Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2010.

This gets harder and harder. Each year there seems to be more music released of competing styles, and all of these splinter genres seemingly have very little to do with each other, save for the fact that they are all based in recorded music. This year, I decided to include 40 albums that really moved me. They may not all be choices from the top critics at Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, but speaking as a musician who loves pop music, they were my favorites. Many of them I have written about before, so I will briefly illuminate you as to why these selections made the list, and why some were chosen over others. Let the party commense:

1) KYLIE MINOGUE--Aphrodite
My favorite offering of the summer came from this petite pixie from Australia who has been making great pop records for over two decades now. Whatever divine inspiration it took to get Stuart Price on this project really helped to give Aphrodite a gloriously unified electro sound. It would only be smoke and mirrors if the songs weren't there, but this is Kylie's most consistently pleasing collection of songs and melodies since Fever. "All the Lovers" was a lovely introductory single of immaculate beauty, yet wasn't the best song in the collection. The true test of a great album is when you have a difficult time choosing the best song, and my favorite seemed to change every week. "Everything is Beautiful", "Can't Beat the Feeling", "Too Much", "Get Outta My Way", and the title track always seemed to be fighting it out for best song for me, and there are still others I feel very positive about. When it came down to choosing number one, I recently put this record on my turntable (literally), and I felt so elated with the arrival of each new song. I realized it was perfectly mixed and arranged to provide a complete listening experience, which is why it trumps number two. This may be the first time I have chosen a Kylie album as my number one, and it's about time.

2) ROBYN--Body Talk

While Robyn tried to meet the modern release schedule nightmare head on by putting out three parts to this album, it left the project feeling a little scattered. The beauty in that, however, is that you are free to make your own playlist, so in effect, the Robyn album will mean something different to each individual, and while many of the songs are strong enough to have formed one solid version of it (which part three supposedly is), that isn't how the songs were presented. One day we may look back to how quaint this idea was, but all told, Body Talk is a kick ass collection of fantastic pop tunes, meaningful without taking themselves too seriously, fun without being disposable. "Dancing On My Own"=song of the year. Kudos Robyn--we missed you.

3) TAKE THAT--Progress

Some will probably disagree with this choice, but seriously, could anyone ever have predicted Take That would sound this fun, sophisticated, and energetic without succumbing to camp, cloying caricatures of themselves? The fact that Robbie Williams returns only adds to the intrigue (especially with the general lack of Gary Barlow's presence). Super-producer Stuart Price whips some immense songs into shape ("The Flood", "Kids", "SOS" to name a few), giving Take That a muscular sound more akin to that of Muse. Hopefully Robbie stays for a bit, but if not, this was a fantastic project that pushes Take That far beyond their simple, humdrum balladry and cheesy disco. Don't lose it!

4) PETER GABRIEL--Scratch My Back

I cannot think of an album that affected me more emotionally this year, and while Gabriel is singing songs all made famous by others, it is his unique interpretations that ripped at my heart. Just take a listen to "Book of Love" or "Mirror Ball" and you'll know. These are more than interpretations--they are reinventions, and Gabriel makes them his own in the way nobody else would think of. Most dramatic song--Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage". Wow.

5) JONSI--Go

This unfortunately rather overlooked solo album by the lead singer of Sigur Ros is quite frankly, one of the most ingenious records of the year. Jonsi continues to crank up the elation with intricately crafted songs like "Go", "Animal Arithmetic", and "Around Us", while other stately ballads like "Tornado" and "Grow Till Tall" elegantly balance the proceedings. Go shows just how technicolor Jonsi's world has become, and even though he sings English more than ever, there are still moments where I don't really care what he says. His voice is an instrument from heaven, and he is using it here in the best way. Look out Bjork--you are being put on notice for somebody stealing your crown for "most interesting Icelander".

6) SUFJAN STEVENS--The Age of Adz

I said quite a few things about this album in the last quarter, so let me just add that many are fawning over the accompanying EP that came out at nearly the same time, but the album is the true masterpiece. Challenging, uncompromising, gutwrenching--The Age of Adz is truly the work of an inspired individual. Maybe the last track could have been shorter that 25 minutes long, but why?

7) LAURA MARLING--I Speak Because I Can

Another extremely overlooked album (especially in the US) was this wonderfully intricate modern folk record by a 21-year-old female genius. I was not a Marling convert at first, and it took me a while to get into this, but by God, when I did, I was blown away. Joanna Newsom may have garnered all the headlines for her sprawling 3-disc (lengthy) album, but Marling has such a clear vision and a warmly woody voice, I felt like she really lived these songs, opaque as they may sometimes be. Her sometime backing band are new Brit-stars Mumford & Sons, and while they have attracted massive popularity (even stateside), Marling remains relatively unknown. It's time to change that.

8) GORILLAZ--Plastic Beach

A concept album for keeping the planet clean, not as many people seemed to click with this as they did with the first two Gorillaz albums, but I am so impressed with Damon Albarn's way of collecting and synthesizing so many styles and sounds into one record. How many albums before 2010 had Snoop Dogg and Little Dragon on them? Now other producers like Dave Sitek (Maximum Balloon) and Mark Ronson are trying to branch out into the world of many styles on one record, but the ace in the hole is Albarn's persistently depressed vocal, which inhabits songs like "On Melancholy Hill" and "Broken". "Stylo" was a killer single, adding a rap from Mos Def and a great vocal from the inimitable Bobby Womack (who also blows me away with "Cloud of Unknowing"), and Little Dragon's contribution to "Empire Ants" makes for one of the best songs on the record. Damon Albarn just announced Gorillaz will be releasing another album for free download on December 25th, inspired by his recent collaborations (new single, "Doncamatic" is very catchy). Even after, the Plastic Beach album will continue to grow in stature.

9) OMD--History of Modern

One of the best reunions of the year was the return of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys after over 20 years. While History of Modern may sound more like McCluskey's version of OMD in the 90's, there are definite touchstones to very early OMD, including the title track (in two parts) and the single "Sister Marie Says". Shades of Pet Shop Boys production turn up here and there, and "Pulse" might make a few fans chuckle, but songs like "New Babies, New Toys", "RFWK", and "New Holy Ground" are quintessential OMD, and highlights of their now extensive catalog of songs. What more could one hope for?

10) GOLDFRAPP--Head First
They finally did it. They made a total pop overthrow record. Another headspin from their last album, Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp are absolutely restless when it comes to offering up new styles and sounds. Here, pop was on the menu, and while their label seemed a little lost in knowing what to do with it, Head First was super sexy & super fun. "Rocket", "Alive", "I Wanna Life", "Head First"...need I say more? The only point is docked for being rather short at nine songs (with one practically an instrumental), and a general lack of B-sides or leftovers. Now without a label, the world is theirs.

11) ARCADE FIRE--The Suburbs
Fantastic return by top Canadian band. Just missed the top 10.
An ex-Pipette and Mark Ronson's galpal goes one better and comes up with an endearing indie record that conjures images of the Sundays and Siouxsie Sioux at the same time!
13) CEE LO GREEN--Cee Lo Green is the Lady Killer
Gnarls Barkley frontman delivers another classic single ("F**k You") and his best album yet.
14) SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS--Disconnect From Desire
Brilliant sophomore album of haunting witchery and intertwining vocals.
15) ELVIS COSTELLO--National Ransom
Another great album from a master of songwriting. This plays like a history lesson of lost souls.
16) HURTS--Happiness
Critics seem to hate them, but their ability is undeniable. Graceful and glorious retro pop.
17) JANELLE MONAE--The Archandroid
One of the most incredible debuts in recent years. She is unstoppable.
18) MARC ALMOND--Variete
His return to original songwriting was a welcome development. Hopefully it's not the last.
19) MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--The Family Jewels
Every song on her album seemed like a single. A fantastically unique pop debut ("Shampain" is the best song ABBA never recorded).
20) ELLIE GOULDING--Bright Lights
The rerelease of this album added 7 tracks, and made it even more wonderful. Another incredible debut.
21) BELLE & SEBASTIAN--Write About Love
One of their best, after a three year wait. Guests include Norah Jones and actress Carey Mulligan).
Another solid effort from these New York sophomores that stayed fresh all year. "Holiday" was everywhere at Christmas.
23) THE NATIONAL--High Violet
If people still bought records like they used to, these guys would be up there with R.E.M.
24) PIPETTES--Earth vs. the Pipettes
Again, most critics didn't like their change to an 80's band from a 60's band. I thought it was inspired, and "Stop the Music" was an incredible and virtually unheard single.
25) YEASAYER--Odd Blood
They truly ride the line between poppy and quirky. This album was much better than their first.
26) SLEIGH BELLS--Treats
One of the craziest albums of the year, and most fun. Sleigh Bells gave us something new and different. What will they do next?
27) ALPHABEAT--The Beat Is...Alphabeat
A critics target, this album was so much better and more fun than their first. More keyboards make this the most 90's sounding album of the year (in a good way). "DJ" being ignored was a serious pop injustice.
28) UNDERWORLD--Barking
They discovered melodies again! Working with superstar DJ's seems to have opened them up.
29) VIOLENS--Amoral
New York art-rockers make an unusual and unusually great debut. Not your typical indie, and very well produced and put together.
30) CARL BARAT--Carl Barat
An ex-Libertine finally makes good by going solo and taking inspiration from Scott Walker. Excellent (sorry Libertines purists).
31) TRACEY THORN--Love and Its Opposite
The Everything But the Girl singer creates some lovely moments (and songs) of her own.
32) JAMES--The Morning After the Night Before
Releasing the Robyn way as a two-part EP, one rather quiet and the other upbeat and poppy, this was eventually put together as an album. Some of the best songs James have ever written.
33) KELIS--Flesh Tone
Kelis divorced Nas and found her groove, becoming the black Robyn. More please.
34) NITZER EBB--Industrial Complex
They return after 15 years away to make their best album. Listen for the tunes!
35) FUTUREHEADS--The Chaos
Possibly the best pop-punk record of the year. They are working on an acapella album next.
36) DELPHIC--Acolyte
Since New Order won't be New Order anymore...
37) BRYAN FERRY--Olympia
This was his best solo record since Bete Noire in 1989--even if it took an army of contributors to do it.
38) SIA--We Are Born
Sia found some energy this year and made one of her best records. Too bad she had to write for Christina Aguilera's flop album and develop Graves disease in 2010.
39) SILENT FILM--The City That Sleeps
If Coldplay and Muse had a excellent debut.
40) FYFE DANGERFIELD--Fly Yellow Moon
A few years ago, the Guillemots frontman found himself at the top of this list. This was still a pretty darn good album, with production help from ex-Suede guitarist, Bernard Butler.

Other great albums of note:
BROKEN BELLS--Broken Bells
THE SCHOOL--Loveless Unbeliever
LUKE HAINES--21st Century Man
THE LIKE--Release Me
MARK RONSON--Record Collection
MAXIMUM BALLOON--Maximum Balloon
HOT CHIP--One Life Stand
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM--This is Happening
DIVINE COMEDY--Bang Goes the Neighbourhood
SADE--Soldier of Love
THE DRUMS--the Drums
KIM WILDE--Come Out & Play
BLACK KEYS--Brothers
NICK CAVE--Grinderman II
KELE--the Boxer
BADLY DRAWN BOY--It's Not What I Am Thinking