Best Albums of 2010 (Part 1)

* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Continuing the 5:4 retrospective, and after probably far too much deliberation, here are the first twenty of my forty Best Albums of 2010 (to be concluded tomorrow):

40 | Jenks Miller and Nicholas Szczepanik – American Gothic
Barely suppressed abrasion is the undercurrent throughout this fruitful collaboration. The context for it couldn’t be more gentle; “Sin Killers”, for example, suspends the rough edges as in a viscous liquid. But when the noise senses freedom, it’s like a bull at a gate; at first, in “White Light”, it emerges in fits and starts, but ultimately runs amok in final track “Cranberry Sauce”, turning its exquisitely beautiful stasis into an overwhelming torrent of effluvial overdrive.

39 | Supersilent – 10
Last year’s 9 proved conclusively that there was life for Supersilent after Jarle Vespestad’s departure, and its successor goes even farther. It’s Arve Henriksen’s astonishing trumpet-work that dominates this album, by turns evanescent (“10.1”), claustrophobic (“10.6”), and lyrical (“10.8” – one of this year’s most beautiful tracks), but at no point sounding remotely like a conventional trumpet. The evocative use of organ and electronics takes turns in both background and foreground; restraint is the watchword, though, only very occasionally protruding more forcefully, as in the bass thuds of the penultimate track.

38 | Talvihorros – Music in Four Movements
Talvihorros—the pseudonym of London musician Ben Chatwin—was a new name to me this year. The control demonstrated on his latest album is impressive, identifiable sources firmly melded into more abstract, gritty textures. The focus isn’t always maintained, but the intensity Chatwin brings to his music is weighty and keeps things engaging. Third track “Thoughts of Violence” stands out most, staving off its climax for over ten minutes, but all the better for it.

37 | Greg Haines – Until the Point of Hushed Support
A four-minute introduction which spends half that time at the limits of audibility is a bold way to start an album. Lush, stately lyricism follows (stylistically akin to Jóhann Jóhannsson), but it’s the breathtaking third track “In the Event of a Sudden Loss” that remains with me most. Ponderous and expansive, much of its time is spent in search of just which ideas are the meaningful ones; it’s almost like an overture in search of a tune, but what it finds instead is a cortège, from which a plangent counterpoint—borne on emotive soaring violins—struggles in vain to develop.

36 | The Silesian String Quartet – getString
The year’s most exhilarating chamber music release seems to have fallen under the radar of most reviewers. It showcases a cluster of Danish composers, their respective quartets bound together in a series of brief electronic studies by Morten Riis. The spirit of Helmut Lachenmann seems to permeate many of the pieces, which, despite being far removed from conventional styles and manners, avoid lapsing into mere novelty and empty gestures. Perhaps most striking is Jexper Holmen’s Intend/Ascend, an epic struggle placing the players at the limits of their instruments (or should that be the instruments at the limits of their players?); in Holmen’s words, “the music burns through the surface of the instruments…”.

35 | Noveller – Desert Fires
Sarah Lipstate’s latest album finds her in ambivalent mood, her trademark drones sometimes allowed to rise and expand untroubled, elsewhere worried and tickled by any number of surface anomalies. The layers of guitar make the fires in her particular desert blaze with a kind of tempered ferocity, heard to best effect in the central tracks “Kites Calm Desert Fires” and “Toothnest (For Chris Habib)”. Lipstate evokes a rawness—even, perhaps, a primitivity—in her album that makes one feel drawn into a kind of intimate ceremony.

34 | Supersilent – 11
This vinyl-only release continues the ponderings put forward on 8, the material dating back to those sessions. There are times when it emerges into the most accessible of places—as in the soft tonality of “11.2”—while elsewhere (“11.4”) a more strident post-rock mood predominates. All the same, Supersilent have already shown the brilliance they’re capable of sans Jarle Vespestad, and it’s in the ascetic, drumless “11.5” that they seem to reach their most transcendent heights.

33 | Ekca Liena – Sleep Paralysis (Expansion Tracks)
Dan Mackenzie’s 2009 Sleep Paralysis was good; these half dozen “Expansion Tracks”, offcuts and alternatives to those originals (and available free here), are, if anything, even better. The first three capture and sustain distinct atmospheres, whereupon “Paralysis (Version 2)” launches into a slow but vast crescendo, sloughing off all traces of the beats from the original, preferring a darkly acidic stasis. Closing track “Sleep (Minimal)” shows how comfortable Mackenzie is with material poles apart, its single chord allowed to drift and shimmer for almost nine minutes, captivating the ear through every one of them.

32 | Autechre – Oversteps
Considerable aggravation dogged the release of Autechre’s first album in two years, an ostensible leak turning out to be an ill-considered fake, resulting in a wave of suspicion and uncertainty that persisted even after the genuine article had appeared. What all that hullabaloo highlighted most was Autechre’s ongoing ability to take their audience by surprise; expecting the unexpected is unavoidable, a condition rare among today’s welter of beat-fiends. But Messrs. Booth and Brown are masters of their craft; Oversteps seems to hark back to Untilted in the way it takes sounds and gestures rooted in dance music and turns them inside out, forming exotic, unfolding percussion-scapes that beguile and entrance; dancing has never been more beside the point.

31 | Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
Opening his latest album with the unstoppable onslaught that is “Nil Admirari” (“to be astonished by nothing”) isn’t just a bold move; considering the rest of Returnal sounds nothing like it, it’s a mischievous, even recalcitrant decision. To some extent (and whether or not this was intentional is debatable), this first track serves to cleanse one’s aural palate; either way, what follows is unavoidably coloured by it, the exquisite stillness and determined quietude of the remaining tracks enhanced in its wake. Immediate successor “Describing Bodies” is a case in point, glowing with the intensity of gold leaf on an ikon; and even when noise makes discreet inroads later on (as in “Pelham Island Road”), its relative restraint makes it no more troublesome than stardust glistening on the music’s surface.

30 | Clem Leek – Holly Lane
Having begun his output so unimpressively—with the appallingly inept Through the Annular—Clem Leek has proved on Holly Lane that he’s made of more talented stuff. The album hovers between calmness and slightly more anxious climes, many of the tracks betraying an aged quality that’s difficult to define. His loops occupy varied terrain, encompassing Lethean sublimity (“At The Mercy Of The Waves”) and Stygian gloom (“Cliff Castle”), but at his best, Leek allows them to sing, as in the overlapping waves of mournful melody in final track “The Burnt Home”. He still has much to prove, but Holly Lane has begun to do just that.

29 | Tor Lundvall – Ghost Years
How does Tor Lundvall do it? Each of his albums seems to explore pretty similar territory to its predecessors, yet every time presents different vantage points and fresh perspectives. Ghost Years is another extensive nocturne (can any of his music be listened to properly before midnight?), Lundvall’s voice once again subdued and sotto voce, over half-heard beats that serve only to demarcate phrases rather than provide any meaningful forward momentum. Lundvall’s ability to sustain this kind of atmosphere is legendary, and in the more abstract episodes, that atmosphere becomes all-enveloping.

28 | *AR – Wolf Notes
In every sense, 2010 has marked the joining together of Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson (better known to some as Autumn Grieve). This, their first joint project, combines words and music in a heartfelt homage to the landscape that inspired it, namely the west uplands of Cumbria. An accompanying chapbook of poetic musings and miniature vial of incense set the context for Wolf Notes, which at first seems little different from Skelton’s established sound, strings straining to express and emote their weighty ideas. But Richardson’s voice soon takes centre-stage, obsessing over a wordless fragment of folk melody, entirely altering both the direction and the tenor of Skelton’s textures, which now glide and coalesce around her. The overall sound is in many ways richer than much of Skelton’s solo output, and one can only hope further collaborations ensue; Wolf Notes is too good to be a one-off.

27 | O. Children – O. Children
In a year with umpteen surprises, O. Children’s debut release was one of the most striking examples. From the first track onwards, i was thrown back into the maelstrom of music that precoccupied me in the early 1980s: Fields of the Nephilim, Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, et al. It’s a risky endeavour to revive the sounds and mannerisms of such artists, whose contributions to the evolution of post-punk and goth rock are so deeply engrained in the fabric of British music, and remain so deeply loved. But this is no empty pastiche; O. Children are not a tribute band and Tobi O’Kandi’s remarkable bass voice is no imitation Carl McCoy or Andrew Eldritch. Laden in grandiosity they may be, but their songs are no less lyrical for all that; third track “Heels”—its melody rising from the gravel of the verse to the sky of the chorus—is one of the most glorious of the year.

26 | Robyn – Body Talk
Despite being released in a somewhat convoluted manner, the collection of songs Robyn’s released through 2010 have redefined electronic pop for the rest of the decade. Her trademark snarl persists in tracks like “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” and “None of Dem”, but Robyn’s more vulnerable side is projected with far greater prominence and urgency. In these songs is romance from all angles, from nascent beginnings (“Hang With Me”) through becoming the other woman (“Call Your Girlfriend”) and being a full-on stalker (“Dancing On My Own” – perhaps the year’s best song) to one racked with guilt and regrets (“Time Machine”). In them all, Robyn is a Romantic with a capital ‘R’—lyrics such as “Don’t you tell her that I give you something you never even knew you missed?” speak of emotions both deep and profound—and despite everything, she’s abounding in hope, heard nowhere more passionately than on “Indestructible”: “I’m gonna love like you I’ve never been hurt before / I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible”. No other pop album this year came close to Robyn’s perfectly crafted, insanely catchy music.

25 | Benjamin Dauer – Burning of Wine
The first netlabel release to feature in this list comes from one of the most discerning of them all: Distance Recordings. Unlike most netlabels, Distance prefers quality to quantity, and Benjamin Dauer’s new album—available free, here, in both lossless and lossy formats—is undeniably first-rate. Dauer takes his time, allowing the first couple of tracks to establish a mood, before bringing out more potent ideas. It undulates between the front and back of one’s attention, as the best ambient does, giving the distinct impression Dauer has taken pains over each and every moment of passing sound. It’s therefore a constantly engaging listen, with some well-judged surprises en route, of which the unexpected textures of “Duotone Pulse” and “Contoured Silhouettes” are the most striking. But for a bass lover like myself, nothing tops the powerful subsonic rumblings of penultimate track “Succession”.

24 | Jónsi – Go
It took some effort to push expectations aside before listening to this new release from Jónsi, due to my serious distaste for all things Sigur Rós (i’ve tried to like them, i really have). But it’s worth the effort, as on his own, Jónsi’s music is a revelation, displaying an acute melodic sensibility. His delicious falsetto hurtles about all over the place, seemingly wanting to be everywhere at once, unbounded enthusiasm seeming to be the guiding principle. The instrumental arrangements that surround Jónsi’s delightful vocal gymnastics are brilliant, both supporting the songs and driving them to ever more effusive heights. Overflowing with raw energy and ebullience, Jónsi has created the feel-good album of 2010, without compromising in any way. How come Sigur Rós have never done that?

23 | Solo Andata – Ritual
i’m extremely grateful to Michael Vitrano at Desire Path Recordings for putting this excellent release my way. Described as “sonic ‘topographies’ “, the four tracks that comprise Ritual are equal parts musique concrète, sound sculpture, post-ambient drone and blatantly unclassifiable. More than anything, though, they’re an aggressively imaginative amalgam of field recordings, organic sounds, prepared piano and much, much else besides (including, apparently, “the vibration of human cancerous cells”); in fact, ‘imaginative’ doesn’t do this album justice, the extravagant level of invention at work here is magnificent.

22 | Demdike Stare – Liberation Through Hearing / Voices of Dust
Both of these albums made deep impressions on me this year, in no small part due to their almost incomprehensible originality. If one analyses what’s going on in any particular track, the basic elements never seem too out of the ordinary, yet what Demdike Stare make from them is music truly beyond the sum of its parts. It can even be difficult to articulate what precisely one feels they’re evoking—something several decades old, raw and monochromatic—but the atmosphere is unmistakeable and astoundingly vivid; and for all its seeming familiarity, it is very disquieting.

21 | Svarte Greiner – Penpals Forever (And Ever)
Not a million miles removed from Demdike Stare, but even more startlingly sinister, Greiner’s expanded vinyl version of his 2008 cassette release is one of this year’s most sonically distressed albums. The first side is often harsh but muted, percussive sounds in the middle distance, later appearing in relief against a threatening drone that, at the last, turns nasty. Side two, more bizarre, is even more arrestingly effective; less coherent at first, it eventually deconstructs into a sparse, resonant space before reconsituting itself as a baleful wall of sound. Dizzying and disorienting, this is music that leaves one needing silence for some time afterwards.

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