Saturday, December 4, 2010

The 10 Best Albums of 2010

This blog has been updated less this year than last. Chalk it up to being busy. Truth be told, even when I have more time, I don't always have a topic ready to go. The one topic that I know will come every year, though? The 10 best albums of the year.

The usual disclaimers apply. This is me ranking the music I managed to hear. We're not made of money and time here. The way I see it, if it was worth hearing, I'd have heard about it from someone at some point. So, sure, there may be an amazing album not on here. But an amazing album unheard probably doesn't make it rank among the best.

I do listen to a lot of music. And to prove I'm not nuts, every pick here has a "second opinion" by someone who actually gets paid to listen to and discuss music. Let's begin, no?

2010 was a far better year for tunes than 2009. Many of last year's picks wouldn't have ranked with this year's crop, though looking back, I do still listen to most of last year's top 10. There were several "near misses" of this list, where last year I felt like I was pulling at straws. So, which missed?

Morning Benders - Big Echo

This was a nice album with some real gems (especially "All Day Day Light"), but... a 10-song album shouldn't feel so long, right? Still, a good disc.

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

I had no idea South Florida had a real indie rock scene to speak of. Shows what I know. And thank the lord that someone out there decided they could just go out and make a guitar rock record. A refreshing disc that came out just as the new year hit.

Guster - Easy Wonderful

I guess we're talking about a band that hasn't put out anything less than amazing since I was heading into college. Songs like "On the Ocean" are just this band at it's absolute best. This one is a completely easy listen, but it seems to lack some of the emotional richness of the past several Guster albums. It is certainly missing even backing vocals by the rich-toned Adam Gardner. I, for one, missed those.

Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

I know so many people in love with this album. And it is very good. Yet, every time I listen to it - and this is not a fair comparison - I just want to hear new Fleet Foxes material (and, while their new disc is coming soon... anyone else amazed at how good that stuff still sounds?). Still, will be watching these guys.

Now, for the ones that did make the list:

10) Sleigh Bells - Treats

Second Opinion: Pitchfork

This one I almost left off. For me, this album was like one of those girlfriends from my early 20s: came out when I wasn't looking, was really intense and we spent every moment together... and then it fizzled out. And then months later when I ran back into her, it was nice to say hello, but everyone knows where the others' flaws are. That's this album. The high points are very high indeed... the opening stomp "Tell 'Em" and the makes-me-want-to-fight "Kids." But man, getting from there to the amazing "Rill Rill" gets old fast. The album closes strong, but there needed to be more variety in the tweaks and zaps. But, as music that is a step-ahead goes, it's in there for the listening.

9) Ra Ra Riot - The Orchard

Second Opinion: Pop Matters

The primary complaint I see on this disc is that it's not as good as the group's debut. That may be true, but 2008's The Rhumb Line was insanely good. Not hitting that bar of flat-out-incredible and still making a fantastic album doesn't mean you've failed (looking at you Pitchfork...). "Boy" and "Shadowcasting" are the clear standouts, but all tracks click well. "Too Dramatic" isn't, "You and I Know" makes me wish I was in the conversation and fine if the last two tracks don't deliver the same knockout punch of the first album. Whatever. What sealed this opinion up was Ra Ra Riot's tremendous Bumbershoot set where they managed to upstage the Space Needle looming just behind them. A broken drum early in the going would've ended many bands' sets. Instead, the band took to the drum-less title track of this album - which they admitted they hadn't rehearsed - and nailed it.

8) Vampire Weekend - Contra

Second opinion: The Guardian

This band, which, incidentally, sounds nothing like Ra Ra Riot, seemed to take a few cues from the combination of both bands - last year's Discovery. VW may not sound exactly like their self-described upper-west-side-Soweto anymore, but the energy remains. One of the easiest-to-listen to discs of the year, every song feels pretty effortless and occasionally remarkable. I'm not entirely sure what Exra Koenig is getting at in "Cousins" but whatever time he's planning on having, it's probably best if my teenage cousins don't attend. Despite the pearls-n-polo crap this band must put up with, here's hoping we see a third disc on this list in 2012.

7) Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

Second opinion: Entertainment Weekly

There is no one like Cee Lo in music. The Goodie Mob singer. The dark side of Gnarls Barkley. And now this. Everyone knows "Fuck You" - and thank heavens for that. Hope every person who ever balked at buying every last dinner for a girl he was dating feels somewhat vindicated for penny-pinching. Still, for an album with a marquee song, you could leave off Cee Lo's kiss-off to the golddiggers and still have a strong album. "Bright Lights Bigger City" just pounds its way into your skull, "Wildflower" is the man at his falsetto-y best and incase the mood gets too light, "Bodies" is there to remind us the "Cee" in the name might as well be for "cerebral." Great disc from a singer that is hopefully reaping rewards for nearly a decade of not-missing.

6) Broken Bells - Broken Bells

Second opinion: Rolling Stone

While Cee Lo was on his own, his Gnarls Barkley sidekick Danger Mouse paired up with Shins singer James Mercer and did what seemingly any Danger Mouse vehicle does: kick ass. Although, this kicks ass in a bit more calm manner than much of Gnarls' work. For instance, where in the world did "Your Head is on Fire" come from? And can I take it on as a second wife? Orchestration like this gets so many acts in trouble one way or another... and here we are, months after release, and it gives me chills. By the time I've recovered, "Trap Doors" is on and I'm a mess again. Honestly, the fact that this is #6 shows what a great year this was. Last year, it would've been top 3.

5) The National - High Violet

Second opinion: Pitchfork

I don't know what happened to Matt Berninger, the lead singer of this Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati outfit. But when he sings "I never thought about love when I thought about home" on "Bloodbuzz Ohio," I'm guessing his trips back to the Queen City aren't always filled with laughs. This disc shimmers through the pain, though. "Sorrow" might be one of the best songs of the year on any album, anywhere. This band does simple extremely well and hardly is it showcased better than on that sparse track. As the tension builds and Berninger sings "I don't want to get over you" - who hasn't been there? - a simple, but oh-so-amazing choral chord comes in. How such a seemingly-minor addition can make the song so relatable, I don't know. But The National knows how to do it.

4) Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love

Second Opinion: BBC

"I Didn't See it Coming" is the name of the first track. And I didn't. But it's brilliant and wonderful and so many superlatives that we could do an entire blog about it. And the album takes off. It's an album where you can point out greta moments throughout: the tremendous melodic bridge on "Calculating Bimbo," the raucous "I'm Not Living in the Real World" and the Norah Jones duet of "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John." All amazing. And we get to find out that Caery Mulligan is just as adorable in audio as she is on screen in the listen-over-and-over title track. B&S have plenty of struggles with faith and love on here... I hope they resolve them one day. But not at the expense of their music.

3) Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Second opinion: Slant

There's a moment, maybe just shy of a minute into "Rhinestone Eyes" - the first track on the disc sung by mad-genius Damon Albarn - where you realize it: Gorillaz is for real. Yeah, the first album and catchy singles was creative, but in that cute kind of way. The second disc, more earnest in presentation, still had that side-project feel to things. It was good stuff, but nothing Handsome Boy Modeling School hadn't pushed a bit further (albeit on the hip-hop side). No more. Gorillaz is legit and killing it. A complete album end-to-end, Plastic Beach rounds up the right talent (and when you say that and mean Snoop Dogg is the lower end of the depth chart, it's saying something) and the right sounds to make a deft album that pokes a little at our current world (more on that in a sec). "Melancholy Hill" seems to sum it up best, but few should even think about skipping any of the nine tracks leading up to it.

2) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Second Opinion: Spin

My. Dear. Lord. How wonderful is it to have high expectations for a band and not only have them met, but exceeded? The best rock record of the year is also the best Arcade Fire album. I just looked at the track list to pick some standouts... and failed miserably. How does one track stand out when they ALL stand out? So let's dig in: this is your world. How do you handle it? If you listen to Win Butler's take, you lament it. It's a cold world, where everyone gets teir news their own ways and needs it rightflippingnoworelse. Those that aim to step out into the open may be celebrated, but people immediately take swipes. On the incredible "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" Regine Chassagne opens with the telling line, "They heard me singing and told me to stop... quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock." That pretty much sums it up, adding the the view from on high is one where "shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains and there's no end in sight." A bland, corporate existence that has swept away the unique flavors... when differences weren't always accepted but still celebrated by the natives. The musicianship throughout is exceptional, up to the task of tackling the tough themes throughout. On "We Used to Wait," Butler looks at a society where the only time is now. Regine takes the reins again on "Empty Room" shouting out "When I'm by myself I can be myself!" In a time where everything looks the same, yet people break each other down into solely right and wrong, right and left and any number of dichotomies, The Suburbs could turn into a time capsule. And if it doesn't, it will always be amazing music.

1) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Second opinion: Pitchfork

Kanye West's response to that sort of world? Live it the hell up, and cling to what you can count on. "No more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need," he chants on "Hell of a Life" to the tune of "Iron Man." And that song is likely the most simple on here. Say what you want about Kanye. Love him. Hate him. You cannot judge his music as anything but far beyond what anyone in any genre is doing. He takes insane risks. And pulls every one of them off. The end of "Blame Game" tells us in the most profane possible manner that "Yeezy taught me." So what has Yeezy taught us on his fifth album? That Nicki Minaj might actually be the "Monster" the song gets its title from. That he can take a Trent Reznor-style set of samples and tweaks and make the darkest piece of beautiful hip-hop that may have ever graced an iPod on "So Appalled." That he lacks no dance floor power on "All Of the Lights." That he knows what you think of him on "Runaway." And that he just doesn't give a damn that you do most of the time. The sampling, the lyrics, the orchestration... it's not only more creative than any other hip-hop artists, it's better than anyone else. Insecurity often manifests itself into tremendously creative art. Kanye said himself all those albums ago "we all insecure, I'm just the first to admit it." I'm not going to say Kanye is insane, but the man could probably use therapy. But I will say he treads a fine line... and damn if he doesn't make it work for him. This album is something that should make us stand back and stop. A gifted artist with plenty of personality quirks, but who is turning out music that no one else can pull off. Or even come close to. These songs challenge us. To get into his head and understand. To get past the televised foibles. To go beyond labeling Kanye as a rapper. And like Rolling Stone asked a few years ago in reviewing a different Kanye album, are you being arrogant if you're simply stating how good you really are?

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