Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten Albums of 2010

Well it's that time of year again. 2010 has been a busy one and while I tried to listen to what I could, I don't think what I've heard has quite lived up to last year. With that caveat in mind, here are my favorite albums from the year that was.

10. Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Their first album, The Midnight Organ Fight, was one of my favorites from 2008. The Scottish accent, the ambiguously explicit lyrics, and the slow-build of songs like "Keep Yourself Warm" just worked for me. Even so, I half expected their follow-up album to disappoint, given how difficult it is for a band to improve on a first effort. But The Winter of Mixed Drinks was just as likable. One of their last songs of their Lollapalooza set was "Living In Colour" and it was one of my favorite songs of the whole day. Favorite songs: "The Wrestle," "Swim Until You Can't See Land," and "Living In Colour"

9. The Morning Benders - Big Echo

I listened to this album a lot back in the March/April months and until I sat down to write this list, had sorta forgotten about it. I suppose that's why it's only at the #9 spot, but in going back I remember why I liked it so much. Co-produced by the bassist from Grizzly Bear, you can definitely hear some of the better elements of the band's sound throughout, especially on the opener "Excuses." It drags a little bit toward the end, but the front half is great. Favorite songs: "Excuses" and "Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)"

8. S. Carey - All We Grow

Sean Carey, the drummer/backup vocalist for Bon Iver, put together a good solo album in August. Yeah, it might've benefited from Justin Vernon's presence, and even without it, All We Grow is still a little derivative of For Emma, Forever Ago. But in spite of its predictably mellow and wandering pace, there are some songs here where Carey manages to get a lot of mileage out of very little in the way of instrumentation. Favorite songs: "We Fell" and "In the Stream"

7. Sleigh Bells – Treats

Sleigh Bells' "Kids" is in some horrible MTV promo where a girl ends up face down in a pile of trash at the end of the night. I get the feeling this show will inevitably be the station's next pseudo-reality-TV hit. But in spite of the trashy trendiness and hipster self-affirmation that this one inspired (not for me, I mean for the hipsters), I loved it. There's something catchy about the wild gravitas of the guitar and the pop refrains from lead singer Alexis Krauss, especially on the opener, "Tell Em." Then there's "Rill Rill" -- a bit of an anomaly on the album, with repetitive acoustic strumming and these arresting, jangly bells -- which might be might favorite song of the year. It even incidentally helped me around the halfway point of the marathon and for that, Treats earns a slot on the list. Favorite songs: "Tell Em," "Crown on the Ground," and obviously "Rill Rill"

6. The Black Keys – Brothers

I didn't get around to Brothers until October, but when I did, I couldn't put it down. I admittedly haven't kept up with the Black Keys since their release of Rubber Factory in 2004. But Brothers is enough to make me go back to see what I've been missing. I'm actually a little bummed I'll be missing their sold-out NYE show here in a few weeks. Favorite songs: "Howlin' For You," "Sinister Kid," and opener "Everlasting Light"

5. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network Soundtrack

Frenetic and foreboding, the music backing the Social Network matched the pacing and mood of the film perfectly. Even if you haven't seen the movie, the soundtrack stands out in its own right. That said, the brooding techno vibe of this one might not be for everyone. And while I haven't been a fan of anything from Nine Inch Nails' frontman since my ill-fated awkward phase that lasted most of the 90s, I really enjoy it. Favorite songs: "In Motion," "Intriguing Possibilities," "Pieces Form The Whole"

4. The National – High Violet

When High Violet first came out in May, I was somewhat disappointed that nothing really stood out to me. But it was just the slow burn nature of the album, rather than an indication of a sub-par effort. Most of these songs require repeated listening before the lyrics really sync in. A NY Times Magazine profile about the band captured it well: "The National sound has a layered, seductive quality that is filled with intimate male feeling and uneasy cinematic portent: a storm coming up outside the window; leaves blowing in the road... All the intersecting sounds mesh with Matt’s voice in a way that seems to deepen his texture, and with repeated listening the songs achieve emotional intensity." Favorite songs: "Afraid of Everything," "England," and "Sorrow"

3. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I knew this album was going to be a favorite when I first watched his 35 minute film to promote the album. Other than that, there's not a lot to write about Kanye or this album that hasn't already been written. Rolling Stone gave it 5 stars and named it their #1 album of 2010; Pitchfork gave it a 10.0, which I don't think I've ever seen them give before. People are obsessed with his Taylor Swift diss and whether his recent antics fueled this creative output. I think all the bloviating is pretty tiresome at this point and I'm perfectly content to ignore all of the drama (except for his ridiculously entertaining Twitter account) when he's producing music like this. Favorite songs: "Dark Fantasy," "Power," "Lost In The World"

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The Suburbs is a 16-song-critique on the album's namesake that invites choose-your-own-adventure interpretation. Win Butler said the album, "is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs - it's a letter from the suburbs," and I should be content enough to take them at their word. But there's something depressing and kinda true about the band's musing in "Sprawl II": "Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small/that we can never get away from it all/living in the sprawl/dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/and there's no end in sight/I need the darkness someone please cut the lights."

I would also say that Arcade Fire's second album, Neon Bible, lacked the cohesiveness, consistency, and introspection that Funeral invited, so it's no surprise to me that I don't really listen to it much anymore. But The Suburbs mirrors Funeral in a lot of ways, and I'm optimistic it'll have a shelf life just as long. Favorite songs: "City With No Children," "Half Light II," and "Sprawl II"

1. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

And so it is that we've arrived at my favorite album of the year: The Tallest Man on Earth's The Wild Hunt. And you may say, "Really? A non-native-English-speaker, solo artist who sounds like a Bob Dylan protege with nothing more than a guitar and the occasional piano made your favorite album of 2010?" And I will respond merely that you should listen to his cover of Paul Simon's "Graceland" (a b-side supplement to one of the album's singles, but recorded around the same time) to level that incredulity. He brings out the heartache of this song that Simon intended but didn't quite deliver (and don't get me wrong, I love Simon's original). He's only 27, but Kristian Matsson sounds like he's lived a half dozen lifetimes on this album. The Wild Hunt didn't get much critical praise lavished on it, I think, in part because of how basic its structure and because it just doesn't sound like all the other heavily-produced stuff out there. That said, I think he put together a near-perfect, albeit underappreciated, album. Favorite songs: "King of Spain," "A Lion's Heart," and "Kids on the Run"