A blog on gigs, music, art and London.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

My Favourite Albums Of 2010

Over the last two months I have gradually compiled a list of my favourite albums of 2010. What started out as an idea to pick my favourite 10 albums quickly grew into a top 30 before finally reaching 50. I could have made room for even more, such was the excellent standard of albums released this year. 

Here are my favourites...

(50) Alasdair Roberts & Friends ‘Too Long In This Condition’

2010 saw Alasdair Roberts consolidate his position as one of the best contemporary folk musicians with ‘Too Long In This Condition’, an accomplished collection of traditional songs delivered in his soft, lilting Scottish accent. He is even better live where his vocals are sound little more skewed and oblique.

(49) Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics ‘Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics’

A collaboration between American jazz musician Lloyd Miller and UK jazz outfit The Heliocentrics. Miller brings his love and vast knowledge of Middle Eastern music to the album but it does not dominate the sound. His role is to add splashes of colour to the jazz rhythms laid down by The Heliocentrics. It is a more discreet album than The Heliocentrics collaboration with Mulatu Astatke from last year, featuring more in the way of subtlety and restraint, but it proves equally as enjoyable. They should have left off the slightly embarrassing spoken word track 'Lloyd's Diatribe' though...

(48) The Besnard Lakes ‘The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night’

2010 was a year in which loud guitar albums took something of a backseat for me personally. However, I did enjoy the third album by The Besnard Lakes – quite epic in scale and featuring some heavy guitar riffs and lovely vocals from husband & wife duo Jace Lasek & Olga Goreas (particularly dreamy on stand out track ‘Albatross’). At times they are reminiscent of Low.

(47) Pausal 'Lapses'

A transporting, slowly evolving album of lush, deep ambient.

(46) Kairos 4tet ‘Kairos Moment’

A vibrant debut album from contemporary jazz ensemble Kairos 4tet, full of lyricism, melody and colour.

(45) Field Music 'Measure'

'Measure' was another intelligent, carefully structured album of effervescent, left-leaning rock from Field Music. The guitar riffs were harder on ‘Measure’ but the album retained the interesting chord progressions and tempo changes of previous albums. I saw them play a gig at the Scala back in March.

(44) Neil Cowley Trio 'Radio Silence'

Another enjoyable album of fluid, expressive modern jazz from the Neil Cowley Trio.

 (43) Midlake ‘The Courage Of Others’

Midlake returned with their third album ‘The Courage Of Others’ and while it may not have reached the heights of 2006’s ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ it still contained some lovely widescreen moments as well as a beautiful consistency of pace. Definitely an album to live with and get to know over time. I saw them play a few tracks from it at Rough Trade East back in February.

 (42) Marconi Union ‘A Lost Connection’

‘A Lost Connection’ was originally released as a download only album in 2008 but got a CD release this year (which is when I discovered it) so I’m going to slightly awkwardly include it in my top albums of 2010 list. It is another beautifully immersive album, coming close to pinpointing the very moment where quiet post-rock meets ambient electronica. I saw them play an excellent set during the daytime at the Union Chapel earlier in the year.

(41) Hauschka ‘Foreign Landscapes’

On ‘Foreign Landscapes’ German musician Volker Bertelmann moves away from his experimentation with prepared pianos and delivers an album that places greater emphasis on string based compositions. The results are just as complex and layered however, and tracks such as ‘Alexanderplatz’ and ‘Snow’ would not sound out of place on an album by The Penguin Café Orchestra.

(40) Woodpigeon 'Die Stadt Musikanten'

I was introduced to Woodpigeon after hearing their track 'Woodpigeon vs. Eagleowl' on one of the Word Magazine compilations. They make infectious indie-guitar-pop full of melodic hooks and glowing boy-girl harmonies. They remind me at different times of Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens. I saw them play a show at the Union Chapel earlier in May earlier this year.

(39) Richard Skelton ‘Landings’

It is not easy to write about ‘Landings’ partly due to its serious origins (the death of Skelton’s wife in 2004 provides inspiration for much of his music) and partly due to the actual sound being quite difficult to pin down. The album contains a series of interweaving, meditative arrangements for violin, occasionally recalling the bare, intimacy of Arvo Pärt and at other times drifting away into a gentle ambient drone. Brief recordings of the natural world appear occasionally throughout, adding texture to the album and resulting in quite a poignant, involving listen.

(38) Gold Panda 'Lucky Shiner'

An excellent album of heady, illuminating, beat-laden electronica, best demonstrated on the glorious 'India Lately'.

(37) Philip Jeck 'An Ark For The Listener'

Dark, textured soundscapes. Cascading waves of esoteric sound. Abstract sculptures of extraneous noise. Pioneering sound artist Philip Jeck returned with another album containing all of these in abundance.

(36) Caribou ‘Swim’

An enjoyable album of beatific, detailed electronica. Dan Snaith’s vocals float over the album while synths and beats ricochet around underneath. I imagine it sounds just as good in a club as it does on headphones. One of those albums that encourages you to look deeper inside, revealing new discoveries on each listen.

(35) Pantha Du Prince 'Black Noise'

An album of warm, involving electronica coated by a sheen of clicks, glitches and crisp beats. Noah Lennox from Animal Collective/Panda Bear provides vocals on ‘Stick To My Side’. Excellent.

(34) Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal 'Chamber Music'

A beautiful album of intricate musical interplay between Malian kora virtuoso Ballake Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal. 'Chamber Music' sounded irresistibly fresh and slowly revealed its melodies over the course of the album, the unusual combination of kora and cello working perfectly. I heard the album on the excellent Late Junction programme on BBC Radio 3.

(33) Greg Haines ‘Until The Point Of Hushed Support’

A collection of wintery, plaintive modern classical pieces which deserve to sit alongside contemporary composers such as Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks & Andrzej Panufnik.

(32) Food 'Quiet Inlet'

An excellent album of sparse, spectral experimental post-jazz from Scandinavia.

(31) Goldmund 'Famous Places'

Another album of beautiful, poignant solo piano vignettes from Keith Kenniff under his Goldmund guise. As with his previous releases ‘Famous Places’ contained a real purity of sound.

(30) Alva Noto 'For 2'

‘For 2’ is a collection of Alva Noto’s music from 2003-2008 with each track being dedicated to a particular person. A series of frozen, sonic micro-landscapes, with some glitch detailing. ‘Argonaut’ was my favourite track.

(29) Loscil 'Endless Falls'

Another excellent album by Scott Morgan (aka Loscil). The album opens to the sound of rainfall and gradually drifts off into a calm sea of ambient sound. The final track featuring spoken word for the first time works really well (which I don’t usually find to be the case on these albums). Lovely.

(28) Walls 'Walls'

An elliptical, woozy amalgam of electronica, guitar and ambient effects.

(27) Holy Fuck ‘Latin’

A heady, visceral album of guitar-heavy electronica and intense percussion. ‘Latin America’ was one of my favourite tracks of the year.

(26) Marcus Fjellström ‘Schattenspieler’

Marcus Fjellström’s first release on the excellent Miasmah label was a darkly atmospheric synthesis of modern classical and nocturnal ambient. 

(25) Funki Porcini 'On'

An excellent album of disparate, cut-and-paste, leftfield electronica with subtle trip-hop/jazz inflections.

(24) Celer 'Engaged Touches'

I have listened to a lot of ambient albums this year but few elicited the emotional response that ‘Engaged Touches’ by Celer did. At times it was almost symphonic in sound and, although entirely instrumental, you can sense that a story was being told. It was made even more moving by the inclusion of occasional found-sounds and field recordings. Ambient music, but with a heart.

(23) Brian Eno ‘Small Craft On A Milk Sea

Those albums released later in the year don’t always get the place in end of year lists they fully deserve and I suspect this may apply to ‘Small Craft On A Milk Sea’. It is an album of contrasts, opening with some pristine ambient pieces before harsher, jarring textures take over. This may possibly be the influence of Jon Hopkins (I saw him play a pretty brutal, uncompromising set at Kings Place earlier in the year). As with other great instrumental albums released this year, there is a kind of musical narrative going on. Moments of stillness and calm return later on and by the album’s end any tension of the middle section has been resolved.

(22) ISAN 'Glow In The Dark Safari Set'

I have really enjoyed the last few albums by British duo ISAN and 'Glow In The Dark Safari Set' sees them deliver another serene album of oscillating, bubbling electronica. At times they come close to matching the melodic brilliance of early Boards Of Canada and also periodically recall 1990s Warp act Plone.

(21) Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate ‘Ali & Toumani’

Released posthumously after the death of Ali Farka Toure in 2006, ‘Ali & Toumani’ continued where 2005’s ‘In The Heart Of The Moon’ left off. Lilting guitar and dazzling kora combine to spellbinding effect, best shown on ‘Sabu Yerkoy’. Really beautiful, joyous music.

(20) Ametsub 'The Nothings Of The North'

Ametsub (an anonymous Japanese electronica artist) released possibly the best electronica album of 2010 in my opinion. Opening track 'Solitude' contains hints of Boards Of Canada and the rest of the album is equally as good - nuanced glitch melodies aligned with layered atmospherics. 'Faint Dazzlings' is particularly absorbing (one of many tracks introduced me by Stuart Maconie on his excellent Freakzone programme on BBC 6 Music).

(19) Barn Owl 'Ancestral Star'

'Ancestral Star' was a brilliant album of arid, smouldering electric guitar. For me, it almost represented a new kind of post-rock, or avant-Americana even, evoking the sounds and atmospheres of a barren, scorched landscape. Closing track 'Light From The Mesa' was a highlight, a perfect exercise in controlled tension.

(18) Nina Nastasia 'Outlaster'

2010 saw American singer-guitarist and John Peel favourite Nina Nastasia return with a long overdue new album, 'Outlaster'. The barren, lo-fi arrangements of previous albums remained in place but now sound reinvigorated and warmer, with strings featuring more prominently in her sound.

(17) Amiina 'Puzzles'

Another organic, miniature acoustic tapestry of an album from Icelandic quartet Amiina. Their second full length album differed to previous albums & EPs in that it featured vocals on several tracks (which made them sound like fellow countrymen Múm). I do prefer their purely instrumental music but 'Puzzles' still contained more than enough moments of delicate, star-lit beauty to justify inclusion in my top 50.

(16) Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra 'Kollaps Tradixionales'

A beautifully ragged, incendiary album of post-apocalyptic-rock. 'Kollaps Tradixionales' had some brilliant moments of escalating tension and Efrim Menuck's cracked, raw vocals added real emotion to the music. The album also had some brilliant track names - ‘I Built Myself A Metal Bird’ is followed by ‘I Fed My Metal Bird The Wings Of Other Metal Birds’. I saw them play a great show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden in March.

(15) Beach House 'Teen Dream'

‘Teen Dream’ saw Beach House perfect their shimmering, dreamy alternative guitar pop. Victoria Legrand’s distinctively ethereal vocals were complemented by hazy guitars and keyboards and made me think of late period Cocteau Twins at times (a very good thing indeed).

(14) Joanna Newsom 'Have One On Me'

Exquisite, arch, beautiful, fluttering, cryptic, Joanna Newsom’s triple album was all of these and more. In some ways I still don’t think I have fully got to know the album such is the scope and ambition. I still hear new things each time I listen…

(13) Ólafur Arnalds '...And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness'

An engaging collection of piano and strings led modern classical from Ólafur Arnalds but what sets it apart is his use of drums which animate the album, occasionally positioning it closer to post-rock outfits such as Explosions In The Sky. The use of horns on last track recalls fellow Icelandic countrymen Sigur Rós.

(12) Sufjan Stevens 'The Age Of Adz'

I don’t think 'The Age Of Adz' was as radical a departure as we had been led to believe in the press leading up to its release. The album still showcases Sufjan’s love of complex arrangements, albeit this time augmented by a more electronic, experimental, glitch aesthetic. However, the orchestral flourishes remain as do the melodies and harmonies as well as arguably his biggest strength, his voice.

(11) Tindersticks 'Falling Down A Mountain'

'Falling Down A Mountain' saw Tindersticks continue to move in a more soulful direction, allowing chinks of light to fall on their crepuscular sound. I think it is probably their best album since 2000's 'Simple Pleasure' and it contained some of their most accessible moments to date. ‘Harmony Around My Table’ featured some of Stuart Staples best lyrics & vocals for many years. I saw them play two great shows in both London (at the Shepherd's Bush Empire) and Paris (at Le Bataclan) in support of the album.

(10) Flying Lotus 'Cosmogramma'

Another impressive album of pioneering, sample & effects laden, psychedelic electro-dub by Steven Ellison (a.k.a Flying Lotus). Distorted basslines, disarmingly beautiful vocals, submerged electronic melodies and scattershot beats all featured. ‘Cosmogramma’ possessed a dizzying variety of sounds but everything still sat together cohesively.

(9) Emeralds 'Does It Look Like I'm Here?'

Stretches of astral ambience sat alongside tunnelling, psychedelic synths on Emerald's first full length album. At times it sounded like a heavier Tangerine Dream, rebooted and relaunched for the twenty first century. Excellent.

(8) The Flashbulb 'Arboreal'

A fantastic plurality of styles and sounds were showcased on the excellent ninth(!) album by The Flashbulb (a pseudonym used by American musician Benn Jordan). Even after repeated listens it is an album that proves difficult to classify - a sort of downtempo, progressive electronica featuring layers of guitar, rapturous beats and fragments of melody. Stand out track 'Dreaming Renewal' possessed a beautiful vocal melody and even finished with a lovely piano jazz flourish. A perfect soundtrack to an imaginary late night journey.

(7) Phosphorescent 'Here's To Taking It Easy'

I came to this album fairly late in the year but soon knew it would be high on my end of year list. A really enjoyable, beautiful album of sun-kissed Americana, full of warm harmonies, radiant guitars & great storytelling vocals. I think there is something wonderfully evocative about lyrics on alt-country albums that reference places in America and Alabama, Los Angeles & New York all get a mention here. The album has an overridingly positive mood to it, almost as if bathed in sunlight, and as the title suggests a relaxed feel permeates the album.

(6) Jaga Jazzist 'One Armed Bandit'

An album of superlative, skyscraping, avant-electro-jazz from Norway. Imagine amplified, turbo-charged versions of some of Steve Reich’s minimalist compositions dominated by over-arching horns, dynamic beats and searing guitars.

(5) Max Richter 'Infra'

Another year, another excellent Max Richter album featuring in my end of year list. ‘Infra’ featured ruminative piano arrangements alongside elegiac strings and electronics, periodically broken up with the sound of shortwave radio static. It was released during summer but seemed to have a distinct wintery feel to it. As the year progressed I found the colder weather and darker nights provided a more suitable backdrop to the listening experience. Lovely.

(4) These New Puritans 'Hidden'

These New Puritans' second album was an ambitious melding of classical instrumentation, primal rhythms and stark percussion. The sound of knives being sharpened on several tracks added a darker, slightly menacing feel. However, brief woodwind passages adorn the album and cast light on it, as does the presence of a choir on some tracks. 'Hidden' can sound quite confrontational at times but remains hugely listenable throughout as seen on tracks such as 'Hologram' and 'White Chords'. A really intelligent, forward-thinking album.

(3) Jóhann Jóhannsson 'And In The Endless Pause Came The Sound Of Bees'

Another excellent album from Icelandic player-composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Strings, piano, electronics and brief choral interludes establish themes which are propagated and re-presented over the course of the album. The result is a characteristically cinematic and beautiful soundtrack, full of light and shade. I think it had my favourite cover artwork of the year also. I saw him play a show at St-Giles-in-the-Fields in May.

(2) Teenage Fanclub 'Shadows'

Anyone who has read my blog or my Twitter timeline probably will be aware of how much I love Teenage Fanclub so the release of a new album is always an exciting moment. 'Shadows' contains all you would expect from a new Teenage Fanclub album - brilliant songs full of chiming electric guitars, impeccable melodies and rich vocal harmonies. I saw them for I think the 13th time at Shepherd's Bush Empire in June.


I think 'Shadows' is probably their best album since 1997's 'Songs From Northern Britain' and includes several tracks which would comfortably feature in any playlist of their best material. As usual Norman Blake and Gerry Love provide most of the album's highlights - 'Sometimes I Don't Need To Believe In Anything', 'Baby Lee' and 'When I Still Have Thee' all stand out - but Raymond McGinley's tracks are the strongest he has delivered for many years ('The Past' is particularly good). 'Dark Clouds' is another beautiful track, helped by backing vocals from ex-Gorky's Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs (foreshadowing the arrival of Jonny, the collaboration between himself and Norman Blake). In some ways it is a surprise how it did not claim top position in my list, which leads me nicely on to.........

(1) Laura Veirs 'July Flame'

A beautiful, mellifluent collection of pretty indie-folk-guitar songs. An air of wistful melancholy drifts through most of the album, best demonstrated on tracks like ‘I Can See Your Tracks’ and ‘Little Deschutes'. The unbridled, sunny optimism of ‘Summer Is The Champion’ provides some optimism. I saw her play a great show at the Camden Jazz Cafe in August. 'July Flame' was a really intimate, affecting album that rewarded repeat listens and is the album I have returned to most throughout the year. I have loved it from the first listen and it is fully deserving of the number one spot.

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