10 Best Films of 2010

December 27, 2010

 

The Town Poster

10)  The Town

“Inception” was good, but I think the best action sequence edits this year in the vein of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” were found in Ben Affleck’s superb directorial work, “The Town.” Affleck’s performance is suitable–you rarely step back and think, “I’m watching Ben Affleck rob banks,” so you can envision him as the character he is supposed to be. The story is great and crime-noir gritty, with just enough depth to make this feel like a semi-“serious” film.  Audiences have been exposed to these Boston area crime noirs before in recent years, often starring folks like Affleck, but this one is creative for focusing on a particular neighborhood which, at least in the movie, is the ground zero of bank robbers, hoods who train and live to rob banks for a career. “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm is the obligatory FBI agent stock-chracter here, but he works just fine. The love story is a good plot supplement, and the protagonist’s journey to get out of the role etched out for him from birth is captivating throughout; the unhinged performance of Jeremy Renner after his breakout Oscar winning role in “Hurt Locker” was arguably the best in the movie, but as mentioned above, those marvelous action sequences that kept audiences on the edge of their seats was what cemented this one on the list–smartest action pic of the year.

Robin Hood Poster

9) Robin Hood

Aparrently the bulk of the critical world hated Ridley Scott’s reinterpretation of “Robin Hood.” Really, this is “Robin Hood: Year One” done with all of Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” flair. Great battles, historical hyperbole that tweaks your nerd gauge to 11, wit, charm, thrills and nice performances. Another retread of Nottingham would’ve been fine in this team’s hands, but this origin tale gives us something pleasantly new that maintains the characters and gives us backstory we never thought to wonder about as Robin Hood and his band get to know each other in the aftermath of the Crusades. King John certainly is an over-the-top villian trope, but works nonetheless. Crowe is stoic and bloody–this is no light hearted Erroyl Flynn Hood trying to earn the fair maiden’s hand. Russel Crowe and Cate Blanchett as Robin and Lady Marion were a nice adult touch–thank God this wasn’t a “Twilight” inspired casting call. Big, full scale, historical action with the mythos of Robin Hood spun in a creative new way, the most overlooked blockbuster of the year.

Hereafter Poster

8 ) Hereafter

Clint Eastwood is a consumate filmaker, he’ s yet to direct a dud. “Hereafter” isn’t as wonderful as his classics “Mystic River” or “Unforgiven,” but this is such understated spiritual beauty I can’t help but rank it with the best of the year. The opening disaster sequence is harrowing; cameras follow the Tsunami as it destroys lives and buildings in its wake and the near-death sequence of one of the central characters–Marie–is handled artfully. That’s as much action as the film provides as Eastwood uses Matt Damon as a psychic who can authentically communicate with the dead yet who sees this ability as a curse rather than a gift as the focal point for a series of stories and characters facing death through the loss of those close to them. In many scripts (hmm…”What dreams may Come”?) this could have been over the top or mushy sentimentality. Eastwood gives us genuine spirituality and a smart plausible script about what might come after this life in contrast to science and religosity. The climax sequences, wrapping up the story of the child who lost his twin brother in a heart-warming supernatural manner and the love story of Damon’s psychic and the disaster survivor turned near death experience author are phenomenal and satisfying scenes.

The Last Exorcism Poster

7) The Last Exorcism

The thing that drives this movie is the intense character portrayal of protagonist Cotton Marcus. Cotton is a charismatic preacher from the south that began in the field as a child preacher doing revival meetings and progressed to a ministry of performing exorcisms for sizable fees. Now middle-aged with children of his own, Cotton is quickly losing his faith. News reports of botched “exorcisms” that caused much more harm than good lead Cotton to film his last exorcism to expose the procedure as fradulent. Patrick Fabian delivers a terrific performance in this what appears to be his first major film role: a performance of great warmth, humor, conviction; a performance that has to traverse every imaginable emotion and Fabian does so exceedingly well. There have been a lot of these faux-documentaries with first-person horror thrills and most have been poor. This one works well for being pretty original for the most part; the horror is left ambiguous and approahces a “conclusion” that leaves the audience with a satisfying “answer” to all the horrors before twisting back with a shock horror ending that angered many but which produced some authentic jolts and wasn’t a complete detour since it tied many premonition plotlines together from earlier in the film. Topping it all off was a defiantly creepy and acrobatic performance by Ashley Bell as the demon possessed (or not?) victim.

 True Grit Poster

6) True Grit

The Coen brothers rarely dissapoint and usually deliver classics–Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, No Country For Old Men–and “True Grit” is no exception. Though not their best ever work, though some hyperbolic infatuated with the new aspect of it may say, it is certainly enjoyable with great action and a surprising (for me anyway) amount of comedy. Jeff Bridges, the Dude, is terrific as always giving a grizzled, comic performance. Hallie Steinfeld as Mattie is the real star here though as she plays the 14-year-old girl consumed with bringing her father’s killer (Josh Brolin) to justice and enrolling bounty-hunter Rooster (Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to do so. There are really great scenes in this one and the final 30 minutes are classic Coen cannon.

The Social Network Poster

5) The Social Network

What more is there to say about this movie not said by many others? I’ve yet to read a negative review, it’s pretty much universally praised. While in the theater to see it on a rainy Saturday afternoon on opening weekend, I noticed all the single people strewn across the theater. I was alone as well, having the day to myself and I noticed I was the only loner to not be playing with a smartphone. The guy in front of me was perusing his Facebook page, which was a bit surreal since it was that added layer of subtext to this whole film taking place in the audience–he continued to do that throughout the movie.
The folks at Paste magazine had an interesting article the weekend before this opened that stated this movie had a low “excitement” ranking pre-release, with most who saw early previews for it not overly jazzed to see it; then it opened to universal acclaim, holding a 100 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes from all the compiled ‘net rankings. And everyone loved it. Paste’s later review mentioned that “The Social Network” was much more of a true successor to “Wall Street” than it’s own sequel which opened the same month. Folks have been comparing this to “Citizen Kane!” Structurally it is that in many ways–the flawed protagonist who seems consumed with proving himself to the world but never seems to be happy or really close to anyone at all, but let’s give this one a few years before artistically we make such comparisons. Everyone does put in a good performance and scenes like the one where Napster founder Shawn Fanning (played by Justin Timberlake) seduces Zuckerburg and friends to his vision is one for the cannon of movie history. Reznor does a wonderful job with the score, one of the best I’ve heard since “Dark Knight” or “There Will be Blood.” David Fincher has been one of my favorite directors for years with such classics as “Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” and “Seven,” and he is top-notch on the camera here–cutting and pacing scenes in action-like frenzies then slowing things down to showcase screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s trademark snappy dialogue, creating high-tension drama from scenes about out of court depositions and dorm room backdealing, even out of computer programming marathons! Zuckerburg has done his best to laugh off the movie as pure fiction, noting that the details like the clothing his character wears are spot-on but the big things–like the protagonists dire quest for female attraction and social approval—are pure fabrication, missing out on the real life details (such as the fact that he in real life has been dating and now lives with a long-time girlfriend omitted from the film). I wouldn’t hold this up to the truth microscope–this is purely window dressing with factual hints to paint a portrait of an entire generation and culture now “wired in.”

Winter's Bone Poster

4) Winter’s Bone

This one could have been called “True Grit” if that title wasn’t taken! Louisville,Ky newcomer Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the absolute finest performances of the year as Ree, a teenage girl fighting to take care of her entire family in the Ozark mountains, a setting which is as icy and dark as the film’s title. She crosses the mountains in search of her bail-jumping absentee father who has placed the home housing her, her mother, and younger siblings up for bail and now they are in danger of being homeless. Standing in her way are crazed meth dealers and users, armed criminals, police officers, and the harsh environment; extended family prove untrustworthy and through the violence and struggle, Ree never gives up yet never obtains real hope either. A stark movie about survival, one of the best crime pics in ages, a script that does its own thing and zones in with a literate attention to detail, setting and dialogue.

Black Swan Poster

3) Black Swan

Black Swan is undeniably a horror film; with its critical pre-release buzz that was a bit surprising, but there’s no getting around the fact and that is a good surprise especially in light of what kind of horror film this–this is claustrophobic, harrowing psychological horror like Roman Polanski and the like were making in the late ’60s…this is truly frightening, unsettling, artistic, and intelligent horror: art-house horror. Natalie Portman gives a terrific performance; she’s a wonderful actress and was far overdue for another great role and “Black Swan” delivers that spot for her and she gives herself over to it moving from fragile to ferocious to sexual. The camera hones in so tight that the tension surrounds the audience with sonic intensity to bring each moment home. Mila Kunis also delivers a great performance, given this chance to display more range than any previous role has given her. The director (Darren Aronofsky) is new to me but I plan to follow his work from here on out because he gives us this non-redundant but pleasantly reminiscent of “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Suspiria” equivalent horror film. This film does a great job of setting the pace of things by breaking things up with a good amount of comic relief, another nice surprise for a so strongly artistic piece. With the attention to character and craft–this is afterall about a woman who works for a ballet company in preparation for the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake”– the script masterfully weaves the themes of that ballet with the themes of the characters, giving us the drive, ambition, care,  strength and work of  Portman’s “Nina” and her ballet trade.  

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Poster

 

2) Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Scott Pilgrim is certainly a film not intended for everyone–it makes no attempt to be middle of the road or explain its every reference and instead launches fully into its own world complete with its own language and vocabulary, texture and environment. Second only to “The Dark Knight” as a comic adaptation, it gives the essence of its characters and landscape to the mainstream without needless concession. It’s a beauty of a film, graphically it is light years ahead of anything else in the multiplex this year–if you’re not hip to the story and can’t follow its hip and frantic pace, just sit back and enjoy the jaw-dropping visuals (and to be honest, it’s not too complicated for the uninitiated–sure it’s a mashup of indie rock, comic books, video games, anime and internet, but this isn’t a convoluted or head scratching narrative). The jokes are funny, the action sequences are exciting, the performances are superb–Michael Cera as an action hero? Only in “Scott Pilgrim” and seeing him embody the character it seems no one else could have done it this well. This was a creative, entertaining, original and start-to-finish fun movie.

The American Poster

1) The American

“The American” is a remarkable picture that American studios rarely produce–its pacing is not geared towards being of the “crowd-pleaser” status; if you have a short attention span, you’re likely to lose focus and not enjoy this film, which is a shame. Because this one’s all about atmosphere, mood, subtlety and things just underneath the surface. The previews made this one look as if it would be an action movie, but they should have marketed it as a noir piece instead. This one gives you the details and lets the big story come secondarily. Granted, the “big story” is not overly complex, but that’s not the point of this movie. George Clooney plays Jack (the man without a given last name) wonderfully; Clooney has gotten very good at depicting these characters who can express a lot of emotion with minimal words and at creating relatable protagonists who are much more than a little morally suspect. The supporting cast is spot on also. This film is shot incredibly beautifully; it’s not just something pretty to look at though, as many critical of it seemed to think. Certainly the scenery is gorgeous and there are art-shots galore; watching the protagonist’s car wind around European side streets and countryside might make the impatient wonder what happened to the plot, but it is always part of a very delicate pacing act. It’s emotionally deeper than just a “pretty“ picture. Through the conversations Jack has with the priest and through the interactions he makes along the way of his tragically fated mission, it’s more a story about living in hell and searching for salvation only to lose the one shot you have at that. The action sequences are appropriate when they do show up, and the movie provides the audience great suspense in delaying that action. The violence is so subtle that when it occurs it shocks and hits like life. This is the type of movie you’d expect from a Japanese studio, not an American one, and it’s likely to be over-looked come awards season as being the masterpiece that it truly is even with the star power behind it.  As I mentioned, it truly is a noir picture posing as an art-house film–it presents a deeply flawed character that you know is on a trajectory toward imminent collapse that is introduced to us in a heinous manner yet becomes someone we root for and support even though we as an audience know it’s hopeless. Clooney was terrific in “Michael Clayton,” and changes the business suit for assassin gloves to give an equally riveting performance here–as enjoyable as he finishes, cleans, and builds a weapon for sale as he is when doubling back to take down his would be killer.

Honorable mentions: The Fighter delivered a familiar underdog-style script that was enjoyable and greatly enhanced by top notch performances by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale that turned this into a film about the strain and loyalty of family; Tron delivered some of the years best visuals of the year; The Kids Are Alright was a very solid and engaging family drama;  Get Him to the Greek was the best rock-comedy since “This is Spinal Tap” and let Jonah Hill play a straight-forward role for once ; Kick Ass and Red were fun comic adaptations ;  127 Hours was carried by a primarily solo full force performance by James Franco; Inception gave us some stop-gap thrills until the 3rd Dark Knight ;  Toy Story 3 packed more emotional punch than it had any right to and looked beautiful while doing so. I have yet to see either The King’s Speech or I Love You, Phillip Morris so they are exempt from this ranking.

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Ricky Gervais, funnyman from the British “The Office,” delivered a holiday letter as an op-ed piece as to why he is an atheist: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/12/19/a-holiday-message-from-ricky-gervais-why-im-an-atheist/

The superficiiality of the debate is what is most annoying. I often enjoy the work of Ricky Gervais, but reading his admittedly honest and thoughtful holiday letter expressing why he does not believe in God, I was struck  the same way I Am When I debate any vehement atheist on any forum or simply peruse their rationales…he even invoked their evangelistic slogans proving they can be fundamentalists too: “christians have just rejected one more God than me,” etc.  Apparently the burden of proof is on believers, Gervais insists. So it is up to us to prove the scientific rationale for the existence of the ground of all being. For after all, that’s where I and many see God. The dictionary definition Gervais posts in his essay is one easily doubtable and debatable and it shows another facet of this problem and its dumbed-down superficiality. The terms in popular use and especially in atheist critiques do not reflect theological development. The general public can not debate spiritual matters because most do not truly understand their own religious tradition. The “new atheist” side, to which Gervais aligns his arguments with, insist on the unbiased, noble, straightforward embrace of truth and nonpartiality supposedly found in science; that science does not affirm God thus God is not real. The problem, as world religion scholar Huston Smith proves in his work “Why Religion Matters,” is that Science is not always so definite and unbiased; that Science is great, and Smith as opposed to his opponents from science who enter religion to write and debate against it, actually reads plenty of weighty science to hone his opinion and argument. Smith shows that much science takes propostions for granted–things that have not and can not be “proven” are defended up and above other hypothesis as the science field, like all others, becomes political. That much science in the past 30 years as played out has been hypothetical  and uncertain. Most of all, that the west has given a blank check to science to provide all answers even though much of what we need to know to live and flourish lies outside of the realm of what science can possibly address.

I’m not so naive as to find agnosticism or atheism as ridiculous mindsets to hold. Doubt is palatable and tragedy in the world, amongst many other things, can certainly point to a reason to doubt spirituality or God. Yet the conversation as it is now is of the basest denominator–not in a vulgar manner, but in a superficial one. Does Gervais read and wrestle with science and theology texts or just assume science has the answer without dipping his toes in what science even posits these days? The deity that most nu-atheists reject is one most theologians of the modern age reject; do those who reject a singular, anthropomorhic figure who controls, intervenes and judges humankind (and is usually a “He”) even ponder what a single, underlying, within and without, creator, sustainer, redeemer force, power and reality is and says about life and its purpose?

A process theology text I really enjoyed recently stated: “is Process Theology true? I don’t know, but it might be” and the moral and life structuring system it creates to believe in is powerful and positive. Gervais might find life worth living for with pizza and beer, both good things, but I think belief in  a reality and grounded in a being of love that insists we be open and receptive to it to feel its peace and to be put to work as its hands and feet to bring gabout justice and mercy in this broken world is a much better and more vital reason for living.  

I respect the answer of dissent; I see the appeal in believing science and human reason can measure, rationalize and answer all things and leave us with an ordered and reasonable world–this is however a rather recent development in terms of human history and the fallout from our high estimation of such reason and order is ever apparent. I have doubt yet find it essential to faith; I respect faith that takes on vastly different langauges, concepts, and structures than my own–but I deny Scientism as a worthwhile belief because the world it leaves us with is cold-devoid of magic, mercy, and grace; devoid of deep purpose and redemptive quality; devoid of art and music and random acts of kindness. I do not hold science and faith in opposition though; God is both love and truth for me so whatever is true is of God. I simply deny science a blank check for providing my life with order and meaning when the deeper truths that make life what it is will forever  be out of the realm of science and its ability of discernment.

20 Best Songs of 2010

December 13, 2010

A reminder like I post each year I do this that I pick the 20 songs without counting any from albums that make my “top 10 albums of the year” list. This allows me to feature more music than I’d otherwise be able to on such limited lists, and most often if an album makes the cut there are many songs of note present on it. Also, some of these are singles, some are album cuts that I found to be album highlights. Enjoy (I hope).

 

20) Write About Love – Belle & Sebastian featuring Carey Mulligan

This song may be entirely too cute or pretentious for many listeners but I found everything about it amusing, and though nerdy, charmingly so. Belle and Sebastian quite often make soft-spoken depressing songs, but here we have an upbeat pop tune with actress Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) trading harmonies and verses with them about a young woman who hates her job and spends her lunch breaks on the rooftop of her office writing romance pieces (songs, poems, screenplays?) including descriptions of her dream guy (“he’s intellectual and he’s hot, but he understands”). This song bounces around and sounds like it came from an an indie band that was transported back to 1960s era London. It’s pop, mod, hippy, glam, folky, dancey, charming.


19) Drink the Kool-Aid – Ice Cube

I didn’t know Cube had such a good hardcore record in him anymore. Much of “I Am the West” is solid, even though he admits he’s “doing this for my kids” (“It is What it Is”), this one’s likely the highlight–the best west-coast gangsta rap in years, better than much of it was in its limelight. “Step up to the alter” and Cube’ll make you “drink the &*&^ kool aid.”



18) Tennessee Me – The Secret Sisters

The Secret Sisters debuted with a soft album that covered classic country, folk, and Sinatra in a fresh yet classical-traditional manner (I’m catching onto a theme here–a lot of great indie work this year stretched back to older periods of influence). Interspersed on their wonderful self-titled debut were original numbers of their own, including this beauty which sounds like it came from the golden age of country radio; the girls do dual-harmony and understated rhythms that are terrific. If you’re on the fence about their album, it was produced by T Bone Burnett and got the early support and help of Jack White of the White Stripes; both of these factors should clue you into whether its your sort of thing or not. Though very throwback style, it was likely my favorite country album of the year not counting Justin Townes Earle’s “Harlem River Blues.”


17) The Promise – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Springsteen is an artist that stockpiles material that most others would throw on the record; in the course of making each album, he and the band will often cut dozens of songs and cull the tracks down to make sure that the final album is lyrically and musically cohesive to present the mood and theme he means to do with that particular album. This gave his fans a wonderful 4 disc box-set about 15 years ago, and this year to celebrate the remastered release of 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of T0wn,” he released some excellent concerts, a documentary, the rough-penned lyrics of that record, and two-discs of the material trimmed from the original record. Bruce has had many creative highpoints in his career, but it’s hard to deny that the back to back “Born to Run” and “Darkness” records and the live shows to support each of those albums was the highest of all such points, so a deeper dig into this most fertile of creative periods is excellent. There were several great rock songs on these “Lost Sessions,” but the best is this one, the never before released original studio version of “The Promise.” We got to hear a Bruce and piano version of it on “Tracks,” and it popped up here and there live, but the original studio withe the full E Street Band version is the definitive one and it sounds absolutely terrific despite being a song that is really sad as all get out.

16) No Love – Eminem featuring Lil Wayne

There’s no substance here as far as worthwhile message or moral; there’s just a moderate Weezy verse that mainly works to set up the mood and allow Eminem to show off as the best rhymer in hip hop; Em’ gives us a run of bars that twist and turn and rhyme more syllables in a shorter amount of time than seems possible, he “ignites the stage” and hits the parking lot leaving the crowd roaring. Additional props for taking such a cheeseball nineties dance track and flipping it into a killer beat…

15) Power – Kanye West

When absorbed into “Power” the first time, I was temporarily convinced it was the greatest hip hop song of all time. Kanye has that ability, to overpower you with such intensity and sonic polish to make you think nothing has ever sounded better; though logically you know this is not the case, he can bypass rationality in a listener’s brain to tap directly into sensory and emotional zones…heck, all good pop music aims at doing that. “Power” is over-the-top and better than most hip hop songs this year.


14) How I Got Over – The Roots

I wrote about how the album from which this title track is pulled from came very close to making my top ten album list this year but that it ultimately didn’t. If every song had been as perfect as this one, it certainly would have. A great rap song with a vibrant live studio band backing it (The Roots are phenomenal on the mic and with every instrument they play) giving lyrics that contrast much off-the-cuff rap that tells you not to care about anything–“that type of thinking can’t get you nowhere, someone has to care,” the roots insist.


13) The Show Goes On – Lupe Fiasco

Still no “Lasers” as the year closes out…but word is we finally get it in early spring next year. “I’m Beamin” teased the album early this year, and “The Show Goes On” closes the year out, one of Lupe’s poppiest and best singles yet. The melody is not unlike some of 2Pac’s celebratory work from certain points in his career, but the lyrics are all Lupe; supporting the kids in the ghettos of Detroit, California, Gaza Strip, Haiti and around the world, freshly declaring that he “hopes your son don’t have a gun and never be a d-boy.”

12) Rill Rill – Sleigh Bells

M.I.A. signed this cheerleader noise-pop punk rock mash-up of a band to her own record label and the distortion pushing loudness is likely a factor of their work that appealed to her. There are a lot of uber-catchy hard pop songs on “Treats,” but “Rill Rill” is the standout for me in that the noise is tuned down just enough to let the melodies and vocals really stick this one in your memory and put it on repeat. I’ve read that the lead singer and songwriter taught middle school before joining this group and that these “have a heart,” “what does your boyfriend think about your braces,” etc. lyrics were drawn from her empathy with her students; some have used that to explain that “sixteen, six-six-six and I know the part,” line–it’s not a Slayer invocation (well, unless of the old-school Buffy variety) but a “high school is hell at puberty” motif. Anyway, a song I’ve probably played more than most any other this year, oddly enough.

11) I Should Have Known It – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I love Tom Petty and was thrilled to get a 3 disc live anthology that thoroughly rocks last year. That made me all the more excited for “Mojo,” the new Heartbreakers record that came out this year, especially from the prerelease hype which promised to give guitarist Mike Campbell free reign to step out from behind his understated glory and really tear into some blues drenched rockers. Ultimately, “Mojo” wasn’t my favorite album. “I Should Have Known It,” the first single from it, is amazing however. Campbell’s great catchy riff is what grabs on, but Petty’s vocals are also great here…and of course the rest of the band is in excellent form.

10) Window Seat – Erykah Badu

Badu is eccentric, to say the least. The video for this song landed her in court for public nudity–it showcased her walking down the street in Dallas where JFK was shot completely naked, mock-shot in the head at the end of it as the word “groupthink” bleeds out of her. No permit was used to approve that filming, so a few hundred dollars extra went into that video I suppose. The song is simple enough and seems unrelated to the video concept. It’s just a smooth r&B track about wishing for a safe flight with a window seat–of course “she needs your attention,” so maybe that’s the tie in because the video certainly got her that! Badu is so immensly talented that she need not resort to anything that seeks attention superficially, though I respect her artistic integrity enough to assume her reasons for treating this song as she did made perfect sense to her at least. Anyway, enjoy the song for what it is which is great.

photo by Pieter M Van from indierockcafe.com

9) Next Girl – The Black Keys

The Black Keys are super talented, and though their albums never contain much in the way of filler, I always end up honing in on a few particular singles of theirs to listen to over and over and never really get to appreciate the rest of the album. “Your Touch” was certainly like that, being a blues-based rock song better than almost anything on the radio last decade and “Next Girl” is the best Keys single since that one. Very enjoyable.

8 ) Wide Eyes – Local Natives

I really love this song. The drumbeat opening, the chord cycling back and forth to build up to nice vocal section and chorus backed by those nice backing chants and refrains. “Oh, to see it with my own eyes.” The middle percussion break and jam session before a perfect last verse just stays with you, those drums really drive this song. “Could it ever be on earth as it is in heaven?” We’re not given an answer or any inclination that they have an opinion, they just leave us with one last frenetic band jam.

7) Free Energy – Free Energy

Free Energy are a fun group. Like Weezer if Weezer was more influenced by the ’70s; actually, FE is more like Thin Lizzy. This is old-school guitar rock, complete with cow-bell, car rides, “Dazed and Confused” evoking weekend nights, pleasantly losing control in the night. One of the best rock songs I heard all year without question. Make it right now, while every “thought is electric.”

6) Fifty Ways to Bleed Your Customer – B Dolan

B Dolan drops the tightest, most jaw-dropping verses I’ve heard in almost any rap song in history. There’s not a wasted word here, everything is so incredibly spot-on and hinged on each other line, a scathing indictment of hyper-capitalism and lost values of modern American culture couched as a “how to” on bleeding your customer to make as much money as possible, i.e. “feed ’em all they meds til they forget what the drugs cost,” “treat the side affects and supply the next disorder, poison the well and bottle the water, if all else fails you start a war up.” Don’t forget the tummy tucks and plus-sized caskets, privatize by the pen or the sword and if the “kids got a problem tell ’em throw up a peace sign,” just make sure the public “works til they can’t breathe, dream or think” and you can bounce to the islands with your money even if you are “bloody,” heck the chorus is a mock celebration of that and the ending verses trace this mentality back for decades and as ignorantly embraced by some in hip hop itself. A fast, furious, perfect rap song.

5) F*** You! – Cee Lo

Only in 2010 could a song with such a blatantly profane song title and chorus actually be an upbeat soul jam with the best pop structure of practically anything else on the radio this year, catchy enough to get  soccer moms singing along with it. Cee Lo has been a hidden genius talent for 10 or fifteen years–his excellent genre encompassing solo albums, his rap career with Goodie Mob and the Dungeon Family, and then finally mainstream and indie attention with Gnarls Barkley. Now he’s got another solo record that settled straight into soul seductive jams that’s really good–but the highlight is this Al Green/Marvin Gaye throwback about being dumped by your girl because she wanted a man with more  money.

4) I Was a Teenage Anarchist – Against Me!

Against Me! release their best song in years criticizing much of the movement that they started in–a punk song rejecting the culture of punk, how punk is that? It’s an adult look back at the “politics of true conveniance,” about having read all the right books and thinking you were in the enlightened and open movement that would make true “revolution” only to have the “sights set” on you, in a scene gone to rigid and realizing the “revolution was a lie.” Rather than being bitter about it all though, it’s a romantic nostalgia about remembering “when you were young and wanted to set the world on fire.” Great chords, passionate vocals, catchy as hell, an excellent song.

3) Candy – Magic Kids

This is bubblegum pop, certainly. Not of the Justin Bieber or old Nsync variety, more like Cheap Trick, the Beach Boys, or some late 60s or 70s post hippie pretty teen rock. It’s just so catchy and subtly smart; very lighthearted and not for everyone I suppose–that girl popping out the accent of “no candy’s sweeter than my baby” in response to the same statement by the lead singer might be sweet as a cavity to some listeners.  But the lush beat, violin framing, background harmonies, and sheer silly romance of the whole thing is too much for me to pass up.

2) You and I Know – Ra Ra Riot

Ra Ra Riot fuses Afro-pop, bookish lyrics, and indie rock in a way not that dissimilar of Vampire Weekend. Weekend and Riot both released solid records this year that were really fun to listen to– I ultimately enjoy “The Orchard” a bit better than “Contra,” but the standout track from it for me was undoubtedly “You and I Know,” a song that lead vocalist Wesley Miles steps down from to let Alexandra Lawn, the cello player, take a lead vocal turn. What results is a gorgeous, encompassing song similar to the best Mazzy Star moments from the early nineties (in fact, “Fade Into You” played back to back with this song might be just too much to take in terms of pop music beauty).

1) Something Better – Lyrics Born featuring Francis and the Lights

This song was my introduction to Lyrics Born; if you read my “Best Albums of 2010” article you know I really dug the debut album from Francis and the Lights. Lyrics Born gave this song away for free around the web to promote his “As U Were” album a few months before it was released. I played this song repeatedly and got LB’s record on release day. It’s a very fun, good record, but this song is still the highlight for me. This was my favorite song of 2010. Lyrics Born lays out 3 verses of excellence–great rhymes, great voice, and fantastic lyrics; hopeful, joyful lyrics about God’s inclusive love for all and against any political or religious voices that might say otherwise, about pulling yourself up and living life as it is meant to be; lyrics that are what need to be heard in many corners of the radio but that aren’t preachy and that don’t keep the song from being incredibly fun and full of funk. Francis croons an irresistible chorus that is just icing on the cake of the best hip hop single of 2010.

Honorable Mentions: Committed – Jenny and Johnny; Enjoy the Silence (cover)- Nada Surf; Hard Times – John Legend featuring the Roots; Unforgettable – Drake featuring Young Jeezy;Run Back to Your Side – Eric Clapton; If It Wasn’t for Bad- Elton John and Leon Russell

10 Best Albums of 2010

December 9, 2010

10.  Talib Kweli and DJ HiTek:Reflection Eternal – Revolutions Per Minute

I mentioned in my hip hop in 2010 article that only one hip hop album made the cut for my top ten albums of 2010, despite some strong competition and a plethora of great singles–this is the album that ultimately proved the best for me, despite The Roots and Kanye being close on its heels. Kweli is easily one of the best lyricists in hip hop now and ever; that doesn’t mean he’s always on and always captivating, but when he has the right production and the lyrics don’t crowd out the melody, he can craft songs that rank with the best in Hip Hop’s canon–“Get By,” and “Hostile Gospel pt. I: Deliver Us” to name two. Kweli is best when backed by Hi-Tek, and the two got back together this year under the banner of “Reflection Eternal,”releasing this thoroughly solid record. Hi-Tek isn’t crafting club-banger beats; his beats are instead very subtle, often under-stated, but the more you hear them the more you like them; I for one could listen to his beats even without Kweli over them and still enjoy them–they’re very neo-soul meets jazz, but more importantly they lay out a wonderful world for Kweli’s smooth flow to wind through, dropping knowledge on the big issues in the world today as in “Ballad of the Black Gold,” or about the same problems that have plagued communities for too long with “Lifting Off.” The first and best single off of RPM, “Paranoid,” also features the best beat on the record, coupled with a guest verse from Bun B (better than anything from his solo record this year), and a timely couple of verses about the recession. Some tracks are here just to show off Kweli’s rhyming dexterity-“City Playgrounds”–or his self-proclaimed romantic skills-“Long Hot Summer.” What sounds like just a fun summer jam, “Got Work,” is really a criticism of fame–granted not a completely novel topic but treated interestingly enough here. “Midnight Hour” and “Get Loose” (which features the hipster band that rappers seem to love more than anyone else for whatever reason, Chester French) are just one-off fun tracks with no stab at a deeper substance. Bilal lends his great croon to the hook on “Ends,” the last track before the outro rap. “Revolutions Per Minute” isn’t a grand new statement or a game-changer. It’s just a very solid record with some great rhyming, some worthwhile content, and excellent beats that never gets boring during its hour long play.

9. MIA – Maya

MIA became a critical darling for making eccentric, global noise-pop + hip hop + dance music (!). Then with this third record, she got critical backlash from many of those early supporters for doing it again. I’m not sure why (of course, some critics praised “MAYA” as much or more than they did her last two records, so not everyone jumped on the hater bandwagon).  I loved singles from those last records and it’s hard to deny that “Paper Planes” or even “Bamboo Banga” can be topped, but this album is the one that sealed my love for her work. Perhaps those critical of this expected a big step forward or a change of pace; from the digital burka cover to the violent statement making short film for “Born Free,” to her appearances in every indie, hipster and even mainstream magazine, her saturation of the market when this one dropped probably created that backlash–because it became obvious that people try to make M.I.A. more or less than she really is. This music is very rough and different but alternated with pure pop and silliness; she makes political statements and controversial moves and has an interesting personal history which makes the public want to craft her into a rebel figure or an intellectual–when it turns out she’s got a lot of dance-club and art-school flourishes, that she doesn’t have the political answers to all the questions posed to her, that she’s just an artist making music from her own experience and POV–which happens to be global–some are let down. “MAYA” is anything but a letdown to me though. From the opening of “The Message” with its drill sound-effects and sheer bombast noise and beats like old school Public Enemy, to the dance floor sugar pop of “XXXO,” the refugee narrative “Lovealot,” the middle-eastern hip hop “Teqkilla,” the random synth reggae coversong “It Takes a Muscle,” the pretty hook of “Tell Me Why,” the raging slap of “Born Free,” and the meltdown cacophony of “Meds and Feds,” I find this to be her most compelling and cohesive work yet. Maybe that “big step forward” is coming, but I find nothing to complain about with this mesh of world cultures, sounds, impulses, and re-appropriations–its like Hip Hop and Dance music got exiled, educated, translated and returned.

8.  The Watson Twins – Talking To You, Talking To Me

I personally think this record may be one of the most over-looked and under-rated albums of the year. The Watston Twins (Chandra and Leigh) got quite a bit of critical attention a few years ago by backing Jenny Lewis (and getting shared title credit) on “Rabbit Fur Coat”; unfortunately, I don’t think that translated to huge acclaim or an increased following for their own work. The Twins were arguably the best thing about that raved work; I love Jenny when she hits her stride, but I think the Twins anchored her eccentricities just by singing such beautiful background melodies that kept her lyrics grounded and in the song, rather than rambling off down the road. I followed Jenny through “Acid Tongue,” and a bit of her new record with her boyfriend, “Jack and Jenny: I’m Having Fun Now,” (and some good moments in her indie Rilo Kiley band) but it’s the Watson Twins who I really came away from with a great appreciation for after loving that record. It led me to discover their “Southern Manners” EP and their “Fire Songs” full length, a wonderful acoustic Live EP (“Live at Fingertips”) and then this beauty, “Talking to You, Talking to Me.” I caught an in-store performance by them on the release date for this record (which I reviewed here) and this ones been on my turntable, in my CD player, and on my i-pod ever since. Where their earlier work was more “alt-country” or acoustic ballad heartbreak style, this one infuses the back-beat with old school soul and r&b. What’s produced is still “easy listening” but is very soulful and sultry; the studio band livens things up to lodge the melodies more firmly in the listeners brain. “Modern Man” is  a wonderful song; “Forever Me” has an unbeatable soft beauty to it; “Midnight” is just really fun and slow-dance worthy; “Devil in You” continues on that sexy path. “Give Me a Chance” and “U N Me” are just incredibly fun. The whole record holds together nicely, works good as a sing-along or as background, and it settles in like a record to keep around for life, so what more is there to ask for in good music?

7.  Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

I reviewed this record and the live set I heard Justin perform for it on its opening day here, and I still maintain that little in modern country music can compete with this in overall quality. It’s a great record; Jamey Johnson got the acclaim for making a rough and raw, “true” country record with “The Guitar Song,” this year,  and good though it was, the brevity yet straightforwardness found on “Harlem River Blues” tops that acclaimed record for me. JTE doesn’t get a lot of attention from mainstream country though; Johnson got attention simply by being there and seeming like a throwback to a “purer” time in country (though oddly, he’s more of a throwback to those who were considered “outsider” country in the ’60s and ’70s). JTE is a Nashville native, son of the alt-country trailblazer Steve Earle, and “Harlem River Blues” evokes dust-bowl depression era Americana and folk covered in country melodies, but describing modern day New York for the most part–so not the type of thing to snatch either “traditionalists” or “contemporary’s” in Country press and radio. The haunting gothic gospel of the opening track and its album closing reprisal is the highlight, and certainly JTE is reminiscent of alt-country fan-fave Ryan Adams in terms of singing style and song structure, but only like Adams in his best moments and never in a copy-cat like manner. “One More Night in Brooklyn” is irresistibly catchy, “Slippin’ and Slidin” is pure neo-country soul, “Rogers Park” is a melancholy-melody of full tonal heartbreak.  I really love this guy’s work and hope he’s pulled himself back together after his unfortunate tour-ending summer antics.

6.  Francis and the Lights – It’ll Be Better

I resisted putting this record on the list for quite awhile, because at just under 27 minutes length it seemed far too short to include on a list of the years best albums. Yet I kept listening to this one repeatedly, and all of its 8 songs are fantastic; it’s too long to be considered an EP, and though it’s short I had to concede that if that were the only reason I was excluding it I was being unfair. So in it went, and it ended up climbing to  the midpoint of the list.

I first heard of these guys in an article that mentioned the way they were releasing their debut album in some unique file format online; I bought mine from the now defunct Amie Street independent download site for under 3 dollars on its release date, which proved to be some of the best cash I spent on music all year. Francis (full name: Francis Farewell Starlight, lead vocalist) and the band produced a track on Drake’s “Thank Me Later” debut (“Karaoke”), but what they do themselves is far from hip hop. “It’ll Be Better” is an album full of throwback pop–like a cross between adult contemporary and alternative rock from the eighties, a fair amount of white-soul style singing and occasional funk riffs,as well as plenty of keyboards and synthesizers. Francis occasionally sings a bit like Peter Gabriel or Sting and as implied, none of these songs would sound out of place on an eighties radio station; but none sound like intentional nostalgia, they don’t copy older songs, they simply don’t sound redundant or out of their own era either. “For Days” has such a beautiful break-down chorus; “Knees to the Floor” is gorgeous as is “Darling, It’s Alright.” I can’t stress how perfect yet simple these songs are. The album ends with “Get in the Car,” which when the repeat listens allow you to get past that great melody and you begin to really analyze the lyrics, is actually a very creepy song. I’m not sure whether that was intentional or not, but we’re left with a song about an agent talking a young woman into his limousine so that he can make her a big star. After all, her “mother told him him to meet [her] right here,” he tells her. Hmmm…nevertheless, a gorgeous album that though I would be glad to hear more songs on, actually doesn’t seem like a cheat in terms of brevity as it wraps up. I’d rather have eight equally fantastic pop songs than a record of drastic up and downs in a debut of a new act.

5.  Lissie – Catching a Tiger

Lissie’s vocals on “Catching a Tiger” are the prettiest pipes I heard all year. Her EPs led her growing fan-base to expect a low-key yet poetic folk debut and she instead delivered a huge pop-rock record. She reincorporated some great folk songs from her last EP on this full-length debut–“Little Lovin,” and the absolutely gorgeous and haunting “Everywhere I Go”–but most of the new material is rock and pop that should have caught on in the states yet seemed to find its most receptive audience in the UK. “Record Collector” opens the album in a similar vein as Monsters of Folk began their record last year with “Dear God”–instead of cataloging global ills to God though, Lissie asks “Her to fill me up.” It’s an almost ethereal and ghostly opening that builds up to a wail of those great pipes Lissie has then the album fades into “When I’m Alone” which has such a great bassline that sets up the verse for an eschalated soulful R&B chorus, breaking back into some clipped-sung verses, some more high-notes–Lissie can really do some vocal gymanstics, she’s arguably my favorite singer in music right now. “In Sleep” keeps that same sort of pace, understated but building so the high notes have room to soar in the chorus. “Stranger” sounds like a lost Dusty Springfield song both in vocals and in instrumental arrangement, even lyrically. “Cuckoo” could have made it on mainstream country radio, it’s a bit like something by Michelle Branch’s country group “The Wreckers.” “Oh Mississippi” sounds like its being sung at a southern gospel revival meeting and that is a good thing in this context. Lissie has been working on building a live rep as well, and her live covers of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” are amazing so look for them on Youtube.


4.  Drive By Truckers – The Big To Do

I acknowledge I am a huge DBT supporter; outside of Springsteen I can think of very few artists as consistent, authentic, honest, compelling, brave, and capable of blending intelligence with straightforward musical power. “The Big To Do” lacks that classic quality that “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” had. This record is more immediate, more “rock and roll.” The lyrics are still great–you still feel like you are reading the best southern noir possible when you hear them. Cooley, Hood, and Tucker take the lead again and each brings their own unique perspective to the duality and contradictions of the south. This ones a quick accessible record that I latched onto quicker than I did “Brighter Than,” but it didn’t evolve to that permanent spot for me the way that record did. That’s okay, it’s still a great record and it earned its spot here at 4; and a new record is coming from them in February next year despite the fact that they’ve toured nonstop and were the focus of a documentary film opening up to rave reviews on the independent circuit.

I’m usually partial to Patterson Hood’s songs but Mike Cooley arguably has the best song on this record with “Birthday Boy” which focuses on a female prostitute in the south; you wouldn’t think a southern boy like Cooley could capture a female perspective anywhere near authentically but he really works it here and makes it a sad yet oddly triumphant song. “After The Scene Dies” is a close contender for album highlight with its unhinged guitar riffs and lyrics about staying true to the sound long after the club shuts down and the bandmates take normal jobs for the insurance.  Shonna Tucker takes the lead on two country numbers (the upbeat bounce of “It’s gonna be I told you so” and the heartbreak of “You Got Another,” her best vocal performance yet). Patterson’s “Flying Wallendas” which he usually performed live with a top hat, is a sad almost grimy southern noir tale based on fact, its lyrics make you wonder why he hasn’t written a southern Kerouac-style novel yet. If “BTCD” was the start of the soundtrack to the recession in 2008, “Working This Job” (as its titled in polite circles) is the sound of slowly trying to climb out of that recession. All in all, a great record to add to the bands consistent catalog.

3.  The National –  High Violet

The National are a strange mix of quiet that rocks, albeit in an understated manner. The lyrics, when comprehensible (because sometimes I’m not sure what Matt Beringer is singing about with such apocalyptic imagery) are literate but not to smart for their own good. “Boxer” was a masterpiece and it sent me back into their catalogue to investigate their earlier work, which I liked but didn’t love in the same way as “Boxer”…this one, I love in the same way, though not to quite the extent of that seminal work. “High Violet”  came out earlier in the year, but the National aren’t the type of band you can really appreciate in the summer, so this one went back into my file until fall came again and then I really grew to love this. “Lemon World” and “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” are the centerpiece that you learn to love first, but the more you listen to this one in context the more the buildup and cool-down from those two stunners becomes just as enjoyable with time and the beauty of this album ends up being in continuity. “Anyone’s Ghost” sounds like the waning months of fall as winter sets in in a sadly beautiful way. Lyrically and vocally, the National are reminiscant of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake, gothic city poets of that nature, but the really tight, bass heavy backing that the band provides keeps this from being a dark side of “new Dylan” work; the band rocks just enough to keep the songs going in the right direction. Then there are those little chamber-pop flourishes, like the strings accenting that “Anyone’s Ghost” track I mentioned, or the static beat of “Little Faith” that disturbs you enough to make you mentally embrace that melancholy melody that suddenly stops it as Berringer details “setting a fire just to see what it cures” as he’s “stuck in New York with the rain coming down.” Of course, I’m not sure what battle these nuns versus priests are playing as he leaves the “red southern soil for the coast” but it sounds ominous.

2.  Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

Gaslight Anthem continue to be my favorite young rock band. They really can’t make a bad rock song; they have melody on top of melody, heart on sleeve that teeters on cheese in the best possible way but never tips over–Brian Fallon gives every line a throaty honesty even when its a film noir or beat generation style allusion, a Springsteen nod, or a scrappy neo-punk amalgamation. The drums power through a backbeat that forces you to tap your foot or dance in some way if your a rock and roll fan of any kind. Gaslight kill in concert and deliver tight, near-perfect records and this one is no exception. Title track opener has become my favorite song of theirs with the exception of “The ’59 Sound.” “Bring it On” is great as he begs for the burdens of a potential or past lover; he does his best to approximate Sam-Cooke infused rock appropriated Soul in “The Diamond Church Street.” The “Queen of Lower Chelsea” and “Orphans” rock, “Boxer” is an insanely catchy single that should have earned them a top ten hit if radio hadn’t lost its soul. “Old Haunts” is Fallon and the boys at their most bitter (which still sounds upbeat and romantic non surprisingly). They end on the lowest-key and most depressing (at least sonically sounding) song they’ve thus had–“We Did it When We Were Young.” Take this record along with the 7 ” single they released for November’s Record Store Day (which gave us a great new song “She Loves You,” and a cover of the Rolling Stone’s “Tumbling Dice”) and you have Gaslight’s best year so far…and I feel a number one spot coming for them soon, as I said last time. I’m just partial to album-albums I suppose, so read number 1 here.

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

I’ve always enjoyed Arcade Fire and though I recognize the excellence of many of their earlier songs, their albums as a particular whole have never grabbed me in the way that this one has. I heard the A/B single of “The Suburbs” and “Month of May,” both of which hit me in two very different ways and made me rush to grab the entire album. Those songs are almost polar opposites on first listen–the fuzzy, post-post-punk ( ? ) and seemingly hopeful summer rock of “May” contrasted with the bleak fall setting-in melancholy of “The Suburbs,” a song crying out for “a daughter while I’m still young” that segues the narrarators ending youth into adulthood. That song encapsulates the whole core of the record, its images and chords set the pace for a very happy yet scared, uncertain yet hopeful, nostalgic yet bitter balancing act of looking back on youth and growing up. “We’re still screaming,” Butler sings plaintively.

“The Suburbs” is AF’s stab at album rock in a way that earlier works were not; this seeks to settle in like the best of those ’70s records that contained songs which, though enjoyable seperately, work best together as they each hinge on and develop each other, yet without being a self-conscious “rock opera” or “concept album.” This is a pretty bold move in the age of i-pods and downloads but it pays off, right down to the limited edition versions of the CD packaged in different colors and the double-gateway vinyl LP–grab this one for your turntable, its worth it.

The thing that sold me after a few spins most of all is the background chords–“Ready to Start” bounces on the surface but has that almost Smiths-like melody accenting the background, a thing that occurs throughout the album. Win Butler’s vocals won’t suit everyone but he sounds great for these songs–frail when he needs to be, optimistic when he has to be. The hand-clap like drums of “Modern Man” and “City with No Children in It” keep this from becoming an apocalyptic mourning rally. After all, this record keeps coming back to a theme of  “suburban war”–lyrically and musically, “The Suburbs” is about the anxiety of searching for a home in the world; it’s for twentysomethings who are driving out of town “with the sound of the engine failing”; of young adults who are childless and scared of taking that step in an age of war, hysteria, crashed markets, and lost value; of knowing the place you grew up is no longer home but realizing you don’t know where home is now either. It’s about thinking you “weren’t like them” only to realize you have your “doubts about it” now. Regine Chassagne takes vocals on portions of many of the tracks and leads the excellent ’80s pop alluding “Sprawl II” which evokes the best of Kate Bush moments. Every song on “The Suburbs” is fantastic though it takes some longer to fully sink in than others; there are more subdued qualities to much of this record than there were to the bombast and noise of their last two but that should be expected for a record about reevaluating dreams when many of them have died.

It sounds depressing but it’s not; it’s pleasantly nostalgic and wistful without being nihilistic about the brokenness of the present world. It praises the “wasted hours” spent with a loved one and despite the sadness the narrator has on looking back at youth in light of dreams that didn’t come true, it’s life-affirming in the joy that is hidden in most of these moments then and now. At the end, its unclear whether this is an indictment on the “sprawl”  and “wasteland” of suburbia or a grudging letter of thanksgiving for being able to grow up in its relative safety.

Those are my picks; I’ll have my “20 songs of 2010” article ready soon and it will allow me to focus on some excellent music–good singles, great songs from good albums that didn’t quite make the album cut, etc. The other 2010 articles–movies, comics, etc–will be up by January.

One last thing; as a friend of this guy I can’t be completely objective, but I want to recommend another great hip hop record, this one was self produced and released earlier this year; if you think “Christian” and “hip hop” are two things that can’t go together musically, you’re right some of the time but certainly not in this case. “Clarity” by Beau Brown is a record that proves that Muslims like Lupe Fiasco aren’t the only religiously faithful who can authentically express themselves and their faith and how it informs social commentary and a striving for justice while still making compelling and entertaining hip-hop–some Christians can do it too. You can buy “Clarity” directly from the artist here; listen to it, it’s good stuff.

Peace.

Hip Hop in 2010

December 3, 2010

So as I’ve been getting my best of 2010 lists together to post in the next few weeks, I noticed that despite some stiff competition, only one hip hop album made my cut for the top ten albums of the year although a few songs made the 20 song singles cut.

There have been some interesting things going on in hip hop this year even if a lot of those things were good rather than great. There have been enough of those good moments to warrant a somewhat more detailed look, so since I won’t be discussing many of them on the final wrap-up lists, I want to take some space here to mention them.

Recently I posted my review of arguably the most anticipated hip hop record of the year, Kanye Wests’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” You can read my evaluation of it here. I tried to highlight what was great and not-so-great about it; ultimately some of those less than great aspects keep it from making my top 10, but if I ranked a top 20 it would certainly make that cut.

The Roots are a favorite group of mine in hip hop and they released two really good records: “How I Got Over,” was another album just on the cusp of making it into my top 10. It had some great moments–“Dear God 2.0,” the title track (which makes my 20 singles list), “Walk Alone,” and “Doin’ it Again.” There aren’t any bad songs on the entire record and it was on my list for a large chunk of the year but ultimately dropped out as competition forced it just below the cut–those simply good songs filling it out keep it off my list. The Roots also backed John Legend for a solid joint effort, “Wake Up!” which covers and reinterprets a slew of classic and rare soul songs from the sixty and seventies. “Hard Times” and the title track are excellent and many of the other moments on it are really good as well.

Eminem returned sober for the first time in years with “Recovery” and with it gave his audience his best work in years, making them (hopefully) forget that atrocity “Relapse” and huge chunks of “Encore.” Fresh-minded he proved his undeniable skill on the mic, rhyming with insane dexterity and manic emotion. Ultimately, though he denies such attitudes as an individual, he still allows far too much misogyny and homophobia to creep into his bars and I know he could be more effective if he could open up his scope large enough to comment on some things that matter, something he managed to do under layers of superficial vitirol on the “Marshall Mathers LP” and “Eminem Show” albums. Anyway, “Not Afraid” and “Love the Way You Lie” are great rap pop hits; “25 to Life” is the best song he’s done since “Stan” conceptually; “No Love” may be devoid of moral substance but it shows off his skills better than anything he’s done in a long time.

The internet has grown the mixtape scene tremendously in terms of potential audience; no longer do you have to find out of the way barber shops and behind the counter record stores to purchase a mixtape, you can do it from legit websites, making available lots of great free music that artists often self-produce or work with a notabe DJ on. These mixtapes are great ways for up and coming artists to build a reputation and an audience, for notable MCs to show off their skill on others beats or hype an upcoming studio album, or in some cases release what sounds just like a studio album without any filter. The best ones I heard this year are: Dead Prez : “Revolutionary but Gangster” the mixtape– DJ Drama does the “Gangsta Grillz” line for two of the best and most important MCs in recent history; aside from the “Hell Yeah” single this was the best thing we’ve heard from DP since “Let’s Get Free” ten years ago.  J Cole‘s awaited studio debut didn’t show but he did drop a self-produced mixtape that sounds just like a studio album, “Friday Night Lights.” Das Racist got a lot of critical attention for “Sit Down, Man,” an often hilarious but always entertaing batch of songs with a unique sound.

Nicki Minaj built up attention on the mixtape circuit all year long and was being hailed as the best new rap talent long before “Pink Friday” finally dropped. “Friday” is a bit dissapointing in many aspects; I admit I’ve always felt Nicki to be a bit over-rated in many ways, but I do concede she has a real talent and a unique personality. Her verse on “Monster” is pretty undeniable in terms of hyperactive id and larger than life tongue-twisters. “Friday” did provide a few solid tracks and a few excellent verses.

Nas and Damian Marley: Distant Relatives” is probably the best hip hop reggae fusion album I’ve ever heard, not counting some of the best moments off of the Talib Kweli or Mos Def reggae dub records. Nas is one of the best veteran rappers in the genre today when he’s truly on, which he is for several tracks on this one.

Drake beat Nicki to the punch in releasing a thoroughly hyped, internet chattered debut with “Thank Me Later.” There are some really fun songs on the album: “Unforgettable” which provides us with a feature from Young Jeezy (which is his best moment of the year, closely followed by his mixtape appropriation of ‘Ye’s “Power” as “Powder”), “Lights Out!” which features a great rapport with Jay Z, “Over,” and “Fireworks” to name a few.

My biggest dissapointment this year was the delay of Lupe Fiasco‘s new record, “Lasers.” I’ve been waiting for a new Lupe record since “The Cool,” an album that I consider not only one of the best hip hop records ever but simply one of the best albums ever. Lupe is an excellent rhymer with the best substance of any rapper anywhere approaching mainstream– hell even from  the underground. The word was that “Lasers” was finished back in the spring and it kept getting delayed; Atlantic has yet to release it for whatever reason. There was even a protest in front of Atlantic’s office back in October demanding its release (!) and a widely circulated internet petition for the same purpose. Anyway, we did get a few singles- “I’m Beamin” and “The Show Goes On” as well as the “Enemy of the State” mixtape, and it looks like the full studio record will finally see the light of day in early spring next year.

I really dug B. Dolan‘s “Fallen House Sunken Ship” record as well, a few of its tracks are jaw-dropping (one of which I’ll go into detail on in my singles list) and I look forward to hearing more from him in the future.

Ice Cube is yet another formative hip hop figure still capable of making genuine music into middle age and his “I Am the West” is his best work in a very long time and the best west coast rap record in general that I’ve heard in a number of years.

Erykah Badu is really more soul and R&B than hip hop, but hip hop is a substantial informing vibe to her work so its worth mentioning her pretty great (but not as great as its predecessor) “New Amerykah pt. II,” specifically the fantastic “Window Seat.”

Well, hopefully any hip hop heads reading notice at least one major omission, a major hip hop album not discussed here which makes my list of best albums of the year but I won’t specifically mention it yet!

More to come.