Friday, December 24, 2010

2010: My Favorite Albums of the Year

As usual, I've summoned my desire to write non-technical material in order to present you with my favorite 15 albums of the year. To be fair, my desire to write technical material stems largely from my desire to eat and pay the mortgage. If I could accomplish this by conjuring up word blocks about fun things, I'd be all over that. So here they are, the 15 best records (according to me, the best person there is) of the past 12 months. Oh, and since it's merely Christmas Eve, I reserve the right to fuck with you and make changes for the next week. That's right.

I know I said I was starting the list, but I have to interrupt myself once more. Very quickly I just wanted to say that picking a favorite out of this lot was extremely difficult. The top handful were all really neck-and-neck for me. All of these albums are ones I care a lot about for one reason or another, though picking a winner was not as easy as last year.

For realz:

15. Wild Nothing: Gemeni

This record's sort of sad, sort of blurry. The first time I listened to it, it was a dreary afternoon. I left it feeling pretty dreary, but that doesn't change the fact that I enjoyed listening to it. It touches on quite a few things I like about indie rock, but it does so in throwback fashion. Gemeni would almost feel more at home two decades ago, but the emotional impact its capable of lowering remains important today. Like other albums on this list, the tone and aesthetic of the album is a big part of what makes it work so well.

14. Girls: Broken Dreams Club EP

Girls rifled their way onto my list with their full-length debut a year ago, and I'll be damned if they didn't make something worthy of getting them back here. Broken Dreams Club is mostly the same sort of stuff that the band tried the first time around. You'll hear gently strummed guitars, heartbroken lyrics, and all sorts of purdy instrumentation. You'll get that summer kind of feeling. You'll feel a little embarrassed for the singer. But Girls are working their way into a successful career of carving a nice little niche for themselves and opening it up wider to suit their own purposes. Just contrast the pitch-perfect stop and start of 'Heartbreaker" with the horns of "Thee Oh So Protective One" with the sleepy steel of "Carlolina". None of these moments feel out of place, but they don't really feel the same either.

13. Sleigh Bells: Treats

I had a blurb of shit written here, but then I tried to pull the ol' "CTRL + C" to move it to its appropriate spot and fucked the whole thing up. No, I don't know how. Yes, it's six in the morning. Whatever. I'll deal with it later and rewrite it.

12. Beach House: Teen Dream

Perhaps the thing about Teen Dream that impressed me most is how often in ventured in directions I honestly didn't expect. From the start of "Zebra," I felt like I knew the drill. But things got turned a bit upside down and the whole thing wound up feeling bittersweet. "Silver Soul" ventures into Band of Horses territory (the good way!), while "Norway" is just made but the shimmering vocals and bending, fading chords that populate its sound scape. "Walk In The Park" is just great; it gets stuck in my head all the time, and ironically the line that wedges itself in there is 'you would slip from my mind/in a matter of time'. All of "Teen Dream" really does have a dreamy quality about it, and as a result the album has lasting power. But back to the theme of expectations for a moment. I really thought I had Beach House pegged as an act I could like but not really like. I think I was wrong, and I think they got better.

11. Massive Attack: Heligoland

This band was among the best in history at the game they play. They specialize in effortlessly shifting moods, dropping earth-shattering bass lines in the middle of what once seemed morose, using tones and textures to get their point across. They make electronic music that actually comes through at more than an academic level. But then they lost a step, and then they fell out of the public eye. To me, Heligoland is something of a return to form. The opener is a moody meditation that features some perfect vocals from TV On the Radio's frontman, while 'Splitting the Atom" drives forward thanks to a nice leading organ part. "Paradise Circus" is slow but elegant, and "Rush Minute" builds itself up with one purpose in mind. And then there's that ephemeral feeling I get from "Saturday Comes Slow" and that bass and organ combo that dominates "Atlas Air". Panned by most, this is one I continue to enjoy after a whole lot of listens.

10. Deftones: Diamond Eyes

I mentioned this in my full review of The National's High Violet, but there are some really strange parallels between that record and this one. Both Deftones and The National can be considered veterans of their respective genres. Both bands have a long track record of doing mostly the same thing but executing it well. And, well, both Diamond Eyes and High Violet sound a little too familiar after only a few listens. The thing is, both records also get more and more addicting as more time is given to them. The pure energy on Diamond Eyes isn't something I've really consistently felt with this band for a couple of releases. Hearing the viscera Deftones have to offer on this one is downright refreshing. This album is a breeze to listen to, a collection of songs that could fit almost anywhere in the band's catalog but still manages to be something more. This isn't White Pony or anything, but that would be asking a lot. Just because Diamond Eyes sounds familiar doesn't mean it isn't one of the better releases of the year, one of the records to which I consistently return. Riffs are riffs, fellas.

09. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I never do this. I literally never include a mainstream hip hop album on any sort of list I make. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) I typically don't enjoy the genre enough to give an album confined within it more than a couple of listens, and 2) I don't honestly listen to hip hop much at all. Whatever, call me narrow-minded, punch me in the tits. I don't care; I don't have the time. I have, however, always had a soft spot for Kanye, and (as you will notice) I really don't care, at all, about an artist's personality. That's why when I first heard this record, I was pretty sure it would crack my list. The opener is a perfect mixture of beauty and brawn, and "Power" is like the best thing on the radio ever. "All of the Lights" is probably my favorite track; those horns just kill me. "Monster" is just badass, a song that constantly feels like its on fire, charging through me. "So Appalled" saves itself with what I swear is SNES-era Donkey Kong instrumentation. "Runaway" gives me the rare treat of hearing a rapper legitimately tell his audience that he's a piece of shit, a guy who doesn't deserve the women that populate his lyrics. Perhaps it's because My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sheds a lot of traits about its genre that I typically don't like that I actually love it. Perhaps it's just because it's a really good record.

08. Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz

This isn't Illinois and it never made me cry or anything. Still, though, it's quite a beast. I didn't think so at first; it took repeated listens during late-night work sessions to get me to see the light. There are plenty of Sufjan staples here, be they the fluttering brass or the seemingly impossible song lengths. Push all of that aside though and you get the lovechild of Sufjan's orchestral pomp and electronic circumstance. "Too Much" is the weirdest kind of single, a fairly lengthy track with a few dynamic shifts that are appreciated the more you listen. "Vesuvius" gets all sorts of beautiful as the singer and composer addresses himself, something you just hardly expect in his work. For me, though, the crown jewel is "I Want To Be Well," a song that uses a chunky bass and the kitchen sink to get things started and then climaxes in what seems to be, um, rock 'n' roll. For God's sake, I swear I hear crazy drums, minor chords, and this guy literally singing the word 'fuck'. And those backing vocals are haunting. The Age of Adz isn't Soofy's magnum opus, but that happened five years ago, so let's just be happy with another album of jaw dropping grandiosity, limitless ambition, and boundless prowess.

07. The National: High Violet

After what has to be, um, a lot of listens, I'm almost ready to call this one the band's most accomplished effort to date. To me this is an album that manages to match its relatively dark lyrical content with relatively dark music, an album that certainly has a distinct tone. Strangely enough, it doesn't depress me when I listen to it. Sure, if I'm feeling down I'll throw it on, but the strange thing is that High Violet is just as effective for relaxation, for kicking back and just being. It's like the National know they're a bit formulaic, but rather than sweat it they shrug and try to refine themselves until they're a perfect diamond. Some songs ("Sorrow" and "Anyone's Ghost") stay pretty low key, while others ("Bloodbuzz, Ohio," "Afraid of Everyone," "England") decide to build into something of a confined frenzy you don't even notice until you realize you were tapping your foot as the silence hit you. This is an accomplished album by an accomplished band, and (I say this every time) it may represent a pinnacle they cannot again reach.

06. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest

Right up until I heard Halcyon Digest, I was mostly convinced I liked the singer's side project (Atlas Sound) better. But then "Earthquake" kicked in, its atmospherics almost suggesting Pink Floyd or even straightforward Ween. "Don't Cry" sounds like some sort of pop song that wants to be happy but just isn't. "Desire Lines" starts out all Arcade Fire and then becomes its own shimmering thing. But if I had any doubts that this was a hell of an album, it was the perfect "Coronado" that quelled them at once. The saxophone line, the jaunty chords, the completely transcendent feel. And that's the key here. Halcyon Digest has such a distinct feel. The vocals are clear but distant, and the guitars sound a little dusty. The whole thing sounds a little dusty, like a dream you had but don't remember all of. Two thumbs up.

05. Kylesa: Spiral Shadow

I can really get behind all these metal bands that throw blistering riffs in a blender with eastern influences, organ play, and whatever else they found lying around. I love me some Baroness, I love me some Torche, and as it turns out, I love me some Kylesa. After all, metal doesn't have to stick to just being metal. The fuzzy bass and churning organs on "Cheating Synergy" make me smile with giddiness until the riffs kick in and I feel forced to grimace and start chewing on my desk rabidly. "Don't Look Back" should totally be what I hear if I turn on a modern rock station, and "Back and Forth" is just, um, appropriately weird. I mean, really, is this even a metal record? What is this thing? Whatever it is, it appeals to all of my senses, demands all sorts of repeat listens, and makes me glad I invest so much time in trying to stay on top of music today.

04. Superchunk: Majesty Shredding

They may have been all up in the music scene for the better part of two decades, and they may not have altered their ideas about music a whole lot over that span, but that doesn't mean Majesty Shredding isn't still a great listen and one of the year's finest. Take the opener, "Digging for Something," as fine an exercise in sharp power pop as you're likely to find these days. It's got hooks, candy sweet vocal melodies, and an unabashed willingness to rock it out fun-style. I miss this kind of thing. Thankfully, Superchunk has made a career of doing this (well, and owning Merge), and they don't bother to relent for the full running time of their latest. "My Gap Feels Weird" has this great bridge to the chorus that just feels a little off, and that's why it's perfect. 'Rosmarie" swaggers with its particularly, well, majestic two chord and kick drum stomp. "Crossed Wires" is a terrific pop songs, and "Fractures in Plaster" uses string accompaniment the right way, something I rarely find myself saying. It's hard to believe this is a record made by a slew of middle-aged protagonists. Here's to hoping it isn't another decade until another one.

03. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening

I'm still constantly surprised by the detractors of this record. I'm not surprised that they don't like it; I'm surprised at the reasons given. The anti-Murphy crowd are always well-versed in the things he's said, in the lyrical content they claim to be empty and vapid. I, like the other proponents of this record, see it as a masterfully produced collection of great pop songs, a record about wanting to be liked, wanting to do the right things to appease everyone while still holding true to yourself. It's perhaps the finest thing LCD's produced to date, the album that finally delivers on that age-old promise to blend rock music with electro-leanings until you can't tell your Daft Punk from your classic David Bowie. So let me just say this: I could give a fuck about how pleasant James Murphy is to interview. I simply don't care how pretentious he is, how much he tries to appeal to the kids or whatever. If I like his music, if I find it enjoyable on multiple levels, then why should I care? Besides, I'll never interview the guy anyway.

02. The New Pornographers: Together

If the good-but-not-great Challengers sort of bummed you out, I have the perfect cure: Together. This is exactly what I wanted, an album of unbridled pop that splits the difference between the caffeine-infused Mass Romantic and the big packet of mild sauce that drenched Challengers. It's hand claps ("Crash Years"), barb wire hooks ("Your Hands (Together)"), pure triumph ("A Bite Out of My Bed"), and reassurance ("Valkyrie in the Roller Disco"). It's going to put you in a good mood, and it doesn't give a shit if you're in the mood to stand with your arms folded. The songwriting here is just so strong, so confident, and it proves that whatever misfires Challengers had were by design. The most joyous band working today didn't drop that aesthetic, they just tried something new. There's no shame in that, but I'm still a big fan of this sort of return to full-blown exertion.

01. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

I've written this one up royally, but there's still plenty more to say. I can't stress enough how well The Suburbs encapsulates fleeting youth, the sudden emergence of capital-S Serious responsibilities, the desire to be something. Win Butler's always written better when his subject matter stayed close to home, and he proves that in how much more solid this record is than his still-good sophomore effort. The opening track sets the tone, but it doesn't touch on all the ground the band want to cover. "Ready to Start" is a bomb waiting to go off. "Rococo" improves steadily with each listen, its climax delivering the explosion it claims it will. "City With No Children" details a sinking depression, while "Month of May" reclaims a desire to make a change. The pair of "Half Light" tracks steal from '80s indie in drastically different ways. And "Sprawl II," that's beauty personified. If there's a complaint to be had, it's the fluff. Cut 10-15 minutes and I honestly feel the cohesiveness here makes this a near-perfect release. Nonetheless, this is the rare record that looks its hype squarely in the eyes and conquers it.

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