50 Favorite Albums of 2010
Been doing this every year since 2003, although it’s only recently that I started doing fifty a year. I only do write-ups for the top twenty though, although if I have the time I might finish the rest. I suppose I take the critical coward’s way out by saying this is my fifty “favorite” albums and not the fifty “greatest” albums, but it is highly subjective so I recommend you make your own list if you care enough to call me out on it.
All in all reflections for the year: really strong, tons of great releases. I don’t think it was *quite* as good as 2009, but it was pretty close. I say this all the time: right now is an amazing time for music. Some people are stuck in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and somehow, even the 90s… but I think the 00s and beyond have become goddamn amazing. A lot of that is thanks due to the Internet. It’s possible for the smallest, most obscure artist to gain national acclaim with relative ease. The best of the best ultimately surfaces. There is still the mainstream and there is still a lot of money controlling what is dominant in that arena, but ultimately if you love music you will find the good stuff with ease.
Orlando got a surge of great shows in the Fall. Favorite shows I saw live, starting with the best: Beach House, Phantogram, LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend, and Phoenix. Beach House was absolutely fucking incredible live. Most spellbinding show I have ever been to.
Now comes the hard part: rereading several times over the weekend and finding typos and sentence fragments and other goodies. I revise constantly and sometimes this leaves things in disarray on accident.
50. Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
49. Sage Francis – Li(f)e
48. Menomena – Mines
47. Violens – Amoral
46. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
45. How To Dress Well – Love Remains
44. School of the Seven Bells – Disconnect from Desire
43. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
42. Shy Child – Liquid Love
41. HEALTH – Disco2 (remix album)
40. Blood Red Shoes – Fire Like This
39. Drake – Thank Me Later
38. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
37. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
36. Wild Nothing – Gemini
35. Fang Island – Fang Island
34. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
33. Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?
32. Belle & Sebastian – Belle and Sebastian Write About Love
31. Matt & Kim – Sidewalks
30. Best Coast – Crazy For You
29. MGMT – Congratulations
28. Woods – At Echo Lake
27. Wavves – King of the Beach
26. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
25. of Montreal – False Priest
24. Wolf Parade – Expo ‘86
23. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
22. The Drums – The Drums
21. Twin Shadow – Forget
20. Caribou – Swim
Caribou, formerly known as Manitoba (Daniel Snaith), has an imperfect but respectable and high quality musical career thus far. His albums have felt ambivalent ever since he released Up In Flames; it’s like he feared that he would not be able to top it, so he would do something slightly different and therefore not able to fail. His albums almost always contain some top notch singles mixed in with some more dissonant, psychedelic experiments. The creative drain is a disarming one, and perhaps some people are only capable of putting together an “Odessa” once or twice a year. Whatever the case, Swim is one of his most consistent releases since Up In Flames, and certainly has songs like Sun that challenge its quality. I think he still has a lot of potential in him and eagerly anticipate future releases.
19. Hot Chip – One Life Stand
One Life Stand is easily Hot Chip’s most consistent album in mood and quality. Perhaps as an unfortunate result they are starting to feel a bit more methodical, but that has not hurt their style. Given the strange mix of apathy and emotion electronic music can often have, it seems to fit. The album has well-contemplated motifs in its style and lyrics.
The album was released early on in the year, but I feel it is now a great album to return to for the holidays. It is a warm album full of love and joy, but also darkness. Though it always approaches the romantic, it feels fleeting and fickle even when adamant. Perhaps that’s the cynic in me. You hear what you want to hear.
18. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
I recently got called out on the fact that I don’t seem to be into hip-hop anymore. This isn’t true as I still do like hip-hop quite a lot. I just feel like the ‘scene’ of underground hip-hop needs a resurgence of innovators and progress. It has become rather stale. But we thankfully have veterans like Big Boi of Outkast still assembling great quality albums. While it relies heavily on its roots, it shines with style and sound production judgment. The immaculate finesse in both rhyme delivery and production on songs like Tangerine and and Shine Blockas carry with them better flow and rhythmic pulls than anything on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And it reaches that point without feeling so desperate to be relevant.
17. ceo – White Magic
One of the more difficult artist names to look up on Google: ceo is a (surprise) Swedish electronica duo with an impeccable knack for gorgeous, layered electronic rhythms. The only shortcoming of this album is its length, but I suppose they went for quality over quantity. It feels somewhere in-between an EP and an LP. If the album were longer and maintained the quality, it could easily have been top 10 material. But here is close enough. It’s a tiny epic of an album.
16. Owen Pallett – Heartland
Owen Pallett, having been forced to revert his artist name of Final Fantasy back to his fortunately palatable (bad pun certainly intended) given name seems to be carrying a bit of a silly chip on his shoulder. I was not a huge fan of his work in the past, but this album he seemed like he was finally finding the right footing. He’s not exactly Michael Giacchino when it comes to composing, but sometimes I swear he comes close.
The splashes of electronics fit so well. His music is so mysterious and adventures in a lighthearted but compelling way. I suppose that’s why he originally went with the name “Final Fantasy,” referencing the video game series. E is for Estranged ranks up with one of my favorite songs of the year with its marvelous crescendo and perfect apex. I am excited for the prospect of Pallett’s maturing composition abilities because he could easily be scoring films.
15. Maximum Balloon – Maximum Balloon
TV on the Radio member/producer David Sitek gave us quite a treat this year with Maximum Balloon. He gathered up some amazing vocalists like Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the venerable David Byrne of Talking Heads, making it not quite a ‘solo’ album but it’s absolutely driven by him all the way. It is certainly not out of place in 2010 and in many ways represents the year quite definitively in style. Its effortless mesh of genres and vocalists somehow coalesces together into something consistent in sound. Indie, disco, R&B, electronica… it’s not so much trying to be any one of those things, but amalgamating them into one perfect blend that just seems right.
14. Clogs – The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton
This album is out of time. It’s apparent that the album is a cooperative work of many musicians, and it feels much in the way that ‘real’ folk music should. It is not the expose of a single individual. It is about community and sharing. It is about understanding each other through visceral music. This album is enchanting and lovely in ways that few others albums today are. It feels untouched by more modern influences like the New Weird America/psych folk scene. It is pure. It is wonderful.
13. Phantogram – Eyelid Movies
Certainly one of the “surprise” hits of the year. Phantogram are a duo that have quickly gained acclaim through this strong release. Though weak in the middle section of the album, the quality is hard to deny, especially considering their limited experience. Sarah Barthel’s voice is undoubtedly one of their strongest assets, next to their lovely and melodic song production. I’m rooting for these two to become great.
12. The National – High Violet
Never was a fan of this band in the past. They always bored me. Not gonna lie about that. Yet with all of their modern rock conventions intact, they’ve created something uncannily beautiful and sad. It’s the kind of album that can make an indifferent day and turn it deeply introspective, which can be good or bad depending on the mood you’re looking to go. That is a key feature of great music–its facile capability to shift emotion and make you feel. This is that kind of album. It is haunting and despondent. It doesn’t try to push the boundaries, but it finds places within them we never knew were there.
11. Girl Talk – All Day
Although being released in the latter portion of the year, this album has quickly shot up to one of my most listened-to of the year. The album is better than Feed the Animals, but not quite as good as Night Ripper.
Unabashedly, All Day is addictive and genius much like the rest of Girl Talk’s material. In a time of ironic juxtapositions, Girl Talk is king. Yet, it is not just for the sake of juxtaposition. Mixing Talking Heads with Skee-Lo, T’Pau, and Notorious B.I.G. isn’t just ironic or strange or funny. It’s somehow good. This has been a constant through Girl Talk’s last four albums, and it hasn’t gotten old quite yet. I don’t think there is anyone that is tired of it yet — just people who never got into it in the first place. It’s not for everyone.
There are some really amazing “I can’t believe he just sampled that” moments on the album. My biggest was definitely Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” mixed with Birdman. It proves the Why? maxim that “against a blue sky almost anything seems cinematic” by giving these ridiculously bad hip-hop lyrics the ostensible feeling that they are in fact important and compelling. They aren’t. But Girl Talk is a master of facade, and that is part of the awkward yet ceaselessly enjoyable aspects of Greg Gillis’s work.
10. Vampire Weekend – Contra
The sophomoric slump has plagued countless artists, and VW was not impervious to its power. But they mitigated its stereotypical effects extremely well. They did not choose to follow the same template as their self-titled. They chose to experiment with new sounds. I think that will be consistent throughout their career, although they will always have a refined indie-pop aesthetic attached to them. But they are always out for new textures, which I appreciate much.
“Horchata,” the album’s opening song, is also one of the album’s standout songs along with “Cousins” and “Giving Up the Gun.” Their ability to write great melodies while hooking you with soothing rhythms has remained a constant. My only complaint was that the production could have been a little better. I don’t mind lo-fi, but parts of the album just felt unfinished and unrefined. My favorite song here is probably the under-appreciated “Taxi Cab.”
9. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
Rhythm. Beat. The connection between these things and our heart is part of the origin and magic of music. We sometimes take this fact for granted and do not always take the time to realize what makes a song we like enjoyable. This is a recurring theme of this year in music for me, but I feel like often some of their best songs are the most simple–such as “Sweetest Kill.” I feel like these simple songs are so mysteriously enjoyable because we connect with them on a deeper level that we know. Not deep in an intellectual way, but a visceral one. It’s like Sigur Rós: even if we didn’t understand the words, we’d still understand what the song was about.
Time is a weird thing. This album feels like it came out forever ago, but it was this year. Yet, the year went so fast. It’s an uncanny contradiction, but there it is. It must be difficult to gather up the many musicians a part of BSS, but every few years they manage to put together some wonderful songs.” Forced to Love,” “Art House Director,” and “Ungrateful Little Father” are a few songs that really grabbed me this year. The album certainly has missteps, though, such as Water in Hell. But all in all it is an exceptional album that deserves many re-listens.
8. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
This is an album that is easily making #1 on many lists. It’s an exceptional album–ultimately about on par with Neon Bible, but does not top Funeral. If the entire album was consistent in quality with songs like “The Suburbs” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” it would quite easily be my favorite album of the year. It’s not that the rest of the album is bad–it’s consistently good. Just not consistently fucking amazing.
But still, the album DOES have great quality. It wouldn’t be in my top ten otherwise. Songs like “Rococo” have wavering, addictive rhythms. “Month of May” is satisfyingly upbeat and insatiable. Will Butler is perhaps maturing as a vocalist, learning how to rely less on shouting to convey intensity. He still has room to grow, even though he was already great. There’s a plethora of good tracks on here–enough to more than satisfy the hunger of the many Arcade Fire fans out there.
Truthfully, most of the songs are not instantly gratifying. “Modern Man” I used to skip over, but after several listens I found myself enjoying it quite a lot. I may do this with the album as a whole. It took me a while to get into Funeral, too.
7. Deerhunter – Halycon Digest
Lost. We are are all lost in our minds, struggling to grip the slippery edge of reality with our sensory system. Bradley Cox understands this perhaps too well, and thus understands the world around him with a slightly more acute perception of the innate absurdity and contradictory nature of reality. In Halcyon Digest, we’re given a kaleidoscope to peer into the many colors of darkness. We are given the Rosetta Stone of the recondite. It is not a weird as we expected. That’s what makes it unbelievable. It is somehow familiar. We approach it with a nostalgia we haven’t felt in forever. We remember long lost loved ones. We remember pain, but also hope and joy.
Now that my deconstructive, postmodern puke is out of the way, I can say plainly that this album is strikingly and unrelentingly great. The layered production is subtle but somehow dense and intricate. The rhythms are intoxicating. Songs like “Revival,” “Memory Boy,” and “Desire Lines” are uncannily constructed with perfection. This album is god damn amazing, and that’s all that really needs to be said. There are some weak points, but the good far outweigh them.
6. Robyn – Body Talk (Series)
One thing I learned this year: Robyn doesn’t fuck around. Her fleeting moment as a pop star in the 90s is something that most of us hardly remember, but for her it must seem like yesterday. And just because we have seen her sparingly since then, you get the feeling that she has never lost her passion and her drive. She has just been battling against many barriers: untrustworthy friends, mercurial lovers, despicable labels, and most importantly, herself. The latter is made vividly clear in the song “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” in which she lists the many things that are ‘killing her.’ At least half of them are her.
I appreciate the template of Body Talk. I think more artists should follow this. Robyn did not hype everything up into one single, solitary release. She released it into three components: Part 1, Part 2, and then finally realizing everything into a final LP. Some tracks were made acoustic or produced differently, adding more life into what are delicately crafted songs. It’s essentially what artists do with EPs and singles, but much more focused and coherently focused around the album’s theme. For a former pop star (now pop sage) it feels refreshing and slightly adventurous.
At the end of the day, these are lovely songs with unforgettable melodies and goosebump-inducing sincerity. I hate to use the word “honest” but you can really feel the turmoil of her success and passion. It’s a connection that pop artists attempt to make but feels feigned and drained after all the production. Not true here with in Body Talk. It is the real deal. This is a paragon of pop music.
5. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone be called “the next Bob Dylan.” I don’t think it’s ever rung true. And although some have applied the title to Kristian Matsson (The Tallest Man on Earth) I’m not sure agree with him, either. Not yet, anyway. There’s something mercurial and strange about Dylan that eludes most. It’s more than just a voice. It’s more than just great lyrics. It’s a particular mood and a prolific, progressive aesthetic working against all expectations. Dylan/Matsson comparisons are inevitable due to the similarities of voice, folk style (especially early 60s Dylan), and simultaneously surreal yet mundane lyrics.
All of that aside, though, this is an irrefutably high-caliber release from a lesser-known but amazing musician. It is challenging to write acoustically-driven songs catchy, melodic, and memorable. They don’t get stuck in your head like songs driven by softer instruments (mainly the piano). But that’s part of the genius of these songs. There is hard edge to them. It is wild in this respect. It is raw and unfiltered. Yet, somehow, extremely polished. He is a relatively new musician, but seems so seasoned.
I feel the need to also mention Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird, which is a more blues-oriented EP release from TTMOE this year. It’s not a companion release to The Wild Hunt and very much stands on its own. I’m picky about letting EPs onto my “favorite” lists because of their length (I believe the difficulty in making 50+ minutes of continuously compelling music is an important part of the wow-factor). However, the EP is definitely on the same level of quality as The Wild Hunt. It shows versatility in style and is no doubt among some of the greatest of the year as well. Maybe he’s closer to Dylan than I thought.
4. Beach House – Teen Dream
This album is like a well-crafted baguette fresh out of the oven.
Let me explain. Like many other albums on this list, the sound is not complicated, but it is complex. I’m appropriating the aforementioned baguette analogy from a 2010 TED Talk (hipster overload reached) by Eric Berlow in which he discusses how simplicity leads to complexity. Berlow insists, “So for me, a well-crafted baguette, fresh out of the oven is complex. But a curry onion green olive poppy cheese bread is complicated because it is all mixed and cooked together, which is hard for me to understand what is inside it. So it is complicated.”
The sounds and arrangements of Teen Dream are not complicated. Yet, they seem so dense and satisfying. They are complex. Victoria Legrand’s voice is the definite vehicle propelling the sound, and she sounds like a virtuoso country-singer whose hometown is Wonderland.
The only thing more entrancing and enticing I heard this year other than this album was hearing Beach House live. Their sound filled the entire venue with majestic, intoxicating layers of organs and distortions. Legrand’s voice was equally as good as her recorded material, which was relieving. The songs they played from Teen Dream stand out as their most successful and mature songwriting: “Silver Soul,” “Walk in the Park,” “Used to Be,” “Norway,” “Better Times.” We haven’t seen better times in music. Thanks.
3. Diamond Rings – Special Affections
The basics can be surreal. How can something so obviously catchy sound so new and unfamiliar? How did it take it this long to exist? Special Affections is by no means an original album. Influences including everything from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone to 80s pop is present.
So while its lo-fi synth-pop palette is nothing out of the ordinary, the songwriting is what carries it gracefully into ears. Almost every song has at least one unforgettable melody that runs the risk of getting stuck in your head. Some songs more than others, perhaps, such as the immaculate “You & Me” and standout singles “All Yr Songs” and “Something Else.” This isn’t an album you want to hear again and again. This is an album with songs you want to hear again and again. The weakest track is the first, but after that, it is consistently strong throughout. Each song is like a crayon. They may have a similar shapes, but the mood changes and strikes you differently. Every color in the crayon box is worth wielding in your heart.
2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
James Murphy’s “Sound of Silver” was a difficult album to follow. This Is Happening manages to, at the least, parallel its quality and acclaim. He does this by following essentially the same template for the album–and perhaps I would have preferred a little more uniqueness there, it’s hard to reject the consistent quality. The immaculate production, offbeat humor, occasional profoundness, and get-stuck-in-your-head-all-day addictiveness culminate into something spectacular.
The album is started, much similarly to “Get Innoculous!” with the slow yet aurally insatiable “Dance Yrself Clean.” Even the metaphor of purging through dance is there again (Innoculous/Clean). Attempting to match the intensity of Sound of Silver’s “All My Friends” we have tracks like “All I Want” and “Home.” They don’t disappoint. Even a track like “Drunk Girls” which appears like a gimmicky single has compelling and emotional moments. And of course, we have an amusingly awkward and funny track “Pow Pow” (which is probably most similar to LCD’s eponymous album’s “Losing My Edge”). But the most underrated and subtle song on the album is “You Wanted A Hit.” It’s not a song that jumps out at you at all, and the intro is still a little boring to me. But once it “hits” you, it’s incredible. It took me several listens and a remix to realize its potential.
This album is a rare exception in quality and musical–dare I say it–craftsmanship. James Murphy clearly has LCD Soundsystem down to a science, which is perhaps why he claims to be moving on to a new project. He needs to move onto a fresh start, now that he has finally danced himself clean. If that is the case, he has left the perfect punctuation mark on LCD Soundsystem’s discography.
1. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
I honestly haven’t liked anything Sufjan has done since Michigan in 2003. But he has returned with a refreshingly new but well-calibrated aesthetic.
I think when searching for the greatest (oops, I mean, favorite!) albums of the year, the word ‘zeitgeist’ comes to mind: something that captures the spirit of our collective consciousness. We’re sprawling out of identity crises with hope and fear of the future. We’re finally embracing and integrating new technology seamlessly into our organic lives. This is a thematic remnant of the 80s, which is an era of influence we can find in almost everything today from popular styles of dress to the ubiquitous post-punk influence present in current popular music. In the 90s, we seemed to repel against this idea: we had albums like OK Computer which took a more cynical approach to globalization and automation. But today, we are more relaxed. We understand we ultimately have control over technology and our entanglement within it. The only thing to fear is ourselves.
Like my favorite album of 2009 (Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer), Age of Adz is a confounding juxtaposition of things–perhaps even more so. The mix of organic, orchestral sounds and vocals and robotic electronics creates something unexpected. It is not some basic genre-hybrid indie pop we’ve become comfortable with ever since The Postal Service became a mainstream smash hit. It is something new–something emerging from a pattern of entertaining yet increasingly dulling quaintly melodic popular songs. It seems so trite at this point to even talk about such juxtaposition because it in itself has become so commonplace in today’s music. What Sufjan has done here, however, is not some novel hybrid. It is symbiotic. It is oneness. It is a natural extension of what already exists. Yet, it is so unlike anything right now. It is mercurial and often misunderstood.
I think, somehow, we are like this. In a world of Reddit, iPhones, YouTube, and of course Facebook, we’re allowing technology into our lives in a seamless and compelling way. But not in a way that de-humanizes us. We’re the same, flawed people we’ve always been. We’re perhaps more fast-paced, but we’re also more expressive about our identity. With Age of Adz, Sufjan has fully embraced the electronic, but still stays close to human. The album begins and ends acoustically: purely organic and visceral, much like our own lives. Everything in-between, all is dream. The album’s lyrics are and allusions to Royal Robertson’s artwork are simultaneously esoteric and familiar. The album feels like a beautiful mess of at least half of the albums on this list. You can feel everything from Owen Pallett to Clogs to Arcade Fire to Twin Shadow.
The troubling part of this write-up, upon my own self-critical review of it, is how much I focus on culture, influence, and high-level aesthetic. On a a lower, more visceral level, I know this album is my favorite of the year because it has given me the most goosebumps. The album’s darkest moments are full of shivering echoes, lovely distortions, and ghastly pianos: a dark clambering upon whatever metaphoric soul I have. The album’s hopeful moments are uplifting (“Boy, we can do so much more together / Better get a life.”) and triumphant. But most of the album’s time is spent in a powerful grey area, toying with emotion and expectation.
All in all, there’s not much more you can ask from an album. The track quality is consistent throughout Age of Adz. There are countless amazing melodies tucked pleasantly within epic, experimental songs. Pop and avant-garde are merged without a flinch and not simply for the novelty value. The album’s beauty comes from the songwriter being true to himself and simply forging gorgeous sounds regardless of the timbre’s origins: vocal cords, instruments, computers. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how we use these things. The only thing that matters is ourselves.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen. After all, words are futile devices.