The Best Music of 2010 

From Arcade Fire to E-40 to The Walkmen, our critics recommend the best albums of the past year.

Triptykon
Eparistera Daimones

The new project from Thomas Gabriel Fischer (aka Tom G. Warrior) picks up where his former outfit, the iconic Swiss metal band Celtic Frost, left off with 2006's Monotheist. But it's a much more realized vision of that sound. Eparistera Daimones features, for the most part, extremely detuned guitars playing thick, slow, fuzzed-out, crunchy riffs as Fischer spits dark, venomous invective at his former band mate, who apparently spawned Celtic Frost's breakup. Dude's conviction to his vision is persuasive, even when he's breaking into spoken word on the ethereal "My Pain" or the sparse "In Shrouds Decayed." Sludgy tracks like "Abyss Within My Soul," "Descendant," and "The Prolonging" give credence to the motto that less is more; they're heavy as hell but expansive at the same time. The guitar tones on here are ridiculous. (Century Media)

Nachtmystium
Addicts: Black Meddle Part II

Going even further down the rabbit hole, Addicts: Black Meddle Part II continues Nachtmystium's experimentation away from orthodox black metal and into territory that more resembles new wave. Sure, there's tremolo picking, hyper-fast drumming, distortion, and ghastly, burnt vocals on "High on Hate." But then there's "No Funeral," which is pretty much a dance track (albeit a dark one), with a big drum machine beat and synthy hook. Somehow, it all works. Considered part of the genre-expanding USBM scene, the Chicago band uses drama to maximum effect. (They spell out the phrase "Nothing hurts more than being born" on the opening track.) Addicts will likely continue to alienate old-school purists, but it's undeniably infectious. You could probably dance and head-bang at the same time — but you might not want anyone to see you. (Century Media)

Land of Talk
Cloak and Cypher

It's not yet clear whether singer-guitarist Elizabeth Powell — the force powering Montreal's Land of Talk — can write a bad song. Her breathy voice conveys a sort of nonchalance that detached pain junkies can get behind; her guitar chords are put together in a way that makes for memorable melodies; and her rhythm section gets you moving. Cloak and Cypher, the band's second full-length, is her best work yet, slightly more orchestrated and layered, incredibly catchy, and a bit more upbeat than her last album, which was produced by her ex-beau, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. This time around, Powell enlisted a whole new lineup and a bunch of guest musicians (including members of Stars, Arcade Fire, and The Besnard Lakes) to help realize her vision. "Quarry Hymns" is hazy and dreamlike with a solid beat propelling it, while Powell's scratchy rock guitar drives "Swift Coin" and "The Hate I Won't Commit." Her guitar phrasing swings the standard 4/4 of "Playita," with plenty of room to breathe. The chorus of "Blangee Blee" explodes a lamenting breakup song with enough kinetic energy to jolt you from beneath the covers. There's no crying here. (Saddle Creek)

Kylesa
Spiral Shadow

Following 2009's much-drooled-over Static Tensions, the fifth album from this Savannah, Georgia band is even more accessible — at least for those inclined toward the poppy end of the sludge spectrum. Balancing head-banging grooves, pop-hooky melodies, psychedelic flourishes, and shouty/soothing male-female vocals, Spiral Shadow is another metal album unconstrained by the genre's standards. The results are convincing. Damn near every track — from the propulsive face-slamming "Cheating Synergy" to the big alt rock of "Don't Look Back" — features an ear-worm riff. But while the band's two drummers do add interesting floor-tom and crash-cymbal texture, sometimes they seem redundant. And the awesomeness of this band does not seem to translate live for some reason. Still, Spiral Shadow is one of the strongest metal albums of the year. (Season of Mist)

Autolux
Transit Transit

Six long years passed between Autolux's two full-length albums, which could have hiccupped the Los Angeles band's momentum. Its 2001 EP was fresh and raw for its time — like an artier, noisier Blonde Redhead — and its 2004 album revisited much of that material. But Transit Transit shows the band has progressed nicely. Greg Edwards supplies the fuzzy riffs, which are overlaid with futuristic, spacey effects and bassist Eugene Goreshter's dreamy vocals. It's coolly detached, yet warm at the same time. But drummer Carla Azar is the real draw here: Her beats are always textural and innovative, acting more like an instrument than a metronome. She plays with a slightly open high-hat and snare rolls on "Audience No. 2" (a tighter version of the tricky beat on 2001's "Turnstile Blues"). Her toms even substitute for a bass line on the slinky, nighttime whisper of "Highchair." "Headless Sky" feels like you're flying through the ether. Clearly, it was worth the wait. (TBD Records)

Ludicra
The Tenant

San Francisco's Ludicra really broke through on the national (albeit still underground) radar in the metal scene this year, thanks largely to this release and subsequent national tour. Like its Northwestern peers, Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch, Ludicra pushes the boundaries of trad black metal with a more organic, "live" feel (both production-wise and in its instrumentation). The harmonies that issue from guitarist Christy Cather help balance vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman's blood-curdling shriek, while the artfully constructed songs build and release, all going over the five-minute mark. Juxtaposing beautiful and bleak elements is this band's MO, and on tracks like "A Larger Silence," they're one and the same. Fittingly, Ludicra doesn't reference the genre's typical juvenile themes, instead drawing inspiration from everyday hardships (see album title). The desperation is compelling. (Profound Lore)

High on Fire
Snakes for the Divine

The fifth album from this seasoned Oakland metal trio doesn't depart stylistically from its past catalog, but the songs are more thoughtfully constructed, dynamic in scope, and technically challenging. New producer Greg Fidelman (Slayer, Johnny Cash, Metallica) played a more active role than past collaborators, and gave the album a cleaner sound with a "warm bottom end," says bassist Jeff Matz. Singer-guitarist Matt Pike's battle cry hits larger and higher notes, while drummer Des Kensel amps up his thundering, thanks to a second kick-drum and rack tom added to his arsenal. Highlights include the title track with its "Thunderstruck"-like intro that launches into a fast, low-end rumble; the doomy "Bastard Samurai"; and epic closer "Holy Flames of the Firespitter." Another triumphant milestone in the band's decade-plus-long career. (E1 Music)

Intronaut
Valley of Smoke

Call Intronaut "prog metal," or whatever; it's basically one of the scene's most challenging, complex, thoughtful, yet heavy bands. The Los Angeles-based outfit has oft been compared to Mastodon, and that's not completely off the mark, but it's actually more adventurous because its members play the shit out of their instruments. Its third album is its most ambitious and experimental yet, which may turn off the typical metal fan. Guitarist/vocalist Sacha Dunable plays with pretty harmonies throughout. Bassist Joe Lester gets jazzy with his chords and fretless explorations. Drummer Danny Walker is a monster — a sought-after session player who shows he's adept at both double-bass pummeling and more complicated, intricate beats (like the tablas and polyrhythms on the title track). Like anything that's not straightforward, Valley of Smoke can take some time to fully comprehend. But there's definitely a payoff. (Century Media)

Tame Impala
Innerspeaker

Grooving, psychedelic desert rock gets refreshed by four Australian lads, whose somewhat nasally singer brings to mind John Lennon. The fuzzy Sixties feel is certainly present ("Lucidity"), but it's melded with other influences like electro ("Alter Ego") and bluesy rock ("The Bold Arrow of Time"), which perhaps explains why the band has played with the likes of MGMT and The Black Keys. While the album functions best as one continuous listen, the bookends also stand out on their own: Opener "It Is Not Meant to Be" employs ample use of a phase shifter, a trippy, modulating effect that surfaces throughout the album; while closer "I Don't Really Mind" sets a warm, harmonized chorus to a simple backbeat, on repeat. It's fodder ripe for headphone-tripping. (Modular)

Clinic
Bubblegum

Clinic first came to prominence thanks to some rather famous cheerleaders (Radiohead), but the Liverpool outfit has long since proven that its decade-plus-long career stands on its own. Its sixth album bears the band's trademarks (the slurry affectation of singer Ade Blackburn, the ever-present organ, the rail-yard rhythms), but they're filtered through a trippier, subdued, psychedelic vibe. Opener "I'm Aware" sets the mellow tone with acoustic guitar strumming, strings, and gentle ooo, oo oo cooing. The lightly jaunting title track is slightly more upbeat with its distorted guitar and Blackburn's distinctive voice, which sounds perpetually on the edge of snarling. A chugging rhythm and organ wheezing make "Lion Tamer" classic Clinic. There's always a dark, unhinged quality lurking beneath these songs, even when they pose as something sunny. They're cruelly addictive. (Domino)

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