Reasons for living: The 20 best albums of 2010

December 13, 2010

I should perhaps have noted earlier that, as I have every year since I started compiling this year-end tally as an, um, professional critic, my primary concern was place as always on the albums that moved me most over the preceding 365 days—the records I found myself coming back to again and again for actual pleasure.

Finally, I’ve come to the Top 20 for 2010. Drum roll, please…

 20. The National, “High Violet” (4AD)

On their fifth album, the Ohio-to-Brooklyn transplants really connected with me for the first time. In the past, I’ve admired their corn-fed Midwestern rock more than I’ve loved it. Here, the injection of a hefty dose of dark atmospherics gives me the intrigue I’ve been missing in the past, while the rootsy sincerity is all the more powerful for the contrast.

 19. Neil Young, “Le Noise” (Reprise)

Sometimes, crotchety ol’ Neil’s experiments fail miserably, and sometimes they succeed beyond all expectations. This unexpected set of solo “folk-metal” definitely falls in the latter category, and it’s something that, despite one of the heftiest and most consistently rewarding catalogs in rock history, we’ve really never heard from Young before.

 18. Yeasayer, “Odd Blood” (Secretly Canadian)

On their second album, these Baltimore art-rockers partly veer away from the electronic and worldbeat rhythms of their debut in order to focus on their pop songcraft, producing extremes such as the rousing sing-along “Madder Red” and the intimate, ‘80s-flavored electronic ballad “I Remember.” And it’s all very, very good indeed.

17. Besnard Lakes, “Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night” (Jagjaguwar)

The husband-and-wife team of guitarist-vocalist Jace Lasek and bassist-vocalist Olga Goreas exceed the promise of their earlier releases and instantly rise to the top of the current “beard rock” crowd of nature-loving, psychedelic folk-rockers with this collection of sprawling, epic, multi-part tunes that invite you to lose yourself in those great, enveloping washes of guitar and gorgeous harmony vocals. All that plus the best enigmatic Chicago anthem since the Handsome Family’s “The Giant of Illinois,” via the hypnotic “Chicago Train.

16. Gorillaz, “Plastic Beach” (Virgin)

The latest from the world’s best “virtual hip-hop group” was impressive enough with the long roster of first-rate cameos (from Snoop Dogg to De La Soul, soul legend Bobby Womack to punk godfather Lou Reed, and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music) somehow never overshadowing the distinctive vocals and endearing melodies of main man Damon Albarn. But in the wake of the tragic BP accident in the Gulf, this dark, dense, and often unsettling concept album about a floating island of trash alienating humanity from the natural world grew even more poignant, resonant, immediate, and necessary.

 

15. Broken Bells, “Broken Bells” (Columbia)

The collaboration between producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and James Mercer of the Shins finds both artists working outside their comfort zones, but it boasts some of the most striking songwriting that either has given us. Over an array of old-school analog keyboards and ambient synths that evoke Brian Eno’s “Another Green World, “ Mercer stretches as a vocalist, sounding positively jaunty at some points (the gleeful waltz, “Sailing to Nowhere”) and downright funky at others (“The Ghost Inside”). And the melodies throughout are undeniable.

14. Robyn, “Body Talk Pt. 2” (Konichiwa)

Lady Gaga is an amusing novelty; Swedish dance-pop diva Robyn is the real deal, so energizing, empowering, and sexy in a non-pandering way that even the obligatory Snoop Dogg cameo (in the simultaneously angry and exuberant, buoyant and bitchy “U Should Know Better”) can’t derail things on the second installment of her “Body Talk” trilogy. 

 13. Uffie, “Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans” (Elektra)

In contrast, globe-trotting dance diva Uffie admittedly does pander—and almost as much as a lap dancer short on the rent six days into the new month. But her mix of synth-pop, electronica, and hip-hop is invigorating nonetheless, and she does a great job at being the Ke$ha! to Robin’s Gaga.

 

12. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge)

The Montreal orchestral-pop collective eschews the arena-rock clichés, sounding a bit more relaxed but no less anthemic on its third album while simultaneously paying tribute to the suburban sprawl that may be ugly as sin but which many nonetheless still call home.

 11. Richard Thompson, “Dream Attic” (Shout Factory)

This is as powerful a solo album as the 62-year-old musical treasure has ever delivered, striking the perfect balance of the songwriting craftsmanship of his studio albums and the guitar pyrotechnics of his concerts by recording this strong set of new tunes live in concert.
 

 10. The Roots, “How I Got Over” (Def Jam)

The Roots’ best album since “Phrenology” (2002) furthers the downbeat vibe and lyrical litany of frustrations that dominated the last two discs, though there are a furious focus and an angry concision here that were previously lacking, and as befits an album named for a gospel track popularized by Mahalia Jackson, the Roots shake off their pessimism midway through for a second half that is decidedly more energetic and upbeat. But rather than the specifics of the church, the group puts its faith in self-determination and the power of community as the ways to transcend problems personal or universal, and it’s an inspiration to us all.

 9. Best Coast, “Crazy for You” (Mexican Summer/Wichita)

The debut album by the L.A.-based indie-pop trio Best Coast arrived like a cool breeze off the lake on the most oppressive day of the summer, with a set of lilting pop tunes that draw equally from pre-Beatles ’60s pop (Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark), classic California surf music, and mid-’60s garage rock, with just a hint of ’90s shoegazer fuzz held over from Pocahaunted.

8. LCD Soundsystem, “This Is Happening” (DFA/Virgin)

If album number three from Brooklyn production wizard and DFA label chief James Murphy is the least of LCD Soundsystem's three long-players, it also is better than 99.8 percent of the rest of what I heard in 2010. Yes, it’s another addictive collection of punk-disco grooves and sardonic hipster spoofs of underground culture, but there is a new twist with the addition of a Bryan Ferry/David Bowie glam-rock flair to Murphy's admittedly limited vocal range. And it’s hard to imagine a party worth attending any time this year where this wasn’t spinning.

 

7. Grinderman, “Grinderman 2” (Anti-)

With the Bad Seeds and with this stripped-down, more guitar-heavy ensemble, the 52-year-old Cave is in the midst of a nearly unprecedented third-act career surge that could be due to his new life as a happy family man (though you'd think it would go the other way), an existence now free of heroin, or a pact made with the devil at the crossroads. His bitingly sarcastic, wickedly funny lyrical eye never has been more focused, and his ability to craft musical settings that are both Gothic and direct, steeped in decades of musical history but utterly fresh-sounding and unique‚ never has been sharper.

6. Kid Cudi, “Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager” (Universal/Motown)

 WCleveland-born, Brooklyn-based rapper Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi is one of the most important and creative new voices in hip-hop today, and here, as he indulges in a disc that as promised is “a lot more rock,” he draws inspiration from his battle with cocaine addiction to take us on a five-act journey that moves from the sense of anxious anticipation, to a sudden intoxicating rush, and from a very harsh crash, to an increasingly desperate panic about being trapped within that cycle and unable to escape.

5. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “IRM” (Elektra/Asylum)

The daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and his muse and frequent duet partner, British actress Jane Birkin, produces 13 tunes that are as strikingly original and heartfelt musically as they are lyrically. There are hints of her father's dark pop, smoky jazz and conversational vocals, as well as touches of the melancholy electronic folk-rock of producer Beck’s classic "Sea Change." But there also is a strength and self-assurance in Gainsbourg’s limited but distinctive voice that marks her as her own artist, poignantly chronicling her near-death experience after a brain injury resulting from a water-skiing accident.

4.  Salem, “King Night” (IAMSOUND)

The formerly Chicago, now Traverse City, Michigan-based trio polarizes audiences with its dense, difficult, sludgy, but sexy sound, simultaneously alienating and seductive, with elements of trip-hop, gothic darkwave, classical chorale music, Southern hip-hop, and electronic pop. Me, I can’t get enough of its dark pagan delights.

3. Cee Lo, “The Lady Killer” (Elektra/Asylum)

Atlanta-born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway more than delivered on the promise of his naughty hit single “F--- You” with a genre-defying disc that is all over the musical map while veering demonically between lyrical extremes. You have to have a special kind of charisma to pull off both the angry rant against a former lover that is “F--- You” and an unabashed, downright-gushing love song such as “Wildflower,” all set to a unique and soulful sound that draws from classic Motown, Stax/Volt soul, bouncy ’60s “James Bond” soundtrack pop, and gritty Solomon Burke blues.

 

2. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

Forget everything you think you know about the Chicago-bred superstar rapper and producer, and just listen. If you do, you’ll hear a melodically irresistible, rhythmically invigorating, soulful self-examination that is one of the most wildly inventive and instantly unforgettable release of the last decade, let alone the year.

1. Janelle Monae, “ArchAndroid” (Atlantic)

Though 24-year-old, Kansas City-born, Atlanta-based singer Janelle Monae Robinson had created some buzz for her appearances with Outkast on the otherwise awful ‘Idlewild”; for a 2007 EP entitled “Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase),” and for signing with Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, nobody was expecting the mind-blowing, genre-destroying tour de force of her first full-length album. “ArchAndroid” continues the futuristic space opera sketched out on the earlier EP, spinning it into a full-length concept album about a robot that comes back from the future to warn humanity about its errant ways while encouraging all of us to value our freedom and fly our freak flags high. But you don’t have to buy into any of that to enjoy this wildly psychedelic but consistently funky suite of killer pop songs, which I love even despite my knee-jerk aversion to anything that sounds like the soundtrack of “Fantasia.” (There’s a bit of that overwrought orchestral hoo-ha at the beginning and end of the disc, but grew on me as the year progressed.) Unforgettable.

Now, here is the entire list of my Top 50 Albums for 2010, in case you missed any of the last four blog posts in this self-indulgent but always joyful exercise.

50. Various artists, “Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present Dark Night of the Soul” (Capitol)

49. Weezer, “Hurley” (Epitaph)

48. Scott Lucas and the Married Men, “The Absolute Beginners EP” (G&P Records)

47. Bryan Ferry, ”Olympia” (Astralwerks)

46. The Orb with David Gilmour, “Metallic Spheres” (Columbia)

45. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, “Hawk” (Vanguard)

44. Wolf Parade, “Expo 86” (Sub Pop)

43. Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)

42. M.I.A., “Maya” (N.E.E.T./XL/Interscope)

41. Brian Eno, “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” (Warp)

40. Various artists, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” sountrack (ABKCO)

39. Black Mountain, “Wilderness Heart” (Jagjaguwar)

38. Octopus Project, “Hexadecagon” (Peek-a-Boo Records)

37. Sade, “Soldier of Love” (Sony)

36. Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Music from Kerouac’s Big Sur” (Atlantic)

35. David Singer, “Arrows” (www.davidsingermusic.com)

34. The Bewitched Hands on the Top of Our Heads, “Hard to Cry” EP (Sony Music)

33. Rhymefest, “El Che” (www.elchethemovement.com)

32. The Ruiners, “Happy Birthday Bitch” (Pravda)

31. Drivan, “Disko” (Smalltown Supermusic)

30. Drake, “Thank Me Later” (Universal/Motown)

29. Spoon, “Transference” (Merge)

28. Peter Gabriel, “Scratch My Back” (EMI)

27. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, “I Learned the Hard Way” (Daptone)

26. Erykah Badu, “New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh” (Motown)

25. High on Fire, “Snakes for the Divine” (Koch)

24. The Dead Weather, “Sea of Cowards” (Warner Bros.)

23. Teenage Fanclub, “Shadows” (Merge)

22. Superchunk, “Majesty Shredding” (Merge)

21. Belle and Sebastian, “Belle and Sebastian Write About Love” (Rough Trade)

 20. The National, “High Violet” (4AD)

 19. Neil Young, “Le Noise” (Reprise)

 18. Yeasayer, “Odd Blood” (Secretly Canadian)

 17. Besnard Lakes, “Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night” (Jagjaguwar)

 16. Gorillaz, “Plastic Beach” (Virgin)

 15. Broken Bells, “Broken Bells” (Columbia)

 14. Robyn, “Body Talk Pt. 2” (Konichiwa)

 13. Uffie, “Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans” (Elektra)

 12. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge)

 11. Richard Thompson, “Dream Attic” (Shout Factory)

10. The Roots, “How I Got Over” (Def Jam)

9. Best Coast, “Crazy for You” (Mexican Summer/Wichita)

8. LCD Soundsystem, “This Is Happening” (DFA/Virgin)

7. Grinderman, “Grinderman 2” (Anti-)

6. Kid Cudi, “Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager” (Universal/Motown)

5. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “IRM” (Elektra/Asylum)

4.  Salem, “King Night” (IAMSOUND)

3. Cee Lo, “The Lady Killer” (Elektra/Asylum)

2. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

1. Janelle Monae, “ArchAndroid” (Atlantic)

 

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