The Best Albums of 2010
By Aaron Binder
with special guest Dave Tyson
2009 heralded the return of indie music back to the mainstream. While most were unsure of what 2010 would bring in the greater pop world, the year seemed to begin and end with a renaissance of the independent artist, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the late 80’s and early 90’s with grunge. With over half of the 2010 Grammy nominations being handed to indie artists, it truly was a year of gains for the independent music world.
As I was contemplating this piece in November it seemed to be an insurmountable task because of the sheer amount of good music that was released this past year. While most people seemed to be enamored with Beach House, Arcade Fire and the endless supply of cutesy indie bands, the year was also a swan song for rap and rock, not rap-rock because that’s never been good, but the two separate genres.
I asked my good friend and indie musician Dave Tyson of The Sphinx’s (playing New Years Eve at The Silver Dollar ya’ll) to take a stab at a top 10 list to shore up some opinions on bands that did extremely well this year but fall outside my scope of interest. Dave has a great ear and as you’ll see from his list, some great opinions when it comes to indie rock. On my side you’ll see more rap and rock, so it’s a great day for you dear reader as you’ll see many opportunities to check out some music you may not have heard before, enjoy!
Aaron’s Top 10
10) Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Sufjan Stevens Myspace
Sufjan Stevens seems to be one of the most misunderstood musicians around today. After shooting to fame shortly after the release of his 2005, critically acclaimed album Illinois, a swarm of critics and music fans pegged him as the next great American songwriter. Four years later, a plethora of fans and bloggers were left unsatisfied and angered by The BQE, a multimedia experience rich in urban sounds and little structure.
Returning to song-based structure this past year, Stevens released The Age of Adz to rave reviews from critics and confusion from fans. This wasn’t the folk journey of Illinois, nor was it the schizophrenic style of The BQE, but something in between. While it is a beautiful piece of work, it is difficult to connect with at times. Regardless, this is a visionary album worth at least a few listens. Stevens may not yet be the next great American songwriter, but Age of Adz is certainly a positive step forward.
9) The Roots – How I Got Over
The Roots Myspace
The Roots have been considered one of the greatest hip-hop acts of all time for quite a few years now. While their constant touring and strong recordings have helped bolster this image, their musical competency is really what turns this band into legends.
Their newest album, How I Got Over, is practically a master level lesson in funk, soul, jazz and how to blend it with pop. The band has always had a penchant for mixing powerful vocals with the best grooves around, and this album does not disappoint. Relying on classic Roots lyrical mainstays of political commentary, self-reflection and self-improvement, vocalist Black Thought puts forward another performance worthy of the Grammy nomination they’ve received for the album.
Musically the group is tighter than ever after becoming Jimmy Fallon’s house band in 2008. The band announced in 2008 that their release of Rising Down that year would be their last studio album, two years later they have proven that you can’t keep a great thing down.
8 ) Smashing Pumpkins – Teargarden by Kaleidyscope Vol. II: The Solstice Bare
Smashing Pumpkins Myspace
Whoever claimed that Billy Corgan’s relevance ended with the 90’s was hugely mistaken. While the creative genius may have faded from the mainstream and relegated to tabloids for a while during the first part of last decade, he has recovered amazingly well in the last two years by soldiering on under the Pumpkins name pretty much alone. He is currently releasing 44 songs, one at a time on smashingpumpkins.com for free.
What you think you’re going to be listening to isn’t even close to the end product. Corgan has masterfully crafted a collection of songs that are not just some of the best of the past decade, but ever. Running the gamut of Pumpkins styles from grunge to electronic experimental, Teargarden exhibits all of Corgan’s musical personas and expands on them with a focused determination.
As he sings in Fellowship: “Get on board, this train ain’t going to stop, where it’s going, I don’t know”. Corgan and the Pumpkins name have been revitalized in 2010, stranger things have happened, but this one certainly ranks as awesome for music lovers.
2010 was a good year for Water and Bodies. They released the Rain City Sessions: Part 2, began writing a full length album and received funding through donations from the very cool community at kickstarter.com. Pulling off that perfect balance between frantic and gentle is a difficult task to pull off, doing it well is even harder but they managed to pull it off with Part 2. The members built on their years of experience together in other bands (notably Kaddisfly) and began to develop a sound of their own with this EP. Big hooks and massive chorus sections punctuate the usually slower and more melodramatic verses but manage to pull it all together coherently. This is a great primer for a band that has great things on the horizon in 2011.
Casey Neill has been around America and back again many a time. His latest album “Goodbye to the Rank and File” is the culmination of a career spent traveling and living across America. Neill has managed to develop a collection of songs that all have an individual voice but are undeniably belong on the same album. His ability to craft simple songs with exceptional hooks and subtle layers is beyond just being great, it nearly approaches perfection. Singing in a drawl that sounds like a southern country twang intersecting with the powerful vocals of an east-coast crooner, Neill and his golden voice have created something that can sit beside some of the best Americana albums in history.
5) Shad – TSOL
When Shad first hit the Canadian hip-hop scene in 2005, he seemed like a footnote in the greater scheme of things going on, maybe someone to watch. Since then he has woven himself into the fabric of Canadian hip-hop and with his new album TSOL he is beginning to work his way south. The album is strange in the fact that it isn’t the average boastful, self-referencing hip-hop album, it relies far more heavily on the everyday and personal experience than braggadocios exploits.
The production flows well with his slightly off-beat delivery and relatable lyrics, staying low-key when necessary but sometimes blowing up in ways reminiscent of the biggest Kanye song. Shad is helping place Canada on the map in the hip-hop world and this album is going to inspire many to follow in his footsteps.
4) Ghostface Killah – Apollo Kids
Ghostface Killah Myspace
This is the reason that releasing a ‘Best of’ list before the last week of December is foolish. After being released on December 21st, the album quickly shot to the top of metacritic with a 90 rating. The reason for the high rating was clear, the album pushed forward an incredibly raw, old-school sound that was comparable to his critically acclaimed work on Fishscale. Progressive and angry lyrics combined with concise, booming delivery all combine together in an effort that proves Ghostface has earned the respect he commands.
3) Brasstronaut – Mt. Chimaera
Brasstronaut may have one of the worst names in the music industry, it’s pretty much on par with naming your kid Bean, but where the difference lies is that this band isn’t descended from a coke-mongering junkie. No, Brasstronaut is the brainchild of respected Vancouverite Edo Van Breeman; and while the name may not inspire any kind of excitement, their music certainly does.
This is a band and a style of music that has been meticulously crafted by combining jazz, indie, and Detroit. Owning only this one full-length to their name, the band has amazingly enough generated a respectable following. The sound can be described as 4 AM on the most perfect morning ever. Maybe it was a great party, or perhaps you just survived a harrowing experience at the hands of an overly aggressive indie band’s merch guy, Brasstronaut is not so much chill as it is sublime. Van Breeman composes perfect mood music, contemplative but not pretentious, filled with beautiful solos and full band sections that will tug at your heart-strings the way only few bands can.
Utilizing a variety of instruments and influences, the band has managed to create not just music but a sound that is uniquely theirs alone. Every song on this album stands alone and speaks for itself, few albums this year can say that, this is a wonderfully crafted piece of perfection pie.
2) The Chemical Brothers – Further
Chemical Brothers Myspace
The first time I heard of The Chemical Brothers was the mid-90’s. I had a cousin that liked to carve the names of his favourite bands into the steps of a wooden ladder in a barn at my grandparent’s farm. The fact that this enraged my grandparents meant that it must be cool. You saw the normal angsty teenager stuff there; Pearl Jam, Nirvana, but there was one name that didn’t sound like something that had been thought up while stoned, no this band sounded like their name had been thought up on acid…The Chemical Brothers.
The electronic wunderkinds have far outlived their days as an etching in a now torn down barn and for good reason. Their new album Further is a fine piece of work, probably one of their best, if nothing else it is the most deftly placed puzzle they’ve put together.
The album begins with a slow burn and an acidy-folk sound but quickly evolves into a free-for-all house album. The second track, Escape Velocity, is aptly named; it takes a couple minutes for the track to taxi down the runway, but when the engines kick in, you’re rocketed into a higher plane of existence. Escape Velocity sets the tone for most of the record;, intense, bouncy and engaging.
The Brothers made an attempt to branch out from their core areas during the mid 00’s, this is them jumping right back into what made them so admired in the first place and proves why they are royalty when it comes to Electronic music.
1) Earl Greyhound – Suspicious Package
Earl Greyhound Myspace
Smashing glass is often used figuratively and metaphorically as a device to show the reader/viewer that yes, it is ass-kicking time and you had better watch out. Musically, many albums try the smashing glass approach, drawing listeners in with a few exciting tracks and trying to coast on the power of those few bangers.
Perhaps that is the reason Suspicious Package by Earl Greyhound is so neatly wrapped and ready to explode; it ignores the concept of kicking things off with any type of bombast but starts off conversely with a 2 minute soliloquy of almost silence. Before you know it, the album goes off with a huge bang and you can’t help but find yourself alight in the massive blaze.
Suspicious Package is a perfect mix of classic rock, blues, jazz and simply incredible writing. Every song has a hook worth enjoying, yet it isn’t the hooks that make the album; it is simply the whole package. Vocalists NAME and NAME duel it out with their cathartic voices, drummer NAME proves that he is one of the best in the world with his bombastic and versatile drums, and the lyrics are straight out of the best of the 70’s songbook.
Usually when people say that an albun must be listened to a few times to really understand it, they’re really saying that it takes a few times to find something you kinda like. This one takes a few listens because there is so much here that one listen doesn’t even scratch the surface of pure diamond.
Suspicious Package, the best album of 2010 in any genre.
Dave’s Top 10
10) Girl Talk – All Day
Girl Talk Myspace
By now it’s been established that Gregg Gillis deserves his success. His unique niche in the dance music market is as the reigning king of mash-up, ever since Danger Mouse gave up on that path to seek success in other sounds, and his fanbase has grown from hipsters to high schoolers wanting to be hipsters and then the soundtrack to college dance parties and bros everywhere as they grew up.
His music is critically cited often as his work with sampling has progressed the ongoing debate about music as a business in a digital environment significantly, but this all distracts from the music itself. Sometimes it’s nicer to listen to Girl Talk on your iPod while walking to the grocery store than it is to be at any of his sweatbox concerts or while drinking Budweiser in the dorm common room, as good as those experiences are.
It’s like the radio; you can’t really settle on one thing at that particular time, and you just wanna hear some stuff to grab your attention. The failure of radio to stimulate underground music development has helped pave the way for Girl Talk’s success, and on this, his third album in the wide public eye and the fifth of his career, Gillis sticks to the sound he discovered when he paired “J.U.I.C.Y.” with “Tiny Dancer” and matured on Feed the Animals, and he shows that there is no shortage of pop hooks that we’ve forgotten about to be relied upon for a great musical mash-up.
On this album I also noticed more of the drumbeats than I usually do at first and a darker tone than on his previous albums, as well a significant understanding of the kind of music that bros everywhere are attracted to these days; I should know, my actual brother is a complete bro. Girl Talk will keep going until he loses his ability to tap into the core thought of pop music, like a scientist splitting an atom.
9) Spoon – Transference
The stability of Spoon is sometimes infuriating; putting album after album of good, solid, meat and potatoes rock and roll and sonic experimentalism seems like a kind of boring career path in a way. Gone is the rock n’ roll drama, the chasm-spanning sonic shifts of more unstable personalities, but Spoon have done it again and got legions of fans out to see them at stadiums across the world for a full summer, proving that the band’s success is based on the organic jamming of 4 musicians who seem to share the same brain; but back to the album.
“Written in Reverse” is the best track, as Spoon lets it all hang out and doesn’t hold back in it’s 50’s piano-driven rock n’roll. “Nobody Gets Me But You” seems like an extension of “Turn My Camera On” Spoon, and “Who Makes Your Money”, “Out Go The Lights” and “The Mystery Zone” all provide ample material for seeing how many licks it takes to get to the centre of a Spoon song. Yep, just another day for Spoon.
8 ) The Wilderness – .272
The Wilderness Myspace
Much of the music I experienced this year came from the local Toronto scene as I furthered my own musical exploration, and the Wilderness are poised to become standard-bearers for a burgeoning local scene. Anyone who has seen their shows over the past year or two has left covered in sweat and glitter and smiling. This record is a perfect encapsulation of the experience a Wilderness concert provides.
Lee Piazza’s vocals are equal parts preacher and folk singer, who’s lyrics stand out boldly against the harsh experimental landscape the rest of the band provides, characterized by driving tone-guitar, blip-synth, post-punk bass and one of the tightest drummers going in the local scene. The sequencing of this album is another standout feature, as it flows just like their successful live set. The Wilderness are a product of influences that are wide and also common, and they unite in such a standout way that the band can only go up from here.
7) LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
LCD Soundsystem Myspace
LCD Soundsystem, if this is their last album as James Murphy has claimed, could only be called a successful project. Having had success through the projects history in underground and mainstream dance music, the fashion world, gay scenes, Pitchfork-driven album sales, and year after year of drunken University freshmen and women just looking to dance and get laid. This is Happening is probably the most mature and thoughtful album in the band’s career.
Murphy improves his almost Dylan-like ability to narrate a story over album highlight “Dance Yrself Clean” and closer “Home”, provides a few choice singles in “I Can Change” and the fantastically boneheaded “Drunk Girls”, and provides some cathartic moments, like “All I Want”, the album’s best track. Rest in peace LCD Soundsystem, ye shall be remembered.
6) Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Who knew Deerhunter would turn 60’s when they first got attention with Cryptograms? After the growth of Atlas Sound, it is no surprise that the band has proved to be so adept with pop music, and the results are as satisfying as could be, but this is only one of the many ways they have grown into their talent. Halcyon Digest has also proved Lockett Pundt to be a damn good songwriter, penning the best track of the album, “Desire Lines”. Some of Atlas Sound’s cinematic feeling spills into the album with “Sailing” and “Basement Scene”, and the 60’s pop 45 sound of “Memory Boy” and “Helicopter” are crisp, sparkly and satisfying. This band can only get better.
5) Beach House – Teen Dream
Beach House Myspace
This album seems to flow like the breeze. The fact that the band’s melodies are sometimes unforgettable is obvious upon first listen, but the fact that they string them together so beautifully is what will cement this band in the category of “relaxed, warm summer day” music. They allow time for quiet melodic introspection yes, but explode with moments of brightness that seem driven by the sunshine they are made to be listened in. I listened to Teen Dream more times in the few months after it came out probably more than all the times I listened to Queens of the Stone Age this year, and I listened to them a lot. If you didn’t get into this one this year, try it out in May.
4) The National – High Violet
The National Myspace
The National are a band who have seemingly defied all odds in attaining the massive multiplication of their success. They are not rock and roll, Matt Berninger’s lyrics and singing are just a little too weird to be heartbreakingly accessible, yet the music breaks hearts for anyone willing to sit with the album a little while to pay attention.
They are a band who’s dismissal by some is understandable, but their connection with many has never been so obvious as on High Violet. It is rare that in such a fully complete album, each song has the strength of a single, and as I watched them release “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, “Anyone’s Ghost”, and “Terrible Love” in succession, I was never correct in my guess as to which would come out next. It is the perfect album on this list to revisit through the cold months of January and February, when we no longer listen to music on our iPods outside, but rediscover our records indoors.
3) The Black Keys – Brothers
The Black Keys Myspace
The Black Keys officially have got their groove back. They are one of those bands that achieved the precarious position of having one fan base that knew and loved the band’s younger, rougher work and those that have come by the band due to their commercial and more polished success. If Brothers does not unite the two, nothing will. Two pieces must always rely on the instrumental prowess of their members, and the band has simply gotten better at playing since their last time on record.
Auerbach’s vocals drip with soul, while Pat Carney’s tight drumming drives every swampy mid-tempo groove. The guitars are chicken-fried and the lyrics are love and loss, deep in the delta. Add on top that this album spawned two of the best music videos of the year for singles “Next Girl” and “Tighten Up”, succeeding in a genre that relies on highly selective YouTube popularity, and you have the best album of the band’s career.
2) Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire Myspace
It’s official: The Arcade Fire have become the stadium-rock indie band. Indie-rock, still a vague term even today, was a dominant force in the music scene this past decade, beginning around the first time everyone heard “Take Me Out” and birthing most of modern rock journalism, as well as a litany of new additions to the great rock songbook, and the Arcade Fire have always seemed to be at the right place at the right time throughout it’s recent history.
They united small-town future hipsters with the darkness of Funeral, gave everyone a chance to experience their cathartic live experience with Neon Bible, and have now proved their stadium-rock worth with The Suburbs, reuniting it’s original fans, now older, with a well-explored thematic concept.
If this review ponders too long on the band’s history, it is because by now you are familiar with the band’s music, and this album only further explores and conquers extensions of the band’s mix of new order danceyness, sex pistols punk, talking heads rhythm, and expressive vocals and strings. Highlights are “Rococo” and “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, which will both rival the live experience of “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” one day, but the whole album is an achievement.
1) Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
Titus Andronicus Myspace
This charging album by New Jersey 5-piece Titus Andronicus is a spark of hope on the music scene for anyone who identifies with frontman Patrick Stickles’ blend of blue collar, quarter-life crisis middle-American malaise. His lyrics are knowingly aware of the culture he is bound too and identifies with, but unearths the spirit that charged the music of Springsteen and the Hold Steady and made their music so successful.
Also, the band kicks ass.
Titus Andronicus have become one of the tighter bands on the touring market of late, expanding their lineup sometimes to 8 members, which only amplified the bold melodic exploration that lies within the shoegazey landscape of The Monitor. Hooks that sounded like they had been around since the Blue album, or the 90’s Warped Tour wrapped in a forceful nihilistic atmosphere that burns out into hope. The success of this album is not in what can be said of it now, but what will be said of it later.