Breaking cover. The 20 Best Albums of 2010…
OK so it’s mid November, and we’ve technically got just under a sixth of a years worth of releases still to come, but here I am, I’m breaking cover and publishing what I think are the best 20 ALBUMS of 2010. Release schedules are now in place for the rest of the year, and in most cases promos are doing the rounds, so I feel comfortable that there won’t be anything out of left field (although ‘Seaside Rock’ by Peter, Bjorn and John did just that a couple of years ago, but that was remarkable in many ways, not just it’s odd release).
No account here has been taken of some of the amazing singles, compilations, reissues and soundtracks that have come out, that’s for another post. No, this list honours the very particular edifice of the album. The effort and the careful construction and the time that an album takes for an artist or group is unique, and therefore (probably rightly) is held in unique esteem.
So to business:
20. Shy Child – Liquid Love
Although initially a disappointment, this was possibly the biggest grower of 2010… memories of their ripsnorting ADHD electro-pop debut and amazing 2-piece live show still loomed large. Over time though, Liquid Love would shuffle into my iPod playlist, and I’d check the artist EVERY TIME. Its soft vocals, infectious disco grooves and catchier-than-malaria synth lines wove its way into my brain, and stayed, so they’ve earned it. Congrats to them.
19. The Hundred in the Hands – S/T
Coming out of Brooklyn, and being pals with the likes of !!!, Holy Ghost, Jacques Renault and The Rapture have clearly done well for this two-piece. Lying somewhere between the aforementioned Rapture’s groinally-centred dance and Ladyhawk’s gently purposeful vocal delivery (without the neuroses) makes for a perfect Saturday afternoon record. Just getting into the mood for dancing, thinking about the night, the sun still shining (it’s no coincidence that both Jason and Eleanore were raised in California methinks). Lush!
18. The National – High Violet
This is the token miserablism in the list. At first listen, unless its a cold, dark evening or fuzzy, hungover morning, the downbeat opening tracks seem too dour… almost off-puttingly so. But what you miss in that snap judgment is that High Violet is moving you, like a train through the Appalachian mountains as dawn is breaking. As the dark and forbidding beginning gives way to murky half light, and finally the soaring and revealing light as the sun breaks the horizon, High Violet lifts and warms, and finally rolls away, through the flora and fauna into the uncharted hope of morning.
17. Field Music – The Measure
I don’t think anyone was expecting, in 2010, an album that sounded a bit like a disjointed Supertramp to take the landfill indie-pop whippersnappers to school, but school them Field Music did.
16. Born Ruffians – Say It
After their stupendous debut Red, Yellow and Blue, everyone hoped for a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ sophomore effort. What we received was a much more considered and sober effort, but surprisingly, one that far from disappointing, was actually a possibly more engaging listen than the first. Where R,Y & B commanded our bodies, Say It commanded our persons. Like the band, we’re all older now, and not so brimming with the abandon that we were back in those heady days of, er, 2007. Where they elected to take a more considered approach to their songwriting, so we take more time over our albums, and feel all the more fulfilled for it.
15. Jimmy Edgar – XXX
Although sure to be called a wonderkid for at least the next 5 years (by virtue of the fact that this Detroit filthmeister has been putting records out since he was 16) Jimmy Edgar is now 26 and has grown into a well rounded electr-othario. Sitting somewhere between the new jack stylings of Chromeo, and the gutteral bass rumble of gully techno. This is a stunning mix of the most base and forthright sentiments (see Hot Raw Sex) with the most sublime and adventurous sonic workouts.
14. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Yes we are including an album by a cartoon band fronted by an aging mockney Britpop star. I know this is a hip cool music blog and all that, but have you ACTUALLY LISTENED TO THE ALBUM? Well then. If you had, you’d know that it’s basically the best straight pop record of the year, and has the best collaborations for years. De La Soul do an awesome infomercial for Superfast Jellyfish (“it comes with a toy! I like that.”), Lou Reed does a tripped out drug-boogie, Little Dragon steal the show (listen above) with a brooding beginning and euphoric drop to their contribution. Elsewhere Mark E Smith, Snoop Dogg, Gruff Rhys, Mos Def, Bobby Womack and Kano rub shoulders with with Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. And all of this within a seafaring concept album based around an island of recycled waste. It’s an insane kaleidoscope of talents, sounds, themes and influences, all rammed into a brightly-coloured plastic jack-in-a-box. Imagine all the super-cool kids that are going to go buy Three Feet High and Rising and Transformer after this!
13. Bot’ox – Babylon by Car
Any number of great remixes a great album does not make (just ask SebastiAn, and a million other Hype Machine remix darlings). If we’re honest, we anticipated Bot’ox’s solo material to be of a similar, disappointing, ilk. Not that their remixes were poor – quite the contrary – but there was very little precedent for this. Yes unprecedented is definitely the word; Julien Biffaz and Benjamin Boguet (AKA Cosmo Vitelli) blasted most nu-disco single-mongers out of the water with their coherant, melodic and (both aurally and thematically) dynamic debut. The movement between thumping and melodic; between down and dirty and carefully whimsical are as effortless as they are utterly congruous. This is perhaps a marker that will instigate nu-disco to become more than a scene – to become a serious slice of contemporary dance.
12. Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms
The man formerly known as Vega (known to his mum as Alan Palomo) kick-started the chillwave micro-genre, or at least kicked it into a higher gear with the natty addition of, y’know, melody and lyrics and stuff. And HOOK LADEN melodies at that! Tunes that sound like tapes on the dash of your Uncle’s car in 1987, plus some Nintendo-electro, plus a ton of reverb equals 2010 neo-pop, and we like it.
11. Broken Bells – S/T
Obviously Dangermouse has talent spilling out of his big mouse ears, but he also has an uncanny knack of picking the best, but most unlikely collaborators. From Black Keys and Sparklehorse (two bands who very nearly made this list), via Cee Lo Green and Gemini to Broken bells, with James Mercer of The Shins. And of course, he wasn’t going to settle in with a “Shins plus beats” sound. What we got instead was a wonderful 21st century take on the American psyche-folk of bands like Tommy James and the Shondells – Fender Rhodes and heavily phased guitars, plus a beat-up old drum-kit, rocking stoned beats. They channeled the classic songwriting of Burt Bacharac and the beatnik weirdness of the Faces to perfection.
10. The Roots – How I Got Over
Somehow, The Roots have got to be the premier hip hop group, without ever blowing up like half the people they inspired / wrote with / played on records for. In the world of the Ultramega hip hop star, where Jay Z can (triumphantly) headline Glastonbury, the fact that the Roots are the house band on a TV chatshow can only be some weird mix up in the space time continuum. All of their 10+ studio albums are works on intelligent, intricate, and yet headbangingly tough, timeless hip hop genius, and How I Got Over is no exception. In fact, far from being an exception, it’s probably the best thing they’ve done since 2002’s Phrenology. The political atmosphere, particularly in America (The Roots played with John Legend at Jon Stewart’s Rally To Restore Sanity and / or Fear), have honed their politics, and the years of constant gigging have honed their virtuosity to a staggering level. Black Thought is constantly on, railing non-stop, an uzi-paced rhyme delivery, ?uestlove is inch perfect with his gospel-soul, jazz inflected beat, and a special mention should go to new(ish) member, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, whose vocal range has given The Roots a melodic repertoire that can now include a soprano counterpoint, another string to an already embarrassingly well strung bow. The best hip hop album of the year by a miiiiile.
9. Sleigh Bells – Treats
If you could combine the testosterone-fuelled romance of 60s highschool pop, neo-distorto postpunk and the girl-core electro of Crystal Castles, you’d have something that’s about 50% as catchy, 55% as heavy and 25% as scary as Sleigh Bells. Like Bonnie and Clyde armed only with a guitar and a mic, you can’t really be sure if Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss are in it to cut you or seduce you, such is the violence and beauty of their noise pop.
8. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
After years of putting out weirdo outsider psych-pop tapes (in many cases literally tapes), someone managed to get Ariel Pink into a proper studio and the results are stunning. Although not what you’d call high fidelity, Before Today cuts through the occasional echo-ey reverb haze with surf indie and dreamy folk-pop that could have been made by anyone from Fleetwood Mac or the Beach Boys to any one hit wonder from the late 70s, but could only have been made in California. Sublime.
7. These New Puritans – Hidden
These New Puritans were once (specifically on their first album) purveyors of weirdo Brit-indie, their estuary English banging against angular guitar stabs and spasmodic bass. The fact that some of the more prominent sounds on Hidden are that of a medieval brass and wind ensemble, Taiko drums, and the sound of swords being unsheathed gives you an idea of which way the band have moves on the avant-garde scale. Thematically and aurally, Hidden is characterised by violence. The drums and sub-bass pummel the senses, vocals are pitch-shifted to monsterous rumbles, gauntlets are rattled and bones are (apparently) shattered, all at such a volume and intensity you’d swear there was a Tolkien-esque war happening somewhere in your cerebral cortex. Lyrically, war features heavily – something that seemed then as it seems now, very apposite, given the daily news feed of dismembered limbs, suicide bombings and landmines.
It is to their eternal credit that Hidden doesn’t alienate through it’s tough sound and even tougher content, but rather engages and galvanises. This is probably helped by the aforementioned physicality of the album – it grabs you by the throat. The other major factor in just how Hidden captures the listener is the eloquence. Rarely has the sound of soldiery been meshed with the poetics of a great novelist so well. Invigorating.
6. Chilly Gonzales – Ivory Tower
Speaking of albums that come out of left field, Ivory Tower, the Canadian piano-botherer’s ninth full length album smashed a new hole in electro. Where artists like Breakbot were teasing a fissure, The Artist Formerly Known As Gonzales recruited Alex “Boys Noize” Ridha and made an piano post-electro masterpiece, stopping along the way to make an accompanying film with Tiga, Peaches and Feist. Like Sebastian Tellier before him, Chilly plays with his own hairy Lothario persona with humour, but the one thing that is never satirised is his musical virtuosity; Chilly is the Guiness world record holder a solo performance. He played the piano in concert for 30+ hours straight.
You Can Dance (the first track above) must surely rate as 2010’s answer to Justice’s D.A.N.C.E. Sublime electro-pop, the likes of which there are probably only 25 examples of in existence. Perfection.
5. Chromeo – Business Casual
As with a couple of other cases in this years list, there is very little surprise that Chromeo are so high. One of possibly 4 insanely anticipated albums (along with Aeroplane, Yeasayer and LCD Soundsystem), Chromeo have found the niche that they have been carving themselves over the past 6 or 7 years being invaded by many young pretenders – Ali Love and Jimmy Edgar to name two of plenty.
With this their third album, the Montreal two-piece have moved even more towards being a version of the great Hall & Oates-esque pop single machine that they have been circling for a while. The tunes come laden with even more traditional pop hooks than usual, and the tropes are more obvious – not in a bad way, but it certainly gives itself up easier. The results are clear – the venues are bigger, the crowds more adoring. It seems like the only route from here is to do a collab with some kind of pop princess. Oh they just did? Well there you go…
4. Steve Mason – Boys Outside
Nothing that the Beta Band did (or King Biscuit time, or anything else I know of Mason for that matter) led me to think that he had a solo album of such delicate beauty and openness in him. Perhaps it’s my age and gender (actually, I don’t think it is, but you’ll see where I’m going with this), but a man like Steve Mason – revered by many, a staggering talent, but approaching middle age and fighting myriad addictions, including crack and heroin – could only make an album like this to survive. The new, clean Steve Mason laid his new, clean self out and the resultant album is the melancholic survival tale. Truly timeless and truly affecting.
3. Aeroplane – We Can’t Fly
We Can’t Fly skillfully avoids the cul-de-sac that is nu-disco (a dead-end that could easily have pulled them (him) in, especially given the fact that Aeroplane’s remixes over the past couple of years have been simply the best things to come out of dance music, bar none). Not that anyone would have complained at an album of 7 minute dance-floor stompers, but somehow, what Vito DeLuca (recently separated from former Aeroplane co-pilot Stephen Fasano) delivered had so much more heritage to it – so much more meat to chew, so much more satisfying a meal. Where you find the usual subjects in the sound – Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas, Kano, Georgio Moroder, Simonetti et al – you also find masters of bombast, of soundtracks and of (I kid ye not) classic rock! The result is an album that sounds like Chic launching an air-raid on ELO and Jeff Wayne! Albeit from a stealth bomber piloted by a white-suited, millionaire playboy. That’s some aeroplane.
2. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
I went to a playback of this in Rounder Records in Brighton (they get promos really early for DFA stuff for some reason), and after the intro to first track Dance Yrself Clean, all present were looking at each other saying “yup, they’ve done it again”. All the wonderful elements of their past outings are here – the self effacing humourous, tongue in cheek curmudgeonlyness, the party indie-disco, the thoughtful lament, and most of all, the catchiest proggy disco workouts heard anywhere. If this is somehow your first foray into the world of popular music, you’re going to need all 4 LCD LPs (YES 45:33 counts as an LP, heathen), and pretty sharpish. They are the foundation stones of 21st Century indie-dance.
1. Yeasayer – Odd Blood
Never in much doubt really. After lead single Ambling Alp (see above) came out right at the end of 2009, the anticipation (and subsequent delight at the finished thing) was such that any artist of any year would struggle. Odd Blood explores both the outer reaches of the sonic universe, using insane pitch shifting, weird polyrythms and every category of instrument I can think of (and a few I couldn’t), whilst simultaneously plumbing the innermost depths of the psyche – both base and sublime.
Yeasayer’s two LPs are two of the best albums of the decade. Astonishing and transcendentally beautiful.
Soundtrack of the Year: Greenberg
Essentially, this is a solo record by James Murphy (he of LCD Soundsystem) peppered with his selected awesomeness, including Steve Miller Band, Nite jewel, The Sonics, Albert Hammond Jr and Duran Duran. The low key, and often apparently half-finished tracks perfectly soundtrack the dissolution, fragility and whimsy of Greenberg, as well as the occasional soaring highs. A delight, and perhaps a clue to Murphy’s post-LCD output??