To say that 2010 has been a magical year for music would be an understatement. We’ve seen the rebirths of some of music’s best musicians, and the appearance of some of tomorrow’s game-changers. I may not have been able to cram every record I wanted to into the year, but even from what I heard over the last year, it’s safe to say that we’ve got the new decade off to a fantastic start. And now, it’s time for my annual rundown of the best things I’ve heard this year, in no particular order, because to try and rate any of them would be impossible. Enjoy!
Sufjan Stevens – The Age Of Adz
For all intents and purposes, the return of Sufjan Stevens brought us the best record of the year by a long shot, and in ten years, everyone will be calling it the album of the decade. Five years after the release of his last classic, Illinois, we’re given yet another show-stopping performance, and proof that Sufjan Stevens is one of the best musicians around today. The Age Of Adz sounds exactly nothing like you were expecting from the record: instead of trademark banjo and orchestration, we get looming, muddy beats, singing of love, death, sorrow, and the end of the world. Adz is high concept, and every last moment works flawlessly, even throughout the new high water mark, the 25-minute “Impossible Soul.” If anybody had any doubts about Sufjan up until now, there’s no point in holding onto them anymore.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I got into Kanye a bit after Late Registration came out. I was shocked that anyone could make hip-hop sound so perfect and pretty, and was certain that, no matter how much music he put out, he’d never manage to top it. That was, of course, until I heard My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There isn’t a single corner of the record that doesn’t sparkle: the production is flawless, the guest stars (and there are many, from the ever present Jay-Z to Justin Vernon [aka Bon Iver]), and Kanye himself is shooting to kill with every single line he delivers. The end result is the finest hip-hop record in a very long time, and the new record-to-beat in the game. Hip-hop is in a very, very exciting place right now, and Kanye is leading the pack, and rightfully so; he’s transformed himself from a goofball to a star, and even though he’s made plenty of mistakes, he never lets anything slow him down, and still strives to push every boundary of his art, and it shows. Top marks also go to the song “Runaway,” which I don’t feel can be praised enough. If history only remembers one rapper, let it be Kanye West, the most daring, and most talented, man running today.
Menomena – Mines
In truth, Menomena have yet to make a bad album, or for that matter an album that wasn’t extraordinary. Returning after an all-too-long hibernation period, Portland’s finest returned with their most flawless work to date, and the only record tied with The Age Of Adz for the best album of the year. Menomena may always be remembered for their quirky lyricism and instrumentals, but here on Mines, this concept is thrown out a thirtieth-floor window. From the opening track, “Queen Black Acid,” and all the way through the ground shaker “INTIL,” Menomena blast through their best songs to date, proving that, even if they can write wonderfully fun songs, they can also tear your heart out of your chest with every line they deliver (“You don’t want the truth, you want someone else” being the most gutting line on the album), and keep you hooked while they’re doing it. Only time will tell if Menomena will ever get the recognition they deserve, but one thing’s for certain, even if I’m the only one saying it: Menomena is the best band around.
Kayo Dot – Coyote
When I hopped on board with Kayo Dot, years ago, I really had no words to explain what I was listening to. I really hadn’t paid much attention to the band’s output until an enticing limited-edition version of their newest record, Coyote, floated across my desk. Since I last listened to them, the avant-metal band have made intense strides in their craft, and have made an album that seems to be made for my turntable; Toby Driver’s ethereal howl echoes perfectly all over the place, and the fact that you can scarcely make out a word he’s singing makes the album, strangely, more fantastic. Coyote has been, no question, my favorite surprise of the year, and I’m more than willing to sing its praises to anyone who happens to ask. Remarkable, truly remarkable.
Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring
If you were to try and predict the trajectory of Los Campesinos! three years ago, when Hold On Now, Youngster was released, it probably wouldn’t predict that they would end up where they did. It seems that, in between records, the band has spent all of their spare energy into perfecting their craft, and the end result is a band as affecting as they are crass and entertaining, something you don’t get enough of in music today. Early cut “The Sea Is A Good Place To Think About The Future” is a career high for the band, easily the most powerful song written to date, and their talent for making deeply personal songs without making it too awkward has improved drastically. If you’ve had your head turned up until now, it’s about time you started paying attention.
LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
A friend of mine, who I met when I caught LCD Soundsystem live, summed things up perfectly: “James Murphy is making his mid-life crisis danceable.” This has always proven to be true; It started with the smartass charm of the great indie rock pissing contest “Losing My Edge,” in which Murphy tries to hold on to his cred while aging rapidly and losing touch, and continued with the deeply affecting “All My Friends,” a song, to put it simply, about having no fucking clue where you’re going in life, and being really freaked out about it. Here, on This Is Happening, Murphy manages to condense his angst into perfectly crafted, instantly repeatable tidbits : “Break me into bigger pieces, so some of me is home with you,” “You’re afraid of what you need, if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” “Complicated people never do what you tell them to,” and the list goes on. It’s easy to think that Murphy is, in fact, lost his edge, but in reality, he’s just getting better and better with age.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire have always managed The Big Concept fairly flawlessly (love and death on Funeral, God and country on Neon Bible), but dealing with the concept of The Suburbs is a fairly difficult one. That said, Arcade Fire handled the task wonderfully, bringing together their trademark wit with their ability to write heart-wrenching songs that say everything you wish you’d thought to write, but only knew was in your head once Win Butler had sang it. It’s easy to view The Suburbs as a meditation that goes on far too long, but the truth is that, even though the record feels at times as though it’s plodding along, it’s almost done as a comment on the suburbs themselves. There are songs here that change their formula and sound to tremendous ends (the first two songs from the first single, “The Suburbs” and “Month Of May” are possibly the best examples), while they also manage to bring new love and life into their signature sound (“We Used To Wait” is a modern classic, for instance), all of which bleed together into another gem or a record that feels, simply, essential. I’m 20 now, and I remember a time when Arcade Fire were not Arcade Fire (if you follow my meaning), but they may be one of the only bands that our children will be talking about in another 20 years time.
Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
Though not the best hip-hop album of the year, Sir Lucious Left Foot may very well be my favorite. Here, Big Boi slays everyone who thought his long-delayed solo debut would turn out like shit: there’s not a single track here that doesn’t work perfectly. In the end of things, Big Boi is always going to be a better rapper than his counterpart Andre 3000, even if he may not have the flamboyant personality, but who cares about the looks? He’s our leader, not our peer. It’s easy to feel homesick for the days of OutKast, but if not having a follow-up to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (yes, I am ignoring the Idlewild soundtrack) means getting records like this, I can live. Let’s just hope the planned follow up, Daddy Fat Sax: The Soul Funk Crusader, proves to be just as amazing. Whichever way it goes, you can bet I’ll be right with it.
Aidan John Moffat – Ten Short Songs for Modern Lovers
Ten Short Songs is an album, but it’s not an album. The title says it all. Ten songs, nary a minute in length each, spread out over both sides of a single 7″ record (all said and done, the record is 9 minutes long). As the letter that came with the record states, Moffat (who you may know as the frontman of Arab Strap, the saddest band in the world) wrote a song for an advertisement (“Buttoned,” which is included on the rec0rd). The directors of the ad changed directions, making the song pointless, but he was too proud of the song to let it go. He chose, then, to write nine more songs, which became this record. I’m none too familiar with the post-Arab Strap output of Aidan Moffat, but the songwriting here is up there with the best of their work: “Number on my Hand” is a sweet little jingle about the open possibilities following a drunken hook-up, and “Twice” succinctly encapsulates his perplexity and disbelief after his girlfriend tries to break up with her last boyfriend, only to sleep with him again (“That’s a fucking strange way to break it off!”). Ultimately, more words can be spilled on the perfection of Ten Short Songs, but it’s best to let the record speak for itself.
The National – High Violet
It’s hard to ever think of a time where Matt Berninger, the only man more mad for sadness than Aidan Moffat, isn’t the front-runner of tears-in-your-whiskey rock. Since I first heard “Fake Empire,” I’ve felt inexorably linked to the middle-aged sadness of The National, and though it’s hard to match the magic that their last record, Boxer, managed to encapsulate, High Violet does a pretty splendid job of coming damn close. The record, from start to finish, almost feels essential to emotional growth; the lines delivered sting in all the right places (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find,” “It’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me,” the list goes on), and the rest of the band, so fantastic on every other record, truly outdo themselves here. As long as The National keep putting out music this honest and pretty, they’ll have my undying support.
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
When bands like Gorillaz come around, you almost expect that next album to be the one that sends them over the edge, and shows that they’ve lost the magic that made them wonderful. Indeed, when news of Plastic Beach came to light, I couldn’t help but wonder if the band would be able to come anywhere near the mark they left with their last album, Demon Days, five years ago. But, then, Plastic Beach came, and proved that, somehow, Gorillaz are stronger than ever. The record is like the feeling you get when you’re on vacation, and wish it would last forever, only you wake up and realize that you’ve got that option, now, and you’re going to take it. Even the guest list, always some of the most fun parts of any Gorillaz album (Del Tha Funkee Homosapien on “Clint Eastwood,” Miho Hattori on “19-2000,” De La Soul on “Feel Good, Inc.,” the list is endless) is somehow even better here (De La Soul’s return for “Superfast Jellyfish,” Grime stars Bashy and Kano on “White Flag,” to say nothing of Mark E. Smith, Lou Reed, and Snoop Dogg elsewhere). Damon Albarn isn’t slowing down anytime soon (Plastic Beach‘s follow up is due out, for free, on Christmas day), and one can only hope that his creativity never wanes, because Gorillaz have always been one of the best go-to bands for some of the most flat-out awesome music today.
Sleigh Bells – Treats
To be honest, Pitchfork summed up Treats perfectly: some bands redefine “loud.” This is the honest truth about Sleigh Bells: their debut record is an epic wall of noise masquerading as a pop record, which takes any concept of the so-called “Loudness War” and shits it out by intentionally mixing every single sound committed to record as loud as possible. Serving as the antidote for Best Coast, power-duo Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller (formerly of Poison The Well) make careful pop songs which, partway to the studio, decide that they actually want to be bombtracks instead of Beatles ripoffs. From the jetplane whoosh of opening track “Tell ‘Em,” and running ceaselessly until the finale, the looming “Treats,” Sleigh Bells prove that, if there’s any band you should be paying attention to in the following few years, it’s them. And if you aren’t looking, you’re bound to get your neck snapped.
M.I.A. – Maya
Fuck all of the haters. M.I.A. still has it. Maya is great, and anyone who says otherwise will realize how wrong they were in five years time. End of statement.
Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
For what it’s worth, Broken Social Scene may be the best rock band in the world. They have always managed to make engaging, fun, and envelope-pushing rock music, and it has never sounded like anything else around it. Such is still the truth about album number four, easily their most polished record to date. The anthems, inexplicably, soar even higher than they did on the last two records, and Kevin Drew’s syrupy drawl has finally reached the point where it becomes an integral part of the music: he (along with, though to a lesser degree, Brendan Canning) is now just another instrument, albeit a terribly important one. This is a very good thing; it makes songs like “Chase Scene” a more enjoyable listen, and makes “World Sick” one of the most fun Broken Social Scene songs to date. 2010 was the year that I finally understood the natural beauty of You Forgot It In People, and though Forgiveness Rock Record never touches the magic that was embodied in that record, it does come close to being amongst the stars.
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Hype bands will always come and go, but some of those hype bands were meant to stay. So it goes for Vampire Weekend, who released a self-titled pop record that just happened to blow a lot of music out of the water with its simple hooks, its debt to African music, and its fascination with punk rock. Here, on album two, it’s a wonder the same band made both records: going back and listening to their self-titled debut reveals a simplistic lo-fi quality, which sounded marvelous in a vacuum, but it outclassed by its successor. Contra‘s heart and soul glow from every crack, and all of the faults on the debut have been replaced by expansive, lovingly recorded style. Frontman Ezra Koenig’s inevitable self-doubts have clearly disappeared, as have those doubts in everyone else in the band. What is left is the proof that, no matter the hype, some bands can crawl their way out from under it. Doing this enabled them to make songs like “Horchata,” a delicate but soaring ode to aging, and “I Think Ur A Contra,” the closer, in which Koenig delivers the most simple, but most effective, lyric in their catalogue: “You said, ‘never pick sides, never choose between two,’ but I just wanted you.” It’s possible that, if given the space, Vampire Weekend could easily outrank every band around them. We all know, deep down, we want to see that happen.
Cursory Listens: All the Albums I Didn’t Give Enough of a Chance
Every December, for the four years that I’ve written an end-of-the-year list, I’ve gone through a process I like to call “the December meltdown,” or “the mad dash.” For most critics, the end-of-the-year list is a chance to see what everyone else really enjoyed, and to share what what was special enough for them to donate their time and energy to. But, for those of us less organized, and who do it because they want to, December gets a little messy: the December meltdown is when, in a mad dash, you listen to all of the albums you meant to listen to, but just didn’t have the time to hear, or absorb. By far, this year has been the least messy: a year of buying new records, and listening to as much as possible, has made the process less of a disaster. That said, there are still a lot of albums that I never got to give the love they deserved. Here are a few of the ones that didn’t make the cut:
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
Simply put, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense to read a year-end list by me that doesn’t include a Hold Steady record. The Hold Steady will always be a permanent part of the landscape of my musical love, being the band that made me fall in love with the sound of the guitar, and the idea that a frontman didn’t necessarily have to sing. On the only occasion I have ever performed for an audience, it began with a cover of “Positive Jam,” the song that made The Hold Steady as an entity click with me, and show me what rock music could be. So, what happened here? After a few listens, it’s possible that The Hold Steady do not have a bad album in them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have lame ducks to give, either. The album is not without its charms: album opener “The Sweet Part Of The City” shines in the same way that the best songs they have to offer do, and single “The Weekenders” is possibly one of the most enjoyable singles the band has offered up. It’s sad to say that one man can glue an entire band together, but this is easily the case with the departed Franz Nicolay, the mustachioed keyboardist who brought a strange soul into the band, and who’s presence is missed very dearly. It’s a shame that he’s gone, but if The Hold Steady wish to continue doing what they have always done best (Jack Kerouac if he played guitar instead of being an author), they’re going to need to fill that void. Whatever the case, I’ll support them as long as they keep making music.
Jonsi – Go
I can think of no feasible reason as to why I didn’t listen to this record. It’s certainly no secret that I am a massive Sigur Rós fan, and yet my excitement for the angel-voiced frontman’s solo debut never came to a head. I have ordered a copy, but it’s unlikely that it will come in time to truly rate for the year. However, expect a (very) late review of it in the coming weeks.
Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer Of The Void
Nearly four years after I first heard Blitzen Trapper, playing to about 25 people who cared enough to show up to see who was playing before The Hold Steady, I find myself surprised that any time has passed in which I haven’t gushed over the existence of a new album by one of the saviors of music to hail from Portland. The band’s track record have afforded them to make a record like Destroyer of the Void, a rich album, albeit one that lacks the schizophrenia that made their last two records (Wild Mountain Nation and Furr) such essential listens. As with their showmate on that night, The Hold Steady, the band certainly don’t have a bad record in them, but upon listening, this one lacks the immediate staying power that the rest utilized so well. Only time will tell if this one will truly take hold, and I certainly hope it does.
Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
For me to ignore something done by Belle & Sebastian is criminal. The music of Stuart Murdoch and company is firmly etched into my psyche, and I will never know a time when I won’t think that riding on city buses for a hobby is sad, and that the stars of track and field are beautiful people. So, what happened here? I can’t tell you. However, upon listening, the record is exactly what is needed from a Belle & Sebastian record: pop gems with clever, dry lyrics. Hell, even the presence of pop princess Norah Jones makes the record even better. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this one takes me.
The Thermals – Personal Life
I listened to Personal Life a handful of times, but the record never clicked with me. It’s undeniably a good record, but I can’t help but feel as though the band will never quite top what they achieved with last year’s Now We Can See, which perfectly blended their ability to make effective punk rock, with Hutch Harris’ flat-out God given talent for fantastic lyricism, which always blended together into a thick soup of carefully crafted love. I may give it another shot later on down the line, but for now, it’s just not happening.
Broken Bells – Broken Bells
Some records almost seem engineered for me. I’m a big fan of The Shins, and a fan of Danger Mouse as a musician and producer, so logically I should be the ideal audience for the record. However, as of this writing, I am finally listening to this record for the very first time. On the surface, the record sounds exactly like any other Shins record, only with beats instead of folk fun. Underneath that, though, the record is densely packed and wonderful, and will definitely be worth a few more listens later on.
With every End Of The Year list, I thank the most important figures in my life over the course of the calendar year. I’ll keep it succinct: I’d like to thank Kelly, my wife, for putting up with my unabashed love of music, both recorded and live, and I’d like to thank my friend Lori, who made me realize that vinyl is forever. Cheers!