I Heart California
In a year when California saw sky-high bankruptcy filings and closed out on a disastrously rainy note, Admiral Radley celebrated their home state with a refreshingly sunny debut, titled I Heart California. The band who is half Grandaddy (Jason Lytle and Aaron Burtch) and half Earlimart (Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray) released I Heart California early last year. The title says it all, particularly the tongue-in-cheek title song, which features Lytle singing the opening lines, “I heart California. Ice tea in my hair.” The tune goes on to wryly commemorate drug-packed diaper bags, “fake tits” and “long walks on the five”. The opening song also sets the mood for the rest of the album, which is equally playful and addictive. Even the more delicate songs like “I Left U Cuz I Luft U”, which Lytle has called his love song to the Central Valley, are sweet rather than bitter. Lytle and Espinoza split the vocals on the album and leave one to Murray (a breezy ode to love called The Thread). When Espinoza sings, the songs emit a signature Earlimart twang; when Lytle takes the reigns, the sound is timeless, ethereal Grandaddy. Despite whose voice is in front, the sentiment is clear: California is a place that’s touched this band, and the result may incite the listener to either grab a beer or do the Nestee plunge. Or both. Jennifer Makowsky
Afrocubism sits atop PopMatters’ 2010 World Music list because of alphabetical ranking. But this amalgam of Cuban and Malian music deserves to be top ranked solely on its own merits. It’s one of my favorite 2010 releases in any style or genre. Produced by Nick Gold, who with Ry Cooder created in 1996 Buena Vista Social Club, the most successful world music album ever (8 million in sales to date and a Grammy winner), Afrocubism is the record Gold originally planned to make. But when the Malian musicians he’d recruited couldn’t make it to Cuba, he and Cooder rounded up the singers and players who would comprise the Buena Vista Social Club.
One of them, the guajiro (country) singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa, co-leads the Afrocubism ensemble of Cubans and Malians; the other leader is the kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté. Also on board are Bassekou Kouyate, a master of the ngoni, a precursor of the banjo, electric guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, and members of Ochoa’s Grupo Patria. The superb musicians and vocalists turn in 14 captivating performances that make an airtight case for the compatibility, indeed the connectedness, of West Africa and Cuba. (Africa is, of course, the source of Cuban rhythms, and Cuban music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s.) Kora and guitar, conga and talking drum, Spanish and Bambara: the sound of two cultures in perfect syntony. George De Stefano
I See the Sign
For all his weird blips and haunting, dessicated arrangements, Sam Amidon isn’t really out to deconstruct old folk tunes. Instead, he gives them new context, wraps them in the bizarre tensions of modern music—the organic clashing with the technological, sweet melodies sliced up by atonal bleeps. Following the dense, melancholy fog of All Is Well, I See the Sign deals in a clearer, sharper tension. Amidon makes the most of little details when he, say, adds a sinister palm-muted banjo to “How Come That Blood”, or how his often soft voice bursts to life alongside Beth Orton on album standout “You Better Mind”. Each of these songs, often pulled from Alan Lomax recordings or the work of Bessie Jones, work because Amidon isn’t interested in winking irony. As bizarre as these compositions can be—whipped up with classical effects by collaborator Nico Muhly—Amidon’s leftfield vision is always in service to the song. Even when he’s taking on R. Kelly’s “Relief”—with lyrics that can be heartfelt and absurd—Amidon delivers a sincerely hopeful performance. Plenty of people can make timeless songs modern again, but no one but Sam Amidon can take songs that belong to us all and manage to make them solely his own. Matthew Fiander
The Soft Wave
Arp’s The Soft Wave is a gorgeous journey of electronic listening music that counters lulling analogue tones with largely effected guitars and other atmospheric treatments. Its most immediate reference is certainly the pastoral kosmische music of 1970s Germany, but Arp isn’t interested in simply appropriating an aesthetic. Rather, he uses the timelessness of that music as his guide, adding elegant, pristinely detailed, and all-too-appropriate asides to the format, like the majestic Debussy-esque syncopations of the fluttery “Catch Waves” or the Another Green World tribute track “From a Balcony Overlooking the Sea”, a cut which makes you wish Brian Eno had recorded an entire album so narcotic and peaceful. Arp can also lay claim to the youngest of fans, my daughter, who was born around the time of its release. The Soft Wave is simultaneously tranquilizing and chromatically vibrant enough to be enjoyed at the most fundamental level, but rich enough to elicit the same enraptured joy amongst old souls. Timothy Gabriele
Although Black Mountain was initially embraced by the indie crowd, the Vancouver band has slowly, brazenly been heading toward the middle of the road. Their sound has been getting bigger and bigger, daring listeners to embrace the pompous side of rock, from space rock, to psychedelic, to early prog, to proto-metal, without a trace of irony. While it was a surprise that they ditched the Hawkwind-isms for a cleaner, more Zeppelin and Deep Purple style on their third album, they pull it off with more grace than some on the indie side of the fence can bring themselves to admit. Sure, the Led Zeppelin III and Deep Purple influences are obvious on “Hair Song” and “Old Fangs”, but the record’s true strengths turn out to be the haunting vocals of crucial (and underrated) co-lead singer Amber Webber and keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, who gives us the coolest Mellotron accompaniment since the last Opeth record. You won’t find a better classic rock album from 2010 better than this one. Adrien Begrand
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