The Best Music of 2010 [Albums #5-#1]
January 10, 2011 2 Comments
We conclude our countdown of the best albums of the year with the five finest records of 2010, taking into account the collective opinion of our highly knowledgeable panel. Each of these albums received significant support from multiple judges, and each was considered the album of the year by at least one of our experts. In the end, I had to sort them out, and this seemed the most righteous order.
You really can’t go wrong with any of these albums, so scratch off the back of your iTunes gift cards and get downloading (or better yet, support your local independent record store).
Okay, let’s go.
#5. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
LCD Soundsystem is described on Wikipedia as “dance-punk.” That sounds like a made-up genre, and maybe it is, but that’s just because LCD’s particular brand of genius often defies easy categorization.
This Is Happening is supposedly the final album this band will ever make, and if so, they have sandblasted a Mount Rushmore-level monument to their talents. This album is so good, so versatile, so original, it makes you rethink what a band can be. As Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker wrote, “A drummer who worked for years as a sound engineer, [bandleader James] Murphy has an uncanny ability to hear sonic detail and then edit, enhance, and assemble those pieces into an easily felt, comprehensible new arrangement.” The result is an album packed with mindblowing tracks that transcend genre.
It’s OK. I won’t tell anyone about how you just pooped your pants in happiness.
Murphy is well-known for his sonic genius, but I appreciate his lyrical talents as well. He delivers lines so wry that you understand why he was once recruited for the original writing staff of Seinfeld.
“Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk, and living proof that sometimes friends are mean.”
“So you wanted a hit. But maybe we don’t do hits. I try and I try. It ends up feeling kind of wrong.”
“There are a couple of things we know that we learned from Fact magazine…Your time will come, but tonight is our night so you should give us all of your drugs. We have a black President and you do not, so shut up.”
“People who need people are just people who need people.”
“All I want is your pity…and all I want are your bitter tears.”
I love how “All I Want” sounds both very much of the moment and timeless — shimmering contemporary electronic dance music with an “ooh la la la” backing vocal that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Phil Spector record.
If somehow you aren’t yet convinced that this band rules, check out this video that Murphy co-directed with Spike Jones. It’s easily one of the most original music videos I have ever seen, and utterly hilarious as well. Murphy, Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney get whaled on and abused by a gang of anonymous pranksters. The folks who portrayed the be-suited mischief-makers deserve some kind of medal for being righteously funny.
If they never make another LCD Soundsystem album, we really have no right to complain. This Is Happening will remain vital for a long, long time.
#4. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
Ben Bridwell’s band has developed a quintessentially American sound thanks to the travels of its founder. Bridwell was born in the South, attended high school in the Southwest, and formed his band in the Pacific Northwest, before relocating back to the Carolinas; all along the way he gathered collaborators, lost them, and found new ones. As a result, the band has gradually honed a sound that’s authentic country-rock, but they also incorporate the most appealing traits of the west-coast-indie sensibility. In short, as we say in this corner of the Northeast, this band is wicked awesome.
Check out this track, “Compliments.” It lays down a rocking beat, stirs in some grimy guitars, then builds some tasty harmonic vocals on that foundation. Add in some choice lyrics about heaven and hell, and you’ve got a Southern indie rock master class.
I should take a moment to give props to the fine users of Vimeo who made this article possible. Youtube is kind of a bitch these days when it comes to letting writers embed tunes in blog posts. Don’t you get it, record companies? I am trying to help you move product here!
I’d like to turn the floor over to the wise J. J. Behoy, who named this album the best of the year; heed his words.
“If this is the music by which future generations chooses to remember this era, I will be happy. Sadly, it will not be. And Band of Horses will likely write a mini anthem about that. And it will be good. This is a classic, from the opening strains of “Factory” to the hooky “Laredo”, into the definitely depressing (in a good way) middle section of the album. I defy you to not feel Ben Bridwell’s pain on “Dilly.” Infinite Arms is a terrifically solid album that resonates the first time you hear it and only grows on you as time goes on.”
I don’t have too much to add to that, but I did want to note my favorite track on the album, “Older.” It epitomizes the terrific sound that this band has crafted, having finally stabilized its lineup and found its groove. Crunchy harmonies have always been my weakness and they are on full display here. Check out the gentle acoustic strumming that sometimes segues to the fore. This one is a keeper.
#3. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Win Butler, the leader of The Arcade Fire, was born in 1980 and grew up in suburban Houston. On this album, Butler taps into the generational consciousness of an unnamed cohort — the group of people born in the late 70s and early 80s whose membership in either Generation X or the Millennials is constantly being drawn and redrawn by demographers. The Suburbs speaks to the awkwardness of not fitting into the angst of the former or the optimism of the latter, of seeking a place to belong but not knowing what that place might be, except maybe the suburban sprawl you once called home. His age and upbringing also put him in mind, and in perfect position, to discuss how things were then, and how they are now, and how much has changed in the world since the 1980s: “I used to write letters, I used to sign my name; but by the time we met the times had already changed.” He adds, “Now our lives are changing fast – I hope that something pure can last.”
Butler’s portrait of the suburbs does not succumb easily to the usual stereotypes. His treatment is neither totally scornful nor totally positive. He celebrates the innocence and banality of suburban youth, reflects on friendship that slowly falls into remission, speaks of growing up but still remembering where you came from, relishes in memories both joyous and rueful. His lyrics are searching, seeking, but not quite sure of what he is hoping to find. The ambiguity and ambivalence of Butler’s songs are evidenced by their differing themes. “Rococo” attacks hipsters too cool to admit they legitimately care about something (“Some things are pure, and some things are right, but the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight”), but on the other hand, he admits that openhearted idealism may not suit him: “You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount; I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts.”
However, to dwell overmuch on Butler’s lyrics would be to miss the excellent musical qualities that The Arcade Fire has developed on this, their third album. For those who criticize The Suburbs as a protracted American white whine, take a listen to “Sprawl II – Mountains Beyond Mountains,” delivered thrillingly by Butler’s Quebecois-Haitian partner and wife, Régine Chassaigne. This song bears musical influences from groups like Sweden’s The Knife but also alludes to Tracy Kidder’s book on public health workers in Haiti, and still manages to relate all of this back to the vast suburban American wastelands that are the album’s theme. It’s a brilliant piece of synthesis, and a pretty kick ass song taboot.
Spike Jones’ video for the album’s title track is enjoyable, but I think it loses its way a bit when it begins to focus on themes of betrayal and frightening dystopian futures. If there was some evil military dictatorship to fight against in real life, the ambivalence expressed in so many of these songs would evaporate; the nostalgia for the past would take on an entirely different hue. Actuality is more complicated. That Butler does not fall easily into these cliched themes is a credit to his skills as a songwriter.
The band attacks every track with Springsteenian verve; on this record, they are a more mature and better version of the band that recorded their electrifying debut, Funeral. What makes The Suburbs so effective is that it is so relatable and real; Butler’s lyrical musings hit home with tremendous effectiveness because of their honesty and profundity. If the cohort centered around 1980 is something of a lost generation, at least we have found our prophet to lead us out of the wilderness.
#2. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
Anyone who saw this coming, please raise your hand, and from now on I will let you write all the ROTI music articles. This album is shockingly good.
Janelle Monáe seems to have appeared on the scene fully-formed, like Athena bustin’ out of Zeus’ dome. The ArchAndroid is a crazy futuristic concept album, but more importantly, it’s a showcase for one of the greatest talents to come along in years. She can do it all, a master of every style — hip-hop, soul, funk, folk, psychedelic rock, jazz, pop — there’s even some classical music mixed in here. Andy Kellman of All Music Guide put it best when he said, “She can sing, sang, and scream like hell, too.”
Ms. Monáe described her ambitions for the album as follows: “I mean, in terms of influence it encompasses all the things I love – scores for films like ‘Goldfinger’ mixed with albums like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Music Of My Mind’ and David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’, along with experimental hip hop stuff like Outkast’s Stankonia.’” AND THE INSANE THING IS THAT SHE PULLS IT OFF!
“Cold War” is probably the best pop song to be released this year — it has a catchy hook, sweet arrangements, a tasty guitar solo, and background vocals that continually mutate with creativity and verve. It’s like something Stevie Wonder would have cooked up in the 70s. Every time you think you have it figured out, Janelle and her posse change it up on you. This song is literally awe-some.
The ArchAndroid is jammed full of terrific songs, so many that it seems impossible they could all be from the same artist on the same album. One song that I have found to have tremendous staying power is “Sir Greendown,” a folky confection that Donovan would be proud of having written. Monáe’s gorgeous vocal is paired with a delightful organ and a gentle, wonderful melody.
I would be remiss to ignore “Tightrope,” the album’s lead single — it’s a hip-hop neutron bomb. Big Boi is on hand to provide a sick verse, and the production by Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning is flawless. It’s a jam among jams, and more than worthy to host Big Boi’s flow at the peak of his powers. Monáe certainly holds her own, and finishes us off with the line, “Do you mind if I play the ukulele just like a young lady?” (The video is amazing too, and well worth clicking through to check out.)
There’s seemingly no end to the variety of jams that Monáe presents on this album, and for every radio-ready track, there’s another one that sounds like it was just unearthed from some 1960s time capsule. “Mushrooms and Roses” evokes something akin to a vintage Beatles track, or more contemporaneously, a genius offering from Ween. HIGH PRAISE my friends!
While The ArchAndroid is so prolific that it sometimes verges on inconsistent — the track featuring Of Montreal is an especial dud — you can’t help but admire the bravado and skills that Janelle Monáe unleashes on this album. It’s a work of pure genius, and I can only imagine where Monáe is going to go from here. At 25 years old, she has only begun to tap into her immense talent.
I leave you with this staggering fact: This album was released on Bad Boy Records.
#1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Declaring Kanye West’s magnum opus the album of the year isn’t the most original or shocking thing to do; music critics wiser and more experienced than me have already done the same. Still, upon deep reflection, there really was no other choice. If you examine the menu bar of Rumors on the Internets, you’ll see that we love schadenfreude and smiles; celebrity gossip, great jams, political themes both frivolous and serious; and we like to gaze into the future. This album hits all of these notes and more. That it was released on the heels of Kanye’s involvement scandal and mayhem, that he had the balls to try to achieve a Michael Jackson-esque success, risking total failure and total ignominy, that it easily could have blown up in his face — only makes his accomplishment that much more astonishing.
Kanye took the mound with the entire stadium standing, booing, and raining trash on him, and proceeded to toss a perfect game.
To explain how good this album is, I hope you’ll indulge me a track-by-track breakdown. We open with “Dark Fantasy,” which receives an intro from Nicki Minaj that draws from Roald Dahl: “They made it sound all wack and corny; Yes it’s awful, blasted boring. Twisted fiction, sick addiction, so gather round children! Zip it! Listen!” Bon Iver sings, “Can we get much higher?” Then a RZA beat comes in that’s so fierce, it would have a place on any of the best Wu-Tang albums. Kanye appears and starts dropping top-notch rhymes. Holy shit! Is this really happening?
Kanye keeps turning up the heat with the next track, “Gorgeous.” Kid Cudi sings a stellar hook: “No more chances — if you blow this, you bogus. I will never let you live this down.” No pressure, Kanye! He doesn’t disappoint, delving into America’s racial past with incisiveness and skill: “Inner century anthems based off inner city tantrums, based on the way we was branded…face it, Jerome gets more time than Brandon, and at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random.” He’s flinging lyrics like “All them fallin’ for the love of ballin’, got caught with 30 rocks, the cop looked like Alec Baldwin,” and even scores some revenge by vowing to “Choke a South Park writer with a fish stick.” When Raekwon shows up to deliver an excellent guest spot, you nod your head with vigor — until you realize that, flow aside, it wasn’t half as good as Kanye’s material. Damn, he just showed Raekwon up…how many rappers could pull that off?
The punches keep coming with “Power,” a hit single with a thumping, powerful beat and a mammoth chorus. Kanye references his scandalous ways, so notorious that they drew a rebuke from the most powerful man in the world: “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation; well, that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation.” (Recall also that George W. Bush called Kanye’s accusation of racism the low point of his presidency. This dude is in the heads of Presidents!) In the end, he’s unrepentant: “I got the power to make your life so exciting.”
Suddenly, the album shifts gears, dropping into a classical interlude that prefigures the coming track, “All of the Lights.” This song is insanely innovative in its production. Rihanna sings the hook, Kid Cudi is again featured, and Fergie takes a bridge, but the best part is the vocals that come on late in the song from the choir of sorts — except it doesn’t sound like a huge group of people singing, it sounds like two, one male, one female. Kanye took vocals from the aforementioned singers as well as Alicia Keys, John Legend, The-Dream, Elton John, Ryan Leslie, Charlie Wilson (The Gap Band), and Elly Jackson (La Roux) and created hybrid voices. Think about that for a second. HYBRID VOICES! We might be getting a glimpse into the future here.
And now it’s time for a couple of killer posse cuts, “Monster” and “So Appalled.” Each features a bunch of great rappers laying down excellent lines. Let’s take ‘em one at a time. “Monster” is the best Halloween song since “Dead Man’s Party.” Rick Ross offers words of introduction; Jay-Z comes in with the awesome line “Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Loch Ness; goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience.” Not to be outdone, Kanye asks “Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh? Put the pussy in a sarcophagus.” Nicki Minaj is given extended time and doesn’t waste it, dropping a lengthy verse in her unique style. Bon Iver returns to sing another awesome hook. It’s a great song, period, and in case you haven’t noticed, the parade of all-star collaborators has not slowed down.
“So Appalled” is slightly darker in tone, with a hard hip-hop beat and appearances from gritty MCs like Pusha T and Prynce Ci Hi. Swizz Beatz has a nice chorus, and Jay-Z appears again to deliver a memorable defense of his oft-dissed commercialism: “I went from the favorite to the most hated…What would you rather be, overpaid or underrated?” Kanye’s still in fine form, asserting “That’s why I’d rather spit something that got a purpose.” I’m a self-admitted sucker for the Wu, which is why I loved RZA’s cameo at the end: “Cars for the missus, and furs for the mistress — you know that shit is fucking ri-dick-a-lus!”
Speaking of RZA, the soul-sample style he pioneered is in evidence on the next cut, “Devil in a New Dress.” Kanye has often utilized this steez and it works well in this spot. This track is especially effective as a showcase for Rick Ross, and the big man crushes it when his turn comes: “Whole clique’s appetite has tape worms; spinning Teddy Pendergrass vinyl as my J burns.”
“Runaway” finally reveals Kanye in the self-loathing mode we last saw him stewing in on 808s and Heartbreak. “Let’s have a toast to the douchebags,” he says, meaning himself. (This seems like a good time to mention the great Josh Groban Sings Kanye’s Tweets skit.) After dwelling on his assholic nature, Kanye breaks out the vocoder for an extended jam. C. Dave emailed me these undeniably true words: “Kanye’s three-minute vocoder vocal solo at the end of ‘Runaway’ is the ballsiest thing on a mainstream album that somehow works since…’Endless Nameless?”
The next song, “Hell of a Life,” is audacious to say the least. Living up to the album’s title, Kanye discusses his fantasy of marrying a porn star over a sludgy beat, and in the process digs up some extremely interesting material. “How can you say they live they life wrong,” he asks, “when you never fuck with the lights on?” No slut-shaming here. In one jawdropping sequence, he reflects on the fact that a porn star’s decision to have sex with a black man on camera will degrade her paycheck as surely as anal sex or group sex. “It’s kinda crazy, that’s all considered the same thing. Well I guess a lot of niggas do gang bang, and if we run trains we all in the same gang. Runaway slaves, all on the chain gang. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.” Holy crap…Tell me again how hip-hop is dead?
I promised you schadenfreude and smiles, and they’re delivered on the otherwise mournful “Blame Game.” Kanye and John Legend take a tale of heartbreak through its paces, but the song concludes with a skit that’s absolutely hilarious — a rare treat on a hip-hop album. Chris Rock plays a “neighborhood nigga” who manages to sleep with Kanye’s unfaithful girlfriend and can’t believe his good fortune or the sexual skills that she’s learned from the master. “I’ve never been to this part of pussy town before!” he exclaims.
At this point, Bon Iver returns to sing his song “Woods,” but quite early on, it becomes apparent that Kanye has transformed this song into a new track, “Lost in the World.” The vocals soar, harmonies build upon harmonies, and a crazy backbeat comes in to propel the song forward. Bon Iver’s original song was aight, but this is on a whole ‘nother level. In the last of many MJ references on Fantasy, Kanye raps, “Mama say mama say ma ma ku san, lost in this plastic life…let’s break out of this fake-ass party, turn this into a classic night.” Sick vocals overlay upon sick vocals, the beat builds and builds, and by the end it’s gone full out tribal and Gil Scott-Heron has arrived to declaim his classic poem, “Who Will Survive in America?”
Kanye gives Scott-Heron the last word, using him as a proxy to continue to address the subversive and revolutionary ideas that he presents throughout the album. When Scott-Heron concludes his poem, all that’s left is a smattering of applause. Kanye doesn’t need to end with a roaring crowd because he knows what he has accomplished — a full-blown masterpiece.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the best album of 2010, and certainly one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever recorded. It essentially breaks free of the genre to create something new — future music. It’s simply incredible.
Programming note: There will be a follow-up post with some assorted great songs from 2010 that somehow evaded mention during this series. Publication date is TBD, as I have temporarily run out of words to express the idea “this song is good.” Hit me up with any suggestions.