Thursday, December 02, 2010

Ten Best Albums of 2010

For the sake of blogging about something a bit different, I decided to make a list of my ten favorite albums of 2010. As I compiled this list, I decided to compare my review of each album to the review found on the fantastic AV Club website. To my astonishment, my reviews turned out to be eerily similar to the AV Club reviews. Please note: I wrote each review before I looked at the corresponding on-line review. But, I am not sure how I can explain the similarities. It is uncanny and perplexing. So, without further ado, here are my:

Top Ten Albums of 2010

10) Broken Bells – Broken Bells
Broken Bells is a collaboration between James Mercer, singer and guitarist of The Shins, and Danger Mouse, a famous record producer and one half of Gnarls Barkley. I’m actually not a huge fan of either The Shins or Gnarls Barkley and I didn’t expect to enjoy this album nearly as much as I did. But, their collaboration is a thing of beauty. In addition the immensely catchy single “The High Road,” other standout songs include the acoustic-driven “Vaporize” and the addictive rhythms of “October.”
The AV Club rating: B-
Listen to a track: “Vaporize”

9) Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
Seeing BSS perform live in 2006 was an amazing experience as they paraded more than a dozen musicians on and off stage and created sounds as full, as textured, and as delicate as any band I’ve ever heard. Broken Social Scene is a Canadian musical collective; in this iteration they feature 9 core members, 13 “additional members” including Emily Haines of Cat Power and Leslie Feist, and 9 guest musicians including the fantastic Sam Prekop and Poi Dog Pondering’s Susan Voelz and Paul Von Mertens. On previous albums the band has managed to make their wide, sprawling sound come together in a way that is cohesive even in its chaos. However, that cohesion mostly eludes this effort. On Forgiveness Rock Record somehow more becomes less. Too many of these songs come across as stale. However, there are a couple of real gems here. “Meet Me in the Basement” and “Sentimental Xs” are great tunes and “Water in Hell” ranks up there with many of Broken Social Scene’s best songs.
The AV Club rating: B+
Listen to a track: “Water in Hell”

8) Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
While this album lacks the standout songs, such as “The Funeral” or “Great Salt Lake,” that are found on their earlier releases, Infinite Arms contains a number of subdued, tender tunes that evoke a road trip across wide spaces. Songs like “Infinite Arms” and “For Annabelle” are great, spacious tunes while “NW Apt.” and “Laredo” find the band using a harder rock approach. This album is immensely listenable and a great musical companion.
The AV Club rating: B-
Listen to a track: “Laredo”

7) Ted Leo and The Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
Ted Leo kicked off The AV Club’s wildly entertaining “Undercover” series with a technically perfect and ridiculously cool version of Tears for Fear’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” With The Brutalist Bricks, Leo’s band gives us 13 wonderfully crafted pop-rock songs with punk and 80s New Wave influences. The album’s first track, “The Mighty Sparrow” begins with a bang and the lyrics, “When the cafĂ© doors exploded…” And we are off on a fantastic tour de rock. This consistent album takes us through a number of great songs including “Ativan Eyes,” “Bottled in Cork,” “Bartolomeo and the Buzzing of Bees,” and the final track, “Last Days,” which sounds like a mash-up of “Pump it Up” by Elvis Costello and “Stop the Show” by Built to Spill.
The AV Club rating: B+
Listen to a track: “The Mighty Sparrow”

6) The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
The Gaslight Anthem may think of themselves as the next Bruce Springsteen. They are probably closer to being the next Gin Blossoms, but that doesn’t stop them from turning out semi-gritty slices of rock & roll Americana. This short album has more than its share of infectious hooks, especially on “Stay Lucky,” “Boxer,” and the title track, “American Slang.” The band explores different styles on the Van Morrison-inspired “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and does a plausible impersonation of The Killers on “We Did It When We Were Young.” American Slang isn’t exactly profound, but it is catchy and if you give it a listen its melodies will haunt you for days.
The AV Club rating: A-
Listen to a track: “American Slang”
Listen to another track: “Boxer”

5) Vampire Weekend – Contra
Vampire Weekend's 2008 self-titled debut album contained a track called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” The song title is an apt descriptor of Vampire Weekend’s sound. Imagine Ivy League preppies playing world music. Who else would rhyme “Oxford comma” with “Dharamsala”? On their sophomore release, VW keeps the blue-blooded world beats coming. Contra begins with the upbeat songs “Horchata” and “White Sky.” Two of the better songs on this great album – “California English” and “Cousins” – are played at a frantic pace with chaotic rhythm changes. In “California English” they add a new sound to their repertoire using an auto-tuner on the vocals. Two songs at the end of the album – “Giving Up the Gun” and “Diplomat’s Son” – are the most exciting tracks with their liberal use of electronic beats and samples. Unfortunately, this album clocks in at less than 40 minutes. But, Contra is solid from top to bottom. Vampire Weekend makes every minute count.
The AV Club rating: A-
Listen to a track: “Giving Up the Gun” (awesome video!)
Listen to another track: “California English”

4) Minus the Bear – Omni
This is the fourth studio album by Seattle-based indie rockers Minus the Bear, one of my favorite groups. At first, I was struck by the pop hooks and heavy electronic sound of this album, somewhat of a departure from their alt rock roots, but after seeing them perform a short set at a local radio station promotion last summer, I realized they had crafted a gem of an album. Omni kicks off with the brash, angular tune “My Time” before it settles into sweet songs like “Summer Angel,” and “Hold Me Down.” The latter half of the album contains the seductive track “Into the Mirror” and the revelatory “Dayglow Vista Rd.” Though short, this is probably MtB’s most consistent album, top to bottom. It was practically my soundtrack to the summer.
The AV Club rating: C
Listen to a track: “My Time”

3) Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
The Winter of Mixed Drinks is an album of mixed messages. Frontman Scott Hutchison’s lyrics are full of pathos yet they’re set to music that soars with a triumphant spirit. Song after song features bright and hopeful music and uplifting chords with lyrics that are dark and brooding. On “Not Miserable” Hutchison sings, “The dark can return with the flick of a switch. It hasn’t turned on me yet. I’m not miserable now.” While each of the album’s songs is good, the album clearly revolves around the song “Swim Until You Can’t See Land.” This lyric is in some ways the ultimate mixed signal. The idea of swimming until you can’t see land conjures up an image of cleansing and escape, but also danger and annihilation. Even as the music evokes victory, the words summon a definite ambivalence. “Let’s call me a Baptist, call this a drowning of my past.” The video of this song maintains this sense of ambivalence as fans carrying flashlights surround the band. Is it joyful night swimming? Is it searching? Is it a candlelight vigil?
The AV Club rating: A
Listen to a track: “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”

2) The National – High Violet
My initial reaction to this album proves just how spoiled this band has made me. The National’s two previous releases, Alligator and Boxer, were each perfect. I felt tempted to grade High Violet on a ridiculously steep curve. This is a great album. The first single, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” ranks up there among their best songs. “Terrible Love” is a dramatic anthem. “Lemonworld” and “England” are subtle songs that grow on the listener in the way so many of this band’s songs do. The dark lullaby “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” similarly grows on you. Unfortunately, the one blemish on this album is the bizarre chorus on “Conversation 16” where they took a beautifully-structured song and decided to wreck it by singing about zombies. There is really no need for silly lyrics like, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains.” In spite of this embarrassing miscalculation, High Violet is a stunning album.
The AV Club rating: A
Listen to a track: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Listen to another track: "Terrible Love”
Listen to a third: “England”

1) The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
As we established earlier (see #9 above) large bands from Canada are extremely cool. Montreal’s critically acclaimed rock darlings, The Arcade Fire released what I consider to be the best album of the year with their hour-plus tour de force, The Suburbs. The album begins with a title track that sounds like it could be the theme song of a sitcom. The album then veers, almost like the best Magnetic Fields album ever, only better, into several different musical styles as the band shows the true breadth of their talents. Each song is a gem unto itself, but together they form a complex yet united whole. A few songs of particular note include the hard-rocking “Ready to Start,” the brooding “Suburban War,” and the disco-influenced “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains.)” Even if you decide not to go searching for the social or political implications of their music, The Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is musically the best album of the year. It is expansive, the size of suburban sprawl. And, I don’t even feel like I have begun to plumb this album’s depth.
The AV Club rating: A-
Listen to a track: “Ready to Start”
Listen to a second track: “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Listen to a third track: "The Suburbs"

Honorable Mention
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Albums I Somehow Missed in 2010
Belle and Sebastian - Write About Love
Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown
M.I.A. - /\/\/\Y/\
Midlake - The Courage of Others
Spoon - Transference

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