EMJ Top 20 Releases of 2010

For the past three years Einstein Music Journal has put together a End Of Year Top 20 list based entirely on the votes of New Zealand musicians. This year we’ve done the same, with a couple of EMJ contributors also adding their top 5 lists to the pile. Throughout November we ask people to list their top 5 releases of the year and at the end of the month we add up all the votes and create the final list. All votes are calculated equally using a grading system based on the position it was listed in each individual’s top 5. We’ll be counting down to #1 over the next ten days.

1

Seth Frightening- The Prince and His Madness

Seth Frightening’s talent was recognised earlier in the year by Jonsi (lead singer of Icelandic pop band Sigur Ros), who asked him to go on tour throughout Australia, but he’s hardly been recognized at home, until now. The Prince and His Madness is an album that you instantly fall for, and it seems as if everyone who bought it or witnessed Seth Frightening play live did so. Sean Kelly, the man behind the madness has the ability and the voice to stand alongside the best musicians in the folk genre. He’s been compared to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and it’s a fair comparison to make. Both have strong, explosive voices, a unique quality missing in many modern folk musicians, and it’s a quality that has defined the genre throughout time, from Woody Guthrie to Daniel Johnston. The Prince and His Madness is unmistakably brilliant; Kelly’s voice is strong and focused, delivering tortured tales of war and injustice, self-possession and discovery. His voice is perfectly produced with a subtle delay effect to enchant and enhance each note, while his guitar and banjo playing is sliced together to form a wonderfully warm backdrop, that at times erupts violently into a dashing emotional outpouring. Drums scattered throughout the album and minimal electronics on a couple of tracks keep it balanced and modern. The Prince and His Madness was recorded using a laptop microphone and was released independently in January 2010 by Sonorous Circle, a label co-owned by Kelly, Thomas Lambert and Matt Faisandier. For a release with such a limited distribution, The Prince and His Madness has managed to achieve acclaim without really trying; it has gained love for all the right reasons, for being a twisted, unique piece of work that’s sincere from start to finish. – Nick

Purchase The Prince and His Madness from Sonorous Circle

Download The Prince and His Madness from Bandcamp

 

2

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti- Before Today

This pop chameleon captures precisely the adventurous spirit I seek in musicians. Ariel Pink, with his band Haunted Graffiti, has an unfaltering will to experiment beyond what’s cool and what’s deemed possible. Abusing preconceived notions of boundaries is his raison d’être, and Before Today couldn’t be a better example of that. Dodging between prog pop, lounge jazz, stadium rock and even easy listening, Ariel Pink takes culturally isolated genres and unites them with everything else he likes. Refusing stigmas, he and his cronies are sure to be misunderstood and even maligned by people who don’t ‘understand’ their ‘weirdo’ tendencies, but if you celebrate differences then you’ll find every track on Before Today a party. Before Today has moments of ridiculous silliness, and will make you grin stupidly. ‘Beverly Kills’ ignites a sense of fun like no pop song on the charts, while noodly interlude ‘Reminiscences’ will stand out as a highlight despite being a quick instrumental interval. I didn’t expect to become as obsessed with this album as I did, but that surprise factor is all part of the fun. Ariel Pink’s long been celebrated by a cult of underground followers; now everyone else has reason to love him too. – Sarah

Purchase Before Today from 4AD

 

3

The National- High Violet

Is High Violet better than The Boxer? Fans seem to think so – the band sold out three shows at Auckland’s Powerstation within days of tickets going on sale. Critics seem to have mixed opinions, although High Violet did achieve more commercial success, suggesting a heightened media buzz. However it’s taken a long time for The National to become properly recognised – they’ve been one of the most consistent bands over the past decade, releasing five deeply moving albums dating back to 2001. The National are a thinking person’s band, while on the surface they appear to be a stock-standard indie rock band, inside each song is perfectly formed sophisticated prose. They’re quite old fashioned, a working man’s band, reciting life in full colour realism without mixing metaphors or complicated poetry. High Violet is deep, dark and moving, steeped in sadness and coated in sullen promiscuity. – Nick

Purchase High Violet from 4AD

 

4

Die! Die! Die!- Form

Form is a true evolution of sound for Dunedin band Die! Die! Die!. It’s an ethereal masterpiece, a pop classic – and it is undeniably pop in structure, approach and style – Die! Die! Die! have shed their outright aggression and replaced it with a mature outlook that’s come from their years of experience. And this is not a bad thing, at all. They’ve built these experiences like they built the wall of sound that makes up the first impression of Form. It’s towering and menacing, but not in the spit-in-your-face directness of Promises, Promises. Rather, it’s gritted teeth, distance and perspective that leave a mark. There’s a new, light feeling in the abundance of atmospheric effects Andrew Wilson uses on his guitar, and Mikey Prain’s drums have a shattering sort of reverb, while Lachlan Anderson’s bass, though spindly as ever, incorporates a newly industrial sounding edge. Form is golden from start to finish, building and receding like a tide, pacing itself perfectly. This album stays with you long after you first hear it. – Sarah

Purchase Form from Flying Nun

 

5

Street Chant- Means

Looking down the list, this may be the only band so far whose reputation has preceded not just their music, but everything about them. This is no bad thing – Emily Littlers’s loudmouth no-bullshit-taken episodes got her band to CMJ. Street Chant’s debut album was the talking point of 2010 in New Zealand and proved for the first time in too long that a band of actual sentient beings can get some recognition around here. Means deserves the title ‘most talked about’ almost as much as ‘most talked’, full stop. It screeches ‘fuck you’ to the haters/players/game just as much as the countless strings they’ve broken live and in Bob Frisbee’s studio. NZ on Air didn’t give them any credit – voters of this list did though. Does Street Chant care? It doesn’t matter. – Michael

Watch ‘Yr Philosophy’ on Youtube

Purchase Means from Arch Hill Recordings

 

6

Beach House- Teen Dream

From the guitar picking on ‘Zebra’ through the swervey rhythms of ‘Norway’ to the orchestral-like chamber chorus of ‘Take Care’, Beach House has crafted the perfect pop album. Victoria Legrand’s voice is strong and tortuous, dominating every track in a way that no other female vocalist has done since Karen O on Show Your Bones. Coincidently both Teen Dream and Show Your Bones were produced by legendary engineer Chris Coady. Legrand’s dominance is what makes this album so striking, along with her organ playing that seems to imitate her every move, while Alex Scally’s personal touches don’t go unnoticed, flooding opening track ‘Zebra’ and the more sombre ‘Better Times’ – Nick

Purchase Teen Dream from Sub Pop Records

 

7

Glass Vaults- Glass

Something you’d perhaps find over on Gorilla Vs Bear; an EP in the end of year list with ethereal nods to Animal Collective. Glass is the only EP to make our 2010 list. Gaining respect for their five unforgettably beautiful tracks, Rowan Pierce and Richard Larsen brought rich textures and layers of electronics together to form what can only be described as one of the most dreamy releases of 2010. Most impressive is how the pair managed to balance minimalism with density, sprawling sounds across a wide spectrum that thud, float and eventually deliver an outpouring of emotion. The music is simple, but it’s the simplicity that delivers so much. – Nick

Purchase or download Glass from Sonorous Circle

8

Deerhunter- Halcyon Digest

Getting ambient and melancholic, the experimental quintet from Atlanta released their most gorgeous album yet this year with Halcyon Digest. Sprinkling guitar melodies lighter than air with quaint otherworldly sounds, swirling atmospherics and a steady shuffle to keep the pace, the album is like an extended dream sequence. It’s centred around Bradford Cox’s magnetic and affected voice, but the luscious layers added around it are as much a focal point too. The band has progressed so much with Halcyon Digest that their previous albums appear very straight forward in comparison. This is an album full of colour and light, taking their at times angular melodies and softening them, extending Cox’s wearied and haggard howl that delivers cryptic stream-of-conscious thoughts, and developing their experimental prog dream-punk further than I ever thought it could go. –Sarah

Purchase Halcyon Digest from 4AD

 

9

Disasteradio- Charisma

In 2010 A Low Hum adopted a new approach to releasing music, making the digital audio free, but offering fans a piece of physical memorabilia for a price. You can download Charisma free, but if you feel like honouring the artist with a payment you can order a giant size fridge magnet. After several years of touring the US and Europe and programming Charisma in his Wellington studio/bedroom, Luke Rowell finally released it in October to a rapturous chorus of feet tapping and twirls. It’s pure excitable chiptune synthpop, ‘Electric Ecstasy’ as the album puts it. From the ridiculously fun ‘Gravy Rainbow’ to the catty ‘No Pulse’, Charisma is a dependable dance record; a modern day Something Beginning With C with a staunch independent presence. – Nick

Download Charisma from A Low Hum

 

10

Best Coast- Crazy For You

Bethany Cosentino’s reverb-drenched, surf-style grunge guitar and ’60s girl group melodies have the kind of innate classic sound that is very wide reaching and appealing. The ex-member of LA’s space droners Pocahaunted, Cosentino shifted to pop with Best Coast and since then she has shot to stardom, with her latest high profile fan said to be Bruce Springsteen. While it must be said that all the songs on Crazy For You seem to share the same subject matter – that of heartbreak, pining and infatuation – which can give the album a samey feel, it’s very much a full album in that she’s taken the concept and run with it. Bethany’s world-weary voice is very strong and clear, and coupled with atmospheric and hard hitting drums underlying the very poppy melodies, the whole sound is very distinctive. Crazy For You is an instant classic and a very enjoyable one at that. – Sarah

Purchase Crazy For You from Mexican Summer Records

 

11

Sharpie Crows- Golf Course/Mass Grave

Sam Bradford’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy; his rants have become vicious and deceitful. Golf Course/Mass Grave was released by Mole Music as two EPs bundled together, representing different phases from the band’s time living in Melbourne, Australia. Unlike their previous two albums, We Fought The Great White Whale and Greed, Golf Course/Mass Grave is more of a jigsaw. The songs don’t quite fit together like a traditional album, but are assorted more like a greatest hits compilation, showing multiple sides of the band’s expanding repertoire, from slow mathematical jams to crusted noise rock ballads. Not long before the release of this album there was a conspiracy that the band had fallen apart, thankfully it was untrue as Golf Course/Mass Grave signals the band’s intention to continue conducting further weirder experiments with their music. – Nick

Download Golf Course/Mass Grave from Bandcamp

 


12

So So Modern- Crude Futures

The Wellington synth experimentalists finally released their long-awaited debut album this year, after a six-year career full of self-released limited run EPs. Adding a weightier, math rock style approach to their hardcore and no wave influenced art pop, the album had a surprising sound, but it was a welcomed one. They’d built their solid fan base on enthusiastic and colourful songs like the intense and self-destructing ‘Upgrade Your Chassis (It’s a Pythagorean Party)’, ‘Loose Threads and Theramins’ and ‘The New Internationale’, and the quirkiness of these almost Devo-esque songs could have possibly begun to wear thin. But updating their sound with new song structures and heavy electronica like the wailing ‘Give Everything’ and the brilliantly urgent and frantic post-punk apocalypse of ‘Dendrons’ to the stomping math rock of ‘Berlin’, they retained their eclectic style while reigning in other influential sounds. It’s sing-along and catchy but also a threatening and wry analysis of a world turned upside down. It was released at the perfect time and simultaneously with a matching exhibition; with the kind of build up and eventual delivery as strong as it was, it’s little wonder they’ve left such a lasting impression. – Sarah

Watch ‘Dusk and Children’ on Youtube

Purchase Crude Futures from Transgressive Records

 

13

Wavves- King Of The Beach

Nathan Williams spins the same wheel that turned inside Brian Wilson’s head before he recorded that Beach Boys album. No, I won’t offend the loyalists out there by putting the two side-by-side. Instead, I’ll point out that instead of Wilson serenely crooning for better seaside times, Williams tiredly growls for some kind of breakthrough to finally beat with the powerful thunder that stretches between your speakers. At 1:32 in ‘Post Acid’, Williams turns his back on his detractors as much as his own self in a crescendo that eventually warps into an over-inflated sarcastic mockery of itself. His hollowed screams have given up on everything except giving up, and he’s so tired of trying to meet expectations that King Of The Beach cracks at the critical breaking point where “my own friends hate me/ but I don’t give a shit”. ‘Fucking up’ now means ‘fuck you’. – Michael

Purchase King Of The Beach

from Fat Possum Records

 

14

Liars- Sisterworld

This otherworldly group has always built their own boundaries with their elaborate concept albums with long winded titles. Sisterworld is no different, returning to this theme after the break that 2007’s self-titled album brought. Musing on the alternate spaces people create in order to survive in Los Angeles, the album is immediately grabbing with its obnoxious noise breaks, contemplative choral sounds and ominous chanting vocals. It’s violent, unpredictable and paranoid, swinging from dreamy psychedelia to scary superstition in an instant. The unnerving, off-key approach in ‘No Barrier Fun’ and lilting melody are fitted with a new orchestral bent, while ‘Drop Dead’ is askew and lurching in the darkness. They’ve come a long way from early songs like ‘Mr You’re On Fire Mr’, which was way more wonky post-punk psych in the vein of Whirlwind Heat than the kind of freaky aggressive experimentation they’re doing now, but with strong interlocking bass lines still prevalent in songs like ‘Here Comes All The People’, they’re steering in a much more adventurous direction now. – Sarah

Purchase Sisterworld from Mute Records

 

15

Dear Time’s Waste- Spells

Claire Duncan’s melodic ear produced Spells, Dear Time’s Waste’s debut album. Harking back to 60’s girl-pop and 80’s bands like Cocteau Twins and The Cure, Duncan gave her music more of a studio sound, filling the songs with classy production allowing for more indie rock moments and less quiet folk numbers which dominated her debut EP Room For Rent. However on Spells it’s still Duncan’s songwriting that stands out above anything else, highlighted by ‘Swallowed’ and the repetitious ‘We Are Where We Were Before’. She has a knack for tangling words into clever little melodies, with singles ‘Blue & Gold’ and ‘These Words Stick Me To You’ suggesting Dear Time’s Waste is a name that belongs abroad, touring America alongside artists like Beach House and Blonde Redhead. – Nick

Watch ‘These Words Stick Me To You’ on Youtube

Purchase Spells from Amplifier

 

16

Das Racist- Shut Up, Dude

This intelligent hip hop trio made one of my favourite albums of the year, and I’ve craved Shut Up, Dude pretty much on a daily basis since I first heard it. It’s a hugely surprising and fun album. Blending hysterically funny lyrics about everything in pop culture, from Condé Nast Publications to fast food chains to fake Jamaicans, and spanning normally genre-confined sounds with no regard to convention, Das Racist manages to retain an incredibly cohesive flow throughout. The simple base melodies that underline every song never consist of more than a few notes, though there are the more melodically adventurous tracks scattered throughout, like ‘You Oughta Know’ which has an exciting familiarity merged with a very fresh and funny approach. Shut Up, Dude also includes one of my favourite songs of the year, ‘Rainbow In The Dark’, not to mention the one-of-a-kind cult foodchain rap ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’ which members Himanshu, Ashok and Victor originally made up on the spot at a show to please an eager crowd. I can’t imagine them struggling to write these songs, their breathless urgency and ideas tumbling out in an almost disorienting speed is inspiring. No matter how many times I listen to Das Racist, certain lines from their songs still make me smile every time I hear them – “Catch me at the crib getting light to Jeff Mangum, it’s fun to do bad things like rhyme about handguns” and, “Yeah we’re getting gruyère, as if we care, we could eat roquefort” and, “I’m in the building, building with Belding, ask for whom the bell rings”. Das Racist translates the boredom of modern life into something fun, they contemplate the ridiculousness of bigotry and they constantly push the envelope of silliness and creativity. And that, to me, deserves a high five. – Sarah

Download Shut Up, Dude from Bandcamp

 

17

Joanna Newsom- Have One On Me

Joanna Newsom’s opus. A triple album with six tracks on each; the majority of which run past five minutes. Have One On Me has been categorised as Newsom’s most commercial release but it’s also her most ambitious. Here she’s expanded her instrumental repertoire, adding drums and full orchestral arrangements to give her music a new dimension. She also returns to playing piano, something she hasn’t done since 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender. It’s reported that due to health problems Newsom’s voice sounds different on this record; having lost much of the high pitched siren like harshness of her previous two records, she now has a more traditional sounding delivery reminiscent of Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell. – Nick

Purchase Have One On Me from Drag City

 

18

Flying Lotus- Cosmogramma

The master of hip-hop production in the post-Dilla era, Steven Ellison’s third album saw him moving in a more spacey, free-flowing direction, claiming the sound as his own and leaving behind the dogging references to the legendary J Dilla. It’s safe to say, Ellison is now the master of digital Jazz. Cosmogramma is in part dedicated to his Aunt, jazz legend Alice Coltrane, and throughout the album you can hear elements of that influence, be it digitalized into ray gun blasts or played through scratchy synths. The album is complex in its genetic make-up but unlike previous Flying Lotus records it’s a smoother ride, transitioning between tracks effortlessly and relentlessly bashing you with it’s vast instrumental capabilities. – Nick

Purchase Cosmogramma from Warp Records

 

19

Sufjan Stevens- The Age Of Adz

Sufjan Stevens intensified and electrified his orchestral dream pop this year on The Age of Adz, a shocking although not entirely untoward move by the pop maestro famed for his experimentation. Lead single ‘Too Much’ zaps and pows like a ray gun, with clap tracks that staccato in their echos and grandiose reverb layers. It’s over the top but Sufjan’s never been one for mildness. The choral elements take me back to his breakout album Come On Feel The Illinoise, which will always hold a place in my heart. The Age of Adz doesn’t have such classic songs as Illinoise‘s ‘Jacksonville’ or ‘Chicago’, but it’s a different kind of epic. Here the October-released album gets one of those soon-to-be-touring-artists votes, though it has to be said, despite that, the pop opus is definitely deserving of recognition. – Sarah

Purchase The Age of Adz from Asthmatic Kitty Records

 

20

Toro Y Moi- Causers of This

I feel inclined to kick off this year’s end of year list with a quote from someone who voted for Toro Y Moi. It was not a requirement to justify your choices, but Joseph Harper from Christchurch band Canterbury Rams gave us this rather amusing commentary.  “I feel like the amount of NBA trading cards in my youth (massive) has left me scarred with this deep-seated and heavily repressed ‘jungle fever’. As such I can’t get enough of Toro Y Moi (a.k.a Chazwick Bundick (What the fuck?)) and his album Causers of This. Maybe it’s the sick beats. Maybe it’s his warped VCR production aesthetic. Maybe it’s just the fact that the guy is the best looking person in America. I don’t know. It’s good. The only thing I don’t like, is saying ‘chillwave’. Post-motown.” – Nick

Purchase Causers Of This from Carpark Records

Thanks to the following band members/musicians for voting: Secret Knives, Timothy Blackman, Dear Time’s Waste, Bear Cat, Ghost Wave, Artisan Guns, Wet Wings, Diana Rozz, Mothers Of Darkness, Roy Irwin, Grass Cannons, Bang Bang Eche, Natural Glow, O’Lovely, Kitsunegari, These Dancing Wolfs, Mammal Airlines, Body 125, Canterbury Rams, Sherpa, Hypercolour, Grayson Gilmour, Brains, The Ruby Suns, Shipwreck, Kittentank, Crackhouse 5, Hairdos, 1995, Disasteradio, Glass Vaults, Lisa Crawley, Ocelot, Milkshake Cowboys, Glass Owls, Pikachunes, Damsels, Nevernudes, Widows, The Map Room, Postures, The Body Lyre, Sharpie Crows, Mr Biscuits, Fatangryman, Chris Rakete, Radio Over Moscow, Hussies, Thought Creature, Old Grey Wolf, Idiot Prayer, God Bows To Math, So So Modern

Posted by Nick Fulton under New Zealand
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