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Top 10 of 2010 – part 1

04/01/2011

End of year lists! Woo!

2010 was a good but flawed year. It started off terribly slowly – plenty of releases but nothing that really turned out to be as great as one imagined it could have, with only a few clear winner spots here and there. But as the year went on, more and more high-quality releases began to stream out. By its final months, 2010 was chock-full of more or less noteworthy releases. But there were the flaws. There were high quality releases, but it was always easy to point out something that was off in them. Some albums got crippled by the few visible flaws more than others but even some of the best seemed like they could have been far greater with a little tweak here or there.

And personally, for me this was definitely a year of Finnish releases. You may have noticed this blog being swamped with babble about Finnish artists, which from a personal point of view is a bit bizarre considering how most of the artists I listen have nothing to do with that country. But this year, Finland seemed to be hell-bent on constantly knocking out worthwhile things, from new acts as well as already established ones. It’s definitely a theme that runs throughout this list as well.

Some of the acts and albums here have not been mentioned at all during this blog’s life which is a horrid hindsight, and definitely something to improve for next year. But you’re getting paragraphs of text now!

Without further ado then, 2010’s cream of the crop. Dealt in two parts because I ramble and WordPress is a bastard to use when you’re doing loooooong updates.

10. JÓNSI – GO

If there’s an album that ever was the perfect fit for the worn and tiresome (yet always lovely) expression ‘life-affirming’, Go is it. It sparkles with the magic of child-like imagination, soaring like a bird through the vast sky and vibrating with everything that is lovely and colourful in this world. It’s the epic flight scene of a fantasy film where the hero speeds over the green valleys and snowy mountains (as evidently proven in the official promo video for Jónsi’s song for the How to Train Your Dragon flick), the break of dawn in the horizon after the defeat of the villain, the almost miraculous sight of nature at its most beautiful in a documentary, the thought that everything is possible in this world if you launch yourself to it. It’s a rain of optimism and good feeling, even at the obligatory slow moments where the beauty is uplifting in its serenity.

It’s all in the production. Don’t get me wrong – Jónsi can sure as hell write a tune and none of the songs here would be as lovely as they are if it wasn’t for their stick-in-your-head-for-weeks choruses and such, but the production is the real deal-maker. The humongous orchestral sections provide the grand soundscapes, the feel of immense size. The wildly pounding percussion that replaces complexity with sheer enthusiastic energy provides the energy. The fluttering, flittering sound of countless something is the excitement, the thrill, the liveliness that fleshes it all out. Go is a very huge album, devoid of anything subtle or anything that isn’t bouncing right in front of your face with loud colours. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t work any other way.

Sometimes you get problems when the definite head honcho of an established band launches onto a solo career and all you get are re-hashes of what the band did. It’s a problem Jónsi avoids – Go’s wild frolic is miles away from Sigur Rós, even when he goes subdued and emphasises atmosphere and mood. If anything, Go seems like the natural progression from Sigur Rós’ latest album that tried to loosen up the band’s boundaries, only this time it’s not restricted by the same boundaries. Go sounds natural, and that’s its beauty.


Go Do

 

9. MAGENTA SKYCODE – RELIEF

The reason why I’ve not mentioned Magenta Skycode before now in Rambling Fox is that it’s an album I’ve been struggling to write anything about while still feeling enchanted about it. Guess it’s time to somehow break that barrier.

Magenta Skycode began its life as a moody post-punk band project headed by one Jori Sjöroos, one of the most prominent figures in Finland’s music scene in the 00’s due to his background production and songwriting duties in PMMP as well as heading several other bands and solo projects in the meantime. Magenta Skycode’s debut appeared five years ago, and 2010 finally seemed like a fitting occasion for Sjöroos to resurrect the group. Only this time, a wee bit changed. One of the year’s trends in the Finnish scene has been the emergence of rock acts that aim to craft a dreamy mood with the help of layers upon layers of keyboards and bright guitar melodies. Accidentally or not, Magenta Skycode ended up being a part of that sudden drive for melody: gone are the post-punkisms, replaced by joyous melodies, layered vocal harmonies, bright keyboards and massive, massive hooks.

Relief is a splendour to listen. Every nook and cranny of it is filled with sound: bright and sparkly guitars, dreamy keyboard waves, sound upon sound built on top of eachother into a massive tower of airy jubilance. The production is spacey enough to give everything some place to breathe while retaining brightness and sharpness to really let each little melody twinkle clearly and audibly. Underneath all the gorgeous sheen and sparkle is a killer arsenal of stunningly well-crafted pop songs: they ebb, they flow, they grow and they’re all instantly memorable. Their hooks are obvious and large but not stupidly simplistic. They’re the work of a bunch of imaginative musical wizards who are unleashing their skills to create the most joyously happy things they know. And they succeed. And time’s only made it sound better as the songs unlock their little hidden touches.

If you adore unabashed optimism, guitar and keyboard based pop music and you go all ‘ooh’ at the idea of a rich and lush production, Relief should definitely find itself in your collection.


The Simple Pleasures


8. KANYE WEST – MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a hip-hop album that has caused several hip-hop fans to proclaim it’s going to be responsible for some sort of revolution within the genre. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a pop album that was always destined to set the charts on fire, emphasising on everything that turned Kanye‘s previous ventures into massive success stories, fully prepared to reign the radio. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a critical success story, acting as one of those immensely rare cases in these times of Internet’s musical cynicism where everyone can only agree on its merits, the rare naysayers buried under a tidal wave of positive jaw-drops and woahs. And most importantly My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a statement, an ambitious and sprawling giant that acts as the condensation of every thought and every idea its creator had as he continued to make himself look downright insane in public media during a few years filled with bizarre stunts and even more bizarre ramblings that caused everyone to question what merits the man had to begin with. And he showed them all. And he even managed to reach us who didn’t care for his previous material.

And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will go down in music history. It lurked in the shadows and then it surfaced, catching everyone in surprise just before they began to collectively praise it. It’s an album that will become a part of the strict hip-hop canon and it will be held as one of 2010’s greatest records for a long time to gone. Its impact is hard to deny. You can disagree with it with it freely, but you can’t question whether the possibility is there – one listen to the album itself tells that it was always going to be destined to be a big, important album. It’s even somewhat cocky about it.

Like said, you can disagree with the praise. I don’t find it one of the best albums ever made either, even if I’ve just written two paragraphs of overblown babble about it. I do find it’s one of the best albums of its release year, but as evidently shown it’s not near the top position. It has its flawed points and ultimately it’s from a genre I don’t listen that much and as such it has to struggle harder to get the sort of personal importance that music can get with me. But it’s a great album, delivering a new gargantuan blow just after you’ve been able to recover from the previous one. It’s a lifeline album, something vital to the artist; something that was crafted with sweat and blood and where everything of its creator’s essence was poured into. And it shows up as incredible creativity. For that I respect it.

And it’s got freaking good songs.


Runaway


7. KIRAHVI NIMELTÄ TUIKE – LEHTIPEITTEEN SUOJELIJAT

This year has had a lot of upbeat music to it but man, none of them have compared to the sheer giddy joy that Lehtipeitteen suojelijat is capable of evoking in me at its best.

I can’t help but love the sheer ballsiness of KNT‘s decision to stay on their thematic stand-out path no matter what. These aren’t just songs about heroic animals saving the world through the powers of courage and love, these are songs written about with heart in sleeve and genuine passion for it, treating them seriously enough to destroy any notion of a novelty act. Instead, it’s a concept and theme treated with love and care and which the band stands firmly behind, turning it into a genuinely great and even somewhat heartwarming ingredient X to give the band their own unique flavour.

But it’s not just the lyrics that make a smile grow on one’s face, it’s the music itself. Most of the emphasis when KNT is discussed anywhere has been placed on the keyboard wizardry, inspired by e.g. chiptunes and video game music. It chirps and sparkles everywhere, glimmering every second. It definitely gives the music – and band – its own character; very few go this positively mad with sound. But the emphasis on that singular element takes away attention from the kickass rhythm section of the band: most of the songs on Lehtipeitteen suojelijat would be far less excellent if it wasn’t for those vibrant, strong basslines and the drum section works perfectly together with the bass to strengthen the energetic, feel-good drive. And when it comes to the songwriting, we’re talking about a handful of some of the best pop songs of the year.

 

6. JENNI VARTIAINEN – SEILI

Vartiainen started her musical career as one member of the Popstars-created girl group Gimmel. After a few years of activity they split and none of them seemed to continue doing anything. Then around 2008 Vartiainen resurfaced, reimagined. No more cheesy lowest-common-denominator chart pop – while the angle is still decidedly commercially slick, Vartiainen has become one of the biggest surprises in the Finnish mainstream scene because she actually makes something that genuinely resonates in the listener. The music has turned moodier and subtler (apart from the small handful of big Pop Moments scattered throughout the albums), the production deeper and the songs have taken a twist to something that emphasises lyrics more. She may not write her words herself but her collaborators are a bloody great bunch of writers and Vartiainen is a fantastic performer, making the songs feel truly a part of her. And in the process, a part of the listener.

Who on earth would have thought?

Seili is a cohesive body of work, the everyday introspection of its texts personal and the music coming from one mind who had a clear idea of what to do. Even its most outright pop moments have a certain nonchalantness that sounds at odds to what the perkiness of the music would in most other hands go along with, but those are the exceptions: over half the album floats in moody waters where to sink in which even covers the other energetic instant-hook moments. Its precise production reminds of its big budget roots and gives it that shiny feel, but this time it allows all the work in the carefully-crafted compositions to reveal themselves. It’s also a grower. Seili waltzes in quietly and its songs emphasise mood, preferring to take things gently: it opens with a lone piano intro and its first proper song takes over half its length before it launches into a lift-off that still sounds subdued. You can’t really call it a ballads album but it takes a decidedly more intimate approach than most albums you could treat as mainstream pop.

If Vartiainen’s 2008 debut was a surprise twist in the pop scene, Seili sounds like artistic growth. It’s intimate, beautiful and moody, and it marries that with the bravado of pop music. It has a genuine emotional heart and manages to be resonant – and yet manages to offer a couple of the definite pop singles of the year. An unexpected but genuine highlight of the year.


En haluu kuolla tänä yönä

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The second part, covering the very best five albums of the year, will be posted in the next few days!

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