Here they are, my Top 10 Albums of 2010. We’ve been down a long and tough road to get here, but these are the ten records that stood out the most for me in the past year. I love the variety, along with the healthy mixture of veterans and a couple newcomers. The last couple entries may only be from some well-established, hotly hyped artists, but to be fair, they did have banner years. If you’re going to read any entry on this site for the next 365 days, please make it this one. A lot of time and thought went into creating this list and I hope you either agree with my choices, or at least understand why I made them. It’s what the paragraphs below the numbers are for. In case you missed the rest of this lengthy Top 50 Albums countdown, here’s some handy links to check out those other entries:
Before jumping into this, I just want to note quickly that outside of a couple tiny updates, Faronheit will be on vacation through the end of 2010. It’s been an interesting year for this site to say the least, what with my old Blogspot address and 3+ years worth of archives being wiped clean off the face of the earth…but I actually couldn’t be happier with the current layout and the official “dot com” at the end of the address. Been going revamped and stronger than ever since April. 2011 will bring a couple small site tweaks, but nothing you need to worry about, just some added fun perks. Anyways, I hope your holidays are enjoyable and we’ll play catch up officially come January 3rd.
Without further ado, here are Faronheit’s Top 10 Albums of 2010:
10. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
When it comes to ambition, you’d be hard pressed to find someone more dedicated to challenging themselves than Joanna Newsom. Case in point, after an intricately huge and challenging record such as “Ys”, Newsom chose to make its follow up a TRIPLE album. Stacked at three discs, eighteen songs and a two-plus hour running time, it’d be easy to think that “Have One On Me” was an immediate setup for disaster. Then again, if anybody is going to succeed at this, it’d be Joanna Newsom. And guess what? She does, with flying colors too. Perhaps the biggest key to unlocking this lengthy beast is sequencing. While most every song sails beyond the five minute mark, there are individual highlights that are spread apart so evenly it becomes an easy listen. Plus, you can dip in and out of the album or skip around and still wind up in a great spot. She also uses fewer instruments and less complicated arrangements across a variety of styles. Through it all she brings her excellent harp, her solid (and less cutesy than before) voice, and lessons in the challenges of love. If only most single albums were this great.
9. The Radio Dept. – Clinging to a Scheme
Download: Never Follow Suit
Download: Heaven’s On Fire
The Radio Dept. made their name thanks to two very solid, fuzz-riddled indie pop albums. Unfortunately it’s taken them 13 years to make them, save for a whole bunch of EPs that came out sporadically between them. “Clinging to a Scheme” was a long time coming, seemingly delayed for multiple years for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the band’s slight dissatisfaction with the music they had been working on. They’re a tempramental group, less concerned with popularity and more concerned with putting out the best possible product. They do so on this record, moving farther away from their scuzzy lo-fi roots and in a much more synth pop direction. There’s still plenty of reverb on Johan Duncanson’s vocals, but everything else is a lot cleaner and generally tighter. This collection of songs is so strong that just about any one of them would make for an excellent single. I’ve had over half the record stuck in my head since the spring, and “Clinging to a Scheme” remains my most listened to album of 2010.
8. Sleigh Bells – Treats
Download: Tell ‘Em
Download: Crown on the Ground
For the longest time, I’ve wanted to climb into a car with an extremely badass speaker system, pick a record that has a huge lower register, and drive around the city with it blasting. It’s an almost “ghettofabulous” thing to do, and considering hip hop albums are the main sources of booming beats, I’ve had trouble finding something I’d genuinely enjoy cranking up the volume to. Enter Sleigh Bells, and suddenly I’m the asshole with the music up too loud. Their sound is deceptively simple, as are most of their lyrics. Derek Miller’s guitar work is incessantly loud and very badass when matched up with the laptop beats. Alexis Krauss handles vocals, and her sing-song, sometimes rabid cheerleader approach is one hell of a counterweight to the extreme noise. What truly sells this band and their debut album though are the hooks, which are catchy as the day is long. They’ve put out one of the few genuinely original records of 2010, though it continues to beg the question as to whether or not it will endure. Given the highly enthhusastic responses to the Sleigh Bells live show and the attention the record continues to get several months after its release, Sleigh Bells appear to, at the very least, have more longevity than the quick two minutes many of their songs last.
7. The National – High Violet
Download: Bloodbuzz Ohio
Download: Afraid of Everyone
The National are a difficult band to love, at least to me they are. Their albums as a whole and a majority of their individual songs are not the most immediately likeable things in the world, but the more time and respect you give them, the better they get. It happened with “Alligator”, and again with “Boxer” and this year with “High Violet”. So while I can’t speak about some amazing singles on the record per se, my favorite thing about “High Violet” is how delicately crafted it sounds. Every note comes off as austere, and when you have friends like Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon assisting you with compositions, that’s the sort of results you get. In many ways it’s a refining of the sound from their last two albums, not so much moving forwards as it is enriching what’s already there. Every bit of it still works, even as the band explores the very personal topic of growing older and the responsibilities/failings that come along with it. Ultimately this is adult music for adult people, but you don’t need to be one to enjoy this record.
6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West wins. The guy knows he’s brilliant, and anyone that tries to tell him otherwise risks his wrath. But he is also an ass. The guy creates his own problems and stirs up more controversy the longer he stays in the spotlight. After a series of troubles leading up to the “Taylor Swift incident” at last year’s VMAs, West retreated to Hawaii for some deep self-reflection, among other things. When he finally emerged from that self-imposed hiatus, it was with a new album largely complete and a plan for redemption. The free mp3s he handed out for awhile as part of G.O.O.D. Fridays were the beginning, but “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was the game-changer. Here was a record so ambitious, so massive in both length and scope, that not only do all the other hip hop releases of 2010 pale in comparison, but 99% of all other album releases do as well. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from all this: kick Kanye while he’s down, and he will rise up to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.
5. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Download: Revival (ZIP)
It’s official: Bradford Cox has become Mr. Reliable. Between his work with Deerhunter and his solo project Atlas Sound, he’s put out a whole bunch of music these last couple years (so much more if you count the 4 bedroom tapes he handed out Thanksgiving week). Virtually all of it has been great. Cox’s Deerhunter cohort Lockett Pundt has also stepped up his game recently, and they make for a truly dynamic duo on the band’s latest record “Halcyon Digest”. Deerhunter continues to evolve at an alarming pace, and with the addition of throwing a couple new instruments into the mix and an increase of pop accessibility on this album, they show they’re not content with simply staying the course. Listening to “Halcyon Digest” can be a depressing and psychedelic sort of journey, but more than ever before there’s a warmth and beauty that radiates from these arrangements, creating an almost unsettled comfort. There’s definitely a part of me that wishes I could rank this album higher, it’s that damn good.
4. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
Download: Sun Hands
I’ll admit it – I’m a sucker for great vocal harmonies. If there are 3 or more people in your band with at least halfway decent voices, you owe it to the world to try out some harmonies. It’s a big part of what made The Beatles so amazing, and why Fleet Foxes claimed the best album of 2008. It’s also a huge reason why Local Natives’ debut album “Gorilla Manor” is so completely dynamic and engaging. Some of the other reasons include wonderful percussion, exciting arrangements, a Talking Heads cover and hooks so sweet they’ll rot your teeth just by listening to them. This is also perhaps one of the most fun records released this year, filled with so much youthful indiscretion and optimism that you’re almost guaranteed to come away from it in a better mood than when you started. “Gorilla Manor” has not a single bad song, and it’s easily the best debut record I heard in 2010.
3. Beach House – Teen Dream
Download: Zebra (UK Edit)
When Beach House unleashed the first “Teen Dream” single “Norway” on us late last year, pretty much everyone agreed that it was a game-changer for them. There was something vastly different about the duo, and it wasn’t even a really big sonic change. After all, “Teen Dream” bears a whole lot of similarities to Beach House’s previous two albums. What changed was their attitude. Their first two records were adrift in an imaginary haze, much like a person slowly waking up from a long night’s sleep. How ironic then that an album titled “Teen Dream” comes off as perfectly alert and active. Yes, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have developed a wonderful thing called confidence, and it looks good on them. Melodies soar just a little bit more, and Legrand’s voice echoes with a force that demands to be heard. Yes, it seems our little Beach House has grown up and moved into a mansion.
2. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
One of the memories I’ll always have from 2010 is when my faith in The Arcade Fire was restored. Say what you will about their last album “Neon Bible”, but I came away from it disappointed and additionally upset at the unnecessarily high degree of praise it wound up receiving. Maybe I just don’t like the organ. Good thing then that the band moved away from that dark and zealot-infused material and back to a topic all of us can understand – suburban life. While I may not ascribe to the idea that the suburbs are some vast wasteland of consumerism and conformity, I can understand the appeal city living has for a creative mind. To live, even in a tiny apartment amongst a community of artists and innovators, that’s just a thrill to be a part of. But topical material aside, the songs on “The Suburbs” are among the band’s strongest as well, and there’s not a single bad track on the album. The maturity and tempered worldview that the band has grown into is especially appealing. They’re not exactly at the point of being called old and wise, but to call them that anyways defeats the whole idea of trying to hang onto those fleeting moments of youth we once cherished so dearly.
1. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
James Murphy offered up his entry into music a bit later than probably he (or we) might have liked. By the time he released the debut, self-titled LCD Soundsystem album, he was already 35 years old. By 35 you’re supposed to have reached a certain level of maturity and adulthood where the idea of starting or joining a band seems like a stupid, unfulfilled childhood dream. By chasing it though, no matter his age, he defied convention and created records that were intensely smart but equally fun. Dance music is supposed to be mindless because it’s all about moving your body. There’s a reason why “drunk girls” love the club scene while the brilliant ones tend to stay home, and it’s not a popularity issue. The point is, on his debut album, Murphy wrote a song about Daft Punk playing at his house. Club banger, straight on. FOr his second record, “Sound of Silver”, he wrote songs about growing old and losing touch with your friends. He even wrote a love letter to his favorite city in the world. These are not club bangers. These are carefully worded meditations on the world at large and the challenges that life presents in your late 30s. Brilliant? Hell yes, but how do you move forward from there? COming to grips with your own mortality, that you’re not a young person anymore, is tough for anyone, and though Murphy appears to be taking it in stride, he’s also very aware that LCD Soundsystem is not a thing he can keep doing forever. That’s exactly why he announced plans to “retire” from music following his third record “This Is Happening”, and the subsequent tour supporting the album.
For a swan song, James Murphy successfully proves that no matter how old you get, you continue to mature and learn things until the day you die. Now the guy is only 40 years old and that’s ostensibly middle age considering the average human lifespan, but he’s working harder, better, faster and stronger than musicians half his age. “This Is Happening” is filled with danceable electronica that’s both highly modern and backwards-leaning depending on how you look at it. Whether he’s drawing from the 80s or the 00s though, instrumentally there has never been a tighter, more muscular LCD Soundsystem record. There were a couple of arguably sparse moments on “Sound of Silver” that served minimal purpose other than to provide an entertaining interlude to the next big track. On “This Is Happening”, every moment is essential. Nothing is wasted, except for “Drunk Girls”, both figuratively and literally as its main function is to give a radio-friendly, fun dance single. But even though that was thrown in at the last second to provide a moment of levity on an otherwise heavy-handed record, it serves its purpose perfectly and the record would have suffered were it not there for a brief detour. Lyrically too, Murphy is extremely poignant with his words, even when rambling on about seemingly nothing. Listen closely to his spoken word diatribes on “Pow Pow” and tell me that man is not speaking utter truths. “But honestly, and be honest with yourself, how much time do you waste…how much time do you blow every day?” he asks, almost nonchalantly. It’s one of many moments of concern that just floats right by with little to no emphasis, unless you take it to heart. You know what? I waste a shitload of time every day and considering that now, maybe I should start trying to be more productive. I’m not saying a couple of relatively innocuous lines in the middle of a song are life-changing, but at the very least they’re deep, thought-provoking moments that provide reasons to take pause amid this fun little beat that’s going. Not that he believes LCD Soundsystem is a waste of time, but Murphy did reveal a short while ago that he was forced to turn down opportunities to produce some amazing records from some amazing bands because he was tied down with his band. No worries though James, your band incarceration is almost over, and then you can produce as many bands as you can handle. Still, it’s going to be a huge shame to see a man like Murphy step away from making music personally, as his immense talent will surely leave a pretty large void once some final touring duties are wrapped up. By the way, what a jaw-droppingly good live show too – just another one of the laundry list of things we’ll come to miss about LCD Soundsystem. Be sure to see them at least once between now and the final show, tentatively scheduled for summer 2011. If you’re going to go out, it’s always best to go out on top and leave them wanting more. Thanks to “This Is Happening”, James Murphy can do both, and with his dance card still intact.