It has been a great year for music. This Top 20 list reflects the tastes of all the music writers here at Spectrum Culture. We appreciate your support this year and look forward to seeing you again next year when we return from break on Wednesday, January 5, 2011. Enjoy the list!
In 2010, it seemed a given that anyone mining the sonic affectations of the ’80s’ New Romantics were ensured “Best New Music” status. Sometimes it was hard to tell where ironic appropriation began (Jaguar Love) and honest-to-God reverence ended (Mark Ronson), though through one-woman Swedish Invasion Robyn’s Body Talk songs, those synth sounds became more than refurbished second-handers; Robyn retooled and buffed them into sexy roadsters, at once retro and futuristic.
Her first output in five years following the incredible comeback/revitalization that was Robyn, the singer was now not only head of her own imprint, Konichiwa Records, but used her freedom in this regard to release a series of three records in 2010, longer than EPs, not quite LPs in their own right. Body Talk’s songs evince a pop starlet in complete command of her music, without having to rely upon bewildering spectacle or erratic behavior like one Stefani Germanotta. Body Talk is ushered in by the laundry list of neuroses of “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” – a run-down ranging from the conversational (“My heels are killin’ me“) to the troubling (“My drinking’s killin’ me“) – a track-of-the-year that injects a sense of vulnerability to the Fembot cybernetic sounds; this is the bait by which Robyn lays for the listener, before damning them with the sudden, aggressive message of its title.
Elsewhere, Robyn works with Diplo conjuring up the devilish strut of “Dancehall Queen” and “Criminal Intent,” fellow Swede Kleerup on the irresistible “In My Eyes” and Patrik Berger on the heartbreaking “Dancing On My Own” – a tidy continuation in the kind of dancefloor torch song Robyn has mastered (“With Every Heartbeat,” “Be Mine!”) Lest anyone believe that there’s no substance in Robyn’s material, there are “acoustic” versions of some tracks, stripping the electronics away for the aching, crystalline delivery she’s capable of. Simply put, if you’re not won over by Body Talk, pop music is just not for you. - Chris Middleman
A Sufi and a Killer
If A Sufi and a Killer doesn’t appear on many year-end lists, it certainly isn’t because of a lack of ambition on the artist’s part. Hell, just about everything the year in music had to offer (and a hell of a lot more) can be found somewhere on this masterpiece. Equal parts primordial groaning, Eastern-influenced hip-hop, prophetic meditations, psychedelic blues, placid jazz and good old-fashioned indie rock, A Sufi and a Killer is as unpredictable as it is oddly captivating, a record whose moments of vehemence and serenity come together to create an almost peerless 59 minutes of sound.
Credit the trio of producers Flying Lotus, Mainframe and the Gaslamp Killer with those crazy hip-hop beats and hodgepodge of genre samplings, but it’s the Sufi’s voice, ranging from a psychotic snarl to a transcendental crooning that really drives the record. The album starts strong, with a jolting wake-up call of an opener leading into “Kobwebz” and “Ancestors,” which first hint at the sages and devils that take turns polluting and purifying the record, respectively. The next three tracks are perhaps the record’s most notable. “Sheep” alternates between the perspective of heavenly sheep and murderous lion, with the singer’s voice and the musical arrangements adjusting drastically to fit the creatures’ opposing personalities, “She Gone” (a Spectrum Culture Song of the Year) is a bitter good riddance to an ex-lover played out over a catchy pop melody, before the trifecta is completed with “SuzieQ,” whose demonic barking suggests the inner Sufi may forever be drowned out by the insufferable killer.
The remainder of the record finds the musical styles shape-shifting as frequently as the artist’s constantly clashing emotions, making for a somewhat bumpy – and at times, damn near schizophrenic – listen. Sometimes, though, as the enigmatic Sufi proved in 2010, the best records are the least comfortable. Bedlam has never sounded so sweet. - Marcus David
In a 12-month span flush with Billboard indie rock triumphs and conceptual genre-tripping galore, Gorillaz main man Damon Albarn manages to stand tall above the rest simply by refusing to even acknowledge the concept of categories or style altogether. Plastic Beach may someday emerge as the high point of his already illustrious career, but it goes even one further than that: it’s a magnificently vibrant, melancholy and fun album.
With a slew of guest stars impressive even for the band that managed to rouse Shaun Ryder from his slumber of a thousand downers, Plastic Beach is impossible to pin to any single description. Drawing from punk rock stylings, synth-ragers, soul balladry, glam-stomp and a bunch of other genres I just made up, layered over hip hop beats and occasional jabs of world music, it’s simply a masterpiece of collaboration. Any album that can make Lou Reed sound wistful and human for the first time in years and elicit a Planet of the Apes reference from Snoop Dogg seems like it couldn’t get any better, but with the epochal single “Stylo,” they do. It’s the centerpiece of the album and perhaps of Gorillaz- pounding, driving, mysterious and inescapably catchy.
Gorillaz have always been a loose framework for whatever ideas Albarn seems to have rolling around his head, but Plastic Beach is the point in which they transcend their cartoon origins. It’s an album that doesn’t ease up or stock up on filler or ever seem to stop wondering “what would happen if we played this?” And then finding out. - Nathan Kamal
17. Sufjan Stevens
The Age of Adz
After Sufjan Stevens traversed through Michigan and Illinois to the delight of history-nerd Christian prog-folkies – he took a 40-minute detour down The BQE that made me a bit nervous about what other concepts he had in store. The Reagan Library? The Archbald Pothole? Thankfully, Stevens ditched the geography and went with an album that’s more personal, meticulously executed and slightly psychotic. The Age of Adz trades in the Midwestern banjo strums and gentle orchestration of Illinois for a buffet of bleeps and bass bombs that are as otherworldly as their accompanying lyrics are soul-searching.
Things appear normal for the first two minutes, as “Futile Devices” picks up in a daze of sleepwalking instrumentation and hushed vocals, where Illinois left off. But the next song implodes any sense of familiarity in a sea of drowning synths, frenetic drums and party-time horns. The introduction to “Age of Adz” is even more sinister. On Michigan, “Now That I’m Older” might have been a simple, piano track, here it is laced with creepy, slow motion harmonies that are equal parts Disney and Amnesiac. Growing more pained and shrieking as the song continues, the cries start to sound like experimental therapy that Stevens has undertaken (that presumably also includes referring to oneself in the third person occasionally).
Despite the often overwhelming instrumentation and sci-fi arrangements, Stevens continues to prove his talent in keeping a genuinely honest and heartbreaking line away from any emo cheese; “I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing/ Consumed by selfish thoughts/ It’s that only that I still love you deeply/ It’s all the love I’ve got,” from the shapeshifting title track is a fine example. Surely the most polarizing stretch of the album is the last third – that is, the entirety of “Impossible Soul.” Cinematically segueing from a Auto-Tune synth orgy to a bouncy feel-good singalong, he somehow weaves together the album’s various themes, musically and lyrically, into his most cohesive and forward-looking effort yet – which is saying a lot compared to Illinois. As Stevens might put it, he’s not fucking around. - Kyle Wall
16. Cee-Lo Green
The Lady Killer
As his 2004 album proudly remarked, Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine. From his start as part of Southern rap pioneers Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo has evolved into a more experimental musician, particularly on the eclectic Gnarls Barkley albums. But despite his many endeavors, one thing remains constant about Cee-Lo: that voice! He has been blessed not only with a quick wit, but with booming, velvety pipes that melt a speaker. On The Lady Killer, Cee-Lo has crafted his strongest, most focused solo endeavor by setting his love of soul in his sights, and using that golden throat of his as a weapon.
Cee-Lo’s love of soul has never been disputed and his charisma is unwavering, as the opening proclamation on the record indicates. Over a tinkling bar piano loop, he announces, “Well, hello there. My name is… not important [...] But when it comes to ladies, I have a license… to kill.” The intro ends with a delightfully cacophonous horn and piano section and a silenced gunshot. For the next 50 minutes, he’s just as deadly.
Viral sensation “Fuck You” achieves what Eamon never could- a successful kiss-off to an ex-lover that isn’t childish or unbelievable. “Wildflower” is perhaps the most bona fide example of Cee-Lo’s vocal prowess. An ode to a beauty he’s cultivated, it is full of excellent double-entendre and his unbelievable range; “Hold her in both my hands/ Put her right on the table when I get her home.” “I Want You,” “Old Fashioned,” and “Cry Baby” reflect the record’s modified throwback sound, with “Cry Baby” the obvious standout. A classic Motown backing beat supports Cee-Lo singing to a jilted lover in a slight reversal of “Fuck You,” but less vitriolic. However, he does slip in some venom here and there, as when he says, “Guess that I’m the bad guy now.” With The Lady Killer, Cee-Lo set out to create a vibrant, ’60s spy movie-drenched love affair to soul, and he’s scored nothing less than a bull’s eye. - Rafael Gaitan
15. Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
In April, The Stranger’s Charles Mudede theorized that a larger and larger number of hip-hop artists were moving towards what he dubbed “Afro-futurism.” Mudede was speaking mainly of Seattle acts like THEESatisfaction and Spaceman when he described a sound that was a natural advancement of Afrikaa Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.” But the hip-hop mainstream of 2010 seemed to be taking notes too. Like his new partner-in-crime Janelle Monae, Big Boi had his eye set firmly on that kind of future in Sir Lucious Left Foot, an album that kept Big Boi’s famous style and versatility but married it to some truly spacey sounds.
The Scott Storch-produced lead single “Shutterbugg” wasn’t the first glimpse at Big Boi’s new direction but it’s perhaps the clearest distillation of it. Synth leads chime in and out of the mix, while Muppet-sounding vocals dig into the low end. The drums are bluntly electronic crashes of digital glass that maintain the status quo, letting the chorus signal itself through a sweet melody and some funky guitar. You can hear it a million times and still be surprised by how different it is.
Big Boi kept portions of the trademark Dungen Family sound intact, as on the gleefully soulful “Turns Me On” and the deliberately tense “Back Up Plan,” but the real thrill was in the moments where Big Boi seemed to be onto something completely different. “Be Still” gave Janelle Monae a chance to warm the hearts of replicants everywhere, “Hustle Blood” was Ratatat if they had grown up on the streets instead of in the studio, and “You Ain’t No DJ” could teach Major Lazer a few tricks at building menace. Sir Lucious Left Foot is the sound of an artist firmly reaching for the stars and not letting go. With Big Boi acting like some dedicated time traveler, here in our present to deliver a message of salvation, Sir Lucious feels like the future we should all be looking forward to. - Nick Hanover
Can Bradford Cox do no wrong? His Midas touch produced yet another enchanting nugget of psychedelic gold in Halcyon Digest. Aesthetically, it resembles previous Deerhunter and Atlas Sound (Cox’s solo project) albums, though it’s more meticulous and refined in execution. All the Cox trademarks are present: slurred vocals, colorful reverb, dreamy synth sprinkles and mellow psych-rock sensibilities. The culmination is all at once jovial and somber, an album bouncing back and forth between highs and lows like a manic-depressive. Sometimes Cox sounds as hopeful as ever, like his protagonist in “Sailing” (“Only fear/ Can make you feel lonely out here/ You learn to accept/ Whatever you can get“). Yet just a few songs later on “Helicopter”- “The light’s inside my cave/ I’m tired of my cave/ Oh, these drugs, they play on me these terrible ways/ They don’t pay like they used to pay/ I used to make it day to day,”- Cox writes his own end-of-days anthem.
“Don’t Cry” and its garage rock-drawl groove along just fine, but its production value throws it into another realm of awesomeness. Cox’s vocals pierce the atmosphere like a megaphone in a darkening cloud, while stray harmonies and backing tracks extract a three-dimensional sound for listeners to bask in. And that’s the key to Halcyon Digest: perfect pop songwriting colored by an unceasing knack for innovation. Many tracks (“Memory Boy,” “Revival,” “Coronado”) are fantastic hit songs the ’60s never had, with a modern facelift. Other tracks, like the delicate-as-a-thread “Helicopter” prove why, despite Baby Boomer adamancy, contemporary music has evolved into something better than its predecessor. - Jory Spadea
When Transference was released in January, lots of critics complained that the record was just your average really good Spoon album, that the band still hadn’t put together an LP that really blew the doors off. Surely the fact that we’re still talking about – and listening to – Transference almost a year later says something. And besides, what’s wrong with consistency? Since when is a band that makes consistently great albums supposed to stop, switch gears and make a shitty one?
Production-wise, Transference takes Spoon back to basics, with more of the sparse arrangements that characterized early classics like Kill the Moonlight. It’s a mix of what the band does best – such as the muted groove of “Who Makes Your Money” and the sizzling, bass-driven “Got Nuffin’” – and new ground, as on the piano ballad “Goodnight Laura.” And if the tracks aren’t quite as pop-friendly and accessible as on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or Gimme Fiction, there’s not a dud in the bunch – a sterling run to cap off one decade and start another.
So, really, who faults a band for doing what it does best? Boy, it sure is disappointing when a great band makes another great record. God, I certainly hope they don’t do it again anytime soon. - Aaron Passman
12. The Roots
How I Got Over
With more of a media presence than ever, thanks in part to serving as the permanent house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” the Roots spent 2010 reaching more listeners than ever. With the ever-skeptical ear of the hip-hop community cautiously watching the Philadelphia outfit like hawks in fear that this new accessibility might result in their artistic credibility being compromised (many remember the backlash to their faux-viral 2008 single “Birthday Party” with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, so poorly received it disappeared from that album’s tracklisting within a week), the cynics were relieved as How I Got Over has become universally acclaimed and cherished as one of the year’s best.
While the group had recently been making the darkest music of their career on Game Theory (2006) and Rising Down (2008), How I Got Over alleviates the pressure with a continuously relaxing vibe, using all of their newfound resources to make for an absolutely heavenly soundscape. As a conceptual writer, Black Thought’s never been a better rapper, continuing to dwarf his previous performances, even in comparison to the group’s celebrated ’90s output. Not unlike their new “Late Night” gig, the group also does a good job playing to their guests’ strengths. Joanna Newsom is second only to Project Pat as the Roots’ all-time oddest pairing, but their success on “Right On” is a testament to the strength of their vision. With “Walk Alone” and “Radio Daze” having two of the summer’s strongest hooks and exiled former labelmate Peedi Peedi stealing the show with a verse-of-the-year candidate on “Web 20/20,” How I Got Over is a success story worth retelling. - Chaz Kangas
11. Sleigh Bells
[Mom + Pop/N.E.E.T.]
If you strapped yourself to a dozen Roman candles and shrieked up into the summer sky, the feeling might remind you of Sleigh Bells’ debut album, Treats. A gleefully aggressive throw-down of noise pop (“noise pop” being too subtle a description here), Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss make a record that both alpha-males and alpha-females can get behind. Miller’s guitars blow apart as if revved up by a big boy Matchbox-style ripcord, all dials, pedals, knobs and needles set to full blast. Distortion? Unlimited. Embracing the spirit of happy hardcore, Krauss serenades, shouts, chants and cheers; perforating her singsong cooing and cawing is a percussive use of voice that punches out “uhs” and “ahs” like a jackhammer canary. And oh man, those bass beats! Relentless, they throw you up against the wall and toss you around the room. So yes, this is one loud, proud, fucking concussive album.
Treats recalls all kinds of playground antics and obsessions; it’s a superheroic, digitized adolescence. “Tell ‘Em,” with its rocket flare effects and souped up finger snaps, climaxes into an all-out stomp dance. “Infinity Guitars” is set to the cadence of some whiz-bang riot-grrrl version of a “Miss Mary Mack” handclap game. And “Crown on the Ground” is so jump-rope rhyme that it has just about convinced me to start up a full contact double dutch league outfitted with day-glo knee and elbow pads. If there is a Solarcaine moment on this record, look to “Rill Rill” with its hammered chimes, ringing guitar lick (sampled from Funkadelic) and soothing soprano melody pondering your boyfriend’s thoughts about your braces. Other than that, get ready to be scorched. Treats is a brutal delight – it beats you up and all you can do is wipe your bloody nose on your sleeve and, with a wicked smile, do it all over again. - Stacey Pavlick
10. Janelle Monáe
[Bad Boy Entertainment]
Three productive years ago, Janelle Monáe began attracting attention out of relative obscurity, seemingly releasing her stunningly original debut out of nowhere. This soft-spoken dynamo of retro soul-power not only invoked a different era through her personal uniform – a monochrome suit, saddle shoes with sculpted pompadour up top – but also through music grounded in soul, lending itself easily to visual accompaniment based on the silent-era film Metropolis. The Chase begins the four-part story of Cindi Mayweather, an android who dares love a human and ends up on the run from vicious hunters and the oppressive rulers of her world. The ArchAndroid continues Mayweather’s tale as parts two and three of the Metropolis Suite – Monae’s Mayweather realizing her destiny as soulful fleet-footed android messiah – and the cinematic, genre-hopping results are truly spectacular.
The ArchAndroid is bigger than Monáe’s unique debut in every sense of the word due to help from Sean “Diddy” Combs at Bad Boy and a number of high-profile guests including Big Boi (“Tightrope”), Of Montreal and Saul Williams. It’s 70 glamorous minutes of funk, soul, hip-hop, freak-folk, new-wave and just about everything else Monáe could boldly work in, including quick R&B singles (“Cold War”), long starry-eyed ballads (“Say You’ll Go”) and a framing classical overture. The story builds from a sci-fi tale to a much more elaborate allegory, rehashing musical themes from The Chase and expanding the characters that succinct EP introduced. Calling The ArchAndroid ambitious is a massive understatement.
In a time where the music industry becomes more reliant on singles every year, it’s refreshing to experience an artist at the top of her creative powers rise to the expectations of her debut, protecting her artistic integrity by creating an album that plays like a fucking event. Just because most of The ArchAndroid contends for song of the year doesn’t make this any less of a complete package; it just makes Monáe’s achievement all the more impressive. - Michael Merline
9. Best Coast
Crazy For You
Becoming “blog-famous” has become a blessing and a curse in today’s ADD music landscape. Bethany Cosentino, frontwoman for Best Coast, got a taste of internet glory when her excellent 2009 track “Sun Was High (So Was I)” became a quiet sensation, causing people to post comments like “I wish this song would never end” and “I’m putting this on infinite loop, getting drunk on Grey Goose and thinking of you.” Which lead to the big question of Best Coast in 2010: could Cosentino live up to the hype?
The answer, thankfully, was yes. Best Coast’s debut, Crazy For You, was a blast of Pacific Coast Highway sunshine this summer. From the epic opening notes of then teen dream “Boyfriend” to the Beach Boys-esque closer “Each and Everyday,” Cosentino proved “Sun Was High (So Was I)” wasn’t some sort of fluke. Aided by unlikely guitar god Bob Bruno, Crazy For You made good on the promises of Best Coast’s early singles, delivering an album full of lush girl-group harmonies, fuzzed-out guitars and Cosentino herself. She even had a few tricks up her sleeve we didn’t see coming, like the country-tinged “Our Deal” and the shoegaze drone on “Honey.” Some rolled their eyes at her lyrics (notably the now-infamous “I lost my job/ I miss my mom/ I wish my cat could talk” from “Goodbye”), but Cosentino never claimed she was trying to make high art. She freely admitted her songs were about boys, weed and cats (in that order) and that’s fine by us. As long as she puts out gorgeous albums, we’ll be listening. - Ashley Thiry
8. Vampire Weekend
No one had farther to fall. In January 2008, an obscure band of Ivy League graduates dropped a little record that would quickly become a very big record and eventually make them household names and bona fide rock stars. Universally acclaimed and selling out tours playing a catalog of just 10 songs, Vampire Weekend achieved a level of ubiquity rarely seen in indie music. What a precarious situation for a bunch of 25 year-olds! For months, everyone from frat boys to hipsters anticipated the band’s upcoming release; would it cement their place in indie history or prove them a one-trick pony whose pedigree could only carry them so far? Vampire Weekend responded by offering Contra, as much a bold assertion of identity as a collection of interesting and delightful pop songs.
As any follow-up to a great first album should, Contra sounds like Vampire Weekend, but better. Ezra Koenig’s deft melodies still soar over Chris Tomson’s complex drum patterns, perhaps the most recognizable features of the band’s sound. But this time, there is texture to the vocals, whether in Koenig’s baritone delivery on “Taxi Cab” or the blippy auto tune of “California English.” Voice becomes as important an instrument as guitar or keys in the layers of rhythm and harmony that comprise each song. For its part, Tomson’s inventive drumming never relaxes into familiar patterns; rather than constantly deliver a steady heartbeat, he implies tempo with complex fills that would require two or even three lesser percussionists. “Cousins” revisits the first album’s sardonic perspective on merit and privilege, with Koenig chuckling, “When your birth right is interest you could just accrue it all.” For the most part, though, this is an album about the mythology of California, as told by New Yorkers. Themes of flight, escape, vacation, sex and celebration appear throughout. To the hard hearts of the Big Apple, California represents all these things. This West Coast-style joy and freedom, the multi-cultural mishmash of influences and the delicate interplay of melody and rhythm made Contra one of the finest albums of 2010. - Katie Bolton
Rocking harder than the douchebags in skinny jeans half his age, Nick Cave and the rest of the men in Grinderman create one of the dirtiest, most visceral experiences of the year in the aptly named Grinderman 2. More an extension of the work he did on Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! than a lateral side project, Grinderman 2 is a collection of some the scuzziest and boldest music of Cave’s career.
Cave shapes the album wisely, beginning with three loud songs: “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man,” “Worm Tamer” and lead single “Heathen Child.” I dare you to find an opening salvo on any album this year that matches the ferocity and down-and-out depravity of this unholy trinity. And who can beat lyrics like, “My baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster/ Two great big humps and then I’m gone“? For the first time since The First Born is Dead, the blues play a major influence on Cave’s writing. “Kitchenette” and “Bellringer Blues” are rooted deep in the swampy influences of the South, yet Cave is able to wrestle away that tradition and pervert into his own blend of cacophonous noise.
Most surprising are the album’s two quiet numbers. On “What I Know,” Cave hasn’t been as stripped down and mysterious since The Boatman’s Call and “Palaces of Montezuma” may be Cave’s most ideal piece of pop perfection- if you can count a song with JFK’s spinal cord wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee music for the masses. While the first Grinderman album had its moments, it was nothing more than a bone-headed, big-dicked rock album. Grinderman 2 has more nuance hiding under the big riffs, songs that beg to be played loud and live. No other album in 2010 comes fucking close. - David Harris
6. LCD Soundsystem
This is Happening
LCD Soundsystem’s third (and possibly final) album, This is Happening, really didn’t have to be as great as it is. Main man James Murphy has accumulated so much goodwill with his last two albums, his production for DFA and his enormous influence on indie dance/disco that he could have just coasted on this one. Rather than phone it in, Murphy made his most self-aware and emotionally vulnerable album, as well as indulged his love of late ’70s art-pop. One of the reasons their songs are so beloved is that Murphy clearly has encyclopedic and impeccable taste, which he can translate into songs that recall everyone from Pink Floyd to New Order, but still are fresh, creative and, above all, danceable.
The jumping-off point on this album appears to be the holy trinity of Berlin-era Bowie/Eno/Pop, which remains a high point for all three musicians. The hard-charging, pretty hilarious “Drunk Girls” is similar to “Boys Keep Swinging,” “Somebody’s Calling Me” has a “Nightclubbing” vibe and, most audaciously, “All I Want” plays as a sequel to the immortal “Heroes.” The fact that Murphy can put his influences upfront and not come off as derivative or ironic is striking. This is Happening is a record that can be thrown on at a party, but also listened to as an album. Though it’s nothing like a concept album, it have something of a narrative arc and a thematic unity, moving from the dance floors and parties of “Dance Yrself Clean” and “Drunk Girls” through the soul searching of “All I Want” and “I Can Change” before ending up, appropriately, with the comforting, yet still funky “Home.”
Nobody has so astutely soundtracked the poignancy and nostalgia of aging out of the scene – yet still wanting to be part of it – as Murphy. And certainly nobody has made it so damn catchy and body-moving. If this really is Murphy and co.’s last album, it’s a triumphant and inspiring farewell for one of the finest bands of the past decade. - Lukas Sherman
5. The National
The National reportedly intended to make an optimistic, catchy record as their follow-up to Boxer. Instead, this year’s High Violet was every bit as dark as its predecessor. It also ended up every bit as good; indeed, one is hard-pressed to identify the album’s premier song because almost all of them are just that damn great. The record arrived with much anticipation and eventually garnered the type of mainstream attention that snags a couple of indie acts each year, yet somehow the band managed to exceed these lofty expectations. We might end up looking back at 2010 as the year we began to take it for granted that every new National album would be as remarkable as the one that came right before it.
Everything about High Violet – from Matt Berninger’s suffering-voiced baritone to the band’s carefully crafted arrangements – reveals a gravity and seriousness that would make lesser bands sound completely overblown. Moments of black humor notwithstanding, the album is exceptionally and plainly sad, whether it’s in the distance felt in songs like “Sorrow” and “London,” in images such as “Manhattan valleys of the dead” or in mysterious, ambiguous lyrics like “it takes an ocean not to break.” There are few comforts throughout – maybe a little consolation can be found in the comforts of family and on the hints of devotion in closer “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks” – but Berninger’s lyrics mostly center around mental and personal issues exacerbated by lousy trips back home and a lack of drugs to “sort it out.”
The album might not receive highest placement on many year-end best-of lists – that honor seems likely to go to a handful of righteously seething New Jersey rockers, a certain Canadian band with a knack for grandiose statements about The State of Man or an ego-centric rapper who lived up to his self-generated hype – but High Violet, like most of the National’s output, might age better than any of them. It takes no small amount of guts and skill to make an album so disarmingly honest; the National have plenty of both, delivering yet another album whose timelessness already seems assured. - Eric Dennis
4. Beach House
While Beach House’s self-titled debut and sophomore effort Devotion received their share of critical acclaim, neither album is an accurate indicator for the leap forward in songcraft that is Teen Dream. Think about the stylistic jump between Help! and Rubber Soul and you will get the idea. On the first two records, good songs hid behind gauzy production and dreamy instrumentation. Teen Dream does not completely obliterate the groundwork begun by those two albums, but instead adds the best elements of ’70s soft rock, indie stylings and brings the songsmith out from behind the curtain.
Victoria Legrand’s voice has not been stronger and Alex Scally’s guitar effortlessly wraps around her melodies and vamping keys. Songs like “Zebra” and “Norway” continue to reveal new pieces of themselves despite being nearly a year old. Though primarily a ballad band, the songs of Teen Dream have a wide palette, each written in widescreen – expansive, yet intimate at the same time. These songs recall the dreamy wistfulness of the best of Fleetwood Mac, yet remain forward-looking at the same time. There is something unmistakably sad about the songs of Teen Dream. They embody the wistfulness M83 searched for on Saturdays=Youth but couldn’t quite grasp. It’s not weepy sadness, but a swirling lost nostalgia that thrums up in our minds as distant memories. You know the kind. Stand-out track “10 Mile Stereo” encompasses that feeling best, the entire song just one big, welling emotional crescendo.
Teen Dream is about more than just lyrics and interesting ideas; it’s about the entire sound, getting lost in the dream itself. Like any dream, Beach House’s music can shimmer, threaten to turn dark, become ethereal and remain elusive all the while. It’s hard to find albums this good, comforting and mysterious. - David Harris
3. Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West’s venture into Auto-Tuned introspection in 808s and Heartbreak (2008) begat a litter of pups like collaborator Kid Cudi, Drake and Childish Gambino, all of whom share the rare hip-hop predilection for talking about their feelings. Even established rappers like Lil Wayne and whatever-Sean-Combs-is-calling-himself-this-week have ventured out of their comfort zones with varying degrees of success, and if you can prove that 808s wasn’t the impetus for this much-needed progression of the hip-hop genre, I’ll let you eat my hat.
In the wake of these imitators, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy gives us The Second Coming of ‘Ye (surely the title of his next record) as the rapper/producer creates exactly the kind of record we expected Mr. West to drop – one that makes even the transcendent Late Registration seem like he was just dicking around. Fantasy is a gargantuan, decadent monstrosity, full of some of the more glorious beats of his career – and runs only 13 tracks, so it doesn’t feel interminable like so many rap records — lyrics that range from classic Kanye-isms to 808s heart-on-album-cover musings to “I put the pussy in a sarcophagus” and an awards show’s worth of guest appearances. To wit, Nicki Minaj gives a career-making guest verse on “Monster” and contributions from Jay-Z, RZA, Pusha T, Raekwon and Rick Ross turn already great tracks into a hip-hop Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Powerful, lush and always threatening to collapse under its own grandiosity, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the sound of Kanye’s mind, a supernova of hip-hop that burns so bright that we must dare to call it Pop. - Danny Djeljosevic
2. Arcade Fire
Make no mistake about it, Arcade Fire is a ‘big statement’ band and The Suburbs is a ‘big statement’ album. Like Bruce Springsteen in his Born To Run heyday, Win Butler and company exude an intense passion when exploring and criticizing suburban passivity and social disconnection, all while touting huge choruses and memorable hooks.
The world of The Suburbs is one where making an everyday living trumps creative ambition and a façade of intellect permeates political decisions. Despite the heaviness of the content, Arcade Fire treats their subject with equal shades of optimism. Though the hipster kids of “Rococo” seem endlessly self-involved, their fate isn’t written in stone. People are bound by jobs, responsibility and mortgages, but not defined by them; Arcade Fire move between each feeling with such ease and grace, expertly churning out thundering indie anthems (“Month of May,” “Ready To Start”) alongside meditative pieces of introspection (“Sprawl II,” “Wasted Hours”). “Modern Man” – with its striking off-time tempo and Butler’s plain delivery mirroring the lyrical content – isn’t just the defining song of this record, but of Arcade Fire’s young career.
With Funeral and Neon Bible, Arcade Fire tackled their burdensome, universal subject matter head-on, making only a few missteps along the way to massive indie fame; The Suburbs is better than both of those albums. It’s ambitious, unrelenting and mercilessly poignant in its examination of adulthood. It’s what Elvis Costello meets Bob Dylan sounds like; it has a fervent grace to it that refuses to settle for the mediocre, yet constantly comes up empty in its search for something more. Apocalyptic, yet optimistic, The Suburbs is the sound of potential being met. - Kyle Fowle
1. Titus Andronicus
Elsewhere on this list, the Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs claimed its spot via a sober, oft-wistful look at twentysomethings coming to terms with growing into adulthood and settling (down) into the kinds of neighborhoods they’d fought so hard to leave just a decade earlier, all set to multi-colored, winsome pop-rock. Meanwhile, from the New York City suburb of Glen Rock, New Jersey, Patrick Stickles and the rest of Titus Andronicus decided to approach the onset of their own Torschlusspanik via the 10 often sprawling, raging rockers of their second LP, The Monitor.
The Monitor tells the story of Stickles’ optimistic move to Boston – in pursuit of a better and more thoughtful life, a “new New Jersey,” versus the never-ending parade of meatheads and alcohol in the Garden State. Though, over the course of his stay, he sees that there isn’t much of a change – that “the enemy is everywhere-”and to persevere in a city where every day means a fight – literally or figuratively – he must desensitize himself with drugs, cigs and booze before admitting defeat and shipping back down to Jersey, knowing full well he’s alienated himself from anyone he cared about with his move.
The songs here – a sort of Bright Eyes-Springsteen-Social Distortion amalgam – range from bleary-eyed wistfulness and sardonic recollection to heartrending disappointment and fuck’em-all bluster. Stickles, though, cannily obfuscates what could be a sad-bastard study in solipsistic pity in the context of the American Civil War, a bloody example of a whole torn asunder; through this mechanism and via the help of an all-star indie cast (Craig Finn, Vivian Girl Cassie Ramone) reading the writings of Lincoln, Whitman and other 19th Century U.S. figures, Stickles weaves an elaborate fever dream of a record where one is unsure of time or date, winner or loser, antagonist or friend. Stickles whimpers to an adversary at the end of the epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads” “I’d be nothing without you, darling/ Please don’t ever leave,” making clear that the one thing that’s certain on The Monitor is his defining indignation. Win Butler may have the ear of a generation but Patrick Stickles shares the boiling blood of those stewing on its fringes. - Chris Middleman