The Top Fifteen Albums of 2010
There are a number of ways you can go about writing and introduction. You can simply introduce what the thing following the introduction is, but that’s boring. You can write about what you were originally going to write about but didn’t for reasons that you go on to explain. You can write about introductions themselves and what people write in introductions and why they do that. I’m not sure which kind this is. Maybe it’s all of them.
It’s probably a dumb idea to write a “Best Of” list a month into a New Year, but it’s just as dumb to put something as trivial as a “Best Of” list off for so long. Originally this was much different. I started and got bored and quit, until I came up with a new idea. I was drunk. The idea was to imagine there was a short story written about each individual album, and then there would be an excerpt from each nonexistent short story. This was—and is—a very bad idea, and the results confirmed this ten-fold. The Rick Ross excerpt was about a frog. Anyway, I deleted it and started over and wrote way too many words about something that people stopped caring about five weeks ago, if they ever cared to begin with.
Please to enjoy, a list of things in which I write “anyway” a lot:
15. R. Kelly, Love Letter
You know how R. Kelly is clearly a crazy person and yet somehow this R&B savant? You know how he can record some seriously uplifting and positive music and also record the raunchiest song about sex you’ve ever heard? And you know how he released a double-album that was one side gospel and the other side devoted entirely to the semi-obscure Chicago subculture of “steppin’”? Yeah, that was awesome.
Love Letter is one of those different Kells albums, lying somewhere in between an homage to 60s soul and that period of time when people actually thought Jamie Foxx was Ray Charles. The result is one of R. Kelly’s best records. In fact, I’d dare to say that if the entire album was recorded with a studio band instead of synths1 we’d have one of the best R&B albums of the last 20 years on our hands. As it stands, it’s probably the best R. Kelly album since Happy People/U Saved Me and a testament to the fact that even if a person can’t read they can still make more money than 99% of the population. USA! USA! USA!
16. Ghostface Killah, Apollo Kids
I held off on writing my Best of 2010 list for several reasons: the first was out of sheer laziness, the second was so that I could concentrate on murdering several thousand birds at one time2, and the third was so I could give the new Ghostface album a listen. Now, due to the late release I can’t in good conscience move this up much higher on the list, I just didn’t listen to it enough. A man got to have a code! But I can tell you that this, Ghost hasn’t been this on point since Fishscale.
Ghost comes back swinging, hungry once again. And even though Pretty Toney has been releasing albums consistently, after the mostly confusing soul/R&B album of 2009, Apollo Kids seems like it’s Ghostface placing himself back atop the hip-hop food chain. And he does so with an ease that makes you wonder why everyone else is trying so damn hard. This album is the Ghostface we know and love, perhaps hip-hop’s greatest storyteller, flanked by the usual line up, a who’s who of Wu.3 Look, it’s a Ghostface Killiah album, you know what you’re getting: soul samples, gritty crime stories, random Wu-Tang Clan members and one of the best rappers of all time.
13. Rick Ross, Teflon Don
Back in the Summer of 2006, right around the time Weezy F. Baby was making a run at The Greatest Rapper Alive title—but before he was dropping ten mixtapes every month—coke rap was just beginning to peak, and I became somewhat obsessed with Rick Ross and his debut Port of Miami. There were a number of things that drew me to the album: Ross’ mostly fleshed-out larger-than-life persona,4 the record’s beats and top-shelf production, and—most of all—that scene in the “Hustlin’” video where he buys a pair of jeans off of a guy in a parking lot.
The only problem was that Rick Ross was not a very good rapper. In fact, he seemed to be under the impression that just using the same word over and over again was considering rhyming. I’d blame the public school system, but I think his beard was mostly at fault. I expected Port of Miami to be one of those flawed rap albums I loved and Rick Ross to eventually just fade away. But somehow, someway, not long after Port of Miami came out, Ross blew the fuck up.
He had a guest verse on a million albums, he was on every mixtape, he was on the remix of every hit single, he probably had a sandwich named after him. And somewhere along the way, after releasing three albums in the four years following Port of Miami, Rick started getting good. I mean really good, not just passable. I suppose if you do anything enough, you’re only bound to get better at it and Rick put in his work. And by work I mean buying chains with his face wearing a chain with his face on it. I’m not sure how we arrived at this place, but I’m glad we’ve made it, because it’s nice to have a situation in which Rick Ross isn’t the worst part about a Rick Ross album.
12. The Hold Steady, Heaven Is Whenever
The thing about Franz Nicolay is that he has an awesome mustache. The other thing about Franz Nicolay is that he left The Hold Steady before they recored Heaven Is Whenever. Which meant, they would be entering the studio without a big part of their sound for the first time since they Almost Killed Me. Franz, his keys, and his manic on-stage energy made the band whole. So what happens when you take a key element out of the world’s greatest bar band?
The Hold Steady minus Franz, in theory, would make them sound more like their first album: raw, stripped-down, loose and other cliches of that ilk. If that was the case, then I was on board 100%. Not that I have a choice into the type of album they record, but I like to think I do, telepathically speaking. But they’re a different band now—older, wiser, nicer furniture—which is why Heaven Is Whenever is a more subdued album than anything they’ve released thus far.
Less interested in anthems and rehashing the same old characters for one more album, Heaven Is Whenever feels somewhat transitional. It’s not as solid, top-to-bottom, as previous Hold Steady albums, but the standout tracks, “The Weekenders” and “Our Whole Lives,” are as good as any they’ve recorded before and any released this year. Honestly, this is my least favorite of their albums, but even a sub-par Hold Steady record is better than 99% of everything else out there.
11. State Champion, Stale Champagne
There’s a lot of good-time party music on this list. I’m not exactly sure how that reflects on 2010, which didn’t seem like much of a good-time party year to me. Maybe it’s a distraction thing? That’s right, America. Just go ahead, dance and gyrate all you want while the socialists take away our God-given freedoms. Ok, maybe it’s best not to dissect this too much.5
Right, so, Stale Champagne. Not much of a good-time party record, but that’s alright. Sometimes you don’t need a good-time party record6, sometimes you need the opposite of a good-time party record, something that slows it down and has some soul and emotion in it. A record that’s not all auto-tune and production, that has some flaws. That’s the kind of album this is. It’s a whiskey-in-a-dark-room kind of record.
State Champion likes to call their sound “garage country” and normally I would dispute the need for unnecessary genre labeling. But in this case, “garage country” really does help encapsulate the sound of the record. The loud, haphazard, live feel of a garage rock record, with an alt-country kind of twang. And other than a new adjective to describe the country sound other than “twang,” what we all really need, deep down, is some garage country to play loudly while we drink. In the dark. Alone.
10. Wavves, King Of The Beach
Do you remember that scene in High Fidelity when, upon returning to his store, John Cusack finds Jack Black quietly simmering while listening to some music? When John Cusack asks what it is, Jack Black says it’s from the skate rats outside and begrudgingly admits that it’s “really fucking good.” You remember that, right? Of course you do, we all do. It’s one of the most well known scenes in cinematic history. It’s like the end of Casablanca, but better.
Anyway, that album the skate rats made, that’s King of the Beach. And those skate rats in the movie, they’re probably not nearly as entitled as the members of Wavves are. Think indie-rock Jeff Spicoli, but with less ambition. But I suppose that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that after two records of hiding their pop influences and hooky nature behind a wall of distortion and apathy, Wavves has finally put together something that might actually mean they are trying now. Sure, the vibe is still that of bored, snotty, middle-class kids crashing at their parents’ beach house, but this time it’s really fucking good. This album won’t make you want to punch the members of the band in the face any less, but hey, at least they’re not Best Coast.
09. Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer
In the last six years, Cee-Lo Green has released two solo albums, two albums with Danger Mouse, guested on countless hip-hop records (and probably appeared in countless more videos), been involved with a number of huge, chart topping singles that received a ton of radio spins and is somehow still mostly known as “that guy from Gnarls Barkley” if he’s known at all.
And even though “Fuck You” exploded the internet on a Friday afternoon in August, it never did hit that “Hey Ya!” level of saturation, partly because of the hook (and the radio edit that takes so much bite out of it) and partly because the internet can make something seem old and over-and-done-with in a weekend. We claim to not like or to never have liked things so much earlier these days, which is a real shame. Posturing used to be an art form.
Mega-popular songs in 2010 and their shelf-life aside, The Lady Killer is a prime example of what Cee-Lo can bring to the proverbial table: an eclectic mix of styles and genres that not only changes from album to album, but from song to song. The difference between The Lady Killer and past Cee-Lo solo efforts is part of what made “Fuck You” so popular: it’s a modern R&B song with a classic feel to it. Traditionally, Cee-Lo’s solo discs have been based in funk and southern hip-hop with a bit of a psychedelic vibe; here Cee-Lo cuts loose the rapping and full-on Dungeon Family influences and adds a layer of classic soul and a vintage sound that would make Marvin Berry & The Starlighters proud. The album jumps from 50s to 60s to 70s and back in the matter of 14 tracks, but it’s the most modern-sounding song that could have the most legs.
“Bright Lights, Bigger City” kicks the doors of the album wide open. The Lady Killer never reaches the same heights, but then again it never really tries to. And that may be for the best because “Bright Lights, Bigger City” could very well be the over-used song in the “going out on the town” montage for every Entourage-esque movie and TV show for the next few years. Bros, put the ultra premium vodka on ice and your head through the stretch-SUV limousine’s moonroof, because you only need to download one track. Everyone else, you should go ahead and grab the whole album.
08. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding
A seminal 90s indie-rock band that takes a decade-long hiatus between studio albums is only supposed to come back for that one last money-grab with a half-assed reunion tour and a live album/DVD where everyone pretends they don’t hate each other. Then they go back to their terrible solo projects. They aren’t supposed get back into the studio and record one of the best albums of their careers.
Now, granted, Superchunk never broke up so there was no need for the dead-eyed reunion. And they’ve been releasing music since their last album in 2001, so Majesty Shredding can’t really be considered a “come back.” Nevertheless, it is a surprising burst of youthful energy from a band that has been around for more than 20 years.
Back in the day,7 it would be easy to explain this album to somebody; it’s an indie album. The sped-up tempos, the DIY punk ethic, the woah-oh-ohs, it’s all in there. And here I could say something like “but that’s back when ‘indie’ used to mean something.” But it never really did, did it? It was just something to say to sound superior to the kids that liked rap/rock and nu-metal. And you probably were superior, but not because of your taste in music.
Anyway, Majesty Shredding is Superchunk through and through. Indie-rock, power-pop, pop-punk, funk-rock, whatever you want to call it. It’s got all the sing-a-long choruses you’d expect, and the slack-motherfucker attitude with a little polish to their normally lo-fi sound. Horns! Strings! GASPS! But when all is said and done, the thing that makes Majesty Shredding stand out is the fact that as much as it sounds like a Superchunk album from 1990, it’s the kind of music no one else is making in 2010.
07. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
No album this year grew on me after repeated listens more than The Suburbs. One spin through, I was somewhat disappointed, if not bored. It lacked the things I’ve come to expect—maybe unfairly—from Arcade Fire. I missed the urgent pacing. I missed that folky staccato in the arrangements. I missed the swelling, sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs anthems that in my mind made up most of their catalog, but in reality are just a few of their tracks. I missed those the most, as I assume we all did.
And lamenting about the suburbs? Not only has it been done before, they’ve done it before. But I kept listening, and perhaps in the same way the the bland, prefabricated nothingness of the suburbs can eventually become comforting, I started to enjoy the album more and more. That’s not to say the album is depressing, or bland, or nothing, it is however—like the subject matter (and some song titles) would suggest—sprawling. Apart from a few tracks like “Month of May” and “Empty Room” the album feels less erratic and quieter, houses instead of high-rises.
Neon Bible had a Bruce Springteen feel to it, both in sound and in the sort of “taking the weight of the world on our shoulders” attitude of it. The Suburbs is desolate, but not sparse, losing some of the bombast in favor of a post-punk synth floating throughout. Whereas some tracks on Funeral were the background music for breaking free from the confines of suburban boredom, on The Suburbs the band sounds more weary, possibly now accepting the suburbs for what it is, flaws, decay and all. So now, I get the feeling that after three really good albums, Arcade Fire will pursue their destiny of becoming a modern U2, insufferable lead-singer and all. Godspeed, Win Butler.
06. Sleigh Bells, Treats
Sleigh Bells isn’t loud enough. You would think the remedy would be as simple as turning up the volume, but try as I might, I nearly blew out the speakers in my car whilst chasing the dragon. Who knew a guy that was in an awful band like Poison The Well and a girl from a failed All Saints8 knock off would get together and make an album of insane pop music? The kind of music where you can almost feel the bass oozing our of the speakers. I’m sure this was used in dozens of reviews, but Treats goes to 11. I hate myself for writing that as much as you hate me for having to read it, but what’s done is done.
I’ll be honest, because why would I lie here? Upon first listen I rejected the album; I wasn’t sure what to make of it. That’s because it’s not really music you should be playing when you’re half-awake on the way to work at 6:00AM. But I gave it another chance, and another, and another. It stayed in my car’s CD player for weeks. It was all I listened to.
I also wouldn’t shut up about it, which is why everyone I knew grew sick of me trying to explain why the album was so awesome. “It’s like an album of crazy Rick Rubin sludge beats,” I would exclaim as my words ran into each other. “I don’t know what that is supposed to mean,” they would say as they threw rocks at me. In their defense, it doesn’t really mean anything, but everyone should get as excited as I do about the possibility of an album full of crazy Rick Rubin sounding sludge beats. Especially mix-tape rappers. The beats are there, people. Get on it!
05. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
The surprising thing about Axl’s Chinese Democracy wasn’t that it was great or that it was unspeakably awful, it was that it was just alright; it was mediocre, it was good enough. This is surprising because you wouldn’t expect a person to spend the better part of two decades recording an album that just whelms, you would expect it to either blow people’s doors off or go down like the Hindenburg. Everything that falls in between is generally forgotten. This is how we treat the highly-anticipated.
New movies, new books, new albums, things that have kept us waiting weeks, months and years are held to these unusually high standards. It’s unfair that we treat the highly-anticipated this way, that we can’t just accept these things as stand-alone pieces of art, but this is what the anticipation does to our expectations. From what I hear about waiting, it tends to be the hardest part.
Which brings me (finally!) to Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, Big Boi’s long-awaited, long-delayed long play, the first official solo album from a member of OutKast. It’s an album that’s been talked about since the release of Speakerboxxx, Big Boi’s first kind-of-but-not-really solo album. Sir Lucious was pushed back so many times that I began to wonder if it’d ever come out, even as the internet kept coughing up new leaks of songs that were supposedly on the nonexistent record. But the Dungeon Family is not here to disappoint (see: The Lady Killer), which is why Sir Lucious Left Foot accomplishes the rarest of rares: it not only lives up to, but surpasses the hype.
Like the OutKast albums before it, Sir Lucious Left Foot isn’t something that is simply ahead of its time, instead the album exists in its own universe, one that has been created over the last decade and a half by Big Boi and Andre. Its an album that sounds effortless yet still aggressive as it pushes things forward, not afraid to take hip-hop in new directions. Above all it’s an album that shows Big Boi’s strengths as one of the greatest MCs of all time. As Big Boi says, “I write knockout songs, you spit punchlines for money.”
04. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
If this really is their last album, as James Murphy has said it will be9, LCD Soundsystem should go down as the band/project/funk-brigade who’s sound epitomized rock music in The Oughts. If you even want call what they do rock music. If you don’t, that’s something you and your therapist need to sit down and deal with. What I’m saying here is that LCD Soundsystem is batting 1.000 for their career. Three albums, three home runs. Did it really take me this long to get into cliche baseball metaphors? Swish!
This Is Happening starts just as you would expect it to: “Dance Yrself Clean” is a nine-minute deconstruction of a troubled relationship set to a beat that builds to a dance-floor destroying frenzy. “Everybody’s getting younger / It’s the end of an era,” Murphy laments, a sentiment and longing that has been expressed by the band numerous times before.
But on the very next track—a tongue-in-cheek ode not to dumb, drunk revelry but to the morning after—This Is Happening shows signs of the album being a departure point. After two records holding court as the internal monologue of a generation, James Murphy seems less and less concerned with being cool (or at least being perceived as cool) than he does with just living his life. On several of the tracks, James Murphy worries less about losing his edge to the kids coming up behind him and more about his future and how relationships are impacting that.
This Is Happening doesn’t have the raucous singles like those on LCD’s self-titled debut. Nor is it as solid an album as 2007’s Sound of Silver, but it’s very,very close. It’s a less self-conscious album than James Murphy has done before, and even though he is notoriously persnickety about his albums down to the most minute detail, this album sounds looser than LCD’s previous stuff. The sound of the album, much like the content of the lyrics, leans towards living in the now and not worrying about being awesome. Perhaps at 40, now finally the coolest kid on the block, James Murphy is mature enough to let us all know that this, life, is happening. A sentiment that is in no way as cheesy as it looks in writing, I can assure you of that.
03. Robyn, Body Talk (Pts. 1, 2 & 3)
If there are two things we can absolutely count on Sweden for: inexpensive furniture made mostly out of particle board and really kick-ass pop music. And probably some crazy black metal, so three things I guess. Anyway, after her last album of super catchy electropop was rejected by her label, Robyn released the appropriately titled Robyn on her own Konichiwa Records label.
With this new album, Robyn went with something less traditional by releasing three separate EPs over the course of the year. Maybe this isn’t the best idea for any and every recording artist, but it works amazingly well for Robyn. Each EP is heavy on the “electro” in electropop, with as many references to computers and technology and fembots as there are the classic pop song archetypes about relationships and the like. It’s an incredibly dancey album, with a handful songs (“Dancing On My Own” and “Indestructible,” for example) that are among the best pop songs of the year. Brass tacks, Robyn puts every other would-be pop-starlet of 2010 to shame.
The music on Body Talk isn’t anything ground-breaking, it’s just incredibly well-done. The three EPs are tracked more like mini-albums than they are just a random assortment of singles. And perhaps most impressively, a 21-track pop album has nary a track that can be considered filler material. Even the tracks that are doubled-up don’t feel redundant because of the difference in arrangements and tempo.
I say we do whatever we can to make sure that every few months or so we get a new Robyn EP from now until the End of Days. Nothing crazy, maybe four songs per EP, five if she’s feeling really creative. Hell, I’ll even take an EP of remixes every once in a while. What’s important is that we all, as a society, have something to look forward to every few months. That way, we won’t go tearing each other apart. We’ll work together, for the benefit of mankind, to ensure that we all get to the next Robyn EP. And then there will be a big party or something, I haven’t decided yet.
Tragically, the End of Days is an inevitably. And when the mechanical ones come for us with their cold, steely claws the irony will be that they, too, are big fans of Robyn, because she is very obviously one of them.
02. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Bands from New Jersey like to sing songs about New Jersey. Often they like to sing songs about getting out of New Jersey, which is at once a metaphor for growing up and taking charge of your life and an actual yearning to get out of New Jersey because it is New Jersey. New Jersey.
The Monitor is a concept album loosely based on the American Civil War, but like many classic punk albums it’s about youth, and a love/hate relationship with where you come from, and us against them, and 19th century battle ships, and fuck you. As a second album it is ballsy, as a concept album it drunkenly sprints past ambition towards absurdity, as the band tosses seemingly any instrument they can find on to songs that string together bits and pieces into tracks like the fourteen-minute (with a bag-pipe section!) epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads.”
Sing-a-longs, whiskey soaked anthems, ballads about relationships gone wrong, Irish jigs, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn pretending to be Walt Whitman, The Monitor is an album that tries just about everything. It’s motivated and expansive (for a punk album) falling just over the one hour mark. And as goofy as it sounds, the Civil War is a perfect metaphor for what this album is about, projecting America teetering at the edge of destruction onto the trials and tribulations of being young and bored, angry and broke in America in 2010.
The Monitor is sometimes loose, sometimes sloppy, occasionally violent and always passionate. “As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide,” states the album’s opening monologue, a quote from Abraham Lincoln, and a mantra for the all-or-nothing attitude put forth by the band. If their goal was to make something great or go down trying, Titus Andronicus succeeded many, many times over. And hopefully they are now enjoying life outside of New Jersey.
01. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
What can I write about Kanye West that hasn’t already been written about a million times over? How about the fact that he is a shape-shifting reptilian humanoid from Alpha Draconis that drinks blood and is part of the global conspiracy in which the Lizard People control all of the world’s money and power from below the Earth’s surface. Has anyone written that about Kanye yet? Because it’s probably true.
This album has been praised and lauded and other synonyms for those words by almost everyone since the day it came out. Everyone but that guy you work with that only listens to Metallica and still says “rap is crap.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy deserves every bit of that praise that it gets. What is interesting is that the praise often comes at the expense of the auteur.10 Many reviews for this album are generally in the same spirit, “even though Kanye is an asshole….” or “even though Kanye has a massive ego…” as if we are reluctant to acknowledge the egotistic genius behind the album.
Are this many people not aware of how hip-hop works? Since the dawn of time (somewhere in the mid-1970s) hip-hop has always been about egotism, braggadocio and showing off. That’s what hip-hop is, at it’s core. Now I’m not saying that’s all hip-hop can be, that hip-hop is just some bullshit oneupmanship, but rap music will always have an element of “I’m better than you are” to it.
In the case of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy this narcissistic attitude shouldn’t be dismissed, it should be embraced, because Kanye West is the most self-aware self-involved rapper alive. Since he first stepped out on his own—inasmuch as he’s ever really been on his “own”—he has made it clear that he is incredibly self-involved and cripplingly self-conscious. He doesn’t give a fuck that you know that he cares about what you think. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the ultimate expression of that attitude, of a man completely aware of not only how talented he is, but aware of how aware he is.
And this isn’t some experimental album, it’s not some post-modern meditation on what it means to be famous and brilliant and alone in this world. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the just next progression in Kanye West’s egotism and possibly the best album of his career. It is as good as hip-hop gets in 2010.
For as much flack as he gets for his personalty, for his outlandish behavior, for what he wears Kanye is still one of the few in mainstream hip-hop, actually one of the few in pop music in general, that is pushing things forward, that is willing to try something new, that is—maybe most importantly—willing to look foolish in the eyes of some to create his music. And if that’s not enough to convince you how good My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, try to name another hip-hop album with a Napoleon Dynamite reference and not one, but two nods to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” You crazy for this one, Washington Irving!
Agalloch, Marrow Of The Spirit
Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do
Frightened Rabbit, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks
Ted Leo + The Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks
The Black Keys, Brothers
The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang
The Roots, How I Got Over
The Sword, Warp Riders
Vampire Weekend, Contra
Various Artists, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (OST)
1 A real horn section alone would right this wrong.
2 I did this using only my MIND.
3 I don’t know if this more Dr. Seuss or Gene Shalit, but either way, I apologize.
4 Get it? He’s very fat!
5 There will be no over-analysis on this list whatsoever.
6 Does anyone know the “good-time party record” record?
7When I was young, I’m not a kid anymore.
8 Yes that was an excuse just to post that song.
9 I think I speak for everyone when I say that we really, really, really hope its not true.
10 I hope Kanye would want me to be this pretentious