By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
It was a weird year for popular music. Many artists released well-hyped, buzzed-about albums, but very few of these had staying power or lingered beyond their initial sales surge. Some call it a product of our no-attention-span society; others blame it on declining artistic quality. (The jury's still out.) Still, 2010 was also the year that independent artists cemented their place in the big time: Artists from Vampire Weekend to Arcade Fire debuted high on the Billboard charts, a hallowed place normally reserved only for mainstream mainstays such as Taylor Swift and Kanye West. These days, being underground is more a state of mind than an actual place. The RFT's freelance music writers had diverse takes on popular music. Although several acts appeared on multiple lists – hint: Dreamy Baltimore band Beach House and electrowhizzes LCD Soundystem – our favorites had no rhyme or reason. Alt-rock, punk, hip-hop, indie, twang, pop, rap – all of these genres cropped up in some fashion. St. Louis acts also rated quite a few mentions, from hip-hop collective the Force to producer/electronic-music scientist Phaseone. Really, the only common thread in these lists of favorites? They're written by non-jaded music fans sharing their raves and favorites without being too cool to admit when something stirs their hearts.— Annie ZaleskiF-Bomb
I dug gems from newbies Fang Island, Maps & Atlases and Free Energy as well as new records by old favorites Broken Social Scene, Tokyo Police Club and Menomena. Arcade Fire won me back with The Suburbs. 2007's Neon Bible was about as fun as shooing Jehovah's Witnesses off your front porch, but this transcendent followup was the soundtrack of my ambivalence toward fashionable blog-buzz bands. When Win Butler condescendingly mentions "the kids," I think of Best Coast (there isn't enough reverb in the ocean to make derivative surf-pop interesting) and Wavves (who seriously sounds like Blink-182).
Some of my favorite moments were the year's strangest. Jim O'Rourke's All Kinds of People Love Burt Bacharach, is a bizarrely fascinating tribute album. Pianist Vijay Iyer's Solo is a different sort of captivating listen, brainy minimalism with the grandiosity of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue." 1-Bit Symphony by Tristan Perich may be the year's most unique release: The composer's five-movement work is embedded onto a single microchip and packaged in a jewel case with a headphone jack on its spine. Plug in, and the chip creates Perich's composition on the spot.
2011 is upon us. Albums can literally play themselves. I heard a Jim O'Rourke song on a Wal-Mart commercial. Sufjan Stevens said the F word sixteen times. The kids are far from alright. It's the end of the world as we know it, and I don't know how I feel anymore. — Ryan Wasoba
Giddens' vocals anchor the album. With a background in opera and Gaelic music, her voice embraces multiple histories, which are then blended with the present. She sings 1936's "Why Don't You Do Right?" with a subtlety that erases all memory of Jessica Rabbit and gives Blu Cantrell's 2001 tune "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)" depth and feeling that transcend the original's pop gloss.
The band played in St. Louis three times in 2010, including a set at LouFest that mesmerized the sun-drenched crowd. Giddens' unaccompanied, perfect — yes, perfect — voice embraced the English ballad "Reynadine," leaving the crowd transfixed and ready to follow her anywhere, even into the jaws of a werefox.
Two months later the band left the Sheldon shuddering, thanks to the stomps and hoots of one of the most enthusiastic concert crowds of the year. The group also contributed a rousing version on the harmony-driven rollick of "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind" to Live at KDHX, Volume 8. In a city with a divided racial history that it sometimes can't seem to shake, the Carolina Chocolate Drops doesn't just represent great music; it's a sign that divided histories can meld into something full of beauty, joy and enlightenment. — Robin Wheeler
As far as major-label releases, Big Boi (of Outkast fame) had one of the most creative hip-hop albums of the year. Frenetically paced lyricism and energetic production made Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son of Chico Dusty a welcome reward for the countless fans waiting on a new Outkast project. (For the record, Andre 3000 does not appear on Dusty as a vocalist.) Meanwhile, the Roots proved that nobody actually retires from rap when the group dropped How I Got Over, which features all the soulful instrumentation and slick wordplay for which it's known.
On the independent side of things, Pittsburgh's Wiz Khalifa put out another solid mixtape, Kush & Orange Juice, before promptly being signed to Atlantic Records. New Orleans rapper Curren$y has released two decent albums under Damon Dash's BluRoc label in the past six months, Pilot Talk and Pilot Talk II. And locally, Black Spade showcases his eccentric production and distinctive vocals on Build and Destroy, which is available via free download.
The St. Louis Underground Music Festival (SLUMfest for short) was the best local concert. An incredibly ambitious undertaking, the event incorporated every hip-hop element and featured over 70 performers in one day. Hopefully next year there will be more fans than performers in attendance...
And the best industry news of 2010? Jay Electronica announced his partnership with Jay-Z's Roc Nation imprint. Perhaps fans will finally get the studio album they've been waiting on for several years! — Calvin Cox
Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks: Scotsman Scott Hutchison led a raw and rousing confessional at the Old Rock House in May, shortly after his orchestral folk-rock band's third release. Hutchison is no longer chronicling the Chernobyl of breakups, but this album — the band's lushest — is full of invigorating anthems that steam with the full-body tingle of mulled cider.
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt: Usually I don't go in for solo, acoustic, singer-songwriter types such as Kristian Matsson, but this Swede (who's actually of average stature) has fire in his warble. "King of Spain" — which references nimble, impish Dylan while keeping up its own offbeat gallop — has been stuck in my head all season.
Robyn, Body Talk: She's a platinum-plaited Swede and veteran of '90s sugar-pop, but on this full-length culmination of two Body Talk EPs released earlier this year, Robyn should be radio's ruling robot dancehall queen. With vocals that hit the bittersweet bull's-eye, Robyn neither minces words nor over-shares. The priority is interlocking mechanical beats that never sacrifice her unapologetic smarts.
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor: There's something sweet about this so-young punk quintet, that wants to blow your eardrums with visions of a dystopian heartland and mixed references to the Civil War and the FungWah bus. These New Jersey sons' (and daughter's) reckless, shadow-of-Springsteen set at LouFest fucking ruled.
Warpaint, The Fool: While Wavves and Best Coast cornered the market on retro fuzz that floated like a half-formed thought, the four California grrls of Warpaint made dreampsych with teeth and dangerous "Undertow." I missed the band's shows in town this year, but 2011 will be about not making the same mistake. For the fourth time. — Katie Moulton
Free Energy, Stuck on Nothing: This Philly band would be lost without Thin Lizzy, the Raspberries and a GPS set to the hippie party in the classic rock streets.
Sarah Jaffe, Suburban Nature: Properly gathered together for the first time, these songs demonstrate Jaffe's instincts for chamber-pop arrangements, harmonies and honesty.
Lissie, Catching a Tiger: Elisabeth Maurus has tasted viral fame with clever covers of Kid Cudi and Lady Gaga. Her debut is gimmick-free, with elegant Americana pop and one majestic coming-of-age song, "Bully."
Local Natives, Gorilla Manor: Some bands treat a debut as a warm-up. Local Natives treat it like a one and only chance, throwing everything plus the New York City indie sink at some surprising songcraft.
Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid: No one expected modesty from Monáe, but few anticipated just how entertaining a futurist concept album of wizard rock and cyber-funk could be.
Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More: After making a splash in the UK, the Brits' mix of gospel and clamorous folk resulted in a bracing U.S. debut and a sold-out show at Off Broadway this past June.
The Mynabirds, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood: Laura Burhenn endures all the Dusty Springfield references with the help of producer Richard Swift, who smartly deconstructs the country soul.
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
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
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.
Keith Richards, Life autobiography: I continue to believe the blood transfusion legend, no matter how much he denies it.
The Welders, self-titled EP: Four short, sharp tracks circa 1979 by St. Louis' junior Runaways. — Mike Appelstein
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Presumably not by coincidence, the mercurial West dropped his newest effort just in time for the holidays and year-end best-of lists. After 2008's disappointing 808s & Heartbreak, West flat-out demolishes on this one. New guests (Nicki Minaj, RZA(!) and Bon Iver) and old pals (John Legend, Jay-Z) are along for the party, as West remains as arrogant as ever — yet humble enough to call bullshit on himself.
The National, High Violet: Featuring some of the National's most sprawling arrangements to date, Violet showcases a band that isn't the least bit afraid to take risks, risks that ultimately result in rewards to the listener after a few attentive spins. And singer Matt Berninger's baritone croon is every bit as desperate-yet-lighthearted as ever, thank God.
Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do: Written off by some as a misstep, To-Do accomplishes what 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark couldn't: chisel down fourteen tracks of classic DBT while forging ahead with new swagger. Standouts "Drag the Lake Charlie" and "Santa Fe" show a little more twang-pop than fans have heard in the past. And Shonna Tucker's neo-soul numbers add more substance.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Let It Sway: Maybe it was the production help of Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie) and Beau Sorenson (Sparklehorse), or maybe SSLYBY has really hit its stride. Regardless, sturdy sugarcoated nuggets such as "Sink/Let it Sway" and "Everlyn" help plead the case that maybe the bloggers were right about these guys after all.
It's stressful when a band announces that the upcoming album may/will be their last. The pressure's on — and while you as a fan want to love it, it's hard to not be hypercritical. James Murphy announced prior to its release that This Is Happening would likely be LCD Soundsystem's last album; thankfully, if it's true, he's going out on a great note.
Listen: "Dance Yrself Clean"
Watch: The "Drunk Girls" video, directed by Spike Jonze
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way
Not only did Ms. Jones and the Dap-Kings keep up the pace with their fourth release in 2010, they also brought that funky, brassy, sassy '60s style soul to the Pageant, giving St. Louis what was arguably its best show last year. The Dap-Kings experience could be likened to the Ike and Tina soul review, and not much else.
Listen: "Better Things." If you get more than 30 seconds into this song without your hips moving, you have no soul.
Beach House, Teen Dream
Admittedly, Pitchfork hype led me to picking up Teen Dream in January, and I still haven't been able to put it down. I initially thought it was the "perfect spring album." As the seasons changed, I thought, "No, it's a perfect summer album." The sentiment progressed as the year came to a close, and I realized it was just damn-near perfect for this year.
Listen: "Walk in the Park"
Nestled right next to Ariel Pink, I was glad to see the cream of the new electro-dream crop (Nite Jewel, the Samps and Dam-Funk) finally get some recognition. It was a pleasure to see Emeralds go pop with its new LP, Does It Look Like I'm Here? 2010 would be nothing to me without the emotionally crushing synths and waterfall bass of my big homey, Phaseone. Dance music took a turn for the best with some great remixes by the likes of Classixx, Fred Falke and Diplo. Diplo Presents: Free Gucci is flawless.
Amongst the blatant rip-offs, the big dogs of "witch house" still managed to come out on top with the boisterous, booming of Salem's King Night and oOoOO's self-titled EP. 2010 was also a great year for singles, from the satin-smooth coo of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Closer" to the infectious radio-pop polish of Katy Perry's "California Gurls" and the electrified thrust of Crystal Castles' "Celestica." Riding the mainstream tip, I am lucky to have been alive to see Lady Gaga in concert, the rise of Nicki Minaj, the return of Big Boi and the end of FREE WEEZY. Never forgetting the gold in STL, I look forward to more from Ghost Ice, Monty, Raglani, Shaved Women, Poi, Dust Bunny, Bug Chaser and Black James. — Josh Levi
The William Upski Wimsatt Award for Sprawling Statement on Urban Sprawl: Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
The St. Lunatics Circa 1999 Award for St. Louis Rappers on the Cusp of Stardom: The Force (especially Rockwell Knuckles, Choose Your Own Adventure; Black Spade, Build and Destroy; Vandalyzm, Megatron Majorz Redux and Tef Poe, Money Never Sleeps)
The Bob Dylan Award for Nasally Poetic Brilliance Accompanied by Acoustic Guitar: The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt
The "Bohemian Rhapsody" Award for the Exceptionally Catchy Sing-Along Song: Cee Lo Green "Fuck You," from The Lady Killer
The iTunes Genius Playlist Award for Ingeniously Combining Songs That Should Seemingly Have No Business Being Combined: Girl Talk, All Day
The Pulp Fiction Award For Coolest Movie Soundtrack: Machete
The Ol' Dirty Bastard Award for Best Group Rapper Gone Solo: Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son of Chico Dusty
The Invader Zim Award for Intergalactic Funk Brought to Earth by an Alien: Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid
The Labatt Blue Award for Best Canadian Export: Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record
The Sufjan Stevens Award for Weirdest Title for a Terrific Song: Shabazz Palaces, "32 Leaves Dipped in Blackness Making Clouds Forming Altered Carbon"
One of the best video moments came from none other than Fever Ray's Karin Dreijer Andersson, who made a bizarro acceptance "speech" on a Swedish music awards show wearing a melted fleshy mask and groaning into the mic like an early hominid. Andersson also delivered on the Knife's opulent Darwin-inspired opera, Tomorrow, in a Year, so divine and expansive it should be topping way more 2010 lists than it has thus far. It's hard to pick favorite shows this year, I felt like I needed to pay rent to the fantastic folks at the Luminary Center for the Arts — Warpaint stole my heart and ate it at their show in August (and then the band did so again with the release of The Fool).
This year, the boys did all right too — especially locally. The Force catalog was in heavy rotation, and even if you didn't realize it, you probably walked past someone singing Rockwell Knuckles' "Government Name." The ever-immaculate Phaseone can do no wrong, whether playing solo, DJing, making a cameo on KDHX or getting Pitchfork love without breaking a sweat. Raglani's split with Outer Space is essential vinyl, an atmospheric analog meditation, and the cover art by Jeremy Kannapell (a.k.a. Ghost Ice) is equally stunning.
Elsewhere, Active Child's seraphic debut, Curtis Lane, Bear in Heaven's Beast Rest Forth Mouth and the aural Prozac that is Sleigh Bells' Treats got me through the summer. But nothing really topped Salem's King Night. I worshiped at its infernal altar of grime-flecked indolence. From the titular single with that brilliantly zonked "O Holy Night" sample to the submerged distortion on "Killer," Salem proved it can force emotion out of emotionless electronics and screwed samples. While so many artists reek of tired formula and desperation ("I'm going to quit my noise band and ride this here chillwave") it's refreshing that Salem openly eschews its notoriety — one of them couldn't be bothered to get out of bed to do an interview with the New York Times, let alone troubling themselves to put a definitive end to the witch house/drag/haunted house psychobabble.
— Diana Benanti
Keyon Harrold at Jazz at the Bistro: In his debut as a leader at the Bistro, Harrold showed off outstanding sound on trumpet, with a bright yet well-rounded tone and extraordinary flexibility, even in very fast passages. As an instrumentalist, Harrold already is a worthy addition to the long line of famous jazz trumpet players from St. Louis. If he can continue to develop as a composer and bandleader, he could become something even more special.
St. Louis Blues Hall of Fame induction at the Old Rock House: It was good to see the elders of the St. Louis blues scene get this long-deserved formal recognition and to hear the ebullient, newly inducted Hall of Famer Big George Brock delight the crowd with an impromptu version of "Got My Mojo Working." Here's hoping this was the first of many such celebrations.
John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension at the Sheldon Concert Hall: Updating his jazz/fusion sound for the 21st century, the veteran guitarist and his top-notch band offered plenty of the flashy licks the audience was expecting but also demonstrated a more soulful, even contemplative, side.
Some favorite recordings of the past year included McLaughlin's To the One, bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding's Chamber Music Society, pianist Jason Moran's Ten and saxophonist Charles Lloyd's Mirror.— Dean C. Minderman