The Best Albums of 2010

Here is the final list, with a few honorable mentions.

10.  Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More [Glassnote]

English-based folk-rock group Mumford & Sons may have recorded one of the most heart-felt records I’ve heard in some time.  Indeed, Sigh No More, is a powerful collection of songs that succeeds by bridging the gap between traditional and modern folk music.  In addition to great songcraft, the band’s music is enriched by terrific vocals, at times led by singer Marcus Mumford, and at other times led by 4-part harmony.  While the end result doesn’t push the envelop, the music is rich and earnest and deserving of attention.

Prime Cuts: Sigh No More, White Blank Page, Awake My Soul

9.  Vampire Weekend: Contra [XL]

New York based prep-rock outfit Vampire Weekend makes the list with their sophomore release Contra; a step forward from their self-titled debut.  Adored the world over, these guys are recognized just as easily by their good lucks as they are their catchy tunes.  And while Contra is no less twee than their debut, it does show some maturity.   Overall the sound is more digital than analog, and not every song sounds like it should be background music for a clambake in The Hamptons.  But the best thing about Contra is that you don’t have to buy the cd in order to hear the music.  Just turn on the TV.  Apparently holiday retailers can’t get enough of these guys either.

Prime Cuts: Horchata, Run, Giving up the Gun

8.  Surfer Blood: Astro Coast [Kanine]

Astro Coast is the debut album from West Palm Beach based quintet Surfer Blood.  In keeping with the spirit of their Florida upbringing, Astro Coast is at it’s core surf-style rock.  But to leave it at that would be an over-simplification.  These songs are heavy and plodding mostly with catchy melodies.  And just to round things out, there are also songs on here like “Take it Easy.”  A catchy little romp with a poly-rhythmic beat that makes it sound like something that might fit better on a Vampire Weekend album.  Lead singer John Paul Pitts’ boyish vocals — drenched in reverb — serve as a nice counterpunch to the heaviness of the guitars.  As a whole, the heavy feel reminds me of bands like Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine.  If you’re a experiencing a retro new-wave hangover, give this one a listen, it’s a pleasant departure from much of the music that dominates today’s airwaves.

Prime Cuts: Floating Vibes, Swim, Take it Easy, Anchorage

7.  Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part II (New Ankh) [Motown (Kedar)]

By now you’ve either heard or seen the video for the first single off of New Amerykah Part Two entitled “Window Seat.”  If you haven’t, I highly suggest that you do; you can find it here.  Either way, the video is pretty interesting to say the least as it re-creates the JFK assassination, except that Badu is depicted as the victim…. oh and she’s naked.  Not surprisingly, Badu has become of the target of derision, which is unfortunate because the song, and the album are both very good.  As the “Queen of Neo-Soul” Badu takes a different approach on the follow up to New Amerykah Part One, this time laying heavy on the grooves, and moving away from the more experimental vibe.  Part Two really succeeds as an R & B album because it is a reminder of what one can achieve with talent and vision.  In a world of popular music where just about every album has some blockbuster track with a guest appearance, and the album is produced by the same folks, Badu stands with very few in her pursuit of individualism.  I don’t listen to a lot of R & B that has been made in the last decade but I’m a sucker for the classics.  With this new release, Badu manages to pay homage to the great sounds of the 70′s with references big and small.  At the same time, Part Two is laced with all sorts of electronics, break beats and samples which keep the album current.  Indeed, a rare feat.

Prime Cuts: Window Seat, Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY), Umm Hmm

6.  Robyn: Body Talk [Interscope]

While pop singers like Katy Perry and Rihanna get all of the attention, neither can hold a candle to Swedish singer Robyn.  This dandy little Swede became an international star with her breakthrough hit “Show Me Love,” many years ago.  Since then, she has blossomed into one of the most forward-thinking artists in the pop medium.  Indeed, Body Talk is a testament to her maturity as an artist.  Body Talk is the sum of three albums; two full-length records and a third that is an EP.  Musically, Body Talk is a dance-pop album that touches several genres.  With the aid of a voice that has genuine versatility, Body Talk does trance, house, rap and dancehall all in one fell swoop.  As a further testament to the album’s versatility, Body Talk manages to include appearances by Royskopp and Snoop Dogg (when was the last time those two acts were featured in the same sentence?).   Indeed, Body Talk is a testament to the fact that it is possible to make irresistibly catchy music, without making it sound derivative.

Prime Cuts: Dancing On My Own, Cry when You Get Older,  None of Dem

5.  Beach House: Teen Dream [Sub Pop]

No you’re not seeing things, this is indeed what the cover of the album looks like.  If you have yet to hear about Baltimore-based duo Beach House, you soon will.*  Though they’re hardly new-comers — having released two albums previously — this is their first for indie label stalwart Sub Pop.  Teen Dream is a fitting title for the album.  With lush guitars, reverberated vocals and beautiful choral harmonies,Teen Dream is dream-pop of a first rate quality.  Bolstered by beautiful vocals from French-born singer Victoria Legrand, Teen Dream works best when she is the main attraction (which is often).  That isn’t to say that Alex Scully’s guitar work is not an integral part of the music.  It’s just that Legrand is at once powerful (Real Love) and tender (Take Care) which makes for a wonderful blend of vocal stylings.

Prime Cuts: Zebra, Norway, Real Love

*You probably have already, as Beach House was one of the breakthrough bands of 2010.

4.  The National: High Violet [4AD]

If there was ever any question that The National was capable of being one of the few bands to define today’s musical landscape, High Violet – their fifth full-length studio album – should send a clear message that they are.  Starting with 2005′s Alligator, followed by their magnum opus Boxer, and continuing to present day, The National are in the midst of a string of brilliant releases.  Quite a rare feat in today’s musical universe.

At first blush, High Violet is a bit of a downer.  Yet, somehow with each listen, the music morphs into a collection of deeply resonant songs, each thoughtful in its approach.  After awhile you find yourself immersed in a sea of musical textures and sounds that do not readily make themselves known from the outset.  In some ways High Violet is a continuation of the formula that the band executed effortlessly on Boxer.  Lead singer Matt Berninger sings with ambiguity channeling, joy, reflection, despair and even oddity (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains”).  And while the music continues along the same path as its predecessor,  High Violet goes a step further.  While both Boxer and High Violet seem to move at a similar pace, there is more grandiosity here.  In particular, the last two songs on the album — “England” and “Vanderlyle,” which are the kind of songs that showcase a band that is in full command of its purpose with equal pomposity and grace.  I’m not sure if these Ohio boys got anything left in the tank after this, but doubtless many will be waiting.

Prime Cuts: Bloodbuzz Ohio, Conversation 16, England, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

3.  (Tie) The Roots/Kanye West

I realize this is cheating, but I had no choice.  I thoroughly enjoyed each of these albums but in different ways.  While How I Got Over may be the album I bumped the most in 2010, I couldn’t ignore the shear brashness of Kanye West’s most recent album- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  So I split the difference (er cheated) by calling #3 a tie.  Without further adieu…

The Roots: How I Got Over [Def Jam]

How I Got Over is The Roots’ first album since they become Jimmy Fallon’s house band.  On this, their ninth album, the Philly-based rap/soul/jazz group show why they continue to get the respect and adoration of so many.  As I’ve mentioned on previous occasion, the rap genre is much like the broader category of pop music, in that its homogeneous (or boring).  Albums like this continue to push back on the notion that rap is dead.  Its fun, creative, and it contains a bevy of credible artists (John Legend, Monsters of Folk/Jim James, Joanna Newsom).  Check it out, there’s something here for everyone.

Prime Cuts: Walk Alone, Dear God 2.0, Hustla

Kany West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam]

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the sort of album that an artist records when they’re trying to send a message.  In the case of Kanye West, the message is a big giant middle finger to everyone (including me) that thought Kanye went a little nuts.  We all know that things haven’t been easy for the guy these last few years with the untimely passing of his mother.  I’m sure many of us would go a little nuts after an experience like that.  Throw in the fact that he’s ridiculously famous and you get what happened at the MTV Video Music Awards a few years ago.  To redeem himself, West produces this wonderful catharsis.  But this isn’t only about demons.  West has some fun, and brings a few friends (Kid Cudi, Rick Ross, Nicki Manaj, Jay-Z, Bon Iver) along for the ride and the result is probably his best work to date.

Prime Cuts: So Appalled, Runaway, Hell of a Life

2.  Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid [Big Boi]

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that my favorite artists are those that are the most difficult to describe.  Janelle Monae is yet another.  The ArchAndroid is a concept album inspired by the iconic 1927 sci-fi movie Metropolis.  Monae casts herself as messiah to a race of androids, destined to free a society.  In accordance with this concept, the songs on ArchAndroid run the gamut of emotions.  There’s happiness, sorrow, bewilderment, and even beauty throughout the 18 tracks, and the sum of which is sheer splendor.  In fact, considering Monae’s accomplishment here, it’s fair to ask whether she’s actually human.  Okay, maybe that’s taking things a bit far, but my point is that she is that one-of-a-kind artist that is on one hand unique and on the other a reinforcement of artists of the past that we all know and love.  So let’s just say for a second that she’s not human and in fact some android as the album suggests.  I’d be willing to guess that her creator mixed together a potion containing DNA samples from several artists.  I’d guess the mix looked something like this:

one part Ella Fitzgerald
one part David Bowie
two parts Prince
two parts Outkast
one part Michael Jackson
a sprinkle of Stevie Wonder and…well you get the point.

The concept of genre-bending pop music is hardly knew.  But not since MJ made it commonplace have many done it as well as Monae.  While it’s not hard to crank up the distortion on an R&B or rap song, it isn’t exactly easy to pull of a duet with Big Boi on the same album as you mix in Claude DeBussy.  Some folks might come away underwhelmed with ArchAndroid, but then that’s probably normal.  It’s difficult to appreciate the beauty and magnitude of an album like this if you can’t see it for what it is.

Prime Cuts: Locked Inside, Tightrope, Oh Maker, Be Still

1.  Arcade Fire: The Suburbs [Merge/Mercury]

Arcade Fire’s third and most recent release The Suburbs will change your life.  Well ok, it won’t change your life, nor will it solve world hunger.  But it is a damn fine album.

This Montreal outfit found lightning in a bottle on their full-length debut Funeral. They then managed to deliver on the promise of their impressive debut, with the sublime Neon Bible. With two great albums under their belt, there was much anticipation for album number three.   Boy did they deliver.   Indeed, The Suburbs is wonderful meditation on, well suburban life.  Brothers Win and William Butler grew up in Suburban Houston, so The Suburbs is in some ways an homage to that life.

While Arcade Fire does cover some of the same ground as previous albums, there are a few wrinkles.  Producer Markus Dravis (Coldplay, Brian Eno) returns, this time helping the band tweak their sound with more of an 80′s influence.  To wit, the heavily synthed track “Sprawl II” sounds like it came straight out of Mamma Mia.  Then there are others like the standout post-punk rocker “Month of May,” which serves as a welcome counter punch to more mellow tunes like “Modern Man,” which could easily pass for an Allan Parson’s B-side.  In the end, The Suburbs is a collection of music that succeeds in establishing Arcade Fire as one of the preeminent musical acts of the day.

Prime Cuts: The Suburbs, City with no Children, We Used to Wait

 

Prime Cuts: The Suburbs, City with no Children, We Used to Wait

Honorable Mention:

The Black Keys: Brothers; Drake: Thank Me Later; Spoon: Transference; Sleigh Bells: Treats; Charlotte Gainsbourg: IRM; Wild Nothing: Gemni

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