Thursday, July 28, 2011

Video: "True Loves" by Hooray For Earth

"True Loves" has been floating around the blogosphere for a while now (it even snuck on to my favorite songs of 2010 list), but with Hooray For Earth's debut album just out, similarly titled True Loves, I felt it was appropriate to revisit this great track. And the visually impressive video makes for a dramatic companion to the electronic epic.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Album Review: Umphrey's McGee - Anchor Drops

Umphrey's McGee: Anchor Drops
[SCI Fidelity 2004]


For a jam band like Umphrey’s McGee, it is understandable that their comfort zone lies on stage where their extended jam sessions and creative genre-fusion experimentation yields an enthusiastic crowd response. In the studio, however, the goals are somewhat different: like always you want to entertain and otherwise move the audience, but the lack of live, in-person energy must be considered. Speaking for myself, at least, extended jam sessions (I’m thinking several tracks off of the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East) can grow tiresome even on a live album, let alone an album recorded in the closed, comparatively stale environment of a studio. While Umphrey’s McGee’s 2004 album Anchor Drops is not without the epic jam journeys that are in their nature, it is a very tight, well-produced album that carries over energy from the stage to the living room.

Hailing from the Chicago area, the band members embrace the city’s strong jazz influences and urban culture while fusing numerous other genres like rock, heavy metal, funk, and even some country. This fusion lends to some incredibly complex and carefully constructed song compositions with styles, melodies, and instrumentation changing abruptly in many songs. The large band behind this blend consists of Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger on guitar and vocals, Joel Cummins on keyboard and vocals, Ryan Stasik on bass, Kris Myers on drums and vocals, and Andy Farag on percussion. Over the course of the album, just about every member has time in the spotlight, from the organ-like keyboarding in “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” to the furious drum intro to “Mulche’s Odyssey.” More constant and predominant, however, are Stasik’s funky and outstanding basslines and Bayliss and Cinninger’s heavy guitar riffs and warm, clear vocals.

The album’s opener “Plunger” well characterizes the album as a whole with a prominent scratchy guitar riff leading into a number of pace and style changes from a psychedelically synthesized guitar portion to acoustic fingerpicking, calming piano melody, and then back to a gritty electric guitar riff. It’s one thing to incorporate these elements within a single song, but it is quite another to do it well and seamlessly, which Umphrey’s McGee accomplishes more often than not. “Anchor Drops” and “In the Kitchen” are two of the catchiest songs here, with the first offering a groovy bassline and climactic guitar work, the latter bringing alternately foreboding and uplifting melodies and excellent lyrics, and both radiating pure coolness.

The pace and style of the album then abruptly changes with the slow, laidback country tune “Bullhead City” on which Bayliss’ wife Elliott Peck provides a wonderful harmonizing vocal. The song is very calming and beautiful, but it (along with the acoustic instrumental closer “The Pequod”) feels out of place on the album. While the structure of numerous songs leaves the door open for even greater experimental jamming, song lengths are kept to a minimum (maxing out at 7:43) and the album is better for it. “Miss Tinkle’s Overture,” an epic instrumental jam session driven by keyboard and a soaring guitar, lets the band flex their instrumental muscle, as do the bluesy-rock of “Jajunk Pt. I” and “Jajunk Pt. II” and the psychedelic machine-filterings of “Robot World.” As impressive as these demonstrations are, however, many songs do tend to step on each other’s toes and contribute to a sense of repetition.

The last standard song on the album, “Wife Soup,” is also arguably the best. Beginning with another groovy bassline, the song descends and then rises into an upbeat guitar and brass section (courtesy Karl Denson on saxophone and Andy Geib on trombone) before making a number of piano-driven melodic detours. For all its intricacies, the song converges twice with a soaring, catchy, and instantly sing-along chorus that makes the song standout on the tracklist.

As mentioned earlier, Umphrey’s McGee wears their pride for Chicago on their sleeves. If their Chicago pride weren’t obvious enough from their album cover, the album is dotted with urban sound effects and references from the “doors closing” announcement of an L train (“Anchor Drops”) to street scenes (“Jajunk Pt. II,” “Robot World”) and lyrics depicting urban living (“In the Kitchen,” “Walletsworth”). The city’s love of jazz and blues music is embraced throughout the band’s work in addition to a number of other genre influences. In addition to the jam band formatting their music expertly into a studio album format, their consistent musical energy and masterful jamming abilities should make Chicagoans and jam bands alike proud.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Video: "Celestica" by Crystal Castles

I went to my first legit music fest last weekend! Actually, perhaps not as legit as your Coachellas, your Bonnaroos, your Lollapaloozas, but still an awesome time. The 2nd annual Sweetlife Festival was a one day affair at Maryland's own Merriweather Post Pavilion and while most everyone was there for Girl Talk and the Strokes (both of whom were amazing), one of the more memorable performances earlier in the day was Crystal Castles. I hadn't gotten around to listening to them before, but this concert changed that. How would I describe it? Alice Glass hopping around stage on crutches (due to broken ankle), falling to the floor and writhing frequently, screaming chants piercing and incoherent. All backed by a seizure-inducing light display and a comparably dizzying rapid fire of electronic beats and hisses from Ethan Kath. It was bewildering, challenging, and strangely captivating. As I see if their two studio albums capture the dramatic freakout of their live show, here is the video for one of their more popular, quieter songs "Celestial".

Friday, April 8, 2011

Album Review: Real Estate - Real Estate

Real Estate: Real Estate
[Woodsist 2009]


Does New Jersey truly suck? Admittedly, I've only been on the excellent, highly abridged tour: the picturesque beaches of Cape May, the nice parts of Camden County that are far cries from actual Camden, the affluent suburbia of North Jersey, and not-unpleasant excursions through said region's more dilapidated, less Kodak-worthy cities on the way to New York. The state has its haters for its undoubtedly shitty aspects, but you will nevertheless find plenty of natives with boisterous, non-ironic pride for the Garden State.

Lo-fi surf rockers Real Estate are patriotic Jersey boys, but absolutely not in the Bruce Springsteen way. Their self-titled debut is a seamless blend of mellow psychedelic folk, surf pop, and alternative country that whispers odes to the home state and the imagery of chilled out fun in the sun. "Carry me back to sweet Jersey, back to where I long to be" sings Martin Courtney, whose everyman vocals are usually buried in the mix, but the emotional resonations of his words make up for the physical distance of his voice. The overall effect is not too dissimilar from James Mercer's layered croon on Oh, Inverted World. The suburban imagery is more evoked sonically through patient, looped rhythms and warm lo-fi glow.

Resting on Courtney's reserved singing are airy guitar riffs that hit decidedly country tones (Read: the second half melody of opener "Beach Comber" will hook you on these guys). But as informed by CCR (at their slowest) and outdoorsy folk as Real Estate may be, it is still a sound that lives on the Jersey Shore. The jangly guitar chords and psychedelic underpinnings flesh out the band's mellow, summertime aesthetic. "Atlantic City" is an instrumental, slow motion hang ten that's far prettier than its namesake, and "Let's Rock the Beach" doesn't so much rock it as it puts on a blissed out liquid light show for the beachcombers. Only closer "Snow Day" breaks seasonal rank, serving sing-along folk and softly soaring vocals not far removed from Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes.

As much as the tunes stick, you may realize, once broken from trance, how effortless and unassuming Real Estate really sounds. The post-college members of the band seem to speak to a time when summer actually meant trips to the beach and relaxation before another school year, not actual jobs and actual stress. It's not all sunglasses and above-ground pools, but damn if it isn’t a beautiful life created in Real Estate. Courtesy of sweet Jersey.

"Beach Comber":

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Video: "Wolves, Lower" by R.E.M.

As much as I want to say Collapse Into Now is a rebirth, or at least a crawling-out-of-the-grave, for R.E.M., sorry, but it's really not that good. In fact, I prefer Accelerate, which itself is barely above average. But I'm on a strong R.E.M. kick lately, delving into their latest proper live album, 2009's Live at the Olympia, which is a lovingly compiled double-album that focuses more on early-career hits and deep-cut favorites. The album inspired me to finally check out the oldest R.E.M., their 1982 debut EP Chronic Town, which has just the kind of jangly guitars and mumbled lyrics that counts as quintessential R.E.M. for me.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Album Review: Christmas Island - Blackout Summer

Christmas Island: Blackout Summer
[In the Red 2009] 


The members of Christmas Island appear to be well into their 20s, but the hallmarks of their debut peg them more in the middle teenage years: messy outbursts, undirected angst, general "why me" confusion over girls and life, and pessimism to boot. Once you've grown through the pubescent years, you probably have less sympathy for the melodrama and self-pity that teens rub in peoples' faces. In music, particularly brands like punk and indie rock that often pedal in teen angst, it takes a lot to make this material compelling and make you care, and the lo-fi garage pop of Blackout Summer misses that mark.

The band's aesthetic does include certain influences that would be lost on the typical teen garage punk band, including Beach Boys-inflected melodies and guitar work that hints at surf rock. The songs of Blackout Summer seem to reach for surf pop hooks and an underlying sense of innocence, but any pop approachability is kept at bay by the bleak lo-fi recording quality that buries the guitar and drums in heavy muck. Whether it's by drums of impending doom ("Pre-Apocalyptic") or horror movie organ ("Egypt"), Christmas Island takes a number of slanted pop tunes and weighs them down with stark production and off-kilter instrumentation.

The effect is less off-putting, though no less unsettling, on the tracks more imitative of straight punk rock, like the cymbal-crashing "I Don't Care" and the start-and-stop of "Anxiety Attack". Besides lo-fi production that purposefully lends Blackout Summer a gristly demeanor, tying the tracks together are the vocals of frontman Brian Island. Delivered with complete articulation and a nasally impersonation of a nerdy teen punk, Island's vocals are simple, blunt, and eventually tiring. While the band's lo-fi aesthetic sounds in part like fellow San Diegan Wavves, Island's vocals are mostly distinguishable above the guitar and drums, creating a less claustrophobic atmosphere than Nathan Williams' relentless fuzz. How much Island's voice, and the band's general sound, is aimed at mimicking (sympathizing with?) garage-playing kids is not clear, but whatever the aim, the album loses traction fast for its lack of maturity.

Island's one-dimensional vocals already denote a simplistic worldview, but the lyrics further stress a grating lack of intelligence. It's easy to point the finger here at "Dinosaurs", which stomps along with lines like "Dinosaurs, I can't believe you ever existed" and "Stegosaurus…Tyrannosaurus REX!" Elsewhere, as on "My Baby", simplicity doesn’t amount to any sort of charm: "My baby, I love you, more than the stars above you. My baby, please hold me, if you don’t I'll die slowly."

For all the aesthetic choices that, at parts of the album, feel like self-sabotage, there are moments where Island's ramshackle moan and instrumentation confused between surf pop and downer punk make for interesting ditties, even if they are just that. The feverish guitar licks of "I Don't Care", the rare (at least musical) uplift of "It's True", and the accessible melody of "Bed Island" are replayable tracks, even if they still subscribe to an aesthetic that gets old fast.

Christmas Island can go ahead and muddy up their pop songs with lo-fi production, gloomy instrumental effects and punk inflections, but ultimately, the band must face up to the question of why anybody should care. And it's hard to invest much into Blackout Summer when it so often hints that it's almost brain-dead.

"Blackout Summer":


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Album Review: Ambulance LTD - LP

Ambulance LTD: LP
[TVT 2004]


"Guitar solos are so back!" raved Rolling Stone magazine in May, 2004. Those solos would be courtesy of Ambulance LTD, an indie rock outfit from Harlem with a sound varying from dreamy pop to loud, dense shoegazing. It was back in 2004 that the band released this confident, mature rocker, officially titled "LP." But neither Rolling Stone's nod nor the praise of numerous other music critics has given the band much notoriety or public recognition since it was released. Furthermore the state of the band since has been turbulent and unfortunately dissolving: 3 of the 4 original members left to form The Red Romance citing "interpersonal dramas", leaving lone member Kevin Congleton on his own until 2008 when he acquired 3 new bandmates. But it was also in 2008 that their record label TVT filed for bankruptcy and then tried to sell their artists' back catalog, prompting Congleton and labelmates The Polyphonic Spree to sue.

All this is such a shame, because LP is indeed a very satisfying rocker that has the potential for mass appeal, even years after it was released.
Opener "Yoga Means Union" immediately shows the old Ambulance LTD flexing its guitar might as this instrumental rocker leads to an exciting climax. The use of distortion and the removal of drums at the climax add to the incredible ambiance and attitude of the song, which immediately is candidate for the best song on the album.

Enter Michael Di Liberto, the confident yet simultaneously restrained lead vocalist and guitarist of 2004's Ambulance LTD. His vocal debut on the album's second track "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)" is full of promise, but the song's high attitude and swagger suffer also come with a bit of cockiness and annoyance that is not smart for an early track in the album. The band quickly recovers, however, humbling themselves with an acoustic guitar, keyboard, and a muffled drum beat and electrical guitar on the more pleasing "Anecdote," which was featured in the background of a recent Nokia commercial. While pleasant sounding, it is ironic that this has basically led to the band's only 30 seconds of mainstream fame, as it can easily be interpreted as a depiction of heroin use.

Coming off that foot-tapper is the best song on the album, "Heavy Lifting." Half of the song is recorded as a lo-fi, almost Sebadoh-esque dream song that is undeniably cool in its delivery. Then, quite unexpectedly, an unshielded electric guitar leads the way into a drawn out falling action for the song that, wordlessly, closes out the first half's dreamy landscape in a totally different mood.

"Ophelia" and "Stay Where You Are" follow Ambulance LTD's standard, engaging formula of combining a quite standard, melodic rock guitar riff with a vocal presentation covered in a light cloud of distortion to create a calming, psychedelic environment, that simultaneously...well, rocks. "Sugar Pill" similarly combines both elements, but added is a constant "beeping" beat and loud, fast drumming that create a sense of panic and urgency that is also present in "Stay Tuned". It is especially not on the next track "Michigan," whose slow buildup and forgettable melodies make it the low point of the album. Next with that aforementioned song, "Stay Tuned" has a rather intense opening mood that is combined with mysterious lyrics as well as a lighter, more pop sounding chorus that is thoroughly satisfying.

On "Swim," Ambulance LTD combines both dreamy instrumentation and vocals to create a very mellow whose melody rises over the chorus like a wave. The tempo changes a little over halfway through the next tune "Young Urban" when the mellow song rises to a climax followed by the loudest minute in the half on the album. This final minute and a half is the clearest example of shoegazing on the album as the song builds in intensity with loud drumming and a heavily distorted vocal and guitar riff.

The album's concluding piece is where the band's Velvet Underground connection lies. The band performs a solid cover Lou Reed's "The Ocean" from his self-titled debut solo album from 1972. Furthermore, in 2007, Congleton was working with John Cale to develop new material for what would have been a new Ambulance LTD album, but in keeping with a trend, neither a new LP nor any Congleton/Cale collaborations have surfaced.

So what is Ambulance LTD today? Your guess is as good as mine. With no new music in five years (after 2006's New English EP), it's perhaps easiest to say they're down for the count. The cruel intervention of the music gods have made sure a promising band in Ambulance LTD was cut down just as it was blossoming. But to dwell too much on the band's perhaps fatal growing pains is to miss what we should be thankful for: LP. The reason we think about where they are now is because in 2004 Ambulance LTD released a confident, melodic, fully accomplished shoegaze-rock album that still holds its own today. Through the reshuffling, lawsuits, "interpersonal dramas", and bad management, to the four guys behind LP: be proud.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Video: "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Another soul kick. This one is courtesy of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. On a whim of somewhat recognizing the album cover, I bought their 1965 landmark album Going to a Go-Go at the DC Record Fair. Since then I've been enthralled with this record, particularly their classic "The Tracks of My Tears". I'm not the karaoke-inclined man, but if I was to find myself on stage in front of a microphone and eager audience, I might just have to (lovingly) butcher this song out of euphoric admiration.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Dismemberment Plan

OK, so I've been away from Let's Rock the Beach for almost a month now. What have I not chronicled in that time? Hmm...well, one of the best/most important/most memorable concerts of my life.

It was just another Monday at my work last September. Time for my lunch break, so I minimize the spreadsheets and surf over to Pitchfork. And what should appear on my screen, but news that rocked my world, news that I would never have expected, news that almost got me doing cartwheels down the office corridors:

"The Dismemberment Plan Reunite"

I was beside myself. I called my buddy with the ecstatic news and later that week we had our tickets (with hardly a minute to spare: the Plan's initial two shows in our hometown Washington, D.C. were sold out within 10 minutes). Now I just had to wait til January...

In college several years earlier, I had began my fervent love affair with this quirky, keyboard-smearing rock(?) band from Northern Virginia, when I heard "Gyroscope". It was two and a half minutes of tight, smart, absolutely electrifying rock with a catchiness that you couldn't shake off. Soon I was listening to Emergency & I religiously for its unique sound that was also so irresistibly melodic and fun. But it was once I started to really dig into what this Travis guy was sing-talking about that I realized Emergency & I was my absolute favorite album. 

Travis Morrison's plainly worded observations on the insanities of everyday life sounded like musings that had crossed my mind countless times. The sudden realization of social isolation in "Life of Possibilities", the spelling-it-out anthem of "What Do You Want Me to Say?", the frustrations of relationships nixed in a transient urban life ("The City"). In a nutshell, it was everything that living through my 20s has been and continues to be. And it wasn't just Emergency & I; the Plan's more composed final album Change and previous records The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified and ! all spoke to the anxieties of growing up, facing the uncertainties of the post-college world, and hoping you don't wake up one day and, as Travis puts it, "don't know how you picked the wrong life".

But what ultimately makes this band so incredibly special and important for me is that the music faces these challenges, absorbs the pain and confusion, and decides to press forward, at times bravely so (I mean, what else are you going to do?). They're not always confident, but neither are we. We all have our doubts in times of depression, but the Plan knows that if we stick with this whole "life" thing, we'll eventually pull ourselves out of the doldrums, and not simply live again, but thrive. It's the unceasing humanity of the Dismemberment Plan that makes them so special.

The Dismemberment Plan

...So January 22, 2011 arrived, and here I was at the 9:30 club seeing a concert I never thought I'd be able to see. The show was incredible, as expected, and as the band returned to the stage for the encore, I could sense what was coming next. One of the Plan's best concert traditions occurs when they play "The Ice of Boston", a track from Is Terrified that is one of the band's best and most hilarious tunes. It is customary for dozens of audience members to jump on stage to dance around and sing along to Travis's bizarre Bostonian New Year's story. When I heard the song's distinctively sharp guitar pluck, it was time to push to the front. And sure enough, I was living a dream: I was among the onstage mass of the 9:30 club belting out the words to "Ice of Boston" with the Dismemberment Plan. ("All fine mom...HOW'S WASHINGTON!!"). 

Emergency & I came out in 1999, and the Plan's last original music followed just two years later. But as I navigate the glorious highs and deflating lows of my 20s, their music becomes all the more relevant and resonating each day. And for speaking to my life in a way that perhaps no other band has, I'd like to say:

Thank you, Dismemberment Plan.

"and sometimes that music drifts through my car
on a spring night when anything is possible
and I close my eyes and I nod my head and I wonder how you been
and I count to a hundred and ten
because you'll always be my hero
even if I never see you again."

The Dismemberment Plan

Photos from Pitchfork and mehan (1) and (2) on Flickr.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Video: "Life in Technicolor II" by Coldplay

Well done Coldplay! I don't say that too often these days, but they surely deserve the kudos on the music video for "Life in Technicolor II", which I've just recently had the pleasure of seeing, while more non-cave-dwelling music fans surely saw it when it came out two years ago. Highly entertaining and very funny (particularly 2:57 and 3:28), I highly recommend it you haven't seen it. You've seen it a million times already? Oh, sorry.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010

Now for the top 10 albums of 2010. While not as extensive as listing my favorite 50 songs of the year, it was probably no less difficult to determine my 10 favorite long-players of the year, but here it is:

Toro Y Moi: Causers of This
Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma


10. All Day by Girl Talk
[Illegal Art]

"Really?" Yes, Really. Throwing on Girl Talk at a party seems like an almost instinctual move to get the house thumping, which itself is a credit to Girl Talk's entertainment value. But I see the greatest mashup artist around as doing more than just getting a houseful of drunk collegiates dancing like no tomorrow and screaming "I know this!".  Dare I say that, in the infinitely danceable frenzy, there's a heart...even a brain? If All Day is "listened to" as opposed to "thrown on", perhaps more people would appreciate that Greg Gillis is uncovering a hidden kinship among seemingly divergent musical styles that we never knew were blood brothers. It's up to you: enjoy for its creativity and/or enjoy because it's a party. Or you can miss out.

9. Nothing Hurts by Male Bonding
[Sub Pop]

While this year I was particularly fond of the overt pop statements and music that peddled in airy optimism, Male Bonding's blistering debut of grunge-inflected punk and No Age-style noise rock was addictive from first listen.  Male Bonding accomplishes a biting edge while still delivering a solid compilation of catchy hooks and melodic rock.

8. Big Echo by the Morning Benders
[Rough Trade]

One of the best produced albums of the year, Big Echo is polished indie rock that feels big budget and quaint at the same time. Big budget because of the immaculate production work of Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, who makes each track glow vocal harmonies and glistening guitar. But also quaint, in that the Morning Benders keep most of Big Echo as low-key, contemplative rock resembling Cymbals Eat Guitars' loud/soft dynamics but with more angelic vocals.  As pleasant as these moments are, the album's more active highlights ("All Day Day Light", "Excuses") showcase a band with impressive balance, wide range, and considerable promise.

 7. Plastic Beach by Gorillaz
[Parlophone, Virgin]

As odd as it sounds for a big name band like Gorillaz, Plastic Beach is the Gorillaz we've been waiting for. Gorillaz was a beloved trip-hop beat machine and Demon Days was a radio-ready bass-thumper of polished electro-rock, but Plastic Beach is their concept album, and one with more cohesive identity and personality than either of its predecessors.  Sporting a half-dozen single-worthy tracks that are the band's most melodically strong yet, Plastic Beach represents an expanded range for Gorillaz that doesn't change the band's image, but makes them more sonically and artistically dynamic.

 6. Shame, Shame by Dr. Dog

I'm so glad I gave Dr. Dog another chance.  The on-paper intentions of reviving 60s pop-rock in 2008's Fate were admirable, but the execution was sorely underwhelming.  On a whim I checked out a few tracks from Shame, Shame not expecting much, but finding them to be more confident and well-rounded than anything on Fate.  Very gradually I found its optimistic indie rock sneaking into my listening time until I realized that Shame, Shame is one of my most played albums of 2010.  More fully realized than any prior Dr. Dog release, the West Philadelphians have come into their element with an extremely solid set of warm, catchy and in some cases risk-taking rock (namely including "Where'd All the Time Go" which features all three). Creating a gorgeous nostalgia for an era of more easy-going rock, Dr. Dog's fifth album is an addictive treat that's certainly the most pleasant surprise of the year.

 5. Contra by Vampire Weekend

Contra is more playful, globally influenced pop from Vampire Weekend, but make no mistake: Contra is also a serious artistic statement that establishes Vampire Weekend as more than a fleeting 2008 buzzband.  Their second album hits all the targets of their debut, from stirring up a preppy yet universal and smart pop image to crafting youthful melodies with clever African influences. Only this time Vampire Weekend is far more ambitious in doing so, embracing symphonic electropop ("White Sky"), harnessing thoughtful auto-tune ("California English") and sporting world-conquering radio rock ("Giving Up the Gun"), among other innovations. Many put off by Vampire Weekend's simplistic pop and ivy league culture doubted the band's staying power two years ago.  Contra should firmly declare that not only does Vampire Weekend have legs, but they have the confidence to enter a full sprint.

4. Stuck on Nothing by Free Energy

Free Energy is exactly that. Placing an album that's so expressively and convincingly optimistic as Stuck on Nothing in my top five for the year was a no-brainer. Free Energy riffs on strong classic and glam-rock influences to create songs that are imitators of the past (and this is meant in the absolute best possible way). Massive power chords strike down and epic guitar solos permeate this record while Paul Sprangers sings anthems about being young and wild, going after your dreams, taking chances, and living with no regrets. As a twenty-something feeling new to the post-college world, Stuck on Nothing represents life as it looks to me now as well as the potential of life that I need to grasp. Regardless of your age, Stuck on Nothing is a powerful mission statement, but above all else, it's an incredibly fun listen.

 3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West
[Roc-a-Fella, Def Jam]

I used to really not care too much about Kanye West, as his self-absorbed public antics befuddled and annoyed me while I really couldn't get into any of his music. Then this came out. The absolute game-changer of the year, West's fifth studio album translates his celebrity tribulations and personal psychosis into an endlessly creative and entertaining art form. Each track on Twisted Fantasy takes interesting left-turns away from your standard chart-topping rap, and just about each one is confident, fascinating, and extremely refreshing to hear for such a top-tier, popular hip-hop artist. The sparse piano and auto-tuned fuzz of "Runaway", the angelic sampling of "Devil in a New Dress" and the loud-soft dynamics of the stunner "Lost in the World" all complement strong rapping on each track, as well as rock-solid contributions from Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, and a host of other guests. It's strangely comforting that an A-list media-hogging celebrity like Kanye West can stay in touch with his day job and, at the peak of his popularity, create amazing art as well.
 2. Astro Coast by Surfer Blood

If Weezer were to turn it around and get back to those nerdy bedroom rockers we used to love out of them, perhaps they could be reborn as a musically relevant band again. But even if they did, at this point, they'd probably have to be called "the next Surfer Blood". Astro Coast's simple formula of polished, calculated, old Weezer-like pop rock is executed with a level of sophistication and energy that exceeds original expectations for this young Florida band. From mountain-sized anthems like the resounding "Swim", to the tropical riffing of "Take It Easy", to the determined rocker "Anchorage", Surfer Blood manage to show off a mature variety of song structures that are all the more impressive for their confident execution. Forget Hurley, get some Astro Coast on rock radio!

1. The ArchAndroid: Suites II and III by Janelle Monae
[Bad Boy, Wondaland Arts Society]

It's a beautiful thing when bounding ambition and expansive vision is matched by the successful creation of something truly ambitious and visionary. The ArchAndroid is just such an accomplishment. Out of almost nowhere (besides a prior EP and being taken under the wing of Diddy and his Bad Boy Records), Monae has come out with the most imaginative LP of 2010, fusing together dozens of distantly related styles (feisty dance rock, fragile R&B, experimental indie) into a compelling concept album with Disney-like production. Besides a complex narrative undercurrent to the album (android love in a future dystopia?), The ArchAndroid more obviously showcases musical literacy, as Monae jumps among a dizzying array of styles with ease and, more impressively, total confidence in what she's doing. It's easy to see that that confidence stems from her golden pipes: she has a beautiful voice that lets her hit the belting numbers with gusto ("Tightrope", "Cold War") and the lighter tones with grace ("Oh, Maker", "Neon Valley Street"). It's exciting that a blossoming new artist that's gaining exposure to mainstream R&B and pop circles is also an artist that breaks away from what less skilled musicians are crapping out on the Top 40 and dares to be catchy, though-provoking, and most of all, unique.