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.

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