The Top 50 Albums of 2010 (10-1)

You can find albums 50-31 here and albums 30-11 here.

10.


The National – High Violet

One of the most interesting aspects of art is the ability it affords us to look on as artists grow and change. The creative life of an artist often mirrors that of most people: the beginnings are erratic and filled with wonder and experimentation, but as they grow up, they figure out who they are and settle into that image.

High Violet represents The National moving into that latter phase and doing it with grace and beauty. They’re through their angsty teenage years (Alligator, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers) and have reached that point of comfort with their sound. It’s an extension of what they did with Boxer — dense emotional, chamber-pop — but High Violet improves on it in nearly every way. The string and horn arrangements are plentiful, lush and pitch-perfect. Bryan Devendorf continues to be one of the best drummers in all of indie rockdom. Most impressive, however, is frontman Matt Berninger. His smoky baritone has never been better, a fact which is amplified by the album’s absolutely wonderful vocal melodies.

Standout: “England”

Accessibility: 1

9.

Menomena – Mines

Menomena’s recording process is one of the more unique around. Using software programmed by member Brent Knopf, they start from a click track and build songs piece by piece, passing a mic around and recording licks on each instrument while the previous instrument’s part is looping. It’s a process that doesn’t even require the presence of all band members in the studio — there are times during their recording where the exchange of musical ideas is purely over e-mail. Surely, this process should lead to cold, limp music that sounds like it was cobbled together by a computer.

Mines avoids that artificiality completely. In fact, it’s the band’s most human record. The lyrics are given way more attention this time around and are often touching, but the record’s true accomplishment is the warmth and often beauty of the instrumentations. The often dense vocal arrangements go a long way, best exemplified in the final moments of “Dirty Cartoons” with its oohs and ahs backing a transcendent round of “I’d like to go home.”

Menomena are masters of the little touches — a synth lick here, a twinkly piano riff there — but they always give each detail enough room to breathe and penetrate the mix. For a band known for creating chaos on stage, it’s amazing how delicate their music can often be.

Standout: “Tithe”

Accessibility: 2

8.

Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

Along with Dre’s Detox, Lucious Left Foot was something of mythical hip hop vaporware: an album that existed in some capacity for years with multiple release dates and label woes. Sure, people were looking forward to it, but until we got “Shine Blockas” late last year it was talked about as merely the album from the other dude in Outkast. Then we got “Shutterbugg” and the chatter changed.

This is modern hip hop — imaginative, confident, bombastic, dense and poppy. Big Boi has populated his solo debut with an incredible variety of  styles from the massive horn bellows of “General Patton” to the delicate soul of Janelle Monae’s turn on “Be Still.”

The lyrics don’t suffer one bit from the attention to production. Big Boi’s flow is so smooth. He effortlessly let’s loose with some truly creative stuff. “Assassin’s bullet might be waitin for Obama/Do you think they’ll have a brother before Billy’s baby mama?” he raps on “Daddy Fat Sax.”

For years people have seen Andre 3000 as the preeminent Outkast member. Lucious Left Foot turns that assumption on its head. No longer is Big Boi that other dude in Outkast.

Standout: “Shutterbugg” (feat. Cutty)

Accessibility: 1

7.

Andrew Cedermark – Moon Deluxe

Let’s get it out of the way right now. Yes, this album is very reminiscent of Phil Elverum’s work, especially his Microphones project. It’s that whole, fuzzy quiet-loud-quiet-loud-louder lo-fi thing. Cedermark, however, takes that basic formula and puts a new spin on it, combining those dynamic shifts and lo-fi sounds with roots rock elements (no surprises there given he is an ex-Titus Andronicus guitarist). There are great riffs aplenty, blaring harmonicas and organs, distorted glockenspiels and plenty of raucous drumming all compacted and fuzzed out. The result is a blistering and infinitely listenable 38 minutes of noise. And when it’s loud, boy is it loud.

It’s also thrilling. Cedermark’s guitar work is often looped and layered, but always superb, with the fancier licks poking through the tiers of drones.

Moon Deluxe is lo-fi only by definition of its fuzzy, compacted sound. By any other measurement it is a dense, often exciting record. “I Won’t Know Me Anymore” is the most satisfying and riotous a closer you’re going to find this year kicking off with a garbled chorus of hunting horns which persist throughout underpinning shambling acoustic guitar and eventually strings which crescendo and crescendo and crescendo until it all comes together in a glorious album closing cacophony.

Standout: “I Won’t Know Me Anymore”

Accessibility: 3

6.

The Walkmen – Lisbon

2008’s You & Me marked a comeback for The Walkmen. It was a subdued statement of maturity and confidence from a band who had been meandering through musical styles since their 2004 breakthrough Bows and Arrows and its signature rocker “The Rat.”

Lisbon ends up playing like a culmination of the disparate sounds the band traveled through in that four year journey, including the lessons learned on You & Me. The prime rocker here, “Angela Surf City,” is a fierce surf rock revival propelled by the always mystifying drumming of Matt Barrick. Then there’s “Stranded,” a slow dirge drenched in horns and set to a waltz tempo.

And while it’s a fast and hard rock classic that turned The Walkmen into indie stars, it’s Lisbon’s more quiet moments that steal the show mainly thanks to a better than ever vocal performance from Hamilton Leithauser. His crooning on tracks like “While I Shovel The Snow” is superb and moving.

It’s been a long road for The Walkmen and Lisbon is the culmination of what is nearly a decade of musical exploration and hard work. The beats are all their — jangly guitar, Barrick’s frantic fills, Leithauser’s nasally alto, horns — they’re just done better.

Standout: “While I Shovel The Snow”

Accessibility: 2

5.

Beach House – Teen Dream

Teen Dream begins with nothing but a single spindly guitar, laying out a sweet, lullaby-like riff. It’s soon joined by oohs from singer Victoria Legrand. It’s comforting. It’s beautiful. It’s what Beach House does.

The prominent dream-pop duo’s latest is the perfection of their trademark sound. It’s soaked in reverb and legato guitar. Organs populate the bottom of the mix and the percussion is chilled to a crawl. The core components of their past work are their, but there’s an added warmth (perhaps thanks to a wonderful production job from Chris Coady) and in turn emotional resonance that elevates Teen Dream.

The first half of Teen Dream’s track list is nearly flawless and contains all of its gems, with the exception of the brilliant “10 Mile Stereo.” It’s a stunning run of tracks and by far the winner for best run of the year.

Legrand is in full force, her scratchy melancholy voice blanketing the album. It’s the driving factor in their music –powerful, but never overbearing. That’s a description fitting of Teen Dream as a whole: emotionally powerful, but never forceful.

Standout: “10 Mile Stereo”

Accessibility: 1

4.

Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

“Earthquake,” Halcyon Digest’s opening track, had to have been the most shocking opener of any album this year. It’s a far cry from the band’s work as of late. It’s ambient and slow, yet has a brightness thanks to handfuls of acoustic guitars, both strummed and picked.

It sets the tone pretty well for what’s to come. At first Halcyon Digest seem like a digression rather than an evolution, but it eventually reveals itself as a logical step in the band’s transition from noise punks to dark pop-rockers. The theme here is the juxtaposition of heady, and often dark lyrics with sunny pop jams, i.e. “Helicopter” and it’s radiant guitar underscoring a meditation on the story of a homosexual Russian runaway who was taken in and subsequently abused (and possibly killed or at least led to suicide) by members of an organized crime ring.

Lyrically Deerhunter remain very much the same but the music is almost indistinguishable. There are xylophones on this album. That’s right, xylophones. They’re just one of the many textural touches on Halcyon Digest.  My advice? Listen to it on headphones. It’s a truly dense album and a good set of headphones really let’s the minutiae shine.

One of the album’s greatest strengths is its pacing. It flows brilliantly from track to track, ending in frontman Bradford Cox’s touching tribute to his late friend Jay Reatard.

With Halcyon Digest Deerhunter have finally fallen off that ledge above shoegaze that they have been teetering on for years. Turns out they fell on the opposite side and ended up in dream-pop territory.

Standout: “Helicopter”

Accessibility: 3

3.

LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

I’ll admit it. I was concerned. “Drunk Girls” really threw me for a loop when it was first released and I feared for the fate of what might be the last LCD Soundsystem album. I remember saying to myself, “what the hell is this shit?”

I was an idiot to doubt James Murphy.

This Is Happening is every bit as head bobbingly, booty shakingly wonderful as the dance-rock master’s prior releases. Even “Drunk Girls” had its hooks in me after a few more listens. It’s easy to plot the exact point where this album becomes genius: three minutes and five seconds into masterful opener “Dance Yrself Clean.” Initially Murphy’s vocals are distant and accompanied by little more than hand drums, a wispy synth line and some bass tones. Then, at what is just the absolute perfect moment, the snare counts off four sixteenth notes and we’re in it. Murphy is closer than ever and a ravenously grindy synth takes center stage. It is far and away the most thrilling musical moment of the year.

The only other track that even come close to the majesty of the opener is its cousin, closer “Home.” The two songs are placed on opposite ends of LCD’s style, with “Dance” being a sparse, synth-centric jam and “Home” being warm and dense and centering around the vocal performances. Murphy ties the two together, reprising the massive vocal harmony line from “Dance” as “Home’s” central hook. It’s a genius bit of songwriting and album craft and really represents the heart of the record.

The journey from end to end is filled with some atypical LCD material. “I Can Change” presents Murphy with the opportunity to unleash a wicked falsetto. “All I Want” takes the place of “All My Friends,” being a Bowie-inspired, constantly crescendoing rocker.

If this is truly the final LCD Soundsystem album it is of course a shame, but at least it was a brilliant note to go off on. Murphy will continue to be a force in the dance rock scene, running DFA and producing acts. After all the contributions he’s made in the past years with this project, however, it’s going to be sad to see him step out of the spotlight.

Standout: “Dance Yrself Clean”

Accessibility: 1

2.

Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

Titus Andronicus started out as a group of lo-fi punkers from New Jersey. Their debut was a great album, full of raw energy and showing tons of potential. The Monitor fulfills the promise of that album and solidifies them as a pillar of modern rock and roll, appropriate in a year when the Hold Steady rolled out the massive disappointment Heaven Is Whenever.

Comparisons to The Hold Steady are most common, but The Monitor is product unique work deserving of more attention than simply shrugging it off as a sound-alike.

It’s a loose concept album based around the American Civil War, often connecting themes from the war to relationships and more personal topics. Most striking is the way the music fits the themes. Titus Andronicus blends punk energy with folk and roots rock, evoking an Americana that is instantly reminiscent of music associated with the Civil War era.

Beyond the more intellectual stuff, it’s simply one of the most fun records in years. The riffs are often astonishingly good. Even more compelling are the shout-along choruses that pepper the album. “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future,” for example, features the band chanting “you will always be a loser” just over and over and it’s instantly infectious. Overall, the album sounds triumphant. Even when frontman Patrick Stickles is singing about “being covered in human excrement” the band sounds like their marching home from victory and celebrating  with rawk and beer and friends the whole way.

People often say rock is dead. Sure, finding good, fun, pure rock and roll is a rarity these days, but The Monitor is it.

Standout: “Four Score and Seven”

Accessibility: 2

1.

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I could go on and on about Kanye’s personal life as of the last few years, but the tunes on his latest album stand for themselves. The most interesting aspect of his personal drama is how this album represents a resurrection of sorts for Mr. West. After the whole Taylor Swift thing he just disappeared. There was the Twitter and eventually G.O.O.D. Fridays. Then the album dropped and confirmed that he had risen from the ashes like the phoenix of his Runaway short film.

MBDTF is a reflection of the man himself and his various musical styles. It’s often obnoxious, overblown and self-centered – the three minute vocoder jam at the end of “Runaway” comes to mind. In terms of relation to his discography, it’s a culmination of the talents he has employed throughout. Least represented is the sample happy College Dropout Kanye, manifesting itself mostly on “POWER” and “Devil in a New Dress.” The orchestration of Late Registration is present in spades, most apparent in the bombast of “All of the Lights’” French horns and “Runaway.” 808s and Heartbreaks auto-tuned pop songs are an obvious forebear to closer “Lost in the Woods.”

Mostly, MBDTF feels like an extension of the direction Kanye took on Graduation: big hip hop songs with pop sensibilities. Also, guests. Lots of guests.

Nicki Minaj is the clear winner for best guest verse. Her show stealing turn on “Monster” is amazing and star-making. Rick Ross elevates “Devil in a New Dress” to an album highlight and Pusha T delivers solid verses throughout, most notably on “Runaway.”

Lyrically, the album is all over the place. For every “Too many Urkels on your team/That’s why your Winslow” we get a “I’m the abomination of Obama’s nation.” I’ll let you decide which of those is being used as the negative half of that argument.

As a combination and refining of the elements from throughout his fruitful career My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is essentially the ultimate Kanye West album. Just as Graduation helped to define hip hop in the last few years and the auto-tune of 808s permeated deep into the the pop scene, this album will surely have a major impact on music in the near future.

Love him or hate him, Kanye West is a pop genius.

Standout: “Runaway” (feat. Pusha T)

Accessibility: 1

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About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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