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Warpaint wins the award for most difficult band to classify in 2010. In fact, they deal in what seem like opposites all over The Fool. These songs are intricate and expansive—they all clock in around 5 minutes—but they’re built on moments of precision. No songs fade or blur to pretend at atmosphere, they earn it with a careful weave of powerful sounds under Emily Kokal’s otherworldly singing. In fact, when she lets us know, “Now I’ve got you in my undertow,” you have to agree, if you can snap out of the song’s spell long enough to nod your head. In all this atmosphere and sonic size, Warpaint excels at combining unlike sounds. From the electro-pop-turned-post-punk of “Bees” to the sweet-turned-troubling folk of “Baby”, this album has all the power of a rock record with all the hooks and intricacy of eccentric pop. The Fool is an album made with an impressive maturity and confidence. These songs build with patience, and the payoffs that their complex approach yields are impressive. So, really, when the music is this good, who cares what you call it?
For a world that lost Michael Jackson the performer, Monae gets points for hearkening back to his finest days as an artist. But ArchAndroid is great because it shows Monae doing so much more than that. She knows her music—her MJ, her Prince, her Stevie Wonder, even more current, left-field stuff like Of Montreal—but she shapes her knowledge into something squirmy, shape-shifting, and all her own. Let’s forget for a second the futuristic concept of the album and just appreciate all it does musically. From neoclassical interludes, to arch hip-hop, to frenetic pop, to sharp-as-a-tack R&B, to glimpses of psych-pop, this record runs the gamut. It’s also not easy to tap into the combination of sci-fi and humanity Bowie pulled off at his best, but Monae does exactly that here. If dual comparisons to MJ and Bowie aren’t enough for you, check out the energetic pop bliss that is “Faster”, or the soulful, ass-shaking “Tightrope”, or the glittery vamping of “Make the Bus”. Or any other moment on this record, since each is distinct and works in its own right. Along with Newsom, this is one of the most ambitious offerings of 2010, but Monae matches ambition with a consistency and unique vision that few can match up to.
Beach House’s dreamy churn should have run out of steam by album three. But, instead of retreading their already fantastic work, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scully blow the roof off their sound on Teen Dream. The keys no longer curl in on themselves, the guitars no longer drift out into space. Instead, they grow and mesh here into something far more expansive and lush. These songs don’t drift out to you, they reach past you rising into the atmosphere. It’s a brilliant move for these guys to go big because Legrand’s voice is one that begs for size. No longer strained through the gauze of a humble sound, her voice sounds full-blooded and powerful. It also helps that these songs—particularly “Zebra”, “Used to Be”, and “Lover of Mine”—are the most immediate and melodic songs of their career. As one of those blog-buzz bands, it would have been easy to dismiss Beach House as a flash in the pan before now, but with Teen Dream, Beach House proves it’s the genuine article. The duo has made its strongest record yet, an album that has stayed fresh since its January release—no small feat in the Internet age—not through publicity stunts or a barrage of singles, but by being built to last, by finding a sound big enough to match up with Legrand’s amazing pipes.
You Are Not Alone
(Anti-; US: 14 Sep 2010; UK: 13 Sep 2010)
You Are Not Alone
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy may have manned the boards on You Are Not Alone—and you can feel some of the folk/soul of Sky Blue Sky in places—but he smartly stays out of the way, because this is Mavis’s show, and she is in full command on this album. Her third album for the Anti- label is also her best yet, meshing the revival energy of tracks like “Don’t Knock” with the brimstone fury of songs like “Downward Road”. In between those spiritual poles, there are energetic and heartbreaking covers, like Staples’s take on the little-known Randy Newman gem “Losing You”, or the dusty stomp of “Wrote a Song For Everyone”. Ironically, the best song here was written by Tweedy, but you get the feeling he couldn’t have quite pulled it off himself. In Staples’s hands, the title track is deep and resonant, a call to anyone in dark times to keep their head up. She’s coming in to lift us up, and she does that with brilliant consistency on this record. This isn’t some laid-back, late-career victory lap. Staples can play the torch singer well here, but mostly she’s charged up and leading us on. And we follow, whether we want to or not, because even if you don’t have faith in anything, performances this strong can get you believing in something.
Sharon Van Etten
There are a hundred reasons why Sharon Van Etten is not your typical lovelorn singer-songwriter, but here are just a few. First off, her organically powerful voice, with all its range and size and knack for subtle emotion. Then there’s her songwriting itself: The breathless rundown lines on “A Crime”, the biting edge on “Save Yourself”, the heartworn, guileless declaration of “DSharpG”. Van Etten makes heartbreak sound fresh by avoiding fragility. These songs are hurt but still strong, and as expansive and powerful as Van Etten’s voice. In just seven songs she stretches her palate from the mostly acoustic dust of her debut album to churning sound experiments, twanging country, and bright power-pop. This record is a huge leap forward for an already great songwriter, and the sound of promise being both fulfilled and then surpassed. Van Etten may be heartbroken and beautiful, but she’s hardly in need of rescue. In fact, with the brilliant epic, it could be her that bails us out.
I Learned the Hard Way
(Daptone; US: 6 Apr 2010; UK: Import)
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
I Learned the Hard Way
As much as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings tap into the past, and float through the history of Stax and Muscle Shoals, I Learned the Hard Way is very much an album for 2010. Jones is the fiery woman scorned she’s been in the past, but bigger issues circle her heartache here. The recession funk-jam of “Money” is the most direct connection to our current woes, but even “Window Shopping”, about her man’s wandering eye, taps into greater issues. Jones seems to be aware of that scope, of how heartache can be put in perspective, and her singing is at its most subtle and restrained and, as a result, powerful. Where older records, and the live show, have Jones as a performer, this record shows Jones the singer. Behind her the Dap-Kings are tight as ever, without letting their straight-up soul fall into by the numbers simplicity. Jones and the Dap-Kings may have broken out with 100 Days, 100 Nights, but this record is their most definitive statement. It keeps one foot in tradition and one in the troubling present, and manages to make ‘em both dance in unison. Timely and timeless are two things that are hard to pull off on their own, so the fact that they pull off both on I Learned the Hard Way is more than enough reason for Jones to top a pretty stacked list.