Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Best of 2010 (Local)

And now it's time for a list of my favorite Portland albums from 2010. As with last year, I believe many of these albums are as good, if not better, than the stuff that made yesterday's national list.

1. Dead Songs - Big Blood

Dead Songs is definitely the best album of the year bar-none. After 9 incredible self-released CD-R's over the last 4 years, not to mention their contributions to Fire on Fire, Big Blood's Caleb and Colleen put out their first official vinyl release. The album was released by Time-Lag and the packaging and artwork (by Colleen) is exquisite. They had originally planned to release a vinyl of the best songs from the past releases, but in their typically prolific style they decided to write a whole new album instead. Nonetheless, Dead Songs ends up sounding like a greatest hits record anyway. "Dead Song", the first track, alone makes this album a must-buy. What follows is just an orgy of amazing music from "A Spiral Down" (apparently the "Everybody is screaming! From across the water I can hear them" lyric was inspired by the shouts of triumph on the night of Obama's election victory) to "Lay Your Head on the Rails, Pt II", culminating in Caleb's joyous "Daughter" and Colleen's deep rumination on family in "the Architect & the Archeologist". If you haven't heard of Big Blood before, I'm not even going to bother to try to explain their sound, you just need to get this album and listen.

2. Narrow Gauge Quad Trains / Don't Peel Your Bloomers Off Just Yet - Wesley Hartley & The Traveling Trees

Wesley Hartley & the Traveling Trees put out Narrow Gauge Quad Trains in 2009, but it was reissued this year by the Portsmouth label burst & bloom. And I'll be goddamned if it's not Maine's best country music since the heyday of Al Hawkes. Wesley is one helluva a songwriter and the Traveling Trees always know when to step up the shuffle or pull on the heartstrings. This album is also perfectly paced between quick country rockers ("Ol Texas", "Slow Shards", "El Gusano Rojo", "Outside Get Out") and slow burning ballads ("Jet Fighter", "Acreless"). This year's follow-up, Don't Peel Your Bloomers Off Just Yet, is not quite as immediate, lacking Ron Harrity's always impeccable recording prowess, but still has plenty of great songs, including my personal favorite, "Dream House".

3. We Left the Roadside - D. Gross

Krister Rollins is at Blue just about every time D. Gross and Samuel James are there swapping songs, so I'd like to quote his review of Dana's album:

"I’m going to go ahead and say that I think Portland’s extremely fortunate to have one of the Country’s best singer/songwriters living and working here. Dana Gross’ sophomore album We Left The Roadside is some crazy masterpiece. He’s hit a wonderful balance, blending allegory, parable, virtuoso guitar work, deft lyrics and good old American song structures. We Left The Roadside shows remarkable growth since his first album, Pirates. The album as a whole is tighter and the songs show more restraint and artful use of structure."

I couldn't agree more. Also, after hearing D. Gross play these songs solo for the last year, it is great to hear the full band arrangements. The tablas on "Hummingbird" are a stroke of genius, and "Sunset Mountain" is just about the happiest sounding takedown of religion I've ever heard. The whole album was recorded at Acadia Studios and sounds fantastic throughout.

4. The Ongoing Ding - Cerberus Shoal

Well, one of the best Portland albums released in 2010 was recorded in 2004 and is only available through a Japanese label. The album in question is Cerberus Shoals' full-length sequel to their masterpiece "The Ding" from the Vim and Vigour of Alvarius B and Cerberus Shoal EP. It is also turns out to be Cerberus Shoals' best album of their overflowing discography. Most Cerberus Shoal albums are just brimming with so many ideas, energy, and experimentation that the genius and adventure is undeniable, but the core is often impenetrable. The Ongoing Ding boils down Cerberus Shoal to its essentials, without losing any of their magical weirdness. It kicks off with the champagne burst of "Tailor of Graves" (which Eternal Otter Records' had the honor of releasing as vinyl single this year - available here) and then gives way to the metaphysical debate of "Should we give the earth a word", and the journey takes many more strange and wonderful turns from there. Cerberus Shoal went on hiatus in 2006, but its many members are still making incredible music today (Big Blood, Chriss Sutherland, dilly dilly), but this album is a great opportunity to appreciate once again the vim and vigour of Cerberus Shoal.

5. La Perla - Olas

To drive home my point about the enduring legacy of Cerberus Shoal on Portland's music scene, here is Chriss Sutherland's latest project Olas at #5. Chriss Sutherland flirted with a few Spanish lyrics on his excellent debut solo album Me in a "field", and went one step further on his follow up Worried Love. Now he takes lead vocal duties on the debut album from Olas, a collaboration of very talented musicians and dancers reinterpreting flamenco music through a prism of rock, folk, and Arabic sounds. Chriss sounds great singing in any language, and the Spanish tongue seems to draw out his most passionate growl. You also won't find an album this year with better hand clapping and foot stomping, and the band build to an ecstatic climax on nearly every song. Olas revisits two songs from Worried Love, "El Tiempo" and the traditional "Volando Voy", with superior results. There are also a number of other standouts, including the title track and "La Luz En Mi Vida". Ron Harrity does typically awesome, crisp production work, and the album packaging is a stunner (and comes with translations of the songs). Olas are best experienced live as the dancing is as key a component to the band as anything else, but La Perla is just about as great a representation of Olas as could be captured on CD.

6. Lady Lamb the Bee-Sides - Lady Lamb the Beekeeper

A cassette only release made available at Aly Spaltro's October farewell show. This collection is a smorgasbord of rare and unreleased Lady Lamb songs, ranging from Aly's earliest recordings, made when she was 17, to recent demos. Highlights include the myspace-favoite "Almond Colored Sheets", the live on radio take of "Dear Erin" (written for dilly dilly), and "The Nothing (Part 2)" demo. As with almost all Lady Lamb songs, the immediacy and lyrical splendor of each tune is breathtaking, and they put most artist's "A-Sides" to shame. Along with the recent series of self-released CDs, this cassette tape suggests that Aly has enough great songs in her that she could potentially pull off a triple LP for her next album with no decline in quality. It goes without saying that Lady Lamb's next album is one of my most highly anticipated releases for 2011, and I hope that it will top next year's national list.

7. Herbcraft Discovers the Bitter Waters of Agartha - Herbcradt

Herbcraft is the latest psychedelic pseudonym for Matt Lajoie, owner of the l'animaux tryst label (an inspiration to Eternal Otter Records) and one of the friendly freaks from Planets Around the Sun. Although I believe Herbcraft discovers the Bitter Waters of Agartha was recorded completely sober, it definitely ranks as this year's 2nd best stoner album (the best being The Ongoing Ding). You can follow along to the plot of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's journey to the Domain of the Arianni with the printed lyrics on the back of the (awesomely retro) album sleeve, but the best part of the Herbcraft experience is just getting lost in the wash of guitar tones. This is a vinyl only release, and the crackle of the needle against the wax is just one more great found sound on this oddball gem.

8. Ice Is War - Dead Man's Clothes

Dead Man's Clothes won "Best New Act" in the Phoenix Music Awards this year despite the fact that Ice Is War is the band's third release. Nonetheless, the award was justified not only because original members Don Dumont and Elliot Heeschen have been joined by Ian Riley (formely of Anna's Ghost) and TJ Metcalfe (formerly of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper), but also because they have now arrived at a distinct signature sound. For lack of a better word, Ice Is War is the most "mature" release of their career (and not just because they are no longer singing about Zombie Love). Although the songs are clearly built around Dumont's excellent songwriting and expressively dead pan vocals, every member fills an essential component in crafting the overall sound. The slow burning "A Fire" and the super catchy single "Moving Mountain" show the breadth of their range while still sounding like nobody else. Some complaints have been voiced with the sound quality of this recording, but the songs shine through. That being said, I would happily plunk down some serious cash to hear Dead Man's Clothes in 5.1 Surround Sound. Also, in a year of great record packaging, Ice Is War is one of the most artfully designed albums.

9. Heavy the Mountains, Heavy Are the Seas - Jakob Battick

This EP could have easily been a complete failure, but it proves to be a startling and challenging release by an exciting emerging artists. Jakob Battick reaches for the grand ambition of Scott Walker and Nick Cave at their darkest - not an easy task for an art student without access to expensive studio equipment. I would love to know more about the recording process for this album, because it creates a serious monolith of sound. This album takes patience, and some parts are just overlong, but when Battick's unsettling growl, cryptic lyrics, and dark atmospherics all fall into place, the results are truly captivating (best observed on "Nine Brothers & the Wolf"). Jakob Battick is definitely an artist to watch in 2011.

10. Treble Treble Vol. 2 - Various Artists

There are far too many great albums from this year to fit on a Top 10 list, so this compilation does an excellent job of picking out some of the choice cuts of 2011. Picking up from Joshua Loring's first installment, Bryan Bruchman of hillytown curates the latest edition in the Treble Treble series, chronicling Portland's rock scene. In this case, all 10 tracks are taken from bands that participated in the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. Standout tracks include a new song from from Foam Castles, Marie Stella's "1985" (from this year's Trust EP), and Phantom Buffalo's "Radio Signal (from Cement Postcards with Owl Colors). Of particular note is "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure", the A-Side from Jesse Pilgrim & the Bonfire's 7" vinyl single released by Eternal Otter Records.

Treble Treble Vol. 2 is available as a free download here, so why don't you give it a listen?

I know a lot more great Portland albums came out this year, and I am sure I missed a few, so let me know your favorites in the comments. Much respect to everyone making music in this little city of ours.


  1. excellent choices, though i think the BLOOD WARRIOR album should be somewhere near the top of the list. i highly recommend it.

  2. I still need to get the Blood Warrior album, but I have their 7" and love it.


  3. This list of "top 10" is very narrow in genres of music being represented. If you're going to put together a list like this, you should be inclusive of music from all genres. Otherwise change the title.