This is the home stretch, the leg of this “race” just before the final one, where there’s light at the end of the tunnel if you could only make it there. Tomorrow I reveal my Top 10 Albums of 2010, and that should be pretty great. RIght now I’ll give you some subtle hints as to what will be on that list. There are two debut albums that crack the top ten, along with one psych-rock band and a handful of other indie darlings. If you’ve been reading up on your year-end lists, there’s a halfway good chance you can guess most of my list. My #1 album of the year though, I’ve yet to see anybody place it atop their lists yet, so some of you might be surprised (but not REALLY surprised). Anyways, enough about tomorrow, let me make quick mention of what we’ve been counting down the last couple days:
As with thet previous sets of 10, I’ve once again included mp3s with the albums (when allowed) to give you an audio taste should you want one. I’m also continuing to solicit comments from you, either in regards to this list or a list of your own. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the best of the year. So let me delay this no longer, I’m proud to present my Top Albums of 2010, #20-11.
20. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
I’ve been a staunch supporter of Damon Albarn since my very first encouter with Blur all those years ago, though more secretly I’ve sometimes doubted him. The first two Gorillaz albums weren’t nearly among my favorite things he’s done, though one can’t argue with the strength of the few singles that resulted from them. The Good, The Bad and The Queen seems like an excellent supergroup on paper too, but their debut record with Albarn at the helm had a few more than shaky moments as well. Where it all comes together though is on “Plastic Beach”. Listening to that record for the first time was a bit of a revelation to me, actively showing that maybe Albarn wasn’t so crazy after all to believe in this cartoon band that has a who’s-who of hip-hop stars and other random guests. What’s perhaps most odd about the album though is that it lacks a certain flow when listened to from start to finish, but in individual spurts positively dynamic. It’s like a collection of 15 or so singles that don’t play very nice with one another. But there’s beautiful moments, sad moments, fun moments, weird moments, hardcore moments, and a whole host of other moments all contained inside this 60 minute record. At this point, Blur doesn’t need to come back for me to be happy with Damon Albarn again.
19. Vampire Weekend – Contra
“Contra” sees Vampire Weekend challenging themselves a bit more than they did on their debut. On “Vampire Weekend,” there were a lot of fun, catchy and upbeat songs about spending time with friends and pining after girls. The new record tones that down a bit in favor of eclecticism and a social conscience. The album is still a great time, but there are more genres explored and more topics probed. Put differently, they spend less time roaming about on yachts and more time wondering aloud about where they fit in to this crazy world of ours. Stylistically too, Vampire Weekend have chosen to do less with their previously emphasized Afro-pop sound and expand to other areas, including orchestral pop, calypso, reggae and ska, among others. There are horns aplenty and marimbas and plenty of other instruments you might not always expect from the band given their last go-around, and it’s the exploration of these eccentricities that otherwise makes “Contra” a worthwhile follow-up to their debut. 2010 has proven to be an even greater year than expected for these Ivy League misfits, and though their popularity has risen exponentially, they continue to keep a rather level head about the whole thing. Well played, gentlemen.
18. No Age – Everything in Between
Download: Fever Dreaming
No Age aren’t in the habit of subtlety. Quick and dirty is how they established themselves across their first couple records, with a fine layer of distortion on top. Their songs were ferocious and thrilling all at the same time, like a lion attack as you’re stepping off the ledge strapped to a bungee cord. For “Everything in Between”, they didn’t so much scale back that sound, but instead added nuance and breadth to it. There’s still an excited edge to the songs, but there’s less concern with racing to the finish and more concern with actual songcraft. In other words, this is No Age with a much sharper pop edge that enhances their accessibility while remaining true to their roots. Dean Spunt may not be the best singer in the world, but his voice is placed far more front and center than ever before, and that provides ample opportunity to pick over and analyze the lyrics, which also happen to be better written. Don’t expect the masses to fall in love with No Age just yet – they’re still too noisy and obtuse for most people – but thinking about it more carefully, would we really want it any other way?
17. Best Coast – Crazy for You
What makes “Crazy For You” so attractive is the sincere charm it oozes out of every musical pore. Bethany Cosentino is quite the personality as evidenced by both a highly entertaining Twitter account and a live show that’s simply a blast to watch. She writes songs that tend to deal with four basic subjects: boys, weed, summer, and her (awesome) cat Snacks. Her lyrics are immensely straightforward, as you learn from the very first track “Boyfriend”, where the deceptively simple line “I wish he was my boyfriend” gets repeated enough that it stuck in your head less than halfway through the 2.5 minute song. That’s the sort of thing that happens not just once, but several times across the entire record. Over half of the dozen songs on “Crazy For You” are catchy and light enough to be singles, even as they traverse through various stylistic shifts. Guitarist Bobb Bruno is responsible for many of the melodies that move anywhere from surf rock to garage rock and through classically informed 60’s pop. Mostly though, it’s the perfect sort of album to listen to in one of those sunny, oceanside situations we always want to experience but don’t get to often enough. This was my official summer record of 2010, though as I’ve learned in recent months, it’s just as great in cold and snowy weather too.
16. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Given how little I know about both electronica and any Flying Lotus material prior to “Cosmogramma,” I’m surprised that the album impressed me as much as it did. I suppose that like any musical form you’re not acquainted with, if you hear something special or unique in it, you’re more inclined to understand how it might be viewed as brilliant. In this case, I’m highly impressed with how FlyLo is able to use a multitude of instruments, everything from the harp to acoustic guitar to saxophone and just about every percussive instrument in existence (ping pong balls?), melded around his computer-generated melodies. There are seemingly impromptu jazz breaks, string sections, bass-heavy grooves, and fanciful dream sequences all packed into this album, and almost all of them work towards the space opera concept the record is supposedly centered around. It feels less like a record based around certain beats and grooves and more like an instrumental artistic experiment that just so happens to feature a fair amount of electronica. Rare is the record so carefully composed and layered as this one, which is probably why it fared so well on this year-end list.
15. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
Download: A More Perfect Union
Download: Four Score and Seven, Part One
Download: Four Score and Seven, Part Two
At their heart, Titus Andronicus are a punk rock band that don’t always stick to their stylistic guns for the sake of variety and the constant attempts to shake labels attempting to easily define their sound. While their last album “The Airing of Grievances” was somewhat static in its lo-fi punk/garage style, “The Monitor” feels like an entirely new animal in a very good way. Not only are the songs much cleaner and avoidant of hyped trends, but there’s also serious adjustments in influences that are challenging and exciting. The band isn’t unrecognizable from their previous album, but given the use of everything from bagpipes to violins and cellos to trombones, these songs are more intricately constructed and by all accounts more brilliant as a result. There are multi-part songs, honky tonk piano breakdowns, horn sections that surge, spoken word intros and outros, and plenty of pieces that wouldn’t sound out of place as two opposing forces prepare to do battle on a hillside. Perhaps the thing that I love the most about “The Monitor” is how it is such an epic and hard-hitting album while never once getting boring or settled. There’s always something new around every corner, and the constant ability to surprise and entertain is one that few other artists can lay claim to.
14. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (II)
Crystal Castles is a duo that’s immensely difficult to like. They go out of their way to make divisive and challenging electronica music, and as a result many of their choices are blatantly uncommercial and tough to sit through. It’s not quite on the level of listening to somebody get stabbed to death on tape, but many of the songs do have frayed, jagged edges and attempt to violate your ears without asking permission to do so. Disturbing as that might sound, and you can get that feeling just listening to it, there’s also a strange brilliance to it pushing on you demanding that it not be ignored. They seem interested in taking things to the next level sonically, and across their two albums, they seem to have succeeded. Fans of the first Crystal Castles album might find themselves having a hard time dealing with the slight shift in sonic direction for this also self-titled sophmore effort. What the new album lacks in harsh, cutting moments it more than makes up for with stronger overall compositions and thematic solidarity. On top of it, they’re still trying to push the envelope and try new things to advance the state of electronica as we know it. They’re succeeding too, even in the face of their recent reworking of the track “Not In Love” with The Cure’s Robert Smith was the poppiest and most addictive thing they’ve ever done.
13. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Writing about Sufjan Stevens this year was so difficult for me that I just plain didn’t do it. He put out an EP and the full length “The Age of Adz”, and while I listened to both quite a bit, I struggled to put my thoughts about them into words. One half of me wanted to write something scathing and controversial about the guy, basically calling him a whiny bitch and a liar (for his comments against the album as a format and his “lack of inspiration”, both said shortly before he released an album of inspired songs). The other half of me wanted to ignore the man behind the music and just focus on the products he released. Given its placement on this Top Albums list, looks like the latter option won out. So yeah, this isn’t nearly as amazing or great as “Illinois” or even “Michigan”, but it’s still one of the strongest records released this year. Sufjan moves away from his traditionally florid arrangements a bit to incorporate more electronic elements that largely permeated his earliest material. Those separate pieces come together in an exciting and epic way via “The Age of Adz”, all capped off by the 25-minute final implosion known as “Impossible Soul”. As he repeats quite a few times on “I Want to Be Well”, “I’m not fuckin’ around”. Well Sufjan, I’m just gonna have to take your word for it.
12. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
Download: Round and Round
Ariel Pink is a man living out of time. If you’ve seen a photo of the guy, no offense to him, but he comes off like a habitual drug user. Part of me is convinced that he’s often so high that he’s no longer sure what year it is, let alone what decade. If you’ve heard any of his music you’d be very much aware of this as well, given that much of it earns the label of “throwback pop” while also attracting such sentiments as “art damaged” and “surreal”. Until this year though, Pink never had an actual, real-life studio to use or the backing of a record label with a strong support staff. Thanks to 4AD, he’s now got both, and the result was “Before Today”, a record filled with songs that feel classically inspired with a sharply odd modern bent to them. Yes, things are a whole lot cleaner than the home-recorded material of his last few albums, but the increase in fidelity is only part of what makes this record great. The other part is Pink’s completely obtuse ear for a compelling melody and the way he foregoes traditional song structure in order to throw us off and thereby creating surprises at every turn. It’s extremely interesting, if not challenging and a bit tough to like. Still, for the adventurous soul with a love of 60s, 70s and 80s pop, Ariel Pink has finally risen to the point where his underrated and undiscovered talents are starting to reach the surface of a much wider audience.
11. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
Download: King of Spain
Download: Burden of Tomorrow
For much of “The Wild Hunt”, Kristian Matsson keeps the songs as sparse as humanly possible. That means just a singular acoustic guitar and voice most of the time, and quite frankly that’s good enough. You do get a small bit of banjo on the opening title track, and the closer pulls a surprise by trading in the acoustic guitar for a piano. Much of the album is sprightly and jaunty though, maintaining a rough folk edge but at a tempo that’s quick enough to hold your attention and keep your toe tapping. The guy may not have the biggest vocal range in the world, but given the right backing music, such as the carefully crafted folk he has here, he works it to the absolute best of his abilities. To my mind though, and the minds of about 99% of other music lovers out there, the guy’s the next best thing to Bob Dylan. It’s the very traditional folk he makes and the high degree of world-weary gravel in his voice. No matter what he sounds like though, The Tallest Man on Earth makes some really compelling and addictive music from the same tool(s) that have been making music for centuries. That he’s able to inject new life into such an ancient art form is just testament to how great this record really is.