Hey everyone! Ian has been kind enough to let me share some of my thoughts about music, so I’m gonna talk about my 10 favorite albums of last year. This turned into a magnum opus of sorts, but I promise that by the end of it you’ll have so much to buy with those iTunes gift cards you got for Christmas that you won’t know what to do with yourself. So without further ado, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2010:
The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
I had sorta written off Arcade Fire after I heard so much about Neon Bible being a bit stodgy and bitterly political, and even though I finally got way into their debut, Funeral, I wasn’t that intrigued when The Suburbs came out. But since Arcade Fire was the band that gave us Funeral, and people were going OMGcrazy on Facebook about how great this new album was, I decided to give it a chance. The title track hit me first – and I was very intrigued. It didn’t explode onto the scene like most of the tracks on their debut, it took a different approach: slow-burning, confident, precise, and vaguely sinister. Then “Ready to Start” announced its presence with those ringing guitar strikes, and I thought we might have something special here. “Modern Man” was similarly right-on, then “Rococo” . . . I went out and bought the album that night. The most impressive thing to me about this album, though, is that they take the suburbs, a pretty mundane topic that I would guess they have no current connection to, and turn it into something epic and haunting – AND keep it completely emotionally authentic. Because another reason I didn’t give this album much of a chance at first was that it was about the suburbs, of all things – and how was some hip indie band from Montreal going to have anything genuine to say about that? Turns out they had loads to say, and they said it amazingly well. Maybe my second favorite album this year (#1 will come up later), although the Black Keys had something to say about that too.
Teen Dream – Beach House
I only liked this album, but didn’t love it, until one Saturday afternoon in December. I was lying on my bed staring out the window, with music on in the background of my sorta-nap, when “10 Mile Stereo” came up on shuffle. I was blown away – I had finally discovered what this music was made for! It’s dreamy, woozy, somewhat melancholy yet perfectly pleasant . . . and in my half-awake state it all made sense. (Note: No illegal substances were used in the making of this moment. Honest.) I listened to the whole rest of the album, and it was beautiful. Any record that can deliver an afternoon like that is alright by me.
Brothers – The Black Keys
I hadn’t really paid much attention to the Black Keys before last summer. I think I gave their last album, Attack & Release, a listen back when it came out, but it was only so-so in my opinion at the time (and I still think these guys have no need for Danger Mouse). But I was bored on the couch one Tuesday afternoon, and iTunes was featuring this album, so I gave it a shot. From the moment the crunchy goodness that is the guitar in “Everlasting Light” entered my ears, I was hooked. Especially when it was followed by “Next Girl”, an absolute burner of a song that pulses with feverish energy – you can just see him singing through gritted teeth during the verses. And then THAT was followed by “Tighten Up”, and then THAT was followed by “Howlin’ for You”, and then “She’s Long Gone” . . . I could go until the very last track. There isn’t a weak one in the bunch – which is really saying something, since there are 15 of them. I’ve long believed that the best length for an album is 10 to 12 songs, and I’ve usually found that to be true; most bands seem to run out of great ideas by song 13. But not these guys – nor Arcade Fire, I might add, who churned out 16 fantastic songs on The Suburbs. Definitely the work of uber-talented musicians.
It’ll Be Better – Francis and the Lights
So this album is only 8 songs long, and I don’t even really like the last one, so how did it make my top 10? Simply put, the other 7 songs are almost perfect. “For Days” might actually BE perfect. And you know what Francis cites as his biggest influence, musical or otherwise? Strunk and White’s grammar-usage guide The Elements of Style. I kid you not – he says so here. You might think this means his lyrics are overly bookish or something, but no – he said it showed him the importance of “clarity and minimalism”, which is so satisfyingly apparent in every song on here. Nary a synth is wasted, nor a drum beat tastelessly out of line. The guitars always cut to the heart of matters. His vocals are the perfect mix of restraint and going for broke. And despite his less-is-more philosophy, there are still a ton of little sonic moments that make me positively giddy. It’s just amazing. In fact, I’m gonna stop for a sec so you can check it out yourself —
Done? OK, we’ll move on.
Would It Kill You? – Hellogoodbye
A hugely pleasant surprise. And not because it’s so good – I really liked most of their first album, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! (you may remember the single “Here (In Your Arms)”). It’s a surprise because it’s about as different as different can be from Z!A!V!D! (love the acronym). Where Z!A!V!D! was all electro-fied, auto-tuned, and zappy (what do you mean that’s not a word, spell-check?), Would It Kill You? is mostly analog, much brasher, and delightfully ragged at the edges. As frontman/songwriter Forrest Kline said in an article, he was tired of freaking out about every little tweak and setting, and just wanted to let the music be loose and natural. He certainly succeeded – you can tell he and the rest of the band poured all they had into this music, and had loads of fun doing it. Kline’s influences apparently widened too; on WIKY?, he channels the classic pop of the early- to mid-‘60‘s. It never sounds derivative though – the energy and fun in the music make it sound authentically their own. Check out the killer chorus of the title track (that link to the article lets you listen to this song too), the come-out-of-nowhere loping stomp of “Betrayed by Bones”, and the kinetic propulsion of “Finding Something to Do”. The lyrics are very good as well. Four years passed between their two albums, and Hellogoodbye lost members, went through record label troubles, and suffered numerous delays to this album’s release, and it sounds like they matured a lot through it all. While the goofiness of Z!A!V!D! was fun, it occasionally felt a little immature (see “Two Weeks in Hawaii”, where his girlfriend’s mom catches the two of them eating ice cream in the hotel room late at night – this might have worked if the band were still in high school). The lyrics on WIKY?, however, sound genuine and more wizened. They deal with less upbeat subjects like getting older and trying to learn to relax, but still concentrate mostly on the romance that makes life simply wonderful. Kline stays optimistic and sunny throughout, even when dipping into the less positive aspects of life, and his lyrics match the exuberant music to a tee.
High Violet – The National
Another one that caught me by surprise. I had wanted to love the National before this, but could never really get into Boxer or Alligator. How different the story is for High Violet. It’s hard for me to listen to this album the whole way through because it’s so beautifully, gorgeously, achingly melancholy. Frontman Matt Berninger’s somber baritone flows bleakly through cavalcades of perfectly fuzzed guitars, thunderous drums, brooding pianos, and punctuations of brass that somehow manage to sound both resigned and triumphant at the same time. His lyrics, which tend to repeat subtly powerful lines like “It’s a terrible love, and I’m walking with spiders” over and over, nestle comfortably amidst the swirling dirges around them, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. Count me firmly in the National’s corner now.
The Orchard – Ra Ra Riot
I thought this reviewer did an outstanding job of critiquing this album, so I’m just going to turn it over to him:
Transference – Spoon
Spoon is one of my favorite bands of all-time. I love Spoon. I saw them like 9 or 10 rows back from the stage at ACL in October. So so good. You should take another break to go buy this album and their last one (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), and then buy Kill the Moonlight and Gimme Fiction. Gahspoonissoamazing.
Ahem, anyway, back to Transference. It actually took me a few songs to get in tune with this album when I first listened to it. I went in expecting the energy and vibrance of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and apart from the excellent “Is Love Forever?” (those drums!!! aaaaahhhh!!!), I wasn’t really feeling it. But then I just accepted the fact that this is a more laid-back affair, and I fell head over heels for it. Every song is sharp and well-crafted, and if you’re into sonic delightfulness, you’re in luck because Spoon is one of the best in the game at it. The squishy tones to open “Who Makes Your Money?”, the piano in the next room over on “Goodnight Laura”, the guitar-in-a-can that explodes on “Trouble Comes Running” . . . just so well done. Britt Daniel is a genius.
(Also – how great is the cover art? It’s a photograph from 1970, and it captures the dark, laid-back coolness of the album really well. I even think that if this music was a color, it would be that dark shade of green. Maybe that’s mixing up cause and effect, but I do believe that great cover art can take music to another level – you may notice that every album on this list indeed has awesome artwork.)
Contra – Vampire Weekend
Probably my favorite album of 2010. As you may have deduced by now, I’m a sucker for sonic goodness, but I’m also a sucker for great melodies, interesting rhythmic patterns, and all-out fun, and this album delivers all of those in spades. When I put this album on in my car, I can’t help getting a big grin on my face and singing along, trying to keep pace with Ezra Koenig’s crazy auto-tuned vocals on “California English” or exuberantly echoing the WHOA-OH-OHs of “Horchata”. And giddy is the only way I can describe the feeling I get when the synth and drums start pinging back and forth between the speakers to open “White Sky”. Oh, and try not to move any part of your body while listening to “Cousins”. It’s practically impossible. No other album hits me quite like this one: track after track I’m just going “Gah, that’s so perfect!” through my barely-containable smile. Sonically and musically adventurous, tons of fun, joyfully danceable – I’ve run out of ways to express my love for Contra, so go see what I’m talking about if you haven’t already.
Say Us – Zeus
I owe a ton of thanks to my friend Alex Gorischek for telling me about this album. It’s great indie rock by musicians who are obviously super-talented. None of the songs really follow standard musical procedures, and all have at least one quirky instrument or harmony that makes you turn up the volume so you can hear just what it is they’re doing. They have multiple singer/songwriters in the band, and all of them deliver great stuff. “Marching Through Your Head” is especially rewarding, with the piano propelling the guitars and drums ever forward to fantastic effect. They do tender, almost psychedelic tunes just as well – see “I Know” and “The Sound of You”. And “At the Risk of Repeating” draws things to a great close – it’s a cool, unique song with a killer stuttering rhythm in the verses. The whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable.
Magnetic North – Aqualung: A slight bit of a letdown after the epic, breathtaking Memory Man, but still a great collection of pop songs. “Fingertip” and “New Friend” are sure to make you smile, and “Sundowning” and “Time Moves” are masterfully wistful.
Broken Bells – Broken Bells: Danger Mouse is kind of a polarizing figure for me, but I do like his work when it’s with new bands such as this one. And I like the Shins (their last album in particular), so the pop sensibility James Mercer brings is a big plus. “The High Road”, “October”, and “The Mall and Misery” are highlights.
Till the Light Comes – Jackie Greene: The alt-country master won me over with his last effort, Giving Up the Ghost, and this was a solid follow-up. “Spooky Tina” is a lot of fun, the tough strut of “Medicine” is great, and “Take Me Back in Time” makes me want to just drop everything and go float lazily down a river.
Congratulations – MGMT: I get it, I get it, they didn’t want to be known as a couple of guys who write really catchy indie rock songs with witty lyrics that everybody loves . . . wait a minute. What’s wrong with that?! “Kids”, “Electric Feel”, and “Time to Pretend” were instant classics! But they didn’t want to be defined by them, so they veered way into the psychedelic and abstract on this album – and, in the end, it’s really pretty good. “It’s Working” is fantastic, “Flash Delirium” is creepy but very effective, and “Congratulations” closes things out nicely (and on a saner note). I do like this album, but I hope that now that they’ve made their artistic statement, they try to find some middle ground between its sound and those knockouts on their debut.
Of the Blue Colour of the Sky – OK Go: I really like OK Go. I love their videos, their unconventional approach to the business side of music, and most of all their songs that grab you and stick in your brain for days. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky has a ton of those – the first 4 songs in particular are to die for. The album lost points with me though for fading a little towards the end (in my opinion), and for Dave Fridmann’s heavy-handed production. It’s a testament to their incredibly sharp songwriting skills that even through Fridmann’s way-too-tightly-packed layers, you still catch that irrepressible sense of fun that defines the band in so many ways.
The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens: Wow. Stevens went absolutely nuts on this one, and it’s riveting. He was inspired by the work of a schizophrenic artist, Royal Robertson, and when you look at Adz with that in mind, you see how genius it is at capturing the core paranoia of Robertson’s work. “Futile Devices” is a calm red herring of an opener, but then “Too Much” hits you with the hailstorm of electronic noise that dominates the rest of the album. And to think – this is from the guy whose last two albums were pretty folk collections about states in the Midwest! Very impressive. Unfortunately, a few of the songs get bogged down in the chaos, and I didn’t feel that there were always solid tunes at the center like on his previous albums. “Get Real Get Right” really does get it right though, and in my opinion is the best track on Adz. Overall I still say it’s an incredibly interesting album that’s well worth your time.
Be My Thrill – The Weepies: The Weepies are one of the best indie pop groups out there, and if you’ve never heard of them, first go check out their previous album, Hideaway. The title track on it is one of the best pop songs I’ve ever heard, hands down. Be My Thrill is very good too, building on more or less the same foundation as Hideaway, and every one of its charming songs will have you happily humming along. Highlights for me include “Please Speak Well of Me”, “I Was Made for Sunny Days”, and “Hummingbird”.
(And last but not least, I agree wholeheartedly with Ian – you got-to-tip on the tightrope, tip tip on it.)