(From yesterday: albums 25-16)
There were a lot of comparisons made between Surfer Blood and Weezer when Astro Blood hit the streets back in January, so perhaps it’s worth considering why it’s on this list instead of, say, Hurley. After all, Surfer Blood are clearly playing in Weezer’s alt-pop turf, with tight riffs that recall Rivers Cuomo and company at their finest. But Weezer have spent the past decade ripping surprise out of their playbook, choosing instead for a depressingly workman-like commitment to empty hooks.
In contrast, there are twists around every turn on Astro Coast: the bouncy jangle of “Take it Easy,” the grooves of “Harmonix” or the overly-fuzzed patience of “Slow Jabroni.” Most important, the second half of the album is a slow-burn revelation, keeping the hooks tight but making them less immediate. If anything, it recalls Pavement as much as Weezer, suggesting that Surfer Blood’s greatest victory may be in bridging the gap between mainstream and indie 1990s alternative rock.
I wasn’t super keen on Challengers when it first came out, and it might remain my least favourite New Pornographers album, but it’s an important one in the band’s catalogue. With Twin Cinema seemingly pushing the band’s power pop formula to its pitch-perfect climax, they had to try something different, and Challengers felt like Carl Newman and the band laying a lot of directions on the table to see where to go next.
Enter Together to reconcile those competing directions, connecting the band’s increasing taste for skillful subtlety with the wall of sound that we first fell for a decade ago. The secret is in the liberal use of a string section, which sutures the entire package at the seams. Suddenly, everything that sounded divided on Challengers felt harmonious again; the album is loud, sweet, powerful, soulful and quirky, all at the same time and all making sense. In that way, Together is perhaps 2010’s most aptly titled album.
When I was in my late teens, I fell pretty hard for Montreal’s godspeed you! black emperor, in part because they were my first real exposure to soundscapes: the idea that well-placed noise could be every bit as musical as rhythm and melody. It also crippled my belief—once steadfast—that the sign of a great piece of music was that you could strip it to an acoustic guitar and it would still sound great. That’s just stupid. Sound matters.
The power of sound is even more pronounced when it comes from a band that knows the power of melody. Montreal’s Besnard Lakes may be better than anyone else in Canada at fusing beauty and brawn, harmony and dissonance. Like the Beach Boys filtered through My Bloody Valentine, the band’s songs stay earthy while they add piles and piles of ethereal, reverberated sound to the mix. Throw in a bit of angry force and you end up with something colossal.
Despite the demassification of music journalism online, there’s a great deal of consensus on year-end lists such as these (for a variety of reasons). Mine is no exception, with the vast majority of my selections making regular appearances on other notable lists, though not necessary with the same priority. For the most part, I’m comfortable with this—denying great music for the sake of contrarianism would just feel forced—but it does produce a weird gut double-check when you give high placement to an album that you don’t see anyone else talking about.
But few albums from the early months of 2010 stand out as strongly to me as Woodpigeon’s third album, which provided the sprawling, harmonic collection of folk music that Sufjan Stevens eschewed this year. With his breakable voice unable to carry the weight of his ambition by itself, Calgary’s Mark Hamilton uses instrumentation to provide scope, with arrangements that stay novel and surprising without getting unnecessarily fussy. It’s not a challenging album, but its comfort in its own beauty leaves the listener feeling sad, warm and welcome.
I struggle sometimes with whether I love Gaslight Anthem more than I love their music. That’s not meant as a slag—I am kind of head-over-heels for their shamelessly-intertextual rock and roll revue—but more as a suggestion that what we want from a band can sometimes colour what they actually give us (more on this later). American Slang spent a great deal of time on my turntable this year, but is that a sign of its objective value? Is any of this objective?
I think it can be. And I think American Slang is pretty great, in large part because it demonstrates that Gaslight Anthem aren’t quite the one-trick stallion I once worried they might be. Their Springsteen-meets-Replacements formula gets thrown for a loop as the band dives deeper into the great American songbook, pulling out echoes of Van Morrison, John Fogerty and countless others. Best of all, Brian Fallon pushes his voice to the limits, digging down to belt out the album’s ten knockouts with a soulfulness far beyond his years.
Tomorrow, albums 10-6…
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