Let’s establish a basic fact first before we get started. First, I really am writing this with a bias. I listen to a lot of indie rock and electronica throughout the year. Any soul and hip-hop I get turned onto is by word of mouth or from loads of press reviews or recommendations from people.
To be fair, I didn’t listen to a lot of pop music in 2010. I am rectifying that in 2011 and have already heard a lot more Keisha, Nicki Minaj, etc. Although I appreciate the production and style in most cases, a lot of popular music these days is pure excrement.
In 2010 there were two pop artists that I heard everywhere: Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. I appreciate each for different reasons. With Lady Gaga it is how she delivers a complete package of slickly produced pop, fashion, video glam and controversy in her work. I think it makes her far more interesting for the average person to watch and thus sells some records. The same can be said for Katy Perry, although her sugar pop is much more broad in scope and less reliant on effects and remixing. She also has a knack for having more infectious lyrics in her songs. They must be effective in some way because the critics loved them and they sold a ton of records.
2010 was basically a year of really horrible music on Top 40 radio and commercial alternative radio. Oftentimes you heard better music in the line at your favorite fast food place then on the radio of your car. That is truly sad.
The Internet, satellite radio and download sites like iTunes have changed how people hear music. Yet somehow most people still listen to truly ghastly music. How did this happen? Who is to blame and where do we find them? Can we make them stop?
In my little insular world of strange music there was a lot to be excited about in 2010. There were some great records that I really loved and some outstanding tracks that made the year really memorable for me.
As each year ends I get asked to make a list of my favorite records. This year I finally got smart and did them in alphabetical order. This means I don’t get as many people with torches and pitchforks chasing me as in years past, which is fine by me.
So here are my favorite albums of 2010.
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
August saw the highly touted release of The Suburbs, the third album form Montreal’s Arcade Fire. Normally I am not susceptible to hype, but in this case I fell hook, line and sinker. It started when I watched their Terry Gilliam-produced concert from Madison Square Garden on YouTube. It was nothing short of brilliant. Here was a live band at its zenith, going all out in creating an unstoppable concert experience. As for the record itself, well it was mighty swell. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” has a Manchesterish Hacienda dance groove working on it that is pretty amazing. “Month of May” is a powerful dose of Pixies-esque rock. “Half Light II (No Celebration)” is elegiac and hopeful at the same time. The Suburbs was nominated for Album of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year Grammys. You also have to admire them for releasing eight separate album covers for the CD itself. I think it is the most complete album of the year. (Click here to buy it on CD from Amazon; click here for MP3 download.)
Beach House: Teen Dream
Beach House, this duo from Baltimore, created Teen Dream, a rich tapestry of melancholy and melody that after a few spins really sticks with you. There is no bones about it, Teen Dream is an intense record that weaves lovely vocal harmonies between fragile melodies to create a Dreamy atmosphere. “Zebra,” “Silver Soul” and “Norway” are standout tracks that kickstart the album. “Lover of Mine” and “Take Care” help bring the album to a powerful close. The record also comes with a DVD of videos/short films for each track. (Click here to get the CD/DVD from Amazon; click here for the MP3 download, which is very affordable but leaves out the videos.)
Best Coast: Crazy for You
This is thirty-plus minutes of surf rock meets fuzzpop. I like how the record came together as a whole and really delivered. It’s a very lo-fi record with all the right pop sensibilities. I enjoyed “Boyfriend,” “When I’m With You” & “Crazy For You” quite a lot. I like the surf guitars and C-86 sounding vocals. I also love how this is a trio that is really tight, sharp and on top of their game. Best Coast was lucky too in that by the time their album dropped in July, there wasn’t a lot of other really good stuff out there to compete with. This is the little record that could. (Click here to buy the CD from Amazon; click here for the MP3 download version.)
Broken Bells: Broken Bells
This self-titled release comes courtesy of James Mercer (The Shins) and Danger Mouse (who has a history of teaming up with excellent results). The tracks have a funky groove and backbeat to them that hook you in. This an example of how two music worlds can collide with great success.
Caribou crafted 2010’s best electronic album. The melodies on Swim dance around and twist as the beats pulsate. “Odessa” is the first track on the record and it really sets the table for the electronic onslaught that erupts as the album progresses. “Leave House” and “Jamelia” take some of the rough edges off by contorting their shape and twisting their melodies into something mesmerizing.
Paul Heaton: Acid Country
Paul Heaton used to be in one of my favorite bands, The Housemartins. After they disbanded he moved on to form The Beautiful South, a more melodious and lyrically clever band. With his third solo album, Acid Country, Heaton really comes into his own and delivers a wonderful alum of folksy pop goodness filled with catchy melodies and snappy harmonies. It is great that Heaton took the songs from Acid Country on the road, bicycling from town to town and playing in small pubs. “Welcome To The South” is pretty catchy. “Even A Palm Tree” was one of the most brilliant tracks of the year. It’s a clever composition about a completely screwed up relationship that is peppy and wonderful. It has a wonderful singsong lyrical exchange that melds with the perfect toe-tapping melody to support it. Think (The Pogues) “Fairytale of New York” without Christmas and a more upbeat tempo. The rest of the record is really solid and doesn’t disappoint. (Click here to buy the CD from Amazon, which is only available as an import at the moment.)
Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid
Kansas City’s Janelle had a great year. She released a magnificent record, toured with Of Montreal, got nominated for a Grammy and secured the support slot for the upcoming Prince tour. Not too shabby. However, when I read that Monae had “the next big thing” tag on her I was dubious. But after a while I really learned to dig the record. I love how she took a concept and ran with it and how she has incorporated her on DIY fashion into her image. Monae is an artist with complete control of her music, her presentation and her attitude–and that is pretty cool. She also is very filmic which I also like. Another thing I like about her is that she doesn’t try too hard like other pop stars. Instead she lets her music speak for itself. Of the tracks on the album, “Cold War” is my favorite. I like its skittish dubstep beat with her serious soul vocals. “Tightrope” is also the perfect single. It can be played in almost any flexible music format and it has a great beat. I am a believer in not buying into hype unless I am shown otherwise. Monae has done this and she did it with that voice of pure velvet, soul attitude, elegance and badass mamaness. Barring any type of weird career suicide she is going to be huge! (Click here to buy the CD from Amazon; click here for the MP3 download version.)
Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
You cannot help but love the anthem folk rock swagger of Mumford & Sons. Their debut, Sigh No More, offers some fine singles, “The Cave” and the fiery remorseful “Little Lion Man.” It also has an energy to it that is matched by the bands crushingly manic live shows. Their 2010 US tour sold out twenty dates and gained them even bigger exposure. They also are a well-read band whose lyrics are loaded with as many literary references as driving basslines. Mumford & Sons are an incredibly potent band. They mix the grooviness of pop with the adrenaline of power twang. They are relentless and carry themselves with a bravado backed up by sturdy musicianship and great harmonies. (Click here to buy the CD from Amazon; click here for the MP3 download version.)
The National: High Violet
A simple astonishing record that propelled The National into the big leagues. Despite having a melancholy feel to it, the songs are well written and intelligent. I prefer “Sorrow,” “Terrible Love” and “Conversation 16” to the mega single, “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” but why should I split hairs? High Violet is a masterpiece and was the first album I really loved in 2010. I saw them on their recent tour and although they don’t jump around or act crazy, they do have a strong set and do actually interact with the audience. Their self-deprecating sense of humor was also refreshing. When you hear The National’s music you hear not only influences like Pixies and Joy Division but also a band with a fresh take on lyrics. Their songs are stories, usually pretty intense ones. Their melodies are dense and compact. This is one of those records that I can play at any time and really enjoy. It also is a record that I keep coming back to when people ask me for recommendations on music. It is simply that good. (Click here to buy the CD from Amazon; click here for the MP3 download.)
School of Seven Bells: Disconnect From Desire
School of Seven Bells make dreamy space pop that is both haunting and stunning. “I L U” and “Dustdevil” may be the most accessible tracks on the album for those who are new to them. But my personal favorite is “Dial,” which features a punchy beat to match the ethereal vocals. In general, the band carefully utilizes electronic effects to bolster their intricate harmonies and fragile vocals. School Of Seven Bells meshes the best of early 90s shoegazer pop with 80s new wave electronics. Sort of a Mazzy Star you can dance to. But what I like about these guys is how the entire record has a heart to it. It is a pulsating living organism of sound. I am not sure how they made it sound that way, but I am glad they did. I liked their debut Alpinisms quite a lot and was glad to see they have matured with this record. SOSB will see their profile increase considerably this year thanks to support dates with Interpol. (Click here to buy the CD from Amazon; click here for the MP3 download.)
Another great thing about 2010 was Cee-Lo Green. Although his new record, The Ladykiller, didn’t make my list I love it to death. His voice has a richness and power to it the likes of which we have not seen in a long time, maybe since Little Richard. He also has a way of owning a song that few singers today have.
Looking back at 2010 in music I laugh at Kings of Leon and Pigeongate and cry when I think that so many amazing artists have left us.
I saw Leonard Cohen perform in 2010 and it was a life changing experience beyond description. He played for over three hours and never stopped to take a break.
I guess the thing that sucked most about the music of 2010 was that so much really horrible music made it onto the airwaves and into the pop culture collective of commercials, stores, TV adverts and video games. I am generally saddened by the fact that so much crap continues to get made.
But then, just as I feel miserable I think of The Arcade Fire, The National, and Cee-Lo Green and I begin to feel a little better.
I also must admit that Life by Keith Richards may be the best rock autobiography of the decade. He truly is a bizarre and strange human being. But he is brilliant.
I saw The Who play halftime at the Super Bowl and thought they really needed to give it up. They are now a tragic shell of their former brilliant collective self.
My wish for 2011 is that there should be a level of sanity across the genres of popular music. Just because you can be in a band doesn’t mean you should. It also means that now, since anyone can make a record is even more crap out there to suffer with. I also hate how every band has to reform. It is getting insane and must be stopped!
Despite all of this however I can’t wait to hear my next new favorite record!