The Top 50 Albums of 2010
Photo by Sanchez and Kitahara
10. Titus Andronicus
Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn appears on The Monitor as the voice of Walt Whitman, and his inclusion on the album is a fitting one. With their intricately wordy barroom sing-alongs, the Hold Steady, at their best, occupy some ideal middle ground between charged-up classic rock swagger and literary ambition. To the young people in Titus Andronicus, the Hold Steady are elder statesmen, and The Monitor is their attempt to equal their forefathers' classics.
Titus arrived more or less fully formed on 2008's The Airing of Grievances, playing their fists-up Jersey punk anthems as knotty, muffled fuck-yous. But The Monitor pushes everything onward and upward, past ambition and into something like insanity. The band tries out violins, pianos, horns, bleary folk interludes, gang-shout chants, an epic, multi-part, 14-minute finale, and a loony concept that messily marries a bad breakup to the American Civil War. But they do all this with verve and charm and confidence, anchoring their wanderings with 10-megaton chorus roars and riffs that sound like they've been around forever. Frontbeard Patrick Stickles bellows every lyric in a scraggly yowl, sounding like the world is crumbling around him and the only thing holding the sky up is the righteous noise from the band behind him. And all year, everywhere Stickles went, his monuments to personal desolation whipped up sweaty, joyous moshpits. To some kid somewhere, he's already an elder statesmen. --Tom Breihan
Photo by Erez Avissar
09. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
The subjects of Before Today are pretty grim: the psychological torment of gender confusion ("Menopause Man"), the self-destruction that comes with infatuation ("Can't Hear My Eyes"), a woman who kills her maid out of a desire to preserve order in her estate ("L'estat (Acc. to the Widow's Maid)"), hating and disappointing your father ("Little Wig"). Steely Dan covered similar thematic ground, but Ariel Pink doesn't have Wayne Shorter and Bernard Purdie backing him up. So rather than mock with sophistication, he goes for mock-sophistication, using music from his childhood (commercial jingles, soft rock, and goth-pop) not as a means of fetishizing the past, but as a way of showing how it haunts both him and his surroundings. The entire album is a buildup to and comedown from "Round and Round", a pristine "hit song" about how the drudgery of pop product mirrors the drudgery of everyday life. And it ends with a Public Image Ltd. rip that echoes that band's assertion that revolutionary rhetoric is baloney.
All of this cynicism would be reprehensible were it not for Pink's a) songwriting ability and b) personality, both of which are considerable. Months later, all of these songs are still catchy, vibrant, and even pretty funny. At a concert at Chicago's Metro last month, a crowd of people danced to Pink's many vocal affectations, the singer's face contorting into grotesque characterizations of mock-hysteria. It was the ideal live realization of Before Today: seemingly phony but implicitly touching, both creepy and moving. --Tal Rosenberg
Photo by Morgan Levy
08. James Blake
The Bells Sketch EP / CMYK EP / Klavierwerke EP
[R&S / Hessle]
Each EP James Blake released this year functioned like a mini-essay on styles he could've spent whole albums with: the lurching, noisy The Bells Sketch, CMYK's reconstituted gospel and R&B, and Klavierwerke's quiet, warped constructions of Blake's own voice and piano playing. Not all of them were front-to-back amazing; what's amazing is that they all came out in the same year. Part of the fun of liking Blake's music was not having to wait long to hear his new ideas-- we got quarterly updates, a series of variations in which he somehow managed to develop a voice so strong that people are already imitating it. He still pledges allegiance to dubstep, but his actual sound is more like a computerized collage of black American music-- compositionally, he owes more to early jazz like Erroll Garner than Burial. For tracks that lean so much on space and silence, they're intense, even devotional, and as effective as they might be on the dancefloor (though I wouldn't know here in America), he sounds best when anchored by solitude.
Sometimes I hear good new bands and get the feeling that they tapped into something that had always been there and always had to be there. Instant familiarity. With Blake, it's like I'd walked into the kitchen and saw a big prickly triangular fruit in the fruit bowl. Didn't recognize it. Didn't know what to do with it. Sniffed at it. Poked at it. Tried it. Liked it. Couldn't stop eating it, and couldn't get the taste anywhere else. Newness isn't everything, so it helps that he's also talented and hardworking. About a year and a half ago, he hadn't even released his first single. Since then, his music has been reviewed here seven separate times. We'll stop when he gives us a reason to. --Mike Powell
Photo by Shannon McClean
07. Joanna Newsom
Have One on Me
I keep staring at the box Have One on Me came in, this matte black object that fits a little strangely on my shelf. I'm thinking about moving it, how it'll have to go along with the other big ones, how that's sort of a hassle. Mostly I'm thinking about how I'm going to hang on to it for a long time-- not a thought I always have about music these days, even the stuff I really love. Something about Have One on Me feels very permanent, as though I've had it longer than 10 months, like it'll be around forever. Many of 2010's big albums were bolder, more immediate, pushed more boundaries, took bigger risks. Certainly, almost all of them were shorter. But few could match the richness, the scope, the humbling poise with which Have One on Me unravels.
Since Ys, Newsom's voice has deepened, evincing new character and grace. Her compositions flow more freely, the delicate bend and spindle of her music shedding some of the fussiness that marked Ys' epics. And here, the realms she conjures feel less fantastic, more familiar, decidedly habitable. This was the Joanna Newsom album that made converts of the naysayers, the one that was just as good as it was impressive, the one you could lose yourself in for days on end. If it didn't live on the turntable, it was a comfort knowing it was just there, in reach; returning to it throughout the year revealed new qualities of light, as Newsom's lyrics grew richer, her meanings more tangled with personal experience. Speaking on one part of Have One on Me almost seems to do disservice to the other parts; it is so large, it's tough to see all at once, and few records this year still feel like they have something to give even after dozens of listens. Have One on Me is just a big thing; an album of uncommon grace and refinement, a triumph of the LP form, and, yeah, a hefty old box full of records and pictures and words. And, now, a year's worth of memories. --Paul Thompson
Photo by Aaron Vanimere
06. Vampire Weekend
In which a band of misidentified elitists empathetically comes to terms with their elitist hangups only to be sued for $2 million by a former luxury model-turned-teddy bear entrepreneur who currently lives behind gates in one of the most affluent areas of America. Contra is not for fighting, though. It's for finding common spaces in a world desperately clinging to outmoded binaries: us vs. them, red vs. blue, Oxford comma vs. no Oxford comma. So while it was easy to scoff at the now 52-year-old Contra cover star Ann Kirsten Kennis as she talked about squeezing millions out of Vampire Weekend in a misappropriation-of-image suit while looking like a Wasp-y caricature in Vanity Fair, maybe it's not that simple. Maybe her sign-off on the Polaroid was forged by its photographer, as she claims. Maybe rich people who own ornate vases and fluffy lapdogs can be exploited, too. Plus, a passing detail in the VF piece-- that Kennis' hair was just starting to grow back after chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer when she first saw the Contra cover-- is exactly the type of humanizing tidbit Ezra Koenig might allude to in one of his songs. (The case is still pending.)
"Don't call me a Contra 'til you've tried," sings Koenig near the end of the album. The line-- delivered with a new-found solemn eloquence-- could read as a defense against his band's naysayers. And while there will always be those who are turned off by their popped collars, flighty arrangements, and overarching neatness, Vampire Weekend graciously refuse to let those people define them. --Ryan Dombal
Photo by Sanchez and Kitahara
05. Beach House
As if you needed more evidence that the traditional boundary between mainstream and indie is becoming ever more difficult to delineate, consider that a movie-star-marrying top-40 idol and a shy dream-pop duo from Baltimore's avant-underground each released albums in 2010 with practically the same title. But if Beach House's Teen Dream didn't quite have the same chart impact as Katy Perry's Teenage Dream, the album represents no less of a populist breakthrough for its makers. (And, hey, a No. 43 placing on the Billboard Top 200 ain't too shabby either.)
Teen Dream did little to alter Beach House's core characteristics-- slow-motion beats layered with hazy keyboard drones, rippling guitar figures, and Victoria Legrand's melancholic melodies-- but greatly amplified them to the point of redefining the band's essence, from that of introverted knee-gazers into an assured, emotionally assertive force. Liberated from the textural fog that permeated Beach House's first two albums, Legrand's voice exposed its rough edges, greatly enhancing the sense of longing and hurt underpinning songs like "Lover of Mine" and "Silver Soul". Advance copies of Teen Dream first started circulating last December, and its billowy synth lines and sleigh-bell accents made it perfect winter listening. But the album made even more sense as the warm weather arrived-- Teen Dream captures Beach House in the midst of a great thaw, the frosty surfaces melting away to reveal full-blooded passion. --Stuart Berman
Photo by Eirik Lande
04. Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Ladies and gentlemen, the best hip-hop album of 2007-- or 2015, take your pick. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty became notorious for frustrating the bottom-line industry heads at Jive to the point where they just sat on it-- not enough easy-sell, cheap-hit material, they told Big Boi. They wanted a ringtone; they got "Tangerine", which proved problematic in that cell phones don't have big enough subwoofers. They wanted a "Lollipop" knockoff; they got "Shutterbugg", an 808 funk monster so uncompromisingly true to the Dungeon Fam legacy that its answer to Weezy's Auto-Tune was a Jimmy Spicer "The Bubble Bunch"-style robo-voice loop run through a vintage talkbox. Now, nearly three years after it should have been released, the long-stewing record not only sounds like a right-album-at-the-right-time classic, it sounds like something lesser artists are going to keep catching up to half a decade from now. Nobody does retrofuturism quite like the production team assembled here, and in advancing the sounds of mothership space-funk (Organized Noize's "Turns Me On" and "Fo Yo Sorrows"), Southern trunk-rattle (Mr. DJ's "Daddy Fat Sax"; André 3000's "You Ain't No DJ") and slow-jam gangsta soul (Lil Jon's "Hustle Blood"; Cutmaster Swiff and Big Boi's co-production "Shine Blockas"), the sound of Sir Lucious Left Foot is an exercise in recognizing traditions and pushing them miles ahead. Big Boi crowns it all with a lyrical acumen so detailed and charismatic-- acting as benevolent hustler, knuckle-dusting elder statesman, trickster smartass and street-level philosopher-- that he easily proves to the rest of the world what heads knew all along: there is no "that other dude" in OutKast. --Nate Patrin
Photo by Loren Wohl
Indie rock has been obsessed with fidelity for the last few years, carving out micro-genres based on how much audio fog cloaks a group's songs. With their bedroom recording roots, Deerhunter have floated along this competition with grace, a psych-rock band skilled at conscripting the sonic demons hiding in the margins of amateur recording. But there's also beauty to be found in the places where unfiltered sunlight finds gaps in the clouds, and the embrace of that contrast gave Deerhunter a valuable new weapon on the haunting Halcyon Digest.
The band's new trick is apparent from the first note on "Earthquake", one of the most head-turning album openers of the year, where the sharp edge of a scything backwards loop is softened with ambient washes and brittle electro-acoustic sounds as delicate as porcelain. From there, the album warbles expectantly between the band's phased-out trademarks and a higher-definition clarity, before fulfilling the promise of the opener in the heartbreaking "Helicopter", where the production is so shimmery and bright it's hard to look at it without squinting. When your major themes are aging and death, hiding your emotions under layers of tape-hiss can be a cop-out. On Halcyon Digest, Deerhunter demonstrate that the ache of mortality can be even more wounding in the bright glare of daytime than late at night. --Rob Mitchum
Photo by Leigh Ann Hines
02. LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening
[Virgin / Parlophone / DFA]
Anticipated both by James Murphy's proclamations that this might be the final LCD Soundsystem album and by teasing videos of the band holed up in Rick Rubin's L.A. mansion, clad all in white, This Is Happening could only have been an event. And the album, like the title, delivers without a moment's hesitation: What could have been the document of a band fighting for its place in the pecking order turns out to be something far more personal and far more important. This Is Happening doesn't just keep step with the times; it's the portrait of an older, wiser Murphy, arch and guarded in equal measure, who's intent upon keeping two steps ahead of himself, never mind the competition.
However you want to process Murphy's biography and the whole New York rock backstory, the music on the album more than carries its own weight, interpolating Bowie and Eno's studio aura through several generations of downtown dance-rock and canonical house in a way that seems genuinely new; with This Is Happening, the "DFA sound" becomes less about its influences than Murphy's own worldview, as Murphy quits leaning on funk-punk clichés and makes every song count. Listen back to Sound of Silver, and a song like "Time to Get Away" sounds like filler, a way for Murphy to find his voice and bide the time-- at least, compared to "Pow Pow" and "Home", the only tracks on the new album that have any truck with old-school DFA-style funk at all.
Maybe what Murphy learned the most from Eno and Bowie is the importance of melody. On the last album, "You Wanted a Hit" would have been a jarring punk-funk thing, but here it's smoothed out and sadded up by a single, demure keyboard line; same goes for "Pow Pow", which starts with rote congas, stubby bass, and spoken ranting, and eventually blossoms into something gloriously harmonic and yearning. As on the last album, there's a careful balance between rockers and brooders, but even the more straightforward club jams, like "One Touch", are darker and more urgent than before. And if follow-ups to "Someone Great" and "All My Friends" are missed, "All I Want" and "I Can Change" offer potent emotional mile-markers for Murphy's state of being in 2010-- just one point in a line that he's clearly not tired of filling in. ("Never change," his ass.) --Philip Sherburne
01. Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Bearing witness to Kanye West's very public 2010 has featured many joys, none greater than watching everyone unspool his myriad updates, achievements, and indiscretions into piles of meaning. His persona went to cataclysmic places this year-- there were times when he deserved his own cable news ticker. But, somehow, West managed to transcend the preposterous talk show appearances, the too-good-to-be-true Twitter account, the live breakdowns, the Horus chain, the free-MP3 stunt(ing), the press blitz, the breakups, the make-ups, the dick pics, the furniture pornography, the Rosewood movement, the NO NEGATIVE BLOG VIEWING, the living paintings, the short film, and the rest of the lot. Through all that noise, we obsessed first and most deeply over the eye of the storm: the album. --Sean Fennessey