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Honorable Mentions 2010

Honorable Mentions 2010

Let’s start the year by looking back. Here are our favorite albums that didn’t make Spectrum Culture’s Top 20 of 2010. Each of us is happy to present a record that deserves more attention than it received. We hope you learn about something great.

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The Apples in Stereo
Travellers in Space and Time
[Yep Roc]

When the Apples in Stereo’s latest LP was released in April, it arrived with considerably less fanfare than new records by, say, Arcade Fire or Kanye West. In a lot of ways, this is not surprising; having now been around for close to two decades and no longer making the lo-fi psych pop they were first known for, one might say that much of the excitement behind the Apples is gone. What hasn’t changed is that Apples leader Robert Schneider remains an ace pop-smith at the top of his game, and 2010’s Travellers In Space and Time is a solid collection of tunes that can stand alongside pretty much anything from his catalog – and can hold its own with quite a bit of Jeff Lynne’s career output, as well.

Where once Schneider & Co. aped their ’60s forebears, Travellers’ sonic focus is more along the lines of ’75-’85 – chiefly Hall & Oates and ELO – and the record is peppered with sonic references to both groups, the latter so much that Travellers might have more accurately been titled Electric Light Overload. There are still flashes of old-school Apples – such as the Beatlesy “Dignified Dignitary” and the vintage spoken recordings that bookend the disc – but the bulk of the disc is full-on Apples 2.0: ultra high-gloss and trimmed of fat. Take the space-age disco of first single “Dance Floor” – which almost has more in common with early 2000s Madonna than anything in the Apples discography – the ELO lite of “Told You Once” or the kids bounce of “It’s All Right.”

Besides, it’s not like nobody’s making lo-fi psych music anymore. Give Wavves and the rest of ’em another decade or so and – if they’re even still around – they may be cribbing ELO and Hall & Oates too. But just like lo-fi psych, Robert Schneider did it first. – Aaron Passman

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Baths
Cerulean
[Anticon]

There was no shortage of great electronic releases in 2010, but few were as forward-thinking and playful as Baths’ Cerulean. A debut that sounded both confident and inventive, Cerulean is a natural evolution of the glitch sound that’s been around for a couple of decades now – the menacing MPC beats are still there but now they’re working in the service of a songwriter who really understands structure.

Because, you see, Baths is a songwriter first and foremost; as a result, his techniques and production never overwhelm his works. It’s this ear for craft that lets Cerulean only become more interesting over time, a first listen just barely revealing the layers and hooks. On moments like “♥,” which is anchored around a piano line that brings about the best in Baths’ falsetto, it’s clear that many of Baths’ songs could be stripped down to just one or two elements and be just as effective.

This makes the phenomenal production on Cerulean all the more interesting, as though Baths is spoiling the listener with sonic icing on an already rich cake. “Lovely Bloodflow” may be the album’s best moment simply because of how mesmerizing each component of it is, from its frenetic, teasing percussion to the swooping synth pad that appears before the two-minute mark and completely changes the tone of the track. Later “Animals” goes straight for joy, allowing the listener to revel in Baths’ deft digital magic without the intrusion of any vocals, just a plethora of sounds that do a trapeze act over the beat. What’s scary is that Baths seems to just be getting started. Interviews and live performances indicate that Baths isn’t content to rest on his laurels but is instead committed to continuing to tweak and enhance his sound. If Cerulean is the sound of a young artist testing the waters what will it sound like when he gets around to showing us what he’s really capable of? – Nick Hanover

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Cloud Cult
Light Chasers
[Rebel Group]

Light Chasers takes the cake for most hopeful, optimistic and positive-spirited album of 2010. Its collection of life-and-death vignettes, all a cosmic metaphor for frontman Craig Minowa’s trials and tribulations of faith and fatherhood, interweaves with a colorful palette of rock singed by classical leanings and electronic persuasion. But for as vast as the themes and genres stretch, the 56-minute opus is as consistent as they come, a non-stop marathon of clever and accessible, if compositional melodies. Rockers like “You’ll Be Bright” and “Running With the Wolves” ride relentless peaks of ecstasy that are as empowering as they are enlightening. But the album is at its best when Minowa and crew explode into their symphonic state, like the charging “Forces of the Unseen” or “There’s So Much Energy in Us,” both of which are as epic as anything 2010 offered.

As much as the themes, songwriting and creativity churned out the quality concept album Light Chasers proved to be, the sheer heart and energy is what truly electrifies it from beginning to end. The Cult’s diverse instrumentation provides the pivotal backbone here, amping up the emotion on mellow offerings (“Responsible,” “Unexplainable Stories”) and escalating the utter bombardment of sensationalized tracks (“Today We Give Ourselves to the Fire,” “Blessings”). During the album’s driving climax, Minowa best sums up the album’s true essence: “It’s the warmth when you’re next to me/ It’s the bright white light of a fevered dream/ It’s the storm in your eyes/ It’s in the roots of the tree/ The underestimated power of the forces of the unseen.” It’s a personal journey that rivals the best of the year. – Jory Spadea

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Matthew Dear
Black City
[Ghostly International]

It’s drinking a white Russian on a black pleather couch. It’s that skinny bitch in the ladies room who’s either going to ask to borrow your lipstick or shove you into the sink. It’s those late nights, so dark that everywhere is private, when hours lose relevance and even your best friend’s voice sounds unfamiliar. It’s the smeary, buzzy memories you might regret more or repress less if only you could make out the details. It’s accidental anonymity. This is what you get in Matthew Dear’s Black City.

Black City is more a vibe than an album, though it must be said that it’s a very, very good album. But as a vibe, it’s transportative and supremely transfixing. “Honey,” the record’s opening track, beckons you inside and takes you underground with low tones of murkiness. It’s a slo-mo introduction; Dear’s baritone flat-affect vocals, decidedly unpretty but hypnotic nonetheless, float you down and drug you up. “I Can’t Feel” gets things spinning with a percolating synth rhythm and funk bass line that lend a dancey contrast to Dear’s melodic drone. There is a storyboard structure to Black City, the atmosphere thickens as you approach the climax of the record, titled “You Put a Smell on Me.” The synth effects are chattering and gyroscopic as Dear casually suggests a ride in his “big black car.” “We can go all night/ You can dance with me“: it’s not so much an offer as it is a directive. Dear layers a falsetto over his trance-like speech as half notes volley from octave to octave. And wherever he goes, you’re helpless to do anything but follow.

This album is a bad boy. Jarring and dissonant, sinister yet shy, Dear’s portal into Black City creates a space where darkness reveals distinctions instead of smudging them out. Just like that night when you lost your coat and don’t remember scraping your knee, Black City is a dream-like time that leaves you rubbing your eyes with the heels of your hands. – Stacey Pavlick

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Dez and Nobs
Rocky Dennis
[Grizzly State]

There was a welcome return to Rap’s rawness in 2010. From Odd Future’s unhinged teenage fantasies to Lil B’s unfiltered Twitter-esqe reflection to Waka Flocka’s unstoppable skull-fracturing, things stopped being rigid and suddenly got a lot more real. Among the outbursts was Rocky Dennis, an album by indie-rap instigators Dez and Nobs. With the overwhelming majority of music as a whole today recorded and produced through a digital lens, Dez and Nobs opted to go the entirely analog route, resulting in the album having the same boom-bap warmth of all your favorite ’90s records, with a bravado that was definitively 2010.

Daniel ‘Dez’ Hulbert turned in one of the year’s absolute best rap performances from every conceivable vantage point. The flows are as diverse as they are impressive, the lyrics are infinitely quotable and the topics explored (as navigated by sound clips from the 1985 film Mask) are as engaging as they are entertaining. While the likes of Rhymesayers’ P.O.S., Mac Lethal, louis logic and Seez Mics all turn in fantastic guest appearances, Dez remains the star and a shining example of what a rap artist in 2010 can accomplish. Producer Nobs created an incredible assortment of beats that played to each of Dez’s strengths in a different way, allowing for an undeniable replay value that has lasted the entire calendar year. Rap is a genre that, perhaps more than most, wears its trends on its sleeve, allowing a lot of its output to become quickly dated. ‘Rocky Dennis’ may have not set any trends, but that’s because it’s 2010’s most ambitious inimitable absolute triumph. – Chaz Kangas

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Dum Dum Girls
I Will Be
[Sub Pop]

There was no more complete package in 2010 than LA’s Dum Dum Girls: four beautiful girls, all dressed in black lace and torn stockings with an album produced by the guy who wrote the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.” And it didn’t hurt that I Will Be, their Sub Pop debut, was an absolutely beautiful record, flawlessly combining garage rock, goth, girl groups and shoegaze to create a glorious sound that lead singer Dee Dee aptly took to describing as “blessed-out buzzsaw.”

Dee Dee could be Ronnie Spector’s tough little sister – the Skipper to her Barbie – with the rest of the Girls members of her menacing, sexy schoolyard gang. I Will Be picks up where the Ronettes’ material left off; this is a record whose dreamy landscape is populated with songs about drag racing and romantic rivals with better eye makeup than you. But it’s not gimmicky – I Will Be sounds as fresh as anything else in 2010 because of its aching sincerity. One spin of the sparkling Mazzy Star-lite album showstopper “Rest of Our Lives” assures the listener that the matchy outfits and stage names are just the icing on the delicious cake – these girls can play. And sing in German, as evidenced on the banging “Oh Mein M”.

I Will Be ends with a sublime cover of Sonny and Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go,” transforming the rollicking original to a tender ballad that leaves the listener speechless. And then, in just under half an hour, I Will Be is seemingly over as soon as it began. But it’s the perfect amount of time to get under your skin, make your ears buzz and leave you longing for more. – Ashley Thiry

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How To Dress Well
Love Remains
[Lefse]

In a time where the studio perfection of albums like Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest and MGMT’s Congratulations earn critical accolades, an album like Love Remains seems to come out of nowhere. In fact, it seems almost strange to consider them on the same scale. The debut full-length release of How to Dress Well (aka research fellow Tom Krell) searches for and exploits lo-fi fuzz and distortion as a means to itself, creating a sound that’s haunting, enveloping and wholly wonderful. Rather than avoiding the imperfections of recording, it embraces them as its own.

Taking musical cues from ’90s R&B (Keith Sweat and Michael Jackson come to mind nearly constantly throughout the album’s 38-minute runtime), Love Remains is a hiss of solitary piano notes, truncated beats and recorded distortion. It sounds like an artifact found after a ruin, like an ancient record damaged and popping but somehow managing to hold its spirit after the clarity has been scratched away. Standout tracks like “Endless Rain” and “Walking This Dumb” sound almost like club hits that have somehow disappeared in time, with only these ghostly relics remaining.

Krell’s lyrics are rarely intelligible (and when they are, often tend towards the bizarrely mundane or repetitive), but the croon of his falsetto makes whatever is being said a technicality, not a point. Love Remains is an album of tones and feelings, not of details or elaborate wordplay. Even without being able to make out just what the singer might be saying, it’s impossible not to know what he means. – Nathan Kamal

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Jukebox the Ghost
Everything Under the Sun
[Yep Roc]

When you call a band “fun”, you may as well banish them to suburban high schoolers’ cars and frat party stereos. Fun bands aren’t expected to be intelligent, innovative or critically lauded. They’re frivolous and fluffy. At best, you might call them a “guilty pleasure” and coat your enjoyment in a thick layer of irony. After all, good music is Very Serious Business, and fun is the exact opposite of serious. Fully aware of these truths, I confess that the extremely fun Everything Under the Sun by Jukebox the Ghost is one of my favorite albums of 2010.

For their second record, Jukebox the Ghost developed their style of hyperactive Queen-meets-Ben-Folds piano rock into prog-influenced dance pop as catchy as any guilty pleasure, but wry enough to retain some street cred. It’s physically impossible to sit still during the palpitating synth rhythms of the first single, “Schizophrenia,” and the band’s youthful optimism is apparent throughout guitarist Tommy Siegel’s three-part exploration of humanity in the face of disaster. Like many before them, Jukebox the Ghost find hope in dark places and humor in sadness. The difference is in their lighthearted delivery. Jesse Kristin’s kick pedal bounces joyfully and his crash cymbal and tambourine sparkle in the most unlikely places – undiluted pop songs about floods, mental illness or soured relationships that will wrest a grin from the most jaded of listeners.

Have Jukebox the Ghost created a timeless, transcendent musical moment on Everything Under the Sun? Maybe not. Could they in a few years? Perhaps! Have they assembled the most darling, genuinely enjoyable small release of 2010? I think they have. – Katie Bolton

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Let’s Wrestle
In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s
[Merge]

Why so serious, 2010? If music fans are feeling a bit lighter this week, maybe it’s because the weight of 2010’s music has been lifted from their shoulders. Even the year’s best found Stickles still airing his grievances, Berninger and Butler inching closer to cliff’s edge and Cee Lo suggesting people politely go fuck themselves. True, you had Wavves, Best Coast and SSLYBY walking on the lighter side of life (surely, there were others, as I won’t claim I heard nearly everything the year served up), but mostly what I heard were the doldrums. Where was the fun, the apathy, the humor?

Let’s Wrestle’s In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s was chock-full of all those things, with some decent music and clever lyrics to boot. Featuring song titles like “My Arms Don’t Bend That Way, Damn It!,” “We Are the Men You’ll Grow to Love Soon” and “Song for Old People” – not to mention that hideous and altogether laughable piece of cover art – the record proved at first glance to be a bit less grave than much of 2010’s offerings. Hints of ’60s psychedelia, slacker-grunge and goofball love balladry peeked through, often accompanied by lyrics (“I’m going to change the world when I get old/ I’ll sign up for the one with the hearts of gold/ And I may be withered like an old piece of leather/ But I’ll talk of more things than just the weather“) that induced plenty of grins. Ten months after its release in the States, In the Court still makes for one of the year’s most refreshing listens.

True, it won’t ever go down as one of the boldest or most ambitious records – an honor best bestowed upon some certain seething Jersey punks, Montreal baroque rockers and Kanye – but sometimes we don’t want Civil War reflections, letters from the suburbs or an egocentric’s beautiful dark twisted fantasies. Sometimes, slacker wit is the best medicine. Wrestle with that idea, 2010. – Marcus David

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Los Campesinos!
Romance Is Boring
[Arts & Crafts]

CAN WE ALL PLEASE JUST CALM THE FUCK DOWN,” Los Campesinos! shout at the beginning of “This is a Flag. There is No Wind,” which is totally fucking paradoxical, not only because of the bellowing, but because this is Los Campesinos! we’re talking about – a band known for its penchant for beautiful flights of near-hysterics proclaiming that, “Nothing says I miss you quite like poetry carved in your door with a Stanley knife.” Thankfully, the band has not calmed the fuck down with their third album, but they’ve certainly grown up a bit.

While their first two records were like pop punk for the smart kids who don’t skateboard, Romance Is Boring finds Los Campesinos! Performing their usual Wall of Sound-influenced indie rock (Strings! Glockenspiel!) at tempos that aren’t superfuckingfast but still feel insanely manic, thanks to the vocals of Gareth Campesinos!, who still sings like he’s about to have a colossal nervous breakdown. His lyrical subjects have expanded past his own girl problems with songs like “In Medias Res,” (“Let’s talk about you for a minute“) before eventually delving into “The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future” (“She’s not eating again“) and also dropping such glorious moments of self-loathing like, “I’m giving my body to science/ Not medical, but physics” and “I’m playing straight chicken with gay girls.”

Romance Is Boring shows that Los Campesinos! are not only a young band in terms of energy and point of view, but one that shows increasing maturity in its music – a tough balance to pull off, but one necessary to keep the Los Campesinos!-ness of their earlier output. Please, Los Campesinos! – never calm the fuck down. – Danny Djeljosevic

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The Mynabirds
What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood
[Saddle Creek]

End of year lists have a way of politely ignoring the likeliest of artists. Without fail, some albums that forgo groundbreaking styles for something easier to digest don’t make the cut, if only because music that’s doing something truly innovative is inherently memorable. But some of those albums that get overlooked – so frequently comfortable pop rock or folk that just blends in with the year’s masses – are downright stellar, even if a bit colloquial. Yet that doesn’t seem like the kind of disappointment that would weigh too heavily on an artist like Saddle Creek’s Laura Burhenn, a natural crooner who’s currently supplementing the folk, rock and gospel songbook of the 1960s with heartwarming proficiency.

And her debut record under the Mynabirds moniker is worth seeking out. Much like the sepia-tone photograph that marks the album’s packaging, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is warm, rugged and invokes another time, bringing modern production to vintage stylistic hooks and horn parts obviously nodding to Muscle Shoals. But Burhenn’s voice is particularly impressive – her robust, sometimes smoky delivery as much at place with the Dusty Springfield set as intimate bedroom wallflowers, the album’s title track rocking (with a similarly spiritual bent) like the former and “Numbers Don’t Lie” easily as emotive and vulnerable as Jenny Lewis ever gets.

While I’d be surprised if the Mynabirds don’t attract more attention down the line, it’s going to be tough for Burhenn to top the uniformly solid songwriting on Flood. There are so many charming tracks, reminiscent of the songwriter’s influences without feeling nostalgic, that she might have to change things up after this just to keep things compelling. That would be a disappointing turn for the Mynabirds, but it still leaves all the earworm melodies on Flood for when innovative, peculiar and edgy don’t feel right and a well-worn classic is the perfect listen. – Michael Merline

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The Secret History
The World That Never Was
[Le Grand Magistry]

Many critics couldn’t even be bothered to review The World That Never Was. Their loss, as the Secret History’s debut LP is an altogether brilliant piece of indie pop that combines intelligent lyricism with flawless musicianship. Refining both the style and narrative structure of the Desolation Town EP – also mostly ignored – the band produced a complex and mature record that deserved far more recognition that it received.

World’s songs sound immediately familiar but never derivative, inviting but never too polished; its shimmering arrangements hint at influences ranging from ’50s girl groups and ’60s folk rock to glam rock and ’80s British indie. The album frequently sounds buoyant and hopeful, as seen in the intricate harmonies of “Our Lady of Stalingrad” and in Lisa Ronson’s pitch-perfect vocals on “Love Theme.” Other songs are understated in the sense of tragedy they evoke; songs of mourning like “God Save the Runaways” and “Sex with Ghosts” move at a tempo best suited for a funeral. EP holdover “Our Lady of Palermo” is similar in both style and substance, the loneliness of its “pilgrimage to where God’s never been” accented by Ronson’s carefully-paced vocals, a martial drumbeat and rising strings.

Dubbed a “requiem for young monsters,” World’s subject matter is almost always dark, primarily consisting of runaways, travelers, transients, musicians, monsters and dead horror film icons usually dealing with everyday sad shit. Themes of distance and mortality emerge in a vast geography of ghettos, grottoes, European landmarks and all points in between, with Michael Grace, Jr. and Darren Amadio’s lyrics – precise lines like, “They buried her there in the garden/ Behind the refinery” – contrasting with Ronson’s bright vocals while reinforcing the album’s desolate landscapes. It’s fitting that one of the album’s characters walks “on the shadowy side of the street.” So for now The World That Never Was remains an undiscovered masterpiece, and while numerous worthy albums went under the radar this year, it’d be difficult to find one better than this debut from the Secret History. – Eric Dennis

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Ty Segall
Melted
[Goner]

With its heavy blankets of fuzzed-out guitar and screeching vocal affectations, Ty Segall’s Melted is a dominant and welcome bitch-slap to the face of the bedroom/dream-pop that occupies most indie playlists and blogs. Filled to the brim with blazing three-minute rockers and laid-back, scuzzy, stoner odes, Melted is a visceral force of musical nature that seems to have sprung from the loins of Paul Westerberg and the Sex Pistols. Strained wails, overdriven power chords, parlor house piano lines and rhythmic hand-claps add some much needed punch to the idea of surfer rock, best exemplified on stand-out track “Girlfriend.”

Melted is a blissful piece of genre schizophrenia, as Segall grounds every balls-out experimentation in well-established blues and rock tropes, providing a structured foundation of noise that constantly threatens to run off the rails. “Finger” starts out as a slow, mournful tune that, with one kick of a pedal, quickly morphs into an overblown mass of feedback, as cooing harmonies trade blows with the angry, wailing sonics. Melted relishes in its musical ADD, embodying different ideas of confrontation, love, hate and good old-fashioned sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. What makes Melted more than just a rehashing of old garage rock ideas is that Segall draws from his influences with confidence, ripping ideas straight from the underground, reveling in their madness, then morphing them into an unrecognizable but totally bad-ass collection of music’s past and present. The cover art for Melted features the creepy, fuzzy face of some unknown beast-man – intriguing, compelling, frightening and mysterious – it’s like a car crash that you can’t turn away from; a perfect representation of the manic music wreckage contained within. – Kyle Fowle

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Shabazz Palaces
Shabazz Palaces/Of Light EPs
[Templar Label Group]

Though everyone and their brother nationally likely associate Seattle’s local music as a narrative stretching from the late ’80s’ over-hyped, overdriven, sarcastic clatter toward the often painfully sincere Harvest-redux of Sub Pop’s current facial hair-friendly roster, anyone listening to music in 2010 Seattle will tell you that the city’s real excitement is in its hip-hop. As Larry Mizell, Jr. – the sort-of Rodney Bingenheimer of Seattle hip hop – tweeted recently, in regard to the city’s profile on MTV’s “5 Dollar Cover,” “funny how the softbeards are all like ZZZ and we’re all like WOO.”

At the forefront of this unstoppable uprising of “urban” music in Seattle – a genre largely made up of party tracks, though witty and inventive – are the inscrutable Shabazz Palaces, whose rhymes about personal turmoil in less-than-great neighborhoods and the beat that “will always save us” carry a little more sagely weight than the area’s other acts. As well they should; the only thing more impressive than SP’s sound – a low-key, molten mixture of jazz samples, drum machines and unsettling electronics – is their backstory. SP is primarily the showcase for 41 year-old Ishmael Butler, one third of ’90s one hit-wonders Digable Planets and a man who should be producing younger acts (best-case) or working a 9 to 5 (worst-case) instead of recording some of the most exciting, otherworldly rap music committed to disc – in this case, two EPs released locally in ’09, then nationally November 2010.

The songs of Shabazz Palaces and Of Light explore obligation to one’s community (“4 Shadows”), self-actualization against odds (“Capital 5,” “N. Splendored/Find Out”) and the release brought by music and friends (“Gunbeat Falls,” “Sparkles”) – ubiquitous themes, to be sure, ones likely explored in the music of Mizell’s “softbeards.” But Ish Butler and Shabazz Palaces have succeeded in not only making music that is at once universal and futuristic, sinister and empowering; he and his crew have put neighborhoods on the cultural map that softbeards the world over would die to call their home. – Chris Middleman

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Sun City Girls
Funeral Mariachi
[Abduction]

Funeral Mariachi begins as the sounds of a radio flicker from one demented foreign station to another, traces of Alan Lomax, Ennio Morricone and Their Satanic Majesties Request floating between your ears. “Ben’s Radio,” full of unpredictable changes, unrecognizable auras and unsettling voices is a fittingly bizarre recap of what was the Sun City Girls’ three decades somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle of success. Mariachi is the Arizonan group’s first proper album since the death of founding member Charles Gocher in 2007, and the group’s last in a long, long line of albums, EPs and cassettes over a 30-year span. Verses, even lines, move from creepy to playful and back again (“When I was dead, I looked exactly like you/ Now I’m alive, where nothing is true“), and Middle Eastern melodies, like in “The Imam” and “Black Orchids,” roam from ear-splitting to gorgeous as each note moves into the next.

Just as the album seems to veer off into psychosis in its middle third, “Vine Street Piano” (which originally appeared on the Girls’ last release, a collaboration with J. Spaceman on Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely soundtrack) brings its extraterrestrial surroundings back to a rainy and melancholic earth. Songs like “This is My Name” could hypothetically be labeled shoegaze, freak-folk, world music or whatever term that sort of fits, but trying to pin down Mariachi as a whole is like pissing in the wind. The sounds here could just as easily come from the Peruvian temples of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Mexican-American border of Blood Meridian as it could from the long-lost vaults of Syd Barrett. It’s completely effortless, genreless and timeless, like the late Sun City Girls themselves. – Kyle Wall

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The Tallest Man on Earth
The Wild Hunt
[Dead Oceans]

Yes, Kristian Matsson (aka The Tallest Man on Earth) owes a debt to Bob Dylan (he name-checks “Boots of Spanish Leather” on “King of Spain”) but his sophomore album, The Wild Hunt, is anything but a freewheelin’ rip-off of Zimmy’s folky days. More than anything else, it is an album that recalls the rustic, strange old America that has been swallowed whole by synthesizers and corporate greed but still sounds fresh and original. His raspy voice accompanied only by a sole guitar or piano, Matsson fills The Wild Hunt with songs that are both subtle and appropriately emotional.

The songs range from dashing and spry like “King of Spain” and “You’re Going Back” to more heartfelt ballads like “Love is All” and “The Drying of the Lawns,” tapping into a vein of Americana that Josh Ritter has been mining these past 10 years. Matsson isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, his metaphors lovingly bringing man and nature closer. While it may not be much of a departure from his debut Shallow Grave, The Wild Hunt is an important work, standing out in a year where anthemic rock and twisted rap fantasies dominated the best-of lists.

As if signaling a new direction, The Wild Hunt ends with “Kids on the Run,” where eschews the forests and streams for the city streets over stately piano. 2010 may the year of bold comebacks and epic records about the Civil War, but The Wild Hunt may be the year’s most intensely personal and American record. It’s funny it took someone from Sweden to make it. – David Harris

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Tokyo Police Club
Champ
[Mom & Pop]

The blogosphere is an unkind mistress. As quickly as Tokyo Police Club built up a buzz, it faded, in line with toxic reviews of their debut, Elephant Shell. The boys took that in stride, however, and decided rather than fade into obscurity, they’d record an album that perhaps they’d want to hear. Champ is the album 2007 wanted from them, as well as one of 2010’s most unsung gems.

Tokyo Police Club has always preached brevity; On Champ, they’ve made their songs a touch longer. While Elephant Shell clocked in at 28 minutes, Champ uses the extra time to completely unfurl the new songs. The guitar hooks and keyboard loops are razor-sharp and catchier than ever, and singer Dave Monks’ lyrics remain goofy yet poignant. “Favourite Food” features a sparse, meditative organ line and subtle synths while showcasing Monks’ voice; it then explodes in the middle, acting as a warning shot for what’s to come. On “Wait Up (Boots of Danger)” Monks sings, “I’m on your side/ But only for a while of course/ You never use words you can’t afford“- both a biting criticism and an awestruck observation at the same time.

Producer Rob Schnapf is the hero of the day, however- the composition and instrumentation on the record is tight, bouncy and even a touch bombastic. He balances the band’s proto-punk speed and counters with a decompressed electronica aesthetic, meeting in the middle to create complex, energetic songs that are recognizably fast, but sync together much less haltingly. “Bambi” benefits from Graham Wright’s thrashy, clashy guitar line- it’s a machine gun burst of awesome. While the EP and the (grossly underrated) first album were solid blows, Champ is nothing less than a knockout. – Rafael Gaitan

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The Walkmen
Lisbon
[Fat Possum]

The Walkmen have been around for about a decade and they tend to do things the old fashioned way: put out albums regularly, tour a lot, keep the same band members. They don’t chase trends, they don’t make big statements and they’re not looking for their Kid A. And in an environment that often prizes innovation and experimentation for its own sake, this is downright refreshing. They haven’t wasted much time finding their sound or their style, and they’ve always known what they’re doing, even if means an occasional misstep (their Harry Nilsson album).

The band’s sixth, Lisbon, continues with the warmer, more nuanced songs they perfected on 2008’s You and Me, the kind of musically and emotionally engaging songs that really no one is doing as well as they are. Lisbon comes in like a warm breeze with “Juveniles,” a song with a gentle sway and the hard-won optimism that marks many of their songs; “I see better things to come.” It’s followed by the most balls-out song since their masterpiece “The Rat,” the hard charging “Angela Surf City,” which hits with a bracing force.

If it were all songs like this, they might grow tedious, but they’ve found a fine balance between the faster songs and slower, reflective songs. “Stranded” has a frayed elegance and uses horns in a lovely way, while the aptly titled “Torch Song” has a blurred grandeur and some nice backing vocals. It’s all rooted in Hamilton Leithauser’s distinctive, passionate singing and the band’s crisp, unfussy playing. The production leaves plenty of space for each element of the song and while it sounds vintage at times (the band cites Sun Records as an inspiration), the songs are always in the moment. They’re not trying for cool, but they are effortless. The Walkmen is a band who still believes in the album and in refining a signature sound and on Lisbon, they do just that, with grace, style and wit. – Lukas Sherman

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