The year 2010 in music can be looked at in one of two ways.
It was bad.
It was really, really bad.
I’m not kidding. Most of the music was pretty mundane. Some of it was atrociously bad. But I managed to scrape together twenty albums worthy of repeated listens. I mean, some of them have been pretty regular in the iPod shuffle in my world. One of them has pretty much stayed in my CD player at home since I bought it.
So here are the twenty albums of 2010 that I consider to be totally awesome and future all time classics. Well, okay, one of them is a classic now. The other nineteen need to catch up.
20.Vampire Weekend Contra
I love nerdy boys. Love them. I also happen to love Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and staccato rhythms. So its safe to say Vampire Weekend’s 2008 début was one of my favourite records that year. And yes, this has more of the same, but the melodies are less controlled and more fun. Plus, “Horchata” rhymes its titular drink with “balaclava”, and poetic schemes like that make my heart swell with joy. It’s a clever album, a smart album, and a danceable album.
Key tracks: the bouncy “Horchata”; the odd percussive beat of “California English”.
19 Frightened Rabbit The Winter of Mixed Drinks
The thick Scottish brogues and deep melodic Hammond are back with another collection of mood pieces that tries to be more sunny than their previous masterpiece album, The Midnight Organ Fight. It’s a bit of a win for them, as this album is infinitely more cheerful sounding. But still, being Scottish, it means a lot of windy atmospheric noises topped with Scott Hutchison’s massively accented vocals. Granted, they somehow also make this brilliant little album sound absolutely epic in scale. A genuine joy.
Key tracks: the acoustic guitars and epic orchestrations of “The Wrestle”,; the perfect pop of “Nothing Like You”.
18. Eminem Recovery
Even Eminem not perfect is pretty close to perfect. He still lacks the humour that his early career thrived on, but his albums are richer musically and thematically. Honestly, its six in one, a half-dozen the other. All one has to do is listen to the swells of the chorus for “Love The Way You Lie” to see his ambition is to beat Kanye at his own game. It’s a new kind of hip hop: philosophical and raw.
Key tracks: the ubiquitous and controversial “Love The Way You Lie”; the Ozzy sampler “Going Through Changes”.
17. Owen Pallett Heartland
The Polaris award-winning artist behind Final Fantasy and the man responsible for Arcade Fire’s amazing orchestrations finally releases an album under his own name and brings us this eclectic record. Whether it’s the short little masterpiece of Wagner epic strings that is “Mount Alpentine” to the nearly seven minute electronic bounce of “Tryst with Mephistopheles”, it’s an album that keeps you guessing constantly, while never sounding scattershot.
Key tracks: the fantastically titled thumper “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!”; the lush piano and violins of “E is for Estranged”
16. Grinderman Grinderman 2
Nick Cave is back to remind us he is one of the greatest living troubadours, a man unafraid to grab us by the collar and shake us into submission. Ginderman 2 is a worthy sequel to the original record, a dark, vicious attack of grinding guitars, chugging rhythms, howling, sex, gin soaked vocals, and plain genius. It’s a soundtrack to a spaghetti western slasher film. Thankfully, it’s still only playing in Nick Cave’s head.
Key tracks: the quietness of “What I Know”; the crushing anguish that shakes your core of “Evil”.
15. The New Pornographers Together
The Canadian indie rock gods came back with their poppiest album yet. Yes, I concede it is the lesser of the five New Pornographers albums. But when you début with an album like Mass Romantic, there is no where else to go but down. This record remains a strong one, a bright, upbeat musical ray of sunshine. I love bands that throw words like “byzantine” into their lyrics. I just do.
Key tracks: the propulsive “Your Hands (Together)”; the byzantine spouting of “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”.
14.Manic Street Preachers Postcards From A Young Man
There are just some bands in one’s life you can find no fault with. I have been with MSP through it all- the difficult and messy The Holy Bible; the pop masterpiece of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours; the dark years that followed that amazing album; their recent resurrection with Postcards. They have settled back into This Is My Truth territory, with strong melodies, amazing guitars and drums, fantastic lyrics from Nicky Wire, and great vocals from James Dean Bradford. It’s not as overtly political as they have been in the past, and there is a fantastic cameo from Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McColloch. A grand return to form.
Key tracks: the seventies influenced anti-corporate “Hazelton Avenue”; the existential rock of “All We Make Is Entertainment”.
13.Janelle Monae The ArchAndroid
Some artists are just so ambitious you wonder if they can possibly pull it off. And listening to the full orchestration of the opening track of this album, I wondered if Janelle Monae took too much out of her box of crayons. But the spaced out Parliament influences blend with her higher cultural ideals and create a truly innovative album of moody R&B, well worth the time and effort to listen in its entirety. Big Boi, of Montreal, Saul Williams all make guest appearances. Just one daring piece of work that doesn’t fall flat.
Key tracks: the bounce and speed of “Cold War”; the surprising brilliance of dance pop that is “Make The Bus”.
12.Kid Cudi Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager
Kid Cudi’s first record escaped my attention. He just seemed like a Kanye wannabe, and I already have one of those in my life. Yes, I wasn’t wrong, as Cudi follows the Kanye school of hip hop- he sings as often as he raps. But unlike Kanye, he sings raw and without the overuse of autotune and sounds like a rough and tumble hip hop artist. This record is a tough listen- Cudi is absolutely honest about everything from his drug use to his politics. But it’s another one of these albums that I cannot stop listening to once I put it on.
Key Tracks: the piano and drum track “REVOFEV”; the St. Vincent featuring “MANIAC”.
11.Cee-Lo The Lady-Killer
Cee-Lo leaves the avant-garde aspirations of Gnarls Barkley and returns to the music he truly loves, and it shows. This lovingly crafted album is both homage and re-imagination of Motown and sixties soul. Yes, “Fuck You” got a lot of play, and its a brilliant little ditty, but it’s not even the best song on the album. It’s a throwback, but it’s also the future of soul music. And it is so good I might just cry.
Key tracks: the eighties inspired drama of “Bright Lights, Bigger City”; the sunshine Motown pop of “Fuck You”; the magnificent horns on “Satisfied” that sound like they could be on a Chi-Lite’s track.
10.Broken Bells Broken Bells
Danger Mouse, the other half of Gnarls Barkley, and James Mercer, frontman of indie legends the Shins, teamed up in 2010 to create this amazing hybrid album of indie hiphop beats. I am totally enamoured of this album, featuring trippy, tricked out beats and stunning vocals by Mercer, who is one of the great singers of the modern indie movement. It could be the Gorillaz cribbing “The Ghost Inside” or the vaguely surf sounding bounce of “Mongrel Heart”, it sounds like the perfect blend of two brilliant men trying to create great music that answers to both their strengths and succeeds spectacularly.
Key tracks: the waltz time psychedelic touches of “Sailing To Nowhere”; the pure indie of “Vaporize”; the hypnotic piano buried in the bleep of “October”
9. Bruce Springsteen The Promise
Darkness on the Edge of Town is my favourite album by the Boss- it’s not bombastic like Born To Run and not as spare as Nebraska, but it is a happy medium. The songs reflected the difficult time Springsteen was having at the time, restricted from recording as he settled a painful lawsuit with his ex-manager. These outtakes from this period are almost as great as the actual Darkness, with an excellent but different take on “Because the Night”, a song I have only before had in its live incarnation. Its one of the many songs Bruce wrote that never appeared on his own albums, and a couple are included here- “Fire”, a hit for the Pointer Sisters, is one. But mostly, it’s an interesting artifact, with alternate takes of songs that did make it to Darkness (“Racing in the Street”), and many of these amazing songs that most other artists would love to have on their proper albums, not just sitting around on masters somewhere in a vault. Its right up there with Bruce’s best work.
Key tracks: the still always wonderful “Because The Night”; the sixties horns that populate “Talk To Me”; the racing “Outside Looking In”.
8. Spoon Transference
Spoon are just fantastic. I’ve tried to think of a Spoon album I dislike and I can’t. They just keep being totally awesome. This is no different, with Britt Daniel still being a clever lyricist and Jim Eno still providing sharp and smart beats on his drum. These two strengths always made Spoon a standout band, since many indie bands tend to bury the drummer in the mix, but the crisp drumming on tracks like “The Mystery Zone” and “Got Nuffin'” make Spoon a rarity- an indie band you can dance to without looking like a complete prat.
Key tracks: the strong rhythm section work on “Nobody Gets Me But You”; the ropy guitars of “I Saw The Light”; the lovely sparseness of “Goodnight Laura”.
7. Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I have a tendency to forgive Kanye West’s transgression without much thought. The reason is he continues to give me, as a fan, amazing albums to listen to. Without question his masterpiece is now this operatic gem, where Kanye is at turns ridiculously self-absorbed and depressingly remorseful. It relies on samples and guest artists more than his other records since The College Dropout, but when those sample include Bon Iver, the Byrds, Gil Scott-Heron, King Crimson, and Black Sabbath, you must tip your hat to Kanye. He’s fearless in his ambition and in paying tribute to his influences. He’s not afraid of rock and roll and he leaves many of the rock samples as pure as possible. It’s opulent, it’s self-indulgent, it’s complex, it’s dark, it’s twisted, it’s angry, it’s magnificent.
Key tracks: the “21st Century Schizoid Man” sampler “POWER”; the exquisitely rich “Dark Fantasy”; the contrasting quiet and party beats that make up “Lost in the World”; the massive epic “Runaway”.
6. The National High Violet
The National and I have always had a difficult relationship. I know they’re great, but I found their albums uninspiring. Then they released High Violet, and I heard exactly what I wanted to hear from the band-rich tones and rich musicality. Yes, I know these elements have always been there, but they lacked a focus and a freshness until now. I do have to admit that Matt Berninger’s marvellous baritone remains one of my favourite voices in music, thankfully the rest of the band showed up to give him a magical tapestry this time to sing on.
Key tracks: the staccato rhythms and in front vocals of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”; the hymn like drone of “England”; the Sufjan Stevens featuring “Afraid of Everyone”; the quietness of “Runaway”.
5. Arcade Fire The Suburbs
I think I heard someone pass out over there.
I know I have talked this album up so much that it seemed the obvious choice, but there were four other records this year that are better than Arcade Fire. Really. I’m getting to them.
It lacks the immediacy and ferocity of their début, Funeral, but it is much less frustrating than their second album, Neon Bible. No, on this third full length magical piece of work from the Texan expat Win Butler’s Montreal based collective. we see the American Dream being pulverized by clear-eyed reminiscing. Butler holds no punched as he views the titular living areas as cold, vacant, heartless expanses where conformity ids high and freedom is just a myth. It’s a dark album under those poppy, sunny melodies, and it is certainly an intense listening experience. All I know if is the suburbs represent what the ideal is, I never want to live it.
Key tracks: the keyboards and drums of “Ready To Start”; the sharpness of “We Used To Wait”; the radioactive “Month of May”; the sixties pop of “The Suburbs”; the strings that underlay the furious guitars of “Empty Room”.
4. Gorillaz Plastic Beach
I follow Damon Albarn from project to project like a sad lost puppy because I love Blur so much, but now I’ve grown to accept that he will forever be the brains behind a cartoon band. I love this record, a record full of minor key melancholy, dystopian soundscapes, Snoop Dogg and Bobby Womack vocals, and environmental apocalypse. It may not seem as innovative as it did back in 2001, but it is perfectly put together, a blend of hip hop, synths, and indie rock. It’s fearless in its ambition, and its various influences come off as fresh and inspired. Its pretty brilliant. Plus- Mark E. Smith cameo!
Key tracks: the middle eastern influenced “White Flag”; the hypnotic “Stylo”; the sweeping keyboards of “Melancholy Hill”; the militaristic “Glitter Freeze; the epic motion picture soundtrack sound of “Three Hearts, Seven Seas, Twelve Moons”.
3. Broken Social Scene Forgiveness Rock Record
The sprawling collective have reigned themselves in a bit, both in members and in terms of musical ideas. They have streamlined and focused themselves, and it makes for a less messy and more rewarding experience. The result is an album full of plaintive guitars, strong backbeats, and great, clear vocals. And yes, the magnificence of the guitars cannot be understated. The Polaris nominated record is worth every minute, every word of praise, and every dollar. How Canadian bands can create such opulent soundscapes on a shoestring has always puzzled me, but thank God we know a way to do it. This album, coming on the heels of Feist’s breakout and the over the top but still wonderful BSS album You Forgot It In People is a revelation. It’s magical rock and roll.
Key tracks: the epic majesty of “World Sick”; the punky instrumental jam “Meet Me in the Basement”; the amusing “Texaco Bitches”; the propulsive percussion and spaced synths of “Chase Scene”; the rave up “Forced To Love”.
2. Black Keys Brothers
The Akron, Ohio duo got their due from the world, and myself (Thanks, Rose). This is an amazing record. Just amazing. The authentic blues thump, the fuzzed out guitars, the dirty feedback- it’s all genuine. And it’s all done without gimmicks ( ahem- Jack White. I’m looking at you). How these two guys can sit there and create an album this complete and raw is astounding. They even managed to score a minor hit song with “Tighten Up”, which is a fantastic poppy blues track. The album makes me want to sit in my car and sing with the windows rolled down, belting like a blues wailer. Thankfully, I don’t own a car, so I will save the world that agony.
Key tracks: the bluesy jump of “Tighten Up”; the murky “Black Mud”; the steady beat and falsetto vocals of “Everlasting Light”; the Rolling Stones inspired “These Days”; the keyboards and guitar marriage of “I’m Not The One”.
1. LCD Soundsystem This Is Happening
From the moments I heard the opening notes of “Dance Yrself Clean”, I knew that LCD Soundsystem won the year. As a devoted fan of James Murphy’s dance masterpieces, it was clear that it was gonna be up there even before the record was released. Murphy gets hyped so much in my brain that the day before, I’m pretty sure I’ll get my soul crushed. Yet he never disappoints me.
He certainly didn’t here, nine tracks of perfect music. From the sparseness of the opening moments of the first song, which later explodes into synth perfection as Murphy bitches about bad friends, or maybe he;s bitching about himself. The album continues on to another patented LCD takedown about the nightlife (“Drunk Girls”), seventies disco sounds (“Home”), plaintive pleadings for forgiveness over synth lines that would make Soft Cell weep for joy (“I Can Change”), silliness (“Pow Pow”), and even slapping his label around (“You Wanted A Hit”).
No album has made me happier than this one this year. Which is why it sits here, comfortably, at number one.
Key tracks: all nine of them are pretty fantastic, but I love the opener “Dance Yrself Clean” for its minimal beginning, “Drunk Girls” classic dance rock vibe, and “I Can Change” is a moment of self-reflection in a mess of pretty awesome fun.