Friday, December 17, 2010

The Top 50 Albums of 2010

In many ways, 2010 was a disappointing year. Apart from a few magnificent films (e.g., Inception, The Social Network, Toy Story 3), it was one of the more lackluster years at the box office in recent memory. There were very few exciting new books, and even the best (such as Franzen’s Freedom) received fairly mixed reviews. And, of course, 2010 was a complete and utter disaster politically. All of this places the year’s music in high relief. And what a year it was! From Beach House’s Teen Dream to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010 was a watershed in the history of music. It was also one month short of including new releases by Iron & Wine and The Decemberists. And it sounds like the new Radiohead album is also complete and only waiting for the right distribution. But that’s OK; the year was amazing enough as it stands. Usually I only put together a top 25 list, but there were too many excellent albums deserving of recognition, so I’ve doubled it this year. Feel free to add your own lists in the comments.

The Suburbs
1. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Arcade Fire is that rare band capable of filling Madison Square Garden without sacrificing one ounce of their musical and lyrical integrity. They make stadium-filling indie rock music without capitulating to the market’s demand for a radio-ready single, always focused from start to finish on making the complete album a coherent, beautiful, and profound work of art. While their legacy will probably always be defined by the perfection of Funeral, on The Suburbs, their third LP, Arcade Fire have managed to further mature as musicians. The album replaces the childlike idealism of Funeral and the dark apocalypticism of Neon Bible with a gritty, concrete, localized realism. It eloquently captures our post-industrial, consumeristic ennui, along with the internal tension between wanting to escape the vacuity of modern suburban existence, feeling resigned to the present state of the world, and yet still recognizing and embracing the small joys the appear in each new moment. All of this was perhaps captured best by two music videos: Spike Jonze’s video for “The Suburbs” and the technologically-brilliant creation by Chris Milk for the song, “We Used to Wait.” In a year that will go down as one of the greatest years in music history, The Suburbs stands out as a magnificent monument of our times.

High Violet2. The National, High Violet

The National rose to prominence with 2005’s Alligator and further perfected their blend of rugged, rural Midwest and intellectual, urban Northeast rock music on 2007’s critically-acclaimed Boxer. But on this year’s High Violet, the group reaches a level of maturity and depth that rivals groups like Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio. Standing at the center of the album, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the undisputed standout track. The pounding drums juxtaposed with gentle piano and strings—all enveloped by Matt Berninger’s rich baritone—represents what The National are capable of in their best moments. Other excellent tracks include “Terrible Love,” “Afraid of Everyone,” and “Conversation 16.”


It would be satisfying to dismiss Kanye’s new album based on his egomaniacal antics and easy to regard it as overrated based on near-universal critical adulation (a 10.0, seriously?). But one listen is enough to make anyone a believer: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a pop masterpiece. The seemingly impossible claim that it is our generation’s Thriller is really not far off the mark. MBDTF is proof that, for all Kanye’s personal issues, he is a musical genius, the likes of which are rare indeed. The clear centerpiece is “Runaway,” which would be enough on its own to secure this album’s place on almost any top 10 list. The fact that the rest of the album is of the same absurdly high quality is something of a miracle. If all of this weren’t enough, the 35-minute short film Runaway that Kanye directed is a remarkable work in itself, well worth watching in its entirety, but specifically for the stunning ballet scene that accompanies the title track.

Treats4. Sleigh Bells, Treats

Pure sonic bliss. Aural crack. Without question, the party album of the year, maybe of the decade. This is the kind of album that I would expect to hear in dorm rooms across America. Of all the albums that came out this year, Treats gave me the most pleasure. It truly lived up to its name. Trying to pick the best tracks is very difficult, but in an album of gems, my favorites are “Rill Rill,” “Kids,” and “Crown on the Ground.” Perhaps the best thing I can say about Treats is that whenever I listen to it on my iPod, I couldn’t care one bit what others think when they see me banging my head.

The Age of Adz5. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz

No album was more a surprise than The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds”). In interviews and other statements over the past couple years, Sufjan Stevens gave the impression of giving up music altogether. His fans began to despair, wondering if he would ever release another album. And then, his mammoth EP, All Delighted People, dropped out of the blue. It wasn’t his best work, but it was vintage Sufjan. It showed an artist in a period of transition. But a transition to what? A few weeks later came the news: The Age of Adz, a primarily electronic album reminiscent of his very early work in Enjoy Your Rabbit and A Sun Came (see especially “Joy! Joy! Joy!”). When the album finally arrived, it was a shock to the system, but in every good way. The songs are just as grand and orchestral as his previous work—and the apocalyptic themes harken back to Seven Swans, as does his persona as preacher (compare “I am the Lord” in “Seven Swans” with “You know you really gotta get right with the Lord” in “Get Real Get Right”)—but it isn’t just a throwback. Sufjan has clearly matured as a musician and songwriter. Taking inspiration from the schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, the album is an intensely personal work, most noticeably in the self-references in “Vesuvius” (“Sufjan, follow the path … Sufjan, follow your heart”). Unquestionably, the make-it-or-break-it aspect of the album comes in its 25-minute closing song, “Impossible Soul,” performed in its entirety during the tour. In the opinion of this reviewer, it stands as one of Sufjan’s greatest achievements, a breathtaking tour de force that marks this as one of the year’s best albums. For a free remix by InfinitiRock of the song “All for Myself,” click here.

Cosmogramma6. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma

Flying Lotus (AKA FlyLo AKA Steven Ellison) makes music that is completely unclassifiable, bending and mixing genres so effortlessly and brilliantly that any notion of genre ceases to be meaningful. His second album, 2008’s Los Angeles, put him on the map. But Cosmogramma is in a league of its own. There isn’t any single track that stands out, because it’s meant to be heard as a composite whole, a singular work of art that punishes any attempt to confine it within predefined musical boxes.


Go7. Jónsi, Go

Sigur Rós have made some of the most enduring and beautiful music over the past decade. Their signature sound is unlike anything else. The question then, when lead singer Jónsi set off to make a solo record, was whether this would just be a Sigur Rós B-sides or whether the album would stand on its own. The result, Go, certainly operates within the general landscape of Sigur Rós’s music, but it stands apart as a remarkable achievement, exceeding virtually every expectation (and those expectations were already high!). The album has all the exuberant energy of Sigur Rós, but Jónsi has made the ethereal otherworldliness of his band’s previous work sound more intimate and subtle, more concrete and whimsical. While I eagerly await the next Sigur Rós album, I am now equally excited to hear Jónsi’s follow-up.

Body Talk [Explicit] [+Digital Booklet]8. Robyn, Body Talk

2010 has been dubbed the Year of Robyn, and for good reason. June saw the release of Body Talk Pt. 1, which introduced us to sizzling electro-pop songs like “Fembots,” “None of Dem,” and especially “Dancing on My Own.” In September, the Swedish singer dropped Body Talk Pt. 2, including the non-acoustic version of “Hang With Me” and “U Should Know Better” (with Snoop Dogg). Finally, in November, Robyn released the full LP of Body Talk, combining tracks from the first two EPs with new songs. The result is the dance album of the year.

Marnie Stern9. Marnie Stern, Marnie Stern

Without question, the most underrated and overlooked album of the year. Marnie Stern consistently makes great rock music, and her trademark finger-tapping style gives her a sound all her own. But it is only with this, her third release, that Marnie has learned to refine her songwriting to appeal to those outside of a select group of indie enthusiasts. The result is an infectious album, brimming with power-rock singles like the opening stunner, “For Ash,” which I have as one of the top 5 songs of the year. Like all of the best albums of 2010, though, this too is a complete album experience. And there’s never a dull moment. Once “For Ash” seizes you by the collar, you’re in the album’s grip until the end, and it’s a great ride.

Teen Dream [CD + DVD]10. Beach House, Teen Dream

When Beach House’s Teen Dream dropped in late January, it set the stage for one of the best years in music. At the time, I was convinced we had already heard the best the year had to offer. And while I was wrong in that judgment, I was not wrong in realizing that this album would be among the best of the year when all was said and done. Teen Dream is dream pop perfection. Every song is a carefully crafted gem. While it doesn’t have the lyrical depth of The Suburbs or the creativity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the daring of The Age of Adz, it is a stunning achievement from beginning to end. Beach House’s haunting, atmospheric, shoegaze-inspired sound has never sounded better. Their 2008 album, Devotion, was great; this is a masterpiece.

11. Four Tet, There Is Love In You
12. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
13. Twin Shadow, Forget
14. Caribou, Swim
15. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
16. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
17. Das Racist, Sit Down, Man
18. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record
19. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
20. Vampire Weekend, Contra
21. Avey Tare, Down There
22. The Walkmen, Lisbon
23. Scissor Sisters, Night Work
24. Liars, Sisterworld
26. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid
27. School of Seven Bells, Disconnect from Desire
28. Hot Chip, One Life Stand
29. Delorean, Subiza
30. How to Dress Well, Love Remains
31. Wolf Parade, Expo 86
32. Antony and the Johnsons, Swanlights
33. Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love
34. Ceo, White Magic
36. Girl Talk, All Day
38. Teengirl Fantasy, 7AM
39. Menomena, Mines
40. Owen Pallett, Heartland
41. New Pornographers, Together
42. Tame Impala, Innerspeaker
43. Best Coast, Crazy For You
44. These New Puritans, Hidden
45. Wavves, King of the Beach
46. Wild Nothing, Gemini
47. Mystery Jets, Serotonin
48. Rock Plaza Central, At the Moment of Our Most Needing
49. Fang Island, Fang Island
50. Matthew Dear, Black City

14 comments:

Patrick McManus said...

David,

what about the Roots' new album How I Got Over? Definitely top 50 material. If you haven't heard it, it's one of their better albums. Thanks for this list, there are a few I'm going to check out.

Patrick

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks for the reminder, Patrick. Yes, that almost certainly deserves a top 50 spot. I had completely forgotten about it.

Anonymous said...

Janelle Monae The Archandroid?

David W. Congdon said...

#26

John said...

Great list. I'm surprised not to see The Black Keys somewhere.

geoffrey holsclaw said...

thanks for the list. as one not as up on the music scene, this is certainly helpful.

Anonymous said...

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists!
The Brutalist Bricks

dan said...

Titus Andronicus? Upon reflection, I've listened to "The Monitor" more than any other new album this year. They put on a damn good live show as well.

I have The National as my biggest disappointment (I was also disappointed with Band of Horses but their last album had already paved the way for that so it wasn't as unexpected).

David W. Congdon said...

I didn't care for Titus Andronicus. Just wasn't my thing.

While I obviously don't share your view about The National, I agree about Band of Horses. I haven't liked hardly anything by them since their first album.

Charlie Collier said...

Thanks for the list. I've been hearing about The National and Arcade Fire for some time.

I'm surprised with your judgment about Band of Horses. I think they've gone from strength to strength. I was able to see them live in Atlanta when I was there for AAR, and while I thought it was a great show, the second opening act, Jenny and Johnny, was a pleasant surprise.

Anonymous said...

mumford and sons - sigh no more; has to be a top 50

dan said...

I agree about Mumford and Sons, although it could be listed as a 2009 album since that is when it came out in the UK.

I also thought of another one I enjoyed quite a lot: Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here.

Anonymous said...

Broken Bells!

kylejacobritter said...

Mumford & Sons came and went like setting fire to bits of magnesium, all hot-burning crescendos without much staying power. Glad it's not on there, even if it was a 2009 record.

Nice to see Das Racist and LCD SS get such high ratings. My only beef is the Age of Adz rating. I'm as big of a Sufjan disciple as anyone, but that was his (most ambitions, but) worst effort. Really over the top, self-indulgent non-sense, in my opinion, with the exception of the first track. But these are your opinions, too, so, I felt compelled to share mine.