Naming Phoenix's best records is always a tough task. As far as year-end lists go, it's exponentially more difficult than naming the best albums overall. Why? Well, for a national list, I have no problem just going with what I enjoy. But when it comes to the local list, I make an (arguably vain) attempt to spotlight the best local offerings from a wide variety of genres. You may or may not have noticed that other media outlets don't attempt such a thing, and I don't blame them.
Still, there's a reason New Times is the definitive source for local music news and reviews, and I consider this unenviable task to be a job requirement during any year when the Valley births enough impressive records to make it worthwhile. So here goes.
Martin Cizmar music
1. Hooves — Greater Aspirations, Lowered Expectations: Hooves' four-song EP is as good a local release as you'll hear. The title perfectly encapsulates the vibe of this classic rock-informed indie record — wizened and a little world-weary, yet playfully ambitious. From the chug-a-lug swagger of the opener "Roughness," through the opening piano licks of "Giggles," which sound like a Pianola blaring through the swinging doors of some old-timey cathouse for cowboys, it's clear they weren't interested in capturing any fluff on Greater Aspirations. That's a good thing, since so many local bands make the mistake of releasing decent albums instead of great EPs.
Then again, maybe the Hooves guys just got lazy. The band has an established reputation for being hard-boozing troublemakers who show up late and get sauced early — not that those antics make them any less fun to watch on stage. So know that by putting Hooves at number one, I'm not trying to anoint them anything — most evidence, including the title of their EP, suggests they're fuck-ups who lack the drive to "make it" — I'm just recognizing that they made a helluva record.
Listen if you loved: The Dead Weather's Sea of Cowards
2. Random & K Murdock — Forever Famicom: Random is one of the true "good guys" in local rap, but that didn't win him any extra points here (see above). The Philly-bred schoolteacher who moonlights as a profanity-free rapper won these plaudits the hard way, given that I usually favor hip-hop that's a little more street.
His Nintendo-themed album (Famicom is what geeks call the original NES console), recorded with D.C.-based producer K Murdock, is perfectly paced and full of slick, creative rhymes. Songs like "Dream Master" show an MC with immense talent and a taste for the sort of non-traditional hooks that deserve to win fans outside the geeksta scene dominated by guys like MC Lars and MF Doom.
Listen if you loved: Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
3. The Maine — Black & White: This is probably the last year we can call The Maine a "local" band in any meaningful way, since this album peaked at number 16 on the Billboard 200. Actually, that's just a few slots lower than Jimmy Eat World's latest, Invented, which climbed to number 11.
You may not have heard much of a buzz locally, since these pretty boys' squeaky-clean pop rock appeals to teenage girls more than to traditional tastemakers, but I'm pleased to report that the album is actually very good. Sure, you'll likely have little use for this type of music if you're male or over the age of 19, but that doesn't make Black & White any less an accomplishment. A few tracks, including the probably-not-coincidentally-titled "Growing Up," hint at nascent maturity, too. I'm not the only one who hears it this way — the indie tastemakers at Daytrotter Sessions tapped the band in September, writing that they "could go in the way of a Springsteen some day in the future." Who knows whether they — or their label, Warner Bros. — are interested in that, but it's a dream. Remember, even The Beatles started out playing lightweight pop for teenage girls.
Listen if you loved: Local Natives' Gorilla Manor
4. The Whisperlights — Wake Up Dead: The Whisperlights may have recorded their album, Wake Up Dead, in an L.A. studio favored by John Legend and Trent Reznor, but it sounds a lot more like what you'll hear from New York bands like The Walkmen and Interpol. I know "shambling" is an incredibly overused adjective when it comes to this branch of post-punk indie rock, but it fits this record snugly.
And just so no one wonders: Yes, I'm choosing this record over the substantially similar, though not as good, EP from Snake! Snake! Snakes!
Listen if you loved: The National's High Violet
5. Eyes Set to Kill — Broken Frames: Considering frontwoman Alexia Rodriguez was working on her own project — an electro-pop effort called Lexia: Underground Sounds — around the time Tempe post-hardcore band Eyes Set to Kill was recording Broken Frames, you might worry it was a little softer than previous efforts. Nope. The band's third album, which charted on Billboard's Heatseekers, Independent, and Hard Rock charts, is the same sort of melodic metal that has won them a dedicated fan base across the country.
Underground Sounds, by the way, narrowly missed the cut for this list — Rodriguez is a very talented young woman, and if her solo career continues in the same direction, she might put out something fantastic.
Listen if you loved: Dillinger Escape Plan's Option Paralysis
6. French Quarter — It's Not Just Kissing: Given his punk credo and impressive stature in the local DIY scene, you might expect singer-songwriter Stephen Steinbrink's French Quarter project to be at least a little rough-and-tumble. Nope. In fact, the Arizona artist he channels on soft rockers like "I Really Want (To Be Your Friend)" is probably Linda Ronstadt — though his voice isn't nearly as husky as hers.
Kissing is a largely minimalist affair, built around songs that intrigue with both their beauty and their brittleness. "I want to hold you like a dying animal / I want to kiss you 'til you see your breath," he sings on one of the album's standout tracks, "A Set of Hours," a sentiment that's as sincere and depressing as much of the record.
Listen if you loved: Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz
7. Tierra del Fuego — Queen of the Rendezvous: I'm a sucker for old-fashioned Americana built around a steel guitar, and Tierra del Fuego does it about as well as anyone you'll hear these days. Oh, and it swings, too — there's an awful lot of Bob Wills on Queen of the Rendezvous, which is a good thing.
Listen if you loved: Jamey Johnson's The Guitar Song
8. Mr. Miranda — The J&D Experience: Dave Miranda is an old-school kind of guy, as you can hear on The J&D Experience. The record — billed as an EP, though it's nine songs of the normal length — was recorded with producer Jimmy Nelson, who came up with appropriately blunted beats to match Miranda's extraordinarily natural style. The best thing about Miranda? He's smart and ambitious enough to make real waves at some point.
Listen if you loved: The Roots' How I Got Over
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9. Gospel Claws — C-L-A-W-S: Gospel Claws got a hard push from local scenesters this year, and the Tempe band deserved the attention. They're sort of the unofficial standard-bearers for Phoenix indie rock, with Miniature Tigers now in New York and Dear and the Headlights, another band founded by Claws singer Joel Marquard, cooling their heels for the moment. C-L-A-W-S certainly has some great moments, too, most notably "Summer Nights Lakeside," which is, for my money, the best song of the year by any Phoenix musician of any genre.
Listen if you loved: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs
10. Scorpion vs. Tarantula — She Goes Hard: Scorpion vs. Tarantula features New Times copy editor Jay Bennett and his wife, who is also a New Times contributor. Because The Love Me Nots did not release a record in 2010, this was the best garage rock album produced by a Phoenix band. That is pretty much as much fawning praise as Jay will allow us to print on his behalf.
Listen if you loved: Grinderman's Grinderman II