BIG EARS 2010: Dirty Projectors

Last year, dozens of year-end top 10 lists heaped praise on Dirty Projectors' sixth album, the Afro-electro-art-pop extravaganza Bitte Orca. From one perspective, the disc is the drum-tight culmination of nearly a decade's worth of hit-or-miss experiments from the group's Yale-educated, oppressively quirky mastermind Dave Longstreth. From another angle, though, it serves as an accessible entry point into Dirty Projectors' considerably more intimidating back catalog.

The Glad Fact (Western Vinyl, 2003)

This was the first album issued under the Dirty Projectors name—Longstreth had released The Graceful Fallen Mango under his own name in 2002—and, despite some beautiful moments, it mostly sabotages itself with forced, spray-painted eccentricities and a lot of yelping. On the surface, Longstreth sounds like a guy with hi-fidelity ambitions limited by the clunkiness and noise of a lo-fi palette. In the 21st century, though, no such limitations really exist for the Yale student with a laptop, making The Glad Fact a tad less charming as a consequence. Also, there are several songs about finches.

Hints of Bitte Orca: "My Offwhite Flag," "Naked We Made It"

Slaves' Graves & Ballads (Western Vinyl, 2004)

Originally a pair of EPs, Slaves' Graves and Ballads were released as a combined LP in 2004, despite their extreme stylistic differences—the latter features just Longstreth and a guitar, and the former includes some lush, James Horner-like arrangements from a mini-chamber orchestra. Longstreth seems quite comfortable on both parts of the disc, embracing the lovelier inclinations of The Glad Fact and allowing them to blossom here with fewer pretentious left turns. Longstreth's voice also comes out of the shadows, tackling some pretty heavy ballads with a quivery Arthur Russell-meets-Antony Hegarty delivery.

Hints of Bitte Orca: "Somberly, Kimberly" (sort of)

The Getty Address (Western Vinyl, 2005)

By 2005 the only logical next step was a massive concept album about a suicidal Don Henley. Longstreth delivered The Getty Address, perhaps the pinnacle of his quirkiness and his ambition. The album features about two dozen different musicians—choral singers, horns, strings, junkyard percussion, the kitchen sink. The orchestral flourishes can seem out of place, but the whole thing starts to make sense about halfway through, which makes it all the more disturbing in a way. There are some more finch songs, too.

Hints of Bitte Orca: "Warholian Wigs," "Tour Along the Potomac"

Rise Above (Dead Oceans, 2007)

After the Don Henley thing went over most people's heads, Longstreth decided to slap on an extra layer of irony with another concept album—recreating Black Flag's classic 1981 punk album Damaged without having actually listened to the record in 15 years. Not surprisingly, only the song titles are particularly reminiscent of Henry Rollins. Instead, Rise Above became Longstreth's bridge to the Afrobeat rhythms, noodling guitars, and R&B-inspired female harmonies (from Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian) that would help define Bitte Orca.

See: "No More," "Rise Above"