Few voices this year surprised and intrigued me as much as Paul Saulnier’s. With an uncontrolled focus, he sings like the lovechild of Mick Jagger and Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug, equal parts sexy and manic. You can hear a wavering discomfort and lack of confidence in each word, and yet they’re belted, full-throated, as if to compensate for the nasally uncertainty underneath.
That his voice is paired with an engaging garage rock record only served to seal the deal. With a sound ripped out of the 1990s (see Jr., Dinosaur) Meet Me at the Muster Station finds the Kingston, Ontario two-piece attacking distorted riffs with abandon, filling the speakers with rumble even when they turn the volume down a notch. Though Saulnier is clearly the focus, take heed of Benjamin Nelson’s drumming: he sets the blistering pace that Saulnier’s voice breaks itself to keep up with.
Though I have a great affection for the Magnetic Fields, they’re not the easiest band to dance to, aside from the occasionally waltz-y ballad. So their turf was rife for a newcomer to come in, take Stephen Merritt’s early forays into synth-based melody and make a no-bones-about-it electro party out of them. Even better, how about a newcomer equally as adept at sexual ambiguity?
John O’s Diamond Rings project first made a splash with the stunning “All Yr Songs,” which would easily be this decade’s greatest love song had it not first been first released last year. That nothing else on Special Affections reaches that plateau is neither surprising nor disappointing; if anything, it’s exciting, as John O is interested in working within a much broader pop spectrum. Much of the album has a dark edge, feels a bit twisted, but every bit as playful as his white-hip-hop-meets-glam-rock image.
We tend to value effort in pop and rock criticism—the demonstration that someone is pushing themselves to the breaking point to try and achieve something bigger than themselves. For example, this is why Sgt. Pepper’s and Revolver are considered The Beatles’ greatest albums, and why the rock-solid-but-familiar A Hard Day’s Night is generally located much lower on “best of all time” lists. Still, though, shouldn’t there be a place for records that aren’t necessarily challenging but are confident in what they do? That may not reinvent the wheel but which are pretty friggin’ good at getting places?
Majesty Shredding was the most effortless-sounding album of the year, masking that Superchunk’s first record in almost a decade probably took a fair bit of work. That instant confidence and familiarity threatens to make the collection seem unassuming…except that it whoops so much ass. It kicks quick and kicks hard, somehow avoiding the two pitfalls of the comeback album: being too nostalgic or trying too hard to be cool. And that’s why its confidence is its greatest asset.
It’s somewhat fitting that Heartland aligned with the point where Square-Enix finally realized that there was this violinist songwriter in Canada becoming kind of a big deal who just happened to be named after one of their biggest video game franchises. I always felt the Final Fantasy moniker was a bit silly, myself, so I wasn’t sad to see it gone. More importantly, though, it meant that Pallett’s own name would be attached to his most sprawling, personal and undoubtedly best work.
That sense of ownership flows through Heartland. Pallett’s live performances have been knocking me out for years now, but Heartland is the first album that captures their weight on the record. It ebbs and flows, pop sensibilities intact, while broadening the palette to include keyboard patterns and enough string accompaniment that the tinny sound of previous albums is long gone, replaced by the force of true orchestral might. The coda of “The Great Elsewhere” is one of the few musical moments of the year to actually leave me speechless; I had to pause my iPod in the coffee shop just to catch my breath.
Arguably 2010’s most difficult first listen, The Age of Adz was such a huge aesthetic break from Stevens’ trademark orchestral folk that it seemed almost impenetrable in the first 80 minutes spent with it. By the time that you got to “Impossible Soul” and the album’s biggest WTF moment—ummm…autotune?—I wouldn’t necessarily blame listeners for half-thinking Stevens might have gone the way of Royal Robertson, the mentally-unstable schizophrenic artist whose work inspired the design and many of the album’s lyrics.
But here’s the rub: once you strip away the drum machines and synthesizers, and come around to the shockingly-direct lyrics, The Age of Adz really isn’t that big a shift for Stevens. The song structures, the melodies…they’re not all that far distant from Illinois or Michigan. And once you find the familiar beneath the surface, the album’s frustrations fade away and it becomes one of the year’s most refreshing works, with Stevens redefining himself and his style while still creating something deeply human with his new walls of sound.
Tomorrow…the final 5!
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