As 2010 draws to a close, I feel obligated, as a blogger-slash-"music journalist", to stand atop my Internet soapbox and tell you, the Web-surfing public, what I deem to be the year's highest achievements in music. 2010 was a year of absurd hype (Kanye West) for various musical projects, and some of them lived up to the hype, incredibly. Others failed. But since I try to keep an optimistic leaning to my writing, I offer you this list of my top albums of the year, in no particular order. Let's get started!
Fang Island - Fang Island
If you were looking for an album that will inspire you to high-five strangers on the subway, then search no more. The band's debut on Sargent House Records is absolute bliss: energetic, upbeat, and absurdly fun, with relentlessly catchy guitars and sporadic vocals that often appear in a chorus, creating a euphoric sound that, frankly, sounds like nothing I've ever heard. The album begins and ends with fireworks, a fitting bookend to a collection of songs that capture the joy and celebratory nature of music.
Deftones - Diamond Eyes
When bassist Chi Cheng was in a terrible car accident in November 2008 and Deftones subsequently scrapped their in-progress album Eros, it was easy to assume the band would never release another album. Suffering a tragedy like that would take the wind out of most bands' sails. True to their nature as enduring, passionate pioneers, Deftones re-grouped and wrote Diamond Eyes, arguably one of their strongest albums to date. While the production by Nick Raskulinecz mucks things up a bit, the album still made its way on this list. Chino Moreno's fury and trademark soft/quiet singing style are on full display here, and allows Diamond Eyes to basically serve as a fantastic "comeback" record for a band whose future was questionable just a couple of years ago.
Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
When my friend (who admittedly holds Weezer's opus Pinkerton close to her heart) tipped me off to this album by calling it "What Weezer could have been after Pinkerton", I nearly spit out my PBR. That got my attention, to say the least.
I generally hate the things that trendy tastemakers like Pitchfork cream their pants over, but this time they're on the right track. They gave this record an obscenely high grade of 10.0 (a grade normally reserved for only Radiohead albums). While that may be a tad too much, this album is flat-out DRUGS, in the best way possible. The mindfuckery that Stevens releases on this record is a far cry from his usual jangly acoustic quirk-pop. And yet, somehow, it works exceedingly well, in a Talking Heads-kind of way. It sounds as if Sufjan traded in his guitars for space keyboards and a trunk full of illicit drugs, and that's BEFORE you get to the breahtaking 25-minute album capper Impossible Soul. It's really a mini-album itself, and combined with the other songs on the record Sufjan has really created his "masterwork". That's really saying a lot for me, considering I hate that term.
So yeah, buy this record, turn off the lights (or leave them on, I'm not your boss) and let this album make you its bitch like it did to me.
The Black Keys - Brothers
If you hadn't heard much from the Black Keys before 2010, chances are you have by now. This was their "breakout" record, used in quotes since "breakout" here means "album that put their songs on the radio and TV ads". I can probably say I've heard Tighten Up hundreds of times on the radio in the past five months, and I don't even listen to the radio.
The album, a true, authentic, rock & roll record, packs more grit and sleazy rhythm into fifteen songs than most bands do in their careers. And while Never Gonna Give You Up sadly isn't a Rick Astley cover, its slow burn and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach's sensual vocals make up for it.
I'd been a casual Black Keys fan before 2010, respecting their records but not really appreciating them for the visionary dudes they are, but with Brothers, I have finally come full circle.
Linkin Park - A Thousand Suns
Yes, yes, I know you're ready to click out of this page because I'm offending you with Linkin Park. Yes, I know, nu-metal sucks. I know, Linkin Park is trendy and popular. Yes, I know, any self-respecting and customarily snobbish music critic (such as I consider myself) should have NO PART in saying anything positive about Linkin Park, because they suck or whatever.
But the fact of the matter is, A Thousand Suns is a fantastic record.
Mostly leaving behind the angsty rap/rock sound that catapulted them to stadiums around the world, LP instead decided to challenge themselves and create something that stands alone on its own, which this album definitely does. It's long, has a bunch of interludes and only nine real "songs" (most being midtempo and atmospheric), but the end product is a cohesive experience that would be considered on most "Best of 2010" lists were it by anyone other than Linkin Park, a band everyone loves to hate.
If you already hated LP, you probably won't ever come around, and that's fine. That's, like, your opinion, man, and you're entitled to it.
But if that bias keeps you from enjoying A Thousand Suns, then too bad for you.
2010 was a huge year for this upstart British group, with the single Little Lion Man getting all kinds of airplay on the radio in the past few months. They basically employ the same formula as Fleet Foxes, the hush-quiet acoustic folk thing combined with incredible vocals (sometimes group vocals) and a quiet energy that builds and builds into sonic explosions of passion and emotion.
Besides Little Lion Man, songs like Thistle & Weeds and The Cave really make this album shine, and cemented its place on this list.
I'm eager to hear what they do as a follow-up.
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
This album is a monster.
I've always been indifferent regarding Mr. West, usually thinking he was "okay" while getting annoyed by his insane ego and self-absorption. When this album was being hyped by the Internet to levels not seen since...well, the last Kanye record, my interest increased slightly, if only to see if the album would possibly live up to such lofty expectations.
Then, he signed up for Twitter and posted updates about emotional fonts and small-ass jets. The other insane Tweets that followed helped promote the album fantastically, as he seemed more and more out of his mind.
Then, the album actually dropped, and everyone ate it up. Because it's delicious.
Tracks like the 6-minute star-studded Monster, the insanely addictive All of the Lights (with Rihanna on vocal hook duty), and the Auto-Tune loneliness jam Lost in the World make this album more of a "game-changer" type of album than a "hip-hop" album.
Calling this record a "hip-hop" album is like calling Radiohead albums "BritPop" albums. Not applicable.
And no, I'm not equating Kanye West with Radiohead, although both have been featured in classic South Park episodes....
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby - Lonely Avenue
Much more of a "project" than "album", Lonely Avenue pits piano man and amazing songwriter Ben Folds with British author Nick Hornby (he wrote High Fidelity, for one). They combined their efforts, with Folds writing music to accompany Hornby's words, the whole thing adding up to form a story. The deluxe version of the album even comes with an illustrated book, so this whole thing is really neat.
Folds is at his best, doing his quirky piano melodies thing, and Hornby's lyrics add satire and social commentary to everything. The two of them are a great duo, working well of of each other's strengths as artists, and that shines through on Lonely Avenue.
Oh, and check out Levi Johnston's Blues, a song from the perspective of Bristol Palin's one-time fiance (and baby daddy). Yay, satire!
Jamiroquai - Rock Dust Light Star
2010 marked the return of Jamiroquai, ending a 5 year absence with Rock Dust Light Star. The record, the first since 2005's Dynamite, finds front man/focal point of the group Jay Kay at his best. Songs like White Knuckle Ride, Smoke & Mirrors, Hurtin', She's a Fast Persuader, and Hey Floyd are destined to incite many a dance party (or head-bob if you're listening to it alone).
The album hasn't found a distributor in the USA yet, but I hope that doesn't hurt Jamiroquai's chances of releasing it and (hopefully) playing a set at Coachella next April. I can only hope.
Portugal. the Man - American Ghetto
Their sixth album in six years, experimental indie rockers Portugal. The Man released American Ghetto in 2010 as their last album before graduating to Atlantic Records.
Every Portugal record is great, but American Ghetto is one of the more impressive ones. The songs transition seamlessly into each other, from the enthralling The Dead Dog all the way until the MGMT-ish album closer When the War Ends.
I can only imagine how great their upcoming record (and Atlantic Records debut) will be. If they build upon the growth shown throughout their amazing career thus far, it will probably find itself on my Best of 2011 list as well.
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
While I did drink the Kanye Kool-Aid in 2010, I still haven't quite grasped the "amazingness" of Arcade Fire. That said, The Suburbs is impressive, if overlong. Songs like Ready to Start and Rococo are good examples of why this band gets so much damn attention, but they just don't put me into "OMG BEST BAND EVER" mode like they do to everyone else. Still, great record.
Weezer - Hurley
Despite the ridiculous cover image, Hurley blew me away, considering I was expecting another "new school" Weezer album - that is, silly pop songs about Los Angeles, party anthems featuring overrated rappers, and a general disregard for the things that made Weezer Weezer.
And yet, somehow, Hurley reminded me of why I ever liked them in the first place. Songs like Unspoken, Hang On, Ruling Me, and Memories are vintage Weezer tracks, and it was great to hear them go back to basics and revisit their glory days.
Eminem - Recovery
Em returned to form in 2010, releasing Recovery, his best record in a long time. He went through some stuff, got over it, ditched the moronic character voices he used, and put out a solid album of songs.
He hadn't gone anywhere, he just had to fix his shit and get back out there. Now, he's back in the spotlight, and it's because of the quality of this record.
The Sword - Warp Riders
These stoner metal gods released a concept record in 2010 about "inhaling deeply of the sacred smoke" on a planet divided, and the protagonist's battles with the "Chronomancer" and other such ridiculousness.
Not only does the story amuse, but the songs are brutal, sludgy rock awesomeness.
One of the better rock releases in 2010, and arguably the best rock space opera stoner metal concept album ever.
The Budos Band - III
I first discovered this band at 2 am at a party on Halloween, as fatigue-inspired hallucinations set in.
This group's amazing instrumental jazz/world beat fusion translates very well on record, and I imagine their live show is one big hip-shaking party. There's no singing, but they don't need any. The brass and sexy grooves more than make up for it.
I was pleasantly surprised by this album when I heard it, so much so that it ended up on this list.
So that's my list, take it or leave it. And leave comments if you want to call me an idiot/jerk/asshole/moron/genius/gay fish, I mean, that's what the Internet is all about.