Sunday, December 19, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

20. No Age - Everything in Between
19. Wavves - King of the Beach
18. She & Him - Volume 2
17. The Walkmen - Lisbon
16. Spoon - Transference
15. The National - High Violet
14. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot the Son of Chico Dusty
13. Belle and Sebastian - Write About Love
12. Sufjan Stevens - Age of Adz
11. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today

10. Vampire Weekend - Contra

At first this album seemed like the very definition of a sophomore slump. Like kids with new toys (and budgets), the production was busier and glossier, and all the songs felt needlessly aggressive and flashy. I missed the simple pop pleasures of the first album, and I immediately discarded this album for about ten months. It was my mistake, because there are real songs buried in here, and ones that benefit from the new approach.

9. Beach House - Teen Dream

I nearly fell asleep standing up when I saw Beach House open for Grizzly Bear a few years ago. The mix of maudlin melodies and languid tempos didn't exactly win me over. But something has changed here, and I can’t quite figure it out. The tempos are still slow, but there is a sweeter and more delicate touch here. It makes the music feel less like some desperate drug fueled haze, and more like the best drunken summer afternoon of the year.

8. Best Coast - Crazy for You

When I argue with people about lyrics of pop music, this is the kind of album that seems tailor made for my argument. It's a sad and sunny beach album about heartbreak and longing. The lyrics are trite and simple, but when paired with the sorrow of those guitars, and the echoing harmonies of some lost Beach Boys summer, everything makes perfect sense. It the dramatic equivalent of adding heartbreaking strings to a cheesy teen film. You know you’re being manipulated, but everything sounds sweeter when you can sing along.

7. Girls - Broken Dream Club

I fell hard for Girls last year, admiring the quick blast of the debut album that felt haphazard, and about as complex as the Ramone’s oeuvre. It was awesome, but hard to understand how they could improve on that simple formula. So it is utterly astonishing to listen to this EP and hear the band blowing up the constraints and sounding better than before. We’ll have to wait until the next full length to see if they could match the songs, but this teaser is all I need to tide me over.

6. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

My favorite parts of Deerhunter’s last album, the mesmerizing Microcastle, were the quiet, slightly poppy ones. They felt like whispers between the extreme noise. So it is really no surprise that I’d fall for this album, which is made up almost exclusively of the kind of demented bedroom pop that only Bradford Cox could create.

5. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

Man how I hated Ys. But I immediately understood Have One On Me, a breathtaking album which cuts deep and pulls no punches. Her voice is richer, and the arrangements are more fluid. While the songs on Ys seemed to go on forever, the cyclical songs here feel necessary to contain her changing mood. Each verse feels warranted not for some kind of story book meaning, but for the emotional connection. For me, the music needs to drive the meaning of lyrics, and Newsom finally corrected the balance, delivering her most beautiful and stunning album yet.

4. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

I have always given Gorillaz the benefit of the doubt. While all of their albums has been uneven and too long, the singles have always made the trip worth it. But Plastic Beach is an album, albeit one that most reminds me of the glory days of mid-nineties CDs. Honestly. It is stuffed solid with strange detours and memorable pop songs. It's a world that you can completely engage with and learn something new each time.

3. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

“Aren't all of the songs too long?” That essentially was my first thought about LCD Soundsystem’s third album, and first since the nearly perfect Sound of Silver. As an album I just don't think it stays together as well, I’d have lopped off three minutes from the opening track, and tried to fit everything on one disc. But who cares what I think? The real treasure in this disc is exploring each track as an individual, cracking it opening, and trying to make sense of it. After a while the aggressive guitar tangle of All I Want starts to hit the right notes, and the spiraling and frenetic Pow Pow starts to make sense. Plus this fucker sounds epic on vinyl.

2. Arcade Fire - Suburbs

Last time we left Arcade Fire, they were railing against god and hypocrisy with torches and megaphones. The fire in Neon Bible felt real and vital, but it pushed them closer to the preachers they were trying to skewer. So when I heard that they would next be taking on the suburbs on their next opus, I worried that the songs would suffer from the cynical view. But as they announced in the press statement, it’s not “a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.” The innocence and sincerity of Funeral has returned, as the album feels like a teenager simply discovering music for the first time. The hint is in the album cover. Each songs seems designed to play in the car while cruising endlessly around roundabouts and subdivisions in your beat up car.

1. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

What more, really, could we ask for from a pop star? Had Kanye West done absolutely nothing he'd still be worth paying attention to, because he is so unfiltered and honest. With a business stuffed full of bullshit, he felt like the one person that saw its faults but still wanted to engage with it on his terms. Of course, he did put out music this year, including a barrage of utterly stunning free mp3s, which documented an artist on a peak and ready to conquer. To say I was ready for this album was an understatement. I'm not one of those people that jumped after Late Registration. I sometimes think Graduation is better. Still, I wasn't prepared for how shockingly huge My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would be, and how it’d obsess over it for two months straight.

Can we talk for a minute about how great this album is, because we are dealing with Kid A levels of genius here...

I am hearing all kinds of shit here. It’s an artist on the edge of inspiration and insanity, with an album so absolutely overloaded that it could have ended up like the worst kind of progressive rock — or worse — the rap generation’s first Oasis-level Be Here Now flame out. No one would have put it past him. But the one thing that has always remained with Kanye, during the all the twitter chaos and other PR nightmares, was his undying love of music.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sounds at once perfectly polished and yet wild and diverse. Each song seems like it could come from a different album. Compare the perfect soul soundtrack of Devil in a New Dress to the minimalist pulse of Runaway. Who would have guessed that Monster would sound so right after the jungle club mix of All of the Lights? Throughout it all guests weave seamlessly in and out, like jazz musicians taking their turn at a solo. So how can Kanye really be an oppressive egotist if he so often lends the spotlight to stars like Nicki Minaj, who walks all over both him and Jay-Z in her verse? Each guest seems picked out specifically for some sound he had in his head, but was unable to translate by himself.

I could go on. For such a massive, experimental album as this is, it's actually built on the frame of four massive singles (Power, All of the Lights, Monster, and Runaway). All could have carried a whole album, and yet they are warped here by the albums strange world view, coming out less commercial, and much more demented.

Which brings us to the biggest irony about this startling album. It’ll probably sell less than all this rapturous praise seems to indicate. Surely less than Graduation, and probably 808s and Heartbreak. That's okay. He took the hard route here, and I feeling we are going to be talking about this album for years to come.

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