Thursday, March 10, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010

I am shocked and ashamed that my last post on this blog was my top ten for 2009. How did I go over a year between posts? Hopefully this will be the start of a somewhat more regular posting schedule. I have some good ideas for the future, so... here's hoping.

I will admit that when I started putting this list together, I was worried I would struggle to find even 5 albums good enough to justify a "best of" rating. I just could not find myself getting excited about much of anything I had heard this year. Ultimately, 2010 was an incredibly down year for the kinds of records which are generally in my wheelhouse, and that colored my view of the entire scene. Once I opened up to some of the genres which I have a tendency to give short shrift to, I realized this was a REALLY good year for music. I had 20 albums on my final short-list, and these final 10 are only slightly better than any of the also-rans. By the way, those last ten out are, in no particular order, the 2010 releases by The National, The Depreciation Guild, Alcest, Agollach, Beach House, Black Mountain, Warpaint, Superchunk, The Drums, and Malory.

Interestingly, where 2010 required me to expand my horizons to find quality that I had missed during the year, I have already fallen in love with a number of 2011 releases from Asobi Seksu, The Joy Formidable, The Dirtbombs, Yuck, Papercuts, Minks, and Frank Ocean, basically ensuring that the this year's list will be at least equally frustrating to put together, but for completely different reasons. Anyway, here we go:

10) Ghost - Opus Eponymos: I have always had a problem answering whether I was "into metal". I love Black Sabbath and Mastodon, LOVE Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Motorhead, enjoy some of the Discharge and D-Beat stuff, etc. However, I kind of loath much of what is considered metal these days. The music itself is often fine, but the vocals which alternate between cookie monster, banshee, and Scott Stapp just completely kill my interest most of the time. While this is still true, my appreciation for metal (and my quantity listened to) increased exponentially this year. I chalk this up to the near-complete dearth of any interesting punk or garage records this year and my overwhelming need to listen to loud guitars. It is interesting (to me at least), that the first version of this list had FOUR metal albums on it. While I do not necessarily believe this Ghost album is "better" than either the Alcest or Agollach albums, it is the one I like listening to the most of the three. Ultimately, I am a melody (or at least hook) fiend - if I cannot hum a song after I hear it, I likely will not return to it much. Ghost makes INCREDIBLY catchy metal pop, which may come off as a damning statement to some, but it is not meant as such. The best metal has always been melody driven - Motorhead, Maiden, Mercyful Fate, Sabbath, Priest, Dio (RIP), etc. The abandonment of hooks has killed my interest in the genre. Ghost (and the other metal album appearing here) helped bring it back. The lyrics are morbid, grotesque, and absurd. The presentation is OUTSTANDING (youtube some clips). Ultimately, though, the melodies are just so sturdy and the riffs so hooky that I could not not love this record. I used the phrase "power-pop metal" in describing this to a friend, and I stand by that description.

9) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark BLAH BLAH BLAH: I loathe putting this record on my list. I really do. I cannot stand Kanye. I cannot stand the fawning reception this record received. I cannot stand feeding this man's massive love affair with his own brilliance. And yet. Here it is. Kanye West, for as flawed as he is as a person and a rapper, and for as spotty as most of his albums are, is a genius producer. The compositions he creates are immaculate - filled to the brim with hidden elements, surprises, twists, and sharp turns. This is not a perfect record, there is some filler and some tracks which continue to fall into genre cliche. However, on a whole, this is an adventurous and complex epic with too many brilliant moments not to qualify as a highlight of the year in music.

8) Cee-Lo Green - The Lady Killer: I have yet to dislike anything Cee-Lo Green has put out. He is the closest thing we have to a contemporary soul genius - an extremely talented soul singer-songwriter who is completely unafraid to take risks. This is certainly his least risky album yet (and no, putting out a single with the F-word in the title does not qualify as a risk in this day and age). It is still an incredibly well-developed, well-written, and solid set of songs, and that is more than enough. The genius of "F*** You" is not in the internet buzz-generating title and chorus, but in the perfectly delivered line, "I guess he's an X-Box, and I'm more Atari" - Cee-Lo successfully straddles that divide, putting out old-school-quality soul in a contemporary package.

7) Monster Movie - Everyone is a Ghost: Not much to say about this one. Incredibly solid set of subdued shoegaze from the non-Mojave 3 members of Slowdive. "Fall" is one of the best songs of the year and the entire album is just superb. Criminally overlooked.

6) Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record: I was not anticipating this record. Loved their first two albums, could not have possibly cared less for the line of "Broken Social Scene presents..." quasi-solo albums released since. It took me a long time to even give this one a chance. The element of surprise that dominated those first two records is almost completely gone - nothing here seems out of their established wheelhouse. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter. "World Sick" is one of the great album openers, setting out that, while this record may not be unexpected, that doesn't make it unexciting. The album is a little overlong, and some of the songs (Highway Slipper Jam, Me and My Hand) are a little undercooked, but the vast majority of the record is more of the top-notch combination of post-rock, stadium anthems, and subdued dream pop that made those first two BSS albums so indelible and which was sorely lacking in the interim records. Surprise of the year.

5) Coin Under Tongue - Reception: (Free download here) If Yuck is presently mining the early-90's alternative rock radio nostalgia trip, Coin Under Tongue is mining the same era's more underground elements, taking bits of the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, Mudhoney, and any number of like-minded hard rock and noise acts. If that appeals to you, you'll love this record - nuff said.

4) Ceremony - Rocket Fire: Was there ever any doubt that a band named after one of my three favorite New Order songs and featuring members of Skywave would not be one of my favorite acts of the year? Do they do anything that wouldn't be expected of that background? No. Do they live up to that lofty ideal? They come REALLY close. The best shoegaze, noise pop record of the year in a year when that style became really trendy to attempt.

3) Gorillaz - Plastic Beach: Raise your hands if you expected that Damon Albarn would become perhaps the most startlingly inventive and unique artist in pop, and that his current music would have almost nothing directly to do with his being British. My hand is up, at least. I could write 10,000 words about this album and still feel I hadn't scratched the surface of what Albarn accomplished. "Stylo" is clearly a highlight, bringing Bobby Womack's brilliance to a new generation alongside Mos Def, but it doesn't come close to summing up the album. Wacky while still incisive, playful and melancholy, poppy but aggressively artistic and difficult. This may not be Albarn's greatest album, but it is perhaps the greatest argument for why he can NEVER be overestimated.

2) Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid: The only artist who is seriously competing with Albarn for that inventiveness and uniqueness crown (sorry Gaga, write a song that even remotely resembles your theatrics and maybe we can talk). Simply cateloging the number of hats Monae tries on here is staggering - everything from incredibly tight funk jams to British folk to cabaret to genuinely exciting hard rock (not the generally toned-down version of rock that most soul artists traffic in when they try to incorporate the genre). The story behind the concept album may be inscrutable (what else is new), but the emotion and gravitas behind it is evident in every lyric Monae sings. The theatricality that led here to go to New York to be on Broadway serves her well to adapt her tone and style with each new wrinkle. This is a SUPERB debut album (after a very strong EP), and is without a doubt the most exciting new development in music this year.

1) Kylesa - Spiral Shadow: I cannot make the argument that this is a "better" album than at least a few other albums on this list. It's not. It is, however, the record I enjoyed listening to the most this year. Instrumentally, this is the sound of an incredibly tight metal band covering the collected works of Built to Spill and Archers of Loaf. The vocals use the "growling" male metal vocals of Philip Cope to great effect both by pairing them with the beautiful but gritty female vocals of Laura Pleasance (who takes lead on the clear highlight "To Forget") and by breaking out into more traditional hard rock vocals (as on the spectacular "Don't Look Back"). Simply put, I love every minute of this record and look forward to it staying in my ready rotation for years to come.