Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Best Albums Of 2010: 5-1

[Welcome to my yearly countdown of the year's best albums. The Top 5 was outstanding in 2010, to the point where any of the following albums could've easily been my #1. Thanks for reading... Please listen and comment!]

5. The Black Keys – Brothers

A decade in and this Akron duo shocks everyone with their first true masterpiece: Gritty, catchy, soulful… and yes, defiantly “bluesy” in a way that would make Zeppelin proud.

“Sick for days, so many ways/ I’m aching now, I’m aching now.”

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Ambitious, arrogant, regretful, boastful, unhinged, unfettered, messy, magnificent: Feel how you want about the man, but no other artist on Earth could’ve crafted this album in the year 2010.

Disguising ourselves as secret lovers/ We've become public enemies/ We walk away like strangers in the street/ Gone for eternity.”

3. Robyn – Body Talk

Commercial music with a mile-long independent streak; dance pop with a bleeding, broken heart; and proof—in an era where Billboard is ruled by the least common denominators (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, et al)—that “the mainstream” can still surprise and astound.

“And I never was smart with love/ I let the bad ones in and the good ones go but/ I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been hurt before/ I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible.”

2. The National – High Violet

Some bands sprout, fully-formed; others refine and refine, none more than this Brooklyn sextet, whose finest album both demands and rewards repeat listens. Six months after its release, it sounds better than ever, a full-fledged American classic.

But I won't follow you into the rabbit hole/ I said I would but then I saw/ Your shivered bones.”

1. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

Whether or not it winds up being James Murphy’s swan song, This Is Happening certainly feels like a culmination, an album-length statement where every song works, every moment flows, and every touchstone—from Eno to Kraftwerk, Detroit techno to Eighties electro, indie reserve to dancefloor abandon—builds to an overwhelming, epic whole. And in a year of near-equals, that’s enough to make this one stand out just a little bit more.

Wish you'd try a little harder/In the tedious march of the few/ Every day’s a different warning/ There's a part of me hoping it's true.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Best Albums Of 2010: 15-6

[Welcome to my yearly countdown of the year's best albums. It was a bumper crop in 2010, so I'm breaking this list into two parts: Enjoy these ten "Runners Up" releases, and then check back tomorrow for the Top 5. Sample YouTube links feature tracks not on my "50 Best Singles" list. Thanks for the comments and happy listening!]

15. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Outlaw-era country cut from the same cloth as Merle and Waylon, rearing its proudly rebellious head in the midst of contemporary Nashville.

It might be lonely at the top, but it’s a bitch at the bottom.”

14. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

Gems from Bruce’s most fertile period, recast in a lavish—and most deserving—light.

Billy and me we'd always say/ Thunder Road/ We were gonna take it all and throw it all away.”

13. Vampire Weekend – Contra

Genre-skipping, engrossing second album from a band still growing—and still getting better.

“Said never pick sides, never choose between two/ But I just wanted you.”

12. Big Boi – Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty

Slept-on debut from one of the most creative MCs around, for those who prefer hip-hop that provokes body and mind.

“We choose to lead not to follow, it’s a hard pill to swallow/ Better get prescriptions filled ‘cause there might not be tomorrow.”

11. Maximum Balloon – Maximum Balloon

Futuristic indie-pop, like TV On The Radio with a grab-bag of vocalists. Worth the price of admission alone for the Karen O and David Byrne contributions.

“What a mystery at night they go to sleep alone.”

10. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

A perfectly-realized soundtrack to an imaginary film starring everyone from Bobby Womack to half of The Clash, with Damon Albarn directing the proceedings like a man finally comfortable in his own skin.

“If you can’t get what you want/ Then you come with me.”

9. Local NativesGorilla Manor

Loose-limbed joy, cribbed from bits of Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes and Talking Heads before being repurposed into the best American debut this year.

“I’ll endure the night/ For the promise of light.”

8. The Roots – How I Got Over

The standout of a stellar year for the Philly collective: an album that moves from the ghetto to the church without once descending into tired thuggery or played-out nihilism.

“I pray these wings strong enough to carry me on/I promise every second felt as if it took an eon.”

7. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

British folk-Celtic hybrid as traditional in its values—faith, family, and love—as it is unbridled in its raucous, organic energy.

“And I will hold on hope/ And I won’t let you choke/ On the noose around your neck.”

6. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Deservedly acclaimed “concept album” from one of the few acts willing to break new ground every time out. (For those keeping score: They're three for three.)

“I used to write letters/ I used to sign my name.”

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The 50 Best Singles Of 2010: 10-1

[Welcome back to my yearly countdown of the finest individual tracks of the year. As always, the rules and regulations: This list is limited to commercial singles and/or videos released in 2010. Album tracks and fan-made clips, good as they might be, don't count. Official YouTube links are included when possible to avoid unwelcome deletions. Thanks and happy listening!]

10. Crystal Castles featuring Robert Smith – Not In Love

Covering a lost 80’s nugget by Platinum Blonde for your second studio album is an interesting concept; getting The Cure’s frontman to recut the vocal for single release is a stroke of genius. This is new-wave for a new century, one of the strongest electronic tracks in ages and quite possibly the best thing Robert Smith has lent his voice to since Wish.

9. Janelle Monáe – Cold War

The centerpiece of the ambitious The ArchAndroid (Suites II & III) finds the middle ground between Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and OutKast’s “B.O.B.,” defiant heartbreak in a propulsive package.

8. Sleigh Bells – Tell ‘Em

Like a mouthful of Pop Rocks, Treats is fizzy fun best enjoyed in small doses, and no single track from Sleigh Bells’ debut offers a bigger jolt than “Tell ‘Em.” If the anarchy cheerleaders from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video started a band, this is exactly what they would sound like.

7. The-Dream – Yamaha

Smack-dab in the middle of Love Kingan otherwise by-the-numbers set of current R&Bcomes the best Prince track since the Purple One changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. What moves “Yahama” beyond mere homage is Terius “The-Dream” Nash’s absolute mastery of production technique; he understands the DNA behind those early Prince cuts, and it shows in every detuned drum track and keyboard blast, reminders of the creative possibilities still lurking in mainstream urban music.

6. Arcade Fire – We Used To Wait

By now, no one doubts the AF collective’s ability to craft a slow-burning epic or send another chorus straight into the rafters, but even on an album stuffed with nostalgia, “Wait” stands out. “I used to write letters/ I used to sign my name” is more than mere eulogy for the written word; it’s a paean to the band’s own youthful power, even as the rest of this magnificent track points the way towards a wide-open adulthood.

5. Mumford & Sons – Little Lion Man

Lyrically, this non-traditional folk quartet play their cards close to their (old-timey) vests even when the music surges forward with abandon; that’s why it’s such a kicker when “Little Lion Man” appears midway through Sigh No More and that pounding chorus—complete with a very non-traditional F-bomb—finally kicks in. Self-laceration has never felt more intoxicating.

4. Florence + The Machine – Dog Days Are Over

Florence Welch’s fantastic debut, Lungs, appeared in 2009 to much critical fanfare but few American sales. That all changed this year, thanks to the release of a demand-your-attention single that put all focus square on the band’s most primal ingredients: a beat that dared to make handclaps cool again, and a voice powerful enough to stop trains.

3. Kanye West featuring Pusha-T – Runaway

Building up from a naked piano chime into arguably the most ambitious moment of Kanye’s already-ambitious career, “Runaway” is more than just a simple response to a year’s worth of controversy; this is every facet of the man—apologetic yet arrogant, pensive but puckish—in one spellbinding single.

2. Robyn – Dancing On My Own

Club music, on its surface, is mindless; no one cares about deep thoughts once the beat kicks in. What makes Robyn one of the most vital artists in any genre is her ability to ignite the crowd without sacrificing an ounce of her humanity, and lurking behind every insistent rhythm is real pain, the kind of melancholy that doesn’t disappear even on a crowded dance floor.

1. Cee Lo Green – F*** You

The genius of the best single of 2010 isn’t its viral popularity—although 35 million views is nothing to sneeze at—nor its ridiculously-catchy-yet-completely-radio-unfriendly chorus. Nor is it the brilliant Motown-for-the-21st-century production, or even the hilariously spot-on mood swings (from “I really hate your ass” to “I still love you”) behind that four-letter title. Nope, the real triumph is that every person—even the ones who despise the song—instantly remember where they were when they heard their first “F*** You,” and how many songs in the last decade can you say that about?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 50 Best Singles Of 2010: 20-11

[Welcome back to my yearly countdown of the finest individual tracks of the year. As always, the rules and regulations: This list is limited to commercial singles and/or videos released in 2010. Album tracks and fan-made clips, good as they might be, don't count. Official YouTube links are included when possible to avoid unwelcome deletions. Thanks and happy listening!]

20. Vampire Weekend – Giving Up The Gun

Blogosphere mainstays VW push their sound even further into original territory, Ezra Koenig’s vocals skating elegantly over a driving rhythm bed more laptop electro than Afropop.

19. Local Natives – Airplanes

Lyrics about the death of a grandparent typically arrive with suitably portending music; not so with up-and-comers Local Natives, who turn “Airplanes” into a full-blown celebration full of bouncy percussion and joyous harmonies.

18. Big Boi featuring Cutty – Shutterbugg

Shoulda-been-huge single from Big Boi’s excellent solo effort, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty. And yes, the vocoder beats AutoTune seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

17. Sade – Soldier Of Love

A decade removed from Lovers Rock, yet Sade Adu remains as ageless as ever, with her monstrous comeback single adding just a touch of Portishead-flavored darkness to that smoother-than-silk delivery.

16. Best Coast – Boyfriend

Sun-kissed indie rock as filtered through time-warp nostalgia, with girl group harmonies straight out of the Phil Spector handbook and Bethany Cosentino waiting-waiting-waiting by the phone—and hoping that he’s home.

15. The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio

What makes The National so potent is contrasts, how Matt Berninger’s half-awake baritone seems at odds with the surging drums and insistent build, or that moment when all the wisps of hazy lyrics suddenly consolidate into the most succinct summation of America in 2010: “I still owe money/ To the money/ To the money I owe.”

14. Robyn – Indestructible

Initially debuted in hushed chamber music fashion, then recast as infectious club banger, and perfect in both guises. Robyn is one of the very few artists making pop music for adults, smart and hooky all at once; ignore her at your own peril.

13. Gorillaz – On Melancholy Hill

For most of Plastic Beach, Damon Albarn seems content to let his well-chosen cast of guests do the heavy lifting, but he wisely takes over for the album’s very best track, a late-summer gem that sounds like the electrified cousin of “Waterloo Sunset.”

12. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

No young band does pure rock better than the Gaslight, as evidenced by American Slang’s opening number, a potent mix of unvarnished guitars, four-on-the-floor beats, and absolute conviction.

11. Beach House – Norway

The wonderfully haunted standout from Teen Dream lives up to its album’s title, woozy and elusive at first before exploding into the kind of spellbinding sonics that need no translation.