch. From the vibraphone fill on ‘You’ to the wild raga of ‘India Lately’ Gold Panda breathes life into synthetic sounds better than any other artist this year. - Nick G.
Dead Letter Circus shoot straight to the top of the burgeoning Australian alternative-rock scene following the release of their long-awaited debut LP This Is The Warning. Building on the promise of their earlier EPs, the Brisbane quintet produce a number of stunning moments over the album’s 53 minutes. Especially impressive are the way in which the soaring melodies of Kim Benzie’s astounding vocals & Rob Maric’s delay-soaked guitar somehow combine exquisitely with a thumping rhythm section. While the crossover appeal apparent here was proved by its surprise #2 debut in the Australian charts, the additional variety provided by the increased use of spacey synths on a handful of expansively experimental cuts tops This Is The Warning off excellently. - Davey B.
To create Tomorrow, in a Year, three separate artists (The Knife, Planningtorock and Mt. Sims) came together to write an opera for the stage based on Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, working separately from the choreographers and those in set design and meeting together to create the final piece. Those outside of Europe can only sneak peeks of the finished production through clips online, but the magnitude of the piece is housed in this monolithic soundtrack. For its hour-plus running length, the opera’s singers wade through amorphous clatter, threatened by great swells of drones and noises so warped they sound as if they were programmed by animals. It ebbs and flows, methodically building toward a second act steeped in resplendent pop panache of such skill that one is best left to earn its wonders through the album’s preceding (and far more challenging) act. The Knife have made a name for themselves by providing great electro-pop tunes that adorn gloom and repressed sexuality with an intoxicating responsibility, and here they take that energy and consider the birth of man as only computers and animals could tell it. - Lewis P.
It feels strange to praise an emotional hardcore band for having restraint but Quiet Steps, like their droning, groovy countrymates Ohana and the midtempo and subdued Sinaloa, take the edge off of hardcore’s slinky riffs, shouting, and pulsating rhythms to great effect. Tempos are reduced and sensations are muted, but this compression of dynamic and emotional range actually opens up the band’s sound rather than constricting it. Instead of swinging wildly between soft and loud sections, Quiet Steps do just what their name implies and continuously transform their songs until they become tense, overwrought pieces that resolve in controlled mature crescendos. - Nick G.
Tera Melos left three years between their last original release, Complex Full of Phantoms, and Patagonian Rats. In that time they found a new drummer, put out an esoteric comedy movie called Snakeville, released a slapstick cover EP called Idioms, vol. 1, and published videos about making Kombucha with roadie pubes. For any other band this absurd, circuitous path would translate to failure. Only Tera Melos could reinvent themselves from a catchy but abstract math rock group to an even catchier surf-rock via pop punk band and have the result be stupidly perfect. The lo-fi production, bouncy instrumental performances, and silly attitude give this album a carefree bliss that transforms the bleakest days into the summer days of my youth full of ice cream sandwiches and skate sessions. - Nick G.
American Slang is a signal of hope that well into this new century good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll will continue to survive. It’s the kind of blue collar tradition that made legends out of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Fogerty. On prior Gaslight Anthem albums, singer Brian Fallon seemed caught in a web of white picket fence nostalgia, but with American Slang he has emerged as his own man. He pleads his case in ‘Old Haunts’ with the line, “So don’t sing me your songs about the good times. Those days are gone and you should just let them go,” and in the process firmly establishes himself as the most down to earth up and coming rock star of his generation. – Adam T.
It seemed impossible for an album to be more confusing, challenging, and complex than the twisted avant-garde of Extra Life’s 2008 debut Secular Works was, but Charlie Looker achieved that very feat two years later with Made Flesh. Made Flesh saw the group experimenting further with synthesisers (‘Voluptuous Life’), pop structures (‘Black Hoodie’), and subtle melody (‘One of Your Whores’), being more heavy, energetic, and expansive, and yet even more personal than Secular Works. With his combination of pop melody, progressive and avant-garde structure, brutal rhythmic patterns, melismatic Medieval vocal performances, strange lyrical ideas and twisty, grandiose compositions played by deceptively small ensembles, Charlie Looker’s musical vision is a truly singular one. More than anything, Made Flesh cements his status as a key composer and performer of the 21st century. - Andrew H.
Given what’s happened to Deftones over the course of the past two years, you’d be forgiven for being surprised that this album was made at all. Yet from adversity comes triumph – not only does Diamond Eyes exist, it’s also excellent. Even beyond its origins, it’s an album of contradictions: it’s their freest and rawest sounding album since Adrenaline, yet if the band are to be believed it’s the one that required the most work, as their decision to abandon Pro Tools forced them to sharpen up their musicianship like never before. Yet despite the changes in approach and personnel it remains, above all, a classic Deftones album – one that finds sensitivity and finesse amidst its heaviness, and shows off some of the most intelligent dynamic control in music right now. They’ve now outlasted and outplayed their competitors so thoroughly that it’s tempting to wonder if they ever really had any in the first place. - Nick B.
Despite Teen Dream’s early release this year, indie pop duo Beach House left an impression lasting enough to endure throughout the year. Within Teen Dream, each passing second relays this sensation of melting into dreaminess of each track that provides a remarkably easy listen. The thematic opener ‘Zebra’ slowly drifts as climaxes are dictated by vocal dynamics, simple strums and sliding guitar riffs. Meanwhile, tracks like ‘10 Mile Stereo’ and ‘Used To Be’ showcase Victoria Legrand’s mesmerizing voice while providing a subtle diversity among tracks. Most of all, there is a therapeutic vibe throughout Teen Dream, as if this album was made to make everything feel right again within ourselves. - Ryan F.
Prog and black metal have never been the most comfortable of bedfellows, but a number of black metal acts (particularly the Norwegians) have made something of a cottage industry from the unlikely combination. Head and shoulders above their peers stand Enslaved and, now into their 20th year, the sheep-downloading quintet have produced their greatest record to date in Axioma Ethica Odini. Marrying the bleak moods and harsh tones of black metal with the lush smoothness and melodic sophistication of prog’s golden era, Axioma Ethica Odini is positively invigorating. The record’s 58 minutes breeze by in an instant and give a timely reminder that the genre of black metal still has plenty of new directions to follow and avenues to explore. - Dave D.
Ire Works was a good, risky album, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Option Paralysis in the way that the latter weaves experimentation, catchy melodies, and brutality so fluidly and expertly. While it might not be a classic, it’s definitely the closest the Dillinger Escape Plan have come since Greg Puciato joined the band, and that’s saying a lot given how far they’ve come. They’ve lost musician after musician, but the creativity has never departed from one of the most hailed bands in the hardcore/metal scene. - Channing F.
In a year where Inception cast such a huge shadow over cinema, it’s only fitting that one of the year’s most talked-about and well-recieved new bands also play around with the idea of dreams. There’s hardly been a review of Love Remains that hasn’t mentioned the hazy atmosphere it creates, its offbeat R&B-fuelled nostalgia blurring the boundaries between imagination and reality, between memory and fiction. For any indie fan that grew up in a world where a Jodeci, En Vogue, Boyz II Men, SWV, or Blackstreet was on every radio and TV station, it’s remarkable how well-judged this is: How to Dress Well have got a eerie knack of making original material sound like samples you’ve known for years. A reminder of a more innocent, simpler time for us all? No wonder people went nuts for it. - Nick B.
Whereas Kanye West and Big Boi stole all the hip-hop critical acclaim and publicity this year, Vessel was the little rap record that could, flying under the radar and stealthily staking its claim as one of the best albums in the genre. Vessel is an apt name; Dark Time Sunshine takes you on a trip through the furthest fringes of the hip-hop universe, a sector populated by likeminded pioneers like Aesop Rock and P.O.S but still its own unique, innovative beast. This isn’t nerd rap or hip hop that’s unpalatable to the average fan; MC Onry Ozzborne is easy to understand and even easier to listen to, weaving engaging tales as he does on ‘E.R’ and ‘Little Or No Concern,’ while producer Zavala runs the gamut from the propulsive, tribal ‘Defender’ to the psychedelic layers of ‘All Aboard’ without a dud to be found. This is a trailblazer for the new decade, a road map of where hip-hop can go and what it can do, and the kind of release that makes you believe that, yes, there always is something new under the sun. - Rudy K.
During midsummer, when Sufjan Stevens abruptly announced and subsequently dropped All Delighted People, it was viewed as one of the best-kept secrets in the music world this year. It took all of a day to remove that title, as it became a trending topic on Twitter and appeared in the top 50 of the Billboard 200. All Delighted People provides a stark contrast to The Age of Adz, as it is a darker, more emotionally brimming piece whereas The Age of Adz is rather jovial and enticing. All Delighted People sees Sufjan Stevens provide a transitional album that proves its merit with grand compositions such as ‘All Delighted People (Original Version).’ Most importantly, it shows Sufjan Stevens’ capabilities free of any concept, and he undoubtedly passes the test. - Ryan F.
There seems to be opposing logic at work within Public Strain, how the band seem content to break out of the comfortable formalities we’ve come to understand in indie rock, even as they possess and display a great personal knowledge of how the whole indulgent spectacle works. That all means very little; just more critical analysis, more public strain on a band that are really just writing bleary, post-punk kind-of rock as they wish. It’s lost in a blizzard of anonymity, self-encased in a repellent vibe that clears the room for everyone else. One will think of Sonic Youth and Unwound, call out Deerhunter for letting ‘Eyesore’ get away from them, wonder what the hell these guys are even saying, recollect only the hazy mumblings of a man, a boy, some singer with a distant howl, “Can’t you see?” See what?Public Strain lacks decipherable content; we add personal context. Women asks us to feel as the bass drum kicks off dirt only to reveal more grime, but yet, beneath the grime, there comes the shimmering dust of public strain settling into our lungs until we cough up a laugh from pure exhaustion. Public Strain is kind of like that, when it blooms into a dust cloud so large that ‘Eyesore’ can only blast rays of light through it, creating solid beams out of nothing. And in there, I see Public Strain. - Lewis P.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Parades’ debut record, Foreign Tapes, is just how dynamic it is. It’s certainly an ambitious effort, but the Australian quartet don’t let that affect their ability to pen intimate pieces. Foreign Tapes has its fair share of complex songs, with the six minute ‘Marigold’ coming immediately to mind yet, despite this, it’s one of the year’s easiest listens. Chalk that up to Parades’ genre-bending incorporation of indie pop, electronic music and post-rock, the male/female vocal trade-offs used in several of the tracks, or the band’s knack for excellent song writing: the point is that Foreign Tapes is a joy to listen to. That Foreign Tapes accomplishes this while remaining original and innovative is what makes it such a special album. - Mike S.
When a band release a debut LP as accomplished & magical as Funeral, the critical magnifying glass is sure to hover over them for the remainder of their career. If Arcade Fire’s superb third album The Suburbs is anything to go by however, then such examination will only motivate them to reach greater heights. Displaying a deft balance of personal intimacy and grand accessibility, The Suburbs is ambitious, yet accessible, epic without being pretentious. The Montreal septet include greater diversity and more varied inspirations on this well-produced and densely-layered album, where the splendidly crafted attention to detail seemingly culminates in effortless melodies appearing from nowhere. The absorbingly honest theme of questioning reminiscing results in a mature (almost parental) album that may not appeal to teenagers and should therefore age strongly. At 64 minutes it could have done with some editing, but otherwise The Suburbs deservedly fuels more “world’s best band” talk for Arcade Fire. - DaveyBoy