Best Music 2010: Albums

  As usual, I've procrastinated my brains out. This list, finished since year's end last year - still sums out how I was feeling at the end of 2010. I've listened to a lot more music from last year since then, and maybe, just maybe, a few of those opinions have changed.

But I'm sticking with this original list. I'm OK with it. Let me explain - usually, I spend all my creative writing energy scrawling a lengthy-ass disclaimer saying why "X" and "YZ" aren't on my list. Then I'm spent for the next six months. Before I get to the task of rating 2011's music, I'll briskly run through a bit of nostalgia. Remember when we were all saying "twenty/ten" and Cee-Lo was hilarious and Kanye was probably annoying or something? Ah, the good times. Here's that lengthy-ass disclaimer I was talking about:

First I have to rule out music that doesn't technically qualify as being released in 2010 (Charlotte Gainsbourg's excellent IRM), I also disqualify albums I haven't listened to released this year or I only started listening to now (I mentioned Drake, Best Coast and the National before, but would also include Of Montreal's False Priest, Rick Ross' Teflon Don and Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here) and - this year in particular - I was shut out of listening to music released in Cincinnati (there are countless omissions here, but call out the Seedy Seeds, the Lion's Rampant and the Sundresses as high honorable mentions).

All right, let's get to it.

20 Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings I Learned The Hard Way
As I said earlier, I have mad love for Sharon Jones, this whole album makes me wish I was alive during the 70s. ...I mean, like "more alive."
Key tracks: "The Game Gets Old," "Give It Back," "She Ain't a Child No More"

19 M.I.A. MAYA
I don't think I'm the only one who thinks this album kind of got the shaft in 2010. Sure, in hindsight, this would probably been replaced by one of my "carefully considered" albums from the ol' disclaimer, but I still think it holds up. Bad press be damned, MIA will bounce back in the next few years, mark my words!
Key tracks: "XXXO," "Born Free," "Caps Lock"

18 Belle & Sebastian Write About Love
These days, I feel like the new music I love falls into two camps.  The "discoveries" that come out of left field and surprise me and the consistent music I've liked since I really started getting into modern music (my post "classic rock" phase). B&S have now been around for 14+ years - their ability to surprise me has lessened with each release. But the quality of their music has stayed - Stuart Murdoch is still an amazing songwriter and a new release is more like spending time with friends than a mind-blowing religious experience. And for me, that's sometimes just enough to make this list.
Key tracks: "Come On Sister," "The Ghost of Rockschool," "Read the Blessed Pages

17 Beach House Teen Dream
I think Beach House was the first band I 'd heard of surrounding this whole "beach revival sound" thing (probably even before I knew it was a thing).  I've always been a sucker for the calming and wistful, and Beach House has this is droves.
Key tracks: "Silver Soul," "Used To Be," "Real Love"

16 Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan Hawk
Another spill-off from my Belle & Sebastian love (and much less off my love for the Screaming Trees) this combination I've felt has been filled with "Nancy & Lee" promise that has never quite lived up to its potential until this album. The duets are more carefully chosen, some of the songs are straight solos and some are duets with Willy Mason - these all seem like smart moves that aid the performances and create what I think is their best collaboration yet.
Key tracks: "You Won't Let Me Down Again," "Snake Song," "Time of the Season"
15 The Black Keys Brothers
Since the beginning - for whatever reason - I have refused to let myself get interested in The Black Keys. They're a decent band and one of the few survivors of the garage rock boom of the early 00s that seems capable of still churning out decent music.
Key tracks: "Next Girl," "Tighten Up,"  "Never Give You Up"

14 LCD Soundsystem This Is Happening
A lot of critics saw this as the defining album of 2010, and its very good, but I think LCD is shutting down perfectly right before they get a little too overexposed. I wasn't crazy about "Drunk Girls" - fortunately the mid-album combo of "All I Want"/"I Can Change"/"You Wanted A Hit" that have all the danceable charm and lyrical ambiguity that made me love them through their 10-year career.
Key tracks: See above

13 The Walkmen Lisbon
As indie bands go, The  Walkmen are pretty prolific, I usually expect about a 3 year lag time from even my favorite bands. So when they cranked out Lisbon almost
not even 2 years after their career redefining You and Me, I was a little skeptical at home good it could be. Fortunately, I was completely off-base. More of the same? Sure. Not as consistently strong as You and Me? Um...OK. But still pretty damn good.
Key tracks: "Angela Surf City," "Blue as Your Blood," "Lisbon"

12 Vampire Weekend Contra
In the blog age, buzz bands pop up with a dizzying frequency, so it seems more important these days, for the sake of carving out some sort of career, that your second album be as good as or even better than the first. That's why it was nice to see Vampire Weekend follow up the crazy praise of their first album with an equally memorable and catchy sophomore effort. They even got sued! Way to grow up and mature right before our eyes, guys.
Key tracks: "Cousins," "Taxi Cab," "I Think Ur A Contra"

11 Big Boi Sir Lucious Leftfoot... The Son of Chico Dusty
I still miss Andre 3k and initially Big Boi solo was a difficult sell for me. While you're missing the ATLien weirdness of an Outkast release, the Son of Chico Dusty is still a pretty amazing forward-thinking Southern rap album, especially in a field where hip hop continues to fear any type of revolutionary growth and whose stars seem to be continually dwindling. I don't think there's another album that captured being both fun AND adventurous in 2010.
Key tracks: "Turns Me On," "Shutterbugg" "Back-up Plan"

10 The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night
I continue to preach the goodness that is The Besnard Lakes. However I find it's hard to convert when on the track listing, two sets of songs have titles that read like they'd show up on a long lost Emerson Lake and Palmer album. You have to believe me though - no band puts together beautiful passages punctuated by blasts of guitar feedback like the Besnard Lakes. The lyrics are filled with sad characters and beautiful scenery. When you're in the right mood some night (roaring or otherwise) you should give them a listen.
Key tracks: "Chicago Train" "Albatross" "Light Up The Night"

09 Gorillaz Plastic Beach
Damon Albarn seems to be the only who can successfully mash up all the music in my iPod without it sounding like a total mess. Who else could navigate an album with guests Snoop Dog, Mos Def, Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, The Clash and Bobby Womack and turn it into an intriguing futuristic pastiche commenting on the state of the environment (...I guesss?). Some are a better fit than others and in some ways it seems that Damon is still attempting to perfect the formula his peers Dan the Automator and Del the Funky Homosapien created (and sort of perfected) with Deltron 3030 (where he guested and got the idea for this whole Gorillaz thing in the first place). Still, it's the songs that matter, and with this album - Albarn continues to push the formula in new directions with stirring, emotional impact.
Key songs: "Stylo," "Empire Ants," "Some Kind of Nature"

08 Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti Before Today
One of the most entertaining and downright weird albums I've heard in a long time. What is this? A 70's AM Gold rebirth? Is it OK to be apparently influenced by Frank Zappa in 2010? Are they quoting "Love Shack?" So many questions. Ariel Pink follows his own bizarre set of rules to sound completely unique and eerily familiar all at once. Having 2011 already almost in the rearview, I know that this type of nostalgia has wormed it's way into more and more band repertoires. Still no one has done it since with the gleeful spookiness that is displayed on this album.
Key tracks: "Bright Lit Blue Skies," "L'estat," "Round and Round"

07 The Roots How I Got Over
The best pure hip hop album for me in 2010 was this album by The Roots. Sure there are plenty of bizarre crossovers (Joanna Newsom, Dirty Projectors and Jim James stop by) but this is a extremely soulful experience and the raps - particularly those by Black Thought and the hooks from regular guest Dice Raw - are the sharpest I've heard on a consistent basis in awhile. The concept is also strong - the first 6 songs follow the dark and gritty path the Roots have followed since Things Fall Apart, followed by a second act the actually provides a little hope. Highly recommended as a soundtrack for the next time you're facing adversity.
Key tracks: "Walk Alone," "The Day," "Right On"

06 Titus Andronicus The Monitor
I started buying more albums in 2010 - The Monitor was my first pick to grab from this year. It was, to say the least, a confusing album to hear for the first time on record. The old-timey quotes are very off-putting at first and as a result, I couldn't put the Civil War theme out of my head. I shelved it for awhile and upon rediscovery, it became a revelation - when I started tying it more to the real themes - the feelings about the place you were born (particularly if that place is New Jersey), feelings about your adopted hometown (particularly if that place is Boston), and the regret/guilt that comes with leaving and very awesome guitar parts, I finally "got it." The Civil War, even as a metaphor, is a bit of a decoy. A signature move from Titus to love is their high energy chants - this time featuring such lovely catchphrases as "the enemy is everywhere" and "you will always be a loser." If any of this still sounds appealing to you at all, 1) wow and 2) get this album, freak.
Key tracks: "A More Perfect Union," "Theme from 'Cheers,'" "The Battle of Hampton Roads"

05 Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid
More than any newcomers in the last year, Janelle Monáe's debut - a genre-melting exercise with a futuristic bent - impressed me most. Occasionally it seems almost comical the far-reaching scope and ambition of this project - even including orchestral overtures to each section and U-turn folk song near the end of everything. And while it may be imperfect, more times than not, the songs are likable and exciting (including the first section of 10 straight near perfect genre-hopping pop songs) with turns you want to take, rather than just being dragged behind.

04 Sufjan Stevens Age of Adz
Part One of the tortured artistic souls of my Best Of list, Sufjan abandoned the states, apparently had some sort of near-death experience and then went ahead and released 2 hours of music (I guess to make up for lost time). The EP (All Delighted People) was excellent in its own terms, but it set the tone for Age of Adz, a sprawling artistic statement with a 25-minute songsuite tagged at the end. I generally found that a lot of people hated it. After all, this was the man that gave us the perfect mournful, but optimistic pop song "Chicago" used to soundtrack the mournful, but optimistic movie Little Miss Sunshine VW bus ride. As with a lot of artists that freak with their first big crossover success (PJ Harvey's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea/Uh Huh Her transition strikes me as a similar move), Sufjan retreated, going back to his "roots" - the less-accessible electronic dissonance of his earlier work. There's still plenty to like - at its heart, these are still mostly pop songs and some really beautiful moments that one comes to expect from a Sufjan album, however it does require a little more patience than Illinois, or even the slower paced Michigan. It may even borderline on being a little indulgent, but turning your sound on its ear is no easy move. His choice to avoid repeating himself is a good one - this album is the sound of a musician evolving and not willing to give an audience the same thing twice.

03 Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
And now welcome to Part Two. An artist as polarizing as Kanye West who is actually famous is an unusual case. An artist who releases the kind of music that Kanye does and is still famous is even more perplexing. For a guy who first came to fame with happy, bratty, poppy, soul-sampling rap albums, this music is far away from anything I would have ever considered "mainstream." Dark confrontations of fame, power and relationships haunt this album. It's an hour and eight minutes without any real bright spots (unless you count the slightly optimistic "Lost In the World"). And still it sold well and was universally acclaimed, even landing in the top spot in a lot of people's Best of 2010 lists. It made a star out of Nicki Minaj and showed off Bon Iver's crossover potential.

Even if you hate 'Ye as a public figure, his ability to create music that stands out in the 2000s can't be denied. The soundscapes he creates have always fit the mood of the album and he manages to get the best out of his guests (Rick Ross is outstanding on "Devil in a New Dress", Jay-Z's verse on "So Appalled" is better than most of his Blueprint 3 rhymes, Chris Rock brings what humor he can to "Blame Game" at just the right time). For all his faults, in the end it's about the music and maybe because of his faults, he creates some of the most complex (and popular, and entertaining) music of our time.

02 Arcade Fire The Suburbs
Until about earlier this year, most people were blissfully unaware of Arcade Fire. This was the way I liked things. In general, I hate it when people start weighing in on the things I like, especially when that opinion is reactionary and negative. And it all hit the fan when this album (a very good one at that) won the Album of the Year award at the Grammys.

My thoughts: it's a great concept record that utilizes well the variety of instruments and voices that the band has in its arsenal. It's still not as good as Funeral, but I like it a lot more than Neon Bible.  It has a better upbeat songs vs. ballads ratio and the album flows as well as any of their albums have. Then they went and won themselves a stupid Grammy. Suddenly, every idiot with a Twitter account is a hilarious critic. The backlash - as should've been expected - got a little nasty. I guess we have this, at least. I don't really like to think about it, but I can be a little bizarrely sensitive when it comes to this stuff. No matter, this album was here at #2 when I created this list, well before the Grammys even nominated it - and it's worth checking out. But before you start saying that it shouldn't have won a Grammy, remember that Christopher Cross, No Jacket Required and Toto IV have all won the same award. So yeah, knock it off.

01 Deerhunter Halycon Digest
Deerhunter has slowly rose from a band I liked but couldn't name any of their songs, to a band that I started relying on to produce great music to a band that made my favorite album in 2010. It's hard to pinpoint how you decide this. For me, at the end of the year, there's a jumble of bands who's music I listened to consistently and start to realize that I loved several tracks in a row, and then, in a few rarer cases, every single song. That was the case with Halycon Digest - Deerhunter transformed from a band with a lot of drone-y songs and wore their influences on their sleeves, to a band who tightened up its sound and created a unique palette that moved comfortably from song to song. Bradford Cox's voice as a singer has grown confident and every experiment pays off. It's a powerful album with infinite repeat value and, in my opinion, the best album of 2010.

So that's it. Maybe you haven't fully tested the waters in 2010, if that's the case, this list was right on time. To hit that year-end deadline a little harder, the 2011 album list will be shorter. But hey, it'll be on time. Maybe. Start placing your bets now.