Thursday, February 17, 2011

Best Albums of 2010

Image via Flickr -- © All rights reserved by Clifford Yeo

People who can write about music have always amazed me. Whenever I read a good album review on Pitchfork or in Rolling Stone, I'm jealous of the language, of the way it's at once technical and evocative, scientific and sentimental. I can recite lyrics on cue or sing in the shower with the best of 'em, but in my world, "fret" is a verb indicating stress and "harmony" was a character on Buffy. So I envy the finely tuned ear of the audiophile, that acute sensitivity to composition and melody and chord progression. It's a rare ability  to understand not only that a sound is good, but also where it came from and what it means. 

To me, music is like food: my tastes are specific, but impossible to put into words. A good song, like a good meal, must be experienced. Give me any other form of art, like a book or a movie, and I can summarize it, analyze it, tell you what it meant to me and why. But a song? An album? A band? These are much vaguer concepts, and in the face of them, my vocabulary always feels peculiarly limited. I could tell you that Iron & Wine is a screen porch in late summer at dusk, or that Frightened Rabbit smells like cotton and peppermint tea, but you might not know what I mean. (Or you might think I'm having a stroke.)

In any event, my lack of appropriate descriptors doesn't stop me from trying to talk about music  from fawning over new tracks, making mix CDs for friends, or blogging about my ten favorite albums of 2010. So without any more of this ridiculous ado...

10. Frightened Rabbit The Winter of Mixed Drinks
If nothing else, The Winter of Mixed Drinks wins Best Album Title of 2010. But it's also a subtly majestic collection of songs, deeply felt and heartily composed. This album may be less achingly confessional than 2008's Midnight Organ Fight, but it's also more finely tuned, sophisticated, and polished. And no matter what the subject, this Glasgow band injects a hearty dose of raw emotion into every tune.
Listen to: "Swim Until You Can't See Land," an oceanic ode to not letting your baggage sink you. Or as the chorus puts it, Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?

9. Marina & the Diamonds The Family Jewels
There are familiar elements to Marina & the Diamonds (aka Marina Diamandis) – she has Lady Gaga's bravado and Kate Nash's neuroses, Florence Welch's grandiosity and Regina Spektor's playfulness. But try to compare her to anyone else and she'll correct you just as she does on "Hollywood": Actually, my name's Marina. And it's true; there's a magnetism here that's 100% her. A debut that's wry, lavish, and entertaining, The Family Jewels is a reminder that glam-pop anthems can be clever as well as catchy.
Listen to: "I Am Not A Robot" is the obvious standout, but I also adore the frank, intoxicating "Obsessions."
8. Josh Ritter So Runs The World Away
Josh Ritter knows a secret that a lot of musicians forget: songwriting is just storytelling set to music. And like any good folk album, So Runs the World Away doesn't merely create melodies; it builds worlds. It's full of memorable characters and tall tales, from the lovelorn Egyptian mummy pining after an archaeologist to the desperate polar explorer burning his ship to stay alive. Ritter's melodies are fragile and beautifully spare, but his lyrics are rich with musings on loneliness, discovery, dreams, and death. 
Listen to: "Change of Time," the pensive opener that sets up the album's water motif with drowned sailors, underwater worlds, and waves of memory.

7. Spoon Transference
Spoon is a band I cling to like an addict, convinced that there's no sickness or sadness one of their odd little hooks can't cure. (Case in point: when asked to describe them, my roommate just danced a little jig – unhelpful, yet undeniably the best way to convey their appeal.) Transference is more cerebral and less catchy than previous Spoon-fuls (pardon the pun), but don't mistake it for boring. The album is a minimalist triumph, where the static holds as many secrets as the lyrics. It's both stylish and stylized; even the uneven moments feel deliberate. Once you start noticing the tricks up Britt Daniel's sleeve, you'll keep listening to find out more.
Listen to: "The Mystery Zone" is vintage Spoon, but "Is Love Forever?" captures the album's fascinating ambience and asymmetry.  

6. The New Pornographers Together
Eight musicians, thirteen years, five albums, and over a dozen solo or side projects: it's no wonder the New Pornographers sound like a different beast on every record. But no matter the incarnation, this commanding supergroup is awfully hard to resist. On Challengers, they dabbled in soulful and soaring, but Together swings the pendulum back to power-pop fun. The songs are ornate, emphatic, and upbeat, though not entirely raucuous. If it's a riot, it's under control – not the best party you've ever been to, but definitely a solid A for enthusiasm.
Listen to: The percussive title track, "Put Your Hands (Together)," will make you do just that.

5. Belle & Sebastian Write About Love
Nobody does chamber pop quite like Belle & Sebastian. Their genius is in making music that's wistful and witty, sunny and sad at the same time. And on their eighth studio album, the songs are just as intricate and infectious as ever. When Sarah Martin croons Make me dance / I want to surrender on the opener, you'll do both. The vocals may be featherweight, but the lyrics are dense with feeling. If you worship at the altar of indie pop, then Write About Love is a hymnal worth having.  
Listen to: The title track, a catchy toe-tapper that urges us to, Write about love / it could be in any tense / but it must make sense. Plus, backing vocals from Carey Mulligan!

4. Broken Bells Broken Bells
Some things just go together, like chocolate and peanut butter, drinking and Facebook stalking, and now: Shins frontman James Mercer and mash-up pioneer DJ Danger Mouse. Musically speaking, the dynamic duo seem made for one another. Their debut as Broken Bells showcases the best of both musicians – Mercer’s obtuse lyrics and Danger Mouse’s knack for mixing beats. These dark, hypnotic tracks sound at once like something you’ve never heard and something that should’ve been on your iPod long ago.
Listen to: The haunting tale of "The Ghost Inside." And for bonus points, watch the video starring Mad Men beauty Christina Hendricks.
3. Yeasayer Odd Blood
It's difficult to describe Yeasayer without using the word "eclectic" (see: the "Madder Red" video, starring Kristen Bell and a blob monster). Though often mentioned in the same breath as Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear, this Brooklyn band has a trippy brand of art-pop/psych-rock that's all their own. They're busy and buoyant, full of synthetic buzz and textured with tambourines and loon calls (seriously). But it's this unpredictability, this versatile and exuberant weirdness that makes them such a delight. 
Listen to: "Ambling Alp," a strangely mesmerizing anthem with advice on what to do when life gets you down – Raise your head / and wear your wounds with pride.

2. Arcade Fire The Suburbs
The music of Arcade Fire has always evoked youthful abandon, rebellious, restless, and romantic. They've urged us to wake up, keep the car running, and live in our misbehavior. But while Win Butler once asked, We think of our parents / well, what ever happened to them?; on The Suburbs, he's starting to figure it out. Here the band reflects on adult themes like lost youth, broken dreams, the burden of responsibility, and yes, the stifling sameness of suburbia. But it's not all disillusionment and despair. These nostalgic tracks burst with curiosity and energy, proving that the intimate can still be epic, and even growing up has its own kind of beauty.
Listen to: "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," a wistful yet urgent lament of dead landscapes and dying dreams.      

1. Local Natives Gorilla Manor
Like their sonic brethren Fleet Foxes, this LA quintet has a knack for setting the scene. You don't just get a sound with Local Natives; you get a mood and a place, you'll see the forest and the trees. Their debut album is both unassuming and insistent; it burrows in your eardrums even as it ebbs and flows, swells and recedes. And don't be fooled by the urban album art  there's something decidedly rustic about these songs. They're full of Walden-esque reflection, calling up dense woods and clear lakes, bonfires and long car rides. But even indoors, the harmonies will give you goosebumps, the strings will lift you up, and the lyrics will strike a chord in every restless heart.
Listen to: "Who Knows Who Cares,"  a swirling promise that the only thing constant is change. 

Honorable Mention: The National, High Violet; The Black Keys, Brothers; Band of Horses, Infinite Arms; Robyn, Body Talk


  1. I guess we have different taste in music for the most part, but I have to credit you for introducing me to The New Pornographers. I have yet to see them live, but I'll remedy that one of these days. In my opinion, you can't really judge a band until you've seen them live. But your description is pretty spot on. Not my favorite of their albums, but definitely worth getting.

    Also, I'm glad to see The Black Keys at least make honorable mention. Brothers is far and away my favorite album of 2010. It's great from top to bottom (which is incredible considering how long it is). Dan Auerbach mixes classic blues and rock like nobody I've heard, creating a rich, unique, and dynamic sound that is brimming with genuine emotion.

    I had a chance to see them over the summer, and was blown away. They were definitely even better live.

  2. I did really love the Black Keys album, and I've heard from others that they're amazing live. And "Everlasting Light" has been in my head for approximately 3 months. Please forgive me for only making it an Honorable Mention! There is too much music, and at some point I just have the pull the trigger and stop second-guessing myself.

    Of all these, I think you would like Broken Bells and Spoon best. That is my totally biased and unprofessional opinion.

  3. No need to apologize! That's what makes music so amazing. I actually feel like most award shows are just an artistically dishonest way to make money. How are you truly going to compare two groups that play completely contrasting styles of music? As you said, it's like food. Sometimes you are in the mood for Mexican, sometimes Italian (and sometimes you have that embarrassing Taco Bell urge and end up listening to Katy Perry).

    Also, I checked out Spoon, and wow! I am really impressed! Both of the songs you recommended were great. I'm sure it's an old song to you, but I have also listened to "The Underdog" about 7 times in a row now.