From the opening notes to the very end, High Violet continually strikes that tricky balance that the National is known for — somehow sounding dazed and tense at the same time. The National has made some great records before, particularly 2007’s Boxer, but this one feels like an almost perfect distillation of its tightly wound, tamped-down anthems. Unsettling phobias run through the lyrics about ghosts, zombies, circus geeks and swarms of bees, but the majestic music feels more like a tonic to scare off the fear.
San Francisco singer-songwriter and all-round musical genius Kelley Stoltz has made a string of top-notch records that hearken back to the golden era of the ’60s, playing most of the instruments himself. His latest record continues in that vein, but it leans more toward the Kinks and the Troggs, with the rawer sounds of ’60s garage rock. The compositions are still beautiful, with smart chord changes and guitar and bass lines that accomplish so much in a few simple turns, but it’s all a bit rougher around the edges. There’s one cover, a catchy take on an obscure 1965 British single, “Baby I’ve Got News For You,” by Big Boy Pete — and it’s a terrific match with Stoltz’s originals.
Will Oldham, who most often calls himself Bonnie “Prince” Billy these days, is one highly prolific singer-songwriter, with a complex, hard-to-track discography. He’s been on something of a roll with his last several recordings, and the latest is one of his best yet, a collaboration with the Cairo Gang, otherwise known as Emmett Kelly, a talented Chicago musician with a sensitive approach to playing the guitar. When the two of them play live together (something that really ought to be seen), you can feel how they’re feeding off one another. And that comes through on this strong set of 10 mostly acoustic songs. In a review earlier this year for Signal to Noise magazine, I wrote: Oldham has never sung better, gently catching all the subtle nuances of his melodies. His lyrics read like poetry on the page, but somehow even his archaic turns of phrase feel natural when he sings them. … Oldham dares to let his mind take him to places other songwriters avoid. On the last track, the elegiac “Kids,” he sings from the perspective of an aging man who’s afraid of moving, fearful of losing his ability to sing. If anything, Oldham sounds more fearless than ever. The two Bonnie “Prince” Billy shows I saw Chicago this fall were great, featuring Kelly and a full band. But this earlier, apparently unamplified duo concert by Oldhan and Kelly — captured on amateur video at Monster Island Basement in Brooklyn — looks even more amazing. The clip below begins in the middle of one song, “With Cornstalks or Among Them,” and continues with the song, “The Sounds Are Always Begging.”
Arvo Pärt is one of the great living composers, and this year ECM released a recording of the first symphony he’s written in 37 years. The symphony is not really the form of music he’s known for, and this is not a typical symphony. Although Pärt has a full orchestra at his disposal — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2009 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall — the symphony often sounds more like a piece of chamber music. It opens with serenity and stillness, like glimmers of light blinking in a night sky. But the same formulas that bind together the stars take on another, more menacing aspect as the symphony unravels over the course of three movements, arriving at a strangely tense and unresolved climax — unresolved except for the slight, almost passing resonance of a bell ringing at the very end. Like much of Pärt’s music, it feels mystical and soulful. (Here is a short essay I wrote about Pärt for a feature on classical music’s most inspiring people in the summer 2010 issue of Listen magazine.)
The 1900s have been one of Chicago’s best bands over the past few years, and they emerged from some apparent turmoil with a slightly reconfigured lineup on this new record —sounding as strong as ever. The music isn’t quite as lushly orchestrated as it was on their superb 2007 album Cold and Kind, but the melodies are just as inventive, the words are great pop-song poetry, and the vocals by the trio of lead singers have never been so lovely. Another addictive collection of sweet songs with a bittersweet tinge.
Phosphorescent — which is essentially one guy, singer Matthew Houck, plus whatever musicians he assembles — has made good records in the past, but he/they seem to have found a new sense of purpose after doing a Willie Nelson tribute record in 2009. The result is the year’s best country record — or should we say alt-country? Country-rock? Forget all those labels. These are just great songs from top to bottom, with arrangements reminiscent of classic, old-time country and western.
No doubt, the Sadies are one of the most talented guitar bands you’ll ever see in concert. Using barely any effects pedals, they’ll show you how guitar, bass and drums are played by people who really, really know how to do it — but they also put that virtuosity to the service of the songs they’re playing, rather than simply showing off. And over their past few records, they’ve also matured into strong songwriters. The Sadies’ previous album, New Seasons, was my favorite of 2007. The new one ranks a notch below that one, but it’s a nearly unassailable bunch of tightly arranged roots-rock tunes, concluding with an incredible overture of sorts — the accurately named track “10 More Songs,” which crams a whole album’s worth of majestic guitar riffs into 4 minutes and 15 seconds.
The Tallest Man on Earth — the stage name for Sweden’s Kristian Matsson — is a very traditional, acoustic-guitar-picking folk-rock singer-songwriter. It’s an old genre, but it’s far from exhausted, and Matsson is doing it as well as just about anyone right now. His dexterity on the guitar is impressive, and he’s surprisingly lively in concert, rarely standing still for more than a minute or two. But he’s mostly worth watching because of his gift for memorable melodies and words.
It was hard not to wonder if the first Grinderman record would turn out to be a one-off stunt by Nick Cave. He recorded under a different name than usual, working with a subset of the musicians who play in his bigger band, the Bad Seeds, and the experience seemed to give him a jolt of electricity. It’s a good thing Cave reassembled Grinderman for a sophomore record, which is just as raging and raw as the first one, running over with black humor in the lyrics and an unstoppable power in the ragged blues-punk guitar riffs. This year, the middle-aged Cave showed the kids how to rock. (Warning: The first of the videos below, “Heathen Child,” is NSFW. It’s also insanely, wonderfully weird.)
If only other young pop and R&B divas were as inventive and daring as Janelle Monáe. Her ambitious debut runs a wide gamut, from an orchestral introduction to bouncy dance music and elegant ballads, with a sci-fi theme running through the whole thing. She made her record the way she wanted to, and she had the director’s vision — and the powerful, nimble voice — required to pull it off.
AND THE NEXT 50 … in roughly descending order:
11. Kings Go Forth: The Outsiders Are Back (Luaka Bop)
12. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin)
13. The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge)
14. She & Him: Vol. 2 (Merge)
15. Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone (Anti-)
16. Nina Nastasia: Outlaster (Fat Cat)
17. Dios: We Are Dios (Buddyhead)
18. Sharon Van Etten: Epic (Ba Da Bing)
19. Tunng: …And Then We Saw Land (Thrill Jockey)
20. Best Coast: Crazy For You (Mexican Summer)
21. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (4AD)
22. Caribou: Swim (Merge)
23. Avi Buffalo: Avi Buffalo (Sub Pop)
24. Midlake: Courage of Others (Bella Union)
25. Kronos Quartet with Alim & Fargana Qasimov and Homayun Sakhi: Rainbow: Music of Central Asia Vol. 8 (Smithsonian Folkways)
26. Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame (Anti-)
27. Black Mountain: Wilderness Heart (Jagjaguwar)
28. A Broken Consort: Crow Autumn (Tompkins Square)
29. Laura Marling: I Speak Because I Can (Astralwerks)
30. The Vaselines: Sex With an Ex (Sub Pop)
31. Spoon: Transference (Merge)
32. The Black Angels: Phosphone Dream (Blue Horizon)
33. The Besnard Lakes: The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night (Jagjaguwar)
34. Owen Pallett: Heartland (Domino)
35. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Kollaps Tradixionales (Constellation)
36. Woods: At Echo Lake (Woodsist)
37. Cave: Pure Moods (Drag City)
38. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings: I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone)
39. Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot)
40. The Fall: Your Future Our Clutter (Domino)
41. Laura Veirs: July Flame (Raven Marching Band)
42. White Hills: White Hills (Thrill Jockey)
43. The Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.: In O to Infinity (Important)
44. Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love (Matador)
45. Charlotte Gainsbourg: IRM (Elektra/Asylum)
46. Clogs: The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton (Brassland)
47. Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here (XL)
48. Jónsi: Go (XL)
49. The Love Language: Libraries (Merge)
50. Barn Owl: Ancestral Star (Thrill Jockey)
And then there were, oh, about a hundred more records I heard from 2010 that I liked — if only I had more time to absorb them all.