Posted by: Jeff | January 7, 2011

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

Here we are at the top five albums of 2010.  I mentioned at the outset that this year included several great albums that invoke emotion, provoke thought, and display masterfully innovative and original song-writing and musicianship.  Each of the albums in the top five do this and more, and each are landmark releases that will be remembered for years as highlights of each artists’ respective careers.  The quality of albums in 2010 was very high indeed, and these five stand a cut above the rest – with inspired writing and no filler material, these are the albums that will inspire the bands of tomorrow and that will become representative of the best of an era in music.

5. Robyn – Body Talk

Robyn announced early in the year that she’d be releasing three full-length albums this year, starting with Body Talk Pt. 1 in May.  It hasn’t exactly worked out that way – Pts. 1 and 2 were more like extended EPs, really, and there’s a significant amount of overlap between the first two releases and Pt. 3 – but there’s no denying that this has been a prolific year for the Swedish pop diva who had previously disappeared from the world of pop for a nearly decade-long hiatus.

By the time Pt. 3 (officially titled simply Body Talk) hit stores in November, it felt more like a greatest hits compilation than a new album.  This is in part due to the fact that many songs on the full LP appeared on a previous release – albeit often in very different form.  Many of the tracks first appeared as acoustic ballads – only to be re-imagined as full-out dance tracks in a subsequent release.  The evolution of the tracks from record to record created a deeper familiarity by stripping away the shiny veneer and showing the inner emotional core of each track.  Yet that familiarity is perhaps equally due to the high quality that Robyn maintains throughout her releases.  There’s no filler here – each and every track that made it to the final album has blossomed into a dancefloor filler that deserves regular rotation on any pop station.

Unlike many of her pop contemporaries, Robyn forgoes the instrumental quirkiness (i.e. La Roux) or lyrical abstractness (i.e. Lady Gaga) common in modern pop music for heartfelt belters about life and love.  The music bears the distinct mark of Swedish electro house – forever imbued with the frosty chill left by artists like The Knife – which further amplifies the stark emotional rawness of Robyn’s voice.  On “Dancing On My Own” Robyn sings of the torture of going to a club and seeing an unrequited love across the room – dancing with someone else.  She’s a strong woman, so she shows her fortitude through dance music, later confiding on “Hang With Me” that “if you do me right, I’ll do right by you” before warning “don’t fall recklessly, headlessly in love with me / cause it’s gonna be/ a heart break, blissfully painful insanity.”

This is a woman struggling to get control of her spiraling emotions and letting loose the only way she knows how – on the dance floor.  On “Indestructible”, an exclusive to the new album and quite possibly the best song Robyn has ever produced, she finally admits to herself that she “lets the bad ones in and the good ones go” before resolving that “I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been hurt before” – ultimately Body Talk is about Robyn coping with love and loss, and finding the strength to open up without sacrificing all control.  It’s the best pure pop album of the year, and one of the most meaningful of the past decade.

Robyn – “Hang With Me”

Robyn – “Dancing On My Own”

Robyn – “Indestructible”

4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

Every time I play James Murphy’s latest magnum opus to growing old, I wish I could go back to the first time I heard opening track “Dance Yrself Clean.”  I thought something was wrong with my speakers, the way the clicking percussion and solitary bass notes barely registered audibly.  So naturally, I jacked up the volume.  Whoa.  When the beat finally drops, you know Murphy is all in, laying an absolute aural barrage of staccato drums and bellowing bass beneath him as he shouts a question: “Don’t you want me to wake up/Then give me just a bit of your time.”

You can’t help but give Murphy time in bunches, as this is an album that unfolds before the listener, enveloping and consuming.  The bass grooves are among the best in the dance-rock genre, and having the pleasure of hearing Hot Chip bassist Al Doyle play with the band this fall was mind-blowing.  But beyond the shiny production and funky beats, it’s Murphy’s song-writing that takes This Is Happening above and beyond.

2007’s “All My Friends” has been lauded as the anthem of a generation of aging hipsters, placing Murphy’s realization of his own mortality and aging (and potential loss of relevance) front and center.  Ultimately deciding that he “wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life”, Murphy makes peace with his past and decides it is best to have no regrets.  But he enjoys remembering his youthful days, especially as he looks around and sees everyone around him growing up.  This is the takeoff point for This Is Happening, which sees Murphy further explore what it means to resist growing old at an age where life is passing him by.  That he mixes such reminiscinces and pensive moments with the funkiest music of the year is no small achievement.

On the aforementioned “Dance Yrself Clean” Murphy sets the stage for the material to come by admitting “I miss the way the night comes, With friends who always make it feel good.”  Through the rest of the album Murphy sets his aim on nothing less than re-creating his youth at his old age, trying to act cool but coming up a poser on “Drunk Girls”, and avoiding calls to reality through lyrics like “But still be honest with me, honestly, honestly, Unless it hurts my feelings.”  On “I Can Change” Murphy confronts his avoidance issues, pleading with a girl to “never change never change never change never change/This is why I fell in love” until he realizes that he is the one who needs to change to make the relationship work.  By niftily changing the refrain to “I can change I can change I can change I can change/if it helps you fall in love” Murphy shows he’s lost control of his relationships and has become desperate to gain back what’s been lost.

Through it all Murphy maintains his irreverence and egotistical name-dropping that won him legions of fans.  There are few musicians that have the sense of musical history that Murphy does, and he’s not afraid to pay homage to his influences directly or indirectly (the obvious David Bowie inspiration in “All I Need” most prominently).  He also directs his pen toward his critics, slyly adding the addendum to an observation in “I Can Change” that “love is a curse trapped in a hearse, love is a book trapped in a verse of your bad poetry… and this is coming from me” with a wink and a nod toward reviews critical of his writing.  On the impossibly funky “Pow Pow” Murphy gets even more direct, discussing his own public celebrity with the epithet “eat it Michael Musto, you’re no Bruce Vilanch.”  Beyond the lead singles, there is a lot left to enjoy.  “You Wanted a Hit” is ridicuously tongue in cheek, and “Home” is a stunningly beautiful and personal dance track.

Murphy is still having a lot of fun, even as he copes directly with the loss of his youth, his issues with growing up, and the unappealing nature of celebrity.  If this is indeed the last LCD Soundsystem album, and Murphy has implied that it will be, it’s a hell of a way to go out on top.

LCD Soundsystem – “All I Want”

LCD Soundsystem – “I Can Change”

LCD Soundsystem – “Home”

3. Beach House – Teen Dream

In January of 2010, Beach House released an album that immediately launched album of the year speculation.  Normally it’s a good idea to wait until there are at least announcements about forthcoming releases beyond March before making such pronouncements, but the beauty and grandeur of Teen Dream caused many to anoint Beach House as the artist of 2010 before the year had scarcely begun.  This is to say that Teen Dream is an immaculate album, one of the most haunting and evocative releases of the past decade, and the culmination of Beach House’s young careers.

Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scully have epitomized the resurgence of the dream pop genre, infusing pop into post-rock influences much more successfully than their contemporaries.  The atmospherics on many of the tracks are astoundingly ethereal, but this is undoubtedly a pop album.  Though the interminable fugue covering tracks like “10 Mile Stereo” might invoke the shoegazer drone of m83 or the Cocteau Twins, LeGrand’s memorable hooks propel the song forward with arresting beauty.

There aren’t a lot of pieces to the band (they rely heavily on a drum machine for percussion), but the music is rich and layered, filling the room with dreamy sound.  The semi-androgynous voice of Legrand may be raspy but it is extremely flexible, perfect in full-throated chorus or whispered verse.  Her voice is wonderfully intimate, a perfect counterbalance to the atmospheric sense that the music is everywhere.

The lyrical writing on Teen Dream is nothing overtly complex or breath-taking, but in LeGrand’s hands the words drip at times with anxiety or heartbreak.  On “Walk in the Park” LeGrand sings of a lover now gone: “In a matter of time, it would slip from my mind/In and out of my life, you would slip from my mind.”  As she strains to reach a higher register, her voice cracks and hesitates, accentuating the emotional intensity of her delivery.

The tracks on Teen Dream are slow and dreamy, the result of meticulous layering and masterful programming throughout.  There are no filler tracks on this record, and no clear standouts only insomuch as no one track is any worse than the rest.  “Used to Be” is the closest the band gets to a radio hit, but in the second half it quickly dissolves into the emotional pleading of LeGrand, who repeats over and over the earnest plea that she’s “coming home any day now.”  The surprising turn is an emotional earworm that stays in your head for a long time.  It’s an affecting and brilliant album, and one that set the bar very high for 2010.

Beach House – “10 Mile Stereo”

Beach House – “Used To Be”

Beach House – “Walk in the Park”

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs


When I finally heard this album for the first time in the first week of August, it was hard not to be disappointed.  Arcade Fire only had two previous records under their belt, but their incredible quality had solidified the band as one of my absolute favorites.  The new album begins conventionally, with few frills adorning the jaunty piano and guitar of opening track “The Suburbs.”  This is not the anthemic bombast of previous Arcade Fire.  The all-hands-on-deck sing-a-longs of Funeral and Neon Bible are largely absent here, replacing the grandeur of organ on “Intervention” with a sparse intimacy I’ve never associated with the band.

But given a few more listens, this album begins to reveal itself in surprising ways.  Conceived as a meditation on spending adolescence in the anonymous environment of suburban sprawl, the album aims for the deeply personal in ways that previous efforts like Neon Bible purposely avoided.  At 16 tracks, The Suburbs is much lengthier than previous offerings, and a lesser band would get lost in the unstructured space of an hour with a common motif by caving to self-indulgence.  It’s a testament to band leaders Win Butler and Regine Chassagne then that Arcade Fire never do, approaching the subject of suburban alienation from a variety of stylistical directions without creating an uneven or played out track.  Each of the 16 songs contained here are excellent in their own way, and the album is complete in a way that Neon Bible never could be.

It’s unlikely that many tracks from Arcade Fire will ever see much radio play.  Few of the singles have charted, and they mostly don’t belong in discussions about the singular best tracks in Arcade Fire’s young discography.  But woven together, each accentuates the beauty of the album and pensive self-reflection on life and youth.  Though Arcade Fire cut their teeth by playing with wreckless abandon (think “Wake Up” and “No Cars Go”), the band shows startling maturity on slow-burners like “Suburban War” and “Modern Man”.

The band does still has plenty of verve and muscle, however, and doesn’t hesitate to crescendo into the tense atmospherics of “Empty Room” and “Rococo”, the latter boasting a brilliant string lead that soars as the rhythm section slowly churns to the finish.  “City With No Children” contains the best guitar hook Arcade Fire has ever written, and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” features the unlikeliest of disco beats, showcasing the range and diversity of the band.

It’s a great achievement that over the course of 16 tracks Arcade Fire doesn’t submit to the same bland sprawl that they seek to chronicle.  The result is a triumphant achievement, delving deep into the universal experience of anonymity for those who confront youth in placeless suburban wastelands where “dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains and there’s no end in sight.”

Arcade Fire – “The Suburbs”

Arcade Fire – “We Used to Wait”

Arcade Fire – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”

1. The National – High Violet

It’s been truly wonderful to watch the evolution of The National from album to album.  Admittedly, this is a band I started following well into their 8-year career, but going back and tracing their evolution from a fairly standard five-piece bar band to the immaculately intentional song-writing on High Violet is an exercise in contrasts.  The new album is a culmination of this evolution, the first time that the band has seized upon all elements of their style and congealed them in a cohesive way.

As I wrote when I reviewed the album in April, the strained aggression of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and the beautiful denouement of Boxer both find homes on High Violet, whcich offers epic slow-burners reminiscent of Boxer that crescendo and finally peak with outbursts of emotion that recall the finer moments of Sad Songs and middle album Alligator.

Over the music, Matt Berninger’s gravelly mumble is intimate and heartfelt – everything so intentional that it feels organic, even personalized to individual listening experience.  The liberal use of horn and string sections ornament their music with that personal touch that Berninger then delivers home with restrained measure.  The beautiful “Runaway” highlights the precision with which the band controls pacing and atmospherics to craft mood and feeling.  You can almost feel the tension of Berninger holding himself back as he asks “what makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood?”  It’s an exquisitely sad song, detailing a relationship that is doomed to fail but from which Berninger can’t bring himself to extricate himself.  Such conflicted feelings about love are meat and potatoes for Berninger, whose voice conveys emotion more passionately and intimately than anyone in indie rock.

On “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the most easily accessible highlight on the album, Berninger addresses his own personal identity.  Having left Cincinnati, Ohio, to focus on music, Berninger finds himself estranged from his home.  Having never fully settled in New York, Berninger finds it startling to find that “Ohio don’t remember me.”  The result is listlessness as Berninger navigates the relationships that he’s left behind and attempts to reach back into the past to find a feeling of belonging.

With such heavy lyrics and dripping melancholy, it would be easy to cast The National as a group of mopey guys who can’t find happiness.  But to see the band on stage and hear them speak in interviews, it’s clear that the band is having a great time, and is simply balanced enough to remain in touch with previous moroseness.  Guitarist Aaron Dessner described “Sorrow” as “a sad song, but it is also a kind of weird celebration of feeling sorrow…  some people like that feeling and they don’t want to get rid of it.”  In a way, The National have created an ode to past sorrows on High Violet, chronicling all the challenges and difficult moments on their path to critical acclaim and widespread appeal.

In listening to High Violet, one also gains a sincere appreciation for the level of craftsmenship put on record.  Arrangements include tasteful accents from strings and a horn section, and are layered in epically atmospheric ways.  The backing of “England”, for example is exquisitely gorgeous, swelling to grandiose levels before Berninger finally snaps, screaming “try to be nice cuz we’re desperate to entertain.”  This is a band that’s been on the verge of mainstream breakthrough for years – comparisons to the mass appeal of Coldplay abounded after the release of Alligator and Boxer, but this is the first that The National tipped their hand that they aspire to that acceptance, but only on their own terms.

The entire second half of the record is fantastic – the stretch from the oddly endearing “Lemonworld”, a track that nearly missed the album entirely, through “Runaway” and the hauntingly beautiful “Conversation 16″, and to the slow-burning ambience of “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is an engrossing listen.  This is an album that only gets stronger and more meaningful with every listen.

The National – “Runaway”

The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

The National – “Conversation 16”

For other entries in the top 50 albums of 2010, click here:  50-26 | 25-16 | 15-6

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Responses

  1. […] in Music | Tags: 2010, Albums « Top 50 Albums of 2010: 25-16 Top 50 Albums of 2010: 5-1 » LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. […] Top 50 Albums of 2010: 5-1 « The New Millennial […]

  3. Good top 5 — although I think Kanye should’ve been way higher and maybe drop LCD down a few. But overall — great list and thank you for giving me great music this week at work

  4. Music has a mystic manner of being able to take you instantly back to a specific place and time in your past
    I will definitely vote them, for one reason…. THEY’RE AWESOME


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