#8. The National - High Violet

Although The National has always been a bit too serious to make it big in the pop world and a bit too simple to create any big splashes in the post-rock world, these guys have been patiently creating dark and brooding rock for years now. And although it would be easy to write off High Violet as more of the same, it might just be The National's best release yet. Backed by one of the most solid rhythm sections around, the songwriting force that is Matt Berninger and Aaron Dressner truly shines in High Violet. Matt Berninger, the lead vocalist, narrates us through eleven heartbreakingly ordinary stories that resonate with the economically recessed, socially estranged, and depression pill-addicted generations of lowbrow America. Although The National isn't into making preachy political statements or delivering social commentaries, their emotional profile snapshots paint a particularly bleak depiction of modern life. Dressner's heroes range from paranoid fathers ("Afraid of Everyone") to high school runaways ("Anyone's Ghost") and doomed lovers ("Runaway"), presenting them just as they are without ever looking down on them. In other words, when Dressner mutters "Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won", seemingly under his breathe, you'd better believe he means it; there isn't an ounce of insincerity in this guy's bones. And just as The National seeks to capture these unique moments of emotion and honesty in words, they also match their themes with seemingly ordinary, but daringly unique moments of music as well.

Although their traditional 5-piece lineup is down-to-earth and honest, they manage to make some pretty unusual sounds feel like home as well. The opening track, "Terrible Love", begins with electric guitar distortions and feedback that are just the right amount lo-fi and just the right amount triumphant rock. Later on, in instant classics like "Bloodbuzz Ohio", Bryan Devendorf's upbeat drumming contrasts with the monotonous rumblings of Berninger, like memories of the past trying to conjure up emotions out of an aging man. It is refreshing to hear a band that isn't obsessed with trying to reinvent itself all the time, but instead comfortable with who they are. Like they have successfully done in the past three albums, The National continues to be the under-appreciated serious rock band that they always have been, successfully capturing the provocative moments of modern life, in all their deep emotion and complexity.


#9. Nico Muhly - I Drink the Air Before Me/A Good Understanding

It's been another big year for the young, classical/pop mediator, Nico Muhly. The New York composer has been going strong on a recent string of successful pop arrangements, commissioned compositions, and personal record releases. This year's list included writing all the orchestral and piano arrangements for Jonsi's Go, playing on The National's High Violet record, and releasing two albums of his own work, which combined have made it to #9 on my countdown. I Drink the Air Before Me is a work commissioned by Stephen Petronio to accompany his dance of the same name, inspired by a raging sea storm and a line from Shakespeare's "Tempest". I Drink the Air Before Me is a stunning expose of Muhly's musical language and technique which manages to find a satisfying balance between postminimalist romanticism and pop aesthetics. Armed with a small, but convincing character chamber ensemble, Muhly uses jerky rhythms and contrasting melodic and harmonic styles to create a unique sound that is both forward-looking and collaborative. The different instruments are meant to represent a quirky cast of characters that might live by the sea: "a busybody flute, a wise viola, and the masculine, workmanlike bassoon, trombone, and upright bass. The piano acts as an agitator, an unwelcome visitor, bearing with it aggressive electronic noises and rhythmic interruptions." These different personalities and styles are clearly shown in what might be the best track from the album, "Fire Down Below". Using energetic, Stravinsky-like clashes on both piano and electronics, Muhly disrupts his majestic choral melodies and minimalist chamber techniques in the same way that Sufjan Stevens plays an electric guitar solo in a folk song. In other tracks Muhly sounds more distinctly like a younger, more edgy Steve Reich, ("Music Under Pressure - 1 Flute"), while in others he shows off his impressionistic lyricism with melodic choral passages and drone-based influences ("One Day Tells Its Tale To Another"). Although I haven't seen the dance number that this album is based around, the unfortunate dancers that must move to these sounds will have a hard time keeping up with this astounding piece of music.

A Good Understanding is a collection of choral work that feels much more standalone then the dance accompaniment of I Drink the AIr Before Me. The first seven tracks of the album are Muhly's interpretation of contemporary composers' interest in ancient church music, here written in a cleverly traditional fashion that makes A Good Understanding is a great introduction to Nico Muhly for the classical world. You won't find anything here resembling Arvo Part, but this is certainly one of Muhly's most tranquil and settled works, standing in stark contrast to the spastic behaviors of I Drink the Air Before Me. While the first eight tracks deal with strictly religious traditional themes, the final series of songs entitled "Expect the Main Things From You" set three Walt Whitman poems to exciting and visceral backdrops that don't shy away from being big. I Drink the Air Before Me and A Good Understanding are both choral works, but present two very different sides of Muhly's ever expanding rubix cube personality. While in many of his other releases and arrangements he gracefully allows other artists and collaborators to shine through, here, Muhly is at the top of his game and finally sits comfortably in the spotlight. In many ways, Muhly hasn't written a seminal piece of music yet, but with each album he releases he is simultaneously redrawing the lines of classical music and tracing out his own profile as one of the most adaptable, exciting, and focused young musicians, not only classical composers, in the world today.

Here is "Fast Twitchy Organs", an excellent added bonus track to the album. It was the only thing I could find online!


#10. Vampire Weekend - Contra

With every self-righteous bone inside of me, I wanted to dislike Contra. I went through the same thing when I first heard their debut album a couple years ago. Sure, the first album was a good listen, but I had decided it was just a passing fad; a mere distraction from the deeper, more convoluted experiences that lay in albums by Fleet Foxes, Kanye West, and TV on the Radio from that year. To my dismay, it turns out Vampire Weekend is almost just as likable in 2010 as it was in 2007 and Contra, if nothing else, is simply the most charming album of the year. It only took hearing the vocal modification, rattling percussion, and eloquent string passages of "California English" to realize that Contra was both a continuation and a fulfillment of something Vampire Weekend had begun in their first record. Contra covers much of the same ground Vampire Weekend fans would want, whether its the bubbling electronics of "White Sky", the world beats of "Horchata", or even the more ska-flavored "Cousins", many of the songs recall familiar eccentricities, but feel twice as strong here. In the particularly easygoing hit, "White Sky", Ezra Koenig shows off some impressive wordplay in the setting of a stroll down a Manhattan block that makes his attempts in their debut album look childish. Yes, Vampire Weekend is still the same light-hearted, polo-wearing band they've always been. Fortunately though, Vampire Weekend takes some necessary steps forward as well, even venturing into taking in some different influences and more serious themes. The indie electro-pop influenced, "Giving Up the Gun", which seems to about making peaceful lifestyle changes, became the single of 2010 for many a hipster this summer and for good reason. Vampire Weekend makes glowing little eclectic pop gems like "Giving Up the Gun" seem effortless.

Koenig has stated in multiple interviews that many of the lyrics in Contra speak of what he calls "first-world guilt", attempting to understand living in privilege and the guilt that comes with it. Although you could easily get through the album multiple times without thinking about such things, it is certainly nice to hear Koenig's understated thoughts on more emotionally potent songs like "Taxi Cab" and "I Think Ur a Contra". They still claim that people take them more serious than they take themselves though. In Contra, they persist, continuing to be difficult to pin down, slyly existing between genres and subgenres, and pretending to not have much to say. Following a lawsuit with the $2 million lawsuit with the former-model who is featured on the Contra cover, this attitude is more refreshing a stance than ever. Then again, that's always been what Vampire Weekend has been about all along: putting down the guns and tearing down the walls that separate people unnecessarily for the sake of just having a good time. Again, they make it look effortless.


#11. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - The Social Network OST

The recent trend in the film industry is to hand over the reigns of film scores to pop stars and record producers to produce something original rather than just shoe-in previously recorded material. Whether its accessible (see Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy OST this year), straight up bizarre (see Animal Collective's Oddsac film "score"), or cinematically stunning (see Johnny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood film score), the results are always out of the ordinary. This year, what is being hailed by many as the best film of the year, David Fincher's The Social Network, also features the best soundtrack of the year with music by Nine Inch Nails rock-veteran Trent Reznor and record producer Atticus Finch. The early official trailers that featured cover of Radiohead's "Creep", sung by a choir and another that featured Kanye West's "Power", seemed like almost too perfect of fits to be true, but we ended up with is something far more ethereal and ominous. In so many ways, Trent Reznor and David Fincher are both two sides of the same coin and seemingly unlikely contributors to a film about the dramatization of the creation of Facebok. From Fincher claiming it to be a John Hughes-style melodrama to what the early overwrought trailers were showing, it was difficult to see what the director who is known for exploring the dark and psychological side of humanity in films like Fight Club would be doing with such a film. Meanwhile, in seeking music for the film, Fincher found something of a kindred spirit in the dark-ambient, instrumental Nine Inch Nails album, Ghosts, and before too long, Reznor and Ross would be creating the soundscapes behind which Mark Zuckerberg would exist.

Reviewing standalone film scores can be quite difficult at times because it is always the sign of a great film score when it is difficult to stand on its own, divorced from the film itself. In the same way that Fincher himself turned the unlikely story into something raw and relevant, Reznor's ominous textures and dubstep synths are so caught up in the characters and motifs of The Social Network that they turn a social networking website into a futuristic techno world where Mark Zuckerburg is the computer hacker hero of a cyberpunk tale of corporate greed, vengeance, and betrayal. What Reznor and Ross do is revolutionary in that they provide a space and context for the masterful script by Aaron Sorkin and the excellent performances of the cast to interact and say a lot of meaningful things about communication, technology, and friendship in the 21st century without ever saying them at all. In the first track, "Hands Cover Bruise", the innocent piano twinkles that begin the film is slowly choked and washed out by buzzing electronics and hysteric distortion that sounds like Death Cab for Cutie trying to wrestle over the Joker theme from the Dark Knight that is slowly taking over. Its hard not to imagine the piano themes that are threaded throughout the soundtrack as representing Zuckerburg who becomes both overwhelmed by his rise to fame while also remaining somewhat unchanged throughout. The tracks that follow range from upbeat electronic dance tracks that demand attention ("In Motion") and tastefully tense atmospheric tracks ("3:14 Every Night") that quietly stand in the background. And let's not forget the already infamous inclusion of an insanely schizophrenic version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" that accompanies a particularly zany scene of the film. The film would a much different film if these guys were not involved and we should all be thankful for that. In conjuction with the film, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have created a film score that has sold me on two things that were never portrayed so convincingly. One, that the true "21st century schizo man" is not Kanye West, but instead Mark Zuckerberg. And two, that we are an entire generation of people singing the lyrics of "Creep".

Here is "Hands Cover Bruise":

And because its too good not to see:


#12. Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

Its hard to explain Gorilla Manor, my pick for #12, without referencing some of indie pop's biggest other names: Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, and Fleet Foxes. However, in all honesty, the Local Natives' debut album doesn't sound much like any of those bands. Sure, there are plenty of three part harmonies with hefty amounts of reverb, coexisting folk and rock styles, and wordless singalong choruses, all of which have become iconic of the indie rock genre. But Local Natives inject a boost of youthful energy and rock sensibility into the music that makes the previously mentioned bands sound like aging middle-aged men. The scraggly percussion of rim shots and tom beats running constant through each of the songs provides even the slower tracks with a shot of afropop adrenaline. The band is lead by three singers, Taylor Rice, Ryan Hahn, and Kelcey Ayer, who each have strong and mature voices, lending some well-needed confidence and variation to the indie rock "frontman" lineup. You won't hear any of the shaky, self-conscious influences of Conor Oberst here. In fact, the band feels confident and cohesive as a whole as well, seemingly comfortable with each other's strengths and collaborating like a band with at least twice their history. The album title, Gorilla Manor, comes from the name of their house/studio that the band and their friends lived and recorded in, so its no wonder the band feels so at home with each other. The other reason why the band feels so unified is that before Local Natives emerged in the indie scene as one of 2010's "best new artists", they were known as Cavil at Rest with the same lineup and a slightly more generic alternative pop rock sound. In other words, these guys have been around for a little while and the reason why their musical characteristics seem so conveniently trendy is because their new image and style was intentionally decided upon. Knowing this, it would be easy to pass off their new style as a superficial and "seeker-friendly". Fortunately, the band's energetic spirit and infectious hooks keep it from ever feeling like a cash-in.

In their first single that became the definitive template for their new sound, "Sun Hands", the Natives balance worldly beats, spiritually earthy lyrics, and just enough yelling, chanting, and aggressive percussion to keep things interesting. Local Natives prove they can tug the heartstrings and write slower, more meaningful songs as well. In what might be the most well-written song on the album, "Who Knows Who Cares", the boys spin a tale of youthful heartbreak, doubt, and reckless abandon amongst a sea of swirling harmonies and bluesy guitar licks. The melody that is thread through the song is strong enough to carry the weight of the entire song, finally exploding at the end, sung in a group of euphoric voices. It were these melodies and harmonies that kept me returning to this album again and again throughout the year show that there is more to these guys than mustaches and conveniently labeled "indie" music characteristics.


#13. Jonsi - Go

Go, Jonsi's debut album to kickstart his solo artist career, is the album many Sigur Ros fans have been waiting for. Ever since Sigur Ros hinted at more poppy, down-to-earth style changes in 2008, fans have been both anticipating and shuddering at the idea of the grand atmospherics of Sigur Ros being compressed into a 4-minute pop song. A band known for their post-rock song structures, lush orchestration, Icelandic heritage, and lead singer Jonsi Birgisson's angelic falsetto, Sigur Ros took their pieces of music with a calculated seriousness as avant-garde pop experimentalists. In Go, Jonsi Birgisson leaves many of the things behind that kept listeners at arms length (namely the the 9-minute songs, singing in Icelandic, and ambient soundscapes). In what could have been a tragic disaster, Go turns out to be an album of surreal pop songs that are bursting with life and character. What was set out to be a mostly acoustic album, Go is brought to epic hugeness thanks in part to the beautiful orchestral arrangements by Nico Muhly and quirky percussion of Samuli Kosminen. Working together, these simple pop songs become dizzying displays of unbridled excitement and celebration.

The first single and opening track, "Go Do", features Kosminen's animated percussion and Muhly's child-like orchestrations at their very best. Opening with Jonsi's voice processed as bird chips and off-kilter flute notes reminiscent of Muhly's own release, Mothertongue, then erupting later with big bass drums and an explosive chorus, "Go Do" has got to enough quirk to remain refresh and enough catchy melodies to be one of the best pop songs of the year. In Go's slower tracks, most notably "Tornado", Muhly's contemplative arrangements really shine through as Jonsi explores different vocal ranges and breaks up the pace of the four-on-the-floor madness. The songs themselves, here in English for the first time, are playful and simple and translate in ways that surprisingly work in ways that only non-native speakers can pull off. While at times it feels a little overbearing, for the most part, anyone with a heart will give in to Jonsi's insistence that life is exciting and worth living. The reason Go succeeds most, however, is that it reintroduces the world to Jonsi's fascinating voice, which is now on display in choral harmonies, multiple registers, and even chopped up and sampled. We've always wondered what it would sound like to hear Jonsi working in this setting and the results are more exciting and heartwarming then we could have even imagined.


#14. Thomas Ades - Tevot

In many ways, it behooves me to include such a piece on this list. First off, wanting to include pieces of "classical" music on my list may seem a bit both short-sighted and pretentious. If its any indication of the state of classical music, even the idea that such a piece is being "released" in 2010 rather than in 2007 when it was written is reason enough to not want to deal with it. Even more, Tevot can easily be interpreted as a piece of heavy-handed modernism, just the kind of composition that will be a crowd-pleaser for its long, narrative-like structure and absurdly large orchestra requirements. Its that piece that will make classical music enthusiasts feel like they live in better artistic times, when "bigger is better" was still the rule of the land and Richard Strauss was the king. Fortunately, despite these external perceptions, Tevot is an absolutely delightful piece of mastered technique and exciting musical physicality. Thomas Ades has been in the spotlight of high culture for quite some time now as both a conductor and composer, but Tevot certainly feels like a culmination of his musical ideas and practices. The name of the composition refers to the hebrew word for "ark" or "ship", such as Noah's ark. However, in this case, Ades explains the title as referring to the earth as an ark, or a ship, carrying us through a journey of the varying tribulations of the universe. The different aspects of the journey are expressed through number of widely different textural movements. The piece begins with atmospheric brass swelling and chirping string parts written in octaves beyond the stratosphere like a titanic starship moving through fields of sparkling stars. The menacing chromaticism erupts in a variety of different musical textures including an exciting section of rhythmic hits that feel like the Rite of Spring's clumsy grandson, as well as a section towards the end that renders his themes in more contemporary minimalistic techniques.

One of the more surprising features of the piece is the way it encircles the space opera persona almost like a journey from Holst's "The Planets" to "2001: Space Odyssey" and back again. There are even moments when it feels like Ades is even directly expanding and referencing this space opera theme music, utilizing an explicit minor 7th leap that recalls the Star Trek theme music that makes him sound like Thomas Newman's artsy twin brother. At other times, he is unafraid of being utterly tonal and triumphalist in his own terms. In one the best sections of the piece, he brings those extremely high string parts down to earth to reveal their beautifully shifting and hard-to-grasp tonality. Tevot is a colossal piece that must be experienced as a whole and while its hardly revolutionary, it is always incredibly tangible and physical, creating a space opera in itself of a very different kind. While its hard to tell whether Thomas Ades' dissonant/consonant relationships and neoromanticism are moving forward in a new direction or simply updating "The Planets", its hard not to get pulled into his uncanny cultural references and sweeping cosmic grandness. The fact that Tevot manages to successfully communicate despite its overweight traditionalism is a compliment to its author's magnificent vision and the piece's unrelenting richness.

Here's a link to hear an excerpt of the 22-minute musical journey:

(if the link isn't working, just copy and paste the link into your browser)


#15. Owen Pallett - Heartland

For all the talk and theory behind postmodernism and the breaking of the walls between classical and popular music, there are many less artists actually creating music under its framework. Owen Pallett, however, is one of those artists, and his third LP, Heartland, is a visionary album with a convincing position on the issue. Having received a bachelor's degree in music composition, Pallett went on to start a solo career with just his violin and a loop pedal, while also collaborating with some of the indie's biggest bands to fund it. Writing orchestral arrangements for bands like Grizzly Bear, The Mountain Goats, and Arcade Fire, he has become the working craftsman of the indie world. Indeed, on Heartland, Pallett's boldest and most mature artistic statement, he trashes the idea that one needs anything less than the Czech Philharmonic to create sincere and effecting pop. And while this is certainly pop, Owen Pallett is writing some of the most sophisticated and complex tunes out there, not shying away from chords and compositional techniques he no doubt learned from both listening to musicals and attending theory classes at music school. Opening with the blaring organs and off-kilter percussion of "Midnight Directives", Pallett shows off how exciting and unexpected this kind of genre-crossing can be. While his vocal quality seems tamed and trained, Pallett's arrangements are theatrical and bombastic, sounding like a odd mix between Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd soundtrack and Joanna Newsom's Ys.

What makes Heartland especially significant though, is how Pallett's orchestration is so fundamental to its composition, rather than ornamental (like most music that is labeled symphonic or chamber pop). In songs like "Keep the Dog Quiet" and "Oh Heartland, Up Yours!", plucked strings and orchestral woodwinds happily take the place of guitars, with Pallett cooing agreeable melodies of doubt and faith over the top. In "Lewis Takes off His Shirt", Pallett effortlessly combines orchestral elements with bubbly synthesizers and electronic drums, building a sound that is incredibly unique and forward-looking. Owen, along with a few others (such as Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens), lives as a diplomat that is willing to shake hands on both sides of the classical-pop music aisle, while also existing in a kind of world of his own. This is not to imply that his music is easily accepted on either side of the spectrum, but instead that it is in the business of messy reconciliation between the musical forces. And fortunately for us, for all the big ideas behind the music, Heartland never feels stuffy or academic. This is Owen Pallett at both his sharpest and most accessible, bursting with ideas and creativity, and boldly opening up doors that pop musicians have been knocking on for years.


#16. The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

In the same way that camera work plays such an important role in films, how an album is produced plays a crucial role in how recorded music is perceived. No camera angle, production choice, or vocal texture is ever neutral or accidental. When approaching a work like The Wild Hunt, you'll hear few people talk about the production of such an album, but I promise that you will forget you are listening to an acoustic album by the time you get through the opening track because of it. After all, its easy to write off Kristian Matsson's blatant Dylanisms and simplistic folk songs as cashing in on pop culture's deification of Bob Dylan or recent folk trends in indie music. But there is something so majestic about the minimal production and honest songwriting of The Wild Hunt, that it seems to transcend its role as mere imitation. You won't mind that a few plucks on a banjo and some foot taps are the only non-acoustic guitar instruments on the album. Instead you'll hear the cracking and clipping of Kristian Matsson's crooning vocals; the smoothness of his eloquent guitar playing contrasting with the cracking harshness of his vocals; the consistent vocal qualities against the ever-changing guitar textures of each song. Strangely enough, the one musical anomaly of the album, the piano-led "Kids on the Run", will have you glad that Matsson keeps his style and production choices the way they are for most of the album.

Although The Wild Hunt isn't too different stylistically than anything else Matsson has released, it finds Matsson developing as an artist and songwriter it just the ways you'd hope. The Tallest Man on Earth's take on folk is more modern thematically than you think at first, its lyrics resembling a mix between Fleet Foxes and Robert Frost rather than anything Dylan wrote. In an interview with Face Culture, Matsson states that despite his obvious influences, he never intended to write his music in any particular tradition. In fact, while being transparent about his influences, he also never tries to hide his European origins. In the title track, Matsson recalls the ancient European folk myth of the same name, using its imagery to talk about living a hopeful life knowing death is at the end of it. Finding introspection and meaning in pastoral settings and folk mythologies, Matsson discovers something convincingly authoritative and ancient about 'folk' because of his complete capture of the poetic language. His interesting word choice and phrasing can sometimes be strange, but is always refreshing and bold: successfully avoiding the songwriting cliques that are so prevalent in pop music today. Ultimately though, Kristian Matsson continues to be incredibly successful because he's not shy about where his musical influences come from, but is also persistent on making the sound his own. Although very different, The Wild Hunt is one of the best folk-revivalist album since Fleet Foxes' self-titled release in 2008, and that's definitely saying a lot.


#17. Brooke Fraser - Flags

The CCM Industry has been undergoing some tough times as of late. The generation that grew up listening to only that which played through the CD samplers of Christian Supply seems to have subconsciously become aware that the Christian music industry is neither more honest or more holy than its secular counterparts: only less original. Amidst the rubble of a kind of music that was created on being 'safe', a few voices have risen from within the industry that have reclaimed the artistic and risk-taking vision of the independent music scene for themselves (see Jon Foreman, John Mark McMillan, and Derek Webb). Brooke Fraser, the songwriting and vocal force behind Hillsong United, has had a quiet but substantial solo career that has culminated with the 2010 release, Flags, her most consistent and mature album yet. Make no mistake; this is straight-up pop/rock at its simplest and most concise. But under the command of Fraser's tested vocal quality and smart writing, its hard to be cynical. Opening with the joyously carefree, "Something in the Water", Fraser shows off a more organic and folk-oriented sound that manages to sound fresh and current, while still being incredibly accessible. What Flags does that so many singer-songwriter albums fail to do is capture a sound that doesn't feel contrived or disconnected from the songwriting. One of the primary reason that Flags succeeds in this respect is that this is the first album that Fraser actually produced herself: and the results really do pay off. Whether she is experimenting with folk-country in "Coachella" or Vampire Weekend antics in "Jack Kerouac", her keen sense of melodic lyricism and pop threads through each song, shining with understated confidence. At the end of Crows & Locusts, we even hear Christian music folding in on itself with Fraser using the words of a popular worship song to talk about the hardships of famine and growth. And even so, you can't help but wonder if she doesn't see a little of herself when she sings about a girl who "Feels her sweat in the ground and the burn in her nose/And the knowing in her guts/Something's still gonna grow/She ain't leaving till it does". Triple credited in this album as the vocalist, songwriter, and producer, Brooke Fraser has toiled her artistic vision and created a very personal, labor of love. Even more, Flags points to exciting directions for new movements in Christianity-informed music: here, a refreshing breathe of bold honesty and self-expression.


#18. Daft Punk - Tron: Legacy OST

One can't help but ask the question: if given the chance, what would two robots compose for an orchestra? There is something just really exciting (and nerdy) about the idea of an electro-pop band like Daft Punk being handed the reins of a 90-piece orchestra and a musical concept as colossal as creating a score for a 3D, visual-oriented film to me. Although this is definitely Daft Punk at its darkest and least funky, its also unmistakably the product of the masked, electro-pop duo we all know and love. What you end up with is high-octane repetition, played out in fuzzy synths and tense, frenetic string passages. But then again, isn't that the same winning aesthetic that Hanz Zimmer has been using throughout his career of scoring Hollywood action blockbusters? There's no doubt Daft Punk didn't learn a thing or two from Mr. Zimmer and other film score specialists with their use of deep brass swells and distorted bass hits. Tracks like "Outlands" and "Rectifier", which lack electronics of any kind, sound like they could have easily been cropped from an action scene from "The Dark Knight", or any number of other films by Jerry Bruckheimer or Christopher Nolan. In fact, to my pleasant surprise, Daft Punk flexes some impressive orchestral compositional muscles, most notably in the slower-moving dramatic, track "Adagio for TRON". Its no surprise, however, that the most exciting tracks such as "The Game Has Changed" and "Derezzed", build they're kinetic energy off club-ready dance beats and catchy video game synth hooks. Daft Punk hinges 8-bit video game soundtracks, classic cinematic tension, and techno-pop upon a foundation of unrelenting minimalism.

Rather than creating any memorable themes or motifs in typical Hollywood fashion, most of the tracks highlight short 8-note rhythmic patterns that repeats on either strings or a synth throughout the entire track in the same way Daft Punk did in so many of their tracks off of Discovery and Human After All (and was even criticized for). Daft Punk themselves, compare their work combining symphonies and synths here to their contrasting of metal and disco in Discovery, and it is for sure every bit as successful. The Tron: Legacy score is an example of a true feedback loop; the culture of minimalism so intertwined within itself that trying to figure out where Daft Punk is getting inspired from is nearly impossible. While the film itself seeks to reveal the similarities between the computer world and the real world, Daft Punk's ambitious film score reveals how similar the worlds of Daft Punk, Hanz Zimmer, video games, and Steve Reich truly are.


#19. Yeasayer - Odd Blood

When I first heard Yeasayer's Odd Blood early this year, I felt a certain amount of bittersweetness toward the album. At the time of the eclectic band's freshmen release, All Hour Cymbals, they liked to describe their sound as "Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel", which might sound a little ridiculous, but they rightfully earned every one of those titles. All Hour Cymbals had this haunting, apocalyptic feel to it, with hits like "2080" and "Sunrise", acting as strange paranoidal visions of the future, guided by Talking Heads psychedelics and Keating's unsettling vocal qualities. In Yeasayer's newest release though, the band has chosen to assimilate indie's love affair with 80's nostalgia into their bag of tricks. In songs like "Love Me Girl" and "Madder Red", Yeasayer recalls disco and David Bowie with its own take on bubbly baselines and reverb-laden snare hits. Inspired by an LSD trip in New Zealand and reportedly "attempting to challenge R&B's hold on dance music", Yeasayer has taken influence from a much more pop-centered source this time around. The result is a sound which is as successful in its dance floor-readiness as it is thoughtful in experimentation. The best example might be their single "O.N.E.", which features huge disco beats mixed with African rhythms, is a seamless and joyous melting pot of styles and genres all wrapped up in a rays of sunny pop pleasure. And even so, I'll admit it was a bit off-putting to hear a band replace its more unique and organic sound with production-heavy dance tracks at first. But upon closer listening, you'll hear a lot of the same elements things that made All Hour Cymbals so compelling and bizarre still very much intact. Many of the songs are simply all over the spectrum lyrically and musically, bring their wonky eclecticism to a whole new level. And besides, when a band's "new sound" is as infectious and imaginative as songs like "O.N.E." and "Ambling Alp", you can't help but recognize Yeasayer' Odd Blood as an example of a band taking bold, successful steps forward. It's always a good sign when you can't help but wonder where a band will take their sound next.


#20. Broken Bells - Broken Bells

For all the hype that had been built up around the idea of Broken Bells, their self-titled first release sounds very much like what you'd expect. James Mercer, the front man behind the indie pop miracle band The Shins, has teamed up with the trip hop, entrepreneurial producer and musician Danger Mouse (responsible for acts such as Gnarls Barkley and The Gorillaz). Even by the first the time the rumors of their collaboration broke out, they were destined to be the indie scene's "next big thing"; 2010's version of The Postal Service. And in many ways, Broken Bells offers some of the very same motivators and claims to fame that Ben Gibbard's indie-gone-eletronica band did back in 2003: hearing everyone's favorite indie songwriter recontextualized. But rather than utilizing these more rigid models of genre-crossing, Broken Bells finds more creative and organic way to reconcile the gap between indie rock and hip-hop. Because the two music icons actually got together and recorded in a studio like a normal band would, the resulting songs quite often find that sweet spot between experimentation and accessibility. In a musical culture where sampling and imitation are the popular forms of genre-crossing, its refreshing to hear two artists from different backgrounds who are just sitting down and making music together.

Being his first real release since The Shins' third record, "Wincing the Night Away" in 2007, Broken Bells also gives room for some of the darker, more cynical aspects of Mercer's unique and eloquent songwriting. Having recently left the Sub Pop label and fired two members of The Shins, there's no question that Mercer has had an eventful couple years. Fortunately, Mercer's existential thoughts on life and love in "The High Road" and "Sailing to Nowhere" are some of Mercer's best songs since Chutes Too Narrow. In one of the best songs on the album, we find Mercer profoundly depressed about the purpose of life in the bubblegum wrapper lines of "Your Head is on Fire", once again proving his mastery of the craft. Ultimately, while the collaboration couldn't possibly live up to the ridiculous buzz that surrounded its formation, it did provide a comfortable space for these two respected artists to create and collaborate in a way that is a joy to hear.

The Feedback Loop

A feedback loop refers to any system in which the output of an event results in the same repetition or assimilation of this output into the input of new events (so says Wikipedia right?). The name of my blog, The Feedback Loop, refers to the way culture, music, and specifically different kinds of music seamlessly feed back into themselves, creating a constant mishmash loop of art, media, and entertainment that we commonly call popular culture. The blog will review and comment on new music through this lens, as well as through the lens of music journalism and analysis.

I'm excited to get it underway, and will be starting off with a countdown review of my favorite music releases of 2010, starting with #20, which will be posted within the next couple of days. It's been an awesome year in music and this is my way of catching up with all the interesting stuff that's been released this year. Stay tuned, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

Currently listening to:
Janelle Monae - Locked Inside


Sufjan Stevens in Portland

The Arlene Schnitzer is a gorgeous, concert hall, in all of its stunning high-brow Italian Rococo Revival glory and home to the Oregon Symphony. So what in the world was a crowd of thousands of hipsters, pseudo-intellectuals, and all around popists doing here on a friday night? Well, to see indie "it" boy Sufjan Stevens of course. Sufjan entered the stage and was fully in character, wearing album-themed clothes including shiny silver pants and boasting some really awkward robotic dance moves. Later on in the night, Stevens would call his musical act "probably the most inappropriate thing to happen in this beautiful concert space". However, as humble and self-aware as he may be, the truth is that Sufjan likes to refer to his music as "high art meets low art", and has been involved in genre-bending of the most successful kind for years now.

In the last five years, Sufjan has enjoyed the never-ending praises of critics and fans alike with his quirky high school jazz band gone indie folk sound and use of strong historical/spiritual themes. His popularity culminated with his 2005 release, "Illinois", a concept album with 22 tracks all paying homage to history, culture, and personal events involving the state of Illinois. Since then, Stevens has been rather quiet in the pop world, having not released a followup to Illinois for five years (a rather long time in the pop world!). However, Stevens has been quite busy, working on multiple projects at a time including a multimedia presentation called The BQE and an album of string arrangements of his original electronic release, Enjoy Your Rabbit. However, none of his explorations in the classical music world have really satisfied fans like a true followup to Illinois would. Even as the crowd of people began to take their seats, there was an anticipation and anxiousness in the air. Would he play any of our beloved favorites? How would the bleeps and bloops of The Age of Adz sound live? How about the 20-minute song that ends that ends that album?

Sufjan's mysteriously electronic, long-winded, and dense new album, The Age of Adz, having just been released weeks prior, hadn't received the immediate embrace as his past work did. I will be doing a complete review of the release later on, but let me just say that its strange blend of electronica, over-the-top-orchestration, and lengthy, "progressive" feel translates immaculately onto the stage. Featuring a band that includes two amazing drummers, three brass players, and a host of backup singers, pianos, and guitars, Sufjan still managed to shine among the pack himself. He sounded as confident vocally as ever, while his daring arrangements managed to capture the sounds of Age of Adz in all its strangely epic glory in just the way you would hope. The climax of the night came in the performance of "Impossible Soul", Sufjan's 20-minute album closer that he described as an "album inside of a song". He prefaced the song by asking the audience to be patient with the song, which is oh so endearing right? Honestly there was not one dull moment, culminating in a surreal, technicolor dance party that had the whole crowd dancing, which was definitely the most exciting and absurd thing to ever happen at a Sufjan Stevens concert. Ending with a few hits from Illinois, Sufjan managed to balance the familiar with the unfamiliar, while still managing to be rather unexpected and dynamic at the same time. To be honest though, most of the audience probably didn't know any of the new material. But when it sounded this good, who really cares?

Here is some video footage from the show (not taken by me of course) that shows off some of the highlights of the show including silver pants, robot dancing, sweet projections, and neverending Sufjan epics: