On the whole, 2010 was a fantastic year for new music. A lot of my favorite bands released albums, and a whole crop of new artists showed up with awesome material.
It was a struggle for me to name a single Album of the Year; for the first time since I’ve been doing this feature, any entry in the “Gotta Have It” category could easily have earned the distinction. So please, consider every album in that group a required purchase.
This year’s list comes with a brand new feature: an iTunes playlist showcasing some of my favorite tracks of the year. In addition to picking standout tracks, I tried to create a nice flow from one to another. Let me know what you think.
>> Like It <<
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – III/IV - While its not unusual for an artist to have some leftover tracks after the completion of an album of new material, it isn’t common for there to be two discs worth–unless the artist in question is Ryan Adams. Fans know how ridiculously prolific he can be, and also know that just because these tracks are “leftovers” doesn’t mean they are lacking in quality. In fact, the songs in this double set stand up very well alongside Easy Tiger, the previous album Adams released with The Cardinals.
Local Natives – Gorilla Manor – We didn’t get a new album from Fleet Foxes this year, but Local Natives delivered a record with harmonies nearly as skillful and appealing. This band is no cheap knock-off, though; their song structures and instrumentation have a distinct feel that ventures more into the quirky than the Foxes ever do.
Sleigh Bells – Treats - Combine distorted beats, arena rock guitar, and lilting female vocals that alternate between a hip-hop cadence and alternapop catchiness and you get close to describing the sound of Sleigh Bells. This over-amplified aural odyssey induces an almost trance-like state when you crank it up, and you fall more deeply under its spell after repeated listens.
Band of Horses – Infinite Arms – I can’t exactly lay my finger on why this album didn’t resonate with me as much as their first two efforts. Perhaps some of the slower songs just sounded, apart from the distinctive vocals, like rote power ballads. Still worth a listen, but I can’t recommend this disc as highly as I would have liked.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Musically, I agree with the many critics who praise this album as a work of genius. Lyrically, it’s a very mixed bag for me. While there are moments of genuine introspection and insight, they are undermined by needless posing and misogynous lyrics. I admire a lot about this record, but I can’t get myself to love it.
Crowded House – Intriguer - Crowded House will always be one of my favorite bands, and Temple of Low Men still stands as one of my desert island albums. There are songs on Intriguer which stand well alongside their earlier work, but I was left a bit cold by some of the more run-of-the-mill numbers. Nevertheless, if you have an opportunity to see the band live, please take it–you’ll not regret a moment of the experience.
Interpol – Interpol - This band stands out from the crowd of similar goth-tinged rock bands by showcasing a quirky side. Just when you think you know where one of their songs is going, it suddenly jerks in another direction. It works better on some tracks than others, and I’m not sure how long they can keep using the same bag of tricks, but the songs on this eponymous release are catchy and interesting enough to overcome the concern that the band may be going to the well a bit too often.
Philip Selway – Familial - Unless you’re a die-hard Radiohead fan, you’re unlikely to know that Mr. Selway is the band’s drummer. That’s okay; it took a sticker on the album cover reminding me of such to get me to make this purchase. And I’m glad I did–though its singer/songwriter vibe is a complete departure from the sound of modern Radiohead, the songs here are potent and enjoyable. The disc starts off strong and wanders a bit, but it’s a fantastic first effort from an artist I hope we get to hear a lot more from.
>> Love It <<
David Sylvian – Sleepwalkers - This collection of collaborative tracks isn’t a new album per se, but it combines new material with remixes and some fairly obscure tracks that had been scattered about various projects over the past decade. It makes a pretty good overview of Sylvian’s recent work, which is to say it touches a wide variety of genres. His solo albums, such as last year’s Manafon, tend to be very focused on a single sound, while this compilation allowed for a much wider latitude of styles.
Daft Punk – TRON Legacy Soundtrack – I’m not a huge fan of listening to movie scores without their visual context, but this effort by the always interesting Daft Punk is deeply satisfying on its own. They really captured the feel of the film while creating a work that stands up without it. A really great transmedia experience.
The National – High Violet – If Interpol and Editors wouldn’t exist without Joy Division, then the National wouldn’t exist without the Tindersticks. This band has a brooding, introspective vibe that could easily fall into self indulgence, but their music and lyrics possess enough grace and optimism to ultimately be uplifting. It doesn’t hurt that they can write a catchy song, either.
Black Keys – Brothers - This band effortlessly blends influences like pop, blues, and Zeppelin into an irresistibly catchy cocktail of awesomeness. The production work of Danger Mouse brings an extra level of ramshackle polish to the whole affair. If you’re throwing a party, you need to play this record. Loudly.
Sting – Symphonicity & Live in Berlin – Following a lengthy tour by the Police, I was surprised to see Sting release yet another retreading of old material rather than a new album. Yet the results are largely pleasing; Sting’s songs are well-suited for reinterpretation by an orchestra, and the real treats on both the studio and live discs are the various non-album tracks sprinkled throughout (such as “The Pirate’s Bride,” an old b-side I co-opted as the basis for a quest in EQ2).
Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul – Danger Mouse makes yet another appearance on my list as one of the principles of the Dark Night of the Soul. The album features a varied lot of vocalists and contributors, including Suzanne Vega, Iggy Pop, Frank Black, and David Lynch. Darkness pervades the disc, and not in name only; the spectre of death hovers over this project, plagued by the deaths of Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chesnutt. The latter’s “Grim Augury” is one of the most unsettling performances I’ve heard in years.
Broken Bells – Broken Bells – When I first heard that James Mercer of the Shins was working on a project with Danger Mouse, I was almost frightened by the potential for greatness. The album did not disappoint. Catchy, provocative, and expertly crafted, this album delivers in spades. If you like the Shins, this one is a no-brainer.
Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle – If asked to describe Blonde Redhead’s music, I’d be somewhat at a loss. Take the cool parts of the Sugarcubes and discard their silliness, combine with the soundscapes of the Cocteau Twins, add in a bit of the Cure’s melancholy, and you have something approaching this band’s sound–though I’ve still done a poor job explaining how it all meshes together. Blonde Redhead has consistently put out some of my favorite albums of the past decade, and though I think Penny Sparkle gets a bit off track midway through, it is nonetheless a wonderful album by a remarkable band.
Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back – It takes years for Gabriel to deliver a new album, so when I heard that his next project was going to be a selection of cover songs, I was more than a bit irritated. Yet much to my surprise, the songs here are every bit as satisfying as his original material. The limitations imposed by Gabriel upon this work–classical instruments and no drums–result in a tight yet varied collection. My favorite is the startling reinterpretation of “Boy in the Bubble,” which takes the Paul Simon original into an entirely new realm. A fantastic album.
Tom Jones – Praise & Blame - Rising to worldwide fame as a 60s crooner, Jones has been best known in the last couple decades for clever covers and campy pop that has been more popular in Europe than in the States. But it would be a huge mistake to dismiss his talent; Praise & Blame is a collection of bare-bones anthems rooted in blues and gospel touching on themes of love, lust, redemption, and damnation. Jones is 70 years old, but the power of his trademark voice has barely diminished–he puts vocalists a third his age to shame. This may well be a career-best album for this too-overlooked star.
Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises - I have waited many years for Mark Kozelek to release an album worthy of the potential of Red House Painters’ debut EP, Down Colorful Hill. Though I’ve consistently loved Kozelek’s work across his various incarnations, I’ve found them to be inconsistent or slightly flawed. Finally, this record delivers everything I could hope for, and more. A heartbreaking, beautiful album that fulfills all promises. It was worth the wait.
Editors – In This Light and On This Evening – There is no question that Editors live in the house that Joy Division built. Though they’ve had really strong albums before, this latest effort marks a new creative pinnacle for the band. There isn’t a wasted track to be found here, and the driving, danceable goth/pop anthems really shine. With a style of music well suited to a smokey club, its time that Editors stepped out into the spotlight.
>> Gotta Have It <<
Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here – Gil Scott-Heron is often filed under jazz, but his work combines spoken word with jazz, hip-hop, blues, and even Leonard Cohen-esque folk. The first time I heard I’m New Here, I was literally left speechless by its openness and raw emotion. Rarely does an artist lay his life so bare for all to see as is the case here; Scott-Heron talks about his life being raised in a “broken home,” and redefines the phrase in the most heart-wrenching and heartwarming way. This is a stunning work of art, with a directness and intimacy that’s truly moving. A masterpiece.
Tracey Thorn – Love and Its Opposite – Best known as the vocalist for Everything But the Girl, Thorn has explored styles ranging from folksy pop to sparse electronica. She puts the whole bag of tricks into her latest effort, with spectacular results. Tracey has never sounded better, both in vocal quality and the wit and wisdom she brings to the work. This album is the work of an experienced artists at the top of her game.
Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid – This album has everything. Literally, everything–it features just about every style of music you can name, from classical to rap to 60s girl band to hip hop to… well, you get the idea. It’s in here, along with a concept storyline that pulls together robots and love songs and… uh, lots of other stuff. If you haven’t heard of this album, it’s probably because traditional record labels have no idea how to market such a schizophrenic work of genius. I’m probably not helping the case by trying to describe it, so let me boil it down for you: Janelle Monae is fantastic in every possible way, and this masterfully crafted album exists on a plane all its own. Buy it. Buy it now.
Tricky – Mixed Race – The best of Tricky’s solo work drips with a sinister sexuality that makes you feel slightly voyeuristic for listening to it, as if you’re peering into some darkened room where naughty things are happening. That dirty intimacy works masterfully on Mixed Race, winding snake-like rhythms together with pulsingly memorable riffs. This is an album that shamelessly envelops you, and you’re all too pleased to let it happen.
Massive Attack – Heligoland - There aren’t many bands you can cite as being the artist who brought an entire genre of music into the mainstream, but that’s exactly what Massive Attack did with trip hop. It has been ages since Tricky’s former colleagues released an album of new material, and the band’s had a turbulent history over the years. But none of that matters when you listen to Heligoland, a collection of fantastic songs that lure you into their dreamy soundscape. Once again you’ll hear breathy vocals by a smattering of contributors, but you almost don’t notice the disparate collection of singers because the tracks are so cohesive. This album completely reaffirms Massive Attack’s status as the masters of trip hop.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – Let me put it simply: With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire has delivered the ultimate indie rock record. I don’t know what more there is to say, and I have to wonder how the band will possibly top it. The songs here are so well crafted, and the production so finely sculpted while keeping its raw edge, that everything just works. I normally wouldn’t go so far out on a limb without living with the record for a few years, but I honestly think The Suburbs will be looked back upon as one of the classic albums of this genre, standing alongside discs like Doolittle, Nevermind, Slanted & Enchanted, Reckoning, and many other alternative rock masterpieces. Time will tell, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet. My album of the year.
>> Danuser’s 2010 Playlist <<
Check out my playlist on iTunes or build it yourself using the songs below.
“The Grid” – Daft Punk – TRON: Legacy
“Papillon” – Editors – In This Light and On This Evening
“We Used To Wait” – Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
“Half Moon Bay” – Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises
“Next Girl” – The Black Keys – Brothers
“Splitting The Atom” – Massive Attack – Heligoland
“Not Getting There” – Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle
“Tightrope” – Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
“By Some Miracle” – Philip Selway – Familial
“The Boy In The Bubble” – Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back
“Burning Hell” – Tom Jones – Praise & Blame
“UK Jamaican” – Tricky – Mixed Race
“Come On Home To Me” – Tracey Thorn – Love and Its Opposite
“I’ll Take Care Of You” – Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here
“Grim Augury” – Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse Feat. Vic Chestnutt – Dark Night of the Soul
“The Pirate’s Bride” – Sting – Symphonicities