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.



2 Responses to “10 Best Albums of 2010”

  1. […] “Voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless,” Kweli calls for in the title track of “Gutter Rainbows,” which is also the first song on the record following the opening skit. Gutter Rainbows comes just months after Kweli’s reunion album with longtime collaborator DJ Hi Tek, Revolutions Per Minute, which came out under the moniker of ReFlection Eternal last summer. RPM was a superb album–containing quite a few highlights and being an overall solid, substantial hip hop record (it made slot 10 of my 10 Best Albums of 2010 post). […]

  2. […] Grammy’s agree on album of the year (Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” made my “Best of 2010″ album list at number one), I find myself dumbfounded that the overwhelmingly mainstream, corporate event that seems like […]

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