Thursday, July 1, 2010

Halftime Report: 2010

God, this year is getting away from me fast. It really does not feel like 2010 should be half over already, but there you have it. As is my annual tradition, it's time to revisit some of my favorite new music from the past six months, as well as briefly look forward to some Stuff of Promise that might crop up between now and December 31.

Ten favorite songs of the year so far, five favorite albums. Let's do it!

The Songs:
10. Owen Pallett, "Lewis Takes off His Shirt"
Owen Pallett, formerly known as Final Fantasy and also the man responsible for Arcade Fire's string arrangements, is a gay Canadian violinist who has recently discovered the joys of electronic pop. Let's be honest: this song sounds exactly like you'd expect it to. That it is also tremendous goes without saying.

9. The Golden Filter, "Frejya's Ghost"
If Perfume Tree made electropop, it would probably sound something like this. Now, if the world were a just place and people actually knew who the hell Perfume Tree was, this statement would carry a lot more weight. Suffice it to say, "Frejya's Ghost" is a gorgeous and even somewhat eerie foray into atmospheric disco, with an enchanting vocalist who makes her singing feel effortless.

8. Go Periscope, "Crush Me"
They're cute, too. See, I have no dignity.

7. Foals, "Black Gold"
The obligatory favorite track from the new Foals album. I know I'm "supposed" to give this award to "Miami" or "Spanish Sahara" (both fantastic songs in their own right, mind), but there's something about that "they buried the gold..." bridge that I just can't deny. So be it.

6. Gorillaz, "Stylo" and "Rhinestone Eyes"
I couldn't choose just one. But listen, you've got to understand my position: how did Damon Albarn's so-called "virtual hip-hop" side project (essentially just created as a lark about a decade ago while he tried to figure out what to do with Blur) become not only the best act in their field, but also one of the best singles bands of any discipline from the past decade? It blows my mind. And it's no small compliment when I say that these two tracks easily hold their own with the best stuff the band has recorded.

5. Yeasayer, "O.N.E."
I justify the absence of this song from my life until just recently by reminding myself that this is, indeed, the perfect Summer Anthem and that any prior exposure would have probably diminished said summery effect. Or something. Glorious retro-80s dance-pop; the last sixty seconds pretty much kill me every time.

4. De/Vision, "Flash of Life"
I'm running out of clever ways to say "this song is good." This song, my personal favorite from a very consistent and even album, is good. If you like synth-pop, there's a really good chance you'll enjoy this. If you don't, there's a really good chance you won't. That's pretty much as simple as I can make it.

3. Brighten, "Without You"
Y'know, I'm still not entirely sure why I like this so much, but maybe that's part of its charm. It's catchy and it's sweet and it makes me wish the nine thousand other bands that sound like this could be even a fraction as enjoyable.

2. The National, "Lemonworld"
The National's genius lies in the fact that they are masters of twenty-something everyman angst. Tons of artists whine about relationships and loneliness and sorrow, but few -- if any -- capture life's day-to-day ennui with the same poignance as Matt Berninger & co. "Lemonworld" is a song that feels like it could have been written about my life (the "this pricey stuff..." verse hits especially close to home), and while such an admission is not particularly flattering for me, it goes a hell of a long way to showing how deeply this music has moved me.

1. Wolf Parade, "Cloud Shadow on the Mountain"
As solid a #1 as there can be, Spencer Krug's surreal, frenetic jam may be his single finest track since 2007's "The Mending of the Gown." As usual, I don't have the slightest clue what the hell his (characteristically wonderful) lyrics are supposed to mean, but I can sleep soundly at night knowing my life would be woefully incomplete without them.

The Albums:
5. Wolf Parade, Expo 86
There's little doubt in my mind that, taken as a whole, Expo 86 is the weakest entry in the Wolf Parade canon thus far (but look what it's up against, eh?). Still, it's a textbook example of an album where the weak tracks ("Palm Road," "Two Men in New Tuxedos," and so forth) are vastly overshadowed by the best material: "Ghost Pressure" may well be the best song Dan Boeckner has ever written, while Spencer Krug's "Cloud Shadow on the Mountain" and "What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)" are staggering additions his already inhuman resume. No, it's not an album I see myself listening to from start to finish very often, but its best moments stand with the band's strongest material. And that's high praise.

4. The National, High Violet
If their (still ridiculously good) 2007 breakthrough Boxer was the sound of The National proving that their signature brand of understated, moody indie-rock was compatible with the world at large, then High Violet shows the band capitalizing on those strengths and making their biggest, lushest collection of songs to date. It, like all National albums, took a few listens to grow on me, but now I'm firmly under its spell. I'd even hasten to say that it's the best record these guys have made.

3. De/Vision, Popgefahr
If Depeche Mode hadn't lost it after Violator, this is the kind of album I could imagine them making in 2010. Popgefahr is 45 minutes of slick, enjoyable, semi-darkwave synth-pop with a keen ear for melody and tons of danceability. So, uh, what more do you need, exactly?

2. Foals, Total Life Forever
Something happened to Foals. Their hipster barbecue-ready Antitodes was one of the funnest, most enjoyable albums of '08, but never in a million years would I have thought that that band was capable of making something like Total Life Forever. Play "Spanish Sahara" back to back with "Cassius" and you'll see what I mean: the bouncy, prickly math-rock that used to define their sound has been replaced by a dark, lush, restrained beauty. While they still allow themselves a little levity ("Miami" and "This Orient," while lyrically downbeat, are excellent pop singles), the overall growth and maturity on display are unmissable. The fact that no one saw it coming just adds to the thrill: it's the year's biggest surprise so far, and just a damn fine album.

1. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
The more I listen to this, the more I realize that I can't get enough of it. The whole 80s revivalism thing has been going on for years, but rarely with the creativity and exuberance that Yeasayer show here. While the vaguely Animal Collective-ish progressive elements help to keep the songs interesting, it's the overall quality of the songwriting that really makes the album soar. Of course "O.N.E." and "Madder Red" are essential listening, but even the dumb schlocky tracks like "Rome" and "Mondegreen" are immensely satisfying. Sure, Odd Blood may suffer from a little bit of an identity crisis, but against all odds I think it's actually better for it. Simply put, this is what synth-pop should sound like in the year 2010.

Honorable Mentions: Broken Social Scene (Forgiveness Rock Record), The Golden Filter (Voluspa), Gorillaz (Plastic Beach), Minus the Bear (Omni), The Radio Dept. (Clinging to a Scheme).

And, of course...
People Who Have Promised Us New Stuff in the Latter Half of 2010: Arcade Fire, Ashbury Heights, Interpol, Of Montreal, Panda Bear, Pure Reason Revolution, Radiohead(!).

See you in six months when I do this to myself for the entire year. It should be exciting, and it will happen sooner than you think. 'Til then!

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