Stephen Slaybaugh

Top 10 Albums

I find it hard to believe that anyone would think 2010 was a banner year for music. With flops from once trusted big names and the continual predilection for style over substance in the “underground,” this past 12 months has been marked by a dearth of compelling new sounds. To call out a few, Arcade Fire made an album that lived up to its name by being as boring and dull as suburbia, Spoon released what sounds like a set of demos, and don’t even get me started on the turgid ball of wax and Haircut One Hundred revivalism that is Vampire Weekend. In seeing what passed for creativity (especially in gleaning other 2010 recaps elsewhere), it’s unbelievable the shit that passed for shinola.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and the list below proves that. These are records that captured my imagination, and each artist seemed intent to create something that transcended time or trend.

Zola Jesus
Stridulum ep and Valusia ep
Sacred Bones

While the haunted sounds of operatically trained Nika Roza Danilova (a.k.a. Zola Jesus) were captivating even in their noisy pubescent state, this year she came into her own with two outstanding EPs that cleared away the debris to let her vocals stand in sharp contrast to the soaring backing. Songs like Stridulum’s “Night” and Valusia’s “Sea Talk” are majestic outpourings of emotion and mood.

Surf City

Lots of newbies have attempted to mine the golden pop sound of the peaks in the Flying Nun catalog, but it took this young bunch of Kiwis to provide a worthy revision. After a promising self-titled debut EP, the band finally delivered a full-length late this year, and it was worth the wait. Surf City juxtaposes gilded guitar melodies with noisy asides that live up to their New Zealand lineage.

Brian Eno
Small Craft on a Milk Sea

After spending the last couple decades biding his time between producing and making records that were either “conventional” (by Eno standards) or highly conceptual, Brian Eno finally made a suitable follow-up to his benchmark ambient work of the ’70s. Created with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, Small Craft on a Milk Sea is a masterwork of textural subtlety and moody organicism on par with Music for Films.

The Soft Pack
The Soft Pack

In a year when most bands seemed to rely on gimmicks of one sort or another, San Diego’s Soft Pack played it straight. The result was an invigorated rush of lyrical and musical hooks. Their self-titled full-length never ceased to sound brash, and was a welcome elixir amongst so much artificiality.

Majesty Shredding

While the band will tell you they never went away, it did take nine years—a period of time almost equal to half the band’s lifespan—for Superchunk to release a new album. Thankfully, the record is one of their best, combining the spunk of their early years with the developed songwriting skills they acquired earlier this century.

Dum Dum Girls
I Will Be
Sub Pop/Hozac

The Dum Dum Girls (a one-girl bedroom project turned full-band) entered the fray of bands taking the JAMC-cum-Spector aesthetic and running with it. With Richard Gotteher lending a hand to this debut, though, the Dum Dum Girls were miles ahead, with Dee Dee (the Dum Dum mastermind) showing her innate ability to write songs that are undeniably neoteric while echoing the past.

Electric Sunset
Electric Sunset

While the death of Desolation Wilderness was disappointing, the upside was that the band’s dissolution allowed Nic Zwart to make an outstanding debut record as Electric Sunset. Shiny synth tones coalesce with glistening guitars to create wondrous pop that usurps the waves of also-rans.

Total Life Forever
Sub Pop

One’s tempted to call Foals’ sophomore effort an expansion of the terse, jagged terrain found on the band’s debut, Antidotes. The problem with that analogy, though, is there are very few remnants of that record in Total Life Forever’s inflated pop. The group has created a new universe, one where Mr. Roboto and paranoid androids have retired along a coast of crystalline tones and majestic gestures. With singer Yannis Philippakis tapping into a psychic unease that’s at times both celebratory (“Miami,” “This Orient”) and harrowing (“Black Gold,” “Spanish Sahara”), the album is a coalescing of post-millennial anxiety and 21st century pop eclecticism that’s absolutely breathtaking.

Gil Scott-Heron
I’m New Here

Gil Scott-Heron has long been heralded as a hip-hop luminary, with songs/poems like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon” seen as sewing the seeds for subsequent generations of rappers. However, outside of their cultural context, those early recordings sound somewhat primitive, while his later work from the ’70s and ’80s also comes off dated. In truth, he’s never made a record that truly captured his legend. Until this year. XL owner Richard Russell’s pastiches of electronic beats and moody sonic landscapes are the perfect pairing to Gil’s gritty and poignant storytelling.

The Fresh & Onlys
Play It Strange
In the Red

The prolific Fresh & Onlys returned with another full-length, this time incorporating higher fidelity to help accentuate their fluid melding of psychedelic pop and garage-blend rock. The result is nothing fancy, but each of the 11 songs’ undeniable appeal makes for a timeless album and both the band’s and this year’s best.