Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

Another year, another albums list, another reason to share. This is what I live for in the last few weeks of December (and of course, family, holidays, yadda yadda yadda). Keep an eye out for my singles list next week. Also, if you want to check out lists from previous years, just check out the links below.

2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004

1. Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid

It's not very often when you come across a debut album as confident and self-assured as this one. Usually it might take an artist a few albums before they can muster up the courage and audacity to create something with as wide a scope as The ArchAndroid on their first time out, which is part of what makes it so impressive. Janelle Monáe has always had a clear, cinematic vision for her music dating back to the Metropolis: Suite I EP in 2007, which showed ambition and a compelling story arc, in spite of its miniscule running time. The ArchAndroid is considered Suites II and III and follows less of a plot than its predecessor (as far as I can tell), but is no less focused thematically as Monáe manages to take the listener on a journey that embraces human warmth through intergalatic tones. As is the case with a lot of debut albums, Monáe has an eagerness to cram as much of herself and her tastes as possible onto the record, which results in an epic Technicolor album that runs the gamut from Afro-beat, indie electropop, chamber music, funk and hip hop, among many others. The headiness of it all might appear to be a lot to take in, but even with its running length, the album is filled with highly enjoyable and pop ready songs such as the Off The Wall-aping "Locked Inside" and the sunny robo-pop of "Wondaland." In today's musical landscape, individual songs can still hold a transportable power over us, but it's rare when you get an album that immerses you in an experience unlike anything that is part of our world—something that grabs a hold of both your ears and your imagination.

2. Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

While Janelle Monáe's first album promises great things for the future, Laura Marling has already firmly laid the foundation for what surely looks to be a viable career with her second album. On her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, Marling showcased a seasoned songwriting that belied her young age and only continued to impress on I Speak Because I Can. Her approach to folk music is traditional but refreshing enough, thanks to her lovely voice and visual lyrics. It made for some of the most touching music of 2010, with rousing songs such as "Rambling Man" and "Devil's Spoke" inciting a hushed thrill, while quieter songs like "Made By Maid" exhibited a a true, fragile beauty that easily put you in the moment that Marling had created.

3. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

Sound of Silver, which was my #2 album of 2007, dealt with growing old and figuring out how to adapt to the changes. James Murphy and Co. still explore what it's like to get on in age, but find out that dealing with relationships are just as tricky, if not darker. They're still a band that's geared toward making you move on the floor, but instead of relying solely on the dance punk of their past sound, the group looked toward the moody pop of the '80s to capture a pain and scariness that had yet to be seen in LCD Soundsystem's catalog. For once, the main draw in Murphy's lyrics wasn't the sarcasm that he typically displays, although it hasn't completely left him yet, but in how well he was able to deliver songs that went beyond inside jokes for hipsters and could resonate with people outside of that demographic.

4. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West is the closest thing we have to The Beatles in the 21st century. No other current artist comes close in comparison combining cultural significance, popularity and consistency with quality of work. Ladies and gentlemen, he is just that damn good and this latest album proves why he is one of the most important musicians out there. Much like The Fab Four did later in their career, West has pushed the boundaries of what we've come to expect of him and in the process has further pushed the general public to redefine what hip hop can be. The genre has always allowed for introspection and emotion within its realm for decades now, but it has never been on the scale that it has been in the mainstream currently with artists like Kid Cudi and Drake, nor has a hip hop star as huge as Kanye West used it as his platform. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could be seen as his White Album (expansive opus, builds on past work, slightly dark and experimental yet accessible) and it already seems to be the one that the press has exalted as his masterpiece. Personally, I'll need some more time before I can decide that, but as it stands right now, it is indeed an extraordinary album, one that examines the angst and paranoia that come with being a celebrity and with a sweeping soundtrack that catches its grandiose lifestyle along with abstract touches to match the solemn moments.

5. Los Campesinos! - Romance Is Boring

When I say that Los Campesinos! have slowed things down, it doesn't mean that they've necessarily gone the ballad route, but that there is less of an immediacy and eagerness than there was on their debut album, which was my #1 a few years ago. The Welsh collective is still noisy, but instead of consuming an entire economy size bag of Skittles and going on a manic sugar rush, they sound as if they only consumed about 3/4 of the bag for Romance Is Boring, still giving off the impression of a major sugar rush, but much more measured this time around. It's an effort that shows maturity for a band where maturity could very well be its death knell and not make them as fun any more. Coming off the rushed We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, which was released only months after their first album, Romance Is Boring is a snapshot of a young, talented band discovering their strengths and maximizing them to their fullest potential with more consistency.

6. Quadron - Quadron

Following behind Sweden's Little Dragon and now Denmark's Quadron, one can only wonder how many other Scandinavian groups must be out there toying with the conventions of R&B and turning it into a frosty, sublime experience. While both Little Dragon and Quadron approach R&B with an electronic/chill filter, Quadron sticks slightly closer to some of its traditional sound, thanks to the feathery voice of singer Coco O. and multi-instrumentalist/producer Robin Hannibal's ear for capturing the sound of 60's girl pop. Where Quadron truly set themselves apart is how they embrace folk and downtempo as part of their arsenal and create music filled with mystique and subtle sexuality. When the melodies are given room to soar, as is the case with standout tracks "Average Fruit" and "Far Cry," the result is something that has a coolly ethereal quality to it.

7. The-Dream - Love King

On the surface, The-Dream may appear conventional and not all that distinguishable from other modern R&B peers such as Trey Songz or Jeremih, especially when looking at their content, which is probably not the choice for most romantics. The-Dream is very much an artist who is in touch with the current sound, partly because he helped create it as a songwriter for some of the biggest hits in the past few years, but it's those little touches and idiosyncrasies that make him and his albums the standard bearer for the genre. Last year's Love vs. Money was a more decidedly dramatic affair, but The-Dream still gets an A for sticking to themes as Love King picks up in the aftermath of the relationship gone wrong from the previous album and amps up the liberation/raunch factor. Much like that impressive run in the heart of Love vs. Money, another mini-suite makes up the center of Love King, ("Yamaha," "Nikki Part 2," and "Abyss"), which cashes in on all the Prince inflections that have found its way into The-Dream's music and is ultimately one of the better tributes to Minneapolis' favorite son in some years. There are few in the world of R&B who are as ambitious as this man.

8. Aloe Blacc - Good Things

I've enjoyed Aloe Blacc's work in the past, but he always caught my attention more whenever he sang, with a voice that's rugged, buttery and evoked pain and truth much more vividly than his mic skills. With the Truth and Soul production team helming his second album, Blacc was able to accurately tap into the era of '60s and '70s, a period that suits his vocals just perfectly. The backing tracks could easily be hidden cuts from the vaults of Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and a host of others from that period, but the whole thing never comes off as achingly retro. Good Things exists as a product of both times with its sincere dedication to the sounds of yesteryear and Aloe Blacc merely giving his own interpretation of soul music's most recognizable singers, not imitating. Impressive as the studiousness of it all is, none of it would matter if the songs weren't good. The attention to detail paid in the sound carries over in the songwriting as one stunner after another is delivered, including the popular single, "I Need A Dollar," the Sly Stone embracing "You Make Me Smile," and a smoky, surprising cover of The Vevlet Underground and Nico's "Femme Fatale."

9. Curren$y - Pilot Talk

After jumping around a few labels and toiling on the mixtape circuit for years, 2010 saw the former No Limit rapper release not one, but two albums on Def Jam and be thrust into the national underground spotlight. Both Pilot Talk, and its sequel Pilot Talk II, are terrific albums and feature an almost uniform sound with Ski Beatz handling the bulk of the production, but I give the edge to Pilot Talk because I feel it's a more cohesive effort and more wonderfully weird. It also has some of my favorite Curren$y songs on it, such as "King Kong" and "Breakfast," two tracks that are undeniably Southern at heart with Curren$y's hazy drawl cutting clearly through, but with enough colorful production and insight to sway even the most region-phobic backpacker. In fact, the album as a whole boasts some of the best beats of the year and its eclectic nature is a perfect match for Curren$y's stoned, fractured persona.

10. Sonnymoon - Golden Age

Sonnymoon is a duo from Boston composed of vocalist Anna Wise and producer Dane Orr. Technically, this is a 2009 release, but the group released it nearly a year ago last Christmas and didn't really hit most publications' radar till 2010. I talked about "Soular" a few months ago, but the rest of the album is just as beautifully inventive and experimental. With rubbery basslines and ghostly melodies, Golden Age gives off a delicate, haunting buzz that calls to mind the great trip hop of the late '90s, but with slightly more attitude and a definitively R&B lean. While the atmosphere is undeniably murky, there is a pop appeal that shines through in even the most eccentric moments, showing that while the team of Wise and Orr certainly know how to create a mood, their songcraft is never secondary.

And the rest...

11. Cee-Lo - Stray Bullets
12. Beach House - Teen Dream
13. Robyn - Body Talk
14. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Leftfoot....The Son of Chico Dusty
15. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh
16. Marnie Stern - Marnie Stern
17. Fol Chen - Part II: The New December
18. The Ruby Suns - Fight Softly
19. Hot Chip - One Life Stand
20. Kylie Minogue - Aphrodite
21. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast
22. Jazmine Sullivan - Love Me Back
23. Kelis - Flesh Tone
24. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
25. Free Energy - Stuck On Nothing
26. Fortune - Staring at the Ice Melt
27. Best Coast - Crazy For You
28. Candy Claws - Hidden Lands
29. Esperanza Spalding - Chamber Music Society
30. Shelby Lynne - Tears, Lies and Alibis
31. Jamiroquai - Rock Dust Light Star
32. Lindstrøm and Christabelle - Real Life Is No Cool
33. Happy Birthday - Happy Birthday
34. MGMT - Congratulations
35. The Roots - How I Got Over
36. Dungen - Skit I Allt
37. jj - N°3
38. Curren$y - Pilot Talk II
39. N.E.R.D. - Nothing
40. John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up!
41. Ginger Ninja - Wicked Map
42. Delorean - Subiza
43. Sleigh Bells - Treats
44. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM
45. Allo Darlin' - Allo Darlin'
46. Andreya Triana - Lost Where I Belong
47. Cibelle - Las Venus Resort Palace Hotel
48. Sade - Soldier Of Love
49. Goldfrapp - Head First
50. Fefe Dobson - Joy

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):

Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea
The Bird and The Bee - Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates
Bombay Bicycle Club -Flaws
Broken Bells - Broken Bells
Cherry Ghost - Beneath This Burning Shoreline
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Eminem - Recovery
Girl Talk - All Day
Ke$ha - Animal
The Knife in Collaboration With Mt. Sims And Planningtorock - Tomorrow, In A Year
Bettye Lavette - Interpretations: The British Songbook
The Like - Release Me
Love Is All - Two Thousand And Ten Injuries
Ludacris - Battle of the Sexes
M.I.A. - Maya
New Pornographers - Together
One For The Team - Ghosts
Perfume Genius - Learning
Pin Me Down - Pin Me Down
Meaghan Smith - The Cricket's Orchestra
Strong Arm Steady - In Search of Stoney Jackson
Usher - Raymond v. Raymond
Victoire - Cathedral City
The Watson Twins - Talking To You, Talking To Me
Yeasayer - Odd Blood

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