We’re as addicted to end-of-year list-making as your average bloggers. But after a while, we get sick of seeing the same names over and over again. Hey, did you hear about that Kanye album? How about The Social Network — pretty great, huh? That’s why Flavorpill is launching a new yearly tradition: The Underrated Awards, honoring our favorite people and things from the cultural universe that we feel have been criminally under-appreciated. Our second installment focuses on 2010’s most unfairly overlooked albums, from records released early in the year that were forgotten by the time best-of season rolled around to releases too strange to garner much attention outside of a small niche.
Fol Chen — Pt. II: The New December
It’s rare that a band’s sound is unmistakable, and with Pt. II Fol Chen are well on their way to being able to claim that badge of honor. They write pop songs, some so smooth you’ll feel a little guilty for liking them, but with an ominous air that never lets you get too comfortable. Grating synths and triumphant horns fill out a solid but not-too-dense wall of sound that swells and falls away in perfect harmony with the lyrics and movement of each track. Filled with images of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, this album is coming with us when the zombies take over.
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Heartland garnered some great reviews upon its release in January, but it seems people made the grave mistake of forgetting it as 2010 progressed. Save for Pallett’s astounding voice, there are few similarities between the record and his earlier, simpler work as Final Fantasy. On this album he fully indulged his incredible talent for full-blown orchestral composition and wove a bizarre but deft narrative about his artistic and personal relationship with the story’s main character, Lewis. This is a complex, beautiful record that deserves to become a staple of modern classical music and Baroque pop alike. Listen and love.
Diamond Rings — Special Affections
John O’Regan started Diamond Rings as a side project because his main band, The D’Urbervilles, wasn’t a good place to express his queer identity. This resulted in two things: great, unique music and the best sparkly, multicolored eye makeup we saw on anyone this year. O’Regan’s captivatingly deep voice melds perfectly with his slow-burn synth work to create detached but highly danceable grooves. Our ears are mighty happy he struck out on his own.
The Drums — The Drums
So many bands play variations on surf rock and fail spectacularly, but The Drums get it spot on. By injecting just the right amount of fuzz and synths (and a healthy dose of conceit), they update the classic sound without being heavy-handed. It’s The Beach Boys and The Smiths on a cruise together, so everybody wins. This LP should have rocketed to the top of summer record stacks, but for some inexplicable reason it got submerged in an ocean of chillwave instead. Pull The Drums back out of the water, will you? It’s a good choice, trust us.
Holy Fuck — Latin
Holy Fuck have worked tirelessly for years and yet never quite broken out, which is unfortunate considering their abilities and fantastic live sets. Using found instruments — old film reels, children’s toys, typewriters — and a whole lot of synths and processed guitar, they make electronic music for the thinking listener. Some tracks are for dancing, but more are for headphones. Their songs are unusually memorable, each often containing both extended jams and tight hooks. What shines through more than anything is that the band has tremendous fun making their music, and that makes listening to it a serious delight.
The Fresh & Onlys — Play It Strange
Out of San Francisco’s growing garage-rock family came The Fresh & Onlys, who distinguished themselves by toning down distortion without losing their snarl. This might have been the year’s most arresting album, in the sense that it demands your undivided attention from first track to last. This band makes purposeful, driving, folk-tinged rock that’s sometimes more folky, other times more rockin’, but at all times catchy and uncompromising. It’s almost impossible to wrench yourself away, particularly because Tim Cohen’s voice is so strong it could break the songs of lesser bands. But The Fresh & Onlys are not a lesser band, and for that and many other reasons they deserve the attention their music demands.
Allo Darlin’ — Allo Darlin’
Ohmigosh, cute indie pop, we thought you’d deserted us! Everyone who used to play to girls in kitten sweaters got serious, or they got annoying, but Allo Darlin’ quietly stole our hearts with their sweet-and-sassy twee. The world continued to become a darker place this year, so inspiring and uplifting music like this matters more than ever. This record will make you feel like you’re getting the best hug of your life, from someone who really cares about you. Sometimes that’s the best thing an album can do, and Allo Darlin’ know how to do it right.
Zs — New Slaves
Much music criticism often treats experimental bands rather strangely — writers praise technical skill, mind-blowing invention and refusal to waver from vision, but often with qualifiers about how it’s “not for everyone” or “hard to get into.” Zs suffered this fate in 2010 as New Slaves found near-universal acclaim but little promotion. To hell with that, we say. Whether you thrive on the sort of twitchy, intricate melodies that Zs excel at or tend to go for more melodic stuff, you should have this album. We all need weird as a palate cleanser in this overproduced world, and New Slaves is thoroughly refreshing.
Noveller — Desert Fires
This one’s a real head trip. Noveller, aka Brooklyn artist Sarah Lipstate, makes almost-excruciatingly slow, growing songs. At that same glacial pace she introduces subtle but genius modulations, using guitar effects and looping pedals to slowly morph her music through a range of transfixing sounds. It’s impossible to guess where she’ll take a riff, but it always ends up somewhere atmospheric and lovely. Desert Fires is Lipstate’s second LP, and we hope her next one’s coming soon. Until then, we’ll be off in space with her music to guide us.
Menomena — Mines
Menomena are seriously devoted to a unique, democratic songwriting process, where each member records their part to an agreed-upon beat and emails it to the rest of the band. They never saw each other in the studio during the recording of Mines, so it could have been a disjointed mess. Instead, it’s fantastic. This record, perhaps more than any previous ones, covers such a broad range of sounds that there is something on it for everyone who likes anything rock- or pop-related. Or anything awesome.