Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top Ten Albums of 2010

2010 was a pretty excellent year for music, but only 10 albums have been chosen. These were the ten that got my ear. Sorry for the delay in publishing.

10. The Sword - Warp Riders - The Sword lost one of their integral parts in 2010. Trivett Wingo, their drummer, left the band. Not on bad terms, but just needed to end his tenure. Luckily, it was before the recording of Warp Riders, easily The Sword's cleanest and most rock influenced record yet. The riffs are huge and the rhythm section is bone crushing. On their first "concept album"of sorts, The Sword ditch the Viking lore of their past two records and create a universe of their own. Interstellar travel, mystic orbs and a lone archer wandering a desolate planet litter the lyrics with stoner metal geekery. Rush's 2112 must have been an influence here. "Tres Brujas" owes a lot of it's sound to southern rock. The obvious send up of ZZ Top's bluesy guitar licks are backed up by a nasty cacophony of Wingo's drumming. "The Chronomancer I: Hubris" is the albums chunky epic with riffs that go back and forth. The pinnacle of the record is in "Lawless Lands", a blues metal masterpiece. With Zeppelin-esque guitar effects and the albums best guitar solos, it stands as the best hard rock song of 2010. The Sword gets a bad rap for their vocalist J.D. Cronise's kind of laid back delivery, but not every metal singer needs to scream their convoluted lyrics. In fact, the more blues rock delivery makes this record sound like a step forward in The Sword's sound.

9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs - It's no surprise that The Suburbs would be the record to bring indie favs Arcade Fire to the forefront. I'm still surprised that this record hit #1 on the charts. That being said, it is definitely Arcade Fire's most ambitious and relateable record yet. The Suburbs is a very intense and complex record. It takes a few listens to fully absorb everything that Win Butler is trying to tell us in his indie rock opera. This album doesn't have the same kind of vibe as either Funeral or Neon Bible and in that, it really stands out. "The Suburbs" is the perfect opening to the record, setting the scene of the story to come. "Ready to Start" is a static yet tense track, building the kind of tension that explodes later in the album on tracks like "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)", the apex of Arcade Fire's epic intensity on the album. It's a long record to listen to, with 16 tracks and clocking in over an hour. But ultimately, it's as gratifying as any Arcade Fire album.

8. Black Mountain - Wilderness Heart - Black Mountain ditched their lofty, grandiose prog rock anthems in 2010 in exchange for a mixture of fast-paced rockers and acoustic power folk. Wilderness Heart's longest track clocks in at five minutes and fifteen seconds as apposed to their last album (a sixteen minute epic called "Bright Lights.") This is a welcome change. For psych rock, nostalgia bands like Black Mountain to keep it fresh, you got to change your game up from time to time. Take for example the extraordinarily catchy "The Hair Song." The layers of instruments make it sound like a Who song with acoustic and electric guitars playing the main riff and the rhythm section keeping it real and a touch of Deep Purple organs. "Old Fangs" is an eerily static song with nary a guitar solo to be found. The creepy organs take center stage here. Other highlights are found in the more metal moments like the lone highway biker anthem of "Let's Spirits Ride" and the pastoral closer "Sadie." It's Black Mountain's catchiest record yet. Short, but sweet, Wilderness Heart was the crossover that never happened.

7. Brian Eno featuring Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams - Small Craft on a Milk Sea - Ambeint king and producing juggernaut Brian Eno elicited the help from Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams for easily his best instrumental record since 1983's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. As far as calling this an ambient record, I think that's a little off. It starts off quiet with the beautiful "Emerald & Lime" but by the time you reach track three, a darker edge takes shape. The mid-section of the album is where the real magic happens. Tracks like "Horse" are fodder for electro-remixes and dance club backing tracks, but on this record they take another more harrowing effect. You feel as if you are adrift on the titular sea, weathering the elements bombarding you in a foreign landscape. "2 Forms of Anger" is static yet tense and layered. "Paleosonic" is a feast for the ears. It slowly builds with bleeps, gurgles, scraping synthetic waves and electric guitars that pierce and pull apart. What does it all add up to? The years most intense headphones experience and a beguiling record filled with otherworldly sounds that really put you in another dimension.

6. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach - An album about materialism, societies wastes and the digitizing of the world, Plastic Beach is the best concept album of the year. With loads of cameos from Bobby Womack to Little Dragon to Snoop Dogg and back again, it's a huge collaboration of an album. At it's center is Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlitt steering the Gorillaz in a more grandiose direction. There is hardly a song such as "Feel Good Inc." on this record. Instead, the real shining moments come in the melancholy spacescapes. "Empire Ants" is easily the Gorillaz most poignant and beautiful track to date. It oozes with melody and saccharine sweet hooks. The album also has mostly a darker undertone, especially on the Mos Def show stopper "Sweepstakes" and the static anti-funk jam "Stylo." Bobby Womack steals the show on "Stylo" with improvised lyrics that seem to come from the inner depths of his soul. And if you are looking for the danceable side of Gorillaz, you aren't completely out of luck. The kitschy consumer culture lampoon "Super Fast Jellyfish" and the Bashy and Kano led "White Flag" will tie you over for now. It's a busy album with a ton going on, but in the world of the Plastic Beach, it's all about excess and waste.

5. MGMT - Congratulations - MGMT's Oracular Spectacular lit a fire under the indie rock scene as well as the radio airwaves of your local alt-rock music station. "Kids" was inescapable and "Electric Feel" was the real shining star of that record. But Congratulations to most seemed to be a sophomore slump. A study in art rock deemed too weird to set the world on fire the way the previous album had. Well, for my dime, the experimentation and wackiness of Congratulations is far and away better than the faux pop of it's big brother. Say what you will about MGMT's horrid live show, where they lib synch their most beloved song to a crowd expecting to get that in full glory. Songs here are sprawling, like the 12 minute epic "Siberian Breaks" that essentially dissects all things psychedelic into a beautiful landscape. "Flash Delirium" may be the closest to a single you can get off this album, but as the song builds and builds it explodes in a fury at the end. "I Found A Whistle" is a delightful psychedelic fever dream and "Brian Eno" is a art-rock ode to the patron saint of all things weird. As far as albums go, Congratulations shows more experimentation and has more moments than Oracular Spectacular did. Sure, nothing is going to launch them to fame off of this record, but I have a feeling that is exactly what MGMT wanted. And they are better off for it.

4. Grinderman - Grinderman 2 - Nick Cave is unstoppable. Be it writing awesome screenplays for badass Australian westerns, writing novels of depraved lunatics, scoring films with Warren Ellis, releasing albums with his Bad Seeds or taking a load off with Grinderman, the 52 year old rock veteran has yet to slow his pace. On Grinderman 2, he ups the ante big time. The depravity, the distortion and the overall intensity are through the roof. "Worm Tamer" is a harrowing affair. A classic blues riff with a raspy recitation of his "serpent wrangler" of a woman; it's a dark yet fun track. "Heathen Child" is just as dark. For fans of King Crimson, there is a brilliant reworking called "Super Heathen Child" with Robert Fripp tearing at your skin thanks to his ridiculous guitar work. Slow burn to start, but bombastic and loud by the songs midsection, "When My Baby Comes" is one of those Nick Cave affairs that oozes with melody until exploding forth with noise care of Warren Ellis' distorted violin and Jim Sclavunos' ferocious bass line. Some would say this seems like a mid-life crisis, as Cave's lyrics swoon over dangerous women and depraved activities that no 52 year old should be writing about, but Nick Cave is a special kind of person. He's above it all and with a new Bad Seeds record coming in 2011, there is no end in sight.

3. The Black Keys - Brothers - The Black Keys have always been on my radar, and select songs have always caught my grasp. But something about their dirty blues production was never enough to captivate me. It wasn't until this years Brothers that I was able to really fully immerse myself into one of their albums. Top to bottom, it's hands down their best. Rather than stripped down guitar and drums, this album is filled with sound and layers of instruments. The big single, "Tighten Up" is an undeniably catchy track, but it's B-Side, "Howlin' For You" is the true highlight of the pop sensibilities of this record. "Ten Cent Pistol" is a good bluesy number and "Too Afraid to Love You" is about as close to R&B the Black Keys have ever gotten. In a time when pop music is riddled with over-produced junk and a lack of good rock and roll, The Black Keys really stepped up to the plate to save us from the muck and mire of today's rock music wasteland. I'd rather be blasting "Next Girl" with it's guitar fireworks and blues stomp then ever hear any other new rock song on the radio ever again. It's lyrically excellent and excellent musically. Not a lot of rock bands out there that can say they nail both on one record.

2. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker - When Kevin Parker posits on album opener "It's Not Meant To Be" that "...I boast that it is meant to be, but in all honesty/I don't have a hope in hell..." he is definitely not talking about the greatness that is Innerspeaker. Far from the truth. Tame Impala's full length debut is a workout in psych pop unmatched by any other album that I can remember. It's pop songs are drenched in a haze of reverb and effects beaming in songs like "Alter Ego" from another dimension. Their undeniable comparison's to The Beatles due to Parker's eerie similarity to 60's John Lennon can sound like they are any other run-of-the-mill 60's nostalgia act, but that's not the case. There is still something new about these hooks and the sound design. Soaring effects take front and center, but effects can just be that. Luckily, the songwriting is just as strong. "Lucidity" crackles and fizzles with a hook as good as any rock song from the past 10 years. "Jeremy's Storm" is a sprawling instrumental that is surging and relentless. The closer, "I Really Don't Mind" is an apathetic anthem for the times. All in all, the voyage from start to finish on Innerspeaker is what makes this album so good. You are quickly whisked away to a psychedelic landscape and you'll end up getting lost in the wash of reverb that ensues. As far as psych rock albums go, this is easily one of the best in a long history of psychedelia.

1. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM - It's safe to say that Charlotte Gainsbourg is the best muse around. Her second album, 5:55, was beautifully crafted by the hands of Air, Nigel Godrich, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon. It's a beautiful record. This time around, she has just one callaborater in Beck Hansen. Beck writes, produces and surely plays copious instruments on the best album of 2010. After a water skiing accident that left a blood clot in Gainsbourg's brain, it's no real surprise that she'd team up with Beck. The titular track is just as jarring as the experience of being put into an MRI machine. All the tracks are ladelled with death imagery, but it's all sort of accepting. rather than a fearful record, IRM is an album that's dark, but willing to admit the fragility of life. That's where Charlotte Gainsbourg's voice comes in. "In The End" is a short poem where Gainsbourg's fluttering voice really soars. "Who's to say it's all for the best in the end" is a beautiful epitaph of sorts. Although death is a constant overtone on the record, the album isn't short of it's sultry turns as well. "Trick Pony", a bluesy riff embedded in a bass and drum showdown is about as sultry as it gets on IRM. Just like on 5:55, some of the best songs on IRM are in French. "Le Chat du Cafe des Artistes" is an eerie string laden track that sounds sinister and below the sultry French spoken are easily the albums darkest lyrics. The album wraps up nicely with "La Collectionneuse" that slowly spirals out of control, unraveling at the end. Charlotte Gainsbourg is the finest muse oen can find these days. The music and lyrics are easily Beck's best since Sea Change, which is saying a lot as he's released several decent records in the past ten years. The two duet on "Heaven Can Wait," a straightforward pop song, but don't be mistaken, this is still Charlotte's show.

No comments: