Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2010

This is the best list to make. The album, as a format, is just the most interesting, the most nuanced, and the most fun to discuss of any long- or short-form piece of media. Period. Over plays, operas, movies, whatever. A truly great album is an unparalleled experience, aural or otherwise. That's why this blog exists. That's why I'm eager and able to articulate what I like and how I feel. Albums. They're awesome.

2010 was/is a big year for this writer. He turned 18, which means he's an adult. And he has no idea how to be an adult. (He will now switch to first person narrative.) I truly don't. I mean, I'm perfectly capable of waking myself up, taking the el to school, eating meals on my own, etc. but the intricacies of adulthood--how to manage money, relationships, time, jobs, whatever--are completely beyond me. That I'll be going to college (in the country's biggest, busiest city no less) in the fall only further exacerbates these insecurities. How will I manage to live in the standards in which I'm accustomed to living, and, more importantly and more dauntingly, how will I do something worthwhile--especially in a place where everyone is basically an equal, and often better, version of myself? What's my duty, and how will I accomplish it? Or do I have a duty to fulfill at all? It's a scary world out there, and reading copious amounts of Gide doesn't necessarily make me feel better.

I do have one constant, though. One thing that'll be there for me in New York or wherever I end up. That, as lame as this is to say, is music, is these albums listed below and their brethren from the past and future. As someone who kind of shy and uncomfortable with emotion, I've found something, in music, to let me buckle down and also explain how I think and feel. I can hear something and interpret it and apply it to my life, thereby helping me explain and articulate the emotions that I often try so desperately to hide... I'm getting too over-the-top with this post, aren't I? Anyways, I'll just say that these albums--and albums in general; audio stories and journeys and experiences--have greatly enhanced my life and others', and I look forward to taking them with me as I try to face being a grown-up. Oy.

The albums in question cover plenty of stylistic and emotional ground. 2010's most omnipresent trend seemed to be that of chillwave/H-pop, which in and of itself has many different strains. The whole hazy bedroom pop strain (Wild Nothing and whatnot) didn't really do it for me, so you won't see much of that below. The more kraut-influenced, new age-y strain of the movement does certainly interest me, as it presented a new form of non-abrasive drone that's atmospheric, beautiful, and weird when done correctly. There's the batshit crazy psychedelic strain of H-pop, which I rather enjoy as it's, well, batshit crazy psychedelic music. And then there's the surf-obsessed, chilled-out rock n' roll, which is kinda boring. Right? Right. 2010, though, for me, was a lot about the old guard--or my own personal indie rock old guard. Artists that have delivered genius in the past delivered again (cough, Kanye, LCD, Joanna, Arcade Fire, Robert freakin' Wyatt, cough)... But putting albums by time-proven artists at the top of the list can be a bit unsettling, as I often question whether I'm just putting them at the top because it's easy, because it feels right, because I was anticipating their albums and they were satisfying so they must be the best, right? Maybe right. I don't know. There were enough young'ns, enough new artists, to keep me pleased, I suppose. So who really cares. Right? Right.

In terms of this particular list, it's a list of my 45 favorite studio LPs that were released in 2010. No EPs, compilations, etc. on this list--those will come in a separate list to be published later this week. Also, I know I've waited a little longer to publish the list; however, that's for a variety of reasons: 1) because I've been in school and taking exams and having existential crises about my future that I alluded to above, but now I'm past all of those things (sort of), 2) the year still isn't over, and it was much less over at the beginning of the month when lists started coming out; what happens if a great album comes out on December 21?, and 3) the longer I wait, the more time I have to reflect on certain albums. It's a proven truth that year-end lists are weighted towards albums that came out nearer to the end of the year; new albums are fresher, and they're the ones we're all listening to over and over again in November and December. By waiting a tad longer, I get to reflect, unbiased, a tad longer. Also, I get a chance to pick up and familiarize myself with albums that came out earlier in the year that I hadn't heard and then subsequently hear due to their high placements on certain other publications' year-end lists. Anyways, the point is: here is my list. Here are my albums of 2010.

45. The Fall--Your Future Our Clutter
44. The Body--All The Waters Of The Earth Turn To Blood
43. Big Boi--Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
42. Harvey Milk--A Small Turn Of Human Kindness
41. Jon McMillion--Jon McMillion LP

40. K-X-P--K-X-P
39. Avey Tare--Down There
38. Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen--For The Ghosts Within
37. Rangers--Suburban Tours
36. Coma Cinema--Stoned Alone

35. Robyn--Body Talk
34. Tyler The Creator--Bastard
33. Gil Scott-Heron--I'm New Here
32. Matthew Dear--Black City
31. Forest Swords--Dagger Paths

30. John Roberts--Glass Eights
29. Drake--Thank Me Later
28. Panta du Prince--Black Noise
27. Das Racist--Sit Down, Man
26. The Books--The Way Out

25. Bonnie "Prince" Billy & The Cairo Gang--The Wonder Show Of The World
24. Hot Chip--One Life Stand
23. Deerhunter--Halcyon Digest
22. Sun City Girls--Funeral Mariachi
21. No Age--Everything In Between

20. Janelle Monae--The ArchAndroid
19. Pocahaunted--Make It Real
18. Antony & The Johnsons--Swanlights
17. Sam Amidon--I See The Sign
16. Beach House--Teen Dream

15. Actress--Splazsh
The austere album title and cover are a little misleading; Splazsh is a surprisingly warm and intimate record for what it is--what it is being a too-cool-for-school-in-a-good-way batch of post-everything electronic. Actress (Darren Cunningham if you ask his mother) blends all sorts of dancefloor- and headphone-friendly styles, creating a laid back but nonetheless funky new style of what one may call IDM. His productions are sophisticated and detailed, though they still retain a minimalist aesthetic necessary to make this record relaxingly cool.

14. Perfume Genius--Learning
Learning is probably the year's most heartbreaking record, and that seems to be exactly what Perfume Genius (a.k.a. Mike Hadreas) intended. In interviews he's mentioned--shyly and awkwardly--that writing and recording these minimalist lo-fi ballads was a heartbreaking experience. All of his pain and suffering, of which he seems to have experienced plenty, burdens his meek singing voice, but while a record of slow, simple, sad piano pieces could turn out boring and too depressing, Hadreas has enough sense and compassion to make the album listenable and even a bit hopeful.

13. Arcade Fire--The Suburbs
It must be daunting to continue to make music after your debut album is heralded as a classic and will most likely be the greatest thing you ever produce, but Arcade Fire have been able to put out two albums post-Funeral, the second of which, The Suburbs, is pretty damn great in its own right. Streamlining their sound even further, Arcade Fire have created a pseudo-concept album about how much the suburbs suck--though they say so more eloquently--that's equal parts straightforward rock music and twee-experimental grandeur. And if the album's a little long and has some filler, well, I'm not really complaining.

12. Swans--My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
I feel like when writing about this album (and Swans in general), it's almost necessary to use all caps. That's one of the only ways to convey the power and sheer epic-ness the music on My Father Will Guide... delivers. (Now, I'm not one to write in all caps--I'm a little too mild mannered, I think--so I'll try to refrain from doing so, but still...) Alternating between thick and sludgy psychedelic metal, free-form post-jazz, bouncy country, and just good old fashioned rock n' roll, Michael Gira and his resurgent Swans pepper this album with all sorts of hatred--and that's a good thing. Listening to this album is a truly visceral experience, better to be completely lost in than discussed academically.

11. Emeralds--Does It Look Like I'm Here?
The title of Does It Look...'s third track, "Double Helix," describes quite well the sound of the album, in my opinion. Emeralds' music's twists and turns, bloops and bleeps, and all-encompassing nature make you feel like you're trapped in some sort of gorgeous electronic double helix, one that's trapped you inside and made you feel a little claustrophobic, but you're okay because it's so ethereal that it doesn't matter and you forget what claustrophobia even is. Some may scorn Emeralds for becoming comparatively accessible with this album, but all they've done is showcase their ability to make truly beautiful and moderately form-ful music that transcends their kraut-synth influences and reality itself. Yeah, reality. Whoa.

10. Flying Lotus--Cosmogramma
Cosmogramma is the IDM heir apparent to the cosmic, astral jazz developed by folks like Sun Ra and John and Alice Coltrane (the Coltranes, not coincidentally, being Flying Lotus's uncle and aunt, respectively). In a world where even underground music is often afraid to flout musical standards such as 4/4 and the like, Flying Lotus has no regard such conventions--and it pays off in his crazy, unhinged productions. And, despite that his music is absolutely crazy and all over place, FlyLo is always in control, which shows especially when he stops certain sounds in their tracks and then introduces them--or other sounds--elsewhere. He's a true technician. Much of the album (largely the first half, actually) is very hard-hitting and cacophonous, but much of it is beautiful as well (largely the second half). Good job, Mr. Lotus.

9. Jack Rose--Luck In The Valley
Rose passed away in December of 2009, shortly after completing Luck In The Valley (which was subsequently released by Thrill Jockey in February), but don't think that I've placed the album in my top ten solely as a tribute to the late finger-picker. This album is in the top ten because I love its music. Rose creates a world--or at least a valley (ha! reference to the title!)--all to his, and the listeners', own, full of acoustic guitar beauty that switches between folk, bluegrass, and raga in style. Some of the compositions are contemplative studies on space and form and what can be done with a guitar, and other pieces are just knee-slappin', square dance-ready rambles. That Rose (and his fellow musicians) are able to so delicately balance experimentation with calculated yet traditional Americana is a tribute to his (and their) genius. R.I.P.

8. Caribou--Swim
Dan Snaith (Caribou) had hinted that he could be a little funky, a little dance-y, and all the time he spent DJing in London clubs and whatnot after releasing Andorra certainly only signaled to the world that he knew how to groove. But not even any of that adequately prepared listeners for the supreme danceable funkiness locked into Swim's grooves. Snaith's high voice and penchant for complex percussion make this recognizable as a Caribou release, but it's much more dancefloor ready than his previous efforts--so much so that dance publication Resident Advisor even named it their album of the year. That said, cuts like "Kaili" are advanced textural pop songs more so than dance tracks, albeit pop songs from another universe, a psychedelic dystopian universe where everyone plays cowbell and klave. Snaith's ability to create completely unique sounds while still staying in the realm of pop make him one of today's best artists.

7. Gonjasufi--A Sufi and A Killer
No album released in 2010 is more of a, pardon my language, mindfuck than A Sufi and A Killer. Coming out of basically nowhere (or, more accurately, the Mojave Desert if you do your research), Gonjasufi, aided by production from the inimitable Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus, screams and wails and shouts and moans and does everything he can besides actually sing to tell pipe dream stories of the apocalypse. Or something. Sometimes I don't know what the hell he's talking about. Regardless, the atmosphere he and the productions create is one I've never heard before, and creating music this unique is extremely rare nowadays. Every time you hear A Sufi and A Killer, you fear for the life of your speakers and/or ears, as its extremely loud and messy. But Gonjasufi isn't completely strung out; he knows the powers of control. And when he slows it down and ponders a bit, he's even more brilliant.

6. Oneohtrix Point Never--Returnal
I--and I imagine I'm not alone--was very taken aback by the first "notes" of Returnal. Having been a Rifts fan previously, I had never heard anything as abrasive as this album's opening track, "Nil Admirari," from OPN (birth name: Daniel Lopatin). And while the track proved (and continues to prove) to be a bit of an audio endurance test, it sets the stage nicely for the rest of the album, as it's full of a subtle and building beauty. Once it ends, more typical OPN music fills your speakers, and gorgeous synth textures, reminiscent of Fripp and Tangerine Dream and crappy new age music but still modern and not derivative, float and bounce like a dream. The music is slightly more song-y, too, but the record is, at its core, an ambient experimental music album. What separates OPN from likewise capable, contemporary synth dudes, though, is his ability to tell stories and convey emotion through seemingly icy, impersonal music. And he loves 10cc.

5. Sun Araw--On Patrol
Sun Araw, or Cameron Stallones (pronounced STAH-lins and not sta-LONES, as in multiple Russian dictators (Stalins) rather than multiple actors who played Rocky (Stallones)) is the best and most singular voice in psychedelic music, and perhaps hypnagogic pop in general, working today. That's a grand statement, but one I stand firmly behind. On Patrol is his most fully realized album thus far, as it finds Stallones pulling back and stripping his music to its bare essentials, whereas previous and subsequent efforts are much busier. (Not that that's a bad thing; I just like On Patrol best.) Its length (about an hour and twenty minutes) is not a hindrance at all; in fact, it's more of a necessity. When you listen to Sun Araw, you get lost. You can't help it. It's mantric music--that's its intention, and it succeeds with flying colors. The fact that when I ordered a T-shirt from his website Stallones sent me an personalized, autographed drawing of a Greek temple-looking thingy just makes me like him more.

4. Titus Andronicus--The Monitor
We've been discussing albums as devices to tell stories, and no other album on this list tells stories like The Monitor does. Sure a Springsteen-indebted punk rock concept album about the Civil War as it relates to the frontman's seething anger and blistering depression sounds like a possible recipe for cliche disaster, but Titus executes it so sincerely and competently that its overwrought themes and emotions aren't cliche; they're cathartic. And catharsis is certainly the album's most intended and most effective emotion. Each song has goosebump-inducing highs and crushing lows, as walls of guitars wreak havoc next to frontman Patrick Stickles's perpetually strained voice. The lyrics, as promised, relate to the Civil War a bit; there's a mention of John Brown here, Jeff Davis there. But The Monitor is mostly a personal work; it's about human emotion. Titus Andronicus doesn't do any one thing especially originally, but their honesty and energy are unmatched, and the result of that is one of the most exciting albums in years.

3. LCD Soundsystem--This Is Happening
Unfortunately, this is happening--and by "this" I mean the end of LCD Soundsystem's illustrious three album run. But I don't necessarily buy James Murphy's supposed retirement; call me an optimist, but I foresee another LCD album at some point. It may not be soon, but I know that every hipster (and music fan in general) will in the future be excitedly saying, "this is happening," and "this" will mean the new LCD album. The reason we'll all be so excited is that James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem are the band that best captured what this generation is about and shed the best light possible upon it. Murphy is our hero not just because he makes amazing music, but because he makes amazing music and he's just like us. He's a sweaty, urban music geek; he waxes poetic about Can and Beefheart while constructing tunes that sound like Iggy and Bowie without being a copycat. On This Is Happening, he matures even more, delivering songs that are more song-oriented and less groove-oriented than those on previous albums. That said, This Is Happening contains plenty of groove. Anyways, the point is: James Murphy is truly a hero, and if this is indeed his swan song, well, it's a hell of a swan song.

2. Joanna Newsom--Have One On Me
It's always hard to judge an album as long as Have One On Me. At a little over two hours spread over three discs, this is an album of rare scope and breadth. With extremely long albums, I find myself on the one hand commending the artists for their ability to create something of such an imposing magnitude, while on the other hand criticizing them for an inability to edit, as many multi-albums contain their fair shares of filler. The "on the other hand" portion of that schpiel doesn't really apply to the monstrous Have One On Me, as there's basically no filler; all of the songs--many of which are seven, eight, eleven minutes long--are good. Joanna splits time between the harp and the piano, which, while unnerving to those of us who love Joanna the harpist, proves to be a good move as it provides diversity in timbre and texture that's thoroughly necessary on an album this long. Her voice, too, has changed a bit. Its quirks are subdued, its yelps controlled. But that, too, is a good thing. She is able to showcase her excellent songwriting and compositional skills better. Her ability to turn phrases, cleverly and intimately, is awesome--and when such good lyrics are paired with Senegalese harps and wailing trombones and all sorts of other oddball sounds, it's a wonderful result. Despite that it's hard to listen to in its entirety in one sitting, Have One On Me is nearly 2010's finest album.

1. Kanye West--My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
With all the hype leading up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy--the G.O.O.D. Friday releases, the Runaway movie, Kanye's Twitter feed, countless positive blog posts, countless rumors of crazy guest vocalists/producers, Kanye's overall hypeable personality, etc.--the mere fact that it wasn't hugely disappointing is an impressive feat. The fact that not only was it not a disappointment, but that it actually exceeded expectations, well, that's a true triumph--one of the biggest triumphs in pop music since I've been cognizant of what pop music is (which is, I don't know, eight years?). From the opening bars of the album, it's truly evident that this is on a different level from any other hip-hop, pop, or other genre release for that matter released in 2010. The gorgeous refrain on opener "Dark Fantasy" sets the stage for what is to become a gorgeous album, full of the slickest and most interesting production in years. I like to refer to moments that give me goosebumps, and MBDTF has more of those than any other 2010 album. But it also has more moments that make me laugh, more moments that make me think, and more moments that make me drop my jaw and say, "Damn." Kanye has truly capitalized on all his promise with this album, both as a producer and an MC--the latter of which is the subject of debate. But I think Kanye, at least on this album, is a very talented rapper, whether he's aided by crazy effects (see: "Blame Game") or not (see: "Monster," etc.). The mixing of styles, the seamless crossing of boundaries--genre boundaries, cultural boundaries, race boundaries, lifestyle boundaries--is something we rarely see in music or pop culture. Ever. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy lives up to the hype; it embraces it. Obviously I never like to follow what every other person/publication/list does--I mean putting Kanye first--but the truth of the matter is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, plain and simple, the best album of 2010.

That's what I think. Stay tuned for the so-called My Favorite Albums of 2010 (Odds & Ends).

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