The Year’s 10 Best Underrated EPs

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Although many of us treat it like the LP’s short, weird cousin that everyone forgets to invite to parties, the EP is a rewarding but surprisingly difficult form to master. Often an opportunity for an artist to experiment with a new sound or expand on past ones, its tracks must be memorable but not overbearing. The perfect EP should satisfy on its own but still leave the listener anticipating a musician’s next release. With an overwhelming number of fantastic albums released in 2010, only a few EPs attracted widespread interest, leaving many worthy ones in the dust. Here are ten we think deserve a closer listen, perfect bite-sized records for your hungry ears, listed in no particular order.

MusclesYounger & Immature

Considering the widespread love for electronica in 2010, it’s a bit of a wonder the world missed this one. Muscles’ debut record, 2007’s Guns Babes Lemonade, was the right mixture of uncomplicated and catchy that makes for the best dance music. Younger & Immature maintains that combination and adds a higher level of musicianship, holding up to closer listening in ways its predecessor doesn’t. Muscles has trained his ear for editing without losing his ability to write some of the most perfect electro out there. At the rate he has us going, we’ll never stop dancing.

Parenthetical GirlsPrivilege, Pt. I

The first of a five-EP series, Pt. I gives us a clarified and sleek version of Parenthetical Girls’ already unmistakable sound. Zach Pennington’s lilting voice and the band’s orchestral flourishes remain in the foreground but don’t overwhelm, and the addition of a variety of electronics provides much-needed texture. Ultimately, the record is playful but grounded, something the band didn’t quite nail with their 2008 debut. It still sounds like a carnival — this one’s just a lot more fascinating and a lot less creepy.

AB & The SeaBoys And Girls

These San Francisco local heroes moved into the wider consciousness this year when this EP and their energetic live shows caught ears across the indie pop spectrum. Although Beatles and Beach Boys comparisons are inevitable, AB & The Sea don’t rest in any one genre or sound. This is a band that can rise to whatever occasion is needed to put their talent to good use, and on Boys And Girls they move smoothly and irresistibly between surf-rock, doo-wop and bluesy stomp without missing a beat.

Balam AcabSee Birds

Whatever borderline silly name you want to call it — witch house, screwgaze, drag — there’s something deeply intriguing about the murky and haunting tracks on See Birds. But where Balam Acab’s contemporaries rely on glitchy effects and hokey samples to drive their music, he takes his time and creates a spacious sound that unfolds in surprising and beautiful ways. It also doesn’t hurt that his name is pronounceable and doesn’t include wacky punctuation. In a genre that’s hard to take seriously, See Birds sticks out as a worthwhile collection of inventive and engaging songs.

Los Campesinos!All’s Well That Ends

Los Campesinos! ventured onto a potentially fragile limb with an acoustic EP of stripped-down takes on four tracks from their Romance Is Boring LP. The band excels at using exuberantly loud instrumentation, but the risk in removing their trademark wall of sound pays off by pushing the lyrics to the front. And what impressive lyrics they are! In moving away from his original twee-pop sensibility, songwriter Gareth Campesinos! proves his ability to write about much more serious subjects. But he proudly holds onto the sarcasm necessary to keep things from getting maudlin.

Future IslandsUndressed

Although they arguably had less to lose than Los Campesinos! in going acoustic, Future Islands also made a fantastic subdued EP out of already-recorded material. They replace noise and electronics with strings and piano, and the result is nothing short of breathtaking. The original LP tracks hum with energy and have a bizarre feel, but these quieter versions are arresting and beautiful. You’d never guess they’re by the same band, which makes it all the more impressive.

Stream the full album at Thrill Jockey.

SeamonsterTwo Birds

When writer and artist Adrian Todd Webb isn’t writing comics about trudging his way through War and Peace, he performs music as Seamonster. Two Birds, his project’s debut, is all atmosphere and crisp sea air — no doubt inspired by Webb’s home of Virginia Beach. The EP is consistently strong and delivers beautiful folk tunes with refreshingly easy pacing. It’s hazy, comforting and very much deserving of 16 minutes of your time.

Holy Ghost!Static On The Wire

Retro gets more popular every year, and Holy Ghosts!’s contribution to ’70s synth-pop revival could have been unbearable. Instead, they made a perfect update — Static On The Wire is groovin’ and sexy, but it’s also lighter and more thoughtful than the kitschy funk that influences it. So much electronic music has become overproduced audio assault (we’re looking at you, dubstep), and it gets exhausting. Holy Ghost! remind us why we fell in love with synthesizers in the first place, and why we’ll never leave them.

Aidan John MoffatTen Short Songs for Modern Lovers

The gimmick here is genius — ten songs in nine minutes, none lingering too long or wearing out its welcome, intended to challenge the need for full-length albums. Each track commands attention with spazzy guitars and electronic noise, and the short format works in communicating an individual idea free from the demands of an entire song. Since the breakup of Arab Strap, Moffat has made few visible ventures into the eye of the music world; with the release of this EP, we can only hope he intends to once again become a more prominent fixture.

WalshSmoke Weed About It

Pulling in the best elements of many 2010 trends, Smoke Weed About It never falls into any one category (other than totally awesome). Its driving synths have just enough hooks to be catchy but aren’t so saturated that they’re danceable — this is the best headphones music you’ll find this year. The tracks don’t have a clear structure, but the unpredecitability is unique and welcome. You definitely don’t need to follow the EP title’s instructions to enjoy this trippy electro-pop.