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2010: The Year In Music

Joe Pug, Messenger: After a handful of EPs showcasing his Woody Guthrie obsession, the Chicago troubadour stretches out without forsaking his lyrical talent. — Roy Kasten


The World Is New
Best Opener: Steel Phantoms

Given the many ways openers can frustrate crowds, it's always welcome when a warm-up act sticks out as a diamond in the rough. Such was the case when Steel Phantoms delivered a winning set of driving post-punk before Islands' July performance at the Firebird. The then-quartet covered all the bases, impressing the crowd with jolting rock, danceable grooves and tender ballads. The vocalists also provided a nice contrast in styles — Aaron Harris brought the audience to life with his impassioned wailing while Yos Munro soothed with his rich, Alex Kapranos-esque tenor. Throughout the show, guitarist Jesse Newkirk IV peeled off fantastic biting leads and looked like he was having a blast. In short, Steel Phantoms set the table nicely and reminded everyone why it sometimes pays to show up early.

Best Local Release: Flaming Death Trap, Drugs Alcohol Little Sister

There's nothing complicated about Flaming Death Trap's approach to rock — and there shouldn't be. When you have hooks this catchy and lyrics this hilariously cutting ("Get some better conversation, you bore me to death"), you better crank the amps and let the music speak for itself. That's precisely what happens on Drugs Alcohol Little Sister, Flaming Death Trap's excellent first EP. Drugs' songs feature memorable distorted riffs and strong interplay between Anthony Maurice's gruff vocals and Danny Andrews' Pixies-influenced guitar leads. The band plugs away at these tunes with an unflagging, youthful energy that ensures everything here rocks as hard as possible. Most important, Drugs is an unabashed, unpretentious fun record that shows the power of simple, straightforward rock & roll. Bob McMahon


How the West Was Won
For those of us who worship at the church of popular music, the end of the year is often sacred and reflective. It's a time when we analyze the soundtrack of our past twelve months, a time when we ponder why certain bands/songs/albums helped us through tough times and elevated our (sometimes) mundane everyday experiences. This year, I valued a few albums that provided a soundtrack for cross-country travels and kept me company in a new life in California.

In February, as I left a place I had come to know intimately and a network of great people that I knew would be impossible to replace, I found myself gravitating toward some of my all-time favorite artists. But one new release helped propel my journey west: Beach House's yearning, ethereal and warmly organic Teen Dream. Within its echo-laden organ, plaintive falsetto vocals and forward-marching rhythms, it packed the perfect combination of eerie solitude and hopeful discovery.

In August, Film School released a potent dose of pop-minded shoegaze called Fission. Its greatest strength was singer/guitarist/mastermind Greg Bertens' choice to incorporate the talents of his bandmates. Lorelei Plotczyk contributed the seeds of "Sunny Day," a perfect end-of-summer, California-pop number with wispy vocals, thick walls of fuzz-guitar and propulsive tambourine shakes.

But for me, the most meaningful album of 2010 came late in September, when Deerhunter released its immaculate indie-rock dreamscape, Halcyon Digest. From the first sparse, slow, reverse-drum loop and acoustic arpeggios of "Earthquake," I was caught in its sway. So much modern music has affected or digitally manufactured etherealness; it's easy to forget that music can have an impact when it supports (instead of props up) soundscapes that come by those feelings naturally. Not since Radiohead's OK Computer has such an organic execution of spine-tingling space-rock been so perfectly achieved. — Shae Moseley


International Pop Overthrow
Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love: If it doesn't rank up there with If You're Feeling Sinister...well, very little does. It is, however, the most engaging B&S release since 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress.

Best Coast live at the Gargoyle, September 14, 2010: Crazy For You was a solid, if slightly uneven, set of songs. Live, Bethany Cosentino proved herself a self-confident stage presence, and the energy never flagged.

Dolly Mixture, Everything and More (self-released CD box set): Long the subject of whispered reverence by the indie-pop crowd, Everything and More ties the band's short discography together with unreleased recordings and live tracks. My favorite reissue of the year. (Close second: Orange Juice's Coals to Newcastle on Domino.)

Dum Dum Girls, I Will Be. In the wake of some truly mesmerizing small-scale releases, Dee Dee Penny and gang eased into a higher profile without tinkering much with their sound. No one writes these kinds of surf/girl-group/post-punk gems so well.

Frankie Rose & the Outs, self-titled: After contributing "Where Do You Run To" to Vivian Girls and drumming for a series of high-quality bands, Frankie Rose's 2009 solo seven-inch suggested that she was saving a few tricks for herself. This CD is the payoff, encompassing echoey raveups and pocket symphonies alike.

The Magnetic Fields, Realism; Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (Variance Films): A big year for this band — a fine new CD, a successful tour (including a date at the Pageant) and a film that captures Merritt and his band in warts-and-all cinéma vérité.

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