Though the three dames in Mountain Man are, noticeably, not men, there is something most mountainous about their music: rustic folksinging steeped in hymnal and traditional. Made the Harbor sounds born of the land: the trio singing of woodlands and meadows, of dogs and cats, of —quite literally— the birds and the bees. On the LP's finalé, "River," they actually sound like the birdlife they otherwise describe; hooting and cooing with full-throated trills as the tune winds its way towards a figurative, final sea. Set to, at most, a solitary acoustic guitar, the record is a study in the simple, unsullied power of the human voice; embracing both the transcendently spiritual and profoundly mortal qualities of communal singing.
There are plenty of indie signifiers for How to Dress Well, the work of Cologne-based US ex-pat Tom Krell. There's the lo-fi tone, the textural drone, the influence of Ariel Pink and Panda Bear, and his vocal similarities to Bon Iver. But, Krell also happens to be completely besotted with late-'80s/early-'90s R&B, and there's not an ounce of irony in his devotion to 'quiet storm'-style slow-jams and hysterical falsetto emotion. Where scores of indie artists have dabbled in R&B influence in recent years, it's usually been an element in a polyglot mix. But, with Krell's voice the main compositional tool of Love Remains, his near-Timberlake-ian warbling takes center-stage; even if it's buried deep in an echoey, ghostly, lo-fidelity haze.
18. Grimes 'Halfaxa'
Montréal's Grimes —one-woman-show Claire Boucher— issued two albums this year, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa. Both of them awesome. And both of them available for free download (or donation, if you're feeling the love). It feels silly to set two really good —and, in many ways, quite different— records against each other, but Halfaxa is clearly an evolutionary step on for Boucher from Grimes' debut. The LP is built on cascading waves of her high, eerie, sinuous voice, which washes through a cold, cavernous, stark sound steeped in the minimalism of R&B production, but bathed in an ungodly amount of echo. They're pop-songs, underneath it all, but there's an elusiveness to their every hook, every beat, that gives off an uneasy, shadowy ambience.
After being born as Luke Temple's four-track home-recording project, Here We Go Magic have, with their second record, graduated into a fully-fledged band with style. Temple's Here We Go Magic debut was one of the best albums of 2009, and Pigeons is just as good, albeit in a different way. Where Temple once built thick, gauzy, hazy layers, here he and his assembled players knock out odd, elusive, teasing pop-songs. And none is better than single-of-the-year contender "Collector": a manic, rambunctious, rollicking five minutes in which eerie multi-part vocals and ghostly keyboards float across high-wire post-punk guitars, the whole building and building to a heightened, sustained, driven-out climax that begs you to put on your dancing shoes.
16. Twin Shadow 'Forget'
Confessionalists are normally earnest young charges with beaten-up acoustic guitars, not gear-working, gadget-fiddling electro nerds. Yet Chaz Bundick —the one-geek-band who is Toro y Moi— is cut from a different confessional cloth. Bundick uses his warped, wonky, washed-out, worked-over electronic songs as musical diary, spilling secrets in layered falsetto as his tunes court the dancefloor. Drawing influence from the ’80s pop of Janet and Michael Jackson, the hipsterist lo-fi fug of Ariel Pink, the summery haze of Panda Bear, and the gleaming house of Daft Punk, Bundick's debut TYM LP, Causers of This, delivers his own unique sound: a labor-intensive, intensely-melodic, slippery-sounding, muffled-audio, heavily-confessional synth-pop.
The world was delighted when Sea Lion introduced the Ruby Suns —the project of Auckland-based US ex-pat Ryan McPhun— as a bright, bubbly, thrown-together, polyglot stew of post-Animal Collective globe-trotting pop. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that those once-delighted seemed aghast when McPhun ditched such sunshine —and the members of Architecture In Helsinki, Shocking Pinks, and The Brunettes he'd collaborated with— to hole up on his own with a bank of synthesizers and make an album of dense, hazy tributes to '80s R&B sounds. Yet, such 'critical consensus' is bunk: Fight Softly is a huge improvement: an album of wildly-experimental songs strung together along a singular sound; and one that gets better every time you spin it.
Revenge is a dish best served cold; but what makes it colder, still, is when it comes served with a smile. Vampire Weekend wear a mischievous grin on Contra, a follow-up LP that stands as tall and proud as a raised middle-finger. Subjected to a bilious blogosphere backlash when their debut album —a blithe, breezy mixture of preppy indie-rock and West African guitar-pop— rocketed off the hype meter, the combo responded in the best way imaginable: with an album infinitely more interesting, inventive, and relentless than their first. Contra's colorful, cacophonous songs come dressed into an array of studio tricks, marking a cocky, confident, commercially and artistically-minded outing for a band refusing to be bowed by backlash.
Following a run of killer singles, Bethany Cosentino's longplaying Best Coast debut, Crazy for You, comes loaded with bright, sunny songs writ in glorious major-chords, robust harmonies, and singalong choruses. "I wish he was my boyfriend," Cosentino carols, on opening, and across its cracking 29 minutes things don't vary; Cosentino waiting by the phone, eternally pining for this on-and-off-again love who's off on tour. The guy in question is Nathan 'Wavves' Williams, but the gossip/context is unimportant and unnecessary. Cosentino may be the current queen of the fickle, prickly blogosphere, but her songs aren't the sound of 2010. These are pop-songs pure, true, and timeless; universal tunes affixed to no time and place, no boy and girl.
11. Kisses 'The Heart of the Nightlife'
Jesse Kivel had an idea for a project: making long-playing disco tracks in the vein of Jean-Marc Cerrone and Alec Constandinos. One problem, though: the tranced-out repetition of true disco went against his indie-pop nature. Thus, Kivel —normally the frontman of LA's Princeton— found his disco songs staying short and sharp: four minutes, tops. Thus, there's more shades of twee Swedes Jens Lekman and Lake Heartbeat than there are icy Italo-disco overtones; Kivel's warm, smooth, broken-hearted croon conveying a host of sad songs dressed in bright synths. The Kisses disco is one where it's 4AM, the place is half-empty, and there's a sense of melancholy in the air; the lonely and lovelorned resigned to another night leaving on their own.