Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010

I try to avoid gimmick columns.

It can be the downfall of a journalist, especially as early as I currently am in my journalistic journey. Get attached to gimmick columns and it can completely consume you. I mean, there is a reason why I refuse to use Seinfeld comparisons as the basis for everything I write (because I totally could) or why I refrain from relating every column to some obscure Bob Dylan lyric (I could do it half-asleep). If I were to attack every column that way, I would soon get complacent, and my readers would soon get bored (assuming there are any to begin with). Sure, there are times when a column gimmick can be great and define someone in a good way (Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback comes to mind), but for the most part, it’s very, very thin ice. For this reason, I have largely steered clear of gimmicky columns…save for my year end Top 10 Albums list. I enjoy writing it, and “year-end Top 10” lists have become so common that people seem to forget how gimmicky they actually are. Things are funny that way.

In any event, the list is back for the third consecutive year. I’ve said it before, but let me remind you that this list is simply my favorite albums of the year – not necessarily the most popular or best-selling. By no means am I an elite music critic or anything like that, but I listen to a lot of music and feel that I have a decent enough ear and eclectic enough taste to select a list of musically accomplished albums. Nevertheless, it is simply my arbitrary judgment. And no, Glee did not make the list. Sorry.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Albums of 2010 (with a few extras), courtesy of a 21-year-old with no real music education and little love for the country music genre (although I am working on this). Let the accolades begin.

  • Close Only Counts in Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades

Broken Bells – Broken Bells; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Mojo; Hot Chip – One Life Stand; The Roots – How I Got Over You; Local Natives – Gorilla Manor; Mark Ronson & Business Intl. – Record Collection; Minus the Bear – Omni; Eric Clapton – Clapton

  • The Honor Roll

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

This one wins the award for Reissue of Previously Unreleased Material, if that makes any sense at all. I don’t like to group reissues or “new” releases of old material with current albums, but it was so nice to hear these original works from The Boss during his “Darkness” period, that I figured it at least deserved some recognition.

Taylor Swift – Speak Now

As I have written before, Taylor Swift currently has America wrapped around her finger (even Jake Gyllenhaal has the Swift-fever). And if you can still sell 1 million albums in a week, especially in this day and age, you certainly deserve more than a fleeting mention in a sparsely read blog by a dumbass college kid. Alas…

My Chemical Romance – Danger Days: The True Lives of the Dangerous Killjoys

By far the most polarizing album of the year for me. Every time I listened, I was constantly oscillating between hating it and loving it, thinking it was absolute genius to thinking it was kitschy crap. In the end, I figured an album evoking that much emotion with every listen deserved at least honorable mention.

  • The Top 10

10. Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void

Blitzen Trapper has the amazing ability to tell a story while singing a song, almost making you forget that you’re listening to an album, but instead imagining the crafting of an intricate painting, revealing the events of some far-but-not-so-far away journey. The vocals and overall sound of the band, led by Eric Earley, tend to evoke similarities to both David Bowie and Yes. This seems appropriate, seeing as how Bowie and Yes were two of the more story-driven, existential artists from decades past. Throw in some old-school Fleetwood Mac on a song like “The Man Who Would Speak True” and a tad of Paul McCartney on tracks like “Heaven and Earth”, and you have an assorted, whimsical narrative in album form. No, Destroyer of the Void is not quite Ziggy Stardust, but it does capture your mind in a similar fashion.

9. John Legend & The Roots – Wake Up!

I’m usually not a big fan of political albums, but the overall vibe and sound of this release trumped any reservations I may have had about an opinionated message. I could care less where one falls on the political spectrum, but I feel that too often it impairs an artist’s music if they focus too heavily on the message they are trying to disperse. Neverthless, John Legend and The Roots largely avoided this. The Roots have always been one of my favorite rap/rock bands, and they were able to mesh that with Legends amazing vocals, allowing them to venture into genres that would have otherwise been outside of their capacity. I loved the way the two artists joined together so effortlessly, almost as if The Roots had been backing Legend for years. The soul, funk, gospel and reggae sound was a nice change of pace, and using their talents to cover the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Bill Withers gave the album an intrinsic credibility and voice.

8. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record

Broken Social Scene is notorious for its big line-up (up to 20 or so members) and the collaboration between artists from other bands, such as Leslie Feist (Feist), Spiral Stairs (Pavement), and Emily Haines (Metric). The big line-up often results in a big sound with BSS, and that still comes through on their fourth album, especially on songs like the fantastic “World Sick” and “Water in Hell.” However, they were able to tone it down a few times on this album with songs such as “Texico Bitches” and “Highway Slipper Jam”, a new and welcomed territory for this band.

7. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Few bands in today’s world of music can put together an album quite like Arcade Fire. This was hinted at with their releases of Funeral and Neon Bible, but was finally proved true by The Suburbs. Win Butler’s crooning and construction made this easily one of the year’s top albums, and set the bar pretty high for where Arcade Fire will head in the future. Songs like “The Suburbs”, “Ready to Start”, and “We Used to Wait” show the full-fledged genius and capability of this group, and their music videos alone are almost enough to land them on this list. My personal taste may rank this release at #7, but it’s easily one of the most accomplished and impressive albums 2010 laid ears on.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I don’t like reading reviews of things before I experience them. I try to avoid movie reviews or album reviews before seeing or hearing the product, mainly because I’m afraid of the review impacting my own response. Nevertheless, it was basically impossible to avoid the reviews for Kanye’s newest album. It was being touted as his best yet, and possibly the best of the year (as it later proved to be for top publications like Rolling Stone, A.V. Club, and Spin). In reading the reviews, I was afraid that everyone was over-rating the album, hyping it up to be something it is not, jumping on the bandwagon just to say they did. Turns out, they were all right. I still feel the same way about Kanye as a person (pompous, narcissistic, self-involved) and his music in general (slightly overrated)…but Fantasy was brilliant. Yes, it was aided by a great supporting cast, but it was Kanye’s lyrics and production that make it great. He’s like the black, rapper version of Radiohead. As much as I may hate to admit it, the album was great, and it put Ye atop the current list as Best Rapper Alive. And yet, it makes me wonder: is Kanye such a conceited prick because he thinks everything he does is so great, or is the album great because West is such a conceited prick?

5. Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History

Probably the surprise album of the year for me. This band’s debut hits you in the face with a slew of punchy, upbeat, fast-paced songs. They remind me of The Strokes and The Killers (early on), not so much in sound but in vibe; they are always pressing, always on the verge of something louder, some big explosion. You can even sense a little bit of Dear Science and Phoenix influence, especially in the way they play with their sound, like on “I Can Talk” and “What You Know”. You can argue that their tone begins to become somewhat repetitive over the course of the record, but if it works, why fix it?

4. The National – High Violet

The National’s fifth and highest profile album is a good representation of the band and their style. As much as a band like Two Door Cinema Club has that pressing, on-the-verge-of-something sound, The National is an interesting contrast; the band always seems to be noticeably and purposefully reserved, defining themselves by their lack of tension and explosiveness, their embrace of suppression and reluctance. And as well being buoyant and upbeat may work for a band like Two Door Cinema Club, the contrary works just as well for The National, and it’s never more evident than on High Violet.

3. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

I suppose if a band is using literary references and influence to shape their style and sound, Shakespeare and John Steinbeck are two of the smarter role models to draw from. So is the case with Mumford & Sons and their debut LP, Sigh No More. The English band counts the two authors as inspiration for their music, giving explanation to their elegant and picturesque lyrics – sophisticated yet clear, calculated yet effortless. Their fusion of folk and bluegrass resembles a Fleet Foxes-type resonance, but not to the extent that it feels like a rip-off. The easy, smooth sound and vivid lyrics suggest that Mumford & Sons could be a staple in the indie-folk genre for years to come.

2. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

“Rumor has it that I wasn’t born / I just walked in one frosty morn / Into the vision of some vacant mind.” Those words, droned by Kristian Matsson under his moniker The Tallest Man on Earth on the song “Burden of Tomorrow”, are the perfect microcosm for this artist. The experimental, folky sound always makes me feel like I’m looking inside the brain of Spike Jonze, or how girls probably feel while walking through the Anthropologie store. His voice is just raw and striking enough that it throws you off at first, but soon proves to be oddly beautiful in a slightly off-key way, similar to Dylan circa 1964. His sound is unique and whimsical, and you’d never guess there is just one man standing behind the outfit’s large name. This album also gets a bump in my eyes thanks to the September release of the EP, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, which too was fantastic. And no, The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t quite make folk music cool again, but it certainly makes it interesting.

1. The Black Keys – Brothers

The Black Keys stay true to their established sound throughout Brothers, while at the same time making sure to venture into unchartered musical waters on more than one occasion. From the opening track, “Everlasting Light”, to songs such as “Never Give You Up”, the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney experiment with new sounds and styles. And yet, while the finished product of those individual tracks may not be quintessential Black Keys, it seems to fit in to the overall album. And instead of these fresh takes arising out of boredom, arrogance, or socially-driven feedback, the pair seem to simply be proving that no matter what direction they choose, they can still make it flow. Nevertheless, the best parts of Brothers are when The Black Keys are being The Black Keys, on tracks like “Unknown Brother”, “She’s Long Gone”, and “Ten Cent Pistol”. It’s amazing to hear the band’s evolution, from their first album as a couple of grungy musicians jamming in a garage, to one of the best blues-rock bands on the planet. And no, that is not hyperbole. How else could they possibly reach #1 on my Top 10 Albums list?

2011 smells good. Thanks for reading

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