Just a phenomenal year. Unlike 2009, there’s no shortage of great albums. I’m sure it’ll take me years to catch up with all the great stuff that came out in 2010. For now, I’ve got 20 for ya.
20. MGMT – Congratulations
It’s a good psychedelic rock album. I think many people were disappointed because that’s all it is. And that disappointment makes some sense. Why try to sound like the past when you already sound like the future?
19. Of Montreal – False Priest
I like this album, but I think it’s the end of the line for Kevin Barnes and this latest electrodisco-Georgie Fruit phase of his career. It started with Hissing Fauna, which was great. I also enjoyed the messy Skeletal Lamping more than most. False Priest starts off strong, but portions of it seem like weak rehashes of the past two albums. Time to evolve again.
18. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
Living with the Living wasn’t quite up to Leo’s normal standards. Here, he’s sounding urgent again. He knows it, too, as the album starts off with a jolt and “When the cafe doors exploded…” Personal favorites are “Even Heroes Have to Die” and “Bottled in Cork” — vintage form there.
17. The New Pornographers – Together
You know it’s a monster year when a new New Pornos album can’t even crack the top 15. Unlike all the other NP albums, I think Bejar brought the best songs to Together. That’s not an indictment of its quality — it’s just the way it worked out this time around. Another solid effort here, but not a standout.
16. Miles Kurosky – The Desert of Shallow Effects
It’s good to have Kurosky back. After fronting the late, great Beulah, he disappeared for a while, but he re-emerged to release an album that wasn’t completely dissimilar from something Beulah would have released. OK, maybe The Desert of Shallow Effects is both a bit more subdued and quirky than Beulah’s albums were — that newfound freedom reminds me of Stephen Malkmus’ solo debut.
15. Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love
After the dizzying heights of The Life Pursuit, it took four years for Write About Love to appear. Despite the wait, this album kind of flew under the radar for me. It’s solid, with a few top-notch additions to the formidable B&S catalog, but the Norah Jones duet, like everything else I’ve heard from her, is snoozeville.
14. The Apples in Stereo – Travellers in Space and Time
I’m glad Robert Schneider has gone off the deep end and completely embraced his inner Jeff Lynne. If the Apples are today’s ELO, well, there are lesser goals to be sure. There was a sticker on the cover of this album … it read something like ”A symphony of robots and humans” or something like that. I don’t remember the exact wording. But anyway, it was a fairly accurate statement. “Symphony” might be a bit much, but Travellers sure is fun.
13. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I’ve always been more of a singles guy when it comes to rap. Everyone is aware of the critical euphoria this album has received. It is very good. But I don’t quite understand the endless acclaim. There are some killer tracks — “Dark Fantasy,” “Power,” “Monster” — but MBDTF is flawed. Kanye gets a lot of credit for being ambitious, but why shouldn’t he be ambitious? What has he got to lose? It’s a thin line between ambitious and bloated, and I don’t think Kanye’s always on the proper side here: “All of the Lights,” for instance, is overloaded and ultimately empty.
You should buy this album. It’s worth owning. But personally, I still prefer Graduation.
12. Spoon – Transference
Transference doesn’t really grab you right away like the last few Spoon efforts, but who doesn’t trust Spoon? You give it a few spins, and hey — another winner. Of course. It’s almost boring how consistent Spoon is, but I’ve gotta say something else. How about that “Goodnight Laura?” That’s a new kind of pearl from these guys. Quite welcome, too.
11. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
Modern surf rock. The band name, album name, the shark cover, the song titles: “Floating Vibes,” “Swim.” But really, who doesn’t need an album they can blast at the beach? I’d be concerned about the long-term prospects of Surfer Blood if I wasn’t enjoying the songs so much. “Twin Peaks” even makes David Lynch and Syracuse sound sort of sunny.
But back to that shark attack cover: Astro Coast does have some bite. It’s not all palm tree gazing.
10. Let’s Wrestle – In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s
I adore this. It’s the kind of funny, clever, haphazard record that only seems to come out of England. Let’s Wrestle come off like a trio of post-punk pranksters, but the melodies will take you by surprise. Technically, I suppose Wesley Patrick Gonzalez isn’t much of a singer, but I don’t listen technically. The guy sings with his heart, even if he’s havin’ a laugh.
9. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
Solo musicians and their monikers these days. TTMoE is the Swedish Kristian Matsson, and his talent is the stop-you-in-your-tracks sort. He’s got an earnest voice, whether it’s yelping or soaring, he’s a dynamo on the guitar, and man, can the guy write a tune.
There have been a thousand new Dylans over the years, so as for that, I’ll refrain. But Mattson’s gotta be The Great Folk Rock Hope at this point. If you’ve got no hope, he’s folk’s new king. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he prefers shouting to whispering. May his reign be long.
8. The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
There’s something just a little off here, isn’t there? The lyrics are still great, the songs still sound like they’re hitting the mark, everything seems to be in order … but it just doesn’t keep pulling me back in like past Hold Steady albums. Perhaps the production is getting a tad too polished for a band that won me over with its hard-working grittiness. I love Heaven is Whenever. Just not as much as I expected.
7. Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
For me, Dr. Dog’s music has always had a glow to it. It’s inviting and warm, and those who would rather talk about the group’s influences probably didn’t feel that quite as much. I’d like to think Shame, Shame is where those thoughts fade away, because this is the strongest batch of songs the Dog has created yet. When my least favorite tune here is the steady title track (featuring Jim James, no less), it’s clear something special is at work.
6. She & Him – Volume 2
I don’t really care how calculated or cultivated the whole thing is. I will listen to these lovely, breezy pop songs forever. I almost typed “simple.” That would have been a mistake. She & Him are making new songs that sound like standards, and that’s one of the toughest tricks there is. I still don’t think of Zooey Deschanel as a musician who acts, but I should.
5. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)
I don’t understand why Janelle Monáe isn’t the biggest star in pop music today. She has the ambition of Kanye, she takes far more musical risks than Lady Gaga, her live show is incredible (saw her twice last year), she’s gorgeous, and this, her first full-length album, plays like a hit parade. Perhaps Monáe needs to start some kind of controversy. That’s what sells the most records these days. As if we’re listening to controversy when we buy music.
I’ll stop myself before this turns into a full-blown old man rant. The ArchAndroid is an inventive explosion that puts most modern pop and R&B to shame. It works as both a pop/funk album and a concept album — The ArchAndroid refers to Monáe’s continuing concept, the tale of android Cindi Mayweather. Sounds a bit out there, no? It is. Gloriously so.
One gripe is that the album is too long. A small price to pay.
4. The National – High Violet
High Violet is where it all came together for The National. Alligator and Boxer are great albums, but they both have their dull moments. It’s hard to put a finger on why, exactly, except to say this is just a great collection of songs. The typical mood is established — dark, serious — but it never drags things down. These are well-crafted songs that stick with you.
Even after five studio albums and burgeoning commercial success (High Violet debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200), The National is still an acquired taste. High Violet is the well-aged choice.
3. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
It took a few listens for this one to sink in. The songs I liked best initially (the title track, “We Used to Wait,” “Sprawl II”) are still my favorites, but the depth is there. It just took a little while to hear it.
The greatest triumph of The Suburbs is how this band can create such bittersweet nostalgic feelings without using any lo-fi recording techniques or falling back on knowing musical nods to the past.
“In the suburbs I — I learned to drive. And you told me we’d never survive. Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leavin.’ “ There’s a mystery to the way Win Butler sings that. It’s like the beginning of a great short story.
The Arcade Fire has released three full-length albums now — all are tremendous. The band remains poignant enough to resonate on headphones and powerful enough to rock arenas. Refraining from historical hyperbole, I’ll just say it’s great to have ‘em around.
2. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
The Monitor strikes me as a masterpiece. It’s the sound of a band throwing it all out there, and succeeding. It’s been billed as a Civil War concept album, but that concept is very loose — the first song, the towering “A More Perfect Union” name-checks Fung Wah Bus, the Newark Bears, Billy Bragg and makes an almost-obligatory-at-that-point Springsteen reference before it eventually barrels on into the “Battle Cry of Freedom” near the end of its seven-minute running time. Titus Andronicus is serving notice.
The rest of the album, somehow, keeps the momentum going, through songs short and long, through pianos and saxophones, through death, life, piss and Keystone Light. Sometimes, you’ll hear touches of The Replacements, or The Hold Steady (Craig Finn has an obscure guest spot here), or a number of any great bands, but Patrick Stickles’ inspired ranting and raving never lets you forget this is a Titus Andronicus album.
It’s grand, theatrical, ambitious punk rock of the highest order, but American Idiot it is not. The Monitor is fearless, drunken, raw and unsanitized. Don’t hold your breath waiting on the Broadway adaptation.
1. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
I’ve always respected Sufjan Stevens’ talent more than I actually enjoyed his work. Like anyone who’s heard it, I love “Chicago,” but most of Stevens’ songs are too delicate for me. Gorgeous melodies, floating away into the ether.
The Age of Adz begins with the sparse and pretty ”Futile Devices,” and after that, everything changes. All sorts of noises take hold, as Stevens’ voice dips in and out of these new crashing waves.
Now, Stevens has done more electronically-oriented music before, but I was never too familiar with it. It was clear Stevens wanted to move in a different direction, though, and it was a smart decision from a smart guy. The very first time I heard The Age of Adz, I listened in awe. My main problem with most all “electronic music” is its relative lack of soul — that’s never a problem here. Stevens is pulling sounds from all over the place — orchestral, electronic, conventional, unconventional — and making something completely new and affecting out of the madness. It’s truly stunning. I don’t think of The Age of Adz as an electronic album. I’ve never heard anything quite like this before — it’s impossible to categorize.
The album title refers to (and the cover features) artwork from Royal Robertson, an American artist who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. After listening to the album, it makes sense. This does sound a bit like the work of a schizophrenic genius.
It’s probably a prerequisite when discussing this album to bring up the closer, the 25-minute “Impossible Soul.” There. I mentioned it. I won’t write about it further than that, because the song is not a gimmick, and doesn’t deserve to be singled out as such. It only feels like another great part of the impossible whole.