Monthly Archives: December 2010

Best Albums of 2010

Here we go, another look back at the music that made 2010 more bearable and more awesome. Admittedly, the past couple of months have been made more difficult by my laptop video card being on the fritz (and thus removing me from my iTunes lifeline), so this list is compiled with a slight handicap and without some of the extras I’ve included in years past.

Also, this year, I tethered my effort closely to the second annual Higher Ed Music Critics collaboration, where 10 higher ed web marketing professionals and music nerds came together to collectively determine the best 50 albums of the year. Here’s the rundown: 51-21926-501-25

Listed below are my own top 50 of the year. As usual, feel free to agree/disagree/debate/recommend in the comments! (For historical reference, here’s where I was mid-year.)

  1. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – Here Lies Love – I was drawn to this album by the amazing and diverse list of contributors (Florence Welch, Steve Earle, Cyndi Lauper, Kate Pierson, Sharon Jones and Allison Moorer, to name a few) and was held rapt by the stories they told about the life of Imelda Marcos and the disco-infused beats and melodies that swirled around them. A fascinating project and an incredible collection of music, this is currently my favorite album of the year.
  2. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More – From the moment I first heard the driving tour de force that is “Little Lion Man” on WERS, I was sold. The edgy amalgam of Americana-meets-UK folk rock is a galloping, emotional headrush. Their songs pulse with life and urgency and won’t be denied. This album feels essential, in part because the members of the band play and sing as if their lives depended on it.
  3. Tracey Thorn – Love and its Opposite – My friend Tim was raving about this album by the lead woman from Everything But the Girl, so I had to check it out. After listening through once streaming online, I had to buy it at the next available opportunity. Her voice is hypnotic, and these powerful songs are full of elegance and verve.
  4. The Love Language – Libraries – The Love Language‘s “Libraries” recalls what I fell in love with about bands like The Kissaway Trail and Wild Light: earnest, melodic, and rich tracks, which founder Stuart McLamb calls “emotional fight songs.” One of my happiest surprises of the year.
  5. John Shade – All You Love is Need – Shade, a Boston-area artist, approaches acoustic pop perfection. His songs ring true, seemingly coming from a genuine place without guile or malice.  (Bonus: You can download his album for free, or name your own price.)
  6. The National – High Violet – Is it boring to say that The National have created yet another masterpiece, and that there is little one can offer in the way of critique for their fifth full-length album? Matt Berninger continues to confound and mesmerize, and he and his bandmates continue to expertly weave their layers of lush and compelling songcraft. No, something this captivating can’t be boring.
  7. New Pornographers – Together – This album took a while to grow on me, as I wrote about previously, since I was blinded by my love for “Challengers.” But, like I said, this may be the fullest realization of the band to date. Neko Case really steps out and shines (not that we needed to know she was a gem), and Dan Bejar is at his most accessible. And A.C. Newman continues to steer his pop ship in enlightening directions.
  8. Yeasayer – Odd Blood – I liked their debut, but this album really catapulted Yeasayer onto a new level. A delightful blizzard of beeps and blips swirls around a strong crop of songs. And I won’t lie and say that “Ambling Alp” didn’t guide me through a few personally frustrating moments: “Now, the world can be an unfair place at times / But your lows will have their complement of highs … You must stick up for yourself, son / Never mind what anybody else done.”
  9. Cloud Cult – Light Chasers – One of the most unabashedly sincere and true-hearted bands in indie rock offers up another winner, facing complex issues of love and grief and longing head-on, armed only with lush melodies and dynamic songcraft.
  10. School of Seven Bells – Disconnect From Desire – A huge leap forward from their debut, which in itself was a stellar album. Captivating and transcendent.
  11. Stars – The Five Ghosts
  12. Hot Chip – One Life Stand
  13. Jenny and Johnny –  I’m Having Fun Now
  14. The Acorn – No Ghost
  15. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
  16. Vampire Weekend – Contra
  17. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
  18. The Kissaway Trail – Sleep Mountain
  19. Marching Band – Pop Cycle
  20. Versus – On the Ones and Threes
  21. Weakerthans and Jim Bryson – The Falcon Lake Incident
  22. Magnetic Fields – Realism
  23. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
  24. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows
  25. Girl Talk – All Day
  26. Sleigh Bells – Treats
  27. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Up From Below
  28. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
  29. Freelance Whales – Weathervanes
  30. Freedy Johnston – Rain on the City
  31. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  32. Spoon  – Transference
  33. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network score
  34. Laura Veirs – July Flame
  35. Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer
  36. We Are Scientists – Barbara
  37. Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs
  38. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
  39. Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother?
  40. Nada Surf – If I Had a Hi-Fi
  41. The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
  42. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
  43. Eels – End Times
  44. Broken Bells – Broken Bells
  45. Mates of State – Crushes
  46. John Hiatt – The Open Road
  47. Kingsley Flood – Dust Windows
  48. Static of the Gods – Knowledge Machine
  49. The Morning Benders – Big Echo
  50. The Futureheads – Chaos
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Take Five: The Soul-Searching Edition

New Releases

Finds of the Week

  • Jens Lekman performed some new songs at a recent live gig in Los Angeles, including his ode to Kirsten Dunst. 
  • The Cars are teasing some new songs on their Facebook page. Seems like the formula still works.
  • Fountains of Wayne, uncrowned kings of power pop, are still at it,releasing songs about New Jersey rivers and sitting on a finished album waiting for a label to come around and realize how awesome they are. FoW’s Adam Schlesinger is also playing shows in California with Mike Viola on Dec. 15 and 16. (So… jealous…)
  • Check out the absolutely perfect little love song that one blogger calls “the next ‘Anyone Else But You'” — Penny and the Quarters’ “You and Me.”
  • Wednesday, Dec. 8, was the 30 year anniversary of John Lennon’s death. On the way back from Norwood in the Zipcar, I was listening to the replay of Lennon’s last interview (which will be published in its entirely in the next issue of Rolling Stone), conducted just hours before his death in New York City. It was stirring, haunting but also inspiring. Bill Janovitz, aptly, marked the occasion with a song — a cover of “Beautiful Boy” — and some choice words:”It brings me a lot of comfort to believe in John Lennon the artist, as a demi-god, the life he presented to us as maybe part of the art, but no less real. He was showing a version of how to age and become a father to a generation. It brings me great comfort to think of John as a softening man and a nurturing father to a baby and then young boy. And it therefore brings me great pain to think of his murder and the loss of a father who can write a song such as this for his son.”

Around the Web

In the News

Second Thoughts

Things are changing around here. Again.

For a while, as you might have been able to tell, I fancied turning “Take Five” into a real column, interviewing interesting people involved in some way with music in addition to regular link/commentary digests such as this one. At the same time, my blogging at GeorgyCohen.com has really ramped up. The problem is, I only have so much time.

In addition, I missed the blogging I did here back in the day, way back in 2009 — it was more reflective, more personal. To me, that is an enticing complement to my more professional banter elsewhere.

So, what does this mean? It means I am relieving myself of the burdens of a schedule and expectations around “Take Five” and my music blogging aspirations. Right now, I only want to deal with one blog with an editorial calendar, and I want a space where I can write about a neat walk I took, my latest realizations about family and, yes, music — but when I want to, and how I want to. I think the expectations and structure I was placing around “Take Five” choked the life out of the rest of what this blog had become (and, most importantly, meant to me).

I still remember the feeling of euphoria I felt after my first “Take Five” post. I hadn’t written about music in a long while, and starting this feature was a way of recommitting to music writing. And it rejuvenated me. So, maybe it’s dangerous to ease up on the structure that “Take Five” imposes during a time in my life when I have been somewhat removed from music, thanks to the balky laptop monitor. But I’m also at a point where I need to pick and choose the structures in my life, in order to keep things manageable. So don’t worry, music writing won’t disappear. But like all things, this is a work in progress, so expect to see some changes. Hopefully all for the better.

Take Five: Rock Shop #9 – Design Shop

On Nov. 22, the ninth installment of Rock Shop took place at the Middle East Downstairs. This time, the focus was design – web design, graphic design, style, you name it. Design is not one of my strong suits, so I was interested to hear from a designer’s perspective what a client – in this case, a band, though the feedback was broadly applicable – should keep in mind when thinking about their visual branding.

The panelists — many of whom said they got into design by taking on such responsibilities for their own bands back in the day — included:

Aaron Belyea (Alphabet Arm)
Gary Hedrick (ElefhantWorks)
Liz Linder (Liz Linder Photography)
Marc Beaupre (Beagle Printing)
Marcus Ohanesian (Perfect Evolution)

As always, Rock Shop organizer Steve Theo of Pirate! moderated the discussion, which covered the following points:

Preparation: Ohanesian emphasized that the top thing they would advice a client to do to prepare for hiring a designer is to think about the project, not just how much it’s going to cost (that can be affected by variables ranging from content management to complex Flash programming). As Linder put it, doing it right the first time will get you where you’re going much more quickly — a good design is an investment in your future, so value the process. Ideally, said Ohanesian, the client brainstorms first, then calls a designer and brainstorms with the designer. Belyea echoed this, urging clients to do their homework and come up with a concept to share with the designer. It’s on the designers to balance their expertise with the clients’ desires.

Research: Hedrick likes to get in the client’s head, sometimes by pretend he’s in a band with them, just hanging out. He said he learns more from the first 10 or 15 minutes with a client by talking about completely unrelated topics. Belyea said he often asks bands who they would ideally tour with, to get a sense of where they want to push themselves.

Linder, the photographer on the panel, recommended that clients bring in reference images of things they like, as well as things they hate. The process should ideally arrive at the unique message that the client wants to communicate about itself. And if you don’t know what you want? “Try,” said Linder. “It’s all research.”

With bands, music is important. That is the main way they communicate who they are to the world. So, for designers, it is critical to become acquainted with their clients’ music. Belyea said, “We won’t work on a record until we hear the music.” “Music is key,” added Linder. “It’s why we’re all here.” Immersing in the music is part of building the relationship with the client, and achieving the goal of making the client look good.

Efficiency: They urged clients to look at the designer’s time as  a commodity not to be wasted — clearly communicate up front to the designer what you want and like and why you want and like it, rather than waste hours of time in back-and-forths over e-mail. In addition, Liz suggested that one person in the band should manage and own the design process, since not everyone in the band will agree on visual matters. As Hedrick put it, there are two types of bands: democracies and dictatorships. It is most helpful if the band can work as an organism, in order to get things done smoothly.

Branding: “Your band is your brand,” said Linder. An album is a mini-brand within a brand. With design, she added, you are trying to package brand awareness, since people are used to experiencing things at the brand level. The best clients are the ones who get that. Hedrick brought up a few examples from different points on the brand spectrum: Fishbone and Metallica, with their highly recognizable logos; Jane’s Addicition, which has a new brand with each new release; and Fugazi, which champions the anti-brand. Part of branding is a communicating a “feel” that lets people know that this is your band.

Bands, said Linder, should put as much attention into their visual branding as they put into their music, since you need to make an impact to stand out from the crowd. Linder said that if you have money to spend, spare the “cranes and elephants” in your music video and invest in a solid logo instead. “The masses are asses,” said Beaupre, all the more reason is craft distinctive brand awareness. One interesting example that came up a couple time is how powerful visual branding can bind otherwise temporal, ethereal media. When someone snaps a cameraphone pic of a great opening band, if they look at that pic later and see the band name on the drum kit, they can follow up and download songs, look for the band’s next live date, etc.