Monday, December 20, 2010

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

10. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

One of the most surprising albums of the year, The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang is a passionate, heartfelt ode to nostalgia, a collection of rough, throaty barroom rockers without pretension or gimmick. The guys from New Jersey are so powerfully connected to their roots that their music runs the risk of being derivative, even imitative; even writing about them is difficult without namedropping their obvious Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison influences (see?). But this set of twangy, contemplative tunes so keenly recreates the best parts of the band’s heroes that they manage to make their own meaning, even if you never quite clicked with the likes of the Boss. Between bouts of air guitar and toe-tapping, you can’t help but wish for the old days along with the boys, even if, as Gaslight suggests, those days weren’t all that great anyways.

9. Beach House – Teen Dream

Here is an album with the strange power to deceive through simplicity. Everything here is slow and lilting, seemingly written according to a formula of lazy beats and cloudy synth lines. Listen closely, though, and you find layers upon layers of texture and rhythm, all creating a sonic portrait under which Victoria Legrand sighs with grace. Her vocals actually take a back seat here, lying down under the weight of Beach House’s rich musical signature. Dream-pop leanings aside, there is an intense discomfort at work in these songs, seeking a fulfillment that always seems on the edge of vision. On “Real Love,” Legrand sings, “There’s something wrong with our hearts.” Doesn’t get much more honest than that.

8. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast

The Florida outfit’s shark-adorned debut album Astro Coast takes classic surf rock and pushes it into the bass age. From the beginning, the album rides guitar riffs as thick as marble, punctuated by screeching solo lines and the heavily echoed singing of frontman John Paul Pitts. His vocals feel so modern that they feel almost out of place among the power chords and driving rhythms that back them, but strangely, Astro Coast never seems conflicted or misguided. Immediately listenable and deceptively deep, these tracks have an upbeat presence that is largely absent in most of the year’s best (and worst) music, and chances are you’ll want to swim right to right to the album’s end and come back again.

7. Sleigh Bells – Treats

Speaking of musical conflicts, this Brooklyn-based band’s debut is a doozy. Sleigh Bells is the musical child of pop singer Alexis Krauss and hardcore guitarist Derek Miller, and it sounds exactly like you would expect an album of such disparate influence to sound. From the outset, Treats overwhelms the ear with pounding drums and overdriven guitars, set to a vaguely poppish beat that wouldn’t be out of place in a radio rap tune. The calamity of the opener, “Tell Em,” is so vicious that it seems almost unsalvageable, save for Krauss’ vocals. Amongst the noise, her chants are just beautiful enough to soften the blow without stopping the punch entirely. She maintains this balance throughout the album, keeping that synth-rock feel with just a touch of pop vocal sensibility. It’s a truly unique sound, making it one of the most original albums of the year.

6. Cee-Lo – The Lady Killer

In truth, this album is nearly impossible to review with any kind of honesty. The success of its lead single, the hilarious and deservedly sensational “Fuck You,” could tempt many to ignore the album the Cee-Lo created around it. Listening to the record though, one can say that this would be a terrible mistake. On The Lady Killer, Cee-Lo prudently takes a moment to warm up the listener before jumping into “Fuck You” with the appropriately titled “Bright Lights Bigger City,” a funky anthem based on a chorus synth line that is nothing short of massive. Later, Cee-Lo cedes the spotlight to Lauren Bennett in “Love Gun,” which attempts and nearly succeeds at replicating the defiance and sexual pulse of “Fuck You.” Cee-Lo deftly brings out the funk on The Lady Killer, melding his feel for pop hitmaking with his classical soul. Surprisingly, he often abandons the romantic persona of the album’s hit, but the music is so damn good that you can’t help but love him anyway.

5. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

My strategy when writing lists like this, and reviews in general, is to listen to the album that I’m reviewing while I write. Sadly, I seem to have hit a roadblock. That is the virtue of Titus Andronicus’ sophomore album, The Monitor. It has a pure rock ‘n roll attitude that refuses to let me focus on anything else. The album’s opener, “A More Perfect Union,” may be the best rock song of the year. It begins with a snippet of an Abraham Lincoln speech, introducing the album’s Civil War theme, and then launches into a barrage of rolling drums and buzzing guitars. When vocalist Patrick Stickles rouses the troops with his slightly off-key holler, one wonders how he got to be a singer, and how this band can possibly be so damned good. Now, let me get back to rocking.

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

And now we come to the album that I’ve been afraid to review for weeks. Out of his depression, online rants, and awkward television interviews, Kanye has managed to come up with the most challenging set of his career and of the year. True, Kanye’s music has lately become so difficult to separate from his questionable persona that anything he releases is likely to be confusing, at best. Behind all the attention-whoring, though, Kanye remains an incredibly talented hip-hop artist. In terms of production, this album is wildly different from his previous work, using less blatant sampling in favor of a darker atmosphere. Technically, Fantasy is far from Kanye’s best rap work; his rhyming is often ragged and unpleasant, forcing the listener to turn to his supporting cast, which is considerable. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Pusha T, and Nicki Minaj all make notable contributions, filling the gaps where Kanye himself seems unable to say what really needs to be said. Despite her infuriating public presence, Minaj proves herself an extremely capable rapper on “Monster,” the album’s rap-battle ego-fest. However, everything on both ends of the album seems to lead to one point. “Runaway,” Kanye’s self-conscious tribute to assholes, is by far the best track here, combining a brilliant verse by Clipse MC Pusha T with surprising humility from Kanye. It’s a stark moment on an album that may not even be Kanye’s best album ever, but is certainly his most memorable.

3. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

For a humble-looking nerd, James Murphy sure is tricky. In “Dance Yrself Clean,” the album’s opener, he taps and clicks with almost frustrating patience, waiting over three minutes before launching into the electro-pop beast that is the next six minutes. This Is Happening is strange in its organization alone, with all but one song clocking in at over five minutes, and three at over eight. Despite its generous track times, the album is starkly minimalist for most of its duration, featuring synth patterns that sometimes sound like they were made with a cheap loop creator. Give him time, though, and Murphy will make you rock out in original and unexpected ways. The crushing pulse of “One Touch” roars with unstoppable energy, rocking so hard it will make you wish it kept going past the nearly eight minutes that it bores into your skull. Have no fear, though; Murphy provides plenty here to get you dancing. Just don’t let him fool you.

2. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

More than three years overdue, OutKast MC Big Boi has finally released an album that proves he is just as worthy of the spotlight as his somewhat crazier counterpart. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is the best hip-hop album in years, more creative than anything OutKast ever did and more straight-up entertaining than anything anyone did this year. The album is produced by a variety of guests along with Big Boi’s own team, leading to a varied mix of sound that constantly keeps the listener guessing. Chico Dusty is never predictable, always good, and often brilliant. Three songs form the album’s strongest set, starting with “Shutterbugg,” the best hip-hop track of the year. Based on a chugging vocal loop, the song leans and pops with funky vigor, while Big Boi brings his signature rhyming style between a sick chorus line. “Tangerine” is darker, dirtier; a distorted guitar line reverberates over tribal drum samples that bounce with filthy energy. “Hustle Blood,” the most surprising track on the album, features a shockingly good performance by Jaime Foxx and deeply sexy production from Lil’ Jon, booming around a chorus so soulful it’ll reverberate for years.

1. The National – High Violet

And so we arrive here, at an album released by a band that is notoriously difficult to praise. Unlike many of the year’s best albums, High Violet is neither particularly creative nor immediately approachable. Had it been released sooner than a month or two ago, it may not have cracked my top ten. That’s just how the National are. Their music grows on you, creeping up from unremarkable mediocrity to something that is crushingly honest and deeply evocative. Their last album, Boxer, holds a place very dear to me, and it is difficult to compartmentalize High Violet and recognize its virtues apart from the latter album. After months of struggling, it now feels like an album that is altogether more cohesive, layered, and mature than Boxer. Unlike its predecessor, High Violet is a unified statement, commenting on the nature of manhood in the modern age, with all its expectations and disappointments. Despite its subdued tone, it manages to feel ambitious. “Terrible Love” opens with slow grandeur, only to fall into the bitter reflection that is “Sorrow.” Singer Matt Berninger hums with depression that feels all too genuine: “I don’t wanna get over you.” Later, his voice expands to encompass the scope of the album’s centerpiece, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a driving track that captures all the stress and complication of adulthood when Berninger laments, “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe.” High Violet never rises out of its lyrical doldrums, speaking in “Lemonworld” of class confusion and social fatigue, and trying to fake adulthood in “England.” Taken together, High Violet is sometimes uplifting, always heartbreaking, and so, so, beautiful.

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