I know the Crate-Digging column, by design, is a discussion of albums that span my entire experience as a record collector. But I listen to new music too – I’ve even reviewed some 2010 records in “Crate-Digging 2010” segments. Here are ten of my favorite records from this year. It’s not a best of 2010 by any means, but these are the albums that received and retained my attention the most. I highly recommend them. Enjoy!
NOTE: Like last year, when I listened to Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion for the first time around Christmas, I have yet to listen to either of Sufjan Stevens’ releases this year (All Delighted People EP / The Age of Adz), so they didn’t make the cut. Sorry!
You’re going to think I’m crazy, perhaps. Was this record even on anyone’s radar? Why is it in a year-end top 10 list? Well, I won’t be shy in bucking the trend. If you can show me another top 10 list with this record in it, I’ll eat my hat.
I had to get a hardcore punk band on this list. I really dig the good ones, but, as you probably know, I’m not nearly as well versed in the genre as I’d like to be. I’m getting there.
Daughters is different though. The guitars don’t riff like hardcore guitars. No, they laser beam (if you’ll allow me to create a verb) like a noise band’s, disguising melody in their inventive shredding. In fact, comparisons to The Birthday Party wouldn’t be far off. They traffic in nervous dread and ugly tension, with jittery, hi-velocity rhythms the best evidence of their ties to a grindcore scene. But they don’t stray into overdrive, preferring instead to stay in more mathy territory – hey, speaking of, guitarist Brent Scott Frattini used to play in The Cancer Conspiracy. Who would’ve thought?
Singer Alexis Marshall recalls Misfits-era Glenn Danzig, and stays in that mode instead of screaming. It’s effective – in fact, if the rhythm was slowed to a lurching electronic death march, Daughters could probably get close to the Wolf Eyes sound. But as it is, Daughters is a terrific slash-and-burn nightmare, an all-ages punk show in a haunted house instead of your local VFW.
Emeralds is rising, everybody. I’ve just discovered them. But they’ve been around a couple years, and they just keep getting better. The trio of John Elliott, Mark McGuire, and Steve Hauschildt conjure billowing synthesizer experimentations, dotted with McGuire’s guitar patterns. The improvisations recall the halcyon days of Vangelis, Fripp and Eno, and Tangerine Dream – monuments of the 1970s ambient space scene. And the fact that most of these tracks were previously released on seven-inch singles lends the cohesiveness of the album a special significance. I even hesitate to lump it in with other ambient releases, as the oscillating tones bubble and pulse with an unusual energy. Layers upon layers of texture act as scaffolding for even more layers, resulting in some of the most modern and inventive sonic architecture. I highly recommend tracking this down and checking it out, and then digging into the band’s back catalog. Their music is a fascinating reinterpretation of how we’ve once viewed the future.
Dude, I was hooked early on in my Das Racist (pronounced dass racist! like a slang that’s racist!) immersion. (Thankfully, with two mixtapes dropped in 2010, it was easy to sink into with minimal effort.) Although Shut Up, Dude came out first, with it’s weirdo non-rap novelty anthem “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” garnering the most attention, it was Sit Down, Man’s obvious leaps forward in content and style that nailed it. But the line in “All Tan Everything” – “Das Racist, we kinda like rap noise pop” – yeah, sold: nerdy white record collector who loves guitars finds hip hop soulmates in nerdy rappers who know The Soft Pack used to be The Muslims. And the rest of the album – an avalanche of pop culture references – vacillates between tongue-in-cheek humor and social commentary on race issues to great effect. And it sounds like they’re having so much fun, that they sometimes come off a little like Flight of the Conchords – take “Fashion Party,” for example, where they’re so on point in skewering the world of New York high fashion that you know they did their homework. (That’s almost not a compliment, but FOTC does such an unbelievable job in their skewering…)
But vocalists Victor Vazquez and Himanshu “Heems” Suri weave in and out of topics like prizefighters, at times laid back, at others rapid fire. And always with a wink and a nod toward their love of the game, their sheer enjoyment of what they do. In “Rapping 2 U,” they take a meta approach to journalists’ attempts to pigeonhole: “They call this joke rap / we kinda weed rap / we just like rap / we don’t even need rap.” They take it a step further and completely confuse the issue on the chorus of the text message nightmare-titled “hahahaha jk?”, “We’re not joking, just joking, we are joking, just joking, we’re not joking.” And in the same song, they poke fun of their name: “We not racist, we love white people / Ford trucks, apple pie, bald eagles.”
Sit Down, Man succeeds in its playfulness but also because the album’s so deep – at seventeen tracks, you may wonder how it plays out over the course of its runtime. Don’t – Das Racist switch it up by inviting some guest rappers to spit on the back half, but they mix in so well with Heems and Vazquez that it’s hard to tell they’re not just part of the crew. But Lakutis (“Amazing,” “Rapping 2 U”), Roc Marciano (“Roc Marciano Joint”), and El-P (“Sit Down, Man”) drop sick verses. Weed rap? Please – this is too rambunctious. But let’s muddy the waters even further, ensuring college stoners everywhere wind up with red welts on their cheeks: “White people, play this for your black friends / Black people—smack them.” SMACK. Ouch.
Full disclosure: Freak Owls is Josh Ricchio, a longtime friend. I wrote this promotional piece for him. You must check it out – I promised him I’d get you all to listen to it. Don’t make me look like a jerk.
It’s midnight in New York City and the neon signs are distorted by the rain as they flash by through the backseat window of the taxi. There’s a warmth in your belly as you settle into the pleasant buzz you’ve spent the last four hours cultivating. You’ve flitted from bar to bar, seen familiar faces everywhere, smiled and laughed, and wandered to the next destination, each parting a little sadder, each moment a little heavier. There’s love in your heart and you want it to burst, but there’s always something just a little off, you can’t quite give it fully; it’s backward. The people you see and the places you go just mask this feeling, and it surfaces in the silence left when conversation ceases. But hunched in the cab, hands shoved in your coat pockets, lights blurring by streets and avenues, there’s a spark of hope, because you know there’s purpose, and any ache or longing will someday be obliterated. Until then you’ll just have to find one another in the little things. And that may, in fact, be enough. In that moment, you know what’s important. You lift the corner of your mouth in a knowing smile, tilt your head back, and worry just a little less.
So listen. Just listen. To the sounds of the city at night, to the sounds outside your window. This is the space in which Freak Owls dwell. They dream of love in cracks, the places in between, where the facades have crumbled. They love the broken city, yet keep an eye on the wide expanses beyond the skyline. In the dark, they are optimistic, automatic. There are visions and reveries, but this is where we are tonight, and no matter what elements surface to dull or derail our hope, Freak Owls are focused, guiding us to the fractals of light splayed across our rooms, and reminding us that we are not lost. Now. Freak Owls. Taxidermy. Can you feel it?
Might as well finish the trifecta, right? I’ve written about Wolf Parade’s first two albums, Apologies to the Queen Mary and At Mount Zoomer this year in Crate-Digging, so it seems appropriate to close the circle with an appearance of Expo 86 in my 2010 top 10 list. I’d hoped this would be number 1 – I’m not sure if it’s the fact that there were five other records that I dug more or if I’m punishing the band for not living up to my expectations. It’s not like they don’t try, but their identity has shifted slightly on every release, and none of them match their awesome debut. I mean, seven of the eleven songs here are over five minutes long! That’s a lot to pack in – is it too much?
Aw forget it. I’ll get into that at some other time. Now, it’s just a matter of sitting back and enjoying what’s certainly an awesome album. Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner get a bit more synth-poppy this time around, but that style is right in the two songwriters’ wheelhouse. Boeckner’s “Little Golden Age” and “Yulia” are among his best contributions, as are Krug’s “What Did My Lover Say?” and “Oh You, Old Thing.” Album closer “Cave-O-Sapien” frenetically sprints Expo 86 to the finish line – the band simply have collapsed gasping on the ground following its recording. Bottom line: Wolf Parade’s turned in another winner. Thanks, boys.