50 Favorite Albums of 2010: #10-1

Menomena – Mines

Talk about underrated! Despite mostly positive reviews, I’ve seen the third album by this Portland trio turn up on almost no year-end best-of lists. I see it as the perfect synthesis of their earlier experimental tendencies and a newfound pop sensibility; easily their most immediately accessible record, but one that yields to repeated listens just as well, if not better, than their previous two. If it’s not obvious, this is far and away my favorite Menomena release to date. They play in a number of different moods and styles (from out-and-out rockers like “TAOS” and delicate, Grizzly Bear-like constructions such as “INTIL”) and trade vocal duties between all three members seamlessly. The songs are filled with dark corners and unexpected left turns as well as expansive, jammier segments. I really can’t find much on Mines not to like. Perhaps its easy affability is what’s preventing it from showing up alongside those big-ticket year end albums, but pick it up and I promise you’ll be immediately sucked into their unique musical world.

Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Deerhunter’s fourth long-player is their best album, perhaps because it’s the perfect meeting point between their previous efforts’ angular experimentalism and the more intimate, pensive beauty of frontman Bradford Cox’s work under the Atlas Sound pseudonym. Each highlight (there are plenty of them) approaches transcendence from a different angle. Stunning opener “Earthquake” is an experimental bedroom R&B slowjam mixed with walls of shimmering shoegaze noise. “Desire Lines” builds to a hypnotic climax filled with lockstep rhythm and two echoing guitars winding their way around each other; it reminds me of career highlight “Nothing Every Happened” but is less melodic and more krautrock-y. “Helicopter” is another slow, expansive one on which Bradford performs his best trick: mixing effortless melody with melancholy content. And closer “He Would Have Laughed” is a shapeshifting masterpiece cut and pasted together with incredible care. Some of the more spare in-between tracks, like “Sailing” or “Basement Scene”–I see them sort of as “pallet cleansers”–aren’t as majestic but are no less worth exploring. If you like, well, sound, I expect you’ll enjoy Halcyon Digest.

Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty

Can we just go ahead and name this guy the Most Rhythmic Man Alive? Throughout his first true solo album (discounting his half of OutKast’s final double-disc), Boi a.k.a. Antwan Patton/General Patton/Daddy Fat Sax, with his zany, bouncy, incredibly flexible and unflappably rhythmic flow, blasts his way through the insanely elaborate future-funk beats that he and his co-producers have created. Every time the music shifts between songs (and often many times within each song), Big Boi is there with a new rapping style to match it. He has such an unique way of just saying words that he takes lines like “soaking wet, all the feathers in the goose down / who’s loose now / you done let the juice ooze down,” or just “there’s plenty pretty biddies in the city I’m from,” or my favorite, “who gives a damn about the past? I live for the day, plan for the future, pack a lunch and haul ass,” and invests them with an almost alien-like quality. Is this guy actually speaking the same language as us? On Sir Lucious Left Foot, it feels like he’s inhabiting a vocabulary that’s entirely his own, an its an absolute blast to tag along with him as he gives us a tour of his world, where it’s always a party and everyone’s an amazing dancer. It also feels like a long-awaited vindication of my belief that he might not have been as showy as Andre 3000, but they were undoubtedly equals. (I liked Speakerboxxx better than The Love Below, anyway.)

The Radio Dept. – Clinging to a Scheme

I see this as an album that doesn’t necessarily belong alongside (let alone above) the crazy-innovative sonic genius of albums like Halcyon Digest and Sir Lucious Left Foot. But a big part of what making these lists–and picking “favorite music” in general–comes down to is saying which albums you feel like you’ve formed some personal bond with. Deciding that a record is capital-g-“Great” is just a way of saying that more people are likely to foster a personal connection with it. The third LP by The Radio Dept. is inventive and excellent in a more subtle, quiet way than some of the other records on this list, especially in the top 10, but I think these three Swedes are experts at creating music that you feel you have a unique personal relationship with.

Perhaps this is totally off-base, but I have no way of knowing because I lack the ability to listen to this album from the inside of somebody else’s head. All I know is my relationship with Clinging to a Scheme grew from modest enjoyment to intense love, for every one of its ten songs. In my mind, this is the perfect utilization of a lo-fi aesthetic; one that doesn’t obscure the music so much as it creates a very tangible sense of longing, nostalgia, and bittersweetness, but not at all in a cheap or overly sentimental way. The slight haze over the guitars and keyboards pushes them just over the line into that sepia-tinted realm of memory. Drum machines have never sounded so emotional.

Robyn – Body Talk

Sometimes I wonder what exactly it is about Robyn that makes her so much better than other electro-pop divas that I find uninteresting–the Katy Perrys and the Lady Gagas of the world. (Rihanna, for the record, is awesome.) But, I mean, come on. She just is! I think Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is already a pretty good song, but it could be a great song stripped of Perry’s awful voice and given The Robyn Treatment. What is that treatment, exactly? This year, our favorite Swede (hey, two Swedish artists in a row) proved time and time again that she is an expert at combining sterile, almost-too-perfect electro pop beats with vocals and lyrics that are very emotionally expressive. She can exhibit a robot-like badassery–“U Should Know Better”–as well as great tenderness–“Cry When You Get Older,” found on Body Talk Pt. 1 but tragically left off the compiled full-length. (An unnamed friend of mine may or may not have recently started crying a lil bit during “Call Your Girlfriend”.) And on her best songs, as on “Dancing On My Own”, she is both defiant and wounded–’cause “Fembots have feelings too,” right? Almost every song on this hour-long, 15-song release has all that and is still insanely fun to dance to.

The National – High Violet

How often do you come across a band that releases albums as good as Alligator and Boxer, and then has the patience, integrity, and creative ambition to refine their aesthetic further and release an even better album? The National is one of those rare bands. High Violet, in some ways, is one of those satisfying albums that can act as a summary of a group’s career up to that point. It takes existential weariness, musical and cognitive dissonance, and the occasional bit of rage and wraps it up in 11 ornate, majestic, sometimes-epic, always-eminently-listenable songs. Each song on here is great for a different reason, whether it’s the slow-burning prettiness of “Runaway”, the oddly calm horror-movie threats of “Conversation 16”, the gentlemanly angst of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the fear and cathartic release of “Afraid of Everyone”, or the all-out epic beauty of “England”. Every track is distinct but they live together here in perfect harmony.

LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

I don’t think it was intention, but James Murphy has more or less taken over “cool”. In the first half of this decade, when the effects of Pavement and other like-minded bands were still lingering and sloppiness and ironic detachment were the indie M.O., Murphy made fetishistic music nerdiness, extensive acknowledgment of influences, and laboring over your music the new cool. Then, with “Someone Great” and “All My Friends”, he redefined the boundaries yet again; now, making great dance music with a looming nostalgia and fear of aging seemed like the coolest thing you could do. This Is Happening does all that and more: “All I Want”, “I Can Change”, and “Home” give it that emotional resonance, but “You Wanted A Hit” and “Pow Pow” deliver good old fashioned music nerd rants. And “Dance Yrself Clean” and “Drunk Girls” lie somewhere in-between, seeming like pseudo-ironic paeans to gettin’ yo stupid on, but actually having a sentimental core (“I believe in waking up together”!). In a fantastic interview with the A.V. Club, Murphy explains that ironic-seeming songs like “Losing My Edge” actually come from a more personal place, where something like “I Can Change” is really a more self-aware, constructed persona; in other words, he complicates the whole notion that emotionalism and romanticism are necessarily more “real” in songwriting. The way Murphy blurs distinctions like this is one of the best things about LCD Soundsystem, and it’s why it’ll be especially tragic if this does end up being their last album.

Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

On his Twitter, as part of his project to review 1000 albums each year, critic Christopher Weingarten called this sophomore album by this Jersey group “Acid-damaged Big Country, art-damaged Bruce Springsteen, hardcore-damaged Hold Steady.” Not only is this a great description for 12 words, but it shows the way Titus Andronicus effortlessly straddle genres and assimilate countless pieces of rock history into a great messy pile. One that doesn’t give a shit about what influences it’s “assimilating” or what genres it’s straddling. Is this a melodic hardcore record inflected with classic rock? Is it an indie rock record inflected with punk? Is this a punk record that infuses punk’s worst enemy, prog rock, into its structure with its tempo-changing song-suites? Who cares! It’s the best rock record of the year (talking about “rock” in the sense of, you know, “rock and roll”–guitars, gettin drunk, heteronormativity, all that). It also happens to be a “Civil War concept album”–sort of. They use the Civil War for a metaphor for all the ways in which we are still divided, or something (not getting laid and fucking up your life, maybe?), and it gives them a good excuse to throw in a bunch of badass Lincoln quotes about stuff like “living forever, or dying by suicide.” Do I sound oddly dismissive of the #3 record on my list? It’s because it feels sort of wrong to do a heady analysis of The Monitor, even though it’s positively bursting at the seams with stuff. Just throw it on the stereo, pound a Natty, and scream along with Patrick Stickles’ lovably pissed-off screeds.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

I’ve gotta say, the backlash cycle for The Suburbs was way stronger than I expected it to be. I suppose I should’ve seen it coming…especially considering the way Arcade Fire fans start foaming at the mouth when you get them (a.k.a. this guy) talking about the band and “what they mean”. In other words, when you’re Arcade Fire in 2010 (licensing songs to the Superbowl, debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200, selling out MSG), well…haters gonna hate. But the haters’ bone of contention sometimes confused me. Some people profess to just not being able to connect with the music, despite what seems like an all-consuming desire on the part of Win Butler to create music that Connects With People. I think some of these folks just feel too cool for Arcade Fire’s unsubtle bombast. Well I hope they’re happy with their How to Dress Well, Memory Tapes, and Salem records. (If there’s anything this list reaffirms, it’s my love for Unsubtle Music…just look at the number of anthemic and/or highly danceworthy albums in this top 10.) But a lot of them just genuinely don’t connect with the music, which is expected with any record that a lot of people keep saying you’re “supposed” to like.

I know I’m exaggerating the backlash and ignoring some of the overwhelming praise this record earned, but bear with me for a moment. I think where a lot of the people who hate on this record go wrong is in claiming that it’s ham-fisted and preachy. It’s just more bashing on the emptiness of the suburban experience/modern American life! The stuff we’ve been told by countless cultural works over the past 50 years. I go into greater depth on this in my review of this album, but I think it’s a much more nuanced depiction of the suburbs than that. There’s a bit of that preachy stuff, but it’s mixed in with a lot more melancholy, nostalgia, hope, fear, defiance, regret, and fondness. Maybe I’m being hyperbolic, sue me, but I think when you really dig into the lyrics of this album, you’re presented with a whole range of human emotion–making these words perfectly suited to Arcade Fire’s trademark musical style, which has always been exuberant and incredibly emotionally expressive, mixing positive and negative feelings masterfully. The vast majority of Americans don’t know who Arcade Fire are, but by any surviving metric we have for measuring popularity, they’ve made it pretty big, and it’s always refreshing to see this happen to bands that are as musically adventurous and thematically challenging as Arcade Fire.

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Duh, right? This is probably the most universally acclaimed record, by amateur and professional music critics alike, since the dawn of the Internet Age. (Which allows people to observe thousands of bloggerz and Twittererz talking about music at once and do thinks like make judgments about “universally acclaimed records”.) It may have been knocked off the charts by Taylor Swift (lo, irony) after one week, but it’s definitely got more people jabbering about it, even nearly a month after the fact. Just listen: if you’re quiet enough, you can hear thousands of people talking about Kanye West, all over the world, right now.

There’s a lot to say about this album–about the intersection of art and life, the state of rap music, the nature of its critical and commercial reception–and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the music itself. But despite this, those little jabbering voices mean that pretty much everything there is to say about MBDTF has already said, so it would be foolish for me to try to be original and even more foolish to try to be comprehensive. Plus I’ve written 50 of these bad boys already so I’m feeling a little burnt out.

Due to my feverish, drooling excitement for this record to come out, I had already heard most of the songs on it in one form or another before its release, either from G.O.O.D. Fridays or as a leak. But one of the most wonderful things about MBDTF is its sequencing; almost every transition between tracks is a work of art in itself. The uplifting, pop-heaven post-rap glory of “All of the Lights” –> the dark underworld of “Monster”. The psychedelic apocalypse of “Devil in a New Dress” –> the lonely piano that opens “Runaway”. The tragedy of “Blame Game” –> the glimmer of hope in Justin Vernon’s Auto-Tuned pipes at the beginning of “Lost in the World”. It’s like a goddamn movie.

What else is there to say? You’ve probably heard this album and had at least 10 people tell you why it’s good. It has some of the most ambitious, maximalist, immaculate production I’ve ever heard. Duh. Kanye has become a pretty fearsome and really enjoyable rapper. Duh. The features on here are, more or less, fuckin ridikilis. Duh! Um…every song on here is good? DUH. If you have elected not to like this record, you are missing out on a really fun party.

In summary:

Kanye West, 2010. Duh.

Back to #20-11

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~ by toren on December 17, 2010.

8 Responses to “50 Favorite Albums of 2010: #10-1”

  1. word. i will now check out at least one third of those. thank you sir.

  2. Kayla Borden showed me this list (I drunkenly posted my predictions on your facebook last night haha), and I so thoroughly enjoyed it that I had to comment here. The Monitor was my favorite of the year by far, and I thought your last couple lines summed it up perfectly. I’m surprised at the lack of Janelle Monae as it seems to fall in line with some of the pop and hip-hop you included, but you also had Fang Island really high which isn’t as Important an album as a lot of things this year, but it might be the one I have the most fun listening to.

    Have you heard the new Superchunk album Majesty Shredding? If you’re looking for some great 90’s indie-rock throwback, I highly recommend it. It’s as great as anything they released in their heyday, and is simply a really rocking album.

    Anyway, great blog and great list!

    • yeah, i listened to majesty shredding a couple of times, it’s definitely solid, just not really where my listening habits are at right now.

      i address the janelle monae thing in my favorite songs, which will go up tomorrow. short version: i think it just does the genre-hopping thing a little TOO much, and it didn’t really cohere for me as an album because of that. plus there are some shit songs on there that i really hate and didn’t help its case (“make the bus” first and foremost…no album on this list of 50 had a song as bad as that one)

      • i came here to address the janelle sitch and it looks like someone has beat me to it. that said on a list of 50 albums, to not give a not to one of the most ambitious and freshest albums of the year for one misstep in an overall incredibly successful first LP when you have many albums in the same genre(s) that don’t do nearly as much seems like simply a stubborn omission of an important and critically acclaimed album. that or you’re just sipping on your haterade.

        that said – great hard work here, WRMC music director.

      • i think i exaggerated the weight of “make the bus” in my decision. thing is, i tried really hard to like that album, and despite some really incredible songs (i’m gonna say 5 great songs), there are many places on that album where i would start to get bored every time i listened to it. notably:

        -the end of ‘dance or die’ thru the beginning of ‘cold war’
        -about halfway through ‘mushrooms & roses’ (shit goes on for way too long)
        -intermittently from the end of ‘neon valley street’ thru the end of the album

        i really do recognize her ambition on this record, and especially her ability to adapt her voice to each genre she performs in, but i really tried to make this list off of my pure enjoyment and not as some sort of validation of ambition or ‘importance’, and when it comes down to it i would much rather take, say, the cee lo album to a desert island with me than this one. its a great big crazy project and i will most definitely follow her in the future because i think it’ll be fascinating to see where she goes next but there was just too much of the archandroid that didn’t cut it for me.

  3. I would agree that it tends to trail off after Neon Valley Street but that first section is one of the best on the album! Faster and Locked Inside are both wonderful, futuristic updates on classic soul, and Sir Greendown is a nice, short interlude leading up to the awesome Cold War. Oh well, can’t get em all, and this is a really comprehensive list besides that gripe

  4. […] the single from the upcoming debut LP by Korallreven (which features one of the members of The Radio Dept.). It has some guest vocals from Victoria Bergsman, best known for her appearance on Peter, Bjorn […]

  5. […] Fire, Titus Andronicus, LCD Soundsystem, The National, and Robyn — a.k.a. the creators of my 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th favorite records of 2010. So when I realized Girls would be playing a show in Boston the weekend I happened to be visiting […]

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