This concludes the “My Year In Lists Feature.” I hope that you have enjoyed reading. I plan to take a (small) break from the blog over the next week or so, but I will be still be tweeting. You should follow me @musingsonmusic!
After a full week of non-stop writing and a lot of deliberation, I have finally compiled my list for The Top 35 Albums of 2010. This year was an especially strong one for music, and featured bands that hit their stride, many new artists worthy of the hype that surrounded them, and plenty of amazing albums. This year, I have decided to join nearly every other site out there and rank my picks from #35-#1. Let me know what you think I should have included or what should have taken top honors. I would love the feedback. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the best music of 2010.
#35 James Blake: The Bells Sketch/CMYK/Klavierwerk EP’s; If there was one musician who made me question what I was doing with my life this year, it would be London electronic wizkid James Blake. At the age of 21, he managed to release three EP’s that ably demonstrated his talent in different ways. His ability to combine his manipulated singing voice, ghostly samples that recall Burial’s landmark album Untrue, and insistent beats made for some of the most interestingly catchy tracks of 2010. Take, for example, the title track to CMYK, where the phrase “If I found her (damn) red coat” is looped and pitch altered to an alarm clock like tone before the track explodes into a maximalist haze. While there are a few less than stellar tracks on each EP, they all come together to make for an excellent display of Blake’s potential that should be more fully realized on his self-titled debut full-length come February.
#34 Lindstrom & Christabelle: Real Life Is No Cool; After releasing a bombshell of an album with 2008’s Where You Go, I Go Too, Hans-Peter Lindstrom decided to recruit longtime collaborator Christabelle for the next foray into his world of spaced out disco exercises. The songs on Real Life Is No Cool don’t come close to matching the 30 minute run time of his last album’s title track, forcing Lindstrom to be more immediate in his arrangements. As a result, many of these songs come right out of the gate as opposed to building up over time. The beats pulsate, the synths are insistant, and many little touches (such as the disco horns on “Can’t Stop”) help to create an atmosphere that can only exist above the ground. Meanwhile, Christabelle’s airy mixture of singing and speaking the verses perfectly complement Lindstrom’s futurisitc sound scapes. Real Life Is No Cool is further proof that no matter what form his music takes, Lindstrom is among the elites of electronic music.
#33 Superchunk: Majesty Shredding; A pop-punk band in every sense of the term, Superchunk have been releasing anthems since they first made a splash with their 1990 self-titled debut and arguably their most well known song “Slack Motherfucker.” It’s been nine years since the band released their last album, 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up, but Majesty Shredding could have been released any year since then and it would still prove why Superchunk are experts at what they do. Filled to the brim with sing-along choruses, front man Mac McCaughan’s earnest vocals, and a dual guitar attack that allows McCaughan to shred away, the album is an absolute blast from start to finish. While a new Superchunk album may not garner the kind of attention it did during the mid-90’s, Majesty Shredding is another solid addition to the band’s catalog, and should succeed in turning on a new generation to one of indie rock’s most significant groups.
#32 Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love; The band that can be best described as twee royalty returned this year with another record of pleasant and well crafted songs, continuing to build on the hot streak they reignited with 2006’s The Life Pursuit. Few other writers know how to pen a sentimental love song or vivid account of everyday life like Stuart Murdoch, and this album contains some of his best lines yet. Meanwhile, the more upbeat chamber pop of The Life Pursuit has made a return, and the arrangements here are both fully formed and uniquely theirs; gorgeous guitar tones, horns that fit right in place, and bits of piano pairing with Murdoch’s instantly recognizable voice. While the band may not have done anything new with this album, Write About Love succeeds in reaffirming what we already knew about Belle & Sebastian.
#31 ceo: White Magic; The Swedes have always been miles ahead of much of the world in churning out quality electronic music, and in 2010 they gave us ceo, an alias for The Tough Alliance’s Eric Berglund. While American electronic music has shifted towards the maximalist beat processing of Flying Lotus and Baths, White Magic is about as lovely a counterpoint as you will get. Much like the work of TTA and fellow country men Air France, ceo is all about setting the beauty of nature against traditional electronic beats and flourishes. The acoustic guitar during the mid section of the title track combines with a pulsating backbeat to create the illusion of riding through a snow covered field, and many other moments conjure the kind imagery reserved for the most pristine of natural experiences. It is this attention to detail and craft that make White Magic such an enjoyable experience, and it furthers the argument that Europeans just do electronic better.
#30 Toro y Moi: Casuers of This; Of all the bedroom poppers to emerge over the last few years, Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick arguably has the best shot at a long-term career. This is because rather than pigeonhole himself in one mode of music, like the increasingly boring Neon Indian, he produces songs that incorporate a variety of styles and instrumentation to bring his vision to life. Causers of This is filled with diverse numbers that don’t rely too heavily on the chillwave template and succeeds because of it. The use of guitar, the funky bass lines that form the foundation of almost every track, and Bundick’s great singing voice lend an added amount of depth to the songs, and they reveal themselves to the listener across multiple listens. With the recent addition of a full time bassist and drummer to his lineup, it will be exciting to see where Bundick goes with his sound. Regardless, Causers of This will be the record people return to long after chillwave loses it’s steam.
#29 Best Coast: Crazy For You; An album that simultaneously embraced and surpassed the aesthetic of it’s contemporaries, Crazy For You transcends the bloated lo-fi scene by focusing on songwriting rather than simply sounding retro. Best Coast front woman Bethany Cosentino’s rich, warm voice anchored each of the album’s thirteen tracks, and the easy going, sun-drenched guitar rock is given emotional weight by her plaintive tales of heartbreak and longing amidst a beautiful setting. The fact that “not even TV or a bunch of weed” is enough to make her happy speaks just as loudly as the most flowery of prose, and it’s this simplistic nature that makes the album infinitely relatable. Add to that the band’s ability to write some killer hooks, and it’s easy to see why Best Coast succeed where many of their peers flounder.
#28 Jonsi: Go; Far from the more experimentalist leanings of early Sigur Ros, Jonsi used Go as an opportunity to more fully embrace the pop trajectory that his band increasingly embraced over their last few releases. This new suit fits Jonsi like a tailor-made suit, as the songs on Go show him at a creative high, offering something that would otherwise be impossible working with his normal cast of players. Producer wunderkind Nico Mulhy helped the singer acheive his vision by providing some of the most gorgeous arrangements set to tape this year. Complete with string swells, suitcase banging percussion (literally), and enough otherworldly sounds to make even the darkest corners of the world brim with light, Go is a symphony of beauty that will impress the most picky of audiophiles. But perhaps the greatest thing about the album is that Jonsi sings in English on most of the tracks. While this may have upset many Sigur Ros purists, the sense of wide-eyed wonder that he emotes through the majority of his lyrics give the songs that extra push to make them positively huge. And Jonsi knows a thing or two about huge.
#27 The Roots: How I Got Over; Despite their seemingly cheerful appearance as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, The Roots’ last couple of albums, 2006’s Game Theory and 2008’s Rising Down were incredibly dark affairs, exploring many of the darker aspects of contemporary society. While this mood dominates most of the rap collective’s ninth studio album, How I Got Over turns the gaze inward and explores the world’s effect on the self and how to cope with it. The music is more subdued and intricate here, but the verses are just as vivid and hard hitting as they’ve ever been. Black Thought’s authoritative flow continues to punctuate the realities of a “post race” world, and the group utilizes some of the most unlikeliest of guests to add more emotional depth to their philosophizing. Dirty Projectors, Monsters of Folk, and even Joanna Newsom combine with an onslaught of talented MC’s to make for one of the most diverse, focused and quality rap albums of the year. Things may not get better in the Roots’ world, but thanks to them we are aware that we as a society still have a long way to go.
# 26 The Morning Benders: Big Echo; Filled with soaring choruses, thundering percussion, and plenty of vocal layering, Big Echo marked a huge step forward for The Morning Benders from run of the mill indie rock band to being hailed as the West Coast Grizzly Bear. This is thanks, in no small part to that band’s Chris Taylor, who refined the group’s sound into something as epic as the waves that no doubt inspired many of the songs here. There are musical nuances to be found all over, yet the production gives enough space to let the songs achieve the highs that the band aims for. Aside from being a great sonic achievement, Big Echo also succeeds in being an excellent pop record. The band knows how to construct epic and memorable moments. Try not singing along to the vocal interlude of “Excuses” and you’ll see what I mean. The marked improvement of Big Echo over the group’s 2008 debut gives promise that the band will only continue to get better from here on out.
# 25 Spoon: Transference; After the universal acclaim that 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga received, it was inevitable that Britt Daniel and company’s subsequent release would be greeted with less enthusiasm from critics and audiences. It’s a shame really, because Transference is as strong a set of songs as any that Spoon have released in their fifteen plus years together. As opposed to the more polished tunes of 2005’s Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band decided to go for a more stripped down approach, something they achieved exceedingly well thanks to their gifts as producers and sound engineers. Daniel’s near throat-shedding howl on “Written In Reverse” best exemplifies their plan of attack, it’s raw and unhinged quality serving as metaphor for the rest of the album. Filled with concise and expertly crafted songs and enough studio tricks to surprise even the most critical of listeners, Transference sees Spoon continuing to push themselves by refining what they know best.
#24 Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz; In what was one of the most surprising and important left turns that any artist made in 2010, Sufjan Stevens abandoned his banjo in favor of synthesizers and drum pads for The Age of Adz, an intensely personal collection of songs loosely based on the life of artist Royal Robertson. Save for album opener “Futile Devices” and the heart wrenching “Now That I’m Older,” each song here is filled to the brim with electronic glitches, synth swells, and flurries of strings that give off an impending sense of doom. It is over this cacophony that Stevens delivers some of his most candid lyrics yet, exploring the identity crisis he experienced after releasing 2005′s Illinoise, death, and love with the same heartfelt lyrics that have come to establish him as an indie god. Hearing Stevens explore his inner demons in this way may not please those who fell in love with the freewheelin’ bard from Michigan, but it makes The Age of Adz a captivating listen for those willing to give it a chance.
#23 Old 97’s: The Grand Theater: Volume One; On the verge of entering their third decade together, Old 97’s prove that they’ve lost none of their vitality with The Grand Theater: Volume One. Rhett Miller is still one of the best songwriters of any genre, and though his tone has shifted from his barn-raising lady killer days, his tales of love, heartache, and growing older are told with a precision and honesty that few other front men can claim. Meanwhile, Murray Hammond’s two contributions allow his gorgeous singing voice to take front and center. As opposed to the more scaled down approach of their last few outings, this album sees the band reenergized and unafraid to play the kind of faster paced and livewire music that made some of their earlier work stand out. This makes The Grand Theater: Volume One the best batch of songs Old 97’s have released since 2001’s Satellite Rides, and adds another win to the group’s incredibly consistent streak.
#22 Hot Chip: One Life Stand; Who would have guessed a few years ago that Hot Chip would make one of the most emotionally gripping albums of 2010? While known primarily for their knock-out slices of electro-pop (and there are plenty of those here), One Life Stand is a mature album that serves as an effective argument for connection and real human emotion. It is also the group’s best body of work to date. Combining some of their catchiest arrangements and lyrics celebrating unrequited love (“One Life Stand,” “I Feel Better) and closeness (“Brothers”), the band strikes an emotional nerve that was only hinted at in past efforts. While these songs are ready for the floor (this is Hot Chip after all), they can just as easily be enjoyed by yourself or with the one you love. One Life Stand proves that dance music can have its heart pulsating just as hard as the beat, making it stand out in a genre overrun by self-indulgence.
#21 The Drums: The Drums; After releasing a near flawless EP with last year’s Summertime!, the expectation for The Drums to follow through on their proper debut was astronomical. Fortunately, The Drums followed through on the band’s immense promise by continuing to channel new wave romanticism amidst a sound that has been described time and again as a post-punk beach party. Front man Jonathan Piece has an innocent and wide-eyed, yet melodramtic singing voice; his tales of love, heartbreak and everything in between are delivered with a kind of swagger that few other young band leaders possess. The music itself is bouncy and full of hooks, such as the bass line to “Let’s Go Surfing,” the synth heavy chorus of “Forever and Ever, Amen,” and Pierce’s vocal flurries on “Best Friend.” The Drums are a band who are not afraid to be poppy, and as a result they have crafted a strong debut that shows promise for the years ahead.
#20 Four Tet: There Is Love In You; Kieran Hebden’s first proper LP in five years sees the artist who’s music was once described as “folktronic” take a more traditional route. There Is Love In You is filled with the kind of electronic bloops and bleeps that harken back to the genre’s early days, yet Hebden runs with the framework like an overly enthusiastic schoolchild. By injecting vocal samples, jazz-like drums and character into his tracks, the listener can’t help but keep their body moving, whether tapping their foot to the beat or through full on dancing. The album succeeds in creating many bliss inducing moments, such as the stunningly gorgeous “Angel Echoes” and the 8-bit anthem “Sing,” thanks to Hebden’s ability to let the songs continually build upon themselves rather than keep them in one place. But perhaps the biggest achievement here is that all sounds so effortless, as if Hebden had these songs in his head way before the writing process, and it is this that made There Is Love In You worth the five year wait.
#19 Wolf Parade: Expo 86; Say what you will about Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs; Wolf Parade is where Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug are at their best. Expo 86 saw the band loosening up their approach to making an album, recording everything but vocals live, and the result is some of the strongest work of their careers. Boeckner’s more straightforward rock stlyings benefit from Krug’s added flourishes, and Krug’s eccentric tendencies are kept within the stratosphere by Boeckner’s knack for structure. The two of them have an energy that is only stronger when they are together, and that energy translates to the rest of the band. Great moments like “Cloud Shadow On The Mountain,” “Ghost Pressure,” and the marvel that is album closer “Cave-O-Sapien” are the result of two creative forces in their element combining to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. No number of respected side projects can ever take that chemistry from Wolf Parade.
#18 Zola Jesus: Stridulum EP; Over the course of six songs, Stridulum simultaneously marks a transition for Zola Jesus while best displaying the huge voice of Nika Roza Danilova. While her earlier releases were filled with the kind of lo-fi hiss and pop that worked to mitigate her pipes, Danilova’s use of cleaner, more atmospheric production and ominous synth lines provide the perfect setting for her most distinguishing feature. Her voice embodies the kind of dark, gothic beauty that only a classically trained vocalist could carry. Whether she’s urging a lover to come closer on “Night” or reassuring a lovesick friend on “I Can’t Stand,” she manages to effortlessly convey her emotions through her singing, making even the simplest of phrases sound downright earnest and heartfelt amidst a dark industrial backdrop. If her next full length continues down the path taken on Stridulum, Zola Jesus is destined for greatness in 2011.
#17 Caribou: Swim; Dan Snaith’s third album as Caribou finds him taking his music in a far different direction than 2007’s sun-drenched, euphoric Andorra. Rather than create another layered opus filled with nods to 60’s psychedelic music, Swim sees Snaith heading onto the dance floor, where he creates some of the darkest music of his career. And by dark, I don’t mean that he’s gone goth on us, far from it. The big bass lines, synthetic drums, and vintage synths that dominate the musical landscape work to create a foreboding mood while still keeping things upbeat, crevices of light peeping through. At the same time, the attention to songcraft and his lovelorn singing makes for some of Snaith’s most memorable tracks yet, with “Odessa,” “Sun,” and “Leave House” serving as career highlights. It is this combination of mood and continued earnestness that make Swim arguably Snaith’s best album as Caribou.
#16 Robyn: Body Talk; American pop stars can learn a lot from Robyn, the Swedish songstress who is finally gaining traction in the States. Body Talk manages to surpass everything the pop manufactures on this side of the pond could come up with by obeying rule number one: let the music do the talking. Robyn’s tunes are injected with enough personality to where you can understand what she’s all about independent of her public image, something that artists like Katy Perry and Ke$ha can’t exist without. Additionally, many of her songs appeal to universal sentiments that have a far greater emotional impact than the “let’s get drunk and party” narrative that permeated American pop this year, such as the longing in “Dancing On My Own” or the warnings of the pitfalls of love on “Love Kills.” If pop is supposed to be vacuous and empty, nobody told Robyn, and Body Talk is a strong argument for substance in an otherwise barren landscape.
#15 These New Puritans: Hidden; These New Puritans took a huge risk by abandoning guitars in favor of a thirteen piece orchestra, children choirs, and Japanese Taiko drums. In the hands of many other groups this would have been dismissed as an act of pretension, where unchecked ambition yields middling results. Then again, These New Puritans are not just any other band, and with Hidden they utilized every ounce of creative energy they had to create an album that can only be described as primal in the best possible way. The theme of war and conflict that serves as an undercurrent to many of the songs is accentuated by the huge percussion, samples of knives being sharpened, and the sweltering crescendos of the orchestra that persist throughout. It is the musical equivalent of being thrust into a futuristic battlefield with only your wits to serve as your aid, and is truly genre-defying in every sense of the term. While the direction the band will take next is unclear, Hidden is more than enough to ensure that these Brits next moves will be closely watched.
#14 Diamond Rings: Special Affections; With his rainbow eyeliner and YouTube infused back story, one might expect Diamond Rings’ John O’Regan to be the male embodiment of Lady Gaga levels of excess and drama. It turns out that rather than being a self indulgent fame whore, O’Regan is a new romantic with an uncanny ability to write emotive, memorable and infinitely endearing songs. His debut, Special Affections, is an almost perfect pop record, filled with great tunes and plenty of personality. With only a drum machine, synthesizer and an electric guitar, he crafts arrangements that are at once grand in scope and are of a kind of pop genius that many producers would kill for. The piano line of album opener “Play By Heart” is downright devistating, while the guitar lines of “Something Else” make way for a chorus as heartfelt as they come. Tying it all together is O’Reagan’s dry yet emotive baritone and his way with a phrase, making for songs as universal in sentiment as they are appealing.
# 13 Surfer Blood: Astro Coast; Few other bands this year encapsulated the power of the recent guitar rock revival like Surfer Blood, and Astro Coast was their testament to the power of six strings. From the bite of “Flotaing Vibes” opening riff onward, it’s clear that these Floridians are serious about their trade. Each song on the album manages to have at least one major hook, and several of the tracks hit two or three. The overall carefree vibe that these songs carry make the band sound effortless in what they do, and provide instant gratification regardless of what track number you’re on. Surfer Blood are well versed in what makes for an effective pop song, and the fact that Astro Coast is full of potential singles is evidence to that. If they continue to churn out tunes like these, their recent signing to Warner Bros. will prove to be one of the label’s best decisions in a long time.
#12 The Tallest Man On Earth: The Wild Hunt; Continuing the upward trajectory that began with his 2008 debut, Shallow Grave, Kritstian Matsson once again proved why he is one of folk music’s brightest shining stars with The Wild Hunt. With little more than a guitar and his Dylan like croon, he further set himself apart from his contemporaries by refining what he does best. His vivid lyrics and prowess on his instrument take songs like “You’re Going Back” and “King of Spain” to euphoric heights that many other singer-songwriters fail to achieve over the course of an entire career. This is because Matsson injects an ungodly amount of energy into his work, and it shows through the sheer quality and consistency of The Wild Hunt. He is a singular talent that is quietly establishing himself as a folk institution, and if he continues the trajectory of the man he is most often compared to, he has a long and prosperous career ahead of him.
#11 Warpaint: The Fool; A lot of the criticisms surrounding Warpaint’s debut album were centered around the idea that it all sounded too effortless, like it was a bad thing that creating quality music came so easily for them. However, in my book, this is cause for an immense amount of praise, and something that should be marveled at. With The Fool, Warpaint truly succeed in creating something wholly their own. Borrowing aspects of psychedelic, post-punk, and ambient music, the band channels beauty through their tunes in a way that sounds well beyond their years. This is largely thanks to their tightness as a band, one of the most insistent rhythm sections this side of Interpol (circa 2002), and their ability to create atmosphere through harmonies both vocal and instrumental. The Fool will disappoint those who want instant gratification, but for those willing to give it a chance the slow burn will eventually become all-consuming, leaving you no choice but to submit to the four sirens that are Warpaint.
#10 Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; It only took two years of non-stop PR nightmares for Kanye West to release his magnum opus upon the world. Consciously evaluating his ego, his lifestyle, and their implications, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sees West giving us one of the most robust character studies that hip-hop has ever seen, all presented over some of the most robust and engaging arrangements you are likely to hear in 2010. The amounts of excess (both musically and lyrically) presented in many of the tracks borders on ridiculous, and one could easily read it as an even greater inflation of West’s ego. However, throughout the album, there is a sense that Kanye is both afraid and ashamed of what he’s created, whether it’s the admittance that “no one man should have all that power” or the loneliness he feels on “Lost In The World.” Moments like these give the album a sense of humility that is sorely lacking in mainstream hip-hop, and make West’s fantasy one that is worth revisiting again and again.
#9 Sleigh Bells: Treats; When I first heard Sleigh Bells’ Demos when we spun them on WOXY late last year, I knew that Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss were on to something special. The songs were loud and in your face, yet they still managed to be sweet pop tunes that would stick in your head for weeks. Treats brings back many of those tracks in a (slightly) more refined form, and along with the new songs they create something that a few years ago was unfathomable: an accessable noise-pop album. Against Miller’s pounding beats and overblown, heavily distorted guitar hooks, Krauss sweetly sings cheerleader like phrases that are effective despite not being of much substance. By themselves, the two components of Sleigh Bells sound would flounder, as Miller’s beats might be too abrasive for some and Krauss’ voice may be dismissed as too sugar coated by others. But together, they make for a winning formula that actually makes you look forward to blowing out your car’s speakers, making Treats one of the most exciting listening experiences of 2010.
#8 Beach House: Teen Dream; When you stop and think about it, dream pop is arguably one of the hardest styles to do right. How do you put into music the involuntary, vivid scenarios that enter your head when you’re not fully in control of your thoughts? Beach House gave their answer in the form of Teen Dream, an album filled with downbeat percussion along with bright and airy guitar and synth lines. Victoria Legrand’s lush and full alto is a thing of beauty that adds to the mystique, her ruminations about a lost love serving as the voice to the group’s vision. Coupled with their ability to know exactly when to elevate their music, such as the soaring chorus of “Zebra” or the breathy “ah’s” of “Norway,” it makes for an album that remains as mystical and ethereal now as it was when it was first released in January. Beach House really outdid themselves with Teen Dream, and if their next album follows the same path, the group have the potential to soundtrack dreams for years to come.
#7 Future Islands: In Evening Air; Nobody in 2010 embodied catharsis more than Future Islands front man Samuel T. Herring. His one of a kind voice, imagine Meat Loaf or Tom Waits with a Victorian-era accent, was performed with such finesse and precision that it elevated In Evening Air into a category all of its own. On display was a man completely destroyed by someone he had loved, and all there was left to do was wallow in his grief. The beautiful thing, though, is that this pain is communicated in a way that encompasses the sheer agony that comes from a loss of that kind while never once feeling contrived. It also didn’t hurt that Garrett Welmers’s electronics and Matt Cashion’s powerful bass lines provided the perfect backdrop for Herring to mourn over, whether it’s the gorgeous steel drum hooks of “Tin Man” or the grand sound scape that closes “Inch of Dust.” It all comes together for something completely original and unique, a beautifully brutal album that demands your attention from start to finish.
#6 Arcade Fire: The Suburbs; I think it’s safe to say that after this album, no other band can ever tackle the complexities, harms, and overall life-shaping effects of suburban life, at least not for an entire LP. With their uncanny ability to explore the emotional depths of a subject and pen massive songs about it, Arcade Fire returned this year with The Suburbs, an album that looks at the middle class lifestyle with both a sense of nostalgia and contempt. Amidst the ever amazing arrangment of instruments in the band’s arsenal, which now includes disco-esque synths and synthesized drums, the group has composed some of their finest work to date. Win Butler’s vivid accounts of growing up, living in, and dealing with the suburbs are those of someone who appreciates what growing up on the outskirts of town gave him, but upset at what the suburbs have come to represent. In true Arcade Fire fashion, even the most downtrodden, angry moments on the album still manage to sound beautiful, never crumbling beneath their emotional weight, a fine balance that few other groups strike quite like them.
#5 Titus Andronicus: The Monitor; No album released this year contained as much ambition as The Monitor. Having already established themselves as one of the premiere indie punk bands with 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus decided to go all out for album number two. Incorporating a loose Civil War theme to mask a breakup, spoken word interludes, and songs that reach up to 14 minutes in length, it was easy for some to be skeptical of the band’s intentions. However, in the hands of one of the most earnest punk bands to grace the scene in quite some time, the album shines. Filled with lyrical allusions to everything from Bruce Springsteen to Keystone Light, nervous punk energy, and Patrick Stickles’ forever triumphantly pained vocals, The Monitor is a behemoth of a record that is as fun as it is thought provoking. These are the thinking man’s drunken anthems performed by a group that shows no signs of slowing down, and has set the bar for all punk bands to follow at almost unreachable levels.
#4 The Walkmen: Lisbon; After 2008’s jaw-dropping You & Me reaffirmed The Walkmen as elder kings of the New York City indie scene, Lisbon finds the band embracing that album’s sound while still continuing to expand sonically. Heavily inspired by the recordings of Sun Records, this album is their most stripped down affairs, yet they masterfully milk their intentionally limited pallet to the last drop. The rocking “Angela Surf City” is one of the group’s most bombastic songs in years, with front man Hamilton Leithauser on the verge of doing permanent damage to his vocal chords while the rest of the band tries to keep up. Meanwhile, Paul Maroon’s guitar tone continues to be one of the most unique around, lending unique textures to songs like “Juveniles” and “Torch Song,” and Matt Barrack’s drumming is just as vital when it’s slowed down as it is when it’s firing on all cylinders. Lisbon is ultimately about acknowledging the past, both good and bad, and using it as a way to make yourself a better person. It also shows The Walkmen continuing to come into their own as musicians, and elevates them even higher on the platform where only they stand.
#3 Twin Shadow: Forget; Rarely does an artist come along who actually improves upon the music that served as an inspiration. Yet here we are in 2010 and Twin Shadow (aka George Lewis Jr.) has managed to create a debut that not only pays homage to 80’s romantics, but one that would have easily sold a million copies if released 25 years ago. From containing some of the smoothest bass lines of the last ten years to his precise use of synths, guitars and other instrumental flourishes, Forget is an expertly produced piece of art that expands upon an often used/abused template and shoots it’s creator into an elite stratosphere of those who have touched perfection within the genre. Lewis’ voice is simply stunning, achieving Maury Lightburn like heights with his warm and soulful croon, and it lends lines like “As if it weren’t enough to hear you speak, they gave you lips like that” the kind of romantic quality that’s impossible to deny. There is not a weak song on the album, and while some tracks may resonate more than others, Forget is best experienced as a whole, a shining example of what is possible when you successfully outdo many of your predecessors.
#2 Los Campesinos!: Romance Is Boring; I can sympathize with those who miss the exuberant, dough-eyed bunch that Los Campesinos! introduced themselves as with 2008’s Hold On Now, Youngster. However, even on that album, there were songs that indicated that the sugar rush would not last forever, and that the come down would be a lot harsher than the high. Much like that fall’s We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, Romance Is Boring displays Los Campesinos! as an infinitely more complex group of accomplished musicians, led by a man who knows a thing or two about the anger and melancholy that comes with heartbreak. Continuing to establish himself as one of indie’s most compelling lyricists and band leaders, Gareth Campesinos! pours every ounce of energy he has into delivering his intricately detailed journal entries. Likening sex to the anti-climatic tendencies of post-rock, instructing a former lover to “drag my corpse to the airport and lay me limp on the left wing,” and strak revelations like “all’s well that ends, I suppose” are painfully beautiful moments that only the most original of lyricists can compose, and Gareth is chock full of those sentiments. At the same time, the band itself refines it’s approach, letting the music build and develop over time instead of throwing their instruments into a blender, something that makes for some of the group’s most accomplished songs yet. They may not be the same bunch that released “You! Me! Dancing!” upon the world, but with Romance Is Boring, Los Campesinos! have offered us something far deeper and worthwhile than an evening of bedroom dancing ever could.
#1 The National: High Violet; On High Violet, The National manage to improve upon their breakout album Boxer by offering a suite of tracks that see the group at their creative apex. Front man Matt Berninger’s lamentations and observations about the perils of adult life were some of the most brutally honest lyrics to be found anywhere this year. His words were vivid portraits of those who feel helpless in a world of tight finances, crippling depression, and grim relationships, desperately searching for a way out. The band provided the perfect musical backdrop for Berninger’s musings, with plenty of carefully calculated orchestra flourishes, foreboding guitar, melancholy piano, and Bryan Devendorf’s undeniable percussion work. Berninger’s voice is that of a man defeated, yet he sings with so much conviction that one can’t help but be captivated by his voice, making his baritone one of the most valuable musical forces of any band. High Violet is The National’s most accomplished work yet, a full fledged masterpiece that serves as one of the new decade’s first classic albums, and the best album of 2010.