Some Stuff We Liked in 2010
Matthew Dear, Black City
One of the worst albums that over-the-hill musicians can make (and there are only a half-dozen different albums they can make; if they can do anything else, they're not over-the-hill) is the "hey guys I discovered electronics" album, like that Paul McCartney trance thing that came out years ago that I never listened to because it's a Paul McCartney trance thing. Matthew Dear doesn't sound anything like that as far as I know, but it's the best example I've heard of someone coming from techno to make something more rock-influenced, with vocal hooks and more traditional song structures. (Note: I don't mean "techno" as in "this has electronics in it and I know nothing about music so I will call it techno solely based on this fact," I mean techno techno, Detroit-influenced etc. etc.) Because of this background, the guy knows his way around electronic rhythms, and Black City comes out mostly danceable, occasionally intense and always melodic, with great basslines. -kcw (this is his page of recommendations)
Sightings, City of Straw
I'm grouping these together because they form the holy trinity of albums that are most likely to be disliked by the readership of this fine site. Daughters and Slices are noise-rock bands of slightly different lineages, with Daughters going for more of a Jesus Lizard-biting bite, and Slices alternating between noisy hardcore and odd between-song ambient pieces (though to be honest, they would have made a better EP without those). Sightings don't pummel like those bands do, sounding more like a harder version of early Throbbing Gristle with more guitars, so if you still like 20 Jazz Funk Greats but think it can sound rather timid and dated at times (it can), try it out. Everyone else, just smile happily and move on to something less intimidating, such as "any other music released this year."
Dum Dum Girls, I Will Be
It's fairly tough to defend this on principle, because it's basically a revival of a sub-genre (jangly '80s/'90s lo-fi twee) that was, itself, just combining then-modern ideas with '60s pop. The most surprising thing, for me, is that they got Richard Gottehrer, the songwriter of "My Boyfriend's Back," to produce this: He's either really devoted himself to the aesthetic that Dum Dum Girls was already pointed toward or else he's just a godawful producer. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he realizes that it sounds as though there wasn't a producer anywhere nearby, because the end result is wonderful.
Sleigh Bells, Treats
This was probably the most divisive album to come out this year, mostly because a lot of people have come to expect gentle cooing and restrained rocking (like a cradle going back and forth) from their indie guitar bands. These people were unprepared for the genuine loudness of Treats, but I can respect that. It's not for them. It's a taste difference. What I can't respect is an objection to the other sort of loudness that's all over the record, which is the mastering/LOUDNESS WAR argument against how it sounds, to which I tell people shut up shut up shut up.
If you don't like how it sounds, that's not an excuse to rail against "music these days" or rant about how it would be better if it had dynamics, because you can't pick apart bits and pieces of something that is so cohesive. That's the point of the album. It's loud. It makes your head hurt by how hard it kicks. When the drums hit, the guitars duck down in volume to make room, and that's the best part of any riff-based rock album in years. Digital distortion is the new feedback; it might sound disorienting, but it's supposed to. It's supposed to sound like music isn't supposed to sound. It wasn't some evil engineer pumping up the volume on the "A/B Machines" vocals to make them clipped and distorted; that's just how the music sounds. I'm sure a bunch of people were mad at the shrieking sounds that came out of speakers when bands started using feedback, too. Can't you hold the guitars farther away from the amps to avoid that noise?
Kylesa, Spiral Shadow
This is a metal band doing its best to cross over into shoegazey indie-rock territory, which is fantastic news for indie nerds like me who don't know the first thing about metal, because now I get to torment long-time metal fans with my newfound appreciation of the Southern sludgy-style riffs Kylesa employs, and of metal in general. Hey guys, have you heard of this band named Mastodon? They're pretty obscure so you might not know them, but they sound kinda similar to Black Sabbath, I guess, except better since Sabbath wasn't very good. Anyway, this is an album that you should definitely get if you're someone who likes rock but dislikes metal, just to see if you can Expand Your Musical Horizons. It's even accessible enough to have completely lifted a guitar line from Smashing Pumpkins, which means that... okay to be honest I have no clue what's going on anymore if that sort of cultural crossover is occurring.