(Retroactive post, with this addendum: Spotify playlist here http://spoti.fi/wmDLHT)
Ah, New Year’s Eve. A time when people reflect on the year that’s past and look forward for what’s to come. Instead of imparting wisdom from life lessons learned this year, I’m choosing to review this year the only way I know how.. through the music.
Here are my top five artist/album discoveries of the past year. I guess we can all remember this year as the year Ms. Chew went indie. All albums were released in 2010 and I strongly recommend you check them out if you haven’t already.
5. The Morning Benders – Big Echo
Wikipedia categorizes the Morning Benders as “baroque pop”. As much as I’m not entirely sure what that means, it’s also extremely accurate. Just one listen to the track “Excuses” and you’ll think they’re a band out of another time and place. But really, they’re now, and they’re from Berkeley. As is the case with a lot of indie bands these days, you’ve probably heard of them without even knowing it. (“Excuses” can be heard on a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial, of all things!) Their ethereal, fleeting songs are just as fitting for a rainy day indoors as for a sunny drive by the coast. It’s hard to feel bad listening to a band like the Morning Benders. And the fact that their lead singer is an Asian American guy named Chris Chu doesn’t hurt either.
Key Tracks: Excuses, Wet Cement, Promises
Favorite Lyric: “I put no one else above us, we’ll still be best friends when it all turns to dust” (Excuses)
Fun Fact: The Morning Benders got a bunch of friends together in the Bay Area to play a maxed out orchestral version of “Excuses” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jgmgE-QDzA). Among those friends was drummer Jason Slota, of CityChurch 23rd St band fame! Which I only found out by recognizing him on the video and asking him the next Sunday.
4. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
Jeremy introduced me to this band through their music video of “The Cave”. The band rides around India on scooters. It was love at first sight, even before they broke out the banjo in the breakdown before the second verse. But beyond the banjo (and the mandolin, whee!), what draws me to Marcus Mumford and his “sons” is, at the risk of sounded like a tree-hugging hippy-dippy, the healing power of their lyrics. There’s hope dripping off every word. In a year that’s seen more than its fair share of emo, I think it’s fair to say that Mumford & Sons saved me a little. So while I would roll my eyes with disdain at their Grammy nominations (because if *everyone* listens to them then I can no longer love them, obvy) I’m pulling for them. And not just because it would mean upending Justin Bieber.
Key Tracks: The Cave, Timshel, Awake My Soul
Favorite Lyrics: “In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love, you invest your life.” (Awake My Soul)
Fun Fact: Although he exudes the presence of a much older man, Marcus Mumford is only turning 24 in January. An avid reader, he references Shakespeare and Steinbeck in his lyrics, and runs a book club as part of their online fan forum.
3. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
I discovered The Tallest Man on Earth (aka Kristian Matsson) on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLRTleMY_mc, you’ll thank me later) In the clip, someone asks why he was drawn to performing and he said because you can’t scream at people in real life. I saw that he was coming to town to play the Fillmore so I went out on a limb and bought tickets to see him, even though I only knew about 3 of his songs going in. His show was him playing solo on the guitar and singing. Even though it was just him up there, I have never seen or heard the Fillmore so silent in awe admiring the huge sound that came from the humble Swede. I wanted to cry because I will never be as good at the guitar as he is, no matter how hard I work. I swear he has 10 fingers on one hand. I’ll admit he has one of those voices that you either love or hate. Somewhat Dylan-esque, you could say. His lyrics are cryptic; it’s hard to tell if he’s writing a fairy tale or hyperbole-ing tales from his own life, or both. No, he doesn’t play the banjo (as far as I can tell) but he was still one of my favorite finds of the year.
Key Tracks: Love is All, Kids on the Run, Thousand Ways
Favorite Lyric: “I bend my arrows now in circles and I shoot around the hill. If I don’t get you in the morning, by the evening I sure will.” (Thousand Ways)
Fun Fact: At the Fillmore concert, in response to a girl who kept yelling her address to him, “It wouldn’t be that great if I were to show up at your house. This is really the only thing I’m good at.”
2. Freelance Whales – Weathervanes
Alright technically this album was self-released before 2010, but it was re-released on a record label in 2010, so it makes the list. In a big way. My coworker Steven introduced them to me thinking I’d be into them. And boy was I. From the first listen I was hooked. It’s no secret that this band is part of the reason I bought a banjo. Four, sometimes five,-part harmonies and ridiculously luxurious instrumentation (really? Did you even know what a harmonium was?), not to mention the fact that they switch instruments among themselves continuously throughout their live sets, what’s not to love? I had the privilege of seeing them twice this year and I was not disappointed. Even though they only had about 1.2 albums worth of music to draw from (pretty sure they played every song they knew), they held their fans hearts in their hands and yearning for more when they were done. Their lyrics are sometimes inspired by dreams, sometimes inspired by life, and always perfectly woven in to their layers of instrumental harmonies.
Key Tracks: Generator ^ 2nd Floor, Ghosting, Kilojoules
Favorite Lyric: “I’ve arranged for your phobias to be performed by a string quartet.” (Kilojoules)
Fun Fact: Chuck Criss grew up in SF. I met his parents. Who are very proud of him and his brother Darren, who plays Blaine on Glee.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz
I had a hard time choosing 1st place between Sufjan and FLW. Suffy won by a hair.. maybe just because I want to make it up to him for never checking his music out until this year. Yes, I was shamefully late on the Sufjan bandwagon, but now that I know better I can’t imagine my life without this delightful weirdo. And you gotta love the guy for releasing almost all his albums on bandcamp so you can stream before you buy. Some might say that Age of Adz is a slight departure from Sufjan’s typically folk-poppy, banjo-laden tunes. But really I see it as a progression into his musical exploration, and it’s no secret that I love bands that can constantly re-invent themselves and aren’t afraid of trying a new sound.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t completely sold on this album until I saw him perform it live. Maybe I was hypnotized by the neon accessories, black-light responsive visor or (what looked like) crushed-velvet silver pants, but it works. If you only have time to check out one song from the album, listen to “Impossible Soul”. Ok I’ll admit that’s kind of cheating because it’s a 25 minute long song.. but it’s well worth it. How can I describe Sufjan? He’s a mash up of everything fantastic and wonderful and weird that’s out there in music today. I played his music in my class one day and a student asked me, “Ms. Chew, what kind of music is this?” and really all I could say was, “Well, you can’t really put Sufjan Stevens in a box..” And maybe that’s why I love him so much. Because he’s what I aspire to.. to just do my thing and not be put in a box. Oh, and showing the banjo some love doesn’t hurt either.
Key Tracks: Too Much, I Want to Be Well, Impossible Soul
Favorite Lyric: “When I die, when I die I’ll rot. But when I live, when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got.” (Age of Adz)
Fun Fact: Stream almost all his albums for free at http://sufjanstevens.bandcamp.com. You’re welcome.
The Format – Dog Problems
Didn’t make the list because the album was not released in 2010 and the band is no longer around. But I did discover them circa 2009/2010 and they’re easily one of my favorites. It’s a shame the two-member band split into their solo projects and neither tickles my fancy one bit on their own.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Didn’t make the list because I didn’t discover Arcade Fire this year. But it’s solid gold. Might take a hot minute to grow on you, but give it a chance. You won’t regret it.
The Submarines – Declare a New State
While I neither discovered the band nor was the album released this year, it still makes the list for sentimental reasons. The Submarines are a husband and wife team, but this particular album was written separately at a time where they were broken up. Real life and love beats in every lyric.