Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010: #25-1

The Top 50 Albums of 2010
Part 2: #25-1

25. Best Coast - Crazy For You

One of 2010’s big breakout bands, Best Coast have already begun enduring the inevitable backlash. The timing makes sense though; winter temperatures make this music harder to appreciate. Bethany Cosentino’s lovesick summer jams about beaches and weed created one of the year’s enduring sounds. If you need to wait til next June to play it again, it’ll sound just as fresh.

Click to play "Boyfriend"

24. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way

Sharon Jones has been wowing live audiences for years now, but she’s never made a record worthy of her talent. Until now. Like previous albums, I Learned the Hard Way sees the Dap-Kings letting loose with irresistible swagger, but it offers what others lacked: good songs. From the opening Mexicali horns of “The Game Gets Old” to the final gospel shout of “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” I Learned finds retro soul as alive as ever.

Click to play "She Ain't a Child No More"

23. James Keyes - Ruminations

Old-school country through and through, Ruminations hits all the genre’s touchstones. Work chants (“Interlude”), jaunty saloon piano (“Two Mirror”), and delta-blues slide guitar (“Black Ceiling”) sound like music Alan Lomax might have unearthed in the ‘40s. The lone electric track, “SSG,” sounds like Merle Haggard fronting the Sex Pistols.

Click to play "Black Ceiling"

22. Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

Many artists would put a smash like “Fuck You” on an otherwise-disposable album. Frankly, Cee Lo himself did so with “Crazy” in 2006. But if “Fuck You!” is the best song on The Lady Killer (and it is), it’s only by a hair. Perfect soul-pop productions like “Wildflower” and “I Want You” uplift with strings, horns, and Green’s inimitable croon.

Click to play "I Want You"

21. Jónsi - Go

In some ways, Jónsi’s solo debut reminds one of his work with day job Sigur Rós. There are two main differences though, one superficial and one deeper. For one, Go is mostly in English and not Icelandic (or his made-up language "Hopelandic"). More significantly, it offers a childlike joy only hinted at in previous work. If the next Disney critter movie got experimental, a song like “Animal Arithmatic” would make a perfect scampering soundtrack.

Click to play "Animal Arithmetic"

20. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM

For a guy who didn’t tour or release an album, Beck was all over the place in 2010. His web cover series continued with off-the-wall picks like Yanni and he led his production talents wherever needed. Nowhere did he do better than here though. On this electronic throb of an album, Charlotte Gainsbourg (Serge’s daughter) imbues 13 Beck compositions with poise and grace, underscoring each with an uneasy feeling you can’t quite explain.

Click to play "Time of the Assassins"

19. Yelawolf - Trunk Muzik [Mixtape]

Alabama rapper Yelawolf may be 2011’s breakout rap star. His rapid-fire southern diction on this critically-acclaimed but little-heard mixtape marks him as the second coming of Eminem, and not just because of skin color. Where Em 1.0 detailed exactly the gruesome things he’d do to people though, in songs like “Pop the Trunk” Yela’ gives only threatening hints.

Click to play "Good to Go (ft. Bun B)"

18. eels - End Times

No one does “downer” better than Mark Everett aka “E” aka eels. Unrelenting from beginning to end, End Times chronicles Everett’s recent divorce in painful detail. Yeah, it’s that kind of record. Many breakup albums carry an undercurrent of hope or resilience. Not here (that came a few months later on Tomorrow Morning). Once again, Everett proves a master at capturing the dark side of human emotion.

Click to play "The Beginning"

17. Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich + Fussible - Bulevar 2000

The “Nortec” in Nortec collective describes an unlikely fusion: norteño, a traditional Mexican music, and techno. Such absurd cross-cultural sounds usually fail as often as fusion restaurants, but Bostich and Fussible (two members of the Collective) effortlessly mix accordion and vocoder. The thick bass grooves of a song like “Radio Borderland” sound right at home in an Ibiza club…until you realize they’re coming from a sousaphone.

Click to play "Radio Borderland"

16. Revolver - Music for a While

Close harmony singing took a hit when the Everly Brothers stopped releasing records, but it’s about due for a comeback. Parisian trio Revolver produce heartwarming melodies, sung in English with a delicate French accent. What could easily come off as cutesy works because they infuse the pop sound with jazz guitar lines (“Leave Me Alone”), eastern rhythms (“Do You Have a Gun?”), and just a little bit of rock and roll swagger (“Get Around Town”).

Click to play "Get Around Town"

15. Elton John and Leon Russell - The Union

The narrative of this album describes a megastar (Elton John) pulling a fallen hero (Leon Russell) back into the spotlight. One listen to the music, though, makes it clear that Russell in fact revived John, inspiring some of his best songwriting in decades. T Bone Burnett’s uncharacteristically lush production steers clear of mall-pop pulp, using a gospel choir in the service of Dr. John boogie. Neil Young and Brian Wilson guest spots only sweeten the deal.

Click to play "I Should Have Sent Roses"

14. Hurts - Happiness

Kylie Minogue guests on Hurts’ debut, which you may view as a dealbreaker. Push past it. This new synthpop duo piles hook upon hook in this catchy-as-hell album. They display a uniquely British pessimism on “Stay” and “Evelyn,” but “Wonderful Life” proves unexpectedly inspirational. And to think it starts with a girl jumping off a bridge...

Click to play "Wonderful Life"

13. Grinderman - Grinderman 2

Nick Cave’s Grinderman represents music at its dirtiest, in every sense of the word. The vulgar puns amuse (sample: “My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster / Two big humps and then I’m gone”), but the rough-as-sandpaper guitar sounds like Cave’s battling the devil. And losing.

Click to play "Evil"

12. James Blackshaw - All Is Falling

Twenty-nine-year old guitarist James Blackshaw crafts an instrumental suite that ebbs and flows around his trusty 12-string. Violins, pianos, and xylophone surge throughout the most beautiful 45 minutes you’ll hear all year. Long after the final eight minutes of feedback fade away, the feeling remains.

Click to play "Part 3"

11. Solomon Burke & De Dijk - Hold On Tight

The September death of Solomon Burke would have been a tragedy no matter what the quality his current output. The fact the he released not one, but two terrific albums this year though makes the loss that much greater. Recorded with Dutch rock band De Dijk, Hold On Tight bursts forth with such force you wonder if he knew this was his last shot. The band gives the songs the gritty “rock and soul” crunch they deserves while Burke roars like the 400-pound bear he was.

Click to play "Seventh Heaven"

10. The Gentle Guest - Cast Off Your Human Form

Sounding like a circus circa 1923, the Gentle Guest pull out the stops, throw the stops on the ground, and parade a heard of elephants over 'em. Horns blast and accordions wail on gut-bucket hollers, back-porch stomps, and what sounds like a whole lot of carny dancing. “Judgment” turns the big top into a tent revival as a fire-and-brimstone preacher condemns the very joy the music inspires.

Click to play "Judgement"

9. Dessa - A Badly Broken Code

Perhaps the most slept-on hip-hop album of 2010, A Badly Broken Code moves the genre in at least a dozen new directions. Rapper/poet/author Dessa gets über-personal when she describes struggling to forgive a former lover (“Mineshaft II”) and watching a retarded sibling fall behind (“Children’s Work”). Throughout, the unexpectedly quirky production make this a hip-hop album in name only.

Click to play "Children's Work"

8. Robyn - Body Talk

Like “Dancing in the Dark” before it, “Dancing on My Own” cocoons depressing lyrics in a misleadingly cheery pop bubble. This song – the best of the year – kicks off fifteen tracks that will revive your faith in pop music. This is music for the dance floor, but the thoughtful lyrics and clever production twists make it equally hipster-friendly.

Click to play "Dancing on My Own"

7. Les Savy Fav - Root for Ruin

Seeing Les Savy Fav singer Tim Harrington bound about onstage in a monkey suit, you might assume these guys are a goof. Quite the opposite. The post-hardcore roar of this Brooklyn quintet cuts like never before on their fifth LP. Harrington yelps his typically aggressive/angsty lyrics, but Seth Jabour once again becomes the band’s secret weapon, delivering jagged riffs and cascading chords.

Click to play "Dirty Knails"

6. Evelyn Evelyn - Evelyn Evelyn

Amanda Palmer “discovered” conjoined sister duo Evelyn Evelyn via their MySpace page. The sisters grew up in the circus, abandoned by a chicken man who tried to kill them, a hooker who tried to save them, and finally a conjoined-twin elephant. They (really Palmer and parter-in-crime Jason Webley) detail the whole morbid, convoluted story in beautifully dark cabaret. As evidence, take their hilariously literal cover selection: Love Will Tear Us Apart. Ouch!

Click to play "Evelyn Evelyn"

5. Fang Island - Fang Island

“Math rock” is one of those labels that makes no sense until you hear it, at which point you go, “Oh, yeah, okay.” Fang Island represent the best in the admittedly niche genre. Their intertwining guitar lines turn left when you expect them to go right, up when you're waiting for down, on this largely instrumental album. Weird time signatures come and go like nothing. On songs like “Daisy” though though, the cumulative effect is strangely uplifting. A rare combination of challenging and cheerful.

Click to play "Daisy"

4. David Ford - Let the Hard Times Roll

David Ford deserves to be up there with today’s best songwriters. Politics loom large on his third album, but you don’t need to know that “She’s Not the One” is about Margaret Thatcher to enjoy its bluesy thump. The desperate cry of “Panic” builds until it entirely overwhelms you, lines falling all over each other in a frantic rush. Then, with the flip of a switch, he can deliver one of the most beautiful love ballads you’ve ever heard (“To Hell with the World”).

Click to play "Panic"

3. Midlake - The Courage of Others

Midlake’s sound is hard to place in time. They certainly don’t scream 21st century, but they hardly guide you elsewhere either. Spatially though, it’s much easier to place: in a forest. This rich choral folk lifts you higher and higher through the trees, til you don’t know where you are but you’re happy to be there.

Click to play "Core of Nature"

2. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

After years of providing ample fodder to his critics, Kanye West roundly silenced them with the most brilliant album of his career. Combining all the best parts of his first four albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy raises hip-hop out to absurd pomp and circumstance. Never has rap been this ambitious, and only Kanye could pull it off. He incorporates rap vets (Jay-Z, Rick Ross) and underground indie icons (Bon Iver??) into one gigantic, sprawling, ridiculously self-absorbed masterpiece.

Click to play "Monster"

1. The National - High Violet

Over the course of five albums this Brooklyn quintet has slowly built up a following of hardcore fans and music critics. In 2010, they finally made the jump to certified "popularity." High Violet is at once delicate and majestic. You almost hold your breath listening, feeling that that the slightest change would cause these delicately crafted compositions to crumble. Improbably, the sad-sack muttering of 40-year old grump Matt Berninger strikes instant emotional chords. This isn’t an album to hear; it’s an album to feel.

Click to play "Bloodbuzz Ohio"

See #50-26 here.

The Best Albums of 2010: #50-26

The Top 50 Albums of 2010
Part 1: #50-26

50. Swans - My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky

In 1998, Michael Gira released his final album with his Swans collective, aptly titled Swans Are Dead. That was that, until this past January. Out of nowhere, the band’s MySpace sprung to life with a message reading, simply, “SWANS ARE NOT DEAD.” Indeed not, as the band’s melt-your-face post-rock hits just as hard twelve years later. Opener “No Words/No Thoughts” roars along for eight minutes before the words begin while Gira reveals an unexpectedly sensitive (but still loud) side on “Inside Madeline.”

Click to play "Inside Madeline"

49. She & Him - Volume Two

Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s unlikely beach-pop combo hits a second home-run with this breezy summer soundtrack. Deschanel’s voice is nondescript enough to casually deliver these lite-rock ditties about sun, cars, and surf. M. Ward’s guitar churns along amicably behind.

Click to play "Lingering Still"

48. John Knox Sex Club - Blud Rins Cauld

Say that album title aloud and see if you can guess where this band is from. If you pronounced it right, it should sound unmistakably Scottish. These Glasgow punks use their thick brogues in the service of loud-soft rockers. Unexpected bits of free jazz and gospel worm in and out of this eight-song suite.

Click to play "William"

47. Yukon Blonde - Yukon Blonde

No one told the boys of Yukon Blonde that 1974 ended a while back and, hopefully, no one ever will. Their debut album updates the ‘70s folk-rock sound not a lick, copping tricks from CSN on “Wind Blows” and Crazy Horse on “Ghosts on Film.”

Click to play "Wind Blows"

46. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

The Gaslight Anthem tuned down the Springsteen references on their third album...lyrically, that is. Musically the band continues to meld the Boss with the Clash, unleashing instant rock anthems like “Boxer” and “Stay Lucky.” Rich production (by their standards, at least) can’t mask the punk snarl.

Click to play "Boxer"

45. Fredrik - Trilogi

What is it about Scandinavia? All their music seems so…arty. Sigur Rós aficionados, take note. This Swedish three-piece writes similarly quirky art-rock symphonies, blending unidentifiable instruments with indecipherable lyrics. The fact that their Wikipedia page needs seven genres to describe them says it all.

Click to play "Flax"

44. The Capitalist Youth - At the Campfire

At this summer’s Newport Folk Festival, the Capitalist Youth handed NPR All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen a burned demo. He played a track from the old-school folk collection on his radio show, giving unprecedented exposure to a Philly trio just out of a high school. Their tongue-in-cheek songs detail “summer camp, existential crises and gubernatorial indiscretions” (their words) and, in one case (“Arcade”), a creepily evangelical girlfriend.

Click to play "Arcade"

43. Chromeo - Business Casual

In 21st-century indie rock, there is perhaps no group less cool to emulate than Hall & Oates. So props to Chromeo for pulling it off with even a modicum of dignity. Business Casual’s unabashedly cheesy electrofunk finds Dave 1 and P-Thugg blending dumb lyrics and shameless guitar solos as tackily as ever. The talk box is back.

Click to play "Night By Night"

42. Dr. Frankenstein - In 4 Dimensions

Beach pop came back in a big way in 2010, but surf rock? Not so much. If more people heard Dr. Frankenstein though, it might stand a chance. Like the Ventures on speed, these eight tracks roar by in 21 minutes, leaving you panting and ready for another round.

Click to play "Sneaky Surf"

41. Diamond Rings - Special Affections

Don’t let the Perez Hilton getup fool you. In his dance moniker Diamond Ring’s debut full-length, John O’Regan sounds as pensive as he does camp. It’s music that says, “Come dance...but if you don’t want to, that’s okay too.”

Click to play "It's Not My Party"

40. Johnny Dowd - Wake Up the Snakes

You can tell a lot about certain albums by their track titles. “Howling Wolf Blues,” “Swamp Woman,” and “Organ Grinder” give you a good picture of Johnny Dowd’s latest. The less-interestingly-named “Yolanda” shines brightest though. The dark tale of love-through-patricide sounds like Tom Waits at his spookiest.

Click to play "Yolanda"

39. Chumbawamba - ABCDEFG

If you only know Chumbawamba from “Tubthumper,” you’re sadly uninformed. You’re also in the good company of, well, everyone. That inane/catchy hit represents about 1% of their style. Mostly, these Brits represent a vaguely anarchic strain of agit-folk. They deftly mix message with humor on this, their 372th album (note to self: double-check number). Bonus points for calling themselves out as one-hit wonders on “Torturing James Hetfield.”

Click to play "Wagner at the Opera"

38. Neil Young - Le Noise

"I said solo...They said acoustic." So read the t-shirts on Neil Young's latest tour, but the sentiment holds for this album. Originally slated for a solo acoustic record, Le Noise got seriously beefed up with producer Daniel Lanois' wall-of-effects. Young's electric guitar sounds like an atomic bomb hitting; Young's voice sounds like the lone survivor.

Click to play "Hitchhiker"

37. Erland and the Carnival - Erland and the Carnival

Four of the twelve songs on this promising debut are covers of traditional British folk songs, but you’d never know which four. Songs like “Tramps and Hawkers” (cover) and “The Derby Ram” (original) sway along jauntily in this old-new folk-rock pastiche. The Verve’s Simon Tong tackles instruments like harmonium and zither, but Erland Cooper’s indie-yodel vocals lend a certain authenticity even to the most hammed-up bops.

Click to play "My Name Is Carnival"

36. Alejandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love

Most artists would be more than happy to rope Bruce Springsteen onto their album, but Alejandro Escovedo has more than just an enviable Rolodex. He pushes the Boss duet (“Faith”) down to track twelve, one-upping it with eleven stronger tracks before. A concept album about love may be something of a nonstarter, but tracks like “Anchor” and “This Bed Is Getting Crowded” show that, 31 years after he started, Escovedo rocks as hard as ever.

Click to play "This Bed Is Getting Crowded"

35. Eminem - Recovery

Everyone likes a good comeback story, and no one epitomized left-for-dead success in 2010 like Eminem. Unlike cinematic comebacks though, real returns prove a little messier. Technically, Em released his so-called “comeback” album, Relapse, last year. As he admits now though, it didn’t count (“Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing ‘em out”). The aptly-titled Recovery shows a whole new side of Eminem, comprising personal struggles (“Talkin’ 2 Myself”) and feel-good anthems (“Not Afraid”).

Click to play "Talkin' 2 Myself"

34. Azure Ray - Drawing Down the Moon

Fans of this Georgia duo had to wait seven years for this one, but the dreamy folk harmonies return stronger than ever. Track after track on Drawing Down the Moon, released on Conor Oberst’s label Saddle Creek, melts your heart and warms your soul. Whiffs of electronics lend an unexpected kick to the acoustic splendor.

Click to play "Larraine"

33. Screaming Females - Castle Talk

Never was a band so aptly named. Yes, technically there’s only one screaming female here (along with two not-screaming males), but this tiny tyrant hollers loud enough for a dozen banshees. As always thought, her guitar shredding impresses even more. Jimi Hendrix, reincarnated as a 4’6” girl with a bob haircut.

Click to play "A New Kid"

32. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

Titus Andronicus rep the other side of the Jersey Shore, the dirty working-class grit that makes a bunch of punk kids die to escape the basement. Somehow, they do so on a concept album about the Civil War. Whatever works. With shout-along put-downs like “You will always be a loser,” The Monitor roars for underdogs everywhere.

Click to play "A More Perfect Union"

31. Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness

Loud and fast, fast and loud. You don’t realize how closely you associate the two into you hear an album like this. It’s really, really loud and really, really slow. Sounding like Metallica played at 3 beats-per-minute, Creston Spiers roars over the molasses-slow sludge. In its own way, this sleepy-stoner metal as brutal as anything Slayer ever recorded.

Click to play "I Just Want to Go Home Now"

30. Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra - Honker

This past March, Ethan Lipton and his Orchestra opened the National’s first show of the year. The Brooklyn hipsters that comprised much of the crowd looked bemused, unsure what to make of the mustached man backed by double bass, hollow-body guitar, and sax (sometimes flute). Lipton’s Newman-esq lyrical humor opens your mind enough to accept this unapologetic lounge act, but the serious musicianship keeps you coming back even after the LOLs wear thin.

Click to play "Poor Old Whitey"

29. The Magnetic Fields - Realism

Realism, the quieter companion piece to 2008’s Distortion, finds Stephin Merritt at his most droll. Though humor abounds, most notably in an elaborate dig at Scientologies (“We Are Having a Hootenany”), brutal kiss-off songs like “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” show Meritt doesn't need much volume to pack a wallop.

Click to play "You Must Be out of Your Mind"

28. Gogol Bordello - Trans-Continental Hustle

Gogol Bordello only do one thing, but they do it better than anyone else. It helps that no one else even tries to compete. Rick Rubin produced thirteen more tracks of rollicking gypsy-punk, letting the band do what they do best: go nuts. Accordion and fiddle wail on “My Companjera” while “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)” features the band’s best shout-along chorus yet.

Click to play "My Companjera"

27. Francis and the Lights - It'll Be Better

Francis Farewell Starlite spent much of the year opening for Drake and, by all accounts, left mixed impressions. This midtempo synth-pop may not be ideal for huge halls, but in its own laid-back way it rocks the house. The songs constantly threaten to burst open, but the band’s restraint holds them back.

Click to play "In a Limousine"

26. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

That Arcade Fire’s third album blew critics away should surprise no one. That it topped the Billboard charts, on the other hand, shows just how far this band has come. The Suburbs finds a comfortable middle ground between the bombast of Funeral and the anxiety of Neon Bible. Sixteen tracks honor the highs, lows, and, most often, middles of suburbia at its most mundane.

Click to play "City with No Children"

See #25-1 here.