This year has been pretty great for interesting EPs, but severly lacking thus far with LPs. There's good stuff out there that I'm sure you'd probably like that I don't, such as Fang Island's "s/t" or Titus Andronicus' "The Monitor". A lot of disappointments, though, or maybe I'm just getting even more tough to please. A couple of note: Yeasayer - Odd Blood, Past Lives - Tapestry of Webs, Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles II, Miniature Tigers - Fortress and Male Bonding - Nothing Hurts. Admittedly, I haven't really been as active with searching out new music this year as I was last, so that might be a factor. A couple seemingly awesome albums I wanted I didn't buy, either, but I might do that before 2010 is over. The EPs/LPs included in my late 2009 list won't be re-included with this mid-2010 list, but will show up in the final year end 2010 list.
Mid-2010's Interesting, Notable, Decent or Good EPs
Active Child - Curtis Lane
Active Child makes dreamy, neoclassical-type dance music with filtered, and heavily layered vocals. The results are great on some tracks ("I'm in Your Church at Night", "She Was a Vision"), but the tracks that lean closer to pure dance are seriously lacking.
The Dear Hunter - Branches
Casey Crescenzo is a very talented song writer, but he has the tendency to go supremely overboard with his works. He works best within limitations (see: "Act I: The Lake South, The River North" and the original The Dear Hunter demos), so it comes as no surprise that "The Branches" is a very focused and consistent effort.
Dom - Sun Bronzed Greek Gods
Dom's a weird group. Their music's as enigmatic as the group itself -- I don't even know if the lead singer is a dude, but I'm guessing it isn't. No song on this EP sounds alike, but it all melds into a congruent whole. Most tracks have blurred guitar, muted drums and vocals, almost ephemeral electronics, and lots of reverb throw on top. It's an incredibly catchy and strong EP, but it lacks an impact for me that makes me want to listen to it. I'll turn it on when I can't think of something else to listen to, and it works, but it isn't what I really desire.
Noisewaves - Noisewaves
Finally, another decent artist combining shoegaze-ish music with chiptunes. Not nearly as great as The Depreciation Guild, but certainly a good EP on its own.
Mathemagic - Mathemagic
Chilly and wavey. There really isn't much to be said about this, other than being undoubtedly more tropical sounding than some other artists.
Cynic - Re-Traced
The tech death metal band Cynic remix four tracks from their 2008 album "Traced in Air". The result is unlikely, and comes off as closer to mellow industrial or neofolk than their tech death/jazz fusion style they're known for.
unouomedude - Marsh
unouomedude (you know you owe me, dude), one of the newer chillwave kids on the block, brings strong vocals to the reverbed and heavily layered electronics the micro-genre's known for. The strong vocals are of interest, because it's what has set this release apart for me from many other artists following this exact formula. Uno's (usually echoed) voice cuts a clear line between the hazy electronics, instead of being relegated to a small element in the wash. What's nice about this approach is that the lyrics actually become distinguishable, but Uno doesn't really bring anything great lyrically. They seem almost facetious, in fact, or not meant to be taken with any degree of sincerity. "Are you gone, or are you there? I still have our teddy bear, it's your turn to take it back now." Decent lyrics, for me, don't add a whole lot to the value I place in music, so it's certainly not a demerit, in any case.
Smile - Muted Swan
Super pretty, minimal ambient music that uses mainly distorted electronics to craft simple, somewhat repetitive melodies. Each track is short, and fades nicely into the next, although I'm left wanting more. It has a kind of whimsical, almost antiquated sound to it. Each track is named after a single word, though there's a clear relationship between each track title. The track titles are as follows: "Time", "Bed", "Candle", "Eyes", "Hour", "Thought", "Time", "Sleep", "Me", "I". The obvious connection here is that they could represent one's night before they manage to sleep. That is, checking the time -> heading to bed -> blowing out candle -> shutting eyes -> an hour passes -> unable to sleep, so thinking -> lose track of time (hypnagogia) -> sleep -> "me" (likely dreams, perhaps a depersonalization) -> "I", becoming aware again (waking up). It's just a thought, and there are a couple hints in the music to support it. The tracks get more playful between "Thought" and "Sleep", and have a more organic and fleshed out sound to them. "Me" brings back the melancholic organ from earlier tracks, but adds in some percussion, and "I" kind of brings everything together. What's the message here? Well, given the album's named "Muted Swan", it might have something to do with the phrase "swan song". Hell, maybe it has something to do with dying; fuck if I know, but I'd like to ask the artist about it, to be honest.
Sunglasses - Sunglasses
I don't really know what I'd call this. Lazy, half spoken/half sung vocals with slight harmonies, light rhythm, and buzzing bass with some crazy layered electro at points. It's dismally short (with only 3 real tracks and two interludes), but the songs on here are great.
Yellow Ostrich - Fade Cave
Take Fleet Foxes-esque vocal harmonies, and spread them throughout an entire album, only without much instrumentation. The group's vocally dominant compositions are great, but they can become repetitive after a while, and the tracks are generally long, so this happens. They play it mostly safe, with lots of hums and a cappella arrangements, without really branching out into anything else, which is a shame. What I mean by this, if you compare it to someone like Panda Bear or Alvin Band, it does not hold up well, because they both tend to have really varied vocal performances. Fade Cave desperately needs some sort of instrumentation presence, because the light rhythm just isn't enough. A nice album, for sure, but lacking.
Chris Rehm - Salivary Stones
Described as "drone pop", by Chris Rehm, Salivatory Stones merges chopped, garbled, and fuzzed instrumentals with vocals buried deep beneath the surface. While I can't help but question whether "drone" and "pop" can ever really be used within the same context, Salivatory Stones certainly makes a case for it. There are clear melodies that form under what might seemingly be just noise at first. It's a strong EP, but not an easy listen.
Fluker Love - Soaked
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Fluker Love continues his heavily distorted, electro shoegaze with this EP. Another set of great tracks, always dropping and peaking at points with no real consistency, only to be lightly guided by some even more distorted vocals and rhythm. The Loveless comparison in last year's Best of 2009 list really still holds true, and might be even more apt with this release. Fluker Love's hazy, transient nature definitely resembles that of the untouchable Loveless. Something so many other shoegaze bands fail to really capitalize on.
Robin Guthrie - Sunflower Stories
Another Robin Guthrie EP, another batch of excellent tracks. I never really do get tired of his work. This one seems less about ambience than it does highlighting the full? band sound. Although "Slightly Out of Focus" (as the name suggests), is full-on ambience, with general noise and some lightly plucked guitar. Of course, Guthrie's heavenly guitar takes the center stage here -- almost recalling classic Durutti Column at points -- and I couldn't be happier.
Young Man - Boy
This was panned by Pitchfork (I guess they needed someone to pan after the majority of the beach/fuzz stuff they've given high scores to this year), but I think it's a pretty good EP. I mean, when one of the lines from the review is "...in other words, singer-songerwriter circa 2010, the type that has no problem forgoing codified Proper Influences like (David) Bowie and (Brian) Eno or Elliot (Smith) and (Nick) Drake in favor of Panda (Bear) and Bradford (Cox of Deerhunter/Atlas Sound)", it's hard to take seriously. Boy brings dreamy, droney acoustic guitar ballads with reverbed vocals and some light electronics. It certainly could pass off as some older Panda Bear (circa Young Prayer), but it's not a concern. I will agree with Pitchfork in them calling this "basically a demo tape", as nothing here really sounds too fleshed out. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this was quickly rushed out after he was picked up by the label Frenchkiss. Demos aren't necessarily bad, though, and this woozy EP shouldn't be overlooked.
Brothertiger - Vision Tunnels
Vision Tunnels is one of the strongest EPs I've heard this year. Brothertiger's music is layered, but syrupy. Most tracks have a woozy, soundscape atmosphere to them; floating by with echoed vocals and strong synth leads. It's a disservice to Brothertiger to compare him to other chillwave artists, because it sounds nothing like most of the bandwagoning the micro-genre has seen.
Laurel Halo - King Felix
My current top EP this year, and quite possibly one of the tops overall when all's said and done. Laurel Halo commands glitchy electronics, an etherealwave sheen, pop sensibility, and fronted by an incredibly talented female vocalist. I have no idea if her real name is actually Laurel Halo, but it really doesn't matter. Her angelic voice is neatly layered to create some striking harmonies ("Coriolis"'s chorus, in particular), while also heavily echoed to create an even more striking effect. You just can't ignore her vocals, as they do overshadow the very pretty arrangements that are going on here. The closest comparison I can think of is the later works of dream pop group Cranes. I'm desperately waiting for her to release something else, because King Felix alone is not enough.
Mid-2010's Interesting, Notable, Decent or Good LPs
Caddywhompus - Remainder
Really, really noisy noise (power-)pop. It sounds like someone's operating some power tools throughout the entire thing with all the buzzing, and somewhat harsh noise that you're assaulted with. Features aforementioned Chris Rehm and another dude. This album was fairly catchy for a couple weeks, but the noise started to grate on me. I haven't gone back to in a while now, but I'd imagine it's still a relatively fun listen. Chris Rehm's EP above is a much stronger album, though.
Action Action - The Ones Who Get it are the Ones Who Need Not to Know
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You'd think after four and a half years, leaving your label, and then self-releasing an album with no advance notice, there would've been some growth as a band. "The Ones Who Get it...", however, is merely a retread of their debut, and takes some steps back from their sophmore release, "An Army of Shapes Between Wars". I'm surprised they're even still around, given there has been little to no mention of them for years until this album was stealth released back in April. They truly remained as a phantom of the old "scene" days for years, while most others have either disbanded or released a perpetual flood of crap since now and then. "The Ones Who Get It..." isn't a bad album, but it's nothing particularly captivating, either.
The Inay - Old Sea
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This is a strange album, almost like some sort of distorted message that was deliberately tampered with. First, this is lo-fi, and the only sounds you'll be hearing on this is a lazily plucked guitar, light drumming, and general ambience. Ephemeral vocals, some echoes, and random electronics rise at points, but are quickly subdued. Second, it sounds as if the artist deliberately encoded this at a shitty bitrate. It's something like V8 MP3, not to mention the download for Old Sea is called the "tape version" on the artist's website. Normally, I wouldn't give it the time of day with that shitty of an encode, but to have a variable bitrate that low, I can only think that it was a conscious decision by the artist (unlike idiots that release their stuff at 128 or lower CBR). I don't particularly think this is a great or exciting album, but it's interesting because of its enigmatic qualities and lo-fi production.
Jatun - Blanket of Ash
Jatun returns with his follow-up to 2007's s/t. More spacey, electro shoegaze, which is good, because it's much more polished than their 2007 release. He's got the formula down, but not doing anything particularly noteworthy with it. If I'm going to listen to Jatun or M83, it's really no contest: M83. Although, to be fair, Jatun is more post-rock and ambient than M83.
Beach Fossils - Beach Fossils
Beach Fossils' jangly surf and sunny pop comes off much better than Wild Nothing's attempts this year (see below). They've got a great sense of melody, and the antiquated sound of the vocals really gels with their music. The moodier tracks on here are generally the strongest, but some nice vocal harmonies would've really complimented the tracks.
Emeralds - Does it Look Like I'm Here?
Well, does it? Really think this is a shitty name for an album. It'd be an absolute mistake to disregard the pretty and hypnotic ambience found on Does it Look Like I'm Here? based solely on the name. Emeralds were rightfully on my honorable mentions list last year, and certainly deserve their place here. They've totally nailed their sound on this album, and craft striking tracks in (generally) 4 minutes, unlike the 10 minute long tracks on What Happened. This actually sounds much closer to Mark McGuire's (one of the band members) solo albums than previous Emeralds work. Definitely an awesome album if you're just looking for something soothing, and not very demanding to listen to. It does get a bit heavy at points. The spralling, 12 minute epic "Genetic" mixes psychedelic-esque guitar solos buried under a wash of drones, and is easily the standout track.
Do While - Do While
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Super droney and loud ambient with some light vocals. Has an almost shoegaze-quality to it at times, with some shimmery electronics. Reminds me a bit of Lovesliescrushing, which is a huge compliment, but not exactly an entirely accurate one.
The Depreciation Guild - Spirit Youth
After three years, The Depreciation Guild return with a followup to their great debut. Spirit Youth has plenty of strong tracks, and builds a bit on In Her Gentle Jaws, but end up detracting some key points, as well. The chiptunes incorporated into their unique brand of shoegaze have been significantly subdued on Spirit Youth, but their are some tighter tracks on here as a result. It's a bit of a disappointment, but they're clearly skilled at crafting shoegaze without crutching on the peculiar use of chiptunes. I was hoping they'd steer more towards chiptunes with this release, somehow creating a real "chipgaze"-type album, but that's not the case. While I doubt The Depreciation Guild are going to explore it, I think there's a ton more that can be extracted from chiptunes outside of the generic, dime-a-dozen dance-fitted chip artists out there.
Twin Shadow - Forget
Twin Shadow's George Lewis Jr. makes smooth as fuck music, recalling a range of genres that peaked in the 80s, without really sounding tired. One nice thing is how diverse and fleshed out everything is. It's not chillwave, but it certainly is drawing from similar sources as the latter. Thinking a bit more about this, and it almost reminds me of the better parts of Hail Social. Forget is definitely one of the top albums released this year, so far, and a really, really pleasant surprise. Dude has his album up now for only $1, so it's worth the entry price alone just to check out (which you can, in its entirety, at the link above).
Chamber Cafe Orchestra - And the Eternal Waltz
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Not sure if their name is a homage to the legendary chamber/minimalist folk group Penguin Cafe Orchestra, but whatever. They make very pretty music, usually fronted by acoustic guitar and and assorted types of rhythm, shakers, etc. It's all very organic, and to be honest, I don't know if there are any horns or electronics featured here. It's a short album that last less than 25 minutes, but it makes good use of its short length.
Alcest - Ecailles de Lune
The post-metal/shoegaze project continues with the followup to 2007's Souvenirs d'un autre monde, which I wasn't a fan of. It definitely still pulls a lot from black metal, but brings more airy atmospherics to it. Even metal's trademark shrieks sound tasteful here, and accompany the more abrasive parts of this album rather nicely. The sung vocals on Ecailles de Lune are floaty and transient, too, but add much to the sound. The album is mostly instrumental, though, with lots of emphasis on twisting, turning compositions that run through a gamut of sounds. Some parts are so undeniably gentle, that you could cut them out, piece them together, and swear they're from some unknown dream pop act. Alcest have released a very nice surprise, and something even non-metal enthusiasts should be able to appreciate.
Wild Nothing - Gemini
While I prematurely claimed this had potential to be one of my top albums of 2010, that surely isn't going to be the case. I should probably not judge an artist's ability until they release something more than just a few tracks or an EP, because crafting a truly great and captivating full length is no easy task. Gemini isn't bad, by any means, but it's a let down in more ways than one. Sticking closer to indie pop than the dream pop he was originally crafting (and coming closer to labelmate Beach Fossils' sound, as a result). A year can make a big difference, I guess. Still, there are some really dreamy tracks on here that were in-line with my expectations for this release, such as "Drifter", "Pessimist", and "Chinatown".
Wavves - King of the Beach
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Bringing some of the fuzz from their s/t, though considerably less, Wavves manage to make a fun, and quite apt summer album that was no doubt intentional and ripe for the season. This is pretty much skate/surf punk with blurry, distorted guitars and snappy vocals. Of course, it doesn't always stick with that, as it veers off into some droney and sunshine pop bits (see: "When Will You Come", "Baseball Cards", and "Mickey Mouse"). Really a great album, and I can only fault it because it has a couple clunky tracks and a poor outro ("Idiot", "Green Eyes", and "Baby Say Goodbye"). The lyrics are pretty personal, and no doubt come after Nathan Williams' (lead Wavves dude) quick blow up into indie stardom and all the subsequent drama that followed (pretty much just look up any of the news stories about Wavves on Pitchfork, if you're interested). After absolutely hating Wavvves, I'm surprised by just how much I did end up liking King of the Beach, and the lasting power it's had on me after continual listens.
Yellow Swans - Going Places
The final release by the drone/noise group, and the only one I bothered to check out. Oops. The two piece disbanded back in 2008, but Going Places wasn't officially released until 2010. Going Places' strength lies in its ability to create vast drones that are rewarding to listen to due to their swirling, morphing nature that allows for them to peak. It's actually quite accessible, and not something you would typically find in a release that covers such a broad range of sounds as the "drone" and "noise" labels tend to cover. Of course, my knowledge of the two genres is less than ankle deep, so feel free to disregard my thoughts. "Opt Out" is my track pick, with its boiling alchemy labyrinth of drones. Even though I was way late to the party, it's sad to see these guys go, because Going Places is something special.
That about wraps it up. This list isn't really set with any particular ordering in mind as to where I think these albums stand, unless otherwise noted (see: Laurel Halo). The vast majority of these albums won't be reappearing in the year-end list (think something like 95%), and the reason for that is that this'll serve as the mid-year honorary mentions list. Whatever comes out after this, that I feel isn't top 10 material, will be in the year-end honorary mentions list. I set an arbitrary cut-off point for albums to be eligible for this mid-year list (sometime in mid-August), so some other albums that have since been released that could've been included, won't be appearing until the year-end list. Comparing 2010 with 2009 is pretty sad, as 2009 had three 10/10 albums for me, and a bunch of 8-9 albums. This year's been mostly 5s, with some 6s, 7s and some 8 to 9 outliers.