Something came up earlier this year that took me a bit out of the loop musically. Straight up: I feel I missed so much that I can't, in good conscience, put together any kind of a numerical Best Of. It'd be like awarding the Oscar after seeing 5 films.
But I do like the end of year lists, having done them for the past few, so I thought I'd pull out my Top 20 lists of albums and in hindsight, have fun shooting holes in 'em. Besides, doing a Best of 2010 is so, um, 2010 and after this year, who the hell needs more of that? I'll review 2006-2009, starting with the oldest one first.
Bound Stems - Appreciation Night (Flameshovel)
Then: The multi-layered, literary debut full-length from this Chicago quintet demanded my repeated listening this year, revealing more and more each time through. I was won over by the disc's seamless and repeated gear shifting, each time leading me by the ears to a new vignette.
Now: The CD earned a 7.8 from Pitchfork and the band, which billed themselves as playing 'real complex music' (or something like that), seemed to garner more admirers than fans. Juggling career options with music was always tricky for them, and they split shortly after follow-up The Family Afloat was released two years later. Four-fifths of the band now performs as Like Pioneers, which released debut Piecemeal this past summer.
The Long Blondes - Someone To Drive You Home (Rough Trade)
Then: Singer Kate Jackson is a star. Flat out. The Blondes brand of 'glamorous punk' recalls the best aspects of new wave: punk-inspired licks and witty, sing-along lyrics with an unabashed groove. The early singles that were re-recorded for their debut album lose a bit of the ragged exuberance of the originals and considering two of their best songs weren't even included on the full ("Appropriation [By Any Other Name]", "Fulwood Babylon"), this band gave me the most thrills in 3 minutes or less all year.
Now: My mid-decade pop thrill, the CD received a delayed US release in 2007 before huddling with producer Erol Alkan for the follow-up. Then, a series of unfortunate events permanently sidelined the band. Couples, written and recorded around the dissolution of two in-band relationships, was released to mixed notices and greater than anticipated Stateside indifference. Shortly thereafter, guitarist and main songwriter Dorian Cox suffered a stroke, forcing the band off the road and rendered the band unable to promote the record. Later in the year, the Blondes' announced their break up to coincide with a disc compiling their pre-Rough Trade singles. Kate Jackson is reportedly plotting a solo career under the name Madame Ray.
Lily Allen - Alright, Still (Parlophone)
Then: The hipster-endorsed acid-tongued pop tart. Perhaps what will be more interesting than how she captured everyone's initial attention (that MySpace thingy on the internets) is how Capitol Records markets next month's US release of the record. I just found most of the songs irresistibly catchy with enough lyrical UK slang to satiate my inner Anglophile.
Now: On cue: a collective heaving, big sigh, right? Remember Pitchfork's 8.3? On paper, she stood a reasonable chance of crossing her indie 'it girl' status over to the mainstream, but neither "LDN" or a cleaned up "Smile" translated to the masses. Still, the record went Gold in the US, and It's Not Me, It's You debuted in the Top 5. Is she burned out at 25? Whenever she returns, she's a total creature of the pop charts now as her indie audience has long since moved on.
Viva Voce - Get Yr Blood Sucked Out (Barsuk)
Then: I'll admit being unfamiliar with their previous output, but now I'm a huge fan. Hypnotic and melodic with fuzzed out guitars = sold. Like Joy Zipper 'cept with a pair...
Now: 2009's Rose City failed to make much of an impact, and I know they played to a crowd numbering in single digits in Cincinnati, so I'm guessing that didn't bode well for elsewhere. I thought the record simply wasn't as good. Husband and wife team Kevin & Anita dedicated more time and effort to their country-rock side project Blue Giant which, based upon reception, may become their primary vehicle.
The Radio Dept. - Pet Grief (Labrador)
Then: Arriving to less fanfare than their Lesser Matters debut, the Swedes cast aside their guitars for this follow-up, preferring to fiddle with their keys and computers. What you get is an album of sweet indie pop with a C-86 heart on its sleeve. It should be everyone's go-to record for rainy days.
Now: Dear Critically Acclaimed European Band, we really want you to succeed in America, we really do! We lavish heaps of praise upon you, and your CD's are bought in all of the trendiest hipster locales. But, we need a little effort on your part. You wanna know how you succeed here? Act like you give a shit. In short, two dates in New York does not a 'US Tour' make. Get your ass over here, tour our land properly, play a few festivals and work it like you own it. You won't get rich but you'll recoup and the promo will be priceless. Or, you can just keep doing what you're doing and while you're twiddling about your next studio effort (which we won't hear for a few more years anyway), know you're letting shit bands like Miike Snow steal your thunder. And who, by the way, have been over here touring flyover country and playing festivals. Just thought you'd like to know.
P.S. Thanks for the February dates. It's a start.
Kisses, American indie fan.
Comets On Fire - Avatar (Sub Pop)
Then: I didn't much care for their critically acclaimed, metal-tinged Blue Cathedral from 2004 but found the shift to a more subdued, 70's sound on this record more to my liking: more of a space age / jazz fusion inspired brand of psychedelia. Somewhere, someone is using the gatefold sleeve of vinyl version to remove the seeds from their bag of weed.
Now: Since then, lead singer Ethan Miller has focused exclusively on his work in Howlin Rain, whose next album will be produced by Rick Rubin. Ben Chasny resumed recording as Six Organs of Admittance, and Comets appears to be on an indefinite hiatus. Their web site hasn't been updated in two years.
Clearlake - Amber (Domino)
Then: I thought the 3rd CD from this UK band was a big step up in quality for them. Some reviewers felt that the wealth of radio friendly tracks equated a sellout. Nonsense. Yes, it's a slick, polished record but it contains a lot catchy tunes with big, sing-along choruses. If you're any kind of Britpop fan, Amber delivers the goods without any NME-endorsed posturing. Sometimes, that can be a very good thing.
Now: The band issued a few singles in '08 & '09 but nothing since. Singer Jason Pegg released a solo record last year and is reportedly working on another. They were scheduled to reunite for a benefit show in September, but the benefit was canceled.
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Ballad of the Broken Seas (V2)
Then: A collaboration as unique as Little Red Riding Hood teaming with The Big Bad Wolf and appearing in a spaghetti Western. The orchestration found on a few tracks greatly enhances the two polar opposite vocalists, making this CD a real breath of fresh air. Count me as among those who thought such a record couldn't have come from the ex-Belle & Sebastian belle. Teaming with the former Screaming Trees vocalist - could there be two groups more dissimilar than Belle and Sebastian & the Screaming Trees? - was an inspired move.
Now: The pairing has worked so well, one could almost consider it each artist's primary vehicle. They've issued two follow-up discs, Sunday At Devil Dirt (2008) and this year's Hawk, and appeared at the Belle and Sebastian curated All Tomorrow's Parties set just this past weekend.
Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino)
Then: Forget the hype. At the end of the day, British youth on the internets pushed this band forward to near ubiquity even before they had a record released. Was it chock full of catchy, Britpop anthems? I thought so. Considering that the CD was written and recorded by a front man who hadn't yet turned 20 and seemed to withstand both the hype and the backlash intact, I'd say that bodes well for the band's future.
Now: I'm afraid the band's going to be one of those who'll draw well on the coasts and play to niche devotees in-between but so far, they're the perfect example of a band who'll be unable to move beyond that. Radio hasn't helped much. "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" launched the band into the commerical alt-rock Top 10, but they haven't sniffed the Top 40 since. (And for any new British readers, this stuff has ZERO chance of denting America's pop charts. Less than zero, actually).
The Dears - Gang Of Losers (Arts & Crafts)
Then: Not quite the tour de force that their previous disc, No Cities Left, was, but still another strong effort from the Montreal outfit. "Hate Then Love", "Ticket To Immortality", "Whites Only Party", "Bandwagoneers", and "You And I Are A Gang Of Losers" are quality on any release I normally don't notice or take issue with production qualities too often but I thought the sound of the entire record was very muddy as if the treble was set too low, leaving a dull sheen throughout the entire disc.
Now: Read this.
HINDSIGHT: I'm still a fan of most of the records on this list. Bound Stems should've been huge. Granted, Lily Allen held my gaze long enough until the next artist-of-a-similar-ilk came along but Alright, Still seems really dated to me. The only bands I've since grown indifferent to are Annuals, Built To Spill, and Silversun Pickups. All a bit too trad. indie for my current palate.
OK. How about you?