Posted by: Jeff | January 7, 2011

Top 50 Albums of 2010: 15-6

For other entries in the top 50 albums of 2010, click here: 

50-26 | 25-16 | 5-1

15. Jónsi – Go

Jónsi is, of course, Jón Þór Birgisson, the front man of ephemeral Icelandic post-rock superstars Sigur Rós.  Over the past decade with Sigur Rós, Jónsi has gained a reputation as a brilliant melodicist, orchestrating and writing much of the music for the band’s unique cinematic sound.  News that Sigur Rós would not be releasing an announced album in 2010 and that Jónsi instead would release a solo album of mostly acoustic instrumentation was deemed a poor trade by some fans, but from the first moments of lead track “Go Do” that trepidation melts away.

In the end, Jónsi abandoned strict acoustic instrumentation for a more grandiose affair, but what differentiates his solo material from the similarly epic sound of Sigur Rós is its intimacy.  While Sigur Rós makes expansive orchestral music, Go feels more like a celebration of personal life and love.  It’s a truly brilliant and exuberant album.

Jónsi – “Go Do”

Jónsi – “Boy Lilikoi”

14. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West, man.  Has any other celebrity experienced such a low and such a high in the span of one year?  After his infamous “excuse me, Taylor” moment last summer, Kanye went into self-imposed media exile, thankfully removing himself from the spotlight long enough to get his head straight.

The past two years have been tough on the man – the loss of his wife, fiance, public reputation.  Then over the summer news emerged that Kanye was back at work on a new album.  Always unorthodox, Kanye leaked news of the album in viral fashion, making surprise appearances at the headquarters of social media monsters Twitter and Facebook in order to unveil new material in acapella form.  Known mostly for his production and not for his vocals, it was a strange move to launch a marketing campaign, but it worked.  Soon there was a Twitter account and the announcement of the G.O.O.D. Friday series, where Kanye released – for free – a weekly download of a new track each Friday all fall.  Many of those tracks ended up on the new album, but that didn’t stop 500,000 people in the US from buying it – in its first week of release.

Yes, Kanye has taken a strange route to public rehabilitation, but here he stands with the most talked about album of 2010.  Beyond the buzz, how good is it?  It’s been lauded as lyrically brilliant, but it isn’t his best writing to date – that was on 2004’s College Dropout.  Many of gushed over the unique and interesting production techniques, but is it is most innovative album?  That’s probably 2005’s Late Registration.  His most anthemic album?  That would be 2007’s Graduation.  And for most emotional value, you can’t argue against 2008’s vastly underrated 808’s and Heartbreak.

All this is to say that much of the hype about this album is still just hype.  That isn’t to say that Kanye West doesn’t remain a prolific artist or that this isn’t a great album.  It is – and his cadre of guest collaborators is simply stunning.  “Runaway” is an epic achievement, and “All of the Lights” immediately resonates as one of the catchiest pop offerings in Kanye’s discography.  As Kanye would say, his production skills truly are “ridiculous” and more than make up for the fact that he “got famous for music without being able to sing or dance.”

Kanye West – “All of the Lights (Ft. Rihanna)”

Kanye West – “Runaway”

13. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor

Local Natives sound so familiar it can be hard to remember they’re a new band you haven’t heard before.  Their debut album is immediately accessible, offering three-part vocal harmonization over organic percussion and folk inflected with not a little bit of California sunshine.  It’s an inherently optimistic record from a band pleased to arrive.

Odes to their influences abound on the record, from the most obvious stylistic replications (Fleet Foxes) to the prominent percussion-heavy arrangements (The Dodos) to the most surprising of all – a bold cover of a Talking Heads song as the centerpiece of the album.  By fusing these disparate influences, Local Natives manage to sound like each of them and none of them at the same time.

There are some excellent pop songs here throughout, bubbling forth like this stuff is easy.  “Airplanes” is ostensibly an ode to a deceased grandfather’s career as a pilot, but it’s infectious as hell.  It’s not until you take a moment to really listen to the lyrics that you realize there’s a lot of depth to the shimmery harmonies and drum shuffles.  And that’s the greatest surprise of all – beneath what may sound like simple pop, there are layers of composition quirkiness and emotional depth that really reward multiple listens.

Local Natives – “Airplanes”

Local Natives – “Wide Eyes”

12. Four Tet – There Is Love In You

The Elliott School in London’s North end boasts a veritable who’s who of indie music as recent alumni.  Much of Hot Chip’s membership attended Elliott, as did all three members of The xx.  Recent revelations about the identity of mysterious dubstep producer Burial revealed that he, too, went to Elliott.  So too did Kieran Hebden, the man known more widely as Four Tet, an abstract electronica artist who utilizes scraps of folk, techno, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, and post-rock to create new and innovative compositions.

Hebden has released four albums under his own name and five under the Four Tet moniker, as well as dozens of remixes for prominent artists like Matthew Dear, Hot Chip and The xx.  But There Is Love In You stands apart as his most lush and vibrant production yet.  It’s easy to envision Hebden as an artist, painting soundscapes with carefully measured brush strokes.  Though the music is decidedly abstract – rare are the intelligible vocal samples, and loops layer over one another to create some very dischordant melodies.

Critics might argue that with Hebden’s emphasis on looping tracks can get repetitive.  However, Hebden clearly borrows from the composition of old-school techno, allowing tracks to ebb and flow naturally so as to lull the listener into a deeper appreciation as his carefully crafted soundscapes expand and envelop.

Four Tet – “Angel Echoes”

Four Tet – “Love Cry”

11. Gorillaz – Welcome to the Plastic Beach

One of the most ambitious releases of the year, Plastic Beach presents the story of a cartoon… erm… Gorilla, stranded on a desert island made of… plastic.  In chronicling the story of Murdoc, the stranded ape, real-life frontman Damion Albarn has gathered an incredible array of diverse contributors, including members of De La Soul, Little Dragon, The Lebanese National Orchestra, The Clash, and The Velvet Underground.  Even Snoop Dogg makes an appearance.  The fact that Albarn can hold all this together, maintain the image of a cartoon front-band, and release an album with a cohesive concept is amazing.  The fact that the music is incredible is just the icing on top.

Gorillaz really flex their musical muscle with Plastic Beach, exploring genres well outside the trip-hop inflected hip-hop of their first two releases.  There’s the slow-burning soul of “Stylo”, the bombast of “Superfast Jellyfish”, the exotic orchestration of “White Flag”‘s reggae.

The best tracks on the record aren’t destined for radio play, however.  As Murdoc grows more pensive and reflective, on environmental degradation, isolation, and pollution, Albarn unleashes a series of melancholy tracks that positively sparkle with shimmery synths and beautifully earnest vocal performances.  “On Melancholy Hill” might just be the best synthpop song this side of Depeche Mode, and “Rhinestone Eyes” has some of the most evocative imagery Albarn has penned in a long time.  “Empire Ants” is the true pinnacle of Albarn’s vision, opening with a subdued and intimate vocal performance from Albarn before giving way to a euphoric synth line and a brilliant turn from Little Dragon.

If there’s any downside to this album, it’s that all the ambition can be a bit disorienting.  The wide variety of styles and genres on the album don’t flow as well as they could, and while the listener can certainly follow the story of Murdoc, it’s hard to feel any connection when the perspective changes with every track.  It’s still an incredible release that only grows stronger with deeper analysis.

Gorillaz – “Empire Ants”

Gorillaz – “On Melancholy Hill”

10. Sleigh Bells – Treats

The hype began well before the album.  Through word of mouth, news began to emerge of a new duo capable of epic live performances.  Nothing yet on record, but whatever this was would be wildly influential, a unique and original style more raw than anything else out there.  Comparisons were made to Crystal Castles and M.I.A., who was only too happy to oblige by taking to her Twitter account to deem the duo “the next big thing.”

With such bonafides in place before even releasing an EP, Sleigh Bells had arrived.  The girl with the sugar sweet voice and the guy with the heavy metal background had merged those two seemingly incompatible styles into an all-out assault.  The first notes of Treats, the opening bombast of “Tell Em”, function like a shot of adrenaline.  By comparison, the soft cooing of Alexis Krauss feels innocent, almost naive.  It’s captivating – until Sleigh Bells turn everything on its head once again when Krauss explodes in the inferno of “Infinity Guitars.”  No, she’s no innocent, despite the jangly precociousness of “Rill Rill”, one of the catchiest songs of the year.  At 32 minutes in length, it’s a shame Treats is so short.  But I’m not sure my heart could take much more than a half hour of this level of adrenaline.

Sleigh Bells – “Tell Em”

Sleigh Bells – “Rill Rill”

9. Hot Chip – One Life Stand

One Life Stand prominently features one of the worst songs of the year in “Slush.”  I say this not to slam an album in the top 10, but to highlight the fact that despite the inclusion of a chorus that goes “huminah huminah huminah” over and over again, this is a supurb album.  It’s so good that if it weren’t for the inclusion of “Slush” – I’m sorry, but at six and a half minutes this track really is this bad – the album would merit immediate consideration for album of the year.

Tightening some of the meandering production that bogged down 2008’s Made in the Dark, Hot Chip churn out nerdy dance-rock gem after gem.  “Thieves in the Night” slowly fades from a single low synth-line to an isolated drum beat before elements are introduced one by one, culminating in a fevered disco funk complete with killer guitar solo.

Yes, Hot Chip have graduated to the production big leagues with this album and even managed to further develop the emotional content of their song-writing.  “Hand Me Down Your Love” and “One Life Stand” are plaintively romantic dance tracks, offering lyrics like “I’ve known for a long time/You are my love life/Why can’t I be bright like my lover’s light?” and “I only wanna be your one life stand/Tell me do you stand by your man?”  This is sensitive nerd rock in dance form, but it’s endearing and eminently likable.  When coupled with some of the fantastic productions on One Life Stand, it makes for a great album.  Even with “Slush”.

Hot Chip – “One Life Stand”

Hot Chip – “Take It In”

8. The New Pornographers – Together

The New Pornographers have all been around the block a few times – after all, most of them have day jobs in other successful bands or solo acts.  And it shows – they’ve put their experience to good use, putting together a set of some of the most mature and polished power pop songs in the business.  Featuring four distinct voices who share harmonies and alternate the lead, The New Pornographers have established range and diversity within individual albums that other bands must envy.  Their chemistry shows as well – call and response harmonization is a frequently used tool, and nobody else whistles in unison quite like they do.

Instrumentally, the band flexes its super group muscle as well, borrowing the Dap King horn section from Sharon Jones, and calling on Annie Clark (i.e. St. Vincent), Beirut’s Zach Condon, and Okkervil River’s Will Scheff for help on several tracks.  All in addition to the actual New Pornographers themselves, who each leave their own distinct imprint on the record.

Neko Case sounds particularly strong throughout, absolutely stealing the show with her country folksiness on “Valkyrie at the Roller Disco” and the stunning “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”.  By the time she takes the reins on “My Shepherd” with its slide guitar, she emerges as the star of the record.  But the rest of the gang quickly catches up, and album closer “We End Up Together” is a fit end for a record filled with joint whistling and “ah ah ah ah’s”.

The New Pornographers – “Move”

The New Pornographers – “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”

7. Vampire Weekend – Contra

The hype surrounding Vampire Weekend after the surprise success of their first album was enough to drown lesser bands.  Having captured the admiration of fraternity brothers and indie music critics across America, it seemed an impossible task for the band to maintain the attention of both constituencies without simply re-treading territory covered by their exceptional debut.

Yet branch out they did, and Vampire Weekend succeeded in making an evolutionary leap forward without alienating too many people.  And despite prompting some snide comments for Ezra Koenig’s tentative attempt at rapping on opener “Horchata”, the quality throughout the album is higher and the style more varied than many might have expected.  Only “Holiday” feels like an overt copy of the formula that led to their previous success.  In fact, Vampire Weekend, known mostly for beach side barbecue jams for the boat shoe set, manage to throw some curves, including the most beautifully-composed song of the year in “I Think Ur A Contra”.  The subdued restraint of Koenig’s vocal delivery, low piano, and distorted sheen of guitar is a magnificent feat for a band known solely for irreverent party music.

But don’t fret – there’s party music aplenty on this album as well, from the infectious giddiness of “White Sky”, to the frenetic excitement of “Cousins” and the power pop strength of “Giving Up the Gun.”  The ability of Vampire Weekend to weave through these elements seamlessly over the course of one LP is remarkable, and demonstrates just how much this young band has grown.

Vampire Weekend – “White Sky”

Vampire Weekend – “I Think Ur A Contra”

6. The Walkmen – Lisbon

The jangly guitar and affected wail of Hamilton Leithauser are unmistakable trademarks of The Walkmen, a band that oddly gained acclaim on the back of a track that sounds very little like the rest of their discography.  The sheer brilliance of 2004’s “The Rat” notwithstanding, the frenetic outbursts remain few and far between for the D.C. natives, who opt to focus their attention instead on more somber and melancholy subjects.

Lisbon is the band’s most emotionally mature release thus far, achieved in large part through restraint.  This is a band that can capably rock out when they want to, but chooses instead to create compositions filled with empty space and light touches.  On opener “Juveniles”, Leithauser weaves through a lonely guitar melody with the accompaniment of only some brushed percussion until the song swells through the chorus. These ebbs and flows are constant throughout Lisbon, immersing the listener in a journey through Leithauser’s bewilderment at the never-ending complexities of life.

The lyrical richness of Lisbon is well beyond previous album You & Me, utilizing vivid imagery and emotional bluntness.  Using a constant wood block as propulsion on “Blue As My Blood” Leithauser dons his best Johnny Cash impression, extolling that “The sky above is blue as your blood.”  Leithauser’s candidness is self-evident as well.  On “Woe is Me”, Leithauser opens the track by declaring “There’s a girl that you should know/she was mine not so long ago.”  The feeling of resigned dejection is a familiar one for Leithauser, who confides on “Stranded” that “you don’t want me, you can tell me, I’m the bigger man here, it’s true” before exclaiming “Now I’m stranded, and I’m starry-eyed.”  Unrequited love never felt so lonely.

Luckily, Lisbon isn’t all melancholy.  “Victory” is downright exuberant, and “Juveniles” closes on a hopeful note: “I am a good man, by any count, and I see better things to come / Could she be right, when she repeats, I am the lucky one?”  Lisbon is a career achievement, and an album that will long last as a testament to the maturity and song-writing of a band best known for something else entirely.

The Walkmen – “Juveniles”

The Walkmen – “Woe Is Me”

To see the top 5 albums of 2010, click here.

The imagery is vivid as well.  Using a constant wood block as propulsion on “Blue As My Blood” Leithauser dons his best Johnny Cash impression, extolling that “The sky above is blue as your blood.”
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  1. […] in Music | Tags: 2010, Albums « The Race For 2012 Has Begun Top 50 Albums of 2010: 15-6 » LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. […] Top 50 Albums of 2010: 5-1 For other entries in the top 50 albums of 2010, click here:  50-26 | 25-16 | 15-6 […]


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