5 Great Musical Releases from 2010 You May Have Missed
2010 has ended and the “best of the year” lists have been posted. Nearly everyone’s raving about Kanye’s new album, 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,' (and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t among them) and great albums from Joanna Newsom, Arcade Fire, Janelle Monae, and others are getting their due. But among the obvious picks and consensus favorites, I was also delighted to see lots of obscurities and unknowns on major lists. Here are a few of those less prominent releases that I enjoyed quite a bit that you may have missed last year.
Blake only just graduated from college at Goldsmiths, but he's already made a huge name for himself in his native Britain. The word is beginning to spread internationally. Starting with his remixes and muddy electronica, Blake emerged from the UK Grime and Dubstep scene at the end of 2009 as an up-and-coming DJ to watch. His three EPs of 2010, released in March, May, and October, did not disappoint. Each more genre bending than the last, Blake developed not just as a producer and soundscape artist over the course of the three releases, but he also blossomed as a gifted songsmith. He did it all with a huge audience and no small amount of pressure. Grime and Dubstep are not genres renowned for their general accessibility, and one of the remarkable things about Blake is his development of a sound that will have general appeal without losing his genre-specific bona fides.
In addition to the three excellent EPs, a single from his self-titled debut full-length was released in November and revealed even greater depths. The cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love" is both unexpected and disarmingly gorgeous and poignant. His voice has a raw and intimate quality that rivals Justin Vernon and the song blends a beautiful piano arrangement with subtle yet foreboding ambient electronic beats. There's so much more that can be said, but I'll wait until he releases his album next month.
ceo: White Magic
Swedish musicians (singing in English) have been more and more successful on the U.S. indie scene lately (Peter Bjorn and John, Robyn, jj, Lykke Li, Dungen, and the Shout Out Louds), and even though Robyn had the best pop album of the year, ceo’s Eric Burglund deserves an honorable mention for a notable release. Burgland is half of the boisterous duo The Tough Alliance, and his solo project was a resounding success. Adding strings and a richer bottom end than I’d heard from TTA, ceo’s debut shows a deft ability to craft pop hooks on unusual string instruments, create booming house beats, and integrate interesting and well chosen samples into his work all at the same time. The album is only eight tracks (or nine if you buy the iTunes special edition) but the maximalist aesthetic helps it feel like it fills more space.
A lot of the albums I liked this year were sort of morose or self-serious—that’s a common critique of critically acclaimed art in general—but ceo has a sense of playfulness and a jovial party ambiance that makes the work hard to dislike. Probably the best way to get a sense of ceo’s sound is to check out his cover of Beyonce’s “Halo.” The original is a pop masterwork, but Burgland strips away the vocal acrobatics and expands on the hook at the heart of the song, supporting it with a lush synth backdrop and savvy instrumentation.
Raheem DeVaughn: The Love and War Masterpeace
This album seemed like a hit when it came out last spring, but I haven’t seen much of it since then. DeVaughn’s third album seemed primed for success on the heels of a solid debut and a charted, Grammy-nominated follow-up. The Love and War Masterpeace opens with an anointment from the Bluesman/Philosopher Cornel West and takes off immediately with a great track containing guest Ludacris’ best politicized verse I’ve heard in some time. The whole album is saddled with DeVaughn’s political pronouncements and wordplay, but his infectious melodies and beautiful voice never take a backseat, instead giving emotional texture and heft to his calls for uplift for the Black and poor. What could come off as heavy handed and derivative is instead affecting and powerful. This is my favorite R&B album since Musiq Soulchild’s 2007 “Luvanmusiq” and I hope it burns long, even if it didn’t burn very bright. You should be sure to check out the music video to “Bulletproof” (Feat. Ludacris).
The Morning Benders: Big Echo
Many of the albums that made an impression on me this year were described using adjectives like “genre-defying,” “original,” “unique,” etc. I wouldn’t use any of these adjectives to describe The Morning Benders sophomore album. It’s indie-rock, straight up, with standard instrumentation, cleaver lyrics and pretty vocal harmonies backed by slightly off-kilter guitar and drum work. But, even though the album doesn’t break any new ground, it doesn’t tell us what direction music will go in next, it doesn’t have any grand thematic concept, it’s still a great album. The song craft is excellent, the harmonies tight, the musicianship precise and un-showy and many of the songs delightful and lyrically relatable.
What shifts the release from a tidy and well-constructed genre work to a great album, though, is the production. The sonic texture is delightful, the mix is both clean and lush, and both the individual instruments and the full songs sound like they’ve been lovingly shaped by a skilled producer. The muddy, lo-fi filter on the drums in the opening track under the strings, the slight fuzz on the vocals, the balance between acoustic and electric guitars – all of it is great without any to-do whatsoever. In a year that saw Kanye’s fussiest release to date, this kind of subtle production is priceless. Be sure to check out the excellent live video of “Excuses.”
Though the mix was finalized (and leaked and shown in a gallery) in 2009, this album was in legal purgatory (due to residual battles over Danger Mouse’s Grey Album) until Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous took his own life last spring. The album was released in the somber aftermath as a sort of tribute, but never got much pick up, despite its broad range of collaborators.
The album was the result of a professional respect that developed into a recording partnership between Linkous and Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton). Linkous had a bunch of songs he wanted to record, but didn’t like his voice on, and enlisted Danger Mouse to produce collaborations with other vocalists. The project unfurled from there including contributions from the Flaming Lips, Black Francis, James Mercer, Iggy Pop, Vic Chesnutt (who took his own life only a few months before Linkous), Suzanne Vega, and, most notably, director and multimedia artist David Lynch. Lynch not only contributed vocals to several tracks, but also did a full photo series (which was suitably surreal and Lynchian) that was displayed with the music in a Los Angeles gallery in 2009.
The album is suitably intriguing considering its storied development. The production is as virtuosic and meticulous as we’ve come to expect from Danger Mouse, the songs are beautiful and haunting in typical Sparklehorse fashion, and the vocal/lyrical guest contributions range from merely good to truly great. It’s a hell of an album and the photo series suitably compliments the project. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.