December 20, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2010

I stuck strictly to albums and omitted late additions (things I started to listen to after other lists came out). Therefore, Pearl and the Beard’s Black Vessel EP and other 2010 discs did not qualify.

10. River City Extension – And The Unmistakable Man

I’m tentative at putting this at the ten slot. This New Jersey based band has all the promise of the greats from the state of their origin, (Springsteen, et al) and so does their expansive debut. At the same time, they’re tip-toeing the line of obscurity. What I do know is this: From the anthemic “Something Salty, Something Sweet” to the morning after dizziness of “I Still Own A Bible” followed by the furious “Too Tired To Drink” show that this group has a ton of great ideas. Now all they need is focus.

9. J Roddy Walston and the Business – J Roddy Walston and the Business

Imagine Jerry Lee Lewis on speed, kicking out the piano bench, then taking a sledgehammer to the piano. That’s pretty much J Roddy Walston and the Business in a nutshell. These are jams designed to make you sweat. “Don’t Break the Needle” is a monster opener, “Full Growing Man” with it’s “Woo-oohs” and “Ahh-ahhs” is a glam rock mess-terpiece and “Brave Man’s Death” with it’s unforgettable chorus: “I don’t wanna die a brave man’s death/spitting gasoline/burning my teeth, getting salt on the fields on my past/and the sun’ll come down with a milky white flash/I’ll get my brave man’s death at last”. Sounds exactly like what you’ll want to listen to when the ship’s going down.

8. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

I understand the reverence that many have for Arcade Fire. I’ve seen them live. It’s a moving experience. But on record, I don’t really feel it. Simply, they are a very good band that makes strong records. Have they done anything truly great? Yes. Funeral. Their second record, Neon Bible was several shades of grey and their offering this year kind of meets the middle ground between the two. There are things to love here, of course: the slow-motion run of “Half Light II (No Celebration)” the nascent punk energy of “Month of May,” and of course, the record’s crown jewel, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. Timeless. While this record does sprawl, as two of the songs suggest, in some strange way, really works.

7. Franz Nicolay – Luck and Courage

Franz Nicolay’s songs are a gift. They reveal themselves over time. The album had little impact at first, but with repeated listens, it literally bloomed in my ears. What’s great about Nicolay’s songs is that they have this unforgettable emotional undercurrent that leaves a lump in your throat (see “Felix and Adelita” and “This Is Not A Pipe”). Then there’s moments like “My Criminal Uncle” that practically beg an “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Bjork-style video treatment.

6. Robyn – Body Talk/Body Talk Pt. 1/Body Talk Pt. 2

It’s hard to pick from Robyn’s 2010 output, mainly because there’s so much strong material. So, I’ll settle for bits from all of her releases. What’s so remarkable about Robyn’s Body Talk series is that there are bangers that other artists would kill to have once in their career. Here, she has almost a dozen. The classic throb and hook of “Dancing On My Own,” the infinite summer of “Hang With Me” and the distressed-future by way of nineties throwback “Time Machine”. That’s just three of them, folks.

5. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

No hip-hop artist has commanded the attention of his listeners like Kanye West. In essence, he’s peerless. There are artists that will dazzle you with their wordplay (Lil Wayne) or their production expertise (The-Dream), but neither can marry both of those concepts together quite like Kanye. With West, every album is an event. If you listen from The College Dropout, the stylistic leaps he’s made are Beatlesque. Fantasy is fully realized – nine minute epics that hinge on one piano note, star-studded guest verses (Nicki Minaj’s verse-of-the-decade nominee on “Monster”) and staggering reworkings of indie-folkie Bon Iver tracks. It’s all here in one giant stew. Everyone else, go back to your corners. Kanye’s got this round.

4. Glossary – Feral Fire

The little record that could. At it’s core, Feral Fire is a straight up alt-country record with a power-pop kick to the balls. “Lonely Is A Town” is a spitfire opener, with the sandpaper and silk vocals of husband and wife duo Joey and Kelly Kneiser punctuated by a guitar solo that would make Cheap Trick proud. These moments are abundant throughout, but be careful, the gentle “Hope and Peril”, sung by member (and sometimes Lucero slide player) Todd Beane – will stop you dead in your tracks.

3. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever

A sentimental number three, and likely here because I played the hell out of this summer. In a year where they lost Franz Nicolay and gained two auxiliary members, The Hold Steady got their bearings and managed to release an incongruent disc that just barely eclipses 2008’s Stay Positive. Gone are the trademark piano dramatics, and in place are a healthy dose of extra guitars. It’s not perfect, considering the seismic lineup change, this record feels very transitional. The band’s last two records seems like they’re yielding diminishing returns, but don’t count them out quite yet. Songs like the shimmering opener “The Sweet Part of the City” and late-era Replacements of “Our Whole Lives,” will do for now.

2. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

Consider The Monitor as a call-to-arms more than a record. Titus Andronicus’s 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances was an accomplishment in itself, but no one could have expected the mammoth they unleashed this year. Chock full of guitar heroics (pretty much ALL of “A More Perfect Union”) sing-along phrases – ‘The enemy is everywhere!’ ‘You’ll always be a loser!’ and a hell of a lot of bravado, it’s nothing short of perfect. What blows my mind is that the median age of this band is twenty-five, and they’ve already put their blood, sweat, tears and beers into a record so fully-realized. What’s next? There aren’t enough words. Gushing is the only thing that does The Monitor justice.

1. The National – High Violet

The one and two slots on this list are essentially interchangeable. But at the last minute High Violet eked out the top slot. For myself, 2010 was the year of The National. While I had heavily anticipated this record, I wasn’t prepared for the stranglehold I’d be put in by it. Way darker than I expected, I felt drawn to the little things – the unforgettable splash of drums in “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the altitude change of the opening chords of “Lemonworld,” and the delightfully icky chorus of “Conversation 16”: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains ’cause I’m evil.” It doesn’t get better than that.

Most importantly it’s the soundtrack to my New York experience. It was with me on my move here in July and hasn’t left me since. Put this one on and stroll through the streets of Manhattan at night. Listen to it while taking the L into Brooklyn and get off at Bedford Avenue before walking through McCarren Park. With High Violet, everything sparkles just a little bit more.