Saturday, December 18, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

In the years I've been writing lists of my favorite albums, I can't remember a year as musically satisfying as this past one has been. Most notably, hip hop was resurgent in 2010, with fantastic albums from stalwarts like Kanye and Big Boi and a couple great new artists as well. Lots of returning acts, combined with a few electrifying debuts, have produced a bountiful year for music -- I had no trouble coming up with a list of albums I wanted to share.

Fortunately, the website Grooveshark has actually made it easy for me to share those albums with my readers -- you'll find that I've embedded the entirety of every album listed on this page. I'm not exactly sure how Grooveshark works -- I get the impression it's in some kind of legal limbo -- but I recommend signing up. It's the best free online music service I've discovered so far. Now on to my favorite albums of the year:

25) Kid Cudi - Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager
If the path to hip hop success lies in trumpeting excess and never betraying weakness, Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) sure is taking a strange route to becoming a rap star. His sophomore album is all about the dangers of fame, with fascinating examinations of addiction and self-doubt. Kid Cudi sounds like a man struggling with personal demons, but it's to our benefit that he chooses to excise them in musical form.
Best tracks: "These Worries", "Erase Me"

24) Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
Josh Ritter's last album was one of my favorite albums of 2007, with his particular brand of rocking folk music a refreshing reminder that folk needn't be mired in earnestness or self-seriousness. His follow-up to that album isn't quite as consistent or as enlightening as his earlier work, but it does further confirm that Ritter is one of the best folk musicians working today.
Best tracks: "Change of Time", "Folk Bloodbath"

23) Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
Sufjan Stevens appears to have abandoned his 50 state project -- at one point he had promised to follow-up his excellent Michigan and Illinois albums with new ones for each state in the union. His third disc shows him experimenting with more technology -- electronic beats abound and on one song he even uses auto-tune -- but the beautiful melodies and lush orchestration he's known for are still omnipresent.
Best tracks: "I Walked", "Vesuvius"

22) Cee-Lo Green - The Lady Killer
From his days with the Goodie Mob to his work as the lead singer in Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo has always been associated with music that is insanely catchy and compelling. This year he struck gold with his fantastic single, "Fuck You", which has been dominating the radio waves since it was released at the end of the summer. Hopefully that song attracts people to the rest of the album, which is chock full of retro, Motown-like tunes. The overall affect can sometimes feel too much like impersonation than inspiration, but there's no denying Cee-Lo's talent as a singer and musician.
Best tracks: "Fuck You", "Wildflower"

21) Rihanna - Loud
After last year's personal and introspective Rated R, Rihanna returned to her more fun-loving ways with Loud, demonstrating once again that few hip hop performers can make a hook more seductive than she can. It's a solid outing from a reliable party hitmaker.
Best tracks: "Love the Way You Lie", "What's My Name"

20) She & Him - Volume Two; Jenny & Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now
It's probably unfair to count these two acts as one, but the similarities are too strong not to mention. Both feature charismatic leading ladies with sweet signing voices (Zooey Deschanel in S&H, Jenny Lewis in J&J) who are provided with strong musical support from their male bandmates. And they both produced albums filled with very pleasant, often gorgeous melodies. Both acts can be too twee, but most of the time they stay on the right side of the line between adorable and precious.
Best tracks: S&H - "Don't Look Back", "In the Sun"; J&J - "Switchblade", "Scissor Runner"

19) Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can
20 year old Laura Marling has a knack for writing well beyond her years -- this excellent sophomore album sounds like the work of a mature artist, not a recent teenager. Her music feels intensely intimate, with Marling often whispering her beautiful, literary lyrics over spare, delicate melodies.
Best tracks: "Goodbye England", "Hope In The Air"

18) Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
No one can deny the technical virtuosity of Bradford Cox and his bandmates in Deerhunter -- they're broad genre experiments result in lush soundscapes and very unique sounds. The technical brilliance can sometimes leave me cold -- I find myself more impressed with Deerhunter than enamored with them -- but everything Cox does is worth listening to, particularly when it results in such an eclectic product as Halcyon Digest.
Best tracks: "Helicopter", "Coronado"

17) Yeasayer - Odd Blood
Brooklyn-based Yeasayer has been embraced by the hipster-set, which is kind of funny given their latest album strikes me as decidedly un-hip, teeming as it is with woolly synth-pop that could be straight from the 80s. Hip or not, Odd Blood remains a great deal of fun, packed with rollicking, dense melodies.
Best tracks: "Ambling Alp", "O.N.E."

16) The Black Keys - Brothers
One of the best rock records of the year, The Black Keys' sixth album is further proof that the duo from Akron knows how to take raw blues rock sounds and turn them into something vibrant and relevant. Their songwriting has continued to get stronger, with Brothers showcasing both their expanded range and sophisticated production values.
Best tracks: "Everlasting Light", "Tighten Up"

15) Eli "Paperboy" Reed - Come and Get It
The New York Times recently featured a lengthy article on the new wave of neo-soul music, highlighting in particular how the rise of the genre has been spearheaded by a few nerdy white dudes. The best of that bunch is Boston's Eli "Paperboy" Reed, an artist who is clearly well-versed in soul's origins but able to add his own distinctive flavor to the sound. His debut album is a welcome throwback to an earlier soul era of wall-of-sound hooks and impassioned vocals.
Best tracks: "Come and Get It", "Explosion"

14) The New Pornographers - Together
The New Pornographers have been making beautiful power pop music for a decade now, so it's pretty amazing that they can still produce an album as consistent and effervescent as Together even after many of its members have achieved some acclaim outside the group. But when group leaders AC Newman, Dan Bejar, and Neko Case come together, they always find a way to meld their very idiosyncratic talents into something truly exceptional and Together is a perfect example of that.
Best tracks: "A Bite Out of My Bed", "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk"

13) Frightened Rabbit - Winter of Mixed Drinks
Scottish band Frightened Rabbit followed up their impressive sophomore album with this equally strong third outing, keeping the basic recipe of powerful melodies and impassioned vocals in tact. This time out the songs are a bit more polished and less raw, but the overall effect remains mesmerizing.
Best Tracks: "Nothing Like You", "Swim Until You Can't See Land"

12) Wolf Parade - Expo 86
To my mind, Montreal's Wolf Parade remain the most underrated act in indie rock. That is probably partly due to the lack of enthusiasm its two frontmen have in the project (evidenced by the fact they recently announced they would be taking a break). It's too bad, since Expo 86 once again demonstrates that coupling the propulsive rock of Dan Boeckner with the wild experimentation of Spencer Krug produces an exhilarating musical experience.
Best Tracks: "Ghost Pressure", "What Did My Lover Say"

11) Beach House - Teenage Dream
I liked but didn't love Beach House's debut album, which featured the kind of pleasant shoe-gaze music it was tough to get passionate about. But with their sophomore album, the Baltimore-based band has upped their game, taking their ambient, hazy sounds in new, more compelling directions. Its background music that soon finds a way to the front of the mind.
Best tracks: "Zebra", "Norway"

10) LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
James Murphy has suggested that This is Happening will be LCD Soundsystem's last album, which is a pity since the three albums they've put out have all been outstanding. On the latest, Murphy continues to add dazzling beats and off-kilter hooks to his introspective, melancholic lyrics. I hope Murphy is bluffing, because LCD Soundystem is too good to be gone for too long.
Best tracks: "All I Want", "I Can Change"

9) Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
Few artists choose to enter the stage with a 70-minute, 18 track debut album, but Janelle Monae is nothing if not ambitious. Covering a broad range of genres while all the while maintaining her own distinctive voice, Monae's audacious songwriting and performing on The ArchAndroid suggest an artist who will be making waves for years to come.
Best tracks: "Tightrope", "Cold War"

8) Jonsi - Go
Jonsi Birgisson, the frontman of Iceland's renowned Sigur Ros, has a talent for creating densely-packed, vast soundscapes that are overflowing with vibrant arrangements and novel instrumentation. His debut solo album is some of his most accessible, beautiful work to date, the kind of music that immediately grabs your attention and then never lets go.
Best tracks: "Go Do", "Animal Arithmetic"

7) Vampire Weekend - Contra
One of the first albums that came out in 2010 turned out to be one of the best, as Vampire Weekend produced a sophomore effort filled with cheery, clever, and infectious pop music. It's telling that following their smashing debut album, the band didn't get distracted with addressing the haters -- Contra is the work of a band confident in their abilities and eager to demonstrate they're one of the most reliable pop acts on the scene today.
Best tracks: "White Sky", "Giving Up the Gun"

6) Robyn - Body Talk
Swedish pop star Robyn decided to spend 2010 releasing a handful of delightful EPs, each one showcasing her unique ability to create vital dance-pop songs that often sound too sophisticated for the genre. Robyn, like most Swedish pop stars, knows her way with a melody, but distinguishes her music with heartfelt vocals and insightful lyrics.
Best tracks: "Dancing On My Own", "Call Your Girlfriend"

5) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Arcade Fire, in addition to producing another excellent, anthemic rock record, put on the best live show I saw this year. It helps that their catalog is filled with the kind of rousing, majestic rock music that no able-bodied person can avoid moving to, but it's notable that for all the energy the band can generate, the themes of their music tend to veer toward the dark and melancholic. On The Suburbs, the band examines life in the exurban sprawl and manages to generate excitement from the alienation and longing they find there.
Best tracks: "We Used to Wait", "Modern Man"

4) Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son of Chico Dusty
It has been 4 years since the last Outkast album came out and that album, the underwhelming Idlewild, didn't leave much to savor. Fortunately, one half of the Outkast duo, Big Boi, returned in a big way in 2010, producing a raucous, magnetic solo album chock-a-block with radio-ready jams. Big Boi was never as wildly inventive as his former partner Andre 3000, but his underrated, straightforward hip hop was always more consistent and often more enjoyable. Left to his own devices, he takes his solo effort in a multitude of directions, producing the most fun hip hop album of the year.
Best tracks: "Shine Blockas", "Shutterbug"

3) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Sometimes, the only people who can create truly great art have to be insufferable, ego maniacal assholes. How else to explain the brilliance of Kanye West, a man clearly troubled with intense self-doubt, unabashed earnestness, and unqualified aspirations for grandeur? But all those mixed up emotions find their most productive release in the recording studio, where West has now produced five fascinating, exceptional albums. His latest is his best yet, a masterwork of music that teeters between raunchy and sophisticated, ridiculous and insightful. There are many labels that Kanye deserves, but the most important one continues to be music genius.
Best tracks: "Runaway", "Monster"

2) Sleigh Bells - Treats
The best debut of the year, Sleigh Bells makes a lot of noise for a band composed of only two people. But Derek Miller's sonic inventions and Alexis Krauss' sweet vocals pack a wallop every time you hear one of their songs -- it's like a musical bomb exploding, and the aftershock remains long after impact. Talk about making one hell of an entrance -- Sleigh Bells made music unlike anything else I heard this year.
Best tracks: "Tell 'Em", "Rill Rill"

1) The National - High Violet
I'll readily admit that Kanye's music was more adventurous, that Sleigh Bells' was more original, and Arcade Fire's was more epic than the morose, contemplative rock music produced by The National this year. But in going back to the well this time, the Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati band found a sound that was a little more haunting and a little more dramatic than in their superb previous albums. Propelled by lead singer Matt Beringer's smoky baritone, the songs on High Violet are essentially about maturing, tackling the new-found responsibilities and challenges that come with middle age. The band sounds worried, but they shouldn't be -- the evidence suggests they only get better with age.
Best tracks: "Bloodbuzz Ohio", "England"

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