The Best Albums of 2010

    Music is a deeply personal choice, especially with the massive amount of options we are offered today. Were the list to consist entirely of my own preferences, it would be a very one-sided window to the musical landscape of 2010, including bands like The Radio Dept. and The Fresh & Onlys, who I played to death on my iPod but didn’t make much impact outside of my own bedroom.

    This list is then a reflection of the records I read about the most, the artists I’d argue about with my friends and
    the songs I’d have playing on a loop. Many of these albums are not my favorites, but all are culturally important. If we threw them in a time capsule to define this time, we’d see an ever-changing, fast-paced world in which even your genre staples are getting turned completely upside down (see the hip-hop visionaries from this year: Kanye West, Flying Lotus and Big Boi). These are records that are ambitious and innovative. So take a gander — it’s an incredible time to be listening.

    ALBUM OF THE YEAR
    My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West

    OK, let’s be honest — this one wasn’t even close. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is indisputably the album of the year, no matter how much you actually enjoyed it.

    Whichever side of Kanye’s peculiar persona is leading the way — the dick-swinging brat or the self-loathing loner — mainstream hip-hop has never been this ambitious, with sounds as messy and contradictory as Yeezy’s own life.

    Maybe Kanye is the savant or the idiot that many claim he is, or maybe he’s just a guy who really loves music and isn’t afraid to put it together in way that may surprise you. Kanye’s like the pre- cocious little brother of hip-hop: hopelessly self-centered but still naturally gifted.

    Public personas aside, Kanye’s work on Twisted Fantasy is packed with more ideas than the game has ever seen. A King Crimson sample gets mutilated and bordered by wailing African queens on the exhilaratingly bombastic “Power”; a lone piano begins “Runaway,” only to turn into a bizarrely distorted vocal breakdown by the end of its nine disorienting minutes; album closer “Lost In the World” uses Bon Iver’s “Woods” as a bare back- drop in a moment of self loathing, building to a crescendo of auto- tuned voices and a Gil Scott Heron sample, asking us and asking us, “Who will survive in America?”

    Better rapping has certainly been done this year (see: Big Boi, Nicki Minaj), but hell, this isn’t even hip-hop at all. It’s indescrib- able. I guess that makes it brilliant pop.

    THE BEST OF THE REST

    The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

    Critics like to throw out words like “sprawling” and “ambitious” when describing The Suburbs. But those adjectives are so cerebral that they lose sight of the essence of Arcade Fire: Frontman Win Butler and co. are tight, consistent and relatable in a very traditional sense. Unlike peers who favor hipster trends over old school rock ‘n roll anthems, there’s no irony here— every note, every lyric was created with deep sincerity, whether you find the music to be groundbreaking or not.

    Refreshingly enough, Arcade Fire are stadium-ready when so many artists are hid- ing behind MacBooks in their bedrooms, and that’s what makes The Suburbs such an accomplishment. Sure, the garage-rock riposte of “Month of May,” the singalong chorus of “Rococo” and the Blondie-esque disco of “Sprawl II” help, but its the sincerity of these songs that makes The Suburbs a modern rock essential.

    Teen Dream – Beach House

    Teen Dream is the sound of a band coming of age. Let’s call it their quincean?era, their sweet sixteen or, more aptly, their graduation from moody pseudo-shoegazers to a dream- pop duo.

    With Alex Scally’s layers of reverberating slide guitars and Victoria Legrand’s dark and dusty vocals, the band still relies on atmosphere — a night drive on the highway, a walk through the park — but with the addition of resounding, heart-wrenching choruses, the dark ambiance at the core of Teen Dream is transformed into concrete, satisfying songs. Tracks like “Zebra” and “10 Mile Stereo” carry you to beautifully dark places where, pleasantly enough, you even get the chance to sing along.

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

    If the triumphantly bonkers “Shutterbugg” is any indication, Big Boi is back, and not just back, but at his peak, reminding us that masterful flow and too- cool-for-school style trump the emotive whining of the new kids on the block (we’re looking at you, Drake).

    Most importantly, with Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, the Outkast rapper has crafted the party of the year. On his solo debut, Big Boi improves upon his half of the 2003 Outkast classic Speakerboxxx/Love Below, weaving an orchestra of famous friends (Janelle Mona?e, Jamie Foxx, Gucci Mane), electro-funk basslines and his own effortlessly clever rhymes into a joyous and electrifyingly timeless rap album. In Outkast, Big Boi was always the underappreciated anchor to Andre 3000’s obvious eccentric. Looks like Andre ain’t got nothin’ on Left Foot anymore.

    Brothers – The Black Keys

    With the help of producer Danger Mouse on 2008’s Attack and Release, the Black Keys threw some creative spice into their stagnant blues-rock stew.

    But with this year’s Brothers, singer- guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have pushed themselves even farther, recording their catchiest and most inventive tunes to date. On high point “Everlasting Light,” Auerbach dusts off his falsetto, saving his whiskey-induced growl for the following one-two-three punch of “Next Girl,” “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You” — tracks that pair the band’s signature sound with poppier hooks and infectious rhythms. The guys never lose sight of their rock ‘n roll roots for a moment, either; they’ve just finally learned to make them modern.

    Halcyon Digest – Deerhunter

    You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in indie rock more pro- lific than Bradford Cox. Over the course of the last year, the Atlanta native not only released an LP with his band Deerhunter, he also created four collections of demos called Bedroom Databank under solo moniker Atlas Sound.

    It’s this commitment to composition that makes his work so phenomenal. Every damn note of Deerhunter’s fourth album Halcyon Digest is drenched in Bradford Cox’s love for music. As the band flits from Velvet Underground-style murmurs to shoegaze textures and hiccupping beats, nostalgic adoration pours through every note, hanging from the hinges of Cox’s delicate vocals. Even the slightest chord progression is a moment of such astounding crafts- manship that it almost makes you want to weep (Fine, maybe that’s just me).

    Cox’s stream-of-consciousness lyrical style gives the tracks a welcome ease, while standouts like “Helicopter” and “Coronado” are groundbreaking without ever being unnatural. It’s psych-rock with the genuine music fan in mind; just get your best headphones on, give Halcyon Digest a spin and geek the fuck out.

    Cosmogramma – Flying Lotus

    The third album from Los Angeles producer Flying Lotus ignores all genre conventions, giving us a glimpse of the future of not only hip-hop, but electronica and jazz. Unexpected sounds converge: Harps intertwine with loose basslines, dub- step vibrations underscore a lone trumpet solo, strings border rumbling synthesizers. Vocals are sparse (Thom Yorke joins the mayhem on “…And the World Laughs With You”), but even in their absence, the music is totally engrossing. With an unconventional focus on the DJ instead of the MC, Flying Lotus has shown the extraterrestrial heights that a genre can reach. I just wish the future were here so we could have some more.

    This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem

    LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy has had the worst midlife crisis ever, mostly because he’s depriving us of future jams. The DFA Records founder claimed that once he hit 40, his band wouldn’t release any more albums. With that milestone reached, This Is Happening could very well be Soundsystem’s last.

    Fortunately, that isn’t the only thing worth mentioning about the album. Happening is the perfect conclusion to the band’s decade-long run, filled with a winning combination of dance-ready beats and Murphy’s more forlorn takes on relationships. While opener “Dance Yrself Clean” has a hypnotic build-up from a soft whisper to full-on dance floor synth, the pow- erfully bittersweet “All I Want” has Murphy repeating, “All I want is your pity” over Bowie-esque distortion. But all we want is another record. This ending is too bittersweet.

    The Monitor – Titus Andronicus

    I should have hated this record. For one, The Monitor is a concept album loosely based around the events of the Civil War, complete with Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman excerpts. Add the fact that five of the songs clock in at over seven minutes and you’d think you’re in for a head-scratching, pretentious free-for-all.

    But if you know Titus Andronicus, you know that they don’t do head-scratching pretension; the New Jersey smartasses do punk anthems the way their home state taught ‘em — angry, bearded and a little bit political. It’s a big-idea album that still manages to be enjoyable, thanks to fist-pumping sing-alongs (“The enemy is everywhere! The enemy is everywhere!”) and lead singer Patrick Sickles’ battle-cry howl. Congratulations, Titus Andronicus — you have now made me want to mosh like it’s 1863.

    Contra – Vampire Weekend

    While their WASP-y Lacoste polos and Sperry Topsiders are worthy of disapproval, the Columbia grads of Vampire Weekend gave a big middle finger to their dissenters, gleefully ditching the sophomore slump with Contra. On top of several new sonic elements — autotune, M.I.A. samples, pounding keyboards — the band has crafted a seamless set of globetrotting tunes (the most enjoyable of the year) with more emotional vulnerability than we saw from them on their 2008 debut.

    Honorable Mentions: Broken Dreams Club – Girls, Body Talk – Robyn and The Wild Hunt – Tallest Man On Earth

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