Monday, December 13, 2010

Best of 2010: Honorable Mentions

Before posting my Top 15 Albums of 2010 list, I feel it's my duty to honor some albums I put a lot of time into but still felt a little let down by. This is me trying to analyze the sadness that came when I realized I didn't like certain albums as much as I wanted to.

The National – High Violet

This was supposed to be the masterpiece. Everyone read it as the masterpiece, but something just never quite worked. I absolutely love about five songs on this album and I think the rest are kind of redundant and boring. Pretty, sure, and they got better upon further listens but it's still an album where I listen to the jawdropping, motherfucking stunning opener “Terrible Love” and skip to the last half of the album. It's strange, really, because I've never found an album with such a strong back half. Usually it's vice versa, but yeah. Even “Bloodbuzz Ohio” got boring after the 10th listen or so. And while I love “Conversation 16” and “Lemonworld,” they all fit into the same pattern as the rest of the kind of pretty but boring songs. They're just more descriptive, and on a record where all the songs kind of sound the same, you pick the best ones and discard the rest. At least that's how High Violet worked. I feel guilty for not liking this. Boxer blew my mind, and I knew this was going to be great. There was so much hope pinned on it and I tried and tried until I had to quit pretending and just concede that sometimes I just don't get it. I have the sinking suspicion that a couple years from now this one's gonna come back around and knock me on my ass real proper like.

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever

It's rough admitting that your favorite band made a kind of just pretty good album. The problem with Heaven is Whenever isn't the songs, exactly. Sure, there are a handful that just aren't up to the caliber the Hold Steady usually fire at, and I'm sure a lot of this might be the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Who knows. It just feels a bit off. The biggest problem is that the songs don't seem to form a cohesive album, which is a Hold Steady first (with the exception of maybe Almost Killed Me, but hey, they were just getting started). “The Sweet Part of the City” is interesting new territory, as is the epic finale “A Slight Discomfort” which grew on me a lot when “Barely Breathing,” “Our Whole Lives,” and “Rock Problems” kind of lost their luster. “The Smidge” is probably the worst Hold Steady song ever. “Hurricane J,” “Chips Ahoy” sequel “The Weekenders,” and “We Can Get Together” totally kill it though. At first I thought it felt rushed, but given that the Hold Steady had been releasing an album a year for about five years (roughly), it's more likely that this is overworked. All the wonderful spontaneity is gone, or severely lacking. Still, I like this album. Even the mediocre songs are still enjoyable because, like I said, it's my favorite band and I love them like a mother loves her kin. Unconditionally. Well, Craig Finn at least. I wish the other guys hadn't looked like they were having the worst time ever when I saw them in Omaha this year.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

I'm not a detractor for detractor's sake on this one, I just thought it was a little boring and I think its message is a little too grandiose and simplistic to be as affecting as Funeral, which was able to remain specific while being universal. The Suburbs is also a very long record, and I think it suffers for this. I think I'm having the same reaction as I'm having with the National's High Violet. It's a big, beautiful album that just feels like something is missing. Feels a little disingenuous and I don't really know if that's the band's fault, it just seems that with all the effort to execute precision, emotional rawness gets left at the door. Sure, it pops up here and there, and those moments offer a glimpse at how great the album could have been if it didn't feel overwrought.

Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
(Sub Pop)

Blitzen Trapper continue to refine their throwback rock and roll with pretty excellent effect. “The Tree,” which features some of the loveliest harmony vocals all year by Alela Diane, makes me weepy every time I hear it, and the rest of the album makes me want to drink light beer and hang out on the back of a pick-up truck in the 70s. Though Blitzen Trapper tend to have one incredible song every album (Furr had its title track, Wild Mountain Nation had, er, well, maybe that one didn't have one) once their albums sink in they feel a bit light. The songs are great, no doubt, and the band has their craft down, but I still feel like there's something keeping them from becoming a really great band. It's probably originality, but given how well they pull off everything they do, I can't really complain too much.

Wolf Parade – Expo 86
(Sub Pop)

Ah, another wildly different album from Wolf Parade because, thank god, they can't stand still. Though not as strong as At Mount Zoomer, it's much weirder than anything they've done, in both music and lyrics. Spencer Krug's songs are kind of bizarre in the best way and Dan Boekner's are, actually, Boekner's songs are kind of the same fist-pumping Springsteen-esque anthems he's always done, but they're really good here nonetheless. The dancey, synthy, New Ordery vibe is quite cool, and while I wouldn't want Wolf Parade to sound like this forever, this experimentation makes me think that Wolf Parade is becoming the side project to Krug's Sunset Rubdown and Boekner's Handsome Furs. And considering that both those bands have been getting better and better and better, well, Wolf Parade making non-amazing albums is totally acceptable.

So Cow – Meaningless Friendly

Saw these Irish dudes open for Ted Leo and they totally ruled my world. Easily the best opening band I saw all year. Really great, ramshackle poppy punky indie rock with the kind of precise lyrics that I expect from A.) Really good songwriters and B.) Really good Irish and/or Scottish songwriters (they both share that same sort of glumness that I eat up). This is a really fun LP that may as well be the groundwork for this band's breakout, which will hopefully be Meaningless Friendly's follow-up because, well, yeah, these guys are great.

Frog Eyes – Paul's Tomb: A Triumph
(Dead Oceans)

Though as impenetrable as any Frog Eyes records due to Carey Mercer's violent vocals and weirdo songwriting (that is meant as a total compliment), I found myself listening to this a lot earlier in the year. It's good to see they're on Dead Oceans, which is still in my opinion one of the best labels that's yet to totally become a Merge or a Sub Pop or a what have you. It will, and over the past couple years they've been building a strong back catalog. This is another fine addition. This is my contender for album I'm going to regret not putting in the Best of 2010 proper in 2011, I'm sure.

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