Written by Nathan Mattise
Why has year-end list season become a December staple rather than a January one? With all of the holiday shopping including plenty of gift cards with music distribution capabilities (Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, iTunes, etc.), wouldn’t these lists be more helpful when you’re stuck deciding what album your $10 can buy you?
Some of the list making around here has already begun. A playlist of my top songs is circulating over at Songza (Note: I wanted the Ted Leo cover of Tears for Fears in there but it’s not available). Over at The NewsHouse you can find the 2nd Annual Syracuse Year in Music List as well as some Top 5s from notable music folks around campus. I compiled but did not participate in that second project, but if I was asked I had a topic in mind… Underrated Albums of ’10.
2010 was an odd year. It started out with a ton of promise, had some notable disappointments and recently ended with a lot of general consensus. An overall Best Albums list seemed fruitless when nearly everyone had most of the same top acts (Kanye West, Janelle Monae, Black Keys, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, etc.). Each year, the differences in lists are where personality and individual taste come across (TPC in ’08, Metric in ’09 for me) but that opportunity seemed gone without jeopardizing quality.
Underrated Albums provides that opportunity again. As with any list, it requires a few guidelines to help focus the field:
- Album had to be released in 2010. Seems obvious but this eliminates EPs as well.
- To be underrated, the album had to be overlooked in the year-end season. Nearly every album gets reviewed, thus giving it a shot at being valued properly by someone who connects with it. To define “underrated” here, we’re saying an album that did not show up on any major year-end lists. The ones I used to determine this were as follows:
NME’s Top 75 | Paste’s Top 50 | NPR’s Best of 2010 | KCRW DJ Top 10s | Largehearted Boy’s Top 11 | The AV Club’s Top 25 | Greg Kot (of Sound Opinions) Top 10| Rolling Stone’s Top 30 and SPIN’s Top 40 | Pitchfork’s Top 50
- The album needs to be good. I love Ra Ra Riot but The Orchard is properly rated as an OK album.
- Finally, if I haven’t fully heard the album I can’t rank it. I listen to a decent amount of online radio and college radio then proceed to download entire albums based off that. Not to mention I use Music Rescue for iPod recommendations off friends. (Translation: I would hope to hear things at least once and then desire to download them if engaging. Sorry Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, etc.).
To the list (in order of undervalue):
5. “One of Us” – Pomegranates
Each week AOL’s Spinner Radio plays new releases from the week. The best non-rated album of that bunch comes from The Pomegranates. It’s a holistic release of indie rock that drives throughout. There isn’t exactly any standout track (certainly a detractor when determining year-end lists) but the quality level stays consistently high throughout for those looking for some good drive music in 2011.
4. “Sports” – Weekend
Noise fuzz/rock doesn’t find its way into many mainstream year-end lists. However, Weekend found a niche for themselves by taking that genre and making it listenable for your average music fan. It’s not as poppy as “Treats” by Sleigh Bells but Weekend will keep you rocking just the same.
3. “Yeah, so?” – Slow Club
I can understand why “Yeah, so?” didn’t make any year-end lists. First, it’s uncertain whether this should count for 2009 or 2010. Second, it’s an album that does only one thing, but does it really well – indie folk/pop about love. It’s one trick but one trick done excellently. If the holiday band from those Hyundai commercials made a love record it would probably sound like “Yeah, so?” but it’d lack the complexity of their lyrics. The band paints emotional portraits well while the subtle beauty of the music would lead you to believe something much simpler was going on.
2. “Eyelid Movies” – Phantogram
My obsession with Phantogram is no secret. They’re a local band who worked hard to catch a break, found it and continued to gain momentum with their first major label release and tour. Eyelid Movies may have some repeat tracks for the band’s ’09 EP, but they still hold up alongside the new tracks that show the band’s versatility. There’s the familiar dance heavy “As FarAs I Can See,” the somber “10,000 Claps” and the mathematical “Bloody Palms” just to name a few. Everyone and the BBC loved this debut when it dropped, so I have no idea why it missed out on so many major Top 50s to end the year.
1. “Big Echo” – The Morning Benders
The only outsider album that would crack my year-end top five. I’m not sure why The Morning Benders didn’t get more press yet alone more year-end love. Big Echo stands out for its vast soundscapes, emotional lyrics and overall unique sounds. What else can you compare something like “Excuses” with in 2010? The originality and high level of musicianship on this album should make up for whatever lack of tempo you may find (upbeat and dancy seem to be two pillars of 2010).
Others in serious consideration (most eliminated because they made a list above): “Lisbon” – The Walkmen, “Write About Love” – Belle & Sebastian, Self-Titled from The Soft Pack, “Interpreting the Masters” – The Bird and The Bee
(Links today from the music criticism sites listed above, The NewsHouse, YouTube, Wikipedia and BBC.com)